June 28th, 2017 · 19 comments
Late Night Depth
I recently reread Masters of Doom — David Kushner’s entertaining (though cheesily dialogued) history of id Software.
Something new caught my attention this time through the book.
Kushner revealed that id’s ace coder, John Carmack, adopted an aggressive tactic to increase his effectiveness while working on his breakthrough Quake engine: Carmack, seeking a break from distraction, began to shift the start of his workday one hour at a time, until eventually he was starting his programming in the evening and finishing before dawn.
The uninterrupted depth provided by this odd habit allowed Carmack (with help from graphics guru Michael Abrash) to reinvent electronic entertainment with the first lightening fast, fully 3D PC game engine.
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June 21st, 2017 · 19 comments
The Pullman Problem
A couple years ago, I stumbled across a series of articles from 1916, published in a business journal called System. The articles detail how the Pullman Company (famous for their eponymous train cars) arrested their slide away from profitability by systematically overhauling their operations.
As I detail in an essay I wrote for Fast Company, a big factor in Pullman’s early 20th century problems would sound familiar to early 21st century ears: communication overload.
As Pullman president, John Runnells, explained, many departments were run with “confusing unrelated systems [that] had been spontaneously developed.”
The result is that everyone was a little involved in everything — disrupting their ability to do their primary work.
If you wanted something from the brass works, to cite an example given in the 1916 articles, you would go over to the brass works and bother someone you knew until you got what you wanted– distracting both of you from your main value-producing crafts.
As Runnells sagely observed, if you don’t build optimized systems to handle logistics, the effort simply gets offloaded, in an ad hoc and disruptive manner, to everyone: “and every man contributing by that much [to these organizational efforts] demoralized his own particular work by the interruption.”
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June 7th, 2017 · 31 comments
Insights from Dirty Jobs
Earlier this week, I listened to Brett McKay’s interview with Mike Rowe. As you’ll learn if you listen to the conversation, following his stint as the host of Dirty Jobs, Rowe has become an advocate for the trades.
In this interview, as in many others, Rowe argues that skilled labor (think: plumbing, welding) can be both satisfying and lucrative, and yet there are still somewhere around three million such jobs left unfilled in this country. He credits this gap largely to a contemporary culture that demonizes blue collar work and preaches the best path is always a college degree, followed, God willing, by a pair of Warby Parker glasses and a job as a social media brand manager.
(I might have added that last part.)
I always find Rowe’s thoughts on shifting American work cultures interesting, but there’s a phrase he often uses in these discussions that has recently begun to draw my attention: efficiency versus effectiveness.
Rowe notes that knowledge work seems obsessed with efficiency, while the skilled trades seem more concerned with effectively solving problems (c.f., his infamous TED talk on sheep castration).
The former can be dehumanizing, while the latter tends to be satisfying.
Stepping away from the immediate context of Rowe’s advocacy, I think he has touched on an important point here that highlights a little-discussed problem rotting the core of the knowledge economy…
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