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.
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)