North Star

Successful companies usually have a secret sauce. It could be an algorithm or an insight. But whatever that secret sauce is, it is used to create or disrupt a market.

Apple created the PC market when Steve and Steve figured out that affordable pre-built personal computers would be really useful for consumers. IBM disrupted the PC market that Apple built with the insight that a standard, expandable, business-oriented PC would be especially valuable to businesses. After a while Microsoft disrupted the disrupter with the key insight that PC resources, CPU speed, RAM size, and disk space, were essentially infinite according to Moore’s Law.

Yet secret sauce alone is not enough create or disrupt a market for very long. You might have a brilliant algorithm or insight but if you can’t focus on it and deliver it to your audience then you got nothing.

Secret sauces are a common and cheap. The ability to focus and deliver is rare and expensive!

Let’s take the case of Google. Larry and Sergey started Google with the idea of Page Rank. They turned that idea into a set of algorithms and code and turned it loose on the web. Suddenly Larry and Sergey had the best search engine on the market.

But Page Rank on its own didn’t create Google. This might be hard to believe today but when started Google it was an underdog. Google was the epitome of a scrappy startup that hardly anyone paid any attention to.

Luckily Larry and Sergey had something else: A north star.

I don’t know if they called it a “north star”. That’s what we call it now. They probably didn’t call it anything. Looking back, I think Larry and Sergey, Like Steve and Steve, and all successful market creators/disrupters had an intuitive sense of focus and delivery that was superhuman. They got everyone around them, investors, employees, and partners, to focus on search and to think hard about the best way to deliver search to the consumer. They followed their north start to the detriment of everything else including sleep, civility, and revenue.

Obviously it paid off. Once the nascent search market was disrupted Google attained all the things they had sacrificed. They made money. They decided to be really nice. They got a good night’s sleep.

I see this pattern repeating though out the boom and bust cycle of business. When a company is following it’s north star it eventually becomes successful. When a company is distracted or tries to follow too many stars it eventually fails.

When I worked at Apple in the 90s our north start was summed up in the question, “will it sell more Macintoshes?” If you could answer “yes” then you had tacit approval to do it. Don’t ask. Just do it. HyperCard, QuickTime, TrueType, Unicode, these are all examples of technologies that “sold more Macintoshes.”

At the time I was working on ClarisWorks for Kids. It was a bit like Microsoft Office for the K-12 market. Our theory was that productivity software tools for kids would sell more Macintoshes (to parents and schools) and so I was asked to go and do it. I didn’t fill out a product plan or forecast revenue. I just convinced a group of engineers that ClarisWorks of Kids was cool and off we went. I hired as many people as I needed. I figured out features and even helped design the box art. Since I had a north star, I didn’t have to be managed. My boss was more like my personal coach. I went to him for advice and not orders.

Since I had never shipped a product before I made a few mistakes. I didn’t get fired. As long as I was following Apple’s north star everyone had trust and confidence in what I was doing. And I wasn’t special. I was one of hundreds of Apple engineering managers leading projects in partnership with hundreds of engineers all following a single north star.

ClarisWorks for Kids turned out to be a big hit. We won some awards. More importantly we sold a lot of Macintoshes. ClarisWorks for Kids was part of an  educational bundle that filled up computer classrooms across the world with Power PC-based Power Macs.

But then we turned away from our north star.

In the late 1990’s Apple’s marketshare continued to slip. In spite of all our focus and smart insights we were not sell enough Macintoshes. Risc chips, CD-ROMs, and built-in digital signal processors were not cutting it with the consumer. Most people bought IBM compatible PCs that ran Windows.

Instead of doubling down on our north star or discovering a new north star we at Apple decided to pursue many different strategies. Sometime we would follow multiple strategies at the same time but usually it was a new strategy every month. Some of these new “stars” included “Mac is the best PC” and “Let’s find more ways to make money from our existing users” and “Apple is really a software company!” Ouch. None of these stars become north stars. They were more like fly-by-night comets that burnout by dawn.

Without a strong north star, I no longer manage myself. I had to be told what to do. Once day I was told to “port Claris Works for Kids to Windows.” I asked how this project would “sell more Macintoshes?” Apparently Apple wasn’t concerned about that old idea any more and frankly I had not been asked for an opinion.

So we gritted our teeth and cracked open the Windows 3.1 disks and started porting. It was kinda of fun and a huge technical challenge as the Mac programming model was very different from Windows. So we dug into it. As an engineering manager there wasn’t as much for me to do so I got into project plans and status reports. I don’t think anyone read them. At some point we were done. ClarisWorks for Kids could now run under Windows on IBM PCs.

This is the point where we were all laid off. Nothing personal. Business was bad, new management was in town (Steve was back), and Windows software was not needed. It didn’t “sell more Macintoshes” because it didn’t run on a Macintosh.

After we were gone Apple got back in the business of following it’s original and true north star. Mac computers become exciting again with bold design and a new UNIX-based operating system. (OK an old UNIX-based OS but it brought the goodness of UNIX to a mass market.)

ClarisWorks and ClarisWorks for Kids were gone but Apple replaced them with a suite of productivity tools. Pages, Keynote, and Numbers are the great-grandchildren of ClarisWorks. I don’t know if they “sell more Macintoshes” but they have some cool features. Besides, Apple’s north star now is probably “Does it sell more iPhones?” or something like that.

These days I work really hard to provide a north star to my teams and to advocate for a north star in my organization. A good north star is easy to understand and easy to remember. A great north star enables employees to mange themselves and renders budgets and project plans obsolete. An awesome north star fuels growth and turns businesses around.


Eternity versus Infinity

I just completed reading, at long last, Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity. Like many of his novels, EoE is a morality play, an explanation, a whodunit, and a bit of a prank. The hero Andrew Harlan, is a repressed buffoon at the mercy of various sinister forces. Eventually Harlan finds his way to a truth he doesn’t want to accept. In EoE Asimov plays with time travel in terms of probabilities. This mathematical exploration of time travel resolves many of the cliché paradoxes that scifi usually twists itself into. Go back in time and prevent your mother from meeting your father and what you have done is not suicide. You have simply reduced probability of your future existence.

In EoE Asimov considers two competing desires in human culture: The urge to keep things the same forever and the urge to expand and explore. Asimov distills these urges into the Eternals, who fight what they think of as dangerous change by altering time, and the Infinites, who sabotage the Eternals because they believe “Any system… which allows men to choose their own future, will end by choosing safety and mediocrity…”

In one masterful stroke Asimov explains why we haven’t invented time travel. If we did, we’d kill baby Hitler! But then we’d work on elimination of all risks! Eventually we’d trap ourselves on planet Earth and die out slowly and lonely when our single world gets hit by a comet or our Sun goes nova. In EoE, Asimov has a force of undercover Infinites working tirelessly to keep the probability of time travel to a near zero value. This way humanity continues to take risks, eventually discovers space flight, and avoids extinction by populating the galaxy.

You’re probably not going to read EoE. It’s a bit dry for the 21st century. There are no superheroes, dragons, or explicit sex. While there is a strong female character she spends most of her time out of sight and playing dumb. EoE is a product of the 1950s. Yet For a book, where a computer is called a “computaplex” and the people who use them are consusingly called “computers”, EoE’s underlying message and themes apply very closely to our current age.

In our time, we have the science and technology to move forward by leaps and bounds to an unimaginable infinite–and we’re rapidly doing so except when we elect leaders who promise to return us to the past and we follow creeds that preach intolerance to science. I’ve read blog posts and op-eds that claim we can’t roll back the future. But we seem to be working mightily to pause progress. Just like the Eternals in EoE many of us are concerned about protecting the present from the future. Teaching Creationism alongside Evolution, legislating Uber and AirBnB out of existence, and keeping Americans in low value manufacturing jobs are just a few examples of acting like Asimov’s Eternals and avoiding the risks of technological progress at all costs.

I get it! I know that technological advancement has many sharp edges and unexpected consequences. Improve agriculture with artificial ingredients and create an obesity epidemic. Improve communication with social media and create a fake news epidemic. People are suffering and will continue to suffer as software eats the world and robots sweep up the crumbs.

But what Asimov teaches us, in a book written more than 70 years ago, is that if we succeed in staying homogenous-cultured, English-speaking, tradition-bound, God-fearing, binary-gendered, unvaccinated, and non-GMO we’re just getting ready to die out. When the next dinosaur-killer comet strikes, we will be stuck in our Garden of Eden as it goes up in flames. As Asimov admits, it might take thousands of years for humanity to die out in our self-imposed dark ages, but an expiration date means oblivion regardless of how far out it is.

Asimov shows us in EoE, and in rest of his works as well, that there is a huge payoff for the pain of innovation and progress. We get to discover. We get to explore. We get to survive.

Let’s face it. We don’t need genetic code editors and virtual reality. We don’t need algorithms and the Internet of Things. Many of us will never be comfortable with these tools and changes. Many of us long for the days when men were men, women stayed out of the way, and jobs lasted for a lifetime. This is not a new phenomenon: The urge to return to an earlier golden age has been around since Socrates complained that writing words down would destroy the art of conversation.

At the moment, it feels like the ideals of the Eternals are trumping the ideals of the Infinites. While a slim minority of entrepreneurs tries to put the infinity of space travel and the technological singularity within our reach, a majority of populist politicians are using every trick in the mass communications book to prevent the future from happening. We have our own versions of Asimov’s Eternals and Infinites today. You know their names.

Like Asimov, I worry about the far future. We’re just a couple of over-reactions to a couple of technological advances away from scheduling the next dark ages. That’s not a good idea. The last dark ages nearly wiped Europe of off the face of the earth when the Black Plague hit. Humanity might not survive the next world crisis if our collective hands are to fearful of high-tech to use it.

At the end of EoE Harlan figures out that, spoiler alert, taking big risks is a good idea. Harlan chooses the Infinites over the Eternals. I’d like us to consider following in Harlan’s footsteps. We can’t eliminate all technological risks! Heck, we can’t even eliminate most risks in general! But we can embrace technological progress and raise the probability of our survival as a species.