The Soul of (All) New Machines

Remember the Tracy Kidder book, “The Soul of the New Machine“? Required reading in business school from almost the day it shipped, the author embedded with teams at Data General in Massachusetts, in their quest to build a new and better mini-computer (remember those?) in those in-between days between big iron mainframes and the eventual PC/microcomputer revolution.

Org behavior types with an IT bent like me ate it up — it showed the challenges of leading technical teams, who were often motivated not by money but the nirvana of designing an elegant solution. The concepts of computer engineers as designers, creatives, visionaries, and even celebrities were all first written about here. Think of all the films, TV shows, and pop culture that have been built upon that thread. One of the engineers stated that “the thrill comes from knowing that the thing you designed works and works almost the way you expected it would. If that happens, part of you is in that machine.”

Couple that with a backstabbing and dysfunctional org culture, and you’ve got Case Study Gold.

For extra credit, grab a copy of Mark Singer’s “Funny Money” about the dysfunctional org culture of a wildcatter bank in Oklahoma City at the height of 80s oil field speculation, and you’ll get a sense of the Oklahoma zeitgeist, and may illuminate the seeds of our state government’s myopia to this very day.

But I digress…

My earlier post about the over-engineering of the original Apple Macintosh made me think about “Soul” and the ways in which Steve Jobs’ origin story has similarities. For starters, we all know he wasn’t a good leader at first: brash, petulant, and prone to explosion. Sounds a lot like Tom West at Data General, the leader of the Eagle team.

But he also imbued part of himself into the Macintosh. Remember what a delight it was to have a machine that had Fonts? Fonts that were actually in the computer and not the printer? Steve Jobs learned calligraphy at Reed College and has stated at the 2005 Stanford Commencement address that his time learning calligraphy made the Mac what it was.

The initial market positioning of the Macintosh owes a lot to that. Right from the beginning, it was a machine not for business per se, but for the creative class. Legions of graphic designers, communications professionals, and newspapers adopted it as their own — experimenting and inventing a new digital medium. Even hacks like myself used it to create campuswide quarterly newsletters, which advertised training classes, built enthusiasm for new capabilities (the Internet, for one), and also did a little commerce: the back page was always an ad from our campus computer store, with printing underwritten by a computer manufacturer!

Only a bit later did the business world start to catch up with the realization that business decisions, made with data, could be much more convincing via pictures: graphs, bar charts, etc. Early Macintosh spreadsheet developer Wingz (later bought by Informix) first brought those pretty graphs to us, and only later did Microsoft add those to Excel. And of course, they bought PowerPoint from Forethought, which began to round out the first iteration of the Office software suite. On a Mac, since Windows wasn’t mature enough in its development.

But I digress…

The point I’m making is that every new company contains a bit of the DNA of the creator/founder. Over the years I’ve had a front-row seat to many organizations that have morphed into different places once the founder’s soul has fled to the sky, either literally or figuratively. New leaders don’t retain the zeal of the original, or external forces push in new directions — often making the entities stronger and more resilient.

In 2008 Noam Wasserman published a piece in the Harvard Business Review called “The Founder’s Dilemma.” It details the results of a survey of 212 start-up founders in the late 90s- early 2000s, where over 50% of founders were replaced before the organizations were three years old. Among his observations:

  • Most founder-CEOs start out wanting both wealth and power, and over time they make choices that implicitly choose one over the other. Staying as King often means less capitalization; whereas building a Rich company means sharing ownership, board control, etc. etc.
  • Founder-CEOs who thrive on the adrenaline of getting a new product to ship often don’t realize that once that’s done, the work changes. Now it’s about growth, survival, scaling up, etc.
  • Startups founded by more senior leaders have more success, and the founders remain in charge for longer. They’ve had more experience and have become better leaders. Steve Jobs is an example of both: getting ousted by the Apple board when he was young (losing power), and coming back years later a wiser, richer leader.

The end result in “The Soul of the New Machine” was not a good one. Talented engineers got burned out when they realized that they were not the saviors of the company they’d been led to believe they were. Many learned too late that the tech industry favors people with deep skills, but not all at one place:

"You stay in a place too long, you miss out on new technology and new tools and new ways of doing things," he says. "I've seen friends who stayed too many years in something, and they always find a niche where they become a guru of something and manager of whatnot. And then when that activity ends and they leave the company or get laid off, they have no skills. In 10 years, you really are obsolete."

When we had a new Associate Provost for Computing & Information Resources join TU in 1992, it was a turning point. All of a sudden, folks who had spent their lives in the service of the Honeywell-Bull mainframe had no value. I remember one of them fighting for a continued role. The answer that came back was: “Who has more value: someone who has spend 32 years at the same university with the same equipment and people, or someone who has spent 32 years at 6 different universities, with many different systems and leadership challenges?” — the message being that deep leadership skills were more valued than merely time in a chair.

Which is why I value my business and leadership expertise over my tech skills. Tech skills come and go…

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