Archive for December, 2009

A CTO’s List of New Year’s Resolutions

December 30, 2009

There are many ways for Chief Technology Officers to be undone.   Appropriately enough  — in light of  Friday’s  college football bowl fest —  being an effective CTO is  like being a college football coach.  You don’t actually do the blocking and tackling yourself, but you’ll fail if the fundamentals are not done right —  even if your game plan is perfectly constructed.  I will have more to say in an upcoming  post about game plans, but today I want  to recognize the arrival of the  New Year with a short note about the fundamentals.

George Heilmeier, former DARPA Director, Bellcore CEO, and the inspiration for my” Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” series[1][2][3] was a mentor to me and to many other  technology leaders .  One day I asked him for a bit of career advice, and he hauled out a Heilmeier list — twelve  rules for CTO’s to follow if they have any hope of navigating the many dangers of the colliding worlds of innovation and execution.  I quickly found out that, true to form,  George had reduced best practices to a few rules of the road because dozens of others had asked for the same advice.  They are fascinating and valuable bits of advice, and they range in scope from broad business fundamentals to technology and culture.   I haven’t come across anyone who thinks that they are not important lessons — not to tuck away for future use, but to internalize and use as a platform for technology management in any setting.  It was December , so I turned George’s list into New Year’s resolutions.

  1. For each “client” establish/conceive a list of technologies and initiatives that drive his business and a list of technologies and initiatives that could change his business.
  2. Use the Catechism to get people to focus on the real “care-abouts” when making investment decisions and establishing priorities.
  3. Establish the physical, economic, and manufacturing limits of the technologies and capabilities that drive the business today.
  4. Establish a good working relationship with your peers
  5. Establish what [insert name(s) of  your CEO and Chairman] real priorities are.
  6. Establish the metrics for success in their eyes.
  7. Don’t shy away from doing some near term problem solving.  It builds credibility and respect.
  8. Never have your peers or clients come to your office for meetings with you.  Go to theirs.
  9. Any display of arrogance will cost you. Don’t do it.
  10. Compile a list of “innovations yet to be made”
  11. Make sure that each program or initiative is output oriented not activity oriented.
  12. Learn the [insert your company name here] culture.  It is unique.

Have a happy and safe New Year, and, by all means, don’t get caught when worlds collide.




The Saga of Eric the Red and the Anthropology of Innovation: A Parable

December 28, 2009
Eiríks saga rauða (Saga of Eric the Red) Icelandic manuscript (17th century)

Eiríks saga rauða (Saga of Eric the Red) Icelandic manuscript (17th century)

In Murder, Starvation and Catastrophe, I drew a line to connect the historical behavior of doomed societies with the business performance of large enterprises.  One of the most compelling of Jared Diamond’s stories is the saga of Eric the Red, the 10th Century Viking who founded Greenland.  The preposterously named colony was eventually home to 10,000 Norse settlers who were perhaps fooled by the name into thinking they were heading off to some sort of North Sea resort for Vikings. The story of Eric the Red is a parable for how the human factor in WWC  promotes or stifles innovation.

Eric was a scoundrel.  A suspected murderer, he fled Norway for Iceland around 980 AD.  It was a short, but violent, stay.  He was ejected from Iceland, and, sailing west, discovered an island of fjords, glaciers and grasslands. He returned to Iceland long enough to kill a few people and recruit an expedition of 25 ships to build a settlement on Greenland. Despite their violent beginnings,  the Greenland settlers established a farming economy and a humane society, including a government that provided for the poor in times of scarce crop production.  The Viking settlers had sporadic wars with the Inuit natives, but apparently flourished for hundreds of years until sometime in the early 1400’s when they just disappeared.

It was one of the great anthropological mysteries of all time:   how could fierce competitors — apparently successful  in a new environment that was not much different than the one they left behind – suddenly fail so catastrophically that their entire society was wiped out in only a few years? When archaeologists excavated the Greenland settlements, they found the usual trash of human civilization:  tools, debris, the remains of livestock,  and garbage from cooking.  But they found no fish bones.  The Norse Greenlanders were expert seafarers who lived in the world’s richest fishing waters and inexplicably starved to death because they did not eat fish.

The Vikings brought with them the culture and preferences from home. They brought food:  pigs, cows, goats,  and sheep.  The Norse knew how to grow crops in cold climates, so they planted crops like barley, oats, wheat, rye, cabbage, onions and peas. They hunted seal for food and  traded  walrus ivory with Europe  for material not available on the island.

By 1400,  demand for ivory, polar bears, and other luxuries from Greenland fell. Black Plague had wiped out nearly half of Europe’s population.  The Crusades opened new sources of ivory and spices to the now smaller market in Europe. The early 1400’s also marked the beginning of the Little Ice Age, blocking natural water inlets and delaying the arrival of migratory seals.  Deforestation left Greenlanders short on lumber, fuel, and iron.  Climate change and poor crop rotation led to crop failure, so the settlers consumed pigs, cows, and sheep to the point of extinction.

They had cultural inhibitions.  They did not eat their pets, for example.  They could have learned to hunt fish from and traded with the Inuits, but the Norse regarded the natives as pagans. Greenlanders were Norse, and they thought of themselves as dairy farmers.  When Eric the Red founded Greenland, it was uncharacteristically temperate —  a special time when their cultural preferences led to success.  They relied on past behavior and — when the climate changed, relations with friends and enemies faltered, and their environment was damaged —  they starved to death.

15th Century Greenland has something in common with IBM  in 1980:  a belief that historically successful behavior will succeed in the future. The Norse preference for pigs and cows required them to dedicate more time and grazing land to those animals than to the heartier goats and sheep.  Their Euro-centrism prevented them from learning from and adopting the eating habits of “pagan savages.” The thinking appears to be that their lifestyle was successful in Norway, so there’s no reason it shouldn’t be successful in Greenland. On the other hand the Norse settlers were not great innovators.

Thomas Watson Sr, understood the role that innovation would play in the company’s future. He opened IBM’s  first dedicated research center next to Columbia University in 1945 and the results were immediate, spectacular innovations including time sharing and  magnetic core memories.  Thomas Watson, thinking it was too risky to continue having its research done in the relative open environment of a joint university lab, and using Bell Labs as a model, established dedicated corporate research labs in New York and Zurich. This ushered in a golden age for IBM.  By any measure of success—sales, market cap, profits, patents, R&D budget—IBM,  and  in many ways,  defined the industry.

Then came the 1980’s and its disruptive changes to the computer industry. These  changes were not kind to IBM and in 1992 the company reported the single largest annual loss in U.S. corporate history to that point: $4.96 billion after taxes.

How did this happen?  Unlike the Greenlanders’ demise, this one isn’t a great mystery.  The Watsons believed fervently that doing the things that had made IBM a great corporation would make it successful in the future.  IBM knew how to profitably sell computers and to whom.  After all, they defined the industry.  There is a widely known internal 5-year forecast of worldwide PC sales that shows shipments peaking  at less than 80,000 units in 1983 before settling into a comfortable rate of 40,000 per year by 1987.  Less than 250,000 over the five year period.  5% to business customers who would continue to rely on IBM mainframes.  In fact, over a million PC’s were sold by 1985.  The industry was in the midst of explosive change and not only did IBM did not recognize it but they believed that past success was a predictor of future success.

But by 1982 it was all over. If IBM had recognized the value of the PC, they would have kept it proprietary and the computer industry would have developed very differently.  Without its IBM  licensing deal, Microsoft would have withered early.  Intel would be a niche player.

IBM, Xerox,  AT&T, and Nortel were all  innovative companies.  They hired the best and brightest – and there was low employer mobility since after all how many places were there for a computer science PhD to work?  The IBM Research Lab in Yorktown Heights developed and incubated products in the historically successful vertical way.  The barriers to entry for IBM’s  competitors (especially the small ones like Compaq and DEC) were huge. How could a small competitor build a direct sales network to rival the famed Xerox sales force?  What did an academic startup like Cisco,  aimed at the tiny data network market, have to do with the output Bell Labs or the market clout of Nortel?

This is how innovation looked at the end of the last century. It is too easy to draw conclusions about why old models stumble.  An apparently obvious lesson from the story of Erick the Red is that  the Little Ice Age caused the Vikings to die off in Greenland. Current conventional wisdom is that the technology giants stumbled  because they were too old or rigid or bloated to compete smaller, nimbler competitors who were themselves innovating although in very different ways.  Actually neither is really true.

It is simply built into the fabric of innovation that the marketplace is an environment – you have to adapt to it to survive.  If people want low-cost computers then drive cost out of the manufacturing process and learn to prosper on thinner margins. There are occasionally companies that try to change the environment.  Hewlett-Packard grew for 60 years on a simple business model:  innovate to create a product category and ride market growth until the margins shrink.  Then exit.  The ink jet printer is such a product — and there is much discussion in HP about exit strategies for ink jet printing. So was the hand-held calculator.  Most companies cannot imitate those successes. HP eventually faltered when it tried large scale environmental engineering with its failed acquisition of PWC and the gut-wrenching merger with Compaq.

So, if adjusting to the environment is the answer, why didn’t the Greenlanders just start eating fish?  The Greenlanders damaged their environment through poor livestock selection, clear-cutting forests and poor crop-rotation. There was significant climate change brought on by the Little Ice Age. The Inuit qualify as hostile neighbors.  They had friendly trade partners for many years, but eventually lost them.  But above all,  the Norse Greenlanders’ response to these factors was culturally based.  They didn’t eat fish  because it was not viewed as a reasonable option in their culture.

Innovation is frittered away because it is not viewed as a reasonable option in a company’s culture.  The structure of leadership accounts for a lot in determining the role that culture plays.   Distant, authoritarian, decision-making tends to rely excessively on the past as a predictor of the future.  Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer said as much  in a 2008 speech at the Stanford Graduate School of Business:

One of the biggest mistakes I’ve made over time…is not wanting to nurture innovations where I either didn’t get the business model or we didn’t have it.

Examples abound. The HP Jornada™ pocket PC could play MP3 music files before the  iPod™  hit the market.  But there was no HP music store. Running an online music store was not an HP competency.  There is a certain — sometimes irrational —  optimism that past success engenders in leaders at the precipice.  When Mike Zafirovsky took over as CEO of Nortel Networks in late 2005, it was a company on the brink of failure.  Massive layoffs had decimated the iconic Canadian company.  In early 2006, I was escorted for the last time through its cavernous Toronto facility — a building laid out as a city with streets and parks — just before it was shut down.  All you could hear was the click of heels reverberating down the empty faux boulevards. Mike Zafirovsky wanted to communicate his energy and sense of the future to the demoralized employees who remained.  His first email  in December 2005 to Nortel employees defined the tone of his administration and sent the company down a path that emphasized execution of a plan that emphasized ideas that had worked before:

To Nortel employees,

Last Friday night, as I was flying back from a very productive trip to Europe following several customer and employee visits, I came across a newspaper article entitled “Optimism Puts Rose-Colored Tint in Glasses of Top Execs.” Included in the article were quotes like:

“99% of CEOs thought they could lead their companies from crisis;”
“Optimism is all about possibilities, change, hope…without those qualities, how can any leader succeed?;” and,
· “By definition, leaders are slightly delusional.”

My first reaction was to take exception to the word “slightly” . . . .

Seriously, the question of our confidence in ourselves—and as members of Team Nortel—is something I will begin discussing today and a topic I will continue to raise in the coming weeks and months. Confidence in ourselves and each other will be critical factors in how far and how fast we take this 110-year-old company..

I discussed with you in a previous letter our plans for the BIG initiative (Business Transformation, Integrity Renewal and Growth Imperatives), our new leadership values, and our focus on people that will be rolled out as part of Session I in the first quarter. In my first few weeks, I have also spent time evaluating our relative strengths and weaknesses and pinpointing areas for improvement.

My strong take-aways and beliefs are that our positives are significant and difficult to replicate. At the same time, our challenges are also significant but, I would argue, very fixable. I don’t believe I am looking through rose-colored glasses, but rather have adopted what I describe as an attitude of “forceful optimism.” This is a mindset, a belief and an attitude that I expect from everyone at Nortel—a combination of positive anticipation for the future combined with a determined approach to maximize positive impact.

Forceful optimism is one of the 30 action attributes supporting our recently-defined Nortel leadership values. And as promised in my last letter to you, I worked with select members of the Leadership Edge program and cabinet members to finalize these attributes before year-end.

As a positive heads-up to the many people who were hoping to be on the Business Transformation teams, we will be kicking off the Six Sigma Quality Program in the first quarter, and there will be opportunities for involvement and leadership. We will be looking for Six Sigma champions and master black belt, black belt, and green-belt candidates (much more on this early next year).

The combination of the Business Transformation initiative and the Six Sigma Quality Program will improve the basic equation of our business, including higher customer satisfaction, simplified processes, lower cost-of-rework, fewer quality issues and lower costs for our products and business structure. And we’ll see teamwork inside the company improving as a result. We will continue the focus on forceful optimism, leadership and our people agenda by launching our Session I program in the first quarter. The programs and initiatives we deliver as part of Session I will ensure we are building strong leadership capability and bench strength across Nortel.

Lastly, and arguably most important for the long-term health of the business, here are my thoughts on customers and the Growth Imperatives, which you will be hearing much more on throughout 2006. I am meeting and speaking with an increasing number of our customers (e.g. the four largest European customers last week) and our go-to-market and product management teams, and I can’t wait to attend our global sales conferences in January. In my straightforward view, good, profitable growth is to a business as air and water are to flowers. We have much to build on and also much work to do, including how we develop meaningful value propositions for our customers. To this end, I am excited to report that we will be introducing our new business mission at the sales meetings. It will guide much of our behavior externally and internally, and keep the focus where it belongs—on our customers.

Let me wrap it up by saying how privileged and proud I am to be leading Nortel and to be working with all of you. I wish you and your loved ones a relaxing holiday and warm wishes for a healthy, happy, and prosperous 2006.

Thank you for all you are doing for Nortel.

Mike Z

Mike Zafirovsky is a capable senior executive, an alumnus of Jack Welch’s CEO boot camp at GE.  He was part of a long string of strong leaders that Nortel recruited to put the company back on track.   He could not have anticipated the Little Ice Age of late 2008, but by New Year 2006, Nortel was already hurtling toward disaster.  Its stock was delisted and the company was shrinking.   I asked Mike about industry changes, but he did not react.  There was no sense of urgency at Nortel. There was a sense that the telecom equipment market was not an environment at all and that what really mattered was the company’s belief that its current direction would take them back from the edge: “a combination of positive anticipation for the future combined with a determined approach to maximize positive impact.”

In January 2009, Nortel filed for protection from its creditors. Its main businesses are being sold. When that is complete,  it will cease operations. Zafirovsky stepped down as CEO in late 2009.

One of my first projects at Bellcore  was to redefine its core software business for the emerging ISP and Cable markets.  The climate was changing in the early 90’s.  Bellcore sold  operations support systems – a sort of ERP for telcos.  A typical sale was in the $25-30M range and $100M deals were not unheard of. So we rolled up all the functions that we could think of – customer acquisition, provisioning, engineering, support – and came up with a product that we thought we could sell for $15M.  When we showed the requirements to cable operators, they just shrugged.  They were using Excel spreadsheets which cost them essentially nothing.  Today, Bellcore — operating under the name Telcordia — leads in none of the operations support or business support markets that defined its core business in the 1990’s and is not even in the top ten in cable and ISP markets.  What they really wanted help with were the services that they could sell to their customers.  One of those services was search.  Another was customer aggregation.  Both were areas in which Bellcore had fundamental patents.  One for the “seed” that underlies virtually all search engines today.  The other for “recommender” technology that underlies all social networking. The search technology was given away to Excite.  The recommender technology was assigned to MIT’s Media Lab and eventually became part of Amazon’s recommendation engine.  We were not in the lightweight database business – although there were many smaller competitors who were.  We were not in the search engine or social networking  businesses, although we had friendly relations with companies that were and had many university collaborations.  We were in the software business.

Climate Change, Ivory Towers and The Journal of Irreproducible Results

December 8, 2009

There’s a kerfuffle on the eve of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. 1,700 email messages  that were supposed to be stored on a secure server somehow found their way to open servers and were rapidly picked up by bloggers and others, who jumped on the opportunity to use the sometimes embarrassing messages to discredit  the overwhelming consensus of climate scientists that the earth is warming at an alarming rate and that human activity is the most likely cause. Aside from the shocking coincidence of events — what are the chances that a massive, worldwide fraud would be exposed at the same time the conspirators are getting together to impose their new world order? — and the uproar among climate scientists — who are launching ad-hominem attacks at every skeptic who pokes his head above ground — are there other lessons to be drawn from this shameless bit of theater?  My Georgia Tech colleague, climate scientist Judith Curry, hit the nail on the head when she  pointed out that: (1) there is really nothing in the released messages that discredits published scientific results and (2) scientists are being incredibly counterproductive by retreating into their Ivory Towers and passing up the opportunity to educate and engage both skeptics and the public.  Her Open Letter to Graduate Students and Young Scientists should be required reading for everyone interested in how to keep worlds from colliding:

…even if the hacked emails from HADCRU end up to be much ado about nothing in the context of any actual misfeasance that impacts the climate data records, the damage to the public credibility of climate research is likely to be significant. In my opinion, there are two broader issues raised by these emails that are impeding the public credibility of climate research: lack of transparency in climate data, and “tribalism” in some segments of the climate research community that is impeding peer review and the assessment process.

For “climate science” you can substitute “innovation” and the message is the same. If you’ve circled the wagons and are shooting at anything that moves, the easy target is public understanding of not only science but innovation in general.  The American public is not interested in the long-term thinking required to make sense out of squabbles like this. There are simply not enough people like San Diego Florist Steve Boigon, who — according to the New York Times — downloads MIT physics lectures because he  finds that:

I walk with a new spring in my step and I look at life through physics-colored eyes.

Curry did not go after the easy targets. Instead, she talked honestly to students about the importance of climbing down from the Ivory Tower. The interactive relationship between basic science, technological innovation and public policy — what Donald Stokes calls Pasteur’s Quandrant —  is a hot topic these days, because  so many important societal issues can only be resolved at their intersection.

There’s a veil that conceals the inner workings of creative science and engineering  from the lay public, and attempts to lift it sometimes produce  bizarre reactions.  I was once struck speechless  at an all-hands meeting when one of my engineers stood to scold  the  CEO for making product decisions because he knew “nothing about electronics.”  A prominent member of my Board of Advisers at the National Science Foundation once countered criticism of his particularly cumbersome approach to software development by angrily proclaiming,  “Programming is like playing a piano.  Only virtuosos should do it!”  A world-renowned engineer once responded to an essay critical of his methods by widely distributing a letter entitled “On a Political Pamphlet from the Middle Ages.”  I was one of the young authors who was at the receiving end of that one.  When  outsiders try to lift the veil, the best course is to repair to the upper reaches of the Ivory Tower, hope that the hubbub goes away, and shoot down if it doesn’t.

It is a world view that is somehow wired into university training. The Medieval regalia, semi-religious icons,  and murmured  incantations that convey special status on the conferees reinforce the impression at every college commencement that something mystical has taken place. Science textbooks are uniformly silent on how science is done, presenting instead the subject as a linear, completed work — orderly in progression and tidy in its use of knowledge.  Nearly every engineering textbook guides  readers through well-rehearsed exercises to successful completion of design tasks. Why would anyone want to learn how to build a bridge that falls down?

Insiders, of course, know differently. What takes place behind the curtain is as important as the finished product.  Some of the best technical books ever written lift the veil.  Proofs and Refutations by Imre Lakatos describes  the centuries-long frustration of mathematicians  trying — and repeatedly failing —  to precisely define polyhedra.  The process led some of  the greatest mathematical results of all time. Why Buildings Fall Down by Mario Salvatori and To Engineer is Human by Henry Petrosky are both compelling arguments that progress in  engineering is inextricably tied to understanding engineering failure.  Insiders know that failure is part of the package.  That’s exactly what makes the most outrageous of the climate change attacks so improbable.

There is a sub-genre of humor devoted to obvious, boundlessly incompetent scientific failure, real or imagined.  The Journal of Irreproducible Results is perhaps the defining publication that holds technical vanity up to ridicule. An article entitled Peaceful Use of Nuclear Explosives helpfully noted that

Development of hydro power in the desert of North Africa awaits only the introduction of water

My personal favorite medical discovery was an announcement entitled The Incidence and Treatment of Hyperacrosomia in the United States:

Some very famous Americans  have indeed been afflicted with Acute Hyperacrosomia, among them Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Lyndon Johnson.  Their condition is readily apparent upon comparison with normal individuals such as Napoleon Bonaparte, Truman Capote  and Dick Cavett…..Since the male population does express the condition to a higher degree, it falls primarily to the female population to objectively consider the risks of involving themselves with hyperacrosomic males…

The jokes are so well-known that Henry R. Lewis apparently had not second thoughts when he wrote The Data Enrichment Metho d:

The following remarks are intended as a non-technical exposition of a method which has been promoted (not by the present author) to improve the quality of inference drawn from a set of experimentally obtained data.  The power of the method lies in its breadth of applicability and in the promise it holds in obtaining more reliable results without recourse to the expense and trouble of increasing the size of the sample of data.

I have a hazy understanding of the data manipulation charges that climate skeptics are leveling at researcher, but I am pretty sure that The Data Enrichment Method was not involved.  There is also the issue of transparency that is specific to climatologists, but Curry handles that well. And then there are the charges that editors of journals were unduly influenced by political considerations.  Like the Inspector in Casablanca, I would be shocked — truly shocked — to hear that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of smart, educated, and highly ambitious people make decisions based on self-interest. The secret that Curry reveals is that it may be regrettable, but  it doesn’t matter in the long run.  Science is not an orderly, axiomatic progression of knowledge. It is a social process.

Even a brief peek under the veil would be enough to convince many fair-minded skeptics that if there were another, compelling, contradictory analysis of the same data, it would have by now appeared in a reputable scientific journal.  Why?  Because it would be a career-making result.  The article would write itself.  What editorial board could long resist publishing an epochal article?  History teaches that political manipulation is much more likely to focus on who gets priority as multiple groups rush to publish simultaneously.  It’s a to maintain a conspiracy when everyone is looking out for himself.  None of this means that everything that has been published is correct. It just means that it’s very unlikely that the shrill cries of  systematic fraud have any validity.

So strong is the urge to seek out systematic scientific fraud, that there is a magazine devoted to the subject. The Skeptical Inquirer (SI) is a kind of companion to The Journal of Irreproducible Results. It specializes in debunking academic myths and scientific hoaxes.  It has over the years exposed magicians, perpetual motion charlatans, creationists, and hundreds of scientific frauds.  Who are these crusaders?  They are the very power brokers that would have to be co-opted if the climate change conspiracy theorists were right.  Here’s a partial list of SI Fellows:

If there is  a less easily manipulated group under one banner, I have not seen it.

Judy Curry’s Open Letter does not only apply to climate scientists. It applies to every boardroom that squashes the discussion of how innovation takes place and every executive suite where technologists are too busy innovating to engage seriously with corporate management.  Of course, it also applies to the easy targets — facile business leaders who confuse near term planning with technical progress and are too quick to jump to the “bottom line” — but that discussion will have to wait for another post.