Current Affairs

When Love Wins

Last week was a momentous week, especially with the Supreme Court affirming the constitutionality of same-sex marriage.  I happened to be driving past the Facebook campus on Friday, and noticed that their "like" sign had been covered in the rainbow-colored gay pride background.

Twitter no doubt went crazy (I stayed away) but when I checked in to Facebook there were scores of posts celebrating the news, and lots of people changing their profile photos to include a gay pride background.  As I said in my Facebook post, I thought this was a big day for America.

I also noticed what was missing: reaction from those who didn't favor the idea of same-sex marriage.  Some of these friends are prolific posters, so I knew it wasn't because they had nothing to say.  More likely, they were holding off.  This got me thinking that it might help to explain my position on the matter.

First off, living in the San Francisco area, we're used to "live and let live" being the dominant ethos.  It can be easy to forget that what seems normal here is far from normal in many other places.

Second, my happiness had to do with empathy for the gay and lesbian friends and co-workers I've known over the years.  Seeing someone have to avoid sharing their personal life for fear of rejection or retribution just seemed like a terrible way to live.  For me, this ruling was about being able to say, "this is who I am!"  I couldn't be happier knowing that this roadblock to living a genuine life had been removed.

I have friends who object to homosexuality on religious grounds.  I get that, and I'm not here to change their minds.  I don't think the Supreme Court ruling threatens their beliefs.  Freedom of religion is a strong value in our country.  What you choose to believe about others, as a result of your religious beliefs, is up to you.

I also think there are those that equate marriage to a religious institution and event.  It is that, but that's not the "marriage" that is in question here.  I focus on the ability to obtain a marriage certificate--a legal document from the government.  This ruling doesn't mean that churches are now going to be obligated to conduct wedding ceremonies for people living a life those churches don't believe in.  I had the opportunity to get married in a church, and the religious leaders made it clear what was required of me (and my spouse) for that to happen.  It was in essence a business transaction:  you do this for us, we do that for you.  Even the fact that I belonged to the church didn't grant me any special privileges in that regard.

Having just finished reading a book about the struggle for ensuring voting rights for black Americans, I see this ruling in that context.  This was a great victory, but the struggle to grant equal rights to those whose sexual preferences are different than my own is a struggle that continues.

I'm not into culture wars.  I don't celebrate the unhappiness of anyone who thinks this ruling is wrong.  I'm glad I have friends with diverse opinions; it makes like more interesting.  I don't expect to convince anyone to think differently about the same-sex marriage ruling after reading this.  I do hope they'll have a different understanding.


Memorial Day Thanks

Thank you, Norman Callahan, and rest in peace.

Thank you, and thanks from a grateful nation, Nathan Sandersen, and rest in peace.

Thank you, and thanks from a grateful nation, my namesake Daniel, and rest in peace.

Thank you, Oscar Procell

Thank you, Joe and Jim McGuire

Thank you, Tony Procell

Thank you, Josh Booker, and rest in peace.

Thank you, Nicholas Booker

Thank you, Michael Booker

Thank you, George Turk

Thank you, Dan Cruz

Thank you, Paul

Thank you, Jimmy Kelliher's brother, and rest in peace

Thank you, and thanks from a grateful nation, Callahan brothers, and rest in peace

This Memorial Day I thought it was worth thanking those vets that I've personally known, for all they've done for me and our country.  We can all be thankful for the idea of those who've sacraficed for us.  But sometimes it's worth personalizing it.


2013: It's a Wrap

2013 words, phrases, ideas and people that can just go away 

  • Use of "hashtag" outside of Twitter
  • "Disrupt ___"
  • Selfie
  • Cancer
  • Mind blown
  • Miley Cyrus
  • Periods between every word in a phrase (a carryover from last year)
  • CNN news articles with spelling and grammatical errors
  • Like us on facebook
  • "Ninja" or "rockstar", used as an adjective to describe a desired software developer
  • Dysfunctional Congress
  • Crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, crowdanything
  • Yoga pants outside of yoga class
  • Affluenza
  • Big data
  • Warantless wiretapping
  • Skeumorphism
  • Hipster hats
  • Pajamas in public
  • Any Taylor Swift song about being wronged or having her heart broken

Product Managers on the Road, Islamabad Edition

Off to Islamabad, Pakistan, to lead an implementation of Office 365 for the country office of one of our NGO customers. Herewith, some random notes, observations and musings.

  • Got properly adjusted to Islamabad time by having three meetings and one fitness workout in the 12 hours before my flight. I'm at the airport feeling like I've been up all night because I have been up all night. That's one way to adjust to the 12 hour time zone difference.
  • Ready to use the "Clear" card I've received so I can skip past the security line, but the TSA agent tells me that line isn't operating. I'm pretty sure she just doesn't know how it works. At any rate, TSA Pre means I get to go right through security. Pretty sweet.
  • Lunch at Cat Cora restaurant. Who is this executive chef imposter?

IMG_0212

 

  • I can tell that everyone in my family is nervous about me going to Pakistan. It probably didn't help to watch an entire season of Homeland before I left.  As Pakistan goes, Islamabad is about the safest place I could be going. Most of the violence is in the southern part of Pakistan, in Karachi and Balochistan. Even so, I understand the difference between "relatively safe" and safe.
  • Brian calls. He's greased things for me with the State Department in Islamabad. Nice to have powerful friends.
  • Prepared for my trip by reading CIA Factbook on Pakistan. Main issue is low GDP growth. Also poverty and illiteracy.
  • My American Airlines flight to Chicago is delayed for an hour, then for six hours. There goes my connection… Now I'm f*d. Because I have checked bags (and people get hinky when bags fly without their owners these days) the best choice American can offer involves arriving one day late, after spending 20 hours window shopping in Doha airport.
  • Thankfully, my virtual travel agent and airline expert Brian calls to tell me there's an Emirates flight leaving in an hour if I can get on it. I call the travel agent and, after a bit of work, get re-booked. Now, to find my luggage.
  • In the Emirates line. I think this is what the American Airlines baggage agents were referring to when they talked about "lunch hour": the group in front of me is a family with about ten bags each.
  • Emirates has this rule that your carry-on can't weigh more than 15 pounds. And they make a big deal about saying they'll gate-check your bag if it's overweight. From what I could see, that rule is not being enforced.
  • 15 hours in a middle seat. Thank God there are free drinks on this flight. The hardest part about this flight? Sitting still. My iPhone is out of battery power (after all those phone calls rearranging travel) and I've put my laptop in the overhead bin, so I can at least stretch my legs out under the seat in front of me.
  • Pre-flight announcements in Arabic—that's a first.
  • Fake starry skies on the cabin ceiling--nice touch Emirates (or Boeing).
  • Surprising, and refreshingly helpful, reaction to the woman behind me feeling ill. They arranged for a medical person to see her when we landed.
  • The Dubai airport is like a Las Vegas hotel or a shopping mall. Marble floors, bright lights, indoor garden, boutique shops and food courts. And prayer rooms. Don't think they have those in Vegas.

IMG_0214

Yes, those are real trees... inside the airport terminal

  • Watching as people board flights for Riyadh, Bangalore, Delhi, Dhaka, Doha, Tehran… definitely at a crossroads point for the Middle East and Asia.
  • I wish I could have taken a picture of that woman in the burka walking through the terminal with her carry-on bag on her head.
  • My introduction to Pakistani culture starts with the flight to Islamabad--a Boeing 777 that's full. I expected that on the flight to Dubai, but not to Islamabad. The gate agent announces that the gate is open for boarding, and everyone--everyone--rushes to the gate. The agent keeps saying "business only" (which sounds like "B-C only" or "bees knees only") but it has no effect on the crowd. Eventually some security guard shows up and restores a bit of order to the line. I am going to have to get used to having people crowd around me. There's a very different sense of "personal space" here, meaning "there's no personal space here."
  • The culture lesson continues as we board the aircraft. People are trying to sit in whatever seat seems most desirable, slowing down the whole process. The flight attendants are constantly telling people to go sit in their assigned seat. At least they're stricter about enforcing the 15-pound overhead luggage rule.
  • Arrival in Islamabad. At once strange and wonderful, as I had expected. Islamabad has a layer of… what? Can't tell if it's smog, fog or a combination. The result is that the sunlight is filtered, which adds to the feeling that everything is a kind of tan-white color.

 

IMG_0219

 

Islamabad, from the Capital Monument. They say that's "fog."  I have my doubts

 

  • We exit the aircraft in Islamabad, using the older style portable stairways that put you onto the tarmac. They load us onto buses; another opportunity to experience crowding. The sign for Benazir Bhutto Airport—block letters that look like they're perched on a wall—and the age of the terminal reminds me of a typical '60's James Bond film.
  • Once in the terminal I have to pull out my laptop so I can look up the street address of the office I'm visiting. I need this to fill out the immigration forms. As a result, I'm literally the last person in line for immigration. There are several immigration queues (my favorite: "ladies and children") with the Pakistani's again ignoring the signs and jumping to whatever queue seems the smallest. I'm sticking with the (sole) queue for "foreigners and diplomats," wanting to avoid any incident, when the guard waves me over to one of the shorter lines. God takes care of fools.
  • Next up is baggage claim. Now each of those passengers that were ahead of me going through immigration is crowded around the baggage belt, with the baggage carts three-deep behind them. It takes me about 10 yards from when I spot my bags until I'm able to dive into the line to grab them. And customs/baggage check? No more than a glance by some official as I walk past.
  • It's the ride from the airport to the guest house that really tells me I'm not in Kansas anymore. Some of the scenes:
    • Women riding side-saddle on the back of Honda motorcycles (the basic form of taxi here)
    • Beggars at the window when we stop for a red light
    • Horns honking the instant the light turns green
    • The trucks and passenger vans decorated in all sorts of bright colors and jewels
    • Five guys riding on the roof of a passenger van
    • The police security checkpoints designed to reduce the flow of cars to one car per lane, so police can decide if anyone needs to be detained for further questioning
    • People playing cricket in a dirt field
    • As in India, drivers using their horns to say "I'm here" to anyone ahead of them changing lanes
    • Armed soldiers in front of sensitive locations
    • Barbed wire, and lots of it
  • It turns out that I have just enough time to get from the airport to the guest house, unpack and take a shower before I'm headed to the customer's office for meetings with local staff. Feels like my Nortel trips to Paris and London, where we'd go from the airport straight to an all-day meeting. I'm OK with not doing that anymore.
  • Apparently there's no extra charge for the next-door rooster that wakes me every morning.

IMG_0226

I'm pretty sure this tells you where to face when you're praying in the direction of Mecca

  • I'm beginning to wonder why I so enthusiastically said, "I love spicy food!" at lunch, when I eat something that freezes my vocal chords for about 20 seconds.
  • Hearing the call to prayers for the first time as it broadcasts from the local mosque and echoes across the city is an experience. And I have to admire the devotion of Muslims as they take the time for prayers. I have enough trouble getting to church on time once a week, much less multiple times daily.
  • First text message on my local mobile phone? An announcement about the killing of Hakimullah Mehsud, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan leader, by a US drone the day before scheduled peace talks with the Pakistan government. Yeah, that should complicate things.
  • A visit Saturday to the Capital museum. Interesting spin on history: the exhibits basically say, "India was decaying, but then we took over and now it's flowering". Plus lots of stuff about benefits of Islam. Still, it's interesting to realize that Pakistan has only existed as a country since 1947.

IMG_0215

Capital Monument, Islamabad. Kind of a lotus flower design

IMG_0216

Detail of bas-relief on one of the lotus petals, highlighting people and events in Pakistan's history

 

  • It seems that all the police checkpoints have an advertising deal with Wazir Fabrics. Way to monetize, police force!
  • At Daman-e-Koh Park. High enough to be above the "fog". The sight of women in burkas is surprisingly normal. Yes, there are men with monkeys on a leash. And yes, that was a monkey I saw running across the parking lot.

IMG_0222

View of Islamabad from Daman-e-Koh park

  • Lunch at Jahangir Balti and BBQ. Slightly awkward moment when we suggest to our guide that we invite the driver to have lunch with us. They're fascinated that I know and like some many kinds of Indian food. Our guide excuses himself for afternoon prayers.
  • Actually posted on the lunch menu: "Smoking, photography, pets, arms, ammunition and eatables from outside are not allowed."
  • Shopping trip cut short by request from customer's Chief of Security to return to our hotel and stay inside, as a result of the Taliban killing and fears of a reprisal.
  • Let's see. There's cricket, soccer, and a tennis match. Oh, and 10-year old World Wrestling Federation.
  • My wake up text message: "is it advised to avoid Centaurus (a large mall) and Kohsar Market. It is also advised to be extra vigilant while visiting markets, parks and public places." You don't have to tell me twice.
  • And just to hit the trifecta, there's going to be a solar eclipse today. I'm sure the population will take that in stride. Or not.
  • Hierarchy is a big deal here.
  • My kingdom for a vegetable.
  • As we sit working in the customer's basement conference room I'm invited to share lunch by one of the employees. Lunch consists of oranges, persimmons ("chaponese [Japanese] fruit") and pomegranate seeds. We compare notes on farmer's markets, local food and family vs. factory farming.
  • Migration team "thank you" dinner at Saidpur Village. A reconstruction of a village from times past, set up as a tourist attraction. I can tell it's a tourist spot because the guy I saw Saturday at Daman-e-Koh with the balloon target shooting game is here. Favorite dinner menu item among the team? Hamburgers.
  • New culinary experiences:
    • Mix tea, made by boiling tea in milk (apparently condensed milk)
    • Pakistani food for breakfast every morning. One day there were labels to indicate what the food was, but most days you just lifted the lid on the warming tray and took your chances.
    • Mutton karahi, a spicy stew made from hacked-up pieces of mutton. You could also get a chicken version. I couldn't help but think the mutton had a slightly slimy feel to it. Still, it was quite good.
    • Lahore fish, fish fillets fried in a spiced flour coating.
  • So the Taliban have selected another hard-line radical as their new leader, someone nicknamed "Mullah Radio." And, naturally, they swear off any peace talks with the Pakistan government. This should end well.
  • Headed to the airport for our 3:30 AM flight to Dubai. The place is chaos. Driver tells us that everyone is returning from the Haj, which means there are 5,000 relatives waiting outside the terminal to pick up someone. I get a few I-hate-Americans looks.
  • My traveling companion, David, and I stand gawking in the terminal, trying to figure out which way to the departure area. Two Emirates baggage handlers show up, grab our bags, and instruct us to follow them. They proceed to plow through the crowd, cut to the front of the baggage screening line, throw the existing bags off of the conveyer belt and insert our bags. Next, they push their way to the ticket counter and get us checked into our flight. I tip the guy $10, figuring it's money well-spent. His reply? "What about for my partner?" I'm tempted to suggest he share the $10 but decide this is not the time to cheap out. Best $10—no, make that $20—I've ever spent.
  • Another tip: for $10 each we get to stay in a sort of "Red Carpet Club" and wait for our flight. For the price of admission we get all the water, tea and juice we can drink. Oh, and free Wi-Fi. In keeping with the Wi-Fi network security practices we observed all week, the Wi-Fi password—naturally—is 123456789.
  • David, former Marine, spots the defense contractors in the VIP Lounge.  Two of them can stay, but the one that looks like he carries the weapons is asked to leave. Ohhh-K!

Back in Dubai, headed to SFO. Welcome to the middle seat. 15 hours of opera, old Disney movies, Dubai tourist videos, and Bruce Springsteen's entire music collection. None of that matters—I'm on my way home.

   


Product Managers on the Road, “DC Dysfunction” Edition

For your viewing pleasure, here are some notes from my visit to Washington, DC during the last days of the US Government shutdown. I was out to meet with one of our larger customers, a group of sixteen agricultural research centers, to talk about a plan to migrate their messaging and other services to Office 365. As has become my custom, I took the opportunity to line up some informal visits with a couple of other customers. And, as luck would have it, I was asked by another customer if there was any way I could pay them a visit in Boston (Watertown, to be exact; across the street from my first MIT residence.) Since I was going to be in Washington, I arranged to leave one day early and head to Boston for a visit.  Herewith, the details...

Monday

I wake up at 3:00 AM, after falling asleep in the chair watching TV. Since the car will be picking me up for the drive to the airport at a little after 5:00 AM, and since I haven't packed, I decide to pack before I go to bed. Good call—efficient and focused.

Hit the Town Car, asleep almost immediately. Next thing I know, we're exiting the freeway for SFO.

During the flight to Washington I have a brief panic attack. Did I actually pack my suitcase? Or did I just pull it out of the closet and load it into the Town Car, empty?

Landing in Dulles.  Since I'm wearing a backpack for my carry-on, I nearly walk out of terminal without my suitcase. I have that groggy feeling you get when you take a midnight flight somewhere—except I didn't.

Brian and I meet for beers at the Black Rooster. The weather is quite nice, so we sit outside and catch up. Brian wants to take me to his latest find, a small Thai restaurant near his house. After taking some time to get there, we realize why they never answered the phone when he called to make a reservation: they're closed Mondays. Oh well.

Instead, we go to dinner at his new favorite Ethiopian restaurant, Zenebech Injera. The food is good and surprisingly cheap for Washington. We splurge and order a bottle of their best Yellow Tail wine.

I'm always surprised at how many homeless people I see on the streets.

Tuesday

Today is meeting day. I've got customer meetings about every two hours. With meeting over-run's and factoring in transportation between visits, the result is a series of meetings from 11 AM to 6 PM, without a break.

Brian and I catch up for dinner again, and I get to see his (new) office. From there, we walk past the White House. In the (officially closed) federal park across street, Brian points out the lady that's been protesting for the last 15+ years. Apparently if she doesn't abandon her post, the park police (when they're working) leave her alone.

IMG_0202

DC Shutdown Humor: Someone put "Sorry, We're Closed" stickers over the monument icons on this Metro subway map

We have drinks at Old Ebbitt Grill (near the White house), very cool and historic. I loved the duck decoys. The bartenders are all white-haired, and you get the feeling they have the goods on every politician who's worked in DC over the past forty years. We decide to stay for dinner. The menu is very good and the prices are not too expensive, considering the tourist-trap location. Plus, we get fresh oysters!

Wednesday

Today is an all-day session on how to roll out Office 365 to all the agricultural research centers. I arrive at the meeting location a few minutes early, only to discover I'm at the wrong building. Nothing like a four-block run in the morning to get the blood flowing.

Lunch is at a local American/Vietnamese restaurant. I notice that the Pho isn't served with Jalapenos, although Sriracha sauce is available. We have to remind one of the diners that it's hot sauce, not ketchup, in the red bottle on the table.

After the meeting I head over to the Charles Tyrwhitt store to buy a shirt. I discovered the company while in London a while back, and love their shirts. Now that the Great Recession is thawing for me, I have an opportunity to buy a new shirt. After extensive shopping, deciding, and optimizing on my purchase, I go to pay and realize I don't have my credit card. You know, the one I got JUST FOR THIS TRIP? Holy sh$t, where could it be? I head back to my hotel and spend equal amounts of time ripping apart my room looking for the card, and calculating how I'm going to pay for my hotel in Washington, fly to Boston, and fly back to San Francisco with just the cash I have on hand (which is never very much).

Fortunately, I call the Old Ebbitt Grill and they have my card. Phew!  The rest of the night is spent retrieving the card and tracking down Brian to see if he wants to meet up with my sister Mary (who's now flown into town) and me. Turns out Brian needs a night for laundry and what not (since he spent part of the weekend at an event in New York), so I have the rest of the night to myself.

I have a final beer at Mackey's Public House, a pub next to the hotel. It turns out that the hotel bar next door, Recessions, gets Brian's vote for DC's best dive bar--go figure.

Unsurprisingly, Congress passes the debt ceiling bill just in time. The glum mood that has existed in DC for past 16 days starts to ease.

Thursday

Another early wake up and off to the airport. At least I'm flying out of Reagan National (or whatever it's called) so it doesn't take too long to get to the airport. I get a view of the Pentagon 9/11 memorial "contrails" as we head to the airport.

Hello Boston; good to see you again! As I take the "T" into downtown Boston, I realize I'm part of the morning commute, which wouldn't be bad except I have a large bag I'm dragging around. Soon enough, I make my connection, from Blue to Green to Red Line, and the next thing I know I'm in Harvard Square. It's refreshing to see the same impossible-to-understand accents on Red Line. I finally find the bus stop for the 71 to Watertown Square. Oh, I pay when I get off the bus? OK, so some things have changed since I was going to school here…

Several of our favorite haunts are still there: theTown Diner, Mt. Auburn Steakhouse (now the Mt. Auburn Grill, New Yorker Diner, Demo's.

Thursday is another full day of meetings. It's a little like the old Johnny Carson "stump the band" routine, as people cycle through to ask me about their respective area of technology interest. Lunch is brought in from Theo's—the restaurant may not be from my time but the style is the same; no horseradish, you'll have to have mustard, bub.

After a full day, my customer gives me a ride back to the airport. My first chance to ride through The Big Dig since they finished it. On to the UA lounge, where I get to grab a glass of wine and get the user accounts set up for another customer migration to Office 365 that's starting the next day. Soon enough, I'm on my way home. Miles to go before I sleep.


Burn the Ships

Did you see the recent news?  Adobe has announced that the latest version of its hugely popular Creative Suite software will be the last one available as installed software.  From now on, Creative Suite will only be available as a SaaS (Software as a Service) offering.

This is big news, really big news.  I’ve been party to a number of discussions over the years that centered on how to move forward with the “next generation” product or service without killing the “current generation” service.  There was always a lot of hand-wringing, a certain amount of denial, and a lack of certainty about how to achieve two goals at once:  make the new service a big success while keeping the current service around.  This is the essence of Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma, which I’ve written about in the past.

I recall in reading a history of Mexico that Cortes, upon landing with his troops, ordered his ships burned.  (This was apparently not an unusual act for the time.)  His reasoning was that if the troops knew there was no possibility of escape, no way to turn back when things got tough, that they would have more motivation to fight when needed.  If you narrow the options down to “find a way to survive” and “die” it makes the decision easier.

That’s what I thought about when I read the news about Adobe.  In essence they are saying, “We are going to make this work, or die trying.”  You have to admire the commitment needed to make that statement.  I hope they succeed.  They’ve already taken the hardest step.


Don’t Blame Your Salespeople

I read yesterday that Oracle blamed its latest quarterly earnings miss on a "lack of urgency" by the sales force.

Anytime you blame the sales force for missing revenue or earnings targets it's usually a bad sign. But in this case, Oracle's CFO may be right… although not in the way she meant.

Oracle's cloud-based revenues, which it had forecast to increase by three percent year on year, instead fell by two percent. Oops. To be fair, Oracle was affected more by its declining hardware sales, but it was the cloud-based revenue performance that caught my attention. I recently attended some Microsoft Office 365 partner events and I got to hear from partners struggling to adapt to a subscription revenue model. That experience made me think of one explanation for Oracle's situation.

What I heard from partners at these Office 365 events was that they were accustomed to making a good deal of the revenues in any deal from the sale of software licenses. Now, with the subscription model (and given the current structure where Microsoft has a direct billing relationship with the customer), these partners are seeing a big chunk of up-front revenue disappear, to be replaced by much smaller commission payments, spread out over time. It was clear to me that these partners recognized that their business model had to change to adapt to market acceptance of cloud-based services. But they were trying to understand how they would replace the revenue they were losing from up-front software license sales.

So how does this apply to Oracle?

First, understand that sales people are not stupid. And the best ones would never be characterized as having a "lack of urgency". So what gives? It may be a simple matter of economics.

You're an Oracle sales rep. Which would you rather sell to your customer?

  • $50,000 worth of software, where the customer pays up front
  • A three-year subscription for a service for 100 users, at $20 per user per month

In the first scenario, you make $50,000 towards your revenue goal for the quarter. And (depending on your commission rate) you make a nice sum over your base salary. In the second scenario, your up-front commission is much lower and (depending on how compensation is set up for selling cloud-based services) your contribution to quarterly revenue goals might be much lower. There's a saying that "salespeople are coin-operated," which I always took to mean that they well understand their marginal revenues and costs and act accordingly.

So it wouldn't be a surprise to find that Oracle reps are favoring on-premise vs. cloud-based applications in their selling efforts. This just illustrates Clayton Christensen's thesis in The Innovator's Dilemma, that it can be very hard to make the shift from one disruptive technology to the next one. Oracle no doubt understands that it has to change its business model. Understanding what's needed and executing, however, are two different things.

So maybe Oracle's sales reps don't lack a sense of urgency. Maybe they just understand math.


Hello, You Must Be Going

Time for our annual snarkiness over words, phrases, people, ideas… whose time has come and--hopefully--gone.

You will be missed
Really? Really
The new normal
Double down
All in
Onboarding
Periods.after.every.word
I have no words
Wow just wow
Awesome
Word especially when used by white people
True that
Anything nation
Hipster hats
Boom! That just happened!
Call Me Maybe (except in spin class)
Gotye; Now You're Just Somebody that I Used to Know
Honey Boo Boo
Can I get (fill in the number) likes
Aqui-hire or aquhire
Gangnam style
Anything Kardashian
Big Data
Fiscal cliff
the Tea Party
Idealogues of all stripes
Any you'd like to add?

Discussing Newtown

My first indication was from my friend Rob LaRiviere, via Facebook. He mentioned Newton, not Newtown, which caught my eye since I had lived next to Newton, Massachusetts when I was going to MIT. Rob's post mentioned shootings and children. That was as much as I needed to know. I chose to avoid finding out the details; the outline of the story was enough. More than wanting to forget the details, it would be easier if I simply never knew them in the first place.

But, try as I might, I've had to let at least some of the story seep in. Even just the outlines are bad enough: kid shoots his mother, goes to school, wipes out her class, kills several teachers/school staff along the way, kills himself. My one public reaction was a tweet: "Who kills children? Who does that?"

I don't have any connection to the victims and families in Newtown, don't know anyone who lives there, don't have kids in Kindergarten or first grade. So I'm not confronted with this tragedy except through my own actions to follow the story.

And while I'm not materially connected to the story, I can certainly relate. My kids are grown now, but I still remember the realization that I loved them like crazy and I couldn't imagine how I would go on if anything ever happened to them. And my kids have each had their share of scary moments in school, nothing so serious as a gunman in the classroom, but enough to make you realize that safety is an ephemeral thing. What's more, there are many teachers in my extended family; what if something like this happened to them?

But after a period of trying to look the other way, I've decided that I have to open the conversation. Because that's what 's called for. Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, Deepwater Horizon… a tragic event occurs, we as a society step back, assess what happened, and figure out how to improve things so that the event is less likely to happen or at least less likely to have as grave a consequence.

Except when it comes to guns, kids and schools. You can tick off the tragedies as well as I: Virginia Tech, Columbine, Aurora, and now Sandy Hook. And those are just the most recent events; you may recall that the song "I Don't Like Mondays" was written about the person that shot up a school near San Diego (read more here).

In the time since we learned of this mass murder, there have been reactions aplenty.

  • Sympathy for those who died.
  • Cries of "how could this happen?"
  • Calls for increased gun control
  • Calls for greater mental illness funding
  • Suggestions that the media are to blame
  • Suggestions that violent video games are part of the problem

Probably my favorite response, from @TimthePM, was to promise to unfriend/unfollow/unlink with anyone who started calling for more gun control, or less gun control, or any other "solution" in the immediate aftermath of the shootings.

Why? First, we need to grieve. Those (like me) who are bystanders with no emotional investment in these events, other than as members of some larger community, would love to move to the "solve it!" part of the discussion. I want to put this thing behind me—I've got Christmas to think about.  But for those that are in the middle of this emotional superstorm, we have to give them their time.

Second, we need to get the facts. I have tried to avoid knowing anything about this massacre except the broad outlines: young man gets one or more guns, goes to school, starts shooting. Why? What led up to this? Was there some event that set him off? What kind of gun or guns did he use? Did he have mental health issues? I don't know the answers to these questions; maybe they've all been reported already.

But I remember in the days after Columbine, how there was an accepted notion that the killers were responding to being bullied. And then, not too long ago, I read an article in Time or Newsweek by the mother of one of the shooters. She described the mental issues her son had faced. It made me go back and ask, how much of the conversation after Columbine was about mental health? And yet, this story says that much of what we thought we knew about the killers' motivations has turned out to be wrong.

I guess that's my main point. When something is painful, you do everything you can to make the pain go away. And when it comes to the awful reality of the killings at Sandy Hook, we want to proclaim a solution to a problem we've implied and then move on.

But these aren't simple problems, and they aren't fixed by one-dimensional solutions. I don't know what the answer is, but I know that it's a combination of things. So let's talk about it. Let's start with common ground—we don't want our kids at risk of being killed while in school—and go from there. Let's acknowledge the hurt, support one another, have our say. And then let's get something done.


Will Change Define You?

What is the Emerging Character of Today's Silicon Valley?

I happened upon some posts recently that share a common theme—the current reinvention of Silicon Valley. Change is nothing new in these parts—it's what defines the place. And while it's easy to bemoan the changes that are occurring (and conversely, to celebrate what's new as if it was invented for the first time) that kind of discussion is pointless. The discussion that does have merit is represented by these posts. You could title them collectively as "Is this what we want to become?"

The first post is by Steve Blank, one of my heroes. He writes that social media is crowding out all other sectors for venture capital investment, because its (potential) returns are so large and realized so quickly. He notes that other investment sectors, such as clean-tech and life sciences, are being passed over in favor of "Web 2.0" (even that term seems dated now) startups such as Facebook, Google, Zynga and others. 30 years ago, a venture capital firm would invest multiple millions of dollars in a semiconductor company and not expect to see a return for ten years or more.  Today, a VC invests a few hundred thousand dollars (at early stages) in a social media startup and might see a payoff in two or three years.

The second post, by William Davidow (another hero) notes the culture change occurring, as the CEO's setting the values for Silicon Valley shift from the likes of William Hewlett and David Packard to Mark Zuckerberg, Marc Pincus, and Larry Page. Where Hewlett and Packard built a business focused on pristine customer service, the new breed of CEO's are building businesses based on the exploitation of customers (more specifically, their data). It wouldn't be fair to imply that these current CEO's don't care about customer service. It's just that their businesses operate (to varying degrees) with a "free" model that focuses on attracting users and mining their data, with the paying customers being the companies that buy targeted advertising on these sites.

And, as if experiencing the zeitgeist, Vinod Khosla also joined the discussion, exhorting today's entrepreneurs to focus on building lasting value vs. "flipping" their startups.

Do This...

These commentators share a common theme—build your company to last, build it to change the world—because they come from a shared history and experience with "the Valley." Their sentiments are more (much more) than mere nostalgia for the Valley as they once knew it. They've given voice to feelings people like me have had as we've witnessed the emergence of these new style startups, requiring us to reinvent ourselves to remain relevant and valuable to today's startup community.

And Not That

These writers, and those of us who have been here since the 1990's, remember the "dot bomb" era of the late 1990's/early 2000's.  At that time you had companies with no proven business model being valued and sold at incredible prices. It was a common joke that you could drive up your company's market capitalization by simply adding a leading "e" or "i" or a trailing ".com" to the company name.  I remember taking calls from Internet companies trying to sell me advertising: the callers had no knowledge of what my company was about and couldn't tell me why I needed their advertising. I also remember interviewing a new college graduate for a Business Development role. He had no experience, but was confident that he could command an $80K starting salary. Such were the times.

Bubble? Or No Bubble?

Department of Obscure References

And so those (especially in the media) who witnessed this implosion as it happened now play the parlor game of "Bubble? Or No Bubble?" as they observe the multi-billion dollar valuation of companies like Box, Dropbox, Groupon and others. One difference with today's hot startups is that these companies tend to have an identified and validated business model. They often aren't cash flow positive as yet, but are trending in the right direction. The "Bubble!" crowd wrings their hands and wags a finger at today's startup CEO's: "Just wait! You'll get your just reward!" The "No Bubble!" crowd smoothes their hoodies and says "Wait! This time it's different!" The audience voting falls along the lines of who thinks they will profit from or get crushed by any such bubble.

The discussion of economic implications has largely been theoretical. That changed with the recent news regarding Zynga's secondary stock offering and subsequent earnings dive. To torture a phrase, there may not have been any fire here, but there sure is a lot of smoke.

What Really Matters

But I'm not so interested in the "Bubble? Or No Bubble?" discussion. These are the questions that are worth asking.

  1. How can a startup leverage the knowledge and experience of a Silicon Valley veteran?
  2. How can such a veteran embrace new ways of thinking and working?

Let's take the first question. I was talking about this over coffee recently with a colleague and former manager. He's younger than me, but still would be seen as outside the age demographic for today's startup founders.  His perspective was that today's company founders are running so fast, they haven't figured out what they don't yet know. A few will learn without doing lasting damage to their companies. Some will realize that this is the point where they need to bring in some experienced help. And others… let's just say it won't be pretty. Remember, some of the "dot bomb" disasters were failures of execution (WebVan) as much as failed business models.

My advice to today's startup community would be this.

  • Figure out—quickly—what it is that you don't know, but need to know. Then discover who does have that knowledge, and ask for their help. If your software company finds itself manufacturing devices to run the software, realize that you're now faced with manufacturing and supply chain questions… and you'll get to market faster by engaging with someone who's already solved those problems.
  • Remember that humility is a survival strategy. Your success so far is as much about luck as it has been about your idea and the execution of that idea. Acknowledging that fact will make it easier to ask the "what do I need to know?" question.

Regarding the second question, what does it take for a Valley veteran to succeed in today's startup environment?

  • It's likely that those who could use your knowledge and skills aren't fully aware of their need. So while it might be obvious to you, it's not to those who would hire and pay you. I recall the moment that I realized I had knowledge of how hardware, software and firmware combined to form a "system" and that was exactly the knowledge needed to solve the logistics and design problems faced by our startup. I had to explain the problem to the founders before I could go on to solve it.
  • Humility is valuable here as well. Don't expect the respect of others on the basis of your experience or knowledge. It's all about what you do with that experience and knowledge that will earn you respect. I knew all about setting up 3rd-party interoperability programs, but that's not what mattered. Acting on that knowledge to set up an interoperability program and show people how it helped us move more quickly with fewer Engineering resources required for the task--that's what mattered.

I've been quite deliberate in embracing new ways of working (hello, Agile!), new technologies (too many to mention) and most importantly new methods of decision-making (ask me about split tests). I've been careful not to start sentences with "Back in my day…" But I've also been amazed when I realized that some of what I thought "everyone" knew was not nearly so widely known. Ask me about regulatory testing, hardware/software lineups, feature prioritization or user interface design.

So if it feels like a brave new world, maybe that's because it is… again.  You can question what values today's startups are embracing. Or you can go out and show them what values will be needed to succeed.  Which choice will you make?