Monthly Archives: July, 2005

Keep the customer satisfied

I’ve been reading Joel Spolsky’s book “Joel on Software“, which is very good. He has a lot of interesting articles on his web site, which I’ve read for some time, but I’m enjoying it in paper form.

One section struck me this morning:

If there’s one thing every junior consultant needs to have injected into their head with a heavy duty 2500 RPM DeWalt Drill, it’s this: Customers Don’t Know What They Want. Stop Expecting Customers to Know What They Want. It’s just never going to happen. Get over it.

He’s quite right. He points out that so many software projects that fail, or deliver late, or run over budget, really boil down to this: “The customer didn’t really know what they wanted, or they couldn’t explain what they wanted, or they kept changing what they wanted, or we delivered exactly what they wanted and they weren’t happy.” (You can see the rest of this chapter on Joel’s site.)

I’ve seen an important variation of this in many startup companies. When the management guys or the VCs come on board they always talk about “changing it from being a technology-focused company to a customer-focused company”, which is important. Technology for technology’s sake actually can make quite a bit of money, but it’s not a good business strategy. However, what the suits often forget is that where the technology is today is where the customers will be tomorrow.

The customers don’t know this. If you go and ask them what they’ll want tomorrow, they don’t know. They may know what they want today, though even that is often vague. So if you have something that can be built in a few weeks to meet their immediate needs, you have a chance. But if you’re in the technology world and you’re going to take a year or two to build it, remember that what they want will probably have changed by the time you’re done.

Take the case of internet-based telephony, for example. However low-quality, high-latency and occasionally unreliable VoIP may sometimes be at the moment, I don’t think anybody with any sense doubts that it’s what we’ll all be using in a few years. But if you go to the vast majority of today’s phone users and ask them what they want, they won’t tell you much that will help you build a company in this new space. How many of those people now carrying iPods could have told you a few years ago that that was what they really wanted?

Obviously, your focus must be on the customer. But in the words of Wayne Gretzky, you want to skate to where the puck is going to be, rather than where it is now. And to do that, you can’t usually rely on the customers. Nor can you rely on the business guys, or the sales guys, or the marketing guys. They’ll learn what the customer wants at about the same time as the customer does. No, to be ready for the future, at least to some degree, you need to be a technology-focused company.

The thud heard round the world

John Dvorak on the official new name for Longhorn.

Cause and effect

And another good quote, this time from an interview with Will Shipley:

I started feeling like actual evidence and experience wasn’t as important to Omni as was what was written in management and software books; so I was branded the crazy guy who wanted to ignore all the sage advice of my elders. Time and again our old policies, which had led to our success, were replaced by more conservative policies recommended by ‘experts’.

My feeling was (and is): You don’t adopt the mannerisms of big, successful companies when you’re small, because those mannerisms aren’t what made the companies successful.

They’re actually symptoms of what is killing the company, because it’s become too big. It’s like if you meet an really old, really rich guy covered in liver spots and breathing with an oxygen tank, and you say, “I want to be rich, too, so I’m going to start walking with a cane and I’m going to act crotchety and I’m going to get liver disease.”

The really important thing to remember is that what worked once won’t necessarily work again, and in fact is less likely to work again because it’s been done.

For example, the lesson from the iPod should be, “keep doing good designs and exploring new markets and providing integrated solutions until you hit on something people love,” not, “come out with an MP3 player with a scroll-wheel and you’ll make a zillion dollars.” Because, as we’ve seen, companies that have done the latter have really flopped.

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I love this quote from Roger Scruton, which I found on John’s blog:

… Left-wing people find it very hard to get on with right-wing people, because they believe that they are evil. Whereas I have no problem getting on with left-wing people, because I simply believe that they are mistaken.

The new radio

Rose has been avidly listening to the cricket. Well, à chacun son gout, that’s what I say. However, during much of the day, it’s only broadcast on BBC Radio 4 LW (Long Wave), not on FM.

Now, the last time I used Long Wave, we specified things by wavelength and hence everything was in metres, whereas now everything is in kHz, so it took me a while to realise that we no longer have a radio in the house, at least not a portable one, capable of receiving LW.

Ironically, the only way we could allow Rose to listen to the cricket while working in the garden was to put a laptop out there and connect to the BBC web site using our own wireless network. (Which can be found on your dial at about the 12cm mark, by the way.)

Statistics

The death of 55 people in the London blasts was a terrible thing. Based on some statistics from a recent BBC report, it is also, on average, the number of innocent civilian Iraqis killed every day and a half since the invasion. We’ve just about reached the point now where more civilians have been killed by the insurgents than by the Americans and British.

I wonder if there’s anyone who believes that the ‘War on Terror’ has actually reduced the amount of terror in the world?

The Baby Name Wizard

The Baby Name Wizard is a very nice use of Java.

The Odyssey

Well, I’m in Boston and my long drive is almost at an end. I’ve clocked up about 1200 miles, listened to lots of Garrison Keillor, and seen some wonderful places. Tomorrow, work starts again, and then I have an overnight flight back to London which is only just over 6 hrs. Too short to get any meaningful sleep between the ‘welcome on board’ and the ‘we are now beginning our descent’.

Since I don’t keep any other diary, much of this blog is really for my own records. This post is an example. There follows a quick summary of my route over the last few days, which is probably of very little interest to anybody but me…!

Mon 11th. Tried to pick up the rental car from Dearborn in the evening. The Hertz website had failed to tell me that at the time I booked the car the office would actually be closed. Went back to the in-laws’ again.

Tues 12th. Picked up rental car. Across Ambassador bridge into Canada. Took a few deliberate wrong turns to see some nice Ontario countryside and a few accidental ones which took me to the outskirts of Cambridge, ON. Eventually reached Niagara-on-the-lake where a very pretty girl at the Chamber of Commerce found me a B&B and a ticket for the theatre. Natara’s House was run by a charming Scottish couple. The play was Berthold Brecht and Kurz Weill’s Happy End which is a sort of musical version of Major Barbara with a chunk of communist propoganda thrown in. Quite fun, but I prefer Shaw.

Wed 13th. Went to the Falls. More impressive than I remembered from last time, though high humidity meant the spray hung in the air and it was hard to see as much. Bought some maple choclolate fudge, which was consumed with enthusiasm over the next few days but suffered from the fact that it turned almost to liquid whenever I left the dark blue car in the sunshine and took many miles of air-conditioning to resolidify.
Over the Rainbow Bridge and I’m back in the USA, heading for the Finger Lakes. Drove to the north end of Senaca Lake and down to the south end, then across to Ithaca. Wonderful stay at the Inn on Columbia which is normally quite pricey but had good deals on any rooms still free after 4pm.

Thurs 14th. Taughannock Falls. Wonderful. Then an exploration of the Cornell campus – pleasant but very hot. Then I hit the highways and headed for the Adirondacks; Old Forge, NY to be precise, where I stayed at the 19th Green Motel which was very friendly and reasonably priced.

Fri 15th. Lots of driving through little towns past beautiful lakes. Wanted to jump in. Lunch at the Swiss Kitchen in Tupper Lake, visited Olympic ski-jump at Lake Placid. Quite interesting, rather pricey. Not a great deal to see. Water sparkling on Lake Champlain as I took the ferry across to Burlington, VT. Acommodation starts to get harder to find on Friday nights, and I ended up at the GGT Tibet Inn. Plain, but clean and very well priced. Downtown Burlington is small and busy. People sitting at outside tables in the pedestrianised town centre. A good buzz. Including from the mosquitoes, which bit me inside the restaurant as well as out.

Sat 16th Vermont is lovely. All of it, as far as I can see. Pretty & well-looked after. Shelburne Farms in the morning, then down south and through the Green Mountain region, resisting the lure of the Ben & Jerry Factory Tour. Had planned to stay in central New Hampshire, but everything very booked up as a result of the NASCAR at Louden. A tourist information guy told me that Concord, NH has a population of around 38,000, but gets an extra 90,000 during the NASCAR. In the end I carried on over into Massachusetts and stayed at the completely unmemorable Wyndham hotel at Andover.

Sun 17th Concord & Lexington and the Minute Man National Park. Splendid, despite what happened there!
Into Boston, and managed to get a good rate on a very good room at the Omni Parker House Hotel, which claims, amongst other things, to be the longest continually-operating hotel in the US, celebrating 150 yrs this year. Recommended if you can get a good rate. (You won’t get one for your car parking. $36/night. But, from memory, Boston and Cambridge are some of the most expensive places to park that I’ve ever been, and this is pretty much par for the course.) Watched the new Batman movie (very good) and listened to a bit of an open-air concert on the Common.

And that is where I write this, and now it’s time for bed… More details of much of the above can be found on the postings of the relevant days. And I have lots and lots of photos…

One if by land, two if by sea…

…three if by rental car.

The British rode from Lexington to Concord again today, but this time the locals must have been more enthusiastic about their arrival. They welcomed them with open… wifi networks.

The Minute Man Visitor Center on Battle Road has an excellent half-hour multimedia presentation. Recommended for anyone visiting the area who’s a little rusty on what happened there. The road between these two beautiful towns is also very pretty and it’s worth spending some time there.

I also went to the North Bridge in Concord, which is being rebuilt and so had a big bulldozer in front of it. I heard another Brit near me saying to his kids, “Come on, let’s go to Lexington. We won that one!”.

Shelburne Farms, Vermont

With apologies to Robert Frost…

The Barn House, Shelburne Farms

Two roads diverged at a heritage site
And, sorry I could not travel both,
And get to New Hampshire before the night
I studied the map as hard as I might.
To walk, or ride, through the undergrowth?
Then, took the Farm Trail, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim
For I was podgy and in need of air
(And ’twas nearly an hour til the tour bus came)
The Farm Trail, Shelburne Farms
And both that morning equally lay
Through fields where Vanderbilts built their shack
I saved the Inn for another stay
(Though, knowing how much I’d have to pay
I wondered if I’d ever come back)
The Inn at Shelburne Farms
I shall be posting this through WiFi
Somewhere highways and highways hence
Two routes diverged at Shelburne Farms, and I,
I took the one less travelled by
And loved all elements.
The Farm Trail, Shelburne Farms

The Farm Trail, Shelburne Farms

The end is NY

This chap formed part of the welcoming committee at the motel in Old Forge, NY, where I spent last night.

Picture of Chance

He was quite interested in me, but was mostly interested in getting out of that door to go and play with the various other residents sitting outside in the front courtyard.

After I had got my key he was allowed out, and proceeded to tear round and round the garden in great excitement. On one lap he noticed that my door was open, shot in, grabbed a sock, and then tore round and round proudly holding it, to the amusement of both me and the other spectators, who made remarks to the effect that it was just as well it wasn’t my underwear…

Fun times in upstate New York. Here’s where I had lunch in Tupper Lake. Fabulous berry crumble…

New York is a big state. It’s taken me a long time to cross it. And it seems much bigger because I’m on roads which wiggle a lot and where you often don’t exceed 45mph. It’s a sin to rush past places like this with only time for a quick photo:

Falls by the roadside near Lake Placid

but I had to keep moving. I did take a pause to go to the top of the Olympic Ski-Jump slope at Lake Placid, though. (Click for more pictures)

Eventually I made it to the ferry across Lake Champlain, and I’m now in Burlington, Vermont, which is very pleasant except that even in the cafe of the downtown Borders where I’m writing this, I’m still being bitten by mosquitos…

[I realised later that they were probably waiting for the Harry Potter launch at midnight]

Now I must visit the leafy suburbs to make a connection and post this – a bit like going to the postbox – on the way back to my somewhat unusual but pretty-good-value motel.

Cornell

The Cornell campus is lovely, because as well as bits like this:

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it has bits like this:

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and this:

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and this:

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A few more pictures here.

After this, just a few miles down the road, I drove through the heaviest rainstorm I can remember, with lightning exploding overhead.

I’m now in Old Forge, NY with a hope of seeing something of the Adirondacks tomorrow.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser