Monday, July 6, 2009

Technology Dissertation

Of all the forces shaping human experience today, technology is the least understood. Since the Enlightenment, intellectuals have either ignored technological systems or mythologized them. Few have confronted both the manifold dimensions of the marriage between corporate finance and commercial engineering or the way in which discrete innovations are subordinated to technical architectures, or systems, that alter consciousness and social relations. Given the poverty of technological analysis, it is hard to judge who is more dangerous. The humanist who recoils at the commercial core of technology, or the literate enthusiast who declares a revolution at every turn.

This is not to suggest that nuanced thinkers offer any more compelling explanations than Witold Rybczynski's (1983) bald insistence that "technology is not everything." It is correct to say (though of little solace) that a myriad gushing streams flow into the raging river of technology. Consumers invariably learn how to navigate this river whether they ultimately sanctify, modify or simply abandon their various tools. Yet they often are helpless to make sense out of the proliferating technological systems in their midst. The creators of these systems, meanwhile, present their work as a "black box" that eludes the ken of ordinary people. Even they, at times, fail to grasp that their power does not arise from elemental building blocks but durable architectures. The architectures (say, "film" or "the automobile") are themselves subordinate to larger and less transparent webs of architectures (say, "Hollywood," or the "car culture"). Historian Thomas Hughes has aptly described these super-networks as "technological systems" (Hughes, 1989; Rybczynski, 1983).

Computer programs are among the most important technological systems. Over the past 25 years, software systems have grown larger and more complex, and they have outgrown their initial niche as handmaiden to computer hardware. Not only do software systems increasingly define the function and quality of computers and computer networks, they also shape the core of many systems, from aviation to military weapons to electronic commerce to health-care delivery. Programming, moreover, is in its infancy. Software systems are likely to become central to bio-engineering and molecular biology. Large-scale research into human genes already has been greatly influenced by software techniques and metaphors.

Despite their importance to modern civilization, software systems have drawn relatively scant attention. This partly stems from the rapid ascent of software. Historians and sociologists of technology have not digested the software explosion. Business analysts and professors, while aware of the costs and consequences of weak management of programming projects, have yet to build strong models for the genesis of software architectures and, more importantly, how and why one architecture gives way to another. These academic models will certainly improve over time, but they have yet to gain a following in the wider world. Programmers certainly have created their own literature, but this rarely ventures beyond specific techniques for producing and integrating code. The one landmark book, written by a programmer for programmers, is The Mythical Man-Month. Based on IBM's attempts to build software systems in the 1960s, the book is chiefly of historical value (Brooks, 1975).

Studying teams at Microsoft
Because of the lack of basic data (no less theories) on contemporary management of large-scale software projects, in 1992 I set about to chronicle the making of Windows NT, the largest project ever undertaken by Microsoft Corp. and the most ambitious program ever written for a personal computer. My research - largely in the form of interviews with roughly 100 Microsoft employees and a review of hundreds of confidential corporate documents - resulted in a book, Showstopper! (Zachary, 1994).

Though its commercial acceptance grows with every passing month, Windows NT may not rank as a great achievement in software history. A soup-to-nuts operating system designed to manage large databases to computer networks to desktop machines, NT was the culmination of 40 years of software engineering. Its chief lesson is that software systems are wholly human creations. Far from being determined by technical imperatives, software engineering is a curious mix of pop psychology, Rube Goldberg maneuvers and rational design. Code writing is messy, contingent and only partly satisfying. In the drive to build NT, the project's plans and rationales gave way to the drive for power, the human impulse to gain control - of systems, markets and the shape of things to come.

As much as it says about the making of a software system, the making of Windows NT also can be mined for clues regarding new forms of management and work in innovation industries. Many agree that globalization and technological changes are destroying the hierarchical and bounded jobs that once dominated mass-production and service industries. There is far more debate on emergent managerial structures. To be sure, top-down or autocratic decision-making seems ill-suited for an era where intellectual capital is rapidly overtaking financial capital in importance. Yet the fashionable neo-biological model of self-organization, however elegant and politically correct, is inadequate. It does not describe the experiential core of multinational corporations, or the team-dominated organization.

Team dynamics
For evidence of the new primacy of teams, consider the relation of the NT team to its corporate patron, Microsoft. Members of this team swore allegiance, not to Bill Gates but to their team leaders. There were even teams within the larger NT team. For some members of these sub-teams, the only relationships that mattered were those with colleagues who shared their immediate goals and occupied the same space.

The importance of teams is structural. In every field of engineering, the body of practical knowledge is changing too rapidly to be codified, but this is especially so in the design and coding of software. In software, the costs of codification are so great that there is little incentive to do codify because the resulting text will be outmoded soon. The hoary methods of Fred Taylor and the time-and-motion engineers have no place in workshops where bits and pieces of cyberspace are knit together. Members of teams - the carriers of this knowledge - are thus highly valued, at least for the life of the project, which is all that matters to the team in any case.

If the success of a software project depends on the vitality of its teams, what is the principle that holds many teams together across distances and corporate objectives? It is not unrestrained selfishness and individuality, which is often viewed as the American ideal of teamwork. Nor is it the consensus approach for which the Japanese were lionized in the 1980s.

As the icon for a new corporate structure, Microsoft has fittingly stumbled on a new way of uniting teams under a common banner. This way is best described as "armed truce." The term makes sense because long, bitter argument and opposition stands behind virtually every significant decision made by any Microsoft team.

As I found in my study of Microsoft, the 250 members of NT's team were constantly at war, if not with other teams at Microsoft then with each other. Consensus was not sought because it was not desired. Conceptual stalemates did not stymie activists. Dissent was stimulated by allowing team members who disagree with a decision to keep on carping and complaining long after the team has carried out the decision. This incessant whining could be painful, wasteful and embarrassing. But it allowed dissenters to protect their pride and intellectual integrity, which was more important to them than civility. The ethos of "armed truce" also forces advocates of a controversial decision to continually defend themselves. This takes time but has more benefits than might first appear. For months or years a decision may withstand the pressure of "armed truce." But every tactic, every strategy, eventually loses its relevance. And when it does, it can be discarded more swiftly when team members lay in the weeds, so to speak, with a ready substitute.

In the making of Windows NT, the evidence for my "armed truce" thesis was plentiful. The basic design of the program, which called for a graphics superstructure to trade information ceaselessly with a bedrock kernel, came under repeated attack. The attacks continued even after the first NT release in mid-1993. At crucial junctures, Bill Gates himself sowed seeds of doubt, asking for fresh justifications of this split architecture. Gates and his allies on the team were rebuffed. A second NT release arrived in mid-1994 based on the original design. Only then, when the performance improvements to the program had reached their limit, did the revisionists triumph. The third NT release, shipped in 1996, relied on a unitary graphics-kernel design. Yet still the debate continues.

The experience of Microsoft's NT team is suggestive of shifts across the corporate landscape. So rapid are technical developments that the core of the corporation is now the team, the only unit small enough to retain its intellectual edge. No matter the size of an enterprise, or whether its goals are market leadership or the pursuit of pure knowledge, the enterprise will come to be defined by the quality and character of its many teams. Corporations thus become vehicles for different teams to realize their aims. The larger the team, the harder it is to chart its nuances, its inner strengths and contradictions. No organization chart can convey the complexities of such enterprises. Few senior managers can capture the value within their own enterprises, much to their embarrassment.

This has huge implications for the management of software projects as well as the economy as a whole. The rise of the team to center of the large corporation will lead to the greatest shift in corporate power since the dawn of the twentieth century when, in the words of eminent business historian Alfred Chandler, "professional managers replaced families, financiers or their representatives as decision makers ... [and] modern American capitalism became managerial capitalism" (Chandler, 1977). Managers will thrive in the new regime, but only when they act more like political bosses than technocrats. They must win the endorsement of many team leaders whose local authority springs from their own tribes. The corporation becomes a confederation of teams, constantly on the verge of war with one another yet wedded together by cross-fertilization. The multitude of teams that comprise the cutting-edge corporation are capable of forging a collective identity, but find it rather destructive to do so. Today the essential ingredient in any successful project or enterprise is the capacity for dissent and transformation among its teams.

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