American Business

If you happen to be a person who knows me well enough to get me to talk about business, you'll know that I think most modern business practices are pretty terrible blights on our society, and something no man should be proud of. It happens to be one of the many reasons I love my job: we're all engineers here making good products people want.

It's not often I have my beliefs confirmed openly by people in very high places, but this article is a great example of how I feel, and exactly why I believe most modern American businesses are failing or will fail:

Why GM Couldn't Be Apple, According to a Former GM Exec

My first exposure to a large corporation was selling computers and electronics at an Office Max. Mostly, my interaction with corporate was all the policies that were universal to all stores. They were a drag, but I was good at my job, and well-paid for having no experience in retail.

After that, I worked for a locally-owned ISP that was repeatedly purchased by increasingly large companies. When my department was stripped out of the company (to be outsourced), they were only a regional co-op: small potatoes in the big world of business. But, management ran the place like they were AT&T. Employees were on short leashes and treated as untrusted criminals who should be thankful for the chance to work at a tech company. They didn't appreciate their customers much more than their employees. "This job would be great if we didn't have all these customers."

After that, I went to work for a daily newspaper owned by a third-tier media company. They, also, thought they were a much larger company than they really were. They had no room for individuality or creativity. Their policies reduced any kind of decision making or problem solving to the cold, hard reality of a handful of numbers. I briefly worked with a person who had no problem lying to people and faking all his numbers. He was promoted. Meanwhile, all my high-end web applications were being replaced by bloatware provided by corporate developers with about 1/10th my experience. The employees who truly wanted to be in journalism just had to deal with the cronyism and poor pay. I had options, so I left.

The following job started out much better. It was a group of local radio stations with the best reputation in the area. The people were great, even though I was making peanuts for an engineer. However, after about two years there, they decided to hire a new VP in charge of their online offerings across the company. All of a sudden, all these individual properties that were successfully building visitor loyalty had to scrap all their work and switch to a one-size-fits-all, slow-loading, unfocused newspaper site (even if they were TV and radio stations). It was depressing to see all my work get vetoed by some MBA because he figured out that paying this outside company more money than they were paying me to produce web sites, inferior to my own, was going to improve their numbers.

What I learned about these big (or "wannabe big") companies is that, at the end of the day, the only thing that truly matters is the almighty spreadsheet. Anything that couldn't be entered into a cell or represented by a formula made no impact in how the business treated its employees or its customers. If someone says, "We're in business to make money," you should probably know everything you need to know about that company. A company is profitable if it makes good products. A company is going to fail if it's more worried about making good spreadsheets.

It's hard to say I work for a company like Apple, because I really don't. Apple has better marketing, we have better engineers. But, in our devotion to the customer, we are very similar. Just like those "other" companies, we still have spreadsheets, and we have a lot of tracking in place. But, we don't make all of our decisions based on bottom-line figures. We get to make engineering decisions that make things safer, faster, easier-to-use, and something to be proud of. We get to use our skills to make people's lives better. We get to produce products that people want. That's really the message everyone needs to send corporate America: Make something people want, and let the money work itself out later. Sure, you might have a few failures, but why go into business if there's never any risk? What's the point in succeeding if there was no chance at failure? Until you can make products for your customers (and not your accountants), you're just wasting a lot of people's time, and digging a deeper hole for the next generation.