Monday, January 27, 2014

The Passion of the Google

Recently, Fortune magazine came out with its annual list of the 100 best companies for which to work (2014).  When I viewed the list I noticed a number of perennial honorees as well as a few newcomers.  Sitting right at the top of the list was Google.  This is an excellent distinction for them in a year where their stock price has soared, innovation has been remarkable, and they were featured in a movie ("The Internship") starring Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson.  

Given that we all, as leaders, want to have great workplaces too, what lesson(s) could we possibly learn from Google?  What did they do that put them on top?  Maybe the biggest question might be, "Can we create an organization on the "Google principles" that would allow us to get to the top?"  Even getting on the top 100 list would be great.

The answer is that it doesn't matter to any of us what Google does.  No matter what you or I do we will never be able to create an organization like Google.

Because Google is a cult.

Now before any of you get angry, offended, insulted, etc., let me explain what I mean.  Let me begin by listing, from, the actual definition(s) of the word "cult".

1.  a specific system of religious worship, esp with reference to its rites and deity
2.  a sect devoted to such a system
3.  a quasi-religious organization using devious psychological techniques to gain and control adherents
4.  a group having an exclusive ideology and ritual practices centered on sacred symbols, esp one characterized by lack of organizational structure
5.  intense interest in and devotion to a person, idea, or activity
6.  the person, idea, etc, arousing such devotion
7.  something regarded as fashionable or significant by a particular group

Let’s take a look definitions 4, 5, and 6.  I could parse each one of them out for specific meaning but this isn’t a psychology blog.  Rather than doing that we will look at how Google was formed and what has changed since.

The company was initially formed 18 years ago by two individuals, Larry Page and Sergey Brin.  The company initially started small but grew very quickly.  My personal opinion is that some of the very first steps taken by Google were brilliant.  Let’s start with the name and the logo.  Yes, that all-important logo.  The company created an identity with a specific symbolical name (see cult #4) that was so recognizable that it actually became a brand-new verb in our same dictionary.  Then Page, Brin, and associates started to instill certain but very specific values in their workforce, hire by hire.  Although there were (and are) a number of values, perhaps the most famous of them was “Don’t Be Evil”.  As we see from cult definition #5, having ideas worthy of devotion is a powerful tool for cementing people together.  We only need to know the most basic sketch of human history to understand this concept.

All that I have said so far talks about how and why Google ascended, but it does not address why they remain ascendant when other companies cannot.  The answer lies in a commonality of values.  Think about your company and all of those around you.  How often do the Chairman, CEO, VPs, Directors, Managers, and employees all share the exact same values?  The answer is, “Pretty much never!”  And therein lies the strength of Google.

To really understand what I’m about to say it would be quite illustrative to watch “The Internship”.  But in case you don’t, know this fact.  Google has a process to select people that all share the same characteristics.  The people they select may be quite diverse, but at heart they all value the same things.  I’ll leave it up to you to determine just what it is that comprises these values, but rest assured that Google does not hire people whose value sets are divergent.  Google is more than a company when it comes to bringing new people into the fold.  They are probably the most diligent, thorough company in corporate America when it comes to profiling potential employees.  (The only group that comes to mind when I think about this level of attention to detail is the U.S. Navy Seals.)  In fact, to formalize the commonality of values and purpose, every person at Google is referred to as a “Googler” and is given at least some stock, hence ownership, in the company.

All of this will last as long as Page and Brin remain at the helm of Google (cult #6).  They are onto something that I chronicle in my book “The Talent Triangle” and refer to in previous blog posts.  Values are important.  Whether by choice or coincidence they understand the concept of the Hall-Tonna value map system.  You see, Google is what the value map lists as a “Phase 3/New Order” entity.  (The link will show you the whole map)

The wonder that is Google will stay on top as long as Page and Brin continue to proliferate the benevolent cult that attracts, retains, rewards, and satisfies the people who belong.  Even though none of us will be able to copy Google unless we can somehow create an organization of one mind, we can learn just a few lessons.

#1. Values matter.  Always strive to have people on your teams share the same values as defined by Hall-Tonna.  Just like in religion, I don’t have to think like you but if I believe like you, odds are we’ll get along just fine.

#2. Beware anyone who does not buy into the maxim, “What is good for the goose is good for the gander.”  At our cores, we are all people and quite similar in most regards.  Titles and roles exist within organizations, including Google, to differentiate work.  But never be fooled that worth or virtue is defined by income achieved, size of office, or the cost of one’s wardrobe.

Friday, January 17, 2014

It's Worse Than You Think

With so much going on in the world today - terrorist attacks, wars, politics - most of us are focused on anything but our own computers.  There were times in the past, such as the year 2000, when various computer viruses had brief but intense moments of infection that captured our attention.  Perhaps one of the most famous modern viruses came out in the year 2000.  It was called the ILOVEYOU virus and was so powerful that within a few hours of its release it had infected millions of computers throughout the world.  This virus did all kinds of fun things like erasing the entire list of files on an infected machine.

It was right around the start of the new millennium that computer virus began to move from the realm of the malicious, but singular hacker, to the new tool of gangsters, criminals, and finally governments.  For a list of most computer viruses of significance ever made, click here.

The ascendance of Apple and smartphones seemed to diminish the public's fear of the destructive power of viruses.  This was mostly due to this equipment being either new or less open to direct manipulation by the person using the tool.  Fast forwarding to today, if you were to ask people in your workplace or group of friends whether or not they were fearful of computer viruses, you'd probably get a "No" response.

Well, as they say, ignorance is bliss.  Except when being ignorant can cost you your data, identity, business, national economy, or maybe even your uranium enrichment facilities.  The scary truth about cyberspace is that it has become the lifeblood of both individuals and governments.  Just like people couldn't go without email or the Internet for a day, the economies of many 1st and 2nd world nations are dependent upon stock markets that exist only in a virtual world.  Untold damage can be done without ever harming any "real" property.  The movie "Fight Club" predicted this over 10 years ago.

I referenced Stuxnet in the link above.  This code was one of the driving factors in the terminology upgrade of "viruses" to the new moniker "malware" (stands for malicious code).  Several years ago the Iranian government had many of its uranium enrichment facilities infected with a very unique piece of malware.  It was ingeniously coded to activate when the Iranians used computers to run their centrifuges.  The code caused the machines to spin wildly out of control, break down, and even explode.  Until then, that type of event was only possible in science fiction.

Today, IT specialists in both the corporate world and the government fight a tireless battle against the proliferation of malware.  It is a tight-fought battle because there are almost 100 new types of malware created every day.  The truly frightening thing to consider is that malware has the ability to do almost anything.  It is a testament to IT security professionals that most people are not aware of the true magnitude of danger that exists.  Yet, take a look at this slideshow to understand how fast the threats are growing.

A very important fact to remember is that quite a bit of malware is designed and targeted at you as an individual.  Criminals and governments aren't just going after companies like Target and Sony.  No, they want to get to know you as well.  Intimately.  As I write this blog it is almost certain that a majority of you who are reading it have had your own home equipment infected.  While most of the malware is designed for minor things such as redirecting your browser, others are not so.  In fact, in 2013 one of the most heinous pieces of malware ever made burst on the scene.  Called "CryptoLocker", this code, once on your computer will encrypt all of your files.  Once finished, it will pop up a window that starts a countdown of five days and instructions on how to wire $300 to an offshore account.  If you don't pay up, after the time expires all of your data is hopelessly locked up forever. 

CryptoLocker is so horrible that it actually spawned a new category of malware called "RansomWare".

As an employee, trust that your company is locked in an ongoing, bitter "cold war", with criminals of all types to keep you safe.  As an individual, you must take steps to protect yourself.  If you don't, it is only a matter of time before you become a victim.  That is, if you are not already one.  Do the research on how best to protect your own cyber assets.  If you don't want to spend the time, take my word for it and go download, install, and purchase the full version of the "Malware Bytes" protection software.  You might be surprised at what you find after running your first scan....

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Let the Games Begin!

As I have discussed in previous posts, the video game industry dwarfs all other forms of digital entertainment by a large margin.  The most successful movie of all time (to date) was Avatar, and just the "Call of Duty Series" will out gain it in total revenues by a laughable margin. 

It always happens around the Thanksgiving/Christmas holiday time that most new gaming products come out, whether they be software or hardware.  Last year it was the Nintendo Wii U.  This year the heavy hitters, Microsoft and Sony, released their next generation of consoles.  The releases marked a trend that all of us should take very seriously for many reasons.  The first and foremost reason is my belief that technical innovation in the entertainment industry drives IT forward in the business arena.

Some of you may find that statement hard to believe.  In order to understand why I would say something like that you'd almost have had to grow up in the late '70s, 80s, and early/middle 90s.  You know, the dark era of pagers, monochrome monitors, and 10MB hard drives.  The mere fact that we have become so technologically advanced in such a time is a strong indicator that something powerful is driving us forward. 

Taking a look at the modern PC and such applications as SAP, Microsoft Office, and even Facebook, we can safely discount them as drivers of modern innovation.  Since I believe in a future, such as described by Ernest Cline in his book "Ready Player One", where real business is done in virtual world, let me give you some proof.

Over Christmas my household was a lucky recipient of a new XBox One console device.  Let's look at a few of the amazing innovations that were included in the unit to enhance gaming.

This technology is used in the business world to authenticate people by identifying unique physical characteristics about them.  They include: retinas, fingerprints, palms, and voice.  Using the newest version of the Kinect sensor, my XBox One knows whenever I walk into the room where it's set up.  As soon as I enter the room, a message appears on the TV screen saying, "Hello Christopher!"  I'm not completely sure what it cues on, but I think it might be facial recognition.

I was trying to enter the setup area on it shortly after installation and couldn't find the button.  I asked my wife if she knew where it was and she simply said out loud, "XBox! Open Settings!"  Sure enough and to my amazement, that very screen opened up.

There are several games including one about zombies that key on noise in the room and/or the player's heartbeat.  If the game senses an increased pulse rate, characters in the game respond.  In the zombie game, if you make noise in the room where you're playing, the zombies inside the game can hear and come to investigate.  Talk about creepy...

4-D Feedback
This particular term refers to an experience that stimulates and reacts to four senses.  With the new controllers a person must rely on sight, sound, tactile, and aural feedback in order to fully play.  In several upcoming game titles people will have actual, complete conversations with in-game characters!

The concept of 4-D is important because both the military and certain industries are starting to incorporate the same technologies into their operations.  Drone operators in the military aren't just using joysticks anymore.  They wear VR (virtual reality) helmets and manipulator gloves or suits in order to operate sophisticated, remote-control drones.  In the medical field, surgeries involving many organs including the heart and brain are starting to become virtualized in terms of how a person remotely guides devices to perform delicate work that a human could not. 

The same things are happening in many fields within Life Sciences and in certain manufacturing disciplines where precision is paramount.  Recently, even Amazon has talked about bypassing UPS (not a bad idea after their December fiasco) in favor of delivering packages to your house directly by drone!

The Take Away
All of these advances in business are actually following technologies developed previously for games.  As an IT leader or CIO, it really behooves you to pay attention to what's happening in the field of gaming.  It was games, not business, that drove the trends in computing that led to massively fast processors and huge storage arrays.  Sure, businesses have now harnessed that tech but it is an example of one industry reaping the benefits from another, as an afterthought. 

Games and entertainment will always be the engine of innovation that drives technology forward in all other aspects of life.  If you can learn how to identify those trends early, you'll be in a great position to help your own company be a differentiator, not just a follower.  In other words, you'll be able to be Netflix/AppleTV and not a Blockbuster/HD DVD.