the Hidden Realities of Computer Industry in Japan Japanese

8.1 Secrecy

When I developed softwares for clients, it wasn't rare to learn a lot in details about their new product. New products must be developed secretly not to let their competitors know about it and released with strong impression. So, development information about new product must be kept secret while it's on work. However, they tend to run advertisements way before anyone knows what the final product will be and surprise the R&D department a lot. Moreover, final product often won't be released after all.

When you're involved in development of new product, extent of secrecy has great impact on the work. It may depend on how much they trust you. Some companies share information very openly and others are closed like secret society. When you work with open companies, at least there are some benefits for them: you gain fellow feeling because you feel you're working together and you can exchange information smoothly.

On the other hand, some companies are tied to their rules and reluctant to provide minimum information we need for development. In the worse case, they don't even provide the minimum information, saying it is their confidential matter. In this case, we have to grope in the dark to make program. It is a common program, but we end up doing something like deciphering codes.

Even when it is clear to the project manager that it makes developing work proceed smoothly and improves the quality of final product by providing confidential information, the information often kept secret because of "company's policy". It is better if they keep only critical part secret and create the certain part related to that secret completely in-house, but they tend to make the entire likely part secret.

It is very difficult to determine the level and extent of secret. If it is known to the competitors, all the investment for research and development work will be down the drain. However, it is not easy to develop everything with in-house staff.

Long time ago, we had a contract to develop program for controlling floppy disk drive. Today you can find it in Akihabara and don't have to bother to develop it. The order was a development of device driver for the floppy disk drive that was to be connected to a certain kind of device to use floppies, which were very rare in those days.

This was a small project. And it wasn't too hard or unusual. Fortunately one of our co-workers was good at this kind of work. So he was chosen to do actual development work. He usually went to the job site--client's factory--alone.

After a while, he showed us his anxiety. He came to me, saying, "They don't tell me what is this device for. So I have no idea what level of reliability I should have in mind for it." Floppy disk drive is very common device for computer data storage. Its design varies as to if it will be used for a certain field or it will be sold for general run of buyers in Akihabara. Many different conditions are expected. It may be passed with laughter if it breaks down often. Or it may cause a threat to life when it breaks down by any chance.

But the client gave him minimal information required for his work. And it was holding him in suspense. I had to do something about it so I accompanied him to the factory.

We registered as guests at the entrance of the factory. We went into the building, walked by the desk of person in charge of the project and went to an inmost conference room for meeting. I was going to gather more information from them somehow at the meeting, but I had seen everything when I passed by the desk of person in charge. The design drawing was spread across his desk. Most part of it was covered with other paper. However, I happened to see characteristic part of the device by chance. So, I said few words of greetings to them and left there.

What I found out was that the device was for a certain kind of shop to manage its sales. The profit of each sale there was several thousand yen. I didn't think it was confidential information and couldn't help why they had to hide it.

Everything became clear then. He was assured and worked hard to deliver the product on schedule.

This was long long time ago, when people were excited about an epoch-making technology of VLSI. I took part in a research of VLSI at a major large company. That company invested billions of yen for the whole researching. Our part was to develop program for the core device called VLSI manufacturing equipment. Since it was a state-of-the-art technology, I expected that most part would be confidential. But to my surprise, confidential part was small and they gave me information most of the time when I asked. It was a very open environment.

But of course not everything was open. What we were developing was program to control the VLSI manufacturing equipment. So naturally we would know the limit of its performance. And that limit is the highly classified information. All chipmakers in the world were trying to improve performance limits for competition. Therefore, related values must be kept secret within company. But those values are essential to develop programs and operate machines. They told me, "these values must be kept secret at any occasion", several times. Those values became open to public in a series of TV program "Electronic Empire Japan" broadcasted by NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) in 1996. This happened so long time ago that I can't remember those values at all now.

When clients keep good environment like this, workers will feel the project worthwhile and try their best to develop good products.

I have written lots of bad things not only in this book, but also in other books and stories in magazines as well. But as a rule, I'm careful about what I write not to reveal who they are.

Though I usually write about technical side of computer, I become more interested in psychological and personal sides rather than technical side as I analyze facts. But I receive good responses from readers. I think human beings are interested in that kind of things after all.

Sometimes they ask me, "Please write about our company. You can use our real name." These companies never take secrecy. And their working environment is good in general. Moreover, their skill level is high so I have only good things to write about them. Such writing is not interesting as story.

Revealing confidential information you learned while on work is a breach of confidential agreement even after project is over or you leave a company. But more than the confidential information itself, information about which company is more skilled or not and about their technical level can be fatal to the company, so I don't write company names in my story. It is not uncommon to find remarkable difference between reputation and reality.

It is very difficult to manage confidential information. While giving it too much can cause breach of confidence, giving it too little affects workflow.

Copyright 1996, 2000 Hirofumi Fujiwara. Translated by E.I.
No reproduction or republication without written permission.

the Hidden Realities of Computer Industry in Japan Japanese