Monday, November 20, 2017

Mergers: The Good

(intro blog post here)

How to help your acquired employees succeed

Out of the 6 acquisitions I've been involved with, two really stand out as positive experiences, both for the acquired and the parent company. Here's what was different about those two mergers, as opposed to the ones that didn't go so well.

Integrate the new team quickly (Apple/NeXT)

In Apple's case, they acquired NeXT both in order to get new technology to base their next-generation OS on, and to get a fully-functional engineering organization. You can't really understand just how screwed up Apple was in 1996 unless you were there, but in the last quarter of the year, Apple lost over a billion dollars. They had, at that point, had 2 or 3 (depending on how you count) different "next generation" OS projects crash and burn, and the latest one, Copland, was on the verge of disaster – I've seen credible evidence that it wouldn't have shipped for another 5 years, if ever. Into all this swirling chaos, we bring the NeXT team, understandably freaked out to be called on to "save" this huge, dysfunctional company from itself.

But one thing that was hugely encouraging, and helped us to all settle in, was how quickly we were integrated into the Apple organization as a whole. Within a month after the acquisition, we were meeting with our counterparts in Cupertino, we had email addresses, our systems were on the Apple network, and we'd had an army of Apple HR folks over to the NeXT offices to get us transferred over to Apple's payroll and benefits.

It was still a very hard slog, and there was a LOT of anger from folks at Apple that had their friends laid off right after the acquisition, but feeling like we were legitimately part of the team, and not just a bunch of outsiders, helped us to fight the battles we had to fight.

Put the full support of the larger organization behind the newcomers (LG/WebOS)

After the debacle that was the HP's acquisition of Palm (see the "Ugly" segment, coming soon), the folks remaining on the WebOS team were pretty nervous when we were told that we were being sold off to LG. "Oh, great, another absentee owner who will tell us we're important, but then never do anything".

And then we had our first meetings with LG's upper management. And we were told that we would be building the user interface for all of LG's high-end smart TV's, that we were going to ship in less than a year, and that we were expected to deliver something BETTER than the existing NetCast software, which they had been shipping for a few years. "Oh, crap, I thought - none of us know anything about Smart TVs, or TVs in general". But then they told us: "The CEO has expressed his full support of this project, and you'll have as much support as you need".

I really didn't believe that we were going to get "as much support as you need", but sure enough, within a short time period after the acquisition, truckloads of current-generation TVs and prototype logic boards for the next generation started flooding into the office. And in the months after that, truckloads of engineers from Korea, who knew the hardware and the existing NetCast software intimately. Anything we asked for, we got – score one for top-down, authoritarian management style, I guess.

And we did it - a small group of developers, working their asses off, managed to build something in less than a year which was immensely better than the existing product, which had been shipping for several years. The next-generation smart TVs, with a new version of WebOS, were even better. This was definitely a high point for the "acquire a smaller company to bring innovation to the larger company" strategy. And it succeeded because the project had a powerful advocate within the larger company, and a VERY clear vision of what they wanted to accomplish.

Next week

What not to do to make your new employees feel welcome, and how to tell (as an employee) when things are likely to go sour quickly.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Mergers: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

You've been acquired how many times?

In my career, I've been fortunate enough to have worked for a number of small software/hardware companies, several of which were absorbed by much larger companies. I though tit'd be interesting to compare and contrast some of the ways the various mergers went good and bad, and what acquiring companies might be able to learn from my experience.

Here's the timeline so far:

  1. I started working for NeXT Software in 1994, they were acquired by Apple in 1996.
  2. I left Apple in 1999 to work for Silicon Spice. They were acquired by Broadcom in 2000.
  3. Broadcom laid me off, and I went back to Apple for a while.
  4. I left Apple in 2005 to work at Zing Systems, which was acquired by Dell in 2007.
  5. I left Dell to go work at Palm in 2009. In 2010, Palm was acquired by Hewlett-Packard.
  6. Hewlett-Packard eventually sold the entire WebOS group to LG.
  7. I left LG to go work for Citrix on GoToMeeting. After 2 1/2 years, the GoToMeeting business was spun off and merged with LogMeIn, Inc.
So I've been part of 6 different merger/acquisition processes at this point, and I feel like I'm getting a feel for how you can tell when an acquisition is going to go well, as opposed to going poorly.

Why do big companies buy smaller companies?

When a big company acquires a smaller company, it can be for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it's to acquire a potential competitor, before they can get large enough to threaten the larger company. It can be an "acqui-hire", where they buy the smaller company strictly for its human resources, and have no real interest in the technology or products the smaller company has developed (this happens with social media companies frequently, because skilled developers are hard to find). Or, it can be a case of acquiring a new technology, and a team of experts in that technology, in order to either kick-start a new product, or to kick new life into an existing product. That last reason was the primary reason for all of the acquisitions I've been involved in.

What's the most-comon mistake acquiring companies make?

Understandably, big companies often look to smaller companies as an engine to drive innovation. There's a perception that small companies can move faster and be more nimble than larger companies. So there's often a desire to let the new acquisition run itself, as a sort of independent entity inside the larger company. Being hands-off seems like the obviously-right thing to do if you wanted increased agility to start with, but this is generally not as good of an idea as it'd seem at first blush.

Yes, you absolutely don't want to break up the functional team you just acquired, and spread them out willy-nilly throughout your company. You don't want to drag them into the bureaucracy and infighting that has marred all of your internal attempts at innovation. But guess what? If you don't make an effort to get them at least nominally integrated with the rest of the company, you will, at best, end up with an isolated group, who continue to do their one thing, but don't meaningfully contribute to your larger organization's bottom line. And the smaller group will also get none of the benefits of scale of being part of the larger group. It's lose-lose.

Examples of the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Tune in next Monday (and the Monday after that) for real-life tales of integrations gone well, gone poorly, and gone horribly wrong.

Monday, November 06, 2017

That delicate line between security and convenience

A key problem, maybe the key problem in software security is how to properly balance user convenience with security. Adding additional security to a system often includes extra work, more time, or other compromises from the end-user. And reasonable people can disagree about where the line is for the appropriate trade-off.

That iPhone camera permissions "flaw"
There was a brief flurry of articles in the news recently, talking about a "flaw" in iOS permissions which would allow applications to take your picture without you being aware. Typically, these were presented with click-bait headlines like:


The blog post of the actual security researcher who raised this issue (Felix Krause) is substantially less-sensational:

It's good that this issue is getting some attention, but it's important to understand where we're coming from, what the actual issue is, and possible ways to mitigate it. As a quick aside, I find it annoying that the articles say "Google engineer". Yes, Krause works for Google, but this work is not coming out of his "day job", but rather his own work in security research. Also, Android has exactly this same problem, but it doesn't merit a blog post or worldwide news coverage, because apparently nobody expects even minimal privacy from Android devices.

How camera permissions work on iOS today
The current version of iOS asks the user for permission to use the camera the first time that an application tries to access it. After that, fi the application is running in the foreground, it can access the camera whenever it wants to, without any additional interaction. And typically, this is actually what the user wants.

It's convenient and fun to be able to use the built-in camera support in Facebook without having to answer "yes I do want to use the camera" each time that you choose to share a photo on social media. And replacements for the built-in camera app, like Instagram, Snapchat, and Halide, would be pretty much unusable if you had to answer a prompt Every. Single. Time. you wanted to take a photo.

How it used to work
Previous versions of iOS actually required applications to use the built-in camera interface to take pictures. You still only had to give permission once, but it was really obvious when the app was taking you picture, because the camera preview was right there in your face, taking over your screen. This design was widely criticized by app developers, because it made for a really jarring break in their carefully-crafted use experience to have the built-in camera appear, and they couldn't provide a preview that actually showed what was going to be captured (with the rise of photo filters, this is especially problematic).

At some point, Apple added the capability to capture photos and video, while presenting the app's  own interface. This makes for a more-cohesive experience for the end-user, and makes it possible for apps to preview what they're actually going to produce, filters, silly hats, and all. This is clearly a win for the app developers, and I'd argue it is also a win for the end-user, as they get a better experience with the whole picture taking process.

What's the actual privacy issue here?
I use Facebook to post photos and videos, sometimes. But I don't really want Facebook taking pictures of my face when I'm not using the camera features, and analyzing that data to better serve me content, including advertisements.

If I'm scrolling through my news feed, and Facebook is silently analyzing the images coming through the back camera, so that they can discover my location and serve me ads for whatever business I'm standing in front of, that's intrusive and creepy. If they're reading my facial expression to try to determine how I feel about the items in my news feed, that's even worse.

How Apple can better-inform users
I don't think anybody wants to go back to using the UIImagePicker interface, and I don't think anybody (except possibly security researchers) wants to have to affirmatively give permission every time an application wants to take a picture or video. One alternative that I like (and Krause mentions this in his initial blog) is some kind of persistent system UI element that indicates that the camera is on. Apple already does something similar with a persistent banner on the top of the screen when applications in the background are capturing audio (for VoIP communications). A little dot on the status area would go a long way, here.

It'd also be really nice to have a toggle in Preferences (or better, in Control Center) to disable the camera system-wide, so if you know you're heading somewhere that you shouldn't be taking pictures, you can temporarily disable the camera.

What users can do to better protect themselves
Obviously, just don't grant camera permission to applications that don't actually need them.  think most social network software falls into this category. Twitter and Facebook don't actually need to access my camera, so I have it disabled for both of them. If you actually DO use Facebook and Twitter to take pictures, then I guess you'll just need to be more aware of the tradeoffs.

If you "have to" enable camera access to certain apps, but you don't fully-trust them, there are honest-to-goodnes lens caps you can buy which will cover your iPhone camera when you're not using it. Or a piece of tape works. There's even specially-made tape tabs for just this purpose.