This month’s book is Joy Inc.: How We Built a Workplace People Love by Richard Sheridan.
About the Book:
“Many teams are operating in fear; they are working hard and they are tired. They want a job with meaning, a reason for all their hard work, a reason that transcends pay, title or authority.”
Joy is what happened when Richard Sheridan and his “Menlonians” experimented with their workplace. His story evokes a pure manifestation of the phrase, “structure sets you free.” There is zero jargon — the words “Lean” and “Agile” are barely present — just generous detail. This gifted storyteller invites you to enjoy his reimagining of Edison’s famous Menlo Park with candor and care. This is the story of a company with a mission to “end human suffering in the world as it relates to technology.”
Richard’s Back Story
The book follows the author’s journey from “youthful joy to deep disillusionment to endless optimism.” Richard Sheridan got his first job as a computer programmer before he could drive. He knew at age thirteen that he was going to be designing software because it brought him joy. “I was excited both about my own future and the world’s; the computer was going to change everything, and software was the magic that made it all work.” Early in his career, his enthusiasm and talent brought him raises, promotions, stock options and the promise of great things to come.
I was excited both about my own future and the world’s; the computer was going to change everything, and software was the magic that made it all work.
Sheridan thought he had it made until he realized software developers were just cranking out buggy software and letting the public sort it out. Everything crashed. To keep up with customer promises, programmers worked nights, weekends and sacrificed holidays. The author resolved to either abandon his career or find another way to create software. Luckily he chose the latter.
After reading Extreme Programming by Kent Beck and watching a Nightline episode about IDEO, Sheridan had proof there was another way. He enticed his small band of software engineers to try a new way of programming by luring them with Java — the new, hot programming language — and promising the experiment would last only 5 days. The result was excitement, fun, pride, productivity and lots of learning. He never looked back.
The Myth of Introverts
When people think of programmers they imagine tech geniuses staring at their screens in insulated privacy. This is upended at Menlo. The company is one big room where everyone can see and hear each other. There are no cubicles. Most workplaces dedicate time and thought to things like: Who gets an office? Who gets the biggest office, who gets the corner office? And oh yeah, where should we put the new hires? With offices are generally based on seniority, one classic improvement effort is to fix the resulting layouts since colleagues are spread far and wide.
The Menlo offices lack cubicles and all the computers sit on tables. They can reconfigure the space on a dime and pull tables together when people are on the same project. Sometimes they rearrange the tables just to “shake things up.” With programmers in a wide open space, “there was less I and a lot more we. Suddenly, when someone was in trouble or stuck, help arrived without even asking.”
With programmers in a wide open space, “there was less I and a lot more we. Suddenly, when someone was in trouble or stuck, help arrived without even asking.”
The results of the open space run counter to more traditional office setups. It’s not uncommon for people to call into meetings remotely even when they are a few feet away in a cubicle. Since 80% of communication is nonverbal, that lack of interaction has an immeasurable impact on company culture. Menlo, in contrast, doesn’t even allow earbuds. The human connection is sacred and part of creating “flow.” They use a technique called “High-Speed Voice Technology” — meaning they have actual conversations while looking at each other.
They use a technique called “High-Speed Voice Technology” — meaning they have actual conversations while looking at each other.
Not only do they not mind the noise — the sound of people working — their culture fosters innovation. Their workspace is reminiscent of MIT’s Building 20 which was known as the “Magical Incubator.” It was home to laboratories involved in some of the most groundbreaking developments in science and technology because people were free to poke holes, knock down walls, talk to each other and shake things up. Menlo has created a similar learning environment and the faster teams learn, the more competitive they are.
Two by Two
One of the problems software development companies face is the creation of “Towers of Knowledge.” This happens when a lone employee masters a critical technology and the company can’t survive without them. Menlo solved this problem by having programmers work in pairs.
It took a second to understand that pairing not only meant people always work in teams of two — it meant that two people shared one computer and only one of them accessed the keyboard at a time. It’s intensely counterintuitive and transformative. “Pairing is one of the most potent managerial tools I have ever discovered because of all the traditional problems it helps solve.”
Pairing is one of the most potent managerial tools I have ever discovered because of all the traditional problems it helps solve.
Changing It Up
They change pairs every week. They swap partners on the same project, and they swap people between projects. This sounds disruptive and challenging for knowledge management, but just the opposite is true. This is one of the purest forms of what thought leader Peter Senge called “The Learning Organization.” The result is a solid competitive advantage. It solved a host of problems:
- Eliminates “knowledge hoarding” and losing critical expertise due to turnover
- Prevents people from being “stuck” with a team member they don’t feel compatible with
- Prevents cliques from forming since there’s not enough time
- Dispels misconceptions about others since you get to know everyone
- Creates a safe space to test new technologies together
If you get to tour the Menlo office, you might witness their daily standup meeting. At 10:00 am every morning the entire company stands in a circle to report what they’re working on and whether or not they need help. Due to their ”High-Speed Voice Technology” this takes under 15 minutes even with over 75 people. Each software pair holds on to the two horns of a plastic Viking helmet as they address the group and then they pass it along.
Sandbagging and Rework
Most organizations struggle with forecasts and estimates. By definition they’re inaccurate. For a software development company they’re critical. Clients need to know how long it will take and how much it will cost. Since the programmers are closest to the work, they’re the best source of estimation. At Menlo, leadership commits to supporting their estimates — they are trusted regardless of whether or not they’re right.
Consider what happens in less-evolved cultures. If programmers underestimate, there are late deliveries, cost overruns and unhappy clients. Fear of being blamed for mistakes leads to sandbagging. But if they overestimate, the client balks at the price. Neither of these is good for the customer, the business or the employee.
At Menlo, if the estimates are wrong, then they just relay that to the client. Either work moves up and gets done faster, or they agree it’s going to take longer and cost more — end of story. Since programmers are not penalized for wrong estimates they take total control of setting and working toward aggressive milestones without fear of retribution. Clients get products faster as long as they’re okay with adjusting when the numbers are off.
Since programmers are not penalized for wrong estimates they take total control of setting and working toward aggressive milestones without fear of retribution.
Driving Fear out of the Culture
“Fear is one of the biggest killers of joy,” so one of Richard’s main responsibilities as leader is to drive out fear. He realized that if his employees felt safe to make mistakes then they’d be willing to take risks. In order to innovate and grow, his people have to feel free to try things out without waiting for permission. It seems to have worked since “one of the most common phrases you’ll hear at Menlo is ‘Let’s run the experiment.’”
He realized that if his employees felt safe to make mistakes then they’d be willing to take risks. In order to innovate and grow, his people have to feel free to try things out without waiting for permission.
In spite of the fact that technology is the product, the surroundings are dominated by paper, cardboard, thumb tacks and string. They conduct a “Planning Game” on a big table where a sheet of paper represents one week of work. Customers and project managers map out what work will be done based on what literally “fits” in each week.
Once the work is planned and agreed to, it goes on the Work Authorization Board. This wall displays the tasks due each day along with the pairs is responsible. Sticky dots represent status reports and a horizontal piece of string indicates the current day so observers can see whether or not they’re on track. No mystery about the work in progress.
They also have boards on the wall representing revenue, expenses and profits. One board represents the salary and position of each employee. Other walls are decorated with hand-crafted posters that say things like, “Make Mistakes Faster.” The visuals and transparency combat the fog and inaction that result from the more typical “out of sight, out of mind” reality of organizational information.
Who Works at Menlo?
For most organizations, the hiring process is a crapshoot. The main tool is the job interview but, quoting Richard Sheridan, that’s “two people in a room lying to each other for 2 hours.” The interview has never been a reliable way to find out if someone is a good fit. Menlo scrapped it completely.
They designed their own activity-based process focused entirely on cultural fit. Of course, programmers need to know how to program, but since it’s truly a learning organization, people can always pick up the skills they need. The result resembles “high-speed dating” but with proctors and evaluations. They bring about 50 job candidates in as a group. They pair them up with each other and assign each pair a Menlo observer.
They designed their own activity-based process focused entirely on cultural fit. Of course, programmers need to know how to program, but since it’s truly a learning organization, people can always pick up the skills they need.
Pairs are given one pencil, one sheet of paper and a problem to solve while observers sit and watch what happens. Observers watch their assigned pairs while asking themselves a series of questions:
- “Would I like to pair with this person for a week?”
- “Would I feel supported if I were struggling?”
- “Would I be able to support them and would they listen if I did?”
- “Would I learn something from this person?”
- “Would they help me grow?”
They pair off the candidates 3 times, always with a new observer. After they leave, the observers discuss the group. This leads to a vote on who gets invited back for Round 2. It all hinges on whether the potential hiree would play well with others, share and be respectful. Do they have good “kindergarten skills?” Beyond that they’re just looking for “able learners with curiosity” since teaching them skills is the easy part.
Menlo works with their clients, but they also venture into the world to better understand the end users. They dedicate an entire role to this process called the “High-Tech Anthropologist.” This group watches people use and interact with software and prototypes. Their one one guideline — “observation without interruption.” In one case they saw a user wearing rubber gloves while handling a prototype due to their proximity to toxins. The intended touch screen would not work with gloves. Without this discovery, the client would have paid for the development of useless software.
More Customer Interaction
In addition to spending time with end-users, Menlo hosts a weekly show-and-tell session with their client sponsors. In a reversal, it’s the customers who “show” the staff how they use the software. Programmers sit and watch as the clients demonstrate and “tell” them how it feels. Once again, “Menlonians” observe and learn.
There is no discernable hierarchy at Menlo. They have no formal reporting relationships, but they encourage people to become leaders. They find that those who are “gentle, empathetic, and trusting teachers” naturally grow into leaders. Another extension of this organic approach is that it’s up to the employees to award raises and promotions. Employees are judged by their peers.
Routine and Discipline
Beneath the organic leadership, the “high-speed voice technology,” the viking helmet and the focus on joy, there are clearly defined, rigorous systems. What might seem like anarchy to some has a deceptively strong set of rules. The paired programming, the lack of walls, the weekly estimates and the Work Authorization Board are non-negotiable. And those who make it through their speed-date end up working harder than they ever have in their lives.
“Humans are wired to work on things bigger than themselves, to be in community with one another. It’s why we join teams and companies, and work very hard and long to achieve a difficult and elusive shared goal.”
Learning From Menlo
This is an extraordinary culture to read about. Even for those not in the software development industry it’s instructive and aspirational. But, just as you cannot simply copy the Lean culture of Toyota, you cannot copy what Menlo has done. But — you can get a lot of great ideas and experiment! The good news for everyone is that this masterful storyteller is writing another book titled, Chief Joy Officer: How Great Leaders Elevate Human Energy and Eliminate Fear. Watch for it on November 13, 2018.
About the Author:
From kid programmer in 1971 to Forbes cover story in 2003, “outlier” Richard Sheridan (University of Michigan graduate, BS Computer Science ’80, MS Computer Engineering ’82) has never shied from challenges, opportunities nor the limelight. While his focus has always been around technology, his passion is actually process, teamwork and organizational design, with one inordinately popular goal: the business value of joy! Sheridan is an avid reader and historian, and his software design and development team at Menlo Innovations didn’t invent a new culture, but copied an old one: Edison’s Menlo Park New Jersey lab. Henry Ford’s recreation of the Menlo Park Lab in Greenfield Village was his childhood inspiration.
Some call it Agile, some call it Lean, Sheridan and his team call it joyful. And it produces results — business and otherwise. Five Inc. Magazine revenue growth awards, invites to the White House, speaking engagements around the nation, numerous articles and culture awards — with so much interest, Menlo Innovations does a tour a day of the Menlo Software Factory™. Sheridan was recently enlisted by Portfolio at Penguin to write a book about all he has learned about the effect of a culture focused on Joy. Rich is writing in his “spare time.”
Practical Tools and Concepts Covered:
Who Should Read Joy, Inc.?
- Problem Solvers
- Hiring Managers
- Software Developers
From the Page:
“It may sound radical, unconventional, and bordering on being a crazy business idea. However – as ridiculous as it sounds – joy is the core belief of our workplace. Joy is the reason my company…exists.”