Thursday, November 13, 2008

Thinking In Ink

I remember a long time ago reading a hint that said:

"Never think without a pencil and paper."

I found this invaluable. Thought needs to flow, but to be useful it also needs to be recorded so that it can be revised, added to, shared, etc. The application of a pencil and paper is the use of a simple, reliable tool to do this. But a pencil and paper is largely an individual tool, and in a connected, electronic world, I cannot easily share my paper based thoughts with a team in way that they can add to them.

I use a Tablet PC, and I am surprised at how few have gravitated to this technology. It is of course "cool" and a lot of people are interested, but few actually use it. I use it almost daily, as a way to take notes, browse the web, read an e-book, review documents, etc.

The use of a Tablet PC is sometimes referred to as inking (since you do not have to use a keyboard), and I can do almost anything I need via ink, including annotations, notes, writing emails, etc. All of the same things I can do with pencil and paper. Sometimes I leave it as ink (my own handwriting and drawings), and sometimes I convert it to text. Let me pause on that for a moment so I can make sure it is understood. I write on the tablet screen with a special pen, and it looks just like I wrote on paper. In fact it can even have a notebook like template in products like Microsoft OneNote. I can write in various colors and ink, thickness, use a highlighter, draw pictures, etc.; anything I can do on paper. But the disadvantage is that my handwriting is not very good, so people prefer I give them a typed document. The amazing thing is that the ink recognizer, which looks at what I wrote in my sloppy handwriting, and converts it to typed text, is better at identifying the characters than most people are, including myself. Sometimes when I cannot figure out what I wrote, I run the converter and it tells me. I could explain how it does that, but that is for another day.

What I am conveying is that the Tablet PC works like I want to: informally and quickly. I do not have to think about the form of representation I am using, which may be words, a picture, connective lines, bullet lists, tables, etc. I just write, draw, etc. This lets thought flow much quicker and more fluidly, allowing a better stream of thought. In other words, my body attempting to record thought can work much closer to the speed my mind uses in creating it. And that improves productivity.

But even beyond the tools I describe, I want to point out that the posture of a Tablet PC also is integral to the thinking and recording process. The fact that I am not tethered to a sitting up with a laptop, or even worse a desktop keyboard/mouse and monitor, allows me to work in a comfortable and thought producing way. I can lay on a couch, sit under a tree by a creek, stand in a line, ride in a cramped airplane, etc and just think. And record that thinking in a way that is effective, allows me to build upon, and yet not let the tools get in the way.

So: Think in Ink, you will likely be surprised at how much it becomes part of your day.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Future Outsourced IT Model?

Outsourcing is sometimes viewed as a dirty word in organizations, and the Information Technology (IT) department is right there with that sentiment. C level executives looking to improve the organization’s bottom line by outsourcing non-core areas create anxiety among employees who become fearful of losing their jobs.

Traditional Outsourcing
The general thought behind outsourcing is to look for the areas in an organization that are not critical to products or services that drive the viability of the organization. Any function that is not directly related to why a customer may buy from you is reviewed for potential outsourcing. This is based on the assumption that an organization that focuses on a function will do it better than one that does not. I work in an IT consulting firm; we provide services by way of having talented individuals working as a team to provide services to clients. We cannot outsource that function, because they are the way we can show a profit, and the reason people would view us favorably (based on past successful work using the same team, tools, and methodology).

But we don’t clean our office.

Not that it is dirty, but that function is not core to the services we provide. We contract with somebody to come in daily and clean. They do it efficiently and to our satisfaction while showing a reasonable profit. We cannot do that by using our higher paid employee base; it would make no sense. We outsource that non-critical function to somebody who views it as a critical function.
We may not have as many employees because of this, but the ones we have share our focus of IT services. If we used to have our own cleaning staff, the desire to outsource would have cause significant stress for them, and been a paradigm change for us.

Therein lies the reason outsourcing is sometimes a dirty word.

Some organizations view IT the same way we view cleaning; as a non-core function that can be outsourced. Large companies such as IBM, Perot Systems, and Hewlett-Packard make significant revenue from providing outsourced services. We make a reasonable profit in certain clients from providing outsourced services. If your organization manufactures widgets; then maybe the IT function is not core, right along with cleaning, payroll, tax accounting, and even sales, among others. None of these need to be provided by somebody working exclusively at your direction, and for your singular purpose.

Everything I have alluded to implies outsourcing applies to people – reduce the headcount managed in a function by finding somebody else to perform the service, and even manage it. This can result in the employee leaving work on Friday working for company “A”, and returning on Monday to the same cubicle but employed by company “B”, possibly with reduced benefits, career opportunities, etc. Company “A” saves capital, and can focus on core functions. This has been the outsourcing method used popularly for the last 20 years or more.

New Technologies Change the Terms

But new technologies change the terms of outsourcing: instead of focusing on the headcount of people, focus on the specific function. These technologies are known as Service Oriented Architecture (SOA), and are made possible by using the internet as a transport layer between systems that are made available to provide services (known as “Web Services”) to each other. While these technologies cannot help us clean our office (that is after all a physical function) they can help us in many other areas, and any business process provided by application or even system software can be reviewed for outsourcing. This capability was not available before technologies like the web and web services.

Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) is a model that ties disparate systems together using communication interfaces that allow them to talk to each other in industry standard terms. You might consider it an evolution of long established Electronic Data Interface (EDI). But EDI, while still providing value in many functions, has two inherent problems. First of all, it is focused on the format of the messages, not the means of actually transporting them. Because of this, so called Value Added Networks grew to provide connection services and clearing houses between two systems that could not natively talk to each other. This increases costs, and reduces flexibility. Secondly they only cover specific transactions that a standards board has set. So you can transport a Purchase Order and an invoice, but not a flight reservation, request for properly formatted +4 zip codes, or product specification; some things that various organizations would be very interested in. So EDI has a standard, but it is limited to specific functions and specific data elements within those functions. This in turn limits an organization from responding to their own needs.

What SOA provides is the ability of two organizations to agree to outsource a function, but not necessarily a person, as has been the approach to outsourcing. We are not implying that no employment will be lost, but are viewing future outsourcing as being service or function based, as opposed to being team and job based. The employee headcount may be reduced or held steady as a side effect, but the focus is finding some web service that can process information and return it to us better than we can ourselves.

Business Process Engineering and SOA

Businesses have spent a lot of time thinking about the process they used, and they have defined and redefined it using Business Process Reengineering, Six Sigma, Total Quality Management, Continuous Improvement, etc. ad nauseam. Many improvements were made, and that unique business process, designed for the organization that employs it, has been encapsulated in the organization that uses it. It is hidden in business rules and databases, web pages and email clients, ready to be forced on users at the appropriate time to make sure the business process is followed. This gives rise to ERP systems, and large Line of Business applications (LOB) that perform functions across an enterprise, following a predefined business process to ensure uniformity, predictability, and cohesion among business functions. Take for example the simple Zip Code + 4 function: an organization wants to ensure that every mailing is successfully delivered to the right location, and so as part of the process they run the address against a computer application that returns the correct nine digit zip code. In this way, costs are reduced, and the correct targets receive the content in the mailing. But sometimes the rules or even underlying data change in this specific function. New addresses are added, street names changes, zip codes redefined, etc. This may necessitate a change deep within the LOB or ERP, and your organization, with its very organizational specific business process built into the system, is the only one capable of making the change using internal employees familiar with the code and structure. You bear the full cost of the change, and can only amortize it across your organization. But the Zip Code + 4 function is NOT core to the business. It needs to be done, but it is not how you actually generate revenue. The content of the mailing should do that, but the commonly used Zip Code + 4 does not.

The architecture organizations have traditionally used over this re-engineering period is monolithic. They built single system, or tightly integrated systems, that they owned or highly customized to the point of not even looking like the application they procured. These were often hidden behind a firewall, focused on the broad and internal needs of the organization’s process. What they did not invite was the ability to simply integrate one little external function into the business process. So the Zip Code + 4 function remains locked in the LOB or ERP. This limits flexibility to reuse and share the function, expand it to new acquisitions; in short to generally focus on the core process.

But what if you found another organization, that focuses only on this functional need, and which would allow you to connect your business process directly to theirs? You send them the address, and they send you back the properly formatted address with the correct Zip Code + 4? That is what SOA and web services can provide. You can pick from various vendors who will provide the service, selecting the one that best meets your quality and budgetary needs.


This provides in the end an outsourcing model that looks at specific functions within a business process, instead of specific departments or personnel. You may reduce headcount, and in fact likely will, but that was not the focus. The focus was on improving quality and flexibility, and at the same time turning your attention to the core functions and systems that encapsulate enforces those functions.

This may be the future of outsourcing as a part of the process of reviewing for opportunities to do so. I invite your thoughts on the subject.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Microsoft's Commercials about Nothing

I loved the Seinfeld show. It was the last "subscription TV" I had for several years, until "The Office" showed up. It was touted as a show about nothing.

Microsoft has now engaged Jerry Seinfeld to help get the word out about Microsoft, especially Windows Vista edition. The new TV ads just started last week, and feature Jerry running into Bill Gates at the mall, where Bill is buying shoes at a discount store. Obviously a lot of jokes could, and have been, made at this point. "Bill can't sell Vista, so he has to buy cheap shoes", or "Bill failed at software because he really was not even smart enough to buy shoes, so now Jerry Seinfeld has to help him", or "Windows: an operating system about nothing". All in good fun, except when said by a Mac or Linux user :)

But the commercials are doing what they should do: drive a buzz. People have seen them, and remember them. Even my wife, who is a technophobe, recognized the people and commercials and could talk about them. So while there is a lot of criticism, maybe we should all wait. I started watching Seinfeld because I saw his routine on a morning talk show, the Pat Sajak show, before his series started. When it did start, it was panned and criticized, and moved all over the schedule. Finally it took hold and became a juggernaut; the show about nothing that everybody discussed on Friday morning.

Based on that, I am taking a wait and see approach. Let's observe where this goes, and if like Seinfeld the show, it actually is about something, and people talk about Windows, and Vista, and whatever else they actually promote, when they get around to doing that.

But personal note to Bill: I did not really like the shoes, so next time leave the Conquistadors on the shelf, OK?

Monday, August 18, 2008

Fujitsu T2010 = Perfect Tablet PC?

I saw a thread on GottaBeMobile recently that was asking for input to the perfect Tablet PC or UMPC that was very interesting. One could surmise that the unique needs of everybody would make it impossible to produce the perfect tablet PC. There were a lot of great ideas there.

For my own needs, I think I found almost all of them in my recently acquired Fujitsu T2010. This seems so far to be an almost perfect answer to my search. I use it for MS Office tools, especially Outlook with the Franklin Covey Plan Plus add-in. I also use OneNote, Visio, and Project. Additional tools include Mindjet MindManager to map thoughts. Finally I do the normal browsing and eBook reading a tablet can be so good at, especially with the PDF Annotator tool from Grahl Software, which allows me to review and markup documents or articles I save from the web.

The factors that are important to me and how it provides for them are below; loosely in the order in which I appreciate or value them.

  1. Performance: I used to do more programming and database work, but now spend most of my time communicating and planning, often on the road. The lesser needs I have for raw power mean that the U7600 Core Duo processor running at 1.2Ghz is adequate for my needs, without generating a lot of heat or more importantly taxing the battery.
  2. Battery life: this is a big issue for me, mainly because I do not want to worry about it, or "make sure I will be near an outlet in 3 hours". This device gets 9-11 hours with the 9 cell battery, and close to 8 with the 6 cell version. That is amazing, and greatly appreciated. To me the holy grail of battery life is a full day of work without plugging in, and this device gets me there, and does it without adding a lot of weight.
  3. Portability: the size of the device is also important and where most people diverge about preferences in the laptop/table PC space. Some want something smaller, and some want larger. My personal preference is a device that offers a keyboard that is easy enough to type on, without making the device so large that weight or dimensions affect portability. The T2010 is a nice size, with a non cramped keyboard, and a 12" WXGA screen. In the convertible type tablet PCs the keyboard size and screen size are directly related. I have a smaller Fujitsu U810 with a 5.7"screen, but it renders the keyboard almost unusable for hands my size. I think anything less than a 10" screen would make the keyboard a limited tool for data entry. The T2010 is about 3.5 lbs with the 9 cell battery, making it a lightweight.
  4. Screen: A tablet is expected to be used at different angles than a regular notebook, often pointing at the fluorescent lighting or direct sun. This makes the ability to see it in bright light important. The T2010 offers an indoor/outdoor screen option which I have. It does improve the readability of the screen in offices, and outdoors, but brightness needs to be at the highest level in order to really see easily.

Overall the Fujitsu T2010 meets my basic needs. Laptop/Tablet preferences are highly personal and subjective, so others may vary in their thoughts on it. I have a client who needed a new notebook recently, and if it had been a desktop, I would have just ordered the appropriate model from an approved list; but after discussion it made more sense for her to go and look at some devices to see which she liked.

Some things I might change about the T2010 include:
  • Add an external hardware speaker control. Using the function key combinations is a hassle.
  • Add a webcam just above the screen
  • Add an internal broadband connection to a 3G network. This is now apparently available, but my model does not have this. Thankfully I can pair it with my AT&T 8525 phone for a high speed connection almost anywhere.
  • Increase the CPU speed; while adequate now more is always nice when the next generation of software comes out. A faster CPU would extend the life of the device.

None of these additional enhancements I may want should affect the battery life; that would be counterproductive for my needs.

I am not sure I can say the T2010 is the perfect PC, but it is very close for my needs at this point in time.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Projected Cuts to Information Technology in 2009 - Part 2

I previously posted about an InfoWorld article that reported projected information technology cuts in 2009. These were primarily in the areas of technology infrastructure and talent. My focus is on the talent component: trying to do more with less. We can state this a bit differently if we said "let's get more value for our IT expenditures in the area of talent".

There are many components to measuring value from talent, I stated it generally in describing productivity per dollar spent, i.e. how much can be accomplished when we assign a person at a certain cost to a certain task. There are many more ways to think about this, and that is what I wanted to elaborate on in this post. Because we are primarily an application development firm, my thoughts and examples are centered on that service, but the weight of the arguments can easily cross the lines into other IT skills.

The question then is: What impacts the value delivered?

There are many factors that determine what value should be delivered, is being delivered, and was delivered. Once again: value is the result productivity per dollar spent. While simple, it is not enough to simply look at dollar per hour as the sole measure; the factors that affect productivity must also be considered. These factors include:

Cost per hour - the simplest way to get a real number, but often the most misleading. This factor is enticing because a manager can say they did the hard thing and cut costs, resulting in a line on their annual review. But they may, and often have, at the same time jettisoned the entire other side of factors and put the initiative at risk. This may not be known until long afterwards. The problem with this approach, which some may call doing "more with less", is that it only focuses on the "less", and avoids the important consideration of the "more".

Functionality produced relative to others at a cost - These factors look at the production side; what is being produced in a unit of time? A higher priced member on the team with a corresponding level of talent and experience adds many dimensions, such as:
  • Added value of additional ideas and input gleaned from others - they add to the discussion and provide direction early on, thus improving the rest of the team because of their input and leadership. This positively affects the immediate project goals, and the organization's personnel and long term practices.
  • Reduced Errors or Omissions - The final product will be a higher quality, more reliable offering. This produces two additional benefits, the first of which is the organization's customers are better satisfied. This is especially true for new product launches or competitive markets where initial trust is the key to gaining and holding market share. The second derived benefit is future cost containment. A project's full cost is not known at the end; a "bug" appearing later on can be much more expensive to fix, as well as reducing the confidence of customers.
  • Security Issues - Similar to a bug, a lesser talent may introduce embarrassing security issues; allowing malicious access to organizational or customer data. We had a new company call us a few years ago that used less expensive, less experienced talent to create websites for their very high profile clients. A hacker gained access to the customer's data and the private data the customer's were collecting on the sites. They then attempted to extort the company calling us. We dispatched a team of high quality talent who worked through the weekend to assess the damage, and lock everything down so that future access was cut off. The company handled it well, but did unfortunately lose some credibility in the market place.
  • Increased capabilities to build upon the delivered solution - A lesser talent may develop what appears to be a suitable solution in the development and initial launch environments; but as the organization attempts to leverage it through greater use, they may find it does not perform well, or cannot be extended without significant new costs. The problem is a less experienced talent focuses on the immediate needs, without the vision to know how to also develop a solid base for future scalability. A more experienced person has the needed skills to know how meet both needs, or at least consciously balance the immediate needs and long term prospects. This reduces long term costs and creates greater growth opportunities.
Business Value / Benefits:
To summarize, a business that considers the added benefits above can expect to see:
  • Predictable pattern of production - estimates and time lines will be more reliable, and the entire production will be more stable. This allows an organization to plan and meet customer, shareholder, and compliance commitment more confidently.
  • Increased capabilities to expand market presence and offerings - Not only will the initial product or service be of better quality and more predictable, but the organization can confidently meet future needs through the long term capabilities that are added to the organization and product or service offering. This reduces long term costs and ensures continued market competitiveness.

My firm, Paragon Consulting, has what I believe to be the best methodology for identifying the right type of talent to really add value to a client's team or project. You can read more about it here.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Vista performance improvement guide

Microsoft has started to attempt to set the record straight about Vista. At a recent partner conference I attended, they acknowledge they have not been very aggressive at responding to the "I'm a Mac" ads that paint Vista as bloated, slow, and hard to use. I have used Vista for about a year now, and was skeptical at first, but can tell you that it works well.

But not all users can agree.

For those who simply misunderstood, and Vista will work well for them but they have been hesitant, Microsoft is gearing up a publicity machine to answer the Mac, and say proudly "I'm a PC".

And for those have tried Vista, and thought it was bloated, slow, and hard to use, Microsoft has published a nice, concise document that explains how to optimize it. The information is not earthshaking, but is conveniently in one place. You can find it here.

Hope it helps. I cannot say with personal evidence that Vista is better than a Mac, but can say it is an improvement over the XP operating system for my needs.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Projected Cuts to Information Technology in 2009

I saw an article on Infoworld that reports IT spending is projected to be cut in 2009. According to the studies, two areas are targeted:

  • Infrastructure such as basic PC and network hardware
  • Talent costs, such as employees and IT service consultants

In regards to the first, that type of expenditure can be delayed to some extent, assuming that going into the delay there has been a consistent investment made so that the organization is not starting out with equipment that is already old and lacking support. Equipment fails, so it needs maintenance, and eventually replacement. Technologies such as virtualization can assist to put more functions on a piece of equipment, reducing the need for multiple devices. An accounting system may share hardware with a sales entry system, each having their own "space", but using one physical server.

The second expenditure can also be managed more tightly. With reason, there is nothing wrong with saying that you need more results from the people that produce or maintain your systems, and if the organizational direction is to ride out an economic storm, then doing more with less is often needed.

But the direction that more with less takes is where you must be careful. The ways a manager might view it are:
  • Less people: Reduce headcount by some number to reduce total overall costs, and (hopefully) designate functions across the lower count in a way that maintains the minimal information technology needs of the organization.
  • Less expensive people: Find cheaper resources that appear to have similar talents, and (hopefully) transition to them with minimal disruption in service level agreements. These people may be less experienced, or from another culture with different economic factors (off-shore). The goal is to retain a similar headcount and service offering, while reducing overall cost.
  • Less commitment to the people: Outsource work to others, so that both employee overhead (both as an accounting ledger function and additional costs such as benefits, training, etc.) and length of commitment are minimized. In some ways this shifts the costs from one bucket to another, and also serves to make it easy to further reduce the workforce as needed by simply ending the use of an outsourced resource, as opposed to the termination of an employee. Additionally, terminating an employee has negative psychological effects on remaining team members that correspondingly terminating an outsourced resource do not create.

But what must be considered in any of these options, or combination of them, is the value delivered. It is easy to assess and reduce cost, but without experience, only later can the real value of those cuts be truly understood. So going in with a thought of value instead of pure cost is essential to long term shareholder return and organizational viability.

Value is not measured just in terms of dollars per hour; it is measured in terms of what was produced for those dollars. I have an option when I go to a mechanic, and can choose between the certified Mr. Goodwrench, or "Jim’s Auto Repair". Jim is less expensive per hour. But repeated trips back, missed work, inability to complete on time, additional ongoing costs, frustration, and potential to still have to go to a certified mechanic after all that lead me to call and schedule with the more expensive mechanic on day one. I know I will pay more up front, but I know I will receive more value measured in multiple ways.

In terms of consultants who are software developers (disclosure: my firm provides that service) I know the difference between the low value developer and the high value one. In terms of rate, it should always be measured against the time factor. You may obtain a consultant for $90/hr, or have a choice of a $140/hr resource. The issue is what each will accomplish over the time needed to deliver.

In a later post, I will try to address the issues that impact the actual value delivered. How do you know which one is going to provide more value? I think I can help you with that, because for years we have been assessing these resources with that key factor in mind.