Friday, April 02, 2010

In Search of Stupidity, by Merrill R. Chapman

In Search of Stupidity: Over Twenty Years of High Tech Marketing Disasters, by Merrill R. Chapman

I love this book. On the surface it is a humorous look at high-tech marketing disasters such as Netscape, OS/2, and near and dear to me, Borland. Dig a little deeper and there is some good stuff about how to learn from these mistakes in order to not repeat them, and I imagine that some readers will thake these lessons to heart. The rest of use will laugh out loud and thoroughly enjoy reading about one catastrophe after the other in the same manner we watch NASCAR waiting for that spectacular wreck.

As interesting as the various stories are, the humor is what pushes this book from merely entertaining to magnificent. And the jokes start from page one; the preface contains this gem (and possibly the best hyphenated phrase ever written): “Yes, [Consumer Reports] is not much fun to read, and it has that annoying left-wing, tree-hugger-life-was-better-in-the-19th-and-early-20th-centuries-when-choo-choo-trains-belched-smoke-into-the-air attitude, but it does buy its test vehicles and this has no need to suck up to Detroit or Tokyo in the manner of publications such as Car and Driver and Road and Track.” This sort of in-your-face wit coupled with solid-but-harsh observations are repeated on virtually every page. Even the glossary was hilarious: “ROI: Acronym for return on investment. The amount of money earned on investing in a particular program or business. The concept wasn’t in use during the dot-com boom.” “Yahoo: A leading web portal that has never promised not to be evil and therefore has no compunctions about helping the Chinese government jail journalists.”

Chapman clearly has organizations and products he likes and doesn’t; Google, MSN, and Yahoo are all described quite bluntly as “evil.” Apple is largely on his good side, but he plays fair and doesn’t hesitate to scathe them when deserving. “Had Apple not been in its way every bit as stupid as IBM, the company was in a position to become the next Microsoft of OSs. But we all know how that turned out.” The chapter on Borland was especially entertaining to me as I was technically the head of Borland engineering world-wide when reading this. (Borland had been bought by Micro Focus in 2009 and become a wholly owned subsidiary so the position didn’t really mean anything, but various contracts required the company to stay in existence and I was the most senior Borland engineering employee left after the acquisition.) I had first-hand experience with the disaster that was the executive staff at Borland before Micro Focus stepped in; it was entertaining to see that the previous executives were prone to massive blunders as well. Chapman ends this section with the 2006 divestiture of TurboPascal and its progeny with the sentence, “The Borland roller coaster has not yet stopped rolling.” Fast-forward a few years and he was more accurate than he knew!

While the stories are a bit dated—this second edition was released in 2006 and the high-tech world changes very, very quickly—they are valuable lessons in hubris and arrogance. The history lesson alone makes this worth your time; I wonder how many of the youngsters entering the business today have heard of Ashton-Tate or Novell? Both insightful and funny, this should be required reading for anyone developing or marketing software.

First Sentence:
In 1982, Harper & Row published In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies by Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr.

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