Risk Aversion

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Risk Aversion | Cap Watkins:

Was having an interesting conversation this morning with Om and Hunter about the recent firing of Richard Williamson from Apple over the Maps debacle. Hunter posed a question that, in hindsight, seems like such an obvious one to ask:

How does that make rest of co feel? Enforces ‘only ship quality’ or makes people risk averse?

It depends greatly on why he was fired. We don’t know for sure, since we aren’t there, but was he fired because the maps software was seriously flawed?

Or was he fired because he lied to his bosses about the quality of the maps software, or misled them about the status?

I’m willing to bet, from my time working at Mama Fruit and dealing with Eddy and his teams, that the latter has a big part to do with this firing. 

If you think about the reality of shipping something like IOS and the Maps software, it’s tightly integrated with the entire OS, so it’s not the sort of thing you can simply decide to not ship and stick the Google Maps back in. This isn’t the podcasts app, it’s a key, low-level part of the operating system. So if you think of this beast from a view of project management, the “go/no-go” on including maps was a year or so ago (or further), and after that, the train has left the station. If you don’t ship the maps stuff, it means you don’t ship IOS6. And if you don’t ship IOS6, it means you aren’t shipping iPhone 5. (the whole “why they had no choice but to ship Maps as they were” would be its own blog post…)

And that’s really bad. 

So you’re shipping. After that, it becomes a question of how you manage the situation. Do you keep everyone aware of the problems and work with all of the involved teams (marketing, etc) to set the right expectations? Or do you tell everyone it’s going to be great, craft a demo that avoids the problems and makes it all look perfect, and hope to god you get the bugs wrangled before anyone finds them?

One of the mis-steps of the IOS6 announcement to me in light of how Maps turned out in reality was the disconnect between how Apple sold it to us, and how it really worked day 1. That mistake was completely avoidable. Apple could have positioned the Maps software in a very different but positive way, acknlowedged the flaws and that they needed the users to help them identify and fix things — turn this into almost a game, give away store coupons for being the first to find problems. And said up front that there were going to be hiccups, but that in the long-term, this switch made the birthing pains worth it and everyone would benefit in time. 

The situation could have been completely defused. Instead, they way oversold Maps as awesome, and set themselves up for the face plant. 

Why? I kept going back to my view that if Apple management knew they were going to have to ship a buggy maps app, they wouldn’t have bugled how wonderful it was. But what if the real problems were hidden from them? What if the maps team hid the real problems? Crafted great demos and told everyone things were fine?

Then the rest of the teams wouldn’t know they were stepping on a landmine until it went off. 

And if you’re responsible for managing that fiasco up to your management and to the other teams relying on you? 

Well, you deserve your walking papers. 

Not saying that’s what happened here, but — it sure seems like a reasonable scenario based on my time there. And it sure seems a lot more rational than Apple knowing the Maps stuff was going to suck Day 1 and still selling the hell out of it at the announcement. I keep thinking that if Tim Cook knew the tool was going to be iffy on initial ship, he would have handled the announcement differently. 

So perhaps he didn’t know. And perhaps now, some heads are going on up pikes. Not for the software being bad, but for hiding it from the bosses…

And to tie that back to the original question, if he was fired for misleading the company about the quality of Maps, then frankly, most of Apple is probably cheering this (probably quietly). That’d be a good thing and a strong message to be sent through the company.

Sometimes, software doesn’t come together as fast or as well as you hope (I know, most of you are going “duh!” right now). That’s something that we all understand, and we can deal with in some way or another. Like, oh, not making it the focal point of the announcement keynote. 

But lying about it or hiding the problems so those you work with get sideswiped?

If there’s one thing bosses and co-workers hate, it’s unpleasant surprises. 


This entry was posted in Computers and Technology, Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area.
  • MacRat

    In my daily usage, the only thing that affected me with the new Apple maps was the traffic status was either understanded or stopped traffic not showing up at all.

    The biggest annoyance for me applies to BOTH the Google and Apple maps app, displaying a limited number of search results that will be displayed on the map. For example if you want to look for all the restaurants in the block around your current location, at best you only get a quarter of them to show up and even smaller percentage if there is a higher density of choices. (My serch today was in a location where a dozen results that should have shown up but there were only four displayed.)