Immediately after their first board meeting, Matthew Prince and his co-founders made a radical decision: No employee at CloudFlare, a company that now processes 250 billion page views a month through its security apps, would go by a hierarchical job title. There would be no VPs, managers, or executives--only engineers, designers, etc. Prince told Inc.’s Jeff Haden why checking egos at the door ensures that the quality of an idea--not a person’s rank--always wins.
What made you throw out hierarchical titles in favor of more functional titles?
We presented a candidate for VP of technical operations, and a board member asked, “How many people has he hired?” We didn’t know. “Fired?” No clue. He said, “I’m sure he’s brilliant, but you’re implying by the title that he will build a team he will manage.” In fact, we wanted him to help build a product.
So he was more tech guy than VP. But why strip co-founders of their rank, too?
We left the meeting thinking, “None of us has hired or fired many people. We shouldn’t be VPs. We’re engineers. We’re programmers.” Now, new employees don’t expect titles that imply hierarchy, because no one has one.
Still, conventional wisdom says the cheapest perk you can offer a candidate is a title.
Oh, no--titles definitely come with a cost. The best ideas are bottom-up, not top-down. But in most companies, the ideas come from the top, and hierarchy can mean artificial authority wins, not the best idea. Here, the engineers who write the code push their ideas across and up.
Aren’t you afraid you will miss out on talented people?
No. We want people who want to be here. I had tried to hire John Graham-Cumming, an incredibly influential programmer and author, for years. Finally, he called and said he wanted to join us. He said, “My first job was programmer, and that explains what I do and like to do. Let’s make that my title.” I get goose bumps every time I tell the story, because it encapsulates what we’re trying to do.
What about externally? Some start-ups give everyone a lofty title so they’re taken seriously by other businesses.
A major New York City bank asked us to send our most senior people to a meeting recently. We brought engineers--and all the decision makers loved the fact the people in the room were the ones who actually write the code. People just want their problems solved, and titles don’t solve problems--talented people solve problems.
When will you know you need a more formal structure?
We thought we would need to change when we got to 20 employees, then 50, so maybe when we get to 100? We will always focus on what employees do, not on whom they manage.
- Our roles can easily flip. When you hire Adam, you may expect him to manage Bob. On another project, those roles might need to flip. With limited hierarchy, the best employees for the project can lead that project.
- The culture promotes achievement. When the best ideas win, that becomes a “get work done” flywheel that ensures egos can’t get in the way.
- The culture promotes fairness. Titles serve to differentiate, often in an arbitrary way, which can lead to perceived or actual unfair treatment. Here, you’re judged by your work, not your rank.
- What can I say? It just works. We have to invent things to process information at this scale. I can’t figure it out, but our team can. If all the ideas came from the top, we wouldn’t be where we are today.