Marketing Math

Data Communications Magazine
November 1998

Corporate networkers who manage to stay awake through their first-year engineering courses learn all about complex numbers -- numbers with real and imaginary components. But even the die-hards who doubled-up on their No-Doz couldn't have foreseen how handy this concept would be -- to interpret the output from the Marketing Department.

Consider gigabits per second. There are engineering gigabits and there are marketing gigabits. Engineering gigabits are real gigabits, the sort of gigabits you can use, gigabits you can trust to carry real traffic. Marketing gigabits are imaginary gigabits. They don't carry traffic, but they do help win prizes at trade shows. They have some hazy basis in reality, or more likely virtual reality, but only just.

How imaginary? Well that depends on the creativity of the Marketing Department. A good place to start is by counting all the bits twice, once on the way in and once on the way out. If the switch fabric runs faster than the ports, then include the missing gigabits in the middle. (It's not that they can transport any traffic, but no one wants them to feel left out.) If the sum of the speeds of all the ports is greater than that of the switch fabric, best count the spare ports too. If the box has a redundant switch fabric -- hey, that's more gigabits.

This is like claiming that my car can go 240 mph. No, I haven't shelled out for a Lamborghini. It's a beat up old wagon named Wanda. But it still does 60mph. And it has four wheels. That's four wheels, each one doing 60mph -- a total of 240 marketing mph.

Don't get me wrong. I appreciate that we all have to view the world from our own perspective. Naturally enough, engineering veers toward pessimism and worst-case assumptions. Marketing, meanwhile, veers toward the brink and the kind of new math in which half full is a lot bigger than half empty.

Maybe there's more to this Marketing Math? Take the transfer function, for example. In linear systems, this little piece of magic makes it possible to predict an output once the input is known. Now, no one would accuse marketing of being a linear system (and even less a discreet system) but it does have a transfer function. Feed in reality and out comes virtual reality.

Engineering reality can be expressed in multiple dimensions. The classic ones are the orthogonal axes of schedule, cost, and functionality. Apply the marketing transfer function and these become the virtual reality of availability, price, and feature set.

In addition, (or maybe subtraction) the real and imaginary components give the engineering phase angle for a project. This is an indication of the amount by which marketing leads engineering or the amount by which virtual reality is in advance of true reality.

Now there comes a time in the life of any project when the amount of available reality is insufficient to satisfy the marketing requirements. A frequent solution is to feed some virtual reality back into the input to make up for the shortfall. Any decent engineering freshman knows that negative feedback is required for stability. Trouble is, negative is not cool. This is marketing: Think positive. Hence, with an undamped marketing department and positive feedback, it's possible to create an unstable or oscillatory system. This goes a long way to explaining the wild fluctuations we observe in the marketplace.

Control theory allows us to determine the stability of a linear system by examining the poles and zeros. The same holds true for marketing. If the zeros fall to the right of the dollar sign and the significant digits, we have a stable marketing function. If they fall to the left of the significant digits, we have but a transient, just a glitch in the market.

So next time my glass is half full I know exactly where to look for the next round. And the next time you attend a trade show, remember -- gigabits are complex. They have a real and an imaginary component.

A version of this article appeared in and is the copyright of  Data Communications Magazine, November 1998.