Saturday, May 21, 2011

Losing My Religion on LinkedIn

There are many good reasons I'm not an English major.  One is T.S. Eliot.  Another Gravity's Rainbow.  Oh, and then there's Benjy in The Sound and the Fury.  I could go on, but suffice to say I knew there were people much smarter than I who could divine intelligence and beauty where I could only see pretentiousness. 

Stephen Hawking reminds me why I am not a physicist, especially when I attempt to read any of his books purportedly written for the layman.

And Math?  The day they informed me that “1.9” repeating endlessly was actually “2,” I knew to look elsewhere.

But, of course, there was always business.  Even in medieval times the manly first son would go off to war, the brilliant second son would join a monastery, and the idiot third son always had commerce. 

Other people had "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"; I could at least comprehend market segmentation and discounted cash flow.

Then along came LinkedIn, a nice enough bunch of people who ran a dilatory little Web company that had gathered a legion of bemused users under a value proposition that went something like, “I use LinkedIn but don't know why."  

At some point the company opened up its platform to developers, allowing for the launch of a couple of modest apps, and in the process upgraded its value statement to, “I use LinkedIn and it annoys the living bejesus out of me.”

This week LinkedIn went public, telling the market it made $15M last year on sales of $243M--and didn’t expect to make any money this year.  On that happy news, stockpickers drove the value of the company up to $8.9B.

That's an admirable accomplishment--the way you might admire an art forger who sells his first Rembrandt for $175M.  But it leaves me right back where I was with Gravity's Rainbow, Stephen Hawking, and J. Alfred Prufrock.  Somehow I was the idiot son again, failing to to grasp some underlying logic and essential beauty. 
Having lost math, physics, and English, I hate now to lose business.

There's always history.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Problem with Magic

Let’s play a word association game.  The only rule is that you have to answer with the name of a company.

I say, “magical.”   

You say, “Disney,” right?  It’s the name that comes immediately to mind, thanks in part to their own branding, and in part to the fact that many of us have had some kind of magical experience--at the movies, at a park, on a cruise--with the company through the years.

Now, let’s try again, but you need a new answer.  I say, “magical.”  

You say, ah, “Apple?”  I think that’s right.  The products produced by Apple in the last few years, especially pods, phones and pads, have been pretty close to magical.   This isn’t quite the same as Disney, but more along the lines of Arthur C. Clarke’s assertion that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Let me try again.  I say, “magical.”  You say. . .nothing?  Silence?  Is there no third?  I’m guessing not, at least not current and universal.  I have a very vague recollection of Ma Bell feeling magical, despite her inelegant black phone; the idea of a system allowing global communications that never, ever went down was, for most 20th-century humans, indistinguishable from magic.

In fact, given the “get it to market fast and worry about good later” attitude of today’s technologists, a system allowing global communications that never, ever goes down would be magical today as well.

So, we might ask, if there are just two contemporary magical corporations, what do Disney and Apple have in common?  Not having worked at either, my only data points are reading, occasional second-hand reports, a visit to Disney World, and using an iPad and Phone.

In addition, though, I read and loved James B. Stewart’s Disney War.  And as of yesterday, I can now add the superb piece of reporting by Adam Lashinsky on Apple in the current edition of Fortune magazine.

So, what’s the commonality?  Maybe this, strange as it seems: When Disney and Apple are churning out real magic, they are intense, stressful, brutal, unforgiving places to work.  Let me say that another way: Mildly unhappy, often underpaid and underappreciated people seem to be very good at making magic.
In fact, accepting the limitations of a data set of only two, we might argue that they are the only kind of people able to manufacture magic.

As Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg reclaimed Disney’s animation in the 1980s and 90s, and we were all mesmerized by blockbusters like Beauty and the Beast, the backroom of Disney was a contentious, sometimes downright cruel place to work.  Stewart tells us that the CEO did abominable things and then wrote about them in long memos to members of the board.  The cartoonists often churned in sweatshop conditions.  Why did people stay, and sometime work for less?  Because they knew they were creating magic, and were part of something special.

A review by Steve Daly helps sum it up:
“You step into a faux limo while an animatronic Eisner holds forth on Disney's proud creative tradition. But as the vehicle takes off, other Disney execs try to derail you. An angry Eisner periodically reappears, admonishing you to do things faster, cheaper, better. Finally, you're dumped at the exit in a burst of pink-slip confetti.  Imagine watching that ride go around, say, a dozen more times, and you've got the exhausting vibe of DisneyWar. While the epilogue asserts that ''nothing will erase'' Eisner's ''record of extraordinary achievement,'' the book's body relentlessly measures the human cost of that record in terms of the many talented people Eisner has driven from his kingdom. . . .
In the for-what-it’s-worth department, I also had a conversation with a business friend who told me he had the single worst meeting of his life at Disney, when folks from the company went for each other’s juglars in front of guests.   It was just part of the culture, he thought.

The culture of making magic.

The recent article about Apple in Fortune is actually pretty well balanced and generally complimentary about the company, its CEO and its people.  Some people get yelled at, but they probably should have been yelled at.  Yet make no mistake--the price of magic at Apple is pressure, sweat, contentiousness, and, as with Disney, a certain amount of brutality.

“People join and stay,” one headhunter said, “because they believe in the mission of the company, even if they aren’t personally happy.”  A former executive said, “Apple’s attitude is, ‘You have the privilege of working for the company making the fxxxing coolest products in the world.  Shut up and do your job, and you might get to stay.’”

Fortune summarizes, “Apple’s ruthless corporate culture is just one piece of a mystery that virtually every business executive in the world would love to understand: How does Apple do it?”

So, what are we left with?  We know that there are hundreds of companies with terrible work environments that turn out terrible product.  

We also know of companies that have very pleasant work environments that turn out terrible product.

And now, Disney and Apple seem like two good examples--and the only two--of companies with brutal work environments that turn out magical experiences.

So, I’m wondering if there’s anything that fills that upper right quadrant, the “magical work environment-meets-magical output” space.  I mean something of scale, with thousands of people all being directed toward a single mission, singing Kum By Ah and churning our memorable stuff.

I’m thinking Santa’s Workshop at the North Pole.

Unfortunately, that's all I've got.   Does it not seem funny that there aren’t  a whole lot more?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Organized Conscientiousness of Dorian Gray (Or, What Keeps Us Young)

Dorian Gray sells his soul to stay young,
allowing instead a portrait painted of him
to age "with each soul-corrupting sin."
I had the fortunate opportunity to see Ken Burns speak last week at the annual dinner of the New England Historic Genealogical Society.  His presentation included a sneak peak at the upcoming series on Prohibition, which looks to be classic Burns—beautiful, thoughtful, relevant and worth investing the time to take it all in. 

Ken is 57 but looks at least ten years younger, and maybe more.

I mention this for a very particular reason.  The Longevity Project, a twenty year study by Howard S. Friedman and Leslie R. Martin, was recently published.  It concludes that longevity is a function of three roughly equal factors: genes, chance, and lifestyle. 

Genes are genes.  You get what you get.  

Chance has to do with major life events, such as fighting in World War II (where those deployed overseas died at a greater rate after the war than those deployed at home), or the impact of divorce, which turns out to be the single strongest social predictor of a child’s longevity.

The factor over which we presumably have the greatest control, however, is lifestyle, and what Friedman and Martin found will warm the cockles of every well ordered, slightly-obsessive heart out there.  What makes for a long life is not happiness, optimism, or even equanimity.  

“The findings clearly revealed that the best childhood personality predictor of longevity was conscientiousness, the qualities of a prudent, persistent, well-organized person—somewhat obsessive and not at all carefree.”