Tuesday, November 24, 2009

It's Tough To Be A SharePoint Guy

There is a gigantic field of people who are chomping at the bit to do SharePoint consulting. They all seem to be very busy, as well. Most of them have polished presentations and speak intelligently about their methodology, the importance of interviewing employees and taking time to document process flows, document types, develop taxonomies, etc.

None of them, at least that we've seen, are very good at running a project from start to finish if you don't have endless years and deep pockets.

If you don't have an appetite for custom development, opting instead to use that which you can support yourself absent an army of SharePoint coders, getting SharePoint installed becomes a very trying exercise.

There are some things that SharePoint does well, and that will be valuable to enterprise organizations who invest in their IT groups (rather than just spending money on them, which is a big difference).

However, most of those things - from an administrative standpoint; from the perspective of an IT director; are overshadowed by all of the things SharePoint either does poorly, or not at all. Even in MOSS 2007, even with the enterprise version of the product, there's a lot that can (and does) frustrate a quality-minded IT manager.

It seems like we might have been the last people on earth to embark upon a SharePoint deployment, but at times, it seemed like we might have been the first. Our knack for running into legitimate issues and bugs that "nobody" has seen before is truly miraculous - a candidate for a well funded study if ever there was one.

If you have NOT yet drank the MOSS kool-aide, and do not have an endless supply of developers to whom you can throw every little requirement, keep the following in mind: implementing it is going to be a problem, but nothing you cannot overcome. It will fall short of your expectations. It will not go smoothly. You will start to become adept at finding the capability gaps in the people delivering the solution to you, and will realize what we have - that NOBODY is good at this.

Maybe it'll be better in the next version.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Still with the Cold Calling? Really?

I'm baffled that this actually works, but it must, because there are so many companies doing it. I realize this is the third time in as many years that I've written about this, but it is endlessly frustrating yet amusing in a "Curb Your Enthusiasm" sort of way.

For those unfamiliar with the principle, get this. People will actually call up out of the blue, ask to speak to "the IT department", and announce quickly that "they're not selling anything" (because that would be unspeakable!), but rather, they're collecting answers on topic X, Y, or Z for some anonymous cabal of vendors too inept to figure out what the market wants or needs.

Our favorite response is to let the caller know that we have corporate rules restricting us from answering survey questions. Plausible deniability. Sometimes it gets you off of the list for good, sometimes not, but it always makes for a short call.

Just as baffling are the people that survey callers look down upon - the cold calling salesperson. Literally phone a company at random, as for someone, and try to convince them that they should give you the time of day (much less start spending money with you) in the span of about 15 seconds.

Who are the people that keep feeding the birds? Don't feed the birds. Didn't your parents teach you anything? You feed the birds, and more and more show up, and it ruins things for everybody. Don't feed the birds. Do NOT respond to cold callers.

Here's how conversations go for me with these people lately.

The long form:

(phone rings)
ZM: "Zen Master here."
CC: "Hi, can I speak to the person in charge of purchasing decisions for X?" (usually toner or backup tapes or cell phone accessories or something else stupid)
ZM: "That's me, what can we do for you?"
CC: "I'm with Bob's Pretty Good company, have you heard of us?"
ZM: "No."
CC: "Well I'd like to see if we can get on your schedule to talk about all the ways we can save your company money and make everyone more efficient and clear up bad complexions and cure swine flu...what does your calendar look like?"
ZM: "We're all set on that front, but I appreciate the call."
CC: "So what do you use for swine flu and bad complexions?"
ZM: "I'm not inclined to reveal that to you." (click)

The short form:

(phone rings)
ZM: "This is the Zen master."
CC: "Hi Zen master, I'm with Radioactive Toner company and wanted to see if you had any upcoming projects, you know, involving toner, that we might be able to help with."
ZM: "We're all set on toner, but thanks for the call." (click)

This one is interesting too, ever since we became EA customers, people are presenting themselves as being with Microsoft. A particularly sneaky tactic, MS will actually badge channel partners as employees, so they can 'legitimately' say they are with Microsoft. I have nothing but loathing for this form of deceit. I am shocked, SHOCKED, that my influential blog has not put a stop to this practice once and for all.

The liar:

(phone rings)
ZM: "Zen master here."
CC: "Is this the Zen master?"
ZM: "Yes, who is this?"
CC: "I'm Bob calling on behalf of Microsoft."
ZM: "Who are you with?"
CC: "Microsoft?"
ZM: "You aren't on my list of account representatives."
CC: "Well I'm calling on behalf of Microsoft."
ZM: "That's why I asked who you work for."
CC: "Oh, I'm with (some company nobody ever heard of)."
ZM: "Okay, thank you." (click)

One guy recently never came clean, and I knew it, but acted like I didn't. Genuine account reps know everything about us...if someone calling doesn't, they are not with Microsoft.

Perhaps one of you will know what website I can go to in order to get a rebate on all the time I waste with these people. If not, hopefully you get a little satisfaction knowing you're not alone (or that your job could be a lot worse).

Friday, August 21, 2009

Progress At Last

We finally got the issue with our image resolved and were able to deploy all of our new hardware...just under 500 systems, in just over 3 weeks in June (we took it easy). Everyone seems very happy with them thus far...lots faster, for certain. I do wish the connection manager component with Dell was as good as IBM's Thinkvantage Access Connections, so we'll keep pushing for improvements.

Finally getting some traction on the SharePoint front as well, using a consulting "mercenary" of sorts who has done a great job helping us map our requirements to features, and actually show us what things will look like as we go.

Windows Server 2008 R2 looks as if it may have some interesting benefits for us, as it applies to the total mobility effort we're undertaking. What we have in the lab now isn't far off, frankly, and it's pretty exciting to see it come together. 2008 R2 makes a compelling case to use Windows 7 once it's finally released also, which is depressing in a way, but is something we'll have to keep an eye on.

We just renewed our EA and Support agreements with Microsoft. I had high expectations but low hopes that our Microsoft relationship would be anything other than artificially pleasant and devoid of substance. In short, I've never been so happy to be wrong in my life. What a great lesson.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Sea Change

While we still don't have our imaging show-stopper taken care of, we're a lot closer. In fact, we're about to download the latest version of our image on ISO's to test, and if the 'fix' we've received does the trick, we'll finally be able to deploy our desktop and laptop hardware - about three months late.

On another front, we were able to migrate off of Novell GroupWise and on to Exchange 2007, with surprisingly little fuss. We used ZENworks to deploy Office 2007 silently, and with all of our Outlook settings pre-populated. We obviously deployed Microsoft Active Directory, using Server 2008 and native mode (I think).

Finally, we dropped our Novell licenses in favor of renewing only the ZEN 10 products for configuration management, asset management, and patch management. This allows us to bring forward the ZEN functionality we were unable to find anywhere else, while finally ridding ourselves of this increasingly cumbersome Novell infrastructure.

We're looking forward to taking full advantage of MS Server 2008 features such as DFS, to simplify backups, file & printer sharing, etc. at our remote sites. We'll be looking closely at Cisco WAAS products in this space.

We've also integrated our network with that of a recent acquisition, using an internet-based VAS Half Tunnel from Sprint. The connection between our networks is 10Mbps, which performs very well so far despite lack of end-to-end CoS/QoS tagging (call it what you want). The next steps there are to basically import their users and e-mail into our AD and Exchange system, using local servers, and begin doing some cool DR stuff using VMware and (hopefully) NetApp storage at the far end.

Despite the bad economy, we're busier than ever. We're nearly finished implementing Microsoft SharePoint (MOSS 2007), and are about to implement Microsoft OCS as well.

The complexion of this environment has undergone rapid, radical change, and we've been successful at facilitating this change with a very small but talented group of individuals. It took around 1,200 man hours over a month to get Exchange in place, and we completed the migration in less than 72 hours. After some post-implementation firefighting, we're pretty confident that we didn't lose a single mailbox, address book, or archive.

Our satisfaction survey following the Outlook/Exchange migration was overwhelmingly positive. In fact, only two of our roughly 500 employees had nothing positive to say. Many went out of their way to complement us on the process, and the decision to do so. Happy customers are a good thing.

Monday, February 02, 2009

The Age Of Careless Development

It's become really quite alarming lately, just how bad software has become. Everywhere. It's impossible to single out a given vendor for being worse than the rest, without being entirely subjective. They all stink, equally, but in different ways.

In fact, I cannot think of a single software vendor at the moment - or even hardware vendors who write complementary software packages - who are anywhere near proficient or at least competent.

I mentioned to a vendor earlier today, that "we" (as in, the IT industry) is worse at managing computer hardware now than we were 6 years ago. Dell has made the ImageDirect process unbelievably cumbersome. Microsoft's SMS / SCCM is still unweildy and ineffective, ZENworks (while still one of the better offerings) has launched down a rabbit hole so deep and dark that nobody dare follow - to say nothing of the fact that their company isn't interesting to anyone anymore (vis-a-vis the cancellation of BrainShare for the first time ever). Lenovo just flat gave up on imaging, pushing the task to "partners" like Insight, who as box pushers, struggle to manage the lifecycle of a product-customer relationship well at all.

Referring to our current image-impacting show-stopping software bug, that vendor said "Man, I hope desktop virtualization fixes this." And so do I, but I'm still skeptical.

Somewhere along the line, the stuff that made great programmers and resulted in great software, has become lost.

It's almost as if the tools became too easy. Anyone could make software that looked real, because in Windows-land, it all basically looks the same. What's masked is the hard and careful work that used to go into making it work well - which was usually far more important than how it looked. Some of the best running software looked the worst. Take RPG applications on AS/400. They. Just. Never. Fail.

Programmers used to be a unique breed, because not everyone could visualize how everything worked, and make it do what they wanted. Nowadays, you just have to read some Visual Crap++ books or watch a webinar, and viola - you're a developer.

Software developers need to be reconnected with those of us who USE their code day-in and day-out. The whiteboard upon which requirements were drawn will never use the software they produce - people do. If you've had to manage people, or ever managed an IT group, you can spot fundamental, architectural problems in software from a country mile. But developers these days don't have that experience, and they don't get that guidance from their product managers. Which means they churn out code that met requirements only the straw man from "Wizard of Oz" could ever use.

Making matters worse is when companies give up on actual development, farming it off to "code vendors" in favor of becoming keepers of the Gantt chart instead. Development is an organic process, and the people who are the best at it are the ones who are genuinely invested in the success of the organization for whom they're doing development. When the guy writing the code is never going to talk to someone using it (or even the person buying it), they're a lot less accountable - which means they're a lot less careful, or proactive, or focused.

These are all easy problems to solve, and if we're truly entering the age of the cloud where software isn't the commodity anymore, it's absolutely crucial that companies recognize the advantages of experience-based development. Rational Rose, rapid, lean, whatever the buzzword is today, are no substitutes for development lifecycles that involve seasoned professionals who know how EVERYTHING works together.