Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Some thoughts on reading the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson

Steve Jobs is almost a textbook example of how not to be a CEO. He didnt care about consensus, he was ruthless, and highly emotional - I lost count of the number of times the phrase "Jobs cried" appears in the book.

To balance the volatile temperament, though, he had an uncanny sense of what works and what doesnt, and was exceptionally good at spotting ideas and talent - with a more normal individual in charge, the movie Toy Story wouldnt have been made, Pixar in current form wouldn't have existed, there would be no "Think Different" or "1984" ads, Apple wouldnt have moved into retailing - the list of audacious bets made by Apple and Jobs goes on, and he was right every time.

The thing I enjoyed the most was reading about all the different individuals responsible for so many of Apple's products and functions. Steve Jobs had a vision of the Apple offering an end-to-end experience to the customer, and to that end, they had exceptional coordination between all the divisions within Apple - his belief in "deep collaboration" and "concurrent engineering"  - a lot of large companies actually end up being victims of their own success once they cross a certain threshold, and thats a trap Apple avoided..

Quoting the book: "Our method was to develop integrated products, and that mean out process had to be integrated and collaborative," Jobs said." This is a great example of how organizational architecture matching product architecture! More on this on a later post

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Engineer as Artist: Some thoughts on Steve Jobs!

Picture: Apple's patented Active Packaging

The first time I bought an iPod was a revelation. The revelation was not the iPod itself, which is a great product, but the way the iPod was packaged. Starting with the Designed in California logo, the impossibly clean lines and minimalistic style as the product comes into view was dubbed by an industrial design magazine as a “ballet of unwrapping.”

The iPod packaging, at least to me, represented performance that you expect from a chef unveiling his prize creation. Masaharu Morimoto of Iron Chef fame comes to mind. Of course high-end retailers understood this for a long time. Witness Tiffany with their signature boxes. However, this was not something that technology companies were necessarily known for.

Most of our waking hours are spent interacting with technological devices, and indeed with multiple devices at a time as we surf content on our ipads while talking on an iPhone and simultaneously conducting an online meeting on a Macbook Pro! We are, whether we realize or not, highly involved with technology as it permeates almost every aspect of our lives. And yet, most of the high tech companies relegated design and user interaction to the sidelines.

One of the popular videos of 2005 (at least among geeks) was a very clever parody video titled “Microsoft redesigns iPod packaging” with an endlessly cluttered package - features list, discounts, product warranties, brand messages, third party endorsements – the list goes on. This parody captures everything about the aesthetics of high technology companies, which is, that they have none.

Apple was of course the anti-thesis of engineering with the emphasis on function and product features. This brings me to Steve Jobs, who was anointed by the New York Times as the “tastemaker of modern digital culture.” Steve Jobs didn't really come up with all these ideas.  Portable MP3 players, tablets and all the other cool innovations have existed for a while. Many have pointed out that Wozniak was the brains behind Apple. Malcolm Gladwell has a marvelous article in the New Yorker about how Apple essentially re-used the idea of the mouse that was originally conceptualized at the Xerox PARC. Steve Jobs himself, misquoting Picasso, said something to the effect that good artists copy and great artists steal.

In fact the newer generation iPods have even better packaging and have won myriads of design awards. Designer Sverre Oberg is responsible for the matchbox ipod package, which also doubles as a charger. Does any other high tech company have a designer who is solely responsible for designing a package?

It took Steve Jobs to insist that a plastic touch screen on an iPhone would be perceived as a design flaw and that iPhones should have glass screens. On Google Plus, I came across this marvelous story of Steve Jobs calling up Google’s Vic Gundotra during a weekend. The reason? Steve Jobs was concerned that the Google logo on the iPhone Google app need to be fixed since “the second O in Google doesn't have the right yellow gradient.” Steve Jobs in an interview said that the use of proportionately spaced fonts in Apple products comes from observing typesetting.

It is this synthesis of form and function, engineering as aesthetic art that, to me at least, is embodied by Steve Jobs. That technology is beautiful and humanizing, that the computer is a marvelous general purpose device that lets us explore ourselves, enabling connected individuals to scan for extraterrestrial intelligence, to decode the human genome, to usher us in a democratic revolution in an area of the world dominated by authoritarian regimes..

Engineering and liberal arts, especially in the US, seem to operate across an almost unbridgeable chasm. Engineers are parodied as social misfits, tongue-tied, lacking social graces and obsessed with Star Wars and video games (of course if you read Malcolm Gladwell on video games they promote the development of skills you would certainly need the next time you were trapped all alone in a an Amazonian jungle!). Apple changed all that, before the current social media revolution, and indeed made it possible for the current generation of technology entrepreneurs to enjoy rock star like status.

Steve Jobs said of Bill Gates in 1997, “he and Microsoft are a bit narrow." Maybe this assessment is not meant to be taken too seriously, in light of Bill Gates’ enormous contributions to addressing poverty and eradicate diseases through the Bill Gates foundation, but it does contain a grain of truth. Steve Jobs took calligraphy lessons at Reed College, loved reading Shakespeare, hung out with musicians, and practiced Buddhism. Of course some of the stories we hear are the result of his showmanship and marketing acumen, the Steve Jobs “reality distortion field” parodied in popular culture. It’s still nice to imagine a world where liberal arts meet engineering, in the tradition of da Vinci who was a scientist, engineer and artist.  

(I'm not including any citations and footnotes in the spirit of minimalism)

Thank you Steve Jobs for setting a great example of an engineer as an artist!

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Patent Wars

NPR recently quoted an entrepreneur who said that almost 30 percent of patents awarded in the US are on things that have already been invented!


Monday, January 3, 2011

The new face of Artificial Intelligence

Wired article on the AI revolution

From the article: 
"The Kiva bots may not seem very smart. They don’t possess anything like human intelligence and certainly couldn’t pass a Turing test. But they represent a new forefront in the field of artificial intelligence. Today’s AI doesn’t try to re-create the brain. Instead, it uses machine learning, massive data sets, sophisticated sensors, and clever algorithms to master discrete tasks." 
At first glance, the article appears to discuss computers being used for highly structured tasks, which seems the apotheosis of intelligence, whether artificial or real. However, what is occurring is that we (and computers) have become sophisticated at partitioning complex tasks into bite sized chunks. This enables two things. First, by partitioning complex tasks into much smaller sub-tasks, we can teach computers to look for the structured set of rules that govern the sub-tasks. Second, the massive computing infrastructure and almost unlimited storage and processing capabilities means that we can   execute highly complex tasks by something resembling collective intelligence. 
The article quotes Google's Larry Page: “If you told somebody in 1978, ‘You’re going to have this machine, and you’ll be able to type a few words and instantly get all of the world’s knowledge on that topic,’ they would probably consider that to be AI.” Reading this article, I am reminded of Herbert Simon and his theories of information processing. Simon highlighted that information processors (whether humans or computers) are "limited in their processing capacity in comparison with the magnitude of the decision problems that organizations face. The number of alternatives that can be considered, the intricacy of the chains of consequences that can be traced -- all these are severely restricted by the limited capacities of the available processors." However, with the exponential growth of computing capabilities, it follows that someday it would be possible for information processors to deal with the complex amalgamations and interactions of the myriads of smaller tasks that collectively constitute intelligence! 

Herbert A. Simon, "Applying Information Technology to Organization Design," Public Administration Review 33 (1973): 268-78.

A cup of coffee to greet Monday morning!