WSJ article on Amazon work culture possibly about governance, not design.

WSJ article appears to have uncovered a lack of social accountability governance. Reading Amazon’s Our Leadership Principles does not show any evil intention or design. The anecdotal stories show several instances of low EQ and IQ communication behaviours. That might be the main issue at stake here. Can and should an organisation demand high IQ without a balancing level of EQ, from its leaders?

I heard the news, like everyone else. I read the Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace. I read many reactions, leading up to the CEO’s response and then Amazon, Our Leadership Principles.

Then I tried something else. I imagined the WSJ article didn’t exist, as if I never heard about it, and went back to reading Amazon’s Our Leadership Principle article, as an outsider hearing about it for the first time. It clearly demands a highly competitive spirit, a strong leadership and ambitious work ethos. Strong leadership, power with responsibility in teams hands. There is nothing evil or cynical by design here.

However, such challenging ethos combined with a lightweight supervision could indeed take surprising if not unexpected turns. It immediately reminded me Philip Zimbardo’s Standord prison experiment. Amazon might or might not be experimenting, but it would seem that good governance did not notice that some high impact behaviour was at play.

If you read WSJ article again, the various quotes of managers seem to point to highly logical communication, often with little or no empathy. A lot of IQ but perhaps less show of EQ. It’s not surprising that a high profile company such as Amazon would be chided for ignoring EQ in their extensive metrics. If that were intentional, then it would be a design problem.

So, it seems that, whether intentional or not, governance at Amazon did not include social accountability of the kinds that modern society expects. This has been an interesting learning chance, hopefully for them too.

Can and should an organisation demand high IQ without a balancing level of EQ, from its leaders?

Windows strength was the distribution model, people never loved it per se

Microsoft’s early masterstroke was to have locked down the distribution. Once they succeeded in that, it was easier for them to push their products to users. With the change in the distribution model, Windows strongest advantage started to wither, resulting in the current (identity?) crisis it faces. People got Windows while looking for PCs, they didn’t care about Windows otherwise. OEMs cared about Windows, mostly because they’d not be successful in the market. There was a time when relevance was driven by the distribution model, mostly powered by the OEMs. The Internet provided the first major blow to that model. The rise in mobile computing on smart devices provided a second major blow to the OEM model.

Microsoft’s early masterstroke was to have locked down the distribution. Once they succeeded in that, it was easier for them to push their products to users. With the change in the distribution model, Windows strongest advantage started to wither, resulting in the current (identity?) crisis  it faces.

People wanted personal computers, and those almost universally shipped with Windows, therefore people got Windows by default. Microsoft’s deals with IBM and the OEMs were the reason for this. Since everyone was getting Windows, developers had to target it. In the early days, developing for Ms-DOS and Windows, was much easier and affordable compared to other platforms, this resulted in popular software being available only on Ms-DOS and Windows. Therefore, people created on Windows,  users needed PCs running Windows in order to consume such creations. There was no specific love for Windows pushing buyers to it.

The Internet popularised new ways of using computers that Microsoft didn’t control. Apple helped to popularise new computing experiences and devices that Microsoft didn’t control. The combined force of these major shifts resulted in the emergence of new powerful distribution models, challenging the established OEM model.

Apple created an enviable model that allows them to ship desirable products successfully and repeatedly. Microsoft must have decided to follow a similar path, that could explain why they didn’t hesitate to upset their OEMs, their single biggest force in the marketplace.

Google saw a chance in becoming the world’s Internet proxy, Microsoft woke up to that much later. It would have been a hard sell anyway trying to position Windows there. Even in the data center, Windows has a chance to be present but no chance to becoming the dominant force.

Windows relevance challenge is now mostly a problem for Microsoft, and to some extent the millions of people whose skills and experience would be deprecated should Windows falter considerably. Ironically, Microsoft alienated OEMs, their former virtual Chief Of Growth. Microsoft also seems to be well on the way of alienating users too – force feeding Metro (Modern) UI to legions of users is a sure way of asking them to try something else.

Microsoft virtually dropping their OEMs is a risky bid, it was what made them in the first place and continued to carry them for decades. Somehow, Apple dropping skeuomorphism is a similarly dangerous move, if that sort of emotion and empathy disappears from Apple experience users would start to see fewer and fewer differentiation in the experience. Talking about ‘the platform you love’ would increasingly sound delusional rather than an actual reflection of the market reality.



How to set effective metrics for Enterprise Architecture

To set effective metrics for Enterprise Architecture, don’t look for a magical list that you could just plug in. Instead, you must to develop your own set for this exercise to make any sense. In this post, initially published on Quora, I provide one practical technique to achieve this, it starts with a statement of purpose that you should make people feel comfortable with.

A recent article by Michael J Mauboussin on HBR reminded me my answer on Quora to this same question, so I realised that that answer should really be published on my own blog, and not somewhere else. That is the motivation for this post.

Don’t look for a magical set, you need to develop your own. Here is one practical technique to achieve this, it starts with a statement of purpose that you should make people feel comfortable with.

An effective Enterprise Architecture helps ensure that an organisation spends money wisely, that resource allocation is done in a way that supports your business growth. It should be an instrument for your most powerful decision makers. The scope is massive, this spans every tidbit of information that flows through your way of doing business, it is about your entire chain of information systems (in the widest sense of the term). It goes therefore that you need to know how resource is allocated (respectively how value is created), what the triggers are and how those triggers can be influenced. Your Enterprise Architecture practice must identify and use the levers that control these events and event triggers, for it to be effective.

With the above statements in mind, proceed as follows:

  1. List the metrics that have the most impact/visibility in your organisation’s success, put them in a priority order that makes the most sense to your best people. This works best if you interview and discuss with a mix of key people: people with good delivery track record, people most intimate with your business, and people with powerful decision making power. Don’t look outside your organisation for such a list, you might quickly fall into an anti-pattern trap.
  2. Now armed with your prioritised list, benchmark where you are as you start this exercise, take snapshots of these metrics at regular intervals. Define the intervals to closely match your business activity cycle: from resource allocation to value creation. Start with a high frequency (must be realistic though), and adjust the sampling frequency as necessary, compare the measures every time and with varying sampling windows.
  3. Share the intermediate results you are getting with the people you worked with in Step 1). Try to gather their feedback on the measures that are starting to show, look for trends. Don’t hesitate to change the metric priorities, drop what doesn’t make sense.
  4. As you gain insights into what is driving effectiveness, try to make small educated changes to the metrics, and perform Step 2) and 3) again.

This is rather crude, but if done right, some solid metrics will rapidly emerge for you, and your process in itself embodies an educational and buy-in mechanism, which reinforces your Enterprise Architecture effectiveness.

With Windows 8, Microsoft is staging the biggest startup pivot in history

Microsoft is effectively undergoing a startup pivot with the sweeping changes they’ve been doing culminating in Windows 8. This is an extraordinary effort that deserves very close attention, lots of learning opportunity here.

What Microsoft is doing with Windows 8 is effectively a pivot, just like a 12 month old startup would define it. I’ve not read of it being described that way yet, but that’s all I can think of. Microsoft couldn’t be called a Startup or Lean, but I’m curious how they internally think about themselves nowadays in light of the sweeping changes they’re introducing.

Right from the start Apple had gone for intimacy, premium products whilst Microsoft had chosen for cost effectiveness and mass scale. It seems that Apple is continuing on their path, and that Microsoft is now changing strategy. Good analysis abound, I won’t dig any further than this.

If you like this subject, search “startup pivot” and read up the various definitions given of it, it is fascinating to think of Microsoft in the current context.

This is a tremendous learning opportunity, I am excited to see how it all goes.

Conservative innovation as a path to better user experience. Avoid Feature Debt.

Designing sustainable user interface is a very hard task that could take a large number of retries. The wider an established user group is, the more conservative user interface design changes should be. If a complete user interface overhaul is required it may work out much better to present an entirely new product to users. Doing that sets an expectation of a new experience, this gives an adequate cognitive comfort to users.

Designing sustainable user interface (UI) is a very hard task that could take a large number of retries to get right. A technology powered solution that spares its users tedious learning will fare better than those who simply skim over such issues in favour of other agendas. Realising this makes me respect even more people who invented some of our everyday tools such as drinking glass, the pen and paper, and so on. This post is about highlighting some aspects of UI design decisions and why that is where conservatism should be preferred.

I always push hard to find out every detail I could about the problem domain that I am dealing with, preferring to postpone technology concerns until I know enough about everything else. Incidentally, this way of working tend to ruffle the feathers of those who prefer to skim over details, the manager looking for quick way out and avoiding any potential blame. I digress there a bit. In essence, looking to get more than one perspective of a problem domain makes me spend hours exploring wide ranging concepts, business and technical blueprints, various vendor solutions, looking to debunk blind-spots from the endeavour. Ultimately I found out that UI design decisions where happening everywhere even though people weren’t looking at things that way. In this post I’d like to highlight some of the learning points on user interface issues:

  • A stable UI design will sustain several product revisions without requiring that users learn and adopt new behaviours. Designing and rolling out a stable user interface seems to be an extremely difficult task, partially because the UI scope is often hamstrung by blind-spots.
  • Technology vendors that tend to frequently overhaul their UIs will upset users, cause people to scramble to adapt, disrupt well honed user productivity work flows, distract people from doing their real job.
  • In software development texts you often read about “Technical Debt”, meaning that some corners were cut for technical reasons with the intention to make amend at some (often unspecified) time in the future. In a similar vein I also frequently noticed what I would call “Feature Debt”, which has a broader meaning than its technical counterpart and is mostly about adding clutter. I’ve not heard of this term before, so I am creating it to make my point. An example of Feature Debt is when people sneak in requirements that only reflect their own personal preferences far removed from the actual problems at hand. Another example of Feature Debt is when designers don’t envision the user’s daily activities while designing a solution. Feature Debts stemming from a technical way of thinking tend to result in cognitive tax on the UI experience. I will write a dedicated post on Feature Debt when I get a chance. The point here is that Feature Debt is really hard to fight, it goes against conservative UI innovation and coud cost dearly.

Changing the UI of a well established technology should not be taken lightly, because of the unnecessary upset it might cause. A symptom of Feature Debt is when a solution is deployed then outsiders react in bewilderment, wondering how such product release came to be. Another sign of this is when folks have to scramble to learn new habits for things that are otherwise plain and simple normal activities.

With this way of thinking in mind, I try to analyse new technology product releases that hit the market, sometimes you expect to see revolutionary new interfaces and may be disappointed not to find that. Sometimes new products receive negative media or user reactions, you wonder how that could happen when the organisations behind them clearly had all the resources they needed to get things right. It is always too easy to shout at bad decision making with hindsight, especially from an armchair executive perspective, but it is very difficult to spot issues as they are happening. People often seek prescriptions as an easy way out, some of shortcoming of such prescriptions is that  they make our minds lazy and could be giving us an excuse to blame someone else if things don’t work out. To illustrate the effect of the mind laziness, imagine a situation where someone could perform a mental mathematic calculation but they stop trying if a calculator is at hand, over time they lose the ability to perform any mental calculation at all. That is also what happens if we keep looking for prescriptions and stop thinking things through by ourselves.

One thing that could help in IT driven initiatives is to look out for Feature Debt, they typically won’t survive proper user testing, won’t make it through the “five whys”. Feature Debt has a snowball effect, everything that trickles down from it will amplify its negative impact. When a group or organisation is caught in Feature Debt, very smart people might totally overlook obvious faults simply because they would imagine that fellow smart people must have vetted things and nobody wants to look bad or sound like they are obstructing. Such invisible pressure would nurture Feature Debt, people would start rationalising them and after a while feature debts become indistinguishable from real user wants, that’s when the damage potential is maximal.

Conservative Innovation is about looking for those precious UI experiences that must be preserved as one innovate, actively looking for Feature Debt and removing them from the picture before they grow and become ingrained. The conservative part is really about avoiding changes in what is already working well. When considered this way, examples can be found in a lot of successful products out there. This is also what drives copy-cats because they don’t risk trying something new, they try to follow what appears to be working and accepted by communities.

This post isn’t asking to avoid change, that wouldn’t make sense. But rather, this is about ensuring that user comfort is sought and protected very early on and often as you go about innovating.

The power of tribes (The Economist)

According to Schumpeter, The Economist: Businesspeople need to reckon with the Anglosphere, the Sinosphere and the Indosphere. Reading a contract is useful, but you also need to be able to read people. I tend to agree on both accounts, these are useful thoughts for a business manager.

In this artcile, The Economist argues that

Businesspeople need to reckon with the Anglosphere, the Sinosphere and the Indosphere.

The article goes a little further and says that

Reading a contract is useful, but you also need to be able to read people

The arguments here echo a bit some of the thoughts expressed in an earlier post of mine, in turn inspired by a discussion on comfort zones (read that post for more on that topic). I guess that’s how it goes. I found it insightful, read the full article on The Economist here: The power of tribes.

Comfort zones and prejudices motivate people, not just with VCs in Silicon Valley

I read a well articulated blog posting by Hank Williams, in which he was arguing that comfort rather than racism may be motivating some of the industry movers in Silicon Valley. I think such observation is more general than he may have put it. I would argue that the senses of comfort (or discomfort) motivates most of the decisions people routinely make, and this all around the world.

I read a well articulated blog posting by Hank Williams, in which he was arguing that comfort rather than racism may be motivating some of the industry movers in Silicon Valley. I think such observation is more general than he may have put it. I would argue that the sense of comfort (or discomfort) motivates most of the decisions people routinely make, and this all around the world.

As I could make out, Hank’s posting was a part of the debate on diversity raging on Twitter and the blogosphere. While I don’t pretend to understand the sensitivities around this topic in the US, I think such phenomena can be observed everywhere and this may have always been the case with human beings. This topic would fill volumes, I won’t even try.

I liked how Hank made clear that people should avoid victimisation and focus on what they can do to help themselves, and that is a really nice one that may be worth elaborating on. I have learned that if you feel and act like a victim, whatever the circumstances, then you are defeated before the battle even begin. Such attitude would seldom be exhibited by very good hackers, or geeks.

Indeed one of the traits of good hackers is that they don’t give up easily, they would look for solutions until they can find something that works. If that attitude is smartly applied to entrepreneurial endeavours, then the person has a chance to succeed. The myth of overnight success has long been debunked, just look up the history of any successful person. Some people may be looking for cheap/easy money, or just not trying hard enough to leverage their own strengths and merits, that would also be a way of victimising oneself.

Diversity is a big subject in many parts of the world, and rightly so because otherwise the human society doesn’t move forward. When the subject is cheaply tossed into every debate then that dilutes its importance and turns it into a gossip making object. Those who feel like they are on the wrong side of the diversity should stay focused. And these may be other take aways from Hank’s posting, though I don’t know if he intended it that way.

If you are into this sort of topic, Hank’s post is well worth reading.

How do you fill Steve Jobs’ shoes?

Succession Planning was well done at Apple because management had focused on nurturing a culture that transcends individuals. Numerous studies over last couple of years pointed to this.

If I were Tim Cook, I would try the following:

  • Try to be Tim Cook as much as possible
  • Don’t try to fill Steve Jobs’ shoes, instead try to “stand on Steve’s shoulders”
  • Don’t try to fight for recognition because that would be a trap, I can only become a better Tim Cook
  • Don’t pay much attention to the hype, just get on with the job
Steve has done a good job at Succession Planning at Apple. The onus is now on Tim Cook to capitalise on this, and that task may be made hard by any form of obsession with past achievements.

OSX Lion experience suggests that a single unified iOS is the next version

Mac OSX Lion feels like a hybrid OS, it’s iOS and OSX at the same time. With Apple leading the charge, the unified OS model supported by the AppStore distribution model looks to be the future. If functionality can be streamed directly to where it is needed, that revolutionises the prevalent distribution and support model. In the long run, the IT organisation structure as we know it today will become obsolete.

My experience with the upgrade and running OSX Lion is very positive so far. It feels stable, confident and trustworthy. The only surprise was that Java runtime wasn’t available right after the reboot. I had to google for a link to a separate download, I feel that was a little obnoxious of them. Other than that, I have a stable and fast OS. Since I removed Flash plugin, upgraded Skype, and now only rely on Google Chrome for flash functionality, I have a very good setup indeed. The fact that my esoteric collection of software runs so far without a glitch, without me having to tweak anything, suggests that OSX Lion builds on a solid and a stable API, most probably enabled by Snow Leopard.

It’s hard to imagine Apple maintaining OSX Desktop line and iOS in parallel, I reckon only iOS will ship in the future and the device where you run it will determine its runtime persona: mobile, desktop, server. For companies that cannot port their products to the new unified model, OSX Lion would become their Rosetta.

I’ve read a post on Windows 8 which indicated that Microsoft is already moving in that direction, a single unified OS for all platforms.

The implications of this change in the industry, lead by Apple, is that the AppStore model will become prevalent. When we reach that point, organisations with large IT teams dedicated to platform support will start looking derelict. Those would still remain the largest number, but they may find it really hard to remain competitive.

Why is it that Apple is seemingly succeeding with a vision that once was actually Microsoft’s pioneering idea: one platform for all your computing needs? They surely didn’t have more money or available potential talent than Microsoft.

Looking a little further, adding Facebook and Google to this mix, the battle for control of the consumer mindshare and purse (indirectly corporate mindshare and purse) is truly exciting. I think most of the mainstream press would have us believe in a zero sum game, which I think is just the same game really: seeking control of the mindshare. Analysing the full spectrum of all the tech titan battle grounds is beyond this posting. I’m only looking at the front where Apple is causing a storm in at the moment.

With all this going on, I have hard time engaging in debates about the definition of things like architecture, enterprise, business, any combination of those. I’m not sure what problem such debates will solve, especially when denial is ingrained in many contributions. I think the only viable debate to be had is the one about “the future of computing“, and that gets my attention.