Onward and upward

As you may have seen by now, I have taken the decision to take a step back from working at Freeform Dynamics.

When I first became an analyst some ten years ago now, little did I know what the journey would have in store. As far as I was concerned with my background as an IT manager, here was an opportunity to share the lessons and experiences I had learned with a much wider audience. Joining Freeform Dynamics at first glance appeared to be more of the same – of course I would get the opportunity to continue working with Dale and Helen, but being an analyst was being an analyst, right?

Freeform’s model was simple – to offer firms custom-designed research at a more accessible price than previously had been available, distributing it using media relationships and the still-nascent social Web. The ‘trouble’ came as a deeply shared goal emerged from our research programme – to focus on how organisations were really using IT, rather than how anybody might want them to. From within the company, this seemed a most natural thing to do, though over time it became apparent just how out of kilter this sometimes was with the broader landscape of IT marketing.

All the same, we plugged on, using the funding from vendor-sponsored studies to broaden our own understanding of how IT is done. We learned, we debated, we discovered, we tested hypotheses and opinions and we fed it all back into the machine. The partnership with online news site The Register gave us unprecedented access to those at the coal face of IT – from senior decision makers to programmers, operations staff and deeply technical specialists. Working with The Register has been a fantastic litmus test, as its audience does not hold back if what we are saying does not resonate!

Being small also made us nimble and we have been able to flex with the times, riding out both the downturn and the arrival of social media to our advantage. Early on, we had taken the active decision not to write white papers – these are vendor-sponsored short documents that actively promote a specific product or approach – and to this day I cannot get my head around how they are anything other than paid-for advertising.

However, we did spot a gap in the market for orientation guidance, that is, simple to understand, balanced explanations of a technology area – what was it, where it was useful, and how to start thinking about it. As the market for hard-core research dried up during the downturn, we identified alternative revenue streams initially founded on basic primers, which led to working with Wiley on the ‘For Dummies’ imprint. This in turn gave us the idea of setting up our own ‘Smart Guides’ – these in turn have been very successful, and much-coveted.

Freeform Dynamics has grown from success to success, even though it has gone through the same tough times as everyone else, and despite internal challenges such as dealing with Dale’s illness. When he offered me the CEO role two years ago I knew I had no choice – it was an offer I couldn’t refuse, not just because of the opportunity, but also that I couldn’t see any clear future to the company if I said ‘no’. And I haven’t regretted a single moment, it was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

Internally however, we all knew it was not going to be forever. I would love to be the kind of person who could take a role and stick with it for twenty years, but I’m not – on the upside (this is what I like to tell my wife), it’s the breadth of experience that makes me what I am. I initially told Dale and Helen I would join for two years, and then we would see what happened; while I in no way feel I have outstayed my welcome, I have had to ignore or otherwise put off a number of other opportunities and activities. Even as part of such a sterling management team, running Freeform Dynamics has been a full-time job in every sense.

In practical terms, the timing of my departure was never going to be ideal. At this point however, we have defined a structure, approach and organisation which enables the company to lead with its own agenda, rather than being buffeted by the agendas of the industry; we have a more pro-active approach to growing client relationships; we have a renewed focus on research as budgets start to free up, and finally, a reputation that is second to none as a ‘voice of reason’ for the industry. The mainstay of the exit plan was to leave things in good shape, and I believe that is exactly what we have achieved.

I shall be spending the next couple of months dealing with some immediate side projects – yes of course, there is a book in the works, and I’ll be working with Dale and Andy on some research we have been doing into more consumer-related aspects of technology. I’ll also be taking the opportunity to stand back, do some research and have a proper think about it all, something that just hasn’t been possible until now. I’m delighted to remain an active affiliate of the Freeform team, and I am not ruling out anything for the future.

Above all, I am immensely proud of everything we have achieved as an organisation. The Freeform team is undoubtedly one of the best I have ever worked with, not just in terms of competence, which equals any analyst firm out there, but also philosophy. Rather than forming an ivory tower so common among analyst firms large and small, Freeform Dynamics occupies the same space as the people it ultimately serves – those who define, procure and deploy IT systems and services for their organisations. To my very core and whatever happens in the future, I will always be proud to be a card-carrying Freeformer and I look forward to whatever opportunities may arise to work with Dale, Helen and the team again.

Onward and upward indeed!

The great cloud joke

Once upon a time, in the cloud kingdom of Cloudalon, there lived a cloud king. One cloudy day this cloud King, who was cloudily named Cloud Cloud the fifth, called his cloud son, the cloud prince Cloud Cloud the sixth, over to his cloud side.

“My cloud son,” the cloud king said to cloud prince Cloud Cloud the sixth, “in another cloud kingdom a very short cloud distance away there lives another cloud king. This cloud king has a cloud princess that I think that you should marry. Here she is, the cloud Princess Cloudina Cloud of Cloudonia.”
Cloud prince Cloud Cloud the sixth, upon seeing the cloud princess Cloudina Cloud of Cloudonia, agreed to marry her. And so, on the next cloudy day, in the cloud garden, Prince Cloud Cloud the sixth and stood by the cloud altar and watched his cloud bride-to-be, the cloud princess Cloudina Cloud of Cloudonia, march down the cloud aisle wearing a cloud wedding dress and carrying a bouquet of cloud flowers. Just as the cloud princess Cloudina Cloud of Cloudonia reached the cloud altar, however, an evil cloud magician appeared and cast a cloud spell on the cloud princess. In a cloudily moment, the cloud princess Cloudina Cloud of Cloudonia had vanished.

“What have you done?” cried the cloud prince Cloud Cloud the sixth.

“I have sent the cloud princess Cloudina Cloud of Cloudonia to a cloud cave in the cloud mountain Mount Cloudtop. There, in her cloud cave, she is guarded by the cloud dragon Cloudfang. The cloud princess Cloudina Cloud of Cloudonia is cloudily safe there, but the cloud dragon Cloudfang, will not let her rejoin the cloud kingdoms of Cloudalon and Cloudonia.”

“You are cloudily insane,” the cloud prince Cloud Cloud the sixth said to the Cloud magician, but the cloud magician had vanished.

“What are you going to do, my cloud son?” the cloud king Cloud Cloud the fifth of Cloudalon asked his son, the cloud prince Cloud Cloud the sixth.

“I am going to take my cloud horse, Cloud Lightning, and my cloud sword, Cloud Death, and go slay the cloud dragon Cloudfang and rescue the fair cloud maiden the cloud princess Cloudina Cloud of Cloudonia.”

“May the cloud God speed you well on your cloud journey,” the cloud king Cloud Cloud the fifth of Cloudalon cloudily blessed his cloud son, the cloud prince Cloud Cloud the sixth. With that, the cloud prince Cloud Cloud the sixth got his cloud sword, Cloud Death, and his cloud horse, Cloud Lightning, and rode off to the cloud mountain of Mount Cloudtop and the cloud cave thereon, in which lived the cloud dragon Cloudfang and his cloud prisoner the cloud princess Cloudina Cloud of Cloudonia.

The cloud hero of this cloud story, the cloud prince Cloud Cloud the sixth of Cloudalon, rode his cloud horse Cloud Lightning over many cloudy miles along many cloud roads and through many cloud fields. He crossed many cloud streams and many cloud mountains, though none of them were the cloud mountain of Mount Cloudtop and the cloud cave thereon, in which lived the cloud dragon Cloudfang and his cloud prisoner the cloud princess Cloudina Cloud of Cloudonia. When the cloud prince Cloud Cloud the sixth crossed these cloud mountains, he trudged his way through cloud snow. Cloud sand lined the cloud deserts he crossed, and there was cloud water in the cloud oases.

Eventually, the cloud horse Cloud Lightning got tired, so the cloud prince Cloud Cloud the sixth carried his cloud horse Cloud Lightning over many cloudy miles along many cloud roads and through many cloud fields. He crossed many cloud streams and many cloud mountains, though none of them were the cloud mountain of Mount Cloudtop and the cloud cave thereon, in which lived the cloud dragon Cloudfang and his cloud prisoner the cloud princess Cloudina Cloud of Cloudonia. When the cloud prince Cloud Cloud the sixth crossed these cloud mountains, he trudged his way through cloud snow. Cloud sand lined the cloud deserts he crossed, and there was cloud water in the cloud oases.

Finally, the Cloud prince Cloud Cloud the sixth reached the cloud mountain Mount Cloudtop. There, in a cloud cave on top of the cloud mountain, Prince Cloud Cloud the sixth of Cloudalon could see the cloud smoke from the cloud dragon Cloudfang who lived in the cloud cave in which the cloud princess Cloudina Cloud of Cloudonia was a cloud prisoner. Our cloud hero, the cloud prince Cloud Cloud the sixth of Cloudalon, climbed the cloud mountain Mount Cloudtop and slew the cloud dragon Cloudfang as the cloud beast slept cloudily. The cloud prince Cloud Cloud the sixth of Cloudalon rescued the cloud princess Cloudina Cloud of Cloudonia. But their cloud adventures were not yet come to their cloud close. They still had to get home cloud and sound.

So…

The cloud hero of this cloud story, the cloud prince Cloud Cloud the sixth of Cloudalon, and the newly rescued cloud heroine, the cloud princess Cloudina Cloud of Cloudonia, rode the cloud horse Cloud Lightning over many cloudy miles along many cloud roads and through many cloud fields. He crossed many cloud streams and many cloud mountains, though none of them were the same cloud mountain of Mount Cloudtop which in the cloud cave thereon the cloud prince Cloud Cloud the sixth slew the cloud dragon Cloudfang and rescued the cloud prisoner the cloud princess Cloudina Cloud of Cloudonia. When the cloud prince Cloud Cloud the sixth crossed these cloud mountains, he trudged his way through cloud snow. Cloud sand lined the cloud deserts he crossed, and there was cloud water in the cloud oases.

Eventually, the cloud horse Cloud Lightning got tired, so the cloud prince Cloud Cloud the sixth carried his cloud horse Cloud Lightning and the newly rescued cloud heroine, the cloud princess Cloudina Cloud of Cloudonia, over many cloudy miles along many cloud roads and through many cloud fields. He crossed many cloud streams and many cloud mountains, though none of them were the same cloud mountain of Mount Cloudtop which in the cloud cave thereon the cloud prince Cloud Cloud the sixth slew the cloud dragon Cloudfang and rescued the cloud prisoner the cloud princess Cloudina Cloud of Cloudonia. When the cloud prince Cloud Cloud the sixth crossed these cloud mountains, he trudged his way through cloud snow. Cloud sand lined the cloud deserts he crossed, and there was cloud water in the cloud oases.

Eventually, The cloud hero of this cloud story, the cloud prince Cloud Cloud the sixth of Cloudalon, got tired, so the newly rescued cloud heroine, the cloud princess Cloudina Cloud of Cloudonia, carried the cloud horse Cloud Lightning and the cloud prince Cloud Cloud the sixth of Cloudalon over many cloudy miles along many cloud roads and through many cloud fields. She crossed many cloud streams and many cloud mountains, though none of them were the same cloud mountain of Mount Cloudtop which in the cloud cave thereon the cloud prince Cloud Cloud the sixth slew the cloud dragon Cloudfang and rescued the cloud prisoner the cloud princess Cloudina Cloud of Cloudonia. When the cloud prince Cloud Cloud the sixth crossed these cloud mountains, he trudged his way through cloud snow. Cloud sand lined the cloud deserts he crossed, and there was cloud water in the cloud oases.

Cloud alases and cloud alaks, though, for it seems our cloud heroes, the cloud prince Cloud Cloud the sixth of Cloudalon and the cloud princess Cloudina Cloud of Cloudonia got lost on their way home, for they wandered into the cloud kingdom of an evil cloud king, the evil cloud king Cloud Cloudonovov of Cloudovia. This evil cloud man had the cloud heroes, the cloud prince Cloud Cloud the sixth of Cloudalon and the cloud princess Cloudina Cloud of Cloudonia, arrested and taken to be driven away and thrown into the cloud dungeon. Just before the evil cloud king Cloud Cloudonovov of Cloudovia put them on the cloudy transport, however, he said….

“Cumulon, im bus!”

With many thanks to http://www.sccs.swarthmore.edu/org/swil/JoelPage/purplejoke.html

Conference keynotes, and the gulf between simple and complex

Another day, another keynote. This time it’s Microsoft TechEd in New Orleans, and Bob Muglia is on stage being all thrilled about all those new and improved aspects fo IT. Three weeks ago it was Ajei Gopal at CA World. Today, elsewhere in the US IBM is kicking off its Rational conference, and I believe from my Twitter feed that SAS has a gig, somewhere.

It’s important to remember that most normal people don’t spend their lives attending IT conference keynotes. the real attendees at such conferences will have paid through the nose to come, and likely there may have been a little lottery between team mates about who should go. I know that back in my days as a punter rather than an analyst, attending conferences was very much a one-off, not just for cost reasons but also because I would have been too busy actually running stuff. (As an aside, it’s one of the reasons analysts exist)

So, most people in the rather humid hall I am sitting in right now will not have the luxury of comparison between multiple keynotes – and indeed (based on the “time ” thing) may not have had the luxury to stop and think about some of the things that are being presented. But, for better or worse, I do – and so it is that I inevitably start to think about how this keynote compares with those in the current batch, which appear like waypoints stretching back through the history of conference time.

Now I wouldn’t be so trite as to give marks out of ten for individual keynote presenters – though I am reminded of some of those dodgy talent competitions in the Seventies. Actually, even better than that, I wonder what Simon Cowell et al would make of Messrs Muglia and Gopal. The hand would slice, the brow would furrow and the head would shake, before the flabbergastingly obvious, albeit reasonably accurate commentary. “Haven’t we heard this before?” he would ask. Well, perhaps, but Simon never did understand the idea of paradigm shifts.

Strip away the repetition, the pseudo-excitement and exec cameos, and there is generally some good, interesting stuff in the average keynote. This one is no exception – new product announcements, capabilities that are now probable (whereas in previous keynotes they were just possible), yadda yadda. Right now for example, data visualisation is having its time in the sun – and to be fair Microsoft has a good story to tell around its SQL Server tools.

However, one area that’s pretty fundamental to IT never seems to get a mention at keynotes. All these new-and-improved capabilities are based on a core premise that they can exist in some kind of isolation from whatever else is in the IT environment. The irony is of course, that they never can – even small companies have existing technology investments, and anything new will have to work with all that old, and seemingly inferior stuff. This means both an integration impact to get new working with old, and a migration impact as the lucky elements of IT get rejuvenated and or replaced. (Hat tip to Roy Illsley for mentioning licensing as well, just before I posted this.)

Even if it were possible to adopt a green-field approach, the sheer complexity of IT very quickly comes back to bite anyone (particularly in marketing) who underestimates it. I was in a conversation a few weeks ago with a systems engineer at the Symantec Vision conference (yes, there was a keynote there as well, from Enrique Salem). The engineer went through a quick summary of the complications of failing over a production environment, in terms of servers, networking and storage, the level of hard coding still required, and the potential for error if any part of the systems were even slightly different. It was a welcome reminder of just how complex things really are, in most, if not all IT environments today.

I won’t go on as the keynote is due to finish soon. But as well as “star quality” or whatever else we feel should be on the keynote scorecard, let’s have a row for “ability to deliver in existing environments”. Perhaps it is the absence of this as a metric which has led to so many great ideas, presented at keynotes past, turn into dust – or worse, be rolled out again a few years later under a new terminological banner. IT is complex, and will remain so however hard people try to present it as something that is becoming simpler. And the sooner industry figureheads can take this on board and talk about it accordingly, the better.

How much “innovation” is just keeping up appearances?

Focus on business challenges, not technology innovations

The IT industry really does bring out the best and worst traits of human nature. Were we always quite so excitable about the latest big thing? It is difficult to tell, as historical records don’t tend to preserve the glee reserved for all things new and improved, whether or not they have any long-term advantage.

This is particularly relevant given that we are perhaps in one of the most inventive periods since the dawn of humanity – at least, that is how things look from the inside. While the jury is out as to the usefulness and ultimate value of many of our creations, the speed of “innovation” has been accelerating consistently over the past 500 years, such that we have now reached a point where it is impossible to keep up with everything that is going on.

It is a very human thing, however, to want to keep up appearances. In the arts it is important to have an opinion on the latest show, film, or book, and our high streets are full of the latest must-have items. You can see where I’m going with this can’t you – yes indeed, our cuckoo tendencies to accumulate shiny things also spills over into how we view, and indeed select and procure IT systems.

We all know this, but many go with it anyway. Marketing departments in IT vendor companies spend their time working out how to make even the most humdrum of technologies look like the best thing since, well, the last best thing. Phrases like “paradigm shift” and “game changer” are used over and again, even though both speaker and listener knows that if the paradigm had shifted as often as predicted, we would have run out of games to change long ago.

Business leaders are subject to the same pressures – after all, in the words of the Matrix agent, they are “only human”. It was only a matter of time before a CIO would say to me that his boss had asked him when could he get some of that cloud computing. The fact that the question doesn’t make any sense is neither here nor there: businesses want to demonstrate they are up with the corporate Joneses, just as CIOs themselves want to have a few leading edge projects on their CVs. Analyst firms as well can be no better, as indeed, if things weren’t quite as exciting as everyone was making out, would we really need analysts to make sense of it all?

Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of new and exciting things made possible through the use of technology IT. It has brought the world closer together, opening up whole new ways of communicating and collaborating, and so on and so on. The danger however, is that we are so busy looking beyond where we are for the next big thing, we don’t give ourselves the time to make the most of what we already have. Organisations don’t always need the latest and greatest technology to thrive, and there is a big difference between being flexible as a business and simply changing because that is what everyone else is doing. Far more important is that their requirements are clearly understood, and that the right tool is selected for the job in hand.

As my old boss Steve, a seasoned programme manager used to say, “What’s the problem we’re trying to solve here?” Okay, his language was a bit more colourful than that but the point still stands. As we look at the waves of so-called innovation and try to decide whether they have any relevance to our businesses, let’s first and foremost focus on the challenges we face, and how best to deal with them. In a couple of years time, when the dust has settled on the latest hyped-up bandwagon, if the challenges still remain then we won’t have been doing our jobs, even if the agenda item of “keeping up with innovation” has been achieved.

Looking back: Software is Art?

The traditional craftsman uses handed down principles and rules of thumb as the basis of his work: experience gained over many years of apprenticeship. The engineer proves his designs at every stage with scientific laws and mathematics. Craft and engineering differ in their techniques but they have a common goal remain the same : to provide efficient, useful artefacts.

In Computer Programming as an art, Donald Knuth summarises this by saying, “Computer programming is an art, because it applies accumulated knowledge to the world, because it requires skill and ingenuity, and especially because it produces object of beauty.”

The knowledge base that we have built up over thirty years is agreed to be incomplete. Reliance is often placed on software craftsmen, commonly known as ‘gurus’ or ‘hackers’ (in the programming world, a hacker is seen as a programmer of high esteem whereas it is the cracker who breaks into computer systems) – the reputation of some gives them almost hero. Robert Baber suggests that when software development progresses to be a true engineering discipline, such characters will disappear to be replaced by ‘members of professional bodies’. If this is going to happen it is a long way off yet.

And what of software itself? Is software an art form? Knuth refers to ‘beautiful programs’, and it is true that an elegantly structured section of code may be a pleasure to look at, at least to another programmer! This point should not be taken too far: a motorway intersection may well be an object of beauty to another construction engineer, but it is probably not for the rest of us. Artistic qualities do however have practical value for software : an elegant program is reasonably likely to be a well-written, maintainable one. It would be worth considering the addition of a little ‘art’ at all stages of the software life cycle. For example:

1. In the specification phase, a common language document is used to show the producer’s understanding of the clients’ needs. A well-written specification will increase the chances that such requirements have been noted; a readable specification may well ensure that both parties read it at all.

2. Software architectures can be elegant or impractical. An elegant architecture is one which ensures that its subsystems work together smoothly and efficiently; an inefficient architecture will be the source of an unnecessary performance overhead.

3. Algorithms can be fluid, smooth in motion or clunky and slow. A well-written algorithm will be more efficient than a badly written one.

4. The code itself can read like a good book or a child’s first essay. If the code is not readable it will quickly become unmaintainable, especially if its author is no longer available to explain it. Code should be self-documenting. If it is not clear exactly what a given code section is doing then it should be rewritten. In the maintenance phase, the code should also explain how it has been modified, by whom and when.

The quality of the product is dependent on the experience of the software developers – and their management – at their craft. Such craftsmanship must be learned. And as we have already seen, there is not always the time or resources available to provide such training. Peopleware makes the point that developers should be considered as experts rather than resources, and should be given enough space and facilities to permit them to excel. In DeMarco and Lister’s experience, it is this which ensures the optimal productivity of development groups.

Today’s software developer is somewhere between a craftsman and an engineer, using both science and common sense in his work. Tomorrow’s developer may well be the perfectly trained engineer proving everything as he goes. But he is not there yet. At least for the moment, gurus are a necessity and ‘software beauty’ keeps our minds on the goal.

[[And the punchline: this was written in 1994, as part of a bigger piece entitled Craft or Science - Software Engineering Evolution]]

IT looking forward

Video recorded at Microsoft tech days, 16 April 2010, following (and referencing) David Bishop at Microsoft’s “Vision of the Future” presentation.

Enjoy!

201005070936

Welcome Barry and Andrew

It is with great pleasure… Well, I would say that, wouldn’t I. But it really is with great pleasure that I’d like to introduce two new members of the Freeform Dynamics team, Barry Saunders and Andrew Buss.

Barry Saunders has joined us in a business development role for strategic accounts. Barry’s got a solid history of working for, and with, major vendors including IBM and Verizon, and we’re delighted in being able to bring someone with his experience on board.

As a seasoned IT industry analyst, Andrew Buss should need no introduction to the analyst community. From a coverage perspective, Andy will assume the lead for end user computing and access, integrating with the rest of the team to maintain that all-important horizontal insight that is at the heart of everything we do.

You can check the Research Team page for more information about all of us, and of course, do get in touch if you have any questions.

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