Insider says doom looms at RIM
BlackBerry apps 'suck', dev tools '%&@!$#%'
Times are tough at RIM, home of the fading BlackBerry. Sales are slipping, profits are evaporating, and now a high-level staffer has written to the company's co-presidents to inform them that "things have never been more chaotic," urging them to make "bold decisions" to right the ship – before it's too late.
"We're all reading the news and many are extremely nervous, especially when we see people get fired," reads a letter from the unnamed "high-level" RIM employee obtained by the Boy Genius Report, which says that it has verified the writer's identity. "The headhunters have already started circling," he writes, "and we are at risk of losing our best people."
RIM's hurried response to the letter's publication was typical corporatese. The unsigned blog posting argues that it's "particularly difficult to believe that a 'high level employee' in good standing with the company would choose to anonymously publish a letter on the web rather than engage their fellow executives in a constructive manner."
The letter-writer, we should note, says that such discussions aren't wise at RIM: "... unfortunately," he writes, "the culture at RIM does not allow us to speak openly without having to worry about the career-limiting effects."
RIM's response claims that "there is much excitement and optimism within the company about the new products that are lined up for the coming months," and that the "company is thankfully in a solid business and financial position to tackle the opportunities ahead."
That's hardly the mood and situation in Waterloo, Ontario, according to the 1,750-word epistle that inspired RIM's "everything's fine" rejoinder. That anonymous plea to RIM co-presidents Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis is from a disaffected employee who nevertheless "desperately want[s] RIM to regain its position as a successful industry leader," and who offers an eight-point set of suggestions.
Before the unnamed penman offers his suggestions, however, he unburdens himself. "I have lost confidence," he writes. "While I hide it at work, my passion has been sapped." And, ominously: "I know I am not alone."
Although, as RIM's response rightly states, it's impossible to know "whether the letter is real, fake, exaggerated or written with ulterior motivations," the writer's eight-point plan is a model – whether fictional or real – of speaking truth to power in an environment in which "Some of our offices feel like Soviet-era government workplaces."
The Eightfold Way
To quote some of the "high-level employee's" more-salient points:
- Focus on the End User experience: We simply have to admit that Apple is nailing this and it is one of the reasons they have people lining up overnight at stores around the world, and products sold out for months. These people aren't hypnotized zombies, they simply love beautifully designed products.
- Recruit Senior SW Leaders & enable decision-making: Just look at who our major competitors are: Apple, Google & Microsoft. These are three of the biggest and most talented software companies on the planet. Then take a look at our software leadership teams in terms of what they have delivered and their past experience prior to RIM... It says everything.
- Cut projects to the bone: Strategy is often in the things you decide not to do. On that note, we simply must stop shipping incomplete products that aren't ready for the end user. It is hurting our brand tremendously. It takes guts to not allow a product to launch that may be 90% ready with a quarter end in sight, but it will pay off in the long term.
- Developers, not Carriers can now make or break us: There is no polite way to say this, but it's true – BlackBerry smartphone apps suck. Even PlayBook, with all its glorious power, looks like a Fisher Price toy with its Adobe AIR/Flash apps. ... Our SDK/development platform is like a rundown 1990's Ford Explorer.
- Need for serious marketing punch to create end user desire: A product's technical superiority does not equal desire, and therefore sales... How many Linux laptops are getting sold? How did Betamax go? ... BlackBerry Messenger has been our standout, yet we wasted our marketing on strange stories from a barber shop to a horse wrangler.
- No Accountability – Canadians are too nice: RIM has a lot of people who underperform but still stay in their roles. No one is accountable. Where is the guy responsible for the 9530 software? Still with us, still running some important software initiative. ... It's time to change the culture to deliver or move on and get out.
- The press and analysts are pissing you off. Don't snap: The public’s questions about dual-CEOs are warranted. ...perhaps it is time to seriously consider a new, fresh thinking, experienced CEO. There is no shame in no longer being a CEO. Mike, you could focus on innovation. Jim, you could focus on our carriers/customers.
- Democratise. Engage and interact with your employees: Encourage input from ground-level teams – without repercussions – to seek out honest feedback and really absorb it. ... Now would be a great time to internally re-brand and re-energize the workplace. For example, rename the company to just "BlackBerry" to signify our new focus on one QNX product line.
BlackBerry boldness or business as usual?
Will this brave soul's input have any effect on the co-presidents' rule? Will his suggestion that they resign cause Balsillie and Lazaridis to turn a blind eye, a deaf ear, and a cold shoulder to such reasonable ideas as updating RIM's clunky development environment?
After all, even as singularly uninventive a tech CEO as Steve Ballmer got it right when he famously chanted: "Developers, developers, developers, developers!"
And whether or not you agree with the writer's belief that purchasers of Apple kit aren't "hypnotized zombies", it's hard to fault him on his analysis that RIM's "Barber Shop" and "Horseman" ads may not have been the best ways to inspite gotta-have-it-now-now-now product lust.
So will Balsillie and Lazaridis maintain their public confidence but quietly take his words to heart? Will the company culture expand to accept criticism, anonymous or otherwise? Will "the guy responsible for the 9530 software" have a job next month?
From RIM's response, it appears that the answer will be "No." After all, their blog post insists, the company has a "solid balance sheet ... strong profitability ... and substantial international growth."
In other words, nothing to see here, move along. And may we suggest to the anonymous "high-level employee" that he remain anonymous – at least until he can contact those circling headhunters. ®
Business as usual in a lot places I'm afraid
The Board being out of touch with what's happening on the ground and passionate, committed engineers who, working in narrow silos, don't see the overall picture really is BAU in any tech company of significant size.
Typically the engineers are baffled that, although they can see problems, the company still seems to retain some profitability and the crisis they are all hoping for that might bring much needed change just never occurs. Similarly the Board is baffled that, despite their leadership, management is unable to implement their vision without encountering issues such as staff retention, rising costs or poorer than expected sales.
The truth that both these sides choose to ignore is that to lead the field in any market usually involves just being in the right place at the right time and can come down to a single decision made months, or even years, previously that at the time probably didn't seem significant.
Every time you read about the latest successful company (or person) what you don't see is the endless graveyard full of also-rans and failures. Too much credit is taken for their own success without the humility to realise that, like a lottery, success was bound to happen to someone and doesn't come down to pontificated company 'values' or mission statements or personal/corporate visions.
Don't get me wrong - there are things that companies typically do that ensure they never even get close to no.1 (short term focus on costs, hiring outside the field, creating management layers to buffer accountability and generate promotion paths) but lets just see how this rant is recieved first before we go into that one!
As a current Nokia employee I can only sympathise with this RIMM employee.
The pleas are very familiar. Unfortunately, as this person is probably a lowly software engineer, his/her views will be completely ignored while upper management, who make the decisions (eventually) and call the shots, run laps around the Wishing Tree in the hope they'll make themselves look good. Face it, the opinions of software engineers will never be taken seriously when it comes to company direction.
Anon for obvious reasons.
Excellent post, Youngdog
A couple of extra thoughts for you:
Where management consultants go wrong (beyond swallowing the ludicrous notion that there can be such a thing as a management consultant in the first place) is thinking that "we just need to identify the '7 habits of highly successful businesses' and anyone who follows them will be equally successful" - vide Tom Peters et al. They ignore the fact that most wildly successful businesses are successful largely because of a (series of) massive fluke(s) and are usually dysfunctional in many other ways (which is why most of them don't survive for more than 10-20 years). What they should really be doing is identifying the common factors among companies that *fail* and saying "please don't do any of these things or you'll go bust".
Take Bill Gates as a case in point. I'm prepared to believe that he's (a) smart; (b) hard working; and (c) a ruthless operator - but not that he was at the top of any of these categories in Washington state, let alone the US. Among the flukes that led Microsoft to dominance (apart from the big one of IBM knocking on his door and dumping a golden opportunity on his lap - which he seized with both hands):
(a) his trust fund - it's a lot easier to drop out of college and pursue your dream if you know that in the (highly likely) event that it all goes tits up, you're not going to be living in a cardboard box - see also Richard Branson;
(b) timing - had he been born a few years earlier, there would have been no microcomputer revolution going on for him to join and he would probably have ended up in his dad's law firm. A few years later and the key operators would already have been set up.
To his credit, I think BillG recognised this, which is why he spent a lot of time looking over his shoulder for the new guys coming up behind him. Contrast this behaviour with the Larry Ellisons of this world who tend to believe that they would have been equally successful whatever the circumstances and that their wealth is just reward for their natural abilities.