review of Frank Slootman’s book Amp It Up

Never put your personal decisions to a vote.

I love that quote.

I’m not in the target audience for this book, but I was given a copy and figured I’d read it. Some bits of Slootman’s leadership advice I found interesting:

One piece of advice I find a little odd is the emphasis on only having “drivers”, as opposed to “passengers”, as employees. The benefits of highly motivated, self-starter types of folks are obvious, but aren’t they also more prone to butting heads with each other or pulling in different directions? I would think that once an organization gets to a certain size there would be a benefit to having some people who are content to just go with the flow.

This book is riddled with battle metaphors; one chapter begins: “It’s no exaggeration to say that business is war.” (It’s literally an exaggeration, unless Slootman’s been organizing sorties to go murder rival companies’ employees…) He’s aware that “many [employees] will resist the metaphor of war” but he thinks it’s just reality: “At a minimum, noses will get bloodied. At worst, in a few months or years, some firms in our industry will still be in business and others won’t.”

I’d point out that the consequences of a business failing are rather less severe than the war metaphor implies. Employees may have to go find new jobs (maybe not, if it’s an acquisition) and adjust to life in a new company; execs may not get as generous of an exit as they were hoping for; nobody gets to get rich off stock options. Do those outcomes justify the levels of intense day-to-day anxiety and fear that are suggested by a comparison to war? (Founders, admittedly, have more at stake—the company’s failure is likely to be a serious emotional blow and in some cases could put them in dire financial straits personally.)

Slootman is focused on startups, and in that context the advice to be constantly vigilant about the competition makes sense. Interestingly, though, he traces his mentality back to his childhood:

My father was a veteran of two wars, and although he retired from active duty in the 1950s, there was a measure of discipline in our household. Walk straight, shoulders back, don’t slouch. … Don’t let them catch you doing nothing, or they would find a chore for you to do. ...

… My dad didn’t say I needed to get better grades, merely that I had to work up to my potential. … That may appear to be a liberating way to have your parents think about failing grades. In reality, you become haunted by never doing enough, that you are failing to do as much as you are actually capable of.

… I also cleaned factory toilets one summer in the plant where my dad worked. There were at least a thousand people working there, and I cycled through every bathroom facility between 9:00 and 5:00. I had a supervisor, who inspected my work, but he often got to bathrooms I had cleaned first thing in the morning many hours later, after hundreds of people had used them. When he criticized my work, I complained about it to my dad. His answer was stark: “Well, those are the kinds of people you will be working for if you don’t get better grades.” I was 16.

This mentality of living up to your potential has kept up with me ever since. … This is a hard model: you never feel you are doing enough, and a sense of malcontent hovers over you. You need like-minded people around you for this to work.

It’s tragic that we live in a world where it’s sometimes necessary—although much more necessary for some people than for the more privileged among us—to carry such anxiety about what will happen to us if we don’t push ourselves to our limits. I realize it’s important to acknowledge harsh realities so we can be adequately prepared to deal with them, but I also worry that promoting this mentality of life as constant battle contributes to making the world be harsher than it has to be.