The Venn Diagram of Tech
Like the previous articles in this series (I, II, and III), the following article is based on information from Androids: The Team That Built the Android Operating System. Sometimes, 412 pages just isn’t long enough, so here are a few more words on the subject.
One of the things that fascinated me about the early Android team was the number of people on the team who had already worked together before that project, specifically in these companies: Danger, Be/PalmSource, and WebTV/Microsoft.*
* “Be/PalmSource” and “WebTV/Microsoft” are shorthand ways of referring to acquisitions that happened between those companies, where the team continued though the owner changed. Be became PalmSource after Palm acquired Be’s assets, and WebTV was acquired by Microsoft. The names changed, but the work continued.
In fact, by mid-2006 nearly 80% of the entire Android team had worked at one, two or even all three of these other companies:
Here’s an alternative diagram I created to try to help visualize this flow of people between these organizations. None of my diagrams captured it quite right, so I went with a simpler line graph above in the final version:
This overlap of previous companies and projects helped jump-start the Android engineering team with people who already had deep domain expertise, as well as a strong team dynamic, since they had already worked on teams and similar projects together in the years before Android began.
But this dynamic of people working together wasn’t unique to Android. It is s something I’ve noticed in Silicon Valley, and in tech overall, for my entire career. The combination of a strenuously mobile* workforce, combined with relatively few companies working on fundamental technologies like operating systems, leads to an ecosystem where we all move around and have worked at many of the same companies, even if we haven’t ended up at the same place like that early Android team.
* “mobile” as in“moving around,” not “mobile devices.” English has many words and many awkward overlaps.
I could, for example, have taken the exploration further in the book. I stuck to just those three organizations, but in fact many of the early team members also worked at Apple (many years earlier, in the 80s and early 90s), and at General Magic (in the early 90s). And if I looked further into the background of the entire team, I sure I would find many more connections.
You could just accept all of this with a brief “Huh!” and move on. It is just a fact of tech life that people move around, and that this means (given the large number of tech workers and the smaller number of tech companies) that there would over course be overlap.
But I find the dynamic more interesting to ponder, because I believe so much of technology comes from this exact dynamic. People spend their careers moving from one place to another, developing skills and knowledge along the way. Meanwhile, they do not work in a vacuum; they have colleagues at each of these places. In each of these places, they help create something that is attributable not just to that company where they happened to collect a paycheck, but to the amalgamation of all of the previous organizations they flowed through.
When I was much younger and relatively new to my career in tech and in Silicon Valley, my father (who spent his entire career in one job, working for the US Navy) was befuddled — and a bit dismayed — by my propensity to change jobs. I lasted 2.5 years at my first job out of grad school, then another couple of years in a contracting firm, 9 months in a startup, a few months in a contract, and on and on. In fact, there are only two jobs that I’ve held longer than 2.5 years (the longest stretch being in my current job, on the Android team).
But at no point did I feel like I was risking anything. I felt, instead, that I was keeping things fresh, and learning new skills every time. And when something would get a bit old (or when the company or project was faltering), it was time to move.
What my father didn’t get was this is how tech works. I don’t just mean the companies or the people; I mean everything about tech. The opportunities provide the incentive, engineers like to learn new things, skill-building fosters new ideas, and technologies are created from huge collections of information which benefit from the diversity of people, ideas, and passion that this entire dynamic engenders. So let’s keep learning, moving, building, and doing. That’s how great technology is born.
- There are, of course, occasional market downturns and layoffs/freezes like we are experiencing now, which… suck. I’m sorry for everyone going through this and hold out hope, given tech’s history, that things will return to “normal” soon.
If you find this topic interesting, I’d invite you to check out the book, either in paperback or ebook form from No Starch Press (also available on Amazon, other online print and ebook stores, and local bookstores as well), or in the audiobook from Tantor Media. All profits from all formats are donated to tech-related charities.