It’s done.

(crossposted on the Otter Advisory blog)

This morning, at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, I successfully defended my PhD.  I completed the written work last year, and getting the oral defence done today is the final step in what has been a long road.  There is a bit of admin to do before I can formally use the title, but the work is done.

There are many people I would like to thank. The support I have had along the way from friends and colleagues has been remarkable. herewith an extract from the acknowledgments.

Well over a decade ago, Klaus Tschira suggested that I talk to Professor Thomas Dreier at the ZAR at KIT. I’m grateful to Klaus for many things, but I’m especially thankful for that. Klaus is sorely missed. Professor Dreier’s patient encouragement enabled me to push through to submission. Thank you.

Dr Oliver Raabe has been a most dedicated and willing mentor and guide. His knowledge, encouragement, generosity seem limitless. Without his support, much of this work would have remained mere ideas. Dr Thorsten Schwarz at the KIT SZS went out of his way to help me with the lab test for the blind and visually impaired students, and provided support and advice as I learnt about the challenges that software can inflict on people with disabilities. Max, Florian, Joshua and Philipp, thank you for your deep and focused engagement with testing. Thank you also to Professor Andreas Oberweis for being the secondary supervisor. Thanks to Daniel Vonderau for his help with legal citations and research, and others at KIT for their support. It is a most welcoming and special place

I’m very grateful to the nearly 600 people who to took time to diligently respond to the survey, and to those that publicised it, especially James Governor. Thanks to Irina Sedenko and Dr Ron Fisher for their assistance with the statistical analysis. Professor Armin Trost, your encouragement and advice helped me develop more discipline and rigour. Thanks also to the people I interviewed along the way, Matthew, Liz, Michael, Anne, Neil, Chirag, Janet, Nichole, Jerome, Nigel, Rebecca, James, Jonas, and Dr Fuchs.

To my wife, Charlotte, and our children, thank you for all you do. I’m sure I have not been that easy to live with during the final push. Charlotte’s proof reading was invaluable but any remaining random punctuation is entirely my fault.

And finally, thanks Dad, your gentle but constant chiding was a brilliant bit of parenting.

It has taken me over a decade, so I’m going to take a nap to celebrate.


Launching Otter Advisory



Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?

Polonius: By the mass, and ‘tis like a camel, indeed.

Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel.

Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.

Hamlet: Or like a whale?

Polonius: Very like a whale.

Hamlet Act 3, Scene 2.

There are many opinions and much confusion about the cloud. This isn’t a new problem.

The promise and opportunity for software to change how work is done is tantalising and very real. While the stakes have never been higher, understanding enterprise software is harder than ever. The vendor landscape is shifting; old, comfortable assumptions no longer hold. Marketing creates a sheen that is often difficult to see past. Knowing what is real and what is not requires experience, focus, insight and sometimes luck. The decisions about Human Resources technology that organizations make today will have consequences far into the future.

I’m excited to announce that – based on my experience and network accumulated in building and analysing HR technology over decades – I’m forming an advisory firm to do just that. The goal of Otter Advisory is to help enterprise buyers, builders and investors understand the weird and wonderful world of HR tech a little bit better – to make the decisions that lay strong foundations for future success.

My business plan is, in theory, simple –  I’ll work with complex, global organizations to help them figure out their HR technology strategies. I’ll work with software product managers to help them build better enterprise software. And I’ll work with a number of investors who seek to fund, trade, or acquire HR technology companies. I’ll also share some of my thinking and findings in blogs and research notes, and possibly videos.

I aim to be transparent. The vendors that pay me for advice, I’ll disclose. If I hold significant equity positions in vendors, I’ll disclose that too.

The website is over at I’ll blog there, here on Linkedin and also on medium. I have a lot to learn about building an advisory firm, so I have been bending the ear of others that have done this before, and I will continue to do. I’m grateful to those that have shared their wisdom so abundantly with me. A more fulsome thank you post will follow soon.

If you reckon that I might be able to help you or your organization, let’s talk. I’ll be at Unleash in Amsterdam from the 23rd-24th of October, or drop me an email.

(Crossposted on Linkedin, and Otter Advisory).

On sponsorship, a tweet, halos, and virtue.

The basis for businesses sponsoring sportspersons and buying rights to advertise on stadiums and so on has always puzzled me. I recently read more about the economics behind it, and it turns out to be a fascinating field of academic research, called virtue signalling. It links back to the market failure issue of asymmetric information between buyer and seller, made famous by that dude that wrote about used cars and lemons, Akerlof.  I suppose Elon Musk putting a car in space is a form of virtue signalling, but I’m not sure which virtue he is attempting to signal.

In some cases, the sponsorship to business link is obvious, such as when an oil company sponsors a rally car.

I run the occasional marathon, trail race,  and do the odd triathlon, and I spend a lot of money, relatively speaking, on running shoes.  I often experiment with different brands, I see running shoes as groceries.  (Bicycles, well, that is another discussion)  A couple of years ago, I bought some shoes from a new to me Swiss company called On Cloud. Their trail shoes, the cloud venture, have become a firm favourite of mine, I’ve had a couple of pairs.

For road shoes, I’m trying a variety of different brands at the moment, the Altra zero drop being my current long distance shoe, the wide toe box looks odd, but is very comfy.

I bought a new pair of on clouds today for triathlon because of a tweet that led me to On Cloud’s sponsorship of Tim Don. He is the ironman record holder.  So, I’m not dumb enough to know that buying his shoes will make me significantly faster.  I bought them cos OC supported him through thick and thin. He was knocked off his bike just before the major ironman event in Kona, and broke his neck, and had to wear a halo brace and for a time, it looked grim for Tim. He was totally determined to recover, and despite the most brutal pain, he has recovered and is back racing. He ran the Boston Marathon and he won Ironman 70.3 races recently.  Check out the video here.   While I’m a big Jan Frodeno fan, this year I’m rooting for Tim.

Tim, massive respect.  Same to you On Cloud.

I’m not expecting the shoes to make me faster, but I do hope a little bit of Tim’s positive outlook on life will seep through those laces.






Well done Microsoft

Appropriately  on  global accessibility awareness day (GAAD),  Microsoft launches a new games controller.

“The Xbox adaptive controller features two large buttons for hands, elbows or feet, as well as 19 ports to accommodate extra devices including mouth-operated ‘sip and puff’ quadsticks”  more details here and  here

Over the last few years, Microsoft has taken the lead, making accessibility an important product  attribute across its portfolio, rather than merely a compliance requirement.  All the industry could learn from Microsoft here.

People with disabilities have the same rights as the rest of us, we should build technologies that are inclusive.  While the laws and standards are finally getting to a point where the compliance pressure is growing, we shouldn’t need laws to force us to do the right thing.

Technology, when designed inclusively, is a force for liberation.  It enables jobs, friendships, fun, and freedom. When it is built narrowly, it isolates, it discriminates, it undermines.

Those of us who build software and technology wield great power. We should build it kindly, thoughtfully and inclusively.



Global leadership at Heilbronn

Many years ago, I had the excellent experience of being the corporate supervisor of Sabrina Dick’s Master thesis on HR shared service. Sabrina has since developed into a very successful HR manager at SAP, now leading HR in Eastern Europe.  I caught up with her a couple of months ago, and she mentioned that she had been doing some guest lecturing at her alma mater, in Heilbronn, and for the past few years she has run a series of lectures on global leadership.

Universities of Applied Science have a strong tradition of tight collaboration with industry.  I’ve always thought that the relationships between the Universities of Applied Science and Industry are a key element in German competitiveness.  The new campus in Heilbronn is really impressive, with generous support from the Dieter Schwarz Foundation, the founder of Lidl.

With Sabrina spending more time in Prague and other cities, she was looking for someone to take over the undergrad lecture on global leadership. I met Prof Erner, who leads the department, we agreed that I would run the course for the spring semester.  The course runs over two weekends, with a long evening lecture on Friday, continuing through most of Saturday. Then in June, the students will present their assignments back to me and the class.   You can see more about the broader programme here.

The role of the external lecturer is to augment the core teaching program, and it is expected that you combine your own practical experience with the appropriate theory.  The cool thing for me was that Sabrina had already established a successful program structure, so I didn’t need to build the curriculum from scratch.

Over the course of the first two days, we mixed discussion, theory overview, case studies, I shared rambling examples of my own leadership successes and especially blunders.  I’d spent some time reviewing the text books, especially Northouse, Schein, Gundling, etc.  Given my South African background, I made sure we touched on the work of Adrian Furnham on management and leadership and I also introduced the students to Ubuntu, as I found most of the leadership textbooks to be rather US centric.  Sabrina had put together some excellent materials on how SAP develops leaders and managers, so that brought an additional practical element to the party.

Reviewing academic and practitioner materials on leadership was interesting, if sometimes a little frustrating.  There are no simple answers, and models are riddled with caveats.  There is still a lot that we don’t understand about how the human mind actually works, especially at work.

I have always admired Google’s approach to HR, at least from afar, in that they attempt to apply analytical rigour to what they do, by measuring and testing a lot.  I’m also pleased that Google like to share what they discover.  I was wondering why they share their findings so readily, given the competitive need to attract and retain, in what is a hyper-competitive employment market.  I suppose it is a form of virtue signalling, in that it enables them to communicate about their organization practices and values to prospective applicants, and more broadly to their stakeholders  (more on that another day).

A recent google study noted the importance of  psychological safety as a factor for team performance and it is one that I will more consciously aim to encourage in my own work environment.  See here for more of psychological safety.  I really need to figure out what Laslo’s new venture is all about too.

Back to the course. I enjoyed first weekend, and I hope the students did too. Now the students will work in teams, and are going to prepare  presentations on the following topics.

  1. Are people born as leaders or shaped?
  2. Traditional leadership theories in the context of global leadership.
  3. the role of trust in the context of global leadership
  4. Growing global talent pools
  5. Case studies of global leadership
  6. The challenge of intercultural teams. how best to manage them
  7. Diversity in the context of global leadership
  8. Learning from the google research into psychological safety.

I’m really looking forward to see what they will come up with.I’ll blog more after the presentations.




Cloud Computing and vague recollections of the Anarchical Society.



elicited this magnificent response.

Hedley Bull was a famous international political scientist,  he wrote several books. They weren’t easy reading is putting it mildly.  I only read Anarchical Society. At the time I read it, in 1990,  everyone was talking about Francis Fukuyama’s End of History, which, at the risk of over-simplifying it,  predicted that liberal western democracy was the end game of politics, and the totalitarians and the communists were history.  Bull’s view of international politics saw things rather more messily.

Cloud computing architectures today have optimized for and thrived under a Pax Americana construct.  The model being, American cloud providers are the benevolent but hegemonial super power, and they run the world’s data for the rest of us, in a  suzerain system. Sort of like the British East India Company and the empire did with trade in the 19th Century. It is good for us all they tell us, but Amazon, Facebook and others are very much America First.  There has been a relentless centralisation of processing, driven largely economies of scale, technical efficiencies and a lack of regulatory constraint. Where processing takes place in the data colonies, it is has been usually for latency factors,  rather than compliance, but there are of course exceptions.

This model is under threat, from two very different political forces.

In Europe, the data colonised have, after years of inaction, passed a law with some teeth that challenges the US corporate position that data is a commodity that can be appropriated for beads and shells and consent forms that no-one understands. The GDPR will  require the data colonisers to change their behaviour, while Facebook is most egregious example, it would be foolhardy to assume they are the only data pillagers.  This  law is likely to force the colonisers to be a bit more careful with the data from the colonies, and it will embolden other colonials to be a bit more demanding too.  It is not quite the winds of change moment, but it is blowing in that direction.

International political stability  in the analogue world is in its most fragile and unpredictable state, probably since the fall of the Berlin wall.  Any remaining thoughts of America’s benevolent if clumsy peacekeeper role have vanished over the last year. American international politics is now capricious and erratic. Russia has become more belligerent.  Just this week Russian did software equivalent of blocking the Suez Canal, they simply blocked several of the major US cloud providers. Many solutions running on AWS, for instance, were no longer accessible.  Who needs a naval blockade when you can block the cloud port?   The post WWII geo-political landscape is sadly filled with war by proxy, witness Vietnam, Angola, Nicaragua, Afghanistan and so on. Now we have IP proxy wars too.  There is a long history of election manipulation, but it required brute force and sometimes backing coup d’ etat etc, today, that manipulation is through Facebook and Google etc.  Zittrain’s powerful  prediction of ‘digital gerrymandering’ has been vindicated by the Guardian’s revelations.

Software architecture decisions for the last 20 years have been made to optimise for application performance. Going forward things are going to get a lot more awkward. A while ago the Legal Scholar, Christopher Millard, wrote about the question of data sovereignty. Wise stuff.

Architectures of the future need to be designed to cope with an uncertain political and regulatory landscape. The next trade war will not just be about the price of steel, data will be constrained and choked too. Cloud vendors that want to operate effectively globally, are going to have challenge the assumptions that drove the centralisation of the last two decades.  To borrow from Taleb, today’s architectures are not anti-fragile.  We have moved a long way away from the initial decentralised premise of the internet. What started out as the epitome of anti-fragile, has become inherently fragile. The economic forces, aided by  regulatory indifference and incompetence have led to a centralisation and proprietarisation (horrible word, I know) of computing power.

Some will argue that answer is blockchain. I suspect that it, or more likely, the next generation of distributed ledger technologies will be part of the solution, but it not the complete answer. Indeed it was a blockchain application, telegram,  that drove the Russian data blockade decision.

The questions of international order and justice that occupied the minds of Hobbes, Mill, Marx, Hedley Bull and many others deserve closer revisiting in the digital world. I do wonder what Max Weber and JS Mill would have made of Facebook.



Handed in.


It has taken a while longer  than I originally envisioned, but yesterday I dropped off this weighty tome at the university. I’m not celebrating yet, as it still needs to be assessed, and then I need to defend it, but I’m very pleased to have got it to this point.  For the first time in a while I slept without dreaming about footnote citation styles.

The interaction between software and law is a rather messy and interesting  place.



Code is law. The case of law 36.

Larry Lessig’s Code and other Laws of Cyberspace of remains one of the most important books written about how software impacts law.  Lessing and other academics have shown how code has fundamentally changed copyright law.  The design of technology, especially software, changes the nature of regulation and enforcement of laws.  My academic work is in part about applying the insights of Lessig and others to enterprise software.

I have a habit of seeking out weird metaphors to explain things, sometimes in a long, convoluted fashion.

Readers of this blog will know that I am a fan of cricket.  Today, I have SA v India and Australia v England on in the background.

Law 36 is the leg before wicket law (LBW) in cricket.  Here is the law, explained brilliantly by the brilliant Stephen Fry.

Over the last few years technology has come to play an ever more significant role in determining the LBW decision. I’m generally a fan of DRS, the Decision Review System.  There are a variety of technologies in use today. Slow motion review, infra red cameras, edge detection and ball tracking. In many cases, it has made decision making fairer, and it adds to the fan experience. But DRS is not without controversy.


Ball tracking example. from DRS website.


Infra red (hot spot). (image via global cricket community)

Related image

Snickometer. (image via skysports)

In the Guardian today, a leading English cricketer, Jonny Bairstow “spoke of inconsistencies in cricket’s decision review system “messing with careers and livelihoods”

The article noted.

  1. It is not always clear with edge detection technology as to whether sound is from the ball hitting the bat, or from the pad or clothing noise. (for more on the acoustic theory, and how edge detection could be improved, see this post)  and this paper.
  2. There are different technologies in place around the world, and these work differently.
  3. the parameters of the same software are set up differently in different countries.

 Back to the metaphor, and some observations.

Code has partly replaced the umpire as the arbiter of the LBW decision. The programmer who codes the algorithm is now umpire. Code is Law 36.

Code creates an aura of infallibility that is not always earned. The algorithms are model representations of the real world, not the real world. It is a black box and unless you have an advanced degree in physics, impossible to understand or challenge. The fact that the technology is improving, by definition means that is still not infallible.

Consistent procedures around the code’s deployment are important in determining perceptions of procedural fairness. Standards, consistently applied,  are key.

People are willing to abdicate to code, provided that they perceive that the code and supporting procedures act consistently.

Making judgements with the input of technology takes practice, especially where the decision is not clear cut. For instance, interpreting sound wave curves requires training.

The technology can change faster than the law can adapt to it.

The use of the technology has changed the game. How batsmen respond to spin bowling has changed. The former England captain, Andrew Cook had this to say. 

“It has changed the way you play spin over the last couple of years,” Cook said. “You have to keep your pad out of the way and it certainly doesn’t matter how big your stride is because gone are the days when you would say, ‘Well, he’s a long way down’.”

More broadly than cricket.

As we build code to replace or augment human decision making, we need to hold those building the code and the processes around it to high standards. Jonny Bairstow has a point, when it is wrong,  you mess with people’s livelihoods. Law 36 is a fine example of the rather messy place where law and code meet.







Weak ties and breakfast

I was in Hamburg this week, with my family.  My Dad and I were able to go to the the New year’s eve daytime concert at the Elbphilharmonie. That experience will be the subject of another blog post, I’m still processing the majestic marvel that is the Elbphilharmonie. And I’m really impressed by Hamburg.

Just before heading up to Hamburg, I pinged Paul Jozefak to see if he could meet up for a coffee.  We met up for breakfast, and I’m very glad I did.  He is wise beyond his years, and generous with his advice and ideas.  We both enjoy cycling and as relatively eingedeutsched  ex-pat/immigrants we had similar views on living and working in Germany. Both of us have been here for the best part of 20 years, without really planning to be. 

Paul’s insight into the state of digitalization and the opportunities that it opens up in German economy is profound, and I have not met many people who understand the big company world, venture capital, and start ups as well as he does.  He has an excellent, long running, blog.  

It was Jeff Nolan who introduced us many years ago, and we stayed in touch via social media. I think this was the first time we had managed to do face to face since then.

It reminded me of the Dunbar number and Granovetter’s research on weak ties that I first learnt about from reading JP Rangaswami and Andrew McAfee, if my memory still works correctly.  

While social media can be time sink, at times it offers up a connection and relationship that makes me realise that it has real utility.

That reminds me, it is high time that I meet JP in person too. But rather than breakfast, I hope it is at tea, at the Oval, or Lords, perhaps.


Sandalwood and SaaS.

It was a lovely day in Geneva.  The lake and sky were competing for which had the nicest shade of blue.  The alps looked close enough to touch.  It even smelt like spring.  I’d like to say it was the blossoms on the trees, but it wasn’t.  Colleagues from SAP SuccessFactors and I were visiting L’Occitiane’s office. I’m not sure what precisely they were distilling that morning, but I do remember the lovely scents of sandalwood, lavender, and jasmine.  I’m sure there was a lot more in the air, but that is where my olfactory sophistication ends.

That day, we met Xavier, who was pushing hard for a major HR transformation at L’Occitiane.  We talked a lot about the business, and how it was this mix of retail, marketing, design, fashion and R&D. We heard from him about the history of the business and how it has grown rapidly, but that it still has its roots in Provence. He was passionate about building better processes for the employees across the organization.

L’Occitiane were kind enough to give me a bunch of product samples that afternoon. These were quickly annexed by my girls when I returned home.

It made me smile today when I saw their SuccessFactors go live press release.  Congratulations to Xavier and the team. The scent of sandalwood somehow made its way back through my memory. It also reminds me that I still have Christmas shopping to do. Their after shave balm is rather nice too.