in Culture, Technology, Workplace

How to be CEO: Ben Horowitz’s “The Hard Thing about Hard Things”

This is the beginning of a continuing series of reviews about books on management and leadership. Think of it as a “papers we love” but for folks who have chosen to pursue a non-technical path in their engineering careers.

At some point I figure I’d like to be CEO of my own company. So it was with great interest that I picked up Ben Horowitz’s “The Hard Thing about Hard Things”, which is partly a memoir about his time running LoudCloud and Opsware, which he eventually sold to HP in 2007 for about $1.6 billion. Along with Marc Andreessen he then went on to found the well-known Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, which has invested in Facebook, Foursquare, GitHub, Pinterest and Twitter, among others.

From this CV it sounds like he has been wildly successful as an entrepreneur and CEO. But like all Hollywood stories (and Wikipedia articles) it glosses over the twists and turns in his career that, for instance, almost saw LoudCloud go bankrupt several times. (He also pivoted the company from being a cloud services and hosting company to a product company, nearly bankrupting it again.) Horowitz claims that many management books out there only give you advice about the happy path, but don’t teach you how to deal with adversity. That’s where the book comes in: no-nonsense advice about the many difficult situations you’ll find yourself in as a CEO.

What’s great about Horowitz is that he’s succinct. The book is only around 150 pages, and he doesn’t spend too much time on his personal history. Although it’s a compelling story, he takes only a single chapter to explain it as a backdrop to the advice that follows. The advice is concise, too. He breaks it down into five chapters, with each chapter addressing about seven to ten topics. Each topic is given a treatment of no more than three pages: basically, problem definition, reflection, recommendations. It’s not quite as formulaic as that, but that’s the general gist. I’m glad those sections were well-edited, because it’s unlikely that a leader (especially a CEO) would have much time to concentrate and ponder longer chapters.

Now for my criticism of the book.

Horowitz has only ever been a crisis CEO, or, in his words, a “wartime CEO”. He’s the type of entrepreneur and CEO that, either by choice or by circumstance, wanted or needed to dominate a sector. It’s all-or-nothing. But not every company is like this, nor is every sector filled with companies who are only aggressively vying to be #1, with all the losers gone bankrupt or acquired by someone else. I would argue that this is just the mindset of, quite specifically, highly-leveraged, venture-backed consumer-facing Internet companies in the Valley.

Diving deeper into this, I believe that this kind of aggressive, tear-the-raw-meat-from-the-bones-with-my-bare-teeth behavior is not only extremely, and exclusively, male, but it leads to a lot of the blatantly misogynistic behavior in the technology industry today. If the CEO and his (primarily “his”) alpha-male counterparts in the sector are trying to rip each other to shreds in the marketplace, what kind of message does that send to the employees about their expected behavior? What is one to make of the fact that Horowitz deliberately hired a “wartime” head of worldwide sales, Mark Cranney, that exhibited the type of behavior described here:

We held a weekly forecast call where Mark reviewed every deal in front of the entire 150 person sales force. On one such call, a salesperson described an account that he’d forecast in detail: “I have buy-in from my champion, the vice president that he reports to, and the head of purchasing. My champion assures me that they’ll be able to complete the deal by the end of the fiscal quarter.”

Mark quickly replied, “Have you spoken to the vice president’s peer in the networking group?”

Sales rep: “Um, no I haven’t.”

Mark: “Have you spoken to the vice president yourself?”

Sales rep: “No.”

Mark: “Okay, listen carefully. Here’s what I’d like you to do. First, reach up to your face and take off your rose-colored glasses. Then get a Q-tip and clean the wax out of your ears. Finally, take off your pink panties and call the fucking vice president right now, because you do not have a deal.”

Mark was right. It turned out that we did not have a deal, as the vice president’s peer in networking was blocking it. We eventually got a meeting with him and won the deal. More important, Mark set the tone: Sloppiness would not be tolerated.

Basically — man up, it’s a war, make sure your big swinging dick is larger than the other big swinging dicks out there and win the fucking deal. (Cranney is now a partner at Andreessen Horowitz.). By the way, isn’t it this kind of behavior that led to the near-collapse of the worldwide economy in the 2007-2008 financial crisis? What separates the so-called noble-but-aggressive Silicon Valley CEO making software to ‘change the world’, and a bunch of traders at Goldman Sachs creating worthless tranches of CDOs to sell to investors? Just the actual product itself?

By the end of this book I wasn’t sure I want to be CEO at all. Besides the apparent need for aggressive behavior, the job, as described, sounds terrifying and thankless. Horowitz doesn’t really counter this in any way, presumably because his audience is composed of startup founder CEOs: in other words, those who find themselves CEO-by-accident because they were the ones who had the idea in the first place. The implied message is that you have to be totally crazy to have the confidence to be CEO and lead a group of people — sometimes thousands, or tens of thousands of people — to what, statistically speaking, is certain failure. I found the overall advice on how to deal with this insane situation useful, though the attitudes and apparently requisite behaviors are distasteful to me.