I started Skunk Works expecting to like it, but not expecting to love it as much as I did. Other reviews here recap its content well - it covers the...more I started Skunk Works expecting to like it, but not expecting to love it as much as I did. Other reviews here recap its content well - it covers the period of SW history in which the U-2, Blackbird, and F-117A stealth bomber were developed (along with some less well known ventures such as high altitude spy drones and a stealth ship), and does good justice both to the incredible engineering and the cold war context and political climate of the day.
Rich's personal story is enhanced with 2-3 page "other voices" sections contributed by program managers, administration officials, test and operational pilots, DoD brass, etc. These add alot of depth and help keep the narrative moving and interesting. You don't need to be an engineer to enjoy this book, but it is a fine and actually exciting capture of the incredible engineering that went into developing these aircraft.(less)
jon Gertner's "The Idea Factory" tells an important story about the history of many of the communications and information technology underpinnings of...morejon Gertner's "The Idea Factory" tells an important story about the history of many of the communications and information technology underpinnings of our current era. More importantly, it explores (indirectly and eventually) a major question of what is needed to make large basic and applied research labs successful. I'm glad I read this book, but can't say I necessarily enjoyed reading it. As such I'm struggling with whether to rate 3 or 4 stars ... if Goodreads allowed 3.5, that'd be it.
Growing up very close to Bell Labs' Holmdel NJ facility, I was attracted to this book because of the place the Labs occupied in our local culture. If you were bright, technically oriented, and wanted a well-paying job, Bell Labs was the place to strive for. The invention/discovery of radio astronomy at Crawford Hill added to the mystique.
The book's primary drawback (for me) is what feels like a 70/30 split on biography versus technology - I think it would have been a more interesting and engaging narrative had the biographies of a few famous players in the Labs' long history been treated as embellishment, rather than primary narrative. (I say this regretfully as many of these individuals and their world-changing contributions deserve recognition, but as a book review, it makes for a challenging narrative structure). The reality is the connection between the sometimes (but not always) colorful individual personalities and the ideas and technologies they generated is often too thin; the researchers emerge as characters in a narrative without a strong or clear connection to the plot devices, so to speak. Claude Shannon, whose prescience in 1950's communications/information theory was truly remarkable, is perhaps an exception.
In short, the secrets to success of the Bell Labs miracle, which generated an amazing number of globally transformational technologies, seem to fall into:
1 - access to the huge reservoirs of working capital that the AT&T monopoly and "cash cows" (local telephone companies) to fund large scale R&D
2 - protection from competition, insofar as it created an environment where fundamental / basic / applied research could be pursued as an end of itself (shielding researchers from having to seek funding), working towards 30-year (not product cycle driven) time horizons, and loosely organized and driven by :
3 - the "grand challenge" of emplacing and continually improving the nation's telephone network, at its creation, the most complex "machine" (or at least system) ever considered
4 - the co-location of the basic/applied research function with a very large engineering and systems development capability, which could turn fundamental discoveries into applications
The pregnant question - treated only glancingly in the final 2-3 chapters - is whether such a construct is possible again in today's world. The industrial lab model (at least at this scale) seems to have been supplanted by the venture/entrepreneurial distributed model, but as Gertner points out, this has a defect in that it sacrifices item #2 above, driving innovation to be more incremental and product driven, than transformational. It is unfortunate that this theme was not more deeply developed in the book, as well as a deeper treatment of the evolution of Bell Labs after the AT&T breakup of the 1980s; this is rushed through in single chapter, and yet it is the crux of one of the more thought provoking and relevant lines of thinking. Also only glancingly treated are whether information technology (for which the only giants capable of investing such R&D today - Apple, Facebook, Google, etc) is even the right domain, or whether the next grand challenges will arise in biology or energy.
As a long-time NASA employee, I can't help but try and draw contrasts between the Bell Labs 4-point model summarized above, and how the Agency currently operates (recognizing that this is peripheral to the book review - but it does illustrate how the book's concepts have relevance):
1 - At its face, the "capital sufficiency" test is met, with an $18B/year annual budget, NASA is exceedingly fortunate relative to government R&D agency peers. However, the budget is profoundly oversubscribed, and broken down (with significant administration and legislative branch 'assistance') into a number of stovepipes which do not intercommunicate or leverage resources well. As a result, basic and applied research are confoundingly "resource starved" at the lowest levels.
2 - Competition is a mixed bag. As a government agency, NASA must embrace competition among researchers as part of its fiduciary responsibilities to taxpayers. That said, competition between NASA 'business units', as well as the machinery of a grants process, tends to disfavor basic and applied research for its own sake, working to objectives with much longer time horizons than the needs of individual programs and program managers. The "luxury factor" AT&T was able to provide as a corporate culture - and management - decision isn't within the purview of program managers to grant.
3 - While NASA faces many challenges in doing some of the most complex engineering and discovery possible, it (1) lacks the "grand challenge" incentive that drove emplacement of the national phone system, and (2) has for too many decades been hostage to warring philosophies - and politics - over purpose. It may be that until a truly globally critical function becomes apparent - energy or rare earth metal supply, planetary protection, space security - a driving purpose as vast, technologically provocative, economically relevant and complex as the phone system creation, may be elusive.
4 - This piece of the Bell Labs equation is present in NASA, co-location (at least at an Agency level) of a basic/applied research base with a vast capability in engineering development. Unfortunately, the capabilities are too stovepiped, with the research capabilities and centers too poorly integrated with the development capabilities and centers (as well as programmatic impedance towards making the transition). Of the four factors, this is the one that would be most readily addressed by changes in management approach (although by no means easy).
Coming back to the book review - I would say The Idea Factory is a "should read" for those interested in the topic of innovation or R&D rather than a "must read". It is rewarding, but only with the investment of a good bit of energy, patience and passion for the subject.(less)
I had high expectations for this book after reading "How to Measure Anything", and unfortunately none of them were met. My very short review would sta...moreI had high expectations for this book after reading "How to Measure Anything", and unfortunately none of them were met. My very short review would state: were it not for those high expectations, I would have stopped reading the book about 1/3 of the way in, but based on past performance, I stuck it through to the end. That was a mistake.
The defects in Hubbard's second book are many. First and foremost, it is simply not pleasant to read. While "How to Measure" adopted a posture of helpful tutorial, "Failure" attempts to rehash most of the same material, albeit from a posture of criticizing almost every risk analysis method Hubbard has not personally worked on. The tone is shrill, smug, and "low emotional intelligence quotient". In the book we are treated to several "I won't name names but you know who you are" diatribes, a personal critique of author Nicholas Taleb for being too abrasive in delivery (which he is ... but Hubbard delivers this assessment with apparently no hint of irony), and ever more stories of how Hubbard publicly shames clients during working meetings into admitting they do not know as much as he does. If that is one's corporate approach towards change management, it would seem Hubbard is your man. Ironically, all of these things suggest a sensibility towards the actual "people systems" of not just management, but implementation, which is completely lacking - and thus undermines Hubbard's credibility as an expert on anything other than analytic techniques. This may be an unfair personal assessment, but Hubbard does little in the book to communicate even rudimentary management sensibilities, and the burden of proof - especially when exploring a topic such as this - should be his.
Hubbard spends an inordinate portion of the book repeatedly - redundantly - making the same self-evident point that low-fidelity risk analysis methods such as scoring approaches are, well, low-fidelity, and subject to bias. This is tautological. Even for those consumers of the methods who haven't thought hard about the issue, the point can be made in five pages, and does not need 150. (Note that it is at least that long before solutions begin to be offered). Even worse, Hubbard's primary critique other than offending "first principles" sensibilities is that these techniques have not been proven to actually have measurable impacts on performance. This might be an interesting line of inquiry had Hubbard actually done any new research on the subject, or joined with management consultants who had. Or, more importantly, had demonstrated the benefits of using the more rigorous, probabilistic risk assessment techniques which he advocates. He does not. (He alludes to this in literally the closing chapters of the book, but never actually tackles the challenge of performance-based assessment. Simple techniques are bad because they are not as rigorous or unbiased as the techniques he would advocate - therefore they must (or perhaps may?) do more harm than good. Difficult to say, as this issue is delivered rhetorically rather than rigorously.
The biggest failure of "The Failure of Risk Management" is that it mostly declines to tackle actual management. As Hubbard himself seems to realize and admit very late in the book, he has written a text about risk analysis, not risk management. Ultimately, the content - even if it were not largely a rehash of the material from "How to Measure" - is much, much, much thinner than the title, and the title could have been a very interesting exploration of modern (or not so modern) management techniques. A further challenge is that from Hubbard's anecdotes, it appears he views even risk management (read: analysis) as something done solely for the purpose of decision support for senior executives. No mention is made of risk management as a tool for allowing not just C-suite executives, but project managers but the employees who actually have to manage and mitigate risks. This elision allows Hubbard to even more stridently dismiss all low-fidelity techniques out of hand. (Make no mistake - scoring approaches and their efficacy do need hard scrutiny. Unfortunately, Hubbard does not provide it, he simply shouts for others to perform it.)
In summary - if you have read "How to Measure Anything", you have read 90% of what Hubbard has to say, and probably enjoyed reading it more than you will by engaging in this book. If you have an agenda to promote probabilistic risk management within your organization, to the detriment of other approaches, this book will provide you ample rhetoric, as well as theory, but not actual evidence, or ROI documentation, and very little in the way of tangible implementation tools or techniques to go forward. It is an opportunity missed.(less)