Signal to Noise

Living in a tech town like Waterloo I find there is a cultural bias towards what is new, what is modern versus things and ideas that may be old, timeless. There is a relentless pressure to keep on top of things, to refresh Twitter and seek out the novel and the exciting. Yet I find there is far more value to what is classic, what is enduring, the things and ideas that have stood the test of time.

This is a topic that has come up in my readings lately and from people such as Ryan Holiday, Tim Ferris, Nassim Nicholas Taleb and others. Old books and old principles always have the answers.

Often the things that are new seem important and vital but they end up proving to be irrelevant . What is the half life of information of something posted yesterday on social media ? That article on Bernie Sanders or Andrew Yang is out of date very quickly. A classic book however such as the “Meditations” of Marcus Aurelius has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to provide relevant advice to readers hundreds of years from now.

As Ryan Holiday writes in the Daily Stoic;
Of course, one should always avail themselves of the latest research and the newest books. The problem is that for far too many people this comes at the expense of availing themselves of wisdom from the wisest minds who ever lived. “I don’t have time to read books,” says the person who reads dozens of breaking news articles each week. “I don’t have time to read,” they say as they refresh their Twitter feed for the latest inane update. “I don’t have time to read fiction—that’s entertainment,” they say as they watch another panel of arguing talking heads on CNN, as if that’s actually giving them real information they will use.

The modern cellphone addiction leads to not only poor posture and kyphosis but also to a cortisol increase and FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). With discipline, and studying the things and ideas that have endured you can strive to get to the bottom of things; finding truth rather than trivia.

This can be applied throughout your life, not just what you watch and read. I am a pragmatic engineer and conservative by nature. I identified in an earlier post that what seems like an exciting new idea, SD-WAN, is really just another swing in the cycle of private versus public networking. My tastes run to the classic and enduring like a good steak dinner or a live symphony performance of Beethoven’s 9th.

So take some time today to examine your life and your habits. Find where you can read and learn from the classics, from the wisdom that has stood the test of time. Try to ignore the siren call of the smartphone and social media; that is just noise. Filter it out and search for the truth, the signal hidden behind the noise.

BlackBerry Town

It has been a while since I have written about what I have been reading. So here is a book review on one that may not be on your radar, but would make a good read if you are interested in tech and telecom and innovation in Canada.

I previously reviewed the story of Research in Motion (RIM) called Losing the Signal, by Globe journalists Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff here . This book is different as it explores the wider Waterloo Region tech community that gave rise to BlackBerry and many other great tech companies. I got my copy at the Communitech Annual General Meeting (AGM) this fall. AurorA has been a member of Communitech, our local high tech association dating back to 1998.

The stories in this book were personal to me as I lived through this history; many of the names, events and people mentioned are very familiar to me. After graduating Engineering at the University of Waterloo in 1983 I had lived and worked in telecom all across Ontario before starting AurorA in international telecommunications and then moving back to Waterloo in 1996. Just when the fun was really starting.

What Chuck Howitt, a retired reporter from the Waterloo Record, describes in this book is that there was a lot going on before the emergence of RIM (BlackBerry) and there is still a lot going on in Waterloo after the fall from grace of the company that invented the modern smartphone. This area has always had an entrepreneurial spirit that was reflected in companies that excelled in many industries ; originally rubber, whiskey, electronics. (BF Goodrich, Uniroyal, Seagrams, Electrohome etc). The K/W region was home to people with a strong work ethic informed by the Mennonite “barn raising” ethos that fostered co-operation. The practical leaders of those industries set about founding a new institution, the University of Waterloo.

The University of Waterloo was different from the ivy covered campuses that historically were prevalent in Upper Canada like Queens and the University of Toronto. Its focus was more practical, technological and pragmatic. UW became a worldwide leader in mathematics, computer technology, engineering and Co-op Education. It also had a very novel Intellectual Property policy, that let entrepreneurs retain ownership of their ideas. All of these traits led to many spinoff companies in the area by graduates and even professors.

Between 1996 and 1998, six local tech firms went public (when that was still the preferred way to raise money, don’t get me started on private equity and unicorns). They were OpenText, MKS, Descartes, ComDev, Dalsa and RIM. All of a sudden, the world took notice of what was happening in Kitchener/Waterloo. Outside of the San Francisco Bay area, this was the place to be in tech.

There are many great stories in the book about the evolution of this tech ecosystem, about Communitech, about the two founders of RIM, Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie, and about the meteoric rise of BlackBerry. Some superb local stories about the growth and dealing with the growing pains. The other organizations that the RIM co-founders fostered like CIGI, The Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and the Institute for Quantum Computing. And of course he describes the fall from grace of Blackberry.

Some people thought the demise of BlackBerry after the competitive threats from Apple, Samsung and Google’s Android would spell the death of Waterloo Region. But this book also describes the resilience of the area, the diversity and depth of the talent and the rise of other generations of tech firms; Kik, Sandvine, Desire2Learn and others like North ,Vidyard, Auvik, Miovision, ClearPath Robotics. Waterloo Region remains the highest density of start-ups outside of Silicon Valley. And it is still the epicentre of tech in Canada.

So if you are interested at all in tech and telecom and innovation, I highly recommend that you pick up and read this book.

How We Can Win

As usual a good part of my summer relaxation was reading. While on vacation in the Spectacular Northwest Territories I indulged in fiction (Neil Gaiman who is a favourite of mine, Jo Nesbo for spare Nordic crime stories and a Young Adult book “Gregor, the Overlander” from my stepson) as during the year I read mainly non-fiction. My family knows that I love books, so I try to make gift giving easy by having “Wanted Reading” lists prominently posted. One book that I got for Christmas and have been itching to read was Anthony Lacavera’s “How We Can Win – And what happens to us and our country if we don’t” which I finally got to read !

This book is a call for action for all Canadians to Dare to Succeed, to apply the same lessons that we learned in Olympic medal success with our Own the Podium program to our business and economic life. He argues that our future prosperity, and being able to afford all the things we value as Canadians, our social safety net, universal health care, our high quality education system are all dependent on us changing our beliefs and then acting on improving our productivity, innovation and competitiveness. Especially our international competitiveness.

I was lucky enough to have met Anthony Lacavera once in the past, back when Globealive had bought Yak, around 2008. He was very smart, friendly and engaging. Plus I have heard him speak at the Canadian Telecom Summit many times when he was running WIND, the scrappy cellphone company that was challenging the Bell/Telus/Rogers mobile oligopoly . As my entire career in telecom has been on the competitive side, cutting my teeth during the Long Distance wars back in the early 1990’s I was really anticipating reading the WIND story and learning more details about what actually happened.

The entire first chapter is devoted to WIND and its various trials and tribulations. Some of the anti-competitive roadblocks that WIND ran into challenging the incumbents sounded very familiar. The oligopoly does not play fair when their protected position is threatened. The Federal government and the regulator allow this. Lacavera presents it all as Exhibit A of why our business culture here in Canada has to change if we are to succeed as a nation. Our telecom sector is coddled, not required to compete against the best in the world, and hence our other businesses, enterprises and citizens overpay for substandard services. And since telecom services are THE key input in an information economy it hampers all other sectors ability to innovate, compete and be productive.

Lacavera then proceeds to highlight in subsequent chapters other factors that are holding back Canadians in winning in the global marketplace. He highlights our attitudes and belief systems , the Canadian mentality to “Go for Bronze” or a participation award rather then aiming to win big, as if wanting to come first was “Un Canadian”. The lack of funding available to high growth startups, from angel investors and from venture capital which is much harder to get in Canada. Highly touted Government R&D and innovation programs are designed to maximize political gains and spread large amounts of money around the country, often ineffectively. There is no true policy for identifying sectors or companies that show true promise of being disrupters that can be scaled to tackle global markets.

We have seen some of these arguments before in various studies and expert panels that the Federal government commissions and then ignores or only partially implements. The book does a good job of integrating many of them such as the Jenkins panel in 2011, Naylor in 2015, Wilson in 2008. The book brings all of these and more into one cohernet call for action, not just for government but for all of us.

One of the most positive and optimistic chapters highlights some of the work being done at the Creative Disruption Lab at the University of Toronto. Here start-up founders could get a “dose of judgement” from seasoned entrepreneurs who had “been there, and done that”. They can share their experience, network connections, and judgement with young founders. Start-ups have to compete hard to get into (and stay in the program), as do MBA students, industry types and anyone else who wants to observe. The chapter has some great examples of start-ups that have benefitted and were able to accelerate their growth providing concrete proof that we can do this here.

My only quibble with the book would be a personal one as I live and work in Kitchener/Waterloo. There are many references made to people and companies from Waterloo. Tom Jenkins(Open Text), Jim Balsillie (RIM, Blackberry), Ted Livingston (Kik), Stephen Lake (Thalmic Labs), Mallory Brodie (Bridgit) were some that come to mind. I understand that Anthony Lacavera has ties to Toronto, but I would have expected to read more about the culture of entrepreneurship and innovation that is happening here in Waterloo where world leading companies have already emerged and where we are home to the second highest density of tech start-ups outside of Silicon Valley. A lot of what he is prescribing is actually happening here.

I quite enjoyed this book and whole heartedly recommend it; both for general business audiences but especially to anyone who is an executive in Canadian telecom.

The Black Swan


For Christmas I received a copy of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “Skin in the Game”. Before I start it, though, I am reading through his previous works, collectively known as the “Incerto”. I had read “Anti-fragile” and “Fooled by Randomness” in the past and have just completed “The Black Swan”. In another upcoming post I will provide my reviews on them.

Today is a meditation on Black Swans and my life in telecom. People beleived that all swans were white; until they saw a rare black one. For Taleb, the Black Swans are the events that happen in areas where our thinking and mental models fail to realize that they follow fractal probability distributions and not those bell curves that they taught us in high school. His favourite example is the turkey, who is fed for 1000 days straight, and so continues to forecast that this pattern will continue…up until the day before Thanksgiving. His lesson ? Don’t be the turkey !

Fractal distributions are also known as power-law distributions and a popular version is the 80-20 rule. Eighty percent of your revenue will come from twenty percent of your customers and similar effects. We can see such models at work in lots of places; the distribution of incomes (no matter how much the left rails against “inequality”) the box office of movies, best seller books, the rise of the giants of Silicon Valley (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Netflix etc) where network effects and first mover advantage have the giants dominating their respective markets.

So how does one thrive in areas where the “winner take all” phenomena means that the lion’s share goes to a small number of players ? That is what got me thinking about my experience in telecom.

The first lesson, in working in such environments, is that first and foremost you must survive. As we saw in the financial crisis of 2008, companies like Long Term Capital Management thought they were risk averse by using sophisticated algorithms and models designed by academics. In reality they were very exposed to Black Swans that ended up taking them down and almost the entire financial system. Never risk everything, as survival is paramount.

I am proud that AurorA has been in operation for over 24 years. There have been four or five major pivots along the way, but the company has survived and thrived. This is also Nature’s model. Mother Nature has many strategies that have evolved to ensure survival, such as redundancy among our body parts which is not “optimal”. It is why we value the experience and wisdom of our elders; they have seen previous Black Swans and survived and can pass on that knowledge (if we are willing to listen).

The second lesson I took from this is that even though fractal distributions predominately reward a few, they also leave a long fat tail. In a multi-billion dollar industry like telecom, that means that there are plenty of niche opportunities in that fat tail that can be mined. That is precisely how I have operated AurorA , whether entirely consciously or not. AurorA specializes in international applications and specifically in the wholesale market; niches where I can exploit my competitive differentiators like quality and fraud mitigation to swim in a “blue ocean”. Those niches may be small, compared to the overall market, but they are plenty for AurorA to serve.

I am looking forward to reading “Skin in the Game” next and will report back to you with more detailed reviews of it and Taleb’s other books. Until then, keep reading !

Mother’s Day

There is a great anecdote in the book “Eccentric Orbits – The Iridium Story” that I reviewed in a previous post.

It was May 9, 2004. The technicians at the Network Operating Centres for the Iridium satellite system in Hawaii and Arizona noticed a high level of dropped calls (more precisely failure to connect) and a very high level of traffic in general. They were confused because everything seemed to be working normal, and the system could hand almost 100,000 calls at a time and there were barely 140,000 handsets in service at the time.

Then they noticed that all the calls were coming from one particular place, massive numbers of people were all trying to call over the same satellite. That is what was taxing the system, a specific geographic overload. You see, there were 146,000 American troops stationed in Iraq at the time. And that year, May 9 was Mother’s Day.

The only situation that could max out the Iridium system was Mother’s Day in a war zone.

Anyone who has spent time in network or traffic engineering for a telco knows that the busiest day on the network is Mother’s Day. Even more than Christmas, or any other holiday. That is why I laughed when I read that story as it immediately resonated with me. All these soldiers and Marines HAD to call home on Mother’s Day.

So make sure that your network is ready for this Sunday, because the traffic is going to ramp up bigly.

And don’t forget to call your Mother !

Tales from the Telecom Trenchs

I am a long time voracious reader. It is a habit developed as a kid and I’ve kept it up throughout my life. Usually, in the hour before going to bed I try to turn off all electronics and spend some time reading. Often, I will also cart my latest book(s) with me to lunches, meetings and appointments so that I can dip into it if I have some time available.

My interests are wide, and includes non-fiction as well as fiction. Philosophy, histories, biographies, business books and self-help tomes are all of interest to me. Over the last year, there have been a few outstanding books on telecom that I wanted to share here with you.

Eccentric Orbits: The Iridium Story by John Bloom

I read this book over the Christmas holidays as mentioned in my Jan 7, 2018 blog post on quality six-sigma. I learned from it that the Six Sigma management philosophy on eliminating defects was pioneered by Motorola (and then exported to General Electric and to Japan). This book covers the history and the fascinating story of the Iridium LEO satellite system built by Motorola and the huge commercial and political battle to save it from being destroyed due to bankruptcy.

The story itself is fascinating, both from a revolutionary technology perspective and from a business, military and government perspective. It gives some great insight into the thinking that goes on behind the scenes and behind the headlines and how one determined man can make a difference.

It is also very relevant to our current times as there are now multiple groups trying to launch new LEO satellite constellations to provide broadband Internet anywhere on Earth; Elon Musk’s Space-X (Starlink), Richard Branson’s (and Qualcomm and Softbank) OneWeb (to be launched using Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin), and Mark Zuckerburg’s PointView Tech (Athena). The race to provide space-based connectivity has drawn interest from all of the Silicon Valley heavyweights.

I highly recommend reading this book as it will provide some useful context to the upcoming space-based battles as well as being a great tale on its own.

Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of Blackberry
by Sean Silcoff, Jacquie McNish

This is the story of the Blackberry, from the company formerly known as Research in Motion. Told by two veteran Globe and Mail, Report on Business journalists it brings to life one the premier Canadian technology success stories.

This was very fascinating to me as I lived through this time and this story. Blackberry is headquartered here in Waterloo; this is a very local and vary familiar story. I recognized many of the people and events in the book and found it incredible to read it all again.

It highlights the founders Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie and how they revolutionized telecommunications by inventing a whole device, the smartphone. There was a time where the “Crackberry” ( a very addictive device) was THE phone to have; whether you were in business, finance or even the President of the USA.

Yet, from the heights of owning the market, Blackberry fell due to a combination of factors, all outlined in this riveting tale.

Again, highly recommended both as a celebration of a Canadian success story, but also as a cautionary tale.

Broadbandits: Inside the $750 Billion Telecom Heist by Om Malik

This book is now almost fifteen years old. Om Malik is someone I have immense respect for. He was an investigative reporter when he wrote this before he launched GigaOm, one of the top technology and business blogs in the world and turned it into a media company and research firm. He is now a respected venture partner at True Ventures.I follow Om on social media and always look forward to his curated reading list each week.

Broadbandits is another story that I personally lived through, and it also brought back many memories and many emotions, including a lot of swearing. It describes a lot of the financial fraud behind the telecom bubble of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Telecom giants such as WorldCom, Global Crossing, and the financiers and stock pundits who ended up causing huge financial losses.That telecom bubble affected me directly, as we were just in the process of trying to sell AMI when the market collapsed. Many friends lost a lot of money in the stock market collapse of these frauds.

Reading this book brought it all back to me. If you have been in telecom for a few years you will recognize some of these stories and may have the same reactions I did. If you have been in telecom for less than a decade, read this book to find out the real history and some of the deceit and lies and fraud that preceded you. Either way, it is important to remember the Wild West days of a stodgy industry like telecom here in North America (and Canada was NOT exempt).

Again, highly recommended.