The high-tech startup world is leaning a bit toward the overly hubris. I'm well aware it's a little controversial to discuss in public. I come from many years in Silicon Valley and currently run a high-tech software and services company based in the San Francisco Bay Area. I see and read about this issue every day.
And ladies and gents, it's out of control. The latest news about discrimination may be new to many, but it's old to insiders. I can tell you from firsthand experience that this mindset doesn't begin or end with gender. It's rampant in the realms of age and job functions as well. If you're starting a company, you must understand that engineering does not rule the organization -- the organizational team does.
Does your 'About Us' send the wrong message?
I read a lot of job descriptions and "About Us" summaries to stay current with employment and company trends. Over the past few years, I’ve seen an alarming amount of “Engineer First Company,” “Engineers Rule” and “Engineering-Centric Organization” language. This perspective is as arrogant as it is short-term. Yes, it might be fun, disruptive and edgy. It's also a sure recipe for failure.
A quick look at some basic marketing history proves the point:
- Apple. What would have happened if Steve Jobs hadn't advanced the value proposition of the personal computer? Apple wouldn't be the Apple it is today,
- Intel. Anyone remember "Intel Inside?" I’m not convinced Intel would be around if a lot of someones in marketing, sales, operations, logistics and HR hadn’t kept the enterprise in balance.
- Nike. "Just Do it!" In reality, Nike isn’t known for its stellar engineering. Neither is Under Armor. Granted, these aren't high-tech companies, but I guarantee you each has an engineering division that studies materials, physics and much more.
Now, imagine if these companies had made a statement like "Engineers Rule Our Company" early in their development. None of them could have flourished into the success it is today. Recall the proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Your small company is that child.
What if you focused on balance instead of bravado?
Uber is showing us the effects of an engineering-first culture, and the story is unfolding in very public real time. I'm sure many fine people are at work within Uber. But it appears that untrained engineers are dragging the organization down to its lowest common denominator.
It’s time for high-tech startups -- and most any startups, really -- to ditch the "Engineers Rule" mentality. It might not sound as catchy, but instead think "The Balanced Organization Rules." A well-balanced company considers engineering, sales, marketing, operations, strategy and HR. It's more staged for success because it's a more complete vision.
Leaders of startups and large, established companies are no different in a few, critical respects. It's up to you to ensure your company is balanced, healthy and set up for future success. It's also up to you to behave fairly, legally and like someone who's here for the long term. Your company's DNA is grounded in your behavior. To quote another old adverb, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
So how, exactly, can you achieve balance?
- Become comfortable hiring people more talented than you. It's not your job to be a rock star at everything.
- Hire experienced, ethical and proven people managers. This might mean these individuals have a little gray in their hair. That's perfectly OK. It's also OK if they're older than you. If they're good at their jobs, they won't care.
- Put basic leadership expectations in place. Once you hire your managers, spend a day to agree on expectations. Walk through benchmarks for effective employee management and communication skills, innovative thinking, collaboration and exceptional integrity. Search for "leadership model" on the web. You’ll find tons of examples.
- Emphasize the importance of every division and every employee. This is critical. If certain groups are discriminated against or favored (inverted discrimination), you most certainly will end up with “C” players in various divisions within your organization. Your company must earn its reputation of hiring the best across all departments.
Is any of this “cool,” “hip” or “disruptive?" Nope, but neither is folding a company and wasting investors' hard-earned money. It's your responsibility to ensure you put the right people in the right roles and give them the right tools to do their jobs. Make certain they're treated fairly, honestly and with the highest degree of integrity. Otherwise, your organization surely will fail.