Monthly Archives: March 2009

Sid, not Andy

Sid in Toy Story

Ages ago, my old Daily Princetonian colleague Mitch Resnick made a revealing comparison between two of the human characters in Toy Story. In case you don’t remember the movie, a crucial part of the action centers around the evil Sid, who lives next door to the saintly Andy. Andy plays with toys the way you are meant to, while Sid transplants heads and glues toy body parts to contraptions he’s made from his Erector set. Listen to Mitch:

As I was watching the movie, I was wondering which of those two kids — Andy or Sid — is actually learning more from the way he’s playing with his toys… Sid actually could be learning an awful lot more — he was actually taking things apart and putting them back together, learning how to make new toys… As I see it, whoever’s doing the inventing is also doing most of the learning — and probably having most of the fun.

Why do I turn to Sid and Andy? The other day, I took an optimistic look at Silicon Valley. But my optimism was built on a belief that we can forge a better education system that takes the strengths inherent in American culture. What we need in our education system is a belief in Sid, not Andy.

That’s not the dominant strain in today’s schools. We’re intent on producing functioning Andys — children who follow the rules, who don’t violate any product warnings, who know the pre-cooked answers. That’s the path of what I sometimes call the “more homework” solution to education. It can be easily parroted: if we give our kids more homework and tougher tests, then we’ll be able to keep up with hard-working students in China. I doubt whether that’s true — kids in what is still a relatively poor country will, given the opportunity, work far harder than kids raised in American prosperity. But even if there’s some truth to the more homework/Andy philosophy, I think it misses the point of what we can achieve with education.

A Sid-based education would encourage children to invent and explore, to chart their own paths, to defy conventions, to explore dead ends as well as promising boulevards. It would demand rigor — I have very little patience for education that doesn’t require the accumulation of key, basic knowledge. Our Sids have to have something to work from, after all. There isn’t a single solution that works for all kids. I like Howard Gardner‘s idea, which he described in an article for me way back when (not available on the Web), of having schools that specialize in different cognitive styles. So for kids that, in Gardner’s terms, have strong bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, a school — or perhaps certain classes in a school — would encourage one way of learning, while for those with strong logical-mathematical intelligence a different approach would be stressed (and so on, for all of the different kinds of intelligence). A common ground could be found, however, in celebrating Sids rather than Andys.

Outside conventional circles I think there’s a growing movement to create more Sids. I’ve been astounded at the growth of the Maker Faire, which celebrates the Sids of the world. I’ve gone to Maker Faire with my kids, and I reckon at least a third of attendees are parents with children. Then there’s Tinkering School, which is clearly a paradise for would-be Sids. I’m totally unsurprised that both these ventures originate in the Bay Area. Evidence for my optimistic side.

The trendy FT. Who knew?


I read the Financial Times before other people read the Financial Times. Now it’s trendy and everybody carries around a Financial Times.

Barack Obama, quoted in today’s Financial Times.

Incidentally, the FT interpolates that Obama read the FT in Chicago in the 1980s. I think that might be wrong. The FT’s circulation in Chicago then was next to nothing, and there were hardly any outlets that carried the pink ‘un. I suspect Obama was referring to his time working for Business International in New York in the ’80s.

Silicon Valley: the glass half full


I laid out the gloomy picture for Silicon Valley yesterday, as conceived by a savvy group of public company CEOs. They were far more pessimistic than I expected, and I think their thinking sounds a warning klaxon for the Bay Area. But the very darkest scenarios don’t convince me, for a number of reasons.

First, endism is always suspect. I return from time to time to Paul Duguid and John Seely Brown’s wonderful Social Life of Information. One of their lessons is the dangers of extrapolation, particularly well into the future. A few technology companies are shifting resources from Silicon Valley to Asia, and some are even wondering further down the line about an Asian listing, getting out from the onerous demands of US markets. That doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll witness a flood of companies shifting out of the Valley in coming years. JSB and Duguid warn us not to count one, two, three… infinity. Shifts don’t happen in a neat, linear fashion. There is more inertia than most people credit in systems, and as change happens, it gets modified by changes in culture, technology, politics and society. That doesn’t make for such a great headline, but it’s a better reflection of reality.

Second, there still is a distinct US advantage for innovation and risk-taking. We’re not the only innovators, but what Howard Rheingold calls our “wild-ass culture” remains an outlier among nations. And that wild-ass culture isn’t evenly distributed across the nation. One of the CEOs in my group on Wednesday was from India — as is often observed, around 50% of Silicon Valley start-ups are led by immigrants — and he believed strongly that the Bay Area remains non pareil for innovation. There’s the critical mass of experience and expertise, high tolerance of failure, and the necessary capital to make things happen. It’s been fascinating to observe the many attempts both in the US and internationally to replicate Silicon Valley. They assemble capital, good universities and a critical mass of engineers and scientists, and… are disappointed. New, powerful technology clusters are emerging in Bangalore and Shanghai, but it’s clear that there can’t be dozens of Silicon Valleys. Perhaps three is what the globe can handle.

Third, and here I part dramatically from the CEOs I sat with on Wednesday, I’m hugely optimistic about what the Obama administration is going to do for the US. I remain a near- and medium-term pessimist about the economy, but we’ll eventually emerge from the Great Recession. When we do, the renewed support and emphasis on science and technology — on reality — offers an opportunity to return to the spirit of my youth when the best and brightest wanted to become scientists and engineers, not financiers or lawyers. The challenge of effective action on climate change certainly provides a staggering goal for the ambitious. Finally, I’m hopeful about the resources and thinking the administration is putting into rescuing our public education system.

A better education system remains the key to any optimistic view. Imagine a country where children are encouraged to exercise their imaginations and take risks. Where the goal isn’t more homework, but more signs of initiative and independent thinking. That creates a system that makes the most of America’s advantages, rather than try to create a pale imitation of Singaporean or Chinese education. There are numerous paths to national well-being and prosperity and I think we have a chance to chart one that is uniquely ours.

Straws in the wind for Silicon Valley

San Francisco Bay

I spent part of yesterday facilitating an off-the-record discussion with a group of CEOs who run public companies in Silicon Valley. They’re not companies you’ve heard of, unless you’re a deep, inside tech groupie. Their companies have sales ranging from a few hundred million to a couple of billion, but they do the unglamorous stuff that doesn’t make headlines: highly abstruse equipment for the semiconductor industry, embedded software for aerospace companies, specialized semiconductors and so on.

To me one of the remarkable things about wandering around the Bay Area is how many companies you encounter that are like these. You could search Techcrunch and never find a mention of any of them (I’ve done the exercise). Even the ever-inquisitive Robert Scoble doesn’t darken their doorsteps. In largely anonymous buildings all over you encounter companies that would be the glory of all the wanna-be Silicon Valleys all over the world. I think they are far more characteristic of the Valley than the Googles, Apples and Facebooks.

And without violating any confidences, these CEOs are worried. Not about lowered sales and plummeting share prices, although that’s a factor. What they are worried about is that they no longer believe the age-old mantra that the Valley will always come back. They no longer see California as a particularly good place to do business. They look at the state’s staggering fiscal problems, the poor public education system, the still-high cost of housing for their workers, the continuing immigration restrictions for non-American scientists and engineers, and what many of them see as a shift against business and entrepreneurship in American culture, and they start looking westward, across the Pacific.

All of these companies have operations in Asia. And that’s where they see growth for the future. They are shifting resources and workforce numbers to China, to Korea, to Singapore, to India, to Vietnam. They recognize plenty of problems — these are worldly, very experienced executives. We had an informed discussion about the pressures a slowdown in Chinese growth might create, and they are well aware of how hard it is to find and retain the best engineers in India, whatever the great numbers pouring out of the IITs and other institutions. What they are concerned about, however, is doing the right thing for their companies and their shareholders, and to a large extent that means slimming down here and expanding there.

I’m usually skeptical of endism, but my day yesterday had me thinking in distinctly endist ways. I don’t think the shifts we were talking about yesterday, however, are the whole story and I’m going to write tomorrow about what I see as the flip side.

The imperial corporation

Delhi Durbar

Dan Lyons has some interesting behind-the-scenes detail on how IBM treats the media:

IBM views media relations as a form of advertising. If they’ve got some breakthrough in the labs, or some new product they’re hoping to hype, they’ll hand-pick a publication or two and tee up a story. They tell you what the story is; they set the agenda; they tell you which people at IBM you’re going to interview, and when; and every IBMer who gets interviewed has been scripted and rehearsed to death before you sit down with them. Nobody strays off message. Every interview is tape-recorded by IBM PR flacks. Those flacks write up a summary of every interview. That info gets used to prepare the subjects for the next interviews. If you’ve ever wondered why almost every story about IBM feels canned and pre-fabricated, that’s because it is.

That might be an extreme, but lots of large corporations act the same way. I first encountered the imperial corporation in, if memory serves, 1987, when then IBM chairman and CEO John Akers did a swing through London. I was editor of Management Today at the time, and although I’d met quite a few of the grandees of British business, the head of IBM was clearly a different thing entirely.

I had to leap through a number of hoops to get on the list to have my precious 20 minutes with Akers. When the time arrived, he had a veritable sea of flunkeys with him and, as I kind of expected, he had nothing interesting to say. What did come across, however, was that the head of IBM was no garden variety CEO. He was more akin to a head of state, and expected to be treated with the ceremony and deference expected by, say, the queen.

I’ve encountered other imperial corporations in the years since, and I think there are few more potent warning signs that something is profoundly wrong with an organization. You can be certain that the imperial trappings the protect leaders from prying journalists also protect them from any challenging outside views or certainly dissension within their own corporation.

In contrast, on the rare occasions when you encounter major corporate heads who answer their own phones (there have been a few) or respond personally to emails, something is right about the culture.

The Cisco Flip

Cisco’s $590 million purchase of Pure Digital, the makers of the Flip digital video recorders, is interesting for a number of reasons. The networking giant may have paid too much, according to Om Malik’s analysis, although in the context of Cisco it’s not a lot of money.  Pure Digital’s years of failure before hitting on something good also makes a good story, as TechCrunch explains. What strikes me, however, is how totally counter-cultural a consumer product like the Flip is for Cisco.

I know that Cisco has dipped some cautious limbs into consumer markets, with acquisitions of Linksys and Scientific Atlanta. But as The New York Times reports, consumer products only amount to 5 per cent of Cisco’s revenues. Whatever spin might come out of Cisco about creating new avenues for growth, or boosting Internet traffic, which will require more Cisco routers and networking hardware, strikes me as rather feeble rationalization.

Intel has gone down this path periodically over the years. Its venture fund in the dotcom boom years invested in a bunch of start-ups that would supposedly increase the need for more powerful processors. The mother ship itself has done odd things like market a digital microscope. Unsurprisingly, none of it stuck. Intel is a hard-edged, engineering-dominated company. It’s not cut out for consumer stuff, although it has been legendarily successful at making consumer’s recognize its brand — which is a different thing entirely.

I’d wager Cisco will be the same. Sure, Flip and Linksys may thrive and even continue to innovate within the large corporate embrace. But senior management time, energy and resources will continue to go to the lucrative networking products that no consumer will ever recognize. And the company will be none the worse for that.

At the setting of the Sun

Sun containers

IBM’s $7 billion bid for Sun Microsystems marks the endgame for one of the long-standing icons of Silicon Valley. Given how Sun has nearly dropped off the map in recent years, it comes as a bit of a shock that someone thinks it’s worth $7 billion. But you don’t have to go back many years to remember a Sun that just about defined the swagger, cheek and arrogance of Silicon Valley.

When I first encountered Sun in Davos in the early ’90s, it was one of the few major technology companies that came to the Swiss Alps in January. Bill Gates’ annual trek up the mountain was still a few years off, and the Internet stars that came to crowd the Congress Center didn’t even exist yet. So Sun was quite an attraction.

Sun had a sharp CTO, Eric Schmidt (whatever happened to him?), the always-thoughtful John Gage, and sometimes-scary Bill Joy. Occasionally their loud-mouthed CEO Scott McNealy would grace Davos with his presence. For a journalist, McNealy was always great value. He loved to make fun of Sun’s competitors, and had particular scorn for Microsoft. That feistyness, verging on boorishness, permeated the company. As Dan Lyons points out, one executive crowed in 1999 that IBM’s problem wasn’t Y2K, it was S-U-N. For those willing to dig, Sun’s verbal aggressiveness outran their actual achievements. Few, myself included, really did the digging in those days.

Sun’s flair for the dramatic was best illustrated in the Davos context by the brainstorm of renting a picturesque chalet directly across the street from the Congress Center. There were plenty of bigger companies in Davos, and there were certainly more lavish party hosts. But Sun grabbed the best, most visible spot, with a dash of gemütlichkeit.

As the ’90s wore on, however, something began to go amiss, to my mind, with Sun. The engaging Schmidt had jumped ship for Novell. McNealy rose to the grander role of chairman, the post he still holds, yielding to Ed Zander. That knocked the stuffing out of the Sun bubble. Zander might have been a great sales and marketing guy, but he had neither McNealy’s savage wit nor the geeky smarts of other Sun folk. He was just another slick executive who was a pain to put on a panel, since he had nothing original to say. (To my amazement, Zander kept Sun’s bubble inflated enough to land the top spot at Motorola, which he steadily ran into the ground.)

There were, of course, some real strengths to Sun, significant enough that it’s still worth a multi-billion price tag. Its swagger and style, however, are long gone.

Watch for the renaming of AIG


Since the AIG management has already proven itself even more tone deaf than John Thain, I have considerable confidence that they are cooking up plans to rename the massive failure. That’s what bad organizations do when they’ve already destroyed every other asset they have.

What’s certain is that they — and their naming consultants — will come up with something entirely improbable. Here are some likely candidates:

  • Honest! (must include the exclamation mark to emphasize the new company is something truly new)
  • Trûst (the circumflex — that pitched roof over the “u” — refers to the company’s role in the housing market)
  • Manchester United Insurance Group (the only thing not tarnished by AIG so far is the soccer team with the badge of shame on their jerseys)

Other suggestions?

Photo from Flickr, by Toksuede