Sunday, September 30, 2007

Releasing Big Software Systems: Just do It

This blog entry is a result of a WSJ article dated 09/25/2007. The article was covering the release of Oracle Payroll ERP in the Arizona State University where the information technology department decided it will be more effective to stick to rigid deadlines, releasing the software on schedule even if all the kinks hadn't been worked out- and try to fix the problems on fly. The software was released in an unconventional way but painful approach. The approach was Admit from the start that there will be mistakes and hten work through with glitches in production with the actual users.

Every large system implementation is mired with schedule, cost and scope issues. It has become a question of whether it will happen or not but when it will happen. The software industry and the project management thought gurus continue to be baffled by the continuous lack of maturity of the software system implementations. Project management outline of processes, tasks, measures are all modes of reducing the risk but do not eliminate the inevitable. Every time a project encounters a miscue, process mania creates more controls and communication models that suffocate the individual output and productivity. But there is no one on the project team (customer, vendor, and other stakeholders) to challenge the process overkill. The progress and the output are measured on project charts and schedules. There is often a quote ‘We will finish this project on Microsoft Project’. The ability to see the big picture is increasingly lost and every issue is deemed detrimental and becomes a stalemate. Subsequently the project team morale goes south since things are not going as planned and finger pointing and CYA mindset sets in. It is tragic and highly debilitating to all the parties involved that no one can see beyond the petty issues. I guess the root cause of this malaise is the expectation setting at the start of any project. The projects are sold as the next best thing after the slice of bread. It is not that the system and solution are not going to improve the overall business process efficiency but the bar is too high. The yardstick is contradictory to the ground reality. The systems take time to mature and they are not right in the first go round. (The fact is that most of the software system/solutions take 3-4 versions before they deliver the actual desired benefits and their design goals. The earlier versions of windows were dismal and it took almost the 4 version to get it to an acceptable and desired threshold of acceptance among the user community. Today it is the age of perpetual beta software’s (Google Gmail continues to be a beta product after 4 years in existence). But somehow that reality check is missing in the business community and the message from the software community gets distorted by the time it reaches the business community. The funny part of the story is that key drivers of the project understand this challenge but they choose to ignore reality. It is either under the aegis of ‘not my problem’ or ‘we are bound contractual boundaries’ that people shy away from facing the brutal reality. As we ignore reality we are actually caught in a downward spiral. The occasional messiahs are shot down by reference to historical facts. The players become so risk averse to the point of negative returns.

Is there a way out of this rut? I guess it takes some individual champions who have the political and leadership clout to ignore the noise. Yes it will ruffle people since you ignoring the cynics, it takes political and mental fortitude to call the shots and make progress. For software implementation you can choose the University of Arizona route of implementation (albeit some will see that as political suicide) or never come out of the vicious cycle of over planning, feature creep, scope change, schedule slippages and risk multiplication effect. I am in the doer category of things whose motto is ‘ Just do it’. I will like to leave you with two quotes from two respected entities in the business world

“We have a ‘strategic plan.’ It’s called doing things.”—Herb Kelleher

“We made mistakes, of course. Most of them were omissions we didn’t think of when we initially wrote the software. We fixed them by doing it over and over, again and again. We do the same today. While our competitors are still sucking their thumbs trying to make the design perfect, we’re already on prototype version #5. By the time our rivals are ready with wires and screws, we are on version #10. It gets back to planning versus acting: We act from day one; others plan how to plan—for months.”—Bloomberg by Bloomberg

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

S2 and India Trip: Part 1

The trip to Chennai started with me making some assumptions about my flight time from DC. Not to anybody’s surprise, I assumed my flight was scheduled at 5:50 pm EST when in fact was 4:45 pm EST. What followed was the typical S2 2 hours mayhem.. dumpster style packing, race to the airport and plead the way through security etc. As someone said your past experience not only makes you war-ready (clock ready in this case) but creates that semblance of confidence which is actually false since it rests on a very fine line. Anyway, I reached ahead of time with plenty to spare. In fact my travel partner was surprised. Hmm.. let me introduce him here, referred to as SP going forward. He was going to experience his ex motherland (I did not know motherland could change, he is now a proud US citizen) after 35 years. I wonder how old is he??

Anyway the flight experience was marked by this clumsy user interface tool for the seats and the audio/video equipment. In fact it clearly demonstrates what is lacking with today system designers of user interface. They make it so unwieldy and complicated and think they have worked out a cool device. I wish they dispel the assumption that people know computers and browsing for them is like a child’s play. Maybe 25 years from now but the money people (remember the baby boomers) like it simple and easy. For it was not easy, it gave you the opportunity to strike a conversation with the air hostess. Well she may think you are a looser but it is entirely on the individual creativity to use this opportunity and make the best of the situation J

The stay at the Frankfurt was not that much fun even though we used our United Card to be in a Lufthansa lounge. I sucked up good when I choose to spend euros on t-mobile hotspot. Yet another bad decision. The flight to India become interesting since all I could see was Chennai Software engineers in different shapes and forms (mind you I am one of the ugly specimens though not from South India) and the scene at the Frankfurt gate was pretty much reminiscent of a typical India international airport. So SP was anticipating his time in India and was getting mentally prepared for some cultural shock. Wonder why he chose the land of Rajnikanth (people who don’t know him its Ok, he is the Tom cruise of the South Indian cinema though some proclaim him to be more popular than Princess Diana), idlis and dosas ( fanatic Tamilians may claim dosas are legacy from adjacent rival state Karnataka). All I could say to SP was…What a choice!!!.

The immigration line at Chennai airport was long and stay there was protracted as I say my US citizen partner breeze past me (when would India respect their own citizens more…Hold on don’t do it now for I hope to become US citizen in the near future.

SP experienced his first rude awakening of the Indianism (new term coined by me) when no one stopped for him as he crossed a road to the parking lot. He was treated with couple of horns and Tamil stares. SP, the brave soul chose to sit up front and experience the chaotic driving in India on our rental chauffeur driven car ( Mind you ‘In chaos lies Creativity’). His first reaction was ‘ Looks like Egypt’. Poor guy had only experienced Egypt as a non developed country in his lifetime. Think about it, we as Indians project such an image of disorder that we are compared to Egypt even though we are miles ahead in all economic progress metrics. I wonder why J

The Hotel reception was interesting least to say. We were staying at ‘The Park’. The hotel was a decent attempt to copy Modern architecture based hotels. We as Indians do a decent job on copying. So the room had the right modern architectural elements in term of the bed, the study, the plasma but at the same time had pillows that were stained. We had modern bathroom elements but an interesting implementation of multi-headed shower (see the picture). Actually the hotel used to be an ex movie studio (Gemini). Wow a theme hotel in India. But all in all a decent hotel.

We experienced the Chennai traffic next morning when we headed to our office. We observed the creativity of Indians in action in how they leverage the width of a road. On a given three lane road, there were 6-7 vehicles. We support a heterogeneous mode of travel( cars, trucks, buses, motor bikes, rickshaw, scooter) apart from occasional animal rides (bullock cart). It appeared as a gridlock to any layman but everything was moving with unspoken rules and processes. Do we have a solution for the US gridlocks? I did forget to mention that horns (an unused tool in US automobile circle) were effectively deployed with great success. The Indian roads reflect one of the nature’s basic principles of food chain hierarchy. The bigger vehicle gets it right to way and the more agile (bikes, scooters) maneuvers their way. Law of Natural Survival in practice on Indian roads. The margin of error is very low and occasionally when a bike scratches the car on the side, the stares and occasional bad mouthing is met with a plastic ‘Sorry’.

Our CNSI office was nice and looked all crowded. In fact there was a specialist for every job. You had a specialist for ‘making and serving tea’, a specialist for ‘photo copying’, a specialist for closing and opening doors. Interesting when we tried to photo copy ourselves it was met with astonishment, concern and fear of job. No matter which way you look, the ancillary support organization was impressive. I think it leaves the engineers to just focus on the work in hand. I hope all this ancillary man force means better productivity and higher throughput from the India office. If it was not enough, we experienced a special check processing service where we did not leave our seat and our antiquated check (check with no MICR code and double the size of our current day check) was deposited and processed within 1 hour. Talk about customer experience. Well customer delight in this case.

As days progressed we chose to come to the office all by ourselves. We tried to reach the office at 9:00 AM in the morning. Well no jokes on IST time Ok but the fun was that we were dropped by our car in front of the elevator called lift in India (this is called chauffeur service). Well to our surprise, the lift did not operate before 9:30 AM. The reason was that the lift operator (specialist job) did not show up before 9:30 AM. (Remember JS experience in SD where going up and down the lift was no rocket science, Well in India it is some science for it needed a specialist whose job was to take the lift up and down almost 1000 times in a day). Well yet another curious observation that SP made was the tendency of Indians to form groups of people (2-5) and stand and observe. He was intrigued by it. It is definitely not a gay thing but Indians are very social and this chit chat keeps us sane in the midst of all the chaos and humdrum. One last incident was the little shopping experience. Yes we haggled for prices and even though we felt good about reducing the price by 20% it left us with a hollow feeling of how much more we have been cheated. And of course our beloved head of India operations picked up something for the most important person on the US office. Guess who!!

Anyway enough said about our interesting encounters there but on a final note before I close the blog entry, the Indian team in Chennai was very hospitable, pleasant, courteous and hungry for work. I wish them success!!!

Friday, September 07, 2007

Road to Customer Anthropology: S2 sounds weird

Whenever I reach a moment of aha!, I always try to reconstruct and see how it came about. My today's aha moment was getting across the concept of Customer Anthropology. Customer Anthropology: the act of observing customers in their natural habitat is definitely a powerful framework. I came across this unintentionally and credit to Dave Pollard's intriguing outline of the concept. The concept can be simplified as yet another approach to perform business process analysis but the emphasis is more closely observing the habitat, recognizing the human experience pain points and identify undiscovered interactions. More of the same but the devil in the detail and approaching with the mindset of an anthropologist. Yes it appears to being recognized now more and more in the industry thought it appeared in Fast Company article almost a decade ago. Anyway it is funny since I fumble on this concept without looking out for it on the internet. On the contrary , I am listening to the author of this new book 'The World Without You'. So I go to Amazon to know more about the book. This book was outlining how the man made infrastructure is going to self destruct and lead to interesting consequences. An excerpt from New Yorker review of the book
"Teasing out the consequences of a simple thought experiment—what would happen if the human species were suddenly extinguished—Weisman has written a sort of pop-science ghost story, in which the whole earth is the haunted house. Among the highlights: with pumps not working, the New York City subways would fill with water within days, while weeds and then trees would retake the buckled streets and wild predators would ravage the domesticated dogs. Texas’s unattended petrochemical complexes might ignite, scattering hydrogen cyanide to the winds—a "mini chemical nuclear winter."
So I read the customer reviews and encounter a series of books compilation on 'Save the World' and encounter this phenomenonally talented personality Dave Pollard. One of his previous works is on Customer Anthropology. interesting way of discovering new ideas. I am not sure search engines and computers will emulate this process of discovery in human brains. What do you think?

Sunday, September 02, 2007

9/11 and (WWI) Web War One

On the eve of 9/11, its always a time to do some retrospect. I guess there are many out there which will take position on either side of the table and make claims for the overall safety of US , global peace and world order. Well I wish not to suck in that debate but want to get your attention to the potential 21st century warfare and our first true experience of Web War. Many are calling it the WWI (Web War One) since it is for the first time a focussed attack was able to bring the entire government to a stand still. Yes, we have read this nightmare in science fiction thrillers but we have now experienced in real.The attack was against the most wired country in Europe-Estonia. According to defense minister Jaak Aaviksoo "All major commercial banks, telcos, media outlets, and name servers — the phone books of the Internet — felt the impact, and this affected the majority of the Estonian population. This was the first time that a botnet threatened the national security of an entire nation" Read this link for more details .
I guess one message for us to undertake is that in the race to connect and wire entire cities (San Francisco project) we are creating significant risks for our country and its citizen. Yes the security consultants will have a field day and reiterate the need for security and sell more products and services. But fundamentally every technology advance that human kind has experienced has resulted in in unknown loose ends. Yes there are sick minds who will exploit this and the worst is everyone's imagination. But as a part of the society, I am willing to take the risk for I want to enjoy the better half of technology collaboration, global connected society since benefits far outweigh the potential risks. What do you think?