Always Day One

Always Day One: How the Tech Titans Plan to Stay on Top Forever by Alex Kantrowitz takes its title from an Amazon corporate motto. “It’s always Day 1” is designed to inspire Amazon employees with a startup mentality; lean, fast, and driven.

Always Day One, the book, examines how Amazon, Facebook, Google, Apple and Microsoft have created corporate cultures that aim to preserve their industry dominance by capturing that Day 1 spirit.

Alex Kantrowitz is a senior technology reporter at Buzzfeed News. He writes the Big Technology newsletter and the Big Technology podcast.

Cover of Always Day One
Always Day One
By Alex Kantrowitz
Portfolio / Penguin, New York, 2020

The Engineer’s Mindset

Kantrowitz distinguishes between two types of work:

  • Idea work: inventing, designing, problem solving, engineering, and creating
  • Execution work: production, manufacturing, ordering, data entry, accounting, product support

A hundred years ago, employees at an industrial company would perform almost exclusively execution work. One or two people would have had an original idea or invention and turned it into a business.  Everyone else worked on execution.

Today’s tech giants are different, Kantrowitz says. They continually invest in automating or eliminating execution work in order to free up people and time for idea work. They know that a new technology or a new competitor could emerge tomorrow that might make their current business obsolete or uncompetitive.  They know they must keep inventing in order to survive.

For a glimpse into the awful fate that awaits Amazon, or any company, that fails to maintain its Day 1 work ethic, check out this 1-minute YouTube video of Jeff Bezos explaining what day 2 looks like.  Go ahead, it’s worth watching.

So the tech companies have created corporate cultures and internal systems to ensure that new ideas get the chance to be developed into new products.

At the heart of these corporate cultures, Kantrowitz says, is the engineer’s mindset. The engineer’s mindset consists of democratic invention where anyone in an organization can come up with new ideas, a flat hierarchy that values direct communication with senior leaders instead of a chain of command, and deep collaboration within and across organizational boundaries.

Using the engineer’s mindset, these companies have honed their capacity for invention, for idea work, and turned it into an economic moat – a lasting competitive advantage.

Always Day One gives us a peek into the inner workings of Amazon, Facebook, Google, Apple and Microsoft, looking at how the engineer’s mindset plays out at each of them.

You might think it odd to include Microsoft in this group. It has the reputation of being staid and past its prime. I thought it odd at first too. I worked at Microsoft for 19 years and witnessed some of its internal dysfunction. But its new CEO, Satya Nadella, is changing the company’s culture to be far more collaborative than it used to be.

No, the outlier in the group is Apple. It’s a company designed around a visionary leader, Steve Jobs. But Jobs is dead and Tim Cook, despite being a a very capable executive, is not a product visionary like Jobs. Apple’s products under Cook have essentially been enhancements of products created by Jobs.

I think the most interesting aspect of the book is the comparison between Amazon and Apple. Kantrowitz dives into the details of some of Amazon’s innovative practices, like its famous six-page memos, showing how they enable anyone in the organization to propose an innovative idea. In contrast, Apple, as Kantrowitz describes it, is divided into rigid silos where collaboration is difficult if not outright discouraged.  And designers rather than engineers dominate the company. Just like it was when Jobs was CEO. Apple appears to be struggling to develop an innovative culture like the other companies profiled in the book.

Unsolicited Feedback

Always Day One is a quick read but a little lighter than I had hoped.

I think the chapter on Amazon is the most detailed and the most interesting. The other chapters tend to focus more on the company leaders, Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook, Sundar Pichai at Google, Apple’s Tim Cook, and Microsoft’s and Satya Nadella.

While Kantrowitz doesn’t shy away from exploring some of the controversies surrounding each of these companies, Always Day One is not a critique or exposé.

His sources for the book were often ex-employees of the various companies. Not surprising really since most firms don’t want to discuss their internal workings with journalists. But it does mean that some of his information may be a little out of date.

And then there are the last two chapters. The first explores a few dystopian scenarios that could arise given current technology trends, especially the use of AI. The second looks at some topics in corporate leadership and management. These are interesting and worthwhile topics, but they seem like complete non sequiturs here. They left me wondering if Kantrowitz ran out of material and tacked them onto the end of the book.

He does make an interesting point right at the end though. The five tech giants have nurtured the engineer’s mindset to develop sustained competitive advantage. But it’s not their exclusive property. If the engineer’s mindset were adopted more broadly, Kantrowitz suggests, then more companies would be more inventive, more competitive and more successful. And that could mean that the power and wealth concentrated in these five companies might be distributed more widely.

I’d make one final observation: The cultures of direct communication and deep collaboration at these companies produce not only new kinds of products but also new kinds of employees. Kantrowitz describes how the culture at Google, for example, enabled an engineer named James Damore to argue on internal discussion forums that women are inherently less capable engineers than men. It also enabled employees to protest against Google selling AI technology to the Pentagon and to organize an employee walkout sparked by a $90-million payout to a departing senior executive accused of sexual misconduct. Cultures change how people behave and not always in ways that leaders want or expect.

Thanks for reading.

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