How very happy it makes me to be writing to you all! I am wrapping up my second week in what I’ve come to call my Second Season here…For those of you who don’t know me, I am the new…product lead, and I’m returning…after a 1 year stint…On my mind this week is how Homecomings can also be new beginnings.
I’ve had many very happy reunions over the past two weeks and have spent time refreshing my brain on how the organization works and what we’re trying to achieve. But I’ve been struck these past two (whirlwind, fun, amazing, firehose-y) weeks not by how familiar [this] feels, but by how much it feels new and different.
I’ve come to realize over the past two weeks that, just like the second seasons of our favorite podcasts or TV shows, my Second Season is going to be full of plot twists, new characters, new journeys and new problems to solve. And I’ll get to do it with some old friends and many new ones I make along the way.
I am focused on coming up to speed as quickly as I can and becoming as helpful as possible as quickly as possible. As I mentioned, there’s a lot, so bear with me. My door is open, so please — come find me. Tell me what’s working and we’ll brainstorm how to scale it. Tell me what’s not working, and we’ll do some solutioning together. Tell me your wild and crazy product ideas. Chances are, [this] is the team of people who can make that dream come true.
Looking forward to rolling up my sleeves with you and delivering outsized…value to our users… Let’s have some fun!
I work at a big company now, after several years of working at smaller ones. It’s striking to me how many people at my current job get paid to do, well, bullshit. I’ve written before about bullshit jobs, and I know I should not find this phenomenon shocking, but perhaps it’s different now that it is so intimate and immediate.
The email above is one good example. I find it to be a remarkable amount of nonsense at several levels, some trivial and some important. The writing is awful, not just the usual business speak (”solutioning together”, “firehose-y”, “delivering outsized value”), but also how it manages to say virtually nothing in its almost 300 words. It reminds me of Orwell’s complaints about modern prose, nearly 80 years ago, “The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose.”
Like Orwell, I struggle to understand the author’s meaning, and, when I can parse it, I find it disconcertingly at odds with the reality. Why is rejoining a company after a one-year hiatus like being a character in the second season of a TV show, besides the (obvious) fact that they both have a first part and a second part? (I doubt that the TV show she envisions is anything as unglamorous as being a tier 4 manager in a company with 9 or 10 tiers.) And what could possibly be a “plot twist” at a business that has been in existence for more than a decade? I can almost guarantee that no one’s “dreams” will be “com[ing] true”, that no one’s ideas will be truly “wild and crazy”, that nothing “outsized” will happen, that the “door” she claims is “open” will more likely be inaccessible beneath a pile of meetings, and that to the extent she finds the job “fun and amazing”, or a place to make “many new” friends, it will be because she’s not actually working that hard (which is fine, but please don’t send me a saccharine email about it).
The author of the email is a member of the “managerial class”. The first, and maybe only, thing to know about them is that they have meetings. Lots of them. In fact, booking a last-minute meeting with more than 2 or 3 managers is virtually impossible at my company; invariably the 30-minute slots that one person has available collide with the meetings of others. (In the more absurd situations I sometimes screenshot the multi-colored representation of the overlaps that Google Calendar generates; it is as close as I’ll come to making a work of art.) I imagine that having many meetings gives rise to the impression that you’re doing a lot of work; after all, you feel “busy”, and, for the more introverted of us, you end the day emotionally drained. I assume this is also why the author describes her first few weeks as “firehose-y” and “whirlwind”; she indirectly manages a team of more than 100, so there are many people to meet and things to learn.
Meetings spawn more meetings, of course, but bureaucracy also spawns more meetings. The more layers of management, the more “status update” and “sync” meetings are needed for information to flow upwards from the bottom and downwards from the top. There is also the well-known problem that meetings of a sufficient size are simply dysfunctional and people often think the solution is to have more of them. (Brainstorming sessions are never long enough.)
Managers also tend to get anxious when they don’t know about something they think they should know about. Either this leads to a call for yet another meeting, or, if their meeting budget has miraculously been spent, a call for another layer of management to help “manage” the situation. (It also seems easier, in my experience, to hire these people, since there are no real hard skills required for the job.) Product managers require group product managers, projects require project managers, related products require leads, these in turn have their own managers, and so on. I’m sure that anyone sufficiently competent eventually gets frustrated by the whole thing and leaves, which in turn necessitates someone new to assimilate all the knowledge that was lost. (Naturally, by having more meetings.)
At my company there are meetings to kick off initiatives; meetings to discuss the initiatives that were kicked off; meetings to sync on the status of these initiatives (even if no progress has been made since last time, because people were too busy with their other meetings); meetings to ensure the initiative is incorporated into the next quarter’s “objectives and key results”; “offsites” and “onsites” and after-work dinners to discuss whether the initiative is on the right track; emergency meetings called when it appears that progress is too slow, and we might miss our deadlines (which were undoubtedly loose already); meetings to introduce us to agile coaches and project managers, whose job it is to create the spreadsheets and trackers and documents needed to make us “more efficient” and meet those deadlines; and, of course, cheery e-mails from the initiative-organizers telling us how much fun they’re having.
I almost (almost) feel bad for some of these managers. They are incapable of doing any work themselves and must be content to send sad, imploring emails to their subordinates, telling them to do their jobs (who in turn send them to their subordinates). Sometimes at my job I wonder why something that I feel is relatively trivial takes years to get done. But then I remember that it takes one quarter to brainstorm a framework, another to write it down and “socialize” it, another to try to do the work, another to rush to finish the work that wasn’t done in the previous quarter, and another to disseminate the results. To be sure, it could be much faster, but the organization is not set up to maximize speed. It is instead set up so that the “important” people know what’s happening, even if they don’t need to.
Your eyes might have glazed over already. I can’t blame you. But the point I want to make in this essay is that this phenomenon is almost ubiquitous. Bureaucracy — and, to be clear, this is not an original point — is like a parasite, and it seeks to feed itself and reproduce and grow bigger at the expense of the host. The people who don’t add value, let alone “outsized value”, want to justify their existence, and the end result is to suck the residual value out of the rest of the company. Meetings spawn more meetings, as does bureaucracy, but bureaucracy also spawns more bureaucracy, and, in the most extreme cases, there are more bureaucrats than workers, or, as my dad would put it in his probably un-P.C. phrase, “too many chiefs and not enough Indians.”
The “laws of economics” would dictate that companies with such gross inefficiency would be undercut on cost by their more nimble competitors, or simply collapse as costs spiral uncontrollably while revenue struggles to keep up. This certainly happens sometimes, but the story is unsurprisingly more nuanced than the free-market fantasy would portray it.
Most large organizations don’t have that many competitors, and their competitors likely have the same issues of sluggishness and bloat. It’s worth mentioning that the email writer quoted at the top moved from my company to a competitor, and then back to my company. Managers move around constantly and bring a set of practices for doing business with them. Over time, business culture converges toward homogeneity, even if that end point isn’t necessarily “optimal”.
But the other thing to mention is that in many sectors, cost is not a real constraint. Revenues are dictated by how many users you have, and how much you’re making from each of them. If you are in a sufficiently concentrated (monopolistic) sector, both of those numbers are large, and therefore their product — the revenue — is far in excess of the cost to actually run the company. The number of people needed to run a company like Google or Facebook is likely in the low thousands, and that estimate might be generous. The number of people who actually work at Google is ~150k, and that at Facebook is ~75k. The space between the two numbers — the number of employees you need and the number your revenue supports — is where bureaucracy flourishes.
It is not just in business either. Here is one representative story (from 2014):
The number of non-academic administrative and professional employees at U.S. colleges and universities has more than doubled in the last 25 years, vastly outpacing the growth in the number of students or faculty, according to an analysis of federal figures.
The disproportionate increase in the number of university staffers who neither teach nor conduct research has continued unabated in more recent years, and slowed only slightly since the start of the economic downturn, during which time colleges and universities have contended that a dearth of resources forced them to sharply raise tuition.
In all, from 1987 until 2011-12—the most recent academic year for which comparable figures are available—universities and colleges collectively added 517,636 administrators and professional employees, or an average of 87 every working day, according to the analysis of federal figures, by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting in collaboration with the nonprofit, nonpartisan social-science research group the American Institutes for Research.
“There’s just a mind-boggling amount of money per student that’s being spent on administration,” said Andrew Gillen, a senior researcher at the institutes. “It raises a question of priorities.”
Universities have added these administrators and professional employees even as they’ve substantially shifted classroom teaching duties from full-time faculty to less-expensive part-time adjunct faculty and teaching assistants, the figures show.
“They’ve increased their hiring of part-time faculty to try and cut costs,” said Donna Desrochers, a principal researcher at the Delta Cost Project, which studies higher-education spending. “Yet other factors that are going on, including the hiring of these other types of non-academic employees, have undercut those savings.”
Centralization has been promoted as a way to reduce costs, but [economist Richard] Vedder points out that it has not appeared to reduce the rate of hiring of administrators and professional staffs on campus—or of incessant spikes in tuition.
“It’s almost Orwellian,” said Vedder. “They’ll say, ‘We’ll save money if we centralize.’ Then they hire a provost or associate provost or an assistant business manager in charge of shared services, and then that person hires an assistant, and you end up with more people than you started with.”
In higher education, “Everyone now is a chief,” he said. “And there are a lot fewer Indians.”
(I imagine Dr. Vedder is the same age as my dad.)
The same phenomena I discussed above — bureaucracy expanding, under the guise of “efficiency” or “productivity” — is occurring here, but this time in a sector that is supposedly “non-profit”. Why? Once again, consider revenue and competition. On the revenue side, there appears to be no limit: either to how many students are willing to attend expensive colleges, or to how many parents are willing to foot the bill. And, on the competition side, undercutting on cost doesn’t really happen, because college is almost a Veblen good, where lower cost indicates lower quality.
(College is perhaps even worse than corporate America in that quality of education and faculty compensation have been declining, as tenure-track faculty is hollowed out, but those savings have only encouraged the hiring of more bureaucrats.)
The people for whom the system works tend to think the system works, and this is no exception. As more people become entangled in bureaucracy, and benefit from it, the tougher it gets to dislodge or undo it. And its costs show up only indirectly: in our remarkably inefficient, cost-diseased sectors, like big tech, education, healthcare, and even government. I realize this might make me sound like a conservative, or, even worse, a libertarian. And I also realize some of the people who I’ve quoted, like Dr. Vedder, are actually on the right. But I firmly believe we cannot have a society where productivity growth is sucked up by a small, useless segment, or where basic essentials are price-gouged to fill the pockets of greedy bureaucrats. We must smash these sectors, both by restoring competition and by limiting revenue so that costs will follow. Cheap tuition means more unemployed college administrators, and cheap healthcare means fewer insurance bureaucrats, and a more competitive technology sector means fewer cushy jobs for people like me, and fewer “Second Seasons” for my happy-go-lucky colleague, but I believe the tradeoff to be worth it.