Why Xerox Didn’t Dominate the Personal Computer Industry…

…and why I believe none of the current automation equipment manufacturers will dominate the next generation of biotech facilities. Hint: product people are key.

Xerox developed some very cool stuff when it founded PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) in the 1970’s. It was a tour of PARC where Steve Jobs was shown three things, but he says “I was so blinded by the first that I didn’t really see the other two”. This was the graphical user interface with a mouse for human-computer interaction. The other two, by the way, were object-oriented programming and a network of over 100 computers, all able to allow users communicate via email.

So why didn’t Xerox dominate the personal computer industry? Jobs was asked this question and he said it was actually something he thought about a lot and came to an answer on the topic years later. I found his take very interesting and applicable to a lot of industries, even our own.

Problems with Monopolies

He said he saw it first with John Scully (Apple CEO in the 80’s who came from Pepsi).

“What happened with John at Pepsi is they would change the product every 10 years or so and to them a new product was something frivolous like a different size bottle. So if you were a product person you didn’t get to influence the direction of the company very much. The influence came from sales and marketing. They were the ones with the biggest say and therefore they got promoted and ran the company. For Pepsi, that was fine. However, what’s really interesting is the same thing can happen at tech companies that get monopolies, like IBM and Xerox. So, if you were a product person and you make a better copier, so what! When it’s a monopoly, it’s mostly the sales and marketing people that can make the company more successful. So the product people get driven out.”

I feel like this is our industry, not very innovative
and monopolies last for decades with very little product improvement. I think we need more product people making decisions in our field.

Steve Jobs said “People running this kind of company seem to have no understanding of what makes a great product and they have no real feeling in their hearts about wanting to really help the customers…. Xerox was run by toner heads who had no real idea of what they were looking at. Had they realized this, Xerox could have owned the entire personal computer industry today”.

Empowering Product People

I would argue our industry might be better served by providing comprehensive solutions. We can build fully functional factories where software and hardware are standardized, built together. We need to move away from the paradigm of projects with all sorts of engineering consultants trying to manage the mess. We need products that a company could stand over.

As consultants and engineers who build things, we need to come together and build what we know the market needs, better ways of getting high quality product out the door, sooner. With less time and financial investment. Only product people like us can do that. We have to build it, and constantly doing custom projects integrated together by the end-user is not the way to do this.

The best results will come when we consolidate our offerings into one holistic package where the client’s new facility is 80% done on day one!

Then we get to control the continuous improvement process and drive real product innovation… Together!

Real Solutions Matter

As automation engineers in the life sciences industry, I feel most of us have very similar experiences on projects.

At the beginning of the project everything is exciting. So many choices, but this is where the problems start. I’d argue that having so many choices isn’t helping us as an industry, it is hurting us. Choice in coding standards, choice in bus technology, redundancy of controllers, It’s an overload.

Every project becomes a complex arrangement of preferences and standards that are rarely part of a holistic solution.

A ‘project’ can become another word for endless string of meetings with a lot of revisiting of old decisions.

Sounds like project managers are the problem right? I’m not so sure.

The Problem with Projects

I think in general projects suffer from a lack of honesty among participants and this stems from poor functioning, fear-based corporate cultures where people show up to work everyday, fearful that if they look bad in a meeting they may be cut from the project, or even the company. When a project gets tough, usually this devolves even further into a game of point and duck, meaning that you keep quiet, knowing the other guy is probably more late on his deliverables than you are on yours.

Engineering management could help drive some of this behavior out, but at its core, I believe this is a company culture issue. Companies in general need to make people feel safe while still giving them real responsibility in an environment that thinks before it acts. People should feel confident to openly have energetic debates about what’s working and what’s not. This can’t happen if people don’t feel safe to do so.

W Edwards Deming, an American who helped rebuild Japan after the war through manufacturing, had an approach of blame the process, not the people.

Why waste knowledge… No company can afford to waste knowledge. Failure of management to breakdown barriers between activities… is one way to waste knowledge. People that are not working together are not contributing their best to the company. People as they work together, feeling secure in the job reinforce their knowledge and efforts. Their combined output, when they are working together, is more than the sum of their separate

-W Edwards Deming

As engineers, I think real solutions happen when we are being honest.  Encourage the people who make sense at the water cooler to have the courage to speak in the meeting room.

How Did I Become a Consultant? I Went to Engineering School

When you start out in engineering consulting it’s exciting. You jump from project to project, site to site, and you work on the big activity on that site at that time. It’s a great experience. As an automation engineer, it is a profound experience to code something in the office and have it go through testing and eventually find its way onto the site. I’ll never forget the first time I saw the real-life reactors with the name tags matching the graphics and modules I had helped code.

It’s a great experience to see so many projects and work on exciting new technology all the time. It is truly enriching.

The Thing with Consulting

The thing to watch out for, being a consultant, is you don’t have to own the result. As consultants, we are not around for long after the equipment has been installed. With so many stakeholders, so many decisions made, we don’t have to take undue responsibility for our recommendations.

As engineering consultants, the greatest solutions will always come from a true understanding of who the customer is: as if we were the customer.

We are designing and implementing a solution for someone who’s betting on us with their hard-earned money. It’s a big responsibility to carry and it can be easy to subconsciously forget as we jump around from one project to the next. Someone has to work with and maintain what we build.

The Good Consultant

Ask yourself – How would I build it if it were my money? If I had to live with this implementation for the next 10 years, would I be proud?

Long-term thinking is always a challenge, but seeing a project through and following up on your implementation is the most important thing you can do as a consultant. It is so important for us automation engineers to accumulate the scar tissue of owning our recommendations and designs. Without ownership, we are only getting a fraction of the learning that’s available to us.

All too many consultants, when asked, ‘What is 2 and 2?’ respond, ‘What do you have in mind?’ – Norman Ralph Augustine