Monday, December 30, 2013

Working on Vacation

I switched on my laptop to check on my holiday resort reservation and a message popped on my screen, an accusing one at that: “What are you doing online on vacation ? Checking email or responding to some crisis that requires your intervention ? Or just that you cannot get work out of your veins ?”. I tried to justify to her that I was not checking mails, nor facing anxiety or withdrawal symptom disconnected from my mail. I was just checking on my bookings and that’s that. “Then why is your corporate IM on ?” she chided.

It’s that time of the year when everyone, well almost everyone (travel and hospitality industries excluded) is on vacation. Whichever part of the world you look at, across cultures, companies, industries, everyone is on vacation as evidenced by their “Out Of Office” messages. It’s like the entire world shuts down for a period of 2-3 weeks going out on trips, spending time together with family and/or friends, enjoying snow or the sun, and to that extent business for most comes to grinding slow motion if not fully shut.

Over the years OOO (Out of office) messages have increased during festive seasons and less frequent for rest of the year. Immediate conclusion would be that people are working harder through the year and then taking a good long well deserved vacation. It could also imply that irrespective of travel, vacation, weekend or time of the day, everyone gets their hands on their mobile devices and feel gratification giving attention to whatever came in or responding to mail, or just checking out or updating social status.

Our need to constantly check our smartphones has resulted in a situation that we compulsively want to stay connected all the time. It is now psychological and nothing to do with work or life or the balance that was a discussion in the past. To check my hypothesis I sent messages to about 600+ people in my list; CEOs, Head of business, friends, relatives, and loads of business acquaintances. I received about 200 odd out of office messages telling me that they were on vacation and not likely to respond to messages.

The subject line clearly indicated “Seasons’ Greeting” and thus was not urgent, important, a crisis or life threatening to merit immediate attention or response. Despite this, within 24 hours I received about 70 responses to my messages from those who had set OOO status ! Most messages carried a “Sent from a …..” footer. Was it an acknowledgement of the greeting or my hypothesis that we have become slaves to technology ? I now know which smartphones they use or service provider they have subscribed to.

There was a time when I would respond to every message that needed a response or I had a view on as soon as it landed in my inbox. Everyone loved it and commended my quick response; I was on 24 hour clock, not that it helped my life at home, I was thumb happy. Is it more to do with the way the stimulus response is changing rather than just work or life ? Are there any remedies available beyond old and simple willpower ? Is there a way out for the corporate bonded labourers armed with technology that keeps them in chains ?

Reality is that this is self-imposed nemesis of time, energy and expectations; if anything indeed merits response, do it, in most cases the urgent or critical will not land in your inbox, people will call you. Messages with scores in “To” or “cc”, rarely require critical review or immediate attention. A 24 hour cooling period is equally good in most cases and works well enough. Exceptions could be individually marked messages that may come to you from your Boss or a peer CXO for information or action.

Driving back from a vacation with the family comprising two teenaged kids, I noticed that both were constantly glued onto the small screen with rapid thumb movements and fleeting expressions as they deftly switched from screen to screen and application to application. There was little communication between us as I manoeuvred the traffic and they sent updates ad infinitum. I wonder how the new generation would behave during their vacations or work; would it be in anyway separable for them ?

Monday, December 23, 2013

Enterprise projects versus Government projects

“Did you know that the government is the largest adopter of cloud computing ?” asked a cloud service provider trying to provoke the group into a discussion on why enterprises are not embracing his solution. One amongst the group of CIOs retorted back, “Do they know what they are doing ? And with no budget pressures or ROI to demonstrate, how do you equate their reality with ours ?”. Before it became a slugfest between the vendor and the CIOs, the convener intervened; but that had me thinking about context really being different ?

Over the years I had the fortune to meet many people from many countries who headed government projects. Some of them were qualified bureaucrats, some with backgrounds similar to current CIOs or project managers, and a few with no formal IT backgrounds. Their responsibilities were comparable to the enterprise equivalents and the only differentiator in most cases was the scale of operation. The projects they worked on were in many ways similar and quite different at the same time.

G projects especially that revolve around governance are humungous by nature as they impact a very large population (number of users); the complexity varies depending on the process or function. You could draw parallel with large enterprise CRM projects or for that matter self-service application deployed by Banks or telecom service providers. On the other hand there are also conventional automation projects akin to what every CIO and enterprise does as a routine with a view to create operational efficiency.

Enterprise IT drivers and critical success factors comprise on-time, within budget, business functionality and/or benefit and nowadays usability across platforms; corporate project governance keeps everyone on their toes. I am sure that G projects too have somewhat similar drivers and accountability to internal stakeholders. Circumstantial evidence would however point to the fact that the percentage of G projects meeting the success criteria is far lower than corporate. To the taxpayer who funds these, there is limited visibility.

One project lead narrated an incident where the ministers kept changing through the project leading to significant change in scope and timelines. The said project finally went live with 100% time overrun; he did not divulge the budgetary impact. Many years later it is cited as one of the major success stories though it still remains challenged for the masses that use it. Change management is more complex with multiple stakeholders who are required to sign-off and by the time they do, a new set of stakeholders emerges.

Some may argue that an IT project is an IT project and requires the same level of discipline of execution irrespective of where it is done. It is public knowledge that almost all G projects undergo severe review and the bidding process favours the most economical; at least for the initial bid, change requests is another matter. The corporate world is unkind to this flexibility though price war is getting messy for everyone. With different contexts then is it then fair to compare an apple to a pineapple ?

Multi-year projects are passé now though most G projects are that way; maybe they now factor in their unique reality and thus allow for higher latitude than available to a CIO. Project governance, reporting and transparency is not common to all; not too long ago a high profile G CIO was shunted out as he was making many uncomfortable with his open to all reports. He took a leaf from acceptable good practices but the plans, ideas and governance were not acceptable to the well-entrenched way of working.

While we acknowledge the differences in context and realities, I believe that the comparisons are unfair to both. Corporate business entities will always be more aggressive in their approach to capture the first mover advantage or adapt technology for sustenance and survival. They seek market share, profitability, growth and much more. Most Government projects on the other hand do not have a timeline that is critical and therein lays the difference. I wonder if G projects were to be run like corporate projects what would happen !

Monday, December 16, 2013

Clouded judgment, slip in the rain

He was one proud adopter of cloud technologies and had moved almost all applications to the public cloud. It was a case study written about and discussed in forums and publications. He was hosted, flown across cities by the provider to talk about his experience and give advice on why everyone should consider the cloud. His stature had grown and he advocated the use of clouds for scalability, lower TCO, variability of cost, almost like the poster boy that the industry was looking for and had found one in him.

I met the CEO of that company last week and engaged him in some small talk on the business and how my cloudy CIO friend was doing ? The CIO had reverted all applications back to the on-premise data centre in a hurry. One fine day the cloud provider declared an outage and it just happened to be the day when the load was high; the revenue impact was substantial. The CEO had then warned the CIO to take care of such eventualities. Then of all things the hosted gate pass application stopped working.

Last week was one with unseasonal rain which surprised everyone with every falling drop. Across multiple discussions with different groups in formal and informal settings, adoption of cloud was omnipresent. How many of you have adopted the cloud for your workloads ? Which apps would you move to the cloud in the future ? Why is manufacturing so averse to adopting the cloud ? Even ERP is now available on the cloud ! Vendors in some discussions offered to conduct a “Cloud readiness assessment”.

On the table were many views on all kinds of cloud: highly virtualized data centres masquerading as private clouds, to Infrastructure, Platform and Applications as a service. All flavours of solutions and orchestration engines including a couple which promised to manage hybrid clouds. Voices raised incidents of hybrids not working effectively or seamlessly, leading to clouds not working with random and frequent outages, leaving the CIO smarting with no real recovery option except to wait it out.

In a discussion, taking examples from Sales Force Automation and some ecommerce applications doing well, CIOs from manufacturing were challenged to find business cases within their industries and organizations. None forthcoming, the vendors provoked the group to stop hugging servers and let go. Chastened the group retaliated and one CIO raised a question to a hardware vendor: “Have you move your ERP that runs your factory and supply chain to your Cloud ?” Sheepishly the answer came “no”.

Many vendors will sell the cloud with financial metrics that belie any rational thought; cost of variable fractional CPU saved and hundreds of MB of storage across 17 applications adds up to some cost, or the additional hour spent by the engineer over a weekend to ensure that the full backup was successful. Do we really pay that way such that we can apply microeconomics to calculate real savings ? I have yet to come across anyone who did and saved big bucks. Decision between capital investment and operating expense is a CFO call.

Coming back to the gate pass application, why is it such a critical application ? Entry and exit of every person, vehicle and goods from the factory premises depends on it. It was the most innocuous and the most critical application for continued operation of the factory. Amidst the lot of hue and cry, the CIO had no option but to come down to terra firma. He admitted that he should have been pragmatic in his approach and not moved everything to the cloud. DR to the cloud was not envisaged and there too laid his folly.

Everyone is experimenting and exploring the cloud in some shape, form or avatar. Many have moved non-critical workloads or external apps; not many references of other kinds of legacy or ERP type apps for largely centralized enterprises. Hybrids remain experimental for now while start-ups are enjoying the benefit of no upfront investments. Pure play technology companies find clouds viable, the rest of the old and large businesses continue to tread cautiously and take a step-by-step approach to the cloud.

You don’t slip in the rain that way !

Monday, December 09, 2013

Predictions from 2004, where are we today !

A decade back almost to the date of writing this passage I had presented to my then management team the rolling 3-year Business Technology plan and hazarded predictions for the future. The plan had components of what we would focus on and required endorsement of business projects which would in turn get budgetary approval. The predictions were another matter; while a decade back opinions about IT were subdued, they did challenge some of the thinking and conventional outlook at that time.

It is not typical to make predictions as a part of an IT strategy or annual plan, at least I have not seen or heard of any, but it has been a trend that I have followed which makes life quite interesting for everyone on the table. It also creates a discussion on which technologies we should explore and invest time in. Some have followed the technology hype curves published by leading research companies while some have been an antithesis to them, my view as I saw the applicability within the enterprise or at times a hunch.

So here’s the original unedited list of 7 published in December 2003.

Web-tone will replace dial-tone. Almost everything will connect to a web service. Well we never got a web-tone though everything now connects to the Internet. Almost all calls and chats and collaboration use the web in some form or the other. Conventional voice communication has been losing minutes for a long time now and is not differentiable from VOIP traffic.

Software distribution will reduce significantly with all applications moving towards the Browser. Some of this was aided by thin client technologies and then the move towards browser enabling most front ends. However that did not last too long with the mobile demanding attention. Starting with WAP and other protocols, with HTML5 now almost all content is moving to the browser

Centralized computing will drive down costs. Well to some extent the centralization did happen with most client server applications dying away. But the new disruption happened with the highly virtualized data centre moving into the Cloud. Everyone promised that costs will come down with higher utilization and buying only what you want. The debate on this one is still on.

Portable devices will outnumber desktop devices. I am kind of proud of this one ! Mobile devices are indeed outnumbering the desktop or for that matter desktop and laptops combined. My prediction did not envisage the tablet and the phablet, it was based on higher speed data connectivity of which I kind of had a sneak preview in my telecom stint.

The distinction between the computer and the network will be eliminated. Maybe I was following someone who claimed that network is the computer a lot more than I would say now; the computing device and the network are intertwined integrally and feed of each other pushing the barriers to levels that were un-imagined earlier.

Skilled senior level manpower will be extremely difficult to find. I wish I was wrong on this one, but it has been indeed extremely difficult to find good senior staff across domains and expertise. I wonder why with so many people joining the industry globally, the available talent should go up. So where do people fall off during the journey that makes it difficult to find them ?

The computer is the next generation Idiot Box. With the computer changing its conventionally accepted avatar and TVs getting smarter, we being enamoured by smartphones and changing them ever so often, I think the devices we use are making us dumber. The computer is slowly getting distant from the user moving away to the cloud or getting into our hands in a 5-6” form.

I can’t say I got all of them correct, neither was I way off. A few years back I wrote about predictions and why they don’t matter anymore. Every year brings a new flavour and then half way through we find ourselves in a wave that we had no clue about. These get named as disruptive innovation and get into the hype cycle which all of us love to follow. No predictions now, let’s get down to some work.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Annual Appraisals and Feedback

He came out of the room fully drained from the marathon discussion with his team member; the appraisal had lasted more than five hours. His team was watching from the sides of their eyes trying to guess who won. It was not the first time an appraisal had taken that long with the appraisee. The demeanour suggested that the CIO had not been able to prevail and had to concede some ground. The victor emerged later beaming that he had the ratings he wanted in his appraisal.

For many this time of the year – December – brings appraisal time when the annual game begins with everyone attempting to be on their best behaviours; keep smiling, look good, don’t upset the boss, don’t make mistakes, say all the nice things, tolerate quirkiness that makes all bosses a pain. This time of the year (some companies have different year ends and some countries like India have financial year end in March) brings butterflies even to the strongest stomach, irrespective of how well or badly they may have done.

Every company has an annual appraisal cycle, some do it more often with a mid-term check, and few have also adopted a quarterly discussion. Appraisals review performance against set objectives in most cases and others review consistent productivity and quality (e.g. production workers or financial back office or for that matter within IT the helpdesk and system/database administrators). Mistakes are frowned upon and may bring the score down. It matters since in almost all cases the increments are linked to appraisals.

On top of this exercise that forces managers to have a courageous conversation with their team, many companies use bell curve to force fit performance within a function, location or the entire company. The resultant pushbacks, disagreements, and angst have been accepted with a hypothesis that bell curves take away sub-optimal talent raising the performance bar. Statistically bell curves have had no impact on corporate performance, profitability or relative growth in the industry. Recent announcement by one of the tech bellwether companies discarding the bell curve had many celebrating.

The CIO who had aspirations to grow into a HR role was discussing how to manage the employee in question who always managed to stay one up on him. Listening to the story, I found myself at the edge of the seat with multiple questions and answers. I could visualise the situations and his helplessness which arose due to his inherent nature and behaviour. He was a good person and had done well over his 25 odd years of work life. He always drove decisions by consensus and avoided conflict or confrontation.

Managing recalcitrant behaviour does require a firm demeanour; his ability to remain on top of the situation failed him many times when he was required to be assertive, take a stand or give bad news. People took advantage of this and he a backseat most of the time. The appraisal discussion was no different with the employee using all instances to his advantage where he had raised the issue with the CIO and not received feedback. The CIO was reluctant and did not know how to give candid feedback.

Annual appraisals are not the only opportunity to give feedback to a person in the team. It should be continuous tactically and periodically planned discussion to review progress, consider challenges, explore opportunities for improvement, and overall development. Restricting this to once in a year takes away the context and relevance or focuses only on the recent past. Performance review and appraisal is an art and a science which is easily mastered, giving factual especially negative feedback is an act of courage for many.

Many years later I happened to meet the “difficult” employee; I found him knowledgeable with an inherent need to talk and discuss throwing challenges to the other side as if to test the other persons’ expertise. I enjoyed the conversation as he gradually backed off and focused on the discussion at hand. I could see why he would be a difficult person to manage if not held with a firm reign. He received the suggestions and worked upon them. Today he has matured and manages a team having himself survived multiple managers in the same company.