Rick Chapman is In Search of Stupidity

(This is the foreword to Rick Chapman’s new book, In Search of Stupidity.)

In every high tech company I’ve known, there’s a war going on, between the geeks and the suits.

Before you start reading this great new book full of propaganda from software marketing wizard and über-suit Rick Chapman, let me take a moment to tell you what the geeks think.

Play along with me for a minute, will you?

Please imagine the most stereotypically pale, Jolt-drinking, Chinese-food-eating, video-game-playing, slashdot-reading Linux-command-line-dwelling dork. Since this is just a stereotype, you should be free to imagine either a runt or a kind of chubby fellow, but in either case this is not the kind of person who plays football with his high school pals when he visits mom for Thanksgiving. Also, since he’s a stereotype, I shall not have to make complicated excuses for making him a him.

This is what our stereotypical programmer thinks: “Microsoft makes inferior products, but they have superior marketing, so everybody buys their stuff.”

Ask him what he thinks about the marketing people in his own company. “They’re really stupid. Yesterday I got into a big argument with this stupid sales chick in the break room and after ten minutes it was totally clear that she had no clue what the difference between 802.11a and 802.11b is. Duh!”

What do marketing people do, young geek? “I don’t know. They play golf with customers or something, when they’re not making me correct their idiot spec sheets. If it was up to me I’d fire ‘em all.”

A nice fellow named Jeffrey Tarter used to publish an annual list of the hundred largest personal computer software publishers called the Soft-letter 100. Here’s what the top ten looked like in 1984[1]:

Rank Company Annual Revenues
#1 Micropro International $60,000,000
#2 Microsoft Corp. $55,000,000
#3 Lotus $53,000,000
#4 Digital Research $45,000,000
#5 VisiCorp $43,000,000
#6 Ashton-Tate $35,000,000
#7 Peachtree $21,700,000
#8 MicroFocus $15,000,000
#9 Software Publishing $14,000,000
#10 Broderbund $13,000,000

OK, Microsoft is number 2, but it is one of a handful of companies with roughly similar annual revenues.

Now let’s look at the same list for 2001.

Rank Company Annual Revenues
#1 Microsoft Corp. $23,845,000,000
#2 Adobe $1,266,378,000
#3 Novell $1,103,592,000
#4 Intuit $1,076,000,000
#5 Autodesk $926,324,000
#6 Symantec $790,153,000
#7 Network Associates $745,692,000
#8 Citrix $479,446,000
#9 Macromedia $295,997,000
#10 Great Plains $250,231,000

Whoa. Notice, if you will, that every single company except Microsoft has disappeared from the top ten. Also notice, please, that Microsoft is so much larger than the next largest player, it’s not even funny. Adobe would double in revenues if they could just get Microsoft’s soda pop budget.

The personal computer software market is Microsoft. Microsoft’s revenues, it turns out, make up 69% of the total revenues of all the top 100 companies combined.

This is what we’re talking about, here.

Is this just superior marketing, as our imaginary geek claims? Or the result of an illegal monopoly? (Which begs the question: how did Microsoft get that monopoly? You can’t have it both ways.)

According to Rick Chapman, the answer is simpler: Microsoft was the only company on the list that never made a fatal, stupid mistake. Whether this was by dint of superior brainpower or just dumb luck, the biggest mistake Microsoft made was the dancing paperclip. And how bad was that, really? We ridiculed them, shut it off, and went back to using Word, Excel, Outlook, and Internet Explorer every minute of every day. But for every other software company that once had market leadership and saw it go down the drain, you can point to one or two giant blunders that steered the boat into an iceberg. Micropro fiddled around rewriting the printer architecture instead of upgrading their flagship product, WordStar. Lotus wasted a year and a half shoehorning 123 to run on 640kb machines; by the time they were done Excel was shipping and 640kb machines were a dim memory. Digital Research wildly overcharged for CP/M-86 and lost a chance to be the de-facto standard for PC operating systems. VisiCorp sued themselves out of existence. Ashton-Tate never missed an opportunity to piss off dBase developers, poisoning the fragile ecology that is so vital to a platform vendor’s success.

I’m a programmer, of  course, so I tend to blame the marketing people for these stupid mistakes. Almost all of them revolve around a failure of non-technical business people to understand basic technology facts. When Pepsi-pusher John Sculley was developing the Apple Newton, he didn’t know something that every computer science major in the country knows: handwriting recognition is not possible. This was at the same time that Bill Gates was hauling programmers into meetings begging them to create a single rich text edit control that could be reused in all their products. Put Jim Manzi (the suit who let the MBAs take over Lotus) in that meeting and he would be staring blankly. “What’s a rich text edit control?” It never would have occurred to him to take technological leadership because he didn’t grok the technology; in fact, the very use of the word grok in that sentence would probably throw him off.

In Search of Stupidity -- the Cover
Buy the book

If you ask me, and I’m biased, no software company can succeed unless there is a programmer at the helm. So far the evidence backs me up. But many of these boneheaded mistakes come from the programmers themselves. Netscape’s monumental decision to rewrite their browser instead of improving the old code base cost them several years of Internet time, during which their market share went from around 90% to about 4%, and this was the programmers’ idea. Of course, the nontechnical and inexperienced management of that company had no idea why this was a bad idea. There are still scads of programmers who defend Netscape’s ground-up rewrite. “The old code really sucked, Joel!” Yeah, uh-huh. Such programmers should be admired for their love of clean code, but they shouldn’t be allowed within 100 feet of any business decisions, since it’s obvious that clean code is more important to them than shipping, uh, software.

So I’ll concede to Rick a bit and say that if you want to be successful in the software business, you have to have a management team that thoroughly understands and loves programming, but they have to understand and love business, too. Finding a leader with strong aptitude in both dimensions is difficult, but it’s the only way to avoid making one of those fatal mistakes that Rick catalogs lovingly in this book. So read it, chuckle a bit, and if there’s a stupidhead running your company, get your résumé in shape and start looking for a house in Redmond.

[1] Source: Soft*letter, Jeffrey Tarter ed., April 30, 2001, 17:11.

About the author.

I'm Joel Spolsky, co-founder of Trello and Fog Creek Software, and CEO of Stack Overflow. More about me.