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What we know we don’t know about blockchains

Bitcoin is already a household name. The blockchain, the data structure plus protocol that lies under Bitcoin and many other novel applications, gets mentioned in almost every list of hot technologies [1].

For every writing that extols the potential of blockchains, another pops up dismissing blockchain-based solutions as inferior [2]. Both extremes are of course “right,” such as you would expect from any projection of a complex, multidimensional issue.

Yes, blockchains have potential to impact our world. Like any technological innovation, blockchains have caused our collective imagination to run loose and create narratives of a future without banks, without government [3], etc. But, predicting the future is hard. In fact, if you’re in the business of telling the future, you can rightfully be called a visionary if you manage to get just a few predictions right and fail at all the others: read Jules Verne’s Extraordinary Voyages with a critical eye, or for a more recent example, Bill Gates’ The Road Ahead. Many other narratives about the future, that completely failed to happen, are now forgotten thanks to survivorship bias.

Now apply the same critical thinking to any narrative about the impact of blockchains to any particular industry. Will cryptocurrencies change finances and banking by a little or by a lot? There is no clear answer yet. One major unknown is what will credit look like in a world of cryptocurrencies with an inelastic, capped money supply. Bitcoin’s creator was wary of credit institutions and central banks and wasn’t necessarily focused on working within a credit-based financial system [4]. Yet, for a modern economy, credit is essential. There is good evidence of a link between the rise of credit institutions and the explosion of economic activity during the European Renaissance [5]. We don’t yet have a crypto monetary system that can replace our fiat currency system without major economic regress.

To tackle the other extreme: yes, blockchain products are the baby replicas of their existing 20th century equivalents. Bitcoin is slow and expensive compared to Visa. There is no court of law to judge the breach of an Ethereum smart contract, even when most agree there should be a difference between the spirit and the letter of the contract, such as in the case of the infamous Ethereum contract bug that brought down The DAO [6].

Remember that blockchains themselves are a solution for a very narrow problem, namely achieving consensus in a network of entities who don’t trust each other. The novelty is that blockchains don’t rely on a central authority. A protocol for decentralized consensus is a building block for distributed applications, but it doesn’t have to be the only one. Higher level protocols are already emerging on top of blockchains to deal with specific applications. For example, Bitcoin developers have created the payment channels protocol [7] and the Lightning network [8]. If adopted, the Bitcoin network will see payments happen “off-chain” quickly and cheaply, and only gross settlement transactions will be committed to the blockchain, an expensive and slow process.

A useful analogy is the history of the Internet itself. The necessary building block for the Internet is a packet-switched network protocol, such as IP, that can effectively route information between nodes on a huge network without the need for a central authority that decides which packets go where. IP alone, however, does not solve all our problems. In IP, the size of a payload of information is limited by design to a few KB [9]; there is no notion of a bi-directional stream of packets between two hosts; there is also no notion of a session. There are higher-level protocols on top of IP that needed to be invented, so that we can enjoy today’s sophisticated Internet products such as Netflix and Skype.

It’s safe to say blockchains are only layer one of a stack of protocols for distributed applications, and there are many more protocols to come which have not yet been invented. My prediction is that it’s too early to pick winners, just like in the ’80s, it would have been premature to pick SNA as the winner over TCP/IP in the battle for communication network protocols.

In conclusion, when you’re building your product or your company under the assumption that “blockchains are the future,” make sure you’re only taking the risks you can afford to take. If we go by past experience, the future will certainly be surprising.

References:

[1] https://www.ness.com/technology-trends-2018-nesss-cto-associates-weigh/
[2] https://hackernoon.com/ten-years-in-nobody-has-come-up-with-a-use-case-for-blockchain-ee98c180100
[3] https://www.ribbonfarm.com/2017/10/10/the-blockchain-man
[4] http://p2pfoundation.ning.com/forum/topics/bitcoin-open-source
[5] https://www.ft.com/content/6851f286-288d-11de-8dbf-00144feabdc0
[6] https://www.coindesk.com/ethereum-classic-explained-blockchain/
[7] https://en.bitcoin.it/wiki/Payment_channels
[8] https://en.bitcoin.it/wiki/Lightning_Network
[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maximum_transmission_unit

An Approach to Digital Platform Engineering

Case Study

A Balanced Approach to Digital Platform Engineering

The Challenge

While Ness focuses primarily on product & platform engineering using its user-centric Ness Connected approach, it is very aware of how pure Research & Development encourages smart people to explore the art of the possible. This blog explores a balanced approach to digital platform engineering.

A quick story: In the late 50s researchers at three US companies (Texas Instruments, Fairchild Semiconductor and Sprague Electric Company) each solved a different challenge around further miniaturising and integrating together a number of transistors. A group at Fairchild produced the first Integrated Circuit in 1960. However, the Vice President of Marketing at the time viewed this initiative as a waste of company resources and thought that the project should be terminated. This led to the core development team leaving to form other companies. Fairchild quickly understood the extraordinary IP it now owned, and in 1961 produced the first commercial ICs. These were used in ballistic missiles and early Apollo spacecraft, and paved the way for full commercialisation.

Why is this delve into history important? Because there was no overt user need to create an integrated circuit. There was no service design or detailed user needs. Nothing like this had existed before, and very few people could even envisage the concept, it had no natural predecessors. Known physical limitations precluded such an idea. It is only through pure R&D that a highly disruptive technology emerged, that has literally transformed the world we live in.

We are all accustomed to believing that the best digital platforms are those that have been designed to address specific user needs or latent desires. There are countless examples of these, from Uber to Spotify. The innovative step for each was actually the business idea (specifically establishing a business to address a perceived need, and not identifying or creating the actual need itself). The underlying technology to deliver that business model was somewhat of a given. The bad old days of “build it and they will come” has been replaced with a user-centric approach to almost every business innovation.

There have however been more recent examples of where technological innovation has created entirely new capabilities and markets. Take the Apple iPhone itself, and also the Apps ecosystem it catalysed. The point being that while user needs are important, from time to time new major technology revolutions drive change that users will flock to use even though they may not have ever considered “needing” it.

While new business ideas can drive the direction of technology, the opposite also stands up to scrutiny. New technologies can create an environment for new business initiatives, and the volume and speed of these new technologies emerging is not always the result of traditional R&D, but is happening on a daily basis. Engineers around the world are experimenting with an almost infinite permutation of various technologies. It is not clear or certain which ones will arrive to find an audience. An example of this is the plethora of mash-ups that have been created by developers using location visualisation, without a clear demand for the end solution.

The Solution

There needs to be a balance between taking the needs of users into account, and understanding the art of the possible that new technologies can deliver.

Very few organisations spend much time understanding the potential of new technology innovation and how this could impact existing user-centric platforms and processes. An example of this is the rise of machine learning using artificial intelligence to correlate very large disparate sets of data to derive insights. Rather than finding a needle in a haystack, this is more like finding a needle in thousands of different hay (and other) stacks spread around the world. But computing power and new technologies now makes this search economically viable. Business stakeholders can ask new technologies to address a particular need “Improve our sales revenue”, but rarely ask “is there a new technology capability that could significantly impact our business”. Were they to look into the future they might identify how the world will work then and how they might succeed in it.

There is a natural tension between user needs and technical capabilities. Most approaches to anything these days start top-down from a business needs perspective, and end up at the implementation level leveraging the best technology available at the time. But there is also an argument to look at basic technology innovation – what can be done today or tomorrow that could not be done yesterday – and then work upwards to understand the impact on existing business processes.

An R&D question framed to address this would be: “Are there any new or anticipated capabilities that can tell me which of my customers are going to remain loyal to my brand for the next 4 years, and for those that are not tell me specifically what could I do for each of them to reverse their future plan to switch brands?”. The answer to this question is not just big data and machine learning, it is asking about new ways of leveraging these technologies or new technologies that haven’t been tried before. A lot of people talk about innovation, however avoid that critical “art of the possible” innovative step.

Most organisations simply aren’t capable of following this approach. Their ingrained experience of doing this in a particular way, and best practice wisdom, precludes them from seeing beyond the limits of their existing knowledge. As was the case for the Vice President of Marketing at Fairchild.

One way to address this is to re-engineer the process used to create new digital platforms. Rather than using standard Discovery and Envision phases to convert user needs into implementable technology, there has to be room for a reverse workflow as well. What technology exists today that could enable as-yet unexpressed user needs? In many cases there are latent user needs that are never surfaced. People rarely express their inner thoughts in areas they know are impractical or unrealisable for fear of being judged by their peers.

There is a famous phrase attributed to Henry Ford “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses” explaining why he built motor cars. This HBR article https://hbr.org/2011/08/henry-ford-never-said-the-fast has a slightly different analysis, and summarises some of the thinking expressed above, “One side vehemently argues the merits of innovating vis-à-vis customer feedback; the other argues that true innovation is created by singularly gifted visionaries who ignore customer input and instead manufacture innovation based solely on their prophetic vision for a better future”.

A valid qualifying question to ask in this context is whether people still need these faster horses – do we need to travel anymore? Is there a technology today that would remove this burden? Video conferencing and collaboration tools go some way towards removing the need for face-to-face contact. But in an ideal world we would just use a matter transporter – wait, that’s physically impossible. Isn’t it? While matter transportation may be out of our reach for the foreseeable future, and perhaps for ever, there may be other technologies that could revolutionise our need to travel anywhere. They just haven’t been invented yet. As we continue to augment our bodies with technology, we may reach a point where our brains cannot distinguish between the physical and virtual world. Where we augment the five senses to the point where our brain for example cannot tell the difference between actually eating a meal and the senses being electronically stimulated to replicate that feeling exactly. Science fiction or future state reality?

What is the point being made? Simply that being just a follower of current approaches won’t always win the day. Almost every company is now heavily focused on customer-experience led platforms. They are all slavishly doing things the same way. This is of course not wrong in itself. But very few are also looking at things from the other angle – what technology innovation exists today, and what could it conceivably allow us to do?

And as noted above, ingrained best practice thinking mandates against the technology-led approach. Often the only way to cover this is to institutionalise a process that requires adherence to both a user-centric starting point alongside a technology innovation centric starting point. The two are naturally in conflict; it is from solving the tension between them that real brilliance emerges.

At Ness we have already addressed the conflict between the creative, user-centric, service-designed world traditionally inhabited by design agencies, and the software implementation world inhabited by software engineering companies, using the Ness Connected approach that already takes technical feasibility as an input to any new platform design. This can be summarised as “Design the right product, then build the product the right way”. A further evolution of this is to combine the Ness Connected approach with the technology innovation approach practiced by pure R&D labs.

Ness has an Office of the CTO that has identified a number of CTO Associates spread through the organisation, who along with Ness’s solution architects, are experts in specific technology areas. These experts bring a technology point of view to bear with an R&D mind-set, creating POCs to explore the art of the possible. They are fervently enthusiastic about their areas of expertise, and can often help identify emerging technology innovation that can significantly shape what otherwise would have just been a thoughtfully designed and customer-centric technology platform. While they have other roles, they do provide an R&D capability in this focussed area.

For many of Ness’s clients it is through this blend of Ness’s proven Connected methodology and the passion of Ness’s CTO Associates and Solution Architects that truly brilliant digital platforms of the future are being created today.

How To Crack A Data Science In-Person Panel Interview?

In conversation with Analytics India Magazine, Moshe Kranc, CTO at Ness Digital Engineering, gives advice on how to succeed in an interview for a data science position. With the rapid rate at which technology is advancing, even new graduates who have studied Big Data may not possess knowledge of everything included in job descriptions. Having a concise resume with technical skills and experience clearly highlighted and being prepared to answer questions about key experiences from previous jobs as well as strengths and weaknesses in the context of data science are some ways to make a better impression and boost your chances of success.

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Ness Digital Engineering to Acquire Linium

Company deepening its end-to-end digital enablement capabilities

TEANECK, NJ – March 14, 2018 Ness Digital Engineering, a portfolio company of The Rohatyn Group (TRG), has executed a definitive agreement to acquire Linium, LLC, a digital business, engineering, experience and transformation consultancy. Ness Digital Engineering, a global company committed to helping its clients deliver dynamic customer interactions and business operations platforms, is expanding its capabilities in delivering end-to-end digital enablement.

“This acquisition will further extend our capabilities in digital operations and business process management and automation,” said Paul Lombardo, Ness Digital Engineering CEO. “Organizations are under tremendous pressure to be more agile and efficient in their operations, and Linium is highly regarded for its expertise in strategic business process consulting and helping clients use technologies to transform business processes. We share a similar philosophy for how we work with clients: understand their business needs first, then our collaborative, experienced teams apply modern systems design that ensures execution is successful on day one and can evolve as business needs change.”

Linium delivers cloud-based enterprise platforms and solutions, with particular expertise in ServiceNow solutions, that position companies to achieve scale, drive growth and enable modernization. By combining with Ness, Linium can offer its clients a wider range of digital platform development, customization and management services that complement its expertise.

“We’re excited to come together with another organization committed to supporting clients’ digital transformation,” said Joe Burke, CEO of Linium. “Joining with Ness will enable us to enhance and expand the services, value and experience we provide to customers, while also preserving the agility and culture that define the essence of Linium.”

This acquisition will add to Ness’s expertise in helping clients achieve better business performance through novel, highly-effective uses of data and technologies integrated into solutions that:

  • Create unrivalled customer experiences using innovative digital strategies, platforms and products
  • Increase operational agility through system modernization, integration, and business process automation
  • Exploit the strengths of emerging technologies to help clients stay ahead of the competition

Linium will maintain its name but become a “Ness Digital Engineering Company.” Headquartered in Albany, NY, Linium and its employees will continue to work out of their current locations. Burke will become President of Ness Digital Engineering, North America, reporting to Paul Lombardo.

The transaction is expected to close toward the end of the first quarter of this year or early in the second quarter. [Ness announced the completion of the Linium acquisition on April 3, 2018.]

About Linium

Linium is a digital business, engineering, experience and transformational consultancy. A globally recognized firm, Linium delivers cloud-based enterprise platforms and solutions that position companies to achieve scale, drive growth and enable modernization. Linium has delivered 2,700+ successful engagements across an array of industries for over 17 years. Headquartered in Albany, NY, Linium has dedicated teams focused on the commercial sectors, federal government, and managed service providers (MSPs). Named to the Inc. 5000 list of the nation’s fastest-growing private companies for six consecutive years, Linium enables a blue-chip roster of clients, including 30 percent of the Fortune 100 companies, to achieve operational efficiencies through digital transformation and automation.

About Ness Digital Engineering

Ness Digital Engineering designs, builds, and integrates digital platforms and enterprise software that help organizations engage customers, differentiate their brands, and drive profitable growth. Our customer experience designers, software engineers, data experts, and business consultants partner with clients to develop roadmaps that identify ongoing opportunities to increase the value of their digital solutions and enterprise systems. Through agile development of minimum viable products (MVPs), our clients can test new ideas in the market and continually adapt to changing business conditions—giving our clients the leverage to lead market disruption in their industries and compete more effectively to grow their business. For more information, visit www.ness.com.

About TRG

Founded in 2002, The Rohatyn Group is an emerging markets asset management firm headquartered in New York, with offices around the globe including, Singapore, Seoul, London, Buenos Aires, Lima, Montevideo, Mexico City, São Paulo, Mumbai, New Delhi, Boston and Rotorua. For more information, please visit www.rohatyngroup.com

Media Contacts

Vivek Kangath
Senior Global Manager – Corporate Communications
Ness Digital Engineering
Mobile: +91 9742565583 | Tel: +91 80 41961000 | DID: +91 80 41961027

Amy Legere
Greenough
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617.275.6517

Nessian on the Job – Subrata Bora

Through our On the Job series, we introduce some of the men and women who play a pivotal role in the success story charted by Ness. In this edition, Subrata Bora describes his role as a pre-sales consultant at Ness, his learning experiences and why he enjoys working at the company.

Name & Title: Subrata Bora, Manager – Sales Support

Career Path: In my professional career of about 10 years I have worked on varied roles – developer, business analyst, pre-sales consultant, in three different IT Companies. After working for three years, I left my job to pursue a MBA in Marketing from IMT Ghaziabad, which allowed me to broaden my horizon and gain a stronger customer- centric business understanding. Post MBA, I worked as a Business Analyst for a few years, until I gradually moved into a pre-sales role. It’s been approximately 1 & 1/2 years since I joined Ness and every day in my job brings forth new opportunities to enrich my knowledge.

My Role: My role in Ness involves a wide gamut of activities – managing the day-to-day bid process, analyst report responses, RFI responses and more. As a bid-manager, my job entails collaborating with different functions of the organization across the globe, including sales teams, practice heads, solution architects, finance, delivery, recruitment, and marketing. Depending on the type of bid (RFP/RFQ/RFI), I formulate the responses, keeping in mind the requirements of the customer and their pain points by collaborating with other Ness teams. Working in conjunction with sales, I present a unique, compelling, and competitive notion of Ness to our prospects to support the company in gaining new business that allow us to truly help them be more successful. For the analyst reports, I work directly with our CMO and CDO to accurately position Ness as a unique digital product engineering company, and build our leadership and credibility in the market.

Learnings from My Current Role: Ness has offered me substantial learning opportunities that have helped me hone my skills more proficiently as a pre-sales consultant. The complex rationales that go behind pursuing bids and the commercial implications involved, provide a great avenue to comprehend how businesses work. Being a part of the pre-sales team and working with global teams, I get a bird’s-eye view of all that is happening in the company, and this also helps me keep myself abreast with the latest trends in the areas of business and technology.

What I Like About Working at Ness: In my prior organization, I had the visibility of a single practice in the entire organization, which provided me with a myopic view of the overall organization. However, at Ness, I have a full view of the entire company’s functioning.

Ness fosters a very positive work environment that seamlessly integrates fun and work; my co-workers are very passionate and knowledgeable in their areas of expertise, and at the same time are a really great group to hang out with. All these facets contribute to Ness being one of the most fun places to work.

Interesting Facts About Me: My passion lies in painting and reading fictional novels (mostly murder mysteries). I have a flair for writing and have written some blog posts in the past. I spend most of my free time playing with my PlayStation and love to travel whenever I get an opportunity.

Accelerating the Uptake of Electric Vehicles

A lot has been written on the subject of extending the range of Electric Vehicles. Battery technologies are becoming more energy dense and able to charge faster; electric motors and powertrain technologies are becoming more efficient. While these improvements will go some way towards addressing the distance challenge, consumers are still waiting to see a broader consensus and gain confidence in a longer-term approach. No one wants to buy an EV with a limited range that could potentially leave them stranded. While Hybrid Vehicles offer an ‘acceptable-for-some’ compromise for now, they are more expensive to manufacture and tax, and continue to pollute the environment.

One of the solutions to address this distance challenge has been proposed many times over the years. It involves embedding an inductive charging loop in the road, so that EVs can receive additional power while moving. Inductive charging is not new, and recent technology innovations have shown how efficiencies have been driven up to nearly 90% using high frequency systems in ideal test conditions. However, there are some fundamental challenges that proponents of these in-road schemes tend to gloss over:

  • Putting the infrastructure in is going to cost $$$s. It’s not just what goes into the roads, but all of the supporting electrical distribution infrastructure required to supply large amounts of power to the roadside from national grid systems. EVs need substantially more power than existing signage and overhead gantry systems, and there is a school of thought that this approach simply isn’t economically viable.
  • Whatever is put in will then need ripping up and replacing. As various competing technologies evolve, it is likely that different induction systems would be required in the road, and investors won’t want to over-invest in one solution which they know will require replacement.
  • Disruption to highways and people using them will be enormous. Even if a “track-laying” type machine is built that can process one lane at a time continuously, it still needs to connect the induction assets to roadside power points that then connect to the local distribution grid. It will be a long and laborious process.
  • There will always be significant energy wastage. Induction transference (across the air) is lossy compared to a direct connection – and disparate vehicles will interact with this system in different ways with different degrees of efficiency.

So what are the alternatives?

One option is for a driver who has a large store of energy in their EV being able to trade that with someone else whose battery is almost empty, by using a transfer cable when stationary. With fully autonomous vehicles there’s no reason why a fully charged vehicle couldn’t partially recharge an almost empty one “mid-flight” while both are moving at the same speed, either through a cable connection (similar to how airborne tankers refuel military aircraft) or via induction transfer between vehicles. There may prove to be a strong economic case for large battery trucks driving around able to charge other EVs. There is already an EV “Platoon” concept for several trucks all travelling in convoy that could be extended to provide this sort of capability: a fully peer-to-peer energy charging network “on-wheels”. A gig-economy proposition could evolve around the provision of mobile energy supply.

Many senior decision makers are still blinkered by their big infrastructure way of thinking – and frequently dependent on it for incremental revenue – which is one reason why novel concepts like P2P energy sharing for EVs are often ignored by policy makers (and subsequently in the media).

Another option is swap-out batteries. While it’s too unwieldy to swap out the main battery (as the car is often built around it), an EV could also have a modular swap-out battery that perhaps can store an additional 10-15% of main EV battery capacity. This battery could be swapped out very quickly – as it would be compact and designed for speedy exchange. This could be done at roadside drive-by swap-out stations, or in dire circumstances by top-up trucks similar to those suggested above but which physically exchange modular battery packs while on the move. There is precedent: we are all familiar with exchangeable gas bottles or cylinders for cooking and heating; or laptop computers that have two batteries, one built in and one that can be swapped for a freshly charged battery. At one point even Tesla was enthusiastic about swappable batteries, but is now focused its Supercharger platform.

Both of these options (P2P energy trading, or swap-out batteries) could deliver regular range extensions on long journeys:

  • For the first, it is likely that a P2P model will become established in the domestic electricity Smart Grids of the future. Extending this concept to the EV network would be a natural evolution, with the P2P components of future Smart Grid control systems being adapted to manage the overall process of P2P EV charging and payments with optimal efficiency. In a future Smart Grid world the best place to charge an EV may actually be at home, from locally sourced energy stored in a Home Battery. Reliable access to other established charging sources further afield may be limited by the economics of cost and unpredictable demand by location, which is why a P2P sharing/trading model, when away from home, might work well.
  • For the second approach, having the ability to exchange swap-out batteries would also enable vehicle owners to store a “spare” in the boot/trunk, similar to the 5 litre/1 gallon fuel can that many people rely on in case of running very low on fuel. If smart battery providers and car manufacturers can agree on some standard capacities and form-factors, this would allow an “energy pack” to have multiple uses, in the car, at home, or wherever else an amount of electrical energy is required. Agreeing on standards to this degree has always proved a significant challenge in the automotive sector where competition precludes commonality, and the current range of different shapes and sizes for 12V car batteries is a discouraging example for this model.

In order to consider which approach makes most sense, we need to step back from the big infrastructure perspective and instead look at how approaches like peer-to-peer have disrupted other industries. While the swap-out battery approach might make sense to consumers, in the absence of sufficient collaboration between manufacturers the more user-centric P2P approach may prevail.

At Ness we are always learning from the latest thinking and best practices from other industries and bringing this to bear on a client’s sector, helping them to plan their operational platforms for the future.

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