Jerry Weinberg interview

An interview with Jerry Weinberg where we explore the applicability of his Fieldstone Method for entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs, the implications of Stewart Brand’s “How Buildings Learn” for Weinberg’s dry stone fence metaphor for creation, and managing a crisis as marker for an end of an illusion.

Jerry WeinbergJerry Weinberg Interview

Jerry Weinberg has been one of my personal heroes ever since I read his 1971 book “Psychology of Computer Programming” as part of an Introduction to Computer Science course at Stanford in 1976. I bought several copies of “Secrets of Consulting” after I read it the first time in 1986 when it came out: I loaned them to friends and colleagues to read because it offered such a wealth of practical advice.  What follows is an interview conducted over email in April of 2016.

Always be second, most first-to-produce offerings are not first-to-profit

Sean Murphy: What advice would you give entrepreneurs who are assembling ideas?

Jerry Weinberg: First advice is meta-advice: As I think Ambrose Bierce said, “Advice is the lowest common coin.” So, when offered advice, taste it and swallow it if it tastes right to you, otherwise spit it out.

Second, always be second. Many entrepreneurs believe that to make a killing, you have to be the first one out in the world with your idea. But, if you study the past, you’ll see that most of the first-to-produce are not first-to-profit. They may profit from their idea, but the ones who really clean up are the ones who are positioned to move in fast and well once the idea has proved itself viable in the real world. For one thing, the vast majority of new ideas don’t, in fact, prove themselves viable in the real world, so by being second, you avoid wasting your time and money on losers.

Years ago, I worked for IBM. The official motto of IBM was “Think,” but we knew the real motto was “Always be second.” IBM Research produced some good new things, but its big winners were always somebody else’s idea that IBM improved and marketed. The function of Research (where I had a position) was to keep informed about the ideas going around, and prepared to move into one that passed the first test—with bigger, better informed researchers supplied with larger resource budgets.

Build a team with as diverse a group of curious minds as you can assemble

Sean Murphy: What advice would you give intrapreneurs who are building internal teams to develop new products, services, or internal solutions?

Jerry Weinberg: It all follows from the first advice, above. Build a team with as diverse a group of curious minds as you can assemble. Avoid the tendency to create a team with copies of yourself. You’re not building a rowing team.

That idea gives you the spread of expertise you need, but you must also pay attention to their character and the “people skills.” If they cannot work together within the inevitable conflicts that come from their diversity, then that’s not the team you want.

Steward Brand’s Six Shearing Layers In How Buildings Learn


Diagram by Peter Merholz

  1. SITE – This is the geographical setting, the urban location, and the legally defined lot, whose boundaries and context outlast generations of ephemeral buildings. “Site is eternal.” Duffy agrees.
  2. STRUCTURE – The foundation and load-bearing elements are perilous and expensive to change, so people don’t. These are the building. Structural life ranges from thirty to three hundred years (but few buildings make it past sixty for other reasons).
  3. SKIN – Exterior surfaces now change every twenty years or so, to keep up with fashion or technology, or for wholesale repair. Recent focus on energy costs has led to re-engineered skins that are air tight and better insulated.
  4. SERVICE – These are the working guts of a building: communications wiring, electrical wiring, plumbing, fire sprinkler systems, HVAC (heating, ventilating, and air conditioning), and moving parts like elevators and escalators. They wear out or obsolesce every seven to fifteen years. Many buildings are demolished early if their outdated systems are too deeply embedded to replace easily.
  5. SPACE PLAN – The Interior layout—where walls, ceilings, floors, and doors go. Turbulent commercial space can change every three years or so; exceptionally quiet homes might wait thirty years.
  6. STUFF – Chairs, desks, phones, pictures; kitchen appliances, lamps, hairbrushes; all the things that twitch around daily to monthly. Furniture is called mobilia in Italian for good reason.

Stewart Brand in”How Buildings Learn.

Sean Murphy: Can we add Stewart Brand’s six-layer model for “How Buildings Learn” to the discussion, in particular how he explores how a building changes over time. He breaks up a building into various layers and talks about frequency of changes and how they define system constraints. Layers like SITE and STRUCTURE change slowly or not at all; while other layers like STUFF–furnishings, draperies, and wall coverings–change relatively frequently. For entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs, it is an interesting way to look about how to effectively bring about change and innovation. One take away for me was that more rapid changing layers–SERVICES, SPACE PLAN, and STUFF are where it is easiest to innovate.

Jerry Weinberg: Stewart and I are great friends from way back, though I haven’t seen him in too many years now. His writing on how buildings learn has always been near the top of my list of recommended readings for designers.

Sean Murphy: how can Brand’s six-layer model be applied to your field stone method for “dry stone fence” construction. Is there a hierarchy of decisions or stone placements for ideas or team members?

Jerry Weinberg: I suspect that one of the greatest assets a problem-solver (or problem-solving team) can have is the ability to recognize what are the top layers and then take action based on that knowledge. Some can do the recognition, but then chicken out and choose a different layer for political reasons. My advice to consultants is always start with a new client by working on a problem that’s in the “outer layer”—one that you’re most certain you and they can solve easily and quickly. That way, if you fail to solve it, you know that your understanding of their problem-solving capability is inadequate to your task. Or, if you do solve it, you’ve created some well-deserve credibility and also may have learned to estimate what you’ll face in the future assignments they’re likely to trust you with.

Promise to improve a people problem by 10%

There’s Always a Problem Nothing is more puzzling to a young consultant than to arrive at the client’s office and be told, first thing, “We really don’t have any problems here. Nothing that we can’t handle, anyway.”

The Ten Percent Promise: Never promise more than ten percent improvement. Most people can successfully absorb ten percent into their psychological category of “no problem.” Anything more, however, would be embarrassing if the consultant succeeded.

It’s Always a People Problem: Even when it’s “really” a technical problem, it can always be traced back to management action or inaction. Even so, the experienced consultant will resist pointing out that it was management who hired all the technical people and is responsible for their development. At the same time, the consultant will look for the people who should have prevented this problem, or dealt with it when it arose.

Jerry  Weinberg in Secrets of Consulting

Sean Murphy: In “Secrets of Consulting” you stress the idea of only promising a 10% improvement–even if you may have a larger impact. Is this designed to restrict your focus to surface areas where more change or innovation is possible? To keep you from attacking more fundamental or foundational issues you may not be able to change, or something else?

Jerry Weinberg: The origin of this idea was that a large promise is implicitly telling them, “You’re such fools that there’s a 50% improvement just waiting around and you haven’t seen it or taken it.” Making your client look like a fool is not the greatest marketing technique.

But, yes, it does have the side-effect of starting with the right sort of layer. Maybe later you can come up with the 50% improvements after they trust you and consider you part of their team—assuming you’re learned how to pass most of the credit to them. And provided you act surprised when the value of your suggestions turns out so well. Early in my career, I had a client in Italy who was spending millions on computer rental and was about to double their budget to get more hardware. I came in, changed three cards in a job control deck, and saved them over a million a year. The result: they never invited me back, because I had made them look like fools for not seeing that simple change themselves.

What looks like a crisis is just the end of an illusion

“Rhonda’s First Revelation: It May Look Like a Crisis, But It’s Only the End of An Illusion.”
Jerry Weinberg in Secrets of Consulting

Sean Murphy: What are some practical ways that entrepreneurs or intrapreneurs can take advantage of your insight from Secrets of Consulting that a crisis is just the end of an illusion?

Jerry Weinberg: The first thing is to prevent this sort of illusion/crisis, something that tends to happen when your team is not sufficiently diverse so you fall into group think and the resultant group illusions. Second, you have to have a team that doesn’t work at suppressing minority opinions, but instead honors them and surfaces them to discover what majority illusions they may have fallen into.

Sean Murphy: Can you talk about a situation in your life where you had to remind yourself to apply this rule?

Jerry Weinberg: One spectacular situation was the bidding that took place for building the USA’s space tracking network for Project Mercury. NASA had put out a request for bids on this huge project. 110 different groups attended the bidders’ conference and submitted bids, virtually all the large companies in the world, and numerous smaller ones, including start-ups.

The specs (a huge volume) turned out to be more of a design idea than a problem statement. I recognized this and also recognized that there was no way NASA’s design approach could work. This illusion was apparently shared by all the bidders, including the managers of our IBM team (IBM, plus ATT, Bendix, Burns and Roe). I wrote a white paper exposing this illusion, which created a crisis for our team, which our management tried to suppress by suppressing my white paper.

With a great deal of struggle, I convinced our management to submit a different solution, which required that we build the world’s first multiprogrammed operating system (because a single-thread approach was the illusion that could not work). Our management was in a panic, heightened when we received a call from NASA to come down to their place for a private meeting. Our managers (and I, too) feared that they were going to throw us out of the competition because we caused a crisis by doubting their illusion. Instead, they wanted to tell us that they were throwing out all the other bidding teams because they hadn’t seen through the illusion. We got the contract and built the system, and many future systems for NASA and others.

One lesson of all this: People may not take kindly to having their illusions busted, so be gentle but persistent with them. Definitely don’t share their panic, because you know it’s not a crisis at all.

Using stories to teach

“It is the function of art to renew our perception.
What we are familiar with, we cease to see.”
Anais Nin

Sean Murphy:  More recently you have shifted to writing fiction. Can you talk a little bit about what motivated that change?

Jerry Weinberg: Fundamentally, I’m a teacher. I write as a way of teaching (and learning, for me). I was looking for ways to teach more people and teach more effectively. I had always used little stories in my non-fiction writing and my face-to-face teaching because for some people, at least, stories are a most effective way to get points across and to have those points remembered when needed. So, I thought to expand my market, my student audience, by writing longer stores, fictional ones that contained many important learnings in a more palatable way.

Has it worked? Yes and no. I’ve definitely reached some people who would never in a million years read a book labeled non-fiction, but I’ve never reached the vast hordes who would never read a book of any sort. (I’m told that no more than 10% if Americans read even one book in a year. I don’t know how reliable that statistic is, but I have actually been in people’s houses that contained not a single book.)

So, how do I reach some of these hordes? Well, I do have live workshops, like Problem Solving Leadership, but most of the participants turn out to be readers as well. So far, the best solution I’ve come up with is to accept that that are millions of people in the world who are not willing or able to take one step forward for their own learning. Many people have suggested that I take my teaching to television or to webinars, but I tend to value depth over breadth. As the Law of Raspberry Jam says, “The wider you spread it, the thinner it gets.”

I’ve come to believe that the thousands of people who read my books and hundreds who participate in my workshops will bring any valuable learnings they glean to the hordes of millions, without thinning them too much—and often making them thicker than I have done.

Sean Murphy: Thanks very much for your time

My Favorite Books By Jerry Weinberg

I have put them in my current priority order but they are all worth reading if you are a software entrepreneur or a technical consultant.

  1. Secrets of Consulting: Amazon| SmashWords
  2. Weinberg on Writing: Amazon | SmashWords
  3. Are Your Lights On?  Amazon | SmashWords
  4. Exploring Requirements: Quality Before Design  Amazon | SmashWords
  5. Becoming A Technical Leader  Amazon | SmashWords
  6. Quality Software Management: Vol 4 Anticipating ChangeAmazon
  7. Quality Software Management: Vol 2 First Order Measurement | Amazon
  8. Quality Software Management: Vol 3 Congruent ActionAmazon
  9. Quality Software Management: Vol 1 Systems Thinking | Amazon
  10. Introduction to General Systems Theory Amazon | SmashWords
  11. Psychology of Computer Programming: Amazon | SmashWords
  12. More Secrets of Consulting: Amazon | SmashWords

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