I consult, write, and speak on running better technology businesses (tech firms and IT captives) and the things that make it possible: good governance behaviors (activist investing in IT), what matters most (results, not effort), how we organize (restructure from the technologically abstract to the business concrete), how we execute and manage (replacing industrial with professional), how we plan (debunking the myth of control), and how we pay the bills (capital-intensive financing and budgeting in an agile world). I am increasingly interested in robustness over optimization.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Tech Sector: Bull, Bubble or Both, and What It Means for IT (Part II)

In the previous post, we took a look at market factors that suggest the technology sector could be on a multi-year bull run, in a bubble, or possibly both. In this post, we'll look at what that means for leaders of captive IT departments and tech firms.

If tech is in a bull market or bubble, it means inflation and volatility for a lot of tech businesses and captive IT shops.

Lets look at inflation first.  Excess liquidity fueling a lot of tech companies will create a lot of tech jobs. So will tech investments made by traditionally non-tech firms (e.g., automakers and appliance makers are all in the software business now).  Despite all the progress in global sourcing, labor and jobs aren't universally mobile.  This means that demand (jobs) may outstrip supply (candidates) in specific markets.  When that happens, prices (wages) tend to rise. It's reasonable to expect that salaries and tech are going to inflate.

But inflation takes many forms.  In this case, a bull market for labor will inflate career paths.  When there are more jobs than people, hiring standards tend to decline.  Availability becomes a skill for candidates. This leads to people being over-promoted to fill vacancies, which creates misplaced expectation of competency.  It is just as bad for the hiring firm as it is damaging for the person hired. The more a business hires, the poorer it will perform, the more vulnerable it becomes.  Employees will find themselves in roles or on career paths for which they have few qualifications.

Inflation begets volatility.  When there's both wage and title inflation afoot, firms are likely to see higher staff turnover.  While a little staff change isn't inherently a bad thing, no firm wants to be desperately trying to fill positions in a job market where job seekers have the upper hand.  Staff volatility will obviously impair operations as situational knowledge erodes along with it.

Bull markets and bubbles create volatility of commercial technology.  New technologies such as tablets or rapid replacement markets such as smartphones are contests for market share of new units sold.  A large installed base of legacy customers isn't as valuable as costs of change are relatively low.

Bubbles, though, tend to amplify the effect of volatility with a sharp correction.  Tech marketplace battles can go on for a long, long time, especially when it's a market share game with high customer turnover.  Don't under-estimate the power of the sell side to buy customers, particularly if the sell side has deep pockets laden with investor capital.  Don't underestimate the stars buyers get in their eyes with the idea that they'll be able to get some slick tech capability unique to their business.  And don't underestimate the value-added resellers, custom appdev shops and other middle-men who will willfully exchange the hard money earned by being little dogs in the mainstream for the easy money that comes with being big dogs on the fringe.  The 1980s and 90s saw a lot of fringe technologies carry on for far longer than was economically justified. Investor cash - sometimes it's just excess liquidity, other times it's just dumb money - fuels the party. The longer this cycle perpetuates, the bigger the bubble inflates, the more severe the correction when the money runs out.

Bull or bubble, this will place a lot of demands on tech execs. What can you do?

Create resiliency in your staff.  Get in front of tech inflation by setting expectations with the CFO and head of HR. Reduce the risk of exit of key people and create broader bases of knowledge (less specialization, more generalization).  Recognize that it's one thing to fend off competition with other firms for staff you have, it's entirely another to have your staff poached by headhunters or former employees.  Be hypersensitive to staff targeting and have a plan at the ready (agreed already with the CFO, HR and key partners) should you need to aggressively retain.

Be creative in evolving relationships customers and suppliers.  Inflation and volatility will strain relationships between sell side and buy side, particularly between captive IT and tech services.  A lot of relationships became genuine partnerships in 2008 as firms found creative ways to sustain contracts and projects in what were difficult times for everybody.  But as the economics change in favor of the sell-side, the relationship dynamics will change, too.  Sell-side firms will pass salary increases to customers.  Loss of key people in delivery or relationship roles will reduce customer confidence.  Benevolence and capitulation are rarely rewarded, but creativity is.

Hedge your technology exposure. Take nothing for granted (remember that CP/M was going to be the dominant OS for microcomputers, until it wasn't), and pursue opportunities on alternative platforms to hedge your portfolio of business partners and revenue.  A little exposure to what looks like a short-play platform may provide outsized benefits if the supplier succeeds or if it brings you some long-term customer relationships.

Finally, whether you're a sell-side exec or a CIO, sweat over the durability of your revenue and funding.  Look for risk in your book of business.  A customer or business sponsor prepared to invest in something today may suddenly have that funding cut by mid-year.  For example, a tech services firm doing business with a bank that holds a lot of assets that suddenly turn sour (contracting liquidity and threatening solvency in the process) may find allegedly strategic projects suddenly cancelled. We still face these risks: recall that Irish banks passed the European stress tests in the summer of 2010, only to require recapitalization before the year was out.

When tech is on the rise, it makes everybody in the sector a little more optimistic about the future: new technologies, new career challenges, and a bit more money in the bank. But a rise in tech could put the squeeze on the businesses we run. We would do well to temper our optimism with the pragmatism that there's no such thing as a free lunch.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Tech Sector: Bull, Bubble or Both, and What it Means For IT (Part I)

There's been a sea-change in the technology sector, from counter-cyclical to pro-cyclical.

Tech, and especially tech services, went counter-cyclical a few months into the last recession (2008). Companies entered the downturn with record levels of cash. With so much uncertainty, most firms didn't bet on expansion. Instead, they elected to preserve cash rather than deploy it, and slashed payrolls to cut operating costs. Cutting payrolls meant firms needed to get the same work done with fewer people, so they spent modestly on IT to increase productivity. As a result, tech, and in particular tech services, has been counter-cyclical to the broader economy for most of the past 2 years. This created modest inflationary pressures in IT, notably on wages, but those were kept in check by the deflationary cycle affecting the host businesses. On the whole, tech went through this recent recession much as it did the 1995-6 recession.

But tech is becoming pro-cyclical. The success of both tablets and smartphones (and to a lesser extent the fringe battlegrounds of e-readers and other specialized devices), as well as the rapid maturation of cloud-based services, has created a tech hardware war, an OS war, a bidding war for tech firms, and spawned a feeding frenzy in application development. This is happening during a period of excess liquidity (a result of Quantitative Easing, low borrowing costs and other loose monetary policies), and low yields on most investments. Put simply, there's a lot of money in search of yield.

A lot of that money is now coming into tech, because tech offers investments with the potential for high yield. Or, more crassly, tech offers "gambling opportunities" for investors. This means the money coming into tech has changed from "we're investing in tech to reduce operating costs" to "place your bets on tech!" This, in turn, is changing the tech space from counter- to pro-cyclical. That's great during a bull market, but painful during a bear market.

There's no certainty of how this will play out. This could simply be the next stage of what may be a multi-year bull run for tech, similar to its 1983-2001 bull run that had several mini-cycles. It could be a bubble, with too much cash chasing more yield than will materialize. It could be both: a bit of excess euphoria during what is otherwise a fundamentally strong bull run in tech.

Such euphoria in any sector tends to come with little in the way of popular recognition of what's behind it, and mass underappreciation for how vulnerable it is. We saw this in the housing bubble, the internet bubble before it, and bubbles going back to the Dutch Tulip trade in the 17th century. But this sudden rise in tech calls for as much caution as enthusiasm. This is true particularly for those who are long tech (e.g., those building wealth by building companies and careers in it) more than those who are comparatively short (those investing capital in pursuit of yield). While investors can be burnt by a bubble, careers can be wrecked.

One of the things that makes tech a potential bubble now is the resilience of that capital coming in. Capital has stayed largely on the sidelines for the last two years because of so much economic uncertainty. That capital, while being deployed now, is still jittery and remains at risk of systemic shock. Problems lurk in peripheral Eurozone debt, US housing debt and US muni debt. China and India are fighting inflation while the US is trying to stoke it. The net effect is, capital is still highly nervous. It's also highly mobile, as evidenced by the volatility of many different asset classes in 2010. Tech can take no capital placement for granted: what the capital markets giveth tech, they can just as quickly taketh away.

As tech has gone pro-cyclical, it will rise and fall with the broader market. Those peaks and valleys will be amplified by the amount of capital coming in. If the broader market is characterized as "volatile" in 2011, tech could be in for a wild ride.

In the next post, we'll look at the different ways volatility manifests itself in tech. We'll also look at what a tech boom, and potential bubble, means for people leading and managing captive IT and tech firms.