I see dead people

December 9, 2012

I have reached the age where many of the celebrities, politicians and other well-known people of my youth have passed into the great beyond. This natural evolution struck me recently as I thought about the world as seen through the eyes of my 9 year old daughter. Specifically, I realized that she has no anchor (pun intended) to help her understand the events of the world.

Growing up, watching the nightly news was pretty standard for me. From Walter Cronkite to Dan Rather on CBS, and later Ted Koppel on Nightline, there is an image in my head of the voice of authority delivering the news of the day. My mental lens of history is shaped by my interaction with TV news.

Let’s just say, for the record, I watched a lot of TV growing up. I secretly believe my entire ability to deliver a sharp and funny line is due to my nightly training by Johnny Carson.

Today, the kid typically gets an hour a day of screen time. For the most part, that consists of wretched sitcoms on the Disney Channel (no more wretched, I suppose, then my watching Gomer Pyle, USMC) or animation (Phineas and Ferb is top-notch). On weekends we all get to watch competition shows on the Food Network.

There is no turning on the tube (there is no tube!) to watch the evening news because the news flows constantly through the Internet to one of the six screens I have available at any given time. It is only when major events happen that I tend to turn to MSNBC or CNN (or, if I need a laugh, to FOX News).

Back to the original point. The kid has no anchor. She is still young enough that the news is mostly irrelevant to her, but that time is quickly coming to an end. When she does get interested in the world around her, she will turn to the net just like the rest of us. The concept of a voice of authority bringing the news to her will not likely exist. Unfortunately, she will likely not know how to separate the true from the false easily either (everything on the Internet is true, right?).

I think she is missing something and that is just one instance of how all the people that shaped my sense of the world are now gone. My kid is learning comedic timing from Austin & Ally instead of Carson and McMahon. She is a digital native and the world has changed, as it always does.


Raise your right hand

October 10, 2011

As the world mourned the passing of Steve Jobs last week, I found myself engaged in silent and personal reflection. His death at 56, only 8 years older than me, was a grim reminder of my own mortality. What am I going to do today to make a difference in my own life?

When I entered college in 1981 I used punch cards to submit programs for my intro Statistics class. When I graduated in 1985, I owned a Mac. In four years, a complete transformation of the computing universe. I wrote my Master’s thesis on a “Fat” Mac. The 9” screen on those machines never seemed too small (and today I feel cramped if I can’t write on my 23” monitor).

I was an Apple fanboy well before most of today’s fanboys were in elementary school. I was also determined to work in the computer business one way or another. By the time I was completing my Master’s degree I realized that I did not want to have an academic career (my original) goal, but wanted to go to work in the real world. When I was fortunate enough to be on a research project sponsored by Lotus Corporation (remember 1-2-3?) and got to visit their HQ in Cambridge, I knew which industry was in my future.

The software business 20 years ago was much like the software business today, except without the Internet as a driving force and without the constant scrutiny by the general media and public at large. In 1989 I moved to Silicon Valley and went to work for Ashton-Tate Corp, one of the leading software companies of the era. I was part of the “User Interface” team there and assigned to work on an important project building a spreadsheet for the NeXT platform.

There is a lot of interesting background behind why Ashton-Tate was building a spreadsheet program at all (they were primarily a desktop database company), but that is another post.Since I had experience doing research on spreadsheets already, I was a natural fit for the team. It was a top-notch team as well, with some of the best developers I have ever known, and we were building something very cool. I had a NeXT cube on my desk, which was about as cutting edge as could be then.

Somewhere along the way, my role morphed a little from just doing user interface work to becoming the product manager for the project. I was already establishing myself as more of a marketing/product type rather than a pure UI expert. Fortunately, the stars were aligned for me and in this new role I was now directly involved in our relationship with NeXT. The partner manager at NeXT was an amazing woman named Donna Simonides (who went on to great success at Netscape and beyond) and taught me a lot about partner relations.

The time came to visit NeXT HQ for a briefing. The industry was buzzing with speculation about the follow-up to the NeXT Cube and we were going to get a briefing directly from Steve. All these years later I can still recall how full of excitement and anticipation I was for that meeting.

Steve Jobs was the most charismatic person I have ever met. In the short time in that meeting – was it more than an hour? – he made an impression that lasted a lifetime. The defining moment of that brief encounter was when it was time for an unveiling. Long before we all knew about “and just one more thing” Steve was the master of the reveal.

“Raise your right hand” Steve commanded, “and swear that you will not tell anyone what you see here today”. We were about to see what the industry had been talking about in whispered rumors, the top-secret NeXT “pizza box” and before that we needed to swear an oath. With very little hesitancy, we all raised our right hand and swore an oath to secrecy for Steve. He believed in what he was doing and wanted us to believe as well. He made three grown men swear to keep a secret and we did so gladly. Then he gave us a glorious demo of the new NeXT, color monitor, and the marvelous NeXTStep OS that became the Mac OS we love today.

The news of Steve’s passing appeared first on my mobile phone as a text message from my local radio station. I had never received a text from the radio station that wasn’t about a concert or contest. I audibly gasped when I read it and felt overwhelmed with sadness. Turning on the TV and watching the news brought tears to my eyes.

The “software” business has been good to me. After I left Ashton-Tate I worked for a company called GO that was creating a computer tablet. You carried it around with you like a pad of paper, it could have a wireless phone built in, you installed applications on it for all sorts of productive tasks. It also used a pen and recognized your handwriting. A bit ahead of its time, but a marvelous peek into our present. I spent years working for Oracle and marveling at Larry Ellison and his vision for a connected future. My time at Microsoft coincided with some of the most difficult years that company ever faced (Longhorn, Windows Vista) but I developed deep admiration for what Bill Gates built. Each of these experiences helped me shape my own perspective on what really matters in work and in life.

Any life ended early – in the very prime years for a businessperson and for a man – is a tragedy. We all lost something with Steve’s death last week, a little bit of wonder, magic, and belief that the future can actually be shaped by our vision and ideas. For me, after more than 20 years in this business, I feel a deep sense of loss and the rapid passage of time.

I never saw Steve in person after that day. But, I got to shake his hand and I swore an oath. All these years later I realize that I actually swore a bigger oath that day. It was not really about keeping the pizza box NeXT secret; it was about believing in the magic, the surprise, and the wonder that we can all create if we are willing to set our sights high. I swore an oath to Steve to help participate in creating the future, and I have tried to keep that oath to this day.


A Passage to India

September 23, 2011

Tomorrow I head to India for a week, courtesy of my employer [wire] stone and one of our clients. I am pretty excited about the trip but also a little nervous. Even for a fairly experienced traveler like me this is a big trip. And, I needed shots. Felt like it was back to school immunization time getting those shots.

I will be blogging about my trip here and at the [wire] stone Wiretap blog. Over here I will focus on some of the personal aspects and over there some of the interesting work elements. If all that gets too complex I will just cross post and hope for the best.

One of the most exciting things about this trip is that I am traveling with two great colleagues from work. Being able to share our perspectives, work as a team, and have fun during the long journey there and back will make the time fly.

My bag is sitting at home half packed and I have a long list of things left to do before it is ready to fly. The car comes at 6:00 AM tomorrow and I am out tonight celebrating my brother-in-law completing his first year probation as a Seattle Firefighter, which mean minimal sleep. Oh well, all for a good cause.



July 6, 2011

Somehow I became a runner. Not exactly sure how and when it happened, but I made the transition from someone that runs to a runner and there is no turning back.

It was only 6 years ago or so that I was pretty adamant to my trainer about not running at all. I had not run more than a 100 yards since being forced to do so in PE class in high school (or was it middle school). I just didn’t really see the appeal. Honestly, I managed to go the majority of my life without really ever doing much exercise and certainly not playing any “sports.” I was the classic geek who would rather read a book or have a good meal than get my body moving.

Then we age.

Today, in my 40s, I am in better shape than at any other time in my life. I say this less to brag but to continue to drive my own motivation. Watching so many of my age peers start to let themselves go when they turn 40 is depressing. For me, this was the time to demonstrate how hard and far I could push myself. This was the time to run and fly.

Well, maybe not fly. I always dreamed of running fast. The sensation came to me in dreams. I also dreamed of running smack dab into brick walls or over cliffs, but that is another issue.

Starting to run was easy. I told my trainer I would do it and we used the treadmill to get going. Just running 5 minutes on the treadmill was a big deal back then. Run 5 minutes and walk for a couple. Then repeat. Slowly longer run times.

I’ll spare you all the incremental details, but eventually I got outside and ran. Just a half mile or less at first. Working my way up and realizing my body could do it. This was in combination with my ongoing cardio and strength training, so running benefitted from my other activities.

Now that a few years have passed and I have run multiple races, I look back in wonder at all the time spent not running. Now my goals are to shave time off my races and to build better endurance. I think about running in my off time and plan my approach to a race or to training. I care about my gear, perhaps a bit too much (but, I tell myself and my wife that it is cheaper than golf).

I became a runner and it reminded me that I can grow and change at any age. There are no barriers to achievement and it is never too late to push myself in new and interesting directions. Being a runner is real, but it is also a metaphor for being able to change anything about myself.

What’s your metaphor for changing your life?


What goes into a fantastic creative brief? (from Quora)

January 18, 2011

What goes into a fantastic creative brief? 28 answers on Quora

What goes into a fantastic creative brief?


The digital safe haven

January 4, 2011

I have spent considerable time and thought over the past few months examining my relationship with technology, media, and the Internet. This was driven in a large part by my frustration with the highly variable personal ROI I seem to get from being a “power user” all the time. Fundamentally, I have begun to seriously question just how much engagement is reasonable for someone trying to live a normal and happy life.

One of the most important insights I had (and I am not unique in this) was the need to create a “digital safe haven” for myself. There needs to be a time/place that is largely disconnected from the constant stream of news, email, social chatter, online shopping, picture sharing, blog reading (and writing), etc. This sounds easy, but really takes some effort and dedication. The desire to disconnect may be strong, but the allure of connecting is a very powerful counter-force.

My digital safe haven is my bedroom at night. Since I am currently sitting in the bedroom writing this post (much warmer here than my desk downstairs!) the “at night” modifier is important. Once the evening comes, my devices are banned from the bedroom. No phone, no laptop, no iPad. My Kindle is allowed, since that satisfies my desire to spend time reading. What I have done is stopped the endless inbound chatter from these devices that pulls my limited attention in far too many directions all day long. Once I head to bed, I also stop paying attention to the devices in the rest of the house. No more getting up to check the email at 2:00 AM or see what is happening on Facebook. No more waking up and checking my email before I even roll out of bed and stretch.

Radical? No. But, amazingly satisfying for me. I feel as if I have gained back some control of my time and my ability to focus through the creation of this safe haven. I have also determined that I am no less productive because of it (and may even be more productive).

My lovely wife respects my digital safe haven, but has decided not to follow suit. I respect that and just ignore her devices beeping and blinking on her side of the room.

I believe that there are larger implications for the creation of the digital safe haven. As we are all subject to the endless ubiquity of the digital stream, the ability to step outside and take a breather will become ever more important. What will companies do to support the desires of the individual to be “left alone” for a while? Will Facebook give me a way to specify an away period and then be able to efficiently catch-up when I return? Will my co-workers respect email responses that take longer than 15 minutes, even at 2:00 AM?

The opportunity here is two-fold. First, individuals need to have ways to regain their space and not be distracted. Second, businesses need to start thinking about ways to respect this shift and empower their customers instead of punishing them for missing the endless river of content that keeps flowing by.


Recession over?

November 29, 2010

The WSJ reports corporate profits near historic high last quarter. Did you feel it? Are you clients lining up to do business? Is your paycheck growing?

The real question we need to ask ourselves is “what next?” If the economy is on the rebound, how are we going to respond. Everyone is talking about the New Normal, a time of more conservative expectations, reduced workforce, and tight budgets — how will that impact how we strategize and execute?

You probably changed how you operated during the recession. Is that change  permanent? Can your business operate on less and do more?

Businesses face a host of challenges in this New Normal. However, it also represents a chance to gain competitive advantage and be prepared for the inevitable boom years (and the bust that always follows). Smart investments made during the slow times should pay off soon. Changes to business practices that made you more efficient can yield higher profits going forward.

Fundamentally, the smartest businesses came out of the past four years thinking and operating in a whole new fashion. It is business evolution at work – and the strongest will survive.


Social Self-Promotion

August 12, 2010

Yesterday Twitter streams everywhere were filled with an avalanche of “SXSW vote for me” requests. The infamous SXSW PanelPicker had opened up and everyone was rushing to gather votes. I know the importance of this because I was one of those people trying to drum up votes.

Please check out my most excellent proposal for a panel at SXSW Interactive.

There were almost 2400 proposals up for vote at SXSW Interactive. It is part of the community-based aspect of SXSW that the voice of the people helps determine the content of the event. This voting component accounts for 30% of the “score” for any proposal. In some ways it is a test of the speaker — generating votes is a proxy for generating attendees at their session. Full and successful sessions make SXSW better. Simple equation.

Please consider voting for my really interesting proposal, “Whatever Happened to Good Design Online” at SXSW.

Everyone involved in SXSW knows it is an event about connections. Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, Gowalla, etc are all essential elements of the experience. Making self-promotion an element of the session selection makes perfect sense to me. I think that conferences driven by the interests of the attendees are very important. I also believe that attendees should not choose all the content — sometimes they can be surprised and delighted by the unexpected. This gives SXSW an advantage over other “unconferences” where attendees choose everything.

Have you checked out my SXSW proposal? Take a look and cast your vote.

So, we all dive in and get everyone we know to cast their vote. It is a popularity contest, but all social media is a popularity contest of sorts. We put our voices out there and hope someone listens. We look for the call and response of voices from the electronic ether and feel a small sense of validation. It is the world we have created online, for better or worse.


Gold Stars

August 10, 2010

For years airlines have been working tirelessly to increase brand loyalty (create brand loyalty?) through frequent flyer programs. When the economy was booming the savvy traveler could rack up thousands of miles a month and be able to take lovely vacations at the end of the year. Businesses paid for travel and the whole “brand loyalty” aspect of the programs seemed to work. I know I certainly benefited from it.

Now we are in more austere times and smart businesses have realized that not every meeting needs to be face to face. I know that as a service provider I always look for ways to give my clients the most value for their money and conference calls beat plane trips most of the time. This has made a huge dent in the amount of travel for many of us.

Through one lens this might mean the death of any loyalty to an airline. What matters now is price. A different perspective is that every trip needs to be optimized to gain miles on a preferred carrier. I know my organization is optimizing for price. That just makes sense. The benefits of a frequent flyer program are far outweighed by the benefits of a good bottom line for the business.

So, last year I failed to achieve “gold” status on my preferred airline for the first time on almost a decade. This year will likely be the same. Am I really losing out on anything? Well, perhaps next year’s vacation will require more dollars out of pocket than miles from my account. That might make the vacation all the sweeter.

Fundamentally, that gold card when I go to the airport got me through the security line faster and made it more likely I would be in a first class seat. I miss it a little, but those perks are not really worth the savings to my clients and my business. Besides, I have a new gold card in my wallet.

Yes, I am a frequent drinker. The marketing team at Starbucks finally saw the opportunity they have been missing for years. Many of us visit Starbucks 2-3 times a week; some people go 2-3 times a day. This is real brand loyalty. It might also be “blind” brand loyalty — we are on auto-pilot as we cruise by and grab our latte each morning. However you want to define it, Starbucks has a strong hold on their customers.

The new Starbucks card program rewards frequent drinkers with a gold card after 30 visits. Every 15 visits after that you earn a free drink. There are some other benefits but they really don’t amount to much. When you present your gold card to the cashier you are treated exactly the same as every other customer — friendly and efficiently. You can’t jump to the front of the line and you don’t get to boot someone else out of the comfy chair while you drink your coffee.

What are the real benefits to me besides that free drink once a month (and a gold card with my very own name engraved upon it)? It is the “stars” you earn with each visit. This handy device for tracking your use of the card is the world’s simplest video game. I visit a store and another star drops into my cup. I can see my cup on my computer or on my iPhone through the Starbucks card app. I can also track the balance on my card. As dollars go down, stars go up. How can I minimize the amount I spend per star? Can I treat a friend to a drink just to earn another star? The gaming possibilities here are limited; and that is part of the appeal.

There are a lot of ways to win brand loyalty. The best way is to deliver an outstanding product or service to your customers at every touchpoint. But, don’t overlook the possibility of giving them a gold star for their efforts as well.


Your brand, subverted

August 9, 2010

If you think you are controlling your brand across all channels, think again. It used to be that a small number of brands (e.g., Rolex, Cartier) knew they were being counterfeited on a regular basis. A street corner scam was practically a shared joke between scam artist and victim.

Now, every brand is subject to counterfeit and exploitation. Consumers can’t tell the real from the criminal without a lot of help. How will you react? How will your brand protect itself?