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Commandos, Infantry, and Police

As I was driving home, I found myself thinking about a favorite section of the book Accidental Empires, by longtime computer journalist Robert X. Cringely. Originally published in 1993, it's getting a little long in the tooth, but it still contains a lot of great insights about the personalities that drove innovation in silicon valley – from a guy who personally knew many of the players.

In the chapter "On The Beach", Cringely talks about the three distinct groups of people that define the lifetime of a company: Commandos, Infantry, and Police:

  1. Whether invading countries or markets, the first wave of troops to see battle are the commandos. Woz and Jobs were the commandos of the Apple II. Don Estridge and his twelve disciples were the commandos of the IBM PC. Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston were the commandos of VisiCalc. Mitch Kapor and Jonathan Sachs were the commandos of Lotus 1-2-3. Commandos parachute behind enemy lines or quietly crawl ashore at night. A start-up's biggest advantage is speed, and speed is what commandos live for. They work hard, fast, and cheap, though often with a low level of professionalism, which is okay, too, because professionalism is expensive. Their job is to do lots of damage with surprise and teamwork, establishing a beachhead before the enemy is even aware that they exist. Ideally, they do this by building the prototype of a product that is so creative, so exactly correct for its purpose that by its very existence it leads to the destruction of other products. They make creativity a destructive act.

  2. Grouping offshore as the commandos do their work is the second wave of soldiers, the infantry. These are the people who hit the beach en masse and slog out the early victory, building on the start given them by the commandos. The second-wave troops take the prototype, test it, refine it, make it manufacturable, write the manuals, market it, and ideally produce a profit. Because there are so many more of these soldiers and their duties are so varied, they require an infrastructure of rules and procedures for getting things done – all the stuff that commandos hate. For just this reason, soldiers of the second wave, while they can work with the first wave, generally don't trust them, though the commandos don't even notice this fact, since by this time they are bored and already looking for the door.

  3. What happens then is that the commandos and the infantry head off in the direction of Berlin or Baghdad, advancing into new territories, performing their same jobs again and again, though each time in a slightly different way. But there is still a need for a military presence in the territory they leave behind, which they have liberated. These third-wave troops hate change. They aren't troops at all but police. They want to fuel growth not by planning more invasions and landing on more beaches but by adding people and building economies and empires of scale. AT&T, IBM, and practically all other big, old, successful industrial companies are examples of third-wave enterprises. They can't even remember their first- and second-wave founders.

In my experience, this same distinction applies to software projects. You really need all three groups through the lifecycle of a project. Having the wrong group (commandos) at the wrong time (maintenance) can hurt you a lot more than it helps. Sometimes being a commando, even though it sounds really exciting, actually hurts the project.

The following is excerpted from pages 236-240 of Robert X Cringely's Accidental Empires:

There is an enormous difference between starting a company and running one. Thinking up great ideas, which requires mainly intelligence and knowledge, is much easier than building an organization, which also requires measures of tenacity, discipline, and understanding. Part of the reason that nineteen out of twenty high-tech start-ups end in failure must be the difficulty of making this critical transition from a bunch of guys in a rented office to a larger bunch of guys in a rented office with customers to serve. Customers? What are those? Think of the growth of a company as a military operation, which isn't such a stretch, given that both enterprises involve strategy, tactics, supply lines, communication, alliances, and manpower.

Whether invading countries or markets, the first wave of troops to see battle are the commandos. Woz and Jobs were the commandos of the Apple II. Don Estridge and his twelve disciples were the commandos of the IBM PC. Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston were the commandos of VisiCalc. Mitch Kapor and Jonathan Sachs were the commandos of Lotus 1-2-3. Commandos parachute behind enemy lines or quietly crawl ashore at night. A start-up's biggest advantage is speed, and speed is what commandos live for. They work hard, fast, and cheap, though often with a low level of professionalism, which is okay, too, because professionalism is expensive. Their job is to do lots of damage with surprise and teamwork, establishing a beachhead before the enemy is even aware that they exist. Ideally, they do this by building the prototype of a product that is so creative, so exactly correct for its purpose that by its very existence it leads to the destruction of other products. They make creativity a destructive act.

For many products, and even for entire families of products, the commandos are the only forces that are allowed to be creative. Only they get to push the state of the art, providing creative solutions to customer needs. They have contact with potential customers, view the development process as an adventure, and work on the total product. But what they build, while it may look like a product and work like a product, usually isn't a product because it still has bugs and major failings that are beneath the notice of commando types. Or maybe it works fine but can't be produced profitably without extensive redesign. Commandos are useless for this type of work. They get bored.

I remember watching a paratrooper being interviewed on televison in Panama after the U.S. invasion. "It's not great," he said. "We're still here."

Sometimes commandos are bored even before the prototype is complete, so it stalls. The choice then is to wait for the commandos to regain interest or to find a new squad of commandos.

When 3Com Corp. was developing the first circuit card that would allow personal computers to communicate over Ethernet computer networks, the lead commando was Ron Crane, a brilliant, if erratic, engineer. The very future of 3Com depended on his finishing the Ethernet card on time, since the company was rapidly going broke and additional venture funding was tied to successful completion of the card. No Ethernet card, no money; no money, no company. In the middle of this high-pressure assignment, Crane just stopped working on the Ethernet card, leaving it unfinished on his workbench, and compulsively turned to finding a way to measure the sound reflectivity of his office ceiling tiles. That's the way it is sometimes when commandos get bored. Nobody else was prepared to take over Crane's job, so all his co-workers at 3Com could think to do in this moment of crisis was to wait for the end of his research, hoping that it would go well.

The happy ending here is that Crane eventually established 3Com's ceiling tile acoustic reflectivity standard, regained his Ethernet bearings, and delivered the breakthrough product, allowing 3Com to achieve its destiny as a $900 million company.

It's easy to dismiss the commandos. After all, most of business and warfare is conventional. But without commandos, you'd never get on the beach at all.

Grouping offshore as the commandos do their work is the second wave of soldiers, the infantry. These are the people who hit the beach en masse and slog out the early victory, building on the start given them by the commandos. The second-wave troops take the prototype, test it, refine it, make it manufacturable, write the manuals, market it, and ideally produce a profit. Because there are so many more of these soldiers and their duties are so varied, they require an infrastructure of rules and procedures for getting things done-all the stuff that commandos hate. For just this reason, soldiers of the second wave, while they can work with the first wave, generally don't trust them, though the commandos don't even notice this fact, since by this time they are bored and already looking for the door.

The second wave is hardest to manage because they require a structure in which to work. While the commandos make success possible, it's the infantry that makes success happen. They know their niche and expend the vast amounts of resources it takes to maintain position, or to reposition a product if the commandos made too many mistakes. While the commandos come up with creative ways to hurt the enemy, giving the start-up its purpose and early direction, the infantry actually kill the enemy or drive it away, occupying the battlefield and establishing a successful market presence for the start-up and its product.

What happens then is that the commandos and the infantry head off in the direction of Berlin or Baghdad, advancing into new territories, performing their same jobs again and again, though each time in a slightly different way. But there is still a need for a military presence in the territory they leave behind, which they have liberated. These third-wave troops hate change. They aren't troops at all but police. They want to fuel growth not by planning more invasions and landing on more beaches but by adding people and building economies and empires of scale. AT&T, IBM, and practically all other big, old, successful industrial companies are examples of third-wave enterprises. They can't even remember their first- and second-wave founders.

Engineers in these established companies work on just part of a product, view their work as a job rather than an adventure, and usually have no customer contact. They also have no expectation of getting rich, and for good reason, because as companies grow, and especially after they go public, stock becomes a less effective employee motivator. They get fewer shares at a higher price, with less appreciation potential. Of course, there is also less risk, and to third-wave troops, this safety makes the lower reward worthwhile.

It's in the transitions between these waves of troops that peril lies for computer start-ups. The company founder and charismatic leader of the Invasion is usually a commando, which means that he or she thrills to the idea of parachuting in and slashing throats but can't imagine running a mature organization that deals with the problems of customers or even with the problems of its own growing base of employees. Mitch Kapor of Lotus Development was an example of a commando/nice guy who didn't like to fire people or make unpopular decisions, and so eventually tired of being a chief executive, leaving at the height of its success the company he founded. First-wave types have trouble, too, accepting the drudgery that comes with being the boss of a high-tech start-up. Richard Leeds worked at Advanced Micro Devices and then Microsoft before starting his own small software company near Seattle. One day a programmer came to report that the toilet was plugged in the men's room. "Tell the office manager," Leeds said. "It's her job to handle things like that."

"I can't tell her," said the programmer, shyly. "She's a woman."

Richard Leeds, CEO, fixed the toilet.

The best leaders are experienced second-wave types who know enough to gather together a group of commandos and keep them inspired for the short time they are actually needed. Leaders who rise from the second wave must have both charisma and the ability to work with odd people. Don Estridge, who was recruited by Bill Lowe to head the development of the IBM PC, was a good second-wave leader. He could relate effectively to both IBM's third-wave management and the first-wave engineers who were needed to bring the original PC to market in just a year.

Apple chairman John Sculley is a third-wave leader of a second-wave company, which explains the many problems he has had over the years finding a focus for himself and for Apple. Sculley has been faking it.

When the leader is a third-wave type, the start-up is hardly ever successful, which is part of the reason that the idea of intrapreneurism-a trendy term for starting new companies inside larger, older companies-usually doesn't work. The third-wave managers of the parent company trust only other third-wave managers to run the start-up, but such managers don't know how to attract or keep commandos, so the enterprise generally has little hope of succeeding. This trend also explains the trouble that old-line computer companies have had entering the personal computer business. These companies can see only the big picture - way that PCs fit into their broad product line of large and small computers. They concentrate more on fitting PCs politely into the product line than on kicking ass in the market, which is the way successes are built.

A team from Unisys Corp. dropped by InfoWorld one day to brag about the company's high-end personal computers. The boxes were priced at around $30,000, not because they cost so much to build but because setting the price any lower might have hurt the bottom end of Unisys's own line of minicomputers. Six miles away, at Fry's Electronics, the legendary Silicon Valley retailer that sells a unique combination of computers, junk food, and personal toiletry items, a virtually identical PC costs less than $3,000. Who buys Unisys PCs? Nobody.

Then Bob Kavner came to town, head of AT&T's computer operation and the guy who invested $300 million of Ma Bell's money in Sun Microsystems and then led AT&T's hostile acquisition of NCR-yet another company that didn't know its PC from a hole in the ground. Eating a cup of yogurt, Kavner asked why we gave his machines such bad scores in our product reviews. We'd tested the machines alongside competitors' models and found that the Ma Bell units were poorly designed and badly built. They compared poorly, and we told him so. Kavner was amazed, both by the fact that his products were so bad and to learn that we ran scientific tests; he thought it was just an InfoWorld grudge against AT&T. Here's a third-wave guy who was concentrating so hard on what was happening inside his own organization that he wasn't even aware of how that organization fit into the real world or, for that matter, how the real world even worked. No wonder AT&T has done poorly as a personal computer company.

Excerpt © 1993 Robert X. Cringely

Written by Jeff Atwood

Indoor enthusiast. Co-founder of Stack Exchange and Discourse. Disclaimer: I have no idea what I'm talking about. Find me here: http://twitter.com/codinghorror