Retrospective thoughts on Smart Shift

Smart Shift, a book about the impact of technology on society, is now published online. Here’s my thoughts on its multi-year gestation. 

About seven years ago, I decided to write about everything I thought I’d learned, on the impact of technology on society as a whole. Having been down in the weeds of infrastructure (either as a job, or as an analyst), I wanted to express myself, to let some ideas free that had been buzzing in my head for some time. I know, I thought, why not write it as a book. That’ll be simple.

I already had some form, concerning the notion of getting into print. Biographies of a couple of popular bands, a technology-related book and various mini-publications gave me experience, some contacts and, I believed, an approach which was, one way or another, going to work.

Fast forward a few years and many lessons, and we have a book. While I took advice and had interest at beginning, middle and end, while I worked through the process of proposals, of creating a narrative that fitted both what people wanted to read and how they wanted to read it, of having reviews and honing the result, it was never published.

And, perhaps, it was never going to be, nor was it supposed to be, for reasons I didn’t fully understand. The first, so wonderfully exposed recently by screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie, is the lottery nature of many areas of the arts: writing, film and music.

The crucial point is that the lottery is symptom, not cause: a mathematically inevitable consequence of the imbalance between a gloriously rich seam of talent-infused material, and a set of corporate channels that have limited bandwidth, flexibility and indeed, creativity, all of which is navigating a distracting ocean of flotsam and jetsam. While the background is open to debate, the consequences are the same: just “doing the thing” right doesn’t inevitably lead to what the industry defines as success.

Much to unpick: a different thread, of course, could be that my own book is either flotsam or jetsam. A better line of thinking still, is to recognise a number of factors that are spawned from the above, not least, what is it all for?

Before answering this broader question (broadest of all questions?) it’s worth pointing out the nature of this particular beast. Let me put it this way: any treatise that starts with the notion that things are changing (e.g. anything about technology) is signing its own best-before warrant. The window of opportunity, and therefore one’s ability to deliver, is constrained by the time period about which one is covering, and the rate of change therein. 

In other words, over the period of writing, I was always out of date. No sooner had I written one thing than the facts, the data points, the anecdotes started to wilt, to wither on the vine I had created for them. It isn’t by accident that I ended up delving into the history of tech, as I had already captured several zeitgeists only to see them die and desiccate before my eyes. 

On the upside, I now have a book which could (still) be revised: each chapter is structured on the principle of starting with something old, and using that as a foundation to describe the new. Canny, eh?

Returning to “what is it for”, one point spawns from this: there’s a place for history in the now. I know, that’s not blindingly insightful, but the link between the two is often shunned in technological circles which prefer to major on revolutions than deeper-rooted truths.

Meanwhile, and speaking of the now, one needs to accept the singular consequence of both lottery culture and rapid change, simply put: if you’re a technologist, the chances of getting your message out there in book form are miniscule, if you rely on a relatively slow-moving industry. Which very much begs the question, what is the point? If the answer is to be published, then you may be asking the wrong question but, as Christopher intimates, good luck to you. 

At this point, I’d like to bring in another lesson from my experiences with singing in a band, or in particular, what happens when only a handful of people shows up. It happens, but it doesn’t have to be a disaster: what I have learned is, if one person in the room is enjoying themselves, they become the audience. It’s humbling, uplifting and incredibly freeing to give just one or two people a great time through music. 

Put everything together and the most significant lesson from Smart Shift is this: my job, and my passion is to capture, then share an understanding. The job, then, is to balance reach with timing: better that a handful of people get something at the moment that it matters, than a thousand receive old news. 

The bottom line is just do it, get it out there. Grow your audience by all means, build a list of people who want to hear what you have to say, and have something to give back in response. But start with the right ones, with the person at the back of the room that claps along. Not because of any narcissistic ideal but because, if the job is to communicate, an active audience of one is infinitely more powerful than not being heard at all. 

 

Retrospective thoughts on Smart Shift

Travel Forward 2019: Let’s do this

You know that thing when you realise there’s under two weeks to go? I’m reviewing the final PDFs of the Travel Forward conference agenda right now and once again I’m staggered to think how it has gone from the aspirational, yet largely empty canvas of six months ago, to the packed, exciting and dynamic programme we now have. 

As I’ve been briefing speakers, the message has been simple: senior technology decision makers from across the travel industry will be coming to days one and two of the conference… but what happens once they have gone home, slept, woken and arrived back in their workplaces on day three?

Our goal is not only to inspire but to educate, with practical steps that enable attendees to take their businesses forward (the clue’s in the name). I say “our” – I’ve been lucky enough to work for, and with some really smart people to pull this programme together. 

So, team, speakers and attendees, let’s do this – let’s make Travel Forward 2019 a conference to remember, where preconceptions are left at the door and where hopes and dreams are replaced by practical and actionable steps towards genuine, technology-powered opportunity. 

Travel Forward 2019: Let’s do this

Bulletin 5 April 2019: On visibility vs observability, ecosystems and tree hugging

I’m just back from São Paulo, where I was hosting a travel technology conference. Don’t ask me how I get into these things: I sometimes feel like Mr Benn, the cheery chap from the children’s series who walks through a magic door and into his next adventure. 

But I digress. Knowing the value of such things, I gave my introduction in Portuguese; I also had my presentation slides translated (thank you Vanessa, Rodriguo, Paula and team). Which led to a number of discussions about the meaning of words. 

I try not to use jargon, I really do; when I find myself doing so, I endeavour to explain it. But sometimes, what I assume is a standard phrase, widely adopted, turns out not to be the case. Take, for example, ‘ecosystem’ — which in Brazil is as likely to have ecological, as business connotations. 

The phrase concerned was: “Embrace the ecosystem.” Makes perfect sense, right, particularly in this networked, open, collaborative age? For sure, in principle, but it could just as easily read “Hug a tree,” which wasn’t quite what I was trying to get across. 

That was only part of the issue, as the words weren’t directly replaceable. It wasn’t just the jargon but assumptions about context — if someone wasn’t aware that a collaborative network of suppliers existed, for example, should they really be advised to embrace it? 

In the end, I went for “Actively engage in open partnerships” (or indeed, “Esteja aberto em suas parcerias”). I was aiming for a spirit of proactivity, an open-ness to new forms of collaboration. All good, I hope it came across. Even if one participant did say, “You could have just used ecosystem.”

All of which is a long-winded introduction to a word I have only recently come across: that of ‘observability’. As I have written before, the world of cloud-native startups has emerged separate from that of enterprise IT: it is natural, therefore, that it has its own terminology and indeed, jargon. 

It is also natural that such turns of phrase should be used in the belief they are some way normal or well-understood. I paraphrase but “organisations need observability” was pretty much the gist of what was said. Sounded legit, I thought, hoping that I would understand more as the conversation went on. 

And indeed I did. It is a thing, that in the world of cloud-based, distributed applications, it can be very hard to know which bit of which microservice is doing what. So, if the whole application is running slow, the challenge is knowing where the problem is. 

Observability, then, is about knowing what is going on, where, in a cloud-native application. There’s a neat explanation here, which uses Twitter as an example. The article goes on to say how observability is more than just monitoring, which is all well and good. But. 

And there is a but. There’s a hidden assumption in the middle, that the challenge is unique to these new-fangled, cloud-based applications. For sure, they are pretty amazing — the fact I can get a live feed from a globally accessible messaging platform is incredible. 

Yet old-fangled applications can also be complex and highly distributed, requiring notions of, well, observability. Trouble is, they don’t use the term; they don’t even frame the problem in the same way. 

In large-scale enterprise applications, the approach is more around “end-to-end service management.” That is, the pieces making up the delivery of a service should be trace-able, from user interface right down to the server hardware, so that problems can be solved when things go wrong. 

Clearly, massive overlaps exist between the two notions. But they illustrate how difficult dialogues between cloud-native and traditional enterprise groups can be. Each might think (as I did, I confess, a little bit, with ‘ecosystem’), “Surely they’ll understand what I mean, it’s obvious, right?”

A long time ago, when I co-wrote ‘The Technology Garden’ with Dale, Neil and Neil, we established a core tenet of IT delivery as “Establish a Common Language.” At the time we were talking about common terminology between the different parts of the business and IT; the same applies to our bifurcated technology industry. 

Enough said, for fear I might introduce some jargon. Perish the thought. 

 

Smart Shift: The empty headquarters

In this section, we look at how business is moving from the physical and tangible, to the virtual and invisible. Which sounds a bit like a song. Perhaps it is. 

 

Until next week, Jon

Bulletin 5 April 2019: On visibility vs observability, ecosystems and tree hugging

Bulletin 29 March 2019: 4G vs broadband, and personal inertia

We are each the elephant in the room

I’m not going to lie, I’m a person of routine. Despite being able to live an essentially freelance lifestyle, I still get up on a weekday morning at a certain time, I go to an office in town (yes, I have an office in town) by 9.00am and I get on with my working day. 

I would also, if I could, subject myself to the vagaries of being subservient to work — at the end of the day, I would struggle to leave on time — were it not for the fact that I share transport, and would therefore find myself short of a lift. 

Based on three decades of working with others, I don’t think I’m unique on either count: what’s fascinating is how our need for consistency often plays against our ability to ignore when we are being taken for a ride (or indeed not, if I miss mine). 

We are stuck in certain models. To whit: the office I from a marketing agency has a broadband line of, well, let’s call it sporadic quality. Despite being in the middle of a town: while my home village now has two fibre options, Cirencester’s main street has none. I know, right? 

More interesting (for the purposes of this bulletin) than this clear failure of service provision, is the fact that we have been going along with it despite the availability of alternatives. For the record, the 4G signal in my second-floor office is both consistent quality and high bandwidth.

I have never had a problem with the mobile data signal, indeed, I have used it when the broadband has been down. So, why have I never thought of, you know, ‘just’ switching over and going fully mobile? It’s a question I, and the agency owner, have been asking ourselves. 

To his credit, Adrian (for that is his name) is currently testing a 4G hub from EE: the prices have dropped to tens of pounds per month, for hundreds of gigabytes, so it would be rude not to. At the same time, we have agreed between us, it makes the “but it’s not a fixed line!” part of us squirm. 

Which is pretty crazy. Whole swathes of the world, particularly what us decadent westerners refer to as ‘developing’, rely entirely on mobile rather than fixed lines. Possibly one of the most disruptive innovations still to happen, that of 5G-powered IoT, is (well, obviously) based around mobile.

And yet, still, part of me feels ‘mobile’ is in some way less adequate than ‘fixed’, even though I am here, day after day dealing with the consequences of dodgy broadband. To repeat, I don’t think it’s just me: indeed, I think this psychological block behind much technological inertia.

The point is that it’s real: one can (by all means) tell me that I’m dumb for being so stuck in my ways, but that doesn’t actually achieve much. There’s an enterprise link to this, in that so many of our corporate decisions, or indeed, lack of them, are going to be psychological.

What to do? I’m not absolutely sure, beyond recognising that people aren’t good at change. If companies accepted this from the outset, they could save a fortune in change consultants, a.k.a. people brought in at vast expense when things turn out to be harder than initially believed. Just a thought. 

 

Smart Shift: Society is dead, right?

Enough about technology: Smart Shift moves its focus onto how tech has impacted what we do (spoiler alert: the following section will be about who we are). First, we cover the technological breakthrough that begat all others: the wood cut

 

Thanks for reading! Jon

Bulletin 29 March 2019: 4G vs broadband, and personal inertia

Bulletin 23 March 2019. Cybersecurity vs complexity

You can’t manage the universe molecule by molecule

 

It’s an old adage, that it’s easier to break something than to build it. Or maybe I just made that up, but it rings true (and I have many years of experience with lego to back it up). Case in point: a cybersecurity breach. 

I could cite Facebook’s recent admission (following a leak) about passwords being stored ‘in clear’, but that’s just one in a long series which serve to demonstrate that, however hard you try to get everything right, all it takes is to get one thing wrong and the house of cards comes tumbling down. 

Cybersecurity has changed, over the years, but this fundamental principle has not. Once upon a time, we relied upon ‘fortress’-style approaches such as defence in depth — protect the perimeter and the insides will look after themselves — but these were plagued with insider threats and admin errors, challenges caused by configuration issues and flaky software. And, indeed, complexity: it was repeatedly proven impossible to close all the doors, lock all the windows and seal all the plumbing. 

I know we relied upon such approaches, as I was repeatedly asked to give presentations about why the model no longer worked. Pictures of Jericho, of walls coming (a-)tumbling down were my go-to content asset, together with some boxes joined together with lines of course, and a curve which tails off toward the top. You had to have one of those. 

Then, we arrived at the place where there are no walls, where you might as well be wandering naked in the desert for all the protection traditional system security might give you. It’s about at this point where I was asked to write a book about security architecture, which somehow needed to straddle the perimeter-based old world, and the unbounded new. It kind of succeeded, though whether it struck the right balance or just sat on the fence, I am not sure 

In this wall-less world, complexity is king: it has moved from an “entropy of the universe will get you in the end” status to becoming the norm. Back in the day, a starting point for securing everything was to know everything you had (or at least be able to wrap something around it). This is now impossible, not only because you can’t manage everything, but because everything goes all the way down. 

I’m reminded of Intel’s Spectre and Meltdown issues, during which it was revealed that today’s processors have a processor within, running a customised Linux operating system: get to that and you have the keys to the kingdom. Technology really has become like Stephen Hawking’s Turtles All The Way Down anecdote, with each level of turtles being subject to the same level of vulnerability. 

Which leads to a bit of a challenge as, after all, you can’t just give up. Even if it only takes a small thing to mess up everything you have done, and it is impossible to keep on top of everything you have, and even if you could, you couldn’t hold all the detail on it anyway. Some are advocating for the cybersecurity equivalent of early warning systems, which may catch when something is about to happen; this goes back to back with recovery processes (i.e. the least you can do is have a plan in place for when all goes wrong). 

Others talk about security by design, which is about putting security features into stuff from the outset, rather than trying to bolt them on later. This sounds great, but (and it’s a big but) doesn’t take into account the interactions between stuff. Back in my programming days, the hardest bugs to solve were the ones that feel between two stools — an uninitiated or mistyped variable over here would cause a problem when passed over there. In today’s world, where anything could talk to anything, the potential for such weaknesses is obviously (not wanting to overstate) “quite big”.

Is there an answer? I think there is, in that one can look after one’s own sheep before worrying about the rest. I can create (well, I can’t, but one can) create a loosely scoped, anything goes technology-based innovation, or I (bear with me) can create something similar, but within which I have been very careful about all the pieces that make it up. That’s a kind of architectural approach, at least in terms of level, though ultimately it doesn’t matter about what the architecture is; what matters more is whether I (quiet at the back) am in control. 

In other words, even in this astonishingly complex world, keeping it simple could be key to keeping it secure. 

 

Smart Shift: The return of the platform

If you want a poorly thought through and trite literary reference, look no further than this chapter’s nod to (author) Thomas Hardy’s Return Of The Native. But I digress. The platform economy is as much a story of corporate power, as any altruistic tale of innovation. It was ever thus. 


Thanks for reading, Jon

Bulletin 23 March 2019. Cybersecurity vs complexity