Software visionairies vs pragmatists

In the software industry there are two fundamentalist camps on how to deliver new technologies.

On the one side live the visionairies. They believe in the revolutionary power of their technology. They believe in their ability to impose the technology on the market place because of the trancedence of the solution. Software visionairies believe in radical technological breaks. They believe they are chosen to change the world.

On the other side is the software prgamatist. The pragmatistfocusses on the plausibility of the solution. How can the broadest set of customers be satisfied by combining the best attributes of multiple solutions. Sometimes the final outcome is less elegant, less pristine, but typically is adopted by more people. The pragmatist may be visionary in how he views the end goal, but is pragmatic in how he gets there.

The tension between the pragmatist and the visionary is that the pragmatist’s willingness to compromise may ultimately affect his ability to actually ever deliver on the vision whereas the visionairy’s unwillingness to compromise may affect his ability to get revenue.

Companies, at their core, are either visionary or pragmatic. A visionary company will have multiple disconnected architectures that have no relationship to each other but represent huge bets of money time and revenue. A company of software pragmatists has a single architecture that continues to evolve over time.

Intel is a pragmatic company. For years they viewed compatibility and evolution as core to their business. Itanium, which was visionary, had to be made compatible with the X86 architecture because of Intel’s pragmatic DNA. Itanium failed to deliver the 64 bit world Intel imagined. Instead 64 bit architectures came to the masses when another very pragmatic company, AMD, did something Intel should have done: extend the x86 architecture.

Apple is a visionary company. For years under the between-Steve-Jobs-CEO’s, Apple declined because pragmatism was rammed down a company that was at it’s heart visionary. Only when Jobs showed up and pushed visionary ideas throughout the company, did the company start to recover.

A company can succeed by being visionary and by being pragmatic. A company fails when the path it chooses is at odds with the fundamental DNA of it’s core leadeship.

Having said that both can lead to success, most big successful companies that have had long shelf lives were run by pragmatists. Companies that spent prolifigately, embarked on many different initiatives, changed architectures, operations, and systems regularly tend to have not succeed over the long haul. But that might be perception, not reality.

On a personal level, being a visionary is more fun. You get to ignore the real world because you believe the world will bend to your view of reality.  Being a pragmatist on the other hand is messier, more painful and over the long haul more lucrative. When I started out at SGI I was seduced by the visionaries. I think by this time, I’ve evolved to being a pragmatist.

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