The Wifi Wars, The Wifi People

Simulacra, Simulacrum

For many caught on the wrong side of the Digital Divide, reality is under suspicion of being a simulation,  a dream deferred.

In one-stoplight rural towns and urban pockets across America, internet connections are dark with low broadband subscription rates.  According to the US Census Bureau, cities such as Detroit, Michigan and Macon, Georgia, have broadband subscription rates less than 50% and a median income of less than $25K.

In 1992 Geoffrey Moore argued in his tech book, “Crossing the Chasm” that it is particularly challenging for a technology to cross from “early adopters” to the “early majority”, because both segments possess different characteristics (dreamer vs. pragmatist) and expectations for technology.  New high-tech ventures must reach “critical mass” of diffusion and adoption to self-sustain. But since technology spreads virally through the sequential hand-offs of these consumer segments, success is crucial in these early stages.

To build a harmonious society, I would argue Crossing the Digital Divide is no easier than Crossing the Chasm that Moore described.  Today, two huge walls of water stand across each other like Moses’s parted Red Sea, representing the gap in equity between those who have access to internet and computers and those who do not.  In that gap is a dry seabed, where an orphaned tribe of Digital Natives is attempting to make its way to the opposite shore of Digital Inclusion, before they get engulfed by the Data tsunami (the expectation that with the rise of connected devices and internet of things people will generate at least 4.3 exabytes of data in their lifetime).

Digital Divide

Historically, the army of chariots chasing these orphaned Digital Natives have been ISPs including cable and mobile operators, charging high prices for data speeds considered sluggish and medieval by European and global standards.(According to digital traffic company Akamai , U.S. ranks 17th in world re: connection speeds) However, a new miracle-worker is upsetting the apple cart of the Big Four.  He is not descending from Mount Sinai, sun burnt with a long goatee and two stone tablets, but rather he is a technology – WiFi.  At first friend to the Big Four, Wi-Fi is emerging as saboteur, as the 5th carrier.  Wi-Fi was unlicensed  5GHZ frequency to which mobile operators diverted traffic off their 3G/4G networks to unwind congestion from bandwidth hogs.  In fact, according to Cisco Systems Inc.’s Visual Networking Index, in 2013 wireless operators offloaded 45% of all mobile data traffic onto a fixed network using Wi-Fi/femtocell technology.  And by 2018 Cisco predicts that percent will be even higher.  Most of the internet will be powered by Wi-Fi.

Enter the Wifi Wars, the Wifi People

In the future, Wi-Fi could be the bridge technology to closing the Digital Divide, serving as a great platform for innovation at the bottom of the pyramid in underserved communities.   As a result, an arms race between the cable and telephone companies is intensifying over Wi-Fi as it is the “new black”,  the new digital oil to acquire and retain customers.  Major cable companies have teamed up to provide Wi-Fi roaming for their customers. Time Warner, Comcast, Bright House Networks, and Optimum cable all allow their cable  subscribers to traverse each other’s cable Wi-Fi networks by selecting the “CableWiFi” service on their connected device.  Google, a new entrant to the telecommunications game, launched a wireless service, piggybacking on Sprint’s and T-Mobile’s network, which can also make calls over Wi-Fi spots lit up in Google Fiber-hoods.  Facebook acquired Whatsapp which eventually will be able to offer free services like free calls over Wi-Fi.  Many will be able to “build their own prosperity” using the free Internet to start or grow a business.

X wing fighter

Low income people and especially minority populations depend on mobile devices.  In order to “jack in” to the internet without a hardwired fiber solution, they have to send a wireless signal.   So having Wi-Fi they can use on-the-go is an effective way of keeping living expenses down.  Because it is open source for anyone to use and barriers to entry are low, any entrepreneur can bring low-cost wireless products and applications to market.

To cross the Digital Divide, these orphaned Digital Natives, or  “Wi-Fi people”, must focus their innovation on using fewer resources to generate the critical mass of social proof.  Until their creativity establishes a beachhead of critical mass of customers within their extended peer groups who can provide credible references, they will be stuck in the divide.  Learning to manipulate code by memory will be a prerequisite for survival in the Wi-Fi wars.  Digital literacy and coding must be in one’s DNA to control the software of their destiny; whether it is to do homework, fill out applications for jobs, create a killer-app, or apply for social benefits.  There is equal opportunity for everyone to become literate in these technologies so that they are creating #digital futures and not only consuming content.

The FCC government is helping with increased e-rate funding which provides internet access at schools.  But the money goes to schools, not home Internet access, and approximately half of low-income homes nationwide lack proper Internet service.   Thus the next opportunity is providing public Wi-Fi,  allowing many consumers to make free calls from their mobile phones via the Internet.  Chicago public libraries are lending out hotspots like books to help combat the city’s digital divide.   Mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio is accepting proposals to retrofit 10,000 existing payphones with WiFi hardware.  Homeless people are being converted into walking Wi-Fi antennas with “I’m a 4G Hotspot” T-shirts as part of a “charitable experiment” by a New York ad agency.  In Salton, California, yellow school buses are being repurposed at night in downtime as Wi-Fi mobiles crashing parking lots in welfare projects to keep disadvantaged students connected at home.

Although kids are bringing more technology to school in their pocket than NASA packed into the first shuttle that landed on the moon, access to cell phone usage is still limited and demonized in school.  Thus, the potential of these students are falling short of reaching the moon.   At school, students use tablets and the Internet to tap into a variety of educational resources, including self-paced lessons, but if availability to these technologies remain distant on the bike path home, the Data Tsunami will wipe them out. Therefore, local communities must leverage the rise of mobile technology and the capacity of Wifi networks to make learning more authentic and powerful for students to become the next generation of tech visionaries, policy influencers and money men. This is the only way, the Wifi people will clear a path through the sea of the Digital Divide on dry ground to an equitable future.


Hip Hop is not going to save their lives… of Black-Eyed Peas fame, got it right, when he intimated:

“Music saved my life, but it’s not going to save their lives in the next 10 years. It’s going to be math and science.”

In 2013, amongst a tech panel of industry insiders at the Consumer Electronics Show, the rapper expressed why he works with inner city youth to promote STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education.

Recently, I had an opportunity to address an audience of high school students at Blue Valley CAPS program in Overland Park, Kansas about the knowledge economy.  CAPS, short for Center of Advanced Professional Studies, is a $12M state-of-the-art tech facility, giving a leg-up to the next generation of engineers and scientists, while still in high school.

I did not have to sell these young suburbanites hard on the skills they would need for the future.  At the beginning of the 20th century, hard hats and big muscles were the inputs for a competitive economy.  Output was measured by widgets produced.  Today, ideas kindle growth, not objects. People have the power to innovate faster than diminishing returns.

These classroom digital natives, musing in the telepathy of social networking and texting did not need an old world settler (like myself) with one foot in analog and floppy disks to proselytize them.  But in major urban pockets of the US, a different story is unfolding.  A different tribe in black hoodies cloak themselves in plain sight with smartphones in hand as Amazon drones circle like bats overhead; the smoke screen is the American city itself… and the ghost-underdog is hibernating in the belly of the machine.

Digital Crack, Digital Natives: The Turntable and a Mic

In 1978, the crack cocaine epidemic was ripping apart homes all over the country, spreading like a virus, with African-American youth, as its primary host; integrated schools and neighborhoods were backsliding into segregation; the ‘American Dream’ was hiding out in abandoned lots, near busted parking meters and graffiti bridges as politicians puffed their chests, reasserting free-market values to victims handcuffed by generational poverty.

But two simple pieces of technology – a turntable and a mic – changed all that. The turntable and the mic became weapons of choice of the Hip Hop movement like the slingshot David used to slay Goliath in the Bible.

Hip Hop was a function of what I call the “Ghost-Underdog in the Machine”, where the machine is the system and the ghost-underdogs are those who live in the machine, both haunting it and haunted by it; a super-consciousness that monitors our skeletons and like an unexplained bug overtakes the computer, moving the cursor by itself, helping us to rectify our transgressions when we do not catch them.

Hip-Hop saved lives, where schools, homes and leaders of the community profoundly failed.  However, as digital technology continues to reconstruct the value chain of distribution and wipe out album sales, Hip Hop (which in the 2000s was making $10 billion annually) cannot save lives the way it did emotionally or economically.  If one takes a look at the urban unrest from Ferguson, Missouri to Bronx, New York, where Hip Hop started, poverty and crime are probably worse than ever.  A new divide is forming: The Digital Divide.  In the era of big data, cloud computing, mobile and the Internet of Things, 1 in 4 US homes lack a broadband connection.  To worsen matters, low income and American minorities are disproportionately finding themselves on the wrong side of that Digital Divide.

David And the Slingshot of the Future

Is there some lightning of hope striking across the bleak horizon? Yes.

According to Malcolm Gladwell’s book David and Goliath, the strongest does not win all the battles.  When it comes to innovation, size and spending does not correlate with success. In fact, Goliath had size and muscle but David innovated; he took a rubber-band, a stick and a stone, which by themselves were useless. But when he combined them he created a superior technology, taking Goliath out.  This innovation is akin to the turntable and a mic that poor African-American youth combined to revolutionize a music industry that historically drowned its voice out due to lack of capital and market influence.

In 2015, the Goliath are tech companies that are shutting the voices of diversity (women and minorities) out when they recruit talent. Last summer, major tech companies including Apple, Google and Facebook released employee statistics that confirm what critics had suspected: opportunity is not created equal.  Yet this gender and racial composition of the tech industry does not reflect consumer demand. (A 2014 Pew Research Center report found 92% of African Americans own a cell phone, and 56% own a smartphone and show high levels of broadband, internet and Twitter usage).

There is a sea change and the Goliaths are in trouble.  The large tech incumbents are vulnerable to a new breed of very able competitors that reflect the diversity of thought and richness of society.  One of the reasons most of the innovation out of Silicon Valley seems trivial and revolves around apps like Angry Birds and Farmville that distract us in our downtime, is because many of the young entrepreneurs are not exposed to real-world problems like crime, traffic, unemployment, disease and poor health.  However, many inner-city youth do not suffer from that problem. They fight very differently and are not bound by the accepted ways of doing business.

As a result, an army of David’s are rising from the ashes around the world planting the seeds of change and innovation. For example, Kelvin Doe, aka DJ Focus, a teenage African built a generator from scraps picked out of the garbage of Sierra Leone. At 13, he became the youngest person to participate in MIT’s Visiting Practitioners program.

Obviously, there are structural challenges like an equitable education system, a deliberate tech talent pipeline and access to venture capital that are necessary to harness the forces of disruptive innovation at scale.  But the socio-economic conditions today are no less daunting than they were for the “Crack generation” in that they require creativity, resourcefulness, passion and vision.  The major difference is the hardware of turntable and mic has lost its relevance. As we move into a semantic economy, the slingshot of the future will be a connected device (iPad, smartphone) with a web browser and a high speed broadband connection.

Additionally, teaching children of color about math and science, coding and building robots will be paramount to their future livelihood.  Why not begin teaching them general engineering and entrepreneurial concepts and how to become technocrats in kindergarten? Poor inner city youth have to get technical, learn software, write code or at least hang around groups that do.  They cannot see these experiences as “nerdy” or something other cultures do.  They have to start their own tech companies like they started their own rap and breakdance crews on the cardboards of New York City, battling for the donations of tourists.

As little “Davids” in a battlefield dominated by size they are not going to be able to compete with Silicon Valley’s IPO bound “killer-apps.” But if they follow the rules of disruption that Clayton Christensen has laid out, they can burrow a tunnel in the low end of the market under Silicon Valley.  They will win with “saver-apps” of the streets that will save lives, save a generation.  The Ghost Underdog in the Machine has re-awakened. Be on point for the future shock!

Algorithm Kills the Rhythm Off The Wall

How many times have we set the music industry adrift to sea in a boat with its personal effects?

Then like a Viking, shot a flaming arrow at its sail, to see it engulfed by a bully of flames and sink?

Yet it claws back to life, each time, less physical, less recognizable. 

First as a vinyl record, then as an 8-track, then as a cassette, then as a CD, then as an MP3. Today music doubles as a streaming service triggered by an algorithm.

In summer of 2014, Songza was acquired by Google for a few million.  Months earlier, Beats by Dre was acquired by Apple for a few billion.  The common denominator of both acquisitions:  smart playlist curation based on mood, location and activity of the listener.  In the spirit of Pandora and Spottify, both business models are subscriptions that leverage machine learning to help users discover music. 

100 years ago, in 1913 a Russian composer, Igor Stravinsky, set Paris on fire with what is regarded as the most influential compositions of the 20th century – “Rite of Spring”. Within minutes of the first notes screeched from a bassoon, the audience booed loudly and hurled tomatoes at the pagan display on stage.  A brawl ensued, sparking a riot at the ballet!  The Modernist Movement (Picasso Cubism, Jazz, Beat Poetry and then some) was born. 

It is crazy to think if Stravinsky created that tune based on a software algorithm generated by a computer, history would be quite different.  There would have been no violence, no arrests, and disturbance of musical tradition and that would not have been a good thing.

In the 1980s “MTV Killed the Radio Star.” At the dawn of a new century, the algorithm may have killed rhythm. 

In 2006, Chris Anderson invented the term ‘long tail’ to describe a shift of media businesses from selling a few blockbuster hits to selling a large number of niche items.  Although the sales of these niche items were infrequent, in aggregate their sales could outrun the sales of ‘hits.’  Digitization lowered the barrier to entry by amateurs, multiplying the fruits of content on the web.  And the internet simplified distribution as the perfect vending machine, where consumers could get anything they wanted, anytime at zero marginal cost like a bucket of ice at a motel.   The music artist was not bound to the sand-bagging contracts and rules of major record studios.

Soulja Boy is a good example of an independent artist who saw the opportunity present in using YouTube to self-publish and release not only his music video, but an instructional video where he teaches suburban America the Crank Dat dance in an empty swimming pool.  Crank Dat became #1 in the US in 2007 and he was listed on Forbes List of Hip Hop Cash Kings as a multi-millionaire by 2010.

However, since then, the internet has become littered with broken hoop dreams, white-chalked asphalt and loud boom boxes and it has been challenging for independent artists to match Soulja Boy’s success.  In the words of billionaire Dallas Mavericks owner, Mark Cuban, the internet is ‘a long tail ghetto’, where the streets have a twinkle in its eyes for arbitrage.   For content providers and artist to break out of the tail, and climb the Vert Ramp (steep wall that skateboarders use) into mainstream success and be discovered, they are going to need additional resources a.k.a. “Other People’s Money.”

Like many others, I saw the long tail as a fertile playground for independent artists to unleash their creative will, where the previous distribution models (record, cassette, CD) trapped them.  But the problem with the long tail is that ignores the basics of innovation and creativity.  Courage. Failure.  Vision.  Instead a new prison has enclosed the artist.  Content is so cheap to produce and ubiquitous, the premium for the music experience has migrated to music discovery. And now the long tail of demand is wagging the dog of creativity, instead of the other way around.

A song is not a spark, but a Rubik’s cube, which can be solved through a series of reverse engineering methods – an algorithm.   Yet can the artist ‘make it’ on his terms in an era where the algorithm is the ultimate focus group?  Sometimes the customer doesn’t know what it likes and that is where some of the best artists are born to guide, shape and reinvigorate pop culture norms.  Otherwise, hire management consultants. And when was the last time they created a musical movement that changed the world?    

Algorithms may help us find new artists, but it is backward looking.  Because they build their judgment on what was popular in the past, we will likely end up with reheated microwave pop, not break-through movements like punk or hip-hop.  We will get stuck into a loop, chasing hit singles, chasing the long tail, liking what we like, but not growing and learning. 

Steve Jobs famously said, “So you can’t go out and ask people, what is the next big thing? There’s a great quote by Henry Ford, right? He said, ‘If I’d have asked my customers what they wanted, they would have told me ‘A faster horse’.”

The growing role of algorithms in all stages of artistic production is becoming impossible to ignore.  As the music industry dies and comes back in new forms, and we beam more content to the Cloud, to streamline distribution costs, a new algorithm will be necessary to beam down called the anti-algorithm: Human originality. 


Touch of Love: Short History of the Future

According to the 2013 ‘Mobile Life’ report by Samsung and O2, we touch our phones more than we touch our spouses.

We gaze into the eyes of a tablet streaming Netflix videos, more than the eyes of our children, streaming tears onto a playground.

Today, the divorce rate is north of 50% and seniors undergoing mid-life crisis are leaving their wives for younger models. But the models are not runway models with thin, long legs. They are next generation handsets, Samsung GS5 and iPhone5S, thin and leg-less.


Smartphones are getting smarter and the network pipes of mobile operators are getting dumber. Upon Apple’s iPhone release in 2007, the value equation of mobility and data utilization, tipped towards OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers), reducing mobile operators to dumb pipes of bits and bytes and spectrum. Like King Arthur of Camelot, Steve Jobs of Apple pulled the long sword from the stone of wisdom, paving the way for the Fourth Wave in the digital ecosystem, the mobile internet revolution: application providers (Zynga) and platform enablers (Facebook, Twitter).

But if Time is a rabbit going around in a flat circle, then wireless broadband is similar to the revolutions engendered by ships, steam engines and cars. The nuance is that wireless is invisible, and not bound to the hands of a clock and rocks of geography.


Mobile technology is the new Prometheus, providing fire to keep us warm in the holes of the earth and caves of our mind.

In the past, networking technologies have been trialed (albeit long ‘ping’ times) with carrier pigeons or bongo drums. You can Internet Protocol over anything, even two tin cans and a piece of wet string. But with the power of wireless, if the internet can be a computer do you even need a computer? All you need is a device with a browser and a fast broadband connection.

The desktop, the cerebellum of the home and office will become a dumb terminal providing an elevator to services (storage and IT management tools) offered by the Cloud.

Moore’s Law, the engine of innovation for mass market tech for the past 50 years is about to run out of steam. It predicted processing power of computers would double every two years. Intel engineers kept cramming more components on an integrated circuit based on this prediction, reducing the physics of giant mainframes to handheld masterpieces of art like the iPod. But Moore’s Law has hit physical limits. There are no more air bubbles and molecules to shift. As Moore states, “You can’t go beyond one.”

If current trends stick, Softbank, global tech giant, predicts the number of transistors on a circuit will surpass the number of brain cells in a human brain by 2018, meaning the only way for humans to keep up with technology advances will be to merge with machines.


The next tech evolution will be media mash-up of cable, radio, satellite, and broadcast in the spirit of a drip painting by a 5 year old child.

The cell phone has become an extra thumb that humans cannot live without. Many of us can do without water for a day, but how many of us can do without our cellphones for a day? According to a new report released by Bank of America, nearly half of the people surveyed (47 percent) said they wouldn’t last a day without their device.

As consumers become more locked into the social patterns of Facebook and Twitter, a network hive and digital swarm is emerging. To the naked ear and eye, it is a complex, confusing system of information exchange. But just as bees possess their own version of an intranet wired into their honeycomb through which they transmit signals between 230 and 270 Hz, so too will consumers. All voice and data services will belong to a single data stream on 4G Long Term Evolution networks (2.5 GHz), providing the fastest speeds in wireless history.

Mobile phones will continue to handle everything from calls, instant messages, HD TV, photographs and email but additionally act as remote control to our cars, appliances, security systems, homes and offices, all of which will be digitally tagged. Network operators like Comcast and ATT will consolidate satellite, cable and wireless, selling digital music and movies, as well as roaming WiFi service to protect revenue streams.


Google’s search engine coupled with the rise of the Android Smartphone is a prelude to Artificial Intelligence. Smart phones are always on, always learning — global positioning, translating semantics, hunting data, even talking back.

Rene Descartes reasoned that human existence carries a dualistic nature, body and soul. “I think therefore I am.” In essence he said “I am a thinking thing.” The iPhone cannot acknowledge itself and therefore is not conscious, for now…

But as robot design gets more sophisticated, robots will have access to the world wide web through high speed wireless connections, tapping into global databases to answer questions from humans. Their Cartesian moment will be “I think therefore Humans are.”

The best application today is wirelessly linked robot dogs that use artificial telepathy to kick on the soccer field. There is a World Robo Cup held annually where the robots compete. In a decade’s time don’t be surprised if a new team attempts to qualify for the Men’s World Cup.


Technology is flipping our social DNA. We text message more than we hug. We video chat more than we shake hands. We touch our devices more than we touch each other. Studies have shown babies who are not held and hugged enough stop growing and-if the situation persists, even with proper diet – die. There is no denying the healing power of touch and how technological connectivity will matter.

But at the rate we cling to our devices, we may need artificial intelligence to teach us how to feel, how to love again.

This past month, Softbank launched the first humanoid robot which can interpret human feelings. Her name is Pepper.

Pepper is loaded with bells and whistles: a dozen sensors in her digits, base and head. She has two cameras and four microphones and Wi-Fi and Ethernet networking capabilities.

She can dance, rap and crack jokes like Eddie Murphy. But for all her capabilities, when Pepper was playing to the crowd, she said: ‘I want to be loved.’

Drink Your Milkshake

New Year’s Eve. And it’s been almost 2 years since I obtained my business degree and took a job in the telecommunications industry. A few rotations and assignments later, I am a little more experienced at spreadsheet modeling, Gantt charts, pro-formas, project planning and team-conflict resolving, but so what?

Friends that graduated with me are facing their own existential aftermath…the sweet liquor of the MBA wearing off. Some have been promoted, switched jobs and/or industry, started new companies, had children, got married, (one of my dear friends even sadly past away) but many are staring into the deep well of their reflection, awaiting some pebble to break the liquid horizon, some tell-tale sign of their calling, which they thought they had when they graduated, when they tossed their cap and tassel into the smiling clouds of their future.

Do I have options? Yes. Am I grateful? Yes. Should anyone feel bad for me? Absolutely not. But choice is meaningless without purpose.

Recently I was on a tech panel educating high school students on STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) careers. A high school student asked me, point-blank, do I love what I do? I could tell she was looking for me to stroke her anxiety about the future with a sunny forecast laced in clichés. But I couldn’t do it. I told her the short answer was yes. I love what I do…My head is a tulip on fire, running through the streets, because I am passionate about what I do in digital, wireless and tech. However, I remember when I was a teenager in high school, a shy polymath who painted and made music. It was a sweet rush and I would skip to class. Days would disappear into each other like an inkblot test. In my sleep I dreamed in the thick green brush strokes of Van Gogh and thought in the muted stanzas of Debussy.

Today in my current role as a Digital futurist, days do not disappear. It is painstaking blood-blistering hard work. In fact it is pain-staking blood blistering hard work to love what you do at any publicly traded company. The pursuit for profit is relentless with little clemency for the weak as Wall Street expects evermore high short term gains. I am exhausted when the weekend comes and the last thing I want to do is dream and count electric sheep. I want to sleep. I want to sleep and I want to sleep…

But then as I said/thought this and I looked into this high school student’s eyes something in me awakened and it tied to why I was speaking on the tech panel in the first place. It tied to my unflappable resolve to get into a strong b-school program and undergo some of the most challenging, grueling coursework of my life. I as everyone in my graduating class do have purpose…it’s just that we may not have the tools to seize it all the time. Many of us unwittingly, confuse our wishes with our higher purpose and end up on the blooper reel of American Idol or some other version thereof.

Harvard Business School innovation professor, Clayton Christensen, wrote a book, “How Will You Measure Your Life?” He said like MBAs, marketers often prioritize the wrong things, leading them to target “phantom needs.” Specifically he consulted a fast food chain trying to increase milkshake sales. At first they polled consumers on whether they wanted their milkshakes sweeter, cheaper, or thicker, which is the traditional approach. It led nowhere. But then he reframed the problem statement around what job does the consumer hire the milkshake to do? With this jobs-to-be done prodding, they learned that the milkshake solved the boring-morning-commute-to-work problem. In turn, the fast food chain began to make thicker shakes which lasted longer for the morning-commute to work and milkshake sales increased. This analysis forced me to question a number of elements of my life, and the job I hire them to do.

What job do I hire my job in telecommunications to do? I thought I hired my job to help me improve the human condition. And that’s partially true. It will help give me the skills, knowledge and expertise to provide broadband access to all and close the digital divide. But then I went deeper. When I was a kid, people would ask “If a pin drops in the forest and no one hears it, did it drop?” I never could reconcile the philosophical ramifications of that question but I always thought if I was that pin, I would want people to hear me drop. And so communication and being heard and having a voice always have been a driving force in my nature.

Therefore if I spend the next decade of my life doing anything authentic it has to be around connectivity and connecting humans. The problem statement has to be tied to my purpose to connect the world. In wireless, that translates to more handsets, smart phones and tablets and machine talking to machines, mobile apps and standing up network infrastructure in emerging markets. Spreadsheet modeling, Gantt charts, pro-formas, project planning and team-conflict resolving are not the end to my journey, they are the how…

And so to my classmates and friends, I say “Drink your milkshake however you like it!” and cheers to rigging the outcome of your destiny by knowing your why. And whatever you do dream big enough to leave footsteps on the moon of mankind.

No Mythical Man or Unicorn

If you don’t want to get work done, add more people.

How many meetings have you been involved where decisions are made by committee and the outcome leads to a Franken-disaster that pleases no one?

Case and point: Getting 8 women to help a pregnant woman does not make her have a baby in a month.

You don’t fix problems by adding more people to them. You fix problems by having the right people involved at the outset. Just a few like-minded souls are all you need to conduct the orchestra of large, complex projects.

In software design and project management we suffer from what Frederick Brooks coined as Mythical Man Month. Mythical Man Month is not a hairy humanoid creature that lives in the Himalayas, camouflaging in the snow of the mountains. It is our managerial hard hat tricking us into thinking we can cut time (one man month of work) in half by adding more people to projects that are running past deadline.

Traditional business thinking would lead us to assert that we can cover up a problem with the Band-Aid of headcount. Adam Smith, godfather of modern capitalism, theorized that for divisible projects like auto manufacturing, the more you strip a process into its components and widgets, the more you reduce the average cost per unit in terms of time and money. However in software projects which have a high degree of complexity, indivisibility and communication, that is not the case. No mythical man or unicorn can save the project.

If you have X number of people working on a project, you have X squared communication channels, and the proportion of time you spend playing phone tag with your team instead of getting productive work done rises. You are depending on more things and are left idle, spending more time waiting for things to get finished. More so, if a new person tries to join a large project the probability of failure is non-zero because they have to get an abundance of information from many sources, and ramp up increases. For example, if there are too many radios and TVs on in the house you will not hear that “Dinner is ready.” Even although there is one kitchen, and one appetite, the signal to eat will get lost.

So therein lay the paradoxical chicken/egg syndrome. As a manager you want small sharp teams, but you can’t build a very large system this way. Scaling becomes very clumsy. Therefore I suggest the following: First one must build a team of complementary skills and diverse roles. Second, it is important to wisely add more people in the right place to speed things up. Unless the task ahead is no more complicated than building a brick wall, having the right people to ask the right questions will pre-empt over stack and a communication pile up down the road. Too many times teams get bogged down by getting people to row together rather than row in the right direction. Finally, one has to change their thinking from fixed schedules and capital resources into a more agile methodology, whereby you work to fail fast and learn. Even although you do not have all of the inputs at the outset of a task, you try to get through the first cycle of completion and then meet with the development group to make adjustments to requirements. You prototype and build up in increments based on a concrete outputs not abstract ideas.

Software design is like a tar pit: The more you fight it, the deeper you sink! However, if you just relax, your team will float in it, because the way you have chosen to think is less dense than the tar pit.

Dusty But Digital

A friend, who works in online marketing at a Fortune 100, recently asked me how does she increase subscribers to her company’s website? Specifically, what can be done with external platforms (Instagrams, Groupons, other sites) and social media sites (Quora, FB, Twitter, etc etc) to drive subscriptions?

My first response was breathe, think broad. Digital is like a chess match. With the marginal cost of distribution and replication of digital goods approaching zero, there is no excuse not to think creatively. And if you cannot think outside the box, just make the box bigger. There was a time pre-internet, when each grain was too small to affect the entire shape of a beach. Not anymore. Through the sharing, connectedness and collaboration of Web 2.0 and the halo effect of IPOS like Facebook, we should think of digital as a core business function like finance, operations, and strategy, not just a cool add-on to marketing and channel mix.

The buzz around digital strategy is often relegated to media ad spends on alternate mobile and web channels. For example, there was a recent forecast by Bloomberg LP, which expects social media ad spend to jump to $9.8 B by 2016 ( The question in Adage and other media rags is always how do brands keep up with where the eyeballs are and sell a product? But I would reframe the problem statement as how do you increase customer’s willingness -to-pay for your product/service? How do you outsource marketing to your customers in a way that shrinks SG&A? How do you move away from playing musical chairs with discretionary dollars to strategic thinking and increasing gross margins?

Some ideas I have come across in my career are the following:

1. Video integration is not going anywhere. Video is the most powerful form to convey a message and connect to your audience. Ask Justin Bieber. There would be no Beliebers if he did not post videos of himself playing guitar and singing on YouTube, before the major record deals. Blend as much video into your interactive-marketing strategy as possible.

2. RSS push technology. This lowers customer acquisition costs, i.e. getting visitors to your site with zero marginal cost. By pushing syndicated content through a user’s browser you make it easier for them to opt-in to content or learn more about subscription deals. This seems like old hat but look for an evolution in Web 3.0.

3. Mobile marketing messages received through handsets have the highest relevancy to consumers. Smartphones are extensions of artificial intelligence offering location based services, customer analytics, personalization and digital interactions like no other platform can.

4. Start with a community strategy over a promotional application. Many brands just focus on building the killer app, when they need to develop a strong social strategy. Empower your customers to become evangelist and outsource your marketing overhead, increasing your gross margins. Social gaming platforms like Zynga are good sources of inspiration. For example Clorox with CloroxConnects uses incentives borrowed from gaming to incubate ideas for new products. People who post answers or add rating comments are awarded points. Like Lord of the Rings, there is a circle of trust amongst those who participate and contributors who demonstrate expertise can advance to problems of greater difficulty and involvement. The best contributors win recognition, making participation rewarding and sticky.

The possibilities are infinite in the digital world. The convergence of personalization, social and mobility have increased the stakes for gaining market share for brands. Every customer counts in the long tail. Whatever you do start small with a pilot program and demonstrate goodness, then roll it out enterprise wide. Not only will you drive subscriptions and ROI you will differentiate your brand as digital leader because you are leveraging it like a chess master.