Alex Hudson

Thoughts on Technology, Product, & Strategy

Category: forecasting (Page 1 of 2)

C[IT]O’s Guide to Serverless Costs

My estimable Twitter-pal Paul Johnson has put together a very reasonable thread about his thinking on serverless costs (ie. AWS Lambda, in this case). He makes a great case for the design of functions being done in such a way as to allow cost efficiency improvements, and I think the point on architecture is generally well-made. However, there are a few aspects of this which I think are generally not well understood, and Twitter is much too short a form to get them in. Hence this post.

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We’re not in The Merge

Sam Altman has published a thoughtful piece about what was previously called the Singularity, which he now refers to as The Merge. I’m not sure these concepts are quite the same – the traditional Singularity was less a statement about humanity than a theory that, at some point, the improvement of intelligence of machines is sufficiently fast that it becomes pointless to predict the future. “The Merge” for Altman is about the point at which human intelligence might start accelerating – which assumes the machines will want to bring us with them. Not quite the same.

However, Altman believes The Merge has already started. I’m pretty convinced it hasn’t, but I think what is interesting is identifying which signs might be indicative or not.

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The CTO’s guide to containers/serverless changes – re:Invent 2017

Gosh, I wish I was at re:Invent. Personally, I don’t like the States much (the place is great; getting through the airports is an exercise in frustration) and while I’ve never been to Las Vegas there isn’t much that ordinarily attracts me to the place. But, to have so many incredible people in one place – amazing.

For those – like me – not there, what do the announcements today mean? I’m not going to focus on the tech so much, but more on the additional options and architecture that is becoming available. Let’s look at a strategic level.

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Improving the metaphor of technical debt

RedMonk published a great article today on the incompleteness of technical debt as a metaphor. This touches on a number of points, the best one I think is that for many people in business, debt just isn’t a “bad per se” thing. Technical debt, more often than not, is.

I completely agree with the analysis. Presenting technical debt as risk is a more accurate picture a lot of the time. While it’s potentially even more accurate to relate them to other financial instruments (my favourite is the “uncollateralized technical debt obligation”), it’s much more difficult to relate to.

I’d like to share the simile I use.

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Pokémon Architecture

Millions of words are expended on software architecture. Fashions come and go; some patterns last a long time, others are a flash in the pan. One day, Model-View-Controller is all the rage. The next, it’s Model-View-ViewModel. So on and so forth – the next new architecture is the One True Way or a genuine silver bullet, until it’s not, at which point it’s legacy, technical debt or code smell.

Developers talk too much about architecture. In the future tense, it’s always what the next architecture is going to enable them to do, what problems it will solve. In the past tense, it’s usually about what the architecture prevents them doing, why the architect was bad, why it’s the wrong pattern, etc. Static architecture design is the wrong thing to think about, and here’s why.

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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.

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