Power, Vision, Culture, and the Sixth Circle
Sun, 9 Dec 2001 22:37:41 -0800
You tell a very compelling story of Gerry Hsu, and it even occurs to me
after I wrote the initial firehose that I may have been too
over-the-edge in my assertion that absolute power and uncompromising
vision are necessary components for success.
Perhaps there needs to be a "benevolent dictatorship" side to it
("Follow me, and I will show you the way of taste."), and perhaps there
needs to be a "meritocracy-is-our-natural-selection" side to it ("It's
ever a struggle, but the fittest ideas do survive, and, through the
tenacity not to quit, later thrive").
But most importantly, there's gotta be a certain intangible -- the kind
of thing you can only learn by doing -- the kind of thing that energizes
every player in the system and inspires them to make the system better.
Vision is the only glue that can bind a world that continues to
decentralize with every forward step.
Just as spending time in academia gave me an appreciation for the
fortitude and tenacity needed to build an academic career, so spending
time in a software startup as it emerged from the primordial ooze has
given me an appreciation for how hard it is to make a great software
company. It's next to impossible. Forces try to block your every move,
and it's only through sheer willpower over a long stretch of time that a
company gains the strength to survive.
JTS, you wrote: "Gerry Hsu built a Great Software Company. Gerry Hsu
was a despicable individual. In the end how will this legacy be judged?
Is the measure of Jobs or Gates in their money, their software, their
company, their culture? How=20
will Hsu be judged? How will you be judged?"
I respond: Fair enough; one's legacy and its judgment are important.
Thanks for talking me down from the ledge to realize that these are
shades-of-gray issues, and sometimes the means really do not justify the
JTS, you also wrote: "Your experiences scream off the monitor and echo
in mine. I admire and emulate your outpouring and analysis, albeit in a
more private forum. We are learning many lessons, but what lessons are
we going to decide are worth taking to heart? Power, Vision, and
Culture may well build a great software company, but they are not
sufficient alone to build one that I would be proud to claim to have
built. Though we all continue to shape ourselves by heat and hammer,
through bitter tempering we become fixed."
I respond: I'm over the disillusionment and I'm over the cynicism. I
just needed to get it out of my head. And I haven't given up on
thinking about ways to make "it" better, for all values of "it".
What lessons are we going to decide are worth taking to heart? An
excellent question. I don't have good answers yet.
In thinking out loud today, all I've come to realize is that I have many
failed experiments behind me. A lot of these experiences were the
result of bad judgment. But the experiences have been internalized.
And so now they've manifested themselves as intuition whenever I'm
making new decisions.
You're right that it's not enough to write great software. It's not
even enough to build a great software company.
To make more connections, to add more knowledge, to increase
self-awareness, and to leave behind the proper legacy -- these are all
On the other hand, where can we find the energy to engage a culture in
crisis when the crisis consists in the impossibility of engaging with
Yeah, I don't have a lot of answers yet. That's why I get up every
morning and attempt to learn as much as I can to move the ball forward
These things will all converge into a grand unified theory eventually.
I'm still learning the fact that the only real way to learn is to do.
Keep on observing, we'll keep on synthesizing,
> -----Original Message-----
> From: JTS - MCDLXXXVI [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
> Sent: Sunday, December 09, 2001 9:28 PM
> To: Adam Rifkin
> Cc: FoRK@xent.com
> Subject: Power, Vision, Culture, and the Sixth Circle
> On Sun, 9 Dec 2001, Adam Rifkin wrote:
> > Absolute power, combined with uncompromising vision, is=20
> what makes great
> > software companies.
> Yes. And no.
> Apart from all the issues of criminal misconduct in what has=20
> turned out to
> be the largest trade secret case of all time, follow the=20
> example of Avant!
> and the psychotic CEO. Gerry Hsu is a legitimate madman, a=20
> sociopath of
> the first order who kills and smiles and lies, cheats, and steals. He
> ruled all in his company with an iron fist, as they say. He brought
> nepotism to new heights, sheltered his family, and yet also=20
> sold his best
> friends and co-founders down the river. He gave himself and=20
> his family
> over $200 Million and got his cofounders up to 2 years in San=20
> Quentin to
> save his ass.    
> Along the way he created the 3rd largest EDA company in the world, and
> just last week sold it for $800 Million. 
> His absolute power and uncompromising vision built an empire. An Evil
> Empire. They made Good Software. Avant! held the line on=20
> pricing in a
> market that was collapsing. Avant! destroyed competition and=20
> bought out
> other companies on its growth curve. Gerry Hsu ruthlessly=20
> killed everyone
> in his company whose vision did not match his. Every instance of
> volition, free will, and personal prerogative was eliminated=20
> with extreme
> prejudice. In every acquisition, his first act was to fire=20
> anyone with
> spine enough to actually express an opinion about the future=20
> direction of
> the company. Until last year, every decision in his half=20
> billion dollar
> company of 1500 people was personally approved by him. =20
> Vacation requests,
> travel expenses, every hire, every fire, every promotion, and=20
> every raise
> or bonus was quite literally reviewed and signed by him personally.
> Although it was a public company the entire time, he ruled=20
> all. He was
> GOD, the Pres/Chairman/CEO of his world. The Board was a=20
> pack of cronies
> and thugs, people to whom he owned favors and relatives by marriages.
> His corporate staff was hand-picked from the brilliant yet=20
> meek, and the
> simply worthless repeaters. The COO was an airline=20
> stewardess who became
> his mistress, and was given that position immediately upon=20
> quitting JAL.
> She was well suited to the job because she was merely an=20
> extension of his
> will. His Will Be Done.
> Absolute Power.
> He also had genius. He compensated key talent only. He inspired his
> people with grandiose lies and insane promises, and even with=20
> threats and
> firearms. He made outlandish predictions and devoted the=20
> entire resources
> of the company to pursue their fulfillment. 75% of the time=20
> he was wrong,
> and never mentioned them again as he charged off after his=20
> next Vision.
> But looking back after all these years, that other 25% of the time his
> insight was staggering. He was astoundingly successful. 34=20
> quarters of record revenues.
> He never blanched at ripping off other employees, or the company. He
> promised bonuses and never delivered, he welched on=20
> commissions. He never
> denied having a complete disregard for any employee other=20
> than the 12 or
> 15 key software people who architected the whole shebang. He=20
> paid them
> well. And when the time came when he could be convicted and=20
> sent to jail
> for his misdeeds, he cut a deal and sent 3 of those=20
> architects to prison
> in his place.
> Uncompromising Vision.
> > 1. Culture must be actively created and destroyed. There is no
> > middle ground. Philosophy is useless, theology is worse. Religions
> > must evolve or die. Learn the rules of warfare, and be unafraid to
> > invoke them when needed.
> Interesting that you say that. Gerry believed in Culture. =20
> From day 1 he
> created his culture. It was a 34 slide monster called CABS - Culture,
> Attitude, Behavior, and Style. If anyone wants a copy I'll be glad to
> provide someday. A truly "do as I say" document, preached as absolute
> truth, and subject to change at any time. The cult of personality
> codified and set to paper as a living document reflected the=20
> haze of ideals in Gerry's head. New employees indoctrinated=20
> upon hire,=20
> and repeatedly reinforced and even tested no less than once=20
> per year. =20
> Usually 2 or 3 times. =20
> Gerry was often heard to say "Culture is the key. Our=20
> strength is strong=20
> culture, culture I create. Our competitors have no culture,=20
> have weak=20
> culture. I will not allow that: you will have my culture." =20
> He destroyed every competing culture. When buying other=20
> companies, the=20
> purge was ruthless. A Chinese national, Gerry apparently had=20
> learned the=20
> lessons of the cultural revolution well: be thorough. His culture=20
> pervaded all things.=20
> Loyalty was one of his grandest fixations. A well known=20
> threat was given
> time and again, and then proven on several occasions. "You can never
> leave me. You can never escape me. If you betray me, you leave me, I
> will find you. You go to work for someone else, you better leave the
> industry. I will buy your company and fire you." This was=20
> not raving,
> this was the God's Honest Truth. He bought over half a dozen=20
> He would get you.=20
> When the end was near - after the criminal convictions, the=20
> process of=20
> selling out had begun - Gerry had one final video conference to his=20
> legions. Supposedly weakened by his heart attacks, he pounded on his=20
> mahogany conference table and shouted at them: "I am in control. You=20
> still have my Culture, my CABS. Even if I die, I will still=20
> control you,=20
> because my culture will never die."
> Culture, actively created and destroyed. No middle ground.
> Gerry Hsu built a Great Software Company.
> Gerry Hsu was a despicable individual.
> In the end how will this legacy be judged? Is the measure of Jobs or=20
> Gates in their money, their software, their company, their=20
> culture? How=20
> will Hsu be judged?=20
> How will you be judged?
> Your experiences scream off the monitor and echo in mine. I=20
> admire and
> emulate your outpouring and analysis, albeit in a more=20
> private forum. We
> are learning many lessons, but what lessons are we going to decide are
> worth taking to heart? Power, Vision, and Culture may well=20
> build a great
> software company, but they are not sufficient alone to build=20
> one that I
> would be proud to claim to have built. Though we all=20
> continue to shape
> ourselves by heat and hammer, through bitter tempering we=20
> become fixed.=20
> (still in the Fifth Circle)
> (registration required for  only)
>  www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/01_36/b3747087.htm
>  http://www.eet.com/story/OEG20010522S0066
>  http://www.eetimes.com/story/OEG20011120S0016
>  http://www.eetimes.com/story/design/OEG20011203S0077
> For more information, try www.eetimes.com/avanti.html
.sig double play!
You can't have democratic culture unless people can tell the difference
between resisting oppression and acting out resentment, between
organizing and polarizing, between freedom and irresponsibility, between
pleasure and addiction, between discipline and shame, between personal
boundaries and passive aggression.
-- Phil Agre
Our entire culture has been sucked into the black hole of computation,
an utterly frenetic process of virtual planned obsolescence. But you
know, that process needn't be unexamined or frenetic. We can examine
that process whenever we like, and the frantic pace is entirely our own
fault. What's our big hurry anyway?
-- Bruce Sterling