Impact vs Scope: Some Thoughts on Steve Yegge Leaving Google and How to Retain your Best People

This morning I read Steve Yegge’s post on why he left Google to join Grab. If you read the post in it’s entirety it seems to contain a contradiction, as he states his reasons for reason are basically due to the company’s

  1. Risk aversion
  2. Politics
  3. Arrogance
  4. Competitor instead of customer focus

On the fourth point it’s worth looking at the quote in it’s entirety

But fourth, last, and probably worst of all, Google has become 100% competitor-focused rather than customer focused. They’ve made a weak attempt to pivot from this, with their new internal slogan “Focus on the user and all else will follow.” But unfortunately it’s just lip service. It’s not that they don’t care. The problem is that their incentive structure isn’t aligned for focusing on their customers, so they wind up being too busy and it always gets deprioritized.

The contradiction comes from the fact that Steve is leaving a company he lambastes publicly for being competitor focused to join an Uber clone. He then spends the rest of the post waxing eloquently about the transformative power of ride sharing (e.g. Uber) and food delivery (e.g. UberEATs) as a war that Grab has to win.

What gives?

When I joined Microsoft last decade, a common reason for joining the company was a desire to “change the world” which has since become a tech company cliche. However the reality is that companies like Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, Google and even Uber (who we all love to hate) have changed the world in massive ways.

However at some point in their lives, these companies became the status quo and focus moved to maintaining their position in the world versus remaking the world in disruptive ways.

At that point people who came there to “change the world” need to decide why they are still there.

When I talk to college students weighing working at a big tech company versus a start up I like to ask them to think about whether they care more about impact or scope.

Impact is how many people’s lives your decisions affect and/or how significantly those decisions impact their lives. For example, the product managers at Facebook who decide to change the news feed algorithm have the ability to sink businesses and sway elections. At big companies you often have a lot of impact.

Scope is how much change you’re able to affect unilaterally. The counterpoint to the impact you have at a big company is that with the increased size of the company there is an increase in the number of stakeholders in every major decision. This is what Steve Yegge described as politics in his reasons for leaving Google.

Both employers and employees should be aware of the continuum of scope versus impact both at the company level as well as for various individual positions. Big companies that seem attractive because of their ability to impact many are often stifling due to lack of scope especially for newer hires. Startups squander their scope advantage if they do not give employees autonomy and reduce overlapping responsibilities which could lead to the dreaded politics.

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"Everything you touch you change. Everything you change, changes you" - Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower