Thursday, August 28, 2008

itemis: Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

Today I signed a long term retainer contract with itemis, a Strategic Developer Member of the Eclipse Foundation that specializes in bringing the benefits of model-based software development to its rapidly growing client base. They're a company driven by technical innovation with an eye to the future. They have a talented and dynamic group of people who are doing amazingly cool things; the kinds of things I wanted to do but couldn't. You've probably already noticed the blogs from folks like Peter, Sven, and Jan so I don't need to detail all the interesting things these guys are doing in the modeling space. Human readable notations are of particular interest to me. I feel just like a moth buzzing among the flowers.

So what will I be doing for itemis? The contract is very simple; I didn't need a lawyer to explain what I was committing to by signing it. You have to like that as a good start hey? I'll be spending most of each week working on whatever I feel is important in terms of continuing to build the momentum behind EMF and the Modeling project. In other words, itemis is primarily funding the work that I do for the community. Of course it's in their best business interests as well---they're not a charitable organization---but in terms of being a good member of the Eclipse community, they are very clearly putting their money where their mouth is. It's a case of self interest, becoming mutual interest, and ultimately common interest. I'm sure some interesting developments will take shape.

I expect to get many more opportunities to travel to conferences and hence to spend a great deal more time with the growing community. For me, that's worth a lot! But don't tell itemis; it's an onerous task. I'm excited again about my own personal future but even more so about the future of modeling. In the end, and I do mean in the very end, a guy would like to think something good has been accomplished in our time here. With enough good people working together just about anything is possible.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

EMF Isn't Rocket Science But Don't Tell NASA JPL

Over the past few weeks, I've become a PowerPoint junkie. I'm psychologically scarred as a result. On relatively short notice, I needed to prepare two 1/2 day intensive EMF training sessions as well as a one hour talk for the folks at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena California. I wanted to learn how to use animation to make really compelling visualizations of what's happening under the EMF hood; that killed more time than I care to admit. It also brought to light the fact that PowerPoint has occasional issues with undo; issues so bad that the resulting state corrupted the entire presentation, including the disk image from an attempt to save in that state. Thank goodness I'd saved a draft just two hours before that happened, or I would have died. It would seem that an exorbitant price tag along with a massive user base doesn't buy perfection. A little bit of praying and saving to a new file each time seemed to help ease the paranoia.

After a week of getting up a 2:00 in the morning, I finally had enough slides to choke a horse just in time for my flight to LA on Sunday. In fact, I worked on them some more on the plane when I discovered that a few slides I know I'd written just weren't there. Thank goodness for planes with power plugs to make the whole flight productive. Soon Los Angeles was in sight.

After a harrowing taxi ride to Pasadena, I was ready for some dinner and for some much needed rest. The next day I arrived at the JPL reception, where by some miracle of foresight I actually had my passport with me. This turned out to be a good thing, my being a "foreign national" and all. In that case you get the special "red folder" treatment to ensure that you are under constant supervision. We all know that Canadians generally can't be trusted like you can Americans. Though given the crazy state of the world, better safe than sorry seems a good policy.

My host, Jeff Norris gave me a quick tour of one of their museums which showed models of all the probes and stuff that have gone out over the years. Really cool!

One of the things I discovered there was that I'm totally hot!

There was even a replica of the Voyager Golden Record which I thought reflected rather nicely on me.

Finally I made to OPS lab where Jeff's team works in a very dynamic environment!

This week was EnsembleCon so team members from various locations were all working together. So many nice people! Then I started my morning "Introduction to EMF" session, which went well. I gave a demo of the tools in action and that took up lots of time because people asked a lot of questions which prompted me to show more and more things. I didn't get very far in the slides. For the "Advanced EMF" session in the afternoon, I was able to cover the bulk of the remaining slides though. I was quite happy with how it went. I think it flowed together very well. I hope the group felt the same way. I'll have to dig for some constructive criticism so I can make it better. On the way out, we found that the little park at the center of the complex was a favored hang out for deer. Apparently they're as common as squirrels.

That evening Alfredo Bencomo, another IBM refugee, drove me back to the hotel and we went out for dinner and drinks with many of the rest of the folks from the group. Pasadena is a very scenic place!

The next day, I repeated my "Advanced EMF" presentation, starting a little earlier so I could give a 0ne hour more general talk to a larger audience. I even got through all the slides reaching the summary slide. My talk was advertised around the lab like this

Apparently a catchy title attracts a bigger audience. By the time I was part way in, the room was beyond capacity with people standing in the hall.

I hoped that it would be well received as both humorous as well as thought provoking and from some of the comments I think it achieved that goal. I was completely taken aback by the large turnout. I think a few more groups will be looking at the success of Jeff's team applying Eclipse technology to great benefit.

Meanwhile, back at the OPS lab, it was a hive of activity. Apparently they were in the middle of a major Hibernectony as well as a prefrontal JAXBotomy, removing some irritating technologies that were not serving them well. Equinox, RCP, EMF, CDO, and GEF are the new order.

After a final question and answer session, Jeff took Alfredo (who missed last year's tour) and me for some more sight seeing. Here's Jeff posing with as 1/3 scale model of ATHLETE:

It's totally cool and they'll use EMF to help operate it!

Then we were off to see the Mars Science Laboratory technology.

Here are Alfredo and I posed with yet another explorer.

The most amazing part of all was seeing the work being done on the next probe to be sent to Mars. It was in this huge clean room.

Here are folks working with the guts of the machine.

When this puppy lands, the Eclipse-based software that Jeff's team is working on will help guide it around the planet. It's just too awesome for words! I felt privileged to see so many cool sights as part of my trip to NASA JPL.

My only disappointment was that they didn't let me into the space alien enclosure. I know they denied the existance of such a thing, but enquiring minds know this to be a deception. I think my camera didn't help. Space alien photos tend to be a bit contraversial.

So ended my trip to NASA. Thanks Jeff for making it a most memorable experience. You have a fantastic team of enthusiasic people working hard on a common goal. I'm absolutely sure they will be successful in everything they strive to accomplish.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Engulf and Devour

Scott's reference to the Times article "Even Giants Can Learn to Think Small" reminded me of Mel Books' Silent Movie, particularly the satirized "Engulf and Devour Corporation." Large corporations have an insatiable desire to gobble up smaller companies in order to acquire creative innovations along with their associated market share. It's a way to drive the earnings and revenue growth demanded by stock holders. The engulf-and-devour approach is seen as a tried-and-true solution compared to the more fundamental challenge of driving organic growth, i.e., growth generated by creative innovations within the established business units. It's clearly a successful approach---many large corporations simply would not achieve their growth targets without it---but is it a sustainable approach? To me it's almost like a sundew that engulfs and devours insects because the soil in which it grows is to poor to sustain it.

As I blogged at the beginning of the year, what isn't measured isn't optimized, so while earnings and revenue are tracked religiously, productivity and social issues, like job satisfaction, are far more difficult to measure. Yet social issues have a significant impact on productivity, which in turn has a major impact on revenue and earnings. As such, they're highly relevant issues to consider carefully. If the established business units aren't generating the growth that's needed, while smaller organizations are generating it in spades, doesn't it seem likely that the acquired companies will quickly degenerate to have the same problems as the ever-growing conglomeration itself? Of course it's well recognized that innovation matters and that it's good to do more with less, but it's not so well recognized the extent to which organizational structure and management attitudes stifles those things. Growth of the organization as a whole often just makes the systemic problems progressively worse. To me it's like the pitcher plant solution: just grow ever larger traps in which to digest larger numbers of victims.

The bane of many large corporations is the self-perpetuating nature of middle management. As smaller companies are devoured, middle management tends to perpetuate itself ever further. It's easy to argue that buying a new company will generate synergies and drive the customer value proposition. After all, synergies and value propositions are very important; you'll hear those buzzwords a lot in large corporations. But often the company being acquired will have things that overlap with the existing business units and in those cases, synergy means being able to eliminate half the combined technical staff. Of course you need a great many highly skilled managers to oversee that process, and naturally those managers themselves never seem to disappear, much like these monoliths left standing while what surrounds them and sustains them erodes away.

Nevertheless, the forces of erosion are unrelenting and eventually the monoliths crumble. Bell Canada's recent elimination of middle management positions representing 2,500 employees, or nearly 6% of its total workforce, for a savings of $300 million, is an excellent example. That's a move you won't see nearly often enough, given that management makes these types of decisions. Yet this is the move that's often most badly needed in a world driven by technical creativity. As the Times article points out, the ability make "significant decisions without first jumping through executive management hoops" opens the door to creativity; there in lies a sustainable future. I can personally attest to "the desire of workers for “noneconomic goals” like freedom, personal satisfaction and fulfillment" being a significant driving force. Sometimes one just needs to have the freedom to soar.

Eclipse thrives to a large extent because it consists of small groups of creative people who are in control of their own direction, and who collaborate effectively as part of the larger Eclipse community. It's exactly what's described in the Times article: a decentralized hierarchy. Individuals should take solace in the fact that that unrelenting incremental forces not only build mountains but also tear them down.

The world is an ever changing place and we're the ones changing it.