Productivity

Startups' War on Meetings


Startups' War on Meetings

Illustration by Andy Rementer

When Paul Betts worked as a software developer at Microsoft (MSFT), he grew frustrated by the number of meetings he had to attend. So he coded a program that linked up with his Outlook schedule. It checked the job titles of his fellow attendees at the gatherings he doodled his way through, estimated their salaries, and then tallied up the amount of money wasted at each scheduled sit-down. The average meeting frittered away about $500. “In a typical 40-hour workweek, I’d have maybe 20 to 30 hours of meetings,” says Betts. “Too little is accomplished.”

Betts left Microsoft in August for GitHub, an 80-person startup that stores programmers’ source code. GitHub’s software makes it easy for many decentralized people or teams to contribute to a single project, and its own employees use it to collaborate while discussing ideas in a freewheeling chat room. They avoid face-to-face meetings almost entirely.

Illustration by Andy Rementer

Engineers are often in control at the latest crop of Silicon Valley success stories—think of coder-run companies such as Facebook (FB), Dropbox, and Square. They’re reshaping the daily routine of thousands of office workers, with a special emphasis on fewer meetings. The forced hourlong sit-down is acutely problematic for engineers, designers, and other so-called makers, according to a 2009 essay by Paul Graham, a programmer and co-founder of the tech incubator Y Combinator. “When you’re operating on the maker’s schedule, meetings are a disaster” because they disrupt the creative flow, he argues. “You can’t write or program well in units of an hour. That’s barely enough time to get started.”

More to the point, tech companies that favor traditional management structures—with all those meetings—may have trouble hiring top engineering talent, says Mike Abbott, a partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers who has worked at Twitter, Palm, and Microsoft. Reducing the number of manager-led meetings means putting more decisionmaking power in the hands of the people actually building products, letting star employees shine and exposing those less capable. “Accountability is a good thing,” says Abbott.

The trend is evident at tech companies big and small. Michael Waxman keeps his company’s meetings short by making attendees stand. At his startup Grouper, which runs a Web service that arranges six-person blind dates, the daily morning meetings last less than 10 minutes, he says. Waxman used to set a timer to cap them at five. Jeff Atwood, the co-founder of the Q&A forum Stack Exchange, recently laid out his rules for good meeting etiquette, including that “no meeting should ever be more than an hour, under penalty of death.”

After Larry Page took over as Google’s chief executive officer last year, he limited most meetings to 10 attendees and pushed managers to outline clear goals before scheduling a gathering, according to Kristen Gil, the company’s vice president of operations. Facebook has a loose policy called No-Meeting Wednesday, when engineers are encouraged to “stay focused on building products,” says Meredith Chin, a spokeswoman for the company.

Some startups are trying to capitalize on the movement against meetings. Asana, a company founded by two former Facebook executives in 2008, builds business productivity software that lets employees maintain personal and companywide to-do lists, take notes, and discuss projects. Justin Rosenstein, one of the founders, estimates Asana can cut out at least half of a company’s meetings. Dustin Moskovitz, the other Asana founder, avoids them almost entirely, often reviewing meeting minutes at his leisure and chiming in with written comments.

Illustration by Andy Rementer

Opposition to meetings isn’t new, especially within the tech industry. Simon Ramo, a 99-year-old tech pioneer who has sold companies to General Electric (GE), Boeing (BA), and Honeywell (HON), penned a 2005 book about the pitfalls of meetings. He isn’t convinced that Asana or any new software will kill boardrooms. Far from it. “The information technology revolution makes it possible to have more information go to more people more efficiently,” Ramo says. “More people can now be informed on topics. Therefore, more people have ideas.” And that leads to longer discussions and … more meetings.

Asana’s Rosenstein acknowledges that some face time is necessary. “People thought that all cholesterol was bad, but there’s good cholesterol and bad cholesterol,” he says. “All of the meetings we ever have are the good kind.”

The bottom line: Some startups are culling meetings to promote faster product development and empower talented employees.

Milian is a reporter for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.

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