Tuesday, September 01, 2009


Distractions and bothers have been at the top of philosopher's lists as things to avoid for a long time. Here's Seneca on the lament that time is too short (quoted from here):
It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much. Life is long enough and our allotted portion generous enough for our most ambitious projects if we invest it all carefully. But when it is squandered through luxury and indifference, and spent for no good end, we realize it has gone, under the pressure of the ultimate necessity, before we were aware it was going. So it is: the life we receive is not short but we make it so; we are not ill provided but use what we have wastefully.
A bit later he's more specific:
How many have found riches a bane! How many have paid with blood for their eloquence and their daily straining to display their talent! How many are sallow from constant indulgence! How many are deprived of liberty by a besieging mob of clients!
His conclusion is perhaps self-serving, but at least it's consistant:
The only people really at leisure are those who take time for philosophy. They alone really live.
I thought about this admonition when I read an account of the creation and maintenance of Craig's List at Wired.com called "Why Craigslist Is Such a Mess." The ad site is vast, with more customers than either eBay or Amazon.com: about a quarter of the US population has used the site, according to the article. With that in mind, compare these statistics:
eBay has more than 16,000 employees. Amazon has more than 20,000. Craigslist has 30.
Yes, you read that right. I didn't leave off three zeros. At the heart of the explanation is the unwillingness of the craigslist leadership to innovate. In the words of CEO Jim Buckmaster:
"Companies looking to maximize revenue need to throw as many revenue-generating opportunities at users as they will tolerate," Buckmaster says. "We have absolutely no interest in doing that, which I think has been instrumental to the success of craigslist."
If you've seen the site, you'll know what he's talking about. Web pages look like something out of the nineties--which they are. There are no fancy rating mechanisms or even modern searching and tagging capabilities. In a word, they've kept the site and the company simple.
If you read the whole article on Wired, you'll see how at one point the company was split in half, with the other half going the way of the typical dot-com at the time, trying to grow into a profitable monster. That half died, like something out of a Stephen King novel.

How do they get by with so few employees? Here it is with emphasis added:
The long-running tech-industry war between engineers and marketers has been ended at craigslist by the simple expedient of having no marketers. Only programmers, customer service reps, and accounting staff work at craigslist. There is no business development, no human resources, no sales. As a result, there are no meetings. The staff communicates by email and IM. This is a nice environment for employees of a certain temperament. "Not that we're a Shangri-La or anything," Buckmaster says, "but no technical people have ever left the company of their own accord."
Even the users of craigslist are gently encouraged to live simply. Instead of the usual statements of policy and warnings that follow a user infraction, you get a haiku. The idea is that "The slight delays in cognitive processing that these haiku cause are valuable. They open a space for reflection, during which you can rethink your need for service." Example:
[S]art too many conversations in the forums and your new threads may fail to show up. Instead, you will see this:

frogs croak and gulls cry
silently a river floods
a red leaf floats by

I'm not sure what the stoics would have thought of working at craigslist, but as an example of simplicity as a virtue, I bet this example is hard to beat in the corporate world. I write a lot in this blog about complexity--with regard to learning outcomes, but also technology and processes. Unnecessary complexity comes at a greater cost that people generally acknowledge, I think. Or maybe I'm just to simple to deal with it all. Just imagine your place of employment being organized in such a way that you could run a virtual empire without meetings...

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