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26 years in, a founding Bee reflects
Julian Nadel is president and founder of Beezwax. He’s celebrating the 26th Anniversary of Beezwax with this update to his original Beezwax Blog post.
In 2014, a colleague interviewed me about Beezwax; the interview transcript was the orginal basis for the article herein. It was then and still is now the best public summary of my thoughts on how Beezwax works, and why.
Since being published, the article has been a meaningful springboard for many conversations I’ve had… with existing Beez, clients, and colleagues… and people new to Beezwax. As we reach another milestone – completing our 26th year – I’m taking this opportunity to revisit the article and provide an update.
The first observation is that the vision then is the vision now. This is very gratifying. In fact, straight through twenty-six years, our Mission has been consistent, and consistently fruitful. Through the article below, I’ve now added a few updates in brackets. But the principles that delivered us to our 18th year – in an industry-leading role, with a strong team, weathering two recessions – continue to be the backbone of our Organization and progress.
And yet, what also stands out is what is different. We have grown significantly in the past eight years. We have bettered as a company – in breadth, expertise, and effectiveness. And much of that is the impact of new, additional Leadership – and a bit more structure complementing and expanding the Beezwax way. Reflections about this evolution are shared further below, in a new Addendum.
But we start here, as written eight years ago, plus a few updates from today…
The Human Resource, Beezwax – 2014
Julian Nadel is president and founder of Beezwax. He’s celebrating the 18th Anniversary of Beezwax [in 2014] with this, his premier Beezwax Blog post.
Many CEOs of tech consultancies spend their time on the frontlines of code and/or clients.
I remember coding; I miss it. And I like clients. (Hi.) But I focus mainly on Beezwax’s dynamics as an Organization — our teamwork, our ability to effectively create together, to enjoy our jobs together. I’m focused on the Human Resource.
This has been immensely satisfying. I hear often, and agree: Beezwax is a place where we love to work.
And I think this has been a good business strategy.
Really smart people do really great work, which makes clients happy – and coming back for more. However, a lot of really smart people, I have found, don’t particularly want to have a boss, and yet want to work as part of a team – to enjoy intellectual community and the opportunity to complement their own skills with those of others.
So, I decided a long time ago that I would try to build a company where everyone is their own boss and yet we’d work together cohesively. (Ok, not always perfectly— but we do pretty good.)
However, scaling Beezwax, while keeping the structure flat and collaborative, is a continual effort – the nature of it is precisely that: to try to stay continually attuned to the ever-evolving desires, needs, and potential of each member of the team.
Culture, Character & Teamwork
I talked with Teresa Brazen, of Cooper Interactive, a friend and colleague, about all this. Here’s what we said:
Teresa: Thanks for doing this, Julian. I gather this is the first published interview you’ve done. What’s the matter – you shy or something?
Julian: Well — thank you. And no, not shy. But, yes, this is really the first time I have put forward something publicly that is an expression of my views on what I do for a living. For 18 years [2022: now 26 years, and counting], everything we have put forward has been created by someone else in the company — the tools, products, and solutions we’ve created…the technical capacities we have. We have not marketed anything about me or what I do. Being in the background has been intentional, and part of what is valued at Beezwax has happened in part because the company has not been focused on the “President and Founder”. In many other companies, the Founder’s client-facing expertise is a focal point of the company’s identity.
I learned early on that there are people who are much better than I am at developing custom applications — and that if I created an environment that was satisfying for them to work in, they would make clients happy and attract other talented people and put us on the map in our industry. That’s what’s happened. It is my colleagues who are the reason clients hire Beezwax, and my job remains focused on supporting my colleagues to have the best work environment possible. And this is a nice juncture for me to start sharing publicly how we built a company culture that people love.
Teresa: So, if we’re talking now about your role…what skills have you been using to shape Beezwax culture?
Julian: There’s one skill that I’ve been honing that I think is pretty cool. I actually am trying to think of a new word for it, so I’ll just describe it and maybe someone reading can think of the best word for this. The skill is used in conversation with one or a few individual staff members (we call ourselves “Beez”), and the skill is: summarizing very quickly what is happening in the company as a whole, in a way that gives those individuals immediate opportunity to help shape the company culture and direction.
The first step is taking the time to do this — that’s a business choice. It’s gonna take some of my time and some of the other Beez’s time to have this conversation and the follow-on threads. So, there is cost in doing this. But, in the long run, it pays for itself.
And so there’s this summarizing skill, which I’ve really been enjoying developing. Such a fun challenge to think: “Ok, knowing (from my review of payroll time records and various communication threads) generally how this Bee is spending their day and what their skills and interests are… can I quickly identify aspects of the company that could benefit from this Bee’s contribution/perspective?” Sometimes this is simply connecting different Beez, who are dealing with similar challenges (perhaps in different contexts), and inviting them to problem-solve together. Or, I take business questions that I’m currently wondering about — how we should handle a difficult client situation, our choice of a new professional services vendor, the structure of our benefits program, tools or technologies we are looking into — and ask targeted input from the Bee I’m talking to.
So, the skill is taking the larger picture and channeling it as pertains to this individual, and working with them to learn how they see that part, and incorporating their input into the whole. What do we call that? With now 47 Beez, we call that a busy day. [2022 update: now 80 Beez. Oy.]. But maybe there is a new term for this. I think of Robert Heinlein’s term “grok”, and I feel this is sort of connected. To understand the whole, and the role of the individual within that, and from an intuition level — not just charts and plans — but the essence of things that are happening in the company, and to distill this to something you can talk about productively in a few minutes.
[Update: btw, this grokking thing ain’t easy. As we grow, there are moments when a Bee contributing on a topic outside their regular purview is a stretch, for me and them. And some days it doesn’t click, with the shared experience of: huh, that was confusing. So, we all learn from these disconnects and press on.]
Teresa: I like how you’re actively thinking about and revealing how individuals can help forward Beezwax culture in a day-to-day context. You’re thinking about culture change in an immediate sense, conducting micro-experiments, and being transparent. It’s starting to make more sense to me that you studied Intellectual History with an emphasis on Utopian Speculation (visions of the “ideal” society). You told me before that from this education you came to believe that engaging work is a key element across all utopian visions. Describe your vision of the utopian workplace.
Julian: The utopian workplace is seamless between work and the rest of the day. The effort you put into working at the job feels similar to the effort you put into being at home. Because it’s all very satisfying and engaging, like an extension of yourself. You don’t feel like you give up part of yourself to go to work. There is no surrendering of self; it’s like stepping into what needs to happen and you want to make this step. You believe in the result of what is going to happen.
Another key is the creative element. What you’re doing is something that is creative, not something that just follows a predefined route. You get to ask fresh questions about how you are working, and how you are interacting with people, and what you are working on. It doesn’t mean that there is no repetition, but it does mean that how you individually see things affects what happens. It’s like the problem preexists you, but the job does not. The job is your unique way of addressing these issues.
Teresa: Now that sounds like a utopian work culture I’d love to be a part of! So, how do you and your team try to make that utopia real, day-to-day? If culture is character, what are the distinguishing marks at Beezwax?
Julian: Of course, there’s lots to say here, but some themes at the core of Beezwax are flexibility, creativity, and trust.
Brilliant people want flexibility to be happy in their job and perform at their best. Structures (systems and procedures) are also important, and there is a balancing act here, but our emphasis is flexibility. [More on this in the new Addendum]
Business mechanics that support this includes everyone being paid hourly and working the amount they choose. [Update: We make an effort to discuss with recruitment candidates how this mechanism is connected to our Mission — that the hourly model is not about work scarcity, but rather a way for Beez to have maximum agency.]
Further, as many of the benefits as possible are calculated pro-rata (based on percent worked).
Also, everyone has at least one “internal” project, a contribution to the company that they can work on at any point to make it easier for them to balance their schedule. Fortunately, with so many developer-Beez, we are able to accommodate the desired schedule for each individual. We each decide for ourselves where we want to work; these days, Beez are working up and down California, as well as five other States and four other countries [2022: now 10+ other states and 8+ other countries]. The developers are encouraged to learn new technologies and choose the projects they work on.
A micro example of the flexible, self-driven work-place is how the conversation sometimes goes when an Employee is planning a vacation. Often the Employee will sort of ask my permission, ask approval for the time off. But I don’t see it that way. It’s their time, their choice. It’s their responsibility to make sure the trip is planned in a way that client projects are handled as needed. Besides that, I’m just an interested party hoping I might get a souvenir from someplace exotic. And by souvenir, I mean: chocolate.
Flexibility supports that great utopian workplace goal – creativity. A flexible work environment puts emphasis on the inherent creative skill and savvy of every worker, not pre-defined routines. Creativity happens in open space. When you can be comfortable in not always knowing what’s going to happen next, you allow for brilliant breakthrough design and clever innovation. Creativity is confidently and resourcefully figuring it out in the moment.
In order to foster flexibility, you need mutual trust within the Organization. I think it is the absence of trust that makes people’s jobs regimented. Over an 18-year [2022: now 26-year] vetting process, we’ve hired trustworthy people.
In building this, it’s been essential that I have earned the trust of the other Beez. I am open with how money and decision making works at the company, and everybody knows to hold me accountable to my statements and commitments. If I make a mistake, I am quick to acknowledge it. It has been very rare – it has happened once – that another Manager has been needed to facilitate between myself and another Bee, but it is understood that this is available. If someone feels they have been slighted in some way by me, I address it immediately, with clear dialog. I default to the assumption that the other person’s perspective is valid. It is often hard to know what is true – as life is complicated, and we all have our subjective filters. So I have made a basic business decision that it is better to agree than not. If another Bee takes a position I disagree with, and, say, it will cost the company a bit more to agree with their position, whenever possible, I default to agreeing. I have learned that it’s better business in the long run.
At our 2012 Holiday Party, a punchline of the toast I gave was that everyone on staff has job security. This was not a new status, but certainly was a statement that earned a few sips of champagne, and was an acknowledgment of a fundamental principle of the Organization. We hire very carefully, and set thresholds by which a candidate needs to prove themselves in a variety of ways. From that point, and on-going and including right now, everyone on staff has the guarantee that we will provide work for them. [2022 update: yup.]
Through two recessions we have never laid anyone off, nor ever failed to provide the amount of work we promised. Letting staff go has been rare and only for reasons of poor performance, and only after very diligent managerial efforts to improve that individual’s performance. For quite some time, no one on staff has needed to worry about this as even a possibility. This posse has been vetted; all have the core skill, competence, and reasonableness required to contribute to our Organization and client work. If a Bee makes a mistake, we deal with it as a firm. When the economy takes another downturn, we will deal with it as a team. This is also part of how we build trust.
Meanwhile, because Beez can trust in their job, we can all be totally blunt with one another. Critique is always constructive. And, therefore, there is no reason for a staff member to hide… anything. We know fully and immediately when there is a problem – so we can begin addressing it immediately, and with clarity. There is no need for job-protecting B.S., and we’re all invested in one another’s success. And if you have this as the core of doing business, it matters a lot less whether the person is doing their job from their home, or one of our offices, or the client site…or the beach. [2022 Update: It’s hard to overstate how valuable these dynamics have proved during COVID and working from home.]
So, our model is that trust supports flexibility supports creativity supports excellence. And makes for a good time.
Addendum: The Human Resource, Beezwax – 2022
So, what’s changed? The company has doubled in work volume, and nearly doubled in staff size. To achieve this, new leaders have stepped forward. And what they have brought in a way I did not was more process and structure. My leadership style – creative, improvisational, pivoting to each person and situation uniquely – very groovy stuff, but hits scaling challenges without some scaffolding.
The crux has been to establish more predicable patterns in the life of a Bee… without undercutting each Beez’s individual job empowerment. It’s taken new leaders who appreciate what has been while pushing towards new.
As proud as I was in 2014, I like this Beezwax even better.
Back in my UC Santa Cruz youth, “corporate” was a dirty word. But what is the professionally buttoned-up entity that brings many sets of skills together into one corporeal form? As we’ve evolved, we have become, for the right reasons and in an iterative way: a human-centric corporation.
As I think about the broader leadership we now have, I’m again appreciative that we have had pretty much zero company politics along the way. A lame moment or dynamic has come up here and there, but very little. Thank goodness. Beyond being unctuous and just a lame way to spend our precious time on this planet, power games in communication or decision-making can severely undercut clarity and productivity.
The key, I think, has been mutual respect across the company, letting stated reasons and reasonableness lead decisions, being able to trust in our clients’ feedback as a reflection of what we’re doing right, and wrong, being patient and resourceful when we disagree, and giving the right amount of attention (as in: some, but not a lot) to our egos.
There has also been something self-fulfilling in how we’ve built trust. Because of these values, people have wanted to stay at the company – our retention rate is extremely high for our industry. As the company is defined by and relies upon the talent of the individuals, the commitment from the company to the Beez is likewise very strong. And within that mutual commitment, when difficult stuff comes up, there’s only one path forward: You figure out how to deal with it.
And the adventure continues to unfold. Being true to our humanistic principles is a daily conversation, no matter how often we’re able to blog about it. And, especially since we are a consultancy – every hour a new moment to deliver for our clients – excellence is a continuous discipline.
Meanwhile, we have been working on a custom application of our own, to run Beezwax inside and out in the best way possible to maximize the self-direction of the Beez while providing focused and cohesive offerings for our clients. In so doing, this application, by the way, has some interesting public-facing features. We call this new application The Hyve. Ask me about it sometime.
Julian Nadel, Beezwax