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Being in the sh*t and having the sh*t hit the fan


A common engineering joke is that if its loose then duct tape it and if its not loose then put WD-40 on it. That solves all problems. However, its not always that easy.

I worked at Madge Networks for over half a decade during the time where South Africa transitioned to a democracy. Madge Networks had a simple philosophy of "support without limits." It meant that if you bought a Madge product you could be guaranteed that the company would assist you unconditionally in the use of that product and not charge you extra. 


Madge went titsup. My analysis is that Madge Networks had a solution and decided to go out and find a problem. Robert Madge, the owner of Madge Networks, deferred to more incorrect strategic technology choices. The truth of the matter is that when something goes titsup, it’s not because of one reason only, but a myriad of them all contributing to the negative consequence. There are the immediate or visual ones, which are underpinned by intermediate ones and finally after digging right down, there are the root causes. There is never a singular root cause for anything.

As far as technology brainfarts go there is no better example than Kodak. They invented the digital camera that would eventually kill them off. However, they were so focused on milking people in their legacy film market that they never saw the tsunami. That tsunami also dealt a killer blow to another innovative company named Polaroid. Madge was a pre-cursor to Kodak and Polaroid. They perfected Token-ring and should have moved to developing silicon for future Ethernet and WiFi networking kit. Instead they went to merger and acquisitions but lacked the savvy skill in the disciple that Cisco mastered. Ironically, Cisco did make an offer to Madge Networks which was not accepted. As they say in this part of the savannah, "Eish!"

My first encounter with Madge Networks was in the heyday of Novell installing the FDDI adapters into Netware SFT III servers. Only adapters that worked without crashing the system. From that day I was a Madge fan.

Madge had a "Switching to ATM" strategy. The reasoning was clumsy but sounded sophisticated at the time. It was complicated and did not address the market for the desktop. The silicon for desktop connectivity was never going to be ATM. At that time there was also the Token-ring versus Ethernet debate. The conclusion was that Ethernet won but in fact users opted for wireless radios for their desktop networking instead of a clumsy wired connection. WiFi beat both Token-ring and Ethernet. Ironically, the Ethernet technologies today have more attributes of Token-ring than Ethernet as on the fibre side the standards all have their origin in FDDI. As an aside, one of the most stupid legacy defaults from Ethernet is its pathetically small frame size. Token-ring was designed far better on so many fronts and this was one of them! Nowadays you get Ethernet rings as specified by G8032. Taking about rings, another great attribute of Token-ring was source route bridging. It was miles better than Ethernet which only had pathetic transparent bridge. Token-ring allowed the creation of a far larger layer 2 domain without melting down due to broadcasts. Ethernet was forced to layer 3 to achieve equivalence.

All that effort in making a Token-ring MAC in hindsight could have best been leveraged by Madge in leveraging the acquired silicon developing expertise to climb on board the storage networking bandwagon that was about to hit. The underlying requirement was for high speed storage (never video or the other Jet Jetson technologies that was going to drive ATM). One of the driving attributes of ATM was that it had QoS. However, it was not the only way to solve it. Using higher level protocols, it was possible with Ethernet to achieve the same thing. And the silicon was way cheaper, as the cost reduction of Ethernet had already been progressing for several years. Nowadays, most multimedia traffic that requires prioritization uses less sophisticated QoS as defined by the ATM standards, but it does the job.

Somewhere in the late nineties some ponytail decided to change the Madge corporate identity. A change in corporate identity never works and never increases sales. No company has succeeded, but companies all try it. The only people who make money are the marketing agencies hired to do the job and the company that self-inflicts itself with this dumbass decision goes backwards. The classic case is Coke with its new Coke strategy. Luckily, they had enough bulk to reverse the mindless exercise. Whoever, at Madge decided that it was a good idea to go from lightning bolts to brown cardboard boxes, take note, it sucked. Never mind that the logo went from unique to bland.

And then that LANNET acquisition. Strangely, enough when I spoke to them later, they always said they were an Ethernet company. I think Madge Networks heard what they wanted to hear and put a square peg in a round hole. They tried to shove LANNET into ATM.

American Chopper on Discovery is one of the TV shows I watched. I often have sat on the couch and wondered why I was so fascinated by the Teutuls. I left it at, enjoyment. I also suspected that the pressures of working against deadlines and the bombastic and aggressive behaviour hit an accord with my work in Information technology (IT). However, I revisited the theme after attending a presentation by Peter Armstrong, where he asked the question of what the purpose of a rev counter in a car was. He assets it serves no purpose to the underlying functionality and purpose of a vehicle or is of any use to the driver. Now I would not buy a car without a rev counter, so if Peter's statements are correct, what is the underlying reason for that damn rev counter. There is no enjoyment for me in a car without a rev counter. I once drove an old sports car without one, but the loud sound of the engine in that case was a more than suitable substitute. I eventually found the answer in American Chopper.

American Chopper is about making motorcycles that are sick according to the older Teutul. Sick means cool, good looking and aesthetically pleasing. The bottom line is that the Teutils will not make a chopper unless it looks good. Yes, it must be functional and have a purpose, but it must be sick!

The aspect of quality is overlooked. A company that has been detailed enough to spend time on designs that make it look good, would have spent greater due diligence on the functionality. A better-looking product will be technologically better.

Secondly, there is the comfort. Product sets with rev counters, although delivering no functionality benefit, serves the purpose of harmonizing and making the purchaser of the product comfortable. This results in a satisfied customer, and a satisfied customer is the best advert for your business. As an example, I have missed the LCD panel with the paddle switches on Madge token-ring CAUs and switches. That was sick. The current generation of Ethernet switches with dull colours, bad designs and stupid flashing Christmas lights do not move me to confidence. It comes down to that fundamental genetic instinct to kick the tyres of a car. Admit it, you do it although there is no functional purpose to do it.

Before, I am cast out as a heretic into the wilderness, let me offer an example in Apple. Apple customers are the most vehement supporters of their products and I believe that the design of the products is core to this characteristic.

The hidden message to technologists is that do not stop when you have a functional product that satisfies a business requirement. Go the extra mile, to make it sick, like the Madge Networks kit.

One of Madge’s good customers was the Toyota factory in Prospecton just south of Durban. The IT manager Steve Kandasamy called to say the paint shop was reported intermittent network problems. He explained that the token-ring hub at the paint shop, a Madge Networks SmartCAU Plus was toggling between red and green on the network management station. Red meant a loss of connectivity.

Finally, I decided that I would fly down from Johannesburg to Durban to have a look as I was not able to remotely troubleshoot the problem. I arrived at the factory where the IT office always has a pot of Durban curry cooking on a primus stove in the corner. Best curry I ever tasted and never equaled.

We took the car to the paint shop and went via a circular route to the paint shop via the perimeter fence. When we hopped out at the paint shop, I noticed a clearly visible short cut road going directly from the paint shop to the IT office. When I queried this with Steve, he said I must never take the short cut. I did not question him on that any further.

We went into the paint shop and climbed a staircase to the top near the roof where the network cabinet was located with the failing hub. As I climbed the stairs, I noticed thousands of pigeons, inside and on the roof of the pains shop. When arriving at the network cabinet we noticed it was covered in pigeon sh*t. The sh*t was corroding the network chassis of the hub. We were literally in the sh*t.

I volunteered to drive back to the IT office to pick up the replacement hub while Steve removed the existing one. Outside I decided, to take the short cut. Fifty metres down the short cut I realized why it was not a good idea to use the road. All four tires popped. It turns out that that road was where the break down kits from Japan arrived and were unboxed. The containers where held together with large nails in the form of elongated and triangular spikes.

I went back to the paint shop and explained to an amused Steve what had transpired. He arranged a forklift with solid tires to pull out the car and a colleague arrived via a replacement car with a replacement hub. We replaced the hub in the cabinet while pain shop artisans installed a replacement roof on the cabinet of solid steel. The roof of the paint shop had those rotating mirror devices which the pigeons seem to ignore. I have no idea whether the Toyota factory still has a pigeon problem. It was a moment, but it was not like the sh*t hit the fan.

That happened at the turn of the millennium when a colleague who worked with me at Investec decided it was a good idea to cool the telecommunications equipment using a desktop fan. The networking room was not at an optimal temperature and in those days, cabinets had glass door which was useless at cooling the rack mounted equipment inside. The bearings in the desktop fan failed and the resultant smoke caused the gas suppressant to be dumped in the data centre. All this on the day before the millennium broke. Half the company thought the bug had hit.

So, in life I have known about being in the sh*t and the sh*t hitting the fan. The Presidency of Zuma was a moment where the shit the fan for the whole country.  During those years the news was so debilitatingly depressive that I would often not listen to the radio or open up News24. I would rather listen to eighties music such as the band Queen or instead watch BBC documentaries. There is nothing calmer than David Attenborough and his nature programs. And there is also youtube videos of people repairing tractors. Far better karma than what is happening in the rest of the world. 

This article was originally published over on LinkedIn:  Being in the sh*t and having the sh*t hit the fan


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