Friday, September 4, 2009

Interlude One: Four random lessons that could prove useful to you.

I was planning to publish a blog on the Service layer this week. Then I realized that, as amazing as SOA happens to be, the subject tends to be dry at times. This being Labor Day weekend, I figured, “Heck, this is my blog and I can do something different once in a while!” So, let’s take a small diversion from the discussion on services, SOA, and the like and talk instead about some random stuff that you might find fun to ponder?
I have always thought of myself as a visionary—an innovation factory of sorts. My nagging question (and my wife’s) has always been this: if I am such a visionary, why do I still have to peddle my services for a salary? Why am I not a multimillionaire?
Let’s face it, during the last sixty years the computer industry has been one of the biggest breeder of fortunes. Early on, the players best positioned to take advantage of the computer invention were the big corporations: IBM, Sperry-Univac, Burroughs, etc., but in time, independent garage-based entrepreneurs began to appear; enter Bill Gates at Microsoft, Steve jobs at Apple, and assorted others. I asked the question asked by many, “Why not me too?”
Like many, during the eighties, I watched as the PC revolution passed me by. I was idealistic and not interested in money. I developed software for the pure love of doing so and made it available via Compuserve as “freeware” (asking for “voluntary” contributions which netted me around $200 for a sprite animation software I had developed).  Even though I’m mentioned in Wikipedia as one of the pioneers of game simulation thanks to my “Strength of Nations” game, which I had suitably offered for free to the online community of the day, it would have been nice to share in the fate of others more business-savvy than I, who had developed PC solutions earning them well-deserved riches.
Lesson #1. “It’s okay to be idealistic, but it doesn’t hurt to look for an economic angle as well.”
During the nineties I continued in the pioneering forefront and worked diligently to advance the novelty of the Web.  In the process of experimenting and setting up the first Intranet for my employer, I created a web page that would ultimately contain all the employee photos. Lacking the actual individual photos, I inserted random pictures as placeholders: Mickey Mouse, Homer Simpson, one or two actors whose names I no longer recall and, well, a photo of the Unabomer (what can I say? The guy happened to be in the news back then). The setup was meant to be temporary, but little was I aware that someone in HR, hoping to ingratiate herself with this Intranet thing (and probably trying to steal the credit as well) chose to “demonstrate” this work in progress to the CEO. . . without  informing me!
I don’t know if it was the fact that the Unabomer was so disliked by corporate America given his expressed desire to target captains of industry, or the fact that my company’s particularly conservative CEO didn’t even believe in the Internet, but I found myself in hot water. Rumor says the CEO stormed out of the presentation and demanded to have that ridiculous “Intranet-thing” shut down. After much pleading he allowed it to stay, provided no photos were ever placed in it. My career in that company was not looking very sweet.
Lesson #2: I don’t know if there is broader lesson to be learned her other than the obvious: “Don’t use a photo of the Unabomer as a placeholder.”
After this incident, I sat down with my good friend, Ron, to explore business opportunities for the Internet.  In line with Lesson #1, this time I wanted to come up with a grand idea that would make us rich. I, as well as another million or so hopefuls, was ready to benefit from the spoils of the Dot-Com Gold Rush of the nineties.
Brainstorming ideas with Ron, I decided search engines were out of the question. After all, hadn’t Altavista already captured that market?  In retrospect, the fact that you had to enter a long-winded domain name to access it (www. should have tipped me off as to how little interest DEC had for support of the product! We continued brainstorming throughout the afternoon, accompanied by a case of Coronas, but nothing seemed novel or legal enough (online gambling sites, I surmised would not be well received by the US Justice Department). Deflated, by the end of the day, I concluded, “I think everything that can be done with the Internet has already been done, my friend. I am afraid we are too late.”
I continued in my profession and thankfully most of it was successful and rewarding, but in the process I witnessed the emergence of Google, eBay, Skype, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, and hundreds of other truly-valuable Internet franchises.
Lesson #3: It is never too late for anything!
Another story:  Having just graduated from College, I was in a desperate search for a job. I finally landed an interview to work for a factory on the outskirts of the city where I lived and grew up (Mexico City, if you must know). I felt I had nailed the interview.  I had answered most of the questions well and sensed I was a contender for the job. Then, suddenly, the interviewer pulled a mechanical contraption from his desk drawer. “Tell me,” he asked, “do you know what this is?”
I had no clue what the piece was or its purpose.  I deployed my keenest analytical instincts in examining the piece to try and figure it out. It was made of metal and had grooves and even though it appeared to be a passive device, requiring no electricity, its form suggested it served some useful purpose. Still its function escaped me.
Feeling like a losing contestant on a game show with a ticking clock in the background, I finally offered a guess. “Is it some kind of valve?”  The interviewer looked at me intently and replied in the negative. You have to realize, I had been in the market for quite some time and was desperate for a job (actually I was desperate for the money the job would bring, but you get my drift), so I tried to think even harder. The piece didn’t have any moving parts, but it had an odd shape. What could it be?  “Is it some kind of sensor?” I ventured.
No. The man shook his head. I sighed and said, “Sorry, I don’t know what it is.” I threw my arms up hoping I would score some points for at least having been honest enough to admit my ignorance.
Then the interviewer held the piece directly on front of me and waited, expectantly. It was awkward because here I was hoping he would finally tell me what the blasted thing was and he just sat there, silent. What was he expecting of me?  The standoff lasted for less than a minute but it felt like an hour to me.  Hadn’t I already admitted my ignorance?
Finally, he slowly placed the piece back in the drawer and politely thanked me and told me I would be called if offered the job.
I didn’t get that job and it took me years to realize why I didn’t: I never asked him what the damned piece was or what it was for! (Till this day I wish I knew the answer).
Lesson #4: If you don’t know something, just ask.
That’s it. This concludes this interlude. Sorry if I’ve digressed a little. Next week, I will cover the Services Layer.
Enjoy the weekend!