Coding, management, and everything in between.

Book Review - "It Doesn't Have To Be Crazy At Work"

It doesn’t have to be crazy at work book cover

Friend 1: How’s work?

Friend 2: Oh, you know how it goes. It’s the end of the year, pretty crazy.

This is a common conversation in corporate America. Replace “end of the year” with “end of the quarter”, “end of the sprint”, “the busy season”, “Monday”, “Friday”, or whatever timeframe, and it becomes even more ubiquitous. Every season is crazy season.

This is the topic that the founders of Basecamp, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hanson, tackle head-on in their book, It Doesn’t Have To Be Crazy At Work.

And though their ideals are noble and inspiring, I think that the book ultimately falls short in providing a path for normal companies (ie, anything other than a small, boutique software firm) to embrace and entrench a non-crazy work culture.

20 Years Operating Experience

Fried and Heinemeier certainly have a platform from which to speak on the topic, and I have nothing but respect for them. Their company 37signals has been in operation for 20 years now, and as the book reminds us often, is consistently profitable. Basecamp, a saas project management solution, is their flagship product.

I remember 37signals back when I started my web development career, and it is genuinely astounding that they are still chugging along as a small business. They’ve had an outsized influence on the state of the web. For example - Heinemeier is the creator of Ruby on Rails, the de facto MVC web framework standard to this day.

Lofty Ideals, Impractical Solutions

The book reads like a layman’s manifesto; a hodge podge of values and principles littered with profanity when analyzing the brokenness of most companies. There is not much in the way of narrative or book cohesion.

Fried and Heinemeier attack such concepts as “hustle culture”, 60 hour work weeks, culture of ASAP, frequent meetings, etc. Their attacks are cutting, and in many cases correct. It is really healthy to think of the company as “family”? Does more business actually make people more productive?

The alternative to craziness that the authors propose is calm. It is purposefully designing the company culture so that employee calm is prioritized. This is promoted through enforcing work-life balance, reducing or eliminating meetings, realistic deadlines, saying “no” more often, etc - all things that most knowledge workers would agree to.

But many of the recommendations are not practical - especially if you you’re not the CEO or main decision maker of the company. For instance, how is a tightly run manufacturing company like the one I work in supposed to:

  • Give everyone Fridays off of work in the Summer?
  • Provide fully paid yearly vacations?
  • Pay everyone in the top 10% of their salary range - using San Francisco rates?
  • Have absolutely zero company goals or KPIs?
  • Give everyone a monthly massage?

Those suggestions may work for 37signals, but I can see them being impractical for many other kinds of companies.

It’s also worth noting that a couple years after this book was released, the Basecamp/37Signals company had a meltdown, with 1/3 of the employees leaving. The reasons were political and complex… But it demonstrates that all was not as rosy as it seemed.

Conclusion: The Challenge Remains

It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work inspired and motivated me as a manager. But the problem of creating a calm software development team in the midst of a world of goals, deadlines, and margins remains a challenge.

I think the book would have been improved with some “in-between steps”. How can a low-level manager in a more traditional company introduce calm practices little by little? If the 37signals ideal is not possible, what can be done?