Computer History Museum An Evening with Ivan Sutherland: »Research and Fun«

Computer History Museum (19-Oct-2005)

partial transcript of the video (0:57'-1:03')

I like to try and review what the lessons are of the fun that I’ve been describing. There is an argument I can make that I have never done a days work in my life. I have always had the luxury of doing things that I find to be fun. And when the fun goes away, so do I.

And I think that good research has that element of fun in it. And if you would be a researcher it seams to me that you’d best search your soul first to find out what it is you like to do. If you are an expert musician you ought to be figuring out how computers and music can interact. If you are interested in photography you ought to be learning about how to control the colors of – or what ever it is that computers deal with photographs. If you are interested in geography perhaps you should get involved in how computers can help measure the positions of the continents. But what ever it is make sure that you pick something to work on that you like, that you think is fun. Because if it isn’t fun you aren’t going to be very good at it. And surely you’d like to be good at a research career if you choose one – choose to have one.

And for management there is a lesson. It’s the Marv Dernikoff lesson: »Research has surprises.« And those surprises you have to be prepared for and you have to meet them quickly and without making a big fuss about it.

There are those who believe in the carrot theory of research management. I have to describe the carrot theory of research management: Research is like growing carrots. And the way you manage that is you pull them out every week and look at how they hang and put them back in the ground. And if in fact you have in fact lots and lots of research reviews and you demand that and your people report their progress and have breakthroughs in a timely fashion, you are not likely to get much.

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Unless I'm badly mistaken, in most processes today—and sadly in most important areas of technology research—the administrators seem to prefer to be completely in control of mediocre processes to being "out of control" with superproductive processes. They are trying to "avoid failure" rather than trying to "capture the heavens".
Alan Kay [The Power of Context, 2004]

On the other hand if you like Marv Dernikoff and recognize that surprises happen and are prepared to meet them and encourage your people to go forward with the directions they think are important you are likely to get interesting results.

And I think there is a further message for all of management. This [Silicon] Valley runs I think because the people here love what they do. You have all turned out in the evening to listen to some guy who did something long ago opined about what might be important. You care about your profession. That’s the way this Valley works. And management had better make it possible for you to care and take obstacles out of your way.

One of the obstacles I’ve been noticing recently – let me back up that one for a minute. I want to remind you that the word company is a word that has two meanings that appeared to be desperate. One meaning is its the folk we have over to dinner. And the other meaning is its the industrial organization in which we gain our livelihood. And I think those two meaning are not that different. That in fact a company in the industrial sense is named after the Hudson Bay Company, a company of gentlemen and adventures assembled for the purpose of exploring Hudson’s Bay. It was in fact a company in the friendly sense that became a company in the industrial sense. And to the extent that companies feel they are company, feel like they’re friendly, feel they are the place where people like to work, where people feel that management cares, that management takes care of them employees give more than adequate value in return.

To the extent that management destroys that feeling of company it gets less out of its employees. One of the ways of destroying the feeling of company is called outsourcing. So instead of walking down the hall to your friendly person who does your travel arrangements for you and who knows your peculiar needs you get on the internet and call somebody in Texas. And you ask for reservations from some new person who has never met you and whom you don’t know at all. Doesn’t feel like company.

There is a price to be paid for saving money in this way. Outsourcing saves money because it reduces the measured financial cost of some activity. It substitutes for it a loss of esprit de corps. It substitutes for it a waste of precious people’s time. Time that would be better spent productively producing new ideas or new products for the company. Unfortunately that’s a harder thing to measure. And to the extent that management recognizes the importance of company in the friendly sense, is the extent that employees get for loyalty. Hey, otherwise they go work for Google where lunch is free, you know.

OK, I’ve run out of things to say. I certainly like to answer questions if there are questions.


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