Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Six of the best

Not only are rules made to be broken, but breaking them is a good idea for developers of machine-vision products

As my beleaguered colleagues at Vision Systems Design will tell you, I have never really been a person who likes to follow rules. I discovered this when I was just 16 years old and attending a most distinguished public school in England. Before playing football one day, we were all informed that the changing rooms had been locked because someone had stolen some money from one of the other boys. These changing rooms would all be opened at 4:00 PM by one of the teachers to ensure this did not happen again.

On the football field, I purposely scored an “own goal” to get sent home early, and so at 3:00 PM I decided to creep in through one of the open windows of the changing rooms, put on my blue suit (yes, it was a public school, folks!), and go home. Unfortunately, just as I was prepared to leave, the doors were opened and a teacher, with a look of complete disbelief, approached me and told me to report to the headmaster’s office the next day.

Back then, of course, punishments were a little more capital than they are today. After waiting 10 minutes outside the headmaster’s office, I was informed that a good caning was in order and was duly struck very harshly six times on my backside. To this day, I have never understood why this is referred to as receiving “Six of the Best.” Once it was over, I walked back to classes in a rather duck-like manner!

After such a punishment, one would have thought I would have learned a lesson. Unfortunately, later in life the same anarchistic spirit lost me a few jobs. One I remember most particularly. In my 20s, I informed the managing director of a small publishing company that my immediate supervisor was a lazy no-good so-and-so and it was either him or me that had to go. Unfortunately, it was me. But is anarchy such a bad thing? In the machine-vision industry, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Indeed, many of the companies we write about often in this publication are headed and staffed by characters who obviously feel the same way I do about following rules.

Independent thinking
Rather than work for large corporations, these free-spirited independent thinkers have developed their own innovative products, starting companies and selling these products worldwide. Rather than work 9 AM to 5 PM in closeted grey-neon dreamlike cubicles, these people write their own rules, turn up in their “offices” in T-shirts and jeans, and reward their employees with stock options, pension plans, and free medical and dental coverage. While the fruits of their labor may rightfully have bought them private aircraft and second homes in the Caribbean, they are always willing to discuss new products, trends, and technologies. Several books have been written on what makes a good manager.

I should know. In his later years my Dad taught engineering management, after a 30-year stint at designing rolling mills. Many books list the qualities of a good manager as a series of As: one must have A sense of humor and be Approachable, Actionoriented, Able to Plan and Organize, and Able to deal with Ambiguity. I have known many great company directors, editors, and publishers who possess all of these attributes. However, the ones who have developed some of the most outstanding technologies and products have sprinkled these five attributes with a sixth—a little bit of Anarchy.

These folks are not willing to develop me-too products, even though the market for them may be massive. Rather, they look to extend today’s technology to develop more innovative products and systems with unique selling points. But, while a little anarchy may be good, too much can be detrimental to your health and your position. I remember at one publishing company sitting in a meeting that went on for eight hours where we “discussed,” for example, where certain editors should appear on the masthead of the magazine. At the end of the meeting, nothing had been decided, and the subject was conveniently forgotten the next day. For such anarchists, as my boss will heartily agree, six of the best, even verbally, is perhaps the only recourse.

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