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The showrunners of tech

Earlier today I wrote a piece that explained why the methods of the US government don't work to create usable software. There's more to the story. Because the methods of corporations don't work either, yet conventional wisdom says that they create the products we love. Conventional wisdom, in this case, is wildly wrong.

Look through the list of inductees to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for an idea of who the creative people are in music. Or look at the people who have won Oscars and Emmys for ideas of who drives the process of developing significant movies and television shows. You won't find many corporate executives on either list. Sure they fit into the corporate environment of music, movies and television, but they aren't CEOs, CFOs, CTOs or CMOs. They might have titles that say they're executives but the ones who create the art that we love aren't suits.

It's no different in software.

I've had that controversial point of view since I began in software, in the mid-70s. There was no experience to back up that belief then, but over the coming years, software-as-art did develop, as I was sure it would. But we're not all the way there. Many people still believe that executives are the creative forces in tech, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

It's true that some companies do develop new products that advance the art, consistently, over many years. The prime example is Apple. But they were adrift in the years Steve Jobs was gone. It remains to be seen if they can keep flowing new exciting products to market now that he is gone. My bet is they can't. Jobs was Apple's showrunner, the same way Vince Gilligan was Breaking Bad's. The products were the expression of one person's art, for better or worse.

Disclaimer: I am a long-term Apple shareholder. Given what I wrote above, it's probably time for me to sell. Not sure what I would buy to replace it.

Twitter, in its early days, had showrunners. People who could assimilate the ideas all around them into something that worked well enough to gain traction. Part of the art of Twitter was its open development platform. But it was a mess, and the showrunners couldn't stay in charge. If you want to get an idea of how that worked, read Nick Bilton's new book about the drama of Twitter.

If the guy at the top isn't a showrunner, it's very hard for someone underneath him or her to do it. You can't protect egos, the product always comes first. If the top guy isn't the showrunner, his or her ego is going to kill the spirit of the product, eventually. (They always think they are the showrunner, btw.)

There might be counterexamples, companies who managed to create shells that stayed out of the way of creative people. That's the challenge. Someday that will happen, when people realize that tech products are developed by creative processes that are offensive to corporations, contrary to the way they think things should happen. There have been countless examples of the corporations spoiling the process. Not many attempts to not-spoil it.

My guess is that to make this happen an association of creative people is going to have to form a new kind of entity that's protective of the creative process.

PS: This is what Twitter's timeline looks like now. How long before those nice pictures are replaced with spam? I'm sure someone at Twitter foresaw that. Did the top guy? And if so, where will they navigate to next?

Followup #1

Warning: Breaking Bad spoiler contained within.

If Twitter is like Breaking Bad, fans are watching closely to find out how the cliffhanger is resolved. In this analogy, Twitter killing the API is analogous (this is kind of a joke) to Mr. White standing by while Jesse's girlfriend OD's. It's a plot twist. One with ramifications all the way to the end.

Twitter had the option to become host to lots of showrunners, but they gave that up when they killed the API. Now Dick Costolo's vision, for better or worse, is the soul of Twitter.

Followup #2

It's not really true that the showrunner in tech was invisible in the 70s.

Unix had showrunners, the guys at Bell Labs. They decided what features went into the operating system. It had a clarity to it that was formed by the vision of their leaders. And they really did have a great idea, and even more important, an intuition of how to make it happen.

If there ever is an Oscar for software, Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie should get the first one. Unix was, more than anything, the software product that launched the tech industry as we know it today. We honor the earlier conceptual pioneers, like Turing, Hopper, Engelbart, but in my world, Thompson/Ritchie were the proto-showrunners, the ones I most try to emulate.

Followup #3

As a basketball fan who lives in NYC -- I gotta say the Knicks and Nets have shit showrunners. They go for flash and press releases, and the teams they've built have nothing holding them together.

How could the Knicks let Jeremy Lin go? And why didn't the Nets see the opportunity. Basketball is a game that draws energy from the fans. The ownership of NY teams doesn't get that, has no connection.

And what kind of sense does it make to buy the dregs of the Celtics for the Nets? Is that any way to build a NY basketball culture? Fuck the Celtics. New York and Boston don't see eye to eye on basketball. Sorry, try again.

Even Lost had a better plot!

 11/19/2013; 5:54:34 PM.

Government develops software differently

When I first came to Silicon Valley in 1979, I hooked up with a company called Personal Software. I was under contract to create a product, called VisiText, and was paid an advance and promised royalties. It was a small company when I started, but before I delivered the product, it had grown several times its initial size, had raised venture capital, had new management and a new name, VisiCorp.

The new engineering guys came from the US government, where they did things differently from the seat-of-the-pants method we were using to create our Apple II and IBM PC software. They believed their methods would yield a better result.

They'd fully specify the software, the user interface, its internal workings, file formats, even write the user documentation, before a single line of code was written. Then they'd hand the parts off to development teams who would independently of each other create the components. Another team would do the integration. The end result would show up in the users' hands without anyone from the company using it. (This is the way I understood it, it was a long time ago, and they were foreign ideas, so take this with a grain of salt.)

They got to try their way of doing things with a couple of big products, VisiWord (the replacement for my product, which never shipped) and VisiOn. Both products were disasters. VisiOn was an early front-runner in the race for personal computer GUIs, a race that was eventually won by Microsoft Windows. It was unusable. The company, which had bet its existence on these products, died.

The same team went on to another tech company, Ashton-Tate, where they did the same thing, and killed that company too with a disastrous release of a product called dBASE IV, which was then the leading database software for personal computers.

I suspect their approach works for projects like flying astronauts to the moon, or shooting ICBMs at the Soviet Union, where there's no chance to try things out before you go "live." They have to work the first time. And in some cases security is a huge issue, and you don't want too many people to understand the whole project.

The point of this story is this. Where people in commercial software iterate and refine based on actual use of the product, something we did then instinctively, which has now been formalized in various disciplines, the government method doesn't work well. A startup could have done a better job at I don't care how sophisticated the backend is, the problems the site has look like the ones the VisiCorp products had. Not enough human involvement in the process. No communication. Too much reliance on initial vision. No refinement, no pivots. It's pretty clear that this website wasn't loved. I know that sounds dorky, but the products you love were loved by the people who created them. They were created by smelly imperfect humans, the same kind of people who use them.

Perhaps the only way this is going to get fixed is by developing a parallel system alongside the broken one, to fill in for it as soon as possible. A Google or Yahoo or a startup formed with experienced developers could do an excellent job here, imho. And here speed is of the essence, if we want to save the health care system of the United States, a very worthwhile goal, imho.

 11/19/2013; 9:07:03 AM.

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