The cock-up theory of technology news

Brachiosaurus
Photo by Joshua Mellin

A few times over the last few weeks I've been talking to friends about big tech company news, and one of the hardest struggles I have is to convince them that the latest Twitter or Google happening could just be a random cockup, rather than a sign of hidden plans by the company's management. I could well be wrong, but Google releasing a group-messaging app that doesn't run on Android reminds of the time I was involved in launching a GPU image processing API at Apple that competed against a similar interface created by another team at almost the same time. We mostly managed to keep that sort of thing from reaching the outside world, but every team and department in a large corporation is competing against all the other teams for a slice of the budget pie, and can have very different goals. Good management will keep the worst excesses in check, but any large organization is a massively distributed system where the communication overhead of keeping everyone totally in line would be crippling.

I was sorry to learn that large dinosaurs are no longer thought to have had an extra brain in their buttocks, as I'd memorably learned as a child from the Dinosaur Club. It's still a pretty good image for the decision-making apparatus in big companies though. Upper-management's most precious resource is time, and so attention has to be rationed. Especially at a company like Google that prizes experimentation, that means lower-level people can release projects into the wild that don't fit into the grander strategy. As another example from Apple, I know several teams that still hadn't ported their code over to the Cocoa framework even by the time I left in '08. Eating your own dog food is a fine goal, but if it comes down to that or shipping, sometimes pragmatism wins.

Think of my approach as the cock-up theory of technology news. The next time one of the big firms does something that makes no sense at all, consider taking it at face value. As General Nasser said in the 50's – "The genius of you Americans is that you never make clear-cut stupid moves, only complicated stupid moves which make the rest of us wonder at the possibility that we might be missing something".

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