In Search of Stupidity, by Merrill R. Chapman

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I picked this book up after reading the interesting foreword that Joel Spolsky wrote for it. Chapman’s insight was that several of the companies lauded for having a great corporate culture in the famous business book In Search of Excellence had fallen off the face of the planet within a few years. From his own experience, he concluded that there was no singular “culture of excellence”. Companies that survived were simply companies that avoided making hideously stupid blunders. A simple prescription, you’d think. Alas, no.

Chapman describes, as the subtitle declares, “Over 20 years of high-tech marketing disasters”. He witnessed several of them from the inside as a marketing executive. Stupid cases like releasing two different products with the same name so that your customers had no idea which one to buy (Micropro had Wordstar and Wordstar 2000 competing against each other). Or the IBM PS/2 fiasco. Or Ed Esber, the CEO of Ashton-Tate, who enraged his customers (by threatening to sue them, calling them “parasites” and daring them to “Make my day!”) to the point where one developer told Chapman (a product manager for Ashton-Tate at the time) “Ed Esber is a diseased amoeboid life form with the intelligence of a sick protozoa.”

Lots of fun stories like that in this book. Chapman lived through several of these disasters, so he’s got lots of good details sprinkled throughout. He’s also got an engaging story-telling voice, which makes the book just zip along. I can’t say that I learned that much from the book, but it was a quick read, and an enjoyable stroll through the last twenty years of techno-history (I had lots of “Oh, yeah, I remember that!” moments as they described various products).

P.S. In case any of my readers are curious about my increased rate of book consumption, it’s because the holidays are over, which means there’s lots of traffic on the Bay Bridge, which frustrated me to the point where I started taking BART regularly again (2-3 times a week for the past three weeks). An hour and a half of enforced reading time each day means I can keep up with the Economist, and finish four books in the last few weeks. Crazy stuff. I’m actually through my last Amazon order, and considering ordering more. Yay!