Commentary: White Papers Don’t Impress Me Much

Commentary: White Papers Don’t Impress Me Much

I spent the last week at an event called Tech Field Day (my second time). In a nutshell, it’s a traveling panel of 12-15 delegates who are generally IT professionals (and me) that visits 8-10 companies over three days to hear various presentations on their technology. Sometimes it’s storage tech, sometimes networking, or cloud, or a mixture of all sorts of things. The common thread, in theory, is that these presentations are supposed to be “deep dives”, to use an industry buzzword. The delegates around the table are all highly proficient in their fields, and are expected to ask questions to drill into claims made and get more details about various IT architectures presented. In my case, I am obviously interested in uncovering the interesting mathematics behind various enterprise technologies. From erasure coding to graph theory to the statistics underneath the vague “analytics” every company claims to do, my interest lies in discussing how they’re employing mathematics to make their tech better or drive business decisions.

Typically, most companies release white papers that claim to detail their architecture (or math, as one claimed). In reality, and with rare exception (Datrium actually comes to mind here), they’re little more than five to seven pages of marketing-style technical claims with no citations or justification. As an overview, I understand keeping the lengths shorter, but references to more detailed publications and reports should be available when making certain claims. Therefore, as part of the Tech Field Day panel, I felt a responsibility to press the presenters on some of these claims, earnestly hoping for more details. My thought was that they were putting out a “teaser”, so to speak, and just waiting excitedly for someone interested to ask about technology they built and are proud of.1 For the most part, my initial thought was wrong. From dismissing my questions to hiding behind the curtain of “secret sauces” and “proprietary” code, I was left disappointed for the most part. 

My frustration can be traced to the very Silicon Valley style idea that flashy marketing must pervade everything, which blurs opinion and fact. White papers which should contain technical details and references become little more than press releases disguised as objective reports. I debated how to really articulate my opinion, and decided to do something a bit out of character for my typical article. With apologies to Shania Twain, I present my version of the song “That Don’t Impress Me Much”:

That Don’t Impress Me Much (Tech Edition)

I’ve noticed in tech they think they’re pretty smart
They’ve clearly got their marketing down to an art.
The white papers are “genius”; it drives me up a wall
There’s nothing original, not at all

Oh-oo-oh, you think you’re special
Oh-oo-oh you think you’re something else

Okay, so the erasure coding’s novel
That don’t impress me much
So you made the claim, but have you got the proof?
Don’t get me wrong, yea, I think you’re all right
But that won’t give me inspiration in the night
That don’t impress me much.

Every white paper says they’re the best on the market
“Independently verified”—just in case
Writing uncited claims, publishing as fact (I want to vomit)
Cause we all know tech’s really a private arms race

Oh-oo-oh, you think you’re special
Oh-oo-oh you think you’re something else

Okay, so it’s “secret sauce”
That don’t impress me much
So you got some code, but have you got some proof?
Don’t get me wrong, yea, I think you’re all right
But that won’t give me inspiration in the night
That don’t impress me much.

So you’re one of those firms using learning machines
But you’ve no earthly clue what’s going on underneath
I can’t believe you think that it’s all right
Come on baby tell me, you must be joking right?

Oh-oo-oh, you think you’re special
Oh-oo-oh you think you’re something else

Okay, so you’ve got analytics
That don’t impress me much
So you can “predict” but have you got some proof?
Don’t get me wrong, yea, I think you’re all right
But that won’t give me inspiration in the night
That don’t impress me much.

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Footnotes

  1. That’s also how I can tell the difference between presenters who actually built something and ones who didn’t. People who really built something novel want it to be appreciated. Dropbox, in particular, built a custom datacenter to suit their needs. Their lead architect presented, and was so excited to get any questions because he really built something new he was proud of. Article on that to follow soon.

4 thoughts on “Commentary: White Papers Don’t Impress Me Much

  1. I think “whitepapers” have changed over the decades from being the detailed description of something to being just a lead generation tool. Some larger vendors still do them (enterprise database vendors, networking hardware vendors, etc.)

    I do agree that if a presenter is going to talk about the magic math they use, they should respond in a way that is factual: “I certainly don’t understand it, but I know it has to do with X, Y, Z” or “We have a paper on how we approached it”.

    It’s when sales folks stick to the “we have the best math ever” message that I start to question the whole presentation.

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