IT Management Blog: my thoughts about putting the "i" in IT

Deny your beliefs - develop quick and dirty

Lately, I have been denying my beliefs.

I have been kicking around with a rugby ball. It bounces everywhere. Hopeless, but that is just the point. The physiotherapist wanted me to do this as part of my rehabilitation of my knee. It's all about the constant sideways movements. At least my son had to laugh. Though he's a little football (soccer) genius (we like to belief so), he kicks around with any type of ball and follows Aussie Rules (AFL) and the rugby codes as well.

image Wikimedia Commons
Because I have been less active, I tried to abstain from my chocolate sprinkles (hagelslag) on bread for breakfast. These are not the horrible tiny bits you get normally in Australia, but the real original Dutch ones. Luckily the supermarket around the corner sells them and that's why I survived for so long here in Australia. General health advise is not to have something sweet for breakfast. So I thought it might be time for me to listen to good advice.

But even worse, lately I have been toying with the thought that quick and dirty development of websites and applications might be a good strategy as long as you have the discipline to use this only for throw away solutions.

Specifically in these day and age where technology platforms and devices come and ago with rapid speed, you need to redo you work for the different platform within no time. If you have to throw it away anyway, why bother to put proper architectures and designs in place?

Today it is the iPhone, tomorrow the iPad and next with will be iDroidBerry(*) or whatever it is that integrates with the latest social networking service. You need to respond quickly not to miss the boat.

The problem with this is that if you don't throw the solution away within a year or so, you end up doing maintenance on the solution which then becomes expensive. I found that usually you hardly put a solution aside within a year. And if you do, usually you do this only partly.

For the cases that I ever ran into these temporary intended solutions, it always turned out that we needed to maintain and enhance it for at least a few years. Some of those were done quick and dirty or we inherited those from others. But we always regretted the quick and dirty approach.

We found also quite often that when development was outsourced the vendor tried to do this within the given time frames sacrificing sound design and architecture. In order to beat competition they quoted low but that meant they could only stay profitable by doing it quick and dirty. Ongoing support usually then became expensive. (One of the reasons, you should be very careful when outsourcing development).

Now when I think about it, quick and dirty might not be such a good solution and I better stick to my belief to deliver well thought through and well designed solutions.

Once my rehabilitation is over I will put the rugby ball to the side and use a proper ball again. This morning I had my hagelslag for breakfast.

(*) Soon to be trade marked by Shane O' Neill.

Green IT does not exist

Though we can do our best to reduce unnecessary use of energy in our data centers, I don't belief that "green IT" exists.

Each time when I hear the term "green IT", I see around me simply more consumption of IT equipment, gadgets and more energy consumption. I just bought a refill pack for soap and had to pour it in the bottle. The idea around those refill packs is that it saves on packaging material. But I wonder how much greener this all actually is. When I was pouring the soap into the bottle I was a bit clumsy and the first lot did not really go into the bottle. That was wasted soap. Then you have the situation that it is difficult to squeeze all of the last bit of the soap out of the refill pack. In total there was quite a bit of waste of the soap. Quite often I feel that packing is made such that it is difficult to get the last bit of material out, resulting in waste but increased sales for the manufacturer.

With IT it is not much different. Buying MS Windows forces you to buy more software such as anti virus software. And you need to upgrade to the latest versions which make your computer run slower which in return will stimulate you to buy a new computer.

I work here on a 10 year old computer. With this I am pretty green, I think. I haven't participated in the race of ongoing production of new computers. When I bought this one, I picked the most powerful that I could find at that time. Over time I did need to upgrade a bit and downgrade some of the software. Turn off and uninstall some unwanted features and software and use it for its original purpose. It means that I don't use it for gaming.

To resolve the gaming needs for my kids, I bought a dedicated game console. Now we have two machines turned on the whole day consuming energy. So how green am I really?

In the corporate environment it is not much different. We are a bit late on replacing PC's in our office. You could say that saves on computer consumption. But because it takes more time to boot your computer in the morning, nearly everybody leaves the computer on overnight.

Our constant need for more IT exceeds any of our attempts to reduce energy consumption and make more energy efficient technology. Our "green" awareness has its limits. When the annual Earth Hour is on, our kids are very energy aware. But a few days later, I have to chase them to turn off the lights in their bedroom before they go to school. The same applies to us as employees. We all think Earth Hour and reduction of energy consumption is good, but as long as it does not mean that we need to turn our computer off a the end of the day.

Saving energy is the responsibility of the guys in the data centre and we don't want to be held responsible for turning off the lights at the end of the day either.

We better be damned good in improving energy efficient technology, because I don't think we have reached our hunger for more technology yet. To be green, we have to replace old technology with modern more energy efficient technology. So we need to produce more and buy more; at least good news for the manufacturers.

And then there is the other side of the production of IT equipment. Key components are created with tantalum which is produced from coltan. And the problem here is with the mining of coltan. Most of this comes from legitimate mining locations around the world but some can come from Congo funding the civil war and threatening the habitat of gorillas. It is not that the IT industry wants to be part of it, but it remains important for us all to be aware such that manufacturers and their suppliers are stimulated to work down the supply chain to stop flow of the material from Congo. It seems difficult to do something about this. Maybe sponsor the World Wildlife Fund.

Plato's Revenge, Part 4: Are we really directing our team?

In many cases we think that we manage and control our teams, but in reality quite often the team manages itself.

I learned that Stephen Hawking wrote a new book "The Grand Design", co written with Leonard Mlodinow. I haven't read it, but I understand that it says that there is not one single reality and that the universe (actually multiple universes) were created spontanously. In other words, no Grand Design. No God. Reality depends on the theoretical model you use. Not much different as I learned long time ago about the paradigm shifts by Thomas Kuhn. Or in other words, our perception of reality depends on the observer and the model he uses to interpret it. And we're back to Plato's Allegory of the Cave and the title of my blog.

Photo by Nasa HQ
I saw on TV a few years ago a documentary about Stephen Hawking. His disease had progressed so far, that communication was sheer impossible for him. Direct writing his thoughts was not possible anymore and he needed to communicate via the tiniest gestures. His assistant who was charged with writing down Stephen's thoughts and theories basically had go guess what he was trying to say. Much trial and error and waiting for confirmation from Stephen on what he had written down was what Stephen intended to say.

In that sense and without knowing too much about the process of how this book came to existence, I have my doubts who is the more important author of the book. I bet that Stephen in his mind for a big part just had to accept all the variations to his intentions and just had to settle for someting that is just "good enough" in order to get the main message across.

Not much different to how we manage our teams.

I have accused our executives often of "managing with their back to the organisation". Their job is pretty much in the outside world and therefore spend limited time with the team in the office. This means that they do not have much control over the day to day operations of the organisation. Or in other words, much of the steering of the organisation is done by the people themselves and the question remains whether we all go in the same direction.

Often I feel that I myself suffer from the same disease. Too often I ask people in my team to do something specific. For example I ask a DBA or developer to document something. Or I have given some clear directions (I think they were clear). But before you know the engineer has been sidetracked because of the many interuptions or the preference to spend the time on the major project he is also working on. It would then be for me to follow up. But I have the same issues: being sidetracked by other urgent matters and subjects that require full attention.

Quite often I realise that my directions have not been implemented exactly as I had in mind or sometimes not implemented at all. In many cases you just have to accept that good is good enough. For certain aspects of our work, it is practically impossible to get things done exactly according to your ideas or style of working. What you do is set the direction but the details are filled in by the team.

Take programming as an example. I have some very specific ideas about programming and system development. But a practical issue is already that I don't have much hands on experience with modern programming languages as Java or C#. I am definitely not going to audit the code the developers create, so I need to rely on my own developers to assure it is done according to best practices. In some cases you might even have arguments with them, but in the end you need to settle for a result. In the end the business outcome is more important and to get the project finished.

But sometimes I can get annoyed. For example, specifically Java developers can be horrible when it comes down to querying databases. One of my team members just improved some search logic from minutes down to seconds. Somebody in the past had decided to retrieve a whole bunch of data that was not really needed. When we built the system years ago, I was already aware of a series of these problems. But in order to get the system delivered on time for critical business deadlines, you are not going delay this with some performance issues (within acceptable range obviously) while you know that the business is going to be extremely happy with what they will get.

When it comes down to programming, I think I fare as blind as Stephen Hawking must have been writing this book. You can postulate some high level directions and then just hope that your team, assistant or co-author will interpret this as you intended. And even if you see that in certain areas this is not the case, to come to a result you need to accept that the team drives itself. And this is normal. You are a manager and you will have many specialists in the team who need to make decisions within their area of expertise. You don't need to do this all. I am always proud of my team (and myself to achieve this), that when I come back from holiday that things usually have progressed as expected and that any issues were dealt with effectively. At least it is not that when I come back, I am suddenly confronted with dramas.

Sometimes we are just fooling ourselves and make ourselves belief how important we are. Governments and politicians quite often think they have much control over the economy and can direct this, but in reality governments only have minimal influence.

There is good and bad in all this. The bad is that there is the risk of chaos if there is a complete lack of control. The good thing is that this allows for the team to come up with ideas and be more creative. In the end, they are hired to think for themselves. You will have more spontanous creation without a grand design.

According to the Design Thinking, by Roger Martin the mix of design and spontaneous creation is ideal for organisations.

Maybe Stephen Hawking needs to allow for a model that allows for the Grand Design as one of the realities. This reality, this universe, will then be a good place for those who belief that God created and designed the world and as such that actually God created that world, that universe, that reality. And a world where I am in full control over what happens in my team and where I can trust our executives to be in full control and where we all work in alignment without our strategy. If I would go on, this world would be an Utopia. A world where you plan your project and it works exactly according to plan. You design your system and it is the most perfect system that your business ever wanted. Maybe it actually exists in one of the parallel realities.

Know your licenses - Oracle e-business suite licensing hell

As a customer you often need to know the vendor's software licensing rules and constructions better than anyone from the vendor.

Take for example Oracle's E-Business Suite. When you buy the EBS, you get in theory the Internet Application Server and the database (DBMS) for 'free' as part of the package. This is the theory. In reality you need to buy a full license for them.

We are faced with the challenge of upgrading from release 11 to release 12. There is the option to buy extended support so we would be able to delay the upgrade with a year or two. To evaluate this option, I asked Oracle what the extended support costs for us would be. We have only one signle installation of the Oracle EBS, so it would be all or nothing. However when you ask the question whether you need to buy extended support for the database and the application server as well, you are directed to others within Oarcle. Nobody within Oracle will have a full and holistic understanding of the licensing. However, you as client are required to know it all.

Image: Creative Commons
So far, it sounds that extended support for the database is not required for the database as long as you make sure the version is on a supported level. From what I gather, the same applies to the application server.

However Oracle writes in its "Oracle Information Driven Support document - Oracle Lifetime Support Policy - Oracle Applications" document:

Extended Support for Release 11.5.10 requires the minimum baseline patches defined in My Oracle Support Document 883202.1. Customers running Oracle Fusion Middleware 10gR2 and 10gR3 in the Oracle E-Business Suite version 12 internal technology stack will remain supported for the duration of the support period for Oracle E-Business Suite 12. All Release 12.0 patches and Critical Patch Updates (CPUs) will only be provided for Release 12.0.4 and above

So if version 12 will be supported till the end of its life on the 10gR2 version, would the same not apply to version 11 of the E-Business Suite? What I recall from the Insync10 sessions, it was said that IAS 10g would still be supported with the EBS 11i. When talking to Oracle, I find that hardly anyone really understands the question and noone can give an answer.

The EBS comes with the Application Server and the database shrink-wrapped for free. Oracle explained very clearly that they do not have any customers who do not have any form of customisation and therefore you always need to buy the database and the application server as well. If Oracle states that IAS 10g will be supported with EBS 11i, then you can assume that your customisations to certain extend will also be supported?

Extended support is 20% of the normal license support fee (which is 20% of the original purchase price of the license).

As part of our license contracts we are licensed for a module that we don't use. Removing this module from the contract would mean that the contract would be opened up and in the end would cost us more than just paying for the module as part of the current contract.
The question arises whether we would need to buy extended support for this module or not. And to answer this you need to know whether it forms part of any of the other Product Families we have: (this link requieres a login to Oracle Support)
Extended Support is available on a product family by product family basis. What this means is Customer can choose to patch one Applications Product Family area, but not another. This allows a Customer to leave areas of the code that might be extensively customized at their current levels, but gives that same Customer the option to receive Extended Support on other modules that are eligible.

And it seems that Oarcle itself has a hard time identifying this ...
Steven Chang explaining about Product Families and Versions.
As far as I'm aware, there is no straightforward means of taking a specific product and traversing "up the tree" to figure out which product family it belongs to. I agree that this would be useful, and will ask internally whether we have information we can publish on this.

The SharePoint Adoption Gap (on: the Distracted Enterprise)

Thirty seven percent refuse to use SharePoint, or use it once a month or less.

A quick and simple post this time which is basically a link to a blog post by Jenna on the "Distracted Enterprise" about the SharePoint adoption gap.

A survey by Usamp on the adoption of SharePoint identified (quoting Jenna):

  • According to a uSamp survey of 317 US business email users, only a third of survey respondents with access to SharePoint use it on a daily basis (1) Thirty seven percent refuse to use SharePoint, or use it once a month or less. Why? People say it takes too much time and effort to search, access, and share documents on SharePoint. From email, they have to switch contexts, juggle multiple browser windows, and learn a whole new way of collaborating.
  • Email remains the #1 business communication and collaboration tool, preferred 2 to 1 over the phone. In fact, 80 percent of survey respondents with SharePoint access resort to email ping pong when it comes to document edits.
Read the article here:

You're not alone!

Forget governance, I want an iPhone!

We have seen that iPhones and iPads have become popular products, firstly for personal use and secondly now within the business context. In our organisation we went through a similar process to ‘adopt’ these devices as I expect as it would have taken place in many other organisations. Though I think that these devices are great products, I just want to reflect on the process of how these devices seem to be rolled out in some organisations. Besides the business reasons, there is that other pull of the new shiny device... Normal governance does not seem to apply to iPhones.

You hear more and more that IT departments are not able to keep up with the speed of how technology and specifically consumer technology changes. I read that about website development including the use of social networking sites and also about all the mobile devices. I don’t really belief that the IT department per se is not able to keep up with the speed of these new developments but that one the one side they are not given the funding and resources to work on these items and that on the other side they bring quite often many practical issues on the table. These issues are usually considered road blocks by management and the business.

When in our organisations the first calls for an iPhone were raised and for good business reasons, we said that we could provide one to a selected few people but that there was a big risk in relation to security. We simply did not have had the time to assess the risks for the network and for the sensitive data on the device itself and find ways to control them. We could do that with the Blackberry which was our standard mobile phone and for the time being advised against iPhone for broader roll out.

This is not much different as it happened in a large organisation in Australia. Management wanted the iPhone but the IT Department raised issues in relation to the risks. The device was however so appealing to management that the response simply was “Give us the phone or else ....”.

It is actually funny to observe how the iPhones with their security risks have been rolled out into organisations. These days auditors are very strict in relation to security and business continuity. Just like many other organisations we have now strict rules around our network security, password policies, etc. When I informally asked our auditors what their position was in relation to the iPhone, I did not get an answer. But what they could tell me was that their management also used iPhones. In other words, the same probably happened there just as in any other organisation: the IT department probably advised against it but that this advice was put aside in favour of the attraction of the new shiny device. So if the auditors can use the device, they would never come with an audit report telling their customers not to use it or that they were not diligent enough with the roll out. Doctor, help yourself!

The problem we run into is that there is this nice shiny device that looks so great and so handy, that any potential risks are put to the side going against any rules and measures put in place to control those risks. In recent years many organisations have focussed on improving policies and security mechanisms to control unauthorised access to data and systems, but these policies don’t seem to apply to iPhones. If the reward is big enough, people are willing to take the risk and simply don’t want to hear about the risks. And the reward here is much the sensation and feeling good, not much different than a drug addiction. The iPhone makes you feel good and increases your status.

My wife is considering an iPhone as well. If I explain that you can get the same from a different brand with the android operating system, she just looks with glary eyes and replies simply that she wants an iPhone. And no wonder, you got to have an iPhone these days to be considered a modern human being. Would you think that 13 and 14 old kids need an iPone? Probably not but the truth is that large number of kids come with an iPhone or iPod Touch at school. On top of my 9 year old daughter’s whish-list is the iPod Touch. But with all these electronic toys, aren’t we spoiling our kids a tat too much? Can’t they just play their games on the Nintendo that was so important to have a year ago? How square can their eyes get? Isn’t there already enough peer pressure and cyber bullying?

The initial risks that we identified with the iPhones was that sensitive data will be stored on the device, specifically because they will be used by the those on the most senior level. This risk is primarily with the loss or theft of the device making all the data on the device is accessible by the new owner. The risk that the phone would be hacked remotely to gain access to the corporate network would exist as well but I considered that risk already much lower but not unrealistic. You’ve spent millions to secure your network from all sides just to open a new door?

To mitigate the risks and provide support to the mobile devices, the helpdesk and some key IT staff need to build up their knowledge and experience and therefore need to use one themselves. Of course they understand the technical risks and you expect them to use it sensibly. It is not unthinkable that some of them are not immune to the attraction of the device. They might opt to access various systems via the device and therefore introduce the real risk for hackers by storing various network addresses with usernames and passwords on the device. That device with its high risk of loss, theft and lack of security will then form a realistic threat to the whole network.

I see this not much different than the use of opium over 100 years ago as a solution for psychiatric problems. The symptoms temporarily disappeared and it made the patient feel good. There was in those insufficient understanding of the risks including the addiction that would follow. In those days many doctors experimented themselves with the drug as well with of course the necessary consequences. Sigmund Freud experimented with cocaine, not only for himself, but also for patients. Doctor, help yourself!

In public places I notice, that I am still one of the happy users of a classic Blackberry and do not have an iPhone. And there is something to say about the iPhone (or equivalent modern device). You can access your Google Maps or run a sat-nav program to give you driving directions. As I said before, I am quite often a big fan of old technology. For driving through Sydney I get by very well with the old fashioned street directory on paper. Specifically when it comes down to the last bit of the drive, I sometimes need to stop and look up the directions again. You might think that a sat-nav is then so much better, but I hear others who have a sat-nav also often say that they were steered in the wrong direction. I think the old technology exercises my brain and keeps it young (I love old technology), but there are of course the odd situations that you wished you had sat-nav with you.

An iPhone is of course a fantastic business tool. Browsing the web, reading emails etc. just became much easier and comfortable. I do belief there is some level of productivity gain and there are many cases where these gains can become significant. Many organisations have staff out in the field and if you can bring the relevant software applications to them on their travels, it is easy to see the benefits. It is easy to develop a business case for it.

But there are also so many instances or aspects of the roll out of those devices that purely are driven by the feel good sensation and I observe that common sense is being put to the side. Whether that is that we give in to our kids or demand as executives what that they give us the latest gadget. We should consider better if this really is the right thing to do or if we should first develop our business case and assess the pros and cons.

Let me make it very clear that I don’t have anything against iPhones! This is not a rant against iPhones. Apple did a fantastic job and finally delivered something that was already anticipated over 10 years ago during the heydays of the Internet boom.

I think that the IT department should be given more time to evaluate such a product and develop their control mechanisms and that you also should give the product itself the time to mature. Over time Apple introduced improved security mechanisms and the question is whether you should give it a bit more time to mature and really need to jump on the bandwagon straight away.

There are many good business cases for mobile devices such as the iPhone and in combination with the above you should work those out. Feeling good is always important in life – at work as well as at home. But sometimes you should also consider whether it really improves your productivity and what the real benefits and threats are. Of course I also want an iPhone but for now the Blackberry suffices, just as my street directory.

Just a note for mothers. I think that all mothers of young children should have an iPhone. All parents know that babies and toddlers prefer their parents keys and phones above all toys in the world. And the beautiful thing of an iPhone is that it is not only a nice shiny thing, there are actually moving images on it. It is a small TV and we know what that does to kids. It keeps them quiet! iPhones signficantly reduce the screaming and crying in public places. Here some apps. The iPad with fully downloaded movies will be the next step in this silent revolution.

How many bugs a day do you make?

The other day I did a little exercise and calculated how many bugs a day were created in my recent custom development projects. I compared two outsourced projects with two internally managed projects. I wanted to see how many bugs were identified by the end users as part of the acceptance testing and how many are found by the testers as part of the system testing. For the latter I did not have the details from the vendors for the outsourced projects.

There was a big difference between the internally managed and outsourced projects. Our end users hardly found any bugs during their acceptance testing for our internally managed projects. But the outsourced projects resulted in a total number of bugs found during user acceptance testing equivalent to the total number of bugs we found during our system testing for the internally managed projects. In other words, the vendor seemed to off-load the proper testing to us. Not happy.

The number of bugs are usually measured based upon lines of code (LoC). I calculated it by developer-day. There are many problems measuring bugs with either metric. Lines of codes measured as the total line-count in the set of source files does not mean much. You measure empty lines, comments and simply the layout style of the programmer. I know for example in C, you can have many lines with a single character while in many 4GL programs that would hardly occur.

Bugs per day have problems as well. First of all, my total day count was a rough estimate for our internally managed projects. I do not keep a tally for my internal developers. For the outsourced projects I used the project costs divided by the day rate that the vendor usually charges. But that is probably not the actual effort the vendor put in. So we should be careful about being too smart with these numbers.

For various other reasons, I do like to have a bit of an idea how effective developers are and how many bugs they leave in the code when they give it to the testers. And for us as a project team, how many bugs we leave in the system when we give it to the end users for acceptance testing. There are many aspects involved in programming, but in the end simply measuring the number of bugs per developer-day gives me a bit of an idea.

I think it is common knowledge that its cheaper to have a bug found and resolved by a developer than found by a tester and given back to the developer to fix. The same logic applies to bugs found by end users versus bugs found by the testing team.

I found that the number of bugs in general turned out to be between one to three bugs per day and specifically for our internal projects towards one bug per day.

The crucial insight in the exercise was that our internal development resulted in a much better service to the end users.

There are many reasons why this happened.

First of all, I have included the people involved in the requirements and analysis of the business process into the testing team. The Business Analyst and Service Delivery Manager who had first hand interaction with the business would find most of the flaws similarly as the end users would. Better even, because they really focussed on the testing while end users would do it much more superficially. For the outsourced projects, we created the requirements internally and provided these to the vendor to build. The vendor was in that sense disadvantaged.

Secondly, our testers were close to the business. In cases where they were uncertain about the right behaviour it was easier for them to consult the business. The vendor worked on a different location and this case on the other side of the globe and had with that another disadvantage.

I must conclude that the closer the development team is to the business, the more effective the development and testing will be. I think I already knew this ;).

For the future I will challenge my developers to create less than one bug per day.

For outsourced projects I will need to consider to put some metrics in the contract around the number of bugs.

Do we correctly explain IT to our customers?

Ever since the discussion that appeared on LinkedIn “What Are The Things We Hate About IT?” following a book by Susan Cramm.I have been thinking about one of the items brought forward: Do we hate other departments just as much? For example, would many of the “hate” things not apply to the Finance department as well?

I recently needed to undergo a knee reconstruction because I tore my ACL. Before I decided to get the operation done, I wanted to know more about it. Initially you have your appointments with the doctor and he explains a lot and gives you also some brochures. But I still had many questions. I did research as much as I could on the Internet but the exact details cannot always easily be found. Much medical information is locked behind sites for which you have to pay, besides the fact that it pretty much becomes very technical in medical terms.

However, once I had this information processed and had thought about it, I came up with many more questions. And these can of course only be answered through another appointment for which you have to pay good money again.

And then there is the general customer service. The assistant on the phone, just for making an appointment, did not come across too friendly either. As if it was all too much. You probably know these type of people – everything comes with a big sigh.

And then the costs. Yes they explained the costs for the surgeon, but I still had to chase up the costs for the hospital and the anaesthetist.

Now you could say, “Why don’t you go to another surgeon?”. Good point, but this one had a good reputation and you then need to ask yourself the question whether you want a surgeon who will technically do a good job or that you want better customer service but with more risk on the technical outcome.  I think you can guess, what I chose.

I think the issue for IT or for the Finance departments is the same. Good customer service is hard to find - anywhere. I have always found in any organisation that for example the Finance department is not too forthcoming with information. They have in general (also) an arrogant attitude. They set the rules and the rest has to follow.

The biggest issue here is that people hate the uncertainty and the lack of insight. My problem with the knee operation was not much different than the “IT is too expensive” complaint. I simply don’t understand why it all has to be so expensive and then the problem identifying all the associated cost. And then the risks. There were so many different aspects and risks around it that it simply took quite a bit of time to understand it all.

Just as I still have a lot of uncertainty around my knee of what I can do and what I can’t do, people hate the uncertainty when they are confronted with a (new) system. Understanding the complete behaviour and working of a system is too often too far away for the end users and they get by with a superficial understanding. And then there is the lack of insight in all the processes and components that all make up the story of higher costs, more time and more practical issues that the business user does not expect to be involved.

The contradiction in all this is that our business colleagues don’t have the time and the background to understand all the intricacies around IT. The same problem as I had. Though I could find medical information, it was too much abracadabra. But on the other hand you want to have just that right level of insight and confidence on how it goes. As service provider it becomes very difficult to explain why things need to happen a certain way while not going into the details. It is difficult for a doctor and it is difficult for an engineer (or CIO for that matter).

Coming to a conclusion, I think that it will always be difficult to make our IT customers understand all aspects associated with IT and therefore they will remain “uncomfortable” with it. This “uncomfortable” feeling is not much different than what we experience with a doctor or dentist or the rules and laws of the Finance department. To what level do you need to explain things? Some people will never get certain intricacies and others simply don’t have the time.

And in relation to customer service, to give another example outside IT - what about the banks? When I came to Australia I was confronted with bank fees. I did not have that in the Netherlands and it took a lot of time and effort before I found someone who was willing to explain it.

Yes, we should continue to improve our services and explain IT within the organisation, but I don’t think that we’ll ever achieve a Walhalla. At some moment in time, you just simply need to focus on results. Do we really need to be so much better than everyone else? Or in other words, is it really that bad?

At the moment it seems that the doctor did a great job on my knee. If you would ask me whether I was satisfied with the service, I say yes. He did a great job. Do I have general issues and could the service have been better? I definitely say yes, accepting the grumpy assistant as long as the result is good. The same applies to IT. If we deliver systems, isn’t it firstly about whether the business can achieve their objectives? Ok, the problem is why it takes so long. But my knee has a fixed 6 months healing process and there is nothing that I can do to make it go faster.

(As you can see on the photo above, my knee looks perfect again.)

Be cautious with helpdesk KPI’s

To measure the effectiveness of your IT services department, usually the first measurement you put in place is around the helpdesk. Gus Monne's blog post started me thinking because we do basically the same.

In the past we have reported for example on the number of calls received, calls resolved and calls outstanding on a periodic basis. I've always been reserved on publishing this information to the internal customers and senior management because they will only see the numbers and do not understand the stories behind them.

First of all, what does it mean to have received 500 calls in a fortnight? OK, you can benchmark it and compare it to averages with other similar organizations. But still, it does not mean that much to me. It might just mean that your users are not that IT savvy and there is a culture to call the help desk as soon as something unexpected occurs. By itself interesting insight and you might want to change the culture of the organisation.

Secondly, does it mean that your services have degraded if the number of calls have risen in the last three months? You might have rolled out a new system and the increase in calls can therefore be expected. Or the increase in calls was caused by a significant staff turnover in the last period.

If you have rolled out a new system and you can expect the number of calls to increase. In such a case the stats are not a direct measure of the helpdesk and in the early stages relate to the effectiveness of the project. Because you will run in many teething problems and the fact that the helpdesk also needs to build up experience, many of those calls have to be redirected to the second level support and to the engineers. The first line helpdesk team has quite often no direct means to resolve these.

And think about this. If you roll out a new system and you do not receive many service calls, would that be because the system works fine and users are using it effectively or because they are not using it? And when you are receiving many calls, can it be because the users are very keen on using the system and are going through a steep learning curve and therefore log many calls?

In the past I inherited a few systems that were rather instable and regularly went down and threw up java errors. The systems had many bugs and the effect was that we spent most of our time fighting fire. Over time we improved the stability and our development practices. Some of the systems were rebuilt from scratch. The end result is that those systems are stable  and basically we don’t receive any calls around problems with the system. We do receive calls in relation to new functionality and that is where we want to be. Spend our time on improving the business with new features instead of fixing bugs and restarting servers. The effect can be seen in the statistics in our helpdesk system but they can only be seen over a longer period of time stretching years.

The calls that come in relation to those systems are not going to be dealt with straight away. We plan this in our development process and prioritise them with our customer. It means that some of those requests stay open for a longer period of time. Basically they are not really helpdesk requests but we use the same system for it.

If you want to measure the effectiveness of the helpdesk itself, you can only look at those calls that fall in a category where there is stability and where it is expected that the helpdesk actually can resolve the calls. Proper classification of received calls is crucial to any reporting.

There is a difference in the role of the helpdesk in case you have a small set of business systems with a large number of users or when you have a large number of business systems with each a small number of users.

I had the pleasure to contact my ISP because my ADSL line was regularly dropping out. The ISP provides a standard service to a very large number of customers. The helpdesk has been provided with a script of questions and steps to go through to resolve the problem. In such a scenario this is very well possible and you can resolve this way the majority of calls. (Though in this case it was driving me crazy; needed to call many times and each time you get another person who wants to start the whole thing from scratch.)

But the scenario of the ISP is rather different then we have in our work situation where we have a relative large number of business systems with each a relative small number of users (excluding our real external customers for which we don't give helpdesk support through our IT department).

I have my doubts on just reporting helpdesk statistics as a KPI and I think you should be cautious reporting those numbers as the performance of the IT department to your customers and senior management. The numbers can be valuable if you actually analyse the cause, draw consequences and take measures for those causes within your own control. But without an explanation, the numbers can give a wrong impression of what really goes on.

I am not saying that you should not do the measurements. Of course you need the numbers for a variety of reasons and you still need to address the cause of increases of service calls and understand why it happened. Another reason is to manage your workload.

I am more keen on using surveys to identify effectiveness of the IT services as Gus also reports and using the Service Level Effectiveness as per Gartner’s Business Value Model

Service-Level Effectiveness = Surveyed users with >=90% satisfaction/Total No of surveyed users

This measures all aspects of the services including, and most importantly, the actual user experience. For example, when you just rolled out a new system and have a high level of service calls, the users still can be satisfied with the service (they love the system and the helpdesk provides great assistance). Or it could be completely the other way around, only a few service calls but low customer satisfaction.

Personality profiling, Part 3 - Ideas versus reality (Plato’s Return and Design Thinking)

Part of the TMS profile (see previous post) was the question to which you related better: “idea” or “reality”. It was an all or nothing question.

For me this is a bit sort of an chicken and egg question. Of course I like to stay with my feet on the ground, specifically in work situations and don’t want to walk around the whole day with my head in the clouds. But that’s not what this is about. The idea always comes before reality and specifically for us in IT, where we can mould our IT reality as much as we like, we should know this.

Before we build a system we should have an idea about how it will work, what it should do and how we will put it together. Before we have an idea about the system, we should have an idea about the benefits and why we want it. What is the business outcome?

But if we have an idea or a series of ideas, we should bring it into reality. And from that moment on we must be very practical in identifying all steps and resources to get the required outcome. And then we need to look at the reality of the business benefit and the business outcome.

So we start with our heads in the clouds and need to be creative and identify options but at some stage we need to focus on reality.

Idea and reality are two different aspects of one and the same thing. Reality does not exist without an idea and ideas are just dreams if we don’t turn them into reality.

I’d like to refer back to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave where he postulates that we don’t really know reality but just have an idea about what it could be. The idea is the shadow we see on the wall, a reflection in our mind. Quantum mechanics and string theory confirm the fact that there is no clearly defined reality. [see also my first post]

Ask 10 different people what your business reality is about a specific subject or business process and you will get 10 different answers. So reality is not something black and white; it has lots of shades of grey. And you can’t run your business without ideas. Ideas are the driver that makes the business move forward and grow. The trick is to turn the ideas into reality.

Roger Martin combines in Design thinking: achieving insights via the “knowledge funnel” in the magazine Strategy & Leadership both concepts in what he calls Design Thinking. He describes a knowledge funnel – a process starting with a Mystery (triggered by intuition ; idea) via the development of Heuristics to a structured Algorithm (reality). The process is the analytical process but you need regularly go back to your guts feeling and try things out and see if you can develop your heuristics and algorithms to see if your guts feeling was right. This is how he sees modern organizations should operate to develop their products and processes. Organisations that are driven by creative thinking alone or by analytical processes alone will be less successful.

Coming back to my previous post about interpretation of questions and the consequence of the resulting profile: once you have thought a bit longer on the subject, I bet that there will be people who at first might have answered one thing but after a bit of thought such as considering the subject from a different perspective as what I have attempted to here, might opt for the other answer.

The Business Analyst is the Tester!

I just ran into this article on CIO website: Why You Need to Break Down the Wall Between Business Analyst and QA Teams. I am a bit surprised about the fact that this wisdom surfaces only now.

I know that usually BA's and Testers are different people and have a different role. I sometimes also deal with BA's who don't like testing. However in most projects, I have always tried to make the BA the tester or one of the testers of the system. It only makes sense. The BA is the one who writes the requirements based upon his interpretation of the what is required. If lucky, the BA is doing much of the design as well.

The developers interpret this interpretation of the BA and build the system. If you then have Testers that are positioned far away from the original BA, then they test the system on their interpretation of the interpretation of the BA. You have a high risk that you end up with something that was not envisaged by the business and was not envisaged by the BA.

Having the BA doing the testing, you remove one level of the indirection and at least get something close to what the BA had envisaged. Because the BA was the person who dealt with the source of the requirements, it is the best you can get.

Of course, intensive testing involvement by the key business users will give even a better result. However you should never only rely on them because there the risk is too high they only do it superficially and won't go through all the scenarios you will encounter during normal business use. Specialist testers in combination with the original BA(s) and end users will give in my opinion the best results. And yes, testers should be involved in early stages of the requirements and design.

I found that I achieved my best results with my super coordinators (I called them Service Delivery Managers) who play a mixed analyst, design, project coordinator and testing role during the project where they work closely with dedicated BA's for requirements, design and testing. Those people are then also fantastic to help out with the business roll out and assist business users with their normal day use. (see also "Why Business Requirements don't work")

Besides this, you'll be doing the BA a favour to make them participate in testing. This way the BA gets direct feedback of how well he has done his requirements and design work. If a BA would only be involved in the early stages of a project and never is actively involved in the outcome, the will not know if he has done a good job or not. Testing makes a BA a better BA!

Personality profiling, Part 1 – The process and the journey

Recently our team did a group session facilitated by Team Management Systems in relation to our Team Management Profile. Central to this session stands the Personal Team Management Profile which is created through 60-item questionnaire. Many people are usually rather sceptical towards these kinds of profiling, but I have learned to enjoy it. Not that I belief that the results are always that correct, but the process and discussion gives you tools to think about yourself and others within the work environment. It is the process that you go through in which I see the value, not so much the profile as the outcome of the questionnaire.

There are a lot of issues with these profiling tools but when I did the session the first time with other managers in our organisation, I was enthusiastic and contacted our HR department to have this organised for our IT team as well.

I expected a bit of resistance from our team. In the end, IT people are not supposed to be too interested in these “soft” aspects of work. But in the end I was pleasantly surprised how people collaborated in the session.

The value for me was simply the fact that you talk with your colleagues about certain work aspects and personal preferences. Subjects that otherwise are difficult to bring on the table. I was surprised how open the team discussed the profile outcomes with each other. Obviously there is no right and wrong and I also think that most people accept that the profile does not give a true representation of your work preferences. The tool itself already accepts an 80%-20% rule on its accuracy, but I feel that in some cases the variation can be significantly more.

As a result of the session we created a next level of openness and team bonding and hopefully some further insight in our strengths and weaknesses as a team.

The outcome for our team was not surprising as our CTO concluded. We identified a gap in the Maintenance preference, but I am not too worried about that. We all do it as part of our job and sometimes quite a lot and also very well, it’s just not our preference. The other weaknesses in our preferences were the Advisor and Promoter roles. Again, not surprising and also areas where we are active.

When using a profiling tool like TMS, it is important to keep the following in mind:

The profile gives your preferences, not what you do
As I already explained above, the fact that a team might not have preferences for a certain role, it does not mean it is not done and that it is not done well.

Answers might be focussed on the current role, not your abilities and preferences
Some people will answer the questions based upon their current role and not their personal overarching preferences. This can give a skewed profile in relation to their abilities and preferences. A second note is to say that the tool aims at your preferences and not your abilities though it must be noted that you usually are (get) better in what you like best.

Your mindset at the time of answering will influence the result
For example, take an axis of “creative” versus “practical” . If you basically are a bit halfway this axis with a  slight preference for “creative”, you can be very consistent in answering all the questions in this direction and therefore score as “extremely creative”.  The next time you answer it, you might chose to vary the answers a bit and score nicely halfway the axis.

You can stigmatise yourself to be a certain type of person
We know other people can put a stigma on you, but you can do this to yourself as well. Due to the many comments you might have received from your environment, for example your parents, you might see yourself as a very rational person. Therefore you started your career in IT, because logic and rationale are important in IT. Words like “emotion” and “ideas” get a lower ranking with you. However, if you spend more time looking at yourself you might discover that there is actually a large creative part in you and that many of your important decisions have been made based upon emotions.

On the other hand it is all about interpretation of the questions and specifically if there are only a few questions (60 as part of this survey), than a small variation in your thinking can give a huge difference in the outcome of the profile. I personally never like those multiple choice questions. Quite often they do upset me because they seem to me illogical. For example, the questionnaire made you make a choice between “ideas” and “reality” (see next blog post). For me these are two different aspects of the same thing.

But even though there is much you can criticise about profiling tools, I think they are valuable when used in combination with a facilitated workshop or training. It is about the discovery process; learning about yourself and your team. If the tool says that there is too much green and not enough red, you need to ask yourself “how come that there is so much green” and “what does it mean that there is not enough red”. And if you have obtained insight, you might want to take some actions.

But with actions you must be cautious. Changing yourself does not come overnight; it can easily take years and much more sessions of introspection. Changing a team does not happen overnight either. If you identified that you need to define the blue roles better and ideally get some blue people for that, it simply does not mean you start firing existing red staff and hiring some blue people. There is more to it.

I am happy enough with a thinking process of who you are (team of individual), even if there are no direct ideas or plans to change things.

If you do what is being told then there is no problem at all

Solving problems can sometimes be so incredible easy. Just follow the recommendations of El Salvador (J.C.):

It is a matter of seeing what goes wrong;
point out what needs to happen;
execute what has been pointed out.
All that is not that difficult.
If you do what is being told, then there is no problem at all.

Original text in Dutch:
Het is kwestie van zien wat er fout gaat;
aanwijzen wat er moet gebeuren;
de aanwijzingen uitvoeren.
Dat is niet zo verschrikkelijk moeilijk.
Als je doet wat er gezegd wordt, dan is dat geen enkel probleem.

This was Johan's response following some discussions due to the dramatic loss of Ajax FC to Real Madrid on  15 September 2010. It wasn't about the number goals being scored (only 2) but the way Ajax lost.

Wisdom doesn't come much easier!

We can make a joke of this, but we should not forget that Johan Cruyff still has a long standing relationship with Barcelona and that was basically the team that won the World Cup. And given that the Netherlands does seem to have quality players (they were runners up at the World Cup) it is surprising that the Dutch teams are performing so badly on the international stage. Something must be wrong and if no one else has been able to solve it, why not have a bit of faith in J.C?

In other words, if you have been laboring to get improvement and the improvement is not there, why not give that odd view of your colleague or consultant that goes against your own insights a try?

I love old technology!

A little while ago, I mentioned to a team member that I was considering to buy a new CD player. My Yamaha CD player broke years ago and have used my wife’s Pioneer since then. The sound quality was not as good and as audiophile, I like to get the optimal sound (for as much my wife permits it).

My colleague joked that a CD player was old technology and that many of our younger colleagues wouldn’t even know what a CD was. Storing everything on a NAS device and connecting this to the home theatre is the way to go.

Though I enjoy the progress in this technology, my problem is that I first of all like my good music played lossless and therefore don’t want MP3’s for that. And for the same reason, I want a good quality CD player that transforms the digital to analog sound with a good definition and, due to my house interior, with a certain warmth. I don’t want to use a PC for playing my music with a mediocre quality. I already had that. (I am one of those people who still has a turntable and still play my old vinyl LP’s – have Bill Bruford’s Earth Works on it right now; also just love those album covers from the old days).

So I bought a new Marantz CD player at Len Wallis (in Sydney) and I am extremely happy with the results. I know many people, including my wife, won’t hear the difference but for me it similar as wearing glasses versus not wearing glasses. With glasses I can see things clearly, without things become blurry. Thanks to progress in technology, I think my Marantz gives me a better sound than my old Yamaha did in the past. Maybe it is old technology, but it is definitely improved technology and technology that can’t be beaten my the modern stuff (yet).

New technology is released with a rapid speed on a daily basis. The question is whether we need to acquire all this new technology. As a business you need to think whether an iPhone is that important and brings all the benefits. Don’t forget there are many teething problems. You want a collaboration system and social technology in-house. But is it so much better and how well is it developed? Wiki’s in SharePoint 2007 is rather primitive. But should you then implement other tools and how well does this integrate with other systems? Staff might spend a lot of time with the new technology, but what is the business benefit?

There is still so much you can do with plain old proven technology. If there is important information to be written down and communicated and relevant people are currently not doing it, would a new tool resolve this? MS Word or PowerPoint are very simple a proven ways to document information and there are usually already many ways to communicate it to stakeholders.

Another issues with new technology is that you need to spend so much time on it to get it working and I do not always feel that this effort weighs up against the benefits. The most extreme example is for me still the Windows Operating System. That took years before it finally become a useful end-user tool and that can be used effectively at home.

In general I like the advancements in technology and like to follow it and use it when I see a clear need for it. In many other cases, I prefer to wait until the teething problems have been resolved and you can actually gain the benefits.

Anyway, buying my new CD player is one of the best decisions I made recently and Percy Jones rolls very nicely out of my speakers again.

Lost in SharePoint administration functionality

When selecting a software product, you always need to be cautious with just comparing features. SharePoint for example has many features, but they are not always that easy to use. One of the key problems I found with SharePoint is the ease of use for administration functions. As site owner for example, you can grant access to people, but to use these features is not that easy. Even people in our IT team get confused. Another example is the use of the “MySite”. It gives every user all the features of site administration, but you too easily get lost. Sometimes I feel that there is too much that you can do.

In the screenshot above you work according to the breadcrumb in the context of the site Oracle Financials, but you are confronted to manage groups for a much broader context. Initially you come there and ask yourself “if I add people to those groups would it only apply to this site or would it affect all sites that use those groups?”. The uncertainty is what annoys people.

What bothers me is that the whole page changes and that the context only relies on the breadcrumb. A pop-up window or at least keeping the top and left hand sides the same would have made me more comfortable.

We found that tech savvy users already picked up on many of social features such as blogs, but I can very well understand that the majority feels lost in the use of it all.

My biggest problem is the way it is presented. The breadcrumb on top displays the context to what your work applies, but the breadcrumb is small with small fonts and you also get on the left hand side data elements that you can manage outside the context of the breadcrumb.

When we selected SharePoint it was not primarily for its social features but primarily for document management and its integration with Office. Though I actually played around a bit with this before recommending SharePoint, there are always aspects which you miss during the evaluation and only run into when you really start using it. Luckily there are always upgrades so the magic word is SharePoint 2010.

The usability comes hand in hand with good understanding of the working of the system and the associated terminology. We see for example that social media has a huge uptake, but when I started with this blog, initially I found also a bit confusing in how Blogger worked. First of all you edit posts in the blogger domain, but your blog is published to the blogspot domain. Then there is the terminology of a post versus blog, the concept of RSS, the role of feedburner and finally all the ways to syndicate the content to other sites such as Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. I have this blog now also published on MySite within SharePoint. Because I syndicate it from Blogger, I need to pull in an RSS feed and still wanted to make it look within SharePoint as if it was a normal SharePoint blog. You can’t just create a standard SharePoint blog and let it feed from an external blog; I had to create a sub-site to MySite with on the main page a RSS webpart. That took a little while to figure it out, but I’ve got it working now. At least trying all this out helped me better understand some of the intricacies of SharePoint.

All in all, I am on the one hand disappointed of how intuitive systems such as SharePoint are designed but on the other hand impressed how many non-techies are able to use this modern technology. To master it all requires quite a bit of time.

Recruitment Agencies and those annoying phone calls

I am one of the those people that regularly, almost daily, receives phone calls from recruitment agencies to see if I need more contractors for temporary assignments. We call those people agency temps. In other places they might be called freelancers.

I find these conversations always a bit awkward. The recruiter knows that I receive those calls regularly from many different agencies and that I most certainly already have an established base of recruiters I work with.

On the other hand I need the agencies at times so I do not want to close any doors but also do not want to give away whether I have a need now or in the near future. Before you know you have your mail box full with resumes and your phone red hot while you're not really certain whether you need someone or not. Even if you need someone, you need to limit the number of recruiters you deal with to a minimum.

In general I am more loyal to a recruiter than to an agency. If a person has proven to be able to find the right candidate, the agency the recruiter works for is less important.

The use of recruiters for temporary IT staff seems to vary per country while the philosophy of when to use temporary staff versus employment seems more similar. I noticed that in the Netherlands that there are less freelancers in IT than in Australia. I think primarily because of different taxation rules. Some cultural differences play probably a role as well. Where for example the Dutch rather have the certainty of a permanent employment, in Australia I see more sole traders then in the Netherlands. It seems to be easier to start your own business here in Australia. Even if you contract temporary staff in Australia via a software house, half the time the people are not permanently employed by that software house.

As mentioned in my earlier post, I prefer permanent staff. At least to facilitate the amount of work that is guaranteed required by the team. As far as I know this is the general logic for resourcing your team. Peak work is covered by temporary staff.

It is important to put good effort in the selection process for temporary staff because peak work often slides from one peak to another. You contract someone for a specific project and before it is completely finished you have another project at hand creating another peak. It sounds a bit contradictory but is demonstrates the challenge of resource planning.

This way I have however often been able to retain good temporary staff for long periods and reduce my recruitment needs. The consequence is that when recruiters call me, I actually hardly ever have a need increasing the burden of their calls.

But I do need them. When you look for people with skills that are widely available in the market you don't want to cull through 500 resumes. And when you look for skills that are very scarce you need every hand there is for the search. It is important to work with a mix of recruiters that specialise in different areas. I was lucky to have contracted in the past some very good Oracle EBS functional and technical specialists whom I would like to call upon in times of need. When I find that a recruiter personally knows many of those people, I know that this is a person to stay in contact with. You can't always contract those same people again but if the recruiter has the right network he can find someone else with those good qualities.

Though recruiters sometimes claim otherwise, you should not rely on them to assess suitability for the role. To assess the technical skills you should possess those skills yourself. (Therefore I believe for example also that when outsourcing you should have at least have some skilled staff in house to assure you select the right vendor and assure that you keep receiving quality services.) And when you have emergencies at hand, you need to be able to contact someone who can provide the required skills fast. Therefore, having relationships with software houses is important and you don't build those relationships only by calling them when you have an emergency.

For certain skills I sometimes prefer to resource from software house. Because they have technical skills in house, they can assess much better the skills of the candidate. And if you have experienced that their own staff is highly qualified then they will usually provide that same quality in people for your temporary assignment.

I prefer this in general also above outsourcing. Only when you clearly can control the quality of the services provided or when it really does not make sense to bring the skills in house, I prefer the outsourcing option.

Insync10 – Oracle User Conference, Melbourne – 16,17 August 2010

Every once in a while it is good to take some time off to dive into the offering and strategy of your major vendors. Insync10 was such an occasion organised by the Oracle user groups (OAUG, AUSOUG and Quest). Oracle has taken over many companies in the recent years and their marketing spin is much around their complete offering, ranging from storage, servers, database, middleware to business applications. And in the context of the applications, the breadth of their applications.

Oracle's Exadata product is an interesting development in our industry. Though targeted at the high end of the market and already introduced 2 years ago, the question that popped up in my mind was whether it will trigger a larger series of shrink wrapped utilities such as this database in a box. It is not the first time Oracle has tried this but technology and the market might have changed.

According to Oracle the future of Business Intelligence is to run it on top of the operational database. Oracle is of course the only one who is well positioned to provide such technology. The concept is intriguing and could open doors for mid-sized organisations to implement BI without the need of expensive ETL and additional infrastructure.

A related message was to bring the business process to the data, meaning that you should centralise your data into as much as possible a single database and have the applications feed of this central database. A message I can relate to in light of my vision that information should flow.

Another concept that was strongly promoted was the middleware. I walk every day around with a diagram depicting the ERP in the centre and series of other applications as satellites around it. Oracle drew this with the middleware in the centre as a sort of enterprise bus linking it all together. I don’t know what I must think of that yet and I wonder whether it really matters. The Oracle E-Business Suite (EBS) comes with a series of API's implemented with PL/SQL. Before I will look further into the middleware of Oracle, I first want to see those API's implemented through webservices as a standard component of the EBS so my Java guys can use them without the need of a middleman. For me another task to put on the list and to find out if these webservices are standard provided with release 12 of the EBS (probably you must buy them).

Most interesting for me was Oracle’s Application Testing Suite and specifically the Real User Experience Insight (part of the Oracle Enterprise Manager according to the website but part of the Testing Suite according to the presentation) which is a sniffer that logs all activities that the user performs including the page load time. When users raise issues you can actually track back the actual series of steps the user performed and see what their experience was. Those steps can then be copied into the testing tool to use as a script for functional testing or for load testing. It was mentioned that the Real User Experience Insight tool could be used with other systems as well. For the Oracle applications there are accelerators (Oracle speak for adaptor) but I suspect that for non-Oracle applications you will have some problems analysing the tracked data. (see presentation)

One of the major reasons for me to attend the conference was to see if I could obtain some more insights in the road to release 12 of the EBS and what lies behind R12. Luckily we had already engaged some good consultants earlier so it turned out that I was aware of most of the tips. In my role it is good that some of those are brought again to the fore because I easily forget all this. But it is time to start with our upgrade project. (see presentation)

I found also that our practices are pretty much up to scratch such as those for change management, patching and management of our customisations. Oracle provides more automated tools that we could consider, provided that the price is right. It turned out that also other larger organizations not always chose to buy more supporting tools from Oracle and leave things manual or semi-automated. (see presentation)

And finally about virtualisation. I complained about Oracle’s strategy around virtualisation earlier. Oracle only supports virtualisation with their own technology. Once this message was made clear to me by Oracle, I did not bother to dive further into their virtualisation offer. However a presentation at Insync10 made the situation much clearer. Oracle’s virtualisation technology seems to work very well, but …. they seem to have only one or a handful customers globally that have implemented it. But because the reference was so good, it might be worthwhile to look into it.

Unfortunately you cannot attend always all sessions you are interested in so the rest will need to be taken from the published slides.

The thin-fat client

One of the benefits of web based technology for business applications and websites was that it required a zero based footprint; it would run on any computer as long as it had a browser: the thin client that would not require much PC resources at all. Those days are over now that we have built our applications and websites with heavy client side scripting. The guys in my team call it the thin-fat client.

In my previous blog post I had a bit of a rant about security and other questionable software components slowing your computer down. But everyone knows that over time your PC is getting slower. Well actually your PC still runs with the same speed but it has to perform more tasks and therefore you experience it to be slower. We build software that asks more of your computer.

Over the years we have added to this by improving the user experience of our web based systems and building and building functionality through the browser that traditionally only could be done via software installed on the client.

I have now four different cases at hand where performance of the processing on the client side has become a concern:
  • A customer facing website with heavy java script;
  • An application with server side code and a swing based client;
  • A flash based application;
  • And Microsoft Sharepoint requiring heavy java script and using many Windows and Office functions.
It simply means that the notion of the thin client is basically over. Where in the past web developers only needed to consider network speed and latency, primarily in relation to embedded objects such as images and video, they now have to consider the capabilities of the client computer again.

My experience so far is that this insufficiently happens and this applies also to paid consultants.

Let us all be warned again for this phenomenon for both custom development and off the shelf software. I doubt that software vendors are too keen to come with the message that their software will run on any PC via the browser but that they recommend you to upgrade all your desktops.

Isn't it funny that old things come back again? When the Internet was new, we heard talks about the thin client and PC's that would become simple and cheap because everything would run on servers. But we're closing the circle again and moving back to something similar to client-server architectures. And it is not that you don't have to worry about installation of software on the client either. We call them plugins these days such as the Java virtual machine (make sure you have the right version), Flash-plugin (Apple doesn't like Flash), MS Office or simply the browser ("the website runs fast with Google Chrome but slow with IE7").

Should you disinfect your PC?

We should clean our PC’s inside out with anti bacterial detergent. It won’t be long or we see advertisements for that. I always get a bit iffy when I see commercials on TV for anti bacterial hand wash and detergent. Though these days we have an increased risk to get infected with serious diseases such as the swine fly, bird flu, SARS and what else the future has in store for us, the increased hygiene also seems to increase allergy cases and make bacteria resistant. [1], [2]

We could ask ourselves the same about our PC’s. I had the joy the other day to reinstall my iTunes. I downloaded the latest version and overwrote my previously downloaded installation file. Then I tried to install iTunes which did not work. After wasting some precious time researching, it turned out that the antivirus program was interfering. I have not wasted more time to find out whether it corrupted the installation file during the download or that it interfered with the installation process. Anyhow, the antivirus program did a bit too much and turning it off resulted in a successful download and installation.

Along the way I also found out that uninstalling iTunes does not remove everything. Not a big surprise because since the invention of software installation there have been problems with uninstalling software. Parts of iTunes remain installed and active (GEAR drivers for CD/DVD burning), parts of the files remained on disk and many registry entries stick around; all just there as contamination to your system. It all just slows your system down and makes your PC less healthy. These problems do not just occur with iTunes but with many software packages. In this case the problem actually originated with uninstalling Roxio software which messed up even more. That one will definitely not come back. Unfortunately our family iPods are useless without iTunes so that will have to stay.

I question myself sometimes whether I should consider iTunes itself a health threat to my PC. It installs extra processes that constantly run. It does not only slow my PC down during normal use, it also impacts boot time. I definitely belief that the same end result could be achieved through different and less invasive solutions, but maybe this is Apple’s way of telling people to buy a Mac.
To protect your PC against the evil outside world, you require much additional technology. A firewall and security software that checks your PC’s for any threat in so many different ways that your PC is basically not doing anything else anymore. But quite often you will check for the same thing many times over. These days many people will have a router installed at home to use the internet connection from different computers. Modern routers usually have a firewall included, but still Windows prefers to have its own firewall installed. Then, if you’re not careful, your security software will do the same thing. I know, you can control all this, but I do not expect the home user to understand or be aware of this. My mother definitely wouldn’t.

And what about scanning attachments of outgoing emails? If I make sure no bad stuff comes into my computer, would I scan again when I send something out? I may assume that the recipient has his security software up to date and if not, would it not be his problem? How many times should we check the same thing? But if you dare to turn even one security item off, you’ll constantly be warned that your computer is at risk.

You want to secure your PC because you don’t want to lose your data, your money or your valuable time. The only thing I know that if you secure your PC too much, you at least will have lost some money because your PC is more powerful than it would necessarily need to be. Or if you want to do something about that like me, you will have lost valuable time.

Besides the scare tactics by the respectable security software makers and Microsoft, I always have to smile again when I receive emails warning about security threats. Usually the only thing you lose is time reading and replying. I also love those websites that advertise a free PC scan. Just google iTuneshelpder.exe to find out not only how many issues that program has caused around the world but also that you should scan your PC for security threats.

In the end, the biggest threats usually originate from risky behaviour: downloading obscure software or visiting obscure websites. Or even worse, trusting people you don’t even know with important information.

These scare tactics are not much different than those commercials advocating people to use antibacterial hand soap for their children because they have been playing outside in the garden. Instead they should advertise to clean your mouse, keyboard and desk at work. According to the various google results, your office desk harbours more bacteria than the toilet. No wonder you feel so bad on Monday mornings.