Tech regulation; learn the lessons of the past…

The Badger has just arranged for a headstone to be erected at the grave of a relative who passed-away some years ago. The process started with using Google to research the different types of  headstone, suppliers, pricing, and graveyard regulations. Having done the research, the Badger engaged a provider and arrangements were made using to the providers preferred business methods, namely good old fashioned telephone calls, letters and forms by post, and cheques for payments. Everything went smoothly and the headstone is now in place.

There was only one thing that was an irritant in the whole process – the flood of content, adverts, and unsolicited marketing that appeared in the Badger’s news, email, and social media feeds following the Google search queries!  Receiving unsolicited and unwanted suggestions about funeral plans, care homes, equity release, life insurance, will writing, and donating to charity via a will was just tiresome and a reminder that the big  tech giants track and use our behavioural data. If there was a single, simple, ‘Big Red Button’ that turned all that stuff off, then the Badger would have pushed it!  

Recent news that a Digital Markets Unit is being formed under the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) (see here, here and here) to start limiting the power of big tech firms in the UK seemed like welcome news and a sign that politicians are starting to wake up.  In the USA, of course, Google is already in the cross-hairs of the US government for alleged anticompetitive abuses. At long last, governments around the world seem to be very slowly addressing regulation of the big tech giants which, let’s face it, are enormously powerful as well as being at the heart of the functioning of today’s modern society.

Sceptical about the need for regulation? Read the Financial Times article here. It points out that the 2008 banking crisis showed that careful oversight is needed when the public interest depends on businesses that exist to meet the needs of private capital providers. Before 2008, the approach of regulators to the way banks behaved was ‘principles based’, i.e. deliberately light touch. This relied too much on the banks’ abilities to govern themselves, and it failed. Similarities with the current approach with big tech are striking.  We should learn the lessons from the past! After all, isn’t that what the leaders of all corporations and governmental institutions are forever telling their employees and everyone else to do?

When speaking to the headstone provider, the Badger asked why – apart from a basic website – they hadn’t fully embraced the digital world. Simple, they answered. ‘We’ve stayed in business for over a century because we learn our lessons, one of which has been to always steer a cautious path through periods of innovation and change’. How very refreshing!     

If you can’t stand the heat…

The young Badger’s first assignments in the IT industry involved technical work and software development. Much was learned, and this fuelled an appetite for advancement and greater challenges, one of which was becoming a ‘divisional coordinator’ helping a Divisional Manager run every aspect of their line of business. This role significantly enhanced the Badger’s understanding of human nature, and the motivations and behaviours of those who get things done in an organisation.

Every fortnight the Divisional Manager and the Badger attended fortnightly operational reviews with the former’s boss, the Group Manager responsible for multiple Divisions.  These were uncompromisingly direct meeting! As a youngster, the Badger found sitting next to his boss as they were verbally chastised and interrogated about every minor issue an uncomfortable experience, even though the Badger’s boss took it in their stride.  

After one particularly vociferous and harsh session that involved raised voices,  the Divisional Manager took the young Badger to a local tea-room for a debrief.  Over tea and cake, the Badger asked why his boss stayed so calm in the face of these verbal whippings. He smiled, said it was because he understood his boss, and went on to make the following points:

  1. Leaders and managers are paid to make things happen. They had to be demanding or nothing would happen. Running any enterprise requires tough and demanding people to achieve real outcomes. Remember, a business is not a democracy.  
  2. Humans are not exempt from ‘the survival of the fittest’ inDarwin’s theory of evolution. People have different personalities and temperaments, but everyone has a hurtful streak. Successful leaders learn about  human behaviour and how to handle those they interface with using techniques appropriate to their strengths, weaknesses, and temperament. Sometimes it’s necessary to be ruthlessly brutal because some people require that to get the message!
  3. Remember the ‘Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me’ mantra from school days because if you let being called names hurt you then whoever is calling you the names wins! Leaders never dwell on this. Instead, they stay focused on their job.  

The Badger was reminded of the above while watching a popular UK television series that has the public voting for a member of a group of minor celebrities to undergo an ordeal. The public had consistently voted for the same frightened individual and in doing so neatly illustrated the innate human capacity to pick on the perceived weakest in any group. Interestingly, it also illustrated that if the picked-on individual faced up to their demons then they won out and public attention focused elsewhere!   

Human nature hasn’t really changed over the decades. It’s as true today as it’s ever been that you need to toughen up to succeed in any environment.  President Harry S. Truman’s words from 75 years ago are still apt…’If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen’.

Dubious data or dubious analysis leads to dubious decisions and distrust…

Data makes the modern world function. It’s at the heart of decision making by companies, governments, politicians, advisers, and experts of all kinds – and if it isn’t, then it should be!  Data, a valuable global resource, attracts a swarm of interest from those wishing to use it for purposes ranging from commercial gain to disinformation and propaganda. Whenever it’s presented to us, therefore, we should always wonder if the data itself is dubious, if the analysis of it is dubious, and if decisions based on these items are themselves dubious. Why? Because if we feel decisions are dubious, then disillusionment and distrust sets in and this is a really difficult trend to turn around.

A friend with a knack for uncovering ‘dodgy data’,  ‘dodgy analysis’, and hence ‘dodgy decisions’  on IT projects emailed recently lamenting how politicians and the scientists at their side could present some erroneous data in explaining the decision for England to enter a 2nd COVID lockdown.  They questioned whether the data, and the analysis of its consequences, ever got independently challenged or verified before being presented to the public? One would hope so, but it doesn’t feel like it, so we can hardly blame the media for making hay on the topic, or the public for becoming increasingly sceptical and distrustful.    

Dubious data, dubious analysis and dubious decisions are manifest everywhere in our modern, globally connected world.  The item here about a COVID-relevant study regarding Hydroxychloroquine just emphasises that ‘verification and assurance’ isn’t as strong as it should be with a last sentence saying ‘Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of it all is that the WHO and two entire countries halted trials of a potentially life-saving drug following the results of a single study that they failed to independently verify’.

Of course, honest mistakes happen, but the Badger senses that ‘verification and assurance’ is getting ever weaker, which is worrisome when every institution or corporation is becoming more creative in using data to push their own agenda, ideology, or bias.  Whenever information is presented to the general public making the case for an important decision, therefore, it has to be right that we can trust its efficacy and that it has been subjected to challenge using robust independent processes before being presented. 

In a world where misunderstanding, despondency, disillusionment, and distrust develops in seconds, we deserve to know that decisions conveyed by leaders are underpinned by sound data and analysis.  If excellent ‘verification and assurance’ functions are not embedded or truly effective in our institutions and corporations then distrust, disillusionment, and cynicism will become the baseline for our day to day lives. Surely we don’t want that? Perhaps it’s time that ‘verification and assurance functions’ got more attention from the media before, rather than after, key announcements?  Oh dear, perhaps bias has crept in here, after all the Badger turned from being an expert poacher into an expert ‘verification and assurance’ gamekeeper a number of times in his career…

In remembrance…and extended service contracts…

The Badger recently met his cousin, her husband, and their 8-year old daughter at the D-Day Museum on the seafront in Portsmouth – and yes, virus protocols were observed! We met outside by  LCT 7074, the newly installed landing craft that put 10 tanks on the Normandy beaches in 1944. It’s an awe-inspiring sight. We then visited the museum and ended with a cream tea in the museum’s café.

For us adults, the visit was a sobering reminder of why honouring the fallen on Remembrance Day is important. The 8-year old was mesmerised by what she saw and particularly liked the panto-like show the museum put on to give kids a taste of life during the Blitz.  When Mr Churchill asked them ‘will we ever surrender?’ all the kids jumped up and screamed ‘No’ at the top of their voices!  Every adult present glowed with pride.   

Afterwards, over a cream tea, the Badger’s cousin helped her daughter fill in a competition form, and her husband, who works in Service Delivery for a major outsource service provider, chatted about some of his work frustrations. He bemoaned how difficult it was to deliver a service without direct control over resources, perpetually having to apologise for something, and incessant pressure from his management to mitigate financial challenges. He was frustrated with the client for always taking credit when things went well but quickly pillorying the service provider when they didn’t. Apparently, his line management want to extend the duration of the contract to help mitigate financial stress, but the client isn’t keen. He said he felt permanently stressed!

The Badger commiserated and playfully said how pleased he was to have stepped off the corporate hamster wheel. The husband enquired about the Badger’s first reaction whenever he saw media announcements that an outsource or service contract had been extended.  The Badger replied that his reaction is always the same. First, to treat any press release with caution because none of the people making the announcement will be there for the duration! Second, if the extension is before having reached 50% of the original contract duration then the extension is probably some kind of ‘dispute resolution’. Third, the client and service provider are ‘kicking the can down the road’ to create additional time to fix some kind of underlying problem definitively.  The husband grinned and said cynical suspicion was always a good starting point!  

The Badger’s cousin intervened to change the subject and her daughter innocently asked if her Grandad had an iPad while growing up the 1940s. We all laughed. Her mother replied ‘No, he didn’t need one because, as you saw in the show, life is about more than just the internet and gadgets’.  Quite.  The little girl then asked what outsourcing was and if it explained why her Grandad was always grumpy like her father! None of us had an answer…

The truth is always elusive…

Any company that provides IT services has some contracts that have difficulties of one kind or another.  No organisation is perfect. The Badger’s lost track of how many times over the years he’s been asked by an irate CEO to independently ‘get to the truth’ of why a contract difficulty had exploded out of nowhere. Having lifted the lid on many such situations, the Badger has learned that the truth is always elusive.  Why is that? Because the way people behave, what they assert as fact, who they blame, poor record keeping, and internal politics normally make it impossible to get to a definitive and irrefutable truth, especially when time and money is a constraint.   

Last week the Badger received an unexpected call from a CEO. They wanted the Badger to independently establish the ‘absolute truth’ behind the conflicting messages they were getting from line management about difficulties on a sizeable project. The Badger politely declined the invitation. The CEO, not unexpectedly, was interested in why. The Badger merely told the CEO that ‘the truth is always elusive’ and if they didn’t have someone trusted to be independent and objective in their own organisation then they had bigger problems than just this project!  The CEO chuckled, took the point on board, and emailed later to say that someone from their inner team was investigating ‘to establish in what direction the pendulum of truth was pointing’.   

Shortly afterwards, the Badger – who has been keeping abreast of the US Presidential campaign via the media and the web – watched the Biden/Trump debate.  The Badger was both amused and horrified! The whole debacle seemed to personify the shrill, modern, antagonistic virtual world played out on the web in real-time, every hour or every day!  It was a depressing spectacle with getting to the truth definitely elusive, at least that’s how the Badger felt as just a normal citizen in a different nation with no axe to grind on how the USA appoints its leaders.

Afterwards, perhaps influence by despair, the Badger decided two things. First, that the internet/social media revolution of the last twenty years has made getting to the truth even more elusive than it always was. There is no truth on the internet. We must teach our children to think more deeply for themselves about everything they see or hear in their daily lives.  Second, the vitriolic debate provided enough evidence for the masses around the globe to wonder if the USA’s ‘leadership of the free world’ is still credible.

The Badger thought that China, in particular, would be having a giggle. Perhaps the song ‘Go West’ should be reissued as ‘Go East’? Hmm. That’s perhaps taking the rise of China too far, but even though the truth is always elusive there seems little doubt that things are rising in the East and setting in the West…

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should…

A client and their supplier were at loggerheads. The former was withholding payment of a large milestone payment and the latter was threatening to turn off IT systems they ran for the client unless payment was made. The impasse had rumbled on for some time with both parties using expensive lawyers to pore over a poor contract. The client asked the Badger for a completely independent view on what to do. A poisoned chalice, especially when and it was quickly apparent that uncompromising and intransigent personalities on both sides were at the heart of the problem.

A solution was found by facilitating awareness on both sides that ‘just because you can doesn’t mean you should’. The client was withholding payment and supplier threatening to turn off IT because they could, regardless of any contract, but neither was a sensible or ethical thing to do. Both parties eventually realised this. Ultimately the client paid the money, the supplier withdrew threats to turn off IT, personalities on both sides were changed, and lawyers were redirected from a litigation path into improving the poor contract. Things slowly normalised and the Badger was ultimately thanked for reminding everyone that ‘just because you can doesn’t mean you should’ should never be forgotten when times are difficult.

The other day this phrase came to mind again when reading about a Russian company proposing to use microsatellites for celestial advertising in the night sky,  Estee Lauder making a product advert on the Internal Space Station (ISS), the winner of a proposed reality TV show getting a seat on the 2023 mission to the ISS, and  the impact on the night sky of Elon Musk’s SpaceX satellite constellation.  

Surely the commercialisation of Space illustrates not only human ingenuity and creativity, but also human stupidity! One of the joys of life is to step into a cloudless night and peer at the stars, just like our ancestors have done for thousands of years.  It’s doubtful that many of us really want that to be interfered with, but it seems inevitable that it will be.  We have a habit of slowly polluting or destroying whatever environment we touch – the ground, the sea, the air, and even the internet and social media – and the Badger finds it rather sad that the night sky is the next in line. 

Have our leaders considered ‘just because you can doesn’t mean you should’ with regard to Space commercialisation and our night sky? No chance. Why? Well there may be a clue in the final lines of Monty Python’s ‘The Galaxy Song’ from the 1983 film ‘The Meaning of Life’:

So remember, when you’re feeling very small and insecure,
How amazingly unlikely is your birth;
And pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere out in space,
‘Cause there’s bugger all down here on Earth!

Quite!  A sentiment from 37 years ago that still resonates strongly today…

‘Discuss, decide, do’…life’s full of decisions…

Bah, humbug!  That was the Badger’s reaction after flicking through the television news channels the other morning.  The facts in the news were one thing, but the doom and complaint-laden analysis of interviewers and interviewees just emphasised that much should be taken with a pinch of salt!  It wasn’t a good start to the day.

But then the Badger’s phone rang. It was a ‘first-time’ Project Manager seeking advice from someone with ‘independent wisdom’ on the type of project they were running.  The Badger was flattered and pleased to help.  The first-timer was under significant pressure to hit key delivery milestones in the coming few weeks.  They admitted to being overwhelmed by the plethora of decisions they had to make and frustrated that delivery was at risk because of interminable, inconclusive discussions with their internal line masters.

It became clear that the first-timer felt that prior to every decision there needed to be discussions to achieve consensus. They were also fearful of making wrong decisions.  Fortunately, they had the maturity to chat about their situation and take input from someone completely independent.  The Badger simply conveyed the following four points:

  • Decision making happens in all facets of life. No one makes the right decision 100% of the time, and so – to borrow from Franklin D Roosevelt’s 1933 US Presidential Inauguration address – the only thing you have to fear in making a decision is fear itself. Never prevaricate, make a decision.
  • If you want to succeed as a Project Manager then recognise there’s a ‘Discuss, Decide, and Do’ cycle to everything you do, but exercise your authority and don’t allow the ‘Discuss’ element to overwhelm the timeline of this cycle.
  • Be brave. Cut through barriers and dithering and make your mark. Show your team, your line management and the client that you have a ‘buck stops here’ mindset. If you can’t then delivery-focused Project Management may not be for you.
  • There are always nay-sayers and grumblers, but most will never sit in your hot seat with your responsibilities. Spend more time preparing for the decisions of the future than listening to the opinions of others on the decisions of the past.

The first-timer went quiet for a moment and then asked ‘So what you’re really saying is that as Project manager I need to be single-minded, have a backbone, cut through the fog to make decisions, and realise that if I want my Project to deliver then it can’t be run as a democracy?’ Answer? Err, Yes, something like that!  

When the call ended the Badger had an optimistic sense that something latent in the first-timer’s psyche had been liberated.  Time will tell. The call also triggered the Badger to make a decision of his own – not to listen to the analysers and grumblers on television news. Because that’s the only way to start the day with optimism and an open mind…

What goes up will come down…

‘Won’t get fooled again’ by The Who, one of the best political songs there’s been, played on the radio as the Badger cogitated in wonderment at Apple’s $US2 trillion market valuation at his laptop. How in the world is Apple worth that much? Well, a simple insight can be found here.  Of course, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, and Alphabet (Google) are not far behind with valuations of $US1 trillion or more.

The Badger’s been around long enough to know that markets are fickle, and that today’s mega corporations will normally disappoint at some stage in the future with the man in the street bearing the brunt when they do.  Yes, the big tech companies are at the heart of today’s world of instant digital mass communication and consumption, but have their valuations and the view of their future prospects become absurd? Hmm. Probably, at least that’s what the Badger – who’s no expert in these matters – senses.  

The valuation of Apple alone is greater than the UK FTSE 100 as a whole, greater than the GDP of countries like the Netherlands, Canada and Italy, and about two/thirds of the GDP of India!  Isn’t that just bizarre when the company hasn’t really come up with anything new recently? By the way, this isn’t an anti-Apple rant, just an articulation that the valuations of tech giants may have become too detached from the real global economy experienced by the average man on the street.  The Dot.com boom and bust of some 20 years ago comes to mind, although – to be fair – the situation today is somewhat different.  Nevertheless, the Badger senses there’s not only a bubble of some kind, but also a strengthening sentiment that the tech giants are way too greedy, powerful, and uncontrollable.  You may, of course, disagree.

As the Badger cogitated, his wife observed, playfully, that if Apple and the other tech giants got together they would rule the planet making governments irrelevant!  The point was tongue in cheek, but nevertheless well made in today’s strange world.  She also asked how it was possible – apart from in the world of spreadsheets and speculation – for Apple to be valued at $US1 trillion two years ago and to have doubled in value in just 24 months.  The Badger, trying to avoid  any explanation of corporations and markets, just smiled and said, ‘What goes up will come down’  pointing to the bit of  correction the tech giants experienced last week as illustration.  

And then Barry McGuire’s ‘Eve of Destruction’ came on the radio. Cogitation ended with just the easy conclusion that while we live in strange times, they are probably no stranger than 50 years ago when The Who and Barry McGuire wrote their songs. The Badger put the laptop away, turned up the volume on the radio, and sang along proving that you can still have lots of fun without being a captive of the big tech giants and their $US trillion valuations.

An Epic battle…

An acquaintance who is just a few years away from becoming a pensioner has just started work in an old-fashioned, small town hardware store, after 18 months being unemployed due to physical injury.  They were surprised to get the job given their age, until, that is, the boss explained that he was ‘fed up with employing youngsters who can barely tear themselves away from games on their smartphones whenever a customer comes into the shop’. Hmm. An interesting insight to life in the modern world for many!

Games on digital devices are a fact of life and readily available from the app stores in the Apple, Google, and Microsoft ecosystems. If you are younger than about 40 years old  then it’s likely that playing games on your smartphone, tablet, laptop or desktop is part of how you get your fun, which means you should take an interest in the acrimonious legal dispute between Epic – makers of Fortnite and other popular games – and Apple.  Events have been unfolding fast – as you can see, for example, here,  here, here and here – and they provide an insight into the attitudes and dynamics of major corporations when they have a serious spat.

What appears to have triggered events is a Fortnite update that allowed players to buy in-game currency direct from Epic at a lower rate, bypassing Apple’s compulsory payment system which takes a 30% cut of every purchase.  The lawyers are now having a field day.  Apple have essentially removed Epic’s games from their app store, and the associated media coverage gives us all a ready insight into how a 2 trillion-dollar corporation (Apple) and 20 billion-dollar corporation (Epic) are locking horns in the dispute.  

The courts will, of course, rightly decide the legal rights and wrongs, probably in late September. However, on cogitating about the situation, and notwithstanding what the courts decide, the Badger felt that Apple comes over in what’s been written as just an arrogant, monopolistic, mega-corporate bully whose 30% take on in-app revenues smacks of profiteering. It’s sad that Apple, once an upstart and disrupter itself, has inevitably turned into the kind of corporation that it once challenged. Harsh? Perhaps, but when you’re next playing a game on your Apple device just remember that it’s you that’s paying the 30%.

The Badger has a feeling that the outcome of the EPIC v Apple spat in the courts – regardless of who ‘wins’ – will ultimately start the ball rolling to force changes to the likes of Apple and Google. Given Microsoft was accused of being a monopoly 20 years ago, it’s plausible that we’ll see the likes of Apple similarly challenged at some stage.

So, there you have it. There’s a David versus Goliath fight underway, and it’s a brave person that bets on either David being squashed, or Goliath coming out of the fray without injury… 

Is the death of the physical desk finally nigh?

The Badger’s lucky because he has an ‘office’ at home – a room complete with a desk, storage cabinets, and IT.  It’s the Badger’s space for creative thinking, working, and administering modern life. It has a proper desk, one with character and scars that shows that it has been at the heart of creativity and endeavour for years.  The IT sits neatly on it, just like the pen, notepad, and the other odds and ends that personalise the space.

This week, while sitting at the desk, the Badger found himself reflecting on commentaries about how employers offices will be impacted after the remote working of white-collar staff during the pandemic. It soon dawned on the Badger that the longest tenure he has had with any desk is with the one he was sitting at!  The Badger realised that during 35 years in the IT industry he had occupied many different ‘desks’ in employer/client offices, and that he had experienced numerous transformations of office environments. Indeed, the Badger was often part of the decision-making teams that initiated these transformations!

Having an office format that would attract new staff, help employee retention, and support changing business needs were always factors in decision making, but reducing overheads by increasing the density of staff in the same floor area was always a dominant factor. Thus, over time, proper physical desks and filing cabinets in discreet rooms gave way to ‘Open Plan’ with smaller ‘table’ surfaces and wheeled under-desk units, which in turn gave way to  Hot Desking’ where a surface in a long lines of regimented identical ones, with no storage space, had to be booked to be used.  The Badger, and most in the IT sector, never found such transformations too problematic because remote and flexible working – anytime, anyplace, anywhere – has been part of work patterns for many decades.  However, for white-collar people and their employers in other sectors, see BP for example, the pandemic has triggered a structural shift in work patterns and a big rethink by employers of the role, form, and scale of their offices.

Long before the pandemic, ‘Open Plan’ was giving way  to more ‘agile’ environments, and now the pandemic has skewered  ‘Hot Desking’ too – see here and here , for example. Time will tell, but many employers now have under-used offices and their white-collar employees know they can work remotely and productively without commuting to an impersonal worksurface at their employer’s office. Change is inevitable.  So, is ‘the death of the physical desk’ finally nigh? The Badger doesn’t think so. Why? Because, like so much in today’s world, there will be a hybrid solution to the future of work with much more flexible working.  Having a physical desk that you can call your own will feature in this future because it has psychological, functional, productivity and practical merits which complement the virtual desk that your laptop and cyberspace constitutes.  Just don’t look to your employer for one. Have your physical desk at home and be amazed how quickly you get attached to it!