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No Coffee, Please December 7, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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At a recent industry event, I settled in for the luncheon keynote speaker.  As you would expect, they came around and poured coffee.  I dutifully added cream and sugar and took a few sips. Perfect!

When I was half-finished with my coffee, the waiter came around and refilled it.  Aaagh!  This completely upset the careful balance of cream, sugar, and coffee.  Now I was stuck: put up with too-bitter coffee, or try to make corrections with partial portions of cream and sugar.  Either way, my coffee experience has been disturbed, if not ruined.

As I gave up on my coffee and decided to just eat the mints from the bowl on the table, it occurred to me that many of us in IT run around with coffee pots.  With the best of intentions (always have a full cup!) we disrupt the carefully crafted experiences of our users.

We talk a lot about change management and preparing users for the impact of system modifications.  Change is inevitable, and there is no way that we’ll be able to preserve everything a user likes about a system as we add new capabilities.  Even little changes in menu ordering or form layout can cause great consternation among people who have grown used to a system.

It is one thing when we recognize an impending change and work to avoid end user difficulties.  Big system rollouts usually have lots of formal change management to make life easier during transition. But how often do we send out little changes and ruin our users’ coffee, so to speak?  It doesn’t have to be a system change; a change in process can be disruptive, too.  Vendor changes to support or licensing terms are hard to deal with, even when they work in our favor.  Even changing a phone number or replacing an old piece of equipment with a new one can inject an unwelcome change into someone’s life.

Change is hard, whether it is big or small.  And the size of the change is in the eyes of the changee, not in the changer.  As we constantly improve and upgrade our world, let’s be careful when and where we decide to pour coffee.  Hopefully, we’ll have fewer users left with a bitter taste in their mouth.

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Eschew Entropy July 6, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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Many of us in IT like to proclaim that we are Agents Of Change, bringing wonderful new technology to the world on a regular basis.  We spend a lot of time discussing Change Management, learning how to help people through the stress of change.  We look at change as a Good Thing, a necessary step in improving our lives, both personal and professional.

Really?  Let’s be honest: as Oliver Kamm points out, the “most common form of change is decline.”  Are we simply Agents Of Decline?

Like every other system and entity in the universe, software and hardware are subject to entropy, the inexorable collapse of everything over time.  Computers fail.  Disk drives seize. Power supplies overheat.  Cables crack. Ports fill with dust. Databases fill up. Logs grow inexorably. Software gets patched.  Left on its own, everything we own and touch on a regular basis simply gets worse.

Disciplined operations is the heart of IT.  Consistent operational discipline is our only defense against entropy.  Without it, our systems will grind to a halt.  Unfortunately, there are two problems with good operations:

  • It takes an ever-increasing amount of effort to do it well


  • No one cares until we stop

As we deploy new things, bringing change to the world, we increase the operational burden.  Every system deployed today must be maintained forever.  More and more of our time and resources are spent on simply keeping the lights on.  Even worse, all of these systems communicate with each other, so that the potential system conflicts grow super-exponentially.  Running IT is a lot like those plate-spinning acts you used to see on the Ed Sullivan show, except that your audience is throwing plates at you during the act.

For some strange reason, users expect us to keep all of the plates in the air all of the time.  And why shouldn’t they? Why would we deploy a new system if we didn’t intend to keep it up and running? No one deploys a new system along with a planned shutdown date. (“Here’s your new collaborative environment!  We’ll keep it up and running until December”)  No, we deploy things with the promise of maintaining and expanding them forever.

As our systems grow in number and complexity, the cost of maintaining them grows as well.  This cost can overwhelm our budgets and limit our ability to develop and deploy new systems that really are important to our business.  As our ability to develop new tools diminishes, our perceived value to our customers drops as well. That’s a dangerous vicious cycle with bad career implications.

We’ve portrayed ourselves as Agents Of Change, so our customers judge us on that.  We didn’t label ourselves the Enemies Of Entropy, so users really don’t care that we spend most of our time forestalling the inevitable.  Behind the scenes, we need to strike a balance between both roles so that our systems keep running, our users are happy, and new systems arrive on a regular basis to keep our businesses ahead of the curve.

Is it easy?  Of course not!  If it were, everyone would be in IT.  Is it challenging?  You bet!  That’s what makes it fun.  Can you hold off entropy and still deliver the right stuff for your customers?  Even more importantly, will you enjoy doing it?

Change Is Good. You Go First. January 23, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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Once again, a seemingly Minor Event in my life causes Great Consternation and, upon reflection, provides a Greater Lesson for us all.  In this case, the Minor Event was the arrival of a new cell phone.

Let’s be clear: I love cell phones, and PDAs, and any sort of handheld device that you carry about.  If it fits in your hand, needs to be charged, has a screen, and can be endlessly configured and customized, it is my kind of device.  In the spirit of clarity, I’ll also share that I am extremely picky about user interfaces and the user experience in general.  I will tinker endlessly to get the screen layout just right, or to optimize the sequence of clicks to perform some action.

Disclosures made, let’s move to the Minor Event. Last week, I upgraded from my wonderful Samsung Blackjack II cellphone to the Samsung Epix.  Both devices run Windows Mobile and sport dedicated keyboards.  The big difference: the Epix has a touchscreen and the Blackjack does not. I was excited to try out a touch interface, along with the Epix’s built-in WiFi.

I was astounded at how difficult it was to switch to the Epix.  I had been using the Blackjack for over a year, and my fingers had long ago learned the key patterns to accomplish everything I needed to do on the phone.  I had tweaked every nuance of the Blackjack, installed a ton of third-party tools, and had that phone perfectly configured.

After one day of the Epix, I was ready to give the it back.  I was absolutely inept with the thing.  The ringtones were wrong, the applications felt clunky, and my constant desire to click on a directional pad was thwarted by the fact the the Epix doesn’t have one.  The WiFi was indeed cool, and the virtual mouse touchpad was clever.  Even so, I felt clumsy and frustrated with every aspect of the phone.

Great Consternation had set in.  I took a deep breath, drew on my deep reserves of inner strength, and vowed to use the phone for another full day.  By then, things had gotten a little better: I found some decent software for the phone, reinstalled touchscreen versions of my favorite tools, and even found better versions of others.  I was acclimating to the phone.

After a week, I have come to really like this phone.  Some things still need some tweaking, but other features are too good to give up and go back.  So my beloved Blackjack II will be placed, gently, into my Drawer of Abandoned Devices, next to my RAZR, Palm LifeDrive, Palm Tx, and Casio Zoomer.  The Epix becomes my device of choice, at least until my contract expires.

Which brings us to the Greater Lesson: If this kind of minor, self-inflicted change is this distracting and painful, imagine how annoying the change that we inflict on others must be.  Those of us in IT like to see ourselves as agents of change, disrupting existing practices with new tools and processes for the greater good of all.  Let’s get real: we drive people nuts, making seemingly arbitrary decisions that turn their world upside down for no apparent reason.

We can’t ever, ever forget how painful change really is for our users.  Minor Events that we fully understand generate Great Consternation out in the real world.  Nonetheless, our job is to find and fix things.  As you go about doing that, don’t lose sight of how hard it is for people to put up with the changes we promote.  And if you do forget how hard that can be, I have an easy solution: go get a new phone.