999 to 1 = tie

I’m here at the Apple store in San Francisco. Tom Conrad, CTO of Pandora, and I have been walking around town sharing stories and having lots of fun. The line to the concert is about a mile long so we’re not going to go. Too many people makes for not a fun experience.

Anyway, he used to work at Apple “BJ2″ (Before Jobs 2.0) on the finder team and he told me about a joke that Apple engineers used to tell:

If it’s 999 engineers who say “yes” to an idea vs. one who says “no” they’d score it as a tie and kill the idea. It wasn’t a funny joke. Apple before Jobs came back was paralysed and couldn’t get stuff done. I told him it sounded a lot like many groups at Microsoft. He explained why the joke was true. After all, the one engineer who said no was freaking smart. Probably had some degree from MIT and probably had invented something really killer.

He explained why Apple is so good now that Jobs is back. He was the tie breaker. All votes went his way. Heheh.

Does your company call 999 to 1 a tie? How do you break those kinds of ties and get things done?

17 thoughts on “999 to 1 = tie

  1. I wonder how many Mac fans will think Jobs is such a genius when he finally kills off the Mac so he can concentrate on selling iPods, Apple TVs and iPhones.

    Remember, this is the Jobs who also forced a black and white display on the original Mac (and the NeXT). Is colour another good feature to remove? Remember, the Apple II had colour long before.

    Now the cycle is coming back – the iPod no longer has firewire, and some Macs are stuck with FW400 instead of 800.

    Jobs seems ruled by his whims – whatever catches his fancy is automatically the direction Apple will swing its entire focus on next, whether it’s a good idea or not.

  2. I wonder how many Mac fans will think Jobs is such a genius when he finally kills off the Mac so he can concentrate on selling iPods, Apple TVs and iPhones.

    Remember, this is the Jobs who also forced a black and white display on the original Mac (and the NeXT). Is colour another good feature to remove? Remember, the Apple II had colour long before.

    Now the cycle is coming back – the iPod no longer has firewire, and some Macs are stuck with FW400 instead of 800.

    Jobs seems ruled by his whims – whatever catches his fancy is automatically the direction Apple will swing its entire focus on next, whether it’s a good idea or not.

  3. When I worked at Amazon.com, I had a bumper sticker on my bulletin board that read, “WWJD: What Would Jesus Do?” I put a post-it on there so that it read, “What Would Jeff [Bezos] Do?”
    At the time I poked fun, but in hindsight, Jeff got stuff done. At times his decisions felt arbitrary, but we had decisions and we kept moving forward. At my new, to-remain-unnamed company I really miss that decisive “bias for action” (in Amazon speak).

  4. When I worked at Amazon.com, I had a bumper sticker on my bulletin board that read, “WWJD: What Would Jesus Do?” I put a post-it on there so that it read, “What Would Jeff [Bezos] Do?”
    At the time I poked fun, but in hindsight, Jeff got stuff done. At times his decisions felt arbitrary, but we had decisions and we kept moving forward. At my new, to-remain-unnamed company I really miss that decisive “bias for action” (in Amazon speak).

  5. Robert, was great to spend the afternoon hanging out. Still can’t believe we got that table at the bar — what a view of the fireworks.

    Seeing you duck into the Apple Store to bang these posts out inspired me to dust off my blog (http://tomconrad.net) and start writing again. Much to my dismay it’s been over a year since I posted (lots of posts on the Pandora blog of course, but that’s not quite the same) There are certainly plenty of great Pandora stories to tell — here’s hoping that I’ll fare a bit better with respect to posting them in the coming year.

  6. Robert, was great to spend the afternoon hanging out. Still can’t believe we got that table at the bar — what a view of the fireworks.

    Seeing you duck into the Apple Store to bang these posts out inspired me to dust off my blog (http://tomconrad.net) and start writing again. Much to my dismay it’s been over a year since I posted (lots of posts on the Pandora blog of course, but that’s not quite the same) There are certainly plenty of great Pandora stories to tell — here’s hoping that I’ll fare a bit better with respect to posting them in the coming year.

  7. I first heard that joke about HP, back around 1996 or so. The “consensus culture” at HP was really crippling, and the worst of it was that if you were the holdout, they’d lean on you until you not only agreed to do what the rest of team decided, you had to agree that it was the right thing to do.

  8. I first heard that joke about HP, back around 1996 or so. The “consensus culture” at HP was really crippling, and the worst of it was that if you were the holdout, they’d lean on you until you not only agreed to do what the rest of team decided, you had to agree that it was the right thing to do.

  9. I’ve seen a similar thing at a company I work at. They can’t change the brand of pencils they use without all sorts of people going to meetings to discuss this. Broad input is good but that kind of meeting is wrong. I think you need a person in charge of the project, let them go around and collect input from many people and then make a decision.

  10. I’ve seen a similar thing at a company I work at. They can’t change the brand of pencils they use without all sorts of people going to meetings to discuss this. Broad input is good but that kind of meeting is wrong. I think you need a person in charge of the project, let them go around and collect input from many people and then make a decision.

  11. At my company, what I say goes. While it does help that I am the Chief Scientific Officer, it doesn’t hurt that I am also the only employee. Fewer arguments that way. However, board meetings are pretty boring.

  12. At my company, what I say goes. While it does help that I am the Chief Scientific Officer, it doesn’t hurt that I am also the only employee. Fewer arguments that way. However, board meetings are pretty boring.

  13. There’s a similar philosophy revealed by Donald Regan, who served as President Reagan’s Treasury secretary, when he was head of Merrill Lynch in the 1970s. This anecdote was in Joe Nocera’s brilliant book “A Piece of the Action.”

    In those days, Merrill Lynch made a lot of money by paying customers little or no interest on deposits in their accounts. There was a proposal before the board to essentially create the first money market accounts so customers would earn all that interest that the firm had been keeping. The whole board of directors was against the idea. Then Regan spoke: There’s been a vote taken here today and it’s one to nothing. I’m the one and you guys are the nothing. Then he walked out. Merrill went on to introduce the account and become the biggest brokerage firm out there.

  14. There’s a similar philosophy revealed by Donald Regan, who served as President Reagan’s Treasury secretary, when he was head of Merrill Lynch in the 1970s. This anecdote was in Joe Nocera’s brilliant book “A Piece of the Action.”

    In those days, Merrill Lynch made a lot of money by paying customers little or no interest on deposits in their accounts. There was a proposal before the board to essentially create the first money market accounts so customers would earn all that interest that the firm had been keeping. The whole board of directors was against the idea. Then Regan spoke: There’s been a vote taken here today and it’s one to nothing. I’m the one and you guys are the nothing. Then he walked out. Merrill went on to introduce the account and become the biggest brokerage firm out there.

  15. My workplace does indeed suffer from what I’ve (probably not uniquely) dubbed, “No Syndrome.”

    That is a situation where so many people’s jobs depend on “having a say” in things, and “having a say” is easiest to implement by way of blocking decisions, we end up stalling on just about every decision for far longer than needed.

    Example: Ask our contracts people to review a software license and approve it. Most of the time, 3-6 months after the request has gone in, the answer comes back as a flat, “No.” Not a “Yes, if xyz is done,” or “Yes, but you can’t do abc with it,” just plain old “No.” Which means that not only have wasted 3-6 months waiting for a response (or have gone ahead at risk, and are now carrying rework), you’ve got to find a way to get the oh-so-elusive “Yes” response. Every engineer in the company can be saying to management, “we need this software,” and if one contracts person says “no,” then that’s it.

    This is but one example; there are many more, involving many different classes of employee (engineers, reviewers, testers, contracts people: you name it). The same thing does happen purely in the engineering space: a vast majority of engineers can be suggesting a design fix, and it only takes one person to nix it. That person doesn’t even need to know what they’re talking about for this to happen, as long as they sound authoritative. The contracts one is of course a problem we run into all the time, so it’s easy to relate.

    The problem is that it’s so easy to say “no” to things: “no” requires no thought, and in the short term means less risk (particularly in an environment where blamestorming is par for the course). Long term, obviously this means lots of risk, and is in my view one of the biggest reasons for unexpected schedule slippage.

    For the purposes of this, since my employer is fairly anti-blog and still fairly tight on the PR control front, I’ll leave them anonymous – reluctantly. I unfortunately have a mortgage and hence reason to care if they take exception to the above. :-)

  16. My workplace does indeed suffer from what I’ve (probably not uniquely) dubbed, “No Syndrome.”

    That is a situation where so many people’s jobs depend on “having a say” in things, and “having a say” is easiest to implement by way of blocking decisions, we end up stalling on just about every decision for far longer than needed.

    Example: Ask our contracts people to review a software license and approve it. Most of the time, 3-6 months after the request has gone in, the answer comes back as a flat, “No.” Not a “Yes, if xyz is done,” or “Yes, but you can’t do abc with it,” just plain old “No.” Which means that not only have wasted 3-6 months waiting for a response (or have gone ahead at risk, and are now carrying rework), you’ve got to find a way to get the oh-so-elusive “Yes” response. Every engineer in the company can be saying to management, “we need this software,” and if one contracts person says “no,” then that’s it.

    This is but one example; there are many more, involving many different classes of employee (engineers, reviewers, testers, contracts people: you name it). The same thing does happen purely in the engineering space: a vast majority of engineers can be suggesting a design fix, and it only takes one person to nix it. That person doesn’t even need to know what they’re talking about for this to happen, as long as they sound authoritative. The contracts one is of course a problem we run into all the time, so it’s easy to relate.

    The problem is that it’s so easy to say “no” to things: “no” requires no thought, and in the short term means less risk (particularly in an environment where blamestorming is par for the course). Long term, obviously this means lots of risk, and is in my view one of the biggest reasons for unexpected schedule slippage.

    For the purposes of this, since my employer is fairly anti-blog and still fairly tight on the PR control front, I’ll leave them anonymous – reluctantly. I unfortunately have a mortgage and hence reason to care if they take exception to the above. :-)

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