Guarantee of income & new challenges

Over my 13 years or so of working life and having been through a few rounds of redundancies, it feels like the only way of guaranteeing an income while employed by someone else is by deliberately disrupting your ability to have a steady income.

This doesn't have to be in the form of quitting and moving on to other organisations, it could also be by accepting new roles and challenges with the existing employer, forcing yourself to do more and be better at it.

Personally, it's of no interest – and feels rather self defeating – to be in the same job for the next 20 years. I'd much rather step out of that comfort zone, force myself to learn new things, and to try and prove myself again.

Today is one such day.

I've leaving a good but comfortable job and the known comforts of a team that know what I can do, and taking the plunge into something that will test different aspects of my work.

While it is exciting, it's also a time of anxiety.

Rosetta mission, and our first day on a comet

I have nothing worthwhile to add on this glorious occasion, but I wanted to make sure I collected a few notable updates and details for future reference.

Overview

A good summary of what Rosetta has had to do to just get in reach of the comet.

To see Rosetta's full journey and to get a sense of the planning that must have gone into making this happen, the ESA have an excellent animation capturing the entire mission lifecycle.

http://sci.esa.int/whereisrosetta/

On the way there

On the comet

Things may not have gone smoothly with the landing procedure and the eventual resting position and orientation, but it still makes for some fascinating pictures.

An event of this nature would never be complete without's XKCD's take on the matter:

I also strongly urge you to ignore the comments sections when you come across this story in the mainstream media. It's polluted with imbeciles that cannot (or refuse to) fathom the enormity of this achievement and the lasting value such missions provide. There is also the matter of the look of complete and utter awe when you explain to a five year old about how a mission conveived when daddy was a child, the results of which are now about 500 million miles from Earth, which has somehow managed to rendezvous and land on a small comet, and will hitch a ride on it around the sun and beyond.

It must have been some spreadsheet to pull off calculations on this scale and of this complexity

(I have a handy little list on Twitter via which you can receive further updates as the mission progresses.)

Update 19 November 2014

Goodnight Philae: A nicely written official statement confirming that Philae has entered deep hibernation in an attempt to save critical systems. There is still some hope that it can recharge its batteries enough to wake up as it approaches the sun.

Finally, this is the official ESA gallery of pictures from Rosetta of this stunning, distant world.

Tim Cook

"...We pave the sunlit path toward justice together, brick by brick. This is my brick.”

This is an incredibly brave and well written statement.

Casey Newton's take on this is also worth reading, if only to try and understand what a big deal this could be for someone young, confused, and afraid.

This isn't one of those where we get to say 'move on - it's a private issue'. This is important, perhaps in a very small way, but important nonetheless.

Regardless of how Apple fares in the future and Tim Cook's role in how history judges the company, I hope he's most remembered for making an honest and brave statement that made a difference in many people's lives.

Casey Newton:

"So "move on," if Cook’s essay today makes you so uncomfortable. Return to talking about his fastidiousness, or his supply-chain management, or whatever. But there’s no moving on for me, not today. This I’m going to savor."

Wearable technology and who should we trust

Products like Google Glass are a good thing. You may not like it, or don’t feel a need for it – but these sorts of moon shots are needed. While I don’t think I’d invest in a pair of Google Glass, future products in the same vein may hold more interest.

And the only reason I won’t be buying Google Glass: because it’s made by Google.

Their desire and hunger for information gathering — personal or otherwise — knows no bounds. I have no intention of adding even more intimate details to this ever expanding collection of data.

This got me thinking: who could we trust to introduce technology that is intrusive, which can do much good, but also equal amounts of harm?

There is no trust in any of the public or private institutions, nor is there any trust with charities or church. I can’t think of a single organisation that you could reasonbly trust to safely, reliably and with garauntees of intention and use to operate such a system or platform.

That is a shame.

Pale blue dot

This is an attempt to piece together different but related material to do with the cosmos, the enormity of it, our achievements so far in exploring its vast distances, and finally some sense of what it all means.

First, the day the earth smiled

Second, it's worth listening to the interview with Carolyn Porco – leader of the Cassini Imaging Science team:

Then third, the picture - taken from all of billion miles away. Think about that for a second…

image.jpg
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

Finally, Carl Sagan himself. If this doesn't make you sit up and take note, I'm not sure anything else ever could.

Language and its impact on our perceptions and actions

My admiration for the ‘To the Best of our Knowledge’ radio show and podcast continues to grow. I’ve already linked to a few episodes before, and this recent one about language, and the science of trees and how they communicate is no different.

Of particular interest was the story told by biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer (link) about her efforts to learn her native Indian language, and the challenges faced when it’s a polar opposite to how we think in English. While English is largely noun-based, Robin's ancestor’s language is mostly verb-based. In the Potawatomi language everything in the world is described as a living thing, from a stream that flows to the trees and forests. These are never identified by a simple and inanimate ‘it’.

Could our understanding of natural resources, and perhaps our approach to harnessing them, have been very different if English wasn't the dominant language? 

Changes to T&Cs (Moves.app)

I wish companies would provide a summary of what has changed and how it might affect customers when they notify you of updated T&Cs and privacy statements, instead of just giving you the link to the updated documents. At the very least they could provide an easy way to compare against the previous versions to enable diff'ing. 

The change by Moves.app - the popular location and fitness tracking application - should come as no surprise following its recent acquisition by Facebook. However, to make such a change with no indication for what's changed and their motivation for doing so feels underhand. The passive-aggresive nature of offering the option to easily delete your account is fine, thanks very much - but that's the least we expect.

Companies, especially those trusted with sensitive data, should do better at explaining their decisions.

Having used Moves for exactly 400 days, I have now deleted my account.
(But not before I downloaded my data over the last 12 months or so in JSON.)

Updated Moves terms and conditions. Updated Moves Privacy Policy.

A new approach to business systems

A very familiar scene

It’s not uncommon to come across teams, departments or even entire organisations that are lacking structure in their work, feel disorganised and generally chaotic. There is a lot of activity, and everyone’s schedules are crammed full with stuff to do, and yet there is the apparent lack of movement towards the organisation’s stated goals – whatever they might be at a point in time.

This very uncomfortable and unproductive atmosphere usually boils down to a few key reasons:

  • No central place for everyone to be working from.
  • An endless number of spreadsheets, with different passwords and macro keyboard shortcuts, all designed with good intention but which do more harm than good.
  • Inability to capture crucial data, relevant to an individual’s and the organisation’s goals, in a structured manner (I’ll touch on this in more detail later)
  • Unable to retrieve this data in a meaningful way and act on it.

The antithesis of this is a team or organisation that not only delivers what’s needed but also the the sense of coherence in how everyone is striving towards the same common goals.

That’s where we want to be.

Is the secret sauce behind such coherent and forward-moving organisation that they enable and encourage individuals and teams to capture relevant information and data in a manner that’s genuinely useful, and collaborate around it?

A familiar refrain

Although software systems themselves are never the answer to any business or process problem, plenty of them exist to try and bring order to this perceived chaos. Many of them even come quite close.

However most such systems have two significant flaws, which to many businesses are deal breakers.

  • Such business systems are difficult to procure. Ask any IT/Technology Manager working in a SMB/SME. Such systems are even harder to develop, and nearly impossible to get the resources, the budget and the justification for. Again, ask any SMB.
  • Such systems are very good at approaching problems in a generic way, but never quite the way you need to tackle it.

No doubt where possible bespoke systems have huge benefits, but only so long as the business focus does not move off these investments. You’re in a lot of trouble the moment:

  • these systems are no longer meeting the organisation’s needs;
  • the skill sets required to maintain and improve them is no longer available, or too expensive to bring in;
  • the technology underpinnings are so out of date that you’re relying on kludgy and expensive hacks just to keep things running.

The ideal systems to address such business challenges are a compromise between:

  • being good enough to capture the data needed, present it back meaningfully and allow individuals and team to collaborate around it
  • quick to implement, as in minutes and hours, not days and weeks

Are ‘collaboration platforms’ the answer?

I fear not. There are many out there and in almost all cases they fail to live up to the the ever changing and evolving needs of an organisation.

The key reason such platforms don’t work is because they don’t have the data that’s relevant to the organisation’s stated goals to collaborate around. It’s all very well to have clever features which allow you to have conversations, votes, likes/dislikes, etc., but that sort of activity soon starts to falter since most of the data the business needs to carry on its work is held in external and inaccessible databases, documents and spreadsheets.

An emerging solution

An interesting platform has emerged in the form of Podio (@Podio) which deserves further investigation by anyone hoping to find the answers to the challenges their organisation faces within the context outlined so far.

Relegating Podio to simply another project management tool or collaboration platform is doing it a huge disservice.

Podio delivers mightily on two of the key fundamentals for building good business systems, which are:

  • build bespoke systems to capture data that’s relevant to the organisation and its stated goals, in a structured and meaningful way.
  • build these bespoke systems in minutes, literally minutes - and that’s after watching a quick video, not a 2 week training course.

With this data at the heart of everything, collaboration across teams and individuals starts to make a lot of sense.

Real world use cases

Given the fundamental building blocks made available by the Podio platform, it’s surprising how well it can be moulded to fit your unique needs. And be able to deliver this quickly and cheaply – which is key.

So who can use it and what can they use it for?

A freelancer taking on small projects:

  • Manage active customer list
  • Record and track all customer contact history (for e.g. marketing & networking efforts)
  • All potential clients that need more work to bring onboard
  • Invoices & business expenses
  • Projects and deliverables, key dates, status, and associated timesheets.

A small holiday hospitality business:

  • Manage and respond to enquiries
  • Track bookings and special requests
  • Customer history
  • Advertising methods, expenditure and success rate

A medium-sized IT department:

  • An ITIL-inspired database to track all assets (software & hardware), and the relationships between each asset (for e.g. system A runs on Server X; relies on internally-developed component B, and an external component M)
  • Incident, change and risk management - which are crucial when managing multiples systems, and when auditers come visiting
  • List and track all projects, deliverables & deadlines
  • Maintain a central log of all suppliers, contracts, SLAs, and support options
  • Track Bugs, feature requests, ideas, and product roadmaps
  • An entire service/help desk

Essentially, these are complex business systems and they’re needed to help bring some sense of structure and coherence to every day work.

Now consider how much it would have cost in upfront procurement, customisation, roll out and training for most other products available which claim to do all of these things.

The icing on top

If the ability to reinvent the way business systems are developed and maintained wasn’t enough, there are three additional features which round off the picture nicely.

01 - An entire App Store offering single or packages of applications, each designed to address certain business needs. From CRM, to event management, recruitment, – it’s a very long list. Not only are all of these applications free, you can use them as a starting point and customise it to how you need them to work.

02 - The iPhone & Android apps which have been recently updated essentially ensure all your business systems are automatically mobile enabled. All applications built within Podio are available via the Podio app.

03 - Web forms, provides the ability to publish any application within Podio as a easy-to-use web form. For e.g. a Podio application designed to capture requests for a software development can beexposed as a form for business users to fill in via the company intraney.

Any alternatives?

In this loosely defined space it’s difficult to compare all alternatives without extensive research. However it is interesting to note that it’s a problem even the likes of Microsoft are recognising, and are working hard to present their view on what the solution is.

Likeswitch, while still not ready for primetime, is one such interesting platform to keep an eye on.

In summary

Add all of these things together and you start to see a very powerful platform emerge which in its own little way can make a big difference to day to day work, regardless of an organisation’s size, complexity or sector. We might just be seeing the future of how business systems are built, deployed and associated costs.

Steve Jobs (1955 - 2011)

Firstly, and most important: Steve Jobs was a son, a husband and father.
Their loss is immeasurable, and that is the only thing that matters. Everything else is secondary.

About these secondary matters:

Everything that many organisations and individuals are publisishing in memory of Steve is well worth reading. In fact they're all worth securely archiving away to ensure future generations don't lose sight of what is clearly a great loss. It's what I've been doing the past two days.

However, I somehow can't quite come to terms with the notion that his greatness lay in the wonderful products many of us know, love and use every day. Or the fact that he revolutionised entire industries.

Apple is known for its clarity of strategy, commitment to values they hold dear, and what they consider to be important or not.

However, just as important is the idea that you can build an entire organisation around these high-minded values; one that bucks current trends, thought processes and corporate logic; one that defies common market logic, is unafraid to experiment and essentially change the rules of the game (or sometimes the game itself).

And most importantly, be actually able to execute and deliver on these.

For anyone who has tried to manage a modest size project, team, department or an organisation knows exactly how difficult this is to achieve.

How do you:

  • get a few thousand people to work together with one clear vision in mind?
  • hire great people, empower them, watch them grow and flourish, and produce great things?
  • deal with the enormous complexities of the products and services you’re developing, and to deliver something that brings a near instantaneous smile to those that hold it?
  • ensure that the formula that works today is retained, taught, challenged, and improved – over and over again?
  • build an organisation that is genetically engineered not to jump on every emerging trend, and to not fear cannibalisation of its own product lines?

Jobs answered all of the above questions, and many more, and the answer is Apple. He may have led the way and taught us many things. But Apple is a constant lesson in how we think about technology, business organisation and patterns.

To borrow the sentiment from the famous 1984 Apple Super Bowl ad campaign: you can either love or hate them, but you certainly cannot ignore them.

Apple is Jobs’s greatest creation.

*

The list below is in my view essential reading for knowing more about Steve Jobs from those that knew him personally. or have studied his work and Apple in more detail.


Cohesion of Strategy

In my view Apple has the what almost every other organisation lacks: strategic cohesion. They know what they're doing right now, they know where they want to go, and they know how to get there.

Put another way, they have a 'core competency' and they deliver against it.

Peter Day on BBC Radio 4 had a very interesting podcast about this very topic titled 'The Essential Advantage' which is well worth listening to I think.

This strategic cohesion is Steve's gift to Apple, and a lesson for every other organisation.

Microsoft's intention to promote competition

‘Twelve Tenets to Promote Competition’ is not something you would have expected a company like Microsoft to publish, and yet this is exactly what we get:
http://www.microsoft.com/presspass/newsroom/winxp/windowsprinciples.mspx

This is likely to be partly driven by the DOJ ruling, feedback from OEMs and end users. Whatever the reaons, it’s a good step forward.

What’s quite interesting is how this document could be read like it’s a charge sheet. These are all the reasons why other disliked Microsoft’s approach in the first place.

Quality and User Expectations

Businesses are constantly having to make choices as to when to ship their products (or services), how much each of it should do, and how well it should do it. It’s a struggle across just about every industry.

A few years ago Daimler Benz (it probably was a part of Daimler Chrysler by then already) made a conscious decision not to over-engineer their cars. This was based on the assumption that a slight drop in quality from their default overzealous attention to detail wouldn’t be noticed by its customers.

How wrong they were.

It wasn’t long before car publications around the globe were criticising the company for the drop in quality; their ratings in quality and customer service surveys fell like a rock.

Since then it’s taken a sustained effort from the company to rebuild its quality assurance systems, and ensure that overall product quality is on the same level as before, if not better.

Drop your quality – either consciously or unconsciously – and the market will punish you.

However in my view this does not always apply to everyone and every organisation.

Any discussion regarding quality of a service or product is never complete without taking into account user expectations. It’s the user that has certain expectations. And these expectations are based on many things, some of which are past experiences with the same product or company, competing products, and financial capability.

There are too many factors to name and the complex relationships. But hopefully this excellent ‘experience map’ can cover some of these.

Taking the Daimler Benz example further, it’s clear that their users expected certain qualities from their products. They expected attention to detail, reliability, and good service. And they were willing to pay a high price to get it. The moment there any compromises in any of these expectations, there is a revolt. And getting that trust back is a long, hard process.

Google gets a lot of flak for releasing early and keeping their products in Beta for months, and in some cases – years. Apple gets slated the moment there are reports of hardware malfunctions or buggy software updates. Microsoft gets snickered at by just about everyone, all the time.

Google’s users are usually the more technically confident. An email service that is still in beta does not stop them from signing up to it. They are more than happy to try it for non-critical email correspondences like mailing lists and newsletter subscriptions. However, you’d never find someone that isn’t a technology enthusiast jumping at the chance to use Gmail, and move all their contacts and emails built up over the last few years on Hotmail.

It’s the user expectations that Google manages here. They know who the people are that are going to sign up. Their product feature set is geared towards such users. Their communication (mainly via official blogs) is also geared towards such users.

Apple has built its reputation on quality, and aims to release products only once it believes they’re ready for end users. The expectation is that the hardware is extremely well engineered and has a luxury item feel to it, and any software accompanying it is thoughtfully designed and free of any show stopper bugs.

Any divergence from this – no matter how trivial – is picked on, and rightly so. This is a good thing because I it keeps the company on its toes.

Microsoft at this point in time is an easy company to beat up and criticise. It’s crucial to identify Microsoft’s customer though. It’s not you and I, i.e. end users, but it’s the OEMs. That’s the source of a large portion of their revenue, and inevitably it’s OEMs that have to be key happy, not you and I.

Therefore it’s almost inevitable that some (if not all) of the products that come out of Redmond seem to be built completely the wrong way around.

Understanding your customer, why they buy your stuff, how they use it and what their future needs are likely to be, should be the key things that drives all aspects of an orgnisation. Anything else and it’s a compromise.