This tweet touched off an interesting conversation:

That moment when you are blogging and you realize you should sit down and code an app for that.™ And what do you mean Apple API’s won’t support it?

I read the NYTimes coverage about this, and the comments section had some very interesting commentary from actual engineers. Apparently Samsung has major, major cultural issues that this is bringing to light.

The only cultural issue is the disconnect at Samsung Mobile between their stated core values and their actual one.

The Times article explained that Samsung has a militaristic corporate culture: top-down orders with no bottom-up feedback. Thus, the directive to include all the features and do it as fast as possible.

Next, I’ll be hearing you say that because the Korean language is so formal, lower level engineers couldn’t express their concerns about the battery to their bosses à la Outliers and the Korean Air crashes. Spare me Gladwell-esque racist revisionism. :-D

Samsung has designed tons of phones including the Galaxy S7 that don’t explode. Heck, there are still millions of Galaxy Note 7’s haven’t exploded (yet). They’ve also been a regimented and top-down chaebol since their founding with no problems other than a derivative design.

And, while the I didn’t read the comments, I did read the NYT article last week. I found it really crappy “me-too” reporting (the Verge and others beat them to nearly every important scoop in this story). Their only value-add was a flawed supposition that Samsung could manage the Galaxy Note 7 recall the same way the Tylenol murders in the 80’s were handled. That analogy would only apply if Johnson & Johnson were deliberately putting cyanide in their tablets.

Interesting. The NYT article comments included someone who said they had been in contact with some Samsung engineers who were on some kind of exchange program visiting Stanford. Their complaints reinforced the narrative that Samsung is a crappy place to work for engineers in which bottom-up feedback doesn’t exist.

I’m curious to hear more of your perspective on why the “cultural” argument is “Gladwell-esque racist revisionism.” (I haven’t read Outliers, so I don’t know the exact anecdote you’re referring to.)

Gladwell’s argument basically boils down to the highly formalized manner of address in Altaic languages (Turkish, Mongolean, Korean, and Japanese) in which there can be a dozen ways to phrase the same thing based on the speaker-addressee relationship. He claimed Korean accidents from KAL007 (the one shot down by Russian MIGs in 1983) through KAL801 (hit a mountain in Guam in 1997) were because the copilot or engineer could not properly communicate to their captain or ground staff what was going on due to the need to formalize and present it submissively/passively.

“Ching Chong, Ding Dong” means… the plane crashes.

This is after Gladwell claimed that Asians are better at math because their grandfathers picked rice and the Chinese language has single syllables for all digits so… balance — it’s not racist at all!

Racist OutLIErs.

No, Malcolm, two “Wongs” can’t make you right… or white. You are in the wrong century.

Never mind he presents no corroborating evidence for 007, or explains why TurkishAir, JAL, ANA, AirAsia, or Asiana flights aren’t constantly dropping out of the sky given the native tongues of their flight crews. Talk about missing your landing!

Korean chaebol (Samsung is one of them) are modeled after Japanese zaibatsu so I have no doubt they are very top-down. Heck, you’ve just specified the starting premise behind the male protagonist in every Korean drama ever: scion of a chaebol who everyone bows down to falls for tomboyish, willful girl who doesn’t care for that order. ?

From Heirs which I’m told is one of the most popular KDramas of all time.

Why hasn’t this incident happened before with the other Galaxy phones, or other Samsung products, or something similar with LG, Hyundai, or with nearly every product from Japan not made by Sony? Surely my Dad’s Lexus should have exploded by now?! (Toyota was part of the same zaibatsu that owned Toshiba, Toray chemicals, Suntory whiskey, and Sapporo beer.) All of them, their subsidiaries (present and former) have an identical corporate structure and similar top-down corporate culture.

Yes, no doubt rigidly hierarchical corporate culture contributed to the conditions that led to this—we saw a similar breakdown at VW regarding their “clean” diesel engines. But I guarantee that if I go find the NYTimes article about that, I won’t see a comment that reads: “My cousin once visited Germany for Oktoberfest and this happened because Volkswagen was founded by the Nazis.”

The unique trigger here was not hierarchical corporate culture, which is fairly common. It was the opportunity to “jump ahead” of a competitor they had been “closely tracking” since they made their mark in the space.

Thanks for the explanation!

The NYTimes comments did mention ongoing quality issues with Samsung products in general, as well as unfriendly return policies—classifying what were perceived as product defects as regular use wear and tear, thus denying warranty protection. I’m not sure if those are biased comments or isolated incidents or both, though.

Perhaps this is just another lesson in top-down management and poor incentive structures (i.e. the recent Wells Fargo account scandal).

Oh, that one was because Americans are all arrogant, racist, gun-loving materialists who lack cultural awareness and ignore the environment.

Don’t try to understand it, it’s difficult for even me too, but the explanation involves military interventionism and a lot of mathematics which I’m culturally better able to understand because I’m more than 1/8 Korean-American.

My explanation (of why Galaxies explode)

Here’s a more likely story.

When I read a disagreement with Samsung’s explanation for the Galaxy Note 7 fires, it seems more likely a design error (too big a battery in too small a space), and less only a manufacturing one (low quality batteries fron one supplier). (Samsung claimed all they had to do was switch battery suppliers from a subsidiary over to TDK and ATL.) Since then, I’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop and… voilà!

While the exact details are unknown the reason for the outcome is quite simple: management sent a set of specs (for size and battery life) that were impossible to meet without risk of the battery shorting and exploding while leaving no time for quality assurance to catch it. Sure, top-down corporate culture contributed to a lack of pushback here. But all disasters are going to be a coincidence of many failures. It’s important to find the salient ones.

The question is do you think the deadline and specs were made by those at the top in a vacuum?

The only cultural issue that is unique to Samsung is the disconnect between corporate myth and unstated true corporate values at Samsung’s mobile division.

The mythological value is exemplified in the vignette relayed at the end of the Bloomberg article above (an article which the NYT simply rehashed and made worse):

Twenty years ago, in a chapter of Samsung Group history that employees can recite by heart, Chairman Lee grew so frustrated by faulty mobile phones that he piled up thousands of the devices and lit the whole heap ablaze. Never compromise on quality, he exhorted the workers watching, putting Samsung on course to become the top seller of mobile phones in the world.

The chairman of Samsung in the story was competing with Nokia, not Apple—it would be more than a decade before Apple even introduced a mobile phone. Samsung’s mobile growth and profits would not come from beating Nokia in (what are now called) feature phones, but from the space created by Apple iPhone exclusivity and the unwillingness of Nokia, Blackberry, Microsoft, Motorola/Google, HTC, Palm, and others to shortcut time-to-market by shamelessly copying the Apple design.

The actual unstated core value is this: “copy Apple and compete.” Samsung may yet prevail in Apple Inc. v. Samsung Electronic Co., Ltd., but there is no doubt from reading it in detail that the Galaxy was built on the backs of Samsung management stealing Apple designs.

(As an example of the difference between myth and values: When I ask most people what Google’s core value is, they reply, “Don’t be evil.” That’s wrong, thats just as motto. Their mission, as clearly stated on their homepage, is “to organize the world’s information.” It is because achieving that mission naturally creates opportunities to do terrible things that a company might need to balance it with a mythical rational of “we’re not evil.”)

Now back to the question: Were the deadline and specs made in a vacuum?

No, the deadline was fixed by the need to beat Apple’s iPhone 7 launch date on September 7, 2016. The specs are based on Apple’s iPhone 6S plus. The only thing truly different was that opportunity presented in the knowledge that Apple, for the first time, would not do a significant industrial redesign of the iPhone 6 series in the iPhone 7.

Those specs were based on market need to compete with Apple and ignored Apple’s inherent advantage created by tight control of both the operating system and chipset coupled with reclaiming space wasted by the audio jack. With this advantage, Apple can reach power/battery capacity/size constraints just not possible (yet) on the Android platform.

For reference:

  • 2750mAH: size of iPhone 6S+ battery
  • 2850mAH-3000mAH: predicted size of iPhone 7S+ battery (it ended up at 2900mAH, after the space savings of removing the audio port
  • 3020mAH: size of the Galaxy Note 5 battery, already pushing the limit while giving up 200mAH to the previous generation when they copied Apple’s non-removeable form factor and power management features
  • 3500mAH! The battery Samsung asked for and received in the Galaxy Note 7 without any changes to components to allow the battery to be bigger.

(Despite these numbers, in real-world use, both iPhones last longer on a single charge than the both Galaxy Notes.)

“Uncompromising quality” is obviously not a true core value as evidenced by the lack of pushback at all levels meeting such absurd specifications. So yes, my friend is right, there was no avenue for engineers expressing concerns about meeting the specs by the deadline to push back, but the avenues didn’t exist because quality is a myth.

The actual core value is to “beat and copy Apple.” You can see that core value at work in setting the deadline (before Apple announces the iPhone 7). You can see that core value at work in the absurd specification (battery life comparable to Apple’s iPhne). You can see that core value at work by Samsung’s “uncompromising” (and unrealistic) pursuit of the above (the iPhone 7 will be “boring”, Samsung can leapfrog Apple to take the lead).

Take away any of the above, and you have any one of a dozen typical non-exploding Samsung Galaxy rollouts.

Where’s the video of a Note 7 accidentally put in a Samsung washing machine, cut to meth house exploding in fireball.

I don’t do video. I do cartoons.

One thought on “A Korean, an android, and Malcolm Gladwell walk into a bar…

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