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Sun 28 Jan 2007

The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection

Category : Commentary/relentless.txt

I'm reading "Lexus: The Relentless Pursuit" by Chester Dawson. There's this passage :

"During the F1 project team's first tour of the U.S. in 1985 (F1 was Toyota's code name for the car that came to be called the Lexus), [Chief Engineer Ichiro] Suzuki had taken copious notes, especially about the idiosyncracies of upper-income car-buyers on the West Coast. Even after taking control of the program, Suzuki personally made several return visits to study his target audience. During one visit in late September of 1987, six months after being appointed to head the program, he led a small team to a mission-style house in an expensive suburb of Los Angeles. The Japanese visitors had never seen such opulence in a private home except, perhaps, on the silver screen. Because of the extreme scarcity of land in Japan's urban centers and the high cost of housing, many Japanese spend most of their lives in cramped one- or two-bedroom apartments. Even the homes owned by top executives in Japan paled by comparison with the tidy estates of upper-middle-class Americans, to say nothing of the palatial spreads of the very rich. Members of Suzuki's reconnaissance team secured access to the living rooms of these conspicuous consumers and took snapshots of everything from the stucco exteriors to the interior decor. They wanted to get a feel for the aesthetic values that resonated with the wealthiest Americans. Nothing escaped notice: varnished wood mantles and exposed brick fireplaces; richly upholstered sofas; glass-topped coffee tables and plush carpeting; eggshell-white walls; the grand piano in the corner and the silver tea set in the dining room; the chandelier in the entrance foyer, and the arched doorway leading off to a bathroom. All exemplified a highly refined taste and understated sophistication. It was a lifestyle utterly foreign to the visiting Japanese and underscored the feeling that they had their work cut out to produce a car that could appeal to such people..."

What's this got to do with software development?

From the technical point of view, the work that goes into building great software is a lot like the work that went into the making of the Lexus. There's the same meticulous attention to detail, fueled by the same drive to achieve perfection.

But from the business point of view, unfortunately, there the similarity ends.

Software is hidden. It works behind the scenes. The same CEO who buys a Lexus, in an ostentatious display of wealth, status and earning ability, is often the same CEO who will squeeze the living daylights out a software vendor, in the mistaken belief that it demonstrates his superior ability to save his company money.

So we, the software guys, get caught at the wrong end of the game. Look how the incentives are skewed. The more people a manager has working for him, the better he looks, the bigger the perceived responsibility, and the bigger the corner office. He can make all the right noises about investing in productivity, but great software or systems that actually deliver on that productivity are working at cross purposes with his real un-stated needs. Like, why have an accounting department with just two people when you can look like a powerhouse of a business with a VP for Finance and a staff of fifteen?

I believe Microsoft succeeds better than Apple in business because it understands better the real concerns of the CEOs, CFOs and CIOs. Or least better than Steve Jobs, who see orifices where others see opportunities.

Look how Apple has struggled selling to enterprises. The Mac's superior design and craftsmanship cut no ice with these members of the modern-day politburo.

One would have thought that, if you can appreciate a Lexus or BMW or a Merce, then you should also definitely appreciate a Mac. I know I do but never mind...

But this is the point I am coming to. An aspiring (and struggling) entrepreneur ought to study Apple religiously, for the responses it has made to fight its way out of its predicament, because we share more traits with Apple, with the need to find creative solutions to interesting conundrums such as these, than we do with Bill Gates. Really.

So the day Apple launched the iPod, I remember turning to my wife and saying, I believe Apple has found the key.

They've found the product to pour all their heart and soul, ingenuity and endeavour into, that finally shares those strange economic characteristics of the Beamers and the Benzes and the Lexus. Something that all the cool kids would want to use. And be seen to be using. And the more they have to pay for it, and have people know they paid for it, the better it will be.

And so when Steve Ballmer says of the iPhone, "500 dollars? Hah hah, for the most expensive phone in the world, by far, Hah hah", I thought, that's precisely why people will buy it. And they'll place it on those splendid burnished tables in executive suites everywhere, in that understated, languid way that only the rich can affect, and there's nothing the IT managers, CEOs and CFOs can do about it.

I believe it's no accident that Steve Jobs called all the people who worked on the iPhone to stand up in MacWorld. It may be to call attention to the idea that this phone has been built, painstakingly and meticulously, with love and a genuine craftsman's pride. So this will be just the right phone for all those people with "understated sophistication and a highly refined taste".

This could be Apple's revenge for all those years of getting shafted by an un-imaginative competition, united only by a desperate need to maintain the mediocre status quo. All it has to do now is to deliver on the promise and make good on the execution. Then, like in an Ayn Rand world where Atlas shrugged and the Fountainhead flows, justice would have been served.

Posted at 2:43PM UTC | permalink


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