Friday, 5 September 2014

Happy Weekend!

I uncovered this awesome old photo I took while at University:


It sums up my feeling to 'It's the weekend, baby!'

Friday, 22 August 2014

Steve Jobs: Here's to the crazy ones

Right up front I don't mind admitting that I've never 'gotten' the whole Apple thing, although I own an Ipod (that I was given) and did once seriously consider getting an IPhone (but went Android instead, like most of the world). That said, you may have noticed the quote from Steve Jobs I used as my description on my blog for a while...

Join me in the discovery of the speech where it's from (sourced from http://www.businessinsider.com/steve-jobs-speech-easter-egg-2014-8 and apparently all Mac Word Processing software if you believe the story). It is refreshingly frank in a way that is so rare, and because I love it I'm going to preserve it here in full (because Google will NEVER die, lol): *TLDR version highlighted in yellow

Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits, the rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.
I am honored to be with you today at your commencement from one of the finest universities in the world. I never graduated from college. Truth be told, this is the closest I've ever gotten to a college graduation. Today I want to tell you three stories from my life. That's it. No big deal. Just three stories.
The first story is about connecting the dots. I dropped out of Reed College after the first 6 months, but then stayed around as a drop-in for another 18 months or so before I really quit. So why did I drop out?
It started before I was born. My biological mother was a young, unwed college graduate student, and she decided to put me up for adoption. She felt very strongly that I should be adopted by college graduates, so everything was all set for me to be adopted at birth by a lawyer and his wife. Except that when I popped out they decided at the last minute that they really wanted a girl. So my parents, who were on a waiting list, got a call in the middle of the night asking: "We have an unexpected baby boy; do you want him?" They said: "Of course." My biological mother later found out that my mother had never graduated from college and that my father had never graduated from high school. She refused to sign the final adoption papers. She only relented a few months later when my parents promised that I would someday go to college.
And 17 years later I did go to college. But I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents' savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn't see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn't interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.
It wasn't all romantic. I didn't have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends' rooms, I returned coke bottles for the 5¢ deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the 7 miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example:
Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn't have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating.
None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it's likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.
Again, you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.
My second story is about love and loss.
I was lucky — I found what I loved to do early in life. Woz and I started Apple in my parents garage when I was 20. We worked hard, and in 10 years Apple had grown from just the two of us in a garage into a $2 billion company with over 4000 employees. We had just released our finest creation — the Macintosh — a year earlier, and I had just turned 30. And then I got fired. How can you get fired from a company you started? Well, as Apple grew we hired someone who I thought was very talented to run the company with me, and for the first year or so things went well. But then our visions of the future began to diverge and eventually we had a falling out. When we did, our Board of Directors sided with him. So at 30 I was out. And very publicly out. What had been the focus of my entire adult life was gone, and it was devastating.
I really didn't know what to do for a few months. I felt that I had let the previous generation of entrepreneurs down - that I had dropped the baton as it was being passed to me. I met with David Packard and Bob Noyce and tried to apologize for screwing up so badly. I was a very public failure, and I even thought about running away from the valley. But something slowly began to dawn on me — I still loved what I did. The turn of events at Apple had not changed that one bit. I had been rejected, but I was still in love. And so I decided to start over.
I didn't see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.
During the next five years, I started a company named NeXT, another company named Pixar, and fell in love with an amazing woman who would become my wife. Pixar went on to create the worlds first computer animated feature film, Toy Story, and is now the most successful animation studio in the world. In a remarkable turn of events, Apple bought NeXT, I returned to Apple, and the technology we developed at NeXT is at the heart of Apple's current renaissance. And Laurene and I have a wonderful family together.
I'm pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn't been fired from Apple. It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don't lose faith. I'm convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You've got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don't settle.
My third story is about death.
When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: "If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you'll most certainly be right." It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?" And whenever the answer has been "No" for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.
Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
About a year ago I was diagnosed with cancer. I had a scan at 7:30 in the morning, and it clearly showed a tumor on my pancreas. I didn't even know what a pancreas was. The doctors told me this was almost certainly a type of cancer that is incurable, and that I should expect to live no longer than three to six months. My doctor advised me to go home and get my affairs in order, which is doctor's code for prepare to die. It means to try to tell your kids everything you thought you'd have the next 10 years to tell them in just a few months. It means to make sure everything is buttoned up so that it will be as easy as possible for your family. It means to say your goodbyes.
I lived with that diagnosis all day. Later that evening I had a biopsy, where they stuck an endoscope down my throat, through my stomach and into my intestines, put a needle into my pancreas and got a few cells from the tumor. I was sedated, but my wife, who was there, told me that when they viewed the cells under a microscope the doctors started crying because it turned out to be a very rare form of pancreatic cancer that is curable with surgery. I had the surgery and I'm fine now.
This was the closest I've been to facing death, and I hope it's the closest I get for a few more decades. Having lived through it, I can now say this to you with a bit more certainty than when death was a useful but purely intellectual concept:
No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.
Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.
When I was young, there was an amazing publication called The Whole Earth Catalog, which was one of the bibles of my generation. It was created by a fellow named Stewart Brand not far from here in Menlo Park, and he brought it to life with his poetic touch. This was in the late 1960's, before personal computers and desktop publishing, so it was all made with typewriters, scissors, and polaroid cameras. It was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along: it was idealistic, and overflowing with neat tools and great notions.
Stewart and his team put out several issues of The Whole Earth Catalog, and then when it had run its course, they put out a final issue. It was the mid-1970s, and I was your age. On the back cover of their final issue was a photograph of an early morning country road, the kind you might find yourself hitchhiking on if you were so adventurous. Beneath it were the words: "Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish." It was their farewell message as they signed off. Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish. And I have always wished that for myself. And now, as you graduate to begin anew, I wish that for you.
Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.
Thank you all very much!

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Close Enough to Bucharest

It's not often you discover a gem of a song, but this little beauty played across the radio down here in fairest South Africa this afternoon and I love it! If you're my kind of crazy, you might too.


It's George Ezra, singing Budapest. And without trying too hard, you can substitute 'Bucharest' (no doubt a big part of the reason I love it).

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Is Cape Town's Best Library in Milnerton?

Back in the good old days, if I discovered something remarkable, I'd share it with you by text (assuming I knew how to write and you knew how to read), on a postcard (assuming the ship delivered it). These days we have blogs and cameraphones, so let me share one of the most remarkable discoveries of my life with you.

If you're not in South Africa this might not seem like a big deal to you, but today I discovered the best South African municipal library I have *ever* seen: the Milnerton library


From the outside, you'll agree it's pretty unassuming. As a new arrival in Milnerton I only discovered it through Google (it's not on a main public route), and from the outside it's not exactly promising of literary delight. The context here, let's face it, is that most South African libraries are pretty depressing places, laden with ancient books (if you ever want to know how to operate Windows 1995 you're in luck), and normally poorly-lit and cramped.

I think the Milnerton Library's exterior style can best be described as 'missile-silo chic', and it even comes with one of those quaintly-lettered signboards in a font you still see gracing numerous State buildings from the 1980s. Not a good start then.


Walk inside, and you're greeted by... err, what? This wasn't expected.


Pass through the turn-style, and you enter Charlie's Chocolate Factory for book lovers. Space and light!


Symmetry!


Display shelves!


And don't ask me WHERE they got this guy, enticing you to a themed section on Egypt.


Trust me, I could continue. The staff I dealt with were friendly and exuding a quiet aura of pride over their workplace. The computer I used to access the library catalogue actually worked, and had a conveniently placed chair to sit on. And, the most important part of all: my wife and I walked out with our arms loaded with books we actually WANTED to read, including several newer titles, rather than just grabbing the least faded titles.

It was a revelation, and simultaneously a sad indictment for what's happened to the library system in other parts of the country due to constant budget cuts and low staff morale. My deepest admiration and thanks goes to the library staff and municipality for their effort and innovation in creating this degree of order and pleasure in a chaotic environment and ... to a large extent, country.

Given how unexpected this find was I also cannot swear that Milnerton Library is the BEST library in Cape Town, or possibly even all of South Africa, but I'd be willing to take a bet on both of those scores.

PS: As a side-note, I later learned that the online catalogue system I used was known as the City of Cape Town's Online Public Access Catalogue (OPAC), and in addition to seeing whether specific titles you're interested in are available in which library, you can also renew your library books electronically. 

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Is it just me, or...

You know the difference between immaturity and maturity? It's in how you answer 'If you could be anything, what would you be?'

When you're younger, you've got a million fun answers to that question ... astronaut, geologist, rockstar. When you're older, you'd be happy to settle for 'debt-free'.

As I see it now, 'maturity' is about realising that that's not a bad answer. Contrary to what your younger you might think, you're not selling out ... just growing up.

In a way, that growing up is about discovering that although you cannot necessarily become *anything* you want to be, you CAN be and do a lot more than you'd ever be able to list (including things you're currently not even interested in).

In an environment where you can be anything, it's often easier to just  define yourself by what you don't want to be. The older you get, then, the bigger that bag of anti-definitions gets and an identity for 'you' emerges.

I like Coca Cola because I don't like all the other drinks. I watch Rules of Engagement because I don't like Idols. I don't eat peas because ... life's too short for that. Tomorrow, all of this may change: just give me a new softdrink, a new TV show and a potato.

For me, being 28 is also a really weird age: it's like I'm on a rollercoaster, just cruising slowly to a halt while approaching the crest of a steep section. You realise there's still a lot to life (this is going to speed up!), but you're pretty tired about it all and it ... just ... seems so long, and simultaneously way too short.

I mean, wasn't I meant to start saving back when I was 16 if I wanted to retire early? There goes that dream then.

For whatever reason we don't seem to be talking about these things, and I don't know why not. It's not like we don't all go through the same emotions, right?

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Tragic Comedy in Bucharest

This blog post - Exploring the disgusting bins of Bucharest’s historic centre - has to be one of the most simultaneously tragic and funny lenses on life in Romania that I have ever seen. This post is my way of encasing it in concrete (you'll get the reference after reading the post).

If you liked that, then this post from the same blog - Braving the Bucharest-Chisinau Sleeper - turns the dry humour up to 11. I nearly coughed up a lung at “Pipi nu este al meu!” Having also survived the sleeper from Bucharest to Cluj, I can definitely relate.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Why Customer-Centricity May Be Missing the Point

If you've been following this blog you'll have noticed that I've started studying Coursera's Introduction to Marketing course (I highly recommend that you sign up for it if you're interested in marketing). This has gotten me thinking a lot about marketing principles and business ethics, and I've been involved in some pretty heated debates on the Coursera course forums.

The most recent has involved the principle of customer centricity, as it was presented in the lectures by one of Wharton's professors, Peter Fader. TAKE-AWAY AT THIS POINT: it's going to be long post, but this speaks directly to what I see as the new corporate crisis evidenced in many aspects of presumed 'poor customer care'. If you're in marketing this will be of interest, and even if you're not it might be illuminating.

The one thing you need to understand beforehand is a rough definition (mine as I understand it) of customer centricity: 
Customer Centricity is a corporate philosophy (existing in opposition to 'product centricity') that uses detailed information about customers' buying habits and personal profiles to identify which customers have the highest Customer Lifetime Value (i.e. a measure of the total they would be likely to spend in the future with the company) and then tailors product-development and marketing activities directly at this 'high-risk, high-reward' segment of consumers (in order to retain them and attract more customers just like them), while still retaining enough of the other less-valuable customers for overall stability and as insurance if the gamble taken with the first group backfires in some way (e.g. if they change loyalty rapidly). It is argued that this approach allows companies to make smarter marketing choices by optimising their marketing spend and operational processes to extract the maximum value from the individuals who will ultimately be the most valuable to the company in the long run. 

On the face of it, it sounds like a very sensible practise, right? I however have a few cautions/objections to this, which I outlined in my forum post on the Coursera course forums this morning - copied in full below:

Ok guys, first-off a big thanks for turning this into such an engaging discussion. I realise that a lot of confusion has resulted from me trying to unpack an initial gut reaction on a logical level by responding to engagements here, but I think that the point I'm making is highly valid and I'd appreciate one last chance to present it in a more logical manner for you all. Below I'm not just going to take you through a series of Q&A, but rather a progression of realisations that depend on each other. 
Q1: Why do you say that you disagree with Professor Fader when you're not disagreeing with what he says?  
A1: In so far as Professor Fader is arguing for what I will go on to demonstrate is a sub-set of a broader whole, I am not disagreeing with his specific sub-set (which makes sense in and of itself) but rather some underlying philosophies and their ramifications on the customer experience. 
Q2: In what way is customer-centricity as outlined by Peter Fader a 'sub-set'? 
A2: I'd argue that true customer-centricity should be judged from all customers' perspectives. We're using 'customer-centricity' here to distinguish it from 'product-centricity', where companies are focusing on analysing their customers to increase their profitability, but while the central goal remains the companies' wealth and not the customer's well-being the tactic isn't so much 'customer-centric' as it is 'company-centric with insights from customers'. With this in mind, my take on customer-centricity is even MORE customer-centric in a true sense, because I'm concerned with all customers, while Peter Fader's customer centricity (*important proviso below) is a triage mechanism which focuses the maximum resources on attracting and retaining a small group of customers deemed to be valuable and gives them a better customer experience than the rest. 
Q3: Oh dear, so is this just semantics? What are those ramifications you spoke about in a real sense? 
A3: This is where it gets fun. You see, making the leap from VALUABLE customer-centricity (sub-set) to TOTAL customer-centricity (all customers) is as big a leap as the one from product centricity to customer centricity in the first place. Remember that the key point with this latter approach is that you often end up doing the very same sorts of things but with a different initial intention, so the outcomes are different? Small changes at the start - e.g. in 'initial motiviation' make a big difference later on. The defining ramification here is one of consumer trust. Can ALL consumers walk through your store's doors and trust that they will receive the best service from friendly salespeople who will advise them in their personal best interests, or is it rather a case of ALL customers walk through your doors and trust that they will receive the best service from friendly sales people IF they are categorised to be valuable customers, who will advise them in their best interests IF that advice still enables extracting the maximum profit from them later on? 
Q4: Ok, and why is corporate trust important? 
A4: We've already spoken over and over again about how consumers are getting more discerning and they need to be able to trust your brand and your company. If presented with two competing companies and the only distinguishing factor is that the one is trusted and the other isn't, consumers will always go with the one they trust. By implementing a corporate policy which only favours a limited sub-set of consumers based on what will be best for the company in the long-run, a company will at best be at risk of losing their customers' trust and at worst be vulnerable to being accused of hypocrisy (marketing messages tend to make all customers feel that they'll receive the VIP treatment when in reality only the valued sub-set do). 
Q5: So what is the alternative? 
A5: I'm not saying that 'traditional' customer-centricity is a completely bad thing, in so far as it entails actually getting to know your customer base more and figuring out how you can delight them with products which are matched to them. Where it gets to be a bad thing is where you filter out the customers you deem to be less profitable right at the start, tailoring everything only for the richest's needs.This affect is further exacerbated when you use data you gain on your customers (more than some would feel comfortable with you having in some cases) to sell to them at times when they are weak, despondent or less able to make rational decisions, solely in favour of making a sale. I'm going to call it as I see it, and that is manipulation. The real alternative here is a moderated approach: get customers buy-in to share their data with you to deliver services to them which surprise them pleasantly, and keep your focus on ALL customers equally in recognition that customers you'd skip over otherwise now may actually be great later on. Do this so that customers can genuinely trust you, not only confident that they'll attract your attention in a real manner when they exude wealth (whether physically through their clothes or intangibly through the data categories you have on them).
IMPORTANT PROVISO: Why single out Peter Fader?I have nothing against Peter Fader personally - I don't know him, apart from his words in these videos. The picture he has painted with those words in no uncertain terms paints him as an advocate of the limited form of customer-centricity, although in reality he may have all kinds of fuzzy 'be nice to all consumers' philosophies that he just hasn't shared here. I'm happy to allow for that, so when I talk about 'Peter Fader's customer-centricity' it is only as a label to distinguish it from what I'm proposing. 
CONCLUSION: Corporations have for too long run on faulty premises. We recognise on a personal level that the majority of the world is classed as poor, and therefore we are arguing (with no melodrama) against humanity when we want to pursue tactics which automatically benefit the richest people unfairly (i.e. we give them the best service before they even have to buy it from us). Another faulty premise is that permanent improvement is possible. Again we recognise individually that this is impossible, and time and again companies' management are placed under mind-bending pressure to try and deliver improving results in declining economies. Just like there will only be one winner in a race, not all companies can be winners. A final faulty premises is that the data doesn't lie. It does - too often we can see from profiles that search engines build of us based on what we search for (for example) that the picture a sub-set of our data paints about us is completely not who we are in reality, so anybody using that data to target us would make wrong decisions all day long. The bottom line is that if ALL companies switched to absolutely perfect customer centricity overnight, there would still be businesses closing down simply because there is constant competition for share-of-wallet/mind, and we'd just have shifted the goal-posts. Let's take a moment to pause sometimes and ask what will be genuinely sustainable and ethically sound, and what will earn us the unreservedly genuine trust of our staff, customers and suppliers.
Phew, that's it. I'd love to know your thoughts. Sometimes I get the feeling we're so busy trying to make the 'right' decision that we lose sight of our shared humanity and the kind of world we actually want to live in.