Category Archives: Smalltalk

A Techie’s View on Marketing

As a very technical person I have a somewhat unusual view on marketing. I do not buy into the “utterly useless” verdict that some technical folks have on marketing. But I also think that, probably just like us techies, some marketing folks overrate the importance of their domain. And I should probably add here that this post is written with enterprise software as the product category in mind. So naturally, a lot of the details will not match low-price consumer products.

In a nutshell I think that it is marketing’s job to attract (positive) attention of potential buyers. This can happen on several levels, e.g. brand or product marketing, online and print media, etc.  It also often includes special events and being present on trade shows. And last but not least, a relatively recent thing is called developer relations, where hard-core technical people are the specific target audience.

All these activities have the common goal to present a coherent and positive message to the (prospective) customer. The different stakeholders have vastly different demands, because of the perspective they take on the product (in this writing that always means services as well) and their background. So, put simply, they all need a message tailored to their need, which, at the same time, must be consistent with all the other versions for the other target channels.

On a high level that is not such a big deal. But at a closer look the different messages should not only be consistent but also be linked together at the correct points. Imagine a conversation where you just told a VP of logistics why your product really provides the value you claim. If you are then able to elegantly look over to the enterprise architect and explain why the product fits nicely into their overall IT strategy, that is a huge plus. And if you can then even bring the IT operations manager on board, with a side note about nice pre-built integrations with ITIL tools, you have done a really great job.

Some people will probably say that the hypothetical scenario above goes beyond marketing. I would say that it is beyond what a typical marketing department does. But the interesting question is where the content for such a conversation comes from. Is it the marketing department that employs some high-caliber people that are capable to bridge the various gaps? Or is it the sales team that has prepared things as an individual exercise (which often means that it is a one-off)?

The choice will greatly influence at least two critical KPIs. Cost of sales and lead conversion rate. The former is rather obvious, because it is about re-use and efficiency. But, as it is so often, the latter is much more critical because here we talk about effectiveness. Or in other words: It hurts much more if the deal is lost after having spent thousands of Euros or Dollars, than if we had to pay an additional 500 bucks to have an additional presentation be made that secures the deal.

This is in fact one of the things where in my view too many people have a predisposition for the wrong thing. Many will gladly jump onto how something could be done better, cheaper, etc. But relatively few will take a step back and ask whether it is the right thing to do in the first place.

The critical thing is that the various marketing messages are consistent with one another and, much more importantly, with the post-sales reality. Putting “lipstick on a pig” is not good marketing but somewhere between bullshitting and fraud. And the most precious thing in customer relationship is trust. So unless you need a deal to literally survive the next few weeks, you should resist the temptation to screw your customer. Word gets around …

Corona Virus: Careless People

I had not planned to write something on the Corona virus. What meaningful content could I produce that was not out there yet? But the point has come where I need to reflect on a few things for myself. So why not share this …

My overall take is that there is a remarkable number of people out there who combine ignorance (I only believe what I see and/or understand) and lack of compassion (it’s ok as long as I don’t die). Or is it simply selfishness? I mean, how can anyone in their right mind accept the fact that there is a risk of someone else dying, just because he or she “needs” to  party?

When I grew up, my parents (born in the early 1940s) would occasionally talk about things they remembered from their early childhood. E.g. the extreme winter of 1946/47 where it was so cold in the house that water froze in the jar over night. Or how it was common to walk to school for at least 30 minutes one way regardless of the weather. It never frightened me, but in hindsight I guess that it instilled a feeling of being thankful for what my sister and I did not have to endure.

Both my parents had had a happy childhood. Very modest by today’s standards, but with loving parents that were understanding and forgiving. But there had also been rules and all this was passed on to us children (born in the mid-1970s). So my sister and I learned a decent amount of discipline, but there was also a lot of freedom and fun.

In addition we experienced a few setbacks that our parents had carefully selected for learning. During those “exercises” it was always clear to us that nothing catastrophic would come our way. But we learned that life is not always fair, that we do not always get what we want (may we deserve it or not), and that we are not “special”. (We knew that we were special for our parents, though.) All in all this made us somewhat modest, resilient, and compassionate.

What I have often seen in education over the last 15 to 20 years is that parents long to make their children happy all the time. To keep any hardship away from them. This is done with the best of intentions, but it is not the parents’ job. What they need to do is prepare the children for an independent life. Yes, that includes fun, freedom, a safe harbor, etc. But it also requires learning how to deal with rules, frustration, setbacks, and all sorts of challenges.

Most importantly children need to learn that it is not always about them. That they are part of a community (in fact of many communities with a different role in each of them) where it is often necessary to compromise. Personal freedom has its limits where it affects others in a negative way. But how can children develop a sense for this, if they get what they want all the time?

The teenagers that go out and party, risking to infect others who might die as a consequence, are not the ones to blame. Responsible are those who failed to instill the right values and behaviors into them. Yes, that may include the parents. But society as  a whole is to blame as well. And this is where I have hope that at least one positive thing may come out of the Corona crisis (although the price is terrible). That we will start to reflect on what is critical for society as a whole and how to make it part of our lives.

Good luck to all of us!

Understanding the Problem

In recent weeks I have come across a number of readings and videos, which brought forward something that, in hindsight, had been nagging me for a very long time. Unfortunately I cannot provide a list of said material, because it has all happened subconsciously and only just “erupted” a few minutes before I started writing this.

The subject in question is the relevance of understanding a given problem for determining a solution. This sounds totally obvious if not even a bit silly, I admit. How would anyone be able to work on a problem that is not understood? But it becomes less silly if we re-phrase things a little bit.

So far the wording implied a somewhat binary view: Either the problem is understood or not. But in reality very little is truly binary. So instead we could say that the level of understanding of a problem is the primary driver for the outcome of the attempt to solve it. Admittedly, this still sounds pretty obvious.

The next stage in dissecting would be to say that a problem needs to be understood well enough to find a sufficient solution. And here it starts getting interesting, since we basically have an equation with two variables.

The first is about being “sufficient”. Because of resource constraints most problems will be approached with the aim to apply only a “just good enough” solution. In my profession (software engineering) this usually means a quick fix rather than a clean approach with refactoring and all the other good stuff.

What I personally consider more impactful, though, is the “well enough”. Most people I have met so far, do happily go for the first explanation of a problem and consider it a sufficient basis for determining how it should be approached. But in many cases this means only that the symptom has been identified correctly. Neither has the direct cause for the symptom been found, nor the root cause. I see several reasons why people jump onto the “obvious” reason so eagerly rather than to dig in.

  • Different layers: Like in medicine the symptom, the direct cause, the indirect cause(s), and the root cause can be in different “hemispheres”. In business this could be customer churn, caused by bad customer support, caused by a missing link in a process, caused by misalignment of two separate organizational units, caused by personal animosity between their bosses.
  • Motivation and personal objectives: Unless people have a mind that genuinely strives for perfectionism, they will factor in their personal objectives to determine how much energy to put into something. And in most cases this simply means to invest as little effort as possible.
  • Importance not considered high enough: While the personal objectives point above is, at its core, about a selfish decision to optimize personal gain, this is about a perceived objective lack of importance. If I genuinely believe that something is more or less irrelevant, why would I bother (irrespective of personal gain)?
  • Happiness to have found anything: This is basically about impulse control. Rather than exert self-control and think about whether or not there might be other and/or additional aspects, people simply jump onto the first thing that comes their way.
  • Lack of knowledge: The difference to the happiness point is purely the motivation. While the result is the same, the reason here is sheer necessity, since people do not know enough on the subject. So they are just glad to have come up with something at all.

When you follow the line of argument, you will have the fundamental reason why larger organizations so often struggle to even solve the simplest challenges in a proper way. Instead you will mostly see a myriad of changes that are applied, at best, with local optimization in mind. The latter, unfortunately, means that you are almost always moving further away from a global optimum. What good is it for a company if one department improves the financial bottom line of the current quarter at the expense of disgruntled customers that spread the word?

New Notebook

After more than seven years my beloved MacBook Pro 15″ (late 2011) has died the GPU death. Before that I have had at least three replacement motherboards, the first after less than 24 hours of owning the thing. All these replacements were free-of-charge and without any hassle. So no complaints from that end. But given Apple’s abysmal product strategy in recent years, and particularly the butterfly keyboard, it was no option to buy a MacBook again.

To be clear on the keyboard topic: My primary objection against the butterfly keyboard is not its reliability, or lack thereof. For me it is simply a very bad keyboard with its short-travel keys. Yes, I am lucky to own an original IBM Model M and that sets a very high bar. But there are quite a few people I know who share that verdict.

Another factor not in favor of Apple was its pricing strategy and the fact that repair is next to impossible. Why would I want to spend enormous amounts of money (approximately EUR 3.500 for what I want) on a machine that cannot be repaired, upgraded, and is thermally constrained anyway? And quite honestly, with all the systematic product issue that existed for more than a decade, why would I believe this has changed?

I still own a Mac Mini from 2011 but it is months that I last used it. And after a number of years when I was really(!) happy with MacOS, I am finally departing from the latter. Overall, I got the impression that the management folks of Apple are going though the “harvesting” phase, where bean-counters have taken the reign after the founder(s) were gone. The same has happened to Hewlett-Packard, which I have had the privilege to work for many years ago. They, as so many others, had the same problem: People at the helm that do not really understand the business, but just apply methods they learned at business school. And for a number of years that works. Until it does not anymore …

So I ended up in the Windows camp, again. While Linux is my OS of choice on the back-end/server side, it has been failing to convince me for the desktop for the last 24 years. Yes, I started using Linux in 1995. And for special purposes I have used it on the desktop, usually via X11, where it made sense to me. In the 1990s that was technical development as well as authoring papers for university with LaTeX. And while a recent attempt, using KDE Neon, showed great improvements, there are still too many things that simply work better for me in Windows.

As to the actual notebook, I was pointed to the Razer Blade 15 (2018 base model) from various YouTube videos. It is a great machine and I had gotten a pretty good deal on Amazon for it. Everything was great – but the keyboard. The latter is something you can find mentioned in a number of reviews, but I must admit that I had underestimated it greatly. This is really sad, because otherwise it would have been the perfect machine for me. So where did I end up instead as keyboard afficionado?

Yes, a Thinkpad T model. What else! More precisely a Thinkpad T490 with a full-HD display, 16 GB of RAM and a 1 TB SSD. This blog post is actually the first one written on the T490 and the keyboard is an absolute treat. What drove IBM to sell this part of the business to Lenovo? Oh yes, the harvesting phase ;-).

Ten Years of Blogging

It is still a somewhat strange feeling that I have been running this blog for a bit more than ten years now. There were phases when I posted pictures from my (job) travels and others when I focused more on genuine content. The latter is mostly about software engineering and management. This may seem like an odd mixture, but it pretty much reflects my interests as well as professional development.

Another type of posts are just links to videos that I find interesting or amusing. These “articles” have the nice side-effect to not require too much time to write ;-). I had discovered YouTube as source of non-trivial content rather late and all the more fascinated I still am with some of it. Two channels stick out in particular for me: GOTO Conferences and TED.

During the second half of 2018 I had to slow down my blogging activities quite a bit due to family commitments. But I will try to slowly increase the pace again. After all, there is a lot of things that I would like to write about. This helps me to become clearer on the topic at hand, because a consistent story line requires a lot more thinking than a few (mental) bullet points.

So I am looking forward for the next ten years :-).

Linux and Me

Although it is not a focal point of my professional live any more, Linux and I share a long common history. My first encounter was with “S.u.S.E. Linux August 1995″ (kernel 1.1.12) in October or November of 1995. Until then I had only played around a bit with MINIX 1.5 on a  80286-based PC. But it had been a bit of a disappointment for me and I never really got into things.

This changed dramatically with Linux. I spent many hours trying to get a setup with X11 (only FVWM2 was available as window manager then) to work. This was not as easy as today. There was no, or very little, support from YaST, the setup tool of SuSE. And one had to be careful with the monitor (CRT of course) configuration. Because too high frequencies could physically damage your monitor. I never used the system to actually perform any work, it was solely for learning.

This changed with SuSE 4.4 and even more so with SuSE 6.1. I do not remember the exact dates, but SuSE 6.1 was installed in late 1997 when I ran my own small company as a “side-project” to my university studies. But since the company was highly successful, I soon used things like HylaFax on Linux and of course also ran my local mail server (sendmail can be a challenge, especially when Google does not exist yet). There even was a dial-in modem for terminal connections.

What I always disliked about SuSE, was that the updates from one version to another never really worked for me. So in about 2002 I finally decided to switch to Debian Woody (3.0). That was again a learning curve, but the apt packaging system was vastly superior to what I had seen on SuSE before and I never had problems with upgrades. The experience gained then is also quite helpful these days for the Raspberry Pi.

Things continued with CentOS, Fedora, and Ubuntu – with the last two powering my company notebook for a short while back in 2008. But the experience was mixed and I never liked Linux as a general-purpose desktop operating system. I had used it extensively for writing LaTeX documents (using Xfig a lot for diagrams) during my university time. But other than that, for too many Windows (or later Mac) applications I never found a proper replacement.

But for servers Linux is definitely my preferred OS. And especially so because most of the innovations of the last years, like configuration management systems (e.g. Chef, Puppet, Ansible) and containers (e.g. Docker), came to live on Linux.