Tearing It All Down

In October of 1871, a fire swept over Chicago and killed hundreds and destroyed about 3.3 square miles. To give you an idea of the impact of how much of the city this affected, here is a map of the area affected.

Great_Chicago_Fire_map

It cost an estimated $3billion (in today’s dollars) to rebuild the city. We see disasters, either natural otherwise caused by humans, that can completely tear down systems, leaving people to rebuild them. Just look at cities such as Berlin and Warsaw that were rebuilt after large destructive forces tore them apart. One of the defining characteristics that I’ve noticed that separates a city like Chicago from a city like NYC (I’ve lived in both by the way) is that Chicago is cleaner, generally more efficiently mapped out, and more habitably than NYC. I believe this largely has to do with the fact that Chicago had the opportunity to be completely torn down and rebuilt because of the Great Fire.

I suspect, like all big cities, Chicago had a lot of problems previous to the great fire that lead to non-advancement of the city. Like most cases this is usually due to bureaucracy, politics, and corruption. But, it’s amazing the energy people will put into something when they’ve suffered a great loss.

Why am I talking about the Great Chicago Fire on a tech blog? It represents everything that is happening in today’s tech world. We are seeing a massive trend in creative destruction as being the norm to creating new business models, tearing down old ones, and generally as an advancement of our culture.

In 1998, an informal group called Mozilla set out to rebuild Netscape Navigator’s source code from scratch. Some people would argue that rewriting source code from scratch is the worst decision you can make, but judging by the success of Mozilla and the death Netscape, I think we can all agree that this has bee a good thing for us consumers.

I look back at my former employers and I see instances where destroying the company might actually be a good thing for the advancement of it’s mission, it’s employees, and ultimately it’s customers. But, as cognitively biased as we are, we are incapable of destroying our own selves, or doing nothing at all. Which often is the case in decision making, whereby doing nothing may actually more productive than trying to do too much. Our brains are wired to think that we always must do something, rather than nothing, and that creating a loss can never create a gain.

So looking at today’s system, both human and technical, we see the everlasting cycle with the following behaviors:

  1. New system gets built, people rejoice!
  2. Someone breaks system, so system adapts and get’s updated
  3. System get’s too clunky because it tries to do too much, losing the interest of its members
  4. People leave system and create new one

There are some exceptions to this, such as 37Signals. They deliberately let customers grow out of their system.

We’d rather our customers grow out of our products eventually than never be able to grow into them in the first place.

As I’ve decided recently with my life, I’ve tore all of what I had established down and am rebuilding. But it doesn’t mean I forgot the important lessons I’ve learned in building the professional I sought out to do 7 years ago.