Fixing the basics

For several years, I’ve had a wireless keyboard on my desktop computer, the machine I use to do my writing when I’m not travelling on business. While the wireless feature seemed like a good idea at the time, I rarely moved the keyboard from its position under my monitor, and the wireless feature never seemed to be 100% reliable. If you’re old enough to remember the days of television signals delivered over the air, and carefully adjusting the TV’s “rabbit ear” antennas to get a perfect signal, only to have someone move and static return, you might get an idea of how well this keyboard worked.

Some days it was fine, other days I’d spend half my time moving the keyboard an inch or two in either direction to restore its functionality, or furiously bang the backspace key when gibberish appeared due to an inferior signal. For someone who cranks out well over 1000 words every day, this was suboptimal at best.

I finally ordered a new keyboard. It’s the same ergonomic model in a non-wireless version, so there’s no learning curve on the keyboard layout, it has a wire to connect directly to the computer, and it appeared at my doorstep courtesy of for a mere forty bucks.

As these words appear flawlessly on the screen, no adjusting the keyboard or bodily gyrations to affect the signal required, I’m kicking myself for dealing with such inanities for such a long time. A New Year is a great time to evaluate life and work’s little inconveniences. Forty bucks just might make things much easier.

My month with a Mac

Aside from an occasional few minutes playing with a Mac, I’ve spend the majority of my two decade involvement with computers with Microsoft-based systems (including several versions of MS-DOS). I had purchased a Mac about 6 months ago to experiment with iOS development, but still didn’t use the 13″ MacBook Pro much more than occasionally.

More recently, I’ve taken a job with a large consulting firm that has a fairly reasonable BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policy, and I’ve converted my Mac to my “daily driver.” The primary reason was not what one might expect. Basically, the standard-issue Windows computer supplied by the company is loaded with corporate “crapware” (management, monitoring, asset tracking, etc) that essentially slows the otherwise capable system to a crawl. While most of the business-critical applications I use work on the Mac, the preponderance of corporate crapware does not, allowing me to run a fairly “clean” system and still comply with corporate policy. Furthermore, I prefer not to put personal applications on a company machine, and BYOD flips the equation, allowing me to carry only a single laptop.

I’ve not experienced the magical and revolutionary enlightenment, singing choirs of angels, or inner peace most Mac advocates describe, but I can say that it’s a high-quality bit of hardware, married to what’s essentially a commercially supported and tightly integrated UNIX-style OS.

At clients I’ve seen increasing numbers of Macs wandering corporate hallways, and it’s fairly easy to see why. Most companies are loading their machines with “lowest common denominator” images, and software that appeals to IT but ruins the end-user experience. With attractive hardware and a quick, crapware-free, modern OS, it’s hard not to like the Mac.

How to loose a customer in 7 seconds

I was in the market for a new “cloud” provider for a project I’m working on internally. I put a bit of diligence into the search, since it’s a service that might also be relevant for several of my clients.

One particular provider seemed to keep appearing in my search, so I aimed my web browser in their direction, looking forward to finding out more about their service. Rather than marketing copy, I was greeted by one of those annoying “you’re using a web browser we don’t like” screens. Usually, these are a minor annoyance and an be bypassed, however this one was static, and I could not click past it. Rather than some esoteric technology, I use the latest version of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. While IE’s market share has eroded a bit in recent years, it’s still the most common browser on the web. While it might not be as sophisticated as some connoisseurs demand, rejecting IE from your marketing site would be like rejecting everyone who drove a car from your gas station, allowing only motorcycles.

I’m not sure if the marketing and technical geniuses behind this company actually thought someone in a position to buy their product would take an hour out of their day to select, download, and install a new browser and totally change their computing habits due to their demand, but in my case, I’ll gladly take my business elsewhere.

Methodology versus Management

I’m working in Dubai for several weeks this month, and struck by the management and leadership structure of the country. The political system is the antithesis of the democracies usually favored by the west: essentially a monarchy with no voting and no meaningful citizen participation, but also one of the new breed of “benevolent dictatorships” that many look to admiringly. Fans of this system point to places like Dubai and China and their ability to accomplish massive infrastructure projects in months, and an ability to implement a clear and consistent vision for the benefit of their citizens, without having to deal with the objections of those same citizens they aim to serve. Projects that would take western democracies years of debate and consideration are planned, approved, completed and forgotten before a western country could pick up a shovel or pass a relevant law.

In Dubai’s case, effective leadership drives expansion more than some inherent benefit of the political system that’s employed. The Middle East and Africa have no shortage of patriarchal monarchies, and Dubai’s individual leaders seemingly have leveraged the system to exploit their talents, essentially a victory of management and leadership over political methodology.This of course brings up the nagging question and inherent flaw of absolute rule: are the economic miracles in places like China and Dubai sustainable if the next generations of leaders lacks the talents of their predecessors?

The great power of western democracies is their considered advancement, and the general inability of a single person to completely corrupt and change the system without consent of the citizenry. Without delving too deeply into a political discussion, this is a nice analogy for the old debate in the corporate space about whether individual leaders or disciplined processes and methodologies create maximum benefit. In extreme cases, one can compensate for any flaws of the other, but they are most effective together.

Travel contrasts

Travel is an interesting and complex industry, particularly when you contrast air and lodging. The various US flag air carriers offer a virtually indistinguishable service offering, and are all seemingly racing to the bottom. Most airline news seems to be about an additional fee being tacked onto the ticket, a service being stripped from the offering, or a passenger, security agent, or employee becoming enraged by the process and doing something uncouth. My favorite quip from a flight attendant nicely sums up the whole experience: “We’re here for your safety and not your comfort.”

Contrast that with hotels, where there are a variety of product offerings at different price points and with different and diverse services. Even medium-sized cities offer everything from a $30/night basic room, to suites with butler service and Tiffany crystal chandeliers. I’m a frequent consumer of both air and hotel services, and the latter always seem happy to work with me, from telephone agents, to high-quality websites, to the housekeeper that’s quick with a “good morning” and a smile. Contrast that with the airlines where even decent customer service is an exception, and front-line employees treat customers as an inconvenience rather than their raison d’être.

My brand of choice, Starwood Hotels, even called me earlier this month to award me with lifetime membership in their elite club (all for the somewhat dubious distinction of having spent approximately three years of the last ten in their hotels), which entailed several new benefits, without action or prompting on my part. When designing your customer interaction points and service offerings, do you have a variety of levels of interaction? Do you offer new and exciting products, some of which are completely unbidden by the customer? In short, are you there for your customers’ comfort and safety?

Failure = Innovation

A nice quote I heard from one of the other speakers last week was this:

Reward success, celebrate failure, and punish inaction

Successful innovation, whether it is designing a compelling new product, or completing a technical challenge that gets your product released on time requires failure. Too many organizations create a culture where failure is severely punished, such that a fear of failure leads to inaction rather than a bias towards success.

With ethical and moral failings that damage lives being the rare exception, failure is one more step on the road to success, and truly a necessary ingredient for innovation.

Cloud Computing Benefits, Risks, and Applications

Patrick Gray discusses the benefits and risks of cloud computing, as well as how cloud could be relevant to your company. The discussion is presented at an executive level, without resorting to technical or vendor-specific details, perfect for CxO’s and board members that need a quick briefing on how the cloud might impact their organization.

IT: Utility or strategic function?

I frequently hear the argument that IT is a “strategic” corporate function since it is critical to most modern businesses. Unplug the servers, or send all the data jockeyed by IT into that great recycle bin in the sky, and the company is hosed, say the advocates of this theory. The problem is that you could apply the same concept to electricity. It’s critical to the success of most organizations, and most parts of an organization simply cannot function or grow without it. Yet, how many companies invite their local electric company to strategic discussions, or thank them for literally splitting atoms safely and cost effectively? A critical system is not necessarily a strategic one.

Where I see IT going wrong is that we expect a “seat at the table” for successfully performing utility functions. What we need to be doing, is demonstrating business results through strategic IT projects, then we get the seat at the table.

By way of example, I’d consider a strategic project something like marketing automation that decreases lead conversion times by X%, or even a receivables management system that decreases AR by Y%. In either case, the system can be directly tied to a financial result.

Getting that elusive “seat at the table”

There’s long been talk in IT management circles about getting a seat at the table when corporate strategy discussions are happening. The thinking goes that technology is such a central function to most modern companies, that IT should have input into strategic decisions, and help guide their implementation almost as a birthright. However, for many there is a cart before the horse problem at work here. CIOs want a seat at the strategic table, but they don’t demonstrate any strategic value. The CEO wants to talk about entering new markets, and the CIO wants to talk about upgrading Windows or the nuances between the HAL 9000 version 1.98845 versus 1.987234.

There are two prerequisites to getting that “seat at the table”. 1) The utility aspect of IT needs to be flawless, and you need to stop talking about it. When was the last time you called the power company and thanked them for safely splitting atoms so you could turn on your light switch and have it just work? Same goes for the utility element of IT. It’s complex and completely thankless, get over it.

2) The CIO needs to understand the business deeply, and be able to articulate and frame the challenges and opportunities facing the business. He or she then needs to explain in layman’s terms how technology might accelerate these strategic imperatives.

Do these two well, and the CIO will be sought out for his or her opinion. Spend every board meeting looking for accolades because you implemented some fancy disaster recovery plan, or installed a new security package, and you’ll soon be shown the door.

Patrick Gray on Tech Talk with Craig Peterson

I was recently on the radio in the Boston market on the Tech Talk with Craig Peterson radio show discussing my book, the invasion of consumer technology in the enterprise, and where technology is headed in the coming years. You can download the podcast version of the radio show here, and look for my comments around the 8:45 mark.