Crash-Only Thinking

A few weeks ago, I learned about something called crash-only software  (ht, Robert Greco). This is software that has no normal “start” or “stop” mechanisms. It can only be stopped by crashing it. Often this means unplugging the computer physically. It can only be restarted through some sort of failure-recovery routine, with a hard reboot being the most extreme kind. There’s a whole theory of crash-only software design apparently.

The idea of crash-only design  steelmans a strawman idea of mine that has cropped up in multiple recent posts. In  How To Fall Off the WagonI argued that falling-off-the-wagon is the right focal point for understanding self-improvement efforts.   On the Unraveling of Scripts was about why major life transitions are necessarily messy. In The Adjacency FallacyI argued that career transitions necessarily involve a period of anomie caused by status and value disorientation. Crash-only is the more powerful version of all those ideas. From a crash-only perspective, falling off the wagon (and getting back on) isn’t the main thing. It’s the only thing.

A self-improvement system, or a management model for a business, that doesn’t solve for crash-only constraints isn’t a solution, because it will cost more in crash-recovery effort than the value it creates. Transition management of any sort has to be entirely about crash-only mechanisms.

Software ideas of crash-only design don’t port well to human lives and businesses. So how do you port the thinking?

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The Adjacency Fallacy

Lately, I’ve been having quite a few conversations with people who are trying to reinvent themselves for the new economy. The most common pattern is MBA-types trying to reinvent themselves as entrepreneurial types. The second most common pattern is mid-career types who would normally be moving into either middle management roles trying to reinvent themselves as online lifestyle business types.

It took me a few data points to spot the pattern, but I eventually realized that most people navigating such moves don’t get stuck trying to acquire new, relevant skills. That is actually not quite as hard to do as people think. In many cases, you barely need any skills retraining at all. Often you need no new skills at all. You might even be able to drop some skills and get by with a subset of the skills you had to use before.

The sticking point tends to be something I call the adjacency fallacy: the idea that the roles that suit your personality and soft-skill strengths are likely to be socially adjacent to the one you are leaving behind. “Nearby” roles in some sense.  What sense precisely, we’ll get to.

Adjacency thinking works poorly even if you stick to the old economy. Over the years, we’ve seen the metaphor get increasingly complicated: from the “career ladder” to “lateral moves” to Sheryl Sandberg’s  notion of a “career jungle gym.” The last is a concept so byzantine, merely thinking of it exhausts me to the point of wanting to take a nap.

But adjacency thinking does not work at all if you’re navigating a path from old economy to new economy.

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The Economics of Pricelessness

The digital economy has taught us a lot about one extreme of pricing: zero. The price-point of zero is a place where weird things happen. We now know what it is to have our attention productized in three-way attention markets. We understand what it means to  devalue to a zero price, things which required nonzero effort to produce. Perhaps most importantly, we know what it is like to constantly be inundated by advertising, the sine qua non of zero-point economics. The zero-point economy has of course always existed, but it has only recently gained a great deal of economic mass.

But we aren’t talking as much about the other end of the spectrum, the price point we poetically call priceless, as in the Mastercard tagline, “there are some things money can’t buy, for everything else, there’s Mastercard.” I think the two are connected (mathematically, via division by zero, and philosophically via “the best things in life are free”), so it is impossible to construct a proper theory of the zero price point without also creating a theory of the infinity price point.

Pricelessness is at the heart of what I call saint-saint transactions, a weird economic regime where people who abide by the guardian moral syndrome, in the sense of Jane Jacobs, are forced to play by the commerce moral syndrome. This means somehow trading things, which are culturally assumed to be priceless, via indirection. Depending on who you ask, the category of nominally priceless products and services includes life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, nature, human dignity, religious values and the welfare of children.

Such priceless things trap us between a rock and a hard place. If we admit that we do in fact price these things indirectly, and get rid of the indirection, we might manage the economy better, but will likely stress our sanity. If we continue, as we do today, to pretend that priceless things are literally rather than poetically priceless, we will continue with our grand display of possibly unsustainable species-level honor and nobility.

An economics of pricelessness might help find a way to get out of this bind. The fact that the phrase itself likely sounds like a profane contradiction in terms suggests it is the right direction to explore. Let’s take a stab at it.

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Structure Follows Context

I like mirroring principles in business a lot. My two favorite ones in business are Conway’s Law (product structure follows organizational structure) and Chandler’s Law (structure follows strategy). In conversations about business in recent years, I’ve been adding two more principles to complete a loop of sorts: market structure follows product structure and strategy follows market structure. The whole thing is what I call the data-driven death spiral, and is the reason I’ve become a partisan on the question of product-driven versus customer-driven thinking.  It operates through unimaginative leaders navigating entirely on the basis of market signals, which ultimately leads to businesses chasing their own tails. The only way a maturing business can break out of the death spiral is through the actions of a very strong leader. One capable of injecting a stiff dose of imaginative authoritah from the top.

dddspiralThat said, I’ve been sensing that my model is incomplete in a significant way. The biggest mirroring effect is the one it is easiest to miss: structure follows context. A context is the evolutionary environment (which is not the same as the competitive environment) within which a business grows, and which they shape to serve their needs as they grow. A city is the classic example of a context, but there are other kinds, such as ancient trade routes, or github (for purely virtual software teams). Contexts host businesses, but are not themselves primarily or necessarily businesses.

A context  is the sum of all history rolled up into a present-day operating environment, like a canvas with an evolving painting already on it. A new business must be painted onto some such canvas, just as software must be compiled for a specific machine. Only dictators have the luxury of razing a living context, creating a blank canvas (a dumb thing to do in almost every case).

Let’s look at the example of Seattle to see what I mean.

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Saints and Traders: The John Henry Fable Reconsidered

I only recently learned (from Sarah Constantin, whose new blog is worth checking out) of the American folk legend of John Henry, a steel driver who raced against a steam drill and won, only to drop dead right after. Wikipedia tells the story thusly:

He worked as a “steel-driver”—a man tasked with hammering a steel drill into rock to make holes for explosives to blast the rock away. He died during the construction of a tunnel for a railroad. In the legend, John Henry’s prowess as a steel-driver was measured in a race against a steam powered hammer, which he won, only to die in victory with his hammer in his hand and heart giving out from stress. The story of John Henry has been the subject of numerous songs, stories, plays, books and novels.

The amazing thing about John Henry is not that he chose to race against a machine. The amazing thing is not even that he won a Pyrrhic victory. The truly amazing thing is that he was turned into a folk hero rather than a cautionary tale, and a symbol of human dignity when in fact his behavior was what you might call morally robotic: based on non-negotiable values that killed him.

The key word above is prowess. It’s a rather archaic word, one I’ve never heard used in conversation, but a useful one. It has connotations of both skill and valor, bundled together in a notion of dignity. On a level playing field with a closed and bounded set of fixed rules, prowess could also be considered synonymous with competitive drive. 

Unfortunately, a human racing against a steam drill is not exactly a level playing field and the economic activity of building profitable railroads is not exactly a cleanly circumscribed Olympic competitive sport. Asymmetric and open-ended conditions separate prowess from competitive ability and turn it into a liability. A large fraction of the labor force today is in a John Henry situation within protectionist sectors of the economy, so it is important to knock down this particular idol with some unsentimental revisionism.

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The Logic of Uberreaction

I recently made up a word: uberreact. To uberreact is to  insist that regulations which exist for the benefit of  incumbent producers in a market (and their political patrons) are there to protect the interests of consumers. The inspiration for the term, of course, is the very predictable pattern of response by taxicab companies when Uber enters a market. Here’s a particularly clear example from London, where the taxicab union is arguing that Uber drivers should be required to have licenses to act as booking centers (rather than just driver’s licenses), since they operate under minicab laws:

“It’s like when you buy a saucepan online and you use PayPal to pay for it. Your transaction is with the guy you bought the saucepan from, not with PayPal,” McNamara told “With Uber, the guy taking the booking is the operator and so needs a license and a licensed operating center which can’t be a car…One day there’ll be a major accident in one of these cars and there will be a multimillion pound claim and an insurance company will look at it and say that the hiring didn’t take place through a licensed operating center so it won’t be insured,”…

Bertram [Uber UK GM] points out that the intention of the law is to protect passengers and that there are many public safety measures that technology like Uber’s can bring. “The point of knowing who accepts the booking is so that there’s traceability. We have the name, photo and registration of the driver, you can share a live map of the journey with family and friends and get a full copy of the details in a receipt.”

The taxicab union argument against Uber conflates the principle of protecting the consumer interest with a specific technology-dependent mechanism for doing so, and Uber representatives very reasonably offer the counter-argument that their technology actually offers many improvements towards the intent of protecting customer safety.

But what is curious here is why both the taxicab unions and Uber seem to have tacitly agreed to talk about customer safety rather than what the rest of us assume is the issue: suddenly devalued million-dollar medallions and jobs under threat.

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Product-Driven versus Customer-Driven

I have lost track of the number of times I’ve had conversations about product-driven versus customer-driven businesses in recent years. It’s a distinction that just keeps cropping up, and has featured in every consulting gig I’ve had in the last three years, but surprisingly I haven’t found any treatment of it that satisfies me. So this post is partly an attempt to save myself from future repetition.

The distinction is central to many questions people ask in business:

  1. Which kind of business should you build?
  2. Can you transform your business from one kind to the other?
  3. Is one kind provably better than the other?
  4. How can you tell which kind is which?
  5. Which kind suits your personality?
  6. Can you hybridize the two and get the best of both worlds?
  7. Should you listen to customers?

These questions have been discussed for decades, at least since Henry Ford didn’t make clever remarks about faster horses. So why are we having this conversation with increased frequency and urgency these days?  Two words. Steve Jobs. 

But it isn’t just the inspiring dent-in-the-universe life of Jobs that is forcing this conversation, or even the fact of Apple’s exceptional performance in the market during a decade when many businesses were thrashing about in search of a direction. The reason this debate is at the forefront today is that the life and work of Steve Jobs suggested a set of polarizing, absolutist answers to these questions, which have historically attracted hedged answers beginning with it depends. 

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Love Your Parasites

Parasitism is usually defined as a multi-party ecological organization in which one party benefits at another’s expense, and is contrasted with commensalism (the host is neither harmed nor helped) and mutualism (a type of symbiosis in which both parties benefit). Missing from this triptych are organizations in which a harm is partially offset with second-order benefits.

New research brings a little light to the subject in its analysis of the notorious brood parasites, the common cuckoo. The cuckoo lays its eggs in the nests of other birds, externalizing the costs of raising its young to other species, which bear the burden of feeding and caring for the cuckoo chicks, who compete strenuously with their own. However, it was found that the parasitized nests thrived relative to those left alone by the cuckoo; and this effect was causally related to the cuckoo chicks themselves, as moving the eggs to other nests moved the beneficient effects as well.

It turns out that cuckoo chicks defecate a kind of black, tarry substance that is incredibly toxic and serves to dissuade predators, resulting in net improved fitness for the host species despite the costs.

Ecological thinking is transforming our understanding of the natural world, and is blurring many of the firm boundaries erected under the old paradigms that fetishisized ‘identity’ and assumed in advance the nature of benefit and harm. The world of software seems perfectly poised for ecological analysis, as many of its fundamental concepts parallel those of biological systems (source code as the genotype to compiled code’s phenotype, for instance).

So what would parasitism in software look like?

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The Message is the Medium

I’ve been in Europe all week and just got done with the European Trend Day conference in Zurich, organized by the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute. So instead of a regular post, you get the slide-deck for my talk, The Message is the Medium.

The slides are probably going to be a bit cryptic for those unfamiliar with McLuhan’s theory of media, so here are some (hopefully helpful) notes.

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The Poor Usability Tell

Work can be a delight when your tools and your environment are crafted in ways that enable you to focus on the task at hand. However, most people I suspect have only limited experience with this sort of situation; it’s rather common to see everyday tasks performed with sub-optimal tools. Software engineers are in a privileged position, parallel perhaps to blacksmiths of the past, in that the same skills used for their work may be deployed toward tool improvement. Correspondingly, they pride themselves on possessing and creating excellent tools. Unfortunately, most other roles in a given business are ill-equipped and poorly positioned to effect a similarly-scaled tool-chain improvement effort. Instead, they are reduced to requesting assistance from other departments or outside vendors, a relationship which Kevin Simler highlighted last year in a spectacular post entitled UX and the Civilizing Process. You should read the entire piece, but the salient portion for our purposes is the following paragraph:

You might think that enterprise software would be more demanding, UX-wise, since it costs more and people are using it for higher-stakes work — but then you’d be forgetting about the perversity of enterprise sales, specifically the disconnect between users and purchasers. A consumer who gets frustrated with a free iPhone app will switch to a competitor without batting an eyelash, but that just can’t happen in the enterprise world. As a rule of thumb, the less patient your users, the better-behaved your app needs to be.

Any given software project will be improved by increased usability. Nevertheless, we’ve all witnessed moments where “more cowbell” doesn’t seem to effect the desired improvements. An unalloyed good in its tautological form (better is better), it is in the specifics that we see usability as a concept fetishized.

This isn’t an accident; in fact, there can be an inverse relationship between the best user experience at the level of an individual or a small group, versus the best user experience for an organization or a network of organizations.

In poker, a tell is some sort of behavior which gives hints about the card’s in a player’s hand. Poor usability is a tell which may indicate that an organization’s and a user’s needs are in conflict, and that the organization’s needs trump.

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