Monday, July 27, 2015

Why Application Portfolio Reviews and CMDBs continue to be expensive?

As the Enterprise Architect responsible for key IS applications, it generally comes down to me to guide and enable teams engaged in reviewing application portfolios. In my technology consulting days in the past, I had engaged in several “Application portfolio review” exercises for clients across industry domains.  In all these exercises, there is a common thread: high cost of such “application portfolio” data gathering exercise - in other words, a nice high-value billable engagement for consultants – that can add up in the context of large transformational programs, where understanding of “as is” landscape is a must have.

At the very basic level, the problem comes down to maintaining a verifiable, well maintained inventory of applications. Of course, for many uses, a simple “list” alone is not sufficient. Most of us who have been in the industry realize that for an application list to be useful, it has to inform a cross section of stakeholders looking for varied perspectives. Just a small subset:
  • Enterprise Architects: Seek data on applications, application components, data and interfaces between them, and more importantly the business capabilities and functions enabled by such applications. Such inputs are also building blocks for “Roadmaps” that inform the implementation of business strategies and are also used in scenario planning and defining business cases.
  • IS Architects and Others: Large technology transformation programs generally require an “impact assessment” to understand, and catalog the impact of changes in the existing application landscape. Typical questions include: How many applications in the landscape? How many applications supporting xyz process, who and how are the applications managed?
  • IS Executives and leadership teams: Generally interested in support cost, technologies adopted and other dimensions that can inform TCO of application portfolios, including strategic use of software licenses, vendor negotiations and optimizing the use of infrastructure across the portfolios (Cloud strategies come to mind but delving deeper on the topic in this article will digress us)
  • Operational and support teams: Managing the workflow of functional and technical changes and enhancements and propagating them through the application development life cycle.
  • Vendor and strategic suppliers: Access to application portfolios can help them proactively suggest optimization or leveraging new product and solution capacities.
  • Other uses: Include SoX compliance, responding to regulatory and audit requirements etc.
Reading thus far, you are probably right in wondering if CMDBs are the potential “silver bullet.”  Wikipedia defines “A configuration management database (CMDB)” :
“a repository that acts as a data warehouse for information technology (IT) organizations. Its contents are intended to hold a collection of IT assets that are commonly referred to as configuration items (CI), as well as descriptive relationships between such assets. When populated, the repository becomes a means of understanding how critical assets such as information systems are composed, what their upstream sources or dependencies are, and what their downstream targets are.”
A well-defined and managed CMDB tool may help an organization manage IT assets, including applications and infrastructure supporting them. Many tools also enable “auto discovery” of elements. An entire industry and consulting sub-segment of IT management focused on ITIL and IT operations has sprung up around configuring, supporting and managing CMDBs.
The gap – and perhaps opportunity – is when it comes to data about the business functional and capabilities enabled applications. These are generally defined in the product documentation (in case of COTS products) or in the functional specifications and design documents and need to be manually updated in the CMDBs. Even assuming an initial mapping of such data is accurate, the data generally degrades over time as the applications transform, functionality is added and technical and functional ownership changes.  Updating such changes in the CMDB is both expensive and resource intensive, as it is generally a manual process.
Unless managed with strong executive support, governance, and ongoing funding, the reliability of such data in the CMDB may degrade over time. Such lack of reliability may also weaken stakeholder confidence in the CMDB as the “single source of application information,” causing groups, divisions and transformational programs to begin managing their own lists in wikis, spreadsheets and other smaller ‘databases.’
In a way this is a classic example of being penny wise and pound foolish: by avoiding the cost of updating and maintaining CMDBs, the organization may end up spending a lot more in individual “application portfolio review” and “data gathering” exercises.
  1. These observations are based on review of CMDBs and application portfolio “lists” at large organizations spanning geographies and lines of businesses. Smaller organizations with smaller IT footprint and limited number of applications may not have the same issues
  2. Many organizations have their own definitions of applications and technology platforms. (Wikipedia)  Hence, I have refrained from defining “Applications” in this writeup.

(Repost from LinkedIn Pulse)

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Waiter! There’s a fly in my soup! Lessons on finding a steel-wire in a takeaway Pizza

We have all heard “Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup” jokes many times, but hardly ever stopped to think: what would I do if I really had a fly in my soup? Well, I had to reflect on this since it wasn’t a fly, but a piece of steel wire in my takeaway Pizza that I was enjoying with my wife and five year old.

First things first, my experience is probably an exception to the norm. Finding a harmful/strange object in a takeaway food, especially from a large chain is certainly not the norm.
Here is a gist of my experience and interactions with Pizza Hut (PH): I ordered a large pizza online, and picked it up at the local PH on the way back from work. My wife, son and I begin enjoying an early dinner and midway through, I feel a strange, crunchy object in my mouth. I took it out and was surprised to find a steel wire, about 3/4th of an inch. With this, our dinner came to an abrupt end, and I begin wondering what I should do.
  1. Drive down to the PH location with the object, and confront the store manager?
  2. Call the customer service number? Or
  3. Take a picture on my smartphone and tweet a complaint?
I went for option C.) and tweeted a complaint with pictures to @PizzaHutCares @pizzahut along with  hashtags #complaint #UPSET! #Pizzahut (link to tweet)
@PizzaHutCares responded, directing me an online webpage (link) where I could send details to customer care, which I did.  The next day, I got a call and email from Billy, the local GM
“We do apologize for the recent incident you had at Pizza Hut, please call rgm. Billy Mcgill for a full refund on your product and if you keep the object bring to the location so we can see where it may have came from. Again we want to apologize for the trouble that this has caused you and will try to make it right with you,
Questions please call (xxx)yyy-2800 and speak with the general manager”
After talking to Billy, I stopped by PH location with the rest of un-eaten Pizza and steel wire, and refused a refund that the store manager offered. I explained that I wanted the metal object investigated. And if they would inform me how this issue would be prevented in future. The next day, Billy emailed me:
“Hello I have looked at the object you sent me and I've been with Pizza Hut for over 20 years and have never seen this type of material used in store or equipment, again we apologize for this issue and will double check all items before sent out to customers so this doesn't happen again. Again for your issue we have added a credit to your account to replace your order on your next visit if you choose to give us another chance.”
The interaction with Billy and PH’s customer service left me with a gnawing feeling. They acknowledged that there was an issue, but didn’t explain how it would be fixed. For instance, I continue to wonder if (and how) the Pizza Hut branch that I went to has cleaned their kitchen? Are there other consumers who might end up getting a steel wire and may accidentally ingest it? I also wonder if I should be calling the local city/county health inspector to have the location inspected.
Wearing my Enterprise Architect hat, I also began reflecting on Pizza Hut’s “customer complaint” process
  • There is a “process” in place for customers to complain, as most retailers do
  • The process includes “social media” tools like twitter, emails and websites
    • A tweet to @PizzaHutCares generally gets a response directing the customer to send details of complaint to an online webpage
    • After entering details on the complaint webpage, one receives an email with “Incident number”
    • The incident is forwarded to the manager at the branch/franchise location
    • The manager calls the customer
  • After this, the process seems to be broken:
    • After the initial “social media” response, the action or resolution is transparent to the customer.  
    • Feedback to the consumer is absent after the initial contact. For instance, I continue to wonder if (and how) the Pizza Hut branch that I went to has cleaned their kitchen?
 Before you jump up and suggest what every blue blooded American could/should do in this situation - sue them - here what I found googling on this topic, I found that I am not alone, and neither is Pizza Hut the only culprit in town. (link: What can I do if I found a metal object in my pizza that I had delivered from Papa Johns?)
In this instance, my family (and Pizza Hut) were probably lucky: I didn't ingest that metal wire. Therefore, it is probably not worth the time/effort to pursue this further! So, what is the consumer in me going to do:
  • Blog about my experience (here it is!)
  • Am I going to go back to that PizzaHut location anytime soon? Probably not (PH lost one customer. Big deal, you might argue)
  • Continue to wonder if there a large scale, systemic problem with PizzaHut? Probably not. Else, we would be seeing a large action in social media
Bottomline: Mark this as just another case of poor customer experience (caveat emptor). Life is too short. Move on.

(Reposted from LinkedIn Pulse)

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Disney's H1-B Visa saga: Storm in a social-media teacup?

On the drive back from work I heard “Disney Suddenly Cancels Layoffs For Technology Employees” on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” with interest, and a bit of amusement. To me it sounded like Patrick Thibodeau, the editor from Computerworld was taking a victory lap, explaining to NPR's Audie Cornish “about why a round of layoffs for some 30 technology employees at Disney-ABC Television Group was suddenly canceled.” 
Patrick talked about his article “A restructuring and H-1B use affect the Magic Kingdom’s IT operations” and research and also other articles that lead to Disney’s change of heart. It was the media!  
I read through the front-page NYT article “Pink Slips at Disney. But First, Training Foreign Replacements” with much interest. Having lived and worked in the offshore-outsourcing/offshoring industry much of my working life, I can relate to both sides of the sourcing equation.The Computerworld and NYT articles are well researched and capture many of the pertinent details.
To be fair, what got Disney to do a double-take and eventually agree re-hiring workers was perhaps the social media “viral effect.”  The article had all the right key words to get American tech workers rattled: outsourcing jobs, H1 Visas, job loss at a beloved company etc. This probably prompted “Sen. Bill Nelson asks for probe into visa program used by Disney (link)” 
But reading the article and follow-up actions, I was left wondering if the Disney H1-Visa saga was a storm in a social-media teacup, or a symptom of something bigger? A few reasons for this thinking
  • Outsourcing is not new: American tech workers have come to accept the reality of outsourcing for the past decade-and-half
    • Business leaders are answerable to shareholders and investors. … and will use all means at their disposal to reduce costs
    • Outsourcing “non core” business operations, including IT development and maintenance is one way to reduce costs and increase businesses profitability
    • Job loss is an unintended (but real) consequence of outsourcing
    • Jobs that are outsourced by companies are very rarely in-sourced back
  • Nothing new about the H1-visa debate.
    • Even going back 15 years, before the era and even the infamous Y2K problem, consulting companies were getting “foreign/guest” workers on H1 visas
    • Tech workers have been losing jobs-to-outsourcing for the past decade and half
    • Most fortune-500 companies have already sourced much of their IT development work to offshore service companies
  • Politics of Immigration and H1-Visas
    • Endless articles were written and the issue debated in the past three presidential elections
    • Lawmakers have two constituencies: businesses in their districts that generate revenue (and contribute to their elections) and people (who may lose their jobs and vote them out). Balancing the two is a delicate act
Given this context, I was left scratching my head over the issues mentioned in the article: Outsourcing is already an accepted practice among fortune 500 companies. So why is the media calling this “flagrant abuse of the H-1B visa program by Walt Disney World”

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Are International Assignments overhyped?

The other day, a colleague and I were having a water cooler conversation about the “Global Operations Centre” being established in England.  The colleague happens to be a North Carolina native, someone who hadn’t relocated or moved more than a couple of hundred miles in his entire life, and who only occasionally travels out of the US for business or leisure. He was musing on whether it would be cool to consider an International Assignment.

This topic also gets regular media coverage; for example, just this NPR’s weekend marketplace radio program had a feature on migration that began with a question “what is your migration story?” which got me musing on International Assignments.

International Assignment” has a certain cachet, especially among managers and executives aspiring to climb the corporate ladder.  Management consultants, MBA courses and business journals have long glorified IA stints as a “must have” on an executive’s resume; especially for those looking for top level positions. And rightly so. For some, an IA may be an opportunity to enhance skills, work in a new line of business or gain deeper understanding of different markets and cultures. Managers working in a branch or satellite offices of multinationals might also seek IA as a necessary tool for networking that can enable them to spend some quality face time at the corporate HQ. These are just a few reasons companies encourage up-and-coming managers to consider stints overseas.

In some businesses, especially in technology outsourcing/offshoring and IT consulting – in which I have spent much of my working life - international assignments are commonplace.  In this business, foreign assignments, deputations and frequent travel are almost routine, and expected cost of doing business. As the world gets more connected, or flat - apologies Tom Friedman – and remote working technologies advance, one wonders if the allure of International Assignments is eroding.  A few factors playing out:
  • Technology: Thanks to ubiquitous access to high-speed networks around the globe, advances in commercial and consumer video conferencing technologies and use of remote collaboration tools there is a lesser need for teams to frequently travel across oceans. For instance, last week I was in a three day workshop with colleagues from across three continents, five locations connected by high-speed “Telepresence” conference technologies, orchestrated to manage time zone constraints. The planning workshop was perhaps as close in terms of productivity as having the twenty or so attendees flying across the globe. The only minus, perhaps, was the lack of a lively team building in the evenings at dinner over beer or wine. Such meetings or workshops, aided by advanced VC technologies, if managed well, can minimize the need for short term travel for meetings. But I wonder if they will substitute for true “international assignments.”
  • Immigration and visa constraints: Immigration and visa restrictions have long played out when it comes to international assignments. Those from ‘developing nations’ have long known of this constraint and learn to ‘plan’ their way around it. Most western born executives, especially IT executives have learnt at least a few basics of the restrictions, especially while dealing with colleagues with Indian, Chinese and other Asian passports who may not be globally mobile. The situation in the tech world is accentuated when the lines between short term business travel, work permits and immigration get blurred. There are times when an IA may just lead to immigration. This is especially true for those coming from developing countries like India and China to western nations. If it is hard to get a work visa, why not go a step further and seek an immigrant visa, is one school of thought. And speaking of intricacies: those with American or European passports may also have to seek a ‘work permit’ if they are planning to live overseas on an international assignment.
In some cases, an individual might spend an entire career in a series of international assignments. An example I continually reflect on is that of Bob, a senior manager I once worked with. He was an expert in ERP technologies who had honed his skills in several technologies. He would proudly introduce himself as “the guy who had implemented SAP in 30 countries in five continents” during his 32 year career with a multinational.  He was technically astute and was comfortable working with people of all backgrounds, cultures and at different levels in the organization. He continued to love relocating and moving till he finally opted to ‘retire,’ in his sixties; perhaps living by the old adage “a rolling stone gathers no moss”. Bob, is not alone in this, but was perhaps one of the few who could live this dream, balancing work, travel and life!

International Assignments have taken the form of a series of gigs for me too. It has been a conscious decision for my wife and me to uproot and relocate and move. I have lived and worked in five countries across three continents in the past decade and half, and have traveled to a dozen more on business.  I wouldn’t trade these experiences for any other. (Some of my experiences are chronicled in the novelized eBook ‘The Bounce!’)

Cross-posted from my LinkedinPulse blog

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Maggi Noodle Musings

The Maggi noodle saga playing out in the Indian media has been closely watched by the middle class and Indian diaspora. After a dozen or so states in India banned Maggi noodles, the central government finally stepped in with a national ban. (WSJ)

Even this account is slightly perplexing since The Independent in an article says “the reason for the ban is, the “concerns of excess lead levels,”  and adds

“The food company said in a statement that the noodles were completely safe, but explained that “recent developments and unfounded concerns about the product have led to an environment of confusion for the consumer. . . . It said that, due to the confusion, it had voluntarily "decided to withdraw the product off the shelves, despite the product being safe".

I am not even going to speculate over what a safe level of lead in food is. The government and media are sure to sort that out. And for those in the west wondering what the bruhaha over ban of Maggie in India symbolizes? It is perhaps akin to banning Pizzas from American college dorms. The outcry is perhaps similar to the one seen in Britain when the government first tried banning newspapers to wrap the unofficial national dish of Fish and chips.

Maggi and I go back to the mid nineteen eighties while I was growing up in India. Nestle made initial inroads by creating a market where it didn’t exist by smartly catching the young. My first taste came from a couple of packets I got at school - Kendriya Vidyalaya R.K Puram - in Delhi, circa 1984-85. Maggi also contributed to a few of my childhood memories by giving away t-shirts, games and other swags in exchange for used wrappers. Smart move on their part. My generation that grew up in middle-class-India, and the ones to follow were hooked by Maggi!

In the decades since I first ate Maggi, it has become an Indian cultural icon; and one can argue the brand ushered in the Ready-to-eat phenomena in India. Just a few examples:

  • For young working couple and those on the move, it is a practical alternative to eating out at an (questionably hygienic) dhaba or roadside eatery. All one needs is a kettle of boiling water and in a few minutes a ‘meal’ is ready to eat.
  • On the Indian matrimonial websites, brides-to-be proudly claim their culinary “achievements” include making a cup of chai or a plate of Maggie noodles!
  • This is also a quintessential Indian export for the diaspora. Local Patel brothers and Indian grocers across the US stock inexpensive Maggi and packets of Maggi noodles are among the must-carry for young Indians coming to study at American campuses or to work on H1-Visas.

Reading accounts in the Indian media, I am slightly amused. I am also left scratching my head wondering if this is just a proverbial storm in a clich├ęd Maggie kettle? Even if we give the benefit of doubt to those crying for Nestle’s pound of flesh, logic dictates that “excessive” amounts of lead-or-any-other-chemical in a ready-to-eat food will be harmful only if eaten in excess.  Now, those eating Maggi as a staple daily dinner should be concerned, lead or not!

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

What do you do if your employer is in news for takeover or M&A?

We wake up to news and rumors of mega-mergers almost every day; and in many cases, it is just news that we comment or exclaim about before going on with our jobs in the corporate world. I am not going to try to link to the ‘big’ M&A news since that is bound to be old-news by the time this is published. J Occasionally, however, such ‘news’ or rumor may hit closer home, especially if one happens to be working for a company that is an acquisition target, or has announced a merger with another (similar sized) company.

Jobs, roles and employees are bound to be impacted by any M&A. If the corporations are to realize the benefits of a merger or acquisition, they will have to “consolidate operations” and “streamline redundancies” and get rid of duplicate operations, processes and systems. People are an integral part of the equation, but the decisions, even those impacting jobs and careers can be very impersonal. The impersonal nature of corporate decisions has been captured in endless movies and documentaries (my favorite is “Up in the Air” featuring George Clooney as the corporate "Downsizer").

Although people are just ‘resources’ in the context of corporate planning and M&A, impact to individuals can be very personal. Therefore, the smallest news or rumor of an M&A can, and generally will be discussed in “informal” communication network between employees, contractors and others in communities impacted by the companies in question. Thanks to ubiquitous access to social media – blogs, tweets, discussion forums on Linkedin and Facebook - such informal communication may also get amplified, making it harder to sift through fact against rumor or gossip.
All this happens while the merging companies’ own “corporate communications” groups continue to work overtime trying to manage and ‘control’ communications.

What is at play is obvious: individuals seeking answers to a simple question “how will this impact me?” Employees and contractors may begin wondering if, when, and how their jobs will be impacted.
The answers to this question may not be obvious. In fact, will certainly not get answered till a deal is inked, decisions on the implementation of the ‘strategy’ are taken, and the process to execute on it set in motion. So, what should individuals (you and I) do while the wheels of corporate change continue to churn in the background?

Prepare to embrace change: when it comes
  • Prepare for a slow pace of fast change. Initial planning of a merger or announcement may appear to be in slow-motion (and happen in background) but will probably be executed fast.
  • Be prepared with your personal what-if analysis. No point in being caught like a deer in front of a headlight. A while ago, I was musing on Free Agents in the corporate world. I wonder if wearing a free-agent hat in our corporate careers may help soften the blow if we are impacted.
Try to avoid contributions to the rumor mill
  • There is enough speculation out in the social media. There may be wisdom in keeping your views to yourself
Minimize conversations on “Scenario planning” and “What if analysis” with peers …. unless this is expected of your role
  • Most of us are better off leaving experts (and external stock market speculators / investors) to do the “what if” analysis of M&A rumors
Bottomline: don’t worry about continually sifting through M&A rumor in an attempt to find nuggets of reality. Newswire reports and ‘news’ is increasingly mixed with rumors, headline grabbing and “quoting some unknown executives,” especially when it comes to M&A. Deals may or may not get inked, and even speculators in the stockmarket may not have the complete picture till a deal is announced and signed.

(cross post from my Linkedin Pulse post)

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Should a company’s annual report be required reading for Enterprise Architects's?

I was recently reviewing the Annual report published by my employer (Syngenta - link) and began reflecting on why it should be among required reading for Enterprise Architects. Most publicly listed companies have to publish an Annual Report, copies of which are generally available to shareholders, stakeholders and public on the company’s website. The format, structure and Table of Contents may vary, but most reports contain financial and non-financial information and also details on strategies and successes. Per the SEC, an Annual Report
is usually a state-of-the-company report, including an opening letter from the Chief Executive Officer, financial data, and results of operations, market segment information, new product plans, subsidiary activities, and research and development activities on future programs. Reporting companies must send annual reports to their shareholders when they hold annual meetings to elect directors. Under the proxy rules, reporting companies are required to post their proxy materials, including their annual reports, on their company websites.
A few reasons why an Annual report is a handy reference for Enterprise Architects
  • Data and Information: Annual reports generally contain a treasure trove of financial and non-financial information one can use. Companies typically include regional and business unit related information including growth, profitability and other details. Referencing such data in analysis and discussions can minimize ‘noise,’ as one can point back to the Annual Report as the source of truth.
  • Validate your understanding of strategy: Many of the strategic initiatives, investments and programs that EA’s review will be aligned with strategies publicly stated* in annual reports. Such a periodic review should help EA’s validate “strategic initiatives” being worked on vis-a-vis those communicated to external stakeholders. The execution of some of the strategies, especially those spanning many years may also be highlighted in consecutive reports to emphasize its significance to external and internal stakeholders.
  • Refresher on business ‘Buzz’ words: Annual reports are filled with buzzwords, acronyms, product information, and terminology that business leaders and executives may echo in their discussions. EA’s and technology executives should find it easy to catch on to those, and also continually refer back to the handy guide.
  • Onboarding external SMEs: Enterprise Architects periodically engage with external Subject Matter Experts for specific projects and to bring in external ideas. An abstract of the Annual Report can be a handy reference for onboarding external SMEs too, and can generally be done without a risk of giving away internal information.
I picked on a few obvious benefits of reviewing Annual Reports. But I don’t want to over-simplify the context and its limitations, especially since the document is intended to be publicly available. One can think of it as an individual’s Linkedin profile that highlights the background details and perhaps some of the recent achievements without giving specific details of the project/s the individual is working on.

There are bound to be obvious reasons why details of a strategy, tactics or execution may not be mentioned in the Annual Reports. Details of business intelligence, competitive analysis, tactics for execution or innovation and new product development may not be available. As should be apparent, some of the statements may feel like looking back in the rear-view and may seem obvious to those in the organization.

Enterprise Architects continually debate the need to have a seat at the table, and aspire to engage business stakeholders. A periodic review of the company’s annual report should be the first step in such executive engagement. Interestingly, review of Annual Report seems to get little mention in EA discussions and forums. Perhaps one reason is that fellow EA’s already have this in their toolkit, in which case the discussion is moot?

Cross post from my linkedin Pulse article