Information Letter 14     Valuing Corporate Image

View from the Ridge

Marc Stiegler joined Xanadu in 1988 as general manager. He quickly impressed almost everybody who encountered him with his calm, competent, well-disciplined management skills—especially given that he was applying them to the Xanadu development project and team, both about as chaotic as anything I have experienced in my career.

When Ron McElhaney left on September 1, 1990, and dreading the thought of another search for a Vice President of R&D as painful as the last one had been, our thoughts turned to in-house talent. Al Green suggested Marc Stiegler to me shortly before I was going to suggest Marc to Al. I knew of no other in-house candidate willing to do the job who I considered so qualified, and since Marc was willing to do the job, he accepted, coming to work in Sausalito in early 1991.

After spending 90 days talking to people, studying the projects and operation of the department, and evaluating the situation, and right after Information Letter 14 (see page [Ref]) was released, he wrote a series of “Views From the Ridge,” distributed via electronic mail, which set forth his observations, philosophy, and priorities for the technical staff.

A View From the Ridge

by Marc Stiegler — April 3, 1991

Goodness, I now understand why VPs get reputations for being inaccessible. It is very easy to spend your life responding to the most-recent problem you've heard about. I had expected this dilemma, but I must confess I hadn't expected it to be so shockingly severe.

Anyway, I'm going to be trying to refocus, on the goals rather than the obstacles; we'll see how successful I am.

I have entitled this email message “View from the Ridge”, which is where I often feel like I'm standing. From the ridge I can see 2 valleys. In the one valley there are all the people of Autodesk. In that valley, everyone is working like crazy, fighting fires, draining swamps, thrashing alligators, building a better place to live. Sometimes because of my ridge position I can see what is happening more clearly than the people in the midst of the fire; but sometimes the smoke and fog get in my way, and I cannot tell what is happening at all.

On the other side of the ridge is the second valley, a raw wilderness periodically invaded by barbarians and by tremendous forces of nature. When I look into that valley, I can sometimes see tidal waves and conflagrations working their way toward the Autodesk valley. Hopefully I will see them in time for us to prepare to meet them. Eventually, I believe it is our destiny to tame that valley as well.

I intend to give you all periodic updates on what I see, from this precarious and imperfect location, up on the ridge.

My first View from the Ridge is very brief. It is about the latest missive from John Walker.[Footnote]

By now, I suspect everyone has heard, in one fashion or another, about John Walker's new screed, 44 close-typed pages of insights and suggestions for the future of Autodesk.

I am sure this document has received uneven circulation. Due to our grapevine's capacity for distortion, I would guess that people who have not seen it have heard amazing wild rumors about what it might contain, rumors beyond the imagining even for a science fiction author.[Footnote]

So I have given a copy of John Walker's Information Letter #14 to Carolyn Hedrick. Anybody who wants to see what it really says is welcome to come grab a copy. Please, please treat this document as Company Proprietary.[Footnote]

I myself am still chewing on John's comments, even though I had some foreknowledge of their nature. I am looking forward to discussing this, and many other matters, with everyone soon—this is another part of escaping from the obstacles, and focusing on the goals.

Thank you.

A View From the Ridge: Windows

by Marc Stiegler — April 7, 1991

Some of the Views from the Ridge that I wish to discuss will be controversial; fortunately, some of them will be summaries of topics upon which there is general agreement. Such generally-agreed-on points are worth noting simply to make people aware of how much agreement there is (yes, there are things people agree on, even in Autodesk :-)[Footnote]

I feel a strong urge to leap into discussion some of the controversial views; but because so many of you still have not had a chance to meet me, people who are justifiably nervous about what kind of person I am, I think it makes sense to warm up with some of the simpler ones.

Perhaps simplest of all is a discussion of Microsoft Windows. For those of you who have not heard my view of Microsoft Windows, let me describe it as I have been describing it since before coming to Autodesk:

When I read the trade press and its reaction to Windows 3.0, I cannot help being struck by one, and only one, analogous event in the history of computing. That event occurred at the beginning of the 80s. Everyone knew that CP/M was dead because the future belonged to 16-bit machines…but no one knew what would replace it. Then MS-DOS came out.

In 2 years there just wasn't anything else.

I expect the same thing to happen with Windows. This fills me with both horror and joy at the same time. On the one hand, it astounds me that Bill Gates could spend so much time and so much money to build an environment that is so inferior in so many ways to what Apple had 7 years earlier. On the other hand, having the windowing system standardized will allow us, and everyone in the computer industry, to focus their resources on the one environment rather than spending their effort building their own poor imitations of a windowing system for themselves.

Anyway, I have made a personal commitment to Windows: though I love my Mac, and though I find it more productive in a number of ways, I have put it in a corner at home; now I use a Windows computer for work, including writing this memo. I would rather be a master of Windows than to be one who in the end is mastered.

View From the Ridge: In the Name Of JW

by Marc Stiegler — April 8, 1991

I do not intend to make the View from the Ridge a daily occurrence. However, there's a lot of excitement/wondering/worrying going on right now. And, much as this may surprise those of you who have not even seen me yet, I have spent 90 days doing very little except listening. In the process, I have accumulated many things I'd like to say. So I'll be doing several Views here in relatively quick succession. In this View, I wish to speak of a matter that I have had disturbing indications constitutes a problem—a problem that could become very serious with the release of Information Letter 14.

I have heard many people say they agree with many of the points John's Information Letter 14 makes. I have heard a few people say they agree 100% with all the points John makes. Yet on careful listening, I am unsure whether the people who agree 100% with John actually agree with each other.

This curious twist of fate compels me to discuss the morality of citation, and the respectful use of another person's name. Citing another person, presenting another person's statements, imposes upon the speaker a grave responsibility. In the short run, uncareful citation harms the listener, who believes wrong statements for wrong reasons; in the long run, it destroys the speaker, who ceases to be believed.

Long before Information Letter 14 came out, long before I started driving to Autodesk every day, John's name was a very popular component of discussion. I guess my most favorite form of this usage is “I agreed with John when he said….” Hmmm. Let us look at the ways a person can be cited, for both moral and immoral purposes.

First, one can cite a person to give credit. This makes perfect sense if the idea you are presenting was thought of by someone else. This is a highly moral form of citation; indeed, one must give credit in this case, anything less is immoral.

Second, one might choose to cite a respected person as an eye-opener. If one is presenting a radical idea, an idea you fear might be rejected out of hand in the absence of such respect, you might think of this as a mechanism to “awaken” the person with whom you are speaking. The purpose, then, would be to assure careful attention to the reasoning behind the radical idea. On the one hand, the morality of citing a person for this reason is a bit gray. On the other hand, I must confess, I have done it myself, as often as anybody. My current view is that simply trying to arrange a careful assessment of an idea is moral, and therefore this a moral form of citation—though it places an extra burden of honor on the speaker to present the citation fully, with no truncation or spin.

Third, one might want to cite a respected person as a weapon. In this case, the purpose is not to get a fair hearing, nor to reach for a careful assessment. Rather, in this case the purpose is to create fear, to shut off assessment, to compel others to agree with no further consideration. This is, obviously, a debased immoral act, a heinous crime against both the listener and the person who has been cited. It is an attack on thinking mind, an attack that no human being deserves to have rendered against them.

The strength that makes John Walker the person he is, is not the correctness of his recommendations. It is the clarity, correctness, and completeness of the reasoning that goes behind those recommendations that is important.[Footnote] If our company is to succeed, we must choose the clear, correct, complete reasoning, regardless of who was the initial presenter. We must judge the reasons for their own merit—not for the merit of the person who speaks, nor for the merit of the person who is cited.

As a listener, it may be very difficult to tell when a speaker wants to use a respected person's name for simple credit, or for other purposes. Fortunately, it doesn't make a difference which intention the speaker had: in the end, the listener has the choice of which message he chooses to hear. You, the listener, know that the legitimate citation is as accreditation. Treat it as such. If you are uncertain how the speaker intended it, point out to the speaker that you fully understand that they meant it only to give credit. Then listen to the clear, complete reasoning, and judge that reasoning on its own merit.

Visions of Visions

by Marc Stiegler — April 14, 1991

The complaint I have heard most often most recently is that there is a lack of vision, i.e., that this is the core problem in our company.

This is a complaint which I must take most personally to heart. I feel a particularly great responsibility to assist in creating the Vision of Autodesk; after all, why else would you put a science fiction writer in management? If a science fiction writer can't help to articulate a Vision, who can?

Here's the terrible news, folks: after 90 days, I still do not have a great Vision to suggest. Or rather, it might be better said that the Vision I have to share is the same one people have heard now for a long time: the vision of a Golden Age of Engineering. This vision is large enough to encompass, among other things, tools for molecular manufacture,[Footnote] and tools to support a participative world library.[Footnote] Perhaps this is not a satisfactory Vision any longer. Or, perhaps, the Vision, at this level, is not the missing piece so many people seek.

As an aside, it is perhaps amusing to note that you can run a very successful software company much larger than Autodesk without any Vision at all; Microsoft is the poignant proof of this irony.[Footnote]

Still, Microsoft's failure is no excuse for us. As I said, after 90 days I have no answer; but it is fair to share with everyone the possibilities that have crossed my path in these 90 days. I also wish to ask some questions, to diagnose what people really are reacting to when they speak of a lack of vision.

Let me start, however, by talking a bit about my personal vision, the reasons why I accepted the job I am currently trying to fulfill. I think everyone can guess that this isn't a fun-filled job; only the hardest issues reach me, the issues so hard that they couldn't be solved efficiently. My life as VP at Xanadu was more pleasant—but candidly, that wasn't a joyful post either, for much the same reasons. No, I was much happier before that, when I was on indefinite leave from my former employer, close to the mountains in the Northwest, just writing.

Why did I come here?

I came here because, today there are still problems you cannot solved with either love or money; I came here to help build a future filled with products that today cannot be purchased at any price.

Neither love nor money can buy good government. Neither love nor money can buy a repair for my hip. Neither love nor money can buy the ability to live in the Sierras yet work in Sausalito. You may be surprised by this, but Autodesk is already working on products that could make the key difference in each of these areas.

As I write this, I am looking at the January 1991 issue of Popular Mechanics. The cover story is about a vehicle, the Merlin 400, nearing completion in Davis, California. You can tuck the Merlin in your garage. Or you can motor it out on to the highway…then lift off vertically to 20,000 feet, and cruise at 322 mph to your destination. This is not a wild flight of fancy; there is a picture of the live vehicle with the article; a couple of years ago I was involved in evaluating it, and the underpinning technology for the Merlin is all straightforward, even mundane.

The story of the development of the Merlin is even longer and stranger than the story of Xanadu. As of now, Paul Moller has spent 25 million dollars and 25 years to build the Merlin. No technological hurdles remain: there are engines with the thrust, there are computers with the control precision, every aspect of the Merlin is provably within reach—and you still can't buy one. Why not?

The answer is that it is still just too hard, too expensive, and too time consuming to put it all together. Moller needs better tools. He needs tools worthy of a Golden Age.

In 1986 the last technologies Moller needed for building his dream were complete. With the right tools, at that point he should have been able to design the Merlin down to the last screw with AutoCAD, confirm the correctness of the design with AMEWindTunnel, confirm the safety of the vehicle in the CyberSimulator, submit the design and receive certification from the FAA through a Xanadu Information Pool, offer the blueprints and purchase the parts through the AMIX Custom Components Market, and build the first Merlin literally in his garage. It should have taken 18 months, and cost $500,000, not 25 years and 25 million dollars. If the Tools of the Golden Age were available, today we would be able to purchase a Merlin for less than the cost of some Yuppie automobiles.

Once again, this is not fantasy. There is already an existence proof: I understand the B-2 bomber, after being designed, all fit together perfectly and flew the first time. All we have to do is reduce the cost by 6 orders of magnitude. Someday, there will be a successor to AutoCAD that makes this possible. We ought to be the ones who build it.

Anyway, this is my personal vision. I wish to hurry the day when a person like Moller can build his dream and make it available for us to enjoy.

Credits: I wish to thank Bob Schumaker at AMIX for pointing out the article in Popular Mechanics. I wish to thank John Walker for the B-2 bomber story.

View Clarification

by Marc Stiegler — April 14, 1991

The View “In the Name of JW” produced a number of surprising reactions. I was not surprised to receive surprising reactions: when sending a message to 157+ people, the chances of misunderstanding are just too great to be avoided.

One particular reaction has prompted me to expand a bit. I have been told that you could read “In the Name of JW” and become afraid to mention a corporate founder in my presence, for fear that I might misinterpret it.

Need you fear that this is now a minefield, planted by marc stiegler, that you must tread carefully around?

Management by the laying of mine fields is an interesting topic upon which I might one day write a view if it turns out to be important at Autodesk. But for the moment I think it's enough to say that I have no wish to lay mines, ever. This too would harm the open discussion needed to achieve clear, complete reasoning.

You are welcome to cite the founders with me, any time. I will always recognize the accreditation, and treat it as such. I cite founders from time to time myself; I would appreciate the same courtesy, the recognition that I too mean it only as accreditation.

Credits: I wish to thank Rob Rayles for highlighting the need for this clarification.

Information Letter 14     Valuing Corporate Image