From The Business Shelf (February 2014)

As I noted in an earlier post, the business shelves are a strange and interesting part of the bookstore.  Amid the numerous books about investing, “leadership”, and famous tycoons (convicted, indicted, and still at large), there is also a lot of stuff about IT, creativity, and “the future of work”, among other topics of interest to me.

Here’s some recent pickings.

Dogfight: How Apple and Google Went to War and Started a Revolution by Fred Vogelstein (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013)

Vogelstein recounts the development of the Apple iPhone and iPad, and Google’s Android platforms in the period 2007-2013.  He argues that this is a technological revolution that finally, after all these years, is “the convergence”—the merge of computers, TV, music, movies, books, newspapers, everything on one platform.

The story isn’t pretty at all. It’s much worse than the popular media would portray, and certainly not what the corporate PR flacks try to tell us.  Bur, for anyone in the tech industries, this all sounds familiar.  We’ve been there, though not necessarily at these companies or this level.

Apple likes to be thought of as “innovative”, though it builds on other people’s creations, just like everyone does.  Google famously eschews “evil”, but has flexible moral limits when it comes to business.  Both are staffed with highly flawed humans, and both abuse their workers to an absurd degree. Vogelstein gives us a pretty clear picture of the dark side of these organizations.

For someone who was doing handhelds (not to mention distributed systems) in the 90’s, it is galling to see these guys preening and crowing about how they “invented” these technologies.  They built on the state of the art, successfully integrating a variety of inventions.  Most of all, they had perfect timing, and the hardware finally caught up with what we had been trying to build for more than two decades.

One point I simply have to correct:

…the World Wide Web had revolutionized the world, but in the twenty years since Netscape started it all with the first Internet browser…” (p. 191)

Ahem.

The Netscape people commercialized technology that was created at CERN in Europe and popularized by the University of Illinois in Urbana Champaign (both of which had been on the Internet from day one). (Reference: Web Server Technology: The Authoritative Guide by Nancy J. Yeager and Robert E. McGrath  (Morgan-Kaufmann, 1996)).

The Netscape team moved to Silicon Valley and monetized the stuff we invented and gave away (millions of copies of Mosaic were downloaded before Netscape started).  Their browser wasn’t even close to the “first” anything.

The thing Netscape “started” was the explosion of heavily capitalized Internet businesses with no discernable business plan or profits. That is a miraculous invention, to be sure, but they did it on technology that WE invented, in the public sector, by the way—and gave away for free.

You’re welcome.

Some sections of thebook are better than others.  Vogelstein is not completely clueless about the technology, and has talked to enough players to portray the technology pretty well.  He’s a little more impressed with iOS and Android than I am, so I know he hasn’t done much programming on either.  (The technical evaluation of both iOS and Android is, basically,  “Ick!”)

On the other hand, the last chapter about the new media world is nearly useless (and almost unreadable). His breathless recitation of deals, happy talk from Hollywood agents (Really?  You pay attention to something said by these master smoozers? Are you nuts?), and seems to think TV is better than ever (though I’m not impressed myself). But the main thing is that stuff is changing so fast, and so unpredictably, that the chapter is out of date before it was printed. For example, by the time we read this book, Facebook and Twitter are starting to fade and Google has now dumped Motorola Mobility to Lenovo, apparently giving up on making its own phones.

Most important of all, the global Internet could become very much more fragmented, which would really shuffle the equations here.  The Chinese market is already partly separated from the rest of the world, worries about NSA snooping are energizing “data locality” initiatives, and US regulatory wars over net neutrality could partition the US domestic network.  There will be a huge difference in how your “one device” works if it depends on “the cloud” versus “the clouds”.  We shall see what happens.

Overall, this was a much better book than I expected from some of the advanced commentary (see the back cover of the book), and quite worth the read.  By the way, I’m very glad to not be trying to make an honest living in software anymore.  What a mess!

Joy, Inc.: How We Built a Workplace People Love by Richard Sheridan (Penguin, 2013)

On the topic of making an honest living creating software….

Richard Sheridan is the founder and leader of Menlo Innovations of Ann Arbor.  He’s a happy guy, or rather, a “joyful” guy.  Naturally, I want to know a) what “joy” could mean in this context, and b) what kinds of things do they actually do?

Based on the title, my part-Irish heritage makes me deep down skeptical of this book.  Joy is fine, so long as you don’t expect me to be joyful.  Normal life isn’t joyful, at least for long. And what does happiness of any kind have to do with work?

This book gives me a lot of mixed feelings. Much of what Sheridan describes is stuff I really don’t like, or, at least, I would have to learn to like.  Open, noisy workplace; pair working; stand up meetings; detailed time accounting:  ick!  But, the fact that this “culture” isn’t an obvious match for my own inclinations scarcely means it is a bad idea or won’t work. (It clearly does work.)

On the other hand, it is abundantly clear that Sheridan comes out of real software engineering, and the stuff he talks about rings true, through and through.  For that reason, I take his claims seriously, even when I don’t immediately agree with him—he definitely knows what he is talking about.

Sheridan and Menlo are pretty seriously radical, and definitely all-in.  Much of what they do is a bunch of non-secret, not-at-all-new, techniques, including extreme programming techniques, continuous software integration, and (extremely) open office plans.  Some is way out there, too.

Sheridan describes their hiring process in some detail, and it is pretty radical.  I tried to imagine “extreme interviewing” there myself, and I really wonder what would happen.  I bet that I would wash out, but maybe it would be so fun I would discover this was what I really want to do.  Either way, I have to admit that it would be a really fair and valid courtship ritual, and I wouldn’t feel too bad no matter the outcome.

I wondered what he means by “High Tech Anthropology,” which turns out to be a sensible, simple approach to user-oriented design.  While Sheridan’s definition of “anthropology” is a bit debatable (and he has little use for academic “anthropology” anyway), the emphasis on observation in vivo and structured conversation with the sponsor sounds like a good idea.  I certainly agree with Sheridan’s very firm determination to not “design for all users”, because, as he says, that never works out well.

Sheridan has a lot to say about experimenting and trying to “make mistakes faster”, to avoid, as he says, “making really big mistakes, very slowly”. None of this is news to anyone who has worked on any complex project, though he has some useful comments about how managers can “pump the fear out” and “pump safety in”.

Sheridan has some sensible things to say about software quality, though I have to admit that I was exhausted just thinking about the level of work he describes. I assure you that writing tests and delivering sample software every week is serious, hard work, whether you use pair programming or anything else.  Those of us who have done it can appreciate what Menlonians are doing.

One of the most outstanding aspects of Sheridan’s approach is his emphatic demonstration that that “progressive corporate culture” doesn’t have to mean “college dorm life.”  For example, Menlo has discovered the merits of bringing babies into the workplace—a sure sign of a place that is human-friendly. (I don’t really like babies myself, but when I am in a place that welcomes babies, I feel more at home, and also more protective in and of the space.)

Sheridan makes his case for why, if your workers are so valuable, you should treat everyone as a treasured individual. He also gives a vigorous exposition of why “flexible” work rules can be really bad for workers, both work-at-home and “free food at work”. His full-throated denouncement of remote working will surely be controversial, as will his acerbic dismissal of foosball and on-site exercise rooms.

Sheridan also has non-standard beliefs about scalability. Menlo’s current process seems to work well at the scale of projects they currently tackle.  Could it be scaled up for larger projects?  No one knows for sure.  But, as Sheridan hints, how many projects really need teams larger than a dozen or so?  Not many, and those probably can be decomposed into reasonable sub-projects.

It is nice to hear a boss who doesn’t think it is a good idea to have security guards routinely escort people out of the building after they are fired or quit. Nothing says, “We trust you” like a perp-walk for the crime of no longer working there.

This is certainly one of the more interesting “business culture” books, not least because it is absolutely the way they actually do it everyday.

Body of Work: Finding the Thread that Ties Your Story Together, by Pamela Slim (Penguin, 2013)

Slim is coming from a very California “self help” angle, she is a “coach” giving us here take on “the future of work”. I’m not generally a fan of this genre, but this book wasn’t too bad.

Her most important principle is clearly stated, “live by a very personal definition of success” (p. 5). Importantly, she emphasizes a very broad view of what “output” and “success” should include. Her accounting includes lots of things besides money, and takes a long term perspective.

As a “self help” book, there are exercises (which I hate) and links to lots of resources (which I like).  The links range from interesting businesses and organizations, to yet more self-help and informational sites.  !  It will take me a while to sift through all the links.  (That is a compliment.)

Other sections read like a new age puff piece about “my own personal adventure”.  At least Slim is navigating the real world, where a bit of wonder isn’t the worst thing. In fact, much of the meat of the book is a good, solid “empirical” bent, emphasizing “scientific”—i.e., fact based—development, through repeated experiment and evaluation.

I was most disappointed in the chapter on “collaboration”, which was a chore to get through.  It’s not that the advice is “wrong”, but it is pretty basic stuff, leavened with pseudo-sociology about “avatars”, “watering holes”, and “ecosystems”.  Sigh.

On the other hand, we can really tell what Slim knows:  how to start your own business (Her earlier book was called Escape from Cubicle Nation, so you know where she is coming from.)  I thought her list of four “pillars” her clients need when starting an independent business was perceptive and right on:

  1. Knowledge
  2. Encouragement
  3. Community
  4. Promotion (p.195)

Judging by this section, she’s probably a very good coach.

Parts of this book make grim reading, though:  she teaches that you should expect to lose your job and/or get deathly ill and/or humiliate yourself, so you must therefore always have backup plans and “side hustles”.  Being in your comfort zone is dangerous, she says, because it is almost certain the rug will be pulled out from under you, not long from now. She may be right, but I hate to hear it. Is this any way to run a workforce?

“New Mutualism” by Sara Horowitz

In my view, any consideration of “the future of work” can’t be complete without consideration of “the future of workers”.  If everyone is a self-employed temporary contractor, how can people gain security, decent conditions, and a measure of power over their own lives?  One answer is to reimagine the labor union into a older vision of a mutual aid society. This approach can be seen in, for example, the NYC-based “Freelancer’s Union”.

In addition to pragmatic benefits, such as group insurance plans, the FU promulgates a variety of ideas about “best practices” and how to do it.  This knowledge sharing spans totally mundane details of managing contracts and projects, up to abstract philosophical and psychological recommendations.

Consider Sara Horowitz on “New Mutualism”.  Moving from DIY (“Do It Yourself”) to DIO (“Do It Ourselves”).  The principles include:

  • Do It Ourselves
  • Driven By a Social Mission
  • Do Together What You Can’t Do Alone

This is an interesting grafting of old line socialism with new agey entrepreneurism. It’s not enough to be a freelance contractor, it is important to be part of a community of mutually supporting workers.

If there was any question that this is a moral and political concept, that is dispelled by Horowitz’s clear declaration:

The essence of New Mutualism is that it’s a movement. It’s about a spirit of collaboration and mutual support. It’s about building meaningful connected lives and thriving local communities.

With her term “New Mutualism” Horowitz puts a name on a constellation of ideas that a lot of people are more or less guided by, under the rubric of  “Social Entrepreneurism” and related concepts (such as D-School “innovation for people”), combined with a certain amount of “local foods” and a streak of “occupy-ism”.  I’m not going to attempt to unpack all of this, you can mix your own cocktail out of the pieces and no one will care.

However, I am amused by the rhetorical challenge and inversion of the Romney/Paul/Fox News/etc. “makers” vs. ”takers” 47% trope here.  In Horowitz’s narrative, “the people” are “the creators”, and opposed to “venture capitalists” (who are, in this view, “takers” of the value created by the people.)

As with any ideal state, “New Mutualism” must have a road to get there.  Horowitz has given her version of the road, in her Maslovian “Freelancers Pyramid of Self-Actualization”, which I discussed earlier here < >, and lot’s of similar aspirations.  Unfortunately, there is a huge gap between ordinary life and nirvana.  Ain’t it always so.

The good news is that many of these concepts can work pretty well with models like Slim, Sheridan, Griffith and so on, talk about.  This is one of the good things about something like the FU, it can interoperate with a lot of other ways of organizing work and social services.  To the degree that “New Mutualism” works, it will work in principle if some of the NM community have conventional jobs, some are in conventional public sectors, some are employers, some are independents, and some are not working.

For a dumb old socialist like me, the bad news is that this NM cedes too much of the playing field to the capitalist system.  It’s great when a local community “does it together”, but how can there be much security or wealth if the .01% control (and misuse) most of the economy?  No amount of “meaningful connected lives and thriving local communities” can save the oceans. And so on. In the end, large battles require large-scale responses, which cannot be done by local communities.  Large, organized public sector action is necessary, and that feels like “Old Social Democracy”, not “New Mutualism”

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