Digging deeper into Watson’s win

By now you’ve probably had your fill of the whole topic of machine bettering human as was allegedly evidenced by a recent well-covered episode of the game show, Jeopardy. I doubt however, that you’ve had the time, or maybe even the interest, to dig a little deeper into that.

The daily deadline-driven media loves to put these sorts of stories front and center, I think, to raise controversy, discussion, and a general state of societal anxiety and panic.  Which, of course, creates a much better environment for selling the next day’s edition and the one after that. I don’t dismiss the newsworthy-ness of the event. It is impressive that we’ve reached a point in time where a computer can play a game with, and beat, humans who are recognized champions. What I find silly is the question of whether we’ve reached a point where machines are “thinking” at the same level as humans. The outcome of that game does not support such a conclusion. The outcome supports the conclusion that IBM assembled one very fast machine, with sophisticated programming, and which excels at multi-tasking.

Read this McKinsey report about IBM’s Watson if you want to better-understand the basic computing principles that played out on February 16.

The perils of only one reading

Much has been made of the perils of Twittering without thinking.  Examples abound of those who typed glibly and then suffered the wrath of hundreds, thousands, millions of people.  Although probably still too early to determine, recent inappropriate and insensitive tweets by Kenneth Cole posed an almost instant threat to his clothing empire.  And over this last week we had Nir Rosen destroying his entire career by typing and sending before he gave a second thought. 

This is why I believe each social media tool has its special purpose and since we live in unforgiving times, a mistake in usage can be costly in many ways.  Rosen lost his job, Cole probably lost a lot of money, but what we don’t know is how their hugely spread messages affected others.  We can guess but we will never know.

Facebook , LinkedIn, other similar sites are clearly successful at connecting people, even people who had no idea they could benefit from such connections. The trouble comes, of course, when that innocence of friending is abused.  Twitter is good when it is used to push concise thoughts that are, if measured and rated by individuals unknown to the sender, considered useful or even valuable.  Used in any other way, Twitter becomes nothing but noise, a swarm of gnats, mostly, but not always, harmless and annoying. And despite reports that blogging popularity is fading, I still feel it’s the wisest and smartest way to communicate your message on the Internet. Time for consideration is wise, there is no need to rush to be first, there is no winning in that. Give your words a first, second, and third reading. Then read them again and ask two questions:

  1. Does this make sense?
  2. Will the reader see any value at all in this string of words?

Building my tribe

I guess you could say I was raised in humble surroundings, with an understanding at a very early age that a thing I might desire would not come my way until I first imagined it as mine and then try to earn it. We didn’t have much, even in comparison to our neighbors, so my youthful expectations were that once I reached the quasi-independence of my mid-teen years, life would then be a steady build towards success (whatever that might look like) and security (ditto). Looking back, I credit my father who seemed to optimistically face life each day knowing that things were always better than they used to be, and that years from now they would be better still. In modern business speak, he took the long view. 

I was reminded of his approach while I examined the statistics on WordPress for this blog you’re visiting and reading. Writing a blog is a lonely endeavor for the vast majority of people who give it a try. To gain notoriety, both good and bad, it seems you have to do one of four things:

  1. Beat everyone else to the punch with new information or a new twist on the old
  2. Be provocative, mean, or outrageous
  3. Post a video of someone unknown doing one interesting thing that many of us wish we had the courage to do, or that makes us turn away with shame, embarrassment, or incredulity
  4. Be original and consistent with an overall message that resonates deeply with readers

Although #1, 2, and 3 are wildly successful methods by the way success is measured today (i.e. # of page hits, the mainstream media breathlessly lending credence to that one measure by referring to anything popular as having gone “viral”), I can assure you that they are not my style. The number of visitors to my blog increases on a daily basis and although it’s reassuring to know I’m not writing into a complete void, and while I appreciate each authentic visit, I’m arriving at the conclusion that the number is not an important metric.  Check out this blog post from Neal Shaffer in which he lists his favorite blogs from Seth Godin.   The one that I most clearly relate to is #10…..Use Social Media to Build Your Own Unique Tribe, 10 People at a Time

I’ve decided to take the long view and build my tribe.  Want to be part of it?  🙂

No dot-com bust now

It wasn’t that long ago that there were legions of skeptics who dismissed the idea of an Internet-driven economy.  For every optimistic start-up entrepreneur and pioneering end-user willing to wager leveraged and real money, there were probably hundreds of thousands people who swore they would never trust, let alone rely on, the Internet to conduct financial transactions.  That was before Amazon survived the dot.com bust and figured out their business model, Google created a whole new category of revenue generation, and Facebook came along to bring a half billion people together.  Seems impossible to believe now that so many of the world’s economies are powered by Internet-based activities.  The fact that those economies are now so interwoven and reliant on the ability to connect with each other through pipes of glass fibers demonstrates that the Internet’s economic impact cannot be overstated.   When the United Nations strikes a committee to discuss the need to police the Internet, you know the world has turned a corner and cannot go back.   And if we needed any more proof that the wealth of nations is bound up in the ability of servers to connect with each other, take a look at this report.   It’s from the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development), which is an international body that promotes trade and economic growth.  The report is the first I’ve seen that quantifies the economic impact to Egypt’s economy of that government’s successful shutdown of the Internet within their borders for five days during the recent remarkable uprising.   $18M USD per day in a poor nation.  Can you imagine what the impact would be in a rich one?

Turning down the noise

It’s graphically appealing, textually thin, smartly formatted, and very interesting.  It’s a report called The Social Break-up and it was published this week by ExactTarget.  I got the heads-up from Krista Napier’s blog (link to her blog can be found just to the right on this page under Blogroll) so I can’t say I discovered the report on my own.  Nevertheless, I can add some color by saying I think the survey findings are spot on.  It’s good to see some data to support my view that corporations so easily risk tipping over their fan base’s tolerance for information when they email (directly or through Facebook), blog, and tweet too much.  More specifically, they erode the interest of people who were once engaged but who become jaded and irritated when companies communicate in too impersonal a way, too often, and about things that are rather inconsequential. Check it out. Its message should really be a strong word of caution to those who fail to understand that Internet-connected users are no different from the users of any other form of technology.  They want information that is interesting, preferably targeted to them as individuals, and respectful of their time (i.e. don’t fill my letter box at home with flyers, don’t waste my precious time by calling me on the phone at dinnertime, and don’t email me about the same topic you emailed me about yesterday or last week).

Salesforce.com stays put in SF

Marc Benioff is the CEO of Salesforce.com and in this interview with the Wall Street Journal he pretty much nails exactly how I feel about location for high-tech firms.  Despite higher costs in terms of office space, employee living expenses, and density of traffic, he’s decided to keep Salesforce.com in San Francisco rather than relocating to Silicon Valley.  I suspect if he was on this side of the continent, here in Toronto where I live, he would have made the same decision for the same reasons.  He mentioned the concentration of highly educated people and the wealth in number and variety of restaurants but I would add a broader, and more difficult to measure, metric.  A heterogeneous culture should be a desirable characteristic for high-tech firms when they are seeking locations because of its unmatched potential to ultimately reflect the market they intend to serve with their products.  What better way to create something for a wide cross-section of society than by employing people who reflect it?

So why do companies locate far from centers of action?  It probably makes sense for some types of businesses because of the cost of property and they feel there is nothing really compelling about the city from a business point of view.  Meaning that the level of  doubt about the ability to attract and maintain qualified staff is considered low, and a dearth of local amenities is not seen as important.  And to my earlier point, perhaps the product produced is meant for only a narrow slice of society. Therefore those variables are not factored in.  But for high-tech firms that need to cover a wide swath of society with their products, and that rely upon the energy, vitality, and flexibility of youth, it makes sense to locate where those people are and where they prefer to be.  You can’t beat SF and Toronto for that.

Benioff’s decision confirmed for me ideas that have been presented by people like Richard Florida of The Martin Prosperity Institute. In this article about the knowledge in cities he cites data showing various cities in North America and, basically, what they are good at.  While San Jose shows up (logically) as an engineering and IT place, Toronto (as well as Chicago, Los Angeles, and Miami ) show up as enterprising places.  Meaning that they have high knowledge of:  sales and marketing, economics and accounting, customer and personal service, and information technology and telecommunications.  In other words, they are broader and more diverse and have in place a solid infrastructure to support all aspects of the knowledge economy.  San Francisco was not mentioned in Florida’s blog post but it might be in the report he speaks to.  Anyway, SF is much smaller but very similar to Toronto in many cultural ways.  The decision to keep his company in the city doesn’t surprise me and I think it’s a great one.   Benioff needs to keep growing his culture and that culture is fed by the environment of the city. As he says in the interview, “I honestly think it’s so much better. I worked in Silicon Valley for 13 years. There are no restaurants, there is no shopping, there is no energy.”

Yes, exactly.

IT matters, but it shouldn’t

Remember back in 2003 when Nicholas Carr upset a raft of people with his “Why IT Doesn’t Matter” article in the Harvard Business Review?  It was a very provocative title that warped his real meaning.  The thrust of his argument was that IT had become a commodity and did not provide companies with a competitive advantage.  Therefore, business executives should examine and rethink the way they invest in technology and IT.  The article’s hyped title offended a great many people in IT who spent (I suspect) an inordinate amount of time coming up with proof to refute Mr. Carr’s argument. 

I work in IT and I think he was right, not in the message of the title but in the message of his content.  IT did become commoditized and that was a good thing.  ITIL and automation were smart developments that took us all down that path of standard processes, of trying to remove human and software intersect points.  We had no choice but to strive for that because it was the only way we could scale to the needs of the business.   Throw into the mix a healthy employment market for IT workers and we had the predictable outcome…. one well-run IT shop looked like every other well-run IT shop.  Now we’re seeing the next evolution of that direction with the popularization of Cloud Computing.  Talk about commoditization; that’s what the Cloud is all about.   Companies will always be able to find a competitive advantage somewhere in their processes and Cloud Computing will be one method, but just for awhile until it becomes the widely accepted and standard means of delivering service.  Then, as Mr. Carr predicts in his book ” The Big Switch“, computing will be seen the same way electricity is seen today, invisibly and unconsciously to most people.  We’re not there yet but the industry is certainly on the right track.