What is a company?

People throw around the phrase “company culture” a lot. There are tons of articles on LinkedIn and Medium about “How to 10x Your Company Culture”, “The 7 Mistakes Managers Make Which Harm Culture”, “12 Steps to Improving Culture”, and so on. Some articles are really good and many are at least interesting, but I always felt like they all make assumptions that limit creativity in their approaches to understand and improve culture. Companies are just people.

I’d always been a bit of a loner, and maybe that’s why when I started working it was endlessly fascinating for me to watch the company with the camera pulled way back as if I was an alien trying to understand the fundamental forces which made the organization work. I observed and mused about how to understand companies from first principals for about a decade until one day I made some unexpected conceptual connections that really pulled back the curtain and helped me understand culture differently. And it’s all thanks to online video games.

Pulling the Camera Back

We’re on a planet with a bunch of people on it. We have these social organs which are hardware for programs like language, religion, society, and so on. We call these organs “brains”. As hardware goes, they’re a bit wonky–optimized to quickly make sense of the world rather than make accurate sense of it. They evolved to keep us alive not necessarily think rationally and carefully and be happy. Put enough of us together in one area and we start organizing into groups. There’s all kinds of groups: government, hobby groups, social clubs, and working groups. We call a particular subset of working groups “companies”.

In my youth, I had this ridiculous notion that when you get a job, it becomes your identity. In this fantasy world of mine, everyone took their job super serious. For example, I assumed all programmers spent most of their time on the clock whole-heartedly working and earnestly mastering their craft. They went home programmers. Ate as programmers. Slept as programmers. I also thought teachers slept behind their desks, so I obviously wasn’t thinking very carefully. In my imagination, confident professionals strode purposefully down gleaming hallways and interacted with co-workers like so many parts of a well lubricated machine. My naive understanding caused a bunch of stuff to not make sense to me. Why did software have so many bugs? Are the programmers stupid?

As I got older, I learned a bit about how the world actually worked. First, teachers are actually people and they go home at night, usually. Second, employees are also actually people and what motivates them and their relationship with the company is more complex than I originally thought. Maybe the programmers didn’t do a good job because they didn’t give a shit. But why wouldn’t they give a shit? And didn’t I mention something about video games? Yes, I did, but hold on, I’m building up to it.

The Unbelievable Company

Why is it that some people are motivated and other’s aren’t? At the surface level, you could say it has something to do with mental fortitude, resilience, good parenting, discipline, and so on. These are all excellent subjects for study to be sure and I’d be inclined to blame a lack of motivation on one or a combination of these, but I’ve been a part of some very different companies and have seen what a radical difference the culture can make. Let me tell you about the company that most challenged the assumptions I made about culture.

First, I applied online by getting in contract with one of their recruiters. I was leaving another company that had a much more elaborate recruiting process that included spending about an hour or two filling out forms online; some of the forms had essay questions. When the recruiter got back with me, we talked for a while about what the company was looking for, what they offered, what they expected from me, and plans for the future. The somewhat informal interview lasted about 30 minutes during which the recruiter collected some information from me so they could do a sort of background check. You see, this company had to deal with the very real threat of sabotage. It was not unheard of for a rival company in this industry to send spies to infiltrate and disrupt the company, so everyone was always a little paranoid. I still don’t know exactly what they were looking for, but I know it included Googling me and checking out my online activity to make sure I’d been around for a while and didn’t suddenly appear out of no where.

Success! After a few days, I was told I made it and got the job. I was directed to a company Wikipedia with detailed information which included a detailed list of equipment I might need, lots of pages on how to perform various duties, how to register for forums and teleconferencing systems, and even how to make use of the companies internal logistics division which would help me relocate all of my stuff to the company headquarters. I was impressed with how quickly I was on-boarded and made to feel welcome.

My first few days were uneventful and I spent most of my time reading the Wiki, talking with the team, and occasionally asking questions. I was impressed that despite our relatively small size (about 50 people), we handled several projects in different areas that all had 24 hour uptime requirements and on-call schedules in very hostile environments. The team communicated constantly and you could tell there was a lot of friendship and respect between everyone. While I was busy learning the ropes, others tended to the Wiki by adding and updating training materials, they probably did lots of other stuff too, but I was only on the Wiki and saw it constantly getting updated.

Our team conducted complex operations almost every week which required an almost militaristic discipline despite the fact that there was no strict company hierarchy. There were some people who were more in charge than others, but it was pretty flat and it seemed to be a meritocracy. Whoever was capable of leading an operation would volunteer and people would follow their instructions. It was a lot of work, but it was also fun, and we accomplished some impressive stuff. The most unbelievable aspect to all this was that no one was paid. Yup, no one was paid yet most people most of the time were highly motivated. People felt rewarded. They felt good at their jobs and felt like they contributed. No, I’m not talking about a non-profit, I’m talking about an Eve Online corporation Eve Online.

Watch that video. It’s not always that exciting, but it’s the only game I’ve played that does get that exciting. Those ships they’re flying may take years to train for and months to build, with many different people and corporations coming together to make them. You see, Eve Online is almost entirely player-run, from the economy to the actual direction of the game’s development. Almost all of the items in the game are created by players and some people specialize in just trading them or moving them around from one place to another.

Why does this count as a company?

People take this game super fucking serious.

What is it that makes a company a company? Surely it’s not just making money, thought real money does intrude into Eve. While I said no one was paid, that isn’t exactly true. Eve allows players to buy subscription time (aka Pilot License Extensions, aka PLEX) with in-game currency and PLEX can be sold for real currency. Some players were sponsored by the corp and didn’t have to pay. Very few players make any serious money, but the stuff you make and accomplish in the game is just as difficult to make as money. You are competing with other human beings for territory either actual star systems or commodity trading. This competition is pretty serious work and takes a lot of time and skill to do right, and I’d argue that the organized and collaborative application of time and skill is what makes a company.

Why does it work?

For me, being employed in an Eve corp felt like a job. It’s a really fun job, to be sure. You’re an immortal super-human and you get to fly around in spaceships and shoot lasers, but there’s a lot of non-glamorous work in there too. Remember that 24 hour on-call schedule I mentioned? Players have to defend their territory at all times. A rival corp could gang up and start blasting you away in 3 AM.

If it’s so much work though, how is it that people put in so many hours and so much effort even though they weren’t getting paid? What motivates people to volunteer their labor to this? If you can figure this out, you might be able to make a real life company more like an Eve corp.

People can see the impact of their work

If you work hard at something, you want to see the effects. Even people really good at delayed gratification eventually want that gratification. But the problem with many corporations is the feedback loops are broken. If you work super hard, you might not get any indication of how much your work affects the bottom line. This might be because it’s just really hard to figure out how to measure how good of a job you’re doing and how that actually impacts the company.

In games, feedback mechanisms can be programmed into the fabric of reality. Once you figure out how to press that win button, you can keep pressing it. In the real world, things are all in shades of gray. No one really knows the extent of what’s possible.

People feel they’re good at what they do

Games are easier to figure out because the feedback is clearer and they’re more narrowly focused than real life. This means people learn what works and what doesn’t fairly quickly and achieve of a level of mastery that they can feel proud of. Real life is much more complicated.

People are more mobile

The labor market in an online game is much more mobile. Even though it’s a huge hassle to move in Eve, and it’s usually necessary when changing corps, it’s still way easier than moving in real life. Most people are secretly scared shitless about risking everything and hauling their house full of shit off to some new location with new neighbors, shops, commute, work routines, etc.

This one is major a force multiplier. Since the cost of moving is so much lower online, people do it more often. This creates a pressure on corps to compete for labor. If you feel like you can get a better deal somewhere else, if another corp is bigger and better organized or offers better opportunity for advancement, it’s not too hard to hook up with the new corp.

There’s a similar situation for engineers and tech talent in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley. Many people I know only stay 6 months to 2 years at a place before jumping ship somewhere better. What’s crazy is that it’s not uncommon for their new employer to sweeten the transition by offering a nice little pay bump and maybe a promotion. This comes with a lot of negatives, i.e. a bunch of entitled shits that complain like it’s the end of the world just because we’re out of brown chocolates in the kitchen, but the benefits are that employers are throwing around a lot of money and fighting really hard to have all kinds of nice perks and smart management to keep everyone engaged and happy.

People can control their apperances

There are lots of conscious and unconscious biases when it comes to meatspace interactions. Games side step that by letting people talk with voice or only text if they want. Your avatar can look however you want it. I think it’s possible this creates an environment where your actions and your skills are much more important than how you look, that fucking annoying pedantic, nasal-voiced way you have of talking to people, or your stupid laugh. And that’s got to be a good thing, right?

What can you do?

I don’t pretend to be an expert on how to run a business. I’m sure smarter and more experienced people than me have put more time and effort into this problem. My goal was to think outside the box, challenge assumptions, and maybe re-prioritize what’s most important, which I hope this article does.

If I had to put my finger on what’s most important for creating an atmosphere in a company where everyone is motivated, I’d say it’s designing the right incentive and feedback structures. I’d spent a lot of time thinking very carefully about what I’m incentivizing and how to keep the feedback loops tight for each of the different roles.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably not the VP of Company Culture, so what can you do to make a difference? Well, the main thing you can do is respect everyone else and treat them right. If you see someone doing something well, complement them. Let them know they’re good at what they’re doing. If someone helps you out, praise them so they can see the impact of their work. Pretty much everyone you work with has to work to survive, so if you all have to be there, you can try and get along, at least at work.

Hot jets. Clear skies. Fly safe. o7