Virtuous cycle

Bartlomiej Owczarek weblog

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Corporate workers compared to caged animals

Is working in a corporation a waste of life and learning opportunities?

Paul Graham attacks corporate way of work in his essay You weren’t meant to have a boss. The essay starts rather strong with the analogy based on observing a group of programmers taking part in corporate team-building event. He compared them to the programmers that he typically works with, who typically happen to be founders of their own companies:

I was in Africa last year and saw a lot of animals in the wild that I’d only seen in zoos before. It was remarkable how different they seemed. Particularly lions. Lions in the wild seem about ten times more alive. They’re like different animals. And seeing those guys on their scavenger hunt was like seeing lions in a zoo after spending several years watching them in the wild.

Then he goes into more detail and argues that people are not meant to work in too large groups. Of course, corporations are aware of this and divide people into small teams to avoid management problems:

Companies know groups that large wouldn’t work, so they divide themselves into units small enough to work together. But to coordinate these they have to introduce something new: bosses.

These smaller groups are always arranged in a tree structure. Your boss is the point where your group attaches to the tree.

The tree structure implies, according to him, that at a group (represented by a manager) should work as if it were one individual, otherwise a higher level group composed of managers would not be able to operate.

As a result, the higher the tree, the less freedom of action is available to individual team member:

Anyone who’s worked for a large organization has felt this. You can feel the difference between working for a company with 100 employees and one with 10,000, even if your group has only 10 people.

His conclusion: corporation does not provide a good learning environment, specifically for programmers. In corporation, programmer will see his ideas blocked by the structure and legacy way of doing things. As a result, he will learn less. Best way to start is through own startup or joining organization which is small enough.

Statements like this can provoke some strong responses. Jeff Atwood, for example, attributes all this talk to Graham’s narcissistic (and self-interested) idea of a perfect career path. It’s true, but Graham spent a good deal of his essay admitting his bias.

Almost everyone would agree that working in a founding team of 10 gives the individual more freedom than working in 75,000-strong organization. But not everyone would agree that one cannot learn anything useful in a corporation. Actually a lot of people, including me (though I’m not a programmer), treat working in a corporation as a learning stage before going after own ideas.

Also, corporation provides resources unavailable in a startup. Joshua Haberman commented about benefits of working in Google:

All the boring sysadmin stuff is taken care of. There’s extremely good components you can use for your projects so you don’t have to reinvent the basics (RPC, storage, monitoring, etc) yet again. Your job is to solve big, hard problems and your toolbox is filled with the best of what the brilliant programmers around you have come up with. They’ve iterated many times and solved problems you wouldn’t have even imagined at the outset. And yet there’s always more to do, because the data gets bigger and the appetite for bigger problems grows.

Then again, does knowing that all this stuff exists make it easier or more difficult to start your own company at some stage?

It’s better not to know that something is impossible because then you simple go ahead and do it. In other words, if you are going to start from scratch, maybe better start earlier, while you are happily unaware of all the reasons why you shouldn’t.

Looking at the people who went startup way from the very beginning it’s hard for me to tell if they are better off, because I still work in the corporation. But I’m going to find out.