Wednesday, October 12, 2011

How Do You Know That's The Real Problem?

How Do You Know That’s the Real Problem?

Oct 12, 2011
When I was at Sun Microsystems, one of my favorite questions to a new systems engineer would be eight simple words: “How do you know that’s the real problem?”   

This question typically came about as preparation for an upcoming customer visit. The sales team might be bringing me in to discuss Sun’s future software and hardware directions under a non-disclosure agreement. The pre-briefing scenario would usually be the sales representative giving me the historical background of the account, how much business they are looking at doing with the customer this year, and the major hot buttons for this particular customer.  

The systems engineer would then give me the technical overview of the account. They might say something like, “They need new workstations because they cannot run their primary application fast enough.”  My next question would be, “How do you know that’s the real problem?” Often they would respond, “That’s what the customer told me.” My response would then be, “So, you really don’t know, but this is what the customer told you.”  The bottom line is that it was usually an opinion without any data to back it up. 

I am a huge believer in science and data. I am extremely leery when someone says that they “think with their gut.”  Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that the good or bad feeling in your gut cannot augment a decision. But when it goes over a very small percentage of the decision-making formula, especially in business, you are in trouble. In the purely personal realm, sometimes a gut feeling is all you need to realize a person or a particular situation is trouble with capital letters. In business, having the data to back up your decision should be the preferred option.

One of my favorite quotes is from Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, who famously said, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, just not their own set of facts.” The primary challenge, with any type of data, is always context. Politicians are great at using numbers without context. A famous quote that implies the importance of context is from President Reagan, who once said about economists, “trust, but verify.” That is the right path to take with customers as well. No one would question a customer in the way that I questioned a junior Sun systems engineer in the scenario above, but it is certainly within reason to ask the customer if it would be OK to take a closer look at the situation.

One of best pieces of advice comes from Albert Einstein, who said, “If I had one hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and only 5 minutes finding the solution.”  This is in line with the famous quote by Benjamin Franklin, the most brilliant American who ever lived in my biased opinion: “If I had 8 hours to cut down a tree, I would spend 6 of those sharpening my ax.”   

Both of those quotes have to do with allocating the right percentage of your time in dealing with a given situation. I am sure many of you can relate to the Einstein quote in regard to defining what the problem really is. How many times have you been in a meeting and someone raises their hand and asks, “Can we please define what problem we are really try to solve here?” It is interesting how often that is followed by prolonged silence.  

Another favorite story of mine involves speaker wire. A good friend of mine was convinced that he had to spend an ungodly amount of money on the T-Rex Super Shielded Mega Mother Speaker Wire for his home theater. I asked him, how do the little electrons know that this expensive speaker wire is so much better than unshielded? Has the vendor quantified the difference? More importantly, can you tell the difference? When I offered to bet him a $1,000 that he could not tell the difference with his ears, he decided to look into it. He went with unshielded speaker wire and is very happy today.

Let’s look at how MTConnect comes into play when a shop owner says, “I am looking at adding a third shift because we are not currently making our production schedule.”  

Again, a logical question might be: How do you know that's the real problem?

This is where MTConnect is elegant in its simplicity. For those of you new to MTConnect, here is a short primer. MTConnect can be thought of as the Rosetta Stone or Bluetooth for software applications. MTConnect is the protocol pipe that connects manufacturing equipment to software applications.    

For example, you would not go to your electronics store and buy just Bluetooth. Bluetooth is a technology that comes with your cell phone and your headset. Bluetooth is simply the protocol, or the rules of how these two devices will speak to each other, so you can tie your cell phone to your headset. MTConnect is simply that protocol that connects your manufacturing equipment to your software applications, such as monitoring software, your ERP system, or any other piece of software. Since MTConnect is an open and royalty-free protocol that uses proven Internet standards, it is absolutely brain dead easy for today’s software applications to speak to an MTConnect-enabled piece of manufacturing equipment.   

Monitoring applications that will provide real-time data on what is happening on your shop floor using the MTConnect protocol is the first step for this shop owner. The second step is getting that information integrated into that shop owner’s entire business. You might just find out that the real problem is that you do not have the data you need to make the business decisions to improve your shop or plant. This is where MTConnect comes in.

The best advice that I can give is to invest your time and sharpen your mental ax by coming and seeing, touching and learning how software applications and manufacturing equipment providers are using MTConnect to dramatically change manufacturing at the first-ever MC2 MTConnect: Connecting Manufacturing Conference in Cincinnati, Ohio, on November 8 to 10. Register today! 

Attending the NTMA Conference at The Broadmoor

I am here with Paul Warndorf attending the NTMA (National Tooling and Machining Association) Conference at The Broadmoor in CO Springs.

We are showing off MTConnect and talking about [MC]2 MTConnect Connecting Manufacturing Conference.

I called npg and said, "is the weather always this crappy here?"  :-)  Having dinner with Neil and Beth tonight at The Broadmoor.   Below is my cottage below the street light and the snow capped mountains in the background.

Above is a photo Neil Groundwater took while he and his wife Beth were taking a walk before we had dinner at The Broadmoor.

Photo npg took at the front of The Broadmoor.

Patent Trolls aka NPEs or Non Practicing Entities

I wear three hats in my professional life:
I have spent 33+ years in the computer industry, 23 years of which were at Sun Microsystems.  In that time period, the primary theme at companies that I have worked at has been around innovation.  I would argue that no company was more innovative than Sun Microsystems.

A very disturbing trend of late is the increase in what are called NPEs or Non Practicing Entities or Patent Trolls.    Wikipedia defines a patent troll as:

Patent troll is a pejorative term used for a person or company that enforces its patents against one or more alleged infringers in a manner considered by the target or observers as unduly aggressive or opportunistic, often with no intention to manufacture or market the patented invention.
 Here is another snippet from Wikipedia:

Patent troll "companies have no interest in using the patents... but instead hope to reap large sums of money from the lawsuits themselves."[32] This gives them an advantage over manufacturers since they are relatively immune to the typical defensive tactic large entities use against small patent plaintiffs, because the cost of litigation tends to fall more heavily on an accused infringer than on a plaintiff with a contingency-fee lawyer, and because trolls have an almost-unrestricted ability to choose their preferred plaintiff-friendly forums, most prominently the Eastern District of Texas.[21]
There are few things that are more innovation killing and job-killing than patent trolls.  

Here is some interesting insight (various snippets - please read entire post at from the smart folks over at on patent trolls:
 The PTO receives over 520,000 patent applications a year. That’s about 1,425 applications a day. The agency’s approximately 6,500 patent examiners are overburdened; on average each patent gets only about 16 hours of review. Virtually all experts agree that this is nowhere near enough time to properly assess a patent. More fundamentally, patent examiners are rewarded for processing applications – and the easiest way to clear a file is to approve a patent. The PTO’s examiners don’t get paid to say no. They’re incentivized to approve.

But there’s a third, more interesting reason so many people seek patents that have a high probability of being found invalid. As it turns out, invalid patents may be worthless as innovations, but they can be very nice bargaining chips.
Any patent the PTO grants enjoys a legal presumption of validity. To overturn this presumption, defendants in a patent infringement case must prove the patent’s invalidity by a high standard of “clear and convincing evidence.” It takes a lot of lawyer fees to do that. And the result is that defendants often pay rather than fight, even when they think they could ultimately have the patent invalidated. More than 97% of patent infringement suits are settled before trial.

The patent system exists to encourage people to invent – to add, in Abraham Lincoln’s words, “the fuel of interest to the fire of genius.” But as this post suggests, there’s a dark side to the patent system. Just as good patents advance innovation, bad patents retard it. And even bad patents can be valuable to a patent troll. Every penny that goes to license an invalid patent, or settle a meritless lawsuit, is a tax on innovators.

There are some groups that are looking out for what is best for the United States of America and one of these groups is the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF).  Something EFF is doing that I absolutely is EFF's Patent Busting Project!    As EFF describes this Patent Busting Project:

An EFF Initiative To Protect Innovation and Free Expression
Tired of bogus software patents? So are we! To combat these annoying and often dangerous legal weapons, EFF has launched the Patent Busting Project to take down some of worst offenders.

We need your help! Take a look at the Top Ten Most Wanted culprits on our list, and let us know if you have any leads on technology that predates them (called "prior art") that we can use to challenge their validity. Click on a patent to find out more.
Go get those damn patent trolls and PLEASE HELP EFF so we can save the United States of America for those true innovators who are the real job creators and not the bottom feeders of society like patent trolls!

Good News on Java's Future

I enjoyed this article at SD Times by Alex Handy titled: 

Top five cool things from Oracle OpenWorld / JavaOne

I thought the two pieces on JavaFX and the future of Java were particular good news:

"The future of Java
But the biggest news of all at the show was by far the well-laid plans for Java SE 8 and beyond. With JavaFX making it into the mix, and dozens of major features already being laid out for the next release, Java is back on track and advancing again, and in a much more open fashion.

Indeed, the JCP is in the midst of reforms that will require all working groups to have open mailing lists and to make their test code available to others interested in the process. Why, the JCP may even be tackling that nasty TCK issue sometime next year, but we'll see if that really happens.

In the meantime, you'd better study up on functional languages, as Java will be moving closer to them thanks to closures in OpenJDK 8. And for those of you in the Java EE world, Java EE 7 is expected to include provisioning features to make automatic scalability even easier.

And finally, for Java ME users, we learned that the future of that platform will be more strongly tied to the mainline Java SE releases. Instead of a separate executive committee and distribution, Java ME will now be a subset of Java SE, and all Java governance decisions at the JCP will flow from a single executive committee. Java ME and SE are, effectively, being merged. "

JavaFX 2.0
Another technology that seemingly got lost in the Oracle/Sun shuffle, JavaFX is the long-awaited UI scripting layer for Java. It's targeted as an RIA development platform and includes many features that are still only dreamed of in standard Java, such as built-in media streaming support and links into graphics accelerators.

But for users, JavaFX is probably the best thing to happen to Java since SWT. It's a flashier, snazzier interface layer for Java applications, which have always lacked a bit of panache when compared to native applications. And for the zealots among you, JavaFX will soon be open-source technology as well when it's pushed into the OpenJDK 8 specification. If all goes well, JavaFX 3.0 will be part of OpenJDK 8 and Java SE 8."