Archive for February, 2010

Bahrain for a night, mate!

23/02/2010

In Bahrain for a meeting first thing tomorrow morning.

I do like Bahrain. It has an ‘old Dubai’ feel, the tail end of which I experienced to some degree when I got to Dubai in 2002. That old Dubai is still there, but isn’t a place I get to see much. Our lives are very much ‘new Dubai’, these days – that sounds pretentious, but it’s not meant to. It just means we live and socialise in the parts of town that have gone up during the last few years.

Bahrain has lots of beigey buildings, hotels with English pubs and live bands, ancient decor, cigarettes in the mini bar and dodgy discos with a mix of local, expat and Saudi patrons.

On arrival I was pleased to see a London taxi, but I couldn’t get into it as the London taxis are for ladies ladies travelling sir. I jumped into a Camry driven by an elderly local who greeted me with a cheery ‘all right mate!’. It tuns out he worked for the British Navy up until 1971, when the UK pulled out. He’d been to London and was also an honorary scouser, thanks to a trip on the ship to Liverpool. He told me he loved chicken and chips and fish and chips and that in the old days beer was very cheap.

It was nice to talk to someone with direct experience of the Brits and their time in the Gulf. ‘All what we learned we learned from the British, mate, and that’s why we keep our streets so tidy’. I wonder what he’d make of Britain today?

Most of the older Gulf Nationals I’ve spoken to about the time the British were here are overwhelmingly positive. Granted, they’re unlikely to be negative so as not to insult me, but that said, their enthusiasm comes across as very genuine. They don’t have to say nice things. None of them say that they wish ‘we’ were still here in the way we were, but all of them acknowledge numerous positive aspects of British presence. It wasn’t a colonial presence in the same mould as, for example, the French in Algeria, or the Belgians in the Congo. More of a strange mix of co-operation and colonialism. I need to read more about it – any good books anyone would recommend?

It seems to be British journalists, like Johann Hari, who paint a different picture of that period. I prefer to believe the people who were actually there at the time. ‘Cheers, mate!’

Patrol Video

21/02/2010

Gulf News has a nice video of the new Nissan Patrol here.

Very capable, but that track does nothing to simulate driving in the desert…

2010 Patrol

15/02/2010

Gulf News has a picture of the new 2010 Patrol.

Yuck. It looks like an even more blobby and style-free version of the current Land Cruiser. Still, it’s specifically aimed at the Middle East and this sort of design seems to sell.

The article mentions the usual ‘extensively tested in the desert of the UAE’ line – something that Range Rover also trot out, even though you’d be nuts to take your Rangie into anything more than very gentle dunes. Whilst a lot of the desert safari guys here seem to have happily embraced the new Land Cruiser, I don’t believe that either the Toyota or this new Nissan have the approach and departure angles to make adventurous desert driving practical. The large, integrated bumpers have nothing that can just snap off, as with previous models. Come down a steep dune in this and any bumper to sand contact looks likely to shove the front up in such as way as to damage the body work.

Given the regularity with which this happens to the older models I’ve seen out and about, which had better approach and departure angles, I predict some healthy business for Toyota and Nissan bodyshops. It also looks like a much bigger job to customise the front of back to make it more desert friendly. Granted, most of these vehicles are just used as super comfy road vehicles, but you do see plenty offroad – a lot of the younger local lads love the entry level Patrol. Fitted out with sand tyres it’s pretty unstoppable.

If Nissan or Toyota would like to lend me a mode to test their desert-worthinessl, I’d be happy to test this theory!

I also wonder about the direction these vehicles are going – more electronics, more to go wrong. There’s obviously a market though and this is what customers must want. I have no doubt that all the electronics make the cars very capable on rocks and in mud. Every article you read about the Range Rover, for example, claims it’s as capable, if not more so, than the Defender. They would certainly leave my Wrangler behind on most non-desert terrain, reliability and ease of repair aside.

I’d also love to know what the UN and other organisations, currently big users of the previous, more practical Patrol, will make of this new model. Toyota are still in the rugged game, with their ‘chunky’ utility oriented Land Cruiser 70 range. The new Patrol seems to signal an end to participation in this market, unless they plan to keep the older version going to compete with Toyota in this market – a market Land Rover seem to have completely given up on.

When daydreaming about what to get after the Wrangler gets too old, or if Mrs Saul’s Rangie (currently in the garage having a new height sensor fitted!) needs replacing, it’s a toss up between a secondhand, older shape Land Cruiser or the 2009 Patrol. Then again, cash allowing, would it be nice to go the whole hog and have a big, new, Patrol or Land Cruiser, decked out in the classic Gulf stripes, possibly with some Sheikh Decals on the back?

Ideal world – 2010 Range Rover for Luxury on road and in Wadis, 2009 Patrol or previous shape Land Cruiser for desert driving and camping with a full car of friends, keep the Wrangler as a classic of its genre and throw in either an Audi R8 or a convertible Galliardo. All very achievable – I just need to earn about ten times more than I do. And not think about the environment too much.

Travelling again

15/02/2010

After a while in Dubai, thanks to various cancelled trips, I’m on the road again. Riyadh this week, Casablanca next, Tunis the week after.

I was getting used to enjoying being back home, but I can’t see the career I want involving anything but regular travel. Looking back at my blog archive, I was amazed to see how much I was away for a number of years. It’ll be interesting to see how things pan out over the coming months. I’ve loved being home and going to circuit training regularly, but I’ve also missed being extra busy and seeing new places, partners and customers.

Some sort of balance is needed…

Pick and Mix Design

10/02/2010

I can’t help feeling that Dubai is missing out on the opportunity to be a leader when it comes to building design. No lessons seem to be being learnt from developments that have already started and which look, frankly, pretty awful.

Areas with one main developer look good. Even if you’re not too keen on the design of Jumeirah Beach Residences, there is some consistency of design – all the buildings are similar and ‘things match’. The same goes for the Emaar part of the Marina, despite the odd independent tower sprouting like a garish weed amongst the general Emaar look and feel.

Jumeirah Lake Towers, across from the Marina, is an aesthetic disaster, filled with towers that look ok on their own, but which have been plonked down in a seemingly random fashion, creating something that looks awful and simply feels wrong, as well as being impossible to drive around.

Sadly, the same mistake seems to be being made around Business Bay. Every possible shape and size of building, with every possible facade, springing up in what, once again, seems to be a completely random fashion.

As I’ve mentioned a number of times, the Downtown/Burj Khalifa area by Emaar is excellent. A variety of buildings – towers, hotels, villas at the base of various towers, three, five and ten story building in the Old Town – all fit well together. Surrounding them however, is the usual mish mash.

I have no idea how one goes about planning a large development that is to be filled with skyscrapers, but I would expect there to be some planning to ensure that areas have a certain aesthetic theme, as well as a sensible road layout.

Business Bay could be a world class development that looks great. Instead, it looks like it will be distinctly average in aesthetic terms. It’s almost as if an architecture firm filled the table in its boardroom with a jumble of every possible shape, size and design of building they could offer, expecting the customer to pick a certain style. Instead, the customer just bought the whole table, thinking that was the final design.

Another let down, in my humble opinion, is the Al Barsha area. A completely random road layout that makes it very hard to get anywhere, even if you have a reasonably good idea of where you’re supposed to be going, coupled once again with every possible design for the apartment blocks that have been built.

I’m privileged enough to have a lovely view from my balcony, with Emaar’s Burj Views looking fantastic, particularly at night. Slap bang next to them, right up close on the left, is an independent block – I’m crossing my fingers that it’s supposed to blend in reasonably well, but I doubt it will.

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Here are some of the towers around Business Bay. Lots of glass and steel, but no consistent shape, with a large beige thing dumped in the middle. I think it looks awful.

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Three more randomly designed buildings on the edge of Business Bay.

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I know it’ll all look better when it’s finished, but I do feel that the opportunity to create something that looks good, as well as being an engineering achievement, has been missed. These aren’t terraced houses you can bulldoze – these buildings will have to stay for years.

Emaar have shown that great developments can be built. What’s the answer for the next Business Bay? A master developer, leasing off some of their plots to independents, but ensuring some kind of consistency in design?

Hello Oracle

04/02/2010

Here’s a slightly edited version of a post I put up on my Sun blog and then took down, nervous that I was violating the new social media policy.

Well, we can finally comment on the Oracle acquisition.

The webcast last night contained pretty much everything Sun people wanted to hear – investment in people and Sun products.

It’s still not clear what will happen to me, exactly, but I am pretty optimistic.

The last few months have been fairly miserable for all of us – I can’t wait to be up and at it, working hard as part of Oracle. Critically, I want to be empowered to get on with things, through improved processes and a different approach to management.

Larry Ellison’s comment hit the nail on the head – he said, more or less, that Sun had great engineers and engineering, but they didn’t seem to like selling much. I’m looking forward to being part of a company that has great products, but also knows how to go out and sell them.

Lots of commentary on Sun’s ‘demise’ has focused on Sun not quite having the right product set, or being behind the times for a while and then struggling to catch up. That’s certainly true when it comes to Solaris on x86 and Sun’s slow to arrive x64 kit, but we’ve had a fantastic range of products and solutions for ages now. Every year I have been back at Sun has seen the best line up we’ve ever had, with constant improvements, year on year.

The main problem I always experienced, from my position in the field, was a lack of empowerment for sales teams to go out and sell as well as they could. It wasn’t constant reorganisations that were needed – the core problems needed to be addressed from the top.

These core problems, in my experience, were not who was in what team or practice or business unit, or what our long term strategy was. The problems were poor sales tools, such as CRM, quoting and discount processes. These things meant we were much less agile than our competitors, despite often having better solutions. Equally, there was a lack of basic sales content – whitepapers, references and suchlike.

There was also no clear story coming from Sun any more. Yes, it was right to talk about open source, Web 2.0, etc, etc. There was a need however, for some clear, simple messages about what we had today and what we were selling, because that was the sort of thing customers wanted to buy. Look at us – we’ve got some great kit that’s fast and that gets the job done better than anyone else! Talk about what you have today, as well as musing on the long term route IT is following. Get people excited. By all means burble about concepts and trends, but don’t forget to promote the stuff that’s actually making you money today.

Creating a great product is obviously essential, but it’s only part of the process. For your employees and partners to sell that product, you have to make it as easy as possible. Chucking a great box over the fence with some technical documentation attached does not empower your guys to go out and sell it. You need datasheets, whitepapers, aggressive reference programmes, easy ways to create well written proposals, sizing guides, easy ‘how tos’ when it comes to setting up demos and the like. You need to make it easier to sell than anything else your partners have in their portfolio of products. You need your own sales guys to be able to walk into a meeting with a full arsenal of sales material. When they walk out of the meeting at midday, you need to have them be able to give the customer a well written proposal and pricing by five o’clock that same afternoon.

Sun made an excellent decision, in my opinion, to focus on the so-called emerging markets. So much so, that we had a region that was called Emerging Markets and which, whilst geographically separate, was experiencing the same kind of growth, with similar challenges.

If you see a region as being key to your success, however, you have to make sure that you are selling in a way that suits that region. If you look at the Middle East, for example, you will find, in general, that skilled technical resources are scarce compared Europe or the US. Whereas an IT manager, sys admin or partner engineer in Germany might be happy to fiddle around with things to get them working, take a risk in being the first to use a solution and put up with complex technical documentation, that sort of thing won’t fly elsewhere. It has to be easy to set up and install and easy to understand, size, architect, etc, etc. These principles apply everywhere, obviously, but you can get away with things in the UK, for example, that you can’t get away with in Yemen, or Uruguay or Uganda. I don’t mean this to sound condescending in any way. I am simply stating that selling complex computer solutions differs from region to region depending on the availability of skilled resources at customers and partners and at your own offices. If you don’t account for that in the way you approach the market, you will not be as successful as you should be. All of the knowledge needed to make things easier existed in the company – it just needed to be properly distributed.

Yes, the price has to be right as well – but looking at the IT industry it’s clear that having ‘best price’ is not always what’s needed. Every one of the regions I visit will be filled with Sun and partner people saying the product you represent is too expensive, despite ample evidence all around that customers don’t always buy the cheapest solution or piece of hardware. You need people in customers’ faces convincing them you have the best solution, that the price is worth paying and that going with you rather than with someone else is going to be the least risky option. Arm the guys to be able to do that and you will sell. Oracle will goal us on margin too, which will be an interesting change.

My product set is definitely a hard sell if you focus on price. Where we’ve been successful selling it, there’s been one consistent factor – providing the teams with as much helpful and practical information as possible and then watching them go out and talk to as many of our target customers as possible. Noone picks up the phone and asks Sun or Sun partners for some Sun Rays. You have to get out there. In every country where people have done that, we have sold (supported by me, naturally – that part of the equation is obviously key to anyone’s success 🙂 ).

The Sun teams I’ve worked with have sold despite all these obstacles. Imagine how successful we can be with those obstacles removed.

ps Can I have a pay rise please, Larry?

Business partners

03/02/2010

An astonishing article from the Gulf News.

Taxi drivers complain about their conditions. Taxi company’s response clearly outlines, with no attempt to dress things up in any way, all the ways in which they mistreat their ‘partners’, going so far as to admit that the company ignores the legal paperwork involved – and all in the a national newspaper.

I am flabbergasted, but also not. Time to deploy my Dubai word – Bilunviebable. Both completely believable and utterly unbelievable, all at the same time.

Treating the drivers this way is a disgrace. I hope that something comes of the drivers’ complaints.

I used to call up and report drivers who drove dangerously, but I don’t any more after taking a taxi one day and listening to the driver tell me about the fines that are levied. He told me that they are simply called into a room and told they have a fine as someone had complained about their driving, but they are never told exactly why the complaint was made. This means that a driver who doesn’t realise that some of his normal driving habits are wrong or dangerous will never know why he’s been reported and will never change his behaviour. Idiotic.

Alexander has a nice take on the topic.

Even more random fee annoyance

01/02/2010

So, service charges at restaurants have been officially banned, unless – bizarrely – you are a ‘tourist’ restaurant, in which case the fee has to be levied by law. (To be fair, lots of Dubai restaurant menus state clearly that their price includes these fees – they don’t add them on afterwards).

This nonsense has been going back and forth for weeks now, but at least the result is a positive one for customers.

None of the various articles on the topic have addressed the core issue – what is the point of a ‘service charge’ in the first place? There was one priceless comment from a restaurant manager in one of the articles in the National, stating that a particular customer had been unhappy about the charge, but had paid up quickly one it was explained to him that the service charge covered the cost of things like ketchup and napkins.

What next – a bill with each item broken down? Thank you sir, that’ll be 20Dhs. Here’s your bill for 110Dhs though – 10 Dhs for the waiter’s wages, 5.20Dhs for the cutlery and its associated cleaning costs, 8Dhs for the gas used to grill your steak, 1Dh for the tip we gave to the delivery man, 4Dhs….

The service charge has clearly been a way for restaurants and cafes to put up their prices whilst appearing not to.

Although I’m glad that the service charge has been banned, I don’t really see why it had to be – the UAE is a free market, more or less, when it comes to restaurants, to the best of my knowledge. How the bill is broken down is up to each individual company, surely?

That doesn’t change the fact that service charges are infuriating. If I want to tip the waiter, that’s up to me. Making the cost of the meal clear is up to the restaurant.

One of our local restaurants tried to sting us for a massive 20% service charge the other day. This really was outrageous – 20% is a ridiculous amount and it wasn’t mentioned anywhere on the menu. In addition, the service we’d received was pretty awful. I simply refused to pay the extra and walked out, despite the manager’s complaints that the extra would come out of his pocket. If that had been true, I might be have paid up, but I changed my mind when he started claiming that he was new to the job and to Dubai – I clearly recognised him from our last visit there, over a year ago. He’d stuck in my memory because during our last visit I had had a row with him…. over the outrageous service charge that had been added to our bill.

At least it’s clear now – the price on the menu is the price you pay and you can leave a tip if you wish.

Random Fee annoyance

01/02/2010

I’m glad to see the topic of the Housing Fee raised again, although I’m not hopeful that anything will change.

The Municipality have the right to charge whatever fees they wish to, regardless of whether we want to pay them or not.

It needs to be done fairly though. A quick straw poll of our friends would reveal that about 50% of us are paying the mysterious housing fee, with others not having contributed a dirham, even if they moved recently. Amongst those paying the ‘fee’, the amount paid would also vary randomly.

Our housing fee is over 700Dhs a month – based on what calculation, I do not know. I believe it’s something to do with the price we paid for our apartment, which makes no sense whatsoever. If people had bought the apartment next door at the height of the boom, they could be paying three times what we pay. If the value of our apartment drops below what we paid for it, would we need to go out and disconnect, then renew our DEWA (electricity and power) contract so it would be re-registered at a lower ‘value’?

To add insult to injury, we don’t live in an area that’s serviced by the municipality – we pay the developer a handsome fee for the jobs the municipality might do in a municipality managed area. The fee doesn’t take into account how many people live in an apartment of villa, either. Why should a single person living alone in a three bedroom apartment pay the same, for example, as two couples sharing a two bed apartment? Who uses more of the municipalities services?

The fee is added to our monthly DEWA bill. Apparently you’re supposed to go to an office somewhere and arrange for the money to be transferred to the Municipality, but I’ve never been told explicitly that I have to do this – and noone has ever chased the money up, either. This means I have a few thousand dirhams credited to my bill, which simply increases every month and if of no use to anyone.

As I say, I’m not hopeful that things will get sorted out – and if some sort of order is introduced, I’d be worried that we’d all end up paying considerably more. Let’s see…