Critical Mass

Tough-Talking Nerds

Why technocrats talk like action heroes.

Company X “dominates” its market, seeking to “crush” company Y. Meanwhile, CEO A is locked in a “war” with CEO B, declaring an intention to “take no prisoners.” Mr. B, for his part, says he “loves a good fight” and predicts “Armageddon,” since his upcoming product release will “nuke ‘em till they glow.” The IPO of company Z is hot because analysts think it will “suck the life out” of established companies. Any discussion of the technology business is colored with the lurid vocabulary found mainly in Quentin Tarantino films. Observers who knew business only from these descriptions would reach one of two conclusions: 1) Business is an epic and violent struggle, fought by heroic and powerful men. 2) They are overhearing a bunch of pre-teen boys playing with action figures. The second option is a lot closer to the truth.

Titans of industry as overpaid Ninja Turtles? Surely this isn’t the case. Business is war! Its leaders are strategic commanders, who boldly snatch victory from the jaws of defeat–and who perform other acts of derring-do. This kind of talk sounds great in the boardroom, and, for that matter, in the bookstore, where dozens of authors counsel would-be corporate warriors. Sun Tzu is alleged to have written The Art of War some 2,500 years ago–so he isn’t personally plying the seminar circuit, but his translators and interpreters are, along with those promoting other military-history hall of famers like Attila the Hun, Karl Von Clausewitz, and the 17th-century samurai who wrote A Book of Five Rings.

The first clue that something is amiss is that only dead generals seem to give business advice. Live generals are experts on the specialized killing of modern armies–efficient, but lacking the cachet of ancient warfare. Where’s the chivalry in a stealth bomber? Besides, modern examples are obviously irrelevant to the next marketing plan. Dead experts, on the other hand, can opine on topics like swordsmanship, which are so irrelevant that they can be mistaken for a mystical metaphor.

When I first moved from theoretical physics to business, I dutifully read the business-as-war books, hoping to gain some insights. I did learn a lot about how the ancient kingdom of Wu conducted foreign policy, the virtue of a few beheadings to discipline the troops, and how Von Clausewitz thought you should deploy field artillery. A decade later I must confess that I’ve never deployed artillery, and that the kingdom of Wu has yet to come up. Nor have I had an opportunity to behead miscreant employees (although in some cases, it is a pleasing thought). This is true even though I’ve served on the front lines of the purported “battles” famed in the lore and legend of the software industry.

Software-industry battles are fought by highly paid and out-of-shape nerds furiously pounding computer keyboards while they guzzle diet Coke. The stakes aren’t very dramatic. Life? Liberty? The pursuit of happiness? Nope, it’s about stock options. The winners will be worth something; the losers will negotiate new compensation deals with the next employer. A great deal of intellectual effort goes into this competition, but violence or heroism? Not that I’ve seen. Late-night pizza parties are about as wild as it gets.

The bigger the technological “confrontation,” the more slowly it occurs. Industry pundits have long predicted the death of the mainframe computer at the hands of PCs and workstations. Twenty years after this funeral dirge started, it seems safe to say the predictions were a bit premature. For the first 15 years, the personal computer had no direct competition with mainframes–they simply did different things. Utilities bills and payroll were not good candidates for a PC, just as flying-toaster screen savers were rare on IBM 3090s. More recently a few mainframe applications have become feasible on PC servers, and it is clear that one day, the last mainframe will be turned off. That day may be another 20 years hence, or perhaps only 10. Either way, this clash of the titans has been about as exciting to watch as a melting glacier. Yet it is far more typical of a technology change than the slam-bang predictions would suggest.

A new and fast-growing technology is, almost by definition, expanding into a vacuum by operating in a new or unprecedented manner. It’s hard to take the world by storm and butt heads with entrenched competitors at the same time. Technological “revolutions” don’t really overthrow anything–they simply append a new and dynamic market to that which went before. The new appendages might grow faster than their predecessors, and so eclipse them as the darling du jour of Wall Street. However, being upstaged isn’t quite the same as being annihilated, and it certainly isn’t anything like war. Less frequently, something is rendered totally obsolete–but usually only if it has been around a long time. Records were replaced by CDs, and lead type died in favor of computerized fonts. However, each had a 100-year ride of popularity, so you can’t feel too bad for them.

Products and companies do go head-to-head in direct competition, but it is rare that the challenger stages an upset during the initial period of high growth. The fastest a competitor can win is in three or four product versions–which is to say, over a period of four to six years. Hardly a blitzkrieg. When a winner does emerge, the victory is rarely equivocal. Suicide, rather than death in battle, is the proximate cause of every high-tech demise I can think of. Competitors bring pressure to bear on a company, but the really damaging moves are invariably self-inflicted. The immediate causes are many: A disastrous acquisition drains cash reserves and defocuses management; a crucial technology trend is ignored; attempts to diversify beyond the initial product line stall. The most common problem is that the company loses touch with the creativity and technical wizardry that were once its raison d’être, often because of the exit of the founders and key technical staff. No competitor or other external agent can cause this sort of mortal damage; to find the culprit, senior management needn’t look further than a mirror.

This perspective might seem self-serving, since people use the word “domination” more often when referring to my employer than they do in calls to 900 numbers. It’s rather amusing to conjure up this image as I walk past colleagues clad in chinos and Birkenstocks. Not exactly the garb you’d envision for world domination. Perhaps my insider’s view is biased, but at least it’s informed, unlike those of the many armchair experts opining on the matter. Be that as it may, bellicose language and self-inflicted wounds are not exclusive to those parts of the industry where Microsoft is involved–you find them everywhere.

The story of the technology business gets spiced up because the reality is so bland. Professional storytellers find this particularly vexing. The business press is keen on salacious sound bites, because without such enhancement, nobody would give a damn. “Man Bites Dog” is a great headline. “Dog Bites Man” is a poor substitute, but beats “Man and Dog Work Really Hard Late at Night for a Long Time Until One of Them Screws Up.” The last has all the excitement of a game of chess played via postcards–until it is recast as single-warrior combat.

It’s easy to mock the shallow treatment of complex technology issues in the press, and the absurd opinions of self-proclaimed experts, analysts, and other touts. But the press only borrows the martial rhetoric that business leaders use themselves. It’s not hard to see why they use it. In a culture where Xena and Hercules have hit TV shows, it’s a lot more fun imagining that you are a valiant warrior doing business-as-battle than it is to admit that you’re a pudgy functionary whose most daring deed is to draft a boldly worded memo. Just ask me.

Tough talk and the rhetoric of conflict help hide the basic truth that business leaders are, in real life, more contemplative than combative, more sedentary than savage. Leadership is about being clever, hard-working, and drawing the best work from a team. Coming to terms with this reality isn’t easy, especially for the largely male contingent of senior managers and pundits whose personal machismo is on the line.

Ever see a contemplative Power Ranger? Little boys face a problem very similar to that of high-tech executives. They’re steeped in a culture that honors power and conflict, yet plainly don’t yet have the physiques to match the myth. So, they compensate with vocabulary, animating their play with exaggerated violence and tough talk, smashing, kicking, and zapping the imaginary bad guys. The good news is that they are prime candidates for high-technology management–they only have to get older, not more mature.