Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest — at each of those companies, every individual engineer is able to support a staggering 1,000,000+ users. Compare that to a more traditional company like Zappos, whose ratio is a pedestrian one employee for every 3,400 users.
The wonder of Silicon Valley has been its rich history of producing incredibly capital efficient companies operating at massive scale. That’s what makes it possible for a couple of guys to disrupt entire industries–unprecedented levels of productivity per employee.
In a recent tech talk, Instagram founder Mike Krieger shared four secrets on how a sixteen-person team scaled to support 30 million users and a $1 billion valuation. His insights echoed the accumulated wisdom of Silicon Valley heavyweights like Google, Facebook, Quora and Zynga on how to build incredibly productive organizations.
1. Create a Culture of Autonomy, Transparency, and Openness
Engineers have an innate distrust of managers, because engineering fundamentally is about building while managing is about talking. When engineers reinvent companies from the ground up, they structure it to avoid the organizational anti-pattern of a manager as a single point of failure.
In a traditional company, when a manager fails to communicate information, tasks, and objectives, it can debilitate the entire team that relies on him. The manager is a single point of failure for that system.
To hack the problem, engineers build companies with open cultures of autonomy, information transparency, and openness. That means that every individual employee has information flow and decision-making authority.
Asana, the prominent task management application created by Facebook founder Dustin Moskovitz, productizes the value of transparency by creating a system of distributing tasks where everyone in a company can see the tasks and objectives of everyone in the company. His aim is to bring the way that Silicon Valley works to every company.
2. DIY — Make yourself more productive, because no one will do it for you.
Great engineers build tools to make themselves more efficient. Put differently — if you’re using the same tools as everyone else, you’ll likely end up with the same level of productivity.
Internal company tools have become Valley lore, and eventually spread throughout the Valley by way of that company’s diaspora before eventually getting productized.
For example, during Google’s explosive growth stage, Larry Schwimmer, an early software engineer, stumbled upon a deceptively simple productivity system for managing teams that became notorious at Google and has since spread throughout the Valley.
In his system called Snippets, employees receive a weekly email asking them to write down what they did last week and what they plan to do in the upcoming week. Replies get compiled in a public space and distributed automatically the following day by email.
The process has been credited with making it possible for Google to grow like crazy and still retain a flat organizational structure and startup vibe, because it makes it easy for everyone to see what everyone else is getting done, asynchronously, and with minimal disruption to work.
David Lee users the process at SV Angel, a Google engineer brought it to Foursquare, and it has continued to spread throughout the tech world. iDoneThis is a simple way to bring the process of Google product snippets to every company that Foursquare and many Y Combinator companies use.
3. Automation and Scalability
Quora engineer Edmond Lau wrote that great engineering cultures “push relentlessly toward automation.” The more you can automate, the more you can get done while getting other stuff done.
It’s no coincidence that automation and scalability coincide with Valley values like transparency, autonomy, and DIY, because transparent, autonomous, and self-motivated organizations scale more easily. The need for traditional positions like middle-management is eliminated.
In other professions, work can be organized to happen more efficiently by creating processes and protocols, but unique to technology is the ability to take those processes and then make them burden-free by automating them. By eliminating the overhead of manual tasks through automation, Silicon Valley tech startups can be incredibly capital efficient even when operating at scale.
4. “Have Fun”
Silicon Valley’s focus of work on enjoying the work itself is still an ongoing competitive advantage. Engineers in the Valley have been compared to Zen Buddhist monks for their detachment from the financial aspects of running a business.
Krieger ended his scaling talk with a simple admonition: “Have fun.” Behind the word “productivity” is the joy and fulfillment in making deliberate progress every day towards a meaningful goal.
Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile calls it “the progress principle”–it’s the primacy of inner work life, intrinsic motivation, and the enjoyment of work itself over all other considerations at work. Its emphasis could be the Valley’s most significant contribution to productivity and the culture of work.