SaaS and the Enterprise

I hate desktop software. Every new application is a potential conflict with mission critical software. Then you have the effort of installing and updating. It is a terrible model for the enterprise. Wherever possible I am looking for Software as a Service (SaaS) option.

Adobe has a potentially great service in their CreatePDF SaaS offering (once they add the ability to manipuate PDFs online). The need to create and manipulate PDFs is wide-spread in my organization, but I don’t want to take on the burden of installing Acrobat or some similar app on hundreds of desktops.

Unfortunately Adobe is rolling CreatePDF as a consumer offering. A separate credit card for each use is not a model that works for the enterprise. People like me would be lining up for this service if there were a front-end where our Provisioning team could easily add and remove users and we could receive a quarterly invoice based on the number of users.

I think Adobe is missing the boat. DropBox is another cool app that does not have an enterprise model ( seems like a good enterprise alternative).

Attitude Adjustment

My car was being repaired on Wednesday, so I took the bus home from work. Fortunately, the main bus terminal is one block from our IT offices in Appleton. Unfortunately, the closest the bus gets to my house is over a mile a way.

I jumped on the bus looking forward to getting a little exercise with a crisp fall walk. By the bus arrived at my stop it was snowing hard and snow was accumulating on the sidewalk. I was feeling so sorry for myself I almost didn’t notice the person that got off the bus at the same time. When I did, he was smiling and trying to catch my attention. I returned the smile he went on to tell me that he was so happy to see the snow.  It turns out he is a college student, on an exchange program from Guatemala, learning Business and English. He had never seen snow before. We shared much of the same path and time and weather seemed to disappear from my list of concerns as we had a pleasant conversation as we walked. Seeing his joy in what I was dreading completely changed my attitude.

At work attitudes are so powerful. Not only does a manager set the tone with their attitude and non-verbal signals. But all employees’ attitudes have so much influence over how a meeting is perceived. I value every employee’s opinion and when they appear uninterested or disagreeable, I cannot help be affected by that. Luckily, the folks I work with are supportive people.

Being a good listener and bringing a sense of excitement to your work is powerful. When I was relatively new to the workforce I remember listening to a fellow employee present some information. Whenever she missed a fact I would shake my head no. After a while I realized this was having a negative on her presentation (duh). Since then I always try to be a good listener. If someone is presenting and I am not expected to engage them in dialogue, I look them in the eye, I shake my head affirmatively and I smile. I know this puts people at ease which allows them to be their best.

6 Management Lessons I Learned by Watching Tabatha’s Salon Takeover

I am in the process of a significant IT Reorganization.  The goals of the reorganization are:

  1. make IT Operations more reliable and
  2. improve the overall efficiency of the IT team so we can complete more projects (the demand keeps increasing).

One of the new IT leadership positions is a supervisor to manage the work of support techs in each of our 5 IT regions. As you would expect, the candidates are primarily the existing support techs. I have had the greatest time talking to these men and women about their interest in the position and their ideas to provide end users with a better service. They are talented, bright, optimistic people.  It has been a real energy boost for me.

For all of their raw talent, most are new to management. Providing them good mentorship will be key to their success.

Now there are libraries filled with books on management philosophies. But, that would require me to travel to a library, or to read a book.  Instead, I chose to watch some reality TV on Bravo. Tabatha’s Salon Takeover follows “celebrity hair stylist”, Tabitha, as she travels across the country helping struggling salons. It is my guilty pleasure.

The owners of these salons are usually in deep debt and losing money. Much of what Tabatha does is address poor management, including bad employee supervision.  The salon employees always have the same concerns, and as such, these have become the basis for my primer for supervising people for first-time managers:

  1. Employees want their manager to be present. There are various approaches to being present, some more effective than others. As Studer disciples will attest, effective rounding is a great tool.
  2. Employees want regular staff meeting where managers can communicate the big picture and where things are going.
  3. Employees want clearly defined, preferably written and measurable, performance expectations.
  4. Employees want opportunities for growth, including a plan for their continued education.
  5. Employees want feedback regarding their performance. They want to know when they are not meeting expectations and they REALLY want recognition for good work. Sending employees hand-written thank you notes is a Studer “must-have”.
  6. Employees want to be treated fairly. While low performers are often the biggest complainers about fairness, it is the high performers that are demotivated when they are treated the same as low performers. The Studer Group has great strategies for determining High, Middle and Low Performers and how to manage each group.

Should I tell our new managers to watch Tabitha’s Salon Takeover? Maybe that is not the best conclusion.  I think the real lesson is that inspiration to be a better manager is everywhere. If you are passionate about being better at something, think about it throughout the course of your day and it will find you.

The Magic Answer

Every good geek (and Google) knows that the answer to life and everything is 42.  This is a famous line from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

But it seems like there is a more sensible magic answer: In order for things to go well, there needs to be a high level of specification.

Yes, ambiguity kills.  In fact, it literally kills according to a study by Spear and Schmidhofer that was recently published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.  The authors found that high performing organizations achieve results “by specifying how work is expected to proceed—who will do what for whom, with what purpose, when, where, and how—before work is actually done. Then, when anything contrary to expectations occurs, it is immediately identified as a problem.

Medication errors may be one of the most critical examples where a high level of specification is needed.  But, I run into this everywhere.

This year I brought in consultant Kevin Behr to analyze our IT Operations.  The single most significant finding is the IT Operations in my organization suffers because of a lack of definition.  When everyone is left to define how work gets done there is bound to be mistakes and mis-connects.  Our organization needs to dedicate time to evaluating what we are doing and how it needs to be done.  All work must be EXPLICITLY defined, otherwise talented people (like I am blessed with) can’t achieve their full potential.

I believe my organizations do a superb job of running large and complex projects.  That is because we spend so much time defining the right process, then learning from our mistakes and re-defining our methodologies.

Job descriptions are the same way.  If you are not explicit about a person’s role and what they are expected to produce you should expect to get something unsatisfactory.

How many times have your interfaces gone through multiple re-writes because you did not have a high degree of specification when you started working on them?

Is this so basic that it is not worth a blog post?  If so, why do I see so little definition of work or processes to a high level of specification?


Ministry’s approach to product updates has changed over the years.  Previously, we endeavored to take all upgrades as they became available.  Recently, we have taken a different approach.  Our IT resources are scarce and demand is high.  We have to have a compelling reason to commit resources to any effort.  We now postpone upgrades unless there is a compelling reason such as a new feature with a significant ROI; remediation of a painful problem; or end of support for the current version.

The existing version of any application has hundreds of features that we are not leveraging.  So, stating that newer is better is not sufficient rationale.

This philosophy applies to desktop software (Office, Windows) and enterprise applications (Meditech, GE Centricity, Picis).

What’s your approach?

My Management Philosophy on Feedback

Recently, we got a glimpse into internal emails sent by Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.  They were both to a large audience and both were critical of internal efforts.  I found these to be reassuring in that they seem to echo my own personal philosophy regarding employee feedback:  Be candid, tell people (individually or collectively) when they do a good job and tell them when they don’t meet your expectations.

I prefer to give feedback direclty to the people, even if there are levels of management between us.  To some people this may be a bit of a shock.  In my experience many managers have trouble giving people negative feedback.  But I believe people need to understand what is expected and how they need to improve to meet expectations.  Hearing it directly from me has additional weight and ensures nothing is lost through intermediaries.

Of course there are a number of amazing things being done at Affinity and Ministry every day.  I try to thank people for their extraordinary efforts.  It is hard to recognize all of the good work.  It is one of the most challenging things in a division of 200+ people.

Random Thoughts to Start 2008

{ Good morning 2008 *~
Originally uploaded by » GUM «

My New Year’s resolutions:

  • Run more
  • Post more

So far, post more is ahead of run more.

Books I am reading:

The whole concept of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is wasted energy. I can’t believe that there are books, conferences and gigabytes of web pages dedicated to the idea of gaming the google page ranking system. All of that energy should be spent on creating compelling content that people want to read.

I got my wife and daughter a MacBook for Christmas. They want to create some videos. So, I also got them a Flip video camera that stores all of the video in solid state memory. This was going to be the ultimate in easy movie creation. Except, the iMovie 08 does not import the .avi files that the Flip camera creates. The previous version of iMovie did this, butI guess the Apple folks decided this would be a good thing to remove in the latest version. So, now I have to teach them how to convert the video. What was going to be simple is now complex. Why is my home life so much like my work life?

I upgraded my PC running Windows Vista with a new hard drive. My plan was to store all of the data files on one drive and to keep the OS and applications on the existing drive. This was easy in XP, you simply right clicked on the Documents folder and changed the target location. But the data folder structure has changed in Vista. The top data folder is called Users. There is no easy way to move Users and all of the sub-folders to a new location. I have seen some ways to do it through registry changes, but it was too complex, time-consuming, and risky. My new drive is sitting empty in hopes that Microsoft will address this. I guess this is just another reason to avoid Vista.

One more home electronics rant…when will gadget makers realize that tiny raised icons on black background is not the way to sell to those of us over 40 that can afford to buy them?

I report to General Counsel

Over the years there has been a lot of debate regarding where the CIO should report. Most of the noise comes from CIOs that determine their self-worth by reporting to the CEO. I know this, because I used to be this way. But, the CEO is not always the best person. I now strongly believe that this is dependent on the organization and the leaders. There are very few generalities one can apply to this topic. The best example is here at Ministry. I report to the General Counsel. Now, this is very mis-leading. Our General Counsel, Ron Mohorek, is a top executive that just happens to be lawyer by education. Because of that background he is naturally in charge of legal matters. But, his greatest contribution to the organization is his ability to be strategic and tactical. This is where he spends most of his time.

Legal and IT matters are very similar. In both disciplines there is a temptation to hand over a business matter to the lawyer or the IT guy. In both cases this usually results in disappointment, especially when the business leader is not clear on what they are trying to accomplish.  Ron’s understanding of this greatly advances my cause to keep the accountability for IT initiatives out of IT (except the technical stuff).

At Affinity I do report to the CEO. And, this seems to be the best fit for that organization. I would love to hear your thoughts.

Tech Hiring Thoughts

I am in the process of filling a position and it generated some thoughts about tech hiring that I wanted to share.

This position is a part-time position that can be done from one’s home. I have been overwhelmed by the quality of the candidates that this position has attracted. Many of these candidates are moms that are looking to adjust their work-life balance. It strikes me that there is a largely untapped market of talented women professionals that are looking for these part-time, telecommuting positions. With the invent of broadband Internet access, WebEx and other web 2.0 collaboration tools there is no reason for many of our employees to come into the office.

My other observation is about how candidates prepare for interviews. I cannot imagine going into an interview without doing my research on Google. It just speaks to the candidates proactive nature. When candidates tell me that they found this blog they get bonus points. If they are totally unaware of our organization it tells me that they didn’t even bother to go to our corporate web site. That would be hard for me to get past.

For future candidates that have found this blog, here are some tips for interviewing, especially me:

  • laugh at my jokes
  • be a good listener, most people will tell you what to say before they ask you the question
  • bring samples of your work such as copies of reports, presentations, writing samples, etc.
  • show me that you are technologically savvy.
  • show me you are a self-learner
  • be personable – people want to hire people they like

Better usability, not more training

I have a vendor of HR and Time/Attendance software that does not have a clue when it comes to software usability.  Whenever we point out how difficult their software is to use, they are fond of telling us that these are “user training issues.”

Classic example: we were attempting to roll-out the first generation of their online employment application.  Employment candidates could not figure out how to save their entry.  It wasn’t apparent that the small floppy disk icon in the upper left corner was the submit button.  Firstly, the submit button should not be in the upper left.  Secondly, many of our candidates have never seen a floppy disk.

When we pointed this out they gave us response that has been programmed into their autonomic system since orientation: “That is a training issue.” Hello, these are people spread all across the country.  How do we train them to fill out a 5-minute application?

The fact is, you don’t need to train people on software that is designed well.  Nobody gets trained on eBay, or Monster, or Digg.  They are intuitive.  These organizations spend time watching how users interact with their tools and modify them based on what they learn.  If you are a software developer and you have the same people working on the presentation layer of the application as the logic layer you need to get a clue.  If you have an extra clue send it to me and I will forward it to my vendor.

This is an area where I have spent more evaluation time when considering a new purchase.  There is a huge cost to all of this user training that is completely unnecessary.  I would encourage IT leaders to make this a more heavily weighted portion of their evaluations going forward.