Monthly Reading, December 2021
Res Extensa #14 :: process people, complexity & localism, crypto cities, and managing startup boards
👨🏽💼 Process People
Marty Cagan's blog is a gold mine of pieces like this that "say the quiet part out loud." He's got a knack for pinning down that thing you felt as a member of a team, but couldn't put into words.
In this one he's extending on an idea from Paul Graham talking about "makers vs. managers". In Cagan's framing, you have makers (engineers), their managers/company leaders (managers), and a third, the "process" person who's added to a team to instrument with processes to "scale". The problem is that often these people have never been makers or managers, yet end up guiding how your teams work.
A couple of choice highlights:
I can’t help but notice that so many of these process people have never performed either the maker role or the manager role in a strong product company. They have more enthusiasm than experience or knowledge. Not only does this put exactly the wrong people in control of how teams work, but these people are prime targets for the armies of consultants and vendors that have figured out that these people are their best path into your company.
And another that we can all relate to:
Process is a lot like religion. People get fanatic about their favorite processes, and it’s very difficult to reason with a fanatic. (As a side observation, my theory is that since these process people aren’t makers or managers, they tend to have more free time than the rest of us, and many tend to spend a good portion of that time on social media preaching their particular religion).
Some companies become enamored with the need for process, scaling, and specializing far too early. If your team is still small-ish and still refining your product-market fit, you need the flexibility that comes with less focus on specific procedure (We should keep in mind another PG concept: “do things that don’t scale”). Process people — even good ones — are there to define particular paths the team should take and how, and cast those into stone for repeatability. If you're in need of the agility and experimental environment you need to create new product ideas, your processes, rather than helping you, are constricting, keeping you from making rapid movements you need to. Which or how much process you need is a question of scale and maturity. That same burdensome restriction you experience early is exactly what you want when you're a 2,000 person firm, when you don't want teams haphazardly going off script left and right.
This is a really interesting theory from Jon Stokes. We're now familiar with consuming content (news, videos, articles) as a uniform "feed" — the infinite scroll of Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. In the process of converting bits of content into uniform, equal-sized chunks to pour into the feed-making machine, we strip information of its original context. But Stokes argues that this "tokenization" process doesn't just remove context, it actually adds new context. The act of slicing, standardizing, and ordering blocks of content is in itself an act of context creation. Our brains are pattern-recognizing, context-seeking machines. Looking for a way to place and process a new piece of information quickly, your brain looks each direction at what other things are nearby and starts searching for connecting threads.
This effect might underlie our societal problems with conspiracy theories propagating through Facebook, and our knack for misidentifying unrelated news stories as connected.
Like my kids in the backseat of the truck, you’re getting a sequence of engagement-optimized, uniformly packaged tokens from the same screen in the same day-to-day environmental and sensory context, so no matter how tech-savvy you are, your nervous system is going to insist that all of these things are somehow related to one another and that you can uncover the pattern if you just keep reading. Your evolutionarily optimized meaning-making module is destined to keep trying to stitch this wild, sparkly cluster of apparently related tokens into the plot twists and turns of a handful of larger stories. How could it not?!
Every new Jerry Neumann post is an insta-read. Lots of deep honesty here about what boards should be for, what they actually do, how to manage them as a founder, and what they want and don't want from you. So much great advice here that also applies to "managing up" to your direct manager or company leaders from wherever you sit in a company.
Vitalik Buterin runs down a number of interesting projects using crypto tech and ethos to build or revamp cities.
Now consider local governments. Cities and states, as we've seen from the examples at the start of this post, are at least in theory capable of genuine dynamism. There are large and very real differences of culture between cities, so it's easier to find a single city where there is public interest in adopting any particular radical idea than it is to convince an entire country to accept it. There are very real challenges and opportunities in local public goods, urban planning, transportation and many other sectors in the governance of cities that could be addressed. Cities have tightly cohesive internal economies where things like widespread cryptocurrency adoption could realistically independently happen. Furthermore, it's less likely that experiments within cities will lead to terrible outcomes both because cities are regulated by higher-level governments and because cities have an easier escape valve: people who are unhappy with what's going on can more easily exit.
So all in all, it seems like the local level of government is a very undervalued one. And given that criticism of existing smart city initiatives often heavily focuses on concerns around centralized governance, lack of transparency and data privacy, blockchain and cryptographic technologies seem like a promising key ingredient for a more open and participatory way forward.
Jonah Goldberg riffs on all my favorite subjects: complex ideas, Occam's razor, the constrained vision, simple working systems leading to complex working systems. Life is complicated, and we need to permit the space for smaller-scale layers (families, neighborhoods, communities) to gradually develop their own simple rules that work for them.
Life is supremely complicated at scale. What I mean by that is that in the little platoons of life, friends, family, workplace, church or synagogue, neighborhood, etc., things can be pretty complicated—people are weird—but it’s manageable, because you deal with people more or less face to face. It’s made all the more manageable if you stick to a few general, small-c conservative rules of good conduct. But once you move beyond what Friedrich Hayek called “the microcosm of family and friendship,” things become incredibly complicated; too complicated for any one person or group of people to actively manage. This is the nexus where different kinds of (my kind of) conservatism meet. The free market guys understand economic planning doesn’t work. The limited government guys understand you can’t (and shouldn’t!) successfully boss people around indefinitely. The religious conservatives understand that the state cannot do what religion does without corrupting both.
One of the resonant points here is that we need to be comfortable with contradiction in rules as rules become more complex. Increasing polarization and performative politics move us in the opposite direction: proposing ideas, rules, or decisions that see the world as binary — us vs. them, right vs. wrong, my idea vs. your idea. Sowell's constrained worldview accepts this reality. The world is complicated. Everything is a trade-off. We can't have it all.