Davide Mendolia

It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work - Book Opinion

My opinion(not a review) on the new book By Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson.

I have mixed feeling on this book. It’s not that there are parts that I agree or disagree, it’s more that I don’t really understand who this book is for. It’s missing for me a big piece that is the process to get there.

Something that I miss in this book and others publications of Basecamp is a mention how profitable the company is. And I understand that not every podcast or blog post should mention it, but it's only mentioned once in one of the last chapters this book. There is a difference between a company that does $25M of revenue per year, with millionaires CEO and CTO and a company that has barely or no benefit.

Let see first the message I like in this book and feel more company should adopt even if it’s not an easy process to get there.

  • Calm is protecting people’s time and attention.
  • Calm is a visible horizon.
  • Calm is asynchronous first, real-time second.
  • Calm is sustainable practices for the long term.
  • Calm is profitability.

This book is about what Basecamp is doing to achieve these goals and much more. But this book is not one solution fits all. Let's review the chapters that raise a flag to me.

Chapter - It’s Crazy at Work

"It’s crazy at work has become their normal."

This chapter is a good summary of the books, a list of good practices, with no real message towards either CxO[1] or employee that are in a company where it’s crazy. Along with this book, a lot of us that worked in crazy companies will recognize situations. And will nod while reading about context switching every 10min or working 60h a week. But I don’t feel there is a real message behind that more than “at Basecamp, we do X and it works”, great but how can I improve my daily work life? Is buying/recommending the book to my managers enough? On the other side, I think most of the CxO that I know will say “we work 60h a week, but it’s not crazy here, it’s what it’s needed to be competitive, and we have the best team to do it, join us.”. So who is this book for? In my opinion, it is for employee and CxO of already calm companies that can learn from another calm company.

Chapter - Your company is a product

"like product development, progress is achieved through iteration."

While I don’t like the analogy with a product, as I don’t feel I have to sell my company to anyone. I completely agree with the idea behind. “progress is achieved through iteration.” and your company should also iterate. At Karumi, we iterate every day, since the beginning. But in the last year in a half, we switched from being the responsibility and willing of the management to a process where everybody is involved. I’m not a fan of the term used in the book “calm company”, I would say Karumi is an Agile Company.

Chapter - Bury the Hustle

“You can play with your kids and still be a successful entrepreneur."

Totally agree, bury the hustle. Take time, there is life after work. And you will be successful or unsuccessful, but play with your kids or cook or just watch TV.

Chapter - Our Goal: No Goals

"No customer-count goals, no sales goals, no retention goals, no revenue goals, no specific profitability goals (other than to be profitable)."

Agree on not defining big audacious goals, there is no point if it’s to raise the bar without any reason to it. When you are alone in your rowboat or the captain of a ship you have a general sense of if everything goes well. But in a company, people want to be reassured. What’s the goal for next year? And where this is going in 3 or 5 years? It shouldn't be written in stone, but it gives a sense that we are heading somewhere. We will not just go with the flow, and everything will be fine as everything went well before. So at Karumi, we defined other kinds of goals, not based on sales or revenue, but what we want to do and what we want to see the next year. This means for us, opening a new line of work like training, or focusing more on outreach. We take these decisions based on what we want to work on and what the market is giving us the freedom to do.

Chapter - Protectionism

"fail to protect what’s both most vulnerable and most precious: their employees’ time and attention."

We ask our devs to write daily or weekly updates, but at the difference of Basecamp, we don't promote that "when they have a free moment". We consider part of daily responsibilities to share what they are doing and raise issues. At the difference of Basecamp, this does not save us time, but it makes the life more comfortable to have a larger block of uninterrupted time. We still keep meeting as it can convey more information by voice and facial expression than text. But we cut them to the smallest amount possible.

Chapter - Work Doesn't Happen at Work

_"It's just a quiet space where you won’t be bothered." _

Totally agree, but the goal is not to have your work done at home because you don't have a manager bothering you, the goal is to have your office a quiet space. We don't want our teams to work on a train or a plane. The ones that come to the office is because they feel at their ease as much or more than they work at home.

Chapter - Office Hours

"All subject-matter experts at Basecamp now publish office hours."

Not a bad idea to book time to answer questions from your coworkers. But our team it's small enough that we can still use chat, and everybody is aware that you will receive your answer when the current task is finished. Again here in this chapter, we focused on the solution and not the fact that you can't interrupt your coworker when you want.

Chapter - Calendar Tetris

"no one can see anyone else’s calendar at Basecamp."

This is not the way to go, not using public calendar inside your company just because of your team lack of calendar etiquette. At Karumi, we have a proper calendar etiquette:

  • All our meetings have an agenda.
  • We invite the least number of persons.
  • It needs to be prepared.
  • Attempt to solve the issues by any other asynchronous channel before that should be done.

We have one exception to that, meetings dedicated to personal or team follow up, as they are a safe space that is reserved and make yourself available. These safe space are essential, productivity is not everything. If you don't understand the frustrations or why people are leaving your company, then you are flying blind.

Chapter - Watch Out for 12-Day Weeks

"so instead of shipping big software updates on Fridays, we now wait until Monday the following week to do it."

We don't deploy our code on Friday or Monday, we ship every day when the code is ready. If some errors are spotted in production, we rollback to the previous version. If you can't rely on your quality process or your metrics will tell when to revert, why bother putting the code in production?

Conclusions of this book

There is a lot of good things in this book, but I would have liked to understand how to get there not just a description of things that work at Basecamp. Don't get me wrong it seems a fantastic company, and this book looks like good advertising on why work there or use their product. But there is work between this book and helping companies to be a calm company. We are working on what we call an Agile Company, and learn to learn. We find a lot in common with the values applied in this book, but we focused on why and how to get there and not the result.

Reference: Fried, Jason. It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work. HarperBusiness. Edición de Kindle.

  1. CxO is a short way to refer, collectively, to corporate executives at what is sometimes called the C-level, whose job titles typically start with "Chief" and end with "Officer." ↩︎

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