Verbal Energy

How makers make their mark without meetings

A familiar old word picks up a distinctive new use to describe those who actually create new stuff in the economy.

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Bloomberg Businessweek ran a piece not long ago that not only highlights an alleged new trend in organizational time management, but introduces a distinctive new use for a familiar old word.

The issue is meetings, a mainstay of the corporate world, despite their capacity to chew up vast amounts of time. The article cited a former software developer at Microsoft so frustrated with all the meetings he "doodled his way through" that he started estimating and tracking their costs – how many people in the room at how many dollars an hour times how many minutes of meeting. The average gathering "frittered away" about $500, he found.

The new trend: fewer meetings. And it's because of who's in charge in the companies in question. The article says, "Engineers are often in control at the latest crop of Silicon Valley success stories – think of coder-run companies such as Facebook (FB), Dropbox, and Square. They're reshaping the daily routine of thousands of office workers, with a special emphasis on fewer meetings. The forced hour-long sit-down is acutely problematic for engineers, designers, and other so-called makers, according to a 2009 essay by Paul Graham, a programmer and co-founder of the tech incubator Y Combinator."

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Did you spot the word? It's "maker." It refers to those people who create whatever it is the company is in business to do. The article quotes Mr. Graham: " 'When you're operating on the maker's schedule, meetings are a disaster' because they disrupt the creative flow, he argues. 'You can't write or program well in units of an hour. That's barely enough time to get started.' "

But fewer "manager-led" meetings means more decisionmaking power for those creating products. The promise of that power is attractive to those who want to work where they can make stuff, not just sit in meetings.

What we might call the "Graham sense" of maker seems a kind of retronym, like "acoustic guitar" or "corded phone," terms we didn't need until electric guitars and cordless phones appeared on the scene.

This use of "maker," I suspect, is rooted in a new understanding, or new inkling, at least, of which activities produce actual new stuff that makes masses of people better off and which ones merely move existing wealth around. It also comes as we're struggling, in many fields, to find new economic models for rewarding content creators while controlling production costs. Earlier this year, The Economist, not exactly a bastion of socialism, ran an analysis of the top 1 percent of American households and found they "not only get more of the pie ...; they are increasingly creatures of finance."

In journalese, "maker" is widely used as a shorter alternative to "manufacturer." For instance, a recent headline in the Financial Times: "Weak orders hit Japanese machine makers." (Manufacturer may suggest heavy machinery and big factories, but is actually rooted in the idea of "making by hand.")

Graham may be ahead of the curve in using "maker" just as he did. But others are using the term in ways that come close. Maker Studios, for instance, "is developing sustainable programming and building large audiences on YouTube ...," according to its website. There's Make magazine ("Technology on your time") for high-level do-it-yourselfers, and its "Maker Faires."

I am tempted to suggest a variation on the old saw: Those who can, do. Those who can't, take their percentage anyway.

Let's hear it for the other 1 percent: the "makers."

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