During the last couple of years, I’ve been reminded that solid software craftsmanship is a rare thing. In fact, there are just a great number of companies that make a good living off of poor workmanship. They do some hand waving in the design workshops, print really colorful journey maps on large sheets of paper and make nice license origination bonuses from software vendors. They don’t develop a shared vision with their customer and they certainly don’t stand by their work.
I had worked with companies like this in the past, but then was lucky enough to avoid them for several years. I guess I tricked myself into believing they didn’t exist anymore, but I was wrong. They’re still out there.
It’s up to you as a technology buyer to own your solution. This means understanding the requirements, the technology and the talent. It also means that the only one to blame for picking a bad partner is you. You need to know when you’re partner is not going to stand by you every step of the way, and when that happens, find a new one.
Great technology partners are like good friends. They’ll be with you through good times, and likely lots of bad times, but they’ll stick with you every step of the way. They clean up after your bad partners after they’ve left the party. They ask for things that make it easier for them to help you. They educate you on better ways to do things and they consistently exceed your expectations of value.
What kind of partner do you want? What kind of partner do you want to be?
Advice for software companies looking to delight users
What examples have you seen from other organizations in this vein? Please share in the comments.
- You can never underestimate the ability of a crisis to sideline even the boldest business ideas. 9/11 was an event of monumental significance where the sheer emotional and destructive forces unleashed succeeded in pushing this initiative far from the minds of those who would champion it.
- Incremental improvements can often be “good enough”. In this case, 16 years later, the industry pushed to “T+2” while maintaining the spirit of STP. While this was short of the goal, the reality is that one day gained back by investors is enough to eliminate mountains of incomplete trades and put more money back into new investments.
- You’re going to need a bigger framework. STP was trying to make a number of existing complex systems work together. In contrast, the greenfield Securities Process Automation (SPA) movement has shared many of the same goals as STP while also proscribing a more far-reaching ideal. That said, it has been much more modest and pragmatic in implementation recommendations.
This week, I managed to finish Sapiens by Yuval Harari. Not long ago, I listened to Harari’s interview on the James Altucher show that introduced some of the concepts in his next book, Homo Deus. That book picks up on some of the threads presented at the end of Sapiens; I look forward to reading it next.
Sapiens was for me personally, very engaging. While it was long, it wove a narrative that bridged a number of my personal passions: ancient history, anthropology, language and technology.
The book is long, rich and complex and I am not going to attempt to summarize it all, but I did want to capture a few of the key themes I took away.
Something about homo sapiens allowed us to outlive several other human species that walked the planet at the same time. Harari doesn’t pick a side, although you are left to determine for yourself whether you think this was due to evolution, luck or some intelligent design. The important thing is realizing that mankind did not have to turn out the way it did. In fact, even the word “mankind” is misleading as we are but one branch of mankind.
Slaves to the Grain
Our discovery of farming, specifically of wheat, put mankind on a path away from its hunter-gatherer roots. We began to become stationary people. We grew in numbers and required greater numbers to farm more wheat, to feed more people, and so on. This concept was incredibly powerful for a number of reasons. Not only did we set ourselves on a path away from our original skills, but we became highly dependent upon a food source which was initially more rare to come by, due to its fussy growing behaviors. By nurturing wheat, we effectively became a slave to it.
Hierarchies: Our Favorite Growth Hack
From kingdoms, to religions to politics, homo sapiens have managed to scale the growth of society through the creation of hierarchical tribes. We first learned as a people that we could stay safe in numbers. Then we realized we could amass more food. Ultimately, we realized we could accomplish greater feats of building and conquest as we developed larger tribes. Ultimately we created the concepts of nation and religion to justify our new roles.
From Middle to Top
It’s easy to forget that our ancestors were once in the middle of the food chain: larger than some animals, but ultimately easily killed by larger beasts that roamed the earth. Over time, we would develop the tools and organization to drive those beasts to extinction and ultimately sit where we are today: in command of the global food chain.
Technology Has Accelerated Our Development Like Never Before
Since the industrial revolution, homo sapiens have been accelerating in their understanding and mastery of the world at a speed which had never been known. We now have the ability to create life, organically and inorganically. This suggests that we are likely very close to breakthroughs that will change the future development of humans.
Read for Yourself
I love controversial titles, and this was no exception. As you can probably infer, there are a number of arguments contained in the book that can rankle those of different political or religious persuasions. Overall, I felt that it was a mind-opening book that provided an updated history of civilization while dipping into futurism to suggest where we might as a species be going.
Note: There are some glowing and some harsh reviews of this book out there. I’m not saying its perfect, but I think it’s worth spending some time with.
I look forward to hearing your opinion. Get in touch or leave a comment to let me know your thoughts.
Content Strategy Lessons from He-Man and the Masters of the Universe
I consider myself lucky to have been a part of the golden age of toys. Born just before the explosion of Star Wars into the world, I would experience some of the greatest content marketing projects of all time. The toymakers of the 1980’s such as Hasbro and Mattel would create a generation of toy fanatics by building a content universe around their products, capturing our hearts and minds in the process.
Over the last few years, I’ve delved into the basements and closets of my parents home and emerged with great relics of my childhood. With two young boys that have overlapping interests to mine, these tattered findings are real treasures. That said, something struck me while thumbing through a stack of Masters of the Universe comics a few weeks ago. These miniature comic magazines that accompanied each action figure sold by Mattel in the 1980’s were a genius act of content marketing.
For those unfamiliar with the legend of He-Man and the Masters of The Universe, I will provide a brief overview. Mattel initially introduced the first few action figures in the early eighties accompanied by a set of great mini-comics. He-Man was a warrior in the land of Eternia who is granted access to the magic of the mysterious Castle Greyskull and the Power Sword. He soon learns that both are coveted by an evil being known as Skeletor who sends his henchman after He-Man at every turn. The stories were very much drawn from classic sword-and-sorcery material but peppered with modern sci-fi weaponry and strange beings. It suggested this might be past or future, but definitely somewhere very different. For us kids, it was brilliant.
Little did we know that Mattel was feeling sore over having missed the boat when it declined to take on the Star Wars toy line that Hasbro was now reaping the rewards of. The concept of the He-Man toys was one designed to start with the outcome in mind: a set of action figures in every kid’s toy chest. Targeted at kids already enthused with fantasy and science fiction, the content strategy painted a larger picture that a wider group of parents and kids, boys and girls included, could latch onto. This strategy would drive the franchise into a long running animated television series, a DC comic book series and a full length motion picture (which if I remember was not very good). Along the way, I dare say they succeeded in driving quite a few toy sales; certainly enough to expand several years of expansions of the line and multiple reissues of the original characters.
Here are some of the characteristics I’ve observed about the franchise in retrospect.
They started with the product
Unlike Star Wars, this was not a film that led the charge and followed by the toys. The initial figures were these musclebound, 5-inch hulks, permanently molded into a squat stance that indicated they were “ready for battle”. They came with their weapons and a small comic that painted a slice of the mythology of the land of Eternia, its heroes and villains. I believe that the toys were on the market in toy-stores, relying on those comics and the word of mouth of fans to make the rounds with kids for a couple of years before they ventured into the animated television series.
They allowed the story to emerge over time
Each comic also revealed a few other pieces of the universe on the back cover: other action figures, vehicles and play sets. Some of these were revealed in the comics, but others were mysteriously omitted. It let you know there was a bigger story but also allowed you to create some of that narrative in your own imagination.
There was also a degree of ambiguity surrounding who was good and who was evil. In the first few issues, it was clear that many of the protagonists were themselves strangers, drawn together by some mystical forces. Often they would also have certain characters depicted in the shadows; you could recognize them by their silhouette, but their role could be construed as observer or participant.
They revised the narrative to speak to their broader audience
When the animated series hit the air, there were a few new elements introduced in order to make the story more accessible to a wider range of fans. He-Man now had an alter ego, Prince Adam, the royal ruler of the land of Eternia would be gifted his power sword by the feather clad Sorceress.
Signaling a desire to reach a broader audience than just the male fantasy geeks, the series introduced a number of new characters which would later be implemented as toys. These included several new female heroes and villains. The series also brought comedy into the fold by including a goofy wizard named Orko and even a cowering version of He-Man’s trusted Battle Cat that shivered in fear until emboldened by a blast of energy from the power sword.
They grounded themselves with influencers
Knowing that parents were ultimately the gatekeepers to getting their products adopted in the homes, the series creators began to articulate a moral lesson in the epilogue to each story. This was a helpful counterweight to justify watching a program that was filled with violence between battling factions. This would become a popular tactic in other series launched around this time, including the popular G.I. Joe.
A good run while it lasted
By the time the full length feature movie and DC comic series came out, I had outgrown the franchise. I remember seeing the film and hating it. Of course my opinion might have been colored by the fact that I was no longer playing with the toys, but I suspect it really was horrible. Let’s face it: it starred Dolph Lundgren who had previously played Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, another famous franchise “jump the shark” moment. That said, the films did not discolor my love of the original concept and characters.
On a final note, I am excited to have learned of a book written on the rise and fall of the He-Man toy empire by its creator. I’m looking forward to reading, Mastering the Universe by Robert Sweet. Apparently the toys sold more than 1 billion dollars worth in their time on the market!
I look forward to exploring the content marketing strategies behind some of my other favorite toy franchises in future posts as I unearth more of my childhood from the depths of my parents’ basement.
I wrote this in October 2016 only to leave it unfinished. During the last week, I received a notification of a post from Facebook a year ago when we were on a house hunt in Virginia. When I re-read the post, it still rang true for me, so I’ve decided to post it.
Those of us who have had the privilege of living in Northern California for a portion of our lives have at one time or another thought that they could not leave “paradise”. After all, we had sublime weather, the greatest sunsets, and the greenest hills. We were fifteen minutes from wine country and 20 minutes from downtown SF. I can say with conviction that California has some great things, but while its almost paradise, it’s not the end-game for me.
Now that I’ve moved away, it’s amazing to realize that its the one place I’ve actually spent the most substantial portion of my life outside of NY/NJ. We had a great run there, learning the city without really knowing anyone. We ate at some of the country’s best restaurants, drank the best wines, saw the greatest landscapes. Experienced sailing in SF Bay, learned to properly mountain bike in the hills of San Anselmo and discovered the practice of yoga. We got married, got my first dog, and had two amazing kids. I put my first dog to sleep, lost co-workers to horrible accidents and experienced numerous earthquakes (luckily not the “big one”).
Ultimately, I was ready to go. You know there is something missing when you make a great salary but you’re always feeling like you are scraping by. We were having annual (if not more frequent) conversations about how many things we missed back east. Every trip home was a reminder of what we were missing. After all, what good is paradise when you can’t share it with everyone you love. Paradise is relative.
For a while I thought that if I changed my job, I might be happier. As I started exploring companies, it was clear that there were lots of incredible opportunities abound.
So we moved back east. It’s been an adventure to say the least. We’ve had some curveballs thrown at us, but we’ve kept on truckin’. We see family all of the time, the kids love school, and we’ve become part of a great community.
Do I miss California? There are definitely some aspects of it that I think about often:
- Wearing shorts practically year round.
- The gardens around my home that I created with my own sweat.
- The Plano, the friends we made there, our annual block parties and our large assortment of fruit trees.
- It’s Its. In and Out. Fish in Sausalito. Central Market in Petaluma.
- Living near waterfall hikes.
- Taking the ferry to work.
Are there things I don’t miss? Absolutely:
- Horrible public transportation.
- Bad startup ideas. (I was once approached by a company that failed making a television show recommendation app that they “pivoted” into an email marketing tool.)
- Endless hoards of hipsters. Ironic beards. Civilians in cycling gear.
- The fact that I lived in an upper middle class neighborhood but still would have my car pillaged in the middle of the night.
- Day care that was three times as expensive as it was in New Jersey where I grew up.
- Not having seasons. Especially Fall.
- Being away from family during times of crisis.
- My kids not getting to grow up near cousins and old family friends.
Was California paradise? Almost, but not quite.
The bottom line for me is that paradise is a myth. There are beautiful places all over this country. What’s important is that you have a chance to live in them. I feel like these days I am enjoying a better life. Next time I go back to the Bay, it will be nice to be a visitor again.