The Social Computer

I just read a pretty good summary and data recap of the Windows 8 adoption (or lack thereof): CNet – Asus & Win 8 Adoption.

It’s well written and not surprising given general trends in the tech industry. It doesn’t boat well for the Windows franchise. As an ex-tech guy but still geek at heart I should be a prime target audience for the Windows 8 marketing machine. Yet, other than some non-descript decals on NYC subways the message has more or less entirely missed me. If you asked me why I should be upgrading to Windows 8 and what it would get me, I would draw a total blank. Yes, I could repeat the thing the sales person at B&H told me yesterday when I asked him about the difference between a Mamiya AFD1 and Mamiya AFD2 – his take: “It’s newer, so it must be better”. Yeah, that really convinces me to spend more money.

But the CNet article has one fascinating number in it: 95% of Asus’s tablets are running Android. That is the one device category to most benefit from Windows 8 and it’s new touch interface. It should be the one device category doing strongest. Of course with statistics and Windows not really having a horse in that race before, we would have to know the baselines to validate the conclusions. But there isn’t enough time to organically grow share, it’s do or die.

I think there are two fundamental shifts going on that undermine the future of the PC market and Windows:

First there is the maturity of the PC. PCs we all have sitting on our desk can do everything we need them for and then some, unless you are a gamer or a video editor or some other niche power user. So unless our old PC dies (and with the onset of SSD hard drives there are fewer mechanical components that have built-in expirations), there really is no reason to upgrade anytime soon. The cost and disruption of an upgrade isn’t justified by the minimal gains from going from a Win 7 computer to a Win 8 computer. Or at least none of the marketing machines that should convince me otherwise have done their job, because I haven’t heard anything.

But the other more important shift is the move towards the mobile and device space. Really what the majority of the people outside of a corporate office do, is browse the internet, access web based services, shop online, and check facebook. As a person sitting next to me on the train told his friend yesterday – he had a ‘Facebook Machine’, meaning a PC that was used for nothing else other than accessing Facebook. Yes, today between your iPhone, iPad, Kindle (or Android counterparts), you really have 95% of all use models of modern computing covered. There is the update of the resume every 5-10 years. The same person on the train said, that the only time he had to boot up his ancient Windows computer was when he had to update his resume, since he never got a copy of Office for his current computing environment, and thus his old PC was the only way to update his resume. Go figure. Well, if LinkedIn has its way, the resume may be a thing of the past, and your LinkedIn profile will become the resume. So one less reason to keep that old Windows PC around or updated. And with the increasing trend towards people leaving corporate careers voluntarily to go independent (see HBR blog post on that trend), fewer people may need any kind of resume before too long.

So where does that leave us? In the 60s we started the computing revolution, and the state of the art device back then was the Mainframe in the back office. Then the 80s and 90s were defined by the Personal Computer. Everyone had one, then everyone in the family had one. Then came the iPhone, and the smart phone, and then the tablet. Now everything revolves around social media and mobile. So as the age of the Personal Computer draws to a close, the decade of the ‘Social Computer‘ starts. And the only big computing power running traditional operating systems are the server farms that power the cloud, which is what all our social computers connect to all the time to offer us the latest in information and services. And most of those servers run Linux, not Windows.

So Windows 8 may be remembered more or less like Windows Vista. As an unremarkable entry in the history of operating systems, best to be skipped over. Will Windows 9 be different? Well, that may depend whether people will still talk about Windows in a few years when that release should be ready based on typical Microsoft OS cycles.

Start Leading, Stop Executing

Marrisa Mayer’s recent edict that all Yahoo’s report to the office unleashed a fast and furious debate on the web. Clearly the story struck a chord on a number of levels to get everyone to jump in so quickly. It’s clear that the argument can be made for both sides, as plenty of people have done.

By all accounts Yahoo, the company, is desperately trying to re-engineer itself to remain relevant and viable in the tech space. Such re-engineering takes sometimes drastic changes in order to cut through the inertia of corporate culture. It’s well understood that the biggest risk to companies are smaller disruptive competitors who can be different than way things have been done at the incumbent. I have experienced one such period myself when I worked at Hewlett-Packard during the merger of HP and Compaq. I started there during the final years of Lew Platt, and I left just prior to Carly Fiorina’s firing.

But the story has all the markings of a well intentioned, poorly conceived, and equally poorly executed management decision. Many senior managers hang on to an old mental model of corporate hierarchy where they know better, they decide among themselves, and everyone below them in the org chart dutifully follows along. Along the way they assume they know exactly what is best for everyone, and they assume they know what everyone will do. They make decisions, they execute them.

But the problem is that in this social media age, the individual has become empowered to think, to exchange information. It’s no mistake that we are the generation of knowledge workers, rather than just a labor force. There is a reason that the Arab Spring and other popular uprisings happened in this time, when it is easier than ever to have an opinion and to communicate. It is a fatal mistake to assume that employees will do exactly what they are expected to do, or will follow along with the ideal models of human resources management, or that every employee will neatly fit into the different boxes drawn on the whiteboard.

Katrina did a nice blog post on how to think about this from an employee’s perspective – it is a personal choice. Corporations have taught us that we live in a time of employment at will – the company’s and the employee’s. However, the best performers, the most proactive employees also have the best opportunities to act on these choices, and make decisions accordingly. Forcing the hand of employees like this, usually forces the opposite change of the intended outcome of Yahoo’s decision.

Going back to the Yahoo decision, I see three short comings of leadership, and that would make me concerned about the outlook of this turn-around if I were an investor into the company:

A failure of people leadership

By all accounts, Yahoo has a lot of employees who have become poor performers during the prior years of decline. They’ve become disengaged, pay lip service to the day job and do something else (by accounts in some cases even starting their own company while on the clock). Some of them work in remote work environments, and some of them in the office. Of course working remotely makes it easier to hide such attitudes, and there is a correlation, but it’s only an overlap, not a full match.

What Yahoo needs to do is to manage poor performance employees, not eliminate remote workers. They need employees that believe in the company, that are excited to come to work in the morning, and go the extra mile. People believe in a company if they see and understand a vision, and if they trust the company’s leadership. Decisions like this one, though don’t speak of vision, they don’t speak of senior executives trusting employees. Instead it speaks of heavy-handed, uncaring decision making. Most likely it will not solve the problem, but will lead people to look elsewhere, only making the problem bigger.

Eliminating poor performance and trusting employees to do their job regardless of where their desk is, or if you have daily face time with them, is one of the bigger challenges of people management. It takes leadership and personal maturity to do it. Thus this decision is a failure of people leadership.

A failure of brand perception management

Yahoo is (or was) a big name in tech history. Companies in tech live by being leaders, forward thinking, ground breaking, non-traditional, new frontier places. More than ever can we actually work in non-office environments and communicate with everyone instantly both in writing, via audio connections, or visually via web cam.

Requiring everyone to report to the office is very much a pattern of the past, is saying all these modern technologies don’t mean anything. As a company who created, and still runs one of the email services that enables many small companies and entrepreneurs to communicate, Yahoo is in a unique position to be a provider of tools and infrastructure of a remote and distributed modern-day workforce. We need more and better tools to keep working in the modern workplace. Yahoo could be a leader on this front. But the best leaders eat their own dog food, they lead by example – or as managers like to say ‘walk the talk’.

Yahoo started out as a portal and a search engine. Both are mature products in the online age, some even say we’ve passed the prime years of the search engine, and clearly portals have been replaced by social networks like Facebook. So if Yahoo wants to remain a powerhouse in the tech world but serving the broad population, it needs new leading edge products. Communication and productivity tools for an ever growing remote workforce would be a logical place for Yahoo to place itself based on their history.

But anything a company does also impact it’s brand perception. And this latest move, does not speak of company that wants to be leading edge, on the frontier. And with this having become a major news story online, it leaves a big mark on brand perception. Thus, not only did this decision negatively impact the trust of employees in the senior management, but it also negatively impacted the broader perception of Yahoo as a brand and with that the possibility of turning the ship around. It was a failure in perception management.

A management failure

Sometimes you think you make the right decision, you have vetted the plan, you have gotten the data that re-affirmed you are doing the right thing, you have run it by your trusted advisors and they all nodded. But as soon as you push the button you realize you got it wrong. People misunderstood your intention, you overlooked a crucial fact, you couldn’t reach that one advisor that would have made you look at this another way.

Now you have a choice – you can dig in, take cover, and power through. You check your savings account balance and consider whether you can afford the colateral damage. Or you can take can show your vulnerability, admit that maybe you didn’t think about a different way of looking at this, start a conversation, look at alternatives, and if justified make adjustments.

The first choice is a gut reaction, the easy thing to do. Being vulnerable takes guts, takes self-confidence. It should be what leaders have lots of. Unfortunately few show it.

When the story broke, Yahoo dug in, said they didn’t comment on internal matters and stayed silent. Of course we don’t know if there was more conversation internally, but it’s not likely. There would have been an opportunity to engage with the employees and with the opinion makers online to talk about the challenges and opportunities of large remote workforces. There would have been an opportunity to show that they value their employee’s opinions and are willing to listen and make changes.

PR stories like this, if handled correctly, can be huge opportunities for brands to get remembered and noticed again, for a lot less than a major brand awareness campaign would cost. But it takes vision and on-point management to execute these opportunities. They can become great recruiting tools for people that would like to work at a company like that, or they can poison your recruiting efforts making to so much harder to turn the company around.

Not doing so, is a management failure. It fails to inspire employees to do their best, and make the company they work for a premier player in the tech world again.

Cooking Outsourced

An interesting conversation over morning coffee…

The gold standard for good eating is a nutrious, exciting, home cooked meal consumed over a good conversation with the rest of the family at the end of the day, and without being rushed.

Or so says popular lore. But the reality is quite different – eating out, eating fast food, take-out food, frozen food, microwaved food, easy to prepare but boring food, over processed food. End result, not particularly enjoyable, not particularly healthy, portions that haven gotten too big. Possibly quite unhealthy in many ways.

What is driving this reality? Well, for one many people don’t really know how to cook well because we didn’t grow up around our moms preparing everyday dinners, and had no other opportunities to learn for a variety of reasons. I’m not putting judgment on that moms (or dads) should be home cooking dinner, but that is where one learns the tricks of the trade. Reading a recipe is one thing, but there are many little tricks and techniques in how to carry out a recipe that are not mentioned in the cookbook. Those are not cookbooks for dummies, those are basic algorithms for trained line chefs.

Then there is the time crunch. Our lives are busier than ever. Work and life has merged into just one ‘Wo-fe’. A good, well cooked meal takes planning, takes shopping and preparation, and takes time to cook. Not to speak of the clean-up afterwards so that there is space for the step-repeat the next day.

So is it time to outsource the cooking? Maybe the times of the home cooked meal are a thing of the past, just like rotary dial phones, and we should let it go. Build smaller houses, skip the kitchen and replace it with a small fridge, sink, coffee maker, and maybe a micro wave for the in-between meals, and a quick breakfast to start the day. Our society has moved from an industrial society to a service based society, where everything is outsourced.

But it’s not just a matter of convenience. It makes both economic and nutrious sense to do so. Cooking exciting meals you see on FoodTV at home on a regular basis may sound exciting if you have the patience and the skills to do so. But economically it doesn’t make sense. A good recipe doesn’t just need the basic ingredients like meat and potatoes (metaphorically), but a lot of little details. There are herbs, garnishes, and sauces that make all the difference. An iron chef plate is small in terms of total food and calories, but exciting to eat because of the explosive flavors and attention to detail. But you cannot buy or make herbs, garnishes, or sauces in the small portions that are needed to prepare a meal for 2 or 4. So you either buy bigger amounts and throw the rest out (poor economics), you cook a lot more and have left-overs (unhealthy eating habits), or you skip them and cook more basic recipes (poor nutrition, heavy food, boring flavors).

Restaurants can afford these things on better economics because they prepare the same dish many times in the same day, so there is much more leverage in the sourcing and preparation of the dish. Now eating out every day in a sit-down restaurant can be costly, because any economic benefit from leverage is offset by higher service cost for eating area and staff. But not so for the little deli or take-out services.

Many years ago after my first marriage ended, I spent the better part of a year eating out. I did the math and knew that if I ate at a local restaurant, kept it to an entree and a glass of ice tee, or an occasional glass of wine, I would eat better and cheaper than if I attempted to cook at home for one person. Now with a full household again we have a mix of home cooked meals and eating out. I enjoy a well cooked dinner, and can take any recipe from the French Laundry to Rachel Rae or Emeril and cook it and enjoy it. I love Bobby Flay’s flavor profile, but his recipes are not practical for home cooking because of the many sauces that are the basis for those flavors.

Recently I finally got a handle on my own weight. I was fairly stable weight wise, but quite a few pounds over my target weight based on physique. I’m not a gym person (been there, tried that), and not really into diets (been there, tried that too). In search of a more permanent solution, I read up on all the diets on WebMD. What I found was interesting – it wasn’t about this or that diet, they were just yet more marketing ploys for someone needing to say make a buck or create a personal brand. At the end of the day, if you just need to lose weight, it comes down to a simple formula. For an adult with average activity levels, to lose weight simply eat about 10 calories for every pound of current body weight. Once you arrive at your target weight (or intermediary milestones as your body resets only slowly), eat 12 calories for every pound of current body weight to maintain the status quo. And that’s exactly what I did, and lost 25 pounds in a reasonably short period of time. But in watching what I eat, it was amazing to see how big our normal portions are, and how heavy our normal foods are. Eating 10 calories per pound is an interesting mind game, but also a challenge in the context of our regular food supply.

It does make sense if we transition as a society to outsourcing cooking. The evolution in dinner preparation. But it should be a good mix of social eating out, take-out food, and healthy food. Less factory prepared meals, less fast food.

Yet Another Blog

Blogs should have a purpose and a defined audience. I have been blogging for many years, first about learning photography, and then being a photographer. I still do.

But I also have many interesting conversations with people about life as a creative entrepreneur, debating news stories, exploring trends, musing about the what ifs. I enjoy having these conversations 1:1 or in small groups with people. But every so often it’s nice to share these with a broader audience. They have no place in the blog I write for work, so here is Yet Another Blog, which will be about the random things I ponder. If you enjoy reading them, keep coming back. Feel free to engage in the conversation through comments. If I bore you to tears, just forget that you ever read this and enjoy life.

~Jan

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