Confessions of an airline executive – CNN.com

Confessions of an airline executive – CNN.com

This is an interesting article. unfortunately it does not address the main outstanding question I have – why does the airline industry (and this includes not just the airlines, but the airport authorities, government agencies and all others involved in this continuously worsening mess) believe that it is acceptable to provide atrocious customer service, disrespect their customers, and generally perform badly in all aspects of their operations, and yet feel they should stay in business. Quite honestly, most business that were run this badly would be dead in months.

As a side note, a couple of weeks ago I had written a post (more of a rant than a post) about my recent experiences flying. I saved it, but did not post it, as I was not online (I was on a plane). Unfortunately it seemed to disappear from my saved drafts. I took this a s I sign that I should not post it! To summarize, though, I was on my 4th trip in two weeks – one to Toronto, and three to other endpoints, but going through Toronto. So, a total of 14 flights. The “on time” performance on these 14 flights was somewhat less than 50% (and this is considering anything within an hour of on time as “on time”). What was disturbing to me was that none of the delays were due to whether, air traffic congestion, or any cause “outside of the airline’s control”. In all cases, the cause airline mismanagement. For example, 2 cases of “the plane is not working”, because the flight segments between Toronto and Moncton are all crappy, old, small planes. Another case, we could not leave Moncton because the incoming plane from Toronto had not arrived. Why? Because no ground crew had been assigned in Toronto to the departure gate, and so they could not load the plane. Yet another case, we sat on the plane for 45 minutes after having landed at Toronto because no ground crew was available at our gate (what, they were not expecting us?).

All of this reflects the fact that this airline (and almost all others with whom I have travelled in the last 5 years) accept that lousy service and disrespect for passengers and their time should be the norm. And they will continue to think this way as long as it costs them more to fix the problem than accept it.

So, how do we make it cost them more to be incompetent? Well, how about every time they are late due to their own incompetence, everyone on the flight gets a partial refund. Say, $50/half hour delay? Make it cost them money, and they will fix the problem. 

Of course, this will only partially address the problem, since we still have to deal with airports, security, and other aspects of the experience which are designed without any consideration for the customer.

Ok, so now what?

I will let you know, right up front, that this is going to be a largely self-indulgent post. I am basically just thinking out loud, and doing it in public. Kind of like standing on a street corner talking to myself, I guess.

You see, I am on the verge of a life changing moment. Or maybe I am in the middle of it – it is a long moment. It started when I received notice on October 11 that my services were no longer required. Maybe it started even earlier, when the acquisition of Whitehill by Skywire was announced, and I was pretty sure that my time here was coming to an end. No matter, since I do know when the moment ends – December 15.

This transition period has been very complex, emotionally. I have, after all, spent close to 9 years at Whitehill – a considerable portion of my working life. I have invested a great deal of emotion and energy into it. And of course there is the people side of things – I have worked closely with a group of people for many years now.

On the other hand, I have been feeling for some time now that it was time for me to move on from Whitehill, and do something new. For the past year or so I have been semi-actively working on other ideas, plans, schemes, etc. I have been held back, however, by inertia, fear, complacency – all the usual things. So, in a way, being laid of could be viewed as a good thing – forcing me past these issues which I may never have overcome on my own.

So, I am now presented with an opportunity to do something new. I can do something a little bit new, like finding a similar role in a different company. Or, I can go all the way and completely reinvent myself again (I have done this twice before in my working life). I am taking this situation as an opportunity to re-evaluate what I do, how I do it, and most importantly why I do it.

As is typical for me, this evaluation has involved a great deal of reading. Even before the transition at Whitehill became concrete, I had been reading a number of books on starting my own MicroISV, including Eric Sink on the Business of Software and Micro-ISV: From Vision to Reality, both of which were extremely useful. Recently I have been reading Timothy Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich, which is a very interesting read and has some cool ideas, though not all of them I see as being good ideas.

In addition, there are the various blogs I follow, such as Escape from Cubicle Nation (which has had a couple of interesting, relevant posts recently – Excellent reading for those paralyzed by fear of leaving their job and Tips on cutting the ties and saying goodbye from Psychology Today) which in turn led me to 10 Remedies For “I’m Starting My Own Business And I’m Paralyzed With Fear!”, which of course has a 10 links to some other interesting posts.

I must admit that even now, when I know I am leaving, i still feel paralyzed with fear a lot. I swing from be optimistic about the future, to wildly ecstatic about the possibilities, to absolutely terrified that life will collapse in six months. Part of this, I know, is because I am moving outside of my comfort zone. This will be the first time in 20+ years that I will not be employed by someone, for even one day. That is a bit creepy!

So, getting to the title of this post, what now? I really do not know at this point. I have opportunities out there already, and I have no shortage of my own ideas. I have been asked by various people what I want to do. About the only thing I can say for sure right now, is that I want to do something “new and interesting” – I just have not decided what yet.

I have decided that as of December 15, I am going to take a few weeks to “decompress”, and to unclog my brain from all the Whitehill clutter that has built up. The last thing I want to do is to jump into something instantly. I know with certainty that once I am away from here for a few weeks, my thinking will change dramatically.

All in all, it promises to be a very interesting new year!

Treating employees well

“The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good”Samuel Johnson

Many companies claim to treat their staff well – claiming in fact that people are their greatest resource. In fact, I am pretty sure that I have never heard a company claim the opposite – when was the last time you heard a company loudly proclaim “we treat our staff like crap, and we’re proud of it”? Maybe these companies do exist, albeit briefly. I guess the companies which actually think this way do not make a point of mentioning it.Thinking for now, however, just of the companies who do claim that they treat their staff well, I have come to believe that there are two main groups:

  1. Companies which believe that you treat your staff (and everyone else, for that matter) well simply because it is the right way to be. There is no analysis of the ROI of being respectful. There is a fundamental belief in the right way of doing things, and a corresponding confidence that doing the right things ultimately leads to long term success.
  2. Companies for whom “treating people well” is a strategic decision, accompanied by detailed analyses of the ROI which will be achieved by treating different people with varying degrees of “rightness”. For these companies, there is no right or wrong here, it is merely a way to coerce the people upon whom the company relies into doing what is best for the company.

The difference between these two flavours of “we treat our employees well” is frequently made most clear when someone is let go – when for one reason or another, it is determined that a given individual is no longer of value to the organization. Companies in the former group treat outgoing employees with the same respect and kindness as they have all along. Companies in the latter group, on the other hand, show their true colours at this point, and will generally treat outgoing employees only well enough to avoid being sued, no more.So, which kind of company do you want to be?

Fred’s Laws – How not to write software

This begins a series of posts on Fred’s Laws – basically a set of anti-rules on how not to develop software.

Over the past twenty-odd years, I have seen a lot of software projects crash and burn. Many have been doomed from the start, while many others died slow, painful deaths after hopeful beginnings. Some have finished, and the systems are in production, without ever having realized that the project was a failure. Others should have failed, but managed to struggle through due to the heroic efforts of one or more dedicated (and usually really smart) people.

I have also seen more than a few “failed” projects that were technical successes. We built really cool software. We were on time, on budget, and had good quality. They failed in some other aspect – usually they were business failures for one reason or another.

The environments in which these projects have died have been varied as well. Some tried to make it with no process at all. Some had lots and lots and lots (and lots and lots) of process. I have not seen a great deal of correlation between process and success (well, except that the process I pick for my projects is always successful 😉 ).

When I look back on these catastrophic projects, usually I can see where things went wrong. In fact, most of the time I could see where they were going wrong while it was happening, like watching a car crash in slow motion, but was frequently powerless to avoid the impact. More often than not (in fact, I would be willing to say always), the root cause was something completely avoidable (from a technical or project perspective). Never was it because we chose Windows over Linux (or vice versa), nor because of the programming language we chose, nor because what we set out to do was technically impossible.

As I have written Fred’s Laws (well, written them in my head, none of them are actually written yet!) it occurs to me that they all seem to be straight from the department of the bloody obvious. No rocket science here. If they are this obvious, why even write them down. Well, the reason is that, despite how really obvious all of this is, I watch projects not do them all the time. Most of the time, in fact.

So, stay tuned. I am going to try to post one law per day (or so) until I run out of ideas.

BTW, as a little footnote, I have been involved in a few successful projects along the way. It just always seems to be the ones that failed (and failed spectacularly) that stick out in my memory.

Vista equals Edsel?

Vista equals Edsel?  (which just refers to http://www.linuxworld.com/columnists/2007/082307backspin.html)

Ok – here is a thought. If Windows sucks so badly (and not just Vista, because you all bitched about XP before Vista came out, and 2000 before that, and Windows Me, and so on), and I am having one of those weeks that makes me believe Windows does suck, then why hasn’t Linux won? Or OSX?

How badly must you suck if you cannot beat something that sucks as much as Windows???

(and don’t give me the “20xx will be the year of the Linux desktop” crap – you’ve been at this for 15 years – get on with it).

Apple’s Mac Set to Soar?

I am always amazed (and somewhat amused) to listen to the press and many bloggers pound on Microsoft, and hold up Apple as this golden idol of alternatives. Don’t get me wrong, I love Macs – I have ever since I started using and programming them back in the late 80s. I even liked the Newton. And the new iMacs – damn I want one.

But there are a few points of the Microsoft is evil/apple is great discussion that I find deeply amusing and ironic:

  1. Apple, with Steve Jobs, handed the desktop market to Microsoft on a platter. The Mac UI in the early eighties was way beyond anything Microsoft would produce until Windows 95. With that lead, Apple could have taken over the desktop. However, through the closed, anti-clone, “we must maintain the purity of the platform” view they had through the eighties, they gave that advantage away. Even though DOS was crap in terms of usability, and Windows was graphical crap, the availability of cheap clones and many, many hardware choices, the PC won out. Once again, inferior technoogy won because the people behind the better technology acted stupidly. (Note that Steve Jobs continued this stupidity with more great technology with Next).
  2. Apple has always been the ultimate “closed platform”. Standards rarely come into play. If you want to develop on the Mac (at least anything useful) you use our tools. Until recently, even all of the hardware has been non-standard. If Microsft were anywhere near as closed as Apple, the Justice Department would have shut them down. Heck, on many Apple devices, you are not even allowed to change your own battery, or add an industry standard memory card.
  3. Apple has rarely created technology which benefited (from a tech community sense) anyone but Apple. Consider Microsoft’s Tablet PC platform. Microsoft could have “gone it alone” on the Tablet, as Apple would have (and probably will). Instead, Microsoft defined the specification for a Tablet PC, and left it to hardware vendors and startups to build the hardware, and IVSs to build the application, thus creating a sub-industry benefiting many businesses beyond Microsoft. Compare to Apple and the launch of the iPhone.

Again, I love Apple, and I think they have some of the best design people in the world. But I do not fool myself into believing that they are in business for anyone’s benefit but their own.

But I want to be Disruptive!

I have spent a great deal of time over the last couple of years thinking about the process of innovation, different types of innovation, and how to innovate in a small but established organization versus a startup organization. I was reading Innovator’s Dilemmas: Do You Really Need To Be Disruptive? over on consultaglobal this weekend, and got to comparing some of Jose’s thoughts with work I have done in the last year.

As Jose says in that post, he is more interested in the process of defining a product roadmap in terms of gradual innovation, and in managing product portfolios. We have been very successful with this type of innovation, having a strong product management process for our existing product suite. In my role, I have been more interested in how we do larger scale innovation – how do we come up with the innovations now which are going to drive our growth 2+ years from now?

I have defined an innovation cycle as shown below.

image

Recognizing that disruptive innovation is, well, disruptive, as this cycle is traveled counter-clockwise starting from the upper right, we go from a high-chaos, low-process environment to progressively higher process and lower chaos.

In this model, the upper right quadrant represents what we are really good at, evolutionary innovation driven by product management.  The upper right quadrant represents the starting point – the idea generation engine. This is traditionally a hit and miss process of collecting ideas from various parts of the organization (or just a few people), and trying to pick which ones to invest time and money in. It is my belief that this activity can be wrapped in a process without destroying the creativity needed to really come up with ideas. Among the activities I consider important in this quadrant are:

  • Establish some context for innovation (see this earlier post)
  • Get ideas from everybody, not just R&D or Product Management
  • Get out and talk to customers
  • Involve your staff who are in front of customers, especially professional services people if you have them
  • Engage in structured/facilitated brainstorming with groups from various cross-sections of your company
  • Know how you are going evaluate ideas and decide which ones to investigate more deeply

The last point is important – it is no use having lots of ideas if you have no way to evaluate them. No organization can go deep on all the ideas generated, and a small organization can only really attack a couple. See this earlier post for my thoughts on using the Needs, Approach, Benefits, Competition (NABC) approach. At the end of this stage, and ideas should have a reasonable Needs definition, with a rough indication of the other three categories.

The next quadrant is what I have called Play. This is where ideas which survive the evaluation in the Ideas stage and start to play with them, flesh them out, create prototypes, and generally move the NABC definition forward. Early in this phase, the Approach needs to be clarified, while the Needs are evaluated more deeply.  Later in this stage, if a viable Approach is identified, and the Needs continue to make sense, then the Benefits and Competition need to be addressed (note that in reality, it is never anywhere near this linear, but this is for the benefit of description). By the end of this stage, we should be able to present a fairly strong value proposition for those ideas which have survived the process.

The next stage is to Build the products (ok, probably only one) for which the value proposition seems best. I will not get into the build process, except to say that the NABC analysis should be kept at the forefront throughout the process, and not be afraid to make hard decisions if things stop making sense.

The final stage is the Evolution stage, where the product moves into the incremental, evolutionary development cycle of a completed product. Note that for a new product, there may be some iteration between Build and Evolve.

Finally, the cycle is closed by having ideas from ongoing product evolution feed back into the Ideas stage.

So, is it ever this neat and clean and linear? Well, no. But that does not mean it is not valuable to have a model which you at least pretend you are following!

Why IT Executives aren’t embracing Agile

Wille Faler has written an interesitng post Why IT Executives aren’t embracing Agile, referring in turn to another post on the same subject. Given my background, and my current role, I think I can comment on a technology executive’s opinion of agile processes.

Over the years I have worked on projects using a wide range of processes. Back in the eighties I worked on a team of very bright scientists, writing software primarily for their own use. We had almost no real development process (at best it was managed chaos). This was also one of the most successful software teams of which I have ever been a part. I do not think this is repeatable in most software development environments, because that particular environment had a number of unique characteristics:

  1. Really, Really smart people, especially in the domain in which we were working (satellite control).  
  2. Staff Retention: nobody ever left. When I joined the team, most of the people there had been there, working on the same code for 15+ years. Most had written the original versions of the code, and invented the algorithms.
  3. The developers were the users of the software – eliminating alot of problems of capturing requirements  and expectations. It is pretty hard to have unfulfilled expectations when you are writing software your own software.

Shortly after that, I was was involved in a large military project (10 years, billions of dollars, hundreds of thousands of requirements). Needless to say, we had plenty of process. This was the epitome of the heavy process. Between the company I worked for, and the many subcontracting organizations, I was exposed to many flavours of software process (all of them heavy). I was also involved in ISO 9000 certificatiom programs, CMM assessments, 6-sigma programs and Design for Manufacturability programs (we did hardware, too). One of the things I learned in all of that was that you can have all the process in the world, and still fail. While having a strong software development process (whether it is heavy, agile, or otherwise) may vastly increase your chances of success, it by no mean guarantees it.

In the past 10 years, I have become a great proponent of “just enough process” – trying to take what I have learned from the heavy processes on the military projects, and apply what makes sense in a small, product-oriented environment, while leaving much of the “weight” behind. In the period from about 1998 through 2002 (the last time I directly managed development projects) I was greatly impressed with agile processes. While we never fanatically applied any of the agile methodologies, we did adopt many aspects, such as user stories, iterative incremental development, and test driven development. Some aspect just did not fit our environment (such as pair-programming). We had a fair amount of success using this approach, and many aspects of agile development are still in use.

Getting back to the topic at hand (why IT executives do not embrace Agile processes), from my perspective, agile processes are definitely viable and advantageous in certain contexts. Also, “heavy” processes certainly do not guarantee success. My feeling is that there is a time and place for both kinds of process. As in most things, it is important to have a number of tools at your disposal, and to have the knowledge of when it is appropriate to use these tools. Remember, an idea is a dangerous thing when it is the only one you have (didn’t I use that a couple of days ago?).

For example, I think it is entirely innappropriate to use “heavy” processes in small, commercial product development. Similarly, as an IT executive, I would be extremely hesitant to use an Agile process on a large, complex development project, because I have not seen sufficient evidence of the viability of the approach.

It all comes down to using the right tools in the right situations.

Am I getting too old for this?

So it is the weekend, and my brain is tired from being on vacation all week (I read even more when I am on vacation than when I am at work – that is why I take vacation, to catch up on my reading!). Looking at a lot of stuff I am following lately, much of it relates to social networking, web 2.0, mashable content, etc. – much the same as everyone else in this business I guess.

There is also a significant amount of press related to age, and this being a young person’s game.

You know, the idea that no one who is not in their 20s or younger should be starting a Web 2.0 business, and people in their 40s are completely out of it.

Now, I personally do not buy this for a minute (probably because I am in my 40s). I do start wondering, however, whether I really grasp all of this stuff. I get a lot of it, but some of it is just beyond me. I have already talked about Second Life, and I still am not convinced that it is meaningful. There are Twitter and Pownce. These I just do not get. I do not need to know that much about anything anyone is doing. Mashups I get, and I wholeheartedly agree with the idea, but I do not think I get them on that deeply intuitive level.

So, I ask the question. Am I getting too old for this?

I do not see Microsoft going down just yet

It seems there a few almost guaranteed ways to bring some hits to your tech blog, and maybe even get it dugg:

  1. Say something really, really smart about things that people really want to read about
  2. Say something very controversial about something people love or hate
  3. Declare Microsoft dead

(of course, I always go for approach #1 😉 )

I was reading yet another post over on ZDNet (Is the era of Microsoft ending?) declaring that Microsoft is dead, or soon will be. I do not really see much data that supports anything in the post, and the post itself certainly does not provide any. Microsoft still has pretty good numbers, a fair amount of cash, and some market share to play with. And in many of their primary business units, they have minimal realistic competition. And in areas in which they are late to the table (search, online advertising, etc.), while they are certainly not dominant, they are not out of the game, either.

Will Microsoft reign supreme forever, as it has for much of the last 10-20 years? Maybe, maybe not. Like most businesses, if they fail to adapt to new technologies, new circumstances,  and new competition, they will not be successful. If they do it enough, they will whither and die. Even now Microsoft is going through major transitions, as Gates begins to step away from operations. A transition like this is difficult for any company.

I will repeat what I said above – if they fail to adapt, they will die.

However, I do not see a lot of signs of this happenning right now. yes, there are areas where they have slipped up. The only business that never screws up is one that never tries anything new (and that business is already screwed from the start).

It will definitely be interesting to see where the computer industry is 20 years from now, but I would be very surprised not to see Microsoft alive and well, and extremely viable long after many of us have stopped worrying about it.