The Idea Dude


Thursday, March 30, 2006

Google, the new Rome?

We were playing 'remember when' in the office yesterday. There was a time, when no-one believed you could write another search engine and Yahoo was king. Today, Google has usurped the crown. But for how long? Those who believe that they are invincible should take a page from history. While I wouldn't short Google now, and not for a couple of years to come, it is not inconceivable that the next Internet powerhouse is busy being hatched in some small space somewhere.

The reason for Google's meteoric rise was their difference approach to search engine indexing. Their brilliant premise was to use in-bound linking to establish relevancy, i.e. let the people index the web for you by their implicit votes via links. But human creativity will find a way to exploit every great business model and today they battle against link farms, cloaking and a myriad other schemes. Regardless of how much money and Ph.Ds they have, they are facing a thousand fold of minds out there every day thinking of ways to manipulate the current algorithms for their own benefit. As a result a routine search these days doesn't seem to be much better than pre-Google days, and the norm today is to slog through pages of irrelevance before finding what you want. Whether they are a one hit wonder, time will tell. But the long view from here is that within 5 years, there will be a new search king, at which point the phrase, 'The king is dead, long live the king...'

Or as my daughter so aptly punctuates her conversations recently...'Who will be the next American Idol!'

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Between a rock and a hard place

The story of the day today on the Net is about disgruntled Microsoft employees demanding the revamp of management following the delay of the forthcoming Vista OS. I can empathize with their frustrations having been in the trenches. I used to believe as the guy who wrote the software, I could single-handedly change the fortunes (and the stock price) of the company. Alas, time and ill-spent money proved me wrong and I learnt there are many a slip between code and stock price. I'm sure Gates and co. did not make the decision lightly. I remember the anger I felt after working 70-100 hour weeks for months on end to meet deadlines and then having to swallow the bitter delay because QA had found parts of the product unstable. Before letting our emotions make our decisions, we need to coldly determine what is the right thing to do and make the final call regardless how painful. Those employees who call for an early release would rue the day if they did indeed release on time resulting in a product that tanks and along with it the stock price.

The delay and emotions are not the issue. Vista is simply the last straw that is breaking the camel's back. Microsoft, I suspect, is undergoing the same tribulations that most other large technology behemoths experience at some point. Their success is now becoming their millstone. Their size and momentum may ultimately be their downfall, unless like IBM, they find the courage to reinvent themselves, a process that is painful and costly but nevertheless necessary for their survival. They see Google, so much like themselves 20 years ago, young, fearless, challenging and agile. Today the tables are turned, and it's not much fun being on the other end of the stick. Let's see how this will play out...

As Agent Smith, Neo's nemesis would aptly put it, "Do you hear that, Mr Gates? It is the sound of inevitability"

Monday, March 27, 2006

Disruptive thinking

Today, we were debating why a certain strategy under consideration wouldn't work because it has been tried before and customer acquisition would take too long. I couldn't help but wonder if it was the strategy that was bad or the execution. Einstein said that we cannot solve the problems with the same thinking that created them in the first place. Sometimes it needs someone with a totally different background and perspective to propose something that seems to be orthogonal but may well hold the key to the solution even though it may sound preposterous at the onset. Too often, our aversion to risk and pressure from investors and management to get it right the first time is our undoing. Throwing caution to the wind is not what I'm advocating but if you are serious in being innovative, it requires disruptive thinking which is an evolutionary process with many failures along the way. That's a tough thing to do especially since all of us are taught that failure is bad and we have to try to avoid it at all costs. Success and failure are endpoints and in the realm of startups, are pretty much unpredictable, anyone who has says otherwise is trying to sell you a business plan.

I liked what John Maxwell says in his latest issue regarding personal growth. Firstly, personal growth should not be an accidental development but an intentional one. Secondly, we don't mature momentarily but over time. I would add, not many people are introspective enough on a continual basis. In our fast changing world, we need to continually question ourselves whether the assumptions we made yesterday are still valid today. Note, that is different from second guessing ourselves, which has its roots in indecisiveness. I'm referring to a critical assessment to ensure that we have the right skills, maturity, knowledge and energy for the job at hand and that the data we rely upon to make decisions are still valid and in context. Too many folks today confuse management and leadership. The former is about creating processes for predictability and accountability, the latter is about helping all those around us to cope with unpredictability and uncertainty.

If only I was half as smart as I thought I was 20 years ago...

Like most dreamers, I always think that the impossible just takes a little longer. Here's a twist to Archimedes lever principle as applied to the web....if everyone read this blog, I could change the world...I can now justify why I spend very little time trying to get into the Technorati top 100, after all I could be dangerous to mankind...

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Who the Dickens is the greatest blogger of all time?

He didn't live in the Internet age nor did he have a computer but he could perhaps be characterized as one of the first bloggers that actually made money. He was Charles Dickens. Not many people know he published his stories as installments. Each installment had a hook that kept people buying the next one. Perhaps the modern blogger looking to grow a respectable readership should look to this man on how to write a compelling blog that could capture imagination rather than the usual commentary of who is doing what in Hollywood. That's a segway to what Dickens would have said about the Internet, Web 2.0 etc....

'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we we had nothing before us...'

His blog would have been titled, A Tale of Two Technologies, a story about the Internet Revolution, describing technology monarchies overthrown without dignity by web mobs. Queen Antoinette would utter her famous words, "Let them use Windows" not knowing that the Internet would transcend the very bastion of computing.

On the note of famous people, I was struck by the humility of Benjamin Franklin who despite having achieved more than most people including being an inventor, statesmen, etc, instructed that his epitaph be, 'Here lies the body of Ben Franklin, printer'. My epitaph, less eloquent, but no less inspired would be, 'The Dude is dead, long live the Idea'...

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Serious play

The Lego factory makes the mass customization concept a reality. The idea is that you download their digital designer, a 3D tool allowing you to graphically put together your Lego model using standard (but virtual) pieces. Share your model with the Lego community (some 77,000 designs have already been submitted) and click buy. The factory takes the design, collects all the necessary pieces, puts it in a box customized by you and sends it to you. Voila! a nice way to personalize your next gift. The neat part is that it is so consistent with what their founder and inventor created in 1932. A must read for anyone who has ever built a Lego toy is their corporate profile detailing their history and achievements over the years.

I remember listening to a keynote by Adele Goldberg of Smalltalk in the early 1990s at the first annual Object Oriented conference. (Yes, I'm dating myself now!) She likened object oriented design like Lego, the objects like the blocks must be built so that they can be re-used in many permutations. More importantly, they can be put together easily and pulled apart with the same ease. Sounds simple but I remember as a boy, many Lego wannabees selling blocks that you couldn't put together or once you did, couldn't take apart. Next time you design an interface think about the concept of software tolerance. I've been known to distribute Lego kits to software developers to illustrate the point. Hopefully the concept is not forgotton.

Some interesting facts on Lego. They are made with a tolerance of 0.002 mm. Only 18 elements in every million produce fail the quality tests. All Lego elements are full compatible since 1958 regardless of age or which factory they originated from. There are 915 million ways to combine six eight-stud Lego bricks. On average every person on earth has 52 Lego bricks.

If only software was made this way...

Eclectic thoughts

I tempted fate in the last blog and lost. Investing in myself wasn't what happened in the this week. In fact, it turned out exactly the opposite leading to probably the longest hiatus on this blog since its inception. Maybe I should talk about poverty and failure this time. I should probably try out some of the speech to text to blog services that are starting to emerge. We live in a frenetic society at constant breakneck speed. Regardless, here is a potpourri of thoughts there were collected the last couple of days but never committed to blog...

Firstly, a rant. Saw another article that talked about reaching consensus is the quickest way to get things done. Duh! I won't even put the link in the fear someone may actually go and read it. As a altruism, I don't disagree. What is missed is the fact that it may not be the fastest way to get things done everytime. Seeking consensus has the danger of trying to please everyone all the time. Not only does it create monumental stress for the person seeking consensus, the time it takes to reach consensus may be so excessive it leads to paralysis. People don't necessary like making decisions, especially big ones, but everyone wants to be consulted. Consultation is not consensus, it is about involvement. Consultation is smart because it is about gathering as much input and ideas from as many sources as possible. Consensus actually stops people from taking bold steps and removes the concept of personal responsibility, i.e. do the safe thing and if that fails at least you're not the only one to blame. The buck stops here!

On to another life observation, making decisions about software is not much different from making decisions about a house. You can build from scratch...takes a very long time, probably run over budget but you get what want, the way you want it. You can buy exactly what you want...very expensive, but you can move in pretty fast with very little changes and you see what you get. Then there is the middle option, buy something that is 'full of potential' at an affordable price and then spend your money, time and sweat renovating.

Working with open source the last couple of weeks has been the renovation option for us. Absolutely lots of potential, dirt cheap (read free) and we've already moved in. But that's when the 80/20 rule kicks in. It doesn't quite do what we want and there is invariably the structural pillar that you want to take out but can't. Not to mention getting rid of the excess baggage that you don't really need. We now spend 80% of the time customizing the last 20% which includes learning about someone else's architecture(s) (plural, thanks to community contributions) and working with complex logic that was conceived in a different place by a different mind. There's no free lunch. Nevertheless, the lesson learnt is that it will allow us to test the business model within months of conception rather than raise a couple million dollars and build a moderate size software team.

Coming from the other side of the enterprise fence, I wake up every morning feeling guilty that I'm breaking every business and technology rule in the book. I feel like I'm going to work with a hatchet instead of a scalpel. Pretty soon, I'm sure I'll go unshaven, grow my hair and learn a foreign language. This is the wild west...I think I know why people gave up all their possessions to be smacks of illogical recklessness but to those participating in the adventure, it is undescribable exhileration.

Now that I've blogged, I do feel better...almost as good as the quad expresso to jumpstart the day...

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Investing in yourself

I was reading the preface of a great handbook for CSS and web design by Jennifer Robbins. Apart from being a great reference for both experienced and novice web page designers, I was struck by her candour when she shared that after writing the first version she had lost 'her edge' when revising the subsequent edition. Web design culture and methodology had changed so much that she was compelled to rethink and relearn and indeed rewrite many sections she had originally thought only required some tweaks.

It brought to mind another of my favorite books, the Book of Five Rings by Musashi (translated by Thomas Cleary). Musashi was a successful samurai who retired and devoted his life to philosophy, teaching and art. One of his analogies refers to carpenters who must periodically sharpen their tools otherwise their work would in the end suffer greatly. In our busy world, it is something we should be mindful of...make sure we invest in ourselves and that we invest in our people. It is a culture that pays off in the long run. Failure to do so degrades our skills and we simply hack our way with blunt knives in an unforgiving jungle.

Investment could be simply keeping up to date with technology, taking time to read your favorite blogs, calling people in your network, reconnecting with your family or simply doing something completely different like brushing up on your golf game or your jazz repertoire. But it is about building a better you. Investing in ourselves by taking time to renew and reconnect is a responsibility that belongs to self. Excuse me, while I go and read the 100+ blog posts that I have yet to get around to this week...

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The culture of participation

There's an article in B2day about how MySpace beat Friendster. I agree with most of what was said there i.e. kids want to build their site their way and it doesn't have to have best content or aesthetically needs to reflect who they are, which is a collection of their friends, their music, their tastes etc. However, I do think it is more than a communications network. Participation requires two essential ingredients to be sticky, collaboration and contribution. Both of these things create great communities.

Collaboration means interacting with other like-minded individuals who communicate and share something in common. There has to be a context, be it a band, a hobby, an industry or a common interest. It could even be the place where you meet to arrange your golf foursome. It is a common place of habit. It requires other people, it is the interpersonal investment that keeps you coming back.

Contribution means investing time, effort and contributing something tangible to the site. It could be as simple as your profile, your post in a forum or an article. But the more you contribute, the more emotional anchors you put down that make you return there again and again. It's like dogs that dig up bones periodically just to see if they are still there.

I wrote a while ago about whether people really wanted choice. Erick Schonfeld echoes the same sentiment in his B2day blog. He talks about the downside of too much choice. People believe they need choice but ultimately too much choice leads to paralysis and uncertainty. What people really want is a credible source. That's why most info-ads and tv-ads use celebrities to promote their product. That's also why brand works, if I make a bad decision, hopefully I won't stand out in the crowd.

Monday, March 13, 2006

The Power of Analogy

Today after many years of managing teams, I realized why I suck at programming (something I used to be extremely adept at). I lost the power of software analogies. At my peak, I had written so many lines of code, there was always something I could use, morph or base a new design on. The modern software developer will call it design patterns. When you understand a problem and able to apply an appropriate solution template, you can copy, adapt or write the code extremely quickly, efficiently and with less bugs. Learning all the design patterns is only half the solution, knowing how to apply them and when to customize is the other half. Problem is, while I didn't lose the ability for good design, clean coding and fast debugging (at least I hope not), I lost the bag of tricks, forgot the syntax and didn't have any personal libraries to rely upon. On the plus side, life has gotten so much easier than the days of Kernighan and Richie when you pretty much had to roll your own quicksorts and hashtables or having to program at the socket level just to make an http call. I do feel like the old man on the snowboard, having loads of fun but probably a dangerous hazard for others.

Analogies, like design patterns, can be learnt but never appreciated unless you've experienced them yourself because like so many things, you probably have do it the wrong way a dozen times before figuring out how to do it right. But age becomes the crucible for experiences and from them you can draw analogies. As an entrepreneur, I'm often challenged by my peers and investors who tell me what I'm about to embark on I haven't done before. Maybe we should find someone who has. My answer is that if I've done it before, I probably don't want to do it again and if someone has done it before, maybe we don't want to do it anyway. The genius of the inventor is not because he has travelled the same path repeatedly or sat under a tree waiting for the apple to fall. It is because through repeated experimentation and iteration, he manages to cross the chasm between two seemingly disjoint ideas in time and space. It is about astuteness in spotting trends, wisdom in finding analogies and creativity in making extensions and deviations in thought. It is no different whether you are trying to solve a software model or a business model.

Note to self. Of course, analogies do sometimes lull us in the false sense of superiority. Maybe this time it really is different... So a healthy dose of humility is never out of vogue.

Here's a conundrum of the day (not disimilar to the problem of the dining philosophers). I read an article in which a successful leader said one of his maxims was to surround himself with people smarter than he was. It is something I have always subscribed to (in my case...not a hard objective to achieve!). However, my current little adventure consists of two people writing code, my colleague and me. If we both believed in that philosphy and base our eventual success on it, only one of us can succeed (if we exclude the possibility that we are equally smart or equally dumb!) What should we do?...thinking out the box, maybe we should hire someone else who is smarter than both of us????

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Blog 2.0

A common theme of this blog is community, creative commons and what Web 2.0 promises to bring. Ray Ozzie (yes from the Dark Side...but even Darth Vader had a shot on redemption) has a passion for providing software that enables web communities to build themselves. He sums it up well..."what would it take to enable users themselves to wire-the-web"?'s the driving force behind his Simple Sharing Extensions concept. Coming from Microsoft, hopefully it isn't a case of the Henry Ford can have any color as long as it's black. But to all the detractors out there, Web 2.0 will happen (with a lot of casualties), the only problem with communities, mash-ups, and sharing...I do ask the question, are the people ready to rule? Anarchy is a frightening thing and web anarchy transcends borders, cultures and ages, potentially the catalyst for web extinction. As they say, with great power comes great responsibility.

Another start-up caught my eye. Webpaint (based in Seattle) is trying to make the wiki experience even simpler for the average user. Their idea of consumer wikis and people collaborating easily is, I believe, how blogs will eventually mutate (at least partially). Think about it, the majority of people blog once a week or less, often, the topics are on products, health etc. Makes more sense to go to a wiki and read about blog experiences etc linked to that topic than having to scour the blog world through technorati and having to pick tidbits out of a bucketful of information. So wiki meets blogs..wiblog??? i.e. there should always be blogs but everytime you post to the wiki, it also adds that to your blog so you have a bidirectional link between the two. People have to make those links, don't automate them...that's the bad behind search engines, irrelevance! Your blog may be nothing more than links, comments and contributions to the wiki. But you contribute to a great whole while maintaining your identity as an individual. Powerful stuff...mobs, blogs, wikis, wiblogs...

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Ideas 'R' us

Today's theme is 'R'. For no particular reason except good things (and bad) seem to come in threes. My three words today are rhythm, relevance, resonance. Here's why they were relevant to me...(no pun intended).

Rhythm - I've been running at 20% above my normal level for about 2 weeks. It was first 10 mins felt like hell and my ankles hurt for a couple of days after. Today, sanity prevailed and I reverted back to my normal level. It was fun, exhilarating and I felt I could run forever. The lesson I learnt was to stay in your rhythm in whatever you do. I prefer this concept than momentum (which is more about maintaining speed). Rhythm has ups and downs and equates to life (and running) much better. Others will call it being in the zone or in the groove. If you ever ridden a horse, you'll know the painful aftermath if you were in not rhythm with your steed!

Relevance - this is about time and context. We all have some degree of relevance at work, home etc. We have to be mindful that relevance is not about us but our impact on our environment, families, peers, investors and customers. It is hard to gain relevance (sometimes it is insight, training, luck and opportunity), most of all it is easy to lose relevance. To create and maintain relevance is hard work. Relevance is often a fair weather friend. Note to self...wake up every morning and decide why I should be relevant and to whom.

Resonance - well-known scientific phenomenon of intensified and enhanced amplitude when you strike a natural frequency. In natural speak, if you are in sync with your partners, customers, peers, the resulting experience and stimulus is increased. Seek opportunities where you can strike a resonant chord with someone around you. When you find that rare moment in time, it absolutely takes your breath away like catching the right wave. The results and effect defie explanation. Savour it...

Just to maintain a balance of thought, my partner in crime listens to these 'words of wisdom' and counter it with his three tongue-in-cheek contributions...repurpose, rehabilitate and revenge. A healthy dose of reality, I guess...

I particularly liked the personal training email I received today titled..."Training for REAL men (over 40!)"...

Monday, March 06, 2006

Entrepreneur's mantra

I get really inspired by music and lyrics carry me through the day. I'm the kind of guy who would play the same song a dozen times simply because it stirs my soul. There was a time when my fellow programmers would threaten me with bodily harm if I didn't don my headphones. Mercifully for both parties I complied. I remember the early days even before the dot com boom, we would be young mavericks and "We are the Champions" from Queen would be our tune. Today, with a few more scars and a couple of gray hairs, Alanis Morisette seems to be more appropriate. Heard this over the radio this weekend...I kinda related to it. You can view the full lyrics here. Here's an excerpt so you get what I mean about this particular song being the entrepreneur's mantra.

I'm broke but I'm happy
I'm poor but I'm kind
I'm short but I'm healthy, yeah!

I'm high but I'm grounded
I'm sane but I'm overwhelmed
I'm lost but I'm hopeful, baby

And what it all comes down to
Is that everything's gonna be fine fine fine...

Funny how we all share the same kind of emotions, I guess we're all more similar that we really think...

Saturday, March 04, 2006

The soul of the blogger

I read with glee the indignation of those who didn't make the blog top 50 and those who did and sure enough if you didn't like the list go to the top 43! Made me think why we blog, here are a couple of reasons, what's yours?
  • Your friends don't return your calls on a Saturday night.
  • Your friends don't return your calls on a Sunday night...(you get the picture.)
  • Everyone you know has a blog.
  • It's a convenient way to publish your website without paying a cent.
  • You figured how you can use 100 blogs to scam the search engines.
  • You think Adsense is going to make you a millionaire.
  • Someone told you that you had an interesting point of view.
  • It's a way to promote your brand.
  • You can comment on things that you're too afraid to say in person.
  • You're afraid that when you turn 70 you'll forget you had a life.
  • It's cheaper to sprout your anxieties and paranoias than on your therapist's couch.
  • No-one is willing to buy or publish your books.
  • Maybe all of the above....
Here's my advice. At the end of the day, write because it makes you feel good. Write the way you want to write and write what you want to write. Creativity is only valuable if it is expressed and expression requires action. A beautiful picture or a passionate poem is valued because it exists not because of the price someone put on it. Most of all, write from your point of view, not what others want to hear.

If a tree falls in a forest and no-one is there to hear, did it make a noise...if a person blogs and no-one reads it, did it have a voice?

After 60 days of doing this, I realize that blogging is a discipline, like diet programs and health club memberships and music lessons it requires passion and perseverance. In the end, the biggest benefactor may not be the reader but the writer.

In the end, it only matters if you think it does...

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Being and brand spaces

Trendwatch has a great article about being spaces and brand spaces. Some of the coolest and most unusual spaces to hang out. Made me think that throughout all my gigs, there's always being one place where you hung out for lunch with your co-workers, it became your refuge and platform for bouncing ideas that you would hesitate to raise in a design meeting. Normally it was the humblest of places, the fastfood chicken chain, the dim sum restaurant, the humble Vietnamese shop, the quaint coffee shop a block away...each of these are attached to a particular company I worked at. It didn't matter that there was something closer or something better but there was some kind of collective unspoken brand that defined that space and your being. It was the Cheers where everyone knows your name. I guess today's the day for nostalgia. What's yours?

In the article, there was a reference to a laundromat and cafe where LG would demonstrate their products. In a world where every bookstore has a cafe, I wondered why we didn't see more laundromats with cafes, day care, and Internet etc around it. Surely this is the best context to meet other people and share a moment. Most people who go to laundromats are young, single, divorced, separated...can't think of a better marketing context. Nobody likes waiting for the spin cycle to finish. Maybe there's a business model there somewhere, or is dirty linen not chic?