The Kindness of Strangers

Tennessee Williams
“Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” – A Street Car Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

It is so often stated that it has become a truism of sorts that on-line interactions, particularly those via social media, displace what is termed “real world” or “face to face” interactions. My view is that this perspective, rather than being self-evidently true, is actually apocryphal. I am sure that there are examples of people who have become more isolated (in a physical sense) through use of social media; those who are engaged in a zero-sum game where time spent on-line is at the expense of being around other humans. Most communications media can be accused of the same thing, though I am not aware that anyone ever told Jane Austen to stop wasting her time writing letters and instead get out and meet people. It wasn’t so long ago that people, particularly younger people, were berated for spending so much time on the ‘phone; even back when those were connected to a wall socket by a wire. The same barbs were thrown (and still are) at what we now call Video Games; another area which I admit has occupied a lot of my time in other periods of my life.

There is however a different way of looking at this supposed issue. As I explain in my now rather antiquated review of the Twitterverse:

I have been involved in running web-sites and various on-line communities since 1999.

[…]

I think that Twitter.com[1] can be an extremely useful way of interacting with people, expanding your network and coming into contact with interesting new people.

– Taken from New Adventures in Wi-Fi – Track 2: Twitter April 2010

I have indeed come in to contact with a wide range of different people through my, admittedly rather intermittent, use of what we now call social media. Importantly, a lot of these people are based in parts of the world, or even parts of my own country, where our paths would have been unlikely to cross. I suppose that a case could be made that any time I spend writing or reading blog articles, or talking to people on Twitter or LinkedIn, could instead have been more profitably employed sitting on a barstool; perhaps in the hope that someone with complementary interests would start talking to me. However, this does seem to be a doubtful assertion to make. As with most things in life (except chocolate of course) balance is the key. If you spend all of your time on social media (or indeed all of your time in bars) you will rule out some social experiences. If instead you spend some time on social media as part of a healthy, balanced diet, then this should lead to a wider range of associates and sometimes even friends. It is also a pretty frictionless way to find people who are passionate about the things that you are passionate about; or indeed to find out why people are passionate about areas that you think might be interesting.

I mention above that – despite the observations I make later in the same paragraph – my own use of social media has been sporadic[2]. Having made some progress in understanding some elements of the area in an earlier stage of its evolution, jumping back in as I am doing now can feel a little daunting. These fears have been somewhat ameliorated by reconnecting with a lot of people, who still seem interested in me and what I have to say[3]. I have also connected with some new people and acknowledging this second occurrence is the actual purpose of this article.
 
 
twelveskip

First, I’d like to offer thanks to Ontario-based Pauline Cabrera (@twelveskip) of twelveskip.com. Pauline describes herself thus on Twitter:

Savvy Digital Strategist / Blogger / Web Designer / Virtual Assistant (http://GeekyVA.com). I dig #SEO, blogging, social media & content marketing.

I found Pauline’s web-site when I was thinking about sprucing up my Twitter header and looking for some advice[4]. Pauline’s observations were clear and helpful, but while I get by OK in creating images (both in a business context and with many of the diagrams on this site), I am not a graphic designer. Given Pauline’s greater experience, I decided to reach out to her. The fruits of this interaction can now be viewed on my Twitter site, @peterjthomas.

Pauline and I reached a commercial arrangement, so I’m not here referring to the kindness of strangers always meaning doing stuff for free. However, while I am sure many other people provide the services that Pauline does, I’m equally confident that very few do it with such speed and professionalism. When you couple these attributes with her being ultra-friendly and displaying an evident delight in doing what she does, you end up with someone it is a pleasure to do business with.

I mentioned that Pauline resides in Canada, I live in the UK, we wouldn’t have bumped into each other without those modern inventions of the Internet, search engines, web-sites and (the subject of the search that allowed me to find Pauline) Twitter.
 
 
Michael Sandberg's Data Visualization Blog

Second, I recently composed an article with a Data Visualisation theme and as part of researching this looked at a number of blogs covering this area. One that stood out was Michael Sandberg’s Data Visualization Blog. Michael describes himself thus:

My main work-related areas of interest are in developing self-service interactive, dynamic reports for Web and Mobile (most notably iPad). I currently develop using MicroStrategy in the Cloud with Netezza.

Michael and I also share a mutual connection in Cindi Howson (@BIScorecard) of BI Scorecard. Despite this, I had not been aware of Michael’s work until recently. I did however connect with him via his web-site. Today he has been kind enough to feature the data visualisation piece I wrote on his blog. It is always gratifying when a fellow professional thinks that your work merits sharing with their network.

In this case, Michael is based in Arizona. The chances of us bumping in to each other, except though us both blogging, would have been slim as well.
 
 
Simon Barnes Author

The final person that I would like to mention is Simon Barnes, the award-winning sports and wildlife author and journalist. I based my recent blog article, Ten Million Aliens – More musings on BI-ology, on his book of a similar name. Aside from his articles for various newspapers being published on-line, Simon has not been noted for his social medial presence until recently. This has now been remedied via his blog Simon Barnes Author and Twitter account, @SimonBarnesWild; Simon has been using the former to showcase chapters from his book.

The kindness that I wanted to point out here is the diligence with which Simon responds to comments on his site. Of course, on a personal note, there is always a frisson of excitement when someone whose work you admire and who is also something of a public figure in the UK replies to you directly as Simon has to me. Politeness and consideration for others pre-date the Internet of course, but treating people reasonably gets you a long way in social media. As Simon seems to do this naturally, I am sure this characteristic will stand him in good stead.

I can’t claim that Simon lives a long way from me, his home in Norfolk is pretty adjacent to my current one in Cambridge. However, despite having read his articles for years, it was only once Simon established a web presence that the opportunity to correspond opened up.
 
 
So, in the couple of weeks during which I have dipped my toe back into the social media water, I have had the privilege to connect (in a number of different ways) with the three people that I mention above. Each of Pauline, Michael and Simon are on-line for different reasons and each have different things to say about very different areas. However, I am interested in what each of them does, as are many other people around the world. It’s hard to imagine an easier way in which I could have formed connections with these three people, one from Canada, one from the US and one from my native UK, than via the Internet and – in these cases – Twitter and Blogging. I think these are useful facts to remember in the face of accusations that social media makes people insular, closed-off and lonely. It may do that to some people, but this is a million miles away from my own experiences and – I strongly suspect – those of many of the people who are now able to access a wider world through their keyboards or touchscreens.
 
 
Notes

 
[1]
 
The “.com” was still in use back in 2010
 
[2]
 
This is something that I cover in another earlier article: Four [Social Media] Failures and a Success. The section describing the first failure (in this case a personal one) begins:

Failure 1 – Thinking that you can dip in and out of Social Media

Articles per month

 
[3]
 
Probably strongly correlated to me being interested in what they have to say of course.
 
[4]
 
I think that the actual search terms were the rather prosaic “twitter header dimensions“.

 

 

LinkedIn does what it says on the can

Referring domains
An analysis of peterjamesthomas.com traffic based on linking site

I suppose, given that this is a essentially professional blog, I should not be surprised that LinkedIn dominates traffic for me, dwarfing even the mighty Google and Twitter (incidentally Facebook was in 13th place, below Microsoft – a verdict of “could do better”, but then Facebook is only semi-pro for me).

It is also worth noting that traffic from all WordPress blogs (not included in the 4% WordPress figure above) amounted to 3% of traffic. Adding in all other non-corporate blogs got this to 5% and notional 4th place).

It is also notable that StumbleUpon outdid all other social bookmarking sites, with Reddit next in a lowly 23rd place.
 
 
Some selected top threes…

Please note that the only criteria here is quantum of traffic.
 
 
The Social Media “Big Three”

  1. LinkedIn
  2. Twitter
  3. Facebook

 
Vendors

  1. Microsoft
  2. SAS
  3. IBM

 
Blogs

  1. Oracle Business Intelligence 101
  2. Judith Hurwitz
  3. Merv Adrian

 
Social Bookmarking

  1. StumbleUpon
  2. Reddit
  3. Delicious

 
Blog Readers

  1. Bloglines (now sadly defunct)
  2. Netvibes
  3. Google Reader

 
Technology News / Communities

  1. Smart Data Collective
  2. IT Business Edge
  3. Joint: IT Finance Connection & Social Media Today

 
Media

  1. CIO Magazine
  2. The Economist
  3. Computing

 

I should point out that the figures presented above are all-time, rather than say the last six months. It would be interesting to do some trending, but this is a bit more clunky to achieve than one might expect.
 

New Adventures in Wi-Fi – Track 2: Twitter

New Adventures in Wi-Fi (with apologies to R.E.M.)

Forming the second part of the trilogy that commenced with:

New Adventures in Wi-Fi – Track 1: Blogging

 
Introduction

To tweet, or not to tweet. That is the question.

First of all some caveats:

I am not a social media expert, nor any of its many variants.
I do not work in marketing or PR.
I will not be encouraging you to unleash the power of FaceTube/YouSpace/MyBook to make the world a better place (and your bank vault a fuller one), or to sell a million more of your product.
I can not claim to have some secret formula for success in the world of on-line communication (indeed I tend to be allergic to such things as per Recipes for Success?).

If you want all the answers, then please look elsewhere. Good luck with your search!

However:

I am an IT person, with a reasonable degree of commercial awareness and a background in sales and sales support.
I have been involved in running web-sites and various on-line communities since 1999.
I do author a business, technology and change blog that has been relatively well-received (why else would you be reading this?)
I think that Twitter.com can be an extremely useful way of interacting with people, expanding your network and coming into contact with interesting new people.

This is the middle chapter of a series of articles about the experiences of a neophyte in the sometimes confusing world of social media. View this article as akin to Herodotus describing crocodiles and you won’t go far wrong. If you learn something useful, then that’s great. If not, I hope that my adventures prove a harmless diversion for the reader.
 
 
Origins

I thought of adding a fourth zero, but that seemed much too applied. For the avoidance of doubt this illustration should not be taken as an endorsement of Ab Initio.

I covered some of my previous forays in what has now come to be called social media in my earlier article, so I won’t revisit them here. The main focus of this piece is Twitter, a service that I joined back in December 2008, a couple of months after establishing this blog. It took me some time to figure Twitter out and I am not sure that I entirely “get it” in full.

In a recent article – How I write – I referred to many of my blog posts flowing quickly and easily. I must admit that writing this piece is proving to be something more of a struggle. Perhaps this reflects the fact that making progress on Twitter was also anything but easy. Indeed I felt that for a long time I was blundering about without any real idea about how to use the medium, or what I wanted to use it for. It also probably reflects my admitted lack of expertise in social media.
 

An aside for fellow pedants:

One in a million

Twitter is positioned as a micro-blogging service. This terminology offends the scientific bent of my mind. Micro (μικρός) implies 10-6 or one millionth. I tend to write relatively long blog posts and the average size of one of my articles is about 1,200 words; this equates to just over 7,000 characters. Twitter’s 140 character limit (originally set as the length of an SMS) is one fiftieth of this figure, so a more accurate description of Twitter would be a centi-blogging service; for less verbose bloggers maybe deci-blogging would also work.

 
Many aficionados of Twitter claim that it is the ideal way to promote your product, your service and/or yourself (or all three at the same time). The same people also say that it is a great tool for listening to existing and potential customers, obtaining information about what they like and dislike and picking up on trends. All this may very well be true, but this is not how I have come to use Twitter and I will not be covering any of these aspects here.

For me the facility is not really about reaching a wide audience – however much I may be passionate about areas such as Business Intelligence, I realise that not everyone will feel then same. Instead it has been a great way to discover the members of a broader worldwide technology community focussed on areas such as databases and data warehousing, BI tools and approaches, numerical and text-based analysis and general technology industry issues.
 
 
So what is all the fuss about anway?

How come it doesn't recognise twttr.com?

Twitter started as a way to post updates from your mobile ‘phone by texting a message to a number (07624 801 423 here in the UK). The messages would generally be about the sorts of things that you would be doing when you don’t have access to a PC, but do to a mobile ‘phone. For example:

  • “I’m standing in line at the grocery”,
  • “It is raining outside“,
  • “The girl opposite on the bus is looking at me“,
  • “Oh dear so is her boyfriend and he seems less friendly“,

These messages were then posted on-line and could be read by other people. If these people found your output interesting (and let’s face it who could not be captivated by the examples I quote above), then they could subscribe to your posts (or follow your tweets in the lingo). When some one follows you, you are notified and can return the complement if you wish. In this way the network of people with whom you can share your updates grows.

At some point people began to realise that you could skip the mobile bit and use your computer to post tweets directly on-line. This opened up the entire:

  • "I was surfing the Net and found this cool site http://…"

type post and the rest, as they say is history. I have tweeted via my mobile ‘phone recently, but only by first loading Opera Mini and going to twitter.com. I suspect that there are people out there who have never sent an SMS to their Twitter account.

Hamlet Act 2, scene 2, 86–92

A relic of this history is the aforementioned 140 character limit. Because there is not much room to type, there is a limit to the length of thought that you can share. In turn this means that a defining characteristic of Twitter is brevity. For someone such as me who is not known for having this quality as a core characteristic, this presents something of a challenge. However when you have something exceeding 140 characters to say, the Twitter limit forces the approach of writing it down somewhere else (e.g. on a blog) and then posting a link. A lot of my Twitter posts contain either links to this site or to interesting articles that I have found elsewhere. In this way, Twitter has some attributes akin to a more dynamic version of a social bookmarking site (such as reddit.com or del.icio.us).

The other key characteristic of twitter is interaction. Most of my other tweets are either passing on comments made by other people, or links posted by them – of course this type of behaviour tends to lead to reciprocation, which binds people together (in a positive sense) and also potentially widens the network available to both. The balance of my tweeting is made up of chatting with people (tweeps if you must) either about industry issues, or – probably more frequently – just shooting the breeze.

To me rather than [insert appropriate negative power of 10 here]-blogging Twitter is much more akin to it’s historical roots of public texting. Instead of SMSing one person, or a small group, you share your abbreviated pearls of wisdom with potentially thousands of people, these people also have a much easier way of following your train of thought. Of course there is no guarantee that they put the same care and attention into reading your tweets as you did in to writing them; more on this later.
 
 
Some suggestions for blissful tweeting

Blue skies / Smiling at me / Nothing but blue skies / Do I see ||  Bluebirds / Singing a song / Nothing but bluebirds / All day long

These are some things that have worked for me and seem to make sense. There are lots of alternative perspectives out there, just a google away:

  1. Go to twitter.com and sign-up for an account.

    Unless you want to stay anonymous, I would suggest using your real name and a user name that is close to this: I’m @peterjthomas for example.

  2. Fill in your profile and tell people a bit about yourself.

    There is nothing more off-putting than being followed by someone, clicking on their page and finding… nothing. Why would anyone want to listen to what you have to say if you don’t lay down some markers here? While you are at it, think about customising your page to make it a bit more distinctive. But don’t go to town, at least at present, it is not that easy to come up with a scheme that will work on multiple screen resolutions.

  3. Find some people to follow.

    This can be a little easier said than done. What you are most likely looking for is people with similar interests to yourself. There are a number of approaches.

    1. You may already know some peers who use Twitter, as well as following them, go to their page (www.twitter.com/their-account-name) and see who they interact with when speaking about subjects that you also want to talk about. If they don’t have thousands of followers, take a look at the list and also look at who they follow.
    2. Many people in the blogosphere (as well as many corporations) have a Twitter presence and will often advertise this fact. If you have found an interesting blog article – say this one – then scan the site to see if there is a Twitter link; more often than not there will be.
    3. If you end up following some one that you view as being influential in your area, then take a look at the people that he or she tweets with – they will probably also be worth following.
    4. You can also use twitter search to see what other people are talking about that might be of interest – the following link looks for references to business intelligence: https://twitter.com/search?q=%23businessintelligence (more on how to tag your tweets later). It may be that some of the people that come up in a search list are worth following.
    5. Finally you can let other people do the hard work for you every Friday. Follow Friday is a Twitter tradition in which people give recommendations of tweeps that they feel others may want to follow. This can be gold-dust for someone hoping to find like-minded people.
       
  4. Think about how to get people to follow you.

    Maybe a good way to think about this is to consider the exercise that you have just completed to look for people to follow. What would make your Twitter account come into focus in such a process? Whatever you are looking for in some one to follow, similar people will also be looking for, so try to fit the bill.

    If you are looking for people who share cool articles, then share cool articles. If you are looking for people who express opinions about things that are important to you, then express opinions; either on Twitter, or via a blog and post links on Twitter. If you are looking for people who engage with others, then engage with others yourself. You can reference people who are not following you (and indeed who you are not following) just by putting an ‘@’ in front of their name.

    For example even if you are not following me and you post:

    “Wow! that @peterjthomas really knows his business intelligence”

    then first of all I will notice (as you reference me) and second I’m as human as the next person and am likely to at least consider following you, or at the very least sharing your comment with my followers.

    An aside on sharing tweets:

    Twitter etiquette is that you don’t share other people’s tweets without referencing them. So in the above example I might re-tweet your kind comment as:

    “RT @your-name Wow! that @peterjthomas really knows his business intelligence << Thanks"

    the RT stands for re-tweet and the << indicates my additional comments, in this case to say thank you – people do the latter in a number of way. An alternative to using RT is as follows:

    “Wow! that @peterjthomas really knows his business intelligence (via @your-name)”

    Not only is this polite, but now @your-name and @peterjthomas are linked – if I was worth following, then me mentioning you is a worthwhile objective.

    Of course the other two keys to gaining followers are the same as for getting people to read your blog: first share links that are worthwhile sharing (particularly if they are your own work) and second try to engage with people and refrain from being a passive by-stander.

One thing that is probably dawning on any Twitter novices right now is that the above are not discrete activities that you do once and then are finished with. If you want to get the most out of Twitter, then you will have to keep doing them.
 
 
More advanced techniques

Paul Dirac - the UK's greatest physicist since Newton

Unless you are looking to create a social media presence for a Fortune 500 company (assuming that there are any left who have not already created such a thing), then the above pointers are probably more than enough to get you started. Like me you may then just muddle through, hopefully learning from your mistakes. Alternatively, there are any number of guides out there which may or may not strike a chord with you and suit your personal style; just search for them.
 
Be yourself

On the subject of personal style, I’d suggest (as I also suggested in my article on blogging) that you be yourself on Twitter. Even within 140 characters, trying to be something that you are not comes across as fake; people aren’t impressed. On the same subject, treat people as you would face-to-face. If you are trying to sell something – even just your personal brand – then would you ram this down people’s throats in person? If not, then why would it be OK to do this on Twitter? A more low key approach is likely to lead to engagement and a better outcome than blowing your trumpet from the roof-tops (I know, I have tried the latter and it doesn’t work too well).
 
Use hash-tags

Above I mentioned tagging your posts. So if you write something about cloud computing, you might want to tag it with a key word, e.g. “cloud”. Though Twitter’s own search engine and the various other tools that you can employ on Twitter data will search for any occurence of specified text, it is still traditional to use hash tags, so in the above example a tweet might look like:

“I have just come across a great article sumarising new development in cloud computing – http://link.here #cloud

As ever the incomparable xkcd.com has a view on this world that is both acerbic and insightful:

I learnt everything I know about title/alt text from Randall Munroe
© xkcd.com

To see a slightly more positive use of Twitter search and hash-tags, try looking up coverage of a recent Teradata analyst event using #td3pi.
 
Shorten your URLs

On the subject of links, the 140 character limitation means that you don’t want to waste space with long URLs. Using a URL shortener is mandatory – I use http://bit.ly but there are many other such tools out there.
 
Check out the wide range of Twitter-related tools

Now that the subject of tools has come up, there is an entire hinterland of Twitter-related tools that can do a wide range of things to help you. These include:
 

  1. Twitter platforms

    These which help to manage your entire Twitter experience from reading other people’s posts, to making your own (sometimes doing link shortening for you automatically). If you are successful in finding people to follow and attracting people to follow you, then there will come a time when the noise level becomes unmanageable. This type of tool can help by providing filters and groups, which enable you to make sense of a tsunami of tweets, organise them and prioritise your time.

    I use TweetDeck, but again there are many alternatives.

  2. Twitter add-ins

    These are generally what you would employ on your blog or other internet site to allow people to easily tweet your content. There are several very slick and attractive looking options out there, just take a look at a handful of sites and take your pick. I’m staying old-school for present and hand-coding my Twitter links (as at the end of this article).

  3. Twitter analytics

    This is rather a grand name which covers everything from the trend of how many people are following you through to quite sophisticated analysis. Rather than provide a list, take a look at one that Pam Dyer has put together here.

  4. Other

    There are a lot of fun Twitter-related applications out there. Just one example to whet your appetite is the following app, written by @petewarden which graphs your relations to other people on Twitter and gives a very visual perspective on the totality of your tweeting:

    XXX
    © http://twitter.mailana.com

 
 
In closing

I chose to close this article with the above image for a reason. To me it captures the essence of what Twitter is about; forming a network of associations with people who can enrich your understanding, provide you with fresh perspectives, or even simply make you smile. The diagram looks awfully like a community doesn’t it? If you enjoy reading this blog and are looking for people to follow who might share your world-view, then clicking on the above graphic and checking out some of the people I interact with most may be a good starting point.

If you chose to take the plunge with Twitter then good luck and I hope that you get as much out of it as I have. You can also then do me a favour and use the handy link just below to share this article with your followers!
 


 
The New Adventures in Wi-Fi series of articles on Social Media concludes with a piece on professional networking and LinkedIn here.
 

The Cloud Circle Forum – London

The Cloud Circle

Introduction

Earlier this week I attended the inaugural The Cloud Circle Forum in London. The Cloud Circle is the UK’s first independent Business and IT focused Cloud Computing Community. It is also the sister community of the Business Intelligence-focussed Obis Omni, an organisation with whom I have a longstanding (though I hasten to add, non-contractual) relationship (a list of Obis Omni seminars at which I have presented appears here, and you can also find some of my articles syndicated on their site).

There was a full programme with the morning being taken up by plenary presentations from Harrogate’s InTechnology (@InTechnology) and CloudOrigin (aka Cloud Computing evangelist Richard Hall – @CloudOrigin), followed by two Windows Azure case studies; one from EasyJet and one from Active Web Solutions (@AWSIpswich) for the Royal National Lifeboat Association – these were hosted by Microsoft themselves.

The afternoon programme saw delegates split into two work-streams, one focussed on strategy and management, the other on technology. Work-related pressures meant that I was unable to attend this part of the day, which was a shame as several bits of the morning speeches were helpful.

Who you gonna call?

Unfortunately, despite the fact that virtually every organisiation and individual I have mentioned so far has a Twitter account and the additional fact that there were hundreds of delegates at the forum, there was virtually no Twitter coverage. Maybe we can get too carried away with the all pervasiveness of social media sometimes. There are clearly some avenues of professional life where its influence is yet to be fully felt; even IT conferences!

I tweeted some commentary on the InTechnology presentation and the stream may be viewed here while it persists. However by the time that Richard Hall stood up to speak, a combination of a lack of reception (the auditorium was in the basement) and issues with mobile Twitter on my hand-held brought this activity to a halt.
 
 
The morning presentations

Note: I don’t want to steal the thunder from any of the speakers and so this article does not cover the content of their presentations in any detail. Instead my aim is to highlight a few points and provide a flavour of their talks.

 
InTechnology

The InTechnology talk was interesting in parts, in particular their focus on the savings to be achieved in cloud-based telephony alone. One of their speakers also suggested that the benefits of Cloud Computing were potentially reduced if an organisation worked with more than one vendor, which is clearly an aspect to consider.

Their presentations were topped and tailed by two segments of a Cloud Computing-related spoof of The Apprentice. Clearly some money had gone into this and the results were either hilarious or somewhat ill-advised depending on your personal taste. I have to admit to falling closer to the latter camp. While some delegates seemed to enjoy the fun of the fair, I felt the video distracted somewhat from InTechnology’s core message.
 
 
Cloud-origin

I billed Richard Hall as a Cloud Computing evangelist and certainly his tub-thumping upped the tempo. He made some interesting points, which included his assertion that the proprietors of cloud server farms were employing cutting edge technology that was not currently commercially available and might never be. The point here was that cloud providers were becoming true experts in the area with capabilities far beyond normal organisations. This segued with his prediction that there would be only four, or at most five, mega cloud vendors in the future.

Richard did have one slide focusing on the potential drawbacks (or current short-comings) of Cloud Computing, but you could tell his heart wasn’t really in it. One sensed that Richard never met a cloud he didn’t like, even referring to his only personal Road to Damascus during his talk. However one very valid point he made was that the legal agreements and licensing arrangements for Cloud Computing were significantly lagging the flexibility of the technology itself. This chimes with my own experience of the area.
 
 

Microsoft easyJet.com Active Web Solutions

The real-life case studies of cloud-based success were perhaps more telling than the earlier sessions. Bert Craven, Enterprise Architect at EasyJet, spoke about how his company had been moving selected elements of their IT assets to the cloud. Interestingly, while the original plan had been to keep some critical applications (the sort for which 99.9% availability is not good enough) in-house, one of these was now in the process of becoming cloud-based.

Richard Prodger, Technical Director of AWS, spoke about the work that his company had been doing with the RNLI – a charity that runs volunteer lifeboats around the coasts of Britain. The specific project was to provide fishermen with devices that would automatically alert the RNLI control centre if they fell overboard and then provide accurate positioning information enabling a faster rescue and thus one that would be more likely to result in success. Richard shared stories of several fishermen who were alive today thanks to the system. Here the cloud was not the original vehicle, but something that was subsequently employed to scale up the service.

Both case studies used Windows Azure as a component. I have not used this toolset, nor have I been briefed on it and so will refrain from any comment beyond stating that both Bert and Richard seemed happy with its capabilities; particularly in securely exposing internal systems to external web-users.
 
 
Some thoughts on what I heard and saw

When multiple presenters state that there is no agreed definition of the central subject matter of a seminar and then proceed to provide slightly different takes on this, you know that you are dealing with an emerging technology. That is not to deny the obvious potential of the area, but a degree of maturation is still necessary in this part of the industry before – in Richard Hall’s words – Cloud Computing becomes the future of IT.

There was more than one elephant in the room. First of which is bandwidth, which is relatively plentiful and relatively cheap in many parts of the world, but equally has neither trait in many others. This will be of concern to a lot of global organisations. Of course this is a problem that will undoubtedly go away in time, but it may dog true enterprise implementations of misison-critical Cloud Computing for some years yet.

Security remains a concern, it may well be true that the experts in Cloud Computing will be an order of magnitude more careful and competent about handling their customers’ data than many internal IT departments. However the point is that they are already handling the data of many customers and one error, or one act of malfeasance by an employee, could have a major impact. You may well be safer flying than driving your own car, but when a plane crashes, people tend to notice.

Future consolidation in Cloud Computing was mentioned by a number of speakers. Although this issue is not solely the preserve of cloud technology, it does raise some concerns about betting on the right horse. As has been seen in many areas of industry, the titans of today may be the minnows of tomorrow. When you are trusting an external organisation with your transactions, it helps to know for certain (or as close as you can get to it) that they will be around in five years’ time.

One of the central pitches of Cloud Computing is “let us look after the heavy lifting and your people can focus on more value-added activities”. While there are certainly economies to be seized in this area, the Cloud Computing industry may be doing itself a disservice by stating that customers can effectively stop worrying about functions moved to the cloud. In my mind a lot of care and attention will need to be put into managing relationships with cloud vendors and into integrating cloud-based systems with the rest of the internal IT landscape (or with other cloud-based systems). It may be that this type of work costs a lot less than the internal alternative, but it is nevertheless invidious to suggest that no work at all is required. This line of attack is reminiscent of some of the turn of the millennium sales pitches of ERP vendors, not all of which turned out to be well-founded.

In finishing this slightly downbeat section (and before a more optimistic coda), I’ll return to the commercial issues that Richard Hall referenced. He claimed – correctly in my opinion – that a major benefit of cloud-based solutions was not only that they scaled-up, but that they scaled-down. The “knob” could be adjusted in either direction according to an organisation’s needs. The problem here is that many parts of the Cloud Computing industry still seem wedded to multi-year fixed licensing deals with little commercial scope to scale either up or down without renegotiating the contract. What is technologically feasible may not be contractually pain-free. In the same vein more flexible termination clauses and guaranteed portability of data from one vendor to another need to be sorted out before Cloud Computing is fully embraced by many organisations.

On a more positive note, the above issues are maybe the typical growth pains of a nascent industry. No doubt solutions to them will be knocked into shape in the coming years. It is always tempting fate to predict the future with too much accuracy, but at this point it seems certain that Cloud Computing will play an increasingly important role in the IT landscapes of tomorrow. If nothing else this is attested to by the number of delegates attending Tuesday’s meeting.

The Cloud Circle are to be commended for getting out in front of this important issue and I hope that their work will better disseminate understanding of what is likely to become and important area and enable a wider range of organisations to begin to take advantage of it.
 

Independent Analysts and Social Media – a marriage made in heaven

Oracle EPM and BI Merv Adrian - IT Market Strategies for Suppliers

I have been a regular visitor to Merv Adrian’s excellent blog since just after its inception and have got to know Merv virtually via twitter (@merv) and other channels. I recently read his article : Oracle Ups EPM Ante, which covered Oracle’s latest progress in integrating its various in-house and acquired technologies in the Enterprise Performance Management and Business Intelligence arenas.

The article is clearly written and helpful, I recommend you take a look if these areas impinge upon you. One section caught my attention (my emphasis):

Finally, Oracle has long had a sizable base in government, and its new Hyperion Public Sector Planning and Budgeting app suite continues the integration theme, tapping its ERP apps (both Oracle E-Business Suite [EBS] and PeopleSoft ERP) for bidirectional feeds.

My current responsibilities include EPM, BI and the third Oracle ERP product, JD Edwards. I don’t work in the public sector, but was nevertheless interested in the concept of how and whether JDE fitted into the above scenario. I posted a comment and within a few hours Merv replied, having spoken to his senior Oracle contacts. The reply was from a vendor-neutral source, but based on information “straight from the horse’s mouth”. It is illuminating to ponder how I could have got a credible answer to this type of question any quicker.

To recap, my interactions with Merv are via the professional social media Holy Trinity of blogs, twitter.com and LinkedIn.com. The above is just one small example of how industry experts can leverage social media to get their message across, increase their network of influence and deliver very rapid value. I can only see these types of interactions increasing in the future. Sometimes social media can be over-hyped, but in the world of industry analysis it seems to be a marriage made in heaven.
 


 
Analyst and consultant Merv Adrian founded IT Market Strategy after three decades in the IT industry. During his tenure as Senior Vice President at Forrester Research, he was responsible for all of Forrester’s technology research, covered the software industry and launched Forrester’s well-regarded practice in Analyst Relations. Earlier, as Vice President at Giga Information Group, Merv focused on facilitating collaborative research and served as executive editor of the monthly Research Digest and weekly GigaFlash.

Prior to becoming an analyst, Merv was Senior Director, Strategic Marketing at Sybase, where he also held director positions in data warehouse marketing and analyst relations. Prior to Sybase, Merv served as a marketing manager at Information Builders, where he founded and edited a technical journal and a marketing quarterly, subsequently becoming involved in corporate and product marketing and launching a formal AR role.
 

Inspiration

From one of those rather annoying "motivational" pictures that seem to adorn a lot of HR department's walls nowadays
 
Introduction

Inspiration can come from many places. For me it is often via making a connection between two separate areas. I wrote about this phenomenon in my earlier artcile, Synthesis.

A couple of inspiration-related events have led me to pen this piece today and, as a great man once said:

A deductive technique

When two separate events occur simultaneously pertaining to the same object of inquiry we must always pay strict attention.

 
Thing One

The first occurrence was an article on Jeff Shuey’s blog entitled Surely, you must be joking. This borrows from the title of Nobel Laureate Richard P. Feynman‘s book Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman (as edited by his friend and co-drummer Ralph Leighton). I have found Feynman to be an inspirational character since I first saw him interviewed in depth on the BBC’s science magazine programme, Horizon. Some footage of this interview appears in the BBC’s archives, and may be viewed here. It is well worth a look.

I happen to have recently referenced Feynman, albeit rather obliquely, in a review of my bogging experiences, New Adventures in Wi-Fi – Track 1: Blogging. I have been delighted to receive some messages from people saying that this article had prompted them to take up blogging themselves. There can surely be no greater compliment paid in social media and I am honoured to receive it.

twitter.com

The idea for Jeff’s article came both from Microsoft featuring Feynman’s work on its Project Tuva site (this doesn’t seem to work for me in Chrome, though it’s fine in IE8 – maybe I’ll keep quiet about this in case the European Commission is listening in) and a subsequent exchange of tweets and links that we shared on twitter.com. Jeff’s handle is @jshuey if you would like to follow him. Also check out Jeff’s article to learn more about how a remarkable human being has influenced both him and Project Tuva.
 
 
and Thing Two

The second event relates to the traditional American diner that is round the corner from where I live. I appreciate that I live in London, but nevertheless I do have a traditional American diner round the corner. It is even owned by a Packers fan from Wisconsin. Lauren is one of the people who regularly works there and she has a talent for drawing in chocolate – no you haven’t misread that, she draws in chocolate, specifically on the plate that holds the diner’s very pleasant flourless chocolate cake.

Mermaids have been a favourite theme for Lauren, but more recently she has moved on to more ambitious works. The first was Michael Jackson for obvious reasons. This was followed by Barak Obama. The other day I suggested that, if she was working her way through American icons, then the next obvious person would be Marilyn Monroe. Lauren liked this idea and when I visited this morning to get my customary cup of coffee (skinny cappuccino rather than black and hot sadly) her lastest work greeted me:

Chocolate Marilyn

I’m really happy that my input has played a small part in two creative acts. This is particularly the case as I am normally acknowledging the inspiration that I have drawn from other people.

This sort of give and take of ideas has of course been happening during the entire course of human history. Clearly, even if I live to be 100, I could never hope to be as inspirational or influential as Richard Feynman. However it is both gratifying and humbling to be able to take part in the cycle of human interaction, no matter how minor my role. Maybe these two small recent examples are further evidence that the pace is increasing.
 

More Cricket and Twitter

Phillip Hughes of Australia, New South Wales and Middlesex

twitter.com

In my earlier article, Accuracy, I compared the need for precision in cricket reporting to the verity of different types of breaking news on twitter.com and closed by stressing the importance of accuacy in Business Intelligence. It’s generally all in a day’s work for me to make such connections; yesterday’s piece linked rock climbing, the car market, Business Intelligence [again] and IBM’s proposed acquisition of SPSS.

I am going to lay the blame for me continuing to blog about cricket firmly at the door of @JohnFMoore, who made the fatal mistake of encouraging me. However the current article will be rather shorter in duration than my last work in this area.

Aside from John, what has moved me to write today was the news that wunderkind opening bastmen Phillip Hughes has been dropped from the Australian team for the 3rd Test Match against England which starts today in Birmingham, England (inundated pitch allowing).

Phillip Hughes attacking the South African bowling on his way to scoring 115

Hughes is only 20 and has burst onto the international cricketing scene in a matter of months. Before the current tour to England, he had played just three Tests (the name given to five day cricket matches between different countries). However, these were all against South Africa, one of the strongest teams in the world at present. In his six innings (a team generally bats twice in a Test Match) he had made 415 runs at the eye-catching average of 69.16 [number of runs / (number of innings – times not out)]. By way of reference, this is higher than any other player in either of the current Australian and English teams.

Hughes built on these achievements by spending the early part of the season playing for English cricket team Middlesex. For them he scored 574 runs at a stratospheric average of 143.50. England cricket fans were beginning to be very, very worried at this point.

However, as can happen in many sports, some one can make an initial impact and then have their performances return to average or below. This has proved to be the case with Hughes who in three innings in the current Test Match series has scored 36, 4 and 17 for a rather less stellar average of 19.0. More important than these bald figures is the fact that the England bowlers seem to have detected and then exploited a deficiency in Hughes’ technique.

England's Andrew Flintoff testing Phillip Hughes' technique against fast, short-pitched bowling

It could be argued that Hughes clearly has immense talent and potential and the Australian selectors have been overly hasty in dropping him after two poor matches. Such things can severely dent a player’s confidence and I hope that he can rebound from this set-back. However for me the real story is not the unfortunate Hughes being dropped but the manner in which it was announced.

As a 20-year-old it is not perhaps surprising that Phillip Hughes has a twitter account – @PH408. What is surprising is that he used this to announce his axing from the Australian team today as follows:

Disappointed not to be on the field with the lads today, will be supporting the guys, it's a BIG test match 4 us. Thanks 4 all the support!

The general media had been speculating about what might be Hughes’ fate for this match ever since he failed twice in the preceding game. Articles suggesting that he may have been dropped began to appear last night, but his tweet preceded any official announcement about the make up of today’s Australian team.

A case of Twitter beating “old media”, of public figures interacting with the rest of us via social media and of nothing beating getting news straight from the horse’s mouth.
 


 
The two images of actual cricket matches above are drawn from the excellent cricinfo.com web-site and are copyright Getty Images and AFP respectively.