First, the article itself.
The two points of most interest in the article was the description of the management/engineer relationship at Intel, and some speculation on the real relationship between Intel and Rambus:
First, early this year, a person who had just left Intel, more specifically the area that designed motherboard chipsets, and I exchanged a couple emails. This article confirms in general what he had to say about working inside the company.
I don’t think the person I spoke to and the source of the article are the same person, but they both agreed on the “do it and who cares if it works” attitude of Intel management.
What neither of the engineers realize though, is that Intel is not particularly noteworthy for this. It’s very commonplace.
If We See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil, There Is No Evil
People in power are allergic to the word, “No.” If you keep irritating them with it, they sneeze, and blow you away. So guess what word those around them don’t use?
When it comes to issues like these, middle management functions as a human email system, with lots of filters. People realize very quickly which messages get through and which ones don’t. Most people care about themselves more than the company or the truth, and not unreasonably figure it’s useless to sacrifice themselves, so they don’t.
The Engineer Who Cried Wolf
Remember the original StarTrek? If there was anybody who cried “Wolf” all the time, it was Scotty. Scotty was an engineer. Scotty whined all the time. If your computer was as unreliable as Scotty made the Enterprise’s antimatter engines look, you’d demand your money back.
Ever notice the engines never did quite “blow?”
Was this just the demands of a TV series? Was Scotty an incompetent engineer who didn’t know what his equipment could do?
No, Mr. Scott was very crafty. He whined for two reasons, one good, one not-so-good.
1) If he whined a lot when the equipment was starting to push the limits, that kept Kirk from demanding something really stupid and impossible.
2) You have to perform miracles to be considered a miracle-worker, or at least make the audience believe you did.
Scoff at the second? There’s a very telling scene in an episode of StarTrek, the Next Generation. For reasons I won’t go into here, Scotty finds himself
working with a later-generation Enterprise, and a later-generation engineer, Geordi LaForge. They’re doing some fairly routine maintenance, and Captain Picard asks when something will
get done. LaForge is ready to say something like ten minutes, when Scott interrupts and says something like an hour. LaForge asks why, and Scott pretty much repeats my second point.
Good engineers do have expertise others do not have. They do know what can or cannot be done. But they are people, and they don’t like to fail, either. They like to give themselves a lot of margin to minimize the odds of failing. Since their audience doesn’t know any better, they take advantage of that.
That’s precisely what Scotty was out to do, lower Picard’s expectations to more easily exceed them when push comes to shove. If you expect an hour normally, you might expect ten minutes in a life-or-death emergency. You don’t expect it done in one, like you might if you’ve come to expect ten.
Engineers today do much the same thing. They’ll say, “No, no, no” then manage to get what they called impossible done if they have to. The art of dealing with engineers is to know enough to be able to tell when they’re blowing smoke, and realize and respect when they aren’t.
The problem arises if those making the demands just completely discount the whines, and start demanding the really impossible.
You might say, “Well, the engineers should be honest.” Problem with that is you’d probably end up with more failures, because those demanding will still ask for XX% more anyway out of sheer instinct. If you don’t know, how can you possibly tell the difference?
Homo Executivo Perfectus
Engineers may distort reality, but at least they know it exists. You can’t say that about many executives.
No one likes to be wrong, but so what? Reality didn’t ask for your opinion or approval. It just is. Sometimes you can change it, and sometimes you can’t. Wisdom is knowing the difference.
Objective reality has gotten a bad reputation over the last few decades. A lot of things that were thought to be objectively real turned out not to be.
A hundred years ago, many believed that a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant was the highest form of human life, a clear objective reality.
Would you believe that now? Of course not. Would you then say, “Well, that didn’t prove to be true, so maybe the moon doesn’t exist, either?”
Disproving that belief, or others, didn’t disprove objective reality, it just disproved that those beliefs weren’t objective realities.
What is or what is not objective reality in the course of most human affairs is not as simple as the existence of the moon, but it’s a pretty safe bet to say that every human being is unquestionably wrong about some of the things some of the time.
If WASPs aren’t inherently superior because they’re WASPS, what should we think about people who think they are inherently perfect because they’re executives?
No denying many or even most of these people are pretty good, maybe even have better reason to think themselves superior than those nineteenth century WASPs. But perfect is a lot better than better. No room for error.
Imperfection is unacceptable to many if not most executives. Reality is whatever they say it is. They essentially structure their lives to flout this given of human nature. They act as if they can never make a mistake, at least not for the things that matter. They gather staffs who readily agree, at least to their faces. They create their own reality, and divorce the real one.
Until reality comes to collect the divorce settlement.
That’s precisely what happened with Intel and Rambus. For whatever reason (and see below for a possible new one), some Intel executives decided Rambus was the future, and they were the Masters of Reality. “Rambus Rules” became the reality for Intel. Anything that contradicted that “reality” was simply unacceptable.
However, there’s a big world out there, and Intel isn’t Big Brother. Intel said, “You will buy Rambus” and people said, “We won’t.” Intel kept insisting, and those stupid, unenlightened people took away half of Intel’s marketshare in the motherboard business.
Now if I lost half my marketshare in a business, and single-handedly increased my still-not-too-good competitor’s marketshare from 10% to almost 50%, that would make me wonder, wouldn’t you?
If you look at Intel’s public statements though, you hardly see, “Boy, did we f*** up! Not going to do that again.” Rather, you could easily miss any indication that anything was wrong at all, and if you had eagle-eyes, any problems were tiny and minor, hardly worth mentioning.
Reality didn’t go away because it got ignored, now did it? How much did that attitude cost Intel?
Is It Love, Or Is It Just Blackmail?
The Electronics News article brings up for the first time the notion that this apparent love affair between Intel and Rambus, one of the greatest corporate love stories ever told, might not be what it looks like.
“The sections of the contract that are public suggest that Intel can walk away from the agreement anytime scot-free, said Bert McComas, founder and principal analyst of InQuest Market Research. The real reason it won’t leave is buried in the parts of the contract that have been blacked out, he said.
“The (public) contract says all Intel has to do is write Rambus a letter and it is terminated with no penalty, but there is all this stuff stricken from the record. Maybe they’ve got to pay hefty royalties on their processors. It has to be something of that magnitude or Intel would have bailed out. There is something serious on the table. They just have to hold their breath until 2003.”
“The former Intel employee said that theory would fit with his own speculation. “I personally thought they had been caught with their pants down and had violated a Rambus patent. Intel has an awful lot invested in DDR signaling technology. If they truly believed that the Rambus intellectual property would hold, they are in deep water.”
You know you’re in deep doo-doo when a speculation like this leaves you looking better than you do now.
Let’s assume McComas and this Intel source are right. Intel made a big chunk of this agreement pretty public. What they said definitely left the impression it wasn’t too big a deal if Intel bailed out. If that’s not the case, and Intel is really stuck, how do you feel if you’re an Intel shareholder? How do you feel if you’re the SEC?
How do you feel if you’re an Intel executive looking across the board table at the guys who got you into this mess?