Tech Life Take Crazy Risks

Stables and Volatiles

Stephen was a hired gun at my first start-up. His contract started a year before I arrived, but he was long gone before I walked in the door. The story goes that when Stephen started, he found a small, solid team of five engineers, a QA lead, and a project manager. They were slowly and steadily going… nowhere. After two weeks of watching the team’s slug-like pace, Stephen was fed up.

Stephen, a guy we hired as a temporary contractor to tidy up our database layer, grabbed the greenest of engineers, moved into the ping-pong room, and told the engineer, “We are not leaving this room until we can see the application actually work.”

The engineer asked, “What does ‘work’ mean?”

Stephen, “I don’t know, we’ll figure it out when we get there.”

Ten days later, a reeking ping-pong room contained three-quarters of the engineering team, none of whom had slept in the last 48 hours. The green engineer stood up and demoed the application. For the first time in the company’s history, the team could see and touch the idea. Three months later, we released 1.0.

It reads like an inspirational story. The whole team mobilizing for one last push to get the product out the door. Except Stephen didn’t mobilize the whole team, he marshaled three-quarters of it.  While the folks who weren’t sleeping in the ping-pong room clapped just as loudly when they saw the product, they knew the corners Stephen had cut to get it done because they’d seen the code. They knew many features were smoke-and-mirrors placeholders, they had big questions about scale, and most of all, they knew it’d be their job to clean up the mess because they’d seen Stephen’s ilk before. They knew he was a Volatile.

The Factions

The reward for shipping 1.0 is a deep breath. Whew, we did it. In the days, weeks, and months that follow shipping 1.0, the work is equally important to your success. But you never forget the moment when you consider the product done, because you are intimately aware of the blood, sweat, and tears it took to get it there.

I’ve written a lot about shipping 1.0, but it’s only recently that I’ve been thinking about what happens after a successful 1.0. First, yes, there is someone coming to eat you, but the act of shipping 1.0 creates an internal threat as well. The birth of 1.0 initiates a split of the development team into two groups: Stables and Volatiles. Before I explain why this rift occurs, let’s understand the two groups.

Stables are engineers who:

  • Happily work with direction and appreciate that there appears to be a plan, as well as the calm predictability of a well-defined schedule.
  • Play nice with others because they value an efficiently-run team.
  • Calmly assess risk and carefully work to mitigate failure, however distant or improbable it might be.
  • Tend to generate a lot of process because they know process creates predictably and measurability.
  • Are known for their calm reliability.

Volatiles are the engineers who:

  • Prefer to define strategy rather than follow it.
  • Have issues with authority and often have legitimate arguments for anarchy.
  • Can’t conceive of failing, and seek a thrill in risk.
  • See working with others as time-consuming and onerous tasks, prefer to work in small, autonomous groups, and don’t give a shit how you feel.
  • Often don’t build particularly beautiful or stable things, but they sure do build a lot.
  • Are only reliable if it’s in their best interest.
  • Leave a trail of disruption in their wake.

Lastly and most importantly, these guys and gals hate — hate — each other. Volatiles believe Stables are fat, lazy, and bureaucratic. They believe Stables have become “The Man.” Meanwhile, Stables believe Volatiles hold nothing sacred and are doing whatever they please, company or product be damned. Bad news: everyone is right.

Because of this hate, there’s a good chance that these two factions are somehow at war in your company, and while all your leadership instincts are going to tell you to negotiate a peace treaty, you might want to encourage the war. Hold that thought while I explain where the war started.

A Stable Evolution

I’m of the opinion that many successful Stables used to be Volatiles who are recovering from the last war. Think about it like this. Go back to your successful 1.0. You’re taking your deep breath because you appear to be past the state of imminent failure, enough money is showing up, and the team is no longer working every single weekend just to keep the lights on. My question: “How’d you get there?”

Someone bled.

The birth of a successful 1.0 is a war with convention and common sense. It is built around a handful of Volatiles who believe that “We can bring this new thing into the world,” and no one believes them. It’s excruciating, and the majority of Volatiles who embark on this quest will fail, but if and when success arrives, those who survive are scarred and weary. More importantly, they are intimately aware of what it cost to get here and they want to protect it.

This is how a perfectly respectable and disruptive Volatile transforms into a Stable. They are eager to make sure the team does not return to a war-like state because, well, war sucks. These emerging Stables build process and carefully describe how things should be done because they have the scars and experience to do so. They hire more people and they become a moderate-sized, well-run engineering team. They hire people who are familiar, who have traits that remind them of themselves. Yes, they hire engineers who are predisposed to be Volatile.

Unintentionally, they plant the seeds for the next war.

See, these new Volatiles arrive and they look around and they are told, “This is a well-run machine built on the success of the first war. Shiny, isn’t it?” The Volatiles nod cautiously, but in their heads they’re thinking, “Shiny. Polished. This isn’t very exciting. I mean, it’s certainly pretty, but where is the threat? Who is coming to eat us?” The irony is that the Volatiles want exactly what created this company in the first place. The thrill of 1.0, but when they make their intentions known, the recently minted Stables show up and start yelling, _YOU THINK YOU WANT 1.0 BUT LOOK AT THESE SCARS – YOU DON’T WANT A PIECE OF THIS. IT’S WAR. WAR SUCKS._

The Volatiles nod and acquiesce, but this does not scratch their disruptive itch. They continue to believe the right thing is something risky and something new. We need to make a big bet.

This transformation of first generation Volatiles to Stables among the arrival of the second generation Volatiles is the source of an amazing amount of organizational discontent. It’s how a team that used to cohesively sit on the same floor stratifies and fractures into multiple teams on many floors where there is an emerging, unfamiliar sense of us and them. It’s the beginning of the worst kind of politics and gossip, and it’s often the source of the vile reputation managers receive for being out of touch.

The arrival and organization of the new Volatiles actively disrupts the organization. While it is dangerous work and well-intentioned people will yell at me, your job as a leader is to nurture this disruption.

Wait, What?

Once you’re successfully past 1.0, you have a choice: coast and die, or disrupt. No one in history has ever actually chosen coast and die; everyone thinks they’re choosing the path of continued disruption, but it’s a very different choice when it’s made by a Stable than by a Volatile. A Stable’s choice of disruption is within the context of the last war. They can certainly innovate, but they will attempt to do so within the box they bled to build. A second-generation Volatile will grin mischievously and remind you, “There is no box.”

Many incredibly successfully multi-billion-dollar companies fall under my definition of coast and die. They are sitting there, impressively monetizing their original excellent 1.0 for years — for decades — but there’s a smell about them. Sure, the money is still pouring in, but what have they built that is actually new? They have huge sales forces, impressive glossy ad campaigns, and legions of lawyers, but you can’t point at anything that they’ve built in the last five years where you thought, “Holy shit.” That distinct musty smell is the lack of Holy Shit, and its presence sends Volatiles running, because that’s the smell of stagnation. Volatiles want nothing to do with a group of people who no longer take risks because they believe the stagnation is death.

As a leader, you need to figure out how to invest in disruption, and this is counter-intuitive because disruption, by definition, is destructive. It breaks things that others covet.

While Apple is a good example of a company that doesn’t give a shit about wars of the past, I think Amazon is an equally solid example of a company that has chosen to invest in their Volatiles. In 2002, they introduced Amazon Web Services and we all collectively scratched our heads: A company that sells books online is getting into online services for web sites? Whatever.

Present day, and I just returned from Ireland’s amazing FunConf where I stood in a room full of developers who are intensely dependent on Amazon’s vast array of web services. My belief is that years ago, some Volatile thought, We are not a seller of books, we are builders of technology. It’s this type of Volatile thinking that has Amazon going toe to toe with Apple in an entirely different space. Who thinks it’d be crazy if Amazon did a phone? Not me.

I don’t know the inner workings of Amazon, but when I see strategies that diverge wildly from conventional wisdom, I smell Volatiles at work.

Take Crazy Risks

I believe a healthy company that wants to continue to grow and invent needs to equally invest in both their Stables and their Volatiles.

Your Stables are there to remind you about reality and to define process whereby large groups of people can be coordinated to actually get work done. Your Stables bring predictability, repeatability, credibility to your execution, and you need to build a world where they can thrive.

Your Volatiles are there to remind you that nothing lasts, and that the world is full of Volatiles who consider it their mission in life to replace the inefficient, boring, and uninspired. You can’t actually build them a world because they’ll think you’re up to something Stable, so you need to create a corner of the building where they can disrupt.

These factions will war because of their vastly different perspectives. Stables will feel like they’re endlessly babysitting and cleaning up Volatiles’ messes, while Volatiles will feel like the Stables’ lack of creativity and risk acceptance is holding back the company and innovation as a whole. Their perspectives, while divergent, are essential to a healthy business. Your exhausting and hopefully never-ending job as a leader of engineers is the constant negotiation of a temporary peace treaty between the factions.

We were cleaning up the results of Stephen’s Volatile engineering coup for years, but during that clean-up we went from zero customers to 30. We went from a handful of volatile engineers to a stable company of 200, and this was partly because Stephen gave us a chance to see our platform. But our platform was never done. The boost from Stephen got us out the door, but we were forever in a state of functional incompleteness and architectural inconsistency. The second-generation Volatiles pointed this out, but the Stables assured us that better is the enemy of done.

Eventually, the second platform began. It started as a side project in a silent fit of Volatile rage. It developed over weeks into the beginnings of an actual strategy, but the rebellion started too late. One big enterprise customer dropped us loudly when it was clear we never built for the scale we were selling. Credibility crumbled, the Volatiles bolted, and we sat there in the middle of the dot-com implosion consoling ourselves that “there were macroeconomic forces outside of our control”, which is exactly what a Stable says when they’ve surrendered.

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24 Responses

  1. Fabio Mengue 12 years ago

    GREAT post. GREAT perspective. Forwarded to almost everyone I know :).

  2. Kyle 'KowZ' Cowan 12 years ago

    I enjoyed this very much when I read it in The Magazine…

    Is all content for The Magazine now going to be published on the web for free or are you just going rogue?

  3. Kyle 'KowZ' Cowan 12 years ago

    Nevermind – it looks like everyone is posting their content from The Magazine making it irrelevant and not worth the $2.

  4. Andrew 12 years ago

    Great piece thanks. How do you envision the evolution of the company into ongoing success? Is there are third faction (the Ultimates) that comes up with a grand design that can use the strengths of the Stables and Volatiles?

  5. Bruce Hughes 12 years ago

    This is a profound reflection on one reality of company development. I have lived this multiple times and know it to be true.

  6. Neil K 12 years ago

    The implication here is that neither Volatiles nor Stables are sufficient for success. Volatiles are starters, Stables are finishers.

    But more depressingly, you imply that even the combination of both styles is not going to produce a winning product. Volatiles produce crap architecture that doesn’t scale, and Stables run after them, but usually entropy wins.

    This definitely describes about 99% of all projects out there, but is there nothing we can do to avoid this cycle? It almost sounds like the nature of a closed-source software business must lead to this. Could open source allow the Volatiles to experiment without interfering with the Stables?

  7. @KYLE ‘KOWZ’ COWAN; Yes, authors of articles in The Magazine can publish their works on the web after one month. If you read the first article posted called “Foreword” in The Magazine, you would know this.

    Does this make The Magazine irrelevant? I personally don’t think so. I was able to read this article one month before anyone else. Sure, I could have waited, but then I would have never read the article because I don’t read this site so I wouldn’t have known it existed.

    The Magazine is a way to get the best written blog posts in one location before they are posted on sites all over the web.

  8. Very good piece. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this. thanks.

  9. Robert Barth 12 years ago

    Love this article. In my experience there is one more group that comes as a result of a generational/experiential factor.

    Volatiles, who move on to become stables, but don’t lose their tenacity for disruption, are another group. Let’s use the term offered earlier — “ultimates” because I think that’s what they are. They’ve disrupted _more than one_ project in their life (most likely several, across multiple disciplines), had to live with the outcome, learned from that, but moved on to do the same thing again, somewhere else. Their experience now tells them what corners they CAN cut, and which they shouldn’t. Generation 1 volatiles cut every corner they can, willy-nilly in a somewhat vain attempt to ship the thing, while the ultimates make quite a bit wiser decisions regarding which corners can be cut without killing the product’s ability to deliver (perhaps down the road somewhat). They run the delicate balance between volatile and stable, delivering just enough volatility to create something new while simultaneously delivering enough stable so that it can be maintained (for a short while, anyway) and expanded upon (without too much difficulty — they realize the future can’t be predicted, however, certain things are inevitable and should be prepared for).

    The ultimates, however, are in constant danger of becoming “architects,” (specialized stables, I guess) who, IMO, lose their tactical skills (e.g. actual programming/engineering) and instead attempt to design every possible eventuality into a product, such that a year in, all you’ve got is a gigantic design that four fleets of engineers couldn’t finish in three lifetimes. The easiest way to avoid this trap is to make sure you stay involved in producing actual product (e.g. program) and never sit in a back room somewhere working mostly with Visio (or whatever). If your output ever becomes mostly documentation and not code, you’re in danger, IMO.

  10. Michael H. 11 years ago

    I am deeply disturbed by this article, mostly because I’ve lived it and recognize several of the archetypes, and know where I’m sitting today. So, I thank you for writing it, and will go off now wondering whether or not this cautionary tale should inspire action.

  11. Great read. But I’m a hybrid of Stable and Volatile, adapting to fit the circumstances– should I hate myself? 😉

  12. Another hybrid here… but I do not hate myself. It is advantage, IMHO, in my industry at least.

  13. Dan Luchi 11 years ago

    I took the ‘volatiles’ and ‘stables’ to be archetypes more so than actual people. Each of us at times may be more volatile or more stable depending on the situation, our background, and the other parties involved.

    Certainly there are those who are always volatile or always stable, but most of us will probably play both roles at some point in time.

    I think the dichotomy is more interesting to think about than what sort of balance is ideal. The point isn’t that there is some sweet spot in the middle somewhere with the appropriate amount of volatile and stable, its that the conflict is important and necessary.

    To be successful, you need to have people who are pissed off at how things are and a way for them to go about changing that.

    If that person is a volatile that might mean building out a new system to replace an unsatisfactory existing one or building a prototype of a new product.

    If that person is a stable it might mean having guidelines about code quality or style, spending time working on bugs and polishing existing products or creating roadmaps and estimates.

    You might even find yourself on different sides of different arguments at the same time, recognizing the need move in a new direction or get a working 1.0, but understanding that the fastest and most maintainable way to do that is by agreeing on an organization for the project that ensures everyone knows where to find things.

  14. Amazon’s “Just Do It” award looks like an approach to embracing the contribution of Volatiles while acknowledging the essentially anarchic nature of how they do what they do: The award is given to employees who have created something explicitly without authorization to do so.

  15. Mica Cooper 11 years ago

    Living this story!

    I built with a small team of Volatiles and a couple of Stables. We did it in four months from start to launch, $30 million the first month, $1 billion sales the first year. I see companies like Orbitz and Kayak ~struggle~ to launch over a period of years, and hundreds of millions of dollars, and think wow, would I do it again??? (Mostly because these guys are CLUELESS and using Stables to try to build stuff and I know I could do it better!

    Today, I content myself as a Stable/Volatile making smaller disruptive changes, and doing it in my own damn time! If you have seen James Bond, ‘Skyfall’, …Let the rats eat themselves…

  16. kaypea 11 years ago

    I’m with Neil K – I loved this article and live it myself. I’m trying to figure out the techniques to employ while we, as leaders, manage this type of environment. Who’s been successful at it? How? I’m sure there are lessons out there to steal.

  17. RENE MUNIZ 11 years ago

    Volatiles get your business up and running on borrowed technical debt that the stables have to come later and pay. It can be a good model if you have the technical capital to keep it going. Most successful companies have gone through this cycle.


  18. IAN JOHNSTON 11 years ago

    There is one issue that I believe the article did not really covered. In this war, I think volatiles are, by nature, louder and noisier. Stables have a tendency to be quieter because, as the article says, stables recognize that wars suck.

    I believe one of the big challenges is to make sure that arguments are not won by whoever speaks the loudest. Those decisions are likely to be very poor decisions. I have seen organizations like that. It got to a point where the stables simple said: F@#K IT. They shrugged it off and started looking for other jobs. It did not end very well.

  19. Jacob Scott 11 years ago

    Any thoughts on how well the stable/volatile distinction for engineers maps to the exploitation/exploration distinction for businesses?

    ” Companies must balance exploiting profitable markets with exploring new markets. Exploiting known markets requires optimizing processes and executing effectively, and leads to reliable, near-term successes. Exploring unknown markets requires search and experimentation and offers none of the immediate benefits of exploitation.”

    and also

  20. Lorean Enciso 11 years ago

    Hello there! This is kind of off topic but I need some help from an established blog. Is it very hard to set up your own blog? I’m not very techincal but I can figure things out pretty fast. I’m thinking about creating my own but I’m not sure where to begin. Do you have any points or suggestions? Cheers

  21. Hey R, is the title a reference to the Hyperion Cantos or is that just a cosmic coincidence?

  22. kdrama-ost 7 years ago

    I enjoyed this very much when I read it in The Magazine…

    Is all content for The Magazine now going to be published on the web for free or are you just going rogue?

  23. Yes, authors of articles in The Magazine can publish their works on the web after one month. If you read the first article posted called “Foreword” in The Magazine, you would know this.

    Does this make The Magazine irrelevant? I personally don’t think so. I was able to read this article one month before anyone else. Sure, I could have waited, but then I would have never read the article because I don’t read this site so I wouldn’t have known it existed.

    The Magazine is a way to get the best written blog posts in one location before they are posted on sites all over the web.