I spent some time in the Silicon Valley last week and again noticed two prevailing behaviors that are fairly common in the technology world. I’ll pass them along, and include a couple thoughts on how best to deal with them when they arise.
The first is the tendency to give old ideas new names and pass them along as a groundbreaking innovations. Many years ago, when mainframes were the center of computing, a new architecture emerged called the three tiered client server model. In short, the database, business logic, and user interface were separated from one another. The physical manifestation of this were databases, servers, and clients. That model has more or less held true over the past few decades, but there is a constant shift of power and delivery between them.
The same is true for delivery methods (on-premise vs off-premise) and development (on-shore vs. off-shore).
Within these simple constructs the technology industry shifts constantly. Off premise software delivery rules the day for the moment, and there has been more on-shore development lately after a huge rush to go off-shore a few years ago. Mobile phones are much more powerful today so you will see more business logic processed on the mobile device rather than the server. Then again, doing too much on the mobile device can create manageability issues given the fragmented nature of the Android market in particular. And so it goes.
While understandable, this leads to old concepts being warmed over with new names. When a company outsourced computing in the 80’s, they were thought to be using a “service bureau”. In the 90’s and early 2000’s, they would have viewed that service as “On Demand Computing”, or an ASP (Application Service Provider). Now, of course, the same model is called “The Cloud”.
To be sure, there are a number of differences as off-premise computing has changed over the years, but the tendency of the Valley to establish – and then collectively get behind – a new term can be miraculous, and if emphasized too much can set off an immediate bullshit detector with a customer.
I have found that it is best to acknowledge honestly what you’re selling, how it works, and downplay the importance of new terminology. In the case of cloud delivery, the key is manageability and flexibility, not throwing the word “cloud” around like it’s going out of style (which it inevitably will, only to be supplanted by a new term in it’s place).
This bouncing back and forth between two or three fixed points leads to a second behavior that is a much larger problem, specifically the religious zealot.
The valley has long been ground zero for emotional battles between any two plausible technology alternatives. Windows versus Unix was a famous one. iOS versus Android is a new one. They are called “religious wars” because the true believers won’t give an inch, are impervious to other points of view, and will argue with anyone who thinks differently (which does a disservice to many religious people, but there it is).
While I was in the Valley I was speaking with an entrepreneur who is leading a company that is creating an entirely new way to secure transactions in the mobile channel. Without getting into detail here, suffice it to say that there has been a traditional, more cumbersome/expensive way to do that, and he has created a new approach that is less cumbersome and less expensive. He was on a call with a global bank recently and at the very beginning of the call he was rudely confronted by a zealot, who essentially hijacked the call and declared the innovative approach to be a bad idea that he would oppose. Note that this was at the beginning of the call, before he had any real details about how it all worked. It was new, and he didn’t believe it could be done.
This reminds me of this bit of wisdom from Herbert Spencer:
There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance – that principle is contempt prior to investigation.
So what to do when confronted by the religious zealot? I usually have taken one of two tacts.
The first, if I think that there is some potential for intellectual flexibility on the part of the person I’m speaking with, is to use the “Feel/Felt/Found” sentence construction. If you aren’t familiar with it, it works like this: when someone raises a specific objection to what you’re selling – for instance they think it won’t scale to handle high volumes – you’re response isn’t “you’re wrong”. Your response is built around another customer you’ve worked with (preferably in their industry): “I know how you feel about that. Our customer ABC Company initially felt the same way, but after they tested it they found that it can scale to high volumes and it’s now in production”. The point here is to deflect the energy to a positive customer story, rather than a reprise of Monty Python’s Argument Clinic (pictured above).
The second approach is to work around the person (gently). Here’s another maxim I’ve always loved: You can’t reason somebody out of something they weren’t reasoned into in the first place.
The nature of buying cycles today is that they are more objective and standards-based than ever. I’ve heard of the days when deals were closed on a golf course, but to get a deal done today you will need to be more accurate in your ROI model than with your nine iron. There’s no sense in getting caught in a religious argument with someone who will not listen. Give people around him bits of information, provide small doses of customer success, and start looking for a champion in the organization that is open to new ideas. The religious curmudgeons eventually go away or at least are neutralized by more reasonable people around them.
Postscript: If you liked the Herbert Spencer quote, consider subscribing to this blog. New subscribers get free access to my ebook reflecting on some of my favorite quotes.