Digital Transformation is like a Horoscope: In this week’s episode, Paul and Rich sit down to discuss need creation and the tech industry’s move to talk about trends in such abstract language that it seems like it applies to everybody. We chat about the relationship between service providers and tech research firms and why you should be suspicious of new industry buzzwords and complex acronyms. Reminder: it’s okay to ask what that new acronym means!
Paul Ford Do you worry about the people around and the family that you love?
Rich Ziade No. That’s not my job. That’s HR.
PF Ok. Ok. [Rich laughs] That’s fine. Ok. So—
RZ So—[music fades in, plays alone for 18 seconds, ramps down]. Alright, Paul, I’m a pretty important guy.
PF You’re an executive.
RZ I am an executive but I’m actually playing a character right now. I am [oh ok] a CIO of a major retailer.
RZ And I have to make large, strategic decisions about technology [music fades out] for my company.
PF Oh, they better be both large and strategic.
RZ The things I worry about: I worry about security; I worry about scale; I worry about making it easier for change to happen, for software [mm] to get updated, for features to go in. I worry about these things and I would love to tell you this is my passion but I’m actually—I came out of business school and I found opportunities on the tech side of things. And I read a lot. I have to read a lot. I have to know about trends. I have to know about where the competitors are thinking about things and I have to sort of stay on top of essentially a machine that just really doesn’t stop. Which is tech, right?
PF Let’s be clear: your giant probably spends 40 to 120 million on a given year around IT and technology.
RZ Exactly and I have to be on top of things. I have to be on top of security and scalability and the like. So I read stuff, I read a lot of industry stuff. I go to conferences and I gotta stay on top of things. And I gotta tell ya: every month there’s a new trend.
PF Not just a new like piece of software but like a new trend.
RZ Yeah it’s a subtle pivot that everyone’s [yeah] turning, now everybody’s going eight degrees to the left.
PF So suddenly they’re like—it was microservices and suddenly it’s frontend nanoservices.
PF You gotta know what those are. Cuz from the bottom, the engineers, and the stakeholders and product managers and designers are gonna tell you, “What are we doing about frontend nanoservices?” And then someone’s gonna tell the CEO about frontend nanoservices.
RZ And then you’re gonna see him at that company gathering, that function.
PF And he’s gonna go, “I talked to Mike at Davos and he said that frontend nanoservices are saving them hundreds of millions of dollars.”
RZ Even worse—
PF “He’s a McKinsey consultant.”
RZ Oh oh! “Acme across the street’s doin’ it. They just announced.” You know?
PF Yeah, just to be clear there’s no such thing as frontend nanoservices.
RZ No, we don’t—we don’t do that here.
PF So far.
RZ Yeah, so far. So, there’s a paranoia. It’s almost like fear, not just about, you know, getting hacked but just of being behind. And then you have, you know, the likes of Gartner and Forrester and these advisory research firms that go and tell you, “Look, for over the next three years everything is going to be on acronym BLA—”
RZ “Or GRF.”
PF “BLA and GRF are things we really need to be working on.”
RZ “And compliance is gonna be necessary and it’s reducing costs by this much.”
PF Well, this is the thing: it’s not just GRF, it’s GRF compliance. And governance. So the whole GRF ecosystem actually incurs an enormous amount of costs while saving you a lot of money.
PF Now, I don’t know what GRF is.
RZ No, no, GRF will be something. We can work on that later.
PF Yeah, it doesn’t matter.
RZ You can fill in the acronym later.
PF That’s right.
RZ So, what these firms often do, they’re not just talking about history. In fact. They’re actually telling you, “We saw this start to kick in last year. It’s kinda under the radar but guess what? We charted it and in three years 2.1 billion dollars will be spent on GRF.” And then you start to dig in and you look it up and it sounds exactly like the thing you read about four years ago.
PF And then four years before that. And four years—
RZ And so on.
RZ But! You gotta be on top of it. I probably should put maybe a little bit of money on it. I have a 180 million dollar budget. I probably should put a million dollars towards GRF.
PF Well we should do at least a trial project to maybe move the frontend on one of our healthcare websites.
RZ Right. So here’s who else Gartner and Forrester whispers to . . . the vendors, the service providers.
PF To be clear: not us. We’re too small.
RZ We’re too small. This isn’t our game. That’s right.
PF Think Accenture.
RZ So I type GRF into Google, the first page is almost entirely ads, guess who’s there? Accenture, Deloitte—
PF [Jinx with Rich] Deloitte. Yup.
RZ All the big guys are already there because what you have with the research firms is they talk to you and tell you, “You better be on top of this,” and they turn over and they talk to the service providers and they’re like, “We just told them they need to be on top of it, so you should probably be on top of it too.”
PF Mm hmm.
RZ And next thing you know Google is [snickers] just hanging out in the room is funneling you right to those providers.
PF This is the secret of the internet, right? Is that a place like Google creates a marketplace for nonsense.
RZ [Laughing] That’s a broader characterization of Google!
PF No, I know, but like this cycle like literally someone invents something that just takes a pile of knowledge [yes] and says, “This is now the knowledge that you need.”
RZ It is need creation, right? It is [right] truly need creation and—
PF And then Google creates a marketplace in which you can actually kinda bid out that need.
RZ Yes. And so now you’re in this spot and you’re feeling like, “Ok, I better be on top of it.” See all of these more or less are abstractions, if you break ‘em down they’re all just sort of these high level concepts [sure] that get shared [sure]. But to me the godfather of these sort of data points that Gartner and Forrester and the like—
RZ No, it’s digital transformation.
PF Yeah, that’s the one.
RZ It’s just—it’s so out there [mm hmm] and so abstract and so insane that it applies to everybody. When you read it, it’s like a horoscope. It’s like, “Hmm, that does—that is kind of how I feel about umbrellas and it applies to me.”
PF Oh, of course, this organization needs some digital transformation. It’s like, “Who doesn’t?”
RZ Who doesn’t?
PF I need digital transformation at home.
RZ We all need it!
RZ This is about need creation.
PF That’s right.
RZ And technology does move, so—
PF Well, it also—it’s a very fear motivated industry, right?
RZ Absolutely. Absolutely.
PF “Oh my God, I don’t even know what this is! I’m gonna lose my job!”
RZ That’s right. So, this is all sounding really cynical and—
PF No, because like look all the disciplines, right? Like I have been a part of many discussions. I remember people being like, “Is information architecture the right term?” “Is content strategy a viable—”
RZ Design struggles with this a lot.
PF UI—user interface versus user experience, which—
RZ I got lectured a week ago about the difference and I am ashamed to say I use the words interchangeably.
PF Goes right out of your brain, though.
RZ I got yelled at.
RZ The designers here said, “There’s a clear difference. I’ve known this for ten years.”
PF I like to use the term ‘interface experience’. You combine the two, you get rid of the user.
RZ There’s no human anymore!
PF No, no! That’s the future with machine learning from Google. You’ve got that marketplace and then you get AIs to create need. And AIs to create demand and then you use Blockchain in the middle . . . And that is the future of the industry. You just cut people out of the loop entirely and then you—
RZ I wanted to walk back from the cynicism.
PF Yeah, no, no, no, no! [Rich laughing] But the problem is we have to figure out what to do with all the people.
RZ Look: the advice can’t be, “Ignore it all.” You can’t say it!
PF Look: there’s a story I tell a lot. And I might’ve told it on this podcast before but it’s 30 seconds, it’s worth it. I once was asked to do a Powerpoint for a really high level executive at a big company. And I went in and it turned out that what she wanted was one picture and one word per slide. And I thought about this for a long—cuz it would just be like, “Powerful.” And it was the like—
RZ Like, guy hang gliding . . . picture?
PF Yeah, that kind of stuff.
RZ Oh yeah.
PF And she’d worked with an agency. There was probably like 10,000 dollars in this. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. I’m like, “Just one word??” [Rich laughing] And it turns out that she was just incredibly afraid of what everybody was gonna think and so she had constrained herself [interesting] to these sort of terms and emotions that she could then riff off of but she didn’t wanna document too much of what she was about to say. She’s, you know, a high level exec. So she was gonna go present and she was gonna use this very narrow public channel where it was just like, “Powerful,” “Expressive,” “Who are we?” You know? And just to get people engaged and excited and then take a step back.
RZ Is this terrible?
PF Now, people at the highest level of organizations, not the gentlest human beings.
RZ Slow down, Paul.
PF No, I mean, you know—
RZ These are our clients!
PF No, but we have a small business and we’re not the gentlest human being. If you have a 20,000 person firm, whether the person listening to this podcast believes that 20,000 person firms are good or not, the people who succeed at the top of 20,000 person firms have sharp elbows.
PF It’s not just that like they have sharp elbows, it’s just understood that everybody has sharp elbows.
RZ Yeah but draw the dotted line for me here: so do I ignore all this stuff that’s coming at me? It’s constant!
PF No! These are tools for people at that altitude to understand the world and make sense of it. I’m gonna get my new three-letter initialism from Gartner; I’m gonna know that it is industry standard; I’m gonna communicate it to my team; and I’m gonna say, “What’s your opinion?” Those things are good to fight about. Like it’s literally, “What do we think about ERP in this firm? What do we think about—what is our CRM solution?” Like, as annoying as it is, and it does require a little bit of insideryness but the thing is like if I don’t call it CRM, I have to call it move-y-the-card-around-on-the-screen thing. Like, I mean what the hell am I gonna call it? Sales Process Engineering Tool? Then it’s called a SPET.
RZ Yeah, yeah.
PF Like, you’re never gonna get away from—
RZ But, you know, CRM is not fair because CRM is a real actual category of tool.
PF It is now!
RZ I’m talking about like we had a guy come in and we talked through the possible project and then at one point he stopped me and he says, “What do you think of Enterprise Service Bus?”
PF Oh! That was a good one. That’s an oldtimer.
RZ Yes. I pause, I was like, “Oh, I mean, it’s a particular architectural approach. Why do you ask?” He said, “Well, there’s a guy on our side, he’s a high level technology person,” and he said, “He’s really excited about it.” And the guy looked so deflated.
PF It’s a lot.
RZ He was so deflated! He was like, “Do we have to do it? I don’t understand it. Is it important?”
PF Let’s demystify Enterprise Service Bus, ok? You speak a little bit of Arabic, right? Ok. I speak English. Ok. If you could only speak Arabic and I could only speak English, what do we need in between us?
RZ A translator.
PF That’s all you got. So now you speak Arabic, your wife speaks French, I speak English, now we need a translator that can talk all those languages.
PF That’s an Enterprise Service Bus.
PF It’s like that UN where they have the headphones. They’re just listening and translating, that’s all it is, it’s just instead of people speaking languages it’s different systems.
RZ I mean, look: these are concepts that do need to be labelled and named, I don’t think they’re negative. I guess I wanna bring this out of a cynical—
PF No, let’s! You’re right. You’re right.
RZ—context. Here’s—here’s my point. My point is—
PF I love to make fun of enterprise software. It’s one of my joys in life.
RZ So do I. I mean, I think it’s most of this podcast. [Paul laughs] Here’s what I would say, I would say: you should always be learning, always be educating yourself on this stuff just don’t treat it as indoctrination. There are people who do it and then think, “Oh my God, my professional survival depends on me latching on to the five terms that everyone’s talking about right now—
PF You know what actually?
RZ Be a little suspicious.
PF It’s not just that, it’s very limiting. Agile’s a good example. The orthodox agile people are increasingly gone. It used to be that somebody could make a living by telling you you were doing agile wrong [yeah] and after five or ten years everybody’s like, “Oh really? Scrum? Hangman? Well, I’m gonna shift my software and I hope that you’re agile method works out for you.”
RZ Yeah, exactly. We’ve seen it come and go, right? [Mm hmm] And people say, “What is—are you agile?” We used to get that question. We get it less and less—
PF We still do though. From a big org, yeah.
RZ Less so. Yeah. And we get it. And we appreciate the spirit behind it but let’s be realistic: I mean for us, it is less about that. These are good ways to package up ideas and label them so you can talk about them. To your point: I think sometimes you just need it out there as a thing so you can beat it up.
PF So you can yell about it!
RZ So you can yell about it and get to the right answers. The point is just don’t be cult-like about it.
PF Here’s what’s tricky, right? You were telling me about an acronym earlier, Rich.
PF SPIF or SPIFFY.
RZ Secure Production Identity Framework For Everyone.
RZ Why do you need “For Everyone”? [Paul laughs wheezily] Who else is it gonna be for?
PF It better be for everyone. What does it do?
RZ It’s a set of open source standards for securely identifying software systems.
PF This is the point that I think people should really lock into: this has existed before in different formats . . . There was the Web Services Discovery Layer from back in the [mm hmm] 2000s [yup]. There’s always this desire to like—
RZ Well this idea of certificates, right?
PF That’s right.
RZ Around these services.
PF And we’re gonna find the systems and have them talk to each other without human intervention.
RZ Everything’s existed earlier.
PF Yeah that’s right.
RZ Everything has, dude. It all has. I wanna rewind and talk about REST. I’m very proud of this.
PF Ok, REST which is a way of talking to APIs on the internet, getting data off the internet.
RZ Yes. But there was something very beautiful and basic about it at the time because at the time and REST was definitely the minority, it was sort of the outsider. You had these big industrial strength standards around services that were blessed by the likes of Microsoft and Oracle.
RZ IBM, SOAP, WDSL [pronounced ‘wisdel’] [that’s right], these were like big standards and—
PF So the web shows up, it’s a way to share your like—your diary. And then all of a sudden everyone’s like, “Oh, you guys are serious about this? This is gonna keep happening? Well we better put layers so that you can do cool enterprise software things and exchange data in an encrypted, secure way via the web.”
RZ That’s right. You can exchange data now, not just exchange . . . And the idea of describing a service was a standard called WSDL, W-S-D-L.
PF Well, that’s the thing, you couldn’t actually go find anything out using the web, like you had to get these things, unpack them, read them, and—
RZ Look, it was pretty cool. If you had an IDE like Eclipse which is about 7,000 megabytes if you wanna install it, and you point it to a WSDL resource on the web, right? It like—it’ll actually turn them into methods in your IBE. [Oh yeah] It was kinda neat looking. It was like, “Holy hell, I now installed software off the web.”
PF “I’m programming the whole internet.”
RZ “I’m programming the whole internet.” So it looked really neat but if you open the box and looked at that WSDL packet, it is a collection of insane things. It is just crazy.
PF Yeah, yeah.
RZ And if you looked at the SOAP packets which is just the data moving back and forth, it’s just bananas.
PF This was supposed to—this was the way that the industry wanted everything to go.
RZ It is where everything went, in fact, but then REST was around and what REST was saying was, “What are you doing? Why is it so complicated?”
PF “The web already works!”
RZ “Can a human being look at something and actually read it?” At that time, and I’m very proud—I mean this was 2004, I started arc90 pretty much on the premise of only building RESTful architecture at the time and—
PF 14 years later everybody’s still arguing about what RESTful architecture still actually is.
RZ Fair! But—
PF But it’s actually a good example, right? Like we’re still figuring out REST.
RZ We are still figuring out REST.
PF These acronyms never end, there is still gonna be a good CMS. You know, there’s still gonna be a good CRM. Everybody’s gonna—
PF People don’t walk in and say, “What’s the best WordPress?” They say, “What’s the best Content Management System?”
RZ That’s right.
PF Right? And so what is true REST? There is no such thing as true anything.
RZ The one lesson I would take away from sort of the resistance and essentially the death of SOAP and WSDL and these overly complicated concepts and implementations and towards simple is peel it back. When you see that acronym that looks crazy, I’m like, well what are you really talking about? Can you tell me that again? It took me a bit to be confident enough to say to someone, “I don’t know what that means. Can you [yeah] explain it to me in regular English, please? I don’t know what a JavaBean is.”
PF We just did it on the phone today and the other person didn’t know the acronym. They were like, “Oh it’s an MX file.” And we were like, “What’s that?” And he’s like, “I dunno.” [Laughs]
RZ Yeah. It’s ok! Like ask that question! And call bullshit because a lot of it is bullshit, some of it isn’t. Some of it is really interesting and some of it is actually the seed of something that’s gonna come out later in a much more elegant way [yeah]. It’s overly complicated because, let’s face it, there is a multibillion dollar industry around selling these abstractions and selling the expertise around dealing with this ugly stuff.
PF Can I tell you something? Listening to you that occurs to me?
PF What made REST good is it looked like the web and people were like, “Hey, we can build a really good solid robust infrastructure for enterprises on top of the web.” And they get five layers [yes] and you go, “Wow, that doesn’t make any sense.” And then you see REST and you’re like, “Oh, that’s how—that makes sense.”
RZ Yeah, you know, you talk about user interface.
RZ It was good UI.
PF But you know what—it was. You know what—you know the way you get mass adoption is you go one layer up. You try to go for that second layer and you just—you start losing people and losing people and losing people.
RZ Yeah, you’re right.
PF And so that—REST was really good that. So is like when you look at how Apple rolls out new features, their machine learning toolkits or HealthKit or whatever, it all gets wrapped up into these little kits [yup] that sit there and the engineers—
RZ So new features for developers.
PF Yeah, yeah, and the developers get real excited. It doesn’t matter if there’s 30 thousand things goin’ on in there—
RZ Well, what they’re showing is some—you have one of two ways, one of two postures to take when you introduce some new piece of alien technology to someone else: you can be deeply empathetic and say, “I’m gonna make this very approachable for you, and I’m not gonna be condescending about it.”
RZ Or, “I’m gonna make this so abstract and weird and talk about X.509 [pronounced ‘x-five-oh-nine’] certifications.”
PF “We’re gonna solve every problem.” That’s the danger zone.
RZ Yeah and it’s like, “You don’t worry your pretty little head, there are experts who are actually gonna take care of this.”
PF “We’re gonna give you tools to manage this and so on.” And then you look at Apple and they’re like, “Hey, you see this thing that looks like a Chiklet?”
PF “Yeah you’re gonna have access to that and you can measure anybody’s heartbeat.”
RZ That’s right.
PF And then they’re like, “Ok now we’ll bootstrap an entirely new health economy on top of that.”
RZ You’re talking about empowerment, right?
PF [Jinx with Rich] Right.
RZ A lot of this stuff is about disempowerment. A lot of this stuff that’s overly complex that you can’t seem to process is very disempowering and you’re like, “You know what? I can’t deal. I’ll hire Deloitte.”
PF There’s a great line about consultants. Which we should be mindful we’re consultants sometimes too. It’s a regular guy far from home.
RZ It’s a regular guy—
PF Who is far from home.
RZ Oh no.
PF Ain’t that real though?
RZ That is real.
PF Just a regular guy and he’s there tellin’ you, like, “Oh, you know,” he’s spittin’ out acronyms and you’re goin’ like, “Hey! Wow! He really knows something!”
RZ “Ok. Yeah.”
PF The reality is you peel away the secrets and it’s—you’re usually not that far away.
RZ Challenging it is—exactly. Go ahead and challenge it. I think it’s good to always learn, pick up on that stuff, some of it you could see it gain traction and momentum. Why is everyone excited? Go in and find out why.
PF It is. What’ll happen is the consultant from the big company will come in and present the new big idea and framework that you need to follow.
PF And then someone in the back room will be like, [in nasal voice] “Well how is this different from, you know, four years ago?” And they’ll go—usually what’ll happen, if they’re not a fraud, they’ll go, “Oh, it’s actually very similar, here are the things—like—”
RZ “Here are the improvements—”
PF Yeah, exactly.
RZ Or, “Here’s what we—here’s what we solved this time around.”
PF Ideally that’s an engaging conversation and you—
RZ It’s not defensive.
PF You’re acknowledging that things change and that you gotta do all sorts of stuff to stay up with the times [music fades in].
PF That’s real too. Like you can’t turn your back on this stuff because—
RZ I mean I’m gonna dovetail this right into promoting Postlight, Paul.
PF [Exhales sharply, excitedly] Rich, dovetail away.
RZ One of the things we love to do is talk to you in plain English when you come to our offices.
PF It’s true.
RZ We try to actually dissect in a way so that you can understand it and we can talk to you about why something could be more complicated or more costly than otherwise.
PF It’s actually tricky with our marketing cuz we—Like, when we’re talking to you, we don’t say API, we tend to say like, “Where are you putting that data that comes from the app?”
RZ Yeah, we try to break it down and that’s often very helpful and even as technical as you are, we’re not condescending about it—
PF No, we’re just—it’s real simple stuff.
RZ We try to get to the right answer and sometimes if you peel away all the bullshit that’s the easier way to get to the right answer. You know why, Paul?
PF [In deep tone, and drawn out] Why?
RZ Because we deliver product strategy, product management, design, and engineering to our clients around the world.
PF We’re really good at it. We do it for really big places and also much smaller places. We like this work and we take it very seriously as a craft.
RZ If you’d like to talk to us about anything . . .
PF You can send an email.
PF That’s all you gotta do.
RZ Yes. Have a lovely week, Paul.
PF Yeah, you too, Rich. Let’s get back to work [music ramps up, plays alone for three seconds, fades out to end].