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The giant robot dinosaur project

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The working culture at Disney
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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Also, people treated me incredibly well, and I got to learn a different way of thinking about storytelling. But actually, people treated me embarrassingly well. I mean, the first day I was there, I sit down at my desk and somebody comes to me and says, 'What kind of crudités would you like every day?' And I'm like, 'Well, what do you mean?' And they show me the menu, like, 'Okay, if we deliver it in the morning or...' 'Okay, yes, sure, that'll be fine.' And they're like, 'Is it okay if we wash and gas your car on Tuesdays and Thursdays', and I'm like, 'Yes, that'll be fine.' You know? I mean, all this crazy stuff that you would never have in technology. So it was a funny shift of culture.

I remember at one point there was a budget memo that went around that said: new policy, no unnecessary travel and no ordering fresh flowers for your room, no ordering champagne and caviar. It had this whole list, and I was like, we were supposed to be doing this all along? Unnecessary travel was allowed? I mean, it was all these things that never occurred to me were suddenly outlawed, so it was a crazy, crazy culture, but also a lot of fun.

But it was all a culture that was set up as a reflection of the two brothers that had started it: Walt and Roy. And Walt had been the creative guy who went off and did whatever he wanted and threatened to quit, sometimes did quit, when he didn't get his way. And Roy had been the businessman that had sort of kept the budget. And Roy had originally refused to fund Disneyland and Walt quit and started Imagineering and then Roy had to buy it back, but the whole dynamic of the company was like that. Imagineering was the embodiment of Walt, with its crazy ideas and sort of petulant and wanting to do what they wanted to do whether it made business sense or not. And strategic planning was Roy, and finance and... you know, they were the naysayers on everything. And so it was always this dynamic between them that still existed. So you always played out that projects of you would always pitch your projects to the business people. So that was a lot of fun.

W Daniel Hillis (b. 1956) is an American inventor, scientist, author and engineer. While doing his doctoral work at MIT under artificial intelligence pioneer, Marvin Minsky, he invented the concept of parallel computers, that is now the basis for most supercomputers. He also co-founded the famous parallel computing company, Thinking Machines, in 1983 which marked a new era in computing. In 1996, Hillis left MIT for California, where he spent time leading Disney’s Imagineers. He developed new technologies and business strategies for Disney's theme parks, television, motion pictures, Internet and consumer product businesses. More recently, Hillis co-founded an engineering and design company, Applied Minds, and several start-ups, among them Applied Proteomics in San Diego, MetaWeb Technologies (acquired by Google) in San Francisco, and his current passion, Applied Invention in Cambridge, MA, which 'partners with clients to create innovative products and services'. He holds over 100 US patents, covering parallel computers, disk arrays, forgery prevention methods, and various electronic and mechanical devices (including a 10,000-year mechanical clock), and has recently moved into working on problems in medicine. In recognition of his work Hillis has won many awards, including the Dan David Prize.

Listeners: George Dyson Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Walt Disney, Roy Disney

Duration: 2 minutes, 51 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 05 July 2017