2014-05-01

Co.Labs

Would The GitHub Debacle Happen At A Traditional Company?

The technology industry (and this site) has made a big to-do about GitHub's "no managers" company structure. Did that contribute to one cofounder's misbehavior?



Today's discussion: When the CEO isn't "the boss," does he turn into a liability?

In most companies, the leader is expected to display paradigmatic behavior. But in an open allocation company, where that role isn't so vaunted—are abuses of power even easier to get away with?


Eliminating the traditional power hierarchy doesn’t eliminate the exercise or misuse of power within a company. GitHub has admitted in a recent blog post that in the case of Julie Ann Horvath, former CEO Preston-Werner "acted inappropriately including confrontational conduct, disregard of workplace complaints, insensitivity to the impact of his spouse's presence in the workplace, and failure to enforce an agreement that his spouse should not work in the office."

Shanley Kane, the co-CEO of Model View Culture, addressed exactly this issue in a previous interview with Co.Labs about startup culture. "One of the things which makes it especially difficult to examine startup culture," said Kane, "is that we (in the startup world) are so against the idea that power is functioning inside our workplace at all. The problem is that power is an aspect of every human interaction, even if you don't have managers. When people say ‘we got rid of managers’ they think ‘we don't have to think about, or deal with, or critique power in the workplace.’ In places where there is no formal hierarchy, you actually have to pay more attention." This sounds like exactly the kind of environment that GitHub created.

I asked Kane for her take on the GitHub controversy. "GitHub spent years advocating a dangerous and irresponsible concept of 'non-management', " she said, "in which there was no formal management structure, and meritocracy and self-organizing were imagined to provide enough structure to keep the company healthy, safe, and successful. Within such ‘unstructured’ environments, power dynamics that absolutely exist are not made explicit and visible, which makes them more insidious and more dangerous. Add to this a de-professionalized culture, dominance of men within the company, and lack of a competent human resources department—this equation was ripe for abuse."

Horvath previously told TechCrunch that Preston-Werner’s wife Theresa had harassed her in various ways and that Preston-Werner himself demanded that Horvath's partner, who also worked for GitHub, resign. Obviously none of this should happen in a professional organization and GitHub’s open allocation management structure may be one of the reasons that it did. Ciara Byrne


When your company is unorthodox in everything from management to employee workflow there's bound to be some 503 notifications when it comes to business. Code for America's Catherine Bracy says this problem is lack of central leadership.

"The problem with management isn’t managers, the problem with management is bad managers," Bracy wrote back in March. "And it’s not hard to imagine that people who don’t understand how power works aren’t going to be very good managers."

Harassment and inequality are present in all things and industries, but perhaps none more than tech, home to a heavy bro culture of formerly marginalized males who are now the ones carrying a big stick. But they don't always speak softly, and women are often their targets. This boys' club mentality is a problem in tech in general, ironically far and away beyond the anti- "making the world a better place" outside perception Silicon Valley desperately tries to project. Doing PR cleanup, GitHub cofounder Chris Wanstrath tried to explain it all away, saying "rapid growth left the leadership team, myself included, woefully unprepared to properly handle these types of situations."

Done, right? Not so fast. In his farewell post on his personal blog, the "guilty" party, Tom Preston Werner, denied engaging in "gender-based harassment or discrimination," a claim which prompted further allegations in the Valley's Upstart Business Journal suggesting this problem may not be sexual in nature. Confused yet? The bottom line is the more convoluted a company's internal structure, the harder it is to sort out messes when they happen. When a company is accused of wrongdoing, it can feel like the house is on fire. And when it's the top executives blamed, it can seem like they're the ones setting the fire. But as hard as it sounds, it may be in the best interest for everyone involved to punish the ones responsible, even if they are both the head of the household and the ones that struck the match. Adam Popescu


GitHub’s recent face-plant is a good reminder that distributed leadership means distributed accountability. Contributing to and sharing equally in a company’s success sounds great when everything is moving up and to the right, but is far less attractive when that trajectory goes south. GitHub employees are now facing the darker side of the freedom they value.

From what we can tell from Chris Wanstrath’s post on the investigation into engineer Julie Ann Horvath’s allegations, GitHub has taken proper steps to determine what happened and effect changes as necessary. Wanstrath says that the company does not plan to make significant changes to its culture or working environment: "Women at GitHub reported feeling supported, mentored, and protected at work, and felt they are treated equitably and are provided opportunities," he wrote.

It’s hard to square that conclusion with the investigation’s revelations regarding Preston-Werner’s behavior. If Horvath wasn’t the only one to witness the CEO’s abuses of power, why was she the only one to speak out? GitHub may not think so, but to me that silence is the sign of a culture unprepared for the higher bar that flat management structures demand.

Trite as it may be, there’s truth in the idea that "to whom much is given, much is expected." I’d feel more confident about GitHub’s future if Wanstrath had shared evidence of that philosophy in action. Ainsley O’Connell


GitHub’s former CEO gave more strategic leadership to the company than its open-allocation management structure would have you believe. In an interview with Co.Labs last year, then GitHub CEO Preston-Werner talked about his regular "beer-thirty" Friday chats with GitHub employees. As he described it: "It happens at 4:30 p.m. every Friday, and that’s a chance for me and some other people to communicate to the entire company what we’re thinking about, from a strategic perspective, how we think about culture, how we think about hiring, how we think about approaching business, all of these things."

When one of the GitHub cofounders reportedly told designer-developer Julie Ann Horvath it was "bad judgment" to date another GitHub coworker, he expected the rest of GitHub culture to comply. Or when the cofounder allegedly asked her partner to resign from GitHub, it was a clear indication of how he viewed GitHub’s employment practices. Based on Preston-Werner’s account of his beer chats, one can imagine this was the case.

Ostensibly casual communication at GitHub might only have concealed a repressive management style from its business leaders. Regretfully, even an open-allocation structure, like Github’s, does not guard against the occasional despotic leader. Tina Amirtha

[Image: Flickr user Forest Runner]




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