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The New Polymath – a critique? Kind of

WARNING: Don’t read it unless you are a geek.

While waiting for my laptop to reboot because my cable company’s internet
“broadband” signal would not work after my laptop’s sleep mode, I
decided to write in long hand. Everyone is a critic, so why not me?

At the end of last week I had acquired three new books:

1. “Driven to Perform” by Nenshad Bardoliwalla, Stephanie Buscemi,
and Denise Broady as a gift from SAP

2. “iPhone and iPad Apps for Absolute Beginners” by Roy Lewis from
the The Company Store @ Apple, and

3. “The New Polymath” by Vinnie Mirchandani from

It’s the last book that I would like to write about even though I can only
imagine how much work has gone into the first two. The main reason is that
Vinnie is someone who has opened my eyes to SAP when we were both at Gartner.
While doing intercompany accounting in Excel, Lawson  and Hyperion, I
started reading Gartner’s research about SAP and Vinnie’s writing clearly stood
out and he is definitely one of the first if not the first to use the term ERP.

Enough about me, so let’s have a look at Vinnie’s “The New Polymath’ book.
He starts with the Western history’s greats: Plato, daVinci, Newton, Franklin,
and many others that we have only learned about in school (if we were paying
attention). A few pages into the book, however, we are already in the present
discussing Apple, BASF, Google, UPS, IBM and the list is only growing as we
keep reading. What a feast to a geek who enjoys reading Peter Drucker and The
Economist’s Technology Quarterly. What struck me most was how quickly the
modern examples are becoming obsolete. The book was published on the same day
my iPhone became a legacy hardware and software. And this is only last week!
I can already see how this review gets pushed by subsequent entries on SDN and
moves quickly into oblivion, too.

If you haven’t skipped all the way to the bottom yet (which I do quite
often) keep reading. What follows are just a few impressions or stream of
consciousness (a cloud?) of the thoughts that occurred to me, when I was
rushing through the book to keep up to date, a battle I know that I have
already lost.

First of all, I can think of many more people in history that are known for
being polymaths: the most prominent of all in my accounting profession would be
Luca Pacioli, who taught mathematics to daVinci, but to us is simply the first
to write about debits and credits. There were of course others before and after
like Albertus Magnus or St Thomas (Summa Theologica) from the Middle (not Dark)
Ages. This distinction becomes clearer as you go through the book.

From the more recent examples I can think of Nikola Tesla and Igor Sikorsky,
the former the inventor of what lies at the heart of the success of iPhone –
wireless and the latter who lifted man above the ground – via a helicopter.
I can think of Gauss and Euler, both great mathematicians, of Lomonosov and
Mendelejev, both chemists but also so much more. The more recent examples are
EF Codd and Bob Bemer, the former known for relational databases and the latter
for ASCII. I’m sure others can think of many more. Their success has not been
guaranteed and sometimes had ironic results. Fahrenheit’s home town doesn’t
even use his scale. Maria Skłodowska-Curie was not only a dual Nobel prize
winner, but a mother of another one, Irene. She was also a widow and an
immigrant.  Richelieu for whom pen was mightier than gun considered
himself a 0, especially when standing behind the number 1. So, he must have
been into some kind of binary thinking as well. But Vinnie didn’t want to
rewrite history, so that should be it from my end as well.

Apple is the first modern example. The success of Apple’s iPhone permeates
the whole book and it made me think that sometimes you have to wait for many
years to repeat success. I also like to think of those who attributed to the
success, but are no longer on the first pages of news headlines like the other
Steve (Wozniak).

In Vinnie’s book, you can get actual advice how to best use the iPhone as a
tool to deflect telcos’ rapacious appetite for profit. If you are a big phone
company fan you won’t find a lot of praise in the book. SAP gets treatment from
both sides of the balance sheet. There is a lot pointing out at the corporate
waste of SAP implementations, but also showing it as an opportunity for smaller
companies to benefit from the cost and time overruns. Closing a $150M SAP
project doesn’t seem all that expensive if you think of the overall $5B annual
spend corporate wide. There is a very positive endorsement of In Memory about
which, by the way, you can catch the whole lecture on iTunes, with whiteboard
examples, and wonderful digressions from Prof Plattner. It may start as a
tweak, but it has the potential to end as a revolution in computing.

An image of a whiteboard

In every chapter there is a corporate perspective on IT, why so much is being
spent and on really few vendors. $10,000 may not seem that expensive if a
multibillion dollar enterprise is trying to close their books and their IT
organization is spending multiples of it internally. I think Vinnie is doing
a wonderful job for all those IT startups clamoring to get a bigger piece of
corporate IT spend, especially if they are less than 5 years old. In those,
the CFO is wearing many hats, but in larger organization it’s hard to imagine
a CFO doing the sales support. Vinnie does a great job showing how IT affects
all other parts of the enterprise. No wonder more and more CIO’s report directly
to the CEO.

There is a fair amount of complaint against lawyers, but I can only think of
one, fairly obscure, writing by Aristotle: Sophistical Refutations and we don’t
need to fear lawyers any more. Schopenhauer’s Eristische Dialektik brings some
of the tricks closer to our days.

I can certainly appreciate Vinnie’s striking the right balance between
criticizing some household corporate names and praising achievements where they
are due, but never crossing the line even when Vinnie is including the lists of
phone companies’ numerous incomprehensible charges.  So, when praising GE,
Siemens is also shown as a good corporate citizen. There are even some
positives written about BP. The negatives about corporate giants we can hear in
the press every day. But, I’m not going to sell stock in GE and BP just yet.
However, I will have to throw my PMP away after learning about scrumming and
sprinting, which are not just great sport analogies, but can be quite useful
when approaching those less successful implementation projects. To learn more
about agile software development see examples in the book.

Along with the legal profession, telcos are the bad poster children, slow to
change, and only interested in getting more revenues for themselves and their
governments. I can only think of my own cable company being worse, so not much
Wi-Fi benefit for my home network then as the book would suggest. France
Telecom has a bad reputation because of the suicide deaths, but there isn’t
enough discussed about Foxconn’s unlucky streak.

I share Vinnie’s opinion on authorized vs independent car dealers, and I
truly appreciate his advice on how to use Skype. Then, there are the software
maintenance fees that, it turns out, are actually spent on maintaining this
network: SDN. Many of the people behind SDN are mentioned in the book, so it’s
fair to say that they have coauthored and co-edited it. I’m so glad to be in
their company even though I have not met them in person. SDN gets a mention but
not MSDN or IBM developerworks.

In terms of IT industry dynamics, Vinnie writes about some great
descriptions of IT wars. One example is when HP had entered networking
equipment market, the traditional turf of Cisco. Not all the opinions can be
taken as their face value. One can disagree that IBM has missed the database
opportunity as its hardware stands to win from the seismic shift of In Memory,
especially after SAP has acquired Sybase. I also couldn’t relate to a failed
SAP Procurement project as I have been a part of a very successful one.

Then there is a discussion of QWERTY and Unicode. I don’t understand,
however, bypassing of ASCII which is at the root of Unicode and in an ironic
twist with its Latin character set goes right back to the Middle (not Dark)
Ages when the language ruled in Europe . Why didn’t Wikipedia get a mention is
a bit surprising as well.

Plantronics and PG&E which are prominently discussed for their own clean
technologies and they both are SAP shops. Silicon can not only be used for
microprocessors but also for solar panels. Wind mill farms in Eastern Germany
and Denmark are truly impressive as is the German revenue model for the
household energy producers (correct, household producers not consumers). I think
in Cape Cod there is a strong opposition to try them here on the East Coast.

IPv6 should be a required personally assigned number replacing social
security and the rest of identifications. Medical tourism having an impact on
healthcare costs in the US. I want to try out this one, too. If you ever watched
the Lorenzo’s Oil movie you will be able to relate to Vinnie’s writing about how
technology is helping autistic children.

So, we used to have management consultants, then gurus, then witch doctors,
now they are back to being philosophers. Aristotle finally arrives to the party
along with Copernicus, but the book ends with a rivalry and jealousy, so we
stay very human in the midst of all this tech. I could have peppered this
critique with (short) urls, but I want to leave that fun to the readers who are
welcome to start poking holes in the loose train of thoughts that Vinnie’s book
has provoked in my mind.

iPhone being the intelligence amplifier? I have yet to translate the other
book (Summa Technologiae), but I couldn’t find it even in Mr Lem’s home
country. From what I read his science fiction has been slowly becoming
incarnate, so it’s time to put logy into techno. Only polymaths and the rest of
us geeks can do that for the rest. Now, I need and go to do my monthend close
and the 701 upgrade in parallel.

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      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member
      thanks for taking the time to review the book.

      Couple of comments

      a) about being obsolete. Yes, certain aspects of the book like number of FB users, Apple iPhone apps,'s customer count were revised a few times over the course of the editing process. Believe me even on-line blogs cannot keep up with those numbers because I revised them in every one of the 4 major edits - roughly month - every in the copy process. But that is such an aberration in a world where people are still on SAP 4.3, Office 2000 and only a small fraction has deployed IPv6.

      Pretty much every profile in the book was chosen because they are ahead of mainstream by a couple of years, sometimes much longer. Otherwise they would not have qualified as "innovation" - the focus of my book. So, Microsoft's Azure data centers described in the Cloud Computing chapter will be likely the model for SAP's BYD infrastructure. In turn SAP's SDN is profiled because other vendors should emulate its better points. What the city of Lafayette, LA has done around broadband will spur similar actions in other local governments. What Masdar in the UAE is trying around a carbon-free footprint will be watched closely by cities around the world. What Best Buy is doing around customer analytics will be emulated by others. John Dean of Steelcase is profiled because he started using tablet PCs in 2004 and shares his experience in office settings - something iPad users will learn about over the next couple of years. I profile BMW's 7 series because I hope it inspires software vendors quit trying to just pretty up traditional UIs and start rolling out better audio, haptic, surface and other interfaces. I have 150+ innovator profiles in the book each meant to inspire - they are not going to be "obsolete" any time soon.

      b) Not sure I pick on attorneys in the book - I pick on silly practices the larger vendors try to foist on the market. I work with many attorneys who help me punch holes in such practices. I also admire the attorneys who help those profiled in my chapter on Arsonists - Rimini Street, Cartridge World, MAXroam etc bring some semblance of balance to sanity to out of control maintenance, printer ink and roaming charges. 

      Anyways, having read the book, I welcome you to take part in the "wow" candidate contest. Describe the product, person or place which inspired you most in book and your entry could win 3 books from the wide Wiley contest, Similarly, the most nominated candidate would get same.

      Details at

      Thanks again!