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Talk The Talk? Talk Their Talk! December 17, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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We say it over and over, but it still bears repeating: IT must speak to the business in their language, not ours.  We are most effective when we embrace and understand the culture of our customers, and that starts with communicating in the terms they understand.

At the highest levels, CIOs must deal with the business as a strategic partner.  This means living in the world of finance, operations, and process.  In any general conversation between a CIO and a business peer, specific technology terms should be few and far between.  In the end, the business does not care about our geeky little world.  They only care about what we deliver and how it helps them.

But the advice to “talk their talk” extends across all levels of our organizations.  I was reminded of this recently when a published project status confused our business partners.  We were closing out a project that updated several thousand PCs on our network.  We had completed the updates but ran a special audit job to make sure nothing was missed.  The update was complete but the audit was only half-done.  The project status noted that 700 or so PCs remained to be processed in this last phase of the project.

The business perceived this to mean that all these machines were not even updated and got concerned about the project.  It took a day of poking around to figure out the real answer and reassure the business.  Had we expressed the status in language that made sense to the business, the distinction between the update and the audit would have been clear and the confusion avoided.

Those of us in IT often use the language of technology to either impress or confuse our customers.  This never helps in the long run, although it lets you get away with a lot in the short term.  In the end, another old adage holds true in our world: People don’t care what you know.  They want to know that you care. And that starts by speaking to people in a language that they understand.

Managing In Difficult Times November 14, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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Difficult times call for exceptional leaders.  It’s easy to lead when times are good.  Plentiful budgets, lots of staff, willing business partners: who couldn’t be a good CIO in that kind of climate?

It’s when times get tough that real leadership shows itself.  For lesser CIOs, the easy way out is to simply buckle down, cut back on everything, and ride out the storm.  You manage to a reduced budget, defer all your projects, and hope to regain ground when the business climate improves.  When the business complains, you can shrug and point to the economy, promising solutions when the managing gets easy again.

Alas, the easy way out is the wrong way.  When times get tough, a good CIO focuses on how to keep moving ahead in spite of limited resources.  In good times or bad, new challenges will constantly confront your company.  You must respond to them, deliver solutions, and find ways to help your company succeed.

Instead of pulling back on everything, review each and every project in your portfolio.  There will be a small group of projects that are mandatory, without which your company will fail or suffer dramatic setbacks.  You must fight for these projects and ensure you have the resources to deliver them.  In most cases, it is easy to make your case: corporate failure usually gets the attention of senior management.  Some level of funding or support should follow; you’ll need to make do with what you are allotted.

Beyond the mandatory parts of your portfolio, there is a second set of projects that are not mandatory but that will deliver significant immediate value.  These are the projects that you must embrace and fight for.  Often, they fall by the wayside as budgets are reduced, lost in the clutter of projects that really can be delayed or canceled.  In fact, these high-value initiatives are the ones that will help your company succeed in difficult times.

A good CIO will find a way to sell these projects on their merits, justify the investment, and deliver on the results.  Especially in tough times, those new tools and processes that reduce headcount, improve efficiency, and drive value to the bottom line are critical to your, and your company’s, success.

Proactive portfolio management is the key to delivering this kind of value.  Even when times get better, be aware of those projects that are the real winners.  You’ll be able to respond to business needs faster and react to changing conditions more effectively.  And that makes you and your organization more valuable in good times and bad.

Software and… Elvis? November 5, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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I once learned that some paintings are mass produced on assembly lines, with each person applying a single color in a single spot.  At the end of the line, a complete painting has been “assembled.”  Much of the art in hotel rooms is produced this way.  The epitome of the genre is, perhaps, the Velvet Elvis: the perfect blend of kitsch, style, and subject that anyone would be proud to hang in their home.  It may not be art, but it sure is a painting!

A lot of software is written in the same way.  There is a common belief that you can completely control the development of software, planning each step of the process, deciding when the builds will be ready and the final product will roll off the line.  We all work to such tight project deadlines that there is little choice but to manage the development process this way.

Unfortunately, writing software is not a process.  Writing software is an art.  Just like singing, dancing, painting, or sculpting, certain people are born to write beautiful pieces of code that other, lesser mortals simply cannot produce.  For those who can dig in and appreciate a piece of code, there is true beauty inside the very best software.

Like any other art, beautiful software does not happen in predictable, scheduled ways.  It happens in fits and starts, when the muse strikes.  I can remember many times when the solution to some problem, the perfect algorithm or data structure, would suddenly pop into my head in the middle of the night.  You can beat your head against a problem all day, but the elegant solution only arrives when it is ready to be revealed.  Regrettably, it’s tough to put milestones like “Muse Strikes” into your project plans.

Now that I am on the management side of this process, I have true sympathy for the developers that struggle to deliver results when they know that the muse has not yet struck.  Lesser programmers are content to produce a Velvet Elvis, a pedestrian piece of code that gets the job done in a brute force way.  Programming artists seek to deliver art, something they and their peers will consider and appreciate.

As managers, we have to decide when we need art and when we need Elvis.  All great artists can produce a Velvet Elvis with little effort, but their spirit will be sapped if they are not allowed to create true art every so often.  Keep that in mind as you plan your projects and determine your schedules.  Know who your true artists are, and make sure they get to produce that occasional masterpiece.  And when you do, they will certainly come to you and say, “Thank you.  Thank you very much!”

Slices Of Apple, Part 3 July 30, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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This is the third in a series of posts dissecting Apple’s recent misfortunes during the rollout of the iPhone 3G and related technologies.  You’ll find the first post here.

Time, Quality, or Money: Choose Two

I am always surprised when I meet IT folks who don’t know this old canard.  Simply put, in any project something will be sacrificed.  If you want a high-quality result on time, you’ll spend a lot of money to get it.  Want to hit your budget and deliver high quality?  You’ll take longer with fewer people to get things finished. And if you want to hit your date and hit your budget, you’ll never meet your quality goal.

Apparently, this is the choice that Apple made for MobileMe, the new shared email service launched along with the iPhone 3G earlier this month.  After making the bad decision to release four big things all at once, Apple seems to have stuck with that decision without regard to the quality of the MobileMe product.  The fallout has been terrible and Apple has lost face with a huge swath of its customer base.  The problems still aren’t fixed, and users are still (rightfully) upset, as witnessed by the FailMe parody web site.

The key to successful project management is to realize that this rule is inviolate.  When a project goes awry (and they all do, to some extent), you will be choosing two of these three goals.  How to decide?

If possible, choose Time. Money may be limited, and quality is crucial, so delaying a project and slipping a date is your least distasteful choice.  If you are managing a project whose date cannot slip (end of year reporting or tax filing, for example), recognize that constraint right away and budget lots of money to ensure that you will wind up with good quality.  A good product delivered late is still a good product; a bad product delivered on time will never be forgotten.  Apple will be hearing about MobileMe for a long time; slipping it would have been no big deal.

If you can’t choose Time, choose Money. Money buys labor in the form of developers, testers, tools, and anything else you might need to hit that date.  The goal is to ensure that you avoid having to choose quality.  Be careful, though: money only goes so far.  At some point, you cannot buy your way to hit a date.  (There is a closely correlated rule for this: Nine Women Cannot Have A Baby In One Month).

Never choose Quality. If you really have to choose Quality, argue strenuously to cancel, defer, or redefine the project.  Like eating bad food, memories of bad quality linger for a long, long time.  Slipped dates are soon forgotten as people move on to other things, and even blown budgets fade after time.  Bad quality never diminishes and can come back to haunt you over and over again.

In short, make rational decisions on Money and Time, but never give in on Quality.  If you cave in on Quality, you’ll soon find yourself living through Musciano’s Extension to this rule:

Time, Quality, Money, or Your Job: Choose Three

In these cases, you usually aren’t the one making the final choice.

Slices Of Apple, Part 2 July 28, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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This is the second in a series of posts dissecting Apple’s recent misfortunes during the rollout of the iPhone 3G and related technologies.  You’ll find the first post here.

Turn One Knob At A Time

Divide and conquer.  Divide and conquer.  Divide and conquer.  This mantra, more than any other, must be burned into the brain of anyone hoping to make a career of IT.  Break big jobs into small jobs, deliver on the small jobs, and the big jobs will solve themselves.  Very few projects cannot be divided into sequences of interdependent smaller projects that, in turn, are easier to understand and complete.

Although Apple committed many errors in the iPhone deployment, they can all be traced to breaking this fundamental rule.  In one day, Apple launched the new iPhone 3G, a new matching version of iTunes with the new Apps store, a corresponding firmware update for the iPod Touch, and a replacement for the .Mac service called MobileMe.  Any one of these launches is a big event, bringing significant value to new and existing customers.  Each is fraught with peril if things don’t go well.  Tackling one or two would be a big deal; tackling all four was a mistake.  Apple’s hubris, I suspect, made them think they could pull this off.  They were wrong.

From the comfort of my Monday Morning Quarterback Chair, here’s how I would have scheduled this rollout:

  • Launch with the iPhone 3G, along with the new version of iTunes, but without the App store going live.  Instead, put a teaser link in iTunes to get people salivating over all the wonderful new apps that are just a few days away.  People will be so excited over the new iPhone that they won’t care that the apps aren’t yet available.  Apple servers cannot keep up with all that phone provisioning anyway; why burden them with additional traffic as people look for new apps for their phone?
  • Allow the phone rollout to stabilize over a period of two weeks.  Apologize for the provisioning problems with some comment that emphasizes how hard it is to predict demand with such an insanely popular phone.  Let the press write glowing reviews on the virtues of 3G speed and the business connectivity in the phone.
  • After two weeks, announce the fabulous new App Store.  People that have just gotten a bit bored with their fast 3G access on their phone will now go crazy all over again, downloading and trying out apps.  This is the lowest-risk step of the bunch, since most of the app problems are related back to the authors, not Apple.
  • If the iPhone is stable at this point, release the firmware upgrade for the iPod Touch.  If not, wait for the bugs to get fixed and slip the release for a future date.  If things are going smoothly, you’ll be quieting the revolt among Touch owners who desperately want those new apps and features.  If the firmware is buggy, you’ve saved yourself calls from another class of irate users.
  • Finally, hold off on MobileMe for however long it takes to fix it.  This product, among all these releases, is clearly not ready for primetime and is a real black eye for Apple.

In the end, you must understand and slightly exceed your users’ expectations.  No one in the user community was demanding a new phone, and new firmware, and new apps, and new iTunes, and MobileMe all on the same day.  Why try?  Any experienced IT professional could tell you this plan was bound to fail. In every rollout, something goes wrong.  And when one thing falls over, it’s bound to tip over lots of other dominoes behind it, resulting in an avalanche of problems.  If you set up fewer dominoes to begin with, you increase your odds of success.  If you have to turn a bunch of knobs on something, turn just one knob at a time!