Alex Hudson

Thoughts on Technology, Product, & Strategy

Category: forecasting

So, what is strategy anyway?

It’s always interesting reading how other people view strategy, and Vince Law’s WTF is Strategy? is a very entertaining read. Like a lot of my posts, it’s quite digital product-oriented, but I think these principles are pretty general and should apply for most people.

What is interesting is that one of the examples he uses – taking a road-trip across the States – is exactly an example that I cover early on in “A Practical Introduction to Wardley Mapping“. It’s different in some notable ways – his journey is east-west while mine is north-south, because the goals are totally different – but it’s very insightful that he chose such a similar example to mine to illustrate the point. This also helps point out the differences in our approaches!

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A business plan for Ubuntu

Back in 2010 I wrote a post about Canonical’s business direction, in response to something Bradley Kuhn had posted. Both he and I were worried about Canonical becoming reliant on an “open core” business model – worried not just from the perspective that it would dilute the principle of Ubuntu, but that frankly every time I have seen this executed before it has been a dismal failure.

The posts are worth re-reading in the context of Mark Shuttleworth’s announcement today that Ubuntu will be dropping a number of their in-house technologies and, more importantly, abandoning the explicit goal of convergence. I would also say, read the comments on the blogs – both Bradley and I found it deeply strange that Canonical wouldn’t follow the RHEL-like strategy, which we both thought they could execute well (and better than an open core one).

Of course, our confusion was – in hindsight – obvious. We weren’t seeing the wood for the trees. The strategy has since been spelled out by Simon Wardley in his rather good talks; one example is here:

It’s well worth to take the time to watch that and understand the strategy against RedHat; but it’s pretty easy to state: “Own the future, wait for it to come to us”. Let’s see why this is important.

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Academia is apparently unmanageable

There’s a great blog post doing the rounds today, titled “Every attempt to manage academia makes it worse“. Going through a number of examples of metric-based assessment, the conclusion is that standard management practice applied to academic work results in obviously worse outcomes.

At the heart of the argument is an interesting contradiction – that it is possible to assess academic work and show that under a specific regime the results are less good, while simultaneously it is impossible to assess the results of academic work in such a way as to improve it. However, it’s possible to accept a slightly weaker form of the argument – that the practice of measuring while science is being done negatively affects the work in a way that appraising the results post-facto doesn’t. I’m not in a position to really know whether or not this is genuinely the case for academic work, but I’m seeing people apply the same argument to software development, and I truly believe it doesn’t apply.

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Deadlines, estimates, predictions

Project management is always guaranteed to bring out some strong opinions, and a recent Twitter discussion was no different – but, while the core discussion on Twitter was great, it really deserves a much longer-form treatment. Paul Johnston wrote up his thoughts about getting people to talk about predictions instead of deadlines – and much of it is hard to argue with, but I have a bit of a different perspective.

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Brexit confirms: storytelling is dead

This is not a post about Brexit; this is about conversations. Storytelling rose in the 80’s as a key marketing tool – phenomena like the Nescafe “Gold Blend” adverts demonstrated how the ability to tell a story could convincingly engage consumers en masse. Truth be told, this was nothing new – the “soap opera” is so-called because those ongoing serial dramas used to be sponsored by soap manufacturers. But, the key insight by the storytellers was that creating a story around a message you wanted to communicate (rather than simply being associated to or referenced by the story) was very powerful.

Now, Nescafe coffee had only a tangential bit-part within their famed serial adverts, and indeed broadcasting on television is a remarkably expensive way of telling a story – so in fact, the technique didn’t really start to take off until the early 2000s, with the advent of the internet. Of course, big names continued to tell stories in the way they had – Guiness being the more modern exemplar – but now smaller organisations could do it; they felt it built relationships with their consumers.

There is a lot to be said about discerning what is storytelling and what isn’t. Critically, a story ought to have an arc – a beginning, middle and end at least – but at a deeper level ought to have a structure which creates emotional engagement. Shakespeare was a master of the five-act structure, and most blockbuster movies to this day retain a very similar make-up. Advertisements alone do not lend themselves to that level of sophistication, but people started applying storytelling in many different areas of business – although seen as a marketing tool, it quickly leaked into sales, the boardroom, investment decks and beyond.

Many people get benefit from story-thinking without necessarily having a huge amount of structure. The process of thinking editorially about their message, and trying to frame that in the form of a story is difficult and restricting. In a similar way to writing a Tweet, the added restrictions make you think carefully about what you want to say, and it turns out these restrictions actually help rather than hinder – a message has to be much more focussed. However, those restrictions (while helpful) are not the power of storytelling – more the power of subediting / thinking (which, is seems, it less common than you’d think).

People have said before me that storytelling is dying – Berkowitz’s piece on becoming storymakers rather than tellers is well-cited. It’s a very marketing-oriented perspective, and there’s lots to agree with, but I think it’s dead wrong for digital-native organisations.

Politics is an awful lot like marketing and product development in some key ways; in many ways, it actually resembles the market before software-as-a-service:

  • highly transactional nature (votes instead of money)
  • very seasonal sales periods, often years between sales
  • competitive marketplace for a commodity product
  • repeat customers very valuable, but profit function dependent on making new sales on the current product line

Not just that, but crucial is the engagement of the “customer” (the voter) in an ongoing fashion, to ensure that the party is developing policies that they believe will be voted for. Interestingly, in blind tests, the Liberal Democrat and Green policies rate very highly – so we can see that while the product is important, market positioning is critical to ensure customers have a specific formed belief about your product.

Within continuous delivery thinking, the digital organisation is concerned primarily with conversations to drive the brand rather than positional or story-oriented marketing. However, what was particularly interesting with the Brexit debate: this conversational engagement was writ large across the whole leave campaign.

Things we can note about the campaign:

  • meaningful engagement on social platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Of course, campaigns have done this before (Corbyn would be another example), but while others have been successful at deploying their message, Leave were highly successful in modifying their conversations quickly
  • a stunningly short period of campaigning. Who knows why this happened: the Scottish referendum on independence was over a period of 18 months. The UK Brexit debate was complete in 4. There was no way a campaign could hammer home messages; each thing they said had to be well-chosen and timely
  • absolute control over the conversation. While Leave conversed freely with their own supporters, they meaningfully achieve air superiority in terms of the conversation in the debate. Their messages were the ones discussed; they created the national conversation. People are shocked by how “untrue” many of their statements were: but people can recall them readily. I doubt many could recall anything Remain said other than vague threats about the economy.

The speed of the conversation here was crucial. They adapted in a truly agile fashion, and were able to execute their OODA loop significantly more quickly. In the end, it was a tight contest, but it really should not have been.

Storytelling is a blunt instrument in comparison. It’s unresponsive, it’s broadcast, and it’s not digital native. Its time is up.

Containing incestuousness

Having droned on a little the other day about duplication in Stackanetes (in hindsight, I had intended to make a “it’s turtles all the way down” type jibe), I’ve been delighted to read lots of other people spouting the same opinion – nothing quite so gratifying as confirmation bias.

Massimo has it absolutely right when he describes container scheduling as an incestuous orgy (actually, he didn’t, I just did, but I think that was roughly his point). What is most specifically obvious is the fact that while there is a lot of duplication, there isn’t much agreement about the hierarchy of abstraction: a number of projects have started laying claim to be the lowest level above containers.

It comes back to this; deploying PaaS (such as Cloudfoundry, which I try to hard to like but seems to end up disappointing) is still way too hard. Even deploying IaaS is too hard – the OpenStack distros are still a complete mess. But while the higher level abstractions are fighting it out for attention, the people writing tools at a lower level are busy making little incremental improvements and trying to subsume new functionality – witness Docker Swarm – they’re spreading out horizontally instead of doing one thing well and creating a platform.

I don’t think it’s going to take five years to sort out, but I also don’t think the winner is playing the game yet. Someone is going to come along and make this stuff simple, and they’re going to spread like wildfire when they do it.


For a while now, I have been waxing lyrical (to those who will listen) about the variety of new tools and analyses available to people who want to prognosticate. If nothing else, the current craze for data within most businesses has resulted in people almost literally swimming around in the stuff without an awful lot of an idea about what to do with it, and while this has lead to some unspeakably shambolic practices (those who know me will likely have heard me on my hobby horse about proving models with actual experimentation) it has also opened up new horizons for people like me.

So, I’m delighted to have been invited to give a talk I submitted to the Bartech Tech2020 conference, this coming week in London – the first meeting of this particular group, there is a great line-up of speakers, all of whom are going to be reading the runes and describing their vision of the year 2020. Wonderfully, the various talks will be recorded and available, so there will be significant opportunity come the year 2020 to look back and groan loudly at the errors and omissions that will have piled up nicely by that point.

There are some brilliant speakers lined up, and I have to confess to being eager to particularly hear from this lot (in no particular order):

  • Zoe Cunningham – the old refrain, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, has never been more true than now. It’s also one of the most difficult things to set right and predict;
  • David Wood – working in healthcare, I’m incredibly interested in David’s talk, and am certain that what we will call healthcare in another ten year’s time will in many ways bear little resemblance to what is practised now;
  • Simon Riggs – in all honesty, I’m hoping he’s going to be talking at least in part about homomorphic encryption because I just read the Gentry paper recently and it’s fascinating, but there is so much to come in this space – particularly now that data is so large and non-local that all sorts of new strategies are needed.

I’m going to attempt to tweet through most of the conference in low volume, probably on #tech2020, and look forward to putting a few more faces to names from Bartech.