Big Fish, Big Ponds, and Snowshoe Hares

Sun is a big company. Even when I worked for GE (which had some 105,000 employees when I was there), I always worked at small, autonomous divisions within GE. So Sun is really the first big, monolithic company I've worked for.

When I joined Sun eight years ago, a number of friends from small companies warned me not to go. One friend told me that he would rather be the big fish in a small pond. I pointed out that the difference between the big fish in a small pond and the small fish in the big pond is not the size of the fish. After all, the fish didn't change. What changed is the fish's perception of itself. So you can still be a big fish, even in a very big pond.

I had one young engineer join Sun (after the start-up he had been working for went under). He hated the big company environment, especially when Sun would "re-examine the product portfolio" and cancel projects that were partially, and even sometimes entirely, complete. Often politics seemed to factor into project funding decisions -- whoever could "sell" their project to the bosses might avoid having their project canceled. This guy thought that start-ups were more efficient because they concentrated on one thing and couldn't just cancel their product on a whim.

I just had to point out that a large percentage of start-ups fail before even making a dime.

A large company like Sun is more like a community of start-ups, and the corporation is the venture capitalist. The corporation invests in a range of projects and new technologies, miniature in-house start-ups. Some new technolgies prove unprofitable and the projects are canceled, just like some start-ups fail; some technologies demonstrate potential and therefore continue to receive funding. And of course, start-ups need to "sell" their projects to VC in order to get the bucks; it's not unreasonable that in-house project leads need to "sell" their projects to upper management to ensure continued funding. After all, if you can't convince your management it's a worthwhile project, then perhaps it's not.

One difference between true start-ups and working at a large company like Sun is that when a project gets canceled at a large company, it's usually because they've decided to invest the money in another project. So often the engineers from a canceled project are quickly scooped up by the projects that are receiving more funding -- they move from one in-house start-up to another in-house start-up, without loss of benefits and sometimes without even having to change offices. That can sometimes make us soft -- we're less afraid of failure because we assume we'll just move on to another project.

So what does this have to do with engineering project leadership?

Even in a large corporation, an engineering project leader must be an entrepreneur; you must treat every project like you are the CEO of a start-up. You need to sell your project to management in order to get the venture capital funding. You need to find the best people to work on the project and get them onboard. And you need to drive the project toward success, as if failure would mean the end of your career. There's an old saying that goes:

    The lynx is faster than the snowshoe hare. But when the lynx chases the snowshoe hare, the snowshoe hare usually wins. That's because the lynx is running for its lunch; the snowshoe hare is running for its life.

Working at a large company sometimes you can start to act like a lynx, but if you're going to keep up with the entrepreneurs at start-ups, you have to run for your lives like snowshoe hares.

Comments:

Not sure where that old saying about lynx and snowshoe hares comes from but it's erroneous in at least two ways. First, the snowshoe hare runs approximately twice as fast as the smallest lynx family member, the bobcat (see pieces on both the hare and bobcat at http://library.thinkquest.org/11234/animals.html). I haven't found the data for the larger lynx but am pretty sure its hunting success depends on stealth and the cover of darkness as it hunts mainly nocturnally.

Second, in the frozen wastelands both animals frequent, both hare and lynx are running for their lives. To say the lynx is "running for its lunch" trivializes the ever-present danger it lives of starvation. The famous cycles of hare and lynx populations (see http://www.nwtwildlife.com/NWTWildlife/lynx/lynxharecycle.htm) illustrate powerfully just how much the survival of both prey and predator are linked.

Posted by Norman on January 01, 2009 at 03:37 AM EST #

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