On diversity at conferences
There’s never a shortage of controversy about diversity in tech (or non-tech) conferences; I have probably written about this in the past—I honestly don’t remember—and now that, after a decade of organizing and running tech events, I am officially retired from this line of work, I’d like to offer my insider perspective.
The concept that diversity can be mandated is, quite simply, ludicrous. Our job as a society is not to figure out how we get more women, gays, blacks, Hispanics, and all the other minorities involved in a particular field. Our job is to figure out a way not to keep anyone who wants to do something that does not infringe on other people’s rights from doing it regardless of their race, gender, or sexual preference.
The difference is enormous. In one case, diversity is shoved down our throats, causing resentment in the majority and a perennial lack of self worth in the minorities. In the other, we help society evolve by letting everyone reach for their potential and follow the path they set for themselves. If you’re a woman, you should have the exact same opportunity to become a stay-at-home mother as to become the CEO of a large corporation. The same applies if you’re a man. How you do it is up to you, but you should receive the same help from society as everyone else. Equality means opportunity, not patronizing preferential treatment.
In the world of conferences, there now seems to be a belief that, if you are an organizer, your job is to get as many women on to your speaker roster as possible. Guess what—it isn’t. Your job is to choose the most appropriate speakers for your goals, ignoring all irrelevant characteristics. If you need a “blind” selection process to achieve this goal, then so be it, but you can’t use process as a crutch to justify your choices, unless those choice reflect a true quest for diversity.
But there is something much more insidious at work here: We want diversity at conferences because it’s public. Racism, sexism, and all the other -isms that afflict our society aren’t caused by public acts; public acts are their consequence. Condemning the organizers of a successful conference for the lack of diversity means ignoring the fact that whoever participates tacitly approves of it: Diversity, like charity, begins at home, and far too many people pay lip service just so that they can hide their ugly beliefs behind political correctness. Organizers must be held to a high standards, but not at the cost of drowning out a broader conversation.
The advancement of social equality has always required to work of people who have sacrificed their time, their careers, and, all too often, their very lives so that the rest of us could live in a better world. If we want to follow in their footsteps, let us do so by doing our part in making our small microcosm a better place, and the rest will fall into place as a consequence.
I am Jack’s complete lack of understanding of the mobile industry
Via Daring Fireball, I came across this article by one “Tyler Durden,” who claims that Apple is in such huge trouble that they’ve been forced to allow Walmart to sell the iPhone 5 for “a third off the original price.”
Here’s how the thing actually works. We, the consumers, don’t actually “buy” a phone. We buy a plan, and the carrier subsidizes the cost of the phone to the tune of around $500. It makes its money back (and then some) by way of the monthly fees that we pay in order to maintain service over the term of our contract—usually, two years in the U.S. and three years in Canada (yay, Canada!).
If you buy an iPhone 5 for $199 and, say, spend $70 a month on cell phone service, over the two years of your contract’s term, you will have netted AT&T $1,879, giving them a chance to make their $500 back, and record $1,379 in revenue.
The dealer you bought the phone from, in the meantime, will also want to make some money. This comes not in the form of a markup on the sale of the phone, but, rather, as a commission that AT&T pays when the phone is activated (that’s why, whenever you see any kind of offer at a retailer, it comes with a “when activated in store” disclaimer).
Thus, when you see stores give discounts on the iPhone, they are actually giving you a rebate on the commission they draw from AT&T. Apple doesn’t even figure into the equation, and their take is not affected by whatever the retailer does. Indeed, the commission can be many hundreds of dollars—much more than you pay upfront for that phone.
Why is it, then, that discounts on Apple products are so rare? After all, Apple cannot have any direct control over the prices at which its products are sold—to do so would be illegal collusion of the worst kind. However, it indirectly affects pricing through a technique known as Minimum Advertised Price (MAP).
MAP works a bit like this: Apple sells products to retailers at a wholesale price that leaves room for a very small margin over the “official” price of its products. However, it also passes on “advertising subsidies” that only kick in if the retailers agree to advertise (and, therefore, sell) the products at a specific price. Thus, the company is able to tightly control pricing without running afoul of antitrust laws.
MAP is actually a good thing in the long term, even though in the short term it means higher overall prices. The price stability that it creates helps prevent cutthroat retail strategies that give big box an advantage over smaller shops, which, in turn, ensures that Apple can continue to churn out high-quality products free from economic pressures from its distribution channel.
For this reason, a $72 discount on a $199 handset is really a $72 discount over a much larger price, and, therefore, a significantly smaller percentage than the “third-off” postulated in the article. Evidently, Walmart has opted out of MAP, and has determined that it can make up whatever it’s giving up in discounts by selling more iPhones during the holiday rush. Or, perhaps, it has cut a better deal with AT&T.
Neither of these outcomes—each much more likely than Apple intervening and having to give anything up—implies that the iPhone is suffering, or that Apple is in desperately trying to prop up sagging sales.
Well, it’s official. In a little less than two weeks, php|architect will pass in the care of very capable new hands.
The expression “mixed feelings” has been so overused as to have lost all its meaning, so I will limit myself to say that I’m very excited, both because the group who is taking over is made up of folks I respect with deep roots in the community—exactly what php|a needs—and because I can look forward to a few new things myself (and just in time for a new year, too!).
It’s hard to summarize ten years of work in a few sentences. Running a PHP education company was at times frustrating, often fun, and, on occasion, very exciting. As I was coming home from the last leg of the Codeworks tour, it occurred to me that I would not have occasion to organize a conference tour for php|a ever again, and I know that I will miss it. Incongruously, this happen at LAX airport, just as I was being given a patdown by the TSA—something that (a) I most definitely will not miss and (b) I am highly unlikely to never experience again. Oh well.
And so now, for the first time since 2002, I can spend some time to think about the next adventure. There are some areas that I find very interesting; one of them is cloud computing, where products are rapidly becoming highly commoditized, but there are some gaping holes in the gamut of services offered. There’s a good opportunity there for someone to enter the market and capture a position of dominance that not only resists pricing wars, but also actively commoditizes every other provider’s products.
Even on the consumer side, there are many, many possibilities right now. Most software still has either automation or “prettification” as its primary goal. Even something as simple as a to-do list offers huge opportunities for innovation. Sure, it’s hard, but that’s why it’s so difficult for everybody else to do it right.
Of course, it would be silly for me to just dive into a completely new company without looking around for existing opportunities. And so, look I will. In the meantime, I’ll be enjoying a quiet, thoughtful holiday season.
Marco Arment, Cable companies aren’t “forcing” people into piracy:
Realistically, nobody’s going to stop you from pirating it, but you can’t argue that you’re justified in pirating it. Admit it: you’re ripping it off, it’s morally questionable at best (and illegal), but you don’t care. You’re pirating a TV show because you don’t want to pay for it or wait for it to become available in the ways you want. You’re not making any kind of statement or participating in a movement — you’re just being cheap and/or impatient. If you don’t have the fortitude to cope with that, then don’t pirate.
I have never understood why all analysis of piracy must focus on whether it’s the morally right thing to do. Of course it isn’t—pirating anything isn’t morally different from committing any other crime.
From a practical perspective, however, piracy happens nonetheless. Ascribe to it whatever motive you wish, but the fact is that people pirate media, and no amount of physical, digital, or legal deterrent has proven to be effective against it.
Legal or not, piracy just is. I think it’s fair to say that it would be in everyone’s interest to sharply reduce its incidence, but simply shaking our collective heads and saying that piracy is a no-no isn’t going to make it go away.
It would be more constructive to just look at piracy as a sociological problem and ask why it is so damn acceptable to everyone. I bet most people would find the thought of jaywalking more abhorrent than copying files. Why aren’t young children taught that it is wrong, much like they are taught that pushing, stealing, and hurting are?
That, to me, is the crux of the matter: Piracy isn’t just easy. It isn’t a movement. It isn’t a statement. It is, for better or worse, “okay.”
Were we to look into the problem from this point of view, my guess is that we’d probably find that most people view intellectual property as no property at all, because, unlike a physical object, the creation of a duplicate takes essentially no effort.
I suspect that piracy is acceptable in the minds of many because it doesn’t deprive the original owner of whatever intellectual property is being copied. No harm done, right? Nevermind that someone could have spent years of their lives writing that book, or that a corporation could have spent hundreds of millions of dollars: Since I’m just making a copy, and that copy costs nothing, I am not really stealing anything.
Copyright, a concept that has been clouded by decades of legal asshattery, is very simple to explain: It’s what makes it possible for society to finance the creation of intellectual products that are beyond the ability of any one person to pay for.
It’s no coincidence that copyright came about in the 1600s, right alongside the invention of the moveable-type press. Before that time, the only people who could afford to buy intellectual property had to commission it out of their pockets, and pay accordingly: Back then, a “book” was really the physical book on which the words had been written specifically by the author under the patronage of some very rich benefactor. The rest of the market could not easily benefit from it, and lived largely in ignorance.
Copyright allows us to amortize the large cost of intellectual property among many people. It’s what makes it possible for you to watch a movie that cost $100 million to make for $10 at the movie theatre, or $20 on a DVD. It’s what makes it reasonable for someone to spend years of their lives writing a book that will cost $5.
Under this premise, you have to be stupid to think that piracy is acceptable. And yet, even as I write this, I can’t help but feel that simply saying that piracy is wrong or stupid doesn’t quite cut it.
The fact is, media owners seem to have gone to great lengths to undermine all the good arguments that can be made in favour of copyright protection. They insist on terminology, like “intellectual property theft,” that makes absolutely no sense; they continuously warp copyright’s legal framework to their favour; they take individuals to court, claiming that copying a $1 song gives them the right to demand tens of thousands of dollars in damages; they create artificial barriers to access that are easier to ignore than to abide by.
It is difficult to feel sympathetic for these companies even when they are in the right, because they show essentially no respect for their customers. That still doesn’t justify piracy by any means; perhaps, however, it points in the right direction for addressing it.
While having a conversation with a friend over the weekend, we somehow ended up discussing redundancy (I think we were talking about spacecraft at the time, but we could have as easily been discussing Web applications).
At some point, he mentioned something like this: “Well, if you have two independent systems that serve the same function, they’re twice as redundant as either system individually.”
I nodded in assent for a couple seconds, and then stopped abruptly. Because, you see, even though that statement sounds true, it is, in fact, incorrect.
Suppose that you have a system that has an average yearly uptime of 99.99%, meaning that, over a period of 365 days, you can expect it to be offline for roughly 52.5 minutes (equal to a failure rate of 0.01%).
If you now add redundancy in the form of another equivalent system that runs in parallel and can be accessed independently, the failure rate on an individual basis doesn’t change: Each system still has a 0.01% chance of failing. But what about together?
Common sense suggests that your redundancy simply doubles, meaning that you’d expect the failure rate to be 0.005. But, as I said, that’s wrong, because, rewritten in English, it would roughly mean that “when one of the systems fails, the chance of the other failing is one in two.” Instead, we know that (assuming the two systems are really independent), the individual failure rate doesn’t change.
In other words, what we’re after is “when one of the system fails, the chance of the other failing is still one in ten thousand.” In mathematical terms, this means that we need to multiply the failure probabilities, giving us a combined failure rate of 0.0001%, which means that, just by doubling the systems, we can now expect half a minute’s worth of downtime every year.
This is an important tidbit to keep in mind when you try to bake reliability into a complex system, like a web farm, because, all other things being equal, double redundancy is usually more than enough.
Unfortunately, it’s very difficult in practice to ensure that your systems are, in fact, redundant, because all sorts of considerations come into play that are not always immediately obvious. For example, two computers that share the same power supply (a common occurrence in most data centres) are not redundant, because a power outage will take both out of action.
Reading through the latest issue of The Magazine, I came across a piece by Marco Arment titled Anti-Apple Anger. In it, Marco says:
Apple’s products say “no” a lot. No, you can’t have that hardware keyboard or removable battery No, you can’t install that app. No, you can’t have that feature.
“No” is one of the most powerful words that can have been uttered, written, or implied. It represents a refusal to conform, to submit, to accept, to comply. It’s the ultimate form of control over one’s fate.
And so it is, of course, that “no” is a word that we are taught to fear and loathe as a mark of anti-social behaviour. Society wants us to be accommodating because we can pretend to get along better.
But “no” is a great philosophy to live by. If you resolve to say “no” to the things that you believe are unfair, unjust, wrong, or simply less than great, and fight for the things you think are fair, just, and right, you will make your life more interesting—and, by extension, the world a better place.
This holds true in everything you do: Your job, your personal life, your financial decisions. “No” doesn’t have to be a sign of disrespect—in fact, quite the opposite: It’s a sign that you respect the people around enough that you won’t let the less than ideal happen around them. Some may find it off-putting, but they’ll be grateful in the end.
Apple doesn’t need to buy Twitter
Patrick B. Gibson (via Marco Arment), Apple and Twitter:
Almost anything Apple does which involves the internet is a mess, save for their excellent web browser teams.
Here’s what I’m getting at: Apple should buy Twitter, and they should do it now.
Spot on analysis, but the conclusion feels completely off to me. The problem with Apple’s relationship with the Internet is cultural in nature, not technical.
It seems to me that the folks in Cupertino don’t lack in engineering talent, nor that they would have a hard time attracting some if they wanted to. Don’t believe me? Consider a job description like this:
Come help innovate the software that powers the world’s large app and media repositories that reach into the lives of hundreds of millions of users and developers throughout the world. Write Web-based backend and frontend systems designed to scale to thousands of servers and billions of transactions; manage the security and privacy of millions of users, and work with one of the most respected innovators in the history of technology.
I’m not much of a developer, but even I would run for an opportunity like that. It’s at least as compelling as any engineering position you could get at Facebook or Twitter; in fact, I would argue that it is even more compelling, given the fact that the iTunes ecosystem is an established business that generates billions of dollars, affects millions in a meaningful way that social networks can’t easily match, and is in dire need of some technological love.
Apple certainly has the clout and the resources to acquire the talent it needs. The company’s problem is that the Internet is not baked into its internal culture; in fact, I suspect that, in many ways, it runs counter to the way Apple likes to operate. Systems like iTunes, iMessage, iWork, iLife, iOS, and so on, will only ever work well if they work well together, and that can only be achieved if one group is given overarching responsibility over it in a way that cuts across Apple’s entire organization.
You can’t develop each subsystem in a bubble and expect them to work well alongside each other, but that’s exactly how Apple operates. It’s possible that Eddie Cue, now in charge of pretty much everything Internet-related, may fix this; he’s been at things like iCloud for several years, and it doesn’t seem to be that those are flawless, but he’s never been in the position of owning everything that Apple does online.
Regardless, my point is that an acquisition is a poor way to solve this kind of problem. It’s an easy way, mind you, that many CEOs take because it requires absolutely no real acknowledgment of the underlying problem and looks good in a press release, but, ultimately, it’s a losing proposition and a waste of money.
You need math to be a good programmer, and that’s a good thing
It’s not uncommon—in fact, it hasn’t been uncommon for many years—to come across two kinds of archetypal articles or blog posts about the difficulty of learning to develop software: The “No Math and Everybody,” and the “Math, and Specials.” We’ll call them M&E and M&S for short.
The M&E posts claim that there is no need to be good at math in order to be a good developer, usually citing a personal backstory based on receiving average or poor marks in math subjects at school and still managing to make a good (or excellent) career out of writing software.
The M&S posts, on the other hand, claim that math is a fundamental prerequisite of programming, and that, therefore “software development isn’t for everyone.” You have to be “special” (whatever that means) to be a good developer.
In my ever-so-humble opinion, both these kinds of posts say exactly the same thing: You have to be good at math to be a developer, but probably not in the way you think. And you have to be special, but probably not in the way most people conceive “special.”
The thing is, programming is mathematics, and, therefore, you cannot be good at one without being good at the other. Unfortunately, the way we are taught math in primary and secondary school is not very conductive to programming, resulting in a large number of people who never even try their hand at software development because “they don’t get math,” and a significant minority who find out that, despite their unremarkable grades, they can write code easily and successfully.
In all fairness, math is a hard subject to teach, because even the simplest of ideas exist at the tail end of concepts that require a disproportionate amount of maturity to understand.
For an example of this, you need look no further than the humble addition. In grade school, we are taught that two plus two equals four. This can be easily demonstrated by taking two groups of two objects and putting them together—a method that can probably be used to some effect up to a sum of a few dozens, or maybe a hundred or so objects, before it falls apart completely. A more rigorous treatment requires an understanding of fairly advanced concepts, like set theory, that according to traditional pedagogical thinking, are deemed to be well beyond a young child’s ability to comprehend, and not of much practical use in everyday life.
Alas, one doesn’t get far in this world if he or she can only add numbers up to one hundred. Thus, teachers are forced to teach arithmetic as what amounts to a series of magic tricks. Students know that adding in a particular way, carrying ones, and so on, yields a correct result because someone has told them to, but they have no idea why—thus setting the stage for a lifelong lack of understanding of conceptual mathematics.
Even something as simple as positional notation cannot really be explained without understanding exponentiation and logarithms. Thus, most people only ever learn that the right-most number represents the units, followed by the tens, the hundreds, and so forth. Put someone who has only learned positional representation this way in front of a hexadecimal number, and they’ll think they’re staring at a secret communiqué from Moscow.
Please understand that I’m not judging this approach to teaching here. I have my opinion of it—and it’s not favourable—but that’s fodder for another article. My point is simply that primary and secondary schools teach students math from a purely practical perspective, leaving little to no time to learn the actual theory behind it.
And then, there is university, where math is suddenly taught only as theory. The pedagogical disconnection is almost complete: One moment, you’re in your senior year of high school, performing endless calculations of integrals and derivatives (math’s equivalent of waterboarding). The next, you’re staring at a tertiary-level book written in a language that is completely alien—you might as well be reading a Klingon epic whose author proudly proclaims that today is a good day to ρ(∂x/∂y + v · ∇v) = -∇p + ∇ · ;T + f.
It’s not entirely surprising that plenty of people suddenly find themselves struggling with this very foreign way of looking at mathematical concepts, and continue to have trouble with them throughout their post-secondary studies. Unless you are highly motivated or you luck into a professor who is really dedicated to teaching instead of competing for grant money, learning math this way after twelve years of getting by on magic tricks is hard.
And this brings us to programming. You can learn to program without “being good at math,” if by “being good at math” you mean having gotten good grades in school. But programming is based on a number of rigorously-proven mathematical concepts, and you will be doing math whether you choose to believe it or not.
Sure, you can learn to program by rote: Anyone can teach you what a for loop or an if-then-else statements do—in fact, most programming courses are (unfortunately) predicated on this very approach. Or you can learn the mathematical concepts behind practical programming constructs like control structures, and actually understand what you’re doing. Essentially, math is the ultimate design pattern: It takes something that you can grasp intuitively and formalizes it so that you can apply it appropriately and consistently.
Luckily, the math that you need to become a good programmer is not complicated; you can probably get all you need from a couple of popularized books on Boolean logic and set theory, both of which can be understood at a high school level. You can follow those up with books (or courses) on programming techniques. Pretty soon, you will notice that a pattern of learning and experience begins to form, without any need to worry about integrals or derivatives ever again (well, almost).
Learning math this way is fun, and much less complicated than most people ever discover; it has nothing to do with grades, and very little to do with school. You need to be “special” in order to be good at it because it takes perseverance and experience, much like everything else in life, but that’s about it.
Programmers are made, not born.
I was in the crowd at WWDC when Steve Jobs took the stage and first announced iCloud sync in 2011; I remember thinking to myself that it was either going to be an amazing product, or a complete dud.
I was, as it turns out, wrong. iCloud sync is somewhere in the middle: Useful and mostly functional, but just short of true greatness—something that could probably describe almost every Internet-related Apple initiative.
iCloud sync had the potential to be a true game changer. Its free tier was five times as large as most of its competitors; it was baked right into multiple operating systems; it had a simple API; it even supported synchronizing databases. The running commentary at the Dubdub was that The Fruit had Dropbox squarely trained in its sights, and was about to fire a killer bullet.
But then, of course, we started poking around, and found that not only Dropbox had no reason to feel threatened—the company’s product was actually embarrassingly superior to Apple’s.
There are many aspects of iCloud sync that are maddening. For example, there is little in the way of transparency when it comes to sync operations: When everything goes well, it’s a joy to work with—it really just works. When something doesn’t quite function the way it should, though, debugging a problem is an absolute hell, primarily because there is just no way of knowing what went wrong without digging into log files by hand.
But the worst part is the fact that Apple actively discourages using iCloud for sharing between multiple users. Why can I not simply upload a file to it and send someone a link from inside any iOS app? It should be trivial to do, and yet it’s impossible—I am, instead, forced to use e-mail, which is both inconvenient and inefficient.
Even worse, why can I not collaborate on a document with someone else? iCloud already supports change management (and, may I add, quite well), and document sharing is a feature that is both important and in dire need of a unified implementation mechanism. Imagine the host of possibilities that would be open to iOS and OS X developers if they could easily create a shared document and let multiple users act on it. Today, this requires mountains of code, or dependence on external systems, which slows development down and precludes many programmers from innovating, but a baked-in solution would immediately give Apple a huge additional edge over competing platforms and, I bet, create a whole new wave of superior apps that would amaze and delight its users.
Negotiations for beginners, part one
If you run a business of any kind, it soon becomes apparent that the ability to negotiate effectively is a pretty important part of your daily job. Negotiations affect everything from managing client contracts to paying for your telephone bill; poor negotiation skills are, at best, a hindrance—and, at worst, a complete disaster.
Even if you have never run a business, though, negotiations are part of everyday life. It pains me, then, when I realize that so many adults are horrible at negotiating, simply because they are never taught to do so effectively. In fact, society actively teaches us to shy away from negotiation (which is, after all, a form of confrontation), so that those who understand its principles can easily take advantage of those who don’t.
It’s curious, incidentally, that the ability to negotiate seems to be innate in humans. Many children are far better negotiators than adults precisely because they have not yet learned the “rules of polite society” that make negotiations so hard for grownups.
What is a negotiation?
Definitions of “negotiations” abound, usually by people who have made the study of the latter their lifetime ambition. I, being the simple, uneducated person that I am, am perfectly content with an equally uncomplicated description: A negotiation is an attempt to reach a point of equilibrium at which all parties believe that continuing to bargain will result in a more negative outcome for them. In other words, everybody haggles until they feel that haggling further will make things worse for them, at which point they either accept the resulting outcome, or give up.
There are a number of important consequences that stem from this definition (which is why it works so well for me), and I will get at them in part two of this post. For the moment, though, I want to focus on what isn’t a negotiation, because recognizing “false” negotiations is much more important than mastering the real thing.
Note that the verb “to believe” figures prominently in my definition above. A negotiation is, by definition, an imperfect and highly personal process that relies significantly on perception. When you negotiate, the fact that you feel like you’ve gotten a good result is often very important to you, regardless of whether the actual outcome can be measured in a way that confirms your hunch. This makes detachment and objectivity two all-powerful tools at the disposal of the skilled negotiator. I will show you that, for many people, “winning” a negotiation is far more important than actual deriving a positive result from it.
This means that the personal nature of negotiations gives the skilled salesperson a tool to drive unsuspecting customers into a purchase process in an unorganized and highly emotional way, resulting in outcomes that are (usually) detrimental to them.
Consider, for example, car sales. If you look at a car dealership in a dispassionate way, its business model is absurd; the car dealer has ridiculous upfront costs (large warehousing space, lots of staff, expensive products that must be bought and transported, etc.), very stiff competition, both external from resellers of other brands and internal from resellers of the same brand, and absolutely no product differentiation, because the car you buy from, say, Toyota Dealer A is exactly the same car as the one you buy from Toyota Dealer B.
All these factors should conspire to drive the price of a car down to cost-plus—since the only thing that dealers can really compete on is price. You should be able to walk into a dealership, look at the manufacturer’s price of a car, and buy it a discount that leaves the dealer with enough money to pay said manufacturer, plus enough to pay for the dealership’s running costs, plus a very small profit. In a free market, any attempt to make you pay more will immediately be destroyed by competitors looking to make a sale.
And yet, many people actually pay above sticker price for their car—they just don’t know it. How is this possible?
It is possible because the car industry has turned a purchase into a negotiation process—and they are making buyers negotiate against themselves. They utilize a number of different techniques, like the infamous four-square, to confuse the unsuspecting buyers into thinking that more than just the price of the car is at stake: They bring in trade-in value, financing APRs, downpayments, and monthly payments so that it looks like more than one variable needs to be addressed, and that variance in the amounts the customer has to consider is small.
To make things better—or worse, depending on the point of view—they also appeal to a person’s sense of decency and fair play. If you walk into a dealership and lowball a car price, they’ll start complaining about how you’re trying to take them for a ride, how their children need feeding, how their houses are falling apart, and what not. Never mind that you’re probably standing in a dealership that cost millions of dollars to build and the owner drives a Ferrari… if there is a car dealer who does not claim to live in absolute misery, I have yet to meet them.
All these tricks are aimed to crank up the stress level of the buyer, turning what should be a straight purchase—no different, really, than walking into a grocery store and buying a few pounds’ worth of Apples—into a complex faux-negotiation. Best of all, the process is guided so that customers are, effectively, negotiating against themselves by trying to tweak the various artificial parameters of the purchase instead of focusing on the one element that matters.
This is not a negotiation, nor does it have to be. Here’s how I buy a car:
Pick a model. Obviously, I need to figure out what car I want. I’ll look around, narrow my decision down to a couple different models, and take them for a spin, taking care never to sit down with the dealer for any “negotiation.” At this time, I also pick out the exact configuration that I want, and establish what the manufacturer’s recommended price (the “sticker price”) is by visiting their Website.
Figure out a base price. I then pick ten or twenty dealerships in my area (I live in a big city, so that’s not that hard to do) and send them a fax, asking for their best price for the exact model and configuration that I want. The list of dealers excludes the one from which I think I will eventually buy the car (typically, this is the one I did my test drive with, unless they really pissed me off).
I usually get a good return rate—responding to a fax costs the dealers nothing, and could bring them a sale, so they usually oblige. The lowest price quoted has two important functions. First, it establishes a “fall-back” price—in the absolutely worst case scenario, that’s how much I’m going to pay for the car. Second (and more importantly), it provides me with a starting point for haggling with the dealer.
Deal with the bank. Unless the manufacturer has a ridiculously good financing offer (such as, say, zero percent), I prefer to finance the purchase with my bank. In either case, my goal is to walk into the dealership with a firm financing deal in place, be it an offer from my bank or an advertisement from the manufacturer. In my experience, dealers will often try to claim that an advertised deal doesn’t apply to the car I’ve chosen, so I usually also give the manufacturer a call to confirm that it does, at which point the dealership usually backs down.
Obviously, if you don’t need financing, you can skip this step.
Figure out the book value of my used car. You’ll never get book value, of course, and, if you can be bothered with that process, the best way to get the most out of your used vehicle is to sell it yourself. I can’t be bothered, though, and I use book value as a reference point, knowing that I will likely get less, but, at least, aware of how much I should be getting.
Buy the car. With my homework done, I walk into the dealership and start the “negotiation” process. The salesman will usually pull out their foursquare and ask me something like “So, how much would you like to pay a month?”
I typically ignore all this, pull out the fax with the best offer, and politely tell the salesperson that I don’t know, and that there really is no need for us to dwell too much on the monthly payment. The only thing that matters is whether their dealership can beat the best price I have.
At this point, two things could happen. The salesperson is in trouble, and they know it. If they are a somewhat decent human being, they will capitulate, walk into their manager’s office, and come back with a typewritten contract for their best offer. I am happy if they match the best price, and ecstatic if they beat it, even by a few hundred dollars.
If they aren’t quite ready to give up, they’ll try to appeal to my emotional side, complaining that the price is too low, that they cannot possible afford to sell the car for so little, and blah blah blah. At this point, they know their game has been called, and any amount they can squeeze out of me is a bonus for them. I find this a little off-putting—I figure that they should show me the courtesy to recognize the fact that I know what I’m doing—but remain completely unfazed.
You may think that my lack of sympathy for the salesperson is the result of having learned to remove emotion from the negotiating process, or having somehow come to terms with the fact that a successful negotiation must be conducted in an amoral way. That, I assure you, is not the case, because, you see, I am a fundamentally honest person and it would cost me way too much emotional capital to “win” a negotiation by crushing an opponent into a completely unfavourable position. I derive no pleasure from the misery of others.
Remember, however, that this is not a negotiation. I have done my homework and discovered that another dealer would be perfectly happy to sell me the car for a given price. Therefore, if this dealer cannot do so without incurring a loss, I can simply take my business elsewhere and not cause them any damage. If they can, then there is no reason why they shouldn’t. Either way, nobody has to suffer, and everybody comes out a winner.
As you can see, by removing all superfluous variables, what looks like a negotiation on the surface turns out to be a much simpler exercise. I have used this approach to buying cars for years, and it has always worked perfectly—not only by helping me pay less, but also by removing all the stress that people needlessly allow to be attached to this process.
You’d be surprised how easy it is to encounter faux-negotiations, and how easy it is to avoid them. Whenever all subjective variables can be eliminated and all that is left is a measurable, objective metric, there is no need to negotiate.