As for what this different workplace will look like, the Walmarts and Wells Fargos gathered in Miami didn't seem to know. They were eager to get automation and artificial intelligence into their workplaces, but having only dipped their toe in the water, they were left in the same place many of us inhabit today: aware that a wave of AI is coming, but unsure exactly how it will change our jobs, our companies, and the economy.
There are, however, a few companies for whom this "workplace of the future" is already a reality, and the way they're adjusting can help us understand where we're heading.
THE ENGINEER'S MINDSET
The technology on display in Miami is standard inside the tech giants, and has been for years. Equipped with the world's most advanced corporate AI research divisions, these companies build machine learning not only into their products but into their workplaces as well. This technology, along with other sophisticated workplace tools, has significantly minimized their employees' execution work and increased the time they spend coming up with new ideas.
To turn these new ideas into reality, the tech giants have had to rethink the way a company is run. Loaded down with execution work, most companies today typically develop a few ideas handed down from the top, and focus on selling them. This is why "visionary" is still the ultimate compliment for a CEO today. A company's success usually rides on the ideas they and their inner circle come up with.
Bezos, Zuckerberg, Pichai, and Nadella aren't visionaries, though; they're facilitators. At the helm of Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft, they live to bring their employees' ideas to life, not their own. And they've built systems to do it. These CEOs are all engineers—not the sales or finance leaders who typically sit atop the world's leading companies—and their systems draw inspiration from their backgrounds. At the heart of their inventive cultures is something I'll call the Engineer's Mindset.
The Engineer's Mindset is a way of thinking—not a technical aptitude—that underpins a culture of building, creating, and inventing. It's based on the way an engineer typically approaches work, but it's not exclusive to any one occupation or level inside a company. The Engineer's Mindset has three main applications:
Engineers are always inventing. Their job is to build, not to sell. People employing the Engineer's Mindset appreciate that inventive ideas can come from anywhere. They build pathways to get these ideas to decision makers, and develop systems to ensure they can succeed once greenlit. In the next chapter, we'll explore how Jeff Bezos is channeling his employees' ingenuity in a system designed to spark democratic invention and keep Amazon in Day One.
Engineering organizations are naturally flat. Though they have hierarchy, people feel empowered to go up to the highest-ranking person and tell them precisely what they think. This is a departure from traditional organizations, where taking an idea up the chain of command is often seen as disrespecting the hierarchy.
In chapter two, we'll go inside Facebook and explore how Zuckerberg, via his feedback culture, has worked to free ideas from the constraints of hierarchy. At Facebook, employees bring ideas directly to Zuckerberg, and he processes and brings them to life. We'll also examine how his feedback system broke ahead of the 2016 election, when the company was caught off guard by election-manipulation attempts it should have anticipated, and how Zuckerberg is bringing in new "inputs" in an attempt to fix it.
Engineers typically work on one component of a more significant project in which, if their small thing breaks, the whole project can break down (think power grids). This type of work makes engineers master collaborators. They are regularly communicating with other groups to make sure they're working in sync. This type of mentality is well suited for bringing disparate parts of a company together to create new things. In chapter three, we'll go inside Google and look at how Sundar Pichai is bringing people from across the company together to invent. We'll focus specifically on the collaboration it took to build the Google Assistant, which involved Google's search, hardware, Android, and AI teams, among others. The advanced collaboration tools Pichai uses to get his employees working together have also led to tribalism, trolling, and broader dissent movements within Google, which the company and its employees are still learning how to handle.
In chapter four, we'll look at Tim Cook's Apple, which is still operating in a culture built for a visionary. Apple is a company lacking democratic invention, constraint-free hierarchy, free-flowing collaboration, and useful internal technology. It's stuck in Day Two, and as iPhone sales slow, it's going to have to adjust.
We'll head to Microsoft for chapter five, where Satya Nadella is using the Engineer's Mindset to spark a new era of invention inside the company. Nadella's approach is a departure from that of his predecessor, Steve Ballmer, a case study in favor of implementing the systems outlined in this book.
The Engineer's Mindset isn't exclusively the territory of those who can code. It is, after all, a mindset, not a set of computer skills. Nor is it the province of the tech giants alone. Smaller companies can apply it just as effectively. But for now, the tech giants are ahead, especially among their tech peers. Netflix, for instance, has a feedback culture, but not one meant to spark invention. Ideas at Tesla come from the top. And Uber's culture is famously troubled.
This book will unpack the Engineer's Mindset, describing how it's the foundation of the systems Bezos, Zuckerberg, Pichai, and Nadella have built to channel ideas and bring them to life. This mindset will soon become standard in successful companies across the globe. And by reading the tech giants' stories, you'll learn how the world's top corporations are using it, providing a model you can implement in your own workplace. I hope you'll find some of the lessons worthwhile.
This excerpt ends on page 18 of the hardcover edition.
Monday we begin the book Uncopyable: How to Create an Unfair Advantage Over Your Competition by Steve Miller.