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Monday
Apr142014

And the Winner is: Edward Snowden

The 20 member board of major newspaper editors and six academics including the president of Columbia University awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service to the Washington Post and the Guardian (US) for their:

revelation of widespread secret surveillance by the National Security Agency, helping through aggressive reporting to spark a debate about the relationship between the government and the public over issues of security and privacy.

The award carefully avoids mentioning Edward Snowden, the source of the material.  Of course when this same award was given to the New York Times in 1972 for the publication of the Pentagon Papers, there was no mention of Daniel Ellsberg either.

I join with those who think the board does not consider Edward Snowden, or his principal collaborators Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, to be traitors.  Today there are many good posts analyzing this.  Here are a few for you to dig into:

Jay Rosen on Pressthink: There is a great part at the end of Rosen's post where he recounts how Bob Woodward said Snowden made a mistake by not coming to him.  

Jack Mirkinson on Huffington Post

Jason Abbruzzese on Mashable

Xeni Jardin on BoingBoing

With a bit of luck, maybe one day Edward Snowden will be able to return from Russia without fear of the firing squad.

Wednesday
Apr092014

Goldman Sachs Looks Funny in a White Hat

Today in the Wall Street Journal, Goldman Sachs calls for more regulation and says everyone should support IEX, the new exchange started by Brad Katsuyama and featured in Flash Boys by Michael Lewis.

The article references in internal email that says:

"While we think that a regulatory response may be needed to address these market structure issues, it would be best for the overall market if IEX achieved critical mass, even if that results in reduced volumes in our US dark pool, Sigma X."

It took forever, but it finally happend.  Back in 2010 I wrote this post saying that more regulation would not happen on Wall Street until the Wall Street guys decided it would be good for them.  At the time I thought that they would want it because individual investors would be leaving the market.  Any maybe that is why they are calling for it now.

Another potential motivation comes out in Flash Boys however.  Goldman Sachs is way behind the other high frequency traders.  This could be because they cannot get or keep good programming tallent -- because they got the FBI to jail one former employee.  They also show their neaderthal tendencies when they refuse to participate in the open source community and proclaim all open source code to be proprietary to them.  So they were losing to the other scammers -- what a perfect time to call for more regulation.

Tuesday
Apr082014

Book Review: Flash Boys by Michael Lewis 

I met Michael Lewis when he was on his The Big Short book tour and I asked him why John Gutfruend would meet with him at all?  You may recall that Gutfruend was the guy that took Solomon Brothers public in the '80s, which was like giving all of the Wall Street piranhas steroids and testosterone supplements.  At the time Michael Lewis worked at Solomon Brothers and he was so affected by the way the industry gleefully devoured its own customers that he left the firm and wrote Liar's Poker.  Thirty years later, and it would take at least that long for anyone to get over begin skewered the way John Gutfruend was in Liar's Poker, Michael Lewis called him up and asked him to lunch!  And he went!  And Michael Lewis wrote all about it in The Big Short.  

Anyway, the answer Michael Lewis gave me was illuminating, he said (and I am paraphrasing) that John Gutfruend was incapable of understanding how people outside of Wall Street perceived him and his industry.  The converse to his incapacity, is the ability to understand what is going on inside an industry when viewed from the outside.  It is just that understanding that makes Michael Lewis so fun to read.  Time and again he pulls back the curtain and reveals the inner workings of very complicated, mostly financial, businesses in a way that educates and entertains all at once.  Clearly, I am a Michael Lewis fan.  I eagerly anticipated the release of Flash Boys last week and read it right away.  So if you don't like him or you want a balanced review, just skip to the reviews I linked to at Slate or The Guardian.  

This time around the fun of reading the book was followed up by the fun of reading all of his detractors right after.  The Wall Street Journal is on the attack and every day comes out with another effort to discredit Lewis. On April 2 they published a piece by money managers saying that your money is safe (with them!), and that Lewis is pumping up IEX for personal gain, and on 4/3 the editorial board said Lewis was just selling books, and yesterday they tried to get the blame to stick to the regulators.  (see my twitter feed for links to all of these articles)

Felix Salmon on Slate did a pretty good job, but dismisses the book as just more of the same from Michael Lewis.  John Naughton at The Guardian delivered the most balanced review agreeing that in fact front running is bad and manages not to get sucked into the argument that we should be happy that there is less corruption on Wall Street now than there used to be.

Just about every Lewis detractor takes the angle that high frequency traders do front run the market (make risk free return by profiting from the prior knowledge of investor's intent in the time between when they know what the investor wants, and the time the trade is placed), but that they front run less than they used to.  Good point.  It is getting harder and harder to skim money off of each trade, but at the same time it is getting easier and easier to do so systematically with the aid of computers.  Who knows if the aggregate skimming is more or less than before.

I cannot speak for Michael Lewis, but if I had to guess I would say he is mostly aiming to again expose the culture of Wall Street and how everyone considers the customer a fool and easy prey.  Just like when he was at Solomon Brothers in the 80s.  

Monday
Apr072014

I'll Take My Data Just Right

The amusing thing about the trade press, any journalists actually, is they are all looking for the next scoop.  They want something new to say that no one else has said before so they can stand out from the crowd.  Strangely, these new things usually turn out to be just slight variations on the things everyone else has said -- therefore propelling the reader and the industry further in the direction they were already going.  Until all of the sudden, someone breaks away from the lemmings and sends the herd back from whence they came.  

This is how we get a string of economy is improving stories, each with a unique spin, and then all of the sudden an economy is not improving story hits, sticks, and sends everyone back the other direction.

We are seeing this right now in the data and analytics field.  For the last 5 years it has been all about Big Data.  I challenge anyone in tech to get through a day, even at this late date, without someone saying something about how amazing Big Data is and how Big Data is going to change everything.  Yes, it is nice to know that someone out there is collecting all of the data about everything (insert your favorite joke about a three letter agency here), and people are finding new and better ways to put that big data to work.

Mid last year however, the articles started appearing about Small Data, and how it was going to change everything.  By this summer it will all be about Small Data.  The articles are going to say that the inustry is going back to Small Data because not black is white, not up is down, not east is west, and not Big Data is Small Data.  I propose that Small Data is not what came before Big Data.  Small Data is some other color, some other axis, and some other point on the compass that we have not seen before.  So to make it just a bit more natural, because in nature, small almost never comes after big, let's call this next new thing Just Right Data.

This is what I mean by Just Right Data: 

  1. The Data I Care About:  Clearly, getting just the right data is what Goldilocks was thinking about when she said "just right".  Big data is awesome because it means that all of the data is being collected (instead of sampled, here is my post about sampling from 2012), making it possible for me to get all of the data I care about.  
  2. Properly Adjusted:  Each of the data points are not of equal value.  The ones that mean more to my analysis should be amplified.  In some cases the most recent data points are more valuable, in some cases clusters of data points are more valuable.  
  3. Action Enabling:  We cannot lose track of the reason we analyze data -- to make better decisions.  We do not analyze data to create cool looking graphics.  We analyze data to enable better decision making.  Timing is the biggest part of this, but noise is also important.  No use getting great analysis after it is too late to use it, or mixed in with so much other stuff that it is impossible to absorb.

To Illustrate, here is an example from the channel marketing industry:

Let's say we have 100,000 channel partners enrolled in our channel partner program.  We have their profiles, their certifications, their competencies and a bunch of other pre-big data stuff.  We add in the amount of sales they generated for us last year, another pre-big data element.  Now we add in the big data stuff:  every lead we have ever sent to every parter, the outcome of every lead, who from our company has worked with them, everything we know about each employee that works for each of the partners and their history, how much revenue was generated from each sale of each partner, each customer from each sale, and when each of these events happened.  Big data is indeed named accurately.

Now in comes a new lead and my Just Right Data experience begins.  At the start I get just the data I want to analyze (just the 5 partners that are in the right location, and that have achieved sufficient status for example) which is pretty much a pre-big data thing.  And I get all of the big data stuff that is relevant to the those partners.  This is the data I care about.

Now I rank the partners by their relative status to the others, or the status of other leads already delivered, or the fine points of capabilities or personnel ratings.  This is the data adjusted.

Now the lead hand off to the selected partner (hopefully algorithmically selected, but manually works too) happens and it must happen before the lead expires.  As we know from being customer focused and customers ourselves, leads are perishable and must be acted upon in a timely manner.  This is action enabling.

Thanks for staying awake to the end, (unlike Goldilocks).  And thanks to the Big Data people who have set the stage for us to do Data Just Right.

 

 

Thursday
Apr032014

Discovery of News is Good for Journalism and Twitter

Twitter might be blamed for disrupting the reach of newspapers by diverting readers to other news outlets, but it would be difficult to say that Twitter is hurting journalism.  News readership has declined somewhat over the past decade.  But still, Scarborough Research reports that between 71% and 78% of adults read the newspaper in print or online every week.   Given the news industry’s lack of comprehensive measures for old media and new media — it is not impossible to believe that the overall audience for print plus online is actually growing.  And Twitter should be credited for some of that increase.  

The story about technology and journalism has recently been dominated by how technology has taken away the money. The blamers cannot help but warn about how dark our future will be without adequate funding to pay for quality journalism and the blame is thick on those taking away the revenue.  

The most notorious takers are those that killed the biggest cash machine for the newspapers - the classifieds.  Craigslist and eBay and the help wanted sites (monster.com; careerbuilder.com) diverted classified advertising revenue away from news organizations some time ago.   Twitter shouldn't be blamed for stealing the advertising money because it has only been very recently that Twitter has been getting any of it (about $900 million in the last 4 quarters), and it is hard to say specifically how the traditional news media is losing ad revenue to Twitter.  The Newspaper Association of America reports US advertising revenues of $25 Billion for 2012 (last year reported), which is down from its peak of $46 Billion in 2003 and more or less equal to the run rate in the early ‘80s.  But any causal link between Twitter and the decline is just too fuzzy to make a big deal about.  

Twitter does require journalists to exercise some new muscles.  Not everyone likes concrete measures or immediate feedback, particularly the unfavorable kind.  Last week David Carr wrote a good piece about this in the NY Times: Risks Abound As Reporters Play in Traffic.  

When Jack Doresy and Evan Williams founded Twitter in 2006 they did not set out to disrupt anything. They were hanging by their fingernails at their company Odeo and seemingly on a whim built a status update system patterned after AOL’s status updates - but for mobile users.  Twitter had its Cinderella moment at the South by Southwest conference in 2007 and the rest as they say is well known by everyone.  

Six years after its launch Twitter is an essential tool for journalists.  Sean Evins (@evins) of the Twitter Government & Politics Team and Simon Rogers (@smfrogers), Twitter's Data Editor, declined to comment for this article, but the fact that Twitter has capable people in those roles is a leading indicator that Twitter is investing in making journalism better.  In addition, the media section of the Twitter website has a good list of best practices for journalists that range from promoting content, to collecting feedback, and maximizing the impact of photos and videos. 

Discovery of breaking news is certainly the killer app for Twitter and news junkies and casual readers alike know to turn to Twitter first when a plane be lost in the Indian Ocean or an earthquake hits Los Angeles.

Sunday
Mar302014

Do We Dare Say that Journalism Has Hit the Bottom?

Last week the Pew Center released its State of the News Media report for 2014.  While the report reinforces the headwinds faced by traditional media outlets (ad revenues down 52% from 2003), it also illuminates growth in digital only news outlets that now number over 500 and employ about 5,000 full time professionals. Could it be time for the journalists to stop blaming technologists for depriving them of the means to pay for the essential service they provide?

Jeff Jarvis anointed Johannes Gutenberg as the original technologist in his 2012 book Gutenberg the Geek.  Whether or not Gutenberg needed Jarvis’ endorsement, journalism and technology have certainly been dance partners for hundreds of years.  Gutenberg’s movable type printing press brought about revolutions in business, religion, and politics and gave story tellers the ability to reach a larger audience than ever thought possible at open mic night in 1439 Strasbourg.

The advertising industry traces its roots to the very same 15th century when the practice of paying artists including Michelangelo to produce art that contained certain messages.  Many of these new visual advertisements were religious in nature. Soon politicians and business people were the fast followers of this new technology; commissioning works that were clearly promotional.  In early renaissance Italy, everybody who was anybody had a portrait with a 3D background showing off the Filippo Brunelleschi’s new technology of perspective drawing.

About a hundred years later the Gutenbergers and the Brunelleschis joined their ability to print things cheaply and their desire to encourage readers to buy things and gave birth in 1525 to advertisements as we know them today.  In fact the New York Times Book Review was not an original idea, because those early ads were mostly for books and were found in the precursor to newspapers, the broadsheet.

All of this is to make the simple case that technology is just doing what it does.  Yes, Craigslist, Yahoo!, Google, Facebook, Twitter and the rest of the techies have stolen away the revenue the newsrooms needed to survive.  However, their geek ancestors created the technology that enabled advertising and newspapers some 500 years ago for the same reason the newsroom is in the emergency room today.  The geeks are still just doing what they do.

Technology people don’t under-appreciate Ed Murrow.  23 generations after Gutenberg, they are still in the business of delivering as much information as possible to as many people as possible as cheaply as possible.  The argument that we are replacing the system that brought us back from the brink of McCarthyism with a system that serves up the best grumpy cat videos has been used to cling tightly to the way that it was for long enough.  We have now seen how new media actors like Julian Assange, Ed Snowden, and Glenn Greenwald, have worked with the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Der Spiegel to revive the fourth estate.

Certainly, there is much work to be done.  A flood of technology energy is being applied to this industry, and not just the high profile purchase of the Washington Post by Jeff Bezos, or the founding of First Look Media by Pierre Omidyar.  New media organizations are everywhere, both succeeding and failing fast in their pursuit of good journalism.  We know that 5,000 jobs created in the new digital world do not fill the hole created by the tens of thousands of jobs lost in traditional newsrooms, but it does seem possible that the bottom has been reached and working together journalism and technology are building something we should be watching.

 

Sunday
Feb232014

Amazon Wins in a Video Shoot Out

This weekend I was out at a friend's cabin and we decided that we wanted to watch Spy Game.  (A great film even if you are not into the CIA genre, and if you are, no doubt you have already seen it.)  The cabin has DSL, which I tested out at 9.5 mbps, a big screen TV with Apple TV installed.  We had 4 iPads, and as many laptops and smart phones -- safe to say that if a movie was available, we should have been able to watch it.

Here is what we experienced:

Attempt 1 (Failed):  Rent the movie on iTunes and watch on Apple TV.  Turns out we could not remember the password of the account at Apple and we did not want to mess up the install by changing the user.

Attempt 2 (Failed):  Rent the movie on iTunes on one of our iPads and then put it up on the TV using the Apple TV.  We had been putting up you tube videos all afternoon from iPads -- so it should have been a piece of cake.  Turns out that we would have to download the 4.3 GB file entirely before the movie could be watched.  Every so often the DSL would hiccup and the download would start over.  By this time everyone gave up and went to bed, but I kept trying to download it overnight.  The closest I got was 2.5 GB.

Attempt 3 (Worked):  The next day we started in on the project again.  Maybe we could rent the movie on Amazon Instant Video on the web.  Then launch the AIV app on an iPad and connect that iPad to the Apple TV.  Hey, presto -- the move streamed.  It only stopped once during the 2 hour movie when the DSL burped, but started right back up again.

After all of that fun, we were cleaning up the cabin and someone looked at the DVD library and what do you know.... Spy Game had been sitting there in its DVD box all the while!

Setting aside for a moment the fact that we could have watched the movie without a computer or an internet connection, Amazon won the day this time because:

 

  1. They had the movie in their library (but so did Apple)
  2. They were cheaper at $2.99 (but that was not a big part of our criteria -- in fact we also paid Apple $4.99 for our failed attempt)
  3. But Mostly Amazon won because they had more pathways to success.  In this case we rode over Apple TV, at home we have a TV with an Amazon app built in and that works well, and in other circumstances we have used Chromecast to put a browser window with the Amazon stream on the TV.

 

More and more we look first to Amazon for video.

Wednesday
Feb192014

Most Customers Want There to Be a Better Way

Customer satisfaction should only be measured on a binary scale:  satisfied or not satisfied.  If I was king for the day I would say that when asked if satisfied, the customer could only answer:

1)      Unbelievably Great, or

2)      There Must Be a Better Way

Even without my coronation, I propose that this is the way customers think today but are reluctant to be so emphatic about it.  We all purchase products and consume services that do less than blow our minds with quality, service, or value; let alone all three.

In some cases the government has reduced our choices (think internet access), or monopoly power has reduced competition (think computer operating systems), or strangely, we have voluntarily locked ourselves in a cage with reduced options (think frequent flier miles).

The unsatisfied / must be a better way category takes up an overwhelmingly large portion of the consumer landscape because we have made price a disproportionately large factor in product comparisons.   In addition, some very expensive but unsatisfying products (think of an expensive luxury car with poor reliability) have eroded the trust between the manufacturers and their customers. 

Just when you think we are doomed to fill our lives with cheap and crappy products delivered across the Pacific by the shipload, some unbelievably great products arrive to save the day.  My favorites are the Tesla and the Nest.  Elon Musk and Tony Fadell have delivered to us products that are indeed unbelievably great.  And customers are willing to pay well above the competitors prices for them – therefore restoring my faith in us, the consumer.

These two guys and their products are great disruptors.  They refused to believe that cars or home automation were places without innovation or an appreciation for good engineering and design.  We all should look to their example the next time we are feeling that there must be a better way.

Google is a company that believes in a better way.  Today they announced 34 new cities for their Google Fiber project. Unfortunately for me, Seattle is not on the list. I have written before that I think Google Fiber is one of the most innovative marketing ideas ever.  Imagine taking a broken industry, introducing a infinitely better solution, charging a premium for it, and being viewed as the white knight for doing so.  That is so awesome!

Thursday
Feb132014

Three Parts of Smarts

Like many people, I consider myself a life long learner.  When I am learning something new the world seems a better place.  I think there are three parts of smarts:  what you get, what you develop, and what you do with it.  

What You Get

Every brain comes pre loaded with natures gift of intelligence.  There are more variables in the brain creating process than anyone can imagine and differences both subtle and dramatic are evident even in the brains expected to be the same -- like those of identical twins.  Derived from a mixture of its ancestors gene pool and the supply of oxygen and nutrients during what must be a highly precarious time of early brain development, a baby is born with the raw materials of intelligence presented as if a gift. We don't really know how this all works.   We have learned that tragedies like exposure to dangerous chemicals or oxygen starvation can subtract from the intelligence nature gave us.  But we have not discovered any way to build a bigger better brain than nature would give us on that zero birthday.

What You Develop

On that day the gun goes off and everyone starts to build on top of the foundation nature gave them.  The early years are dominated by the way the brain operates the mechanical controls of the body then rapidly moves to the mental gymnastics required to throw a ball, turn a phrase, or manipulate an algorithm.  This nurture part of brain development is both constant and perpetual.  Learning is a lifelong pursuit driven by personal choices from a very early age.  Some brains are exposed to bats, balls, and scoreboards, some get music, and others get languages making the path of brain development as unique as the face in front of it.  Some brains are just naturally good at chess.  Some brain owners are just very interested in learning about chess. The grand master has both the natural gift and the nurtured development combined into a powerful ability.

What You Do 

Somewhere along the way nature's gift of mental foundation combines with a person's interests, brain development and experiences and a person gets a personality.  This personality likes certain things and whenever possible chooses to do more of the things it likes.  The dictionary definition of aptitude is "a natural ability to do something" but in the context of the framework here, the "natural" also includes a great deal of nurtured development.  People feel good and are rewarded when they do something well, and then do more of it and with a dash of competitive spirit some even work hard to be the best or smartest in their field.

There is a rarified group of lifelong learners with truly Olympic caliber brains.  They were lucky enough to win nature's brain lottery, and were blessed with ideal learning conditions early in life, and then spent little time distracted by activities that did anything other than exercise their thinking muscles.  It is not terribly likely that these people are to be found alone on a mountain top somewhere.  Like other competitors, they want to be around people that push them to develop their brains even further.

If I were going to go looking for them, I would start at universities -- where the stated mission is to get smarter by sharing knowledge with others.  After that I would look at highly specialized complex fields with big problems to solve -- like genetic research or whatever those people are doing at CERN.  After that, believe it or not, I would look in certain parts of law or the government -- but this is where we start to go around the bend.

As we know from the the comic books and Star Wars, the bad guys often have pretty well developed brains too.  So anyone who is interested in competing to build their brain into the most powerful tool possible -- is also going to have to resist the call to the dark side -- lest they suffer the fate of Aniken Skywalker.

I have been fortunate to be around enough super big brained people to know that I don't have to keep the phone line open for the call from the people at CERN.  I like a mental challenge, but I can't quite ever recount what the higgs boson is -- let alone how to find it.  I do get a thrill from working close to super smart people and doing what I can to clear a path so the greatest minds can do the greatest things.  There is no where that next illusive sub atomic particle will be able to hide from my daughers!

Thursday
Feb062014

Microsoft's Number 3

I remember Microsoft's 25th anniversary vividly because we were struggling to maintain the culture we wanted and Microsoft, even after a quarter of a century and over 50,000 employees, seemed to have sustained an incredible culture.

We saw this first hand because Microsoft was our customer and every day we would meet Microsofties who would make great decisions for their company.  Decisions that were driven by the truth in the data.  From time to time those decisions were not in the decision maker’s personal best interest – but the right decision was made anyway.  It was impressive, awe inspiring even.

Unfortunately, that culture of company first, we are building something great faded after that.  Some people blame Steve Ballmer, and indeed he was on the scene at the time.  In his defense, Microsoft had started bringing in big company talent and simply could not separate the talent from the big company cultural virus attached.   I am not sure anyone could have preserved the culture as the incoming tide of IBM and Walmart drowned Microsoft.

In this next decade, many great things were accomplished even with a me first, lick the cookie, don’t touch my stuff culture.  From our vantage point outside the company, it sure seemed like every year the amount of effort required to accomplish the same result increased and the fun factor was clearly suffering.  Microsoft went from the place everyone wanted to work to the place people came from.

Next year Microsoft will turn 40 and a new CEO will be at the helm.  I don’t know Satya Nadella personally, but I am encouraged by Microsoft’s selection for several reasons. 

Enterprise is the Engine:  Microsoft is amazing at selling its products and services to businesses.  Mr. Nadella knows that business.  The board must have picked him with that at least partially in mind.  I don’t know what the future holds, but the future is not the iPhone – that was yesterday’s future.  Microsoft has to build from a position of strength and it has amazingly strong relationships with businesses.

Inspired, Purpose Driven, and Meaningful:  Mr. Nadella’s first day email hit the sweet spot.  To me it said:  hey, let’s stop chasing our tails and do what we do best: make people more productive.  His language rang true.  One can feel a new brand promise is being formed and it will be true.  People and Microsoft will not be wasting their time fighting on the playground, they will be inspired to do great things.

Why Not Us?  True, this was not one of the questions in his email.  It is also true that this is the moto of another local hero, the Seahawk's Number 3, Russell Wilson.  Passed down from his father who inspired him to ask:  Why not me?  Microsoft is an awesome company with amazing people.  Great things can be expected from them.  Microsoft's third CEO could be just as inspiring as the man from the Seahawks that wears number 3.

Go Microsoft!