Learning From Failure

HBS Working Knowledge has an excerpt from “Juice: The Creative Fuel that Drives World-Class Inventors” by Evan Schwartz:

Failure is the rule rather than the exception, and every failure contains information. One of the most misleading lessons imparted by those who have reached their goal is that the ones who win are the ones who persevere. Not always. If you keep trying without learning why you failed, you’ll probably fail again and again. Perseverance must be accompanied by the embrace of failure. Failure is what moves you forward. Listen to failure.

But there are different kinds of failure. Sometimes, failure tells you to give up and do something else entirely. Other times, it tells you to try a different approach, a new route to the top of the mountain. Or it may tell you to make a detour. Sometimes, it tells you that you need help. Sometimes, it doesn’t seem to tell you anything.

The HBSWK excerpt discusses Steve Wozniak and what he learnt.

Telecom Upheavals

WSJ writes that it is a free-for-all in the marketplace:

Over the past four years, the nation’s largest phone companies have lost local phone lines by the millions as consumers fled to cellphones and e-mail. Many customers are giving up their second, and even their primary, phone lines. The intrusion by cable companies only made things worse, forcing the Bells to expand into other areas that promise more growth, such as wireless, high-speed Internet and television.

For their part, cable companies are feeling the pinch as satellite-TV providers sign up more customers, increasingly with help from the Bells. SBC, for example, has invested $500 million in EchoStar as part of its joint marketing deal.

On the other hand, technological advances are making it easier for telecom and cable companies to break into each other’s businesses without making huge upfront investments. The development and spread of broadband Internet service lets cable companies offer phone service over the Net, which is much cheaper than running it over their cable lines. And phone companies are investing in new services, such as downloadable movies on demand, that run on broadband and that will, they hope, provide new revenue streams.

The nation’s three largest phone companies are also each developing new fiber networks that will allow them to offer data-transmission speeds that are far higher than those offered by digital subscriber line or cable broadband today. Such networks, which are costly to build and will take years to complete, would allow the companies to offer hundreds of TV channels as well as other services such as online gaming, phone and Internet access.

eBay’s Grid

eWeek has an interview with Marty Abbott, senior vice president of technology of eBay, on its technology infrastructure:

A good way to think about it is that it’s one of the first examples of grid computing. It’s an array of systems, each of which has a service component that answers to another system: fault tolerance meant to allow for scale. As a matter of fact, we would have potential vendors and partners come in and try to sell us on the idea of grid computing and we’d say, “It sounds an awful lot like what we were doing. We didn’t know there was a name for it.”

We went from one huge back-end system and four or five very large search databases. Search used to update in 6 to 12 hours from the time frame in which someone would place a bid or an item for sale. Today, updates are usually less than 90 seconds. The front end in October ’99 was a two-tiered system with [Microsoft Corp.] IIS [Internet Information Services] and ISAPI [Internet Server API]. The front ends were about 60 [Windows] NT servers. Fast-forward to today. We have 200 back-end databases, all of them in the 6- to 12-processor range, as opposed to having tens of processors before. Not all those are necessary to run the site. We have that many for disaster recovery purposes and for data replication.

We have two data centers in Santa Clara County [Calif.], one data center in Sacramento [Calif.] and one in Denver. When you address eBay or make a request of eBay, you have an equal chance of hitting any of those four.

We’ve taken a unique approach with respect to our infrastructure. In a typical disaster recovery scenario, you have to have 200 percent of your capacity100 percent in one location, 100 percent in another locationwhich is cost-ineffective. We have three centers, each with 50 percent of the traffic, actually 55 percent, adding in some bursts.

We use Sun [Microsystems Inc.] systems, as we did before. We use Hitachi Data Systems [Corp.] storage on Brocade [Communications Systems Inc.] SANs [storage area networks] running Oracle [Corp.] databases and partner with Microsoft for the [Web server] operating system. IBM provides front and middle tiers, and we use WebSphere as the application server running our J2EE codethe stuff that is eBay. The code is also migrated from C++ to Java, for the most part. Eighty percent of the site runs with Java within WebSphere.

We believe the infrastructure we have today will allow us to scale nearly indefinitely. There are always little growth bumps, new things that we experience, and not a whole lot of folks from whom we can learn. But using the principles of scaling out, rather than scaling up; disaggregating wherever possible; attempting to avoid state, because state is very costly and increases your failure rate; partnering with folks like Microsoft and IBM, Sun, Hitachi Data Systems, where they feel they have skin in the game and are actually helping us to build something; and then investing in our people, along with commodity hardware and softwareapplying those principles, we think we can go indefinitely.

We deliver the content for most countries from the U.S. The exceptions are Korea and China, which have their own platforms. In the other 28 countries, when you list an item for sale or when you attempt to bid or buy an item, that comes back to the U.S. We distribute the content around the world through a content delivery network. We put most of the content that’s downloadedexcept for the dynamic piecesin a location near where you live. That’s about 95 percent of the activity, making the actions or requests that come back to eBay in the U.S. very lightweight. A page downloads in the U.K. in about the same time that it downloads in the U.S., thanks to our partner Akamai [Technologies Inc.], whose content delivery network resides in just about every country, including China.

How We See Websites

Eyetrack III has some interesting websites: “We observed 46 people for one hour as their eyes followed mock news websites and real multimedia content. In this article we’ll provide an overview of what we observed…The eyes most often fixated first in the upper left of the page, then hovered in that area before going left to right. Only after perusing the top portion of the page for some time did their eyes explore further down the page.”

Wikis in the Newsroom

Mark Glaser wonders if “journalists trust Wikipedia, and can collaboration software such as wikis improve newsgathering?”

Consider the Wikipedia, a free online encyclopedia with hundreds of thousands of entries created by thousands of people since just January 2001. Originally, it was supposed to be a trusted encyclopedia called Nupedia written only by people with PhD’s. Wikipedia was an adjunct project that eventually became the main event, a sprawling public site that covers everything from Bayesian probability to cultural imperialism — with versions in dozens of languages.

For journalists enthralled by Wikipedia, there’s still one drawback: lack of accountability. The Boston Globe’s Hiawatha Bray recently spelled out the problem in a story on Wikipedia. “Old-school reference books hire expert scholars to write their articles, and employ skilled editors to check and double-check their work,” Bray wrote. “Wikipedia’s articles are written by anyone who fancies himself an expert.”

Proponents of Wikipedia take less of a black-and-white view, noting that most of its content is reliable but your mileage may vary. Jimmy Wales, founder of the Wikipedia and director of the Wikimedia Foundation (the non-profit that runs the site), told me that the “average level of content is quite high, but our open editing process means that people need to be judicious and sensible.”

In other words, a journalist might be able to trust some or even most of the content on Wikipedia, but double-checking information is a must.

Elizabeth Lawley, assistant professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology’s Department of Information Technology, believes in the collective power of wikis, but is not sure that the removal of distinct personalities will work in a journalistic setting.

“I believe it matters who said what, and when,” Lawley wrote on Corante’s Many 2 Many blog. “That context provides enormous ‘metadata’ for me personally. And the wiki explicitly strips that. I understand why, and I do recognize its benefits. But I’m still uncomfortable with it.”

More likely, wikis will be accepted into the newsroom if they are for private collaboration among staffers. But even in this case, journalists might well be frustrated if they have to search through a revision history to find out just who changed their words of perceived wisdom.

TECH TALK: An Entrepreneur’s Growth Challenge: Execution

Roadmap, People and Partnerships are the three building blocks. They are the foundation for the fourth key element of growth Execution.

Every step that we take opens us up to new avenues, new choices. The path that we weave through this maze of choices is what execution is about. For us to make the right selections, we need to crystal clear focus on the things we need to do and which are important and the ones which we should not do and which are unimportant. There is always the tendency of trying to do little or too much we need to maintain just the right balance. Otherwise, we will either end up doing too little and being too late, or overextending limited resources and spreading ourselves too thin.

These will not be easy decisions to make. The complexity of what we are trying to do in Emergic is far greater than what I have tried to do in the past. We are trying to build out multiple elements of the new computing ecosystem simultaneously. One criticism that has been voiced in discussions I have had with people is that while the vision is compelling and exciting, the operational challenges are immense and compounded by the fact that we are trying to do too many things.

I often think about this. My belief is that in the past with only the backend server software which worked on the local network, we did not go far enough. Unless we are able to address the issues of affordability, desirability, accessibility and manageability in computing on both the hardware and software fronts at the same time, we will not create a winning solution. What we have to do is to think of the various elements that we are working on as small pieces, loosely joined.

Going ahead, we have to execute well. Seemingly small mistakes can make things very difficult for growing businesses. If we do make mistakes (and we will), we have to recognise them quickly and do course correction. There will be parallelism and multi-tasking inherent in much of what we are doing, so the challenge of getting things right is even greater. Even as we start, I know we will get some things wrong but as long as we get the important things nearly right, we will do well.

As I think back, I realise that managing growth from 20 to 100 people is perhaps the toughest challenge of them all. There are many things that are changing simultaneously and this is where the risks of going wrong are the greatest. But if this executional chasm can be crossed, then the sky is the limit.

As I look ahead, I can sense an inner excitement similar to the one I felt a decade ago when I started on IndiaWorld. The past few years have been of learning and education, and now I am ready for the road ahead. For me as an entrepreneur, the journey has its own rewards. The magnitude of what we are trying to do is immense. It can be a revolutionary creation if we can make it work the way we think it should. But as in all start-ups, statistically, we have the odds stacked against us. But that is what makes it so exciting. For an entrepreneur, it is all about building what’s in the mind’s eye a vision of tomorrow that few others can see today. Sometimes, it is too early. At other times, is it too late. We’ll see what happens with Emergic.