Justifying Our Own Existence

After his brief internship at Twitter (now X), George Hotz concluded that the company could be run by 50 people.

I’m not an expert in digital infrastructure, but 50 people doesn’t sound that ridiculous to me, at least for running the product day-to-day. Maybe he’s being dramatic, but the point is that the product would be functionally equivalent with 10-100x fewer people working at the company.

It is human nature to protect ourselves. It is human nature to want our tribe to grow. In the case of Twitter’s codebase, it seemed that there were some unintended consequences of their incentive structure…

The way that you got promoted to Twitter was you wrote a library that a lot of people used, right? So some guy wrote an Nginx replacement for Twitter. Why does Twitter need an Nginx replacement? What was wrong with Nginx? Well, you see, you’re not going to get promoted if you use Nginx. But if you write a replacement and lots of people start using it as the Twitter front end for their product, then you’re going to get promoted.

You get what you incentivize. Want to incentivize growth? Growth as measured by what? Headcount?

It is inevitable that the inertia of the organization will eventually slow everything down. The amount of energy required to maintain the internal (human) processes becomes large, perhaps larger than the energy required to maintain the external products and processes. Bureaucracy is an emergent property. (See Safi Bahcall’s “Loon Shots”.)

Within an organization, the point is not to eliminate jobs at all costs, the point is to have as many meaningful jobs as are required to run the organization.

At the scale of a society - yes, we want jobs. But more importantly we want fulfilling jobs at sustainable businesses.

So what are some incentive structures that can counter this tendency towards feudalism? Some ways to make it culturally honorable to replace yourself? To make a different choice than growing headcount? In terms of incentives within an organization, here are a few thoughts:

  • Ownership, especially if the value is much higher than the salary, and there is liquidity, or at least no penalty if you are no longer an employee.
  • Profit sharing.
  • Bonuses for solving problems without hiring additional people.

In terms of market- or societal-level incentives, I’ll need to keep thinking…