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Can You See Me Now? September 30, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Technology.
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The mobile devices we carry grow in capability and sophistication every day.  It seems that what used to be phones that did clever things are now mobile computers that happen to make phone calls.  Is there a limit to what we’ll be able to use these devices for?  I think so, but it has nothing to do with power, memory, or computing capacity.

The real limit has to do with the length of your arm. I’ve found that I can no longer hold my phone far enough from my eyes to read the display.  There may be an app for that, but I can’t see it.

Seriously, there is a harsh correlation between our aging eyes and our inability to actually read the screens on these oh-so-clever devices.  Regrettably, many of these devices are designed and programmed by people with sharp, youthful vision.  In the hands of more seasoned users, the display icons, text, and even the buttons are too small or dim to see.

Setting aside the apps and the UI, I suspect one of the reasons for the success of the iPhone is that big, glorious screen.  When the text is big enough to read, you can still fit enough content on the display to be useful.  This is a big deal for those of us who spend a lot of time squinting or reaching for reading glasses.

But, some will say, there have been big-screen mobile devices before the iPhone.  What about them?

Prior to the iPhone, devices had stylus-centric interfaces.  When you are poking at things with a toothpick, developers tend to cram lots of tiny buttons and widgets on the display.  The iPhone has a finger-centric interface, with finger-sized buttons.  Finger-sized buttons are big enough to be read by those of us who are old enough to remember rotary-dial phones.  I’ll point out that the size of an icon on an iPhone is about the size of a finger-hole in a rotary phone dial. Coincidence?  Yes, but a meaningful one.

I suspect that we are about to hit a wall in the usability of mobile phones.  The display can’t get much bigger without making the phone annoyingly large in your purse or pocket.  Increasing the screen resolution packs more pixels on the display, but that just lets you create sharper widgets that are still too small to be seen by anyone over 45. I’ll take low-res and sharp over hi-res and blurry any day.

As a result, the amount of information can be displayed on a phone is about to hit a limit imposed by your age, the lens of your eye, the size of your hand, and the distance between your ear and your mouth.  That information limit will affect the complexity of applications that get developed. Until we get some breakthrough in implantable display devices, the applications on our phones aren’t going to get much more elaborate.

And for all you smirking young developers out there, have pity on us older folks.  Test your UI on your Mom to make sure everyone can see it.  And just you wait.  Your time is coming, my friend.  Your time is coming.

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Simply Amazing September 11, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Technology.
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It is the time of year that corn mazes become popular.  People will pay to wander through a maze cut into a corn field, enjoying the fall weather while they try to find their way in and out.  I always naively assumed that corn mazes occurred almost as an afterthought to the process of raising corn.  At some point, I supposed, a farmer rode through his fields with some sort of mower, carving out a maze. I was markedly incorrect.

Corn mazes, it turns out, are a big business.  Mazes are laid out before planting begins, and the actual cutting is often controlled by GPS-directed tractors.  Maze designs are marketed by various companies and can cost many thousands of dollars.  In my area, farmers join maze co-ops that control where mazes are created, ensuring that each maze has a strong local market to drive revenue.  Within the co-op, mazes are not located closer than 30 miles from each other to reduce competition. Non-co-op mazes pop up, of course, but they do not get the other benefits of belonging to the co-op.

Who knew?  How could such a simple, all-American thing like a corn maze actually require so much complicated planning and forethought?

It turns out that almost every “simple” thing is actually quite complicated, behind the scenes.  In fact, the best simple things are just a front for very complicated systems and processes.  From clean running water and electricity to your iPod Touch, there are many layers of detail that you just don’t have to worry about.  Thankfully, I might add.

IT is no different.  There are many complicated layers to even the simplest of IT tools and systems.  Ideally, those of us in IT should be masking all that from the end users, providing a simple tool that does something well.  Unfortunately, we generally do a terrible job of hiding complexity from our end users.  Sometimes, we think we are doing them a favor when we expose complexity in the form of “features” intended to help them.  Instead, we generate more confusion and annoyance.

It is unfortunate that people know what a “404” error is or that disks must be defragmented.  My mom should not have to know that software is updating itself or that the printer heads need to be aligned.  People want to use computers to get something done, not to become more proficient with computers.

I have no idea, honestly, how to do anything with my car except to start and drive it.  I like looking under the hood to admire the engineering therein, but heaven forbid that I would do anything under there.  I am not an automotive engineer, and I don’t want to be one.  I just want to drive a reliable car.

I think those of us in IT lose sight of what users really want.  We forget what it is like to really be an end user.  Even as we build wonderful new systems, we need to keep our users’ real goals in mind.  They just want to enjoy the maze.  They don’t want to know how to grow corn.

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Keep Or Save? September 9, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Technology.
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Why won’t people make up their minds?  For fifty years, we in the computing business have been building bigger and bigger systems designed to store everything everyone ever wanted.  When we’ve finally gotten to the point where we pretty much could store everything for everyone, they want to start getting rid of stuff!  What do they want?

Abraham Lincoln once said (and I’m paraphrasing a bit):

You may save all the documents some of the time; you can even save some of the documents all the time; but you can’t save all of the documents all the time.

Or something like that.  Abe, bless his heart, never imagined multiple petabytes of cloud-based storage.  If he had, he’d know that we could store everything all the time, but we really don’t want to.

Now that most of us have stored way too much stuff, document retention is a real problem.  Most of the data we keep is useless, and some of what we keep can present legal or security problems.  We need to keep only the data that is important for running our businesses.

Many companies are trying to solve the problem of document retention by foisting the problem off onto IT. Let me be completely clear on this: document retention is not an IT problem.  Document retention is a business problem that IT can help with.

Often, people on the business side of this problem create policies that address “email retention” or “file retention.”  This is not much different from creating a policy on “paper retention.”  Email is not a document, nor is a file.  Email, files, and paper are simply mechanisms to store a document.

For example, an email message, a file, or a sheet of paper can all hold a representation of a contract.  Regardless of the media, they should be retained for however long your document retention policy says that a contract should be kept.  It may be easier to find and destroy electronic versions of a document, but the retention rules are unchanged.

For similar reasons, email is not considered destroyed when you remove it from your Inbox and save it on your hard drive.  It is not destroyed when you move that file to a DVD, and it still isn’t destroyed when you print the file and destroy the DVD.  It’s destroyed when you finally shred the paper and the intellectual content of the document is no longer available in any form.

Effective document retention is important, and IT plays a big role in helping the business find and manage their documents, no matter how they may be stored.  But the best way we can help is to make sure that the policies are set by the business, not by IT.  Once the policies are in place, we can help find ways to make implementation easier and more effective.  And that’s something we should be doing for all of the people, all of the time.

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Passion Or Vocation? August 5, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership, Technology.
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In a recent issue of Technology & Invention magazine, Mara Vatz wrote about discovering her grandfather’s engineering textbooks from the 1930s.  Herself a recent engineering graduate, she was struck by the difference between those old books and those she recently used.  Her grandfather’s books were filled with the passion of engineering, of being consumed with the excitement of building and creating, of bending the natural world to the will of man for the betterment of society.

Her books, in contrast, were dry and methodical.  They taught engineering as a sequence of steps that could be applied to solve a problem.  They presented engineering as a vocation, just a job, just some rote sequence of steps far removed from the real world of problems to be solved.  The contrast made her sad, longing for a time when her chosen profession seemed more alive to its practitioners.

I have the same worry for the world of IT.  At the risk of cementing my geezer status, I learned computing in a time when everyone wrote assembly code.  I punched cards and booted machines by toggling switches on the front panel.  I learned how to build computers from the transistors up, wire-wrapping individual logic gates to decode address lines.  It was fascinating, consuming, and instilled a passion for technology that I carry with me even today.

Are we instilling the same passion today?  Or has computing become a vocation, a series of steps that you use to solve the problem at hand?  I am certainly not advocating a return to assembly code, but I want to make sure that our newest computing professionals have that same gleam in their eye as I did so many years ago.  The layers of abstraction we’ve built in our systems enable us to create systems that were inconceivable back then, but those same layers remove us from the nuts and bolts of computing.  As those nuts and bolts fade away, our true understanding of computers fades.

Some of today’s IT people have that passion.  You can see it in your best people, the ones who dig in and never let go of a issue, who wake up at 3 AM with the answer to a problem, who run into the office with the next great idea.  But does everyone have that passion?  And if they don’t, should they?

I want everyone to have that passion.  Passion is infectious, and passionate people in IT create passionate people outside of IT.  If people didn’t find that passion in school, we need to pass it to them ourselves.

Much is made of leadership and mentoring, teaching important skills to our teams.  Beyond leadership skills, we need to convey the passion of our field to our people.  We have to constantly demonstrate our love of this stuff, the wonder of a problem solved, the satisfaction of a user helped.  If we aren’t going to get excited about a new tool, and our people don’t get excited, how will we engage our users?

My passion is for computing, of course, but this applies to every discipline.  Do you have a true passion for what you do?  Do you demonstrate it every day?  Do you infect your people with that passion and enable them to carry it to others?  Or is your job just a vocation? If so, I’ll bet your people feel exactly the same way.

Where The Prices Are Insane! July 10, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership, Technology.
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It happens four times a year, like clockwork.  Just before the end of March, June, September, and December, the phone calls and emails flood in, all promising the same thing: unheard-of pricing on products you absolutely cannot live without.  These once-in-a-lifetime prices are only available for a short time, if you act now!

What’s being sold at immense discounts?  ShamWow or Snuggis?  A Pocket Fisherman or a 12-CD set of the greatest hits from the 70s?

Nope.  The big sale is on software.  Big software: databases, ERPs, business intelligence platforms, and the like.  Even with the fabulous discounts, the prices still run well into six figures, plus implementation costs.

Who buys software like this?  Is there a CIO anywhere in the world who will write a check and buy software at the drop of a hat?

Done correctly, big system purchases take a long time.  Requirements analysis and market evaluation are tedious but vital to ensure a good fit for your organization.  Understanding the deployment costs and timeframe is crucial for success and can takes weeks to figure out.  Just reading and negotiating the support and licensing contracts is a major exercise all by itself.

Moreover, as CIOs work to gain the respect of their executive peers, the last thing any of us should be doing is running to the CFO’s office on June 30th, looking for a signature to close a deal before 5 PM.  Rushing a deal to save a buck is unprofessional, and any other C-level executive should question our abilities if we behave like that.

That isn’t to say that I don’t appreciate a good deal.  But the right way to approach a quarter-end discount is to start working towards it at the beginning of the quarter.  Everyone on both sides of the table knows that pricing gets tighter as the quarter and year ends.  By doing all the heavy lifting well before that time, we can focus on solid price negotiation without being pressured to short-circuit our diligence when things go down to the wire.

I really appreciate those vendors that come to me well in advance to put together a great deal with plenty of time to spare.  Not only does that let me do my job on my side, it also lets me manage the process with my management team, giving them plenty of time to learn about the proposal.  When I do go forward with the final pricing at the end of the quarter, there are no surprises to delay the process.  By helping my company reach a good decision in a timely fashion, a vendor makes themselves (and my team) look good.

Selling is about relationships and providing solid value over time.  Vendors, please leave the high-pressure tactics to late-night TV ads and used car lots, and give your customers time to evaluate and respond to good offers in a timely fashion.  We’ll all close on more deals with a lot less stress.