Sunday, April 22, 2012

Ideal Company

An illustration from the Handbook

Recently, someone leaked Valve's handbook for new employees. It's a remarkable introduction to what is clearly an exceptional place to work.

Valve, in case you haven't heard of it, is a game software company known for highly popular products such as Portal, Steam.

Here are some excerpts from this thought-provoking document.

On why Valve is a flat company:
... when you’re an entertainment company that’s spent the last decade going out of its way to recruit the most intelligent, innovative, talented people on Earth, telling them to sit at a desk and do what they’re told obliterates 99 percent of their value. 
We want innovators, and that means maintaining an environment where they’ll flourish. That’s why Valve is flat. It’s our shorthand way of saying that we don’t have any management, and nobody “reports to” anybody else.
On how self-directed individuals organize to work together (see illustration above):
We’ve heard that other companies have people allocate a percentage of their time to self-directed projects. At Valve, that percentage is 100. 
Since Valve is flat, people don’t join projects because they’re told to. Instead, you’ll decide what to work on after asking yourself the right questions (more on that later). Employees vote on projects with their feet (or desk wheels). Strong projects are ones in which people can see demonstrated value; they staff up easily. This means there are any number of internal recruiting efforts constantly under way.
(Yes, apparently they really do have desks with wheels that allow them to move around to physically different locations depending on the project and the group they are working with.)

Questions employees are asked to consider when deciding on what to work on:
• Of all the projects currently under way, what’s the most valuable thing I can be working on?
• Which project will have the highest direct impact on our customers? How much will the work I ship benefit them?
• Is Valve not doing something that it should be doing?
• What’s interesting? What’s rewarding? What leverages my individual strengths the most?
On work-life balance:
While people occasionally choose to push themselves to work some extra hours at times when something big is going out the door, for the most part working overtime for extended periods indicates a fundamental failure in planning or communication. If this happens at Valve, it’s a sign that something needs to be reevaluated and corrected. If you’re looking around wondering why people aren’t in “crunch mode,” the answer’s pretty simple. The thing we work hardest at is hiring good people, so we want them to stick around and have a good balance between work and family and the rest of the important stuff in life.
And there's a lot more! The handbook discusses everything from the importance of hiring and what they look for when hiring new recruits to how they evaluate each other's work and value to the company. Read it for yourself.  For additional reading, there is Michael Abrash's blog post on "Valve: how I got here, what it's like, and what I'm doing".

While I've heard of other small creative companies that provide a great deal of freedom and hierarchy-free operation (for example, IDEO), Valve is clearly an extreme example of this kind of company, and an extremely successful one at that.

It occurred to me when reading this handbook that this kind of creativity-enabling autonomy is precisely why many academics love their job.  There is a remarkable degree of similarity between the way Valve operates and the way a top academic department operates. There is a lot of effort put in to hire the very best possible individuals as tenure-track faculty. But once they are hired, faculty have complete autonomy on what to work on, how to work on it, how much funding to get, and where to get it from, who to collaborate with, how to balance their work and life (though arguably, during the years on the tenure track this can be a bit skewed). There is also an internal peer review process which provides faculty with an incentive to stay productive and contribute in their own way to the mission of the department. (It's a pity we don't have massage rooms!).

How can we all take inspiration from Valve to change our work environments to be even more flat and autonomy-encouraging? What would it take to change the prevailing paradigm so more companies are operated this way?

I would of course wish for all my students that they could find for themselves a job that offers this degree of autonomy and opportunity for self-realization through passionate engagement. But I also wonder: are they all ready for such a place? Would they all have the self-confidence, the proactive, entrepreneurial attitude, the service orientation, the passion, the self-drive, and the grit to get and succeed in such a job?

Indeed, a central question of this blog, one I have been probing in many of my posts, is this: what do we need to change about our current system of education at all levels so that it aids in the development of more individuals capable of creating and excelling in self-directed environments?

For more on Valve, check out this informative video:

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Free Education, For Profit

Following closely on the heels of Udacity, the company founded by Sebastian Thrun, Coursera, another new startup by two other Stanford Professors is offering free college courses online. The aforelinked article notes:

 "Mountain View, Calif.-based Coursera is backed with $16 million in funding led by John Doerr at Kleiner Perkins and Scott Sandell at NEA. It has no immediate plans to charge for courses or to make money in other ways." 

Making college classes accessible to a large audience is great, and I do support this in principle to a large extent, but I have to say it bothers me that Coursera, like Udacity, is a for-profit private company. 

I fear that sooner or later the investors will demand their pound of flesh. 

Think about Facebook and Google. They are both free, but ultimately they both make their revenue from advertising. Increasingly they've been driven towards trying to extract more information about their users and exploiting this information for targeted advertising. Similarly, Coursera, for instance, will be able to accumulate quite a lot of information about participants in its courses - their interests, their skills, their strengths and weaknesses in the context of learning and problem solving. Will these be for sale too?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Can innovation be taught?

This article by Tony Wagner in the Wall Street Journal, titled "Educating the Next Steve Jobs" echoes exactly  my key concerns about traditional education, in particular that it puts too high a price on failure, is too subject-focused (rather than experience-focused), and treats grades as the main end. A few excellent quotes from the article:

In most high-school and college classes, failure is penalized. But without trial and error, there is no innovation...Students gain lasting self-confidence not by being protected from failure but by learning that they can survive it. 
Learning in most conventional education settings is a passive experience: The students listen. But at the most innovative schools, classes are "hands-on," and students are creators, not mere consumers. They acquire skills and knowledge while solving a problem, creating a product or generating a new understanding.
In conventional schools, students learn so that they can get good grades. My most important research finding is that young innovators are intrinsically motivated. The culture of learning in programs that excel at educating for innovation emphasize what I call the three P's—play, passion and purpose. The play is discovery-based learning that leads young people to find and pursue a passion, which evolves, over time, into a deeper sense of purpose. 
Creating new lab schools around the country and training more teachers to innovate will take time. Meanwhile, what the parents of future innovators do matters enormously. My interviews with parents of today's innovators revealed some fascinating patterns. They valued having their children pursue a genuine passion above their getting straight As, and they talked about the importance of "giving back." As their children matured, they also encouraged them to take risks and learn from mistakes. There is much that all of us stand to learn from them. 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

A double loss

Wu Ying and Qu Ming were two MS students in my electrical engineering department at USC. I mourn for their tragic loss in a shooting that took place outside the campus yesterday. Today would have been Ming's 24th birthday.

I did not know them personally. They did not take any classes with me. But by all the accounts given by my colleagues today in a brief department memorial, these were two wonderful, smart, quietly hard-working students. They had taken a series of challenging classes, and were just about to graduate at the end of this semester, a few weeks away. No doubt they had great hopes and dreams for their future.

As a father, I cannot bring myself to even imagine the magnitude of this loss to their parents in China. It must be very painful, indeed. My deepest sympathies go out to them and all who knew, loved, and cared for Ying and Ming.