Thursday, September 4, 2008

Hitting Stumps

I grew up in a small farming community just seven miles south of Nowhere. Not much happened in my hometown, so we learned to really appreciate even the small events. In particular, the town had one major claim to fame: it was the site of the very first automobile accident in the entire world. The premier, never-before, first-of-its-kind fender-bender.

Yes, all this is absolutely true. Looking out my bedroom window, I could see this significant spot at the intersection of Liberty and Carmean Streets.

Each summer we celebrated this major historical event with a festival, holding a parade, turning the entire downtown block of Main Street into a carnival, and choosing a king and queen in honor of the wreck. But you probably want to know more about the accident.

Back around 1890, my hometown had a smart guy named John who tried to make an improvement on the ubiquitous horse-drawn buggy. He put a one-cylinder gasoline engine on a buggy chassis that had two back tires and a single tire in the front. For steering, John attached something like a hockey stick to the front tire, which he had borrowed from his wheelbarrow.

A picture of John's automobile (before the accident, of course)Eye witnesses said that John could get that souped-up runabout moving to about 15 miles per hour. Of course, this was before anybody considered enforcing speed limits on the city streets.

In fact, nobody had even thought of paving the roads yet, much less having seat belts, air bags, car insurance, or 24-hour tow trucks.

On one joyride around town with his buddy Jim, John must not have been paying attention to the road. When he got to my street, John either didn't see that tree stump or he was unable to maneuver around it, what with going at such a high rate of speed and steering a front wheelbarrow tire with a stick. He crashed his one-of-a-kind automobile and made history. Less than a hundred years later, we put up a nice sign commemorating John's poor driving ability.

Jim helped John push the damaged car back to his house a few blocks away, planning to make the world's first accident repairs.

John's luck was about to get worse. In some strange twist of fate, his garage burned down, destroying his unique wrecked car.

At the time, his neighbors were unaware of the historic significance of John's undertaking. Instead, they probably gave him a hard time about trying to be smarter than everybody else. Why replace oat-fed horses with noisy gasoline-powered engines? Especially since gasoline cost two cents per gallon!

John responded accordingly by packing his bags, saying goodbye to his soon-to-be famous friend (after all, Jim was the world's first automobile passenger accident victim), and leaving. Not only did John leave my small town behind, he left the state and moved to a emerging western territory called Indiana.

In a booming state at the beginning of the 20th Century, John quickly went to work on Automobile 2.0 (probably implementing new features such as four tires and an improved steering device) and made a name for himself in this hot industry. However, when you have an innovation with the potential to make money, lots of people want in on the action. Before long, John was competing against similar gasoline-powered vehicles with names like Auburn, Cord, Duesenberg, Dodge, Chevrolet, Cadillac, LaSalle, Pontiac, Plymouth, Ford, Oldsmobile, DeSoto, Buick, Mercury, Packard, and Kissell, just to name a few.

Over time, John and many of the original automobile innovators either dropped out, moved in a different direction, or were consolidated into bigger companies. Being a smart guy, John focused his energies on creating 600 patents and let the other firms pay him for his ideas.

You probably do not recognize some of these original automobile brand names as most are long gone. The automotive industry consolidated into a handful of manufacturers, some of which struggle today to survive.

Things change. You start with innovators like John who recognize problems and come up with cool new solutions. Of course, they may barrel down unpaved streets not yet ready for them and hit a stump. While that accident may scare off some early adopters, a few are still intrigued by these new contraptions. They muse, "There may just be something to the idea" and decide to get involved. Diffusion starts and, with at least some innovations, things really do get exciting. When the possibility of lots of money comes to this new innovation, some powerful people often decide to take control of it.

We have seen the same thing happen in the BI software industry. IBM now owns Cognos, an early innovator from the 1970s which had already merged other BI players into its brand. SAP has Business Objects, which had earlier bought Crystal Reports. Microsoft grabbed ProClarity and others. Oracle has Hyperion Solutions, which had already acquired Brio Software.

I read where Larry Ellison said that he sees no more innovation happening in the software industry.

That may be the real trend here. The guy at the early stage of the new idea takes chances and drives off down the bumpy road that may contain an unseen tree stump. If he manages to successfully navigate his way, some big guy may step in and say, "Thanks, John. I'll take it from here." The time for true innovation is then over and now it is business. The focus is on increased market share and improved profits.

No, I am not saying that big companies cannot innovate. Windshields, cup holders, heated seats, anti-lock brakes, navigation systems, and satellite radios are all nice new features and deserve polite compliments. But it's the truly big change like swapping your horse reins for a steering stick that is the stuff of legends for which you throw parades and hold street carnivals.

Did I mention that my close friend's Grandpa Jim was the world's first automobile passenger accident victim? Yes, absolutely true.


1891 Picture (Source: Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C.) as shown in the book, "Carriages Without Horses" by Richard P. Scharchburg.

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I am a project-based software consultant, specializing in automating transitions from legacy reporting applications into modern BI/Analytics to leverage Social, Cloud, Mobile, Big Data, Visualizations, and Predictive Analytics using Information Builders' WebFOCUS. Based on scores of successful engagements, I have assembled proven Best Practice methodologies, software tools, and templates.

I have been blessed to work with innovators from firms such as: Ford, FedEx, Procter & Gamble, Nationwide, The Wendy's Company, The Kroger Co., JPMorgan Chase, MasterCard, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Siemens, American Express, and others.

I was educated at Valparaiso University and the University of Cincinnati, where I graduated summa cum laude. In 1990, I joined Information Builders and for over a dozen years served in regional pre- and post-sales technical leadership roles. Also, for several years I led the US technical services teams within Cincom Systems' ERP software product group and the Midwest custom software services arm of Xerox.

Since 2007, I have provided enterprise BI services such as: strategic advice; architecture, design, and software application development of intelligence systems (interactive dashboards and mobile); data warehousing; and automated modernization of legacy reporting. My experience with BI products include WebFOCUS (vendor certified expert), R, SAP Business Objects (WebI, Crystal Reports), Tableau, and others.