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The Boss Stops Here

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Firing, developer Kealy Opelt told me, is something the company takes very seriously. “Usually, I wouldn’t think about bringing in the group unless I’ve had to talk to someone several times. If it keeps happening, and you both can’t adjust, that’s when you start talking to everybody else and see if it’s just the two of you.”

Over subsequent weeks, a series of meetings will be held, and as with the Extreme Interviewing process, a consensus will be reached. If it is determined by the team that a person has to go, there’s very little that Sheridan or Goebel can do about it.

To illustrate, Goebel told me about his niece, Erin, who spent a couple of months at Menlo as an admin, before the other employees decided to let her go. Goebel objected, but at Menlo, nepotism has no place. “Actually, my niece lives with me,” he said. “And she was really pissed. Thankfully, she didn’t take it out on the relationship with my wife or my kids. Still, it was a little frosty for a while.”

This kind of team decision-making can be seen as the ultimate motivational tool—always work hard, and your co-workers won’t can you. It can also be the kind of thing that yields a whole lot of ad hoc office alliances.

Opelt and colleague John Martin, for instance, told me that they had both recently recommended each other for promotions. They swore it was coincidental—they both believed the other deserved it—but it’s not hard to imagine the existence of a lot more deliberately constructed pacts.

And then there is that chart that’s plastered prominently on the wall—the one that displays the titles of Menlo employees and their respective pay grades. This is a new innovation, introduced by Goebel over lunch a few months earlier to address curiosity from staffers about where they stood in the overall scheme of the open office. Although almost all of the employees had written their names in Magic Marker on the poster, there were a few abstainers. “I think people are still deciding how to handle that,” one employee told me. “It’s stirred up a little bit of controversy. Like, that it might actually be a step too far.”

Goebel and Sheridan confessed that the idea was still in its infancy—“an experiment,” Goebel said. Paul Green used much the same language to describe an analogous open-book policy at Morning Star. “Full transparency in terms of compensation is something we’re working on,” he said. “It’s a process.”

One afternoon, I was invited to attend the weekly “kickoff” meeting for the fifteen team members assigned to the account of a local biotech firm that manufactures flow cytometers—machines that test blood and sundry other fluids. Menlo is developing the software that organizes and analyzes data collected by the device.

The purpose of the kickoff meeting was to discuss the code that needed to be completed by the end of the week, and the fifteen Menlonians arranged themselves in a loose circle around a set of tables. Notepads and pens were produced. Goebel and Sheridan were absent—neither man typically attends these meetings because, as Jack Coy, a developer on the account, told me, “to be honest, we don’t need them.”

Initially the proceedings moved smoothly. A pair of programmers would walk up to one of those big easel pads and discuss the code they’d been assigned and sometimes sketch on the paper a couple of key components. The floor was then opened to the rest of the team, who might shout out questions or suggestions.

At one point, I watched Jeff Jia and Jack Coy, two programmers in their twenties, describe an issue with an important piece of code. Caveat: Software design is an extremely complex science, and people who work in software tend to talk in jargony, acronym-heavy shorthand. For that reason, I will not attempt to recount the exact parameters of the problem Jia and Coy were facing, but suffice it to say it involved a digital filter that had been built to catch certain subsets of cytometer data and arrange those subsets into colored charts.

But the filter wasn’t functioning properly, and Jia and Coy were stumped. They had the look of stumped people—lips puckered, arms crossed, shoulders raised. After a little while, they were joined at the easel by Greg Haskins. Haskins is 27, with a babyish face and unruly brown hair, and although he has only been at Menlo for little over a year, he clearly maintains an outsize presence among his peers; when he talks, the other coders tend to listen.

Now Haskins gestured a few more team members to their feet and began arranging them in front of the easel pad like mannequins. What followed was a piece of anarchic and improvised street theater: Rock, the ponytailed quality-advocate dude, was assigned the role of filter, and Kristi Sitarski and Joe Ptolemy were the data that the filter was meant to be sorting. Sitarski stepped forward (she was in), and Ptolemy stepped back (he was out). Everyone laughed. This was team spirit in action. This was collective action.


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