OSCON 2009: No Unicorns
By mkupfer on Sep 05, 2009
The next "people" talk on my list was a talk by Rolf Skyberg of eBay called "There Are No Unicorns: And Other Lessons Learned While Running an Innovation Team". Having worked in a few research settings, but not being a researcher myself, I was hoping the talk would give me a better understanding of how innovation happens. And Rolf did have some things to say here. In particular, he pointed out that innovation is by nature disruptive, which can lead to resistance. So be sure to focus on the cultural changes that will be needed for your innovation to be successful, don't just focus on the technology or specific product.
The bulk of the talk seemed more about navigating corporate politics. Rolf's points included the importance of knowing how your work and your team's work will be evaluated, and how your project fits into the larger organizational picture. Understanding how your project fits in is particularly important when times are tough. If your project isn't in a core area for your organization, and it doesn't have someone high-up to defend it, it's more likely to get cancelled when funding runs low.
Rolf also talked about how traumatic events in a company's history can affect its behavior for a long time. In 1998 eBay was off-line for 3 days, which led to a very strong emphasis in the company on reliability and scalability. But, Rolf argued, the outage also led to an inflexible organization that has a hard time incorporating new innovations.
I've seen this never-again effect in other contexts. When I was working for Xerox, I wanted to look at the source code for Pilot, which was the operating system we were using. I was told I couldn't do that, so I asked why. I was told that sometime in the past, some application code had been written that depended on an interface that was private to Pilot. I doubt that this was accidental usage, because all this stuff was written in Mesa, which made it easy to keep public interfaces separate from private ones. Anyway, in the normal course of development, the Pilot group made some incompatible changes to that interface, which broke the application--right before the application was about to ship. The Pilot group wanted the application programmers to fix their code, even if it meant a schedule slip. But they were overruled by management and forced to revert the interface change. They vowed that they would not let this happen again, and from then on they kept their source squirreled away on private servers, accessible only to people in the group.
I've also seen this effect at Sun. I started at Sun in 1992, not too long after Solaris 2.0 had shipped. Solaris 2.0 introduced a lot of changes that were incompatible with SunOS 4.x. This caused considerable disruption for customers, and I gather that many were not shy in voicing their displeasure. I remember being told that all the pain around Solaris 2.0 was a big factor in the decision not to do any more major (.0) releases of Solaris.
Of course, that policy has born considerable fruit over the years. The ISVs that I've spoken with have praised Solaris because new Solaris releases rarely broke their code. Other platforms that their code ran on tended to cause breakage pretty regularly.
On the other hand, this compatibility doesn't come for free. Project teams must design new interfaces carefully, so that they can evolve in a compatible fashion. The interface review and cross-checking that is done by the ARCs is largely manual. Standard (cross-platform) interfaces are not always stable, so project teams must sometimes do extra engineering to support the new interface without breaking code that depended on the old interface. There is a mechanism for removing old, obsolete code, but again, this requires supporting the old and new interfaces for some time.
Rolf compared companies to creatures when he talked about the effect of traumatic events. That seems to imply some sort of organizational memory of the traumas. But I wonder if that's really how it works. Is it really an organizational memory, or is it more the memory of a few key individuals? If it's the memory of key individuals, then I think it's not until these individuals move on (or relax around the trauma) that the never-again imperative starts to lose its hold.
 Darren is removing 92,000 lines of closed-source code--the obsolete smartcard support--from ON.