Always Day One—How the Tech Titans Plan to Stay on Top Forever (Book Review): Getting the formula right?

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December 20, 2020 12:30 AM

Kantrowitz’s book is yet another attempt to decode what makes tech titans successful

The book talks about the culture of innovation characterised by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, a champion of day one philosophy (Photo source: Bloomberg)

Quite a few years ago, in the chemistry lab of my school, I was asked to mix two chemicals and observe the reaction. I wasn’t the only one conducting that experiment, and each person repeating the same task got the same result. Physics was no different. No matter which way the prism was held, it would split sunlight into the same colours. Mathematics was similar, as long as you applied the rules correctly, you got the same answer. But this certainty was limited only to the sciences. One could apply the same model of democracy to different places and get vastly different results. Despite rules and laws, economics has also defied normal functioning. There are factors beyond control. Joseph Schumpeter would have argued that innovation works no matter what the principle, but what he did not take into account was market dynamics. Perhaps the greatest example of the failure of the theory was the
implementation of Karl Marx’s ideals to the USSR experiment or Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of Uber Mensch.

The concept has not been limited to economics or humanities; over the last few years, authors have tried to formulate the idea of success. The ideas have certainly changed, but the core principle has remained the same. Self-help books no longer come with titles like How to Make Money or Earn Influence, but are more focused on detailing the lives and workings of startups and internet darlings. Practices of technology giants is the formula every author is trying to write about. So, it is not surprising to find words like “…technology giants have uncovered this new formula early. The time has come to release it to everyone.”

Alex Kantrowitz’s work Always Day One: How the Tech Titans Stay on Top is a similar venture. Kantrowitz has been a journalist for long and has observed the industry from up close. So it comes as no surprise that he claims to bear the secret recipe for success. But unlike other self-help authors and tech historians, Kantrowitz is not gung-ho about the approach of the tech titans. He recognises the dangers they pose and the toxicity that has crept in most of these organisations. But he still holds a cheery attitude about the prospect of such firms.

The book is divided into seven chapters, starting with the culture of innovation characterised by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who is also the champion of day one philosophy. Then chapters are divided into companies and the CEOs that carry a cult-like personality. Mark Zuckerberg, Sunder Pichai, Tim Cook and Satya Nadella form the content of the next few chapters with the author presenting his own insights in the last two chapters. If you are familiar with the tech world and recent technology events, there’s nothing that you do not know. It’s the same story repeated over and over again. The insights are not too different either. While Kantrowitz provides a shallow narrative of each co-founder and each company, he also tries to underline the common philosophy, something that he calls the engineer’s mindset of innovating and breaking new barriers.

Think of Schumpeter’s wave of innovations without any explanation on how to arrive at them. While the idea of the book is to sell the common thread that binds these companies, unfortunately, there is none to speak of. Each company is different and rather than detailing a recipe for success, what the author is explaining is the grandiose nature of the co-founders and that they can barely do anything wrong. Each has evolved perfect systems, which have made their companies perfect. But then that is also the problem with kings and folklores. Had they not been victorious, who would sing their praises?

The last two chapters find more semblance with how Kantrowitz approaches technology and what his ideas are about the nature of society. But these too are cliched. I would recommend Kantrowitz as a guide for dummies to startup tech culture. It’s a history of tech companies surmised in one place. Otherwise, if you search on the web, all you will get are disaggregated versions about each company. There is no decoding of trends or uncovering of secrets, but there are still some takeaways.

The problem as I started detailing at the beginning of this review was Schumpeter’s lopsided notion of innovation. Unless market forces permit, innovation, no matter how revolutionary, does not reach the consumer. There is more to success than just getting the eureka moment.

Always Day One: How the Tech Titans Plan to Stay on Top Forever
Alex Kantrowitz
Penguin Random House
Pp 272, Rs 799

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