A comment John made (#18) on a recent post by 10 cents (“Programming Question”), reminded me I had reviewed one of John’s books. The review was posted a while back on the legacy site. As this is one of the most worthwhile books I have ever read, I thought it should be posted it here.
A work of non-fiction is understood in a context. A great work actually articulates the context before anybody else gets it. A review of such a book may go seemingly far afield, if the book’s power can be construed to provoke and, indeed, license the inspired musings of its readers. Such is the case here, as “The Autodesk File”’s roots are deep in the intellectual, technological, economic, financial, and even spiritual soil of this, the spring garden of the information age.
When was the last time you couldn’t put down a book which had not a single murder, courtship, love or sex scene? OK, I’m not counting some ancillary trysts consisting of mergers and takeovers, which some might construe as sexy, or at least allude to being on the receiving end of a certain Anglo-Saxon gerund. This book contains no obscenities, save a rare mention of taurine spoor. That serves as a welcome reminder: important ideas and even emotions are amenable to description sans vulgarity.
Lest one think this a narrow commercial exposition, “The Autodesk File” is in the public domain in multiple formats. Neither is it a mere exposition of commerce. About half way through, amidst essays explaining the nature of businesses dealing in intellectual property (rather than capital-intensive equipment), the reader is treated to a short science fiction story whose theme is no less than a plausible tale of the origin of human life. Our bodily construction is, after all, prescribed in lines of code, albeit compressed into helixes wound around themselves then wrapped around histones. Like some of their software counterparts, they, too, must be unzipped before use.
Also punctuating this eclectic opus are quotes from Aristophanes. It is a tour de force, a truly awe-inspiring account of much more than the building and workings of one trailblazing company. It encapsulates the noblest of human aspirations, idealizations, creativity, ingenuity and critical self-examination; inescapable is the conclusion that voluntary cooperation and exchange of ideas, knowledge and capital is a great boon to the world at large. If a business is built to serve the needs of customers by creating products of the highest possible quality, greed is not a good; it is irrelevant. Also inescapable is the perhaps ironic conclusion that ongoing success requires continual vigilance, lest arrogance take hold. The fruition of critical self-examination can be seen in renewal of that same humility which was so essential in powering that first whiff of success.
Nonetheless, apart from arcane sections dealing with technical matters of computer hardware and programming (these, too, may be great for the cognoscenti; this writer simply knows too little), this book is a spellbinder. Readers may be surprised to be persuasively regaled with the fundamentals of various disciplines, including economics, finance, taxation, corporate law, engineering, computer science, thermodynamics, rocket science, quantum mechanics, cosmology and the nature of reality. That is, readers who don’t know John Walker. For those who do, none of this is surprising.
Have you ever had a million dollar idea? I have – lots of ‘em. Have I turned even one of those ideas into a product? Nope. Why not? Because I lacked the understanding, the talent, and the single-minded discipline to even get one idea off the ground. This book, edited by Ratburger’s own John Walker (himself author of most of the collected writings), is a chronicle of birth, growth, crises and maturation of Autodesk Inc., whose products helped unleash the creativity and productivity of millions of people. It did so beginning with a key insight: that the infant personal computer was a general tool and not a specific workstation. As a general tool, through the intelligent design of software, it would rapidly evolve in utility in virtually every field of endeavor, beginning with design. Design, in this line of thinking, is a logical first step down the path which aims, eventually, to capture all of reality in the box we call a computer. This stunning insight occurred while all the rest of us still went through our days typing on an IBM Selectric, without once even using the word “computer.” Way back then in 1980, virtually none of us thought about computers or any of the other words and things without which our lives today would be unimaginable. Historically speaking,1980 happened yesterday.
An additional insight guided Autodesk’s ethos: that personal computers would grow exponentially in processing power and become useful by ordinary people (with no computer or programming skills) to undertake virtually any task. Autodesk’s first product, AutoCAD, moved design from a small number of dedicated, expensive CAD workstations operated by highly-trained people, to desks virtually everywhere where drawing might be needed. In the process of “squeezing too much code into too small a box,” Autodesk did not compete with previous generations of single-purpose CAD workstations which cost 10 – 50X as much. Instead, it created and increased a market for CAD by the same orders of magnitude, by bringing this tool to the 98% of designers and draftsmen who could not afford dedicated CAD workstations.
In less than one year, this new company had a hit product. Time to rest on one’s laurels? How about after the IPO? Time to coast? Not quite. Going into the CAD business – and that is the business, as opposed to the software business (read the book to learn why), is something like launching a rocket from Earth and hoping to land on a comet and send back data – all except that the precise trajectory of the comet cannot be known, and its surface material and contours are completely unknown. The difficulties were perhaps not unlike those encountered by the ESA’s $1.8 billion Rosetta/Philae spacecraft which did rendezvous and land on comet 67P. Philae’s tether harpoons failed to fire, so the probe bounced and wound up in a permanently-shaded spot (due to an unanticipated hard surface, they likely would not have worked anyway), preventing use of solar power. Batteries enabled an estimated 80% overall mission success. AutoCAD’s launch – with $59,000 in capital, mid-course hardware and software corrections and “landing” on users, by contrast, remains successful to this day.
“The Autodesk File” attributes success to the company’s understanding that it represented what it coined “The New Technological Corporation.” This is an an enterprise which does not conform to traditional capital-intensive business, as it can deploy intellectual, debt-free leverage. Such businesses embrace an unpredictable but essential element: “wild talent.” This talent is a necessary but not sufficient condition for success when it comes to creating software, which is unlike most all prior businesses. Rather than capital, such entities require a peculiar kind of talent – one which grasps the present desires of a market, knows what is possible with present hardware and the correctly plots the trajectories of both the market and evolving hardware. I believe it to be objectively true that the editor is faithfully and humbly describing the truly awe-inspiring talent he, himself, brought to Autodesk. Other such individuals, like Jobs or Gates, are known in the early computer and software businesses. Few, however, have operated as willing members of an extended team with humility, dedication to excellence and human decency. If nothing else, “The Autodesk File” shows how this can be accomplished.
Attempts to find individuals with “wild talent” are most difficult, maybe impossible. “Wild talent” illustrates the essential difference between aggregate information, traditionally used by analysts to “value” companies which trade on public exchanges, and actual events which take place within any company. For instance, money spent on R&D is aggregate data which subsumes the activities of many employees of a given company. Whether it means the company will grow really depends on what individual employees accomplish. When it come to software, the outcome will be notably different for R&D teams which play it safe versus ones which continually push the envelope of what may be remotely possible. Intellectual leverage is such that the cost of failure of 8 out of 10 ideas is far outweighed by success in only 1 or 2 of them. The presence of such loyal individuals is also a bulwark against hostile takeovers. You can lead a programmer to the R&D department, but you can’t make him plink – at least not in the way which is essential to success.
Perhaps most revealing about this unusual book is the ongoing critical self-examination engaged in by the primary author. These analyses were distilled into the form of internal company communications as essays and information letters. At many points in the journey, the author is able to adumbrate the – sometimes previously un-articulable – principles which guided his often momentous insights. These usually arose in chaotic circumstances with incomplete information. The essential humility of this approach is demonstrated at various points in the book. Repeatedly, the author makes clear the importance of open communication and understanding of the roles of all the other parts of the company. A programmer, for example, must understand management’s plan, what customers want, how a product will be marketed and shipped, what competitors are doing, etc. Only then can a “wild talent” be effective.
“The Autodesk File” is a much-needed reminder that human beings are still capable of doing awe-inspiring, creative and even noble things; that they can voluntarily collaborate and, working in their own self-interest, set off endless waves of non-zero sum games in their wakes. This is also a success story, then, a chain of decisions, clearly rooted in the philosophy of Classical Liberalism – in some of its untidy and altogether messy human details. Without aiming to, this story affirms the primacy and value of the individual, both as producer and consumer; it convincingly shows that communication – positive and negative feedback – between individual, voluntary buyers and sellers – is the essence of what a market is. This is in contrast to statist dirigisme, where aggregate data and arrogance rule, in derogation of the value of the individual.
Diametrically opposed to today’s received collectivist wisdom, “The Autodesk File” shows how individuals create markets where none previously existed, to the betterment of all. From those roots emerge timeless operating principles: 1. build the best products, period – with open architecture so as to invite developers to customize and find as yet undreamed uses (an essential form of feedback for software companies), thereby further expanding markets; 2. invite, quickly assess and respond to this feedback from customers in the form of improved new releases; 3. employ owners, not merely ‘investors’ – pay well for results – with ownership whenever possible. This is a story which demonstrates the huge difference between owners, whose time preference is long and investors focused only on the forecast for the next fiscal quarter. The tyranny of industry analysts, a form of economic lunacy where short time preference is brutally and pervasively enforced on behalf of “investors,” operates so as to threaten the short-term existence of sound public companies which actually attempt to pursue the best long-term business practices.
In a somewhat philosophic interview around the tenth anniversary of Autodesk, the author/editor describes the operation of a new “design cult” of engineering as a “form of creationism, which thinks its members are so omniscient that they have no need for market-driven evolution to perfect their efforts.” This view, coupled with the information letters, again displays an essential humility in the ethos of Autodesk. Management must lead toward explicit goals. Every part of the organization must understand and communicate with all others, particularly as it affects product development. This is not the typical hierarchical corporate ethos. Neither is it anarchy. Management must lead, but not without listening, understanding and explaining.
It is difficult for this writer to refrain from drawing parallels to the author’s description of this “design cult” of engineering. Such an attitude is not surprising, given that we live in a society which increasingly and officially denies the existence of a supreme being, while at the same time acting – through a “cult” of increasingly centralized authoritarian government – as though it were omniscient and omnipotent; as though its policies have no unintended consequences; as though no cost is too high to accomplish its goals, whose only feedback is its own reverberating positive-feedback echo chamber. It is hard to know which cult is imitating which. In either case, the state-erected obstacles to starting and running a business, while not emphasized, are on display in this epic. This common ethos of the state and large corporations has inevitably given us today’s pernicious corporatism.
It may be that the most significant intellectual error of our time is the belief that society can be modeled and manipulated as well as physical reality now can be, thanks in large part to private companies like Autodesk. Unlike government, though, companies are forced to relearn their limits – i.e., lessons in humility are given, at least annually, and enforced as necessary by balance sheets and owners. The fear of going out of business would be a highly salutary fear for modern government to experience. Instead of a healthy humility, however, the state often displays antipathy toward private enterprise – ironically, the very source of its own financial power. The public relations nature of this attitude likely represents either envy of private successes and/or virtue signaling in an effort to garner votes in the incessant lust for yet more power.
God is traditionally described as a jealous God. Do you suppose that our deity/government has its own version of the Ten Commandments, the first of which explains its animus toward private enterprise? “Thou shalt have no other Gods before Me…” …otherwise put, “Trust me. I’m from the government.” “I’m here to protect you from those big, bad, corporations.”
Thus, as you may see for this reader, the story of Autodesk led to much contemplation of human nature and the whole spectrum our interactions – both voluntary and coercive. It is an inspiring and epic tale of the utility and nobility of voluntary cooperation.
“The Autodesk File” is in the public domain. It is available in several downloadable versions. All formats are accessible here: http://www.fourmilab.ch/autofile/
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