Building culture

River Gade and the Kodak building, Hemel Hempstead

River Gade and the Kodak building, Hemel Hempstead (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was my first day in a new job and coincidentally the first time I saw the office building in which I was to work. It was a plain, red brick, shoebox shaped affair. It must have taken all of 5 minutes work for the architect to come up with the design. Inside, the fittings were elderly and tatty. When I reached the door to our particular office, I took a moment to take in the atmosphere.

It was untidy. In one corner, a pool table sagged under the weight of old computer equipment. There were shelves everywhere struggling to support the myriad of computer books, some of which wouldn’t look out-of-place in the British Museum. The whole place reeked of quiet industry, everyone far too busy to even think about tidying up.

The company had just been acquired and a move to smarter premises was afoot. We moved into a floor of Kodak House, the tallest building in Hertfordshire. Although the building itself is drab on the outside, no expense was spared on the internal fixtures and fittings. Although it was nice to have such a pleasant place to work, there was a part of me that missed the atmosphere of the old office.

We weren’t there for too long before we moved into a brand new state of the art building. It looks very space age from the outside with vanes that track the angle of the sun to shade the building from excess sunshine. Unfortunately, they don’t work. They track the sun OK, but unfortunately don’t block it out so they are effectively useless. In fact they are worse than useless, because a man has to come out in a cherry picker now and then with a big spanner to tighten the nuts. If it gets too windy, the vanes blow off in spectacular fashion threatening to decapitate any passers-by.

Not only that, but the air conditioning is poorly configured. We are on the ground floor and we freeze. The guys on the top floor get so hot they cook so there’s no air conditioning setting to keep everyone in the building happy. The landlord’s solution – to fit heaters on the bottom floor so that we can keep out the worst of the chill. It’s such a clunky, inefficient fix but at least we don’t freeze anymore. The feeling of quiet industry is still there but there is more of a pride in keeping the place tidy.

We managed to maintain the culture despite occupying 3 very different office buildings. It was not the same story when I worked for BP. We had an aging tower block in the town centre, part of which was condemned. The office culture was amazing – everyone knew everyone else, despite it being a large building. We moved to a purpose-built affair close to the motorway. The building, allegedly in the style of a country manor house, won many awards for its architecture. Unfortunately, the layout of the place meant you were unlikely to bump into many other people day-to-day. Almost instantaneously, the buzz about the place died.

Our working environment has a big effect on the culture that exists within so it’s no wonder that companies like Google and Apple spend so much money on providing world-class office blocks for their employees to thrive in. In doing so, they need to be very careful they don’t lose their culture along the way.

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Happy birthday to you

Happy Birthday to You!

Happy Birthday to You! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you saw a sign above the door of a shop announcing that the proprietor established the business in 1993, you would probably shrug your shoulders and say so what? After all, 20 years is not a long time for a shop in the scheme of things.

In technology terms though, 2 decades is an eternity. Although Apple and Microsoft can trace their roots back nearly 40 years, there are not many tech firms that can. Amazon, eBay, Google & Facebook were just a twinkle in someone’s eye 20 years ago.

This year, my employer celebrates their 20th birthday and after working for them for 13 years, I can’t help but feel a certain pride in the achievement. It hasn’t always been plain sailing. The world collectively held its breath after 9/11 which meant that sales of banking software (among other things) fell off a cliff. The latest banking crisis (followed by the sovereign debt crisis) also meant that banks were a bit preoccupied. Still, we have emerged from these crises and the future looks bright for Temenos.

When any tech company first sets out, they’re going to need some IT. Assuming they went for the state of the art, then their machines  would have been powered by Pentiums – probably with a 60 MHz clock speed. Windows NT came out in 1993 so perhaps that would be the operating system of choice. If they waited until the end of the year, Windows 3.11 (or Windows for Workgroups) might be an option.

If they wanted to do some research on the internet, they would have found it fairly barren with only 50 World Wide Web servers. Just about every page would have a cute “Under Construction” graphic and their browser of choice would probably have been Mosaic (the Granddaddy of Netscape Navigator).

If they wanted to stay in touch with each other whilst out on the road, they would need some mobile phones. They would be fairly chunky, have terrible battery life and be analogue in nature. The mobile operators were still building their networks so the chances of holding a complete conversation free of interference were fairly slim.

No-0ne had heard of Big Data – after all – we transmit more data round the internet in a single second than we did in the whole of 1993. If people talked about clouds, they were the white, fluffy sort that float around in the sky. The words “Service Oriented Architecture” had yet to be uttered by overpaid consultants.

Today – a startup company has unbelievable resources at their fingertips. The internet is chock full of useful information. Social media makes it easy to build a network and get your message out. Cloud means a startup can commission a sophisticated network of IT for no capital outlay. It has never been so easy to start a company. Unfortunately, your competition also have all these resources at their disposal.

Temenos had none of these resources at their disposal and yet they have grown from nothing to a half a billion dollar company. They employ 4,000 people of which I am one. Happy birthday Temenos. Here’s to many more.

What’s the time Mr Wolf?

Railroad watch

Railroad watch (Photo credit: mpclemens)

I could never spend a large amount of money on a watch. To me, they are utilitarian devices that I can consult during the day to see where I’m supposed to be. That doesn’t mean I attach no importance to my timepiece. If I manage to walk out of the house in the morning without putting it on, I know I’m doomed to a day of looking at my bare wrist in a reflex action that’s very hard to shake. Of course, now I also carry a mobile phone. This device can tell me the time perfectly adequately, so why haven’t I consigned my analog wrist mounted device to the scrap-heap?

There is a certain amount of sentimentality as my mum gave me my current timepiece, but if I’m honest with myself, that’s not the only reason. Firstly, I have to fish my phone out of whichever pocket its hiding in. When I look at the digital numbers on the face of my mobile phone, my brain has to mentally convert these glowing figures into the analog constructs I’m used to. I don’t know how many times I look at my watch in a day, but probably enough to consider it too much of a faff to replace with my phone.

My first ever watch was a wind up affair. It came with a dour warning about the dangers of overwinding the mechanism lest the delicate clockwork parts inside break. I remember going into school one January morning and being confronted with the first digital watches. No need to wind these up, they’re battery-powered. Look, my one’s got a light so you can tell the time in the dark. If you press this button, you can see the date. One of them even had a tiny calculator built into the face of the watch with a miniscule keypad containing the buttons.

As a sucker for anything new, I found myself drawn to the dark side. The promise of no winding. The snazzy features. Being able to tell the time in the dark. But after a few minutes of playing, I decided that the new devices had significant drawbacks. The displays, being dark grey on a grey background, were difficult to read. The minute buttons were so small and hard that keeping them depressed for any length of time hurt your finger. The absolute worst thing about them was their appearance. They lacked the simple elegance of the analog face. In its place was a cheap looking display with all the charm of a cold, wet fish.

If the rumours are to be believed, Apple are about to release a watch. I’m sure it will be amazing and packed with multimedia features. No doubt it will be very successful, just like all their other recent inventions. Just so long as they don’t forget the fundamental purpose of a timepiece. When I look at my wrist, before I want a multimedia extravaganza, I want to know the time.

The wired world in 2013

Image representing Wired Magazine as depicted ...

Image via CrunchBase

Just finished reading a fascinating end of year publication from the “Wired” stable about what to expect in 2013. Although this publication is sometimes annoying in style and somewhat fixated on start-ups, much of the editorial is top-notch. In this special issue, there are contributions from James Dyson and Richard Branson among other innovation luminaries.

Mr Dyson is somewhat disparaging about some of the innovations under the banner of green engineering. As he rightly points out, an invention that shaves a percentage point or two off the fuel consumption of a widely used aircraft dwarfs the effect of eliminating plastic carrier bags. He predicts that more information about the origin and impact of goods and services will become available in the year to come.

As I have previously written, I remain unimpressed with individual robots at the current level of technology. As James McLurkin (a renowned roboticist) points out – they are best at tasks which are dangerous, dirty or dull. When you get a large number of robots together though, they become a lot more interesting. The technology for “swarming robots” is already there and searching for an application and maybe 2013 is their year.

Optical networking (or li-fi) will come to the fore for short-range communication. Nanotechnology will reach the point of self replication. An unbelievable 200 million people will use the internet for the very first time and radar will become much more widespread. The technology will be used for everything from measuring blood pressure to providing images of internal organs without harmful radiation.

Need Wired Magazine 13.07

Need Wired Magazine 13.07 (Photo credit: Browserd (Pedro Rebelo))

Innovation has typically radiated from richer economies outwards, but Ravi Ramamurti (a distinguished professor of international business) believes that we are reaching the point where innovations are starting to flow the other way. Poorer economies through necessity have much more of an idea of efficiency. Third world countries are teaching their richer counterparts (who by far have a greater need) how to perform low-cost medical procedures for example.

Education will become free, lab grown organs may become a reality and the world will start to recover from its economic malaise. Will we finally see the much vaunted Apple TV? – who knows, but they certainly need a big success. A huge amount of their net value comes from products invented in the last 5 years and many people are starting to lose faith due to the mishaps since Jobs left this mortal coil.

All in all – a fascinating publication and if only 10% of their predictions come true, it’s going to be an exciting year!

Window replacement

Microsoft Windows 95 operating system cover shot

Microsoft Windows 95 operating system cover shot (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Microsoft has always been an adaptable beast, constantly reinventing itself to adapt to whatever technology landscape is the current order of the day. Sometimes they are slow to adapt, such as when Bill Gates initially dismissed the internet, but they are quick to catch up.

This week, 18 years after the fanfare of Windows 95, comes the launch of Windows 8. Back in 1995, Take That and Blur were fighting for the number 1 spot in the charts. Sweden, Austria and Finland had just joined the European Union and Netscape had just gone public.

The computing landscape was very different back then. Pretty much every desktop in the world ran Windows, so Microsoft found a ready supply of customers eager to upgrade from the limitations of Windows 3.x up to the ultra modern Windows 95 with its plug and play, 32 bit support and long filenames. Although, even the ultra modern Windows 95 didn’t even come with a web browser. You had to download the “plus” pack in order to get the fledgling Internet explorer. Thus began the browser wars that led to the downfall of Netscape.

The mood of the launch was very different for Windows 95. Microsoft was very much a company in the ascendancy. They dominated the desktop with Windows and Office and there was absolutely no doubt that the new version of Windows would be a success. They chose “Start Me Up” from the Rolling Stones as a theme tune for the launch campaign as a reference to the brand new start button that nestled in the bottom left of the screen. Wisely, they recorded a new rendition where they removed the words “you make a grown man cry“.

Windows 95 was a runaway success with 1 million copies selling in the first 4 days, 40 million in the first 12 months. Microsoft will be hoping for similar commercial success with the new version of Windows. But the competitive landscape is very different. Windows 8 is not just a desktop operating system, it is also aimed at the very crowded tablet market. It’s quite a battlefield with Android and iOS holding the high ground. Also – Windows 95 was a big step forward from Windows 3.x. Windows 8 comes after a very capable Windows 7 which had little to fault.

Windows 8 has been publicly denounced by Tim Cook, the Apple CEO as an unholy union not unlike a toaster combined with a fridge. Apple have approached the market with separate operating systems for tablet and desktop and see any operating system that tries to cater to both platforms as a compromise too far.

With the cash cows of Windows and Office looking decidedly venerable, Microsoft need Windows 8 to be successful and the move to a completely new paradigm is brave (even though the old look and feel is still there if you need it). I think they deserve plaudits for that bravery and there is a good chance that just like the ribbon toolbar that came with Office 2007, people will get used to it and come to love it.

Either way – Windows 8 is a landmark event in computing history.

The rise and fall of the apple empire

Roman Forum and surroundings

Roman Forum and surroundings (Photo credit: KayYen)

History is littered with stories of civilisations that have grown in stature until they are too big to sustain. Once the edges are so far from the heart, people forget what it was all about and the empire implodes more dramatically than it grew. We studied two of them in history at school; the Greeks and the Romans.

Today, in a way, it’s difficult to imagine Greece having that much power which is ironic because they probably have more influence on the fate of Europe than any other country right now. The same goes for the Romans. As I was growing up, I was fed on a diet of World War 2 films and commando comics. In these, Italians were the guys with rubbish equipment who spent half their time retreating and the other half surrendering.

We British have had our imperial moments, but we are very much in decline as far as empires go. One by one, the countries that were once coloured pink on my ancient, dented globe have decided that they want to be independent of British rule.

The same thing is happening more and more to big companies now. If you travelled back in time a few years, Nokia and RIM were unstoppable in the mobile phone market. Today, they seem to be in terminal decline. When I was growing up, the word Kodak was synonymous with cameras. It looks like they will wink out of existence once they milk the last bit of value out of their patent portfolio.

There are some eternal survivors out there. IBM have been in trouble before but bounced back. Microsoft had a near death experience when they dismissed the Internet as a fad before waking up and smelling the coffee. Apple have been on the ropes before in the years between Steve Jobs leaving and rejoining, but today they are going from strength to strength.

But Steve Jobs is no more.

I have just upgraded to iOS 6, and although, in general, I am a fan of all things Apple – I am not happy. As part of iOS 6, the once fantastic maps app powered by Google has been replaced by an app produced by Apple. It is inferior in just about every way you can imagine. Yes it has 3D views of the major cities in the world, which is a neat trick where it works, but it feels like a gimmick you play with for half an hour and forget about.

Steve Jobs would never have let it out the door. I can’t help but feel that this is the turning point in the fate of Apple. Of course they have huge resources upon which to draw as did the Romans.

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I thought slavery had been abolished

Two girls protesting child labour (by calling ...

Two girls protesting child labour (by calling it child slavery) in the 1909 New York City Labor Day parade. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Contrary to popular belief, the British did not invent slavery. We certainly brought it back into fashion in the 1600s but slavery has existed in many different forms since before written records began. To be fair to us, we did our bit to bring it to an end too. Only slavery wasn’t eradicated at all and unfortunately anything up to 27 million people still exist in some sort of slavery today.

No reasonable person would agree that slavery is a good thing and yet still it exists and is widespread. No-one is openly condoning the practise, but there are shades of grey. Many people (like me) who condemn slavery will quite happily go into a shop and buy a smart phone or a tablet.

Allegations often crop up about the appalling working conditions in the factories that make such devices and yet Apple have sold 2 million of the new iPhone already. It’s not quite slavery by the purest definition of the word, but somehow it doesn’t feel quite right.

We turn a blind eye because it happens such a long way away. There are many labour laws that prevent it but if it happened in Western countries, we would be up in arms. If we were subjected to the same conditions in our workplaces, then industrial relations would be at an all time low.

I don’t think that technology companies are the only ones at fault. I would imagine that working conditions are poor in factories producing almost everything that’s on sale in our shops today. For the most part automotive manufacturers have a pretty good record, but what about all the components that go into making a car?

Sometimes poor pay and conditions are justified by saying that conditions are poor everywhere else in that particular geography. Effectively, that is what the people who come from that region are used to, so it must be OK. I imagine the British Captains that picked up some African tradesmen and swapped them for tobacco and coffee thought something similar.

I don’t know what the answer is. Maybe the Western governments need to come up with a scheme whereby any goods on sale would need to display a rating which would indicate the conditions in which those goods were made. Many of the countries that contain such manufacturing centres are highly corrupt so the assessments would need to be impartially carried out. Such a scheme would cost a lot of money to implement and would almost certainly increase the cost of the goods themselves as working conditions in the factories are inevitably improved.

Somehow with the Euro crisis high on the agenda and the rising economic might of China, I suppose they have bigger fish to fry, but I hope we look back on the abolition of such working practises in the same way as we look on the abolition of the slave trade in the 1700s.

Heavy weather

Image representing Apple as depicted in CrunchBase

Image via CrunchBase

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I have found Steve Jobs biography to be tough going. It’s not the writing, it’s the subject. Before I started reading the book, I had no real image of Steve Jobs in my head other than his public persona. The more I read of his life story, the less I find myself liking him. I try to persevere – but it’s hard work.

So I was interested to see Walter Isaacson, the author presenting at IBM’s Impact conference last week. I didn’t really know much about him either, but it turns out that Steve Jobs is not the only subject of his biographies. He has also written the life stories of Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin. Apparently, Steve Jobs approached him and asked why not do his biography next. Walter joked about Jobs thinking his name being the next name in the sequence after Einstein & Franklin showing a distinct lack of humility.

He argued that smart people are relatively common, but what set his subjects apart was imagination. He told the story about Steve Jobs painting a fence with his father. Confounded by his suggestion to apply as much care and attention to the back of the fence as to the front, Steve Jobs asked why – who will know? His father told Jobs that he would know. That notion of caring obsessively about every facet of his products extended throughout his career.

Walter went on to say that innovation requires passion and curiosity. Einstein’s father gave him a childhood gift of a compass. He became fascinated with the idea of magnetic fields and Maxwell’s equations They state that the speed of the magnetic field remains constant regardless of your speed or direction. Einstein couldn’t understand why this would be the case until he fathomed out the theory of relativity.

As a young man, Benjamin Franklin spent a lot of time on ships going to and fro across the Atlantic Ocean. He couldn’t understand why the journey was shorter going one way than the other. So he began experimenting by pulling buckets behind the ship and sampling the water as the ship travelled. Through experimentation, he discovered that the water in one direction was warmer than the other which accounted for the ease of passage.

Benjamin Franklin was also very open and collaborative, which Walter argued was also important to innovation. He told a story about the declaration of independence which because of my lack of familiarity with the document didn’t mean that much to me, but I assume it illustrated his point. Paradoxically – Apple is not what you would describe as an open and collaborative company but there you go.

The slogan from Apple’s famous Orwellian advertising campaign was “Think Different” which all of Isaacson’s subjects live up to.

So, will my Steve Jobs biography become easier having seen the author himself. Unfortunately – probably not. But I am tempted to try another of Walter’s books. He is currently working on a history of computing which sounds like it would be right up my street.