This quote buried in a recent Businessweek story about Google Glass really struck me. It’s from Silicon Valley management guru Bill “The Coach” Campbell:
On the whole, Campbell advised that product managers should not just be barking down commands about what features a new product should and shouldn’t have. They should work in close concert with the engineers and act more or less as editors, guiding features along the way. He pointed to [Steve] Jobs and Jack Dorsey, a co-founder of Twitter and CEO of Square, as two of the top such editors of their day.
For me, an ex-journalist who’s now the product guy on a startup team, this really resonated. Friends and former colleagues often ask me how my new life is different, but if anything, I always say it’s amazing how many similarities there are, mostly because of this editing metaphor.
To add to Campbell’s description a bit, I’d point out that sometimes the best way to improve a product isn’t by adding something in but by taking something out. Maybe a feature that’s been in developoment is just not ready for prime time, or maybe it’s just cluttering up the interface, or maybe the trade-off in time to build it isn’t worth the benefit of putting the product as-is in actual users’ hands to start a constructive feedback loop.
The value of cutting things is counterintuitive to a lot of people in general, but it’s obvious within five minutes to anyone who’s edited newspaper copy pre-publication. Unfortunately, a lot of journalists lack the technical familiarity to even communicate effectively with coders in a product-development environment. But the more I look at it, I think that skill may actually be easier to learn than convincing experienced developers (or product managers) that less is sometimes more.
To put it a different way, the world has a lot more clunky tech products than it has long newspaper stories these days. The financial hardship facing newspapers is one obvious contributor to that circumstance, but believe me, it’s not the only one.
Well, we’ve had quite a run of high-profile breaches in information security over the last week or so. While each case carries its own tawdry details, I think it’s worth pausing to consider them as a group for just a moment, lumped into the general category of “snooping.”
To recap for the benefit of anyone not keeping score at home, the Justice Department has been snooping on the Associated Press, Bloomberg News has been snooping on Goldman Sachs, and the IRS has been snooping on the Tea Party.
There’s something missing in that mix, though. Did you notice?
There is nary a public consumer-oriented tech company in sight in any of these stories. No Facebook. No Google. No Amazon. No Apple. Not even a Yahoo.
I don’t point this out to claim that Silicon Valley’s practices regarding snooping in its various forms are or have been perfect. But I do think this recent flurry of blowups is an opportunity to reconsider the frequent coverage of “privacy” that we see see directed at consumer Internet companies. Perhaps the way that issue has been framed in the popular imagination the last few years is doing the public a bit of a disservice, discounting other online risks that should also be considered serious.
The more I look at it, I think “privacy” is actually too narrow of a frame to encompass all the potential downsides from the rise of ever more powerful computers and ever more pervasive connection to the Internet. What we really need is a series of conversations about several issues that are loosely related but also somewhat distinct from one another. Just for starters, there’s free speech, data security, business ethics in general, and checks and balances on governmental power, which is much more vast than anything a business can exercise.
It’s also worth remembering that non-tech companies collect a lot of data on people as well, sometimes with more haphazard data practices precisely because they don’t have the expertise that tech companies do. Banks. Insurers. Airlines. For-profit education providers. Brick-and-mortar retailers with ancient computers they maintain like old manual cash registers. How does the information you share with these entities compare to what you give to Facebook?
Finally, as important as it is to point out risk factors, we should also focus more keenly on actual harm when we talk about any form of online snooping. Otherwise it’s too easy to veer into paranoia and miss out on the good aspects of all the amazing technology now at our fingertips.
There is actual harm in every one of those recent stories I mentioned up top in this post. By contrast, you know where there isn’t any? How about in all the preemptive hand-wringing over Google Glass. The new wearable, camera-equipped device is a prototype in the hands of only a few thousand people so far.
Maybe we should all just wait a little while and see how the Glass launch goes before freaking out about it. In the meantime, there are forms of snooping that we can be certain are much more worthy of the time and attention.
Salon’s Joan Walsh castigates the political press today for waaaaaaay premature coverage of the next presidential election. She writes:
Welcome to the surreal kickoff to the 2016 presidential race, which began in earnest only days into Barack Obama’s high stakes second term. Sequester, Syria, Afghanistan, the unending Benghazi story; all matter less than, or only in terms of, 2016 politics. High-minded journalists have been complaining about horse-race politics for my entire professional life, but our 2016 obsession is without precedent this long before the first primaries – and it’s destructive to the country.
This strikes me as a great Monday-morning topic, following on the heels of the Sunday political shows, which have really turned into weekly 2016 fests of late. I was ranting at my TV just yesterday about that, much to my wife’s amusement. In fact, I’m beginning to think this little meta-entertainment is the only reason she still reminds me to turn her “favorite” political show on every week.
Don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned this on the blog, but I’m a real Evernote junkie. One of the many things I use it for is as a “read later” app, clipping and saving interesting-looking stories I encounter on the Web but don’t have time to read in the moment.
I was just clearing out my “read later” queue a bit today and stumbled across a Harvard Business Review blog post that I now wish I’d read a lot closer to its publication date almost a year back. Mentioning here for the sake of anyone else who’s interested in entrepreneurship, as I am. Ditto for anyone doing any sort of job hunt or career planning.
Writer Greg McKeown starts with a simple premise — that success is a catalyst for failure for both organizations and individuals — and then he offers some insights about why this paradox exists and how to deal with it better. Extremenly useful stuff, I think.
Again, the full post is available here.
The first Web server began operation 20 years ago today. One of the better commemorations I’ve seen today is on the TED Blog, which summarized some general lessons on innovation from the “eureka” moment inventor Tim Berners-Lee had working on the first Web server.
Berners-Lee gave a Ted Talk of his own in 2009. First third or so in particular covers his early work on the Web, with fascinating stuff further in about the future of “linked data.”
I think Quartz’s Gideon Lichfield has given us by far the most insightful analysis yet of media mistakes during coverage of the recent Boston bombing. Offhand, it brought two things to mind for me that I’ve been meaning to write about here for some time anyway.
First, situations like the Boston coverage give the lie to legacy media organizations’ frequent posturing during non-crisis times as the great defenders of editorial standards versus the rampant irresponsibility of the Internet. The reality is much more nuanced than that. Any means of transmission of information — ink on a page, television, the Web, whatever — is neither inherently good nor bad. There’s good stuff and there’s crap to be found in any medium. The technology itself, old or new, is never inherently good or bad; it’s just there. It is what creative people make of it.
Second, transparency needs to be a core value within news organizations on par with old standbys like objectivity, accuracy, et cetera. Legacy media orgs simply don’t “get” that people are now inherently mistrustful of institutions to some degree, and that includes the media orgs themselves. I don’t think that’s an insurmountable problem, but I do think it has to be acknowledged and dealt with in much more consistent, robust way, including a lot more openness about how news orgs work internally.
Though this is unspoken, transparency is one of the obvious premises — and thus a great strength — of Gideon’s post. He critiques Quartz right along with everyone else, knowing this adds to his credibility. Bravo.
I’m belatedly catching up today on a hilariously cheeky stunt by a couple of engineers from the startup Sencha attempting to debunk a claim by the mighty Mark Zuckerberg.
After Zuck criticized the technical capabilities of HTML5, the basic building block of the open Web, the Sencha guys thought: “No, Facebook, you’re just doing it wrong. A good mechanic never blames his tools.” So they built a demo version of Facebook that runs better in browsers than the real thing. Then they blogged about it.
My geekier friends will appreciate the nitty-gritty of this. For the non-geeks, hey, maybe you want to try out the demo, humbly dubbed Fastbook, out of curiosity. It’s mobile-oriented, since that was a crucial context to Zuckerberg’s earlier remarks. Fastbook will also display all your actual posts and news items from your friends, so you won’t miss any FB action.
Curious to hear people’s impressions in the comments.
The sports press is abuzz about the pending announcement of baseball’s annual Hall of Fame vote, which will likely exclude Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens due to their use of performance-enhancing drugs.
Of course, there are a lot of opinions on this stuff, and a lot of ink is being spilled in particular by the baseball writers who covered the steroid era. They claim expertise as firsthand witnesses, but the subtext any fan should read between every line of all this recent journalism is that the writers’ own credibility is also at stake in baseball’s post-steroid reckoning. After all, the writers’ credulity in chronicling certain steroid-fueled feats was a major enabler of the whole charade for public consumption in the first place.
In this context, I have to say, Allen Barra’s* latest piece in Salon deserves special mention. He trots out two old arguments for letting steroid users into the Hall:
1. We’re still not sure if steroids even affect performance on a baseball diamond at all.
2. Steroids weren’t against Major League Baseball’s rules during what we now call “the Steroid Era,” so using them didn’t really constitute cheating to begin with.
At this point, the first argument is so absurd it’s not even worth debating. Even Barra allows that Barry Bonds’s late-career surge was clearly fueled by steroids, but that was only because Bonds had some magical concoction that the NASA-caliber geniuses at one particular private laboratory were able to devise. As for the rest of the guys using Brand X stuff, hey, maybe they could’ve all hit 50 or 60 home runs a season without it for all Barra knows.
By the way, that lab Bonds used was run by this guy:
As for Barra’s second point — the rule-based defense — I think that calls for more serious debunking. As a fan, I still hear it a lot in the stands at games, in sports bars, et cetera.
The crucial flaw is that steroid use has been illegal under U.S. federal law since 1990, around the dawn of what we now consider baseball’s “Steroid Era.” Obviously, federal law trumps the MLB rulebook. We could just as easily rephrase the steroid defenders’ argument like this: “Hey, those players never broke any league rules, just federal law. What’s the big deal?”
Sounds kinda stupid when you put it like that, doesn’t it? And you know what, even that interpretation is a bit charitable because it allows for some innacuracy that works in the steroid apologists’ favor.
In fact, MLB has long had rules against using any drug that’s illegal in society. Ergo, if steroids and other performance enhancers were illegal, they were automatically also against MLB’s rules, even if the league didn’t have a specific list of banned PEDs of its own.
This is why MLB commissioner Fay Vincent sent a memo in 1991 to all the clubs outlining the league’s anti-drug policy, including a specific section on steroids. Up high in the document, he writes: “The basic drug policy for the game is simply stated: There is no place for illegal drugs in Baseball.”
This policy was in effect more than a decade before baseball was able to establish a steroid testing program via collecutive bargaining with the players’ union, which is what the supposedly expert sportswriters really mean when they say “steroids weren’t banned” by MLB. However, a far more accurate characterization of history is that Vincent did indeed enact a steroid ban in 1991, echoing federal law. That initial ban didn’t have good enforcement “teeth” at the time because of union obstructionism, but the league added better teeth later as it became possible.
Looking back, Vincent’s do-the-best-you-can approach in 1991 makes a lot of sense when you consider that MLB is a multibillion-dollar business. Such an enterprise simply can’t condone illegality in its midst. That’s especially true if the illegality direcly affects production of the product, which in MLB’s case is the play on the field.
It should also go without saying that if both the commissioner and Congress tell you not to do something, but you do that thing anyway, you’re most definitely cheating by any reasonable meaning of the word.
*DISCLAIMER: I was a markets reporter at the Wall Street Journal for several years during the period when Barra wrote a sports column for the paper analyzing sports statistics — and rarely mentioning the possible effects of PEDs on such. Since we were in different departments, I had no firsthand dealings with Barra at the time, good or bad, though I did read his column regularly.
The major business story today is causing a small trip down memory lane for me. In March 2000, I broke a story for the Wall Street Journal about the creation of a little online upstart called IntercontinentalExchange.
Today they bought the venerable New York Stock Exchange for just over $8 billion.
Now it can be told: I remember back in 2000 their PR guy approached me at an industry conference in Boca Raton to offer me the scoop. Specifically — I’m not making this up — he called me over to the stern of a rented yacht while we were on a tour down the Intracoastal Waterway sponsored by another company as a promotional event.
I distinctly remember thinking, as have beat reporters since time immemorial: “Cool, at least I’ll get a good exclusive here to show the bosses back in New York that my whole trip wasn’t a boondoggle.”
Beyond that, as the record shows, it did strike me at the time that ICE had a shot at disrupting certain market niches on Wall Street. To reach a real piece of history like this, though… Wow. I’d be lying if I said I had the slightest inkling of anything like that.
On a typical day, I’m sure Michael Bloomberg encounters plenty of people with opinions about how he should spend his money. Even more so following yesterday’s scoop by the New York Times, which reported that Bloomberg might buy the Financial Times.
For what it’s worth, I’d side with the people who think he should pass on this one, considering the declining popularity of print. Even more to the point, every print-based business-news organization like the FT or my ex-employer Dow Jones essentially needs to become more like Bloomberg LP to survive these days. If you’ve already found one of the holy grails of the media industry — a lucrative revenue stream that’s not based on ads or subscriptions to news content — why acquire a competitor who hasn’t, with an organizational culture that may not take well to the changes you’ll inevitably need to make, and so on?
To put it a different way: When the Model T started selling well, Henry Ford didn’t go out and acquire a buggy manufacturer, did he?
The NYT story mentions LinkedIn as a company that some in Bloomberg’s inner circle think might be a better acquisition. I’d add another candidate that no one seems to be mentioning — Research in Motion.
Of course, RIM famously has a lot of problems of its own and would certainly be a turnaround project for Bloomberg. But here’s why it might work:
The two companies’ user bases overlap very nicely. If you could integrate Bloomberg data and news services more tightly into Blackberry handhelds, those devices would get new life as a must-have for financial-industry types.
Bloomberg has experience integrating data and hardware closely. That’s what they originally did with terminals on traders’ desktops. In essence, they have a chance to do the same now in traders’ pockets. Even after a few years of exploding mobile usage, this opportunity is still sitting out there unanswered because…
Android and Apple’s iOS don’t integrate well with Wall Street’s data networks. Of course, the main knock on RIM is that they’re getting their butts kicked by the two 800-pound gorillas of the mobile market, with no clear end in sight. But that’s assuming all these companies are competing for the average Joe consumer. Enterprise users in general — and Wall Street users in particular — are a little different.
The main rub is that a lot of the key services that finance pros use in a typical work day run on proprietary data networks, not the Worldwide Web that the average Joe uses. The current Bloomberg terminals are a great example of one of these proprietary networks, as are the trading engines at the major stock exchanges, as are some of the trading systems that big brokerages have set up for their staff and customers.
Apple and Google have never really integrated their products well with these niche services. This is why, for instance, traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, who have been using specialized tablets for years, have never switched to iPads en masse.
Maybe the Silicon Valley types have simply overlooked this niche because they’ve been so busy fighting for consumers. Or it could be a matter of not having the right relationships, since integrating with the various financial-industry networks would require some cajoling of senior IT execs at the various banks, exchanges, etc.
Whatever their reason, the point is that Bloomberg clearly does have the expertise, the strategic interest, and the relationships. Those things would give it a fighting chance at reviving a business like RIM, whereas an ink-on-paper publisher like the FT is ultimately a hopeless case no matter how smart you are.