SAP TechEd 2008 – Jimmy Wales Keynote and More

When SAP or ASUG put on keynotes, it’s like the start of some very cool, very hip rock concert, and then they start talking about business software.  No iPod’s, no MacBook Air’s or iPhones, nothing that is going to overtly revolutionize the world, so the build up is a little misleading.  But still, if your job revolves around the SAP sun, it’s about the coolest thing you’re going to get to see that’s job related.

Jimmy Wales Headlines TechEd 2008

This year, SAP had web celeb Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, in to kick off the 2008 TechEd event in Las Vegas with a keynote on Monday night.  So, how was it?  Well, I don’t know what his reputation as a speaker is, but it wasn’t exactly a Steve Jobs level performance.  What he lacked in pizzazz, however, he made up for with his personal substance.

I’ve watched more than a few presentations from folks like Guy Kawasaki, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates over the internet, but this was my first in-person celebrity speaker, so I was kind of hoping to be blown away.  It was good…just didn’t blow me away.  It is worth a listen if you’ve got an hour…sorry, the link is a stream, so you can’t download to your iPod (though Google could probably tell you how).  Here’s the link to the Jimmy Wales TechEd keynote.

Here’s a short list of accomplishments that SAP listed when introducing Jimmy:

  • Creator of Wikipedia
  • WikiMedia Foundation
  • Founded in 2004
  • Wikia Search
  • Pioneer Award from EFF
  • 12th on 2007 Forbes Web Celeb List
  • 2008 co-chaired annual World Economic Forum in Middle East
  • Board of Social Text
  • Board of Creative Commons

With a to-do list like that, it’s a wonder he has time for an SAP event.

Some Wikipedia stats:

  • 280,000+ volunteers
  • 10M+ articles
  • 150+ languages
  • 31% of all internet users use it

Jimmy talked about the very humble beginnings of Wikipedia.  He started out in 2000 working on a free encyclopedia project called Nupedia and became frustrated with the “top-down” nature of that project where the articles were written by experts without user/community input.  In 2001, he did a restart with Wikipedia using the quintessential Web 2.0 notion of community produced content.  Check out the full timeline of Wikipedia’s history on, where else but, Wikipedia here.

Wikia and Other Projects

The idea of community being in control was very much a focus of Wale’s talk.  His new projects are also centered around that.  Wikia is one of his primary projects today, focused on allowing people to create topic focused wikis as well as democratizing search. The vision for Wikia is: To become the world’s largest sustainable, free-content, user controlled media company..

Frankly, if Wikia can get its kinks worked out on search, it provides some really awesome features that put the community in control of the search algorithm.

He discussed several of these briefly, including:

  • Users can annotate results
  • Edit the results text
  • Star results to reorder results ranking for a given search term
  • Highlight a result, allowing other users to see your highlighted result item

But let’s face it.  If any of these features ends up working, Google can have them in place with the single flex of a pinky.

One very cool thing Wikia are doing is using a tool called Grub to create a distributed web crawler.  Instead of having their servers crawl the web by themselves, they are hoping people will help them out like the Folding@home project, to use spare compute cycles (and bandwidth) to crawl the web for them.

Philosophy of Benevolence in Design

A guiding philosophy behind Jimmy’s work is what he calls “benevolence in design”.  You can see it completely at work in Wikipedia.  Benevolence in design says that most people are going to do the Right thing most of the time, so design your applications around that belief.

Now, if you’re an SAP guy and you’ve got any touch points with GRC (and even if you don’t), you’re probably thinking to yourself, “Over my fired, fried, and forgotten body!”

Well, you’ve got a point there when you’re talking about building software that is going to drive something that is regulated by SOX or the FDIC, the FDA, FAA, FCC, or pretty much anything that the government is going to take a good hard look at.

Benevolence…not Something They Teach in Business Schools

While benevolence by design says that you should build in means of fixing things when people step off the deep end and do something bad, this is usually not going to work in the business world where you have bosses or government agents who don’t fully appreciate the incredible benefits of living in a world where there are no locks on the doors that prevent people from doing random acts of kindness at will.

I saw this funny commercial last night.  This young woman was trying to sell her boss on some Green initiative (some tech company as I recall), and the boss was saying:

“That will be great news for the tree huggers and the greenies.  But my bosses don’t eat granola.”

That sentiment probably roundly applies to those of us in business software today where Benevolence in Design would be the issue versus energy savings.  Our bosses don’t really hold hands and sing campfire songs.

But let’s assume that we are running a business that is controlled and run by the community.  What benefits does this philosophy hold for our applications?  Here are a few:

  • You erect no barriers that would discourage wide participation in building content and community
  • You actually invite fanatical participation from people who want to ensure that their special areas of interest are not molested
  • You build a society that appreciates the comfort of knowing that people are playing by the rules and when they don’t, they are discretely removed if they are incorrigible

One of my favorite quotes from Jimmy’s speech was:  Human life is possible at scale.  Ultimately, he’s right.  When we live in the context of each other, we have a mutually beneficial incentive for doing the right thing.  And ultimately, that’s really what SOX is trying to do in what some would call a Draconian fashion…bringing visibility to the goings and doings of business.

Thanks for a good talk, Jimmy.  I hope you wildly succeed in your vision: for everyone on earth to have free (as in speech and beer) access to the sum of human knowledge.


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