February 2005

In the past 5 years I have been involved in the field of technology and business
But strangely I somehow lost touch with developments in science. I did not track ANY developments in Science which forms the bedrock of technology. Being a engineering graduate, I am surprised at myself not doing so.

The book I picked up this week “Probable tomorrows” was an eye opener to the great advances that are due in the coming decade. For a moment I forgot the distinction between Science and Technology. They are fundamentally different

Science – usually involves the development of a hypothesis, the testing of that hypothesis by controlled experimentation or observation, the collection and analysis of data to produce results and the drawing of valid conclusions based on those results.
Technology – usually involves the design and development of a solution to a problem and yields a product, process or environment that serves a real need.

In this fast paced technological world, it is always breakthroughs in science which act as a propeller for product development in this world

The author mentions the following areas where there could fascinating trends in science and technology
1.Digital World:
It’s all going to be digital world: One of my cousins who is a successful entrepreneur had an opinion that software as a field of research is almost over. It has come in to main stream and all it requires is for the risk takers to develop and MARKET the products and services to various industries. As things stand in 2005 , the trends mentioned by a lot of VCs and futurists in the fieldare wifi networking, optical networks, peer to peer software, DNA Computer, RFID etc

It is assumed that traffic congestion in US causes 4 weeks of loss in productive time of people. The current status in this category
Magnetic Sensors along high volume routes
Dual Mode Remote Guidance
Cooperative Driving

The future trends of developments include
Hybrid Cars leading to Electric Cars
Using Hydrogen as a fuel by fusion process
CNG/LPG for fuel
Going back to rail systems (less polluting form of transportation)
Airplanes will be capable of leaping halfway around the world in just few hours

Though the author mentions about Molecular manufacturing, I need to get a more thorough understanding of the science behind it. I am planning to read “ The next big thing is really small “ sometime this week . Hopefully I will understand this trend better . To put in authors words, consumer goods will be produces at prices so low the poor of tomorrow could live as well as the rich do today

4.Smart Materials:
Intelligent materials embedded in structures , consumer durables will add a significant value to the end customer. Structures which decide the movement depending on the stress levels etc

5. Space Manufacturing and Services:
Fast Package Delivery
Space Burial
Space Theme Park
Remote Sensing
Communication Satellites
Space travel in tourism industry
Heavy Industries can move in to space , so that Earth can recover from our past environmental follies

Dramatic advances in gene aping and organ transplants will extend the healthy human life span well beyond the century mark

Scientists will have learned to purge the air of pollution, closing up the Antarctica’s ozone hole and ending the threat of global warming

Overall it was a pretty fascinating read about the future impact of the emerging trends in science and technology.

I was eagerly waiting for the next book from Malcolm Gladwell, the author of best seller “The tipping point”. After his first book which contained ideas about Viral Marketing that were lucidly portrayed, there was a great buzz in the industry and marketing circles about his next book – Blink. I got a chance to read the book when one of my friends presented to me as a gift. Actually I never expected it to read so early after it’s publishing, as it would ideally long time for some of the books to get to the Indian Book stores.

The first thing that attracts any person who picks the book is the cover. It is so elegant, and that it gave me an impression that the ideas inside the book would also be that elegant. However, that turned out to be false. Probably I had very high expectations from the book. My first impression, my blink about “Blink” was wrong. Now you might be wondering what does my Blink about Blink mean.
Let me explain!

Blink, in the words of the author is that impression which a person comes to, in the first 2 seconds of his/ her interaction with a product, person, etc. i.e. any aspect of life. The book quotes umpteen number of examples which goes to say that one can deduce in a blink a lot more than zillions of data and number crunching . It also says that there are a number of times when we blindly believe the opinion formed in the first few seconds and then take a wrong decision. The obvious question is “When should we trust our instincts and when should we be wary of them? “The author goes on to say that there is a tremendous power in blink and there are ways in which the power can be honed in any individual. This is explained in the third part of his book where he says that the unconsciousness 2 seconds from which we draw a conclusion can be can be educated and controlled using proper experience and environment

How do we draw conclusions from a blink?
Thin Slicing refers to the ability of our consciousness to find patterns in situations and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience. So with in the few slices of information we can sift through the situation in front of us, throwing out all that is irrelevant while we zero in on what really matters.

The above paragraph sums up the book. I could stop here, but I won’t be doing justice to this book review if I do not include some brilliant examples in the book

One example is about a kouros(statue) which is sold to a museum and the Museum management sees to it that kuros is authentic by conducting a whole set of tests and then confirm after rigorous scientific testing that kouros is indeed an authentic one. However after a few years, a curator from Italy comes and sees the kouros and says that there is something wrong with the statue. This he concludes within the first few seconds of viewing. The management gets a doubt and starts looking out for top notch people who have a passion for collecting art forms and invites them to their Museum. Suddenly a lot of people start claiming that the kouros is not authentic and there is something wrong with the statue, however they cannot explain what is it that is exactly wrong? Meanwhile the management also finds that a few of the documents which were originally given by the seller of the statue are misleading. The debate as to whether it is a genuine statue or not rages to this day.
If you walk in to J.Paul Getty Museum in California even today, you will find this against the statue – “Kouros – about 530 BC or a modern forgery!”

Second example that illustrates the point is that it is possible to actually educate and improvise blink power is that of Gottman, who spent a lot of time doing research on couples and their propensity to get divorced with in 5 years. He used to conduct experiments where he used to call couples in to a room and asked them to discuss on anything. He used to videotape 15 minute conversations and then check out for various emotions, facial expressions, body language, words used in their conversation. He then developed a code where a very few variables could decide the strength of a marriage. He honed his system with a lot more experiments and came to such a stage that he could just overhear a conversation in a coffee shop and predict whether a couple would stay together or not.

Now this is an example which clearly says in a decision making process, frugality matters. For any decision making, usually there is a lot of information and one tends to be overwhelmed by it. But it is only a few variables that are vital. Looks like the Pareto Principle.

There are some examples where the decisions based on blink go awry. The author calls it Warren Harding Error. Once, Warren Harding, a lawyer and lobbyist for the US senate saw a newspaper editor Harry Daugherty and in a fraction of a second decided that he had the poise, elegance and possibly everything to become the PRESIDENT OF USA. Indeed Harry Daugherty with a lot of help and luck did become President, but his tenure ended in 2 years and is known to be the worst president of USA.

What went wrong?
Snap Judgments are quick, unconscious; rely on thinnest slice of experience. Unless one educates these, they result in a disaster. Pepsi – Cola Sip test is a classic example where despite people favoring Pepsi against Cola, nothing happened to the sales of Pepsi.

The only interesting part I found about the book was the Story Telling Problem
That is clearly illustrated by the author using several examples. It means that
by articulating, verbalizing, there is a chance that there is a distortion from the decision that comes from snap judgments. In most of the market surveys that are done on innovative products and services ,which the customers have not been exposed before, the author urges the surveyors to take the responses using a mere yes/no or a binary type of question response that asking reasons for their likes or dislikes

The best example I found among all was the chair called Aeron which was made by Herman Miller. It was a truly innovative chair which the industry had not seen before. The market survey indicated that it scored very low on aesthetics.
However the company, instead of tinkering with the design went ahead and launched the product. The chair created a sensation in the industry. This is one of the instances where once can see the story telling problem .We as humans sometimes do not know how to verbalize the snap judgment and when we try to do it, we infect come up with a completely different judgment. In the words of author” We should be ready to accept sometimes that we know with out knowing why we know”

I am reader of Goldratt’s Management Philosophy where he says verbalizing gut feel is very difficult. He then goes on show some techniques which can be used to verbalize gut feel so a lot of thoughts can be structured. In a book called “ Its not Luck “ , a technique called Cloud technique is repeatedly used to drive home this point that verbalizing gut feel can be an effective tool to negotiation issues. But after reading Blink where the author says people have story telling problem, I feel how really difficult it is to use Goldratt’s techniques.

Overall, I feel “Blink” was a let down for me personally, especially after reading his excellent book “Tipping Point”. However one thing I am really amazed about the book is the wide ranging examples the author quotes to drive home his point about Blink

From many months, I have been yearning to read the story behind Oracle’s success and more so about its megalomaniac founder Lawrence Ellison, who is very often seen in the media, sailing boats rather doing anything else.

I was very curious to know about the individual who is portrayed in the media as one who makes bombastic statements about his company and deplores his rivals. He is also known to remove any key people whom he thinks as rising starts at Oracle. With so much said about him in the media, I was more than keen to understand the way he runs his company. From what the media has painted, it definitely looks like he runs his company in an autocratic fashion. If that is the case, how come a company can withstand 25 years in the fierce competitive Technology Industry? All these above made me immediately pick up a book written by Mathew Symonds who has written a book titled “ Softwar – An Intimate Account of Oracle and Ellison”

The book has dispelled quite a number of my notions about Oracle and Ellison.
Ellison is a very methodical engineered person who got 2 aspects absolutely right on target. The importance of Relational Database and Internet Centric E-Business Suite in the companies. In the process of 25 years, he got many many things wrong. C’mon, he is a human after all. However the beauty lies in the fact that once he knows there has been a mistake, he moves very swiftly in correcting or lessening the damage done by it.

The book gave me an insight in to the founding of Oracle in 1977 when Larry Ellison, Bob Miner, Ed Oates, and $2,000 started Software Development Laboratories, the company we now know as Oracle. It started as a consulting company. The main reason for founding a company was not that they had some breathtaking idea but all the three wanted to get out the drudgery of working in a place where there were not enough challenges and demanded very minimal of their talents.

Ellison saw a great potential in Relational Database, a technology which is avidly followed by Bob Miner. In 1977 only IBM was trying to bring that technology to the outside world by incorporating that in their DB2 Database which works for Mainframes. Ellison studied the competitive landscape and noticed that no one is working on it. He also sees that RDBMS when applied to PC can be a market in itself. By getting their product in to a market where there are no players, it can create an entire new database market. IBM, despite all the research was only willing to use the technology to the Mainframe and PC was not its scope of operations

Ellison saw this as a huge opportunity and got some funding from his family and started the development of the database with Ed Oates and Bob Miner. There was only one software company which was also trying to come with a similar product – Informix founded by MikeStonebraker.

In the words of Ellison
“We pick our enemies very carefully. It helps us to focus. We can’t explain what we do unless we compare it to someone else who foes it differently”

He did exactly that. He followed SQL language in the database and along with IBM tried to market it as the standard for the RDBMS. Informix on the other hand was using QUEL and was under the impression that QUEL was THE LANGUAGE that needs to be used. ANSI supported by IBM declared SQL as a standard and it killed Ingress

Lessons: Hire the best; get the standards right in your product and recruit good salesmen

The major lesson I draw from the Informix checkmate is that one always needs to be very observant to the standards evolving in the industry and adapt your product accordingly from the beginning. Once you get the right standards in to your product, it can be easily marketed. Blindly sticking to some language for the sake of it even when market is ignoring it is foolishness. Definitely it does sound as though Technology Business and Fashion have a lot in common. Why did boo.com fail (a UK based fashion on line retailer)? I will reserve the explanation for some other time

One of the main reasons for its superb software is the people whom Oracle hired. They were all graduates from Princeton, MIT, and Caltech etc, who built terrific products. Ellison main job next turned out to be hiring sales man. And he did with élan. His success at hiring can be easily gauged by the number of companies which were started by ex-oracle personnel. A few of them are
Marc Benioff – Salesforce.com
Tom Siebel – Siebel
Craig Conway – PeopleSoft
GregBrady – i2

Various versions of the database were released. In the process of the evolution of the various versions of the database, Ellison’s faith in Network Computing as the next generation technology strengthened. He started to advocate strongly that Client Server is dead.

When the entire database market was churning out Client Server apps , Oracle went ahead and took the risk of developing Internet centered Database Architecture

Risk taking is not important but imperative for one’s success in life. In the words of Ellison:
“I admire risk takers. I like leaders – people who do things before they become fashionable or popular. I find that kind of integrity inspirational”

He laid the foundation of Internet in to the database through the release of Oracle 8i where i stood for internet.

Ellison wanted to have applications on the top of the core database and start competing in a completely different market which is the applications business where the landscape has firms like SAP, etc. SAP with its vast application development experience in Europe had captured the market. Oracle on the other hand was way behind. It took 3 years to develop global financials package. To meet the Wall Street Pressures, Ellison was told that Best of Breed Software by integrating Oracle Fledgling app Software with Other software’s would help Oracle. Larry got convinced by senior managers whose logic remained that the best of breed solution was the way to bridge the gaps .That turned out to be a big mistake as the entire organization’s philosophy went for a six because for the first time Oracle’s code was being changed at the customer’s end, there was no repeatable process at all and each implementation became a separate project and System integrators which Ellison hates, started to poke their noses and make the customer go nuts. Apart from version mismatches, support problems, multiple databases were all delaying implementation time at customer’s end. The sales organization was also at odds with the engineering team. In such distressing time, Ellison once again took control of things (He is a classic delegator) and changed the strategy of the company. The most important element in the turn around strategy was returning back to the integrated suite approach and implementing it in Oracle first so as to gauge its performance.

His marketing strategies included strongly sending the following messages to its customers:

– 80:20 rule of product implementation: Implement 80% of the product and the company will reap huge dividends, rather than trying to go for the full hog and spending millions trying to implement the entire software
– Centralized database – All the Modules talk to one database
– Internet centered architecture of the application suite
– Best of breed software will not work in the long term whereas an integrated suit will be a better solution for the customers
– Information systems with process automation on the top
Oracle 9i was marketed as E-Business Suite

There was some mistakes by Oracle when Oracle 9i was released which lead to a lot of problems for the firm, one mainly being that of Early release with out proper Quality testing– Wall Street Pressures, Announcements with out checking out the ground realities. However Ellison saw to it that customers realized that Oracle 9i offered a speedy implementation of its software and some of its features like Clustering and Daily Business Intelligence were a great value addition for the customer. Eventually it came out the crisis and successfully marketed Oracle 9i. Thomas Kurain, an Indian is credited for the success of Oracle 9i’s Application Server and is slated to succeed Ellison at Oracle.

Through out the life of Ellison, he has always been excited by technology and has CHOSEN TO BE HAPPY. He did undergo a lot of emotional turmoil when the first 2 marriages did not work out. However he found ultimate solace in his work. He always says that “ Work defines a person” and has always tried to live his life working on problems, be it solving the Oracle 9i crisis or be it beguile winds in a sailing competitions. Problems always excite Ellison and he maintains that life after Oracle would mean working in Quark, a life sciences company which is trying to solve deadly diseases like cancer through innovative means

I sum up in a few words what I feel about Ellison’s life:
“Life is what one defines and what one carves it to be. The beauty of life lies in doing something on which zillion people say “Nay! It’s not possible”