Steve Jobs was a boffin. And many other successful companies have a boffin at the top or at least very close to that.
Boffins are scientists, engineers, and other people engaged in technical or scientific research. They are what we call ‘geeks’, but they are extremely good at what they do. They know everything there is to know in their field. In the movies we see a lot of characterised boffins.
During World War II, boffin was applied with some affection to scientists and engineers working on new military technologies. It was particularly associated with the members of the team that worked on radar at Bawdsey Research Station under Sir Robert Watson-Watt, but also with computer scientists like Alan Turing, aeronautical engineers like Barnes Wallis, and their associates. Widespread usage may have been encouraged by the common wartime practice of using substitutes for critical words in war-related conversation, in order to confuse eavesdroppers or spies. Boffin continued, in this immediate postwar period, to carry its wartime connotations: a modern-day wizard who laboured in secret to create incomprehensible devices of great power. Over time, however, as Britain’s high-technology enterprises became less dominant, the mystique of the boffin gradually faded, and by the 1980s Boffins were relegated, in UK popular culture, to semi-comic supporting characters such as Q, the fussy armourer-inventor in the James Bond films and the term itself gradually took on a slightly negative connotation, broadly similar to the American slang, geek or nerd.
In the Commonwealt outsidethe UK, the word is much less commonly used – and relatively few Americans will have heard it at all unless via UK sources such as Doctor Who or BBC World. It is however still used in some environments, for example, scientists and engineers at Antarctic research bases were still being called boffins in the 1980s
Today every large company needs a boffin. It doesn’t matter what you produce and sell. From multimedia to playing cards. From paint to garden Furniture. Even factoring and billing companies, especially factoring companies. In my opinion every company should have at least one person who plays the role as mister ‘Q’ in the James Bond series. Someone who plays with your product and does things with it that you wouldn’t think of in the first place. Your company ‘geek’ who is a great fan of your stuff and gets to do whatever he/ she wants to do with it.
Even after just a couple of weeks, it is this person who you will come to first if there’s something to be solved. If sales drop, this person can tell you why. If your competitor sells more than you do, this person can explain exactly why customers buy theirs instead of yours.
A boffin can tell you exactly how you can improve your product.
You can tell a lot about what your competitors are up to, if you know where they are. If you keep track of all people working with competitors you can make great guesses about their next upgrades, improvements and new products. If one of your competitors puts a photo on his Twitter of him in front of a hotel in Paris, then you should have someone who, like a detective, should try to find out why he is there. If there’s another photo of this president or manager together with other people then it would be a very wise thing to find out what company they represent. There’s also a lot to tell about employees getting to work later and leaving earlier. If whole departments seem to do that, then you can take a pretty educated guess about why. You can learn a lot by having a boffin sitting in a car a whole day, in front of your competitors office. Writing down license plates, checking who goes in and out. When they get in and out… And not only keep track of any job vacancies but also when they were and how much vacancies they say they have in that department. Check who seems to go there for an interview, and after that check who seems to have gotten the job. This is what all national security agencies do with potential dangerous people. They keep track of who this person talks with, where he goes to and what he does when he gets there. Only after that information they decide when to arrest him, and who else.
One good boffin can tell you more about a companies movements than any movement-department. A boffin knows exactly what you competitors are up to.
Especially in a large company this can prove to be a very handy list indeed. At home everyone has a notebook with names and numbers. And everyone has a shortlist of people to call when you need a plumber or electrician. Who to call for the best deal in tilesand who to ask about finance. A while ago I worked for a company where two toilet seats needed replacement. They decided to find someone to replace all of their seats. About 40 in total. Well, after two weeks, when I was there again, I noticed the seats still weren’t replaced. When asking about it they answered that it was hard fo find a business that could replace them for a small price… What the??? If it would have been a small company, the owner would have asked his employers if they know someone who could do that for cheap. But strange enough the larger the company, the less logical simple things start to become. Spending two months finding someone to replace their toilet seats….? Why shouldn’t you do the same as when your company was still only 40 people strong? Why don’t you ask the people who work for you about their shortlist?
A boffin knows who your competitors call. Your boffin knows what companies are on their shortlist. And not only can that tell you what problems your competitors ran into, but also what they might be working on. Your boffin might even say that they have better coffee in their factories and offices. And they can tell you who you should call to solve the problem. Trust me, they know….
Every business in the world works with disinformation. Even not telling everything is disinformation. And large companies are pretty good at distracting their competitors with news that is not (completely) true.
A boffin can tell you if any news of your competitors is disinformation or not. He or she can tell you with pinpoint accuracy which news doesn’t fit their flow of information certified as true.
At the end of may 1940Hundreds of thousands of French and English soldiers were evacuated from Dunkirk, Duinkerken, for the German troops. The German army didn’t do anything but waiting…. Because they thought they had the allies trapped. Thousands of German magnetic mines were scattered in the waters from Dunkirk to England. So the Germans were convinced that any ships that would come to rescue would be blown by a mine. But that thing didn’t happen. The English knew about the mignetic mines. Before the evacuation they carefully got one of those out of the water. After examination they found out that it was magnetized with it’s north pole downwards. For the evacuation of all their thousands of soldiers the Brittish sent large wooden vessels to Dunkirk. But that would never have been enough. So they magnetized their warships with it’s south pole downwards. That way the magnetic mines were sort of pushed away from the ships and they didn’t explode. The Germans never expacted the Brittish to do this and when they found out it was too late to react: the beach was empty. The Germans did the same dirty trick in the Northsea close to London so that none of the ships could arrive there with supplies. So the British hung a large magnet under a Wellington airplane. It made most of the mines explode before one of them was detonated a little bit too early and destroyed the plane. But after some small perfections several airplanes were equiped with magnets. It became know as Project AirSweep, an amazing feet of clever thinking, and stupidity at the same time.
You need a boffin to tell you how to degauss your product; when your competitor pushes you into a certain direction you must know how to get out with your product without any harm done. It is very easy to see how your ‘enemies’ try to get you. Their mines usually aren’t hard to spot. The problem is that it needs creative thinkers to degauss your product, so that you can even walk in their trap and yet get out alive because your stuff is immune for it.
Music as a code
Everyone who has seen the movie ‘The lady vanishes’ has seen how Lady May Witty sang a song that had was used as a message to warn the allies. During WWII the resistance used a whole list of songs to bring over messages. During the Cold War the Russians used it to warn their spies all over Europe who could listen to a special radio channel that kept them informed by a very long list of songs to be played at specific times for specific spies. Many of their spies were saved by hearing the song to get out and run for your life. When the British caught a Russian spy, Frank Bossard, he had records with him with certain songs that could be attached to messages. Bossard was also the first spy caught with the use of an electronic transmitter. These transmitters were placed on the clips of classified documents, which were then followed to Bossard’s desk, and eventually to the hotel he was using.
Every company has a certain flow in it. When things go as usual a very specific rhythm can be noticed when observing the company. People say the same things, act the same because that suits the rhyhm they are in. You can tell when a company gets into trouble because the flow will change. Spokesmen will do things they didn’t do before. To reassure customers and stockholders that there is no problem at all. Suddenly you will hear managers state that accusations aren’t true while these had been there for months already. When the flow of a company starts to change you know something is about to happen.
And you can keep your flow perfect with boffins!