Craft is Culture

Two Truths and a Take, Season 2 Episode 23

I've now been at Shopify for two months. One month in, the leadership team announced that we're moving to "Digital by Default": permanently. The era of office centricity is over; it's time to figure out what comes next.

I've had mixed feelings about this announcement. On the one hand, I was disappointed. I like having somewhere to go for the day, and having done so much travelling over the last several years for work, I was even excited to have a "regular commute". I was especially looking forward to building up a new base of shared culture with a team. I'm sure I'm not alone in wondering how shared culture will translate to a virtual-by-default office. 

But on the other hand, it's the right thing to do. Working digital by default is going to change a lot of things about the way Shopify works, and how businesses work in general - some of these changes will be tough to absorb. But it's also going to free us up to rebuild some of the basic practices around how businesses ought to work. I think the biggest change will have to do with hiring.

If we want to understand what the next 10 years of transition into Digital by Default will look like, there are two important lessons from the 90s. The first lesson is California.

Up through the 80s, the centre of gravity for tech was Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the planets orbiting around it were sprawled across the Route 128 corridor in greater Boston. Then from the 90s onward, Silicon Valley took over. There are many reasons why the west coast won, but one of the most widely agreed-upon was the fact that California state law forbids non-compete clauses. Tech workers can move between competitors at will. It sounds like this would be bad for commercial innovation (many people still seem to think so!), but the truth turned out to be the complete opposite.

When employees pass freely from company to company, they bring process knowledge along with them. They can’t bring explicit IP, but employee movement helps circulate know-how and best practices faster than if individual companies had to discover or evolve them on their own. This levels up everyone’s game: excellence inspires excellence. Engineers were free to be more loyal to their craft than even to their employers. When you let great process circulate freely, good things happen to the whole industry that outweigh any loss of trade secrets or exclusivity for individual firms.

Over time, networks of excellence and dedication to the craft become gravitational attractors for talent. The West Coast was where the world’s best software got built, and if you cared deeply about that kind of excellence, that’s where you had to go. If you cared about the craft of software, you want to be in an environment that celebrates that craft. This kind of attitude produces better software: built right, because it’s what you do. Silicon Valley today still functions on a strange but highly effective kind of “honour system”, which could not work without that rich history of doing the right thing by your craft, and by your peers.

The second important lesson from the 90s was the importance of message boards. As the whole world got connected, craft practitioners found one another on forums and message boards, and obsession flourished. The free software community, which got off the ground as the internet was born, started coming together around bigger and bigger projects, eventually building Linux.

Linux broke every rule we thought we’d learned about how to motivate and manage knowledge workers. Software development was not supposed to work like this: adding engineers to a project is supposed to make it more delayed and worse, not get built faster and better. Eric S Raymond wrote in his timeless essay The Cathedral and the Bazaar:

Linux was the first project for which a conscious and successful effort to use the entire world as its talent pool was made. I don't think it's a coincidence that the gestation period of Linux coincided with the birth of the World Wide Web, and that Linux left its infancy during the same period in 1993–1994 that saw the takeoff of the ISP industry and the explosion of mainstream interest in the Internet. Linus [Torvalds] was the first person who learned how to play by the new rules that pervasive Internet access made possible.

While cheap Internet was a necessary condition for the Linux model to evolve, I think it was not by itself a sufficient condition. Another vital factor was the development of a leadership style and set of cooperative customs that could allow developers to attract co-developers and get maximum leverage out of the medium.

Linux proved that there is no upper limit to how much value you could extract out of a message board or email list, if you got the social dynamics right. The internet made it easy for craft practitioners to find one another, fraternize and argue over methods and best practices, almost like artists. The fact that none of these people had ever met in person, or had any shared culture or life experience, made zero difference. Their craft was their shared culture.

So we have these two examples from the 90s which at first appear to contrast with one another. On the one hand, the rise of software as a craft meant that strangers who found each other on internet message boards could bond and work so successfully together that they could build incredible things without ever meeting in person. On the other hand, that same rise of software as a craft created a tremendous local network effect in the Bay Area, which prompted a huge talent influx into several dozen square miles along the peninsula.

But really, they're not in conflict at all. They're both the same force, and they were both ahead of their time.

Since then, the cost of finding and engaging in your craft of choice has gone to zero, thanks to the internet. You can learn anything on Youtube. You can find any subculture of people, interested in the same minute set of interests, on Twitter. As this happens, people are waking up to the idea that mastering a craft is how you find professional and personal fulfillment. This creates an irresistible draw: people want to go where their craft is celebrated, just like you're drawn to where your culture is celebrated. 

Today, we're opening a chapter of the world where many of us will be working remotely by default. This is exciting, but scary: as a prospective employee or employer, you have to complete against the whole world for talent. Employers and employees both value stability, so extreme liquidity in the talent marketplace is scary for everyone. In a hiring environment like this, one question becomes paramount: is this a company where your craft is celebrated?

It seems obvious to me that this world we're entering is just a more intense, and more widespread, application of the lessons we learned 30 years ago in the early California tech industry and on the early internet. Hiring and craft become the same thing. The more effort you invest internally into craft development and celebration, the more people will want to work with you. (On the flip side, in a remote work world, craft and process knowledge are even more important than they used to be, because we have to trust each other a lot more.)

I suspect that within a few years, we (and others) will go through a complete rethink of how hiring works, that's re-oriented around craft: how do we celebrate it, how do we communicate the ways that we celebrate it, how do we find people who crave celebration of that very specific thing, and then how do we hire them, wherever they are? 

One obvious thing that I suspect will happen everywhere, and which we're already doing on Shopify Money, is that everyone who practices a craft (which is to say, everyone) has recruitment and hiring as a part of their job. Knowing how to source, do hiring interviews, manage bias and prioritize diversity, and all these other skills are becoming an explicit part of everyone's job, because it's inseparable from craft excellence. Another essential part of our jobs, which I bet will be made explicit before too long, is knowing where the highest-quality pockets of craft practitioners are. "I know you from this message board; you're someone who cares a lot about our craft" will beat any resume line or work credential. Forums will unbundle LinkedIn, for any job where craft matters. 

The internet made this possible, and digital by default made it practical: there are no barriers anymore to learning where your craft is celebrated, and then applying to work there. The software community has been ahead of the curve here, but the rest of the world will catch up soon.

I'm lucky to be at Shopify right now. This company takes the idea of craft incredibly seriously; not just for software development and product management, but for everything. Even something like customer incident response, which at most companies is treated as a regretful chore, is explicitly celebrated as a craft here. That's why I'm not so worried about whether Shopify will be able to continue creating or perpetuating our culture in a remote-first world. Craft is culture. If you care about craft, you've done the hard part. 

One small but meaningful change I'd wish for in tech: I hope we get rid of the phrase "culture fit" and replace it with "craft fit." Culture Fit has come to stand for a lot of not-so-great things in hiring: our tendency to hire people just like us, who make us comfortable, and who don't challenge us in meaningful ways. I'd love it if we got rid of that idea entirely, and replaced it with the idea of Craft Fit. For the things we want, craft is culture anyway. But for the things we don't want in hiring- bias, homogeneity, risk aversion - I hope that framing a hiring choice in terms of craft fit helps redefine a choice in terms of what alignment actually matters, and along what dimensions we ought to be challenging ourselves to reach out. 

On that note, Shopify Money is hiring. Come work with me! I mean it. If you want to work with us on Shopify Money, and celebrate our craft with us for many years to come, we would love to talk to you. I made a Google Form you can fill out here, or just email me directly. We’re especially looking for engineers and technical people (I mean, who isn’t), and we’re hiring across the Americas time zones (GMT -3:30 to -8.) So if that’s you, please do email me. If you’re after the sublime satisfaction that comes from mastering a craft and building something special for merchants everywhere, and you want to be on a team that is just absolutely going to get the future of work right, drop me a note. 

For more on how to work with me on Shopify Money: go to alexdanco.com/shopify

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Thank you for the tons of emails and thoughtful questions about last week’s email on thermodynamics and loops; I apologize I haven’t had the time to respond to all of them. Thank you especially to Bob Hacker for bringing Thermoeconomics to my attention. I’ve never heard of this concept before, but I immediately loved it and I plan on really digging into it when I can find the time. It looks like the book is hard to print and hard to find (reselling for $500+ on Amazon) so if anyone finds somewhere it’s on sale for cheaper than that, I’d love to hear from you. (Waterstones in the UK might have it; somewhere North America side would be nice to know about.)

And finally, this week’s Tweet of the Week: something I just can’t stop staring at in total confusion / awe / disbelief:

Have a great week,

Alex