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.