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Jessica Verrilli Headshot

A Bit of the Pixar Magic

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Last week, Ed Catmull, the Founder and President of Pixar, came into the Twitter office to share a few stories and lessons from his 25+ years at Pixar. His talk focused on company culture and was particularly relevant for a rapidly growing start-up like ours.

He spoke for just under an hour, no slides and just a few notes held in hand, to a group of 100+ captivated employees as we sat in our lunch area.

I don't think anyone got up throughout the entire talk. It was fantastic.

These were my favorite points:

The Dynamics of Honesty:

A small group of key people, known as the Magic Four, worked on the first three films at Pixar. They were talented, focused, funny, but most of all, honest. Whether good or bad, they shared notes with one another commenting on their collective work in progress. Part of what made this dynamic functional, Ed noted, was the absence of a power dynamic in the room: no one of the four had control over any of the others so they could each choose the times in which they wanted to heed to a constructive criticism. As a result, in Ed's words, "magic happened."

As companies grow and as teams become larger, it becomes harder to "protect honesty" because a perverse set of incentives emerge. For fear of repercussions, embarrassment, or a host of other reasons, individuals may hesitate to question assumptions or derail momentum on a project by criticizing it. It's not easy to walk away from a project or change course once you've begun, but honest examination of work is imperative to the success of a growing company. To create a culture of honesty, Ed explained, the question to grapple with is not whether or not to be honest -- that's obvious and pointless -- it's what are the blocks to honesty?

Management and Fear of Failure:

Ed mentioned this while explaining that managers are responsible for making sure the dynamics in groups and teams are healthy. It's a "top down corollary" to the common phrase, "better to ask for forgiveness than permission."

Adapting to Change:

There is an ancient golf course outside Calcutta, the story goes, where monkeys constantly disrupt the game by picking up the balls. Fences were no use containing the animals, relocating them didn't work, so eventually people adapted to the circumstances (hence the quote above).

Change is inevitable in any company, I'm sure, but it's particularly front-and-center at a start-up like Twitter. In just the past two years the employee base has grown by more than an order of magnitude while the company, it seems, has been through several distinct life cycles. Organizationally, we've created and grown whole new teams (like sales, marketing, legal and finance) and restructured into functional groups. Physically, we've moved from a quaint space on Bryant Ave with no formal lobby and a single, long lunch table to a multiple floor office on Folsom St with two separate dining areas. Each of these changes, whether significant or superficial, marked a micro transition in the company. All this change can be disorienting. In contrast to most things in life, the company has become less familiar over time. And these are just a few of the many evolutions within Twitter over the last couple of years.

But, frankly, this is exactly what you hope for and dream of when you join a start-up: with some combination of luck, timing, hard work, and instinct, the product takes off and everything grows like crazy. And, by extension, the company changes. It's not without challenges, of course, but as Ed pointed out, you learn to adapt.

Importance of Equality of Teams:


Teams will disagree, often, about priorities or approaches within a company. At Pixar there was a healthy tension between the story and creative teams, finance, technical, etc. Tech companies like Twitter are no different. The key to making this a constructive tension, he explained, is to ensure that no single team always trumps (sales because they're producing the revenue or engineering because they're building the systems, for example).

The Difference Between Stability and Balance:


Stability and balance are often mistakenly equated, Ed said. Companies should seek balance but be comfortable operating in areas which are unstable, risky, or uncertain -- that's where the magic happens.

After his 45 minute talk concluded I asked him a final question. As an executive, I posed, he must juggle many competing responsibilities. Clearly he cares deeply about culture, given the talk he just delivered, but how does that rank vis a vis the many other operational demands and general management responsibilities of running a company?

Without hesitation, he said, "it's the primary thing."

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