9/16/2013

#16 Inventing or Stealing the Wheel (1998)

All Rights Reserved © 1998 Thomas W. Day
I work for a company that has taken the NIH Syndrome (Not Invented Here) to an incredible extreme. We're so proud of reinventing the wheel that we call spokes "endpoint clockwise-threaded drawn steel rods centrally affixed to the inner and outer circular attachments" (our terms for "rim" and "hub" would require a paragraph apiece). And, no, we still haven't decided what color the wheel should be for maximum consumer appeal. (If you don't recognize a Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe reference, you disgust me.)

Our only exception to this behavior is when the Big Cheese of our industry (affectionately known as "Big M") has defined some completely idiotic practice as a "standard." When we hire away one of M's underachieving executives, we almost always adopt a few of those "standards," so that our products always reflect a consistent corporate incestry. But this doesn't really have an effect on the general atmosphere of doing things "our way." It, mostly, applies to Marketing and our irrational tendency to let MBAs mismanage critical tasks.
One of the most important men of the 20th Century, guitarist Jeff Beck, once said "Amateurs borrow, professionals steal." I think Mr. Beck was referring to riffs and blues songs not copyrighted by American black artists from the 1930's and 40's, but it applies to most everything. If it's out there, and it works, steal it, use it, sell it, and tell your lawyers you got the idea while you were chewing on a mildewed corner of a shower curtain.

Whatever you do, don't waste time trying to find a new way to do an old task. This isn't the way to true and original science, but it is the way to get things done fast and reasonably well. And that's the absolute best anyone can ever expect in MBA-land. Our bottom line is not "excellence," the bottom line is all there is. The best way to make sure you make money today, and a little more tomorrow, is to make "baby steps" (a term borrowed from a particularly irritating person in my employment history). Screw going for a homerun. Just get to first and keep working your way around the bases till you score. (We're still talking business here, but apply the rules where they fit.)

The easiest way to take those baby steps is to "reverse engineer" what someone else is already doing. "Reverse engineering" is the business term for steal it and say you didn't. The really cool thing about idea theft is that it is often considered polite. "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery." I am always polite, when it's convenient.

Business theft also so well entrenched that no one knows who stole what from who, anymore. Look at the Lotus vs Microsquash suit from a few years back. Lotus claimed that Excel™ had the "look and feel" of Lotus 123™. Those of us who've been fooling with computers for a few years/decades remember a strong resemblance from 123 and a rusty Apple-based spreadsheet, Visicalc. SuperCalc also appeared a bit before 123 (on CP/M machines) and was doing the job with similar commands and a lot more friendly user-interface. Borland's Quattro introduced three dimensional spreadsheets, also on CP/M machines, which Lotus immediately copied. After wasting a bag of taxpayer money, the court figured all this out and sent Lotus back to work, building awful software for a living.

If you ever wanted proof that the business world turns on theft, go to a car show. I did, a few weekends ago, and I spent the afternoon trying to find the new Volkswagen Beetle and the Dodge Prowler. It's not that I would ever consider buying a new car. I just wanted to find something in the show with a micron of individuality to use as a landmark in the sea of Acura clones. It's a wonder that all these doofus car makers don't join together into one giant company and save themselves the trouble of making all those repair parts. They could still label the cars they ship with their brand name. It's not like we can tell them apart as it is.

Business ethics, an oxymoron if there ever was one, has made theft part of its SOP. But that's probably not a completely bad thing. If it weren't for idea inbreeding, we'd all still be fooling with beads on sticks, or slide rules, or going barefoot so that we could keep track of more than ten cows. It's human nature. We see a neighbor doing something smarter than we do it and we change. I keep waiting for my neighbors to figure out how much time they're wasting mowing their yards.

And there is probably a good reason for the existence of the NIH Syndrome. Somebody still has to figure out what color the wheel should be. If so many goofs weren't keeping themselves so obviously worthlessly occupied, how would we be able to figure out who belongs on the "B-Ship?" The rest of you, go find something to steal and I hope you make enough money to retire someplace warm and sunny.

April 1998

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