David Heinemeier Hansson

March 15, 2024

Chart the course, set the pace, hold the line

I break the essential responsibilities of the company executive into three distinct buckets. They are:

1. Chart the course

Where are we going? What are we building? Who is it for? Any executive running anything has to know the answer to these questions in order to lead anyone anywhere. If you don't have a clue where you're going, any road can take you there, and running in circles is as good as making progress. This is not viable.
That doesn't mean having a five-year plan! Or even a quarterly target! We decide on what features we're going to build for Basecamp and HEY every 6-8 weeks. That's charting the course just in time and at a high resolution.
Because if anything, being a "long-term thinker" is an invitation to smell your own intellectual exhaust fumes. It's much easier to bullshit from 30,000 ft than it is when imminent decisions stare you in the face.
And someone's has to do it! Someone has to say: This is what we're doing. Let's go.

2. Set the pace

Not only does work easily expand to fit the time allotted, but our ambitions will shrink along with our declining productivity. The slower you're moving, the less you think you can do, the slower you're moving. The only counter to this is to be ambitious, bold, and impatient.
Again, this doesn't mean cracking the whip over a herd of cubicled programmers zombieing their way through yet another death march day on a 12-hour shift. Setting the pace isn't about demanding more hours, it's about demanding more from those hours.
It's also about constantly questioning the premise of the work. Why are we doing it this way? Could it be done differently? Are you prepping for contingencies that are too remote to matter? Or are you not spending enough time where it really counts?
The only way to tell is by knowing the work. Executives who drift high up in the clouds have a hard time seeing the terrain. You can only get so much information second-hand or from outdated maps. You have to be there to know.
So to be bold, you must have insight – or you're just delusional. Credibility is built on pushing for a reach and then actually making it. If you're constantly pushing for the impossible, and none of it happens, you're a clown. Get out of here.

3. Hold the line

Quality withers quickly when nobody sweats it. You have to take it personal, to some degree. It has to offend your sensibilities when things are not right, to some degree. Because you need that energy to halt the work and redo what isn't right when you find out. If you let it slide, if you don't sweat, eventually nobody else will.
And holding the line on quality isn't just about the customer experience, it's about everything. It's about writing code that'll be a joy to read in three years. It's about giving support staff enough policy leeway to deal with problems (without giving the farm away). It's about making sure none of the writing that's signed by the company makes you cringe.
Holding the line also means being willing to pay for it. Always look for a good bargain, when good quality is available at a great price, but never be cheap. You're holding the line so you'll be able to be proud of what you're producing tomorrow, next year, next decade. A culture of quality is built one product and process decision at a time.
Do all these three things well, do them consistently, do them when it's hard, do them when it doesn't look like it's working, and regardless of what happens, you'll have done your best with what was there. Whether that's enough for success or sustainability is usually out of your hands anyway. But great execution according to these three responsibilities have a way of finding the gold.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.