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Technology

Bell Labs – Innovation

By | Communication, Development, Disruption, Organisation, People, Strategy, Technology | No Comments

I fear this will not be a popular blog post, for two reasons: one it’s too long and two it raises some inconvenient truths as we consider how to drive more innovation in our organisations. I am however on a sabbatical reading and thinking hard about these things… Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.

Beginning with Alexander Graham Bell’s invention (and monopoly making patent) of the telephone it’s hard to point to a group outside Bell Labs that have been more responsible for shaping our society today (granting that the Xerox PARC Labs took the torch and ran with it as the flame at Bell started to die out in the 70s) we’re talking about the group of humans that invented telephone, valves, electrical cables of all kinds, radar, the transistor, microwave, the unix operating system, lasers, optical fibers, CCD chips and celluar mobile networks and on and on.

Curious isn’t it – a telephone company and a photocopier maker have defined the information age. Also interesting is that Bell Labs perhaps even more so than the PARC group at Xerox were very keen to understand how to measure and turn innovation into a process. Sound familiar?

“Of its output, inventions are a valuable part, but invention is not to be scheduled nor coerced”; experimentation was to provide an environment for “the operation of genius” – Harold Arnold, the first leader of the new R&D group talking about his team.

By taking a long-term, first-principles, research-based approach to innovation the Bell Labs did indeed discover, invent and innovate nearly all the fundamental building blocks we now take for granted as routine technologies driving the information age. There were a number of distinctive and consistent elements of the Bell Labs system:

1) The distinction between theorists and experimentalists. The most effective research groups combined both skill-sets, and they rarely sat with one individual.

2) Co-located and cross-functional teams. Kelly (the bloke in charge) was combining chemists, physicists, metallurgists, engineers, theoreticians and experimentalists. The leaders of these new structures were unconventional too: younger, bolder; not just the longest serving or more ‘senior’ member of the group.

3) There were no closed doors. Total transparency was expected, as was a willingness to help a colleague if required, no matter your level.

4) Progress was made by groups, not individuals. There were of course a few brilliant minds across nearly a century but like most good stories, a few heroes take the credit for a large group of people working effectively together.

5) Two principles…
i) If you haven’t manufactured the new thing in substantial quantities, you have not innovated.
ii) If you haven’t found a market to sell the product, you have not innovated.

The term ‘innovation’ dates back to the sixteenth century in England. It described the introduction of a new idea relating typically to philosophy or religion. By the mid-20th century we begin to see the words innovate and innovation applied to technology and industry.

If an idea leads to discovery, and if discovery leads to invention, then an innovation is the lengthy transformation of an idea into a product (or process) suitable for widespread practical use. Almost by definition, a single person, or even a single group, cannot alone create an innovation.

The early days of any innovation are typically underwhelming, even demoralising. The first valves were very difficult to make, not durable and not always reliable. The first transistors (a device we take for granted in their many millions in all our every day electronic devices) were very difficult to make, not durable and not always reliable.

Even the lawyers at Bell were trying to ‘quantify’ or find the patterns in their innovations. They only found one consistent pattern – their staff with the most patents (signed over on day one for a crisp $1) had breakfast or lunch with Harry Nyquist. Harry wasn’t the source of specific ideas; it turns out he was just really good at asking good questions.

Let’s also consider for a moment the non linear nature of invention. Shannon, an employee of Bell Labs who wrote “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” (better described by Scientific American as ‘the magna carta of the information age’), went on to study chess-playing computers in 1949 (before computers were invented): a fairly frivolous pursuit for a telephone company. In his own words: ‘what if we might create machines capable of logical deduction?’

Back to their process. Broadly, the ‘system’ at Bell was divided up like this. 1) Research. Scientists and engineers creating a reservoir of completely new knowledge, principles and materials, methods and art.
2) Systems engineering. Using the new knowledge to look at how to integrate the possible, plausible, necessary and economical ideas.
3) Manufacture. Engineers developed and designed new switches, transmission system and so on from groups 1 and 2.

The handoffs between the three departments, however, were often (intentionally) quite casual – part of what made the labs ‘a living organism’. Physical proximity was everything; people had to be near one an other. Phone calls alone wouldn’t do.

A system carefully curated

As much fun (and cultural benefit) as there is in a hack day, it can’t be your innovation strategy. Also, innovation doesn’t best happen in a secret lab (unless that lab has ALL the people required for the whole end to end – perhaps Apple or Lockheed Martin). There does need to be a critical mass of talent; very very rarely do big innovations come from a single individual. Sometimes a revolutionary idea, yes, but not ultimately delivered as an innovation.

We’ve written about this before: too often we are focused on iterative improvement, not innovation. I’m reminded of my favourite quote:

“The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics whose horizons are limited by obvious realities. We need [people] who can dream of things that never were.”

– John F Kennedy

Full credit to Jon Gertner’s ‘The Idea Factory’ for an insightful history of Bell Labs.

 

 

 

Australia is training more personal trainers than IT professionals – really?

By | Education, People, Technology | 2 Comments

Michelle bridges not an itc careerI spoke at a conference this week where a CIO made this headline observation, noting that they had not been able to validate it in any way, but the horror of their claim was that it might be possible.

In true Luna Tractor fashion, and as the economist in residence, I felt the need to dig a little deeper.

The truth appears more like ‘Australia is training almost as many personal trainers as IT professionals‘ – around 14,000 ICT undergraduates in 2012; versus 10,000 studying personal training at private and public tertiary institutions in 2012.

The scarier statistic is that perhaps only 1/3 of those ICT undergraduates are coming into the workforce each year (3 year degrees on average); whereas MOST of those personal trainers (who do 1 year of study) are hitting the local gyms of Australia.

That means Australian employers get access to maybe 4500 ICT grads every year, whereas the Aussie fitness industry is over-run by 8,163 fresh grads every year.

There are twice as many personal trainers as ICT graduates entering the Australian workforce every year!

I won’t pass judgement on the state of Australia’s graduate developers versus passionate industry-trained coders (apparently we have about half-half, and I love them both equally); nor on the benefits that personal trainers bring our nation’s health. But Sam - the face of modern ICTsomething is NQR.

And for the record, IT is a way better job. Just ask this guy. What’s more, he’ll hack an award winning app with his team, and then school you on personal fitness at lunchtime for free.

My workings (for the inevitable statistical pseuds to comb through) are as follows. Note, I did not obtain the original ACS report on graduate numbers from 2012, as I am not a member. I relied on their press release.

a. How many Personal Fitness Students were there in Australia in 2012?

It’s a big and complicated industry – but there is this useful 2012 industry report by Deloitte Economics to consider, and in the executive summary (p3):

‘On the supply side, in 2011 the headcount for registered exercise professionals was 29,875 (24,875 registered with Fitness Australia and 5,000 registered with Physical Activity Australia), with average annual growth rate between 2005 and 2010 around 7.2% (Job Outlook, 2011). Approximately 56% of fitness professionals are female (16,749), and 44% male (13,126).’

This amounts to about 11,000 FTEs working in the industry (the full-time number diluted by so many part-timers). But how many are studying?

 A. Personal Fitness graduates from public RTOs in 2012: 2,768 graduates (with 65% completion) see p36 of the Deloitte report.

Suggests 4,258 total students studying – assuming it is a one year course, as the report concludes from research that there is an average time to completion of 1 year (page 35).

 B. Graduates in personal training from private RTOs in 2012: 5,395, with 90% completion (see p37)

Suggests a total of 5,995 students studying personal training in private RTOs every year.

The report was obtained here via this reference on Wikipedia.

Thus, in 2012, about 10,253 students were enrolled in Australian tertiary educational institutions studying personal fitness.

How many ITC students studying in Australia in 2012?

The Australian Computer Society suggest less than 3% of Australian tertiary undergraduates are enrolled in ICT courses in 2012. Half the number a decade ago!

The interweb handily reports on total undergraduate numbers in Australia, thanks to this emission from the government in 2011 = 480,000, so…

480,000 x 3% = 14,400 undergraduates studying ICT in Australia in 2012, across all the years of their courses. This of course ignores graduate study, which I am taking the economist’s stance on (ceteris paribus), and calling them relatively irrelevant for both professions (Deloitte certainly confirm that for Personal Trainers).

Ground Hog Day

By | Agile, Disruption, Strategy, Technology | No Comments

I just saw this graphic of American Print Newspaper Advertising (adjusted for inflation) and had a strong sense of deja vu:

Exhibit A: Newspaper Ad Revenue in the US

Exhibit B: US Recorded Music Revenue in the US

Business Insider points to journalist Jay Rosen’s comment that the peak for Newspaper Ad sales lines up with the birth of blogging online.  I find it fascinating and terrifying that we see this same pattern of the rapid disruption of business models, with industries succumbing to seismic changes being repeated time and again across unrelated verticals.

The speed of the change can result in the digital companies that inherit the previous analogue dinosaur’s world only working in a market a fraction of the size of the old industry. The money, and the consumers, just go elsewhere.

Chaos theory shows us how small changes in the fundamentals can cause such different results in otherwise deterministic systems, and that the changed results are often so dramatically different that it is likely to be impossible to predict. Not even in your 5 year plan you paid consultants to write I’m afraid!

Nigel and I have thought about this quite a lot in the past when we invented our Dalton-Pierce Disruption Quotient.  Indeed it was one of the drivers for starting Luna Tractor itself.  Predicting these changes is one thing, but learning how to respond faster is really the only thing you can control. Resilience and speed to learn are the new competitive advantages.

The lifecycle times for industries and business models are getting shorter too. Maybe they relate to the build time of a dynasty or maybe something else – cultural inertia, stickiness or just a generational change.  Older, more traditional businesses (like newspapers, broadcast TV or music) may take 50 years to build and 10 years to decay.  Younger inventions like fax machines have already come and gone, along with many early dot comm successes (MySpace anyone?).

The early giants of computing are all fading fast or changing their business model. With Apple selling more iPads in the last quarter than any computer-making rival sold laptops or desktops, I’ll have a bet (with anyone that will take it) that computers are next … via Ars Technica

Exhibit C: Sales of Smartphones and Tablets vs Computers.

Apple and their iPhone commands around 80% of the profit from Smartphone sales while all the other makers struggle to sell units at any price (note Samsung is a minor exception to this, Apple and Samsung are the only games in town really, hence the large fuss over their recent court dealings).  Google tells us that we search more on our phones than on our computers now.  Where is the peak for Smartphones, and I wonder what will disrupt them?

Luna USA Field Trip: the lunar lander – minimum viable product

By | Agile, Space, Technology | No Comments

Field trips to the Smithsonian are highly recommended by Luna Tractor! The lunar lander LM-2 is stored in the Washington DC Air and Space Museum.

We’ve already referred to the Lunar landing Module (LM in NASA parlance) as the greatest machine ever built. The chance to see a replica in Washington DC was very exciting.

So imagine my amazement to discover that the machine is NOT a replica. It is LM-2, the module they built as a spare unit in anticipation of something going wrong with one of the others. As it happened, things went smoothly (if you don’t count Apollo 13) and it stayed in the shed at Cape Canaveral.

The lesson that the Lunar Module teaches us is fitness for purpose – an old definition of quality that has stood the test of time. Take a close look at the panels on the module – it is riveted together with the bare minimum of materials to keep it light.

“Why isn’t it shaped like a plane” asked my traveling agile assistant, whom we shall call ‘Retro-Boy’. The answer lies in the fact that aerodynamics are somewhat irrelevant in a vacuum.

The modular design of these craft allowed the lessons of the previous Apollo mission to be incorporated quickly into the next mission.

Luna USA Field trip: more skunkworks reflections

By | Agile, Disruption, People, Strategy, Technology | No Comments

Like so many exhibits in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, this plane is not a replica, a copy, or a later model. This actual plane is the very first jet fighter produced by Lockheed Martin’s skunkworks team.

The 14 rules of the Skunkworks, written by Kelly Johnson of Lockheed Martin in the 1940s are are clear antecedents of the 2001 Agile Manifesto, and the Agile Principles behind the manifesto.

Kelly Johnson congratulates the test pilot for the new Lockheed Martin jet fighter, the same plane pictured above 60 years later.

James talks about Skunkworks in our YOW! presentation, which you can view here on the YOW! site.

Kelly Johnson, the leader of the Skunkworks organisation, had one core principle – everyone needed for the design, build, testing and launch of a plane would be in the team, and in the room. Engineers, pilots, welders, engine-makers, contractors.

This principle was brought to bear on the Allies’ big business problem in 1943 – the Germans had developed a jet fighter, capable of 50% more speed than a British Spitfire and the famed US P51-D. Eschewing the usual ‘big design up front’ period for a new plane, they went to work in a hangar and 143 days later were flying the first US-manufactured jet.

One of the secrets of the speed to market of the design was the way the plane was constructed. The tail piece, which contains the engine, could be folded back in several simple panels to reveal the entire jet unit for servicing or replacement, allowing rapid changeover and trying alternate designs.

The customer problem. For solution, see above.

At the Smithsonian, they have the problem and the solution arranged side by side in an exhibition honouring the jet engine and the Lockheed Martin’s amazing new approach to product development.

Luna USA Field Trip: Wright Brothers – less money, less resources, more innovative

By | Agile, Disruption, Strategy, Technology | No Comments

The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, a treasure trove of lean and agile lessons for Luna Tractorites.

Simon Sinek has a great talk on the rivalry at play in the early part of the 20th century to successfully fly a heavier than air, powered aircraft.

It is an important tale for agilists, as the small budget and time/ weather constraints faced by the Wright’s forced them into a design that was low cost, modular, easily repaired, and could be iterated on very rapidly. With which they killed the competition. I won’t repeat it – check out the Ted Talk I have linked above.

Having generated the design for the innovative flexible wing surface to allow more control, the Wright brothers developed tools to hypothesise, test and redeploy elements of the planes in days and weeks, where the opposition (funded 20x better) took months.

Their work with a primitive wind tunnel enabled them to test quickly, and they questioned everything – including apparently proven mathematical formulae for key factors like lift co-efficients.

This image of the brothers’ workshop taken from the Smithsonian exhibition.

In the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum there is an exhibition devoted to the brilliance of the Wright brothers, which attributes their success to genius, and the short cycles of innovation and testing real, flying, machines.

The star of the exhibition is the original plane. Yes, the exact original, with new canvas stretched onto the frame in the 1980s to replace the rotted old 1903 covering. Three hundred feet in the air, strung up in a wooden, wire and canvas device, it is the best definition of a ‘commit’ that I can imagine.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing is not the first flight in 1903 – but that only 10 years later, a plane successfully crossed the Atlantic. The next big barrier, a private plane in space, was 100 years away.

Luna USA Field Trip: Space Shuttle – a monumental engineering achievement

By | Space, Strategy, Technology | No Comments

In our YOW! 2011 talk we discussed the space shuttle era that began in the late 1970s – an era of USA and Soviet rivalry based foolishly on strategic parity (‘our goal is just to have what they have’). Horrifically, many dot com genius business plans are still based on the futility of strategic parity, in short they read: ‘__________ <insert successful website name> but with ________ <insert tiny variation with no proven customer value>’

The Soviets soon abandoned their own space shuttle, which is bizarrely similar in design to the USA model (clearly, they downloaded the plans from pirate bay), in favour of the Soyuz rockets they developed in the 1960s and still fly today.

With the first American astronauts eschewing their shuttle program in favour of hitching a (much cheaper) lift to the International Space Station aboard a Soyuz this week, it was timely that I had the chance to see the Discovery first hand at the Smithsonian.

Like the SR-71, you have probably underestimated how big the shuttle is from the TV pictures.

The body is at least the size of a 2-3 story Melbourne house (those long, thin 5-6m wide terrace houses). Shiny and glowing on TV, it is a beaten and battered workhorse on the outside. The tile pattern is infinitely complex, the white paintwork burnt and worn. It is hell to photograph without diminishing it in scale somehow.

Locked in to such a monumental design, it is easy to see how you would avoid change at all costs on this piece of technology, and why the cost of ownership was so high, that in the end, it was retired with the same conclusion the Russians had drawn 30 years before – just too much money to run and innovate as a platform.

Sound familiar to anyone?

Customer expectations are bringing uncertainty to your doorstep – an infographic

By | Agile, Customers, Technology | One Comment

Eric Ries defines a startup as:

A human institution designed to create a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty.

So what does ‘extreme uncertainty’ look like?

Po Bronson coined the phrase ‘radical uncertainty’ 13 years ago in The Nudist on the Late Shift, the book that got me so excited about San Francisco’s dot-com era I left a perfectly good career in Australian corporate IT to chase the dream of startups in America. And those conditions of uncertainty are what led me directly to the agile way of working (thanks Kent Beck), as the only way to cope with business models, shareholder requirements, and customer needs changing on a weekly basis.

Here’s some of the consumer expectations that are driving that kind of uncertainty today, in a brilliant infographic from the team at onlinegraduate programs.com. Grab your iPad, a stop-watch, and possibly a glass of whisky, and head to your own website immediately after reading. You have 4 seconds or less…

Instant America
Created by: Online Graduate Programs

They love feedback down at onlinegraduateprograms.com so drop Tony Shin a note with any feedback using Twitter dm @ohtinytony

Challenger 1986: NASA’s most explosive retrospective.

By | Agile, Communication, People, Space, Technology | No Comments

Space Shuttle Challenger in one of the most famous (and chilling) space photos of all time.

As I read this week’s Telegraph obituary of a great American rocket scientist, I was moved to thinking about how we deal with the whistleblowers and truth-tellers in an agile world.

How can we strike a balance between encouraging transparency and realism, while managing the impact on the morale of tight-knit teams from Negative Nigels and Whining Winifreds?

I’ll be the first to say that the command and control culture of committed waterfallers (like NASA) is a fast track to secrets being kept, and problems being swept under the carpet. When “failure is not an option” on a project racing toward a fixed launch date, with scope being secretly trimmed off Gantt charts to ensure compliance with public commitments and budgets, and all-nighters pulled by tech heroes, we are just hiding failure.

Is agile any different? If it is effective, yes. But agile zombies, with their card carrying undead marching into retrospectives and standups ritually chanting out their obligations so they can get back to their desks as quickly as possible, is probably just as bad as waterfall.

This tragic tale of an ignored voice is a stern reminder of the consequences of avoiding talking about engineering issues.

When I arrived at Lonely Planet in 2007, and proceeded to shut down a failed waterfall-delivered website program, the HR team had already initiated a training program called Effective Conversations. It seemed uncomfortably basic and quaint in intent – teaching people to get good information across quickly and confidently when in meetings, in casual conversations, one on ones, or in the lunch queue.

A month later, I knew it was gold – I had yet to find a person who did not say “I knew that would happen”. People had just not managed to get the complexity and interdependence of the hairball of product and architecture problems across to Steering Committees and executives. And after a few public scoldings for being naysayers, they learned to shut up and soldier on.

Edward Tufte tackled this same issue of communicating complexity for NASA after the second major shuttle program disaster – Columbia in 2003. This $7 report from his website is one of the best training guides for agilists to invest in around effective written communication.

The constraints put upon Boeing and NASA engineers to explain the complexity of the situation where chunks of insulation had broken off the booster rockets and damaged the heat protective tiles on the leading edge of the wing, using Powerpoint slides with bullets points and a constrained number of words per line, was too great. The wrong decision was made to not space walk and inspect the damage.

I wonder if that was a ‘didn’t work’ or just a ‘puzzles us’ in a retro sense? Either way it signaled the beginning of the end for the second great chapter of the USA’s space exploration efforts. If you are facing an ever increasing complexity in your product and IT architecture, our advice is to put as much investment into improving everyone’s communication skills as you are any engineering effort.

Buy your copy of Edward Tufte’s handbook from his website here.

YOW! 2011 Australia Conference – something for everyone, even the economists!

By | Agile, Development, Lean, Space, Technology | No Comments

As the lunatics in charge of the Luna Tractor, James and I are fortunate to spend time with the 25% of Australian agile professionals who actually give a shit, who we often meet at industry conferences. The smarter among you will have realised I’m rudely suggesting  that 75% of so called ‘agile professionals’ don’t actually give a shit, which sounds harsh until you hear my benchmark number for traditional business people (waterfallers, 5 Year Planners, CMD+CTRL freaks) who give a shit – more like 1/100 or 1%. Maybe in some cases 0.1%, depending on the institution.

The British cabinet war rooms - agile wall, all the comms you need, the right people in the room, iterating by the hour in 1936.

Economics lesson aside, being invited to YOW! 2011 to present was a real highlight for us. James and I gave a 45 minute talk on the history of coincidentally agile-like practices over the past century, and how they have contributed to some great innovations (particularly in the engineering and space fields, our favourites), as well as some Class A ass-saving.

YOW is reputed to be a developer-centric affair, with a speaker roster even including several actual inventors of famous programming languages (check out the superstar roster here), so as the resident economist I was fairly nerve wracked! Should non-developers even go to YOW? Is it just too geeky and engineering focused? My experience is absolutely yes, you MUST go to YOW – per Martin Fowler‘s signoff at Agile Australia 2011, we are all complicit in software development now, and gathering an understanding of that craft is vital.

A speaker like Mike Lee might go over your head if you are not an engineer for 5% of the time, but he chooses to focus as much on issues like learning and intellectual property protection as development language choice (and he is damned funny while he’s at it). Someone like Kevin O’Neill from Melbourne prides himself on keeping it comprehensible for everyone, without losing the pointy stuff, and the joy of invention and discovery. The big kahunas like Simon Peyton Jones are talking as much about the history, sociology and philosophy of software engineering as they are lines of code. Meanwhile the Linda Risings and Mary Poppendiecks are there for everyone to learn from.

You can easily pick a path through the YOW! program that takes in the more social and cultural side of software engineering and working in teams (these are passions for organiser and founder Dave Thomas) as well as some more general interest code and development talks, and if ever there was an environment where it is safe for non-coders to ask dumb questions – it’s YOW!

It’s actually the developers who need to worry about their reputation in front of their peers – just say “hey, I’m not an developer, but I’d love to learn how that works in simple terms so I can understand…” and you will have an erudite, clear answer in no time.

Good software engineers love their work, and want other people to love it too.

We’d also love to see a few more software developers and testers at Agile Australia 2012 in Melbourne at the end of May, joining the lively community of product managers, agile coaches, lean gurus, analysts, iteration managers, project managers, thinkers, vendors and practitioners who gather there each year.

A great example of our agile community’s need to think more holistically was raised by Mary Poppendieck and Linda Rising at YOW, who both called  “bullshit” on agile’s current obsession with teams of 7 +/-2 people (read devs, testers and a scrum master) as ‘optimal’, when organisations that deliver products to end customers clearly involve everyone from the person on the phone to customers at the front desk, all the way to the intern. Teams of 30-70 are way more normal and work just fine, so stop obsessing about your tiny team at standup being the whole agile gang. That mirrors our experience at Lonely Planet for sure.

If you didn’t manage to get to YOW! in 2011, or as always seems to happen, were forced to choose between sessions, the majority of the papers are up on the site, and most of the presentations were video recorded – check out the YOW Eventer website put together by the Cogent crew in Melbourne for the video over the next days – there’s a couple up already including ours.

Craig Smith with Mary Poppendieck at YOW 2011 Brisbane - the gold standard 'hard act to follow' at a conference

A copy of our slides (with still images replacing the video we showed in Melbourne and Brisbane) can be viewed online here: Luna Tractor YOW 2011 Decades of Agile

YOW! is a multi-media affair, so naturally there’s a podcast – produced by two of the Australian agile community’s bright young things, Craig Smith (who blogs here when not

Breakfast at Brew Cafe in Brisbane - sensational

coaching and inspiring agilists) and Renee Troughton (who has a great site called The Agile Forest). This was done in a fab (very Lonely Planet) little cafe called Brew in Brisbane, so the background noise is fairly busy, and we discussed (I suspect that should read ‘Nigel talked about’ – Ed. JP) a vast range of topics around agile, Lonely Planet, consulting and change.

You can listen to that podcast here, and of course it’s available on iTunes: http://www.theagilerevolution.com/episode-19-luna-tractor-with-nigel-dalton

My very best impression of the French gallic shrug - perhaps in reponse to Charles' line of questioning on whether Microsoft could be agile 😉

And finally on the media front, Microsoft’s Channel 9 conducted interviews of many of the speakers at the conference.

You’ll find them all on their prolific and rich tech-focused website, while my own epic 30 minutes of righteous crapping on about everything agile, Lonely Planet, and offering unqualified advice to Microsoft about becoming agile can be accessed right here.

See you all next year.

Great Engineering Lasts – The U-2 Spy Plane and the SR 71 Blackbird.

By | Agile, Development, Lean, Space, Technology | 4 Comments

We spoke at YOW this year on the topic of innovation and agile over 6 decades, highlighting the Agile and Lean principles we see in space and engineering projects. From the 1930s we talked about the Cabinet War rooms and that deserves a whole post of its own as we continue to expand our understanding of how physical spaces enable and impact the people and results.  From the 1940s we talked about Lockheed Martin and their Skunkworks which we’ve written about before.  From the 1950s we looked at some of the magnificent engineering created by that same Skunkworks team… The Agile movement may only be 10 years old, but the principles and the evidence that it works goes back way further than that.  We’ll write more reflections on YOW itself at some point, but today you get one of the lessons that most appeals to us.

The U-2 Spy Plane

When the U-2 first flew in 1955, it was an accident.  A high speed taxi test saw it rolling down the runway at 70 knots at which point its sailplane wing generated enough lift and it took off into the air unexpectedly.  At the other extreme, its cruising altitude of 70,000 feet is referred to by pilots as coffin corner; at this height its stall speed is a mere 10 knots slower than its maximum speed.

The balance is so critical on the U-2 that the cameras had to use a split film setup with reels on one side feeding forward while those on the other side feed backward, thus maintaining a balanced weight distribution through the whole flight.

The plane is incredibly difficult to land because of the lift cushion under the wing as it comes close to the ground.  It lands on two inline ‘bicycle wheels’ and the wing tips also land and skid on the ground on titanium plates.

Perhaps the most amazing U-2 fact, and the reason we consider it such a testament to great engineering, is that it’s still in active service today.

The SR-71 Blackbird

This is the fastest and highest flying air-breathing aircraft ever made (only rockets can go higher or faster).  It has a maximum speed unspecified above Mach 3.5 (3.5 times the speed of sound) and a maximum altitude also unspecified but in excess of 85,000 feet.  At Mach 3.5 you’re covering 1km per second and the engines are sucking in 3 million litres of air every second – an average human breaths in that much air in a year.

The construction of the plane is pretty special too, with 90% of it being made from titanium.  At Mach 3+ the surface of the plane heats up to 500+ degrees.  The wet patches you can see on the wings and central spine in this photograph are caused by the fuel leaking out of the expansion joint ‘gills’ in the plane.  Until about Mach 2.5 when the plane heats up and expands, the SR-71 leaks fuel constantly.

While the Concord can do the transatlantic London to New York flight in about three and half hours, the SR-71 is the way to go if you’re in a hurry.  It holds the record at just 1 hour 54 min.

My favourite SR-71 story comes from a pilot in the book Sled Driver: “One day, high above Arizona , we were monitoring the radio traffic of all the mortal airplanes below us. First, a Cessna pilot asked the air traffic controllers to check his ground speed. ‘Ninety knots,’ ATC replied. A twin Bonanza soon made the same request. ‘One-twenty on the ground,’ was the reply. To our surprise, a navy F-18 came over the radio with a ground speed check. I knew exactly what he was doing. Of course, he had a ground speed indicator in his cockpit, but he wanted to let all the bug-smashers in the valley know what real speed was ‘Dusty 52, we show you at 620 on the ground,’ ATC responded. The situation was too ripe. I heard the click of Walter’s mike button in the rear seat. In his most innocent voice, Walter startled the controller by asking for a ground speed check from 81,000 feet, clearly above controlled airspace. In a cool, professional voice, the controller replied, ‘ Aspen 20, I show you at 1,982 knots on the ground.’ We did not hear another transmission on that frequency all the way to the coast.”

This article from Gizmodo about flying the SR-71 is required reading.

In a world of throw-away appliances and software it’s a salient reminder that great work, great engineering lasts a long time.  The Skunkworks team was isolated and protected from the rest of the organisation; this one team designed over 30 planes including the U2, A-12, SR-71, F-117, F-22 – just to name a few iconic aircraft.

Agile Roadmaps, Agile Planning and Topical Storms

By | Agile, Development, People, Technology | One Comment

All plans are educated guesses, and in truth the futher into the future we try and gaze the higher the likelihood that our plans are really just guesses. We often use an analogy to cyclone or hurricane forecasts when we are explaining this.

Meteorologists can forecast that a big tropical storm (please insert hurricane or cyclone in your mind depending on whether you’re reading this from the top or bottom of the world) is coming 4 or 5 days out, but it’s not clear at that point where it’s going to land.  Instead they predict a wide potential path.  As the storm moves closer and closer to landfall the accuracy of the storm’s path increases until about 8 hours out when we know within some 10s of km where the storm is going to end up.

Planning for large projects is just like this; we can have a good idea of the major direction of travel but working out the fine details of what is going to happen in a few months is unrealistic.  This is one of the key reasons that so many Waterfall projects run into trouble; to continue the analogy, the wind changes direction, customers’ demands and desires change, the regulatory environment changes or perhaps a competitor enters the market etc.

So this is not to say you shouldn’t plan; you need to plan.  Just understand how far away the storm is. If you’re thinking about next week, it’s valuable to plan in detail (stories, tasks, detailed estimates and wireframes etc).  If you’re worried about next month, break it down into the major tasks, but don’t get too worried about the details yet. When you’re looking at what you’ll be doing in 3 months, remind yourself that this is just your best guess is; know that it will change.

Having these longer term plans is still very valuable, but often not for obvious reasons. Having a plan gives you something to push, pull and test alternatives against.  We humans are very very good at comparative value calculations and very bad at abstract ones.  So the plan in place gives you a benchmark against which to decide whether a change will be an improvement or not. It also gives your team a framework around which to make bigger decisions about platforms, architecture and longer term expenditure – again just tell your teams and yourself:

“This plan is just our best guess right now, and we promise to keep talking about it and keep updating where the storm is going to land as we go.”

The real legacy of Steve Jobs

By | Agile, Development, People, Technology | No Comments

It’s not like the internet doesn’t have enough people regurgitating old Steve Jobs stories right now and despite personally being a shameless fan boy and wanting to give my little tip of the hat to Steve I’ve held back, until now.

There is a huge myth about Steve, that Apple = Steve Jobs. Of course he was a very clever guy, and from the outside looking in he seems like a much more hands on CEO than most. We get blindsided by the stories of his individual touch on products, as if the hand of God had reached down and then it was done. I don’t believe it though, not for one minute.

Steve’s major contribution was and is a culture, an ethos and a way of thinking about the world. The intersection of liberal arts with technology. The obsession with thinking differently, as a marketing catch cry and a way of working. He knew what great looks like and he set the bar, demanding that standard.

The thing is, with rare exception, at best teams and individuals only perform at the level of the ‘greatest’ work they have seen done. It’s a big part of how we learn – we mimic, we imitate and finally we own things. It’s why having one or two gurus in a development team can lift the level of the whole team. It’s why going to conferences, reading books and being actively involved in your industry outside your own company is so important. This is also why stagnant teams and organisations need new blood, new ideas and dramatic intervention to effect change.

Steve created an environment, a culture, where being obsessive about the little details was rewarded. Where it was ok to scrap things and start again. Where it was just assumed that even the best ideas would be iterated on, over and over again before they might finally see the light of day. Even then, very often we see a lean minimum marketable feature set in version 1.0 Apple products.

Steve’s real legacy was in creating a whole company of people who know what’s remarkable and what insanely great really means. That’s the lesson for the rest of us: make sure you really know what great looks like.

This post was inspired by Steve Jobs and the Eureka Myth at HBR. Also, if you haven’t seen it, make sure you check out the Stanford Commencement speech Steve gave in 2005.

Not just an IT thing

By | Agile, Development, Lean, People, Technology | One Comment

Derek Sivers says we shouldn’t share our goals, or make them public, that the act of sharing our goals makes us less likely to achieve them. However, our experience with the teams we’ve worked with is that making public commitments to each other is a powerful motivating force.

With all things Luna Tractor we try to practice what we preach, plus eat our own dog food, so today we went public and launched a project to share the stories of agile and lean transformation at Lonely Planet.  At a lunchtime briefing with our friends at ThoughtWorks, we started to share some of the stories and photographs we have been collecting as the basis of an ebook about the remarkable business transformation at Lonely Planet in the last 5 years.

The book’s title, ‘Not just an IT Thing’, was inspired by Thoughtworks’ Lean business strategist David Joyce, who in early discussions with us was lamenting that so little progress has been made outside of software development with systems thinking, lean, agile and kanban methodologies, and that all too often agile was dismissed as “just an IT thing.”

To continue this, and share our progress in an agile way, our goal is to publish some of the photographs of Lonely Planet’s remarkable workplace on a regular basis as the content comes together.  Stay tuned to the blog for snippets and the team’s stories, and most importantly tell us what you think.

A note of thanks must go to everyone over the last 5 years who told us to ‘write it down!’ Well, your exhortations have been heard, and this time we’ve actually started.

Facebook = AOL 2.0?

By | Disruption, Technology | No Comments

With today’s announcement from Facebook that they have embedded Skype’s video  conferencing service, and the subsequent arrival of all my friends pictures on both left and right panels of my Facebook wall, and the beta launch of Google + I am moved to dust off an old blog post from my personal blog on the subject of the internet and how IMHO Facebook was taking us down the (walled) garden path.

Useful as a history lesson perhaps, or a check on my powers of prediction 😉

Old post begins here…

As some would know, I recently dived back into the seething biomass known as Facebook. I’d abandoned the service (committing ‘Facebookicide’) in 2008, after being stalked by one too many lesbians from Queensland to be their latest collected trophy-friend (me, a trophy?).

From where I sat, it appeared to be a massive online home for the bewildered.

Lured back into the water in 2010 by online community guru @venessapaech and the Lonely Planet strategic thinkers, I am amazed to see how it has grown. So much so, that my initial conclusion is that we are now dealing with a serious platform leap from college dorm to a new core of the internet – and another prime example of the tension between different perspectives on the web as a democratic platform, versus a closed, proprietary commercial network.

There has always been someone who attempted to dominate the shabby collection of servers, wires and users we call the internet. Its not surprising – human history is peppered with rising and falling empires, and this new digital land grab is much the same. If you’ll pardon the quality of the research, here’ s my potted view of the history of that race between the open and closed camps. As always, Wikipedia is a better historian than I’ll ever be, so many links go to them!

ARPAnet (1958 – 1988): apparently originally inspired in the Cold War period (in particular Sputnik’s shock factor in the technology race), this loose confederation of military and academic servers and connections was the seed of the internet and the classic ‘closed’ network.

Minitel (1982): ultimately nearly 25m French people were connected to Minitel, a governmental postal/telecom collaboration to supply citizens with access via a terminal to information directories, booking services, message boards, stock prices and chat services. The network was tightly managed and closed to anything not endorsed by the state – a position the owners far too long into the life of the internet as it developed in the 1990s. That said, the announcement it would be finally killed off in 2009 was met with public outcry – and still 1m banking transactions a month are done on the historic terminals.

AOL (1983): the first major money making walled garden on the internet in the English speaking world, founded on online games and communities (including popularising chat on the internet with ICQ), rising to 30m users over the next 20 years then famously blowing it all in a merger with Time Warner in 2001. Who could forget the rain-storm of direct marketed CD-ROMs that came in fancy tins and packages tempting you onto their network? And once you were in, they had you under their control. Most AOL users right through the 1990s thought AOL was the internet, holus-bolus.

The actual Internet (1988): the year the military and the commercial networkers joined up, including emerging private sector networks Compuserve, UUNet, PSINet, CERFNET, and Usenet. Still a bunch of list servers, technical people and a minimum number of tools to connect people without IT degrees or an interest in ham radio.

World Wide Web (1991): with the term coined by CERN’s Tim Berners-Lee, this was a layer on top of the internet that enabled sharing of resources beyond the list and text heavy document and email platform. It was classicly ‘open’ – anarchic in some ways with the emphasis on interconnection to make the world a better place through sharing.

The web caused a boom in browser software (and with Netscape Navigator in 1994 the beginning of the get rich quick internet startup decade), the lens you needed to see everything that was out there, no matter who or where it was served. Unless perhaps you live in China or the new Australia.

MSN (1995): Microsoft famously ‘got the web’ in the mid-90s, and MSN was their attempt at a walled garden, which basically proved they did not get the web at all. Their ongoing efforts to keep people within their domain included Hotmail, Messenger, MSN Explorer, and to some extent Internet Explorer as a non-standard browser. MSN has around 10m members today (note: fact to be checked), and has morphed into Windows Live as Microsoft’s attempt to stay relevant to a generation of users that prefer to Google, Twitter and Facebook.

Broadband WWW (c2005): without doubt the expansion of high speed wiring to the many nodes of the internet changed the game, and saw the emergence of traditional media players showing video, images and enabling collaboration and sharing in ways that dialup constrained.

Mobile WWW (c2008): 3G wireless in wide supply and a new generation of intelligent phone handsets once again changed the nature of the internet, initially slowing some things down but causing simplification and refocus about what it meant to be connected 24 x 7 x 365. Without doubt the earlier incarnations of the wireless web contributed to the acceleration of internet users to an estimated 1.6b in 2009.

Facebook (September 2006): starting small and purposeful, this College white pages site has emerged as a global player, with enough functionality and interconnectivity to keep an ‘internet’ user within it’s 4 walls for hours a day. On its way to a self-professed 1 billion members by 2012, it already has 400m members across the world and 200m highly active contributors. <editor’s note: today’s claim a year later is 750m members>

Remember it took the internet 2 decades to get 1b members!

The combination of Facebook’s fast-growing community plus hardwiring to platforms like iTunes and news media (via Facebook Connect) is further enhancing the rush back to a new type of walled garden. My beloved iPhone is a simple example – Facebook actually wraps an unbranded Safari browser for links external to Facebook, and I am rarely more than 1 button away from my news stream.

At the same time, people are searching, chatting, messaging, piping in their Twitter streams, their Youtube favourites, their Amazon book reviews and their Flickr photo collections. And spending on average 6.5 hours a day connected to the site. Soon there will be word processing, spreadsheets and proper search, and your homepage on Firefox or Chrome will be http://www.facebook.com.

Advertisers on TV and the web are starting to end their 30 second commercials with ‘See us on Facebook’ rather than making us remember their torturous www.thenextbigthing.com URL or go to a site generation Y probably can’t even use because of its overdesigned 1990s based navigation and complexity. Businesses are starting to consider internal Facebook networks to replace Microsoft’s 20 year old Outlook email and messaging, and a growing number of tools like Yammer are emerging to fill the gaps.

Now, the traditional website concept is unlikely to go away, and no doubt history will show that something succeeds Facebook. But for many people, Facebook will be the new AOL – you can check out, but you can never leave.

Call me a hippy, but I think I liked the Tim Berners-Lee vision better.

How they found Lunokhod 1 – still contributing to science

By | Moon, Technology | One Comment

Any article on the internet that contains a photo as brilliant as this deserves promoting – but this one by Ariel Bleicher on IEEE from September 2010 is especially amazing, and contains the story of scientists rediscovering the little moon tank that could, and putting it to work again.

Just to add a weird twist to the story – the Lunokhod 2 moon rover was bought by this guy in 1993. Wonder what this one is worth?

The Dalton-Pierce Digital Disruption Quotient

By | Disruption, Technology | No Comments

This marvelous graph was produced by Michael DeGusta in an erudite post on The Understatement blog on the disruption the recorded music industry has endured in the last 40 years. It’s a gloomy picture, and working for a publisher (of books, magazines, video, apps and eBooks) gave us cause to ruminate on some of the underlying drivers of the collapse of music publishing.

In a nutshell, after a decade of economic crisis the music publishing industry no longer sells a lot of CDs, album sales have been replaced by sales of singles on iTunes, and pirating has been widespread. The only legacy format remaining is kept alive by the vinyl nerds (and I’m looking at you James).

There are a plethora of moving economic variables at play in this chart from the time CD sales peaked around 2000, but we think it’s possible to turn it into a mathematical formula that can be further explored by publishers in books, video, and newspapers. We call it the DPQ, short for the Dalton-Pierce quotient:

Where:

m State of economy (misery index): the misery index is the inflation rate added to the unemployment rate. It is a raw, but effective index of economic suffering.

f Format of content: in music, the arrival of the widely agreed standard of the MP3 file enabled recording, storage, playback, sharing and commercial transactions to take place over a single song.

a Atomisation of content into chunks: the single has replaced the album as the unit of consumption in the music industry. You can read all about that on the original post.

d Devices for consuming content: in music the arrival of MP3 players (notably the iPod, but remember the Rio?) heralded a major change. Cheap, portable players were supplemented mid-decade by cheap, gargantuan hard disk drives that could store a whole music collection. If you doubt the impact hardware can have on an industry, check out the arrival of the Sony Walkman and the consequent fattening up of the cassette market on the chart between 1982 and 1985.

c Control of distribution: a trip to the music store to buy the latest album or 45 was a great adventure for me in the 1970s and 1980s. Music publishers grew strong and controlled the retail supply chain with iron fists, including the complementary industries in radio and tv for promotion of songs and albums. Nobody controls the internet – the best you can hope for is to control part of it – like Amazon music and Apple iTunes.

So the maths is simple: disruption is accelerated overall by the context of poor economic times, when consumers are motivated to change their spending habits. When the denominator in the equation gets smaller (as in the internet becomes the channel, and you lose control), disruption gets bigger by a lot. The multiplier effect of the 3 components of the numerator is self-explanatory – and in music publishing all 3 were impacted. Hence, massive disruption.

The same formula can easily be applied to other publishers and media – I’m presenting a short paper on this subject at the 2011 AIMIA V21 conference (Digital DNA) in Melbourne on the 12th of April, and look forward to a robust debate. The good news is there is a solution to making the quotient work for you, not against you.

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