Engineers, Dreamers, Artists, and Practitioners

I've commented before that Nikon is an excellent engineering company. Indeed, most of the camera companies have large rosters of great engineers. What I haven't gone into at length is the team balance that's needed in building out a product. Let's call that product management, though some of you may disagree with my broad use of the term.

The goal of product management is to build competitive products that people (or businesses) will buy. Those products might be targeted toward the lowest common denominator (e.g. true consumer products) or toward high-end niche, plus anything in between. Company A might use economies of scale to reach more consumers more broadly, while Company B might use narrow and concentrated focus to fully satisfy a smaller group.

I personally think of product management differently than do many others, and you can see a bit of that in the headline: you need a broad range of staff who come at the problem—figuring out what constitutes a sellable product—from different angles. If you get out of balance in any of those things you start being less efficient (fewer sales than you could have had). 

Good engineering isn't a problem in Tokyo. I've met a lot of camera company "engineers" (they don't always have that specific title, but their point of view is almost always from the engineering side), and I can't remember a single one who wasn't sharp, well educated, and highly intelligent about the typically narrow problems they were tasked at working on. A modern camera has many "narrow" problems to solve: sensor, processor, metering, focus, speed, image quality, communication, alignment, stabilization, viewfinder, controls, and a host of others. 

Each company breaks the engineering problems down a little differently, but it's not unusual to find a small group focused (literally) only on autofocus. Nikon has had such a group (actually groups) for as long as I've been dealing with them (I first met with Nikon engineers in Tokyo in 1994, and have done so several times since). Likewise, Nikon has long had a group peeping at the details within image sensors. I remember one meeting at Nikon HQ where I was meeting with "one each" from about a dozen such narrowly defined engineering areas. The generalist in me felt entirely out of place with all those specialists.

One thing that's been a bit strange while closely watching Nikon is that sometimes the engineers "invent" something useful only they don't actually deploy it into a product. Nikon was first with image stabilization (in patents), but was actually late to roll it into their serious cameras (Canon did so first). I can point to quite a few instances like that, where Nikon's engineering team figured something useful out but that didn't initially become something that got into their key products. Heck, even the phase-detect-on-sensor first done with the Nikon 1 took too long to get to the mainstream Nikon ILC bodies. 

So the question is why would that be?

It's because of three types of engineers you need on your design team to create great products. Let me tackle those roles and tell you how they apply to a product such as a camera:

  • Dreamers — Engineers can be dreamers. But most aren't. By dreamer I mean "imagine entirely new possibilities due to newly or about-to-be available parts." Engineers in Silicon Valley were even dreaming about things like iPads long before the parts necessary to make one became available (e.g. Alan Kay and his Dynabook concept back in 1968). "Dreaming" was the reason why I personally abandoned my formal educational training and embraced silicon in the late 70's. I wanted to be part of defining what was newly possible due to advances in underlying building blocks (mostly semiconductors, but there were other building blocks, as well). Indeed, Ted Nelson's 1974 book, Computer Lib/Dream Machines was an eye-opener for me, because as a writer here was someone talking about how the future of "hypertext" would unleash writers ;~). Hypertext was a fundamental dream idea that ultimately led to the Internet's URL links, though Ted was consistently disappointed in how that didn't live up to his dream. We do see dreaming happening with camera designs from time to time. IBIS is one example, and the extension of IBIS to pixel-shift is another. You see, one building block can lead many directions, but only if you dream well. 
  • Artists — Jony Ive at Apple is an extreme example of someone in product development applying "art" over all else. Jony is a primary reason why things were removed from Apple products and forced into a Bahaus and Dieter Ram-inspired modern simplicity. The only problem was that Jony seemed to keep stumbling on #2 and #4 of Ram's design principles. But much of Ram's influence is indeed useful in product development. We don't want products that are obtrusive, for instance, which is where things like Olympus' menus, Sony's strange naming conventions, and things like Nikon's MB-N10 grip that was really just a second battery holder come into play. We also want products that are long-lasting. But it's really Ram's "aesthetic" and "as little design as possible" bits that speak strongly to the "artist" side of product development and engineering. 
  • Practitioners — Here I mean developers who are actually using the product, and in the ways that customers are also using the product. Fujifilm and Panasonic have the engineering staffs that I see as most interested in cameras as cameras, much as you and I are. I've met engineers at other camera companies that don't even use cameras! Yet at the two Japanese companies I just mentioned I keep running into engineers who've got a camera with them most of the time and are discovering the pluses and minuses of features and controls directly, the same way we customers do. Apple is one such company where that is taken to the nth degree: those working on Apple products use Apple products, and not just one or two, but typically almost all of them. It's one reason why the Apple ecosystem is arguably more focused than those of other companies: Apple designers are also Apple customers; they see the limitations, flaws, and possibilities directly and quickly. 

You need four specialists in a product design group. (1) You need talented engineers who can apply both known and newly discovered technologies to a problem, and in iterating small, but important components of the overall product. (2) You need a few dreamers who have imaginations that expand what is being done to new, useful horizons. (3) You need artists who can keep the overall design approachable, understandable, and useful, as well as visually desirable. (4) And you need practitioners who discover the limitations and issues with what was created by actually using them, and then figuring out how to move products forward in the future iterations. 

The recent Nikon Zfc is getting a lot of attention lately, so it's a good product to examine for those four specialists. In particular, Nikon is getting a lot of credit for #3, particularly in the "desirable" aspect of art. It's in #4 that I see Nikon stumbling with the Zfc, as, just as with the Df before it the dials that are so elegantly part of #3 can start lying to you or become unused in practice. I don't see much of #2 in the Zfc, but there are plenty of examples of #1 (tuning and improving the focus system, for instance).

I'd tend to argue that all the camera companies have too few dreamers, artists, and practitioners, and too much concentration on straight out engineers working on specific problems. Which ironically has made cameras lag what is happening in other tech fields. 

We need more dreaming, artistry, and practical focus in our cameras. We don't need 15% more pixels with 5% better DR. We don't need 30 fps instead of 20 fps. We don't need a lot of the things you see in every new camera announcement. Not that we won't accept them—improvement is improvement, if it doesn't cause additional problems—but engineering-centric iteration isn't moving the bar fast enough to keep up with what's possible, nor is it solving some of the bigger outstanding user problems.

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