Can Community Be Institutionalized?

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As technology grows at a faster pace, companies are relying more and more on their users to help spread the word about what they are doing. Why pay exorbitant amounts for marketing when there is a group of folks that will do it for little to nothing? These communities of users develop around any product or company with significant traction in the market. But can they be organized, built, and managed in a traditional manner?

Little Pink Houses

Communities develop when users start talking to each other. They exist in numerous different forms. Whether it be forum posters or sanctioned user groups or even unofficial meetups, people want to get together to talk about things. These communities are built from the idea that knowledge should be shared. Anecdotes, guides, and cautionary tales abound when you put enough people into a room and get them talking about a product.

That’s not to say that all communities can be positive ones. Some communities are even built around the idea of a negative reaction. Look at these groups that formed around simple ideas like getting their old Facebook page back or getting their old MySpace layout returned to them. Imagine the reaction that you get when you have a enterprise product that makes changes that users don’t like. That’s how communities get started too.

Whether they are positive or negative, communites exist to give people a way to interact with other like-minded individuals. Community is a refuge that allows members to talk freely and develop the community to suit their needs.

Community Planning

What happens when the community needs more direction? Some communities are completely sanctioned and sponsored by their subjects, like the VMware User Group (VMUG). Others are independent but tend to track along with the parent, such as the Cisco User Groups that have developed over the years. These tend to be very well organized versus other more informal communities.

With the advent of social media, many ad hoc communities have formed quickly around the idea of sharing online. Social media makes meeting new members of the community quick and easy. But it’s also difficult to control social communities. They grow and change so rapidly that even monitoring is a challenge.

The wild and unpredictable nature of social communities has led to a new form of sponsored community – the influencer outreach program. These programs have different names depending on the company, but the idea is still roughly the same: reach out to influencers and social media users in the immediate community and invite them into a new community that offers incentives like insider information or activities outside of those regularly available to everyone.

Influencer outreach programs are like a recipe. You must have the right mix in the correct proportions to make everything work. If you have too much of something or not enough of another, the whole construct can fall apart. Too many members leads to a feeling of non-exclusiveness. Too few members-only briefings leads to a sense that the program doesn’t offer anything over and above “normal” community membership.

The Meringue Problem

One of the most important things that influencer outreach communities need to understand is something I call the “Meringue Problem”. If you’ve ever made meringue for a dessert, you know that you have to whip the egg whites and sugar until it forms soft peaks. That’s what makes meringue light and fluffy. It’s a lot of work but it pays off if done right. However, if you whip the mixture too hard or too long, those soft peaks fall apart into a mess that must be thrown out.

The Meringue Problem in influencer outreach communities comes when the program organizers and directors (chefs) get too involved in directing the community. They try to direct things too much or try to refocus the community away towards an end that the community may or may not support wholeheartedly. That ends up creating animosity among the members and a feeling that things would be better if everyone “would just back off for a bit”. There are a hundred different reasons why this overinvolvement happens, but the results are always the same: a fractured community and a sense of disappointment.

The First Rule

If you want a textbook method for building a community, take a page from one of my favorite movies – Fight Club. Tyler and the Narrator start a community dedicated to working out agression through physical expression. They don’t tell everyone in the bar to come outside and start fighting. They just do their thing on their own. When others want to be invovled, they are welcomed with open arms (and closed fists).

Later, the whole idea of Fight Club takes on a life of it’s own. It becomes a living, breathing thing that no one person can really direct anymore. In the movie, it is mentioned that the leader moves among the crowd, with the only important thing being the people fighting in the ring. But it’s never exclusionary. They’ll let anyone join. Just ask Lou.

Tyler finally decides that he needs something more from Fight Club. So what does he do? Does he try to refocus the community to a new end? How can you control something like that? Instead, he creates a new community from a subset of the Fight Club members. Project Mayhem is still very much a part of Fight Club, as the space monkeys are still Fight Club members. But Project Mayhem is a different community with different goals. It’s not better or worse. Just…different.


Tom’s Take

I’m a proud member of several communities. Some of them are large and distinguished. Others are small and intimate. In some, I’m a quiet member in the back. In others I help organize and direct things. But no matter who I am there or what I’m doing, I remember the importace of letting the community develop. Communities will find their way if you let them. A guiding hand sometimes does help the community accomplish great things and transcend barriers. But that hand must guide. It should never force or meddle. When that line is cross, the community ceases being a collection of great people and starts taking on attributes that make it more important thant the members. And that kind of institutionalization isn’t a community at all.

Special thanks to Jeff Fry (@FryGuy_PA) and Stephen Foskett (@SFoskett) for helping me collect my thoughts for this post.

Just. Write.

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Somewhere, someone is thinking about writing. They are confused where to start. Maybe they think they can’t write well at all? Perhaps they even think they’ll run out of things to say? Guess what?

Just. Write.

Why A Blog?

Social media has taken over as the primary form of communication for a great majority of the population. Status updates, wall posts, and picture montages are the way we tell everyone what we’re up to. But this kind of communication is fast and ephemeral. Can you recall tweets you made seven months ago? Unless you can remember a keyword, Twitter and Google do a horrible job of searching for anything past a few days old.

Blogs represent something different. They are the long form record of what we know. They expand beyond a status or point-in-time posting. Blogs can exist for months or years past their original post date. They can be indexed and shared and amplifed. Blogs are how we leave our mark on the world.

I’ve been fielding questions recently from a lot of people about how to get started in blogging. I’m a firm believer that everyone has at least one good blog post in them. One story about a network problem solved or a cautionary tale that they’ve run into and wish to save others from. Everyone knows one thing that few others do. Sharing that one thought is what sets you apart from others.

A lot of blogs start off as a collection of notes or repository of knowledge that is unique to the writer. This makes it easy to share that knowledge with others. As people find that knowledge, they want to share it with others. As they share it, you become more well known in the community. As people learn who you are, they want to share with you. That’s how a simple post can start an avalanche of opportunity to learn more and more.

How To Start

This is actually much easier than it appears. Almost everyone has a first “Starting A Blog” post. It’s a way to announce to the world that your site is more than a parking page. That post is easy to write. And it will hardly ever be read.

The next step is to tell the world your one thing. Create pictures if it helps. Craft a story. Lay out all the information. Make sure to break it up into sections. It doesn’t have to be fancy, just readable. Once you’ve gotten all the information out of your head and onto virtual paper, it’s time to tell the world about it.

Publicize your work through those social media channels. Link to your post on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and anywhere else you can. The more eyeballs you get on your post, the more feedback you will get. You will also get people that share your post with others. That’s the amplication effect that helps you reach even further.

Now, Keep Going

Okay, you’ve gotten that out of your system. Guess what? You need to keep going. Momentum is a wonderful thing. Now that you’ve learned how to craft a post, you can write down more thoughts. Other stories you want to tell. Maybe you had a hard time configuring a switch or learning what a command does? Those are great posts to write and share. The key is to keep going.

You don’t need a set schedule. Some write every week to keep on track. Others write once a month to sum up things they are working on. The key is to find a schedule that works for you. Maybe you only do something interesting every two weeks? Maybe your job is so exicting that you can fill a whole week’s worth of posts?

The worst thing in the world is to have a rhythm going and then stop. Real life does get in the way more than you think. Jobs run long. Deadlines come and go. Missing a post becomes two. Two becomes three, and before you know it you haven’t posted for six months or more.

The way to fix the momentum problem is to keep writing things down. It doesn’t have to be a formal post. It can easily be bullet points in a draft. Maybe it’s a developing issue that you’re documenting? Just jot down the important things and when you’ve wrapped up all the hard work, you have all the beginnings of a great blog post. Every support case has notes that make for great blog subjects.


Tom’s Take

I still consider blogging to be one of the most important ways to share with people in our community. It’s very easy to write down tweets and status updates. It’s also very hard to find them again. Blogs are like living resumes for us. Everything we’ve done, everything we know is contained in several thousand characters of text that can be searched, indexed, and shared.

If you are sitting in a chair reading this thinking that you can’t blog, stop. Open a text editor and just start writing. Write about screwing up a VLAN config and how you learned not to do it again. Write down an interesting support case. Maybe it was a late-night migration gone wrong. Just write it down. When you finish telling your story, you’ve got the best start to blog you could possibly hope for. The key is to just write.

 

Betting On The Right Horse

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The annoucement of the merger of Alcatel-Lucent and Nokia was a pretty big discussion last week. One of the quotes that kept being brought up in several articles was from John Chambers of Cisco. Chambers has said the IT industry is in for a big round of “brutal consolidation” spurred by “missed market transitions”, which is a favorite term for Chambers. While I agree that consolidation is coming in the industry, I don’t think market transitions are the driver. Instead, it helps to think of it more like a day at the races.

Tricky Ponies

Startups in the networking industry have to find a hook to get traction with investors and customers. Since you can’t boil the ocean, you have to stand out. You need to find an application that gives you the capability to sell into a market. That is much easier to do with SDN than hardware-based innovation. The time-to-market for software is much lower than the barriers to ramp up production of actual devices.

Being a one-trick pony isn’t a bad thing when it comes to SDN startups. If you pour all your talent into one project, you get the best you can build. If that happens to be what your company is known for, you can hit a home run with your potential customers. You could be the overlay company. Or the policy company. Or the Docker networking layer company.

That rapid development time and relative ease of creation makes startups a tantalizing target for acquistion as well. Bigger companies looking to develop expertise often buy that expertise. Either acquiring the product or the team that built it gives the acquiring company a new horse in their stable.

If you can assemble an entire stable of ponies, you can build a networking company that addresses a lot of the needs of your customers. In fact, that’s how Cisco has managed to thrive to the point where they can gamble on those “market transitions”. The entity we call Cisco is really Crescendo, Insieme, Nuova, Andiamo, and hundreds of other single focus networking companies. There’s nothing wrong with that strategy if you have patience and good leadership.

Buy Your Own Stable

If you don’t have patience but have deep pockets, you will probably end up going down a different road. Rather than buying a startup here and there to add to a core strategy, you’ll be buying the whole strategy. That’s what Dell did when they bought Force10. If the rumors are true, that’s what EMC is looking to do soon.

Buying a company to provide your strategy has benefits. You can immediately compete. You don’t have to figure out synergies. Just sell those products and keep moving forward. You may not be the most agile company on the market but you will get the job done.

The issue with buying the strategy is most often “brain drain”. We see brain drain with a small startup going to a mid-sized company. Startup founders aren’t usually geared to stay in a corporate structure for long. They vest their interest and cash out. Losing a founder or key engineer on a product line is tough, but can be overcome with a good team.

What happens when the whole team walks out the door? If the larger acquiring company mistreats the acquired assets or influences creativity in a negative way, you can quickly find your best and brightest teams heading for green pastures. You have to make sure those people are taken care of and have their needs met. Otherwise your new product strategy will crumble before you know it.


Tom’s Take

The Nokia/Alcatel deal isn’t the last time we’ll hear about mergers of networking companies. But I don’t think it’s because of missed market transitions or shifting strategies. It comes down to companies with one or two products wanting protection from external factors. There is strength in numbers. And those numbers will also allow development of new synergies, just like horses in a stable learning from the other horses. If you’re a rich company with an interest in racing, you aren’t going to assemble a stable piece by piece. You’ll buy your way into an established stable. In the end, all the horses end up in a stable owned by someone. Just make sure your horse is the right one to bet on.

Going Out With Style

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Watching the HP public cloud discussion has been an interesting lesson in technology and how it is supported and marketed. HP isn’t the first company to publish a bold statement ending support for a specific technology or product line only to go back and rescind it a few days later. Some think that a problem like that shows that a company has some inner turmoil with regards to product strategy. More often than not, the real issue doesn’t lie with the company. It’s the customers fault.

No Lemonade From Lemons

It’s no secret that products have a lifespan. No matter how popular something might be with customers there is always a date when it must come to an end. This could be for a number of reasons. Technology marches on each and every day. Software may not run on newer hardware. Drivers may not be able to be written for new devices. CPUs grow more powerful and require new functions to unlock their potential.

Customers hate the idea of obsolescence. If you tell them the thing they just bought will be out-of-date in six years they will sneer at you. No matter how fresh the technology might be, the idea of it going away in the future unnerves customers. Sometimes it’s because the customers have been burned on technology purchases in the past. For every VHS and Blu-Ray player sold, someone was just as happy to buy a Betamax or HD-DVD unit that is now collecting dust.

That hatred of obsolescence sometimes keeps things running well past their expiration date. The most obivous example in recent history is Microsoft being forced to support Windows XP. Prior to Windows XP, Microsoft supported consumer releases of Windows for about five years. WIndows 95 was released in 1995 and support ended in 2001. Windows 98 reached EOL around the same time. Windows 2000 enjoyed ten years of support thanks to a shared codebase with popular server operating systems. Windows XP should have reached end-of-life shortly after the release of Windows Vista. Instead, the low adoption rate of Vista pushed system OEMs to keep installing Windows XP on their offerings. Even Windows 7 failed to move the needle significantly for some consumers to get off of XP. It finally took Microsoft dropping the hammer and setting a final end of extended support date in 2014 to get customers to migrate away from Windows XP. Even then, some customers were asking for an extension to the thirteen-year support date.

Microsoft kept supporting an OS three generations old because customers didn’t want to feel like XP had finally given up the ghost. Even though drivers couldn’t be written and security holes couldn’t be patched, consumers still wanted to believe that they could run XP forever. Even if you bought one of the last available copies of Windows XP when you purchased your system, you still got as much support for your OS as Microsoft gave Windows 95/98. Never mind that the programmers had moved on to other projects or had squeezed every last ounce of capability from the software. Consumers just didn’t want to feel like they’d been stuck with a lemon more than a decade after it had been created.

The Lesson of the Lifecycle

How does this apply to situations today? Companies have to make customers understand why things are being replaced. A simple annoucement (or worse, a hint of an unofficial annoucement from a third party source) isn’t enough any more. Customers may not like hearing their their favorite firewall or cloud platform is going away, but if you tell them the reasons behind the decision they will be more accepting.

Telling your customers that you are moving away from a public cloud platform to embrace hybrid clouds or to partner with another company doing a better job or offering more options is the way to go. Burying the annoucement in a conversation with a journalist and then backtracking later isn’t the right method. Customers want to know why. Vendors should have faith that customers are smart enough to understand strategy. Sure, there’s always the chance that customers will push back like they did with Windows XP. But there’s just as much chance they’ll embrace the new direction.


Tom’s Take

I’m one of those consumers that hates obsolescence. Considering that I’ve got a Cius and a Flip it should be apparent that I don’t bet on the right horse every time. But I also understand the reasons why those devices are no longer supported. I choose to use Windows 7 on my desktop for my own reasons. I know why it has been put out to pasture. I’m not going to demand Microsoft devote time and energy to a tired platform when Windows 10 needs to be finished.

In the enterprise technology arena, I want companies to be honest and direct when the time comes to retire products. Don’t hem and haw about shifting landscapes and concise technology roadmaps. Tell the world that things didn’t work out like you wanted and give us the way you’re going to fix it next time.

Are We The Problem With Wearables?

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Something, Something, Apple Watch.

Oh, yeah. There needs to be substance in a wearable blog post. Not just product names.

Wearables are the next big product category that is driving innovation. The advances being made in screen clarity, battery life, and component miniaturization are being felt across the rest of the device market. I doubt Apple would have been able to make the new Macbook logic board as small as it is without a few things learned from trying to cram transistors into a watch case. But, are we the people sending the wrong messages about wearable technology?

The Little Computer That Could

If you look at the biggest driving factor behind technology today, it comes down to size. Technology companies are making things smaller and lighter with every iteration. If the words thinnest and lightest don’t appear in your presentation at least twice then you aren’t on the cutting edge. But is this drive because tech companies want to make things tiny? Or is it more that consumers are driving them that way?

Yes, people the world over are now complaining that technology should have other attributes besides size and weight. A large contingent says that battery life is now more important than anything else. But would you be okay with lugging around an extra pound of weight that equates to four more hours of typing time? Would you give up your 13-inch laptop in favor of a 17-inch model if the battery life were doubled?

People send mixed signals about the size and shape of technology all the time. We want it fast, small, light, powerful, and with the ability to run forever. Tech companies give us as much as they can, but tradeoffs must be made. Light and powerful usually means horrible battery life. Great battery life and low weight often means terrible performance. No consumer has ever said, “This product is exactly what I wanted with regards to battery, power, weight, and price.”

Where Wearables Dare

As Jonny Ive said this week, “The keyboard dictated the size of the new Macbook.” He’s absolutely right. Laptops and Desktops have a minimum size that is dictated by the screen and keyboard. Has anyone tried typing on a keyboard cover for and iPad? How about an iPad Mini cover? It’s a miserable experience, even if you don’t have sausage fingers like me. When the size of the device dictates the keyboard, you are forced to make compromises that impact user experience.

With wearables, the bar shifts away from input to usability. No wearable watch has a keyboard, virtual or otherwise. Instead, voice control is the input method. Spoken words drive communication beyond navigation. For some applications, like phone calls and text messages, this is preferred. But I can’t imagine typing a whole blog post or coding on a watch. Nor should I. The wearable category is not designed for hard-core computing use.

That’s where we’re getting it wrong. Google Glass was never designed to replace a laptop. Apple Watch isn’t going to replace an iPhone, let alone an iMac. Wearable devices augment our technology workflows instead of displacing them. Those fancy monocles you see in sci-fi movies aren’t the entire computer. They are just an interface to a larger processor on the back end. Trying to shrink a laptop to the size of a silver dollar is impossible. If it were, we’d have that by now.

Wearables are designed to give you information at a glance. Google Glass allows you to see notifications easily and access information. Smart watches are designed to give notifications and quick, digestible snippets of need-to-know information. Yes, you do have a phone for that kind of thing. But my friend Colin McNamara said it best:

I can glance at my watch and get a notification without getting sucked into my phone


Tom’s Take

That’s what makes the wearable market so important. It’s not having the processing power of a Cray supercomputer on your arm or attached to your head. It’s having that power available when you need it, yet having the control to get information you need without other distractions. Wearables free you up to do other things. Like building or creating or simply just paying attention to something. Wearables make technology unobtrusive, whether it’s a quick text message or tracking the number of steps you’ve taken today. Sci-Fi is filled with pictures of amazing technology all designed to do one thing – let us be human beings. We drive the direction of product development. Instead of crying for lighter, faster, and longer all the time, we should instead focus on building the right interface for what we need and tell the manufacturers to build around that.

 

Are Your Tweets Really Your Own?

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We’ve all seen it recently. Twitter bios and blog profile pages with some combination of the following:

My tweets are my own.

Retweets are not endorsements.

My views do not represent my employer.

It has come to the point where the people in the industry are more visible and valuable than the brands they work for. Personal branding has jumped to the forefront of marketing strategies. But with that rise in personal branding comes a huge risk for companies. What happens when one of our visible stars says something we disagree with? What happens when we have to pull back?

Where Is My Mind?

Social media works best when it’s genuine. People sharing thoughts and ideas with each other without filters or constraint. Where it breaks down is when an external force starts interfering with that information exchange. Think about corporate social media policies that restrict what you can say. Or even policies that say your Twitter handle has to include the company you work for (yes, that exists). Why should my profile have to include miles of disclaimers telling people that I’m not a robot?

Is it because we have become so jaded as to believe that people can’t divorce their professional life from their personal life? Or is it because the interference from people telling you the “right way” to do social media has forced people to become robotic in their approach to avoid being disciplined?

Personal accounts that do nothing but reinforce the party line are usually unimportant to the majority of social media users. The real draw with speaking to someone from a company is the interaction behind the message. If a person really believes in the message then it shows through in their discussions without the need to hit all the right keywords or link to the “right” pages on a site.

Voices Carry

If you want more genuine, organic interaction with your people in the social world, you need to take off the leash. Don’t force them to put disclaimers in their profiles. Don’t make them take up valuable real estate telling the world what most of them already know. People speak for themselves. Their ideas and thoughts belong to them. Yes, you can tell the difference between when someone is parroting the party line and giving a real, honest introspective look at a discussion. People are not robots. Social media policies shouldn’t treat them as such.


Tom’s Take

I find myself in the situation that I’ve described above. I have to be careful with the things I say sometimes. I’m always ready to hit the Delete button on a tweet before it goes out. But what I don’t do is disclaim all over the place that “my tweets are my own”. Because everyone that I work with knows my mind. They know when I’m speaking for me and when I’m not. There is trust that I will speak my mind and stand by it. That’s the key to being honest in social media. Trust that your audience will understand you. Have faith in them. Which is something that a profile disclaimer can’t do.

 

Hypermyopia In The World Of Networking

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The more debate I hear over protocols and product positioning in the networking market today, the more I realize that networking has a very big problem with myopia when it comes to building products. Sometimes that’s good. But when you can’t even see the trees for the bark, let alone the forest, then it’s time to reassess what’s going on.

Way Too Close

Sit down in a bar in Silicon Valley and you’ll hear all kinds of debates about which protocols you should be using in your startup’s project. OpenFlow has its favorite backers. Others say things like Stateless Transport Tunneling (STT) are the way to go. Still others have backed a new favorite draft protocol that’s being fast-tracked at the IETF meetings. The debates go on and on. It ends up looking a lot like this famous video.

But what does this have to do with the product? In the end, do the users really care which transport protocol you used? Is the forward table population mechanism of critical importance to them? Or are they more concerned with how the system works? How easy it is to install? How effective it is at letting them do their jobs?

The hypermyopia problem makes the architecture and engineering people on these projects focus on the wrong set of issues. They think that an elegant and perfect solution to a simple technical problem will be the magical panacea that will sell their product by the truckload. They focus on such minute sets of challenges that they often block out the real problems that their product is going to face.

Think back to IBM in the early days of the Internet. Does anyone remember Blue Lightning? How about the even older MCA Bus? I bet if I said OS/2 I’d get someone’s attention. These were all products that IBM put out that were superior to their counterparts in many ways. Faster speeds, better software architecture, and even revolutionary ideas about peripheral connection. And yet all of them failed miserably in one way or another. Was it because they weren’t technically complete? Or was it because IBM had a notorious problem with marketing and execution when it came to non-mainframe computing?

Take A Step Back

Every writer in technology uses Apple as a comparison company at some point. In this case, you should take a look at their simplicity. What protocol does FaceTime use? Is it SIP? Or H.264? Does it even matter? FaceTime works. Users like that it works. They don’t want to worry about traversing firewalls or having supernodes available. They don’t want to fiddle with settings and tweak timers to make a video call work.

Enterprise customers are very similar. Think about WAN technologies for a moment. Entire careers have been built around finding easy ways to connect multiple sites together. We debate Frame Relay versus ATM. Should we use MPLS? What routing protocol should we use? The debates go on and on. Yet the customer wants connectivity, plain and simple.

At the recent Networking Field Day 9, two companies that specialize in software defined WAN (SD-WAN) had a chance to present. Velocloud and CloudGenix both showcased their methods for creating WANs with very little need for user configuration. The delegates were impressed that the respective company’s technologies “just worked”. No tuning timers. No titanic arguments about MPLS. Just simple wizards and easy configuration.

That’s what enterprise technology should be. It shouldn’t involve a need to get so close to the technology that you lose the big picture. It shouldn’t be a series of debates about which small technology choice to make. It should just work. Users that spend less time implementing technology spend more time using it. They spend more time happy with it. And they’re more likely to buy from you again.


Tom’s Take

If I hear one more person arguing the merits of their technology favorite again, I may throw up. Every time someone comes to me and tells me that I should bet on their horse in the race because it is better or faster or more elegant, I want to grab them by the shoulders and shake some sense into them. People don’t buy complicated things. People hate elegant but overly difficult systems. They just want things to work at the end of the day. They want to put as little thought into a system as they can to maximize the return they get from it. If product managers spent the next iteration of design focusing on ease-of-use instead of picking the perfect tunneling protocol, I think they would see a huge return on their investment in the long run. And that’s something you can see no matter how close you are.