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Microsoft Has Lost Its Marketing Mojo August 1, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Strategy.
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I am old enough to remember people standing in line outside of Best Buy at midnight before Windows 95 went on sale. We knew the RTM (release to manufacturing, another anachronism) date by heart, and our favorite PC manufacturers would give us hourly updates on GA (yes, general availability) for their products.

Today, we don’t even know that Windows 10 has been released (Microsoft has said that it may take several weeks to deliver on upgrades and new systems), yet we know the exact date that a new version of iOS hits our devices. I’m searching for a new laptop, and can’t even tell what edition of Windows 10 I might be able to obtain.

This is purely Microsoft’s fault, and it’s sad. It’s sad because the company actually has some very nice products, better than ever I think, yet is at a loss as to how to communicate that to its markets. Windows 10 has gotten some great reviews, and I am loving my Microsoft Band and the Microsoft Health app more each day. But millions of people who have bought the Apple SmartWatch don’t even know that the Band exists.

This failure falls squarely on Microsoft. I’m not entirely sure why Microsoft has failed so miserably, but unless it recognizes this failure and corrects it, there is no long term hope. I can only think that Microsoft believes it is so firmly entrenched in the enterprise that it doesn’t have to worry about any other markets.

I will date myself again, remembering all of the Unix variations and how they believed they were the only solution for enterprise computing. Today, no one is making money off of Unix (although Linux is alive and well, albeit nowhere near as profitable). Unix fundamentally died because of the sheer arrogance of DEC, HP, Sun, and other vendors who believed that the technology was unassailable. It was not, and if you believe otherwise you don’t know the history of your markets, which is yet another failure.

And it also means Microsoft has totally given up on the consumer. I fully expect that there will be no enhancements to the Band, and that it will end-of-life sometime in the foreseeable future. And that too is sad, because consumer tech is driving the industry today. Microsoft was always a participant there, but has given it up as a lost cause.

It’s not a failure of technology. Microsoft never had great technology (although I do believe today it is better than ever). It’s a failure of marketing, something that Microsoft has forgotten how to do.

A Matter of Education July 31, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education.
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After years of less-than-flattering portrayals, the walls seem to have started crumbling for for-profit higher education institutions. Corinthian Colleges has closed entirely, and ITT and the University of Phoenix are undergoing investigation. In addition, enrollment has been on a downward trajectory, with the University of Phoenix shrinking by perhaps 50,000 students over the last year.

This state of affairs leaves me with mixed emotions. Let me establish some credentials. While no longer in higher education, I taught for over fifteen years, as an adjunct, tenure track full time faculty, and online instructor. I value education, and remain a lifelong learner through the MOOC vehicles.

There is nothing inherent in a for-profit status that makes it a less quality choice for education. In fact, many so-call not-for-profit schools do, in fact, make a profit, although with their tax status, it is usually referred to as “retained earnings”. (Disclosure – I am certainly not a tax expert, but this distinction between the two types of entities is fairly fundamental).

In particular, I think that the education delivered by both is fairly comparable. Granted, this is based on my experiences teaching technical courses, but based on the instructor preparation and curriculum provided, is true throughout.

There is certainly a difference in culture. At most traditional schools, time seems to have stopped years (decades) ago. I once had a senior faculty member tell me that universities had perfected instruction with small, in-person classes, and there was no need for innovation. Regrettably, this is what passes for critical thought at most universities.

I applaud for-profit schools for shaking up the status quo, and trying new education models. Even if they don’t work, it’s a big advance over the failure of traditional schools to embrace innovation.

But for-profit schools have a problem. I think that problem is one of being too aggressive at opening up opportunities (yes, I’m being generous). Despite the democratization of higher education (which as a scion of the working class, I fully approve of), there are young people who should not be in college. By admitting everyone, and gaming the financial aid system, they are setting up tens of thousands of people for failure.

To be fair, not-for-profit higher education also games the financial aid system, but not with the aggressiveness of their for-profit brethren. There is where the problem lies. I think it can be fixed, but only if for-profit schools acknowledge not only their strengths, but also their shortcomings.

The Microsoft Band Delivers – Mostly July 22, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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I got a Microsoft Band. I was looking for my next step up in activity wearables, and liked what I read about it on the website. At $200, it is much more than an activity tracker. It includes a GPS, like more expensive sports watches, and integration with your phone provides for the ability to receive notification of calls, text messages, and other phone activity.

When I got it, my first (and pretty much only) disappointment was that it didn’t sync with my phone’s version of Android (4.1.3), supporting only 4.3 and above. My phone wouldn’t allow an upgrade to a supported version. Coincidentally (really), I bought a new phone later in the week, an LG G4, running Android 5.0 (Lollipop).

But the fact of the matter is that the system requirements weren’t clear or obvious, which is a drastic change from older PC-based software. I suppose that it is difficult to deliver or test all phones and OS versions, but this isn’t what I expect from software, even in the era of the smartphone.

But within a couple of days, I came to really like the Band. First, my first night, I received an Amber alert in my area. My phone buzzed, but the Band let me know about it, even including the text message. You can configure it to show incoming calls, texts, and even emails. It’s ease of configurability is really good, much better than most watches or other wearables.  I now depend on it as my first notification of calls if my phone isn’t physically on my person.

And the GPS-based activity tracker is remarkably easy to use and obtain data from. I didn’t read any documentation, yet was able to use it with my running routine within seconds. The results are displayed on the Microsoft Health app, and are exceptionally easy to understand and interpret.

One other minor annoyance – the touch panel simply doesn’t work with a sweaty finger. After a particularly humid run, I attempted to stop my run session, and it simply wouldn’t do so until I dried off my fingers. This limitation may be driven by pure physical reasons, but it makes me think that Microsoft’s user experience (UX) testing wasn’t as good as it could have been.

I find it disappointing that Microsoft can deliver a reasonably compelling product, yet not effectively market or promote it. Apple is rumored to have sold around five million iWatches in its first quarter, with very mixed reviews, yet the downloads for Microsoft Health (required to use the Band) in about a full year are under a hundred thousand, at least on Android. I’m not a Microsoft fanboy by any means, but I do acknowledge when it produces good products.

The Microsoft Band is a good product for people who are seeking the next level up from the Fitbit and other low-end devices, and would be useful to many more people than currently use it. I don’t know just when Microsoft ceased being a marketing monster, but it clearly fails with the Band. Make no mistake – the technology and products remain very good, even outside of the PC space, but Microsoft lost its marketing mojo at some point, and doesn’t seem interested in getting it back.

About Project Management and Health Care July 13, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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This is a difficult post to write. Not because I have any issues discussing my health. Rather, I’m concerned that this may be read by someone who might otherwise be inclined to hire me based principally on my intelligence and skills.

But all is not right with me, physically. I spent roughly five days in the hospital, about 75 days ago. I got transferred to a more comprehensive hospital part way through. Long story short, my initial diagnosis was pancreatic cancer. In the hospital, I learned that there is a difference between diagnosis and treatment. The head of surgery came to me, and said that I needed a Whipple’s procedure, which is the Hail Mary pass for treatment for pancreatic cancer. He didn’t know for certain what I had, or what caused it, but was almost certain that it required major surgery to address.

I liked and respected that surgeon, but I declined. Not because I had any rational reason to do so, other than the fact that it is major and life-altering surgery. Rather, it was because he didn’t know what was wrong with me, and neither did anyone else. It seems a drastic answer to inconclusive information.

Instead, I waited a month and got re-tested, with slightly more invasive techniques. I almost certainly don’t have pancreatic cancer. While we continue to refine my diagnosis, my current prospects for treatment include even the possibility of no surgery. I continue to live as normal a life as possible, with a special diet but almost no physical restrictions.

So what is this post about? It’s about a few things. First, it’s about taking control of your own health care. You are your health care project manager. Doctors are human, and they try to diagnose and treat the things they know something about. The many doctors you see for a major condition treat the symptoms that resonate with them, rather than treat the whole person, and they don’t communicate effectively with one another. You are the one who can tie together the disparate information possessed by your different doctors. Be your own project manager.

Second, it’s about what you do know and what you don’t. When there was a lot I didn’t know, I refused to make a major decision until I knew more. So I am always asking what is the next step, rather than what is the ultimate outcome.

Third, it’s about your focus when you are faced with life-altering decisions. Many friends and family were projecting me several months down the road, possibly recovering from significant surgery but likely not having the quality of life I had in the past. I refused to buy into that vision. Rather, I have said, and continue to say, that my next step is to get more information before I decide irrevocably on a treatment path. That philosophy has worked for me so far.

Last, and I think most important, it’s about determining the course of your life. I continued to try to live as normal a life as possible, most especially including my recent distance running endeavors. Yesterday, I ran a formal 5K race in which I creamed my personal best, even in my daily practice runs. All is not right with me, but my health and life are on a positive trajectory. I am healthy, in excellent shape, and striving for excellence. I will do that until I can’t any more.

And about my ongoing job search. If you don’t want to hire me based on how you perceive my health, that is your right. If you want to hire me, based on my instinctive positive attitude and determination, I could welcome it.

And if it doesn’t matter to you one way or the other, that’s okay too.

More on this topic at a later time.

Microsoft, Phone Home July 12, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software development, Software platforms.
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I found this article on Computerworld about Microsoft’s retrenchment from Nokia’s phone business a worthwhile read, because of the company’s clear acknowledgment that it should never have spent billions of dollars to be in the handset business. Or, at best, perhaps it should have been, but it didn’t have the will to make a declining acquired business into a successful one.

I was nonplussed at the vitriol spewed in the comments section, personally attacking Steven J. Vaughn-Nichols in more ways than I cared to see. In particular, I was expecting to find an intelligent debate on the merits of his article; instead, it was pretty much of a trashing of his take on the topic.

To be fair, I think I may have hired SJVN for his first freelance assignment, circa 1990. And while the effort over the years was entirely his own, I am proud of the way that he has developed himself into a good and technical journalist in an era where neither quality is respected. Yes, he is a lifelong Linux guy, but that doesn’t make him a bad guy.

And I have to pretty much agree with him. That’s not an anti-Microsoft bias. That’s simply an acknowledgement that, despite spending tens of billions of dollars over a period of well over ten years, Microsoft still seems to lack the ability to commercialize its mobile software technology.

I confess that at one level I don’t understand its problem. Microsoft is technically very good, and in particular I love Cortina. Microsoft does really cool stuff, but outside of the enterprise realm, seems to have lost the will to effectively market.

I will say that a part of the company’s problem is on its obsession with the same look and feel across all devices. Windows on the desktop should never have translated to Windows on the phone. I had the opportunity to use a Microsoft Surface for several months, and while I admire the hardware design, the look and feel is far too crowded for the screen real estate. You may argue that it was intended to use with an external monitor, but it’s mobile, and the UI just doesn’t work for its screen form factor.

But there’s more than that, and I think it is a corporate culture thing, rather than a technology thing. Microsoft as a 100,000+ employee company simply has desktop too embedded into its DNA to pivot to anything else. Perhaps Nadella can change that, over time.

Some of the commenters lump Embedded and CE and Pocket PC and Surface in the same category in an attempt to say that Microsoft has been enormously successful in mobile devices, but that’s at best disingenuous, and at worst delusional.

I’m getting ready to buy about my fifteenth Windows PC (mostly laptops) in the last 20 years. I have mixed opinions of Microsoft’s technology during that time, but it is a necessity for many users (mostly including me). I fully accept Microsoft and its role in computing, but I’m neither a cheerleader nor a detractor.

So, while SJVN’s biases are evident, it is still a worthwhile article. And while the commenters’ biases are even more evident, they do not in any way add to the debate.

Should Coders Learn to Test? July 8, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software development.
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This topic occurred to me in response to another posting that asked if testers should learn to code, and is a follow-on to my previous post on the unique skill set that software testers possess. If we seriously question whether testers should learn to code (and most opinions fall on the ‘yes’ side of this question), then it is relevant to ask the corresponding question.

Wait a minute, I hear you thinking. That’s a stupid question. Coders already know how to test; they are coders, after all. Testing is simply a subset of coding, the act of making sure that the code that they have written works properly.

It’s nice to believe that coders know how to test because they know how to code, but that’s fallacious reasoning. First, it’s a different skill set entirely. Coding is highly detail-oriented and focused on making sure the code is grammatically and logically correct. Testing asks whether that code covers all requirements, is usable, and is fit for its intended purpose.

Second, while it’s a cliché that coders can’t test their own code, that doesn’t make it any less true. I’ve tested my own code, and I shy away from edge cases or unusual inputs. Testers bravely go where coders don’t.

Third, testers do much more than checking code for logic bugs. Because of their broad mandate encompassing correctness as well as domain expertise and information from end users, testers must be both detail-oriented and focused on the end result, yet able to be flexible in terms of their goals.

So should coders learn the skills of testers? The answer is, of course, it depends. We should all be learning additional skills, but only have a finite amount of time, so there is a cost/benefit tradeoff for any professional in learning (and presumably practicing) a collateral skill. By learning how to test, coders by necessity have to reduce time learning a new language, or learning continuous integration, for example.

But there are technical advantages for coders to learn testing. At the very least, it will make them more thoughtful coders. At best, it can help them write better code, as they become experienced with knowing what testers look for.

If coders do decide to learn to test, they have to give up certain biases to effectively learn the skill set. Here are just a few of those biases.

  1. Users would never do that! That’s simply not true. Users will do everything you can imagine and many things you can’t.
  2. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature. Stop arguing, and start working together to determine if it’s a feature needed by the users.
  3. Testers just slow us down. That may be true in some cases, but most of the time testers speed up the application delivery process. If they seem to slow you down, perhaps it’s because developers didn’t do their jobs right to begin with.

Probably the best way for coders to learn how to test is to do pair-testing with an experienced tester. Participating in testing with someone who already has the skill set will help a developer learn how to spot weaknesses in their code, how end users approach their tasks with software, and how to assess risks and determine testing strategies.

The goal isn’t to turn coders into testers, but to make them better coders. For many coders, that’s a skill worth having.

Software Testing is a State of Mind July 2, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software development.
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I was prompted to write this by yet another post on whether or not testers should learn to code. While it gave cogent arguments on both sides, it (prematurely, I believe) concluded that testing is a fundamental skill for testers, and discussed how testers could develop their coding skills.

The reality is much more nuanced. There are different types of testers. An automation engineer is likely to be coding, or scripting, on a daily basis. A functional tester using an automated testing tool (commonly Selenium, or perhaps a commercial one) will write or modify scripts generated by the tool.

And in general, we try to automate repeatable processes. Often this can be done with customizable workflows in an ALM product, but there might be some amount of scripting required.

But while coding knowledge can improve a tester’s skill set, it’s not required for all roles. And sometimes it can detract from other, more important skills. That got me to thinking about the unique skill sets of testers. There are unique mental and experiential skills that testers bring to their job. The best testers intuitively recognize the skills needed, and work hard to develop them.

  • Curiosity. Good testers do more than execute test cases. They look for inconsistencies or incongruities, question why, and don’t stop looking for improvements until the software is deployed.
  • Logic and Discipline. Testers do very detailed work, and approach that work in a step-by-step logical fashion. Their thought processes have to be clear and sharp, and they have to move methodically from one step to the next.
  • Imagination. Testers understand the user personas and put themselves in their role. The best can work through the application as both a new and experienced user, and find things no one ever considered.
  • Confidence. Testers often have to present unpopular points of view. If they can do so while believing in their own skills and conclusions, while also taking into account differing points of view, they can be successful voice of both the user and application quality.
  • Dealing with Ambiguity. It’s rarely clear what a requirement says, whether the test case really addresses it, whether an issue is really an issue, and what priority it is. Testers have to be ready to create a hypothesis, and provide evidence to support or reject that hypothesis.

These tend to be different skill sets than those possessed by coders. In particular, many coders tend to focus very narrowly on their particular assignments, because of the level of detail required to understand and successfully implement their part of the application. Coders also dislike ambiguity; code either works or it doesn’t, it either satisfies a requirement or it doesn’t. Computers aren’t ambiguous, so coders can’t write code that doesn’t clearly produce a specific end result.

Coders may argue that they produce a tangible result, source code that makes an application concept a reality. Whereas the work product of testers is usually a bit more amorphous. Ideally, a tester would like to say that software meets requirements and is of high quality, in which case few defects will be found. If testers write many defects, it’s interpreted as negative news rather than a desired result.

But organizations can’t look at testers as second class participants because of that. Testers have a unique skill set that remains essential in getting good and useful software into the hands of users. I don’t think that skill set has been very well documented to date, however. And it may not be appreciated because of that.

Is Emoji a Universal Language? May 22, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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I was prompted to consider this question by a recent article in Wall Street Journal, which claims that the use of these pictograph characters is growing and is increasingly being used for entire sentences and even messages.

Emoji grew as a way of adding, well, emotions to otherwise dry, text-based email communications. As other ways of distributed communication emerged, emoji migrated to Twitter, Snapchat, and a variety of other distributed communications platforms.

And the number of emoji characters expanded. It’s now possible to express complete thoughts, and even form sentences, using emoji characters. Of course, that is a bit of a misnomer; the emoji “language” is loosely defined, and has variations between devices and fonts. It also lacks certain parts of what we traditionally consider a grammar – articles, adjectives, and adverbs, for example.

By and large, emoji is a good thing. Most interpersonal communications is delivered non-verbally, by volume, tone, or body language. For strictly written communication, they can add a level of emotions that we want to consciously convey.

Of course, that opens the door to a couple of disadvantages. First, we have to consciously add those emotions to our written texts, whether or not we are actually feeling them. We may, in fact, be feeling something completely different, but hide that through the use of emoji. The message recipient doesn’t observe us directly, so it’s impossible to tell.

Second, there are clearly cultural differences in emoji. The practice started in Japan, and there are a number of Japanese emoji characters that have no meaning in other cultures. In some cases, the emotion isn’t clear from the character unless you are born and raised in Japan. Certainly the same must be true of other cultures.

So emoji isn’t a universal language. In fact, it can be a language for further hiding and deception.

But it does show that even our driest communications can have a human side. And in interactions that are more and more electronic, that can’t be a bad thing.

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