posts from the life professional


May 2008

Cradle to Cradle – William McDonough

I’ve been listening to an MP3 recording of a lecture delivered by William McDonough to HP Employees at Roseville (California), where HP operates a massive recycling plant. It’s been a year since the first time I heard this talk, and there seems so much more I’m getting out of it with this second listening.

McDonough has a very systems approach to looking at environmental sustainability, living systems and the physics and chemistry that go into them. There’s a good amount of science in his talk, and there’s a lot of sense and wisdom there as well. An architect by profession, he was recognized as one of Time Magazine’s heroes for our planet in 1999.

You can watch and listen to a talk he gave in Feb 2005, on the TedTalks website – this is the link to the video, which runs for about 20 mins.

Cradle to CradleIf you enjoy the video and want more, pick up a copy of “Cradle to Cradle”, a book McDonough co-wrote with Michael Braungart. This book is printed not on paper, but an easily recyclable plastic. It looks just like a normal paperback, but it’s not cheap – I bought my copy for S$50 at Books Kinokuniya. (actually, a thoughtful friend picked it up for me – thanks, Hui Ching!). If you live in Singapore, you’re welcome to borrow my copy. This is the blurb from the back of the book:

Waste Equals Food

Guided by this principle, McDonough and Braungart explain how products can be designed from the outset, so that, after their useful lives, they will provide nourishment for something new. They can be conceived as “biological nutrients” that will easily reenter the water or soil without depositing synthetic materials and toxins. Or they can be “technical nutrients” that will continually circulate as pure and valuable materials within closed loop industrial cycles, rather than being “recycled” – really, downcycled – into low grade materials and uses.

Here are a couple of quotes from the talk to HP that I find most memorable:

Imagine this design assignment.
Design something that makes oxygen, sequesters carbon, fixes nitrogen, distills water, acrues solar energy as fuel, makes complex sugars and food, creates microclimates, changes color with the seasons and self replicates.

I’m a big fan of clean nuclear power.
I’m especially fond of nuclear fusion.
I think we should spend a trillion $ trying to capture the benefits of nuclear fusion immediately.
And I thank God that we’ve already got our nuclear reactor exactly where we need it, 93 million miles away. It’s 8 minutes. It’s wireless.


Tech Support over the internet – supportspace

A good amount of my past work has been in technical support. It’s a job full of rewards, and when support is being provide over the telephone line (internet chat in those days was non existent except for the hardcore unix chaps) methodology and communication skills become vital. You can neither see or touch the remote PC or Printer or Tape Drive you’re trying to fix. You guide the technician at the other end with your voice. The biggest insight I gained from my time in tech support is related to the title of this blog.

There were situations where remote support just didn’t cut it. Which led to times like where I was doing all nighters at Bukit Kayu Hitam, a remote town on the thai-malaysian border. The problem we were looking at there happened only with a specific combination of components – Chipsets with a specific date code + 3Com Token Ring Cards + OS2. I remember wandering between the immigration counters in the dead of night, rain beating down on the high roof. Forests all around. Insects singing from the trees, and some of them being drawn to the lights. Typing this has suddenly made me aware of the sound of the cicadas and crickets in the trees outside the balcony window. It’s just before midnight on a hot, sweltering saturday evening and going by the insect sound level, this must be ideal weather for 6-legged courtship.

I’ve been watching with interest the new fee based support models that have been emerging. You can get tech help at special counters in stores, help over the phone, and over the internet. The newest I’ve seen from Web Chat type support is at

Supportspace has an attractive site. In paid support, the first thing a company has to sell is confidence. There are lots of visual elements on the site to give customers the impression that the person you pick (yes, you get to choose the tech support person to engage) is capable both technically and professionally. Your payment does not reach the tech support person until you are satisfied with the solution provided.

Each of the Techs has a page listing their charges (each sets their own fees), products they can help with, certifications, the kinds of services they provide and ….. the part I like best …. customer feedback with dates, comments and star ratings. From the page, I can tell how many cases the tech has helped with, hence his experience level with this kind of support. From the comments, I know what kinds of problems the person has solved. From their prices ……. I suppose it’s reasonable to assume that higher prices are an indication of their confidence in solving the problem quickly and cleanly.

Support is given over web chat. The specialist can take control of your PC to diagnose and apply fixes. They’ll help remove viruses, do backups and make broken software work. They’ll help with not just PCs and software, but printers, digital cameras, MP3 players, TV. Give buying advice even.

There was a good range of Techs to choose from when I looked. Going by the names and photos, there are Russians & Indians, as well as the expected American Caucasians. I found myself clicking on the icon for a lady who calls herself “MommyKnowsDesk”. Her customer ratings were impressive.

I don’t need such a service for myself (where a typical 20 minute session might cost $25 and a virus clean up costs $89), but if I were on business travel, and my wife called to say that our home PC could not send eMail despite trying the simple instructions I gave her, I would happily pay one of the supportspace experts to fix the problem via remote control. The savings in call roaming charges would more than make up for the cost of the tech support session.

Which brings up an issue with web based support and remote control, whether done by a fee-based agency or from a vendor’s warranty support team. This support will be no good for a PC that can’t boot into a decently functioning operating system, or that has lost internet connectivity. The other gotcha is browser support. The first time I tried the “Connect Now” button, I was told that the firefox browser I was using would not work with the service and I had to use Internet Explorer. This probably means the target customer is a windows user, as not too many mac users will be using IE.

Why does supportspace matter? They’ve put a Web2.0 slant on remote support via Web Chat and Remote Control, by enabling users to choose WHO they want to have support them, voting with their wallets, and rating their support experience. If the ratings system is not tampered with, the opinion of the crowds will enable the Techs with the best knowledge, methodology and manner to rise to the top in a very visible way. These Techs will get more customers, and the lower rated Techs will improve their services to rise in the ranking. Poor performance and service delivery cannot be hidden.

What if such a system were to be introduced into warranty support, and the techs were paid according to how good a job customers think they did, instead of how many hours they spent in the support centre? What if a corporate HR were to introduce such a system to enable management to see who was truly delivering and teaming well?

If Web2.0 can bring benefits to customers in an area like paid tech support, it can do the same in many other areas of endeavor.

An old BW interview with Jobs – Oct 12 2004

I’ve been clearing up my work area quite aggressively. A new team member will join us next monday, and my collection of scsi/power cables, drives, ancient folders and manuals was clearly in the way of a proper place to sit for the new colleague.

By good fortune, I chanced upon an old BusinessWeek article I had liked so much, back in late 2004, that I printed out a copy for keeps. The article is an interview with Steve Jobs, titled “The Seed of Apple’s Innovation”, and can still be found on BW’s website at this link.

I liked that Steve had good things to say about HP:

“Both Steve Wozniak and I … and I can speak for Woz — got our view of what a technology company should be while working for Hewlett Packard in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And the first rule over there was to build great products.”

The article teaser went like this: “CEO Steve Jobs says among other practices, it’s “saying no to 1000 things” so as to concentrate on the “really important” creations. Which seemed really apt because I had gathered 1000 things worth of junk, to the extent that this gem of an article was buried and hidden within the pile. Suffice to say, this inspired me to discard much of the plastic, metal and paper baggage that had been following me from office to office. It’s always easier to de-sentimentalize old possessions when one is inspired.

And talking about inspiration …. the part of the interview I like best is at the end. Jobs talks about how Apple ran an ad campaign that celebrated great men and women who embodied the idea of “Think Different”. Ghandi. Dylan. King. Henson. Picasso. Ali. Lennon. Einstein. Edison……..

Here’s to the crazy ones.
The misfits.
The rebels.
The troublemakers.
The round pegs in the square holes.
The ones who see things differently.
They’re not fond of rules.
And they have no respect for the status quo.
You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them.
About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them.
Because they change things.
They push the human race forward.
And while some may see them as the crazy ones,
We see genius.
Because the people who are crazy enough to think
they can change the world,
Are the ones who do.

Jobs: “It [the think different ad campaign] was certainly for customers, to some degree, but it was even more for Apple itself. You can tell a lot about a person by who his/her heroes are. That ad was to remind us of who our heroes are and who we are.”

Which made me think. About who my heroes are.

From History, there’s Lincon. Martin Luther King Jr. Francis of Assisi. Ghandi.

From Business, there’s Bill & Dave (HP). Yunos (Grameen Bank). McDonough (Cradle to Cradle), Kuhlmann (INGDirect). Jobs (not surprisingly).

And so many more from Literature and Comics and Movies. Heroes. Building a better world.

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