Complete Staff Work in Software Teams

During WWII, while serving as a staff officer Dwight Eisenhower developed the idea of Complete Staff Work. The idea is written up well in The Characteristics Traits And Skills Of The Successful CEO. I think the idea need not just be for CEOs and their directs, everyone from an organization could benefit. The idea is that when communicating with your manager it should include all the necessary research organized into clear thinking. Specifically, it should include:

  • Identify the decision to be made;
  • Identify the stakeholders in that decision;
  • Identify the constraints and resources available;
  • Frame the question and obtain input from the stakeholders;
  • Review and evaluate all of the possible decisions including doing nothing;
  • Present the decision to the decider with all of the alternatives fully discussed
  • Make a single recommendation, explain why and be prepared to defend it

I would add a few more specific to software teams:

  • If multiple teams are involved:
    • Who owns which parts?
    • What are the cross team dependencies? When will upstream dependencies be completed for downstream partners?
  • How will progress be measured? How do we get feedback throughout on how we’re doing?

It’s a tough bar, I definitely don’t always do these things when taking ideas to my own manager. For example, I a couple times I’ve asked if we can get budget for activities without bringing a clear value prop and project plan to the table. It’s hard to argue that it would be better for everyone if I consistently did this right. Or at least if I was gathering input from her, to tell her that’s what I’m doing, and I’ll bring back a full proposal later.

Several great things happen as people start doing this.

  • Manager and employee don’t have to go back and forth playing 20 questions
  • The organization makes better and faster decisions
  • The employee prepares themselves to be promoted to be the manager

The core idea of complete staff work doesn’t have solely for proposals. It’s can also be thought of as really doing the complete job when being delegated something, and at every twist and turn figuring out “if my manager wasn’t here, what would I do to take this all the way to the finish line?”

This is something I notice in standups a lot where updates often communicate activity, but not meaningful executive insight and recommendations. A good example of how this shows up in standups for software organizations: “I got pulled into a this issue with our production server yesterday, we finally got it fixed.” The manager is left wondering several things, “what do we need to do to prevent this surprise issue in the future? Do we have the right staffing and role assignment in place? What about the work you forsook to do this? Presumably it’s now off track and not going to come in on deadline. Who do we need to tell about that? Is there a mitigation plan we can compose to keep the project on track? If not, tell me you thought that through and that we should expect this work to be back in the next sprint.

Part of how employees can master this is to look at the questions that get asked when they do bring half baked plans to the table. If you keep getting asked a question, start preempting it. Another helpful tip is to think backwards from your company/team OKRs all the way to your project. If you want to change something, does it positively affect OKRs? If it’s neutral or negative, is that because we have the wrong goals or your idea is maybe a bad one?

An easy objection to the notion of complete work is “hey this is going to make my job really hard!” or “does this mean I can’t just casually chat with my manager and get feedback?” One simplifying principle is to apply this principle of complete work when the stakes are highest, and know that you can relax a bit when the results at stake are less important. Also if you think it’s going to take you more time, think about all the questions your are saving yourself from having to volley with your manager–not to mention the time you’ll be saving for them.

I’m starting an experiment to work with my more Senior Engineers to have them try pushing the thinking a little bit further forward, and see if that speeds us up as a team.

Further Reading

The original memo from Eisenhower pages 1 and 2.

Jade Rubick, also writing from the perspective of an Engineering Manager, explains the idea and also mentions that you can break complete staff work down into iterative chunks so that it’s not such an overwhelming project to complete up with a fully complete answer to a wider issue.

Non-biological stem cells

My friends know that I’m fond of using stem cells as a metaphor for cities, companies, and parts of your life. These are the blobs of opportunity you come across in life where it seems like anything is possible, and growth is bound to occur.

For example in Denver, the Rhino district seems to be where all the stem cells in the city are. It’s where most my coffee meetings end up, and it’s also home to several amazing murals. Companies can have whole departments that are stem cells, and sometimes the best way to recruit at a large company like Google or Twitter is to show that you’re the stem cells of the company; this is where all the exciting new potential is.

This week I have a great link to share with you about stem cells.

From the Operators

I did work last week on vacation to look at the most popular Buried Reads posts so far. You all are really interested in whether and how entrepreneurs can be good parents. This week Avni Patel Thompson of Poppy shares how impactful her family’s nanny has been. Read her post Can we please talk about the truth behind how we “do it all”?.

When I came across Adrienne Tran of Tesla tweeting about increasing optionality through specialties, it immediately made me think about the stem cell metaphor I mentioned above.

From the Investors

Sarah Tavel of Benchmark Capital has a great tweetstorm on becoming a VC. You can tell reading it she’s capturing several hard won lessons. Personally, the long feedback cycles she mentions are why I think angel investing will always play second fiddle to coding for me. I thrive too much on quick wins.

This week Jeff Bussgang of Flybridge Capital Partners published his Rocket Ship Startup List. If you just graduated/dropped out of college and want to get into startups, take a look at Jeff’s list. But also if you join a company and feel like you’re riding Apollo 1 not 11, take it as a chance to learn. Before shipping Windows 3.1 and Windows 95, Brad Silverberg worked on the failed Lisa project at Apple. Before Danielle joined Twilio as employee one, she was working at a company that struggled mightily to get customers. Sometimes the failing companies teach you painful lessons where the drive of “never again” propels you more than ever.

I try not to cover headline news here, since I figured you all get enough of that already. But this week Brad Feld of Foundry Group has a great view from in the trenches on how tariffs are affecting hardware startups.

Startups and Star Trek

Sarah A. Downey of Accomplice has been hosting a regular blog series called Startup Trek. It features a single blog post on each episode of Star Trek the Next Generation. Every post covers a lesson learned on startups.

Earlier this Winter Daniellle and I made a regular affair of watching Startup the Next Generation before falling asleep. We both loved the show. Danielle admires Picard’s principled integrity, and I think Data is a fascinating exploration of AI and emotion. So we’ve watched Startup Trek with delight, and I asked Sarah if she’d be willing to let me write on up a post on one of the episodes. She politely offered, and I was blown away.

I chose one of the climactic episodes of Season 1 where the security chief Tasha dies. It ends up being an exploration of nihilism. How does this relate to startups? See the post Startup trek episode 22: Skin of Evil to see what I think it means for founders.

From the Investors

Uber’s IPO is starting out with a wild ride, and for those who follow public offerings we highly recommend The Impact of Short Interest on the Performance of Tech Initial Public Offerings in the U.S. to provide helpful context on what to expect in the months leading up to the end of various lockup periods.

Struggling to put together a diverse panel, board, or recruiting strategy? HBCUvc’s List of Black, Latinx ‘Rising Stars In Venture Capital’ gives you the names, so now you have no excuse.

Sarah A. Downey of Accomplice who started Starutp Trek also wrote a great post this week on How to get a job in VC: the college student edition. She sums it up eloquently:

It’s not like a normal job function where there’s an ascending ladder of neat titles and constructed programs where you move up, like with investment banks or private equity firms that siphon up MBA students. Venture doesn’t really have that. Although some of the big firms might have associate programs, most don’t.

The number of jobs that come up annually is just a handful. There are roughly the same number of open U.S. professional athlete positions as there are available VC positions nationwide. And because of that scarcity, those jobs are always going to people who already have context around startups, their own deal flow, strong networks, unique talents, advisor or angel roles, or as many of the above as possible.

So how do you get a job in VC? It just kind of…happens. You don’t pick venture; venture picks you.

So You Think You’re Ready to Hire a Marketer? Read This First. It challenges the assumption that you need a marketer to launch, among many myths that cause founders to hire this role too early

How deep can a friendship go?

David Perell of North Star Media writes this week about The Fruits of Friendship. He quotes the late Irish Poet John O’Donahue:

When was the last time you had a great conversation? A conversation that wasn’t just two intersecting monologues, but when you overheard yourself saying things you never knew you knew, that you heard yourself receiving from somebody words that found places within you that you thought you had lost, and the sense of an ‘eventive’ conversation that brought the two of you into a different plane and then forthly, a conversation that continued to sing afterwards for weeks in your mind? Conversations like that are food and drink for the soul.

In this love, you are understood as you are without mask or pretension. The superficial and functional lies and half-truths of social acquaintance fall away… When you really feel understood, you feel free to release yourself into the trust and shelter of the other person’s soul… Love is the only light that can truly read the secret signature of the other person’s individuality and soul.

The O’Donahue passages are especially meaningful for me as I remember back to celebrating my 40th birthday a year ago. About two dozen of my friends joined me to celebrate, and it was gratifying to see how quickly so many friendships where we’d been out of touch for years picked right back up where they left off. Those conversations where you dive deep into life are so fulfilling.

From the Operators

Patrick Campbell of Price Intelligently shares the Lessons Learned from 3000 SaaS Companies. The amount of real customer discovery and learning going on in the industry is troublingly shallow.

Nathan Barry of ConvertKit debunks the myths that keep startup founders from pursuing revenue through traditional sales in Direct Sales for Bootstrapped SaaS Startups: from $1,300 to $725,000 MRR

From the Investors

Morgan Housel of Collaborative Fund is on a roll with his blog and writes this week about Degrees of Confidence. It’s a useful rubric enumerating the different degrees of confidence you could have on any given issue, and a great way to calibrate how much thought you’ve put into something.

Dave Kellogg of Host Analytics breaks down Highlights from the 1Q19 Fenwick & West Venture Capital Survey. Subsequent rounds are averaging 75% valuation increase from the previous round, which is lower than I would have expected. 9% of deals had a liquidation preference multiple, which is useful to know if you’re negotiating a round.

Matt Turck of FirstMark is curious about Bootstrapping as an avenue for founders, despite being a VC. Rather than trying to mete out pros and cons, he asks some good questions and puts together a list of several bootstrapped companies I didn’t know about.

What if you had to pivot after your Series C?

This weeks posts include a stomach wrenching experience from CircleUp founder Ryan Caldbeck who writes, “I remember sweating a lot. I remember feeling a pit. I remember for the first few months after the start of the downturn always- *always* – feeling terrified. Imagine feeling like that for an entire day. I felt that way for months.”

But first we owe our readers an apology.

Last week, we featured a section on great interviewers with Charlie Rose as an example. Several of our readers were quick to point out that in November 2017 Charlie Rose was accused of harassing female co-workers throughout his career. We were completely unaware of this when we cited him, and apologize for picking such a terrible example. Rose has since apologized, acknowledging some of the claims and denying others, and upon review of the facts we believe his behavior is reprehensible. We are so disappointed to be let down by our former hero, and have completely removed him from last week’s post, and noted the change there.

Tyler Cowen, who we featured next to him, is a great interviewer. I feel bad to have put him next to the discredited Rose.

Our readers were also quick to point out there are several awesome female interviewers worth exploring: Mary Lousie Kelly, Soledan O’Brien, and Terry Gross.

From the Operators

Ryan Caldbeck of CircleUp expresses the dramatic ups and downs of pivoting his company in this tweetstorm.

Avni Patel Thompson of Poppy grapples with the question of how to start a startup without funding in Finding the space to take the risk and build as a parent with bills..

Jasper Diamond Nathaniel of formerly of Revere tells a cautionary tail for co-founders making compromises to mix their ideas together. 18 months later, he was left running the company without them, and figuring out what to do in When Your Startup Fails.

Danielle Morrill of GitLab (also co-editor of BuriedReads) continues to process the loss of her former startup, and the physical space it inhabited, as if it were a relationship in 564 Pacific Ave..

The Mattermark team inside 564 Pacific. (Thank you René, Samiur, Beau, Sarah, Josh, Evion, and Bryan)

From the Investors

Naval Ravikant of AngelList is on a roll this week with his podcast Labor and Capital Are Older Forms of Leverage. A huge reason I’ve always been interested in software as a career is because it has zero marginal cost to reproduce, and so it huge impact in the economy. Naval lays out how capital has similar power, but labor is counter intuitively one you have to be careful with.

Albert Wenger of Union Square Ventures writes this week about the “asymmetry of limited upside, unlimited downside” in Learning from Notre Dame.

Seth Levine of Foundry Group along with Brad Feld encouraged us to get audited fairly early on at Mattermark. Having 3 years of audited financials helps immesurably with M&A and other options you want to keep open. This week he covers How much should you be paying your auditor?.

Om Malik of True Ventures is getting skeptical of Amazon’s dominance in e-commerece. I’m skeptical from a different angle. Everyone in Silicon Valley seems to beelieve Amazon has taken the cloud computing market and will never be unseated. If you’ve used their console as a developer, you know they are confusing, have poor documentation, and can be difficult to use. Someone is going to eat their lunch, and if you think it could be your startup, we’d love to talk as potential angel investors.

Intense Curosity

Editor’s Note: This post formerly featured Charlie Rose, please read this post to learn more on why that content has been removed.

Last night while running errands, I turned on Tyler Cowen’s podcast Conversations. This week he interviewed researcher Ed Boyden. It was the first time I’d ever heard of the field optogenetics. Boyden and several researchers have been working on how we can create a virus that puts tiny photoreceptors on specific cells in our body. The cells become a sort of solar panel that can then be activated by tiny fiber optic lights. The research is important, because so much of pharmacology right now is caught up with imprecise instruments that bathe the whole brain in chemicals, rather than precisely targeting the neurons that control certain functions.

I loved the clarity that Boyden explained the field with, and it turned out to be the tip of the iceberg. Cowen’s interview ended up going much further into all kinds of topics. I started counting the times I heard “I wonder…” or when Cowen would ask something controversial and instead of getting into the fray directly Boyden would step back and start “one way of thinking about this is…” If I could just find all the podcasts each week that use these phrases or have this tenor of dialog–I’d be in a sort of personal heaven. These interviews are an oasis amongst a desert of 30 second interviews and talking points. The world needs more Tyler Cowens.

From the Operators

We didn’t find any amazing founder posts this week. Keep sending us great operators posts that you read to

From the Investors

Christoph Janz of Point Nine Capital was on a roll this week. First he recounted his great post from five years ago, “Five ways to build a $100 million SaaS business,” and gave a nice update on several things that he’s learned since. It’s still incredibly clarifying for someone starting a new company that wants to make it to IPO. Christoph also touched on a topic we wrote about a few weeks back: the rise of institutional angel and the decline of self-funded angel investing. He explains the pros/cons of the two approaches in 8 reasons why you shouldn’t raise a VC fund (and 4 why I love being a VC regardless).

Morgan Housel of Collaborative Fund starts off with the story of researchers Richard Held and Alan Hein who found that being an inactive viewer is actually worse than being blind but able to get into the bump and grind of life. The research alone is throught provoking enough to justify reading, but he folds in the history of the 1960s, the 2000 recession, and venture investing. Read Morgan’s incredible post You Have To Live It To Believe It.

When Employees Spread Their Wings

This week I’ve been thinking about the important connection you can build with employees.

Just recently, our longtime friend René Barranco opened his first business Element Bar in Panama. I first started working René at Microsoft in 2003. When I started growing the team at Mattermark in 2015, he was one of the first people I wanted to hire. We worked together there for several years, and he was universally loved by everyone at our company as an amazing engineer and a boundless source of optimism, fun and laughs–even a counsel in tough times. I hope in some small way we gave him the itch to start his own business, and it’s amazing to see it up and running this week. If you’re ever in Panama, he makes amazing cocktails!

Another longtime employee just hit the employment authorization stage of their visa process and is now in the final step to get their green card. This would make the 3rd green card that we were able to get for employees at Mattermark. The first two both had families, and it meant they didn’t have to completely upend their lives. It was life changing, and I can’t wait to see what they create in their adventures.

Whether or not your company survives, the relationships you build with employees can be a long lasting treasure you get to hold onto.

From the Operators

Sahil Lavingia of Gumroad shares his humbling journey from 19-year-old wunderkind founder to profitable and independent in Reflecting on My Failure to Build a Billion-Dollar Company

In a GIF laden post Frank Denbow tells his story of building his company, applying to YC, only to be rejected and discover what really gave him happiness. We’ve helped a bunch of people with YC interviews over the years, and while some make it, there’s always the possibility of that tough rejection email. Frank made it through to the next step, and we love his story.

Sarah A. Downey of Accomplice acknowledges that most VC are generalist, and she is looking to profile people who have deep domain expertise in Everyday Exceptional: seeking people who are awesome at something specific

From the Operators

Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures has an interesting take on Raising A SAFE Or Convertible Note In Between Rounds. Fred talks about how this is a potential long term problem. Danielle and I talked about this, and she pointed out that VCs are using this as a stealth tactic to come in as a “white knight” and lock in companies.

OpenView Venture Partners reminds us why the NPS methodology has been widely discredited in Can’t We Do Better Than NPS?.

This week Ryan Hoover of Weekend Fund chronicles The Rise of “No Code”. I’ve believed for a long time that learning to be a web developer is way too complex relative to the days of Visual Basic dominating line of business applications, and the market is ripe for someone to retake this market. Disclosure: we’re proud investors in Retool.

Chip Hazard of X Factor Ventures takes a pulse on Female founders: Digging into the 2018 investment numbers. Danielle is a partner at X Factor, and actively fields pitches from female founded companies. If you’re working on one, reach out to her by replying to this email.

Morgan Housel of Collaborative Fund goes back to the moment early chemists figured out how to make bronze from copper and tin, both are relatively soft but suddently together they’re like magic. In my research for Buried Read’s , I keep coming across founders who needed a Steve Wozniak like personality to make it all come together. When you get cofounder alchemy right, it’s magic.

One last note, we are active on Twitter under @BuriedReads. We share posts beyond what we share here. Like Tomasz Tunguz’s post about Top 10 Learnings from the Redpoint Free Trial Survey.

Buried Reads for January 26th

Since launching Buried Reads in September, we’ve created a new newsletter for software engineers. Instead of linking to blog posts, Kevin decided to do his own original research and writing. The first edition is out: How Computing Came About. We went deep into history, back to the days when “Computer” was a job title held by humans. Early reviewers, even non-technical ones, told us they loved learning history they didn’t know about. We’re building an audience for more content like this, and hope you will subscribe and share with anyone you know who would enjoy this history.

From the Operators

2018 was the year of people resolving to use their phones less, stay away from Twitter, delete Facebook and perform various forms of “digital detox”. There’s clearly something to this, but I also believe this trend is swinging the pendulum too far the other way. Replace the word “phone” with “my connection to all human knowledge” and then try to talk about how pernicious it is with a straight face. Given this, I was elated to hear Sachin Monga formerly from Facebook offer some valuable perspective on wielding these new attention gravity devices in Screens & Time.

Ben Gilbert & David Rosenthal of Pioneer Square Labs kicked off Season 4 of their amazing podcast Acquired. This episode tells how ESPN got off the ground. It brought me back to the days before the Internet when cable was a welcome relief from the three major network channels.

Ting Ni and Hendrik Pretorius of ImmiPartner go in depth on transforming immigration HR from a nuisance to a strategic advantage. 70% of foreign candidates view a company’s green card policy as a major consideration when joining. At Mattermark, we took pride in working to secure green cards, and are so proud of being able to help families stay in the U.S. indefinitely.

Bob Crimmins of Startup Haven started a series on why founders should play poker. In Poker is “Wax On, Wax Off” for Startup Founders, he reminded us of a great quip from Peter Thiel: when everyone around you is taking shortcuts, you should dig deep and research from first principles. When everyone around you is moving slowly, you should find the shortcuts that cut through the noise. A classic lesson from the poker table that works in business too.

From the Investors

David Sacks of Craft Ventures posted a tweet this week soliciting off-the-shelf Series A docs. After seeing legal bills in excess of $100,000 to do a fairly standard Series A, we’d love to see the startup community optimize.

Tomasz Tunguz of Redpoint Ventures has a great distillation of Eugene Wei’s Novel Mental Models for Technology. Danielle had been reading The Theory of the Leisure Class this summer, and it took us back to how signaling shapes humans culture.

Sammy Abdullah of Blossom Street Ventures offers a seldom spoken truth: strategic investors can hurt you. Too few people talk about the strings that can come with this ”easier” money.

As a hiring manager, references checks scare Kevin. He was influenced by the advice that if a reference isn’t a screaming “Yes!” for a candidate, then it’s damning. On this basis, he almost turned away what ended up being his greatest engineering hire ever. He’s looking for ways to make reference checks work, and thinks the ideas from Bowery Capital in The 7 Do’s and Don’t of Sales Reference Checks are a good start.

Leo Polovets of Susa Ventures tweets a reminder that trust underlies our society and economy. We wish more economists and psychologists studied the inner mechanics of trust. The closest Kevin has found recently is Gottman’s The Science of Trust.

For founding teams that didn’t give away board seats to investors in early rounds, it is tempting to forgo board meetings. Jason Lemkin of SaaStr argues holding board meetings is a great way to secure investor commitment for follow on or at least a bridge in 5 Reasons to Actually Have Board Meetings.

Brigitte Hackler of High Alpha answers the perennial question from founders How Much Should You Burn. She’s doesn’t provide a single answer, but rather a framework using risk and distance from needing to raise again to help you come to your own answer. Later stage founders should think about the Rule of 40, which Dave Kellog wrote an awesome update on this week.

What if being 10x better requires just a slight tweak?

We’re loving the How I Built This podcast, hosted by NPR’s Guy Raz. In this week’s episode, Julie Rice and Elizabeth Cutler tell the story of starting SoulCycle. Raz asked pointedly, “why even bother starting Soul Cycle when practically every gym already had a cycling class for members at no additional cost.” This reminded me of the quip “if you’re entering a market with existing competitors, you have to be 10x better.”

It’s sound advice, and the founders of SoulCycle knew they could offer a 10x experience with just a few important changes. As Danielle can attest, from the moment you step into the studio the receptionist has been trained to make you feel welcome and accepted. When class ends and you’re dripping with sweat, the lights are low, candles are lit, and the instructors prompt you to celebrate how powerful your body is without comparing yourself to others. In short, you’ve had more than a ride — you’ve had an experience that to some even seems cult-like.

Sometime 10x better doesn’t mean 10x more work. Remember that just a few small tweaks in your work, or life, could make all the difference.

From the Operators

Andy Dunn of Bonobos recounts conversations with the late Blake Nordstrom, who passed away last week, in The Last Time I Saw Blake Nordstrom. Growing up in Seattle, I’ve heard so many stories about the Nordstrom family’s dedication to customer service, and you feel it when you’re a customer there. To hear it from Andy, the founder’s great grandson still had the touch, and will be dearly missed. Rest in peace Mr. Nordstrom.

Over the past month Nathan Barry of ConvertKit went through a difficult time, facing something not talked about nearly enough: his wife’s miscarriage. His surprising discovery that sometimes Gratitude is a distraction resonated with us, and his vulnerability in sharing this story is deeply appreciated.

First Round Capital compiled the best advice from First Round Review in 2018 in The 30 Best Pieces of Advice for Entrepreneurs in 2018. They’ve also conveniently linked back to previous years if you want to binge on the best nuggets from this top notch VC publication.

From the Investors

Jason Calacanis is back to blogging regularly and suggests The Ultimate Outsider’s Hack is to Read All The Biographies. This reminds us of the approach author Robert Greene takes to summarizing knowledge around human excellence in his great book Mastery.

David Teten of HOF Capital has the best non-obvious advice I’ve seen in a long time. Writing down your responses to VC’s doing diligence goes further in closing a deal than you might imagine. Find out why in Face-to-Face Meetings Are Important, but Thoughtful Written Collateral is Mandatory for Closing the Deal.

Jeffrey Carter of West Loop Ventures dives into another under-reported topic of fundraising, discussing investor’s : Information Rights

Carlos Eduardo Espinal of Seedcamp has a simple but awesome spreadsheet for Managing Your Fundraising Pipeline. Savvy founders can also fill this sheet with qualified VCs using the Investors tab of Mattermark.

Ali Hamed of CoVenture draws the distinction between Capital Efficient Vs. Equity Efficient. Either he’s dead on that financing growth needs more options or maybe founders should get more creative with their distribution approaches.

A warm congratulations to Dorothy Ren for joining NextView Ventures on the investment team. If you’re a founder re-designing the everyday economy (home, transportation, food, work & money, health, apparel, and entertainment) hit her up with a pitch (her email is in the post).