My thoughts on Oracle / Sun quoted by Computerworld UK and

Computerworld UK

I was recently contacted by the UK arm of Computerworld asking whether they could quote from my thoughts on Oracle’s proposed acquisition of Sun Microsystems. I was delighted to accept and the resulting article has now been publsihed: Oracle’s Sun merger raises questions over MySQL, antitrust (my comments are on page 2).

Also, earlier my initial reaction to the news was also featured in coverage. I have had a long relationship with Computing and VNUNet in general. Other Computing articles referencing my work and opinions may be viewed on the Press Case Studies and Interviews page of the Public Presence section of this site.

This Public Presence section also features Vendor Case Studies, Videos (including one with Computing and Accountancy Age) and details of Seminars at which I have presented.

Computerworld, the world’s most successful media brand for IT managers, was originally launched in the US in 1969. Since then it has earned a world-class reputation by maintaining a sharp focus on IT management. Today there are 57 editions of Computerworld around the globe serving a combined audience of over 14 million IT professionals.Computerworld and and the respective logos are trademarks of International Data Group Inc.

Computing and are published in the UK by Incisive Media and provide insight for IT leaders. Computing editor Bryan Glick tweets at


Google mail problems


Along with millions of others today I suffered from the outage in Google‘s web-based e-mail service, Gmail (or googlemail). After the initial frustration, I began to think about how much we all rely on these “free” (aka advertising-supported) web-services and how much we feel bereft when they are not around. It is the equivalent of having an electricity black-out.

A number of other points occur:

  1. What happened to Google’s famed redundancy and massive server farms?
  2. Why did the outage last so long?
  3. Why were more informative error messages not posted, as opposed to the (rather hopeful) suggestion that you might care to try again in 30 seconds?
  4. Should I really have kept track of my HotMail account details?
  5. Was Outlook really that bad? [OK I might be getting carried away with this last one]

Mail outages happen. Perhaps they happen more in corporate environments if you allow for the number of mail users that Google supports. Last year I suffered a three day mail outage in a corporate environment, rather ironically relying on Gmail at the time. Maybe of greater concern to Google is the potential impact of problems like this on their move to provide corporate mail via their Gmail platform. I’m sure that their availability meets or exceeds that of most in-house mails systems, but problems like today’s create the wrong impression. This is particularly the case when they follow hard on the heels of their search problem of a few weeks back, when every page of every site was tagged as potentially harmful to your computer (true as this point might be philosophically).

In some ways it might even be comforting to some IT professionals to see that the best and biggest can be plagued by problems. But before we luxuriate in schadenfreude too much, it is worth reflecting that when any element of IT goes wrong, consumers of it tend to see this as an attribute of IT as a whole – after all it’s just yet another IT problem isn’t it?

This post was one that Computing used to compile their Editor’s Diary article about the gmail outage and also is featured in Editor Bryan Glick‘s further article explaining his innovative use of twitter to source the material.

There are also some discussions related to this area on the CIO Magazine Forum (as ever you need to be a member of and the group to read these).

Vision vs Pragmatism

The ESA's Herschel infrared space observatory

This time last year, I was a member of a panel on a webinar hosted by Computing and Accountancy Age magazines. This post is not specifically about this webinar, but rather about positions that I regularly found myself taking in response to questions. The questions were along the lines of “Do you think that X or Y is more important in trying to achieve Z?”, my frequent reply was “both”. In fact at one point I recall deprecating my own fence-sitting.

Fence-sitting is not normally seen as the most noble of human activities, it tends to suggest a lack of decisiveness, even timidity. However, when faced with a question as basic as “What is more important for survival, food or water?”, then “both” seems to be the only intellectually credible stance to take. Allowing for the nit-picking point that you will die of thirst quicker than you will starve, over the medium term food and water are equally important. I feel the same about vision and pragmatism in business projects and in business people.

There is nothing that homo sapiens likes more than to pigeonhole his or her fellows. We tend to take a binary approach to people’s skills. Fred is a visionary, but you wouldn’t want him to run a project. Jane is brilliant at the details, but she doesn’t see the big picture. Perhaps we are more comfortable with the idea that the strength of any colleague is automatically balanced by a weakness; it brings them back down to a reasonable level – what the Australians call tall poppy syndrome. Maybe the way that we think about visionary people is also influenced by the connotations of the word, bringing to mind soothsayers, prophets and oracles. All of these historical figures had an other-worldly persona (often literally). They were not like “normal” people. Culturally, those who have visions are seen as a race apart. As Fitzgerald might have said “Let me tell you about the visionary. They are different from you and me.”

Setting aside any psychological angle, there are two points to be made here. First, of course people are all different and are endowed with varying abilities. This means that any successful team needs to have a balance of personalities and skill-sets. If you have some one who is purely a visionary on a team, then that is a great strength (most of the time), but orthodoxy suggests that this needs to be balanced by people who have less ethereal skills. So far, so hum-drum.

The second point is a potentially more interesting one. Maybe, contrary to what I have written above, visionaries are not so different from the rest of us. Instead of being skin-clad augurs with wild hair, maybe visionaries are people who can embrace a certain way of thinking when necessary. Maybe vision is something that you can turn on and off. This certainly chimes with most theory about personality types. Something that is often forgotten is that extrovert / introvert is not a binary choice, but a continuum. Also where some one places on this scale on average, may be quite different to where they place at a particular moment. Some one who is 75% introvert on average may be exceptionally extrovert in certain circumstances. Applying the same logic, some one who is not normally visionary, may be so sometimes and vice versa. So instead of the orthodoxy of having a team made up of discrete personality types, maybe we should realise that the behaviour of team members and what they can contribute may change over time.

There is clearly a lot that could be discussed here, I am going to restrict myself to talking about vision and what is often seen as it alter-ego, pragmatism. The question I will consider is “What is more important for a project, vision or pragmatism?”. This is where I return to fence-sitting, my answer is a resounding “both”. Vision is necessary to work out what to do, pragmatism is necessary to do it; a food and water situation. In fact I would argue that the optimum way to run a project is to initially develop a vision of the ideal outcome, ignoring any constraints. Such an approach is often seen as unrealistic and is tagged with unfavourable epithets such as “ivory tower” or “blue sky thinking”. However it is a necessary step. I much prefer the idea of thinking of what could be achieved and then applying constraints of time, funding and appetite for change, than the opposite where any potential progress is immediately ham-strung by such considerations. If vision is used to define a desirable, but potentially unattainable, Utopia and then pragmatism is used to pare this down to what is achievable, then the resulting strategy will retain some of the shape of the original ideas. It is likely to result in an approach that has a central theme, that is coherent and which will offer a platform for further progress. Applying pragmatism first is likely to yield a fragmented programme that is uncertain what issues it is meant to be addressing and, by seeking to do only what is incremental, will inevitably fall short of what could be possible (even given constraints).

Looking at this issue the other way round. If there is not the second-pass of applying pragmatism to the initial vision (even sometimes to the degree that the vision is rejected as unworkable), then failure is all but guaranteed. Pragmatism is the structural engineer finding solutions to the challenges posed by the architect’s design. It is figuring out the “how” after vision has established the “what” and “why”. It is also one of the main attributes that is necessary for governing execution, suggesting as it does a flexible approach and the maxim that “what counts most is what works best”. It is difficult to envisage how anything other than pragmatism would lead to success in these phases of a project. There is however something else to consider here. Something that sustains projects through execution is often the initial vision. This gives the team a sense of what they are doing and why they are doing it. This can be crucial when the inevitable setbacks are faced. Vision may also need to be switched back on when a major obstacle needs to be overcome or a change in direction is required. Rather than thinking of vision and pragmatism being sequential phases, perhaps they are alternating mind-sets that continue to vie for pre-eminence during a project. On average vision has the upper hand early on and pragmatism in the middle and later stages, but at any given point, it maybe desirable for the positions to be reversed.

This is another echo of the earlier comments about personality types and it is to this area that I will return in closing. Certainly projects need both visionaries and pragmatists; however these can often be the same people. I would argue strongly that a number of people are capable of both developing visions and aggressively pruning these to make them realisable, or chopping them into phases with phase B predicated on the success of phase A. Further I think that a make-up that embodies both vision and pragmatism, together with having the ability to flip between them as dictated by circumstances, tends to be the ideal one for managing projects. Certainly having one person who can encompass “what”, “why” and “how” seems efficient, but this holistic view of the process tends to go hand-in-hand with a passion to deliver. This passion is a product part of vision (believing in your own ideas) and part of pragmatism (owning the delivery of these ideas) and a very powerful factor behind successful projects.

Continue reading about ideas related to this area in: Holistic vs Incremental approaches to BI.

Thank you to Sharm Manwani

Sharm Manwani's Blog

Sharm is Associate Professor of IT at Henley Business School who I was lucky enough to hear speak at the recent Chase Zander Change Director Forum. He was kind enough to link to the article, Business is from Mars and IT is from Venus, that I wrote about this seminar on his blog at (the specific article may be viewed here).

I would recommend people browsing through Sharm’s articles which provide a sharp insight on technology’s contribution to business change.