Our project is eight years old now and during this long road we've tried to modify (eliminate) each one of the things we didn't agree with when we were employees. Both my partner, Hernán Amiune (Engineer), and I used to work as programmers at IBM and Intel respectively, while we were still at university. It was at that moment that two aspects negatively called our attention.
We wondered why we should waste time with meetings and interrupt work constantly to report the progress to our bosses (project managers), when they didn't have the necessary technical capacities to evaluate the progress achieved, added to the fact that we consider it unfeasible to achieve an adequate balance between life and work if we work five days and we only spend two with family.
Something in the traditional methodology was definitely broken.
Even, as a reference, in the last couple of years a new social technology was born; it’s called Holacracy and it focuses on the agile work and on the decentralization of the decision-making process to be able to work without the need of having a boss. This methodology is successfully used by, for example, Medium which already has more than 40 employees and received investments of $25 million.
The main reasons why we decided to work without bosses in our start-up were:
As it was previously mentioned, the lack of technical knowledge of our bosses to evaluate our performance generated a great disconnection.
The constant meetings that interrupted the progress of our programming work.
The lack of power of programmers for making decisions (the ones who really perform the job); the power was in the hands of programmers' bosses.
On the other hand, we would also like to share the main reasons for which we considered that we should only work four days a week:
Millions of books have been written in relation to the “balance between life and work”, but it's impossible if we work five days a week and we only have two days for working out, spending time with family, sports, etc.
The competitive advantage to get the best new members with high quality to be part of our working team (34 engineers/programmers) in our project elMT and, even more important, keeping that excellent talent in our company.
Another significant aspect that we observed was the smaller amount of sick leaves or leaves asked because of the need to attend a doctor’s appointment. This was highly positive for the work environment. As the famous English doctor John Ashton indicated, we should change and work four days a week to significantly lower the stress that is damaging people’s health.
Lastly, when we start our week on Mondays, we are all fresh and renewed to start working again. The quality of the work accomplished is definitely much higher. In the age of technology, in the age of programming specifically, it is not the quantity but the quality what is important. The fewer lines of code a programmer writes to achieve the desired functionality, the better the quality of their job.
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According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Germans work fewer hours than their peers in other countries, but are 30 percent more productive. If we think about it from the point of view of working four days a week instead of five, in that case we are working just 20 percent less. If we do our work efficiently in those four days, we might be even more productive than if we worked five days.
I personally consider that the mentioned reasons are more than justified, but the great challenge is “how” to implement them.
The combination of working four days a week and doing it without the supervision of a boss, supposes a pretty particular and interesting scenario. Based on this context, we adopted the following working policies for our start-up:
1. Engineers exclusively. The first differential is that we only hire engineers (programmers). Each member of our team must know how to write code, starting from the person in charge of customer service to the one in charge of marketing.
2. Constant rotation. As a continuation of the first item, the person in charge of customer service will be the one in charge of programming the following month, and will be in charge of sales the month after that one. Although it may seem weird, the benefits that we obtained were extraordinary.
For example, if clients call and ask why they can’t make the app work and describe the problem they had, no one can solve that problem better than an engineer, especially if they were the ones who made the program in the first place. As Steve Blank, professor at the University of Stanford, says “The contact of who develops the product with the client must be direct and constant.”
3. Only the proactive ones. This policy refers to the moment of hiring new employees. We only hire engineers who don't need to be supervised to make progress. They have to be entrepreneurial themselves.
To distinguish them from the rest, something that we learned is to ask the following question in the interview: which is the project that you enjoyed the most? The correct candidate is the one who identifies a problem and explains in detail how he solved it. The incorrect candidate will tell us about the project that their boss assigned to them and how he was indicated to solve it.
4. Eliminate meetings and emails. To conclude, this is the most important item. We decided to completely eliminate the meetings. That is to say, no programmer will waste time and interrupt their work to attend a physical or telephone meeting.
The great majority of bosses don’t understand that the schedule of a project manager is exclusively composed of meetings. They leave one and go to another. On the other hand, the schedule of an engineer is composed of programming blocks. To be efficient, a developer should have an average of four uninterrupted hours of work to codify the desired functionality. If they are interrupted by a meeting, then the efficiency lost is much more than the time spent at the meeting. As the famous entrepreneur Paul Graham from YCombinator said, “for a programmer, the cost of attending a meeting is always higher.”
In the same way, we eliminated the emails. This means, that our email won’t be a to-do list of pending tasks anymore.
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All this is possible because we developed a very simple internal control panel where list all projects our start-up is currently working. We all know what each member of the team is using their time on. We can join those projects we are interested in by sharing our efforts and work.
The change is from a “push” methodology in which a boss comes and indicates what to do, to a “pull” methodology in which we are the ones who voluntarily get involved based on the goals of the company to help and make progress.
We are specifically a software company, so how to implement this program will vary depending on each company and industry but we can all do it, as did this manufacturer that saved the equivalent of eliminating 200 employees by instead reducing meetings to a maximum of 30 minutes and seven people.
This new work paradigm has to start with the working team. Only hire proactive people who don't need to receive orders in a constant way to work and make progress. That is the key to everything running successfully.
Cristian Ángel is the co-founder of oMT, a financial education enterprise for the whole of Brazil, currently expanding regionally to Mexico and Colombia. He is also a professor of Technological Investigation and Development at the Catholic University and an angel investor focused on health mobile start-ups.