Saturday, January 16, 2010

Changing Tastes

When I was a kid, I hated onions, green peppers, and mushrooms. I used to tell people I was allergic to mushrooms so they wouldn't try to make me eat them. I hated any sort of chunky sauce or really textured meat. I think I wanted everything to have either the consistency of a chicken nugget or ketchup. My parents used to tell me that when I was older my tastes would change. That I liked crappy food, disliked good food, and eventually I would realize it. They were right.

So kids like chicken nuggets and ketchup. Wow, huge revelation. What does this have to do with technology? I'm on the steering committee for an internal conference on software engineering that my employer is holding. I'm the most junior person on the committee, and most of the members are managers who have more managers reporting to them. Our technical program committee (separate, more technical people on it, but all very senior) just finished abstract selection and we've been discussing topics and candidates for a panel discussion. During this process I have been absolutely shocked by how my tastes differ from those of my colleagues.

I've noticed that within the presentations selected topics on process, architecture, and management are over-represented. On the other side, many of the abstracts that I thought were very good and deeply technical fell below the line. I can't quite say there was a bias towards "high level" topics, because I think they were over-represented in the submissions. Given the diversity of technology that's almost inevitable. A guy doing embedded signal processing and a guy doing enterprise systems would most likely submit very different technical abstracts, but ones on management or process could be identical. It's almost inevitable that topics that are common across specialties will have more submissions.

There's a similar story with the panel discussion. I wanted a narrower technical topic, preferably one that is a little controversial so panelists and maybe even the audience can engage in debate. My colleagues were more concerned with who is going to be on the panel than what they would talk about, and keeping the topic broad enough to give the panelists freedom.

What's clear is that my colleagues clearly have different tastes in presentation content than me. I think they are genuinely trying to compose the best conference they can, and using their own experiences and preferences as a guide. I think their choices have been reasonable and well intentioned. I just disagree with many of them. If I had been the TPC chair, I would have explicitly biased the selection criteria towards deeper, technical topics. Those are the topics I would attend, even if they are outside my area of expertise. I would use my preferences as a guide. But that leaves me wondering, in another five years or ten years are my tastes going change? My tastes have certainly changed over the past decade, so I have no reason to believe they won't change over the next. Will I prefer process over technology and architecture over implementation? Will I stop thinking "show me the code!" and "show me the scalability benchmarks!" when see a bunch of boxes with lines between them? I don't think so, but only time will tell. When I was a kid, I would have never believed that I would ever willingly eat raw fish, much less enjoy it, but today I do.

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Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Your Company's App

Tim Bray just posted a blog about how Enterprise IT is doing it wrong.  I can't really argue with that. He goes on to explain that Enterprise IT needs to learn from those companies building Web 2.0, because they deliver more functionality in less time and for a whole lot less money. This is where his argument breaks down. The problem is the type of Enterprise Systems he's talking about aren't Twitter, they're your company's app.

I work at a pretty big, stodgy, conservative company. I'm pretty sure, as far as things like ERP and PLM are concerned, my employer is exactly the type of company Tim is talking about, and like I said - he's probably right about the problem. But based on my own experiences and observations at my one lonely company, I think he's wrong in his suggestions. Comparing ERP and Facebook is like comparing apples and Apple Jacks.

The reason I think this is that in terms of deploying Enterprise 2.0 applications I think my employer has done fairly well. We have...

...and probably more stuff that I'm not aware of yet. Some of the above were bought, some were built, some were cobbled together with stuff from a variety of sources. I think most of them were built and deployed, at least initially, for costs about as competitive as possible with Web 2.0 startups and in reasonable timeframes. Of course, this means intranet scale at a Fortune 100 company (or in some cases a subset of it), not successful internet scale.

The problems the above face is much like the problem your typical startup faces: attracting users, keeping investors (sponsors) happy, dealing with the occasional onslaught of visitors after some publicity. But these problems are very different from the problems a traditional Enterprise Application faces. There is SOX compliance. There are no entrenched stakeholders. There are no legacy systems, or if there are they aren't that important. If only 10% of the potential user community actually uses the application, it's a glowing success. Negligible adoption can be accepted for extended periods while the culture adjusts, because the carrying cost of such applications is low.

But enterprise systems needs to deal with SOX. They have more entrenched stakeholders than you can count. These days there's always at least one legacy system, and often several due to disparate business units and acquisitions. If these systems fail, business stops, people don't get paid, or the financials are wrong. If only 90% of your buyers use your ERP systems to process purchase orders, it's an abject failure and possibly endangering the company.

A year or two ago someone "discovered" that a very common, important record in one of our internal systems had 44 (or something like that) required fields, and decided that this was ridiculous. A team was formed to streamline the processes associated with this record by reducing the number of fields. A detailed process audit was conducted. It turned out that every single one of them played a critical role in a downstream process. All the fields remained, and some old timers smiled knowingly.

As many humorless commenters pointed out on Eric Burke's blog, your company's app is your company's app for a reason, and often it's a good reason. These applications aren't complicated because of the technology. Internet applications are complex due to extrinsic forces - the sheer number of users and quantity of data that can deluge the application at any given moment. Enterprise systems tend to be the opposite. Their complexity is intrinsic due to the complexity of the diverse processes the support. The technology complexity (most of which is accidental) is secondary. Tim's suggestions provide a means of addressing technological complexity, and of building green field non-business critical applications in the face of uncertain requirements. They don't provide a means for dealing with critical systems laden with stakeholders, politics, and legacy.

I think the solution, or at least part of the solution, to the problem with enterprise systems lies in removing much of the functionality from them. There are things that must be right all of them time, but most of business (and engineering, etc) exists on a much fuzzier plane. The problem comes from coupling the precise (e.g. general ledger) with the imprecise (e.g. CM on an early stage design), and thus subjecting the imprecise to overly burdensome controls and restrictions. Only after this separation has been carefully implemented can functionality evolve in an agile fashion.

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