Pixie Hollow won't scale

Don't let the fairies deceive you

For the past sixty-seven years, I have been watching “Tinker Bell”, a Disney CGI spin-off from Peter Pan created in 2008 as part of the Disney Fairies franchise in a desperate cash grab which includes books, stickers, costumes, and lots of glitter.

(Everyone knows the money is in the merchandising)

If you have the good fortune not to be acquainted with “Tinker Bell”, I shall recap it here. The premise of the film is that fairies are born when a child laughs and float like dandelion fuzz from London to Neverland, where they become real fairies in a multi-seasonal utopia called Pixie Hollow. 

Within this seeming paradise, they are immediately given a technical interview to see which skill best fits them, and then shooed off to the land where their talent lies. They are not even given time to have lunch with the right team to see if they’re a  cultural fit. 

This particular movie is an origin story. It introduces us to Fairy Hollow, and tells the story of how Tinker Bell is assigned a skill of becoming a Tinker.  Tinkers have tinker-talents like...building things. However, no matter how useful they are,  in addition to being sequestered in their own green industrial hell zone, they are also not allowed to go with the seasonal fairies to England to change the actual seasons they worked so hard to bring about. 

As a result, Tinker Bell tries in vain to change her gift to one related to animals, water, or the sky. She is a full-stack Tinkerer, but that doesn’t mean she’s content to sit at her Tinker-table all day long. She also wants to walk around, get facetime with the other fairies, get some buy-in on her projects. She doesn’t just want to be building things blindly. 

However, she fails miserably at all the non-Tinker skills and, of course, and causes a disaster when a bunch of wild leeks she’s trying to wrangle trample all of the land and efforts in Pixie Hollow. SPOILER ALERT. Tinker Bell also fixes the disaster with her Tinkering skills, saves spring, and allows all the fairies to finally fly to London and have some face-to-face time with stakeholders keenly interested in the arrival of spring there. 

On my eleventh viewing of this movie, I finally realized why I disliked this movie so much, and it wasn’t because every time my daughter watches it she declares that she must have another Tinker Bell sticker, which I then promptly find attached to the baby an hour later. 

Nay, it’s because the fairies of Pixie Hollow do not value Tinkerers, and as such, have not structured their society to most efficiently take advantage of showcasing the Tinkers’ talents. And, as a result, the hub-and-spoke nature of the Fairy Organization, particularly exacerbated by Queen Clarion’s tyrannical top-down management style, hampers fairy society and doesn’t allow them to grow beyond simple stone age tools. The fairies of Pixie Hollow would never get series A funding.  

The first hint we get of this is her talent ceremony/ technical interview. When Tinker Bell is shown a number of objects to choose her gift, the Tinker hammer is perhaps the ugliest and the most crude. While other fairies have names like Silvermist and work with water and rainbows, Tinkerbell gets a hammer. It is alluded that the hammer is perhaps the least elegant and least fairy-like skill, an allusion that is only reinforced when she meets her fellow tinkerers, Clank and Bobble. 

For reference, here are the rest of her friends with nature talents. 

All of these fairies do bespoke things like create rainbows or help birds fly. One is shown painstakingly taking 15 minutes to paint a single lady bug. The tinkerers are shown as making hundreds, thousands of inventive different tools to make the lives of the other fairies easier. They make baskets, they haul grass, they do all the menial thankless tasks that the other fairies don’t even notice. 

Second, there is only one Tinker organization for all of fairyland, which is comprised of, as far as I can tell, at least 6 or 7 different areas. Tinkers are not allowed to live in the other lands, and summer fairies are not allowed to go to winter fairy land especially. These kinds of organizational silos lead to huge inefficiencies which prevent knowledge-sharing and collaboration and leave the Tinkerers to care for the entire population of Pixie Hollow with their meager staff. 

And then, even in spite of all the help they give to the other seasonal fairies, Queen Clarion, the Chief Fairy Officer, says they are not allowed to go to the continent to bring spring. It simply isn’t done. 

What is Queen Clarion afraid of? Is she embarrassed that, in meeting their stakeholders, the fairies will accidentally spout off something about Levenshtein distance instead of talking about how many water droplets they collected that day? Why doesn’t Queen Clarion let the Tinkerers out of their lush, green prison? 

Eventually, of course, everyone sees the value of the tools Tinkerbell is building and realizes that building a machine that paints 15 ladybugs a minute is infinitely more valuable than one ladybug painted by hand, but at what cost? Tinkerbell had to almost ruin spring to bring Queen Clarion’s attention to how dysfunctional and sclerotic her organization had become. 

Ultimately, Pixie Hollow is a toxic organization. It shouldn’t be lauded in stickers and t-shirts. It should be written up the Harvard Business Review with dire headlines and lots of charts explaining how it’s in the last quadrant in fairy-ness. It should be lambasted on Hacker News for its terrible interview process, it should be discussed on Blind, Levels.fyi, and Tweet-threaded.

Pixie Hollow is dangerous for serious makers and builders, and don’t let the ladybug fairies convince you otherwise. 

What I’m reading lately: 

  1. Communism in Pixie Hollow

  2. The subtitle army of China

  3. Tim Berners-Lee is sorry

  4. What it’s like being black on Wall Street

  5. The end of open plan everything

  6. Data advice thread


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The Author:
I’m a machine learning engineer. Most of my free time is spent wrangling a preschooler and a baby, reading, and writing bad tweets. Find out more here or follow me on Twitter.