Joining Greylock

Today, John Lilly put up a really nice note on the Greylock Partners blog officially welcoming me to the firm.  Needless to say, I’m both honored and excited to be joining such a great team.

We’re fortunate to be witnessing the explosive growth of not one but two incredible new platforms for consumer products and services: social and mobile.  Both are literally changing the fundamental ways that consumers interact with devices, and are rapidly changing the dynamics for building successful new products and services.  After spending the past four years helping to build out social and mobile platforms, I can’t wait to partner with entrepreneurs to help them build out the next generation of products and companies over them.

Over the past few years, I’ve shared a number of insights here on this blog about building great products and companies.  Here are a few that are worth reading if you are curious about how I think:

And of course, the most appropriate for this announcement:

For now, I just want to say thank you to Reid, David, John and the entire Greylock team.  I can’t wait to get started.

Why T-Shirts Matter

During my tenure at LinkedIn, I’ve held a wide variety of roles and responsibilities within the company.  Some are fairly public (as described on my LinkedIn profile).  Others are the the type that you’d never find formally discussed, and yet would be no less true if you asked anyone who worked at the company.

In a rare combination of serendipity, passion, and empowerment, I personally ended up with one of those unspoken roles: the most prodigious producer of LinkedIn t-shirts.

2010 LinkedIn for Breast Cancer Awareness Shirt

At the recent Silicon Valley Comes to the UK trip, I had the chance to have a great conversation with Dave Hornik on why making t-shirts matter to high tech start-ups.   Believe it or not, I felt that this was a subject important enough to capture in a blog post.  (My friends from The Clothing People and I will write a separate blog post on how to make truly great high tech t-shirts, which is a field of expertise unto itself.)

Why T-Shirts Matter

At a high level, understanding the typical culture at a high tech startup can be difficult for those who haven’t worked for one.  The best analogy I can think of is to put yourself back in time, to when you were between 8 – 12 years old.  Now, think carefully about the things that 8 – 12 year old boys like (at least, the geeky ones).  Video games.  Caffeine.  e-scooter from this excellent guide.  Toys.  Computers. Bean bag chairs.  Junk food.  This should help orient you, and brings you to the right frame of mind about t-shirts.

T-shirts are a part of that culture.  In part, t-shirts represent the ultimate middle finger to those unnamed sources of authority who wanted software engineers to dress like “Thomas Anderson” in the Matrix.  Software engineers want to be Neo, not John Anderson.

This leads us to the reasons why t-shirts matter:

Empowerment.  In some ways, engineers delight in having found a profession where their intellect and passion for technology have enabled them to earn a great living and work at a company where – yes, you guessed it – they can wear t-shirts to work.  Giving out t-shirts tells your employees, implicitly, that you get it.  You hire only the best, and the best can wear whatever they want.  It says you know that you value merit over appearance; a working prototype over an MBA.

Incentives.  Over the past decade, behavioral finance has taught us that people don’t value money rationally – it varies depending on form and context.  You can bring a $20 bottle of wine to your girlfriend’s parents’ house and be thought a gentleman.  Handing her Mom a $20 at the door isn’t looked on the same way.   Let me just tell you, free t-shirts evoke some sort of primal response at a high tech company.  I’ve often said that I would see less interest at a high tech company handing out $100 bills than handing out free t-shirts.  High tech companies are filled with benefits that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, benefit a minority of employees, and are generally under-appreciated financially.  You’d be shocked at what a $200 per person per year budget for t-shirts will do for employee morale comparatively.

Tribal Cohesion. There are a lot of reasons why many institutions require employees to wear uniforms.  Common appearance can be a reminder that the person represents the company.  More importantly, common dress signals who is “part of the tribe” and belongs to the corporate family.  Uniforms are incompatible with the “empowerment” aspect of how people want to dress, but t-shirts can represent a form of “voluntary uniform” if produced in sufficient variety and quantity.   This effect can be had at a team level, when a t-shirt is made just to celebrate a new product, or at the company level.  It has a profound effect on new hires, as well, who desperately want “a shirt” so they can fit in.  It may sound subversive, but t-shirts can provide many of the same benefits of camaraderie and tribal cohesion that uniforms did, without the top-down oppression.

Tenure Based Seniority. High tech companies are largely meritocratic, and as they grow they tend to define roles based on skills & experience rather than “time at the company”.  However, there are positive aspects to rewarding those who have “bled for the company” over the years, and put their hearts and souls into building the business.  T-Shirts, in an innocuous way, implicitly do this by almost always becoming “limited editions”.  Want the t-shirt from the 2007 company picnic?  You had to be there to get one.  How about the shirt from the first intern program?   The launch of a game-changing new product?  Even shirts that are given out to the whole company will become rare at a company that’s growing rapidly.  In a socially acceptable way, t-shirts subtlely communicate a form of tenure that is warm, and yet structured.

Branding.  As discussed under “Tribal Cohesion”, people want to wear the brand of their tribe.  They will wear them out everywhere if you let them.  Let them.  While being careful not to interfere with the uniqueness of shirts given to employees, make shirts for your developers, your fans, your early adopters.  Long before they become vocal advocates for your brand, they will gladly showcase it if you let them.  This tends to work best in relatively inter-connected, dense, techy cultures like Silicon Valley, but you’d be surprised how far your reach might be.  Of course, this assumes that you make shirts that don’t suck, but we’ll cover that in the next blog post.

So How Do I Make Great Shirts?

It turns out that this is a lot harder than it appears.  Mario always tells me my blog posts are too long, so I’m going to save this topic for the next post…

Rethinking IT as an HR Benefit

This has been something that I’ve been thinking about heavily for the past few years.  There is a trend in Silicon Valley that has been under-appreciated in the press, but nonetheless has rapidly swept through technology companies in the Bay Area. It may not be buzzword-enabled (yet), but it nonetheless may be a truly transformative event for our industry.

More and more companies seem to be thinking of IT as a human resources benefit.

(If your eyes just rolled back in your head, stay with me for a second.  This is a big deal.)

Historically, IT has been positioned as one of two things in the enterprise:

  1. Cost Center. In this model, IT technology and services are a required cost of doing business and being competitive, but don’t add any differentiation versus your competitors.  As a result, IT is managed by cost, and the goal is to provide “sufficient” productivity compared to other comparable companies at the lowest possible cost.  In this frame, every software purchase, every hardware purchase, every investment in training or personnel is evaluated based on price.
  2. Productivity. In this model, IT technology and services are seen as productivity enhancements, and potential differentiators.  Here, investments are made based on an Return on Investment (ROI) justification, where the benefits can include saving time and/or people, or potentially boosting output or revenue.  In this frame, there is a heavy bias towards technology that allows people to get more things done, more quickly, and with fewer errors.

Both of these models tend to heavily favor technology that is cheap.  What they don’t favor is technology that is enjoyable to use.   This has led to many decades of enterprise technology that is sold to decision makers at the top of the organization, and rolled out to reluctant employees who bear the brunt of the cost savings and/or potential productivity gains.

I had never considered that there might be a third model until a blog post about IT at Google surfaced in 2006.  [Note: I hope someone can find this URL for me – I’ve tried with no luck tonight].  This post wrote about how Google set up stations on every floor, with surplus batteries and machines to make swapping out faulty equipment a breeze.  It talked about giving employees a choice of platform to work on.  Most importantly, it talked about thinking about IT as an HR benefit.

IT as an HR Benefit

When you think about benefits in a human resources context, there is a very different frame of reference.  In business school, students who take incentives classes learn about different forms of compensation and their impact on psychology.  In theory, benefits need to justify their existence in some way beyond straight cash compensation.  Sometimes benefits are required because competitors offer them.  Sometimes benefits are offered because it’s cheaper, due to taxes or bulk purchasing power, for the company to buy them than the employee.  Benefits can be long term, or reward certain types of behavior.  In some cases, benefits are offered because people actually appreciate them more than the equivalent of cash.

In most companies, while benefits are in the end a cost center, they are factored into the general budget and philosophy around compensation of employees.  As a result, more often than not, benefits tend to compete with each other.  Given a compensation budget, what percentage of dollars will be spent on salaries vs. bonus vs. benefits?  Would employees prefer a 401k match or transportation vouchers?  Charitable contribution matches or gym discounts?  Who benefits from each program, and how much?  Will the benefit help with recruiting new employees, or with employee satisfaction and retention?

When framed as an HR benefit, IT comes under a whole different light.  Consider:

  • What percentage of your employees time is spent in front of a computer?
  • What is the relative cost of newer, more enjoyable technology over the “base model”?
  • How much would an employee appreciate dollars spent on IT technology vs. other benefits?
  • How does your technology affect your internal corporate culture?

These are very different questions than the ones that tend to drive historical cost-driven IT decision making.

In this model, you might get everyone a 24″ flat panel monitor instead of a 20″ monitor.   Why?  Because as a benefit, this might only cost $50 per employee per year, and they would appreciate it far more than the dollars themselves.   And they would appreciate it for hours every single day.  In fact, they might want to stay at work longer to use it compared to the machine they have at home.

In this model, you might give everyone the choice of mobile device (Blackberry, iPhone, Android, etc).  Of course, it would cost more in software support and development, but allowing employees to use the device of their choice might be appreciated every single day.  It also might make them a little more reluctant to consider working in an environment where they are forced to use a less-preferred platform.

LinkedIn

At LinkedIn, our IT department provides a wide range of choices, which we actually advertise on job postings:

  • Choice between Mac or Windows environment
  • Choice between laptop or workstation
  • Choice between two 24″ displays or a single 30″ display
  • Choice between iPhone or Blackberry

Do these technologies boost productivity?  Absolutely.  Do these technologies cost more than a homogenous, lowest-cost environment?  Absolutely.

But when you look at this list, it’s hard not to see them as benefits.  I see new employees every day, almost giddy when they first get their first laptop and 30″ display, or a tower with 24GB of RAM.  I hear people with guests at lunch brag about how LinkedIn lets you have an iPhone or a Blackberry.

Many of these employees spend anywhere from 4 to 10 hours with this equipment every day – is it any wonder that they perceive these as benefits?

Thoughts for the Industry

The question I have is, how pervasive is this trend?   For most office workers, any computer offers sufficient speed and available software.  In the consumer market, with the resurgence of design-based thinking, we’re seeing more products and profits driven by quality of the experience rather than quantitative metrics or feature checklists.  Will it spread to the enterprise?   Will employees demand it?

Many great professionals that I know in IT long to provide better products and services to their fellow employees.  Maybe this is the opportunity for IT & HR professionals to work together to reframe the way we justify technology at work.