Apr 052014
using an iPad and the cloud for a point of sale cash register

I’m writing up a review of  the Emergency Services Integrated Communications Vehicle that was showcased at the Melbourne Cisco Live event a few weeks back.

An comment by one of the National Safety Agency people during the tour was notable; “we need to have modern technology if we want to attract young people.”

The spokesperson was talking about offering iPad and Android apps for the emergency services workers, particularly in the context of firefighting volunteers having an average age approaching 50.

Needing the latest technology to attract younger volunteers or workers is an interesting view which I’m not wholly convinced about.

Do we really need the latest technology do attract younger workers and volunteers or are is this another example of trying to apply tech to a more fundamental problem?

Mar 302014

The latest Decoding the New Economy video is an interview with wine photographer Charles O’Rear.

Charles was on tour with Microsoft to promote the end of Windows XP, it was his photo of a Napa Valley hillside that became the background feature the system’s default ‘Bliss’ theme.

The interview is a long ranging discussion on how photojournalism has changed over the last four decades along with the evolution of both the art and science of photography itself.

Mar 062014

Microsoft’s task of securing its software was a huge undertaking, one that isn’t over yet.

One of the great, and possibly under recognised, business achievements of the computer age was Bill Gates’ recognition that Microsoft’s online strategy was flawed shortly after releasing Windows 95. A few years later he had to repeat the task when the company found its products were almost dangerously insecure.

In a sprawling account of the company’s response to the security problems at the turn of the century, Life In The Digital Crosshairs, describes how Microsoft’s engineers responded to their then CEO’s call for Trustworthy Computing.

The problems at the time were vast, compounded by Microsoft’s failure to take security seriously – the first version of Windows XP came out without a firewall which ensured thousands of users were quickly infected by the computer worms rampant on many ISPs networks at the time.

As the story tells, it was a long difficult task for Microsoft to change complex and interdependent computer code involving 8,500 of the company’s engineers.

One suspects the cultural challenges were even greater in getting the managers supervising the army of engineers to understand just how serious the security threat was to Microsoft’s users.

The biggest challenge though was Microsoft’s own product line; because the company hadn’t ‘baked’ security into its software, key products like Microsoft Office relied on lax security practices to work properly.

Office and Windows also had the problem of legacy code and applications; one of Microsoft’s selling points over Apple and other competitor systems was that the company took pride in supporting older hardware and software, this in itself creates security risks when programs designed in the MS-DOS days still want to write to the system kernel.

For Microsoft the journey isn’t over, although the shift to cloud computing has changed – and simplified – the company’s security quest by making legacy issues in Office and Windows less important.

Microsoft and Gates’ success in seeing off the threats posed by the internet gave the company another decade of computer industry dominance, however dealing with security issues was nowhere near successful.

In the end however it wasn’t security issues that saw Microsoft lose its dominance; the internet eventually prevailed as Apple revolutionised mobile computing while Amazon and Google improved cloud services.

With Bill Gates reportedly finding himself getting more involved in the company he founded, the challenges of both the internet and security are two that he’s going to be very familiar with. It will be interesting to see what we write about Microsoft in 2022.

Mar 042014

Are we coming to the end of the hand crafted era of software development? Pegasystem’s Alan Trefler thinks so.

“Technology has completely dis-served the modern economy;” Alan Trefler, the founder and CEO of software vendor Pega Systems, told the audience at the opening of his company’s new office in Sydney yesterday.

Trefler sees there being an ‘execution gap’ between what software promises and actually delivers; that development is too slow and programs don’t give users what they need.

Ending the hand crafted software era

A key reason for this in Trefler’s view is that too much software is ‘hand crafted’ and that his company’s object orientated methods speeds up development time and delivers a better product.

This may well be true, Pegasoftware’s client list is impressive, however moving from the age of ‘hand crafted software’ may well spell the end of many IT industry worker’s careers.

One of Pegasystem’s key Australian customers is the Commonwealth Bank and the company’s CIO, Michael Harte, gave some comments at the opening that illustrated how the software industry is changing.

Freeing up resources

“Does an IT organisation want to change fast enough to adopt a new model driven approach so they can free up capital and free up resources?” Harte asked.

That freeing up resources and capital is exactly what befell the Luddites when the 18th Century mill owners decided to change the technology they used.

For modern IT workers, the last decade has been tough as a whole generation of business analysts, software engineers and project managers have found the enterprise computing industry has been offshored and automated; Harte and Trefler are describing how that process is by no means over.

“Older project models necessitated people to build a use case and then to design something, go through requirements and start crafting software, that’s on old idea,” says Harte who sees a model orientated approach as being more effective for modern enterprises.

Let the machines do the grunt work

That’s not to say that either men are pessimistic about the future of the software industry; both see an improved industry delivering better results for business.

“Let’s move people into higher order things and allow the machines to do the grunt work,” Harte urges.

“Not that long ago when I was learning how to do this stuff we’d have to fill in punch cards and then fill in Word Documents to write out technical requirement, that’s not much fun.”

“Lets have some fun and get some work done.”

Harte is describing a very different IT industry and workplace, one that doesn’t need older skills and – more importantly – doesn’t need as many clerks or middle managers carrying out routine administrative tasks.

It should be noted that both Harte and Trefler were adamant that their visions did not mean job losses when asked by this writer about the employment consequences, but it’s impossible not to come to the conclusion that a fundamental industry change means many skill sets become redundant – again this is what happened to the Luddites in the 18th Century fabric mills.

“What we think the next ten years are going to be about is changing those metaphors,” says Trefler. “There can be a more highly evolved communication between IT and business folk.”

Both Trefler and Harte see design as the future of software with most of the human work being in creating the interfaces that work for the people using the computers, this is where the high level, high value work is to be done.

The changes that Pegasystems are describing is not just an IT industry issue; these are changes that are happening across the workforce and in all sectors. For both managers and workers, it’s a time to refresh skillsets and understand where the value lies in what they do.

Many industries have products handmade by skilled tradesfolk become a thing of the past, it now appears the time has come for the IT industry’s craftsmen and women.

Feb 222014
how business managers drive strategies by asking basic questions

Developing counter terrorism strategies is an unlikely path to founding a business that deals in organisational change, the latest Decoding The New Economy video covers exactly this in an interview with David Snowden.

Snowden is the Chief Scientific Officer and founder of UK based consulting network Cognitive Edge that assists organisations with change and solving ‘intractable problems’.

A failing Snowden sees with the way most businesses approach organisational change and problem solving is “the case based approach that dominates most of society.”

“The idea is you find what other companies have done and you imitate it.” Snowden explains; “apart from the fact you can’t imitate the context, no company has succeeded other by imitating other people – they succeed by doing things differently.

“We take what we know about how the human brain works and we help people work those problems out.”

Safe to fail experiments

In approaching ‘intractable problems’, Snowden believes there are two ways to approach them; one is to set up ‘safe to fail’ experiments where smaller experiments are run in parallel within the organisation to see what innovative solutions arise.

The other approach involves using Snowden’s software based approach where staff or customers’ views are captured in real time to create a crowdsourced view of problems and their possible solutions.

“You can’t afford, for example, in market research to spend three months commissioning something, two months gathering the data and one month interpreting it.”

“If we create a sensor network of your customer we can give you data in real time.”

Consumers and terrorists

Dealing with real time data in public security are the origins of Cognitive Edge; “we started in counter terrorism where you have to deal with weak signal detection, you need fast real time feedback loops and you need to intervene very quickly.”

“There’s no difference between a terrorist, a customer, a citizen and an employee,” says Snowden. “They all represent the same problem which is how the hell does a large authority make sense of fragmented data.”

Developing human sensor networks

Snowden sees ‘human sensor networks’ where groups contribute their stories to create a narrative around a topic, as being one of the strongest intelligence and communications channels.

“Big data can tell us where you travelled, a narrative approach can tell why you travelled. If something goes wrong, I can also use that network to communicate.”

One project Snowden is looking at brings these concepts together to create new communication channels at airports, an idea that came to him after being stuck for two days at Toronto airport in a snowstorm, “frequent fliers have smartphones, they can be activated by the airlines and used as a communication mechanism.”

The interview with David Snowden is one of the most information and concept dense videos that I’ve done to date. It’s worthwhile listening this a few times to understand some of the fascinating fields he and Cognitive Edge are working in.

Feb 212014

How do we make sense of the masses of data entering our businesses? Tableau Software founder – and multiple Academy Award winner – Pat Hanrahan thinks he has the answer.

A major challenge presented by the Internet of Things is in understanding the data that’s generated by devices, data visualisation companies like Tableau Software are making easier to interpret what machines are telling us.

“The streaming data coming from sensors is a very interesting opportunity,” Tableau co-founder Pat Hanrahan told Network Globe when discussing machine to machine technologies, “there’s so much potential.”

A Stanford Professor and winner of three academy awards for Computer Generated Imagery, Hanrahan founded Tableau with Christian Chabot and Chris Stolte in 2003 with a mission to help people to understand data. Today the company employs a hundred people after going public last year.

The origins of Tableau came from Hanrahan tiring of the movie industry which he’d been part of since joining Pixar on graduating in 1987, “I was thinking could we use computer graphics for other things, I want to find something more work related so I got interested in data visualisation.”

Hanrahan teamed with Stolte, who was one of his students, to set up a company called Polaris that became the basis of Tableau; “it was a classic Stanford start-up, Google was literally right next to us. I remember when the company started, Larry Page came to our office party.”

Making data accessible

“I’ve always been fascinated with taking the high end stuff and making it more accessible” says Hanrahan. “We’re in a transition phase, where we’re tying to figure out how to make it more accessible.”

Helping those who are passionate about facts and reasons is one of Tableau’s missions,”we have fanatical customers,” says Hanrahan.

“If you’re one of the rare people who use facts and reasons to solve the world’s problems then you are persecuted, you are on a mission, you’re going to convince those crazies that you’re right and you’re wrong and that’s why they’re so fanatical about our product.”

“There’s a little bit of hype around big data right now, but it’s a very real trend;” states Hanrahan. “Just look at the increase in the amount of data that’s been going up exponentially and that’s just the natural result of technology; we have more sensors, we collect more data, we have faster computer and bigger disks.”

A good example of the exponential growth in computing power is in how the smartphone has developed, citing how far computers have come since 1997 when IBM’s Deep Blue computer beat Kasparov, “at the time both Kasparov and the computer were rated 2700, the best chess programs now are rated 3800.”

“The chess program running on my iPhone is rated above 3000,” observes Hanrahan.

Despite the leaps in power, Hanrahan doesn’t see algorithms completely replacing the human touch, “you have the technology and resources to do this but you still need someone to figure out how to make it accessible.”

One of the keys to understanding information is to be literate in using it, “every student should be efficient in using data,” Hanrahan says and he sees data analysis skills as being essential in the future workforce; “we have to know how to ask the right questions.”

Making the data generated by connected machines accessible to the public, workers and managers is going to be one of the big challenges for organisations over the next decades; it’s an area where companies like Tableau are going to do well.

Feb 182014
grumpy girl small

I’ve previously flagged how the IT industry fixates on the consumer sector, the Kickstart forum on Australia’s Gold Coast emphasised this with vendors, particularly those in the Internet of Things market, focusing on home users.

This is mindset is understandable given the huge numbers being cited for consumer applications, but the sneaking suspicion is that home users simply aren’t going to pay for these technologies and that the real money will be made in helping the retail sector deliver services to customers.

On Networked Globe today we discuss that quandary, it’s something that both vendors, consumers and small businesses should be thinking about given the way it’s going to change supply chains and entire industries.