This Book!

Get to know Vinnie Mirchandani, with 30+ years of experience in our world. Vinnie now churns out inexpensive books (rather than pricey analyst reports) based on extensive interviews and analysis. His sixth book, Silicon Collar, is a Renaissance man's view of automation in the workplace, bringing rare historical perspective and balance to the cry: "The robots are coming!"

By Bill Kutik

Boomers may remember a paperback titled Steal This Book by '60's radical Abbie Hoffman.

After college, I was managing a small store in New York's East Village, the radical and counter-culture center of the East Coast, when Abbie walked in with a pile of his freshly printed books and asked me to buy them at wholesale and sell them!

"But you're telling people to shoplift it!" I argued. "Why should I pay you for them?"

"I know," Abbie replied. "Isn't it funny? Property is theft. Take a chance."

Since he lived two blocks away and was a national figure, I did. I think the store got paid for most of them. Even in a small operation, inventory control is hellacious.

I recalled this moment from long ago when I wrote "Read This Book" as the column title, since Vinnie Mirchandani' sixth book includes how automation is changing inventory, as one of its 70 fascinating tech case studies.

The book's basic premise is this: "Every profession is being reshaped by automation and technology. The old terminology of white, blue or brown collar is passÚ -- we all live in the Silicon Collar economy," hence its title.

If you don't know Vinnie, you should. He's been involved in enterprise software -- including HCM and Financials -- for 34 years: first with PwC, then Gartner, and for the last 13 years, owner of Deal Architect, a technology strategy and negotiation firm. Yes, he helps end-users negotiate contract terms with software vendors!

He has two popular blogs Deal Architect (about enterprise software) and New Florence. New Renaissance (about innovation).

Happily, Vinnie now churns out inexpensive books (rather than pricey analyst reports) based on extensive interviews (100 of them for his latest) and solid analysis.

To this one, Vinnie brings a broad definition of automation: software, machine learning, robotics, unmanned autonomous vehicles and white-collar bots. And how they are changing the nature of work just about everywhere -- medicine, law, basketball, financial services, combat, oil, R&D labs, journalism, factory floors, warehouses -- even a mind-boggling case study of winery automation.

The book starts with about 50 examples, some quite startling, of machines already working next to humans and later, a couple dozen stories of industries like supermarkets, accounting and banking, which have gradually absorbed automation over decades.

This may be narcissism, but one thing I like most about his books is Vinnie's sense of history, and how he lets his subjects (or himself) explain how things came to be what they are now. Regular readers may recognize that I often try to do the same in this column, and I've come to wonder: Does anyone still care?

Early in the book, he has an interview with Ray Lane, whom I often quote from the time Ray was president of Oracle and in charge of sales, saying: "People don't buy the software they like best; they buy the salesman they like best." Obviously an old quote and definitely less true today, when he'd better say "salesperson" or else.

Vinnie lets Ray talk about what it was like to work at Ross Perot's EDS in the 1970s, when even the largest companies couldn't handle their own IT. Or at Booz Allen, when PCs running Lotus 1-2-3 in the 1980s let the business analysts throw away their Whiteout for typed spreadsheets. And afterward.

As with Ray, Vinnie often lets his subjects speak for themselves, often at considerable length. While failed book writers like me recognize that requires a lot less original writing to turn out a manuscript, you want to hear what they have to say. Sometimes these long passages would benefit from some bracketed explanations of some unfamiliar technology being described, but that's just a nit.

Vinnie has a stunning case study on University of California, San Francisco Medical Center. It includes a short reference to medical-records automation, where we've all experienced the painful digital divide.

My doctors in their 60s spend so much time typing on their laptops that I wonder if they're listening to me. Meanwhile, my latest doctor in his early 40s somehow enters the same data, and I don't even notice. He's my GP and even answers my e-mails within 20 minutes through his hospital's patient medical portal, where I can also see all his notes and my test results!

Too bad the federal government didn't do a vendor selection and pick one system when the 2009 law requiring medical-record automation was passed. I know: If the corruption didn't make it impossible, the notion of it being socialized medicine would have. But now we're left with dozens of incompatible systems giving you access to some test results but not others; some CT-scans and MRIs, but not others. And my doctors still can't share information online!

Vinnie details how many other aspects of life and business are being changed by automation and technology, usually for the better. Here are two personal examples: one about me, the other about him.

Thirty years ago, you were considered a loser if you placed a "personal ad" in a newspaper looking for a date. Now, the number of marriages coming from Match (including my own) and its many online competitors are like stars in the sky: too many to count. People talk about it without embarrassment and everyone seems to know another couple who met the same way.

Around the same time, it was also disgraceful to publish your own book instead of being deemed worthy enough to get a contract and a slim advance from one of a dozen book publishers in New York or Boston. Or worse, using a "vanity press" that charged you to publish it, rather than paying you for your work.

As with much else described in Vinnie's book, that business model has radically changed, despite the fact that publishers have, for a long time, really only been printers and distributors: promoting and publicizing only 5 percent of the books they print!

I remember nearly 30 years ago explaining why that practice actually makes sense to the dumbfounded original CFO of Apple at a publishing party for short-term CEO John Sculley and his book Odyssey.

Even then, long before e-books cut into sales, most printed books lost money, never selling enough to earn back the author's advance. Companies published them to reach an unspecified number of books necessary for the industry to consider them a "major" publisher.

So their perfectly practical thought has always been: Why throw good money after bad? The advance and printing costs are down the toilet, why lose more? So marketing and advertising have always been reserved for the very few books that might actually sell and make a profit! Even more the standard today.

For decades, smart authors have done their own marketing at their own expense. Even if it just meant calling an old friend at The New York Times with influence at its all-powerful Book Review section to get noticed.

But now, with the proliferation of on-demand print services (eliminating the need for a warehouse or an expensive first printing) and with even cheaper and bundled publishing services such as Amazon Kindle (including payments and shipping), many have turned to self-publishing as a more effective (and potentially more profitable) way to get their books out to those who still like to hold paper and not a device.

After suffering the frustrations of a big-name business publisher for his first two books, Vinnie turned to self-publishing, which he details in Silicon Collar, politely not getting into the real angst. Jason Averbook did the same for his very first book two years ago, HR from Now to Next.

So do order Vinnie's book at Amazon now for delivery in September. But please don't steal it.

HR Technology Columnist Bill Kutik is co-chair emeritus of the 19th Annual HR Technology« Conference & Expo, back at Chicago's McCormick Place, Oct. 4-7, 2016, where he will host a discussion with two other veterans like Vinnie: Naomi Lee Bloom and Brian Sommer. Watch Naomi now on the 19th episode of his broadcast-quality video series, Firing Line with Bill Kutik« and read her blog about continuing gender inequality in high tech and how to boost women's careers there and everywhere.

Aug 15, 2016
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