My thoughts on Disrupted

During my commute (and while doing yardwork), I listen to books using Audible. Unlike everyone else who mentions Audible, I don’t have any advertising affiliation there, so I can’t give you a link to sign up. Sorry, but I’m guessing you can figure it out :).

Recently I wrapped up Dan Lyons’s bestseller Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble. Dan Lyons, who found himself out of work after a lengthy media career, took a job at a Boston-area start-up (HubSpot) where the average age was half of his, and wrote a book about the experience. It’s a great read, even more so if you’re in the industry in any way (and doubly if you’re over 40).

As Lyons has worked as a writer on HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” I came in expecting some wacky hi-jinks and light-hearted but pointed criticism at the ridiculousness of start-up culture. And while that is present, the overall package is much darker, and it’s worth experiencing it for yourself. To make sure I had a bit more context, as soon as I finished the book I read some of other press about HubSpot, including their official response to the book (posted by one of their founders, in a LinkedIn post).

As someone who cares about how people are managed, a few things stood out, and I felt they were worth writing about here. As a disclaimer, I’m talking about how Lyons portrays HubSpot. I have no direct experience with the company, and I am not assuming that what he’s relating is actually happening.

People Management

Lyons severely criticizes the management culture at HubSpot throughout the book. From individual line management (where young men with no management skills or experience do a poor job of managing others) to executive management (where a frat-boy sales culture seems to be encouraged by executives who value “cultural fit” without thinking too hard about how that impacts diversity and inclusion), everyone has some share of blame. The relationship between Lyons and his direct management is always portrayed as clunky, and sometimes downright toxic. In passage after passage, I found myself wondering why his management couldn’t handle any given situation better. So much of the difficulty could have been avoided if management had been receptive, open, transparent, and supportive.

Of course, we all know the people-skills side of management is not given enough weight in general, and this is especially true in a fast-growing cut-throat environment.

I’ve said over and over in my career that the first lesson I had to learn as a young manager was that not everyone likes to be managed like I do. Perhaps, in a very homogeneus workforce, this isn’t as easy to learn early on. This may especially be true if that homogenus workforce is inexperienced and not very demanding of their management, which it sounds like was the case at HubSpot. Maybe in that situation, you can put people into management roles without much coaching, and not have it backfire spectactularly … until you have someone join the team who is outside the norm. And when that happens, saying it’s a cultural mismatch is a bit of a cop-out, isn’t it?

Human Resources

This brings me to the second thing that jumped out at me. I’ve always felt that there’s an inherent conflict of interest when you have to deal with HR about anything sensitive about the company itself, because disrupting the corporate norms isn’t necessarily in HR’s interest, though it may be in your interest. For example, how many harassment claims seem to get shoved under the carpet at companies because it’s easier to shuffle people around than replace one executive?

This conflict seems to be even greater when the company is a start-up and so much of each person’s compensation is tied to stock which has no value yet, but whose value will eventually derive completely from shareholder confidence in the company. As an HR person (perhaps the only HR person) in that company, what’s your incentive (besides your own ethical code) to dig too deeply into something that may hurt the company?

So, in the book, when Lyons asks HR “Do we have any statistics about diversity in our workforce,” and they answer, “Why?”, it’s partially because there isn’t a clear separation of role here for HR. HR is proactively acting as a mix of HR, PR, and Legal. This is exceptionally true in a start-up environment but it’s not unique to that. I don’t know the best way to address this, except that in countries where strong legal protections exist for workers’ rights, it’s very much in the company’s best interest to adhere to those laws, and that falls directly into HR’s area of expertise (i.e. protecting the company from itself). It’s unclear to me, though, whether American voters have any strong desire to press forward in that realm.

Diversity and Inclusion

Speaking of diversity brings me to a tougher question in the book, and perhaps its central thesis. Lyons spends significant time discussing ageism at HubSpot and in tech in general. His points are all valid, and everybody should read them and absorb their implications.

I couldn’t help, though, being a little uncomfortable with some of Lyons’s own blindness towards inclusive behaviors. While talking about how uncomfortable older workers with families might be in the youth-oriented start-up culture, he hits the nail on the head. But then he brags about how confrontational and brash the newsrooms of his early career were, and lauds the raunchy jokes he’s free to make as a writer in Hollywood. It leads me to wonder if he’s really concerned about inclusion on principle, or just making sure he’s included. Because I’ve worked with many people who would be as uncomfortable in his dick-joke writing room or his confrontational newsroom as he was in the “everything is awesome” frat-house kindergarten.

Corporate Kool-Aid

The final thing I’ll mention which rubbed me the wrong way in the book was how Lyons portrays what I tend to think of as fairly mainstream corporate “stuff.” Whether it’s intentionally softened jargon or being terminated upon giving your notice, Lyons acts surprised at standard operating procedure for a 21st century company. I can understand being surprised at these things if you had been living in a newsroom bubble for the past 30 years, but Dan Lyons covered the tech industry for a living for a good chunk of his career. He went to conferences, interviewed corporate PR drones, and generally absorbed the mainstream corporate world for years. I find it unlikely he was as surprised by everything he encountered as he acts when he writes about it. I wonder if he’s intentionally playing this up a bit for an audience who is coming from further outside. I don’t blame him if he is, but it does impact the readability a little.

Overall, I found the book darkly fascinating. It was addicting, even though some days when I shut off the audio player I was stressed out and feeling depressed about our industry’s future. It’s definitely good reading, but it’s worth reading it with an eye towards your own workplace environment and how you can avoid falling into the pitfalls that obviously befell both HubSpot and Dan Lyons himself.