Mark Needham

Thoughts on Software Development

The Hard Thing About Hard Things – Ben Horowitz: Book Review

without comments

I came across ‘The Hard Thing About Hard Things‘ while reading an article about Ben Horowitz’s venture capital firm and it was intriguing enough that I bought it and then read through it over a couple of days.

Although the blurb suggests that it’s a book about about building and running a startup I think a lot of the lessons are applicable for any business.

These were some of the main points that stood out for me:

  • The Positivity Delusion – CEOs should tell it like it is.

    My single biggest improvement as CEO occurred on the day when I stopped being too positive.

    Horowitz suggests that he used to be too positive and would shield bad news from his employees as he thought he’d make the problem worse by transferring the burden onto them.

    He came to the realisation that this was counter productive since he often wasn’t the best placed person to fix a problem e.g. if it was a problem with the product then the engineering team needed to know so they could write the code to fix it.

    He goes on to suggest that…

    A healthy company culture encourages people to share bad news. A company that discusses its problems freely and openly can quickly solve them. A company that covers up its problems frustrated everyone involved.

    I’ve certainly worked on projects in the past where the view projected by the most senior person is overly positive and seems to ignore any problems that seem obvious to everyone else. This eventually leads to people being unsure whether to take them seriously which isn’t a great situation to be in.

  • Lead Bullets – fix the problem, don’t run away from it.

    Horowitz describes a couple of situations where his products have been inferior to their competitors and it’s been tempting to take the easy way out by not fixing the product.

    There comes a time in every company’s life where it must fight for its life. If you find yourself running when you should be fighting, you need to ask yourself, “If our company isn’t good enough to win, then do we need to exist at all?”.

    I can’t think of any examples around this from my experience but I really like the advice – I’m sure it’ll come in handy in future.

  • Give ground grudgingly – dealing with the company increasing in size.

    Horowitz suggests that the following things become more difficult as a company grows in size:

    • Communication
    • Common Knowledge
    • Decision Making

    but…

    If the company doesn’t expand it will never be much…so the challenge is to grow but degrade as slowly as possible.

    He uses the metaphor of an offensive linesman in American football who has to stop onrushing defensive linesman but giving ground to them slowly by backing up a little at a time.

    I’ve worked in a few different companies now and noticed things become more structured (and in my eyes worse!) as the company grew over time but I hadn’t really thought about why that was happening. The chapter on scaling a company does a decent job.

  • The Law of Crappy People – people baseline against the worst person at a grade level.

    For any title level in a large organisation, the talent on that level will eventually converge to the crappiest person with that title.

    This is something that he’s also written about on his blog and certainly seems very recognisable.

    His suggestion for mitigating the problem is to have a “properly constructed and highly disciplined promotion process” in place. He describes this like so:

    When a manager wishes to promote an employee, she will submit that employee for review with an explanation of why she believes her employee satisfies the skill criteria required for the level.

    The committee should compare the employee to both the level’s skill description and the skills of the other employees at that level to determine whether or not to approve the promotion.

  • Hire people with the right kind of ambition

    The wrong kind of ambition is ambition for the executive’s personal success regardless of the company’s outcome.

    This suggestion comes from the chapter in which Horowitz discusses how to minimise politics in an organisation.

    I really like this idea but it seems like a difficult thing to judge/achieve. In my experience people often have their own goals which aren’t necessarily completely aligned with the company’s. Perhaps complete alignment isn’t as important unless you’re right at the top of the company?

    He also has quite a neat definition of politics:

    What do I mean by politics? I mean people advancing their careers or agendas by means other than merit and contribution.

    He goes on to describe a few stories of how political behaviour can subtly creep into a company without the CEO meaning for it to happen. This chapter was definitely eye opening for me.

There are some other interesting chapters on the best types of CEOs for different companies, when to hire Senior external people, product management and much more.

I realise that the things I’ve picked out are mostly a case of confirmation bias so I’m sure everyone will have different things that stand out for them.

Definitely worth a read.

Be Sociable, Share!

Written by Mark Needham

October 13th, 2014 at 11:59 pm

Posted in Books

Tagged with