Sunday, August 28, 2005


What could be more fun than putting cats in sinks and dressing dogs as bees?!

What can we learn from BA's woes?

I am in San Francisco again and I had ample opportunity to read the Sunday Papers on the way over. Leaving aside the inevitable sinking feeling when you read the same re-written press release for the fifth time, it's a most enjoyable way to spend a flight; there are usually far too many distractions to read even one Sunday paper when at home, I increasingly find.

Flying on the ever-wonderful Virgin Atlantic, I didn't have to experience the after-effects of BA's in-flight-catering snafu.

We hear a lot about the supposed perils of outsourcing to the outsourced employees or the supposed (but usually fictional) danger to national economies if the outsourcing also involves off-shoring. However, this is one of the first examples I've seen in the mainstream press where the potentially adverse effects of oursourcing can impact the business doing the outsourcing. It makes for interesting study as it's a case study in what not to do: there was no alternative supplier, the outsourced workers were in the same union as many of BA's in-house staff (and in many cases were married to them) so industrial problems could spread very easily, the service provider was in financial difficulties and it seems that BA did not have advance warning of what was to come.

In many ways, I suspect they were treating Gate Gourmet as a "black box". They provided a service for a price and presumably had service-level agreements by which they were measured. This is the essence of the Core Competency doctrine.

This is interesting to me since we preach the same doctrine in the IT world - albeit under a different name: SOA.

I was reflecting on what the equivalent to the BA/Gate Gourmet problems would be in the SOA world. The micro-level is probably the easiest to look at. We rely on a service provider (either inside or outside our organisation) to provide the fulfilment for a service we need. The contract is the interface. The question we should be asking ourselves is: what would be the impact on my solution if the provider of this service broke their SLA?

My work is giving me an intense focus on the concepts of "Versioning" and "Dynamicity" at present. I've seen some wonderful solutions for this problem in recent weeks.... can't wait to be able to blog about them...

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

If you can't explain something clearly...

... then I tend to assume you don't really understand it.

I have found again-and-again that when I can't find a straightforward, clear way to explain something, it means that I don't fully understand the concept myself. I experienced this a few days ago when replying to a colleague's request for information about a particular feature in a new product we're working on.

I started to write a reply, only to find myself writing longer and longer sentences, with parentheses inside parentheses and qualifications, exclusions and special cases galore.

I stepped back and realised that my problem was that I couldn't articulate - even to myself - what the core purpose of the function was. I was able to explain how to use it. I was able to describe when and where it would and wouldn't work but I couldn't say what it was for. That is: I couldn't tell a story to explain why it was even put there in the first place. What was going through the architect's mind? What problem were they trying to solve?

Once I did this thought experiment, I rapidly realised what it must be for... a bit of research and a couple of Sametimes later and I was done. I had a crisp explanation that told a good story and which made sense.

I was thinking about this last night when I thought: "How do I explain my job?" I currently have two 'stories' for my job: the one I tell non-IT people (family, friends, etc) and the one I tell IT people. The first one explains what an IT consultant does in a general sense. The second story assumes this knowledge and concentrates on what differentiates my job from other consulting roles.

I realised that neither of them was satisfactory and resolved to use the pages of this journal to rectify the problem.

Accordingly, I have set myself the task of crisply describing what it is, exactly, that I do... in a way that is accurate, understandable and interesting. I don't promise to be quick but I will get there...

Monday, August 22, 2005


The Register has a frivolous piece on Business Activity Monitoring (BAM) that makes a good point

Philip Howard correctly observes that simply monitoring key statistics of your business without any context is pretty useless and that you really need some analytics to go alongside. He recommends applying Business Intelligence techniques but the point is more general..... the real value of Business Process Management and Business Monitoring comes when you can intelligently make use of the data you're collecting. You inventory is x. So what?

Are you meeting your key performance indicators? Is your profitability good? Are your revenues on target? Where are we compared to the same time last year? How many orders have we processed this month compared to last month? What proportion of our applications required a manual approval? Is this down on last week? Did the process improvement we implemented deliver the benefits promised?

Transparent Pricing

For the trip back home to Liverpool this weekend we hired a car from Hertz. It had been booked long before my pleasant experience at Sixt so couldn't give them the benefit of my business two weeks in a row.

The car was fine (a 1.6 Ford Focus) - nothing special but it did the job and was pleasant enough. The interesting thing was how hire companies make money.

The Car Hire business is ferociously competitive - private customers will make their decision based on 1) price, 2) convenience of pick-up/drop-off location, 3) opening hours and 4) good/bad previous experiences of recommendations I imagine.

The hire companies have realised that price is where most people concentrate (hence the appeal of EasyCar's seemingly ridiculously low headline rates).

We chose to pay a "Location Service Charge" so we could return it to London City Airport last night (nowhere else was open on a Sunday and they charge extra for airports). In addition, the second driver and the CDW added to the cost.

So far, so expensive - but basically honest.... we wanted some extra services and we were charged for them. Well, the second one was sold to us... but it's their privilege to train and incent their staff to do this.

However, there are some other charges that are more underhand. A French couple in front of us last night were supremely upset when they realised they'd been charged extra because one of them was under 25. They didn't object to the charge in principle (even if the staff member did incorrectly tell them the charge was there "by law"). Their complaint was that the online booking didn't mention it... the price they were quoted was not the price they paid. Not good.

However, if they had been vigilant, they'd have spotted this earlier and could have made alternative arrangements had they wanted to.

The charge I was most impressed by was the "special offer" we were presented with at the counter. The sales pitch is essentially: "It's a pain filling the car up at the end of your journey... you're tired and it's the last thing on your mind. You can buy the fuel from us now... just return the car without filling it up and don't worry about it. What's more... our fuel is much less than the local garages (about 5p less per litre)".

What could be better than that?! Fantastic... where do I sign up?

Not so fast.... what you're about to pay for is a full tank. So, no matter how much you bring back, you're still charged for the full tank. I calculate that you'd have to return the car with less than 3 litres of fuel in the tank to come out on top with this deal. Far from reducing the stress at the end of the journey, it would have magnified it.... "Please let there be enough fuel to let me limp back to the airport!"

Tsk, tsk Hertz.

You're so nang

I was in the North West over the weekend, ostensibly to help look after my parents' house while they are away.

We went out drinking in Manchester with my sister and her friends on Saturday night and I was introduced to one who was a secondary school teacher.

As I always do in such situations, I begged to be told what the "latest" slang words are in use by "da kids".

  • Sick = Good

  • Butters = Ugly

  • Nang = Good

I was particularly impressed by "Nang". It is an excellent word and I shall use it in future. I was even more impressed when I checked BBC News online this morning and there was an article about the cockney accent. Nang, my new favourite word, gets a namecheck. Sick!

Friday, August 19, 2005

While we're on the subject of competition...

I had just observed that competition in software is a good thing when I came across this article about the UK Postal Service.

It made me think back to the days before the British Telephone service was privatised 22 years ago. I have just moved house and am getting my line rental from one company, calls from another and broadband from a third. Whilst still far from perfect (BT is still too powerful and too inefficient), the difference is staggering. I still remember my parents having to request BT for permission to install a second phone point in our house when I was a child. Truly we were privileged that the mighty public telephone company allowed us to have a telephone service at all!

On the assumption that our need for a postal service will remain, who knows what it will look like in 20 years if competition continues to increase?

Apache to deliver an ESB?

The Register is reporting today that Apache will shortly announce an Enterprise Service Bus project.

IBM's Bobby Woolf has a good set of thoughts and links on the concept of an ESB here.

It will be interesting to see what Apache come up with here. The critical point about an ESB is that it's an architectural device. Sure - you may choose to implement it with a specific product but you should never view the implementation of an ESB as the installation of a piece of software - that is just the means to an end.

Successfully implementing an ESB strategy means changing the way you think about enterprise development... you no longer write your applications to be autonomous with respect to partner interactions. Instead, you rely on some other service - the bus - to mediate your interactions with other applications and systems. This simple and powerful concept is easy to describe but takes effort to implement.

Competition (if that is what this is - who knows?) is always a good thing. If this forces the rest of us to raise our game it can only be good for our clients and the market.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

A happy customer

I hired a van from the Bow branch of Sixt at the weekend.

I was totally impressed. They gave me the cheapest quote, their service was friendly and efficient, they even talked me into paying for a reduced excess without going for the hard sell or making me feel I'd been ripped off. What's more: they gave me a lift back to the station when I dropped the van off at the end! The whole experience was of a quality operation working well. I'll definitely use them again.

Friday, August 12, 2005

I did it

I finally stopped delaying and made my first "investment", such that it was.

I bought into a FTSE 100 tracker while I continue my research into where my money should really go. This should probably be the cue that professional investors have been waiting for.... when naifs such as me buy into something that has risen so much over the last two years, it surely must mark the peak.

Nevertheless, a paper profit of 35 (pence that is) just before market close is now a paper loss of 42p. I think I'll just leave it alone for a while.

Presumably there's a flaw here somewhere...

I was thinking last night about tax on savings. I'm not sure why. But I was.

In the UK, one can add £3000 per year into a special tax-free savings account (an ISA). (I'm only considering cash ISAs in this post).

I thought of a cunning way to get tax free interest on more than £3000 each year and I wonder if it would work.

Here's the scenario.

Imagine you have £6000 to invest in a savings account (pretend you're saving for an imminent purchase so investing in stocks is not suitable, etc, etc). Let's assume the annual rate is 5%. Before anybody tries to get too clever, let's keep this simple: if you put £1000 into the ISA, you'd get £50 in interest after a year. Let's also assume we pay UK higher rate tax (40%), that we're honest people and we inform the Inland Revenue of any taxable interest income - meaning that we're liable for 40% tax on non-ISA interest.

So, of the £6000, you would put £3000 into an ISA and £3000 into a regular savings account (which we also assume pays 5% but is liable for tax)

At the end of the year, you'd get £150 tax free from the ISA account and £90 after tax from the other account - a total of £240.

Here's the clever bit.

What's to stop a bank launching the following offer?

"Our cash ISA pays 10% interest tax free (but you must also invest £3000 with us in a 0% regular account".

So... you'd still be saving £6000 and the bank would still be paying the same amount in interest. The only difference is that the 10% interest on the £3000 (£300) would be given to you tax free since it was paid from the ISA.

In other words, you'd save £60 in tax.

This idea obviously scales up to the frankly amazing "our ISA pays 100% interest! (but you need to save £57000 in a 0% account to qualify" offer - which would save somebody with £60,000 £1,140 in tax. Superb!

There must be a flaw in this somewhere...

Thursday, August 11, 2005

What were your previous jobs?

My comment-spamming-arch-enemy, Jon, asks an interesting question on his remarkable blog: "Careers... before this one"

I joined IBM straight from university - although I did have two jobs during this time.

My first job - which I obtained via a "Work Experience" programme when I was 16 was in the dispensary of a local pharmacy. When I look back on it, they demonstrated a remarkable degree of trust in me. I was responsible for taking patients' prescriptions (usually written in a doctor's unintelligible scrawl) and preparing the prescriptions (counting tablets, choosing which drug to dispense when the use of a generic name gave us an option, labelling, even sometimes giving advice over the phone or in person). It was absolutely fascinating and I toyed with the idea of studying pharmacy or pharmacology at university as a result.

This turned into a Saturday job and it was a useful source of income during the vacations from Uni. Although I didn't realise it at the time, it gave me a surprisingly deep understanding of the healthcare and pharmaceutical businesses which has been useful in my current role: on one engagement, in particular, I was able to overcome extreme initial hostility from a CIO by demonstrating my in-depth knowledge of his business.

My second job prior to IBM was a summer internship at PriceWaterhouseCoopers. I sometimes regret not taking up their offer to join them fulltime... I'd be a very well-paid accountant by now if I had. However, the work was really quite dull. This was, of course, primarily because I was a summer intern; we weren't going to get the best jobs. I also allowed mercenary instincts to drive me, however. The salary they offered seemed derisory at the time. I've since learned that "starting salary" is an unreliable predictor of "lifetime earnings" or even "earnings after five years". Oh well.... I won't make that mistake again!

Knowing how my mind works, however, I'd have probably done anything to switch from Audit into their consulting arm as soon as I joined and so would have ended up working for IBM anyway :-)

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Sun and IBM's blogging policies compared

There's a short (but still interesting) comparison of IBM and Sun's blogging policies over here.

This was linked to from "PR Opinions." I don't remember exactly how that particular feed found itself in my reader but it does give a fascinating insight into the world of PR.

And, as my sister (who works in marketing) never ceases to remind me, Marketing and PR are different!!

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Maybe I'm just a generally easy to stress person

It is well known to my friends that I suffer from "Economist Stress" (the uncomfortable feeling one gets on a Thursday afternoon when you know you won't have finished reading last week's Economist even though the new one will arrive in the mail on Friday morning).

I've now realised I also suffer from Investment Stress. I've created my trading account and loaded it with cash but now I can't bear to log in... every time I do, the money is just sitting there taunting me. "Why haven't you invested me yet? What's wrong with you?"

To make things worse, I know what to do and I know where to put it... I just can't seem to get round to it.

Example: as soon as BT announced they weren't going to award any contracts to Marconi for their "21st Century Network", it became obvious that Marconi would be a takeover target.

The bad news caused their stock to tank... (50% wiped off) yet there was an excellent chance of a white knight coming along and causing the price to shoot back up as people rushed back in. Yet.... I did nothing. Grrr.

Let's look at how much I could have made:

First, let's look at their six-month stock history:

That precipitous drop in May was when the bad news from BT was announced.

Where did the stock drop to? Around 270 is the most realistic lowest closing price (there's no chance I would have spotted the low). Where are they now? 305 and rising. That's a 13% rise in three months..... Grrr!!!

I should have the courage of my convictions.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Go West...

I'm in Burlingame, California this week at one of IBM's software development locations.

Image hosted by
View from just next to the hotel..... taken in the 30 second gap between jets landing at SFO about half a mile away... It's surprisingly quiet though.

Guilty Pleasures

I must admit to secretly reading the Daily Telegraph online. I tell myself that it doesn't really count if I don't actually pay for it.

Armando Iannucci was on his usual inconsistent (but sometime very funny) form today

"I've always feared our arrival at that point in human history where Nasa runs out of things to do. I think it may have happened this week. We've just sent a shuttle into space whose main mission seems to have been to repair itself before coming back down. This surely signals the beginning of the end of mankind's quest for knowledge."

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Remember the M&Ms

Josh Ledgard from Microsoft has an interesting "5 Tips for Being Successful at Microsoft". I think it applies just as well to IBM.

The "ignore artificial boundaries" post was particularly relevant. In my current role, I am working on a project that requires me to have regular and in-depth contact with the development and test teams of a forhcoming product release. As a field consultant, it's unusual to have quite this much contact for so long. I have to keep fighting my natural instinct to leave them alone and let them get on with it.

I'd qualify point 5 ("talk to customers") a little, however.... yes: our developers should talk to customers as much as humanly possible.... but make sure you're talking to the right customers! The customers who come to the lab for a three day briefing with a delegation of 10 staff are important; but so are the small customers.... the ISVs.... the business partners and the hobbyists. Getting involved with mailing lists, message boards and local user groups is as phenomenally important as sitting in on those briefings.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Tired in San Francisco

Well... persistence pays off.

I called Virgin on Saturday morning on the off-chance that they had found a spare seat and - hurrah! - they had.

So, 20000 Flying Club points later I was happily upgraded into Upper Class.

The difference it made to the journey is hard to overstate. The flight was still long, tiring, boring, sticky, smelly and horrid but it was on the acceptable side of tolerable: I was able to sleep, I didn't have to queue for hours anywhere, I could relax in the lounge before departure, there was space to move in the cabin. It made all the difference. It made giving up my Sunday and disrupting my life slightly less painful.

Hurrah for Virgin - the new Upper Class Suite really is very, very good. I was a little disappointed by the service from the cabin crew (they were understaffed, however and they did explain this at the start) and I got the distinct impression that there was a hierarchy of passengers - which I was at the bottom of - but they were minor quibbles. It was much better than BA's club world and just reinforced my belief that Virgin are the best airline around.

One tip, though: 12K is worse than Seat Guru tells you. Not only do you have the beauty area in your face, you're in a corner where the cabin crew can't see you. I was almost missed out on at least two occasions.

So... I intend to make the most of my time out here. There are several colleagues I want to meet. The product I'm working on is going to be very big and I want to make sure I'm at the forefront of our efforts to make it a success. Being based in a different country and different timezone to the majority of the team means I need to shout twice as loud :-)

I'm not looking forward to my return trip later in August. It's a discounted economy ticket with no possibility of upgrade :-( Given that I'll be missing the UK's summer Bank Holiday in order to fly, I'm particularly upset by that. It's my own fault for booking so far in advance... I won't make that mistake again ;-)