Remembering Pat McGovern

“Boston, MA – March 20, 2014 – International Data Group IDG announced today with great sadness that its Founder and Chairman, Patrick J. McGovern, died March 19, 2014, at Stanford Hospital in Palo Alto, California.”

via Remembering Pat McGovern |

I worked for Pat McGovern for eight months in 2005 when I was running online at CXO — the branch of IDG publishing that published CIO, CSO, CMO Magazines. I competed against his publications in the early 80s when I worked for PC Week, the arch-rival of IDG’s InfoWorld.

There are going to be a ton of Pat McGovern stories told over the next few days. Here’s mine.

While Pat was a lion in technology publishing he was also one of the first and most influential western businessmen to operate in the People’s Republic of China.  His presence in China, his reputation there to this very day, is legendary and made him the most well known and respected Westerner sin the Chinese tech sector. His VC investments in the likes of Baidu were early and massive successes. The man even spoke Mandarin.

During the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics I was surprised to find myself riding in the back of a bus with Pat on our way to a private dinner with Lenovo’s senior executives and some heavy hitting senior execs from Qualcomm, Google, Microsoft, Intel, AMD, etc.. I saw him sitting alone in the back of the bus, so I sat down beside him and started chatting him up, thanking him for the opportunity to briefly work for him before quitting to join Lenovo. He was legendary for his photographic memory and immediately made the connection and started peppering me with questions.

As the bus crawled through traffic it was apparent that most everybody sitting within six rows of us was eaves-dropping on the conversation, most of them unaware of who Pat was. He was a big man but a soft spoken one; not at all brash or loud.  So I introduced him around  to the people in the adjacent seats as the first Westerner to do business in Communist China, well before Deng’s market reforms that led to “capitalism with Chinese characteristics” and unlocked the Chinese growth we marvel at today. I urged Pat to tell the bus the story of how he infiltrated China in the 1970s. The story went roughly like this: Pat was on a flight from Japan to Russia and figured out he could make a “connection” in Beijing. This is back in the era of Nixon-Mao and PingPong diplomacy. Let’s just say there were no princelings drag racing Ferrari’s around the third ring road back then. Anyway, the plane lands, Pat looks out the window, amazed he’s this close to the mysterious closed country. So he gets off the plane. The plane leaves without him. The Red Guard are confronted with this American standing in their airport essentially saying “Take me to your leader.”

Pat humbly regaled the bus for 30 minutes with the story of how he invaded China, set up the first Chinese tech publications, and earned the trust and respect of the Chinese government. When we arrived at the restaurant it was my Chinese colleagues who really lit up at the sight of him, hustling him away to a place of honor next to the chairman and CEO of Lenovo as befitted the father of Chinese computer journalism.

He was a genuinely great man. Here’s his story of how he entered China as captured in the official IDG oral history:

Continue reading “Remembering Pat McGovern”

If I were the CIO of the US ….

Over the past twenty years I’ve been around enough web site launches, redesigns, platform swaps, RFPs, RFQs, consultants, vendors, third-party developers, project managers, stakeholder/steering committee meetings and total crashes and site failures to feel eminently qualified to say the smoking crater in the ground known as the Obamacare website was guaranteed to happen the day it was conceived.


And the fix is simple. Seriously. Pick up the phone. Call Werner Vogel at Amazon or Larry Page at Google — arguably the two best web infrastructure guys on the planet — and ask them to fix it. Privatize it.  Make it a marketing triumph for IBM or Oracle. Screw the GSA bidding process, screw the consultants, the parasitic systems integrators looking for $10 million engagements, and the whole federal procurement process that is designed to deliver broken, grey blobs that never work. There’s only one solution and that’s to go to the private sector and have a single company accustomed to zero-defects and a lot of uptime “nine’s” build it.

Some people are saying the government should have gone open source and used WordPress or Drupal to build this pig. Wrong.  Those are wonderful content management systems, but the problem isn’t the content and it’s not whether or not this thing was built with MySQL or Oracle or a left-handed monkey wrench — the problem lies deep beneath the timed-out sessions, 404 pages and error messages — it’s the underlying transaction processing engine that lies under the surface like the giant fungus on the Olympic Peninsula that is the world largest living organism. This isn’t about code, this isn’t about servers or bandwidth, Hadoop, PHP or whatever the technical problem is. It’s about a bureaucracy building the ultimate bureaucratic system.

Here’s how it works: is just the visible manifestation of the visible portion of the whole platform, one that is supposed to steer consumers to an informed selection of a health plan offered by a distributed network of commercial health insurance companies.  The platform needs to talk to each insurer’s own web infrastructure and accommodate their rules and standards. That’s complex enough, but let’s assume some middle-ware solution to define a common data-interchange was put in place so the government site could handle all the private insurers systems. Check. But before the consumer can get to the insurers they need to register in order to browse.

And we have failure point number one. Any ecommerce operator knows registration is a total buzz killer to a shopper. Get the crap in the cart, and then, when the trigger is ready to be pulled, you roll out registration. Registration itself is database intensive. It means creating a record via a form of fields — last name, DOB, SSN, etc. — and then some form of confirmation via an email that is generated by the system and sent to the user to click on a validation link, etc..  We all know the drill. This is like asking all the fans of tonight’s World Series game at Fenway to stand outside on Landsdowne Street and Yawkey Way until 7:55 pm with first pitch at 8 pm. The gates open, but before each fan can pass through the turnstile they need to fill out a form, submit it, wait for a confirmation to appear on their phone, click that, and then the turnstile can turn. People start to panic. They hit submit a few times. They hear the Star Spangled Banner and they start to push, next thing you know people are being trampled like door busters at a Long Island Walmart at 12:01 am on Black Friday.

Some government dimwit(s) decided to make registration mandatory before browsing. Dumb. Register at the point of the transaction, not the window shopping. Most of the traffic wanted to see what the big deal was. Sure, some entered expecting to leave with a transaction successfully completed, but some just wanted to browse. So let them browse.

The reason it was decided to make users register first was determine their eligibility and show them the plans that fit their circumstances. This is where the website is more than a bunch of pretty screens and a Drupal CMS — this is the Octopus underneath it all that has to take the registration information, (probably the social security number) and run it through a ton of government databases. I have no idea which ones are being pinged, but let’s assume they range from the Social Security Administration to the IRS to Health and Human Services, maybe state social services, Immigration, Veterans ….the list goes on. Who cares? It had to happen and it wasn’t going to be easy. When the requirements were put together for the exchange, the main challenge was determining eligibility and segmenting the set of plans any consumer could see based on certain factors — e.g., oh, you live in Massachusetts, you’re already in an exchange set up by Mitt Romney, so you can go away. Goodbye.   One can assume — the government loving complexity because complexity fuels bureaucracies and bureaucracies exists to project the bureaucracy  — that the Obamacare website is being asked to route and receive a ton of distributed requests because one after another, as the requirements were gathered, a lot of hands went up and said, “Well, we need to include this of course.” And so the system started to sprout a lot of hair.

This country put a man on the moon. Now it can’t build an online exchange?

Anyway, so Failure Point number two: too much bureaucracy and trying to hit too many external systems to qualify the consumer. Got it. That one was unavoidable but manageable and is by no means a trivial thing to solve.

Gauging from the squirming testimony before Congress and the finger pointing among the contractors that is going on, the biggest failure here was not Cool Hand Luke’s “failure to communicate” but a lack of leadership and a strong project management office.  One can imagine what the set of different stakeholders looked like on this project. You’ve got elected officials who can’t find their ass with both hands when it comes to voting on ordinary legislation, let alone technology development; professional government bureaucrats who guard their silos; a bunch of external contractors trying to salvage a 15% profit from their work, all screaming that the requirements are changing too much and the deadline is too aggressive while they offshore the coding to a “low cost operating center”….. This is why communists are shitty capitalists. You can’t get stuff done in a Soviet tractor factory.

Failure point number three: lack of governance. There was no “one throat to choke” on this. Otherwise we’d be seeing a single hapless victim being pilloried as the Obama administration throws a sacrifice to the angry gods. This project needed to be owned at the top, managed like an army on a campaign with a strong project management office, and that project management office should have been throwing warning flags all last summer. Rather than launch it when it was ready, it was launched under a political maelstrom of tin-foil hat Congressmen trying to defund the entire program, a President determined to hit deadlines instead of usability levels and the result was a classic case of too many cooks, not enough accountability, and political forces trumping logical best practices in project management.

Final point of failure:  complexity. Too many contractors, too many stakeholders, too many systems …. The President likes to dine with the CEOs of Silicon Valley. He rubs elbows with Gates and Schmidt and the rest of the gang. Hell, Bezos just bought the Post and is officially a heavy hitter in D.C. — pick up the phone, call one of them, say, “Name your price, just make it work.” And tah dah. Let Congress piss and moan that the RFP didn’t follow procurement guidelines. At least America would have a website that works instead of a national embarrassment alongside its Congress, it’s infrastructure, its banks, it’s college loans …. This thing was built by committee and nothing good ever was built by committee.

The fact that Congress is holding hearings to find the smoking gun in the smoking crater is risible. They need some serious infrastructure geeks to get up there and pull a Richard Feynman drolly demonstrating why space shuttles blow up when rubber O-rings are dipped in a glass of ice water. Not the good Congressman from North Dakota who can’t operate anything more complicated than his Blackberry.


There are days when I miss Beijing

Maybe it’s because of my memories of the summer Olympics in 2008, but for some reason I miss Beijing, even with its atrocious air quality. Such a wildly dynamic city, the most energy I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen Dubai and I’ve seen Las Vegas. Thanks to Bob Page for sharing this:

Huang Hua: 1913-2010

Huang Hua, the former Foreign Secretary and Vice-Premier of China passed away on Friday at 97. I said my farewells to him last winter during a visit to Beijing, and wish I’d had more opportunities to get to know him, having had one wonderful evening with him during my first trip to Beijing in 2006 when his wife He Liliang and he welcomed me to their hutong for a roast duck dinner. Any conversation that ranges from the negotiations of the end of the Korean War to life in New York City in the early 1970s as the Chinese ambassador to the United Nations (where he served as president of the Security Council) is a dinner conversation that comes along but once in life. He was a true witness to history, having been with Mao from the very beginning, acting as China’s window to the west in his role as friend and translator to the journalist Edgar Snow who’s Red Star Over China is regarded as the book that brought the Communist Revolution to the attention of the western world. From his role in negotiating the  Nixon-Mao talks to his influence over the massive reforms that led to the modern Chinese miracle, he will be remembered as a founding father of the Chinese state.

My condolences to his widow, my brother in law Huang Bin and my sister Deidre Nickerson and the rest of his family. A state funeral will be conducted next month and his obituary in the New York Times can be found here.

Fascinating obituary – Joan Hinton from bombs to cows

During my first visit to China in the spring of 2006 my step-sister took me along to a cocktail party for a Spanish filmmaker in an astonishing old home in the western part of Beijing. The host, an American, was a great raconteur and told me the story of growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution, the son of a remarkable woman who left the U.S. after World War II to join the Communist cause under Mao. I took some shots of his house, lost in the shadows of the skyscrapers popping out of the ground around it. And was all agog when he took me on a tour through the tunnels and catacombs below.

This morning, while flipping through the New York Times, his mother’s obituary jumped out at me.

“Joan Hinton, a physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project, which developed the atom bomb, but spent most of her life as a committed Maoist working on dairy farms in China, died on Tuesday in Beijing. She was 88….

“In 1948, alarmed at the emerging cold war, she gave up physics and left the United States for China, then in the throes of a Communist revolution she wholeheartedly admired. “I did not want to spend my life figuring out how to kill people,” she told National Public Radio in 2002. “I wanted to figure out how to let people have a better life, not a worse life.”

“In China she met her future husband, Erwin Engst, a Cornell-trained dairy-cattle expert, who went on to work on dairy farms as a breeder while she designed and built machinery. During the Cultural Revolution, they were editors and translators in Beijing.

“Ms. Hinton applied her scientific talents to perfecting a continuous-flow automatic milk pasteurizer and other machines. For the past 40 years, she worked on a dairy farm and an agricultural station outside Beijing, tending a herd of about 200 cows.”

There’s a movie or book in her life. Grandfather invented the jungle gym. Mother founded the Putney School in Vermont. She qualified for the Olympic Team in skiing. Amazing. My condolences to her son Fred and her family.

It’s a hoot

While in Beijing I stayed at the Intercontinental Hotel on the Olympic plaza, scene of the 2008 Summer Olympics which remain one of the more fun things I’ve ever experienced. Being a tad plump from the holidays I have entered the New Year a devoted walker — taking inspiration in the poet William Wordsworth who logged an obsessive 15 miles a day in his beloved Lake District of England.

While at the Intercontinental I have taken the habit of a morning and evening constitutional down the broad promenade of the Olympic plaza. With the blue Water Cube and the magnificent Bird’s Nest stadium, the astonishing Blade Runner Media Center tower, it is a very cool place to take the air and stretch the legs.

In the mornings, while it is still dark, at the northern end of the plaza, there is a subway station and beyond it a man-made hill and park. There I stop, kick the wooden fence to mark my arrival, and turn for the walk back to the hotel.

The first morning I was very concerned by the distant sound of a man in distress. A terrifically loud “Ho-Ho-Ho!!!” noise that I can only describe as a human rooster. The single loud voice in the darkness was off-putting. Was the man deranged? Was he being beaten? Would he find and beat me?

I walked faster, bound for my destination but not wanting to cross paths with the Hooting Man.

Then a man behind me hooted. This was bad.  I was surrounded. The asylum had been breached and the psychotics were loose. Then a lady cruised by in the darkness walking backwards and vigorously clapping her hands. Another man along windmilling his arms. He tilted back his head and let fly a lusty “HEY-HA-HEY-HA-HEY!”

I turned on my camera to record the sounds. Listen to the first few seconds. There is no picture as it was dark.  This is a morning ritual on the Olympic Plaza — lung exercises. The ladies-who-walk in Cotuit should do this.  It would endear them to the late sleepers on Main Street.


Greetings from PEK

Arrived in Beijing on Monday afternoon and have been in meetings non-stop Tuesday through today (Thursday). Last  night I connected with my brother Tom who is in country for the first time in his life and his Chinese colleagues suggested a restaurant near the Olympic complex that specialized in “Muslim Cuisine” from the western region of the country. Off we went, ending up in a basement disco where an Elvis impersonator and some ethnic dancers did a floor show while we ate meat on a stick and lots of lamb.

We passed on a whole lamb. This was on the menu and my brother nicknamed it “Snow Puff.”

We drank too much baiju and I am not well today and belching faint reminders of mutton under my  breath.

Home tomorrow. No time for any church/temple visits while in China.

Leon Xie is creating new baseball mythology in China: If he builds it, they will come. | The Mercury Brief

Leon Xie is creating new baseball mythology in China: If he builds it, they will come.

From The Mercury Brief: Olympic colleague Bob Page profiles Olympic colleague Leon Xie on his first year as head of Major League Baseball in China. Having watched the medal round between the USA and Japan and the final between Cuba and South Korea, I count the 2008 Olympic baseball experience at Wukesong Park as one of my personal highlights.

Leon was the man on the spot in managing our massive technology rollout during the games. He’s a great person and has an amazing job and challenge ahead of him.

Now to find out if he can help me find an official Chinese Olympic baseball jersey from 2008.

Great interview.

via Leon Xie is creating new baseball mythology in China: If he builds it, they will come. | The Mercury Brief.

A year ago …

The Olympic Green from my hotel room.

Very sentimental trip to Beijing this week, a return to the scene of last summer’s Olympic Games. Amazing how the city continues to sparkle.

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