What Color Is Your Matrix?

June 20, 2012 Leave a comment

I recently had a conversation with a prospective student for the IS continuing studies program where I am involved.  The student is in her twenties, has a two-year degree in “communications” and is working as a marketing assistant for a local PR firm.  As marketing assistants in small companies often do, she wears many hats and gets involved in activities way beyond her defined responsibilities and has become the de facto “computer expert” in the office.  She is thinking about pursuing a degree in the information technology field but wants to understand what type of jobs there are and what she should aim for.

Because of my proximity to IS, both in my “day job” and in my teaching, I get variations on these types of questions fairly regularly.  Over time, I’ve found that the questions I ask address two basic themes:  1.) Are you a generalist or a specialist? and 2.) Do you have a technical or a functional aptitude?

This model fits neatly into a 2×2 matrix.  I like to use 2×2 matrices for decision analysis because they are simple, clear and intuitive.  (I can’t prove it, but I like to think that 95% of the world’s decisions can be mapped with a 2×2 matrix.)

Specialist vs Generalist
These two attributes are opposite but complementary.   IS teams need both types of people to operate and thrive.  A few probing questions and a little introspection will usually reveal a tendency toward one or the other.  What are your preferences?  Where do your talents lie? 

Do you like to deep-drill a subject, exhaustively researching it until you understand every detail?  Do you strive to be, and enjoy being, “The Expert”?  You’re probably a Specialist.

Or do you get bored with the details, yet get energized in taking on new tasks?  Do you tend to appreciate the forest more than the trees?  In other words, would you rather frame and hang the finished jigsaw puzzle rather than plow through and connect the individual pieces?  If so, you lean towards Generalist.

There are long-term career considerations with this question as well.  As a specialist in IT, your utility to an employer is a double-edged sword.  You will be in high demand (with comparatively high salaries) when your technology is hot.  However, you will need to constantly gauge the market and retool appropriately when your technology is out of vogue or risk being pigeon-holed and limited in your career choices.  An IT generalist may not experience the high demand of a hot specialist, but may find it easier to remain in stable employment through lateral movement.

Technical vs. Functional
Like Specialists and Generalists, both Technical and Functional people are needed in IS organizations.  A classic technical/functional duo we are all familiar with is the two Steves of Apple fame.  Wozniak was the technical guru to Jobs’ functional genius.

Do you LOVE technology?  Are you enamored of it?  Do you see an app, a website or a piece of hardware and want to know “how did they do that?”  Then Wozniak is your guy.  Or are you more concerned with the results—the information that can be gleaned or the practical applicability of the system in addressing a real-world need?  Then you are in the Jobs camp.

 The intersection of these two dimensions defines specific disciplines within the IT career landscape.  I’ve listed a few examples in the matrix above.  While I don’t like putting people in boxes and limiting their choices, I do find that this type of guidance does help budding IT professionals determine a best-fit path for their careers.  In the case of my prospective student mentioned above, we determined that she is a “functional-generalist” and that technology-related training might be a future career option for her.

Another Opinion
For another take on the vertical / horizontal question, I came across this blog at Harvard Business Review that makes the case for the value of Generalists over Specialists.  As a generalist myself, I am a bit biased, but the key takeaway from the article is that the world—and IT in particular—is more connected than ever, and to effectively apply technology solutions to human problems requires a broader set of knowledge salted with an enthusiasm for flexibility.  Note the key word “apply”—an expert cabinet maker still needs a good saw.

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Categories: IT

The pIT and the Pendulum

June 5, 2012 Leave a comment

We’ve all heard or said the expression one time or another at work: “…blah blah blah and the pendulum swings the other way” or something to that effect.  It’s usually said after management does a 180 and reverses a decision it made the last time we said it.

A pendulum is an apt metaphor for trends in management decision-making, particularly in IT.  More often than not, the swing in IT is between the two opposing philosphies of centralization and distribution.  Centralized solutions are by nature standardized and controlled.  Distributed solutions tend to be customized and organic.  The benefits of a centralized approach are efficiency, cost effectiveness and manageability, while the cost is often an unwieldy bureaucracy that impedes agility.  Conversely, a distributed approach produces a leaner solution that is quick and responsive but usually at a higher cost with more risk.  I’ve seen this tug-of-war manifest itself in the following examples.

IT Alignment (Centralized: Functional, Distributed: Business)
Where does IT belong on the org chart?  Back in the day, IT was kept at arms-length by the business and IT responded in kind.  Over time, computers emerged as valuable tools for not only counting beans but also creating, selling and analyzing them.  Business invited IT to the table and even into the boardroom.  Now the question about whether IT should be functionally aligned or integrated with the business units is a proxy for the real debate about the competing forces of efficiency and agility.

IT Resourcing (Centralized: Hire, Distributed: Outsource)
Is skilled technical labor a commodity or a strategic asset?  The debate continues.  Is IT at the point where the bulk of its practitioners are interchangeable parts that can be outsourced to the lowest bidder?  What does a company lose when that happens?  Is IT expertise a strategic asset?  Or is the company better served by specialized vendors who can achieve economies of scale through a service architecture?  And since all I am doing here is asking and not answering questions, how many times have you seen this pendulum swing over the course of your career?

Application Architecture (Centralized: Thin Client, Distributed: Thick Client)
In the beginning we had no choice.  An organization had a single, very big, computer.  Applications were written for it and users were happy (in the same way your grandparents were happy to sip shoe-leather soup during The Great Depression).  Then, those long-haired kids from California invented computers that could be used by anybody (well, almost anybody), and workplaces became an archipelago of distributed applications that didn’t talk to each other.  Networks and shared disk space solved that issue, bringing a hybrid fix to the distributed mess.  And then the ultimate thin client architecture emerged—the Web.  Were PCs even needed anymore?  Now the battle has moved to mobile and the debate has resumed.  Native apps or mobile web?

Application Services (Centralized: Managed Hosting, Distributed: Local Hosting)
Here’s a simple question:  Which is more important to your organization, the ability to customize your applications and integrate your data freely or the elimination of the cost and overhead of maintaining an infrastructure that is not part of your core business?  It’s a classic centralized vs. dispersed conundrum, and if you think the argument has been settled, don’t turn your back on the pendulum that just passed you by. 

Standardization (Centralized: Standards, Distributed: Guidelines)
Standards are undoubtedly a good thing, but as Emerson said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”.  The key word is “foolish”, of course.  Standards must make sense and be rooted in reality, otherwise they will be ignored at best or adhered to at worst—at worst, because the end result will be efficient solutions that no one wants.  As long as there are software makers and software users, this tension will exist, and organizations will be dodging the swinging pendulum.

The forces of centralization and dispersion are natural to humans operating in groups of two or more, and the greater the forces the longer and more dizzying the pendulum swing.  Perhaps the way to avoid this trauma is to increase the force of gravity by exerting more downward force in the center.  (A yo-yo weighed down by gravity doesn’t swing very much.)  Compromise—a hybrid solution—may be the best approach.  In other words, let the things that require agility be dispersed and things that require stability be centralized.  Then, the challenge will be to figure out where the boundaries lie and how the two forces can coordinate their efforts. 

Piece of cake, right?

Categories: IT

What is a Facebook Founder To Do?

May 25, 2012 Leave a comment

Now that the dust has settled and the lawyers have emerged from the debacle that was the Facebook IPO, it will be interesting to see what will happen next.  Will Mark Zuckerberg’s personal wealth fall to that alarming level below $15 billion (check out the Zuckerberg Wealth-o-Meter on WSJ.com if you’re that concerned)?  Will Facebook give the shaft to the NASDAQ and jump over to the NYSE?  And will my wife finally figure out which one of her 336 “friends” un-friended her last week?  In an effort to end the suspense, my answers are: Yes, Yes, No.

As we know, Facebook issued an advisory in the days before the IPO that increased mobile usage by its vast user base will continue to crimp their ad revenue, which accounts for somewhere around 85% of their total revenue stream.  To add fuel to the proverbial fire, GM announced they were discontinuing paid advertising on the site a mere two days before the scheduled IPO citing a poor return on their investment.

I’m going to leave the financial analysis to the experts, as the extent of my financial expertise stops at semi-mastery of TurboTax 2012 Deluxe Edition.  Instead, as a casual observer of social media trends, I’m going to pretend that I know what will happen next.

Facebook, now a public company, will need to respond to pressures on its stock price.  As such, they will need to stem the bleeding from the trend towards mobile usage.  They can do this in a number of ways.  Below are some ideas, ranked from bad to not-so-bad.

Cripple the mobile app a bit by withholding certain functions thereby forcing people to use the full website.  Nah.  Dumb idea.  This isn’t 1990’s Microsoft.  Forget I said it.

Slap more ads on the mobile app, or at least make them more engaging.  This appears to be a no-brainer, but as we know, ads on mobile phones have an inherent difficulty.  They don’t work.  They are small, unattractive, and get in the way of the app.

Squeeze more revenue from their app partners (12% of their revenue is from their Zynga partnership) without pushing them away. Facebook gets paid every time you buy more coins or virtual goods for your Zynga games.  They also charge Zynga every time you leave Facebook and go to their game sites.  This is linear growth at best.

Exploit the power of the mobile device.  Now we’re talking!  That phone is more than just a handy way to post a picture of yourself at Yankee stadium on your wall.  Among other things, that phone has an awareness of where it is in the world.  And where IT is, YOU are (hopefully).  Facebook has been painfully aware of this, as its attempts at exploiting location services has failed to date.

Enter “Glancee”.  Glancee is a location service which doesn’t require you to check-in, and Facebook acquired the company a few weeks before the IPO went down.  In a nutshell, Glancee runs in the background on your device, monitoring your location and looking for people you may be interested in nearby.  This is quite different from Foursquare which requires you to actively check-in at a location—something that gets old very quickly.  How does it determine which people you might find “interesting”?  By mining your Facebook data of course (friends, “likes”, communities, etc.)!  The creep factor is much higher, but in my mind this type of service, if implemented effectively, will accelerate the ongoing evolution of how we humans interact.  And when humans interact in new ways, there is the potential for new business.

One billion.  Nuff said.  Analysts project that by August of this year Facebook will have 1,000,000,000 users signed up.  That’s roughly one-seventh of the world’s population, and it certainly won’t stop there as emerging countries continue to get connected.  Tracking the habits, movements, friends, interests and clicks of that many people has got to be worth a heckuva lot of money to someone.  Currently, Facebook’s own policy doles this information out very sparingly, mostly using it to place ads in the right places for the right people.  Facebook doesn’t even charge companies for this targeting service—just for the ads themselves.  To charge for the intelligence, though, Facebook has to demonstrate that the return is worth the cost.

Ad placement aside, though, the biggest benefit of all that data is that it’s their data (well, it’s actually your data—but they have it).  The personal data of one billion people summarized and cut in any number of ways (by sex, age, location, educational level, interests, etc) is, indeed, a gold mine.  Packaging and selling some of this data, as long as it remains anonymous and unidentifiable, is certainly possible and something they could pull off without too much backlash.  However, if users ever get a whiff of marketers engaging them individually based on a crumb of information they posted, there would be a massive revolt—and legislation would be soon to follow.  The threat of one-seventh of humanity (and Congress) carrying pitchforks and torches descending on its new “thumbs up” sign in Menlo Park is enough to keep Facebook from doing something so overt and so stupid; at least for now.

Looking ahead, Facebook will continue to falter, but ultimately it will not fail.  As the social-technology landscape continues to morph and evolve, the company can afford to try new things, take some risks and perhaps overstep now and then.  That’s because the data they are sitting on will always be valuable.  And right now it’s burning a hole in Mark Zuckerberg’s pocket.

Categories: General, Mobile

When Mobile and Retail Collide

May 16, 2012 4 comments

The trend isn’t new, but it is fast becoming the norm with smartphone users.

At first you may have felt a little guilty about doing it.  I did.  And then it hit me—things have changed and they’re the ones that are out of sync.  Not me.  Not you.  Not any of us.  It’s entirely their fault.  The customer is always right.  Right?

I’m talking about “showrooming”—a by-product of the social-mobile commerce trend.  It’s the experience of walking into a local store, finding an item, holding it, looking at it from all angles, comparing colors—and then walking right out to order it for 20% less online.  Or even more dastardly, using your smartphone to compare prices and then buying the item online while you’re halfway to the parking lot.  At the end of last year, Amazon launched its much-maligned (by other retailers) “Price Check” app that specializes in doing exactly that.  Local retailers feel they are fast becoming nothing but glorified showrooms.

So why shouldn’t you feel guilty?  Because technology has changed the rules.  Stores—especially large chain stores—are not defenseless.  Retailers like Target have tried to address the issue by leaning on their suppliers for greater discounts and by offering brands or products that can’t be bought elsewhere.  Other stores are seeking legal intervention, and sales tax reform is on the table in many states.  While these initiatives may help stem the bleeding (at the expense of consumer choice), a true win-win won’t happen until physical stores adapt to the new shopping paradigm.

Just like e-commerce pioneers brought elements of traditional stores to the web over 15 years ago (think of terms like “shopping cart”, “checkout” and “browse”), now it’s time to bring the power of the web back into the physical store.  Consider these questions:

  • Why do you typically feel you know more about the store’s product line than the folks that work there?  Because you do.  Stores should give their associates the tools they need to provide information at their fingertips—not in some backroom or at their manager’s station.
  • What about providing kiosks with built-in scanners for you to identify, research and compare products?  You’ll do it on your phone anyway, and the stores can glean a wealth of marketing info in addition to fostering trust and increasing traffic.
  • Why should you have to wait in line for 10 minutes to buy breath mints or a flash drive when the guy in front of you has a full shopping cart?  Provide roaming checkout clerks that can zap your items and take your credit card for small volume purchases.
  • Why aren’t stores more flexible in their pricing?  While emerging location-based apps give you access to instant coupons and mobile-only deals, let’s be creative.  Has anyone thought of a real-time in-store auction accessible through a phone app?
  • Why don’t more stores provide free wifi?  It’s relatively simple and inexpensive, and as a side benefit, shoppers can log in (no names, just age, gender and zip, perhaps) and stores can quietly monitor their shopping and browsing habits if they want to be sneaky.
  • To borrow an idea from Barnes and Noble, how about a lounge area where you can comfortably research your purchases online?  Are the stores afraid people will abuse it?  Or instead, will the store that does it become a magnet for tech-savvy shoppers interested in the physical experience a traditional store can provide?

The truth is that in most situations we’d rather see, touch and carry home the merchandise we buy.  Retailers need to exploit this inherent benefit while simultaneously embracing ubiquitous computing.  This will involve creativity, boldness and risk, but the new paradigm is waiting for someone to discover it.  And when they do, you won’t have to feel guilty anymore.

Categories: IT, Mobile

What does it take to change your mind?

What does it take to change your mind?  As you finalize your decision—be it the selection of a technology vendor, the color to paint your living room or whether your teenage daughter can go to the kid with the tongue piercing’s party—what are the catalysts that allow you, actually compel you, to reverse course and head in another direction?

Economist John Maynard Keynes famously stated, “When the facts change, I change my opinion. What do you do, sir?”  All well and good if you’re a totally objective automaton constantly sifting through the evidence ready to make a change at a moment’s notice.  (I’ll bet your relatives have pointy ears and hail from the planet Vulcan as well.)  And if you are indeed mathematically minded (which I am not), there is actually a branch of probability theory pioneered by mathematician and Presbyterian minister Thomas Bayes that formalizes this process.

But what if you’re more than half-human, and like most of us, you actually become emotionally tied to your decision?  There are many emotional and environmental factors that may cause you to become unreasonably wedded to a course of action.  Pride, fear and laziness are a few common vices that come to mind.  Given this, how can you be sure you’re making your decision with open, objective eyes?

I’ve found there are three basic questions that I informally, but periodically, must consider to ensure that I am not flying in the face of contradictory evidence:

1.  Are my assumptions correct?  If not, then reconsider.
2.  Have my assumptions remained unchanged?  If not, then reconsider.
3.  And most importantly, have I shared my assumptions and conclusions with other knowledgeable people?  If not, then do so and reconsider.

If I honestly answer “yes” to each of the above, then I am probably adequately immunized against my own subjectivity and can safely proceed forward.  Recently, I found myself hanging on to a decision I had made whose assumptions were no long valid.  It took a shower moment for me to realize that the uneasiness I was feeling with my initial recommendation was a red flag indicating that something was amiss.  Once I realized that a minor but key assumption had changed, I did a mental “halleluiah” (a verbal one would have been weird in the shower) and the new direction became clear.

And that’s probably one more question I should add to my list above:

4.  Is there a nagging little voice of doubt inside my head that won’t go away?  If so, then go back to step 1.

And in the case of letting your teenage daughter go to the tongue-piercer’s party?  My advice is don’t—and I guarantee that you won’t hear any nagging little voices of doubt either.

Categories: General