Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A list of technology conferences in India

I ended up consolidating a list of technology conferences being held in India for one of my clients. Thought there may be others who will find it useful. I haven't attended any of these. However, by looking at the nature of the conferences, they seem to fall into a few broad categories: technology dissemination (e.g. Java, SAP), networking (Open source), addressing theoretical issues (FSTTCS), emerging area (data warehousing) etc.

It is a matter of opinion as to which events are more interesting in a conference: coffee breaks or presentation sessions or lunch menu. See Amazon CTO Werner Vogel's blog: Some observations on conferences on this topic.

Open source

Enterprise architecture / Java / SOA / SAP
Theoretical Computer Science:
Data Warehousing and Business Intelligence

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Kodak is toast: Insights from Bill Gates at Buffett Group meeting on losing competitive advantage

This week Moody’s Investor Service has put Kodak in its “Bottom Rung” list of probable defaulters. I wonder if anyone is surprised. We have seen so many large firms bite the dust in the last six months that Kodak is hardly a surprise. However, when someone said, “Kodak is toast” sitting in the last row in the Buffett Group gathering 18 years ago, it was a big deal! Buffett Group meetings were attended by Buffett’s mentor Benjamin Graham’s mentees and Buffett’s friends. In 1991, the meeting was held in Vancouver, British Columbia and attended by many veterans like IBM board members Tom Murphy and Dan Burke, Sequoia Capital founder Bill Ruane, Larry Tisch owner of Loews Corp, Kay Graham of Washington Post apart from, of course, Charlie and Warren. The person who had slipped in quietly from the back and sitting in the last row was a recently acquired friend of Warren Buffett, Bill Gates.

The topic of discussion was: Why do companies lose their competitive advantage? Most of the proposed answers, regardless of the company, revolved around arrogance, complacency and what Buffett called the “Institutional imperative” – the tendency for companies to engage in activity for its own sake and to copy their peers instead of staying ahead of them. Some companies didn’t bring in young people with fresh ideas. Sometimes managements weren’t attuned to the tectonic shifts in their industry. Nobody suggested these problems were easy to cure. After a while Buffett asked everyone to pick their favorite stock.

What about Kodak? Asked Bill Ruane. “Kodak is toast” Bill Gates said. Nobody else in the Buffett Groups knew that the Internet and digital technology would make film cameras toast. In 1991, even Kodak didn’t know it was toast.

“Bill probably thinks all the television networks are going to get killed,” said Larry Tisch, whose company, Lowes Corp., owned a stake in the CBS network. “No, it’s not that simple,” said Gates. “The way networks create and expose shows is different than camera film, and nothing is going to come in and fundamentally change that. You’ll see some falloff as people move toward variety, but the networks own the content and they can repurpose it. The networks face an interesting challenge as we move the transport of TV onto the Internet. But it’s not like photography, where you get rid of film so knowing how to make film becomes absolutely irrelevant.”

Now, everybody in the meeting wanted to talk to Gates. And incidentally, Gates was right. From January 1990 to December 2007, Kodak rose a measly 20%, barely more than 1% a year. The S&P (index) over the same period rose 315%, Berkshire Hathaway rose 1627% and Microsoft rose 6853%. (source: The Snowball by Alice Shroeder)

Microsoft Technical Fellows: big brains behind Microsoft next-gen products & strategies

Mary Jo Foley is doing a wonderful job profiling Technical Fellows at Microsoft in a series called “Microsoft Big Brains” which she started in October 2008. As part of the series she plans to profile as many of the 22 Technical Fellows at Microsoft as she can. I have summarized the 9 profiles she has covered so far here.

It is interesting to see the variations in the nature of their current roles. Some of them are individual contributors (4 of 9), some are leading product technical strategy and architecture teams (2 of 9), while some are managing teams as large as 100 or 200 engineers (2 of 9). Some are part of or director of research labs while some others are part of or head of product units. What seems to be common among all of them is their passion for the technologies they work on and the desire to make a difference for Microsoft and world at large.

Many times we get hung up on the team size or amount of project management work as an excuse for not pursuing our interests in technology. Microsoft brains show that there is no stereotype for technical leadership. For my views on key attributes of technical leadership see 3Is of technical leadership and technical leadership ecosystem.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Crossing the cost-value chasm: Niagara Falls metaphor

I have spent half a decade 20miles from Niagara Falls in the city of Buffalo during my graduate studies. Those were the times when we had family, friends, friends of family and family of friends visit our studio apartment for stay-over on their way to Niagara Falls. We were happy to have them and in spite of countless visits to Niagara Falls it never became boring. The falls can be seen from two sides: the American side and the Canadian side. Mostly we would watch it from the American side (Neither us nor the visitors would typically have the Canadian visa). Now, you can go at different times of the day and night and see different shades of the beauty. You can also take a binocular and perhaps see a newer side of the falls. However, none of these would give you any glimpse of the view you get from the Canadian side. It is spectacular and it is different!

In many ways, cost-value chasm is similar to watching Niagara Falls. For the last decade IT offshoring companies have been on the cost side. They have mastered various processes: ISO, CMM, Six-sigma, lean process like SCRUM in delivering what is specified. They have mastered how to manage bench and utilization. However, if anyone gets an impression that now they are ready to create “value” for the customer, it would be like saying, “I have watched Niagara Falls from the American side a hundred times and hence I know how it looks from the Canadian side too”.

Understanding what will give your customer a durable competitive advantage or in Buffett’s words “enduring moat” is a different competency. It needs deeper understanding of both customer’s business and the enablers such as technology. It also means thinking about win-win business models like the IBM-Bharti deal. It almost always means sharing customer’s business risk (and ideally rewards too). It would not consider “increase in headcount” as the only means of “growth”.

I don’t think crossing the cost-value chasm is difficult. It certainly needs a different mindset.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Strategy & the fat smoker: Why insights don’t always translate into actions

David Meister in his podcast uses “fat smoker” metaphor to tell what happens many times in executing a strategy (he also has a book with the title: Strategy and the Fat Smoker). A fat smoker knows very well that he needs to: (1) lose weight (2) give up smoking & (3) start exercising regularly. However, it never happens. And David has experienced this personally, having been a fat smoker for 37 years, before getting admitted for a kidney problem, eventually giving up smoking. Business is no different from such personal experiences. Strategy, in spite of being the obvious, does not translate into action. Before looking at why such a gap between the “obvious” and the “action”, let’s look at Warren Buffett’s story from General Re, a Birkshire Hathaway company, where a business unit had exposure to sub-prime mortgages, Warren knew its risks and didn’t act upon it in timely manner: (source: Snowball):

Both Charile (Munger) and I knew at the time of the Gen Re purchase that it (sub-prime exposure) was a problem and told its management that we wanted to exit the business. It was my responsibility to make sure that happened. Rather than address the situation head-on, however, I wasted several years while we attempted to sell the operation. That was a doomed endeavor, because no realistic solution could have extracted us from the maze of liabilities that was going to exist for decades. So, I failed in my attempt to exit painlessly, and in the meantime more trades were put on the books. Fault me for dithering (what Charile calls thumb-sucking). When a problem exists, whether in personnel or in business operations, the time to act is now.

What could be the reason why “the obvious” does not translate into “actions”? I can think of following:
  1. Suckers of habit: We are creatures of habit and when it comes to making fundamental changes to our habit (such as “quit smoking” or “managing the business differently”) we are suckers. Most of us don’t have the energy to create “escape velocity” needed to overcome “gravity” of habit and sustain it over long enough period.
  2. “My baby” syndrome: Many times we would have been part of the creation process, perhaps fathered the business ourselves. Admitting that our kid is sick or perhaps needs a special treatment is like admitting failure in parenting and that hurts. I would rather not admit failure and hope it turns around.
  3. Friction is painful: Action in situations like these involves confronting with people and that most often results in a lot of friction. Status quo is less friction at least in the short run. And we prefer less friction.
What do you think?

Friday, March 6, 2009

Three sources of innovation: Pain, wave and waste

1. Feel the pain: This sight is familiar to anyone who lives in India or for that matter any part of this continent (Pakistan, Bangladesh, Srilanka). However, one day a fellow named Ratan Tata feels the pain of the vehicle owner and decides to do something about it. He has said:

I observed families riding on two-wheelers — the father driving the scooter, his young kid standing in front of him, his wife seated behind him holding a little baby. It led me to wonder whether one could conceive of a safe, affordable, all-weather form of transport for such a family

Eventually, Tata Nano is born. If we use I-squared-P definition, Tata Nano is not an innovation as yet. However, this story tells us the power of, what I consider, the biggest source of innovation: ability to feel the pain deeply within. It is certainly not a sufficient condition. Everybody who has felt the pain of the scooter owner does not get an insight. However, without the pain, there is no possibility of even thinking of the idea.

2. See the wave: In 1979, when Xerox PARC scientist Larry Tessler showed their lab to a bunch of hackers, he thought, “They wouldn’t understand what we were doing, just see pretty things dancing on the screen” (source: iCon). What the hackers thought was a different thing altogether. Hacker team leader was Steve Jobs who says in his interview:

I was so blinded by the first thing that they showed me which was the graphical user interface (GUI). I thought it was the best thing I ever saw in my life. Remember, what we saw was incomplete. They had done a bunch of things wrong. But it had the germ of the idea and they had done it very well. And within ten minutes, it was obvious to me that all computers will work like this.

What Steve saw within ten minutes as "obvious" is what I call: Seeing the wave. It needs deep understanding of the market and technology trends. Steve didn’t have the same confidence when he and Steve Wozniak set out to build Apple I.

3. See the waste: When you start “Please consider the environment before printing this mail” campaign, you are responding to the waste you have seen near the printer. It is no surprise that “muda” which means waste in Japanese is considered a core element of lean process mastered by Toyota.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Premortem: Tell me where I’m going to die, so I don’t go there

Charlie Munger is the lesser known “Siamese twin, practically” of Warren Buffett and also his partner in their business Birkshire Hathaway. They hit it off together ever since they first met half a century ago (in 1959). Among the various habits that they share between them, one of them is “an urge to preach”. In his sermon on his 80th birthday in 2004, Charlie evoked his favorite mathematician Carl Jocobi (source: Snowball). He said:

Invert, always invert. Turn the situation or problem upside down. Look at it backwards. What’s in it for the other guy? What happens if all our plans go wrong? Where don’t we want to go, and how do you get there? Instead of looking for success, make a list of how to fail instead, through sloth, envy, resentment, self-pity, entitlement, all the mental habits of self defeat. Avoid these qualities and you will succeed. Tell me where I’m going to die, that is, so I don’t go there.

Dr. Gary Klein, an intuition expert and author of “Power of Intuition”, is perhaps not as familiar with mathematicians like Carl Jacobi as Charlie Munger. But then he is familiar with what is performed after one dies, i.e. postmortem. As Gary says in his book, “While postmortem may be helpful to those who perform it and hear about the results, it doesn’t help the central figure in the drama – the patient. Instead of waiting for the patient to die, or waiting for the project to fail, start investigating what could potentially fatal to your plans at the very beginning.” Gary calls this technique Premortem.

In Premortem, the facilitator looks into a crystal ball and sees that the project has been utter and devastating failure. He then articulates what he sees in gory details to the team. And then asks, “What could have caused this?” Each team member then writes down all the reasons she believes the failure occurred. At the end you know which are the places to avoid, or at least minimize damage. For more info, please see Gary's article in Harvard Business Review: Performing a project premortem.