The dark side of technology

via Divulga

via Divulga

If you believe folks like Marc Andressessen, he of Netscape fame and now a darling of the Silicon Valley wonkerati, then software eats the world. If you are of a certain age or living in poverty, that probably sounds like the most asinine thing you’ve heard in a long time.

On the other hand, the tech business is so often larded with happy talk that you’d be forgiven for believing that whatever problem you have can be solved with a technology fix. It may be true in the long term but if the last 40 years have taught us anything it should be that our expectations will likely not be met but we might get somewhere near. That often leaves buyers with a sense of having been let down.

I often put it this way: when you get excited about something a vendor has told you then remember this: much like when you first fall in love, that is as good as it’s going to get. Everything else is going to be about managing expectations. With that in mind I was fascinated to read what John Appleby had to say about his relationship with SAP. From the top:

I’ve been pondering this for the last few days, and Mark Finnern brought it up at the SAP Mentor Monday Webinar today, so it seemed time to put pen to paper. Last month I wrote a blog post entitled “Top 5 Database Platforms – the Developer Experience Exposed.” The subject isn’t important for the purposes of this blog.

It was inspired by an unnamed source, which led me to do a detailed analysis. I wrote it because I thought that a wake-up call would serve the common good, and allow a positive discourse. It would give some people the air cover they needed to make change.

What I didn’t realize at the time was two things: first, that it would go viral, with 12k views in 3 days, not helped by a competitor picking up on the article, and riffing it. Second, it would also have a negative backlash. Some people felt betrayed, some felt I used deliberately over-emotive language some felt I was naïve in my comparison and others felt I’d got it wrong. Some felt that I’d been used and someone loaded a gun and put it in my hand.

My perspective of Appleby:

  • He is super smart – I’ve learned a great deal from him and expect to continue that learning
  • He’s fiercely honest – although that is a topic all of its own in terms of definition and context
  • He’s fearless when it matters – that counts when you truly believe something is not as it seems or is less than what you have been led to believe and yet are faced with impossible opposition

I’d say that’s a pretty good combination of attributes. He also happens to be betting a big chunk of his consulting business on SAP technology.

Appleby then goes on to contextualise how his critique, which he felt was born out of altruism has, in some way, diminished his standing in the SAP community. At least that’s how I interpret what followed and from the story title. You might have a different perspective.

Now…depending upon which school of psychology you prefer, I’d argue that Appleby’s originating piece, which roundly criticised SAP’s database developer onboarding, was entirely altruistic in the sense that Dawkins discussed in The Selfish Gene. From Wikipedia:

Dawkins proposes the idea of the “replicator,”[4] the initial molecule which first managed to reproduce itself and thus gained an advantage over other molecules within the primordial soup.[5] Today, Dawkins postulates, the replicators are the genes within organisms, with each organism’s body serving the purpose of a ‘survival machine’ for its genes.

If you’ve never read the book I thoroughly recommend giving it a try. Moving on.

When someone who is as close to a vendor as Appleby comes out and develops what he genuinely believes is an honest appraisal then we should all take notice. I certainly did at the time and, knowing what I know, had this to add:

Too often, vendors are so in love with their own technology that they fail to put their heads above the parapet to fully understand what best in class really means. It is about understanding what the outside developer needs and how they will go about finding those resources. In this context, brand and market penetration count for little.

And as sure as night follows day, those who agreed with the assessment thought what was written is ‘great.’ Some who were less than happy provided Appleby with the ‘feedback’ you now see. Here is the problem:

Technology businesses generate insanely high margins. Valuations for those same companies are often stratospheric. If you look at any ‘rich list’ you’ll see that technology is over represented. One of SAP’s founders recently told me that in this business, you can have too much wealth.

The flip side is that technology companies sometimes display an arrogance that is thoroughly distasteful. Their fabulous wealth and position at times renders them incapable of introspection. That’s one powerful reason why I and others do what we do. Checks and balances are essential if ‘the selfish gene’ is to reach its full potential. What nobody needs is squishing because some thing represents an inconvenient truth.

Instead, we should all, as Appleby implies, attempt to understand the motives behind whatever position is being taken and assess accordingly. That, in turn, is why transparency is so critical in the 21st century and why we should applaud the Appleby’s of this world. We would be a lot poorer for their silence.

6 thoughts on “The dark side of technology

  1. Great blog Dennis and I was one of those people that thought John’s blog was excellent. But maybe I was looking at it from an open-minded viewpoint and not from an introspective vendor viewpoint. What I’ve read here is very surprising and I had no idea that the blog generated any negative views, but I guess I refer to my previous sentence.

    We keep hearing SAP say that they are open to constructive criticism, but I keep hearing the opposite from within the community. And we all know how even more closed some of their competitors can be.

    • @luke – I think it would be too easy to get carried away with the idea that there is a blanket public and private face to SAP that operate in 180 degree turns. Having been on the inside a few times this last year, I have found them open to some pretty tough talk when it made sense.

      On the other hand, Hasso is well known for giving anyone a hard time if he thinks they are talking nonsense. I got a taste of that a wee while ago. And you know what? That’s OK.

      But…there is a rump of folk who believe the company can do no wrong and will not be persuaded otherwise. That’s where the inability to take this kind of thing seriously becomes destructive.

  2. Thanks Den, your words are too kind. And the purpose of my blog wasn’t to troll for attention or for self-pity – I’m big and hairy enough.

    I’m not sure if diminished my standing isn’t too hard a stance, but it certainly caused some upset.

    I think the problem – as much as anything – is the level of emotional investment people have. Jon Reed pointed this out nicely last night as we were talking. When we write something about software, it’s personified, and it kind of reminds me of Claire from Lost “my baby”.

    This won’t stop me from writing but it will make me think more about my intent, the effect on relationships and whether I’m good with that.

    • @john – if I’d thought you were trolling for attention or sitting on the pity pot, I would have said nothing. Instead, you triggered what I believe are important talking points that are not often aired.

  3. John, thanks for the original post, which I found to be accurate and honest, and Dennis, thanks, too, for making the points above. I do think, however, that one point needs to be brought out and that is how complicated and difficult it is for SAP itself to get its arms around what it should do. As you know, John, the people spearheading the developer project itself have had to go do a lot of learning, but generally have their heads screwed on straight. But as we saw last year at Sapphire (and as you commented, Dennis, then), they have had to struggle to bring the rest of SAP along with them.

    The model that SAP has used for many years when working with technology partners is to see them as implementers or extenders of their application technology; in this model, it makes a lot of sense to charge the partners (keeps the non-serious out), make sure the contracts are right (need to be careful about rights and responsibilities), and take a fair amount of time doing it (among other things, need to be managing these guys later).

    The fact is that this model just doesn’t work for true development platforms, things like a database or a programming environment that can be turned to many different purposes. With development platforms, you want to make the platform easily accessible to developers, because you make your money from the products that these developers build.

    As I said, the people who are responsible for developer onboarding realize this. But for them to succeed, they have to persuade many more people within the organization to adopt this model, people who know very little about this kind of model and are probably incented to make the old model succeed. Not surprising that it is (fiendishly) difficult. In a way surprising that they have gotten as far as they have.

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