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

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.