IT – Does anything ever change?

Around 20 years ago, when struggling to decide if I should shift from a career as a research physicist to a career in IT, I was impressed with the idea that IT changed faster than physics – so I expected a more dynamic, exciting field. What little did I know!

In 1973 my father was editor of the world’s first IT magazine, and he wrote an article entitled “To rollout successful systems, first debug the people problem.”  I’m still trying to find a copy to post. It was all about management of change when introducing new IT systems, and the article is 100% valid today.

A few years later in 1975 an IBM engineer, Fred Brooks, wrote a fabulous book entitled “The Mythical Man Month” containing his wisdom and advice for software engineering projects:

After nearly 45 years, hardly any of the most important core principles has changed. The author himself writes in his newest addition:

In preparing my update, I was struck by how few of the propositions have been critiqued, proven, or disproven by ongoing software research and experience.

So I guess IT has the best of both worlds: new technologies are cool (I was impressed how my Apple MacBook actually logged into my FitBit scale – not the other way around!), new methodologies are exciting (even Agile is now ancient!), but just like in physics, the core principles don’t change.

 

Germany’s highest bridge

This is it, from a close-up viewpoint:

And this is it, from an artistic viewpoint:

And this is it, from a viewpoint where you can really appreciate how tall it is:

 

Finished in 1979, this is the Kochertalbrücke (Kocher Valley Bridge),  and at 178 m (or 574 feet) it was, until 2004, the highest bridge in Europe. Remember that the Golden Gate Bridge, in comparison, is only  220 feet, so this bridge is just over double the height.

If you like photographs of bridges, you’ll find a number of them that I’ve tried to capture in my blog.

What I find totally amazing about this bridge is the complete silence underneath it.  The traffic deck is so high in the air, none of the sounds of the passing vehicles can be heard from the ground.

A different face of Switzerland

Most non-Swiss people I know – including many who have made Switzerland their home – think of Switzerland as exclusively land of the rich.  And indeed, it tops the charts as one of the world’s most expensive countries.

But people often overlook the fact that not everyone in Switzerland is as affluent as your typical Zürich resident or Geneve resident. In particular, there are still many rural areas, often isolated in tiny villages and hamlets in the Swiss Alps, where the income and standard of living is somewhat less.

In order to help these regions, the Swiss grocery store Coop operates a collection of donation stations, where people can donate old clothes and shoes, like this one:

Additionally, they have a terrific website that gives full details about the various projects they support to improve the lives of many people in these remote mountain villages.

Where did Punjabi go?

I came across the following image, which (if true) is quite an interesting way to display the data:

I am no language expert, but it surprised me that I didn’t see Punjabi, which appears in most lists as part of the Top 10, such as the current list from Wikipedia:

Interestingly, I’d never heard of Lahnda before, and when I looked it up I learned it is a dialect of Punjabi.

The Mythical Man Month

I rarely do book reviews, but in this case I couldn’t help.

Back in 1975 I was 10 years old, and an IBM engineer, Fred Brooks, wrote a fabulous book entitled “The Mythical Man Month” containing his wisdom and advice for software engineering projects:

The title of the book comes from an important observation he made about software engineering: if you add more people to a late software project, you’re like to make it even later!  But in addition there fabulous observations about other topics, like prototyping, the different between software development for projects and software development for products, and the like.

It’s just amazing: after nearly 45 years, hardly any of the most important core principles has changed. The author himself writes in his newest addition:

In preparing my update, I was struck by how few of the propositions have been critiqued, proven, or disproven by ongoing software research and experience.

Augusta Raurica and User Experience (UX)

User Experience – sometimes referred to as UX – is defined as encompassing all aspects of an end-user’s interaction with e.g. an IT system or, for example, a company, its services, and its products.  And although you might not think about it, museums can provide a wonderful insight into the field of UX.

I’ve recently blogged about a wonderful collection of Roman ruins scattered in the Swiss countryside, Augusta Raurica.

What’s really a nice touch is that many of the walking paths have markers that explain about the history of the site:

The displays are a combination of old ones dating back to just after World War II, and relatively new ones.

Now here comes the truly interesting part.  The older displays are written in both German and French, and they contain extremely dry, extremely boring historical facts, as this example shows.

The newer displays are written in German, French, and English – and they use a very simple type of writing, and they contain topics that are interesting to a wide variety of people, especially including younger audiences:

It makes you stop and think about who designed the original displays and why.  Were people many years ago more literate and interested in boring historical facts?  Or is there simply more attention paid today to the user experience?

Augusta Raurica and the descendants of Roman cows

Augusta Raurica is an incredible archaeological site that’s well worth a visit to anyone in the Basel area of northern Switzerland.  In a nutshell, Augusta Raurica is an ancient Roman town, together with a number of impressive roman artifacts – including even an amphitheater and coliseum – that was for the most part, amazingly, discovered after World War II.

Here are some cows grazing near a Roman temple:

Bubble architecture in Sélestat

I’ve recently written about what I call “bubble architecture,” particularly in France, in which historical buildings are somehow encased in glass bubbles.  When done right, it can be magnificent. When done wrong, it can be atrocious, as this example shown here.

Recently I stumbled across this example in the Alsacian village of Sélestat,

Many European buildings are under historical protection, and this means that modern changes to correct building problems (such as doors not sealing properly and hence leading to wasted energy costs) are often forbidden.  Hence there is often a motive for encasing a building or a portal in glass.

When viewed as in this photograph, it doesn’t look that bad.  But when viewed from the human perspective in the middle of the town square, it looks absolutely hideous.

Garbage in Alsace

I’ve blogged about garbage in Texas, garbage in Germany, garbage in Switzerland – including the famous underground Swiss recycling cysterns! – and a recent trip to Alsace has given me to chance now to show how they handle garbage in Alsace, at least in the commune of Seléstat.

Voilà, because the French always say voilà before they point to something:

If you have a closer look at the machines / kiosks, they look like this, voilà:

In the Swiss system, anyone can dump their trash into the chute for free – but the trash needs to be packed into a plastic bag sold by the city (a roll of 15 bags of 35 L each costs around CHF 20), which means the residents are encumbered to buy special bags and pack their trash accordingly.

Here, the residents can use any bags of their choice – or no bags – but the chute can only be opened by someone with an RFID card. While I’ve never personally used the Alsacian Seléstat system, it does seem to be both more user friendly (it is a lot of hassle to buy the bags) and environmentally friendly (why use an extra plastic bag when you may not need one).

Hidden peanuts for people

In a recent blog post I wrote about “Hidden peanuts for elephants” – zookeepers that hide individual peanuts in the elephant enclosures in zoos, to keep the elephants amused and occupied as they – supposedly gleefully – search for little peanuts to eat.

I could not help but think the same thing was happening to humans when I stumbled across this interactive display at the Zurich International Airport (ZRH):

There are three buttons on the ground you can press with your feet. When you press them, this controls the video advertisement you see.

In the end, at least the elephants got something to eat.

Fuel mileage and culture

When I first moved to Europe nearly twenty years ago, I realized the smallest cultural differences could be the most telling.

For example, consider the topic of measuring the gasoline/petrol mileage of automobiles.

 

 

 

Americans measure their fuel mileage in miles per gallon.  It answers the question: how far can I go?

 

 

 

 

Europeans measure their fuel mileage in liters per 100 kilometers. It answers the question: what are my requirements?

Surely I am not the first one to recognize this?

Jodhpur – the mystery has been cleared up!

In a recent blog post I talked about the “Mystery of Jodhpur“. Jodhpur is known as the Blue City because many of the buildings are painted blue. While for some people the mystery is why this is done – for me the real mystery is how this is achieved: who coordinates the work, approves the paint, and issues penalties if someone chooses a different color.

Well, thanks to Vineet, my friend and engineer from Tata Consulting Services, now visiting us in Switzerland to help with a data center migration, the mystery has been cleared up.  Because, Vineet is from Jodhpur, and he knows the rules quite well!

Here was the snap I showed of the fort:


And here is the snap I showed looking down on the Blue City, from the fort:

Vineet has told me the blue was never really a paint but in most cases a stain.  And he says that, as of today, there is no longer any rules or regulations that the buildings be painted blue.  This means, over time, the Blue City will surely disappear – but according to Vineet, this is likely to take a long, long time.

 

Global Management in the 21st Century

I almost never do book reviews in my blog.

But a business colleague recently asked me for what I thought was the best book on global management and delivery.

The good news: Mendenhall, Punnett and Ricks wrote a 719-page academic tome that is much broader, deeper, and insightful than any other book I’ve seen on the topic.

The bad news: it is out-of-print and almost impossible to obtain – and I will never part with my worn, dog-eared copy!

I do not believe you can ask a question or have an inquiry on any topic that is not addressed to a deep level of detail in this book.  It contains hundreds of references.

I can only whet your appetite with the Table of Contents:

I – Global Picture – Understanding the international management environment

1. Overview

2. Global mgmt in the context of politics

3. The cultural environment

4. International labor relations

5. The global ethical environment

II – International strategic management and operations

6. Global strategy overview

7. Foreign entry decision

8. Implementing foreign entry decisions

9. Adapting management to foreign environments

10. Managing operations globally

11. Organizing and control in global organizations

III – Executing international decisions through staffing and directing

12. Human resource selection

13. Training for international assignments

14. Managing the expatriate manager

15. Special issues for global firms: women and dual-career couples

16. Communication and negotiation in global management

17. Leadership and motivation in global context

Appendix A – Careers in international business

Appendix B – Experiential exercises

Appendix C – Case studies

Carrières de Lumières – MIND BLOWING!

If you find yourself in South France, and if you are even as far away as 3-4 hours from the Provence village of Les Baux de Provence – one day you will deeply regret not spending double this time to travel here and experience this attraction!

What is Carrières de Lumières ?

Les Baux de Provence is a medieval village perched high on a limestone outcropping in the Provence countryside,

But that is not the amazing bit.

Carrières de Lumières is a stunning, amazing, breathtaking attraction, open to the public and located deep underneath the city, in a huge cavern where, centuries before, limestone was excavated. Even the chance to stand in this place and experience the colossal magnitude of the limestone quarry is amazing:

The limestone hall is probably larger than a football field, and the ceilings are nearly 20 meters tall.

But this is still not the amazing bit.

The amazing bit is what happens when they turn out the indoor lights, and when huge digital projectors flood every square centimeter of walls, floor, and ceiling with animated artwork synchronized with rich stereo music in the background.  As the light show begins you are free to walk around.  These few stills do not do the experience justice:

These are not random pictures of art, but rather art that showcases particular medieval artists. When I visited, the theme was based on the works of  Hieronymous Bosch (1450-1516), Brueghel (a family from 1525 to around 1719) , and Guiseppi Arcimboldo (1527-1593).

You can only begin to appreciate the power of this place when you see the live motion and hear the music. I tried to capture of a bit of that here at these links:

 

 

Amazing Roundabouts – 1

Roundabouts in Europe are amazing things!

But first, what is a roundabout?  Depending on where you live they are also known as rotaries, traffic circles, Kreisverkehr (German), Rotonda (Spanish), or Rond-Point (French).  So I hope I don’t I need any more explanation than that!

According to Wikipedia, there are examples that date back to the 1700’s. But using the Google NGram viewer, I found the word “roundabout” first came into print around 1576.

But this is not a history lesson – it is a blog post!  The key point is that especially in Europe roundabouts are typically places for the villages and communities to install truly breathtaking artwork.

I took this snap of a roundabout just outside of the village of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, buried deep within the Savoie region of France:

This village is famous for Opinel knives, not for bicycles – but many bicycle races do pass through this village every year, so perhaps that was the motivation for this piece?

The Incredible Legacy of Vauban

Vauban left an amazing, amazing legacy all over France which you can visit today.

First things first.  This is Vauban:


Or, Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauben,who was a military man in the late 17th and early 18th centuries in France, and he directed what at the time would be the equivalent of today’s U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  He travelled around the border of France, constructing fortifications that were truly mind-blowing.

Case in point: there is the small village named Brisach Neuf in Alsace, on the border between France and Germany, and he transformed it into an amazing fortified jewel, which unfortunately you can only truly appreciate from the air:

And indeed, you’ll appreciate this even more when you see the original map of the village and fortifications that he created:

In this arial photograph, if you look at the village center just north of the town square, this church he also created is visible:

But the amazing part is the not paved area of the village, but the extremely complicated jewel structure of moats and barriers and fortifications that surround the village,

With dozens upon dozens of underground bunkers like this one.

More amazing than I thought

A while ago, I wrote a blog post about the amazing Thyssen Krupp Test Tower, under construction in Southern Germany. It was slated to become one of Germany’s highest skyscrapers, and inside it housed many shafts so that Thyssen Krupp, a maker of high tech elevators, could test their products.

Well, the tower is now complete:

For a small fee, you can ride an UNBELIEVABLE all glass elevator that whips you to the top in just a few seconds, and your body will feel no acceleration at all.  At the top is an observation deck – and even on this overcast day, it provided a stunning high altitude look over the Southern Germany landscape including Germany’s famous Black Forest:

When viewed from the ground, it is hard to believe this building has the needed lateral stability, but apparently the main structure is anchored very deep below the ground:

Moleturm

At the ferry port of the lakeside town of Friedrichshafen sits a well-known observation platform, the Moleturm:

You have to climb many, many steps to get to the top, and yet I’ve never seen it not filled with people.  Perhaps my cultural prejudices are too deep, but I have a feeling an observation platform like this in most American cities wouldn’t attract that kind of attention.

First night shot

A cloud-obscured full moon over the city of Winterthur.

This is my first night photograph taken with my new Canon G9X Mark 2.  I used the out-of-the-box “auto” mode, and I don’t think it’s bad – but I’m still eager to explore the effects I can get when I manually adjust the settings.

Covered pedestrian bridge in Alsace

Do you like to see people or do you like to see beautiful things?

The reason for this question has to do with the difference between North and South Europe.

In South Europe, you will see neighborhoods filled with people, sitting outside, talking, playing various bowling games or cards.  But you aren’t likely to see neighborhoods filled with modern embellishments paid for by the residents.

But in North Europe, particularly in the French Region of Alsace, you will see NO ONE.  Not a single person! But what you will see in these empty neighborhoods are some beautiful ornaments, such as this covered wooden pedestrian bridge that I photographed somewhere in Alsace:

A little known history of IT offshoring – Part 2

Part II – The Challenge

By Chuck Ritley & Ken Ritley


KEN: Of course, today the ERP concept is an old one – it’s the bread and butter of companies like SAP, and you can get degrees at colleges that teach this stuff.  Now let’s get to your challenge specifically – what was your pain point?

I was supervising the coding of a large enterprise control software package. Somewhat later the industry term became known as ERP – Enterprise Resource Planning. We competed with IBM head-on, a tough crowd. This concept included all the functions a company needed from materials to accounting to shipment.  A few dealers who had made this their specialty sold the software, and so there had to be some margin for customization.

Our pain point – time, time, time. We knew IBM was almost ready for market. The design had many new features, and the market was much different than today. The first company to break into a market could easily wind up owning it.  So our management needed to finish our product and start selling it before IBM or we’d be playing catch-up.  And bear in mind, we were a mini-computer company, competing against the giant of the mainframes.

KEN: Today there are many possibilities to solve the time-pressure problem. Hiring good IT people is not that big a challenge – and if you are really under time pressure, there is a huge market of freelancers and even companies willing to take over coding on a fixed price basis.  How was it different for you?

Our programming team consisted of 8 “programmers” – today known as developers or software engineers. Based on our workload, that wasn’t enough. Now bear this in mind: it was a proprietary world. COBOL was standard only for mainframes, so it you wanted a competent programmer, you needed to find one with expertise in another language and train him or her in your proprietary language. Freelancing was just beginning, and pickings were slim.

There weren’t any degrees in IT as yet, and most programmers got their start by attending schools from one of the manufacturers.  IBM and Honeywell, in those days, had large training programs.  Most programmers available for hire had spent time doing mainframe coding for customers of one of those two giants.  And they might not have coded in the areas we were developing.

As matter of fact, I was recruited to Silicon Valley because there had been a shortage of good programmers and I had both IBM and Honeywell experience. So there were good programmers available.  But not overnight.

KEN: It’s certainly much different today. So what made you think of recruiting an international workforce?

Frankly, the international market had puzzled me for some time.  We had distributors in Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Belgium, Great Britain, France, India, and Japan.   What amazed me was that everything we published by way of technical documentation was in English.  The OS, tied directly to the CPU, had the usual English-like commands: edit, erase, format, etc.   The coding language was similar to an abbreviated version of BASIC, rather than the assembler-style used by mainframes.

What impressed me was that each non-English speaking distributor had to have an English speaker on staff.   From time to time, each would send techs to the US, always someone fluent in English, and we would train them.  They would go home and translate everything from OS and programming manuals to the electronic logic diagrams into the native language.  No small task.

But, at the time, the US was the only source of minicomputers on the planet.  IBM didn’t compete at that level.  For example, in Australia and NZ, we were the largest computer supplier.  So distributors who took this route could open new markets at the turnkey level. To support this, we had a programmer and field engineer who worked odd hours to support the time differences and they could provide answers via telex.  (No internet as yet.)

I was most impressed by the staff of our Indian distributors, who were a large multi-product electronics house.  Because English was common, they created their own software with our programming language.  Not surprisingly, some utility software, such as database systems, had market value in the US.

 

Final coming next: Part III – The Solution

IT Offshoring – It began differently than you might think!

IT outsourcing – offshoring – nearshoring – global delivery?  They’re familiar terms today – in fact, they are buzzwords.  Once they meant only cost-saving, but now these term more often refer to technical excellence.

When I first went to Bangalore in the early 2000’s to manage a global delivery facility for Hewlett Packard, I was amazed. I had traveled India before as a tourist, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from Bangalore.  What I found was a metropolis of IT.  That was 14 years ago.  Today, depending on what source you read, Bangalore is the center of 41% of all engineering research and development (ER&D) and 39% of all global in-house centers (GIC) in India.  In human terms, it has 530,000 trained technical people.  And that’s just the one city.  Directly or indirectly, India employs about 3 million people in direct IT support, and another 7 million in indirect support.

That’s more than 50% of all global outsourcing.

So – when did this begin?  How did it start?  Where did it start?  Why?  Like Henry Ford’s garage it had simple beginnings.  And in 30 years it has become a mammoth industry.

I first waded into this water in 2005.  But my Dad, now a semi-retired systems designer and professor of computer sciences, remembers start-up days back in the 1970’s and 1980’s – literally decades before many people think “offshore” began.  Together we assembled some memories of those first days that we’ll be publishing in a series of upcoming blogs. I think you’ll find it both enlightening and fun.  It’s like looking back at Mr. Ford’s first assembly line.

 

The “offshore” model, with my team in Bangalore:

 

And the “nearshore” model, with my team in Bulgaria:

 

The story begins here on my Dad’s blog, with the link here:  A little known history of IT offshoring – Part I

Mysore Cow

You can try if you want, but you just can’t take a bad photograph of a good cow!

This is a cow that I came across in a village just outside of Mysore, in Southern India:

Interestingly, I never stopped to think about it until now, but I really don’t know about how the rope shown above goes laterally through the nostrils of the cow.  I guess it’s a bit embarassing to admit I don’t know how this is done – but it also shows that I live a life where something is strange to me that is, in fact, quite ordinary to the overwhelming majority of people on earth.