Further info and resources from my website

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Better late than never! Vargas Llosa receives the Nobel Prize for Literature

The blogger's personal collection of Vargas Llosa books
Exactly twenty years ago, while doing my master's at the University of Georgia I visited a childhood friend of mine who was teaching French Literature at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and, while book browsing in a bookstore, one of my favorite hobbies, he recommended buying La tia Julia y el escribidor by Peru's greatest writer, Mario Vargas Llosa (MVL.) Although I didn't speak Spanish then I said, "why not?" and bought it. Little did I know that less than four years later I'd be living in Spain, learning the language and finally getting to read the first Spanish book I bought. And boy was I in for a treat: switching between the daily life of an 18-year old writer-to-be, clearly modeled on the author, and between stories that seemed to have nothing to do with the main storyline, I was fascinated by the power of his writing, the sights, sounds, emotions, family drama of living in Lima, Peru, and beyond that Latin America. And when I reached the "aha" moment, when the link between the seemingly disparate stories and Varguitas' life is suddenly understood, it was quite an epiphany.

Ever since that moment I was hooked on MVL's writing. Not only the comedies such as La tia Julia or the brilliant satire of Pantaleon y las visitadoras (the description of a brothel business run by the government for its military, couched in bureaucratese language is hilarious) but the more politically engaged ones such La ciudad y los perros or La fiesta del chivo. The latter is one of the best books, novel or non-fiction, ever written on power, in particular the autocratic variety: it dissects the mechanics of a dictatorship and how a tyrant, in this case infamous Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, manages to hold his power on a whole country for so long. A fast-paced historical novel, it is a fascinating read which I'd recommend to anybody interested in Latin America, politics and fine writing. Read it and you will understand more about autocratic power than any lengthy academic tome. (A decade later I would find myself lost in thoughts across the Presidential Palace in Santo Domingo reflecting on the people and events described by MVL) 

With such a record, it had been a mystery to me that the Swedish Nobel Prize Committee could still ignore such a giant. But, then, have they not ignored Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, James Joyce, Jorge Amado and Graham Greene? And have they not awarded the coveted prize on unknown writers such as last year's Herta Muller, a German-Romanian I had never heard of - and being half Romanian myself I should. Or Le Clezio, a French writer also unknown to me: yes, although I was born in France with French as my first language and a voracious reader of  the country's literature I had never heard of this winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature a few years ago. And I'm not mentioning the countlesss other obscure ones, nor the puzzling choice of Barack Obama last year as the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize: not only had he done nothing noteworthy in the pursuance of peace but he's managing two wars (true, he didn't start them, but neither has he brought them to an end yet.) You get my drift: awarding a Nobel prize is a hit-or-miss thing and I was gratified that this year was a vintage one with unanimous applause for the choice of MLV.

The only debate now is which of he or the other great Latin American writer, Colombia's Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is the greatest? One can say that MVL is more intellectual while Gabo's language is more poetic, but also that if you were to pick one single book of each writer, Garcia Marquez will win with One Hundred Years of Solitude which is one of the best novels of the 20th century and is therefore a more uplifting read than any single book written by MVL. However, if you look at the overall output, MVL has written more satisfying books than Gabo. So it's probably either a draw, or a slight advantage to MVL.

At the glittering ceremony in Stockholm this month, MVL made an acceptance speech that is already considered a classic. A PDF is available from the El Pais website. For non-Spanish speakers let me translate (approximately) some highlights of a profoundly intelligent, humanist, courageous, beautiful and emotional speech entitled "In praise of reading and fiction."

     Flaubert taught me that talent is a stubborn discipline and long patience...If I were to call up all the writers in whose debt I am, their shadows would throw us into darkness...Just as with writing, reading is a way of protesting against the inadequacies of life...We invented fiction in order to be able to live the many lives that we would like to live while we only have one....

     Literature creates a brotherhood inside human diversity and hides the frontiers that ignorance, ideology, religion, language and stupidity put up between men...I never felt I was a foreigner in Europe, nor in reality anywhere else. In all the places where I've lived I felt at home. I carry Peru in my guts, because that's where I was born, grew up, was trained, and lived those childhood experiences which molded my personality and created my vocation: there I loved, hated, enjoyed, suffered and dreamed....Peru is the whole world in a smaller format. What an extraordinary privilege for one country not to have one identity because it has them all...

     I hate all forms of nationalisms because they make a supreme value of the pure random circumstance of one's birthplace... 

     I was 11 when I lost my innocence and discovered loneliness, authority, adult life and fear. What saved me was reading, reading good books, taking refuge in those worlds where life was exciting, intense, one adventure after another, where I could feel free and become happy again. And it was the fact of writing, in hiding, the way one yields to a shameful vice or forbidden passion. Literature stopped being a game. It became a way of resisting adversity, protesting, rebelling, escaping what was intolerable, it became my reason to be alive... 

     It has always fascinated me to imagine the uncertain circumstances in which our ancestors, barely different from animals, having recently developed speech to allow them to communicate among themselves, started, in caves and around fires, during nights full of danger - lightning, thunder, beast grunts - to make up stories and tell them to one another. That was the crucial moment of our destiny, because in those groups of primitive beings hanging by the voice and imagination of the storyteller, started our civilization ...

     That is why, we have to repeat it incessantly until we convince the new generations: fiction is more than entertainment, more than an intellectual game that makes your sensitivity more acute and develops your critical sense. It is a vital necessity for civilization to continue to exist, renew itself and preserve the best of our humanity...And because a world without literature would be a  world with neither desires nor ideals, a world of robots shorn of what makes a human truly human: the ability to grow out of themselves into somebody else, somebody molded from the  clay of our  dreams.

(All of Mario Vargas Llosa's books have been translated into English. I am using here the original Spanish-language titles since that is how I know them but here are some English-language titles: La Fiesta del chivo was translated as The Feast of the Goat and La tia Julia y el escribidor as Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter.)


Monday, December 13, 2010

The pros and cons of being an IT early adopter

One of the trickiest issues faced by a company about to select a new business software (HR or otherwise) is the early-adopter dilemma. Imagine that you have a favorable view of your IT vendor, probably because of a long association or due to a great rapport with your account manager whom you have come to trust over the years. When a new need emerges (say, you are expanding into a new country and need to manage and pay the local workforce) you naturally turn to your vendor who had already provided you with a payroll engine and the "legs and regs" (local rules in our HR tech jargon) for your home country.

Like all IT vendors, yours will tell you through an enthusiastic sales rep, "no problem, can do." Except that there is a little snag: that local payroll is still being developed (if work has started on it at all) and there is no customer live...yet! Actually they are offering you the great honor of being the first customer, or "early adopter" in softspeak. In plain English, they want you to be their guinea pig.

If you have followed a  strict software-selection methodology (such as the one I advocate) you'll probably pause for thought: Shall I do this? Can I trust them? If nobody's bought it yet, or they haven't developed it, maybe there is a good reason for it. This is not an academic question: Oracle, to take one example, developed in the early 2000's a French payroll and failed to get a first customer to use it since the market had serious doubts about the quality of the product. Not even Oracle France was willing to "eat their own dog food" as the phrase goes!

The above are all valid questions and don't let your account manager brush them off as if they were insignificant specks of dust. Not weighed carefully, these issues may well make all the difference between success and failure in your software project.

If you've had a long association with the vendor and like your account manager, shouldn't this be enough? These are helpful points but should not sway you unduly: after all, the account manager can leave the next day and be replaced by an indifferent or incompetent executive. (That is if they are replaced at all - I've seen customers left with nobody to manage the relationship for years!) And just because your vendor was good at one offering is no guarantee that they will be good at another one: many recruitment vendors have lousy learning features and vice versa.

On the plus side, there is one key advantage which the vendor's sales rep will probably be trumpeting high and low: as a first customer, you get to drive the direction of the product, ensuring your needs are covered. "Your requirements, your whole  requirements, nothing but your requirements," your account manager will be waxing lyrical (and commercial.) And who can deny the appeal of having a customized product built as a package system? Doesn't it sound like the best of both worlds?

Maybe, unless the vendor is less than forthcoming with you and is using you just to test the waters. You need to be convinced that after the initial release the product will not be shelved, as it has happened with several products under so-called "controlled availability." Sure, there is no guarantee of eternity in the IT industry (just ask PeopleSoft customers), but you need to factor that in as part of your due diligence. In particular make sure that the vendor has done their market research adequately and that they're in it for the long haul so that, should the first customers trickle in at a snail's pace, the vendor will still stick by the product and not fold it after a couple of disappointing sales quarters.

One thing to check is the vendor's historical credibility. Are they close to their customers? Have they consistently developed according to plan ("the roadmap" in our lingo.) Is this new product of theirs a key area for which you can expect them to make every effort to be successful, or is it just one among a huge portfolio? If the latter, then the risks are definitely higher. And look at yourself in the vendor's larger business scheme of things: are you a major customer? You don't have to be  a global one, but be clear eyed as to the place you occupy in your industry or geography. To remain with another example of a French payroll (successful this time), are you like Société Générale, a major company, in a  major industry in a  major market? If yes, then chances are that the vendor (in this case it was PeopleSoft and the first country extension of their new Global Payroll) will go to great lengths to deliver as promised. (For how to deal with a software vendor bent on reneging on their commitments - apologies for hawking my book - you may find useful Chapter 7 "Going 'Glocal' " of  High-Tech Planet: Secrets of an IT Road Warrior, on the politics of arm-twisting to get what, after all, you've been promised and have already paid for handsomely.)

Another criterion you may want to take into account is the fact that there is a difference between being asked to be a guinea pig for for a new product covering a mature function (such as the abovementioned payroll) and one which deals with a newish area, such as onboarding.  In the former case, the market requirements are generally well-understood and the only doubts are about the vendor's ability to translate them into bytes and pixels. In the latter, the risks are multiplied by the still fuzzy understanding of what will be automated. In particular, pay attention to the internal resources the vendor is committing to the product.

Although personally I don't believe in the concept of co-development between a vendor and a customer (there should be only one development organization, and its place is within a vendor's walls since that's their business) you as a customer should be quite vigilant about what goes on within those walls. Otherwise you may come to regret having traded the peace of a "laggard" for the excitement of an early adopter. The software graveyard is littered with the bodies of early adopters who ended up being the only adopter.