The Cupertino revolution

You can’t ‘think different’ if you are the establishment

There is a strange but poetic justice in the course of history. A strange cycle of events that is best described in Orwell’s thrilling novel 1984 about the rise and fall of the working class. How the word Revolution means the “rotation” of forces in power. How the underdogs work their way up against the hated upper class, how they seize power and in the end become just like those they hated so much. The circle is complete as they in turn are overthrown only to have everything start over again.

I remember a time when this little computer firm from Cupertino was the underdog. When only a small and shady circle of die hard users believed in the quaint little computers with their fruity logo. I remember a time when this specific brand was reserved for graphic designers and dusty university professors who touted them as “the intellectual bling” of the upper class.

It was a time where Redmond and their window to the world ruled supreme and the biggest was going on was between Netscape and Internet explorer. Torvalds and his geeky invention were reserved for the bearded few and we thought things would never change.

I have seen the star rise over Cupertino and watched in enthusiasm, then in awe, then with fearful eyes how Apple became the richest company on the planet, in the lifespan of the average pet cat. I would have never thought it would go THAT fast.

I wake up in a world where Blackberry has fallen from grace, Nokia is struggling and Windows fights valiantly, trying to sail their ship through the rough sees of change.

Now I wake up in a world where you can buy a Mac on every corner. Every kid who had an iPod now sports an iPhone and the word is out to make “iPad” the generic term for all that is tablets. I wake up in a world where Blackberry has fallen from grace, Nokia is struggling and Windows fights valiantly, trying to sail their ship through the rough sees of change. A world where a man who has been to space is upsetting the bearded Linux community as he sets his Ubuntu distribution on a very different road.

But in the shadows of the Apple sunrise appear the first wrinkles of age. Hairline cracks in the marble foundation of their users. A result of the fast changing times.

One of those cracks separates the “ old-school” Apple fans from their new Apple consumers. While the fortress of die-hard fans has held its ground over the years, staying true to the cupertino law .. I now start to see two types of Apple consumers. The ones that buy it because its Apple, a brand they believe in. The ones that call “Steve” and “Tim” by their first name as if they are close friends. The ones that stand by every decision Apple makes and get in line at 5am to buy their newest products. The old school guys.

They don’t care about the brand, they care about the product.

And then there is the “other” Apple user. A number far greater then the dying old-school fans, far greater then the creative hipsters and more numerous then those who knew Apple when it was nearly dead. These are the new Apple consumers. They buy and iPad because its an iPad, not because its an “Apple iPad”. The ones that could care less what colour of socks Tim Cook wore on the Keynote. The ones that come to the Apple store, on launching day at 3pm, to pick up a device thats on the shelf. Heralding the extinction of their predecessors, these are the new Apple consumers. They don’t care about the brand, they care about the product.

The great thing about history is that it repeats itself. As the Cupertino stock-rocket shoots towards its Aphex, I know that the ‘underdogs’ are being transformed by the power they have acquired. How the term ” Think different ” no longer applies if your product is the MAJOR product on the market. And like a teenage girl who becomes a woman overnight, so has Apple reached puberty with the coming of its first Flashback Trojan. The old underdog has become the establishment. The old establishment has become the underdog… And the revolving doors of revolution are set in motion again.

We live in interesting times of dramatic change where the fight to stay on top is punched out in ever shorter rounds. We sit by the sidelines and cheer on our heroes, wether they be the reigning champion or the underdog… And times go so fast that its hard to keep track who is who.

The drudgery of e-mail

A little while ago I was confronted with a very peculiar remark. “In the office you don’t have your email client open all the time like the rest of your co-workers”. When I heard the sentence I had to turn it over in my head a couple of times. My initial reaction was one of defence. Like somehow I had been scolded or that there had been a vague insinuation that I wasn’t working as hard as my co-workers because I did not spend all of my time in my email client. But as I sat down in the car for the drive home, I mulled the request over in my head over and over again, and came to the conclusion that it was absolutely absurd.

Not the remark itself of course. It was a valid comment to make. When somebody deviates from the norm he stands out and his behaviour is noticed by the rest of the group. That is a matter of common group dynamics. What, after some philosophical pondering, did surface, was the absurd realisation that “Email” is considered a valid form of occupation these days. The more mails you answer , the harder you work. Somehow, in the crazy group mind of the cubicle work bees , the quantity of communication has become the norm of productivity… not the quality of that communication.

We try to find meaning in this new landscape where we no longer produce anything tangible.

Where does this bizarre mindset come from ? If we take a look at our modern history, the roots of this way of thinking can be found in the industrial revolution. Back then workers had to come to the factory and produce X amount of goods in order to meet their quota. As you where sowing together ladies cosets or smashed a piece of raw iron into the shape of a bolt beneath a giant weld… the more pieces you churned out the harder you worked. But those days have come and gone and still their echo remains. As we march towards our office building and sit inside the cubicles of our “conveyor belt of ideas” we try to find meaning in this new landscape where we no longer produce anything tangible. “I’ve been running around all day long and it feels like I didn’t get anything done today”. I take it that all of us (including you AND your boss) have murmured this sentence to their beloved at some occasion. It is a symptom of the fact that our technology has changed our way of working at a pace that our brain cannot keep up. And i’m not talking about the pace of life or the speed at which we interact. I’m talking about the fact that we are no longer sowing together corsets but are ‘welding together’ abstract procedures, ideas or workflows that no longer give us anything tangible to show for at the end of the day. So the human mind goes in search of patterns it recognises in this new factory of thoughts. “Numbers of meetings attended” , “Number of calls received”, “I got 14 voicemails today”. “Look at the 45 business cards I got from the conference” “Today I had over 150 emails to get through”. Everywhere we can, we try to count ‘quantities’ of work, to give us hold on this completely abstract work environment.

So how many emails does it take to be a good office drone ? It’s a valid question. Back in the 1900’s your foreman gave you a quota to meet : 500 bolts by the end of the day. And that would be something you could ‘DO’… You could ‘Make’ the bolts, “Count” the bolts and SHOW your foreman the bolts at the end of the day. Life was easy. You know when you were behind and had to speed up, you knew when you were ahead and could slack off a little… But these days its not like that anymore. But if quantity of emails processed is “the new bolt” , I challenge you to step up to your manager and ask for that quota. “How many emails a day is the quota for a good office worker ?” The question is utterly absurd, but if we take a look at the way we still seem to “count” emails… its a valid question nonetheless.

There was a time where communication was a supportive process of the production process.

If we all want to meet our quota , where does it end ? Because you have to face it. If we all want to meet our virtual bolts quota we need to push out some emails… Don’t tap your co-worker on the shoulder, EMAIL him… even if he is right next to you. And please, put as many co-workers in the CC field as you can. Because the good thing about email is that you can not only “punch out your virtual bolt”, you can also share your hard labour with your co-workers to “keep them up to date”. In the process you send THEM virtual bolts to count… and on the end of the day we are just one big emailing swarm of office bee’s that have produced a 1000 virtual bolts… but didn’t get anything done. There was a time where communication was a supportive process of the production process. Somewhere along the line… communication has become a goal on its own.

And the one thing that makes me crack up when I think about this , are lines like : “I wanted to get so much done today , but all i did was trying to get through my emails” Its hilarious. Somehow handling mail has become more important then handling work. This can”t be right ? Can it ?

So, If you want to step away from the virtual “conveyer belt of bolts”… Try to reason with yourself the next time you want to hit send.

“Do I need to send out a message to the co-worker sitting next to me”: If he is within spitting, slapping, talking, shouting or walking range: DONT ! It will do both your debilitated physical condition and your deteriorating social skills some good to get the frack out of your seat and walk over.

“I’ll send him an email, otherwise he will forget”. Unless you are working in the Alzheimer office for terminal Alzheimer patients, there is a small but feasible chance that your co-workers ARE ABLE to remember stuff. Unless of course we write EVERYTHING down in an email and then SWAMP each other with emails… Yes… That will help. Perhaps its your personal visit to his or her office, or just the sweat staines your co-worker noticed on your shirt, that will MAKE them remember what you asked them.

“I need to cover my arse” Oh yea please ! Let’s all go office Gestapo on each other and by emailing every single detail, underline the fact that you trust absolutely no one at face value. The fact that YOU need to send out every critical (or non critical) event in an email, also says a lot about how trustworthy you feel about yourself. There are important things that need to be formally communicated, but for the love of god, lets not bury ourselves in more bureaucracy.

“Sorry, I don’t have the time, I have a lot of emails to get through”. That one happens to me too sometimes. But its bizarre ? Unless you work at a Russian spamming factory, “doing emails” is not your main task I hope.

To round it up, I can conclude with a simple logical deduction that even Spock would find enlightening. If we ALL spend less time doing email and more time just getting things done, we will get LESS email, and so E-spiral (that just sounds wrong , right ?) is broken for all of us.

Grandpah: Whats an IT Guy

Just close your eyes for a second and imagine sitting in your rocking chair with one of your grandchildren on your lap. As she absently plays with her holographic Nintendo DS66 she asks you a very odd question : “Grandpa, what’s an IT GUY ? ” You look up startled, momentarily distracted from the Yahoo-Tube video you where watching on your transparent digital contact lenses… sigh and start telling the story of the old days .. When we still had “IT Guys”.

Although this example may look like science fiction, the Yahoo / Youtube merger is actually the more implausible factor in my example. The DS, The transparent contacts AND the question , are one day to be very very real.

…where everybody with a keyboard and a Geocities account suddenly became a “webmaster” or “web designer”…

In my 15 years on the job i’ve seen many changes in the landscape of the IT profession. From the time where single programmers wrote up an entire suite of bookkeeping software for a company (and holding that company ransom later because they where the only ones who knew how it worked) to the aftermath of the bubble where everybody with a keyboard and a Geocities account suddenly became a “webmaster” or “web designer”. I remember the time where I pondered wether or not I needed to get my MCSE certification or where I franticly tried to find the right pins on a motherboard to attach the cable or the power switch. In those 15 years a lot has changed. Not only has my career moved along , I started out as a Tech/Sales guy at a small computershop and am currently holding a position as Demand Manager for New Technologies at a Dutch multinational, the landscape we work in has also changed.

When I used to ponder about the future, I thought us ‘tech heads’ would become the predominant group in the workforce of the future. As I saw IT technology grab hold of society and sink its digital teeth into the soft underbelly of our communities, I wondered how many “techies” we would need to keep it all running… Lots of them… right ? But perhaps I was wrong. As It integrated our daily lives more and more, the techies started to vanish. Where at first every company still had “his own IT Crowd”, nudged away somewhere in the basement (yes, I’ve been there) and given the task of keeping the servers up and running while also taking care of the fish in the company pond (yes, i’ve been there too) , the first generation of outsourcing was taking its toll. I have seen Helpdesk departments go extinct, gradually replaced by outsourcing partners on the floor. And in time, I walked the floor of companies where they did not have any techies in house whatsoever. Every server was housed somewhere in a datacenter. Every user was remote supported and once in a blue moon you would see a nerdy looking guy with white patches around the knee section of their jeans, linger by the coffee machine. Only by those “white kneecaps” could you recognise a field engineer ( The white kneecaps are a result of kneeling down on carpets a lot to fix computers… i too have been there). Coming from an age where the ‘ in house’ IT guys where revered or hated by the entire company , but where everybody knew your name… it changed to a work floor where some strange kid you don’t know comes by to fix your computer.

But even the “White Kneecaps” will start to go extinct someday. As we start using computers that don’t “open up” anymore and use (mobile) operating systems that do not require reinstalling… the roll of our system engineers is starting to dwindle away. As we slide down (or should I say ascend) into the world of cloud computers, there services, and those of their brethren taking care of our servers in a datacenter… are becoming obsolete. Hard disks fail ? The data is in the cloud. Network goes down ? I’ll just pop in my 3G dongle. Laptop eaten by dog ? I’ll just pick up a fresh one, all I need to do is configure my account.

I too am a fallen angel that now walks between the users.

With the consumerization of IT, The second generation of outsourcing, the migration to the cloud and the fundamental change in how we approach and use technology… things will change for the “IT guys”. In my own career I have found I have become a diplomatic liaison between technology and users. Assessing their needs and seeing what can be used to meet their demands. Although I still have a technical background it are more my communication skills and creativity that help me find a solution, then actually popping open a case and yanking out some wires. I too am a fallen angel that now walks between the users. My jeans are a deep blue (even around the knees) and my hands are no longer scratched from the sharp edges inside PC casings. As I look to the future I wonder what interesting times lie ahead for us in the IT business. How our roll, that I’ve seen evolving from “bookkeepers” to “engineers” will go more and more into the realm of digital diplomats. Where we wield knowledge and insights about technology we might no longer truly understand.

I once said that a computer should be like a toaster. Easy to operate and possessing the simplicity of an appliance. As I punch in this blogpost on my iPad , I realise that my prophecy has come true. My iPad is a toaster. It just works and there is nothing to ‘fix’. And we don’t need IT guys in the next room to fix a toaster… or do we ?