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Joy Inc. Review

I came across this book through a coworker who started reading it. The title was enough for me to reserve it at the library and start reading it. Turns out it is about a software consulting firm (which is also the company I currently work for) in Ann Arbor, MI (about ninety minutes away from our office). I internalized a couple of takeaways but finished feeling wanting more than fulfilled.

Any company that takes a bold, non-traditional stance to build a better company deserves recognition in my book. I become nervous when I hear companies justify decisions as “the way we do business.” But Menlo Innovations truly lives up to its name with its unique operating model.

Some of the highlights that justify the uniqueness of the company: pair programming where pairs switch every week, open space floor plan in a basement with whiteboards and tables that easily move, use of old school techniques for communicating (High Speed Voice Technology – aka speaking to each other), choosing clients that will remain involved throughout the project, and so on. The vast majority of the book explains their Agile approach – which I learned is more akin to Extreme Programming (XP). While I have not had any experience with XP, the little I have read seems similar to Scrum in many areas.

I found the pair programming technique to be very justified. In recent reading I have learned that software developers usually provide about four to five hours of actual work in an eight hour timeframe. When I first started at my company I paired for a few weeks (since I knew nothing) and I remember those days to be exhausting! When you work with someone you do not have the luxury of taking a break midday and surrendering to distractions. In that sense I see pair programming as ideal – if the project allows for it. Projects that are small enough or spread out enough (e.g. doing more maintenance work) would be instances where pair programming would not be ideal.

The idea of taking stock in a product your firm builds for a client struck me as an innovative approach that benefits both sides. In one example, the client could not afford full price, but by offering a discount and allowing programmers to take half salary allowed for a big payout when the product took off and the other company was acquired. Taking stock in a product that goes to market leads to better programming – you want the product to succeed as you have a vested interest. In addition, it allows smaller companies hoping to make it big to reserve their capital for other expenditures. While this approach requires great care (a company has to pay the bills somehow) if the idea looks promising and there are individuals willing to take the chance, I would suggest taking a more serious look into such approaches. The key is to avoid using this solution for a significant portion of the entire company’s projects.

Most of the book spent time discussing agile approaches in Menlo’s own quirky way, so I gleaned very little in that respect. I do acknowledge that having the CEO and upper management work in the same space as everyone else speaks volumes to a flat organization. I recently read an article about how an “open door” policy may not be as beneficial, because it requires an individual to step on to your turf and discourages interaction. As leaders working with followers who may not have that level of trust, leaders must go out of their way to communicate. Sure, maybe it will be hard for some leaders to hear their own words in an open floor plan, but I suppose that takes a special kind of person or role to avoid that concern. When I become an executive one day, I will eschew the private office in favor of being out in the open, and if I need privacy or quietness grabbing a breakout room. I hope this encourage the people that I work with to be more collaborative in future endeavors.

Joy Inc makes a great point about preserving relationships with everyone. Their interview process is unique – where you do actual work in Menlo’s model and get paid for it. While it is a three week process of working when you are hired you will already have three weeks under your belt. This approach may not work well for people transferring jobs (if they do not have enough vacation) but they seem to always be backlogged. They acknowledge that everyone is not a great cultural fit for their company, but instead of severing connections they maintain relationships where they can. When people leave, the company offers to help them find a new role. While it is sad to see people leave, being professional and caring speaks volumes to their commitment of being a joyful company – from beginning to end.

I think this model of operations proves beneficial for a company like Menlo, but I am not sure how far this would work in another company. They admitted that not every client is right for them, and for companies struggling to start up some of these values seem more like wants than needs. I think companies should continue to work in implementing these principles in their own unique ways. It is wrong to dismiss the implementation of an approach that utilizes a valued principle. Companies that want to make their environment more joyful should take a deep look into their employees and figure out what drew them to the company. From that starting point, identify how they can continue to build on that value that is both efficient and cost-effective (more than just money here) to the company. Companies that choose to become complacent thinking that this year’s model works forever will soon find themselves on the fringes of action and growth.