Subject: Re: How to run an FSB R&D lab (maybe)
From: Nick Jennings <>
Date: Thu, 21 Mar 2002 10:55:28 -0800


 I agree that the "academia" environment does stimulate innovative, and
 exploratory projects; both technical, and non-technical. However,
 I think you are living in a pipe dream to think that this can be
 "conceived" artificially in a corporate environment with 
 "professionals" instead of students. You can only have too many
 Ph d's in a room before heads start to fly and bodies twitch
 aimlessly on the floor, tufts of someone else's hair clenched
 between white fists. I think a good deal of crying would be involved 
 as well.

 Seriously though. I think allot of that "magic" you seek is only
 very prevalent in a student/mentor environment. I never went to
 college (though I'm only 23 and might try for a BA with night
 classes), however I have always been extremely motivated as
 a learner, a student of all that interests me. I think I would
 excel in great bounds in a corporate environment as you describe,
 but only if I was constantly being challenged and learning from
 others (the paychecks wouldn't hurt). 

 You've got to maintain that balance of experience and eagerness.
 Nick Jennings

On Thu, Mar 21, 2002 at 12:34:08AM -0800, Tom Lord wrote:
> One of the most effective organizational structures for software
> innovation that I've ever seen is the college campus.  There you have
> a lot of people with substantial free time, intellectual curiosity,
> and no particular job requirements.  The number of people is large
> enough and general mixing of people effective enough that little
> cliques form, break-apart, and re-form as interest rises and wanes in
> various topics and projects.  There's plenty of machine and reference
> resources around to work with.  There's a constant barrage of
> stimulating lectures and the latest news of recent innovations
> elsewhere.  There's a walled-garden network for communication and
> results aggregation.  Projects that "make sense" gain momentum all by
> themselves simply because people want to work on them.  Projects that
> don't work out get dropped like rocks.  Influences come from far and
> wind -- including from far outside the domains of techie geekdom.  The
> pace is casual when there's not much going on, frenetic when it pays
> to be frenetic.  People have fun and express their joy by doing
> quality work.
> That's where we get Gtk, from Berkeley: it came out of an
> undergraduate computing club.  At CMU, in the 80s, before the web,
> there was a sort of campus-wide web microcosm built out of AFS and the
> Andrew Project software: I could rattle off a half dozen very
> successful spontaneous projects, taking place in the space of maybe
> 3-4 years, that you've never heard of but that gave that campus, at
> that time, very effective tools.  It wasn't even the case of a huge
> hacker community out of which a half-dozen projects succeeded: there
> was a lot of overlap in those projects -- it was a small community
> being extraordinarily productive.
> It's an _extremely_ efficient model: there's no proposal/approval
> process.  There's no per-project budgeting pains.  There's no mental
> gymnastics associated with trying to explain goals that make sense to
> decision makers not prepared to understand them.  There's no pressure
> to get a win out of a project that the participants have just about
> given up on.  There's just a society of mind and spontaneous action
> driven by informal consensus and excitement about newly discovered
> possibilities.
> So I guess the right model is to pay people to hang around, have a
> budget for honorariums for lectures, buy stack privileges at some
> nearby campus libraries, encourage people to set up comfortable
> hacking nests, throw some good social events, patronize the local
> establishments of bleeding edge culture, hire a mix of people as if
> you were planning a really good party, then walk around a lot to keep
> up with what's going on and figure out where you need to send in the
> technology transfer troops.
> Having shouted so long about pocket-protector process engineering and
> serious new business models, I thought I ought to mention the other
> side of the coin.
> -t
> "Oh for the love of g-d!  Where's the ROI, man?!?!  WHERE'S THE ROI?!?"