Friday, February 24, 2006

Conferences and Innovation

I just signed up for the O'Reilly Emerging Technology event in San Diego next month -

I've also written a paper for a workshop in the IEEE Joint Conference on E-Commerce Technology (CEC'06) and Enterprise Computing, E-Commerce and E-Services (EEE'06) - but the conference name is so long that I can't remember it very well in conversation. This conference also includes the 2nd International Workshop on Business Service Networks (BSN '06) and the 2nd International Workshop on Service oriented Solutions for Cooperative Organizations (SoS4CO '06). Its all sounds very interesting, its in June in San Francisco, and needs a snappier name...

Last December I attended the Fortune Innovation Forum in New York. It was very nicely put together and in effect it validated the approach we were already taking. It seems that most of the attendees were trying to work towards a culture, process and tools for fostering innovation that seemed similar to our own setup. eBay and PayPal were used as examples several times.

We used a few simple techniques last year to kickstart our own innovation program. One method I borrowed from other events is the "Poster Lunch". Get a room near the company cafe, provide flip chart sized pads and pens, email everyone to tell them about it and put up signs in the Cafe to invite them in on the day. Anyone can put anything they like on a poster, stick it up and collect comments on it in person. One thing we found was that there were several posters suggesting eBay site features that already existed or were in development. One suggestion in particular was getting lots of support and comments until someone wrote on it "LTS thursday!", meaning it would be Live To Site and be launched two days later. We also gave attendees voting stickers so that they could indicate their favourite posters.

To drill down on the best ideas we also setup a regular open-to-all meeting where we could discuss the concepts and route them to the appropriate expert or business owner. The most far-sighted ideas get routed to become candidates for research labs projects, and the people who had the ideas get to develop them further.

To support the collection of ideas, we created a Wiki. This is nice because it is free format, and supports comments and discussion, with very low initial barrier to entering an idea. The problems came when there were several hundred ideas in the Wiki, it became hard to maintain. A more specialized pre-concept tool that feeds into our standard development process is a better solution for incremental innovations, and the Wiki works better for more radical ideas.

To really get a dose of innovative ideas, last year I attended a seminar on Complex Adaptive Systems by the Santa Fe Institute. It was a real eye-opener, they are pushing the boundaries of multi-disciplinary research, e.g. forming teams with Physicists, Biologists and Economists to derive the rules of scaling and organization of living things, from the smallest mammal to the largest city. Since eBay, PayPal and Skype are social networks, (their value comes from connections within their communities) they behave in some ways like cities, and follow similar kinds of scaling rules.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Changing gears

I started this blog in the summer of 2004 when I had finished at Sun and not yet started at eBay. After 16 years at Sun this was a big move. I knew people at eBay from the time in 1999 when they had a big outage and many Sun people got involved in helping them get up and running again. My thinking that summer was that web services platforms were where the real innovation was taking place, and I see eBay and PayPal as the leading transactional web services platforms.

My first year at eBay was in the Operations Architecture group, where I was working on figuring out new platforms and upgrades, and helping with capacity planning tools and processes. I also figured out a lot about how eBay and PayPal really work, and the challenges of scaling a rapidly growing and changing high availability transactional platform to a size that is beyond most people's comprehension. I had some entertaining meetings with hopeful vendors who would come in with solutions to common industry problems (e.g. low utilization) that eBay doesn't have, and their largest existing deployment would be an order of magnitude too small to be useful. After describing a bit about how eBay works, they would get big eyes, admit that their product wasn't appropriate, and wander off to look for more normal customers... A lot of what eBay does is built internally because the generic products don't scale and we can build what we need ourselves for less.

In the summer of 2005 I moved internally to help form eBay Research Labs. Since then we have hired some very experienced researchers and are becoming the focal point for innovation within eBay. This was another opportunity for me to change gears and greatly increase the scope of my work. Part of my role is to continue to research new platforms and technologies for the datacenter operations, and I've been joined in this work by my friend Paul Strong. Paul was in the N1 group at Sun, and is also the drummer for Fractal. Paul and I were both involved in the Enterprise Grid Alliance, he ended up as chair of the Technical Steering Committee, and edited the EGA's Grid Reference Architecture. He's now working on how to enhance the automation of eBay's datacenters.

The other cool thing that came my way in 2005 was eBay's purchase of Skype. Its not just a VOIP tool, its a huge and fast growing community (something eBay understands very well) and an extremely innovative development platform. The Skype API is a fun place to do innovative research, and the Skype network has between 3 and 5 million active nodes at any point in time (up by a million in three months). I've been interested in the telecom market ever since I was one of the Sun Systems Engineers working with British Telecom in the early 1990's. Now I get to play with the future of telecom in the form of Skype, and I'm also very interested in mobile/wireless applications.

In another sense I am changing gears with this post. I've changed the title and description, and it is now also being included in the Best of eBay Blogs site. I've been encouraged by the example of other bloggers at that site to discuss a bit more openly what I get up to, but if you ask me what I'm really working on, all I can say is "The future of e-commerce".

Cheers Adrian

p.s. I just tried to spell-check this posting, and the built-in spell checker at decided that the first error was the word "blog", which I find highly amusing, so I gave up and any spelling errors in the above are my fault.