Bestselling author Thomas Friedman looks at UPS and the future of big data.
Thomas Friedman, The New York Times columnist and author, is waiting at a downtown Washington, DC, restaurant, where he’ll repeat a normal ritual, combining an interview and breakfast. When his interview subject arrives, the man immediately begins to apologize for his tardiness.
“No, please – don’t apologize,” Friedman interrupts, realizing that he had been enjoying a moment’s respite from what he calls the “dizzying” pace of change. “In fact, you know what, thank you for being late!”
The unscheduled downtime also gave Friedman the title for his seventh book, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), in which he argues that we are “living through one of the greatest inflection points in history.”
With the three largest forces on the planet – technology, globalization and climate change – all accelerating at once, it’s a good time, he says, to slow down and reflect on how these forces are affecting individuals, societies and economies.
More importantly, it’s an opportunity for us to learn how to manage and benefit from them.
Friedman traces the impetus for the tsunami of change to the exponential increase in computing power we’ve come to label “Moore’s Law.” Named for Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, the mathematical principle states that the power of microchips doubles every two years.
“Everything we use today keeps getting smarter, faster, smaller, cheaper and more efficient.”
What’s more, the proliferation of sensors, which has ushered in the Internet of Things – along with massive increases in data storage capacity – has provided the foundation for recent breakthroughs in machines, robots, phones, watches, software and computers.
To that roster of enhanced goods and services, Friedman adds a service that until about 20 years ago was about as devoid of advanced technology as any – package delivery.
To make his point, Friedman returns to UPS, a company he examined in some detail in his bestseller The World Is Flat.
Logistics and big data
In Thank You for Being Late, Friedman looks at how logistics, package deliveries, big data and technology are intertwined.
Determining the route that UPS drivers take to deliver their packages each day has morphed from an exercise mapped on drivers’ clipboards to one of the most dramatic examples of big data capability, Friedman says in his latest book.
For proof he cites a speech given by UPS’s former president of engineering, Randy Stashick, at a Production and Operations Management Society conference. Stashick’s presentation opens on a slide with a number that fills the screen:
“That number – 199 digits in all – represents the number of discrete routes a UPS driver could conceivably take while making an average of 120 daily stops.
“Now, if you really want to get crazy, take that number and multiply it by 55,000,” Stashick says. “That’s the number of U.S. routes our drivers are covering each business day. To display that number, we’d probably need that high-definition screen at AT&T Stadium in Dallas, where the Cowboys play.
“But somehow UPS drivers find their way to more than nine million customers every day to deliver nearly 17 million packages filled with everything from a new iPad for a high school graduate in Des Moines to insulin for a diabetic in Denver to two giant pandas relocating from Beijing to the Atlanta Zoo.Share
“The route that UPS drivers take has morphed into one of the most dramatic examples of big data capability.”
“How do they do it?” Stashick asks. “The answer is operations research. More than 200 sensors in the vehicle tell us if the driver is wearing a seat belt, how fast the vehicle is traveling, when the brakes are applied, if the bulkhead door is open, if the package car is going forward or backing up, the name of the street it’s traveling on, even how much time the vehicle has spent idling versus its time in motion.
“Unfortunately, we don’t know if the dog sitting innocently by the front door is going to bite.”
Despite all of the computing power, sensors and storage that went online in recent years, Friedman says the ultimate complement was software allowing “millions of computers strung together to act like one computer.”
He explains that the need to hook myriad “drives and processors together so they could all work in a coordinated manner” was what Silicon Valley engineers wryly refer to as a SMOP – Small Matter of Programming. Friedman notes:
Software had been around for a long time before Bill Gates. It’s just that the users of computers never really noticed because it came loaded into the computers you bought, a kind of necessary evil with all of that gleaming hardware.
By uncoupling the software from the hardware, and making individual users pay for the programs they wanted loaded on their machines, Gates and Microsoft made desktops and laptops into commodities.
“The best rises to the top by the social nature of the collaboration.”
“In the twentieth century, the constraint was all about the hardware and making the hardware faster – faster processors, more servers,” says GitHub CEO Chris Wanstrath, whom Friedman credits with starting the digital software library that allows users to select, adapt and share software that runs thousands of applications. (Think of the marriage of Wikipedia and Amazon.com for software.)
“The best rises to the top by the social nature of the collaboration – the same way books get rated by buyers on amazon.com,” Wanstrath says.
It’s the open-source software community that GitHub created, expanding the concept of sharing, that Friedman says is at the heart of so much of computing’s advancements over the years.
There is something wonderfully human about the open-source community. At heart, it’s driven by a deep human desire for collaboration and a deep human desire for recognition and work well done – not financial reward. … Millions of hours of free labor are being unlocked by tapping into people’s innate desires to innovate, share and be recognized for it.
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