Now is the best time to start a company

It may sound strange, but many people have expressed the same opinion.

NOW is the best time to start a company.

I was reading an article from the latest Wired magazine, “Back to the Garage: How Economic Turmoil Breeds Innovation” which gives an example of Tom Siebel who started Siebel Systems in 1993 when economy was faltering then. He was able to hire good software engineers relatively easily and cheaply. He also got an office space quite cheaply as well. It also reminded me of a conversation I had with my friend who is a VC partner (I consider him a friend, but I am not sure if he does). He said this is best time for VC to invest in a company as well. VCs do have money from funds they had raised before the meltdown. Because of downturn, valuation of a company would be lower.

I had the same opinion during the first Internet bubble burst. Historically those companies that survive the economic downturn usually come out as the winner. During the bubble, it was very difficult to find good engineers and sometime companies hired people who could barely type. But when the bubble bursted and companies either closed or laid off many people, the pool of available engineers grew. VCs certainly still had money then. I was quite certain even then that economic downturn would be the best time to start a company.

Due to my unemployment, I frequently visit a lot. There are certainly many layoffs going on. This was all prompted by Sequia Capital’s warning to their portfolio companies a few months ago. Where would all the laid off engineers go? I’ve been searching for a while, but no one is really hiring. Even those who are hiring are taking their sweet time interviewing many folks. However, Americans are quite ingenious. In these tough times, someone with a good idea will hook up with others in similar situation and start a company together.

It also reminds me of the notion of “Creative Destruction”. History of Silicon Valley is filled with successful companies born during the bust time following boom time.

Me? I have more pressing need to support my family, so I am going for a full-time employment. I can’t start a company when my family relies on me for financial needs. But, when my wife starts working, that would be a different story. Look out, world!

Want and Must

Ample amount of free time gives me an ideal opportunity to read up on books (when I am not slacking off watching TV or browsing the web). However, I find myself always gravitated towards business and entrepreneurship books the most.

I am involved with a professional organization called “Bay Area K Group“, and while it mostly consists of 1st generation Koreans, there are few 1.5 generations. Most members speak Korean exclusively, so if you don’t you don’t feel fitting in. I actually had an interesting discussion with another 1.5-gen Korean American, and he said broad Korean community (including 1st gen and beyond) has been having problem uniting, because of sutble (or quite large) cultural and language differences. Language makes up huge proportion of a culture, so it is probably safe to say language-induced cultural difference.

Anyhow, one of 1.5 gen guy I met there was in exactly the same situation as I was two years ago, operating a startup by himself. He talked about his concerns, and I could totally understand because I had gone through the same before. It’s just too hard for one person to continue. That’s one of many things I had learned when I did my own stuff. He’s been doing it for two years, and I really command him for such effort. While talking, he suggested a book called “The Monk and the Riddle“. I just finished reading it – it was an easy read since it was short, and it’s another kind of book altogether (different from Founders at Work).

It gives a good overview of what VCs are typically looking for. There is no shortage of information about that, but this one stuck because it was told in a story. I could also relate to the main character – there are two main characters, a Virtual CEO and an entrepreneur, and I am talking about the entrepreneur, not the Virtual CEO. In the book, what struck me the most was about doing what you want to do instead of doing what you must do first and doing what you want to do later. The latter is how 99% of people operate. They feel that they must work, hold a steady job and support the family. After they retire, they feel like they could pursue what they want to do (Book continues on the subject and talks about how a company must have a mission other than making big bucks since the mission keeps the company going when things get tough). Another book called “4-hour Workweek” also talks about “Deferred Life Plan” where you do what you must to do so that you can pursue what you want to do later. The problem is, by the time you retire, you are either too old or too sick to enjoy what you want to do later. It’s not necessarily money, either, while there is nothing wrong with it. But, everyone says that more money brings in more worries. Make enough money to live nicely (how nicely would depend on your lifestyle), and do what you want to do.

It struck such a cord with me because another successful entrepreneur told me the same. I wrote about him before. He had founded and run successful start-ups in the past and he now lives in a property with more than one-acre land in a super-rich town called Atherton, CA. After the shutdown of previous company I was working for, he and I had a chance to talk privately before presenting our success with Korea market to a company that bought the assets and intellectual property. I was seeking some concrete idea or wisdom from him, but I didn’t get satisfactorial answer from him. Rather, he asked me why I want to start a company. I told him it was for wealth (money) and accomplishment (fame). He told me starting a company is a lousy way to make money (9 out of 10 fail) and there are different ways to seek fame (Hollywood for example). Then, he asked me what I would want to do if I had enough money. I told him I would like to make a difference in the world by setting a self-sustaining charitable organization. He said I should pursue that idea. However, I didn’t get it at the time. I think I get it now, but it still feels unreachable and undoable. Always in the back of my mind is how I could support my family. How can I support the family running a non-profit, charitable organization? Isn’t it something that social study graduates or millionaires or politician’s wives do? I still think it’s a very noble idea and I would definitely do it when I had “enough” money, but I am not sure if that’s something I would do while having to support my family. It’s just feels impossible….

But, there is also another thing I enjoy, and that is being a leader or being under the limelight. I’ve certainly enjoyed it in Korea, being a class president for three years in junior high school. I’ve also founded and ran a Anime (Japanase Animation) club at PENN. In my first job out of college, I assembled an Ultimate Frisbee team, which won the first place in recreation league in Washington D.C.

At any rate, I am about to start a job at a mobile application company, and I am quite excited about it. As I have mentioned before, I have been following mobile market and I am quite gung-ho about it. Even in downturn, I believe mobile market (in addition to gaming) will be way better than rest of the economy. I have been wanting to go into mobile market, and I am taking an opportunity to dive in head-first, as I do in many situations. I feel that this might be the place where I can get the best of “want” and “must”.

Founders at Work – Part 2

I have finished the book. I skipped some chapters that I didn’t find interesting.

I had this belief before, but it was confirmed in the book. Most of successful startups are childrent of acccidental success. Most founders didn’t set out to build these big empires. Most of them were quite surprised at their own success. How amazing.
There is also something that I can’t let go. It’s the role of chances and luck. In any given circumstances, we can make any number of decisions. I remember Sliding Doors, less well known movie with Gwyneth Paltrow. It was a sappy movie about fate of love. The movie diverges when Gwyneth misses a train and when she catches the same train. It comes together in a hospital, where two parallel universes converge.
Anyhow, right now where I am is the result of sequence of decisions I had made. Some major, some very minor. We make decision all the time. I am writing this essay instead of getting ready for bed. There are external factors that affect me, and I may or may not have caused it…. Also a decision I make would affect others. I wonder what may have happened if admission committee of University of Pennsylvania rejected and I had gone to Virginia Tech instead. Or if I decided to stick around at Topspin instead of going to Korea and working for Samsung. Or more recently I put off looking for a job to help the bank sell assets and IP of the last company – GigaFin Networks – so that the business would continue. And now I find myself in worst time to be without a job. I made the decision not knowing what would lay ahead. Is it just bad luck? What about writing this essay at this moment? Would someone read it just by chance that may cause whole different chain of actions tomorrow and in the future?
Bottom line is that you don’t know. Just like many of the founders said that the reason why they were successful was because they didn’t know any better. They were too naive to know how hard running a startup would be. And they didn’t give up when perhaps they should have. Sometimes is ignorance is indeed bliss. You can’t be paralyzed by past and what-ifs. Make whatever best decision you can make at the moment, and go for it!
“A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week.”

Founders at Work – Part 1

I’ve recently picked up a book called Founders at Work. I thought I’ve heard about it when I was trying out my start-up in 2006, but it has copyright date of 2007. It is a collection of interviews of founders at various (successful) start-ups.

There are definite similarities between all these successful founders.

  1. Most of them were singles when they started companies.
  2. They all started early, mostly around college period and sometimes in high school.
  3. Because they started early, they were all inexperienced and naive. Yet, most of them got funding from VCs. That seems to contradict conventional belief that VCs bet on a jockey, not on a horse. Big difference? Working prototype. They all had products and prototype already working.
  4. Most of them had gone through some tough times during the life of the start-up.
  5. Their first idea rarely worked. Many have gone through multiple iteration of ideas to get it right.
  6. Most had good partners and co-founders that supported each other in tough times. They all persevered, and made it at the end.
  7. They all attributed a lot of their successes to luck. It’s not that they didn’t work hard and only waited for Lady Luck to smile at them. They worked really hard, and while things could have gone many different ways, some things just fell into place….by chance.

I haven’t finished the book, but I have to wonder if I had given up my company way too early. There were many additional obstacles; like having to support the family and having no committed co-founder (my partner left in less than six months). Though, I don’t regret having started a company. It was once-in-a-lifetime experience. Another thing the book said was that start-ups tend to require more than professional commitment from employees. People say you don’t get in to business with friends, but start-ups do need friends because of its high emotional requirements.

Nevertheless, it’s very interesting book. I wish I had read this book before I started my company.

Open, Closed and Whole Product

In previous entries, I have covered the rate of change in technology advances, peril of attempting to predict the future, and current trend in developments of cloud computing, data centers, and smart phones. A report by NPD says that iPhone 3G is now the best-selling smart phone (past BlackBerry’s and Palm Treo’s) and 2nd-best selling phone after Motorola Razr in US. The proliferation of new smart phones and the birth of whole new eco-system of applications developed by any programmers and available to all users present interesting security problems.

Mobile phones in general are now considered an essential item in one’s life. It’s hard to imagine what the world was like without them, not being able to connect to anyone at anytime from anywhere (even interrupting us at anytime). Most people nowadays cannot imagine what it was like before the Internet and mobile phones. Because of its portability and must-have status, the number of mobile phones vastly outnumbers any devices that connect to the Internet.

I can’t say for any other countries, but in US, smart phones are absolutely necessary in business because of its ability to access corporate emails and calendar. In fact, they are two major functions why millions of business users buy smart phones, which have become mandatory communications device for business users.

In addition to the vast volume of general mobile phones, smart phones are becoming more and more like small computers. With wide variety of applications available to download and install, new smart phone users enjoy the same freedom of choosing whichever application they’d like to use as those desktop users. As a rule of thumb, the technology advancement will continue and they may become as powerful as some laptops, as today’s laptops are as fast and powerful as desktop. It’s inevitable and just matter of time.

So, if you think about billions of laptop-like mobile devices with wide variety of Internet applications, any security professional will cringe. Infecting mobile devices with malicious code could result in devastating results. All the personal information stored on the laptop including address book and emails could be leaked. Someone could also tap into user’s location information through GPS and keep tracking the user for criminal purpose. Since they will become as powerful as some laptops, it’s entirely conceivable that some sort of P2P applications (good or bad) might be developed for mobile phones. As more advanced botnet uses encrypted P2P network rather than traditional IRC channels, the mobile botnet can be certainly created with P2P network as well.

Apple keeps tight control over applications developed for iPhone, but when the number of applications is increasing faster and faster, they won’t be able to keep the full control. However, restriction and control are not the answer. They will only limit innovations and may even kill the very technology and/or product it is trying to protect. Internet was able to flourish because it was open. While there are some parasites, the benefits of openness vastly outweigh negatives. There are numerous cases when open system/architecture triumphed over closed counterpart. Open system encourages competition, which in turn fosters innovations in the market. Then, how does one make money in such environment? It may not be easy, but it’s possible. Good example is Cisco. Most Cisco products are based on open standards, yet they command highest market share in most markets. Worse yet, they do not build the best or the fastest products in the industry. Slightly different, but similarly, Apple was able to come in to crowded MP3 player market and dominate in short period of time. There is no secret to make a MP3 player, as you can see in high number of MP3 manufacturers. How did Apple do it? Is it because it looks beautiful? Americans are quite practical folks. Knowledge of America might be limited to what they see on TV or movies for some, but most Americans are definitely not frivolous. It wasn’t because of its looks. Then, how did Apple succeed?

In marketing there is a concept of “Whole Product.” It’s not enough to win in the market with just main product. In order to complete user’s experience, you have to consider what user would go through from before the purchase to what afterwards. Apple iPod was successful because of iTune software and iTune store. In order to complete MP3 experience, a user would have to find a way to manage his music collection and a way to add more songs (either by ripping a CD or buying online). iTune software and store completed that, and they worked flawlessly with iPod. How about Cisco? Cisco’s “Whole Product” is Cisco product plus millions of professional service and technical support professionals either from Cisco or 3rd-party vendors. Cisco made it legitimate with its certification program so that their customers, if chose to seek outside help, can find quality professionals by checking their certificates. It’s this auxiliary knowledge base that is keeping Cisco in the top place. Because they are market leaders and have most customers, their position is reinforced by many other companies that build and offer additional auxiliary items/accessories and service for them such as cases, boom boxes, adapters for iPod or training centers, system/network integrators for Cisco.

So which way is right for mobile security? It’s a million dollar question, and also where incredibly attractive opportunity could be.

Follow your dream?

Should you?

I had a conversation with someone who has been quite successful as a serial entrepreneur. Since I have a lot of spare time, I wanted to pick his brain and get some pointers what I could follow his footsteps. His brief answer was that he just had been lucky, right place at the right time. He also said there are some people who are cut out to be a leader, founder, and entrepreneur. And, most people are not. He said God (whichever god depends on your religion) has set out a path for everyone. People have different strengths, and he doesn’t believe in working on improving weaknesses, but reinforcing strengths.

One of the books I like is Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. One principle in the book says that the state head must know how to utilize his generals’ strengths best. If a general is good at offense, he should be deployed in offensive position. And if a general is good at defense, then in defensive position. You can’t blame a general for not doing his job if he was assigned with a job he cannot possibly do well. It makes total sense……

So, what if your dream is not in line with your strengths? Or what if your strengths are not enough to reach your dream? Books and TVs are full of stories about people following their dreams, persevere, and actually achieving them. How about others who have followed them but never made them? There are many athletes, both professional and Olympic, who in spite of their best effort do not make it at the top. What about those countless artists and musicians? When do you realize that perhaps your strengths are not in line with your dream or just not enough? What do you do? Then, is it about different levels or definitions of success? Should an athlete be satisfied with making it to the Olympic teams?

It’s especially meaningful to me since I have two kids of my own. As a parent, I would tell them that they could be anything they want to be. Would I be setting them up for big disappointments? Shall I just tell them that there are different levels of successes, and they should set low goals? Jack Welch is famous for setting “stretch goals”, which may not be applicable for kids, but I really ponder over the whole thing.

Dare to predict the future

Since the shutdown of the company I was working at previously, I have had some time to think about what I want to do. I still have the desire to start my own company, but it’s indeed getting harder and harder as I have certain family obligations. Next best thing is to join a startup, but there aren’t too many left standing in networking industry. As I have mentioned before, best case scenario would be to join a startup in web application space, but because I don’t have relevant prior experiences, it is tough. That leaves joining a well-established company in networking industry. While that’s good for supporting the family, it is bruising to my ambition and dream of starting a company of my own. However, life would not be worth living without a dream. We live one life, and I just refuse to accept that I will live the rest of my life as nobody in the sea of big corporations. Well, not exactly. My personality wouldn’t let me be nobody. I am too ambitious to be nobody in any company. Either I make a difference and become somebody or get the hell out. I think I’ve always enjoyed limelight – there is something about being a center of attention.

At any rate, I decided to examine history of technology innovations (as far back as I could remember), and see where the future innovations would happen. As people grow older, they tend to have “locked-in” view. I can feel that I already do that sometimes. But, it’s important to have open mind and views. I will let my imaginations go wild, and see where things might be headed in the future. This would be a good exercise.

I would divide Internet into two large areas: physical and logical (or Layer 1 to 4 and Layer 5 to 7 of OSI model). In physical side, you have telecommunications and data communications equipment that is responsible for delivering bits (zeroes and ones) from point A to point B. In Layer 1, most long hauls, WANs and LANs are either fiber or moving to fiber. To desktop is most likely to remain copper, and to laptop is most likely wireless (Wi-Fi variation). Long hauls use mostly SONET, the good-old, reliable SOB. DWDM stuffs much more information into single strand of fiber using different wavelengths. So, as long as you have fiber in the ground, DWDM or any other future boxes will be interested in stuffing more and more bits into the single strand of fiber. Similarly, Ethernet evolution map is pretty much intuitive, too: faster and faster. Also interesting thing is moving everything over IP. Storage used to be exclusively on fibre channel network, but with NAS and iSCSI, everything is accessible over IP without specialized network. There is even talk about implementing fibre channel over Ethernet. Actually, much more interesting things in physical side are happening in and around data centers. The need to have scalable data center is pushing for HPC environment where resources from multiple servers are pooled together. What’s happening now is like creating a humongous server with hundreds of CPUs and obscene amount of storage. With pre-partitioned storage, any number of CPUs can be instantly grouped together to perform certain jobs. For example, if there is sudden surge of demand for database processing, addition CPUs can be assigned to already existing database CPUs. It is like dynamic server virtualization. You can also imagine, with fast enough connection and fast enough storage like maybe Solid State Drives, that there could be separate “memory area network” in addition to “storage area network”. Thus you have three physically separate areas – CPU, memory and storage – being grouped dynamically on the fly and providing services to clients as needed. What provides physical connections for those three areas become quite interesting too…. Memory typically requires 50ns or less access speed, so I am not sure if current Ethernet switch can work. But, you could imagine some sort of box providing network connection to/from clients as well as between the three areas. That would be really neat… But the box needs to be as scalable as the computing resources. Also management would not be easy. There may be additional challenges I am not seeing right now, but I would believe that’s where most network, server, and storage vendors are heading.

In terms of physical side of mobile industry, it’s also pretty much predictable. Apple iPhone and Google Android are paving a new era of mobile networks. Service providers need to upgrade their equipment to deal with more and more data. Thanks to the two pioneers, mobile phones will be considered as mini-computers where consumers are free (as much as phone manufacturer lets them) to download and install applications.

Logical side is even more interesting than the physical side in both wired and wireless networks. Whether you use desktop or mobile phone, what you do with bits delivered via the network is where the true value resides. However, I must say that I am much more excited about mobile apps than desktop apps. The evolution of desktop apps seems quite predictable. For example, social networking websites could be considered as enhanced BBS. I remember when I first got my computer in high school, it came with 2400 baud modem and the only “online” activity would be through BBS. I exchanged games with others physically…using 5.25” floppy disks. You could choose which BBS to go and hang out. When I went to college, I used newsgroups and IRC as BBS. Then to Yahoo Groups, and now it’s Facebook. Truly remarkable development has been around software-as-a-service model. In most cases, big software vendors tended to target customers who leave most margins, i.e. Fortune 1000 companies. Small-to-Medium businesses usually get crippled version at discounted price, but in terms of productivity, it could be considered a lot more expensive. When you move apps to web, now you have different economies of scale, and distribution and pricing model. Just as the Internet made “Long Tail” possible, SaaS changes the whole software landscape and makes it attractive to SMBs (not that it wouldn’t be also attractive to larger companies, but they may not have compelling reason to jump).

Also, when you add mobility, you get a whole different set of software. Mobility means your location may change at any time. The obvious apps are the ones that tell you about things around you, whether you are looking for a restaurant, a friend, etc. There is also notion of instant social gaming, where you hook up with whoever is available and play a game together. Another one is instant access to information wherever you are. One app I saw lets user scan a barcode of a product and find review/rating information about it. Pretty clever. So what makes apps on mobile phone with high-speed internet connection a lot more interesting is location + instant access to information.

What could be possible? Where could things go from here? SaaS means both desktop and mobile phone could access the same application. So the SaaS should be able to accommodate information from/to both desktop and mobile phone. Will desktops become just another (immobile) terminal to apps? How about SaaS of SaaS? If apps are moving to web, and there might be a need for information exchange between two or more SaaS apps. Mashup for mobile apps. There is an idea! Another characteristic of mobile phone is it’s most likely to be with owner all the time. So, it could be use as tracking device…..could be as physical as distance travelled or expenses……or some sort of analysis based on accumulated data… when s/he is most likely to spend money, etc. I actually have envisioned a society without cash, since a lot of financial transactions already happen without me actually touching the money. Money gets deposited using direct deposit. I always use credit cards for purchases. I then pay for credit charges using online banking. I don’t need to touch the money, period. So, what if you add charging capability to the mobile phone? It’s already done in Asia and Europe, where you can pay for goods using your mobile phone. It’s just that mobile carriers are not credit card companies, but it should be possible perhaps through partnership. Then SaaS could keep track of most of expenses through the mobile phones and provide you with financial analysis. That could be possible.

Actually, it would be impossible to think of all the possible mobile SaaS right now….., but it gives good topic ideas. From today on, I am going to write about at least one mobile SaaS a day.

Just do it!

There are a few people at work I enjoy having conversation with, and one of them is a software engineer with a lot of interest in marketing and starting a company.

One day he and I had a discussion about high-tech marketing strategies. I gave examples and principles from books I have read like Crossing the Chasm, Inside the Tornado, and Innovator’s Dilemma. But, he basically discarded them as garbage and they are all just after-the-facts, trying to explain what made companies successful. Hindsight is always 20-20, and it is easy to justify actions after success. I try very hard to make counter his points, but it didn’t fly.

The truth is that he was right. None of the authors – neither Geoffrey Moore and Clayton Christensen – has ever run a successful company. Also, so many successful companies in the valley have been accidental success. Look no further than Google. Larry Page and Sergey Brin never wanted to start a company. After successful prototype, they just wanted to sell the technology. Nobody including Yahoo wanted to buy the technology. Everyone thought search market was mature enough with no room for new player. They sat on a $100,000 check made out to “Google, Inc.” from Andy Bechtolsheim, mulling over whether to start a company or not. The same with Craig Newman from, which is arguably one of the most visited websites in the world. He started out by managing a bunch of mailing lists, which was a pain and took a lot of his time. He wanted a better way to manage the mailing lists, and that’s how was born. Mark Zuckerberg from Facebook never intended to create a company of current Facebook. He just wanted to find a way to see who’s who in his freshman class, and that’s how Facebook started. Similar stories exist for other companies like eBay and Paypal. Have they all followed the strategies and tactics laid out in marketing books? I am not sure. But, it is surely easy to tell the world – after such huge success – why certain actions taken at the time were so brilliant. But, who knows at the time it was motivated entirely differently?

In addition, most successful start-ups happened to be started by engineers, not marketing-types. From HP to Cisco, Sun Microsystems, Yahoo, and Google, all of them were founded by engineers.

Guy Kawasaki from Garage Technology Ventures said that one common mistake an entrepreneur makes is writing a business plan first. Instead, he or she should start building service or product and starting selling them first. It’s utmost important to get customer feedback as soon as possible. By incorporating customer feedback and improving service or product, the entrepreneur could build his/her business. If more capital is required for further growth, it’s much easier to raise funding with proven business model.

So, to my fellow entrepreneurs, JUST DO IT!

Pros and cons of outsourcing software development to India

So, I am winding down on my pursuit of the startup. I had to. My saving level is dangerously low, and I have a family to support.

And, this outsourcing to an Indian software company was a BIG mistake, too. What it came down to is the heart and soul put into the work. They will do a job to meet the spec, but as any software engineer knows, there are million ways to write a code, and these guys will write the minimum or take the shortest path to meet the spec. That doesn’t mean they will think about efficiency or quality of the code. So, quality of the code is always questionable. But, again the biggest problem is that these guys will not go above and beyond. Just do the minimum to meet the spec and that’s it.

When I told many people that I was going to outsource the coding, they thought I was crazy. It’s core of my business, and you should never outsource something that’s core to one’s business. That’s so true, because I just learned it hard way and also it is clearly said in the book I am currently reading, Living on the fault line by Geoffrey Moore. Well, actually at first, I didn’t think the website was the core, but marketing strategy was, because writing a website is so trivial and anyone could do it. I wanted to do it cheaper and faster, and concentrate on good marketing so that I can attract critical mass of users. But, it was the core. In consumer website space, user experience is everything and the website that was built by this Indian outsourcing company – which by the way had developed other social networking sites before – had the worst user interface. So, I basically told them to stop the development since I want to cancel the project. Of course, they weren’t happy about it, but there was really no point in going on. The website developed by them was so inferior to current competitors.

Recently I had to research open-source social networking platforms, and I was surprised to find so many. And, they all looked really good. I remember distinctly that I searched for such platform in October of 2006, and there really weren’t much. I found a few that I’d have to buy, but no social networking…. Though, I am not sure if I would have time to develop the site myself even if I found a suitable open-source social networking platform. The learning curve would have been too steep. That was actually another reason I decided to use an outsourcing company….., but it turned out to be probably worse.

Ah, well…. You live and learn and move on.

Also, another thing that I learned was that most of the successful startups were founded by engineers and geeks, not by business or marketing people. I’d better go and hit programming books!

Software is the king

I wish someone had told me about it early, perhaps before going to college. I have been working for about 10 years now with most of experiences in data communications, and it’s been pretty obvious to me that real value of a system resides in software, not in hardware. In the communication systems, what determines reliability is usually their OS and software in general. Hardware matter, too, but only up to certain point. And, it’s relatively easy to reach a reasonably robust hardware product. The real art of creating value is really in software. I wish I have known this before. While I started my freshman year as a CS major, but later I changed to EE because I didn’t like to spend too much time in front of a computer.

Anyhow, the two pillars of data communications industry is Cisco and Juniper. When Juniper first came out, its software took much different path from Cisco. Cisco’s IOS used to be this humongous, non-modular piece of code and changes in the one part of IOS may easily break different part of IOS. It was somewhat synonymous to MS Windows OS, where the backward compatibility requirement has hindered it from introducing much better OS for a while. Also, their approach was similar where Cisco IOS would support any network protocols under the sun like DECnet and Appletalk, while Juniper only supported newer protocols. When a process within IOS fails or goes nuts, it would bring down the whole system, but not Juniper’s OS – JunOS. It was definitely smaller, faster, more reliable and more resilient. But now Cisco’s new OS called IOS XR is also modular SW, I think the playing field has leveled. Cisco is a big power house in networking which commands more than 60% market share in most of industries it has penetrated, and Juniper might forever remain as the number 2, niche player in the market (Crossing the Chasm).

Anyhow, when I look at new innovation or innovative companies popping up, it’s not in L1 to L4 of OSI layer. It’s usually in higher level. Look at all web 2.0, social networking and SaaS (software as a service) companies taking the market by storm. Some say it’s bubble 2.0, but this time I think everyone including investors is careful about business models and revenue history/projection. Also, anything related with proprietary hardware like building ASICs takes too long and too much capital. Building software takes much less time and capital, and there are literally thousands ways to implement a feature, so it’s really up to how well the software is structured for performance as well as scalability that would make a huge difference.

It also brings an interesting point, too. If you look at technology advancements in the last 100 years and last 20 years, the rate of advancement in last 20 years is very high. If this rate would continue, it’s mind boggling to imagine what the next 10, 20 years will bring. That’s also why benefits of proprietary and custom hardware such as ASIC or company like SUN might be in the big trouble. The system built with off-shelf components may run as fast and reliably as custom hardware. Again, the value will be on software. How well it is designed and written will make all the difference.

I have two kids of my own, and I don’t know if I would want them to become engineers like me…, but if they want to, I would definitely ask them to go into software industry, not hardware. I suppose hindsight is always 20/20. Life’s most valuable experiences are learned from mistakes.