Monday, October 31, 2005

It's not just about the technology

As a consultant (and one-time technical sales person) at IBM, it was drilled into me from an early age that businesses don't buy cool.

Woe betide you if you don't know your audience. You don't pitch ethereal business value to a geek and you don't EVER pitch "neat" technology to a line of business executive. Know your audience. This becomes second nature after a while.... you always check with the local team who the intended audience is and you make sure your presentation or workshop or round table is designed for them. If they're paying for your time, give them value for money. If you're trying to sell them something, don't insult them or waste their time talking about things they don't care about.

This is just one aspect of knowing your market. Never make the mistake of pitching the list of features and functions. Who cares? Tell me how it helps me solve my problems.

With this in mind, I found Don Doge's latest post on being an entrepreneur in the tech space eye opening. What he says is spot on... this guy obviously gets it. But the posting heartened me on another level.... if he needs to tell people this stuff, perhaps there's a chance for me after all :-)

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Everything I thought I knew turned out to be wrong

I've considered myself to be fairly "centrist" or "centre-left" in my political views for most of my life. I remember heated arguments with friends at Cambridge where I would routinely find myself to be in a minority of one.

However, I have just finished reading a book that has turned many of my preconceptions completely upside down.

James Bartholomew's "The Welfare State We're In" is absolutely fascinating. And utterly depressing.

Written by a less careful (and caring) writer, this book could easly have been dismissed as a right-wing diatribe and ignored.. Instead, Bartholomew enumerates all the things that were intended to be improved by such things as the NHS and State Pensions and shows how, perversely and counter-intuitively, they have been made worse. By the end of the book, his claim that Britain (and all Britons) would have been better served if the modern welfare state had never been created is credible and almost inescapable.

I'd love to read a critique or rebuttal of this book.... perhaps I've just been too trusting of the figures and excellent writing but the worrying thing is that I really don't think I have... the very people intended to be helped by the massive increase in state intervention in the last 60 years really do appear to have been those most harmed by it.

It has given me far more to think about than any book I've read for a long time.

I would encourage any reader - of any political outlook - to read this book. It is truly eye-opening.

Saturday, October 29, 2005


I've been somewhat sceptical of those promoting the current fad of "PodCasting".

However, I've recently discovered Radio Economics. As the name may suggest, this is a PodCasting site with an emphasis on discussions of economics. The format varies but typically consists of a discussion between a couple of renowned economists or an interview of one.

I've listened to one on the relationship of Biology to Economics which was illuminating but I was particularly excited by the analysis of WalMart.

The trick - which it took me a while to master - is to realise that these are not intended to be professional radio broadcasts. People talk over each other.... interviewers sometimes forget they're supposed to be interviewing and start debating.... some of them are very stilted. But when you set your expectations correctly, it's a fantastic medium.

My main problem is that I'm falling behind with my reading of The Economist now. I read this when travelling (usually to the office or to a customer or airport). However, now I'm listening to PodCasts... and these take far more concentration than just putting music on. I guess we need to add some extra hours to the day.

Interestingly, IBM are at the forefront of the PodCast wave. To my shame, I have yet to listen to any of our official Investor Relations productions but they're in the queue and I'll get there eventually...

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Customer Data Integration

I tend to describe the work I do variously as Enterprise Application Integration, Business Process Management or Business Integration.

I will shortly be getting involved in a project where the concept of Customer Data Integration will be highly relevant.

As with all things in the IT industry, this appears at first to be a new name for an old concept - in this case, the construction of a single view of a customer. However, Gartner regard it as a distinct segment and I can see why.

The core sales pitch seems to go something like this: "You have multiple systems containing information about your customers and they aren't integrated. Your customers get justifiably enraged when they phone up and this means you can't answer their question or solve their problem. Wouldn't it be great if you could link all your customer data so a change in one system is synchronised to all the others and the problem of managing customer information just goes away?" How could you say no to that?!

Now the interesting thing is that this is a problem that some EAI products also do particularly well (witness the "CustomerSync" pattern in WebSphere Interchange Server).

So what's the difference?

I did some reading on DWL's website and listened to an interview with a Gartner analyst.

The answer seems to be that whilst it's possible to "roll your own" on top of a pure EAI product, there are lots of subtleties and extra opportunities to add value that are most usefully provided by the vendor. Examples would be inferencing techniques to make an educated guess if two customers in a system are the same, pre-packaged content (industry focussed where appropriate) and common services that make sense only if the data being synchronised is customer data.

Interestingly, IBM has recently acquired DWL (hence my choice of them for my link above) so it's obviously something that we also see as a promising market.

I see this as yet another example of vendors taking generic integration technology (in this case a J2EE runtime - the WebSphere Application Server) and adding value by making it specific to a particular problem. The challenge for me as a consultant is knowing when it's best to recommend the use of a generic solution ("build") or the use of a targetted solution ("buy"). My forthcoming project should give me lots of opportunities to experience both first hand and begin to form some opinions.

One other tidbit that caught my eye on the DWL website was their reference to themselves as "DWL, an IBM company". I am, of course, privy to no internal information on why this may be the case. Perhaps it's there for legal reasons to suggest the acquisition isn't complete yet (not sure if that's the case). Or perhaps it means that DWL has become a wholly-owned subsidiary, rather than having been subsumed into our Software Group. Tiny things like that always intrigue me.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Oh dear...

I've been watching the Refco saga with some interest but this piece of news (via Assymetrical Information) would be amusing if it wasn't so ridiculous.

(Edited to remove second paragraph which, upon reflection, was more cynical than I intended :-) )

Monday, October 24, 2005

Investment Update

I was reminded today that I haven't updated this blog with how my investments are doing.

I'm about 4.2% down in aggregate. This is due mainly to the performance of William Morrison since I invested. The intention was always to hold them for a while - the idea being that I'd gain when they finally started to turn around. However, I continue to be surprised by quite how little good news is coming from them of late.

Japan is still a ray of light - albeit a dim one (+1.3%).

The FTSE is going nowhere good (-3.5%).

I'm relatively inconcerned by the FTSE (and my exposure is small in relative terms in any case). However, Morrisons do cause me concern. I have a mental stop-loss on this investment but I'm hoping I won't have to use it.

Thursday, October 20, 2005


I'm in Düsseldorf today to present at the IBM European WebSphere Technical Conference on "Applying Business Integration Patterns on WebSphere Process Server".

I'm not quite sure what to expect from the audience as this is an advanced topic and they will only have had a few presentations on the product prior to my speaking. I'll be working on the assumption that the audience is intelligent, interested but lacking knowledge.

Note to travellers: the Scandic Essen hotel, while pleasant enough, has neither wireless nor wired high-speed network access. It was a miracle I had brought my modem cable. It's a long time since I've needed it. Scandic.... get your act together!

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Fascinating article on why countries in turmoil routinely appear to make bad choices

Contrary to what you might expect, it is common to observe situations where a bad idea has failed.... and the response of the affected parties (e.g. the voters in a country) is to vote for more of the same... only more so.

This article discusses it and describes why it may happen.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Is anecdotal evidence the best kind?

... probably not. But it can be instructive.

I've had a sense that the UK's economy is in worse state than the press and the headline figures would suggest for some time now and an exchange with an old school friend this afternoon provided extra weight to this. He describes how the market in the North West of England for his particular IT skills is utterly appalling right now... and is noticeably worse than six months ago.

I'm going to wait for Morrison's interim results on Thursday (I hold lots of their shares) before deciding what to do but I'm beginning to think having a 66% exposue to the UK equities market and 33% to Japan was the wrong way round.

Chance encounter suggests Wikipedia malaise is widespread

I went for a walk along the Thames during lunchtime today. On my way back to the office, I passed in front of the National Theatre. I spotted Lord (Jeffrey) Archer walking the other way. Despite having lived in London for almost two years now, I don't spot many "celebrities". So that livened up my day somewhat.

Given the current furore over the questionable quality of many Wikipedia entries, I thought I'd read his Wikipedia biography. Wow. They weren't kidding! Regardless of one's opinion of Lord Archer (and I would hardly describe myself as his biggest fan), I don't think anybody could describe that article as balanced or fair.

Two sample lines from the biography:

"It was during this period that he met his wife, Mary, a brilliant student who is believed by many to have had a hand in his most successful novels" (no references to back this up.... regardless of its truth, who are "the many"?)

"Archer never earned a university degree from the University of Oxford. He was there more for the fun that the studies." (really? What does that second sentence achieve? What's the basis? Also, notice the typo)

I've been pretty indiscriminate in my use of Wikipedia until now..... I wonder if the articles I've used for research purposes so far have been better written or whether my judgement has been more questionable than I originally thought...

How did we do? The Answer

I was wondering on Sunday what our third quarter results would look like. Here's the answer.

As someone who toils in the WebSphere business, it was nice to see our name in lights: we increased revenues by 14 percent compared with the same quarter last year.

The Wikipedia Backlash

I've been guilty of making excessive usage of Wikipedia in my postings. It seems that some have been less uncritical than me. (Look at "The Cult of the Amateur" section).

Andrew Orlowski has now waded in. His credibility has suffered of late in some quarters (eg here) but today's article is interesting nevertheless.

I find Wikipedia to be useful for the kinds of things I search on. However, I've never attempted to edit any pages on it. Perhaps I should try for myself and find out what the culture is really like.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

How did we do?

It's that time of the quarter again.... we announce our 3Q results tomorrow.

All Kneel!

My all-time favourite movie super-villain is running for president!

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Lottery Syndicates

My ever-observant colleague, Lee Hollingdale, pointed out - quite fairly - that my claimed disdain for the National Lottery is inconsistent with my membership of a syndicate.

My grasp of economics (or maybe psychology) is insufficient to clearly explain what's going on here but I'll do my best.... I participate in the team syndicate because I'd hate it if I left and they won. So I guess the potential cost I perceive of missing out on a big win when others I know have not is greater than the money it costs me to participate. I'm not sure how rational that is but Lee... I'm going to continue playing!


I've been on vacation in New York for the last week and am now back in the UK.

The weather (torrential rain, mostly) was somewhat disappointing but had an excellent time regardless.

I may even post some photos when the jet lag wears off.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005


I just checked the website of National Savings and it turns out I won £50 in the October draw. I only invested in Premium Bonds five weeks ago so this represents an annualised return of 5.11% (or thereabouts). (Actually, that probably allows the astute reader to figure out how much I invested which violates one of my self-imposed rules for this blog but I'll let it pass.)

I'm a little upset that I allowed myself to ignore this intriguing financial vehicle for so long. The effective interest rate isn't hugely competitive but the combination of the reasonable expectation of an "OK" return with the potential of winning £1m is really quite sweet.

I always had a deep suspicion of those who played the National Lottery and my belated discovery of the merits of Premium Bonds has reinforced this.

I have pitched the benefits of premium bonds to two lottery-playing acquaintances thus: "If you spend a pound on the lottery, you may make a large return, but your stake is lost if you don't. The expected return if you play for the long term is £0.50 per £1 invested, or so. If you invest in premium bonds, you could win a million pounds each month or some other sum. And even if you don't, your stake stays in the game. Your expected return is greater than the original stake! (we ignore inflation in such arguments, of course :-) ). My argument may be slightly inaccurate but it has worked... they will both soon be "ex-customers" of the "tax on the stupid" (Deliberately ambiguous link chosen). Hurrah for Macmillan! (I never thought I'd ever say that)

Of course, the odds of winning a prize (any prize) are somewhat greater with the lottery but that doesn't bother me. I am now officially in love with premium bonds.

London Science Museum

I've been meaning to go to the Science Museum for some time so popped down this morning.

I had been attracted by an exhibit on how we are constructing ever more amibitious buildings. As it turned out, I didn't find it - but there was plenty of other interesting stuff.

Two particular things that caught my eye were the Mechanical Engineering pieces and one particular exhibit in the Wellcome Wing.

The Mechanical Engineering area was fascinating. Having just started reading "The Wealth of Nations" (it's heavy going... I've managed the first two chapters so far), the pieces provided a stark demonstration of division of labour in action.

The exhibit in the Wellcome Wing that interested me was one I have blogged about in the past but forgotten about until now: the WebSphere MQ stand. It was quite arresting to see colleagues (and my fourth line manager) immortalised in a museum!

What is it I do? (part 2)

In a posting yesterday, I started to explain what it is that I do.

I explained that my role is to help IBM WebSphere customers be successful and gave an example of a customer relationship management problem in the auto industry.

I hopefully gave a reasonable overview of the problem to be solved. What I didn't do, however, was tie that back to my core mission: making WebSphere customers successful.

To do that, we need to think about the problem in a little more depth. I used hand-waving phrases such as "good customers", "inviting them to evening drinks", "bought lots of optional extras".

These phrases turn out to be key.

Who are the good customers? How do we contact them? Which extras did they buy?

If all this information was in one nice big database, life would be easy.

The problem is that most companies don't work like that. They have a collection of computer systems, of various ages, littering their IT landscape. Consolidating their entire business onto one system simply isn't feasible. There may be one system that tracks payments made by customers on their purchasing plans. Another one will list the exact order that a customer made. There may be a relationship with a business partner to handle the face-to-face "wine and dine" sessions.

Successfully integrating these systems is difficult. Moreover, integrating them in a coherent, scalable and forward-looking manner (so we don't have to repeat the exercise on the next project) requires even more skill.

When I talk about integration, this is what I am talking about.

At a technical level, we have to worry about message formats, adapters, you name it. At an architectural level, Service Orientation really is key.

Now, there are several other strands (human interaction, business-level monitoring, business-level modelling, and more). However, I hope this has helped begin to give an insight into the kinds of issues we help customers deal with.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Google AdWords fun, plus a partial answer to a question

When I started this blog, I registered for Google AdWords. I wasn't expecting to make any money out of it but figured it would do no harm. That is, I felt comfortable allowing Google advertisements since I understood they would be targetted to match the content of my blog.

And so, to date, it has proved.

When I post about my investment antics or muse on economics, then adverts for stock brokers appear. When I comment on WebSphere then adverts for WebSphere training appear. It's really quite uncanny.

A particular advert caught my attention today: it mentioned Siebel. It took me a while to remember that I had commented briefly on Oracle's acquisition. As I say, it's most impressive. However, the act of thinking about Siebel (and my inability to figure out how Google seemingly knew so much about one of my recent engagements!) reminded me that I never answered the question of "what is it that I actually do?"

My job title is Senior IT Specialist. However, that simply means that I have reached a particular level in the IBM IT Specialist Profession (and have gained the right to become a chartered member of the British Computer Society and a Member of the Institute of Electrical Engineers). It does not, you will note, explain what I do.

To explain that, we need to dig a little deeper.

I work for an organisation known as IBM Software Services for WebSphere.

It is our job to help WebSphere customers be successful. Now that could mean a lot of things - and it does.

Within this broad remit, I work in the Process Integration space. That means I worry about how to help customers model their business processes, how to monitor them and how to optimise them. That is: a typical engagement may involve sitting down with somebody in a client's line of business (i.e. not necessarily in the IT department) and figure out what, exactly, it is that they do. The idea is to understand how an organisation performs a particular behaviour. Once we have done this, we can model it, automate it where it makes sense and then seek to optimise it.

What would an example of this be?

I recently did some work for an auto manufacturer who, like most, builds long-term relationships with customers through finance deals. A customer will perhaps pay a deposit, a regular monthly payment and then perhaps a sum to own the car (or simply hand it back). A tricky question for auto companies is that some of these customers will turn out to be fantastic (they pay on time, in full, bought lots of optional extras) and some of them will be terrible (missed payments, abandoned vehicles, ...) and there will be some in the middle.

How do we encourage the good customers to stay loyal (e.g. by inviting them to evening drinks and other special events as their renewal date approaches) whilst avoiding continuing a relationship with the degenerates? Furthermore, how can we automate this and how do we deal with the "middling" customers who may have a special case. The solution lies in a mixture of business and technical considerations.

My role is to walk clients through the business questions right down into the deep technical implementation details. These details can include installing our software, architecting solutions, developing solutions and debugging them (my background is mathematics, computer science and I started my career in the IBM Hursley Lab so the deep techy is always trying to jump out of its box ;-) )

It is in this intersection of business savvy and technological expertise that I am able to add value and it makes for some fascinating engagements.

The New York Times agree with me (sort of)

I mused recently that if you can't explain something clearly, you probably don't really understand it. I was referring to the problem of describing features in a software product but it applies more widely.

The New York Times has an interesting article on the use of this principle to teach Economics.

(Article discovered via Marginal Revolution)

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Holiday Reading

I had an extraordinarily busy day yesterday. It was my last day at work before going on vacation for two weeks and I needed to tie up lots of loose ends. I finished the day with no emails requiring action in my inbox... quite a result.

WebSphere Process Server is hot right now.... I'll be sorry to be away from the action. Customers really get it. Process Server is designed from the ground-up to support writing composite applications - making SOA a reality. The core concepts of the Service Component Architecture and the fact that it is built on top of a J2EE application server (WebSphere Application Server) mean that some classes of previously difficult problems become almost trivial and it's exciting to be able to show people how their problems can be solved elegantly and coherently.

I spent a lot of yesterday walking a colleague through some of the presentations we give on the internal advanced education class for consultants as he will be helping deliver it next week in the UK in my absence. It made me realise that some of our materials over-complicate things. There was one deck, in particular, that was over 40 pages long but only contained three real concepts. It is easy to take a simple concept and make it difficult.... I need to watch out for this when I return and fight it whenever I see it happening. This product does make a lot of problems simpler and our materials shouldn't hide this fact

So, with that behind me for two weeks, I can think about my vacation.

New York beckons on Thursday for a week. Thanks to my inability to collect points on a single programme, the reward flights consist of BA outbound and Virgin back. I had enough points for Virgin Premium Economy on the way back and, after a few recent trips, now have enough points to hop up another class to Upper Class on the way back. Slight problem: they haven't released any more seats yet. I'll be phoning every day next week until they do. It will give us something to look forward to at the end of the holiday.

I've been meaning to finally understand how Economics works for ages. This will be the vacation when it happens. I have just bought a copy of The Wealth Of Nations by Adam Smith. I am determined to complete it before I return to work. Let's see if I do....

It's only 79p!

I was called yesterday evening by somebody claiming to work for Barclaycard.

I am a not a great customer for credit card companies. I don't carry a balance from month to month and I don't spend very much on them anyway so they don't make much on the merchant fee.

The salesperson tried to interest me in payment protection. Apparently they have been having lots of success selling it recently. Perhaps it's because it's so cheap, he mused, in the carefully scripted manner of somebody reading from a carefully prepared script.

"How much does it cost?" I asked.

"Only 79p for every £100 on your balance".

"Is that per month or per year?"

"Per month."

Right..... so, for the privilege of having a small sum paid off in the event of my becoming unemployed, I will be charged the equivalent of an annual interest rate of 10% on every transaction I ever make on my credit card.

I don't know how many people they persuaded to buy this but that is a fantastic business to be in.

He sounded genuinely surprised and disappointed when I declined his generous offer.

Perhaps religious groups work to a different financial calendar?

Today is the first day of our fourth quarter. Our third quarter results will be out in a few weeks and I'm sure our sales teams will have been putting in some long hours during the last few weeks.

So, with today being the first day of the final quarter of the year, one would expect any organisation that reports in such a fashion to be quieter than normal.

My experiences today would suggest that some religious groupings don't follow such an approach.

I was summoned from the shower this morning by the loud buzz of my apartment's intercom. The caller was not a delivery driver but somebody trying to interest me in some religious literature ("It's a companion to the Bible but also has advice on day-to-day living.") I'm sure it was good stuff but I politely passed on the opportunity.

Returning from a trip into Central London, I exited Tower Hill tube station for the short walk to Tower Gateway DLR station. I passed a table which had lots of people sitting around it. There were some strange-looking machines (not dissimilar to old-style supermarkets' scales). A large sign advertised "Free Stress Tests". Hmmmm...... I was intrigued by the claim that they could objectively measure "stress" but the books littering the table with an author's name of "L. Ron Hubbard" was all I needed to see and I scuttled past.