Friday, February 29, 2008

Migrating platforms; out with the old, in with the new!

A CTO friend of mine asked for my advice today on a topic I spent roughly a year immersed in during my stint at AOL. He's a faced with moving a large IT/engineering organization off of an old "legacy" platform and infrastructure, over to a new way of doing.

The legacy solution is rooted in 20+ year old thinking, formats, and standards. His solution is a modern SaaS model, using modern standards (HTTP, XML, etc). The technical details aren't important. He was concerned with the cultural shift necessary to move from A to B.

Along with a few colleagues, I was charged with moving AOL's proprietary infrastructure (20+ years old) over to new web standards based methodologies and technologies. For those AOLers reading this, I'm talking about the move from FDO/Bucky Ball/SAPI/FLAP to HTTP/HTML/JS/CSS/XML/REST. It was difficult. I'll try to avoid the technical detail rat-holes; they're actually fun to get into, but are best left to whitepapers or conversation.

Culturally, the "old" team were technical leaders at AOL. They are indeed genius and nailed more interesting technical challenges than today's lazy, in-efficient, web based models. They built a real-time publishing infrastructure that scaled to literally millions of simultaneous open sockets, all over 300 baud modems, and delivered live content to millions of customers. Today's web wouldn't stand a chance on connection speeds like that.

We tried the technical superiority approach to dethrone the wise men. No dice; they were smarter than us. We took the moral evolutionary high-ground, "the entire space has evolved, and we need to keep pace with the industry," and generally won that point. However, an interesting thing happened. We severely underestimated the loyalty engineers can maintain to technologies. When faced with job-loss due to necessary adaptation to something new, more folks threw themselves on the sword and quit, rather than conform to new stuff, than we expected.

When we couldn't convince everyone to "switch," we had to report back to management that our efforts were having limited impact. We had easily convinced upper management of the necessity in making the change early in the process; they, rightfully, swallowed hook line and sinker. Management's response was to simply layoff swaths of "old schoolers" to make way for the new thinking, and illustrate how serious they were at making the shift.

The end result was a complete shift from A to B; it was successful in the end.

My advice to anyone facing these kinds of, large (small teams are different), changes is to rip the band aid off. Attrition will happen. People marry themselves to specific solutions and simply don't want to change. Parting ways with them early, rather than wasting weeks/months trying to convince them, will save you much heart/head ache.

Recommended steps:
  1. Clarify, with necessary management support, what switch is occurring.
  2. Offer training/education on the "new" to everyone impacted.
  3. Sit down with the folks who didn't attend training, and either let them go, or find them completely new roles in the company. They're not on board. Don't waste your time.
  4. Start the transition.
  5. Enjoy having transitioned, and knowing you avoided much pain and suffering (for all parties involved).

Monday, February 25, 2008

Combining forces with Eric Marcoullier

Eric Marcoullier and I have partnered up to execute on an a much needed piece of the tubes infrastructure, and lo' and behold, parlay that fancy new whatchamacallit into a tasty business. We'll be more forthcoming in due time, but we're getting all of our ducks in a row first.

Over the years tubes get old, dry up, and crack in certain places. You learn what to repair, what to re-invent, and what to replace as time goes on. I love evolution, and particularly being in the right place at the right time to do the repair/invent/replace analysis and deployment.

Looking forward to talking in more detail soon...

Down with Apple stores!

I'm a huge Apple fan. I love nearly everything they do. I even really like Apple stores as long as I'm not trying to buy something. They're beautiful showcases and demo areas; but, it ends there.

I've stopped going to my local Apple store to buy things, and instead buy them at Apple's online store. There are two major problems with the stores from where I sit: one, there is no dedicated checkout area. In order to buy something, you have to track down one of the employees with the right checkout device (a wireless card reader). Because a large number of people in the store are there to buy something, they're hunting these employees down to. The result is a train of people following these designated employees around while said employee fields "I have a quick question" questions from others in the store. NOT FUN! 99% of the time I know exactly what I want before I walk in the store, I'm just using the store as a warehouse to get at the material I want to own. Walking in, grabbing my item, walking to a checkout area, paying, and walking out seems like a promising, age-old, model to sell things. For some reason Apple doesn't agree. As a result, I don't patronize my Apple store anymore.

Two, the support/maintenance aspect of the store is a mess. The "Genius Bar" requires a scheduled appointment for even the most mundane things. I'm technical, I know the difference between a failing USB port, and a bad hard-drive, yet I have to schedule a diagnostic session w/ the "Genius Bar", physically show up for the appointment with device in tow, sit through someone else asking the usual questions, and coming to the same conclusion. I'd prefer to just ship my device somewhere, or at least be able to leave my device at the Apple store and skip the appointment, but Apple won't let me do that.

The Apple stores have been wildly successful for Apple, and that's great. I would appreciate two things being added to the stores to make them useful to my more narrow demographic however: one, dedicated checkout area, with dedicated staff (no working other sections when things are "slow"). two, the ability to drop my hardware off to be "diagnosed" without me being there. I'm happy to write a note describing the situation, and to be available via phone, but sucking up my valuable time for a problem with your hardware is not cool.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Mocapay

I've been using a SMS payment service called Mocapay for several months now. I'm really excited about it, so I thought I'd jot some thoughts down. The idea is old, and I feel like several implementations over the years have come and gone. However, giving it a real chance this time around, I'm now a true believer.

End-user value
The value isn't where I expected it would be. I anticipated some level of convenience to fall out of using it, however, the reality is that I always have my wallet with me, if for no other reason than to carry my ID, and therefore my debit card comes along for the ride. So, as an end user, the convenience factor isn't there. That said, there are at least a couple truly valuable aspects as a user: one, I feel like it's free money (in some ways it is, more on that later). When I go to a retail location that supports Mocapay, I feel like I'm using someone else's money because the way Mocapay works is that you pre-fill your account (with say $100), and every time you use it, it draws down on the balance. So, I pre-fill (that's obviously a financial commitment), but when I go to use the service, say at a café, that specific transaction never hits my bank account. I know, kind of a twisted way of looking at it, but, it is what it is. Two, coupons! Many Mocapay retailers have negotiated a deal with Mocapay (presumably Mocapay subsidizes to some degree; maybe not though; not sure) to offer a discount if the customer uses Mocapay. For example, walking into a Mocapay retailer often greets me with a "Pay with Mocapay and receive $1 off your purchase." Well, that's a no-brainer! You mean all I have to do is pay using the service and I get on-demand, contextually relevant, savings?! Easy.

Retailer value
The value to the retailer is tremendous (assuming consumer uptake). First off, the retailer can target in-store ads (in-store or in traditional ads; online/offline) to potential customers. If Mocapay's subsidizing these discounts, even better! Second, the retailer gets to avoid pricy per-transaction fees collected by credit card networks. Third, the retailer, presumably, can buy demographic data on their customers that either they can't get from the credit card networks, or can't afford to buy from them.

Mocapay value
This section is pure speculation. Mocapay can sell demographic data to retailers. They also have an intimate relationship, and communications channel (cell phone SMS), with both parties in a financial transaction: the customer, and the retailer. That relationship allows them to do incredible targeting. They can ping the customer when one of their frequented retailers is offering a coupon/deal. They can ping the retailer when they notice an opportunity. For example, if Mocapay notices that I spent $100 at retailerA last quarter, and that this quarter my money went to retailerB, that's an opportunity for retailerA to pitch me to come back (with a coupon/deal of course). It's this relationship, and the backend data analysis, that presents enormous opportunity for Mocapay. That binding is of incredible value.

Strategy
While Mocapay could certainly go it alone, it'll eventually need enough capital to penetrate the retail market to any significant degree. Selling the model after getting it working in a handful of local markets seems prudent. If Mocapay can establish the model, prove it works (for customers and retailers), one of the big 3 credit card networks should snap it up. I'd go this route personally. Fighting those credit card behemoths has never worked; they're monopolies and can crush anyone messing with the model. Feels like trying to dethrone Coke or Pepsi in-store isle end-caps or something. That said, maybe the fight is just the thing the doctor ordered.

Existing payment infrastructure and models are literally archaic. I'd love to see a new way. Paypal conquered the online/email payment space, and it'd be great to have a new brick-and-mortar payment scheme. For the record, I've tried a dozen or so mobile Paypal implementations over the years, and I literally have never gotten a single one to work. I probably need to give them another shot, but it's been an utter waste of time thus far, and Paypal, at least so far, isn't going after the same space Mocapay is (apples to oranges).

Challenges
It's been tried before, and failed.
  • Culturally, the US is becoming more and more accustomed to SMS as a communication's means. "The kids are doing it."

Retailers incur too much IT overhead.
  • This is a monster challenge. I've noticed two types of retailers: one, computerized POS systems, and two, $150 manual cash registers. The retailers with POS installed have a 95+% success rate in completing my transaction. Even if the person behind the counter hasn't heard of Mocapay (yet they support it; this happens at least 50% of the time), when they go to cash me out, generally there's a "Mocapay" button they hit and the rest flows pretty smoothly. The retailers with the additional Mocapay terminal (a traditional credit card swipe looking machine) fail the transaction 95+% of the time. Either the "system is down," connections aren't setup correctly, or the front-end employee has no idea how to run the machine. This latter point is so true, that I can walk into a Mocapay retailer and guess at whether or not the transaction will work with extreme accuracy: if POS, it'll work, if manual machine, it won't. This poses a massive challenge to Mocapay. Those POS systems/terminals are very expensive and many retailers don't/won't buy them. Setting up and training employees of manual scenarios is expensive and hard. Furthermore, not enough customers use Mocapay to get the counter people used to going through the steps. So, while training may go well, a month later when someone comes into use Mocapay, the counter person has forgotten what they need to do. Clearly, the manual scenario either needs to be dropped from Mocapay's strategy, or the setup/install/use process needs to be fleshed out better.

SMS is still young in the US
  • While culture is changing, SMS is still young and getting people to use it for transactions is a hurdle. This will go away with time, and if I have anything to do with it (I'm a prolific SMSer) I may single-handedly convert at least my friends and family.

Chicken and egg
  • Retailers and Mocapay need more users to truly realize the value.

In summary:
The Good
  • Mocapay yields discounts on products I buy/use everyday.
  • Mocapay makes me feel like I'm not spending money.

The Bad
  • Manual terminal systems effectively always fail the transaction for one reason or another.
  • Not enough retailers using it yet.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Poor-man's webcam

Using OSX Leopard's remote Screen Sharing utility, I connected to my home machine, from work, fired up Photo Booth, and voilá! I was receiving a live feed of the back room in my house.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

water, l'eau, 水, wasser, agua

It seems every five years or so, the desperate situation around fresh water seems to creep its way back into the limelight. I've seen it pop up a few times over the past few weeks in my circles again.

As with other popular natural resources we are like frogs slowly boiling ourselves in water. The temperature increases slowly enough that we don't feel enough sharp pain to jump out; ever. In the end... you know what happens.

There are plenty of enlightening books on the water problem, but Blue Gold is my favorite.

Wars are already being fought over water, though oil captures the spotlight and the might of the US Military so far. Science and technology will eventually bridge natural water source exhaustion gaps, but it will be a rough process just as coming to terms with petroleum's global impact has been.