David Heinemeier Hansson

January 22, 2024

The benefit of seniority ought to be bandwidth

Juniors are judged on effort, seniors are judged on outcomes. That’s a common and useful heuristic for evaluating employees. It neatly separates productivity from effectiveness, and places a premium on the latter. But the biggest benefit of this distinction ought to be of the second order: Increased bandwidth.

With junior people, you not only owe them frequent feedback to aid their advancement, but it’s a prerequisite to getting what you want out of the work. That’s not to say you have to micromanage every little thing, but you can’t just stay hands off – or too many things will end up coming out wrong.

The value of this frequent feedback is clear: diligent practice demands diligent direction. It’s a beautiful process that can grow capacity in fertile minds with potential. But it requires a lot of managerial bandwidth.

And good managerial bandwidth ought always to be scarce. There’s nothing more dangerous than excess managerial bandwidth. This is how you cultivate constant churning of plans and processes. We’ve always tried to starve the managerial bandwidth at 37signals by having the bulk of it provided by moonlighting managers.

It’s a little like “if you want something done, ask a busy person”. If you want “just enough management, but absolutely no more, hire managers who’d rather be building”.

Which brings me to senior employees. The best of them all encompass the ideal of being managers of one. Capable to finding the right path independently to a destination worth heading. Interested in taking fuzzy problems and turning them into crisp solutions.

That’s how you increase organizational bandwidth. When the team has enough senior people who only need a rough pointer, preferably at infrequent intervals, and then just get on with the act of delivering delightful solutions.

This framing also makes it clear when to demand more of someone who has ostensibly reached a role of seniority, but ends up sucking out more bandwidth than they contribute back. That’s not tenable. You need that bandwidth for junior folks who deserve it. (And you should be wary of adding more lest you end up with too much.)

As I see it, the goal of the organization is to mix just enough junior talent that it's preparing for the future, with enough of the seniority needed to tend to the present. And the balance should yield enough productive bandwidth that a busy working manager can get a tolerable amount of what they want, but not quite all of it.

Simple. But not easy.

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.