How to choose an application developer.

When looking for someone to a design and develop and application for your business consider the following:

Experience.  Does the company have ample experience?

Design versatility.  Are they be open to new ideas and be willing to make changes until the app is perfect. The company must be known to be technically sound with professional and qualified developers.

Working  examples. Check out the company’s other applications, see their links and screen shots to confirm that they have indeed done this before.

Easy access and communication. The company you should hire must be reachable at all times; you may have new ideas or suggestions and would want to pass over from time to time, there must be somebody to hear you out.

Cost effectiveness. Find a company that will offer you great quality at the best price and go for them. However, do not compromise quality for price. Ensure you understand exactly what your getting for your money – this is where previous examples of work will be useful.  Make sure you discuss ongoing costs, maintenance fees, subscriptions and updates so you have a clear idea of any financial commitment.

Timeliness. You don’t want to be developing your application forever. Find a developer who can give you an honest and realistic timescale that they will commit to.

Scope.  Find out exactly what you’re buying, it’s specific functionality and how the design will look.  Make sure you understand the limitations, scope and options when thinking about your application.

Warranty.  Find out what the warranty on the application is, or if there is a warranty at all.  Will the company fix all bugs without charge? Will there be a specific warranty period?

 

Saved by the geek.

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THE GEEK SHALL INHERIT THE EARTH

As technology makes further inroads into our lives, it comes at the price of increased stress and frustration as we struggle with more complexity and just the challenge of keeping it all working. Tech manuals just don't make good reading, and with every new upgrade or purchase there are more buttons and features to figure out or even worse, configure. In the dark ages, it all started with the blinking 12:00 on the VCR. Now we are stumbling through a landscape of computers, software, new operating systems, wireless networks, PDA's, and cell phones. And that's before we even get to the office.

When it comes time to save the day (OK, just to get your gizmo working again), Superman is now wearing a white shirt and clip-on tie. Maybe he's not faster than a speeding bullet, but he will show you how to download Casino Royale in 12 minutes, and his computer has enough power to run Bolivia. He can order a party-size pizza with a single click. Look into Cyberspace. Its a fumbling end-user! Its that 404 error you keep getting when you can't connect! No, it's a Geek!

O GEEK WHERE ART THOU?

We know geeks to be single minded, obsessive people, accomplished in scientific or technical pursuits. Just to offset any feelings of jealously we also think of them as living on boundaries of social normality. Inner Geek more sympathetically describes them as people who "strive to prove their worth outside the definitions of mainstream". What really defines a Geek is their compulsion and drive to learn vast quantities of knowledge about a particular field, e.g. computers or Star Trek. It is important to distinguish the Geek from the Nerd, because the Nerd is characterized as having high intelligence, but may not be fascinated with one subject. A Geek's mastery is more likely the result of countless hours of study, albeit at the expense of having a "normal" social life.

With such an obvious need to identify these potential leaders of our new technocracy, where should we look first? Of late you simply need to look for the Volkswagon Beetle bearing the Geek Squad or Nerds-On-Site logo and colorful markings. You can come to my IT Consultant Meetup Group. You could wait for the next Star Wars movie and see who has lined up three days in advance. You can look for the indivduals wearing the T-Shirt that reads "Keep out of direct sunlight", or that one you can't read - most likely its binary code that translates into "You Are Dumb". If there is a geek in your life check here for more. But why not let technology help track down the techie? At Inner Geek they have engineered a test that is apparently quite reliable. You may even want to take it yourself. Here are some sample questions:

  • In school did you do homework that wasn't required?
  • Have you indexed and catalogued a personal collection?
  • Do like to read on Friday or Saturday nights, or turn on your computer first thing in the morning?
  • Do you wear a digital watch?
  • Do you want a light saber? To work for Microsoft? More RAM? More friends?
  • Have you destroyed things just to see how they work?
  • Do you know more people online than in real life?
  • How many hobbits can you name?
  • Do you know how to how to count to 31 on one hand?

Perhaps an old high school colleage comes to mind. One high school student who would score high on the Geek Test is Robert Stephens, the founder and chief inspector of "Geek Squad," the tech support company he founded while he was still in college. Started for $200.00 in 1994 they grew to a squad of over 6000 geeks in 2002, becoming North America's largest technology support company. They fix 4,000 computers a day in their Louisville facility.. Recently featured on 60 Minutes, Robert Stephens said "It takes time to read the manuals. I'm gonna save you that time cause I stay home on Saturday nights and read them for you." Bought out by Best Buy in 1994, Robert now has lots of time to read in the comfort of his new Lear jet.

 

Wal-Mart : Thar's technology in 'dem stores!

Don't let the happy faces and scarcity of natural fibers fool you. Wal-Mart spends over $2.5 billion dollars a year on technology, and their willingness to invest heavily in new systems has played a major role in their success.

OK, they are the world's largest corporation. They account for 8% of all retail sales in the US. If it were an independent nation, Wal-Mart would be China’s eighth-largest trading partner. Wal-Mart’s sales are equal to “one IBM, one Hewlett Packard, one Dell computer, one Microsoft and one Cisco System—and oh, by the way, with $2 billion left over.” Each week over 100 million people shop at their 3400 stores.

"Stack ‘em high and let’em Fly".The company has prospered by elevating one goal above all others: cutting prices relentlessly. This has partly been done partly done by beating up their suppliers and corporate penny-pinching. Billionaire founder Sam Walton, who still is referred to as "Mr. Sam" throughout the corporation, worked in a ground-floor office barely big enough for a conference table. The current CEO still empties his own trash and shares budget hotel rooms when traveling. Everyone flies coach.

Employing technology to drive efficiencies and lower costs. But there is also one other factor pivotal to their ability to offer low prices: the efficiencies they have derived from technology.

The achievement of sustainable competitive advantage. When I was business school there was a lot of talk about sustainable competitive advantageWhen GM recently cut prices, everyone followed suit. Their competitive advantage was short lived. But with Wal-Mart, their system-driven efficiencies have given them a sustainable competitive advantage: a lower cost structure. On this foundation they are able to maintain relatively lower prices over the long run. You just can't win in a battle with Wal-Mart on the basis of price.

Using technology to manage operations. They have invested in the largest commercial satellite system in the world, which is used to collect information and beam it down to Head Office as well as their vendors. With 60 billion items moving their stores each year, they depend heavily on having the one of the world's best logistics systems, which is integrated right back to the supplier. Suppliers are assigned exact times in which to deliver their goods, which are then unloaded directly into the trucks going out the stores. The company’s meticulous management of the flow of goods, from the factory floor to the store shelf, has shaved shipping and inventory costs to a degree that retailing experts say is unprecedented. Because they are so efficient, and so big, a McKinsey & Co. study concluded that about 12% of the economy’s productivity gains in the second half of the 1990s could be traced to Wal-Mart alone. And yes, they do watch their employers closely as well. At any time they can see how Rosie on Cash 32 is doing compared to Jane on Cash 12, even if they are working on different continents.

RFID: high-tech bar codes that can "phone home". Wal-Mart is pushing technology even further with a $3 billion investment RFID technology. With RFID, tiny radio transmitters are attached to products. These tags, as they’re called, emit radio waves carrying data that’s read using special scanners. RFID tags are like high-tech bar codes, only they can hold more data and their signals can be received over a far greater distance. Wal-Mart's top 100 suppliers will be required to ship product with these tags. Much of the data collected during RFID reads will be passed on to Retail Link, Wal-Mart’s Web-based software that lets the retailer’s buyers and some 30,000 suppliers check inventory, sales, and more.

Using technology to know what the customer really wants. Or at least, what really sells. They have used technology to learn a great deal about what their customer wants. Product movement information (scanned from bar codes) is posted via satellite hourly to the main (430,000 GB) system in Arkansas. Wal-mart usually knows more than manufacturers do about what shoppers want this week and will want next year. They watch product sales at the store level on an hourly basis. They watch key items and inform the store of pricing changes in real time.

Linda Dillman - From Store Clerk to CIO. At the head of Wal-Mart Information Systems Division is Linda Dillman, who worked her way from a store clerk and gave up a career as a Beautician to run Wal-Mart's technology operations. She presides over a system so centralized that even the temperatures of each store are set from Head Office. Ironically for a company that imports $15 billion dollars a year from China, the systems at Wal-mart are homegrown. Linda Dillman believes that “The best systems are built by people who understand how they’re used”, so if you are to work on a systems project you are first assigned to the field to do actual work in the relevant area. She says “the strength of this division is, we are doers and do things faster than lightning”.

Wal-Mart's Approach to Building a System

  1. Develop a clear picture of success.
  2. Eliminate before you automate. Eliminate steps, processes, reports, keystrokes; eliminate any activity that you possibly can for two reasons: One, you'll end up building a whole lot better system that's easier to support, and two, invariably you will have a better solution that's more [user] friendly.
  3. Do a business process overview, where you physically lay out what the system looks like from a business process standpoint. Once you get the system built, then pilot it with the best and toughest customers, stores, distribution centers and clubs. If you pick the lowest volume store or easiest customers to test with, you don't find all of the things that you need to find.
  4. In any development effort, [IS] people are expected to get out and do the function before they do the system specification, design or change analysis. The key there is to do the function, not just observe it. So actually insert them into the business roles. As a result, they come back with a lot more empathy and a whole lot better understanding and vision of where you need to go and how we need to proceed.    

 

Notable Numbers

$256 billion in annual sales and 20 million shoppers visiting its stores each day.

Some economists say it has single-handedly cut inflation by 1 percent in recent years, saving consumers billions of dollars annually.

Its business is so vital to developing countries that some send emissaries to the corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., almost as if Wal-Mart were a sovereign nation.

The nucleus of the Walmart IT infrastructure is a single, centralized, 423-terabyte (423,000 GB) Teradata system that churns data from 1,387 discount stores, 1,615 Supercenters, 542 Sam's Clubs, and 75 Neighborhood Markets in the United States, plus 1,520 more stores worldwide.

Help! I need someone...

Where can you go when technology is not working for you?

Success with technology is a not necessarily of function of what you know already, but in knowing where to find it.

This is one list you are may want to tape to your fridge:

WHATIS.COM (whatis.techtarget.com)

OK, there's something happening here, and you don't know what it is. WHATIS.COM is the leading online IT encyclopedia and learning centre. This week alone "VOIP" came up in conversation for me at least three times. I finally excused myself, ducked outside, and logged into WHATIS.COM on my Treo. I waltzed back into the meeting knowing full-well that VoIP (voice over IP) is an IP telephony term for a set of facilities used to manage the delivery of voice information over the Internet. Who knew?

Experts Exchange (www.experts-exchange.com)

This is my personal favourite. This site connects you to a large collection of geeks organized by technical specialty. You can ask them ANY question. They just love to answer your queries because they are awarded points for giving you the right answer. These geeks have points ratings the way eBay sellers do, and some of them have scores in the millions. Most of the time your question has already be asked and answered, so first look for a solution in the large archive of answered questions. This site is not free, but its the best place I know for help at deepest levels of technology. Most Google searches for tech issues will take directly to this site. It's that good.

Microsoft Support (http://support.microsoft.com/)

This should be your first stop if you need an Office or Windows solution. There is a huge knowledgebase you can search. If you want to take Microsoft support a step further check out the MVP (Most Valued Professional) sites. Microsoft’s Most Valuable Professionals (MVPs) are recognized, credible and accessible individuals with expertise in one or more Microsoft® products who actively participate in online and offline communities to share their knowledge and expertise with other Microsoft customers.

Ask Dave Taylor( www.askDaveTaylor.com)

At the other end of the scale we have Dave Taylor, who is a just one guy with a web site. You can post a question about just about anything and he will answer it. You can even ask him how to limit the volume on your kid's iPod (there is a volume limit setting). Kind of like viewer email...

Speak with a Geek (www.speakwithageek.com/)

Maybe you just need to speak to someone. For a monthly fee of $34.95 you can have 24/7 access to high-level professional tech support, willing to work with you to solve almost anything. Another provider of this type of service is Computer Help SOS (http://www.computerhelpsos.com/).

Trend Micro (www.trendmicro.com)

In the "old days" most tech issues could be solved simply by restarting your computer. (It was a good thing they didn't fix airliners that way.) While I find Windows to be running a little better now chances are pretty good that the wonky behaviour of your system is due to adware or even worse, a virus. You can be infected even if you are running protection software like Norton Antivirus. I like Trend Micro's site, because they have online checks you can run for free, even if you only want a "second opinion".

Lifehacker (www.lifehacker.com)

A great tip site, dedicated to helping you manage your information and time. Editor Gina Trapani, coder and computer expert, saucily deciphers the latest in personal productivity technology and reveals the million ways hardware and software can improve our busy lives.

CNET.comZDNET.comPCMAG.com

If you are considering any move in a technical direction then definitely check out one or more of these sites for all the buzz you need to know. Think of these three as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post of technology.

Geek Culture (www.geekculture.com)

In the words of Steven Covey, we should "seek first to understand, then to be understood". What better way to understand your own tech sherpa better than to check out THE site for geeks. They even have their own comic: "The Joy of Tech". And if you were wondering where to find that Matrix screensaver...

About offshoring...

JOBS. OUR BIGGEST EXPORT?

Outsourcing, offshoring, nearshoring, bestshoring. Call it what you like. To most people in my business, custom application development, it means your prospects for the future may look dim.

Thomas Friedman, the Pulitzer prize winning author of “The World is Flat”, tells us of world with a technology-leveled playing field in the global arena. As a result, we are going to see more and more exports in one key area. No, not Baywatch, but jobs.

What type of job is at risk? I hope yours is not "location insensitive”. If you do tax returns, work for a call centre, read X-rays or other medical data, search titles, or in my case, develop software, I am sorry to say that you are in the “list”. Here are the factors that make a job “offshoreable”:

• No face to face customer servicing
• High information content
• Work process is telecommutable and internet enabled
• High wage differentials, e.g. your counterpart makes only $8,000 a year
• Low setup barriers

JUST HOW BIG IS THAT MONSTER UNDER THE BED?

According to Lou Dobbs of CNN, big enough to devote 10 minutes nightly in 2004 to his “Exporting America” show segment, where he publicly humiliated the corporate “evildoers” who shipped jobs abroad (while his protectionist table-thumbing helped drive his viewership up 7%). Big enough to put Thomas Freidman’s “The World is Flat” on the New York Times bestseller list and to keep roster of speaking engagments full (see him speak here).

As for “numbers”, Mckinsey and Company have published enough reports to look at you will need a trip to Staples for more printer toner. The bottom line is, the multinationals, driven primary by cost pressure, are flocking to places like Bangalore, India where programmers are available at a 90% discount over Silicon Valley. Accenture, a prominent outsourcer with over $16 billion in revenues, is now ranked as the world's largest systems integrator.

IS THE GRASS GREENER ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE PACIFIC?

In the first pages of the "The World is Flat" Friedman paints a picture of a golf game set against the backdrop of gleaming corporate towers that evokes the high-tech landscape of Silicon Valley. The names on those building are familiar: Intel, IBM, Oracle, Cisco, and Accenture, We soon learn that this is not the Silicon Valley of California, but of Bangalore.

Aside from reading the book, I suppose what got my attention was looking at some of the large Bangalore-based IT services companies:

Infosys started their global initiatives in the late 90’s with setup of development centers in India, and sales offices worldwide. By 1999 they had reached sales of $100 million. Today they have over 65,000 employees and enjoy revenues of $2.2 billion, representing a growth rate of 60% each year for the past five years. Among their core values is “Customer Delight: A commitment to surpassing our customer expectations.” Their corporate slogan: “Win in the Flat World”.

Tata “pioneered the adoption of the flexible global business practices that today enable companies to operate more efficiently and produce more value”. They service 70% of the the Fortune top TEN. Like Infosys they have grown exponentially to over $2 billion in revenues, and their share price chart for the past five years looks like a climb up the north face of Everest. Last year their income was up 44%. Among their core values: “sharing and learning”. Apparently they have learnt some lessons very well.

Wipro Technologies, is the number 3 player. They have a market capitalization of nearly $20 billion, and their success has been documented in the book Bangalore Tiger. So, what is their formula for success (the “Indian Tech Formula”)?

Internet + Brains – High Costs = Huge Business Opportunity

TIME TO THROW IN THE MOUSEPAD?

Apparently so, at least in the minds of the millions of North American students who are deciding that a tech education no longer the way to go with so many offshore counterparts to compete against. Ironically, businesses are reporting that they can’t find enough qualified workers, and Bill Gates is on Oprah warning that by 2020, the U.S.A. may face a shortage of 14 million workers with college level skills. In Canada there is an IT skills shortage in Ottawa (Silicon Valley North), where 70% of the firms there are reporting “limits of local supply”. In fact Ottawa is now reporting the highest high-tech employment since the last boom in 2000.

PERCEPTION IS ONE THING, REALITY ANOTHER.

Looking at the big picture the GAO (US Government Accountabiity Office) reports that in 2003 the US imported $8.7 billion in BCT (Business, Professional and Technical) services from India. In return they imported just $420 million from the U.S.A.. OK, maybe some of those 800,000 engineering jobs in Bangalore could have been filled locally. But with the US economy sized at $11 TRILLION, all that we really have here is small potatoes.

It’s a narrow view that just because workers cost 90% less overseas that its game over for the North American IT worker. Actually, the majority of IT Service positions that are being offshored are lower-value positions such as entry-level programmers and computer support specialists. 

I THINK WE HAVE A COMMUNICATION PROBLEM

The North American IT worker is still attributed as having better communication skills, better education and training, a better understanding of the market, and being more creative. In an Accenture study, two-thirds of 200 US business executives said that communication difficulties from cultural differences has caused problems when outsourcing offshore.

Companies are also moving away from offshoring due to “underestimated operational difficulties”. Offshoring does not work when complex interactions are required when creating a solution; in cases like this you need the local representation of system analysts and system engineers with excellent communication skills and a good knowledge of the local market. 

WHAT IS THIS BLACK STUFF I AM SINKING INTO?

Not to say that it’s a great time to be looking for work in IT. But when it comes to the blame game, there is one other factor that has had an equal if not larger impact: gains in technology itself have given companies the capability for producing software solutions with fewer resources, i.e. people. And of course, if you are still peddling your outdated IT skills (from 2003), it’s “this way to the tar pit”.

The byte vs. the bulge.

'TIS THE SEASON TO GET FLABBY?

It’s that time of year again. Gift baskets, holiday parties and New Year’s resolutions. As we open just one more box of festive chocolates we console ourselves with our planned commitment to healthier living in 2007.

Yes, the hope for weight loss tops most lists of resolutions for the New Year, running close behind “spending more time with family and friends”. I call my list the “Seven UnDeadly Resolutions”.

So, are we destined to five pounds of Holiday Weight Gain? Thankfully not,according to the National Institute of Health. Their research shows on average we tend to gain less than a pound over the holiday season. But before you upsize your Egg Nog latte to Venti (that’s “Starbucks” for extra-large), also know that these holiday weight gains tend to accumulate and may be a major contributor to obesity later in life.

HOW MANY CALORIES BURNED IN A MOUSE-CLICK?

It was hard to find good research, but we do know that sitting burns 81 calories and hour. So I would hazard a guess that sitting and clicking burns about 82 calories an hour. Elite computer users have been know to burn well over 500 calories in one session.

CAN COMPUTERS MAKE YOU FAT?

No one ever won the New York Marathon sitting at a computer, although you may want to go here if you want to enter. During the work-day we have evolved from bolt-turners to mouse-clickers as most of us can be classified as knowledgeworkers. With our new lives we are spending more and more time sitting at a computer, and one of the major factors contributing to obesity (aside from just eating too much) is having a sedentary lifestyle. Research shows that since 1990 there has been a per capita decline of 15 percent in frequent exercise activity among adults(100+ days per year in any one activity). Among teenagers and adolescents aged 12-17, the plunge is 41 percent. Over the same period there has been a 'Striking' rise in computer time seen among teens. Me? I am hardly ever online...

CAN COMPUTERS MAKE YOU FIT?

If you want the fast approach, try Ebay. If you are looking for the NEW Hoodia Patch slimming system, a "Complete Weight Loss System using Hypnosis", or the time-tested Sauna Belt no better place to look than Ebay.

Next step: Amazon, because nothing works better than a diet book. Thanks in part to Oprah, the number three book on Amazon these days is You: On A Diet: The Owner's Manual for Waist Management I pre-ordered my copy. Mind you, there is a listing on eBay for 33 (used) diets books for $19.95. Dr. Phil, Atkins, Zone, etc. I guess this seller must have successfully implemented each program and no longer needed them.

Maybe you could incorporate the use of desktop software into your progam. Weightmania is recommended by Runner's World for offering "the best balance of exercise and nutrition." DietPower "turns your PC into a nutrition counselor." It comes with a database of 11,000 foods and there is a free trial available. Fitday also looks good.

The real trend is with online services. Fitday (mentioned above) offers a free online diet journal used by over 2 million people. Diet4UOnline offers meal plans and tracking for all the major diet plans (Zone, Meditarrean, Lo GI). First into the game,EDiets offers recipes, meal plans, fitness plans, expert advice, community support, and "weekly virtual meetings". And if you buy into Weight Watchers, the Zone, or South Beach, the suppliers of these programs also have sites offering online services.

There are many resources for those of use who want to focus more on exercise. FreeTrainers.com offers a "FREE personal training service because we believe that everyone has the right to reach their dreams" (I am sure you will need your Visa card at some point). FitPractical offers online fitness training via a coach you can email for a monthly fee. If you have a Blackberry you can email with one hand and lift a dumbell with the other.

Taking technology-enabled exercise to the next level check out Tacx for a rig that turns your indoor cycle trainer into a virtual reality experience where you can "ride" legendary (race) stages and cycling classics. Your cycling pace determines the speed of the film. As you climb a gradient you can really feel the resistance. I have a friend who likes toys and my little heart skipped a beat when I saw his setup. Who needs to go outside?

Of course, most of us know WHAT TO DO, we just never get around to doing it long enough to make a difference. Steve Palina has a good site that deals with getting your wheels in motion. He tells us to replace 'have to' with 'want to'. Tonight for dinner, I "want to" have a steak, I mean, salmon with steamed veggies!

I would like a peanut butter sandwich...

CRUNCHY OR SMOOTH?

A systems engineer interviewing for a position was given 15 minutes to document the requirements for a peanut butter sandwich. In the systems world "getting it right" is vital to the success of a software project. It also helps in many other facets of life. When George Eastman, the great industrialist who founded Kodak (remember film?), did not like the shape of his conservatory situated in the middle of his grand 35,000 sq. ft. home, he spent over $20 million (in todays dollars) to have his house cut in half and reshaped by 15 feet. Talking about Feng Shui!

The fact is, not "getting it right" up front can lead to expensive backtracking. "There is never enough time to do it right, but there is always enough time to to do it over". More than half the IT development projects undertaken in the United States come in late and over budget, and this is largely to due to not getting a clear idea of what is being asked for (1).

WHAT WE HAVE HERE IS A PROBLEM TO...

Communicate? To get things right you need to be a great listener, and this means listening with an open mind, especially when you are an expert in your field and have already done twelve projects "just like this one". Edward de Bono writes of a 60 second test to see if you are genius. How would you divide a cake into eight pieces with just three cuts of the knife? The answer (email me ) demonstrates how sometimes we need to break out of our "thought ruts" to see what is really going on around us. As Mark Twain put it, "To a man with hammer, everything looks like a nail".

BEGIN WITH THE END IN MIND

On your next project, be it upgrading your company's database or planning your daughter's wedding, make the investment to get a clear picture of the requirement before you begin. Here are a few things to consider in defining the requirements for your next project:

  • Start with getting a clear picture of WHY you are doing what you are doing.
  • Next try to define the objectives of the project. What needs to happen for us to consider this project a success?
  • Distinguish between Needs and Wants. Not everything is critical. Identity those results that are most important.
  • Knowing you can always add more functionality (complexity), identify core objectives and eliminate anything that can be addressed later.
  • Spend more time thinking about what results you want rather than getting bogged down into the details of HOW to achieve them. You can worry about that later.
  • Identify time, money, quality and other constraints. You may need to tailor your objectives in light of these.
  • One technique used in software engineering is to create "Use Cases". Use Cases describe a sequence of events or a scenario that conveys how the system should interact with the users (called actors) to achieve a specific goal or function. One use case for a wedding may be: Band plays "Its Only Just Begun", Groom and Bride proceed to dance floor. Components required: Band, Song, Groom, Bride, dance floor...
  • With most projects there is a lot of information to pull together and make sense of. Using a MindMap will help you manage all the details while still getting a fix on the big picture.
  • Don't worry about getting a complete picture at the outset; just worry about knowing that there is a picture. An iterative approach is commonly used these days, because it is inevitable that as the project moves forward and more is known, new requirements will be discovered and priorities will change.

IS COMPUTING THE THIEF OF TIME?

 

Ever noticed how time flies when you are working on a computer? At times I spend over 60 hours a week at the keyboard. No wonder the weeks seem to tick by like minutes!

Professors Chaston and Kingstone of the University of Alberta found that the more mind is engaged in a task, the faster time seems to go by. Time to put down the mouse?

At one time I thought I would live forever, but now I know better. In fact I now know that the older you get, the faster time seems to go by. This is referred to as "lived time", and it's due in part to fact that at age fifty one year represents 2% of your life vs.10% at the age of ten. At the "Logarithmic Age" they quantify this effect. Your perception of time changes to the extent that age forty one year is perceived as the same duration two did at age twenty.

Studies on the perception of time also show that we perceive time as moving faster due to decreasing levels of dopamine in our brain, and the role that memory plays in light of introducing more routine into our lives. Maybe we all need a little more dopamine and a new cage-wheel.

It's bad enough that with age life starts to fly by faster, but if you spend a lot of time at a computer this sense is accelerated even further.

DRIVING THAT TRAIN, HIGH ON...

Is there a way to "stop ourselves", to slow things down? Cocaine increases dopamine levels in the brain to the extent that time seems to stand still or move incredibly slowly, but its not something I would recommend.

When I go on vacation I just do nothing. That's the only trick I have found that works.

While you can't put more hours into your life, can...

PUTTING MORE LIFE INTO YOUR HOURS...

How can get more out this this increasingly scarce resource?

  • Make sure you have a Big Picture. If you need one you get one here.
  • Put "First Things First", allocating more time to high-payoff activities.
  • Stop up the "leaks" or timewasters. In your personal life avoid such websites as Best Time Wasting Sites on the Web , where from there you can play "Toboggan Jump", watch old computer ads, or just browse Japanese Dog Clothing. In your professional life it's all about Getting Things Done.
  • Cut the clutter, be it email, interruptions, or other distractions. Don't answer the phone every time it rings.
  • Unclog the pipes. Get to know your energy cycles. Get the spyware off your computer.
  • Engage the principle of leverage. Bill Gates certainly had a little help.
  • Learn to use the word "No".
  • Distinguish between the important and the urgent to get out of continuous crisis mode.
  • 80% of your success comes from 20% of your efforts. The trick is in finding which 20% is the one that works.

Viva Las Database!

The High Stakes Casino Game in Vegas

In the mid 90’s the stakes got a lot higher in Las Vegas. The Bellagio hotel was just built for $1.8 billon; the Venetian for $3 billion. In comparison, the Casino at Harrah’s was just plain ordinary. They were falling behind and needed to act. So what do you do? Call, raise, or fold?

Send for the Professor

While the other casinos were building pirate ships and volcano’s to lure gamblers, Harrah’s adopted a more Bostonian approach. In 1997 they hired John Loveman, a professor from the Harvard Business School as their new COO. He brought with him a math whiz from the University the Chicago and together they studied the business. They knew that the cost of retaining an existing customer is 1/10th the cost of getting a new one, so their plan involved building customer loyalty; they needed to keep what customers they already had. What they also knew was that on average the Harrah’s guest spent 70% of their money in the competition’s casinos and facilities. How could they get the customer to spend more money with Harrah’s?

If you build it, will they stay?

To improve the customer experience and build loyalty they planned on building a large, sophisticated “CRM” or Customer Relationship Management system. This system, called WINet for “Winners Network”, would also be used to manage their customer loyalty program, Total Rewards.

The system was technically ambitious; IBM, a key player in the project, said it could not be done. At one point Jim Bouchy, the Harrah’s project lead, said he would not cut his hair till the system was completed. He wanted to inspire his team. A month later the system crashed, and their 300GB backup was unusable. It took a year to recover and finish things off. By that time Jim’s hair was half-way down his back and he had taken time off to play in a rock band with the 60’s rock legend Gary U.S. Bonds.

By 1998 the system was completed, and it has since spearheaded Harrah’s to become world’s largest and most profitable casino chain. The system is now so key to their success that they had it patented.

Big casino is watching you.

Aside from capturing the “basics” (e.g. name, address), WINet has been used to build an extensive customer profile for each of Harrah’s 50 million customers. It tracks how much they gamble, where they like to eat, their net worth, and many other attributes that they use to calculate the “potential lifetime value” of each customer. They are also very interested in what makes you “happy”. They know that a “happy” customer will spend 24% more during each visit. This happiness formula is as closely guarded as the recipe for Coke.

The buffet is now open!

Data is collected at each point of contact, with each swipe of the customer’s Total Rewards card, whether they are checking in, at the buffet, or playing the slots. Over 80% of their customers are now in this program. As more and more data is collected, it is subjected to analytics. How much is your estimated value to Harrah’s? What are your likes and dislikes? Taking these factors into account what should he offer Mr. Jones – another drink or the Dion Suite?

While this is not entirely new in the casino business, it had only been applied to large table gamblers. Harrah’s discovered that the real opportunity was with the low rollers, i.e. the “ordinary folk” sitting at each of their 78,000 slot machines. They represented a large revenue stream and had been entirely neglected. Today they earn points with each pull of the slot-machine lever. In fact just how fast and often you pull that lever tells the system what kind of gambler you are. If you pull that lever quickly again and again it will not be long before you will be served drinks and be offered two-for-one coupons for the buffet.

The database is also used to drive a $300 million direct mail program; they send out 80 million pieces of mail a year, each one individually tailored based on the customer’s profile. And with all those points you can earn, you can trade them for merchandise and even cruises (You will need 500,000 points for one of those).

“Wow, you really know me!”

What Harrah’s really strives for is the “wow” or “you know me” factor. So don’t be surprised if you find tickets to your favorite show waiting for you after a long day at the slots. And when you make it the top 5% or VIP level (which accounts for 25% of their revenue), you can expect increasing “offers”, and calls when you decide that you have had enough gambling for a while.

The dark side of technology?

Which raises the question: is Harrah’s using all this customer information to encourage compulsive gambling? When you are in rehab the last thing you need at your door is a limo driver holding two front-row tickets to Elton John! We can only hope that they act responsibly in this area. Ah, the dark side...

Databases – who knew?

Today this system is the foundation for Harrah’s success. They claim it drives their business and profitability by as much as 20%. And Mr. Loveman? He is the new CEO.

Being in the database business myself, I like to study cases were technology has been applied with such positive results. But what I find ironic is that the purpose of this large, complex database is to give each of the 50 million customers it now tracks the feeling, that in the eyes of Harrah’s, they are really special and appreciated.

Viva Las Database!

Software failures. Be afraid. Be very afraid...

Software failures. Be afraid, be very afraid.

 

I used to love software.

Since 1989, I have been in the business of developing custom software applications. If you had a problem, all you would need, in my view at least, was to find the right software “solution”. And if you could not find it on the shelf of your local software supermarket, I could tailor one for you that was “just right”.

But over time I have developed somewhat of a love/hate relationship with software. When it works, it’s great. I have seen many cases (at least with my systems) where it not only makes businesses more productive and more profitable, but also where it has vastly improved the lives of those people “manning the cubicles” for eight or more hours per day.

On the other hand I have had my share of sleepless nights wondering if what I was building was ever going to work, and many uncomfortable meetings to “discuss” cost overruns and missed deadlines. Not to mention those “calls” I get every now and then describing undesired system behavior. No “bugs” in my systems!

Stop, listen, what’s that sound? Everybody looks what’s going round...

So I started to look around and what I saw was a long history of software projects gone awry, leaving behind not only billions of dollars in losses, but also losses of life. In fact it is more common that I ever expected, and the scale of damage that it causes is even more I ever imagined.

The Standish Group did a study of software projects and found a failure rate of 31.1%, with over half of the projects go ing over budget by almost 90%. With $250 billion is spent on application development annually, the cost of failed software in the US was estimated to be $60 billion per year.

Here are just a few examples from the “Software Hall of Shame”:

Therac-25 –Cancer Cure turned killer

In the late 80’s a programming error with the Therac-25, a machine used in the treatment of cancer, resulted in six cases where patients were give massive doses of radiation by mistake. In 2000, another machine used in the treatment of cancer machine ended up killing 8 people and injured 20 others; again the result of a programming error.

Oh Canada – we are on the list!

In fact, software failures hit close to home. Just last year the Hudson Bay Company experienced problems with their inventory control system which contributed to a $33 million dollar loss, a loss that helped pave the way for the takeover by Jerry Zucker. In 1983, Donald Hudson (no relation), the embarrassed president of the Vancouver Stock Exchange, had to admit they had goofed at calculating their own index for the past 22 months; a team of people took two weeks to do the recalculation. (The correct index was 574 points above what was reported.) And today there is the infamous Gun Registry. First budgeted at $2 million, it is going to cost $2 billion to complete. What were they thinking?

You would think the big guys could get it right.

Having lots of resources is not guarantee for success; in fact the failure rate goes up with large projects. In 2004 Ford Motor Co. scrapped a $400 million purchasing system after deployment. 160,000 Toyota Prius’s were recalled because of a software error in an embedded system. The new Denver airport is in a state of chaos due to the failing is its new systems. In 1997, the US Internal Revenue Service cancelled a tax modernization effort after spending $4 billion. In the UK (2004) a the grocery chain J Sainsbury PLC had to abandon a $527 million supply-chain purchasing system after deployment and hire 3000 people to stock the shelves manually.


Who cares about software? I have a meeting to catch and my flight is delayed.

The FAA spent $2.6 billion on a replacement for their “massively complex” air-traffic control system. Riddled with problems the project was cancelled, and they had to revert to the antiquated system. Today you can thank the gridlocked skyways in part for the failure of that project. The economic impact of these delays is estimated to be $50 billion per year.


One Small Misstep for Mankind

In 1999 NASA's tried to launch a spacecraft into the orbit of Mars. Instead of reaching a cruising altitude around the planet, the spacecraft crashed into Mars, destroying itself and kissing $125 million goodbye. Investigators blamed the crash on “the failed translation of English units into metric units in a segment of ground-based, navigation-related mission software”.

After spending $7 billion unmanned Ariane 5 rocket the European Space Agency watched in horror as the $500 million rocket exploded just forty seconds after lift-off. It turned out that the cause of the failure complete loss of guidance and attitude information due to specification and design errors in the software of the inertial reference system.


Software and the Big Bang

In the Soviet Union bad software there led to the largest non-nuclear explosion out planet’s history! Operatives working for the CIA allegedly planted a bug in Canadian software purchased to control the trans-Siberian pipeline. This technology was consider sensitive US technology, and the Soviets could only obtain it “covertly”. The bug told the software to give positive readings to bad equipment. While this case is a little different, it does demonstrate the potential consequences of putting too much trust in bad software.

Who needs the National Enquirer?

You may rather want to read one of the over 75,000 cases documented at the The Risks Digest going back to 1985.

OK, what can we learn from these mistakes?

Of course there is no shortage of research into software failure and how to avoid it. Surely an awareness of these factors will guarantee your project’s success. On the other hand, just because you read the South Beach Diet doesn’t mean you are going to loose weight. So, get your pencil handy. Here are the top factors contributing to software project failure:

• Unrealistic or unarticulated project goals
• Inaccurate estimates of needed resources
• Badly defined system requirements
• Poor reporting of the project's status
• Unmanaged risks
• Poor communication among customers, developers, and users
• Use of immature technology
• Inability to handle the project's complexity
• Sloppy development practices
• Poor project management
• Stakeholder politics
• Commercial pressures


Is your project on the “Death March”?

Ed Yourdon, a major thinker in the field of software development, wrote in his book “Death March” that any software project is an exercise in futility if one of these key factors is 50% off a “reasonable norm”;

• Is the schedule 50% too short?
• If the staff 50% too small?
• Is the budget 50% too low?
• Is the scope of features 50% too large?

I suppose this principle could be applied many other fields of endeavour as well.

So did they all live happily every after?

On a more positive note there have been great strides made in the way that software is constructed. “Best Practices” and “Object Oriented” development models have evolved which are much better suited to handling complex systems. What I have yet to see however, is much change in the way we interact as people in organizations. Lets just hope that with better tools and methodologies at least we can look forward a software landscape with a better view.