Monday, May 17, 2010

Thoughts on Bill Gates' Legacy

Written June 25, 2008 for
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

--Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ozymandias
I sincerely hope that Bill Gates' legacy is yet to be created, because what passes for common wisdom about his contributions to the computer industry will either fade from memory or be relegated to the arcana of business scholarship.

Readers may raise Microsoft as an objection to my argument. My trite reply is: Thomas Watson and Google. The former built a computing colossus but has faded from everyday IT awareness faster than most would have predicted. The latter is the current darling, a young star yet to experience the ravages of success and time.

People talk about the "genius" of Bill Gates. I find this an overly fawning accolade when I compare him to Einstein, Feynman, Hawking and their (rare) ilk. There is no "Gates algorithm" left for computer scientists to ponder. Yet, he was an unequivocal business success. Is there a different dimension of perception or behavior that warrants the genius label when applied to his accomplishments in the industry?

Maybe. Unlike Einstein's quest for a theory of general relativity, Gates had plenty of competitors racing to make small computers pervasive. But he came from a socio-economic background that enabled him to aggressively follow his dream. He had family connections that put him in contact with the highest levels at IBM at the time when the IBM PC was being developed. He had the great sense to say "yes" when IBM asked if his company had an operating system for their fledging PC. He was, shall we say, shrewd, in his acquisition of MS-DOS. He was equally shrewd in his proposal to IBM that allowed Microsoft to resell DOS to IBM's competitors. And he was triply shrewd when he convinced PC manufacturers to pay for DOS regardless of its residence on their PC products. The fact that the U.S. Justice Department was asleep at the switch during this period made this last move ultimately effective for Microsoft's development. If this be the definition of business genius, then Bill qualifies in spades.

When the Justice Department finally took action against Microsoft, the company had the opportunity to remake itself into smaller, more agile pieces. It did not. Perhaps Bill's biggest business failing was not seeing why this might be a good thing. Microsoft is struggling today, in part, because of its bulk. Furthermore, the bloom is off Microsoft's rose, so the public market has a higher tendency to punish the company for its perceived missteps. This punishment cannot be meted out to the division or product line that is truly responsible, so value is destroyed across the entire enterprise.

IBM is hailed as a company that recovered from the brink of death, a place where many feel Microsoft, at current course and speed, could be headed. IBM's recovery only happened after a parade of less-than-capable CEOs drove its Board to bring on the highly-capable Lou Gerstner. Perhaps Microsoft has not had enough CEOs to develop a corporate sense of what defines inadequacy at the top. Therefore, I suggest another candidate for Bill's biggest failing is his long-standing and apparently continued support for Microsoft's current CEO.

Where my respect for Bill Gates is unbounded is in his decision to use almost his entire fortune for the common good. Unlike so many Silicon Valley "successes" who seem to require personal fulfillment by recreating Japanese palaces or building ever-larger sailboats, Bill's actions in the future could make a real difference in the lives of millions of people and the planet we all share. That legacy might endure.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

A (Different) Passage to India

Written July, 2007

Though I have traveled extensively, the Indian sub-continent had escaped my footfalls.  So, when a company upon whose Board of Directors I sit was contemplating an acquisition, which included an Indian facility, I enthusiastically volunteered to make the visit to determine if the operation was as described.  Arrangements were made for my departure to Mumbai from New York at 8:30AM on a Monday morning, returning in time to report prior to the closing of the transaction.

Or so I thought.  My youngest daughter had thoughtfully borrowed some travel books on India for me to read, and I finally got around to examining one while sitting in my car around 5PM on the preceding Friday.  I noted with interest a section headed “Passports and Visas”, anticipating that it would include a lengthy description of requirements for those other than myself.  Silly me.  The words on the page read, “every US citizen traveling to India must have a valid passport and visa”.  Panic ensued.  Hasty phone calls to my sponsors and hosts surfaced conflicting information about how long the visa process would take, putting the finely tuned schedule at risk.

Monday / Tuesday

On Monday morning, I took my baggage and headed to the Indian consulate in New York.  I was prepared for the worst.  My mood was not improved by lugging two bags around in the pouring rain, or milling about the dripping subterranean entrance to the visa office waiting for a consulate employee to provide a token to allow me to stand in line.  Nor was I encouraged by the horror stories shared by my fellow millers.  However, by 9:30 in was in line, paper number in hand, by 9:45 I handed over my passport and some cash, and was told that I could pick up my visa by noon. 

I ducked into a nearby coffee shop to kill time and stay dry, then returned to the consulate to retrieve my visa and met my driver to head for JFK for an 8PM flight.  My mood improved considerably when I discovered that a business class ticket on British Airways entitled me not only to use of the well-stocked lounge, but also a complimentary massage.  Since it had been a while since my last business class trip, I thanked airline competition for this and took full advantage. 

Bolstered by the massage and several bloody marys,  I finally boarded the plane at 8PM for my 8:30 flight.  Once again, I was stuck by the changes in business class travel since my last trip.  I had read about the “flat bed wars”, where airlines competed for business on the totality of their seat recline, and was eager to benefit from that skirmish.  However, I was not prepared for what I encountered next.  Instead of the familiar two-by-two seating, I was delivered into a maze of the airline equivalent of cubicles, one of which contained my seat.  Moreover, my seatmate (cubicle mate?  pod mate?) faced me, separated by a motorized divider reminding me most of the “cone of silence” from the old Get Smart television show.  I cannot say this is a complete improvement.  For me, what little benefit comes from sitting in an airplane seat for ten hours or more is the chance to interact, even for a short while, with my fellow passengers.  This new configuration effectively eliminates that interaction.  It also turns the flight staff into contortionists as they try to pour drinks and serve food over and around the partitions.  As I was watching a glass descend from a disembodied hand over my divider, I had a flash of empathy for my daughter’s guinea pigs at feeding time.

On the other hand, if sleep is your priority, this setup delivers.  Unless you or someone else has to make a trip to the rest room mid-flight, in which case you are either a hurdler or hurdlee, given the lack of pathways resulting from closely spaced prone or supine bodies.  Moral:  get the aisle pod, or practice your gymnastics before you leave.

My outbound flight connected through London Heathrow without incident, but probably set a record for longest distance between connecting gates.  Ensconced in my new pod, I was enjoying the view of (for me) new territory, when it dawned that shortest route from London to Mumbai would probably take us directly over Baghdad.  The red line on the moving map display confirmed this, and I was relieved when we veered left and then right as the pilot negotiated a path between Mosul and Tehran toward our destination.  Finally, after about 18 hours elapsed time from JFK, I could see the lights of Mumbai and we touched down at around 1AM.


The target of my sponsor’s intentions uses a cheetah as its corporate mascot.  This made to easy to spot my driver, holding a stuffed one, in the throng at the arrivals point.  On the short walk to the car, I noted that the temperature (high) and humidity (high) were as described in my daughter’s book, and was thankful for the air conditioning in the car.  We left the airport, and headed for my hotel.  On the way I was able to catch a few glimpses of the local area, which reminded me initially of my visit to Peru years ago – the same kind of bi-modal wealth distribution was apparent after passing the Intercontinental Hotel and a row of humble shops within five minutes. 

Darkness and jet lag prevented me from further detailed viewing, but I did note the increased vegetation as the trip proceeded – then a checkpoint with oil drum barriers and collection of what I hoped was a toll.  Past the checkpoint, we were escorted by a pack of enthusiastic dogs who followed us for half a kilometer or so.  After encountering another guarded gate, we proceeded up an assortment of paved and unpaved roads until we reached the hotel.  Check-in was uneventful, my room was nicely appointed (although the large flat-panel television on the wall required the application of a hotel slipper in its mount to become parallel to the wall), and I was quickly asleep in a rather comfortable bed.

Morning was a slightly different story.  I drew the curtains and took in a panoramic, if not attractive, view of the major construction under way around the hotel and building skylines on the horizon in all directions.  The weather appeared partly cloudy – pleasantly surprising because this was supposed to be monsoon season.  I was to have water poured on that naive observation soon enough, but meanwhile I was having a bit of trouble getting my shower to pour any water at all.  So I resorted to the tub, where I found water, but not the hot variety.  Jolted awake but clean, I went down to the lobby for lunch with my host.

Over a very nice Indian buffet lunch, I learned that most of the area surrounding hotel (a very extensive piece of property) was owned by an individual who had struck a deal with the Indian government, in the interests of preservation, not to develop more than ten percent of his holding and not to sell any of the land.  So he is building high-rises on the ten percent and offering 999-year leases on other parcels.  I noted that beating the system seems to be a global pastime.

We then proceeded to my hosts’ offices, and I found myself traveling back toward the airport, through the lightly populated area from the previous evening. This turned out to the Aarey Milk Colony, formerly the primary source of diary products for Mumbai, now less so.  Some limited cattle farming remains, but recently an IT industrial zone has been added into the mix.  So one can add “programmers” to the list of cows, dogs, pigs and goats roaming the area, along with villagers living in conditions that were quite poor but by no means the worst I encountered.

The offices are housed in a four-story building close to the airport, in an area that can be generously described as “developing”.  The building is one of the nicest in the adjacent few blocks, originally built for a bank, and slightly renovated so as to qualify for the same favorable treatment as those in the IT zone mentioned previously.  The building and offices are quite modern, and redundancy has been addressed.  There is a diesel generator for backup electricity, and multiple backups for Internet and phone connectivity.

A major bus station is very close, and a light rail station is rumored to be in the works.  Busses are the favored mode of public transport in Mumbai.  Fares are low, even by Indian standards (fare for a 2 kilometer trip might be $0.25 or less), and busses are frequent.  The two major commuter train lines in the city are stressed to their limit, always overcrowded and are to be avoided if at all possible.    Many of my host’s employees commute by bus, although a significant number ride motorbikes, and a few have private cars.  Road traffic in Mumbai rates further discussion later.

I spent the afternoon with software engineering management.  This included project and quality managers.  I heard a detailed presentation about the organization, and about the processes currently in place.  As noted prior to my visit, I was impressed by the company’s process maturity relative to its size and age.  The employees I met with were attentive, engaged in conversation, and appeared willing to take feedback.  They responded to my questions without becoming defensive, and we ended our meeting with a wide-ranging discussion of global IT issues.

At 5:45, I left the office to make a quick stop at my hotel and then continue to a dinner meeting in southern Mumbai.  This was to be a treat for me – thirteen years ago I attended a Harvard program where an Indian gentleman was in my “living group”.  Though we had shared many experiences during our time together, and communicated infrequently by e-mail in the time hence, we had never been able to reconnect in person.  So it was with pleasurable anticipation that we arranged to meet at the Bombay Gymkhana Club, where he was a member.

At about 6:15 we left the hotel for a thirty-kilometer drive in Mumbai’s rush hour, which I would describe as the worst traffic I have ever encountered, except that it got even worse later in my trip.  Indian roads are generally unsigned, unlined and Indian driving is best described as a freestyle event.  The good news is that the vehicles are generally small.  Three-wheeled “rickshaws” and commercial vehicles abound, and the typical American driving view of a large metal SUV backside is mostly absent.  It is replaced by painted invitations on trunk lids and rear doors for drivers to use their horn, and use them they do.   This is a far cry from cities like New York, where a misplaced honk can result in a $350 fine.

Given the road capacity, and the incredible number of vehicles, and the Brownian motion of those vehicles, I was amazed that a) we made reasonably good time, and b) I did not see a single accident along the way.  Later I was told that drivers in Mumbai are the best in India and that “if you can drive in Mumbai, you can drive anywhere”.  The person saying this was referring to India, but I would extend her comment to the entire planet.

We arrived at the Gymkhana about 7:50, well in time for my 8PM meeting.  Suffice to say it was a very pleasant reunion, which included a wonderful story I had not heard of my dinner host’s trip to Harvard, including an unspecified illness, admittance to a Massachusetts hospital, and favorable treatment by a Pakistani doctor there who offered to help him escape the implausible (to them) financial tentacles of the US health system.  Though this happened 13 years ago, the story is amazingly topical, pinning both the social and political irony meters.  I made a note to send my friend a DVD of Michael Moore’s “Sicko”. 

My return from the Gymkhana (which sports a cricket pitch that must be among the most valuable undeveloped pieces of land in the world) was uneventful, even by new-to-Mumbai tourist standards, and quick.  I hit bed at about midnight and was immediately asleep.


I did not want to seem the ugly American, so had not made a fuss over the hot water situation in my room.  But I did discreetly ask my host if this was a cultural or a plumbing issue, and he had someone call the hotel.  They said they would take care of it.  I guess the plumber didn’t get the memo. Once again shocked into consciousness and cleanliness, I met my driver and we made our way to the office. 

The morning’s meeting was with the marketing staff, which included people working on web search-engine optimization, direct mail and other lead generation, and marketing collateral.  This group represented more diversity of background than the software engineering group, which was not surprising given the relative youth of the software industry in Mumbai.  However, I found the same openness and willingness to learn that I had encountered with the previous group.  The search engine optimization activity is mostly manual but extremely effective, resulting in #1 results for many relevant keywords with no direct payments to Google, MSN or Yahoo.  This expertise should be translatable to my sponsor’s products.  On the other hand, a wider gap exists between the Indian marketing activity and the American market.  This is mostly due to limited experience with American cultural and language issues.  I suggested several ways for improvement in these areas, and am confident that others ideas can be developed and adopted.  We also spent time discussing the lead process, and the need to change the group’s current definition of “qualified lead” to be more in line with standard practice. This process change is underway.

For lunch, a larger group of us ventured to a Gujarati restaurant (Gujurat is the Indian state north of  Maharasthra.  Mumbai is the capital of Maharasthra).  Several of my hosts are of Gujarati decent, and were eager to show off their version of “grandma’s cooking”.   The restaurant was in a large shopping mall in Goregaon, whose development has exploded in recent years due to the rapid growth of the Indian IT outsourcing industry. Construction cranes were everywhere, and the multitude of English road signs suggests the high number of direction-hungry American drivers on the road.
After lunch we did a complete mall crawl, which proved once again that the US still leads in brand marketing.  Any American would feel completely at home here, which isn’t necessarily a good thing.

We returned to the office where I met with the administration group, and learned of the ways that my hosts use to recruit and hire in Mumbai.  As one might expect, these are substantially different than in the US.  One useful differentiator is that my hosts run a
product company.  Most Indian IT employees are in service businesses, and many desire work in product companies.  As one of the few software product companies in Mumbai, my hosts are able to use this attribute to offset negative perceptions, such as their small size or unknown brand.  Another issue is that my hosts must run their US support and sales in US real time, which means that a majority of their employees work the Indian night shift.  Several methods are used to make this attractive and palatable, including salary differentials, commuting differentials and office benefits.  For employees who are deemed “keepers”, my host will sponsor and pay for a US green card.  This is a five-year process, which helps minimize turnover. My hosts have developed a close relationship with the US consulate in Mumbai, and can smoothly navigate this process.

Last I met with the sales group.  In many ways, this was the most “American” group, which is not surprising.  An effective salesman must become like his or her customers, and an Indian salesperson targeting the US market is no exception.  Furthermore, some of the sales culture is universal, including the thirst for, and grousing about, leads and quotas.  This group was much more concerned with performance than grousing, and excited about the prospects for growth in both the US market and internationally.  We spent the latter part of the meeting exploring possible scenarios for international expansion, and the challenges and benefits that could result.  For our hosts, a benefit includes the possibility of work beyond the Indian third shift, which they see as both an aid for recruiting and lateral movement.

Dinner was with another large group at a local Chinese restaurant.  We had a wide-ranging discussion about business and culture, as befits a gathering of this type.  I was presented with gifts of Indian dress, and a large carving of the Hindu god Gamesh.  Gamesh is the god of prosperity, and is typically acknowledged by Indians at the start of new ventures.  Since I had accomplished my sponsor’s mission, my host suggested that I spend Friday touring Mumbai, and suggested an itinerary that was busy but seemed doable. 


I awoke to clouds.  Since another call to the hotel had been made, I was eager to check on the hot water situation.  There was some progress – I had hot water in my sink.  I wondered if there was a Hindu god of hot water I could appeal to as I took yet another chilly shower. 

I went to the office and spent some time with my host discussing business development issues, and then left for downtown escorted by two of my host’s female Indian employees and our driver.  The plan was to grab a snack, see the Gateway of India, the Taj Mahal Hotel, take a boat across the bay to the Elephanta Caves, return for a drink at the Taj, and meet for dinner before my flight. 

Like many plans, this one was disrupted by the weather.  As we were heading south, the sky opened up on us, providing a typical tropical downpour.  I’d seen this weather before, but not in an urban area of  13 million.  The combination is dramatic – road flooding begins quickly and what was slow traffic becomes glacial.  But the rain let up and I had a good tour of the older, wealthiest part of Mumbai, some of which is spectacular, and the part most Americans see in the tourist guides.  Since we had lost some time, I suggested we try to go directly to the caves, which featured carvings dating back to the 5th century.

We got tickets and boarded the small passenger ferry to Elephanta Island.  I noted that there were maximum loads posted for “fair” and “foul” weather, and that the safety equipment consisted entirely of old tires draped around the hull for use as life preservers.  But we weren’t the only passengers, and everyone else seemed game, so off we went into the bay.  We passed a large Indian naval installation, and were reminded not to take any photos only after all of the passengers had snapped everything in sight.  As an American, I was interested to see a large collection of Russian-built warships in one place.  We also got a good view of the oil tankers and supertankers offloading – one really doesn’t get a good sense of the size of a supertanker until passing it at about 5 knots – it takes a long time.

We reached Elephanta Island after about an hour of peaceful cruising.  The weather was gray, with a slight drizzle, and there were not a lot of tourists about.  This was a problem for both the vendors lining the walk to the caves, and for the dogs and monkeys who beg or steal from unsuspecting visitors.  I watched a monkey relieve a tourist of a just-purchased ear of roasted corn and was impressed by its well-practiced finesse.  The walk to the caves is uphill for about half a kilometer.  The caves are impressive, especially considering their age – they were carved by hand and essentially on-the-fly – no CAD systems or power tools to make the job easy.  The quality of the sculptures is also very high.  By the way, the island and caves were “discovered” around 1400 by the Portuguese, who ended any chance of completing the project by using it for target practice.  Yet another example of progressive foreign relations.

As we were admiring this antiquity, the sky opened up again, and this time, the rain wasn’t stopping.  We were thoroughly drenched, which wasn’t horrible since the air was warm, but I was getting a bit concerned about our boat ride back.  We boarded the last boat off the island, close to or exceeding the “foul” passenger limit, and began chugging back to Gateway of India.  The rain got harder; the wind started getting stronger, from the southwest.  This meant we would be beating our way back – not so bad in two foot seas, but potentially very, um, interesting in 3 foot seas or better.  More rain.  Wind picking up.  Lightning visible ahead.  One or two waves broke over the deck, but it didn’t feel like we were shipping any considerable water.  The pilot was doing a great job, keeping our bobbing motion to a minimum.  Should I now mention that a group of young Indian males started teasing my female companions, and that our driver began a heated defense, and had to be calmed down by the ladies?  I had visions of the Gilligan’s Island opening crossed with a western bar brawl and me ending up in the soup – but calmer heads prevailed.  

We climbed out of the boat at the Gateway of India and went across to the Taj Mahal Hotel – not to have a drink and pretend we were VIPs, but to find the rest rooms and use all their towels to try to get dry.  We squished our way across the very nice lobby, shivering from the air conditioning.  Outside, the rain persisted, and our driver brought the car around to take us back north.  Heat on full blast, rain on full blast, traffic at a dead stop or close to it, we made the return trip to the office in about three hours. 

After bidding my guides a fond farewell, my host and I had a quick dinner before he dropped me at the airport for my return trip.  My clothes were mostly dry by then, although my shoes were still pretty soggy.  I figured they could dry out in my pod.
This had been a worthy travel experience – my business and social missions had been accomplished, and I got in a side order of travel adventure.

Mumbai is a confluence of contrasts – it is at once modern and ancient, luxurious and squalid, thought provoking and mind numbing.  It is a driving force in India’s future, and I look forward to getting to know it better.

That said, I was very happy to arrive in London and have my first hot shower in four days at the British Airways arrival lounge.  I grabbed a cab to my hotel in the West End, changed into truly dry clothes, and promptly walked over to the Savoy, where I sat contemplating the incredible range of contrasts I’d experienced in my journey, including the current moment, over a drink at the American Bar.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A Trick Of The Tail

The New York Times published an article on March 16 titled "Fending Off Digital Decay, Bit by Bit", which talks about the challenges involved in preserving digital source material.  Reading this brought back memories of discussions I have had with several people concerning my misgivings about the enthusiastic embrace of the "long tail" in electronic commerce.

When I first heard about the aforementioned tail used to describe the impending cornucopia of digital goods promised by the Internet, I had some nagging doubts. Perhaps it was my usual reaction to hyperbole, but it might have had something to do with ignored economic realities.  Wikipedia captures the problem concisely:
"Given a large enough availability of choice, a large population of customers, and negligible stocking and distribution costs, the selection and buying pattern of the population results in a power law distribution curve, or Pareto distribution."
Most of the popular "long tail" evangelism focuses on the first part of that sentence, and ignores the next clause: "negligible stocking and distribution costs". The long tail acolytes assumed zero or very low costs because, "bits are cheaper than atoms". Turns out that is only partially true, and completely false if the bits "degrade".

In physical inventories, there is a cost of maintaining a stock of anything. This comprises the cost of the space to house the good and any environmental treatment to maintain it. Then add in the cost of accessing it, packaging it and delivering it (what we all complain about when we see "shipping and handling").

For digital goods, these costs may be lower, but they are not zero. There is the cost of space on a storage medium, and the cost of power to keep that medium active and the bits accessible. Movement to non-rotating storage will reduce the holding cost, but not the access costs. There may be packaging costs (licensing a particular format), and there are delivery costs (currently implicitly, and asymmetrically, shared by consumers and producers, a topic for another post). For most suppliers, these costs are hard to make explicit because consumers assume that bits are free.

As the NYT article points out, digital inventory ages, but in a different way than physical inventory. Bits generally don't become obsolete, but their media, formats and environments do. This is a much more insidious problem than rotting fruit, which can be replaced by a like copy with full confidence that human mouths have not changed. In fact, the aggregate cost of transcoding and migration to current media can make the real cost of older digital content prohibitively expensive, if the price reflects true cost. The only other option is for the vendor to eat the fixed cost and suffer reduced margins. 

Even if this is possible, the bits may not be useable in the current environment. I recently threw away a few hundred CDs of "educational" software that were perfectly readable, but also perfectly useless because it was not economical to recreate the operating system environment they demanded. If I were a vendor, it would be just as silly to keep these CDs in stock, except as drink coasters. More likely I would trash them, and their ripped and rotating counterparts.

Today, if you hear someone gushing about digital content enabling "the long tail", you are probably listening to someone who has never had to manage inventory to make a profit. I would put the long tail diagram in the same category as the Laffer curve - something that looks nice on a napkin, and would be great if only it worked in the real world.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

A Journey is Not a Mission

In several recent consulting engagements with large enterprises, I was stuck by the constant use of the word "journey", as in "the order-to-cash journey", or "the SOA journey", or the "business strategy redesign journey".  I remember felling a little queasy upon first hearing this usage.  Lately, I have watched this language permeate the business press and smaller organizations.

A quick trip to the Merriam OnLine dictionary reveals:

          1.  an act or instance of traveling from one place to another
               (see trip)

          2.  chiefly dialect :  a day's travel
          3.  something suggesting travel or passage from one place 
               to another

I suspect that the third definition is what is mostly meant by people using the word, but I have
encountered situations where the "urgent internal communications journey" fit the second.

In any case, the management consulting world has convinced many people to use the word journey instead of the word mission.  This must stop.

Again, from Merriam:

          1.     an act or instance of sending
2a.   a ministry commissioned by a religious organization
                  to propagate its faith or carry on humanitarian work

            b.   assignment to or work in a field of missionary enterprise

            c1. a mission establishment

              2. a local church or parish dependent on a larger religious
                  organization for direction or financial support

            d.   plural : organized missionary work
  e.   a course of sermons and services given to convert the
                  unchurched or quicken Christian faith
 3.     a body of persons sent to perform a service or carry on 
                  an activity: as
           a : a group sent to a foreign country to conduct diplomatic or 
                       political negotiations
           b : a permanent embassy or legation
           c : a team of specialists of cultural leaders sent to
                       a foreign country
 4a.   a specific task with which a person or a group is charged
            b1. a definite military, naval, or aerospace task
              2. a flight operation of an aircraft or spacecraft in the
                  performance of a misison
            c.   a preestablished and often self-imposed objective or purpose
5.     calling, vocation

Given these definitions, journey seems to be a much friendlier word, without the nasty semantic baggage of  task and the implied related concepts of goals, schedules, risks and resistance.  I can only surmise that its users are either Orwellian, or subconsciously replacing mission with journey to gain popular support with the troops because they themselves can't deal with the notion of a mission.

Journeys are pleasant, mostly, and non life- or career-threatening, mostly.  The endpoint is usually known, and easily accessible because some prior explorer or pioneer (likely on a mission) has found and documented the route.

Missions, on the other hand, are laden with risk.  While the goal may be defined, there is no guarantee that it can be achieved.  There are often obstacles (ranging from hostile natives to uncooperative department heads) between the team and the goal.  The cost of failure is usually more than moaning about a non-refundable ticket.

Which of the two sounds more like the effort to promote SOA in a large enterprise?

Language matters.

So the next time some managers start talking about a journey, tell them to call a travel agent.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Untethered Life

I remember when voice mail changed my life. In the early 80s we were building a company with global ambitions, and I was traveling a lot. The way I figured out if anyone was looking for me at the end of a long journey was to call the office and ask my assistant. This worked well if a) the assistant was doing their job (and mine was great, thanks Gail!), b) the assistant was at the office, and c) a phone was available for calling in.

As we continued to grow, the number of people traveling or working remotely grew, as did the administrative burden to support messaging. Then we hired a VP of sales from a larger company, who implemented an exotic new technology he had used successfully to manage his prior sales force - voicemail (those old enough to remember, it was Audix). Suddenly, (a) and (b) didn't matter so much. Whenever and wherever I could find a phone, I could call voicemail to see if anyone was looking for me.

This development had positive and negative consequences. Our admin people had reduced message taking/relaying overhead. Traveling employees didn't lose messages, and could respond in a timely fashion. But employees in the office began using "send this call to voicemail" as a way to ignore calls completely. This behavior was further encouraged by the "send all calls to voicemail" button on their new phones. It could be argued that communication in the office got worse as a result of this technology.

For the youngsters reading this, note that email was just beginning to emerge around this time, there was no public Internet and cell phones didn't exist. We will get to them later.

For all its faults, I loved voicemail because it was completely in service to me. Not only was the communications asynchronous, the network connection model was intermittent. This meant that time spent in transit was used for thinking. Thinking about how the next meeting was going to play out. Thinking about how our strategy should change in the face of recent competitor's moves. Thinking about where the family might go on our next vacation. These were ideas that I had to surface, remember and prioritize, not a response to someone else's external stimulus.

Then GTE invented AirPhone. Suddenly, if I had a flash of insight at 35,000 feet, or needed to respond to an urgent inquiry, I could make an outbound call from the plane. Since this only worked on domestic flights, the most time it could have ever saved was about 6 hours. This came in handy a few times when I was working as a Wall Street analyst and was able to get back to a reporter on deadline, but, other than that, there was never anything I was doing that was so important it couldn't wait until I landed. Since calls were only outgoing, I still was able to concentrate my thinking -- or read a trashy novel.

I was issued my first cell phone (a Motorola StarTAC) in the late 90s when I went to Wall Street. This was considered an essential business tool because a) everyone else thought that they were more important than you , b) a mayfly's lifetime was considered long-term, and c) you got paid on perceived results for clients who subscribed to (a) and (b). Even in this world, most of my cell phone calls were outgoing, either as a response to a voicemail message or another external event. That's probably because cell phones had not become pervasive - one's cell phone number was still considered a novelty, and the number of last resort.

By the time I left Wall Street, the first Internet bubble had popped, and Blackberry had become "crackberry" for Street types in the big shops. Having subordinates tied to mobile email is a great way to assert dominance and hide insecurity, so it's perfect for Wall Street. Meanwhile, the wireless companies were doing a good job of convincing the public that life just wasn't good enough unless you had a cell phone. How else were Mom and the kids going to keep track of their busy lives? And what if Aunt Em got mugged while stuck by the side of the road with a flat tire?

My wife succumbed to the wireless marketers, and got us a family plan with Verizon for herself, the kids, and her parents. My phone was still subsidized by my business. What was interesting was the difference in usage patterns between the adults and the kids. Whereas my wife and her parents had a similar reaction to cell phones as I, my two daughters, and all of their friends, were using this technology to augment, and many times replace, face to face social interaction. I'm not going to dwell on this topic - plenty is written elsewhere. But I will note that the combination of an alway-on Internet and always-on mobile devices has reduced, if not eliminated, the large chunks of think time I described above for what is now almost two whole generations. This has at least changed, and some might argue, diminished, the quality of leadership and management in many organizations.

Time has marched on and I have been inexorably drawn into new Internet technology as Google and Facebook have emerged as dominant players. I was never really into text messaging and therefore had a hard time understanding the excitement over Twitter. Then I lost the job that had subsidized my cell phone, and I had to consider my options for a replacement.

Economics played a big part in my decision, but so did my history. I just don't need to be always on and always connected to self actualize and accomplish my objectives. So a pay-as-you-go AT&T phone has replaced my far more expensive cell phone and contract. Most of the time the power is turned off. Lately I have been advised to join Twitter as part of my job-hunting network building. After joining via the Internet for a few weeks, I can only admire Monty Python's prescience in Life of Brian when Biggus Dickus asks "why are they twittering"? Paying text fees on my cell phone for this is a non-starter.

The most significant change in my untethered life came courtesy of Apple. My old Palm V was getting creaky, and I needed something to replace it. I also had an ancient Windows laptop that was making sounds like knives being sharpened. The solution? Not an iPhone. An iPod Touch. This device has all the Internet connectivity I need, when I need it, via WiFi. It allowed me to stop carrying a laptop, which has made airport security just a little less heinous and has made my old arm joints happy. And it, too, is mostly turned off.

But the iPod isn't perfect. I still have to carry a few USB sticks around for file transfers. And the screen, while beautiful, is cramped when I want to read a long document or cluttered web site. What I really wanted was a bigger iPod Touch with a decent filesystem. Apple seems to have countered these objections with the iPad. I'll have a little more to say on that in a future post.

Meanwhile, I am happy being untethered. I still seem to get all my calls and emails (and you are reading this), but when I'm mobile I connect to the Internet when needed, and am free from the financial obligation and interrupt-driven behavior of the always on life.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

IT, Biotech and Patents: When Worlds Collide

Some of you know I like to "throw the long bomb", in that I think about what could happen at the limit, or the end-game, when I prognosticate. This is a handicap on Wall Street, where being too early is exactly the same as being wrong. And it's either mind-expanding or migraine-inducing, or both, when thinking about how our Universe will wind up (cue Peggy Lee singing "Is That All There Is?").

But recently I've been spending time around non-IT folks, specifically, people involved in start-up life sciences and biotechnology ventures. Their perspectives on intellectual property issues are very different than my experience in IT. Thinking about the current state of these two different worlds has caused me to imagine what might happen to both if they proceed at their current course and speed.

DISCLAIMER: I am not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV. These opinions are my own and if you get harmed by taking them as gospel, then shame on you.

For software, the patent system has become so unwieldy as to be useless. Many have opined on this. It is currently almost impossible to write a new line of code that doesn't infringe on some software patent somewhere. I don't think that's what Jefferson intended.

Patents were written into the Constitution to promote the development of new ideas by providing a government-granted monopoly for a fixed period, after which the ideas would pass into the public domain. We as a country benefited from the advancement of knowledge, and inventors benefited from the fruit of their labors. Life was good.

But life then was also slow. The pace of technology development was slow enough that a 17-year patent lifetime made sense. Moreover, the target environment of a technology improvement was also slow to change. Prior to the PTO's allowance of software patents, the target environment was mostly the physical world (we are excepting design patents from this discussion). Our physical world changes slowly enough that 17 (or now 20, to sync up with the rest of the world) patent lifetimes made sense. For example, a drug providing a certain therapeutic benefit in humans is likely to provide that same benefit 20 years hence - evolution just doesn't work that fast.

Things are really different in the world of software. There is no physical world target, just a physical embodiment of an abstract computing machine. Any software technology makes assumptions about the state of development of all of the layers of abstraction all the way down to the hardware abstraction layer. Each of these layers is not subject to any natural law governing its rate of change. Depending on market conditions, each layer is constantly evolving at different, yet increasingly rapid rates.

Ultimately, hardware needs to be built to instantiate the lowest layer of abstraction. This hardware is subject to physical laws. Back in the day, the pace of electronics development was leisurely enough that 17 years was a generation. We can argue about the actual pace of electronics development today, but I don't expect anyone to claim that the pace is slower than it was when ENIAC roamed the earth.

So, with electronics and software technology driving sub-two year product cycles and 3-5 year total technology refreshes, how are new ideas promoted by granting inventors 20 years of monopoly on novel, useful and non-obvious inventions with a 3-5 year utility? It's plain that patent owners benefit, but it can be argued that the rate of innovation might actually slow as the effort and resources required to navigate the patent minefield overwhelm the effort and resources required for invention.

Intellectual property lawyers have added to the problem. Since discovering this fertile yet unplowed ground, an army of lawyers has built careers around patent law. Smart litigators have made large sums in the courts, which has attracted more litigators and has also driven corporations to get better at playing defense. But the resulting friction loss for individual companies and industries is considerable, measured in both cash and time. I built a successful, innovative software company in the 80's without filing a single software patent. This was partially out of my belief that they were wrong, but, more importantly, my corporate counsel did not think that they would increase the chances of successfully executing our corporate strategy. Today, I would be advised that a multi-million dollar IP program might not be sufficient. Is that really progress?

Many others are asking questions like the ones posed above, and I suspect that we are on a slow trajectory toward changes in patent law that sharply restrict the number and kind of software patents granted. At least I hope so.

Regardless of the patent situation, in my IT world the game was always about getting to revenue and profitability in a 3-5 year timeframe and an expense of $5M to $10M, plus or minus. Today, web startups can get farther on less, for reasons that could be the subject of another discussion.

As I am learning, the world of life sciences and biotech is way different. Although revenue and profitability are still goals, the expense of research and development is generally much higher and there is the added fun of government approvals and clinical trials. It is not unusual to spend $500M and take 10 years to get a drug to market. The good news is that successful drugs can generate billions of dollars at fat margins. If you think of the market as a casino,IT startups are the $5 blackjack table and this stuff is baccarat.

In this world, patents matter a lot more than in IT. They represent an option on success, which can have substantial value before a company delivers dollar one of revenue. It is the rare IT startup that gets bought for big bucks while its product is still in development, but it is common for drug startups to be bought before Stage III trials are complete. The selling company bases a substantial part of its value on its IP portfolio, and the buyer is willing to pay for monopoly power in a market segment for a period long enough to generate substantial returns.

When patents in the life sciences area are for things like medical devices or molecules, they fit snugly into the patent framework established hundreds of years ago. Unlike IT, medical devices or drugs have a relatively stationary target, i.e. animals or humans (there are some interesting exceptions, like HIV/AIDS and fast-mutating bacteria, but hold that thought for a paragraph). So a long patent life allowing recovery of enormous development expense seems to make more sense in this world than in IT.

But when I hear people in this world talk about things like genomics, custom sequenced DNA, designer drugs and synthetic biology, I hear "software". The ultimate instantiation might be a molecule or cell, but, to manage complexity, layers of abstraction are being developed and ideas are being captured and manipulated at these higher levels. This is analogous to a Java program ultimately executing on an iPhone. Only the hardware is different.

If patent law changes to reflect 50 years of development in IT result in shorter-lived or substantially diminished monopolies for software, and life sciences technologies start to look more and more like software, then it's going to be hard to argue that they should be treated differently, unless patent law further changes to explicitly consider development costs, which could result in different lifetimes for patents in different fields.

Given the glacial nature of changes to the patent system, it is not unreasonable to consider this may be the "golden age" of IP law for life sciences and biotech. There could be substantial turbulence ahead.


First off, the name of this blog is also the title of a very funny book by an only-recently-discovered college classmate, Linda Jaivin. Please go buy it here, or at your favorite bookseller.

Second, the title describes my outlook fairly well. I am basically an optimist, but my Roman Catholic upbringing tempered with some Jesuit education adds a lovely frisson as guilt and cynicism duke it out for outlook-tempering rights in my daily life.

Third, I've done a lot of stuff, been a lot of places, and like to keep busy doing things rather than writing about them. However, my current situation affords me the luxury of time to respond to numerous requests in the manner of "hey, you should write a blog".

So, what the hell. Stay tuned.