Friday, April 29, 2016

Review: Matterhorn

My standard for Vietnam War books is The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien. But Matterhorn might very well replace that. Matterhorn is the name of a firebase during the Vietnam war, and the novel follows the travails of Bravo company, amongst which is one Lieutenant Mellas, a college educated Marine Corps officer who for idealistic reasons, opted not to go for deferment and ended up in the infantry instead.

One by one, you get to know other members of the company, officers, NCOs, machine-gunners and yes, the guy who's only got a few weeks left to go on his tour and is dreaming of going back to the girlfriend he left behind in Thailand. The story is good, with Bravo company getting screwed over by senior military officers who're trying to make themselves look good at the expense of the men they command.

If you're wondering why a Vietnam War novel might be relevant to a software engineer, I think this short passage might change your mind:
“You know why we’re really strung out in this fucking death canyon?” Mellas didn’t know, so he just grunted. “Because Fitch doesn’t know how to play the fucking game. That’s why. He’s a good combat leader. I’d literally follow him to my death. But he’s not a good company commander in this kind of war. He got on Simpson’s bad side because he got his picture in the paper too often and never gave Simpson credit, which by the way he doesn’t deserve, but that’s the point. The smart guy gives the guy with the power the credit, whether he deserves it or not. That way the smart guy is dangling something the boss wants. So the smart guy now has power over the boss.” (Loc. 3841-47)
Over and over again, the novel doesn't flinch from the power politics that are played at high levels in a corporation (and in this case, the Marine Corps is just as functional or dysfunctional as any large corporation). At one point, Bravo company is tasked with digging trenches and building bunkers to defend a hill --- only to be told to abandon it to prepare for another assault elsewhere in Vietnam. Whereupon the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) promptly take over those defenses and Bravo company is then tasked with assaulting the very defenses they had built from a disadvantageous position. The poor Google engineers who built the very first version of Google Drive were similarly told to abandon it, only to have to launch again after Dropbox proved that the market existed and is pretty lucrative must have felt very similar to the marines in Bravo company. In fact, just as some of the high performing officers were unfairly blamed by their commanding officers for incompetence, I myself heard a Senior Staff Engineer at Google blame the former tech lead for Google Drive for failure to push against the killing of the project.

There's a passage where Mellas thinks about the Colonel in charge of the operation:
Mellas would probably have said that Blakely didn’t have what it takes, but Mellas would have been wrong. Blakely would have performed a lower-level job just as well as he performed his current job—competently, not perfectly, but well enough to get the work done and stay out of trouble. He’d make the same sorts of small mistakes, but they’d have a smaller effect. Instead of sending a company out without food, he might place a machine gun at a disadvantage. But the Marines under him would make up for mistakes like that. They’d fight well with the imperfect machine-gun layout. The casualties would be slightly higher, with slightly fewer enemy dead, but the statistics of perfection never show up in any reporting system. A victory is reported with the casualties it takes to secure that victory, not the casualties it would have taken if the machine gun had been better placed. There was nothing sinister in this. Blakely himself would not be aware that he’d positioned the machine gun poorly. He’d feel bad about his casualties for a while. But reflecting on why or for what wasn’t something Blakely did. Right now the problem before him was to engage the enemy and get the body count as high as possible. He wanted to do a good job, as any decent person would, and now he’d finally figured out a way to do so. He might actually get to use the entire battalion in a battle all at one time, an invaluable experience for a career officer.  (Loc. 6174-84)
That's the reality of management in a big organization, and an inherent limitation in the data-driven management techniques used today. Suboptimal code (or machine gun placement) sure as heck matters to the marines who get killed because of it (and to the engineers who have to maintain or work-around the problems), but it's not visible at all in the aggregate level to senior management. As a result, incompetent managers with serious political skills get promoted far more frequently than competent managers who lack such skills. In a high quality organization (like the Marine Corps or Google), the rank-and-file who get hired (or enlisted) are so good that they can make even incompetent managers look great. In fact, in certain circumstances, high casualties, constant war-rooms, and constant enemy engagement can make such managers look like stars, even though a better manager could have avoided all of the above. (And no, I have no idea whether the Marine Corps or Google's rank and file are really that far above average nowadays, but back when I was at Google, the average engineer was really really good, and in many cases much better than the average manager)

I'm at risk at this point of making this novel sound like a treatise in office politics, self-promotion, and lessons in how to make yourself (and your boss) look good rather than a great novel.  Let me try to disabuse you of that. It's a great novel. It's got great characters, a transparent prose style, an interesting plot and setting. It explains why the North Vietnamese beat the Americans despite the latter's overwhelming technology advantage: the terrain and weather negated most of the advantages the Marines had over their enemies, and organizational dysfunction took care of the rest.

But at this point, the novel has won so many awards and accolades (it took 30 years to write and publish!) that anything I can say about the conventional aspects of the novel can be (and probably has been) better said elsewhere by professional reviewers. The novel delivers everything a novel should deliver, and provides lessons and entertainment in spades. I paid $2 during a Kindle sale for it, but knowing what I know now would not hesitate to pay full freight. Buy it, read it, and enjoy the heck out of it. And as you do read it, the management/political lessons it provides might turn out be really useful in your career. That makes this book highly recommended.
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