I have a new HR policy. I call it “intrapersonal vertical integration”. Read on.
Back in the 193os, economist Ronald Coase wrote an article on “the nature of the firm” (the link is to Wikipedia, not to the actual paper). It was a description of why people form companies and partnerships and so on, rather than all being gig workers negotiating each piece of work.
The key concept here was one of transaction costs – if everyone were to be a freelancer, like I was between 2012 and 2020 (both included), then for every little piece of work there would need to be a piece of negotiation.
“Can you build this dashboard for me?”
“Yes. That would be $10000”
“No, I’ll only pay $2000”
During my long period of freelancing, I internalised this, and came up with a “minimum order value” – a reasonable amount which could account for transaction costs like the above (just as I write this, I’m changing videos on Youtube for my wife, and she’s asking me to put 30 second videos. And I’m refusing saying “too much transaction cost. I need my hands for something else (blogging)” ).
This worked out fine for the projects that I actually got, but transaction costs meant that a lot of the smaller deals never worked out. I lost out on potential revenue from those, and my potential clients lost out on work getting done.
So, instead, if I were to be part of a company, like I am now, transaction costs are far lower. Yes, we might negotiate on exact specifications, or deadlines, but price was a single negotiation at the time I joined the firm. And so a lot more work gets done – better for me and better for the company. And this is why companies exist. It might sound obvious, but Coase put it in a nice and elegant theoretical framework.
I’ve written about this several times on my blog – Scott Adams’s theory that there are two ways in which you can be really successful.
1. Become the best at one specific thing.
2. Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things.
This is advice that I have taken seriously, and I’ve followed the second path. Being the best at one specific thing is too hard, and too random as well – “the best” is a sort of a zero sum game. Instead, being very good in a few things is easier to do, and as I’d said in one of my other posts on this, being very good in uncorrelated things is a clear winner.
I will leave this here and come back later on in the post, like how Dasharatha gave some part of the mango to Sumitra (second in line), and then decided to come back to her later on in the distribution.
I came up with this random theory the other day on the purpose of product managers. This theory is really random and ill-formed, and I haven’t bothered discussing it with any real product managers.
The need for product managers comes from software engineers’ insistence on specific “system requirement specifications”.
I learnt software engineering in a formal course back in 2002. Back then, the default workflow for software engineering was the so-called “waterfall model”. It was a linear sequential thing where the first part of the process goes in clearly defining system requirement specifications. Then there would be an unambiguous “design document”. And only then would coding begin.
In that same decade (2000s), “agile” programming became a thing. This meant fast iterations and continuous improvements. Software would be built layer by layer. However, software engineers had traditionally worked only with precise specifications, and “ambiguous business rules” would throw them off. And so the role of the product manager was created – who would manage the software product in a way that they would interface with ambiguous business on one side, and precise software engineers on the other.
Their role was to turn ambiguity to certainty, and get work done. They would never be hands on – instead their job would be to give precise instructions to people who would be hands on.
I have never worked as either a software engineer or a product manager, but I don’t think I’d enjoy either job. On the one hand, I don’t like being given precise instructions, and instead prefer ambiguity. On the other, if I were to give precise instructions, I would rather use C++ or Python to give those instructions than English or Kannada. In other words, if I were to be precise in my communication, I would rather talk to a computer than to another human.
It possibly has to do with my work history. I spent a little over two years as a quant at a top tier investment bank. As part of the job, I was asked to write production code. I used to protest, saying writing C++ code wasn’t the best use of my time or effort. “But think about the effort involved in explaining your model to someone else”, the higher ups in the company would tell me. “Wouldn’t it be far easier to just code it yourself?”
Coase reasoned that transaction costs are the reason why we need a firm. We don’t need frequent negotiations and transaction costs, so if people were to get together in the form of a firm, they could coordinate much better and get a lot more work done, with more value accruing to every party involve.
However, I don’t think Coase went far enough. Just putting people in one firm only eliminates one level of transaction costs – of negotiating conditions and prices. Even when you are in the same firm, coordinating with colleagues implies communication, and unless precise, the communication links can end up being the weak links in how much the firm can achieve.
Henry Ford’s genius was to recognise the assembly line (a literal conveyor belt) as a precise form of communication. The workers in his factories were pretty much automatons, doing their precise job, in the knowledge that everyone else was doing their own. The assembly line made communication simpler, and that allowed greater specialisation to unlock value in the firm – to the extent that each worker could get at least five dollars a day and the firm would still be profitable.
It doesn’t work so neatly in what can be classified as “knowledge industries”. Like with the product manager and the software engineer, there is a communication layer which, if it fails, can bring down the entire process.
And there are other transaction costs implied in this communication – let’s say you are building stuff that I need to build on to make the final product. Every time I think you need to build something slightly different, it involves a process of communication and negotiation. It involves the product manager to write a new section in the document. And when working on complex problems, this can increase the complexity multifold.
So we are back to Scott Adams (finally). Building on what I’d said before – you need to be “very good” at two or more things, and it helps if these things are uncorrelated (in terms of being able to add unique value). However, it is EVEN MORE USEFUL if the supposedly uncorrelated skills you have can be stacked, in a form of vertical integration.
In other words, if you are good at several things that are uncorrelated, where the output of one thing can be the input into another, you are a clear winner.
Adams, for example, is good at understanding business, he is funny and he can draw. The combination of the first two means that he can write funny business stories, and that he can also draw means he has created a masterpiece in the form of Dilbert.
Don’t get me wrong – you can have a genius storyteller and a genius artist come together to make great art (Goscinny and Uderzo, for example). However, it takes a lot of luck for a Goscinny to find his Uderzo, or vice versa. I haven’t read much Asterix but what I’m old by friends is that the quality dropped after Uderzo was forced to be his own Goscinny (after the latter died).
At a completely different level – I have possibly uncorrelated skills in understanding business and getting insight out of data. One dovetails into the other and so I THINK I’m doing well in business intelligence. If I were only good at business, and needed to keep asking someone to churn the data on each iteration, my output would be far far slower and poorer.
So I extend this idea into “intrapersonal vertical integration”. If you are good at two or more things, and one can lead into another, you have a truly special set of skills and can be really successful.
Putting it another way – in knowledge jobs, communication can be so expensive that if you can vertically integrate yourself across multiple jobs, you can add significant value even if you are not the best at each of the individual skills.
In knowledge work, communication is the weakest link, so the fewer levels of communication you have, the better and faster you can do your job. Even if you get the best for every level in your chain, the strength (or lack of it) of communication between them can mean that they produce suboptimal output.
Instead if you can get people who are just good at two or more things in the chain (rather than being the best at any one), you can add significantly better value.
Putting it another way, yes, I’m batting for bits-and-pieces players rather than genuine batsmen or bowlers. However, the difference between what I’m saying and cricket is that in cricket batting and bowling are not vertically integrated. If they were, bits and pieces players would work far far better.
I’ve written about this before. While being good at uncorrelated things that dovetail into one another can be a great winning strategy, liquidity can be your enemy. That you are unique means that there aren’t too many like you. And so organisations may not want to bet too much on you – since you will be hard to replace. And decide to take the slack in communication and get specialists for each position instead.
I have written a book on transaction costs and liquidity. As it happens, today it is on display at the Bangalore Literature Festival.