El Torero: Business Lessons from a Bullfighter

August 19, 2010 Leave a comment

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My uncle, Jack Woodson, was a bull fighter. As in step into an enclosed space with a one ton horned animal and see who’s left standing at the end. As the story goes, Jack was a fan of Earnest Hemingway and had romantic notions of bull fighting. He was also something of a serial entrepreneur, but not necessarily a successful one. The two aspects collided sometime in the 60’s or 70’s, and he decided he wanted to find a way to promote legalized bull-fighting within the United States.

El Torero

His idea was this: take all of his 6’4” and close to 400 pounds pounds, wrap it in football pads, and place it in the middle of a ring with a bull. Then let the bull run over you. Again and again. Finally, when the bull had exhausted itself and was barely able to stand, you could approach it, punch it between the eyes and knock it out fairly easily.

He took the idea so far to try and build a bullfighting promotion business, getting investor help to rent the Astrodome in Houston to hold a bullfight. This was expected to be a huge windfall of money and exposure. And as the legend goes, he made all of this happen. He staged a legal, non-lethal bullfight with himself getting run over by the bull and him eventually knocking it out.

Except that only maybe 100 people came to the 60,000 seat venue to witness it. Money was lost, the business failed and Jack faded into the same anonymous existence that most of us live out.

Now, you may not believe this story is true. I’m not sure how much of it I believe myself, and for most of my life I was skeptical. Until one day a few years ago I visited my cousin, and sure enough, on the wall was a picture of my uncle, in football pads, exploding out of a 3 point stance, about 3 feet from colliding with a bull at full charge.

I’ve thought about the audacity of this idea, and wondered how it didn’t work. I mean, if Jackass can become a successful franchise and Johnny Knoxville a household name, why not Jack? Was he just before his time? Probably. But there is probably more to it than that. Here are the lessons I take out of my uncle’s legend.

Lesson 1: Persevere

If you are smart and just hang in there, you have a chance to outlast something with 2 or 3 times your size and force. That is what my uncle did with the bull — he let it exhaust its momentum while saving his own. Then when the bull was weakened, he would take it down. There is definitely a lesson there.

But did he persevere enough with his business? I’m not sure. He definitely had one big shot, it missed, and there were not more attempts. Given the hazardous nature of what he was doing, that is probably for the best. But to succeed in business, you are going to have to be able to take a negative response and make it a learning experience instead of a defining failure.

Lesson 2: A Good Idea is not Enough

This was a great idea, but that only took it so far. No one knew about it. Only a hundred people or so witnessed the event. Its as if it didn’t happen. You have to have a solid plan to get your audience involved or you will fail.

Lesson 3: Know Your Weaknesses

My uncle could create the event and raise the necessary money, but he couldn’t get enough people motivated to buy a ticket and come to the event for it to be a viable business idea. If he had realized this, he could have partnered with someone who could provide those skills. It might have been the difference between failure and success.

Lesson 4: Make Calculated Risks

Jack made a huge gamble with all of his resources in one domed-stadium basket. It didn’t work, and there was nothing left over to refine the idea into something viable. If you’ve got only one shot, you need to make sure your aim is true. Take the time to vet the concept, refine it and make sure you’ve put the odds in your favor before pulling the trigger.

Lesson 5: Start Small & Build Up

Jack tried to play in the big leagues before spending any time in the minors. Had he started small and worked the idea, the ramifications of “failure” would have been much less. Unsuccessful attempts would have been probings helping to determine a correct course instead of a huge, misguided leap that doomed the business. Once the idea was refined and proved, then resources could have been thrown behind it full force.

Thanks, Jack

My uncle Jack was quite the character, and I remember him fondly. He was a great guy with a big heart. He may not have achieved the business success he was seeking with his idea, but he did leave a legacy of love for family and friends that few could match.

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The Right Tool for the Job

August 13, 2010 1 comment

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Why do companies end up choosing the wrong technology?

In the technology world we are exposed to so many different frameworks and platforms that it is hard to decide what to learn or recommend to solve a problem.  In fact there are so many different tools available to build software that one individual can’t know them all.  So how do companies end up with their chosen software stacks?  The following are a few examples I’ve seen:

  • Legacy, Legacy, and Legacy – Sometimes you run into places where software needs were created at the dawn of software time.  The needs were great and the primordial software soup kept getting built higher and higher.  At the time there were no other options and companies greatly benefitted from business process speed-up technology brought.  Jump to now.  Everything currently happening in these companies revolves around the legacy technologies.  They are retooling, retrofitting, and doing whatever they can to keep the ancient software pyramids from crumbling.
  • My buddy or nephew said this technology is “the bomb” – These are companies where the upper elect few in the organization have decided to listen to friends or family rather than reason.  Unless your buddy or family member has a lot of experience building enterprise software solutions, you may want to think twice before implementing their ideas.  Think of it like a judicial trial.  If you are on trial for robbing a bank (which of course you didn’t do), you can either have your buddy represent you or hire a high priced lawyer.  After all your friend did see “My Cousin Vinny” and it all worked out ok so what can go wrong?  Remember that companies are on trial for maintaining their bottom line.  Sometimes it’s worth paying the high priced lawyer for advise.
  • My programmers only know X, Y or Z technology – This kind of ties back into the Legacy point.  Sometimes your shop needs overhauling.  Just because you are setup to build software in a certain way doesn’t mean you should do that from now until forever.  Think if Ford never upgraded or retooled their assembly lines.  I’m sure the model T would be as successful and competitive now as it was from day 1.  Wrong!  You might conclude: I may have to let some dead weight go.  This definitely isn’t a fun option so offer education, conferences, or other means to get your staff trained for the latest and greatest.  Those that want to stay on top of things generally will do so on their own anyways (companies and individuals).  This is a good indicator of individual performance and drive in your organization.
  • Tradition and Fear of Change – This is probably the most common scenario I come across.  Once people get used to the way the ship runs it is extremely hard to get that ship turned around.  This is human nature right?  It can be hard and painful to learn new things.  It is much easier to coast along.  Unfortunately if you entered the software world with the desire to learn one thing and be set for the rest of your life, you are in the wrong field.  Software technology is one of the fastest paced industries around.  Think how far the internet has come since 1995.  Frankly it is staggering.

So how do companies choose?

Like the knight in Indiana Jones and the Holy Grail, you should choose carefully.  You have lots of options so get as many industry and technology experts to weigh in their opinions.  Then see if there is a general trend.  You might have to pay for opinions and consulting.  You might have experts on your staff.  You may have connections with other businesses doing similar things.  Observe, gather, and decide.

Whatever you decide, don’t have a heart attack when you see the sticker price.  Think about software long term.  And when I say long term I mean from 1 to 5 years.  How much will it be to maintain?  How much will it be to enhance?  If I spend all that money now on the big sticker price will it save me in the end?  Don’t overpay for solutions and definitely don’t underpay.  I’ve had several clients come back to me after choosing a cheaper firm or contractor only to have us rebuild it the correct way because the cheaper firms never delivered.  By that time they’ve spent 1.5 times more than our original bid.  Talk about a bummer.

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Categories: Business, Technology

Staying on top of the heap (relative understanding)

August 11, 2010 Leave a comment

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One of the biggest challenges technology professionals face is staying on top of the quickly changing technology landscape. While there are some tried and true technologies that aren’t going anywhere soon (like SQL), you can bet every other professional out there knows these as well. So how do you keep up with change? Here is one technique I use that helps me a great deal.

Change is something we should know a lot about. A whole school of thought has developed around the inevitability of change at the project level. But change is just as ubiquitous at the industry level, and not everyone gets it. Businesses face new problems, technologies emerge to better handle them, and IT professionals must adapt and become proficient at these or have their value in the marketplace diminished.

One technique I’ve used to stay abreast of technology is relative understanding. My definition for this is that you can understand something most easily through comparison to something known.

For a trivial example, take driving a car where your experience is with automatic transmissions. You would have spent time learning five things:

  1. A key turned in the ignition switch starts the car
  2. The steering wheel controls your direction
  3. Stepping on the gas peddle accelerates.
  4. Gear shifting happens automatically when you accelerate
  5. Stepping on brake slows and eventually stops you.

If faced with learning how to drive a car with a standard transmission, you have to know five things:

  1. A key turned in the ignition switch starts the car
  2. The steering wheel controls your direction
  3. Stepping on the gas peddle accelerates
  4. To shift gears you need to press the clutch while manipulating a lever.
  5. You need to keep the clutch pressed while idling
  6. Stepping on brake slows and eventually stops you.

Here, it is easy to see that the knowledge needed to drive cars with automatic and standard transmissions are virtually identical. You already know most of what you need to know to drive a standard. All you really need to spend time learning is:

  1. Gear shifting does not happen automatically in a standard like it does in an automatic
  2. In a standard, you press the clutch and manipulate a lever to change gears.
  3. In a standard, you keep the clutch pressed while idling

Recognizing this is more difficult when facing complex tasks that may be abstract in nature (technology oftentimes) or large in scale (like an enterprise business system). So when I approach something new, I start asking myself “What do I know that shares characteristics with this?”  When learning Ruby as a Java expert, for instance, I quickly understood that I didn’t need to relearn every operator, flow control statement, or language feature to be productive. What I needed to know is “How is Ruby different from Java?”

So what do you think? Do you use relative understanding? Is it a conscious process? What are some ways you may have used it in your professional or personal life?

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