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Inspiration: Leave Them Alone

June 12, 2012

I can remember when I got pulled into the secret enclave that actually knew what was going on, and I was equally sworn to secrecy while the events transpired.  I wasn’t really in the main loop of the move Apple made from PowerPC to Intel Architecture, but I had some stake in the game from my position at the time.  I remember the most I used the info I learned was after it went public; I was in Washington DC on an impromptu panel of IT experts, and I had to respond to some inquiries on the fly.

Anyway, the story behind Apple moving to Intel is interesting, and The Register has some detials that aren’t that widely known, most of which come from this blog site from the wife of one of the engineers.  I probably shouldn’t say how true any of this is, since some of the details are still secret, but I can say that the flow of events is generally correct.

There’s one point that I, and The Reg, would like to take great pains to point out, by the way…

Three years after Apple acquired NeXT there was no Intel port. Kullmann had began the project in his own time in 2000, something he was able to do because he had been given special dispensation to work from home. For 18 months it remained a one-man project, tolerated rather than encouraged, and in that time according to Scheinberg, only six people within Apple knew about it. Finally it acquired a couple of more engineers early in 2002 and serious staffing late that year.

It’s a lovely story, and shows how an enterprising lone engineer can create something of huge importance, away from the deadlines and bureaucracy of the main job. There is actually a spooky parallel with Microsoft. In 1987, a summer intern at Microsoft found a way of running the company’s GUI-run time for MS-DOS in extended mode. Windows™ was then a joke, absorbing precious memory resources and with no developer mindshare and little use other than as a run time for Excel and Pagemaker. Microsoft’s focus was on making IBM’s OS/2 work, as very junior partner, and persuade a sceptical IT industry that they needed it. The intern’s work allowed Windows to break the memory barrier and take on a few aspects of a real operating system. Microsoft didn’t miss the strategic significance.

…and here you have two examples of individuals being given time to actually do work and innovate on their own.  The culture of business today is that everyone needs to collaborate on projects, and that flows all the way down to the school system where they call it “collaboration” instead of “cheating” these days.  Note that I’m okay with that, since so much of today’s business is working together, but where’s the time for individuals to shine?

Occasionally, unintended consequences are actually positive.  I can remember when I was working on a project with a realatively minor customer/fellow-traveler, and most of my team didn’t really care about the results.  I managed to mostly toil in obscurity working directly with our customer lead, until it got mentioned in passing by another customer to one of my execs, since they wanted to bundle the software product.  All of the sudden, I had twenty people crawling on the project, and it ended up launching a major revolution in digital imaging on the PC.  So sometimes the strategy is really successful when it goes beyond your ability to control, but first you need to have the freedom to control it to make it successful.

Go ask Apple.

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