My Geek Origin story, what's your story?

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This post was inspired by Michael Kordahi, well known to many as @delic8genius, who put out a call encouraging to geeks to share their geek origin stories.

My geek origin is shrouded in the mists of time.  It was so long ago that there is no only one photographic record [update: which is now in the hands of Michael Kordahi, heaven help me].  But there was a revolution going on and I became part of it.

During school and university I had no interest in technology or gadgets.  My passion was for the humanities – history, philosophy, anthropology.  Nothing to do with any of the so-called ‘hard sciences’ or mathematics.

But my first job was in a bank, one of those boring jobs I mentioned recently. Thus my first exposure to computers was to the mysterious mainframes to which one submitted requests that were returned, if you were lucky, two days later.

Yet I was still not attracted to technology. After all, what was there to love about the cold hard mainframe? And where was the immediate gratification?

After escaping from the job in a bank to a stockbroking firm I was given client trust accounts to manage.  There were lots of things to track. Again we relied on the slow and klunky mainframe (oh the joys of JCL and TSO I could recount).  Then a colleague showed me his new gadget – a personal computer running MS DOS – it was the only one in the office, nay the only one in the building.

That gadget fascinated me and, before my colleague realised it, I had co-opted the machine for myself.  I was suddenly able to keep track of things using new fangled things called spreadsheets. Then I discovered you could make it do what you wanted by writing programs.

Not yet a geek, but well on my way toward it.

Landed my next job partly due to my PC skills, still doing finance work.  But one day I was standing in the kitchen chatting with the CEO (as you do) and happened to mention that there was a problem with the computer system in the office.

[Pro-tip: never casually mention problems to a CEO unless you are prepared to help fix them]

She mentioned that we needed an IT manager and, since I sounded like I knew about that ‘stuff’, asked if I wanted the job.  My ‘prudent’ response (having no experience at all for this job) was “yes”.

Thus began my geek apprenticeship: inheriting the world’s most unstable and unreliable Unix system and applications. From there I discovered how hardware, operating systems, networks and databases work; and how various programming languages work (starting with shell scripts and moving on from there). It was endlessly fascinating.  Eventually I had to accept that no one can ever know everything about technology. I also had to accept that I am a very bad software programmer and an even worse metadata modeller.

The next interesting thing I came across was a guy in Finland who proposed an open source version of Unix, eventually known as Linux. In retrospect, by that time, there had been an evolution in my life: from the early days of humanities studies, to hanging out with friends for days on end (eating pizza) while we fooled about reverse engineering kernels. By this stage I was an unconscious geek (i.e. a geek but completely unaware of this fact, even though a member of AUUG).

Then came the web.  From the first time I heard about the web and hypertext it held enormous fascination. The power inherent in the notion of hyperlinking and hyperconnecting documents, people and things seemed to have great promise.

From the early days of the web I worked on enterprise web development, managing teams who were building large scale web applications.  The roles varied: project manager, enterprise architect, software development manager, consultant.

In the late 1990s I worked as one of the architects on a large scale middleware application – we called it a “multi-channel integration architecture” – that enabled multiple front end channels to interconnect with heterogenous backend systems.  Off-the-shelf middleware like we have now did not really exist so it had to be created from scratch.

From there I moved onto development of early e-commerce for both B2B and B2C, and customisation of supply chainERP and CRM systems. The power of technology to revolutionise business and business models inspired me to study management, marketing and e-commerce at university.

While working on all these large-scale enterprise systems, I was also playing with what has come to be called web 2.0 and experimenting on my own time. Learning HTML and other scripting languages for fun.  Started blogging for fun too, before blogging tools existed.  Was an early user of Blogger, Typepad and finally migrated to WordPress.

It was during the blogging that I finally became conscious of my geekiness.  But I didn’t really come out of the closet then since there weren’t many women geeks in my circles of acquaintance.

But with the advent of Twitter, and connecting with many amazing women who were also geeks, I finally came out of the closet and embraced my geekiness.

And that is the story of my geek origin, what’s your geek origin story? And, as Michael Kordahi (a.k.a. @delic8genius) said:

“This year at TechEd (super secret but super high profile project for now), I want to profile and capture your Geek Origin Stories.

What memories do you have that define you?

I’m looking for your personal stories that tap into what makes you geek. Stories like mine that tap into your geek DNA and the (tacit) attributes that define you.

So, please email me one or a few of your Geek Origin Stories. Also please include a photo or video of you being a young geek.

Email me at michael.kordahi@microsoft.com or post your own online and send me a link.”

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The future of shopping is social

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These are some thoughts that I presented at the AMP Social Media Cafe in Sydney on 11 November 2010, the slides and references follow below.

The future of shopping is social. But that is nothing new – shopping has always been social. The difference is that now we are seeing social interaction on a hyperconnected scale and the emergence of new competitors. It is still shopping, but social shopping is on steroids.

Firstly I want to give you a sense of the broader shopping landscape in the digital age.

There is a growing body of empirical research on retail effectiveness and the statistics are quite scary. As Sorenson notes “The shopper comes to the store to buy things. The retailer creates stores to sell things. Manufacturers create products to sell. Yet most of the shopper’s time in the store is spent not buying.”  And he notes further that “a single item in a store might attract only 300 seconds [of attention] from all shoppers in an entire week, about five minutes [in total]”.

This means that not only are shopping centres fighting to get and maintain traffic, but also that the traffic is not necessarily being well used by the retailers to sell products effectively. And this leaves each of them vulnerable to competition.

Yet the work we have been doing in the shopping business over the years can summarised quite nicely by this diagram by Robert Kozimets. And the model works equally well for retailers or for shopping malls. We have been building spaces for brands that cluster around either the transactional (think supermarkets) or the iconic (think of one of the new high fashion shopping centres).

But all of this is happening in a broader context. The economy is changing around us. We are moving into what I have come to call the engagement economy. But there are so many competitors how for a share of that attention ( as well as for a share of wallet) that it is important to be able to grab attention and then to drive ongoing engagement.

We’ve had social shopping for a long time – since commerce began. But the nature of competitors is changing. Before it was the other mall or the retailer down the road that we had to worry about. Now competitors include farmers’ markets in grocery and fresh food; virtual goods like digital video and music from iTunes; large online aggregators like Amazon (who perform many of the functions of a department store and are often cheaper); and new entrants such as online shopping clubs (of which more later).

This competitive landscape has evolved very fast – just look at this timeline from Sean Carton to see how fast. Two and a half thousand years ago we were writing on clay tablets and in the last decade the digital revolution has changed our lives. Many of us cannot imagine a world without the internet anymore.

Also media has been changed by this digital revolution too. Marketing and advertising are being reborn in this new digital world; while many newspapers around the globe cling tenuously to existence. This diagram by David Armano illustrates this phenomenon very well.  He nicely illustrates the fact that we are moving from lower engagement traditional media to higher engagement online social media.  After all not many people check their newspaper first thing in the morning, but some recent research indicated that many people check Facebook (or Twitter) before they go to the loo or brush their teeth in the morning.

And the tools of the digital revolution – web 2.0, social media, social networking and mobile devices – have changed the way people interact with each other and with brands.

Facebook is probably the best example of this change (although there are other similar services such as Twitter that are gaining ground). Facebook is important because it is changing what real people are doing with real time and attention every day all around the world.

But now hold that thought for a little while as we consider some other trends.

Let’s have a brief look at the evolution of shopping in the digital age.

There are a number of trends here:

  • Rise of mobile devices
  • Word of mouth via social networks
  • Social shopping
  • Collaborative shopping
  • Geo-social services (location based)
  • Putting geo-social into perspective

Social and collaborative shopping is reshaping the power relations between consumers and sellers.  New intermediaries are arising, ones who aggregate consumer demand via shopping clubs.  The fight for better value by consumers is shifting onto new territory.  And this shift will begin to manifest as changes in share of wallet for traditional retail channels.

The growing role of mobile devices also means that the shopping dynamic is changing.  Consumers can share realtime information and collaborate while they are on the move.  In the past we had to connect online via fixed PCs,but now the devices are always on and in our pockets and handbags.

Sites like Facebook are picking up on this trend with their adoption of Places – a geo-social application that enables users to share their physical location with friends (there are other contenders in the geo-social space too). And now the interesting thing is that we are seeing the merging of online and offline social activities with shopping and the integration of micropayments.  For example Facebook’s relatively recent addition of Buxter to enable peer to peer payments between friends.

It is very early days yet. We do not know where these trends are heading in particular. However, it is clear that geo-social applications have the potential to close the loop between online social networks and real world activity, especially when these are connected by online micropayment capabilities.

What we do know is that consumers are:

  • Going mobile
  • Sharing information via social networks
  • Collaborating via social networks
  • Shopping for virtual goods
  • Starting to use augmented reality

References
Sorensen, Herb, Inside the mind of the shopper: the science of retailing,  Safari Tech Books (ISBN: 0131366130), 2009
Lowrey, Tina, Brick & Mortar Shopping in the 21st Century (ISBN: 9781410618252), Psychology Press, 2007
Report: Consumer Shopping Experiences, Preferences, and Behaviors, Oct 2010, Art Technology Group, Inc. , http://www.atg.com/resource-library/white-papers/atg-online-shopping-study.pdf

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The business of being agile

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Recently I noted several large businesses announcing proudly they had adopted Agile development techniques – for example Suncorp, NBN Co, Allianz, Jemena.

There is a pattern to the adoption of a new methodology within an organisation. I have lived through the adoption of a number of new methodologies over the years at various companies, for example: Six Sigma, Total Quality Management, Lean, Capability Maturity Model, and Balanced Scorecard (to name a few).

Like many corporates adopting a new idea I suspect that these four companies are in the honeymoon phase. They are still getting managers used to the ideas, training staff in the new processes. And the critical things for success will be:

  1. consistency of management support,
  2. consistency of practice, and
  3. consistency of internal reward systems.

Without these three kinds of consistency the adoption of the new methodology is a real challenge. Most importantly the internal reward systems – not just remuneration, but also promotion and recognition – need to be recalibrated to support and endorse the new methodology.

To effectively support Agile development (or Agile adoption in any other part of the business) it is necessary to change some of the cherished management tools and practices that date from the days of Taylorism.

Agile means doing something that seems counter-intuitive. It means accepting the uncertainty which is inherent in so many business activities. It also means working with that uncertainty to create change and build value based on the social nature of business and the creative process. It also means that we shift away from long-term highly-structured and well-documented plans and towards smaller chunks of work. Thus certainty is achieved in small focus deliverables and there is an ability to quickly adapt to new business needs and requirements.

At about the same time I saw the news about these four companies I also discovered a wonderful summary of the challenges we often face in adopting agile in an enterprise context in the form of the Manifesto for Half-Arsed Agile Software Development. This sums up the situation facing organisations that want to adopt Agile practices successfully.

Manifesto for Half-Arsed Agile Software Development

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Ownership, new ideas and openness

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We see much discussion of the openness and collaborative nature of the web 2.0 world. However, many of the challenges facing us as a result of this new world relate to ownership of virtual goods.

There are longstanding conventions that enable us to sort out who owns property in the real world and some of the traditional principles of property rights include:

  1. control of the use of the property
  2. the right to any benefit from the property
  3. a right to transfer or sell the property
  4. a right to exclude others from the property.

[Source: Wikipedia]

But as we move further into the digital revolution then issues of ownership regarding digital assets and virtual goods comes to the fore.

However, some of the traditions of the web – such as openness – seem to be at odds with this notion of ownership. Also legal definitions might not be keeping up with the developments of these new digital and virtual goods. For example, what are the rules around a virtual good that I give away? What jurisdiction does it live in? How does title to the virtual good transfer?

These are all the questions facing the modern music industry with the shift to digital music. Locking down access does not seem to be working. Perhaps it is time to think about this from a fresh angle?

Other related issues are copyright and defamation. The old rules often seem very clunky and difficult to apply in this new digital world.

Some interesting questions for us to sort out. It will be interesting to see how this unfolds.

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Digital citizens need real world knowledge too

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It was fascinating to be at the inaugural Digital Citizens event in Sydney last week – the topic was: Private Parts: Personality and Disclosure – Finding a Balance in the Digital Space.

There was a great line up on the panel with visiting US lawyer and social media specialist Adrian Dayton (Social Media for Lawyers), Sam North (Ogilvy PR), Damian Damjanovski (BMF), and Renai LeMay (Delimiter), all wrangled expertly by the moderator Bronwen Clune (Strategeist).

It was a very thought provoking session with the panel and audience discussion. And the big takeway for me is that social media and its practitioners need to accept that we live within a particular social and legal context.

No matter how much we ‘social media’ types decry how poorly the law is setup to deal with what we do everyday, that is the situation we must deal with. The law moves much more slowly than changes in technology, and, upon consideration, maybe that’s not such a bad thing?

For example, Damian Damjanovski argued: “A lot of people out there use it as a personal communications method. There are lots of people with no more than 70 followers . When did we get to the point that this is suddenly publishing and should be treated as such?”

The fact is ordinary people are doing something that was once privileged – publishing. We are publishing content in many places now in the same ways that publishers (who have lawyers vetting much of their content) have for years.

Now that everywoman and everyman is a publisher we need to understand the rights and obligations that come with publication. We are no longer having a chat about something over dinner or at the pub with a bunch of mates. We are posting content (pretty much) for perpetuity and complaining when there are legal ramifications associated with that act.

It all made me think that perhaps a good topic for another Digital Citizens session would be about the legal issues associated with the act of publication on the web? Since, while Adrian Dayton was great, it would have been handy to have Australian lawyer on the panel.

A brief write-up of the event is also available on mUmBRELLA

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5 reasons crowdsourcing is stupid

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Crowdsourcing is very trendy these days and is touted as the answer to many of the ills of poor design and the need to reduce costs. In these cash strapped days any way to make innovation better-cheaper-faster is extremely desirable.

But crowdsourcing is just one of the many tools we have at our disposal, and each tool is suited to particular kinds of applications. To simply adopt an idea like this without considering its suitability to the problem domain or to the desired results can be risky.

To assist with critical thinking about crowdsourcing I have collected a few alternative viewpoints & list five reasons why it might not always be the best approach to adopt. Please note I do not agree with everything in the articles linked below – they are meant as a thought starter & to provide different perspectives on crowdsourcing (i.e. if you’ve got any issues with the articles please contact the author directly).

Since no single tool is the answer in all cases, here are a few times when crowdsourcing might not be the right solution:

1. When the crowd does not have sufficient understanding or knowledge

For crowdsourcing to work you need to find the right crowd.  If the technical or scientific knowledge required is rare then crowdsourcing might not be helpful unless you can find a crowd of people with the requisite foundational knowledge.

2. Where the problem is diffuse and complex

Crowdsourcing lends itself to solving clearly focused problems where there is little ambiguity or nuance – a great recent example of this was the DARPA balloon challenge.

For diffuse and complex problems it might be necessary to chunk up the challenge (if that is possible). And for problems that require painstaking layering of knowledge and information with long term focus it might not be commercially viable.

A good example of this is the discovery of longitude via crowdsourcing in the 18th century. It worked in the long run, but it took a really long time and was funded by the government. However, it might be argued that this kind of discovery would be much quicker today with computer power.

3. When you want to keep your plans secret

Clearly secrecy requires that only a few people know the secret. Thus crowdsourcing something that is meant to be a secret is probably a bad idea (unless you are executing a cunning hide in plain sight sort of plan).

4. Your problem needs to be compelling enough for contributors to care

Experience of Wikipedia indicates that people will contribute to things that are interesting to them. Thus if nobody cares about solving your problem then crowdsourcing might not be the answer.

To get an idea of how crowdsourcing works on an everyday basis there is a good discussion of how Wikipedia contributions happen by Henry Blodget in: Who The Hell Writes Wikipedia, Anyway?.

There is also a well known report by Forrester about Social Technographics that segments the participation of people within social networks. It shows that only a small proportion of people create or share content, a few active creators or editors, with the bulk of people lurking or not participating at all.

5. Crowdsourcing for complex problems requires dedicated resources

To undertake the kind of knowledge work required to solve complex problems contributors need uninterrupted time in the zone.

This is exemplified in some of the large open source software projects where companies pay people to work full time on open source projects for commercial advantage:

Many of the leaders of key projects (like Guido van Rossum, the inventor of Python, who works at Google (nasdaq: GOOG – news – people )) are paid by their employers to continue to lead their projects. Is there an open source community? Of course there is. But on the most prominent projects, the members of the community have jobs and are paid to work on open source because the software is so beneficial to their employers, even though it is not owned by them. True, there are hybrid models, and the smaller the project, the more likely it is unfunded. But when it becomes a big deal, open source becomes commercial.

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Hero or monster it all comes down to choices

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This is a very thought provoking TED talk from Philip Zimbardo. He’s famous for the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment.

Think about how you would react in certain situations (e.g. Abu Ghraib) – how easy it is to act in ways you might regret later? Hero or villain it all comes down to choices.

The other interesting thing to consider is how the growth in communications devices and information sharing technologies makes hiding evil acts so much harder nowadays. The revelations from Abu Ghraib are an excellent example.

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Web and the reshaping of IT

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I always like to keep up with what Dion Hinchcliffe’s thinking and recently he’s been talking about How the Web OS has begun to reshape IT and business, and particularly about how businesses are driving the change almost by accident, in spite of the IT department.

For example:

These days in the halls of IT departments around the world there is a growing realization that the next wave of outsourcing, things like cloud computing and crowdsourcing, are going to require responses that will forever change the trajectory of their current relationship with the business, or finally cause them to be relegated as a primarily administrative, keep-the-lights-on function.

What Dion describes really aligns with what I’m seeing in lots of companies and their IT departments. For many IT departments there seems to be a feeling of “if we just ignore it, ban it, or block it then it will all go away”.

The issue of what I tend to refer to as the shadow IT department is beginning to loom large.  This shadow department offers many of the IT department’s capabilities, but they are accessible by ordinary business users outside of the normal IT and procurement channels.

Once upon a time the IT department were the custodians of technology. Selection, implementation of new systems and access to them was like joining a mystery cult. New users were indoctrinated into special language and special ways of making things work. The IT department staff were the high priests of the cult and they controlled access very strictly.

All this was reinforced by the high cost and complexity of IT systems.

But now technology has undergone a revolution. And it is a revolution akin to those of the Russians back in 1917. We are living through a sudden change in accessibility of technology. With web 2.0 and social computing ordinary users now have access to the same kind of technology that was once the province of the high priests of the IT department.

Everything you need is at your fingertips, for example:

  • Want a scalable web platform? Amazon S3 is there.
  • Want to reach out and find your customers? Try Facebook or Twitter.
  • Want a CRM to track all those customers? How about Salesforce?
  • Need a finance application? How about Saasu?

Each of those examples is readily available to the average person who can use a web browser & who has a credit card. No more seeking the advice (even if it might help) of the IT specialist. Just notice the need and get a solution right away.

I wonder how all of this fits into our fine Enterprise Architecture models?

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