Good Intentions Fail at Scale

You’re an internet company. You have a hot product and a busy website viewed by thousands a minute. Unfortunately it’s having outages regularly. The website is slow. It goes down at least once a week. The backend systems are even more a mess. We’re going to fix this you say! We’ll send all the teams to a training provided by some vendor. They have a mediocre flash-based training tool that barely runs on modern browsers. It’s not ideal but that’s what we have. We’ll give the managers a bit more training maybe. Some random folks from various teams will get some mentoring from a few of our more senior engineers.

That’s absurd! No company does that. At your company, you have incident post-mortems. You insist teams have metrics and dashboards that surface uptime, latency and other relevant metrics to senior leadership. Individuals are empowered to look at technical challenges, relevant metrics and suggest ideas to their managers to improve them. The idea that some stupid infrequent training would solve scaling and availability challenges is absurd.

But consider: some infrequent mediocre training is what nearly all companies do to handle diversity related challenges including hiring, attrition, harassment, inequity and more. At most companies, the metrics are not visible: you work at a “good” tech company if you know basic numbers like percentage of black people or women in technical roles (good luck finding metrics for “black women in technical roles” much less “black women in senior leadership of technical orgs”). Managers and teams are not held accoutable for attrition as they would be if their team’s software was constantly failing. There are no post mortems to explain why such-and-such org can’t seem to retain women for more than a year or so. If there are more programs than just training (e.g. mentorship programs), they aren’t available to everyone, many aren’t even aware of them and they usually aren’t measured for effectiveness.

Why is that? The people running these companies are not stupid. The middle management aren’t stupid. People in general aren’t stupid.

What people do have are “good intentions”. In a small company, you can mostly rely on good intentions to maintain culture. If you start a new tech company now, you can chose to make an effort to be inclusive from the start. Your communicative overhead is relatively low, the number of folks that have to adopt and believe in your plans for company culture are small and good intentions will get you pretty far in building something better.

But if you’re hundreds or thousands of people strong? Transmission of culture is hard. Only part of it will happen. Even if you start out with the intent to build an inclusive culture that can actually retain a workforce similar to humankind, it won’t easily happen as you grow. When you’re small, your mechanism for culture transmission can include “one on one meetings with a founder”. When you’ve grown, when you “scale” your company, what is your mechanism?

Good intentions can’t be your mechanism. You’re bringing in too many people with extensive work histories and their own ideas about how to do things. The junior people are just trying to get a handle on working at all, never mind learning all the culture you want them to learn: they are going to learn a mangled version of it. You’re going to have pockets of the company that behave very differently than the founders’ original vision. That’s for all of your culture. If you’re in a typical tech company your company wasn’t founded with inclusivity as a value. If you don’t count on good intentions to transmit values around ownership for production problems, why would you count on good intentions to “fix” your lack of diversity?

So that’s why this story is absurd. No reasonable leader would expect even a good one day training to fix a team’s technical challenges. Even with training, they’d have metrics to track, there would be ongoing coaching up and down the management chain and it would be a regular subject of organization meetings from senior leadership offsites to team’s daily standups. And ultimately failure would have consequences.

But to build a better, more inclusive, culture we see “good” tech companies where leadership hides metrics, barely invest in programs or training, don’t hold people accountable even for egregious failures and shrug and think “good intentions” work. Is it any wonder the “numbers” have barely moved?