Always Day One – Take Home Notes

Alex Kantrowitz book, Always Day One, is an excellent study into the top 5 Tech companies in the world: Amazon, Facebook, Google, Apple and Microsoft. Alex interviewed many employees and ex-employees in these companies and have done extensive research to summarize what makes these companies tick. It’s a page turner.

There are a few themes that seem to repeat in all but one company – Apple. In fact, Apple comes across as a relic in an age of innovation. Apple’s culture of secrecy, its reliant on external consultancies to build tools and provide support, and it’s deeply rooted top-down approach, sounds a lot more like IBM or GM 25 years ago than a tech company evaluated at $1.5T. So one of the first take home messages in the book: Apple is truly disfunctional.

The other 4 companies all share an interesting trait between its leaders: the engineer’s mindset. It seems that with Microsoft’s Satya Nadella and Google’s Sundar Pichai, along side the founders led companies Amazon and Facebook, the role of the leader is to facilitate ideas creation and support the engineers that actually invent. This is not a new concept. In fact, Andy Grove created Intel’s dress-down culture, a culture that was unique at the time, in order to give the engineers at Intel a voice. So the concept is not new, but all 4 leaders, according to Kantrowitz, embrace the engineer’s mindset with both arms. The engineer’s mindset can be summarized by:

  • Encouraging invention from everywhere and against common believe – just because it works does not mean that you can not improve it.
  • Constraint-free hierarchy – This one is taken from the chapter on Microsoft, but is also prevalent in the way that google internally does everything in the open or the feedback culture that Facebook have. Ideas should come from everywhere and everyone should be able to pitch them. Just because you are an MTS does not mean that do not have the next billion dollar ideas.
  • Collaboration – this also comes up in each and every chapter (apart from the chapter on Apple). The manager’s job and the tooling are meant to facilitate collaboration. In google, using google’s tools to collaboratively create documents is an excellent example of where the culture of collaboration brings invention.

Another strong notion in the book is the drive to automate everything that is not invention. In essence, the tech giants focus a lot more on ideas and invention and a lot less on execution. Each company does things slightly differently, but apart from Apple, they all try to flip the pyramid on its head and spend time inventing and a lot less time executing. This cuts clear across warehouse workers at the Amazon fulfillment centers that are retrained to be robot mechanics to creating HR AI that scans through resumes and help recruiters identify candidates. There are of course massive implications to the ever increasing reliance on AI and automation (what do we do with an untrained workforce? Is the education system setup to teach inventors as opposed to people who execute?) but these topics are going to be addressed in another post.

Will the tech giants stay that way forever? Probably not. At their high-time, GM and IBM surely expected to be the leaders forever, but as the tide shifts and technology moves, old giants tumble and new giants are born. What is fascinating in this book is the emphasis on culture and how culture helps keep the tech giants where they are. Each of the leaders depicted in this book focused and has been very intentional on building the organization’s culture. This ties nicely to Ben Horowitz’ “What You Do is Who You Are” which also emphasizes the importance of culture in organizations large and small. In that respect the chapter on Microsoft and its current CEO, Satya Nadella, is the most interesting study on corporate culture. Nadella had to take a very broken corporate culture and turn it around completely. Given that 10 years ago, a younger me would have puked all over such statements as “the new Microsoft Office Suite works great on my Mac”, and given Microsoft’s current market evaluation, I’d say that Nadella has been very successful.

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