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

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Picture of a Suzuki motorcycle

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 winter 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. Beginners luck?

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.

Picture of a folded cabin air filter for a Nissan Maxima

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 was 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. Salespeople 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 validation processes and 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. Despite that, they expected immediate rewards and having their submissions rejected apparently created more frustration than incentive.

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, as well as how you could identify patterns to more quickly identify that type of activity. By the third month the system was trouble free.

It was a great learning experience from beginning to end. 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 also 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 maximize 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 the technology used 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.
  • People are willing to try things that they may not have if getting started would not have been so easy.

But, there may also be downsides relative to innovation and continuous 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 25, 50, or 100 years and see the full impact of emerging technologies, but my guess is that I will see many of the effects in my own lifetime.

Ideas are sometimes Slippery and Hard to Grasp

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I started this blog the goal of it becoming an “idea exchange,” as well a way to pass along lessons learned to help others. Typical guidance for a blog is to focus on one thing only and do it well in order to develop a following. That is especially important if you want to monetize the blog, but that is not and has not been my goal.

One of the things that has surprised me is how different the comments and likes are for each post. Feedback from the last post was even more diverse and surprising than usual. It ranged from comments about “Siri vs Google,” to feedback about Sci-Fi books and movies, to Artificial Intelligence.

I asked a few friends for feedback and received something very insightful (Thanks Jim). He stated that he found the blog interesting, but wasn’t sure what the objective was. He went on to identify several possible goals for the last post. Strangely enough, his comments mirrored the type of feedback that I received. That pointed out an area for improvement to me, and I appreciated that, as well as the wisdom of focusing on one thing. Who knows, maybe in the future…

This also reminded me of a white paper written 12-13 years ago by someone I used to work with. It was about how Bluetooth was going to be the “next big thing.” He had read an IEEE paper or something and saw potential for this new technology. His paper provided the example of your toaster and coffee maker communicating so that your breakfast would be ready when you walk into the kitchen in the morning.

At that time I had a couple of thoughts. Who cared about something that only had a 20-30 foot range when WiFi was becoming popular and had much greater range? In addition, a couple of years earlier I had a tour of the Microsoft “House of the Future,” in which everything was automated and key components communicated with each other. But everything in the house was all hardwired or used WiFi – not Bluetooth. It was easy to dismiss his assertion because it seemed to lack pragmatism, and the value of the idea was difficult to quantify given the use case provided.

Idea 2

Looking back now I view that white paper as having insight (if it were visionary he would have come out with the first Bluetooth speakers, or car interface, or even phone earpiece and gotten rich), but it failed to present use cases that were easy enough to understand yet different enough from what was available at the time to demonstrate the real value of the idea. His expression of idea was not tangible enough and therefore too slippery to be easily grasped and valued.

I’m a huge believer that good ideas sometimes originate where you least expect them. Often those ideas are incremental in nature – seemingly simple and sometimes borderline obvious, often building on some other idea or concept. An idea does not need to be unique in order to be important or valuable, but it does need to be presented in a way that is easy to understand the benefits, differentiation, and value. That is just good communication.

One of the things I miss most from when my consulting company was active was the interaction between a couple of key people (Jason and Peter) and myself. Those guys were very good at taking an idea and helping build it out. This worked well because we had some overlapping expertise and experiences as well as skills and perspectives that were more complementary in nature. That diversity increased the depth and breadth to our efforts to develop and extend those ideas by asking the tough questions early and ensuring that we could convince each other of the value.

Our discussions were creative and highly collaborative as well as a lot of fun. Each of us improved from them, and the outcome was usually something viable from a commercial perspective. As a growing and profitable small business you need to constantly innovate to differentiate yourself from your competition. Our discussions were driven as much by necessity as they were by intellectual curiosity, and I personally believe that this was part of the magic.

So, back to the last post. I view various technologies as building blocks. Some are foundational and others are complementary. To me, the key is not viewing those various technologies as competing with each other. Instead, I look for potential value created by integrating them with each other. That may not always possible and does not always lead to something better, but occasionally it does so to me it is a worthwhile exercise. With regard to voice technology, I do believe that we will see more, better and smarter applications of it – especially as realtime systems become more complex due to the use of an increasing number of specialized component systems and sensors.

While today’s smartphones would not pass the Turing Test or proposed alternatives, they are an improvement over more simplistic voice translation tools available just a few years ago. Advancement requires the tools to understand context in order to make inferences. This brings you closer to machine learning, and big data (when done right) significantly increases that potential.

Ultimately, this all leads back to Artificial Intelligence (at least in my mind). It’s a big leap from a simple voice translation tool to AI, but when viewed as building blocks it is not such a stretch.

Now think about creating an interface (API) that allows one smart device to communicate with another in a manner akin to the collaborative efforts described above with my old team. It’s not simply having a front-end device exchanging keywords or queries with a back-end device. Instead, it is two or more devices and/or systems having a “discussion” about what is being requested, looking at what each component “knows,” asking clarifying questions and making suggestions, and then finally taking that multi-dimensional understanding of the problem to determine what is really needed.

So, possibly not true AI, but a giant leap forward from what we have today. That would help turn the science fiction of the past into science fact in the near future. The better the understanding and inferences by the smart system, the better the results.

I also believe that the unintended consequences of these new smart systems is that as they become more human-like in their approach the more likely they will be to make errors like a human. Hopefully they will be able to back test recommendations to validate and minimize errors. If they are intelligent enough to monitor results and make suggestions about corrective actions when they determine that the recommendation is not having the optimal desired results would make them even “smarter.” Best of all there won’t be an ego creating a distortion filter on the results. Or maybe there will…

A lot of the building blocks required to create these new systems are available today. But, it takes both vision and insight to see that potential, translate ideas from slippery and abstract to tangible and purposeful, and then start building something really cool. As that happens we will see a paradigm shift in how we interact with computers and how they interact with us. That will lead us to the systematic integration that I wrote about in a big data / nanotechnology post.

So, what is the real objective of my blog? To get people thinking about things in a different way, to foster collaboration and partnerships between businesses and educational institutions in order to push the limits of technology, and to foster discussion about what others believe the future of computing and smart devices will look like. I’m confident that I will see these types of systems in my lifetime, and believe in the possibility of a lot of this occurring within the next decade.

What are your thoughts?

The Power of Simplicity

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If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”  – Albert Einstein

I actually didn’t care much for consultants in the first part of my career. My experience was that people would come in, tell you what to do, and then leave victoriously while we were stuck trying to implement something that just wouldn’t work. It seemed that they made everything seem so complex – often as a way to justify their cost.

Then, I met a really amazing consultant who shared something valuable with me. He explained what he believed differentiated a true consultant from a contractor (something I wrote about a decade later in a Tech Republic article).  He then made me aware of the Einstein quote above. This was one of those pivotal moments in my career.

Over the course of many years I have met many interesting people. Some seemed to try to intentionally obfuscate even the easiest things to try making themselves seem brilliant. Others took such a circuitous route that you sometimes forgot about what you were trying to understand and fix. And sometimes explanations were just so tangential that the main point was completely lost. There are likely many reasons for these experiences – some intentional and many not. The real lesson learned is that it wasn’t just consultants who have the ability to be incomprehensible, and that clear and comprehensible communication is key to effectiveness.

Just think about the power of a well crafted “elevator pitch” when you meet someone new, or the ability to quickly explain how your company differentiates itself from the competition (making you the better or safer choice in your prospect’s mind). Or, being able to articulate your business strategy in a way that people not only understand, but also so interests them enough where they want to learn more and be part of making that happen. This goes well beyond just having good communication skills.

The best consultants have this ability to explain something simply, as do the best employees, the best managers, the best executives, and the best business owners.  While this is only one attribute of success (likability, powers of persuasion, integrity, luck, etc. are others), it is something that can be taught, developed, and consistently applied.

The power to “explain it simply” is the power to make a difference.