Sunday, March 09, 2008

Hitting the Reset Button

All too often in the software world we convince ourselves to keep going with a design that just wasn't quite right from the start. We're not willing to say, let's scrap this and use what we learned to make it better next time. The result is that the technology becomes increasingly crufty and after a while, it's hard to know where to even start to improve things. I think it's important to have the courage to make tough decisions and rework designs that need it as soon as possible, even if it means rolling up our sleeves to do some hard work and dealing with some short term pain during the transition. I've quoted a piece of an interview that CNN did with Steve Jobs below, but I'd like to first show the key highlight, at least from my point of view:
But there always seems to come a moment where it's just not working, and it's so easy to fool yourself - to convince yourself that it is when you know in your heart that it isn't

It really is so easy to fool yourself. I think it's true that the great companies and great teams don't just come out of the gate with winners; rather they have the humility and courage to evaluate their work and start again when they have to. Anyway, here' s the rest of the part of the interview I wanted to quote:
At Pixar when we were making Toy Story, there came a time when we were forced to admit that the story wasn't great. It just wasn't great. We stopped production for five months.... We paid them all to twiddle their thumbs while the team perfected the story into what became Toy Story. And if they hadn't had the courage to stop, there would have never been a Toy Story the way it is, and there probably would have never been a Pixar.

We called that the 'story crisis,' and we never expected to have another one. But you know what? There's been one on every film. We don't stop production for five months. We've gotten a little smarter about it. But there always seems to come a moment where it's just not working, and it's so easy to fool yourself - to convince yourself that it is when you know in your heart that it isn't.

Well, you know what? It's been that way with [almost] every major project at Apple, too.... Take the iPhone. We had a different enclosure design for this iPhone until way too close to the introduction to ever change it. And I came in one Monday morning, I said, 'I just don't love this. I can't convince myself to fall in love with this. And this is the most important product we've ever done.'

And we pushed the reset button. We went through all of the zillions of models we'd made and ideas we'd had. And we ended up creating what you see here as the iPhone, which is dramatically better. It was hell because we had to go to the team and say, 'All this work you've [done] for the last year, we're going to have to throw it away and start over, and we're going to have to work twice as hard now because we don't have enough time.' And you know what everybody said? 'Sign us up.'

That happens more than you think, because this is not just engineering and science. There is art, too. Sometimes when you're in the middle of one of these crises, you're not sure you're going to make it to the other end. But we've always made it, and so we have a certain degree of confidence, although sometimes you wonder. I think the key thing is that we're not all terrified at the same time. I mean, we do put our heart and soul into these things.