Appreciating quality

Over Labor Day I spent some time ranting about how the quality of jeans and many consumer goods has been on a steep decline as U.S. companies have ggressively outsourced production.It would be easy to write the discussion off as an abnormal geek obsession. Ok that's true. But I do believe that the recognition of quality and craftsmanship is important if you, yourself, want to produce a high quality product.

Joel recently released a talk he gave at last year's Business of Software Conference. When discussing the importance of aesthetics in software he made the following comment:

You can hire a graphic designer, but unless you actually know how to even evaluate what an artist produces, then you are going to do the Microsoft thing where they apparently hire graphic designers but the stuff is still ugly.

Yes. That is exactly it. Microsoft pays a small fortune every year on graphic and product design, but it is very clear that the culture of the company prohibits producing products in good taste, which reminds of the classic MS iPod package design video.

Contrast this with Apple and Steve Jobs. Even Steve's wardrobe exudes simplicity, functionality, and good taste, and that aesthetic is visible in their products.

In his 2005 Stanford commencement speech Jobs had the following to say regarding his education:

Reed College [which Jobs briefly attended and dropped out of] at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn't have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this.

I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography.

It is clear to me that Jobs not only appreciates the aesthetic qualities of the products he markets, he understands the details, such as high quality typography, that separate a high quality product from failure. If you don't recognize, appreciate, and pay for the details that go into the products you use every day,how can you create a great product?

As I've headed into product and project management, I've become not only a producer, but a consumer -- a consumer of human capital. I have to know what I want and how to get it. So yes, obsessing about the details and manufacturing of the products I use might be uncommon; but I believe the ability to recognize the details is essential in creating high quality software.

Obsessing about quality can enable small companies to compete against giants. The established companies in any domain often have a level of breadth in their products that a small vendor cannot match. But small companies can compete on depth by creating very narrow, but extremely well executed and detailed products. But to do so, you have appreciate quality in your own work and the work of others.

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