Apple Watch: Don’t Forget to Breathe

Back in May, investors were angry about the lack of innovation from Apple. The stock price had hit a two year low and many had sold shares, except for Warren Buffet who bought $1B more! Then the iPhone 7 was released. Suddenly the controversy shifted to the headphone jack. The news was filled with stories about the “Apple Conspiracy” surrounding removing this 19th century technology. There were multi-page analyses written on the reasons and results of this decision, positive and negative. People threatened to switch to Android, but Samsung was nice enough to discourage that switch by releasing a phone that tends to unexpectedly explode into flames.

What a difference a week makes! Now the current problem is lack of availability. The iPhone 7 Plus and Jet Black color for both new models are already sold out, “Anger Consumes iPhone 7 Queues at Apple Stores.”

breathePlease everybody, stop and take a deep breath! Luckily, the Breathe App is one of the best new features of the Apple Watch. You don’t even need to buy anything. Watch OS 3 has Breathe built-in, turned on by default, and it costs nothing to upgrade. Sure, there were apps for this before, but making it part of Watch OS is a powerful statement.

So thank you Apple for not only encouraging us stand-up every hour, but also taking it a step further by adding mindful breathing every five hours. Maybe that minute of reflection a couple times a day will help drop the collective stress level. Now THAT would a true innovation!

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Monthly Recap: Insanely Great Products

The title of this post comes from a 1985 Steve Jobs quote in Playboy magazine, “Making an insanely great product has a lot to do with the process of making the product, how you learn things and adopt new ideas and throw out old ideas.” He said this only a year after the release of the first Macintosh. Fast forward 21 years and you can find a similar quote in the recent Washington Post interview of Tim Cook, “Tim Cook, the interview: Running Apple ‘is sort of a lonely job’.” Cook commented, “The North Star has always been the same, which for us, is about making insanely great products that really change the world in some way – enrich people’s lives.” The similarity is exciting because it highlights a concept that has withstood the test of time and has resulted in products that have truly changed the world.

August’s posts explored the idea of insanely great products from a variety of perspectives.

  • Exploring the Digital Ocean of Cloud Computing” featured a company called Digital Ocean that provides virtual servers for software developers which run in the cloud. While their core value, “Love is what makes us great” is my favorite, “striving for simple and elegant solutions” has certainly resulted in amazing products.
  • What Cameron Learned From 10 Years of Doing PR for Apple” was a reminder that despite recent criticism, Apple still adds value to a massive number of customers and, just as importantly, consistently communicates that value effectively.
  • Finally, “Is Google Heading Down the Same Path as Yahoo?” explored the challenges that Google is facing in light of Yahoo’s recent demise. There are definitely some “insanely great products” at Google (Search, AdWords, Gmail, Maps, etc.), but the concept is far from a corporate philosophy.

Obviously not every company needs to be an Apple to change the world. Even imitators fulfill an important role in technological advancement. For example, many people prefer Android over IOS for good reasons. It is often considered more customizable with many hardware options available at a much lower cost. However, there would be no Android without the breakthroughs that the iPhone pioneered such as the multi-touch touchscreen, IOS, and the App Store. Today Apple continues to be a pioneer in new areas that have expanded beyond pure technology such as the environment, social responsibility, shifting investor focus to longer term thinking, and protecting individual privacy.

What is critical is the positive intent and focus on improvement and advancement. It sounds cliche, but it is the one thing that separates humans from the other species where survival is the primary focus. If you have one more minute, watch this moving Apple ad called, “The Human Family.” The final line is beautiful and appropriate: “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.” (From a poem by Maya Angelou.)

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The Original Apple Newton and the iPhone 1
Photo courtesy of Blake Patterson from Alexandria, VA, USA (CC BY 2.0)

Is Google Heading Down the Same Path as Yahoo?

This post is a continuation of last week’s post, “What Cameron Learned From 10 Years of Doing PR for Apple” which ended by asking if Google could eventually end up like Yahoo. It was a sad ending for the company that was the Google of its day. Verizon paid only around $5B for it (it was worth $125B in 2000). One of the reasons commonly cited for Yahoo’s prolonged decline was simply “a lack of focus.” A recent New York Times article, “Yahoo’s Sale to Verizon Ends an Era for a Web Pioneer” has the details and there are some eerie similarities to Google.

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On the one hand, Google is doing well at the moment. Android is extremely popular, their stock price has tripled in the past three years, and their advertising business continues to generate massive revenue ($50B in 2015). However, the trap of losing focus is a seductive one. Are they beginning to head down the same path as Yahoo? There are some worrisome signs.

GSearchFirst, the “2016 Doodle Fruit Games” is certainly strange and complex. It even begins to break their strong philosophy of keeping their search homepage pristine. Also, if you have four hours to spare, you can compare Google’s “Code I/O” conference keynote to Apple “WWDC 2016” keynote. If you don’t, the TL:DW (too long, didn’t watch) version is that almost everything Google announced is still “coming soon.”

Even Google’s most recent major product releases have been met by yawns (and head scratching) by the Android community. Their new video calling app Duo seems to work well, but adds additional fragmentation to an already crowded product area. Are new Duo users really going to convince all their friends to switch from Skype, Facebook Messenger, FaceTime, WhatsApp, etc.? This is especially problematic when users have been burned by Google discontinuing products that don’t immediately succeed such as Hangouts, Reader, Wave, and others. Even if the Duo does generate interest, only 14% of Android users have upgraded to Marshmallow (the version released in October 2015) compared to 85% of IOS users.

GMailOn the positive side, Gmail is still the king of email solutions with excellent spam filtering and a clean interface  while Google Maps is still the best option for navigation with accurate routing and traffic information. So is Google doomed? Not in the near future at least. There is still no better option for searching the internet and that alone will insure that their advertising business remains insanely profitable. Is there reason for concern? Definitely. With the incredible pace of technological change, it wouldn’t take much for Microsoft Bing or a scrappy search engine like DuckDuckGo to make a dent in Google’s critical search business. Hmmm. Sounds like a good topic for the next post in this series. Have a great weekend!

What Cameron Learned From 10 Years of Doing PR for Apple

A recent post about the Cloud Computing company, Digital Ocean, got me thinking about what makes certain corporations superstars in their industry. It seems to be an elusive combination of outstanding products that add value to peoples’ lives and great communication about those products. Cameron Craig highlights his five most important communication lessons in the Harvard Business Review article, “What I Learned From 10 Years of Doing PR for Apple.”

  • Keep it simple
  • Value reporters’ time
  • Be hands on
  • Stay focused
  • Prioritize media influencers

It’s a fascinating read and the article was so popular that he wrote a short follow-up on LinkedIn called “One more thing.” This post explained the importance of Apple’s Surprise and Delight philosophy as well as the benefits of in-house versus outsourced marketing. I worked with Apple before, during, and after their “turnaround” and saw their acoustics team apply these concepts. Apple went from one acoustic engineer using the anechoic chamber as a storage room to multiple state of the art chambers staffed by the best and brightest acoustic engineers in the industry. We were all “surprised and delighted” when even the first iPhones were a breakthrough in cell phone audio quality.

ApplePainting smallThe pros and cons of Apple’s products are constantly argued, sometimes quite vocally. For example, a recent Reddit thread “The Galaxy Note 7 is miles ahead of the iPhone” has over 1,200 comments. However, the fact remains that Apple still adds value to a massive number of customers and consistently communicates that value effectively. It’s a lesson many tech companies ignore at their own peril. Even Google, with a virtually unlimited marketing budget has some questionable practices like announcing news too far in advance. Yahoo, of course, is the ultimate recent example because less than a decade ago, it was in Google’s dominant industry position. Could Google succumb to the same fate? The next post in this series will explore some of these questions.

Exploring the Digital Ocean of Cloud Computing

A recent Monthly Recap introduced a company called Digital Ocean (DO) that provides virtual servers for software developers which run “in the cloud.” If you are unfamiliar with this concept, it’s fascinating and their minimalist homepage has a 20 second animated GIF that explains it.  To summarize, you click a few buttons, wait 55 seconds, and can then login as a superuser to your very own barebones Unix server complete with Internet access. A basic server can be created for an arbitrary length of time for just $0.007 per hour or run continuously for only $5 per month. In either case, the price is the same: 30 x 24 x $0.007 = $5. There’s no hardware to configure, no monitor/keyboard to plug-in, no USB memory stick needed. Just click and poof, a server magically appears ready for use.

Needless to say, this service has become extremely popular and scrappy little DO has been compared very favorably with massive solutions from Amazon (AWS) and Google (GCE). However, DO’s founders certainly have had a rough path to their “instant success.” You can see from one of the founder’s public LinkedIn profile that he has spent years in a wide variety of roles honing his skills.

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He is clear about the challenges he has faced along the way. In his description of his position as President of ServerStack, he says, “Where I learned how to do things wrong for a decade so that we could make DigitalOcean an overnight success.” He is even an active participant on Quora answering a wide variety of questions on startup strategy including questions on his own company like, “Is it still worth to copy DigitalOcean?

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Also, as I mentioned in the previous post, DO has crowdsourced their documentation. It’s a genius idea. Many techies love to play with servers and the incentive of up to $200 for writing an in-depth tutorial makes it even more compelling. To their credit, DO has made it easy by providing “Writing Guidelines” that explain how to write a technical article describing their services and a comprehensive author application.

The result has been a set of 1,379 tutorials covering all the major features of their products which are available at no charge. There’s always so much to say about companies that seem to be run well with the right intent, but I’ll close by simply posting DO’s Core Values again. While “Love is what makes us great” is my favorite, the rest provide that glimmer of hope that there are some companies out there that continue to “Think Different!” and still succeed.

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Monthly Recap: The Hard Work (and Love) Behind An Instant Success

This month’s posts covered a wide range of topics.

Do You Know Where Your Customers Are?” used Google’s concept of micromoments to demonstrate the importance of the fact that a company needs to be present when and where a customer needs to find them. Today many high tech companies in niche markets still do not utilize the most basic online tools such as Google, LinkedIn, and Email marketing.

Just for Fun… Computer Hardware Then and Now” was a brief tribute to the massive computing hardware of yesteryear. It ended with the observation that in a way, computing has come full circle from large centralized mainframes to personal computers with local storage and back to cloud computing running on large centralized datacenters.

Finally, “Pokémon Go: The Hard Work Behind An Instant Success” provided an overview of the decades of technical and creative genius that have gone into making Pokémon Go the massive success it has become. It focused especially on the conscious design philosophy developed by it’s chief designer Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of classic games like Mario, Donkey Kong and Zelda.

DOInvoiceSoon after writing these posts, I came across Digital Ocean, a company that demonstrates several of these concepts. They provide cloud based virtual servers for software developers. I have dabbled with Linux for decades, starting in the 1990s when I installed an early version of Slackware Linux that was distributed on 24 floppy disks in order to run open source scientific software written in Fortran. Today, Digital Ocean can deploy a cloud based Linux server in under a minute that can be used for less than a penny an hour.

The next post will explain the technical details, but my ah-ha moment came when I was reading their documentation. I came across a post “Digital Ocean’s Writing Guidelines” that explains how to write a technical article describing their services. Digging deeper, I realized that they have completely crowdsourced their documentation and even pay up to $200 for accepted articles. As a result they now have almost 1,500 tutorials. There is some controversy about this practice, but overall it seems like it has been good for both Digital Ocean and their writers.

DOCoreValuesIn the digital world, this company is considered an instant success. They are highly funded and the second largest web hosting provider in their technical niche. However, the founders have traveled a difficult road to arrive at this point. This is another topic for the next post, but one reason for their success might be buried at the end of a very long, “About Us” page. This is where Digital Ocean has published their Core Values. The last of these is “Love is what makes us great” and that might be one of the most transformative values of all.

Pokémon Go: The Hard Work Behind An Instant Success

I tried to resist the urge to write about the Pokémon mania that has swept the planet, but the lure was too strong. Maybe it is because I have loved and followed Nintendo for decades through their many ups and downs. My wife and I still travel with two ancient Game Boy Colors so we can compete in epic classic Tetris matches on long flights. However, to give this post a slightly different twist than the hundreds of recent articles focused on Pokémon Go, I’ll provide a brief overview of the philosophy of the company behind the game.

Despite more technologically advanced hardware, one Nintendo’s key strengths is the unique “fun-ness” of their flagship games. This is a result of a conscious design philosophy developed by it’s chief designer Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of classic games like Mario, Donkey Kong and Zelda. An article in Kotaku magazine, “What Makes Shigeru Miyamoto Tick” explains it well including the importance of game sounds and something the Japanese called tegotae. Tegotae refers to that satisfying feeling of connection between the player and the action on the screen. If you’re interested in more detail on Miyamoto’s fascinating life and work, the New Yorker article from 2010, “Master of Play” is outstanding.

Nintendo has even spawned academic works such as the beautifully titled, “The Legend of Zelda and Philosophy: I Link Therefore I Am.” With chapters like, “Egos, Dyads, and the Social Symbolic,” it is clear that there is a lot more going on in their games than plumbers saving princesses from gorillas (i.e. the premise of the classic game Donkey Kong). Speaking of articles about plumbers, The Ringer recently published a post, “Mario Is Living the American Dream” with the subtitle, “How a humble plumber taught us to love video games — and to never give up on the princess.” I still remember the hours of fun I had rocketing that humble plumber around the crazy world of Super Mario 64. Now, over a quarter of a century later, Super Mario Maker has inspired a generation of makers to create their own versions of the classic game. The beautiful book that goes with the game is a piece of art in itself and the game is well worth buying… for your children of course.

If you’ve been living in a cave for the past few weeks, here’s a little Pokémon Go spoiler to end this post. It’s fun at first, but gets addicting and exponentially more difficult at the higher levels. As usual, ArsTechnica has the statistics and charts to prove it in the post, “How Pokémon Go starts punishing its high-level players.” Maybe you don’t “Gotta Catch ‘Em All,” but it sure is fun catching some, especially when it inspires a great walk!

Artwork from the book included with the Nintendo game, Super Mario Maker
Artwork from the book included with the Nintendo game, Super Mario Maker

Just for Fun… Computer Hardware Then and Now

The physicality of computing hardware has almost disappeared from consumer products. Audio and video are streamed through inexpensive smartphones, laptops with solid state drives (SSDs) have replaced desktop computers with spinning hard drives, and built-in WiFi has replaced network hardware and cabling.

However, back in the early days of computing, hardware was massive and complex. This YouTube video of a 1959 IBM tape drive illustrates the point beautifully. These were state of the art storage devices that relied on the extremely fast movement of magnetic tape past transducers to store and retrieve data. If you only have a couple minutes, just watch the first minute and the successful test after repairs at 12 minutes. It is a fascinating glimpse into the complex electro-mechanical engineering that went into early computers.

In a way computing has come full circle from centralized mainframes to personal computers with local storage and back to “cloud computing” with centralized datacenters. If you enjoy this sort of computer history, the Computer History Museum in Mountain View is a great resource with wonderful exhibits on the IBM 1401 system (which the tape drive is part of), digital forensics of the old Geocities websites, the history of autonomous vehicles, and many others. I didn’t know it existed until I saw this video and now I’m looking forward to visiting the museum in person!

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PFC Patricia Barbeau operates an IBM 729 at Camp Smith, Hawaii, in 1969

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Side view of 729 tape drive with cover removed (by Arnold Reinhold)

Do You Know Where Your Customers Are?

Google has done a great job with storytelling in their video on Micro-Moments. As part of their Think with Google series, it is a two minute introduction to capturing a customer in their “moment of need.” It’s especially powerful on LinkedIn where it presents complex scenarios as images delivered regularly. Four can be found at the end of this post.

When marketing jargon like a “micro-moment” is stripped away, the underlying idea is that a company needs to be present when and where a customer needs to find them. Many high tech companies in niche markets that I have worked with still rely primarily on trade shows, industry magazines, and other traditional methods. They do not take advantage of even the most basic online tools. There are many reasons, but most center around lack of resources and the challenges of reaching customers in fragmented markets.

Potential solutions vary hugely by industry, but here are three that almost every niche, high tech company should be addressing:

LinkedIn – Despite being bought by Microsoft, it is still an excellent resource. At the very least, have marketing deliver regular updates to your company page at least once a month to boost customer awareness. Avoid having random employees provide status updates unless coordinated by marketing. This looks amateurish.

Google – A basic Google Adwords campaign is a good idea, but even better is “organic search results.” Many “SEO consultants” charge expensive fees for this, but it can easily be developed over time by publishing technical content on your website that customers can find via a Google search. Over time, your company’s website will rise to that coveted first page position… at zero cost!

Email – Contrary to popular belief, email is not dead. You can even reuse the technical and marketing content you are already creating. Assuming this content is useful, your customers will be happy to signup for regular updates. One warning however, once you start, don’t stop, it could look like your company is having troubles.

As I quoted Elon Musk (Tesla / SpaceX) in a recent post, “When you have a product that really resonates with customers, the word of mouth grows like wildfire.”

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Monthly Recap: Geniuses Yesterday and Today

With Apple flying high these days, many people do not realize that they have changed the world more than once. Apple was my first computer so when it’s 39th anniversary was celebrated last month, it inspired me to write the post, “39 Years Later Retro Hackers Still Honor the Apple II.” I remember hanging out in the library with a friend trying to decipher Apple’s floppy disk drive controller code. Even back then, the towering genius of software developers was apparent. That post is both a tribute to Apple’s first computer designed for the masses and the modern hackers who preserve its historically important software.

Speaking of geniuses, they definitely think a bit differently and Elon Musk is a genius that thinks a lot differently. His interview at the Recode’s Code Conference in early June inspired my post, “How Geniuses Think – Elon Musk” which explores some of my favorite parts of the interview including: Engineering Reusable Rockets, Why Reuse a Rocket, and Musk’s perspective on optimism. The interview explores many more topics including his Open AI (Artificial Intelligence) initiative, freedom, despotism, politics, improving the probability of a “positive future,” the design decisions involved in Hyperloop (the tube has to be inexpensive), and some fascinating questions and answers. If you have an extra hour and a half in your day, it’s worth watching. It certainly left me with a much more positive view of the modern world.

As a result of a conversation with a potential client, I wrote the post, “Will the Internet of Things (IoT) Ever Strike Gold?” IoT has been the next big thing for several years, but it is still a confusing mess of proprietary hardware and software. This post looks at both the consumer and industrial side of IoT, reaching the conclusion that 2017 will be its breakthrough year. It would definitely be nice to have “one app to rule them all.”

IndependenceDay_smallFinally, I will leave you with a bonus video for a long holiday weekend, an interview at Apple’s Developer Conference of two of Apple’s most powerful executives: Phil Schiller and Craig Federighi. It’s a wonderful, casual glimpse into the technical genius of Apple’s senior management. It’s also fascinating because the interviewer is John Gruber, a one man Apple news outlet. In the world of massive media conglomerates, he’s a lone reporter getting an exclusive, super high profile interview. Skip the first 10 minutes and enjoy an in-depth discussion with two of the very human personalities that make Apple great.

Have a wonderful Free-d-om Day!

 

How Geniuses Think – Elon Musk

Elon Musk spoke at the Recode’s Code Conference in early June. This elite, invitation-only event featured in-depth interviews with some of the top influencers in the tech industry including Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Bill and Melinda Gates (Microsoft Founder), Sundar Pichai (Google CEO), Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook COO), and more. The Elon Musk interview was fascinating, but it was an hour and a half long so here are some quotes that highlight how one of the true geniuses of our time thinks.

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Elon Musk on Engineering Reusable Rockets (at 7 minutes) – When asked why does a SpaceX reusable rocket have to land in the middle of the ocean, he explains that at separation it is traveling at escape velocity which is 25 times faster than a bullet fired from a .45 caliber handgun. To avoid using unnecessary fuel, SpaceX lands the rocket on a platform positioned where the ballistic arc of the rocket would have taken it anyway. There are some tricks involving nitrogen jets, four hypersonic grid fins, and using the main engines to slow the final descent, but gravity does most of the work.

Elon Musk on Why Reuse a Rocket (at 9 minutes) – When asked why SpaceX works so hard to save the rocket, he answers: “Imagine there was a pallet of cash that was plummeting through the atmosphere and it was going to burn up and smash into tiny pieces. Would you try to save it? Probably yes.” Elon Musk is extremely practical. The boost stage costs around $35M which is 70% of the cost of the rocket and it’s certainly a terrible waste for it to end up in the ocean in every sense of the word.

Elon Musk on Optimism (at 13 minutes) – When asked why humans should go into space, he answers that he believes that humans should be a multi-planet species. “You need things like that to be glad to wake up in the morning. Life can’t just be about solving problems. There have to be things that are inspiring and exciting that make you glad to be alive.”

Elon Musk on Tesla Cars and Marketing (at 13 minutes) – When asked about sales of the new Tesla X, he answered that he was surprised that they had already booked 400,000 orders. “When you have a product that really resonates with customers, the word of mouth grows like wildfire.”

He explores many more topics including his Open AI (Artificial Intelligence) initiative, freedom, despotism, politics, improving the probability of a “positive future,” the design decisions involved in Hyperloop (the tube has to be inexpensive), and some fascinating questions and answers. If you have an extra hour and a half in your day, it is worth watching. It certainly left me with a much more positive view of the modern world.

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(Elon Musk, Tesla Factory, Fremont (CA, USA),
Author Maurizio Pesce from Milan, Italia)

Will the Internet of Things (IoT) Ever Strike Gold?

In the past few years, the so called Internet of Things (IoT) has exploded into the public awareness through connected devices such as Smart TVs, internet thermostats / cameras (Nest), internet lightbulbs (Philips Hue), wireless speaker systems (Sonos), Smart Watches (Apple Watch), Alarm Systems, and personal weather stations (Netatmo). In my immediate environment, I have all of these except the Hue and I can tell you from experience, IoT is a hot mess. There’s a separate app for each product and none of them talk to each other. I’ve even given up on Universal Remotes which is another market ripe for disruption. A excellent article in the Economist, “Where the smart is” explores these issues in depth and points out that even Apple’s smart home platform (HomeKit), has been a failure so far.

The industrial side of IoT is even more challenging. I was working in a client’s office recently and spoke to a sales engineer who was trying to setup an IoT vibration monitoring system for a demo. I left to work with another employee and when I returned hours later, he was still struggling with connectivity issues. Out of curiosity, I did some research on the system and it was a complex combination of wired / wireless distribution boxes, proprietary software, and sensors with mediocre performance. This is just one example of dozens I have come across in recent years. Distributed data acquisition, machine condition monitoring systems, environmental monitoring, and other solutions suffer from a wide variety of shortcomings.

Internet_of_ThingsIs there a silver lining to the dark clouds currently covering IoT? Of course, and the payoffs to the successful players in this market will be huge. On the consumer side, Intel, Amazon, Google, and Apple all have IoT development resources ranging from large scale data management to complete hardware / software solutions. Even DIY’ers have an opportunity to get into IoT through a $19 development kit from Particle.

On the industrial side, National Instruments has a large presence in this market including hardware and the software needed to acquire and analyze the massive amount of data Industrial IoT generates (IIoT). They point out on their website, “By 2020, more than 50 billion devices will be digitally connected, representing $19 trillion in business opportunity.” If you have an interest in IIoT, NI also has a wealth of material that covers everything from sensors to analytics to an excellent set of case studies.

If you’re in this market, don’t lose hope. It’s still the Wild Wild West out there, but the good news is that there is a Gold Rush on the horizon!

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39 Years Later Retro Hackers Still Honor the Apple II

Yesterday was the 39th anniversary of the first Apple II computer. It was my first computer so it holds a special place in my heart. Cult of Mac has a great article on it, “Today in Apple history: the first Apple II ships.” It’s claim to fame was that it was Apple’s first computer designed for the masses, shipped with a built-in keyboard, BASIC programming language, and, amazingly for the time, color graphics! Mine looked a lot like the one below which is on display at the Musée BoloEPFL, Lausanne (photo by Rama & Musée Bolo).

AppleIIAmazingly, “retro hackers” are still at work preserving games that ran on this computer. Yesterday, Vice ran the story, “It Took 33 Years For Someone to Find the Easter Egg in This Apple II Game” which is a wonderful glimpse into the computers of yesteryear.

If you have some time to kill during a lazy summer weekend, read the hacker’s own account of how he was able to defeat the ancient copy protection of this game and find the Easter Egg. He’s a great technical writer and the story reads like a mystery novel! The full archive of his preserved games can be found here. Enjoy!

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(In case the transcript gets deleted in the future, it is archived here.)

Monthly Recap: Storytelling and Making Up True Stories

All of May’s posts featured the word ‘Storytelling’ in the title and I’m beginning to dislike the choice. It rarely sounds good in a corporate environment so it gets translated as “silver bullets, talking points, key takeaways, core competencies” and many other corporate-speak phrases. My primary goal when creating and delivering training programs is providing the right type and amount of information to maximize learning and understanding. What happens next is a bit of magic where people translate that information into an internal story about the product. There are many fancy names for this including Cognitivism, Constructivism, and Transformative learning theories, but at its core, it is storytelling. Salespeople are especially good at this. When there is a good fit between their product and a customer’s problem, they spontaneously create compelling stories illustrating the connection in real time. Of course, this is a gross simplification, great salespeople are great listeners and questioners first, but the result of this process is still a story.

Rereading this month’s posts made me realize that there should be a better word for professional storytelling. The post “Storytelling: Pixar and International Science Fairs” explores the role of stories in scientific advancement, but nobody goes to an industry conference for scientific ‘stories.’ They go for the “technical presentations, round table discussions, and expert panels.” The posts in the “Dangers of Negative Storytelling” series (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) dove deep into the epidemic of clickbait in journalism these days. I equated these stories to the dangers of crying wolf, but a recent Verge article points out that the punishment has become financial. Gawker’s inappropriate stories has gotten them into legal trouble to the tune of $140M: “A Silicon Valley billionaire is reportedly funding the legal war to end Gawker.”

Maybe the new word for professional storytelling should be taken from German. Any language that features words like Kuddelmuddel for an unstructured mess, der Ohrwurm (ear worm) for an unshakable tune, and die Schnapsidee for a crazy idea (thanks to schnapps…) should have a word for this.

All kidding aside, a phrase came to me while I was musing over this word, “making up a true story.” Thanks to Google (who is not doomed by the way), I found that this was from a book I hadn’t read in decades called “Illusions.” The full quote reads: “There was a part of me listening that didn’t think what I said was fiction. I was making up a true story.” In a sense, this is what we are all doing, making up true stories as we go through life. Making up positive, uplifting true stories leads to a better world for everybody. By the way, the same author also wrote the more famous book, “Jonathan Livingston Seagull.” If you have some time over this long weekend, get a copy of “Illusions” on Kindle. It’s a fast read and I guarantee your stories will never be the same after!

Now back to that word: “Ackamarackusry?, Schmegeggy?, Fictography? Subterwriters?… hmmmm… ” (courtesy of the Nonsense Word Generator)

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Part 3 – Apple and Google are Not Doomed – The Dangers of Negative Storytelling

Part 2 ended with the “Confusement” surrounding Google’s new product names. “Allo, Duo, Fi, Fiber, Hangouts, etc.” all seem to be part of a bizarre parallel universe that sometimes works together and sometimes does not. Despite the similarities in name, mobile phone service from Google Fi doesn’t work with home phone service from Google Fiber. On the positive side, AI is the darling at Google these days and why not? AI’s application to self driving cars, less inbox spam, and better web search leads to great articles like, “A Lesson from Sundar Pichai on Leading the Way into the Future.” They go a long way to bolstering Google’s image between actual product releases. It’s just important to keep in mind that all of these efforts are focused on insuring that Google does not lose control of that all important link (pun intended) to advertising revenue generated by people using Google to search the web.

Is the lack of AI technology going to turn Apple into Blackberry (see Part 1 of this series)? The rebuttals have already started with articles like Tech Insiders post, “Apple isn’t as far behind in AI as you think” which makes the point, “If the tech giants were playing in Go, then Google would win by a mile. The thing is, Apple doesn’t have to match Google in all kinds of AI, only the things that matter to Apple.” Touché!

Apple moves through the tech world in a very different way and has a different set of problems. IOS successfully made the leap between desktop and mobile computing. Their hardware is top notch, but expensive. The software is very polished and integrated, but has begun to show problems as it grows more complex. For example, the most recent iPad Pro software update can cause a problem called “Error 56” that requires hardware replacement.

Oops

iMessage revolutionized text messaging by ending carriers ability to charge for expensive SMS text messaging plans by sending messages to other iPhone users through Apple’s servers. A tiny cost for Apple, but since it is not compatible with Android, it is a huge reason people stick with IOS. When services like Photos, the App Store, Apple Music, iCloud Drive, Contacts, Calendars, Notes, Reminders, Keychain, Find My iPhone, and Backup are added, the mostly smooth integration makes Apple’s solutions even more convincing to stay with. It also makes people less tolerant of problems. A common IOS / Android analogy equates iOS to a walled garden with pruned bonsai trees. Any tiny thing out of place sticks out terribly. Android, on the other hand, is a forest. It looks messy at first glance, but it is powerful for people who make the effort to look closely and discover its flexibility.

The bottom line is that major high tech companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, etc. are constantly struggling to address the challenges that might lead to their “imminent doom.” Overcoming these risks leads to great rewards for them and they do it in their own unique way. Apple tends to announce little and deliver major features that mostly work. Google announces a lot and the ideas that gain traction evolve into major features.

There are so many other positive and negative examples such as Google Chrome, fragmented Android hardware, carrier control of Android updates, etc., but this is a good stopping point. If you don’t want to be the boy who cried wolf, don’t succumb to negative storytelling. There won’t be a part 4 to this series, but I’ll leave you with an example of great storytelling in the online world from Vox Advertising. It will be the starting point for a new series on how to tell a great story without resorting to negativity.

Part 2 – Google Is Doomed – The Dangers of Negative Storytelling

Part 1 ended with the comment that “the truth does not make great, clicky sticky, headlines.” After writing this post, even more articles were published relating to Arment’s post. Here’s a fun comic strip on the topic: “Comic: Doomed if you do, doomed if you don’t.” John Gruber chimed in with his comments in “Marco Arment on Apple and AI” by simply stating “But I’m not sure I accept the premise that the rise of AI assistants will decrease in any way our desire for devices with screens.” I agree. I use Siri constantly, but look at a screen for the response. Who wants an AI to read them an entire Wikipedia article? Finally, Mac Observer commented on one of the leading Apple fear mongers with his post, “Rob Enderle Calls Apple Desperate.” He rightfully observes that “Firstly, desperate companies seldom make big, bold bets… Desperate companies do things like cut back hours, lay off employees, reduce wages and benefits, raise prices…” This is clearly the exact opposite of what Apple is doing.

HelpFor many high tech companies, getting and keeping attention is a major challenge. It’s tempting to publish negative, emotionally charged headlines because they work at first, but that’s like eating junk food. It might even be pleasurable for a moment, but always feels terrible afterward. Also, these negative articles can be spun either way. To argue the opposite point, maybe people should be more concerned about Google’s impending doom. Outside of web searches, Gmail, and Maps, Google has mostly failed when it comes to connecting technology with the public. Android has a lot of market share because it is free and runs on cheap hardware. Google+ is a wasteland. Their OnHub router is a hot mess. Google Glass users have been nicknamed GlassHoles. Google Nest is in trouble, etc.

Convinced yet? That’s the illusory power of negative storytelling. It’s easy to generalize, and generalizations are easy to support with equally vague facts. A more balanced discussion would be to point out that all high tech companies are constantly faced with a variety of substantial risks. It’s easy to take potshots at Apple because they tend to occupy the high end of the technology spectrum: their higher end hardware, more integrated software, and correspondingly higher price create higher expectations. When there’s a gap in major product releases or a visible failure, it becomes a field day for negativity.

Additionally, Google is in a bit of a lull at the moment too. What’s next? According to Google at their recent I/O Conference, there is so much to be excited for… if people can only wait until Fall! The revolutionary promises include AI, virtual reality, modular smartphones, a new social network, and a new Android messaging system. Some news outlets analyzed this news critically: “Three critical questions Google needs to answer after its big I/O conference.” Other people responded with humor, “A Google programmer drew a cartoon that perfectly encapsulates its confusing product names.” The cartoon in this last post is called “Confusement” and is a very funny look at massive confusion around names like Allo, Duo, Fi, Fiber, Hangouts, etc.

To be continued in part 3 of this series which will present some alternatives to negative storytelling and demonstrate how powerful a balanced approach can be.

Part 1 – Apple Is Doomed – The Dangers of Negative Storytelling

Wasn’t it temping to click on this headline to hear yet another reason why? It’s also why there are so many negative articles about Apple these days. It gets people to click, which displays ads, which publishers sell, which people click on, which companies track, which results in mountains of money for Google, and more ads. The advertising equivalent of the circle of life. Yes, it gets people to look, but as Aesop pointed out in his fable 2,500 years ago, there is a danger to crying wolf. Do it enough and people will eventually ignore you.

Boycriedwolfbarlow

There is some factual basis for these concerns about Apple, but putting these facts into a well balanced article doesn’t generate that jolt of adrenaline that triggers the all important Click. Here’s a great, recent example that’s making the rounds. The large news website Business Insider (BI) published an article: “One of the top Apple followers is worried that it could turn into BlackBerry.” The first sentence, “If Google is right about the future, there are troubling signs to suggest Apple could meet the same fate as BlackBerry, according to top Apple follower Marco Arment.” Now that’s excellent clickbait. Such great parallels are drawn between failed BlackBerry and high flying Apple!

Why did BI distort Arment’s article into negative storytelling? They based it on a story written by someone who is well regarded in the tech reporting community, Marco Arment. The original title of his post was “Avoiding Blackberry’s Fate.” It went viral, including the misleading BI article, so Arment changed the title to a more conservative: “If Google’s right about AI, that’s a problem for Apple.”

I reflexively avoid Business Insider due to the fact that they constantly cry wolf. It is filled with articles like this and worse on a wide variety of topics. What are some of the facts of the story? Apple has roughly $200 BILLION in cash reserves. In comparison, Google has around $80 billion. Apple Watch, sometimes considered a flop, made $6 billion in revenue in its first year. That’s $1.5 billion more in revenue than Rolex during the same period. The iPhone generates more revenue in 3 months than Android has over its entire existence. Apple has a world class manufacturing supply chain and product distribution network that includes outstanding customer support. However, the truth does not make for great, clicky sticky, headlines.

Of course, only a tiny fraction of people read to the end of the BI article that contains this disclosure, “Disclosure: Jeff Bezos (CEO of Amazon) is an investor in Business Insider through his personal investment company Bezos Expeditions.” The article points out that Amazon (surprise!), Facebook, and Google are making big investments in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and that Apple is lagging behind. This is the basis of Arment’s article that BI took full advantage of. Amazon does not like Apple any more than Google does. Amazon has a failed phone under its belt and lackluster hardware (except Kindle) that is mostly used by low to no-tech people. It certainly pays for BI / Amazon to bash Apple any chance it gets.

In Part 2 of this post, look for signs of Google’s impending doom… or not…

Storytelling: Pixar and International Science Fairs

“These are stories for everyone. Fathers, mothers, teenagers, children, anyone with a beating heart and a hunger for great storytelling.” This quote comes from a video shared by Jason Kottke in the post “Pixar’s approach to storytelling.” The video itself was created by the video essayist, Captain Kristian who explores one of Pixar’s 22 rules for storytelling: “Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.” It beautifully illustrates the point that great storytelling is at the heart of the human experience. From technology to friendship to compassion, telling a story is an art worth developing.


ISEFWinnerRecently, I was one of four judges for the Acoustical Society of America at the Intel Science and Engineering Fair. The one thing I was struck by more than anything else, even more than the incredible research these high schoolers are doing, is their ability to tell a story about their projects. They are obviously intelligent, but also articulate, poised, professional in appearance, and accomplished presenters. It was gratifying to see the interaction and collaboration of a homogenous mix of genders, nationalities, and cultures. So many people disparage millennials for a variety of reasons, but this group makes it clear that the next generations are developing the skills necessary to address the wide variety of challenges facing the planet today. This photo of the student whose project was selected for ASA’s first place award, says it all.

For reference here are Pixar’s 22 rules for storytelling:

#1: You admire a character for trying, more than for their successes.

#2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.

#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

#8: Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

#9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

#10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.

#11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.

#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

#14: Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.

#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

#17: No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.

#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?

#21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?

#22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

Part 1 – Communication, Training, and Fractal Mandelbrot Sets

To continue last month’s post, “Slack Teams Do Amazing Things,” a critical piece of the sales and marketing puzzle includes effective internal communication and training. This is especially important for sales engineers and technical staff. Large companies have the budget and resources to employ dedicated training teams, but for smaller high tech businesses, in-depth training might only be required occasionally. A good example is when an important new product or service is ready for release. Anticipation has been building for months. The sales team is excited about having something new to sell as well as the inevitable market buzz the new offering will generate. What happens next? In 90%+ of the clients I have worked with, salespeople meet either physically or on webinars and application engineers force feed them their newly acquired knowledge via lengthy technical PowerPoint presentations. In the worst cases, training only occurs once a year at a national meeting with day after day full of technical content.

What happens after this? To grossly simplify, typically the highest performing salespeople are experienced enough to distill this deluge of technical information into something they can use effectively with customers in the field. The middle performers will struggle with the new material, mostly sticking with the old products and existing customers they were already having success with. Eventually the new product will become familiar enough that they will begin to sell it. The lowest performers were probably playing Spider Solitaire during the webinar and will flounder around until they come across a customer where a sale is unavoidable.

Behind these issues is the basic fact that most sales technical training is not appropriate for the audience. After a few introductory slides, it quickly degenerates into something like the initial sentence of the Wikipedia article on the Mandelbrot set. “The Mandelbrot set is the set of complex numbers c for which the function Fc(z) = z^2 + c does not diverge when iterated from z=0, i.e., for which the sequence Fc(0), Fc(Fc(0)), etc., remains bounded in absolute value.” Additionally, the training is out of context. What sounds straightforward in a classroom looks very different when a salesperson is under pressure in front of a customer with a challenging application.

Some companies hire salespeople who are engineers and don’t want training “dumbed down,” but does this lead to creating a more effect sales team or a team of unpaid consultants? It’s a fine line. In my experience, salespeople need to be able to bring value to every customer meeting. The best salespeople bring value by understanding the customer’s issues and by being able to suggest appropriate solutions. However, this post is about communication, not Sales 101. How can communication improve salespeople’s ability to fulfill their key function?

Fract_al_backgroundAn example might help illustrate. Let’s say you sell a system that generates high resolution images of fractals. A more traditional training program would provide an in-depth technical training similar to the Wikipedia page on Mandelbrot Sets. A more modern, effective program might be represented by the wonderful explanation of Fractals from the IOS App Frax. It provides a complete, yet understandable training on fractals appropriate to the users of their app. Fractals are a very complex topic, so this is no easy task!

2016_05Post_fractal_lowresTo be continued in part 2 of this post, but in the meantime, enjoy your weekend and this 9 MB image of a Mandelbrot based fractal!

 

 

(Note: For future reference, in case the website http://fract.al/background eventually disappears, here is a link to a PDF copy of the page.)

Monthly Recap: Gwen Stefani, Six Days of Acoustics, and Slack

April’s posts had a little something for everyone. It started with some business wisdom from pop superstar Gwen Stefani in the post, “The Key to Creativity – and Success – Is Truth.” Her message about how critical it is to be truthful in the moment in both professional and personal life is very inspirational. With so many recent news stories about untruths (VW diesels, politics, corporations, etc.), it is refreshing to hear about her commitment and how it has contributed to her success.

Another series of posts in April were focused on acoustics. It is amazing how many areas it touches in our lives. The post “From the NY Times – Dear Architects: Sound Matters” explored the importance of soundscapes. There was also a five day series of articles on acoustics which covered a wide variety of acoustic phenomena and applications.

Day 1 of 5 – Listening to the Universe
Day 2 of 5 – Visualization versus Sonification
Day 3 of 5 – The Audio Cookbook From iZotope
Day 4 of 5 – Five Uncommon Acoustic Applications
Day 5 of 5 – Five More Uncommon Acoustic Applications

SlackCommercialFinally, the post “Slack Teams Do Amazing Things” continued my long term fascination with using the messaging app Slack for technical training, communication, and collaboration. With Slack now valued at over $4B, it looks like it is a tool for high tech companies that is here to stay (and for great reasons). Their commercial, “Slack Teams Do Amazing Things” is a lot of fun too, well worth the minute it takes to watch it.

Slack Teams Do Amazing Things

I’ve written a lot about Slack in the past two years. If you are not familiar with Slack, it is a message app for teams that is considered by Re/Code to be “2016’s hottest startup.” I’ve been fascinated following their progress, starting with my post “When Life Gives You Lemons…” in August, 2014. It explained how Slack was created from the failure of another company. A year later, as Slack passed the $1B valuation mark, I wrote a case study on using Slack for technical training, communication, and collaboration. This study was my final project for the MIT course, “Implementation and Evaluation of Educational Technology.” The company is now valued at over $4B.

SlackCommercialDespite this incredible growth, I was still surprised when I saw a Slack commercial on network television called “Slack Teams Do Amazing Things.” It’s only a minute long and is definitely worth watching for both the content and entertainment value. It also reminded me how important effective employee training and team communication is for high tech companies. I’ve never worked for a company that had an actual “On-boarding” process, but I have worked with companies to create one. In some fields, up to 20% of employee turnover happens within the first 45 days so starting employees off with the right training is critical. Once they are up and running, ongoing training is needed to maximize productivity and employee retention.

Slack can be used for these applications and more, both directly by incorporating training materials into dedicated channels and indirectly by utilizing one of the many apps that can be integrated with Slack. If you are not convinced yet, here are two articles from the Business 2 Community website that highlight the importance of employee training and communication. The post “The Secret to Making Employee Onboarding Great” explains how to improve that crucial initial experience employees have when they join a new company. The post “Sales Training Techniques You Have To Seriously Consider” focuses on technical training for salespeople.

Obviously you don’t have to use Slack to implement these types of programs. Support portals, technical training meetings, and webinars can also be effective tools. The challenge is integrating communication which Slack does extremely well. The next post in this series will provide some suggestions for improving that critical communication piece of the puzzle. Are your teams doing amazing things?

Day 5 of 5 – Five More Uncommon Acoustic Applications

There are so many uncommon applications for acoustics that here are five more that are even more unusual than the first five.

  1. The Human Ear Generates Sound – Even more amazingly, research has shown that there are more nerves going from the brain to the ear than from the ear to the brain. It’s called Otoacoustic Emission and can be evoked through stimulus as well as be generated spontaneously. The Acoustical Society of America even has a paper on their website that explains how the ear can be used as a musical instrument and provides audio examples of the process.
  2. Automotive “Active Sound Enhancement” – Some cars have an identity crisis. They are too loud AND too quiet. The solution is to add both a noise cancellation system and a system to ADD engine noise via the car audio system. For example, the 2017 Nissan Maxima website states: “Active Noise Cancellation uses microphones in the front and rear of the car to monitor unwanted noise and help cancel it out. Maxima’s Active Sound Enhancement brings a more purposeful engine note into the cabin – music to any enthusiasts ears.”
  3. Gunfire Locator – This is not surprising in itself, but according to The Verge, GE has created a smart streetlight that includes the computing hardware to localize gunfire. If a $2.50 microphone (also surprising) is added, ShotSpotter’s software does the necessary signal processing and reporting.
  4. Acoustic Rail Bearing Proactive Failure Detection – When a railcar bearing fails, it can derail a train so the payoff from detecting this problem early is huge. The “old timers” who work in rail yards can hear the death scream (aka acoustic signature) of impending rail bearing failure. It took almost a decade to develop the technology, but the Transportation Technology Center in Pueblo, CO built TADS®, the Trackside Acoustic Detection System, to automate the process. In the photo below, that’s me in front of the six microphone array which was a lot more expensive than $2.50 / each. IMG_4073
  5. Robo-Clarinetist – A robotics team from the University of New South Wales built a robot to play an unmodified clarinet. It plays considerably worse than a human player, but the YouTube video is fascinating. This one was courtesy of the website “Listen To This Noise” written by Andrew Pyzdek (Pi), a PhD candidate in Acoustics at the Pennsylvania State University. If you found this post interesting, you might want to check his website out.

To end the week, here’s an acoustic blast from the past. I still get a thrill when I hear the music from the original Super Mario Brothers on the Nintendo Entertainment System. It turns out that there is a group of gamers who still try to achieve the shortest time through the entire game, called a Speedrun. The record holder just beat his own record with a time of 4:57.260 and he was thrilled. It’s worth watching the whole video to see someone get so excited about an achievement. Interestingly enough, the Speedrun time tracker has a heart rate monitor and his heart rate reaches 171. All I can say is Holy Cow!

Have a great weekend.

Day 4 of 5 – Five Uncommon Acoustic Applications

Over the years, I’ve come across some very strange and fascinating uses for acoustics. Here are my top 5 favorites.

  1. Acousto-Magnetic Security Tags – Those little tags that are used to prevent theft in stores use a passive acoustic technology. A thin strip of metal is acoustically tuned to resonate at 58 kHz. When exposed to an oscillating magnetic field at 58 kHz, magnetostriction causes the strip to vibrate which alerts the scanner at the store exit. Applied Science has a great video explaining the process in detail.
  2. Satellite Acoustic Testing – Acoustic levels during launch can exceed 154 dB so satellites are tested at high acoustic and vibration levels to insure survivability. It used to be done with massive acoustic horns driven by nitrogen, but now levels as high as 147 dB can be generated by a system called Direct Field Acoustic Testing (DFAT®) that utilizes concert loudspeaker arrays. Now that’s rock and roll! acoustictesting
  3. Long Range Acoustic Device LRAD (aka the Acoustic Cannon) – Originally an acoustic hailing device, it became famous when it was used to repel pirates attacking a cruise ship off the coast of Somalia. According to Wikipedia, it is used by maritime, law enforcement, military and commercial security companies to send instructions and warnings over distance. LRAD systems are also used to deter wildlife from airport runways, wind and solar farms, nuclear power facilities, gas and oil platforms, mining and agricultural operations, and industrial plants.
  4. Acoustic Tractor Beams – I wrote about these in 2015, but they are worth mentioning again because the technology is so amazing. Recently, they have found use in containerless processing, acoustic tweezers, and acoustic levitation (Acoustophoresis).
  5. Acoustic Refrigeration (aka a Thermoacoustic heat engine) – I saw one of these in operation at a laboratory in New Mexico years ago. Strangely enough, Penn State made a unit for Ben and Jerry’s back in 2004 which made the news on NPR. 190 dB at 100 Hz is definitely an impressive way to keep your ice cream cold.Thermoacousticcooling

If you’re interested in more, there’s actually a book about the science of the sonic wonders of the world called The Sound Book by Trevor Cox. It covers phenomena like incredible reverberation, ringing rocks, barking fish, singing sands, and extreme quiet. Acoustics really is incredible.

Day 3 of 5 – The Audio Cookbook From iZotope

Bad audio seems to be everywhere these days. From technical webinars recorded on cheap headsets to videos recorded using a smartphone’s built-in microphone, there are some truly bad examples. Problems can include clipping, distortion, background noise, loudness issues, buzz, hiss, and poor room “ambience” just to name a few.

The best solution of course, is to start with a good recording. Make sure presenters use a decent headset or add a clip-on lavalier microphone. Sometimes though, previously recorded audio must be fixed and that’s where iZotope’s Audio Cookbook can help. I’ve used their RX Audio Editor for many years to restore old recordings, but it took quite a bit of time and experimentation to learn the art. The Audio Cookbook provides Recipes to repair common audio problems based on a step-by-step approach. For example, to reduce background noise from dialog recordings, the recipe starts with corrective equalization, then explains how to use the Dialog option for the De-Noise module, ending with suggestions on how to preview various Reduction settings. All-in-all, a wonderful explanation of a complex process.

If you’re interested, their RX products are on sale until April 28th for around 30% off. Their “Plug-in Pack” is an especially good deal for only $99. I have no professional relationship to iZotope, but think highly of their solutions. After 20+ years of working with dynamic signal analyzers and acoustics, this is high praise.

By Deasington (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Deasington (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Day 2 of 5 – Visualization versus Sonification

I first wrote about Sonification back in 2014 in the post, “Sonification: The Science of Auditory Displays.” This YouTube interview (starting at 2 minutes) with David Worrall explains why the human ear is well suited for this task. He’s not the best presenter, but explains the concepts well.

cochlea

  • It can analyze frequency accurately and quickly. The cochlea is an FFT analyzer implemented in tissue.
  • It is incredibly sensitive to time. The eye merges movement on the order of 1/10 of a second (which is why video looks continuous at 30 frames per second). The ear merges sounds at around 10 mS, an order of magnitude faster.
  • It can simultaneously detect auditory events with minimal interference. For example, a trained listener can identify a single violin playing in a symphony.
  • We don’t have “earlids.” In many cases, hearing draws attention and then seeing follows.

He also gives some excellent examples of current uses on his website including computer network status and financial data. Of course, we all encounter sonification daily in the form of alerts and alarms, but the professional community around this field has grown enormously in the past few years. If you are really interested, the Sonification Handbook covers the topic in depth, 555 pages in depth! As their motto goes, “The Sonic Revolution is Hear!”

humanear

Day 1 of 5 – Listening to the Universe

Being involved with Acoustics for over 20 years, I regularly come across articles on the topic from a wide variety of sources. Recently, they have been collecting in my To-Write file so this week will feature five days of acoustics posts. Enjoy!

For Day 1, here is a quote from Gabriela González, spokesperson for the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, at the National Science Foundation’s Gravitational Waves Press Conference. “We can hear gravitational waves! We can hear the universe! That’s one of the beautiful things about this. We are not only going to be seeing the universe, we are going to be listening to it.” Her excellent explanation can be found in this YouTube video.

omWith so much conflict recently between science and religion, it is nice to hear a little agreement for a change. If you are Christian, “In the beginning was the Word.” If you are Hindu (or Buddhist or Jain), “Om” is the sacred sound that creates the universe. If you prefer more modern mystics, “Man lives by sonic frequencies that hold the human body together.” Or study Cymatics.

Now with the discovery of Gravitation Waves by the LIGO Detector, sound can take its proper place in humans’ understanding of the basic building blocks of our universe.

GravitationalWaves

The Key to Creativity – and Success – Is Truth (via Gwen Stephani)

I have written about Taylor Swift extensively on Elephant Tech, but when I came across this post on LinkedIn by Gwen Stefani “The Key to Creativity – and Success – Is Truth,” I was a bit shocked. This is LinkedIn, not Facebook, so why is pop star Stefani considered a LinkedIn Influencer? Influencer is a designation given to approximately 500 professionals who’ve been invited to publish on LinkedIn because they are leaders in their industries and they discuss topics of interest. It is a big deal to receive this honor and the massive audience that goes with it. Of course, her 50K followers on LinkedIn are nothing compared to her 7.6M on Facebook so she must be doing it for a reason.

To me, the reason is that she’s taking the time to do this is to get a message out about how critical it is to be truthful in the moment in both professional and personal life. So take two minutes and read the post. If you have six more minutes, watch the video. She talks about very current issues for high tech businesses like:

  • Customer service – “One of them would be the one mad person who had something bad to say and then we would write them back.” How many companies do you know that take even this basic step?
  • Success – “If I am still on my journey, I’m successful.” “Success for me… is touching someone with my art.”
  • Business – “I tend to lean on people that are really talented and passionate about businesses… I never want to do anything that is not authentic to what I really believe because the point for me is not the final outcome or the money in the bank. It’s really about expressing myself and being true to my whole aesthetic and who I am and what I love.”

She ends the interview by saying “Being number one feels just as good as being in the garage in my dad’s backyard playing with my friends in my band. How do you measure making it?” It’s a great question that really made me ask myself “How do I measure making it?” The answer will be in the next post. Have a great weekend!

Time_Saving_Truth_from_Falsehood_and_Envy

François Lemoyne – Time Saving Truth from Falsehood and Envy

From the NY Times – Dear Architects: Sound Matters

A little acoustic nugget for a lazy Sunday morning: the interactive format of this article from the New York Times, “Dear Architects: Sound Matters” is very creative. Hovering over the photos of the acoustic environments causes the sound from that environment to play. For some of the locations further down in the article, clicking and holding compares the sound to another, related sound. For example, New York subway compared to Paris subway or solid door compared to hollow door.

Of course, the text is fascinating too. Enjoy!

Amman_Roman_theatre Plan_Roman_theater

Monthly Recap: My Favorite Fable (塞翁失马)

It has recently become clear that by writing on a wide variety of topics over the past three years, this blog has been developing an unexpected theme based on “meaningful coincidences.” For example, when doing some research on entrepreneurs, I discovered that the Taoist story from January’s post, “Right Intent: Exploring the Idea of Maybe” was also written about by Derek Sivers’ in a 2009 post on his blog called, “My favorite fable (塞翁失马).” It turns out that he has been a major influence on my work both consciously and unconsciously. Digging deeper into Derek’s writing, the coincidences continued. The 2013 post, “Leadership Lessons From the Dancing Guy,” was originally based on Derek’s work too. He shot the video and wrote about it in his 2010 post, “First Follower: Leadership Lessons from a Dancing Guy.” In fact, his book “Anything You Want: 40 Lessons for a New Kind of Entrepreneur” is outstanding and I have adopted several of his strategies in my work, especially his commitment to addressing clients’ needs in the most efficient way possible.

This month’s posts are another good example of meaningful coincidences. “Allowing Room for Life’s Little Adventures” was a reminder to always leave some free time so these coincidences can happen. “Changing the World – SONOS Lays Off and Apple Pays Off” explored how SONOS and Apple have responded to their recent business challenges, SONOS negatively by laying off employees despite a record year in 2015 and Apple positively by fighting the FBI’s demand to break their encryption. What was the short term effect of these choices? According to a recent article from The Verge, “Sonos lost its chief product officer” and Apple won its battle with the FBI (for the moment), “FBI Drops iPhone Case Against Apple After Outside Hack Succeeds.”

At this point, the unexpected theme is not entirely clear. It seems to have something to do with combining the “right intent” with the “right actions” in order to create harmonious solutions to the myriad issues high tech organizations face. In my work, this is manifested in practical tasks such as creating appropriate sales training to quickly and efficiently increase sales, developing go-to-market strategies for new products and industries, and working directly with employees in the field to bridge the gap between sales and marketing efforts.

This theme will certainly be expanded and explored in future posts, but for now the best way to proceed seems to be a cautious, Taoist, “We’ll see…”

Birth_of_Laozi

(Detail of a wall painting depicting Laozi as a baby. Laozi is considered to be the founder who revealed Taoism. Gray Goat Temple, Chengdu, Sichuan, China.)

Allowing Room for Life’s Little Adventures

I still love keeping up with the world of acoustics even though I have expanded outside the world of acoustics and vibration. One of my favorite magazines on the audio side of acoustics is TapeOp. It describes itself as “the Creative Music Recording Magazine. Tape Op is about learning how to make great recordings with whatever tools you have access to.” Started 20 years ago by Larry Crane, its magazine circulation has grown from 500 to over 70,000 a month by staying true to its mission. One evening I came across an interview with Dave Pensado, a Grammy winning sound engineer who has recorded groups like Michael Jackson, Kelly Clarkson, Beyonce, Elton John, and Christina Aguilera. Late in the article he says:

I orchestrate my life so that little adventures can happen. If you look at successful people, the path they start on is never where they end up. It’s never a linear path. What the outside world calls failure, they just call another turn. Creativity and lessons about it come from everywhere. Go to a museum or read a novel. Go on the Internet and just look at paintings. Get inspiration from the greats.

It was a great reminder of why creative writing and business networking are important to me. For example, while I don’t get much business from networking events, it does give me a broader view of the challenges smaller high technology businesses face. I have found staying current on these challenges is important to my professional and personal growth, plus it is fascinating to see how creativity and drive can result in completely new approaches to traditional problems.

RobertFrostToday most employees don’t get any kind of time luxury. Robert Frost, the American poet and winner of four Pulitzer Prizes once said, “By working faithfully eight hours a day, you may eventually get to be a boss and work twelve hours a day.” That was 40 years ago! Now businesses expect 24/7/365 availability and even between busy periods, the stress of always “being online” makes it difficult to be creative. What can be done?

Possible solutions are complex, but there is one book that directly addresses the problem, the New York Times bestseller, “The 4-Hour Workweek” by Timothy Ferriss. On one level, I don’t like the book because I love to work and some of his suggestions are contrary to my work ethic. Even the title makes me cringe a bit, but overall it is worth reading at least the first few chapters to get a whole new perspective on how to take “work” to a new level. A couple of my favorite quotes:

  • “Just a few words on time management: Forget all about it.”
  • “Being overwhelmed is often as unproductive as doing nothing, and is far more unpleasant.”
  • “Practice the art of non finishing” (I especially hate this one)
  • “Meetings are an addictive, highly self-indulgent activity that corporations and other organizations habitually engage in only because they cannot actually masturbate.” (actually from Dave Barry, the Pulitzer Prize winning American humorist)

Even if you don’t read the book, eliminate a little “busy work” each day to enjoy life’s little adventures. You’ll be surprised where it might lead you.

 

Changing the World – SONOS Lays Off and Apple Pays Off

I haven’t written a post in the “Changing World” category for a couple months, but it seemed appropriate given the shocking news that Sonos, one of my favorite companies, had layoffs this week that included acoustic engineers, marketing, and human resources personnel. The title of the Engadget post, “Sonos announces layoffs, refocuses on streaming and voice tech” says it all, but what happened? They make fantastic products that “just work,” last for years, and have incredible sound quality. They revolutionized the wireless home music system industry years ago with the first mesh Wi-Fi networking speaker systems. The article mentions that one reason for the layoffs is competition from Amazon’s Echo which is a hands-free speaker you can control with your voice. Maybe, but Echo is a completely different product so the problems seem to go much deeper. Two issues seem dominant: marketing and technical stagnation.

In marketing, Sonos seems to think they have the mass appeal of Apple, which of course, they don’t. Even Sonos’ most recent high profile ad during the Grammies, “Apple Music +Sonos” doesn’t showcase the advantages of a multi-thousand dollar mesh network music system over hundred dollar Bluetooth speakers. Apple on the other hand has focused on marketing the value of their products throughout the life of the company. When Steve Jobs returned to Apple one of his first projects was the highly successful Think Different campaign. I even wrote about it in the post, “Right Intent: Explaining the Unexplainable.” Recently I came across a video, “Apple Confidential,” in which Jobs is speaking at an internal Apple meeting right before the campaign’s launch. He explains that marketing is about values and that Apple has to be very clear about what it wants people to know and remember about them. Sonos has obviously had trouble with this. Later, at 6:34, Jobs goes on to say that Apple’s core value is that people with passion can change the world for the better. A lofty goal, especially for a meeting in 1997 when Apple was very close to going out of business.

Sonos has actually changed their industry dramatically, but has stagnated in recent years. Purists might care about a speaker that adapts its audio response to its vertical or horizontal orientation, but many more people care about Bluetooth connectivity, which Sonos does not support. Their app has no problem streaming from a wide variety of music services, but it was also clear they were stagnating when it took six month to integrate Apple Music. The result was their best year ever in 2015 followed by layoffs in March of 2016. This was clearly not a commitment to changing the world for the better, but more like giving up at the first sign of problems. It immediately changed my opinion of the company and now it looks like they are simply preparing themselves for sale. Even worse, the high end customers they appeal to will certainly be concerned now that Sonos’ long term viability is questionable. With proprietary hardware and software, their speakers simply will not work long without regular software updates.

Apple is not having an easy time these days either, but they are fighting for their values, releasing new products, and generally adapting in the face of competition. Sonos could have done so many things with their world class audio labs and acoustic engineers: headphones, Bluetooth, speech recognition, and simply reducing prices in some key areas. Instead, they just let employees go, dealing a blow to their wonderful reputation and a corporate culture they worked so hard to create. When Apple had trouble with their iAd business, they did “layoff” about 100 people, but committed to “compensate for iAd layoffs with new job openings.”

Companies sometimes fall onto hard times. The loss of a major account or the entry of a major competitor can seem like the beginning of the end. However, to healthy companies, it is an opportunity to refocus on strengths, create new sales and marketing strategies, and in general rise to the challenge. The next post in this series will provide details on how and where to implement this change and don’t worry, you won’t have to “meet your Waterloo” to do it.

Battle_of_Waterloo_1815

Monthly Recap: Meaningful Silence

  • “No news is good news.”
  • “Silence is golden.”
  • “Silence is a true friend who never betrays.”
  • “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.”
  • “Silence speaks louder than words.”

Despite many popular quotes expressing the virtues of silence, there can be that nagging feeling that it’s too quiet, “the calm before the storm” so to speak. Two of last month’s posts focused on the power of silence, describing both the positive and negative sides of situations where silence reigns. The post “The Power of Silence,” cites an article from The Guardian whose title says it all: “Shocking but true: students prefer jolt of pain to being made to sit and think.” The post explains how some companies have no idea what the silence in their market area is saying about them. It also provides tips on how this “code of silence” can be broken. Another post “Secrets of the Superbosses,” elaborates on one of those tips “grooming talent that cares about customers’ issues and needs” by exploring a Harvard Business Review (HBR) article, “Secrets of the Superbosses.” It’s too easy to mistake a customer’s silence for satisfaction or conversely mistake a vocal customer’s complains for major issues. It takes discerning, engaged employees to sound the alarm at the right time.

To round out the month, the post “Flowing Data Is Everywhere” demonstrated the power of great visualization in bringing meaning to complex data and “You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know Redux” was a continuation of a post from almost three years ago. It was inspired by the current Michael Moore movie “Where to Invade Next,” a wonderful movie with a misleading title. It really is a must see.

TMobile1Another example of the power of silence came to my attention recently. We use T-Mobile as our cellular carrier and unlike the other major carriers, they just get better and better every year. Airports where service was nonexistent a year ago now have excellent coverage. As the screenshot confirms, 60 Mbps down and 23 Mbps up is truly impressive. Their Uncarrier policies mean no billing surprises and a steady supply of improvements to voice / data plans. Four lines with unlimited data for $150 month? Wow!  I wouldn’t change to Verizon if they gave me $1,000. Their vocal CEO, John Legere is a master of uncovering the silently deceitful practices of his competitors. You can follow him on Twitter to enjoy his steady stream of humorous commentary on the industry.

karmagoOn the other hand, a small company called Karma has quietly created a very successful business out of mobile data hotspots. A downside of T-Mobile is that their coverage is not the best inside some buildings or outside of cities. That’s where the Karma Go hotspot comes in. Small, fast, and reliable, it provides cellular data where T-Mobile can’t. Since T-Mobile has WiFi calling, it’s like have a micro cell tower in my pocket. I’ve written about them before in the post “Good Karma and the Eventual Death of WiFi” and they just quietly get better and better. I had forgotten about one of their best features which is sharing my hotspot with others. It doesn’t use my data allowance and I get 100 MB bonus every time somebody uses it! Now that’s good Karma and a great example of the power of silence.

goodkarma

 

 

Luddites Rejoice: Wikipedia is Available in Printed Form

Thanks to the Print Wikipedia project, a printed version of Wikipedia is now available. Of course, it was instantly out of date, but you can still purchase the July 2015 snapshot of the free encyclopedia for approximately $500,000 (individual volumes are available for $80). This might seem expensive, but you get quite a bit for the money. The 7,473 700-page volumes include a 91 volume of table of contents and a 36 volume listing of the 7.5 million contributors for a total of 5,400,000 pages. Artist Michael Mandiberg created Print Wikipedia to answer the question, “How big is it?”

Michael_Mandiberg_and_Jonathan_Kiritharan_with_Print_WikipeidaArtist Michael Mandiberg and his assistant Jonathan Kiritharan of the “Print Wikipedia” project, at the “From Aaaaa! to ZZZap!” exhibition, on the day before its opening at Denny Gallery, New York City, USA

Secrets of the Superbosses

To continue the recent post, “The Power of Silence,” I wrote that some companies I have worked with have no idea what “the silence” is saying about their products and services. The post ended by suggesting that grooming talent that cares about customers’ issues and needs is critical to breaking negative aspects of the power of silence. As so often happens, another example recently surfaced during a conversation at Phoenix Startup Week.  A national sales manager was having ongoing problems with an underperforming sales engineer. The engineer was well educated, well trained, and seemed to be doing all the right things in his large territory, but sales were mediocre. The company’s products were excellent and rapidly gaining worldwide marketshare so that wasn’t the problem. After some analysis, the sales engineer seemed to be better at supporting customers than making sales so the national sales manager hired local sales reps and promoted the sales engineer to a regional manager position. The result, sales were still stagnant. What was the problem?

I’m not 100% sure since I have never consulted for this company, but after this discussion I strongly suspect that the busy national sales manager was being manipulated by his regional sales manager through the power of silence. The employee was visiting customers and supporting the reps, so “no news is good news,” right? The company’s headquarters are in Europe so busy upper management was probably also being manipulated by US management in the same way. By silently avoiding the issue, nobody had to face the real problem of underperformance. What is the solution?

1901 US cartoon from Puck depicting John D. Rockefeller.
1901 US cartoon from Puck depicting John D. Rockefeller.

Like many dysfunctional management problems, immediate solutions can range from coaching and written recovery plans to personnel changes, but the problem never would have surfaced if the employees involved had been hired and groomed properly from the start. The Harvard Business Review (HBR) article, “Secrets of the Superbosses,” is a wonderful glimpse at how the best people make the best company, but only if “leaders follow specific practices in hiring and honing talent.” The article goes on to explain several of those practices such as using unconventional hiring that:

  • Focuses on intelligence, creativity, and flexibility
  • Finds unlikely winners
  • Adapts the job or organization to fit the talent
  • Accepts churn

Then following up that unconventional hiring with hands-on leadership that:

  • Sets high expectations
  • Trusts the team to execute
  • Encourages step-change growth
  • Stays connected

I know from observation (and feedback from their customers) that this European company is utilizing these practices in Europe which is why they are experiencing such rapid growth. Their challenge is to insure the entire worldwide organization is doing the same. If this seems like a daunting task for your organization, don’t despair. This is a long term shift of culture and thinking for most companies, but even the longest journey starts with a single step.

You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know Redux

Almost three years ago, I wrote the post, “You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know.” Today, the phrase is still a great reminder to always take a moment to consider the deeply hidden aspects of situations. The point was recently brought home again when I saw the Michael Moore movie “Where to Invade Next.” The name is a bit misleading: it’s really about great ideas created in the US that other countries have adopted successfully. Michael Moore goes to Italy, Finland, Germany, Slovenia, France, and Portugal to show how these ideas have improved their societies and cultures. The “invasion” idea is to suggest that America might benefit from adopting these ideas again. Despite extensive travel, I certainly “didn’t know what I didn’t know” about many of these topics.

It got me thinking about other articles I have come across recently supporting this idea such as “We Are Blind to Our Blindness” from Delancy Place. Also, confirmation bias is a major issue, especially from online information sources such as Facebook, Google Search, and other online news sources. It even has a name now, the Filter Bubble, and there is a Wikipedia article and a TED talk about it. Thanks to Google, we are less and less likely to know what we don’t know.

What are the implications for business? It’s way too easy for employees and managers to not be exposed to negative or even positive information that is outside their “filter bubbles.” The uncomfortable challenging threats and potentially beneficial information is hidden in the wasteland that is known as “the second page of Google search results.”

Next time, I will provide some suggestions for breaking out of the filter bubble. And don’t worry, I’m not going to suggest “DuckDuckGo…”

472px-Knowledge-Reid-Highsmith
Robert Reid, Knowledge 1896. Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C.

The Power of Silence

If you are reading this in a quiet place, stop for a moment and listen. What do you hear? I hear a morning dove, traffic and the clang of the Phoenix Light Rail in the distance, aircraft overhead, and children in the street. I immediately felt more relaxed and focused. New ideas for this post popped into my head. For some people however, silence can be uncomfortable. Here are a few examples:

Shocking but true: students prefer jolt of pain to being made to sit and think” – An article from The Guardian based on research published in Science Magazine. The abstract reads “In 11 studies, we found that participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts.” Wow, so much for “silence is golden!”

Microsoft’s new anechoic chamber has broken the record for the quietest place on earth last year. You can see the details at Microsoft.com. This is great for testing acoustic products, but articles such as “Experience: I’ve been to the quietest place on Earth” point out that “Ironically, far from being peaceful, most people find its perfect quiet upsetting. Being deprived of the usual reassuring ambient sounds can induce fear…”

Faras_Saint_AnneThe same holds true for companies where silence can represent both positive and negative possibilities. Silence has not been kind to Yahoo as they continue their slow slide into irrelevance. I haven’t visited Yahoo.com in years and rarely use Flickr photo sharing (a Yahoo company). The latest headlines from yesterday, “Yahoo’s job cuts: Will they be layoffs or stealthy firings?

In comparison, although much of the recent noise about Apple is bad, what is not being said is good. The bad headlines read “Apple Must Remember To Fail With Style,” “Apple shares plunge 5% as iPhone sales slow,” and “Apple: The iPhone Reality Distortion Field.” However, the silence speaks volumes. As highlighted by Quartz in an obscure article, Apple made more revenue from iPhone in a single quarter than Google has ever made from Android. Also, a recent headline from the niche Apple website 9To5Mac reads: “Apple takes 92% of smartphone market profits on just 20% of sales.” People love and use Apple products so heavily that they are willing to pay a major premium for them. In this case, “actions speak louder than words.”

A few companies I work with have no idea what the silence is saying about their products and services. Over the years, I have regularly gone on customer visits with salespeople only to find key accounts that are unhappy, but have given up complaining because there are better options in the marketplace. The salespeople don’t complain either. Why should they bother? It takes time away from sales activities, no action is taken by management, and it can bring unwanted attention on them. They just move onto the next prospect and another customer is lost.

So how can the “code of silence” be broken? Here are a few simple suggestions:

  • Collect feedback from application and support engineers AND ACT ON IT!
  • Ensure that management evaluates all issues brought up by sales: positive and negative.
  • Have a non-employee attend industry events to uncover the “word on the street.” It’s amazing what people will share over a couple beers in a hotel bar at an industry conference.
  • Groom talent that cares about customers’ issues and needs

Next time we’ll take a close look at the last item since it is a key to some of the biggest success stories in business today.

Flowing Data Is Everywhere

The data visualization in the post “A Day in the Life of Americans” from the website FlowingData.com is amazing. It takes boring, non-intuitive government data on how people spend an “average” day and transforms it into a mesmerizing graphical simulation. Flowing Data’s visualization is based on a 4 MB database from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics and demonstrates the power of recent advancements in the field. Go ahead and take a moment to visit the site, I’ll wait for you.

BLSTable

In the field of Test and Measurement the rule of thumb is that it takes 1/3 of total test time to acquire data and 2/3 of the time to analyze and post process it into an engineering report. Today, the leading suppliers of testing hardware and software focus on this 2/3 especially since data acquisition hardware and software have become a commodity. Many customers have stopped asking about technical differentiators such as resolution, dynamic range, and bandwidth, but they are very interested in software ease of use, systems solutions, and data representation tools. What’s the point of taking gigabytes of data if it can’t be efficiently analyzed to solve the required engineering problem?

Here are a few examples of companies that are providing highly engineered solutions that feature data visualization.

So don’t underestimate the power of visualizing data. Engineering, sales, and support teams can all benefit by a little extra training and understanding of how customers use the data generated by powerful analysis systems.

 

Monthly Recap of January’s Posts

How Good Does Customer Service Have to Be?” provided examples of great customer service from T-Mobile, Apple, and ICDSoft. When it costs 10x as much to obtain a new customer as it does to retain an existing customer, it is clear that customer service is an excellent investment. If this seems like an unreachable goal, the article from B2B Community, “How Apple Uses Level Scheduling As Its Secret to Incredible Customer Service” has some hints on how to spread out demand to best use an existing (often overloaded) support organization.

Star Wars – It’s Time for a New Story” was a response to the shock I felt when I realized that the plot of the most recent Star Wars movie is a copy of the first Star Wars movie released in 1977. The original plot, based on the work of American Mythologist Joseph Campbell, was created by Lucas as a way to reintroduce the power of mythological stories into modern culture. You’ll have to read the post for the details, but somehow it seems wrong to repeat when there are still so many wonderful stories untold.

Right Intent: Exploring the Idea of Maybe” made the point that “maybe” is an opportunity to discuss with an open mind, creating a creative flow can uncover solutions to problems that seem impossible. This is like looking at data from a new perspective, trends that were invisible can become obvious.

Finally, the posts “ElephantTech Reaches 500 Pages!,” “Apple Might Not Have Viruses, but They Sure Have Leeches,” and “The Art of Agreement: SCOTUS, POTUS, T-Mobile, and Taylor Swift” explored topics that caught my interest. I hope you found them interesting too.

yoda

Right Intent: Exploring the Idea of Maybe

It is easy for engineers to fall into the trap of binary thinking since many technical decisions are black and white. However, in the bigger world outside of spec sheets and cost/performance calculations, shades of grey dominate. Good technical salespeople constantly grapple with questions like should the customer be told the “truth” about a marginal product at the risk of losing a sale? Should management be alerted to a potential quota miss ahead of time and how soon? Should a promising product feature that is technically complete be delayed to the next release to compel users to upgrade? These are just a few examples of questions that fall into that grey area of “maybe.” These questions come up so often that some ancient belief systems have stories to illustrate the detachment crucial to making the right decision when faced with uncertainty. Here’s one story from the Taoist tradition:

One day, the horse of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years ran away. When his neighbors heard the news, they visited and sympathetically said “Such bad luck.”

“Maybe,” the old farmer replied. The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed.

“Maybe,” replied the old man. The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. It would be hard for him to harvest his crops without his son’s help.

“Maybe,” answered the farmer. The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.

“Maybe,” said the farmer.

At first glance, this story sounds like the farmer is avoiding the questions. If a salesperson used the same technique with a customer, he wouldn’t last five minutes in a sales call. However, approaching a problem with detachment is one way to initiate a discussion based on exploration instead of jumping to preconceived notions. One of the hallmarks of great salespeople is the ability to determine if a customer’s problem fits the solution as quickly as possible.

For larger strategic decisions, an example might be helpful. Sonos is an example of a company that puts this technique into practice with excellent results. Why? I have an original ZonePlayer based system that’s over 7 years old and it still works. It’s probably the oldest technology in our house and I’ve never had to replace a single unit due to obsolescence. Now they have added Apple Music and it runs on the same hardware. When we moved to a larger house, we just added additional players that all worked seamlessly with the “old” system. For a fascinating glimpse into the culture of Sonos that results in products like these, “What Sonos is working on” is a fast, interesting read.

sonoschamber

Is Sonos losing money by not getting users to upgrade their hardware? Not in my case. If I had had to replace the old players, I might have opted for a Bluetooth system for a fraction of the price. Instead of focusing on what they might lose, Sonos focuses on providing additional features so customers feel safe adding new products. TruePlayPLAY:5, and the PLAYBAR are expensive, but I know if I decide to buy one, it will be a great long term investment in a first class product.

So when that next agonizing decision comes, take a step back from the heat of an instant reaction with a thoughtful “maybe.” Maybe is an opportunity to discuss with an open mind. This can lead to creative solutions to problems that seem impossible.

Star Wars – It’s Time for a New Story

The recent Star Wars movie is the highest grossing film of all time. I recently saw it and was shocked to find that it was almost an exact copy of the first Star Wars released in 1977. It also made me sad. Why repeat the story when there are so many new directions possible? Of course, money is the biggest reason. To create a flop in this iconic series would be a financial disaster for Disney (that bought Lucas Films for $4B) and J.J. Abrams. A review in The Examiner said it best, “The fanboys have already arm-twisted the culture to ensure that it is considered an instant classic, so any attempt at criticism is moot.” However, it is important to criticize because the poor retelling cheapens a story that was once great.

How does this relate to high tech businesses? Last year, I wrote a post “Walking the Razor’s Edge of Change” that explored the fine line between obsessive “change for the sake of change” and the healthy change related to growth. To me, healthy change is like a great story. It is based on classic themes with heroes and villains and has a plot that “goes somewhere.” Healthy businesses have great stories. Apple creates a story with their products and their marketing is almost completely based around it.

yodaMany people don’t realize that George Lucas created Star Wars as a way to reintroduce the power of mythological stories into modern culture. He based it on the work of Joseph Campbell, a writer and lecturer at Sarah Lawrence College who was an expert on comparative mythology and comparative religion. The connection to Star Wars is well described in the “Film and Television” section of Campbell’s Wikipedia article. Campbell also coined the often misused phase, “Follow your bliss.” The 1988 PBS documentary with Bill Moyers on this subject can be found on YouTube as well as a 1999 interview of George Lucas by Bill Moyers called, “The Mythology of STAR WARS” (a transcript of this interview can be found on Bill Moyers website). Lucas said in the interview, “When the film came out almost every single religion took Star Wars and used it as an example of their religion and were able to relate it to young people… it’s a tool that can be used to make old stories be new and relate to younger people, that’s what the point was.”

I’ve worked with people who thought their story was the only correct one. Threatening their story was perceived as a personal threat so they had to protect it at all costs. They only hired people who supported their stories so the same old stories gained more power and influence. The result was they left no room for new stories to be created and told. The cycle was perpetuated, eventually leading to a stagnant organization that collapsed under its own dysfunction.

How can this be prevented? One way is by finding heathy ways for new stories to be created and nurtured. If you have time, at least watch the one part of 1988 PBS documentary on Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers on “following your bliss.” It’s only 6 minutes long and is a great introduction to creating our own new stories. As Campbell says, “If you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while waiting for you and the life that you ought to be living is the one that you are living right now.” If that’s not a story waiting to be told, I don’t know what is.

Apple Might Not Have Viruses, but They Sure Have Leeches

The state of new reporting in technology has reached an all time low. I’ve been thinking about this for awhile, but a recent Fortune Magazine commentary “Why So Much Apple Commentary Is So Clueless” made the source of the problem clear. As the article states, “The combination of high page-click value and low barrier-to-entry has reduced online journalism to headlines like ‘Apple Chips Implode,’ ‘Apple Gets Peeled,’ ‘The iPhone slowdown spells doom for Apple.'”

Now even the more mainstream news sources like Business Insider publish articles with click bait headlines like “Apple is the New Microsoft.” It’s a good article with an internal title that reads “How Apple stays on top of the tech world,” but at first glance, it gives the impression that Apple is becoming like Microsoft. Their Microsoft reporting doesn’t do this. A week later they published an article that was exactly what its title promised, “Here’s everything we expect Microsoft to announce in 2016.”

What am I going to do about the problem? The same day this article was posted, I enrolled in the MIT class “Journalism for Social Change.” While social change is not really my focus, a little education from MIT might go a long way to separating the good content from the dogs. As the classic cartoon says “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” (so famous that it has even got its own Wikipedia page).

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The Art of Agreement: SCOTUS, POTUS, T-Mobile, and Taylor Swift

What could they possibly have in common? It has to do with a critical aspect of communication that I am calling, “The Art of Agreement.” This doesn’t mean blindly agreeing with every opinion, but instead agreeing to listen, respect, and at least try to understand the point of view of the person expressing it. Here are a few examples:

The first is a quote from the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) Justice Stephen Breyer. It is an excerpt of the interview with Stephen Colbert on September 15, 2015 and starts at about 6 minutes. “When we’re sitting around that table, the nine of us discussing, I’ve been there over 20 years, 21, I have never heard a voice raised in anger. I have never heard one member of our court say something insulting about another, not even as a joke. Of course we disagree. We disagree about half the time. We’re unanimous about half the time and we’re 5/4 and it’s not always the same 4, maybe 20% or so, and we feel it possibly quite strongly, but the discussion is professional, it is serious, and it is not personal and we are good friends despite the fact that we agree some of the time and we disagree others of the time.”

In Obama’s recent State of the Union address, the POTUS said, “A better politics doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything. This is a big country, with different regions and attitudes and interests… Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise, or when even basic facts are contested, or when we listen only to those who agree with us. Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get all the attention.” This may be the understatement of the year, but well said.

In the high tech world, T-Mobile has been criticized for not supporting Net Neutrality because they are reducing the quality of video transferred over T-Mobile’s network. What did the CEO of T-Mobile John Legere do? He explained T-Mobile’s reasoning in an excellent article called “Open Letter to Consumers about Binge On” and actually apologized to the Electronic Frontier Foundation at the end, “I will however apologize for offending EFF and its supporters. Just because we don’t completely agree on all aspects of Binge On doesn’t mean I don’t see how they fight for consumers. We both agree that it is important to protect consumers’ rights and to give consumers value. We have that in common, so more power to them.” Now that’s truly practicing the Art of Agreement.

Finally, while writing this post, I realized that I had written about this topic before in a slightly different way. The post “Soft Skills: The Art of Conversation” described a technique I use called the five second rule: wait at least five seconds after the person stops talking before responding. Try it, it completely changes the pace and flow of business and social conversation. In another post, “Taylor Swift and the Lost Art of Conversation” I wrote “Across the board, the best negotiators were the ones who could have a ‘conversation’ about the situation: an honest back and forth discussion leading to the sometimes elusive win-win outcome.”

heated_conversationThat is the point of this post. It is a reminder that the best and most powerful people on the planet right now are practicing the Art of Agreement. Sometimes situations are more complex than they seem, sometimes one side or the other doesn’t have all the facts, and sometimes mis-communication occurs. So the next time a controversial opinion is expressed, take the time to listen, respect, and at least try to understand the point of view of the person expressing it. If just a few people begin to practice the Art of Agreement, the world would gradually become a better place.

Breaking Through Limitations: ElephantTech Reaches 500 Pages!

Computers have historically broken through an unending stream of limitations. Memory size limitations (640 KB, 4 GB, etc.), processor speeds, 32-bit operating system limitations, and a wide variety of software issues. On the last version of IOS, Safari crashed every time I scrolled through the LinkedIn home page. However, slowly but surely those limitations are disappearing. For example, I decided I wanted one PDF of the entire set of blog posts from Elephant Tech. I setup WordPress to display 300 posts per page and opened ElephantTech.com. Safari on my two year old MacBook Pro had no problem scrolling through this massive document. I clicked Print / Save to PDF and 10 seconds later I was shocked to find a 501 page, 15 MB PDF file on my desktop. We’ve come a long way baby and wow, that’s a lot of writing. Now to get started on the next 500…

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How Good Does Customer Service Have to Be?

Clients occasionally ask me how good is “good enough” for a support organization. Does a “real person” have to answer the phone every time a customer calls? Do application engineers have to respond within the hour, the day, or a week? How technically knowledgeable does the support team have to be? I always answer the same way, it depends on your customers’ expectations. In some cases, I have actually tested their support organization anonymously to see how well it works “in the real world.”

The companies that typically ask this question are the ones either in startup mode or the ones that already know they have a problem. The startups are the fun ones, they are so eager to please their customers that they invest in modern, efficient customer service departments. I might help with training or communication issues, but they have the right intent to make sure the customer is satisfied. It’s the other category that’s a challenge. Many times these companies have been in their industry for decades and customer service is seen internally as an overhead cost to be reduced. Worse still, sometimes companies charge for basic customer service.

So how good is good enough? Here are a couple examples of companies that are setting your customers’ expectations:

T-Mobile: The CEO of T-Mobile visits his customer service departments across the country regularly. I wrote a post in 2014 “Stepping Out with T-Mobile” that explained how he also listens in on customer service calls personally. It certainly shows in their service. I rarely call them, but when I do the representative is always professional and efficient. Also, every couple months, they add something new and valuable to their service through their Uncarrier program. I now have unlimited data, unlimited voice, and a no-contract iPhone leased through them that they swap every year for the newest model through their Jump program. I don’t even think about switching even when LTE coverage might not be at Verizon’s level.

ICDSoft: ICDSoft is our web hosting provider. Who knows where they are: maybe Hong Kong, maybe Boston. I have no idea and I don’t care. I’ve never even called them, but when I have a technical question, they respond to me on their support website within 5 minutes. Am I shopping for a new web host? No way!

IMG_1236Apple (of course): I dropped my Apple Watch and broke it. Luckily I had AppleCare+. I called at 3 PM. The representative processed the claim in real time. I received an email with the payment request ($69) while we were on the phone. I paid and a new watch arrived via FedEx THE NEXT DAY. Do you think I’ll be buying AppleCare in the future? You bet!

If your customer service department is lacking, the lull at the beginning of the new year is the perfect time to “upgrade” it. Start a regular training program, hire a couple of additional support engineers, or simply begin measuring key datapoints like response time. If you haven’t heard, “conventional business wisdom” says it costs 10x as much to obtain a new customer as it does to retain an existing customer. In many high tech industries, this is a conservative estimate! Once attention is put on a problem, it is amazing how quickly positive change can be implemented turning “good enough” into great.

Monthly Recap: Happy New You 2016!

No, that’s not a typo in the title. It’s something a close friend of mine used to say every new year. I said it in last year’s January post and it’s worth saying again since it’s such a great reminder of the positive aspects of change. Since the news has negativity and fear mongering well covered, here are a few positive things that happened in 2015:

1. Google changed its logo. The New Yorker hated it, but let’s be honest, these are engineers so you know there was a good reason besides “clean lines” and the banishment of those “old fashioned letters.” It is now only 305 bytes, compared to their “old” logo at ~14,000 bytes. Considering the billions of times that logo is stored and transmitted, the new logo is a stunning technological improvement. As a side benefit, the change inspired the New Yorker to write my favorite sentence of the year: “The letters’ literary old serifs were subtly authoritative: the sturdy, handsome G, the stately, appealing little oo, the typewriterish, lovable g, the elegant l, the thoughtful e.”

2. Pope Francis visited the US. Besides riding around in a Fun Fiat with a great backstory, his visit was historic for many reasons. His speech to Congress covered a wide range of topics including Congress itself, religious fanaticism, family, the refugee crisis, compassion, and wealth disparity. It’s a long read, but well worth it for the positive message of change that can be applied to any belief system.

3. Online education exploded. The Observer’s post “The 37 Best Websites to Learn Something New” lists amazing learning resources available at low or no charge. If you only have a couple minutes a day, subscribe to a Highbrow email course. As they say, “Choose one course – Receive new knowledge every morning – Learn, grow, repeat.” For professional level training, try Lynda. It costs $20 / month, but the courses are outstanding. I’ve taken courses from Coursera (Stanford course), Skillshare, and EdX (MIT course). You can find details on my experiences by searching ElephantTech.com. Education is one of the fastest paths to change.

4. Finally, Elephant Tech’s December posts were my favorite to write so far. “Right intent” inspired two posts: “Explaining the Unexplainable” and “The Sound of One Hand Clicking and Right Intent.” There is certainly more to be said on this topic. “Sophisticated Simplicity” and “21st Century Meetings and Training” explored the power of simplicity. Technology is a wonderful tool when used appropriately.

As we start 2016, Elephant Tech would like to wish you all the best in the new year. The world is going to continue to change for better and for worse in some cases so it might be easier to go with it instead of fighting it. As Joseph Campbell once said, “We are in a freefall into future… All you have to do to transform your hell into a paradise is to turn your fall into a voluntary act. It’s a very interesting shift of perspective and that’s all it is…”

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EdTech: 21st Century Meetings and Training

It’s that dead time between Christmas and New Year that always reminds me how much one can get done without the interruptions from incessant meetings. Most meetings seem to be designed to keep the people who are not doing the work informed by the people who are doing the work on goals and progress. Such meetings often completely break the flow of work, turning a promisingly productive day into a muddled mess of disjointed tasks. Companies with remote teams have a special problem. Timezones, travel, and other conflicts can make meetings impossible to schedule. Is a salesperson supposed to cancel an important client meeting to attend a “marketing update?” Is everybody going to be pulled out of the field for a week to attend a critical training related to a product launch?

These are the big examples, but the small ones might be even more critical. How is the proposal for a key account progressing? Is it stuck, done, waiting for input from X? Where is your friendly neighborhood application engineer today?

Several companies are addressing this problem and have made significant progress. One of these is Jell that makes software to “replace daily standup meetings.” They published an interesting blog post “How We Jell At Fog Creek” that explains how one high tech software company has integrated Jell into its team collaboration culture. It is a quick, interesting read that has made me wonder about how other modern tools can be used to improve communication and deliver training more effectively. Look for more posts on this topic in 2016!

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Right Intent: Explaining the Unexplainable

In the recent post, “The Sound of One Hand Clicking and Right Intent” I ended with the comment, “So what is the sound of one hand clicking? To me it has nothing to do with technology or recording music, but goes back to the vague idea of right intent … expect more explanation of the unexplainable soon.” I didn’t have an answer then and after a couple weeks of racking my brain, I still don’t have an answer now. Maybe that’s because intent is one of those concepts that fall into the “I know it when I feel it” category. At this point it would be easy to become philosophical, but that’s boring. Instead, thinking about right intent reminded me of the famous Apple ad campaign from 1997, “Think Different.” Go ahead, take 30 seconds and watch it, I promise it will be worth it.

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Apple was almost out of business and Steve Jobs had just come back. He wanted to remind the world that thinking differently had made Apple great in the past and it was going to make Apple great again. It highlighted how the perspectives of the “different” people had transformed the world thoughout history. It was the perfect example of the power of “right intent.” Not coincidentally, these people are also often considered “the crazy ones.” The full quote from the ad goes like this.

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They invent. They imagine. They heal. They explore. They create. They inspire. They push the human race forward. Maybe they have to be crazy. How else can you stare at an empty canvas and see a work of art? Or sit in silence and hear a song that’s never been written? Or gaze at a red planet and see a laboratory on wheels? We make tools for these kinds of people. While some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

The ad featured visionaries from all walks of life. Interestingly, people think Jobs wrote this, but the story of how this ad was created is as amazing as the quote. This long article from Forbes has the incredible details. To summarize, it was written by Rob Siltanen and based on a speech by Robin Williams in the movie, “The Dead Poets Society.” Reading the Forbes article, it is a miracle that the ad ever saw the light of day. Later, Jobs commented on this quote in an interview for the PBS documentary “One Last Thing” in 1994:

When you grow up you tend to get told the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact, and that is – everything around you that you call life, was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. The minute that you understand that you can poke life and actually something will, you know if you push in, something will pop out the other side, that you can change it, you can mold it. That’s maybe the most important thing. It’s to shake off this erroneous notion that life is there and you’re just gonna live in it, versus embrace it, change it, improve it, make your mark upon it. I think that’s very important and however you learn that, once you learn it, you’ll want to change life and make it better, cause it’s kind of messed up, in a lot of ways. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.

These wise words give me chills, but as the Forbes article illustrates, the details of how this happens is messy. It is full of false starts and setbacks, “failures” that become “successes” and maybe “failures” again. Through it all, the common theme seems to be right intent AND the commitment to “do the dirty work.” Nobody knows what the future holds, but humans have survived millions of years so somebody (or something, if that’s your preference) is taking care of the flow. 

So there are a few of my existential thoughts as we wrap up a crazy and amazing year. Again, best wishes for a wonderful holiday season and Happy New You!

Sophisticated Simplicity

To quote Leonard da Vinci: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” It’s something I’ve written about before, but with the rapid pace of change of technology, “keeping it simple” requires periodic attention. As 2015 draws to a close, there is a small window of opportunity to change several technological things that have become a nuisance. They are just not worth the added complexity anymore. However, solutions that are too simple can lead to a different set of problems. Einstein is often quoted as saying: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” To me, this is a caution against the other extreme. It might be simpler to use the voicemail built into my phone, but Google Voice emails me voicemail transcriptions and allows me to use one phone for multiple phone numbers. That’s worth the added complexity. With this fine line in mind, here are the changes I’m making going into 2016.

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Email: I’ve tried a dozen email apps over the years, but Gmail is still the best. It is fast, secure, and has incredible spam filtering. I access it from a browser on the desktop and Apple Mail on IOS. The change: I gave up on Google Inbox. It was just too much hassle for the added benefits. Also, scanning and deleting dozens of unwanted emails everyday takes a huge amount of time and effort. Try clicking those unsubscribe links at the bottom of emails, they really do work.

Calendar: I’ve used Google Calendar for almost a decade, but the IOS app is too limited. The change: I’m switching back to Apple Calendar. When I visit Apple, employees have the Apple Calendar app front and center on their MacBooks and iPads. They are a lot busier than I (as I can see from the rainbow of colored meetings on their shared calendars), so if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me.

Browser: Chrome is fast and stable, but not native to OS X / IOS. The change: I now use Safari with Chrome as a backup. Safari is also fast, stable, and deeply integrated. Plus its password manager instantly logs me into most websites and synchronizes passwords with my iPhone. These are big time savers. Chrome is a good backup since it has an Adobe Flash player built in and still works better with certain websites. Also, since I don’t trust one platform with something as important as passwords, I use 1Password as a backup.

Maps: I travel extensively and have sworn by Google Maps for a decade. The change: Apple Maps has finally become fast and good enough to be used for local travel. As a bonus, Apple Maps provides turn by turn notifications on the Apple Watch. A tap on the wrist or a glance at a watch seems a bit safer than looking at a phone while driving. Google Maps and Waze are still on my iPhone. They are still the best apps for serious navigational challenges like recent trips to Los Angeles and the Bay Area.

Website: WordPress, wordpress, wordpress. For a small business like Elephant Tech, it makes no sense to mess around with complex website development tools. WordPress can create a beautiful website in minutes that is easy to update. They even provide a new default theme ever year to keep a website looking fresh. The change: The 2016 theme is modern and looks great on desktop and mobile devices. Also, the only plugin I use is UpdraftPlus Backup. With 264 posts, a good backup system is essential.

Apple Watch: I put this last because a few people might laugh and stop reading, but it really does improve time management. Important notifications come through immediately so I’m not tempted to pickup my phone and get interrupted by the unimportant ones. It is a much more efficient use of time to take care of the less important ones outside of business hours.

Finally, a word of warning: don’t get suckered in by posts like Business Insider’s “10 apps for your iPhone that are better than the ones Apple made.” They make some decent suggestions, but every “better app” has a cost in time and effort. In most cases, these “better apps” are only useful to people who are advanced enough that they “can’t make it simpler.” The suggestions above help me focus on the tasks at hand, freeing more time for paying projects and business development efforts. Besides, who can’t use a little more free time each day? For the Android users reading this, the same philosophy applies and better yet, Google’s stock apps are definitely better on Android. If you have questions about other “sophisticated simplicity” techniques, don’t hesitate to ask.

Best wishes for a happy holiday season and a prosperous 2016!

Acoustics Everywhere: The Sound of One Hand Clicking and Right Intent

The title of this post is a bad paraphrase of the famous Zen koan, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” To grossly simplify, a koan is a Zen Buddhist question with no logical answer. It is designed to disrupt thought patterns by forcing the mind to explore beyond the constraints of logic. Several posts that seem like technical koans have caught my attention recently starting with the medium post “The Inside Story of Apple’s New iMacs.” In the second paragraph, the author makes the comment, “The mouse didn’t sound right,” which is a reference to the sound of the new Mighty Mouse 2 that Apple just released. The rest of the article is a deep dive into the fanatical attention Apple puts into a product that they are simultaneously trying to make obsolete. A mouse has no place in a computing world dominated by touch screen devices ranging from iPhones to the massive iPad Pro. It certainly seemed like a technological koan to me.

The article contained another koan based on Phil Schiller’s “grand philosophical theory of the Apple product line that puts all products on a continuum.” He says “Ideally, you should be using the smallest possible gadget to do as much as possible before going to the next largest gizmo in line.” Hmmmm. You can find this quote about a third of the way down, right after his photo. Phil is Apple’s senior VP of Worldwide Product Marketing so when he talks, the technical world listens.

schiller_tweetPhil seems to enjoy being provocative especially by tweeting links to unusual content. I quoted him in October’s “Monthly Recap” when he linked to the post “What It Means to Be Great” by Horace Dediu. He did it again this month by linking to a fascinating technical comparison between the iPhone camera and professional DSLR’s written by Ken Rockwell. Phil manages one of the most powerful marketing departments on the planet. Why does he “go rogue” and tweet a link to an article by a relative unknown? Hmmmm.

Finally I came across a quote from an interview with Glyn Johns in Tape Op magazine. He is a recording engineer who recorded some of the most famous British bands in history including the Rolling Stones, The Who, Bob Dylan, The Clash, etc. With almost unlimited resources at his disposal, he still clings to traditional recording techniques where bands are recorded playing together. Most current recordings are “multitrack” which means they are created from a jigsaw puzzle of multiple microphones recording multiple performances of musicians playing (mostly) separately. He says:

To me, music is an emotion. It’s an emotive experience to play it, to perform it, and it’s certainly an emotive experience to listen to it. The performance of a piece of music by more than one person should be an interaction between those people. It should breathe between whomever is playing it. If you overdub something, the person overdubbing can respond to what’s come down already, but they don’t affect it other than adding another layer of sound to it. What’s happened now is that almost everything seems to be recorded one instrument at a time. Some people are brilliant at it, but some are not. The end results are then farted and fiddled around with to such an extent that it takes all the human element out of it.”

When he was asked what a record producer does, he answered: “You just have to have an opinion, and the ego to express it more convincingly than anyone else.” This is easy for an expert like Glyn to say, but it implies a koan in that somebody has to listen and act on that opinion. If the world acted like that in general, every politician would be the leader of their own small (very dysfunctional) country.

So what is the sound of one hand clicking? To me it has nothing to do with technology or recording music, but goes back to the vague idea of “right intent.” I’ll end the post with this statement, but expect more explanation of the unexplainable soon.

Monthly Recap: The Process of Expertise (and Acoustic Tractor Beams)

If you have been involved in a high tech industry for any length of time, you know that having expertise in a field is not a goal, it’s a continuous process of learning from a wide variety of sources. I spent many years in the field of sound and vibration and regularly read material from the Acoustical Society of America (ASA), the Audio Engineering Society (AES), and related organizations, but you won’t find the fascinating article about “Acoustic Hologram Tractor Beams” there. Instead, this came from IEEE’s Spectrum. Even though this magazine is outside the field of acoustics, it explained it in a clear and accessible way. This is an excellent example of the power of effective technical communication.

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However, a problem with reading a large number of sources is information overload. Therefore I constantly filter them in a variety of ways to stay current not only in acoustics and vibration, but in several other technical fields where I consult. Below I have listed this month’s posts and the filters I used to find them.

EdTech: The Expert Explains… The Myth of High Resolution Audio” was a result of following Applied Science’s Twitter feed @BenKrasnow. I follow about ten people on Twitter and only follow them through a Flipboard “magazine” to minimize the time I spend on Twitter. By the way, Flipboard is a great way to quickly filter a wide range of topics.

Ten Things You Might Not Know About Antimatter” came from an article in Symmetry Magazine which is a joint Fermilab/SLAC publication. Symmetry does an excellent job filtering and summarizing complex research topics to making them understandable to anyone with an interest.

EdTech: Good Karma and the Eventual Death of WiFi” came from a blog post by Karma. I save a ton of money using T-Mobile instead of AT&T or Verizon, but once in a while coverage can be spotty. The Karma Go hotspot fills the gap perfectly when I travel with fair pricing and no expiration date on data plans. Their blog is a well written mix of business and technical articles. Most companies don’t realize how powerful short articles in their area of expertise can be, especially if they write about interesting topics like Karma does.

In the Google Alphabet – C Should Stand for Customer Service” was the sad result of last month’s post “The Damage Bad Products Can Cause – Google’s OnHub.” As a result of this experience, I continue to research alternatives to Google’s Gmail, Google Apps, and Google Search. I’m still excited about Google Fiber coming to Phoenix and, according to Re/code they just created “Access” to be Alphabet company for it. Which reminds me that Re/code’s Daily Newsletter is another great source of tech news filtered by experts.

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whitenoiseSo best wishes for a strong finish for 2015 and a happy holiday season. To paraphrase Berlin, “May your days be merry and melodious, and may all your christmases be filled with pleasant random signals with a constant power spectral density!”

 

In the Google Alphabet – C Should Stand for Customer Service

In case you missed the news, Google changed it’s name to Alphabet Inc. a couple of months ago. As Google says, “Alphabet is a holding company that gives ambitious projects the resources, freedom, and focus to make their ideas happen,” but it looks more like the beginning of a weird chapter in Google’s history. It reminds me of a situation I’ve seen many times. A company reaches a high level of success and then turns its energies inward. What follows is predictable: reorganizations, efficiency initiatives, price “optimization,” and other efforts focused on everything except the “customer first” attitudes which made the company successful. It can start small with changes like a middle manager revising customer service policies or, as in Google’s case, it can be a massive company wide shift.

alphabet-structureFor many tech companies, it takes the form of small changes: “Restocking fees will offset our inventory costs” and voila, a 15% restocking charge is added. “Demo equipment sales could be a profit center.” “Software maintenance is responsible for 20% of our revenue. How can we increase this?” “Application engineers are doing free consulting?! Why aren’t customers paying for this?” These “improvements” barely get a nod from upper management and are seen as revenue generators. What could go wrong? Soon the inmates are running the asylum and one by one, customers begin to look elsewhere for products and services.

This might be happening to Google and Alphabet Inc might be the first symptom. They have reached an incredible level of success and have begun to turn their attention inward. They have become so big and successful that they need an umbrella organization to hold all the wildly different companies that used to be just plain Google. Google Search didn’t need much of a customer service department, but now that they are beginning to make hardware, customer expectations are completely different. I wrote about this in the recent post “The Damage Bad Products Can Cause – Google’s OnHub.” After I wrote this, it seemed unfair to comment on a product I had never tried so I bought one. What arrived was a beautiful product with beautiful packaging that just didn’t work.

OnHub1I’m glad I purchased a unit because now I know first hand that not only were my suspicions correct, but also that Google has absolutely no idea how to support customers. To make a long story short, OnHub simply didn’t work in my very standard DSL based home networking environment where both a generic router and Apple Airport Extreme router worked out of the box. I called Google technical support. It was great. The agent spent hours on the phone with me and we finally got it to work… for ten minutes… and it failed again… Then an hour later it worked again… Then it failed again… In hindsight, we spent way too much time on a product that was clearly not tested properly before release. When it did work, my other suspicious were confirmed by strangely worded prompts such as “OnHub feels right at home. OnHub is registering itself as yours.”

OnHub3Ok, bizarre, but no big deal, just return it and move on. Then it got even weirder. The return customer service agent, whose name was “Lady,” could not write a coherent sentence in English. It was clear she never read why the unit was being returned since her boilerplate email had the subject line: “Buyer’s Remorse Form.” Maybe Google has been providing services at no charge for so long that they don’t understand the expectations that go with a first rate company selling a premium product.

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If this can happen to Google, it can happen to other technology companies. Customers are precious. It takes a lot of work to gain their valuable trust and respect. Hopefully now that Google has a whole Alphabet of companies to draw on, “C” can stand for Customer Service. Does it stand for Customer Service in your organization?

EdTech: Good Karma and the Eventual Death of WiFi

Here’s a weird story about Paul Miller, a techie who spent a year without the Internet and wrote about it in a 36 part series on The Verge. Soon after, he joined Karma, a company that makes a hotspot that “gets you online anywhere you are” with no contracts or data plans that expire. Days before he rejoined the online world, he realized “the Internet doesn’t make me who I am; I do it to myself, thanks.” It was major breakthrough for Paul after a difficult year, but what he did afterwards was even more amazing. You would have thought he would have written a book, given a TED talk, or started a speaking tour. However, the experience was too negative for him. Instead, he joined Karma and wrote “Future Facts of a Wireless World.” It wasn’t until I had finished reading it and researched the author that I came to a shocking realization: the same guy who went a year without the Internet was now an expert on making the Internet available everywhere, all the time.

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For industry leading companies, it is a great example of the future-looking content they should be creating. Paul’s personal experience of being isolated by not having Internet access allowed him to create a compelling summary of the current (horrible) state of WiFi and Wireless. He goes on to describe a vision of the future of Internet based around Karma’s vision. Here’s a TL:DR summary of the vision: in ten years, all Internet will be delivered wirelessly via cell towers and be accessible to all – bye bye WiFi. Phone numbers will disappear, voice calls will just be another service, and mobile providers will “fade into the background.” It’s quite a utopian goal, but it is already happening in many third world countries where wired internet was never installed. Instead people have jumped from no connectivity to 100% wireless systems. They also use apps like WhatsApp and Skype to avoid paying the high text message and voice calling rates.

If you are an industry leader in any technical market, you also have the deep expertise required to create this type of content. Consider adding a few pieces of “showpiece” literature like this to your marketing materials. Avoid corporate speak: “enhanced ROI through synergistic application of core competencies” says nothing. Instead focus on honest explorations of the current and future state of your market with emphasis on how your company is pursuing that vision.

In the meantime, you might find a Karma Go useful, especially if you have a mobile provider that restricts tethering. Their LTE WiFi hotspot is small, powerful, and fast. The best part, if you don’t use it for months, the data (and battery charge) will be there when you do need it. Here’s to Good Karma!

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Ten Things You Might Not Know About Antimatter

In the past few decades, the lines between Science and Science Fiction have blurred. The discovery of the Higgs Boson by the LHC, advances in medicine, molecular gastronomy, quantum computers, space travel, and instantaneous worldwide communications networks are just a few of the areas advancing so rapidly that it is hard to keep up. That’s why some fields are beginning to share their findings with the general population. The movies Particle Fever and The Martian are good examples of this practice. However, more mundane forms of communication are definitely better than risky, periodic blockbusters like movies.

I wrote a post a couple months ago, “Some Thoughts About Particle Physics and Quantum Field Theory” that was partially based on an article from Symmetry Magazine which is a joint Fermilab/SLAC publication (Stanford Linear Accelerator). Symmetry is well written with excellent graphics making complex research topics understandable by anyone with an interest. You can subscribe, follow them on Facebook, Twitter, or follow their RSS (blog) feed. Most high technology companies I work with don’t do a fraction of this, even if they have significant marketing budgets.

symmetry_example

I’ll end this post with an excellent article from Symmetry, “Ten things you might not know about antimatter.” Some of my favorite facts:

  • Bananas produce antimatter – Crazy!
  • Making 1 gram of antimatter would require approximately 25 million billion kilowatt-hours of energy and cost over a million billion dollars. – And that’s why you need to use a nearby star as a power source.
  • Antimatter can be held in storage devices called Penning or Ioffe traps.
  • Antimatter is studied in particle decelerators – Makes sense…
  • People are actually studying how to fuel spacecraft with antimatter. – “You can’t mix matter and anti-matter cold!” — Mr. Scott, Starship Enterprise

It’s a great, fast read with wonderful graphics and a ton more information. Enjoy and don’t forget to refill your Starcraft’s Penning Trap on your way home. It’s a little cheaper at Alpha Centauri A right now.

AntimatterFuel

EdTech: The Expert Explains… The Myth of High Resolution Audio

Explaining is an art that requires training and practice. Great salespeople have the ability not only to explain effectively, but to tailor that explanation, in real time, based on effective listening skills. I recently came across two posts from different sources that were perfect examples of this principal.

The first was courtesy of Applied Science. “Blind Listening Tests” is from a website called AudioCheck which is a large collection of Online Sound Tests, Test Tones, and Tone Generators. With my trained ears, I thought I could easily hear the difference between 8-bit and 16-bit audio files in a blind test, but I scored exactly 50% on the test. With audio moving more and more toward 24-bit resolution and Sennheiser coming out with a pair of $50K headphones, these tests clearly showed how unnecessary these “improvements” are. Unless you are an expert listener, listening to properly recorded and mastered audio sources, there will be no audible no improvement. Interestingly, this website pointed to a detailed article on Xiph.org about the subject, “24/192 Music Downloads …and why they make no sense.”

orpheus

Coincidentally, The Verge published a post the same day, “Watch the Bob Ross of engineering dispel the myth of high-res audio” which featured Chris “Monty” Montgomery, the guy responsible for the Ogg Vorbis codec AND the creator of the Xiph.org Foundation. Ogg Vorbis is the open source equivalent of the MP3 format. Monty is clearly a technical heavy hitter and an expert explainer. I don’t recommend starting his video unless you have thirty minutes to spare because once you start, it is almost impossible to stop. He also has an amazing collection of analog and digital test equipment. It’s a fascinating introduction to the science behind digital audio reproduction.

testequipment

The problem is that signal processing is typically taught like a mathematics course. It is explained by using lots of equations involving things like linear time-invariant system theory. When signal processing is explained through demonstrations using standard test equipment and audio examples, it becomes almost straightforward and extremely interesting. These videos and websites demonstrate the power of effective explanation.

cochlea

BTW, I’m currently reading “Blah Blah Blah: What To Do When Words Don’t Work” by Dan Roam. I also took the Skillshare course “Visual Thinking: Drawing Data to Communicate Ideas” by Catherine Madden. Both were excellent and a future post will go deeper into these topics since effective communication can transform both professional and personal life. Have a great weekend.

Madden

Monthly Recap: If you know the competition and know yourself…

The title of this month’s recap is paraphrased from Sun Tzu who lived around 500 BCE: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the results of a hundred battles.” It is also a theme from this months post “What’s in Store for Microsoft and Apple.” These wise words go unheeded in many high tech companies large and small.

suntzu_brainyquotes

Other posts this month continued the theme:

  • Acting Like a Leader” discussed how some companies actually underestimate their position and importance in their marketplace. They don’t know themselves and they don’t know their competition well enough to make an accurate assessment resulting in poor decisions and lost revenue. I’ve found this to be a common problem with foreign companies trying to compete in the US market. Many times they hire mediocre teams for their US operations because they underestimate their ability to successfully compete. This may be a good topic for a future post…
  • Rethinking Sales: Part 10 – Sales as a Profession” explored the value of a university degree in the sales profession. Most technical salespeople I have met have “fallen into” sales rather than chosen it as a career path. Since many companies provide little to no sales training, these salespeople rely on their engineering background and “street smarts” to sell. The results are varied with companies many times losing opportunities and revenue on salespeople who can’t make the transition.
  • Combating Buzzword Overload in Communication” provided an introduction to the new language created by eMarketing, eSales, and eLearning tools. The conclusion was that simple tools such as Google’s own Adwords help are actually some of the best resources for cracking the code.
  • The Damage Bad Products Can Cause – Google’s OnHub” dived deep into the lasting damage bad products can cause using Google’s new OnHub wireless router as an example. It is marketed as “a new type of router for the new way to Wi-Fi,” but some bizarre design decisions make me doubt Google’s ability to make a sensible product. This in turn casts doubt on other Google products. After writing the post, I almost purchased one to confirm my suspicions, but Google released ANOTHER version of the OnHub last week, made by Asus this time, that costs $20 more. Why another manufacturer? How can a hand wave be used to prioritize traffic to a device? Google makes $20 billion a quarter. What are they thinking charging $20 more? If your company has some questionable products, services, or policies, the time to honestly evaluate and fix them is now, before they negatively impact the rest of the product line.

There were also a few fun, informative posts like “Acoustics Everywhere: How a Horn Amplifies Sound” “Acoustics Everywhere: Nine 3D Audio Terms You Should Know” that might help people outside these fields get a better understanding of what seem like highly technical topics.

As the end of year push begins, some days definitely feel like fighting a hundred battles. Taking a little time each day to step back and see the big picture in context, including the competition of course, is a great way to make the best decisions possible.

Acoustics Everywhere: Nine 3D Audio Terms You Should Know

OSSIC (previously Sonic VR) recently published a post on their blog “Nine 3D Audio Terms You Should Know” that was a fun glimpse into the audio side of the rapidly emerging field of Virtual Reality systems. Their blog is quite good so if you have a moment, sign up for updates at the bottom of their homepage. They did a great job combining basic concepts (audio versus acoustics) with more complex ones such as the Head Related Transfer Function (HRTF). Enjoy.

OSSIC

The Damage Bad Products Can Cause – Google’s OnHub

A company’s portfolio of high tech products and services is valuable and interconnected. Therefore, if one (or more) are not meeting customers’ expectations, it is critical to fix them or discontinue them as soon as possible. Inconsistent pricing or policies are another area to review. For example, some companies charge high prices for standard cables, add large mark-ups to computers sold with systems, or charge inappropriate restocking fees. Salespeople are trained to provide appropriate excuses such as “We’re not in the computer (or cable) business” or “the computer costs more because we test it for compatibility with our systems.” Great, but that’s the company’s problem, not the customer’s. I used to regularly tell customers to buy certain common cables or computers online. It was the right thing to do and besides, customers aren’t stupid. When they discover these outrageous costs for themselves, it often leads them to start questioning every line item in a complex system, jeopardizing the entire sale. Even worse, those products and policies can make customers have doubts about an entire product line or company.

Even large companies with hundreds of products can make mistakes. For example, Google obviously has some amazing products and services: Google Search, Maps, Gmail, Apps for Business, Drive, Photos, Adwords, Fiber, Nexus phones / tablets, Android OS, etc. so when they released a WiFi router, it caught my attention. In general, my expectations are low, I just want reliable WiFi in most of the house which means my office, my wife’s office, the living room, etc. The rest of the house including the backyard is bonus. After using the Netgear Nighthawk AC1900 Dual Band Wi-Fi Gigabit Router for the past year, it was time for a change. It covered the back of the house and upstairs well, but coverage was spotty in the front and the speed was wildly inconsistent. Since a hardwired range extender seemed to conflict with the Netgear’s wireless signal, I started researching Google’s new OnHub home router.

onhub

At first glance, it is a great idea. It got a positive review from The Verge and it looks so good that it could go in the middle of the house instead of in the networking closet. The central location would improve coverage. In Google’s marketing materials they promise speedy WiFi that “speaks human” through a simple app for setup, troubleshooting, and monitoring. Then I read ArsTechnica’s (Google’s smart home Trojan horse is a $200 leap of faith) and Gizmodo’s (Google’s OnHub Is a Mysterious and Slightly Terrible Device). These reviews gave me second thoughts. Did I really want a device designed to be setup through its massive (3 watt) audio speaker that is used only for the initial setup? Was a glowing cylinder in the middle of the house with a network and power wire running into it really going to look good? Technically speaking, what’s with all the mysterious antennas in the unit (a total of 13!)? Darn it, we just want fast, reliable WiFi in most of the house. We’re not searching for extraterrestrial life.

onhub_antennas

So I ended up buying an Apple Airport Extreme. The range isn’t as good as the Netgear, but it plays well with the hardwired extender. The best part is that it is fast and stable even at the edges of coverage. Interestingly, ArsTechnica recently published a review of professional WiFi equipment from Ubiquiti which made me realize how common WiFi problems are: “UniFi made me realize how terrible consumer Wi-Fi gear is.” Now this is a beautiful WiFi access point.

UbiquityAP_AC_Pro

The bottom line is that casual users who want an easy, “beautiful” WiFi router probably won’t spent $200 for OnHub and users who would spent $200 will not find OnHub powerful enough due to a lack of ports and a simplistic setup app. This got me thinking about Google in a different way. How could they release such a “weird” product? Who made and approved these design decisions? Is Google Apps for Business or Voice going to get strange redesigns next? Google made some poor decisions in their new Inbox for Gmail product and Project Fi is making me nervous. On the positive side, maybe Google’s vision will become clear in the near future when OnHub is able to control Google’s smart home products like Nest thermostats (great!), cameras (great!), smoke detectors (?), lights (?), etc. as well as WiFi all from one app? Hopefully Google will either fix, discontinue, or at least explain OnHub which would be better than Google becoming known for questionable products and services. In the meantime, if anybody has an OnHub, let me know your experience. Maybe, as Google says in the On App, “everything is great!”

onhubapp

What’s in Store for Microsoft and Apple

I went to a Microsoft store recently and it was weird to say the least. First, it looked a LOT like an Apple store except that there were very few people in it and many products that had nothing to do with Microsoft like RockBand 4, 3D printers, Xbox, and Minecraft.

MS_store_front

Minecraft had its own whole section.

MS_store_minecraft

The 3D printers were also front and center.

MS_store_3dprinter

Ok, technically the last three are Microsoft products, but I went to see the new Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book which were in short supply. In fact, there was only one Surface Book in the store and it had a broken hinge. The Lumina phones looked interesting, but I picked one up and it said “no network connection.” I want to like Microsoft again even if I don’t use their products, but this huge, beautiful, empty store with a single broken flagship product and unusable demo units just made me sad. To their credit, the employees were extremely knowledgeable, helpful, and available… Even with a lack of demonstration products to show, they knew the technical features and differences between models (which were significant). Hopefully their massive new store opening in New York on Monday will be better, but it points out one of the major problems trying to copy the competition: by comparison, Microsoft looks like a bunch of talented amateurs.

In contrast, I took a photo at the Apple Store a day later and it was exciting.

Apple_store

It’s smaller than the Microsoft store, but the buzz was unmistakable. At one table, a group of women were learning about their iPhones in an hands-on class with an Apple employee demonstrating on a large screen, the genius bar was full, and people were trying every type of product from the Apple Watch to massive 27-inch retina iMacs. Employees were a mix of men and women of many age groups and ethnicities. All the products worked and software was installed properly with demonstration content. I could walk up to any computer and start editing a movie on iMovie or a soundtrack on Garageband using footage supplied by Apple.

The press knows the problem and Fortune magazine published the article “What Microsoft can learn from Apple at retail” just three days ago. Do you have to buy into Apple culture to appreciate Apple products? The short answer is no. Roughly 800 MILLION iPhones have been sold to date and it is estimated that they will sell the billionth iPhone in mid-2016. That is even more impressive considering the iPhone was released less than 10 years ago (2007). Apple created their niche and they continue to ride a wave of success that carries over into their stores.

High tech companies can do the same thing, but only if they honestly understand their key strengths in the marketplace and formulate a strategy based on them. Some companies are cost leaders, successfully manufacturing popular products at lower costs. Others are innovative, create new solutions to challenging problems and successfully commanding higher prices in the marketplace. The problems come up when a company doesn’t understand their strengths and weaknesses. Maybe an established company used to be innovative, but the rest of the market caught up or perhaps the market’s needs changed. Microsoft is in the second category. ArsTechnica published an article yesterday, “Bing profitable, but Microsoft revenue down 12 percent as shift to cloud continues.” The headline is misleading, Bing Search doesn’t have much to do with anything, but the “shift to the cloud” is critical. They can make an Xbox if they want, open hundreds of stores, sell 3D printers, but in my opinion Microsoft’s strength is enterprise products. It always has been. The Surface Pro and Book are great ideas: enterprise level products that show the market the power of Microsoft’s Windows 10 software ecosystem. Putting Microsoft Office onto the iPad Pro is another great, enterprise level idea. Apple knows it, that’s why they are supporting Microsoft in the project. Google knows their strengths too. Do you see “Google Stores” around the country? No, but you do see Street View vehicles, self driving cars, thermostats, cameras, and products like their Nexus phones touting the “Pure Android” experience. Anything that supports their key strength: organizing the world’s information (and selling advertising based on it).

So “What’s in Store for Microsoft?” Hopefully more of what they are great at, the products that do the heavy lifting for businesses around the globe instead of empty cathedrals of technology. To paraphrase Sun Tzu (who lived around 500 BCE), “If you know the competition and know yourself, you need not fear the results of a hundred battles.”

Have a great weekend!

Rethinking Sales: Part 10 – Sales as a Profession

There is much more to be said about the topics in last month’s post “Rethinking Sales: Part 9 – Sales Without Commissions,” but the writing is on the wall. Sales must stop being a black box where commissions go in and orders come out. It is the last part of an organization where a lack of understanding (and management accountability) results in unnecessary commission expenses. Sales managers may be the only people who know if their salespeople are contributing to the organization at a professional level and they ain’t telling. Their compensation is based on sales performance too! I’ve seen mediocre sales people making $200K+ a year after receiving large, unexpected orders from major accounts. Management has no clue whether the salesperson was key to winning those orders or not.

Many people think salespeople work incredibly hard to win those opportunities and sometimes they do. Sales is typically filled with long days full of risk, rejection, and uncertainty. You won’t find Sales on Glassdoor’s “25 Best Jobs for Work-Life Balance” list. Of course, you also won’t find any $200K+ / year jobs on that list. Even highly trained engineers and scientists are not making that much. Which brings me to the point of this post: for many companies and markets, sales needs to become a career like engineering, management, or marketing. Sales professionals need to be trained in a system of selling that is aligned with the company’s culture and goals. A sales degree program would be a good step in this direction. The Wall Street Journal touched on this when it published a recent article “Why It’s So Hard to Fill Sales Jobs” with the subheading “‘Salesman’ Baggage Means Well-Paying Tech-Industry Positions Go Begging.” Even Microsoft is writing interesting articles on the seismic changes occurring in sales as part of the Microsoft Dynamics Blog,  Sales in the Modern Era, and Social Selling eBooks. The Social Selling eBook is not for most high tech selling environments, but does give a good overview of how sales has changed in more traditional consumer selling environments.

If you want to have a moment of fun, try Googling “degree in sales” and just read the first page of results. First is DeVry and the rest are split between sales management and articles on whether a degree is even needed for sales. One link did catch my eye, the Sales Education Foundation has an annual magazine featuring the top sales degree programs so it is possible to get a degree in sales. I’ve never heard of this foundation, but the website was interesting enough to get me to sign up for their newsletter. In the meantime, it’s ten o’clock, do you know where your salespeople are?

saleseducationfoundation

 

Combating Buzzword Overload in Communication

Instantaneous translators are becoming more and more common. Google Translate, Skype Translator, and other apps are breaking down language barriers around the globe. There are exceptions though. Historically technical jargon and TLAs (three letter acronyms) were the worst offenders, but more recently online sales and marketing tools seem to be taking the lead on untranslatable content. For example, here’s an article from the “Chief Digital Evangelist” at Salesforce.com, one the industry’s largest “CRM in the Cloud,” SaaS providers. Already the buzzwords start, CRM is “Customer Relationship Management” software and SaaS is “Software as a Service” where you pay a subscription price to access your software online rather than installing it locally. The article is called “2015 State of Service – 15 Key Business Findings” and the author starts by stating: “In a knowledge sharing and hyper-connected economy, where on-demand services are fueling business growth and customer advocacy, companies must differentiate with faster, smarter, proactive and personalized service. Precision and velocity is what separates high-performing service organizations.”

What?! The article is actually quite good, but the buzzwords make it almost unreadable which is unfortunate since the theme of business growth through improving the efficiency and quality of customer service is important. The article should be part of a PhD dissertation, not an article on Huffington Post Business.

Google is no better. The online marketing juggernaut has become highly technical which is critical to attracting and retaining their largest customers. However this leaves 99% of the market wondering what the heck is going on. Try Googling “FFT Analyzer,” “Measurement Microphone,” or “Accelerometer” and the strangest group of ads appear. At least PCB Piezotronics appears on first page of measurement microphone search results. Why is this? It could be because Google’s basic AdWords help is great, but their marketing of their own services is focused on a completely different (and obviously lucrative) industry speaking a different language. Their “Think with Google” website provides a glimpse into this world. Recent article include:

  • Programmatic Helps Brands Make the Most of Micro-Moments – “Intent-rich moments when preferences are shaped and decisions are made.” Translation: Get them to buy it from you while they are looking at their smartphone screen.
  • Second-Screen Searches: Crucial I-Want-to-Know Moments for Brands – “These ‘I-want-to-know’ moments are a chance for brands to be present, relevant, and to gain insights.” Translation: Get them to buy it from you while they are looking at their smartphone screen.
  • Micro-Moments and the Shopper Journey – “What begins with a consumer’s micro-moment is an opportunity for retailers to deliver on and win omni-channel shoppers.” Translation: Get them to buy it from you while they are looking at their smartphone screen.
  • Win Every Micro-Moment with a Better Mobile Strategy – “With the consumer journey fragmented into hundreds of micro-moments, it’s increasingly important for brands to be there when consumers reach for their devices.” Translation: I think you’ve gotten the idea by now…

So don’t be intimated by the jargon, buzzwords, and expensive consultants promising “organic SEO to increase Impressions and CTR while simultaneously reducing CPC.” The only alphabet soup that matters is the one that tastes good and delivers results. For this purpose, learning AdWords through Google’s simple help system is sufficient. If you need a little more encouragement, the short $3.99 book from Amazon “Google AdWords for Beginners” is also helpful. As the author says in his summary, “It comes down to understanding the options that you have available in your tool belt and understanding how to use those tools to find new customers.” Translation: A couple hours could make a major difference in your revenue and market exposure.

adwords_help

Acoustics Everywhere: How a Horn Amplifies Sound

A couple of months ago I published a post “Acoustics Everywhere (sort of): Video of Vinyl Playing” that featured a video of a turntable needle moving in a record groove shot with an electron microscope. This video (created by Ben Krasnow from Applied Science) was not only instructive, but a realistic glimpse into how test and measurement is really done. I enjoyed it so much that I decided to support his future videos at the Patreon website.

Over time I have watched quite a few of his 200+ videos that he has created during the past six years. They are fascinating and available at no charge. He covers topics ranging from building his own electron microscope to understanding X-ray backscatter systems to making aerogels and many other hi-tech projects from the areas of electromechanical systems, chemistry, and electronics.

One video that caught my attention was “How a horn amplifies sound (hint: Impedance matching).” This is a well understood topic in the audio world, but most people do not understand the magic that seems to be happening when music is played through those strange looking horn shaped speakers. Even fewer people understand the concept of impedance. Ben demonstrates these principles and more in ten minutes. These videos are a great example of what can be done with minimal equipment and time to help communicate complex technical topics both internally and externally in an organization. If you are short on time, just watch the first minute of the video: it gets the basic idea and Ben’s presentation style across. Enjoy!

hornspeaker

Acting Like a Leader

An article from The Verge caught my attention this morning, “Dear Microsoft, it’s time to start acting like a leader again.” When we are caught up in our world of daily busy-ness, it is hard to step back and see the big picture. As the post points out, Microsoft has made some major stumbles in the past few years, but is on the brink of creating their own new category of devices through products like The Surface. As an Apple user, I find shifting between IOS and OS X annoying at times. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a tablet AND a smartphone with a full operating system like The Surface? However, Microsoft continues to act like a follower by repeatedly comparing their products to Google, Samsung, and Apple even to the point of “calling out Tim Cook ahead of Surface Pro 4 announcement.” The article comes to the correct conclusion, “So let’s see some confidence, Microsoft. You’re a leader again, it’s time to start acting like one.”

The same situation can happen in reverse with high technology companies. A company might have great products with amazing features that are loved in the marketplace, but still have an inferiority complex that limits their potential. Marketing might even be presenting a powerful message, but is that resulting in improved sales? A great example of this is DEWESoft. Their most recent video showcases that their measurement systems will survive snow, mud, water, dust, shocks, and extreme temperatures with an IP67 rating. It is beautifully scripted and shot, really a work of art in its own right. Many customers I have talked to love their products, yet I don’t see the same awareness reaching to the larger test and measurement market. Maybe they are stealth marketers, focusing on key industries and building their user base organically. However, with their level of technical and marketing expertise, they should definitely be acting like industry leaders.

I once heard a manager say that a young engineer should be given an impossible sales job. He justified this by explaining that he might succeed because “he doesn’t know it can’t be done.” Similarly, Microsoft might not believe they can succeed again and DEWESoft might not realize they are already succeeding. In situations like these “acting like a leader” might be the most powerful technique available.

DEWESoft_IP67

Monthly Recap: Tipless Restaurants, Commissionless Salespeople, and What It Means to Be Great

September was a look back at a series of posts that started in 2013 with an exploration of the idea of eliminating tips in restaurants and how that might be a clue toward eliminating commissions for certain sales positions. Even the BBC recently published an article, “Is This the End of Tipping?,” proving it is definitely a current subject. The post “Following-Up: Amazon’s Fire Phone and Tipless Restaurants” had the details and was soon followed by the post “Rethinking Sales: Part 9 – Sales Without Commissions.” There is obviously a lot to say on this controversial topic so the post “Sales Without Commissions – Some Additional Thoughts” was published three days later.

Along the way, an informational post discussed better writing in “MailChimp Publishes a Guide to Effective Communication,” IOS and Android went head to head in “Some Thoughts About… Android Versus IOS,” and some useful advice for everybody was provided in “Who Knew It Could Be So Easy to Curb Our Cravings for Sex and Food.”

However, back to the big question: Can a sales team be successful without a commission based compensation plan? As usual, “Yes, No, Maybe” is the answer. Yes: In my experience commission motivates salespeople to act in the self interest of maximizing commission, but does not always lead to more or better performance. In specialized markets, salespeople do not seem to perform worse without commission, but pursue projects based on other motivational factors: prestige, interest, and compatibility. No: With a well designed compensation plan, those self interests are aligned with company interests such as maximizing motivation, sales, and profit. Maybe: Examining specific company cultures and sales environments can lead to a reduction or even elimination of commission structures. Human motivation is complex and sales are a company’s lifeblood, the right balance can lead to higher levels of organizational health and success.

As a bonus to newsletter subscribers, here is an articled linked to by Phil Schiller, the senior vice president of worldwide marketing at Apple, “What It Means to Be Great” by Horace Dediu. Horace is known for his analysis of Apple’s business strategy and predictions of their financials, but to me he is more of a technical poet. It is one of the best articles I have read recently. He says:

“Greatness is transcendental. It’s hard to pin down. It inspires debate. It divides as much as it unites. It creates emotions as much as thoughts. It builds legends. It engages and persists. It lives in memory and penetrates culture. It implants itself in our consciousness persistently, to linger and dwell in our minds while we are bombarded with stimuli.”

Here’s to greatness!

schiller_greatness

Sales Without Commissions – Some Additional Thoughts

After writing the recent post, “Rethinking Sales: Part 9 – Sales Without Commissions,” I came across the post that started this series “Part 1 – Rethinking Sales: Overcoming Functional Fixedness in Commission Based Selling.” Although it was written over two years ago, the basic ideas are still relevant. If commissions are eliminated and a reasonable (even generous) salary replaces them, there can still be a lack of salesperson motivation. The original post references a TED talk by Daniel Pink related to his book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.” The transcript of the talk is a quick read, faster than watching his talk, and a lot faster than reading his book. To summarize, employees prefer activities that include these three characteristics:

  • Autonomy: Control over their work
  • Mastery: Getting better at their work
  • Purpose: Involvement in something bigger than they are

So if you are considering eliminating commissions, careful planning is necessary to transition motivation from the strongly motivating “intermittent reinforcement” of commission checks to motivation based on other sources. To be continued…

pinktedtalk

Rethinking Sales: Part 9 – Sales Without Commissions

What types of companies can begin to consider transitioning to a commission-less sales team? One answer comes from David Chichelli’s book “Compensating the Sales Force.” If salespeople are not the primary influence at the point of persuasion then why is commission being paid? These types of companies are common in high technology industries. If a company is the “gorilla in the marketplace” with brand recognition, effective marketing, great support, and significant mindshare from customers, then salespeople are probably not doing much to influence at the point of persuasion. These salespeople should be transitioned away from commission based compensation. R&D engineers are not on commission, support teams are not on commission, marketing is not on commission, why is the sales team so special? Apple’s retail stores are legendary for their sales performance and none of their salespeople receive commission.

In my experience, salespeople in these types of companies are laughing all the way to the bank. Their performance is only marginally influenced by big commission checks which are many times delivered at fancy sales meetings where the rest of the company is not invited. Many managers are probably thinking that their sales team would be decimated if the company shifted away from commission. The truth is that few sales engineers would leave. Where would they go? They are already working for the industry leader with job security, excellent products, and great support. Is a mature sales professional with a family going to leave that environment for a risky startup or B-player? With a lack of risk, the rewards should be correspondingly lower. Of course, this entire discussion assumes that sales professionals without commissions would still be paid a competitive salary, but that is part of the standard Human Resources type of discussion. More information can be found in the post “Part 10: Sales Without Salespeople – Commissions.”

Since this is a complex organization change that will take time to implement, the next post in this series will provide some detailed steps that can be taken to begin the transition to a non-commission sales team. It looks like it is already time to start planning for 2017!

commission

MailChimp Publishes a Guide to Effective Communication

Over two years ago, I published a post “Part 4: Simple Social Media Tools – Email!” that discussed using a product called MailChimp to manage email marketing campaigns. MailChimp has continuously improved their services and they still have a very powerful Free Forever plan for “small” mailing lists up to 2,000 subscribers and 12,000 emails per month. Even the free plan helps create/manage mailing lists, create/send professional email campaigns, and provides reports on the performance of the campaigns. MailChimp is so good that I don’t even look at other products!

Despite the incredible value they offer at no charge (and even more value in their paid plans), they also provide additional training resources through their blog which covers a variety of advanced topics like multivariate testing. Recently, they published their incredible “MailChimp Content Style Guide.” Almost every company constantly generates internal and external content, but only the largest have created a guide to creating clear and consistent content. MailChimp released theirs into the public domain in order to help others (Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License). Some of the most impressive sections are:

  • Writing Goals and Principles
  • Writing About People
  • Sections for Writing Blog Posts, Technical Content, and Email Newsletters
  • Word List (including “Words to Avoid” which are hilarious)
  • TL;DR (a “Too Long, Didn’t Read” summary)

It is at least worth browsing and I have bookmarked it. It is a great reference. Hopefully you’ll find it useful too. Have a great weekend!

styleguide

Who Knew It Could Be So Easy to Curb Our Cravings for Sex and Food

I dislike clickbait as much as the next person, but I also love Tetris. It is a classic game with a great history. The VentureBeat article “Want to curb your cravings for sex and food? Play Tetris” explains it’s particular therapeutic efficacy and it was clear that a short post about this breakthrough was in order. So instead of reaching for another donut or worse, try a couple rounds of Tetris! Of course, the standard disclaimers apply. As the last paragraph of the article explains:

“Addiction is far too complex a problem to be treated by Tetris alone,” Andrade said in an interview with website Medical News Today. “But tasks like Tetris might be useful tools to help people manage their cravings and give them confidence that they can beat them. It could become a component of therapy to help people for whom cravings are a particularly problematic aspect of their addiction.”

tet_graphic

Following-Up: Amazon’s Fire Phone and Tipless Restaurants

It has always been surprising to me how many times I eventually “get the rest of the story.” Why was that terrible (or great) business decision made? Why did that customer buy (or not buy) that major system? Why did so and so leave (or join) a certain company? In many cases, I have eventually met somebody (or read something) who clearly explained what was incomprehensible to me at the time.

Almost a year ago, I published the post “Amazon Plays with Fire and Finally Gets Burned.” It was clear even then that the Fire Phone was a flop, but it took quite a while for the rest of the story to come to light and last week Amazon withdrew from the mobile phone market. The GeekWire article “Amazon finally stops selling the Fire Phone” has the details if you are interested, but to me the more interesting part of the story is the fact that according to TheVerge, “Jeff Bezos reportedly approved ‘even the very smallest decisions’ on the Fire Phone.” As the CEO of Amazon and owner of Blue Origin and Washington Post, Bezos is no dummy. So what happened? The short answer is that he had an obsessive attachment to his flawed idea and carried it to the point where people gave up trying to help him. “By the end, the team had given up building a phone for consumers and shifted building one that would satisfy Bezos’s ambitions.” I have seen this happen to many managers (and salespeople) who follow their egos to the exclusion of common sense.

bezosfirephone

To go back even farther, it took two years to come across a follow-up to my post “Long Read: Observations From A Tipless Restaurant” which described a restaurant owner’s experience eliminating tips from his San Diego restaurant. Porter rightly concluded that his employees loved it and his customers hated it. It caught my attention because the idea of eliminating commissions in certain high tech sales environments has been discussed at length in this blog in the “Sales Without Salespeople” category. Now the topic is current again as the NY Times explains in the article “As Minimum Wages Rise, Restaurants Say No to Tips, Yes to Higher Prices.” Interestingly, they ended the article with the same conclusion that Porter came to: “The No. 1 complaint from customers? The prohibition on tips.” So what did one restaurant do? They added a line to the credit card receipt, “If you INSIST on leaving a tip, write it here.” Maybe there is a clue here for eliminating commissions for specific groups of high tech salespeople, but that’s a topic for a future post. Have a great weekend.

Some Thoughts About… Android Versus IOS

There are certain topics that are best not discussed in social settings: religion, politics, and sex are the classic ones, but one more could be added: Android versus IOS. A decade ago the heated debate used to be between Microsoft and Apple, but with the explosion in mobile computing, Windows is slowly becoming a niche product. This might be one reason Microsoft bought Minecraft, to expose children to the company and its products, many of whom never have used Windows. Their entire online life is conducted on a smartphone. As a result, the newest high tech battleground has become the mobile operating systems dominated by Android (Google) and IOS (Apple). While Apple’s business is 80%+ iDevices and IOS (worth $150 billion in 2014), Google’s business is 90%+ advertising revenue (worth $65 billion in 2014). The scary part for Google is that IOS users are responsible for more than 75% of Google’s advertising revenue. That’s why Android was created, to prevent another company from controlling access to Google’s advertising business. Google made Android available at no cost to any manufacturer creating an Android device and the market soon became filled with a wide variety of manufacturers, devices, and software.

Is IOS better than Android or vice versa? The short answer is no. They both serve a different, but important segment of the market. Is one more popular than the other? A Wikipedia article on the “Usage Share of Operating Systems,” clearly shows that Android has the edge over IOS in worldwide marketshare both in units sold and units used for accessing the internet. If you are an IOS user, it’s hard to understand why. Compared to IOS, Android seems messy, fragmented, and complex. For example, if you want to buy an Android device that can be upgraded to the newest version (coming out this month), there are very few choices. The most popular manufacturer, Samsung, has hundreds of confusing products, requiring a separate website to show the upgrade status of each product as “in-development, testing, pending, rolling-out, etc.” Google’s own products are hit and miss. Their flagship Nexus 9 tablet has received mediocre reviews and their Nexus 7 tablet cannot be upgraded to the upcoming version of Android. The Nexus 6 phone is getting great reviews but at a high price ($649 retail unlocked 32 GB). In contrast, if you want an IOS device that can be upgraded to IOS 9 (coming out this month), you can buy an iPhone 4S or an iPad 2 which were released in 2011. So why is Android so popular?

samsungupdates

It seems to come down to three factors: price, variety, and “it’s good enough.” Amazingly, you can buy a new, unlocked Android smartphone for less than $50 from Amazon. If it breaks, no big deal, just buy another. The least expensive iPhone 5C from Apple costs $450. Also, there is an incredible variety of phones available on Android with entire websites devoted to helping people find the right phone for their digital lifestyle. Almost every major app available for the iPhone is also available for Android and, unlike IOS, Android is highly customizable with thousands of widgets, themes, browsers, etc. For many of us who use Gmail, Google Apps for Business, Maps, and other Google services, Android is the “natural habitat” for those apps. Finally, despite the hassles this flexibility can create, Android is “good enough.” Many people just don’t care that much about their smartphone. They set it up, import their contacts, download a few apps, and use it without updating it again until they get a new phone two years later. All the fancy things Apple does to make the iPhone experience excellent is lost on them and that is ok. Before Android fans start bashing this article, yes, of course, Android also does many of the same things, but in a more complex and less polished way in my opinion. There is one more small factor to mention, some people just don’t like Apple’s “closed ecosystem.” Engineers especially enjoy tweaking their smartphones to create the perfect setup for their needs and don’t mind spending the extra time and effort doing it. These people also chafe at the idea of an Apple controlled App Store, iCloud, Music, etc. preferring to create their own personal Cloud, a more open Android App store, or other music services.

Like the Microsoft versus Apple battle, lines have been drawn and both sides have strong opinions about which is the “best,” but looking at the situation from a broader perspective, the competition is a good thing. It keeps the market progressing and gives people more and better choices. Personally, I’m looking forward to Android M. It should refine the already good “Google Material Design” and articles on “Android M Versus IOS 9” are already coming out. As the AndroidPit article says “Comparing Apple and Android is a bit like comparing apples with things that aren’t apples: if you’re wearing an Apple Watch, tapping on an iPad and holding an iPhone to your head you won’t care what’s in Android M and if you’ve got the Samsung logo tattooed on your sternum you probably won’t be too bothered about iOS 9.” Here’s to diversity!

androidphones

Monthly Recap: Educational Technology, Training, and Communication

August was educational technology month and it was an interesting journey. The theme was prompted by a MIT MOOC I took (Massive Open Online Course) with over 1,300 students attending from all parts of the planet. The description said, “This course provides a practical overview for selecting, implementing, and evaluating educational technology initiatives.”

Since one of Elephant Tech’s services is creating and presenting training materials both for face-to-face and online use, it seemed like a good idea to take a course teaching a process for selecting and implementing the wide variety of tools currently available. Choosing the right tools is critical to helping clients utilize and distribute these materials the most efficient way possible. It was eye opening to say the least. The past decade has seen Educational Technology explode in traditional education settings including K-12, universities, and professional development. A whole industry has sprung up around these efforts including numerous courses to “teach teachers” to use new technologies in their classrooms. It is clear that MOOCs, eLearning, 1:1 Initiatives, classroom blogs, interactive whiteboards, screen casting, and many other educational technologies require specialized skills to be utilized effectively.

You can explore the entire series of posts in the new Educational Technology category, but to summarize, the final project I completed revolved around using Slack.com as a tool to address both training and communication problems in companies. It must have been pretty good because out of a class of 1,300, the professor chose three of these posts as good examples of educational technology for “post secondary” applications. The final project was a complete analysis including the target environment, the technology, implementation (barriers, criteria for success, timelines, etc.), Evaluation, and Reflections on the project.

Of course, now that I’ve completed the course, I am seeing “Educational Technology” everywhere so other posts this month covered topics like “Particle Physics and Quantum Field Theory” and how companies are using Ed Tech for marketing and (hopefully) training: “DEWESoft and 53: If You’ve Got It, Flaunt It.

And as I said in the conclusion of the series, don’t be afraid to use and promote your own products in your Education Technology efforts both for external and internal projects. It is a compelling way to tell a story and can address multiple needs simultaneously such as training, collaboration, communication, and marketing.

Print

Education Technology: DEWESoft and 53 – If You’ve Got It, Flaunt It

In April 2015, I wrote a post about DEWESoft’s free PRO Training Courses. These courses are available at no charge, you don’t even need to be a customer! The training covers using their equipment, measuring signals, and analyzing data. It is very comprehensive, includes quizzes on the materials, has excellent examples from real world applications, and includes a course completion certificate. This does not surprise me. Several expert customers I have known for decades have told me that they love DEWESoft products. Also, after using their products earlier this year, I personally found them to be powerful, inexpensive, and easy to use. FYI, is important to state that Elephant Tech has never had any professional affiliation with DEWESoft.

DewesoftCertificate

After finishing MIT’s Educational Technology course and writing about it extensively, I revisited DEWESoft’s PRO Training website and found they had made improvements including adding several new courses and publishing a “leaderboard” with the top twenty people who have completed courses. Six of the twenty leaders are from DEWESoft which says a couple things: they are using their own training for internal professional development and they are not using it widely. (If anybody from DEWESoft is reading this, please take your employees off the leaderboard. It looks weird. And please make these courses required, at least for your sales teams!)

In addition to what I learned from MIT, another interesting Education Technology moment came from a company called 53 that makes popular products like “Think,” “Paper,” and “Pencil” which are used to sketch ideas and art on IOS. They published a fascinating article to their blog called “Measuring Battery Voltage Is Simple, Or Is It?” Why would an art related company write something so technical? I think they did it for two reasons: to highlight the care that goes into their products and to show engineers how “Pencil” and “Paper” can be used for technical illustration. The battery diagram below was created using their products and it is beautiful as well as informative.

So don’t be afraid to use and promote your own products in your Education Technology efforts both for external and internal projects. It is a compelling way to tell a story and can address multiple needs simultaneously such as training, collaboration, communication, and marketing. By the way, the “Measuring Battery Voltage” post was written by the co-founder of 53, two engineers, and a marketing person. Now that’s collaboration!

batterydiagram

Educational Technology: Slack.com for Technical Training, Communication, and Collaboration

I just completed the MIT on-line course: “Implementation and Evaluation of Educational Technology.” It was excellent and inspired me to create a complete plan for the implementation of Slack as an Educational Technology platform for online technical training, communication, and collaboration. It is quite long, but is a good example of the planning required for the successful implementation of a major infrastructure project. Comments are welcome!

slack

Part 1: Target Environment/Implementation Context

Target Environment: I create technical training programs for engineers involved in selling high technology products such as sensors, measurement hardware/software, and consulting services. The target environment has a wide range of experience levels ranging from entry level engineers who are typically comfortable with eLearning, but lack experience with products and applications to seasoned sales professionals who may be unfamiliar with eLearning, but are very comfortable with products and applications. Currently training is primarily provided via face-to-face sessions at sales meetings and conducted on an intermittent basis. The result is training that is expensive, infrequent, and static.

Key Stakeholders: Internal technical support and Human Resources departments have significant resources and incentive to provide online training where it can be updated regularly and utilized whenever and wherever employees have time.

Why Should Technology Be Implemented?: Sales engineers travel continuously and their selling time is valuable since it directly results in revenue. Therefore there are major incentives to create online resources that provide ongoing training and collaboration capabilities. Sales engineers also typically share best practices through informal networks so capturing and distributing this information is also of interest.

Other Differentiators: Finally, the eLearning system might be even more effective if it allows interaction with subject matter experts in other parts of the company such as application engineers. This is currently done through email and messaging which can result in the the same questions being answered over and over again and a loss of field generated domain knowledge.

Part 2: The Technology

Background on the Problem: In many companies, employees have trouble staying up to date on developments within their company. Email announcements, product releases, company newsletters, spreadsheets, data sheets, and other forms of communication are typically used in a haphazard way to distribute internal information. For salespeople the problem is especially acute since keeping up to date on product releases, changes, and improvements can mean the difference between winning and losing sales. Face-to-face and intermittent online training has performed this function in the past, but the increased pace of change and higher customer expectations make continuous, real time communication an important competitive advantage.

Why Use a Technology?: Based on my framework, I am proposing not only to use educational technology for the training itself, but expand the scope of technologically enhanced training to incorporate communication. For the medium sized companies I work with, this would include communication between engineering, sales, marketing, and management so that critical information reaches the right people at the right time. It would also be used to foster communication within teams so that they could share best practices and challenges.

What Technology Did I Choose?: The tool I chose is called Slack (Slack.com). The product is marketed as a “messaging app for teams,” but it is much more. It organizes communications into channels that can be created for specific teams, projects, and/or topics. It also includes “private groups” for sensitive issues and simple direct messaging for one-to-one conversations. Slack’s powerful search function indexes both messages and the content of files attached to messages making it easy to find all material related to a topic through a single search. Finally, it integrates with a wide variety of other messaging tools such as Dropbox, Google products, and social media so information external to Slack also gets captured. Slack has apps for IOS, Android, and desktop computers providing employees with access to this entire body of information wherever and whenever they are: at their desks, in a meeting, in front of a customer, working from home, traveling, etc.

Why Did I Choose This Technology?: I was a manager in a technology company for many years and I constantly required information to answer customer questions, eventually settling on an unsatisfying combination of searching email, locally stored files, old catalogs, and the company’s website. There were a wide variety of tools to help employees working in the field, but the lack of a single repository for the information combined with a lack of two way communication made using these tools difficult. A price list would be in an Excel spreadsheet emailed out three times a year, a data sheet would be in PDF format with no way of knowing if it was current, and product configurators were found in multiple locations depending on the product. They could be on the website, in a document, or only available to engineering staff. Official support channels were also very slow to respond to technical support requests so “calling a friend in engineering” was a common practice. It was a mess.

To address these needs, a Slack channel for pricing would contain current versions of all pricing tools available. A channel for product data would contain current product data sheets, product configurators, and customer presentations. A channel for training would contain current training materials and be updated regularly as products changed and improved. A Private Group for salespeople would be a place where they could securely share information on sales opportunities and customers. Major accounts would have their own private groups so the appropriate salespeople and technical staff could stay up to date on what the rest of the team was doing in that account.

How Will This Implementation Improve Teaching and Learning?: In terms of training, this implementation would shift teaching and learning from discrete events to a continuous model. Slack “Integrations” like GoToMeeting or Google Hangouts would host training events in real time as well as recorded so employees who could not attend would have access at a later date. Tests on the materials would be created, distributed, and evaluated using Slack to insure the training was effective and reinforced. Product managers and support engineers would post to their appropriate Slack channels to make the team aware of new features, applications, and common support issues. This would create company wide awareness of pre and post sale support topics instead of requiring individual answers to be provided each time the issue came up.

The Biggest Implementation Challenge?: The biggest challenge would be working with the company’s current culture and systems to shift them to a highly collaborative environment like Slack.

Part 3: Implementation

One issue with implementing a major initiative like this is planning. It is much more fun to dive right in and start using Slack: adding content, users, and teams “on the fly.” But a little up-front planning goes a long way to avoiding early pitfalls. If users initially have a bad experience, it is hard to change their opinion later, even if the problems have been resolved. So here are the barriers and opportunities I have identified.

Barriers

1. Corporate – The biggest barrier is corporate culture. In the conservative test and measurement industry, implementing a major infrastructure project like Slack to improve internal communication would typically require approval from the highest levels of the organization. It would need to be evaluated for compatibility with existing communication tools and compliance with legal accountability requirements. A strategy for managing this barrier would be to begin with a small scale trial for the sales team. For this group, communication challenges already exist and ongoing training and information sharing is a necessity.

2. Content Creators – This project would require input from Application Support Engineers and Marketing. The barrier would be getting these “teachers” to utilize the system for day to day support requests, product data distribution, and training tasks. As a consultant, my job would be to create the basic structure and demonstrate the short term and long term benefits of Slack. A strategy for this barrier would be to make the most critical set of materials available immediately including price lists, product data sheets, white papers, training materials, customer presentations, etc. If the Sales and Support teams find value in this approach, they will begin to use the system for other tasks.

3. Sales Team – Even a small scale trial with a sales team has barriers associated with the end users. Surprisingly, sales engineers vary widely in their acceptance and use of technology. I’ve seen some sales engineers with smartphones with only the factory default apps on them (and maybe a GPS app). Helping them achieve an initial comfort level with the Slack technology will be extremely challenging for some users and easy for others. A strategy for this barrier would be to demonstrate an improvement to their most critical needs early in the project such as support requests, product information, and pricing. For example, if they can get an answer to a customer question more quickly in Slack than via phone or email, they would be more inclined to utilize it further. Also, the ability to provide “on demand” training via Slack would be a major benefit. They could use their inevitable “down time” during their business day for training and/or support activities.

Opportunities

1. Addressing the Challenge of Communication – Again, communication is an issue for almost every client I work with. Part 2 (above) of this document “Background of the Problem” provides details.

2. Training / Education – Part 2 of this document “How Will This Implementation Improve Teaching and Learning?” provides details. Reducing the training and support burden on the organization immediately translates into cost savings and productivity improvements.

3. Collaboration – Sales engineers have utilized informal social networks for decades. A beer after work, calling each other on a long drive to a customer, golf outings, and sharing information via email/text messaging is common. I can provide a dozen examples where I obtained a critical piece of information about a customer or product “by accident” after reading the full thread of an email or overhearing a conversation in the office next door. Formalizing and capturing collaboration can provide major benefits by making these conversations available to the entire team. There is a challenge to ensure that these teams are appropriately defined, but in general, seamless and effortless team collaboration is a major opportunity for this project.

Steps of the Implementation Process

1. Evaluation would begin by rephrasing the questions found in Part 4 (below) “Questions That Will Guide the Evaluation” to develop an initial understanding of existing sales team culture and challenges. This is probably the most critical step to be taken before implementation that will positively impact this initiative. Time required: 1 week.

2. Identify a Core Set of Content for the initial trial by using information from step 1 above and speaking to key content creators such as Sales Managers, Application Support Engineers, and Marketing. Time required: 1 week.

3. Implement Slack using their introductory “Free” option. Slack’s free tier of pricing includes significant capabilities such as browsing and searching the 10,000 most recent messages, 5GB total storage, and 5 service integrations (like Twitter, Google Docs, Dropbox, GitHub and many more). This should be enough for a proof of concept trial. Populate the system with the materials from Step 2. Time required: 2 weeks.

4. Identify a small starting group of tech savvy sales and support engineers for the trial, create Slack accounts for them, and conduct one-on-one training designed to get them started quickly and easily. Time required: 1 week.

5. Monitor progress, fine tune teams, and provide additional training as necessary during the trial period. Time required: 2 months.

Part 4: Evaluation

Why is Evaluation Necessary?

Since I focus on corporate communication and technical training, evaluation is necessary to determine if the proposed solution (Slack.com) is meeting the minimum requirement of providing recurring, on-demand technical training and improving communication during the trial period. If it is, then additional evaluation will be needed to determine if it is meeting more complex goals such as:

* Developing an internal repository of training resources: product data sheets, product configurators, pricing tools, white papers, competitive information, customer presentations, etc.
* Improving sales team internal collaboration
* Improving communication between sales, marketing, management, and product support/development
* Facilitating new channels of pro-active communication

Finally, the results of the evaluations need to be presented to upper management to document the performance of the project.

The Vision for Success

* Sales engineers in the field with instant access to the tools they need to successfully present a company’s products and services including pricing, product information, competitive factors, and customer presentations
* Managers with an in-depth understanding of customers’ most common questions and concerns
* Up to date training materials available to employees
* Testing functions to ensure training is effective and regularly reinforced
* Sales engineers communicating with their fellow sales engineers about best practices and challenges
* Sales, marketing, and engineering being aware of each others’ activities and needs
* An online, internal support “hotline” to quickly get answers to customers’ questions in real time while in the field

Questions That Will Guide the Evaluation

For Sales Engineers: has Slack…
* Improved your access to training and support materials? In what ways (speed, availability, etc.)?
* Improved communication with your co-workers and managers, including application and support engineers?
* Increased the speed at which you get responses to technical questions?
* Improved you ability to stay up to date with product enhancements, releases, and changes?
* Changed reporting requirements in any ways (increased or decreased)?
* Changed how you use email (internally or externally)?
* Changed how you interact with customers while on-site, on the phone, or in other ways?
* Improved your overall awareness of activities in other parts of the organization such as marketing and engineering?
* Improved your use of time?
* Caused you to have any privacy concerns?

For Support Engineers: has Slack…
* Improved your ability to support the sales team? In what ways?
* Improved your ability to access existing technical resources?
* Reduced support requests for common technical questions?

For Managers: has Slack…
* Increased your awareness of sales activities and collaboration?
* Improved the technical proficiency of your sales teams?
* Reduced costs associated with training and support?
* Increased team cohesiveness and communication?
* Integrated well with existing tools such as CRM, product configurators, pricing tools, etc.?
* Improved your ability to communicate and monitor high level corporate goals and sales initiatives?

Data and Information Needed to Address the Questions

First, a small scale trial will be conducted in the sales organization on a well defined training and communication task. Since Slack is designed to organize communications into channels that can be created for specific teams, projects, and/or topics, gathering data by monitoring these channels will provide early answers to the questions above. When the inevitable issues arise, talking directly to the sales, support, and managers involved will help determine the cause of the problem and provide guidance to a solution. It might also be useful to initially follow-up the training delivered through Slack with face-to-face evaluations and visits to customers in the field to determine how effective the training has been. One of the biggest challenges in training sales engineers is applying knowledge that has been learned in a classroom to address customers’ issues in the real world, especially under pressure and when specific applications might look different from the training materials.

Communicating the Results and Modifying the Implementation

Results would be communicated formally and informally. Ongoing successes and challenges would be documented and collected into written project status reports. Informally, the biggest advantage of conducting a trial with the sales team is their ability to communicate. If there are issues, sales engineers will typically express their opinions early and vocally so appropriate modifications can be made quickly.

Part 5: Reflection

The most difficult part of creating this plan was expanding the focus from technical training to include communication. I have created and delivered a large amount of technical training over my career and have always been frustrated by not being able to capture those special “learning moments” to make them more widely available. There is definitely a kind of magic that happens when an expert instructor delivers a day of excellent content to a group of engaged students. It is unreasonable to expect to simply reproduce that experience with a day of online content. However, having that same expert travel every week to a different city to present the same materials over and over again is also unreasonable, not to mention the inevitable flood of emails asking the expert the same follow-up questions over and over again. This project has finally gotten me to think deeply about how to address these problems by using modern Educational Technology and Communication tools to capture, present, discuss, and distribute technical training as well as providing a larger collaborative environment to help companies create a living repository of information and interaction. It remains to be seen if this plan can be implemented in the messy “real world” of high technology companies.

As a result of this course, I have realized that even though the majority of my clients say they need “sales training,” they are actually looking to improve the technical skills level and communications in their sales teams. Therefore, I have changed the focus of my consultancy such that we are now “specializing in training and communication for high technology companies.”

Finally, the most impressive parts of the experience were:
– The way you kept us engaged, gradually guiding us deeper and deeper, so the concepts were easily understood and applied.
– The variety of content you provided in the course. Curated content from world experts like MIT is invaluable.
– The interaction with the Professor and TAs. I was shocked to get a personal mention in a course of 1,300+ and it motivated me to go much deeper into the material and spend more time interacting with other students.
– The videos were outstanding. They drew me in and logically connected in a way that was very effective (I used to create EdTech videos while working for a community college in San Francisco several years ago, it is HARD to do well).

Thanks again for an excellent course.

Some Thoughts About Particle Physics and Quantum Field Theory

Sometimes I come across articles that are just plain fascinating. They can be a glimpse into another field, another way of looking at a topic, or a simple way of explaining very complex material. Here are three articles that don’t seem to relate to sales, marketing, training, or any other topic I typically post about, but still they deserve a little more exposure.

The first is from Brian Skinner. He is a physicist who specializes in the theory of “strongly-interacting many-body systems.” He is currently a postdoctoral researcher at MIT, and he blogs at Gravity and Levity. You would think his posts would be full of equations and scientific jargon, but they are beautifully written explanations of complex topics. His most recent is “A Children’s Picture-book Introduction to Quantum Field Theory.” According to Brian, this is “probably the deepest and most intimidating set of ideas in graduate-level theoretical physics,” but he explains the concept in a beautiful and simple way. Bravo Brian!

The second is from Symmetry Magazine which is a joint Fermilab/SLAC publication (Stanford Linear Accelerator). This article is called “The mystery of particle generations – Why are there three almost identical copies of each particle of matter?” It is an exploration of a theory about a deeper order (called Supersymmetry) that might explain the amazing “coincidence.” It even honestly states the limits of current particle physics research: “No matter how many there are, nobody knows why there are generations to begin with. Generations’ is just a conventional organization of the Standard Model’s matter content.”

Finally, the third article is quite technical, but also fascinating, “BASE compares protons to antiprotons with high precision.” BASE is the Baryon Antibaryon Symmetry Experiment conducted at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research). The importance of this type of basic research is explained in the following statement:

The Standard Model of particle physics – the theory that best describes particles and their fundamental interactions – is known to be incomplete, inspiring various searches for “new physics” that goes beyond the model. These include tests that compare the basic characteristics of matter particles with those of their antimatter counterparts.

The experiment itself has “found that the charge-to-mass ratio is identical to within 69 parts per thousand billion, supporting a fundamental symmetry between matter and antimatter.”

Maybe this research is overkill. With so many pressing problems in the world, why does “69 parts per thousand billion” even matter (no pun intended)? But it certainly is another piece of the puzzle that might get mankind off this small rock on the outskirts of the Milky Way into the greater universe. Warp drive anyone?

ParticleGenerationTree
Artwork by Sandbox Studio, Chicago

Educational Technology: Barriers and Opportunities

Another requirement for the MIT on-line course I am taking is to analyze the barriers and opportunities associated with implementing an “educational technology” in a corporate environment. To review, my project involves using Slack as a tool to address both training and communication problems. The product is advertised as “a messaging app for teams,” but it is much more. It organizes communications into channels that can be created for specific teams, projects, and/or topics. It also includes “private groups” for sensitive issues and simple direct messaging for one-to-one conversations. Slack’s powerful search function indexes both messages and the content of files attached to messages so it is easy to find all material related to a topic in one place. Finally, it integrates with a wide variety of other messaging tools such as Dropbox, Google products, and social media so information external to Slack also gets captured. Slack has apps for IOS, Android, and desktop computers. Thus employees have access to this entire body of information wherever and whenever they are: in a meeting, in front of a customer, working from home, traveling, etc.

One issue with implementing a major project like this is a lack of planning. It is much more fun to dive right in and start using Slack: adding content, users, and teams “on the fly.” But a little up-front planning goes a long way to avoiding early pitfalls. If users’ initially have a bad experience with a project like this, it is hard to change their opinion later, even if the problems have been resolved. So here are the barriers and opportunities I identified for this MIT course assignment.

Barriers

1. Corporate – The biggest barrier is corporate culture. In the conservative test and measurement industry, implementing a major project like Slack to improve internal communication would typically require approval from the highest level of the organization, the CEO. It would need to be evaluated for compatibility with existing communication tools and compliance with legal accountability standards. A strategy for managing this barrier would be to begin with a small scale trial for the sales team. For this group, communication challenges already exist and ongoing training / information sharing is a necessity.

2. Content Creators – This project would require input from Application Support Engineers and Marketing. The barrier would be getting these “teachers” to utilize the system for day to day support requests, product data distribution, and training tasks. As a consultant, my job would be to create the basic structure and demonstrate the short term and long term benefits of Slack. A strategy for this barrier would be to make the most critical set of materials available immediately including price lists, product data sheets, white papers, training materials, customer presentations, etc. If the Sales and Support teams find value in this approach, they will begin to use the system for other tasks mentioned above such as support requests.

3. Sales Team – Even a small scale trial with the sales team has barriers associated with the end users. Surprisingly, sales engineers vary widely in their acceptance and use of technology. I’ve seen some sales engineers with smartphones with only the factory default apps on them (and maybe a GPS app). Helping them achieve an initial comfort level with the Slack technology will be extremely challenging for some users and easy for others. A strategy for this barrier would be to demonstrate an improvement to their most critical issues early in the project including support requests, product information, and pricing. For example, if they can get an answer to a customer question more quickly in Slack than via phone or email, they would be more inclined to start using it. Also, the ability to provide “on demand” training via Slack would be a major benefit. They could utilize the inevitable “down time” during their business day for training and/or support activities.

Opportunities

1. Addressing the Challenge of Communication – Communication is a problem for almost every client I work with. Email, product announcements, company newsletters, spreadsheets, data sheets, and other forms of communication are typically used in a haphazard way. For salespeople the problem is especially acute since keeping abreast of product changes and improvements can mean the difference between winning and losing a critical sale. Intermittent face-to-face (and real time online) training has performed this function in the past, but the increased pace of change and higher expectations of customers make ongoing, real time communication an important competitive advantage.

2. Training / Education – Another opportunity of this technology is to shift teaching and learning from discrete events to a continuous model. Slack “Integrations” like GoToMeeting or Google Hangouts can provide training events that are conducted in real time as well as recorded so employees who cannot attend can have access later. Tests on the materials can be created, distributed, and evaluated using Slack to insure the training is effective and reinforced. Product managers and support engineers can also post to their appropriate Slack channels to make the team aware of new features, applications, and common support issues. This will create company wide awareness of many pre and post sale support topics instead of requiring individual answers to be provided each time the issue comes up. Reducing the support burden on the organization immediately translates into cost savings and productivity improvements.

3. Collaboration – Sales engineers have utilized informal social networks for decades. A beer after work, calling each other on a long drive to a customer, and sharing information via email / text messaging is common. I can provide a dozen examples where I obtained a critical piece of information about a customer or product “by accident” after reading the full thread of an email or overhearing a conversation in the office next door. Formalizing collaboration can provide major benefits by including the entire team in these conversations. There is a challenge to ensure that these teams are appropriately defined. For example, sales engineers might not want marketing to know certain things (it can get messy in sales sometimes), but in general, seamless / effortless team collaboration is a major opportunity for this project.

Steps of the Implementation Process

1. Use the Questions developed in the post “Evaluating an Educational Technology for Internal Use” to develop an understanding of the existing sales team culture and challenges – 1 week – This is probably the most critical step taken before implementation that will positively impact this initiative.

2. Identify a Core Set of Content for the initial trial by using information from step 1 above and speaking to key content creators such as Sales Managers, Application Support Engineers, and Marketing – 1 week.

3. Setup a free Slack team. Slack’s free tier of pricing includes significant capabilities such as browsing the 10,000 most recent messages, 5GB total storage, and 5 service integrations (like Twitter, Google Docs, Dropbox, GitHub and many more). This should be enough for a proof of concept trial. Populate the system with the materials from Step 2 – 2 weeks.

4. Identify a small starting group of tech savvy sales and support engineers for the trial, create Slack accounts for them, and conduct one-on-one training designed to get them started quickly and easily – 1 week.

5. Monitor progress, fine tune teams, and provide additional training as necessary during the trial period – 2 months.

barriers_opportunities

Technical Training and the Need for Better Communication

Evaluating a technology for educational use is one of the requirements for the MIT on-line course I am taking. The assignment I submitted for this task is below and revolves around using Slack as a tool to address both training and communication problems in companies. It must have been pretty good because out of a class of 1,300, the professor chose this post as a good example of educational technology for “post secondary” applications. If you only have a couple minutes, the sections below “Why Did I Choose This Technology?” and “What does Awesome Look Like?” contain the most important ideas. It might seem daunting, but if you are struggling with training issues, taking a step back and reevaluating the way your entire company communicates might solve a much more valuable problem.

Background on the Problem:

This three minute audio clip, “Parents Try Very Hard To Describe What Their (Adult) Kids Do” is a humorous summary of what I commonly come across when training sales people and managers. These parents of grown children are trying to explain what their kids do for a living and they are having as much trouble as many employees have keeping up on what their company is doing. Email, product releases, company newsletters, spreadsheets, data sheets, and other forms of communication are typically used in a haphazard way. For salespeople the problem is especially acute since keeping abreast of product changes and improvements can mean the difference between winning and losing a critical sale. Intermittent face-to-face (and real time online) training has performed this function in the past, but the increased pace of change and higher expectations of customers make ongoing, real time communication an important competitive advantage.

Why Use a Technology?

Based on my framework, I am proposing not only using educational technology for the training itself, but expanding the idea of technologically enhanced training to incorporate communication. For the medium sized companies I work with, this would include communication between engineering, sales, and marketing so that critical information reaches the right people at the right time. It would also be used to foster communication between sales engineers so that they could share best practices and challenges.

What Technology Did I Choose?

The tool I chose is called Slack. The product is advertised as “a messaging app for teams,” but it is much more. It organizes communications into channels that can be created for specific teams, projects, and / or topics. It also includes “private groups” for sensitive issues and simple direct messaging for one-to-one conversations. Slack’s powerful search function indexes both messages and the content of files attached to messages so it is easy to find all material related to a topic in one place. Finally, it integrates with a wide variety of other messaging tools such as Dropbox, Google products, and social media so information external to Slack also gets captured. Slack has apps for IOS, Android, and desktop computers so employees have access to this entire body of information wherever and whenever they are: in a meeting, in front of a customer, working from home, traveling, etc.

Why Did I Choose This Technology?

I was a manager in a technology company for many years and I constantly searched for information to answer customer questions, eventually settling on an unsatisfying combination of searching email, locally stored files, and the company’s website. The company created a wide variety of tools to help employees working in the field, but the lack of a single repository for the information combined with a lack of two way communication made using these tools difficult. A price list would be in Excel format emailed out three times a year, a data sheet would be in PDF format with no way of knowing if it was current, and a product configurator would sometimes be on the website and sometimes in a document. It was a mess.

A Slack channel for pricing would contain current versions of all pricing tools available. A channel for product data would contain current product data sheets and customer presentations with information on when it was last updated. A channel for training would contain current training materials and be updated regularly as products change and improve. A Private Group for salespeople could be a place where they feel comfortable securely sharing information on sales opportunities and customers. Major accounts could have their own private group so the appropriate salespeople could stay up to date on what the rest of the team is doing in that account.

How Will This Implementation Improve Teaching and Learning?

In terms of education, this implementation will shift teaching and learning from discrete events to a continuous model. Slack “Integrations” like GoToMeeting or Google Hangouts can provide training events that are conducted in real time as well as recorded so employees who cannot attend can have access later. Tests on the materials can be created, distributed, and evaluated using Slack to insure the training is effective and reinforced. Product managers and support engineers can also post to their appropriate Slack channels to make the team aware of new features, applications, and common support issues. This will create company wide awareness of many pre and post sale support topics instead of requiring individual answers to be provided each time the issue comes up.

The Biggest Implementation Challenge?

Potentially working with the company’s current culture and systems to shift them to a highly collaborative environment like Slack.

What does Awesome Look Like?

* Sales engineers in the field with instant access to the tools they need to successfully present a company’s products / services including pricing, product information, competitive factors, and customer presentations
* Managers with an in-depth understanding of customers’ most common questions and concerns
* Up to date training materials available to sales and support engineers
* Testing functions to ensure training is effective and regularly reinforced
* Sales engineer communicating with sales engineers about best practices and challenges
* Sales, marketing, and engineering being aware of each others’ activities and needs
* A online, internal support “hotline” to quickly get answers to customers’ questions in real time while in the field

MITedxkudos

Why Use Educational Technology? Some Real World Examples

I just came across an article by Christoph Hahn who is a Technical Education Specialist at The MathWorks. The MathWorks was founded in 1984 and is the leading developer of mathematical computing software for engineers and scientists including MATLAB and Simulink. The article, “Project-Based Learning: Five key features to motivating students,” is well written and only about a five minute read. All in all, it is a fascinating glimpse into the importance industry leaders are putting on Educational Technology. To summarize, he explains how project based learning “puts students in an active role, encouraging them to explore a realistic problem in an area of interest to them and without a predefined solution.” The rest of the article provides details and examples on how to create a driving interest in a real-world problem. What better motivator can there be for students to learn to work together toward a rewarding outcome? He even points out that project based learning addresses the common problem of “enthusing the disengaged while also challenging and fostering talented individuals” by “giving students the opportunity to push themselves beyond that demanded by the curriculum.”

The second example is from Sales Benchmark Index, “Why Your Sales Enablement Plan Needs to Match Your Sales Channel.” This is a fancy way of saying that different sales channels need different resources to be successful. The article covers several aspects of “sales enablement” such as:

  • Content related to sales rep training
  • How training content is presented and taught through a learning management system
  • Sales tools to move deals through the pipeline
  • Mobile support and apps that inform each member of that direct channel
  • Collateral used to make the sale, such as case studies, white papers, and videos
  • Onboarding strategies for bringing new people into the company as well as promoting from within

But a quick review of this list reveals that five of these six items can be addressed effectively though Educational Technology. Even if a company has money to burn, bringing in every sales rep, distributors, sales engineer, and support engineers regularly for training is a waste of time and energy. Their needs are just too different. Therefore, the next post in this series will discuss one tool that can address a wide variety of channels and training needs including the related need for better team communication.

SalesEnablement

Evaluating an Educational Technology for Internal Use

Implementing an Educational Technology for internal use can be a challenge. Management typically views this as an overhead expense for a task that is already being addressed through existing training options. However, training is part of the bigger corporate issue of communication, which in turn is at the core of the classic conflicts between sales, marketing, product engineering, and management. It seems there is a need to not only create effective training materials, but also to provide tools to implement long term training and support programs that are integrated with modern communication tools. As companies grow, “calling a friend in engineering” quickly becomes a burden. Imagine twenty sales engineers calling regularly, asking similar questions, constantly distracting product development engineers from their tasks.

Also, while sales engineers are typically excellent communicators, they are also very time constrained and focused on using the workday for direct sales activities. Training and support are secondary, but necessary activities. Any training / communication system implemented must take this into consideration. Therefore, before choosing a new tool(s), it is critical to understand the culture and challenges salespeople face. Here are some sample questions that might help develop that understanding:

1. Sales Team Communication
– Do you talk to other sales engineers? How and how often?
– Do you talk to your application engineer? How and how often?
– How often to you talk to your manager? How and how often?
– What is your primary method of communications with customers? Is this sufficient?
– What kind of reports are you regularly required to file? How and how often?
– What other reports are required? How and how often?
– How much email do you receive a day (internal / external)? How much requires a response?
– How do you hear about new products, initiatives, technical updates, etc.?

2. Support Structure
– How often do you need support for a sales opportunity?
– How do you get this support (email, phone call, face-to-face)?
– How long does it take to get an answer to a simple and a complex request?
– Do customers contact you for support? How and how often? How do you handle these requests?
– Do you feel like your customers are getting sufficient support?

3. Training
– Do you receive regular product training? How and how often?
– Do you feel this is enough?
– What other types of training would you find valuable?
– Do customers contact you for training? How often? How do you handle these requests?
– Do you feel like your customers are getting sufficient training?

4. Tools
– What types of sales tools do you use regularly? (CRM, configurators, product data, pricing, discounting)
– How much time do you spend with each tool?
– Are these tools updated regularly? How and how often?
– What other tools would you find useful in your daily work?
– Do you travel with a laptop or just a phone / tablet?

5. Time Management
– Do you have a structured time management system? If so, what?
– Do you formally plan your business activities? If so, how (geographically, key account, revenue, sales initiatives)?
– What activities do you find are the best / worst use of your time?
– Do you actively pursue professional development activities. If so, which ones?

Even with this understanding, you can expect opinions to vary greatly about the tools needed. Of course, sales engineers will also have their typically strong opinions about the best solution. The next post in this series will discuss one tool that can be easily adapted to fit a wide variety of needs and capabilities.

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August is Educational Technology Month – Introduction

If you are in a tech related field you are familiar with Educational Technology (aka EdTech). It refers to the wide variety of technologies available for teaching and training, tools such as PowerPoint, Support Portals, WebEx, etc. When I worked for a tech company I was a huge proponent of educational programs. It was especially important in a niche technology field like acoustics and vibration where there were fewer technical resources available to engineers. The company I worked for had hosted seminars for decades and I enthusiastically continued the effort through local seminars, onsite training, and events such as Application Days. I taught dozens of courses throughout the Western US on topics such as Basic Acoustics / Vibration, Sound Level Meters, Spectrum Analysis, Beamforming, and many other topics. For twelve of my fifteen years, I managed the Sound and Vibration Conference West which hosted 10-15 free and pay classes each year in the Los Angeles area. Over 250 attendees would come to a three day event in May and it was one of the cornerstones of local marketing for the year.

The uptick in sales over the following months was unmistakable and the usually quiet summer months became productive time for sales engineers. It was a win-win for everybody. The downside was that it increased demand for seminars and training throughout the year and customers began to request more local training even though many territories did not have enough interest to support a full face-to-face seminar. Fortunately, it was the point in history where WebEx was born and began to create the fledgling “Webinar” industry. It was a transformative moment for Educational Technology and by the time I left, the US subsidiary alone was offering two courses per week at no charge, attracting hundreds of attendees from around the world.

Now most companies have online programs that include webinars, online videos, and other training resources. Also in schools, students and their parents have seen EdTech explode during the past decade and a whole industry has sprung up around these efforts including numerous courses to “teach teachers” to use new technologies in their classrooms. MOOCs, eLearning, 1:1 Initiatives, classroom blogs, interactive whiteboards, screen casting, and many other media require specialized skills to be utilized effectively.

As a result of an online class I am taking through MIT called “11.133x Implementation and Evaluation of Educational Technology,” August will be EdTech month on the Elephant Tech blog. The course is a MOOC, a Massive Open Online Course with over 1,200 students attending. As the course description says, “This course provides a practical overview for selecting, implementing, and evaluating educational technology initiatives.”

One of Elephant Tech’s services is creating and presenting training materials both for face-to-face and online use. It seems like a good idea to better understand the wide variety of tools currently available to better help clients utilize and distribute these materials. If you don’t have an internal AND an external online training program, it has never been easier to create one, and this month’s posts summarizing the MIT course will hopefully provide some guidance through that initial, sometimes difficult, learning curve. As a start, you can checkout Microsoft Sway, a new product that brings “death by PowerPoint” to a whole range of formats and devices on Windows 10. Thanks to Sway, we can all hail “The Rise of the Rockstar Teacher!

EdTech

Monthly Recap: MAWGs, Sales Compensation, and More

Maybe it is a result of the summer heat, but July’s posts covered a wide variety of hot topics. Some of the highlights included:

Competing with Free explored the growing trend of developing business through low to no cost product offerings. Apple does it but Microsoft is still selling Windows. Google does it with low cost Chromebooks but Apple is still selling expensive laptops. This post provided some suggestions on how your company can also compete with free.

Acoustics Everywhere: Three Weekend Articles provided some interesting links to acoustics related topics such as the history of the Grateful Dead’s “Wall of Sound,” the effects of reverberation on music, and how to train professional listeners.

Addressing the Middle Aged White Guy (MAWG) Syndrome was an in-depth look at the issue of gender diversity in the workplace. It provided several suggestions on how smaller companies can foster gender diversity and the benefits these efforts can provide. Real change will take time so start now. You might be surprised at how much better your work environment, productivity, and innovation can become.

Sales Compensation – There are literally hundreds of books on this topic and a good compensation plan is critical to creating and maintaining an effective, engaged sales team. This post summarized a plan by compensation consultant David Chicelli which could provide some ideas for improving your current plan.

August is here and with it begins the planning process for 2016. Hopefully some of these posts will provide the small push needed to tackle the bigger issues companies face. If you need a little more motivation, here is a link to an article from Business Insider, “Steve Jobs’ 14 most inspiring quotes.” He had so many good ones it’s hard to say these are the most inspiring, but I particularly liked this:

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.”
— Steve Jobs

OneMoreThing

Can you pick a booger out of your nose, without poking your brain?

On some days just barely. So to end the month here are three articles that defy categorization but were enjoyable enough to write about. The first post is about Spatial Interfaces. The booger is a reference to the mundane “skills” that are the basis for Spatial Interfaces. This post is a fascinating glimpse into the psychology behind the user interfaces now found on phones, tablets, and computers. These interfaces can be easily learned because they draw on our experience with physical reality.  It also includes numerous examples of “tactful and careless” Spatial Design.

I think spatially, and so do you. Can you scratch your left ear without looking? Pick a booger out of your nose, without poking your brain? Remember where you left your keys? Can you type, without looking at your keyboard? Know which pocket your phone is in? Which way is up? Do you know where the bathroom is? Of course you do! We imagine multi-dimensional models in our minds, to help understand the complex world around us. We can also leverage this powerful way of thinking, to process more abstract information.

spatialinterfaces

Another interesting article was from Engadget: “Nintendo was right about the Wii U. We were wrong.” I also thought the Wii U was doomed to failure when it came out and it almost was, but underestimating the importance of the “fun factor” was a mistake. Sometimes an enjoyable experience with a product can overshadow technical limitations. In Nintendo’s case, they have now sold over 10 million units of the Wii U and the most popular game is Splatoon where teams of squids compete to completely cover an arena area with ink. It is bizarre and shockingly fun.

Companies who ignore this fact do so at their own peril. I hate to bash Microsoft again, but what the heck were they thinking making Windows 10 users pay to make Solitaire ad-free? Now, the day after the biggest product launch in Microsoft history, the news is not full of how great Windows 10 is, but headlines like “Windows 10 tries to make you pay to play Solitaire.” I think somebody at Micro$oft poked their brain before coming up with that idea!

windows10solitarefree

Technical Sales 101: Part 9 – Sales Compensation

As a result of a recent project (and several recent posts), I have been thinking quite a bit about salesperson compensation. Over the years, I have spent a considerable amount of time with salespeople and have heard the good, bad, and ugly sides of compensation plans. The overall goals are straightforward: reward exceptional performers and weed out below average performers. Most talented salespeople (and sales managers) are more comfortable with “industry standard” compensation practices. One book that I have used as a reference is Chicelli’s “Compensating the Sales Force.” This author is a more conservative sales compensation consultant with ideas that are in line with the state of the practice. To summarize a long and fairly complex book, the basic philosophy is that the major function of sales is to “persuade buyers in the face of uncertainty and risk.” Therefore, salespeople should be compensated for their ability to “influence the point of persuasion.”

This philosophy has a major effect on compensation plans. For example, if you are selling commodity products into your core markets, these sales typically have the least risk (and profit) so they should be compensated at the lowest level. On the other hand, growth initiatives typically require selling newer products, possibly into new markets, which is more challenging (and more profitable) so these sales should be compensated at progressively higher levels. These compensation goals can be achieved through a combination of techniques such as:

  • A higher contribution to quota for riskier products / markets
  • Simply increasing overall quotas from year to year to incentivize growth
  • With special one-time sales bonuses (SPIF – sales performance incentive fund)

In general, Chicelli’s favorite plan for outside sales engineers is called “3x”. It is a plan where top performers earn 3x the variable compensation component over the lowest performers and there is no cap on maximum compensation. To use real numbers, I took some 2013 percentile levels from this website: http://www.usawage.com/usa/sales_engineers-salary.php

  • 90th percentile of pay – $155K
  • 75th percentile of pay- $124K
  • 50th percentile of pay- $94K
  • 25th percentile of pay- $72K
  • 10th percentile of pay- $56K

Again, to summarize, Chicelli starts with a 70% base salary / 30% incentive pay plan with a target total cash compensation goal of around the 60th percentile (roughly $100K). If a salesperson does 100% of quota, they make $100K, poor performers make $70K (25th percentile) and top performers earn $160K which again is “3x” the variable compensation part of the plan. This is above the 90th percentile. This sounds complex, but it really isn’t and it still provides flexibility for companies to adjust contribution to quota from various product / market areas and to adjust the breakpoints for each tier of “3x.” A starting point could be 130%, 160%, 190%, 210%, etc. of quota to keep it simple and again, it is uncapped which salespeople tend to prefer psychologically. This also fits with the typical compensation budget estimates in which two thirds of the sales team makes their quotas. In typical years, the third that do not help offset the extra compensation paid to the top performers.

He also has some good ideas for compensating new hires, one of which is a “step-down guarantee.” This is where new hires also use the 3x plan, but it provides a guarantee that steps down from 75% of their target total cash compensation to 0% guarantee over six months. So in month one, they will definitely make 75% of their target total cash compensation, in month two, 62%, etc. A company could do this over a year if that makes more sense, but the total annual target compensation might be reduced since the risk would be lower.

Finally, a recent post from Chicelli’s blog is also a good, short read: “Moderate Pay Raises Slated for Sales Personnel in 2015 after 2014 Blowout.” Many new and successful salespeople could be at risk of leaving in 2016 due to a combination of the improving economy and the fact that many of them are having a good year this year, making 2016 growth targets seem hopeless. It’s great to have a great year, but the increase in quota due to “quota hangover” the following year can be rough, especially when demand for talented salespeople is back on the rise. In the next post of this series, the opposite side of the compensation equation, how salespeople (when motivated by the right compensation plan) can provide insight into your business that no other source can provide.

compensation

Follow Up on Taylor Swift and MAWG Syndrome

A post one month ago, “Taylor Swift and the Lost Art of Conversation” explored how Taylor Swift expertly used the art of conversation to shift the balance of power in a negotiation with Apple over Apple Music royalties. One thing the post didn’t mention was the backlash from photographers regarding how Ms. Swift’s contracts were doing exactly what she was criticizing Apple for, not paying fairly for image rights. One blog post in particular went viral, Jason Sheldon’s article, “An Open Response to Taylor Swift’s Rant Against Apple.” It’s a long, complex post and not worth the reading time, but the result was that yesterday Ms. Swift backed down and changed the terms of her contracts with photographers. If you are interested in the larger story (which is worth a quick read), the BBC article on the subject is an interesting study into how individuals can make a difference. Taking a stand involves risk. For example, Sheldon could have lost access to future concerts, possibly ending his career as a concert photographer, but as he says, “When you’re faced with a choice of working for free to save a millionaire having to pay a reasonable fee, or not working at all.. what would you do?”

There is also a follow-up to my post from two days ago, “The Changing World: Part 6 – Addressing the Middle Aged White Guy Syndrome.” Yesterday, the BBC published an article, “Say goodbye to sexism in the office, for real this time,” that explored this topic in depth. It also provided several more suggestions for changes that companies can implement to make workplaces more fair for both sexes including smaller changes like:

  • Not scheduling meetings during early morning hours, so that men and women staffers who have children have time to get them off to school.
  • Expressing understanding when a worker “needs to take the foot off the gas” to care for a sick family member.
  • Providing unconscious bias training for your entire department.
  • In general, acting in a way that supports and promotes gender equality to send a message that a workplace values everyone.

This article reminded me that buried toward the end of the infographic on “Women in IT,” were the statistics that over 50% of women in technical careers leave at the mid-level of their careers. This is more than double the rate for men. Mirroring Sheldon’s comments, when “you’re faced with a choice of working…” in an unsupportive environment for less pay than male colleagues, “what would you do?” It seems that the majority of women in IT either start their own companies or get out of tech altogether and move to a different company. A sad loss for everybody involved.

So if you are a woman in tech or someone who feels strongly about an unfairness, take a stand. It could be risky, but the Art of Conversation might be more powerful than you think.

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The Changing World: Part 6 – Addressing the Middle Aged White Guy Syndrome

Two years ago, I published a post “What I urge you to do is to lead the third women’s revolution” that explored the conspicuous absence of women in tech fields. The title was a quote from Arianna Huffington’s powerful speech that she made at the Smith College commencement in May 2013. It would have been great to write a follow-up post demonstrating how things have changed, but the situation seems to be getting worse. The recent Ellen Pao / Reddit fiasco was confusing. It seemed like Ellen was fired from Kleiner Perkins, lost her gender discrimination suit there, and then went to Reddit where she was forced to resign because she fired a popular female employee. It created a very negative aura around the “women in tech” movement. In fact, an article in the Guardian “What did you expect? Women in tech reflect on Ellen Pao’s exit from Reddit” explains how the situation was much more complex that the obvious gender based conclusions many people have drawn. More extreme factions of the conservative press took advantage of the situation with posts like “14 Facts that the Tanking Women in Tech Movement Doesn’t Want You to Know.” This post quoted “facts” like “3. Women’s Brains Aren’t As Well Suited To Programming As Men’s.” I’ve looked at a bit of code over the years and if men’s brains are better suited to programming the obtuse, buggy mess of most modern software, we are all in trouble.

Culture is another aspect of this situation. Many niche tech companies I come across are boring and homogenous. They are primarily made up of middle aged white guys with a minority or two and a couple women in marketing. Interestingly enough, there is a greater percentage of female acoustic consultants and audiologists, but not a lot more. The National Center for Women in Information Technology published an infographic on women in IT that summarizes the problem in that field and suggests several possible solutions, but the real solution starts with us, the “middle aged white guys.” It requires us to create work environments where diversity is the accepted norm. Despite the fact that gender diversity is obviously a huge topic and millions are being spent to foster gender diversity in technical fields, here are a few suggestions that I feel are important starting points for small tech companies.

  • Zero Tolerance for Sexism Both Explicit and Implicit – Obviously “booth babes,” “marketing girls,” and double standards in general are unacceptable, but the more subtle sexism like dismissing women as unprofessional for showing feelings, rewarding men for aggressive behavior, or pay inequality needs to stop immediately.
  • Cultivate Leadership Diversity – Lasting change always needs the support (and example) of upper management.
  • Support Women in Sales – Some of the most effective sales engineers I have ever met have been women, but this is another area where the numbers have not improved. I have never even heard of a female Sales Manager. Strange…
  • Develop Emotional Intelligence – It will initially take a concerted effort to change the toxic environment that discourages women in technology fields, so integrate emotional intelligence training as part of an overall professional development program. An emotionally healthy organization is typically a more successful organization.
  • Pay Special Attention to Culturally Based Gender Issues – With cultural diversity increasing in local and global teams, special training may be required to prevent problems with women working with men from cultures with deeply ingrained gender intolerance.

Real change will take time so start now. You might be surprised at how much better your work environment, productivity, and innovation can become.

womeninIT

Acoustics Everywhere: Three Weekend Articles

Here are three fascinating acoustics articles for your weekend reading.

The Wall of Sound – A excellent “longread” on the Grateful Dead’s famous acoustic experiment which was a technical marvel of the time. “It was a signal moment in the history of sound that set in motion a years-long work in progress that would culminate in what’s arguably the largest and technologically innovative public address system ever built, and it started not with a bang, but with something of a casual, stoned proposition. This singular work of engineering would come to weigh over 70 tons, comprise dozens and then hundreds of amps, speakers, subwoofers, and tweeters, stand over three-stories tall and stretch nearly 100 feet wide. Its name could only be the Wall of Sound.”

the Wikisinger – A video featuring a guy singing the same song in 15 different acoustic landscapes. For anybody interested in room acoustics, this is a must see.

How to Listen – I haven’t tried this software, but the problem is a classic one. Listeners used in audio product research, development, and testing must be trained or they end up being another variable in the test. Dr. Sean Olive, the Director of Acoustic Research for Harman International, is behind this software so it should be great.

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The Changing World: Part 6 – Competing with Free

When a low (or zero) cost competitor enters a marketplace, existing companies get worried. This is especially true in smaller, high technology industries where those existing companies can charge high prices on products like unique sensors, complex measurement solutions, or product specific consulting services. These small markets have high barriers to entry so it can take decades for competitors to appear and win market share, but when they do, watch out, the competitive landscape can shift rapidly. Once a few large customers switch successfully, it becomes easier and easier to convince others. Quality, loyalty, and long sales cycles are like a finger in the dike, the problem must be addressed immediately before the dam breaks, but how?

A recent article from KISSmetrics, “How to Retain Your Customers in an Age of Free SaaS” explores an extreme example in the Software as a Service industry (SaaS). They describe the worst case where competitors are giving away free products. There are many examples of this in massive industries. Apple does it with OS X and IOS, so how does Microsoft compete? Google does it with Gmail, Photos, Calendar, Drive, Maps, Android, etc., so how does Apple compete? Facebook does it with… well, they do it with something since industry experts seem to think that Facebook is one reason that Google’s growth has stalled.

Today, no industry is immune. If you are successful and you are not in this situation now, there is a good chance you will be in the near future. I have seen companies that had a 50 year dominant market position lose it to aggressive competitors. The KISSmetrics article makes some excellent points right after the vague initial suggestion of “restrategize.” First, re-marketing is a good start. There is always a group of buyers who just care about cost so provide an entry level product (something decent, not “crippleware“), but shift focus to areas the low cost competitor(s) can’t or won’t address like quality, reputation, reliability, stability, capability, versatility, ruggedness, warranties, training, support, etc.

Second, spend time with key customers and actually listen to them. Shockingly, they will tell you what is valuable to them. Why do I pay more for Apple’s products and pay at all for Google’s Apps for Business? Because these solutions make me more productive. There is a definite cost associated with the effort required to utilize a “low cost” $699 Windows PC, an Android phone, or free business apps. Apple and Google both listen to customers (in the larger sense), implement the best of this input, and then effectively market these solutions.

Finally, regularly remind your customers why your solutions provide more value through both your sales and marketing efforts. 90% of the time white papers, application notes, case studies, marketing materials, and consistent sales training go a long way to maintaining a healthy customer relationship. Once in a while, going head to head with the competition is required. As BGR reports, even Apple has started doing this with their recent “Hardware and Software” campaign directly pointing out the advantage of making both iDevices and IOS. BGR rightfully points out that it is risky to mention a competitor directly, but occasionally it is necessary. So if you are still milking that cash cow, you might want to take action now, it’s no fun being stuck on the fence.

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Aren’t Proud of Something in Your Past? Change It (Thanks to Quantum Physics)!

Thanks to quantum physics, we can finally get off the hook for our past… if we can get our classical physics brains to shift to quantum physics thinking. A recent article in Digital Journal, “Scientists show future events decide what happens in the past,” starts with the provocative sentence, “An experiment by Australian scientists has proven that what happens to particles in the past is only decided when they are observed and measured in the future. Until such time, reality is just an abstraction.”

It is a great read and references an equally interesting article from the Guardian, “You’re powered by quantum mechanics. No, really…” which explains how familiar phenomena including a robin’s ability to sense the earth’s magnetic field, photosynthesis, and the enzymes in our bodies are based on the principles of quantum physics.

So if you regret your behavior at the office holiday party last year, there might still be hope. There’s only one catch, we have to get our future self to agree to implement the change. Maybe it is easier just to learn from our sordid past? In any case, the choice is up to us, well, some future version of “us” at least.

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Monthly Recap: Some Thoughts About… Last Month

To create these monthly newsletters, I go back over the previous month’s posts and uncover the theme. Last month it was the birth of a new series “Some Thoughts About…” In my experience, a business needs at least three things to be successful: a great idea, planned execution of that idea, and good timing. Many companies find great ideas are hard to come by. Long strategy meetings, brainstorming, mind mapping, and other techniques have been used for decades. So the posts “38,000 Words about Code” and “Video of Vinyl Playing” provide two examples of great ideas. In the first, Paul Ford wrote an entire issue of BusinessWeek about programming. With attention spans seemingly decreasing to the length of the average 140 character tweet, it was a risky idea that turned out well. The second post by “Applied Science” (Ben Krasnow) is just the most recent in a very long series of great ideas. Any one of Ben’s experiments would make a great research project and he publishes one every week. Amazing. The websites Geek and The Creator’s Project both featured his work recently. This is excellent press coverage for a guy working out of a home laboratory.

The posts “Some Thoughts About Scum Reps” and “Some Thoughts About Salespeople” were about execution. Sales is the acid test of any product or service and salespeople administer that test. A post dedicated to this topic is planned for July. Since internal organizational issues are a major barrier to success, the post “The Changing World: Part 5” discussed how companies both sabotage and enhance their efforts to execute a great idea. Microsoft might be heading down the road to sabotage with seven versions of Windows 10 while T-Mobile is enhancing their success through their “UnCarrier” program and word of mouth.

Finally, Taylor Swift was kind enough to demonstrate good timing in her conflict with Apple. She used great timing and the art of conversation to change the opinion of a massive corporation. The story is in the post, “Taylor Swift and the Lost Art of Conversation.” Many people think of negotiation as a critical business skill, but a part of successful negotiation is good timing. Thanks Taylor!

As a follow-up to the Microsoft and Taylor Swift posts, Microsoft is still heading down the slippery slope. An ArsTechnica post says it all: “Microsoft stealthily backs away from free Windows 10 promise.” I love the second sentence, “We wrote at the time that we expected the company to do a volte-face and back away from this promise. Lo and behold, it has come to pass.” If you believe any PR is good PR, then Microsoft is doing well, but somehow I don’t think this will help boost the popularity of Windows 10. On a positive note, Ms. Swift is a woman of her words, her music will be streaming on Apple Music (which launched yesterday).

As always, feel free to send ideas on topics of interest. Research interests, niche technology sales and marketing problems, training, and social media questions are all welcome suggestions. In the meantime, get ready for July, the measurement system, aka your sales team, is warmed up and ready to go.

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Acoustics Everywhere (sort of): Video of Vinyl Playing

I found this video in a post from professional blogger Jason Kottke, “Slow-motion video of a vinyl record playing,” but it turned out to be much more than a video of a turntable needle. In nine minutes, Applied Science demonstrates the basics of how an electron microscope works and then uses one to record an image of the needle on the record (which they later turn into a video) and on the surface of a Compact Disc / DVD. The limitations of the electron microscope are also explained and workarounds are implemented. This video is not only instructive, but a realistic glimpse into how test and measurement is really done. These videos are free, but I enjoy them so much that I decided to support future videos at the Patreon website.

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Taylor Swift and the Lost Art of Conversation

I have been involved in hundreds of negotiations over the years ranging from helping the lone consultant who is trying to get a better deal on an expensive sound level meter to working with major corporations representing millions of dollars in potential business. Across the board, the best negotiators were the ones who could have a “conversation” about the situation: an honest back and forth discussion leading to the sometimes elusive “win-win” outcome.

Taylor Swift has been in the news recently opposing Apple Music due to Apple’s decision to provide a 90 day free trial to customers and not pay artists during this period. To make a long story short, she posted her position publicly on Tumblr yesterday and Apple agreed to change their position. There were no lawsuits, no mudslinging in the press, and no angry words exchanged. Artists will now get paid during the trial period. This is a true win-win. Artists and producers get paid for the incredible work that goes into their music, Apple gets incredible PR (and hopefully Taylor Swift’s music), and the world gets another great way to enjoy streaming music. Taylor Swift’s comments to Apple are below and they are definitely worth the quick read since they are an excellent example of the “art of conversation.”

To Apple, Love Taylor

I write this to explain why I’ll be holding back my album, 1989, from the new streaming service, Apple Music. I feel this deserves an explanation because Apple has been and will continue to be one of my best partners in selling music and creating ways for me to connect with my fans. I respect the company and the truly ingenious minds that have created a legacy based on innovation and pushing the right boundaries.

I’m sure you are aware that Apple Music will be offering a free 3 month trial to anyone who signs up for the service. I’m not sure you know that Apple Music will not be paying writers, producers, or artists for those three months. I find it to be shocking, disappointing, and completely unlike this historically progressive and generous company.

This is not about me. Thankfully I am on my fifth album and can support myself, my band, crew, and entire management team by playing live shows. This is about the new artist or band that has just released their first single and will not be paid for its success. This is about the young songwriter who just got his or her first cut and thought that the royalties from that would get them out of debt. This is about the producer who works tirelessly to innovate and create, just like the innovators and creators at Apple are pioneering in their field…but will not get paid for a quarter of a year’s worth of plays on his or her songs.

These are not the complaints of a spoiled, petulant child. These are the echoed sentiments of every artist, writer and producer in my social circles who are afraid to speak up publicly because we admire and respect Apple so much. We simply do not respect this particular call.

I realize that Apple is working towards a goal of paid streaming. I think that is beautiful progress. We know how astronomically successful Apple has been and we know that this incredible company has the money to pay artists, writers and producers for the 3 month trial period… even if it is free for the fans trying it out.

Three months is a long time to go unpaid, and it is unfair to ask anyone to work for nothing. I say this with love, reverence, and admiration for everything else Apple has done. I hope that soon I can join them in the progression towards a streaming model that seems fair to those who create this music. I think this could be the platform that gets it right.

But I say to Apple with all due respect, it’s not too late to change this policy and change the minds of those in the music industry who will be deeply and gravely affected by this. We don’t ask you for free iPhones. Please don’t ask us to provide you with our music for no compensation.

Taylor

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The Changing World: Part 5 – The Gordian Knot of Organizational Issues

During my MBA, the Organizational Effectiveness course turned out to be one of the two most useful courses of the program (the other being Strategy). Why? Because most clients I talk to are hyper aware of external issues. They constantly are looking outside their companies to meet competitive threats and gain a competitive advantage, but nine times out of ten, internal factors are the more significant barriers to success. These factors include poor customer service, lack of sales training, ineffective marketing, draconian software licensing systems, and product / service issues in general.

Big companies that should know better are no exception to the rule. I thought Microsoft would change after Steve Ballmer left, but it hasn’t changed that much. There will be SEVEN versions of Windows 10 and articles have been written like “How To Tell Which One Is For You.” To be fair, Windows for individuals, large companies, and phones should probably be different versions, but what’s up with all the “Here’s how to get Windows 10 for free…” articles. This is confusing, messy and people will feel cheated even before the OS is released in late July.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, T-Mobile gets articles like “How Much Do I Love T-Mobile? You Don’t Want to Know.” This was written by Ryan Holiday, an expert in the marketing field who typically gets paid big bucks to write about companies. My favorite quote:

T-Mobile has no idea I wrote this article. I don’t care if you switch or not. In fact, I think I actually own shares in AT&T (it pays a good dividend). But it is a case worth looking at. Because a mediocre company was able to become a great one, without changing all that much.

So, assuming your product doesn’t suck, reserve time during your regular business reviews to evaluate and improve your “organizational effectiveness.” It’s maybe the only thing you have complete control over that can make a major improvement to your customer satisfaction and your bottom line. As an added bonus, you might find that customers like you enough to help you with your marketing efforts… for free. Wouldn’t that solve some knotty problems?

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Some Thoughts About Salespeople (aka Coin Operated Idiots)

Lars Dalgaard is a name you probably haven’t heard before. I certainly hadn’t until I read his article in TechCrunch “To Clean Up Your Startup’s B.S., Bring Sales Into The Leadership Team.” Even though I didn’t know him, the article grabbed my attention so I dug a little deeper and it immediately became clear that Lars is a heavy hitter in the business world. He sold his last company, Success Factors, to SAP for $3.4 billion and now he is on the board of Zenefits, one of the fastest growing business services startups in history.

So if Lars disagrees with labelling salespeople “coin operated idiots,” smart people should pay attention. This quote from the article says it all:

In addition to bringing the actual bacon – in the form of paying customers that make everything work – salespeople are the one group constantly in front of the very people you’re selling to. They can visualize the market like no one else, help build the go-to-market strategy, and give you intimate customer and competitive insights for the overall company strategy.

But as one business owner told me the other day, when he asked a group of salespeople what features should be added to his products, the answers were all over the map, and none of them seemed to be linked to actual revenue opportunities. The problem was the lack of a filter: a mechanism to identify, evaluate, and implement the best of the valuable suggestions into product enhancements.

Great salespeople are like race cars. They are focused on one primary goal and as Lars says, they “think, live, and breathe customers all day, every day.” So take 10 minutes and read the entire article, it is a fascinating glimpse into how a super successful CEO has leveraged his sales team into a major competitive advantage. Like a race car, salespeople can be a challenge to manage. They have too much energy for most people, but if you want to win the race, your safe, reliable Honda Civic ain’t gonna cut it. Sales needs to be included in your product development process. As an added benefit, you get a powerful, free measurement system, but that’s a topic for a future post.

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38,000 Words About Code

38,000 is a lot of words. With the average length of a novel hovering around the 40,000 word mark, Paul Ford has basically written a novel disguised as an issue of BusinessWeek. It’s also available online with lots of fancy code “stuff” added to demonstrate principles. Software is a critical part of modern society, running everything from coffee makers to power plants so this so called article might provide you with an interesting glimpse into the hidden world that surrounds us.

For a little more information on this amazing author, here is his unofficial biography on Medium. By the way, if you don’t have time for 38,000 words, you can definitely skim it, but Paul (or at least his code) will catch you…

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Some Thoughts About “Scum Reps”

I heard it again the other day: a client complaining about his sales representation. After asking a couple questions, the reasons became clear: expectations and neglect. I’ve seen the same problems dozens of times  before. One of the reasons I was initially hired by Bruel and Kjaer is because they needed someone to manage their new “outsourced” sales team in certain territories. Who better to manage reps than someone who was one, right?

The active hate of reps at Bruel and Kjaer went very deep at the time. The person whose job I took left the company because they were forcing him to manage those reps. I found the job to be extremely rewarding and educational and it turned out that they were better sales professionals than the direct sales team. They did lack technical depth, but that wasn’t surprising. With 30 other manufacturers on their line card, it was clear they weren’t going to be technical heavy hitters.

What they lacked technically, they more than made up for on the sales side. They brought B&K into companies and industries where it had never been before and challenged the company to move out of its comfort zone to tackle larger projects and opportunities. There have been many books written about managing reps, but here are five simple guidelines that will help you get the most out of this valuable resource.

  1. Interview Carefully – Have them create a written proposal for your business. This should include their line card, primary industries / customers, references, and a well written description of their services. If possible, accompany them on a day of customer visits. If they can’t sell themselves…
  2. Provide Ongoing Training – Reps excel at extracting the essence of a company’s competitive advantage. They naturally distill this into effective “sound bites” that they can use in front of customers. Providing training appropriate to their expected level of technical proficieny will pay off in the long run. Continue to have short refreshers every time you visit their territory or at least via short webinars.
  3. Communicate Regularly – You do this with your direct salespeople, do the same with reps. Good reps will rank principals. If you are in the top five, you can communicate as much as your directs. If not, be sensitive to their time.
  4. Create a Visit Schedule – Good reps plan far in advance. If they know when you will be coming, they will be more likely to have your product in mind to make sure they have good visits planned. Their time is more limited than yours.
  5. Review Expectations – An honest, regular review of expectations insures that both parties stay on track. Reps are experts at “managing expectations” so if you don’t make reasonable demands, performance can be substandard for months before it is clear that action needs to be taken.

So please stop calling them names and blaming them for sales issues. It took me several years to understand and really begin to use their services effectively. Hopefully these simple guidelines will provide a bit of a headstart for getting the most out of sales representatives.

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Monthly Recap: A Brilliant Idea for a Changing World

Phoenix is a good biking city. It has lots of bike lanes, is mostly flat, and there are many things to see and do within biking distance (at least in our part of town). So I decided to buy a bike. The problem was that I hadn’t owned a bike for over 20 years and cycling had changed a LOT. Then I came across a bicycle “startup” company called Brilliant Bicycles and took a chance buying their first product two months before it was even released.

Why did I take a chance on an unknown like Brilliant? Interestingly, the story relates to the posts from this month:

First, this was not strictly a technical sale, but I did go through “the buyer’s process” and realized that I wanted a quality product, but didn’t want all the hype that went along with the major manufacturers. Brilliant’s “story” is based around this concept.

They also provided excellent marketing videos to convey the intangible aspects of their high quality products: simple designs, ethical labor, clean / safe working conditions, and excellent support. As an example, I did have to use their support when I had a problem with the shifter on the bicycle. They responded to my emails quickly with suggestions. When they didn’t work, I received a call from the Director of Manufacturing. He has a personal interest in customers’ experiences so I ended up talking to him and learning some fascinating things about the business at the same time he helped me fix the problem. He definitely has a mastery of the art of conversation. He even offered to pay a local bike shop to fix the problem, no questions asked, but his candidness and belief in his product made me believe that I could fix it, which I did.

Finally, Brilliant is a company that is developing and nurturing change in an industry dominated by large players. This TechCrunch article explains how Brilliant was founded by two Ex-VCs (venture capital people) with a vision to create a company to provide “an easy option for a normal person who just wants to ride to the park and has a budget in mind.”

The cycling world has some similarities to the niche technology world. It is dominated by bike shops who provide a wide range of value-added services in exchange for markups on the products they sell. There is certainly a place for them, but it looks like there is also a place for a “self service” option like Brilliant. The niche technology world is moving in the same direction in certain areas like Test and Measurement where companies like National Instruments are providing more and more advanced “self service” products sold directly through their website. Sales organizations and manufacturers’ representatives might want to review the value they are providing periodically in this changing environment. More on this topic in a future post!

As always, feel free to send ideas on topics of interest. Research interests, niche technology sales and marketing problems, training, and social media questions are all welcome suggestions.

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The Changing World: Part 4 – The Apple Watch and Nurturing Change

Ok, we did it, my wife and I bought Apple Watches. As I said in the last post of this series, sometimes it’s hard to understand the significance of an innovation without personally experiencing it. After a couple weeks with the Apple Watch, I noticed that it adds another dimension to the technology equation. It is not “must have” technology, but it does address several issues:

  • Notification stress: Low priority notifications can be turned off and a quick glance at your wrist shows important ones.
  • Phone interactions: How many times a day do you pick up your phone to check it? Since important notifications can be viewed at a glance (literally), my phone now stays in my pocket. For people without pockets, it saves digging in a purse or bag to look at the phone or answer a call.
  • The Health App: Though it has some problems, it works. I really do stand up at least 12 times a day now, even on super busy days. Being more aware of motion is one good first step to health.

Most technological developments are incremental: features added, bugs removed, etc., but once in awhile risky new ground needs to be broken. The Apple Watch is this type of development. It certainly has its problems. It is a bit slow, battery life is marginal, and there is a steep initial learning curve, but it became unobtrusive after a couple days. Now it feels weird to not wear it.

However, for niche technology companies, a failure in taking a big risk can jeopardize the entire company. One solution is by occasionally taking smaller, calculated risks. Instead of just updating an old product, use the opportunity to explore a new approach to solving a problem. Experimenting with Software as a Service (SaaS), Cloud Computing, distributed processing, and the Internet of Things (IoT) are all examples of calculated risks. Additional development resources can be allocated to the successful “experiments.”

A new idea is like a plant seedling, it needs to be nurtured and handled gently until it develops roots and can grow on its own. Organizationally, there are a variety of ways to achieve this such as protected development teams and “companies within companies.” Big examples include Amazon’s “Lab126” that develops the Kindle and Fire hardware or Microsoft Research that does research in areas ranging from Machine Learning to Computer Vision.

The next post in this series will dive a bit deeper into the organization issues involved in nurturing change. In the meantime, here is an unintended consequence of the Apple Watch, an epidemic of HWS (hairy wrist syndrome).

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Acoustics in Advertising: Porsche Black Edition

Acoustics is a great way to visualize power that cannot be seen because with proper sound reproduction equipment, it can evoke a visceral reaction. This works well in movie or home theaters, but today’s internet is all about mobile devices with terrible sound reproduction. So what can an advertiser do? Porsche decided that one way is to provide a visualization of the sounds that represent the power in their new “Black Edition.” They hired Simo Santavirta, a digital artist, to create this visualization and it wasn’t easy. He says about his work, “This work of art focuses on the fascinating and typical Porsche engine sound. The powerful sound vitalizes its surroundings by being propagated by a pressure wave to create an impressive experience.”

However, like most art, the devil is in the details. Visualizing sound is an extremely complicated mathematical problem. Simo wrote an article on the technical aspects and summarized the problem by saying, “Alright Simo… Make 200,000 particles dance smoothly based on sound and add 613,581 vertice car model with 29 draw calls in middle of it… in WebGL :).” Unless you are a programmer, the details of this article are not that interesting, but he explains some of the cheats he used: “To hide all possible glitches I also set the scene to dark and fade back to light every time user switch the camera position. Also not all of these framebuffers have to be drawn in full resolution. Smoke and mirrors :)”

Acoustics many times seems like smoke and mirrors, measuring microscopic pressure variations traveling through invisible air, but it points to deeper, fascinating phenomena. So take a look at this “digital artwork” from Porsche, it is a fascinating glimpse into making the invisible, visible.

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Networking and the Art of Conversation

Phoenix has an extremely active business networking community. NetworkingPhoenix.com lists dozens of events each week and the Arizona Tech Council specifically focuses on technical networking. Coming from a niche industry like sound and vibration, I was very comfortable talking to engineers, but a social networking setting created new challenges. How do you find people that might be a potential client or vice versa? How do you start (and end) a conversation? How do you keep it interesting and flowing? It took me a few months to figure out these things, but it was well worth it. There is a big world out there beyond my specific technical industry and while I don’t try to consult for Intel, many medium sized tech companies need help with sales and marketing issues.

This article from Mashable “Networking 101: How to make a lasting impression,” gives a good summary of techniques for successful networking. Conversation is an art so practice a few of these each time you network and you will be amazed at how your conversations change. Also, the slide below from a presentation by the founder of Networking Phoenix, Gelie Akhenblit, has additional tips and techniques. She even pointed out that many networking events post the attendee list ahead of time so you can find and setup those critical initial contacts instead of lurking around reading name tags. So even if you are employed and not looking for new job or clients, try networking sometime, it is a fascinating glimpse into other industries and people.

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Technical Sales 101: Part 8 – Developing the Magic of Sales

The post, Part 7 – Understand the Buyer’s Process, explored the “buyer’s process” which has changed radically in the past decade. Buyers today access multiple sources of information before a salesperson is ever involved including:

  • The company’s and its competitors’ websites
  • LinkedIn Groups
  • Customer forums
  • Industry specific periodicals
  • Blogs
  • Peers
  • Social media

That post ended with the question, “so what kind of salesperson is needed in this new environment?” Since they are no longer the primary source of information for potential customers, they now need to persuade buyers in the face of uncertainty and risk. Successful salespeople have the ability to “influence the point of persuasion” by creating and nurturing a desire for the product or service.

In technical sales, successful salespeople can have a variety of personality types and sales techniques. For example, one application engineer I managed was very methodical. His demos used absolutely no keyboard shortcuts. Imagine an hour demo where every single action was a mouse click. You would think it would be painful, but it was extremely effective in putting potential customers at ease by giving them time to get comfortable with the information he was presenting. No “smoke and mirrors” here. His straightforwardness reduced the perceived risk and nurtured the desire the customer had already developed in their own research phase of their buyer’s process.

Another sales engineer I worked with would answer questions in a 100% straightforward way. If the product had a particular strength, he would say so. If it had a shortcoming, he would say, “no, the product can’t do that.” The first time I was with him, it was shocking. I typically try to understand the customer’s problem better before making a categorical statement like this, but I recognized his talent and realized this technique was both honest and powerful. Customers rightly felt the rest of his presentation was truthful, again reducing risk and nurturing the desire for the product.

Maybe the most effective salesperson I ever worked with was a woman. It isn’t clear to me why there are not more women in technical sales. Her intelligence, honesty, intuition, and empathy were incredibly powerful. In a sales presentation, intent makes all the difference in the world. Her commitment to helping customers find the best solution to their problems was so strong that her customer relationships lasted for decades.

So the “magic of sales” is really not magical at all. It looks like magic because successful salespeople have the ability to quickly identify the “point of persuasion” and address it to resolve both the short-term problem and develop a long-term customer relationship. They tend to get paid well in technical fields because they have unique soft skills such as customer relationship identification / development, territory management, and a strong tolerance for rejection. Can this be developed in “non-sales” roles in a company? Yes, it can and the next post this series will explore this idea with a focus on demystifying the sales organization.

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Monthly Recap: Evolution Versus Revolution – More Thoughts on Change

This month marked the end of an era in Acoustics. Dr. Bruel worked right up to the end, celebrating his 100th birthday with over 100 people and attending the March meeting of the Danish Acoustical Society before passing on April 2nd, 2015. He celebrated his 100th birthday with a style and flair that was his trademark throughout his life. “A Great Acoustician is Quiet” is a short post about my personal experience with Dr. Bruel in 1995.

Dr. Bruel truly changed the world through acoustics by developing products ranging from the first commercially practical measurement microphones to advanced ultrasound machines and photo acoustic gas analyzers. During my early years as an instrumentation engineer working at a consulting company, I remember taking apart one of those gas analyzers. Coming from an electrical engineering background, I didn’t know anything about Bruel and Kjaer, but immediately realized that it was a work of art inside with beautifully designed circuit boards, pumps, tubing, and mechanical components. My first thought was either these people are geniuses or they are completely crazy. When I joined Bruel and Kjaer a couple years later, I found out they were a bit of both. One thing I learned during my 15+ years at Bruel and Kjaer was that change through evolution can be more powerful than so-called “market disruptors” which attempt to be more of a revolutionary change. Another company that changed the world was Lockheed Martin and the post, “Learning to Run a Company in One Afternoon,” provides a glimpse into the management philosophy behind the Skunkworks division that created breakthroughs such as the U-2 surveillance aircraft, the SR-71 Blackbird, and the stealth bomber.

Of course, today Apple is the primary example of evolutionary change. The post “The Changing World: Part 3 – Walking the Razor’s Edge of Change” uses the Apple Watch as an example of walking the razor’s edge of change. The watch is a major risk, but surprisingly many people in the high tech world see Apple as lagging behind the cutting edge of technology. Android phones have had NFC payments (Apple Pay) and the equivalent of the Apple Watch for years. However, these products have not gained popular acceptance. Google has even tried the revolutionary approach with Google Glass and the backlash was severe. People wearing Google Glass began to be called Glass-holes. An upcoming post will explore how it is possible for “the cutting edge” can be such a relative concept.

Other topics this month included DEWESoft’s excellent free training resource called “PRO Training,” the surprisingly popular “Creativity, John Cleese, and Taylor Swift,” and the hopefully humorous “Wardley’s Scale of Corporate Desperation.” If you are hearing “culture eats strategy for breakfast” around the office, you might want to polish your resume. Finally, as monthly recap bonus, National Instruments is in the middle of a webinar series on “Sensor Measurement Fundamentals.” Some of them sound like a marketing person reading from a script, but if you can live with that, the material itself is excellent.

As always, feel free to send ideas on topics of interest. Research interests, niche technology sales and marketing problems, training, and social media questions are all welcome suggestions for future posts.

1302GasAnalyzer

Creativity, John Cleese, and Taylor Swift

When I see a 36 minute video, I cringe. Who has 36 minutes to sit and watch a video? But the video featured John Cleese, so I started it. It was the best 36 minutes I have spent in a long time. In only 36 minutes, he provided a deep deep dive into the science and art of creativity in a style that was 100% his own. The interspersed humor made the subject matter impactful and memorable. To summarize, creativity requires five things: space, time, time, confidence, and humor. Ok, now that you have spent a couple minutes reading this post, do yourself a favor and find at least 10 minutes to start watching this video.

If you don’t know John Cleese, you can start with this three minute video from the Graham Norton show. There are dozens of videos of him on YouTube, but this one with Taylor Swift is one of my favorites because it demonstrates a basic principle about creativity from the first video: “The very last thing that I can say about creativity is this. It’s like humor. In a joke, the laugh comes in a moment when you connect two different frameworks of reference in a new way.”  So I hope you enjoy two creative geniuses from two completely different worlds. They definitely connect two frameworks of reference in a completely unique and hilarious way.

Free Training from DEWESoft PRO Training

I have a lot of respect for DEWESoft and have written about them in several posts. They create world class hardware and software for advanced data acquisition and analysis at reasonable prices. Now they have created a powerful resource called DEWESoft Pro Training that is available at no charge. You don’t even need to be a customer to use it. The training covers using their equipment, measuring signals, and analyzing data. It is very comprehensive, includes quizzes on the materials, has excellent examples from real world applications, and includes a course completion certificate.

For example, their Measurement of Physical Quantities category includes the following:

  • Strain measurement
  • Temperature measurement
  • Vibration measurement
  • Current measurement
  • Voltage measurement
  • Sound pressure measurement

One of the things I liked the best was if a quiz is not passed, the re-test is a different quiz. That’s a level of attention to detail that you don’t see anywhere else. With many companies making training a “profit center,” it is refreshing to see advanced resources available at no charge. Thanks DEWESoft!

DEWESoft Training

The Changing World: Part 3 – Walking the Razor’s Edge of Change

As I mentioned in a recent monthly recap, I’ve been shocked by the reactions to the Apple Watch. They range from ridiculous to the surreal to everything in between. Here are a few more examples:

Whether you like the idea of wearable technology or not, my favorite quote was from Lauren Goode’s review on ReCode, “But Apple Watch is not a cure-all, and it’s likely not a timepiece you will pass down to your grandkids. It is a well-designed piece of technology that will go through a series of software updates, until one day, years from now, when the lithium ion battery can no longer hold much of a charge and it won’t seem as valuable to you.”

Apple is walking the razor’s edge of change. They envisioned and successfully built the first commercially viable touch screen smartphone. Even if you prefer Android or Windows Phone, it’s hard to imagine the world without them. With billions in the bank, Apple can afford to take major risks that other companies can’t, but with an increasingly competitive marketplace even for niche technology companies, is there a middle path?

The answer is yes, but if a company does not have this mindset as part of its corporate culture, it is very difficult to develop. It requires a sort of “start-up” mentality that can live inside a successful, probably conservative, company. In the acoustics and vibration field, several companies have made the shift including:

  • Dewesoft – A wide range of advanced, reasonably priced, DAQ and analysis solutions
  • National Instruments – Very low cost, “commodity,” DAQ and powerful analysis
  • Faber Acoustical – Advanced signal processing for smartphones
  • DTS – Amazing small and capable DAQ and analysis software

The next post in this series will provide some tips on how to create and nurture a project that walks “the razor’s edge of change.”

SMNPic1

 

Wardley’s Scale of Corporate Desperation

Hope everybody is having a good weekend. Here is a fun graphic showing “everything you need to know about strategy speak in one handy table” by Simon Wardley. According to his LinkedIn profile, Simon is a “strategist who combines significant levels of hands-on business, operational, technical and management expertise at CxO level.” So he is definitely qualified to comment on the bizarre things companies call strategy. His website / blog can be found at Gardeviance.org.

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A Great Acoustician is Quiet

The end of an era. I met Dr. Bruel personally when I first started at Bruel and Kjaer over 17 years ago. Bruel and Kjaer had just been purchased by a German bank after having some financial difficulties. He taught a brief class at B&K Headquarters in Naerum, Denmark on impedance tubes and taught it with such enthusiasm and excitement that I still love impedance tubes to this day. You would have thought he would be upset about “losing” his company, but his commitment to Acoustics far outweighed that. He was a true visionary who transformed the world through Acoustics!

Here is a great article at the Bruel and Kjaer website:

http://bksv.com/Home/NewsEvents/News/Per-Bruel-dies-at-the-age-of-100.aspx

Per-at-home

Learning to Run a Company in One Afternoon

In case this is a rough Monday already, here is a great inspirational quote from the book “Skunk Works” by Ben Rich. It was written in 1996 and the quote was from decades before that, but it is still excellent. Skunk Works was the elite, secret division of Lockheed that created breakthroughs such as the U-2 surveillance aircraft, the SR-71 Blackbird, and the stealth bomber. It was the original industry “disrupter,” much like the startups of today.

The quote is a result of a conversation between the author and his boss Kelly Johnson when Ben was applying to an advanced program at Harvard Business School. Kelly wrote Ben a glowing recommendation, but made the following comment:

“I’ll teach you all you need to know about running a company in one afternoon, and we’ll both go home early to boot. You don’t need Harvard to teach you that it’s more important to listen than to talk. You can get straight A’s from all your Harvard profs, but you’ll never make the grade unless you’re decisive: even a timely wrong decision is better than no decision. The final thing you’ll need to know is don’t half-heartedly wound problems – kill them dead. That’s all there is to it. Now you can run this goddamn place. Now, go on home and pour yourself a drink.”

Now that’s an example of great management skills!

skunkworks

Monthly Recap: The World is Barely Keeping Up with Apple…

And Google… and technological change in general… so this month’s posts were all about change… again… Topics such as changes in the buyer’s process explored how change affects sales professionals and the risk of change for change’s sake explored the more philosophical aspects of change. Now, when a company announces that its industry is “stabilizing,” it catches my interest – it is only a matter of time before disruptive competitors will begin to take serious market share. The post “Is that the Light at the End of the Tunnel?” explored this idea in depth.

For example, I’ve been shocked by the negative reactions to the Apple Watch. Here are a few examples both from friends and major news sources:

When I was writing the recent post that used Nintendo as an example, I realized that there is a natural tendency to reflexively fear and criticize new technology. Breakthrough products from the phonograph to original iPhone (no video recording, no copy / paste, bluetooth limitations, etc.) have all had their share of vocal haters. This is certainly true of the Apple Watch even though very few people have even seen the product yet. It is also true of Apple Pay. I was traveling and a millennial barista at Starbucks told me he didn’t think Apple Pay was secure. I asked him how he liked to pay for things, prompting “debit card, right?” He responded, “Yeah, of course.” Even somebody that has grown up with tech didn’t realize that Apple Pay doesn’t store or transmit the card number at all so it is a much more secure form of payment than debit cards.

Maybe Apple Watch, Apple Pay, Apple TV, etc. will succeed and maybe not, only time will tell, but technology publications have noticed the trend and started columns like Re/code’s (Walt Mossberg / Kara Swisher) “Too Embarrassed to Ask” which covers topics like “Wi-Fi versus Bluetooth” and the Huffington Post’s “5 Tech Terms You Secretly Wish You Understood.” These resources can help people feel more comfortable with the technology that literally surrounds them.

Part of this backlash is due to technology news reporting. The NYT article was definitely clickbait. Apple products harmful?! There is even a name for this: Betteridge’s law of headlines which states that “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” Technology already causes stress for many people so it must be a relief to read articles dismissing tech, then they can safely ignore it and reduce their fear level.

These topics will be explored in more detail in an upcoming post, “The Changing World: Part 3 – Walking the Razor’s Edge of Change,” but in the meantime I find it helpful to pause, take a breath, and look at change as an opportunity to grow. I might buy an Apple Watch, I might not, but it allows me to rethink the way I interact with a product that I pull out of my pocket literally dozens of times a day.

As a bonus to subscribers, here is a fun article from James Altucher. He is a bit all over the place, but somehow his article, “I Prefer To Leave Early” really caught my attention. Technically, the article should be called “I Prefer to Leave On-time,” but that just doesn’t have the same dramatic ring to it. A quick summary might be to say that “good timing is everything.” James is a bit pedantic so here is one more bonus from a guy who is never pedantic, Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin. His post “My Top 10 Quotes on Change” is excellent (and a quick read). My favorite is “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” Leo Tolstoy wrote this 115 years ago so maybe it is finally time to get comfortable with change.

As always, feel free to send ideas on topics of interest. Research interests, niche technology sales and marketing problems, training, and social media questions are all welcome suggestions for future posts.

braincleaning

Acoustics Everywhere – Tinnitus – There’s an App for That!

Also known as “ringing in the ears,” it is estimated that tinnitus affects 10% – 15% of the population. Wikipedia has a long article about the phenomena and mentions that as of 2013, there is no medication to treat tinnitus. However, now there is an app that claims to treat it by modifying a user’s own music  The app is called Tinnitracks and Engadget wrote an interesting short article on it.

Tinnitus

I took the sample recording from the Tinnitracks website and did a quick spectrum analysis on it. True to their claims, they had filtered out the 2kHz, claiming that if a person’s “tinnitus frequency” is at the same frequency, the brain will stop trying to mentally generate the missing frequency as tinnitus.

tinnitracks

I’m no audiologist, but this is a bit suspicious. A yearly “subscription” to the service costs around $600 and the treatment requires listening for an hour a day for at least six months. Alternatively, you can use Audacity or Garageband, import your favorite tracks, filter them, and try their technique for free. You never know when an unusual idea might work.

Bandpass

The Changing World: Part 2 – Change is Bad

Even though the last post in this series explored how important reekhange is to growth and success, change also has a negative side. How can change be bad? As Heraclitus said around 500 BCE, “The only thing that is constant is change” or maybe you prefer JFK’s quote, “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” However, the modern pace of change can be overwhelming. We finally get comfortable with our “new” touchscreen smartphone and wham, a new version comes along and changes everything. What was wrong with the old version? I regularly see clients with that little red dot on their App Store app: “37 updates” it declares. It also declares that change interferes with their productivity. Some companies force users to upgrade major engineering software packages year after year, even charging them a large, mandatory “maintenance and support” fee for the privilege. Should change be put on some sort of schedule? There is even a field called “Change Management,” which sounds like an oxymoron. Some major companies do not share the “change for the sake of change” philosophy and many times they get punished for it in the marketplace.

For example, the gaming world has declared that Nintendo refuses to change and has lost its ability to innovate. Even their most recent console is almost three years old and features basic hardware with cartoonish games while Sony’s Playstation and Microsoft’s Xbox systems support state of art, super realistic titles like Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty. From the outside, it seems that Nintendo thinks that change is bad, but when I think about Nintendo, that’s the last thing that comes to mind. Nintendo is not mentioned in my post from several months ago, “WhatsApp with Innovation at Facebook?” because to me the company is synonymous with innovation. The first time my wife and I played the original Wii Tennis, it was a revelation! A wireless controller that sensed motion?! We played together and with our neighbors for hours. It was a whole new way of experiencing fun in video games that entire families and friends could share rather than separating generations. Nintendo’s internal game design group is even called “Entertainment Analysis and Development” which means they are constantly researching and developing the basic concept of “fun.”

So why won’t Nintendo upgrade their hardware and software? Why won’t they create titles for IOS and Android devices? It would be an instant success. The answer seems to be because their focus is not change for change’s sake, it is change for the sake of improving the world through games. We avoided upgrading to the new Wii U for years, but finally Nintendo began to make fun games for the new console like Mario Kart 8. You have to play it to see why it really is a breakthrough from the “fun” department.

Nintendo has finally been back in the news lately because they realize that they will have to change to improve quality of life through games. Mobile gaming is here to stay so they are beginning to take the steps necessary to compete in these new markets. Articles and videos like “Deconstructing the method to Nintendo’s madness,” “Game Maker’s Toolkit – Super Mario 3D World’s 4 Step Level Design,” and “This is why ‘Mario’ levels are brilliant” are finally communicating Nintendo’s vision to the world. Any company that can come up with names like Charvaarghs, Conkdors, Flopters, Fuzzlers, Grumblumps, Hop-Chops, and Horned Ant Troopers has innovation to spare. Nintendo is even trying to redefine the “first person shooter” with a game called “Splatoon.” Despite my love of video games, I still cringe at the lifelike killing in modern video games, so to swap killing with bullets to shooting ink at opponents might be a great way to appeal to a more humane part of the video gaming world. You can read all about this creative, non-violent shooter in this post from Gamespot, “The Ink is Stronger than the Bullet.”

So why is this post applicable to niche technology companies? Because change for the sake of change can create unnecessary stress and confusion, putting valuable resources into improving something that might not need improving at the moment. Shifting the focus to evaluating effect of change on the key contribution of a product or service is a better way to drive change, but it is still a fine line. Technology advances quickly – wait too long and you might miss a market disrupting trend. The next post in this series will provide some tips on how to walk “the razor’s edge” of change.

gamescreen

Is that the Light at the End of the Tunnel?

Or is it a train? A bit dramatic, but drama seems to be everywhere in the wireless industry these days. With T-Mobile’s extremely successful “uncarrier” programs (roll over data, etc.), Sprint clawing their way back into the game, and AT&T / Verizon’s arrogance (and high prices), it is a soap opera of epic proportions.

Recently, Rootmetrics published a report, “2nd Half 2014 US Mobile Network Performance Review” that got a lot of attention because it showed T-Mobile’s coverage and reliability lagging behind every other carrier, even Sprint. This was suspicious because I travel quite a bit and this is not my experience with T-Mobile. Sure, outside major cities, T-Mobile’s coverage lags behind AT&T and Verizon, but generally it is quite good and very fast. SlashGear responded with an article the same day, “Sprint just beat T-Mobile everywhere it doesn’t matter” which provided another perspective on the Rootmetrics report showing that T-Mobile is focusing on high speed data, coverage in cities, and sensible pricing which is giving the other carriers a real run for their money. For millennials, voice calls are uncommon and typically used for emergencies / talking to parents: the availability of high speed data is the true differentiator.

So maybe AT&T / Verizon are thinking they are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and can relax. They are even publicly saying they don’t need to compete for customers anymore, “AT&T comments may indicate a lull in deals for mobile plans” and CNET’s “AT&T says it won’t chase after customers as price wars ease.” However, the history of the wireless industry has regularly shown otherwise: remember Blackberry, Nokia, and even Palm Treos?

light-at-the-end-of-a-tunnel

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. A little more thought brought up several more companies that were household words a few years ago: TiVo, AOL, Yahoo, Pets.com, Geocities, Sony (they are doing their best to quicken their demise), MySpace, Gateway, Iridium, Atari, RealNetworks, etc., all companies that dominated their markets, but are now shadows of their former selves. When clients are resistant to change, it is easy to find several examples to illustrate the results of avoiding it. The fall might take longer in niche markets, but it still happens regularly. Even more concerning, it can happen as a result of just a few bad managers in positions of power. A failed new product development or redesign has ended many small companies.

This said, it would be good to end on a positive note. Google image search seems to have a sense of humor these days. Here is another image from my search for “the light at the end of the tunnel.” Who comes up with this stuff?!

light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel1

Technical Sales 101: Part 7 – Understand the Buyer’s Process

I recently attended a talk by Justin Gray, the CEO of LeadMD. LeadMD helps companies implement marketing automation software which is typically used to manage a wide variety of marketing “channels” such as email marketing, webinars, seminars, social media, etc. and link them to lead generation / sales.

After many years of B2B sales management, I disagreed with several of his basic premises, especially when he stated that B2C and B2B sales are similar processes. There is no way that selling a car, washing machine, or computer is anything like selling a gas chromatograph, FFT analyzer, or industrial valves. However, there is one similarity and this statement grabbed my attention, “the selling process is disintegrating and it has become a buyer’s process.” Glossy marketing brochures and salespeople are clearly no longer primary sources of information for buyers. Buyers now have multiple sources: a company and its competitors’ websites, LinkedIn Groups, customer forums, industry specific periodicals, blogs, peers, social media, etc.

With all these resources at their disposal, customers don’t want to be “sold to” anymore. They have typically gone through the buyer’s process before a salesperson is involved, researching the company and its solutions thoroughly. Now they want their time used efficiently. Unfortunately, most sales processes (and training) are based on features and benefits, with the goal of “up-selling,” “taking advantage of pull through,” “not leaving money on the table,” or addressing some other internal sales strategy. Customers can spot this a mile away. In this sense, investing in marketing automation consulting makes sense since focusing on the buyer’s process is a smart strategy. However, salespeople also have to be retrained to work in a new “buyer’s process” selling environment.

There is much more to this story, but it might be good to end this post with an example from an excellent book that was just published, “When Millennials Take Over: Preparing For The Ridiculously Optimistic Future Of Business” by Jamie Notter. For $0.99 you can get a glimpse into what is already happening as Millennials begin to move into management positions of established companies. If you think disruption from start-ups was bad, that was just the beginning. Jamie talks a lot about “clear” organizations, something that is the norm for Millennials:

Clear organizations start with the assumption that information is and should be available, and then they sharpen the focus to ensure that precisely the right information ends up in precisely the right place, relying on the power of an intelligent, decentralized system rather than central control.

As Jamie points out, Millennials have always had Google. For this generation, information is instantly available online or through their social networks. The “buyer’s process” is something they grew up with and now they are taking this mindset into positions of power within companies. If you haven’t seen this massive shift happening in your industry, then it is just a matter of time. So, the choice is yours, start focusing on the buyer’s process now or be forced to in the very near future. The next post will address “the magic of sales.” This is that magical moment when skill and talent of salespeople come together to create an amazing buyer’s process.

WhenMillenialsTakeOverBook

The Photoshop of Sound

Hopefully everybody knows what Photoshop is by this point, but just in case, it is Adobe’s professional level image editing software. It has even become an adjective. If you see a picture of a cat with shark teeth, somebody might say: “It looks like that picture has been photoshopped!”

So when I came across this article in the New Yorker about “The Photoshop of Sound” with the subtitle, “The Wizards of Sound,” it was a must read. These two sentences are a great summary. The author was dining in a popular Bay Area restaurant on a Friday night: “Although we were aware of a general buzz, it all happened at a comfortable distance. It was two hours of acoustical paradise.”

Hence the power of an emerging science called “sound field manipulation.” The article goes on to describe Meyer’s Sound solution, the “Constellation System.” I used to visit Meyer Sound regularly and was always amazed at their cutting edge audio hardware and software, but this integrates their solutions to create completely new audio possibilities.

So look for sound field manipulation to begin creeping into consumer audio products. It is also known by fancy trade names like Digital Room Correction (DRC), Active Acoustics, and Digital Room Equalization. If you are interested in going deeper, companies like Dirac, Meyer Sound, AudioVero, Audessy, and the open source rePhase all have detailed technical information on their websites. In the meantime, get ready for a new world where “acoustical illusions” will become as common as optical illusions.

photosound

Monthly Recap (and 200th post!!!) – The Only Constant Is Change

The world has been changing “rapidly” for decades. In the late 19th century, it was imperialism and industrialization driven by the creation of the steam engine. In the 20th century, world wars, technology, and nationalism drove massive change. Now, the 21st century, people still feel that the rate of change is accelerating. Maybe it is… if the point of reference is the rate of change in previous centuries, but people living in those times probably felt change was happening as fast and as radical as we see it now. To repeat the quote from Joseph Campbell from the January newsletter, “We are in a freefall into future. We don’t know where we’re going. Things are changing so fast, and always when you’re going through a long tunnel, anxiety comes along. And all you have to do to transform your hell into paradise is to turn your fall into a voluntary act. It’s a very interesting shift of perspective and that’s all that it is.”

Maybe Mr. Campbell is right, maybe “an interesting shift of perspective” is one answer so this month, change has become an official theme. From “Reversing Your Todo List” to the new “Changing World” series, companies and employees are finding that it literally pays to embrace change. I just saw the “new” Motorola smart watch at Costco. The “Moto 360” is their flagship wearable that connects to Android phones, but I’m sure they want to reduce stock levels before the Apple Watch is released. A whole new industry is being born. There are also many examples from niche technology companies where modern design techniques are being applied to stuffy, antiquated technologies and forward thinking engineers are adopting it. In the Sound and Vibration industry, companies like DTS are revolutionizing data acquisition with their tiny, powerful hardware modules and Dewesoft’s products look as great as they operate (full disclosure: I have NO consulting relationship with either company). Change takes longer in niche industries, but these companies are using change as transformative factors. Even massive National Instruments who has been around for decades is still innovating with products like myRio, an inexpensive device on which students can both learn and design mechatronics, controls, robotics, and embedded systems. Companies and solutions like these show that change can be creative, exciting, and profitable.

As always, feel free to send ideas on topics of interest. Research interests, niche technology sales and marketing problems, training, and social media questions are all welcome suggestions for future posts.

sirius-custom

dts

myRio

Complexity Simplified – “What Happens When…”

I was talking to a client the other day about how unaware most people are of the complexity that lurks behind “modern technology.” For example, in just a few decades, bandwidth has become as ubiquitous as electricity. Most young people make no distinction between mobile data, DSL, cable, or other data delivery mechanisms until the cell phone bill comes to their parents with massive data charges!

So when I ran across this article on “What Happens When…,” I was intrigued. It seems this has become a fairly popular interview question for techies. It is shocking even to me how much technology is involved for a simple trip to Google.com and this doesn’t even include the search itself. So, here it is in all its glory, “What happens when you type google.com into your browser’s address box and press enter?” The original post is here.

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What happens when…

This repository is an attempt to answer the age old interview question “What happens when you type google.com into your browser’s address box and press enter?”

Except instead of the usual story, we’re going to try to answer this question in as much detail as possible. No skipping out on anything.

This is a collaborative process, so dig in and try to help out! There’s tons of details missing, just waiting for you to add them! So send us a pull request, please!

This is all licensed under the terms of the Creative Commons Zero license.

Table of Contents

The “enter” key bottoms out

To pick a zero point, let’s choose the Enter key on the keyboard hitting the bottom of its range. At this point, an electrical circuit specific to the enter key is closed (either directly or capacitively). This allows a small amount of current to flow into the logic circuitry of the keyboard, which scans the state of each key switch, debounces the electrical noise of the rapid intermittent closure of the switch, and converts it to a keycode integer, in this case 13. The keyboard controller then encodes the keycode for transport to the computer. This is now almost universally over a Universal Serial Bus (USB) or Bluetooth connection, but historically has been over PS/2 or ADB connections.

In the case of the USB keyboard:

  • The USB circuitry of the keyboard is powered by the 5V supply provided over pin 1 from the computer’s USB host controller.
  • The keycode generated is stored by internal keyboard circuitry memory in a register called “endpoint”.
  • The host USB controller polls that “endpoint” every ~10ms (minimum value declared by the keyboard), so it gets the keycode value stored on it.
  • This value goes to the USB SIE (Serial Interface Engine) to be converted in one or more USB packets that follows the low level USB protocol.
  • Those packets are sent by a differential electrical signal over D+ and D- pins (the middle 2) at a maximum speed of 1.5 Mb/s, as an HID (Human Interface Device) device is always declared to be a “low speed device” (USB 2.0 compliance).
  • This serial signal is then decoded at the computer’s host USB controller, and interpreted by the computer’s Human Interface Device (HID) universal keyboard device driver. The value of the key is then passed into the operating system’s hardware abstraction layer.

In the case of Virtual Keyboard (as in touch screen devices):

  • When the user puts their finger on a modern capacitive touch screen, a tiny amount of current gets transferred to the finger. This completes the circuit through the electrostatic field of the conductive layer and creates a voltage drop at that point on the screen. The screen controller then raises an interrupt reporting the coordinate of the ‘click’.
  • Then the mobile OS notifies the current focused application of a click event in one of its GUI elements (which now is the virtual keyboard application buttons).
  • The virtual keyboard can now raise a software interrupt for sending a ‘key pressed’ message back to the OS.
  • This interrupt notifies the current focused application of a ‘key pressed’ event.

Interrupt fires [NOT for USB keyboards]

The keyboard sends signals on its interrupt request line (IRQ), which is mapped to an interrupt vector (integer) by the interrupt controller. The CPU uses the Interrupt Descriptor Table (IDT) to map the interrupt vectors to functions (interrupt handlers) which are supplied by the kernel. When an interrupt arrives, the CPU indexes the IDT with the interrupt vector and runs the appropriate handler. Thus, the kernel is entered.

(On Windows) A WM_KEYDOWN message is sent to the app

The HID transport passes the key down event to the KBDHID.sys driver which converts the HID usage into a scancode. In this case the scan code is VK_RETURN (0x0D). The KBDHID.sys driver interfaces with the KBDCLASS.sys (keyboard class driver). This driver is responsible for handling all keyboard and keypad input in a secure manner. It then calls intoWin32K.sys (after potentially passing the message through 3rd party keyboard filters that are installed). This all happens in kernel mode.

Win32K.sys figures out what window is the active window through the GetForegroundWindow() API. This API provides the window handle of the browser’s address box. The main Windows “message pump” then calls SendMessage(hWnd, WM_KEYDOWN, VK_RETURN, lParam)lParam is a bitmask that indicates further information about the keypress: repeat count (0 in this case), the actual scan code (can be OEM dependent, but generally wouldn’t be for VK_RETURN), whether extended keys (e.g. alt, shift, ctrl) were also pressed (they weren’t), and some other state.

The Windows SendMessage API is a straightforward function that adds the message to a queue for the particular window handle (hWnd). Later, the main message processing function (called a WindowProc) assigned to the hWnd is called in order to process each message in the queue.

The window (hWnd) that is active is actually an edit control and the WindowProc in this case has a message handler for WM_KEYDOWN messages. This code looks within the 3rd parameter that was passed to SendMessage (wParam) and, because it is VK_RETURN knows the user has hit the ENTER key.

(On OS X) A KeyDown NSEvent is sent to the app

The interrupt signal triggers an interrupt event in the I/O Kit kext keyboard driver. The driver translates the signal into a key code which is passed to the OS X WindowServer process. Resultantly, the WindowServer dispatches an event to any appropriate (e.g. active or listening) applications through their Mach port where it is placed into an event queue. Events can then be read from this queue by threads with sufficient privileges calling the mach_ipc_dispatch function. This most commonly occurs through, and is handled by, an NSApplication main event loop, via an NSEvent ofNSEventType KeyDown.

(On GNU/Linux) the Xorg server listens for keycodes

When a graphical X server is used, X will use the generic event driver evdev to acquire the keypress. A re-mapping of keycodes to scancodes is made with X server specific keymaps and rules. When the scancode mapping of the key pressed is complete, the X server sends the character to the window manager (DWM, metacity, i3, etc), so the window manager in turn sends the character to the focused window. The graphical API of the window that receives the character prints the appropriate font symbol in the appropriate focused field.

Parse URL

  • The browser now has the following information contained in the URL (Uniform Resource Locator):
    • Protocol “http”
      Use ‘Hyper Text Transfer Protocol’
    • Resource “/”
      Retrieve main (index) page

Is it a URL or a search term?

When no protocol or valid domain name is given the browser proceeds to feed the text given in the address box to the browser’s default web search engine. In many cases the url has a special piece of text appended to it to tell the search engine that it came from a particular browser’s url bar.

Check HSTS list

  • The browser checks its “preloaded HSTS (HTTP Strict Transport Security)” list. This is a list of websites that have requested to be contacted via HTTPS only.
  • If the website is in the list, the browser sends its request via HTTPS instead of HTTP. Otherwise, the initial request is sent via HTTP. (Note that a website can still use the HSTS policy without being in the HSTS list. The first HTTP request to the website by a user will receive a response requesting that the user only send HTTPS requests. However, this single HTTP request could potentially leave the user vulnerable to a downgrade attack, which is why the HSTS list is included in modern web browsers.)

Convert non-ASCII Unicode characters in hostname

  • The browser checks the hostname for characters that are not in a-zA-Z0-9-, or ..
  • Since the hostname is google.com there won’t be any, but if there were the browser would apply Punycode encoding to the hostname portion of the URL.

DNS lookup

  • Browser checks if the domain is in its cache.
  • If not found, the browser calls gethostbyname library function (varies by OS) to do the lookup.
  • gethostbyname checks if the hostname can be resolved by reference in the local hosts file (whose location varies by OS) before trying to resolve the hostname through DNS.
  • If gethostbyname does not have it cached nor can find it in the hosts file then it makes a request to the DNS server configured in the network stack. This is typically the local router or the ISP’s caching DNS server.
  • If the DNS server is on the same subnet the network library follows the ARP process below for the DNS server.
  • If the DNS server is on a different subnet, the network library follows the ARP process below for the default gateway IP.

ARP process

In order to send an ARP broadcast the network stack library needs the target IP address to look up. It also needs to know the MAC address of the interface it will use to send out the ARP broadcast.

The ARP cache is first checked for an ARP entry for our target IP. If it is in the cache, the library function returns the result: Target IP = MAC.

If the entry is not in the ARP cache:

  • The route table is looked up, to see if the Target IP address is on any of the subnets on the local route table. If it is, the library uses the interface associated with that subnet. If it is not, the library uses the interface that has the subnet of our default gateway.
  • The MAC address of the selected network interface is looked up.
  • The network library send a Layer 2 ARP request:

ARP Request:

Sender MAC: interface:mac:address:here
Sender IP: interface.ip.goes.here
Target MAC: FF:FF:FF:FF:FF:FF (Broadcast)
Target IP: target.ip.goes.here

Depending on what type of hardware is between the computer and the router:

Directly connected:

  • If the computer is directly connected to the router the router responds with an ARP Reply (see below)

Hub:

  • If the computer is connected to a hub the hub will broadcast the ARP request out all other ports. If the router is connected on the same “wire” it will respond with an ARP Reply (see below).

Switch:

  • If the computer is connected to a switch the switch will check it’s local CAM/MAC table to see which port has the MAC address we are looking for. If the switch has no entry for the MAC address it will rebroadcast the ARP request to all other ports.
  • If the switch has an entry in the MAC/CAM table it will send the ARP request to the port that has the MAC address we are looking for.
  • If the router is on the same “wire” it will respond with an ARP Reply (see below)

ARP Reply:

Sender MAC: target:mac:address:here
Sender IP: target.ip.goes.here
Target MAC: interface:mac:address:here
Target IP: interface.ip.goes.here

Now that the network library has the IP address of either our DNS server or the default gateway it can resume its DNS process:

  • Port 53 is opened to send a UDP request to DNS server (if the response size is too large, TCP will be used instead).
  • If the local/ISP DNS server does not have it, then a recursive search is requested and that flows up the list of DNS servers until the SOA is reached, and if found an answer is returned.

Opening of a socket

Once the browser receives the IP address of the destination server it takes that and the given port number from the URL (the HTTP protocol defaults to port 80, and HTTPS to port 443) and makes a call to the system library function named socket and requests a TCP socket stream – AF_INET and SOCK_STREAM.

  • This request is first passed to the Transport Layer where a TCP segment is crafted. The destination port is added to the header, and a source port is chosen from within the kernel’s dynamic port range (ip_local_port_range in Linux).
  • This segment is sent to the Network Layer, which wraps an additional IP header. The IP address of the destination server as well as that of the current machine is inserted to form a packet.
  • The packet next arrives at the Link Layer. A frame header is added that includes the MAC address of the machine’s NIC as well as the MAC address of the gateway (local router). As before, if the kernel does not know the MAC address of the gateway, it must broadcast an ARP query to find it.

At this point the packet is ready to be transmitted through either:

For most home or small business Internet connections the packet will pass from your computer, possibly through a local network, and then through a modem (MOdulator/DEModulator) which converts digital 1’s and 0’s into an analog signal suitable for transmission over telephone, cable, or wireless telephony connections. On the other end of the connection is another modem which converts the analog signal back into digital data to be processed by the next network node where the from and to addresses would be analyzed further.

Most larger businesses and some newer residential connections will have fiber or direct Ethernet connections in which case the data remains digital and is passed directly to the next network node for processing.

Eventually, the packet will reach the router managing the local subnet. From there, it will continue to travel to the AS’s border routers, other ASes, and finally to the destination server. Each router along the way extracts the destination address from the IP header and routes it to the appropriate next hop. The TTL field in the IP header is decremented by one for each router that passes. The packet will be dropped if the TTL field reaches zero or if the current router has no space in its queue (perhaps due to network congestion).

This send and receive happens multiple times following the TCP connection flow:

  • Client chooses an initial sequence number (ISN) and sends the packet to the server with the SYN bit set to indicate it is setting the ISN
  • Server receives SYN and if it’s in an agreeable mood:
    • Server chooses its own initial sequence number
    • Server sets SYN to indicate it is choosing its ISN
    • Server copies the (client ISN +1) to its ACK field and adds the ACK flag to indicate it is acknowledging receipt of the first packet
  • Client acknowledges the connection by sending a packet:
    • Increases its own sequence number
    • Increases the receiver acknowledgment number
    • Sets ACK field
  • Data is transferred as follows:
    • As one side sends N data bytes, it increases its SEQ by that number
    • When the other side acknowledges receipt of that packet (or a string of packets), it sends an ACK packet with the ACK value equal to the last received sequence from the other
  • To close the connection:
    • The closer sends a FIN packet
    • The other sides ACKs the FIN packet and sends its own FIN
    • The closer acknowledges the other side’s FIN with an ACK

TLS handshake

  • The client computer sends a ClientHello message to the server with its TLS version, list of cipher algorithms and compression methods available.
  • The server replies with a ServerHello message to the client with the TLS version, selected cipher, selected compression methods and the server’s public certificate signed by a CA (Certificate Authority). The certificate contains a public key that will be used by the client to encrypt the rest of the handshake until a symmetric key can be agreed upon.
  • The client verifies the server digital certificate against its list of trusted CAs. If trust can be established based on the CA, the client generates a string of pseudo-random bytes and encrypts this with the server’s public key. These random bytes can be used determine the symmetric key.
  • The server decrypts the random bytes using its private key and uses these bytes to generate its own copy of the symmetric master key.
  • The client sends a Finished message to the server, encrypting a hash of the transmission up to this point with the symmetric key.
  • The server generates its own hash, and then decrypts the client-sent hash to verify that it matches. If it does, it sends its own Finished message to the client, also encrypted with the symmetric key.
  • From now on the TLS session transmits the application (HTTP) data encrypted with the agreed symmetric key.

HTTP protocol

If the web browser used was written by Google, instead of sending an HTTP request to retrieve the page, it will send a request to try and negotiate with the server an “upgrade” from HTTP to the SPDY protocol.

If the client is using the HTTP protocol and does not support SPDY, it sends a request to the server of the form:

GET / HTTP/1.1
Host: google.com
Connection: close
[other headers]

where [other headers] refers to a series of colon-separated key-value pairs formatted as per the HTTP specification and separated by single new lines. (This assumes the web browser being used doesn’t have any bugs violating the HTTP spec. This also assumes that the web browser is using HTTP/1.1, otherwise it may not include the Host header in the request and the version specified in the GET request will either be HTTP/1.0 or HTTP/0.9.)

HTTP/1.1 defines the “close” connection option for the sender to signal that the connection will be closed after completion of the response. For example,

Connection: close

HTTP/1.1 applications that do not support persistent connections MUST include the “close” connection option in every message.

After sending the request and headers, the web browser sends a single blank newline to the server indicating that the content of the request is done.

The server responds with a response code denoting the status of the request and responds with a response of the form:

200 OK
[response headers]

Followed by a single newline, and then sends a payload of the HTML content of www.google.com. The server may then either close the connection, or if headers sent by the client requested it, keep the connection open to be reused for further requests.

If the HTTP headers sent by the web browser included sufficient information for the web server to determine if the version of the file cached by the web browser has been unmodified since the last retrieval (ie. if the web browser included an ETag header), it may instead respond with a request of the form:

304 Not Modified
[response headers]

and no payload, and the web browser instead retrieves the HTML from its cache.

After parsing the HTML, the web browser (and server) repeats this process for every resource (image, CSS, favicon.ico, etc) referenced by the HTML page, except instead of GET / HTTP/1.1 the request will be GET /$(URL relative to www.google.com) HTTP/1.1.

If the HTML referenced a resource on a different domain than www.google.com, the web browser goes back to the steps involved in resolving the other domain, and follows all steps up to this point for that domain. The Host header in the request will be set to the appropriate server name instead of google.com.

HTTP Server Request Handle

The HTTPD (HTTP Daemon) server is the one handling the requests/responses on the server side. The most common HTTPD servers are Apache or nginx for Linux and IIS for Windows.

  • The HTTPD (HTTP Daemon) receives the request.
  • The server breaks down the request to the following parameters:
    • HTTP Request Method (either GET, POST, HEAD, PUT and DELETE). In the case of a URL entered directly into the address bar, this will be GET.
    • Domain, in this case – google.com.
    • Requested path/page, in this case – / (as no specific path/page was requested, / is the default path).
  • The server verifies that there is a Virtual Host configured on the server that corresponds with google.com.
  • The server verifies that google.com can accept GET requests.
  • The server verifies that the client is allowed to use this method (by IP, authentication, etc.).
  • If the server has a rewrite module installed (like mod_rewrite for Apache or URL Rewrite for IIS), it tries to match the request against one of the configured rules. If a matching rule is found, the server uses that rule to rewrite the request.
  • The server goes to pull the content that corresponds with the request, in our case it will fall back to the index file, as “/” is the main file (some cases can override this, but this is the most common method).
  • The server parses the file according to the handler. If Google is running on PHP, the server uses PHP to interpret the index file, and streams the output to the client.

Behind the scenes of the Browser

Once the server supplies the resources (HTML, CSS, JS, images, etc.) to the browser it undergoes the below process:

  • Parsing – HTML, CSS, JS
  • Rendering – Construct DOM Tree → Render Tree → Layout of Render Tree → Painting the render tree

Browser

The browser’s functionality is to present the web resource you choose, by requesting it from the server and displaying it in the browser window. The resource is usually an HTML document, but may also be a PDF, image, or some other type of content. The location of the resource is specified by the user using a URI (Uniform Resource Identifier).

The way the browser interprets and displays HTML files is specified in the HTML and CSS specifications. These specifications are maintained by the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) organization, which is the standards organization for the web.

Browser user interfaces have a lot in common with each other. Among the common user interface elements are:

  • An address bar for inserting a URI
  • Back and forward buttons
  • Bookmarking options
  • Refresh and stop buttons for refreshing or stopping the loading of current documents
  • Home button that takes you to your home page

Browser High Level Structure

The components of the browsers are:

  • User interface: The user interface includes the address bar, back/forward button, bookmarking menu, etc. Every part of the browser display except the window where you see the requested page.
  • Browser engine: The browser engine marshals actions between the UI and the rendering engine.
  • Rendering engine: The rendering engine is responsible for displaying requested content. For example if the requested content is HTML, the rendering engine parses HTML and CSS, and displays the parsed content on the screen.
  • Networking: The networking handles network calls such as HTTP requests, using different implementations for different platforms behind a platform-independent interface.
  • UI backend: The UI backend is used for drawing basic widgets like combo boxes and windows. This backend exposes a generic interface that is not platform specific. Underneath it uses operating system user interface methods.
  • JavaScript interpreter: The JavaScript interpreter is used to parse and execute JavaScript code.
  • Data storage: The data storage is a persistence layer. The browser may need to save all sorts of data locally, such as cookies. Browsers also support storage mechanisms such as localStorage, IndexedDB, WebSQL and FileSystem.

HTML parsing

The rendering engine starts getting the contents of the requested document from the networking layer. This will usually be done in 8kB chunks.

The primary job of HTML parser to parse the HTML markup into a parse tree.

The output tree (the “parse tree”) is a tree of DOM element and attribute nodes. DOM is short for Document Object Model. It is the object presentation of the HTML document and the interface of HTML elements to the outside world like JavaScript. The root of the tree is the “Document” object. Prior of any manipulation via scripting, the DOM has an almost one-to-one relation to the markup.

The parsing algorithm

HTML cannot be parsed using the regular top-down or bottom-up parsers.

The reasons are:

  • The forgiving nature of the language.
  • The fact that browsers have traditional error tolerance to support well known cases of invalid HTML.
  • The parsing process is reentrant. For other languages, the source doesn’t change during parsing, but in HTML, dynamic code (such as script elements containing document.write() calls) can add extra tokens, so the parsing process actually modifies the input.

Unable to use the regular parsing techniques, the browser utilizes a custom parsers for parsing HTML. The parsing algorithm is described in detail by the HTML5 specification.

The algorithm consists of two stages: tokenization and tree construction.

Actions when the parsing is finished

The browser begins fetching external resources linked to the page (CSS, images, JavaScript files, etc.).

At this stage the browser marks the document as interactive and starts parsing scripts that are in “deferred” mode: those that should be executed after the document is parsed. The document state is set to “complete” and a “load” event is fired.

Note there is never an “Invalid Syntax” error on an HTML page. Browsers fix any invalid content and go on.

CSS interpretation

  • Parse CSS files, <style> tag contents, and style attribute values using “CSS lexical and syntax grammar”
  • Each CSS file is parsed into a StyleSheet object, where each object contains CSS rules with selectors and objects corresponding CSS grammar.
  • A CSS parser can be top-down or bottom-up when a specific parser generator is used.

Page Rendering

  • Create a ‘Frame Tree’ or ‘Render Tree’ by traversing the DOM nodes, and calculating the CSS style values for each node.
  • Calculate the preferred width of each node in the ‘Frame Tree’ bottom up by summing the preferred width of the child nodes and the node’s horizontal margins, borders, and padding.
  • Calculate the actual width of each node top-down by allocating each node’s available width to its children.
  • Calculate the height of each node bottom-up by applying text wrapping and summing the child node heights and the node’s margins, borders, and padding.
  • Calculate the coordinates of each node using the information calculated above.
  • More complicated steps are taken when elements are floated, positioned absolutely or relatively, or other complex features are used. See http://dev.w3.org/csswg/css2/ and http://www.w3.org/Style/CSS/current-work for more details.
  • Create layers to describe which parts of the page can be animated as a group without being re-rasterized. Each frame/render object is assigned to a layer.
  • Textures are allocated for each layer of the page.
  • The frame/render objects for each layer are traversed and drawing commands are executed for their respective layer. This may be rasterized by the CPU or drawn on the GPU directly using D2D/SkiaGL.
  • All of the above steps may reuse calculated values from the last time the webpage was rendered, so that incremental changes require less work.
  • The page layers are sent to the compositing process where they are combined with layers for other visible content like the browser chrome, iframes and addon panels.
  • Final layer positions are computed and the composite commands are issued via Direct3D/OpenGL. The GPU command buffer(s) are flushed to the GPU for asynchronous rendering and the frame is sent to the window server.

GPU Rendering

  • During the rendering process the graphical computing layers can use general purpose CPU or the graphical processor GPU as well.
  • When using GPU for graphical rendering computations the graphical software layers split the task into multiple pieces, so it can take advantage of GPU massive parallelism for float point calculations required for the rendering process.

Window Server

Post-rendering and user-induced execution

After rendering has completed, the browser executes JavaScript code as a result of some timing mechanism (such as a Google Doodle animation) or user interaction (typing a query into the search box and receiving suggestions). Plugins such as Flash or Java may execute as well, although not at this time on the Google homepage. Scripts can cause additional network requests to be performed, as well as modify the page or its layout, effecting another round of page rendering and painting.

The Changing World: Part 1 – Change is Good

A good place to start this series is with a post from Virgin Unite, the charitable arm of the Virgin group of companies founded by Richard Branson. Starting with the flagship Virgin Records in the 1970s, today Virgin has over 400 companies worldwide with a revenue of over $25B.

They recently posted an article “Five Things You Need to Know About the Future of Work” that was a comprehensive look at this topic. The first paragraph is excellent:

And change is happening faster than ever, right across the globe: environmental pressures, population growth, massive advancements in technology, and significant shifts in the demographic of the workforce to name just a few. In step with these, people’s aspirations and desires for their work are also changing. Of course this presents challenges, but many organisations also see it as a wonderful opportunity to create positive change and to start to build purpose-driven organisations that prioritise people and planet alongside profit.

It goes deep quickly with infographics like “The Virtuous Wellbeing Cycle,” “Introducing New Ways of Working,” “Skills Needed in the Future Workplace,” but the overall message is clear: the way we work will be changing more and faster than ever. However, companies are clinging to outmoded ways of thinking and working that create stress, conflict, and employee disengagement. A quick look on LinkedIn makes the results obvious: employees are openly talking to competitors and recruiters. These same companies still think that hiring an employee is the only way to insure “commitment” when their real motivation is their desire for power and control.

super_stick_figure_pc_800_4149The article from Virgin Unite is worth reading. It might seem that creating “positive change” and “purpose-driven organisations that prioritise people and planet alongside profit” is a socialist fantasy, but the truth is that companies like Apple, Google, T-Mobile, and Virgin are doing it right now and creating record breaking growth and revenue. If you want to go even deeper (76 pages deeper), read the report this post is based on “New Ways of Working” and stay tuned for the next part of the series: “Change is Bad!”

 

 

Change Starts Here: Reverse Your Todo List

As a follow-up to the recent post, “Extracting Audio From Visual Information,” I came across this article from a website called Delivering Happiness, “Change Starts Here: Reverse Your To-Do List and Destroy Your Stress.

Sometimes it’s best to start the day with creative tasks rather than the “fire drills.” Sure, the post is a shameless plug for something called DaVinci, but the intent is good. Delivering Happiness is a spin off from Tony Hsieh’s book with the same name. If you don’t know Tony, he was the CEO of Zappos and the book was so good I wrote a post about it back in 2013, “Delivering Happiness and Unhappiness.”

Getting back to the Reverse To-Do List, I used to start my days the same way, by checking email for the inevitable problems and tasks that developed overnight. Since I worked for a European company, this happened at least a couple of times a week. At first, it was satisfying to resolve issues before breakfast, but after the first few years working there I found that it set a tone for the day where I never tackled the bigger, strategic tasks. The problems blossomed and by the end of the day, nothing on my bigger To-Do list had gotten done. By the end of my 15+ years, I developed an “Inbox Zero” mentality and (mostly) avoided email until mid-afternoon (see my post “Inbox Zero, Gmail, and Mobile Collaboration Tools“). With the time and mental bandwidth this freed up, there always seemed to be time to follow these strategic projects through to the end. Try it for a couple days and I promise you will be amazed at the change in your workday.

pen_display_accomplished_800_7579

Monthly Recap: Being an Expert in a Changing World

After 25 issues of Elephant Tech newsletters, this one is coming a little later than usual due to an unexpectedly heavy travel schedule. The good news is that all this travel has exposed me to some great new ideas. The “Technical Sales 101” series is up to part 6 and the posts on unhappy customers were some of the most popular ever. There were also some lighter topics such as the post about Wynton Marsalis “1982 Was My First Year as a Bandleader,” “Extracting Audio From Visual Information,” and the risky, but important, “Please Stop Hiring PhDs as Sales Engineers.” Risky because I know quite a few of them and they rightfully think they can do just about anything.

However, one essay I read in December by Paul Graham really made an impression on me and seems to be a theme of 2015, “How to Be an Expert in a Changing World.” Paul is one of those rare people who truly straddles the worlds of art and science. With a PhD from Harvard and formal studies in painting in the US and Italy, his book “Hackers and Painters” is fascinating. He is also one of the founders of Y Combinator, one of the top companies providing seed money and advice to the hottest startups including Dropbox, Airbnb, and Reddit. His essay on how to be an expert is long, so some highlights include “When experts are wrong, it’s often because they are experts on an earlier version of the world,” “The winds of change originate in the unconscious minds of domain experts,” and to focus “initially on people rather than ideas.” I was so inspired by this article that a new series called “The Changing World” will be starting soon. Paul is definitely a PhD that you would not want to hire as a Sales Engineer!

As a bonus this month, I will leave you with a wonderful diagram from Paul, “The Hierarchy of Disagreement” which starts with “you are an asshat” and reaches a pinnacle of “refuting the central point.”

As always, feel free to send ideas on topics of interest. Research interests, niche technology sales and marketing problems, training, and social media questions are all welcome suggestions for future posts.

Graham's_Hierarchy_of_Disagreement

Please Stop Hiring PhDs as Sales Engineers

First, I am not part of a growing “movement” that says that higher education is unnecessary in today’s modern workforce. Education plays an important function in the development of an advanced society, but with that said almost every time I speak to sales engineers with PhDs, I have a lesser opinion of their company, not better. Something just doesn’t feel “right.” The issues can include:

  • Lack of listening skills
  • Immediate focus on non-pertinant information (too chatty)
  • Unable to create rapport
  • Inability to address the non-technical aspects of an opportunity
  • Excessive interest in the technical problem to be solved

PhDs (and Masters degree to a certain extent) chose and succeeded in higher education for a reason. They are typically detailed oriented and have the ability to logically connect ideas together to create new concepts. They can grasp complex topics and can explain them to others. They should make the perfect salespeople, but this is wrong 99% of the time. Successful sales engineers have an emotional intelligence that focuses on meeting others’ needs. They don’t just focus on developing one idea or task, they intelligently spread their attention across many sales opportunities and tasks. They know when to go deeper, spending more time with a customer, and when to move on. They are excited by solving a technical problem because it helps the customer and closes a sale, not for the sake of the problem itself. A successful sales engineer has a completely different mindset.

A person with higher education can play many different roles in a company: product manager, industry manager, application engineer, technical specialist, technical marketing writer, but please keep them away from an outside sales role. Of course, there are exceptions to this guideline. For example, if there is a requirement to have only one person act as both an application engineer as well as a sales engineer, or if more skilled local, decentralized sales coverage is preferred over a centralized sales team. Those are choices where higher education for a sales engineer might make sense. But if you are looking for an effective technical salesperson, you might want to look elsewhere than that tempting PhD resume sitting on your desk.

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Technical Sales 101: Part 6 – Some Techniques for Unhappy Customers

Part 4 of this series must have struck a chord because it got more than double the amount of readers than the other parts of the series. There are a lot of unhappy customers out there and a lot of sales managers that are trying to walk the fine like between corporate mandates and customer satisfaction. The KISSmetrics post had some good suggestions and here are a few more that I have used over the years:

  • Take the time to visit the customer in person and understand the problem: Detailed notes on the issue including photos, screenshots, and quotes from the customer can be critical to finding a solution.
  • Separate facts from emotion: Sometimes customer satisfaction issues are misunderstandings.
  • Be honest: If a policy is bad, but ironclad, let the customer know. Maybe another alternative can be found.
  • Provide something “free:” Instrument calibration, an extension of a maintenance contract, free passes to a training class, etc. can be valuable to the customer, but can cost a company little to nothing.
  • Over-communicate: Let the customer know what is happening at each step of the process on a regular schedule, even if nothing is happening.
  • Give the customer an audience: Sometimes upper management doesn’t realize the effects of a decision. Hearing it directly from a key account can make a difference, plus the customer gets a chance to be heard.
  • Refund cheerfully (and completely): In extreme cases, this has to be done and can keep the door open for a future relationship.
  • Follow-up after the issue is resolved: This provides closure and insures there are no lingering bad feelings (or problems).
  • Involve the salesperson: They must always be the owner of the customer relationship even if they are not involved in every step of resolving the issue.

unhappy

Extracting Audio From Visual Information

Here is a great article from MIT News where researchers have developed an algorithm that “recovers speech from the vibrations of a potato-chip bag filmed through soundproof glass.” The concept itself is interesting and potentially useful, but the researchers went a step further, creating a simple, effective video to demonstrate the concepts as well as an explanation of the advanced visual signal processing involved. The article is worth reading for the excellent technical description of sub-pixel motion detection as well as their novel uses of consumer video cameras in their work.

One of the researchers concludes by saying “I think the hallmark of good science is when you do something just because it’s cool and then somebody turns around and uses it for something you never imagined.” With all the focus on revenue and productivity these days, it’s nice to see that there is still some “blue sky” research going on. Thanks MIT!

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Technical Sales 101: Part 5 – The Magic of Sales

Great salespeople are sometimes called “rainmakers.” It is such a popular term that Wikipedia has an entry for it, “Rainmaker – Business,” and explains that “the origin of the business sense of rainmaker may be an allusion to the Native American practice of dancing to encourage deities to bring forth the rain necessary for crops.”

So do these rainmaker salespeople have supernatural powers to bring in new business and win major accounts? After training and working with salespeople for almost two decades, I can definitely say “maybe.” Great salespeople have a unique combination of business skills, timing, and the ability to instantly build rapport. They dig a little deeper into clients needs, grasp key product features a bit faster, and seem to show up at the perfect moment when a client is ready to move forward with a project.

I worked for Bruel and Kjaer for over 15 years. This company was structured similarly to Hewlett Packard where Dr. Bruel was the sales and marketing genius and Dr. Kjaer was the technical genius. Dr. Bruel used to tell a story about hiring salespeople where he would start by asking casual questions like “how was your trip to Denmark.” If their reply was something along the lines of “I missed my flight due to a snowstorm and my luggage is still in Poughkeepsie,” he would not hire them. The point was that in sales, you have to have a good timing and a bit of “luck” to be great.

So, can traits like these be developed? Definitely, but that is a topic for another post. In the meantime, when looking for new salespeople or evaluating current salespeople look for the people that others instantly feel comfortable with, people whose resume ended up on your desk against the odds, people who know more about your company and industry than they should, and people who ask more questions than others and then listen for the full answer. These are the ones that have the potential to be great.

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1982 Was My First Year As a Bandleader

At the end of this post is a great story from Wynton Marsalis. Today, Wynton is the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York. He has nine Grammys and won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for one of his jazz recordings, but everybody starts somewhere and sometimes somewhere seems like nowhere.

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Recognizing greatness before anybody else is an art and a gift. In 2007 the Washington Post had Joshua Bell, one of the finest classical musicians in the world, play anonymously in a major Washington DC subway plaza. Did anybody recognize him? You’ll have to read “Pearls Before Breakfast: Can one of the nation’s great musicians cut through the fog of a D.C. rush hour?” to find out. It is a long article so I’ll give you his total earning for the hour he played, $32.17. A good seat at one of his performances costs over $200.

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Many niche technology industries are closed communities. The same talent gets passed around year after year with employees sometimes ending up back where they started. This creates a cycle of stagnation for everybody involved. It is worth the risk to look outside an industry for new talent. Of course, be sensible, don’t hire a short order cook for a semiconductor sales position, but “hiring for attitude and training for skill” is a great way to create a more creative and productive industry environment. You don’t even have to recognize greatness, “good-ness” will often work just as well.

Here is Wynton’s story. He posted this story to his blog on December 30th, 2014. Enjoy!

1982 was my first year as a bandleader. Thanks to Michael and Randy Brecker, our quintet had a regular gig at their Manhattan club, Seventh Avenue South. It was ironic because only five or six years earlier my brother Branford and I had been at home in New Orleans learning their horn parts on Parliament Records and playing Brecker Brothers songs like “Some Skunk Funk” in our high school jazz ensemble. They took a risk on us and I’m forever grateful. What they provided for us was what every developing band needs: a reliable home base to work out technical aspects of music under the pressure of an audience, and a welcoming place to learn how to move a room of people with diverse and specific emotion.

In 1983 we were booked to play New Year’s. It was a special holiday cover and we ended up playing for ONE couple the entire night. It was both the most embarrassing and liberating thing that had ever happened to me as a performer. We played as hard for them as we would for a room full of people and they were as nice and cool as could be. I never saw them again and don’t even remember their names, but I think of them whenever New Year’s Eve rolls around. Something the lady said to me all those years ago has always stuck with me. Seeing that we were disappointed and somewhat dejected she said “Don’t be sad. You have given us a great story. When y’all become famous, we will tell everyone about how in a city of millions of people we were the only ones smart enough to come out and hear you play.” We all laughed. As long as they stayed—-we played.

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Technical Sales 101: Part 4 – The Unhappy Customer Advantage

One of my most important responsibilities for almost 15 years as a Sales Manager was acting like the United Nations peacekeeper between the customer, the salesperson, and the company I worked for. It didn’t matter if the salesperson was an employee or a sales representative working for another company, the issues always started and ended the same way.

“The customer now MUST buy software maintenance and support with every system purchase,” the company would decree.

“We NEVER buy software maintenance and support,” the customer would explain.

“We’re going to lose this and all future sales to XYZ competitor!” the salesperson would complain.

The theme could be changed to a faulty product, lack of a software feature(s), warranty issue, or something else. It didn’t matter and I eventually came to see these situations as amazing opportunities to cement a customer relationship far into the future. Handled well, it didn’t just solve the immediate problem, but many times created a customer who became loyally devoted to the brand.

There was no single formula I used to solve the issues, but this post from KISSmetrics gives some excellent starting points, “5 Ways to Turn Your Unhappy Customer into a Valuable Resource.” It is worth reading from start to end for both the “5 Ways” as well as the great stories. The previous post in this series “Technical Sales 101: Part 3 – Making the Internal Sale” also has some good suggestions.

In the past year, we have left our bank of 18+ years, a time share company (don’t ask), and our cell phone provider, all for customer service issues. Our new bank branch manager worked behind the scenes to solve a customer service issue and I have written extensively about John Legere, the CEO of T-Mobile. T-Mobile has been wonderful, so we (mostly) forgive some small issues like coverage in rural areas. Amazon’s customer service is always amazing. Southwest is so generous, we look forward to peanuts these days (honey roasted are the best).

Even companies with the best customer service have unhappy customers at times. Just remember they are an opportunity to make the world a little better (and less stressful) for your customers, to build a positive reputation, and to develop your superstar customer service group. Hopefully it will improve your bottom line at the same time.

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Monthly Recap: Happy New You!

No, that’s not a typo in the title. It is something a close friend of mine used to say every new year. You might think it is more true than ever since change seems to have been the major theme of 2014, but actually 2013 was a big year of change too. This post from The Guardian in 2013 “New Year, New Laws” gave an overview of strange new laws from around the world that took effect January 1, 2014. Highlights included incandescent bulbs being illegal in Canada, free EMI testing for homes in France, and 2014 being declared “The International Year of Crystallography.”

What changed in 2014?

  • The iPhone 6+ made the Apple world grapple with “how big is too big?”
  • We saw the unlikely headline: “President Obama Hails Sony’s Theatrical Release of The Interview”
  • Microsoft got a new CEO and Ballmer bought the LA Clippers
  • Elephant Tech published 80 posts on topics ranging from the Sound and Vibration Market for Investors to the World’s Longest Echo

But change is required for growth and last month’s posts started the series,”Technical Sales 101” with posts on the impression salespeople make, over management of sales, and making the internal sale. While this is not a big change for Elephant Tech, recent clients have made it clear that focusing on the basics is still very necessary. In some martial arts, the basic techniques are called “20 year techniques” to make it clear that learning them might be easy, but mastering them is hard. The same applies to sales and marketing.

As we start 2015, Elephant Tech would like to wish you a “Happy New You.” The world is going to continue to change for better and for worse in some cases so it might be easier to go with it instead of fighting it. As Joseph Campbell once said, “We are in a freefall into future… All you have to do to transform your hell into a paradise is to turn your fall into a voluntary act. It’s a very interesting shift of perspective and that’s all it is…”

As always, feel free to send ideas on topics of interest. Research interests, niche technology sales and marketing problems, training, and social media questions are all welcome suggestions for future posts.

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Technical Sales 101: Part 3 – Making the Internal Sale

As explained in part 2, salespeople face a variety of obstacles when maximizing their selling time. One of the more challenging issues is making the internal sale. This can be the result of a variety of factors:

  • Imperfect fit between the customer requirement and the product / service
  • Moving into new markets
  • New product releases
  • Major opportunities
  • Challenging customers, etc.

The salesperson gets involved in an opportunity, but cannot close it without additional internal resources that they do not manage. This post from SBI “Sales Leaders – Make the Internal Sale,” uses the perspective of the sales manager, but the same principle applies to the salesperson. They even make the joke I have heard dozens of times “I have to sell every deal twice. First to the customer, and then to the company.” SBI’s suggestion is to employ their proprietary sales strategy internally in a written form. This is great advice, but the rest of the article is overly optimistic about who will be influenced by this approach. Even in medium sized companies, it is rare for a regional sales manager to get time with the CEO to discuss his or her written strategy for an internal sale.

So what are some potential ways to address this issue? First, in all but the biggest opportunities / customers, this is a regional / national sales management task. Why have sales management if they are not a liaison between field sales and upper management? Second, a written plan is a great idea, but standardize it. A simple form will work at first: Customer, opportunity, revenue potential, timing, competitive factors, maybe even a brief SWOT analysis, but one page maximum. These forms should be positive exercises that are tracked to completion. Third, there should a requirement for a minimum number of these forms submitted by each sales manager each year. Otherwise, it is easy to become complacent and not try to go after the bigger, riskier opportunities. Finally, the salesperson should be kept in the loop at every step of the process. It helps the salesperson grow and when these opportunities close, it helps develop a sales team willing to take risks in return for greater rewards.

Next time, a closer look at a fact of sales life, the unhappy customer. Believe it or not, they might become one of your greatest assets!

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Follow-Up to “When Life Gives You Lemons”

As a follow-up to my post from August 2014, “When Life Gives You Lemons,” it ended up that Slack, a company that was the result of a failure of another company, is now “The fastest-growing workplace software ever.” According to The Verge, their market valuation is now $1.12 billion! The story is interesting, but probably not worth reading unless you have an interest in team collaboration communication software.

If you are, read the story and head over to Slack.com. They have a free version available to get people started with their products. Actually, if you are involved in marketing, you should also head over to Slack.com. It is a beautiful website and you gotta love their tagline, “Slack: Be Less Busy.” Nice!

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Technical Sales 101: Part 2 – Under and Over Management

Do you know what your salespeople are doing with their “selling time?” If so, excellent, but you are in the minority. Many companies I work with dramatically over-manage salespeople. Some symptoms include:

  • Overly complex compensation plans that force salespeople to spend valuable selling time trying to game the system
  • Multiple, isolated reporting requirements requested by a variety of internal sources
  • A constant stream of territory visits by product managers without central coordination (and sometimes without added value)
  • Tracking of the minutia of sales performance

The end of the year is especially difficult. Upper management needs to know if they are going to “make the number,” middle management is trying to reach their performance goals, and salespeople are caught in the middle frantically trying to juggle these competing demands when their main focus should be on closing year end opportunities.

All of these issues fall into the category of sales management. Creating an effective compensation plan is a bit of a black art with entire books written on the topic, but the other topics mostly require good management communication. National sales managers should be aware of ALL of the reporting requirements requested from field salespeople. Regional sales managers should be coordinating territory visits to insure that salespeople don’t get inundated. National and regional managers should be working together to create an effective performance tracking system that balances corporate goals with efficient use of sales time.

Of course, this is much easier said than done. It might be good to start by trying to tame the paperwork monster first. In addition to standardized reporting, typically through the CRM system, on-going review of the effort required can minimize unnecessary / duplicated reporting.

Next time we will take a closer look at an especially challenging situation for salespeople, making the “internal sale” before they can close an external one.

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How To Read Blogs

Today, more information than ever is available online and it can be accessed with just a smartphone. Many of us have a list of websites we visit everyday such as Google News, NY Times, and BBC. The problem is an overabundance of information. With professional news sites, prioritization of news is expected (aka “Front Page News”), but many sources, such as Twitter and LinkedIn “curate your timeline” behind the scenes which means they choose to show content that they deem of interest to you based on your browsing habits and who pays them the most. In some cases however, you might want to see everything posted and many important sources of news and information have “RSS feeds” associated with them. For example, The Verge is a good example of a general tech news source and Prosig is a good example of a niche technology specific blog source.

The confusing part is that both The Verge and Prosig use RSS to publish their feeds, even though they are very different sources of information. The Verge publishes their articles as an RSS feed and Prosig publishes their blog as an RSS feed. Both publish a variety of interesting content that would be lost if I only accessed them though a third party website. Also, why go to a half dozen sites everyday, some of which might not have new content that often? RSS readers only show you new information that has been published since your last visit. Prosig only publishes an article once a month which I would certainly miss in the constant daily deluge of information.

The solution is actually straightforward, use Feedly.com. You can skip installing custom applications that run on your computer and just use Feedly in the browser or use the Feedly app on your smartphone. Feedly synchronizes your content across all your devices and it is simple to setup.

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Also, Feedly is fast, straightforward, and provides direct access to a large number of high quality news sites organized by topic such as Technology, Business, Design, Photography, Science, and Travel. You can easily add your own blogs via the “Add Content” button. Once the basic setup is complete, you are greeted with a daily list of unread material.

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So if you have some free time during the Christmas to New Year lull, setup Feedly and enjoy. By the way, the Elephant Tech blog can be subscribed to by clicking on “Add Content” and typing “elephanttech.com” into the box. Enjoy!

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Technical Sales 101: Part 1 – What Impression Are Your Salespeople Making

This post starts a new series called “Technical Sales 101.” After managing salespeople for over 15 years and consulting for the past two years, one thing has become clear: many technical salespeople have no idea what they are doing! Reactive behavior, inconsistent follow-up, lack of focus, support based selling, no work ethic (made worse by home office environments), etc. are just a few of the issues I have seen. To be fair, it is not entirely the salesperson’s fault. Many are capable, personable engineers who are hired because of their knowledge and abilities within a certain field. They move to sales and are taken out of a supervised office environment, setup to work from a home office, and sent out to “earn while they learn.”

This is not a professional way to sell high value products and services. Sales is a profession, not a by-product of smart people “getting out in front of customers.” It takes time, training, and focus to become a successful technical sales engineer. Recently, some of the better sales engineers I have worked with do not even come from technical fields. The technical learning curve is steep, but as Southwest Airlines has proven, “hire for attitude, train for skills.”

Here is an example. I received an email from a large acoustic modeling software company with the subject line “Please Advise.” This was weird enough, but I actually read the email and was shocked to find a message from some kind of salesperson:


Paul,

It looks like you registered for one of our acoustics simulation webinars awhile back. Must admit, I’m not entirely sure what you folks do based on your blog… but looks like fun!

I can probably point you to some additional information, videos, or resources.

If you don’t mind me asking, what’s driving your interest in virtual simulation?

Thanks,

John Doe
Director Diversification


With a strange title “Director Diversification” (sic), he must be some kind of inside salesperson. Additionally, the seminar was over six months ago! What  impressions did this email give me?

  • Business was very slow at the end of the year
  • They have no system in place for follow-up
  • Nobody has taught this person basic business writing
  • Sales is unfocused and not well managed

Interestingly, I know the founder of this company and a technical manager there and they are consummate professionals (remember, these are niche industries), so it is makes me think this is a sales problem.

So as 2014 draws to a close, take some time to review your sales team’s communication. John Legere, the CEO of T-Mobile, personally listens to support calls and you can find his story about it at the 15 minute mark in this video:  “T-Mobile CEO John Legere unleashed on the GeekWire stage.” It is hilarious and horrifying at the same time. You might find some excellent material for 2015’s sales kickoff meetings that might prevent the “kick out.”

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Public Wifi Redux – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

My original post (which starts below the “Free WiFi Spot” graphic below) was published in May 2013 and is more relevant today than ever. If you prefer a more recent article from a hacker’s perspective, here is a great one: “Maybe Better If You Don’t Read This Story on Public WiFi.”

My favorite VPN provider is Witopia. They are fast, responsive, and reliable. They recently started a referral program and while I don’t care about the 15% credit, I do think giving new customers a 15% discount is a great idea. For $5 / month, you get a professional strength VPN that you can use with your smartphone, tablet, and laptop. I never use public WiFi without starting a Witopia VPN session. Plus it is easy to install and starts very quickly.

So without further ado, click here for a discount on Witopia and remember: Always practice safe surfing (on public Wifi!).

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I took a trip to the San Francisco Bay Area last week for a project. As with any travel, there are blocks of free time. Also as usual, there were many things to do online and almost everywhere had free WiFi available including airports, coffee shops, and the hotel. Since I have so many points on Southwest, they even provided free WiFi on the flights. All the free WiFi hotspots were “open networks.” Those are the networks that don’t have a little lock symbol by their names and you log in using a separate webpage. The airport hotspots had ads, “watch this short video and get 30 minutes of free WiFi.” This was great, it all worked well, but what about security? How public is public Wifi? The lack of security on free public WiFi has been in the news regularly in the past year.

  • Fox News – http://www.foxnews.com/tech/2012/12/08/5-tips-to-stay-safe-on-public-wi-fi/
  • eWeek – http://www.eweek.com/security/slideshows/public-wifi-security-10-things-to-remember-before-signing-on/
  • InformationWeek – http://www.informationweek.com/byte/personal-tech/wireless/open-public-wi-fi-how-to-stay-safe/240149727

These articles are basically correct. Personally, I use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) on any Public WiFi while traveling. There are several good companies, some are free, but I prefer to pay for Witopia because they seem to be the most reliable. But Southwest airlines WiFi didn’t work while connected to the VPN. Was it worth the risk to get some work done? Could somebody on my Southwest flight see my email password on this “public” WiFi? This required some complicated research to determine what was really going on technically. Once I returned, I installed a WiFi data capture program on my laptop and  looked directly at the data my iPhone was sending and receiving.

The results were fascinating. The common iPhone apps I use while traveling did actually encrypt the data. Even if somebody captured the WiFi data on the flight, they would not be able to see my passwords. These apps included Mail, Flipboard, Google+, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. Logging into certain websites with Safari was a serious problem through since passwords were sent over the public WiFi for anybody to see. The only exceptions were websites where the HTTP part of the address was replaced by HTTPS which stands for “HTTP Secure” connection. If I logged into my email through webmail and the address was HTTP and not HTTPS, anybody could capture my password. This was obviously not good.

To summarize, public WiFi is a great convenience, but be careful. It is best to use a VPN connection. Do this by connecting first to the public WiFi hotspot, logging into the hotel or airport website, then once the connection is established, start your VPN software. To find a good, free VPN provider, just do a Google search for “free VPN” before you next trip. You can then enjoy that free public WiFi in comfort and safety.

Monthly Recap: Some Early Holiday Gifts

Due to a heavy travel schedule and technical problems in the office, November was a bit light on content. Luckily, both situations led to some interesting posts including “A Chink in Apple’s Armor” which describes how even the great Apple can have weaknesses. Even when you are using best-in-class systems, it pays to have backup options available. Closed, proprietary systems are particularly vulnerable to single point of failure (SPOF) situations that cannot be fixed by the end user. Beware!

Travel made it easy to write the post “Five iPhone Roadwarrior Tips.” When you are in a new city with new contacts, having the right tools on your smartphone can make the difference between a productive, enjoyable trip and a miserable one.

Finally, the colorful CEO of T-Mobile John Legere inspired the post “Stepping Out with T-Mobile: The Uncarrier.” The more I travel, the more I hear customers unhappy with the status-quo in the test and measurement industry. Legere’s unique management style is not for everybody, but it has created some much needed disruption in the wireless industry. Plus, he is a thoroughly entertaining speaker. If you have ever heard him talk, you know what I mean. If not, you are in for a treat.

So now for the gifts. I found these articles and videos to be thoroughly interesting and enjoyable.

10 Educational Mechanical Engineering Videos” is courtesy of Prosig and includes videos ranging from an explanation of a gas turbine engine to the Fourier transform.

Why is the Time on the Apple Watch Promotional Ads Always Set to 10:09” is a fascinating glimpse into the history of horological marketing.

Synthesis: A Machine that Uses Gears, Springs, and Levers to Add Sines and Cosines” is a video that demonstrates several complex mathematical concepts using a clever mechanical mechanism.

Finally, “How to Draw Mushrooms on an Oscilloscope with Sound” is a wonderful mashup of acoustics and visual effects.

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As always, feel free to send ideas on topics of interest. Research interests, niche technology sales and marketing problems, training, and social media questions are all welcome suggestions for future posts.

Stepping Out with T-Mobile: The “Uncarrier”

What does T-Mobile have to do with niche technology companies? These days, quite a lot. The more customers I talk to, the more I hear that engineers are frustrated with the status quo in test and measurement. Equipment maintenance and support contracts, hidden and margin based pricing (including country specific price lists), outmoded support models, and other negative issues make the larger manufacturers less and less attractive to current and prospective customers. Also, a new generation of engineers has dramatically different expectations for the equipment buying experience, equipment performance, and technical support including online access and self support options.

The wireless industry is similar. Many people settle for AT&T and Verizon even though their pricing is high, the contracts are punishing, and support is spotty at best. The new CEO of T-Mobile has finally turned the US wireless industry upside down even though it is part of the massive Deutsche Telekom AG telecommunications company. You probably do not have 45 minutes to watch the video of John Legere on Geekwire “T-Mobile CEO John Legere unleashed on the GeekWire stage,” so let me provide a couple of highlights. For example, at 15 minutes he talks about how he personally listens to support calls. This is hilarious. I visit a lot of companies these days and I can tell you that I also hear some “hilarious” stories about support that would make test and measurement CEOs’ skin crawl. At 29 minutes he discusses “stopping the charade” of wireless companies saying that a phone is free when contracts make the phone very expensive. Finally, at 36 minutes he summarizes his success by explaining that “the world is waiting for people to step out.” He has done this by setting lofty goals and taking them to the extreme. T-Mobile commercials are visible even when fast forwarding through television commercials, right? The magenta and huge text seem ridiculous, but reliably get the message across.

So step out, disrupt your industry, do things differently (but intelligently please), be visible, publish your fair pricing, stop the charades of hidden support costs, give customers a little more in many ways and you will see amazing things happen. Even when I know I would have had coverage in an area with AT&T, I am not mad at T-Mobile because overall I am so much happier with T-Mobile. Wouldn’t that be a better world for your customers too?

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Five iPhone Roadwarrior Tips

With a full travel schedule this month, a few iPhone techniques and apps quickly became indispensable. I have used most of these for years, but the new iPhone 6+ made them even more powerful.

  1. Buy an iPhone 6+: It is bigger, faster, and the battery lasts significantly longer than older models. For men, buy pants with larger pockets if necessary. It is a huge improvement. For women, get Apple’s leather case. It is slim and my wife says that it slides in and out of her purse easily while still protecting the phone. If a new phone is not possible yet, a Mophie juice pack or other external battery is critical to getting through the day without becoming a “wall hugger.”
  2. Google Maps: Google currently has the best free mapping and routing capabilities. It now dynamically routes around traffic and displays markers on your route that tell how much faster or slower the various options are. You can save places of interest by logging into your Gmail account in the Maps app. It can even store offline maps for places without cell coverage.
  3. Yelp: You are going to eat at some point, so why not skip the Chick-fil-A and go for the good stuff… at the right price… close by… Yelp lets you sort by rating, price, location, food type, etc. quickly and efficiently. You can even bookmark your favorites for a future visit.
  4. Flight Planning / Tracking: If you prefer a free and basic app, FlightView is great, but for a view dollars, you get real time flight tracking with notifications including gate information and airport delays. FlightView, WorldMate, and TripIt apps all provide these features and more including an email address where you can send your itineraries and have them automatically added to the app’s travel tracking tools.
  5. Weather: This is especially important in the winter months. DarkSky is an incredible app that provide “hyperlocal” information that can forecasts weather in your immediate vicinity up to an hour in advance. For weather enthusiasts, Seasonality Go gives the details of temperature, rain, and a lot more, hour by hour throughout the day.

Having the right tools available when you travel can make the difference between a productive, enjoyable trip and a miserable experience. Feel free to email me your favorite smartphone travel tips!

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A Chink in Apple’s Armor

Utilizing a complete technology “ecosystem” like Apple’s can be wonderful. iCloud seamlessly synchronizes many services across all your Apple devices including music (iTunes Match), apps (Family Sharing), messages (iCloud Mail / iMessage), documents (iCloud Drive), photos (Photo Stream), contacts, calendars (iCal), reminders, bookmarks (Safari), notes, backups (iCloud Backups), passwords (iCloud Keychain), and device locations (Find My iPhone).

In the Windows and Android world, multiple options exist for each of these features: Gmail, Google Drive, Dropbox, Picasa, Google+, 1Password, etc. and these can be a confusing. However, Apple’s iCloud also has a major downside: if something goes wrong, it can go wrong everywhere at once, bringing all work to a standstill. Even worse, this is a chink in Apple’s armored fortress. If a major failure occurs, people will lose faith in iCloud and look elsewhere for solutions.

I recently experienced this situation. Somehow, the WiFi network password for the home network got “corrupted” in iCloud and it turned ugly fast. Instantly no device would connect anymore including Apple laptops, iPads, and iPhones. Since I use Apple Airport routers, the bug prevented reconfiguration of those also. Researching this problem uncovered the fact that Yosemite (the newest Apple version of OS X) also has a separate, but related WiFi bug that strikes without warning and there is no fix for it yet. If your computer experiences this bug, then there is a laundry list of fixes to get WiFi working again with no guarantee of success. There is currently a discussion thread called “OSX Yosemite WiFi issues” on Apple.com with 67 pages of suggestions. Ugh. This does not sound like Apple’s “Everything You Love, Everywhere You Go” world anymore. Even the typically fawning press has taken notice with articles like, “Handoff and Continuity: What if they don’t ‘just work’?” Those are the newest, hottest OS X / IOS features and they are messy at best.

The solution for me was to change the home network WiFi SSID which meant updating every device in the house. It took hours and now I have purchased a non-Apple WiFi router. A situation like this makes the lesson clear: make sure you don’t have too much invested in one platform and keep current backups in other places such as 1Password, Gmail, or even a paper printout of all passwords. Gmail now has a “Data Tools” feature that allows people to backup their cloud Gmail account in its entirety to a collection of local files.

For niche technology companies, the lesson is to make the basics work properly first and then advanced features can be added. Also, flexible data import / export options are very attractive to many large customers. Vendors often have proprietary monolithic project file formats for systems that contain everything: settings, data, reports, etc., but if a project file gets corrupted, everything associated with a test can be lost including critical historical data. If data is really critical, make sure your vendor provides options for saving to formats that can be read by other systems.

So enjoy the convenience of your favorite technology ecosystem, but always maintain alternatives. Clouds can be extremely powerful. It is those occasional storms that have to be planned for.

CloudFailure

Monthly Recap: Making Life a Bit Easier

That moment of discovering something wonderful is always special: a first client meeting that goes well, a movie that tells an amazing story, solving a particularly nasty problem at home or work, and products and services that exceed expectations. So the importance of great first impressions is a major topic this month. One post describes my “aha” moment with a shaving razor from Harry’s and another post describes a great experience with a Peerless kitchen faucet. These may be mundane examples, but they point to a major shift in some companies’ focus toward improving the quality of life. The post “Making Tools to Make Life a Bit Easier” explains how Apple relentlessly does so and consequently how Microsoft is being forced to do the same due to declining revenue and market share.

For niche technology companies with limited budgets and resources, the challenge is particularly acute. For detailed suggestions and observations you will have to read the posts, but a summary might be to say that holding a focus and the right attitude in the “small” things can lead to a major difference in final results. Things like helping smaller customers or offering educational classes when an immediate payoff might not possible can have unexpected results. Try some small experiments for a month and see what happens. I guarantee you will be surprised by the results.

Finally, here is one more interesting example as a bonus to loyal readers. Back in August, I wrote the post, “When Life Gives You Lemons.” It turns out that the promotional piece that Sandwich Video made for Slack has a colorful email trail behind it which can be found on the Slack Blog in the post “Based on a True Story.” It is long, but worth reading since it shows how persistence combined with the right focus can also lead to unexpected results. Enjoy!

As always, feel free to send ideas on topics of interest. Research interests, niche technology sales and marketing problems, training, and social media questions are all welcome suggestions for future posts.

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Making Tools to Make Life a Bit Easier

One of our primary responsibilities as engineers is to solve problems to improve the quality of life: everything from a quieter dishwasher in stressful urban environments to a piece of military equipment that helps soldiers protect a country from external threats. Sometimes however, this utopian goal get subverted by selfish interests: profit for profits sake, power plays, manipulation, avoidance of work, etc.

This video interview of Apple’s Chief of Design Jonathan Ive is a good example of the highest ideals of this concept as applied to industrial design engineering. Some key quotes include:

  • “Industrial design is a service… We are making tools to make life a bit easier.”
  • “If you are working with great people they are intrigued and very often it doesn’t work but there’s something else that does.”
  • “I believe we sense when there has been care taken with a product.”

These quotes as well as his famous statement from this interview, that imitation of design is the same as stealing, all point to a deep focus and intent to push the capabilities of the human race forward through revolutionary products such as the touch screen iPhone.

I have used Microsoft many times as the contrary example: copying others and creating products for their own selfish profit and other power motivated reasons. However, they have been forced to change in the last few years. Another Vanity Fair article, “The Empire Reboots,” exposes some of the new CEO Satya Nadella’s philosophies which strongly contrast the attitudes that have lead to Microsoft’s decline.

Strangely, one of the projects that brought attention to Nadella was his creation of Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform which is a collection of integrated services such as cloud computing, storage, data, networking, and applications. He actually had to go against company culture to create this groundbreaking product. The article explains, “Nadella lived this dilemma because his job at Microsoft included figuring out the cloud-based future while maintaining the highly profitable Windows server business. And so he did a bunch of things that were totally un-Microsoft-like. He went to talk to start-ups to find out why they weren’t using Microsoft. He put massive research-and-development dollars behind Azure, a cloud-based platform that Microsoft had developed in Skunk Works fashion, which by definition took resources away from the highly profitable existing business.”

What drove Nadella to risk his already successful career at Microsoft and become CEO? In his own words, “What is scarce in all of this abundance is human attention. And whoever does the best job of building the right software experiences to give both organizations and individuals time back so that they can get more out of their time, that’s the core of this company—that’s the soul. That’s what Bill started this company with. That’s the Office franchise. That’s the Windows franchise. We have to re-invent them… That’s where this notion of re-inventing productivity comes from.”

This little speech sounds like the beginnings of the new Apple with Steve Jobs’ insanely great products being designed by Jony Ive who has obviously had the same intent and commitment as Steve all along. So where does this leave the rest of us working in the more mundane world of niche technology products and services? It leaves us in exactly the same places as the towering greats of Apple and Microsoft, in a constant struggle to hold that focus and in each of our “small” ways contribute to making “tools that make life and bit better.”

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Second Thoughts on First Impressions

As a recent post explored, first impressions are critical to successful customer relationships. While working with two different clients recently, the topic of bad first impressions came up. In one case, a potential customer at a major consumer electronics company had not even purchased the product yet and the company had begun to make demands on him. They wanted CAD data on his specific application and a “small paid consulting project” to help him determine if their product was a good fit for his application. Avoiding “free consulting” may be the right approach for marginal, demanding opportunities but this was not the case here. This customer who has a Ph.D. in Engineering and his PE (Professional Engineer) license was obviously offended by this suggestion. He will probably try to avoid this company in the future, potentially becoming a roadblock to sales for years to come.

In another case, a customer rented equipment from a third party rental company. The customer could not get support from anybody. The rental house was so overloaded with support requests, they were not responsive either so the customer sent back a roughly $30K rental sale and everybody lost, include the reputation of both companies involved.

On the positive side, I purchased an inexpensive Peerless faucet and found this excellent guide inside. It is humorous and disarming (“may all your coupling nuts turn freely”), a great start to a usually stressful, dirty plumbing project. It also addressed probably the biggest reason people return faucets: they can’t get the old one out. It is not the best faucet in the world, but that little gesture made all the difference in the world in my opinion of the company. Now I see them as “special” which is a key to differentiation in a market with dozens of competitors.

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Reputation and credibility are difficult to build and maintain. It takes time and patience to become a recognized expert in an industry. Free (and paid) educational classes, sample units for key accounts, priority access to support, webinars, and great first impressions can be expensive investments and take years to show a return. However, the payoffs can be tremendous. Some companies cruise for decades on expertise and goodwill developed by experts years before.

Finally, it is also best not to rely exclusively on salespeople for a great first impression. Salespeople naturally form the initial basis of the customer relationship (ever heard of a CRM system?) so they end up being the first line of support. This can harm a company in several ways and will be discussed in a future post.

If You Insist on Making an Instructional Video

I am not a fan of video and even wrote a post “Product Video: A How NOT TO Guide” back in 2013. However, in some cases, it is the perfect medium to get a message across. These two videos are great examples. The first is from Vibration Data which posted it in 2007. It is called “Synchronization of Three Metronomes.”

SyncofThreeMetronomes

It demonstrates conservation of momentum, base excitation, and coupling of the base in a simple and elegant manner. Another excellent example is from PCB Piezotronics and graphically shows “How to Avoid Sensor Cable Problems.”

HowtoAvoidSensorCableProblems

This is a major issue in measurements and the video fulfills all the criteria for a great instructional piece.  For a topic not easily explained via text with graphics, it is short (especially the intro), the content is scripted, and the video / audio are clear and professional.

So don’t be afraid of using video on your website, blog, or other social media outlets, but use these sensible guidelines to make sure they add value and help your customers solve their problems.

You Don’t Get a Second Chance to Make a Good First Impression

I finally purchased a Harry’s razor and shaving kit. After seeing dozens of online ads like the one below, they finally caught my attention enough to buy one. Does it bother anybody else to buy razor blades that cost $4 / each? Their tagline, “We thought quality razor blades were expensive to make too… Until we made them,” sealed the deal by making me realize that I had been “gouged” for years by the big razor companies. More and more niche technology companies are employing the same strategy. They are easily taking market share by fairly pricing equivalent quality products instead of the traditional price gouging (and hiding) practiced by the big incumbents in their fields.

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It turns out that Harry’s is an amazing start-up story. This New York Times article, “A Start-Up Run by Friends Takes On Shaving Giants” explains how Harry’s purchased a 93 year old razor blade factory in Germany to become the “only really vertically integrated shaving brand.” I have found that their blades which cost $2 / each are just as good as the $4 / blade competition (and their razor handles are much better).

So take the time to give your customers an outstanding first experience with your product or service starting with the right price, a painless ordering process, and great product presentation. Harry’s “introductory” package included everything for a successful initial experience with their razor blades including some fun shaving instructions.

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As with any complex, technical offering, there might be problems down the road, but setting the right tone and intent will go a long way towards a mutually beneficial long term relationship.

Repost: The World’s Loudest Sound

Jason Kottke posted a great article recently about the world’s loudest sound. The first paragraph says it all: “The sound made by the Krakatoa volcanic eruption in 1883 was so loud it ruptured eardrums of people 40 miles away, travelled around the world four times, and was clearly heard 3,000 miles away.”

The rest of the article is also fascinating, outlining what happens at extreme sound pressure levels. For example:

  • At 220 dB, the close range sound alone from a Saturn V rocket (not the combustion heat) can melt concrete.
  • At 170 dB, “you would be unable to breathe or likely see at all from the sound pressure…” I experienced 164 dB through two foot thick, reinforced concrete bunker walls of a satellite test chamber and it was terrifying. This is 1/2 the pressure of 170 dB and the sound caused the wood screws holding the test article to unscrew themselves.
  • At 155 dB, “You would experience painful violent shaking in your entire body. You would feel compressed, as though deep underwater…”

I teach that the loudest sound pressure level theoretically possible is 192 dB, but have to add multiple caveats such as the facts that is at sea level, room temperature, and doesn’t include blast overpressure.

Acoustics really is fascinating!

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Monthly Recap: Is Flatter Better?

There is no doubt, flat design is the next evolution of user interface (UI) design. From Apple’s IOS / OS X to Microsoft’s “Metro” design language to Google’s “Material Design,” flatter is everywhere. There is even a website dedicated to providing a showcase of the best flat designs. This is part of a bigger trend toward UI minimalism that the iPhone started with IOS apps. Did you ever notice that IOS apps rarely have a user manual? 

Flat organizations (aka horizontal organizations or delayering) have been a popular topic for years, but typically don’t work well in practice as an organization grows. However, for niche technology companies, a focus on flattening can reap major rewards. One of this month’s posts, “Making Every Salesperson Into a Sales Manager,” explores this idea specifically in the realm of sales. Combining the risks that failed sales management represent with the natural sales management abilities of good salespeople, a good case can be made for “flatter is better,” at least for sales.

Other posts have explored Apple’s problems, and the series “The Sound and Vibration Market for Investors” concluded with an example of a company that might be of interest to investors, Dewesoft.

As a bonus to newsletter subscribers, here is a related idea, “The Manager’s Guide to Productivity and Innovation.” Many companies have marketing materials to help end-users justify large purchases to management, but in the emerging field of acoustics modeling, explicitly addressing ROI is a key part of the sales process. This guide is especially well done and worth borrowing ideas from to create or improve your ROI materials.

As always, feel free to send ideas on topics of interest. Research interests, niche technology sales and marketing problems, training, and social media questions are all welcome suggestions for future posts.

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Following Up: Amazon and Salespeople as Sales Managers

I came across two interesting articles recently that are follow-ups to the posts “Amazon Plays with Fire and Finally Gets Burned” and “Part 1: Making Every Salesperson into a Sales Manager.”

The first was from Recode, “Amazon Will Pump $55 Million Into Secretive California Lab.” That $55M will go into Lab126, the R&D arm of Amazon that has created the Fire Phone, Tablet, and TV.  Amazon must really believe in their hardware products, even after the flop of their Fire Phone cellphone. According to the article, one of the products is a “simple Wi-Fi device that could be placed in the kitchen or a closet, allowing customers to order products like detergent by pressing a button.” One more “device” to learn to use, charge, upgrade, etc. Why am I not excited?

The other article is from HubSpot, “Does Measuring Sales Activity Matter for Top Performing Reps?” Many companies over-analyze (and over regulate) their sales teams, but this post discusses measuring top performers. To non-sales managers, sales performance can border on superstition. They think, “if salespeople are exceeding their numbers, don’t mess with it.” The truth is that even top salespeople who are managing their business effectively need to continue to develop.

The final line of the post reads, “The lesson: Even your top reps need to be measured and monitored. Maybe not as rigorously or often as others — but if you leave them alone completely, you run the risk that they won’t perform to their potential. Having regular visibility into activity and results will motivate your team — even your top reps.” These are some wise words from HubSpot. For even more insight, find out how their are managing their own territories, I guarantee you will learn something fascinating.

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Amazon Plays with Fire and Finally Gets Burned

With all the attention Apple is getting for the iPhone 6, it might be interesting to talk about Amazon for a moment. Despite what some people say, their Prime membership is incredibly convenient, Kindle is wonderful, and Instant Video has lured many away from Netflix and Apple iTunes. However Amazon has a psychological complex; they don’t realize they are an e-commerce company. It started innocently enough, the original Kindle Reader with E-Ink was a breakthrough and was released the same year as the iPhone. The Kindle provided a better way to read books before tablets became popular.

It is not a talent problem. I know many incredibly talented engineers that now work for Lab126, Amazon’s R&D “subsidiary.” The problem is that Amazon is arguably the best e-commerce company, not a consumer electronics company. The Kindle Fire products are all excellent, but they appeal to a small niche of the market, people who are “Amazon centric” AND not technical. The Fire Tablet and Fire TV come preprogrammed with your Amazon Prime account information: turn them on, connect to WiFi, and you are immediately streaming video / music, reading, emailing, browsing the Internet, playing games, etc. Help is quickly available by tapping the Mayday button. Unfortunately, these features are only available from “Fire OS” apps on Amazon’s limited AppStore. With Apple’s AppStore for IOS and Google’s Play AppStore for Android, who wants another set of apps?

So what did Amazon do in the face of these limitations? They released a phone of course! They must have thought that this would complete their technology “ecosystem.” Customers can shop, use media, and work, all without leaving Amazon’s world. Of course, the phone was a flop. Strike 1: $200. Strike 2: Only AT&T. Strike 3: Two year contract. Who wants to be stuck with “shopping phone” for two years?

Some possible solutions for Amazon are similar to decisions that niche technology companies face. Sometimes products do not work out and solutions range from outright cancellation to alternatives discussed in this recent post, “When Life Gives You Lemons.” If they decide to persist with a phone, they could make it available as a “second phone.” Maybe it could cost $185 unlocked and then other carriers such as T-Mobile could add it to existing accounts for $10 / month. Many people have two phones now and Amazon would get a nice revenue boost from a widely available Amazon phone, especially with its unique features like Dynamic Perspective and X-ray.

However in general, Amazon really needs to get out of the hardware business. The Kindle is fine since it is part of their “core market,” but tablets, TV boxes, and phones need to go. If they improved their apps for IOS and Android it would attract a MUCH wider audience to their music, videos, and other products. Their iOS app is so buggy that it is very difficult to watch Amazon Instant Video on an iPad, a huge missed opportunity.

So if your company has unprofitable “sacred cow” products that persist for non-business reasons, take a long, hard look at them. Can they be spun-off or reinvigorated in some other way? If not, cut the losses and cancel them. Pruning can be hard, but an organization can be much healthier for it.

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Part 1: Making Every Salesperson into a Sales Manager

Salespeople are sales managers by definition. Great salespeople typically manage their territories and accounts as if they are running their own business:

  • They are constantly prospecting for new business.
  • They are concerned about customer satisfaction / retention.
  • They proactively manage their time to optimize revenue generation.
  • They track their performance to measure effectiveness
  • They are interested in career development training both technical and “soft skills”

So why are additional layers of sales management needed? Some organizations have district managers, regional managers, country managers, product managers, industry managers, and many other titles for employees who manage salespeople. One reason is to address the typical cultural mismatch between front line sales and the rest of the organization. Is it possible to hire and train salespeople to effectively manage themselves?

If it is possible, the payoff could be huge. As the recent post, “Why Management Matters” explained, managers can be a focus of risk. A recent article from HubSpot “A Failed Manager Can Cost a Company $4 Million [Infographic]” says it best: “The company found that just one failed sales manager can cost a company up to $4 million dollars by reducing productivity, taking a toll on customer experience, and stunting team engagement, in addition to salary and training and recruiting fees.” With this in mind, the next post will explore some organizational traits necessary for salespeople to become their own sales managers.

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Just To Be Fair… Apple Has Problems Too

I have written many posts that use Microsoft and Facebook as negative examples and Apple as a positive one. But to be fair, Apple has major problems too. We have family members who have switched to Samsung phones after using the iPhone for years and I regularly think about buying an Android phone “as a backup.” This would make sense since I use Gmail for both personal and business email, Google Apps, Google Maps, Google Calendar, Google+, and Google as my primary search engine. I recently had a chance to use both the Samsung Galaxy Note and the S5, the big screen is a revelation: a picture window versus a porthole, and a lot less expensive than the new iPhone 6.

However, screen size and pricing are not Apple’s major problems. Forbes wrote an article over a year ago that still rings true, “The 5 Big Problems Facing Apple.” To summarize, iCloud mostly works, but is inferior to Google’s email, mapping, notes, and document handling features. DropBox has me completely hooked with powerful synchronization and sharing features. Apple is still terrible at social networking: iTunes Ping was a joke and they actively ignore most social media channels. Now that I am on a roll, the iTunes application is a confusing mess of music, apps, movies, books, audiobooks, ringtones, and iDevice management. Ugh! Finally, the way Apple communicates product fixes is nonexistent: nothing is officially acknowledged and “sooner or later” it just gets fixed.

Also, Apple’s secretiveness is many times taken too far. I have personally experienced their engineering isolationism where critical information from engineering is not communicated to other parts of the organization creating bizarre solutions based on outdated engineering needs, i.e. “using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.”

Every company is a mix of good and bad, talented and mediocre, visionary and conformist. Apple is no exception.

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Part 3: The Sound and Vibration Market for Investors – Dewesoft

I will end this series with an example of a company that might be of interest to investors, Dewesoft. They were created almost 20 years ago to be the software development arm of Dewetron. They eventually created their own world class hardware solutions to go with their excellent software. Now they are slowly disrupting the industry with high quality hardware and software at reasonable prices.

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Why use Dewesoft as an example? Because they are capitalizing on the major factors in the sound and vibration test and measurement marketplace to leverage their success.

  • They have simple / versatile products
  • They offer complete instrument and software designs
  • They are responsive to evolving customer needs
  • Their vertically integrated solutions allow them to control the entire product experience including extremely competitive pricing
  • They have an outstanding support network that actually listens to customers

Most other manufacturers in this market area are either too large to be responsive or too small to have the resources to create cutting edge hardware and software solutions. However, while Dewesoft has successfully converted several key accounts in the US to their platform, they seem to be underachieving from a sales standpoint. With their pricing and capabilities, they should easily be taking market share from their major competitors. Here is a company that investment could take to the next level by improving sales and marketing reach, increase the pace of product development, and eliminating management / financial bottlenecks.

It’s the Music, Stupid!

People are constantly asking why Apple bought Beats for $3B. To steal Bill Clinton’s wonderful campaign slogan “It’s the economy, stupid,” “It’s the music, stupid!”

The Unofficial Apple Weblog (TUAW) published a great post on this topic, “And you wonder why Apple bought Beats…” which highlights the fact that album sales have hit an all time low and 2013 was the first year that digital music sales also declined. This is extremely serious for Apple where music has been a major business area for over a decade.

What is replacing album and digital sales? Dozens of major “on demand” music services like Pandora, Rdio, Spotify, Songza, and many others. Another highlight from the TUAW post is that Morgan Stanley analyst Katy Huberty recently wrote: “If Apple charges $10 per month, same as Spotify, every 1% penetration of Apple’s 800M user base, equates to $960M revenue annually, adding 8 pts of growth to online services and half a point to total company growth.”

An additional $1B of revenue is big even for Apple. So what about those iconic headphones, are they really worth $200 – $300? Here is an incredible video “The Truth About Beats by Dre!” highlighting the differences between the Beats Pro and the Audio Technica ATH-M50 headphones. This is an excellent video for many reasons including the technical analysis, marketing insights, and video production quality itself. Definitely worth watching at least the first minute or two. Enjoy!

Monthly Recap: How Management Shapes Intent

Last month’s posts seemed to have a dual theme: the S&V Market for Investors Part 1 and Part 2, as well as the effects management has on a company’s performance. However, there may be a link between these topics. I have found that many companies change drastically when purchased by investment firms. Sometimes for the better, improving inefficient practices and developing a more mature strategic vision, but many times for the worse. “Professional” managers can ruthlessly shift the focus of a company from creative solutions to optimizing return on investment. Microsoft used to be focused on creating operating systems that allowed inexpensive computing hardware to be used by non-technical people. Lately, instead of increasing usability, Windows 8 has tried to become all things to all people resulting a confusing mess of a product. Fortunately for users, other companies have created alternatives to fill the gap. Can Microsoft survive their decline? Only time will tell.

One important lesson that other companies can learn from Microsoft is the importance of good management. The intent of managers is crucial to success as the post “Why Management Matters…” explores. On a positive note, the post “When Life Gives You Lemons” tells the story of using that right intent to turn potential failure into success.

As a bonus to newsletter subscribers, here is a fun video from GE called “The Sounds of GE.” It takes industrial sounds and tells a story about GE products. To me, it conflicts a bit with my image of GE, but the creativity is so good, it is worth watching.

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Why Management Matters: Microsoft’s Slow Decline

Why is good management important? There are many obvious reasons, but one that is not often discussed is that managers create the personality of a corporation. Who would you rather hang around with: a smart, fun, creative person who is constantly learning and trying new things or a boring conformist who never takes a risk? Management can make the difference between a company with vibrant, creative solutions and a company with boring, confusing, “me too” products. The worse offenders are managers who are just good enough. These are people who maintain their position by following the rules and delivering exactly what is expected, no more and no less. Creativity is dangerous to them. Costs are controlled, new ideas are buried, and non-conformity is punished to prevent potentially risky (and visible) failures.

Microsoft is a good example of what bad management can do to a previously healthy company that used to enjoy a dominant market position. They have been in the news a lot lately. Maybe it is a wake up call due to new CEO Tony Nadella’s “call to action” strategy or maybe it is a result of the failures of Windows 8, but whatever the reason, a wide variety of articles seem to be cropping up everywhere. Here are a few interesting highlights.

From these headlines, it is easy to see how scattered and disjointed Microsoft has become: from calling their new operating system “Threshold,” to using Siri (which many people love) to badmouth Apple, to an iPhone app that tracks celebrities?! In one sense, it is a amazing how well they have done considering how crazy Steve Ballmer’s management was. His speech at the LA Clippers Press Conference says it all. Compare this news to Apple’s recent news highlights:

Who doesn’t want a solution to the silly USB port problem that we encounter several times a day? Who doesn’t want to have employees think more creatively? Who doesn’t want to have a scratch resistant phone with sapphire glass? There are dozens more headlines like these from Apple, Google, and other companies with more “enlightened” managers. So it pays to be careful when hiring, training, and developing good management. Their attitudes and actions can rapidly change an organization for better or for worse.

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Part 2: The Sound and Vibration Market for Investors – Summary

Market: Sound and Vibration, Test and Measurement (S&V T&M)

Size: $2.5B USD – 80% Vibration, 20% Acoustics

Major Industries

  • Aerospace: Airframes, Engines, Aerostructures, Interiors
  • Defense: Acoustic stealth discretion, Identifying noise sources
  • Environmental Noise: Community and Industrial noise testing, monitoring, and compliance
  • Automotive: Engine / cabin noise, Wind tunnel testing, “Sound quality” (psychoacoustic) analysis, Materials testing, Competitive technical analysis, Production test
  • Consumer Products:  White goods, Medical devices, Entertainment systems, Hearing aids, Cellular, VoIP, and Landline telephony, Production test
  • Industrial: Machinery monitoring, Preventative maintenance, Manufacturing production test

Major Manufacturers: LMS (systems), Bruel and Kjaer (sensors and systems), National Instruments (generic systems), Head Acoustics (systems), PCB (sensors), Larson Davis (systems), Qwest Technologies (systems), Dewesoft (systems), Audio Precision (systems), NTI-Audio (systems), Rion (systems), MSC (modeling), ESI Group (modeling), LMS Virtual.Lab (modeling), Comsol (modeling)

Market Opportunities: Efficiently producing modern measurement quality systems and sensors for R&D, Production Test, and Monitoring applications.

Market Challenges: Low cost, “commodity” data acquisition / analysis (smartphones / tablets) eroding entry level customer base of major companies, modernizing legacy systems (especially in Aerospace / Defense), fragmentation within markets and customer base, inefficient sales and marketing organizations.

Market Trends: Rising popularity and effectivness of acoustics and vibration modeling software (replacing some tests), Increasing fragmentation of sensors and systems driving down prices, smaller manufacturers and system integrators creating application specific solutions at much lower price points.

Examples of Potentially Disruptive Companies:

  • Faber Acoustical – PC / smartphone niche acoustical analysis
  • Dewesoft – Low cost, high quality measurement instrumentation and software specifically for S&V T&M
  • National Instruments – Generic, low cost, test, measurement, and embedded systems including the industry standard, LabView

Current and Future Prospects: Rapidly increasing need for sound and vibration sensors and systems to fulfill customer expectations, national / international regulations, and advanced design constraints.

High Growth Rate Areas: Consumer products such as cellphones, tablet / laptop computing, headsets, headphones, and entertainment systems. Acoustic and vibration modeling (supplementing / replacing testing).

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When Life Gives You Lemons…

So you have your shiny new M.A. in Philosophy from Cambridge and the job market for philosophers is looking a bit sparse. So you begin to dabble in the hot new thing called the Internet and make a massively multiplayer online role-playing game that just goes on and on. It even has the perfect name, Game Neverending.

While making it you need to share photos with lots of people so you create a simple photo sharing website. The game fails so badly that it never even launches, but the photo website becomes mega successful (for fun let’s just call it Flickr), and you sell it to a major corporation (like Yahoo). Congratulations, the only problem is that you still really have a love for making  massively multiplayer online role-playing games so, with your large pile of money, you create another one. Let’s call it Glitch this time. This is not a great name for software, but this one does launch, briefly. Unfortunately, despite a core group of hard core fans, it also fails for a variety of reasons not the least of which is how horrible Adobe Flash is.

Luckily, while making Glitch, you realized that your team needed a unified method of communication to prevent slacking off so you create a simple project management tool and called it appropriately, Slack. Maybe you already know where this story goes next? People love it so much you can make super cool videos about it, like “So Yeah, We Tried Slack…

By now you probably already know that I am talking about Stewart Butterfield, voted by his philosophy class at Cambrigdge, “The Man Most Likely to Make Lemonade for a Living.” So even if you are facing what looks like abject failure, take heart. Maybe that particle reticulator might revolutionize the skateboarding industry…

Part 1: The Sound and Vibration Market for Investors

Venture capitalists must be getting desperate. Over the past year, teams from several companies have called me for “an expert analysis” of the sound and vibration market. To be more accurate, these investment groups probably fall more into the “private equity” category since most sound and vibration companies have been around for awhile. Still, the big question remains, why are they interested in this super niche, typically slow-growing industry?

One possible answer is the relatively immature way this industry works which makes such companies attractive investments. A skilled professional management team can easily increase productivity, market penetration, and profitability through several methods. For example, implementing sensible strategic planning, growth through capital infusion, combining similar companies in an investment group, and/or enforcing appropriate cost controls can transform a sleepy company into a reasonable investment. Also, this market is ripe for disruption. Several major players make extremely high profits on certain products simply because the market is so small and difficult to enter that there is no serious competition.

So, in an attempt to save these investors some money consulting with me, the next article in this series will summarize some major characteristics of this market including major players, market size, growth potential, diversity across industries, potentials for disruption, and other factors that might be of interest.

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Repost: Why I Never Trusted Consultants

Here is a wonderful post from the Sales Benchmark Index (SBI) blog, “Why I Never Trusted Consultants.” It mainly applies to hiring consultants for larger scale projects like CRM implementation, major sales and marketing initiatives, strategic growth planning, reorganizations, etc., but the basic advice is still sound, do your homework before signing the contract. My favorite quote, “What is it really like to work with these guys?”

Even if you are hiring a single consultant for a small project that requires domain specific knowledge and experience, using several of these suggestions can make the difference between project success and a messy, visible failure:

  • What clients have you done this type of work for recently?
  • What’s your approach to a typical engagement?
  • What if the scope of the engagement changes? How do you prevent “scope creep?”
  • Who are your competitors and how are you different?

The remaining 15 suggestions are good too, definitely worth the download (especially since SBI doesn’t “spam” people who download their materials). As an expert tip, connect to the consultant on LinkedIn right away. You can instantly see the consultant’s network and activity level.

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Monthly Recap: Innovation and the 2% Mindset

Everybody says they want innovation: innovation from product engineering teams, innovative work environments, innovative products, innovate management, but what do people really do when faced with the choice to innovate or stay safe?

2PercentMindset

They “buy IBM,” hire the consultant they used last year, run the same tired sales / marketing campaigns, and in general choose playing it safe over appropriate risk. Apple and Google don’t play it safe, they take calculated risks. Innovation is still a major challenge for them (see the post “WhatsApp with Innovation at Facebook“), but when compared to Facebook or Microsoft, the differences in mindset are obvious. For example, Apple bought edgy Beats, Facebook bought WhatsApp, Google bought risky Songza, Microsoft bought staid Skype. For reference, WhatsApp is yet another cross-platform instant messaging app while Songza is a breakthrough concept for music search based on mood and genre. 

Other posts this month have continued this theme, “Apple and Google – Masters of Constraint” and “Managing Design Constraints and Innovation” both give concrete steps niche technology companies can take to implement healthy innovation. 

As a bonus to newsletter subscribers, here is an additional bit of inspiration that applies to this topic,  “When Ron Johnson Told Steve Jobs the Apple Store Design Was All Wrong.” My favorite quote, “Sometimes starting over can be the best place to begin. You just have to trust the people in your organization to know when a new direction is necessary.” Ah, the magic that can happen when you join the 2%!

Managing Design Constraints and Innovation

The recent post, “WhatsApp with Innovation at Facebook?” ended with the thought that fostering and managing innovation can be critical to successful businesses. Another recent post “Apple and Google – Masters of Constraints” built on that idea through the example of Apple and Google’s new design guidelines that take the philosophy of “less is more” design constraints to the extreme resulting in cleaner, more usable products.

One famous confirmation of this principle can be found in the book “The Soul of a New Machine” by Tracy Kidder which is about the development of the first 32-bit minicomputer by Data General in late 1970’s. With two internal teams competing to create an industry changing 32-bit computer, the team with the more severe resource and design constraints developed the winning product. The other well staffed team with a “clean sheet” design never completed their solution, missing one deadline after another.

So how can niche technology companies also implement appropriate design constraints? It seems that good project management involves balancing constraints. If they are too severe, creativity and excitement is destroyed by stress and tension. If they are not challenging enough, there is no drive to push past the easy and safe path. Internally, sometimes the best solutions can come from allowing engineers to develop their own unique solutions within design constraints.

Towards the end of the book, Kidder observes “you could say that the Eagle project was a case where a local system of management worked as it should: competition for resources creating within a team inside a company an entrepreneurial spirit, which was channeled in the right direction by constraints sent down from the top. But it seems more accurate to say that a group of engineers got excited about building a computer.”

TheSoulofaNewMachine

Using a Smartphone as a Sound Level Meter

After almost 20 years in the field of acoustics measurement and vibration, I have finally seen a true revolution: generic devices with enough power and flexibility to act as accurate, repeatable measurement quality instrumentation.

The venerable institution, the Acoustical Society of America (ASA), recently published a paper on using a smartphone as a measurement quality Sound Level Meter. Amazingly, there are not just one or two solutions, but 10 solutions that were a part of this study.

iPhoneSLM1

The results were fascinating. Some apps had a mean error of over 13 dBA! The best app seems to be Faber Acoustical’s SoundMeter app which can be found on its website.

iPhoneSLM2

Here is a screenshot of the app which looks clean, usable, and as the ASA paper confirms, accurate. In my experience, over 50% of Sound Level Meter applications do not require a standalone, handheld meter that meets the dozens of national and international standards. Most applications just require relatively accurate (+/- 3 dB), repeatable measurement. Apps like SoundMeter can fulfill these needs and more. By the way, Faber Acoustical has an extremely comprehensive suite of products for both IOS and OS X including room acoustics, signal scope, electroacoustic toolbox, and many others – definitely worth a look.

iPhoneSLM3

Apple and Google – Masters of Constraints

As technology constraints disappear, instead of adding hundreds of new features just because they are possible, Apple has been ruthless in its pursuit of design “simplification.” IOS 7 was a major improvement, eliminating much of the design ornamentation (technically called skeuomorphism) such as green felt backgrounds in Game Center, the yellow notepad in Notes, and a leather bound look in Contacts.

Now Google has implemented a similar design ethic with its new mobile OS version called “Android L.” Matias Duarte, the Google VP of Design, made an interesting statement at the end of his talk (skip to 6:51) about Google’s new Material Design Language, “Design is all about finding solutions within constraints. If there were no constraints, it’s not design, it’s art.”

In niche technology companies, runaway designs without constraints are a constant threat. It can happen in many ways: features added to secure an important sale or to match the competition, last minute design decisions to get the product out the door, complex licensing systems, etc. These can all result in a confusing experience for users. So be technically innovative, but try not to lose sight of the big picture, more is not always better. As Albert Einstein said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” The screenshots below show how much cleaner and usable Apple’s and Google’s design constraints have made their browser and email client.

Next time, a more detailed look at the importance of managing design constraints in fostering innovation.

safari

androidL

Mysticism in Our Midsts – The Apple Command Key

Even though I use the command key hundreds of times a day, I never thought to wonder where it came from.  Tom Chatfield was good enough to provide an explanation: “Known sometimes as the St John’s Arms, it’s a knot-like heraldic symbol dating back in Scandinavia at least 1,500 years, where it was used to ward off evil spirits and bad luck.”

The full article can be found here, “What is Apple’s command key all about?” and includes the rest of the story of how it ended up on the Apple keyboard in 1983. The articles goes on to provide an interesting glimpse of how many of the “iconic” features of the Mac were the result of one person’s work, Susan Kare.

Enjoy!

commandkey

WhatsApp with Innovation at Facebook?

A recent recurring topic has been the lack of innovation at the tech giants and the massive acquisitions required to buy the innovation they need to grow. It is so common that here are some “innovation” headlines that could have been written (the links will be explained below):

  • “WhatsApp with Innovation at Facebook?” – Facebook bought WhatsApp for $19B – Fortune
  • “Is Apple Sirious These Days?” – Apple bought Siri – Huffington Post
  • “The Skype’s the Limit at Microsoft.” – Microsoft bought Skype – Wall Street Journal
  • “The Songza Remains the Same at Google.” – Google bought Songza – TechCrunch
  • “Why the SmartWatch Samsung.” – Samsung and Wearables – Pranav Mistry’s Website (the inventor)
  • “No More Tomfoolery at Yahoo.” – Yahoo bought Tomfoolery and closed them – TechCrunch
  • “Putting the Wall into the Wall Street Journal.” – After I had to go to four stores to get a paper issue with the article below.

I wrote this post after a friend suggested an article from the Wall Street Journal Opinion page “An Innovation Slowdown at the Tech Giants.” In a few short paragraphs Michael Malone summarized a key problem with both “Tech Giants” and niche technology companies: innovation is primarily generated “elsewhere” and if not dealt with properly, it has the potential to disrupt entire industries, big and small.

There are many books on the topic including one by Clayton Christensen called “The Innovator’s Dilemma” and its sequel, “The Innovator’s Solution.” The New Yorker did a wonderful article on this book called “The Disruption Machine” (no paywall here, thank you New Yorker). So with all this said, what can I possible add to this discussion?

One possible observation is how a lack of innovation affects niche technology companies. Therefore, this post starts a series about how fostering and managing innovation can be used as a powerful tool to increase sales, minimize the risk of disruption, and in general create an environment that improves at least a small section of society.

Finally, one more example of an industry that has held the wolves of disruption at bay for decades is broadcast television. The industry killed Aereo and TiVo (just to name two), fragmentation is rampant (think AppleTV, Google ChromeCast, YouTube, FireTV, Roku, NetFlix, Hulu, etc.), and net neutrality is being hotly debated mostly as a result of this industry. Does this image look familiar?

Remotes
http://imgur.com/u7ikyWS

Two Fun Links for Freedom Day

These links might be useful since organization and simplification are two key factors that I find increases my creativity and quality of life in general.

The first is from LinkedIn, “25 Office Hacks You Need To Know,” and has some excellent tips to get organized in the office. My favorite hack is using binder clips to hold cords.

binderclips

The second is from Business Insider, “Anthony Bourdain’s 10-Minute Ritual Will Change The Way You Work” which explains the celebrity chef’s one ritual: starting the day by setting up “mise en place,” or everything in its place. He suggests that we should start our days with 10 minutes of tending to the “meez,” planning the day’s activities instead of reacting to crises that sap creativity. For example, instead of starting the day by plowing through 70 emails, try starting on that creative project you didn’t get to yesterday (or the day before). Expert tip: 20% of those “urgent” emails will have resolved in the meantime.

These posts definitely fit together. Getting organized helps focus attention on higher level tasks by minimizing external distractions and 10 minutes of planning helps create the right internal environment for creativity. At the very least, hopefully a few of these tips will provide a little more freedom from the unnecessary burdens of modern business life.

Happy 4th!

Monthly Recap: Selling Emotion, Ma Bell, and 3D Sound

The posts from this month have covered these topics and more, such as the strange world of 3D sound, and believe it or not, there is a unifying thread: the power of appropriate marketing. For example, Apple makes great products, but so do many other tech companies these days. So Apple has shifted its marketing to providing dramatic demonstrations of using IOS for “real work.” In the post, “Selling Emotion,” the genius of Apple’s new “What Will Your Verse Be” ads is explained and suggestions are made on how to apply this approach to niche technology markets.

Next, Alcatel-Lucent drew some positive attention by publishing the Bell Systems Technical Journal on their website, making the connection to the genius of the original Bell System. I hadn’t thought about them in years, so this marketing was also effective.

Finally, as a counterpoint, Princeton’s 3D Audio and Applied Acoustics Lab (3D3A) had virtually no exposure for a great technology, 3D Sound, while Jawbone made it into a major product marketing campaign for their Jambox speakers. The post, “Explaining 3D Sound and Why“explores what can happen when good marketing meets bad (or none). 

Finally, here is an additional bit of inspiration that applies to this topic, “What Companies Can (and Should) Learn from Lady Gaga.” It is a fun glimpse into the internal cultural factors in technology companies that can foster the kind of creativity that leads to niche market success.

Bacch 3D Sound

As always, feel free to send ideas on topics of interest. Research interests, niche technology sales and marketing problems, training, and social media questions are all welcome suggestions for future posts! 

Acoustics Everywhere – Sonification: The Science of Auditory Displays

The International Community for Auditory Displays (ICAD) has been on my radar since I read an article in Harvard Business Review naming auditory displays as one of the “top 10 breakthrough idea in 2005.” Since then the basic concept has become commonplace even though most people do not realize that it is a studied science. Don’t we all immediately know when a text message arrives versus an email message versus another notification? It is almost Pavlovian.

However, the real promise of this technology stems from its ability to present our complex world in a more cohesive way, especially when combined with 3D Sound. For example, military pilots have relied on auditory displays for decades and there are several other fields that have recently begun to utilize auditory displays such as financial / weather / biomedical data analysis, pattern recognition in “data mining” systems, and data representation from multiple sensors (in a power plant control room for example).

Here is an interesting example of the power of this technique, it is only 12 seconds long, so take a listen…

“Stormy Winter Day with Snow” (from the Broadcasting Auditory Weather Reports pilot project)

Acoustics Everywhere – The Technology and “Soft Science” of 3D Sound

The discussion of Choueiri’s 3D sound research at Princeton deserves a bit more attention. The New Yorker article was a fascinating mix of hard and soft science, but the author seemed to have a conflict between describing a breakthrough technology and his strong opinion that 3D sound solves the wrong problem. Gopnik writes, “The anxiety that produced the isolated urban listener in the concert hall is only aggravated by the technology that, pretending to liberate listening from the concert space, simply makes for more lonely domestic concert halls. The sweet spot on the sofa is a sad place to be.” In short, Gopnik seems to be saying that social isolation is the problem in music, not acoustic reproduction.

Still, not everybody is social and the author does do a thorough job explaining both complex physics as well as the social / psychoacoustic concepts involved. If you have a deeper interest in the research, Princeton’s 3D3A lab website has all the details.

Choueiri

If you don’t have time to read the article, the New Yorker podcast associated with the article explains it better (3:00 and 7:30 are the best parts). If you have less than five minutes, Discovery Channel posted a video interview (starts at 0:55) that is quite good at explaining the basic acoustics involved.

My opinion (in case you are interested), 3D sound does expand the soundscape, but sacrifices audio quality, especially vocals, so I have turned it off in the Jambox. However, it is still a major breakthrough and it has the potential to revolutionize aural acoustics in many ways especially in the field of sonification, the next topic in the “Acoustics Everywhere” series.

Marketing Example – Explaining 3D Sound (and Why)

As a follow-up to the previous post on selling emotion, here is one great example of why niche technology companies might want to occasionally incorporate a more “personal” approach to marketing. We just purchased a bluetooth speaker from Jawbone and it came with a super marketed feature (on the packaging, feature on the website, etc.) called LiveAudio. Jawbone says “LiveAudio is three-dimensional sound optimized to bring your mobile music, videos, and games to life.” The video from the Jawbone website is quite interesting and entertaining both from a technical and personal marketing standpoint.

What was truly amazing is how “under marketed” the underlying technology is. Based on pioneering research from Princeton, Jawbone has integrated an amazingly sophisticated algorithm into this consumer oriented speaker and marketed it heavily on a personal level, but Princeton’s “marketing” of the algorithm employed a completely analytical approach, so even though Princeton is mentioned several times in the video, I had to notice a tiny logo next to the video and Google the name “Bacch 3D Sound” to find the source of the research on Princeton’s website. Finally, to get a coherent summary of the entire technology translated from Princeton-speak, I had to read the New Yorker article on the technology.

So spend a little extra time and effort to add appropriate “personal appeal” to marketing your product or service. You don’t have to be a marketing machine like Apple or Coca Cola, but you do have to tell people what you are doing and why it can help them (and remind them regularly). As the famous marketer Steuart Henderson Britt said, “Doing business without advertising [or marketing] is like winking at a girl in the dark. You know what you are doing but nobody else does.”

Bacch 3D Sound

Bell System Technical Journal Now Online

With all the corporate cutbacks in recent decades, most technical materials published today are focused on directly driving sales. The best papers require website registrations and more recently, companies are charging for e-Learning resources. So here is a throwback from yesteryear, the Bell System Technical Journal is now online!

So sit back, fasten your seatbelt, and enjoy some seriously meaty technical articles like “Time-Compression Multiplexing (TCM) of Three Broadcast-Quality TV Signals in a Satellite Transponder” or “Bandwidth-Conserving Independent Amplitude and Phase Modulation.” These are from the last issue published in December 1983. The archive goes back to 1922 (look for “The Nature of Speech and Its Interpretation” in that one)!

Enjoy!

BSTJ

Selling Emotion: Apple’s “What Will Your Verse Be” Ads

Apple’s ads give me chills, literally. This might be the Holy Grail of marketers everywhere: to elicit a visceral response connected to their products. As I started writing this post, my initial thought was that this was Apple’s world class marketing at work and impossible for others to copy. Here are links to Apple’s two most recent video ads, “What Will Your Verse Be?” Both ads link to a landing page on Apple.com that provides details on how these professionals use an iPad for “real work.”

Esa-Pekka’s Verse (music composer) and Cherie’s Verse (travel blogger)

But it seems that great technology marketing that touches people on a personal level is not exclusive to Apple. Samsung’s marketing has their own version of this “personal connection” called One Samsung: You Need to See This. As I watched the Samsung video, my wife, who was sitting next to me, got chills as I did even though she did not know who had created the ad.

The point of this post is to make the radical suggestion that niche technology companies do not need to be so analytical in their approach to marketing. An appropriate personal connection can be very powerful even in B2B technical fields to help people understand and connect to the true power of your solution. In the next post, an example will be provided of what has happened to a Princeton University niche technology when Princeton used the analytical approach to licensing their solution to Jawbone.

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Index of ElephantTech Email Newsletters

Below is an index of ElephantTech newsletters from the past two months. Subscribing to this monthly newsletter is the best way to keep up on the most popular posts and receive bonus material not found elsewhere. As always, email addresses are never sold/shared and you can unsubscribe at any time.

Soft Skills: The Art of Conversation

Conversation truly is an art. It takes time and practice to be a good conversationalist. Engineers have traditionally been infamous for their lack of communications skills, but that is changing. A new generation of engineers is much more social and has wide ranging interests outside their field of expertise.

Even after being a technical sales manager for over 15 years, I still practice the art of conversation. Since I have always been interested in people’s work and lives, it is a bit easier. Many engineers do not know anybody outside of their work that understands or is even interested in their abilities and achievements. One reason for this is that they do not know how to discuss their work in an interesting an engaging way. Conversation is a two way process. Here are a few useful links to developing and improving these skills. My favorite technique lately is the five second rule: wait at least five seconds after the person stops talking before responding. Try it, it completely changes the pace and flow of business and social conversation.

conversationatcooler

Preventing Glossophobia With Better Conversation – Two especially good tips: “Stay Positive” and “Learning to Leave.”

4 Great Ways To Be A Better Conversationalist – This article focuses more on networking, but is still good.

How to Be a Better Conversationalist – This WSJ article talks about people who dominate conversations: good advice for the “obsessive talker” (you know who you are!)

Part 4 – JCP / JCPenney and the “One Size Fits None” Syndrome

Getting back to JC Penny, the “Ron Johnson” crisis might have been the best thing for that company. They probably would have died a slow ignominious death. Instead, they have something to rally around now, hating Ron and undoing the changes he made.

However, a spade is probably better than dynamite when trying to dig for more growth in established slower growing niche markets. If you are trying to enter new markets outside your core business area, renting an appropriately sized Bobcat backhoe might make sense. Here are a few additional suggestions to getting that “spade work” done efficiently and cost effectively.

  • Hire a Expert Consultant – Unlike a hired employee, with a consultant you can “try before you buy.” You typically get limited access to their network and training costs are minimal.
  • “Cross Pollinate” Sales and Marketing – This Forbes post “Why Sales Teams Must Have A Marketing Mindset” is a good place to start. It might be a good idea to have them share ideas through “lunch and learns” or other cross training activities.
  • Provide Company Wide Training on Topics of Interest – Just the act of learning something new creates energy and excitement in a company.
  • Create an Incremental Growth Environment – Even if you have plans to revolutionize your company and niche industry, approach it incrementally. Like climbing a ladder, don’t take your hand / foot off one rung until you have a secure grip on the next rung. This sounds basic, but implementing in sensible stages makes employees more productive. It is hard for people to do their best work under unnecessary stress and uncertainly. It also provides the opportunity to make course corrections based on market acceptance and technology feasibility.

With the startup craze in full swing, it is easy to admire what looks like daring feats of growth, but appropriate growth can be achieved in other ways. Hopefully this series has provided both food for thought and some useful ideas to prevent destructive “one size fits all” thinking about change.

backhoebig backhoe1

Learning from the Girl Scouts’ Excellent Sales Training Program

It is interesting to examine how the Girl Scouts teach young girls to sell their famous cookies. They start by explaining to customers why the Girl Scouts sell cookies. These are called “The Five Skills” and they teach young girls “goal setting, decision making, money management, people skills, and business ethics—aspects essential to leadership, to success, and to life.” They then use this foundation to present an extremely well developed sales training program appropriate for an absolute beginner. This is called “How to Sell Cookies.”

Most companies selling complex niche market products and solutions costing thousands have little to no sales training!

girl scouts

Part 3 – JCP / JCPenney and the “One Size Fits None” Syndrome

Several years ago, a niche technology company I knew well got purchased by a major Aerospace holding company. Then they hired a “turn around” National Sales Manager and gave him almost unlimited power. He proceeded to fire the “old timers” and restructure the business around medical devices, the hot market at that moment. This was despite the fact that this company had a large portfolio of government program business that was as good as money in the bank. Their main competitor hired the old timers with their collective centuries of experience and won most of the program business. By the time the first company came to their senses, they had little medical sales, a large number of enemies in a niche market, and minimal program business. This situation was an exact repeat of the “Ron Johnson” syndrome described in the second post in this series.

Two other niche technology companies I know have fantastic products that sell very well in Europe and Asia, but have major issues selling in the US. They are structurally similar and have both tried direct sales, local offices, sales reps, distributors, and other techniques, but with almost no effect on US sales. They have tried for so long that they are repeating themselves, trying reps again for example. What are they doing wrong?

Surprisingly, this post from Harvard Business Review, “Does Your Company Have Enough Sales Managers?” might hold one key. The one thing they don’t do effectively is directly manage sales in their US business. Both management teams are looking for a hands-off solution that requires minimal cost and effort. The US market is fragmented, hyper competitive, and messy. It may seem much easier to pay somebody else to do the dirty work, except that it doesn’t work. They either have to make the investment or pull out. Expecting to win marketshare without managing sales properly is wishful thinking. (By the way, the same holds true for US companies in Europe and Asia.)

Next time, look for some creative suggestions for digging out growth in typically slow growing niche markets without sacrificing the existing customer base or overhauling the entire organization.

construction_crew_leader_800_14371

Preventing Unnecessary Death by Powerpoint

Guy Kawasaki, formerly “Chief Evangalist” for Apple, and now Canva (a popular online graphic design tool), published a post in 2005 that is still relevant today, “The 10/20/30 Rule of PowerPoint.” The rule is simple: 10 slides, 20 minutes, and 30 point fonts. Attention spans are getting shorter and this formula leads to presentations with an appropriate length and format. An added bonus is that these types of presentations are easily converted to website content and can form the basis of scripts for webinars or videos.

Finally, add this slide (PowerPoint PPT format, right click to save) to the beginning of your presentations and hide it. It is an easy way to make sure your presentation looks right before you get started.

test slide

Resigning in Resignation

Sales Benchmark Institute (SBI) reposted a great article from 2013, “A Letter Of Resignation.” It summarizes some of the common mistakes non-sales management makes when dealing with the mysterious “sales department.” For each point made, it is easy to imagine the counterpoint such as the ever popular “salespeople are lazy and full of excuses,” but a more mature approach is to honestly and continuously examine these issues as a type of organization health check.

health check

For example, “The revenue goal you have set for me is not based in reality.” Is the sales team actually “sandbagging,” or, are top down quotas demoralizing the group? Down deep, most corporate management teams know the answer to questions like these, but making the needed correction is a challenge. One potential solution is to bring in an outside expert to evaluate the situation. Appropriate changes to the sales environment can have immediate bottom line results.

Part 2 – JCP / JCPenney and the “One Size Fits None” Syndrome

So what happened to our friend Ron Johnson with his ill fated “JCP” adventure? The consensus is that he changed too much, too fast without consideration for JC Penney’s conservative corporate culture and their traditional, discount driven, customer base. There were other major factors contributing to his failure and firing:

  • He was a “remote CEO” living in the Bay Area and traveling by corporate jet to JC Penney’s corporate HQ in Dallas.
  • He fired most of the management team and replaced them with his colleagues.
  • As a coup de grâce, he lost over $1 billion in 18 months and the stock price dropped 50%.

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In short, he quickly did everything in his power to make his change initiatives impossible for JC Penney’s board of directors to justify. They ended up hating Ron and his ideas so much that they have worked hard to remove ALL traces of Ron from the company. He fulfilled all the criteria in this post, “Top Rookie Manager Mistakes (That Make You Look Like a Jerk).” He “immediately replaced the old team with ‘his’ team,” “got detached from the clients,” and “took the hill on his strategy without first getting buy-in from the team.” Even worse, some of his ideas, like “fair pricing” instead of constant (fake) discounts, were great and could have eventually transformed the entire retail industry.

Maybe he thought he could magically transform JC Penney like Steve Jobs transformed Apple. The obvious difference being that Jobs was welcomed back into Apple. Apple was his creation to begin with and they absolutely needed his leadership ability to survive the previous bad leadership. The fact that Steve’s company NeXT came with the deal was icing on the cake since it supplied an instant upgrade path for the aging Mac OS 9. In contrast, JC Penney had a history of conservative mediocracy, they even copied the Sears Catalog back in the day. Most of the company definitely did not want a jet setting CEO changing the entire company at once.

So when considering major organizational or structural changes, take into account the existing internal and external corporate environment. Even if you have implemented change successfully before, one size never fits all and “organic” growth is a lot healthier that steroids and protein powders that can wreck havoc on the human or corporate body.

The next post will provide some examples and suggestions for niche technology companies, but in the meantime, Fast Company interviewed Ron Johnson three months into his tenure, “Ron Johnson’s 5 Key Mistakes at JC Penney, in His Own Words.” It is interesting to hear his side of the story… before the trainwreck…

Seeing Sound – Excellent Short Video

NPR recently published a short video, “What Does Sound Look Like?” that has some wonderful footage of sound waves. They were captured using an old school photographic trick called “Schlieren Flow Visualization” that has been used in the Aerospace industry for decades to visualize aircraft supersonic flows. The video is under 3 minutes and definitely worth watching. Enjoy!

Seeing Sound

Part 1 – JCP / JCPenney and the “One Size Fits None” Syndrome

This blog regularly uses Apple as an example when discussing creativity, design genius, good business practices, and generally “doing it right.” But many companies have talented employees and excellent products, but never reach the Apple’s level of success. So is it individual genius, collective genius, or some combination that makes Apple a mega success? Some people would say individual genius due to Steve Jobs’ example and many are closely watching what happens when his backlog of ideas is exhausted. There is other individual genius at Apple such as Jony Ive, Tim Cook, and Phil Schiller, but would Steve or these people have this level of success somewhere else? Maybe not, Steve Jobs had only niche success with his company NeXT Computer and Jony Ive had a  difficult time at Apple and almost left before Steve Jobs came back to be CEO.

A JcPenney Store in Aventura Mall in Aventura, Florida, image taken by Aranda56, on Feburary 21, 2006

There is a real world demonstration of this point. Ron Johnson was the Apple SVP of Retail who created the fantastically successful Apple Stores. With over $6,000 of sales per square foot, these stores are double the sales of the next highest retailer, Tiffany & Co.  In 2012, Ron left Apple to become CEO of JC Penney, a store synonymous with the word “average.” He loves retail and before Apple, he was a VP at Target, so this career change was not as strange as it seems. Eighteen months and over a billion in losses later, he was fired. How could things go from so good to so bad for Ron and JC Penney’s?

It is interesting to note that this headlining failure rarely happens in major corporations due to built in safeguards like a board of directors and massive organizational resistance to change. However, it does happen to niche technologies companies. I can easily name several companies that completely owned market segments and lost them as a result of “change initiatives.” Watching the slow motion train wreck from a safe distance, the signs are obvious. First, a mandate for change due to new owners or maybe a bad year, forces “immediate action” to be taken. Next, the company obsesses on internal or external issues exclusively such as major customer service investments or reorganizing the sales and marketing departments. Finally, by the time the results are predictably disastrous, companies are so invested in the bad decisions that they do not stop before it is too late.

The next part of this series will look at the fascinating details of what happened with Ron Johnson at JC Penney when he applied his winning strategy at Apple to a radically different company and customer base. One size definitely does not fit all. The final part will apply this analysis to niche technology companies. As the US economy begins to improve, the temptation to “make needed changes” is even more acute. So if you are contemplating major organization change, resist the urge just a little longer. There are definitely some useful lessons to be learned from Ron’s nightmarish experience.

Acoustics Everywhere – The Acoustics Earthquake Shield

Acoustics can be found in almost all scientific disciplines and fields. This one might be more science fiction, but it is still a great example of the versatility of acoustic techniques. From a post in The Verge:

“A group of French scientists has developed a method of shielding cities from the force of an earthquake, and after devastating earthquakes in Chile, the idea is drawing some much-deserved attention. It works on the principle of refraction, planting an array of boreholes to redirect the reverberations around the city and into areas where they will do less damage. If the system works, it could be a new way to shield populated areas from the devastating effects of an earthquake.”

Earthquake Shield

Part 3: Innovation versus Imitation – Niche Technology Companies

Part 1 of this series discussed some basic concepts related to innovation including the fine line between imitation and the outright stealing of ideas. Part 2 provided examples of well known imitators such as Microsoft and Samsung and explored the paradox of “innovative imitation.” It also touched on the major risk inherent in imitation: stagnation.

This part will focus on three powerful techniques that can help foster creativity at an appropriate level for niche technology companies. First, an important caveat, this cannot be an isolated activity. It needs to become part of corporate culture and practiced on a regular basis. On the other hand, too many creativity exercises can become like “the flavor of the month,” here today, gone tomorrow with no lasting importance or effect on the organization. Timing is also important. It is easy to get so busy that there is never time for any special projects, but sometimes a major client or product launch can mean that it is best to reschedule.

Technique 1: Nurturing “B Players” in Sales

Sales is always a good place to start. Salespeople are typically more accustomed to change since quotas, compensation plans, products, and customers are constantly in flux. The so called “B Players” have the most potential to improve performance and are easy to identify by their sales performance. A great post by Sales Benchmark Institute (SBI), “How to Turn ‘B’ Players into Top Sales Performers” has some excellent suggestions on how to nurture them. You have to download the SBI performance guide, but this is painless and the guide has several specific areas to focus on such as sales approach, negotiating, retaining customers, etc.

Technique 2: Create a “Special Projects” Time

An odd little game development company called Double Fine Productions has a tradition called “Amnesia Fortnight.” It has become so popular that it has its own Wikipedia article, but a better description can be found at Double Fine’s Wikipedia page. To summarize: for a two-week period, the employees of Double Fine are split into four groups, told to forget their current work (hence the “Amnesia”), and tasked to develop a game prototype for review by the other groups. Two weeks might seem like a long time for a niche technology company, but consider that it takes a couple days to get into the creative mindset, then at least a few days of brainstorming, and at least few days to develop the prototype… Two weeks would go by in a flash. A video of the Double Fine CEO Tim Schafer is available on YouTube. Tim starts explaining Amnesia Fortnight at around the minute mark.

Amnesia Fornight

Technique 3: Break the “Corporate Status Quo”

This is not change for change’s sake, but anything that helps break outdated, but firmly entrenched group thinking. Updating inefficient order entry procedures, new customer satisfaction projects, a competitive analysis of entry level competitors are all great places to start. Startups are famous for this type of innovation, but more developed companies have more to lose if a project does not go well. One good resource for these types of projects is a book called “The Lean Startup.” Its full title is “The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses.” It breaks down innovation projects into three steps: “Vision, Steer, and Accelerate” with clear measurement and decision points built into the process. The idea of creating an “Innovation Sandbox” in Chapter 12 is especially applicable to established companies. These techniques reduce risk, yet take full advantage of a company’s innovative ideas.

Hopefully this post has stimulated your thinking about possibilities for projects that could foster creativity and innovation. It might be challenging at first, many people are initially resistant to change of any type, but the long term payoff will be worth it.

The Acoustic Wonders of the World

The Smithsonian recently published an article online, “What Are the Acoustic Wonders of the World?” It was about Trevor Cox’s research into unusual acoustic phenomena. As a physicist and as an acoustic engineer, he is uniquely qualified in this strange niche area of research. Even more amazingly, he wrote an entire book on the subject called “The Sound Book: The Science of the Sonic wonders of the World.” As one reviewer on Amazon aptly put it, it is an “ear opening” experience.

Whispering Gallery

The introduction alone makes the book worth buying. It gives a glimpse into another way of experiencing the world we live in. As Cox puts it, “this book is about the psychology and neuroscience of hearing as observed and explored by a physicist and acoustic engineer.” Some highlights of the places he has visited are in the graphic below. It is well worth the $13 price and would also make the perfect gift for the acoustician who has everything.

Sonic Wonders

Part 2: Innovation versus Imitation – Are They Mutually Exclusive?

Can a company imitate and still innovate? Looking at two companies known for imitation can help answer this question: Microsoft and Samsung. Of course, tech companies get “inspiration” from competitors all the time. A post from the Windows Phone website, “iOS 7 And The Story Of Stolen Microsoft Innovation” shows how much Microsoft fans think Apple stole from Microsoft recently, but does Microsoft really innovate? Here is a screenshot of Microsoft’s current home page.

microsoft

Innovation is everywhere. Despite many complaints, the Surface is a great device. It brings together enterprise and tablet computing in a powerful, portable package. Office 365 is also excellent. Since 95%+ of businesses use Office, having Office 365 available on a subscription basis is critical for small businesses who might have trouble affording the retail package. With all the media attention on Apple, especially with their world class marketing, it is easy to forget that Microsoft Windows is found in everything from ATMs to Wind Turbines.

Samsung is another company well known for imitation, but a look at Samsung.com tells another story, surprising even me. Most people don’t think of the “Samsung that copied the iPhone” as the same Samsung that creates world class televisions and even less the Samsung that manufactures washers, dryers, refrigerators, stoves, microwave ovens, and other top of the line appliances.

samsung

Microsoft and Samsung are doing just fine. Despite their ongoing imitation, they are significant innovators in their own right and they don’t have to take all that risk and spend money on expensive innovation. A recent New York Times article “And Then Steve Said, Let There Be an iPhone,” revealed that Apple probably spent around $150M to develop the iPhone. This was a big gamble for the much smaller Apple of that time.

So what is the downside? In my opinion, the major risk of not innovating is stagnation. Wikipedia has a wonderful long article on creativity that goes into the history, the creative process, neurobiology, declining creativity in the West, psychology, and many other aspects. It even touches on the correlation between creativity and Schizotypal personality disorder, but creativity seems to generate energy, excitement, and then feeds on itself to bring individuals and organization to a higher level of performance.

So how can creativity be balanced with other organizational forces in niche technology companies? The next post in this series will look at three powerful techniques that might prove useful in fostering creativity on a consistent, conscious basis.

Seeing Sound – A Video

There have been many videos created over the years that employ various techniques to make sound waves visible. There are so many, in fact, that the study of these phenomena has a name, Cymatics, which derives from the Greek “kuma” meaning “billow” or “wave.” These videos can use water, fire, light, styrofoam beads, fine particles, or other materials driven by acoustic frequencies through some type of speaker to make sound waves in air visible for observation and measurement.

Here is a recent video called “The Essence of Sound” that uses very fine particles called lycopodium dust, driven by a subwoofer, and recorded with a ultra high quality $20K video camera. The results are quite beautiful, enjoy!

cymatics

Part 1: Innovation versus Imitation – A Battle with Consequences

Jony Ive’s book, “The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products” has had me thinking about design, creativity, and the importance of innovation. I actually started this post almost two weeks ago, but couldn’t seem to finish it. This morning I came across an interview Jony gave for the UK newspaper, The Sunday Times, where he was asked about how he felt about companies copying Apple. His response: “It’s theft … what’s copied isn’t just a design, it’s thousands and thousands of hours of struggle.” This is an understandable response considering how Samsung has copied the work he has done at Apple (and Microsoft before that) and he has a point, Samsung’s Galaxy S did look exactly like the iPhone.

iphone_galaxyS

But there seems to be a place for imitation and derivative works; scientific advancement depends on building on existing knowledge. Also, competition is many times based on improving existing products to make them better and/or less expensive, but when does imitation become stealing? This three part series will explore the concepts and issues around innovation versus imitation.

What finally motivated me to finish this post? I was in Phoenix airport last Monday morning and the theme was still on my mind. I decided to walk around looking for examples of copying versus originality and found one staring me in the face. The newsstand was filled with popular magazines.

magazines

I am familiar with most of them and everything from “Golf Digest” to “GQ” looked similar. They all must contain some original ideas, otherwise why would people buy them? However, one magazine caught my eye, way up on the top shelf, called “Complex.” Even after reading it for several minutes, I still couldn’t figure out the theme, but the design was unique and the ads were as good as the content. That is creativity. Even more unique, the Editor’s Letter had the quote, “We believe that what’s next is more exciting than what was.” In my opinion, creativity and optimism are a winning combination. It turns out that Complex reports on “trends in fashion, music, art and design, technology, sports and video games with a focus on niche cultures such as streetwear, sneaker culture, hip-hop, and graphic art.”

complex

There’s certainly a price to be paid for being original, but what about copying? If a company can get away with it, is it a free ride? Probably not, copying has its own price and the next post in this series will look at two headlining examples, Samsung and Microsoft. The final part of this series will bring the topic closer to home by providing examples that relate to niche technology companies. In the meantime, at least now you now where to go for updates on sneaker culture.

E=mc2 for Everyone

One minute physics explains complex scientific phenomena in an incredibly creative way. When working with niche technology companies, one major challenge is explaining difficult technical topics briefly with a level of detail appropriate to the audience. The genius of the post “Mass-Energy Scale” is that it not only explains E=mc2, but that it gives a graphical scale for the masses and energies involved. The large scale scrolls so you will have to view it on a computer.

Finally, watch the intro video. It explains why and how they created the energy scale. It is a fascinating glimpse into their thinking process. There is one more video at the bottom of the scale that explains why their energy scale is incomplete. This is the right place for it since they would have lost many readers if they had put this video first.  Again, these are all excellent techniques for any niche technology company trying to convey complex, interrelated information effectively.

Helmholtz Cavities and Dyson Vacuums

It is amazing what has happened in certain industries as a result of acoustics. The difference between high and low end dishwashers, washing machines, and other appliances many times comes down to sound, both level and quality. Disk drives used to be rated by acoustics until Seagate perfected the ultra quiet fluid bearing (and SSD’s became cost effective). Expensive headphones (excluding the electrostatic audiophile models) were only available from Bose and Beyerdynamic until a couple years ago. Now Amazon sells several models priced over $1,000 from Denon, Sennheiser, Shure, and others.  Last month, a post on this blog described the magic behind the almost silent Apple cooling fans.

Vacuum cleaners have followed the same trend. A high end vacuum used to cost less than $100 and most of these were noisy, mass produced junk. James Dyson revolutionized the industry with a bagless model. By the way, it was initially a failure because “no manufacturer or distributor would handle his product in the UK, as it would disturb the valuable market for replacement dust bags, so Dyson launched it in Japan through catalogue sales.” Luckily, Dyson persevered to become the success it is today.

Maybe most interestingly, Dyson is also willing to market the “secrets” behind their products. This YouTube video from Dyson explains how “Helmholtz cavities help Dyson engineers reduce the noise of Dyson’s new bladeless fans” in less than two minutes. It is worth watching since it is both great marketing and great science.

dyson helmholtz

As a bonus, if you hate those air hand dryers that seem to take forever and leave you wiping your hands on your pants, watch the videos on the Dyson Airblade hand dryer. I have tried this unit and it works incredibly well. The “engineer explains” video is also a great glimpse into measurements in a real anechoic chamber.

Part 3 of 3: How the Great Can Fall

The final part in this series will provide a few suggestions for initiating and implementing change. This topic has filled entire books, but for niche technology companies, here are three steps that might provide a helpful starting point:

  1. Commit to accepting the short term pain. (Expert tip: It might not be as bad as you think…)
  2. Try to honestly evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of your product / service offerings and act on that. For example, if you had the funds and time to start again from scratch, how would things be different.
  3. Commit to a short and long term plan, but be willing to make course corrections along the way.

A recent article in Quora describes the issue of Step 1 and provides a great example of disruptive technologies: “Innovator’s Dilemma: What is the Innovator’s Dilemma?” (login not necessary, just click anywhere on the page to dismiss the login box).

Step 2 is a little more tricky since it is so easy to get emotionally attached to “the way things are.” I worked for a company that made niche technology products that might only sell a dozen worldwide. They were committed to a solution for historical reasons even though it was unprofitable from the start.

Another example comes from Mercedes Benz who refuses to use a touch screen in their GPS. This makes entering a destination difficult and frustrating. The problems go deeper though; in the picture below, design has trumped functionality. This is a company that needs to honestly evaluate their GPS’s strengths and weakness since it is one reason we will not buy another.

GPS_UI

Finally, Step 3, a plan is always a good idea. It does not need to be a 100 page tome to “analysis paralysis,” but at least a basic structure that describes where you are and where you are going. Interestingly, this applies to individuals as well as companies. There are hundreds of business plan templates for companies, but Hubspot published one for Sales Representatives, a great idea. Companies and individuals should be willing to make sensible deviations from the plan along the way. The plan is there to help provide a structure to business activities not the other way around.

A future post will explore the high tech battle of “Innovation vs Imitation.” Each path has benefits and drawbacks. Which world do you live in?

How the iMac Cooling Fan Stays So Quiet

I rarely just repost another article, but many readers of this blog are involved with acoustics so here it is, the “magic behind the silence.” It is described in the Cult of Mac article: “How the iMac Cooling Fan Stays So Quiet.” My favorite quote explains, “how the impeller can be stabilized by the thrust bearing to keep the fan from making noise.” I have seen $100K medical centrifuges returned as defective due to an engineer’s decision to use $3 cooling fans, so kudos to Apple for their fanatical commitment to reducing fan noise.

The 80 / 20 Rule Illustrated 50 / 50

By now, readers should realize that I love maps. I buy maps for fun, enjoy geotagging photos, know how GPS works (basically), and I am interested in geographic representation of all types of data. So here is another fun one, “What America’s Economic Activity Looks like Split in Half.

US Economic Activity

After living in Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, San Diego, and now Phoenix, it is clear that this map only tells part of the story. It is amazing how different “economic activity” can be across the Western US. Phoenix is the best mix so far with a healthy variety of aerospace, electronic equipment, tourism, technology, and service industries. Of course, we haven’t been here for a summer yet…

Part 2 of 3: How the Great Can Fall

As a follow-up to part 1 of this series, the post “What the Heck is Happening to Windows?” gives a little more insight into the problems Microsoft is having with Windows 8. There are some great quotes in this article like “God knows, Microsoft tries. It’s a wonderful observer and follower.” and “It’s a return to that age-old issue where Windows simply grew, spaghetti-like, to accommodate every silly possible need of the system’s too diverse user group.”

win8

Can you imagine how difficult it is to implement major change at a company like Microsoft? Smaller companies are more agile, but resource limited. A company that I have followed for years, Basecamp, just made a MAJOR voluntary change. They used to be known as 37signals and for 15 years developed a wide variety of incredibly successful products including Basecamp, Ruby on Rails, Ta-Da List, We Work Remotely, etc. Any of these products could comfortably support a small company, but they realized a couple things:

  • “We do our best work when we’re all focused on one thing.”
  • “We’ve always enjoyed being a small company.”
  • “We want to maintain the kind of company where everyone knows everyone’s name.”

So they made the incredible decision to focus on just one product, Basecamp and even renamed their company Basecamp. Can you imagine Microsoft renaming their company “Windows” and deciding to focus entirely on Windows? But this post is not about criticizing Microsoft; maybe they will get a new lease on life with their new CEO. I have visited Microsoft many times and am always impressed by the engineers and projects so it is definitely not too late. The vibe is different than Apple, but not drastically. Google is as different from Apple as Microsoft is. The problem is higher up: a culturally reinforced resistance to risk and change such that they are being forced to change by the same forces that brought them greatness. Even in 2010, after 75 million iPhones had been sold, Microsoft still said “I think that people are going to be using PCs in greater and greater numbers for years to come. But I think PCs will look different … they’ll evolve. They’ll get smaller … they’ll get touch … their innards will change.” This was simply delusional, but I have seen it happen again and again in niche technology companies where no action is taken until entire markets are lost. The old ways are just too lucrative to risk change so salespeople are fired, management is reorganized, anything to avoid tackling the real problems.

Basecamp closes their massive change letter by saying, “The last fifteen years have been a blast, but with every future moment focused on Basecamp, the next fifteen are going to be even better. We’re fired up! We’ve already got loads of new Basecamp stuff cooking.” That is the difference in attitude between voluntary and involuntary change.

Next time, a few simple suggestions to help niche technology companies contemplating change make the plunge.

The Curse (and Benefit) of Expertise

I am not sure where this diagram came from, but after working with hundreds of experts over the years, it is the best explanation of the power (and curse) of expertise that I have seen.

IMG_0036

Most people have experienced working side by side with an expert and finding a previously difficult task easier. What happened when they left, was it still easy? Maybe the expert’s passion for their field got you excited about the field also?

Many years ago, I participated in an outdoor management training course. One of the challenges was tackling a task in a completely foreign area, in this case archery. They hired a world champion archer to teach us. He was so hardcore that he had tattooed the correct bow position on his hand. At first we couldn’t even hit the target, arrows flew everywhere, but with the help of the expert, we were all hitting the targets within an hour. In another hour, several in the group were regularly hitting the bullseye.

This expert had mastered more than archery. He had the rare skill shown in the lower right of the diagram, “What we can ENABLE by creating a context in which it is more likely to develop.” He gave us a context for developing our own initial expertise quickly by eliminating the hundreds of incorrect ways to shoot an arrow and focusing our attention on the few important factors.

So do not underestimate the power of expertise, it can dramatically reduce ramp-up time of new employees, inspire customers to tackle more complex projects with your products / service, and improve many other aspects of sales and operations.

Part 1 of 3: How the Great Can Fall

Recently I came across a long post from John Gruber (Daring Fireball) called “Microsoft, Past and Future.” It explained how Microsoft’s revolutionary initial vision “A computer on every desk and in every home” led to its incredible success. Fast forward 25 years and that vision became its Achilles heel when they missed the transition to mobile computing.

Cell Phone Sins

Today many niche technology companies are disrupting major entrenched corporations. I was excited to hear that Google Fiber might come to Phoenix, not because I love Google, but because CenturyLink and Cox are so horrible. Other examples include cellular phones which used to be a bizarre mix of design and features before the iPhone. Even Southwest Airlines revolutionized domestic air travel forcing changes at all other carriers in the US.

So do not underestimate the power of upstart competitors. At the very least they can force a company to sacrifice entry level customers that are the source for the sales pipeline. At worst, they can take away entire markets, sometimes with disastrous effects on the bottom line. How can a company prevent a situation like this from becoming a critical problem? The next post will provide some suggestions by looking at the strategies of companies that practice voluntary change.

Acoustics and the “New Economy”

I just read an interesting discussion in the LinkedIn Acoustics Careers group. It was long and comments were made by some “big names” in acoustics. The gist of the discussion is captured in the title “Advice for fresh PhDs in acoustics (never left school, one industry internship).” There are many unique features of the author’s situation such as his lack of student loan debt, wide range of interests, and relative youth. But maybe the most interesting part of the discussion is how he responded to the negative comments he received. He responded with curiosity and respect. “Why do you say this?” “Where do you get your numbers from?” “What do I need to do to get my first job?” He never backed down or attacked the commenters. This must have been difficult given the years, effort, and money he has invested in that PhD.

hms_IV_n

I am 99% sure that this person will do fine after getting that first, typically difficult, job in the “real world.” What concerns me are comments from people who should know better, like “The general field of physics has Phd’s being hired for an average cost of $17,000 to $21,000 per year in todays world… The average tech is being hired at a general rate of $10 to$15 per hour… You can do the math…” This is from an acoustics “expert” who has decided to locate his acoustics business in rural Washington State, hours away from Seattle. It is very dangerous generalizing from a limited experience base and terrible to discourage someone who obviously made the effort to provide the best possible capabilities to his future employer.

In my experience, the “new economy” is about a lot of things: from well funded entrepreneurs selling pixie dust to hard working engineers quietly improving acoustics so that the issue literally disappears. Do you remember how bad cell phone acoustics used to be before the iPhone? Apple invested the best and brightest acoustics engineers and immediately raised the bar for acoustic performance. Now I can talk on a cell phone (iPhone or Android) in front of an idling Harley motorcycle and the other person can hear me perfectly. That is the power of acoustics. I could go on an on about product noise being a differentiator in appliances, disk drives, medical equipment, etc., but you get the point, the future is bright for acoustical engineers!

Keeping Things Simple

The full title of this post from Lifehacker is “Keeping Things Simple Makes You a Productive Entrepreneur,” but replace the word “Entrepreneur” with: sales engineer, manager, programmer, whatever, and these are still great tips.

The post probably started life as several posts since it is made up of little info graphics covering:

  • How to have a simple life
  • How to get up early
  • How to start the day
  • How to work fast
  • How to think faster
simplelife
Originally posted at Funders and Founders

Managing salespeople for over 15 years, I have utilized many of these suggestions, especially during intense periods of activity like when I was earning my MBA and still working full time. For example, resisting the urge to start the day by checking email dramatically improved my productivity by forcing me to tackle challenging and creative projects while I was fresh. The added benefit was that many of those “urgent” emails were resolved by the time I got to them later in the day.

Other ultra successful people use these techniques. Steve Jobs was famous for his “uniform” of turtleneck sweaters, jeans, and running shoes. Forbes magazine identified 18 famous people who did the same in this article. Once Steve found a sweater he liked from the famous designer Issey Miyake, he had 100 made. Think of the time that saved buying clothes, choosing, coordinating, dressing, etc., probably thousands of hours in total.

So even though the solution to all productivity problems might not lie in the perfect sweater, enjoy this fun little post and try a few of the techniques, I guarantee that it will make life a little more efficient and enjoyable.

The Danger of Over Intellectualizing

For some reason, over intellectualizing has caught my attention recently. It started with Tim Brown’s book, Change by Design, which is excellent. He is the CEO of the very famous design firm IDEO. Recently I came across an IDEO slideshare presentation, “The Little Book of IDEO – Values,” where the second to last slide said: “Nothing is a bigger buzz-kill than over-intellectualizing. Design is about rolling up your sleeves and making things.” This is a radical approach since making things is expensive and difficult. Many companies use software to create and test designs to eliminate expensive “mistakes.”

Around the same time I read Frank Chimero’s post “Some Lessons I Learned in 2013” and the second item said something similar: “A lot of things don’t need to be intellectualized: ‘because I want to’ is often a good enough reason.” Since Frank is a world class designer, maybe this is not a coincidence, but the similarity to the IDEO quote made it stand out.

Many times creativity does not make “logical sense.” Steve Jobs gave a famous example of this in his 2005 Stanford commencement address. The excerpted text is at the end of this post, but the point is that sometimes a solution can only be found through a seemingly unrelated activity, a type of “stumbling your way through it.” There is certainly a place for careful planning, testing, and implementation, but maybe not at the cost of losing creativity and spontaneity. Another good example is this post, please read it with these points in mind, because I have no idea where it will lead!

trip_hurdles_800_5680


Excerpted Text from Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford Commencement Address:

“Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.

Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

Taking the Snore Out of Presentations

Q1 is the season for sales meetings. We all know the drill: go to a reasonably fun location and spend days in endless droning product and administrative presentations.

bored_students_800_3276

Many of those presentations cover topics that would actually be interesting if they were presented more effectively. A recent post from Sales Benchmark Index, “How to Take the Snore Out of Sales Training” focused on making sales training more engaging and provided several excellent suggestions such as:

  • Immediately spark interest
  • Present the material in an interesting way
  • Keep the program interactive during the entire training session

It occurred to me that these are great general presentation strategies from informal five minute sales presentations to much longer formal customer presentations. A simple change of focus can dramatically increase a presentation’s impact. For example, the old saying “come bearing gifts” can inspire a presentation that puts the customer’s needs first by providing them with something valuable such as experience or a creative solution to a difficult problem. Another example is the suggestion to “have a prop.” Engineers love to interact with a well engineered product and it is amazing how much attention passing around a demonstration kit can generate.

There are several other examples in the post that are worth the reading time and might inspire you to dust off that tired old presentatio