Monday, November 29, 2004

Eavesdropping on the Cockpit Isn't Always a Good Thing

One of the unique things about United airlines is that they allow passengers to listen in on the cockpit radio through the plane's audio system, allowing people to hear the conversation between air traffic controllers and their pilots, as well as any other planes that are on the same frequency.

While maybe not a big deal to people who fly for leisure, for most of us this is the only time we hear actual air traffic controllers (not counting the ones on TV who whined that they were fired by Reagan in '81).

I usually find listening in a good form of entertainment. On my trip over Thanksgiving, I made the following observations:
o The movie Pushing Tin wasn't great, but Thorton and Cusack must have watched real controllers in action since they had their rhythm down cold. It's not just the jargon they use, but how they say it, the speed they say it, and the inflection they say it. All of the controllers seem to talk in the same way.

o Despite the similarity in rhythm, a few controllers seem to have their own signature "sign-off" as they pass a plane off to another controller. One guy out of Ft. Worth control passed planes off with a SEE YA! A few others had a standard greeting whenever a new plane was passed into their control.

o Part of the entertainment value of listening in is to figure out graphically in your head where everyone is by altitude and position. In addition, for us novices, it was intriguing to figure out the jargon.
Pilot: Anyone seen Charlie?
I wondered why he would ask about another pilot or controller, but a few moments into the conversation I figured out he was asking about "chop".
That being said, there were a few things that weren't so fun to listen in on:
o The pilot of my plane literally took a wrong turn at the airport. He and the ground controller went back and forth several times about where he was supposed to go for take-off, but he still missed his turn. He had to taxi all the way to the end of the airport and turn around, and then taxi back and do a u-turn in the middle of the runway. This didn't exactly increase my confidence in his ability to fly.

o I got real nervous as we were flying into Denver, where we were connecting. Denver is one of United's hubs, so there are a lot of United planes coming in, and some genius in operations gave two planes coming in at the same time a flight number that differed by a single digit. I got to hear a conversation that went something like this:
Pilot: United 247 contacting control
Controller: Gooday United 247. Note that United 347 is also on the same frequency.
...Later
Controller: United 247 change speed to 220.
Another Pilot: United 347?
Controller: That was United 247.
Pilot: Speed 220. United 247.
...Later
Controller: United 247 change to approach on frequency xxx.
(garbled radio)
Pilot: United 347 just took my frequency!
Another Pilot: United 347 is still here.
Pilot: Frequency xxx, United 247.
o Another time it didn't take a similar number to screw up a pilot. I was listening to a controller talking to three planes when another pilot rang on, but never got a response from the controller, and there was suddenly some confusion.
Controller: Flights 247, 384 Heavy, 7763 clear your radios. Who is this?
Another Pilot: Flight zzz checking in.
Controller: YOU ARE ON THE WRONG FREQUENCY! Dial into xxx.x!
Another Pilot: xxx.x, Flight zzz
Note that these events were all pilot errors, so I have to give credit to the air traffic controllers, who have an incredibly stressful job.

So while flight control might be interesting to listen to, small errors like these are inevitable in the system we have, so maybe listening to the radio might be the way to go.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Happy Thanksgiving

As much as the Mrs. would like to keep posting on the Ukrainian situation (which is looking favorable at this time), it is time for us to take care of family commitments, so there will be no blogging until next week.

Everyone have a safe and happy Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

It's That Time of Year

The leaves are changing. It's a bit cold in the air. Thoughts are turning to loved ones far away, Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas shopping. All this means that it's time for the 2005 planning cycle and financial forecast.

There is something perverse about how the biggest business rush of the year coincides at the time that people are a little more focused on family (or if you are more cynical, you could say it coincides with the biggest consumer rush of the year). And in 15 years of business at multiple companies I have found that the process is always the same.

As Thanksgiving bears down on companies, panicked messages will go out to create the first draft of the '05 plan before people start leaving for Thanksgiving vacation. That deadline will be missed and conference calls will be held with people who are on the road with their families. People will call in from the back studies of their parents or grandparents house.

The first week of December the first draft will be completed. Multiple meetings will be held where debates and arguments will rage. Analysts and product specialists with detailed information on the market will be told by executives with no segment experience that their forecasts are wrong and will finally just give them the number the forecasts should hit. A rush will be on to get the final results completed by mid-December, when people start trickling out of the office for their Christmas break. A few people will send last minute revisions and updates from the road. At least one person on the last conference call before completion will dial in from a ski resort. By the time New Years comes along a thick document will be produced that has the company's roadmap for the next 12 months. A secretary who has been with the company for decades will be asked to come in New Years eve to print and distribute the final drafts.

And by the time Groundhog Day comes along all that work will be tossed out the window and forgotten as the assumptions that were made for the next 12 months will have already been proven wrong.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

How to Say No and Keep the Account

This is definitely not me:

In my dealings with customers I am honest about what they can and can't get, although I use more diplomatic methods than Just Say No:
o The Japanese Sigh - You do a sharp intake of breath from the corners of your mouth and exhale, saying "That would be very difficult..." In Japan, this means "No #$%&ing way." Most people outside of Japan also get the hint.

o Lie to Tell The Truth - This requires you to tell one lie so you can tell the customer the truth without pissing him off. For example, I had two customers come in with urgent design requests at the same time. I had to give the design team to the more important customer, so the other customer had to cool their heels for a week. I wasn't going to lie and say their design would be ready in a week, and I didn't want to tell them that they got bumped for another customer. So I made up an Asian holiday, Buddha's Harvest Moon Festival, ("It's sort of like their Thanksgiving"), and said the design team was out for a week visiting their ancestral homes. Being culturally attuned, the customer moved his request out a week. Everyone was happy.

o I'll Get Back To You On That - And then don't. Yeah, it's an old trick, and only works in certain circumstances (mainly existing customers who have high switching costs). Is this better or worse than setting unrealistic expectations? Your call.

o What the President/CEO/Chairman Really Meant Was... - This is cleaning up after a higher-up pulled what the vendor did in the Dilbert strip. You can't go in and say "no" after the CEO promised it, so it is a delicate dance of re-interpreting the execu-speak that had been uttered by the upper echelon. It usually works, maybe because customers also have CEOs who do the exact same thing to them.

o Roll the #@$* Downhill - This goes something along the lines of "Look, my factory is ready to go and we have no problems. The problem is that the lead-times of your raw materials are pushing out the schedule." This basically just shifts the blame on someone else further down the supply chain while you scramble to get your factory up and running. This tactic is particularly useful if your customer doesn't know the real leadtimes of his raw materials.
The bottom line is that I give my customers the truth on when they'll get their product and what they can get - I just might lie as to the reason why.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Sears-Mart? K-Sears? K-Smart?

Wow, this was a surprise: Kmart Buying Sears

I am witnessing the slow breakup of retail companies from my youth: Woolworth, Montgomery Ward, and now Sears.

It's not unlike watching movies stars you grew up with start dying away.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Science and Faith

No, this isn't about faith versus science, but rather the concept that science requires faith.

We all learned in elementary school that the scientific method requires making observations, coming up with a hypothesis that explains the observations, and then creating an experiment or taking more data that proves the hypothesis. This is what allowed Newton to come up with his formulas, Flemming to figure out that penicillium kills bacteria, and so on.

But what about sciences that can't be tested? In this case the hypothesis never advances and all you have is an article of faith.

Let's take archeology. For decades the theory has been that North America was populated from a migration over the Bering Straight about 13,000 years ago. This theory was based on all available data, but DNA evidence and other data has come out showing that North America was populated much sooner, perhaps with a migration from Europe as well as Asia.

Since the old hypothesis couldn't be tested, the scientific process never advanced, but the hypothesis nevertheless became widely accepted as "fact". The hypothesis was so accepted that most researchers stopped looking for data that contradicted it. It just happened to be wrong.

Lots of areas of science have hypotheses that can't ever be tested. You think the universe is made of superstrings? The math works, but it won't ever be proven. Magnetic monopoles? They also make sense mathematically, but despite years of searching no one has never found one. In each of these cases, although the hypothesis is unprovable one way or the other, there is an accepted "consensus" that is "accepted" by the scientific community, and it is this that gets advertised to the world as "fact" (in these examples superstrings=yes, monopoles=no).

Thomas Kuhn famously wrote about scientific faith, although he called it a "paradigm". Science has an accepted base of paradigms, or received beliefs, and it clings to those beliefs until forced into another set of beliefs, a process called a paradigm shift. This phrase is now part of the vernacular and used by marketing people like myself to explain customer beliefs instead of scientific beliefs, but the meaning and process are about the same.

The bottom line is that many fields of "science" are nothing more than an attempt to package as fact nothing more than speculation and conjecture. There is nothing wrong with this as long as it is presented as such, but it should be remembered that in many areas, the Truth will never really be known - meaning that the science has to be accepted on faith.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Less Than a Decade Left on Writing-Off My Tech Bust

As we approach the end of the year, thoughts are turning to Thanksgiving, Christmas, and end-of-year tax write-offs.

Taxpayers may write off $3,000 a year in capital losses that exceed capital gains. This means that if you lose $30,000 in stocks, you have 10 years to write off that money from your taxable income in $3,000 chunks, assuming you never have another capital gain later to offset it.

The tech bust in 2001 hit a lot of people, including myself. When the bust was over, I was still left holding some stocks (I did get out of some with gains thanks to Mrs. Director). Instead of selling off these losers all at once and having a huge writedown that would have to be carried over each year, I decided to hold and sell off in $3,000-loss increments each year. The money from selling them all off wouldn't be big enough to reinvest into something else, and as I sell off these stocks year after year, there is always the possibility they may come back a little.

This is my fourth year of selling off losses. Today it was some PMCS. I wonder when I bought this? (Keep in mind that it's a log scale)



At any rate, I am happy to report that I now have less than a decade to go now in selling these losers off. I just hope I have some gains some time in the future to write this off faster.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

An Early Look at Socialized Medicine

One of the benefits of the flu vaccine shortage - if there is one - is seeing how government controlled coverage of a rationed good works for health care.

Essentially we have the government making decisions for people instead of letting people make their own decisions - and allocating their own resources to back up those decisions. Take this case: a 62 year old man who is a store Santa and in contact with lots of children wants to get a flu shot - definitely a wise decision.

Sorry, he is less than 65 and under the government mandaded age cut-off. No shot for him.

This case does have a happy ending since a private nursing home is offering a left-over shot, but if this were the real deal, you can bet that a private alternative would be illegal, as it would have been under Hillary-care.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Reader Advice: Do I Get an MBA?

I received an email today from a reader asking about whether he should pursue an MBA:
I have a few years experience in the semiconductor capital equipment industry, and have moved up the ladder on the engineering department up to the level of Program Manager. I'm interested in pursuing an MBA, but have second thoughts regarding whether it will payoff in this particular industry? I'm interested in moving into product management.

My undergrad was in EE (Electrical Engineering), followed by a couple of years working in electronic design. I then did an MS, also in EE...

I've spent 5 years in the semiconductor capital industry. My program management job is as an engineering manager. Managers also double as developers, so about 50% of my time goes to (engineering), and the other 50% into actual management activities.

Though I've remained within the engineering department, I've had the opportunity of interacting with customers to identify their needs and come up with ideas for new products. My impression is that I'd be more valuable to employers - and have a more fulfilling career- if I were to make a complete move into marketing, dealing with understanding what customers want/need, figuring out which products we can develop for them, preparing specs, coordinating their development and production.

What would you recommend I do?

My gut response: skip the MBA (or maybe consider an online MBA). My own experience within the tech industry is that an MBA doesn't open up many more job opportunities than if you didn't have one. Getting the MBA in this case will just take two years away from the industry (or limit your working hours if you do it part time), and in this case I think you have the pieces to get the job you want without the MBA.

Marketing managers like myself understand that the MBA gives you a good theoretical background and fills out your financial skills, but what we are really looking for in product managers are people who understand the technology, understand the trends within the market, know the competition, and can easily work with customers. An MBA does't give you any of these. I'll hire an engineer with these abilities in a heartbeat over some Rice MBA without any industry experience. It's a lot easier to teach an engineer the few financial things he needs to know than it is to teach some MBA an entire market.

Note that the opposite may be true for strategic marketing managers, where a theoretical background is needed and it sometimes is helpful NOT to know the market since it brings a fresh perspective.

So for the position you want, I think you have the experience and background needed, and an MBA won't buy you anything. What you need to do is leverage your current work experience and contacts into the job you want. Here's some suggestions:

Talk to Your Current Company's Marketing Director or VP - The best bet is to transfer into the job you want within your current company. There are two ways to go about this: talk to your current engineering manager or talk to the top marketing guy. Each case is different, but in most cases I would talk to the marketing guy first. Your own boss probably doesn't want to lose a resource and may end up being more of a hindrance than a help. It really depends on your situation, but either way it will require some delicate political maneuvering.

In addition, even if you don't swing a transfer, the marketing guy could become a good contact and mentor - and he may find something for you eventually.

DON'T go through your company's HR - it will just get back to your current manager (my hate of HR departments is well documented, so I am biased on this).

Talk to Your Competition - If I had a talented engineering manager from my main competitor walk into my office and ask for a product marketing job I'd give it to him immediately. You know your own company's strengths and weaknesses, and your new employer would send you in whenever your ex-company was in heated competition at a customer. The trade-off is losing your five years of tenure and contacts within your current organization, where you may want to stay. There are also cultural issues to going to a competitor. Within some industries it is no big deal to move back and forth between companies, while in others you find you will lose long-time friends if you go to a competitor. This is your call.

Talk to Your Headhunters - If you know what you are dealing with, headhunters can be helpful, but in your case only if you can find one that specializes in your segment. Go this route only after you have exhausted your own resources and contacts.

The bottom line is that I recommend you network yourself into your next position. Even customers could be a resource. But an MBA is not needed. Just keep in mind that it will take time, but if you were willing to spend 2-3 years on an MBA, be willing to spend 1-2 years networking to find the job you really want.

There are times when an MBA makes sense from a career perspective, but this isn't one of them.

Any different opinions or comments from other readers? Leave in the comment section.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

9:15

I can barely read the clock on the computer. Am surprised how close it seems to be. Are Americans really that stupid?

9:03

I should mention that polling is all over in the 48. Hawaii and Alaska soon.

8:57

It's nearly midnight on the East Coast and this thing isn't called yet. It's coming down to OH it seems.

Another Rumsfeld and coke is imminent.

8:16

Sideshow Bob and Santa Maria show up. They are WAY behind.

8:15

We are now trying to emulate the fighting styles of Rumsfeld.

8:10 PST

The Director has lost control. I am Rorschach. I am pitifully trying to catch up with the Director for imbibing. Luckily, the bi-partisan crowd remains upbeat. Sneakesy just came by to keep the post accurate. To his credit, he is still relatively sober. I had about 200 typos in this small post. Time for more rum...

-- R :][:

7:51

How many drinks have I had? Wife tries to cut me off while Rorschach tries to catch up.

7:20

What's going on with the election? I am cooking burgers and brat and making lots and lots of martinis.

Rorshach and the Mrs. are here. Rorschach is starting with a Sam, the Mrs. with a martini, which I am having another.

6:51

Hosting duties have taken over, so blogging is suffering as I run around making drinks and start the hot appetizers.

Blondie and Jay showed up. I am moving to martinis instead of Rum and coke. Sneakeasy is glued to the set keeping up with returns.

6:05

Surfer Dude and Chick show up.

5:54

Sneakeasy arrives and opens a Sam.

5:45

Fox is pointing out that exit polls and actual numbers on the east coast aren't matching - I think this may be the beginning of the end of exit polls.

5:41

Open another Sam Adams. Mmmmmmm......

Election Party Liveblogging - 5:30

Linking to PoliBlog liveblogging.

Election Party Liveblogging - 5:20

Back yard bar, lots of liquor, internet, Fox News piped outside. Things are good.



Election Party Liveblogging - 5:15

Fox calls W.V. for W. Wuppy.

45 minutes until the party starts and I have a beer open.

Election Party Liveblogging - 4:45

I haven't even turned on the TV or checked the internet yet to see what is going on since I have been busy preparing for the party after putting in a (almost) full day of work.

Turns out I have WAY too much food and liquor for 11 people, so I invited two neighbors - who happen to be Kerry supporters. They are pretty low key about it as I hang out them a lot and didn't know how they voted until I invited them to the party five minutes ago.

So in addition to the original cast, we now have Surfer Dude and Surfer Chick, who are actually in the late 30s, despite the nicknames I gave them.