Turning Over A New Leaf

Yesterday was the LinkedIn equivalent of a birthday on Facebook: a new job announcement. I am lucky enough to have well-wishers1 pop up from all over with congratulations, and I am grateful to all of them.

With a new job comes a new title – fortunately one that does not feature on this list of the most ridiculous job titles in tech (although I have to admit to a sneaking admiration for the sheer chutzpah of the Galactic Viceroy of Research Excellence, which is a real title that I am not at all making up).

The new gig is as Director, Field Initiatives and Readiness, EMEA at MongoDB.

Why there? Simply put, because when Dev Ittycheria comes calling, you take that call. Dev was CEO at BladeLogic when I was there, and even though I was a lowly Application Engineer, that was a tight-knit team and Dev paid attention to his people. If I have learned one thing in my years in tech, it’s that the people you work with matter more than just about anything. Dev’s uncanny knack for "catching lightning in a bottle", as he puts it, over and over again, is due in no small part to the teams he puts together around him – and I am proud to have the opportunity to join up once again.

Beyond that, MongoDB itself needs no presentation or explanation as a pick. What might need a bit more unpacking is my move from Ops, where I have spent most of my career until now, into data structures and platforms. Basically, it boils down to a need to get closer to the people actually doing and creating, and to the tools they use to do that work. Ops these days is getting more and more abstract, to the point that some people even talk about NoOps (FWIW I think that vastly oversimplifies the situation
). In fact, DevOps is finally coming to fruition, not because developers got the root password, but because Ops teams started thinking like developers and treating infrastructure as code.

Between this cultural shift, and the various technological shifts (to serverless, immutable infrastructure, and infrastructure as code) that precede, follow, and go along with them, it’s less and less interesting to talk about separate Ops tooling and culture. These days, the action is in the operability of development practices, building in ways that support business agility, rather than trying to patch the dam by addressing individual sources of friction as they show up.

More specifically to me, my particular skill set works best in large organisations, where I can go between different groups and carry ideas and insights with me as I go. I’m a facilitator; when I’m doing my job right, I break information out of silos and spread it around, making sure nobody gets stuck on an island or perseveres with some activity or mode of thinking that is no longer providing value to others. Coming full circle, this fluidity in my role is why I tend to have fuzzy, non-specific job titles that make my wife’s eyes roll right back in her head – mirroring the flow I want to enable for everyone around me, whether colleagues, partners, or users.

It’s all about taking frustration and wasted effort out of the working day, which is a goal that I hope we can all get behind.

Now, time to blow away my old life…


  1. Incidentally, this has been the first time I’ve seen people use the new LinkedIn reactions. It will be interesting to watch the uptake of this feature. 

Piercing The Clouds

Now here’s an interesting document: "A Measurement Study of Server Utilization in Public Clouds". Okay, it’s from 2011, but otherwise seems legit.

Basically it’s a study of total CPU utilisation in both AWS and Azure (plus a brief reference to GoGrid, a now-defunct provider acquired by Datapipe, who in turn were acquired by Rackspace). The problem is that very few people out there are doing actual studies like this one; it’s mostly comparisons between on-prem and remote clouds, or between different cloud providers, rather than absolute utilisation. However, it’s interesting because it appears to undermine one of the biggest rationales for a move to the cloud: higher server utilisation.

Note that Y-axis: utilisation is peaking at 16%.

The study’s conclusion is as follows:

Apparently, the cost of a cloud VM is so low that some users choose to keep the VM on rather than having to worry about saving/restoring the state.

I wonder if this study would bring any substantially different results if repeated in 2019, with all the talk of serverless and other models that are much less dependent on maintaining state. It is plausible that in 2011 most workloads, even in public clouds, were the result of "lifting and shifting" older architectures onto new infrastructure. The interesting question would be, how many of those are still around today, and how many production workloads have been rearchitected to take advantage of these new approaches.

This is not just an idle question, although there is plenty of scope for snarkily comparing monolithic VMs to mainframes. Cloud computing, especially public cloud, has been able to claim the mantle of Green IT, in large part because of claims of increased utilisation – more business value per watts consumed. If that is not the case, many organisations may want to re-evaluate how they distribute their workloads. Measuring processor cycles per dollar is important and cannot be ignored, but these days the big public cloud providers are within shouting distance of one another on price, so other factors start to enter into the equation – such as environmental impacts.


Image by Samuel Zeller via Unsplash

Future Trends In Due Diligence

This story is amazing on so many levels. International banking intrigue on the Eurostar, court cases, huge companies’ deals in jeopardy… It has everything!

The whole story (and associated court case) stems from an episode of shoulder surfing on Eurostar. The Lazard banker working on Iliad’s attempted takeover of T-Mobile US was not paying attention to the scruffy dude sitting beside him on the train. Unfortunately for him, that scruffy dude worked for UBS, and was able to put two and two together (with the assistance of a colleague).

If the Lazard banker had traded on this information, it would have been considered insider trading. However, the judge determined that the information gathered by shoulder-surfing was not privileged, as the UBS banker could not be considered an "insider" (warning, IANAL).

This is why you do not conduct sensitive conversations in trains, airport lounges, and the like. Also, if you are working on information this momentous, one of those screen protectors is probably a worthwhile investment. I have seen and overheard so much information along these lines, although unfortunately I am not in a position to take advantage of any of it.

As usual, humans are the weakest link in any security policy. This is particularly humorous since today I found that, at some point over the Easter break, corporate IT has disabled iCloud Drive on our Macs. Dropbox and my personal login to Google Drive / File Stream / whatever-it’s-called-this-week all still work though…

A particularly paranoid form of security audit would include shadowing key employees on their commutes or business travel to see how well company information is protected. But probably not. It’s much easier just to install agents on everybody’s machines, tick that box, and move on.


Image is a still from this excellent video by ENISA.

Gatekeeping

There has been a bit of a Twitterstorm lately over an article (warning: Business Insider link), in which the executive managing editor of Insider Inc., who "has hired hundreds of people over 10 years", describes her "easy test to see whether a candidate really wants the job and is a 'good egg'": Did they send a thank-you email?

This test has rightly been decried as a ridiculous form of gatekeeping, adding an unstated requirement to the hiring process. Personally I would agree that sending a thank-you note is polite, and also offers the opportunity to chase next steps and confirm timelines. However, I would not rule out a candidate just because I didn’t receive such a note – and I have also received overly familiar notes which put me off those candidates.

The reason these unstated rules are so important is because of the homogenising effect that they tend to have. Only people who are already familiar with "how things are done" are going to be hired or have a career, perpetuating inequality.

This effect has been borne out in a study recently summarised in The Atlantic:

The name that we gave to the culture there was "studied informality" —nobody wore suits and ties, nobody even wore standard business casual. People were wearing sneakers and all kinds of casual, fashionable clothes. There was a sort of "right" way to do it and a "wrong" way to do it: A number of people talked about this one man — who was black and from a working-class background — who just stood out. He worked there for a while and eventually left. He wore tracksuits, and the ways he chose to be casual and fashionable were not the ways that everybody else did.

There were all kinds of things, like who puts their feet up on the table and when they do it, when they swear — things that don’t seem like what you might expect from a place full of high-prestige, powerful television producers. But that was in some ways, I think, more off-putting and harder to navigate for some of our working-class respondents than hearing "just wear a suit and tie every day" might have been. The rules weren't obvious, but everybody else seemed to know them.

I have seen this mechanism in action myself – in much more trivial circumstances, I hasten to add.

One day I was in the office and unexpectedly had to attend a customer meeting at short notice. I was wearing a shirt and a jacket, but I had no tie and had on jeans and sneakers. I apologised to the customer, and there was no issue.

On the other hand, it happened to me to visit a "cool" cloud company in my normal business warpaint, and was told in the lift to remove my tie as "otherwise they won't listen to you"…
Let's not even get into the high-school sociological aspects of people wearing the wrong shoes. Distinctions between suits are subtle, but it's obvious when someone is wearing cheap sneakers versus branded ones.

Instead of unstated and unspoken implicit rules like these, it is much better to have clear and explicit ones, which everyone can easily conform to, such as wearing a suit and tie (or female equivalent – and yes, I know that is its own minefield):

In fact, suits & ties are actually the ultimate nerd apparel. You have to put some effort into shopping, sure, and they tend to cost a bit more than a random vendor T-shirt and ancient combats, but the advantage is that you can thereafter completely forget about wondering what to wear. You can get dressed in the dark and be sure that the results will be perfectly presentable. If you want you can go to a little bit more effort and inject some personality into the process, but the great thing is that you don’t have to. By wearing a suit & tie, you lead people to pay attention to what you say and do, not to what you are wearing. And isn’t that the whole point?

Another unstated gatekeeping mechanism is "culture fit". This is all but explicitly saying "I only want to hire people from my social/class background, and will exclude candidates with a different background".

Here I do think there is some subtlety that is worth exploring. I attempted to respond to the tweet above, but expressed myself poorly (always a risk on Twitter) and did not communicate my point well.

First of all, there is a collision here between "is this person like me" and "would I want to spend time socially with this person". I feel that the sort of people who do this implicit gatekeeping would indeed only want to associate with people from the same background as them, and so this question becomes problematic in that context.

However, some of the reactions to the original tweet appeared to me to take the objection too far, stating that looking for social compatibility at work was ipso facto wrong. Having made several friends through work, I disagree with that view. In fact, I would go so far as to say that my work friendships are influenced in no small part by the fact that my friends are good at their job, and the factors that make them good professionals are also the factors that make them good friends: intelligent, trustworthy, honest, high EQ, and so on.

The correlation is of course not 1:1; I have known many successful and effective professionals who are not my friends. However, by excluding these factors entirely from the decision matrix, I see a particular failure mode, namely the fallacy that only people with abrasive personalities are effective, and therefore all people with abrasive personalities are good hires because they will be effective. It is not surprising that those sorts of people do not make friends at work.

The particular weight placed upon these factors may vary depending on which role in an organisation is being looked at. Customer-facing positions, where it is important to establish and maintain a rapport, may place particular emphasis on high EQ, for instance.

Of course the opposite failure mode is the one where everybody looks the same, dresses the same, went to the same schools – and only hires people exactly like them. This is why explicit rules and failsafes in the process are important, to avoid "culture fit" becoming – or remaining, if we’re honest – a fig leaf used to cloak institutional racism and classism.

As ever, the devil is in the details.


Images by Kelly Sikkema and Hunters Race via Unsplash

Rainbow 🌈



I love this shot, with the sunset light finally peeking under the clouds after a whole day of rain, and catching that perfect rainbow.

The fact that the train I was waiting for, and more importantly the person I was there to meet, were right at the end of that rainbow, just makes it that much better!

First Impressions

Having now put the first 2000km on my Giulia, across city, motorway, and twisty Alpine road, here are some first impressions and comparisons with the late lamented Beast.

Quite apart from all the differences inherent in going from a lardy SUV to a lithe sports saloon that weighs about as much as one of my old Cayenne’s doors, there is also more than a decade of evolution separating the two cars, so there are all sorts of changes to take into account. Overall though I am just so happy with my choice; the thing looks just perfect, subtle but aggressive, a brawler in an impeccably tailored Italian suit. The gamble with the paint colour paid off, despite looking nothing like the picture in the online configurator! It shifts between grey and blue, with bronze accents in the sunlight, and looks far better than that description. I am trying to arrange a photo shoot, but it’s taking a while.

The Giulia also manages to pull off that trick that 911s have of feeling special even at parking speeds, and keeps it up all the way to the rev limiter – not that I have explored that too much yet, as I wanted to run the motor in somewhat gently. The good feeling is due in no small part to the mass of the engine being entirely behind the line of the front axle, contributing to that perfect weight distribution.

The lightness and sensitivity of the steering are a huge part of this "specialness", but it’s a feeling that is woven throughout the car, from the way the instruments are angled towards the driver, to the seats that offer a perfectly judged combination of comfort and firm bolsters holding you in place. The DNA modes also help, with a switch into Dynamic feeling like a shot of adrenaline straight into the driver’s veins, vision turning red at the edges in sync with the instruments.

I did miss the air suspension from the Beast on some of the broken cobbled surfaces in Milan, but apart from that I far prefer the Giulia’s sporty setup, which even in standard mode appears to have deep-seated religious objections to any roll in the body. In sport mode it adds a well-judged firmness without becoming crashy – in other words, it’s still comfortable on the straights, and then sends the car around corners absolutely flat.

Mostly my impressions from the test drive were confirmed in spades. It’s a taut, agile car; the engine is very willing even in automatic mode, but also rewards use of the paddles. A four-cylinder engine is inherently never going to sound as good as a V8, but the Beast was not especially vocal, while I suspect the Alfa team had a few meetings with the team that tunes the exhausts over at Abarth. It’s not nearly as bombastic as those little 500s, but the Giulia’s twin exhausts still manage to sound pretty fruity when you push on a bit.

One place where the Chrysler part of Fiat-Chrysler shows through is the very American-sounding beep which goes off if you change lanes without indicating. The lane departure warning can easily be turned on and off from a button on the end of one of the stalks, which is a very Italian touch that is convenient on a twisty mountain road where you're frequently crossing back and forth across the centre line.

There is also radar cruise control, which does a pretty decent job of keeping its distance from traffic. It could be better, as while the distance is adjustable, even the minimum distance is still quite far away, especially by the standards of Italian motorways. The system is also quite eager to drop a cog to accelerate back up to speed, which is not necessary at all. When I’m on the cruise control, by definition I’m in no hurry! Anyway, this feature is mostly helpful, but only with light traffic. In even moderate traffic, it’s too eager to back off, then surge back up to speed – not very relaxing.

The same radar sensor also drives a forward collision warning system, which, yes, I have already heard triggered. I was already braking, but it automatically activated the hazard lights when the warning fired, which could be useful when doing a full emergency stop.

The dashboard screen is gorgeous but not touch sensitive, which is initially disconcerting when trying to navigate CarPlay. After a month of use I think I actually prefer doing it through the clickwheel, as it’s much easier to get things done without taking my eyes off the road. The usual steering wheel buttons also help, with play/pause, cue, and volume buttons all present and correct. The other two ICE-related buttons are used to hang up on a call, and to trigger Siri, so I don’t really miss touching the screen at all.

On that note, it is so good to have physical controls in the cabin for functions like climate control. I don’t need to take my eyes off the wheel to make it cooler or warmer; there is a lovely tactile wheel that I can twist around a little or a lot, and know right away whether my action was registered. There’s also a physical control between the seats for the ICE, with volume, play/pause, forward/back, and screen off functions – very useful for the passenger, while the driver is probably best served using the steering wheel controls.

Bottom line, I absolutely love my Giulia. If you’re in the market for something similar, I highly recommend it. If you’re not up for the Veloce setup that I got (or for the full-beans Quadrifoglio monster!), you can get most of the same goodness on the Super, with the same two-litre motor in a milder 200bhp tune. Take a test drive, you won’t regret it!

Good Morning!



Lots going on around here, none of which makes suitable blog fodder – so instead, have a view of SFO and San Francisco Bay from my hotel room this week.

Micromobility At Macro Scale

Having used one of those electric scooters, I am now an expert on micromobility, and I have opinions.

Last week I was in Paris on business, which is always fun. This was a proper multimodal trip, encompassing the following forms of transportation:

  • Personal car to the airport
  • Aeroplane from Milan to Paris
  • Moto taxi from CDG to my first meeting
  • Uber to my next meeting
  • Lime-S shared dockless scooter to my hotel
  • Taxi to airport

The moto taxi is always a somewhat terrifying experience, but I’ve been using them for years. It’s basically the only way to get anywhere in Paris at rush hour in less than an hour. If you haven’t had the pleasure, the idea is that you ride on the back of a Honda Goldwing (or sometimes one of those large scooters), which is big enough for there to be plenty of space for a pillion passenger and for carry-on luggage. The rider kits you out with a reinforced jacket, a helmet (with disposable liner), and a waistcoat with airbags that is connected to the bike via a breakaway connection. If you are unlucky enough to come off the bike, airbags around the neck will inflate and (with any luck) prevent the worst-case scenario.

Perched up high on the back of a Goldwing is the best vantage point from which to appreciate that most of the gridlock is composed of cars with only a single occupant. This is obviously not ideal for anybody, which is why alternative forms of transportation are such a hot topic lately.

Later that day, all done with my meetings, I was going to take a Metro to my hotel – but there was some sort of delay on the line, and then I spotted a scooter just standing there… I already had the Lime app from using it in Berlin with the dockless electric-assist bicycles there, so why not?

Unfortunately that first scooter had a cut brake line – the Bay Area does not have a monopoly on scooter saboteurs! By this point I was committed, though, and the app showed me that there was another scooter just around the corner with a full charge.

This second scooter was undamaged and zipped along quite happily. In the centre of Paris 25 km/h is plenty fast enough to keep up with traffic, and most larger streets have bike lanes which are physically separated from the car traffic, so it’s a very fun experience. I was only travelling for a single overnight, so my rucksack was no problem.

Compare The Car

If I had had my car with me, I would first of all have had to pay through the nose for parking1, not to mention the environmental impact of start-stop driving (this is what is driving the plan to ban internal-combustion vehicles in Paris by 2030). On top of that, driving in a congested situation like the centre of Paris is actually no fun at all.

The problem with the car is that my mobility needs would have been over-served, so I would only have experienced the downsides. The calculus would admittedly have changed slightly if it had been raining, or if I had had more luggage than a single rucksack, but then the delay on the Metro might have seemed more acceptable.

Either way, a full-size car is overkill in most (European) cities. Already today, my car hardly ever turns a wheel for journeys of less than a dozen kilometres. I would not want to ride a scooter to the airport (at 25 km/h!), but for a quick trip around town, a scooter or a bicycle are very hard to beat – especially if they could easily be augmented with public transport.

One factor that will help with uptake of these alternative forms of transportation is an easier way to bundle different forms of transportation together into a single logical "trip". This sort of aggregation is already beginning to emerge in various places: in San Francisco, the Uber app will let you rent JUMP bikes, while in Milan, dockless electric scooters can be unlocked using the Telepass app, which also lets users pay for motorway tolls, parking, congestion charges, and so on.

But Those Scooters Are In The Way!

My SF friends object to the scooters because they get left all over the place, obstructing pavements both when they are parked and when idiots ride the scooters on those pavements ("sidewalks", whatever) instead of sticking to the road or bike path. This is absolutely a real problem, but it’s not intrinsic to the scooters. It’s a combination of user education and available infrastructure. The Lime app I used in Paris asked me to take a photograph when I parked the scooter to make sure that it was parked somewhere appropriate. There are also red boxes on the map where the scooters cannot be left for any reason; Lime will charge users for retrieval if scooters are left in these areas.

These app features will already help to ensure that the scooters are in nobody’s way at rest. In motion, Paris’ excellent network of bike lanes reduces the incentive to ride on pavements. Given the width of American streets, there is plenty of room to add bike lanes there too, and to include physical protections beyond just a coat of paint. If there’s room to do this in the centre of Paris, there is room in every single American city, no exceptions.

I thoroughly enjoyed my multimodal trip, and I look forward to many more in the future.


  1. Seriously, last time I parked a car in central Paris, it cost more to house the car than the hotel room to house its human occupants. Supply/demand, and so on, it does make sense, but it stung quite a bit at the time! 

Advertise With The End In Mind

Even though I no longer work directly in marketing, I’m still adjacent, and so I try to keep up to date with what is going on in the industry. One of the most common-sensical and readable voices is Bob Hoffman, perhaps better known as the Ad Contrarian. His latest post is entitled The Simple-Minded Guide To Marketing Communication, and it helpfully dissects the difference between brand advertising and direct-response advertising (emphasis mine):

[…] our industry's current obsession with precision targeted, one-to-one advertising is misguided. Precision targeting may be valuable for direct response. But history shows us that direct response strategies have a very low likelihood of producing major consumer facing brands. Building a big brand requires widespread attention. Precision targeted, one-to-one communication has a low likelihood of delivering widespread attention.

Now Bob is not just an armchair critic; he has quite the cursus honorum in the advertising industry, and so he speaks from experience.

In fact, events earlier this week bore out his central thesis. With the advent of GDPR, many US-based websites opted to cut off EMEA readers rather than attempt to comply with the law. This action helpfully made it clear who was doing shady things with their users’ data, thereby providing a valuable service to US readers, while rarely inconveniencing European readers very much.

The New York Times, with its strong international readership, was not willing to cut off overseas ad revenue. Instead, they went down a different route (emphasis still mine):

The publisher blocked all open-exchange ad buying on its European pages, followed swiftly by behavioral targeting. Instead, NYT International focused on contextual and geographical targeting for programmatic guaranteed and private marketplace deals and has not seen ad revenues drop as a result, according to Jean-Christophe Demarta, svp for global advertising at New York Times International.

Digiday has more details, but that quote has the salient facts: turning off invasive tracking had no negative results whatsoever.

This is of course because knowing someone is reading the NYT, and perhaps which section, is quite enough information to know whether they are an attractive target for a brand to advertise to. Nobody has ever deliberately clicked from serious geopolitical analysis to online impulse shopping. However, the awareness of a brand and its association with Serious Reporting will linger in readers’ minds for a long time.

The NYT sells its own ads, which is not really scalable for most outlets, but I hope other people are paying attention. Maybe there is room in the market for an advertising offering that does not force users to deal with cookies and surveillance and interstitial screens and page clutter and general creepiness and annoyance, while still delivering the goods for its clients?


🖼️ Photo by Kate Trysh on Unsplash