Steve Jobs in an interview with Fortune in 2008. This and lots of “Apple Retail Quotes” at ifo-roadtrip.com.
Ken Segall is a difficult man to sum up in a sentence, or even a paragraph. He’s been a part of some of the most recognizable marketing of the last century. He was on the team that came up with “Think Different.” He created the legacy of iDevices by naming the iMac. He’s worked with Apple, IBM, NeXT, BMW, AT&T, Intel and Dell. His blog, Observatory, is a wellspring of wit, insight, empathy and honest criticism. He can find the humanity in any story, and never seems to point fingers or make anyone out to be the “bad guy,” even when it’s very easy and everyone else is doing it. Here is Ken’s answer to our first question:
You did a great job of answering your own question with those quotes from Disney and Steve Jobs. They’re perfect. I’d add to those a similar quote from Jony Ive: “Apple’s goal isn’t to make money. Our goal is to design and develop and bring to market good products. We trust that as a consequence of that, we’ll make some money. But we’re really clear what our goals are.” Having worked with the executive teams at both Apple and Dell, I can confirm the obvious: these two companies are night and day. At the most basic level, it’s the difference between being a leader and a follower. Apple dreams of changing the world through innovation and design. Their goal is to create products people will fall in love with. Dell simply dreams of pulling in a ton of cash — and it’s been a while since they’ve been any good at it. Their goal is to make a more affordable version of whatever the other guy invents. Okay, that’s a little harsh, but it’s not all that far from the truth. There’s an old joke about Apple being the R&D facility for the PC industry. It’s remarkable how often Dell has attempted to latch onto an Apple revolution: music players, smartphones, all-in-one computers, super-thin laptops, and now tablets. However — if you love working at Dell, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. What’s important is how you feel when the alarm clock goes off on Monday morning. If the idea of going to work is depressing as hell, then yes, it’s time to move on. If you enjoy the challenges of your job, the people you work with, the company’s culture, and most important, the quality of your work — then you’re in the right place, Personally, I’ve always put the highest value on the culture. If that’s a good fit, your job will always be fun and rewarding. Your mission is to find that place before your meter runs out. Some of the most talented people I’ve known have at some time questioned their own worth after being beaten down in one place — only to find fame and fortune in another. I wouldn’t put a lot of hope in changing a company from the inside. DNA isn’t so easily re-programmed.
In his coverage of Microsoft’s Acquisition of Skype, Andy Ihnatko offers this analysis of what makes an “Apple” and “Apple” - and an “Amazon” an “Amazon,” for that matter:
Over the past five years, Apple and Amazon have been the biggest “this changes everything”-scale tech innovators. Both companies are smart enough not to take the wraps off of something until it’s D-O-N-E. Not “an impressive concept video,” not “a functional engineering sample,” not even just “Available for sale.” By the time these “A” companies add items to their online stores, they’ve got the product, they’ve got the infrastructure that gives it a purpose beyond its function, and almost just as importantly they’ve got their story straight and can explain to everybody exactly why this thing needed to exist.
David is another friend of mine, and a Senior CAD Manager at NVIDIA. David is just one of those friends that everyone should have. Immensely wise, incredibly generous and generally speaking a good example to live by. He’s also wicked smart. And very modest. And he has a killer blog.
Here’s his answer to our first question.
From my own observations, I’d first say that culture strongly flows top down in an organization. A boss is okay with covering a few defects because his director has asked him to do it before. The director is okay because the VP only values schedule, … all the way up to the CEO. So, I think the first key is having the right CEO. He or she sets the overall tone for a company.
But then the question becomes what’s the most important quality in a CEO. Out of the many answers I’ve heard, the one that seems most demonstrable to me is a willingness to reinvent the company. In a startup, the first product usually isn’t successful. It’s typically not even publicized. Despite the entire company’s full effort, Rev 0 is usually cancelled before it even goes into production – maybe even cancelled before it’s fully staffed. But the startup is so small and nimble, it has the potential to rapidly learn from its mistakes, even making drastic changes in direction, until, if the place and time are right, it can make a splash in the marketplace. And even if that doesn’t happen, it’s okay. Everyone sulks for a bit, but then a new idea comes along, and another startup, perhaps with many of the same familiar faces, takes a stab at making it big.
But what happens when they make it big? Now they’ve got the recipe for a market-winning widget. Hiring takes off like mad, so they can make 10,000 widgets, 1 million widgets, widget 2.0, widget 3.0, …. But before they know it, their idea has inspired lots of competition, or perhaps another startup with a slightly fresher angle is sneaking up from behind. So what do you do? The typical response of the now big company is “we’ll just make our widgets even better!”, and soon Windows 7 or the Core i7 Duo is hitting the shelves.
A startup risks everything on a new idea because it has nothing to lose. Then again, a big company has so many more resources. Why couldn’t they carve out a small portion for trying out new ideas? That can work, but keep in mind my first statement about the importance of the CEO, and the whole top-down flow of culture. In a startup, everyone from the CEO to the new grad is seething with energy toward a singular focus of developing their new idea. But in a big company, how much attention does “Bob over in North Carolina”, who’s working on “who-knows-what new idea”, get from upper management? And how much pressure is on Bob? Vacation? No problem. Roadblock? Oh well, cut the losses and move on to something else. There’s not the startup pressure of an entire company hinging on a successful idea.
But what if the CEO comes in and says “Hey guys, I know we’re a computer company, but how about if we put tons of money and resources into starting a really awesome music store instead?” (Remember MP3 players were around a long time before the iPod. It was iTunes, in my opinion, that made the iPod successful.) Well first, he or she needs to be prepared for a lot of flak from the board about this “apparent waste of money”, and second it’s bound to cause some waves within the employees. Will their job be threatened or less important because of this change in focus? Has management reached a level of desperation that indicates it’s time to move on? Then the stock market will weigh in with falling shares as they observe the company “losing its focus”. But if the CEO keeps pushing through, maybe, just maybe, they can turn the company into something else – something that keeps up with the fickle marketplace and truly becomes a new company. And so now, an online bookstore is selling home appliances, a computer company is making cell phones, and a search engine company is writing an O/S. I think, especially in the high tech area, this is what makes a great company.
But what if you’re not the CEO? If your job is stagnant (no room for promotion nor lateral moves), then it might be time to move on. But if there’s at least some fluidity within the company, I think it’s possible to act like a CEO, and begin by reinventing your job. Yes, actively engineer yourself out of your current job.
- Does your job involve planning schedules? Perhaps develop better tools (use a scripting language, Perl, a chart, whatever you know) to make your schedules more accurate and faster to develop.
- Does it involve understanding different aspects of the company? Perhaps arrange for your new hires to “rotate” through adjacent divisions of the organization and volunteer to let new hires from other groups rotate through yours.
- Does it involve knowing a lot of facts and various people in the company? Create a document that helps new hires and less experienced engineers learn the ropes faster.
- Does it involve designing a product? Perhaps come up with an innovative way of testing it e.g. bringing in donuts and hosting a “request for comments” from engineers in other groups.
- Does it involve writing code? If some of that code is repetitive, could you work on a code generator that allows you to code at a higher level?
- Finally, pray for ideas and the success of your employer (“as if working for the Lord” — Col 3:22-24)
Jason Craft is a dear friend and exemplary human being. He’s also a Senior Software Developer at Pearson Education. He has a Ph.D. in fiction networks (complex distributed narratives such as comic books - really, you should read his dissertation). If you’re a comics nerd, you should definitely also check out his The Annotated Flex Mentallo. He’s also got a blog.
Here’s Jason Craft’s answer to our first question:
After working at a bunch of places, I’m convinced of a few things:
Every organizational culture is unique
We can talk about whether or not you work at “a Dell” or “an Apple” but, in the end, unless you are working at Dell or Apple, the comparisons will break down. Organizations have their own personalities, even ones that are similarly big or small or ones that compete in the same sectors.
So, you should probably not only ask “what should change about this company?” but also “what are the factors that make this change likely or unlikely?” What mechanisms are in place to allow you, or others at your level, to make change in your company? How entrenched is a given process in your company? Is the shipping-first approach in place because other approaches haven’t been tried, or is it a key part of the company’s business plan?
In the end, it will be worthwhile for you to take a good look and make an honest call about how likely a “revolution” is. In your gut, you know what parts of the company are subject to evolution and change, and which parts are intrinsic to how it works. Those answers will guide your decision.
I think you have made a good point about organizational mission
With some kicking, I’ve been turned around to the power of mission and vision statements, and I think that a company that states non-commercial interests in an explicit and real way is different from a company that prioritizes being a market leader (even when that other-focused company is the market leader). I’m working at one of those companies now and I like it a lot.
Mission and vision statements, and high-level goals of companies, can change. Dell and Apple could once be called competitors, but that’s not true any more (Dell is moving away from the consumer market (see this article at Forbes.com), while Apple is diving headfirst into consumer electronics and media. More and more it’s like comparing IBM to Sony). But those changes are long-term, strategic, and generally not driven by those at our level.
If you think about moving on, take a good look at what the next step might bring
Be ready to spend some time asking what “quality” means for any organization you talk to, and keep in mind that even quality-first or “artisanal” companies need to be taken on their own merits, and that they inevitably bring their own frustrations. Make sure you understand those frustrations as well as the positives, and be deliberate about your choice.
Neven Mrgan is a developer, designer, illustrator, film buff, musician, foodie and all-around nerd who currently works at Panic Software as a designer. If you follow his blog you’ll find he co-created one of the coolest iOS games to date, that he has good taste (that is, he like Tom Waits) and more than likely that you haven’t read enough good comic books. Don’t worry, he’ll provide a syllabus.
Here’s his stab at an answer to our first question:
Attempting a revolution is unlikely to work unless you have a serious, serious ace up your sleeves, such as being a singularly, incredibly valuable employee.
I would keep my eye on other, better places. In the meantime, work on things that make you happy on the side. They’re bound to get noticed and hopefully lead to better employment! I wouldn’t focus directly on finding another job; not because it won’t land you one, but because you’re, I think, more likely to be happy if you just find time for cool work because it is cool, because you like it.
I was in this exact situation 5 years ago. It sucked for a little while… until it no longer did.
Learn more about Neven at:
This is the body of the first template I have created for this project, and it’s my hope that it captures the spirit and intent of Ask a Senior.
I’m writing to you to ask for advice. I don’t want to be the only benefactor to the advice you give, though, so I’m writing to you in hope that you’ll respond publicly on a blog I have set up just for this purpose: askasenior.tumblr.com
"Ask a Senior (Professional)" is my chance as a newly-minted senior user experience designer to ask advice from tried-and-true senior professionals from varied disciplines. The inaugural question, in my estimation, is a doozey.
So, with no further ado:
Q: I keep reading lately(1) about what makes a company like Apple a company like Apple and a company like Dell a company like Dell. Walt Disney put it this way, “We don’t make movies to make money, we make money to make more movies.” (1) Steve Jobs put it this way, “And the older I get, the more I’m convinced that motives make so much difference. HP’s primary goal was to make great products. And our primary goal here is to make the world’s best PCs — not to be the biggest or the richest.” (2) My judgment, then, is that a company like Apple focuses on creating great products, and being profitable is the result. Dell focuses on being profitable, and the quality of their products is the result. There are obviously lots of other ways in which those two companies are different, but this is the angle I’m asking about. I am passionate about quality, so I want to work at an “Apple,” where, for instance, a product will not ship until it’s really ready. I find myself in a mid-to-lower-level, yet influential position at a “Dell,” where a product will ship in September whatever shape it may be in, with promises of a “Revision 2” that will fix all the problems and fill in all the gaps - a promise that is seldom kept by anyone who makes it. Would you advise me to attempt a revolution - to turn a “Dell” into an “Apple” from the inside out? Jump ship and find an “Apple” that’s hiring? Develop a new perspective? Something else entirely?
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