Article Notes Archive

This is an archive of some of my notes on things I read and find interesting. Most of the text is direct excerpts from the article/book. I sometimes add my thoughts or edit for readability. All copyrights belong to the respective authors/publishers.

Table of contents

Want to innovate like Amazon? Here’s their formula

Want to innovate like Amazon? Here’s their formula
You can’t escape Amazon in the digital economy. Now a trillion-dollar company, they have disrupted diverse sectors from retail to software development with a deftness and drive that’s admirable and alarming. They actually seem to be speeding up their rate of innovation as they scale, defying the Law…
  • Two is better than zero. It’s much better to have a couple of fast-moving teams duplicate effort than to have both of those teams lose days or weeks or months negotiating a common solution before either of them actually starts building. The odds of both succeeding are low—Amazon encourages bold experiments that often fail—it’s better to just let them each run fast and see which one, if any, succeeds. If both succeed wildly and then you have to disambiguate, that’s considered a small price to pay in the context of overall victory.
  • Teams should be small enough that you can feed the entire team with two large pizzas. Why keep teams small? It’s easy for small teams to have full, open communication with each other. Small teams are inherently limited in how big of a project they can undertake at one time—and that’s a good thing. Small teams are more likely to take an iterative, incremental approach, if only out of necessity, which is actually a great agile practice for adapting to feedback and change. Small teams can take more pride of ownership. Small teams tend to be organizationally flat, there’s not a lot of hierarchy. Small teams can make decisions fast. Teams have to take responsibility for operating the things they build. They can’t just build them and then throw them over the wall to some other operations group.
  • Teams will write a simulated press release and accompanying FAQ—what questions would reporters and customers ask about it—as a way to tell/sell the story of what they’re going to build before they start building it. Often, these press releases are required to even get funding or the green light to undertake a project. If you can explain why you’re building something in a way that would be compelling to a prospective customer—and answer all the questions they’d likely have about it—then you’ve got a good justification for what you’re planning to create.
  • Another mechanism they use to keep the customer in everyone’s minds is to have an empty chair in meetings, where everyone is encouraged to picture an actual customer sitting there. What would that customer think about their decisions? What would they ask?
  • Amazon prefers written narratives—like the anticipated press release and FAQ—over PowerPoint presentations for internal decision-making. Another mechanism they use is the “six-page memo.” Before going into a meeting to make a product decision, the champion of that meeting will write a six-page essay that articulates their ideas. Everyone spends the first 30 minutes of the meeting silently reading and thinking about the memo, and then they discuss it. The memo format forces the author to really think through their ideas and be able to crisply explain and justify them. The time spent reading the memo together forces everyone in the meeting to really absorb those ideas before they start discussing them.
  • A lot of decisions are “two-way doors” in the sense that they’re reversible. If it doesn’t work out, it’s possible to walk it back. For these kinds of decisions, teams can be pretty agile and make many of these calls on their own. Risk is limited. It’s really only big, one-way, irreversible decisions that should receive a lot of attention and debate. Once the company walks through a door like that, they can’t easily go back

You and Your Research (Richard Hamming)

You and Your Research
  • "Luck favors the prepared mind.'' The prepared mind sooner or later finds something important and does it. So yes, it is luck.
  • One of the characteristics you see, and many people have it including great scientists, is that usually when they were young they had independent thoughts and had the courage to pursue them. One of the characteristics of successful scientists is having courage. Once you get your courage up and believe that you can do important problems, then you can. They will go forward under incredible circumstances; they think and continue to think.
  • Great scientists tolerate ambiguity very well. They believe the theory enough to go ahead; they doubt it enough to notice the errors and faults so they can step forward and create the new replacement theory. If you believe too much you'll never notice the flaws; if you doubt too much you won't get started. It requires a lovely balance. But Darwin writes in his autobiography that he found it necessary to write down every piece of evidence which appeared to contradict his beliefs because otherwise, they would disappear from his mind. When you find apparent flaws you've got to be sensitive and keep track of those things and keep an eye out for how they can be explained or how the theory can be changed to fit them. Those are often the great contributions.
  • "What important problems are you working on?'' "If what you are doing is not important, and if you don't think it is going to lead to something important, why are you at Bell Labs working on it?'' If you do not work on an important problem, it's unlikely you'll do important work.
  • It's not the consequence that makes a problem important, it is that you have a reasonable attack. Most great scientists know many important problems. They have something between 10 and 20 important problems for which they are looking for an attack. And when they see a new idea come up, one hears them say "Well that bears on this problem.'' They drop all the other things and get after it. They get rid of other things and they get after an idea because they had already thought the thing through. Their minds are prepared; they see the opportunity and they go after it. Now of course lots of times it doesn't work out, but you don't have to hit many of them to do some great science.
  • It's if you have the door to your office closed, you get more work done today and tomorrow, and you are more productive than most. But 10 years later somehow you don't know quite know what problems are worth working on; all the hard work you do is sort of tangential in importance. He who works with the door open gets all kinds of interruptions, but he also occasionally gets clues as to what the world is and what might be important.
  • "It is a poor workman who blames his tools-the good man gets on with the job, given what he's got, and gets the best answer he can.''
  • The technical person wants to give a highly limited technical talk. Most of the time the audience wants a broad general talk and wants much more survey and background than the speaker is willing to give. You should paint a general picture to say why it's important, and then slowly give a sketch of what was done.
  • The people who do great work with less ability but who are committed to it, get more done than those who have great skill and dabble in it, who work during the day and go home and do other things and come back and work the next day.
  • You find this happening again and again; scientists will fight the system rather than learn to work with the system and take advantage of all the system has to offer. You should dress according to the expectations of the audience spoken to. I know enough not to let my clothes, my appearance, my manners get in the way of what I care about. Which do you want to be? The person who changes the system or the person who does first-class science?
  • Many people who have greatness within their grasp don't succeed are: they don't work on important problems, they don't become emotionally involved, they don't try and change what is difficult to some other situation which is easily done but is still important, and they keep giving themselves alibis why they don't. They keep saying that it is a matter of luck.
  • There is the idea I call `sound absorbers'. When you get too many sound absorbers, you give out an idea and they merely say, ``Yes, yes, yes.' When you talk to other people, you want to get rid of those sound absorbers who are nice people but merely say, ``Oh yes,'' and to find those who will stimulate you right back.
  • Somewhere around every seven years make a significant, if not complete, shift in your field. When you go to a new field, you have to start over as a baby. You need to get into a new field to get new viewpoints, and before you use up all the old ones.