Saturday, August 26, 2017

I Don't Think This Is What They Meant by "Retirement"!

“The testicles of a sparrow are about a millimeter long and weigh about a milligram. (That’s one of the reasons you never hear that someone’s hung like a sparrow.)”
Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: A Search for Who We Are.

“Honeybees warm themselves by contracting the muscles in their thorax. Wood storks cool off by defecating on their own legs. (In very hot weather, wood storks may excrete on their legs as often as once a minute.)”
Elizabeth Kilbert. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.

“Writers don’t prepare for people to read them, so much as they prepare for no one to read them.”
     Ta-Nehisi Coates. On Homecomings.

It's been almost a year since I “retired”, so I figure it might be time for a status update. I put that word in quotes because, to be honest, it's only a partial retirement, a semi-retirement, a toe dipped in the water to check conditions before full submersion. I still advise a few startups and spend a bit of time working on my own startup ideas; enough to stay engaged with the industry and, hopefully, also to learn new things in the process, to stay relevant.

The rest of the time I bike, I travel, I spend time with the family, I read, I do things that I never had the time to do when I worked full-time. My days start at five or six a.m. I'm an early riser; who knew? And, yet, thanks to not being saddled with work stress, I sleep well. A state of affairs unheard of just a year ago. At first, I thought this was due to the amount of physical exercise I was getting but I realized later that I slept well even on days that I didn’t get a chance to exercise. The only difference was the level of stress in my daily life compared to when I worked.

At one work related event last week, I ran into an old colleague who also recently “semi-retired”. He sits on half a dozen boards, works a few hours a day, reads like a fiend, and also has found out he likes “taking naps in the early afternoon.” He must have really low stress in his life.

I spend two to three hours a day, pretty much every single day, exercising. In my case, that means biking up the mountain. Having destroyed every joint in my body through decades of running long distances, having suffered through lower back surgery and years of related physical pain, I have settled on biking as a much more “reasonable” sport, one that can be enjoyed every day without doing as much damage to your body. I even tried to argue with my wife that, three hours a day times seven days being over twenty hours a week, my time in the saddle should practically count as a part-time job in and of itself. She just rolled her eyes. Whatever keeps me out of the house and out of her hair, I guess.

Another joyous outcome is the number of hours I can spend reading. I've always been a bookworm but I haven't read this much since I was a teenager! And I'm loving it. There is still nothing in the world better than losing yourself in a good book. And thanks to Amazon, there's always a fresh batch of them on my bedside table.

I've also spent quite a bit of time with friends and family. “Quite a bit of time”, in my case, meaning any non-zero positive integer. It's amazing how easy it is in 21st century America to lose yourself in your work, in your online social life, and maybe your immediate family. Spending time with friends and family takes time. And who has time for that after a dozen hours at the office?

One of the most enjoyable events of the past year was a month we spent traveling in Europe with friends and family. The best part was not having to check email every day, not having to jump on conference calls every night, not having to rush back home to attend a meeting. There is definitely something to be said for the slower pace of life that most other cultures enjoy and that American society has abandoned in favor of efficiency and economic advancement.

The truth of the matter, I've come to realize, is that I hate the act of travel. The planes, the jet lag, the hotel rooms, living out of suitcases. I've been on so many trips in my life that the novelty has long since worn off. I still fantasize about and rhapsodize about off-the-beaten-track destinations but we've made the act of traveling itself so stressful that it completely negates any positive feelings we may experience when we finally get to the destination. At times like these, I am thankful that our memories are imperfect and tend to romanticize the distant past.

In the same vein of travel and family, my parents are visiting with us. They spend most of the time living in the old country and come to the US once every two or three years for loooong visits - four to six months spent traveling around the US, staying with their siblings, children, in-laws, nieces and nephews: their extended family. The Islamic revolution of 1979 tore that extended family apart and its members have spent the past forty years living drastically different lives across multiple continents.

I found myself spending many hours talking to my parents over the past few weeks, mostly my dad. Hours that would have been spent at work in a meeting or hunched over a laptop during their prior visits. The sad truth is that we inhabit two different universes and there is nothing we can do to reconcile those two worlds. Here are two octogenarian cancer survivors who don't speak a word of English, have never used a computer (despite our half-hearted attempts), don't have an email address or a credit card. I love them as my parents but I find, increasingly, that I have very little in common with them. That, perhaps, is the saddest part of the story. Having spent roughly forty years of my life away from them, and doing so in a world that has been moving away from theirs at light speed, hasn't helped.

I'm sorry to say my parents have never known what I actually work on. Sure, they know I work on computers. They even know the names of some of the companies I’ve worked for. Microsoft, SGI, Cisco. But push one level deeper and they would be lost. Operating systems? Cloud? Storage? Security? Networking? Applications? Disks? Memory? CPU? Bits? Bytes? Where do even I begin to explain my world to them? I might as well be talking in Chinese. Facebook? Emojis? Texting? Streaming? Netflix? These concepts don't even exist in their universe. Try having a conversation with any such elderly person about the cloud, social media, or pretty much anything in our digital universe and you'll see what I mean. Do so with someone living most of their lives in a third world country and you'll grok my point even more clearly. Try doing so in a language different from the one in which you learned the concepts and you'll have an even better appreciation for my dilemma.

Part of the problem is that our physical world has also moved online while theirs is still brick and mortar. Their daily concerns are so different from ours. They go to the corner grocery store while we order our fruits on Amazon. They stand in line at the bank to cash checks while we snap a photo of the check we want to deposit. They religiously call friends and family on a regular basis just to check in, even if they really have nothing to say. They get on the plane and travel for eighteen freaking hours to come see us in person. Meanwhile, we limit our personal contacts with friends and family to Facebook shares and Instagram likes, maybe an email or a text message if we really have something important to say.

Our spoken languages are almost as foreign. And I'm not talking about the words or the grammar, I'm talking about the concepts expressed by those languages. I happen to be perfectly fluent in Farsi as it was the first language I ever learned. Yet, put a book or newspaper article  in front of me that was published in Iran in the past forty years and I would struggle to read it. Not because I can't read the words. Not because I can't figure out the grammar. But because the concepts are foreign to me. The names of the people are meaningless. The historical events don’t ring a bell. I don’t have this problem with older books, ones published before the revolution. Only with newer books; not because the words are different but because the concepts are.

Our cultures have drifted apart, too. They know nothing about the music I listen to and I've long abandoned theirs. They watch Turkish soap operas while I listen to John Oliver and quote Seinfeld. They lived through a war while I went to school and built a life half way around the world, in a different universe. They see Donald Trump as a maniac. I see Donald Trump as a maniac. Okay, maybe we agree on one thing.

I'm sorry if this sounds insensitive. I don't mean it to be. It's just that, however painful it might be to admit, we inhabit different universes. It's so much harder to find common points of interest when there are so few points of intersection - in our histories, in our daily lives, in our worlds, in our world views. I don't mean to imply that my world is better than theirs or vice versa, just that they are almost inconceivably different, almost irreconcilably apart. And every day that goes by, they become even more so.

So those hours of conversation with my parents are not spent talking about technology or business or the markets or even politics. They often revolve around their “end games”: how we can help if (when) the end comes for each of them. It's been a sad visit. Enough said.

Back to the topic at hand: semi-retirement it is. I'm not sure what I'd do with full retirement anyway. I'd have too much time on my hands - and no one wants to hear about a retired geezer biking up the mountain six hours a day!

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Dr. StrangeCloud – Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Cloud

I wrote this blog a few years ago when I was still CTO at VMware. I didn't realize it was published on the web by VMware until someone sent me this link today. The last paragraph is a sales pitch for VMware products so I've deleted it below but the rest is a fairly honest assessment of the cloud and its impact on infrastructure that I still stand by.

Dr. StrangeCloud – Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Cloud

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By Ben Fathi, Chief Technology Officer, VMware
Marc Andreesen famously wrote “Why Software is Eating the World” in August 2011:
“More and more major businesses and industries are being run on software and delivered as online services—from movies to agriculture to national defense. Many of the winners are Silicon Valley-style entrepreneurial technology companies that are invading and overturning established industry structures. Over the next 10 years, I expect many more industries to be disrupted by software, with new world-beating Silicon Valley companies doing the disruption in more cases than not.”
A scant three years later, it’s time for us to admit that software has already eaten the world. It’s also time for us to get over it and start dealing with the consequences.
Here’s a simple challenge: Name one industry or a single aspect of our social lives that hasn’t been dramatically and irreversibly changed by the power of software. Whether entertainment or education, travel or medicine, genetics or physics, banking or shopping, driving or communicating – I challenge you to find a single activity not influenced by or totally redefined through software. Entire industries – travel agencies, bookstores, photography labs, music stores, telcos – have either disappeared or have had to reinvent themselves to survive.
Until recently, incumbents routinely enjoyed decades of prosperity in every industry – including software. But in this brave new world, whether consumer or enterprise, we are innovating at such a pace that products introduced just a few years ago are already obsolete or being disrupted. As computation and storage costs continue to decrease and network bandwidth increases – as computing finally becomes a true utility – we’ll find more and more applications that can benefit from the power of software.
We are truly starting to live in a digital universe with software at the core of everything we do.
Just like we stream or download our movies and music today rather than going to Blockbuster or Tower Records, we download most of our applications from the internet as well. When was the last time you installed software by going to Best Buy and buying a shrink-wrapped box? The new cloud-based consumption experience is more convenient. It gets rids of the inventory problem, the manufacturing problem and the supply chain problem, but it also presents new challenges. Having these services available 24×7 is no simple feat. To pull it off, we run massive data centers in the cloud, with software designed to be resilient and scalable.
I sincerely believe we are at an inflection point in the history of computing. The future will be “cloudy” – not just for consumers but for enterprises too. The massive and unmistakable move toward cloud computing further reduces the barrier to entry for startups and simplifies the consumption experience dramatically.
We’re already seeing this in the consumer space as the complexity of Windows has given way to the simplicity of Android and iOS—simple operating systems augmented by compelling cloud services, with “worry free” upgrade and maintenance.
The same benefits apply to enterprise software as well.. Many categories of enterprise software are now being delivered as cloud based services: Salesforce for CRM, LinkedIn for recruiting, Workday for HR, Office365 for productivity, etc. Even infrastructure, such as servers and storage, can now be consumed through the Internet with IaaS offerings from the various public cloud providers.
Now let’s put ourselves in our customers’ shoes for a minute: As a progressive virtual infrastructure/private cloud admin, I would like to install the latest release of vSphere once a year so I can get access to the latest innovations from VMware and its partner ecosystem. Realistically, though, upgrading to a new version is often tied to hardware refresh cycles, so I may have to wait 3-4 years for the latest innovations. I also have a lot invested in high-end storage gear and network switches, so I want to continue to utilize them. As part of the upgrade process, I will have to install the right third-party drivers and firmware on the servers and the SAN arrays and the network switches, install and configure disaster recovery solutions, etc. In essence, I become the system integrator and take on a significant amount of work for my IT organization, in the process creating a bespoke environment that is different from every other enterprise.
Now let’s switch hats for a minute and become a “cloud” customer.  I pull out my credit card, go to (or one of our 4,000 or so service provider partners in the VMware vCloud® Air™ Network), click a few buttons, and I’m up and running my application in minutes. If I need high availability, I just check a little box that says “Make my workload resilient to two simultaneous infrastructure failures” and the cloud takes care of the rest.
You will correctly point out that I’m comparing apples to oranges here. I’ve just outsourced my IT to VMware by using their cloud. Some poor administrator is still installing software on those servers somewhere and maintaining them. True enough, but that’s our specialty and I think we’re better positioned to handle it. The key point here is that the cloud provider optimizes their capital expenditure and operational costs by drastically reducing the hardware and software configurations that he supports to provide the service.
Let’s face it. The cloud experience is a major leap ahead of any improvements we can ever make to the “shrink-wrapped” experience. Even if we ship perfect bug-free software, we are still asking the admin to do integration of all the third party components on-site and to manage the lifecycle of all these products by performing upgrades and patching. Increasingly, admins (and CIOs) today are being asked to choose between this model and the cloud model.
... [Rest of blog (VMWare-specific comments) available here] ...