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Writing as a core company value

As communication is the hardest problem facing any organisation, writing well should be one of the core values for every company.

When I hired for engineers at my company, Server Density (now acquired by StackPath), the first part of the selection process was a writing exercise. We asked every candidate to spend no more than 1 hour researching the answer to a simple question such as “Compare and contrast MySQL and MongoDB”.

The purpose was not necessarily to test their technical skills but to assess their written communication. Errors with spelling or grammar meant immediate rejection but the ability to convey complex ideas was the main focus of the assessment.

Although anecdotal, I found there was a strong correlation between writing capability and engineering skill. Showing that you take the time to proof-read your work is a good indicator that you will put the same care into your day job. This is especially important for coding.

Screenshot of a LinkedIn post
Chris Laffra on LinkedIn

I would now apply this to all roles, not just engineering. The ability to convey ideas accurately, precisely and in such a way that others can understand is a crucial skill.

Examples from successful companies #

Some of the most successful companies follow this sentiment.

Amazon famously uses 6-page narratives in order to propose new ideas and read in silence at the beginning of each meeting. Not only does the exercise force everyone to consider the details, it also ensures a significant amount of time and effort goes into the idea in the first place.

We don’t do PowerPoint (or any other slide-oriented) presentations at Amazon. Instead, we write narratively structured six-page memos. We silently read one at the beginning of each meeting in a kind of “study hall.” Not surprisingly, the quality of these memos varies widely. Some have the clarity of angels singing. They are brilliant and thoughtful and set up the meeting for high-quality discussion…

…The great memos are written and re-written, shared with colleagues who are asked to improve the work, set aside for a couple of days, and then edited again with a fresh mind. They simply can’t be done in a day or two.

Amazon 1997 Letter to Shareholders

This results in Amazon consistently operating at a high level of efficiency:

Imagine for a moment that you could go into a meeting and everyone in the meeting would have very deep context on the topic you’re going to discuss. They would be well-versed in the critical data for your business.  Imagine if everyone understood the core tenets you operate by and internalized how you’re applying them to your decisions.

How great would it be not to be constantly interrupted by clarifying questions?  How great would it be not to have the decisions in the meeting based on the social networking advocacy that happened before the meeting?  How great would it be if executives deeply understood your organization from your perspective before asserting they know better how to do it?  How great would it be to be able to review the core data going into a decision rather than have someone summarize it and assert that correlation is causality without revealing their work?

This is what meetings are like at Amazon and it is magical.

The Beauty of Amazon’s 6-Pager, Brad Porter

It’s not just Amazon. If you have ever used any Apple apps on iOS or macOS, you will have noticed how consistent they are in design and style. This is because they have strict, detailed Human Interface Guidelines for all their platforms.

Design consistency is an indicator of quality and the same applies to writing. Apple has a style guide which is just as relevant as the Interface Guidelines:

The Apple Style Guide provides editorial guidelines for text in Apple instructional materials, technical documentation, reference information, training programs, and user interfaces. The intent of these guidelines is to help maintain a consistent voice in Apple materials.

Writers, editors, and developers can use this document as a guide to writing style, usage, and Apple product terminology. Writers and editors should thoroughly review the guide to become familiar with the range of issues involved in creating high-quality, readable, and consistent materials. Apple developers and third-party developers should follow these guidelines for user-facing text.

It’s not just the large, successful companies that take this approach. It applies to smaller, successful businesses as well. Basecamp, a ~40 person company, uses a very similar written pitch to propose and discuss ideas for feature development:

Why don’t we pitch in person? For a few reasons:

  1. We feel it’s better to write something up completely. This forces the floor — the person who’s making the pitch can’t be interrupted. They are guaranteed to be able to present their story completely, exactly as they want.

  2. Further, we believe writing things out makes you consider them at a deeper level.

  3. We’re big believers in asynchronous communication — write it down now and other people can absorb it later when they’re ready. Real-time communication in person or virtually forces synchronization of schedules which is highly inefficient.

  4. And last, when it’s posted to Basecamp as a message, all feedback and follow up questions are automatically attached to the original post. This keeps all communication about the pitch centralized in one place on one page so everyone has access to the same story. One version of the truth.

Pitching an idea

Indeed, the importance of writing skills is something that Basecamp consider as part of their hiring process:

Our top hiring criteria — in addition to having the skills to do the job — is, are you a great writer? You have to be a great writer to work here, in every single position, because the majority of our communication is written, primarily because a lot of us work remotely but also because writing is quieter. And we like long-form writing where people really think through an idea and present it.

Jason Fried of Basecamp on the Importance of Writing Skills

Writing really is crucial to successful communication, and success in general. There are too many examples of poor writing. Why not make it one of your core values?