Mitch Kapor & Mark Zuckerberg at the Startup School

Nice post on Matthew Mullenweg’s blog on comments made by Mitch Kapor & Mark Zuckerberg at the “Startup School” hosted at Stanford. Matt is the lead developer for WordPress.com.

Mitch was the original found of Lotus, and has been a significant figure in the software industry for the past 20+ years.  He also happened to be one of the venture capitalists who backed my friends at Reactivity.

Here is how Matt described Mitch’s comments:

Mitch’s presentation was one of my favorite of the day, and one of the thing he emphasized was that you should hire for diversity because diverse groups of people innovate more. Diversity here is defined as a function of experience, background, family status, as well as the traditional definitions like gender, et al. He says that one of the most common mistakes entrepreneurship makes is building “mirrortocracies” instead of meritocracies, meaning they tend to hire people like themselves rather than hiring the best people regardless of backgrounds, and the company suffers as a result.

Mark Zuckerberg is the 22-year old founder of Facebook.com, the private social-networking site that is the ultimate destination for every college student (including my sister, a senior at UC Berkeley). Here’s what Mark had to say:

Almost on cue, Mark started out by saying that the two most important things for a company is to have people who are “young and technical,” and his explanation of such was actually the entirety of his prepared remarks. (He arrived shortly before his presentation, so AFAIK hadn’t heard any of Mitch’s.) He made some fair arguments for biasing toward a technically inclined workforce, even in roles like marketing and support, however he didn’t really say anything compelling in support of youth, besides some vague references to many great creators and chessmasters being between 20 and 35 years old. But in no uncertain terms, he said they have a bias toward hiring young people at Facebook.

Sorry to be snarky, but is it really surprising that a 22-year old founder of a company valued at over $1 Billion dollars thinks that people in their 20s are the best?

Truth be told, when it comes to technical prowess, Mark has a point. Young, fresh engineers don’t have a lot of legacy baggage. They are immediately up on the latest trends in the market and in technology. They are pampered in University environments with endless computing power and bandwidth, and that lets them think freely about interesting services that might make sense once the rest of the market has those things. Math & science are also playgrounds for young, flexible minds, and it is true that most great mathematicians and physicists break out in the 20s.

That being said, those strengths are also weaknesses. Young engineers are usually tragically poor at estimating the resources and complexity of engineering effort. They can be excellent individuals, but work poorly on projects that require scale and teamwork. They also, being free from baggage, can lack perspective when the project and/or the company hit inevitable challenges.  They can also be surprised when the market moves more slowly than they expect, because they naturally tend to be several steps ahead in technology adoption than the mass market.

When I was in engineering, I was a big believer in mixed-age teams. One or two solid, senior members of the team to anchor it – add perspective, balance, and mentorship. Surround them with a ratio of around 5:1 really young, super-smart engineers who have the energy and passion to work the long hours and who lack the background to know some things aren’t possible.

Valleywag has a better quote from Zuckerberg on the subject.  My guess is that he’s getting a lot of flack for being 22 & successful.  The truth is, reading the quote, he has a good point, but he’s not really presenting it in a well-polished way.

Don’t worry, Mark.  That’ll come in time.

4 thoughts on “Mitch Kapor & Mark Zuckerberg at the Startup School

  1. Fascinating. Zuckerberg’s quote is so typical!

    My experience is that managers like him are the key cause of turnover at their companies, which is a big hidden cost for any company in the valley right now due to the labor shortage in both engineering and parts of marketing.

    My opinion is that age alone isn’t an indicator of leadership, but at least you can usually count on the mature members of the team to be able to focus, execute with discipline and have some perspective on all the angst in a start up. In particular, there is no evidence that the best marketers break out in their 20s.

    So, your proposal’s about right in my opinion. A few grey hairs and lots of excited and hard working new folks.

    Nicely done, and brilliantly articulated.

  2. Nice to see you found my blog, Melinda! 🙂

    Your comment made me think that people in their 20s also suffer a lot more turnover than other age groups… something to consider when you’re trying to win the marathon and not the sprint.

    Adam

  3. As a guy who used to be young, and is now a doddering 32, I think that Mitch is incredibly wise in his admonition that people hire for real diversity, not just the EEOC definition.

    But as a corollary–if I were forced to staff a startup with just one type of person, I would pick 20somethings who think anything is possible.

  4. Pingback: Hitchhiker’s Guide to 650 :: Getting Old :: June :: 2007

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s