Jason and Eiso get real about censorship culture in the tech industry. From free speech to the rights of employees and the role of companies in society. They chat about privilege in tech, whether we need democracy within tech companies, the role of culture stewards, and more.
I go back to what I care about deeply, which is building companies and building value and creating things in the world. And no one ever really gets into that game to start having certain types of conversations.
Yes, there are certain types of conversations that are appropriate, but we've lost sight of what is and what is not appropriate. You see this sort of thing happen inside companies in Silicon Valley all the time now. It's this communicative tightrope. There's a balancing act of what will be said or won't be said, who will talk and who won't talk.
We need a distinct between society and inside companies. A company is not here to fulfil a certain set of things for you or for society at large. A company is not supposed to be doing or fulfilling some personal elements of your own being, and definitely, not for society. It is a specific vehicle for certain things.
Words have far more consequences inside a company today than they've ever had. And for certain topics and areas, that's a very good thing. But the fact that you can sit in a room with incredibly well-intentioned people and the discussion is no longer flowing, because everyone is extremely careful of how they say and what they say, that to me is worrisome. At that point, you're losing what makes great collaboration between human beings.
Let's stop having the same stupid conversation and realize that we're all working in probably the most privileged industry on the planet, with the most privileged of conditions in the history of the world. And somehow we're making it a woe-it's-me moment.
My father was a construction worker to escape farming. He basically, traded time with his body, destroying it for pennies on the dollar. I'm not gonna listen to a 30-year-old making $250,000 about they don't like the snacks in the kitchen or that they're not really happy with the subtle language that was used in a press release.
If anyone in the world discounts Elon entirely because they don't like his management style, you are the person we're talking to in this podcast. Elon has done some amazing things in the world with other people and through other people, and yes, he's got a certain approach. But there are things in what he has done, which are undeniably amazing. And I also disagree with some of the ways in which he's done it, but they both can be true.
The data analytics company has faced controversy over its culture and practices. Some employees and critics claim it's cutthroat and values conformity over individuality. Others criticize its work with government agencies like ICE.
However, Palantir argues its software helps prevent terrorist attacks and crime, which is why the guys use this as an example of company culture the industry frowns upon, but should look into more.
Eiso has this Elon Musk Quote on his desk:
“There are a lot of terrible things happening all over the world, all of the time, there are lots of problems that need to get solved. Lots of things that are miserable and kind of get you down. But life cannot just be about solving one miserable thing after another, that can’t be the only thing. They need to be things that inspire you, that make you glad to wake up in the morning and be part of humanity. That’s why we did this.”
Jason Warner: Let me give you an... a story from a long time ago. I was saying something internally to a company and I said something about a baseball player. And I said, "Hey, there's... this baseball player was in this situation and has said this thing." And it was directionally kind of like what I want the spirit, what I want people to understand. The conversation then went to, but that baseball player did something bad in their private life and it was documented in the '80s or something like that. And it wasn't like over the top like they murdered somebody. It wasn't like...
Eiso Kant: Yeah.
Jason Warner: ... even like, um, spousal abuse. It wasn't anything like that. And so, the topic became what examples we should bring into for business context. It became a full-blown conversation, an internal type of thing. And I'm like kind of watching this, this train get away from me, as this is happening. And I'm like, "Well, hey, woah, woah, woah?" Like, no, that was a minor point. What we're trying to do is this, like yes, but you know, we're gonna go down this path now. We're gonna try a set of rules and guidelines about what examples people can use or what business contexts people could bring in or like all that sort of stuff. Like, no. We, we just, we can't go down that path. If we do that, we'll never actually, one, finish this meeting, two, release the product to the customer, and three, that's not our core objective as a company.
Speaker 3: Welcome to Developing Leadership, the podcast for engineering leaders where Eiso Kant and Jason Warner share their lessons on the ins and outs of managing software teams. On today's episode, Jason and Eiso get real about censorship culture in the tech industry, from free speech to the rights of employees, and the role of companies in society. The guys also chatted about privilege in tech, whether we need democracy within tech companies and the role of culture stewards. As always, this episode comes with accompanying Show Notes with a deep dive into the main topics, mental models and key moments from the episode. Find them at developingleadership.co and linked in the episode description.
Eiso Kant: Hi, everyone. Welcome back again to another episode of Developing Leadership. Today, you have a solo episode with Jason and I. Jason, the other day there was something happening on Twitter and I think it's going to open up a can of worms for this episode, that shows our deep opinions. [laughs] Not unlike usual.
Jason Warner: No, no, not at all, uh, unlike that. Yeah, so I think, what was it, like a week ago, I tweeted something or retweeted something. All right, so the context is MrBeast did something. He went out and he had a video. And I guess, there is some sort of medical procedure where some subset of people who, um, are blind can be, some degree of, cured via a medical procedure that's about $10,000, I think or something like that. And it's not an insignificant, percentage of people, who can actually get this done, so he found 1000 people, and went and got it done. And I might be off on the figures, but effectively did that.
And he started to receive obviously, a lot of praise for this but an article got written and, and one of the... he, he received some, some blowback on this, too. And, uh, you know, there's, there's some weird ways in which this could be misconstrued or aligned or kind of contorted, but he did receive some blowback. And I just, you know, uh, uh, we've all experienced that form of negativity and blowback in tech and kind of like relating the two together just had, you know, tweeted something about like, "Hey, get this out of your company. If you have this inside your company, get it out."
Eiso Kant: I think you're still bringing it in a very nice way.
Jason Warner: I am. [laughs]
Eiso Kant: I think.
Jason Warner: But yeah, so effectively gently introduce this episode.
Eiso Kant: [laughs] I think you're, you're spreading too gently.
Jason Warner: Let's gently introduce this for folks.
Eiso Kant: You're gently introducing, right? Before I, I get strongly opinionated. I, I watched the video. The only flip side to, or at... the only ag- agreement to the argument that you and I don't agree with, uh, which is all the blowback that's coming to someone who, who was helping people.
Uh, and the only one that I saw that, that made sense, which was a, was a blind YouTuber, I, I for the love me don't remember the name, who said, "Look, MrBeast really helped a lot of people here, and he did like an incredible job. But you know, because this title, you know, led with Curing 1000 People from Blindness, it could be that some people see this like, 'Hey, blindness can be cured.'" Right? And in the end what MrBeast was able to do was essentially apply cataract surgery to people that like a, you know, a very, very strong form of cataracts that were leading to like vision loss.
And, and his argument was, he said, "Look, the only thing I would just like caution is for everyone to still keep funding research for trying to cure blindness, because we still haven't done that and I wouldn't want anyone to misconstrue." But everything else, like, "Hey, the guy did a good thing." And, and to me, you know, this is, is absolutely crazy to imagine that we are, are living in a world and we've gotten to a point where someone who has an entire track record even of you know, doing good building philanthropy, but having had success, you know, doing so, is getting it, cuz it wasn't just an article. It was a shit storm on Twitter that the poor guy had to go through for, for what was essentially a good deed, right?
And, and yes, of course, he benefits from it and he creates a video, but we're going very, very far, in my opinion, in society when we start, you know, really cracking down on these things and calling them exploitative works. This, to me is just it, it blows my mind. And I have some, I have some further thoughts on this in terms of how that relates to, you know, speech and free speech and censorship culture and, and things like that. But before we go that far, let me take a pause here for you, Jason.
Jason Warner: Well, so, I mean, you hit everything. I think contextually about this one, um, hey, there's a whole bunch of different ways in which we can take this, the, the specific MrBeast episode and you know, all that sort of stuff.
At the end of the day, you know how I relate this back is to, to tech and what we might experience inside organizations and as you're building companies, is there seems to be something that happened in society, maybe, but probably not. Cuz if you go to, if you go to middle America or you go to another country and start talking about this stuff, everyone is gonna look at you like you're an alien. I gave stories from Silicon Valley to family who did not have anything to do with tech, and they thought I was making that shit up. And they were like, "No, no, no."
Eiso Kant: [laughs]
Jason Warner: "That does not happen. You've never had to deal with that conversation, that is... you are absolutely 100% lying." Then, of course, you know, they start to see it kind of propagate a little bit more and they start to understand.
But at the root of it, for me, is I go back to like what I care about deeply, which is building companies and building value and creating things in the world. And no one ever really gets into that game to start having certain types of conversations. And in fact, I don't think that's the mechanism for having certain types of conversations.
Now, yes, there are certain types of those scene conversations that are actually appropriate, but we've lost sight of what is and what is not appropriate in the context. And to me, this is a perfect example because you see the same sort of thing happen inside companies in Silicon Valley all the time now. And it's all the time. And it's this communicative tightrope. There's a balancing act of what will be said or won't be said, who will talk and who won't talk, there's another thing.
And, and a lot of people who will be listening to this will react very negatively to everything that we're about to say, but the point being, that everything that I'm about to say, one, is 100% true in terms of like things that we've all experienced, but also, like how unhelpful it is to actually do the thing, which we're all trying to do, which is build a company.
Eiso Kant: And again, I wanna prefix this with that, I'm sure I'm going to be wrong on things and I'm sure I might even change my mind overtime. But if I try to kind of go and be as honest, like how I think about it today is that tightrope, like, like walking the tightrope that you're talking about in relation to communication is, to me what scares me more than anything else.
I'm very happy that we live in a world where we are caring more about people, where we understood the impact of language better. That we're rooting out ignorance. And like I think you can combine wanting a better world that evolves over time to root out the things that fundamentally just aren't great to do or say to other humans. But we've taken it to such an extreme, that intention, is completely, disregarded.
And so, to me, that the best example of this, and, and I said this right before the podcast, I had a leadership off-site and you know, we're team mixed between Americans and Europeans. I'm European myself, and you're absolutely right if I say some of the stories of US tech in Europe, people definitely think it's like, "That can't be true. That's out of the movies." But I started seeing all of a sudden, during this off-site with a leadership team that is tight-knit, has worked together for years, given we had a new leader who had just started. But like, who are, you know, deeply kind-hearted people who, who care.
Like, I mean, nothing that I would say would fall, nothing that makes it a core of them would be controversial in any type of real environment. But I started noticing over the days, more and more people saying "I'm not sure if I can say this," you started seeing the caution of words about to be said.
Jason Warner: Yeah.
Eiso Kant: And I had to say it multiple times. I said, "Look, we're here to discuss strategy. We're trying to figure out like our challenges. And I know, we all know that we're good people around the table. And the fact that you're starting to be incredibly careful with how you're framing your words, to me is a problem." Right? Now... if someone was a blatant, you know, was, was ignorant of how they spoke to someone or not like or, or even, you know, it's an extreme racist or any of these things, but like it wasn't about that. It was about very fine subtleties that everyone in the room knew would have not been missing had it-
Jason Warner: That- that's what it is, because that's where we've lost the plot. Of course, we call out certain types of bad behaviors, just like we always should be doing . But it's not that. The nuance seems to have been lost. I'm not sure exactly how this has happened.
We need a distinct between society and inside companies, because they need to become two completely separate things. And for anyone listening who doesn't understand what I'm saying here or maybe really doesn't want to think this way they have to be. A company is not here to fulfill a certain set of things for you or for society at large. That is a different element in the world, and it changes by cultures, too. It changes by countries and cultures and certain things.
But like a company is not supposed to be doing or fulfilling some personal elements of your own being, and definitely, not for society. It is a specific vehicle for certain things. And we've over indexed on companies in the last 10, 15 years to provide X, Y, Z meaning or whatever, blah, blah, blah, to individuals, but also, expecting a certain set of things out of them for society. So, I think that's mistake.
But two, I also think like this language construct, I understand what people are trying to do in society, let's just say. Let's keep going over here, in society. But the moment it comes into the companies, and as we start to have these conversations, the similar to what we're trying to have outside, inside, all chaos breaks loose. All of a sudden, you've lost the ability to have that nuanced conversation.
People are afraid to say something in front of other people or a thing, and we're not talking like obvious racist or obvious misogynistic, or obvious stupid, bullshit stuff that they might say, and/or might not say. We're talking about fine points, because it's an either/or. It's- it becomes an either/or type of thing. Are you or are you not?
And it just, it sucks all the energy out of what we do. It sucks all the character out of what we do. It sucks all of the joy out of what we do, and it creates this environment where one, we're not effective and two, ultimately, at the end of the day, we've lost sight of why we're all in the room.
Eiso Kant: I wanna to come back on the point of what companies are supposed to be or not, because I'm actually not sure if you and I will fully agree here. It should be fun. But before I go there, what is so interesting, and I'm not a historian, but environments in which people start being careful of what they say out of fear of repercussions, that this notion of self-censorship, from my little knowledge we would see in oppressive regimes. We would see in places where, you know, your words have literal consequences, right?
And I think what's happened is words have far more consequences inside a company today than they've ever had. And for certain topics and areas, that's a very good thing. I think we both agreed there. Like you said, obvious bullshit, obvious bad things. But the fact that you can sit in a room with three incredibly well-intentioned people and the discussion is no longer naturally flowing, because everyone is extremely careful of how they say and what they say and start, you know, phrasing things, that to me is worrisome. Because like you said, at that point, you're losing what makes great collaboration between human beings.
Jason Warner: This topic in it of itself is a nuanced topic, right? Because there's a point in time when everybody should call out certain types of things. So like as an example, you and I are in a room, and I kind of get a little over the top annoyed with somebody, and I just let loose a little bit. And you, you could stop it, you could stop the thing. And later, you can come to me like, "Dude, Jason, you kind of, you kind of went over the top asshole mode right there, dude. Like you need to go make that right, and be more aware of like when that's happening to you." Great, that is something that we've done for a long time and we've gotten better at over time to do that and we all fall into that.
Now, the difference would be if effectively, we had the next three weeks of all internal company dialogue, roundtables, complete stoppage of work to talk about a moment that looks like that and make it the entire personality of the company for some period of time. That's effectively like what's, what we're doing to some degree or it becomes the entire element of conversation for some subgroups, again, over time, and just like, "Hey, it's a mistake and you move on," to the point of intent in these situations. And there's a category of those that we, we do.
Then there's another category of things which are just like, I don't know. I wanna to call it like internal self-policing, citizen policing of everybody else in terms of like that's not a word that we say anymore. That's not an element that we do. That's not... we don't, we don't write that down that way, that sort of stuff. And it just becomes this cloud, this incredibly negative cloud.
Eiso Kant: It becomes a language model with a five-page prompt that's been fine-tuned.
Jason Warner: Well, and-
Eiso Kant: Right? And, and-
Jason Warner: And then continually fine-tuned. Everyday...
Eiso Kant: Yeah.
Jason Warner: ... it needs to change and, and every... and I get that.
Eiso Kant: Yeah.
Jason Warner: That's part of society that we lose language over time.
Eiso Kant: Yeah.
Jason Warner: And we gain language over time and that is, that is needed. But if the way in which this conversation has happened inside corporations, which is really where I think we had this breakdown.
Eiso Kant: Let me circle back on, you know, what companies are supposed to be and what they're not supposed to be. I'm a, I'm a strong believer that when, when someone or a group of people decide to found the company, and they're the shepherds of its culture, right? They are the ones, I think you and I agree, they're the ones who define and, and set the culture. And culture evolves and grows over time.
Jason Warner: Yes.
Eiso Kant: But the leadership of the company, you know, as, as it goes. Not just from being its owners, and its founders, should be the shepherds of it cul- of its culture and, and its intent and its mission and its vision. And if someone wants to start a company that fits in all the things that you and I wouldn't enjoy working in.
Jason Warner: Yeah.
Eiso Kant: Like an environment in which there's a very rigid system, that the self-policing, things that you're mentioning, such as that, it's perfectly fine by me. It needs to be like, "This is what defines this company. This is our culture. This is what we look for, this is what we're going for, and this is why you join here." And that to me is okay, because a set of owners of people have decided, "This is what we're using this vehicle for. Our company, at the end of the day, is to bring a bunch of people together, and it needs to make money." Right?
Like and however they want to do that in whatever way shape or form if it's a holacracy or if it's a... it, it doesn't... like that should be fine. And so, to me, I don't even mind that this exists. What is interesting is how this has permeated and is spreading as like Kubernetes.
Jason Warner: Yeah.
Eiso Kant: Like, like this is a big debate because of the analogy back, right? Like it's, it's-
Jason Warner: Uh, so this is-
Eiso Kant: And that's part where it's like yeah.
Jason Warner: Yeah. This is... this to me is it, uh, it's the root of it. So, like or maybe not the root of it, but is an, an element at the root, so like forming the foundation of it, which is, um, again, like different things exist for different reasons. And you know, not everything needs to be monoculture and, and look exactly the same. And ironically, when I say that, not everything needs to look monoculture, because I think that's everyone want. [laughs]
Eiso Kant: [laughs]
Jason Warner: It's, it's part of the challenge here and having this conversation. So, a good example would be that, I talk about sports all the time. Certain teams are going to have different environments that are, are gonna to be met, like very collaborative, highly collegial, um, X, Y, Z, blah, blah, blah. Some are gonna ruthless almost cutthroat-ish sort of ways in which they're going to go at each other in practice and whatnot. Some people who are equally talented are built for one versus the other, prefer one or the other.
And if you think about just even the world at large, I'm a VC now. Every VC firm has a completely different culture. How they handle revenues. How, how they handle financial incentives. How they handle internal collaboration. And one of the only considerations I had when joining certain firms was how to handle certain things. One could be massively successful and attractive to a certain set of people and it's not for me, and I just need you to know that. And I'm like great. They... that's their thing. That's what they're going after.
And even like other fields, they have this all the time. Doctor's offices. Doctor's offices practice multiple different ways. Law firms, let's not even get into those, in terms of like how the law firms are structured, there's like across the board. And some of them are like some of the most ruthless places in the world, and it works for that group of people who have selected into that to go do.
Now, if you find yourself in that environment and it is not at all for you, what do you do? Well, the adult thing to do is say, "Geez, this isn't for me. I don't want this." And you move on to something else, as opposed to saying, "We're going to change everything about this to suit me." Even if you have a large group of people around you that think that, too, but still the vast majority and the history of that thing looks a certain way
And yes, it will progress. That owned law firm entity will have changed multiple times over the course of it. And maybe it will get to where you are today in 10 years, but you're ultimately that's... Is that what your job is supposed to be?
Eiso Kant: You're getting to the interesting point, and the point I almost wish we would have realized before we started this episode, because I don't want to speak for you. And I went a little bit of a rant on criticizing what's happening in the world and I, definitely, yeah, in my personal view, am scared how we get to self-censorship beyond like reason. But it's exactly that. We get to pick where we go. We're adults, and we get to pick the cultures that are for us.
And a company, who are the stewards of its culture, right? Like the thing what I think you're getting to is, you have an organization, 2000 people, its culture has been set. Let's say it's, let's say it's still owned 70% by, I don't know, Mark Zuckerberg, who is still as a huge majority control of Facebook. I'm not sure of ownership, but at least you know, like, control. I might not like a certain style or a certain culture, et cetera. But if I come in and start rallying and act and putting activism in place as employees to force change happening, that to me is where I... honestly, I start feeling iffy, right?
Now, it is good to speak up. It is good to share. It is good. I think companies grow from conflict and people pointing things out that aren't right. And I don't want to stifle that. But at the end of the day, the stewardship and the culture that's set in the business, is it really a democracy of culture?
Jason Warner: No, it's not. But I think we've allowed people to believe it to be true. Your point about the stewards of the culture, I mean, uh, obviously, even that changed over time, cuz you start adding executives...
Eiso Kant: Of course.
Jason Warner: ... to the firm or to the company, or whatever it is and they will slightly change it. And then maybe, one of the founders steps away, and some brought in executive takes on a larger role in that. It becomes a bit more about, about that person's personality and the way in which they do things, too. But it's an outsize influenced by the people at the top who are running the large groups and it is not at all a democracy.
We've talked about this, in terms of effectively running companies. In fact, like one, democratically run companies don't perform, nearly as well and two, just in general, like we're not going to vote on everything, you know. That's not at all how we're going to do stuff, you know. And if someone wants to go do that, if someone wants to make one of those and go experiment with that type of, uh, organizational structure and do it, uh, by God, you know, go do it. But you're not going to like radically change an organization in that way.
I think we've allowed people to believe that there is a democratic function inside most companies, when in fact, one, there's not, so there's a clash immediately right there, and the other is, it's not actually a good way to go do business.
Eiso Kant: But I think that's, I think that's the interesting part, right? Like we, we started here thinking the conversation was about how we're communicating and how we're scared of saying certain things, but it's actually not. It's about everyone can create whatever they want to create, but who actually are the stewards of the culture? Is it actually democracy? And how do we think about, just call it an employee activism, right? How does that play out.
And I think tech is in a, in a very different and more privileged position than where we've traditionally seen employee activism was incredibly needed, right? Because to me, employee activism is needed when we have a huge power issue that's gotten out of control, right? Employees who have to work for the local power plant, because there's no other jobs around in the environment. And there's a monopolistic behavior happening over the people that are working for you, right? You're-
Jason Warner: Yeah.
Eiso Kant: It's not a choice, right? God, we're really starting to sound like some crazy podcast. But if you take that to the extreme for its argumentation, working in tech and the kind of engineering software leadership roles that we're talking about is not economic slavery, right? It's everybody is in an environment where, and again, this doesn't hold true for every individual person, but on average, where choice is possible. And I think where choice is possible, bringing the concepts of we're trying to bring activism in here to radically change the DNA of an organization, that to me does not feel right.
Jason Warner: As you were speaking here, or as an example like my mind went to like how someone on the internet is going to negatively interpret what Eiso just said.
Eiso Kant: Yeah.
Jason Warner: And there'll be somebody who says, "Well, you didn't consider X. So, you didn't consider how someone on H1B is being affected by that." or you know, someone within a, lower economic environment, there's always some situation you can come up with in which you had to consider. But your, your meta point, and this is what we've lost sight of is, what's the meta point is that like you know, tech is incredibly privileged set of people working in it.
And I've seen things online where there's people trying to say like, "Well, there's a class divide now in tech." Like there's the executive class and the workers, which is to me, again, it's like, it's that false dichotomy. You're trying to distinct between sets of people to cause conflict and then say, "X needs to be treated differently than Y and we need to as- assume a certain set of things." And I mean, I don't know how, how we get out of some of these things other than to say like, "No." Let's, let's stop having the same stupid conversation and realize that like we're all working in probably the most privileged industry on the planet, with the most privileged of conditions in the history of the world. And somehow we're making it a woe-it's-me moment. And instead of just trying... you know, it's, it's that or I, I don't know. I don't know.
I mean, like I come from a family of farmers. My father was a construction worker to escape farming. Basically, traded time with his body, destroying it for like pennies and a dollar type of stuff. I'm not gonna listen to a 30-year-old making $250,000 with another million dollars over the next four years. And RSU grants talking about they don't like the snacks in the kitchen or that they're not really happy with the subtle language that was used in a press release or something like that. I... Like we've got bigger fish to fry.
Eiso Kant: And you're absolutely right, all of these arguments and things that we're discussing, it can totally be torn apart and find such cases for. And ironically, if you look at, like if you look at my company's culture, it's based from Day 1 on, on the words deeply kind-hearted warriors. Like I'm a huge softy, for those who know me. [laughs] I'm like a massive softy.
And, and I... and for me and my culture, I wanna bring deeply kind-hearted people in, you know, from lots of different backgrounds, who have high resiliency and who are fighters. And so, how I think about language and how we say things and stuff, yeah, it's, it's an important part. But it's coming from, the professional background of knowing that if you have someone who's a, a hardcore engineer from Russia, and you put them with someone who is, you know, from a younger generation, you know, being grown up in, in Switzerland or the US, you're going to have to work on communication, because there's different styles.
But it's a culture that I'm choosing to set. And so, if I take it to the extreme, if someone now comes in and into our company, and starts actively trying to change the DNA of the business, right? And it could be for something that most of you, you know, everyone here, would like disagree with. Like they're trying to make it more, you know, less diverse, or they're trying to, they're actually wanting all the assholes to be promoted, right? Like it doesn't even have to be something that we all agree with is bad. It should be completely okay and understanding that, that's the person you gonna fire tomorrow.
Jason Warner: Yeah.
Eiso Kant: You want to be the shepherd of the culture. And maybe the point I'm trying to make, and, and I'm thinking through this as we're talking, so I'm for sure gonna have things wrong, you know, for those who are listening. But is that, we should really, truly have shepherds of the culture of a company and they should be appointed by what a company is. The majority of its owners who make the decision, right? Like that's the one thing I think we've got to get around.
Jason Warner: Yeah.
Eiso Kant: The majority of the owners decide what a company does and what it is.
Jason Warner: I think this is maybe a difference in mindset, too, so not between you and I, but maybe in general. I've always approached every job that I've taken as I need to influence the organization to where I think it needs to be, but I don't get to dictate it until I'm in such a position where I'm responsible for it. So, it's a-
Eiso Kant: I like that, yeah.
Jason Warner: It's subtle difference. But if I joined an organization as an engineer, it's not my organization, but if I think it needs to go in a direction, I will influence it. That's my job is to actually first push it in a better direction. But I don't get to call it out and say, "We're going to go in this direction. We're going to change," and all that sort of stuff. There's a slight nuance difference here.
But as I became the CTO of multiple organizations, I was now responsible for, in fact, like when you know, founders are no longer involved in the company...
Eiso Kant: It's your role.
Jason Warner: ... I... it's my role. It's like I, that's what I do and it's different, though, in those two situations. So again, like if even when I joined Canonical, I was not at the executive level, so my job was to make it better and influence it. But then when I joined the executive level, I was now responsible for it. I was accountable for it. I was, I was a culture steward and, and bearer. And that meant, who we fire, who we promote, which... what even conversations we allow in- inside the company and things of that nature.
And so, I feel like there's maybe been an expectation switch to where people say, " we're all cultural barriers." Yes, so long as it's in the same direction as where the company is going. But if, if everybody is a cultural barrier and a 360-degrees opposed, that's chaos. That is one, and, and effectively, what we have to say is, "Are you aligned? Are you okay with where we're going?" That's why we say it's an opt in, as well as an opt-out. Like you're opting into the culture, you're opting into where we are, you're opting into this, or you can opt out, going back to the law firm analogy.
Eiso Kant: But you're saying something, which is like and I think this was maybe where, potentially the root cause, you don't see Google today or any really large, like most large tech companies saying, "This is really our culture."
Jason Warner: No. It-
Eiso Kant: What, what you're seeing is super lazy. You see lots of words that like I. I always say like you know...
Jason Warner: It's milquetoast.
Eiso Kant: ... it's words are painful-
Jason Warner: It gets watered down.
Eiso Kant: Yeah.
Jason Warner: It's all like...
Eiso Kant: Exactly.
Jason Warner: ... it's a lot of boring bullshit type of stuff.
Eiso Kant: Yeah. Exactly. And, and that's the thing. It's like, a former co-founder used to tell me, "So, if your culture isn't defined in a way that a group of people don't want to join you..."
Jason Warner: 100%.
Eiso Kant: "... you haven't defined your culture."
Jason Warner: Uh.
Eiso Kant: I think that's a really good rule of thumb, right?
Jason Warner: The, the example I use here the most is Palantir and-
Eiso Kant: Yeah.
Jason Warner: Because Palantir-
Eiso Kant: I use Coinbase, but yeah.
Jason Warner: So, okay, so.
Eiso Kant: [laughs]
Jason Warner: And I'm trying to show people that like, "No, you're saying Palantir is wrong, or Coinbase is wrong." And you're-
Eiso Kant: Yeah.
Jason Warner: And again, you're placing a judgment on, it's not... Palantir or Coinbase has a purpose.
Eiso Kant: It's not for you.
Jason Warner: It's not for you. It has a purpose. It has a vision. It has a mission. You don't agree. You don't think it should exist, you know, blah, blah, blah. You don't like their choices, whatever. Don't join it, don't join it.
Eiso Kant: Compete with them. Build something, compete with them, go after it. Like, I mean, that's,t hat's kind of the whole beauty of the system, right? Like, uh.
Jason Warner: And, and for, and for the record-
Eiso Kant: Or don't be part of that company and protest them.
Jason Warner: It, it's-
Eiso Kant: That in front of the door would assign.
Jason Warner: Yeah.
Eiso Kant: Like that's fine.
Jason Warner: And for the record, I-
Eiso Kant: But don't be part of the company and stand with the sign.
Jason Warner: I use this all the time, too. And my example here is like, we're gonna be and we don't wanna open like the Elon can of worms and all that sort of stuff. But like I'll just use... go back to Steve Jobs or something like that. I would have probably wanted to go work for Steve Jobs, um, just to learn from him and all that sort of stuff.
How long could I have taken his style? I don't know. I don't know how long I could have taken his style. I would have loved to have seen it and experienced it. And I probably would have learned from it. But I probably would have tried to, to amalgamate as quickly as possible. So... but a bunch of people love it. A bunch of people loved the way that he is in all that sort of stuff.
And, and you know, you do the Elon same sort of thing, like I know I can't work for Elon for a long time. The guy is all over the place. But I... there's certain elements of what he's doing that are absolutely amazing. He does push a certain set of things. And if anyone discounts, like anyone in the world discounts Elon entirely, because they don't like his management style, you are the person we're talking to, in this podcast. Elon has done some amazing things in the world with other people and through other people, and yes, he's got a certain approach. But the point being that there are things in what he has done, which are undeniably amazing. And I also disagree with some of the ways in which he's done it, but they both can be true.
Eiso Kant: To me, and again, from the outside, I don't know the guy. I've heard him speak like most of us and every time I hear him speak about the future, I feel that it's genuine, I feel that it's a genuine message of, "I want to make the world a better place." And to me like I, I have it written down. And for those of you watching this on video, and I, uh, often think back a his quote that he said right after the I think, it was the fourth rocket. Uh, the one that almost would have bankrupted them, didn't explode, right?
And he said this, sorry for the long one, long quote. "There are a lot of negative things in the world, lots of problems that need to get solved. There are lots of things that are miserable and kind of get you down. But life cannot just be about solving one miserable problem after another. That can't be the only thing. There needs to be things that inspire you, that make you want to wake up in the morning and be part of humanity. That's why we did this."
You know, for me, this is why I, I love his intentions. I don't like some of the management style. It's- it, it goes very different to how I think about working with people, et cetera. Um.
Jason Warner: But you, but you and I have learned stuff...
Eiso Kant: But I cannot argue...
Jason Warner: ... from-
Eiso Kant: Exactly, but-
Jason Warner: Yeah.
Eiso Kant: Yeah. Absolutely.
Jason Warner: And everyone has the ability-
Eiso Kant: And I cannot argue with his results. Yep.
Jason Warner: No, you can't argue with his results.
Eiso Kant: Yeah.
Jason Warner: Let me give you an... a story from a long time ago. I was saying something internally to a company and I said something about a baseball player. And I said, "Hey, there's... this baseball player was in this situation and has said this thing." And it was directionally kind of like what I want the spirit what I want people to understand. The conversation then went to, but that baseball player did something bad in their private life and it was documented in the '80s or something like that. And it wasn't like over the top like they murdered somebody. It wasn't like...
Eiso Kant: Yeah.
Jason Warner: ... even like, um, spousal abuse. It wasn't anything like that. And so, the topic became what examples we should bring into to for business context. Like it became, like it, it became a full-blown conversation, an internal type of thing. And I'm like kind of watching this, this train get away from me, as this is happening. And I'm like, "Well, hey, woah, woah, woah?" Like, no, that was a minor point. What we're trying to do is this, like yes, but you know, we're gonna go down this path now. We're gonna try a set of rules and guidelines about what examples people can use or what business contexts people could bring in or like all that sort of stuff. Like, no. We, we just, we can't go down that path.
If we do that, we'll never actually, one, finish this meeting, two, release the product to the customer, and three, that's not our core objective as a company. That's not what we're going to go do. You know, we're not going to sit here and have that sort of litigation on every, every word, every story, every element, every press release, everything, whatever it is.
Eiso Kant: And that was your role, right? Your role was to set the culture and I think at that point it's, you fall in line behind that, or you choose another business, right? And I think I was recently talking with a credible engineering leader, who was on the transition team of Twitter and the wider transition team, so she can't be identified here, just to make clear. And she... uh, again, this is 2023. And you know, she stayed till the end of transition and said, "Hey, I've seen this. I've done my job. This isn't for me." And that's okay. And just said like, "Hey, I'm going." Right?
And I think that is, that's perfectly fine, right? It's the staying and the activism, and on these kinds of topics, right? It is very different than the company is undergoing fraud. The company is deeply racist. The company is, you know like is, is morally fundamentally wrong. And like yeah, and you're in there, you should speak up and you should, and you should always speak up and try it. But the moment you see like when it's about the culture, it needs to be clear who's the shepherds.
But I also wanna say this is, you know, these examples, like the ones that you're given to a lot of, you know, I think, especially I'd say, you know, listeners that aren't on the coasts in the US, or are going to sound like incredibly like, "Does that really happen?" So this is, it's not widespread yet, but what's starting to happen is that it's, it's spreading in little things, right? Of people starting to be scared of what to say. And to me, that's, that's something that is so worrisome.
Jason Warner: I think this it's an element of excess. So when we, we see an environment of excess, these conversations happen more. You're not gonna see this in a two-person startup who's fighting for their life. You know you're not going to see this in 100-person startup that hasn't that product market fit and is like kind of running out of money. Like every- everyone is focused and everyone understands, and all that sort of stuff. This-
Eiso Kant: I love in 2023, by the way, that startups exist with 100 people without product market fit. That's just like...
Jason Warner: Yes.
Eiso Kant: ... [inaudible 00:37:04]. That is also an entirely...
Jason Warner: A new thing.
Eiso Kant: ... new thing in history. [laughs]
Jason Warner: Yeah.
Eiso Kant: [laughs]
Jason Warner: But you're not going to see it in those situations, right? You're not going to see it, um, and if you do, it's gonna be in such a small minute way. And eventually, somebody is gonna flip the table on that and if you say like just that.
Eiso Kant: Exactly.
Jason Warner: You're done. We, we don't have time for this conver- we like literally don't have time or money for this conversation. We need to...
Eiso Kant: Yeah.
Jason Warner: ... to do this. It's existential to us. We'll go out of business in a little while. So, we start to see it in those, startup hierarchy of needs, or whatever that you wanna like frame that as. It's like...
Eiso Kant: Yeah. I know what you mean.
Jason Warner: ... it, it's way up here when there's way too much excess in the systems or the companies or whatever. Once you acknowledge that, too, you know, then you... we can start to say like, "Well, okay, now, maybe like some portion of waste in the system could absorb that conversation." But then it filters in, and, and then it can- I believe, it infects the rest of the organization, too.
And which is why I also say, as a steward of the organization, you have to say, "Am I allowing this or am I not allowing this?" And if you are, what's the consequence of it? And if you're not, what's the consequence of that? Like what are you doing about it to move on?
Eiso Kant: I wanna throw one thing out and I know, for those listening, this, this is really, uh... I'm trying to think on the topic and figure out my thoughts while the episode is happening. [laughs] Jason, I didn't sit, you know, spent the week thinking about this coming, at least, I don't, I didn't. There is something though. If, if I think about, you know, let's say we have the CTO or any like executive leadership of some of these large companies listening to us right now. You're at a large public company and you're listening to this, and you're nodding your head agreeing, but it's also not easy because the moment they stick their neck out and say something, they're out the door.
Jason Warner: Yeah.
Eiso Kant: And this is and I think this is where it goes wrong, right? The incentives aren't aligned...
Jason Warner: Yes.
Eiso Kant: ... with, with solving this. The incentives are completely misaligned with solving this.
Jason Warner: Those, I mean, and so, this is 100% true, which is why I think like in Silicon Valley cultures, like this is founder responsibility, right? You'd like to make sure you wanna-
Eiso Kant: Yeah.
Jason Warner: You're stewarding the organization. Um, somebody who understands how to build a company, and it's basically an, an unfirable camp. Now, people are going to, uh, start saying, "Well, that's exactly what we're talking about, power dynamics." I'm like, again, opt in or opt out. Like and again, people will then come to me in that and say, "Well, that's a really privileged point of view."
Like yeah, it is. We, in tech, are some of the most privileged people in history, so acknowledge it and just say, you know, every- everyone wants to have a woe-it's-me attitude. You can't have a woe-it's-me attitude making $20,000 a year with a million dollars doc grant from Google. That like does not exist in the grand totality of the entire world in history, like I'm sorry, it just does not.
So, you'll figure out a place where it's more appropriate for you, but if you're a large CT- you know, large company CTO and that sort of thing, it's, it's more delicate, which, you know, this is a frog-boil pot, in my opinion. Unfortunately, you're in this situation. You have to slowly kind of manipulate and move things out over time and it's very difficult to do. And you know, speaking from personal experience here multiple times in multiple organizations, it is hard, arduous work.
Which is why you can't let your culture escape you when you're small or early. Like the further your culture escapes you, either the harder the job or more impossible the job, whichever way you want to look at that.
Eiso Kant: And less fun the job.
Jason Warner: And the less fun the job. And, and less important it is to the people who don't know the internal workings of your organization, your customers, and things of that, like they don't care. At the end of the day, the customers aren't gonna care about a lot of the conversation you're having internally. You have to focus so hard on this aspect of learning the business, you're gonna lose sight of the customers. And like ultimately, like that puts you in an existential risk territory, again.
Eiso Kant: And, and this brings me to, to start wrapping things up for today's episode, which is, you know, I, I was recently listening to a Lex Fridman, uh, podcast, and, and I don't remember. It, it was with some controversial character who, who I didn't agree with a lot of their opinions. But they said something that really stuck with me ever since. They said, "When I went to university, I said a lot of stupid shit. But my way to get to good ideas when I was young, was to get through the bad ones, right? To throw them out, to talk with others. Because that was entirely allowed and entirely okay, I'm still here today."
But the fact that you and I had this episode, I know the moment we stopped the record button, we won't have a chat.
Jason Warner: We'll talk about whether or not we should publish it.
Eiso Kant: Which... yeah, we exactly. We'll talk about whether or not we should publish this, right? Like do you ever still wanna work for a public company within, et cetera, for me?
Jason Warner: Yeah.
Eiso Kant: Okay. I'm gonna end up raising money. You know, which investors does this automatically exclude? And, and I know we're gonna end up publishing this because we've known each other long enough to know that we aren't going to say, "Yes." But we will have that conversation.
Jason Warner: But we'll have the conversation because we, we will, we-
Eiso Kant: Yeah.
Jason Warner: We do. And it's, it's-
Eiso Kant: And that's what's fun. It's takes the fun out of everything.
Jason Warner: And, and not even to make it selfish, like, uh, like say like, it's less important.
Eiso Kant: No, of course.
Jason Warner: It's less effective.
Eiso Kant: Yeah. Exactly.
Jason Warner: Like and going back to like one of the things I talked about like this, there's some hard truths in the world. So, here's the hard truth, like, uh, as an example, like I am 10 pounds overweight where I want to be, right? And so, I work out a shit ton. But I haven't dialed in my diet for a little while. I need to, I need to kind of focus on that and up my cardio a little bit. That's a hard truth. It's a hard truth that I need to face to make sure I'm doing the right work instead of the easy work, which is what I like to do, do, which is the weightlifting. I need to focus a little bit differently.
Eiso Kant: I'm laughing, because I literally did the pound to kilo conversion because I'm si- I'm 6-1/2 pounds over where I wanna be at the moment where I usually am [laughs] for exactly the same, similar reasons. Uh, but absolutely, yeah, I'm, I'm with you, Jason. I, I, uh-
Jason Warner: But we don't face hard truths. We're doing mediocre bullshit, or subpar bullshit for the rest of our lives. And I have had, I've had at least three different tweet threads where I'm saying like I wanna do like tech hard truths for people or life hard truths as well. And you start to delete it, because you're like some rando in X,Y,Z place is going to misinterpret something over here and rally a whole bunch of people to this.
And it happens all the time, right? You know, like, I don't need that in my life. Right now. I got, I got my kid situation. I got the special needs stuff. I got the, the work. I don't need that bullshit in my life at the moment.
Eiso Kant: But like you said, we're deeply privileged that we're comfortable with what where we're at in life that we can have this conversation. And that any consequences from it don't, you know, materially put us on the street.
Jason Warner: Yeah, and unfortunately-
Eiso Kant: Right? And, and that's, and that's also it.
Jason Warner: Yeah.
Eiso Kant: Because a lot of people, a lot of companies who, who are in that position, but I agree with you, the vast majority of people in tech, you know, opt out, if you don't agree. Your place is out there or and then if not, go build it. And I hope to see a future, to kind of leave this on a positive note, how much more interesting will the future be where we have a huge variety of cultures at different companies, and different types of places, that won't be for all of us. And when it comes to business, we compete...
Jason Warner: Well-
Eiso Kant: ... for the customer, and we compete also with that culture and personality. And, and-
Jason Warner: But let's just say that, I'm going to end it on this. And I'll say, "My God, if we go the other way, we're dead as a society. We have flatlined. And people will argue that, "No, it's irrefutable." And here's why. It's, it's one, it's not scientific. We have a ton of experiments. We need all of these different styles because we have to understand what is effective in which context for which situations to kind of deconstruct these things.
If we didn't have multiple manufacturing styles happening across the world at same time Toyota would not have figured out a couple of different ways to go in. And then abroad to other organizations, so that they can have their own innovations, which make their way back into Toyota at some point with EVs or work going on. All that sort of stuff. So, if we are all identical, in that same way in terms of the way that we operate these companies, the way that we do look at these things, we're never gonna make it more effective.
We're all going to be this. We're all going to be this right here, and that is not how you advanced the side. That's not how advanced the world. That's not how you advanced anything, because we need a whole bunch of stuff that spikes. It'd be like, "Shit. What the hell happened there? Let me go figure that out, so I can understand what was effective so I can bring it over here and we can learn from it."
Eiso Kant: And I think this brings us to the next closing of Musk, right?
Jason Warner: Yeah.
Eiso Kant: Like we might not agree with certain styles, but no one can, listening to this, can deny that he pushed us further in, in the world in terms of us from space travel to electrification of cars.
Jason Warner: And we should be able to say that.
Eiso Kant: And-
Jason Warner: We should be able to say and say, "Hey, whatever Musk did or whatever Tesla did, or wherever SpaceX did over here that caused us to look a certain way, what did we learn from that?" And instead, it becomes a conversation about how you can't talk about Musk. No. Let's frame this into the positive.
What are our learning opportunities from anybody anywhere at any time in this? What experiments are being run? What are we taking back from this? And then how do we make our own organizations better? Not monoculture, not monolithic, not mono, how do we become better? And as a society we'll advance. As a corporate entities, we'll advance. As a, as a techno sector, we'll advance. And as individuals, that's how we all get better.
Eiso Kant: I love that. Thank you, everyone, for listening to today's episode. Please let us know on Twitter how you feel about this topic. We'd love to hear it.
Speaker 3: Thank you for listening to Developing Leadership. Make sure you subscribe to follow us on our journey to more meaningful engineering leadership. If you have any challenges or topics you would like us to explore in an upcoming episode, Tweet or DM us @devleadership_. To learn more about data-enabled engineering and how metrics can help your teams and improve your processes, go to athenian.com. See you in two weeks for another episode of Developing Leadership.