Friday, September 05, 2008

Leading From The Middle: Implementation Consulting

Implementation consulting is often about arbitration. It's about being in the middle. It's about lobbying. It's about communication. And, ironically, it's about leadership.

Implementation consultants are not usually in top leadership positions within their companies. But by virtue of representing the supplier to the customer and representing the customer to the supplier, ICs are often in the thick of things when it comes to determining what works and what doesn't work, both from the customer perspective and the supplier perspective.

That's especially the case if the supplier is a SaaS (software as a service) vendor. In a SaaS environment, implementation consultants don't need to be as concerned about the hardware and software infrastructure or publishing of applications to the desktop as those outside the SaaS universe. Their concern is more about guiding customers in the proper use of the system, discovering gaps in business processes, relaying opportunities for service improvements back to the supplier, and keeping the deployment on time and in budget.

Use Cases and Use Scenarios

Successful implementation of SaaS solutions to customers depends on many things, one of which is having an arsenal of use cases available to describe the precise steps in accomplishing a task, whether those steps are part of the core functionality of the system or workarounds designed to accommodate gaps in the feature set.

I have mixed feelings about use cases. On the one hand, they're useful abstractions of what to do in specific situations. They detail precisely the how of getting specific tasks accomplished in a specific environment. But they aren't so good at the why. The reason why one might follow these precise series of steps is usually not documented in a typical use case.

This is where use scenarios come to the rescue. Here is where an implementation consultant can lead by example. Instead of abstractions, the use scenario employs a narrative giving the entire context from the customer perspective. There can be several scenarios for a particular use case depending on the actor involved, their motivations, time constraints, knowledge of the system, and other constraints. Clearly, use scenarios are more like screen plays, while use cases are more like "some assembly required" instructions for "do it yourself" retail products.

When the implementation consultant documents use scenarios, he/she is taking the lead in making the use case more useful to the customer as well as explaining to the supplier the full customer experience of the software. Leading by example in this situation is obviously very useful to both interest groups.

Scenario Exercises

Something else related to scenarios has landed on my radar screen recently. Business schools are starting to add another tool to the standard case studies used to teach business analysis. In an environment where foresight and agility are as critical success factors as the ability to analyze a market or campaign, scenario exercises may be just the ticket required to help SaaS suppliers further develop leadership potential in their employee ranks.

One example is the Compass Exercise mentioned by Paul Bracken in his excellent article, "Futurizing Business Education". Taking staff members through the north, south, east, and west compass points as symbolic representations of your superiors, your staff, your colleagues, and those with whom you work outside your company is just the start of the exercise. Then you intentionally encourage those present in this brainstorming type session to break out of standard North-South, East-West thinking patterns. For example, adding features to a SaaS offering is sometimes best accomplished by talking to your customers directly, encouraging them to talk about specific issues with other colleagues in your organization, then using that context to make your pitch to upper management for those features that you want in the next release. This is just one more example of "leading from the middle".

"Seeing the elephant" is another brainstorming scenario exercise in which the point is breaking down silos between departments. The idea is to assign people to break-out groups that examine a scenario from the perspective of a particular set of actors - investors, analysts, managers, executives, etc. Then when they reconvene with the larger group they make their pitch for that particular perspective. The object is to encourage participants to move outside their narrow departmental focus, to acknowledge other perspectives, and then to attempt to align those perspectives in achieving a corporate objective.

I have the good fortune to work in an organization that encourages leading from the middle. But even in the best of situations, it's smart to remind everyone about scenarios, to encourage agility and foresight, to tackle ideas and perspectives outside ordinary day-to-day duties. The great thing, as Paul Bracken argues, is that these skills can be taught.

Friday, June 20, 2008

A New Microsoft Approach to User Groups

The Waterloo Wellington IT Professionals is getting geared up for the end-of-season community launch this coming Monday evening, hosted at Conestoga College. We'll be highlighting new features in seminal products like Windows Server 2008, SQL Server 2008, and specific technologies like Hyper-V. We needed the larger venue provided by the college and an extra hour's time (starting at 6:00 pm, instead of 7:00 pm and continuing to 9:00 pm) to accommodate those registered for this event.

We might want to save a few moments in our announcements to give our user group community of IT professionals a "heads-up" on Microsoft will be supporting user groups in the future. Working cooperatively with Culminis, Microsoft will be establishing a volunteer-based organization similar in structure to INETA with regional advisory boards. In the first year of operation, board members will be appointed, but within that first year, expect to see board members elected by their regional user group communities.

The structural change and alignment of models with INETA is significant in itself. It means that Microsoft will be stepping up directly in the provision of services such as

  • event support
  • development of the user group community
  • delivery of content
  • recognition and reporting to/from user groups
  • support for newsletter publication

While the newly structured Culminis and continuing INETA will benefit from this reorganization, other user groups like PASS and those just forming that don't fit the mold of IT Pros or developers will now have potential support from Microsoft directly for their endeavours.

Personally, I think this is a win-win-win scenario for Microsoft, Culminis, and the user group community in general. Volunteer-based boards are adaptive and driven directly by the issues which surface from interaction with members of user groups. They tend to have their fingers on the pulse of the community and are responsive to their needs. They move quickly, usually democratically, and provide immediate opportunities for professional development and leadership.

I look forward to this new development and supportive structure.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Jerry Stiller Offered Me A Job

Not really. It was all a dream...actually a kind of comedic nightmare, the kind that occurs after the nightly 4:30 am trip to the washroom.

I was asked to come to provide some IT help for a former employer after regular hours with my current employer. Being the helpful kind of IT guy that I am, I dutifully went into the building that resembled no building I have ever worked in before. Again, unlike any place I know of today, there was no security - no sign-in, no name tags, no being escorted to the data centre, no "least privilege" permission settings on a "need-to-know-only" basis. Nothing except, "Hi, Don. How are you? How's the new job going? Man, do we ever need your help with this antiquated system."

So, I head over to a stand-up terminal that is comprised of nothing other than a miniscule monochrome green screen - about 4" x 4" - and a glorified calculator entry pad that keeps slipping down a tilted desk, losing about 60% of the keystrokes I make.

People keep walking by, interrupting me continually with good natured "Hello, how are you", "How are your sons?", and "I bet you miss us, eh?". Eventually, after at least 30 minutes of farting around with the useless keypad, I've fixed the anomaly and am heading out. One person stops and asks if I used the command menu or the new shell to fix the legacy operating system (which will mean nothing to you unless you have used something like DOS in a prior life and old command-line screens). "No, that station's OS didn't have access." Clearly, I'm feeling frustrated and so glad that I don't have to handle issues like this anymore.

But as I get prepared to leave, Jerry Stiller calls me over to a sliding window. He is the company's accountant and acting HR manager and he wants to offer me a job.

Now, if you've ever watched Seinfeld or The King of Queen's, you'll know precisely the kind of character he presented in my dream. Slightly obnoxious, a bit of a mean streak, loud, inattentive, driven by his own demons, not really involved in anyone else's world. Comic, yet the stuff of nightmare encounters as well.

He hands me a one-page summary of the offer, scribbled out on a hand-written document summarizing the salary and "benefits". The salary is modest, but one of the benefits is a full tank of gas for my car each week. I didn't have the heart to tell him I was now driving a hybrid.

We argue about the terms of employment while other employees walk back and forth around us, absolutely no privacy, all the while Stiller becoming more and more agitated that I am actually not too impressed with the offer. Finally, he decides he's had enough of not being appreciated for his magnanimous offer, takes back the job offer, and hands me a certificate of appreciation for my past service at the company. The only problem is that the certificate is torn about half way down the page.

"Sorry, there was a problem with the printer and I didn't have time to fix it or print another copy." Half-hearted, inconsiderate, totally without meaningful intent...again, true to the character he often portrays in TV sitcoms.

I laugh, taking the certificate with me waiting to tell my wife about my job offer. That's when I wake up for the next trip to the washroom.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Information Overload - Our Evolutionary Legacy

I helped a colleague with a minor programming issue this week. She wanted to zero-pad a list of hundreds of numbers, so I offered to do so with some Visual Basic for Applications code. During lunch break, I figured out a simple one-line VBA function that could be called in a range in Excel 2003 to do the dirty work that would have taken a long time to do manually. I was clearly pleased with the result.

She noticed the kick I got out of the task. As I thought later about the incident, it occurred to me that this was an example of a perennial motivation that led me to and keeps me in the IT field. Information technology is about dull or repetitive tasks that can be automated once one figures out the appropriate tool or procedures to solve the problem. True, defining the nature and scope of the problem is a critical first step, an exercise which can be incredibly frustrating. But once the problem definition is complete and brainstorming solutions begins, it is usually only a matter of time before one can look down in pride upon a newly minted tool or routine which successfully automates something which was either incredibly tedious or time-consuming before the exercise.

While not everyone gets enjoyment from information technology puzzles and solutions - that part may owe something to temperament and personal competencies - it appears that we are all wired in evolutionary biological terms to be curious, to seek out new information about our environment, and to get simple enjoyment out of solving a puzzle. Irving Biederman, a neuroscientist doing research at the University of Southern California in 2006, discovered that comprehension of a solution to a puzzle triggered a cascade of brain chemicals that have heroin-like properties, hence the "buzz" associated with "getting" it.

When we think about this in terms of evolutionary history, it becomes clear that the desire for a "fix" we get from the quest for information is only superceded by other, more elemental needs such as hunger, fear or sex. Writing this blog entry in the comfort and safety of my family room's recliner on my notebook computer after consuming a sandwich and munching on some cheese, pickles and crackers, while listening to the sounds of children playing in a neighbour's backyard and occasionally glimpsing the blossoms of fruit trees in my own backyard, it's fairly obvious that most of my more elemental needs have already been met. And while it is true that work can sometimes dredge up elemental needs like avoidance of discomfort, social status, and other stressors, most of the time, the knowledge worker like me gets his or her on-the-job enjoyment from successes in the quest for information.

So what's the problem?

There are really two problems which are so closely associated with one another as to be two sides of the same coin. One is the problem of information overload and the burnout accompanying continual exposure to overload. The other is the necessity of separating noise and meaning in the content we actually consume. But the stress of the latter occurs mainly because of overload. Both noise and overload are growing exponentially, especially for information technology professionals, so if we don't get a handle on the problem, burnout is not only likely, it's inevitable.

The evolutionary adaptations which have worked for us in the past no longer work. In the past, when information needs were less frequent and when the dangers of overload were minimal, being curious about the solution to a problem meant that we found an survival advantage, first over other species, then over other groups and individuals. In simpler times, the colloquial saying "knowledge is power" rang true. When confronted with an information problem, we sought further information to combat our knowledge deficit.

There was always the danger of misinformation or noise in the environment (especially if other people were involved and trying to mislead or misdirect us to their own advantage), but nothing nearly as frequent or voluminous as what we confront today with our notebook computers, the Internet, RSS feeds to our news readers, email, text messaging, cell phones, iPods, cable television and the constant bombardment of advertising in virtually all forms of media.

You see, in evolutionary terms, the inference engine which is the human brain, recognizes patterns and draws inferences quickly, very quickly. But when we are bombarded by too much "noise", when we actively seek out more information that just might be relevant to the problem at hand, and when we can no longer separate meaning from noise and multiple sources - well, it's like drowning. The stress becomes overwhelming.

What we need is a new evolutionary adaptation to deal with "noise", overload, and massive amounts of information. More won't work. Less information, saying "enough is enough", garnering time for reflection and developing patience may now be more important to our success than the techniques upon which we have relied in the past.

What this means in practical terms is learning to say "No". It's learning to relax, taking breaks, spending time on being quiet and alone, refusing to be seduced by each new and "potentially" useful source of information.

It will probably mean taking some risks with focus, developing criteria for separating distractions from useful and trusted information sources, spending more time on developing resources and then ignoring the rest, and relying more frequently on a few "gurus". Instead of opting for plugging in and turning on to email, text messaging, portable entertainment devices and even newspapers and news magazines, we may have to learn to turn them off, to find hobbies, to get appropriate rest, downtime, to eat good food and do our exercises without always watching TV or listening to podcasts.

These new strategies may seem old school to some, but the research is becoming fairly clear that our inbred desire for more information can become counter-productive. And despite what so many of the advertisers tell us these days, "less isn't more; more is more" is just plain wrong. It might have been true once, but it isn't true anymore.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Heroes Happen {everywhere}

Two significant events happened this week which impacted me directly in my chosen field of information technology. One was the CIPS and ICTC Heroes Happen Here Community Connection Event co-sponsored with Microsoft at Conestoga College on Wednesday evening (2-Apr-2008). The other was receiving news that I had been awarded Microsoft's MVP designation in the category of Windows Server Customer Experience for 2008 (my MVP profile is located here).

Events like this have certain prerequisites, one of which is vendor representation and sponsorship. It couldn't really be otherwise. In fact, without Microsoft's involvement, events like this would be far more difficult to organize and to attract attendees. One obvious reason is the swag. You can depend on getting information, sample software, pens, booklets, thumb drives and other assorted goodies at virtually every event. You may not end up using them, but the bag of "stuff" still is an attractor. And some lucky people are always rewarded with door prizes (assuming the event is not too large to make door prizes unmanageable).

But the other key to events having vendor sponsorship may not be as readily noticed but is even more significant - networking with other IT professionals. In the Waterloo Region, for example, information technology professionals number in the thousands. But because we tend to be spread out over thousands of organizations as well, there is a need to see and hear what others are doing and thinking with the same hardware, software, services and architecture. These networking opportunities can either confirm your current practice, or, as is so often the case, open your eyes to other ways of doing things. And, of course, the original attractor in this case is the tools and technology offered by the sponsoring vendor. That's the initial draw, followed by the opportunity to network.

This event had the moniker (promoted throughout similar events in North America and elsewhere) of Heroes Happen {Here}. With IT attracting fewer students out of high school into computer science, systems engineering, and programming in universities and colleges across North America (a legacy, probably, of the Dot Com bust), recognizing and celebrating the contributions of IT professionals becomes even more important. It's true that computer technology is pervasive and that virtually all professions now depend on IT as a commodity (which might also help explain why students are less inclined to view IT as a career choice; after all, everyone has to be knowledgeable to some extent about IT just to get the job done). But the IT men and women in the trenches still deserve recognition.

With IT seen as a commodity by many, recognition outside your place of employment might be critical to your self-esteem. If you're involved in a company where IT is seen as a strategic asset, as a means of establishing a competitive speed-to-market advantage, then your contribution may already be appreciated and recognized internally. But the general public is probably still mystified by what you do and why it is important. Thus, recognition and awards do matter.

And so it was with real pride that I received the Microsoft MVP designation this week. At the same time, events like the one I attended this week and the experience of everyday life in a superb IT organization make me continually aware of just how many heroes there are out there, labouring away and achieving remarkable things, most of the time without the full recognition they deserve. And so I raise my glass both to those, like Microsoft, advancing the profile of IT professionals and to the unsung heroes in the trenches making life and work better {everywhere}.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

A Proud Moment - MVP: Windows Server Customer Experience

I received notice today that I have been awarded a Microsoft MVP in the category of Windows Server Customer Experience. Never having been an MVP before, I'm not exactly sure what to expect, but right now it's just great to have the recognition that some of what I have done to build the IT Pro community in the region of Waterloo has been appreciated. I am especially grateful for the nomination and support of my good friend, colleague, and co-founder of the Waterloo-Wellington IT Professional user group in 2005, Ruth Morton, IT Pro Advisor at Microsoft Canada. If she didn't work for Microsoft, then she would be my first choice as an MVP nominee.

It's funny actually. Now that I've been officially notified, the first thought that comes to mind is "OK, so how can I continue to earn this." The most obvious answer to that question is to continue serving the IT pro community regionally. WWITPRO continues to have excellent leadership with Peter Piluk now serving as President, along with a group of directors who have all served our community for over two years together in our official capacity as executive members.

But there are other opportunities available now as well. Microsoft Canada always needs the participation and advice of IT professionals involved in their respective regional communities, and our local charitable organizations are thrilled to have us working with them. Groups like the Food Bank of Waterloo Region, for instance, will be working with us directly in providing services to those organizations and individuals both contributing to and receiving services from the food bank.

I'll continue with my writing, speaking and professional activities, of course, but I am also looking forward to developing new areas of technical expertise, one of which is to continue learning about and using PowerShell. Building knowledge of SQL Server and C# will also be useful to my employer and to my colleagues within the WWITPRO community. So, I look forward to the next year as a Microsoft MVP - an excellent challenge, honour, and opportunity. This will be a very good year.

Saturday, March 15, 2008


In my capacity as a custom application developer, I've used Visual Basic for Applications ever since 1997. That was the year that Microsoft released the developer edition which introduced VBA into all the Office applications except Outlook which retained VBScript. Prior to that, I had done my coding in Microsoft Access in a macro language called Access Basic, a subset of Visual Basic 2.0's core syntax.

By 2004, I was doing more systems integration and IT management work and found myself doing far less coding in VBA than previously. But now, four years later, I find myself occasionally thrust back into the world of VBA, especially its incarnation in the Office 2003 product line.

Despite the interim in which I did little VBA development, I find the world of VBA comfortable and as productive an environment now as I did then. Once you understand the "basics" of VBA (not too tough, I have to admit), it's really only the object models in the various Office applications that you need to master to become productive in that environment. In other words, moving from Access 2003 to Outlook 2003, PowerPoint 2003, Visio 2003, Word 2003, and Excel 2003 isn't really that big a deal.

But things have changed in technology and in the resources available to Office developers since 2003, even though many corporations are still quite comfortable sticking with Office 2003 for general productivity applications.

Some of the gurus I used to read have moved on, writing less about VBA and more about Visual Studio, .NET, and Visual Studio for Office Tools (VSTO). They've moved on for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that their audience is now developing Office applications not just for departments and small vertical markets but for enterprises and global markets.

When an Office developer moves from a departmental application to an enterprise application, one of the first things they usually face is a request to integrate their Office applications with back-end systems such as SQL Server, SAP, Exchange Server, SharePoint Server, and other assorted server products. When another Office developer moves from small, localized vertical markets to global markets, sometimes the driving force for change is that the market now relies upon web services; in other words, the front-end Office applications are now required to interface with back-end data repositories which deliver massive quantities of data by means of web services, either through the Internet directly or simply through corporate intranets. In both cases - whether its the move from departmental to enterprise applications development, or the move from local verticals to global verticals - the Office application developer is faced with a toolset that no longer measures up to more sophisticated demands.

Enter Visual Studio and Visual Studio Tools for Office (and possibly Visual Studio Tools for Applications).

But herein lies the rub. Yes, sophisticated users are making demands which require new skills sets and integration with more complex back-end services. But almost as many times, requests for Office applications do not involve anything more complex than automating the good old productivity applications that work as well today as they did in 2003. So where does the forward thinking Office application developer spend time? Learning VSTO and .NET programming languages? Or leveraging existing skills and 3rd-party tools which still may meet up to 80% of the market demand?

I know, the quandary isn't new. Whenever new technologies surface, application developers have to decide if and possibly when to migrate.

But now that I function primarily as an implementation consultant, time available for learning new technology is even more limited than ever, meaning that I can't afford to make mistakes about which technology learning paths to follow. So it is with some interest that I came across this interview with Bill Gates at the Office Developers Conference on 12-Feb-2008.

Gates indicated Microsoft's commitment to Office, to Access (including moving features in the next release to SharePoint Server) as well as Visual Studio. He claims to want to do some of his own coding in the area of health applications, but obviously most of his input with Microsoft development teams these days is in the realm of directing architecture initiatives. In other words, there isn't much in the interview which helps a poor implementation consultant like me figure out where to invest his time.

In another video in the spring of 2007 at Software 2007 in Santa Clara, Steve Ballmer talked about integrating Office with back-end services, jokingly suggesting that, as a salesman, PowerPoint was the only mission-critical tool. What's compelling about this video, though, is that it demonstrates convincingly how back-end servers like SharePoint Server 2007 and Communications Server 2007 can be packaged in Office 2007 Office Business Applications (OBA) in a way that obviously improves overall team collaboration and productivity. In that context, it's clear that OBA developers need to use the new tools.

But, again, those in such situations may still be in a substantial minority. So I'm not convinced just yet.

Going even further back in time, Microsoft has stated that VBA will be around for quite some time. It remains in Office 2007 products and will continue to be available in all future 32-bit Office releases. That last part is critical. VBA will not be supported by Microsoft in the 64-bit world except as 32-bit executables. That might not be a big deal for Office applications insofar as allowing VBA-enabled macros and code to survive. What this means for people like me is that I can't base my decision about technology on the forthcoming demise of VBA - that ain't gonna happen for some time yet.

If there is to be some compelling reason for abandoning VBA for Office applications in the short term, it will have to be because of customer demand for features which I can't provide in VBA and/or because of compelling development environments. I still need to be convinced.

Finally, even with the significant strides in VSTO support for Office applications in Office 2007, there is still one huge gap - Access. Maybe it's because VSTO tends to work mainly with back-end data sources or maybe it's because Access developers can still create very robust departmental applications with VBA - whatever the reason, we'll have to wait for yet another release before VSTO will include support for Access.

I guess what this means for me personally, and for many other Office developers, is that we can take our time polishing VBA skills for maybe as long as a couple more years or more, while starting to learn some .NET, Visual Studio and VSTO/VSTA technology as time permits and as markets dictate.