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Farewell to Dell: Reflections on Corporate Excellence

by Bill Meacham on January 23rd, 2014

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For the past nine years I have been employed by Dell, a large American corporation best known for building and selling a variety of computer products. (Dell also provides information technology services and consulting to others, but I was not involved in that part of the business.) I am now leaving Dell’s employ. I am quitting my day job, as it were, the better to pursue my interest in philosophy.

Working in a large enterprise in which the efforts of many people have to be coordinated in order to get things done has given me the opportunity to see the unique human virtue, our capacity for second-order thinking, in action.

By “virtue” I do not mean obedience to moral rules, as in “The Sunday school teacher is quite virtuous.” Instead I mean what the Classical Greeks called arete, translated as “virtue,” but also as “effectiveness” or “excellence,” excellence in performing one’s function. For instance, the excellence of a computer manufacturer is to build computers that are themselves excellent, that work smoothly, process data rapidly, are easy to use and last a long time without needing repairs. An excellent basketball player runs fast, shoots baskets accurately and works with his or her teammates to achieve victory. An excellent teacher imparts knowledge skillfully, and an excellent student learns quickly. These are all examples – and there are many more – of people and things fulfilling their functions and doing so well. To be an excellent human being, then, means to do well what humans do.

So what is it that humans do well? One thing is to think. We have bigger brains relative to body size than other animals and a greater capacity to envisage possible futures and make plans to achieve our goals. Certainly our skills at strategizing long-term goals and planning and executing projects are crucial for success in business, and Dell’s success over the years is a result of good thinking.

But our capacity to think is not unique to humans. Other animals also think, though none (as far as we can tell) so well as we do. What really distinguishes us from other living beings is a further skill: second-order thinking.

By “second order,” I mean the ability to take ourselves as objects of thought. The first order is to think about things in the world external to us, to plan and execute our plans “out there,” as it were. We can think of where the animals are and go hunt them. We can devise complicated computing machines and figure out how to manufacture them in great quantities quickly and efficiently. When we turn that capacity for foresight and analysis to ourselves we engage in second-order thinking. We have the ability to reflect on ourselves, to be conscious of and think about ourselves as well as the world we live in. It’s what the Delphic oracle recommended: Know Thyself.

I saw this ability in action at Dell. I was struck by something that Rhonda Gass, our IT Director at the time, once said in an all-hands meeting:

  • We see what needs to be done.
  • We get after it.
  • We get it done.
  • We see the results.

Seeing what needs to be done and accomplishing it are things that many kinds of animals do, although humans do them far more elaborately. It is the last step that sets us apart. I take seeing the results to mean not only enjoying the fruits of our labors and having a pleasant sense of accomplishment, but also seeing what went well and what didn’t and using that knowledge to do our task better the next time. The results we see include information that allows us to reflect on what we have done with an eye toward improvement.

The methodology for process improvement has been formalized in industrial settings, most famously in W. Edwards Deming’s “Plan, Do, Check, Act” cycle.(1) Plan means to establish what you want to accomplish and how. Do means to carry out the plan, and collect measurements on what happened. Check means to study the results and compare what actually happened to what you wanted. Act (some people now call this step Adjust) means to implement corrective actions to reduce the gap between what happens and what is desired.

My interest in this process is philosophical, in the sense of philosophy as love of wisdom. What if you applied this type of thinking to your life? On a personal, or idiosyncratic, level, you would first find out what you are good at, such as getting along with people, perhaps, or analyzing numbers or building things or any number of talents that people have. On a generic level, the level of you as a member of the human species rather than you as an individual, you would investigate topics such as how your cognition works and what causes it to go awry, how your emotions work and what they tell you about yourself and your world, how second-order thinking works and so forth. On both levels, the idiosyncratic and the generic, you would follow a similar process: Observe what you do and how it is working out. Think of ways to do it better. Try out the new approach. Observe how that works. Repeat these steps until you are satisfied enough to go on to something else.

Not that this is always an easy task. Sometimes it requires a lot of introspective work and the aid of trusted friends and counselors. But the capacity for self-reflection and self-improvement is what distinguishes humans from other animals. When we do them well, we exhibit excellence at being human. Philosophy at its best is about what it is to be an excellent human being and thereby live a fulfilling life; and that is what I discuss in my book, How To Be An Excellent Human.

I have seen Dell exhibit corporate excellence, and the company encourages personal excellence as well. Where else would you find a Vedika (knowledge-sharing) session on “Leading The Self”? The company certainly provided a venue for me to exercise my talents. For instance, I like writing, and I got to do a lot of it in my job. I would often get absorbed in writing and lose track of time, which was always gratifying.

My work would go in phases. Recently I had a bit of a lull, which often happens around the holidays at mid-winter (northern hemisphere). The devil makes work for idle hands, they say, so to avoid that fate I convened an ad-hoc “skunk works” committee to standardize a process that was being done differently by different teams. (A standard process makes for better metrics, which in turn make for easier process improvement.) It was fun. We accomplished a lot in a short time, I got to exercise leadership, the results very rapidly got up to the Director level, and we got a lot of praise for our work. It was a great opportunity to exert human excellence. And it felt good, even exhilarating. That is a characteristic of functioning well, by the way, that it feels good to do so, which is why the Greek word eudaimonia, the outcome of functioning well, is sometimes translated as “happiness.”

There are other things I enjoyed at Dell. Dell is a great place for someone like me, who enjoys accomplishing things. The company has a well-deserved reputation for demanding a lot of its employees, but the upside is that a lot is achieved. I liked the sense of camaraderie, of belonging to a team and working toward a common goal. We humans developed our big brains and our shared culture in tribal groups whose members cooperated with each other while competing with other groups. We have an ingrained need to pull for the common good, and a large enterprise is a good place to fulfill that need. Dell is proudly inclusive of many different kinds of people, people of different religions, races, nationalities, gender preferences and more; and its diversity makes it an endlessly interesting place to work. Dell has a strong sense of ethics, and I was happy that I did not have to compromise or submerge my own principles.

I also liked working for a company whose overarching goal is benign. We can apply self-reflective second-order thinking to evaluate not only our immediate goal but also the context in which the immediate goal is being pursued, and I was happy with Dell’s overall goal. My immediate goal was to collect information, write a Software Requirements Specification document and get it approved. That document served a larger goal of building or enhancing some software. That software serves a larger goal of getting more efficient at building computers and shipping them to customers. And the goal of providing computers is to improve people’s lives by enabling them to accomplish their own goals. Computers empower us to do all sorts of things we were not able to do before. (We can write blogs, for instance.) Indeed, Dell’s marketing slogan is “The power to do more.”

Of course, the overall goal is also to make a profit. What is at issue here is what the enterprise does in order to earn its revenue. Dell’s overall goal is fairly benign. Were I to work for a company whose goal or whose methods for achieving it were not so benign – Monsanto, for instance, whose corporate image is quite admirable, but which does brutal things to small farmers in its pursuit of market domination – I would have to spend some psychic energy to ignore the overall goal and immerse myself in the immediate one. I was happy that I did not have to do that at Dell. (Note to my political friends of all persuasions: I am deliberately not addressing the even larger economic and political context – global capitalism, regulations or lack thereof by nation-states, etc. – within which Dell operates. That topic is a bit too much for now.)

I don’t want to present too rosy a picture. Dell has its share of inefficiencies, troubled projects, management confusion, people who are less than optimally competent and the like. And, no doubt, other companies promote excellence as well. It’s just that Dell is the one I know best. As I write this Dell is changing directions, and it remains to be seen whether it can maintain its success in the marketplace. But as long as it fosters human excellence, it stands a good chance. I wish my former colleagues all the best.



(1) Wikipedia, “PDCA.”


Meacham, Bill. How To Be An Excellent Human: Mysticism, Evolutionary Psychology and the Good Life. Austin, Texas: Earth Harmony, 2013. Available at

Wikipedia. “PDCA.” Online publication as of 30 December 2013.

From → Philosophy

  1. Thanks so much for these insightful and inspiring reflections on life in the corporate culture. So many exit letters are filled with resentment, bitterness, and negativity; it is refreshing to share your world view of a high tech culture that has built up quite a mystique in Austin and throughout the world. I especially enjoyed your reflections on productivity: “There are other things I enjoyed at Dell. Dell is a great place for someone like me, who enjoys accomplishing things.” Your article reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by Pericles, “What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.” Thanks, Bill, for a job well done.

  2. Peter permalink

    Hi Bill, I like your blog. While I’ve not recently made any APDG meetings, I read your posts; they’re well-crafted, interesting and thus deserve a serious read. I agree with what you include as elements of 2nd order thought, though its distinction from the 1st order appears blurred. Animals do think. And you describe thought as that of the first order, to include thinking about, planning, and executing plans in the external world; abilities common to both human and animal. But this process too, is exclusive to humans. The forbearing process of abstention from immediate volition to serve a greater future goal is indeed a 2nd order thought attribute, sometimes referred to as reason, and also exclusive to human activity.

    The highest ape can be trained to perform certain complicated tasks and problem solving, as we’ve all seen. These outcomes can be attributed to mimicry or social response; neither of which is sufficient for reasoning ability. And it is often the animal’s inclination toward impulse that is repeatedly used to achieve these results, making them a learned response…again, a process far removed from reasoning. Any process by which an animal in nature is observed constructing something, such as a nest, or hunting in stealthy ways, may appear as unimpulsive planned execution but is instead a learned, conditioned or perhaps evolved instinct, all acquired and necessary for survival; a basis for first order thought. The animal performs your initial stage, thought, and your last stage, execution. Though these lack the planning link and are thus performed responsively. It does not think about possibility/consequence and use the output to subsequently plan and execute against immediate desires. Perhaps a consolidation and establishment of a new thought order is necessary, a pre-order. I have some thoughts on your excellent human discussion as well. Hopefully I can find some time later to share.

    • Bill Meacham permalink

      Chimps are smarter than you think. From my book:

      Chimps have a primitive sense of time. They are focused on the present but can remember past grievances and favors and avenge the former and reward the latter. They are able to anticipate the future and make plans as well. For instance:

      An adult male may spend minutes searching for the heaviest stone on his side of the island, far away from the rest of the group … . He then carries the stone he has selected to the island’s other side, where he begins—with all his hair on end—an intimidation display in front of his rival. Since stones serve as weapons (chimpanzees throw fairly accurately), we may assume that the male knew all along that he was going to challenge the other. This is the impression chimpanzees give in almost everything they do: they are thinking beings just as we are.(de Waal, Peacemaking Among Primates, pp. 38–39.)

      Given this picture, it seems that chimps and humans are a lot alike, except that humans, being more intelligent, do what chimps do even better.

      • Peter permalink

        Bill, thanks for engaging. Chimps likely are smarter than I give them credit for.

        Unfortunately, a sense of time is not sufficient, only a component. The behaviorist’s observation is easily explained by learned, social, or instinctual behavior and therefore does not evidence your first order characterization nor the additional claim that animals anticipate the future.

        Analogous is the example of the squirrel that distinguishes between nuts with broken shells and those that are intact; consuming the former and burying the latter for later unearthing and consumption. Does the squirrel set the goal, consider possibility/consequence, decide among alternative courses of action, and proceed, abstaining from impulse along the way? No, this behavior is hardwired or perhaps learned and helpful for survival. I agree that animals are capable of first order thought; only that you’ve misinterpreted its bounds. So much for this topic.

        As an aside, De Waal properly admits his assumption, and likely assumes too much. Another hypothesis of his contends that some animals act morally – a similar claim where he infers much from little to no direct evidence. I would therefore use caution with his writings. I still want to write about excellent humans – soon, I promise!

  3. steve permalink

    Thanks, Bill for another thoughtful blog entry.

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