A couple of years back I purchased an AI-powered energy monitoring system for my home.  It clips on to the power mains and monitors amperage/wattage.  I can view an a graph showing energy usage over time, which is really quite helpful to keep tabs on my electricity consumption at a time when electricity is expensive.

The AI part identifies what devices are drawing power in my house.  Based simply on wattage patterns, so they claim, the app will tell me this device is a light, that device is an air conditioner, and so on.  An electric oven, for example, consumes so much power and switches itself on and off in such a pattern that AI can identify it.  The company has a large database of all of the sorts of products that can be plugged into an outlet, and it uses its database to figure out what you have connected.

So far my AI energy monitor has identified ten different heaters in my house.  That’s really cool, except for the fact that I have exactly one heater.  When the message popped up saying “We’ve identified a new device!  Heater #10!”, I must admit I wasn’t surprised.  It did raise an eyebrow, however, given that it was summer and over 100 degrees (38 C) outside.  At the very least, you’d think the algorithm could correlate location and weather data with its guesses.

Many “futurists” who lurk around Silicon Valley believe in a few years we’ll live for ever when we merge our brains with AI.  I’ve noticed that most of these “futurists” have no technological expertise at all.  Usually they’re journalists or marketing experts.  I, on the other hand, deal with technology every day, and it leaves me more than a little skeptical of the “AI” wave that’s been sweeping over the Valley for a few years.

Of course, once the “analysts” identify a trend, all of us vendors need to move on it.  (“SASE was hot last fall, but this season SSE is in!”)  A part of that involves labeling things with the latest buzzword even when they have nothing to do with it.  (Don’t get me started on “controllers”…)  One vendor has a tool that opens a TAC case after detecting a problem.  They call this something like “AI-driven issue resolution.”  Never mind that a human being gets the TAC case and has to troubleshoot it–this is the exact opposite of AI.  We can broaden the term to mean a computer doing anything on its own, in this case calling a human.  Hey, is there a better indicator of intelligence than asking for help?

Dynamic baselines are neat.  I remember finding the threshold altering capabilities in NMS tools useless back in the 90’s.  Do I set it at 50% of bandwidth?  60%?  80%?  Dynamic baselining determines the normal traffic (or whatever) level at a given time, and sets a variable threshold based on historical data.  It’s AI, I suppose, but it’s basically just pattern analysis.

True issue resolution is a remarkably harder problem.  I once sat in a product meeting where we had been asked to determine all of the different scenarios the tool we were developing would be able to troubleshoot.  Then we were to determine the steps the “AI” would take (i.e., what CLI to execute.)  We built slide after slide, racking our brains for all the ways networks fail and how we’d troubleshoot them.

The problem with this approach is that if you think of 100 ways networks fail, when a customer deploys the product it will fail in the 101st way.  Networks are large distributed systems, running multiple protocols, connecting multiple operating systems, with different media types and they have ways of failing, sometimes spectacularly, that nobody ever thinks about.  A human being can think adaptively and dynamically in a way that a computer cannot.  Troubleshooting an outage involves collecting data from multiple sources, and then thinking through the problem until a resolution is found.  How many times, when I was in TAC, did I grab two or three other engineers to sit around a whiteboard and debate what the problem could be?  Using our collective knowledge and experience, bouncing ideas off of one another, we would often come up with creative approaches to the problem at hand and solve it.  I just don’t see AI doing that.  So, maybe it’s a good thing it phones home for help.

I do see a role for AI and its analysis capabilities in providing troubleshooting information on common problems.  Also, data can be a problem for humans to process.  We’re inundated by numbers and often cannot easily find patterns in what we are presented.  AI-type tools can help to aggregate and analyze data from numerous sources in a single place.  So, I’m by no means saying we should be stuck in 1995 for our NMS tools.  But I don’t see AI tools replacing network operations teams any time soon, despite what may be sold.

And I certainly have no plans to live forever by fusing my brain with a computer.  We can leave that to science fiction writers, and their more respectable colleagues, the futurists.

I don’t know about the rest of the world, but here in America our police speak in a sort of code language.  Instead of saying “he got out of the car and walked away,” the police will say, “the subject exited the vehicle and proceeded on foot.”  It’s not that their language is any clearer–in fact it’s less clear.  When talking to each other, the cops like to use language like this because it seems to elevate them and make them sound more professional.

A friend of mine told me a story of his friend who had always wanted to be a cop, but was too much of a screw-up to make it to the academy.  Despite his failure he remained a police buff, perhaps a cop in his own mind.  This fellow witnessed a crime and the local sheriff showed up.  This non-cop started to describe the crime to the sheriff as cops do:  “The subject exited the vehicle and proceeded to commit a 4-15…”  The deputy cut him off and shouted, “speak English, boy!”  The poor police-wannabe never lived it down.

Corporatist-types have a language like this too.  Attempting to sound smart and professional, they speak in an often-inaccessible code language replete with b-school buzz words.  I must admit, as long as I’ve been in the corporate world, I’ve frequently been confronted by language that I simply couldn’t understand.

“We collaborated with engineering and cross-functional product managers across multiple time zones to groom and prioritize backlog to ensure efficient program delivery.”  Huh?  “We need to build a motion that creates value at scale.”  What? “The adoption journey enables us to innovate continuously.”  Speak English, boy!

Then there was this gem, from an MBA describing a customer problem:  “The customer is not in the mindset of extracting value from the product.”  A lot of words there.  How about three words:  “It don’t work.”  Or, “customer hates it.”  Oh no.   If the MBA spoke that way, he’d sound like he learned nothing at his prestigious business school.  Professionals speak professionally, you see.  If he spoke like a normal human being, some people might suspect he actually doesn’t really know anything.  Although to be honest, that’s exactly what I was suspecting when he started talking about mindsets.

We can all fall into this trap, I’m afraid.  I refused, for years, to use “ask” and “spend” as nouns, because they’re not nouns.  (I remember an internal thread at Cisco years back in which someone said, “shouldn’t we productize that?”  The snarky response came back from an engineer, “no because at Cisco we can’t turn nouns into verbs.”)  Alas, I’ve surrendered to the progress of business-speak and have replaced “request” with “ask.”  Saving one syllable with a frequently-used word has certainly given me hours back to do other things, don’t you think?

Technical people can certainly fall into this and we have our own jargon.  Some of it is necessary.  Here is a snippet of a Cisco doc:  “To overcome the limitations of the flood-and-learn VXLAN as defined in RFC 7348, organizations can use Multiprotocol Border Gateway Protocol Ethernet Virtual Private Network (MP-BGP EVPN) as the control plane for VXLAN. ”  This is wordy, and it is jargony.  That said, I can’t think of a better way to say it.  This sort of language is unavoidable for network engineers.

What I don’t like is technical people adopting MBA-speak because they’re surrounded by it.  “Our latest release provides flexible options to operationalize your business intent.”  Oh dear, even if you get into some good technical meat, you’ve lost me already.  The simple secret for me in winning Cisco Live Hall of Fame for my speaking is simply to state things in plain, clear language.  Technical, yes, but clear.

I used to think I was stupid, sitting in meetings in the corporate world and not understanding what on Earth people were saying.  Then I learned that in many cases, the speakers didn’t understand what they were saying either.  In the event that they actually do, a few pointed questions can usually cut through the fog of fancy words.  I’m convinced many of the mistakes made in the corporate world would never happen if people actually spoke like normal people.

If you feel tempted to obscure your language to sound like you’re oh-so-smart, remember the advice of the deputy sheriff:  Speak English, boy!

My blogging has been a little slow of late.  First there was Cisco Live.  Then there was the post-Cisco Live slump of not wanting to do anything.  Then there was the Cisco’s fiscal year-end crunch along with some very hot projects.  Then there was the departure of one of our key execs, and subsequent excitement.  Then one of my direct reports fell gravely ill, and there was both the stress of that along with the burden of picking up the management of his team.  Then there is simply the fact that, in order to blog, one has to come up with ideas.  And often I don’t have any.

So, let me get back into it with a bit of a diary entry.  Cisco Live was back in person for the first time since COVID began.  (And despite the rigid COVID protocols, tons of people got it, hmmm.)  Cisco Live, as I’ve said before, is not an easy show to put on.  It’s a massive effort, and we had not done it for two years.  Some of the key people who used to organize it left, and those of us who had done it before had some muscles atrophy.  It was not, shall we say, smooth.  But it happened, and seeing fellow network folks again in person made me realize many things.  Like the fact that I am the only male American network engineer who does not own a pair of cargo shorts.

It also made me remember the camaraderie of our industry, which is half the fun.  One of my hobbies is electrical work (not as dangerous as it sounds, usually), and there is a YouTube electrician who shot some videos at an electrician’s convention at Mandalay, the same convention center where we host Cisco Live.  I’m sure he hung out at the same places, felt the sense of camaraderie that only electricians have, etc.  There’s always a great feeling being a member of a club, whatever that club may be.  Speaking your own language, reminiscing on how things were in the past, and perhaps about how the youngsters never had to configure dialer maps or CSU/DSUs.  Our club, the people who gravitate towards network engineering, is a special bunch.  Perhaps that electrician can same the same thing.  Perhaps I’m a bit sentimental given one of my colleagues is ill.  All I can say is, I missed everyone and enjoyed being back in person.

For the first time in a while I failed to win a distinguished speaker award.  Cisco Live audiences humble the proud.  I delivered my session on the “CCIE in an SDN world”, but the old 90 minute session was crammed into 45 minutes because of the format change.  I couldn’t quite get the rhythm right.  Also, I had to deliver it at 8am.  I’m just not a morning person, and I’m zero for zero with DS awards delivering in that time slot.  I also had only 40 people.  I used to pack in 500.  It was a smaller show, but the audience was small nonetheless.  I was (finally) inducted into the Cisco Live Hall of Fame two years after I qualified, but perhaps I’m like an old movie star, washed up and waning in popularity.  I actually like how challenging the audiences are, however.  They keep you on your toes and force you to never get complacent.

Another question is whether the message resonates any more.  When I started doing this session, it was amidst the barrage of messaging from vendors (like us) that networking was changing forever, that AI and automation and intuitive networks would end network engineering as we know it.  My session basically said: well, it’s not quite the case.  You can automate, but good luck if you don’t understand what you automate.  Several years on, I wonder if the message is just so apparent that it’s not as needed as it was before.

Still, Cisco Live is my favorite place to present.  I do a ton of internal-facing presentations, many to executives, and each one is written, reviewed, and delivered by committee.  There’s no freedom in it at all.  The words and messages are tightly controlled.  What I love about Cisco Live is that, as an established speaker, I can pretty much present whatever I want.  I can build my own slides.  I don’t even need much of a review.

I’ll leave it there.  A rambling, diary post, perhaps not of a lot of interest.  At least it got me blogging again!

I’ve been a little busy lately, and frankly sometimes topics to write about come fast and furiously, sometimes they don’t come at all.

Meanwhile, I had a chance to sit down with the team over at the Art of Network Engineering podcast.  I was really enjoying their interviews with engineers around the industry and I not so shamelessly asked if I could be on.  I had a great time telling my story, and bantering with two of the AONE team.  They do great work evangelizing the industry.

Unfortunately my high-end mic didn’t pick up for some reason and my audio was not so good.  But it’s not terrible and hopefully the content is better than the sound.

I haven’t posted in a while, for the simple reason that writing a blog is a challenge.  What the heck am I going to write about?  Sometimes ideas come easily, sometimes not.  Of course, I have a day job, and part of that day job involves Cisco Live, which is next week, in person, for the first time in two years.  Getting myself ready, as well as a coordinating with a team of almost fifty technical marketing engineers, does not leave a lot of free time.

For the last several in-person Cisco Lives, I did a two-hour breakout on programmability and scripting.  The meat of the presentation was NETCONF/RESTCONF/YANG, and how to use Python to configure/operate devices using those protocols.  I don’t really work on this anymore, and I have a very competent colleague who has taken over.  I kept delivering the session because I loved doing it.  But good things have to come to an end.  At the last in-person Cisco Live (Barcelona 2020), I had just wrapped up delivering the session for what I assumed would be the last time.  A couple of attendees approached me afterwards.  “We love your session, we come to it every year!” they told me.

I was surprised.  “But I deliver almost the same content every year,” I replied.  “I even use the same jokes.”

“Well, it’s our favorite session,” they said.

At that point I resolved to keep doing it, even if my experience was diminishing.  Then, COVID.

I had one other session which was also a lot of fun, called “The CCIE in an SDN world.”  Because it was in the certification track, I wasn’t taking a session away from my team by doing it.  There is a bit about the CCIE certification, its history, and its current form, but the thrust of it is this:  network engineers are still relevant, even today with SDN and APIs supposedly taking over everything.  There is so much marketing fluff around SDN and its offshoots, and while there may be good ideas in there (and a lot of bad ones), nevertheless we still need engineers who study who to manage and operate data networks, just like we did in the past.

I will be delivering that session.  I have 50 registered attendees, which is far cry from the 500 I used to pack in at the height of the programmability gig.  Being a Senior Director, you end up in limbo between keynotes (too junior) and breakouts (too senior).  But the cert guys were gracious enough to let me speak to my audience of 50.

Cisco Live is really the highlight of the TME role, and I’m happy to finally be back.  Let’s just hope I’m still over my stage fright, I haven’t had an audience in years!

Two articles (here and here) in my Netstalgia series covered the old bulletin board system (BBS) I used to operate back in the late 1980’s.  It wasn’t much by today’s standards, but I thoroughly enjoyed my time as a Sysop (systems operator).  How the BBS died is a lesson in product management.

My BBS ran on an Apple IIGS with a 2400 baud modem and two external 30MB hard drives (the Apple II series did not support internal hard drives.)  Hard drives were ridiculously expensive back then, and I had acquired the cheapest hard drives I could buy, manufactured by a company called Chinook.  I never knew anybody else who had Chinook hard drives, probably for good reason.  I had some of the files backed up on floppy disks, but there really wasn’t a good way to back up 60 megs of data without another hard drive.

One day I had the BBS shut down for some reason or other, and I went to turn it back on.  When I flipped the switch on Chinook #1, the disk didn’t spin up.  It simply clicked.  Not knowing what to do, I decided to call tech support.  I had lost the manual, however, so I had to do what we did before the Internet:  I called information.  By dialing 411 on my phone, I was connected with an operator who helped me to hunt down the number.

A 30MB Chinook HD

I dialed the number for Chinook.  A nice midwestern, older sounding man answered the phone.  He patiently listened while I explained my conundrum, and then said to me: “This is the Chinook fencing company.  You’re looking for Chinook, a computer company, it sounds like.”  I went back to information and got the right number.

Explaining my situation yet again, this time I got an answer.  “I want you to pick up the front of the hard drive and drop it on the table,” said the tech support guy.  I did it, and voila!  The hard drive spun up.  Despite my tender age of 16, I somehow suspected this was, as we say in the corporate world, “an unsustainable operating model.”

Luckily I rarely shut the hard drive down, but when I did I needed to drop it on the table to get it going again.  Chinook #2 started to have the same problem.  One day I flipped the switch on Chinook #1 and heard a metal-on-metal grinding noise.  And thus, my career as a Sysop ended.  All for the better I suppose, as the Internet was just around the corner.

I still have the Chinook hard drives, in the vain hope that I could crack them and recover some data some day.  I once called DriveSavers to see if they could do it, but the request to recover data on 1980’s Apple II crashed hard drives was just too weird for them.  Their proposal was expensive and not likely to succeed.

Three years ago, when I moved into my new neighborhood, we had a block party, and I ended up sitting next to an older fellow who had been a long-time product manager for Apple.  He provided a wealth of interesting stories about the Apple II line, and the history of many of the computers I got my start on so many decades ago.  I mentioned to him the Chinook problem, and to my surprise he knew Chinook.  Chinook actually repackaged a particular model Seagate HD, which was notorious for locking up and needing physical force to unstick the head.  My neighbor told me that this hard drive was included in the original prototypes of the Mac SE, over the objections of the technical product managers.  The business-types who were running things wanted the drive, either because it was cheap or because they had an agreement with Seagate (I don’t really recall).

Finally one of the technical PMs built a version of the SE which had a pinball plunger attached to the front of the built in HD.  Great idea!  When the hard drive got stuck, just pull back the plunger and let it rip!  He showed it to management and they decided to pick a different hard drive.  Good for them, the SE was to be a very popular Mac and the pinball plunger might have prevented that.  Anyways, as I had learned, the plunger wouldn’t work for very long.

I shall avoid naming names, but when I worked for Juniper we had a certain CEO who pumped us up as the next $10 billion company.  It never happened, and he left and became the CEO of Starbucks.  Starbucks has nothing to do with computer networking at all.  Why was he hired by Starbucks?  How did his (supposed) knowledge of technology translate into coffee?

Apparently it didn’t.  Howard Schultz, Starbucks’ former CEO, is back at the helm.  “I wasn’t here the last four years, but I’m here now,” he said, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal (paywall).  “I am not in business, as a shareholder of Starbucks, to make every single decision based on the stock price for the quarter…Those days, ladies and gentlemen, are over.”  Which of course, implies that that was exactly what the previous CEO was doing.

What happened under the old CEO?  “Workers noticed an increasing focus on speed metrics, including the average time to prepare an order, by store.”  Ah, metrics, my old enemy.  There’s a reason one of my favorite books is called The Tyranny of Metrics and why I wrote a TAC Tales piece just about the use of metrics in TAC.  More on that in a bit.

As I look at what I refer to as “corporatism” and its effect on our industry, it often becomes apparent that the damage of this ethos extends beyond tech.  The central tenet of corporatism, as I define it, is that organizations are best run by people who have no particular expertise other than management itself.  That is, these individuals are trained and experienced in generic management principles, and this is what qualifies them to run businesses.  The generic management skills are translate-able, meaning that if you become an expert in managing a company that makes paper clips, you can successfully use your management skills to run a company that makes, say, medical-device software.  Or pharmaceuticals.  Or airplanes.  Or whatever.  You are, after all, a manager, maybe even a leader, and you just know what to do without any deep expertise or hard-acquired industry-specific knowledge.

Those of us who spend years, even decades acquiring deep technical knowledge of our fields are, according to this ethos, the least qualified to manage and lead.  That’s because we are stuck in our old ways of doing things, and therefore we don’t innovate, and we probably make things complex, using funny acronyms like EIGRP, OSPF, BGP, STP, MPLS, L2VNI, etc., to confuse the real leaders.

Corporatists simply love metrics.  They may not understand, say, L2VNIs, but they look at graphs all day long.  Everything has to be measured in their world, because once it’s measured it can be graphed, and once it’s graphed it’s simply a matter of making the line go the right direction.  Anyone can do that!

Sadly, as Starbucks seems to be discovering, life is messier than a few graphs.  Management by metric usually leads to unintended consequences, and frequently those who operate in such systems resort to metric-gaming.  As I mentioned in the TAC Tale, measuring TAC agents on create-to-close numbers led to many engineers avoiding complex cases and sticking with RMAs to get their numbers looking good.  Tony Hsieh at Zappos, whatever problems he may have had, was totally right when he had his customer service reps stay on the phone as long as needed with customers, hours if necessary, to resolve an issue with a $20 pair of shoes.  That would never fly with the corporatists.  But he understood that customer satisfaction would make or break his business, and it’s often hard to put a number on that.

Corporatism of various sorts has been present in every company I’ve worked for.  The best, and most successful, leadership teams I’ve worked for have avoided it by employing leaders that grew up within the industry.  This doesn’t make them immune from mistakes, of course, but it allows them to understand their customers, something corporatists have a hard time with.

Unfortunately, we work in an industry (like many) in which the stock value of companies is determined by an army of non-technical “analysts” who couldn’t configure a static route, let alone explain what one is.  And yet somehow, their opinions on (e.g.) the router business move the industry.  They of course adhere to the ethos of corporatism.  And I’m sure they get paid better than I do.

Starbucks seems to be correcting a mistake by hiring back someone who actually knows their business.  Would that all corporations learn from Starbucks’ mistake, and ensure their leaders know at least something about what they are leading.

Sun Ultra 10

It was four o’clock in the early hours of one Sunday morning in 2001.  I had been up all night sitting in our data center at the San Francisco Chronicle with our Unix guy.  He was handing off responsibility for managing the firewalls to the network team, and he was walking me through the setup.  He’d been trying all night to get failover to work between the two firewalls, and so far nothing was going right.

We were using Checkpoint which was running on Solaris.  Despite my desire to be Cisco-only, I was interested in security and happy to be managing the firewalls.  Still, looking at the setup our Unix guy had conceived, my enthusiasm was waning.

He drew a complex diagram on a piece of paper, showing the two Solaris servers.  There was no automatic failover, so any failure required manual intervention.  He has two levels of failover.  First, he was using RAID to duplicate the main hard disk over to a secondary hard disk.  If the main disk failed, we’d need to edit some text files with vi to somehow bring the Sparc Ultra 10 up on the second drive.  If the Ultra 10 failed entirely, we would have to edit some text files on the second Ultra 10 to bring it up with the configuration of the first.  With Unix guys, it’s always about editing text files in vi.

Aside from being cumbersome, it didn’t work.  We’d been at it for hours, and whatever disk targets he changed in whatever files, failover wasn’t happening. At the newspaper, we had until 5am Sunday to do our work, after which everything had to be back on line.  And we were getting concerned it wouldn’t come back at all.

Finally the Unix guy did manage to get the firewall booted up and running again.  On Monday I called Checkpoint and asked how we could get off Solaris.  They made a product called SecurePlatform, which installed a hardened Linux and Checkpoint all with one installer.  I ordered it at once, along with two IBM servers.

The software worked as promised, and I brought up a new system, imported our rules, and did interface and box failover with no problem.  I told the Unix guy to decommission his Ultra 10s.  He was furious that there was a *nix system on the network his team wasn’t managing.  I told him it was an appliance and there was no customization allowed.  The new system worked flawlessly and I didn’t even have to touch vi.

Network engineers are used to relatively simple devices that just work.  Routers and switches can be upgraded with a single image, and device and OS-level management is mostly under the hood.  While a lot of network engineers like Linux or Unix and have to work with these operating systems, at the end of the day when we want to do our job, we want systems that install and upgrade quickly, and fail over seamlessly.  As networking vendors move more into “software”, we need to keep that in mind.

I must admit, I’m a huge fan of Ivan Peplnjak.  This despite the fact that he is a major thorn in the side of product management at Cisco.  It is, of course, his job to be a thorn in our side and Ivan is too smart to ignore.  He has a long history with Cisco, with networking, and his opinions are well thought out and highly technical.  He is a true network engineer.  The fact that I like Ivan does not mean he gave me an easy time a few years back when I did a podcast with him on NETCONF at Cisco Live Berlin.

Ivan had an interesting post recently entitled “Keep Blogging, Some of Us Still Read“.  It reminds of my own tongue-in-cheek FAQ for this blog, in which I said I wouldn’t use a lot of graphics because I intended my blog for “people who can read”.  As a blogger, I think I quite literally have about 3 regular readers, which occasionally makes me wonder why I do it at all.  I could probably build a bigger readership if I worked at it, but I really don’t work at it.  I think part of the reason I do it is simply that I find it therapeutic.

Anyhow, the main claim Ivan is responding to is that video seems to be dominant these days and blogging is becoming less rewarding.  There is no question video creation has risen dramatically, and in many ways it’s easier to get noticed on YouTube than on some random blog like mine.  Then again, with the popularity of SubStack I think people are actually still reading.

Ivan says “Smart people READ technical content.”  Well, perhaps.  I remember learning MPLS back in 2006 when I worked at TAC.  I took a week off to run through a video series someone had produced and it was one of the best courses I’ve taken.  Sometimes a technical person doesn’t want to learn by reading content.  Sometimes listening to new concepts explained well at a conversational pace and in a conversational style is more conducive to actually understanding the material.  This is why people go to trade shows like Cisco Live.  They want to hear it.

I’ve spent a lot of time on video lately, developing a series on technical public speaking as well as technical videos for Cisco.  In the process I’ve had to learn Final Cut Pro and DaVinci resolve.  Both have, frankly, horrendous user interfaces that are hard to master.  Nine times out of ten I turn to a YouTube video when I’m stuck trying to do something.  Especially with GUI-based tools, video is much faster for me to learn something than screen shots.

On the other hand, it’s much harder to produce video.  I can make a blog post in 15 minutes.  YouTube videos take hours and hours to produce, even simple ones like my Coffee with TMEs series.

The bottom line is I’m somewhere down the middle here.  Ivan’s right, technical documentation in video format is much harder to search and to use for reference.  That said, I think video is often much better for learning, that is for being guided through an unfamiliar concept or technology.

If you are one of my 3 regular readers and you would prefer to have my blogs delivered to your inbox, please subscribe at https://subnetzero.substack.com/ where I am cross-posting content!

A post recently showed up in my LinkedIn feed.  It was a video showing a talk by Steve Jobs and claiming to be the “best marketing video ever”.  I disagree.  I think it is the worst ever.  I hate it.  I wish it would go away.  I have deep respect for Jobs, but on this one, he ruined everything and we’re still dealing with the damage.

A little context:  In the 1990’s, Apple was in its “beige box” era.  I was actively involved in desktop support for Macs at the time.  Most of my clients were advertising agencies, and one of them was TBWA Chiat Day, which had recently been hired by Apple.  Macs, once a brilliant product line, had languished, and had an out-of-date operating system.  The GUI was no longer unique to them as Microsoft had unleashed Windows 95.  Apple was dying, and there were even rumors Microsoft had acquired it.

In came Steve Jobs.  Jobs was what every technology company needs–a visionary.  Apple was afflicted with corporatism, and Jobs was going to have none of it.

One of his most famous moves was working with Chiat Day to create the “Think Different” ad campaign.  When it came out, I hated it immediately.  First, there was the cheap grammatical trick to get attention.  “Think” is a verb, so it’s modified by an adverb (“differently”).  By using poor grammar, Apple got press beyond their purchased ad runs.  Newspapers devoted whole articles to whether Apple was teaching children bad grammar.

The ads featured various geniuses like Albert Einstein and Gandhi and proclaimed various trite sentiments about “misfits” and “round pegs in square holes”.  But the ads said nothing about technology at all.

If you watch the video you can see Jobs’ logic here.  He said that ad campaigns should not be about product but about “values”.  The ads need to say something about “who we are”.

I certainly knew who Chiat Day was since I worked there.  I can tell you that the advertising copywriters who think up pabulum like “Think Different” couldn’t  write technical ads because they could barely turn on their computers without me.  They had zero technological knowledge or capability.  They were creating “vision” and “values” about something they didn’t understand, so they did it cheaply with recycled images of dead celebrities.

Unfortunately, the tech industry seems to have forgotten something.  Jobs didn’t just create this “brilliant” ad campaign with Chiat Day.  He dramatically improved the product.  He got Mac off the dated OS it was running and introduced OS X.  He simplified the product line.  He killed the Apple clone market.  He developed new chips like the G3.  He made the computers look cool.  He turned Macs from a dying product into a really good computing platform.

Many tech companies think they can just do the vision thing without the product.  And so they release stupid ad campaigns with hired actors talking about “connecting all of humanity” or whatever their ad agency can come up with.  They push their inane “values” and “mission” down the throats of employees.  But they never fix their products.  They ship the same crappy products they always shipped but with fancy advertising on top.

The thing about Steve Jobs is that everybody admires his worst characteristics and forgets his best.  Some leaders and execs act like complete jerks because Steve Jobs was reputed to be a complete jerk.  They focus on “values” and slick ad campaigns, thinking Jobs succeeded because of these things.  Instead, he succeeded in spite of them.  At the end of the day, Apple was all about the product and they made brilliant products.

The problem with modern corporatism is the army of non-specialized business types who rule over everything.  They don’t understand the products, they don’t understand those who use them, they don’t understand technology, but…Steve Jobs!  So, they create strategy, mission, values, meaningless and inspiring but insipid ad campaigns, and they don’t build good products.  And then they send old Jobs videos around on LinkedIn to make the problem worse.