My Dad worked for IBM in Greenock, Scotchland. He was an engineer. IBM held open days where the employees could take their families for a nosey.
It was great.
I remember two things in particular…
First was the mainframe computers themselves. Massive beasts – eight feet high and four across, in strangely cool rooms. Each topped with two shiny, large silver discs of magnetic tape. Like a colossal reel-to-reel tape deck. If you don’t know what that is, ask your parents. These tapes would wiz and jerk, sometimes forwards, sometimes backwards, seemingly at random. You could believe these machines were alive.
The second thing I remember was large banners hanging from the ceilings of the open plan offices. In my mind’s eye they are orange. The banners read “Think!” Now Mr Steve Jobs over at Apple used to say “Think Different!” I don’t know if he was having a dig at IBM. Probably. It’s quite funny really.
Good and bad…
I was reminded of all this while reading “Good Strategy, Bad Strategy” by Richard Rumelt. He tells the tale of the computer industry turning itself inside out and he tries to explain why.
The industry used to be “vertical”. Everyone did everything, differently. So if you were, say, IBM, you would make chips, and boards, and sound devices and graphic devices and mouses and keyboards and monitors and connectors and cables and hard drives and floppy drives and you would write the software for your own gear. Then you would recruit armies of “systems integrators” to metaphorically glue all the damn pieces together. The systems integrators ruled the roost. They were the bees knees.
And then over at DEC and all the others they’d all be playing the same game. And each company had its own unique standards of all its components and they were all completely incompatible from one company to another.
You didn’t buy a DEC hard drive and fit it to an IBM motherboard. You bought everything – hardware, software, support etc etc, all from one player.
Then it all changed.
The industry became “horizontal”. Companies specialised in soundcards, graphics cards, drives, chips, keyboards and mice, software…
Why did this happen…?
The academics and sociologists who study this sort of stuff in business schools and universities saw that something new was going on. They thought it was all about people forming networks and relationships and co-operating and all sorts of wacky, modern stuff like that. Almost a higher level of human interaction.
It’s a very appealing picture…
But it’s a fantasy…
The answer to the question of why the computer industry turned itself inside out was much simpler. Intel developed a cheap microprocessor. That’s it.
It was cheap enough for all the components in a computer to become “smart” and talk to each other. The massive, important and strategic competence of systems integration became trivial overnight and without this glue, the industry stopped doing everything and started specialising.
It wasn’t to do with some form of advanced, higher human behaviour as the academics theorised. It was much more prosaic. A cheap chip.
The academics and sociologists wanted to believe that they had stumbled across some higher form of human co-operation. Because that suited their belief system about people.
The lesson of the story…
…is to be aware of the point at which thinking turns into belief (and thinking stops).
Our brain is trying to minimise our daily workload so it likes to box things off as comforting, black and white beliefs so that we can get on with whatever it is that’s right in front of us now.
We need to resist our brains!
Think! or Think Different!