Cargo Cult Startups


While talking to someone on IRC today, i mentioned that lot's of young companies (and some old ones) are Cargo Cult Startups.. I was asked to explain (which is a sure fire sign that someone hasn't been reading their Feynman), but figured i could probably elaborate.

In his commencement speech at CalTech (and in his book "Surely You're Joking Mr Feynman") RPF talks about Cargo Cult Science. He was referring to Pacific Islanders, who having seen the planes landing from the sky bringing provisions during the war, built hats with coconuts and erected runways, replicating marching drills (after the war) trying to get the provisions to land once more. The islanders were replicating the observed behavior without understanding the true nature of the tasks..

Now Feynman famously likened this to people performing the superficial motions of scientific experiment, without truly understanding the core of it, and if you look around today you will see lots of this disguised as "startup culture". Many managers have taken to colorful beanbags and foosball tables in the hope that this will result in another Google. In many of these cases, the chances of success are up there with the cargo plane landing near the islanders.

This would not be so bad, if it were not so abused. I.e. if managers want to give their staff 20% time, how bad can it be? The truth is, it is sometimes downright horrible.
I have seen managers drag technical staff into pointless meetings all day, create ridiculous arbitrary hierarchies in tiny companies (mostly so they can play "Wall Street"), have draconian rules on leave, yet still firmly believe they have a unique culture, because they have nerf balls on the floor.

Startup culture is unique and awesome for many reasons, but probably the closest to my heart is how quickly incompetence / free-riders are exposed in a real startup. There is little room for the "blue-sky-engineer" or even fancy titles, and Alpha-geeks shine.. Until it changes (and it might), it's a beautiful, meritocritous achievement oriented Nirvana.

In a way, the Googly office has become a crutch, and a "startup vibe" is too often used to disguise serious management deficiencies. Does it mean that an office that looks too Googly is a danger sign? No.. But it does mean that it probably isn't as positive a sign as you think.. Bean bags are pretty cheap..