August 15th, 2008

krazy koati

How to walk into a conference room

The history of a technology company usually has distinct phases, like the step where a small team of like-minded idealists realize they've been coming to a garage workshop garage for four years now and have almost completed a salable product none too soon because the owner of the garage almost caught them last time.

And then there's a stage where people are very worried about getting the right sort of ice cream cake to celebrate the birthday of someone who is actually out sick that day, which wasn't the correct birthday. There are also all intermediate stages like deciding what to make for their fifteenth product and deciding whether they need a corporate logo that uses a curvy typeface to make the logo look more wind-eroded.

The main problem is deciding what a company should do. There's a lot of money available out there, but you can't just get anybody's, not with the current overly restrictive environment against armed robbery. Worse, even if you do figure how to make people give you money there's no way to be sure it won't be something embarrassing like whatever the current design for the five-dollar bill is, or the Directors Of The Bureau of Engraving And Printing Commemorative Nickel collectible sequence, where all the directors have been made to look silly out of revenge for the Directors Of The Mint Commemorative Two Dollar collectible sequence showing all the Directors' eyes crossed.

There are problems to technology companies that are unique in the sense that other genres of companies have the same problems but over different issues. For example, there's the question of whether to mistakenly not diversify, so that when the old products start getting dusty people forget just why they needed them in the first place, or to mistakenly diversity, the more popular option because it allows a company that started out making error-correcting Murphy beds has somehow got a division focused on reviewing histories of lubricants.

If the diversification is too diverse this backfires: Commodore Computers was doing tolerably well until 1994 when it tried to make use of its investments in candy companies and introduced the 1621 Disc Drive, capable of storing over 510 kilobytes of information on a single Kit Kat bar (1020 for two bars, and 2040 if one nibbled a corner to use all four bars). While well-regarded in computer magazines and confectioners shops the product annoyed everyone else during snack breaks, and the employees all snuck out of the factory overnight, never to return, bringing an end to the company.

Yet making sure each diversification step is logical has its problems too. Consider Coleco, which started out making leather supplies, and found that to make better leather supplies for shoe-makers it had to provide shoe-makers with swimming pools. But to make good swimming pools it had to have video games for people to play by the pools. In support of the making of video games it had to make computer hardware, but to make computer hardware it had to do something to clothe its non-poolside employees. Yet to finish clothing its employees it had to have nice shoes, and to have these nice shoes it had to go into making leather supplies for shoe-makers. The company vanished in a recursive loop in 1989, never to be seen again.

Fortunately many corporate histories have been written, and so any company can find what another company did in a similar situation. Each example can be matched by at least four other contradictory examples, so companies are left concluding they may very well do anything at all and never mind the consequences, explaining the curious summer 1954 choice of Remington Rand to merrily frolic by the old creek.

The best guidance is to look up the company history written several decades after the company goes out of business, sent back in time to the hands like you. When you come across a chapter with an ominous title like ``The Fateful Choice'' read very carefully and try not making that choice. This might create a logical paradox destroying time and space, but perhaps the book was wrong anyway.

Trivia: The Parade of Nations, with teams preceded by a flag bearer carrying their national flag, first appeared in the opening ceremonies for the Athens Olympics Games of 1906. (These games are today considered the Intercalated Olympic Games.) Source: Encyclopedia of the Modern Olympic Movement, Editors John E Findling, Kimberly D Pelle.

Currently Reading: The Arms of Krupp, 1587-1968, William Manchester.