April 15th, 2023 Back to flow, it's go time! Building a culture to minimize burn-out. By Jeffrey M. Barber

I just got back from an epic RV trip across the southwest. The Grand Canyon is certainly grand! Previously, I was thinking about how I end my year from an engineering perspective. The trip helped me realize that I should be playing a more macro level game and focus on the business.

There is this classic trade-off in many circles when balancing between speed, cost, and quality that you can only pick two. It’s a reasonable decision making framework, and I think a similar thing can be expressed in organizations

Daniel H. Pink’s book Drive illustrates autonomy, mastery, and purpose as the key drivers of motivation. From my observations, most organizations are lucky if they can achieve two of these. A sad number of companies manifest none as they are zombies…

The most successful companies find a reasonable point with their mission (i.e. purpose) and a career ladder to drive mastery from zero to hero. Big companies have mastered the on-boarding process as churn is significant. The lack of autonomy tends to drive away independently minded people that attain mastery; many companies are just a credential on someone’s C.V.

As a fiercely independent minded person that hated the confines of big tech, I value autonomy and mastery above purpose. For whatever dumb reason, my ego wanted to design billion dollar services; I did at the end of my big tech stint, but I wonder at what cost to my sanity. I also wonder what lessons were not worth learning. Regardless of what I learned, the moment I felt mastery at hyperscale, then the clock began and I escaped.

Since I value autonomy, a business is an odd choice as business owners become slaves to their business. Autonomy is exceptionally hard! At core, this is why I have spent so long wandering so I could control the battlefield of my endeavors. This time wandering has been a healing process as I separate the good lessons and bad lessons to find a balance as I accept deeper responsibility again.

During the trip, I realized two things that I need to adjust too.

First, as an elder millennial; it is going to fall on millennials to help mentor and drive “generation Z”’s growth. It’s easy to dunk on Gen-Z, but I think this is due to all of us older folks knowing way too much about them (or thinking we do). I do recognize that gen-Z is growing up in a mature technology civilization, and everyday we depart further from traditions that held us together. These various departures from old traditions may be catastrophic for this generation, but I believe in technology. As a creator of technology, it’s my responsibility to help steward the next generation to thrive in a world I helped invent.

Second, the macro game requires a different playbook. I need to accept that if I hire X people, then a minority of X are going to excel. My addiction to perfection and not letting people down is a failure state for me. This is compounded by the horror stories of hiring Gen-Z, but then I think of the quote from Heraclitus

Out of every one hundred men, ten shouldn’t even be there, eighty are just targets, nine are the real fighters, and we are lucky to have them, for they make the battle. Ah, but the one, one is a warrior, and he will bring the others back. Heraclitus

What if nothing has really changed with this generation beyond visibility. What if it is the same story since the dawn of time where any group of people have their handful of extreme winners leading a bell curve of capability. The macro mindset then requires an investing mindset, and the hard part is having the courage to move regardless of the pains.

Furthermore, we are going to have to reckon with the impacts of artificial intelligence and what this means for the future generations. I’m already using ChatGPT to help me more, and I wonder the precise limits of this technology. We may be heading towards an age where heroes are all that matter in a business.

Most businesses today after a certain point are anti-hero because “what happens if the hero gets hit by a bus” is a serious risk for the business, and all businesses change after their exciting start-up heroic journey by ossifying with management layers that constraint autonomy, focus people, and manage risk. Heroes are forced to work through others which is a reasonable heroic task. However, with artificial intelligence, it seems that heroes become even more effective with the right agents.

When I reflect on this and how it applies to my company, I don’t want to create a place that constrains autonomy (too much). I don’t want to limit the heroes. I want to create a warrior factory to build a better world. In this vein, I’ve thought about Ricardo Semler’s TED talk on running a business with almost no rules.. The spirit is to trust people which is the faith I must work on.

Instead of some deep purpose unifying people with some kool-aid for people to drink which will cause cynicism to crop up as an under current; I want to empower people to become heroes. This means the rules that power the business should be simple. So far, I have one iron rule.

Rule #1: You must either use or extend Adama.

Beyond that, you are free to do whatever you want. Everyone has the same base compensation of $X per year requiring $Y ($Y = $X + benefits + payroll taxes + membership fee) of value to be produced. The review is binary in either you met the minimum value or not. The internals of the company are market driven where projects are negotiated in dollars (and maybe equity) rather than abstract units. This means that top performers can either go hard unleashing fury making bank or finish early to head to the beach.

For myself, I aspire to at least two months a year on epic RV trips, and I see no reason that this wouldn’t be achievable by everyone. It’s common knowledge that “unlimited PTO” is a joke meaning “no PTO”. If you can produce $Y in a month, then why not enjoy eleven months? It’s your life, so you should enjoy it.

Unfortunately, this foundation is an ideal for self-starters with a reasonable limit (i.e. Rule #1) on autonomy. People that have already mastered a domain will do well here, but what about helping others achieve mastery? This is an open question, but I believe in figuring it out.

I’ll have updates in the future about how I approach enabling mastery, but this helps me prioritize what is important for the business. I intend to pivot over the next year towards a concierge engineering company to build digital products using Adama.

If this excites you, then please reach out! Currently, I have a discord server up.