Sep 012014
 
broken-computer

A briefcase sized device could wreak havoc in today’s networked world warns William Radasky in the IEEE Journal.

Fans of the  wave of nuclear war movies like The War Game or The Day After will remember the first bomb detonated in the attacks was a high level explosion designed to knock out electronic equipment.

The resultant Electro Magnetic Pulse leaves everything from military radar to civilian communications systems unusable.

In both The Day After and The War Game the high altitude detonations over Rochester and Kansas City destroyed motor cars’ ignitions leaving a key part of the nation’s infrastructure paralysed.

Unlike a zombie TV series, the unlucky survivors of a nuclear strike weren’t going to leap into the nearest abandoned Camaro and speed away from the heaving hungry masses.

What should be considered is The War Game was filmed in 1965 when electronics were not ubiquitous. Even then the scale of the damage from an EMP was substantial.

In today’s world, an wide scale EMP would bring down a region’s entire economy.

I’m writing this post on the 28th Floor of San Francisco’s St Francis hotel and were such a blast to happen now I’m not sure I’d be able to find the fire escapes as the emergency lighting would be fried — it’s not even worth considering the lifts.

What a first world city like San Francisco would like after all its technology, including electrical and communications systems, were knocked out doesn’t bear thinking out.

On the bright side, this means a devastating nuclear war killing millions may not be useful military strategy any more. To bomb a first world nation ‘back to the stone age’ just needs a handful of well targeted high altitude nukes.

The IEEE article is a timely reminder of both the fragility of our systems and the society that depends upon them.

Apr 272014
 
workers in a building site

“In the 20th century the planet’s population doubled twice. It will not double even once in the current century,” states The Economist in a lengthy article on how the world’s aging population is going to affect economic growth.

One of the most overlooked aspects of modern day economics is the changing demographics of the developed world, the aging army of baby boomers has been effectively ignored by policy makers and voters alike and now we’re about the see the consequences.

Japan is the case study as the country is well ahead of the pack with an rapidly aging population and the indicators aren’t good.

Amlan Roy, an economist at Credit Suisse, has calculated that the shrinking working-age population dragged down Japan’s GDP growth by an average of just over 0.6 percentage points a year between 2000 and 2013, and that over the next four years that will increase to 1 percentage point a year.

Despite that drag on growth, the Japanese are still living quite well and could be showing that an economy can grow old gracefully and productively.

The key to doing that is to have a well educated, skilled and productive workforce. An efficient health system that ensures older workers stay fit enough to work doesn’t hurt either.

What The Economist illustrates in its story is that some countries are going to perform better than others as their workforces age. Those who’ve neglected their education systems and workforce skill bases are not going to do well.

One can’t help but think the ideologies that gripped the Anglo-Saxon countries in the 1980s that saw skills being discarded, investment neglected and education cut are going to have a high cost on those nations over the next twenty years.

May 242013
 
how are we using data in our business

As we all get buried under a tsunami of data, the challenge is managing it. The MIT Technology Review this week looks at the rise of the data scientist, a job title unknown a few years ago.

The problem for industry is the skill sets required to become a data scientist are fairly esoteric.

Data scientist has become a popular job title partly because it has helped pull together a growing number of haphazardly defined and overlapping job roles, says Jake Klamka, who runs a six-week fellowship to place PhDs from fields like math, astrophysics, and even neuroscience in such jobs. “We have anyone who works with a lot of data in their research,” Klamka says. “They need to know how to program, but they also have to have strong communications skills and curiosity.”

Over the last twenty years we’ve done a pretty poor job teaching maths and statistics which is going to create a skills shortage as industry struggles to find people qualified to figure out what all of this data means.

While Big Data might be to this decade what plastics were to the 1960s, it’s not the only technology change that’s affecting business as the McKinsey Quarterly describes the ten IT trends for the decade ahead.

The thing that really stands out with McKinsey’s predictions is the degree of reskilling the workforce is going to need, today’s workers are going to need an understanding of programming, logic and statistics as much the kids currently at school.

If you’re planning on being in the workforce at the end of this decade right now may be the time to consider getting some of these skills.

Just as businesses will be separated by how they use Big Data, workers may too find those skills divide the winners from the losers.

As the amount of data flooding into our lives explodes, we’ll all need to think about how we can get the skills to manage and understand data.

Feb 232013
 
monoculture-in-silicon-valley-hiring

A strange little story appeared in Business Insider a few weeks back, 9 Things Your Resume Needs if you want to be Hired by Apple or Google is a curious view into the mindset of Silicon Valley.

Purporting to be an extract from a book written by a former recruiter who claims to have worked for Apple, Google and Microsoft, the story exposes a weakness in Silicon Valley and the technological elite which may cause the very disruptions they have unleashed to work against them.

The nine items are fascinating for the elitist, US-centric view of the world they portray and each is worth investigating on their own.

If you graduated from an elite college, your chances of getting an interview vastly improve

Yes, where you went to school does matter to the tech giants. Of course there are exceptions, but McDowell says an Ivy League or other top university will get you noticed.

There’s not much more to add to this, except to note that the vast majority of students whose families can afford such an education are from the upper middle class.

The Googles and Apples like to see relevant internship experience.

If you waited tables when you were 19, that isn’t attractive.

If you are lucky enough to get into a an Ivy League school on a scholarship or manage to scrape together the money you may still not make the cut.

To the author, only those with sufficient wealth to participate in unpaid internships are going to get jobs at the top Silicon Valley companies.

Your major matters

Sorry liberal arts people or chemical engineers, you’ll need another way in to Google or Apple.

This is an interesting one, Silicon Valley boosters often talk about the creative process and how coders are artists however according to the recruiter that’s just lip service.

She encourages students to pick majors that are directly relevant to Google or Apple. Finance, accounting, marketing or computer science majors have the best shot of being noticed by a tech recruiter.  At the very least, minor in one of those fields.

A focus on finance, accounting and marketing is the same as any old corporation – you could be going for a job with AT&T, Goldman Sachs or the government with qualifications like that. So much for unique.

Dissing chemical engineering is particularly interesting as Chem Eng graduates have passed one of the toughest university degrees. Whats more, the demands of mobile computing devices means battery technology is one of the most pressing issues facing Silicon Valley at the moment. Chemical Engineers are the folk who will solve this problem.

Big tech companies like to see people giving back to their communities.

Volunteering can be a great way to buff up your resume. That said, McDowell warns: “don’t serve soup in a soup kitchen.”

Instead she suggests hunting for a sales or marketing position, or offering to help a charity with its website and design.

This is a really obnoxious statement – basically saying we want to you volunteer, but we don’t want you to help people.

Just how many sales and marketing people are needed by soup kitchens, volunteer fire brigades or community pantries is open to debate.

A bigger issue with this mentality is that it favours bureaucrats and paper shufflers rather than doers. Which again is something anathema to the public statements of Silicon Valley’s leaders.

They also like good spellers and speakers.

Writing and communications skills aren’t just necessary for media jobs. They’re important in any career you’ll have.

Well, duh.

If you are buddies with college professors, that’s a plus.

Professors aren’t just impressed by how you do in their classes.  McDowell suggests helping them with research projects, asking for help and attending office hours, or becoming a teaching assistant.

That doesn’t hurt, but it’s pretty basic vanilla advice and again it’s tough luck if you have to do a shift at the local fast food restaurant so you can feed yourself.

Show you understand multiple positions at Google or Apple

If you want to work at one of the top tech companies, it helps to have at least a basic understanding of multiple positions in the organization.  McDowell calls this being a Generalist.

On one hand this advice makes sense but on another many technical roles are not generalist positions.

Generally having a knowledge of the company’s structure and roles is going to look good to any interviewer, assuming you can get past the gatekeeper at the recruitment company.

Entrepreneurs have a better shot of being hired.

This is a funny one, if you’re a real entrepreneur then the thought of working in cubicle at Apple or Microsoft while answering to a middle manager straight out of a Dilbert cartoon ranks with getting hot pine needles thrust under  your toenails.
One of the conceits of modern corporate life is that they value entrepreneurs and the free-wheeling spirits – the truth is they don’t and the first true hint of entrepreneurialism among the ranks will be smothered quickly with a deluge of paperwork.
Funnily enough, being a successful tech entrepreneur is a path to getting a good job at a tech company although it’s more likely to happen as an acqui-hire than through a recruiter.

Good news: Your GPA doesn’t matter very much

Most people think tech companies, Google in particular, harp over candidates’ GPAs. McDowell says there is little truth to that rumor.

This is only good news if you’ve ticked most of the other boxes, which means you’ll be considered if you’re middling graduate from Stanford or Harvard but forget it if you went elsewhere, regardless of how good your marks are.

The danger of recruiters

What the Business Insider story really illustrates are the risks of relying on third party recruiters as gatekeepers to filter out new employees.

Regardless of how good the recruitment consultant is they are going to apply their own cultural filters and biases onto the selection process and as a result knock out most good candidates.

More importantly, a company risks developing a monoculture if the recruitment process is too effective at filtering out people who don’t fit a narrow stereotype.

A new breed of officemen?

Reading the Business Insider story leaves one with the feeling that many of these companies are beginning to look like IBM in the 1960s – monocultures more concerned about the colour of an employee’s tie and choice of shirts rather than the talents they bring to the organisation or the value they can add to customers.

This is probably the greatest risk of all to the tech industry, that they end up with an insular group of people with fixed mindsets.

Should that happen, then the wave of disruption Silicon Valley has unleashed on the world will end up being the industry’s undoing as smart kids working out of garages in Michigan or slums in Delhi will out innovate the staid, comfortable incumbents.

It’s also interesting to consider how many other industries are now suffering after several decades of similar recruiting practices where leading businesses are now dominated by insular, unworldly monocultures.

Image courtesy of Alexfurr on SXC.HU

Feb 122013
 
Apple has a new iOS6 for ipad and iPhone

This morning ABC Radio 702 asked me to comment on Adobe, Apple and Microsoft being summonsed to appear before the Federal Parliament’s IT Pricing enquiry.

As has been widely reported, the committee has asked the software giants to explain why there are such price differentials between Australian and overseas prices.

By way of example, Adobe Creative Suite 6 is available on the company website for $1299 US which is AUD 1263 on today’s exchange rate. The listed Australian price is AUD 1974 – a mark up of 56%.

This is not new

Australia has long been an expensive place to buy things, I remember my parents in the 1970s asking relatives to send over Marks and Spencer underwear as prices in Melbourne were so expensive.

Books and music have long been overpriced, the publishing industry openly printed the price of books in various countries and the Australian price has always been substantially higher than UK and US charges given prevailing exchange rates.

The high exchange rate has focused attention on the high prices, while the Aussie dollar was low consumers were tolerant of the rip-off. With the Aussie dollar high, consumers are wondering why the prices of many imported goods, particularly software, has remained so high.

A lack of competition

One of the biggest reasons for Australians being overcharged for many items is the lack of competition in the domestic marketplace. Most distribution channels are dominated by one or two players which lends itself to price gouging in areas ranging from technology to food.

A good example of this is the brewing industry, a revealing Fairfax article examined the Australian beer sector and exposed the failings and lack of competition in the market which results in the multinational duopoly extracting five times the profits of local retailers.

The conservative nature of Australian consumers is their own worst enemy as locals, including corporations and governments, prefer to buy major brands rather than experiment with local or lesser known providers.

Where alternatives exist, the price differentials rapidly fall. The price differential for an iPad is far less than the software apps that run on it. The reason for this are the range of alternatives available to the Apple product.

If Australian buyers were to explore open source alternatives, smaller suppliers or locally developed products then the prices of imported goods would fall.

Structural weaknesses

The pricing inquiry illustrates  the structural weakness in the Australian economy where the nation has become a price taker both in the domestic consumer sector and bulk export industries.

Where Australia finds itself is an expected consequence of a generation of economic policies which favours debt driven consumer spending underpinned by selling assets and raw commodities.

Hopefully Australians are realising the price of software is just one of the consequences of current policies and start demanding the nation’s political and business leaders have a clear vision for what the country’s role will be in the 21st Century.

If that vision for Australia is a quarry with a few retirement homes clinging to the edge, then we’re well on the way to achieving that. At least software prices will be the least of anyone’s worries.

Feb 032013
 
apple seek to dominate schools and education

Are laptop computers really essential to educating our kids? Fairfax media reports this weekend that the Australian Federal government’s laptops in education scheme is near collapse.

What stands out from the story are the quotes from educators;

Chatswood High School principal Sue Low said her school was providing laptops to students in year 9 but the uncertainty over future plans was unsettling.

“Laptops are now just as much of the culture of education as are pens and paper,” she said. “To not have certainty over how we will administer laptops to our students is very disruptive, and we need that certainty as soon as possible.”

Some schools have come up with their own solution to the problem. One NSW school has made arrangements with a private provider under which parents can buy a laptop for $1341 or rent-to-buy for $90 with monthly payments of about $50.

That computers are important is not a debate, but are we putting to much emphasis on the tools and not enough on what education is trying to achieve?

One educator said a decade ago that they could teach an 80 year old to use a computer in a few hours, but an illiterate 15 year old may be lost for life. This is truer today than it was then.

Computers are flooding our lives with information and the tools to gather that information are intuitive and don’t need 12 years of school to master.

What we are all need are the critical and mathematical skills to filter out the dross and misinformation that floods onto our screens.

Old and young have the belief that if something is on the web, then it must be true. The biggest challenge for parents and teachers with the web is convincing kids that cutting and pasting huge slabs of Wikipedia into an assignment isn’t research.

Not that this is just a problem in the classroom – plenty of politicians, business leaders and time poor journalists have been caught out plagiarising Wikipedia and other websites.

In recent times I’ve been to a lot of ‘future of media’ events where the importance of ‘data journalism’ has been raised. What really sticks out listening to these is how poorly equipped both young and old journalists are to evaluate the data they’ve gathered.

This isn’t just a problem in journalism – almost every occupation needs these skills. We could argue those skills are essential for citizens who want to participate in a modern democracy.

Computers, and coding skills, are important but we risk giving students the skills of today rather than giving them the foundations to adopt the skills of tomorrow.

We also risk making technological choices that risk education departments, schools and kids being locked into one vendor or system.

Giving every child a laptop is not a replacement for them having the critical, literacy and numeracy skills to participate in 21st Century society.