Kelly Johnson In Skunk Works

I still have 80 pages to go on Skunk Works, but this book has been one of the best I’ve ever read.

The story revolves around an elite group within Lockheed Martin called Skunk Works, who worked on top secret projects and engineered some of the most famous aircraft in the history of aviation. The book was authored by Ben Rich, Skunk Works second director, and central to the story was Clarence ‘Kelly’ Johnson, the founder of Skunk Works who was a genius on both technical and management fronts.

There were many gems scattered throughout the pages, but my personal favourites were these words of wisdom during conversations between Kelly Johnson and Ben Rich.

The first one was when Ben told Kelly about his plan to attend a 13-week advance program at Harvard Business School, which was only available to 150 carefully selected executives. Kelly wrote Ben a glowing recommendation, but still insisted that it would be a complete waste of Ben’s time.

I’ll teach you all you need to know about running a company in one afternoon, and we’ll both go home early to boot. You don’t need Harvard to teach you that it’s more important to listen than to talk. You can get straight As from all your Harvard profs, but you’ll never make the grade unless you’re decisive: even a timely wrong decision is better than no decision. The final thing you need to know is don’t half-heartedly wound problems – kill them dead. That’s all there is to it. Now you can run this goddamn place. Now, go home and pour yourself a drink.

After Ben completed the program and returned to Skunk Works, Kelly asked him for his appraisal of the Harvard Business School. Ben wrote the equation: 2/3 of HBS = BS .

The second one was when Ben revealed that he had been approached by Northrop, a rival company, and was offered a significant salary raise along with the opportunity to build a Skunk Works-style group within Northrop. Here’s part of Kelly’s response…

Hell, in the main plant they give raises on the basis of the more people being supervised; I give raises to the guy who supervises least. That means he’s doing more and taking more responsibility. But most executives don’t think like that at all. Northrop’s senior guys are no different from all of the rest in this busines: they’re all empire builders, because that’s how they’ve been trained and conditioned. Those guys are all experts at covering their asses by taking votes on what to do next. They will never sit still for a secret operation that cuts them out entirely. Control is the name of the game, and if a Skunk Works really operates right, control is exactly what they won’t get.

And the most inspiring of them all was Kelly’s can-do attitude which he used to improve the people around him. Here’s what he said after Ben told him that there was no practical application to liquid hydrogen because it was so dangerous to store and handle, based on Mark’s Mechanical Engineering Handbook, the engineer’s bible…

Goddam it, Rich, I don’t care what in hell that book says what you happen to think. Liquid hydrogen is the same as steam. What is steam? Condensed water. Hydrogen plus oxygen produces water. That’s all that liquid hydrogen really is. Now, get out there and do the job for me.

A must read, even if you’re not an engineer, even if you’re not running a company, specially if you like pushing the limit of what’s possible in whatever field you’re doing.

Quotes From 37signals Rework

Pictured above is my copy of Rework. The photo was taken by Latte Girl at the State Library of Victoria.

If there’s ever going to be anyone changing the way we work and the way we run a business, then I’ll bet my money on the 37signals guys. This is one book I’d suggest everyone to read (unless you’re filthy rich and never have to work). I see Rework as the agile movement for the broader working industry. There are so many practices that are just brain-dead-absolute-must pick ups. The challenge out of this will be on the natural fact that people are uncomfortable with change, even when the change is for the better.

I finished reading Rework several months ago, and as usual, I kept a list of my favourite lines from the book. 37signals (via Jason Fried) kindly gave me permission to share those lines on my blog, so here they are:

Cover – What you need to do is stop talking and start working.

Ignore the real world

p14 – The real world isn’t a place, it’s an excuse. It’s a justification for not trying. It has nothing to do with you.

Failure is not a rite of passage

p17 – Success is the experience that actually counts.

Work work work work work

p25 – They (the workaholics) try to make up for intellectual laziness with brute force. This results in inelegant solutions.

Be a starter

p28 – You just need an idea, a touch of confidence, and a push to get started.

Make a dent in the universe

p31 – Don’t sit around and wait for someone else to make the change you want to see.

Scratch of your own itch

p34 – The easiest, most straightforward way to create a great product or service is to make something you want to use.


p38 – The most important thing is to begin.
p38 – The real question is how well you execute.

Not an excuse!

p40 – The truth is most people just don’t want it bad enough.


p57 – Actual businesses worry about profit from day one.

You need a commitment strategy not an exit strategy

p59 – You should be thinking about how to make your project grow and succeed, not how you’re going to jump ship.

Less is a good thing

p68 – So before you sing the “not enough” blues, see how far you can get with what you have.


p74 – Nail the basics first and worry about the specifics later.
p75 – Details just don’t buy you anything in the early stages.

Decisions are progress

p77 – Commit to making decisions. Don’t wait for the perfect solution. Decide and move forward.
p78 – Don’t make things worse by overanalysing and delaying before you even get going.

Get it out there

p93-94 – So we used the time before launch to solve more urgent problems that actually mattered on day one. Day 30 could wait.
p94 – … the best way to get there is through iterations. Stop imagining what’s going to work. Find out for real.

Pour yourself into your product

p139 – Pour yourself into your product and everything around your product too: how you sell it, how you support it, how you explain it, and how you deliver it. Competitors can never copy the you in your product.

Focus on you instead of they

p149 – It’s not a win-or-lose battle. Their profits and costs are their. Yours are yours.

Let your customers outgrow you

p157 – Scaring away new customers is worse than losing old customers.

Don’t out-spend, out-teach

p173 – Buying people’s attention with a magazine or online banner ad is one thing. Earning their loyalty by teaching them forms a whole different connection. They’ll trust you more. They’ll respect you more.

Fake fake fake

p183 – It’s OK if it’s not perfect. You might not seem as professional, but you will seem a lot more genuine.

Everything is marketing

p193 – Accounting is a department. Marketing isn’t. Marketing is something everyone in your company is doing 24/7/365.

Pass on great people

p206 – Great has nothing to do with it. If you don’t need someone, you don’t need someone.

What does 5 years experience mean anyway?

p213 – How long someone’s been doing it is overrated. What matters is how well they’ve been doing it.

Hire managers of 1

p220 – Managers of one are people who come up with their own goals and execute them. … How can you spot these people? … They’ve run something on their own or launched some kind of project.

Hire the better writer

p222 – Writing is today’s currency for good ideas.

Everyone on the front lines

p242 – It’s feeling the hurt that really motivates people to fix the problem. And the flip side is true too: The joy of happy customers or ones who have had a problem solved can also be wildly motivating.

Culture is the by-product of consistent behaviour

p249 – You can’t install a culture. Like a fine scotch, you’ve got to give it time to develop.

Decisions are temporary

p251 – Optimize for now and worry about the future later.

Build a rockstar environment

p253 – Cut the crap and you’ll find that people are waiting to do great work.

Send people home at five

p 258 – You want busy people. People who have a life outside of work. People who care about more than one thing. You shouldn’t expect the job to be someone’s entire life – at least not if you want to keep them around for a long time.

Inspiration expires now

p271 – Inspiration is a magical thing, a productivity multiplier, a motivator. But it won’t wait for you.

As I read through the book, I couldn’t stop relating each chapter with my own experience working in the industry for the past 9 years. And here’s hoping the next 9 years will be more rework-able.

Garry Kasparov’s How Life Imitates Chess

I finished reading How Life Imitates Chess a few months ago, and finally had the chance to go through my notes this afternoon during lunch break.

Having followed the world of chess ever since I was a teenager, I’ve always been interested to know how great chess players think, to know their opinions about life, to know the things they went through to achieve their extraordinary skills… and this book offers exactly that.

Garry Kasparov wrote about his experience, his thinking process, and how he applied all those things into various aspects of life. These are my favourite quotes from the book:

Ch1 – The lesson
It’s not enough to be talented. It’s not enough to work hard and to study late into the night. You must also become intimately aware of the methods you use to reach your decisions.

Ch2 – Strategy
“Why?” is the question that separates visionaries from functionaries, great strategists from mere tacticians. You must ask this question constantly if you are to understand and develop and follow your strategy.

Ch3 – Strategy and tactics at work
… our goal is to improve our position. You must avoid creating weaknesses, find small ways to improve your pieces, and think small – but never stop thinking.

Ch4 – Calculation
A computer may look at millions of moves per second, but lacks a deep sense of why one move is better than another; this capacity for evaluation is where computers falter and humans excel. It doesn’t matter how far ahead you see if you don’t understand what you are looking at.

Ch5 – Talent
Break your routines, even to the point of changing ones you are happy with to see if you can find new and better methods.

Ch6 – Preparation
If you said you didn’t have enough time, that meant you were not well organized.

Botvinnik summed up his philosophy by stating, “The difference between man and animal is that man is capable of establishing priorities!”

Ch7 – MTQ: Material, time, quality
But I believe that by using your time wisely you can put all your material to your best advantage and achieve the ultimate goal of quality. That’s the promise of the material-time-quality concept–in chess and in life.

Ch8 – Exchanges and imbalances
If we can detect or cultivate a weak spot in our opponent’s position, we can then attempt to transform our position to take advantage of that weakness.

Ch 9 – Phases of the game
So dedicate yourself to making the time, finding a space in which you can think and learn, and finding new ideas with which to shock your adversaries.

Ch11 – Question success
Question the status quo at all times, especially when things are going well. When something goes wrong, you naturally want to do it better next time, but you must train yourself to want to do it better even when things go right.

Ch12 – The inner game
That’s why I always think of Simon Bolivar and remember that experienced soldier who studies the battlefields in the aftermath of the war returns with both wisdom and renewed courage.

Ch13 – Man vs. machine
Weak human + machine + superior process was greater than a strong computer and, remarkably, greater than a strong human + machine with an inferior process.

Ch14 – Intuition
As they develop, our instincts–our intuitive senses–become labor-saving and time-saving devices; they literally cut down the time it takes to make a proper evaluation and act. You can collect and analyze new information forever without ever making a decision. Something has to tell you when the law of diminishing returns is kicking in. And that something is intuition.

Ch15 – Crisis point
But in fact, crisis really means a turning point, a critical moment when the stakes are high and the outcome uncertain. It also implies a point of no return. This signifies both danger and opportunity…

Another thing I like about this book is that it also validates my belief on the importance of wanting to improve the way you do things, and also on the importance of understanding what you are doing.

And regarding Garry’s current involvement in politics… as much as I wish him all the best, I’m afraid this is one battle he’s unlikely to win despite his brilliance (and I’d love to be proven wrong!). Politics defy any form of logic and reasoning, chess is a much more peaceful world in any way.