Go to the website of any well-established software company, and you’re likely to get a good idea of what the company does pretty quickly, wouldn’t you agree? I mean, at the very least, you’ll get some sense of what the outfit is into, beyond a general understanding that it develops software, right? Well, not necessarily. I found that out when I was preparing for an interview with Richard Sheridan.
I jumped at the opportunity to speak with Sheridan, CEO of Menlo Innovations, a software company in Ann Arbor, Mich., because I’d heard about a book he’s written titled, “Joy, Inc.: How We Built a Workplace People Love.” To get up to speed for the interview, I checked out Menlo’s website, and I Googled a few articles that had been written about Menlo. When it came time for the interview, I felt like I knew a lot about the company, and about Sheridan, who also holds the title of “Chief Storyteller” at Menlo. I knew that everybody, including Sheridan, works together in a big, open space; that no one employee reports to any other employee; that there’s no bureaucracy or hierarchy; and that they always work in pairs, with two people sitting at one computer, working on the same task at the same time. So I felt like I had a pretty good handle on how they do what they do. I just had no clue what they do.
So my first question to Sheridan was aimed at finding out whether or not that was intentional. His response:
We spend a lot of time on the why and the how. For those who our seeking our kind of services, they generally can figure out that what we do is custom software design and development. I will say, even my team is beginning to question whether we make it clear enough. On the other hand, if you’re not into our world, a lot of people don’t even know companies like us exist—they don’t quite know how companies build software. We’re sort of like a custom homebuilder—if you had the house of your dreams in mind, you’d want to find an architectural firm, a design firm, and a build firm to bring it to life. We do the same thing for software. It could be a medical device manufacturer who knows that medical device won’t be usable unless the software associated with it is understandable to the people for whom it’s intended. It might be tools that are used, for example, by diesel motor repair guys who need to plug a computer into a port under a dashboard to read out trouble codes. It might be a health care information system inside of a hospital. For instance, we helped rebuild the University of Michigan’s organ transplant information system.
Since Menlo is in Ann Arbor, I asked Sheridan how reliant he is on the University of Michigan as a recruiting ground for developers. He said the company is very close to campus, so that would be a natural assumption:
However, part of our thinking on this is we want a strong cognitive diversity on the team. So we explicitly reach out beyond the borders of Ann Arbor to get team members from all walks, and all different venues, colleges, degree programs, and so on. I’m a University of Michigan grad myself, so I have a great deal of allegiance to my alma mater. But I don’t want everybody on my team coming out of the same degree programs.
Menlo has become widely known for the fact that the entire team works in one big room. Last year, over 2,000 people from around the world visited the office, which is located in the basement of a parking structure, to get a firsthand look at the company’s approach to workplace culture. I asked Sheridan how that works with respect to the need for every company to have a back-office function. He explained it this way:
Well, there is no C-suite, so I’m right out in the room with everybody else, as is the chief operating officer. We do have a back-office operation, where we have payroll, and checks are cut and bills are paid and insurance policies are kept up to date. Confidential employee information is locked away in a key-coded file cabinet room, and that sort of thing. But out of all the people in our company, only three of them are back in that area. The other 40-plus people are out in this big open space.
I asked Sheridan why more companies haven’t taken this approach. He said he suspects many wish they had:
I think you often see in organizations that there was a time when they started up, and they couldn’t afford big fancy offices with expensive furniture, and office layouts that are expensive to construct, and they often start out in that one-room type of environment. Even large organizations that have a really important deadline to hit, it’s imperative that they gather together in a single space for a protracted period of time to really make sure they’re all on the same page, and they’re all working together to reach a common goal. Then, success happens. The project is completed, or the company that started up in one room starts getting some traction in the marketplace, and they start winning. And one day they say, “Hey, we’re successful now—let’s go build that beautiful new office and separate everybody out into their separate offices. We deserve that now.” There are probably many startups whose founders and early team members yearn for those days in the beginning when there was that camaraderie—there was that human energy of everybody feeling like they were a team working together, and they feel like they’ve lost something when they moved into that more traditional, successful-looking environment of the standard office. That’s when everybody draws a straight line back to those early days and says, “I think that’s where the magic was, in the big open room where we were all working together.” Every once in a while, you’ll hear the old-timers look back and say, “Yeah, I remember the old days. I remember when we were all a team, when we all worked together shoulder-to-shoulder. I kind of miss those days.”
I told Sheridan my understanding was that the employees advance in terms of responsibility, but not in terms of hierarchy. I asked him if that was an accurate characterization, and he said it was:
There have been a lot of articles written about us lately that refer to us as a “bossless office.” That’s not a term we chose. Whenever anybody talks about us like that, I make sure I make the distinction that “bossless” doesn’t mean “leaderless.” I think what happens at Menlo is that as you rise up, you’re not getting that corner office; you’re not getting the big title. You’re being recognized as being more influential on the team by your peers. You are someone they can come to as a mentor, and a guide, and a leader, but not a “boss,” that I have to kowtow to you because you’re the one who’s going to get me my next promotion or raise, or you’re the department I want to be in. That’s not how it works at Menlo.
I found it fascinating that the employees at Menlo work in pairs, each pair at a single computer, working on the same task. I’ll cover that, and what the environment in that big open room is like, in a forthcoming post.