You've Got a Bad Attitude

... and that's the right attitude! At Netscape Communications and Silicon Graphics, online whiners and complainers make for good morale.

Think of your worst complaint about your job, your boss, your company. Think of the most colorful way you'd express it. Think you'd ever write that remark down for your entire company to see? Employees at Netscape Communications and Silicon Graphics (SGI) do it every day, in wide-open virtual conversations housed on company servers, available for anyone within the fire walls to read.

These people have bad attitudes. Really bad. And putting them out there for everyone to see is probably their most valuable contribution to their companies.

Let's face it, our stock is totally overvalued.

These people are idiots! We're never going to be ready to ship this thing -- it's full of bugs!

Am I ever going to see that referral bonus -- my alleged reward for enticing my friends to come work here?

It's the Silicon Valley equivalent of getting "Does not play well with others" on your report card. It's also the classic psychological profile of the hacker-engineers whose unique talents are driving the new technology companies expanding around the globe. As those businesses cross the line from the informal, anything goes, hothouse culture of startups to the policies, procedures, and professionalism of full-grown corporations, "bad attitude" is exactly the right attitude.

It's the attitude SGI adopted by default some years ago. In 1990 the Mountain View, California-based company ballooned from 1,500 to nearly 2,500 employees and began to radically shift its focus from high-end to entry graphics machines. The growing pains triggered the creation of sgi.badattitude, an internal newsgroup dedicated to whining and complaining. "People were unhappy. There was a large disconnect between bringing new people in and getting them on the path to understanding how things worked," recalls "Bill Jelavich," the pseudonym used by the former SGI engineer who fathered the newsgroup. (In the early days of SGI, Bad Attitude insiders used that name -- Bill Jelavich -- as a generic pseudonym.)

The idea behind bad attitude, says its founder, "was to provide a place where employees could rant." At its most idealized, sgi.badattitude was a way to maintain the spirit of a startup in the body of a growing company, and engage the rank and file in an active and honest debate on the fundamental issues of the organization -- without fear of reprisal.

Most managers didn't bother reading internal newsgroups, so sgi.badattitude initially had the ambiance of an underground movement. But it didn't take long for this self-selected group of cranks to get noticed. CEO Edward McCracken, for instance, announced at a company all-hands meeting: "I read Bad Attitude every day."

The reason is clear: sgi.badattitude provides a powerful barometer of corporate culture. According to Drew Banks, who oversees all of SGI's newsgroups as manager of employee communications, a vibrant bad attitude serves as an escape valve for "negative energy" -- and keeps the gripes that usually circulate at happy hour in-house. It's also a "productivity tool": employees voice their small problems, which are quickly propelled to local solutions, while larger problems find their way to the top.

Bad attitude is nothing if not a guerrilla movement: when Jim Clark left SGI to start Netscape in 1994, he took with him several SGI alums -- and their bad attitudes. And back when Netscape was still called Mosaic Communications, mcom.bad-attitude was the second internal newsgroup created, shortly after mcom.general.

The original team, which was busy cranking out code through the night in a single room, simply forwarded the insults and flames hurled at them from the outside world to the archive. But as soon as the company started producing betas of its browser software, it quickly began adding its own homegrown bad attitude to the forum, recalls Jamie Zawinski, one of Mosaic's first engineers.

According to veteran newsgroup members there are three surefire ways to destroy a really good bad attitude. First, the moment bad attitude is officially recognized and approved by the Powers That Be, it's not bad anymore. It happened at Netscape. During a company all-hands meeting, an employee asked CEO Jim Barksdale if he read mcom.bad-attitude. Barksdale replied, "I don't know what that is, but I don't much like the sound of it." Good answer.

Then a human resources-type ruined it. "I read it all the time," she piped up. "I think it's really swell. It's a great productive thing." Zawinski remembers, "We just groaned, that's the end of that." It wasn't that the CEO had just learned of the existence of the bad-attitude forum; it was the implicit endorsement by human resources. "When someone from HR stands up and says, 'You should read this -- it's a good thing,' you're going to bring in a different crowd."

Second -- and worse than outing bad attitude to the general populace -- is trying too hard to make it productive. SGI's HR department proudly points to the "progress" made through the forum: more vegetarian food in the cafeteria after complaints from herbivores; new safety measures on the Mountain View campus to accommodate concerned pedestrians.

Netscape's Zawinski groans again. "The bad-attitude forum is for venting," he explains. "It's where I go to express that I'm really pissed off. If I'm actually going to try to do something to fix problems, I go somewhere else." Bad attitude is about flaming, not fixing.

Finally, the kiss of death for bad attitude is any attempt to domesticate it with rules or policies. Just the barest hint of management interference splintered Netscape's forum. Rumors of management reprimands for particularly inflammatory bad-attitude postings began to circulate. One posting suggested that the existence of a newsgroup in which people trash each other's work in harsh and profane terms violated company policies concerning a healthy work environment. A flurry of invective buried the suggestion immediately -- but even the specter of official guidelines was enough to send the hard core overboard.

Just as quickly, Zawinski upped the ante, by starting a members-only renegade email list called Really Bad Attitude. And he instituted a rigorous guideline: anyone who wants access to the list has to pass an "entrance exam" that tests both their attitude quotient and flaming ability. To date, about 100 Really Bad Attituders have gained admission. More important, bad attitude has returned to the place where dissenting sentiments live at most companies -- and perhaps the only place where bad attitude can thrive: underground.

Katharine Mieszkowski (katharine@wwire.net) is a San Francisco-based writer and frequent Fast Company contributor.

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