David Heinemeier Hansson

November 4, 2022

Setting the pace

A productive company culture is one with a clearly set pace. One with basic expectations around how long projects should take, what level of risk is appropriate to meet that pace, and what happens when teams or individuals miss. When the pace is right, you ship high quality improvements at expected intervals, and customers are pleased. When the pace is wrong, everything else falters.

This is why Shape Up – our development methodology at 37signals – starts with pace. We believe nearly everything worth doing at our company can be done in six weeks or less. Usually with just two people doing the work. That's our cadence. Projects that fail to ship within that timeframe are canceled. New employees know that everyone is expected to eventually find a way to keep up.

We've operated like this for years. There's nothing controversial about it, because we've repeatedly proven that it's possible to run at this pace sustainably, without constant overwork, undue stress, software defects, or other ill consequences. But to many other companies, running at a pace where major features are developed and shipped by teams of two in six weeks or less would seem crazy. And if they tried to set their pace to match ours from one day to the next, there might well be an internal revolt.

That's what Twitter is going through right now. Elon Musk is administering shock therapy to a company that's had one of the most lethargic pace settings in the industry for years on end. To illustrate, we once had a designer at 37signals who had worked at Twitter previously. This person had spent over two years at Twitter and never shipping anything. It was mockups, meetings, and then eventual cancelations that propelled life in the product group at that time. Evidence of a company pace setting so depressingly low as to be scarcely believable.

No wonder we're seeing fireworks when you combine such different extremes on the urgency scale. An entrepreneur and engineer used to making big moves quickly, and broadly being rewarded for such impatience with progress and success, and a company and its staff used to making no moves slowly, and also broadly being rewarded with such sloth by continued existence and employment.

I don't subscribe to Musk's concept of a work ethic (in-office only, insane hours, sleeping on the floor), but I think there's a cogent argument that this kind of shock therapy is simply what's needed to drag Twitter out of the hole its been in. Away from a world where designers (or other product people) can spend years without shipping anything.

Every company needs to set a pace. Musk took over a Twitter set to one, and now he's turning it up to eleven. Whether he ends up blowing the amp or proving once again that there is no speed limit, this is a rock'n'roll experiment that's mesmerizing to follow.

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.