Monday, February 22, 2010

Technology At Its Best

"When I was a young warthog..." - Poombah, The Lion King

I may not be young, but my wife would argue that I'm still a warthog. Meh. When I was young, however (7th grade), I can recall seeing my first computer: a Tandy Radio Shack, Z-80 (where the TRS-80 moniker originated) based PC with 4K of RAM and a cassette tape used for DASD. The local Tandy Sales Representative had dropped by my class (just before lunch) and showed us a simple program that was something like this:

10 PRINT "Hello world ";
20 GOTO 10

As I watched "Hello world" scroll across the screen at the speed of light, I was enamored. I just had to be a part of this phenomenon. Of course, being spoiled by TV shows like Lost in Space (funny, huh?) I figured computer programming was a cinch. So I, as a huge video games buff and a big fan of Space Invaders specifically, attempted the following during the last 15 minutes of lunch before they took the computer away.

10 Create 5 rows of aliens that are 10 wide; let them descend at the rate of 1 space per second
20 GOTO 10

I didn't want to make the program too complex, after all, so I "kept it simple." Imagine my dismay when the computer spit back the following:

?SN ERROR
LINE 10

READY

And that was the beginning of a lifelong obsession with computer programming.

(For what it's worth, I spent the better part of 8th and 9th grades teaching myself BASIC so that I could eventually write that Space Invaders game. Toward the end, my cassette tape got damaged and I lost everything I had done during the past 2 years. By that point, however, I didn't care any longer since my curiosity took me to many other places in the realm of application development.)

This trip down Nostalgia Lane was prompted by a New York Times article regarding the latest application of technology in an educational setting. I can recall many, many articles written over the past 20 years predicting the downfall of mankind because kids are exposed to too much technology. Oh, the horrors of technology replacing a good education! Oh, how their brains will rot and turn to mush!

I wonder what the authors of those articles are thinking now.

If you haven't yet followed the link, the story is about the Vail school district in Arizona, where a router with satellite access to the Internet was attached to a school bus giving students the chance to browse the web on the way to and from school. Along with Empire High School (in the same district), which was christened in 2005 as a digital school (meaning that students were given laptops instead of textbooks where they could access the Internet at over 100 wireless points in the school), this school district seems to have fully embraced the idea that technology - when used properly - can enhance the educational experience instead of replace it with mind numbing gaming and the endless use of Facebook and Twitter.

This doesn't mean that those things don't occur. On the bus, the author writes, you will occasionally see someone playing video games. But for the most part, students are quietly finishing up homework (that they submit electronically), writing essays, etc. Not only are they able to complement their education by learning how technology facilitates efficiency (and therefore illustrates the advantages of good time management) but the school bus is also much quieter too.

Ms. Cody Bingham, the driver of that school bus, said it best: "that was the quietest ride I’ve ever had with high schoolers."

Maybe it's because their brains have indeed turned to mush and are no longer able to communicate like the proponents of such disastrous consequences predicted during the past 20 years. My guess is that the students are simply getting their work done.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Decisions: Cut and Dry?

Is any decision ever an easy one to make? I suppose that some decisions are, but it truly depends on the topic of discussion. For example, when my wife and I recently decided to go to Ruth Cris for Valentine's Day dinner, neither of us spent more than 0.13259876 seconds to come up with a collective "yes" on the matter.

Other decisions, especially business ones, are not so easy. Rarely does a manager have the luxury of deciding something that does not have ramifications beyond the five minutes immediately following the decision (save for where to go for lunch perhaps). Instead, they are frequently called upon to determine the direction that their ship will travel for the next week, month, or even year.

Consider the decision of hiring someone. Susan Docherty who leads the sales, service and marketing for GM's U.S. operations recently described her philosophy around the hiring process in an interview by the New York Times. There's no need to discuss it in detail, but I will mention one thing that is relevant to everyone reading this: such a decision with its potentially far reaching consequences is not taken lightly. In fact, she puts quite a bit of effort into researching potential candidates and inspecting them in person to determine the degree of fit within her team.

I claim that this is the hallmark of a good decision maker. Don't take what I'm saying to extremes, however. While it is certainly possible to over analyze things to the point of paralyzing oneself, it is also possible to do quite the opposite: make a decision off the cuff based solely on one's gut reaction; a recipe for disaster. ("Fools rush in where angels fear to tread," and all that nonsense is applicable here.)

What Ms. Docherty has done is develop a process to do enough analysis to support her when she makes the decision, but still avoids making the decision based solely on what information is available from other sources. In other words, she doesn't depend on the resume alone or even the input of others. Instead, all of these things are rolled up and kneaded like bread dough along with her own impressions she forms after meeting the person.

Once a decision has been made, then the crucial part of selling the decision to others begins. Specifically, any decision on policy, process, etc. will need the support of others - even subordinates - in order to be successful. Otherwise, you will have empty shells of people simply going through the motions, only trying to fulfill the letter of the law instead of the spirit of it. Selling decisions like these takes a certain degree of finesse (not unlike selling goods or services to clients of your company), and this should not be understated.

For example, another interview by the New York Times with George Cloutier yielded some very interesting and even good ideas about how to run a small- to mid-sized business. Yet the means by which he communicated these to the report came off as crass, arrogant, and even obnoxious. Do his ideas have merit? Yes. Would I be as willing as a small business owner to implement his ideas? Perhaps, but not without a lot more convincing as to why his ideas are better than my own. As it stands now, he comes off as someone looking down his nose at those his company serves, and no one likes hubris regardless of the shape or form it comes in.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Have an Idea? Act on it!

Occasionally, I'm reminded of how things could have turned out. ("I cudda been a contendah!") If you know me in real life then you know that, while I'm not against taking risks, they are always calculated to the nth degree and weighed against the effort required to achieve whatever goal I am thinking about. And so I dream up a lot of ideas for products or services (some good and some not), realize that I would prefer to relax during my off-time, and then shelve the ideas.

Inevitably, at some point soon after shelving an idea I look at the entrepreneurs of the world or even some homegrown ones and wonder how they ended up being multi-millionaires when I am not. I even asked one how it happened. He said to me (paraphrased), "it's easy to take risks if you have nothing to lose." I suppose the problem is that I've always been mildly successful so I've never felt the need to reach for the proverbial brass ring.

Should I have? You be the judge:
  • In 1991, Jason Crawford and I were sent from IBM's T. J. Watson Research Center to IBM's Boca Raton facility to help out for a month on the OS/2 2.0 product launch. Jason, being frustrated that he couldn't check his work email, thought of the idea of logging in to his desktop remotely to do so. We both worked independently of each other, but both gave up because the speed (or lack thereof) of the networks made testing and debugging a nightmare.
  • In the late 1980's as I was finishing up my Computer Science degree, I thought of going after my Master's degree using an idiomatic programming language as my project and basis for my thesis. Drag and drop icons here and there on a white slate, draw some connections to represent program flow and branch logic, and anyone can write a computer program.
Do these sound familiar? They should. The first example is identical to pcAnywhere which was hugely popular during its heyday in the late 90's and generated a lot of money for Symantec. The second example is akin to HP's OpsWare, BMC's RealOps (now Atrium Orchestrator), or CA's Process Automation Manager products. OpWare was acquired by HP in 2007 for USD$1.6B in cash; I don't have figures for the other two products but I don't think that it matters after you've read one point six billion dollars.

Where would I be financially if I had acted? Risk is not without its rewards as the OpsWare payout demonstrates quite nicely. Do you have an idea? Let me quote Rudyard Kiping:

"Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges -- Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!"

"The Ranges" can be anything that is blocking you from achieving your goals or desires. Don't let them get in your way or, worse, become something they aren't. We commonly hear this as "making a mountain out of a molehill," or put another way "it's only a problem if you let it become a problem."

Monday, February 1, 2010

Give Them What They Want

Christmas has come and gone, and every year the wife and I have the same debate: I like to buy things that she doesn't know about so that I can watch the smile on her face when she gets something that she wanted but didn't expect to get; she likes to buy things that I have told her that I want so that she doesn't get me something I don't want.

What happens instead is that I don't tell her what I want and she tells me what she wants. I am the one with the surprise because she always gets me neat stuff, and she's the one who is happy because she knows she is getting the things she wants.

This Christmas, I learned that sometimes people don't know what they want until you give it to them. For example, this year my wife got me an ear and nose hair trimmer. My OCD has always driven me to spend lots of time in the bathroom several times daily "manscaping" because I get real satisfaction out of cleaning up my appearance. (Of course, the only way to measure how effective I am is to count the hairs that I pluck out of my ears, eyebrows, and nose. But I digress...)

I've seen these hair trimmers in the media for years, but I've always resisted getting one. Ironically, it's because I associated these devices with old men and I am not old even if I am 42. But after staring at this thing in its packaging for 2 weeks after Christmas, I finally opened it up; inserted the battery; and...found that I really like it.

Speaking of things that people may not know what they want, Apple announced the iPad last Wednesday. My concern is that Apple is known to think outside of the box, but sometimes this box is exactly what people want. They do hit the proverbial home run when they successfully show the public another box that they like even more (iPhone anyone?) though so this is a hard call to make.

Will it be able to compete against the Kindle replete with the blessing of the Almighty Oprah? While I am seeing more and more Kindles in the subways, I personally don't like the device much. My in-laws got me a 1st generation Kindle for Christmas in 2008 and, after deciding the user interface was extremely "clunky" (for lack of a better word) I shut it down; put it back in the box; and haven't taken it out since.

But the bigger question and one that is relevant is: is the public only interested in a reader or something more capable? Apple didn't announce a reader-only device, but is this what the people want? It's difficult to guess which way the tide will flow given the readily apparent shortcomings in the iPad's design: no camera; it's 3 times as heavy as the Kindle; there isn't a real keyboard; and the price is much higher than a Kindle especially if you want 3G support. (Wired recently ran an article entitled Ten Things Missing From the iPad. Go read it for more information.)

Ironically, while Apple is attempting to compete against the Kindle in the reader space, Amazon is going to go toe-to-toe with Apple in the applications space. Specifically, they announced that they have released an SDK for 3rd party applications to be developed. This is a huge mistake that will cost them in mindshare, in my opinion, because the display is far too slow to update. So unless 100% of the applications are content related (like the discussion about a Zagats port to the Kindle), people will quickly become disenfranchised with the concept and then, on a larger scale, the entire device. In other words, why should I stick with the Kindle when it has crappy applications when I can get an iPad with its immensely huge and popular App Store and a great reader included.

Oh, and did you know that Amazon has a Kindle e-book reader application for the iPhone? The iPad will run iPhone applications so Jeff Bezos better know what he is doing because in my opinion he is heading down a road he should not be. The one thing going for Amazon is that Electronic Arts has signed up to develop applications for the Kindle. While EA has a decent track record, they also have a few bombs under their belt so I'm not yet 100% confident that even they can pull it off.

To summarize all of this, I leave you with a quote by Richard Charkin, executive director of Bloomsbury Publishing in London. In a recent New York Times article, he says bluntly, "will Kindle pricing [for e-books] trump Apple sex appeal?" Good question indeed.