Sunday, July 30, 2006

Q: Knock, knock. Who’s there?

A: Human beings as currency

[Please be advised that there a lot of dots to connect on this one. So make sure that your pencil is sharpened.]

As of late I have been reading up on the finer points of putting a database marketing program into action. One of the pieces that I read asserts that a good database marketing program will tie together the enterprise’s Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system with sales transactions so that the company’s customer service representative will be able to say something like, “Tell me Mrs. Brown, did your granddaughter, Jennie enjoy the purple sweater that you bought for her last month?”

[Lifetime Value = CUM-NPV/ acquired customers]

Saturday was my birthday. I am now 52. In my inbox was an email from wishing me a Happy Birthday. I don’t know anybody at, although I did sign up to the web site to get some information when I was doing some debugging on a NetBeans project about a year ago. I guess that I provided my birth date.

[Corporation: A body that is granted a charter recognizing it as a separate legal entity having its own rights, privileges, and liabilities distinct from those of its members.]

A while ago I had to add some minutes to my cell phone plan. I called up T-Mobile to make the change. I got a female voice on the phone welcoming me and asking how she could help. I told her that I wanted to add some minutes to my plan. She asked for my social security number. I provided it. Then she asked me to hold so that she could retrieve my account information. I said, “OK”.

While I was waiting I tried to make some small talk. So I started yacking away, asking her where her call center was located. The voice on the other end did not respond. I kept trying to talk to her. No response. Finally I asked, “Are you a human being?” She responded by asking me my mother’s maiden name.

[Turing Test: If it acts human, it is human.]

We’re masters of selling. Well, at the corporate level we really don’t sell, we market. And, at the core of our marketing is the Customer Relationship.

Now the funny thing is that with all of the Customer Relationships being established, there is not a lot of relating going on. Maybe it’s because that the only time that a human being is involved in the process is when there is no alternative. All other times it’s just one machine taking to another: machines making stuff, ordering stuff, processing credit card numbers, correcting our spelling, reconciling our bank statements, telling us when our box will arrive via UPS, providing our MySpace page and sending emails to email addresses wishing the happiest of birthdays while making sure that the hourly call center employee with marginal benefits and five days of accrued vacation time asks about Mrs. Brown’s granddaughter, regardless of the fact that the employee has no idea who Mrs. Brown is, human or not.

Seems that the only entity to which a relationship with Mrs. Brown has meaning is the corporation that buys the advertising to attract Mrs. Brown and owns the CRM system to retain her. And yet, with every right to not care about Mrs. Brown, her granddaughter or the purple sweater upon which the Customer Relationship is based, the employee answering the phone does, not so much because Mrs. Brown is worth caring about because all parties in the relationship live int the same city, go to the same school or attend the same church, but rather because the employee is paid to care about her.

We’re that disconnected. We’re that much for sale.

[Connect the dots.]

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Q: What happened when Bernie went to lunch?

A: He lost the business.

I’ll share something with you. I do my laundry in a Laundromat. The one bedroom apartment that I share with my wife is not big enough to allow us the necessary space to install a washer/dryer combo and our landlord is too cheap to fix the ones out back.

So just about every Saturday I drive over to my favorite Laundromat in Mar Vista and fill up two triple loaders—one for whites and one for colors.

Actually, I like the Laundromat. There are lots of kids running around, mostly in Spanish. I can go buy a frozen cocoanut bar and diet soda at the adjacent Mini-Mart when I need to change a twenty and, most importantly, doing the laundry in the Laundromat allows me the time out of my demanding work week to do my technical reading, which is really important considering I haven’t written any code in the last four months. (Whereas I used to get paid to code, now I get paid to “manage”. But this is another story for another time.)

So there I am in the Laundromat, spinning up a storm in the triple loaders and reading the latest article by Ted Pattison on Microsoft Office SharePoint Server2007 (MOSS) in this month’s MSDN. Turns out that MOSS, the next generation of SharePoint Portal Server 2003 (SPS 2003), is built on top of Window SharePoint Services 3.0 (WSS 3.0) and ASP.NET 2.0. Also, it turns out that “MOSS 2007 is quite different from SPS under the hood. SPS builds its portal site infrastructure around the concepts of areas and listings…areas and listings have been eliminated in MOSS 2007…” (Italic are mine.)

Now, I’ll let you in on another secret. I never got the chance to code to the concept of areas and listings in SPS 3.0. In fact, I am embarrassed to say that I have yet to get the chance to code to WSS 3.0 or MOSS 2007. If the truth be known, the only acronym that is part of my life is ASP.NET 2.0 and I am having a bitch of a time keeping up with that. So there I am, sitting in the Laundromat, learning about a new technology that is enhancing/replacing an old technology that I never had the chance to learn to begin with! Yikes! Talk about Future Shock.

I’ve written more than once that the rate of change imposed on the average man or woman trying to make a buck from coding is more than one mind can handle or should handle. It’s getting harder and harder to keep up. In fact, if things keep going on the present path, just to make a decent living you’ll have to be reading about a new technology with the left eyeball while coding paying work with your right eyeball.

Obviously something has got to change.

I don’t think that the powers that be in the software industry are going to stop the technology churn to make it easier for the average coder to have a balanced life. I wish that they would, but they won’t. Technology churn is the way that software manufacturers bind our brain to their product. If you have to constantly keep relearning .NET and associated technologies, you are not going to have the time to learn J2EE and all the stuff that goes with the Java world.

So, if the industry is not going to change, we are going to have to change. Ray Kurzweil has some interesting takes in his books The Age of Spiritual Machines and The Singularity is Near about the laundry list (no pun intended) of changes that will be ours for the choosing. In the extreme scenario Kurzweil suggests that in the not too distant future we’ll simply take a pill containing nano/biotechnology that reconstructs our brain to have the information that we need. For example, “Want to learn how to work Windows Office SharePoint Server 2020? Here, take this pill.”

For me, I am just thinking about getting into another line of work that doesn’t require absorbing so much new knowledge so quickly. Maybe I’ll become a lawyer. (I’d say auto mechanic. But these guys are in the same boat as software developers.)

So what does this have to do with Bernie?

Bernie is a character from Doonesbury who started a software company and worked night and day to become rich, which he did. One day Bernie went to lunch and lost the business. While he was out for that hour all of the technology changed and he couldn’t catch up.

I wonder; how much money can a hair stylist make?

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Q: What is a wonder of the modern world?

A: Data warehouses

Over the last few months I’ve been working in the Land of Big Data: data warehousing. This stuff is new to me. Previously I treated data as a necessary evil of application development, thankfully abstracted from my coding landscape as nothing more than a call to some stored procedure that returned the relevant dataset of interest. Not a big deal given that the usual size of the dataset returned was a few hundred rows at most.

That was then and this is now.

Now my landscape is filled datasets the contain millions of rows. And, most of these rows are filled with pretty standard stuff—first name, last name, address, city, state, zip, stuff the person in the row bought and when they bought it—things that are pretty usual in the everyday data warehouse of a large company that has millions of customers or wants millions of customers.

Yet it turns out that not only is my landscape filled with the names and addresses of millions of people, but we also know a lot of tasty tidbits about each one: average age of each person, how many people are in the household, what type car he or she drives, what type of house he or she lives in, marital status, age of children in household, favorite grocery store and I image if we added a bit of effort to our inquiries, we could find out sexual orientation, frequency of sexual activity and if the person prefers half gallon size containers of milk as opposed to gallon size containers. It’s that comprehensive.

Entire companies such as Information Resources, Experian and A.C. Nielsen are built on the buying and selling of millions of rows of data that tells us a lot of stuff about a lot of people. Sort of freaks me out. You’d think that the Average Joe would be all up in arms about this for reasons of invasion of privacy, violation of family values or mass manipulation of the national consciousness by Big Corporations only concerned with getting the general population to forego buying Tylenol in favor of Advil because adults between the ages of 35 and 65 prefer the color blue over the color red.

But no such indignation exists about the fact that so much knowledge about the “collective us” is available to any company that has the money, technical infrastructure and analytic know-how to facilitate the inquiry. We sort of like it this way.

The mass exposure of a private individual's information to corporations is not being done to us, but by us.

In the old days, if you wanted to know a whole lot about a large population, you’d create a society filled with political informers and secret police, which resulted in kids reporting the political activities of their parents and workers ratting on each other. And, if that didn’t work, you’d put a gun to some person’s head and tell them that if they didn’t spill the beans on everybody that they knew, you’d shoot them.

But again, that was then and this now.

Today no such intrigue and violence is necessary. Just give each member of the population a credit card with a line of credit appropriate to the holder’s income level and credit score. And, on the paper that gets signed to accept and activate the card you put a little language that says, “Oh yeah, we get to sell information about you and your purchases to any interested buyer that can pay for it, whether headquartered in Cincinnati or Beijing”.

Voluntary totalitarianism. Who woulda figured?