Thursday, July 14, 2005

The France IBM Connection

An allegorical foray wherein I suggest that one of the better analogies for IBM, and particularly its Software Group, is to consider it akin to France. Sacré bleu: a touch of whimsy on Bastille Day. As they say

Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité

The French Connection


I've been getting a little reflective as my 10 year anniversary at Lotus/IBM comes up next week. I'm not normally one for anniversaries but lots of things have been coming together (or falling apart) that make this a good time for some musing.

As I've written previously, this is an interesting moment in the technology world. After a quite severe retrenchment and some stagnation, all of a sudden there is a glimmer of light. Many companies are lighting a fire of innovation and building useful things on the web based on very simple primitives. We have absorbed the lessons of 10 years of Moore's Law in the data center, and as Joe Kraus has noted, it is a great time to be an entrepreneur (Mark Fletcher has piped in too). Still, lots of companies have lemons to sell and are falling back onto the hard sell of tone-deaf marketing to compensate for a lack of substance.

As an amateur historian of technology, I've been trying to consider where my company falls within this continuum. I like arguments by analogy and hence have been searching for a metaphor to describe the tribes of IBM.

The Governor of Redmonk characterized IBM as a broad church, a bazaar and melting pot
All views are present (and correct). All views are tolerated.
Others would have it be a cathedral, full of dogma and staid and obsolete blue-shirted mandates. In the 1990s, as that self-congratulatory pablum from Lou Gerstner went, it was about "trying to make an elephant dance", slashing and burning jobs, focusing on services and huge outsourcing deals rather than products and technology (the reviews in the previous link are quite revelatory). All of these characterizations are unsatisfactory, yet each have a grain of truth as with all coinages. Big Blue is all of these things and much more.

In conversations with colleagues and in reading the internal forums and blogs at IBM, there is an undercurrent of introspection and lot of soul searching. Sometimes this is even more critical and severe than from the outside. A sample:
Caring only about making the work numbers add up rather than actually improving the product doesn't seem to be real great way to a) run a business or b) get your developers to be passionate about their work.

Hopefully all of you will win your own innovation vs. mediocrity skirmishes in the future, and help that stock price edge higher :)

When I meet new people and tell them what I do for a living and who I work for, they are universally impressed yet each will have some story about how we could do better.

Cringely recently commented on dropping an applet developed by IBM and had this to say
"There was nothing wrong with IBM. Far from it - IBM Research was a terrific partner. But big companies have big licensing issues and smaller organizations sometimes give more personal support."

Might this be a trend, who knows? One must admit however that there is a perception of complexity, unnecesary layers or of bureaucratic overhead.

My only comment about a strategy that focuses on services is that
  • There is a straight line from complexity to consultants
  • No one really wants consultants
Per contra, as someone hired by Lotus, I have always wanted to work on things that people inherently want to use and buy rather than something they grudgingly accept. Aside from the effect in the market, there's that little matter of motivation for the day job in what is ultimately a creative endeavor.

In observing IBM Software Group's dealing with the Lotus portfolio over the years, I can say that it hasn't always been pretty and that the things that seem to be rewarded are very different from the aesthetic that actually seems to be "getting things done". In an era of mass layoffs and belt-tightening (raises anyone?), this is a little puzzling. Still it is a work in progress and we should simply strive to be more effective advocates and lead with running code as we play The Great Game. Thus I come to the France-IBM connection...

During my recent trip to London, I came across an article that I believe best expresses some of what I've been thinking about IBM, I reproduce it below. It is actually also one of the most illuminating pieces about France in the current moment. In reading it with my French cousins, we remarked that it was ironic that we had to read something so perceptive about France in English, and in London rather than in France. 5 very crucial years of my life were spent in France thus I empathize with the sentiment of the piece.

I'm suggesting then, that the correct analogy for IBM is to consider it akin to France.

Like all analogies, the France-IBM connection has its problems and I should say at the outset that it more precisely fits the IBM Software Group which is only a sliver of IBM. There are many parts of IBM that are completely alien to me. Handwaving a little, one can start by saying that France, like IBM in the technology world, is a Great Power with much clout. The grass typically pays close attention to what elephants are doing. Still, it is also the case that as a Great Power, it has seen better days and it can't fall back on the gravy trains of yore from its colonies and the dwindling list of post-colonial proxies. Its dirigiste economy might be like the "mandates from on high" and "Roadmaps ™" that I hear about but never actually read, or indeed follow. A colleague recently quipped that it was typical of IBM that a "roadmap would be put in place for radical simplification".

In my whimsical story, PITTs: Naming an Aesthetic where I struggled to label my own outlook on technology, I mentioned that William Pitt The Elder's ingenuity in The Seven Year War
"destroyed the military prestige which repeated experience has shown to be in France as in no other country the very life of monarchy, and thus was not the least considerable of the many influences that slowly brought about the French Revolution."

The analogue of England and Pitt for France, might be the rise of Microsoft, Intel and Sun in the past and all of those snappy web companies in the present for IBM. This has meant that the "No one ever got fired for buying IBM" line is no longer quite so true. In times of retrenchment, we are all picky about what we choose and will build it ourselves if possible.

I don't know much about the hardware side of IBM, but one could perhaps also handwave a little and compare IBM's losing out to Intel on supplying Apple to be reminiscent of Paris losing the bid for the Olympics to London. In this analogy, like France we were ever confident that we had the better facilities and roadmap, we were all about the enterprise and the high end. Perhaps with a touch of noblesse oblige, we ignored The Low End Theory. Was IBM simply Marie-Antoinette saying "Let them eat cake"?

In any case, this is just an allegory, let's see how well it works.
"Aux armes citoyens."

Why we are rebelling against the old guard

As France prepares to turn its back on the latest vision of Europe, a French writer vents his fury with his country's 'arrogant' elite.

by Renaud Fessaguet
The Observer, Sunday May 29, 2005
The old guard
I travelled recently to London with a French television crew to try to discover what makes Britain such a success story. Sounds unlikely? Thirty years ago, British journalists used to cross the Channel in search of inspiration from the French. Does it mean that we are in urgent need of inspiration and of new models? Perhaps.

I've been thinking about the various approaches to software development inside IBM and comparing them to what our competitors and especially our users actually do when they put technology to work for them. Many others have been advocating pragmatism internally and that IBM should do business much like the rest of the world is doing.
More certainly, it signifies that the republican model is experiencing a profound crisis. Oddly enough, France remains one of the wealthiest countries in the world, one that everyone lauds for the quality of its workforce and infrastructures.

IBM is the largest technology company in the world. Annual revenues tend to be around $100 billion.
But it is also true that l'esprit France doesn't work any more. The passion and energy have gone. The Gauls are tired, depressed and entrenched in their 'village'. Above all, the French are afraid of everything: the summer heat, the outside world ... and the stirring rhetoric that has guided us for so long.

See also: overheard. 13,000 employees laid off. Beating inflation these days?
Liberalism, pragmatism, flexibility ... all have become tainted and entered into the already chunky dictionary of taboos. For so many things are taboo in modern France. For instance, it is taboo to point out that our political elite is ageing, arrogant and cynical. Like most French people, it takes no interest in new technology, in sharing power or knowledge - remember President Chirac, puzzled by a computer mouse?

What's the web? What's a feed? What's RSS/Atom? What are blogs? What are wikis?
It is taboo to claim the French elite has recklessly seized all the levers of power and is running the country in an inefficient, if not inept, way.

"What feature is it you might ask? there was no way to bookmark anything in WebSphere Portal?"
Hundreds of French leaders, including diplomats and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, don't speak English, an ignorance which makes them unable to understand the buzz of the global world, forcing them to depend on secondhand information.

What does it mean to be on the web?
It is taboo to say the French elite has found shelter in comfortable niches high up within the administration or on big company boards, both private and public. Isn't it amazing, for instance, that none of the leaders of the left-wing parties campaigned against the increase in food prices after the euro launch in 2002, which has resulted in increases as high as 6.5 per cent.

Buzzwords, buses, frameworks.
The dictatorship of diplomas, the system which demands a formal qualification for any job, which ignores raw talent, however extraordinary it might be, has produced a terrible paradox, empowering mediocrity and irresponsibility, a whole mentality overshadowing the schools, judiciary, media and, ultimately, our national life.

For diplomas, substitute patents and a concern for good products.

This last, the tyranny of patents is worth dwelling on. If one looks at software as a fungible thing and just as a springboard for career advancement, then you will have the notion of viewing the development organization as merely a technology incubator and treat it accordingly. There appear to be perverse incentives in what is rewarded by the organization. These incentives leads to a lack of balance between innovation as expressed in amassing a portfolio of defensive software patents, and innovation that comes from developing lightweight solutions and products that solve problems. The result is technology for technology's sake in other words, and a plethora of frameworks and buzzwords that ignores the effects of said technology on those who are simply trying to get on with things and have problems to solve. A little too often and, as the indoctrination of new hires attests, what is loudly trumpeted is that the way to advance, the way to grab the Fistful of Dollars at IBM, is by filing patents. Those slow pokes contemplating solid products and services are so passé.

See also: Why You Need a Degree to Work For BigCo
It is taboo to point out that the media establishment is timid and has surrendered to the politicians for economic reasons, since it lives mainly on public subsidies and junkets.

It is taboo to discuss the sacred retirement age of 55 or 60, when growing life expectancy will create a tremendous disruption in the pensions system.

We have inherited the most stubborn unions - does that sound familiar to you? - together with the stingiest of employers. In an obscene complicity, they are fossilising the whole social system and perpetuating one of the most rigid labour markets. But mentioning this is again taboo.
Just a paycheck, non?

Non. Chirac.

It is considered unacceptable to argue for easier procedures for company start-ups, and unheard of to complain about the heavy, complicated and inefficient tax system.

File under bureaucracy. See also: "Make sure to call the legal department before you ______." Breathe?
It is vulgar to say that technical skills might be useful for new generations. French families will prefer to call on the famous Polish plumber - or his Ukrainian colleague - obviously paid for in the black economy.
Busloads of consultants or software that enables Glue Layer People? I volunteer a few of these good folks and various others as the Polish plumbers of IBM (some even look the part).

Polish Plumber


Will they get turned away from Bordeaux like those Romanians who come to help with the wine crop are? To give some context, the French have erected internal border posts at the gates of Bordeaux to triage "Eastern European foreigners coming to work". Unlike the Brits who are welcoming new ideas and labour, the French are navel-gazing.
But one of the biggest indignities is inflicted upon French youth, viewed by the elite with contempt. Youngsters are the usual and permanent suspects to the establishment, which prefers parking them at extremely high social and financial cost in crammed and impoverished universities - mentally and structurally. The list of taboos is endless.
"We seem to only be hiring interns these days" - [redacted]
"The word is is that they can be more easily 'molded'." - [redacted]

The interns and the new hires (mostly computer scientists these days) are being treated as cannon fodder, made to work insane hours and to forget about the big picture... Any glory that comes will be on the manager who found them who can bask in the glow of being the only grown up around. You then hear talk about "One of so-and-so's 'finds'". As a colleague put it in another poetic analogy,
"At the end-of-summer country fair, managers will get to show off their prize vegetables. He who has the best manured fields claims the prize."
I asked, "do those people actually eat those vegetables or is it just for show?". The reply
Usually the larger they get the less flavor they have. All looks, no substance. Like California strawberries in February, great color on the outside, not flavor on the inside.
With tongue in cheek I would submit that it's a case of "The man from Del Monte, he said 'Yes'".
I belong to a generation impatiently fidgeting at the gates of innovation, modernity and creation. No wonder that more and more courageous and talented French people don't waste time with the unreal political scene. Don't expect them to vote on the referendum. They will most probably enjoy today meeting new challenges all over the planet.

Tessa reluctantly wrote about pragmatism, and I'll quote her again, if she doesn't mind, she is ever-quotable.

"I do whatever works. I strive to fail faster. It's the results that matter, and simplicity (stripping layers) is celebrated because time is precious. We don't have time to waste on complexity and buzzwords; we're already behind on inventing the future."
I have met remarkable French men and women in China, South Africa, America and now in London, where 250,000 of them live and work. This is a very new rift among the French: between those risking to take their chances on the global front and those clinging to a fossilised society at home.
Kubi, Bowstreet...
This crisis suggests that France is just waking up from a long dream and facing the fact that the old myths of the postwar era and of the Resistance - social security, public jobs, a certain idea of fraternity and solidarity - are no longer enough.

I just hit 45 and I am not ready to live without dreams or expectations in a stuffy France. This is why I will voice a frank and staunch yes to the European constitution.

We urgently need fresh air, the winds of modernity and pragmatism blowing on the banks of the Seine. But who will dare open the window?
I repeat my challenge:
"Are we prepared to change our corporate structure and have profits come more from well-designed and usable software as opposed to consultantware? Are we prepared to eat our babies and make products that have much lower operational costs?"

Renaud Fessaguet is a television journalist and producer.

Postscript


Even though the French said non on the inconsequential EU treaty, there's a great chance they will continue to reward Chirac and his cronies in the next elections. As a quote, put it,
Danielle shrugs: 'Les Fran├žais, ils sont un peu con. Ils sont jamais contents.' Roughly translated: 'They're awkward sods, the French. They're never happy.'

I am happy however. I was raised by a village called Lotus. As a native son, I make my own call to arms to that village and hopefully I will find fertile soil. The rest of France, well that is for others.

Le Cinema


The French will never let us forget that it was Les frères Lumière who invented le cinema. Still on this Bastille day, I'll rather celebrate France not with Truffaut, Melville or Godard but rather with a list of films by foreigners.
  • Paths of Glory

    Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece and one of the best war films. It also happens to be one of the most-powerful anti-war films I've seen. Quite relevant apropos central command, cannon fodder, the career advancement imperative, sacrifice, and idées fixes. The story of the French elite during the First World War is much the same today, this time however it is sclerotism and unemployment rather than those muddy trenches and mustard gas.
  • A View to a Kill

    This great B-movie, the prototypical James Bond flick isn't all about France even if the Tour Eiffel is among the scenic locations where Roger Moore fights it out with Christopher Walken & Grace Jones. Still the good and bad guys pass France by. Instead of being the name of the game it is just an occasional backdrop. Also note Duran Duran's excellent theme song of hubris.
  • L'Afrance

    L-Afrance


    L'Afrance is Alain Gomin's wonderful 2001 film about France, Africa, immigration and ultimately alienation. It is simply the best African film of the past 5 years and perhaps even the past decade. A no-frills parable about identity, culture and belonging, it continues to resonate strongly with me. Perhaps because it's the African immigrant who through bureaucratic ineptitude finds himself "out of status" and becomes an illegal alien. A great view of the frayed ends in French and African societies much like Dirty Pretty Things illuminated the underbelly of London. You can order the French dvd if you can handle dvd region coding.
  • The French Connection & The French Connection II

    french connection


    In each of these classic films, France is the subtext. In the first, the French villains are aloof, methodical and malevolent but the action takes place in the US. Director, William Friedkin, serves us the best and most manic car chase of all time. In the sequel, Gene Hackman's driven cop is lured over to France as bait in pursuit of those who got away, but gets caught by the bad guys and loaded up with drugs. The scenes of him trying to kick the heroin habit are among the most harrowing ones the silver screen has seen. Ironically, the chase that ends it all is of him on foot chasing cars and boats. John Frankenheimer is a genius.

La Bibliotheque


Some further reading on the France IBM connection:
  • The Soul of a Company
  • Act your age
    The key is to find a Pragmatist who is desperate, or as Moore says, a "Pragmatist in Pain". They have a problem, and they need it solved very badly. In fact, they are so desperate for a solution that they are willing to break ranks with their Pragmatist peers and be the first of their kind to try your product.
    I'm wishing that IBM were a pragmatist in pain, instead I've been seeing only pain from my lowly vantage point.
  • The Organization Man by William H. Whyte
    Thanks Tessa for the pointer to this book and that chapter about "The Fight Against Genius". Very illuminating.

    organization man
  • Office Politics by Wilfred Sheed

    I came across this novel through a delightful appreciation piece in the Washington Post and it seemed like a parable of sorts. I had to order immediately even though it has gone out of print. I don't know why reading this synopsis hit home, it couldn't possibly have wider applicability. It's just a novel after all and anyway it's not about France so I hope you'll pardon this juxtaposition.
    "...George is no longer sure there's much at the Outsider worth believing in. Its charismatic editor, a transplanted Brit named Gilbert Twining, has loads of facile charm and wields a keen editorial pen, but whether there's anything behind the charm is open to question. The rest of the magazine's tiny staff is a conglomeration of oddballs and misfits "hand-picked" by Twining, apparently "on some principle of interlocking incompatibility." One editor, Brian Fine, is "chubby and small" and, beneath a veneer of amiability, seethes with bitterness and frustrated ambition. Another, Fritz Tyler, is thin, supercilious and cynical. The accountant, Olga Marplate, longs to be a tyrannical efficiency expert, while the advertising man, Philo Sonnabend, wanders around in a fog of dotty incompetence.

    Individually and collectively they are spineless -- if Twining raised an eyebrow in his direction, "Brian Fine would topple over like a doll with a round base" - yet the office positively crackles with rivalry and intrigue. Brian invites George to lunch one day and lays out the alignment of forces - the alignment, that is, as Brian chooses to see it - in the course of which he says that Twining suffers from the "weakness of great men to keep their subordinates from growing." George is nonplussed. He thinks:

    "Wait a minute, you're supposed to be on their side. Don't you understand the game? Olga and Philo and one editor against Twining and me and the office boy. George found that the game, as game, was getting a stronger grip on him. CBS politics had been played on too large a field, so you couldn't see the players at the far end. This stadium was just the right size."

    So off they all go, conniving and conspiring and back-stabbing and all the other things that make life in the office - any office - so endlessly delightful and produce such delicious streams of office gossip. George tries to explain it to his wife: "Let's take an example: the office. A, let's say, wants to get rid of B. C agrees, but not on A's terms. They both approach D --" and when she interrupts with what he regards as quibbling objections, he insists that "the equation goes on all over town." Okay, he says, "just go down to any playground, and what do you find? A, B and C again. One leader, one whiner, one mischief-maker. . . . Sometimes there's a tricycle to fight about on the playground, and sometimes there's a nickel on the ground. But the jockeying of ego is the real story."
  • Why smart people defend bad ideas
  • Flaubert's Parrot by Julian Barnes
    Flaubert Parrot

    C'est moi.
    This remains one of my favourite novels.
  • The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus
    I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one's burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
  • "Sharp-elbowed bureaucratic maneuvering"
  • On the limitations of Lotus Notes on the web
  • Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
    Well you can't exactly leave the bibliotheque without Hugo, that's like England without Dickens.

Le Cabaret


We need a cabaret soundtrack for this histoire. Évidemment.

Have a bottle of Bordeaux today. A bientôt...

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2 comments:

Enigma said...

An insightful analogy, it appears a call to arms is necessary on many fronts

James Governor said...

teena marie - heh. not my cup of tea, but she seems to have iconic status with my more soul oriented pals