Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Tim Cook, Crucible

My article from an old Media & Tech blog (October 7th 2011)

Yesterday morning, in Dubai, I awoke at about 5:15. Before getting out of bed, though, I checked Facebook on my BlackBerry. There it was, Steve Jobs had died. For the next two hours, I was planted at my desk, mesmerized by the glow of the laptop, hardly noticing that morning light had come.

After a short blog in memory of Mr. Jobs, I posted this on my Facebook.

All eyes on this man, of course.

To wit, Dan Lyons from Powerwall reports Cook as having said to the staffers, “I want you to be confident that Apple is not going to change.”

After the debacle and tragedy of the Bush administration, President Obama entered with the venerable ‘house’ strictly in disarray, as was the yard outside and much of the neighborhood and beyond. Cook’s situation is obviously very different and nowhere near the scope of the US and its international affairs. Nevertheless, he’s faced with a super-tough succession challenge.

Two things are common among us, in the face of loss, anxiety and grief:  One is continuation

 We want the people around us and the situation we’ve come to love to stay. To keep going.  We could still have that hope when Jobs resigned in late August. That as Chairman of the Board, he’d still have an active role in the operations, strategy and innovation at Apple.

Two is replacement. Now that Jobs is dead, we want someone exactly like him to take over and thus continue on as him.

From a strictly practical yet humanistic point of view, neither continuation nor replacement is possible. No one lives forever. No situation is permanent. What’s more, we’re all unique. To think that anyone could ever replace Jobs (or any of us, for that matter) is wishful thinking. It’s foolish but understandable. Just part of what makes us quintessentially human.

Cook is exactly in this understandable but foolish situation. Excuse me, come again, I don’t think I heard you. You said, “Apple is not going to change,” right?  It makes sense to say this to console his grieving rank-and-file. But you just don’t lose an icon of Jobs’ standing and impact, and say nothing is going to change.

As I argued in another blog, the real issue now for Apple as a business and for Mr. Cook as the top dog is of evolution, and evolution is about change.

Remember the inspiring lessons of the Think Different campaign? Apple is about thinking differently about things. Jobs would not have followed himself and been same-old, same-old. He would’ve changed his own paradigms, and come up with a truckload of new ones.

So the super-tough challenge for Cook is to carry the company on his shoulders, NOT to continue as it is or to try to replace Jobs, BUT to evolve it into a wholly new Apple over this decade.

Does he have what it takes to do this? Apologies, but I don’t think so, or else we would’ve seen something different by now.

Monday, July 28, 2014

No "Steve Jobs Ill" Photo

My article from an old Media & Tech blog (October 7th 2011)

We all know that social media is dominated by images, and advertisers and promoters clamor to exploit this to draw customers. We also know that the internet is a dizzying network of links, much like the nerves in our brain. But this article will have neither images nor links.

The First Post asks, "Was it right to publish the ‘Steve Jobs ill’ photo?"  The photo in question is of a more sickeningly gaunt Jobs, apparently being helped to stand up by another man. It garnered both sympathy and outrage. There was even talk that it was faked, with one site detailing exactly where it was photo-shopped. No matter. In either case, it was in poor taste to publish it.

Jobs was exceedingly private about his personal life, never mind the inner workings of Apple. So it’s hard to imagine that he would’ve given anyone permission to take this photo, let alone publish it. In the book The Long Tail Chris Anderson talks about how the internet has made regular people capable of producing, distributing, and accessing a wide range of content. True. But whether journalists, photographers, bloggers, or whatever, we must carry ourselves responsibly on the internet.

Thankfully, aside from the couple of sites I found, there was no publication of this photo. Among the many posts on Facebook about Jobs, for example, I saw that photo only once.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Lay Your Sleep Head

My article from an old Media & Tech blog (October 6th 2011)

(image credit)
May Steve Jobs now be cradled forever.

This is from the first stanza of a poem by WH Auden, sometimes titled "Lullaby," which I have loved since I first read it.

Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think!

Ron Villejo, PhD

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Don't Listen to Customers

My article from an old Media & Tech blog (September 2nd 2011)

(image credit)
Corporate speak on this abounds like pretty wildflowers in the meadows. Focus on customers. Champion customers. The customer is king. Management and staff are so inculcated on this notion that they can probably see such meadows in their sleep!

But in my years of consulting for multinationals, and coaching executives and managers, I have seen that this is in fact easier said than done. Most of the time, instead, corporations speak more on how cool, how innovative, how must-have their products or services are. Sales people are schooled on the features, pricing, and servicing of whatever widget they sell. They’re often driven to hit their sales targets, and their managers put the ‘heat’ on them if they’re falling short. It seems like the last thing on all their minds is what customers want.

So it is in no small measure, then, that Catarina Alexon emphasizes that it isn’t at all about what you want, Mr. or Ms. CEO.
Focusing on the customer is, and always has been, the key to successful marketing. It does not matter what you need or want to tell them since the customers priority is what they, not you, need or want. Usually there is no need to tell them bluntly what you can do, there are more subtle ways to get the message across. Ideally they will get the impression that you are sympathetic with their ideas and desires and care about them.”
Still, why is it so difficult to truly focus on customers? I spoke to the fundamental paradox behind this, in my LinkedIn comment to Alexon’s article:

That said, let me take another slant on this paradox. Henry Ford, prominent American industrialist, revolutionized how the automobile was produced, both in quantity and efficiency. Mind you, the automobile was still in its infancy in the early 1900s. What’s more, Ford apparently didn’t ask what customers wanted. If he had, he would’ve built them a faster horse! Instead of a better automobile, which he actually did.

Enter, too, Steve Job, stage right. 

Soon after his heralded return to Apple in the late 1990s, he and his staff unleashed the cutting edge ad campaign Think Different. This was no ordinary commercial. It literally spoke to the very essence of what Apple was to reveal and, moreover, to the very persona that Jobs was and was to become. The crazy one. The misfit. The rebel. The troublemaker. Have a look.

This documentary reinforced how much Jobs banked Apple’s success on his own self-interest. That he was a one-man focus group. That he didn’t do marketing (or so it seemed). Leander Kahney says,
He doesn’t listen to his customers at all. That’s the last place he’s going to listen to. They haven’t got a clue what they want. He’s inventing this stuff, before anyone has seen anything like it.
So there we have it. If any CEO were to follow Apple’s playbook, and I’m sure many have tried, the last thing he or she would follow would be the advice from Alexon and from scores of management gurus.

So how do we really reconcile this paradox of self-interest versus customer want?

The first, but admittedly dissatisfying, answer from me is, well, there is simply no clear-cut rule or guidance on this. We don’t really know for sure. In one respect, it’s about re-writing the playbook or making your own entirely. But, then, you may argue that many people have done this, and none of them could come close to boasting the level of success that Jobs and Ford have had.

My second answer is this. It’s about having a deeper, perhaps intuitive grasp of the psychology of the market. It’s about having a gut-feel for where consumer trends are heading, before any of these trends get picked by the sophisticated radar of market analysts or corporate CEOs. It’s about, I believe, discerning the unspoken, subconscious needs and wants of people. The ones that Kahney says customers haven’t a clue about. Yes, it’s also about having a vision so clear it emblazons itself into everything you see, and being so tenacious about it that you’re willing to break conventional corporate rules and the rational thinking inculcated into business students. But this vision and passion aren’t enough, unless they come with the intuitive, subconscious grasp I suggest.

Finally, I call upon Nassim Taleb’s emphasis in his book The Black Swan. Namely, that pivotal events – which the preceding decade was replete with, in light of Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, alongside the genius Apple gadgets – are often random and unpredictable. That success can be attributed to plain old luck!

Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think!

Ron Villejo, PhD

Monday, July 21, 2014

No iJobs 2

My article from an old Media & Tech blog (August 26th 2011)

Apple store, in Shanghai
OK, maybe you’re tired of hearing news on Steve Jobs’ resignation as Apple CEO. Or maybe you’re like me, someone who’s impressed and inspired by this seemingly larger-than-life, iconic figure, and you can’t get enough news about him. Either way, I feel it’s a good time to step back and reflect, now that the tsunami of tweets and articles on him has abated.

To this end, I want to focus on a Reuters piece, that asks the quintessential Wall Street question “How much higher can Apple shares go without Jobs?”
But with many equating Jobs’ vision with Apple’s success, there is a fear that competition will finally gain on the company years down the road. 
"In the long term, if Steve Jobs’ health deteriorates or if he becomes more disengaged and does not lead the strategic aspect of the company, we will probably cut back our position by half,” said Channing Smith, co-manager at Capital Advisors in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “Guys like Jobs don’t come very often.”"
First of all, I hope that Jobs’ health improves, and I wish him good recovery from what sounds like a very serious illness: pancreatic cancer. Reports are that he’ll assume chairmanship of the Board. Me, I don’t care what position he takes. As long as he stays healthy and involved, Apple will be just fine. All of us will have more opportunities to buy products we really can’t afford, but buy anyway because they’re so cool and inventive.

Second, this point about guys like Jobs not coming very often to our lives is a profound truth, I believe. Here’s why. As a beloved anyone or anything approaches an end, we as people naturally seek continuation. A way to stave off or rebut that finish. But knowing in our hearts that no one and nothing are forever, we seek the next best thing. A replacement. Call it an iJobs2, if you will. Tim Cook looks to be our man at the top.

Cook gave a commencement speech at Auburn University in 2010. He’s a well-respected executive, a really solid guy, it appears. While he spoke articulately and soundly, however, I felt underwhelmed and unimpressed by his speech. I know it’s not fair, but compare this with Jobs’ own commencement speech at Stanford University in 2005. Cook ain’t no iJobs2.

What really is at issue here is evolution, not continuation or replacement. 

Jobs simply cannot continue, because, never mind his recent resignation, he will die at some point. And he simply cannot be replaced, no more than anyone of us can be replaced. We’re fundamentally and inviolably unique. There is no iJobs2, sadly. So, will Apple continue to evolve in the next few years, while it still has Jobs very much in its midst? How will Apple evolve over the longer term, knowing that regardless of what happens, he will exit? Apple struggled mightily after it ousted him unceremoniously in the 1980s, so how will it do this time around?

More from the Reuters article:
”In the long-run, considering that he is an irreplaceable icon, … is Tim Cook the man? We don’t know,” [James] Meyer said. “We’re witnessing a business legend moving toward the exit door. Time only will tell if the company maintains the innovation and the creativity that he put in place there,” said Keith Wirtz.
We have to acknowledge, and keep acknowledging, that we don’t know exactly how things are actually going to evolve. Yes, we can surmise a future, based on our intelligence, experience, and even hopes. Yes, we can predict the future to some extent and in certain ways. But in either case, we cannot surmise perfectly and we cannot predict wholly. We are inevitably limited in what we know and what we can know from the vantage of the present. 

The cool thing, I propose, is that the future becomes present every single moment.

We don’t know, but time is a teacher and time will tell us. So we will know just a bit more tomorrow about Apple, about Jobs, about Cook. And still a bit more the day after. And so forth.

Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think!

Ron Villejo, PhD

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Memes Gone Wild on Brazilian Fans

I missed this World Cup match, but saw commentary, highlights and memes on the sledgehammer Germany leveled on Brazil last week.  I am intrigued at how social media busts out with its unique brand of emotionality and creativity.

Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think!

Ron Villejo, PhD

Monday, July 7, 2014

Memes Gone Wild on Goalie Tim Howard

After Tim Howard's standout performance in the World Cup exit for Team USA, internet memes went berserk on anything that he could save.

Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think!

Ron Villejo, PhD

Friday, July 4, 2014

Elon Musk Accelerates the Inevitable

Sustainable energy, internet, and multi-planetary life are most likely to affect the future, Elon Musk felt, in a positive way. AI and rewriting genetics are two other areas, about which he wasn't so sure, yet.  Apparently he came up with these in the shower, and over time he became more emboldened to pursue them.

Tesla represented the acceleration of the inevitable, which is electric transportation.  In his soft spoken manner, Musk is revolutionary and philosophical à la `The Matrix.  Moreover, he appreciated the fact that what his automobile company can spawn in other automobile companies, such as Nissan with Leaf, will be more game changing than his own cars.  Still he was not only confident about the electric car, when he first conceived of it as a sophomore in physics class, but also he thought the concept was rather obvious.

Larry Page, co-founder and CEO of Google, thought about Musk, in the same breath as weighing what will help humankind most.  In short, Page reasoned that it was better to bequeath his wealth to another corporation, rather than a charity, because there was greater possibility for tectonic innovations.  He liked the notion of interplanetary travel, which in Musk's corporate milieu is SpaceX.  

Then consider Warren Buffet handing over $30 billion to the Gates Foundation.  What remarkable outcomes can a company like Tesla, SpaceX, or any other company in Musk's mind generate from that kind of cash?  

Musk recently spoke to shareholders of Tesla, and they evidently squirmed when he said profit was not the priority of the company.  So we know what was, instead.  But it's clear that Musk has to keep profit firmly in mind, because that is what allows him to realize his vision for humankind.  Perhaps to Page's point, it's a successful business model that under girds the philanthropic pursuit.  So I don't buy the interviewer's remark that wealth is simply a byproduct for Musk, but rather it is the platform or the springboard.  

Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think!

Ron Villejo, PhD

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Elon Musk Revels in Tough Possibilities

People have a lot say about Elon Musk, but the 60 Minutes interviewer cut across that grain and instead asked him to describe himself: An engineer, since he was a boy, who's interested in things that change the world and affect the future, in other words, wondrous new technologies.  He has a desire to show the possibilities of... our imagination, our ingenuity, our resolve perhaps, not so much profit.  

In the Bloomberg Risk Takers episode on Musk, which I wrote about previously, I thought he kept a reserve of cash from his sale of Zip2 and PayPal.  But apparently he was worse than broke, he was in debt, as he poured it all on his three companies - Tesla, SpaceX and SolarCity.  In the dark years of 2007 and 2008, at least one of his companies was bankrupt.  When he called prospective investors asking for help, they not only laughed at him, but also lobbed obscenities at him.  If he were ever to have a nervous breakdown, he said, he came very close in that period. 

In the end, he reasoned that people reveled in taking potshots of him and Tesla, for one, because he was betting on something that was not likely to succeed.  But that's what drives him, and that's what drives me, too.  Theory of Algorithms and The Core Algorithm are just the platforms, really, for a wealth of initiatives, products and services that will span science, art and religion.  In my rough estimation, the chances of success may be so small as to be less than 5%.  But that is all I need to succeed.  

Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think!

Ron Villejo, PhD