Monday, December 7, 2009



Truth is ever to be found in simplicity, and not in the multiplicity and confusion of things.

— Sir Isaac Newton

Science fiction is a real passion for many scientists and non-scientists. Perhaps it may even account for the reason many of us work in science at all. For my generation, and my parents’ generation, there are two television series that most represent an idealized technological universe, Star Trek and Doctor Who. These two are markedly different from Orwellian type futurist fiction, in that they are not meant as a warning against technological advancement, but rather an excitement for its arrival. Something which strikes me as amazing is that the most popular character in Star Trek is Spock, the logical, knowledgeable Vulcan, who, until the recent Star Trek film, avoids human emotion in favor of reason. The Doctor, in Doctor Who, is certainly emotional, but he avoids commitment in a way, favoring discovery for its own sake. The Doctor sees nothing more romantic than traveling to the edges of time and the known universe, where even his vast comprehension is challenged, forcing him to learn something new. The reason that Spock and The Doctor are so enticing for the scientist, and the fan, is that they are able to reduce the complexity of the universe into something that is comprehensible for them, so, therefore, we feel it is possible for us. They remind us that while it takes a long time to learn things (The Doctor is over 900 years old!), once we know them those things become simple. The goal for them and for us is to have as much simplicity as possible in our lives. If we succeed, Quantum Chromadynamics and partial differential equations become second nature.

Business tends to have the inverse value system. Specialization is not the same in business ideology. A CEO is not meant to understand the mechanics of financial models that make up the foundation of his company, or to understand the cultural components that affect the work habits and productivity of his thousands of employees. The job of a CEO is to create layers of complexity in the system, all of which he feels are handled by others, so that he can focus on the most illogical part of the process, which is vision. A business leader relies on the two things that Spock or The Doctor would never accept; faith and emotion. The faith is accepting that the system in place works, and that the thousands of employees he doesn’t even know are doing something useful. The perception, even by the leader himself, is that this is not happening.

Now more than ever a CEO is bombarded with data. This data is too much for any one person to fully grasp; yet major decisions need to be made from it. In Malcolm Gladwells essay on the Enron crisis, he speaks of the complications of the accounting, and structural components of the Enron crisis. He suggests that there was so much data form special entity companies that Enron created, that it was actually not possible for the CEO Jeff Skilling to truly understand what was going on. So while claiming to be using numbers, those numbers were useless in really evaluating the situation. The company was just too large and too complex. Like Skilling, many CEOs then revert to an instinctual and rigid evaluation of a company’s health. My mother refers to this as “management by spreadsheet”, which until recently I didn’t completely understand, or even agree with. A spreadsheet appears to be very scientific. Then I revisited the lab environment. During a course of any experiment, enormous amounts of data are generated, and put into spreadsheets. Nearly anyone can do this. The creative scientist is not the one to compile data, but to properly analyze it. It is possible that a trained CEO could analyze data well. It is not likely though that he can analyze well the complete data that is presented to him. A scientist is always trying to narrow the scope of a single evaluation, because looking at multiple things at one time introduces too many variables to properly understand. A CEO, even if somehow very mathematical and analytical by nature, couldn’t possibly do this. He is instead forced to rely on generalizations about the data. This leads to an impersonal management style, and ultimately on that is not quantitative at all.

Being emotional, and trusting are not bad qualities. It is what makes us different from a Vulcan or Time Lord. It is risky though to be in a situation where you are incapable of returning to the hard facts when necessary. This is a major advantage for small technology companies, who have less than 100 employees. In these companies you can read the financial statements monthly, talk with all of the engineers daily, and analyze customer satisfaction on your own.

The hallmark of an overly complex business community can be seen at corporate headquarters, when business managers spend 90% of their days in meetings. I have been a consultant for large companies, and have found myself in some of these meetings. The goal is a good one; to make grand plans for the business. These meetings usually end up producing documents of notes from the meetings, and the notes produce documents of a strategy, which if you wait long enough trigger another meeting, which in the rare instance result in a document that gets passed down the management chain. Occasionally this may lead to innovation, but it is by nature an isolating process, where the meeting room and the document generation process become a bigger part of the route than the product or customer. This actually tends to happen even at small companies, especially those managed by MBAs. It rarely happens at small companies run by engineers or scientists, because engineers are too curious to not be involved. The Doctor would never delegate a mission to the future in a distant galaxy, because the joy of being a Time Lord is visiting it yourself, or with partners. This is one place where Google, even as large as it has become, succeeds. The founders and all major executives are engineers themselves, and avid users of the product. They understand creativity and how it comes from experimentation, rather than meetings. So each Google engineer is required to spend 20% of their time working on any idea they have. The other 80% is spent on other Google projects. That is 100%, none of which is in meetings. CEO Eric Schmitt, in a 2006 Charlie Rose interview, admits that this is getting more and more difficult as they grow. He claims that founder Larry Page knew the first 2500 employees personally, and exactly what each made. Page is brilliant of course to be able to remember 2500. For most of us knowing 100 people is about maximum. So now that Google has 30,000, even Page is in the dark about most of his employees.

My father ran Tech Pro with Google style ideals. Since Tech Pro was so small it wasn’t necessary to formally structure them. There were small clues that let employees and customers know that it was a business run by curiosity and the thrill of science, rather than by meeting. One was that no one had titles on their business cards. While this may have been a deliberate choice, it was more of a practical one. Technician, salesman, engineer or president were each expected to be an advocate for the customer.. There was a constant feedback loop between customers and product development, without the middle or top bureaucracy which slows down progress. Another system which was at place at Tech Pro was a loose work schedule for engineers and especially programmers. These jobs were as creative as they were scientific, and people work better at different times of day or night. Often a programmer would still be at Tech Pro at midnight, even though he might not arrive the next day until noon. This made everyone feel a certain ownership in the products they were creating, but also a feeling of ownership in the company itself. The workplace often became an extension of their home where they not only worked but made coffee and ordered pizza. This sometimes meant that during the actual work day some engineers did very little work. They talked, had lunch and walked around the outside of the building smoking. With this strange schedule there was no time for, or really any need for long formal meetings, because small informal ones were happening all of the time.

It is obvious to me that this bureaucracy -free system is simpler to maintain, and for small companies more effective and fun. It also has a way of transferring to the products and services as well. Customers become a natural extension of this environment, as the Tech Pro team is used to seeing the business “universe” as approachable rather than intimidating. Product design also tends to reduce complexity into simpler components. Tech Pro always used off the shelf components because they were available quickly and any time of day or night. For development this meant that you didn’t need to wait for an outside consultant to prepare a proprietary scheme. This made the costs of the final product less, and also led to innovation that could not have happened otherwise.

By working simply, Tech Pro was actually more efficient and more interesting Simplicity was the rational approach to organization that Spock would have wanted and the adventurous approach that The Doctor would have embarked on. Technology and business can seem very complex but when seen in retrospect everything that has been done is very simple.

1 comment:

  1. What you are discussing here requires a fundamental shift in the way businesses operate and would profoundly affect productivity, creativity, and work satisfaction. This, in my mind, would be an ideal form of Capitalism for a number of reasons. First of all, it would maximize competition among businesses since there would be no "too-big-to-fail" companies out there who could artificially manipulate prices. Nor could companies bloat their budgets with excessive bonuses since they would actually have to compete for business with other leaner, hungrier entities. This would also, as you mention, decrease the alienation that many workers feel in large companies; cut off, exploited, unappreciated. So there would be an enormous social benefit to this. I think that this model will actually develop, not from choice but rather as these large structures collapse under their own bloatedness this model might be forced on the culture and give those who adhere to it a competitive advantage. A kind of Social Darwinism with positive cultural benefits. If not, we as a society are headed for disaster.


Please feel free to comment. It helps me with ideas, and to start a discussion.