Understanding The Now

While 2016 has been an annus horribilis overall (unless you’re a racist, in which case, it’s probably a magical time to be alive), it has a been a great year for books helping us attempt to understand the heady times we live in.

Most people would agree that we live in a state of rapid change. In their book Whiplash, Joi Ito and Jeff Howe call it “exponential times” due to asymmetry (small can now beat big), complexity (interconnectedness at scale) and uncertainty (our existing institutions haven’t evolved to handle current situation). This provokes many questions, but one immediate one is: will this continue?

In his book The Inevitable, Kevin Kelly answers this with a resounding “yes.” The book outlines the twelve technological forces that will keep the rate of change high for the foreseeable future. Kelly, an original Wired editor, is an accomplished writer and technologist, leading to spare sentences full of insight such as:

We are moving away from the world of fixed nouns and toward a world of fluid verbs.

In the intangible digital realm, nothing is static or fixed. Everything is becoming.

Technological life in the future will be a series of endless upgrades.

In this era of “becoming,” everyone becomes a newbie. Worse, we will be newbies forever. That should keep us humble.

Kelly’s thesis is that we are moving into a world called Protopia where there is a constant, steady accumulation of positive changes, but similarly an increase in new problems. The net is positive, so society advances. We all get mobile phones with the internet but have to listen to occasional idiots shout into their Bluetooth headsets while walking down the street.

Kelly’s book dives deep into the twelve forces and backs each up with a wealth of sometimes obscure information. Printing drove the number of word available from 50,000 in Old English to over 1,000,000 today! Dematerialization means that one kilogram of inputs produced $1.64 in GDP in 1977 and $3.58 in 2000!

These stats are neither cocktail party fodder nor petty stats, rather an attempt to demonstrate the inexorable march of technology and illustrate that we are nowhere near the end of the path.

Kelly also gets full points for offering predictions of what the future will look like – and acknowledging both that futurists are almost always comically wrong and he is essentially guaranteed to be incorrect. This leads to paragraphs like the following:

If you’d like to have a vivid picture of someone interacting with a portable device in the year 2050, imagine them using their eyes to visually “select” from a set of rapidly flickering options on the screen, confirming with lazy audible grunts, and speedily fluttering their hands in their laps or at their waist. A person mumbling to herself while her hands dance in front of her will be the signal in the future that she is working on her computer.

If you had to distill what this means for humanity, Kelly attempts to summarize it in a few sentences:

We are marching inexorably toward firmly connecting all humans and all machines into a global matrix. This matrix is not an artifact, but a process. Our new supernetwork is a standing wave of change that steadily spills forward new arrangements of our needs and desires.

A key notion here is that of a “matrix.” This is a reference to networks and Joshua Ramo wrote The Seventh Sense to describe networks and their implications for the K Street crowd.

His thesis is that networks represent a fundamental change in the distribution of power. A small group of terrorists called ISIS can use networks to take on all of Western society in a completely asymmetrical game. ISIS is small and geographically isolated but as they tap into networks like Facebook, Twitter, or Telegram a phase change occurs and a more complex organization with disproportionate reach emerges.

Ramo has one critical insight for policy makers: whoever has the biggest network wins. The reason, is that networks compress time, enabling the biggest network to sustain its advantage as its members save time, creating a virtuous cycle where the big get bigger.

This is a simple sentence but it has profound implications. Like Kelly, Ramo offers a few speculative suggestions, but his are focused on how America can create networks to maintain political advantage. (As a reader I love these; speculative narratives are a great mechanism for reinforcing what the author means)

Examples? Retool the NIH and global affiliates to create a network of learning centers. Membership in the network means you share info and get access to that of others. Or have the State Department create a digital currency (a la Bitcoin) backed by US dollars (not a al Bitcoin). Give the digital currency directly to people in need and simply cancel digital dollars if taken by middlemen/corrupt officials. The network trumps all and no physical dollars need ever leave America.

The book is thought-provoking as it is the first attempt I have ever seen to apply the lessons of the Internet to government policy. We’ve seen the use of the Internet to get politicians elected but I’d argue it hasn’t materially changed their policy. Ramo’s book portends a networked political future.

This networked future isn’t just complicated, it’s complex. Samuel Arbesman’s book Overcomplicated outlines what this means and how to handle it.

A complicated system has a lot of parts but is predictable (a jet engine) whereas a complex system has feedback loops between the components making it unpredictable (the weather). He shows how systems everywhere – the stock market, air traffic control, Toyota’s brake systems – have accumulated so much interrelated cruft that complex systems pop up everywhere.

He cites Danny Hillis (a favored practitioner and philosopher of all the authors) in stating: “Our technology has gotten so complex that we no longer can understand it or fully control it. We have entered the Age of Entanglement. . . . Each expert knows a piece of the puzzle, but the big picture is too big to comprehend.”

Arbesman cites example after example of modern complexity and then offers an approach for managing it. Essentially, look to biological systems and embrace the fact that you will not know how everything works:

We must work to maintain two opposing states: mystery without wonder and wonder without mystery. The first requires that we strive to eliminate our ignorance, rather than simply reveling in it. And the second means that once we understand something, we do not take it for granted.

If this sounds a little Zen-like, then you will hate the recommendations of Ito and Howe in Whiplash. They offer nine principles – each of which is almost a koan – to navigate the exponential age. Emergence over authority. Pull over push. Compasses over maps. Practice over theory. Resilience over strength. etc.

The lens through which they see the world is the MIT Media Lab; Ito is the director and Howe a visiting scholar. They consider it-not unreasonably-a window into a possible model for the future and have tried to distill what they have learned into a series of principles.

There principles are definitely the most controversial part of any of the four books mentioned in this post. Since they are offering a way to navigate the future they lack the tested empiricism of the other authors. You are left with a sense of “trust me” with some of their recommendations but I see several of them embedded in what has made my employer successful so I am more than willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

I appreciate the authors’ humility when they closed their book with an admission that they’re not prophets but guides:

We’re not trying to sell you a way to organize your workdays or an exercise regimen, and we’re definitely not trying to make you believe in our vision of the future, because we don’t have one, other than a firm belief it will be very, very different from the world we inhabit right now. We do have an argument to make: Innovation isn’t about learning how to use social media to generate sales leads. And modifying a business for a networked globe will require more than buying fancy teleconferencing gear for your management team. Instead, we think it requires a deeper, more fundamental shift: an entirely new mode of thinking-a cognitive evolution on the scale of a quadruped learning to stand on its hind two feet.

There is an apocryphal Chinese curse that “may you live in interesting times.” We certainly live in interesting times and I’d encourage you to embrace it. These four books will help you do so.

Yukon Notes

View of downtown Whitehorse from Airport

This is a view of downtown Whitehorse from the airport. Just over 20,000 people live here (Except on Sunday afternoon when the only international flight arrives and the population expands by 2.5%). You can walk to downtown: it takes about 15 minutes and you just follow the fence around the end of the landing strip. The trail pops you out in the midst of the city.

Confused? Well, the first sign that the Yukon’s not going to be like everywhere else you’ve been is the flight up. Mountains in BC

Mountains in BC

Definitely sit on the western side of the plane because the landscape is littered with mountains and glaciers and alpine lakes. If you’ve ever looked at a map of British Columbia or Alaska you might have wondered why there are almost no towns; flying over the landscape makes in abundantly clear that this is inhospitable – but breathtaking – terrain.

Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon and where we went for a wedding, is nestled in a valley along the Yukon river and between a couple of smallish mountains. The image below, taken from the top of Grey Mountain (keep going right in the image at top) shows why you can’t see the downtown from the airport: the airport sits on a plateau. Glaciers eroded this landscape 12,000 years ago; one day the airport will crumble into the valley.

On top of Grey Mountain

If you go, I highly recommend the walk from the airport. It’s somewhat surreal to walk out of an airport and then almost immediately be downtown (and, if you do walk, don’t make the rookie mistake of walking down trails on the sand bluffs; there are stairs if you just keep looking).

When you get downtown, there are a few signs that this town is different from other towns you’ve been in. For instance, the local architecture:

Yukon Building

Woodcutter's Blanket

But don’t mistake the few wooden buildings as meaning that this town is rustic. Whitehorse has some surprisingly highbrow tastes. Those two moose are clashing above a remarkably good cocktail bar (Woodcutter’s Blanket); several places offer great coffee (I recommend Baked) and oddly you can get a remarkable selection of French foods and cheeses for a place that is just north of 60 degrees. The local grocery store had a better selection of asian noodles and vegetables than my Seattle Safeway (editor’s note: that’s not saying much).

Inside Woodcutter's Blanket

But you don’t go to the Yukon for the coffee and cocktails; you go for the wide open spaces and the wilderness. There’s only one road in and out of Whitehorse. You can go south to BC or west towards Alaska (the western road challenges you by branching; a spur leads off to Dawson). We headed west and went to Kluane National Park just outside Haines Junction:

Yukon map

The map above doesn’t capture the scale here: it’s 150km to Haines and another 50km to the trailhead at the end of Kluane Lake. There’s basically nothing in between and the roads are straight; you check the needle and find you’re going 150km/hour without even noticing. With no buildings or signs near the road you don’t have a sense of how fast you’re driving.

Kluane is home to some of the biggest mountains and glaciers in Canada and almost no one visits it. Wen and I hiked all day and didn’t see a single other person.


Tip of Kaskawulsh Glacier

Aspen turning color against mountain

The colors of the park are beautiful: harvest colors play off each other. Golds, greens, blues and browns abound.


Aspen turning color

Colorful Rock

Colors of Kluane


Even in Whitehorse you can get close to wilderness. There are over 700km of trails and they start about 1km from downtown. I spent the entire day running along the river and up the mountain; I saw perhaps 10 other people (and most of those were on the top of the mountain).

A note for runners: if you want to go for a long run do the following:

  • Run south, out of town, across the Lewes Boulevard bridge
  • Follow the trail along the Yukon river, going past Schwatka Lake
  • Keep going past Miles Canyon (but stop and check it out), still following the trail
  • The trail follows a bluff inland from the river, between it and Chadburn Lake; at this point you transition to mountain bike trails. Free maps are available at the tourist center; don’t go out without them
  • The trails will take you around several copper-colored lakes, all the way up to the top of Grey Mountain, which has a runnable alpine terrain
  • Unfortunately, it’s an out-and-back at the summit. Somewhere there is a trail that connects it back to Whitehorse but good luck finding it. I tried to and quickly realized that this was going to mean bushwhacking through nearly impenetrable terrain (i.e., when it’s night and you’re shivering in the wilderness, you’ll clearly remember exactly the moment you made the bad decision that got you there).

On top of Grey Mountain

On top of Grey Mountain

Trailing Running near Whitehorse

Trailing Running near Whitehorse

A beautiful place to visit. Get yourself to the Yukon if you can!

Paris Notes

Wen and I went to Paris and it rained. Not a gentle mist or a light sprinkle (we live in Seattle; we don’t notice that). No: pounding sheets of rain that soaked you to the bone and swelled the Seine to levels not seen since 1982 and forced the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay to close.

But despite that we were able to see a lot of the city and have a fantastic time. What follows are various notes and observations.


One of the things that makes Paris so fascinating is that while it is an old city (dating back at least 2,000 years) but the city everyone loves was built in the blink of an eye: basically 1860 to 1920 or so. Paris is a network of stone buildings that connect a series of monumental edifices. While the monuments accumulated over the centuries, the connective tissue of five storey limestone buildings with mansard roofs largely went up over sixty years.

It’s this physicality of this web – proudly not a grid – that makes the city so beguiling. The web makes buildings project onto each other at odd angles. Unlike American cities there is no straight road stretching off forever; every road appears to drive into a building.

The homogeneity of the building materials, this lack of perspective  plus the nature of the light means that you lose a sense of depth. The streetscape becomes a continuous ribbon that only breaks when you walk around a corner and the edges of each building shift relative to one another, reminding you that the world is three dimensional. I could spend all day walking around and soaking in the effect.


More so than many cities, Paris rewards walking. If you are willing to walk just a little further, you’ll find something vastly unexpected. A 60 foot samurai warrior lit up in a courtyard. A famous architect’s atelier. A flower blooming against a hotel. An elevated park where trains used to run. Covered passageways that transport you through buildings. Parks hidden inside hospitals. The bustling cafe that the locals eat at versus the plain cafe on the corner. Some of these are in guidebooks but most of it is on you: the more you explore, the more you will be rewarded.


Once upon a time, young lovers would come to Paris and demonstrate their love by clipping a lock to the edge of a bridge. Thousands of couples followed suit and a few years ago, there were so many locks on the bridge that it’s railings collapsed.

The authorities, smart people that they are, rebuilt the railings but covered them with plexiglass, making locks impossible to add. But young love is not so easily thwarted and now Paris has several locations that are overflowing with locks.

As you walk the Seine you now see lots of bridges and railings vying for the right to let you eternally seal your love (and don’t worry if you don’t have a lock-the touts will sell you one for a Euro).


This is a great example of unintended consequences and they abound in Paris. Another favorite of mine is the unintended consequence of 10 minutes of free parking at the airport.

The departure terminals force all traffic into one lane, creating awful jams. But enterprising Uber drivers know to veer off and head for the parking lot. They’ll kindly drop you off at the elevator and then they rip off to get out before they hit the 10 minute cap. Sure, you’ve got to take the elevator up a few levels, but it beats sitting in your car for an extra 10 minutes.


Speaking of traffic, Paris should be a hotbed for transport innovation – except that it’s not. Fun fact: the idea for Uber came from the fact that on a crummy night in Paris at a tech conference, the future Uber founders couldn’t get a taxi.

The city should be a playground for new transport ideas. The air is terrible (you have to wash your face after walking around all day), the traffic is terrible (one lane roads + delivery trucks means inevitable delays) and parking is a joke (people just bumper car their way into small spaces; alternatively, people just park in the intersection and force traffic to go around them).

But despite this, the self-driving car, the mass market electric car and Uber all come from California. The only significant transit innovation from Paris is a bike sharing scheme. While impressive, it only hints at a solution to the city’s transit issues.

In fact, the city is trying an electric car sharing scheme. But one look at it tells you that it will be an uphill battle. The cars are filthy: an unwashed silver that has turned to dun; each car is literally streaked with birdshit.


It would be easy to wave this away by saying that Paris is a testament to the past. It’s streets are frozen in time and so we shouldn’t expect it to lead the way.

But this would be unfair to the French. They remain a creative, forward looking group. La Defense builds up to the sky and every few years a new, iconic modern building (most recently the Fondation Louis Vuitton; photo below) demonstrates the limits of design and construction technique.


I think the reason why Paris didn’t invent any of the above is illustrated by the differences between the two types of people who ask you for money on the streets. The first are the sans-papiers: refugees and other folks who are busking on the corner and, one imagines, have had a tough, unfair life.

But the second group – chomeurs (people on social assistance) – are more complex. These are people who are well dressed and otherwise undistinguishable from everyone else. And they’ll walk up to you and simply demand money: monsieur, donne-moi un petit piece. We watched in awkward awe as one guy went down a train and patiently asked every single person individually for some cash.

My hypothesis is that this is an outcome of the ridiculous youth unemployment that exists in France. Apparently one in three under 35s are unemployed. You don’t need to continue that for too many years before you risk a lost generation.

As a tourist you only see a few signs of this crisis. The above-mentioned beggars, twenty-somethings drinking in parks and ubiquitous posters urging a national apprenticeship program:


But where did the crisis come from and what does it have to do with electric cars? We asked a few French friends and they told us that the unintended consequence (there they are again!) of rich social benefits is that no one wants to hire. See, the social contract is such that if you hire someone, you need to pay their unemployment for a while after you let them go.

So imagine that you’re a small business owner and you come up with a new idea to expand. You hire someone to develop it (you pay salary plus development costs; no revenue yet). You launch. It fails. Now you’ve got cost (salary) but no revenue. So you have to fire the new employee or else you risk your entire business. Except that when you fire them you still have to pay their benefits. Now your entire business is at risk.

This might not sound like how it really works, but when you talk to  folks, you learn that it is. A small business owner friend can’t expand as fast as he’d like to because of employee costs (scarily, if you hire a bad employee and fire them for poor performance you are also still on the hook for their benefits). Another friend can only get jobs “on contract” and expects to be fired after a few renewals (because at some point the employer needs to formally hire her or they’ll be violating contract law). The result is an economy that doesn’t take risks and grows slower than it could (if at all). And that’s why normal-looking people ask you for money on the streets of Paris and you don’t see two-seater, self-driving electric cars whizzing by.


Paris is a series of frames. Everywhere you go, moments are framed by doors, archways, windows, passageways and trees. Shots compose and decompose as you walk; blink and you miss them.



The English language manifests itself in ambiguous ways in Paris. They’re the words you’re familiar with, just not in that context.

Example: you’re in a McDonald’s (yeah, I’m embarrassed) and the song’s chorus is “I’m fucking amazing.”  Alternatively, you’re sitting on a cafe and the hip hop on the speaker system states that “this is for all my niggers in jail.” The locals are oblivious.

Related are the ridiculous English names of stores. Fashion stores called “Ice Club,” “US Marshal” and “Gentlemen’s Club.” (Hey honey, just going to the gentlemen’s club to get a, uh, suit). “Digital Smoker” vape shop. “Speed Rabbit Pizza.”


While I mock the use of English in Parisian  storefronts, Parisian stores are actually beautiful things. Each store appears to focus on doing one thing well (you can be a  butcher, a baker or a cheesemonger – but don’t you dare be all three). It feels like generations have been sent figuring out how to best merchandise each store’s wares so that they are maximally appealing. You could make a beautiful coffee table book of Paris’ stores.



If you visit Paris, be sure to spend some time people watching. The old woman walking down the street with twelve baguettes slung over her shoulder. The cheesemonger wearing a beret and sitting in his shop with a look of infinite  tristesse. The old man sipping wine before noon in the café while he pores over the paper. The two girls sitting on the terasse smoking furiously (it’s the national sport) while sipping coffees and wearing matching tan trenchcoats.

And soak in the silly things that French men do. Scooters (the emasculating push varieties, not Vespas) abound. Hoodie and scarf. Driving down the street on your motorcycle cranking “I just called to say I love you.” It’s these details that a culture make.

Oh, and sometimes the tourists get in on it, too. Nothing says “I’m a North Korean general’s princeling” like this backpack:


Paris wasn’t just built with stone; all that stone is held up by iron. Old banks and department stores have soaring iron atriums. The passageways between streets are capped in wrought iron windows. Market halls and even churches have metal ribbed vaults. A fantastic French steampunk story awaits writing.


Paris has been very unlucky in that it has been the victim of two recent terrorist attacks. This manifests itself in soldiers outside synagogues and national monuments, clear plastic garbage bags with “vigilance” printed on them and apparently arbitrarily locked doors (if you ask a local why, they just answer vigipirate – the ominously named government program to increase readiness). Train stations have posters explaining how to a survive terrorist attack . Major stores check your bags before entering and wave you down with a wand – but the latter is just theater; the wands aren’t on and won’t buzz on a metal belt.

A map is essential to Paris; GPS makes it even better. We travelled the city using an offline version of Google Maps as data roaming charges are usurious. For your  convenience, offline Google Maps include cached versions of popular places.

But Google picks these places based on an algorithm that likely uses search frequency as a proxy for popularity. One macabre aspect of this is that the sites of the terrorist attacks are cached as “popular” places. Algorithms don’t have feelings.



The Parisian sartorial color palette is muted.  Black, charcoal, navy, brown, grey: this is the country of existentialism, after all. No bright colors for you. And you can’t look cool smoking in a neon orange shirt.

But there is one additional permissible color for men: red – but only as pants. Wendy’s trip was made when she overheard two men in red pants talking about the difficulty of maintaining a yacht in St. Tropez.



The poor quality photo below absolutely fails to capture the wondrous example of urban life that is a Parisian square. This photo comes from Place Gustave Toudouze on a middling Friday night in early June.

Five cafes overflow with families, friends, lovers and the odd tourist all having a drink and maybe a meal. Kids run around the square, squealing with delight. A kiosk vendor sells magazines and candy to passing folks.

I suspect that the French don’t even notice how vibrant it is (and this is probably a square that most would consider mediocre or mundane) but I highly recommend you camp out at a table and split a bottle of red wine with someone while watching the street life unfold.



No trip to Paris would be complete without seeing how the other half lived. There are several historic mansions where an old banker/industrialist/socialite collected art over a lifetime and then donated it to the state on the condition it remain a museum. We visited  the Musee Nissim de Camondo to imagine what it would be like to be a early 20th century banker obsessed with the pomp of the 18th century.



The food & drink were great. Obligatory photos below. A few fun places we visited were:

  • KB Cafeshop – finding good coffee in Paris is remarkably hard. This place meets the bar. Still has outdoor seating for people watching
  • Du Pain et Des Idees – exquisite bakery in the 10th. They are home to the banana pain au chocolat and a slew of slightly-larger-than-bite-sized meat & cheese-filled pastries
  • Gut de Brioche – these people do one thing: brioche. And they do it well. So well that they’ll charge you 7 Euro for a brioche and you won’t complain after you take the first bite
  • Cannibale – splendid old cafe that has been turned into a fun bar. Go there in the afternoon and drink a Spritz (Aperol, prosecco & soda water – where have you been all my life?) while listening to some good music
  • Yoom – most people, understandably, go to Paris for the French food. But that would ignore the (literally) world of options available to you. Moreover, when the French apply their attention to detail to other nations’ cuisines, tasty things happen. This dim sum joint is a great example of that (and some of the best dim sum I’ve ever tasted).



When you’re walking Paris, be sure to look out for the street art. The entire city is a canvas. Go down alleys and look around corners to find silk screen blowups in unanticipated locations. You’ll find that the same cast of characters follow you around the town.

A few good places to look: along the Canal Saint-Martin/Bassin de la Villette (hint: this is also a good running spot, so go for a run and bring your camera) and Rue Denoyez in Belleville.

IMG_9884 IMG_9883 IMG_9882 IMG_9885


That’s it. Let me leave you with some additional photos. Can’t wait to go back one day.IMG_9897IMG_9551IMG_9650

Debunking the “Steve Jobs Ignored Customers” Myth

Today at work we were fortunate enough to have Mark Hurst come in and talk about his updated book Customers Included. It’s all about working backwards from customers’ needs – which is a pretty easy sell in Amazonland (see “Customer Obsession“) – and hence recommended reading.

What I most enjoyed about his talk was his thorough destruction of the pernicious “Steve Jobs didn’t listen to customers so I don’t need to” myth. Few things in life are as soul-crushing as hearing someone (usually someone who has never created anything) tell you all about how they don’t need to listen to customers because Steve Jobs didn’t.

Any person who has spent any time trying to create new products knows in their bones that if you’re going to be successful, you’ve got to have some key insight as to what customers want – and the most successful way of doing that is working backwards from a customer need.

If the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he didn’t exist, then Steve Jobs’ Kaiser Soze impression was convincing folks that he didn’t listen to customers. Fortunately, Mark Hurst is here to help us dive deep and discover the truth.

Article #1 – The 1997 WWDC

1997 was not a great year to work at Apple. They were almost out of money and turned to Steve as the only guy who could (or would) save the company. At the 1997 WWDC he did a fireside chat with Mac developers – who are the most invested people in the entire Mac ecosystem. It’s their livelihood and they’re the most diehard converts. So, it was probably a bit of a surprise when this question got asked:

Here’s the lightly edited transcript for you:

Questioner: Mr Jobs, you’re a bright and influential man. It is sad and clear that on several counts you’ve discussed you don’t know what you’re talking about… And when you’re finished with that, perhaps you can tell us what you have personally been doing for the last seven years.

If you’re watching the video, you’ll notice a quick joke as a response followed by a long, awkward pause as Steve tries to think of the following capable response:

One of the hardest thing when you’re trying to effect change is that people, like this gentleman are right, in certain areas. …The hardest thing, what does that fit in, to a cohesive, larger vision that’s going to enable you to sell eight billion, ten billion dollars of product a year. One of the things I’ve always found is that you’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology. You can’t start with the technology and figure out where you’re going to sell it. And I’ve made this mistake probably more than anybody else in the room. And I’ve got the scar tissue to prove it and I know that it’s the case. And as we’ve tried to come up with a strategy and a vision for Apple, um, it started with what incredible benefits can we give to the customer. Where can we take the customer. Not starting with, let’s sit down with the engineers and figure out what awesome technology we have and how are we going to market it. And I think that’s the right path to take.

There you have it: the greatest tech legend of recent years talking about working backwards.

Article 2: The Creation of the iPhone

So Jobs said he worked backwards, but how did he do that when creating products that never existed before? Well, the iPhone came about by working backwards from the compromises made by consumers in using existing (circa 2005) cellphones.

From the Walter Isaacson biography (page 466):

He [Jobs] began talking to Ed Zander, the new CEO of Motorola, about making a companion to Motorola’s popular RAZR, which was a cellphone and digital camera, that would have the iPhone built in. Thus was born the ROKR. It ended up having neither the minimalism of the iPod nor the convenient slimness of a RAZR. Ugly, difficult to load, and with an arbitrary hundred-song limit, it had all the hallmarks of a product that had been negotiated by a committee which was counter to the way Jobs liked to work. Instead of hardware, software, and content all being controlled by one company, they were cobbled together by Motorola, Apple, and the wireless carrier Cingular. “You call this the phone of the future?” Wired scoffed on its November 2005 cover.



The next paragraph gets to the interesting part:

Jobs was furious. “I’m sick of dealing with these stupid companies like Motorola,” he told Tony Fadell and others at one of the iPod product review meetings. “Let’s do it ourselves.” He had noticed something odd about the cell phones on the market: They all stank, just like portable music players used to. “We would sit around talking about how much we hated our phones,” he recalled. “They were way too complicated. They had features nobody could figure out, including the address book. It was just Byzantine.” George Riley, an outside lawyer for Apple, remembers sitting at meetings to go over legal issues, and Jobs would get bored, grab Riley’s mobile phone, and start pointing out all the ways it was “brain-dead.” So Jobs and his team became excited about the prospect of building a phone that they would want to use.

This is classic working backwards from the customer. Identify all the compromises faced by the customer. Heck, test your hypotheses with your target market (rich lawyers with lots of disposable income for phones) before you build anything. But don’t pretend that this was just willed out of thin air.

Hurst called out one important corollary to the above: when deciding what the compromises are, there’s no mention of “multi touch” or “gorilla glass,” etc. All those fancy design features came later once the team had identified the customer problems. They were the “how” to solve the “what” which was crappy address books, etc.

Thanks Mark for a thorough debunking of one of Silicon Valley’s most pernicious, lasting myths.

A Lesson from Fortune’s 3 Lessons

I follow Tim O’Reilly on Twitter and, both as an Amazon employee [1] and someone who values his insight, I was intrigued when he tweeted this the other day:

The link is to an article by Jeffrey Pfeffer, a Stanford GSB prof and Fortune columnist, about what we should learn from the recent NY Times’ article on Amazon. I highly recommend you read it before continuing here.

Pfeffer offers us three lessons we can take from the experience:

  1. The leaders we admire aren’t always that admirable
  2. Economic performance and costs trump employee well-being
  3. People participate in and rationalize their own subjugation

I’m not going to comment right now on whether the lessons are correct (I think that largely depends on whether your liked the NY Times article or thought it was a hatchet job), rather I want to explore the first lesson.

In his article, Pfeffer states the following:

Simply put, dimensions of leader and company performance are poorly correlated. For instance, Fortune’s list of most admired companies, which reflects the size, financial performance, and stock appreciation of the enterprises, has only four entries in common with its 100 Best Companies to Work For list. And only one of Fortune’s most admired companies also appears on the 2014 Hay Group’s Best Companies for Leadership list. (Hay also works with Fortune to create the Most Admired Companies list.)

If true, this is a huge story! The thought that you have the most admired companies in the world (presumably 100, right?) and the 100 best American-based companies to work for and only 4 (!) overlap? 4 percent overlap would be terrible and this would be an incredible story: we’ve built a society where we say one thing and do another.

Unfortunately, Pfeffer doesn’t state who these four unicorns happen to be. I desperately wanted to know, so I decided to find out myself. And this is where the story starts to unravel.

First, while Fortune lists the 100 best companies to work for, they only publicly share the 50 most admired. I tried scraping their site to get the top 100, but for technical reasons [2], I had to abandon it.

What’s interesting is that when you compare the 100 best companies to work for with the 50 most admired, the overlap is actually 7, not 4:

Company Name Rank in 50 Most Admired Rank in 100 Best to Work for
Google 2 1
USAA 28 33
Goldman Sachs Group 23 50
American Express 8 51
Marriott International 37 53
Whole Foods Market 18 55
Nordstrom 14 93
Accenture 49 98

Similarly, the Hay Group’s Best Companies for Leadership overlap is also wrong. Their website only lists the Top 20 companies; I assume you have to pay for the rest:

Of these, Procter & Gamble is #17 on the Most Admired List, General Electric is #9, Coca-Cola is #10, IBM is #25, Unilever is #36, Intel is #40, McDonald’s is #46, 3M is #21, Pepsico is #41, Toyota is #24, Accenture is #49 and Johnson & Johnson is #11,.

This dramatically changes the story. Pfeffer’s sentences above could be rewritten as:

Simply put, dimensions of leader and company performance are correlated. For instance, Fortune’s list of the 50 most admired companies, which reflects the size, financial performance, and stock appreciation of the enterprises, has seven entries in common with its 100 Best Companies to Work For list. And 12 of Fortune’s most admired companies also appear on the 2014 Hay Group’s Best Companies for Leadership list. (Hay also works with Fortune to create the Most Admired Companies list.)

7 of 50 is 14% – which is much more ambiguous than the implied “only 4 percent overlap” in the original paragraph. Suddenly it looks like CEOs may be creating companies that are both worker-friendly and admirable. The story is much less clear. (And I bet the overlap is more than 14% if you compared the full 100 Most Admired with the full 100 Best to Work for; I doubt it’s a linear relationship).

It’s similar for the Hay numbers: a full 60% of the Top 20 Best Companies for Leadership are also in the Top 50 Most Admired.

These errors make it less clear that Lesson #2 is correct. If economic performance and cost trumps employee well-being, then why are 14% of the most admired companies also wasting money to be known as one of the Top 100 places to work?

All in all, I’m disappointed by the fact-checking here. There is a very important conversation going on around what “work” and “employment” will mean in the 21st century. This article had an opportunity to contribute but the factual inaccuracies make it difficult to separate the real insights from speculative narrative.

Note: feel free to double-check my work. I created a Github repo with the data and Python script I used to Fortune’s rankings.

[1] I didn’t seek anyone at Amazon’s opinion before publishing this and all the opinions on my blog are entirely my own. I am not authorized to speak on Amazon’s behalf; you shouldn’t interpret anything on this blog or my Twitter feed as being Amazon-approved. I also have no vested interest in whether you like or hate Amazon; it’s a free country and you are entitled to your own opinion.

[2] There are 350 companies in the “Most Admired” companies section. Each has a URL and I tried scraping the URL for each to get each company’s individual score. However, the pages render dynamically using JavaScript; I’m doing this in my spare time and ran out of time to figure out how to get the pages to properly render. This has no impact on the analysis discussed above.