Why My Book Is Free

As you may have noticed (I hope), I wrote a book this year. It’s not an epic volume, more of a novella than a novel; except, of course, it’s entirely non-fictional. I’ve written analytical books before, but trying to distill a few decades of experience into something readable was a different challenge. 

And now it’s out there, and it’s available completely for free. If you’re into managing digital experience, it’s your Christmas gift, and I hope you like it.

Faster - A Guide To Speed For Digital Leaders - Book Cover

So why would I simply give this away for free?

Earlier this year, as I was trying to slowly detract myself from a decade of building sites, apps, and complicated infrastructures at a major broadcaster in the Middle East, I had a lot of conversations with the people I’ve worked with over the years. Where to next? It was great to catch up with people and very insightful. And it’s why I’m now working on a dozen or so projects, having a lot of fun jumping between different topics.

One of those conversations was with Rasmus Skjoldan at Magnolia, and as we were discussing all things digital, it very quickly turned into “why not pick up writing again?”. I missed having the time to write (I have averaged only about a blogpost or two a year for quite a while now). But it snowballed from there – resulting in blogposts, a video, and a book. Centered on one thing: with the experience all of us have with digital experience by now, why is it still such a struggle? Why does it take so long? Why can’t we be faster?

But that still doesn’t answer the question why it’s free. 

To be fair, it’s “free” as in “free speech”, not “free beer”, as Richard Stallman would say.  It’s under a Creative Commons license, CC BY-SA 4.0 to be exact. That allows you to do pretty much everything you want to with it, though. Quote it in your pitch? Sure, as long as you credit it. Take entire chapters and turn it into a better book? No problem, as long as you release it under the same license. You’re free to use it to advance your own projects in any way you see fit.

It was something Rasmus proposed, and I loved the idea. By contrast, when I talked to my sister about it, she wasn’t convinced. She’s been published before and just finished writing another book (fiction, unlike my relatively boring guide). “How would authors make money that way?”, she said, and at my suggestion that it’s the way of the future, she scoffed, “that’s easy for you to say”.

And I completely appreciate that point of view – this is not for everyone or for any content. And I’ve had to leave my views on copyrights at the door when leaving for work for much of my career. You don’t get very far building a streaming video service if you suggest DRM doesn’t work and shouldn’t be necessary. Adhering to contractual obligations, locking down content, and preventing piracy is an important part of it. (Though I’d still advocate that making it “better than free” is what will encourage people to pay for it.)

Meanwhile, though, Open Source Software has been proving there’s another way for intellectual property in other areas. It’s shown that innovation is a fast game, played at pace, and speeds up when everyone is free to re-use, re-purpose, and improve on what’s available. It’s accelerated the internet from a hobby in academia to major business.

But then, if you’re like me, and knowledge and experience is your currency… why would you give it away for free?

So, to get to the answer, there’s two major factors there.

1.     This is how we all get better at it.

If you can take everyone’s knowledge and build on it, you can stand on the shoulders of giants. I may be a parrot on a limping pirate’s shoulder by comparison, but if I can inspire one good thought, it’s worth it. I’ve learned by listening, reading, and mostly, interacting, with hundreds of people over my career. Many have tolerated my stupid questions, and patiently answered them. If I can answer questions because of it, it’s because they were kind enough to share, as well.

2.     This is the future.

The risk of many professions is digging into trenches with your specialized knowledge, and making yourself indispensable by being the expert. “I’m the only one who knows the details of the secret procedures that nobody else understands.” I’ve seen this with lawyers, electricians, doctors, plumbers, and our pool guy, Tom, without whom the water would turn green in a week, and I wouldn’t know what to do about it. 

I’m in Spain now, and around here, you’d be lost without a “gestor”. The colloquial definition of a gestor is “someone who knows the arcane bureaucratic procedures and knows how to get through them”. Your gestor gets you permits, appointments, and sorts the paperwork. Nothing moves without a gestor.

The literal translation of “gestor”, according to Google Translate, is… “manager”.

Tech is different, and I think leading the way. You don’t get very far by obscuring your specialism. The closest thing is single-handedly building a “black box” that nobody else can figure out. But even though there’s still a lot of people making money off fixing Cobol code or running AS/400s, it’s not generally a recipe for success in a tech career. It’s how you end up being in the basement with a stapler. And other careers are going the same way – if Tom doesn’t fix the pool, I can google what to do.

Because of this, I’ve told people over the years, “I should be able to tell you everything I know, and write down anything that’s useful, and still make a good living out of it.” I should already be thinking of what’s next, rather than keeping secret what I’ve learned so far. And as a manager over the past decade… I never wanted to be a gestor. In short, I’d much rather be like Tom, who will happily explain what’s wrong with the pool over coffee. 

And that’s why, with help from Rasmus and Magnolia, I’m giving away the book for free. As I said in the beginning, I hope it makes for a good Christmas present and hope you’ll have time to read it.

All I ask is that you “share-alike”, and let me know where I’m wrong, where you totally agree, or what I should have expanded on. I’ve had great feedback so far, filling my holiday reading list, giving me topics to follow, and several great ideas. So comment here, tweet at me @adriaanbloem, or mail me at bloem@radagio.com. Let’s move forward in 2022 together!

MVPs, Achilles, and Conquering Product Launch Paralysis

Are you ever ready to launch a new product or service, or to set a new update free into the wild? After all the time and effort in brainstorming, planning, designing, and building, you have to decide to go live. But is it good enough to go ahead?

Ajax and Achilles. 6th century BC vase painting. Photo by Bradley Weber

The painful MVP

This is where we inevitably talk about the MVP: the minimum viable product, which is an incredibly useful way to discuss what is “good enough” to begin with. And which has therefore, paradoxically, become one of the biggest problems in agile.

Of course, volumes have been written about defining an MVP. But since I’m currently busy writing on how to improve the time to market of digital experience projects, it was one of the things that jarred me. If there’s such a good understanding of what an MVP is, and how it fits into an agile project; if you can read up on what Frank Robinson meant by it, and how Eric Ries defined it; and if you can find a plethora of simple illustrations of the core idea (often involving bicycles and cars). Then how come when I ask people, “what was your most recent experience with defining and building an MVP?”, many will start by rolling their eyes. Or sighing deeply? I might as well have asked “what’s the biggest argument you’ve had at work”.

Paralyzing perfectionism

The reason for that is perfectly understandable: ambition and perfectionism. It’s another paradox; some of the most capable and experienced teams can struggle with it the most. What makes them good at it, also means “good enough” to them is rarely, well, good enough. A new product has to eclipse previous accomplishments. And updates and relaunches are worse: existing reputation is at stake. A new version has to be better; not a step back. All of this, of course, within constraints of deadlines and resources. 

So let’s take a step back to Eric Ries’ definition of an MVP. “That version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.” That’s not about being lazy, it’s about speed. An MVP is not supposed to be launched, it’s supposed to be what you test. If you ambitiously bloat your MVP and then try to polish it to perfection before getting it in front of people, it takes too much time. Worse, it turns the MVP into a moving target, and every bug and every pixel keeps teams from getting there.

Are you as agile as Achilles?

That’s the third paradox, which I’m borrowing from Zeno, the Greek philosopher. “Achilles and the tortoise” is why I sometimes call MVPs “turtles”. You will never reach a turtle, no matter how fast you go. Because by the time you reach it, the turtle has already moved on. And you then, again, have to move to where the turtle is. Ad infinitum. Zeno concluded that all motion is an illusion; I call it product launch paralysis.

It took about two millennia for math to defeat that paradox. If you look at a graphical representation of it, you could much more easily defeat my analogy and note that unlike Achilles, development sprints have a fixed length. Passing the turtle would be easy, two weeks at a time! And that, of course, is exactly the point. Because the MVP isn’t a goal in itself. You have to get past it.

In the pressure chamber of launching products and updates against deadlines, it’s one of the things most easily forgotten. The MVP is not what you launch. It just helps you determine what to launch and what direction to take to get there. Step out of the paralysis and test fast, and test often. Bring it in front of your stakeholders and users as early as you can, and keep going.

Does that guarantee your actual launch will be a success? Well, don’t ask what Zeno said about arrows hitting their target… that’s a story for another day.

Streaming Video: Would you do a stop-over in Frankfurt, on a flight from Dubai to Oman?

Streaming video in the Middle East at a good quality, without buffering, is still much harder than it should be: there is no real central point in the region to serve everyone from, so in most cases the streams will run through Europe. The throughput has been increasing (the actual bandwidth to the countries), with capacity constantly being added. But latency is still a big issue.


I remember a few years back I was at the MENOG (Middle East Network Operators Group) event in Muscat, Oman; I was on a panel with people from Netflix and Google (who are basically trying to solve the same problem as we are in the region). Seeing a room full of representatives of MENA telcos in front of me, from various countries in the region, the analogy was obvious. “Look, I arrived on a plane from Dubai to Muscat here this morning. It took about 45 minutes, and I didn’t even have to go through Frankfurt.” That got a laugh from the audience because they all knew exactly what I was talking about: internet traffic in the Gulf will often take some interesting detours, and Frankfurt is an old favorite for ISPs to connect.

Of course the Internet is faster than planes are, and connections are roughly at the speed of light. But distance matters: there’s a big difference between the 20 milliseconds it should be taking from Muscat to Dubai; and the actual 300 ms I was measuring for the connection at the time. Milliseconds may not sound like much, but it means that every API call our apps make will take half a second. It ruins the experience: to the user it just looks like the app is really sluggish and slow, every button press and every screen load takes longer than it should. For video it doesn’t just add to the start-up time (the time it takes from pressing “play” to the video actually starting to play); it also adds hops, with the potential of packet loss and other issues – which means the dreaded spinning circle on the screen, “buffering”. So we’re not even running our video streams from Dubai, but from Amsterdam – because at least then, we’re pretty much in the middle of how most connections to and from the Middle East are running.

To mitigate those issues, we use CDNs (Content Delivery Networks). The problem is that they’re expensive (especially given the volume of traffic our SHAHID VOD service has); and not one single CDN covers all our target markets in MENA. So we use 6 different CDNs, and we’re building our own as well. We’re constantly measuring which CDN is better for which country, and where to put our own servers (similar to Netflix’s Open Connect). SHAHID ran about 250 million videos plays for 30 million users in Ramadan (May), and it’s long form video, so we’re responsible for about 5% of internet traffic in the region (depending on how you calculate). Yet most of it still comes from Europe, first.

When I started working at MBC, I had to dig in my memory how the internet actually works again – in Europe and the US, relatively speaking, this is an almost “solved” problem, and I hadn’t had to deal with routing details since my days as a sysadmin in the nineties. But in Dubai, I have a map of the submarine cables forming the Internet backbone on my wall. That’s how much the network topology matters, and how much time I have to spend with my team figuring out how to improve our delivery.

So it was good to hear at this year’s MENOG conference in Beirut that the topic had shifted away from the Frankfurt internet exchange. It isn’t the main interconnection point for the Middle East anymore.

It’s now Marseille. :/

That may sound disappointed, but fortunately, there are multiple initiatives to actually bring exchanges to the region (such as the UAE-IX in Dubai, which, like the Frankfurt and Marseille exchanges, is run by DE-CIX). But in most cases, these have to operate under the license of a local operator; which means their competitors are hesitant to connect there. So progress is still slow, and Marseille is still a potential single point of failure for much of the internet connections in the Maghreb, Levant, and Gulf. For us, as a content provider, this is a chicken and the egg kind of problem: which comes first? If the connectivity isn’t available at the local exchanges, there is no point in us having a presence there – but if the content isn’t there, there’s no incentive for the operators to connect to the exchanges.

An additional problem is the dearth of cloud services in the region. Our current best bet is running on AWS from Frankfurt, and Azure from Amsterdam, because as I mentioned – if your connections go via Europe, then why not put your service in Europe and be in the middle of the path? The good news there is that we now have Azure in the UAE, and soon we’ll have AWS in Bahrain. (I’d like to think that’s because I’ve been badgering Amazon and Microsoft for years for this, but in reality it’s probably mostly to serve enterprise loads.) But when I met Amazon’s Werner Vogels a few months back, I had just one question for him: how is your Bahrain Region going to be connected? Because the potential for fast connections is there, but it’s definitely not a given.

We’re eager to move our services to the region, and greatly improve the experience. So we’ll be upgrading our own internet exchange presence from proof of concept to pilot; and hopefully start using Bahrain and UAE datacenters as “local cloud” as well. Because, to use a terrible analogy; sometimes, in order to get out of a chicken and the egg problem, you have to make an omelet first.

As for that trip to Oman – I’m happy to say Emirates now flies the A380 direct from Dubai to Muscat. And the latency is 15ms. Things are improving!

“I’m sorry, but I never signed up to be your customer”: when your supplier gets acquired

Big Fish Eating Small FishFact of life in technology: smaller companies get acquired by large ones all the time. If, like me, you tend to favor best-of-breed solutions; where you’re an important customer to a medium sized company; and get to influence the roadmap – this is a problem. Suddenly, you’ll get an email: “We’re proud to announce”, some details of the acquisition, and “it will be business as usual”. The founders are happy with their big pay day (as well they should), and their friends are congratulating them on Twitter and LinkedIn.
Continue reading ““I’m sorry, but I never signed up to be your customer”: when your supplier gets acquired”

Social Media in One or Two Words

socmedIt’s an interesting question: what is social media, anyway, to a modern professional? As a hectic work week was dwindling to an end on Thursday afternoon (Dubai work weeks are Sunday to Thursday — starting on Sunday is still weird, but starting the weekend on Thursday never gets old), I was chatting with my colleague Fouad Massoud. He’s in charge of MBC’s social media efforts (which he built from zero to an audience of millions), so he usually has some interesting points of view. As he was discussing how professional networking is transitioning from Twitter to LinkedIn, he pointed out one issue with LinkedIn: where do you find active, interesting groups? Continue reading “Social Media in One or Two Words”

How to be an Expert in Absolutely Everything

Did you ever come across someone who seemed to know everything? An expert in not just one thing, but many things across different disciplines? Who not only stunned you with a wealth of trivia, but also all the applicable anecdotes, and the relevant facts to almost anything that would come up in conversation? I’m sure you have. And if that made you think you’d want to be more like that, the good news is: it’s easy! You only need two skills and this one weird trick. Continue reading “How to be an Expert in Absolutely Everything”

The Problem with Hadoop

Fake ElephantFirst, let’s be clear: I really like Hadoop, and not just because it’s named after a yellow toy elephant. But over the past few years, “Hadoop” has also become an almost mystical term, happily sprinkled throughout marketing brochures. So, to be fair, it’s not Hadoop that is the problem — the problem is about Hadoop and how it is perceived. And I’m not going to go into great technical details, but there are a few problems with that perception. Continue reading “The Problem with Hadoop”

Presentation: From Pages to People

Magnolia ConferenceAt the end of June, I spent a few days in Basel, Switzerland at the Magnolia CMS Conference. In my presentation, in forty minutes, I tried to cover how a modern site needs to change from funnel to journey, what tools you can use for this, the infrastructure that ties all this together. And of course, penguins. A lot of penguins. Magnolia has created great videos of all the presentations, so if you have some time to waste, here’s mine. Continue reading “Presentation: From Pages to People”