Research stumps managers: Gosling

Even after 18 years with Sun Microsystems Inc., James Gosling, the father of the Java programming language who hails from Calgary, still seems to think of himself as something of an outsider among the company’s higher-ups.

“I’m the poseur in this crowd,” he said during his keynote speech recently at Sun’s SunNetwork conference in San Francisco. Gosling explained that his talk would focus on “things you can’t write purchase orders for.”

Indeed, as a member of Sun’s research arm, SunLabs, he talked about neither new products nor the sorry state of the company’s stock, but instead elucidated on the fundamental differences between research and business thinking. It’s a dissimilarity that enterprises encompassing both elements, as Sun does, would be wise to take note of.

Researchers are a breed apart from business managers, Gosling said. He quoted Albert Einstein, who described the nature of the lab maven’s mindset:

“If we knew what it was we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research, would it?”

“It’s a little hard for managers to grasp,” Gosling added, pointing out that product groups know just what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. Research isn’t so cut-and-dried. Rather than aim for a product release date, it’s up to the research team to get theoretical, to devise novel underlying processes that just might – or might not – lead to a new product or service in the future.

Thanks to the fundamentally different mindsets business folks and researchers employ, “research doesn’t work all that well in product groups,” Gosling said.

What helps a research group reach its goals is flexibility, he said. For example, it’s no good putting researchers in large groups to quicken the pace of discovery. Researchers tend to be loners who prefer to tackle projects on their own, rather than deal with the stress of teamwork, Gosling said.

Research departments also tend to work with extended project times. Whereas a business group might spend a year on an endeavour, Gosling said researchers can spend up to a decade diving into a problem.

In the business world, failure is a bad thing, he noted. There’s more at stake when a project has undergone research, development and is just about ready for release. When it fails at that stage, the company loses precious human resource investment and practically wastes intellectual property.

Not so at the research stage. “Failure is good,” Gosling said. “You often learn more from the failure than from success.”

He also pointed out the difference between “importance” and “urgency,” and the dissimilar ways research and business people view them. For researchers, urgent matters have the stench of panic about them, as if a quick fix is required to solve the problem. Important matters, on the other hand, usually have more time on their side. Gosling said researchers are obliged to focus on important things. He said he ignores urgent matters. By paying attention to the important stuff researchers can catch and manipulate the details so what’s important doesn’t suddenly become urgent somewhere down the line.

Gosling seemed to embrace his black-sheep status as chief disrupter at Sun. He said just because the SunLabs crew operates on a slightly different clock from the rest of the company doesn’t mean the researchers are left out of the loop. In fact, thanks to their unique position researchers can have a big impact on the company’s business mindset, he said.

However, Gosling also said the researcher’s stance as influential outsider comes with an equally unique benchmark for success. Whereas business managers know they’ve done a good job depending on how well clients receive new services and products, Gosling measures success by “how much the rest of the company hates us.”

“We’ll figure out something, go to a product group and say, ‘There’s a better way,’ or ‘You’re doing it wrong…’ You can use their annoyance as a sign of how right you are, or how big a problem it is.”