Written by Sebastian Mallaby

People are Silicon Valley’s best-kept secret

Outside Silicon Valley, commentators obsess about robots, artificial intelligence, big data. Inside Silicon Valley, paradoxically, the tech tribe’s preoccupations often lie elsewhere: less with code than with people. Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg wrote two of the hottest books to come out of the Valley in the past half-decade — one is about women’s professional confidence and the other about coping with bereavement. The late Steve Jobs of Apple is the subject of endless fascination in Silicon Valley, not because he invented stuff but because his quirky New Age perfectionism somehow led him to greatness. Now John Doerr, the Valley’s most famous venture capitalist, has come out with a book that underscores this paradox. To anyone who fears that technology advances at the expense of humanity, it is salutary reading.

“Measure What Matters: How Google, Bono, and the Gates Foundation Rock the World with OKRs” distills four decades of Silicon Valley experience, from Doerr’s early years at the semiconductor pioneer Intel to his spectacular bets on long-shot start-ups such as Amazon and Google. But the focus that Doerr chooses is revealing. Although he is an engineer, he writes little about technology. Although he is an investor, he says nothing about finance. Instead, Doerr’s book is squarely about people: how to motivate them, how to forge productive teams, how to knit them into networks.

Doerr has much to say about his formative experiences at Intel in the 1970s. But the Intel leaders he reveres are not co-founders Gordon Moore, whose eponymous law anticipated modern electronics, or the brilliant engineer Robert Noyce. Instead, Doerr was influenced most profoundly by Andy Grove, the tightly wound Hungarian immigrant who marshaled Intel’s sales and product teams with the help of a management tool known as Objectives and Key Results — “OKRs,” in the jargon. The subtitle of the British edition calls OKRs “The Simple Idea that Drives 10x Growth,” and Doerr makes a good argument that laying out transparent objectives and measurable steps toward completing them has transformed companies and philanthropies alike. But the really striking thing is that getting the most out of people apparently interests Doerr more than getting the most out of electronic circuits.

Doerr’s other heroes are equally revealing. He quotes the great management guru, Peter Drucker: a manager’s first role “is the personal one. It’s the relationship with people . . . the creation of a community.” He throws in a lovely line often attributed to Albert Einstein: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” He extols Google’s Larry Page, not as the inspired engineer who co-invented the world’s best search engine, but rather as the manager who embraced OKRs, devoting two days per quarter to scrutinizing the precise phrasing of each goal for each coder at Google.

Doerr ends his book with a tribute to Bill Campbell, a sort of stealth rival to Steve Jobs as the patron saint of Silicon Valley. Neither an engineer nor a public visionary, Campbell was the beloved backroom guy with a talent for friendship; he was known as “the Coach,” both because of his early career in college football and because of his gift for mentoring fellow Valley executives. Leaders from Google to Apple to Amazon sought out his gruff counsel, and when he died two years ago, they all showed up at his funeral. Campbell was, writes Doerr, “a world-class listener, a hall-of-fame mentor,” a man whose “profane humanity” shaped the culture of dozens of companies in Silicon Valley.

What does it tell us when a storied tech figure produces a book, and it turns out to be about people? When a man who has earned billions from hardware and software seems most interested in what some techies call wetware? It tells us that, however much technology advances, we still live in a human-centric world — and probably always will do so. Doerr cites the business thinker, Dov Seidman: “In our open-sourced, hyperconnected world, behavior defines a company. . . . It’s the one thing that can’t be copied or commoditized.” Companies with strong values-driven cultures are better at motivating and retaining employees. And they tend to do better at innovation.

Doerr takes us on a tour of tomorrow: a start-up that makes pizzas with robots, another that displaces trainers and nutritionists with an app on your smartphone. But what we find in every case study is people: people who need to be encouraged and empowered, people who will be happiest when they feel part of a team that’s pulling together. The old days of dehumanizing production lines and top-down manager-to-worker diktats are long gone, precisely because the dehumanizing jobs are increasingly done by robots. Contrary to much conventional thinking, technology forces human beings to double down on their humanity.