The Smart Rebel

Fact is, a lot of the class of 2009 will be graduating Kellogg without a job. Another fact – there are, for sure, jobs out there. Some might think that this situation is wrong, the students are to blame, the school is to blame, and we should just get a job, whatever it is.

But I’m here to tell you something. We worked hard to get in, worked hard while we were here, and spent a ridiculous amount of money trying to learn something useful. All of us want to find a job that’s exciting and interesting. And if you think we should settle for something less, then stuff you.

Everything is going to be OK

And another thing. If you think we shouldn’t worry because we’re MBAs and we’re owed a free pass to the executive bathroom, then stuff you. Those days are over. For the rest of us – let me lay it out.

Things aren’t bad, things are changing.

Generation Y is growing up – killing off old marketing models on the outside, and restructuring companies for sustainability and social responsibility on the inside. Technology is levelling the playing field in media. The internet is still a source of amazing ideas that can change the world.

But things are changing fast. Companies that are just doing things the way they’ve always been done are missing their earnings calls and rescinding their offers. But the opportunities right now are with companies who ARE doing things in a different way. Big companies with open minds. Small companies trying to upset the order. The rebels.

Sure, all of us are being thrown to the lions. We can’t as easily hop from cushy yuppie pad to cushy yuppie pad. But this is how it was meant to be. This is what we trained for – not creaming fees from departments who want to buy data they’ll never look at or advice they’ll never use, but actually making companies better. Getting stuff done. Pulling out and using our coursepacks. Connecting people. Helping others who need it.

This good news is this – the world will always need smart people. We have an opportunity to do something clever with the tools we’ve been given. We can take that opportunity.

It’s our turn to be the rebels.

Lawrence Lessig at the Kellogg School of Management

This week I was delighted to have the opportunity to hear Lawrence Lessig – all-round free culture badass – speak at Kellogg, and was not disappointed.

Lawrence has shifted his focus away from IP law and policy, and towards fixing broken government. This was, I admit, a slight disappointment – it makes sense to try and attack the root cause of an issue, but Lessig may be biting off more than he can chew.

His talk was a master class in presentation, and he presents a series of very well constructed arguments, but always with a diplomacy that suggests he is already well ingrained in the political process.

The presentation he gave was a longer version of this one:

Still – I like plain logic, so here’s a breakdown of his argument. This is a travesty actually – the presentation was so well done that this is like reading the ingredients on a wedding cake.

Note: I’m afraid that I missed some of the details here, so apologies for the crappy blankets statements like “x has doubled”.

The Basic Problem

Lessig’s basic argument – money creates mistrust, so campaign contributions are a dumb idea. Money doesn’t make people liars, but it makes people suspicious of their motives. Examples:

  • Big pharma companies donating to the AHA to pass Activase. Apparently, even the free pens and coffee mugs change prescribing behaviour.
  • Hilary Clinton voting down “that awful bill” about personal bankruptcy, getting campaign contributions from credit card companies and then switching her vote next time around
  • Sugar industry lobbyists against the WHO’s recommendation of 10% maximum sugar intake
  • A note that no peer reviewed journals disagreed with Al Gore’s basic points on global warming while 53% of the popular media articles in the same time period disagreed
  • A response to Al Gore’s proposed internet telecoms deregulation – “How are we going to raise money from this if we deregulate?”

Then, some notes on the current situation:

  • The number of lobbyists has doubled, and the amount they get paid has doubled – therefore their influence must be rising
  • Representatives spend between 30% and 70% of their time currently raising money

… with the basic problem being that noone has any interest in stopping this problem.

There were a few notes on the history of these sorts of problems, with the point being that in Lessig’s opinion, we have a more moral government than ever before, so we should be more disposed to solve these problems now than ever before.

The Proposed Solution

… is this: have government representatives get money only from private citizen donations, with additional set funding from the treasury once a campaign has reached a certain size.

The main site for this proposal is here. If you’re a politically active American and you like these ideas, it’s worth a peek.

The Rocket Pockets, Live At The Ski Trip Reveal

Admiral Tom Zelibor at Kellogg

I had the pleasure of meeting a Naval Rear Admiral today (specifically this one), who’s now a Dean at a Naval War College. I resisted the temptation to call him “sir”, and we chatted about his views on leadership. Here‘s Kellogg’s note on the same.

He was wonderfully direct in his communication. Here are some of the insights I picked up.

  • Coaching is the most important part of a senior leader’s job. One should be training those who report to you ultimately to replace you.
  • Leaders should bear in mind what’s best for the organisation, not what’s best for oneself. The two can often be in conflict.
  • He shared a great quote from a Lieutenant General, who said that a leader should be prepared to take the heat for the mistakes of subordinates. That’s awesomely direct – most people really don’t want to do this, but I can see why it’s necessary.
  • Subordinates who are given real responsibility will work their arses off for you.
  • Self-reflection is necessary. This struck me as a most un-military thing to do, so it’s especially meaningful that he said it.
  • One must adapt one’s communication style to others in order to influence them.
  • Don’t have too many checks and controls for decision making. This one is tough for me – as an engineer, I like process, checks and controls. According to Tom, that equals policy which equals bureaucracy. My counterpoint is that it helps minimise the effect of some crazy leader making huge gambles that are out of line with the feel of the whole organisation. Tom believes it slows down decision making. I think we’re both right – the question is where a balance can be found. I suspect that if you trust your people, only minimal checks are required, if at all.

Over the course of our meeting, Tom described a little of his time as a Commander Air Group, or CAG. As he explained what a CAG was, I held myself back from yelling “ooh! I’ve seen those on Battlestar Galactica!” Immediately it become apparent how far apart the worlds of technology and the military are. Perhaps that makes sharing our learning even more useful.

Business Leadership Club – Utah 2008

As I start my travels to start the Utah Business Leadership Trek, I peer out through the porthole of my vehicle. Denver. Planes with propellors. Grand Junction. I cling to my phone. EDGE signal unavailable. Utah. Fewer bars. Crazy bus drivers. Last Facebook status update. Dirt tracks. Red sand.

No signal.

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This is a bad sign

Mission Statement

I’m not a typical participant for this type of trip. I’m at my most comfortable in a Starbucks with my laptop, good WiFi and a chai tea latte. The reason I came clearly isn’t to hike. I came to figure out a few things about myself in my desire to become a better leader. So goodbye to the comfort zone for one week, and I will discover how I perform.

What I don’t realise is how far outside my comfort zone I am.

Exit Plan

The first night, we camp next to the truck. Sleep is tough, as it’s well below freezing, we are sleeping on a rock, and we have tarps rather than tents. Exit plan: sneak into the truck while everyone is asleep and get the hell out.

The idea of the week is that after we are all orientated and can function safely in the desert, we are all allocated team roles, and we are the ones who figure out where we are going that day, how we can get enough water to keep going, and where we might camp that night. Over the course of our interactions, we learn some leadership theories, and also more about ourselves through constructive peer feedback. It sounds great to me – this is why I came. Now if we could do this in a nice little coffee shop somewhere, that would be even better. Exit plan: steal water and walk back to civilisation.

We are issued with food, water, climbing gear and five wet wipes. We move away from the truck.

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This is the cleanest we will be for the next seven days

We walk down into the canyon. Lunch. The echo invites us to sing “In The Air Tonight”. We hike on. An exit point. By the time we get to the top, I am ready to curl up into the foetal position – however, the sun is dropping fast and we need to find a camp. The decision comes down to me – I vote we move on a little further, and blind luck rewards us with an area we can camp in.

As darkness creeps over us, we reflect upon the day’s activities. Today was an important day – later I will realise that I was able to make some fairly reasonable decisions while under stress and outside my comfort zone. For the moment, I just want a shower and a decent hotel room. Perhaps an hour or so playing on Xbox. Exit plan: fake an injury and get taken back to the truck. Gain control of the vehicle get the hell out.

I’m through it, Harry

The next day, everything changes. We head through canyons and make it past a lot of strange obstacles – huge boulders, ungainly packs and bird poo. The team works well together to get us going in the right direction, and over any obstacle we encounter. There are no more exit plans – the only way out is through. We are Ninjas. Our kung-fu is strong.

After that day, I knew nothing could stop us. Hundred foot rappels, steep ascents over exposed rock faces. I was right.

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I like to think that we all found out a little more about ourselves during the week. We can work with total strangers. We can be comfortable being uncomfortable. We can make decisions quickly when needed. We can always contribute something, even when we know nothing. We can communicate well with anyone, even though we have strengths and weaknesses. We are not too proud to get feedback. We will act on it and become better human beings.

Leave no trace, take nothing but bruises

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Cut off from the world of technology, I felt a little like Samson without his locks. The canyon has turned into my Delilah, and I can’t help but feel that I’m a little bit in love with this place.

Mike Shaver at the Kellogg Technology Conference

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This afternoon, I had the pleasure of introducing Mike Shaver, Chief Evangelist for the Mozilla Foundation (above) as a keynote speaker for the 2008 Technology Conference here at Kellogg. In addition, we welcomed Jeff Bell, Marketing VP from Microsoft, Satjiv Chahil from HP.

When we originally put the speaker lineup together, I wanted to introduce someone from the open source world, and someone who could remind us about the cool, world changing part of being involved in technology. Mike did just that.

O RLY?

It’s clear that a pretty small percentage of open source applications are highly successful – Firefox, Samba, GNU, Linux, PHP, and so on. A small number in total. Now just searching for broad categories on Sourceforge, and then divide one number by the other.

It’s also clear that there were a few obvious flavours in the success of Firefox – namely, a push away from IE 4 / 5 / 6 from web developers (who hated the non-standardness) and a pull towards FF from users (who could use cool things like addons and tabbed browsing).

But it seems like the coolest part of the Mozilla recipe isn’t the product, but the organisational structure and internal processes. Mike illustrated this by showing us the chaotic bug reporting process – you can check them out here – and contrasting that with how patches are integrated into the main branch. Anyone can file a bug – only certain participants can approve code changes. Understanding the balance between encouraging community support and controlling product quality has been critical to the success of Mozilla.

There Is No Poop On The Pavement

As above. I live in the only block of flats in Evanston that allows dogs, so I would expect dog poop density to vary like this:

P = K * ([(r+1)^2] - [(Dr+1)^2])

P is poop density (unit volume per unit area)
K is a constant (a factor of the number of dogs in the building and their food intake volume)
r is the distance from my block of flats
D is the "shitting on your own doorstep" constant

However, K is a very low number. I have seen the occasional dog owner with canine in tow, but I have not seen one without the regulation scooper. Sadly, both K and D are significantly higher in the UK.

More: Kellogg has a wonderful invention called the “Honour Code”, which is a long winded way of saying, to quote Bill S. Preston Esq., “Be excellent to each other”. This was printed on the front of my midterm before we started, and during the course of the exam the Prof actually left the room several times. No furtive glances. No whispers of discussion. It’s a small thing I know, but it’s so nice to be in an environment where trust is not taken advantage of.

The only issue is a consistent misspelling of the word “honour”.

Nobility

Here’s what a Nobel laureate looks like:

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Kellogg today hosted a short love-in with Roger Myerson, who by all accounts is a brilliant economist and an OK tutor who tried hard with the students. He sounded like a scientist at heart, which I appreciate – being, to quote Vonnegut, a “half-assed scientist”. He excited me to look forward to learning about game theory, which I start next week.

Actually, who am I kidding – I’ve been excited about game theory ever since I watched Matthew Broderick in “War Games”.

Number of players = 0

Akamai CEO imparts wisdom

Akamai Logo

I’ve just come back from the NUVC kickoff event, where the featured speaker was Paul Sagan, CEO of Akamai.

For the Geeks

No self respecting geek doesn’t know who Akamai are – they are the largest B2B caching service available, and they partner with people like Apple, Yahoo and now Facebook to make sure that website content is delivered in a timely manner. So, when you head over to Facebook, you’re getting content delivered not from a Facebook server farm in California but a huge number of Akamai servers distributed all over the world. Simply, it’s a huge transparent mirror service. I would guess that they can only mirror static elements, and the Akamai servers themselves query a central database still located with Facebook. I’d love to nail down an Akamai tech and figure out how that works.

As a large number of high traffic sites like Google, restyled Yahoo and Facebook are highly dynamic, one wonders how Akamai are able to accelerate these technologies. I’d bet a testicle that they have a strategy for this, as there’s a clear market trend towards dynamic websites.

For the Suits

Clearly, Paul is a very smart entrepreneur rather than a techie. What strikes me most is that he’s not what I’d expect from a very successful CEO. This is no ubermensch. He speaks with ums, clasps his hands together and peers at us through glasses. But there’s a quiet confidence about his answers.

One phrase that stuck in my mind was:

“There is no solution to a business problem. You can only manage that problem.”

That speaks volumes about making the switch from technical into business. I think it’s one of the most exciting and scary things about it.

We finished off with Paul’s pick for the hot areas of tech for the future. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he chose software as a service (Google Apps, Zoho, that sort of thing.) All in all, I’m thrilled to be able to attend a talk from someone right in the melee of the tech world.