Tag Archives: technology

Another Perspective on Bad Software

By James Kwak

Last summer, Lawrence Baxter wrote these two posts about the toxic combination of bad software—actually, software in general, since no software system is perfect—and too-big-to-fail banks. Baxter knows whereof he speaks, as he was previously a technology executive at a very large bank. Here’s what he has to say about it:

I don’t care what a CIO or even a CEO might say:  if they claim that they can eliminate the real risk of such missteps, they just don’t know what they are talking about no matter how good they are.  And if such missteps are inevitable, then we simply cannot avoid the question whether the dangers posed by large, complex financial institutions and systems could outweigh their benefits.

Think about that the next time you hear some CEO talking about his company’s state-of-the-art technology.


More Bad Software

By James Kwak

Last week BATS admitted that its software suffered from systematic problems for four years, failing to obtain the best execution price for about 250 customers and costing them about $400,000. That should be a giveaway: no self-respecting company would break the law just to steal $400,000 from its customers. This was a programming error, pure and simple.

Also last week, a RAND study revealed that, despite billions of dollars of investment, electronic medical records have done little to reduce costs for healthcare providers. This is more complicated than a simple programming error. The issue here is that projected savings of this kind are typically based on some model of how operations will be done in the future, and that model depends on perfectly-designed software functioning perfectly. Medical records systems apparently fall far short of this ideal: as the Times summarized, “The recent analysis was sharply critical of the commercial systems now in place, many of which are hard to use and do not allow doctors and patients to share medical information across systems.”

The common feature to these stories, however, is that big, complex, business software is really, really important—and a lot of it is bad. In many niches, it’s bad because there aren’t that many companies that serve that niche, it’s hard for customers to evaluate software that hasn’t been delivered and installed yet, and there are all sorts of legacy problems, particularly with integration to decades-old back-end systems. And most of the incentives favor closing the sale first rather than making sure the software works the way it should.

I don’t have much to add that I didn’t put in my Atlantic column on a similar topic last summer. Nothing has changed since then. So I’ll stop there.

The Problems with Software Patents

By James Kwak

Charles Duhigg and Steve Lohr have a long article in the Times about the problems with the software patent “system.” There isn’t much that’s new, which isn’t really a fault of the article. Everyone in the industry knows about the problems—companies getting ridiculously broad patents and then using them to extort settlements or put small companies out of business—so all you have to do is talk to any random group of software engineers. And it’s not as much fun as the This American Life story on software patents, “When Patents Attack!” But it’s still good that they highlight the issues for a larger audience.

The article does have a nice example of examiner shopping: Apple filed essentially the same patent ten times until it was approved on the tenth try. So now Apple has a patent on a universal search box that searches across multiple sources. That’s something that Google and other companies have been doing for years, although perhaps not before 2004, when Apple first applied. There’s another kind of examiner shopping, where you file multiple, similar patents on the same day and hope that they go to different examiners, one of whom is likely to grant the patent.

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The Future According to Facebook

By James Kwak

From the Times:

“Doug Purdy, the director of developer products, painted Facebook’s future with great enthusiasm . . . One day soon, he said, the Facebook newsfeed on your mobile phone would deliver to you everything you want to know: what news to digest, what movies to watch, where to eat and honeymoon, what kind of crib to buy for your first born. It would all be based on what you and your Facebook friends liked.”

Does that sound to you like a good thing? Even assuming for the sake of argument that Facebook does not let commercial considerations interfere with that “newsfeed” (and we know it already has, with Sponsored Stories), or otherwise tweak its algorithms to influence what you see:

  • First, do you really want your view of the world shaped by your friends? I mean, I like my friends, but I don’t count on them to, for example, tell me which NBER working papers are worth reading, let alone what crib to buy. (In Facebook’s theory, my friends are the people with similar tastes to mine, but that’s not how it works in the real world. For example, I liked Laguna Beach, and most of my friends thought were horrified to find out. In reality, you have plenty of friends with different tastes from yours, and that’s a good thing. This is why Netflix ratings work better than Facebook friends.)
  • Second, doesn’t that seem like a terrifying vision of the future? It’s kind of like 1984, except kindler and gentler, because Big Brother has been replaced by the most effective form of peer pressure ever invented. At the same time, humanity has splintered into millions of tiny (though overlapping) tribes, each with its own version of the Internet and hence its own set of facts.

Facebook’s Long-Term Problem

By James Kwak

Facebook went public a week ago, to great embarrassment. NASDAQ creaked under the strain and, more important, the price dropped from an offer price of $38 to as low as $27 over the next week as investors decided that Facebook wasn’t so exciting now that anyone off the street could buy it.

In the long run, this could become a footnote. (Remember all the criticism of Google’s IPO?) With over $200 million in profits per quarter, Facebook’s P/E ratio is still less than 100, which isn’t bad for an Internet company that dominates its market and hasn’t fully opened the advertising spigot yet.

In the long term, Facebook’s ambition is to succeed Google (or Apple, depending on how you see it) as the dominant company on the Internet. And that’s where its real problems lie.

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My Daughter Will Be CEO of the World’s Most Valuable Company Someday

By James Kwak

At least, that’s the impression I get from reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, which I finally finished this weekend. It’s not a particularly compelling read; it basically marches through the stages of his professional life, which is already the subject of legend, so there isn’t much suspense. I fear that it will inspire a new generation of corporate executives to imitate all of Jobs’s personal shortcomings—but without his genius.

The picture you get from the book is basically that Steve Jobs acted like a five-year-old for his whole life. He could be wrong about some basic, uncontroversial fact yet insist stubbornly that he was right. He divided the world into things that were great and things that were terrible, and his classifications could be arbitrary. He was an obnoxiously picky eater, constantly complaining about his food and sending it back. He threw epic tantrums that only a CEO (or a five-year-old) could get away with.

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Stock or Cash?

By James Kwak

I’m sure many of you saw the article featuring David Choe, the artist who painted the walls of Facebook’s first offices and received stock that now could be worth $200 million. Nice story. I was thinking, though: why was Facebook paying its vendors with stock?

I understand what you pay your early employees with stock: (a) you have to in Silicon Valley and (b) you want their fortunes aligned with those of the company. Outside board members also will often demand stock. But in most circumstances, you should pay your vendors with cash.

Giving a vendor stock instead of cash is equivalent to raising capital from that vendor—at the existing valuation. When you’re an early-stage startup, you want to raise as little money as possible, at as high a valuation as possible—because the whole point of the startup is that it should be getting much more valuable over time. There are tactical considerations, like not letting your bank balance get too low (because then your VCs will have too much negotiating power). But in general, you want to delay raising more capital until you reach some milestone that will boost your valuation significantly.

Obviously, things turned out just fine for Facebook. But it doesn’t seem like the smartest business move.