Can’t we all just get along?

Good teamwork is vital for the success of any endeavor, whether it be winning an NBA championship, getting an A for that final group presentation in school, or running a business. This is especially true in the tech industry, where the explosion of complexity confronting companies today combined with increased globalization makes teamwork a requirement.  Just take a look at your typical web company:  The development team alone is going to consist of multiple people with different specialties. No one person can possibly be an expert at everything, which makes it a necessity to work together with others. Front end developers will know CSS, Javascript, some sort of server side scripting language. A backend developer on the other hand, will know everything there is to tuning a database. Even though there will be skill overlap among developers, an entire code base can spawn millions of lines of code: its not humanly possible for just one person to maintain it all! And that’s not even looking at the marketing, operations, HR, accounting, legal and business departments, all of which serve vital roles in the company. Everyone must work together for the company to run smoothly.

The difficulty with teamwork lies in scaling up. For example, a small startup company naturally fosters good teamwork. Because of its size, everybody must contribute by working hard and helping out others. People learn to depend on one another, forming close bonds in the process. However, this camaraderie tends to get lost as the company grows larger. A once tight knit group inevitably splits off into multiple teams. As more headcount is added, entire departments are formed, then divisions, and finally even subsidiaries! All too often, these org units all have their own bottom lines and agendas, creating an atmosphere of Machiavellian politicking. Dick Brass, a former Microsoft VP, wrote a fascinating op-ed piece that touches on this very issue.

He paints a grim picture of the internecine warfare at Microsoft. I was left with the impression that groups within Microsoft were not entirely unlike the warring city states in Italy during the Middle Ages. Teams did not play nicely with one another and were more likely to sabotage, rather than help, one another. Microsoft Cleartype, a font display technology that garnered much praise, did not make it into Windows until a decade after it was invented. Why?

“It … annoyed other Microsoft groups that felt threatened by our success. Engineers in the Windows group falsely claimed it made the display go haywire when certain colors were used. The head of Office products said it was fuzzy and gave him headaches. The vice president for pocket devices was blunter: he’d support ClearType and use it, but only if I transferred the program and the programmers to his control.”

A similar situation occurred with the tablet, which Microsoft had developed long before the Ipad came out. And yet, despite having the support of top management, it was essentially torpedoed by the VP of Office:

“ When we were building the tablet PC in 2001, the vice president in charge of Office at the time decided he didn’t like the concept. The tablet required a stylus, and he much preferred keyboards to pens and thought our efforts doomed. To guarantee they were, he refused to modify the popular Office applications to work properly with the tablet. So if you wanted to enter a number into a spreadsheet or correct a word in an e-mail message, you had to write it in a special pop-up box, which then transferred the information to Office. Annoying, clumsy and slow.”

I experienced this internal bickering firsthand when I worked as a consultant at Avanade and got to work on a fairly large scale project at the Microsoft Entertainment and Devices division. Despite multiple teams being involved and the obvious dependencies between them, help was hard to come by. Trying to get things such as getting access to documentation, sample code, servers, or even the developers themselves was like pulling teeth. I quickly learned that the only way I could get timely responses to my nagging emails asking for documentation would be if I CCed somebody important. Bugs that blocked other teams were not prioritized correctly and took far too long to get fixed. Not surprisingly, the project fell behind schedule. In the ensuing shitstorm, everyone tried to pin the blame on everyone but themselves. The funny thing is, all this could have easily been avoided had there been a little more cooperation.

My team was hardly blameless either. I remember in one meeting, one of the developers on another team asked us if we could squeeze in an extra bug fix for the build. Our PM said that we were already swamped and that this would require pushing the build back by at least a day. After much posturing and positioning, an agreement was reached. In the time it took to do so, I literally could have checked in the one line fix on my laptop. Instead, I kept quiet, fully aware of what was going on. We could not just give up something for nothing; we had to get something in return. Such is how the game is played.

This failure to cooperate appears to be the inevitable result of companies that have grown bloated from their own success. Individuals employed by these corporations are loyal to themselves first, their coworkers second, other teams a distant third, and the actual company dead last. I don’t want to paint too grim a picture here however. I offer just this simple observation: The most effective way for a large corporation to deal with this problem is to have a compelling vision and a strong CEO who can carry it out. This CEO must be a benevolent dictator who “speaks softly but carries a big stick”, rewarding those who work together and punishing those who don’t.

The textbook example is Steve Jobs. Walter Isaacson’s biography of him makes him appear more as a dictator than as someone who was benevolent, but he definitely got the job done. Jobs brought his innovative ideas to bear by exercising complete control over the entire end to end user experience. Despite being an asshole at times, his passion and his ability to revolutionize technology gave everyone a reason to rally behind him and set aside their differences, knowing that the end result in the long run would be well worth it. The results speak for themselves.

This is why Apple succeeded where Sony couldn’t. Sony should have been able to come up with the Ipod long before Apple did. As discussed in Steve Job’s biography:

“But Sony couldn’t. It had pioneered portal music with the Walkman, it had a great record company, and it had a long history of making beautiful consumer devices. It had all of the assets to compete with Job’s strategy of integration of hardware, software, devices, and content sales. Why did it fail? Partly because it was a company … that was organized into divisions (that word itself ominous) with their own bottom lines; the goal of achieving synergy in such companies by prodding the divisions to work together was unusually elusive” (P. 407 Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson).

Because the executives at Sony placed the success of their own divisions before the success of the company as a whole, they missed the big picture and failed to think long term. The irony here is that had they actually come up with a true successor to the Walkman, their bottom lines would all have profited enormously. Sony shouldn’t feel too bad though. Failure to work together is recurring theme throughout history, whether it be primitive tribes fighting over resources to the centuries of warfare that wracked Europe during the Middle Ages. Of course, the history textbooks also show what happens when petty tribal rivalries are set aside: Once Genghis Khan was able to “unite the clans”, he conqured most of the known world. Similarly, CEOs who wish to capture a dominant global market share with their products would do well to study Steve Jobs and see how he rallied all of Apple behind him.