Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Marek's reading list - Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century

I try to make time to read a variety of books, articles, news, and more. I’m especially interested in learning about how others have successfully managed and completed scientific projects, and one figure always left me feeling curious: Vannevar Bush. Bush is credited as one of the people who won WWII for the U.S. by bridging the gap between civilian scientific research and the military. Bush worked as President of the Carnegie Institution for Science and later Chairman of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (now NASA). He also single-handedly convinced President Roosevelt to establish the National Defense Research Committee, allowing for effective coordination between civilian scientists and military researchers, and served as Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development. Most importantly, perhaps, he oversaw the Manhattan Project. All of his efforts during the WWII era went towards leading thousands of scientists to develop groundbreaking technology in a very short period of time at a critical moment in history.

Vannevar Bush
Together with our Head of PR, JoEllen, I looked into Endless Frontier, a book by G. Pascal Zachary about Vannevar Bush’s life. The text explores all aspects of his adulthood, especially his triumphs and failures in the pursuit of a technology that revolutionized the American approach to scientific research.

Please keep in mind that this blog is not about my opinion on nuclear technology or the military. Rather, I am interested in how Bush managed a sizable and often remote research team. In general, here at GoodAI we want to maintain our distance from military research. However, I see that Vannevar Bush led a team with a strong sense of urgency (or even danger), and with a high potential for reward if they succeeded.

I think a lot of how he became successful can be applied to how we can organize our research and teams at GoodAI and Keen Software House.

Personality as a leader

  • Vannevar Bush was a strong-handed leader. He wasn’t afraid to take risks when the chance of reward was high, and he was certainly self-assured when it came to making big decisions. Knowing he had as good a chance as anyone to solve tough problems, he thought of himself as a ship captain, requiring “loyalty, even deference, from subordinates” but being “fiercely loyal and protective” of the people who worked for him. 
  • He refused to take “no” for an answer when he felt it was important.
  • It wasn’t easy to work for him – he was known for being both tenacious and belligerent. He liked to tell people to “Justify the space you occupy.” On the other hand, he was both skilled and self-aware, so he always tried to pair himself with another leader who was more sympathetic and generous than himself.
  • Most defining of all, he wasn’t afraid to work hard. He had grit

Personal knowledge of research

  • In additional to reserving time for his own experiments and pursuing his own ideas, Bush strongly believed that any good researcher has to reach beyond their own field – to business, the free market, finance and economics, and more. 
  • He also believed that a good scientist needs soft skills – to be able to teach others and explain high-level concepts to them, and to have a strong sense of the “needs and aspirations” of the people they serve. For Bush, a scientist can’t be isolated in a lab, removed from reality.

Approach to research

  • When designing a machine, Vannevar Bush always started with a specific end goal. He then went back to the beginning and outlined specific steps for getting there, highlighting any part that might cause difficulty. He also wasn’t afraid to go back and revise as he moved forward in the process. Versatility was critical for Bush.
  • His goal was to “dream in a rather definite way.” He knew what he wanted, and always had a plan for how to get there. 
  • He worried about over-specialization in science, and was sure to stay involved in politics and business. He even moved to Washington D.C. to be closer to the action of the day. This proved a successful strategy for him, as he earned money by working to make things that people genuinely needed. 
  • He wasn’t bound by custom – he was as likely to speak his mind to the U.S. president as to his subordinate. He even compelled the army and navy to cooperate and coordinate, poising himself as a fixer and a middleman, willing to tackle any problem. He even set up the NACA to connect the military with civilian research.

Organizing the team

Team organization was the self-described “greatest challenge” for Bush when it came to conducting research, but he had a number of strategies to ensure things ran smoothly.
  • He believed that clear structure could overcome crises and conflicts of personality – however, this sometimes made his teams overly bureaucratic.
  • He knew his researchers and their needs – he praised them for improvements, regardless of how small they were. He saw that researchers were motivated by pride, money, and patriotism, and ensured that they received precisely those rewards. 
  • Questions he asked at meetings included: What’s new? What are our alternatives? What are the pros and cons of each? This ensured there was always a full discussion and awareness of facts and alternatives, but he was the one to make the final decision.
  • The 1st principle of management for Bush was “hire good people and put them in key positions.”
    • His top people always had a direct line to Bush himself.
    • His team was diverse but balanced as a whole – he had the loyal man who really worked for the organization, but also one with more enthusiasm and creativity, etc.
    • None of his researchers ever quit, despite his demands. He always supported his inner team publicly, but was critically honest with them in private.
  • Bush didn’t staff only his own employees. Instead, he contracted with research institutions, universities, and industrial labs. This meant scientists could stay in their own labs, and that he could more easily put together a national network of the very best researchers, hiring rock stars from MIT, Harvard, AT&T.
  • Finally, he often held informal “teas” for his staff in the afternoons – he saw it as a morale booster and a way to share information informally.


  • Overall, his most significant achievement was bridging the gap between science and government, compelling government to put scientists’ knowledge to effective use
  • He managed to maintain an agile approach to research and development, though the organizations he oversaw were very large and widely distributed. 
  • He was never afraid to tell people what he thought (even the president of the United States), and successfully ensured continued government funding for science and engineering after WWII, contributing in a major way to American post-war supremacy.


  • However, Bush was elitist – he was an enemy of participatory democracy, so failed to build mass support for his ideas about how research should be conducted. Instead, he relied on a limited number of key decision makers to push his ideas through.  
  • He failed to understand how competition could inspire and drive creative innovation, and was partial to centralization. While he contributed to the U.S. rise to power during and after WWII, he also played a strong role in feeding the military-industrial complex and bureaucratic government institutions. 
  • Given his self-confidence which often proved to be an asset, he pledged himself to nuclear proliferation, but had little idea how to keep the technology contained or in safe hands. 

Our takeaways

  • We need to maintain balance in the team
  • As a team, we need to remain committed to agile development, and not become a sluggish corporation. 
  • It will also be critical for us to stay committed to continuously refining our thinking on the safety aspects of the artificial intelligence we’re building, and how AGI will impact the future. For this, we will likely need to reach out and cooperate with others who know more about economics, sociology, government relations, and more.
  • We should remain focused on design details for research, just as Bush did when designing a new machine – setting out a roadmap where each small step is specified as much as possible. We also shouldn’t be afraid to remain agile, changing our plans as we learn more and more. 
  • Finally, we should be wary of over-specialization, as it may distract us from our goals. 

In general, reading the story of this successful leader confirmed that we’re on the right track in many ways. There’s always room to be inspired, however, and I’m always looking for ways to improve how our team works together.


Thanks for reading! Let me know in the comments if you have more recommended reading, especially about science, research, engineering, and development – I’m very open to suggestions!

Marek Rosa
CEO, CTO & Founder, GoodAI
CEO & Founder, Keen Software House

Twitter: @GoodAIdev