Secrets of Success

I have long been a believer that the three secrets to success are:
• Courage
• Brains
• Hard work

Pretty much in that order. Oh to be sure luck helps. Sometimes luck helps a lot. But courage, brains and hard work combined make a lot of what looks like luck. I credit my success of having a thirty year marriage to those three things. Although to be sure there is some question as to who showed the greater courage – me for asking Mrs. T (she’d turned others down) or her for accepting. Maintaining a good marriage takes a lot of hard work. And quite frankly stupid people are not good at recognizing when they need to put the effort in and how they have to do so.

In my professional career I’ve been more timid. At times that has held me back. I like to think I’ve brains enough. And that I am capable of putting in the effort. But I’ve been careful to avoid risk, seeking out employment in stable, larger companies rather than risking things in startups or smaller companies. As I look back that may not always have been the best way to go. The stability and security of large companies today is largely illusionary. Now I have worked for two of the best. Digital Equipment was an amazing company and when I joined them the future looked bright. But they no longer exist as an independent entity and the mini computers that make them famous are mostly found in museums. Now I work for Microsoft which is a great company that is, in some ways, struggling to keep up with the next big thing in computers. They are trying hard to avoid the mistakes that causes Digital, Wang, Data General and many others fade away as the environment changed. IBM is perhaps the lone example of a company that has always managed to redefine itself in the computer field. But between us friends I worry about them today.
But let me bore you with a little history and show you my track record for failing to bet on what I saw in the future. In 1975 the Altair 8800 came out and I wanted one. But there were two problems. One is that I didn’t really have the money. I was just starting out and had a wife and a son to support. There wasn’t a ton of money available for expensive toys. Now had I figured out a way to make money from it maybe I would have found the money. But I didn’t have the vision or the willingness to risk the money on that investment. Some kid at Harvard had the money and some ideas and more brains then I have. I work for him today although there are several layers of management between us. At least I was starting to think about the possibilities of a personal computer. A lot of my peers wrote it off as a toy with no future.

In 1977 the Commodore Pet came out and sometime in early 1978 (as best as I can recall) I saw one in the depths of The Mill, Digital’s Corporate headquarters. A number of us field people were making a midnight tour, quite unofficial, and wondered if that system was the start of Digital getting into the personal computer business. We all thought it was a great idea. Alas Digital’s management being so much smarter than we were disagreed. Within a year I had a TRS-80 and was writing code for fun. I knew people who actually made money writing games for the early personal computers (pre-IBM PC) but I didn’t. Did I lack the vision? Perhaps. I was working hard on other things and risking working less hard on my day job to spend a lot of time writing code on speculation was just not something I was willing to do.

Also in the late 1970s came the Olivetti P 6060. This was a real commercial personal computer. Not fancy by today’s standards but a real sign of things to come. That should have been a sign to anyone that the PC was the future. Mrs. T who worked for Olivetti for a while got a job working for a company writing custom software for it after our son was born. I often wonder what things would have been like had she stayed there and if I had become a stay at home Dad. But that was not the way to bet – or so we thought. And then the PDT11s came out. Think about a system with a much better OS than MS-DOS, with multiple programming language support, real networking support, simple database support and a multi-billion dollar company behind it. And a full three years before IBM came out with the IBM PC. When I say better OS that MS-DOS I mean better than UNIX in some ways. I don’t mean a little better – I mean way better! I saw it. And I did nothing about it. There is regret there.

Working at Digital I saw PCs creep into the business. The spreadsheet was a killer app like none before. Perhaps like nothing else since with the possible exception of the web browser. The smart thing, the gutsy thing, would have been to invest some time and money and get to a PC start up. Yeah but I took the careful way and stayed with large mini-computers. I fooled myself into believing they had a future. Well smarter people then I made the same mistake. Oh well.

Once I got laid off from Digital I took some risks. I went into teaching and used that as an opportunity to catch up on lost time understanding PCs. I bought a good one on my way out from Digital and picked up a used copy of Visual Basic. I spent a lot of time learning PC programming, applications and system and network management. I took some other risks and invested more time in writing, in public speaking (now there was a buildup in courage) and it paid off in a great job at Microsoft.

So now I find myself looking at the state of the computer industry and trying to decide where the future lies. Where should smart, courageous people put their hard work today? The future is in the cloud. The problem is that several very large companies are going to own most of the cloud. Google, Microsoft, Amazon and perhaps a couple of other companies are building huge datacenters around the world. To some extent that is the platform people are going to be building for. Risky business building for platforms that others control. Perhaps we might have mini-clouds though. I haven’t figured that out yet. But applications are going to live partly in the cloud and partly on local computers.

No I don’t see the desktop application going completely away. The data may be stored somewhere else in the cloud with a local cache but a lot of processing is likely to still be local. How much is still anyone’s guess. Google is betting on “not much.” They would like to control it all with AJAX or similar technology allowing remote processing with nothing more than XML going back and forth. Other companies are betting on the cloud being a combination of some cloud processing, lots of data in the cloud but with some processing happening locally – Software as a Service is one term that comes up. Google applications and Facebook applications are all in the cloud. They work remarkably well. But run the business well? I’m not ready to go there. But remember I’m a coward.

And how do you make money on that stuff? Advertizing? Can you see a company wanting advertizing to pay for the payroll system they use? I don’t think so. So some things will have to be subscription services. The brave people are pressing forward and worrying about where the money will come from later. Some companies are not going to want to rent applications. Nor are they going to trust key data to the cloud. So some local (well, non-public cloud) applications are going to remain. What is the mix going to be? It’s all still fuzzy to me. And then there is this whole thing of smart devices. This is the piece I don’t think the press is really talking about.

What makes an iPhone cool is the software. Not software on the cloud, although the network is hugely important, but the software on the device that handles the user interface. I got a Memento Digital Picture frame the other day. It’s got some great hardware specks and it can grab pictures off the network but it is the local software that makes it work. Cameras, game consoles, media centers, and more are going to run locally even if they grab data from the cloud. And where else might software go? Smarter cars? For sure! Smarter stoves and ovens? About time. Robots? I tell you the future for robots is amazing. Could it be that there is going to be an increasing need for people who can write tight little code for embedded hardware? Yes I think so. Some of it may be based on messages and communication to be sure but they will not be pure cloud applications.

So what would I be looking to learn if I were a smart young technology person? Distributed systems for sure. Anything that uses messages, standard communications APIs, XML, Services Oriented programming and that sort of thing. Heck I might play with Microsoft Robotics Studio just to get more familiar with that stuff with robotics as a bonus. And I’d learn about databases. I’d get a Popfly account (I know someone with invitations) and invest some time creating mashups. I’d get into the Facebook developer program and find a way to create my own Facebook application. If I could figure out a way to make some money from that as well I would be way ahead of the game. Actually that is the big bet I would make today if I had any guts at all. The smart brave people are going to learn amazing lessons by creating Facebook applications. That’s leading edge I tell you.

If I were graduating today I would either create a company or go to work for a startup doing stuff with the cloud. If that company failed I would look for another startup to join. And another for at least the first five to six years of my career. I’d go to work for an established company only if I had a chance to do something really new and break out paradigm changing.

What am I actually going to do? Now at 54 years (in a couple of days) of age? I’m not sure. I love what I am doing and I am not sure about how brave I am. But I am giving it a whole lot of thought these days. A whole lot of thought.

One Response to “Secrets of Success”

  1. n1zyy says:

    Perhaps we might have mini-clouds though. I haven’t figured that out yet.

    I wager that we will. The Web has a very strong ‘entrepreneurial’ spirit, where people who don’t like the big companies will surely start their own. And if it’s like most web projects, we’ll end up with several that are good.

    The brave people are pressing forward and worrying about where the money will come from later.

    I think there’s a line between brave and foolhardy. And if they’re not foolhardy, they’re at least toeing the line.

    Could it be that there is going to be an increasing need for people who can write tight little code for embedded hardware?

    I think the stuff we worked on at FIRST, where we were literally counting bits to make it all fit, is going to be a thing of the past. Storage is getting so cheap that, rather than have 64K for code, you might as well just use a 256MB flash drive or something. (I’m thinking the same with radios: my ASTRO Saber has 512KB for the firmware. Its successor has 8MB. I’m surprised they even make 8MB chips. I’d just throw in something like 256MB.)

    Some of it may be based on messages and communication to be sure but they will not be pure cloud applications.

    As far as ‘the cloud’ in general: I don’t want to rely on it 100%. When we lose Internet access (or when I’m somewhere where there is none), I still want to be able to use my computer, edit my documents, and manipulate my photos.

    I love what I am doing and I am not sure about how brave I am.

    The braves ones are the ones that make the big bucks, but the other brave ones are the ones that end up on the street, having sold their house to fund their brilliant idea that just never caught on. Some risk is good, but I think your “Courage” and “Brains” list items go hand-in-hand regulating each other: the courage to trust your brains, and the brains to know when to act on your courage (and when not to). (…And the wisdom to know the difference? That doesn’t make any sense here, but it sounded like that’s what I was quoting anyway.)

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