Michael Lopp’s Keynote from DrupalCon Portland

DrupalCon Portland

Steve and I are sitting in the ballroom at the Oregon Convention Center enjoying the Thursday morning keynote: The Engineer, the Designer and the Dictator by Michael Lopp.

Michael Lopp is a Silicon Valley-based engineering leader who builds both people and software at companies such as Borland, Netscape, Apple, and Palantir Technologies.

While he’s not worrying about staying relevant, he writes the blog, Rands in Repose.

Video of Michael’s Keynote

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Summary of Michael’s Keynote

Michael started by saying that your job has an expiration date. It seems to be about every three years.

During the course of your career, it is likely you will have an undeniable urge to build a thing. It is equally likely that while you are well-intentioned, you are horrifically bad at a skill that is essential to successful thing building.

Michael Lopp at DrupalCon Portland

We’re going to talk about the “next” thing you’re going to work on and the team you’ll need – the engineer, the designer and the dictator.

Michael has written two books – Managing Humans and Being Geek.

In order for your next venture to succeed – you need those three.

The Engineer

Everyone needs an engineer – without one you get chaos. There are a lot of people out there (MBA types) who think because they have an idea – I can get it done. But they don’t understand what’s going on, and chaos results. He likens it to “Tron Legacy” – the worlds greatest screensaver with a soundtrack. The idea of this movie – “there is a perfect system”. We can take that chaos and make it understandable – and this is why you need an engineer at the table. Pretty much a given for this crowd – we get that we need an engineer.

The engineering mindset:

  • Strives to reduce chaos because its inefficient.
  • Believes there are discoverable right and wrong answer to everything (the person who doesn’t care how you feel, they just want the answers).
  • Willing to take the time to go deep.
  • Solves problems completely.
  • Prepare for the unexpected by being paranoid.
  • There are always rules that will predict what will come next.
  • Find facts because they are data driven.
  • Willing to go seemingly insane lengths for marginal efficiency improvements.
  • Loves signal, hates noise

and none of it is work… its just how we think.

Engineers sit there every three years and get the itch, the urge to build something new. The interesting thing is that “nerds”, engineers are “taking over”. Facebook, Quora, Google – all created by nerds and the CEO is an engineer.

The problem for engineers – humans will use your product!

The Designer

Engineers have to remember – you’re not the audience – you’re not the user. Humans are! It was fine in the beginning – but at some point your mom got online and wanted to send a picture of her cat!

We need to have someone there whose job it is to represent the humans!

A good designer has three traits:

  • They understand what “most” users want and they are experts at designing it.
  • Expertly prioritizing, focusing and describing the want.
  • Using this knowledge to surprise and delight users – to exceed their expectations.

A great illustration of this is the unboxing experience of an Apple product (watch the video for this part – Michael does a great job of describing this experience).

There is a fundamental tension between engineering and design. Therefore – you must have a dictator.

The Dictator

Without the dictator – you get nothing.

Michael gave the illustration of a fantastic conference organizer from New Zealand. She is a really nice… dictator. Everything she does for the conference is designed to make you feel awesome.


  • Apple: Steve Jobs – oh yeah
  • Microsoft: Steve Balmer – NO (the dictator left a number of years ago)

A good dictator:

  • Provides consistency – again, the example here is the Apple store and products. The reason it works so well? “The Fear” Steve Jobs kept all the big egos in check.
  • Kills ambiguity/mediocrity. Oracle, IBM and Dell are illustrations of companies where the dictator left and the “ship” has lost its compass.
  • Gets things done. Dictators have a “superpower” – they say No. “It’s not what our users want”… etc. This is what we’re going to do and this is what we’re not going to do. It creates velocity. It gets the product out the door.

Someone just tweeted: Is there a place for the dictator in open source? @rands #DCLopp #drupalcon. It’s a great question.

Again – another illustration. When the iPad launched, Steve Jobs basically stripped the file system out of the user experience. Your mom doesn’t need to save the picture of her cat in a format to send, save it and send it. She just needs to take the picture and click send.

Dictators are forces of nature.


You’re three years away from changing. You’re horrifically bad at something …. DON’T do that. Do what you’re good at.


  • Rod Martin

    Rod holds two masters degrees and has been training people how to do "things" for over 25 years. Originally from Australia, he grew up in Canada and now resides just outside Cincinnati, Ohio. He has worked in both the non-profit and for-profit worlds, in small companies and large corporations. His extensive open source experience includes WordPress, Joomla and Drupal and he really knows how to help you get the most out of the system you chose. Rod plays ice hockey a couple of times a week and rides his Goldwing motorcycle pretty much everywhere he can.

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