I don’t have many heroes. Robert Smith of The Cure, yes, obviously. Ada Lovelace, sure. But there are few other people I feel such gratitude to, or want to emulate their work, their ethos, and their achievements.
David Heinemeier Hansson (DHH), the c.t.o. of Basecamp, is an exception. Not only did he create Ruby on Rails, the pioneering web development framework that enabled me to create https://consonance.app and https://makeourbook.com, but his approach to running Basecamp—alongside his business partner, Jason Fried—is absolutely visionary.
It shouldn’t be. It should be the default, the obvious. Don’t work yourself to death. Don’t get bogged down in busy-work admin. Don’t treat people like children. But we all know that’s not the norm. We know that in certain industries—publishing, for example—you can have more meetings scheduled per day than your total working hours. We know that there can be an unspoken expectation that you should be doing emails and reading manuscripts at the weekend. We know that, instead of skilling up or finding technically-literate ways to automate their admin, employers can all too frequently expect junior staff to get their heads down and manually update Excel-and-Title-Manager until they drop.
This enslavement to admin is all the more destructive because we’re supposed to be creatives. Publishers need time to imagine, to dream, to ponder and to write. But we can’t do that when there is endless busy-work just to keep the wheels on.
Thankfully, Heinemeier Hansson and Fried have written a book which distills their disruptive business practices down to raw goodness—and it has some salutary lessons for everyone striving to do work smarter in the book trade. Here are three highlights.
The quality of an hour
When was the last time you had three or even four completely uninterrupted hours in which to work? The itty-bitty ways our days are divided up means it’s hard to get meaningful work done. Meetings, email notifications, phone calls: they all conspire to fracture your working day. You can’t get anything meaningful done when you context-switch all day. Ditch the meetings, adopt an asynchronous approach to communication, and stop expecting people to drop everything and pivot.
Work doesn’t happen at work
The inevitable result of the open plan office is that you’re interrupted too much to do deep work, such as editing. It’s why so many of us work from home when we actually have to get real work done: you get away from managers, meetings, other people’s phones and conversations. How about giving people their own office, then adopting "library rules" (shhh!) and appointing "office hours" (say 9am to 11am, Wednesdays), when they’re permitted to be interrupted.
The presence prison
It’s antediluvian to monitor people’s movements—and, counterintuitively, always-on messenger apps like Slack mean you’re "chained to the dot": green for available, red for away. Give people the right tools and systems to be able to do their job, give them the right working conditions, then back off.
The underlying message of all these strategies is: better books come out of a calm publishing process. And if you need any further motivation to improve your publishing processes, read this excoriating, excruciating blog post written by DHH about his experience with his publisher, and thank your lucky stars you didn't work on his book.
As the authors say: "Chaos should not be the natural state at work. Anxiety isn’t a prerequisite for progress. Sitting in meetings all day isn’t required for success. These are all perversions of work—side effects of broken models… Calm is about sustainable practices that can run for the long-term."
Their advice may sound obvious, but in the context of most publishing organisations, it’s positively innovative.