Tag Archives: sustainable business models

Madoff’s Programmers

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In my last blog entry, I took exception to Mark Cuban’s use of the term Financial Engineering to imply that the word ‘engineering’ was synonymous with the word ‘fraud’. It has been my experience that engineers hate to be wrong about anything, which is no doubt due to their analytical nature, and so as a rule, they are not very good liars. To every rule, however, there are exceptions.

We see evidence on the Internet every day that technically skilled individuals are applying their skills to cheat people out of money. I like to believe that the perpetrators of these scams are a small minority, and it’s only because of the vast reach of the Internet that they seem so ubiquitous. I suppose there may also be cases where otherwise honest programmers are persuaded to help dishonest people because they are desperate for money or want to keep their jobs.

I recently read the book, Madoff with the Money about Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme that swindled investors out of more than $50 billion. The details of the how the scheme was pulled off are not really covered in the book, but all the while I was reading it, I knew that Madoff must have had technical help. Madoff barely possessed the computer skills to send an email. His computer, which basically was set up to display stock ticker data, confounded him. By all accounts, he was of average intelligence, not the financial genius that many people thought he was.

Madoff’s results at significantly outperforming the market year-over-year for more than a decade were baffling to most Wall Street insiders. There are a lot of really motivated people in the financial arena who have access to the brightest minds and best information available and they couldn’t figure out how he was doing it. For that reason alone, many assumed he was doing something illegal. There was even one whistle blower, Harry Markopolos, who contacted the SEC several times including going so far as sending detailed complaint letter describing in excruciating detail 29 ‘red flags’ that indicated that Madoff was either front running stocks (basically a form of insider trading) or, more likely, operating a Ponzi scheme. Markopolos had first contacted the SEC about Madoff in 1999 and several times after that. They ignored him.

About a month ago, two of Madoff’s programmers, Jerry O’hara and George Perez, were arrested and charged for their role in the fraud. They have been subsequently released on $1M bond. Apparently, they are the ones who wrote the programs and operated an old IBM AS/400 computer known as ‘House 17′ that printed out the fictitious statements and reports that made the investment results look real. Below are a few examples of the statements that Madoff investors received.

madoff-earnings-statement-page2

madoff-earnings-statement-page2

Apparently, using historical market data, they were able to adjust the market entry and exit dates and ratios of stocks to achieve any return rate that they wanted for the month. Prediction is hard, especially about future events, but predicting the past is easy. But there were a lot more nuances to the fraud than just revisionist history of trading events. They had to make sure that the trades wouldn’t look out of scale with daily volumes or any other anomalies that would set of alarm bells with auditors and regulators. When Madoff had only a few large investors, it was possible to generate statements with this method manually, but as the number of investors grew, so did the complexity of generating the fictitious earnings reports and so it was necessary to employ computer programs to help generate the reports. And of course, any Ponzi scheme must get bigger and bigger to stay alive and to be able to be able to make good on early investor redemptions or it would otherwise collapse. Neither Madoff nor his lieutenant, Frank DiPascali, had any computer skills, so they needed some programmers to help them. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall during those discussions.

I have to wonder what excuse their lawyers will come up with to assert their innocence. Were they just carrying out orders from the higher-ups? Some of the world’s greatest crimes have been perpetrated by people who were just following orders and trying to please their bosses. Their claims of innocence will be challenged because at one point, they decided they didn’t want to participate in the scheme any longer and they withdrew their own funds from the phony investment account, reportedly worth several hundred thousand dollars each. But then they made the mistake of taking $60,000 bonuses and 25% raises to reverse their decisions and continue on with the fraud. That makes it look a lot like taking ‘hush money’. It will be extremely damaging to their claims that they were unwilling participants. Another troubling fact is that they participated in the scheme for more than 15 years. They are now facing up to 30 years in jail.

The irony of all of this is that these programmers had the technical skills to make a decent living, and yet for the sake of making some extra money or to keep their bosses happy, they will lose all of that money defending themselves in addition to facing the prospect of jail time.

Engineers are generally pretty good at understanding the nature of cause and effect relationships, and so it’s hard to explain why a programmer would choose to aid and abet in a criminal activity. Perhaps it was the Svengali-like charm of Madoff himself. After all, he successfully tricked a lot of really smart people into handing over their life’s savings. Maybe it was a case of getting in so deep they didn’t know how to get themselves out it. Whatever defense they use, it should make for some interesting legal wrangling in the courtroom.

Product and Customer Abandonment

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Designing products is not like making movies, although today it seems to be moving in that direction. My friend Don, who spent 30 years in Hollywood as a film editor, sometimes felt like he was abandoned at the end of each major project and left to his own to find his next gig. Fortunately for him, he has amazing talent, and it became easier each time a project finished to find his next position. Over the years, he eventually worked for every major Hollywood studio. His last job was on the popular, long running series, called “Murder, She Wrote“. When you work on a long-running series, you don’t have to worry so much about what will happen to you after the season is over. There is always the next season to look forward to.

Designing successful products, if it has anything in common with Hollywood, should be thought of more like a long-running and popular series as opposed to a blockbuster movie. Each successive generation needs to build on the last generation like a foundation and, if you continue to do things right, everyone will know about your product. You don’t simply design a product, promote it like it’s going to be a blockbuster, and then abandon it if it fails to meet expectations, yet it is common to treat new product introductions like this in high tech industry.

There have been instances where popular TV series, both Seinfeld and The Office come to mind, struggled to find their audiences before they took off. People often forget the first tentative steps a successful series may take prior to what appears to be its apparent ‘overnight success’. Had the people who created these series cut and run at the first sign of struggle, we may never had heard of them.

Each generation of product has an opportunity to build on the strengths of its predecessor, eliminate its weaknesses, and hopefully establish a loyal following. You wouldn’t tell the people who worked on each season of a TV series that you won’t be needing them again and they’re now free to leave and then scramble to hire a new cast for the next season. Similarly, a product development company must give the cast of characters who work on a project some incentive to stick around to work on successive generations. You want to avoid starting from scratch with each product generation and having to relearn everything over. If the only thing in store for the team at the end of the design cycle is a pink slip, they may decide to beat you to the punch and jump ship midway through the project.

The reason I’m writing this is because I’ve noticed a trend in the industry where companies try to create blockbuster products and if they don’t catch on immediately, they lay off the participants and move on to the next big thing. But successful product design doesn’t work that way. If you create and then quickly abandon products, you also abandon the products’ customers, and they will think twice before investing their time, energy, and trust in you again. Not only that, the knowledge accumulated in the design process is extremely valuable and it’s not written down neatly in some manual you can refer to next time. It’s in the heads of the people who poured their hearts and souls into creating the product.

If you want to be successful in creating products, you need to start with the expectation that your product will be around for a few generations before it hits its stride. It’s not a good idea to hastily throw something together and get it out to customers to ‘see if it sticks’, because if you do, your lack of commitment will shine right through, and the only thing that ‘sticks’ will be a damaged reputation and the foul taste you’ve left in the mouths of customers who were naive enough to trust you.