A bird does not sing because it has an answer.  It sings because it has a song.

05 November 2012

Creating a Scene

I recently attended a session facilitated by my friend Grant Stewart, whose assorted credentials include acting.  He shared a quote from one of his acting teachers that, with a little adaptation (which was indeed the point of the session), applies to a broad range of situations.  The saying goes, "the energy released solving the problem creates the scene."

In the context of acting, you have a situation, some characters, and a problem (that which creates the motivation for the actors to coexist on the stage and do something).  The process they go through -- the words they speak and the actions they take -- seeks to resolve the problem, and in so doing, releases the energy that "creates the scene," or in other words makes their performance worth watching.

It also makes their performance worth giving.  The question "what's my motivation?" is perhaps the most definitive of all questions that come out of an actor's mouth.  To step onto the stage and release the energy of the scene is the point and purpose of acting.

Suppose we expand this idea into a more general situation.  Pick a problem, any problem -- a project with a deadline, a need to innovate products or services, a complex misunderstanding -- and consider what has to happen.  You have a problem that must be solved, and the energy released solving that problem creates... what?

If you are successful, the release of energy creates a team.  It creates a sense of accomplishment, a source of pride, joy, and excitement, a clarity of purpose, and a cohesion among the people who worked together to solve the problem.  It also creates a feed-forward loop that puts that team in an even better position to succeed with its next undertaking.

Here's a shock -- when I was listening to Grant talk about this, I was thinking about the x2 launch.  It was a perfect example of a team being created and strengthened by the energy released solving a problem.  Just off the top of my head, here are a few reasons why I think it worked as well as it did, and perhaps some ideas you can take to a current team or problem you are facing:

  • Ownership. In a stage production, especially one with a limited budget, every person in the theatre knows exactly why he or she is there.  Whether playing the lead role or sweeping the stage, each member of cast and crew has a critical role that they understand and embrace as essential to the success of the show.  The x2 launch was the same way.  When I arrived at the mail room at 5:31 PM  from a dead run across the building with a package that had to go out TODAY, Chris took the package, smiled, and said "no problem." Chris in the mail room understood that his role was just as important as mine, which was just as important as Michael Seedman's or Casey Cowell's.  We all had to be equally committed to make the magic happen, and we all were.
  • Open doors. It was a well-known policy at USR that if you had a good reason to do it, you were not only allowed, but expected to hijack a meeting. The day I crashed into the VP of Sales' office with some key competitive intelligence we had just received, nobody gave a second thought to why the lowly coordinator thought it was OK to interrupt the managers; they tossed their agenda out the window and turned their meeting into a strategy huddle on how we would respond to the new information.
  • Clarity. Unlike a Shakespeare play, a business venture doesn't benefit from endless layers of flowery prose. "Synergizing our assets to marginalize our competition and conceptualize a profitable go-to-market strategy that maximizes favorable outcomes for our key stakeholders" elicits exactly one behavior: head-scratching. "Being first out of the gate with a kickass product that will turn the world on its head" is a goal people can get behind. We understood what we needed to do to launch x2, and every person at every level quickly figured out roles, responsibilities and specific tasks to get it done.
Certainly these weren't the only reasons why we were successful.  But these three pieces of the USR culture puzzle sure would fit into some gaping jagged holes I have seen in other organizations.

16 October 2012

15 years ago today

1000 ISPs Live With x2 Technology -- October 16, 1997.

In honor of the 16th anniversary of the launch of x2 today, I have gone back and set up links on my x2 story posts so that you can start at the beginning and click seamlessly through to the end.

(Actually, it was because one of my former coworkers asked for an easier way to read the story, but hey -- any excuse will do.)

I find it fascinating that I can still locate 1996 and 1997 press releases about this stuff.  There's still a website called 56K.com , and although it's probably not as useful (or as widely read) as it was 15 years ago, it's a fun little trip down memory lane if you're into that sort of thing.

After today, though, I think it's time to move on to more current affairs.  Time to choose another tale to spin.  I'll give it some thought, and I will take requests.  For today, though, happy x2 anniversary, especially to all my old Robobuddies.  Download a toast to the great time we had.  It's on me.  :-)

08 October 2012

Postscript to the story of x2

What was the point of all that, anyway?  As of 2010, according to the FCC, 6% of internet users connected via modem.  Although weirdly enough, Wikipedia reports that AOL added 200,000 dialup customers in 2011 (presumably because it's cheaper than broadband for those hit hard by the recession).    The slowest broadband connection you can get (ISDN) is double the speed of a V.92 modem, and the fastest is measured in hundreds of megabits. So I certainly didn't write down this story to brag about the technology.

Years later, 3Com spun off what was left of U.S. Robotics, and the "new" company is basically a marketing shell for foreign-built commodity hardware.  (It was a big point of pride at USR that we built every one of those modems right here in the good ol' U.S. of A. -- Skokie, Illinois, in fact.)  So it's not about the happy ending, either.

I wrote the story down for three main reasons.  Number one was catharsis.  It was a high time of my life, working in a dynamic environment with supremely cool people, and I miss that, and them, every day.  Writing it down let me relive some of those memories and perhaps preserve them for the future (see also "fandom").  I hope the people who were there with me have followed along and enjoyed a little look back at our history.

Number two was teaching.  We did some things really well, and I hope I touched on those in an instructive way.  Don't look at the details, look at the concepts and methods.  That entrepreneurial spirit, strong sense of teamwork, respect for customers, and drive to solve problems would serve any organization very well, no matter what project it was undertaking.

Number three was as a cautionary tale.  3Com and U.S. Robotics were technologically very compatible.  The merger made all kinds of sense if you just looked at the numbers.  But their cultures were fundamentally at odds with each other, and as soon as either company started telling the other one how to do its work, it was doomed to failure.  Remember that U.S. Robotics acquired Palm Computing in 1995, and that worked out pretty well for both organizations, primarily because USR left Palm alone to do what it did best.  When 3Com started meddling in Palm's business, its founders left and created a new company.  Do you see a pattern here?

Please don't make the mistake of thinking I intend to vilify 3Com.  3Com happens to be the perpetrator of this particular evil, but that doesn't mean 3Com is evil.  More importantly, it doesn't mean 3Com is unique.  Failure to understand the role of culture in a company's success lies at the core of many business failures and almost every failed merger.  If the merging companies don't share similar cultures, or at least cultures that can find common ground and adapt into a single community, the company will fail.  3Com, a company founded by the co-inventer of Ethernet and once possessing enough cash and status to buy naming rights to a major league baseball park, is now completely gone, having been absorbed into Hewlett-Packard in 2010.  U.S. Robotics, once an employer of over 7000 people, now employs about 125.  And Palm bounced around over the years, ultimately being spun into a wholly-owned subsidiary of HP called Gram.  While technological advancements and a few strategic errors are certainly at play in the ultimate demise (or serious marginalization) of each company, the massive failure to get the culture right was a significant factor; probably more significant than any executive at any of the companies ever really realized.

So let this be a lesson to would-be masterminds of M&A -- ignore culture at your peril.  It's not just about what people wear to work.  It's about every choice they make, every word that comes out of their mouths, and ultimately every action they take to ensure the success or failure of an organization.

03 October 2012

3Com: Crossing The Bridge

We had barely recovered from our six-month sentence in NDA hell over x2 when we once again found ourselves under NDA.  This time the story was that U.S. Robotics would be merging with 3Com.

I seem to recall that we learned this in January or so after the x2 announcement, and the merger was consummated in June (so saith Wikipedia -- I had remembered April but had to look it up to be certain of the year).

So underneath the excitement of the x2 rollout lurked the uncertainty of the merger.  There were some layoffs in the last quarter of 1996 and early 1997, and the mood was a bit schizophrenic.  That only got worse after the merger news surfaced, but the x2 momentum carried the team, and the team spirit, through to the 1-year anniversary and the 1000 ISP party.

Oh, yes -- we had a party.  Once the independent research confirmed that we did indeed have 1000 ISPs live, we threw a massive tent party on the lawn of the UState building and invited everyone.  We printed up t-shirts and tapped more than a few kegs.  There was music and food and a special Connect NOW message that I got to deliver on stage.  It was probably the last time USR employees got to party like USR before the stodginess of 3Com started drawing the life out of it.

I believe it was December of 1997 when the holiday talent show featured the Product Management Singers -- Burk, Rick, Barb, Don and I -- performing my lyrical masterpiece, "Santa Clara's Comin' to Town." ("You better watch out, you better not doze; you may find your desk in Rolling Meadows -- Santa Clara's comin' to town....")  We were still having fun while we were still in the heritage buildings.

We moved into that massive eyesore of a building at 3800 Golf Road in June of 1998 (I had to look that up too -- thank you Chicago Trib online archive).  It was right around then that the best and brightest talent of USR started heavily bleeding out.  A few of our really good engineers were already gone by then, along with a few treasured folks from other departments, but the worst of the talent hemorrhage started about mid-1998.

Something you need to understand about the "merger" of USR and 3Com is that it wasn't a merger.  And that, in a nutshell, is why it was such a miserable failure.  The USR folks were told it was a merger.  The 3Com folks were told it was an acquisition.  And this fundamental failure of communication drove everything that happened from the moment the deal closed.

3Com didn't understand how we worked at USR, and didn't particularly care.  The new building came with 6-foot high cubicles that isolated us from each other but didn't block noise (the worst of cube life and the worst of office life all blended together).  We were told not to put anything on top of our wall cabinets or outside our cube walls.  The place was like a rat maze; it could take a considerable while to find anyone in the identical endless aisles.  (On a business trip that summer, I learned that Santa Clara HQ was even worse.)  It was relentlessly beige and enormous and lifeless -- except when we got our summer thunderstorms and discovered that those gigantic walls of windows leaked like sieves.  Then it was exciting!

Because Santa Clara insisted on having its say in everything we did, our cycle times and customer responsiveness slowed down to 3Com's pace.  We lost our best engineers, our best sales people, and our best product managers, and eventually we lost our edge in everything we did.  When the V.90 56K standard was adopted in spring of 1998, the last nail was driven in the commoditization coffin of modems, and by then, we'd lost the people and the entrepreneurial spirit that would have generated the compelling follow-on product.

We tried our hand at videoconferencing systems, conference phones, ISDN, cable, and DSL, and did OK in those markets, but never anywhere close to what we had achieved in analog modems.

It was an amazing run, but it was over.  I left 3Com in December of 1998.

Next up: a postscript

24 September 2012

Interlude: Fandom

How culture and history are collected by fanatics, and why this is a good thing.

I'm not in the mood to write about the 3Com merger today, although that is the next chapter in that saga.  I'm not really looking forward to writing that part, so it may take some time for me to work up to it.  Today, instead, I want to talk about "fandom."

The word "fandom" is a noun meaning, roughly, "a community of people (fans) who are fanatically devoted to something."  I consider myself a member of two fandoms -- Disney fandom, and science fiction (SF) fandom.  I suspect, although I do not know, that the term "fandom" was in fact coined by the SF fans (who also use "fen" as the plural of "fan", "fannish" as the adjective form of "fan", and "fanac" (short for fannish activity).

One characteristic of fandoms is that they tend to create their own jargon. (And one characteristic of SF fans is that we tend to be pedantic, so forgive me if I'm explaining more than you care about.)

Fan communities have risen up around pretty much anything you can think of, from aerobic dancing to Zappa.  Fandoms are both significant enough to culture, and odd enough to observe, that several books have been written about them.  My point in writing about them is that they make an extremely valuable contribution to our cultural identity and history as humans.  As such, fannish contribution to culture will very likely be a key piece of my organizational culture book.

Here's what fans do that is so very important.  They obsess about their fandoms.  They learn about their subject to a level of detail that other people find stultifying. They collect staggering quantities of stuff that would otherwise end up in landfills.  They talk to each other, and in their talking create an exhaustively complete story of the thing that has captured their interest.

So you get entire museums devoted to Pez memorabilia or mechanical and coin-operated toys and games.  There are two American museums devoted to barbed wire, for heaven's sake.  You get individuals who own entire runs of Superman comics or every bubble gum card ever printed for a New York Yankees baseball player.  Things like postcards, campaign buttons, ticket stubs or party invitations that would otherwise be lost to history are lovingly preserved by fans.

Is this stuff important?  I don't know.  But I do know you can learn a lot about American history, and particularly about the attitudes, mores and cultural fads of a given period of history, by reading comic books and looking at postcards or paperback novel covers.  I also know that there are people who matter to our history whom we struggle to understand because we have nothing but a half-dozen letters and a photograph from which to build an entire biography.

Another valuable aspect of fannish service is how it held onto all this ephemera before technological advancement made it practical for things to be digitized.  It's easy to keep these things now -- we back them up to disk.  But even as recently as the 1980s, that was prohibitively expensive and difficult to do.  The bulk of the 20th century, and certainly every century prior, was more likely to be dustbinned than to be archived.  And we would not just have lost ticket stubs and postcards.  We would have lost out-of-print books, music, and art that was not deemed "significant" enough to preserve.  Thanks to the devotion of fans, many treasures of the last few hundred years are still around to be digitized.

Fandom, then, is really just cultural anthropology being done without a college degree and solely for the sheer, crazy love of it.  We are so very fortunate to have fans and fandoms.  They are writing our history in exacting detail, and saving for posterity the things we wouldn't know to miss until after they were gone.

11 September 2012

Connect NOW!

Now that we were on the market with a proprietary "end to end solution," we had two complementary goals.  We wanted as many end-users to buy our x2 modems as possible, and we needed ISPs to buy (or upgrade existing) U.S. Robotics server-side equipment so the consumers would have someone to talk to using the x2 protocol.

So we created a goal.  One year to the day after the original x2 announcement (October 16, 1997), there would be 1000 ISPs worldwide with x2 server-side capability.  In order to track our progress, I started sending out a daily email message to the sales and marketing teams to let them know how many ISPs we had signed up so far.

The message was called "Connect NOW!" and included the statistics on the number of x2-enabled ISPs (and the number of countries in which they were located), the number of x2-enabled points of presence (meaning actual phone numbers you could call to connect to a server), and the number of cities where customers had at least one x2 provider choice.  This was followed by a short inspirational message to keep the sales and marketing teams motivated.  On some days (more often early on than later) I included specific lists of providers.  A couple of times over the course of the year, we produced paper booklets that we sent out to stores, so customers could find out if their particular city or ISP was on the x2 band wagon.

The message always concluded with the same tag line: "x2. Get Hooked!"

As we got close to our goal (and our deadline) in September 1997, I added regional emails to update and motivate our international teams.  So the Europe folks began to receive the "x2 EUROLINK," which added a line for the number of ISPs deployed specifically in Europe, and a message tailored to them, as well as their own tagline: "x2. Break the Barriers!"  The Asian teams received "x2 AsiaConnect," while the Latin America teams received "¡Conectarse AHORA!" (with a tag line, in Spanish, that translated to "why surf when you can fly?")

I loved writing these messages.  They gave me a chance to fire people up, make them laugh, and perhaps provide some inspiration to do something they wouldn't otherwise have done.  I was in the office, and I had a direct line of communication with the engineers, the product managers, the senior execs -- everyone who understood the "big picture" and had the power to pursue good ideas from the field.  With the Connect NOW message, I could pass along critical information in small chunks, and urge the field folks to come back to us with ideas and feedback from customers that we could use to boost our mind share and our sales.

I talked to one of our "store power" guys one day (a USR employee whose job was to build mind share in retail stores), and he informed me that his home metro area was dominated by an ISP that used our competitor's "K56Flex" technology.  He suggested that some type of tie-in promotion with one or more x2 ISPs would help sales of our products.  I championed his idea back at the home office, and we were able to get some marketing funding and attention to create his proposed promotion.

On October 7, 1997, nine full days before our deadline, we met the goal.  This is the text I sent out that day.
Connect NOW - 1000 ISPs LIVE TODAY!
10/7/97 12:16 PM CST

1006     ISPs deployed with x2 technology in 32 countries
16,129  local phone numbers
3,685    cities worldwide!

It's a momentous occasion for all of 3Com, and especially for the heritage USR team.  Today we are proud to announce that we have deployed over 1000 ISPs with x2 56K technology.

We have employed an independent research firm to validate the entire list, and expect that process to be complete on Monday.  On October 16, the one year anniversary of the original x2 press release, we will announce to the world that we have secured over 1000 ISP partners.

This is a very exciting milestone for us, and a terrific marketing and publicity tool.  We can provide an easy, affordable high speed modem access solution to literally millions of subscribers all over the world.  No competitor even comes close.

So if you are one of the people focused on this project, give yourself a HEARTY pat on the back, and high-five some coworkers.  And no matter what part of 3Com you play, please join us in our hour of glory!


Next up: Crossing the Bridge: The 3Com merger as context of the year of x2

30 August 2012

Creating x2 Fans

With product on the shelves (and in many places flying off them), and upgrade kits stocked up in Salt Lake, it was time to do the work of getting people going on x2.

The upgrade process, as you might expect, often did not go smoothly.  I remember in particular one gentleman whose scathing, furious email was forwarded to me for emergency service.  He had posted in an internet forum (this is in 1996, when there are about ten internet forums total) that the x2 upgrade was a scam, x2 wasn't real, and he was never going to buy another U.S. Robotics product.

I wrote a very careful reply, asking him if he could please tell me what happened.  He wrote back and explained how he had tried to upgrade his modem and had no success getting the upgrade to work.  His criticisms were fair, although his extrapolation that the entire technology was a fraud was a bit over the top.  I replied to him immediately, saying "if you will email me your shipping address, we'll get a new modem out to you right away and then see if we can figure out what's wrong with the old one."

Well, long story short, by the end of our interaction, he had posted an update to that same internet forum, singing the praises of the company generally, and of me in particular, taking back all the awful things he had said and happily pronouncing that his faith in USR had been fully restored.

For those of you following along from work, here's the lesson -- your cost on a replacement product is almost nothing compared to the cost of an angry customer.  A raving fan is worth, at a minimum, thousands of dollars to your company.  Treat your customers right.

Among the many things I loved about working at USR was that I was empowered to fix problems as I saw fit.  I was given a stock of about half a dozen brand-new modems specifically for these kinds of situations.  When, in my judgment, a "free" modem was going to fix a bad situation and net us a gain, I was allowed to give it away.  The thing about that particular guy was, it was obvious that he was angry because he was crushed.  He was expecting the same great experience, great product and great performance he had always gotten in the past from USR, and when it all went horribly wrong, he felt like we had personally betrayed him.  That was clear from his tone, and from the fact that he turned around and purred like a kitten the minute he believed someone really cared about fixing his problem.  It's amazing what a little bit of genuine empathy will do.

That particular person's story was one of maybe five to ten that I dealt with during the upgrade frenzy.  Once we had the kinks worked out, the process went pretty well, and it positioned us very well to do smooth upgrades to the V.90 and V.92 modem standards when they were implemented a couple of years later.

But that gets us ahead of ourselves.  Right now, in the course of this history, we need to sign up some ISPs to provide x2 service to our growing ranks of consumer modem buyers.  And to spread the x2 love from "end to end" of the call connection, we needed a clear goal and a way to motivate our sales force.

Next up:  Connect NOW!

Delivering the Dream

(After a long hiatus, we return you to the x2 saga, already in progress....)

Now that the announcement was made, we had two parallel challenges we needed to scramble on.  One was getting the actual product into the market on the consumer side, and the other was getting internet service providers (ISPs) to adopt our proprietary technology so that consumers with our super fast modems would actually be able to enjoy those speeds.

The consumer product took two forms -- upgrades to existing modems, and new modems that had x2 right out of the box.  Each of these posed its challenges.  The upgrades came in several flavors depending on the type of 33.6Kbps modem you already had.  The newest models were flash upgradable -- pay your $60, download your firmware update, have a nice day.  Slightly older models needed a chip swap -- pay your $60, we mail you a chip and a set of instructions.  There were also a handful of modems out there that qualified for the upgrade but couldn't accomplish it by flash or chip, and those got replaced completely.

The upgrade program was handled by a fulfillment house in Salt Lake City, and I was one of the people who went out to train their reps on how to handle the calls.  That also meant that when extreme customer service recovery "situations" came up, they sometimes got sent over to me.  More on that in the next post.

Of course, nothing could happen until we actually had working product, and that kept us all on the edges of our seats, and of our nerves, for several weeks after the announcement.  The engineers and product managers were working long into the night most days, and looking pretty strung out.  Just about the time the media was starting to lose patience and the customers were losing all faith in us, finally, finally, they were ready to ship.

Something you have to understand about the UState building, where I worked, is that although the building had a PA system, it was almost never used.  A few times a week, maybe, only to alert someone to an incoming call when that someone couldn't be found anywhere, or perhaps to mention that the place was on fire.  So when the receptionist made an announcement over the PA, she had everyone's attention.  And on that day, what she said was that the trucks had just rolled from U1 with the first shipment of x2 modems.

Everyone in the building -- and probably everyone in the company -- spontaneously stood up and cheered.

Next up: Creating x2 Fans

Shameless Capitalism

I've added a semi-custom Amazon link to the top of my blog page here.  I have done this partly because it is a lovely thing to have one's blog generate revenue.  I've also done this because I am extremely curious what Amazon's terribly clever (just ask them) algorithms will decide is appropriate to advertise at the top of my blog.  This particular widget is all them. I don't choose the products to advertise; they do.  So we'll see what the content of my blog, and my fevered imagination, triggers in the way of automated product offerings.

23 July 2012

(Repost) On Muses, and Other Imaginary Things that are Real

This is a re-post from June 5, 2011, from a different blog I was keeping at that time.  Today, apparently, is the day for spring cleaning old blog accounts -- I found and got rid of two of them that I had long since forgotten.  This was one of the entries I wanted to keep for future reference.

I just watched this 2009 TED Talk by Elizabeth Gilbert, on the subject of creativity and "divine inspiration." In it, she postulates the idea that imagining one's creative inspiration as an external entity might provide a more constructive approach to creative work than assuming your creative genius resides solely within you. She argues that letting your creative genius take the form of a "muse" or a "daemon" may take the pressure off. You do your work, and sometimes your muses show up, and sometimes they don't. You do your work regardless.

What I find fascinating about this idea is its psychological merit. Regardless of your belief system or notions of "divine intervention" or mythology, you can use a construct like this as a relief valve for feelings of pressure or frustration or "stuck"-ness. If offers a way of seeing the creative process as a collaboration between the individual and the universe, giving permission for flashes of brilliance to come into your head as well as out of it. Realistically, most, if not all creative people have had at least one moment of blissful, thrilling inspiration that they could not explain. While this notion does not quantify it for purposes of evidence-based science, it does serve as an explanation. If we accept the notion of science as that which we can explain, and "magic" (or divine inspiration, or flashes of brilliance, or whatever metaphor you like) as that which we cannot explain yet, we leave room in our world for these crazy ideas. Work hard, yes. Never give up. Devote yourself tirelessly to the work you know you exist to do. And trust that in so doing, something will happen that you don't necessarily understand, that will give significance to your work beyond anything you had thought possible.

10 July 2012

Hell Week

The week of October 7, 1996 was uniquely brutal, as we wrapped up the press kit materials, sent jobs to the printer and received cases back, stuffed press kits, double checked recipient addresses and generally got ready to go public with this grand new invention (T zero was to be the morning of October 16.)

Launch day was not "product launch" day -- it was just the day we announced this thing that had kept us all buried in NDA hell for the preceding six months.  But the anticipation of being out from under that, and our beliefs about what it would cause in the market, had me, at least, on the edge of my seat. (I suspect the caffeine may also have been a factor.)

I was asked to write the cover letter for the announcement packet, which would be signed by Casey, our CEO.  I was flattered to have the opportunity to speak in the voice of the boss, and did my best to say it the way I thought he would say it.

Finally, with no time to spare, we finished assembling all the press kits (there were somewhere around 300 of them, if I remember right).  They included shelf tag cards that explained the upgrade process and other items with the bright red and black x2 logo, a white paper that explained how the technology worked, and assorted other stuff.  It was all put into a very unassuming plain white folder with the U.S. Robotics logo in the lower right hand corner, and when you opened it, it fairly slapped you with bold x2 graphics.

And a cover letter from Casey, whose first words were "Welcome to the future."

*   *   *

Our competitors had made announcements of speed-doubling technologies prior to this point, with the main effect that U.S. Robotics stock went up.  The night before launch, on the strength of a "teaser" press release, USRX gained $8.78 a share.

And that afternoon, we put those 300 announcement packets on FedEx trucks, to hit the desks of every one of our resellers by 10:30 the next morning.

*   *   *

And on that morning, this was what the media received:


Internet Service Providers Embrace New x2 Technology; Plan Field Trials
& Roll-Out

Skokie, Ill., October 16, 1996 -- U.S. Robotics (NASDAQ:USRX) today announced a key breakthrough in modem technology that provides Internet and on-line connections at speeds nearly twice as fast as those currently available over standard telephone lines.

U.S. Robotics' new x2 increases the top speed of a standard modem for downloading data from 28.8 or 33.6 Kbps to 56 Kbps -- equivalent to many Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) connections, but without the need for expensive new central office equipment required by other high-speed technologies.

Service Providers Sign Up for x2
U.S. Robotics also announced that the world's leading Internet and on-line service providers support x2.  To date, more than 30 service providers worldwide have agreed to participate in field trials with broad roll-out plans to follow.

"As the worldwide leader in providing consumer Internet on-line services, America Online is excited about the x2 technology that will provide our more than 6.2 million members the ability to access AOL at even faster speeds," said Matt Korn, vice president, operations, America Online.  "We will continue to work with innovative technology, like x2, which will expand our members' experience and enable them to use a variety of multimedia services on AOL." "We plan to aggressively deploy this new high-speed modem technology across the IBM Global Network's more than 500 local calling points in the U.S.," said Gary Weis, general manager, worldwide operations, IBM Global Network.  "As soon as this new feature becomes available, the IBM Global Network will implement x2 via our automated software download process that enables customers to obtain network enhancements like this easily and quickly," he said.  In the near term, IBM Global Network will use x2 technology in the U.S., Canada and 14 other countries.

[read the rest]

It was official. We were on our way.

Next up: Delivering the Dream

02 July 2012

Interlude: What I'm Reading

Real life and a minor medical issue have disrupted my daily writing habit.  (If you are reading any one thing that I write, such as this blog, my website blog, or even my Facebook or Twitter accounts, you won't believe I write every day, but I do write something somewhere every day, I promise.  Except the last few days.)

As best I've been able, between brain-fogging medications and lots of extra sleep, I have still been doing a lot of reading.  In exploring all the new-to-me magazines I bought, I've come to the following conclusions:

I like the Economist a lot, but there's no way I'd be able to keep up with it every week.  I'm considering picking up a copy once a month or so.  I love the way it not only covers current events in a thoughtful way, but also ties them together and offers a comprehensive global perspective.  I also like that their conclusions tend to follow from facts, rather than from any conspicuous ideology.  I think people who accuse the Economist of leaning right are probably coming to it from something like Time, which very definitely leans left.  That's not a bad thing, but it's important to know if you're going to get your news primarily, or exclusively, from one source.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Atlantic, and I may well end up subscribing to that one.  Nice balance of thought-provoking articles on current events with well-written fiction pieces.  I liked the depth of it, as a nice complement to Time's breadth.

Time is much as I remember it from years ago when I used to subscribe.  A slight left bias, visible but not egregious, and a good, easily digestible overview of what's going on in the world.  I have seen it criticized for being too shallow (mostly by readers of the Economist), but again, if it's not my only source for information, it's great to have something that gives me some top-line context for the deeper content I encounter elsewhere.  I'm thinking about giving The Week a shot as well, to see how it compares.

I decided that the New Yorker would be great if I were, in fact, a New Yorker.  Yes, there's some good stuff in there, but it was literally page 49 where it stopped being a listing of what's on in New York and started being a general interest magazine.  Better than TimeOut, but not suited for those of us who do not live in NY and have no desire to live there, literally or vicariously.

Canada's Motivated magazine is fun -- a business magazine with a distinctly positive and upbeat tone.  It's essentially a day-long conference of motivational speakers in magazine form.  I probably won't subscribe, but I'll look for it on newsstands and pick it up when the cover catches my fancy.

I have a couple more to get through, and will report on those as I finish them.

15 June 2012

The ARCTIC Summer

Back at the ranch, we got down to the work of turning "56K technology" into a brand and a product line.  We needed to generate a bunch of "education sell" material -- visually appealing and quick-to-read handouts that would explain the new technology succinctly and simply, while emphasizing why the end user would care.

Our goal was to be ready to go on a particular launch date with an aggressive ad campaign that would appear quite literally overnight.

During this time, the stress in the office was palpable.  Most of us were there by 7:30 AM, and most of us didn't leave until 7:30 PM or later.  As the date drew nearer, this became a six day a week schedule. We all felt the pressure to get everything done, and we felt it both from our individual roles and also from those of our colleagues.  The engineers were testing, revising, fine-tuning, testing again, and scratching their heads over various bugs in the code.  We needed modems that did 56K out of the box, and we needed an upgrade path for every version of our product that our customers already owned.

The newer modems could be "flashed" over their internet connection lines.  Slightly older ones could do a chip swap.  Older than that but new enough to qualify for the upgrade would need a full product replacement.  In all three cases, we decided the price would be the same.  The logistics of figuring out which modem you had, what upgrade you needed, and how to get your upgrade fulfilled were going to be a spectacular nightmare.  But we were committed to doing it for our customers, and making it as easy as it could be.

The factory didn't require a huge amount of retooling -- after all, the form factor of the devices wasn't changing; just some key parts of the guts.  But we would need to come up with some sort of forecast to determine what to manufacture and in what amounts.  Internal, external, a different model for Mac computers vs. Intel machines.

Then there was the head-end.  We needed to be ready to upgrade the ISPs so they could start advertising that they supported the new technology.  We wanted to be able to say some ISPs were live with it as soon as possible after the announcement, so end users would have a reason to buy the things. But we couldn't tell them about it until the launch date.

In sales and marketing, we had volumes and volumes of *stuff* to produce.  Data sheets for the products. Explanations of the upgrade process.  Inserts for the product boxes that would ship from launch day forward, explaining the upgrade path.  Cards for store shelves and other in-store media.

And, oh, by the way, a brand name.  We decided it would be called "x2 Technology(TM)" A logo emerged, and a general look and feel for all the new packages and supporting media.

Generating this stuff took months of work from hundreds of people.  The amazing thing was, everybody was having a ball.

Don't get me wrong.  We were stressed and exhausted.  In turn, each of us "hit the wall." And you've never seen so much caffeine ingested by one group of people in one day (My personal best was 12 cans of Diet Coke in 10 hours).  But at the same time, we were kids on Christmas.  We had an awesome new technology that was going to change the market.  We had total clarity on what we needed to do.  We were all in it together, and we knew it.  Even when we doubted we would ever pull it off in time, somehow, we never doubted we would pull it off in time.

Next up: Hell week.

13 June 2012


At a National Sales Meeting in 1996, a guy named Burk (he'll show up again in this story later) stood up in front of the entire PCD sales and marketing organization and worked his way through a slide presentation about a new technology, code name "ARCTIC."  It was absolutely imperative, he said, that no one in this room breathe a word of this to anyone.  We had gotten our hands on a technology, he said, that was going to allow us to double the speed of internet connections -- to achieve 56K on an analog phone line.

Yeah, I know.  From your seat at the gigabit ethernet workstation in 2012, you're not impressed.  But if you have been around long enough to remember, you remember that this was a very big deal.

We later decided that ARCTIC stood for "a really cool technology, introduced Christmas," that being the time frame when we were likely to be ready to go to market with it.

Looking back on it, I don't know if everyone in the company was as excited about it as I was.  I'm prone to passion -- when you tell me it's a big deal, I tend to believe you.  And it was pretty clear that we had the jump on our competitors with this, and that we had a unique capacity to deliver it that most of our competitors couldn't touch.

You see, in order for 56K technology to work, the modem you talk to with your modem must also speak 56K.  And the technology to do that at this point was proprietary.  Buying a 56K modem for your computer wasn't going to help you unless your Internet Service Provider could speak the same 56K language.  And unlike our competitors, we had an entire division (Corporate Systems, later renamed Network Systems) that built ISP head-end equipment.  So odds were good that the modem your modem was calling was built by U.S. Robotics.

And the crowning glory was that this technology would, for most of the head-end equipment and even a handful of client-side equipment (client-side being you, the average individual customer) would be "flash upgradable" -- no new hardware required.

At the time of this meeting, we had all arrived there feeling a little discouraged.  The modem was becoming commoditized, and we'd said everything there was to say about it that was interesting.  The market was softening and it was tough to defend the premium price we were asking in the retail marketplace.  (U.S. Robotics modems were the most expensive on the shelf.  We built them in Skokie, Illinois, USA, and we paid for a ton of independent lab testing and quality assurance work that our competitors tended not to bother with.)

Needless to say, this rekindled the fire in a big way.  We couldn't talk about 56K, but we could talk about current products that were flash-upgradable, and we could talk about the "end-to-end solution" that meant you and your ISP were using the same brand of modem.  If it's good enough for your ISP, then it must be pretty good, right?

We came out of that meeting ready to conquer the world, understanding exactly what we would need to do to become utterly dominant in the modem marketplace.  Our goal was a clean, world-changing launch of ARCTIC in time for the holiday shopping season, and from there, we were shooting for 60% market share.

Next up: The ARCTIC Summer

06 June 2012

The Story Begins

Once upon a time, people used a device called a "modem" to connect their computers to the internet. Hard as it is to believe, the internet has not always existed, and it has not always come into every home and commercial property automatically, quickly and seamlessly.  It used to be that you had to "dial up," using a modem and a telephone land line (remember land lines?) to connect your computer to your internet service provider.  At the time our story begins, this phone connection, depending on how new and how expensive your modem was, afforded a data transfer speed up to 28.8 kilobits per second.  (The most seasoned computer users among you will recall when it was much slower even than that.  This is not that story.)  These days it is hard to imagine any of that, but at the time, it was the best technology we had.

The year is 1995, and I am working for a temp agency.  The agency has placed me at a company called U.S. Robotics for a two or three day data entry gig.  I detest data entry, but my temp agency has always been good to me and they are desperate, so I agree to the gig.  It is an awful experience, underscoring all the reasons I hate data entry, and I tell them I never want to go back to that awful place.

Months pass, and the agency calls me, again desperate.  They need someone to go to U.S. Robotics.  They offer to pay me a higher hourly rate than they've ever paid before, and they promise that if I hate it, I need only stick it out to the end of the week and they'll find someone else.  I reluctantly agree.

I go to a different building from the one I went to before.  It turns out my previous gig was in the "Corporate Systems" division and now I'm going to the "Personal Communications Division." I report to a lady named Christine in a department called "Channel Marketing."  And I get to work.

A few weeks later they offer me a permanent position, and I enthusiastically accept, because in this department of this division of USR, I have found something unlike anything I've ever seen before.  This group of people is smart, dedicated, professional, and at the same time is so much fun to be around that the hours at work just fly by.  The company makes modems, and I quickly learn that they are the number one selling computer modems in the world, with more than 50% market share in many of the segments in which they compete.  They are working on technology to accelerate modem speeds to 33.6 kbps, and working with resellers to push more and more modems out into the world as the internet's popularity is skyrocketing.

The pace at USR is relentless, and yet it is just plain FUN to be there.  We work hard, arriving most mornings between 8 and 8:30 and frequently staying until 6:00 or 7:00 at night -- especially on Fridays, which is an aspect of that culture I still don't understand to this day.  The department I work for seems to be responsible for a lot of internal communication among the sales and marketing functions, helping the salespeople understand the products and the promotions as they change and develop over time.  And in time, I become a key player in that game, personally creating and delivering a lot of information for the sales force.

This culture is exceptional.  There's a story that everyone in the company knows -- that at any time, the CEO, Casey Cowell, might ask you to state the mission of the company (a rather long statement about being the number one data communication company whose products "meet the needs and expand the capabilities of business and professional clients worldwide").  If you recited it correctly, Casey would hand you a $100 bill.  I never met anyone who personally had this happen to them, but I did talk to a number of people who claimed they remembered it happening to a coworker.  It may or may not have actually been true, but I am here to tell you that everybody in that company knew the mission statement.

More importantly, everybody LIVED it.  I consistently found every person I worked with to be friendly, helpful, and great at what they did.  We all knew why we were there, and we got stuff done.

My first six or seven months with the company were really good.  I loved it there.  And then something happened that made it even better.

Next up: ARCTIC

18 May 2012

"I'm a writer.  And you know what the most difficult part of my job is? Writing."

So begins my favorite entry in one of my favorite books, The Imagineering Workout. The more I torture myself with analysis and reflection on what I want to be when I grow up, the more it becomes clear that I'm a writer.  And the most difficult part of my job, unquestionably, is writing.

Michael Sprout, the Disney Imagineer and concept writer who authored this entry, offers some steps for the creative writing process.  If you'll permit me a bit of self-indulgence here, I'd like to use those as the outline to explore what's going on with me right now (after all, if you can't be self-indulgent on your own blog, where can you?)  Even people who have built a career out of helping other people get out of their own way, sometimes get in their own way.  That's the story of my life right now.

Michael says that step one is "say, 'sure.'"  In other words, the first thing to do is to agree, and commit, to write something.  Most of the thousands of blogs on the internet have only a scant handful of readers, including this one.  The blogs on the short list, the ones that are really successful, are the ones that get updated frequently.  The best bloggers update at least once a day and comment on other blogs as well.  They are active in the community of bloggers, and therefore get attention from readers, followers, and advertisers.  The rest of us don't post enough, and for that reason we don't build huge followings of readers.  (If a blog has a ton of posts and still doesn't have any readers, that's your clue that quantity is necessary, but not sufficient.  Writing != having something to say, and both are required for long-term success.)

So for me, saying "sure" is about committing to write more.  The prerequisite for this is deciding to own, once and for all, that I'm a writer.  I'm still working on that, but I'm closer today than I've ever been before.

Step two, according to Michael, is "panic."  Now THAT is a plan I can embrace! This is the step where all the negative self-talk runs rampant.  In the book, his panicked self-talk messages include "I don't' know what I'm doing. I should have been a carpet installer."  My self-talk messages include "real writers are so much better than me.  I don't have enough discipline to be a writer.  I can't make any money writing."  Of course, those things are all true until I commit to making them false.  So if I want to change my fate as a writer, I better move on quickly to step three.

Michael says step three is "go to the library." And I love this, both because libraries are cool, and because he is using the statement as a metaphor.  "Going to the library" means collecting every bit of information you can get your hands on about whatever you want to write about.  If I'm going to write about milkweed, I'll need to find its Latin name (asclepias tuberosa), its origins, habits, cultivation needs, context (why do I care?  Well, because it's the primary larval and nectar food source for the monarch butterfly.  Did you know?) and whatever other information may enable me to write about milkweed.  I'll write something decent about milkweed if I read a lot about it.  But I'll write something better about it if I also grow it in my garden, see it in a butterfly enclosure, stick my nose in it to see if it makes me sneeze, and watch a butterfly sipping its nectar (or a caterpillar devouring its leaves).  The library is wherever your subject is -- not just the building full of books.

My lesson about going to the library is that if I want to be a good writer, I need to be a voracious reader.  That is a challenge for me (long story, sounds like whining, not worth wasting words on it).  It's a challenge I must, and will, commit to overcome if I want to be successful as a writer.

Steps four and five are about changing focus after filling your head to overflowing with information about the topic.  (He calls these steps "goof off" and "go to sleep".)  Basically, he's saying that once you have all the information your frontal lobes can possibly pack in, you need to let your back brain digest and process it all.  The subconscious brain is an insanely powerful and efficient computer, able to process data thousands of times faster than your cerebral cortex.  It works best when you're not constantly interrupting it with lame suggestions from your conscious mind, so do something unrelated to the writing project and give it some peace to do the work.  I have certainly experienced this, and have come to trust that process.  My challenge is to make sure I don't let "goofing off" displace writing-related activities completely.  One thing all writers and writing coaches agree on is that if you mean to be a good writer, you have to write every. single. day.  Preferably for an hour or more.  So that's what I need to do.

Finally, step six is the actual writing part.  Michael lists this step as "let it happen."  And that's exactly it -- once I've done the prerequisites, the writing comes pretty easily.  All I have to do is do it.  The easiest, and hardest, thing in the world.

Step seven, the last one, is to "keep writing implements handy at all times."  So far for me, this hasn't been an issue -- the muse strikes rarely enough that I'm almost never out of reach of a pencil on those occasions when she does.  But the point is well taken, and in fact I do have pencil and paper on my headboard, a note-taking app on my phone, an iPad, an assortment of journals and notebooks, and and abundance of pens and pencils that are comfortable for me to use.  Not having the right tools for any job makes it a hundred times harder, and I'm way too lazy to put up with that nonsense.  For me, it's less about having the tools than about using them.  That's my challenge, and that's why I decided to resurrect this blog that has been dormant for awhile. I've given it a facelift, let go of the self-imposed limitations on what topics I'll post here, and am now committing to write.

I have said "sure."  I am panicking a little.  I'll be headed to the library as soon as I post this.  And we'll go from there.