Earlier this year I read Masters of Doom, a phenomenal book about the creation of Doom, one of the most influential video games ever. The book is wildly entertaining, and it presents countless lessons about building great technology that have stuck with me ever since.
I never played Doom – I was too young - but since reading it, I've asked many people what they remember of the game. I've never seen anything create such an immediate sense of nostalgia.
Slava Akmechet captures it well:
You didn't even need to play to know that computer history was just delineated into before and after. As soon as you saw the artwork of the game menu, you knew. Doom changed me in a profound way. I used to never think about computers or programming. It was just something I loved to do more than anything else. But a few seconds of Doom gameplay permanently flipped a bit in my brain. It made me aware that programming computers is what I want to be doing for the rest of my life.
How many kids went on to become engineers and leaders at places like SpaceX, Apple or any other company shaping our culture, because of that game?
Stories like this have given me an appreciation for how delicate our world is. It's a strange thing to realise that nothing about the world we live in was inevitable. The things we take as guarantees - education, electricity, communication - are human inventions that sprang out of the minds of people like you and me. Our current world is the product of centuries of people like us, their unpredictable actions and decisions shaping the world we now inhabit. It's empowering to realise that the people that built it weren't that different from you or me.
I think that as engineers and technologists, knowing how we got to this point is important, that it gives you a unique perspective on how to build great things, and reading history is how you attain it.
Companies and Complexity: How History Helps Us Navigate Them
I recently read Mitchell Waldrop's Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos. It tells the origin story of the Santa Fe Institute, a research institute dedicated to the multidisciplinary study of complex adaptive systems.
Complex adaptive systems are collections of simple systems that interact with one another in subtle and interesting ways. They adapt based on feedback, leading to complexity and various emergent behaviours. I'm not going to get into the details of these systems in this post, mainly because the book does a fantastic job of explaining them in simple and understandable terms (you should read it).
One of the implications of complex adaptive systems is that because they are continually adapting and learning based on feedback, they're nearly impossible to predict. Small changes often lead to unpredictable end states in a complex adaptive system.
In his post, What I Learnt From Complexity, Cedric Chin argues convincingly that entrepreneurship is a complex adaptive system. In it, he says:
Let’s say that you want to start a company. “I have a vision of the future and I will do everything possible to turn that vision into reality” is one narrative that is available to the startup founder. Another, similar one is “I think X is a huge trend, I will exploit this opportunity in the market by starting a company that does Y, which is related to X.”
Both narratives are common in retellings of entrepreneurship. But it’s questionable if they are truly reflective of the kinds of thinking that entrepreneurs use in execution. In fact, both narratives demand a narrow view of the future to come true in order to work. Contrast this with the following type of reasoning: “I’m going to go after X. There’s something there that’s interesting that I can’t place. I can’t predict how I’m going to win right now, but I think that if I start with what I have, make bets that won’t kill me, and adapt quickly to whatever I uncover during the course of execution, I will be able to shape the future as part of a complex adaptive system.”
The idea of making small, iterative bets based on feedback and learning is fascinating because it's exactly how the successful founders I know have approached things. As someone that plans to be a founder in the future, this is remarkably useful to be aware of.
History becomes increasingly important when thinking about company building in this way because it informs each bet you make. It's a cheat code of sorts because nearly everything that’s happening to us now — even if it’s something radically new — has historical analogues. It doesn't give you the answers, but it shows you how similar things played out in the past.
Many of the challenges we face today have been faced and solved by people in the past. Reading their stories provides your brain with a rich pool of information, anecdotes and data from which it will begin to create connections and pick out patterns that are useful in shaping the bets you're making.
This captures one of my favourite things about reading history, and one I don't see mentioned often: it allows you to expand your source of influences through time and space.
While it's useful for teaching you what happened, that's not the true power of it. The real benefit comes when you attempt to get inside the heads of people who lived in the past. Why did they make the decisions they made? What factors were at play that you may have overlooked? What did they get wrong so that you don't have to?
The more you do this, the more you realise how difficult some of those situations were. You have the benefit of hindsight, the historical figure you're learning about didn't. If they consistently made good decisions, they're somebody you should learn from.
Reading history, like reading anything else, won't provide you with all the answers, but it'll you to improve your thinking and decision-making before finding yourself in a situation that demands it.
If you're keen to read more technology history, but don't know where to start, some of my favourite books in this domain are The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, Complexity (mentioned above), The Wikipedia Revolution, The Victorian Internet, Becoming Steve Jobs and Revolution in The Valley.
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