Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Vendor-Driven Technical Debt: Why It Matters and What to Do About It

IT Leaders continually strive to balance the diverging needs of the organization, trying to address the “innovate vs sustain” challenge. They need to ensure that the limited resources support the existing investments in technologies, systems and processes while also enabling innovative techniques.
One of the key challenges in sustaining technology landscape is to ensure “technical debts” are paid off.


The term technical debt is generally used to describe the burden created by decisions to cut corners during design and coding software. The catchy metaphor is attributed to Ward Cunningham, who helped us think about how quick-and-dirty solutions set us up for debt that has to be paid back with interest. Technical debt driven by software vendors is a less frequently discussed, but significant variation on the theme.

In a recently published article in Cutter IT Journal, I try to broaden the conversation around technical debt to include the challenges of keeping up with software vendors’ lifecycles. Such vendor-driven technical debt requires the continual attention of CIOs and technology executives who need to balance limited budgets to address the issue.


This seems to be a persistent challenge fellow Enterprise Architects face in other organizations too. For instance, a query in a recent EA forum generated nearly a dozen responses in a span of a few days.  Damien Malone’s queries on tracking technical debt - How do I track? What do I track? - yielded a range of ideas.

Crux of the problem

Enterprises of all sizes buy or license software products, solutions, and tools from vendors. These products range from small investments in worker productivity tools to large investments in ERPs, CRM, databases, and specialized solutions designed to meet specific functional needs. The decision to implement a version of the software  — for example, Oracle Database 12c Release 1 or SQL Server 2008 R2 or SAP ERP 6.0, EP 4 — is generally a strategic one, requiring considerable analysis, planning, and resources. Such decisions are taken at a point in time, while considering the organization’s business needs and constraints in the technology landscape.


Software vendors and solution providers continually upgrade their product offerings, promising newer technical and functional capabilities. In order to provide support, vendors expect clients to keep up with their upgrade cycles. Upgrading to a newer version of software recommended by the vendor requires deliberate impact assessment to understand the potential impact to systems upstream or downstream. Such an upgrade may have to be orchestrated with changes in the rest of the landscape; for example, during a large pre-scheduled program.


After a few cycles of not upgrading, the software may fall behind the vendor’s support cycles, and the vendor may demand a penalty for supporting older versions. Some vendors call this “extended support,” and it can be expensive.  In some cases, after adequate notice, vendors may stop support of versions going back several generations.


Note: a more detailed analysis of this topic and techniques to address and repay technical debt are in my Cutter IT Journal article “Vendor-Driven Technical Debt: Why It Matters and What to Do About It (link).”


Cross post from my LinkedIn Pulse article

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Musing on Food, Protein and Vegetarianism

My journey into the complex and fascinating business of agriculture started a little more than four years ago when I took on a role of Enterprise Architect with a multinational Agribusiness company. Learning about the “business” is critical for EA’s, given the role we play in bridging the IT-business divide. One could argue many of us – even urbane city dwellers - are not too far removed from food, and the business of getting food to the table. While my day job primarily focuses on Business Processes and services enabled by Technology, I try and keep abreast of the business of food. A recent book by Dr. Garth Davis’s “Proteinaholic: How Our Obsession with Meat Is Killing Us and What We Can Do About It” caught my attention.
In the nearly two decades that I have spent living in the west - in North America and Europe - as a vegetarian, I have been fascinated by the westerners’ penchant for protein in their diets. This has defined modern food habits and the central role meat and meat based entrĂ©e play in our daily lives. I am often asked by colleagues and friends about my protein intake and where vegetarians get this “much needed” nutrient. Rather than getting into a debate on my dietary preference, I downplay my vegetarianism or just deflect the questions. I realized that Dr. Davis’s book, although intended for a meat-eating audience, also offers tips that vegetarians can use to explain the benefits of their dietary preferences.
The well-researched book written in a folksy narrative style addresses some of the very same topics I had been observing, and reflecting on, much of it empirically. In the book, Dr. Davis takes us through a journey of his discovery and research on diet, after his flailing health acts as a call-to-action. Chapter after chapter, he refers to data and research to emphasize why excess protein (and meat) consumption by humans is neither necessary nor beneficial to the health and sustenance. He starts by explaining the major fallacy of modern medicine and how he “had come to view human body as a kind of expensive, unreliable car – something that was always breaking down and needing to be repaired. I was totally focused on treating disease – prevention hadn’t really entered my mind as a possibility.” 
I read the book with much interest; however, I am left shaking my head on whether it will make a dent in meat-centric diets that the western readers are used to. I am willing to bet that most, if not all Americans reading the book aren’t going to share the same epiphany as Dr. Davis, or the enthusiasm to convert to vegetarianism. Just a few reasons why:
  • Food is an acquired taste. One grows up eating comfort food at home and school and with family and friends. Preferences and attitudes towards food, taste and diet that one acquires at an early age are hard to change. For instance, even after having lived in the west for most of my adult life, I still find a plate of rice or rotis and lentil soup (Dhal), the Indian staple I grew-up on to be my comfort-food. Likewise, an American growing up on Burger-and-fries or pepperoni-Pizza is not going to easily acquire a taste for lentil-soup and rice or other vegetarian foods.
  • Western penchant for meat is exported as a subculture. In their quest to ‘globalize,’ newly affluent Chinese and Indian middle-class is taking to meat and poultry like duck to water. This trend is not likely to reverse anytime soon; and is likely to amplify as the next generation that is growing up on a diet of meat is going to look to it as comfort food.
  • Don’t under-estimate the power of food industry resistant to change. An entire multi-billion dollar industry thrives on converting grains, corn and soyabeans into cattle and poultry that in turn are slaughtered and processed into burgers and meat. This industry is likely to work hard to ensure status-quo, and continue to dictate consumer tastes in meat.
  • Doctor heal-thyself – in the first few chapters of the book, the author makes a point of emphasizing how modern medicine is focused more on cure, and less on prevention; and how diet receives minimal attention in modern medicine.  It would take scores of western doctors like Dr. Davis to have an epiphany, and a change in mindset, before they get to a point where they can prescribe a change to the rest of us.
Bottomline: Views and habits, especially when it comes to food are going to be especially hard to change. But for those looking to firm up their views on Protein in our diets, this book is a good reference

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Reignite the spirit of innovation by embracing Globalization!

For those of us in the vibrant field of Technology, President Obama’s question during the State of Union address this week How do we reignite that spirit of innovation to meet our biggest challenges? struck a chord.   Mr. Obama’s emphasis was on rekindling the American “spirit of innovation,” but what was unsaid was the need to embrace globalization in the quest.
Perhaps to underscore the point, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella was invited to be Michelle Obama’s guest at the State of the Union.  Microsoft, like most hi-tech companies, embraces ideas and people with ideas from around the globe while retaining its “American” identity.
It’s not just Microsoft. Other American tech giants like Amazon, Apple, Google, and firms in Silicon Valley have leveraged extensive global networks in order to retain an edge in digital technology innovations. Hubs of technology innovation also continue to grow in Ireland, Israeli and increasingly in Bangalore.
Case in point: SUVs Designed in the US but made in India
Just this week, there was an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal that described how the Indian auto giant Mahindra was betting big on sourcing Detroit's expertise in Auto design (link)
“Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd., a Mumbai-based conglomerate with a thriving tractor business and information technology operation in the U.S., quietly has amassed an engineering staff about a dozen miles north of Detroit. Plucking talent from Ford Motor Co., Tesla Motors Inc. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, the company aims to catch up with industry leaders by developing a vehicle able to meet American buyer’s demands and the nation’s tough regulatory standards. ….. The company’s senior executives say they are still intent on becoming a global force and Detroit, which Mahindra’s product planning chief Rajiv Mehtacalls “a Mecca for SUVs,” is a natural place for the company to learn how to do that.”
The article quoted an auto executive Lynn Bishop emphasizing how “Detroit isn’t outsourcing anymore, we’re being outsourced to.” Outsourcing Innovation in Automotive and other sectors is just tip of the iceberg. The trend seems to be much more pronounced in the digital startup space.
So, what does this mean?
In an election year, American leaders are bound to take a cue from Mr. Obama’s call to “Reignite the spirit of innovation.” Likewise, leaders in other countries are going to try and promote innovation within their shores: India, for instance has several initiatives like Startup India, Make in India and Digital India campaigns.
In the past, when confronted with outsourcing and offshoring, western governments began to erect protectionist barriers like visa and immigration restrictions. However, they will find it harder to erect barriers on innovation and ideation that continues to span geographic boundaries. This is a good thing for innovators and businesses that wish to benefit from the ideas.
  • Lower cost and barriers to entry. Access to ubiquitous internet in developing economies means ideation will go global. Many digital tools to aid innovation and development are on the cloud and available in the open source or free from vendors. Young entrepreneurs who dream up new ideas or digital “Apps” in their dorm-rooms or garages could do it just as easily in Bangalore, Delhi or Mysore, and not just in San Jose or Research Triangle. 
  • Smart money will follow smart ideas. Money already seems to be following innovation to their global hubs. For instance, a recent Times of India article highlights how “Over the past two years, investors have pumped in billions of dollars into hundreds of startups, many of which have grown into thriving businesses.”
  • Faster adoption. Smart ideas and skills developed in startups are being adopted in a corporate environment at a faster pace.  For example, mobile development skills honed in developing a “cool App” at a startup can easily be used to mobile-enable legacy corporate applications: an opportunity waiting to be tapped at Fortune 500 organizations. Likewise, technologies to cloud enable and virtualize IT applications and software are finding their way into corporate IT shops at a faster pace. 
  • Convergence of outsourcing and innovation: Large enterprises and corporations that source IT Operations and Business Processes and services to offshore service providers are increasingly expecting them to also tap into the innovation ecosystem. Leaders of offshoring firms like TCS, Infosys, and Wipro have long talked up the need to innovate and develop solutions, tools and automated services for global clients. They are realizing now is finally the time to walk the talk. (link TOI: What Infosys CEO Vishal Sikka wants bigger startups to do)


(Reposted from my LinkedIn Pulse)

Friday, January 1, 2016

Disney’s Magic Kingdom with Six-year-old on Christmas Day … and a few lessons learnt

A visit to Disney’s Magic kingdom is almost a rite-of-passage for contemporary families with young kids, especially those graduating from kindergarten and elementary schools. A visit to Disney or Disney Institute is also a rite-of-passage for management gurus looking to excel in customer expectations management; Disney also happens to be among the most studied case studies in Business School, especially in Marketing and Customer Management 101 courses.
I remember reading about, and discussing the intricacies of Disney Cast Members’ training and skills in managing customer and guest experiences, years ago in a Business School course. Management gurus and business executives alike make a pilgrimage to Disney Institute to learn the “D Think,” but a trip to Disney with young kids can teach one more than any textbook. This past Christmas day, many of those old lessons came flooding back during a trip to the Magic Kingdom with our six-year-old.  

Build it - really well - and they will come
Disney’s Magic Kingdom is an elaborate, well maintained theme park focused on putting up the best show possible, for the maximum number of people that can be accommodated. At Magic kingdom, all the Disney characters – not just Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Snow-White – but contemporary ones, including Frozen’s Elsa and Toy Story’s Woody and his pals come alive, and are milked for all they are worth.
Disney invests boatloads of money in dreaming, creating and buying up characters, and is perhaps rightfully, protective of their use. A recent Economist article describes “An intricate flow chart drawn by Walt in 1957 elegantly lays out the firm’s component parts and strategy, with films at the center surrounded by theme parks, merchandise, music, publishing and television.”  (link) That zeal for maximizing investments in ideas continues. Having invested four billion dollars in buying up rights to Star Wars from George Lucas, Disney is more than content to exploit the franchise: If you want Star-Wars branded paraphernalia, you’ve got to buy it from Disney or their licensee. 
Large drug companies have perhaps taken the same lesson from Disney. They spend tens or hundreds of millions developing new drugs and formulations, and make sure those are patented to ensure milking of the blockbusters.
Note to self: Successful companies and entrepreneurs create or acquire the best ideas they can, and exploit them for what they are worth.

It’s all about valuing one’s Intellectual property
Nobody knows the value of Intellectual Property better than the folks running the show at “white slavers,” as George Lucas calls Disney’s folks.   The “white slavers” know and value their intellectual property assets, and the potential is on display at the theme parks and resorts. The rides and shows are all themed in tune with the characters, and so are the expensive souvenirs, trinket and food at themed restaurants. One might think the entrance tickets to theme parks are pricy, but the thousands of folks paying hundreds of dollars to travel to Orlando to endure endless hours of wait for rides and shows think the experience is worth the price; market economics at work.
Note to self: Disney “owns” Mickey and his pals, so if you want them to come alive, come to Disney! Successful entrepreneurs and organizations to “own” and manage their IP well.

It’s all in the App, stupid!
As a technologist, I am not easily impressed by technology or User Interfaces. When it comes to user experience with technologies, large financial institutions and eCommerce sites with endless resources have set the bar quite. I must admit, “Disney World” App, with its easy-to use interface, real-time updates on ride, shows and wait times, combined with free-wifi in the theme parks is among the best use-cases using technology to connect with customers and visitors.
Many, if not most, of Disney visitors are tech savvy and seemed to be comfortable using the “Disney World” App on their mobile devices. The app combined with free-wifi has another benefit: keeping parents and teenagers glued to screens while waiting in queues. And, for those without smartphones, fast-pass kiosks are scattered throughout the park, with helpful cast members around to guide non-techie folks.
Note to self: Designing an easy-to-use App is just the first step towards user satisfaction. Focus on design of the entire eco-system that goes with it.

Delegate the dream of Magic to guests
On an average day, Magic Kingdom gets almost 53,000 guests; my guess is that on holidays, like Christmas day when we happened to visit, the parks get double that many visitors.  Keeping that many guests, most with picky, fussy kids is no mean feat.    This is a task Disney does really, really well by delegating expectation management to parents and visitors.
For instance, I had planned and “booked” several interesting rides/shows using our allotted three-fastpass bookings, prior to coming. But our six-year old chanced upon Seven Dwarfs Mine Train in Fantasyland and insisted we join the queue. The smart folks at Disney have designed the serpentine queue to weave into the arcade, making it hard for a six-year old to visualize the meaning of a “120 minute” wait that the app indicated.  After waiting for an hour on this sunny Florida Afternoon, when the little one began getting restless and repeatedly asking “how much longer, dad,” it took all my wits to not reply “it was your idea to wait for this ride, dear;” but to cook up some Disney like story to keep the little one engaged.
This experience made me reflect on the oft quoted expression “explain this like you would to a six year old.” Having survived the wait, and enjoying the ride at the end, I am sure I will be able to use that skill at work too.
Note to self: Delegate customer self-service by setting customer expectations upfront.

Endnote
Our Christmas break at Magic Kingdom was a memorable vacation, and the teeming crowd and endless wait at the rides just added to the experience. For Disney, crowd control is really about delegating patience and control to visitors. Having sold the ‘dream of Magic’ to parents and kids alike, Disney’s cast members just have to execute their part. But executing their part is what the Cast members do, and they do their part really, really well!


(Cross post from linkedin Pulse)

Friday, December 4, 2015

Drone careers: Why Amazon’s flying Drone delivery may not mean much to rest of us


Drones are making headlines all the time. Just this week we got our best look at Amazon's flying drone delivery program: Amazon PrimeAir. Many of us are either playing with cool-toy-drones (link: playing with my six-year-old  ) or aspire to play with them. Not surprisingly, drones are expected to surpass other electronic gadgets, tablets and smartphones as the number one Christmas gift this year.

Most articles also play on the cool-and-new-factor, though some also highlight a few practical uses of drones. Of the few recent drone stories, a couple that jumped out for me include the one about the increasing tax collection in Guilford County in North Carolina where I live. A local journal has an interesting article about Guilford County’s success in leveraging emerging technologies to increase tax compliance. (County FindsSpying From Sky Surprisingly Profitable). The article highlights an interesting mashup of technologies: “ChangeFinder” software and Drones “photographic mapping from the sky.” The ROI for the county is worth noting: $500,000 investment that returns over $600,000 annually! 

Another interesting story is that of a Chinese company pushing towards commercialization of drones for crop spraying. (WSJ: Chinese Drone Maker Plows Into Agriculture) This article is more about the "art of the possible," predicting potential for the future uses in Agriculture that analysts continue to watch carefully.

So, what do the cool stories mean to you and me?



Like many of us in the field of technology, I occasionally wear my “Technology Forecasting” hat. While catching up on the news and hype over drones, I began reflecting if the opportunities for individuals are a bit over-hyped.  

  • Next generation “iDrone” entrepreneurs:  While military uses of drones have taken off, we are at the very early stages of drone adoption, especially commercial adoption of drones. One can argue, the world is still awaiting the iDrone: slick, easy to use drones available for a certain price. An apple-like designer who can scale up and market such drones is going to be the top of the pyramid.
  • Drone Designers: There are a few cool, innovative drones in the market, but like the Chinese SZ DJI Technology example shows, those are still at a very preliminary stage.
  • Application Integrators:  Besides manufacture and design of drones, I think the real opportunity is for Software engineers, big-data analysts and ‘integrators.’ Entrepreneurs and organizations that can architect and commercialize applications, especially applications that can make money for customers, like the tax collectors at Guilford County or Amazon is trying to develop drones for package delivery.
  • Drone “Pilots” and operators  – While many of us will be playing with cool new drones during the holidays, one wonders how many would want to make a career of piloting drones. For one, such a “career” may involve living out of a suitcase, driving around the country operating drones for clients.  I wonder if the life of a commercial crop-duster-drone-pilot would be akin to a crop duster pilot.
  • Drone Mechanics and services: As the size and scale of commercial drone operations increases, one would need an entire ecosystem of mechanics and engineers to service, maintain and repair drones.

Many of us are excited over the possibilities and adoption of this cool technology. However, increasing government regulation in countries around the world – like FAA’s increasing regulation of Unmanned Aircraft Systems – are worth watching. The regulators could decide to restrict commercial drone; ensuring the hype crashes even before liftoff.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Design Thinking: Beyond the hype

Those of us who frequently browse business and technology magazines and publications would have noticed a surge in headlines about “Design Thinking.” For instance, just this past Sunday, New York Times business section had an interesting cover story about “IBM’s Design-Centered Strategy to Set Free the Squares” When the media journals like the esteemed Harvard Business Journal dedicate cover stories to such technology or business buzzword, one can be sure C-level Executives are taking note. (“The Evolution of Design Thinking” HBR – September 2015).

During the past few years, consulting firms have been “investing” in building their Design Thinking skills and capabilities. The HBR article describes how
"The pursuit of design isn’t limited to large brand-name corporations; the big strategy-consulting firms are also gearing up for this new world, often by acquiring leading providers of design services. In the past few years, Deloitte acquired Doblin, Accenture acquired Fjord, and McKinsey acquired Lunar."
Offshore consulting services firms aren’t too far behind
“Infosys has already signed up 22 customers on its design thinking offering and will train 30,000 of its employees on design thinking by the end of the year to further boost growth in that consultancy service”
(
TOI )
“For this year the company has announced a number of 100,000, but the long-term plan is to make sure all TCSers i.e., 324,935 will undergo this training.” (
Rediff) 
Corporate leaders are taking note of this buzz over Design Thinking, which means an opportunity for those of us in the corporate world to cut through the hype.

Beyond the hype

Consultants and self-proclaimed gurus are yet to converge on common terminology. Definitions and terminologies vary in subtle ways, but most experts agree on a few common aspects, like having Personae, Users and user stories at the front and center of any design effort. For instance, Stanford’s D-School (link) highlights “Empathy” as the start of a design journey. 

Most experts, likewise, agree on the need to “Define” the problem, “Ideate” and evaluate options and alternatives before commencing with rapid prototyping and testing by the user; finally scaling up execution: developing what works better and faster. While these are easy enough concepts to understand, one cannot trivialize the practice in real life scenarios; if Design Thinking were that easy, would HBR devote a cover story to the topic?

So what does this mean?

Many of us have long used aspects of user-centric thinking, focusing on use-cases to highlight user requirements. The approach is straightforward: identify and understand the interactions between Actors (Personae ?) and systems to achieve their needs.  That said, agreeing on “Architecturally Significant Use Cases,” with stakeholders has been a perennial challenge, leading to the design of systems that partially meet the needs of users, or in some cases meet the need of only a small segment of users.
This is where Design Thinking techniques, if applied skillfully, can help bridge the gaps in our understanding of the user’s needs and wants. By empathizing with users, understanding their needs, and prototyping and validating with them early in development cycles, one can ensure that the limited resources are dedicated to scaling solutions that satisfy most of their needs.
In the past few years, I have observed several large programs adopting aspects of Design Thinking. For example, early identification of Personae and interviewing key users are intuitive and common enough. However, many of us are in early stages of adoption, and are bound to encounter challenges that may include:
  • Diverging needs of Personae: The popular case study from “U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Center for Innovation”  highlights the divergence in needs of Personae. The four Personae - LIFER, TRANSACTIONAL, JUST-IN-CASE and THE INFREQUENT – have widely diverging needs.  For corporate design teams, without the deep pockets of the federal government, designing to satisfy all the needs of these personae, with limited budgets can be a challenge.
  • Business sponsors may not be users: Project sponsors - people with money - can be vocal about what they think users need. Sponsors may or may not understand user requirements, leaving the design team to wonder if sponsors also be included as distinct Personae
  • Typical users may not be the most vocal: The most vocal and eloquent Personae being interviewed may not represent the views of his/her peers, requiring the design team to be creative in gathering inputs
  • Organizational Culture: Organizational culture and internal dynamics may also dictate how Design Thinking can be applied. For instance in hierarchal organizations, where internal users are expected to manage with less-than-optimal solutions mandated by their leaders, design thinking needs to factor-in this constraint.
Please feel free to add to this list of challenges. And if you have used Design Thinking techniques in your corporate settings, please share your success stories too.

(Republished from my LinkedIn Pulse article)

Thursday, October 29, 2015

It’s raining free drones on Linkedin … but here is the catch


Attracting the attention of IT decision makers and influencers is hard. We typically get a barrage of inputs from articles in the trade press, analyst briefings and reports and many of us subscribe to RSS readers for topics of interest. To say that we are drowning in the deluge of information from which we are expected to draw insights would be an understatement. This said each of us probably has a small subset of favorite go-to sources. For me, scrolling through the LinkedIn home page to review articles, Pulse posts and topics that my peers have “liked” is among the list. This is the consumer side of the equation.


For the content producers – including tech companies, startups and others with a product to sell - standing out from the crowd and be noticed is especially hard. And it is easy to get lost in the deluge of information that typical IS executives, managers and other leaders receive every day. Therefore, it is not surprising to see creative approaches to reach out to prospects: if the number of a sponsored posts on my LinkedIn homepage is any indication, Drone giveaways seem to be it! 



Product and sample giveaways have been a favorite marketing tactic for ages. Tagging on the hype over drones and the geeky-cool factor of trying one out, this seems to be a catchy way to attract attention! So, what’s the catch, one is bound to wonder?
  • Time and effort: Even a cursory look at the ‘conditions’ that the hyperlink on the advert highlights a series of tasks one has to perform, including attending pre-sales pitches, downloading and trying software, linking back one’s network etc etc. All this translates to considerable time and effort one would have to invest to ‘earn’ the ‘Free’ drone.
  • Implicit and sometimes explicit commitment: by downloading and trying the software or engaging in the trail, one is committing oneself - and perhaps one’s employer. This may not necessarily be an issue if one was planning to evaluate such software even without the inducement of a “Free drone”.
  • Added to obscure rolodex/databases: One can expect a continuum of pre-sales calls, pitches and emails to follow after the demo, and perhaps much after the drone has outlived its novelty.
One has to evaluate if all this is worth the cost of a drone? Not for me, thanks; I am just as happy with the inexpensive Syma S111G that I bought on Amazon to play with my six-year-old 


(cross post from my LinkedIn Pulse article)