Heinlein's Guide to Computer Marketing

by Curt Monash
reprinted from NWFusion, October, 1995

The late Robert Heinlein is widely credited with having inspired at least one whole generation of engineers, as well as a number of authors. Close inspection of his work also reveals a sophisticated guide to marketing. Indeed, a number of his heroes (cf. The Man Who Sold the Moon) were visionaries, charlatans, and hucksters of the first water.

In this column, I focus on Heinlein's most famous collections of aphorisms: The Notebooks of Lazarus Long, contained in his monumental (in the most literal sense of the word) novel Time Enough For Love. Below are some quotations from the notebooks, and my only partly tongue-in-cheek interpretation of how they might shed light on the development, marketing, selling, and buying of computer products.

Learn or die

"A generation which ignores history has no past - and no future."

I continue to be amazed by the why proponents of new technologies blithely forget the lessons of prior eras (i.e., anything from ten or twenty years in the past, to the actual mainstream of the present). When any of the new Internet-specific application development tools match the important features of PowerBuilder, I may begin to be impressed. Of course, I've also been waiting years for PowerBuilder to match the important features of character-based 4GLs.

"To stay young requires unceasing cultivation of the ability to unlearn old falsehoods."

While most new companies forget the lessons of the past, most established companies miss new trends. Until Powersoft and its competitors have demonstrated useful HTML generators, CGI generators, and page link management, I'll continue to wonder whether they ever will. I also don't understand why the major word processors' HTML extenders aren't already vastly more functional.

Indeed, almost no company has been successful in multiple generations of application development tool technology. And every major category of personal productivity tool has seen at least two consecutive incumbents bite the dust. So, to summarize the previous two points:

"You live and learn. Or you don't live long."

If you weren't making your living off of technology, you wouldn't be reading this column. So you are in a rapidly changing world. Companies that don't learn much don't survive. People who don't learn much do survive, but their standard of living keeps going down.

There's a sucker born every minute

"Never underestimate the power of human stupidity."

"The truth of a proposition has nothing to do with its credibility. And vice versa."

"Delusions are often functional. A mother's opinions about her children's beauty, intelligence, goodness, et cetera ad nauseam, keep her from drowning them at birth"

The best salespeople are true believers. Quite irrespective of the merits of their offerings, they REALLY BELIEVE. Judge their arguments on merit, not on the energy or apparent sincerity of their presentation.

Consider, if you please, a joke popular among industry executives:

Q. What's the primary difference between used car and computer salespeople?
A. A used car salesman KNOWS that he's lying.

"Get a shot off FAST. This upsets him long enough to let you make your second shot perfect."

This is a maxim many marketers live by. Preannounce; look like a leader; worry about delivering later. If you're lucky, everybody else will get all caught up in responding to your promises, and lose focus on their own agendas.

Indeed, in a far-sighted decision, the town fathers of Redmond, Washington passed an ordinance mandating this strategy for any company headquartered within its borders. Maybe that's way the local dry cleaners have collection boxes for the Newt Gingrich Presidential Library...

"This sad little lizard told me that he was a brontosaurus on his mother's side. I did not laugh; people who boast of ancestry often have little else to sustain them."

Small products from big companies can be just as pitiful as products from small companies. Don't assume products from Microsoft, IBM, Novell, Oracle et al. are necessarily safe choices, guaranteed success due to the backing of a large corporate parent - unless you like your omelets delivered directly to your face.

Murphy was an optimist

"Cheops' Law: Nothing EVER gets built on schedule or within budget."

You knew that. But did you know it applied to software vendors as well as to your own organization? Of course you did.

"When the need arises - and it does - you must be able to shoot your own dog."

Mistakes happen. Sometimes you have to cut your losses. The same goes for computer vendors. That's why there are so many orphaned products.

"Avoid making irrevocable decisions while tired or hungry. N.B.: Circumstances can force your hand. So think ahead!"

It's good to take tough, hard decisions, even if they're painful. It's even better to plan ahead and avoid the necessity for tough, hard, painful decisions. Nobody can design a perfect technical architecture three or five years in advance. But if you run into a brick wall in 18 months - that IS your fault.

Many a vendor will lead you into that brick wall. Their executives are measured on annual revenue and profit figures, excepting only those who're measured quarter by quarter. The future will just have to take care of itself.

By the way, you might wonder who's responsible for the short-term outlook. Obviously, it's the investors. But who are investors? They are professional money managers, hired either by companies, or by mutual fund investors. And whose money are they managing? Typically, they're managing pension funds - i.e., workers' money. Who's most hurt by short-termitis (especially the downsizing variety)? Workers, of course. Something is malodorous here, but a full analysis is far beyond the scope of this column...

"A committee is a life form with six or more legs and no brain."

Almost all important buying decisions are made by committee. No wonder they turn out so badly.

Some risks can't be avoided

And finally:

"Certainly the game is rigged. Don't let that stop you; if you don't bet, you can't win."

There never has been a great application development tool. But third-generation languages, from COBOL to C++, are vastly worse. Similarly, the instability of open systems is no excuse for staying on the mainframe. You have to pick something, and get on with it.

If you use risky technology, you may possibly fail. If you don't use risky technology, you will certainly fail.


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