Anne (netmouse) wrote,

How to Run a Skunk Works

An extended exerpt from The Zenith Angle, by Bruce Sterling (somewhat edited for length)

"Son," his grandfather rasped, "If you'll be working for the feds, you do need some advice. Yes, you surely do. And I can tell you something real useful. That is, how to run a Skunk Works. Once you do that right, you can't ever forget." The old man was brightening. He looked many years younger now. "The right way is one way that gets results. Are you listening to me, son?"
Van nodded soberly.
"These are simple things. They're the principles. You gotta listen, that's number one. It's more important to listen to your own people than it is to tell 'em what to do. Decide, that's number two. Make your management decisions whenever they're needed. You can figure out later whether they were right or wrong. And believe. Don't ever try to build a project you can't believe in. Because otherwise, when they cut your funding—and they will cut it—you won't be able to tell 'em with a straight face why they should go straight to hell."
Van felt grateful. "Oh, yeah. This is the right stuff."
"Son, government programs are just like people. They get slow as they get older. They get very stuck in their ways. That just won't do for a Skunk Works. You've got to be quick, you've got to be quiet, and you've got to be on time. You had your three principles, and those are your three rules."
"When I tell you 'quick,' that means small. Small teams, the best people, very restricted. Ten or twenty percent of the people that normal outfits would use. No long reports, ever. Never read a long report, and if a guy writes you one, fire him. No long meetings. You want to keep 'em all working close together, no distractions, focused on the project all the time. Everybody stays hands-on with the machine, never back off. That's how you get results quick."
"Should I record all this?"
Just pay attention, dang it! It took good men a lifetime to figure this stuff out!" The old man was breathing harder. "When I say 'quiet,' that means no talking. You don't brag about what you're doing. Ever. You just do it, and you never demand any credit. If nobody ever knows who you are, then nobody knows what you did. Except for the enemy, of course." The old man cackled and coughed.
"Give me the 'on time' part," Van prompted.
"That was it! Right! You got to be on time! You got to do it when there are stars in their eyes about it! Before they get all bureaucratic, and start counting every nickel and dime! Timing is the hardest part, son: you gotta know when good enough will do. You gotta know when to quit."
The old man tunneled his bony arms through his golf shirt. "Me, I got out. I got out at last. I should have got out earlier."
"Why, Grandpa?"
"Because of the Grease Machine." The old man made a bitter, money-pinching gesture. "Once the money beats the engineering, that's the end of it, son. Once the money beats the engineering, it's all just chrome and tail fins, after that."
Somehow Van had always just known that defense contracting was a crooked business. How could anybody have any illusions there to get disillusioned about? Luckily, he himself was from the world of computers and telecommunications. A very different world.
"Well. . ." that old man said. "That's it, son. That's all you need to know. Now you can go home and fix yourself a drink."

—Bruce Sterling, The Zenith Angle

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