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Chaos As A Service March 13, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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I recently worried about the potential disconnect between users seeking the latest technology and IT leaders being able to successfully assist them in finding that technology.  If we don’t gain the trust of users before they start buying solutions, they’ll acquire things that will hurt our companies and drive IT staff to distraction.  This all happens with the best of intentions, but is a disaster nonetheless.

Traditionally, buying technology solutions was a complicated affair.  Not only did you have to buy software, you usually had to buy the servers and infrastructure that would host that software.  The complexity of the purchase invariably allowed IT to get involved before the purchase was a done deal.  If nothing else, the size of the purchase would raise flags, and the integration of the solution involved a call to someone, somewhere, who would know how to run the system.

With the arrival of Software As A Service (Saas), technology acquisition is frighteningly simple.  The infrastructure is hosted in the cloud, so users need not worry about buying heavy iron to run their new applications.  The pricing is typically by the month and builds incrementally, so that the initial outlay is so low that no one notices.  Most of these apps run within a browser, so users are up and running quickly.

Proponents of Saas point to these features as the core value of Saas.  No longer shackled by the restrictive concerns of centralized IT organizations, users are free to find and buy whatever tools suit their needs.  This makes users more effective and efficient, and we all benefit.  Right?

Wrong!  Unbeknownst to the user community, there is a method to the madness of a good IT shop.  Believe it or not, people spend a lot of time  making sure that all these tools and systems work together and share information to maximize their value.  They also worry about tiny details like backups, security, business continuity, and disaster recovery.  In some cases, annoying distractions like the SEC and government regulations affect how we integrate and manage systems.

When many users independently acquire many tools, the ability to integrate and manage those tools effectively disappears.  While you may achieve some local optimization for a small group of users, you have eliminated any ability to achieve enterprise-wide integration and sharing.  The value in our information systems is ensuring that accurate, complete information is delivered to the right person at the right time.  If that information is smeared across independent external systems, tying it all back together is simply impossible.

Unfortunately, Saas is sold like snake oil to unsuspecting end users.  Before anyone knows what has happened, users can go to a web site, sign up for a service, and start using it.  Once entrenched, that service is hard to eliminate or replace, and IT plays catch-up trying to extract and integrate the data in the system with the rest of the company.  The cost is enormous and the user irritation is high.

Don’t misunderstand: Saas has value and can provide a cost-effective way to outsource part or all of your IT infrastructure.  But the acquisition of Saas solutions is no different from a traditional system running on your own servers.  It must integrate and comply with your strategic enterprise architecture, along with all your policies on disaster recovery, security, document retention, etc.  Appropriate IT scrutiny of Saas before the purchase leads to clean integration and happy users.

How do you make this happen?  The same way every IT success occurs: good communication with users that builds trust and natural partnerships to find solutions.  Start talking and serving users now, and you’ll avoid chaotic Saas acquisitions later.

Staying Out Of Holes February 18, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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Since the dawn of computing, we’ve worked really hard to make technology easier and more accessible.  Computers started out in protected data centers, with mere mortals kept far, far away from actually using the machines.  Today, we’ve pushed powerful tools into the hands of end users that enable them to do all sorts of amazing things on a regular basis.

As users become more comfortable with these tools, they try to acquire more of them.  That’s a great thing, until those well-meaning end users get in over their heads and wind up holding a technology tiger by the tail.

Let’s be honest: computers, especially enterprise computing systems, are inordinately complicated.  They are not easy to buy, install, configure, or maintain.  It takes a a team of experienced professionals to make sure that a company buys the right systems, deploys them correctly, and maintains them for maximum business advantage.  When end users try to take that on themselves, disaster invariably ensues.

Every CIO can tell a story about some non-IT organization that tried to buy some cool system without bringing IT into the picture.  Typically, the first call comes about halfway into the implementation, when the project is behind schedule, the gory details are being exposed, and the poor users have no idea how to get out of the hole they have dug for themselves.  By the time IT gets involved, lots of money and time has been wasted, and the cost of recovery far exceeds the project estimates and often outweighs any potential benefits of the system.

It is easy to blame these scenarios on the users.  The real blame lies with IT.  We need to build trust with our users so that they feel comfortable turning to us when they need a new system or have a problem to solve.  The worst situations occur when IT is so inaccessible and arrogant that users prefer the pain of a bad implementation to the pain of dealing with IT.

Beyond earning trust, we also need to educate our users so they understand why our systems work the way they do, and how we integrate new technology to benefit everyone.  Systems architecture is of little interest to end users, but we must teach them how we fit all the pieces together so they can see how we bring all these conflicting systems together.

Finally, IT brings a lot of non-technical benefits to any technology acquisition.  In my experience, users make a good effort at finding a tool that has the right featurs to meet their needs.  Where they completely miss the mark is with the contract and service details around the purchase.  Users have no idea how to negotiate good pricing, or how to see through the smoke a vendor may be blowing their way.  They don’t know about service level agreements, or good maintenance pricing, or how to write a contract that indemnifies them against a product failure.  They don’t know how to evaluate a vendor for financial stability, or to know if their solution is a risky leading-edge idea or an outdated platform on its last legs.  We know all these things, and we need to provide that assistance to our users.

Like almost every other aspect of our job, it starts with communications and trust.  Begin by reaching out to users when they aren’t facing big problems.  Calmer times give you the opportunity to explain what we do, why we do it, and how we can help.  When users do reach out to us, bend over backwards to help them navigate the world of technology.  Respect their needs and take time to figure out what they really need.  Work hard when users aren’t in a hole, and you’ll eventually keep them from digging a new one.

Say The Secret Word! January 19, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings, Technology.
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It has become fairly common for sites to enhance their security by asking you to answer a few “secret questions” to confirm that you are, in fact, you when updating account information or even just logging in.  As a result, users now have the opportunity to forget several bits of information for each web site they visit, instead of just forgetting their password on a regular basis.

We use this approach at my company, where users can reset their passwords by answering special questions.  The system we use even lets people pose their own questions, which led to one user to create this question:

Question 1: How do you feel today?
Answer 1: Good

So far so good.  Here is their second question:

Question 2: How do you feel today?
Answer 2: Bad

I kid you not.  Not surprising, this user eventually forgot their password, and it took quite a while for us to figure out why they could never access the automatic password reset system.

Here’s my helpful usability tip for the day: No matter what the secret question, use the same answer every time.  Choose something different from your password, but use it consistently.

People are astounded when I suggest this.  It never occurs to them that the system cannot check to make sure that “groucho” really is the name of the first person you kissed, or your first pet, or your second grade teacher.  It just wants a string of characters that only you know.

Before all the security people reading this freak out, I’ll concede that this is not a security best practice.  It leaves you vulnerable to some tiny chance of a security breach.  You assume all the risk if you choose to go this route.  Et cetera.

But in reality, this is much better than the approach most people take, which is to write all this stuff down on a Post-It note and stick it on the monitor.  (Security-conscious users put the Post-It under the keyboard, or in their desk drawer.  Thanks for incorporating physical barriers into your security practices!)

Security breaks down when security systems are too complicated. People revert to simple solutions just because they want the computer to get out of the way and let them accomplish the task at hand. We need to stop creating complicated, unusable systems and focus on simple, usable ones. With security, as with everything else on earth, it is tough to make things foolproof because fools are so ingenious.

Brownie points to readers who know why I chose “groucho” as my answer!

Book Review: Unlocking The Sky January 14, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Book Reviews.
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Everyone knows the story of the first airplane flight: working tirelessly in their Ohio bicycle shop, Orville and Wilbur Wright develop the first modern airplane, which they successfully fly on the coast of North Carolina in December of 1903.  They go on to refine their design and earn their rightful place as the fathers of modern aviation.

Right? Wrong.  Following their initial success, the reclusive Wrights continued their work in Ohio but shared absolutely nothing with fellow aviators of the day.  Although the Wrights borrowed extensively from those who preceded them, they spent the rest of their lives litigating against anyone who dared to build any other aircraft.  Their secretive nature impeded early aircraft development and nearly ruined the true father of modern aviation, Glenn Curtiss.

Seth Shulman shares the story of Glenn Curtiss in Unlocking The Sky. Detailed and well-written, the book recounts a crucial phase of modern technology in an accessible and compelling fashion.  Truthfully, the book is hard to put down and is easily read in an evening or two.

Glenn Curtiss began his career as a motorcycle designer, building fast small engines that propelled him to a world land speed record of 136 MPH in 1907.  At that time, lightweight engines were the real key to aviation success, delivering enough thrust to push early inefficient aircraft into the sky.  With no formal education, Glenn Curtiss found himself designing and building the first modern aircraft, far exceeding the achievements of the Wright brothers.  He made the first publicly announced (and witnessed) flight in 1908, covering a kilometer before a panel of judges, and set the world speed record in Rheims, France a year later in 1909.

His achievements incensed the Wrights, and they spent the rest of their lives trying to destroy Curtiss.  Using a few patents that had been inappropriately interpreted by the courts, the Wrights sought to bankrupt Curtiss and regain control of aircraft development throughout the world.  The Wrights went as far as to force the Smithsonian to remove references to Curtiss from their history of aviation as a prerequisite to displaying the Wright Flyer in the museum.  (The Flyer was initially displayed in the British Royal Museum for years until the Smithsonian acquiesced to Orville Wright’s demands.)

Beyond the excitement of early aviation and the drama of the Wright litigation, Shulman’s book offers other lessons to modern developers one hundred years later.  Although Shulman did not set out to write a book about open versus proprietary software development, anyone versed in the field cannot help but draw conclusions between the distressing behavior of the Wrights and the open, collaborative nature of Curtiss.  Curtiss believed in sharing everything he learned so that the dream of manned flight would be realized and enhanced.  The Wrights sought to contgrol and protect even the smallest details of their airplanes to extract as much profit as possible.

Certainly, the Wrights represent the most restrictive approach to technical development.  Curtiss, while making seminal contributions to the field of aviation, never fully capitalized on the value of his inventions.  Readers seeking to find a happy medium between the two will certainly enjoy learning more about early aviation as they read this compelling, fascinating book.

Another Web Irritant November 21, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Technology.
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I understand that advertising helps keep vast swaths of the web free.  I respect a site’s right to sell ads; I just wish they would respect my intelligence.

The latest affront to my self-esteem comes along with interstitial ads, those full-page popups that appear for a fixed period of time before letting you see the real content you were seeking.  I don’t mind the ads; that’s part of life, and that’s why Firefox has all those clever ad-blocking plug-ins.

I do mind the inane message that accompanies the ad, the one that says something to the effect of “Please wait while your page is loading…”  While my page is loading? Come on!

I suppose there are some folks who may think that web pages are handcrafted as you request them, with teams of web artisans standing by to put all that content together in the fifteen seconds that the ad stays on your screen.  For those folks, it may seem like a courtesy to provide something to look at, instead of a blank screen and an hour-glass cursor.

If only they knew the exact opposite: your page starts rendering after the ad goes away, and the twenty-something web designer who put that “Please wait” message on your screen got a snarky chuckle over getting away with such a blatant, insulting lie. It’s as if a full page ad in a print magazine had a tag line at the bottom: “Please wait for fifteen seconds while we print the next page.”

How about a little truth in advertising?  I’d much prefer a message like “Please, please take a moment to look at this ad.  We’re running out of VC funding, and unless we get some positive cash-flow out of our ad-based revenue model, I’ll be looking for my fifth job in three years.”  If I see that message on my screen, I’ll not only read the ad, I’ll click through just for good measure!