Tuesday, February 26, 2008

YouTube's "butterfly effect"

I am sure you have heard of the "butterfly effect". This is the theory that states that the fluttering of a butterfly's wings in Africa could cause a tsunami in China (my geography may be off, but you get the point).

We have witnessed another butterfly effect this past weekend on the Internet, which has been just one more reminder that the Internet is global, and one person can truly affect the worldwide audience. It seems that a YouTube video from a Dutch film maker was thought to be so controversial in Pakistan that it might cause riots, so the Pakistan government decided to block access to YouTube in their country until the video was removed. Unfortunately, they did not configure their routers to appropriately handle this block message, and instead all Internet traffic intended for YouTube globally was re-routed to Pakistan, and promptly dropped. This caused a worlwide YouTube outage for several hours on Sunday.

Now, I am not of the opinion that an outage of YouTube is disastrous. Personally, I am not a big fan. I am also not in any way advocating censorship on the Internet. However, this incident certainly gives one pause, on multiple fronts.

Most importantly, it highlights the very real danger of one "loose cannon" individual posting something that could indeed cause riots elsewhere in the world. While I do not support what the Pakistani government was doing, I do believe that their concern was probably well-founded - one video or blog post could indeed cause riots. I hearken back to some e-mails that I have sent, which I later wished I hadn't...I thought it was funny, others didn't see the humor. Luckily, the message only went to a few thousand employees. It didn't cause a riot, but it also certainly didn't help build relationships in a newly-merged company that was trying to gel its employees into one happy family.

The other problem that this brings to light is the fragile Internet infrastructure upon which we are becoming more dependent. One person's mis-configuration can affect a much larger audience - and while the particular router problem that occurred in Pakistan this weekend was very rare, it proves that technology is not infallible.

The Internet community is growing, due to the popularity of blogs, social networking sites and other user-generated content websites. This brings with it an implied responsibility to be mindful of possible worldwide reaction - we need to be aware of the Internet Butterfly Effect.

Or, I suppose we could just keep the idiots off of the web...but if we did that, I would have to close down my blog.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Microsoft comes full circle

It is interesting how things have come full circle for Microsoft. I love the story of the early days of Apple and Microsoft, and how each company evolved based on a core set of almost diametrically opposed beliefs: Apple believed in maintaining tight control over its system by keeping a closed, proprietary system - thereby maintaining the integrity of their design and vision for the user experience. The PC, and Microsoft by association, instead embraced an open environment, where people were encouraged to mix and match components and software to build on the "group thought" and innovation of the masses.

Apple's course led to a tight-knit group with a very stable and consistent operating system, while the PC (and Microsoft) had a much wider audience, but too many cooks in the kitchen led to a group of unhappy people running unstable systems.

Of course, Microsoft only bought into the open environment as far as it was beneficial to them to do so, and kept their OS secrets close to the vest; which has been the source of many anti-trust allegations and lawsuits over the years.

Now, we have come full circle. The open system has now evolved to the open OS, led by Apple (well, technically, led by the open-source community via Linux, but we don't need to delve that deeply into the details here...). The Apple OS has been based on BSD for several years now, which (along with the advent of the iPod) has breathed new life into the company. Yesterday, Microsoft finally announced that they are releasing over 30,000 pages of technical documentation for their operating system. Documents, by the way, which Microsoft used to charge a fee to access.

The real question, though, is this: when can those developers who PAID for this documentation expect their refund? Don't hold your breath for that one.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Management and IT

I recall a recent dialog on one of the e-mail lists upon which I lurk, where people were hotly contesting the allegation that the manager needs to be able to do the job of the people who report to him/her in order to be a good manager. To substantiate this claim, the author cited a very well-known company, and stated that it was this practice that caused their high-quality output. This caused quite a bit of discussion, and obviously some tension on the list. The statement also turned out to be false...but I digress.

As I have been reflecting on that conversation, and thinking about some of the challenges facing me at my job today, I came to this rather startling realization: I don't consider myself the smartest person in the room - regardless of who I am in the room with. I am sure that if any of the developers or architects that I used to work with were to hear me say this, they would double over in laughter, as I used to be one of worst of the quintessential prima-dona developers that I have known in my career.

Somewhere along the way, I realized that I can learn something from just about everyone I meet. This was an epiphany to me. As I learn more about my job, it is becoming clear to me that my role is less about technology, and more about relationships. For an old developer like myself, this is a strange realization.

So, I have finally crossed the line. I used to think of myself as a technical guru who also had some management skills. Somewhere along the line I became a good manager who also happens to have some technical skills.

While some may see this as my "Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader" story, this is really not such a bad thing. I actually enjoy managing people more than developing code - something which I never thought would happen to me. As I have been talking with several different people recently about some of my management philosophies, it has become clear to me that I am not your typical developer-turned-manager. Determining whether that is a good thing or not will be left as an exercise for the reader.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Microsoft, Yahoo and Google

There is a very thought-provoking article on the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal today, written by Michael Malone (those who have WSJ.com access can read the commentary here). Essentially, he compares the MS bid for Yahoo to the HP/Compaq deal, and paints MS as an "als0-been" who has not been successful in any other endeavor apart from the OS and Office product lines. As he states in the article, "most everything else is a flash".

He then goes on to discuss the troubles that Microsoft and Google both face today, as they both head for (or are already in the midst of) their mid-life crisis. He brings out some very interesting thoughts, and attributes the mostly unexpected success of the HP/Compaq deal more to Dell falling on its face than any inherent positive momentum created by the new HP - which should be a warning to Google if this merger goes through.

Overall, I tend to agree with his points. Google needs to view this as a wake-up call, and get back to its innovative roots. They need to stop trying to branch out into so many wacky frontiers (like their energy initiative - what is that about?) and re-focus on being the high-tech innovative company they are. As Michael puts it "Google...stop fooling around and get back to business".

It is a very good read.