Thursday, December 17, 2015

I Know Everything

Everyone loves statistics, so let's start out with a big one.  For 99.9% of human history, people have lived in the dark.  I'm not referring to physical light - rather, I am talking about the possession of knowledge.

When the Roman Empire collapsed, first the Western and then the Eastern parts, most of the scholarly pursuits of math, philosophy, and literature simply disappeared.  And we're not just talking about a short absence.  During a period of 700 hundred years (!), the furtherance of knowledge for most of humanity simply stopped.  If you want to know more, read about the Dark Ages.  Ignorance was so common within humanity for so long that the most learned people, excluding several sects of priests, had less education than a first grader of today.

But enough of history lessons; let's look at how things are today.  Up until about 2002, information and research were available mostly through hard copies - be they books, magazines, or other written media.  Remembering back to my days in college, when I needed to know something I cracked a book.  Sometimes I had multiple books and publications at my fingertips but each of them had to be viewed physically in order to locate the information relating to what I needed to know.  At the time, libraries had become very sophisticated and I remember how proud my University was that it had developed such an extensive, well catalogued collection.  However, the concept of using books was cumbersome even then.  There were only limited copies available so not all who wanted a volume could obtain it.  Also, the volumes were always degrading with use, were tough to search, and took a certain amount of endurance to physically move from point to point.

Even though the libraries in existence at the turn of the century were the pinnacles of human knowledge repository (my ancestors would have been amazed at the information available in print), that state was short lived.

During the year 2002, the company "Google" (ever hear of it) started to make waves.  This innovative service available through the still-new Internet was offering people a way to find ANY type of information instantaneously.  I don't have to say much about what Google has become, especially since some of you reading this post found it through the search engine.  Suffice it to say, the theory and practice behind what made Google the 8th Wonder of the World is now well known by all.

Today most adults who have computer access use one of thousands of tools to gather information, instantly, on every imaginable subject.  Children born after 1990 have never known an existence without unlimited access to information on any topic.  In less than 20 years, humans as a species have gained so much perpetual access to knowledge that a child of today, with a tablet, would have been the most knowledgeable person on Earth in 1990.  (At least if that tablet was plugged into the Internet of 2015!)

It's safe to say that most technologies in the world are developing at such a fast rate that understanding the future much beyond three years out is not really feasible.  However, one thing is for sure.  With a computing device and access to the Internet, I (and you too) can literally know everything.  All of the knowledge of humankind is available for consumption including over a trillion photographs - a picture is worth a thousand words after all.  Some of the knowledge may be protected or in another language.  Yet as WikiLeaks and other sources of information have shown us, nothing is truly unreachable.

As an individual, I've integrated the concept of instant access to information into the daily routine of my life.  Whereas 20 years ago I would have readily accepted the fact that I had to go to a library to look up a singular fact, I now get irritated when I can't find something in 10 seconds or less.  I can truly envision a day coming very soon where most of us will opt to have Internet access literally wired directly into our brain.  There is no real privacy anyway in the data driven world in which we live so why not opt for integrated access?

Today, more than any ancestor of mine dating back through history, I can truly say that "I Know Everything"!

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Your Life, In Patterns

Do you ever wonder if what you see is the same as others?  Does that cup of coffee look and smell the same to you as it does to the next person?  Is that rose really red?  As humans, most of us have to come to accept the fact that just about everyone perceives reality differently.  Sometimes more, sometimes less, but no two people will see an object in exactly the same way.

Given what I've just said, is it truly a fact that appearance is completely subjective?  The answer is most definitively "No!".  In truth, when the human element is removed from perception, things are definitely no longer subjective.  It couldn't be any other way or else there would be no:

Shazam
Spotify
Soundhound
International criminal database
Microsoft Kinect
Facebook auto-tag

Each one of the items above uses pattern recognition to provide us the ability to identify things that we normally could not.

Let's look at an illustration.

Imagine that you see a picture of a beautiful woman.  You take note of the color of her hair, eye shape, nose, lips, etc.  If asked, you would describe that woman in terms of what you perceived related to her physical features.  Now let's compare how a computer would view that same woman through the filter of a Fourier transform:



Obviously, the Fourier transform graphic looks absolutely nothing like the woman from the perspective of the human eye.  However, from a mathematical point of view the Fourier version represents the complete unique "visual signature" of her.

Computer recognition of images, shapes, and patterns these days has become orders of magnitude more accurate than the human eye.  It's all because computers view images in terms of discrete math.  The human eye would struggle to identify individual coins in a new box of pennies but a computer, using Fourier-based pattern recognition, would see each one as a wholly unique entity.  Good luck if you're a criminal these days trying to avoid detection.  There are cameras located in virtually any populated place you might be and they are *always* evaluating your image.

This science works for audio just as well if not better.  By now, if you have a smart phone odds are that you've used an application like Shazam.  Many times I have been in loud, crowded places where I have heard a song that I wanted to identify.  By using Shazam and other apps, I've simply had to activate my phone and hold it up.  Ten seconds later I have all the data - name, writer, performer, date - on the song.  Pretty amazing technology!

In audition to Fourier transforms, there are other technologies such as audio fingerprinting.  Just like with images, each song is unique when viewed through the lens of mathematical pattern recognition.  While these technologies are very helpful to us when we want to identify a song or sound, they are also frustrating musical artists such as Robin Thicke.

Back in 2013, Thicke (and a few others) wrote and recorded a song called "Blurred Lines".  This is the same song that launched the career of Emily Ratajkowski and ended up being dubbed the "Song of the Summer".  However, there was a little problem.

The heirs and children of the late R&B singer Marvin Gaye sued Thicke claiming that "Blurred Lines" was a knockoff of the song "Got To Give It Up".  Gaye's family won the suit and a huge monetary judgement in large part because the jury was shown evidence, through audio fingerprinting, that there were just too many similarities between the two songs to be coincidence.

So what does this all mean?

Your life and hence the whole world are defined in patterns.  Part of what makes life great is our collective shared experiences of how we all view the world and everything in it.  By looking at our existence through the lens of mathematics and other new, amazing tools, we begin to see just how wonderful and unique we truly are.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

No Joy at Work - No Problem?

Many of us grew up with messages all around us extolling the virtues of work and the pleasure that a person gets from a job well done.  Some of the more famous examples of films and shows in this category would include "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves" and "Thomas the Train".

In Snow White, the seven dwarves headed off to work every morning with a song, "Whistle While You Work".  The Princess and each of the seven had a job to do and they took a great deal of joy in doing it well.  The song, if you want to listen to it here, is actually quite catchy.

In the "Thomas the Train" series of shows, each of the train engines are taught lessons on how to be the best, most efficient worker they can be.  Although oriented towards a British audience the themes are very similar.  That is, if you work hard at your job and follow through you will have a wonderful (and timely!) life.

With so many messages telling us that we can all achieve happiness through our work, why does it seem that the emotion of joy is missing from the corporate office?  Yes, this assertion is overgeneralizing to a certain extent, but let's experiment.  How many of you reading this posting have felt actual joy in doing your job more than once in the past week?  To take it further, would you describe the environment of your company as being joyful?  Odds are that you won't.

This is a big problem for businesses today.  Many, many firms have mission or value statements that state in various ways the following: "Employees are our most important asset!"  Why, then, do recent studies show that 70% of the workers in the United States and Canada are actively dissatisfied?  Worldwide, that number jumps up to 87%!!!  These are numbers that we can't ignore, especially if each of you is a leader within your company.  Unhappy people lead to all kinds of negative results, which if you live in the United States equates to $550 Billion per year in lost productivity.

It comes as no surprise that the most profitable companies in the United States - Apple, Google, McKinsey, USAA - spend more than just lip service on developing joyful employees.  But the counterargument for following the practices these firms use is the cost.  If your company isn't profitable like these, it would be difficult to spend on free food, child care, posh gyms, and nap pods.
There is good news for all of us.  These perks are great, but they reinforce a key component already in place at these top companies.  What is it - can you guess?  It's the same thing you've probably already heard.  Satisfied employees, and hence joyful workplaces, are the outcome of excellent manager to employee relationships.

Did you get that one?  If you are an excellent leader to your people you've already won the battle.  Here are a couple of facts for you to absorb and own.

  1. 80% of dissatisfied workers became that way because they lost respect for their manager
  2. Joyful workers are 87% LESS likely to leave their company.  This fact takes on a whole new meaning when it costs 100-300% of an employee's total yearly salary to replace them when they leave!
  3. Joyful workers are 50% less likely to have a workplace injury or safety event than those who are not happy.

There are so many facts and studies out there on the Internet that show the incredible benefit brought on by joyful workers, it only makes sense to promote "the pursuit of happyness (sp)" in your workplace.

So what should you do?  Here is some basic advice from me to you on things you can easily do as a leader to re-introduce joy into your environment. 
  • Be respectful.  Cultivate a personal belief that your title does not bequeath to you any special moral or sociological superiority to the people who work under your supervision.  Show that attitude by treating your teams with respect and dignity.
  • Focus on results, not time served.  Give your people a tremendous amount of flexibility to manage their schedules.  Focus on the results they deliver, not the time they spend starting at their computer screen.  The more results that are generated, the more freedom you should give to that person (or people)
  • Be honest and transparent even if you can't tell the whole truth.  In this day of information on demand, there are few secrets.  Always opt to tell your people as much as possible without sacrificing your ethics.  When your folks know that you are ready to confide in them they will trust you in return.  High levels of trust equate to high levels of engagement.  Any combat officer will tell you that.
  • Have at least some idea of the personal lives of each of the people you manage.  Remember that almost everyone has a life they lead away from work.  The more you understand what your people pursue outside of work, the more you can help them maximize those pursuits.
  • Once you've hired the best people, give them the best tools, computers, furniture, training, etc.  To a certain extent, all people are materialistic.  Feed that by being as generous as your company's policies will let you be.  (I don't know how many leaders are outright despised for being stingy when they have no constraints placed upon them)
  • Especially in IT, assume your folks know everything and act accordingly in a truthful and ethical manner (this is the right way to be anyway!).  Odds are that you'll never keep secrets from them even if you try.
  • Practice saying, "I'm sorry".  Every leader, especially the best, make many mistakes.  Be quick to own up to your own failings.  It makes you "human" and eliminates hidden resentment.
Some (all?) of this advice is common sense but only if you follow it.  You CAN have a joyful workplace full of happy people.  It just takes a little work.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Can You Secure the "Unsecureable"?

The trends in technology follow certain patterns.  Speaking broadly, most people can remember some of the bigger ones:

  • Y2K
  • Internet e-commerce purchasing (the rise of Amazon)
  • Big Data
  • Mobility
While I'm sure that each you, my readers, could double or even triple that list in 30 seconds, the point is made.  When dealing with information technologies you can expect a new, big trend to pop up every year or so.

Usually a trend becomes important because it marks the next big area where investments will flow and IT budgets are aimed.  This year, in 2015, a whole new trend has gained tremendous momentum, but not in the traditional way.  The trend is all about information security and the tools and products of the (near) future that will protect companies and critical data assets.

But why information security and why now?  Haven't there always been threats like viruses and penetration attacks?  The answer to that is yes, but the stakes have become greater.  Unlike the past where companies like Target or Sony were targeted by high-tech thieves looking for monetary gain, the threats today are most likely coming from sovereign governments! (And their motivations are likely not about money)  

Would you believe that just this year the government of the United States of America was specifically targeted and attacked?  The prize was the complete personnel data on over 20 Million federal employees.  Not only that - our government has estimated that security incidents involving the integrity of the systems that run our country have increased over 1,100% over the past decade.  We have truly moved past the era of annoying viruses and into a new age of massive, ongoing war in cyberspace.  Many times we can't even identify the players and the action they take are not always easily understood.

So how do these things manifest into corporate America and ultimately affect our lives and careers? 

First and foremost, many of the businesses in the United States are completely unprepared for the new realities and risks of cyber security.  According to some estimates, about a third of the companies in the United States have absolutely no formal infosec competency.  If this fact is indeed real, there are a number of implications.  Perhaps the biggest implication for us all relates to our employment.  If an external entity could learn everything about us - see all of our secrets and lay them bare to the world (a la Eric Snowden) - would our companies be able to survive?  Being honest with ourselves, many of the threats that we (our companies) face are ones that we are completely unprepared to face.  That shouldn't make us fatalistic - rather it must be a wakeup call that we must actively work to build our security capabilities.

A second concern as it relates to business is to decide *when* to get serious about information security.  The truth is that most of the impetus to spend on information security only gets generated after an event occurs.  Operating from a reactionary position is a bad place to be.  Ask the French how that whole Maginot Line thing worked out for them.  It can be a very difficult task to get funding and resources for prevention activities.   Imagine a conversation with the CEO where she says, "You want me to approve $2 million for new software and hardware to prevent something that might happen?"  That's not a comfortable position in which to be, but it doesn't have to be fruitless.  With so many published examples of the effects and aftermaths of information security attacks, there are many ways to illustrate the pain of others and to explain how the same things can happen to you.

Finally, on a personal level the threats from information technology sources are much more prevalent than any type of violent crime.  In fact, as of 2013, if you were an adult who lived in the United States there was a 7% chance that you would be a victim of identity theft.  What's more, if you were targeted you could expect losses of around $3,500.  From personal experience, in just this year (2015) I have had to change the number on two of my major credit cards.  For my American Express card, I've had to change it twice this year and have seen fraudulent charges of over $4,000. (For the record - AMEX is great!)  I've had to change my entire approach to how I protect both myself AND my family.  It's no longer good enough to react to events as they occur.  I do a number of things to actively manage my risk and so should you.

Can you secure the "unsecureable"?  No, the bad guys are always going to be a step ahead, especially if the bad guys are also the good guys.  But one thing is certain.  Those that are proactive and motivated will be MUCH better off than those who do nothing.

Since this blog relates to IT (most of the time), here are some companies you should check out.  There is some tremendous innovations happening in the infosec space right now and these companies are right out on the front lines with so truly wondrous products and services.
  • Tanium
  • FireEye
  • Checkpoint
  • Blue Coat
  • Splunk
  • Imperva
  • Websense
  • Palo Alto (hardware)

Monday, September 14, 2015

Modern Alchemy - Uber's US$50 Billion Magic Trick

For much of humanity's recorded history, one of its greatest legends centered around the possibility of changing worthless materials into gold.  Whether it was the myth that lead could be "transmuted" into gold or straw could be spun into auric thread (see: the story of Rumpelstiltsken), people sincerely believed that it could be done.  The belief was so strong that across many civilizations, especially in the Middle East, a discipline arose that was dedicated to the science of Alchemy.

The precursor to modern chemistry, Alchemy has taken many forms over the centuries.  Usually shrouded in mystery, alchemists worked at the manipulation of chemicals to achieve all sorts of feats.  One of the greatest practical successes of alchemy may have been the discovery of Damascus (or "watered") steel.   This invention made the Islamic armies of the Middle Ages truly fearsome opponents.  Yet, for all that it has been, Alchemy will always be intrinsically linked with the human fascination with creating vast wealth out of nothing.

So does the blog post stop here?  Hardly!  What would you say if I told you that today - in the 21st century - that Alchemy, at least the concept, is not only possible but it is front and center in our lives?  And it isn't taking the form of a funny-dressed man playing with chemicals in some dark cave.  No, it is taking the form of something very much ensconced within the world of Information Technology.

Remember what things were like on Planet Earth during the year 2009?  I'm guessing that you do since you're reading this blog, which is written at least at the 3rd grade level of English.  During 2009, there were a little over one billion (1,000,000,000) cars on the planet.  Most of us had nothing to do with putting them around the globe.  They were just simply there.  If you think about why there were so many cars on the Earth, the only real answer is that there were a whole lot of people needing to travel.

With so many cars and possible riders on the Earth, along came two individuals (Travis Kalanick & Garrett Camp) who did the inevitable.  By the process of connecting a few thoughts about supply and demand, they came up with an incredible idea.  What if they could find some way to connect all of these cars (supply) with all the people needing transportation (demand)?

Kalanick and Camp weren't thinking about making cars, maintaining them, building roads, or really constructing anything.  No, they were pondering how to make money by simply utilizing "common" materials already in existence.  Although the two probably didn't see the situation in quite this manner, what they were doing was not so different than trying to change straw or lead into gold.

The two men came up with an extremely brilliant and exceptionally ambitious business model.  Summed up, it went something like this:  "What if we create an app that can match needy riders with available drivers?  If we could simply control the scheduling and payments, we'd create the world's largest transportation company almost literally overnight."

After about a year's worth of experimentation, the company became reality as "Ubercab".  In short order this company quickly morphed into simply "Uber".  Fast forward about five years and several hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital.  Uber is now in scores of countries and is a direct threat to eliminate the centuries old cab industry.  In such a short time, a single idea has created massive change and disruption throughout the world, not to mention immense wealth for a few individuals.

Think back to the entrepreneurs of the United States about 100 years ago:

  • Andrew Carnegie - Steel
  • Cornelius Vanderbilt - Railroads
  • John D. Rockefeller - Oil
  • Henry Ford - Automobiles
  • Oprah Winfrey - Entertainment
  • Howard Hughes - Aviation
  • Thomas Edison - (well...everything?)
All of these titans created massive infrastructure, wealth, and legacy.  In each case it took insight, daring, planning, and collective lifetimes dedicated to each endeavor.  Then along comes Uber and in the span of half a decade, from the lens of pure size, revenue, and timespan, these titans are made to look puny.

So what is the lesson, you might ask?  The concept of Alchemy - that is, creating enormous wealth from literally nothing, is alive and well in the 21st century.  As is the case with Uber, if you have a great idea and the ability to put that into an app, you just might become wealthier than Midas in his most greedy dreams.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Pay Attention to the Trends

Twice over the past weekend I overheard people talking about the rise of businesses like Netflix and Hulu.  Getting right to the point, here are the two examples (paraphrased):

Example 1:  I was at a Starbucks behind two college-aged people standing in line, waiting to order.  They were discussing two "television" series that are apparently only available on Netflix.  The individuals were talking about how "edgy" Daredevil is and were wondering what would happen to some of the supporting characters and whether or not they would make it through the season. The second show they were talking about is called "Orange Is the New Black (OITNB)".  I couldn't pick out much of what they were saying about that one because I was a little too obvious in my snooping (in other words I got busted). I did pick out that they thought the friendship between "Piper" and "Alex" was not going to last.

Example 2: This morning I was listening to a radio show where one of the two hosts was describing how he moved his son into some college dormitory.  As they were installing the "flat screen" TV (who says that anymore?), the host noticed that they weren't near the cable outlet.  He asked his son if they shouldn't relocate it closer to the jack so that the TV could hook right in.  Apparently the son told him, "Dad, I don't watch TV.  Anything I want to view is on demand on the Internet or through Netflix or Apple TV".

Think about these two examples for a minute.  Although some might consider it a stretch, you could make the conclusion that network TV is becoming a thing of the past.  After all, if "younger" people no longer watch cable TV in favor of "on-demand", what does that mean for the broadcast business as a whole?

Being a data-driven thinker I asked a colleague to help me find some statistics on just where different age groups go for their visual entertainment.  It took her about eight minutes to find this graphic:



Television has basically been a staple of modern (first world) life for about 65 years.  Is it hard for you, the reader, to believe that could all radically change in less than five years?  Believe it or not, the era of domination for NBC, ABC, and CBS is already over.  People just may not feel it yet although advertisers have caught on.

Relevance to IT
The Netflix phenomena has direct bearing on the world of IT.  The move towards virtualization of everything has happened so quickly that the following staples of (previous) IT shops are becoming obsolete.  Consider that if you're 40 or older and in an IT career, these things may not make it 2020:

  • Company owned physical data centers - Azure, AWS, vCloud Air, and other service providers have made a compelling business case as to why a company should not own a physical presence
  • Desktop computers - with virtualization through Citrix, VMWare, Mobile Iron, etc. there is little reason anymore to buy PCs for employees.  (graphics intensive users may be immune)
  • Servers and storage arrays - remember those cool data center commercials from IBM?  Now, it's hard to find a reason to invest in a capital purchase of server hardware or storage arrays.  You can get it better/faster/cheaper through a cloud provider
  • Voicemail - does your company *really* need this service anymore?  Why not just text, IM, Skype, or FaceTime somebody?
  • Physical Offices - while, as Yahoo pointed out last year, it's important to see people for purposes of collaboration, do you really need to be in an office setting to be productive?
  • Faxing is dying and hard copy printing is fading with the Baby Boomers

One of our purposes as IT leaders and hence business leaders is to pay attention to where the currents of the world are taking us.  Pay attention to the trends in the world, your company, and the IT shop.  Things are changing so quickly and so radically that the jobs we were trained to do yesterday are not the ones we'll be called on to perform tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The End of Apprenticeships

For most of the history of human civilization, the way that new workers were created came about through the process of an apprenticeship.  Ripping the definition directly from Wikipedia:

Apprenticeship is a system of training a new generation of practitioners of a trade or profession with on-the-job training and often some accompanying study...

Essentially, a young individual, typically a pre-teen (10-12 years old) would be paired with a professional of some sort.  This "child" would live and work with the adult on a day-to-day basis, learning a craft and honing expertise through increasing levels of participation in the creation of the final product.

For thousands of years this process generated a consistent flow of new blacksmiths, carpenters, cobblers (shoe makers), coopers (barrel makers), sculptors, doctors, farmers, and philosophers.  There are many reasons why this method worked.  In part, it wasn't until the 19th century that advanced schooling - elementary through University - was available to people of all demographic and financial groups.  The apprenticeship was typically the only viable and affordable way for a person to gain financially relevant skills.  But there was another factor at play.

Discounting for the occasional localized setbacks due to war, famine, and disease, the trajectory for growth of the human species has steadily trended upwards.  The ever increasing human population was important because it provided a constant supply of fresh apprentices.  In turn, the result was/has been that our societies have almost always had available professionals and experts to handle all of our needs.  That is, at least until now.

Something interesting happened after World War 2.  There was a population explosion, especially in the United States, that is referred to as the "Baby Boom".  So many people were born in that period between 1946-1964 that when they entered into the workforce they became the dominant generation. Yet, during the same time something almost paradoxical happened.  The Baby Boomers, especially the earlier ones, were so absorbed in making careers and enjoying a standard of living unknown to any other generation in history that they weren't very fertile.  The "Boomers" and, to a small extent their predecessors called "The Silent Generation", were responsible for creating "Generation X".  These people were all born in the timeframe between 1965-1976.  Compared to other generations, X'ers are somewhat few and far between...

Let's take a quick look at the relative size of the generations dating back from the 1920s until today:


Some of the very late stage Boomers combined with the Gen X'ers to establish the next generation group called "Millennials", which some also see as Generation Y.  The point of the graph shows that Generation X, which should have been the group of people who would take over the professional positions vacated by the Boomers, never had enough individuals born into it to have the required volume to be viable as a complete generation.

What this means is that because of the economic conditions dating back to 2008, those Boomers who would have retired to make way for the X'ers to take over never left the workplace.  They probably won't do so until the 2020s when age forces them out or sooner if the economy ever picks up (not likely).  So, the millennials coming into the workforce should have apprenticed with the Gen X'ers, but couldn't because (a) there were too few of them and (b) the Boomers were still in charge.

Whether you see it first hand or read about it in some publication like this blog, the Boomer and Millennial generations do not mix.  There are many resources available to prove this statement whether you want a simple comparison or a detailed matrix of specific differences. The point is that as of today, about 70% of the U.S. workforce consists of either a Baby Boomer or a Millennial and they don't have a relationship that leads to much knowledge transfer.


If you are a Millennial then here is your reality:  You will have to hit the ground running.  It is very unlikely that you will have a Boomer or an X'er there to help you learn your given trade.

As a Generation X CIO, I am one of the lucky business executives (unlike my peers).  Because technology is so prevalent, the learning curve for teaching new workers in their 20s how to become IT professionals is not very steep. Unlike any previous generation, the Millennials grew up always having technology integrated into every facet of their lives.  Unlike me trying to explain to my parents how to set the clock on their VCR (what is that??), Millennials enter the workforce already knowing about coding, mobility, virtual resources, and the science of application development.

It's a new world that we are now living within.  How will human civilization advance now that the four-millennia-old tradition of apprenticeships is over...?

Monday, July 13, 2015

Myth #3: IT is not Core Business

This post is the third and final piece of my series on "The Three Most Harmful Myths Companies Have About IT".
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In 2005, I was just finishing the first year of my term as the CIO for a multi-billion dollar energy company in Texas.  It was our regular practice to have a monthly all-day meeting of VP and above employees. During these meetings we would discuss issues and future strategies for the company.  Although not required, each of us was given the opportunity during the day to present and talk about topics that we deemed important to the company.  During one of these sessions I decided to share my opinion on how important IT had become to the viability of the company.  My goal was to highlight the criticality of IT, in part to pave the way for some projects I had in mind for mobility and information security.

I stood up in front of the group of 30 or so people and said, essentially:

"In many ways we have stopped being a pure energy company.  With the amount of automation we have installed, combined with our reliance on digital data to drive our processes, many could consider us a technology company that just happens to produce energy as a by-product of the information we create."

Although I had expected to create some "buzz" due to the controversial nature of my comments, the result was more akin to enduring a barrage of rotten tomatoes followed by a chorus of boos.  I had anticipated a negative reaction, so I then followed up by saying:

"I'm not trying to reinvent our identity.  Yet, I would challenge anyone in our group to name a part of our operations, whether in the office or field, that could remain viable longer than 36 hours without any functional IT."

At that point, the head and senior vice president of our fossil generation group stood up and said:

"Christopher, we successfully ran all of our operations long before computers were in the mix.  If required, I could run this business indefinitely with nothing but pencils and paper."

At that point I sat down and let the conversation run on to other topics.  Yet I never wavered in my belief that IT had become indispensable to the operations of my company.  Because IT was necessary to facilitate every facet of our business, I could literally see how we had become completely dependent upon information technology.

Now, one decade later, we find ourselves in 2015.  If IT was important 10 years ago, it is absolutely and completely interwoven into everything we do today both in business and our personal lives.  As I was thinking about how to illustrate this point and which examples to use, the answers literally fell into my lap on July 8.  Three very significant events happened, all on the same day.  Rather than spam you with multiple links, you can get a summary right here.

On 7/8/15 United Airlines, one of the world's largest airlines and a $39 Billion entity, had its entire fleet of jets grounded due to a "glitch" in their scheduling software.  At the same time, trading on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) was suspended for several hours due to an undisclosed "technical issue".  And finally, the web site of the internationally renowned Wall Street Journal, was unavailable for almost half a day.  If you asked the executives and more importantly the customers of these businesses how important IT was to their viability on July 9, the answer would be a resounding, "MISSION CRITICAL!"

Now let us take a look at just a few other examples of the reliance of business upon information technology.

1.  Amazon.com - Probably the most important e-commerce (or regular commerce for that matter) retailer on the planet, everything this company does is based on some form of IT. Whether it's the front-end portal, the sales & banking system, or the logistical planning module, information technology is its lifeblood.

2. UPS/FedEX - How do you think all of those packages get delivered overnight or within two days?  It's through complex algorithm-based management of multiple components throughout the entire distribution networks of each company.

3. Walmart/HEB/(insert your grocery store here) - The average gross margin for products sold in a grocery store is just about 1%.  How can an entity operate on such a razor-thin line of profitability?  It is accomplished by automated tracking of inventory and a pricing system that can be adjusted dynamically.  It takes complicated information technology to make it all work.  Try doing that with a pencil and paper!

The truth about the importance of IT is all around us, in everything that we do.  Yes, the world can survive with information technology.  But the truth is that almost nobody wants to live in that reality.  If you need proof, go to a third world country where people live in shacks with dirt floors.  I've lived that existence and I can tell you with a level of certainty that almost anywhere you go in the world, no matter how poor, you'll see that everyone has at least a cell phone.  Even the most humble of us will find a way to integrate modern IT into life.

Myth #3, this myth, is perhaps one of the easiest, yet most dangerous fallacies that companies believe, even today.  The belief that IT is not part of "Core Business", and thus cannot and should not be integrated in the strategic planning and management of the organization, can lead to problems on an enormous scale.  And at the very least, it can lead to blind spots and many missed opportunities.

After July 8, I hope that at least three major businesses have begun to see the light.  Has yours?

Monday, July 6, 2015

Myth #2 - Great IT Talent is Easily Found or Replaced

This installment is the second in my series of the "Most Dangerous Myths Businesses Have About IT".

As I touched on with my first myth, it is not easy for people outside of IT to understand just how their company's technology and software work.  To be completely fair, it is also difficult for IT professionals to gain knowledge outside of their specific domain.  More specifically, it would be quite unlikely to see a networking specialist have much skill in database administration.  Conversely, you would be hard pressed to find an ERP functional specialist have any abilities whatsoever to configure a firewall.

These examples bring us to our first point.

Because the components of IT are hard to understand you can imagine how difficult it is to properly scope a job description.  Without listing the important components of the required job or having a way to describe how the position is attractive to potential candidates, it is very difficult to even begin the hiring process.

Many process-based approaches to problem solving are based on an assumption that, in order to reach a solution, the problem must be well defined.  When trying to solve the problem of recruiting great IT talent, having a less-than-thorough understanding of the requirements is not a recipe for success.

     Most companies struggle to attract great IT talent because they cannot accurately define the qualities that they are seeking

Now on to the second point.

Not everything is as it appears.  There are so many resource writing guides and keywords from which to choose that it is relatively easy for candidates to create a glowing resume.  Say that the job description for the candidate search is well crafted and appropriate for the position.  The end result will most likely manifest in a large number of resumes pouring in.  For certain companies, a single job posting can generate hundreds of resume submittals.  Quite a few of these resumes will look very attractive, at least on paper.  So the question then becomes one of finding the most qualified candidates from the entire pool of resumes.  A behavioral interview can help determine "cultural fit", but it does nothing to assess the actual skills a person possesses for the role.

Unless the position is purely management or "people facing", the individual's skills must be evaluated against the requirements of the job.  How many companies do you (the reader) know that have the ability to do role-based assessments that are comprehensive enough to determine the level of technical fit?  In my experience it is quite rare for finalist candidates to receive a truly comprehensive assessment of the important, job specific skills.  When I see failed hires, many times it was because the person talked a great game but could not perform at the proper level after being hired.

On to the final point.

After about 20 years of experience within information technology, I've become a firm believer that the vast amount of productive work, or the work that is meaningful to the organization, comes from about 15-20% of total IT staff.  To quantify, for every 100 IT workers in your firm, the bulk of the productivity you receive is generated from about 15-20 people.

There is nothing wrong with having average employees.  They are the individuals that (mostly) do the work which is required to keep operations running.  However, these are not the people who can innovate or further increase the value of IT in a way that makes a company more profitable.  Some managers try to compensate, when they don't have top performers, by hiring a lot more average player.  That never, ever works.  The lifeblood of an excellent IT organization is the group of top performers.  They are the "go-to" resources whenever a problem is not routine or average.  If you have them, great, but if you don't it's likely your firm employs a large number of contractors.




Think about what I'm saying in terms of this graph.  Most of the IT resources you have/hire (without utilizing the principles outlined in "The Talent Triangle") will be average.  Yet in order to have IT services that are valuable to the company today and tomorrow, you need those 15% on the right end of the curve.

The problem with getting that elusive 15% to come to your company is several fold.  First, they are going to be quite expensive.  Then, because they are so talented it's likely that the companies that they are servicing are not going to make it easy for you to lure them away.  Many of these superstars already recognize what they are worth and have gone into consulting.  After all, why work for $100,000/year when you can consult, on your own terms, and make 2x-5x that amount?

IT talent is always available, just not the kind that you really want.  One of the traps companies fall into most often, especially when they already have these excellent resources on staff, is that they are easy to find on the open market.  Of course this leads to a belief that there is no need to take special steps to ensure that the great IT talent already in-house requires no special treatment.  After all, if that talent was to leave it could be quickly and easily replaced.  SO MANY companies only learn after the fact how wrong these beliefs turn out to be.

The best cure for regret is to understand how to avoid it in the first place.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The 3 Most Dangerous Myths About IT - #1

"Silence is Golden/Ignorance is Bliss"

When it comes to all things within Information Technology, few people outside of the discipline have a true understanding (or interest) of just how things work.  There are many reasons for this to happen -  IT is the only component of Corporate America where the individual components are very dissimilar.  In order to under just how IT works a person has to embrace the concept that multiple functions can exist in harmony while sharing little in common.  Unlike the natural synergy between functions such as finance and accounting, the same does not usually exist between applications, infrastructure, architecture, and project management.

Business is complex enough without having to try and understand the "arcane" workings of information technology.  And so it is for this reason that senior corporate leaders become adverse to having to think about or engage with IT.  Although it's most certainly a trap, the lure of a "Silence is Golden" approach to IT becomes akin to a siren's call - irresistible.  That's where the trouble begins...

Before going much further it will be helpful to show why it is so hard for a decision maker outside of IT to possess an understanding of what happens in that area.  Let's first take a look at the other important components of the (standard) corporate structure.  In general, they are much more straightforward and easy to understand:

Operations - This part of the company is focused on running the parts of the company that produce the final product or service that goes to the customer.  No operational group is exactly the same, but in general the following parts are standard:
  • Purchasing & Supply Chain
  • Production/Manufacturing 
  • Engineering & Process
  • Safety and Environmental
Human Resources - This part of the company is responsible for getting talent in the door, retaining it, and improving the workforce.
  • Recruiting
  • Talent Management
  • Management and growth of human capital
  • Labor relations and dispute management
Accounting & Finance - This part of the company is responsible for ensuring that a company can both acquire cash and liquidity while effectively managing the usage of resources.
  • Internal and Operational Accounting
  • Finance
  • Treasury
  • Controlling
  • Audit
Sales & Marketing - Many people find these two areas to be the determining factor in whether or not an organization will be successful.  If they are not strong, it's hard to understand how money will be funneled into the corporation.
  • Sales - direct, indirect
  • Relationship building and prospecting
  • Developing the company's image and brand
  • Creating compelling messages that will drive customers to the brand
  • Establishing continual revenue sources
----------------------------------------------------
Now Let's Look at the Components of IT
  • Infrastructure - networking, firewalls, computers, servers, data centers, virtualization
  • Applications - databases, server administration, ERP systems, cloud computing
  • Information Security - internal threat analysis, external threat detection, risk mitigation
  • Project management - the non-technical approach to organizing and executing work
  • Architecture - designing, building, maintaining, and stewarding a technical infrastructure that can last
----------------------------------------------------

We've established that IT is hard to understand and "arcane" in nature to those that don't spend their lives immersed within it.  However, the monumental problem in ignoring this area if you are a business executive is that it's always in motion.  Every - Single - Day something is happening that can affect the company in terms of efficiency, productivity, and quite possibly profitability.  If you are not hearing the details about what is happening, the results can be surprisingly bad. 

Oh, you may not hear about any of these problems if nobody is communicating them to you.  But be assured that if they are not recognized and remedied, they will continue to compound day after day until the point is reached where you can longer ignore them.  And, by that time the cure will require tremendous efforts in terms of time, money, and resources.  

Periodic silence is not always a bad thing.  If you have an excellent IT team in place with great leadership, technical, and execution skills then the silence may be a result of the daily problems being handled.  Yet still, it is important not to remain ignorant or uninformed about what is happening with IT within you company.

Remember that in the realm of IT, silence is NEVER golden and ignorance is NEVER bliss.  Unlike the mythical monster under the bed that terrorizes children with active imaginations, the IT monster is real.  It must be identified, understood, and "slain" on a daily basis, weekends included.

Your best defense is always an excellent IT team, starting with superior leadership in the top posts.  These people are rare - the ones who can handle the tasks, issues, and problems within IT while keeping you aware.  They are the individuals who can understand you and your communication style and pass information on in a meaningful way.

Never take the "See no evil/Hear no evil" approach.  Find a great team to run your IT function and make sure that you are plugged into them AND, possibly more importantly, they are plugged into you.  As we will discuss in the next myth, finding and retaining great IT leadership and talent is immensely difficult.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

A World Without Data Centers

Normally, talking about data centers would be a guaranteed way to cause people to look away.  After all, who really wants to read a discussion about facility size, "tons" of air conditioning, network routing gear, or biometric security?  Although data centers are absolutely critical to the functioning technology of any company, talking about them is just like discussing road construction. BORING

Now what if I could tell you, definitively, that data centers are rapidly becoming extinct? You know, the ones that every company invests in to house core IT equipment.  To an IT practitioner this statement might border on the blasphemous.  For decades standard practice for almost all companies has been to build/buy/lease space where the servers and storage that provide all applications from email to SAP reside.  To make the statement that these are now rapidly going away might just seem ludicrous and quite improbable.

Let me provide a little context to the whole concept of data centers.  In order to deliver operating systems, files, applications, and other services to a company, IT practitioners must rely on a number of different pieces of equipment.  For example:
  • Servers - the machines that do calculations
  • Storage - hard disc arrays and other machines that house data and/or information
  • Routers - the devices that handle the movement of data "traffic" from the data center to users and vice versa
  • Switches - the equipment that handles bandwidth for data, telephones, and other functions
  • Power arrays - machines that insure that electricity stays within standard parameters
  • Backup - could be tape drives or banks of hard disc storage
  • Air condition units - self explanatory
There are many more components, but you get the point.  But what's more, if the IT people continue to follow standard practices, each data center has an exact clone.  These sites are often simply named "Backup or Secondary data centers".  Put simply, each data center has a failover site.  This fact has always meant double costs for a site that can allow a company to continue to function in the event that the primary site is lost.  The importance of a secondary site can sometimes be overlooked. I was the head of IT at a multi-billion dollar company that (at the start of my tenure) had its primary data center constructed one floor directly above a cafeteria kitchen!  Talk about not quite understanding the complete situation...

The foundation of business continuity, since 1990, has been anchored to a company's ability to continually provide IT services of all types.  How, then, can I say that data centers are going away?

You may have guessed it by now.  The future of IT services, which means fundamentally the infrastructure that serves it, is moving to the cloud.  The concept of a company-owned physical data center was "marked for death" when the first software as a service (SaaS) applications appeared during the last decade.

When you really think about the importance of information technology, it is *never* about the servers, storage, or network.  The importance is whether or not the app/tool/application is available on your end-use device - exactly when you need it.  Given this truth, we now have a reality where whole corporations (Amazon, VMWare, Microsoft Azure, Google, IBM, Wipro) exist to provide the infrastructure that your company needs with better service and lower price.  In this new reality the need to build data centers is no longer a necessity, at least for the average company.

If you had the choice to invest $5 million in one of two things, would it be:

a) New technology that can enhance your firm's reporting, business analytics, and operations (OR)

b) Constructing a building that you will then condition to host a number of depreciating servers, switches, and storage units

The future has never been more clear.  Unless your company is in the business of providing data center services as its core function, the days of internally built and operated facilities are drawing to an end.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Internet of You

There is a relatively new term out in the world - have you heard about it?  It's called "The Internet of Things" or IoT for short.  There are two ways I could explain to you what this concept means.  The first, which you will thank me for not using, is to describe in massive technical detail how everything will be interconnected via the Internet, as described here in Wikipedia.  The second is to speak of IoT in more plain English, in ways that are meaningful to the average human being.

Imagine the Internet of today.  This reality includes computers, tablets, phones, appliances, and even cars.  Now think of the future and what could be included that isn't in that list as of today.  At some point, say between 5 and 20 years from now, everything you can conceive of will be (inter)connected.  Where this will start to get really interesting is to think about how all of this will affect you personally.

There are few fields/industries in the world that receive more time and attention than healthcare.  While scientists are always looking for ways to improve health and medicine, the "holy grail" of their work is the end of aging.  What would you or for that point Bill Gates and Warren Buffett pay to become immortal?  If you're 20 and in peak health you may not opt to pay much.  But fast forward to 40, 50, 60 years old and beyond.  Sooner or later you will almost assuredly be willing to pay everything you have to ward off the effects of aging, pain, disease, and eventually death.  Towards the end of his life Steve Jobs was quoted more than once saying (paraphrasing) that he'd give all his wealth to avoid death.

Now let's think about life outside of healthcare.  The entire human existence is becoming, day by day, focused on information and data.  More than anything else, information is power.  Every single government, business, and organization focuses tremendous resources on the identification, retention, and analytics of any data that can be gathered.  If you've heard about "Big Data" you'll know that the next big corporate arms race is to find ways to understand business and customers in ways that were always opaque in the past.  If you can gain insights that your competitors can't, you can beat them in many ways within the marketplace.

  With Big Data analytics and tools such as Hadoop, with a large enough data set a company can learn things that are completely non-intuitive.  The best example I have heard about this to date was when a company ran Hadoop analytics on a 3 terabyte pool of data that held information on operations, finance, sales, manufacturing, and compliance data.  The company was expecting to get back a profitability analysis, but instead found something much different.  They discovered that their business was 34% more likely to have a lost-time safety incident on Mondays after a European soccer (football) match that occurred the previous day (Sunday).  Furthermore, that percentage went up to 46% if the temperature dipped below 56 degree Fahrenheit!  The translation was that many male members of their workforce were coming to work "hung over" after a Champion's League match and were extra careless when they got cold.  Fascinating and highly relevant data gathered through extraordinary serendipity, wouldn't you agree?

But now back to you and the Internet of Things.  Very soon, every part of you, possibly down to your individual body cells will be connected to the Internet.  You, your doctor, and probably many other organizations will know exactly how you are functioning in real-time.  Yes, the privacy concerns will be myriad but the benefits will be monumental.  We're talking about limitless access to knowledge, instant "telepathic" communication to anyone, and probably a greatly extended life if not just pure immortality.

It will be natural for you to doubt what I'm saying.  The first argument that you'll likely mount will go something like this, "Hey Christopher, there is just no way to connect everything to the Internet.  There are not enough IP addresses to go around now as it stands."  In case you're wondering, the entire Internet is, more or less, based on nodes that have a unique IP address.  Under the old protocols of IPv4, that limitation existed.  Going forward the world is adopting a new format called "IPv6".  Under that protocol the possible number of assignable IP addresses is: 340,282,366,920,938,463,463,374,607,431,768,211,456.  Put another way, there can be more IP addresses than all of the atoms in the world!!

Prepare for a world where everything that exists, everything that you are is part of one all-encompassing Internet.  So how about you - are you ready to be immortal?  Are you ready to enter the matrix?

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

In Search of the Perfect Career

I have read several published opinions on the subject of "Mastery", or the ability to become completely dominant at a given activity.  When I first read about Mastery it was in the context of becoming an Olympian.  In a book titled, oddly enough, Mastery by Robert Greene, he states that a person (you) has to practice something at least 10,000 times to become a master.  That means you have to play 10,000 games of Pacman, drive a car for years, or throw a frisbee until your hand falls off if you want to be great.  One of the greatest Orators of all time, an Athenian by the name of Demosthenes, practiced giving speeches with his mouth full of pebbles.

Many of us would agree that to achieve a "perfect" career, one must be a Master or at least approach mastery.  So what does that mean and how does it apply to business or the CIO profession?  There are many answers but one thing remains a certainty.  In order to become perfect you must first embrace numerous forms of imperfection.  And that's where the problems set in.

Think about not only your career but those of the people who surround you.  Through empirical observation I can say with certainty that most individuals I've seen are exceedingly (deathly?) afraid of making mistakes.  I've actually seen so many examples of people opting to do nothing rather than take a risk on making a mistake that I could write a humorous book reflecting on all of the instances.

The whole concept of Mastery and its achievement is based on learning through failure.  I guarantee that if you attempt something 10,000 times you will fail on at least 50% of your tries.  Truth be told, that percentage is probably much higher.  Put into practical terms, if you want to be a great leader you MUST make many mistakes.  It is the only way to determine the nature of perfection while learning to avoid imperfections along the way.

A common misconception that people have concerning a Perfect Career is that, if you attain that status, you will be respected and admired.  With possibly one or two exceptions, the opposite is going to be true.  If you aspire to be a leader, a CIO, you will be charged with making very important decisions day in and day out.  For every decision that you make, some people will love you, some will hate you, and the majority of people won't care one way or the other.  Let's take a look at the last eight United States Presidents (Obama, Bush 2, Clinton, Bush 1, Reagan, Carter, Ford, Nixon).  The general consensus, at least today, is that Reagan was the most popular of the group with Clinton right up there.  Would it surprise you to know that each and every man in this group had a negative approval rating during at least part of their presidencies?  President Abraham Lincoln is considered by many to be one of the greatest presidents of all time.  Yet did you know that he was first elected with only 39.8% of the vote and was despised by many people during his term?

Mastery, Fame, and Respect, and Love are very rarely gifted to any great leader in a combined form.

So do you want to be a great leader in the technological world of today?  Do you want to be a revolutionary CIO who can reinvent the role and possibly earn the CEO chair?  If you do you'd better become comfortable with embracing failure.  You see, that's whole purpose of doing something 10,000 times in order to achieve Mastery.  Only by failing in every conceivable way, multiple times, can a person hope to understand the nature of perfection, how to attain it, and what to avoid.

For the very reason that perfection demands failure most people will fail to reach their goals or even maximize their potential.  To make mistakes and better yet, to embrace and learn from them, is not a universally shared human virtue.

And now the best part - reaching perfection means that many people are not going to like you.  Don't take my word for it - think of a person who is considered a Master and then review the data that references how they are viewed by the public.  Whether it's a sports star, actor, politician, activist, soldier, or parent, are they universally admired?  Don't just look at yesterday's news; look at all of the data.

If you search for the Perfect Career you now have a better understanding of just what it will take for you to achieve your goal.  What do you think?  Can you handle the work, dedication, and fortitude that it requires?  Are you willing to embrace failure and the disfavor of your neighbors?  Good luck to you and may your path be difficult.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Significance of Net Neutrality

In case you weren't watching the news last week, the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) voted 3-2 in favor of adopting the regulations dubbed "Net Neutrality".  Since this is not and never will be a political blog, I won't discuss the relative merits, pro or con, of the decision.  Rather, I'm going to take a little time to cover the significance of the action.

Take a moment and think about two things: your business and your personal life.

First let's cover the work aspect of the Internet.  Imagine going into your "office", whatever that happens to be.  Now, envision all of the work that you and your colleagues will do during the day.  In 2015, it is very difficult to imagine anyone (in the first world) being able to do any work without the use of some kind of technological device, which can only function with an Internet connection.  Note that a "wired" device is one that has Internet connectivity.  I've thought long and hard about what type of work could occur without some type of connected device.  (I dare any of you readers to come up with a job that could be properly executed without any connected technologies involved.)  Be forewarned: Some of you may say that something like farming is a basic type of job that needs no technology, let alone the Internet.  Wrong!  Today I have a close friend who manages a farm.  In order to increase the efficiency of working fields, his company actually uses GPS-guided tractors, which essentially drive themselves!  This capability isn't just a nice-to-have.  It forms a foundational competitive advantage that allows the farm to be more profitable than its competition.



































From the perspective of business, it is very difficult to find any industry that is not absolutely dependent upon the Internet.  This is true for both internal operations (non-customer facing) and external B2B and B2C transactions.

Now let's examine what happens in your personal life.  First off, imagine your home, apartment, dorm room, shack, or whatever.  Odds are almost certain that both you and anyone else in the domicile over the age of four rely on Internet connected devices.  Yes, each of you may use them in different ways but that fact is that you are all still online.  And this time, I'm not limiting the scope of the discussion to just the first world.  I've been in many third world countries and it is very common to find people living in shacks with dirt floors, yet everyone has a smartphone.  In fact, in China there are more mobile phones in use than there are people in the entire western hemisphere.  Think about that for a moment.

Now imagine your relationships with friends, family, partners, and associates.  How many of you find yourselves out at restaurants, sporting events, or other activities where the scene looks like this one:


If you take scenes like the one above and mix in all of the trends from pop-culture, it wouldn't be outrageous to imagine a day coming soon where we are all wired to the 'Net directly from our brains.

So how does this all relate back to Net Neutrality?  As with most things that come natural to the human species, it comes down to power.  Not electricity, but the ability to control people and the direction of society.  Governments, businesses, and individuals are finally coming to grasp the reality that humans are moving towards a virtual society.  This society would include business, dating, travel, entertainment, and many other things that you can guess.  (For a great fictional take on this concept, read the book, "Ready Player One")  There is a burgeoning struggle within the United States and the world in general for control of the Internet.  This means control of access, content, speed, custom, and finally thought.

The actions taken by the FCC are neither good, nor evil - just a sign of things to come.  Expect to see entities both public and private engaging in a titanic struggle for ultimate control of the Internet.  Whomever or whoever wins the fight will earn the ability to forge the future direction of the planet.

Monday, February 9, 2015

HERD Mentality-Become a CxO

HERD Mentality – How to Make It to the C-Suite

There is an old cartoon that features a mathematician who appears to be creating a very important, complex equation.  He has almost filled a blackboard full of numbers and symbols and the drawing shows him just in the process of finishing his work.  However, right in the middle of the equation there is a statement that says, “Then a miracle occurs”.  To those wondering how a person can get to the top positions within a company, it often seems like some kind of magic is needed.


(Reproduced by License from Sidney Harris)

Over the years I have spoken to many people who’ve expressed interest in becoming senior leaders.  Many of them want to know how to manage their careers in order to achieve a position in the C-Suite.  From these conversations I have distilled a “recipe” for how people can achieve their goals.

Before getting into the process, I must first list a disclaimer.  Just like sports coaches cannot teach height or speed, not everyone is born to be a CxO.  The first and most important step on that journey is to be honest with one’s self.  Upon self reflection each of us can make that true assessment – “Am I built to achieve that role and do I really want it?”

Given that a person has the “right stuff”, I have developed a process that I call HERD.  Since becoming a senior leader is the opposite of following the “herd mentality”, this acronym adds just the right level of tongue-in-cheek flavor to make it stick.  HERD stands for:

·       H umility
·       E ngagement
·       R espect
·       D iscipline

While different opinions abound, these qualities are consistently found in those people who want to ascend to the highest levels of the corporate ladder.

Humility – In order to gain the skills and opportunities to get to the top you will have to learn a great deal of information.  Even if you graduated from the top of your class at Harvard I can guarantee that there is a taxi driver out there somewhere who knows more about relationships than you do.  A person who shows humility opens up opportunities to learn from anyone.  I grew up in a farming community where most people, to this day, come home from work covered in dirt and grease.  Although I have two Master’s degrees, to this day I can ask any of these men and women about how to solve problems and will get great answers.  If you can’t be humble, you will only succeed in closing off to yourself whole parts of the global community.  When you can look everywhere for answers, your needs are met more quickly, more often.

Engagement – It has been said so often that I’ll just repeat the common lore.  You must get involved with the people and the material that are key (and specific) to the goals you’re trying to achieve.  Get to know other people and find ways to learn and share their interests.  In case you didn’t know, great leaders are those people whom others want to follow.  If you show that you’re interested in others, they will reciprocate.  I remember when I first became a director, responsible for several hundred people.  In order to understand the culture I walked through the work areas of the staff engineers, many of who had been there for 25+ years.  I spent time learning from them the important aspects of the corporate dynamic.  Yes, I engaged heavily with my staff and leadership, but I also took the time to get different perspectives.  My engagement with those engineers paid enormous dividends.

Respect – This topic should be a no brainer yet we all see people in traffic and the office every day that are completely lacking.  A great motto by which to live could be summarized, “Everyone deserves your respect until the day they prove to be unworthy.”  As I educate my own children I emphasize certain points about respect.  One of them goes like this:
Everyone that you encounter is going to play some part in your life, be it large or small.  We all know what life would be without the star athlete, the movie star, the President of the United States, or our doctor.  But imagine life if the janitor stopped cleaning the bathroom or the day laborer stopped stocking shelves at the grocery store.

Showing respect is a great way of demonstrating that you deserve respect.  Try finding a great leader anywhere who does not respect the people she leads.  In case you need a book to better understand the importance that respect has in creating success, try reading this one.

Discipline – In order to achieve great things, one must be willing to consistently put forth the effort required.  Goal setting is part of this process as is the need to achieve things that others would simply not attempt.  Early in my career I learned the power of setting goals.  One day I was discussing with another colleague all the things we had each set to achieve.  He told me that he wanted to earn $70,000/year by his 30th birthday (he was 25 at the time).  Over the next few years I watched him doggedly put into place all the pieces that would position him to realize that goal.  He got up early, went to bed late, and generally attempted to outwork any barrier that he encountered.  Because my colleague was determined and had discipline, he beat his timeline by two years. 
At the same time, I made a decision that I wanted to reach the position of CIO as early as possible.  From personal reflection, I concluded that my educational credentials were lacking.  Knowing that I needed to set goals to “stretch” my capabilities, I went on to earn two Master’s degrees, a six sigma black belt, a project management certification, and several other interesting distinctions over the proceeding five years.  I am not saying that my achievements should be your goals.  Rather, you must be willing to discipline yourself to do whatever it takes, work as hard as necessary, and more likely than not your success will follow in a requisite manner.

Just as every person is unique so will be his or her path to the top of the corporate ladder.  By following the HERD process you will have an idea of what it takes to achieve your goals and be the type of leader that is in such demand today.

Monday, February 2, 2015

The Wrath of Gjallarhorn

The natural order of things would dictate that the big eat the small; the sharks eat the minnows.  Nature reflects this maxim in almost all things, including human behavior.  Whenever you see some TV show or movie about bullying or criminal behavior, you're going to see a singular person or group of powerful people preying upon their weaker victims.

So what would that mean if one day the world became scrambled and weird things started happening?  What would happen if mice started eating lions or goldfish started preying upon orcas?  These situations would be so bizarre that it would be hard to comprehend.  It would seem like all the rules of the world were being rewritten when all of us are essentially hard coded to understand reality as it exists today.

Events very similar to what I just described have happened recently in the world of business, entertainment, and social structure.

Consider two very large corporations, Microsoft (worth about $350 billion) and Sony (worth about $30 billion).  Both companies have huge stakes in the world of entertainment and the very lucrative console gaming market.  In case you didn't know, Microsoft markets the XBox One and Sony sells the Playstation 4.  Each company relies heavily on the concept of interconnected gaming, which is dependent upon very complex networks that bring together gamers from all over the world.  When you look at the sizes of the companies, you can see that they are so big that they should be quite capable of protecting the integrity of their assets and cyber networks.

In early December, a group of unknown and loosely associated individuals called "The Lizard Squad" took down the gaming networks of both Microsoft and Sony.  As noteworthy a feat as that was, they blatantly declared that they would do it again on Christmas Day.  Telegraphing an attack on a titanic company like Microsoft or Sony, three weeks in advance, should have made it a sheer impossibility for the Lizard Squad to actually accomplish that feat.  They literally "called out" the companies and told them exactly what and when they were planning to do.  That should be similar to an example where the Isle of Man declares war on Great Britain.  They give them a specific date weeks in the advance when the attack will commence.  We can all assume the end result if this were to ever happen, and it would not turn out well for the Isle.

Given three weeks to prepare and knowing that the Lizard Squad was a legitimate threat, I'm sure that both Microsoft and Sony worked feverishly to shore up their information security capabilities.  I'll never know exactly what they did, but it wasn't sufficient.  Three weeks after telegraphing their attack plan, the Lizard Squad struck both companies again on Christmas Day.

Gentle readers, the Christmas attack was a watershed event in the rebalancing of power across the globe.  No longer does an individual have to physically assault a company in order to cause damage to it.  In the world of today where almost everything important has moved or is moving to the cyber realm, all you need is a computer and the desire to cause havoc.  Imagine the ramifications for the entire socio-economic construct of our world when the "castles" that we've built to protect ourselves can no longer prevent us from harm.  Just look at what is happening around us:

  • Hackers prevented a top tier movie from being released to theaters
  • Airlines were disrupted
  • Facebook (gasp!) was disrupted and briefly taken offline
  • The Department of Defense is scrambling to find ways of fighting cyber threats
The world is not coming to an end but the "natural order" of our societies is most certainly undergoing significant change.  

As a professional, I am amazed at what I'm seeing.  On one hand, I'm intrigued at how the seemingly powerless can have their way with gigantic mega-corporations.   The proletariat in me marks a little satisfaction in seeing the mighty taken down a few pegs.  Yet, on the other hand, I'm becoming nervous as I realize that my electricity, wi/fi, and modern lifestyle (read: conveniences) are fair game within the reach of people that I cannot see or locate.

Each of us should take some time and reflect on the changes going on within our global community.  We are entering the next evolution of the human species.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Cisco and the Liliputians

One of the most famous stories of all time is one called "Gulliver's Travels".  Although quite lengthy and complicated, a normal man by the name of Gulliver one day begins traveling the high seas in search of adventure.  During a heavy storm, Gulliver's ship sinks and he is washed ashore, unconscious, on the beaches of the land of Lilliput.  When he awakens, he discovers that his body has been restrained by dozens of tiny ropes put in place by the natives of Lilliput, called "Lilliputians".  Although each is only six inches tall, they managed to secure enough ropes to safely subdue the MUCH larger Gulliver.





For an understanding of how that might have appeared, here is a picture from a recent movie starring Jack Black as Gulliver:







Now imagine that Cisco, a company with a market capitalization of over $130 billion and annual revenues of $47 billion is in the position of Gulliver.  Cisco is a company that is constantly surrounded by much smaller network hardware and services companies, each of them chipping tiny business of business away.  Cisco should be able to easily crush all of the competitive Lilliputians around it, yet it cannot.  Have you heard of some of them?:

  • F5 Networks
  • Riverbed
  • Silver Peak
  • Virtela (etc)
How can that be?  What is stopping Cisco from successfully freezing out smaller competitors in the way that Microsoft has done?  After all, Microsoft's Office suite has been out for over 20 years and no product is a viable competitor.  What is the difference?

The answer lies in the constant, continual, perpetual, never-ending (you get the point) issues with Cisco's supply chain.  People want their products yet Cisco cannot reliably deliver on time or sometimes even at all.  The products are solid, but they can't do a company much good if they are unattainable, at least in a reasonable amount of time.

It is a testament to the size of Cisco's business and their product usefulness that they have been able to grow, even though their supply chain problems go back at least 15 years.  Here are just a few examples that you can read in chronological order:

  • 2001 - outsourcing leads to poor supply chain management at Cisco ($2 billion write-off)
  • 2005 - almost all returned Cisco equipment was scrapped, cutting into the refurbished supply
  • 2007 - struggling to find an identity in creating adaptive practices
  • 2009 & 2010 - Cisco struggles to fulfill orders in a timely manner
  • 2010 - "Cisco response to supply chain woes lacking..."
  • 2010 - "Cisco product delays opening doors for rivals"
  • 2010 & 2011 - "There seems to be no end to the string of backorders..."
  • 2014 -  In Q4, orders placed are delayed by as much as 60 days due to backorders
As I've mentioned in the past, I don't believe that Cisco is under any existential threat.  Their stock moves quite a bit, but currently seems to be trending upward in a conservative fashion.  The problem that I see for Cisco is that they continually leave the door open for competition.  Even though the supply chain issues vary from year to year, they still leave customers suspicious that a "promise" date on an order is actually a "swag" date.  That's not a good impression for a customer to have because it makes them continually look for a "Plan B" when they need gear NOW and can't get it until LATER.

How many 100 year old companies, banks, and institutions have we seen decline or go out of business?  Cisco may or may not be in trouble, but history says that if they keep the door open long enough, sooner or later a giant will walk through it.  That giant might just be one speaking Chinese.