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The Bozo Event Horizon


I’m on a Harvard mailing list for some folks interested in startups and innovation. A recent thread of discussion was around hiring, and in a posting to the group I talked about making sure that you did your hiring so that you avoided the bozo effect. I was asked by a number of people what I meant by that, which led to a long post that generated some interest. So I thought it might be of interest to a wider audience, as well. So I’m posting it here…

On hiring, bozos, and some (admittedly biased) history

Some time ago on this list I sent out a message concerning hiring, and mentioned that you need to avoid bozos if you want your company to survive. I said in that post

It is a truism that good people want to work with other good people; a corollary to this is that bozos attract other bozos. Once the bozo count reaches a certain percentage, the company is doomed (I saw this happen from the outside to Digital Equipment Co. and from the inside to Sun; I’mworried that Google may have hit the bozo event horizon).

A number of you asked, either privately or publicly, if I would expand on this, and perhaps talk about what happened at Sun and DEC, and what I’m seeing happening at Google (and what I mean by a bozo). These are difficult topics, some intellectually so and others emotionally so. But I’ve been thinking about this for a bit, and I’ll give it a try.

Let’s start with the notion of a bozo. All of the great companies I have worked for (Apollo and Sun in various incarnations) or heard about (DEC, PARC, Bell Labs and the like) started around a core of incredible people. These were people who are or were legends in the field. They were the ones who where 10 or 100 times as productive as the average engineer. Some, like Bill Joy, are idea gerbils who can spout out hundreds of original ideas a week. Only some of them are actually workable, but if there is someone around to catch the good ones and edit the losers, these people change the world. Others, like James Gosling, quietly change the world by building something (the core Java language and libraries) that make so much sense and are so elegant that you just smile when you use them.

Good tech companies find a way to reward these people without making them go into management or otherwise change what they are doing. DEC had the title of consulting engineer and senior consulting engineer; at Sun there were the distinguished engineers and fellows. These were levels above the rank and file engineers; no one could expect to be promoted to that level, but you always hoped to become one of the elect. I remember being told that the requirement for becoming a Sun Fellow was that you had invented one or more major branches of computer science; the original fellows (Bob Sproull, Ivan Sutherland, and Peter Deutsch) all qualified on that metric.

One aspect of these positions is that they generally required peer review. You couldn’t become a Sun DE or a DEC consulting engineer just because the managers said you should. You became one because the other DEs or CEs had looked at your technical chops, and said that you were one of the elect. It was often compared to getting tenure, except that it was often more difficult; professors with tenure who shifted to these companies often weren’t passed into this level. And these people were the keepers of the corporate technical flame, making sure that the company stayed on the right (technical) footing.

The core of this decision procedure was the ability of the top-level technical talent being able to make technical judgements about other technical contributors. But at some point in the history of the companies, there arose worries that the selection criteria wasn’t, in some sense, fair. People who, from the manager’s point of view, did great work weren’t being selected by the technical leaders to join the top group. People who did other kinds of important work were seen as being de-valued because they weren’t being allowed into the upper ranks. And at some point, in the name of “fairness” or “diversity of skills” or the like, contributors who would not have otherwise been let in are added to the group.

And these are the bozos. Not necessarily bad people, or even unintelligent, but those who have been promoted to a level where they are given technical weight that they don’t deserve. The “A” team now has some “B” members, but those outside of the team (and maybe some inside of the team) can’t tell the difference. The upper levels of the technical parts of the company now have some people who are driven more by politics, or quick business wins, or self-promotion (all of which may have been the skills that got them support from the non-technical to be promoted to the technical elite). Without a clear technical voice, management does the best it can. But the ship is somewhat rudderless.

Worse still, the bozos will push to promote others like themselves. Which dilutes the technical thinking even more. At some point, what used to be technical discussions devolve into discussions about politics, or business models, or market share. All of which may be important, but they aren’t the technical discussions that had made the company a leader. This is when you have reached the bozo event horizon. I’ve never seen a company recover.

All of this is about the technical bozos, because that is what I’ve experienced. But it wouldn’t surprise me to find that the same sort of phenomenon goes on in marketing, or management, or any other field. The indicator is when process and fairness becomes more important than judgement, and when it isn’t ok to say that some people have reached their limit. Or maybe this is something that happens more in the technical parts of an organization than in the others. I wouldn’t know.

I don’t know that Google has hit the bozo event horizon, but I’m worried that they might have. Part of the worry is just because of their size; it is really hard to grow the way Google has without letting some lightweights rise to the top. The other is their hiring process (full disclosure; I’ve looked at Google a couple of times and it never worked) which has gotten pretty process-bound and odd. The last time I went through it, the site manager admitted that I was plenty smart, but they didn’t know what they would do with me. Given what they were obviously looking for, I wasn’t sure what I would do with them, either. But the whole process seems to indicate that they are looking for people to fit a pre-defined mold, which the top performers generally don’t do all that well. In fact, the Google process reminded me of the time, more than 20 years ago, when I interviewed at Microsoft. And we saw how well that worked…


Why now?
End of the year ramblings…


  1. Dan Creswell

    August 20, 2012 @ 9:15 pm


    “But it wouldn’t surprise me to find that the same sort of phenomenon goes on in marketing, or management, or any other field.”

    Then you won’t be surprised when I say that it does indeed go on in management. It would be difficult for me to diagnose a root cause but there are some consistent patterns:

    (1) These individuals view management as command and control rather than being a servant to one’s team.

    (2) They spend little, if any time, understanding those that work for them.

    (3) They spend little, if any time, learning from the huge quantity of material on leadership, management, coaching and such.

    (4) They follow and enforce rules passed down through the years blindly and without thought. Sometimes they don’t even know they’re applying these rules.

    (5) There’s a huge amount of ego involved. One cannot be seen to be wrong, one must always be the driver of a conversation and there cannot be any outcome other than that which one desires.

    In a nasty bozo double whammy, these individuals will unknowingly ensure that all avenues for hiring non-bozos are closed off. When this happens, the only hope of salvation seems to be when these individuals fail so badly that they are replaced and the company lucks out when hiring the replacement accidentally recruiting a star.

  2. William Payne

    August 20, 2012 @ 10:43 pm


    The only solution that I can think of is to keep organization sizes small. Small teams seem better at handling issues like these.

    If team sports provide any guidance, 5-20 people seems to be about the right number. If we can find a way to effectively and efficiently invest in small teams (quantitative/algorithmic finance!), and a way to help small teams work together to take on and compete with large organizations, we might be able to forge a path to a more productive, more personal, more direct, and more democratic system of labor.

  3. Adam Nelson

    August 20, 2012 @ 11:32 pm


    This makes me think of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. He laments the American educational system’s drive towards equality at the expense of the Good, but really it’s just a more edified version of the Bozo effect writ large.

  4. coglethorpe

    August 20, 2012 @ 11:40 pm


    “Then you won’t be surprised when I say that it does indeed go on in management.”

    I’d even say that it begins with management. All it takes is for someone, who may have once been a non-bozo to get an ego, start valuing his or her job safety, or to simply find themselves on a career path they aren’t suited for.

    “These individuals will unknowingly ensure that all avenues for hiring non-bozos are closed off”

    In my experience consulting for several large companies, I’d say that the “bozos” are quite aware that they are keeping no-bozos out. Anyone who might challenge them, be a threat to their job security or otherwise make them look bad will be not hired, and will be demoted or fired. Bozos can be quite smart and very hard working. They just have a completely different set of motivations and priorities. Sadly those priorities usually revolve with their own interests and job tenure, and are not the long-term interests of the company.

  5. Joe Fleane

    August 20, 2012 @ 11:42 pm


    Yes, this is a familiar pattern.

    Event horizon, critical mass, whatever you call it, there’s a point of no return.

    I’ve noticed a related pattern. When enough mean people gather, bullying, cruelty, passive-aggressive moves, and conversational judo become the basic culture.

    People come in who are accustomed to working with others in good faith to solve technical or business problems. Even if they aren’t “A” players, they pick up on the vibe and they go elsewhere.

    Toxic people feel right at home and tend to get hired, as bullies instinctively recognize each other and like to gang up.

  6. Jack

    August 20, 2012 @ 11:50 pm


    I think bozo is a bit strong, but there is definitely a tipping point where grounded folk are trumped by those adept at self-promotion, politics and power games.

  7. buraddo

    August 20, 2012 @ 11:56 pm


    Isn’t this what Steve Jobs coined as “the bozo explosion” and then leter promoted by Guy Kawasaki as “how to avoid the bozo explosion by hiring A players”

  8. Ivan DeQuesada

    August 21, 2012 @ 12:00 am


    “In fact, the Google process reminded me of the time, more than 20 years ago, when I interviewed at Microsoft. And we saw how well that worked…”

    I’m confused… so you are saying that Microsoft is a failure in some way? All of their market share aside (Windows, Office, XBox)… Bill Gates has become one of the most productive philanthropists of our time. I think you need to justify your statement. I certainly wish I had bought some of their stock 20 years ago.

  9. Jim Waldo

    August 21, 2012 @ 1:40 am


    Don’t confuse financial success with what I’m talking about here, which is technical excellence. There are a lot of companies that are wildly successful but do it with a culture that promotes process over creativity and where I wouldn’t want to work.

  10. Decade

    August 21, 2012 @ 3:38 am


    Apple managed to survive the Bozo Event Horizon. They did it by reverse-acquiring NeXT, and Steve Jobs fired a whole lot of people. Mid-90’s Jobs liked to say that he hired only A players.

    Seeing their new retail strategy, maybe Phil Schiller isn’t so good at recognizing bozos.

  11. Insolent Maroon

    August 21, 2012 @ 4:18 am


    This post uses many words to describe the extremely (I thought) notorious Peter Principle, which has been recognized and lamented for decades. It will ever be thus.

  12. Stijn Sanders

    August 21, 2012 @ 6:20 am


    What you describe sounds an awfull lot like the Peter Principle:

  13. David

    August 21, 2012 @ 6:24 am


    “Never recover”!? I think IBM went over the bozo horizon decades ago and they’re one of the worlds most valuable companies. Maybe you mean by “recover” is to be a good place for a creative technologies to work?

  14. A Grunt

    August 21, 2012 @ 7:35 am


    Your focus seems to be largely on R&D and technical elitism. I agree that bozos exist, but one thing you have not expressed is that bozos come from any institution (Harvard, MIT, etc). So far, I have seen more bozos come from the ivy league day-cares for trust fund babies, than from the lower-tier colleges, simply because of the drive and effort that is required to succeed in startups (anyone can rot in a large corporation, when given a position with no challenge). So, your focus on the tech giants seems to be as misleading as your focus on elitism (which I interpret as academic elitism, i.e., PhDs sitting around arguing without producing a product). You have implicitly suggested that Google did not contain bozos when they were a smaller company and I think that line-of-thought is erroneous with Google’s consistent failure on later projects (non-search related).

  15. Michael Clark

    August 21, 2012 @ 3:38 pm


    I think that it might be useful to talk about the process of reversing bozoism – it would appear from other comments that it is possible to create a bozo from a non-bozo:

    coglethorpe: “All it takes is for someone, who may have once been a non-bozo to get an ego, start valuing his or her job safety, or to simply find themselves on a career path they aren’t suited for.”

    So – while we can do our best to avoid hiring bozos, we will eventually hire a few. What kind of steps can we take to create an environment which is more comfortable for those willing to be non-bozos? Let’s hear about that pound of cure.

  16. Scott McCaig

    August 21, 2012 @ 3:56 pm


    I would like to extend and revise part of Jim’s original premise. I have certainly observed that A’s hire A’s, but that (even at Apollo) B’s tend to recruit/hire C’s. My hypothesis is that (as Jim pointed out), while A’s want to be surrounded by A’s to learn from each other, B’s want people around who know less than they do. Perhaps these are sub-bozo’s?

  17. Bozo the Clown

    August 22, 2012 @ 9:32 pm


    The solution to the Bozo problem is to engage those B players with the A players. You don’t see this often though, because it requires A players to have solid interpersonal skills. What some call the Bozo effect, others may view as technical elitism which serves it’s own interest. Just because some people are 10-100x more productive than others, you don’t only want to hire those people. The best teams are comprised of both A and B players.

  18. Sandifop

    August 25, 2012 @ 1:32 pm


    “The last time I went through it, the site manager admitted that I was plenty smart, but they didn’t know what they would do with me. ”

    Same thing they told my son. I think they use a magic 8 ball for hiring.

  19. Eric Bozo

    August 28, 2012 @ 10:43 pm


    “The solution to the Bozo problem is to engage those B players with the A players.”

    Engaging is one thing, but this blog refers specifically to a situation where the playing field is diluted in an attempt to give everyone a chance to be part of a top-tier group. Anyone who has been in this position knows that once you bend over backward to allow for “equality”, you have to accommodate for everything that goes with it – insecurities, fragile egos, political posturing, and ultimately watered-down solutions to real company challenges. The goal of a company is to stay profitable and stay in business. I don’t think that should also include giving everyone a chance to advance in the company regardless of whether or not they are qualified.

  20. Bozos « Information Ashvins

    August 30, 2012 @ 11:46 pm


    […] a comment to the previous post, Rich talks about bozos.  I’ll have to think about the bozo phenomenon a little bit, but it seems eminently […]

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