The New Yorker published a great article this week on Google’s Self-Driving Car program, and the people behind it. It’s fascinating to think that automakers have been pursuing the notion of a fully autonomous vehicle since the 1950′s, but the company that’s closest to realizing that vision isn’t an automaker at all, but a technology firm that derives most of their revenue from selling online ads.
Perhaps my favorite quote of the article came from Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who, in typical fashion, looks at this Self-Driving car not as an improvement over existing cars, but as a fundamental reshaping of the transportation system.
“As you look outside, and walk through parking lots and past multilane roads, the transportation infrastructure dominates,” Brin said. “It’s a huge tax on the land.” Most cars are used only for an hour or two a day, he said. The rest of the time, they’re parked on the street or in driveways and garages. But if cars could drive themselves, there would be no need for most people to own them. A fleet of vehicles could operate as a personalized public-transportation system, picking people up and dropping them off independently, waiting at parking lots between calls. They’d be cheaper and more efficient than taxis—by some calculations, they’d use half the fuel and a fifth the road space of ordinary cars—and far more flexible than buses or subways. Streets would clear, highways shrink, parking lots turn to parkland. “We’re not trying to fit into an existing business model,” Brin said. “We are just on such a different planet.”
This is a great example of what Elon Musk calls “reasoning from first principles”, or reducing a problem to it’s most basic components and building a solution up from there, rather than iterating on an existing solution. It’s interesting that the traditional automakers are focused on iterating, believing that consumers won’t be able to adapt to anything more advanced. And yet, the Google X team isn’t thinking about the consumers of 2015, they’re re-thinking the entire transportation model 20 or 30 years out. Google’s vision for the future of transportation may never fully come to pass, but I wouldn’t bet against them. I can’t help but wonder if today’s automakers are falling into the tunnel vision that have led so many others to miscalculate the future of their industries.
- Anyone who’s had to deal with the U.S. healthcare system (which is just about everyone) knows that there are big problems with it. While there’s no end to the analysis and argument over what’s “the” problem is, and how to fix it, I found the chart in this article particularly telling – the short story is that we pay a lot more than any other country does, and we don’t get more for our investment.
- I’ve been reading a lot of Stowe Boyd lately – he’s a pretty damn interesting guy, and I always walk away with an insight that I didn’t have before.
- Based on the brisk wind and chilly temperatures this morning, I think it’s safe to say that we’ve made the transition into winter.
- This week starts the headlong rush into the “holiday season”, regardless of the fact that the Christmas decorations have been up at Macy’s since mid-September. Before you know it, the New Year will be here.
After being an avid reader of Xconomy for the last couple of years, I was finally able to attend one of their events yesterday. Their Data and Devices conference was held at the Fidelity Center for Applied Technology, a pretty cool space to begin with. All in all, it was a pretty good take, with lots of energy and plenty of good content. Most of the session took the form of panel discussions, which allowed for a large number of viewpoints and experiences to be shared, but it also meant that each panelist only had a few minutes in the spotlight. The short timeslots allowed for a number of panels and speakers to be rotated through; they were all fascinating, but here are the ones that made the most impact with me.
The session started with a great demo from Stephen Wolfram, creator of the Wolfram Alpha knowledge engine, and the Mathematica computational engine. After showing off some of the power of both tools, he launched into a demo of his new Wolfram Language, a robust computer language that’s based in the principles of Alpha and Mathematica. I know I’m not doing it justice, but essentially, he’s built a language that allows for some incredibly powerful capabilities that introduces the concept of “knowledge-based” programming. He showed off a quick demo of the Wolfram Language running on a Raspberry Pi processor, and announced that the Pi will now come bundled with the Wolfram Language and Mathematica, which ensures that Santa will be delivering a Pi to my house in a few weeks.
Chris Lynch, venture capitalist at Atlas Ventures and former CEO of Vertica, and Brian Shin, CEO of Visible Measures and founder of a cool startup called Mustbin held a lively discussion on the meaning of “big data”, and how the Boston tech scene can continue to grow and prosper. Each came from a different direction – Lynch looked at Big Data and startups from an enterprise perspective, while Shin’s focus was more on the personal or consumer space. The conversation was pretty wide ranging, though, with moderator Greg Huang from Xconomy steering them into privacy, the Boston startup scene, and the general challenges of running a startup firm.
Perhaps the most sobering panel was one on “Big Data Security and Privacy”. The panel was comprised of senior execs from three companies focusing on different components of the security problem – the data level, the endpoint level, and at the application level. That format made for a great discussion on the challenges and opportunities for protecting enterprise and personal data, and the three panelists also worked well to complement each other’s positions. While one of the most quotable moments came when Bob Brennan let the audience know that one of the common “Flashlight” apps available in the App Stores secretly downloads and sells your address book, the real value to the session for me was getting a top to bottom perspective on data security, and being reminded of the many ways “the bad guys” can disrupt our personal and business digital lives.
The final keynote paired two R.R. Donnelly CEO Tom Quinlan and MIT Media Lab Professor Sandy Pentland for a discussion on where Big Data might bring us. The content was largely focused on 150 year-old printer R.R. Donnelly’s efforts to remain relevant in the digital age, through use of their existing technology that processes huge amounts of data each day, and extending that into a kind of “postal exchange”, where your paper mail might all get digitized and made available to you each day via the internet. It’s a fascinating concept, but one that might evoke some concern about the use of personal data – while Quinlan painted a picture of a world where companies can offer you better products because they “know” you better based on the contents of your mail, I can’t help wonder about what else they could do with that data. Professor Pentland offered some insight when he posited that firms would be able to manage risk better with all of that data, potentially offering better and more targeted healthcare plans, for example.
All in all, a really thought-provoking afternoon, and I thank Xconomy founder Bob Buderi and Deputy Editor Gregory Huang for putting on a great event.
It’s been a bit of a crazy week…here’s what I think I’ve learned.
- Python is a pretty cool language – I didn’t think I’d be a fan of the “indentation-based” syntax, but I’m finding it really easy to adapt and write.
- Fitz and the Tantrum’s “Moneygrabber” was the Earworm Song of the Week for me…they even recorded a version in French! In general, I really like them – maybe it’s that 70′s throwback funk and soul sound.
- Comet ISON is approaching the sun, and it’s looking like we might actually be able to see without telescopes in in a week or two, provided it doesn’t break apart. After briefly brightening, it’s dimmed a bit according to astronomers, but I think I’ve only only seen one comet before, so I’m hoping it holds together.
- Facebook’s $3 Billion offer for Snapchat, a little company whose app is all about sharing transient photos and text messages (they disappear after the recipient views them, and are never made public) seems excessive on the surface. But Snapchat users are sharing a LOT of pictures, nearly as many as are shared on Facebook, and for the younger demographic, Snapchat is incredibly popular. The offer itself might be a symptom of bubble-induced froth, but I think this represents a pretty big conceptual shift for apps, especially with the recent NSA revelations.
- Everyday we make decisions – sometimes they’re easy to make, because you’ve got a lot of data or facts to rely on. Other times they’re harder, often because there are ups and downs to either option, and you end up choosing the “best”, or maybe even the “least bad” option. And sometimes, you just don’t know what the hell to do, because neither option is particularly appealing. In those cases, all you can do is just go with your gut and ride it out.
That’s all I’ve got for this week…time to go rake some leaves!
At a recent family gathering, the topic of conversation somehow turned to work, and my sister-in-law turned to me with a puzzled look on her face and said “Your brother and I have talked about this before, and neither of us can figure this out. What exactly is it that you do anyhow?” This prompted a flurry of “Office Space” quotes culminating with my brother exclaiming “I have people skills!! I am good at dealing with people. Can’t you understand that?”. We all had a good laugh, but then I actually had to answer the question. At times like that, I sometimes feel like Tom Smykowski in Office Space, because it feels like a lot of what I do doesn’t have a very tangible description.
My sister-in-law is a journalist, my brother is a firefighter, my mother was a nurse; I’m a product manager – huh? So tell me again, what would you say it is that you DO here?
Well, there’s the definition of Product Manager according to Wikipedia: A Product Manager investigates, selects and develops products for an organization, performing the activities of Product Management. Of course, most people not familiar with a product manager role would then probably ask – what is “product management”? For me, I like this definition courtesy of Mind The Product: the intersection of business, technology and user experience.
As someone who “grew up” as a technologist, people often think that I’m an IT person, and for some people, that runs the gamut from writing code to installing hardware and running networks. While I do like to think of myself as capable of doing just about anything relating to computers, the reality is that most true “IT” tasks would require a bit of a learning curve for me. Most of my background is in software development, building client-facing systems and tools, which has provided me with a strong sense of the business and of what makes sense for the end user. Put all of that experience together, and you’ve got the makings of a product manager.
That still doesn’t really describe what I do, though, does it? Well, generally speaking, it’s my job to understand the problems that our customers face, and drive the creation of products that solve those problems. Since most problems continuously evolve, and very few products are ever really “done”, I’m also responsible for responding to those evolving needs, by creating and managing to a “product roadmap” – a plan that sets out how the product will evolve in the future based on available resources. Perhaps the hardest part of the job is deciding what to include and what to leave out of the roadmap – there’s never a shortage of ideas and opinions on what will make our products better, but you can’t (and don’t want to) do it all. You need to select the RIGHT features and deliver them at the RIGHT time, and sometimes that means fighting pressure from clients, peers and executives.
It’s a cliche, but one of the things that I love about living in New England is the fact that we experience four very distinct seasons. My favorite is usually whichever we’re living through at a given time, although I’ll admit that on a couple of occasions I’ve grown a bit impatient waiting for winter to loosen it’s grip.
Among other things, I’ve made a concerted effort this year to really pay attention to the passing of each season – maybe it’s a mid-life thing, that “sands through the hourglass” recognition, or maybe I’m just in a different place this year as the kids are growing up and becoming more independent. This morning was probably the coldest morning of the fall, with ice crusting the puddles on the streets, and a brilliant blue sky that makes a great backdrop for the yellow and brown foliage that still clings to the trees. The cold air felt great as I took the trash to the curb this morning – no coat, just some brisk activity to keep me warm. (We’ll see how I feel about the cold during my 15 minute walk to Downtown Crossing in a bit)
I’ve found myself thinking a lot about “indoor plans” as the weather has turned colder – not that I want to hibernate until April, but this time of year does lend itself to those things that I never quite got around to when the warm weather called my name every day. There are no end to household projects to complete – rooms that need to be painted, things to be repaired, and a ton of technical projects that I really want to tackle with the kids (Raspberry Pi anyone?).
All in all, I really want to make sure that we don’t just survive through the dark and cold months ahead, but thrive and enjoy the ride.
It wasn’t until 2004 — six years after Netflix launched — that Blockbuster realized it needed to enter the online DVD rental-by-mail space. By then, Netflix was already turning a profit and Redbox had just launched. Blockbuster was already dead — they just didn’t realize it yet.
It’s such a great example of a company resting on its laurels and getting blindsided. But it’s hardly even fair to call it a “blindsiding”. Blockbuster probably could have done dozens of things to counter the rise of Netflix in that initial six year space. They were either simply too arrogant, too slow, too stupid, or all of the above to make a move.
MG Siegler, in TechCrunch, April 2011
An interesting chapter in business history comes to a close this week, with the final shuttering of Blockbuster Video. There were once Blockbuster franchises nearly everywhere, but the rise of the digital age made the idea of going somewhere and renting a physical DVD an anachronism. Many observers of digital space could see the inevitable, but not the management of Blockbuster, who continued to keep to a retail-focused strategy that was destined to fail. MG Siegler wrote this piece 2 years ago, as the collapse of the venerable video chain had started in earnest, but as he points out, the Blockbuster story is instructive for any startup looking to compete in a space dominated by big players. Sometimes, being the biggest isn’t enough, especially if the leadership is convinced that they don’t need to adapt.
The 1920s lay before the company ready for the taking, and Woodruff used this rosy inheritance to turn Coca-Cola into the epitome of modern business. During the first twenty-five years of his leadership, Coca-Cola would not just dominate the fizzy drink industry but transform how all businesses operated and weave its product into the very soul of America. Woodruff’s Coca-Cola captured the spirit of the 1920s. It was an age of bold dreams, expansive plans, and modernist thinking in which synthetic plastics, refrigeration, cars, color advertising, radio, airplanes, and telephones fundamentally reshaped the world. One of the fruits of this push for the modern was a vision of the corporate boss as a decision-maker reliant on the expert knowledge of PR specialists, lawyers, researchers, salespeople, and advertising creatives to run their businesses. Woodruff was nothing if not a professional manager. Under his stewardship Coca-Cola became a firm at the cutting edge of modernist corporate management.
Tristan Donovan, from his book Fizz: How Soda Shook Up the World, in The Atlantic
I’m always fascinated by history, and in particular, the “smaller” histories of business and customs. Here, Tristan Donovan examines the impact of Prohibition on the nascent soda industry, although here in New England, the real locals still call it “tonic”. While today the Coca Cola company is a powerful global brand, peeking into it’s history and development as it dealt with the challenges of the Great Depression uncovers it’s rise into one of the first truly modern companies. Many people associate Coca-Cola with their iconic advertising, which was groundbreaking in the 1920′s, but less well known is their focus on data-driven decision making, illustrated by their use of traffic studies of roads around the country to determine the best places to site billboards. That this was accomplished in an age before the rise of computers is all the more impressive. Coke also pioneered what we know think of as modern corporate management, by departing from the “single leader” model followed by the Carnegies, Rockefellers and Fords, and creating an organization driven by multiple disciplines, all providing information to a central leader who set out the strategy and made decisions. As a result, Coca-Cola became one of the first powerful brands in America, and then the world. Not bad for a product that’s really just sugared water.
and that means an opportunity to spend a couple minutes reflecting on the week.
- As much as it feels like summer weather ends very suddenly around Labor Day, the transition from fall to winter seems to now revolve around the end of Daylight Savings time. Not from a strict weather sense, because this week has been fairly mild in New England, but more from a psychological sense – dusk starts to arrive before 4pm, and it’s only the beginning of November.
- Election Day was this week, but this year it was a non-event here locally – a lot happened around the country but even that seemed to be more positioning for the next “big” election cycle.
- While I really enjoy my Teavana tea, this article started to make me think about whether I need to look for an alternate source. I’m not thrilled about the notion of pesticides OR flavorings in my tea…but the Dragon Pearls Green Tea in my cup is tasting pretty good this morning.
- I’m really starting to see the limitations of iOS7 on my iPhone4 – certain apps run really slowly, almost to the point of it not being worth it to use them. Maybe it’s time to start saving pennies for an iPhone5S?
- Taking the occasional break from cycling is good, I think, provided that break doesn’t last too long. I’ve scaled back my riding for the last 4 weeks or so, and have taken a complete break for the last two weeks, but I can already feel a difference in my lung capacity and in my legs. Training starts up again this weekend, but it will likely take place primarily on the indoor bike.
- I had forgotten how long it takes to really feel comfortable with coding – I’ve started to learn Python this week, and while I came to it with a pretty good understanding of coding constructs, Python syntax and usage is something new. I’m itching to actually DO something with it…more to come on that.
The sun is finally starting to peak above the horizon…time to go finish out the week strong!