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#codecon and reflecting on generational changes

RecodeAttending the <code/conference> (#codecon) this past week turned out to be a remarkable experience, even more remarkable than I expected. The generational shift in our computing experience from desktop to mobile, from software to services, and from hundreds of millions to trillions was on display through the interviews with a dozen industry CEOs.

This post will explore this generational change through the speakers at the conference. Before diving into the details of each session, we will explore this change and the implicit context.

Generational Change

Reflecting on the interviews and demonstrations as well as the “lobby chatter” is a key part of learning by attending. I’ve always viewed this conference and predecessor D Conference as the most relevant conferences for learning about the strategic drivers of our industry. You can read my report from last year here. Writing these reports is part of the learning for me and reading the old reports lets me checkpoint on my own learning and journey.

If you move beyond the insights from any single speaker or the announcements at the event (all were widely reported by re/code and others and new this year by re/code partner CNBC), one theme just keeps coming back to me—the vast difference in tone and content between the incumbents and the challengers, between legacy and disruptors, between the old guard and the new, or whatever labels you want to use. We talk all the time about the transition of our industry from one era to another (and don’t forget the term “post-PC” was first used in this very forum) and the conference provides a microcosm expressed through leaders of these transitions taking place.

There is a vast difference in tone and content between the incumbents and the challengers, between legacy and disruptors, between the old guard and the new.

The transition is in full force. This does not mean by definition that all existing companies will lose and only new companies will win. Quite the contrary, the fact that these changes are now visible to all makes the creation, purchase, and use of new products and technologies evidence of the transition, as well as opportunity to create new plans and adjust. The mobile internet is causing the transition but also making the communication of that very transition much more transparent, which is unlike the progressive unveiling that characterized the mainframe to mini to PC transition.

Are the new companies doing enough to transition customers as well as their own business to new paradigms? How much should new companies bridge from existing solutions or should they expect a wholesale change from customers? Is there an understanding of the existing complexities of the real world?

Are the incumbents changing enough to build new products and business that reflect the new generation? Are they trying too much to “thread the needle” and incrementally step to a new context by maintaining status quo or “repotting the plants”? Is there an understanding of the complexities of existing solutions?

The puts this "generational" change out there for us to experience through the always challenging, yet always consistently even-handed questioning (interrogation) from Walt and Kara (and a great addition this year were interviews featuring seasoned members of the re/code team).

Context (is everything in business)

The attendees (in the audience) are people who have worked in the industry often times since the earliest days. The interviewers are professionals who cover deeply the industry and the subjects. It is hard to imagine creating a more informed or tougher environment. That’s the challenge.

Yet, industry leaders both line up and are obliged to appear (for the most part). Because the environment is so challenging and widely covered, leaders gain a great deal of credibility by standing up to the challenge.

Leaders gain a great deal of credibility by standing up to the challenge of appearing.

The conference takes place the same time every year, whether a company has something to announce or not. For example, last year attendees were frustrated because Apple’s Tim Cook did not announce anything. This is an unfair way to look at the “performance” of a participant. This conference has an amazing audience, but it is also an “uncontrolled” environment so announcing a new product is not without risk and not without huge upside (Disclaimer: I’ve been part of several product announcements/interviews at this forum). Apple, along with many companies, has a tried and true approach to announcing new things as we will see next week.

What is most interesting about the forum, however, is that the format and depth of the dialog allows for a strong “how did we get here” or “how are you wrestling with challenges” discussion. This is not a one-way speech or a forum where talking points go unchallenged. That is in a sense what separates the men from the boys so to speak.

When speakers prepare for the interview, especially at larger companies, folks in communications prepare talking points, responses to tough questions, anecdotes, and even jokes. This is a forum where this can take on “Presidential debate” levels of preparation. The challenge is that everyone in the audience and certainly the interviewers are all well-versed in these techniques. For the presenters, all of that over-preparation cycles through your mind during the tough questions and unpredictable questions from the audience. This is a tough environment.

When speakers choose not to say anything of depth or the answer is clearly a prepared message, you can almost feel the energy in the room drain. There is a collective sense of a missed opportunity to learn more among attendees.

When speakers choose not to say anything of depth or the answer is clearly a prepared message, you can almost feel the energy in the room drain.

Too many people focus on CEOs evading questions about the next big deal or the features/availability of the next product. I don’t think that is a way to evaluate speakers and in almost all cases the interviewers ask a question like this one time often make a joke and move on.

Reporters have an obligation to ask or they look like they are not doing their job. Speakers have an obligation to acknowledge such a forward-looking, material statement and move on. There’s a big caveat to this and where I wanted to share my own learning, my own journey. I believe when it comes to challenges and strategy, CEOs specifically and companies in general can and should do more to inform the dialog. The way I would say this is that if there is something out there that everyone knows to be a fact and the speaker knows to be a fact and everyone knows everyone knows, then talk about it. By not talking about it, the conventional wisdom becomes the reality and the conventional wisdom is often wrong and always incomplete.

I have personally experienced this in the transition from Windows Vista to Windows 7. “Everyone” knew something was up with Vista and certainly Microsoft knew, but no one was saying anything. The result was a strong desire to know the next features of Windows, which was the only thing that folks knew to ask. It served no one to talk about the features of the next product but it also served no one to pretend everything was going well. I missed a big opportunity and looked foolish in a very early interview I did with a (now) re/code reporter. I followed the tried and true approach of the incumbent which is to say nothing, redirect, and so on. See several thousand words without saying anything appear here, from 6 years ago this week.

It turns out that in a world of global instant communication, transparency, open source, platform shifts, and so on that the story about the products, the strategy, and more can come to define efforts more than folks think. This isn’t always the case because business is a social science, but by and large what distinguishes the way the PC era evolved from the way the mobile era is evolving is a vast difference in the flow of information and pace of change. Corporate communications and the leadership approach need to adapt to this era. Recognizing this one thing we did on the above transition in Windows was start blogging about the “why” of the product long before the release, which to this day was a unique level of transparency (and also a huge challenge).

The generational change taking place now is challenging large companies more than ever before. Technology companies are seeing their investments and assets have faster lifecycles and shorter lifespans. They should address head on the challenges of these timescales and commitments. Business approaches are also being challenged and everyone knows this on all sides, but not talking about the challenges means everyone just assumes how things will evolve, and collectively everyone can’t be right.

These changes are also pushing and pulling customers more than ever before. As individual consumers we invest a little bit in a new phone or tablet and maybe a gadget and services here and there. Some of these pan out and some don’t. But large companies looking to define themselves in a new era of mobility, bring your own devices, cross-organizational boundaries, and cloud need much more information and a clearer understanding of what and why things have transpired like they have. Discussing the rationale behind choices provides much more context for customers making bets and allows a much more open dialog to compare and contrast choices. This goes way beyond features and gets to the strategy, learning from the past, direction for the future–it is a fine line.

It is too easy to fall back to wanting to know the next products and features. Companies still have secrets. That’s what defines a company relative to competition. As Jeff Bezos commented recently, “sure, I’d like to know Apple’s product roadmap”. To interpret the need for openness as a public roadmap or feature list misses the point—what was missing from the incumbent perspective was a view of what has transpired over the past 5 years and with that understanding a view of what could provide more understanding of how investments are moving forward.

The real question is if incumbents are going to change enough, fast enough, and in a sense disrupt themselves and do so with a clear understanding of what has transpired in the past few years. Or will they take on all the characteristics of “Innovator’s Dilemma” and operate hoping incremental change dampens any effect of big transitions will allow them to weather the storm and return to normal.

To see how significant this transition is, I think it is best to start with Mary Meeker’s always informative “Internet Trends 2014”. The complete report is available and so is the video. There were many interesting data points—the rise of China, the conversion of smartphones from feature phones, the move of OS platforms to Silicon Valley companies, messaging, and more. One slide that sums up the transition along with the challenge showed the growth of tablets relative to PCs with the title “Tablet Units = Growing Faster Than PCs Ever Did…+52%, 2013”.

 

Tablet growth relative to PCs

Because business is a social science and because there are many ways to look at data, no doubt some will challenge this data or conclusions. In fact, IDC just revised their tablet numbers down. Some feel that Tablets are reverting to their role as “media consumption” or lightweight computing devices. That I’m writing this on a tablet (yes one with a keyboard, but one with LTE, 10 hour battery life, weighs nothing, B5 size, etc.) provides my own anecdote about where things are heading.

This growth will change. It might sputter and then increase. There’s no doubt tablets are overtaking notebooks in terms of unit volumes. They are definitely not taking over all notebook workloads. But that would be like saying the growth of email was irrelevant to word-processing because it ignores the growth of the pie and shift in total volume to the new technology. As Steve Jobs said on stage at this conference, the software will catch up. This is happening. Despite what people might think, large numbers of attendees had their tablets at the conference and they were being “productive”.

Just as mainframe companies attempted to point out the shortcomings of PCs as servers, pointing out the shortcomings of tablets is not helpful, especially as tablets continue to gain more and more features of laptops while maintaining their unique characteristics (lightweight, fanless, quality over time, connectivity, reliability, security, apps, etc.)

One more slide from Mary sets the context that dominated the divergence of incumbents and disruptors and that was the view of the market size of each generation of computing, “Each New Computing Cycle = >10x > Installed Base Than Previous Cycle.”

Each New Computing Cycle = >10x > Installed Base Than Previous Cycle

“More than just phones” might lump too many devices into the last data point for some wishing to make the point that things are not changing so much. Let’s be clear—many mainframes still run the most critical systems of the world (I was in a briefing with an insurance company last week that wanted to hire me because I happened to know PL/1!). Today’s laptops have massive utility that isn’t being replaced overnight and probably won’t ever be “replaced”. That’s the Innovator’s Dilemma argument that does not equip either product developers or customers to innovate and prosper during these cycle changes.

Once you get beyond the specifics of what is coming next, which no one should be obliged to answer at #codecon, the dialog that gets to the heart of what is going on is worth having. What was missed? What was learned? What was tried? What did you think of what was tried? What is being done differently? How are big technology changes being thought of in isolation? Relative to existing investments? What point of view does a company have? What led the new company to be formed? What is different about investments being made? How do customers cope with change?

These questions and how they were answered made for quite a contrast between incumbents and disruptors. If you’re interested in per-speaker reports or the full interviews for any of them, please see the re/code site. My intent is not to summarize the sessions but to reflect on the sessions through this lens of forward leaning versus backward looking.

Incumbents

The incumbents of Microsoft, Intel, Comcast and Wal-Mart had a common theme which is that they each face significant challenges in the technology platforms and business models that brought them wildly successful. At the same time, each in my view missed an opportunity to say how they intend to change. In a sense, each asked us to leap to a future with them in leadership but without the detail to support that assertion.

It is key to understand that it is incredibly important for an industry to have large and healthy players operating at scale. In many ways, the startups we love serve as disruptive R&D for larger players and a healthy M&A pipeline is critical for all as evidenced by some of the recent mega-deals and dozens of smaller ones all aimed at the long term evolution of core products.

It is incredibly important for an industry to have large and healthy players operating at scale

Yet, many investments, particularly in hardware and manufacturing, require billions of dollars that can only be made by large companies. Incremental improvements we come to take for granted such as doubling of capacity, improved batteries, thinner devices, more pixels, massive data centers, and so on can only come from huge scale and well-functioning large companies.

At the same time, one look at Meeker’s slide above and one can’t help but notice that these large companies come to define the cycles she represents. Is that a convenient way we recall changes or were strategic changes part of a causal relationship? Don’t be so quick to judge. There’s a significant amount of subtlety and nuance.

Let’s look at some of the specific speakers.

Microsoft’s Satya Nadella and Intel’s Brian Krzanich both sit in the hot seat (the red chairs that define the #codecon set) with the same question so it is worth considering them together—what happened with respect to mobile and tablets. Satya talked about wishing to have taken the bet to build hardware all the way, sooner. Intel talked about the challenges in manufacturing at 14nm, not having the right product relative to power and the need to do better at 10nm. Mossberg kicked off Brian’s interview with the observation that he’s using a laptop half as frequently and using ARM based products a great deal. In a moment of candor, Brian talked about how many at Intel wished that the march towards mobility would have stopped at Ultrabooks and that Intel lacked the right parts to do tablets, which many at Intel did not think tablets would break out beyond consumption. I felt Brian’s comments showed a good acknowledgement about why things didn’t happen. At the same time, collectively the view of a strategy in the near to medium term didn’t come through. In eerily similar approaches, both Intel and Microsoft looked to a future beyond phones and tablets to an internet of things or more personal computing as where they will see greater success. I left both of these sessions feeling there was more to be told about where things are right now and what will happen over the next year or two (again not the features but the strategy—Microsoft and tablets small and large, Intel and mobile or even Chrome and Android). It isn’t that nothing was said, it was that everyone knows where things are today and the speakers know everyone knows, and the upside to keeping things close to the vest seems minimal and equates to “go with the disruptors” at some level.

One must admit that the challenge faced by Wal-Mart’s Doug McMillon is even greater in this audience which has few Walmart regulars (note, I shop at Walmart). In particular, many in this crowd are on the leading edge of home delivery and uber-for-everything and so visiting stores is already a thing of the past. That said, so much of what was said about online commerce felt too much like an expected incumbent response. For example, the idea that the lines are blurring between ecommerce and retail or that it is really hard to measure ecommerce if a person looked up an item on their mobile device before coming to the store (I wondered if there really was a metric that tried to give credit internally to the ecommerce division if someone did that). Ultimately, Doug said “physical still matters and digital makes it more valuable”. Maybe, except the last morning of the show I ordered a wall mount for the Sonos speaker we received at the show (yes elite gifts are part of the elite show) and it beat me home. Yes that is a luxury good and more, but to put forward the notion that ecommerce is still an add-on to physical stores seemed tricky for me.

Comcast’s Brian Roberts not only faces the challenge of cord cutters represented in the audience or the prospects of dealing with questions on net neutrality, but also just the fact that a lot of people have a lot of less than positive feelings about the products and services Comcast offers. When you look at Comcast as an incumbent and consider things like Netflix, Hulu, cord cutting, and more as the disruptive force it is very tough to see the dialog Brian led as satisfying. My feeling was that there is a strong response to keep everything as it is, while putting forward a notion that things are improving.  There was a long demonstration of the X1 cable box. Yet in the same session when questioned about net neutrality, Brian said that it is too bad that Netflix should pay a cost of doing business as he has to pay for cableboxes. I think that they love the cablebox (evidence, it seems to be an incredible headache to get cablecards and very costly to switch to TiVo and the rent for cable boxes is pretty high). The fact that they spent 10 minutes doing a demo on the new platform seemed to indicate that—yet the platform has none of the elements of a modern platform relative to apps or openness as was asked by an attendee. The responses to questions about net neutrality seemed to show a strong desire to avoid change while at the same time not acknowledging a changing world and changing needs of what is going on relative to connectivity. The overall dialog around Netflix seemed harsh to me and it failed to consider just how much more pleasant (and modern) Netflix is as a consumer than the X1 experience shown. Disclaimer: I have had really significant problems with Comcast in our new place and having never used them before; this is my first time as a customer. As I have no choice for video or broadband, one could say it is challenging for me to be totally objective.

Each also stuck to revealing little, defending the status quo, and offering a view of the future that is the same but better.

Each of these CEOs and companies have enormously challenging jobs and situations. Having shareholders demanding consistent quarter by quarter results, customers who do not really want change from these service providers but seek change elsewhere, and massive organizations to change all make for the potential of no-win interviews. Yet, each also stuck to revealing little, defending the status quo, and offering a view of the future that is the same but better. My own experience and learning would offer than when facing massive disruptive challenges, engaging in the dialog serves all parties better even though the normal school of thought for the incumbent is to double-down, stick to talking points, and only reveal challenges through the lens of opportunity.

Disruptors

Several CEOs represented the leading edge of disruption. It is super easy to be a fan of disruption and to look at all that is going well with these leaders just as it is easy to look at all the challenges the incumbents face. At the same time, these disruptions are also representative of a new level of frankness and openness about what they face or have faced.

More than the great work these leaders represent, I think it is important to look at how each is communicating and participating in a dialog. One might suggest that when these leaders are under pressure or face challenges of being disrupted they will start to take on the characteristics demonstrated above. I don’t think that is the case, simply because several of these leaders have already faced (or are facing) these challenges in their business. While clearly disruptors have less to lose, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that some of these represent large public companies (not mega cap, but large) and all represent very large customer bases from consumer to enterprise.

It was exciting to see these leaders head to the future, demonstrate a unique point of view, and engage in a two-way dialog about where things are going

For me, it was exciting to watch these interviews and how these leaders took on their own challenges. It was also exciting to see these leaders head to the future, demonstrate a unique point of view, and engage in a two-way dialog about where things are going.

Let’s look at some of these speakers.

Uber’s Travis Kalanick is arguably the most used and mission critical service for the attendees. The love for the service runs deep. Equally deep is the love for how Uber is taking on the government in the regulation of taxis and ride sharing (along with Lyft, an a16z portfolio company). At the same time, Travis faces a lot of questions about his aggressive style and reputation. He didn’t hold back, characterizing the task ahead at Uber as “a political campaign, and the candidate is Uber and the opponent is an asshole named Taxi.” OK, probably a bit colorful. What I loved was how he embraced even the disruption to his own business. After seeing a truly autonomous car from Google the night before we heard the CEO of Uber telling us that self-driving cars are the future, not drivers. Considering that Uber is a marketplace for drivers, this embrace of your own disruption is great to see.

Most people expected a characteristically polite interview by Softbank’s Masayoshi Son-san, but were treated to candor and aggressiveness, though in a very polite way. This would be consistent with the amazing success Softbank and Yahoo BB had in Japan ten plus years ago bringing amazing broadband and low prices to a market easily dominate by the goliaths like NTT (the most visible building from the Shinjuku train station is the DoCoMo tower). Son-san told the story of starting Yahoo BB and “how they had: No experience, No technology, No capital. Just anger.” This was a true disruptor story, much like Uber’s story of realigning city government only at a national scale. While it was not so challenging to be candid about WiMax, Son-san was super clear about the failed technological approach. He was clear about the intention to go after broadband in the US with the same zeal he went after it in Japan.

Salesforce and Workday (Marc Benioff / Aneel Bhusri) together offered an incredibly clear view of disruption at the enterprise software level. If there’s one interview to watch, I would suggest this one because it has so much relevance to how software is made and brought to market from two CEOs who made and brought to market software in a previous generation. These are CEOs learning from their experience who have also engaged the marketplace differently as disruptors. There were many statements that are starting to seem less and less “bold” but nevertheless remain monumentally disruptive: “in a few years no one will run business software on premises”, “I run the company from a smartphone”, “if you’re going to build a cloud app you need to start from a clean sheet of paper—there’s no way around it”, “incumbents are holding on to the past and basically trying to monetize it”, “90% of the company can do all of HR on a smartphone” and so on. There were many profound elements of the dialog that revealed the depth of the strategic and technological shift these leaders are both creating and have experienced. For example, there was a description of competing with an incumbent like SAP who would go to a customer, negotiate a $40M deal to “upgrade” and then wait two years to get the latest features or start to use a SaaS model and the new features just show up. Yes there’s a ton of complexity in there and yes it is horribly disruptive to how businesses operate, but so was the introduction of the PC, client/server (upon which that $40M upgrade was based) and more. Finally, the discussion about being in a “post-server” world resonated with me as I just don’t see it as viable for companies to be building out their own data centers and this session provided a lot of evidence as to what these vendors are doing to make that a realistic assertion. From a format perspective I love the adjacency of these two and wish a couple of the incumbents were paired together.

Dropbox’s Drew Houston brought innovation, competition, and regulatory oversight into focus with his interview. This is another service that many people in the room not only use but rely on and that brings with it a degree of comfort and also a challenge in that the audience knows a lot about the services represented. Not content to simply reiterate what was previously known and said about the company, Drew talked about the genuine frustration he represents as a cloud provider learning about the revelation that the NSA tapped into cloud based services. It would have been easy to lay low but instead made the quip that the “NSA doesn’t send a muffin basket and say welcome”.

Netflix’s Reed Hastings represents learning and the learning from disruption incredibly well and can also be chronicled in his own appearances in the hot seat. Sometimes we forget that Netflix has been a public company for 12 years, to the day of this interview! For many of us it seems like ancient history that we used to get plastic discs in the mail and then return them Monday morning. Netflix is famously known for having disrupted itself and not with grace while on a path to streaming and today’s Orange is the New Black. I found the discussion looking backwards to missed opportunities and disruption absolutely fascinating. Reed talked about how the team would discuss “managing to the point of feeling like your skin crawled” and making decisions that were unbelievably difficult. While given the success right now, perhaps it is less difficult to look backwards at the challenges faced and mistakes made. It was amazing to hear this level of candor. Reed was even candid about something he said just a short time ago about the high price of Netflix stock which he said at the time was too high and represented a euphoria. In contrast to Comcast, Reed was much clearer about the net neutrality issues are playing out—he used a great example of Comcast trying to charge at both ends (both for the consumer and the internet service) by talking about the flow of money through the system. He offered an operational view of “strong net neutrality”. Putting aside the specifics of the issue, the tone of looking forward, candor about the past, expression of a clear point of view, and a view of delivering new products and services along with the inherent risks and challenges comes across as modern and consistent with a new style of leadership.

What comes next?

It might be too easy to read this and conclude big companies are legacy and being disrupted and new companies disrupt, but that would ignore two things.

First, this is a moment in time. While some would say disruption is akin to physics and must happen, there are dominant companies that reinvent themselves. Few even recall that IBM was close to bankruptcy when it reinvented itself from one dominant company to another, albeit in a very different way. And that reinvention progressed through nearly 20 years and returned 7X the broad stock market overall during that time.

Second, companies that disrupt are themselves prone to disruption down the road. We haven’t seen this dynamic play out yet for the companies here (though Netflix might be one). There is also a great deal of learning about how to reinvent and avoid the risk of being locked into a strategy and execution. Google doing the unthinkable of shutting down services or Facebook acquiring very large scale indirect competitors or technology complements are examples of a new generation of leaders acting differently relative to the potential disruption of core businesses.

Nothing is quite inevitable in business, but the potential to fall into familiar patterns is high.

Nothing is quite inevitable in business, but the potential to fall into familiar patterns is high. This past week at #codecon demonstrated the challenges and approaches to the core risk of the technology industry. In technology, the only thing you really do is monetize the work of the past and deliver innovation to the future. How leaders approach this reality is an evolving skill and #codecon allows us all to witness this evolution firsthand.

–Steven (@stevesi)

Written by Steven Sinofsky

June 1, 2014 at 11:30 am

Posted in posts, recode

Tagged with , ,

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