The foreman at a lumber mill is giving a tour to the Human Resources manager. He hears a voice over the din of all the machinery. “Ouch!” Concerned that the new, accelerated production schedule is resulting in accidents, they follow the sound to a worker running a huge saw that slices through trees like bars of butter. “What’s the matter? Why’d you cry ouch?” asks the foreman. “Well,” says the saw operator. “I was trying to put more logs through the saw faster, like we were told, and I just stuck my arm out like this, and… Whoa! I’ll be darned! There goes the other one!” The foreman turns to the HR manager: “Well, that does it. You were right. There goes another one. We need to post these jobs on CareerBuilder long before we need to fill them.”

Once again, a lousy economy is thrusting people into a job market where the talent is running scared. People will snatch up jobs, any jobs, to pay the mortgage.

I try to teach people the importance of pursuing the right job, not just a paycheck. But I always qualify that, because I certainly understand that putting food on the table and paying the rent may be a good reason — maybe the only reason — to take a job, any job. But even in dire circumstances, it’s important to step back and consider the consequences of such short-term thinking and decision making. The trouble is, business is leading the way.

Two articles in a recent edition of Computerworld highlight the problem. In Software Holding Back Spread of Multicore Chips, we learn that new computer microprocessors with four “cores” (translation: four brains) are now shipping to companies that want the extra processing power. But customers and analysts alike complain that there’s no software that takes advantage of this massive leap in computer hardware. Oops.

“We have a serious developer problem,” says Rob Enderle, an analyst at Enderle Group in San Jose. Software developers just don’t know how to write programs for these new, ultra-powerful chips. The article goes on to say that it will take five years for software to catch up with the new hardware. Gee, why is that? Hah, somebody forgot to fund long-term computer science research, but Intel managed to ship those new processors to meet revenue targets. [Sigh of relief. The investors are happy for another quarter.]

In another Computerworld article (same edition — kudos to CW for driving a point home) tech thinker Judy Estrin (On The U.S. Innovation Gap) begins to explain the problem: “Look at the culture of instant gratification in this country; everyone wants everything yesterday. And technology — especially the Internet — has helped to create that.”

What’s Estrin’s big beef with this country? Here it comes… We don’t have software as powerful as our hardware because we have no commitment to science and technology, “so research funding has dropped dramatically.” My beef is that this means fewer good jobs and more lousy ones.

Dopey us. The most innovative nation in history is too busy trying to make money for the short term. To pay the rent. To put food on the table. We’re so busy trying to grab those slippery fish in the river with our bare hands before the competition does that we don’t have time to invent a net or a fishing pole… Create better ways to fish so we can eat better in the future? No time for that… feed us now!

Jump back to that other article: “Companies must prove a strong business benefit when seeking to build or buy new technologies.” And they have created powerful methodologies to push stuff out the door faster and faster; methods that now dominate business. Estrin sees this another way: “A natural inclination in the country and in the business world is to put in rigid processes, policies and metrics — things like Six Sigma or No Child Left Behind. Some of those things actually discourage the behaviors you need for innovation,” says Estrin. She complains that people have become “very short-term focused.” No kidding.

Six Sigma is bad? Lordy, Corcodilos, you’ve gone off the deep end!

Our craving for short-term success (“I got a job! Whew!”) is killing us. Our new computers work great! But we forgot to research new ways to program them. Oops. My new job pays the rent. Oops — there goes another job! (A guy named Michael just called me to say he won a job at United Airlines early in the year. He just got laid off.) Instant gratification in the job hunt is a fallacy. Call it No Worker Left Behind. Or, the Six Sigma approach to fishing, lumber milling, and hiring.

I still have no problem with you taking a job because you need to pay the rent. Intel ships chips to make revenue targets, but, Oops! There’s no application for those new chips. Oops! There go a few thousand jobs for a new kind of programmer who can write software for those chips… well, something is very screwed up. The lack of funding for basic research means you may have a bigger problem landing a good job than you think. And employers are having a hell of a time with the hiring process. The severed arms are piling up.

So, who is doing research on how people can make money doing work for companies that plan for long-term success? Is every company grinding away for the instant business benefit and the instant stock-price boost? Is every poor sucker looking for an instant job to pay the mortgage? Oops — there goes another one!

The instant future is our future on the skids. Today’s posting offers no advice to job hunters because I need to stop and take time to think about this.

  1. Ugh! You said the two words I hate more than any other two words used together – instant gratification. That concept has messed up more things in our society and individual lives than probably anything else. Why did we have a mortgage meltdown? Instant gratification. Home buyers just HAD to have the house now, whether they could afford it or not. Speculators just HAD to “flip that house” and make their instant profits. Wall Street types just HAD to make their instant profits on exotic investment packages, backed by bad mortgages. And what did it cost us? $700 billion in bailout money. $85 billion for AIG. Countless foreclosures. Et cetera, ad nauseum.

    Instant gratification probably cost me my last job, and stifled innovation at that company, too. Last year, my company decided to make some changes (and I’m not at liberty to discuss specifics, let’s just say it was a major organizational change). I saw that as an opportunity to move the company from a legacy VB6 application to something better. Essentially a rewrite to simpler, more stable code, with a port to .NET technologies. I still would have been stuck on SQL Server 2000 because of the underlying accounting package, but I could have lived with that. Well, I got the initial rewrite done by April, but it was buggy (and of course it was buggy, during the course of development, the other IT person – the network admin – left the company and wasn’t replaced – I had to do it all!). Rather than working through the bugs (and nothing show-stopping), management wanted what it wanted, and wanted it NOW! So much for risk-taking and innovation. So, grudgingly, I ported the old VB6 application over to run in the new organizational structure, then left the company as soon as I could. Now I’m working as a consultant, still in VB6, and wondering when I’m going to be able to make the jump to newer technologies. All because of management’s instant gratification and short-sightedness.

    Instant gratification has caused economic bubbles for centuries that end up bursting. When will it end?

  2. Sorry, not understanding the tree thing.

  3. Following up on a couple of your points:

    * Yes, Six Sigma stifles innovation.

    * Yes, short-termism is bad.

  4. The tree thing Etta is that people are chopping off their arms to try to get the job done without realizing that once you have no arms, you really can’t do the job, so you should protect those limbs.

    Isn’t Intel an American company though? Don’t they do at least some research to be able to create these new chips and show why they are better than the ones created last year? On the one hand you want to say there isn’t the innovation but then the American company is the one doing some innovating in coming out with the new product, no? As an aside, Intel has also come out with some new cheap chips that seem to be selling like hotcakes if you hear about Intel Atom sales. Now, there are other software that can try to take advantage of this new hardware horsepower like virtualization though sometimes we hear that and sometimes not.

    There is a bit of a chicken and the egg when it comes to computer hardware and software. Do we try to have fancier hardware first or fancier software? Just think of all the money Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo spend to design their game consoles using some of the latest and greatest. How green can Dell and HP make your PC?

    Just some odd ironies to the story though it is an interesting read from my view.

  5. JB,

    Yah, Intel is on the bleeding edge, and that’s good. (I just wish the stock would go back up to 90.) Microsoft and Sun could be leading the software charge, but something tells me it’s the education industry that’s dropping the ball in the software domain. Frankly, Intel is embarrassing the rest of the tech world, and the stock market is blind to what’s going on. I’ll take hardware advances over no advances at all. But where are the programmers going to come from? Five years? Yah. That’s when schools will be ready to start teaching new software development methods. Meanwhile… those severed arms are piling up… and my Intel stock won’t go up til software techniques catch up.

  6. While I agree with the principle of long term planning, part of the underlying message here of “someone should plan this better.” This kind of thinking generates government solutions to “fix” the problem and such fixes make the problem worse not better.

    Who exactly should have written the software you mentioned? Who would have bought it? Sure, people gripe that the software isn’t there, but no one is going to write it if the market isn’t there!

    We don’t need “someone” to push writing the software ahead of time, we need to make an environment where companies can identify and respond to such needs quickly. We are straying far from that with all the regulations in the name of “making things work better.”

    Could it be that some of the behavior taken to task in this blog is really a result of that “we’ll save you from yourself” government regulation? An HR department may serve as a shield against such regulation, rather than just the wasteful group it is portrayed as. (It is still wasteful, but its reason for existence may need closer examination.)


  7. I recently read a fantastic and enlightening book “The world is flat” by Thomas Friedman, since then I have been recommending it and giving it to all friends and relatives.

    Friedman is a US journalist and a fantastic analyst. He has looked into the causes and impacts of globalization and, among many other things, reveals how the USA have been loosing status for the past couple of decades because of this focus on what you are calling “instant gratification”. Do you know that for years now there are more foreign than american engineers coming out of USA schools? That the % of american patents is also going down? He believes USA may be heading to a big surprise when your realise many in the world are leaving you behind.

    The book also presents a good analysis of what is needed at an individual basis (education, employability, career) to compete in this new flat world. And the approach connect very well with what Nick’s been promoting here and elsewhere.

    In summary, if you are worried about what Nick is exposing in this post and others, I suggest you take the time to read this book. It may help you to understand what is going on and what we all need to do to cope with it

  8. I am about one third through Thomas Friedman’s book, and I recommned it as a way to visualize where you fit in the new global economy.
    However, I do have another view about long term trends that have led to the current empoyment environment. I think margin sqeeze is responsible for most of the sort term thinking in industry. I work in the chemical industry and it has been the dominant force since the early 90’s. When margins are squeezed and expenses need to be cut to preserve profit margins, R&D is the first thing to go. It doesn’t happen at once, but is more a slow insidious rot that requires reseach projects to have near term payouts. The problem is that a lot of true innovation comes out of less goal orientated work. When you don’t know what you don’t know, it is nearly impossible to construct and follow a research plan. Discoveries along the can drastically alter the course.
    So while extreme competition among companies results in the a sort term cost reductions, the longer term consequences of short staffing, cutting R&D, etc are less clear and probably worse for long term profitability.

  9. John,
    You’re scaring me because I know you’re right. R&D must be the last thing that’s cut; it’s the bone, and cutting that deeply kills an organization in the end. Short-term thinking should be a signal for the board to fire top management.

  10. I realize this is a late comment.

    But to the extent that there is an answer, I think the answer is to work on both the short term and long term at the same time. This applies to both individuals and organizations.

    Some years ago, when I was between careers, I did a variety of odd jobs so I could pay the rent. These included scrubbing toilets, testing airplane slides and helping ninth-graders learn math. But I also went to school and got experience so I could move into a new field.

    Now that field — journalism — is losing a lot of jobs. But I’ve been going to school and making some connections and contributions and building new things outside of work.

    For companies, consider “The Innovator’s Solution.” One of the book’s points is to always have at least a two-prong strategy: improving for your current customers and new products or services for nonconsumers or low-end customers.