Roys Social Experiment

29 March 2005

When we talk about Thoughtworks, we mostly talk about us as a software application development company. We also talk a bit about our values and how we are trying to be a different kind of company to most corporations. But all this is dancing around the point - fundamentally Thoughtworks isn't about being a company.

Thoughtworks is really Roy's Social Experiment.

Roy Singham is our founder, and in many ways he started Thoughtworks to see if it was possible to create the kind of company he wanted to make, and make that company last for many years. Many of the elements of that company were things that people told him couldn't be done:

  • You can't have a company that entirely consists of high ability people, you need a mix of less able people that the high ability people leverage.
  • Intellectuals aren't interested in making money, so a company built around them won't stay viable.
  • It's a harsh world where nice guys finish last - so you can't afford to be nice to employees and customers without an ulterior business reason.
  • High ability people can't collaborate effectively, they intellectualize and self-destruct.
  • Large companies need a strong management structure to avoid falling apart.
  • Intellectuals must be run by B students since intellectuals are idealist and only greedy B students are pragmatic enough to make real decisions
  • Doing things for the long term doesn't work.
  • Being transparent about economics and operations is bad internally, worse externally and certainly won't scale.
  • Don't reveal your weaknesses, especially to outsiders.
  • The purpose of being international is to take advantage of people in weaker countries.
  • Don't give production people powers that can be abused and hurt the company.
  • Culture is secondary - it cannot be a sustainable advantage - you need a superior business model

In lots of ways of Thoughtworks is a reaction to this kind of common sense. It employs only high ability intellectuals, aiming to have only those with a high degree of personal integrity. It's a rapidly growing international company with a determinedly flat and dynamic structure. Rather than have procedures, we try to give people on the ground information and rough principles and let them make decisions themselves. Much of Roy's thinking is strongly influenced by Dee Hock - the creator of Visa.

So while many companies are primarily defined by a business model, Thoughtworks is primarily defined by our social model. Our belief is that an organization with the right social model can jump business models. This is increasingly important because business models don't last as long now since everything is changing so much faster.

I won't claim we consistently manage to live up to the ideals we set ourselves, but I do think there is a common desire to be the kind of company Roy dreams of - at least on his good days.

Roy may have started this experiment, but I've become as fascinated by it as anyone else. After all it's directly in line with my fundamental assumption that PeopleMatterMost in software development. Can you really make a company that can be enjoyable to work in and still make money? A place where you can work with highly capable people from all over the world without the bureaucracy and politics that dominates so many organizations? Can you win and still be nice? It's hard to write about this without sounding trite and rosy - but it's this unusual mixture that made me step away from the comfortable life of a successful consultant to be part of this experiment.