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Published May 11, 2021 Updated October 20, 2023
Basecamp Exodus Reflections

A couple weeks ago we, in the Ruby on Rails community, felt the shockwave of Basecamp’s public meltdown and its tone-deaf leadership. Watching two people who have spoken about leadership in terms of diversity, transparency, and progressive thinking many times via social media, books, podcasts and articles implode so violently has been an eye-opener for me.

The short summary of the Basecamp Exodus, in case you didn’t follow the story, began with a long-lived list of customer names that were kept within the company for distasteful joking purposes which is eerily similar to behavior by Tesla employees. Anyway, a group of employees tried to form a diversity committee to address the issue, much debate transpired, and in one fell swoop, Fried and Hansson shut everything down without any input from the staff, leaving many bewildered and taken aback. Of course, my summary is an over simplification and not nearly as insightful as reading the full context of what transpired. To delve deeper, I recommend reading the following articles to learn how not end up in the same situation at your own company:

In my opinion, the repercussions of Basecamp’s poor leadership can be best seen from this Workflowy List which details roughly one-third of the staff exiting from the company:

  1. Ryan Singer (Head of Strategy)

  2. Kasper Timm Hansen (Developer)

  3. Sam Stephenson (Developer)

  4. George Claghorn (Developer)

  5. Andy Didorosi (Head of Marketing)

  6. Lexi Kent-Monning (Customer Support)

  7. Zach Waugh (Lead iOS Developer)

  8. Dylan Ginsburg (iOS Developer)

  9. Jonas Downey (Lead Designer)

  10. Willow Moline (Technical Support)

  11. James Glazebrook (?)

  12. Navid - (Finance)

  13. Kristin Aardsma (Head of Customer Support)

  14. Dan Kim (Android Developer)

  15. Jim Mackenzie (?)

  16. Conor Muirhead (iOS Developer)

  17. Javan Makhalmi (Developer)

  18. Adam Stoddard (Brand and Experience Lead Designer)

  19. Daniel J Colson (Developer)

  20. Wailin Wong (Audio Product)

  21. Elizabeth ? (Deputy Head of Customer Support)

I found the length of this list and the experience represented on it staggering. Having worked in this industry for several decades, the kind of disconnected leadership seen at Basecamp happens more often that I’d care to admit. Case in point, one of my first managers used to throw a bouncy ball into my office and let it ricochet around the room when upset or wanting results which felt violent to me but was accepted in the culture. I was so young in those days and working late midnight shifts to get software releases out the door that I simply didn’t know how wrong this was. We’ve been conditioned to tolerate jerkish behavior, and I, for one, am glad that’s getting called out more often.

Your leaders and their behavior is important. It takes Extreme Ownership, Drive, and a whole lot of heart to lead others authentically and successfully, and sadly, many companies employ unsuccessful leaders, both individually and within the industry as a whole. An old Hungarian colleague of mine used to quip: "the fish stinks first at the head," meaning that rotten leadership poisons the entire body of a company and, in the most extreme cases like Basecamp, results in a brain drain.

All of the turmoil forced me to reflect the Ruby on Rails community as a whole. Granted, Basecamp doesn’t own Ruby on Rails outright but does have a large influence. The elephant in the room is David Heinemeier Hansson who built the framework. That said, there are several companies involved in the governance of the framework, which I linked to above.

I have been drifting farther away. Don’t get me wrong! I love Ruby, but not so much the Ruby on Rails community, which has never felt like a welcoming place. The abrasive and caustic style David Heinemeier Hansson enjoys pushing is a common occurrence. These days, what I’m most excited about is leaning into blending Object Oriented Programming with Functional Programming which is a far cry from the design patterns used in Rails.

Maybe, in reflecting on the aftermath of the Basecamp Exodus, we can focus more of our attention towards new architectures and ways of thinking, not only to become better engineers ourselves but also to make the world a better place to live and work. 🎉