The Marriage of the Ecosystem

 

marriage

A recent discussion with Greg Ferro (@EtherealMind) of Packet Pushers and Nigel Poulton (@NigelPoulton) of In Tech We Trust got me thinking about product ecosystems. Nigel was talking about his new favorite topic of Docker and containers. He mentioned to us that it had him excited because it felt like the good old days of VMware when they were doing great things with the technology. That’s when I realized that ecosystems aren’t all they are cracked up to be.

Courting Technology

Technology is a huge driver for innovation. New ideas are formed into code that runs to accomplish a task. That code is then disseminated to teams and built upon to create toolsets to accomplish even more tasks. That’s how programs happen. Almost every successful shift in technology starts with the courtship of focused code designed to accomplish a simple task or solve a quick problem.

The courtship evolves over time to include other aspects of technology. Development work extends the codebase to accept things like plugins to provide additional functionality. Not core functions though. The separation comes when people want to add additional pieces without compromising the original program. Bolting additional non-core pieces on to existing code causes all kinds of headaches.

That’s how ecosystems start. People build new functions to augment and support the new problems the crop up around those solved by the original tool. Finding new problems is key to driving the ecosystem forward. Without problems to solve, the environment around a particular program starts to contract and disappear.

The Old Ball And Chain

Ecosystems eventually reach the point of stagnation, however. This usually comes when the ecosystem around a product becomes more important than the actual program itself. Think about the ecosystem around Microsoft Office. Office was originally a word processor. That drove additional programs to solve spreadsheets and presentations. Now, people buy the Office productivity suite for more than the word processor. More than a few buy it for the email program. But very little innovation is going into the word processor any longer. Aside from some UI design changes and few minor function additions the majority of the work is being driven around other programs.

This is also the problem with VMware today. The development around the original hypervisor is mostly moot. That problem has been solved completely. Today, all of the marketing hype around the VMware is on other things. Public cloud architectures. Storage virtualization. Networking virtualization. None of these things have anything to do with they hypervisor beyond tying into the ecosystem created around it.

Ecosystems can’t exist without recognizing the original problems being solved and why they are so important. If you build an environment around a product and then leave that product to wither on the vine, your ecosystem will eventually collapse. When your company pivots away from what makes it successful in the first place you run the risk of disaster.

Note that this doesn’t include what happens when the technology landscape forces you to shift your focus. Token ring networking doesn’t solve a big problem today. Companies focusing on it needed to pivot away from it to solve new problems. As such, there really isn’t a token ring ecosystem today.

Now, look at tape backup units as a counterpoint. They still solve a problem – backing up large amounts of data at low cost. Quite a few of the old tape backup vendors have moved away from the market and are concentrating on new solutions. A few of the old vendors, such as SpectraLogic, still support tape solutions and are continuing to drive the tape ecosystem with new ideas. But those ideas still manage to come back to tape. That’s how they can keep the ecosystem grounded and relevant.


Tom’s Take

New technology is like dating. You get excited and giddy about where things are going and all the potential you see. You enjoy spending time together just talking or existing. As you start to get more serious you start to see issues crop up the need to be solved. Eventually you take the plunge and make things super serious. What you don’t want to have happen at this point is the trap that some people fall into. When you concentrate on the issues that crop up around things you start to lose focus. It’s far to easy to think about bills and schools and other ancillary issues and lose sight of the reason why you’re together in the first place.

Ecosystems are like that. People start focusing on the ecosystem at the expense of the technology that brought everyone together in the first place. When you do that you forget about all the great things that happened in the beginning and you concentrate on the problems that have appeared and not the technology. In order to keep your ecosystem vibrant and relevant, you have to step back and remember the core technology from time to time.

 

 

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TECH.unplugged And Being Present

techunplugged-logo

I wanted to let everyone know that I’m going to be taking part in an excellent event being put on by my friend Enrico Signoretti (@ESignoretti) this September. TECH.unplugged is a jam-packed day of presentations from people that cover storage, computing, and in my case networking. We’re getting together to share knowledge and discuss topics of great interest to the IT community. As excited as I am to be taking part, I also wanted to take a few moments to discuss why events like this are important to the technology community.

WORM Food

There’s no doubt that online events are becoming the standard for events in recent years. It’s much more likely to find an event that offers streaming video, virtual meeting rooms, and moderated discussions taking place in a web browser. The costs of travel and lodging are far higher than they were during the recession days of yore. Finding a meeting room that works with your schedule is even harder. It’s much easier to spin up a conference room in the cloud and have people dial in to hear what’s going on.

For factual information, such as teaching courses, this approach works rather well. That’s where the magic of pre-recording comes into play. Write once, read many. Delivering information like this cuts down on time spent with the logistics of organization and allows the viewer to watch on-demand. And quesitons that come up can be handled with FAQs or community discussion on a small scale. Again, this works best for the kinds of content that are not easily debated.

Present And Accounted For

What about content that isn’t as cut-and-dried? Hot topics that are going to have lots of questions or opinions? How do you handle an event where the bulk of the time is spent having a discussion with peers instead of delivering material?

Virtual solutions are great for multicasting. When everyone is watching one topic being presented and doing very little interacting everything works just fine. The system starts to break down when those people try to talk to one another. Do you use the general channel? Private messages? Have you been silenced by the organizer before you try to ask a question? What if you want to discuss a topic covered five minutes ago?

Nothing beats a face-to-face conversation for actual discussion. There’s an dynamic that can’t be matched when you get ten people in a room and give them a prompt to start talking about something. There is usually lively debate and sharing of viewpoints. Someone is going to share a personal experience or be the voice of reason. Still others will play the devil’s advocate or be a contrarian. Those are concepts that are hard to replicate when screen names take the place of a nametag.

Another important part of being present for events like this is meeting like-minded people and engaging them in real conversation. In the world of social media, we often form relationships with people in the industry without having actually met them. While that does make it easy to build a network of people in the community to talk to, it also doesn’t allow you to hear someone talk or engage them in a meaningful talk of more than 100 characters at a time or nested comments.

There’s something magical about having in-person discussions. It is a very different thing to defend your opinion when looking someone in the eyes versus behind a keyboard. Without instant access to search engines you need to know the evidence to support your opinion rather than relying on someone else to do it for you. When you prove your point in a real life meetup people remember being there.


Tom’s Take

Virtual meetings are great for some specific things. But you can’t beat the importance of being around people and talking about something. Being present for an event makes it have much more of an impact. I’ve heard from countless people telling me how Cisco Live feels so much different when you’re there because of the people you are around. There’s a reason why Tech Field Day is an in-person event. Because you can’t beat the magic of being around other like-minded people to discuss things.

Be sure to check out TECH.unplugged and see the list of speakers for the September event. And if you just happen to be in Amsterdam be sure to sign up (it’s free)! We want you there!

Objectivity Never Rests

objectivity

Being an independent part of the IT community isn’t an easy thing. There is a lot of writing involved and an even greater amount of research. For every word you commit to paper there is at least an hour of taking phone calls and interviewing leaders in the industry about topics. The rewards can be legion. So can the pitfalls. Objectivity is key, yet that is something where entire communities appear to be dividing.

Us Or Them

Communities are complex organisms with their own flow and feel. What works well in one community doesn’t work well in another. Familiarity with one concept doesn’t immediately translate to another. However, one thing that is universal across all communities is the polarization between extremes.

For instance, in the networking community this polarization is best characterized by the concept of “ABC – Anything But Cisco”. Companies make millions selling Cisco equipment every year. Writers and speakers can make a very healthy career from covering Cisco technologies. And yet there are a large number of companies and people that choose to use other options. They write about Juniper or install Brocade. They spend time researching Cumulus Linux or Big Switch Networks.

Knowing a little about many things is a great thing. There is no way I could have done my old VAR job had I only known Cisco gear. But when that specialization is taken to an extreme, you get the mentality that anything or anyone involved in the opposite camp must be wrong on principal. It does happne that some choose to ignore all other things at their own peril. Still others are branded as “haters” not because they truly hate a position but because others have taken comments and pushed them beyond their meaning to an extreme to serve as a comparison point.

Think a bit about the following situations that have been mentioned to me in recent months and look at what the perception is in certain communities:

  • Cisco vs. Not Cisco
  • Cisco vs. VMware
  • Cisco vs. Whitebox
  • VMware vs. OpenStack
  • VMware vs. Docker
  • EMC vs. Not EMC

The list could go on for many more entries. The point is that people have drawn “battle lines” in the industry around companies and concepts to provide contrast for positions.

Objectivity In Motion

How does the independent influencer cope with all these challenges to objectivity? It’s not unlike navigating a carpet full of Lego bricks with no shoes on.

The first important step is to avoid the trap of being pigeonholed as a “hater”. That’s easier than it sounds. Simply covering one technology or vendor isn’t going to cause you to fall into that trap. If someone writes a lot about Juniper, I simply assume they spend the majority of their time with Juniper gear. The only time they cross the line into the territory of anti-Someone is through calculated commentary to that effect.

The other important step in reference to the above is to keep your commentary on point. Petty comments like “that’s a stupid idea” or “no one in their right mind would do it like that” aren’t constructive and lead to labels of “hater”. The key to criticism is to keep it constructive. Why is it a stupid idea? Why would someone choose to do it differently? These are ways to provide contrast without relying on generalizing to get your point across.

The third and most important way to avoid losing objectivty is to keep the discussion focused on things and ideas and not people. As soon as you start attacking people and crticizing them your objectivity will always be called into question. For example, a few years ago I wrote a review of a short book that Greg Ferro (@EtherealMind) wrote about blogging. I disagreed with many of his points based on my own experiences. In my post, I never attacked Greg or called his blogging ability into question. Instead, I addressed his points and provided my own perspective. Greg and I have had many beers since then without wanting to choke each other, so I think we’re still friends. But more importantly, we’re still objective about blogging even though we have different opinions.


Tom’s Take

Objectivity is hard to gain and easy to lose. It’s also easy to have it taken from you by people that feel you’ve lost it. It wouldn’t be a stretch to look at my last blog post about Meraki and assume that I “hate” them based on my comments. But if you read through what I wrote, I never say that I hate the company or the people. Instead, I disagree with a choice they have made with their software. I still feel my objectivity is intact. If Meraki decides tomorrow to implement some of my ideas or something similar, I will be more than happy to tell everyone about it.

You can never stop looking at your own objectivity. When you get complacent you have lost. You need to constantly ask yourself why you are writing or speaking about something and how objective you are. If you are the first person to question your own objectivity it will be much easier to answer those that question it later.

Thoughts on Cisco Live 2015

Cisco Live 2015 Twitter Pic

We’ve secretly replaced Tom with Mike Rowe. Let’s see if anyone notices…

Cisco Live 2015 is in the books. A great return to San Diego. A farewell from John Chambers. A greeting from Chuck Robbins (@ChuckRobbins). And a few other things.

The Community is Strong, But Concerned

The absolute best part of Cisco Live is the community that has grown from the social media attendees. More than once I heard during the week “I can’t believe this used to be 20-30 people!”. The social community continues to grow and change. Some people move on. Others return from absence. Still others are coming for the first time.

The Cisco Live social community is as inclusive as any I have seen. From the Sunday night Tweetup to the various interactions throughout the week, I’m proud to be a part of a community that strives to make everyone feel like they are part of a greater whole. I met so many new people this year and marveled at the way the Social Media Hub and Meetup Area were both packed at all hours of the day.

That being said, the community does have some concerns. Some of them are around institutionalized community. There was worry that bringing so many people into the Champions community threatened to marginalize the organic community that had grown up in the past six years. While some of that worry was quieted by the end of the show, I think the major concerns are still present and valid to a certain degree. I think a discussion about the direction of the Champion program and how it will interact with other organic communities is definitely in order sooner rather than later.

Gamification Continues, And I’m Not A Fan

Many of the activities at Cisco Live revovled around prizes and giveaways for interaction. As we’ve seen throughout the years, any time a prize is awarded for a game there is going to be some trying to work the system. I even mentioned it here:

I’m all for having fun. But the reward for a well-played game should be in the game itself. When things have to be modified and changed and curated to ensure no one is taking advantage, it stops being fun and starts being a competition. Competitions cause hurt feelings and bad blood. I think it’s time to look at what the result of this gamification is and whether it’s worth it.

Power Transitions And Telling The Story Right

As expected, John Chambers gave his farewell as CEO and introduced Chuck Robbins to the Cisco Live community. By all accounts, it was an orderly transfer of power and a great way to reassure the investors and press that things are going to proceed as usual. I was a bit interested in the talk from Chambers about how this transition plan has been in place for at least ten months. Given the discussion in the tech press (and more than a couple private comments), the succession wasn’t a smooth as John lets on. Maybe it’s better that the general Cisco public not know how crazy the behind-the-scenes politics really were.

Chuck finds himself in a very precarious position. He’s the person that follows the legend. Love him or hate him, Chambers has been the face of Cisco forever. He is the legend in the networking community. How do you step into his shoes? It’s better that John stepped down on his own terms instead of being forced out by the board. Chuck has also done a great job of rolling out his executive team and making some smart moves to solidify his position at the top.

The key is going to be how Chuck decides to solidify the businesses inside of Cisco. Things that were critical even two years ago are shrinking in the face of market movement. John’s speech was very pointed: there is another tranisition coming that can’t be missed. Chuck has a hard road ahead trying to stabilize Cisco’s position in the market. A cheeky example:

Cisco has missed transitions, SDN being the most recent. They need to concentrate on what’s important and remove the barriers to agile movement. A start would be cutting back on the crazy amounts of business units (BUs) competing for face time with the CEO. You could easily consolidate 50% of the organizations inside Cisco and still have more than anyone else in networking. A racecar that goes 200 mph is still unstable if it isn’t streamlined. Chuck needs to cut Cisco down to fighting weight to make the story sound right.

Cisco Finally Understands Social, But They Don’t Quite Get It (Yet)

I applaud the people inside of Cisco and Cisco Live that have fought tooth and nail for the past few years to highlight the importance of social. Turning a ship the size of Cisco can’t be easy, but it’s finally starting to sink in how powerful social media can be. I can promise you that Cisco understands it better than companies like IBM or Oracle. That’s not to say that Cisco embraces social like it should.

Cisco is still in the uncomfortable mode of using social as a broadcast platform rather than an interaction tool. There are some inside of Cisco that realize the need to focus on the audience rather than the message. But those are exceptions to the general rule of being “on message”.

Social media is a powerful tool to build visibility of personalities. The messenger is often more important than the message. Just ask Pheidippides. Allow your people the freedom to develop a voice and be themselves will win you more converts than having a force of robots parroting the same platitudes on a scheduled basis.

Cisco has some great people invovled in the community. Folks like J Metz (@DrJMetz), Rob Novak (@Gallifreyan), and Lauren Friedman (@Lauren) how how dedicated people can make a name for themselves separate from their employer. Cisco would do well to follow the example of these folks (and many others) and let the messengers make the audience they key.


Tom’s Take

Thanks to Tech Field Day, I go to a lot of industry events now. But Cisco Live is still my favorite. The people make it wonderful. The atmosphere is as electric as any I’ve been a part of. This was my tenth Cisco Live. I can’t imagine not being a part of the event.

Yes, I have concerns about some of the things going on, but it’s the kind of concern that you have for a loved one or dear friend. I want people to understand the challenges of keeping Cisco Live relevant and important to attendees and find a way to fix the issues before they become problems. What I don’t want to see is a conference devoid of personality and wonderful people going through the motions. That would not only destroy the event, but the communities that have sprung from it as well.

Cisco Live 2016 will be intensely personal for me. It’s the first return to Las Vegas since 2011. It’s also the fifth anniversary of Tom’s Corner. I want to make the next Cisco Live as important as Cisco Live 2011 was for me. I hope you will all join me there and be a part of the community that has changed my life for the better.