The latest from the PostHog community

Hiring cracked engineers

Apr 17, 2024

We’ve become a bit obsessed with the notion of hiring cracked engineers at PostHog. When we say cracked, we mean things like:

  • Taking extreme ownership of ideas and driving them to completion, even if others disagree with you. Some people call this founder mentality. Better still, you bring others on the journey with you.

  • Unwavering optimism in the face of change or new ideas. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with the change, but adopting a ‘yes and’ mentality helps new ideas get off the ground that might otherwise die in a committee somewhere. This is especially true for ideas that come from non-senior or new people.

  • You make people feel more excited and energized after a meeting or conversation with you. You build people and their ideas up, and are generally perceived as a very helpful person.

  • Behaving in a completely authentic way. You don’t play politics – your work does the talking. For example, if you do marketing, talk like an actual human being. This doesn’t work in most large organizations, sadly.

  • You apply yourself to the craft of your discipline with a quasi-religious fervor. The joy comes from the craft itself, not creating shareholder value.

Hmm, sounds pretty ripe for a toxic monoculture of tech bros doing whatever they want while the founders arbitrarily pick new pet projects based on what they last saw DHH tweet, right?

No! The following are definitely not prerequisites to being cracked:

  • Fancy companies on your resume. You don’t need to have worked at a FAANG/MAMAA/shit-hot SV-based company. We welcome cracked engineers who held together failing companies – we like their paranoia.

  • Being an asshole. People need to want to work with you – saying ‘screw you, I’m doing this anyway’ is uncracked behavior if you can’t back it up.

  • How experienced you are. There is no number of years of experience that correlates with crackedness, in either direction.

  • You built a side project used by one million people. Side projects are often great signs of crackedness/ownership, but they don’t have to be commercially successful – they just have to be interesting.

Adopting this mentality has noticeably increased the diversity of people applying to work with us at PostHog, as it ignores some of the traditional markers of status when it comes to job applications.

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How to manage a cracked team

A lot of traditional management behavior doesn’t apply here, and can actively slow down or demotivate your team.

1. Be cracked yourself

You need to demonstrate the behavior you want to see. Cracked people are extremely attuned to ‘do as I do’ not ‘do as I say’. This means spending a significant amount of time doing IC work. Do the stuff that arrogant senior people would find ‘boring’. Write tests. Respond to customer support queries. Go weirdly deep into some piece of analysis. Do something badly that’s not your job, so you at least understand it better.

2. Spend most of your time generating enthusiasm

It is unbelievably easy to find reasons not to do stuff at any kind of organization, including startups. Inertia is the default state of most businesses. Overcoming this inertia is mainly reliant on the enthusiasm of people to make new and cool things happen, and is far more important than their raw intelligence or competence.

This is why you should spend more time motivating people than trying to teach them new skills or making them do training. If they are cracked and motivated, they will train themselves. I don’t think I’ve yet read a blog post by someone I admire and learned from that says ‘I got good because I attended blah blah special leadership course on being great.’

3. Get out of the way

Cracked people are deeply intrinsically motivated. This means that extrinsic motivation, while still present in some form (we’ve all got to pay bills yeah), is way less important.

Help cracked engineers take ownership of their own projects by encouraging them to make the decisions about what to do next. If they ask for help – i.e. they actively want you to get in the way – ask questions about what they think should happen next, rather than giving them the answers.

Setting deadlines, creating arbitrary reporting obligations, or saying ‘if you ship X, you will get to Y title’ are examples of trying to use extrinsic motivation that you should avoid.

4. Prioritize making cracked people more cracked, not making mediocre people good

Here is some subjective math:

  • The 20% of your team who are underperforming will take up 80% of your effort.

  • You may be able to get an underperformer’s output from 4/10 to 6/10 if you work hard with them.

  • Doubling down on a cracked person’s performance can improve their output from 8/10 to 9/10.

  • It’s the 9/10 quality output that will delight your users, so you should focus on that, even if the absolute increase in performance is less.

5. If you find yourself approving stuff for your team, fire yourself

Asking thoughtful questions and rigorously testing ideas is cracked. Long approval processes that exist for the sake of having someone senior sign off on something in order to kick accountability up the chain is very un-cracked. If you find yourself approving stuff for your team because of your position as their manager, remove yourself from the process.

6. Hiring and setting context are your two most important jobs

The number one thing you can do to motivate cracked people? Find them more cracked people to work with!

Conversely, the number one thing you can do to demotivate them is to make them work with uncracked people. (Yes, there are many other very obvious ways you can demotivate, like creating a shitty culture, making people burnout with unrealistic demands, pivoting aggressively every week for no reason, but I’m going to assume you at least have some semblance of managerial logic if you’ve read this far.)

A close number two is setting the right context for them to do their best work. This means making sure that your company or team's vision is super clearly articulated and understood by everyone in the first place, and then helping them pick between competing priorities when they are not sure what to do, or if the answer isn't obvious. You need to try really hard to make sure that you don't use 'setting context' as a euphemism for 'work on the stuff I care about as a manager' – they are not the same thing!

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