Seeing the Forest and the Trees

By Allen Bernard

(Back to article)

At 8:15 Dave Simon is at his desk sipping coffee in the Sierra Club's San Francisco headquarters. What he's thinking about isn't infrastructure and uptime per se but actually a rather lofty goal: becoming, to borrow IBM-speak, an 'agile' business. But to make this happen he has to go back to basics.

What are these basics? As arcane as this may sound, it's providing an integrated customer-facing Web experience that cuts across SC's seven business units. Even Simon admits this is somewhat dated by IT standards, but this is agility for SC and, bet's Simon, a whole lot of other companies as well.

"What's happened to me is my business units have woken up in the last six months and says 'Oh, this really applies to me, too'. And that's different," says Simon. "And that may sound 'Well, yea. Sure. You'd want to do that four years ago' ... which I think Dell and the Amazon's did, but even SBC (the telco); they're just now getting to where they want to deal with (customers) being completely over the Website."

Behind The Scenes

But now that everyone is finally on board about the usefulness of the Web, the real challenge is how to make it happen.

"So, basically, after years of not listening, people got almost too excited and want to move too fast," says Simon. "You can move fast but you can't move too fast you've got to really think about the nuts and bolts about what you are trying to accomplish."

The nuts and bolts for Simon revolve around tying together outsourcer's systems that provide order fulfillment and other services with his legacy databases and new, Web applications into a single system (more or less) that synchronizes data automatically, in real-time.

Does this resemble your day? Let us know in the IT Management Forum."Web services is making life way easier," he says. "If somebody gives us a change of address ... through a Web service I can have that change of address propagated out to the vendors that they go to buy a Sierra Club cup from. And, if they go to buy the cup, I know that within moments of that happening. So again I've been able to synchronize my data. The fact is the data is now integrated but it doesn't sit on the same server. We're not there yet but that's the promise."

Moving On

Next on his day's 'To Do' list is yet another troublesome topic that many would find familiar: user training and security issues and, one particular pain-point, upgrades.

"Keeping computers patched and even with Norton Antivirus and automatic updates, it's a real problem. People don't realize that computers take some thought. But we've actually found it very useful at some of our hub locations to send a trainer out there for a couple of days; just elbow-to-elbow with people. It makes a real difference.

"The other big issue we have is keeping up with the relentless pace of upgrades to the infrastructure," says Simon. "And the desktop is part of that. But it's productivity tools, packaged applications, your database vendors, your, your ... Peoplesoft (he says with agitation). You have to hire consultants to help you with your Peoplesoft upgrade. Its ridiculous. We actually hired some low-cost ones, fired them and actually brought in Peoplesoft in to help us finish it.

"It's appalling. Peoplesoft in particular and I think SAP and Oracle are the same way. They're just so complicated. It's a little project. Its not like the old days where you just slap some disks in and update and all of sudden ... your up and running again."

In The News

Once in a while a headline topic actually comes into view for Simon, like VoIP. When it becomes more of a reality and he can push services out to his 60 field offices using one data line and they can receive using one data line, then he will turn his attention to getting those offices up to speed from an infrastructure point-of-view.

Does this resemble your day? Let us know in the IT Management Forum.Onto the next thought: how to get rid of all the Dell laptops his field personnel use and the Windows XP software they run on. His next OS upgrade won't be a Window's product he's thinking, but Linux, once it becomes a better PC platform and his XP licenses run out. The reason: cost.

Speaking of costs, in five years, Simon is hoping to have all his field personnel using $600 portable handhelds that double as cell phones. Most of these people only use their $2,300 laptops for email and Web surfing anyway. But all that's for later ...

Back To Work

Simon now turns his attention to an attempt by his Washington D.C. headquarters to parrot the success of Howard Dean's MoveOn.org grassroots campaign (remember, everybody's on board about Web thing now). Seems his staff went ahead with a project on its own without consulting Simon. The project failed and now Simon has four weeks to get it up and running; right this time.

"The concept is very good but it was hatched by people in D.C. without any involvement from us," says Simon. "They went ahead and actually selected a vendor to provide them with the services they needed. And two-months later that project is completely falling apart. So this was a real problem for us and basically my team got put in charge of finding a replacement; definitely on the fast pace. We're just about to sign a contract that I think is going to very successful based on checking customer references, seeing what other people are doing with (the solution). Things the other people didn't do. They bought a turn-key solution that didn't work. As opposed to, if you've been around software, you know the 20 important questions to ask."

What Goes Around ...

With this situation in hand its time to wrap up and head home for the day after a few musings about the state of IT today. After 20 years as a business analyst for Anderson Consulting and running IT for SC, Simon has seen it all (well, almost). And, surprisingly, even with all the advancements and the reality of Moore's Law, what he sees today isn't that much different from yesterday.

"Most of the concepts haven't fundamentally changed," he says. "There's a lot of layers of complexity but many of the core concepts I learned 20 years ago are still applicable today. There's usually a few more levels you have to go through but it's still the same basic trouble shooting concepts: breaking problems down into their disparate components. And managing people hasn't changed either. You still have to assign and delegate tasks and follow up on them and do the same kind of things from a task management and project management standpoint that you used to."

Does this resemble your day? Let us know in the IT Management Forum.