What the Puck?
What kids’ hockey can teach us about underestimation
Ah, the situation had doom written all over it. My son was to play in a fall competitive inline hockey league, but I had held off signing him up for a less-competitive recreational league until I determined if the league game dates overlapped with the competitive league I really wanted him to play in. I waited so long that all the teams in the recreational league filled up; except one; a team was slowly being filled with procrastinating stragglers — the team my son Sean eventually signed on with.
An inline hockey team normally has14 or more players. A game requires four players, plus a goalie, and so it helps to have three lines of players to allow players to rest. We had five players, and one had to be reluctantly anointed the goalie. Dire straits to be sure. The first game was against the top-rated team in the league. They had 16 players. That meant they had almost four complete lines to send against our single line in a relentless assault that was sure to burn the legs from underneath our players.
I called my wife who couldn’t make the game. “It doesn’t look good. I think they’ll invoke the mercy rule in about five minutes.” The mercy rule in recreational hockey means they stop tallying the goals when a team leads by more then 10 so as not to send the young players into a depressed funk at game’s end.
Except for my son, no players from our team had arrived for the warmup, generally held 20 minutes before the game. I was worried. Slowly, I started to see a few sleepy kids roll their equipment bags to the edge of the rink and lackadaisically began to pull on their pads. With two minutes before game time, we finally had our team on the rink. The kids appeared small to me; thin little guys with spindly legs and toothpick arms.
A few players from the opposing team were smack-talking my son’s team. Terms such as “destroy” and “humiliate” were tossed around like chickenfeed.
Ten seconds after the initial face-off, one of our guys broke into the open and scored on the heavily favored team. I had an inward smile on my face. ‘At least we won’t be shut out’, I thought. But then, a minute later, as the best player on the opposing team was barreling down the rink towards our makeshift goalie, a skinny kid from our team, his curly blond hair flopping in the wind from beneath his helmet, broke into an astonishing chase that would have made Sidney Crosby proud. He caught the opposing center, stole the puck, and reversed direction in an instant. He was swarmed upon by the entire opposing line, and I anticipated he’d be assaulted mightily in a second or two, and robbed of his prize.
Au contraire, mon ami; the kid left the swarm behind and zigzagged past the few remaining defensemen in his path as though they’d been super-glued to the rink. Moments later, he fired a vicious and humiliating shot past the goalie putting us up by two.
About two minutes later, a massive kid from the other team took the puck from behind his goal and moved along the boards to his right. I’m guessing this player weighed about 170 pounds; big for a 13-year-old. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a photon in a black jersey vectoring towards the beast with the puck. In one gymnastic movement, our 100-pound defenseman left the surface of the rink and slammed the astonished player into the boards, dislodging the puck, and drawing a two-minute penalty for roughness in the process.
About five minutes later, two of our other little cheetahs joined our photon and were screaming down the rink passing the puck between them like a pintsized version of the 1980 Russian Olympic ice hockey team. Their skates sounding as though they were tearing burlap as they set up a complex play ending with a laser-like pass to a winger in front of the goal who snapped it in and then calmly skated back to center rink for the ensuing face-off.
This scenario was repeated until our paltry little team of four players with a makeshift goalie had racked up 12 goals.
Shocked, I sauntered over to my son’s coach.
“I can’t believe it. I’m speechless. That was incredible!”
“I don’t believe it myself.”
“Who are those kids? They’re fantastic.”
“I never met them before practice last night. It seems as though they are competitive ice hockey players who’ve been playing since they were four. They had decided to play at the last second, and I was asked to come in and coach. The one kid,” he said, pointing to the curly blond human thunderbolt, “he’s an elite AAA player who tours the country.”
“Ice hockey, eh? I guess that explains the kid checking their guy into the boards.”
“Yes, it does.”
In ice hockey, checking players is routine, in inline hockey, it’s not, and a sure bet to get at least two minutes in the penalty box, if not a major misconduct rap. I was woefully guilty of underestimating my son’s team. I should have known better from my business life.
Churning the informatics industry
Coupled with complacency, underestimation has served to churn the informatics industry on a regular cycle over the past two decades.
Here’s how the cycle works:
a) The top supplier starts winning orders based on reputation alone. Soon, word on the street creates a mental image in the minds of project teams that there is only one safe bet. Vendor demos are arranged with the clear winner in mind for the sole purpose of driving the price down on the supplier already known to be the winner.
b) Soon, arrogance sets in. The supplier begins to choke off product R&D investment money in an attempt to maximize the balance sheet. The product stagnates, but that’s okay because top-dog software houses often lack rearview mirrors. Somewhere, there is a hungry competitor in the shadows who is spending prodigious amounts of money to hone an application to a fine edge, and just like that, poof! Number one is now number two, and losing orders at a fast clip.
How that vendor responds is somewhat variable. But, over the course of my career as a consultant and then as a supplier, I’ve seen the cycle repeat with metronomic regularity. Customers are demanding not only versatility in their informatics platforms, but also reliability and value. Such demands have served to alter the vendor landscape, not to mention their product development plans. Proprietary, closed systems are out; standard tools and platforms are in.
Interestingly, it is the informatics software services organizations that are most often the target of purchasing agents. The mantra is familiar: “We want no customization,” and “We want not-to-exceed pricing.”
As to the first point, well, systems must be configured. Customers often perceive configuration as customization, and it’s not. Custom code is one-off stuff whereby configuration is utilizing features of the product. As to the second point; good luck with that ‘not-to-exceed’ clause. Look, suppliers don’t want to load hours onto their consultants to “run up the bill” for a lot of reasons. If a customer establishes an arbitrary ceiling on the project, it can work against them when work must cease because of heretofore undocumented requirements or change orders. Nobody wins in such situations.
Let me let you in on a little secret: contrary to the buffoonery suggested by Scott Adams in his Dilbert comic strip, informatics software consulting is not a hugely profitable industry. Well, it’s not unless senior analysts are used to specify and scope the work effort, and offshore labor is utilized to implement it. Truth be told, that model has worked well in other support industries, but not in informatics consulting. Companies who have tried to ship specifications to distant resources in the hope that magically-configured systems will be worked on in the dead of night and returned operational the next day, well, they have learned that complex informatics requirements beg a lot of face time.
Another thing: it is easy to train resources to configure a system; it is much harder to train resources to understand how systems should be deployed. These folks are in really high demand. Have you ever called the technical support arm of a company and been saddled with a first-line tech support resource who is barely a page ahead of you in the user manual? As you sit there seething, having waited 30 minutes to reach a live human, the green resource is checking flowcharts, or putting you on hold to go check with a “top tier” (AKA: competent) support specialist.
I had one such call a few months ago. My call went to a distant resource overseas, undeniably working the graveyard shift in some microscopic cubical bathed in florescent light. After I had corrected the resource on a number of occasions, I finally said, “Look, I’m sorry, this isn’t working out. I need to speak to your supervisor.” After much protest from my support tech, and even stronger insistence from me, I was transferred back to a “top tier” resource, based in the United States.
We’ll see if the informatics landscape follows this pattern again soon. Companies squeezing the last drops of revenue out of obsolete products without investment in R&D will be those who are viciously checked into the boards by an unlikely opponent.
Randy Hice is Director, Strategic Consulting at STARLIMS. He may be reached at editor@ScientificComputing.com