May 27th, 2008 – The Week Ahead

May 27th, 2008 – The Week Ahead

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Small Ball versus the Big Inning

Small Ball versus the Big Inning

For those in the U.S. of a certain age ** cough cough **, baseball holds a special place. Not so much recently, but there was a time when baseball really was the national pastime (now, most would argue that it is more than past it’s time).

Even so, business borrows quite a few terms from the sport – home run, bullpen, extra innings, pitch hit, on deck, stealing signals to name just a few.

There are a couple more esoteric baseball terms that I think business owners and entrepreneurs should be aware of, especially in trying to navigate the current economic challenges we are facing: Small Ball and the Big Inning.

Small Ball more or less refers to an incremental approach to baseball. It is a strategic approach where the emphasis is on small moves to advance runners on base, either by bunting, stealing bases, forcing pitchers to balk, putting middle reliever pitchers in to face particular batters on the other team. In other words, it is a strategy not meant to generate a lot of runs in one fell swoop – it is meant to build a lead one run at a time, methodically and with purpose. It doesn’t take a lot of talent to play small ball well – but it does take a mastery of the game and it’s fundamentals, and favoring teamwork over luck.

The Big Inning, on the other hand, emphasizes heroics over methodology. The Grand Slam Home Run, Stealing Home, Extra Bases. Having the Big Inning means having the talent to “swing for the fences” and is more often successful based upon luck and talent rather than great coaching or knowledge. The Big Inning favors individual achievement over team effort, and offers inconsistent results.

How does this apply to business strategy? Let’s look at some examples.

I daresay many people start Web companies in order to hit the home run. To be acquired with one big pop. To be a one big hit wonder. To have the Big Inning.

As a result, there are very few winners: Google, Ebay, Amazon ongoing; Mark Cuban and Marc Andreesen from the first wave. In order for this approach to ever stand a chance of working, you have to be very good – in fact, the best of breed or class – and you have to be very lucky, arriving at exactly the right confluence of timing, market conditions, and liquidity.

Others are masters of Small Ball.

Look at LinkedIn. They drive me crazy with their conservatism. But, they play business Small Ball masterfully; grow the business slowly, pick and choose business partners who only advance your cause, add features only when ready. As a result, LinkedIn is growing faster by rate than ANY social networking site (though some would argue quite succcessfully that they are NOT a social networking site, they are always grouped with LinkedIn, Facebook, MySpace et. al).

Some would also argue that Facebook is playing a game of Small Ball; incrementally changing platform, not accepting the big payday right away, having a longer business view. Even with their setbacks (Beacon) they have been consistent in their adherence to a set plan.

Sometimes when playing Small Ball you get picked off trying to steal second base. You get thrown out playing too far off first base. You get thrown out trying to lay down the bunt. That’s OK – setbacks happen.

Remember, there are nine innings of play.

Is having the Big Inning desirable? Absolutely. Should it be your main point of emphasis? No way. The odds are way against you, unless you are unarguably the very best in your field, product area, or expertise.

You are much better served by focusing on the small game and incrementally working toward the prize, with a game plan in hand. The odds are with you, the whole team can be involved, and your knowledge of the game is usually rewarded over time.

You still have to work to win – but you don’t have to have Manny Ramirez or Alex Rodriquez on your team to insure success.

HP and EDS – Challenges Ahead

HP and EDS – Challenges Ahead

First, let me disclose that I am still an EDS contractor / vendor of software services (though technically not working on any active EDS engagements at the moment). My most recent engagement with EDS was the development of software to design and configure (at last count) 100,000 VoIP phones in an engagement with the Bank of America (where I have been similarly engaged since 1998 in the development of enterprise scale network engineering software).

EDS, like any large enterprise, has a personality and culture all its own. They are not particularly known for innovation, but are known for strict process management and for placing a large number of behinds in a large number of seats for services revenues. They also have a large core business of infrastructure management.

In my experience, what makes EDS such a strong competitor in the infrastructure world (strict adherence to practice and methodology and valuing methodology over innovation) is a bit of a drawback in the changing world of software services.

In many cases, companies like EDS cannot move nimbly enough to changing business models in a short enough period of time to act upon fleeting market opportunities – many times because an opportunity may not fall within a high margin area or because they just don’t have the expertise to capitalize on the opportunity. It’s extremely challenging to keep your people up to date and on the cutting edge of new tech when they are working on singe engagements spanning multiple years.

In all honesty, star performers within companies like EDS either focus on moving up – or moving out. The rest are so busy trying to execute on the vision or the project or the engagement – with their skins and sanity intact – that innovation when it happens is entirely accidental or acquired from outside.

When your business is predicated upon engaging as much head count for as long as possible on as many projects as possible, it is not surprising at all that what you wind up with as an organization focused more on process than product.

If this sounds like a big knock on EDS, it really isn’t meant to be. They are very good at what they do. Some of the smartest people I have ever worked with are now EDS employees.

But I think that merger of the cultures of HP and EDS will benefit the M&A people with a vested interest in making this marriage happen much more than it will the current and prospective customers of this new company.

The software services sector is changing at a rate that I’m afraid is leaving companies like EDS behind. More and more they are retreating to businesses and processes that are pro forma rather than innovative. This works, until your pro forma businesses are commoditized to point of being disintermediated by the newest low cost service provider in the market, or until you have outsourced so much of what you claim to be your core competency that your customers begin to ask what the value add is exactly that you bring to the table.

These are the challenges that EDS would have faced as an ongoing independent entity, but are even more pressing now that you add the need to quickly integrate this huge services organization with HP for the purpose of growing new business.

In short, I think that the only way ongoing that this will turn out to be a big plus for both HP and EDS is for HP to show EDS that performance is as important as process. Unless that happens, I think all anyone will see is a slowly shrinking business as usual services business waiting for the next disruptive turn in the business cycle.

What I’m Doing Tuesday May 20, 2008

What I’m Doing Tuesday May 20, 2008

News and Rememberance

News and Rememberance

Regardless of one’s politics, the news concerning Senator Kennedy today is sad and not very promising at the moment.  The type of brain tumor he is said to have is usually very aggressive – and once you get to the seizure stage things go down hill very quickly.

Almost exactly ten years ago a good friend of mine, Eric Martin, had a seizure while doing contract work here in Nashville.

Eric passed passed out in the hallway of a common client of ours.  Later the next day, he received word that he had a malignant brain tumor.

This occurred March 10th, 1998 (my wife’s birthday, as it turned out).  Eric died on July 2nd of that year, a mere four months later.

Eric and I had been through a couple of startups together and numerous “death march” programming campaigns.  I had given Eric his first paying programming job, testified in court on his behalf in a civil suit, mutually sued a former employer for back pay, and helped him move out of his house following his divorce. 

Eric has been on my mind lately, even without the news of Senator Kennedy’s diagnosis.  He was a friend – if not THE friend – of my youthful adulthood.  Ten years passes very quickly.

As sad as the news is today, and as much as I miss Eric during such times, I also remember some of the great times we had together, like:

  • Meeting Steve Miller backstage at Starwood Amphitheatre in Nashville.  Eric used to be a sideman (he was a drummer) for Slim Whitman (of “Mars Attacks!” fame), and his old drum instructor was Steve Miller’s drummer on that particular tour.  Pretty cool to toss back a few cold brews with the “Space Cowboy.”
  • Trout fishing together on the Caney Fork River below Center Hill Dam.
  • After one night of all night imbibing (I guess I was 28 at the time), I came into work in the same clothes I wore the night before.  Eric had one of our salesman come in and tell me that I had to do a technical presentation for new investors in 30 minutes and that I had to go back into the warehouse and get a machine to demo.  I went back to the warehouse, only to find the demo machine in a million pieces and the two of them laughing their heads off.
  • Eric and I played darts a few nights a week, and at one particular Comdex in Atlanta we played some guys in Buckhead about 50 games in a row (or so it seemed) while watching Ayrton Senna drive in what was to be his last Formula One race.  I had to pay the hotel for an extra half-day because I couldn’t drag Eric’s hung over tail out of bed to check out the next day.

Here’s hoping your memories made today will be the good old days of tomorrow – and that you are blessed to have a friend like Eric.

If You Want Something, You Gotta Ask

If You Want Something, You Gotta Ask

I had something pretty neat happen today.

Watching the growing success of Alltop.com, I wondered: how do I get my blog listed on Alltop.com?

The Answer?

You gotta ask.

I got on Twitter and wrote Guy Kawasaki a brief Direct Message saying that I didn’t really know how to classify my blog, Logorrhea – but if he felt it good enough to be on Alltop, please classify how he felt best.

Five minutes later, there it was, listed under http://life.alltop.com.

Pretty doggone impressive turn around – and I’m assuming that Guy took this on personally, owing to how quickly this all happened.

THAT’S engagement.

If you really want something, simply ask.

Thank you, Guy.

Paying the Price

Paying the Price

Fortune and success in life rarely falls into our laps. Somewhere along the line, a price is paid.

A four-year stint at college. Long hours at work. A divorce because you’re never home. Failing health because you never leave your desk. Kids that grow up not really knowing you.

Many wonder at the wealth and fame that many people seem to attain without effort – but somewhere, someone had to make sacrifices and trade offs to make it all happen. Nothing ever happens solely on account of luck – unless you happen to hit the lottery. Like I said – fortune rarely falls into our laps.

My wife and I were talking last night about choices friends and family had made, how many choices were made because they were the easy choice, and how the consequences of those choices had led them to lives that they probably didn’t envision for themselves only a short while back. Evidently, the prices being exacted wasn’t worth what they were willing to do to achieve their goals – so they settled.

Or maybe it only seems like they settled from my viewpoint. This post really isn’t supposed to be about my bias in this regard. I simply mean that for every great success or achievement, an exacting cost will be required – and at some point, everyone has to make the decision on what price they are willing to pay to achieve their goals in life.

I’ve been on enough “death march” software development projects over the course of my career to understand that sometimes the price we pay is like casting pearls before swine.

I have seen colleagues work themselves to death, have seen them grow apart from their kids, and watched as their marriages and relationships crumbled away because of the time spent pursuing the product that has to be shipped by a certain date. I still have many friends who leave home Sunday night and return Thursday evening, each and every week, in order to live in a beautiful gated community.

Much has been written about how Gen Y no longer sees the need for such sacrifices in order to attain success, or to be considered successful. However, reading the preliminary reviews of Sarah Lacy’s upcoming book “Once You’re Lucky, Twice You’re Good” seems to belie this notion, because the successful peiple she has interviewed all have one thing in common – they work their ass off.

I think Baby Boomers sometimes get way too much credit for being Type A overachievers, because I sure have known a lot of boomers in my time that more resembled Wally than Dilbert. I’ve also worked with Gen Xers and Gen Ys that were very hard workers as well. We are deluding ourselves if we try to pigeonhole the workforce and their willingness to sacrifice solely on age – though it is a determining factor.

What we as collaborators and employers have to do is identify what goals our co-workers and employees wish to accomplish and set about ways that make sure that the prices that are being exacted of their success and promotion coincide with what they are willing to invest. If these two diverge, then congratulations – you’ve just qualified your candidate pool.

One of my favorite books – but not the movie – is “Interview with the Vampire.” Lestat, the main character, is an immortal who periodically retreats from the world to re-emerge to find himself absolutely disconnected from the age, the customs, and spirit of the times. He envies his fellow vampire and friend, Louis, who seemingly flows within whatever period he finds himself in, at one with the world in which he finds himself.

As someone who is about mid way through my professional life, I can recognize how the times and acceptable business practices have changed dramatically since I entered the work force.

I recognize that those “of a certain age” don’t use a computer or email and don’t care; that those of another age use email but are oblivious to texting and SMS; and still others than never use email, don’t watch TV or listen to radio, and eat at the dinner table with their heads down and thumbs flying furiously.

In many ways, professionally, we are like frogs in a pot of water that is slowly being heated to a boil. We don’t realize that the world about us is changing, maybe not for the better for us, until it is too late to do anything about it.

For me, the daily struggle is staying relevant and productive in a world that values success but downplays what it takes to achieve that success. Some days I win – some days, not so much.

What price do you pay, and is it worth it?