Days One and Two: Headlines and Hockey


I had a great time meeting the sales team in Mexico City. We had close to 200 people at our town hall, and I was struck by the pre-meeting activity. Nearly everyone was congregated in the back of the room, talking to each other, rather than filling seats or checking email and messages. Despite traffic that added nearly an hour to some quasi-local travel, everyone was more interested in real-world social networking, the kind that requires coffee and breakfast sandwiches.

My peer Denis Heraud, Senior Vice President of Sun's Emerging Markets Region, made a fabulous point during the question and answer session: someone had asked about compensation for complex deals, and Denis pointed out that everybody - commissioned sales people and engineers, those on bonus plans, even engineers - derives the majority of their pay as salary. Salary is not deal specific. It's a function of teamwork and execution. As the company gets smaller, flatter and leaner, our ability to use teamwork -- internally and externally with our partner community -- is going to make our combined output greater than the sum of individual efforts.

I saw the seedlings of that kind of teamwork in the back of the room, persisting after the huevos ran out, and it came through in meetings with our systems engineers.

Logistics for the 2nd leg of this trip required that I leave Mexico City about half a day after arriving, although that was enough time for me to exhaust my (primarily food oriented) Spanish vocabulary. I believe I ordered fish tacos and hot peppers for lunch; sadly I can't phrase the gradations of caliente or picante that properly represent what my mouth felt like for the next half an hour.

Next stop: Johannesburg for a similar set of meetings. Long non-stop flights are an opportunity to completely disconnect from the non-stop stream of email, phone calls and sports score updates. It was nice to get a flurry of text messages with Devils score updates from their first-round NHL playoff game when I changed planes in Paris, but at 2:00 AM New Jersey time I had no chance to connect with my family or friends to celebrate their victory in a more personal way.

I wrote most of this from 39,000 feet, literally passing Kilamanjaro on the way, while also finishing the first book in Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle and knocking off a backlog of ESPN Magazine issues whose predictions and commentary seem dated only a month after being printed. There's a stark contrast between the two that goes far beyond heft and format. Stephenson uses four centuries of historical context and deep creativity to create a tale that spans 900 pages (per book); with less than 10% of the page count and perhaps 5% of the content volume, one of my favorite sports publications had trouble holding my interest given that real-time updates (scores, standings, and public fan outcry) reduced its time value rapidly.

Sidebar and specific data point: ESPN, The Hockey News and the last issue of Beckett's Hockey Card Guide, all plane reading material, all mentioned the NJ Devils' Travis Zajac as a player to watch during the NHL playoffs. Interesting in that all three keyed on the same fact at roughly the same time; less interesting in that those of us who follow the team with a mascot that looks like the cross-breeding of Steven Van Zandt and Hellboy were aware of Zajac's prowess before "bailout" became a breakfast word.

What's the point? What's the aggregation and mash-up of the time value of data, journalism, interpretation and face to face meetings? Simple: In every employee meeting I've had in the past few weeks, from one-to-ones to one-to-Mexico City, people have asked about press headlines involving Sun. I don't have comments on the headlines, but I do find myself commenting on the press:

Copy & Paste isn't journalism. Look carefully at the "hundreds" of stories on any topic, and you'll find that most of them are syndicated stories from AP, Reuters, Bloomberg, or other news sources with varied headlines. A hundred local writers banging out headlines isn't news; it's redistribution. I don't have details but I'm betting that the number of hockey writers learning to spell "Zajac" started with either of the Devils' beat writers - Rich Chere or Tom Gulitti.

The internet isn't killing newspapers, newspapers are killing newspapers. The internet has dramatically changed the time value of news, especially for real-time data (financial, sports, weather). On the other hand, the internet doesn't create commentary, insight, and interpretation (flame wars in comment threads not included); that's why we have reports and news organizations. I still get ESPN Magazine and the Hockey News because I like their commentary and analysis; neither of them publish standings or statistics unless it's in support of a critical analysis. I subscribe to my weekly town newspaper; but I don't read the Newark Star Ledger or Bergen Record - I get better Devils coverage out of Devils blogs where physical constraints of column inches and financial burdens of ad support don't limit the content.

I'd prefer we write our own headlines. One of my favorite youth hockey coaches (known affectionately as a Real Screamer) used to tell his players never to read their own headlines. He wouldn't let me, as manager, keep statistics, he refused to see milestones such as qualifying for the state playoffs as meaningful because he believed that they caused players to look at the headline, and not the whole story that needed to be developed. Focus, teamwork and execution write the headlines.

Without putting on the rusty propeller hat, I can clearly recall the trade press writing about Apple in 1995. If you believed those headlines, put your iPods and iPhones down. Apple figured out what it was (consumer products company), how to get there (leadership and cost), and did so. The spectacular output of my trip through multiple hemispheres is seeing first-hand how Sun has the people, product and energy to write its own headlines.

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Hal Stern's thoughts on software, services, cloud computing, security, privacy, and data management

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