Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Kehoe - A DEC VMS Cluster, a Funky Chair and a Toaster Oven Walk Into a Bar...

By John Kehoe - 28 January 2009

I do not like change forced by ‘the Man’, change out of my control or change that doesn’t help. I do like change that I push, change that makes my life easy and change that puts money in my pocket. As IT professionals, we push change. We often do so without appreciating what our users require, what the users are doing or the historical context of our solutions.

What are we doing wrong? Let’s look at a manufacturing example. I once owned a nice little under-the-cabinet toaster oven, circa 1991, that worked reliably for almost two decades. When it hiccupped I simply fixed it. Alas, it eventually started belching smoke and so I replaced it.

In the IT world, this belching represents the old, unsupported application that we are afraid to touch, lest it combust. It has exceeded its carrying cost and the time has come to replace it. My quest to find a new toaster oven took a while as the new models had been redesigned to meet current codes (think the manufacturing equivalent of SOX, HIPAA and whatever the politicians are about to do to the financial sector). My Elbonian made Char-Nobyl 8000 toaster oven, finally arrived (long past due, as often happens in software system replacement). We had to measure and mount the heat shield as well as mate the oven to the mount (application infrastructure). The instructions turned out to be wrong. I could not reuse the existing mounting equipment. Matching up the supplied components was problematic. Poor design, poor build, poor execution and dodgy installer.

Now we get to use the oven. My first thought: why is my toaster oven plastered with English, Spanish and French instruction and warnings? I bought it in Chicago, not Paris or Buenos Aires. This is the small electronics world equivalent to the user interface. It’s annoying (sure I’m ethnocentric, but a Frenchman and Argentinian would say the same: they didn’t buy a toaster in Chicago).

Now I want to toast a bagel. Simple task: insert bagel; set darkness; start the job; repeat as desired (or ‘insérer bagel; set obscurité; démarrer le poste de répétition comme souhaité’). It’s not that simple with this toaster oven. This baby comes with a plethora of dials. First you set the darkness level. Then you rotate a knob clockwise, then counterclockwise. The third step is to wait for the light to turn green (which, for some reason, turns blue instead). Finally I push the button to ‘launch my bagel into orbit’. Success! I toast another and it’s burnt. Turns out I need to recalibrate my darkness level with each toasting to avoid burning. At least it doesn’t belch smoke.

This is a good metaphor for the weakness of IT applications: we toss in every conceivable feature, the UI is unnatural, the instructions are off, the business rules are mercurial… you get the idea.

How do we make a better toaster oven? Consider the past and the trade-offs. Do we need to replace the heat shield and mounting locations? Can we at least use the same bolt layout? Do we need the languages? Do I need this degree of globalization? What about the UI, why have the extra dial? Why can’t the oven maintain a regulated temperature? In IT we tend to design what we think we need, not what our customer needs.

Asking the customer is no guarantee of success. We’re still likely to end up with dozens of ideas, many of them contradictory or just plain bad. A few gems may exist among amongst the cruft, but they are sometimes difficult to distinguish. We may even avoid considering customers or users who have a propensity to complain.

So where does that leave us? We must look to the past. Just because an idea is old doesn’t mean it’s stale. Consider this story in the context of today’s web 2.0. In the late nineties, I worked with Digital Equipment Corp (DEC) systems. I once chatted up a DEC field SE about the reliability of their hardware. He proudly told the story of a 911 emergency system that had been running on a VMS (a real operating system) cluster (DEC invented the technology) for 16 years with zero downtime. The design was thoughtfully centered on what the user required and what the technologist could do. Yes, they periodically refreshed the software and the operating system. All this was done without bringing the application down. Try that with today’s technology mix and applications. Would you want a 911 system running on a cloud or web 2.0?

Here’s another example. Remember the really cool chairs in the 1960’s sci-fi movies. In all our sophistication, we mocked the strange designs. Surely they had to joke (OK, they were being serious, but the design did not age well) that anyone would use such a contrivance. Well forty years later, I’m at a state of the art (opened three days earlier) corporate video conference center for a $34b company. What’s the first thing I noticed, after the three HD armed cameramen and thirty foot projector setup that put IMAX to shame? I see these wild-looking chairs that could have come from 2001: A Space Odyssey or Logan’s Run.

So what can we glean from my tales? First, the problems we see today have analogues in the past. A lack of historical perspective in our current crop of technologists hampers good problem solving (Action item: crack open a VMS manual to steal some ideas). Two, our solutions are too often divorced from the use case. Our users are not forthcoming in what they want nor do they fully appreciate what they need. We must crawl into their heads to understand what is required and build from those use cases. I say use cases deliberately: we don’t need pretty interface ideas. We do need to value the UI, but we can't simply put out something shiny and think that's the end of it. Form must follow function, which means we must first understand the function. We need to know how they do their jobs today and how the tool we are building will help them do it. Three, we are making software that is too difficult to use. Consider the toaster oven. Why the abrupt disconnect from the past? If your users are coming from 3270 terminal land or fat client world, our objective is to make lives easier with technology, not to simply require users to change from one technology to another. Finally, consider the plumbing. Are we proposing a more reliable solution than the customer has or are we opening ourselves to reliability and performance grief?

So crack open those old manuals, play with some assembly code and enjoy some classic sci-fi movies this weekend. On Monday you can start looking at use cases. By Friday you might be able to deliver some ‘change’ that doesn’t ‘look’ like change and make change resistant users think they came up with it.

About John Kehoe: John is a performance technologist plying his dark craft since the early nineties. John has a penchant for parenthetical editorializing, puns and mixed metaphors (sorry). You can reach John at

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Pettit - Come the Hour, Come the Leaders

By Ross Pettit - 21 January 2009

It’s pretty obvious by now that we’re not in an ordinary downturn. The US Federal Reserve and the Bank of England have invested well over $1 trillion propping up their respective financial services sectors, and every indication is that there is more yet to be spent on asset purchases and guarantees. For all intents and purposes, the domestic US auto industry has failed (with, as of this writing, the notable exception of Ford Motor). The Baltic Dry index has fallen 96% from its peak and there are indications that global container shipping is effectively free. Deflationary forces – with which few of us have any first hand experience – are evident in everything including volumes, prices, salaries, staffing levels and asset values. Add to the landscape completely unexpected large-scale incidents of fraud such as Satyam and Madoff and there is no denying that we live in very challenging times, with few precedents or patterns.

The headlines today are dominated by bailouts. Before long, they’ll be about bankruptcies. This will create a new business landscape, the shape of which none of us can fully predict. One thing we do know is that before the dust settles, businesses both healthy and unhealthy will have to go about the task of restructuring.

Restructuring will extend to IT. IT can keep pace and perhaps even get slightly ahead of the trend. But that requires leadership, and leaders are in short supply in all areas of business. This is obvious from the predominance of two common attitudes: complacency and elective ignorance.

First is complacency, often bordering on denial. There are quite a few people taking a “wait and see” attitude, believing that the economic situation isn’t as bad as is being reported (lots of business is still being transacted), governments are stepping in (weren’t we taught in history class there could never be another “great depression?”), there’s been a change in US leadership, and so forth. The prevailing attitude in this camp is that the economy will work itself out and that businesses are not at wholesale risk.

There are also a fair few willing to ignore what's happening, electing to focus exclusively on execution. Since none of us control the economy, the thinking goes, better that we just get on with the things we do control, such as day-to-day execution. We need to step up our efforts and fight the good fight. Times will be tough, but putting our nose to the grindstone will see us through. Cut costs. Sacrifice. Be positive and optimistic.

In the current economic context, both of these attitudes are acts of capitulation. They substitute “hope” and “aggressiveness” for genuine leadership.

As leaders of IT organizations, we’re several steps removed from the line-of-business of our partners, making it difficult for us to be true business leaders. It also places us in a vulnerable situation: if IT is perceived as a utility (and not a strategic partner) we’re seen as a draw on revenues rather than a core competency in long-term success. The CEO and the board won’t look to us for strategic contribution as much as they’ll look for a budget request consistent with the deflationary times.

This is a frustrating environment in which to try to lead as traditional market and operational moves are acts of blind faith or wild ambition. What we can do today to provide leadership for our business partners and our teams?

  • Have a firm but malleable business vision founded in facts.
  • Pick a timeframe that can be monitored and adjusted.
  • Restructure operations for responsiveness.

Here are six practical things we can do to execute a leadership agenda.

  1. Vision: We must forecast a bottom for our business / industry. Relax: any forecast we make is going to be wrong. The point isn’t to be precicely accurate, but to define a floor against which we can reconcile and explain all of the business decisions we will face in the coming months. That floor must be something we arrive at independently, by analyzing the data (macro and micro) at our disposal. It is important that we process every bit of economic data and filter signal from noise, fact from emotion. We cannot selectively pick facts nor emotionally align with an outcome that we would like to be true. If we preface any replay of our analysis with “I believe..." we have failed this test.
  2. Timeframe: We must choose the indicators that we’ll use to monitor and adjust the timing (and the details!) of our forecast. Not only is it important that we forecast a bottom, we must get our fignernails dirty with the data. This will allow us to ascertain whether reality is evolving toward or away from our predicted future state, and give a reasonable time horizon to adjust our execution. To do this, we need data. Headliners such as the S&P 500 and FTSE 500 are interesting, but can bake in stale data such as last quarter’s sales or dividend forecast. Look to leading indicators of economic activity. For example, if we’re heavily exposed to consumer spending, we can look to the Baltic Dry index to see when global trade starts to show sustainable signs of life. Or if we're close to construction or financial services, we can look to see when the Case-Shiller index shows that house values are again consistent with rates of income growth as they were prior to 2003. Better yet, we can create our own composite index out of key indicators specific to our situation, such as the enterprise value or the percentage of toxic-to-tangible assets of our customers.
  3. Vision: We must be specific and direct with everybody – from the board, to the CEO and CFO, to our business peers, to everybody in our teams – about what the data is telling us. Does it appear that our business is shaping up to be a predator, a buyout target, or in a different business entirely? Figure out the business needs that IT must satisfy to support the company that will emerge on the other side, and make sure we are in full agreement with our busienss partners. We must articulate a decoupled vision so that we can explain and focus efforts on the right problem at the right time. We can encourage people to take the initiative in acquiring new skills in alignment with that vision. The data may be negative and it may not make people very happy, but how we act and prepare, and how we explain our actions and preparations, inspires confidence more than all the rah-rah optimism in the world will ever achieve.
  4. Restructuring: We must change the way we work to maximise responsiveness. We cannot predict when recovery will happen or what form that recovery will take. Cutting costs to withstand a downturn in the hope that recovery is around the corner (and with it a return to business as usual) is not leadership. Being sustainably responsive to whatever the economy, the market, governments and the competition deals us is leadership. We can act very boldly to eliminate situational complexity, unaligned gatekeepers, and any other obstacles that make it difficult to get things done. We can also look very closely at Lean principles to not only eliminate waste but to make sure effort is directed toward results.
  5. Restructuring: We must take a long, hard look at the portfolio for any self-targeted missiles. The one thing that will undermine our leadership in the eyes of our business partners is if we are blindsided by something that is in our control. Especially in difficult times, people will do things to contain bad news in the fear of losing their jobs, so we must be vigilent: do we have any projects that could surprise us with a spectacular collapse? Is Bernie Madoff one of our project managers (or worse, our project portfolio manager?) We need to find out now. Right now. We can do this by bringing unrestricted transparency to our projects.
  6. Restructuring: We must identify the top 3 capabilities that will be the most valuable in our future and patiently pursue them. Perhaps our organization has a deficiency in project management, or we envison changing from a custom appdev shop into an integration shop. We can take some long but lightweight positions in these different capabilities. For one thing, we can look internally and identify the people in whom we want to invest for skill development. We can look externally as well: labor supply outweighs demand, so this is an opportune time to advertise for new hires. We can also partner for capability: plenty of firms are coming to grips with the same set of challenges, so there's no need to go it alone. Above all else, we must take our time and make sure we get the right people under the right circumstances. And we mustn't assume that we'll recognize the right people or the right circumstnace especially if we've no experience or a poor track record of acquiring it. We must invest in developing interviewing techniques, and be aggressive but fair in defining terms and opportunities for partners.

This isn't easy to execute. A lot of people in IT lack business fundamentals and may struggle to understand our goals and objectives. We will make mistakes and suffer setbacks. And it can be difficult to explain to people engaged in daily firefighting why this demands attention. But going off in a fit of blind execution is economic "trench warfare," a tactic that has a history of unpleasant consequences. Survival may be at the front of our minds, but as leaders we must be able to articulate a future that is more than just survival. Many IT organizations "survived" the downturn of 2001-3 but never fully "recovered," underperforming for their business partners in the years that followed. We can't ignore threats to survival, but we must restructure and reorganize with informed preparedness, leading toward some vision - even if a bit inconclusive on the details just yet - of a transformed destination. To realize that vision, we're going to need every oar in the water, so it is best that we treat our people with respect and give them full disclosure of our vision and expectation, and the opportunity to take the initiative in sharing in its fulfillment.

At a time when a lot of businesses are on fire, this sounds like a lot of etherial work. And there is no denying that we’re in for a lot of long days and long nights, sacrifices and hard decisions just to stay on top of operations. But this isn’t the time to be tactical. Playing the hand we're dealt and hoping for the best, or simply executing pell-mell in the expectation that something good will come of it, abdicates leadership at the time it is needed the most. Businesses don’t need administrators doubling down on the same techniques, they need leaders ready to invent and innovate in a different and as of yet unknown commercial landscape. Making the effort to shape our situation relative to an informed, forward-looking business context will give us that much more of an opportunity to determine our futures.

About Ross Pettit: Ross has over 15 years' experience as a developer, project manager, and program manager working on enterprise applications. A former COO, Managing Director, and CTO, he also brings extensive experience managing distributed development operations and global consulting companies. His industry background includes investment and retail banking, insurance, manufacturing, distribution, media, utilities, market research and government. He has most recently consulted to global financial services and media companies on transformation programs, with an emphasis on metrics and measurement. Ross is a frequent speaker and active blogger on topics of IT management, governance and innovation. He is also the editor of