Is Custom Development Dead?

Is Custom Development dead? After the last two years of custom development’s nuclear winter, (following 2008s Financial Armageddon), one would think the the Grim Reaper did his best in the blast. I really hope not, designing and building strategic systems make the more mudane aspects of software engineering worth enduring the mind-numbing syntactical pain of creation. Nothing like the smell of napalming the competition with a totally new way of doing business in the morning (my view of “Apocalypse Now” with a business bent). Maybe, just maybe, I hope rumors of Custom Development’s death are greatly exaggerated.

Did Custom Development die of natural causes, maybe pulled off of life support by risk-hating Executive Management as a perverse form of parental control after the financial snafu (Custom Development moves from PG-13 to XXX)?  Off-the-Shelf software products and the ever increasing cost of continuing maintenance really hurt Custom Development as a viable systems choice, but is that enough to put it down? Cloud and “nouveau Cloud” technologies (read SaaS, SalesForce.com) may have provided the coup de grace.  I seriously doubt it, every time I look into the Cloud I get serious PTSD flashbacks to the 70s and 80s IBM Mainframe World Domination (OMG there is a 3270 in the corner!!).  At least there was alot less hype and easier choices back then (Nobody got fired picking IBM!).

It is possible Custom Development died offshore (simple Mickey Finn, bag over the head, Shanghaied and Held for Ransom!)?  While Business Processes and System Maintenance have done reasonably well offshore (Castor Oil of the Corporate world, let Mikey take it!), strategic custom development has had less success.  Quality innovation that can transform a corporation really requires a local team steeped both in the host company and surrounding culture.  Plus, Custom Development tends to have a high infant mortality rate so it is best attempted in short phases supported by an Agile Methodology, definitely not in Offshore’s financial model wheelhouse.  So I don’t think Offshore is implicated.

There is the theory that evolution has spoken and Product-based Solutions have succeeded Custom Development, just as mammals succeeded dinosaurs.  Product companies would like you to believe that, but does that seem plausable (Land of the Lost, Jurassic Park where are you?)?  While Product-based solutions have advantages in success rates and cost, they by their nature lack the true freedom that drives raw creativity and innovation.  Custom Development is that wellspring.

The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself!  Adversity to risk is curbing animal spirits, creativity, and innovation, ….for now.  Custom Development is not dead and will return from its vacation with Puff in the Cave by the Sea when Jackie Paper locks-and-loads and we begin some serious innovation and transformation with strategic custom software systems (BTW thats when the Jobs return too!).

Now is the Time for Comfort IT

comfort-foodWhenever crisis strikes and people enter uncertain and frightening times they close up like a clam.  They do not take on new risks like new cars or houses, instead they find comfort in life’s little pleasures.  Macaroni-and-cheese, tomato soup, and meatloaf seem to sooth the troubled mind and are the perfect accompaniment to the theater of financial meltdown.  IT has it’s equivalent of comfort foods, short (less than one budget cycle)  projects with easily measurable gains.  Projects which enhance core business functionality and projects which increase visibility are usually easy wins.

Projects like “Let’s Outsource All IT”, “Let’s Go to the Cloud”, or “Let’s Move to Open Source, Oracle, Microsoft, etc. to Save Money” are not Comfort IT and elicit the image of someone running down the hallway with their hair on fire screaming (does not look comfortable to me, let’s skip this one).  These projects will have their time in the sun when the Great Wheel turns again and risk is the entree of the day.  It will be fun to see how fast the major vendors morph their tune to a new reality; they are already shifting from guppy sales representives to bonafide sharks via the layoff lever (I am ever thankful for Email, Voicemail, and Spam Filter Purgatories).

If your organization is light on legacy projects and issues, now is the time to start some (ha ha ha!).  All joking aside, this period is a breather in the steady march of technological leverage of the corporation.  Companies can leapfrog past the painful pioneering process inherent in most technical innovation, at a bargin price.  Just about every hardware, software, and services vendor will have capacity to sell.  It is a buyer’s market , which gives the most comfort of all. 

This is the perfect time to review projects.  Determine cost-to-complete, or can it be completed.  Will it enhance the business process and ultimately be welcomed by its users, or is it a statue to political personal vanity (or an ediface to technology).  Sacrificing projects on the altar of the crisis is considered a statesman-like action and a career-saver for both the guilty and innocent.  For the fearful, consultant priests are available to both identify and cleanse  corporate IT sins for a small fee in these times (put another project on the fire!).  Nothing like a second opinion to sooth the soul, a true IT comfort food.

It’s the End of the World As We Know It!

The Holidays are a great for watching “End of the World” shows on the History Channel. They were a great comfort, actually almost encouraging, because all of the prophecies target 2012.  “The Bible Code II”, “The Mayan Prophecies”, and the Big 2012 Special compendium of End of the World scenarios, covering Nostrodamus to obscure German prophets, all agree that 2012 is the big one (Dec 21 to be exact!)  What a relief!, the rest of the news reports are trending to canned goods, shotguns, and gold by the end of the year.  We really have almost a whole 48 months before everything goes bang (I wasn’t ready anyway, procrastination rules!).

Unfortunately, we need to do some IT planning and budgeting for the new year and probably should have some thoughts going out 36 months (after that see the first paragraph).  As I discussed in a prior blog, the reporting, BI/CPM/EPM, and analytics efforts are the strongest priority; followed by rational short cost savings efforts.  All organizations must see where they are heading and keep as much water bailed out of the corporate boat as possible.  Easy call, job done! 

Then again a horrifying thought occurred to me, what if one of these initiatives should fail? (see my nightmares in prior blog posts on Data and Analytics).  I am not saying I’m the Mad Hatter and the CEO is the Red Queen, but my head is feeling a bit loosely attached at the moment.  Management cannot afford a failed project in this environment and neither can the CIO in any company (remember CIO=Career Is Over).

The best way to ensure sucessful project delivery (and guarantee my ringside lawn chair and six-pack at Armageddon in 2012) lies in building on best practice and solid technical architecture.  For example, the most effective architecture is to use a layer of indirection between the CPM application (like Planning & Budgeting) and the source data systems (ERP, Custom transactional).  This layer of indirection would be for data staging, allowing transfer to and from fixed layouts for simplified initial installation and maintenance.  In addition, this staging area would be used for data cleansing and rationalization operations to prevent polluting CPM cubes with uncontrolled errors and changes.  In terms of best practice, libraries and tools should be used in all circumstances to encapsulate knowlege rather than custom procedures or manual operations.  Another best practice is to get procedural control of the Excel and Access jungle of wild and wooley data which stands ready to crash any implementation and cause failure and embarassment to the IT staff (and former CIO).  When systems fail, it is usually a failure of confidence in the validity or timeliness of the information whether presented by dashboard or simple report.

CPM, EPM, and Analytics comprise and convey incredibly refined information and decisions of significant consequence are being made within organizations to restructure and invest based on this information.  The information and decisions are only as good as the underlying data going into them.  So skimping on the proper implementation can put the CIO’s paycheck at serious risk (Ouch!).

IBM Anounces Certification in Cloud Computing .. Huh?

IBM first announced a competency center in Cloud Computing, then a Certification over the past couple of weeks.  Well, I guess the old Druid Priests of Mainframes should recognize the resurrection of their old God TimeSharing.  Here we are, back and rested from the Breast of Gaia, Greener than druidismGreen (Drum Roll Please…….): Cloud Computing!  (Cloud Computing quickly adjusts his costume makeover to hide Ye Olde TimeSharing’s wrinkled roots)  Yes! here I am fresh, new, exciting, Web 2.0, Chrome Ready!  With me are the only guys (Big Smile from IBM!) who can Certify and Consult in My Mysteries…. IBM!

The more things change the more they stay the same, but this pushes the Great Hype Engine to a new high (or low..ha ha ha).  I can understand IBM wanting to jump on the Cloud Computing bandwagon, but are we really ready for a certification?  No one is really sure what is in the Cloud, or how it operates, but IBM is ready to lock it and load it.  Yep, they are Certifiable! (ha ha ha!).  While one can admire the desire to define and take a stand on Cloud Computing; this is one topic that requires a bit more “cook time” before full scale avarice takes hold.

Cloud Computing to too “cloudy” and “amorphous” to define today.  While expertise and advice is required, there needs to be more independent vetting and best-of-breed component level competitions.  Full solution demo platforms need to be put together to elicit ideas and act as pilots.  Case studies need to spring from these efforts as well as early adopters before an organization bets the farm on a Cloud solution.  The existing ERP platforms did not come into being overnight and these solutions have an element of their interdepency and complexity (Rome was not built in a day!).  All of the elements of backup, disaster recoverability, auditability, service level assurance, and security need to be in place before there can be a total buy in to the platform.  The reputation of Cloud Computing does hang in the balance, all that is required is one high visibility failure to set things back for potentially years (especially given the current macro environment).

Above all at this stage, a certain level of independence is required for evaluation and construction of possible solutions.  Evolution mandates independent competition (Nature Red of Tooth and Claw, Cage Fighting, Yes!).  Maturity brings vendor ecosystems and the all consuming Application Stack, but not yet.  More innovation is required, we may not even have heard of the start-up who could win this game.

The Fog Has Engulfed Us Captain! What Do We Do?

Sailing in fogThe current business environment reminds me of being socked in a fog bank in minutes, after being on a pleasant summer sail.  The entire episode puts the pucker factor meter in the red zone.  One minute clear sun and nice breeze, the next you can’t see your hand in front of your face.  Your other senses become more acute  — suddenly you hear the splash of the waves on the rocks you cannot see (funny I didn’t hear that a minute ago).  The engines of power boats are closer, seeming to come at your every quarter (PT109 how bad can it be?).

As you sit in the cockpit with your canned air fog horn and US Coast Guard approved paddle, you think that the portable marine radio you bought will not save your sorry carcass (at least you can get the Coast Guard to retrieve your drowned body as you go down).  You kick yourself for not buying that radar instead of the case of wine as a boating accessory (in fact, you think of downing some of that right now to ease your passing).  What you would not give for just a little visibility.

That’s what running a business feels like right now (makes you want to puke doesn’t it, what fun).  My Kingdom for some Visibility!  Sure, you can see what the others are doing; cut a few heads there, shut a facility there.  Is that the right thing to do?  Are you killing your future seed corn or bailing the water which will sink the company?  Ugh!  In this case, you really wish your company’s reporting could be that radar to tell where and where not to go (sure wish I got that CPM Package rather than that Sales meeting in Napa Valley).  With dashboards, planning and budgeting, consolidation, and operational BI, I would have a much better sense of what to feed and what to kill to take advantage of my competitors coming out of this economic fog (Aye Captain! in the Bay of the Blind the One Eyed Man is Admiral!).  Wishing and regrets won’t get you much, and capital investment at this point seems to be a dirty word (Yep, there it is on George Carlin’s list).

In the case of my sailing experience, the way I dug out of the fog and fear was to dig out the depth finder the former owner left behind and the charts I bought because it seemed like a good idea at the time.  I then proceeded to steer the sailboat in circles matching the readings on the depth finder with the depth readings on the chart based on my dead reckoning of my location (you reckon wrong, you’re dead).  Needless to say it worked, the fog cleared, and I was within a quarter mile of where I should have been (Cool!).  Just straightening out existing corporate reports and cleaning existing data is the equivalent of using the depth finder and charts already on hand (Yes! I know the difference between capital and expense).  In fact, that effort usually saves money by eliminating old unused reports (Oh, I feel so green!).

In any case, take a solid first step by getting those state-of-the-art visibility tools of BI/CPM/EPM when the current problems clear or things become so dire as to require dry dock repairs.  That way, the pucker meter won’t be buried in the red the next time this happens, and it will.

Image courtesy of Herbert Knosowski, AP

From the Cloud to the Bunker, the Cold Splash of Reality

Queue the movie Aliens: “…we’re screwed man, it’s over, it’s over!  They’re going to come in here and they are going to…! Get a grip Hudson!”.  That is what things feel like here at the moment.  We are just welding up the armor around the bunker waiting for the Credit Crisis Aliens to get in and decimate IT with their acid blood and ability to plant parasites in our chests.  I guess we do need to get a grip and figure out what to do to shift gears for a new reality.

Anyone want to travel to the C-Suite (Alien Central) to request budget for Web 2.0, Cloud Computing, Chrome, or Green initiatives? (Just leave your dog tags and gear here soldier, it will make it easier for us to split it up among ourselves).  The whole thing makes me chuckle as I weld another piece of steel up over my door.  The first book I go for in situations like these, given my experience and training, is George Orwell’s “1984″.  Doublethink spin is the order of the day today.  Green Computing, becomes High Energy, Aggressive Server and License Rationalization Savings Initiative.  Cloud Computing becomes Radical Infrastructure Outsourcing and Savings Program.  Web 2.0 becomes Intensive Customer Acquisition and Support Cost Reduction Program by Having Them Do All of The Backoffice Work.  Everyone admit it. You’ve seen names like these before; look at the name of any Congressional Bill, they use the same playbook.

Cynicism aside, the world has changed.  IT needs to focus on providing solid data and tools to aid in planning and budgeting for the company to move forward given the new reality.  Tactical cost savings initiatives need to be put on the table to keep staff occupied in a productive manner.  This is the time to consolidate that server farm, outsource network configuration and maintenance, eliminate under-utilized software, and rationalize/outsource maintenance of the PC hardware base.  Each of these are a steel plate welded on the doors to keep the Aliens at bay.

Continue low-cost planning initiatives in new technology — all things pass and this too shall pass in time.  IT needs to be ready to move forward without skipping a beat and keeping this focus will help morale as well.  New technology is the source of most of the major productivity gains and cost savings of the last 20 years.  So the organization as a whole needs to stay tuned-in to any opportunities coming on the horizon.

Plus, think of the fun watching the trade press and the vendors being chased and harvested by the aliens, it could not happen to a better group.  I cannot wait for the shift in editorial priority and ad focus.  Get your copies of the “Aliens” and “1984″ ready for reference!

Cloud Killer App: Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places

The new darling of the technical media and every product company, Cloud Computing, is searching for it’s Killer Application.  That seems to be the topic of every article and PR announcement.  Every show and seminar proclaims to have previews or insights to this great new Holy Grail. This Grail is the software that will launch the Cloud Computing platform to prominence and make everybody billions.  Really! Whatever they are smoking can I get some too!  What totally scares me is being “one” with Larry Ellison.  How did I ever get in this philosophical state?

During prehistoric times as a college student, a professor of mine returned a paper I submitted with a simple comment; “If this is the solution, what was the problem again?”.  The professor gave me the Stalinistic “opportunity” to resubmit the paper with either the same or (hint hint) modified solution (wrong choice: Gulag for you).  Believing he was the south-side of a north-bound mule, I knew there was a trick to this situation.  Disassembling the paper logical thread by logical thread revealed he was right; the solution the paper proposed did not map to the original case study problem and an all night typewriter-based re-write was in order ( I hate when that happens!).

Pardon the rambling dementia, but we have the same situation here, Cloud Computing does not necessarily lead to a new Killer Application.  Logically, Cloud Computing will lead to a new range of hardware, not software innovation.   Cloud Computing presents the opportunity not to be enslaved to a classic server based data center or even a PC.  It will supercharge mobile computing via advanced cellphones and drive further mobile gadget innovation.  Cloud Computing drives pervasive computing, that is it’s Killer Application.

Image courtesy of King Megatrip

Web 2.0: Rumors of My Death Are Greatly Exaggerated

Sometimes it is a good idea to step back and think after reading the breathless reporting on the Great Left Coast Technology Shows, TechCrunch 50 and Demo Fall . What is most interesting is some of the ensuing analysis.  For example, this piece basically says Web 2.0 is dead, because the offered Web 2.0 innovation was yet another photo site, friend network, etc…  Even Web 2.0′s death is old news.  During November 2006, Web 2.0 was considered as much as dead to be superseded by Web 3.0  (ugh!!! I haven’t got Web 2.0 straight yet).

What is going on?  How can I even remotely look intelligent as a technologist going for budget or capital to work with Web 2.0 technology?  Dead, not dead, no wait it is Web 3.0.  This would make anybody think the IT profession as a whole was psychotic for even suggesting a value proposition incorporating Web 2.0 technology within or without the company.

Perhaps a different view would help put all of the noise in perspective.  After recently reading “Engines that Move Markets: Technology Investing from Railroads to the Internet and Beyond” by Alasdair Nairn, one can apply the lessons learned from past cycles of technology adoption to that of Web 2.0.  While technologies such as railroads, electric lighting, and automobiles are dissimilar, they all tend to follow the same cyclic steps.  One of those early steps is the rise of copycats or “me-too-ism”.  Everybody wants to jump on that gravy train with biscuit wheels, and hopes to tap into the investment cash stream moving into the new technology innovation.  By gauging where you stand step-wise in the cycle you will know when and where to invest.  So in this case Web 2.0 is not dead, it is merely signaling a move to the next stage.

The next stage will be corporate and organizational adoption, not necessarily the next great consumer Web site.  The consumer space has been the lead innovation ground for the Internet, with corporate and organizational use trailing.  So the consumer space is moving to the later consolidation phase for Web 2.0, while the corporate and organization space is beginning innovation and adoption.  Just the announcements by IBM for a social collaboration lab and Oracle for their Beehive initiative show the value of using this cyclic model as a lens for evaluation.

Now is really the time for corporations and organizations to begin to consider adoption of Web 2.0 technology with implementation studies and pilot programs.  The potential productivity gains and first mover benefits will be huge for those who can begin the cultural changes necessary.  Because the technology drives more of a cultural and organizational change than a true technological change there is little benefit to waiting for the technology to be “perfected”.  Instead, the organization’s culture needs to adapt to best practice in collaboration and analytics driven evolution, and where people are concerned it takes time to adapt and assimilate.

Image courtesy of gapingvoid.com

Chrome: Apple Looks Better All The Time

I should be biting my tongue, but the pain exploding in my brain by thinking this prevents me from doing anything further to my anatomy.  As one who escaped IBM’s totalitarian regime of the 1980′s (run Apple 1984 Super Bowl commercial), I can not believe I want to return, even if Steve Jobs is cool and IBM was not.  Chrome is what is sending me there.

Does anybody think of the poor slobs shoveling coal in the bowels of IT support when they think up a new browser or (shudder!) yet another toolbar.  These unsung heroes are just turning the corner on the Safari onslaught — every user with an iPod (99.999998% approx.) had this disease ridden Typhoid Mary installed on their PC auto-magically (thank you for the opt out Apple, not).  At least Chrome is “voluntary” at this point, requiring a mouse click for download, but given Google’s track record with their Toolbar, it is sure to be foisted on every unsuspecting PC in short order.  I can’t wait.

The best part about all of these revolutionary browsers is playing malware shell games with their developers: “We fixed some bugs, but we are not going to tell you which ones (Ha Ha Ha).”  Nothing personal, but what happened to “Do No Evil”?  It is an oxymoron, name one marketing/advertising entity with morals (it started with Josef Goebbels and has been downhill ever since).

This weeks Economist has a much more interesting insight in its technology section. The bulk of the world will be accessing the Internet through their cell phones based on cost, penetration, and true ubiquity.  This is the platform of the future and the one most in need of innovation and development (the greatest good for the greatest number I always say).  Putting all of the resources of the Internet in the hands of the poor and repressed and truly flattening the world as put forward by Friedman seems so right, squabbling over the desktops of the rich developed world seems so Evil (well trivial and venal in any case).

I am not a Luddite (argh! I am having an existential moment), Chrome does have value beyond firing up the trade press and blog traffic (oops, did I say Chrome in my blog too?).  It legitimately tries to move the user experience up a level in terms of trying to derive an informational level of interface instead of gratuitous data groveling at a list level.  More research needs to move in this direction as the data volumes increase to the absurd.  One question we discussed: Would cartoon character representation assist C-level executives understanding?  The answer is of course, Yes! Only The Family Guy could illuminate those fixtures.