This one time, at Basecamp

Dawn McCarra Bass

June 4, 2019

Did you know you can be famous for rejecting the Gantt chart? It’s a cornerstone tool of project management, and the ugliest visual on the planet. One glance at a Gantt chart from Microsoft Project or Smartsheet is enough to make a strong woman weep.

Let’s take a short tour into project management arcana. Twenty years ago, a company called Basecamp launched a now-classic project management software. And for twenty years, they’ve refused to add Gantt charts to their feature set. It’s hard to know how many customers it’s cost them.

They don’t seem to care.

It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work, a manifesto by the co-founders of Basecamp, makes the case for a no-Gantt-chart, 32-hour-workweek, no-weekend-email workplace. The short version? Basecamp has leaders who are not afraid to value culture over profit.

What if Basecamp ran Seattle?

I. First

I am a card-carrying, flannel-owning, John-Cusack-loving member of Gen X.

I’m not a millennial eager to seize the reins of our economic and political future. I’m not a tech CEO ready to thought-lead us all to nirvana (or Mars, or an elite island elysium). I’m not a badass female founder ready to reclaim the “big job” from the patriarchy.1

I wear combat boots to client meetings. And it’s not cool when I do it. But I get away with it, because I know how to get shit2 done.

I want to set this context so you know that you shouldn’t listen to a word I say. With that out of the way —

II. Curb your ambition

Dear Seattle, please slow down. No, I’m not suggesting a return to your roots. And I’m not lamenting the loss of industrial Ballard (I do lament the loss of industrial Ballard, but that’s not my point here). I’m suggesting that you stop accelerating like you’re racing Rachel Kushner’s Reno across the salt flats. I’m suggesting that speed for the sake of speed isn’t pithy or quotable, it’s just a bad bro move.

Maybe “curb” is the wrong word. Nobody wants to be fenced in. Maybe just expand your ambition to include something more complex than big shiny buildings and big shiny checks.

III. Defend your time.

And defend your people.

Not just your rock stars.3 You know who I mean. I mean the people who close big deals and, especially, make sure you know they closed 'em. I mean the people who spend every meeting carefully positioning their leadership. I mean the people who know how to manage up by making you look good and everybody else look bad. Those rock stars.

Your rock stars are awesome and they make good headlines in Geekwire and the Puget Sound Business Journal. But they’re not going to make Seattle great in the long haul. Eventually, they’re going to throw a television out the hotel window and leave you holding the bill.

Somewhere inside you, Seattle, are people who have ideas that create more wonder than dollars. People who work in big jobs with small titles (and salaries) to make sure your infrastructure grows as fast as you do. People who care about you as much as they do about themselves.4

IIII. Feed your culture.

I know you think I’m going to start rambling on about culture, especially because this is the Seattle Review of Books. But we’re talking about something different here, Seattle. We’re talking about how people treat the city and each other. We’re talking about Uber stopping traffic at every corner, and old buildings getting torn down to make way for another TJ Maxx.5

Rest. Balance. Be quiet sometimes so you can hear the softer voices. Build some trust. No, wait.6 Offer some trust. Offer some trust to people who live here but don’t work in tech or the fancy side of government. Assume they care, assume they’re smart, assume they have something to say that you should listen to. Be vulnerable, Seattle, you can always put it on your resume later.

Don’t negotiate salaries. This is a direct quote from the good people at Basecamp, and I know we’ve moved past Amazon HQ2, but I thought you should hear it anyway.

V. Dissect your process.

“Normal comes on quick.” Boy, does it! Remember when you could walk six blocks downtown without crossing the street six times? Remember when nurses and teachers could afford to live here? Remember when you could drive to Hugo House from, well, anywhere, in less than an hour?

Whoops! I said the “R” word, which is an automatic “unfriend.” Let me reframe (or pivot!): Imagine if you could walk six blocks downtown without crossing the street six times. Imagine if nurses and schoolteachers could afford to live here. Imagine if you were a thought-leader and an innovator in making service jobs profitable and a bustling city livable.

Now that’s disruptive.7

Say “no” once in a while, maybe just as an experiment. Don’t you feel a little … bored with all the glitz? Don’t you feel like maybe big tech isn’t the next big thing any more? It’s so hard to let go of that old wardrobe, Seattle. I know it looked good on you. I know the cool kids saved you a seat at lunch.

I also know that you can do this. Sitting alone isn’t so bad.8 If you do it right, the really cool kids will find your table eventually.

VI. Mind your business.

Never have a customer too big to lose. As soon as you do, you belong to them, Seattle, not to yourself.

And you’ve always belonged to yourself. It’s what makes you great. You’re the city of bright ideas and crazy light, of low tide and high mountains. Skyscrapers and swallows. You went from a miraculous arch over the earth to a miraculous tunnel beneath it. The people who choose to live in you? They do it because they love you, and because they know they can be great here. Code geeks, artists, people with big dreams about ending homelessness and launching the next good revolution.

You’re a fairy tale city, Seattle. Unless you choose to be something else.9

Like the guys at Basecamp say, “startups are easy. Stayups are hard.” I’m not saying go back. I’m saying go forward into the unknown. Rising rents, tents on the street, income inequality — other cities have done all that. If nothing else, don’t you want to be different?10

I thought so. We’re here to help. Just ask.

  1. Technically, I am a female founder, but not that kind of female founder.  ↩

  2. Not things. Business majors and organizational consultants get things done. Getting shit done is messier and more important.  ↩

  3. No, not the ones with gigs at the Tractor or the Showbox — you could protect them a little more, actually. They need it.  ↩

  4. This isn’t The Giving Tree. If you ask those people to chop themselves down so you can take a rest, they’ll moving right away. Some of them already have.  ↩

  5. “The max for the minimum, minimum price.” Thank me later.  ↩

  6. Strike that — reverse it.  ↩

  7. I don’t actually buy the disruptive innovation thing, but I know you’re super into it, so …  ↩

  8. It really isn’t.  ↩

  9. Don’t, okay?  ↩

  10. “Are we going to prom or to hell?” (Told you I was a Gen X-er.)


Books in this review:
  • It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work
    by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson
    October 8, 2018
    240 pages
    Provided by the publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Dawn McCarra Bass is associate editor at the Seattle Review of Books and co-director of the Pocket Libraries program, which channels high-quality donated books to people with limited access to reading. By day, she's the founder of Mightier, a small consulting firm where women solve problems creatively, collectively.

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