Read: In the Plex, by Steven Levy

As I read Inside Apple earlier this year I was thinking I should perhaps read In the PlexSteven Levy‘s book about Google, to see what the differences were between the two Silicon Valley behemoths.

Differences?! What did I think?! I was so wrong, and the mistake has its roots in a faulty interpretation of what the different companies stand for. Google is generally perceived as being pro open source and driven by science and innovation while Apple is viewed as closed and introverted, dominated by its Leader – most of the speculations surrounding Jobs’ demise centred on how Apple would be able to hold on to its place now the Man was gone.

In truth the picture Levy paints shows how similar Apple and Google is. The only real difference is Google’s belief that engineering excellence will solve the problem – any problem – while what has made Apple so big is a belief in simplicity. The belief of each is Belief, though, with a capital B; zealous like religious fanatics. Both companies also has grown big under almost despotic leaders – leaders who either vouch for everything or impose counter-productive rules or (dis)organisation and thus slowing down the organisation.

Reading In the Plex only underscore my experiences from a life of watching people and organisations, analysing drivers, incentive models, management models and corporate/organisational culture and society; there are so many flavours of humans out there there’s people suited for almost every kind of enterprise; it is when the leaders are indecisive, or when they stray from the path, that people starts to leave for real.

It has led me to think that successful companies are successful because of a) a distinct idea easily converted into Belief or a Creed, paired with b) strong leadership, and c) timing (or luck – chose what suits you). What specific decision a company make hasn’t any significance for the company – it is the strength with which the decision is enforced, and the dedication showed by the leadership towards the decision, that will make the REAL difference. To me as a person decision (a) OR (b) might make me stay on or leave but for the company as a whole the unity and conviction is more important.

Levy’s book reinforces this notion.

But it also asks the question of what really drives science. The decisions made by Google are said to always be based on facts rather than on prejudice, wishful thinking, fear, and whim. This is extremely unusual. In the corporate world the politics of career and personal gain rule the day, placing reason and facts not even in the back seat but the trunk. From what Levy describes Google indeed rule by facts and numbers; but who decide what numbers to look at, what facts to pursue? One of the early curators of what is known as the scientific method, Robert Hooke, famously went by instinct rather than “facts” – at least that is how I read Stephen Inwood’s The Man Who Knew Too Much – and reading In the Plex brings Inwood’s book to the fore; to what extent is facts fact? Who chooses? Against what cultural backdrop?

Personally I suspect much of the “science” of Google is mightily influenced by what might be labelled an US elite university ethos, and ameliorated by nothing much. Placing the Android User Interface guidelines besides the iOS Human Interface guidelines only emphasises this – one is driven by number-counting artisans, the other by despotic artistry, but both are driven by principle. Despite what they say to the public other humans doesn’t matter much, either way, as long as they buy the product.

Adherents to the Church of Google might object by pointing to the many innovations that has been born out of the famed “20%” – every employee can use 20% of his or her time for personal projects. But no such project gets big unless one or both founders puts his stamp on it and getting the approval of someone who systematically evades meetings and makes a point of not being open for appointments is not easy; which means employees must be persistent indeed to succeed – Levy describes how employees learnt to stalk or ambush to get the sought-after approval, spending time and energy on finding out where Page or Brin might show up next instead of doing productive work.

How this in any way is better than a defined process, I wonder.

Also, the famed 20% are often time outside ordinary work time, despite what is said, and presumably Google will own both the code, the idea, and eventual patents deriving from the project.

What that makes of the objection I leave to you to decide.

An interesting read, even if lacking somewhat in the editing department – sometimes the text felt like it had been published before, as a series of articles (which indeed is in part the case), without the proper check for consistency as the articles were merged with the book proper.

Recommended to those who work in the IT, internet and computer industries, and to business management people.


Review: Inside Apple, by Adam Lashinsky

Originally I had no intentions to read “yet another” book about Apple – a) I feel a bit queasy about the hype Jobs‘ death set off, and b) I had read some other books in more or less the same domain, back in the 90’s – namely Steven Levy‘s Hackers and Insanely Great (the old edition) respectively, plus Robert X Cringley‘s Accidental Empires (also the old edition) and Katie Hafner‘s Where Wizards Stay Up Late. That I ended up doing it anyway I blame on a colleague who shared a link to a video featuring Adam Lashinsky‘s talking about his book Inside Apple; some of the things he said made me hope that this book might bring an interesting analysis on Apple’s corporate culture and business practice to the table, so eventually I got it.

It is a rather slim volume, only made to look more substantial by the heavy pulp paper and the wide-spaced large typography. The author himself states that he has not been able to secure interviews with any Apple executive – only with people formerly at Apple, and many of those had a guarded attitude. So it is no surprise that many of the events told about in the book are public events or events told by others – the team behind him must have rifled through reams and reams of articles and books and other media to find relevant quotes – and thus already known to those of us who sometimes listen with an ear towards the rumour mill.

Lot’s of regurgitated stuff, thus. Which, given Apple’s attitudes towards information, doesn’t come as a surprise.

Yet I thought the book an interesting read, not least because Apple’s corporate culture and business practices provokes thought.

Apple has partly reached success because they have gambled. Gambled on a design or a product and its viability on the market. They stroke luck, and no one really knows how much of it has been pure luck and how much of it that has been Jobs’ genius in collecting intelligence through networking and information gathering. Or, for that matter, how much of Job’s alleged total control really were total control.

This is not only interesting because it will tell how well Apple will do in times to come but also because it tell something about the possibility to transplant the Apple method to other businesses. Was it only Jobs’ charisma, or was it something more, something tangible and thus repeatable?

Truth is no one knows, and this is why the book feel like a heap of guesswork. A real case study cannot be made in another handful of years. Instead, what was interesting to me was the comparison I, and in some few cases the author as well, can make with another huge company that has retained its cool, in the eyes of people, namely Google.

Where Apple is closed and secret, a secrecy enforced by threat towards the individual – compartmentalised and sect-like – Google is open. Google lives by perpetual beta, everyone who is interested can know what they’re working on. Apple only release what they view as finished products and the less people know beforehand the better. Google encourages innovation on an individual level – at Apple only Jobs, and perhaps a few of his most trusted people, were allowed to think things up. At Apple you did what you were best at, for life. At Google you’re welcome to try your hand at whatever (or so the rumour is).

There is no question that the Google way is more compelling. It’s probably a fun place to work. I bet Google employees don’t have to pay to use the company gym, or has to be paranoid about who they’re talking to.

But. There is a dilemma. I – and I’m hardly alone – always strive for design excellency. Not always achievable, I am, after all, a consultant, but I don’t want to release second class product.

And looking at Google and Apple – who has the nicest, most easy to use, most desirable products? From the point of view of many consumers, me included, something that looks nice and feel nice makes me as a person look and feel good when using it or displaying it for others to see.

Google is an utilitarian stool, made from a sawed off tree trunk stood on its end.

Apple is a Danish designer chair, a piece of modern.

I might not have money enough to buy it but I desire it just as I desire a Ferrari Testarossa.

If you buy a carton of milk while returning home after a tour on town in your Testarossa there’s no room to keep it. No boot (trunk, for you Americans), no storage space. But the storage space is not why I desire the car. It’s something else, something ephemeral.

And, of course – the Apple product is often easy to use, which is more than you can say about an Italian sports-car ;-)

See my dilemma?

Coming back to the review proper I think this is the dilemma the author struggles with as well. A love-hate relationship that makes it hard to step back and be purely objective. See there the strength of a brand, the strength of consequent brand management.

But in the end – this book is a quick glimpse into Apple’s management and business practices, probably aimed at stressed out executives, to read during a boring flight. As such it’s more like a fleshed out magazine cover story than a book.

A person like me who thinks culture and what comes from it is interesting this is a good read. For those who yearn for more tidbits about Jobs there’s nothing new to see. Decide for yourself which category you’re in and read it or not based on that.

Me, I’ll probably get Steven Levy’s In The Plex now, to read for comparison ;-)

Artefacts from the day before yesterday

I grew up thinking of artefacts as something as humans left behind them, remnants of our activities. Then I got involved in the software, or computer, business, as a consultant, where artefact means something else – a by-product of our activities, but in another not so archaeological, way. Mainly they’re documents, of different kinds. Anyway, the other day I sorted out some old stuff, among other things an old bowl which has stood on my desk at home for a looong time. How long I realised when I found this item, at the bottom –

Remember? If you had an Apple computer you had one of these, preferably on the lid, to be handy when the mechanism for ejecting the floppy disc clicked.

This, for me, is a true artefact, and not from very long ago.