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One Successful Approach to Innovation that worked for an SMB

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When I owned a consulting company we viewed innovation as an imperative. It was the main thing that created differentiation, credibility, and opportunity. We had an innovation budget, solicited ideas from the team, and evaluated those ideas quarterly.

Almost as important to me was that this was fun. It gave everyone on the team the chance to suggest ideas and participate in the process. That was meaningful and supported the collaborative, high-performance culture that had developed. The team was inspired and empowered to make a difference, and that led to an ever-increasing sense of ownership for each employee.

The team also had a vested interest in having the process work, as quarterly bonuses were paid based on their contributions to the company’s profitability. There was a direct cause and effect correlation with tangible benefits for every member of the team.

We developed the following 10 questions qualify & quantify the potential of new ideas:

  1. What will this new thing do?
    • It is important to be very detailed as this was used to create a common vision of success based on the idea being presented.
  2. What problem(s) does this solve and how so?
    • This seems obvious, but if you are not solving a problem (which could be something like “lack of organic expansion”) or addressing a pain point then selling this new product will be an uphill challenge.
  3. What type of organizations have those problems and why?
    • This was fundamental to understanding if a fix was possible from a practical perspective, what the value of that fix might be for the target buyer, and how much market potential existed to scale this new offering.
  4. What other companies have created solutions or are working on solutions to this problem?
    • The lack of competition today does not mean that you are the first one to attack this problem. Due diligence can help avoid repeating the failure of others, and potentially provide lessons learned by others and help you avoid similar pitfalls.
  5. Will this expand our existing business, or does it have the potential to open up a new market for us?
    • There are upsides and downsides to each answer, but breaking into a new market can take more time and be more difficult, time-consuming, and expensive to achieve.
  6. Is this Strategic, Tactical, or Opportunistic?SOX Brochure Cover
    • An idea may fall into multiple categories. When Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) Act became law we viewed a new service offering as both a tactical means to protect our managed services business as well as an opportunistic means to acquire new customers and grow the business.
  7. What are the Cost, Time, and Skill estimates for developing a Minimally Viable Product (MVP) or Service?
  8. What are the Financial Projections for the first year?
    • Cost to develop and go-to-market.
    • Target selling price, factoring-in early adopter discounts.
    • Estimated Contribution Margin Ratio (for comparison with other ideas being considered).
    • Break-even point.
  9. Would we be able to get an existing customer to pre-purchase this?
    • A company that is willing to provide a PO that commits to making a purchase of that MVP within a specific timeframe increased our confidence in the viability of the idea.
  10. What are the specific Critical Success Factors to be used for evaluation purposes?
    • This was an important lesson learned over time that helped minimize emotional attachment to the idea or project, as well as providing objective milestones for critical go / no-go decision making.

 

This process was purposeful, agile, lean, and somewhat aggressive. We believed it gave our company a competitive advantage over larger companies that tended to respond slower to new opportunities and smaller competitors that did not want to venture outside their wheelhouse.

With each project, we learned and became more efficient and effective, and made better investment decisions that positively impacted our success. We monitored progress on an ongoing basis relative to our defined success criteria, and adjusted or sunset an offering if it stopped providing the required value.

The process was not perfect…

For example, we passed on a couple of leading-edge ideas such as a “Support Robot” in 2003 that was essentially an interactive program that used a machine-learning algorithm. It was to be trained using historical log files, could quickly and safely be tested in a production environment, refined as needed and ultimately validated.

This automation could have been used with our existing managed services and Remote DBA customers to further mitigate the risk of unplanned outages. Most importantly, it would have provided leverage to take-on new business without jeopardizing quality or adding staff – thereby increasing revenue and profit margin.

At the time we believed this would be too difficult to sell to prospective customers (“pipe dream” and “snake oil” were some of the adjectives we envisioned), so it appeared to lack a few items required by the process. Live and learn.

In summary, having a defined approach for something as important as business needs innovation to grow and prosper, as best demonstrated by market leaders like Amazon and Google (read the 10-K Annual Reports to gain a better understanding of their competitive growth strategies that are largely based on innovation).

Implementing this type of approach within a larger organization requires additional steps, such as getting the buy-in from a variety of stakeholders and aligning with existing product roadmaps, but is still the key to scalable growth for most businesses.

Good article on being an Entrepreneur

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Nearly every morning I start the day out by reviewing news on business, technology, and finance / markets. Occasionally there is a general interest article that I stumble across. Today it was a short article about Curt Culver, Co-Founder of Culver’s restaurants.

There are several great points that seem like common sense in hindsight, but are often well out of focus during the “heat of the battle” as you are building your business. Mr. Culver touches several of them:

  1. The Importance of having the proper Work / Life Balance
    • For me personally, this was one of the toughest aspects of growing my business. I was working 100+ hours a week, traveling a minimum of 50% of the time, and was often “not there,” even when I was spending time with my family.
      • My habits also set the expectations for others on the team, and I later realized that this created some strife at home for them as well.
    • The turning point for me was when my youngest daughter, then 4 years old, was telling her twin brother and my older daughter that, “Daddy really does love us, he just works all the time so that we can live here and have all of this stuff.” It was painful enough to hear that, but was a wake-up call about what is really important in life – people (especially family and friends), not “stuff.”
  2. The Need to Develop others on your Team
    • From past experiences I understood the need to hire the best people who you could afford – people with complementary skills (not just clones of yourself), and who were better than you in at least one aspect.
    • One of my goals around developing my team was to have everyone understand the big picture, and empower them to make good decisions for the business. 
      • While most of this occurred, my goal was to have each and every person think and act like owners of the business. That level of engagement and accountability only happened with my most senior person, who was also my first hire and actually did own a small part of the company.
    • The moment when I recognized success was during a mission-critical ERP system upgrade for our largest customer – a multi-billion dollar semiconductor reseller. I sat-in on project and team meetings, reviewed reports, and asked a few questions, but that was it. It was a very proud and empowering moment for me.
      • The weekend of the pre-migration test I received a call telling me that everything had been successful and that the migration was going forward the next weekend.
      • The following weekend I received a nightly summary email, and on Sunday afternoon received a call telling me that the new system was operational and supporting production with ease.
  3. Culture
    • Mr. Culver states that, “Culture is all about people.” That is true, but it is just one aspect of culture.
    • To me, the Cultural Identity of your company starts out as something aspirational, and grows into the glue that bonds each and every member on your team. It helps bring out the best in everyone, including the camaraderie and support that comes from working with people who you like and trust.
      • There were two unexpected consequences of actively focusing on culture, which were:
        1. We quickly transformed into a High Performance Organization. Everyone pushed to continually “raise the bar.” There was healthy competition between people, but each member of the team was there to be a “safety net” for others as having the team win was far more important that winning as an individual.
        2. New Hires that were not a good fit recognized that very quickly, and usually quit within the first 2-3 weeks. I only had to terminate one person during the probationary period that wasn’t a good fit.
  4. Having a Support System
    • Mr. Culver addresses failure and the importance of family to help support you in times of need.
    • One of the biggest lessons learned for me personally was nothing that I did or accomplished with my company would have been possible without the support of my wife, children, parents and in-laws (the later two providing financial support during the early years in times of need).
      • With understanding comes humility.

These are lessons learned that can be applied to any size organization, and in my opinion are a great investment in the future growth, value, and longevity of your company.

Here is the link to the article referenced – https://www.qsrmagazine.com/start-finish-what-inspires-execs/craig-culver-culture-all-about-people

Occam’s razor, our Maxima, and the Sage Mechanic

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My wife has a Nissan Maxima and loves her car. Over the past 9 months there has been a persistent but seemingly random problem where the radio is used for a few minutes while the car is off, and then the battery dies when she goes to start the car. This has happened more than a dozen times over the past 3 1/2 years, and it has been seen by two dealerships a for a total of three times recently with no success – the most recent visit being one day before this problem occurred.

Saturday morning I was running errands when my wife called and let me know that this problem happened again (second time this week and she was very frustrated). I was pretty excited because this time the problem occurred at home, not at some parking lot like usual, so I had the luxury of time to try to make a root cause determination. I’m somewhat mechanical but certainly no professional, so I followed my own consulting advice and contacted a professional.

Dave T. is a mechanical guru, and has an uncanny ability to offer sage advice with only a modicum of information. He is an incredibly busy guy, but is always willing to spend a few minutes and give helpful advice. It helps that he is a great guy, but it also helps him generate business (leads and referrals). It is an approach that helps create a constant backlog of work and very loyal clientele, which is good business.

I called Dave, described the problem, mentioned what I had read on various forums (i.e., similar electrical problems observed after some arbitrary mileage). Next, I mentioned that this had just been to the dealership and they did not find anything wrong. Dave laughed, stated that, “There is a 99%+ likelihood that alternator is bad, and possibly both the alternator and battery.” There was a pause, and then he added, “What’s more likely – that there is some completely random problem that only happens when your wife is out and your son stays in the car and listens to music for a few minutes, which by the way only happens to Maximas after X number of miles, or that there are issues with the alternators where they tend to fail after a certain amount of use, which causes them not to charge the battery properly and leads to a condition where there is not enough of a charge to start the car?”

When Dave explained it like that I felt kind of stupid, consoled only by the fact that other professional mechanics had not figured this out by now. He then added, “Anything that would be able to drain a battery within a few minutes would be noticeable. It would start a fire, or melt wires, and smoke or smell. You haven’t seen or smelled anybattery-cell-testingthing like that, have you?”

I described my plan to troubleshoot the problem, and Dave suggested that in addition I test the alternator and the specific gravity of the individual battery cells. So, less than five minutes into that call I had a plan and was off and running.

Yesterday afternoon I spent several hours using a very methodical approach to troubleshooting, documenting everything with pictures and videos to help me recall both details and sequence if needed. Sure enough, Dave’s knowledge and intuition led to the correct conclusion.alternator-test-shot

I gave him a call to thank him, and while talking I wondered aloud why the dealership could not figure this out? Dave replied, “It’s not that they couldn’t have done what you did, but instead they focused on the symptoms you described. The mechanic probably sat there for 10-15 minutes with the lights and radio on while the car was off. After that the car started so they assumed that everything was fine. I listened to what you said, ignored the randomness and speculation, and honed-in on the problem. Even the fact that this happened again so soon made sense because now your battery was run down from testing at the dealership.” He added, “In my business I get paid for results, so I can’t get away with taking the easy way out.” 

I’m big on lessons learned, wanting to make the most of each and every experience because I have learned that skills and knowledge are often very transferrable. As I thought about this I realized that Dave’s analysis was the perfect practical application of Occam’s razor. It’s a skill that is very helpful as a Consultant, but more importantly, it is something that can help when troubleshooting in any line of work. 

 

The Downside of Easy (or, the Upside of a Good Challenge)

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As a young boy, I was “that kid” who would take everything apart, often leaving a formerly functional alarm clock in a hundred pieces in a shoe box. I loved figuring out how things worked, and how components worked together as a system. When I was 10 I spent one Picture of a Suzuki motorcyclewinter completely disassembling and reassembling my Suzuki TM75 motorcycle in my bedroom (my parents must have had so much more patience and understanding than I do as a parent). It was rebuilt by spring and ran like a champ.

By then I was hooked – I enjoyed working with my hands and fixing things. That was a great skill to have while growing up as it provided income and led to the first company I started at age 18. There was always a fair degree of trial and error involved with learning, but experience and experimentation led to simplification and standardization. That became the hallmark to the programs I wrote and later the application systems that I designed and developed. It is a trait that has served me well over the years.

Today I still enjoy doing many things myself, especially if I can spend a little bit of time and save hundreds of dollars (which I usually invest in more tools). Finding examples and tutorials on YouTube is usually pretty easy, and after watching a few videos for reference the task is generally easy. There is also a sense of satisfaction to a job well done. And most of all, it is a great distraction to everything else going on that keeps your mind racing at 100 mph.

My wife’s 2011 Nissan Maxima needed a Cabin Air Filter, and instead of paying $80 again to have this done I decided to do it myself. I purchased the filter for $15 and was ready to go. This shouldn’t take more than 5 or 10 minutes. I went to YouTube to find a video but no luck. Then, I started searching various forums for guidance. There were a lot of posts complaining about the cost of replacement, but not much about how to do the work. I finally found a post that showed where the filter door was. I could already feel that sense of accomplishment that I was expecting to have in the next few minutes.

But fate, and apparently a few sadistic Nissan Engineers had other ideas. First, you needed to be a contortionist in order to reach the filter once the door was removed. Then, the old filter was nearly impossible to remove. And then once the old filter was removed I realized that the length of the filter entry slot was approximately 50% of the length of the filter. Man, what a horrible design! A few fruitless Google searches later I wasPicture of a folded cabin air filter for a Nissan Maxima more intent than ever on making this work. I tried several things and ultimately found a way to fold the filter where it was small enough to get through the door and would fully open once released. A few minutes later I was finally savoring my victory over that hellish filter.

This experience made me recall “the old days.” Back in 1989 I was working for a marketing company as a Systems Analyst and was given the project to create the “Mitsubishi Bucks” salesperson incentive program. People would earn points for sales, and could later redeem those points on Mitsubishi electronics products. It was a very popular and successful incentive program.

Creating the forms and reports was straight forward enough, but tracking the points presented a problem. I finally thought about how a banking system would work (remember, no Internet and few books on the topic, so this was reinventing the wheel) and designed my own. It was very exciting and rock solid. Statements could be reproduced at any point in time, and there was an audit trail for all activity.

Next, I needed to create a fraud detection system for incoming data. That was rock solid as well, but instead of being a good thing it turned out to be a real headache and cause of frustration. Salespeople would not always provide complete information, might have sloppy penmanship, or would do other things that were odd but legitimate. So, I was instructed to turn the dial way back. I let everyone know that while this would minimize rejections it would also increase the potential for fraud, and created a few reports to identify potentially fraudulent activity. It was amazing how creative people could be when trying to cheat the system. By the third month the system was trouble free. It was a great learning experience. Best of all, it ran for several years once I left – something I know because every month I was still receiving the sample mailing with the new sales promotions and “Spiffs” (sales incentives).

This reflection made me wonder how many things are not being created or improved today because it is too easy to follow an existing template. We used to align fields and columns in byte order to minimize record size, overload operators, etc. in order to maximize space utilization and performance. Code was optimized for maximum efficiency because memory was scarce and processors slow. Profiling and benchmarking programs brought you to the next level of performance. In a nutshell, you were forced to really understand and become proficient with technology out of necessity. Today those concepts have become somewhat of a lost art.

There are many upsides to easy. My team sells more and closes deals faster because we make it easy for our customers to buy, implement, and start receiving value on the software we sell. Hobbyists like myself are able to accomplish many tasks after watching a short video or two. But, there may also be downsides relative to innovation and continual improvement simply because easy is often good enough.

What will the impact be to human behavior once Artificial Intelligence (AI) becomes a reality and is in everyday use? It would be great to look ahead 50 to 100 years and see the full impact, but my guess is that I will see some of the effects in my lifetime.

 

 

Discussions that Seed the Roots of Creativity

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A few months ago I purchased Fitbit watches for my children and myself. My goals were twofold. First, I was hoping that they would motivate all of us to be more active. Second, I wanted to foster a sense of competition (including fair play and winning) within my children. Much of their pre-High School experiences focused on “participation,” as many schools feel that competition is bad. Unfortunately, competition is everywhere in life, so if don’t play to win you may not get the opportunity to play at all.

It is fun seeing them push to be the high achiever for the day, and to continually push themselves to do better week-by-week and month-by-month. I believe this creates a wonderful mindset that makes you want to do more, learn more, and achieve more. People who do that are also more interesting to spend time with, so that is a bonus.

Recently my 14 year-old son and I went for a long walk at night. It was a cold, windy, and fairly dark night. We live in fairly rural area so it is not uncommon to see and hear various wild animals on a 3-4 mile walk. I’m always looking for opportunities to teach my kids things in a way that is fun and memorable, and in a way that they don’t realize they are being taught. Retention of the concepts is very high when I am able to make it relevant to something we are doing.

That night we started talking about the wind. It was steady with occasional gusts, and at times it changed direction slightly. I pointed out the movement on bushes and taller grass on the side of the road. We discussed direction, and I told him to think about the wind like an invisible arrow, and then explained how those arrows traveled in straight lines or vectors until they met some other object. We discussed which object would “win,” and how the force of one object could impact another object. My plan was to discuss Newton’s three laws of motion.

My son asked if that is why airplanes sometimes appear to be flying at an angle but are going straight. He seemed to be grasping the concept. He then asked me if drones would be smart enough to make those adjustments, which quickly led to me discussing the use potential future of “intelligent” drones by the military. When he was 9 he wanted to be a Navy SEAL, but once he saw how much work that was he decided that he would rather be Transformer (which I explained was not a real thing). My plan was to use this example to discuss robotics and how you might program a robot to do various tasks. I wanted him to logically break down the actions think about managing complexity. But, no such luck that night.

His mind jumped to “Terminator” and “I, Robot.” I pointed out that there is spectrum between the best possible outcome – utopia, and the worst possible outcome – dystopia, and asked him what he thought could happen if machines could learn and become smarter on their own. His response was that things would probably fall somewhere in the middle, but there would be people at each end trying to pull the technology in that direction. That seemed like a very enlightened estimation. He asked me what I thought and I replied that I agreed with him. I then noted how some really intelligent guys like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk are worried about the dystopian future and recently published a letter to express their concerns about potential pitfalls of AI (artificial intelligence). This is where the discussion became really interesting…

We discussed why you would want a program or a robot to learn and improve – so that it could continue to become better and more efficient, just like a person. We discussed good and bad, and how difficult it could be to control something that doesn’t have morals or understand social mores (which he felt if this robot was that smart it would learn those things based on observations and interactions). I told him about my discussions with his older sister, who wants to become a Physician, about how I believe that robotics, nanotechnology, and pharmacology will be the future of medicine. He and I took the logical next step and thought about a generic but intelligent medicine that identified and fixed problems independently, and then sent the data and lessons learned for others to learn from. We’ll have an Internet of Things (IoT) discussion later, and I will tie back to this discussion and our Fitbit wearable technology.

After the walk I was thinking about what just happened, and was pleased because it seemed to spark some genuine interest in him. I’m always looking for that perfect recipe for innovation, but it is elusive and so far lacks repeatability. It is possible to list many of the “ingredients” (intelligence, creativity, curiosity, confidence (to try and accept and learn from failure), multi-disciplinary experiences and expertise) and “measurements” (such as a mix of complementary skills, a mix of roles, and a special environment (i.e., strives to learn and improve, rewards both learning and success but doesn’t penalize failure, and creates a competitive environment that understands the team is more important than any one individual). That type of environment is magical when you can create it, but it takes so much more than just having people and a place that seem to match the recipe. That critical mixing component is missing.

I tend to visualize things, so while I was thinking about this I pictured a tree with multiple “brains” (my mental image looked somewhat like broccoli) that had visible roots. Those roots were creative ideas that went off in various directions. Trees with more roots that were bigger and went deeper would stand out in a forest of regular trees. Each major branch (brain / person) would have a certain degree of independence, but

Salvador_Dali_Three_Sphinxes_of_Bikini
Salvador Dali’s “The Three Sphinxes of Bikini”

ultimately everything on the tree worked as a system. To me, this description makes so much more sense than the idea of a recipe, but it still doesn’t bring me closer to being able map the DNA of this imaginary tree.

At the end of our long walk it seemed that I probably learned as much as my son did, and we made a connection that will likely lead to more walks and more discussions. And in a strange way, I can thank the purchase of these Fitbit watches for being the motivation for an activity that led to this amazing discussion. From that perspective alone this was money well spent.

The Unsung Hero of Big Data

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Earlier this week I was reading a blog post regarding the recent Gartner Hype Cycle for Advanced Analytics and Data Science, 2015. The Gartner chart reminded me of the epigram, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (asserting that history repeats itself by stating the more things change, the more they stay the same.) To some extent that is true, as you could consider today’s big data as derivative of yesterday’s VLDBs (very large databases) and Data Warehouses. One of the biggest changes IMO is the shift away from Star Schemas and practices implemented for performance reasons such as aggregation of data sets, use of derived and encoded values, the use of surrogate and foreign keys to establish linkage, etc.

There are many dimensions to big data: Huge sample of data (volume), which becomes your universal set and supports deep analysis as well as temporal and spatial analysis; A variety of data (structured and unstructured) that often does not lend itself to SQL based analytics; and often data streaming in (velocity) from multiple sources – an area that will become even more important in the era of the Internet of Things. These are the “Three V’s” that people have been talking about for the past five years.

Like many people, my interest in Object Database technology initially waned in the late 1990’s. That is, until about four years ago when a project at work led me back in this direction. As I dug into the various products I learned that they were alive and doing very well in several niche areas. That finding led to a better understanding of the real value of object databases.

Some products try to be, “All Vs to all people,” but generally what works best is a complementary, integrated set of tools working together as services within a single platform. It makes a lot of sense. So, back to object databases.

One of the things I like most about my job is the business development aspect. One of the product families I’m responsible for is Versant. With the Versant Object Database (VOD – high performance, high throughput, high concurrency) and Fast Objects (great for embedded applications). I’ve met and worked with some brilliant people who have created amazing products based on this technology. Creative people like these are fun to work with, and helping them grow their business is mutually beneficial. Everyone wins.

An area where VOD excels is with the near real-time processing of streaming data. The reason it is so adept to this task is the way that object map out in the database. They do so in a way that essentially mirrors reality. So, optionality is not a problem – no disjoint queries or missed data, no complex query gyrations to get the correct data set, etc. Things like sparse indexing are no problem with VOD. This means that pattern matching is quick and easy, as well as more traditional rule and look-up validation. Polymorphism allows objects, functions, and even data to have more than one form.

VOD does more by allowing data to be more, which is ideal for environments where change is the norm. Cyber Security, Fraud Detection, Threat Detection, Logistics, and Heuristic Load Optimization. In each case, the key to success is performance, accuracy, and adaptability.  Image of globe with network of connected dots in the space above it.

So, while some things stay the same, others really do change. The ubiquity of devices generating data today, combined with the desire for people and companies to leverage that data for commercial and non-commercial benefit, really is very different than what we saw 10 or more years ago. Products like VOD are working their way up that Slope of Enlightenment because there is a need to connect the dots better and faster – especially as the volume and variety of those dots increases. It is not a, “one size fits all” solution, but it is the perfect tool for this type of work.

These are exciting times.