Lessons on Decisiveness and More from An Wang
As someone who has lived in Boston for more than 12 years and encountered the “Wang” name across Boston landmarks like the theater and Mass General Hospital, I wanted to learn more about its bearer: An Wang. His 1986 autobiography “Lessons” provided me with the opportunity to do just that.
The book traces Dr. Wang’s journey from China to the U.S. and his work in Harvard’s Computational Lab which was trying to figure out how to make the computer a general purpose tool. There, Dr. Wang solved the problem of reading magnetic information without mechanical motion, contributing to the development of memory cores. Later, semiconductor memory chips would replace core memory in computers.
Dr. Wang proceeded to establish his own company, Wang Laboratories, whose first mainstream successes were through the development of calculators and later, word processing. Wang Laboratories grew into a multi-billion dollar company and shaped Boston and the surrounding communities by creating jobs, attracting new businesses, and reinvesting in the economy, art, and health of the Northeast.
Many of the lessons in the book hold truths beyond their time, but below are my favorite ones that I wanted to highlight:
On Decision Making
It is necessary to gather facts, and to analyze those facts when considering a course of action, but the world is shaped only by actions, and to take action requires confidence.
In his autobiography Dr. Wang writes about how small accomplishments, even successes early on at school, built up his confidence so he could take larger risks in life. He showed a bias for action but also recognized how luck played a role in his fortunes.
I don’t remember fretting about whether or not I would succeed. I would tackle an idea inspired by its immense potential.
Dr. Wang realized that he sold his core memory patent to IBM for less than it was worth, but he didn’t agonize over the outcome. I appreciated the way he expressed that sentiment:
To have become obsessed with the patent would in effect carried with it the suggestion that my most worthwhile ideas were in the past, and I did not feel that this was the case at all.
I still believe that the simplest solution to any engineering problem is the best solution. The fewer the components, the fewer the opportunities for something to go wrong.
The search for simple and elegant solutions is always worth repeating. When Wang Laboratories started to go into the word processing space, they created a focus on usability that I thought was masterfully expressed in the following sentence:
They continued until they had written a manual for a machine that any secretary could learn to use in about half an hour, but which still had all the features they most wanted in a word processor.
What’s more, Wang Labs team became laser focused on their end user, even if that user didn’t have the purchasing power.
We had entered the office because we could make the lowest paid, least powerful, and most numerous workers–the secretaries and office assistants–more productive.
At no point during this process was I looking far into the future. I was instead looking at what technology might deliver to people three to five years down the road, and what that would require the company to be like in order to continue to grow and prosper. I have never thought that I had the wisdom to look further than five years into the future of the computer industry. Long-term planning at a company should be shaped by corporate philosophy–in our case, a twofold commitment to increasing productivity and making people’s jobs easier.
I highlighted this quote because it reassured me that, as product people, we don’t need to try to tell the future. Staying true to our mission is enough.
[..] I have tried to educate my children as to my style of management, which is to lead by example rather than to dictate, and to leave room for individual initiative rather than to spell out every step of how a job is to be accomplished.
Dr. Wang tried to set a personal example with his team and give autonomy to small and highly motivated teams to work on important development projects.
My feeling is that you don’t need special training to learn how to run a business. What you do need is the ability to observe, to test your theories in practice, and to learn from your mistakes.
Several times in his autobiography Dr. Wang talks about mistakes as something that’s positive for the company and the culture, as long as people learn from them.
Mistakes are only harmful if you don’t learn from them, or if too much depends on the outcome of a single project.
On Social Responsibility
What we had was a situation where we in high technology benefited from the advantages of Boston without supporting the institutions, and I thought that this was wrong.
Dr. Wang shows self-awareness that he wasn’t entitled to the opportunities he had at Harvard and throughout the Boston area. For instance, he says, he was able to attract talent thanks to the city’s vivid art and culture. He recognizes that tech companies aren’t doing enough to give back and repay that debt, and tries to set a personal example, sitting on the board of educational institutions, creating the Wang Institute for graduate software engineering studies, investing in awareness of Chinese culture, donating to the Boston Metropolitan Theatre theater (now Wang Theater), MGH, and much more.
When we enter society at birth, we receive an inheritance from the people who lived before us. It is our responsibility to augment that inheritance for those who succeed us.
Dr. Wang passed away in 1990, four years after his autobiography was published, and Wang Laboratories eventually lost its luster and filed for bankruptcy in 1992. After it emerged from bankruptcy Kodak acquired Wang Software and Getronics acquired Wang Global. While this may not be the outcome Dr. Wang wanted to see for his company, it doesn’t diminish all he accomplished and the lessons he was able to share.