Silicon Valley’s Productivity Secret

The wonder of Silicon Valley has been its rich history of producing incredibly capital efficient companies operating at massive scale.  No doubt part of that achievement lies in the capital efficiency of software engineering itself where technology gives incredible leverage to create and disrupt established industries.  Nevertheless, as a company scales, individual engineers need to work together in concert which results in the industry-agnostic problem of people management.

Unique from other industries, Silicon Valley’s natural inclination is not simply to find a solution to people management, it’s to create a scalable management model.  Of course, technology is the natural place to turn.

During Google’s growth stage, Larry Schwimmer, an early software engineer, stumbled upon a solution deceptively simple, but one that persists to this day at Google and has 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.

A number of the top Silicon Valley startups have similar processes.  At Facebook, they have a system called Colbert where weekly check-ins are logged. Square employees, for example, send weekly reports directly to the COO Keith Rabois.  The elite engineering shop Palantir requires a weekly email to managers detailing what got done last week and what’s planned for the upcoming week.

The Snippets process at any scale is a compelling productivity solution, and companies of all sizes have adopted it — some, like SV Angel, rich in Google DNA, do daily snippets.  The process forces employees to reflect and to jot out a forward-looking plan for getting stuff done, all while requiring a minimal disruption in the employee’s actual work.

Setting aside time on a daily or weekly basis to reflect on the day is a powerful productivity hack.  In The Progress Principle, Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer showed the counterintuitive conclusion that progress toward a meaningful goal is the #1 motivator for employees at work, not financial motivation or downward pressure.  Professor Amabile prescribes 5 minutes per day of reflection, religiously protected by bosses, centered around the progress and the setbacks of the day.  Simply put, employees connected to their work and its progress are happier and more productive.

On the flip side, Snippets works because it has a minimal disruption in employee flow because it works asynchronously and without facetime.  It allows for a maker schedule — large blocks of time dedicated to concentrated progress on work — rather than breaking up an engineer’s day into a manager’s schedule to suit a manager’s need to manage.  At Palantir, they do email snippets because they have a very strong culture against meetings.  In addition, email as an interface avoids the issues with, for instance, CRMs, where employees spend valuable time logging into a system and entering highly structured information or they don’t use it at all.

Google turned periodic email updates as a process into a scalable management solution, leveraging technology, through automation, data storage and data retrieval. An individual’s Snippets are transparent across the organization and are linked to an individual’s internal resume in its MOMA system which connects individual employees to the work of team members and others within the company.  It can kill political squabbles, the core problem of people management, by providing a record of what’s been done.

Put differently, Snippets is a management process that scales because transparency means that individual engineers can manage themselves and individual engineers can manage each other without having to go through a middleman.  It’s the disruptive power of peer-to-peer for management centered around atomic units of work.

Silicon Valley’s focus of work around the work itself is still an ongoing competitive advantage.  Compare it to the East Coast and you’ll see a stark contrast in the importance of dress and facetime at the office.  Being work-centric means focusing manically on how to formulate process to eliminate all the cruft.  Most engineers at Google, Zynga, Palantir, Square, etc. do often end up finding the process of Snippets and OKRs to be annoying and unnecessary — at the same time, many of them admit that they were their most productive when they closely tracked their Snippets and OKRs (objectives and key results) and that much of the autonomy and freedom that’s characteristic of top software engineering shops in the Valley could be attributed to Snippets doing its work of people management secretly, in silence.

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