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Aaron N. Tubbs

Dragon chaser.

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The company started innocently enough. Its reputation of hiring a diverse workforce was well-known. Also well-known was its habit of hiring only the best talent from the best schools. It experienced early success in its industry and revolutionized the product space in the first 10 years of its existence.

Growth was a problem. The company was successful and ambitious, but it was focused on a distant horizon. Their plans required double-digit employee growth for decades. Compound growth made the required figures to achieve this astronomical.

Now, attracting talent to the company was not difficult. Superficially, the perks and compensation were famously generous. The real reason people wanted to work there, however, was the people. What really got people lining up to join the company was an opportunity to work with the brightest in the world. To solve incredibly challenging problems. To grow and continue learning far beyond what an academic career could provide. Some figures estimate that by the time the pipeline was fully executed, each hiring decision started as a pool of over 100,000 (strictly speaking, qualified) applicants.

No, growth was never a problem of demand.

The problem was supply. The United States peak production of qualified workers in the appropriate fields for the company peaked at a few thousand individuals per year. It has since declined precipitously. Global expansion of the workforce and enterprise was a good initial step. An order of magnitude more talent was available to the company. The added benefit of producing a very diverse and distributed workforce was a huge asset during this phase. Still, these figures were not enough for the company’s ambitions. Various programs and investments were launched to get children excited about these fields and encourage more people to enter the ranks. These programs saw nominal success at first, but then a funny thing happened: Program enrollment started decreasing in volume and diversity. Several papers studying this time period have attempted to offer explanations. The consensus is somewhat banal. The disappointment of those who entered these programs and did not make it into the company eventually drove people into different fields of study.

Supply was still a problem. The solution was, of course, obvious.

In its early decades, the company discouraged relationships and children. With healthy compensation these constructs typically meant reduced productivity as people took more vacations, headed to the suburbs, and had familial obligations or interests. Worse yet, people started taking their family lives and wealth with them. They retired young. The company was on the verge of a crisis. As the first generation of leaders approached their own retirement, however, they realized they had made a mistake. Families weren’t a factor eating away at growth: They were the solution to the supply problem.

The attitude swiftly shifted in conjunction with a coincident phenomenon: The new generation of employees entering the company were overwhelmingly children of employees. The familial connection helped to get them in the notoriously narrow door, of course. But, the real explanation was again simple: A lifetime of exposure to the benefits (material, social, and intellectual) of working for the company made them want to be a part of it from their very first moments of awareness.

Stepping back a bit, it was also observed that married employees overwhelmingly had spouses within the firm. Some of this came from employees attracting people from the outside world. But, the majority of the attribution was, again, obvious: Employees tended to hang out with employees professionally and socially. They spend a lot of time at the office, even if they are not always working. With onsite facilities for all of life’s needs and excellent social venues and resources, there were not a lot of great reasons to spend time elsewhere. Even thirsts for travel, adventure and new experiences were well-sated: Employees regularly transferred within the company temporarily or permanently to positions in foreign offices. Each location had unique features and benefits.

Technically speaking, no restriction was ever put in place around the subject of dating members of the external population. Employees were good and wholesome people in addition to being incredibly bright. There was no overt hostility towards the outside world. After all, the outside world still provided the revenue necessary to grow the enterprise. The relationships, however, never seemed to last. Either the outsider would go or the employee would leave. It was just too difficult trying to live on both sides of an ever-thickening wall. Two things contributed to this: The outsiders were kept out via the company’s incredible secrecy. And, just as deadly, there was always the smug sense that “nobody outside the wall could possibly understand.”

So, it was no surprise that the company leaned in. It started with massive endowments at their top recruiting schools. Soon, like most things, the company realized it was better equipped to run a school than the outside world, so it started its own universities. These institutions retained all the benefits of a classical institution. The areas of study were diverse and outsiders were welcome to apply if they could meet the curriculum requirements. Metrics of performance drove everything about these schools to make them as good as possible: They quickly became the top of every list of the best schools for every program. These institutions were also financially independent and designed to be self-sustaining. They charged students substantially more than any other institution and offered only the minimum federally mandated financial assistance.

Of course, this was never meant to be an altruistic endeavour. Company children were guaranteed admission and could attend the universities for free. Three conditions were required to receive this benefit. They had to study in a curriculum important to the company. They had to get good grades. Their parents had to remain employed and in good standing at the company. No student was required to join the company at the conclusion of their education, but as long as the above conditions were met, all were given a competitive offer to do so. Nearly everybody made the same decision.

And, thus, after another generation the company’s growth problems vanished. Through sophisticated demand prediction they adjusted the required programs and body counts each year. These universities too were notoriously secretive, but careful observation from the outside world were still made. Looking back, the gradual shifts in areas of study should have been obvious but they happened too slowly to be alarming. This was the nature of their long game; everybody was thinking too small and too soon.

Gradual, too, seemed the shifts in admission policies to the company and the university. Outside recruitment was phased out over a decade and admission to required areas of study was closed to non-employees. Company attrition, too, became statistically irrelevant.

The pundits got louder. For a while all anybody could talk about was how the company was losing its edge. The pillars that drove the company’s growth seemed to be crumbling and there was no plan B. New products designed to provide alternative revenue streams seemed at best half-baked and failed to capture any market share. Doom and gloom. The investor calls just fueled the fire, failing to convince anybody with the tales that relief was just a few quarters away.

Then the trap swung shut. The world was shocked to learn the universities would no longer be accepting applications for admission from the outside world. They would continue to function on a limited basis for employees only. Those currently enrolled were allowed to finish their programs. The explanation made too much sense. The universities were no longer making money. They needed a bailout and none was coming. The pundits were right all along. The company’s financial problems meant it could not offer assistance and could only focus on its own internal pipeline.

It looked pretty bad. They were in the midst of an existential crisis. New leadership was being sought. Massive layoffs were inevitable.

And then they left.