Steve Jobs on learning to code

From Robert X. Cringley’s “Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview”:

When we were designing our blue box, we wrote a lot of custom programs to help us design it, you know, and to do a lot of the dog work for us in terms of calculating master frequencies with subdivisors to get other frequencies and things like that. We used the computer quite a bit to calculate, you know, to calculate how much error we would get in the frequencies and how much could be tolerated.

So we used them in our work, but much more importantly, it had nothing to do with using them for anything practical. It had to do with using them to be a mirror of your thought process; to actually learn how to think.

I think the greatest value of learning how to—I think everybody in this country should learn how to program a computer—should learn a computer language, because it teaches you how to think. It’s like going to law school. I don’t think anybody should be a lawyer, but I think going to law school would actually be useful, because it teaches you how to think in a certain way, in the same way that computer programming teaches you in a slightly different way how to think. And so I view computer science as a liberal art.

Cesar Hidalgo on Academia & Culture

From a conversation with Cesar Hidalgo at Edge:

At the [MIT] Media Lab, the whole goal that I see is that I have to be creative and I’m free to be creative, and I’m not constrained to a subject category. I don’t need to be creative in chemistry, or I don’t need to be creative in physics, or I don’t need to be creative in policy. It’s not about a subject category, the criticism of: well that is not, from the subject, it’s not valid. What that creates is a group of people that have interaction between artists and technologies and designers and theoreticians and thinkers, and experimentalists, which all share a pursuit of freedom and of new ideas.

I find that it’s a little bit paradoxical because this idea of pursuing creative freedom is the oldest idea in academic. The idea of an academic is someone that is doing something that nobody told him or her to do, someone that is running with his ideas and trying to make them happen. There might be people that think that those ideas are not worth even pursuing, they don’t make sense. It might be that those ideas are not going to have applications in the next 200 years. Who knows? But it’s an academic who will go away with his/her ideas, or take them where he or she wants.

I would say that this is something that nowadays is a little bit lost in academia, because there are subject categories that constrain the departments much more heavily, in many cases. The Media Lab doesn’t have that problem. The Media Lab is a bit of the solution to that. We’re going to do something that has to be cool, it has to be interesting, it has to be important, but we don’t care in which subject it fits. [my emphasis]

The last paragraph reminds me of some of the commentary that Charlie Munger has made.

On his research into culture:

One thing that I’ve become very interested in the recent years is culture. Culture is something that has always been very slippery for science simply because, first of all, there are many definitions of culture. Anthropologists, economists, they all have different definitions of culture. Artists, they talk about culture, at least in the dictionary definition, as the maximum expression, sort of as the best thing. An anthropologist would talk about the whole range of expressions, and someone in the social sciences would talk about the norms that exist in a society, as their culture.

I’m more thinking about culture in terms of the anthropological definition, of the range of expressions. Whether they are the most beautiful painting that you’ve ever seen, or whether it’s Michael Jordan doing a slam-dunk. I find all of this to be cultural expressions. I became curious about measuring culture, about which type of cultures come from which type of places. Which countries export which type of culture, and which countries import which type of culture.

. . .

This is very important. You can think that it’s important in the sense that there are articles that have been arguing that culture is the number one export of the U.S. nowadays. If you add the movie industry plus the sport industry, plus video game industry, all of these cultural industries, they actually represent a relatively important part of the economy: the creative class. That’s one thing.

Read the full conversation here.

On startup dictatorships

There’s a trade-off that CEOs — particularly startup CEOs — must make, and it’s between two roles that can be both conflicting and complementary.

The first role is that of guiding visionary. They guide overall strategy and ensure that the vision, purpose, and values of the organization are aligned with that strategy and permeate the company. This is also a supportive role, where you support other coworkers and projects and try to take an outsider’s perspective on the dynamics of strategy and internal organization. In this role, you are a team-member on the same level as other senior managers (the C-suite, VPs of Product, Marketing, Talent, etc.).

The second role is that of a dictator. Despite being in a team on essentially the same level of hierarchy, as the CEO/founder you have what I call “ultimate dictatorial authority.” This is especially needed in a young startup — there can be no democracy. Firm decisions need to be made and conflicts need to be resolved.

I learned this the hard way when doing Startup Weekend and being part of a team where each person’s opinion seemed to have equal weight (despite the high average intelligence and good intentions of the group, it was hard to make decisions in the uncertainty). We eventually figured it out but a lot of time was wasted.

“If you try to submit everything to voting processes when you’re trying to do something new, you end up with bad, lowest common denominator type results,” says Peter Thiel.

Strategy is hard and everyone will not agree on everything. Decisions need to be quick and a choice needs to be made, even if it turns out to be the wrong one. The CEO also has to have an open mind and be willing to embrace dissension and explore contrary views, but that’s the subject of another discussion.

Monarchy vs. Democracy

Peter Thiel again: “A startup is basically structured as a monarchy. . . . Importantly, it isn’t an absolute dictatorship. . . . People vest the top person with all sorts of power and ability, and then blame them if and when things go wrong.”

If all startups were democracies, the distribution of outcomes would be much more flat and normal. Everyone would be mediocre. But they aren’t, and the distribution of startup outcomes follows a power law: a few huge successes and lots of failures.

There are many reasons for the huge success of only a few companies, but a “benevolent” dictator with board oversight is one of them. Oversight is needed because, as in political systems, a malevolent dictator will eventually find their way to the top. Unlike in political systems, customers / employees aren’t as captive and companies with a poorly performing dictator won’t last long in the marketplace.

Found Quotes 2

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea… — Antoine de Saint Exupery

The little dissatisfaction which every artist feels at the completion of a work forms the germ of a new work. — Berthold Auerbach

Whatever few awards are presented for risk control, they’re never given out in good times. The reason is that risk is covert, invisible. Risk–the possibility of loss–is not observable. — Howard Marks

Actually, all education is self-education. A teacher is only a guide, to point out the way, and no school, no matter how excellent, can give you education. What you receive is like the outlines in a child’s coloring book. You must fill in the colors yourself. — Louis L’Amour

I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, It’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. Which is what I do, And that enables you to laugh at life’s realities. — Dr. Seuss

There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it. — Alfred Hitchcock

It is much harder to become independent if you are wealthy than to become wealthy if you are independent. — Nassim Taleb

Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination …  Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery — celebrate it if you feel like it. — Jim Jarmusch (via Kirby Ferguson @ TED)

My favorite books on business, management, investing and design

Out of the many books I’ve read in different subjects, below is a list of some of my favorites with some brief commentary for some of them. There are a few other “Mental Model” categories (psychology, history, economics, ecology, etc.) that I left out — hopefull they’ll be the subject of another post.

Business theory

  • The Origin and Evolution of New Businesses, Amar Bhide — extensive study of startups of all kinds, how they grow, what makes them successful (this is not a “help” book it is mainly observational)
  • Innovation & Entrepreneurship, Peter Drucker — how companies should systematically innovate — lots of good startup/innovation strategies (it’s not random)
  • The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton Christensen — every businessperson or investor needs to read this (and the one below) — every industry’s value chain is disrupted at some point
  • The Innovator’s Solution, Clayton Christensen — expands on “Dilemma” with better explanations and examples — I think the “jobs to be done” concept is one of the most important in business
  • Competition Demystified, Greenwald + Kahn — how businesses capture value by building a moat, and what strategies to use if you have or don’t have one
  • The Halo Effect, Phil Rosonzweig — the anti-business-book — but still has great insights on how businesses work and how best to run them
  • Built to Last, Jim Collins — read this with The Halo Effect in mind — lots of good advice & stories (I like this much better than “Good to Great”)
  • The Strategy Paradox, Michael Raynor — dense at times but a great theory on why strategy is so hard
  • Hidden Champions, Hermann Simon

Continue reading “My favorite books on business, management, investing and design”

Companies I admire

Here’s a short list of modern companies I admire, in no particular order:

I admire each for different reasons, but primarily it is their culture, processes, and organizational structure. All of these also maintain “smallness” in their own way, a topic I’ll probably discuss in a future post.