Recently someone asked me an interesting question: “Do you hire people who learn new things or do you create an environment where everyone starts learning”? Who is this mysterious “everyone”? These people are not very active. These people prefer to adopt to existing conditions and follow the rules. I answered almost immediately “both”, but what really is more important?
I've always learned new things. Sure, my self-education style is far from perfect. I jump from subject to subject and read quite random books from disciplines barely related to my actual work. I know that and I'm trying to fix that. I’m 33. Right now I try to gain fundamental CS knowledge (while I don’t actually need to). I’m the CEO of a small 35-people-company. Bootstrapped. Profitable. And curious.
The spirit of curiosity was always inside me. It was inside our company in early days, but depleted. Novelty darkened and goals blurred. The company started to look like “just one more place to work at”. I hated that feeling. We did common tasks, released common features. It was two years ago. Two years ago we changed everything.
What is the right goal for the company? Do something incredibly cool, something that you can honorably call “the best in the world”. Why the hell spend your time on boring, common staff? Fuck it. You don’t want to create “yet another twitter client”. You want to create “the best in the world twitter client”. If you can’t, learn and try or die trying. We set the goal to create “the best in the world agile project management software for small and medium companies”. And suddenly everything started to look sooo simple.
What do you need to do something best in the world? More precisely, “who” do you need? You need the best people. Most likely you don’t have them yet, but there is a good chance you can grow them. Why not? You don’t need people who hate changes. You don’t need people who hate learning. You need curious, hungry and intelligent people.
If you have the best people, you should provide the best place to work at. You should provide productive working environment, best equipment, free meals, large tables. You should create an atmosphere that encourages creativity, tolerates failures and punishes mediocrity. People should feel that they REALLY can learn, try new things, explore ideas and make intelligent decisions THEMSELVES.
You should not track time, you should not estimate effort, you should not set deadlines. You should trust people, set ambitious goals and help them learn. We did that.
Looking back I see the outstanding difference. Today we run internal conferences twice a year and the level of sessions is very good. People may spend 5 hrs each Friday on personal learning, and several side projects were started such as an in-browser RPG, a prototyping tool, iPad apps. They read more books and visit more conferences. And if you hear an intense discussion on monad in the kitchen, you know the spirit of curiosity is back.
I don’t know whether we'll succeed as a company long term, whether we'll create the best in the world agile tool. I believe, oh yes, but I can’t be certain. I'm personally not the best CEO. What I know is that work is real fun here again. We are improving every single detail of our company with passion. Not as fast as I often want, but speed follows skills.
So what is more important? I think environment and culture is more important than people. Initially you have a few who learn and push the train forward. If you have the right environment and right hiring, you’ll have a critical mass of curious people eventually. Then there is no difference — this core of active people will do everything and build curiosity and learning into the company DNA. All you need to do as a CEO is set goals, maintain trust, support people and sometimes kick-start activities to keep things going in rare low-mood times.
And please stop motivate people, they hate it.