Webstock: Michael Lopp, bridges, werewolves and Apple

By Mark Webster

Michael Lopp. Photo / Supplied
Michael Lopp. Photo / Supplied

Michael Lopp is a Silicon Valley-based engineer who writes about pens, bridges, people, and werewolves at the weblog, Rands in Repose.

Michael recently wrote the book Being Geek (a career handbook for geeks and nerds). He also wrote Managing Humans that explains that while you might be rewarded for your products, you will only be successful because of your people.

I asked whether these books were for ordinary people to help them deal with the nerds they employed, or the other way around.

"A bit of both! It's intended to be the latter - you're a nerd, these are people, this is what you should do. But then I heard from non-nerds going like 'Oh, that's why he's that way, I get it now!' So it's serving both, so that's cool."

Silicon Valley is in Lopp's blood. He has lived there all his life. I asked if there was something in the water.

"No. But it's a bubble. There is a lack of reality about the rest of the world in Silicon Valley. But that aside, it's attracted engineers, going back to Honeywell and companies like that, attracted the folks who build that stuff."

His dad worked at Hewlett Packard. "So I'm a second generation nerd."

Whenever his interest in computers waned, his dad would buy something else. 'You want a modem? Here ... Have you seen this colour screen?' "I've never not wanted to be an engineer and associated with building products. I'm a software guy. All software."

I asked if Michael had to sign anything when he left Apple saying he couldn't talk about it.
"I don't believe so. I've been talking about Apple and nobody's gotten cranky about it. I left there last July and went to a company called Palantir."

At Apple, Michael was a Mac OS X Server manager. "I managed part of that team - and I also worked on the online store for Apple Dot Com, so transferred to an online guy."

I asked if Apple put a premium on management training. "At Apple there was some training, but there wasn't this huge training program. There's very bright people there but I don't think that's a differentiator. I would say there's a fairly effective leader at Apple and around him he has put some amazing managers, so I think that is one thing about it. It has an amazing executive team, and I say that with all respect there.

Really.

"One thing Steve (Jobs) has said publicly a couple of times is to look at the Beatles. You can't imagine them without all those individual skill sets there. They all augment each other.That and having really strong, agile leadership.

"I don't want to riff on Microsoft, but when Gates was there, love him or hate him, you felt like there was a guy there calling the shots. And it seems to have drifted with Ballmer.

"And I haven't paid a lot of attention to Microsoft, but when you don't have that iconic figure there, things can drift."

So does Michael think things can drift without Jobs there?

"Absolutely. And that's what everyone is collectively worried about. I think it's an amazing company, and I don't work there any more, but there's a certain design that needs a dictator. Whether it's Apple or anywhere. Someone who is making a decision who has taste. And I think that's one of the things they had there. So I'd have to say that would be a risk."

"One thing we built was a calendar server, but we learned that Microsoft's team was bigger by a factor of ten. And [the software] was comparable.

"Apple chooses what it wants to go do. Microsoft listens to its customers - awesome - and then tries to build everything for them.

"Apple is not building for those folks. They're choosing to do three things really, really well. And that's a very hard thing to do, but it also means you don't have to worry about those other less seven features that have that incremental value. Which may not get you that corporate customer."

It was a good time to be at Apple. "In terms of what's interesting in the tech world in the last seven years, say if you made a list of ten, Apple would probably have five of those. What has Microsoft done? I mean, Xbox is probably there, right?"

But even that's not exactly new technology.

"Exactly. So I think there was a healthy competition there for a long time, but in my opinion, Apple won. Long ago. I mean, Microsoft's making huge piles of money. Go look at the balance sheet; they're doing fine. But it's floundering from an imagination and creativity perspective.

"Apple just seems to have its fingers around that really well. It's amazing."

Michael accused Yahoo of 'strategic negligence' in a recent blog, so I asked about Apple's strategies. "Apple can get a piece of hardware out the door much faster than most people assume - in a year compared to five for some companies."

We discussed Apple's interfaces and the development of the iPad. "With the iPad, there's no Save dialogue there. And for you and I, that's weird, but let's get to the basics there. Why is it even called 'Save'? Because operating systems ... used to crash all the time. You needed to 'save' your file. The whole file system concept is left over engineering design from 20 years ago, when we were all still figuring it all out.

"So what Apple's doing amazingly well, in my opinion, is saying we don't need to have file systems any more - think about that. And me and you, we're like 'woo, woo, woo, I need my thing!' whereas my mom is like, she could care less. She has an image in her head and it's a picture. She doesn't know what it is, what it's called and where it is - and by the way, that's fine. I think for the iPad and the iPhone, that's really revolutionary. And the people that want the flexibility and the power and the openness and all that? They're going to always want that. But they're the minority. A declining minority.

"You know, Open Source guys, 'walled garden' and all of that stuff ... I understand all of that. But your average person doesn't care a bit about that. Your average person wants to send me a picture of their cat, and Apple makes it really easy."

With that noted, developers can start learning the iPhone SDK and have an app on sale in the App Store within a few weeks.

"Yeah. And developers I have talked to want to focus on building the app. Not on returns, the sales, credit card sales, fraud, updates and all of that. They think the cut is fair. They want to focus on the next great thing.

"And I think that's a great boon to developers."

Mark Webster is currently reporting from Webstock in Wellington

Michael Lopp talks at Webstock on Friday 18th February at 2:40pm.

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