TechNet and Xbox One : Microsoft Mistakes?

Microsoft is a huge corporation. It has products spanning video games consoles and enterprise level software. Usually you would expect these divisions to be quite separate, but lately they have been united by gaffes on an epic scale.

Lets take the launch of the new Xbox One console. As a replacement for Xbox 360 much was expected, but Xbox fans got more than they bargained for. Two key features of the Xbox One quickly emerged as the most controversial aspects of perhaps any console launch ever.

  1. Xbox One had to be connected to the Internet to be able to play games, even single-player games that didn’t have Internet connection as a central element to the game (think Metal Gear Solid)
  2. Gamers would only be able to trade in their physical game discs at “participating dealers”

Both measures can be seen to have benefits for the gaming industry, and Microsoft. But the backlash from the gaming community was immediate and unrelenting. Why should I be forced to connect to the Internet to play a game that is largely played offline? And if I want to trade a game with my friend down the road, shouldn’t I be able to?

It took Microsoft about 10 days to reverse the policies that had been touted as major launch features of Xbox One. The gaming community had spoken and Microsoft’s damage control was unequivocal, “Your feedback matters” we were told, as the Xbox One team tried to recover from a PR disaster that was destroying goodwill.

Microsoft simply could not ignore the howls of derision of the millions of paying fans upon which their gaming business rests. For a new console to be succesfull, you need to make it appealing to millions of people. If you don’t, and they don’t buy your hardware, games creators and publishers will quickly move to other platforms to launch their wares. Gaming is a simple yet brutal business. Just ask Sega.

Whilst Microsoft “did a 180” and reversed it’s position, the damage was done. Sony revealed the PS4 to great aplomb, and commentators where left asking why Microsoft has such a startling lack of corporate business sense and empathy for their customers?

Meanwhile, somewhere across the span of the behemoth corporate hierarchy, another Microsoft announcement was made. With no fanfare or showmanship. Few people know or care about it, but the decision by Microsoft to kill off TechNet is no less threatening to future of Microsoft in the corporate sense than placing ill thought out restrictions on gamers.

TechNet allows IT professionals use a huge range of Microsoft software for legitimate purposes, and for a reasonable price. Normally this means that vendors, trainers, bloggers, freelancers and such like can download and test Microsoft software for specific projects. These projects could eventually see the roll out of Microsoft software to huge user base installations, or support the Microsoft eco-system by allowing IT professionals to learn new products as and when they need to.

The removal of the TechNet service will, in fact, affect a small population of Microsoft customers, perhaps even a tiny proportion of their corporate customer base. But these people are the ones out on the edge of the envelope. The tinkerers and the experimenters. The thought leaders and strategy shapers. Microsoft has done nothing less than undercut the thousands of Trojan Horses that sell Microsoft products into the enterprise.

I understand that Microsft offers time-limited trial software. However some projects start, and stop, and start, and stop again as an organisation switch focus across multiple projects.

A single-shot 30 day trial won’t cut it for everyone. And not everyone is a software pirate. We want to pay for the damn software, but not before we know it does exactly what we need it to do. Which is no small task when we consider the sophistication of enterprise level software.

Sure, Microsoft points to alternative subscription package and methods, but none of these give the traditional TechNet subscriber what they want, namely:

  1. The ability to test unlimited Microsoft software in our own “test lab” environment - and this could be a single box on a desk, a Virtual Machine, or a full-on network of machines
  2. A price that does not assume budget is boundless

Not too much to ask?

But unlike with the Xbox One, Microsoft doesn’t seem to be about to reverse this decision. Which is a shame, because they are making it harder for the innovators to, well, innovate.

It’s hard to predict how many loyal customers Microsoft will shed once TechNet is laid to rest. One thing is for sure: the goodwill TechNet was worth to Microsoft is now eroded. Hundreds, if not thousands of Microsoft customers will now see a valid reason to seriously look at alternatives to Microsoft software. Once those experts start to look at other vendors, who knows what possibilities they will see?

With the Xbox One launch, Microsoft made it harder to play games. By dropping TechNet Microsoft is making it harder to do business. I know I’m buying a PS4, how about you?

Undercover Embarrassing Bodies

A new series of Undercover Boss has started recently. I’d stopped watching it ages ago but thought I’d give the new series a go. It wasn’t disappointing in that it was at once utterly predictable, yet still surprising.

It was intriguing to follow Phil Couchman, the Chief Executive of DHL in the UK. It’s likely the show was deftly edited, and it’s difficult to tell how long Phil actually spent at the coalface with his employees, but it was clear that he saw at first hand problems that he may never have considered critical, or perhaps even knew about before.

The most strikingly obvious problem Phil faced was the lack of Sat Nav in delivery trucks that were being timed for each delivery, which he experienced costing him vital delivery time. I’m sure a lot of viewers found it to be a bizarre situation. My first thought upon seeing this problem was that if I were a DHL delivery driver I would have taken my own Sat Nav to work. But instead of pointing and laughing at DHL, we should consider that perhaps the majority of companies are afflicted with problems that to outsiders appear obvious, but which internally have been worked around or ignored because of some specific reason such as cost or time constraints, or lack of applicable skills to solve the problem.

Another issue was an unflinching reliance upon process by call centre staff. It would not be fair to characterise this as an issue with the staff themselves. They had been trained to do a certain thing in a certain way and so cannot be blamed when it is the procedure itself that is wrong. The opposite situation can also be a problematic - of process not clearly defined enough.

Whilst Undercover Boss can seem a little contrived, and in no small part a marketing excerise, it still highlights typical business issues. Over time inconsistencies and inefficiencies will insidiously creep, almost imperceptibly, into every organisation. The key is to recognise and rectify these inefficiencies and systemic inconsistencies.

Not every CEO will take part in Undercover Boss. Those that do can’t hope to personally see and deal with all the issues within the organisations under their stewardship. Most CEOs probably do not want to appear on a TV programme to discover their problems - it is almost like that other Channel 4 staple, Embarrassing Bodies, in which people reveal medical problems in glorious colour. But organisations do need people to, in effect, fulfill the role of an Undercover Boss.

Gathering up problems, as with DHL, is often a cathartic process, occasionally challenging, but always worthwhile. Finding the gaps between the way a company works, and how it could work best will at the very least highlight to C-Suite executives ways to enhance company performance. It’s then up to those executives to decide which gaps need to be filled in and which are acceptable trade-offs in the overall strategic direction of the company.

Being on Undercover Boss, I would imagine, is difficult. It’s likely that you just don’t know what is going to happen, or how it will turn out on TV. But, like the Embarrassing Bodies programme, the only thing worse than displaying all your problems on TV is systematically ignoring those problems in the hope they will go away. A head-in-the-sand attitude allows problems to grow and fester. Doctors and Business Analysts alike advise against this course of action.

What are coders worth?

You know something has nailed the zeitgeist when 2 different people send you a link to it, and James Somers really attracted some attention with his article: Are coders worth it?

The article is a distillation of Somers’ experience in the web development industry. From the UK perspective he makes the development job market in the US seem very appealing; signing bonus? Perks? Freedom? Respect? Somers’ remarkable - and wonderfully written - article does highlight issues around the perceived value of a development team.

There seems to me to be a difference between what something - or someone - costs, as opposed to the value that is derived from it. I may own a car that could achieve 45 MPG, but it will only ever achieve that value if I drive it in such a way. And if I’ve paid the cost of a car that can achieve 45 MPG, but through my own driving techniques I only get, say, 38 MPG, then I’ve failed to maximise the value that car could have brought.

Relating developers to cars might be a funny analogy to make, but the value to be had from developers is not entirely unrelated to how those developers are put to work. If developers are set to work on a project that would never have delivered value, that is not a general indication that those developers are worthless.

In that light, Somers’ makes claims deserve to be explored outside the confines of a purely investment-led looking-for-a-quick-ROI-with-exit-strategy.

"Most of what we’re doing is putting boxes on a page"

On the face of it, developers do spend a lot of time putting stuff in boxes. I can see where Somers is coming from and the point he is making.

As a developer Somers is paid to cram his head with the minutiae of magical coding constructs that enables him to shift text and images across the world, from a database in the cloud all the way into a box in a web browser being blasted into the retina of a teenager gawking at Rhianna’s latest escapades.

Whilst this is true for web sites oriented towards public use, I’m sure that if Somers had experience of developing web-based business applications, such as an insurance aggregation site, risk management systems, systems designed to manage billions of pounds worth of intellectual property, or a KPI dashboard for a group of hospitals, he’d probably concede that there is a huge amount of work around getting the workflow and process right to support - or even change - how a business does business.

Web based business applications still dredge databases to put text and images into boxes on a web page, but the business rules and workflows applied to that data are often complex and deeply fascinating.

A decent business system can mean a huge difference to how individuals, and ultimately organisations, perform. The speed and quality of web-based business systems can mean the difference not just between profit and loss, but literally between life and death. And when you think in those terms, it becomes less easy to trivialise the work of web development teams.

"Cheap, fun, and about as world changing as creating a new variation on beer pong"

Developers can and will spot business model flaws from 100 paces. They don’t always know this from experience, but because they know some other company tried this or that thing and it didn’t work.

But sometimes a management team commissions a project for something beyond financial reasons. A business project does not have to change the world to be successful. Making an incremental change to an existing system and gaining more experience and knowledge through a particular project may well be a stepping stone to something bigger later on.

As a developer I once worked as part of a start-up business that had some great backing, a great team, a great business plan, but which ultimately failed to stand on it’s own two feet.

Years later it was a pleasant surprise to discover that, a disproportionately large number of the people who worked with me in that business had gone on to found their own web-related companies.

This, I thought, was no coincidence.

We hadn’t changed the world, but we’d gone through a shared set of experiences that changed our own perceptions of the world. Working through the Dot-com bubble we saw at first hand that it was possible to raise huge sums of money, bring a talented team together, produce good work, and still fail as a business.

Business, like life, and the stock market, is not always a continuous upward curve. There are ups and downs, Once you have lived and learned through that up/down experience, changing the world becomes just as much about changing yourself and the way you work, along with the way your organisation works.

"If you’re not technical, you’re not valuable"

Somers is self-admittedly coming from a narrow technical perspective here. When we look at a business overall, it’s not technical skills that are particularly scarce.

I think we only need look at one example to disprove the theory that pure, unadulterated and laser-focused technical talent is king. And that example is Steve Jobs.

Famous for dropping out of formal education, taking drugs, and being as concerned about the creative process as the technical possibilities, Jobs helped to build not just one, but  at least 2, and arguably 3 successful companies each based around different technologies and creative processes.

Jobs was a master at placing people around him who could sustain his vision. It’s no secret that Steve Wosniak was the technical genius behind Apple’s early success. At NeXT Jobs was supported Avi Tevanian.

Knowing the value of creativity, Jobs also had a successful partnership at Pixar with John Lasseter, and most famously at Apple with Jonathan Ive. Imagine that. A major hardware and software company drawing  inspiration from a creative, rather than a technical expert?

It’s possible not to be overly technically focused and yet to produce world changing products. The value of Steve Jobs - and I’ll concede that his is a rare case - was far beyond his knowledge of circuit boards and hard drives. It was the vision and leadership that Steve Jobs had, and the vision he inspired in others, that was the key to his success, and the success of the companies he ran.

"I could put the whole of my energy and talent into an article, everything I think and am, and still it could be worth zero dollars"

I can really empathise with Somers on this one. When I put my heart and soul into some documentation, or a white paper, or whatever, and the response is more of a ‘Meh’ than a ‘Whoa, you really thought about this!’ then it can be dispiriting.

But actually, what I’m doing at work is distilling,  compiling, analysing and helping to adjudicate over the ideas that are already out there in a business. I provide roadmaps for business change and the technical implementation of that change.

There is room for creativity in that I could - and often do - suggest new, more efficient ways of working, and that’s the value that I can add as a Business Analyst. A developer does get those opportunities, but by the time discussion reaches the developer, some core principles have likely already been laid down.

I take a lot of inspiration from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It’s a great book that’s commercially successful to boot, but the story behind it’s publication is an illustration of how different people assign different values to the same thing.

Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance was rejected by 121 publishers. It was only at the 122nd time of asking did it’s author get the support and recognition he was looking for. Somers would prefer to be paid for writing articles than code. But just because he isn’t succeeding in his dream job right now, that doesn’t mean he won’t succeed in the future.

The final (business) analysis

So given all of this, what are coders worth? Even though I have a few issues with his reasoning, it’s hard for me not to agree with Somers; he knows he’s giving people what they want because he’s getting paid handsomely to do it.

A newly minted venture - which seems to be the type of companies that Somers is discussing in his article - has different priorities from a mature business. It may need to offer better than average salaries and perks to attract the right talent to an unproven venture. In some cases it needs to get to market fast and iterate quickly. The coders in these businesses are laying the organisational equivalent of a new nervous system using tools of their own choosing, for Somers this is Ruby on Rails.

A mature business, though, has already proven it’s stability. It may attract talent by pure brand draw, and can demonstrate a track record of products or services. It already has a nervous system in place, one that could be sprawling and sophisticated, and which uses a range of tools and frameworks that collectively are beyond the ken of a single coding guru.

Maybe coders are worth whatever organisations are willing to pay them. But the value derived from coders is as much based upon the organisation itself as the amount of awesome the coder is capable of delivering.

Will Autistic behaviour help SAP?

SAP has built a business upon complex software tools and services, it’s impossible to deny that SAP has had immense success. But nothing lasts forever. Once you’ve reached the top of the technology tree, it’s a matter of time before your business is under siege.

Gartner recently revealed that SAP had lost its leadership position in the Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system market. SAP is rightly proud of its long software heritage, but perhaps it is a testament to a new digital economy that an enterprise with 40 years of history, deep funding pockets, and a team of capable and dedicated professionals can fall behind a company literally forged in the blazing furnace of the original dot com bubble.

SAP may have the people and budget to develop amazing tools, but seems to be finding it hard to muster the corporate vision, values and strategy required to meet the threat posed by an upstart entrant to the market.

To their credit, the team at SAP have recognised the threat and seem to be taking steps to combat it. One of the steps being taken is to focus upon specifically hiring workers with autism.

A stereotypical vision of any specialist ‘geek’ team has to include social misfits with communication difficulties. These and other stereotypes have formed the basis for hit comedies such as The IT Crowd and The Big Bang Theory. Sheldon Cooper, a character in The Big Bang Theory has caused controversy in that some believe his idiosyncrasies to be an unfair characterisation of a high-functioning autistic adult.

I don’t know much about autism, and most of that was garnered from watching Rain Man, but it’s generally accepted that autistic individuals have a particular set of skills - such as an obsessive attention to details and the ability to analyse complex sets of data.

The flip side of being somewhere on the autism spectrum is that autism can cause communication difficulties, repetitive behaviours, and even cognitive delays.

In explaining the decision to seek out and train autistic individuals, SAP says that:

Only by employing people who think differently and spark innovation will SAP be prepared to handle the challenges of the 21st Century.

If that was the strategy that SAP was employing, it would be laudable, but it doesn’t look that way to me.

SAP have actually positioned the vanguard of these intelligent, innovative, detail obsessed individuals as software testers.

Now don’t get me wrong.

I’m not knocking either software testers or software testing as a career. Anybody who has spent any time developing will know that testing is a key link in the development chain. However, testing normally takes place after the requirements have been gathered, agreed, and signed off.

Conversely, innovation needs to be capitalised upon up front in the project process.

Managing the creative and technical process at the start of a software development cycle requires ‘soft’ communication skills. Working as an individual, but also contributing to the team effort, whilst also understanding the driving needs of the people and enterprises you are aiming to serve.

In short, all those things that we are told autistics struggle with are at least as essential to the creative process as pure intellect or analytical ability.

If SAP is really aiming for product innovation, they should be placing their creative thinkers – autistic or not - front and centre right at the very start of product conception and development.

Horologically speaking - an Omega guilt complex.

The watch I own isn’t really me. It’s an Omega Seamaster that was me at some point. But that point was a decade or more ago, and now I’m not so sure about it. But I’m still attached to it for a variety of reasons.

I have to admit I got slightly obsessive about the damn thing. I’d admire it from afar, drooling over it in the shop window, biding my time, partly hoping I’d just get over it and save my cash instead. This carried on for months, until I’d saved enough and actually bought it.

The watch was part birthday present from my wife - and this went some small way to me convincing myself that I wasn’t spending all that much really. She wasn’t my wife at the time, but it was the early noughties, we were young, occasionally foolish, and we were both working. Like many couples, before we had a child to fuss over and spend money on, we’d fuss over and spend money on each other*. So, being partly a gift, the watch has a deeply sentimental value. It is a physical memory of a different epoch in my life.

At the time I bought the watch I was experiencing an intense period of personal growth and change, both personally and professionally. I was in a great job, but I was dressing for the job I wanted, rather than the one I had. As I looked around, I noticed a number of the people that I admired and respected - work colleagues and friends - seemed to be wearing Omega watches. I’d not really paid attention to the watches people wore before, and I’m not ashamed to admit that the need to fit in, and to also show some aspiration took a hold of my psyche.

Ask my wife, she’ll tell you I’m quite the skinflint, but she’d also be the first to concede that, oftentimes, my heart rules my head. I’d been without a watch for years, in fact, I’d never bought myself a watch before. It seemed to me that if I was going to buy myself a watch as an adult, it had better be a damn nice watch. and it also occurred to me that a damn nice watch could become a family keepsake.

There was an undeniable element of me wanting to make a statement with my watch. A bit like your shoes, or your suit, or your car, your watch says something about you. And so I wanted my watch to say something about me.

A watch (or lack of one) is part of a set of things that define you. It gives clues about who you are that people will pick up on. But my watch doesn’t frame the whole picture of my self. Like I said earlier, it’s not me, but my Omega still expresses elements of my philosophy.

There are lots of garish watches out there regardless of your budget, but I wanted something the antithesis of garish. Some will disagree but I don’t think my Omega is garish. It’s understated, completely lacking in some of the more obvious bling-o-rama that other “luxury” brand watches bolt on in some sort of arms race for buttons and bevels and dials. If I could de-badge it I’d probably do that too.

So multiple psychological and sociological pressures coalesced into the perfect storm compelling me to purchase a Limited Edition Omega Seamaster. Even at the time I found it strange. But who hasn’t really pushed the boat out for something special? Whenever I wear it I feel caught between childish glee at owning this unabashed expression of masculinity, and guilt at the ludicrousness of having spent a fortune on it.

A recent service cost as much as a really quite decent brand new watch, which is frankly obscene. Part of me was tempted to just buy a new watch, but I couldn’t do it. My Omega is a deeply sentimental object. It’s simplistic aesthetic exterior masks some sophisticated internal workings. Perhaps this is ultimately the message I’m sending about me when I wear it?

One day, I’ll need to find the right moment to give the watch up. There are a few occasions I have in mind for surrendering this part of my self and my past, and I suspect I’ll agonise as much about the right time to gift it and who to gift it to as I did about buying it in the first place.

It’s apt that my watch represents my past, present and future. It’s a timepiece that makes me mindful of the journey I’ve been on, the place I’m in now, and the journey still to come.

*Sidebar: My wife and I still fuss over each other even though we have a child. It’s just that our daughter takes the lion’s share of the fussing. That’s just how parenthood seems to work.

Woolwich: The counter narrative

The unfolding of events in Woolwich today leaves a deep melancholy in my heart. Even now, hours after the event, confirmed facts are desperately hard to come by - aside from the unthinkable horror of an attack upon and killing of a man by two other armed men. It was Churchill who said:

A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on
If this was a truism in Churchill’s day, it is even more so in an age when social media - Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and the like - can be used to drip-feed tiny slivers of information, half-truths and outright lies which the facts struggle to overcome. Serious and lasting damage can be done to both individuals and entire communities before they have even been given a chance to process what on earth is happening.

I watched 9/11 and it’s aftermath unfold on my TV screen, and I was in London on 7/7 and am thankful I may well have barely missed being caught on the underground during the bombing. Though I didn’t want to jump to conclusions on the events in Woolwich, as I kept refreshing Twitter, my heart sank with that familiar “… Oh no, not again!” feeling.

In amongst speculation about the events I was touched that a recurring theme across my timeline was the abhorrence expressed by non-Muslims at comments made on the BBC by veteran reporter Nick Robinson to the effect that the attackers had a “Muslim appearance”. Robinson has since sought to explain this by claiming that he was simply quoting a source. Regardless of where he got that information, it’s not the sort of thing that should be presented as a matter of fact. Robinson could have tweaked the quote to say “possible” or “suspected” Muslims. To regurgitate a quote so self-obviously distasteful was unwise, to say the least.

Whilst It’s heartening to see a great many people call Nick Robinson out on his gaffe, it’s dissapointing at the same time to realise that there is no true mainstream representative of Islam as many Muslims understand it to be. Though there are a number organisations that claim to represent Muslims, it’s difficult to actually find one that can muster a decent media pundit to speak on our behalf and that I would be happy to be associated with.

The debate seems now to have turned to the need for “leadership” within the Muslim community in order to mount an effective counter-narrative against the seemingly pervasive fear of Muslims and Islam in general. But the truth is what ‘leadership’ there is within the Muslim community is patently powerless to project a voice at the national level.

It’s ironic that I’m happy to be associated with a political party rammed full of atheists and non-Muslims in general, and I relate to Liberal Democrat ideals at a political level, but can find no such mainstream group to speak to my religious views.

The video that shows one of the Woolwich attackers explaining his motives - as an apparent Muslim - in terms of “an eye for an eye” motive against the UK Government for who knows what imagined or real grievances is just the latest link in a long chain of disproportionate media frenzies that obliges the Muslim community to apologise and somehow atone for collectively in a way that no other group seems required to do. Muslims are left to state as individuals that random attacks and murder are not called for within Islam, and that to say they are is a gross distortion and abuse of Islam.

But whilst the truth is busy getting it’s pants on, Woolwich has fallen prey to another type of extremism as the EDL apparently needed containing by the riot police. This is a most unwelcome escalation of tension within Woolwich which adds nothing positive to the situation and is in fact an act directed by an organised group with identifiable leaders who, something tells me, will not be placed under any discernable mainstream pressure to denounce any members of their group who tonight have attacked mosques and caused Sikhs to worry about their gurdwaras.

Of course what happened in Woolwich was the work of people who are not right in their minds, let alone their theological conclusions. And yes, the vast majority of Muslims will rightfully be shocked at this brutal act of heartless insanity, and they will disagree vehemently with the very idea of a cold-blooded and random killing of a man on the street, be he a soldier or not.

A thoughtful Muslim counter-narrative is occasionally glimpsed through the lens of mainstream media hype during a chaotic event like Woolwich, but you can be sure we won’t be hearing much from the Muslim community on any hot issue of the moment until the next time some poor sap is wheeled out to self-flagellate and re-iterate once more that right-thinking Muslims don’t agree with acts of terrorism.

Bernie, the Bahrain Boycott, and Big Business

They say its hard to get a man to understand a thing when his salary depends upon him not understanding it, and there is no better example of this than Bernie Ecclestone’s apparently innocent insistence that life is so good in Bahrain, that there is no problem in hosting Grands Prix there for the foreseeable future. And this despite repeated calls on Formula 1 from Bahraini civil society to boycott Bahrain on account of the country’s brutal suppression of it’s own population.

I should disclose that I love the Grands Prix. I shouldn’t as it represents all kinds of excesses, but it’s been a guilty pleasure of mine since I was a child and I eagerly await the start of every season with the fervour and passion that most blokes reserve for football. And discussing why its not a procession of cars going around a track would take up a whole other post.

But I can’t watch Bahrain. It’s unconscionable.

Unlike Bernie, I can’t square entertainment with repression of human rights. It doesn’t seem like Bernie has thought through his corporate social responsibility policy, but then, this is the same man who donated £1 million to Labour in a move that was completely unrelated to the extension Formula 1 was seeking from looming regulation designed to limit tobacco advertising.

The distasteful hosting of Formula 1 racing in Bahrain, though, is just a part of a wider sporting, business and political malaise in which it seems to have become the norm to accept the unacceptable in the name of shareholder profits.

Sport is being capitalised upon as discrete packages of entertainment sold to broadcast companies which in their turn stand to make or lose huge sums of money out of the arrangement. If we have learnt anything from the recent and ongoing banking crisis, the hacking scandals, and the tax minimisation practices of certain organisations, it is that all thoughts of communal or corporate social responsibilities take second place to profits. Every time.

When we are asked to look at successful individuals and supposed role models - sporting superstars, hot-shot businessmen (it is mostly business men we seem to worship, not much look in for womenfolk in corporate boardrooms) and politicians - and to judge them on the results they get, rather than how they got them, it’s akin to saying that sportsmanship does not matter, that only the result - sporting success, business profit or political domination - counts. Is that really what the UK feels? It seems not when we look at the backlash against organisations that make billions in profit but pay little corporation tax.

Every year that Formula 1 fans make a point of boycotting Bahrain and publicly denouncing that race is another year of sub-optimal performance for the rights holders of Formula 1. It’s another year that team sponsors suffer the ignominy of association with a repressive regime and the effect this will have on their brand image.

Ecclestone will continue to stage Grands Prix in Bahrain so long as it profits him to do so. Whilst as an individual I can’t do too much about the banking crisis, media regulation, or the tax practices of global conglomerates, I can make a point of not watching the Grands Prix.

We each make choices, and in a world where everything is tightly interdependent upon everything else, our choices are our voices. The choice to withhold our custom and goodwill from organisations that engage in irresponsible behaviour is there for all to take.

Fitness to Parent

Being subject to the relentless forward propulsion of the 24 hour newscycle as we all are, it’s easy to forget stories from just 3 weeks ago. But even after the death of Margaret Thatcher and the Boston Marathon bombings, the story of how one man visited psychological and physical abuse upon so many, ending in the burning to death of 6 of his own children still sticks in my gullet, and, to my mind at least, warrants some serious thought, not least by national and local government agencies.

To recap, Phillpott lived with 2 women, through whom he acquired benefit payments directly into his bank account. Philpott, his wife and lover shared a 3 bedroom house with 11 children. Philpott had appeared on national television bragging about his lifestyle. Now, I’ve said before that how other people choose to live their life and express their love is no concern of mine, but in a case with children who I believe are entitled to the highest levels of protection, I have to draw the line.

The risk to any child - physical risk - in the care of Philpott was massively high. Why is there no system in place to effectively protect them?

The insurance industry has got judging risk is down to a fine art. When you apply for car insurance multiple risk factors are taken into account before you get a quote for a premium. How many miles you drive in the car each year. Your past claims history. Your age. Your address. The type of car you drive. And so on.

We accept the risk assessment of insurance companies - backed by evidence based upon the claims history of a huge pool of people - as being a generally good way of judging risk. We can say with confidence that a newly qualified driver at university, regularly driving a souped up Citreon Saxo around town and up and down the motorway to visit mum and dad during holidays, who parks on the road in a high crime area is, on average, more likely to make a car insurance claim than an middle-aged housewife driving a VW Polo TDI who happens to live in a low-crime area and who parks her car in a locked garage.

Yes. There are exceptions to the rule. The housewife may be involved in an accident, and the newly qualified driver may well beat the odds, but the point is that there is a system that assigns appropriate levels of risk, and, on the whole, that risk assessment is supported by historical data and facts.

We don’t really think about applying risk assessments to people. But we do it all the time. If I see a man in the street armed with a knife, I very likely judge the risk of some form of physical violence to be unacceptably high and will seek to avoid that situation. Similarly, if you apply for a job which involves looking after children, prepare to go through a police check for your previous criminal history. And if you are on the violent and sex offender register, there’s a high probability that you would be considered too high a risk to leave alone with a child.

This stuff isn’t controversial. Adults can judge risk for themselves and take action accordingly. Young children, though, are not normally expected to be great risk assessors, and they are certainly not responsible for accepting responsibility for being left in a high-risk situation. If nothing else, the victims of Jimmy Saville proved this.

I think it’s fair to say that the situation that Philpott’s children were in could reasonably have been considered to represent a high-risk to their well being. Lets look at the facts:

  • Philpott had a recent history of physical abuse of his wife having been given a police caution
  • Philpott had been convicted stabbing a previous girlfriend and breaking her arm and finger in 1978, a violent crime which alone could probably discount him from jobs involving the care of dependent or vulnerable individuals
  • Philpott beat his first wife before leaving her for the girlfriend he later stabbed
  • Philpott was on bail at the time he set fire to his own house over a road rage incident that included violence
  • Philpott did not have a regular job and the wages of the two women he lived with and all the family benefits were paid directly into his bank account
  • The house the children were in was apparently massively over-occupied on a permanent basis

It can’t be beyond the wit of man to devise a risk assessment procedure through which children in an environment controlled by a man with a history and pattern of behaviour like one listed above can be taken to a place outside the direct or indirect control of a person who clearly has issues.

It’s not just violence against humans that could be an indication of risk, there is evidence that links cruelty to animals and cruelty to children and vulnerable adults.

In the vast majority of cases, the best place for any child is with their parents. Whilst we know that most people will not engage in high-risk behaviour, we still need an effective system in place that manages transgressions - especially where there are multiple instances of serious violence.

The Every Child Matters initiative has apparently been in place for a decade, but what good did it do for the children in the care of Philpott? When doctors do wrong, they have to face a Fitness to Practice panel. When drivers make a serious mistake, they lose their licence, or their insurance costs rise. When people abuse animals they can be disqualified from looking after animals. Philpott had a demonstrable history of violence, and yet was permitted to care for children who probably had no concept of the magnitude of malevolence of which he was capable.

As a society we don’t have a problem placing sanctions on people with a demonstrable pattern of irresponsible behaviour, but it seems to me that when it comes to our kids, we’ve still got some work to do to pre-emptively protect children so that they can be removed from harms way before they become victims.

55 Search Engine Optimisation Tips

I recently started getting back into SEO in a serious way. Years ago I used to be elbow deep in SEO but I guess as you move away from development the nitty-gritty of SEO becomes less critical. But lately I had cause to get back involved with SEO for a project and whilst the basics of SEO haven’t changed much, the tools and peripharal techniques have moved on in the past few years.

The plethora of tools that have become available to SEO fanatics since I first started optimising for search engines has exploded, and that’s great, especially if you want to (shock! horror!) actually measure the impact of your efforts. But whilst some of the tools available have changed, the basics - for me at least - have clearly stayed the same.

Attitudes to SEO have always intrigued me and in my experience many organisations seem to spend a hugely disproportionate amount of time agonizing over SEO when compared to the potential payback on other marketing activities.

I’m not saying SEO isn’t important, it is, but it is also unlikely that SEO, even in a global economy increasingly dominated by new media companies, will make or break your company. Think about how you first heard about Hotmail, Skype, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, in fact, the vast majority of successful companies that you deal with on a day-to-day basis, and then think about how important SEO was to you discovering that company.

My guess is that SEO didn’t play a huge part in you discovering many companies, but that’s not the same as saying that SEO is useless.

SEO should only ever be a part of an overall marketing mix. Spending a disproportionate amount of time focusing upon on a single aspect of what you do – like SEO – to the exclusion of other things that you should be paying attention to – like social media, like a nicely designed website, like, maybe offering great products and services and making sure your customer is delighted with what you do for them – is not healthy.

That being said, I’ve compiled together some tips. Some of them you might even agree with. Enjoy.

1.    Decide the keywords you want to target, but first research potentially popular alternatives using the Google Keyword Tool.

2.    If you don’t already have a domain name you are tethered to, try and get a domain name which contains at least one of those keywords that you thought up earlier. Don’t sweat it if that’s not possible.

3.    When writing content, write for people first, search engines second.

My gut instinct is to even ignore attempting to optimise blog articles for SEO. It’s too easy to get caught up in the long grass of probably useless technicalities like ‘ratio of keywords to content’ and ‘ratio of HTML to content’. Just write something interesting and compelling. I’ve written my own fair share of out-and-out
link bait, but if you are trying to apply a magic SEO-friendly formula to content to garner better SEO rankings, chances are the content - and it’s underlying message - will suffer.

Not enough people realise that simply writing good content is one of the best SEO ‘tricks’ you can pull.

4.    Unless you have a large team to support you and lots of time to spend, don’t register multiple domains and build apparently separate websites trying to get a spread of keywords.

Of course, huge conglomerates do build multiple sites on multiple domains all the time, but that’s all part of a larger marketing plan. For instance, Sony has a dedicated Playstation site, and a separate dedicated PSVita site. That’s reasonable, and transparent.

Unless you have a lot of resources, building multiple sites on multiple domains will stretch your time and resources to breaking point. Truly authoratative, successful and respectable people and organisations don’t hide behind multiple different fronts; they present a single unified and ethical presence on the web, like Martin Lewis over on http://www.moneysavingexpert.com/

5.    Get a Google Analytics account. Measure what your site does and what effect the changes you make have. Learn from the experience. Repeat as required.

6.    Get a Google Webmaster Tools account to analyse what kinds of things you might want to fix or change on your website. Learn from the experience. Repeat as required.

7.    Get a Google Adwords account. Even if you don’t want to spend money advertising on Google. Use the Keyword Tool to figure out what keywords you should be targeting.

8.    Speed is a ranking signal. One quick way to speed up your site is to use caching. If you use a Content Management System like WordPress, you should be able to find a WordPress caching plugin to help speed your site up. I’m sure there are equivalent cache plugins for Drupal.

9.    If you aren’t able to find a caching solution suitable for your particular CMS flavour, or your sysadmin is anal and won’t install it for some obscure reason, or you are running a larger, enterprise scale website, consider using a Content Delivery Network, like CloudFlare, which offers a free account to get you started, and has some security benefits too.

10.  Optimise your HTML code. Get rid of extreaneous code. Not just in the name of speed, but also in the name of elegant code.

11.  Make sure your HTML code is valid, W3 Validator is probably the best free tool to use, and make sure you check all your site pages, not just the home page.

12.  Optimise your CSS. This will increase your chances of having valid CSS that works across multiple browsers and, if you optimise or reduce CSS code, it could also speed up your site. Luckily, W3C have a free CSS validation service.

13.  Optimise your JavaScript. Sometimes new versions of old scripts are better optimised, so maybe they work faster and across a wider range of browsers.

14.  Remove old scripts/tools. This can be a difficult one. It might be that you have lots of old JavaScript on your site which you used for something or other in the past, but don’t need right now. Remove that old code.

15.  Stop using frames. Just stop it. Yes. Even those natty <iframe> tags. Frames are the spawn of satan.

The search engine robots that come and crawl through your site used to not be able to get past those frame tags and into the content, nowadays they can, but a direct link from a search engine results page into a web page that should be contained within a frame set will be confusing. Plus. frames are just bad design anyway.

Here is an excercise that will highlight how useless frames really are. First. List your top 10 favourite websites. Now, list how many use of those 10 sites use frames. Not many, huh?

16.  Keep Flash to a minimum. By all means have a flash minisite, or a Flash game or interactive element. But don’t go overboard.

I love Flash as much as the next guy, but unless you have a recognised brand or lots of money to spend on advertising, avoid building your entire site in Flash. Sure, Google can index Flash to some extent, but why make it difficult unless you are making a real statement?

17.  Get canonical. Just like in Highlander, there can be only one. One version of your website that is. SEOmoz has a good article on Canonical redirection.

18.  Check your links work with Xenu and/or Screaming Frog. Fix any ‘404 File Not Found’ errors.

19.  Check that there is no duplicate content on your site - this includes multiple pages with the same meta tag content, not just the stuff that people read. Google Webmaster Tools will help with this.

20.  Get a corporate Facebook page. Be active on it.

21.  Get a corporate Google+ page. Be active on it.

22.  Get a corporate LinkedIn page. Be active on it.

23.  Get a corporate Twitter page. Be active on it.

24.  You already know added good content is the best kind of SEO, but do you add it frequently enough? You still need to aim for quality content rather than just slapping up brief pieces clearly designed to improve your SEO rather than being interesting and informative.

25.  Contribute articles to other websites and try and get a short biography of yourself and a link back to your website in your article. This will build your inbound links.

26.  Have a Privacy Policy. You want to be authoritative? Then be responsible.

27.  Have a site map that people can read, because search engines will read it to and if it’s got links to at least your main pages, this will make things easier for the crawlers.

28.  Use deep linking to point people to those hard-to-reach places of your site.

29.  Cull content. Yes. I said it. This doesn’t count for blog posts, which you should leave alone regardless of if they appear to be doing well or not (they are a window into what you are thinking, and should form a consistent historical document). Use your Google Analytics account to figure out which pages are not getting any visitors, or which have high bounce rates then just cull them. Or if you must keep that page, consider changing it. If it’s not adding value, why not? But don’t forget to put a 301 redirect in place if you do delete the page.

30.  Get a YouTube account. Actively contribute towards it. Yes. This might take some effort.

31.  Optimise your robots.txt file. SEO Book has a good article on robots.txt files.

32.  Have social bookmarking tools on your site to make it easy for people to like your pages and quickly spread the word. Trending on Twitter isn’t exactly SEO in it’s purest form, but getting inbound links from other peoples social media accounts and articles linking to you can only be a Good Thing.

33.  Building quality external links is fine, but make sure to cultivate a wide variety. Don’t keep going back to the same well over and over again. Keep an eye out for interesting new sites, and niche sites that fit what you are trying to do.

34.  Add 'alt' tags to your images.

35.  Use heading tags, <h1>, <h2>, and so on. Make sure some keywords are in the headings.

36.  Make sure URLs are crawler friendly. That means not using underscores in directory file names, but using dashes instead. So, not http://www.somedomain.com/some_directory_name, but http://www.somedomain.com/some-directory-name. 

37.  If you used Xenu to check the links on your site, you may well have come across a 404 Page Not Found error or two. If that’s the case, take a look at that 404 error page. Does it do something useful like direct users, or search engine spiders, to useful content in your site? If not, redesign that 404 page.

38.  Don’t use CSS to hide content from the human eye that you expect search engine robots to index. I’ve seen this on a few sites, none of which I grew to respect, or bought from, or ever went back to. If you are trying to game Google, what does that say about you?

39.  Monitor your website, know when it’s gone down. If it’s not available to you, it’s probably not available to Google, or anyone else. Take a look at siteuptime.com, but there are lots of site monitoring services out there.

40.  Your website HTML, CSS and JavaScript might be optimised, and it might pass all the W3 Validation rules, but is it an accessible website? If not, get back to the drawing board.

41.  Submit your site to DMOZ.

42.  Link to authoritative sites from your site. That’s right. Spread the link love. No man, or web site, is an island, and if Google can see you are linking to sites and pages with high authority and popularity, this reflects well on your site. Just don’t go overboard.

43.  Pick your site host carefully. It might cost more to use a respectable host but the pay off is that your site is more likely to stay live and you are less likely to be in a “bad neighbourhood”.

44.  Always sense-check, spell-check and grammer-check your content before it goes live. If you don’t have a team of content writers and editors at your disposal then just write the content. Do something else for a day. Then come back and re-read it with fresh eyes.

45.  Avoid dynamic URLs. The page http://www,somesite.com/page.aspx=1435867904 is less search engine friendly than http://www,somesite.com/contact-us.aspx.

46.  Avoid using the Meta-Refresh tag to re-direct users. This could be construed as a spammy tactic. If your content has genuinely moved then use a 301 redirect rather than the Meta-Refresh tag.

47.  Give files (web pages, images, PDFs) descriptive names, like, my-seo-ideas.pdf, rather than myseoideas.pdf. This is as good for humans as it is for search engines.

48.  Let woorank.com scan your site, it’ll give you a few hints and tips.

49.  Test your site with http://www.webpagetest.org/, it’ll show you where you can improve.

50.  Take a look at your own site, and those of your competitors in spyfu.com it could give you some useful information about keywords and competitors.

51.  Use Open Site Explorer to view your site and compare it to competitors, are they doing something you are not?

52.  Don’t make too many changes all at once. Make a few changes. Monitor and judge the results for a time, then make a few more changes. Making incremental (“little and often”) changes gives you the opportunity to understand better how important certain aspects of your site, and SEO strategy are performing.

53.  Confirm the authors of your website - in particular blog posts - using the rel=”author” tag.

54.  Confirm your organisation as the publisher of your website. It’s not too different from confirming the author.

55.  If someone is offering a sure-fire way to get to the top of search engine results pages, smile politely then take a step back. Then take another. Then another. You get the idea.

There you go. Don’t expect immediate results, keep trying, keep learning, keep updating your site and keep measuring your progress. Contribute usefull stuff to other sites and social media, but don’t dedicate so much time and effort to SEO that other marketing opportunities are lost.

It’s not rocket science. Really.

An Englishman in India

I was recently lucky enough to be sent to India by my employer, and whilst it was definitely work, it was also an experience. What follows is a bit of a stream of consciousness so apologies if I jump from topic to topic, but hey, that’s all part of the Indian experience.

Having been to Kenya with friends in the past I have to say it immediately felt like being in Kenya. It’s a strange mental transition to go from being a white male in the majority in the UK, to becoming a most conspicuous minority in India. It occasionally felt like I was on show whilst I waited for my bus each day, and it sometimes felt like a few people were pretending to be on the phone, but actually taking a HD picture of me to prove that they actually saw an English man at the local bus stop.

On the street, I made sure to pretend like I knew where I was going, a skill I picked up in Kenya. A purposeful stride and a look of intent was my normal mode of operation, though after a while I did actually know where I was heading, and even started to be recognised by the guys along my normal route.

So. What have I learnt? It may surprise you to know that I actually learnt the entire Indian Highway Code in just 3 short bus trips. Here it is:-

If you are approaching a red traffic light or an intersection with a main road whilst on a secondary road yourself, don’t slow down, it’s really a judgment call if you want to stop or not so you may as well just drive straight out.

Still approaching that red traffic light? HONK YOUR HORN!

Turning left or right? Consider conserving the life of your indicator bulb by HONKING YOUR HORN instead!

Stopping? HONK YOUR HORN!

Starting? HONK YOUR HORN!

Taking someone over (you can overtake or undertake, it’s same same!)? HONK YOUR HORN!

Someone taking over you? HONK YOUR HORN!

Somebody cut you up? There is no concept of ‘right of way’ in India so just HONK YOUR HORN!

Have a new car? Consider putting some dents in it before everyone else does (HONKING YOUR HORN optional on this one).

Wing mirrors are optional extras on most vehicles. Instead of looking left or right HONK YOUR HORN then just turn!

Wing mirrors are optional extras on most vehicles. Instead of looking left or right HONK YOUR HORN then just turn!

Tried to drive in-between 2 HGV’s on a dual carriageway for no good reason but realise you are about to get crushed by them both? HONK YOU HORN!

Are you in no immediate danger and driving in a straight line with no one near you and not even approaching a junction. Just for fun HONK YOUR HORN!

You get the picture.

What have I seen? Well, on one Friday night in Noida, where I was staying, I saw no less than 2 amazing floodlit wedding parades going down the street. When I say floodlit, I mean they had huge floodlights in front and behind the parade (you know the drill, horses pulling a carriage, huge band, glittery clothes, dancing, an amazing site!). At least one of these weddings was being recorded in HD.

What else? Well, what better way to advertise a school than to put up a huge poster with what appears to be the passport pictures of all your pharmacy graduates complete with their exam score and name! If that’s not an incentive to pull your finger out at school, nothing is. Micheal Gove, take note! And yes, the girls were at top of the class. The head girl scored 97%, the closest boy had a paltry 93%. Must do better!

Everybody knows Friday night is pizza night, so I had a Dominoes tonight. The Dominoes menu (actually, all menus) in India is an equal split between ‘veg’ and ‘non-veg’ options. This should be brought over to the UK, along with garlic bread stuffed with cheese and jalepenos.

I always thought Dominoes was a take-away only, but in India, Dominoes is also good for a date night. If you do decide to order a takeaway, the Dominoes in Noida has no less than 17 individual Dominoes branded pizza bikes, not including the ones that were already out delivering (in Reading, you get 1 or 2 pizza bikes per pizza shop). Also, I noticed a street stall called ‘Uncle Chicken’. It was just down the road from ‘Papa Johns’, ‘Granny’s Place’ and ‘Mama’s Kitchen’, which seemed like a happy coincidence. The whole family had the block sewn up.

The company I work for pays for buses to take people to work and back home again, and if you work late you get fed a meal and can take a cab home which the company organises for you. This looks like a pretty good deal. Makes my £340 monthly train ticket seem even more expensive than it is.

Of course, I watched too much TV. Endosperm is apparently a major selling point of McVities biscuits. And there are infomercials on the special dieting power of a certain tea. Lots of soap operas too, I just can’t figure out what’s happening. They do have The Good Wife in India, but they edit words like “bitch” out. And there is no dubbing in Indian voices, it’s all still in the original English voices, but with English subtitles? What is that about????

I also saw what appeared to be the original Bollywood black and white film version of the ‘very very good, one pound fish' song . I didn't catch the original song title, but I've no doubt that it was the same tune and that the one pound fish man should be paying royalties to someone else. Is nothing original?

And the bum gun? It was actually quite refreshing once you got used to it. I spoke about this bum gun with many Indian friends, one of whom surprised me with the strength of her opinion that the bum gun is more hygienic (I didn’t have an opinion on it at the time!), I can definately see the advantages. Being left handed and unaccustomed to eating food with a single hand, I realised a dew days into my visit that I was potentially offending my hosts and did my best to recover. I felt like I could be giving the impression of being a barbarian, and if I did nobody let on!

A few years ago the UK had a boom in city centre flats and an off-plan feeding frenzy. This is nothing compared to what’s happening in Noida right now. Housing is being thrown up at a rate of knots I saw enough high-rise flats being put up to put the UK construction industry to shame.

Language is a funny thing in India. English is spoken, but it’s a different kind of English which is hard to explain, but one example would be the major brand, Walls, advertising their products as “qwality”. More than just the Indian accent, students of dialect would probably have a field day try to figure out what’s going on in India. Also, I did catch myself developing some very Indian traits, in particular hand movements. It sometimes felt that body language was more important than what was actually being said and I’m sure I was missing social cues transmitted via body language alone.

It pains my Turkish heritage to admit this, but Indian hospitality is second to none. Nothing is too much. This is a country that uses a squad of motorbike couriers in the morning to deliver Danone. Enough said.

India is an amazing country, I’ll definitely be going back for pleasure rather than business.

Finally, you realise that you really haven’t really done anything approaching a day’s work unless you’ve been begging at a set of traffic lights from 8am until 9pm. And for some of that time if you had your 3 or 4 year old daughter, or wife, or mother with you, then maybe you’ve done something approaching hard work.

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