Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Just say NO

Network World is running an article about a talk given by Dave Girouard, Google’s general manager of enterprise business. In his little talk, Dave states that he believes that businesses should outsource their core IT competencies so that they can “properly focus on the value-added [activities].”

His title alone should tip you off that what he’s proposing is a really bad idea. Basically what his job boils down to, in all likelihood, is trying to get people to use Google “enterprise” solutions, thereby bringing more revenue into Google. The content of the article backs me up on this. I’m going to spend some time picking apart his arguments.

He states that, to quote the article, “CIOs face strict regulations and an impending brain drain with many IT officials approaching retirement.” Every industry faces this every day. Would you like to know how they cope? They train new people. Given time and experience, junior level people BECOME senior level people. You don’t just wave your CIO wand and magically create an IT guru out of the mailroom boy.

The real problem is that far too many companies are trying to do what this fool suggests and are looking to other people to do important tasks for them. Once the people that have that knowledge have left the building without teaching someone else how to do it, it’s damned hard to get back. That’s one of the things that outsourcing important things does – it CREATES a brain drain in your organization.

The question you have to ask yourself is whether or not you can afford to have that brain drain. The honest answer will vary from company to company depending on what it really does and what they’re looking to outsource. Quite often, though, it ends up being a bad idea.

Your business doesn’t live only quarter to quarter. You have to make sure that your long term plans are viable. The share holders who only want to sell off your stock in 3 months when it’s gained $1.00/share do not rule all. Take a hint from companies like Coca-Cola who listen to the opinions of Warren Buffet.

Dave promotes the “software as a service” model (where you basically pay every month for the software kind of like you do for, say, water or power). This is a great idea for the companies providing the service – they get a nice constant stream of revenue without having to do much at all. However, it’s generally not such a great deal for the company that’s paying for the service. There are, among other things, security issues, service level agreements, and having someone else holding the fate of your business in their hands to consider.

Dave, however, says that you should do it anyway even if it does potentially put your data at risk. He compares it to the fact that, at one time, a lot of companies had a vice president of electricity and that, like the management of electricity, the management of many IT functions will be routine.

Sorry, Dave, but there is a very large difference between the two. If you chose a bad power company, it won’t sell your company secrets to the competition. It’s a sad fact of life that many of the places where large companies like to outsource their IT functions to do not have the same data privacy laws that we do. In fact, there have been quite a few cases where the outsourcing companies have taken the trade secrets from their clients, told the client to shove off, and started their own company using the “client’s” IP.

The rest of the article follows along the same basic argument. All it boils down to, really, is him trying to convince his audience to use services like the “enterprise” services that his company is now offering. He even makes it a point to mention them several times.

The only other thing that really needs to be pointed out is a rather amusing statement made by him. In an effort to assuage security concerns, Dave states that “Even if you broke into a Google data center and wanted to find the information for a particular company or customer, you really would have no reasonable means of doing so.”

This is patently ridiculous. I don’t care if they say they’re designed for anonymity. The data has to be grouped by some method whether it’s a folder that has the company’s name (let’s hope not), a unique identifier, or some other method. There HAS to be some method in place for making sure that a company accesses its own data and not the data of another company. With that simple fact in place, it is NOT unreasonable to state that someone could figure out what belongs to whom.

Sorry, pal, but I’m not in the mood for Kool-Aid. Your service may be reasonably secure, but your statement doesn’t hold water.

He claims that Google is a huge success because it is innovative. By the way he speaks, he tries to make it sound like everything Google does is both innovative and successful (not to mention profitable, since he throws out dollar figures in the article).

The only thing that they have done which was both successful and innovative was their search engine. Think about that. Google is, in essence, a one hit wonder. Granted, they’re a really BIG one hit wonder, but they are a one hit wonder with a lot of failures and mediocre products other than their one hit.

Blogger isn’t innovative. It’s nice, but it’s rather pedestrian. Its main draw is that it’s almost impossible to Slashdot because of just how massive their data center is.
Their checkout service is, for all intents and purposes, a bust.
Gmail is just hotmail with search and a really big inbox.
Their chat service isn’t used by nearly as many people as AIM.
Google Earth is kind of cool, but who really cares? What’s the practical use?
Their maps service is, personally speaking, worse than Mapquest.

And who really cares about their online word processor and spreadsheet programs? Most people and companies that I know prefer to have control of both the machine that the software is on and the data that they’re inputting into it. Why? Oh no, someone cut the fiber link to the building. Damn, now we can’t get to our data or the programs that alter it.

He states that their Google Apps “has hundreds of thousands of end users at hundreds of universities and tens of thousands of small businesses.” Want to know a little secret? While that may sound impressive at first blush, it isn’t. It’s a tiny little drop in the bucket. They are, by far, a minor player in this space.

The bottom line is that he’s trying to sell other people on his company. That’s his job. However, it’s your job to not fall for the hype, make reasonable decisions based on both short and long term plans, and realize that it is possible (and all too likely of late) to be penny wise and pound stupid in business.

Don’t deliver the keys to your kingdom to someone else. It’s a bad move. The sad thing is that a lot of businesses will fall for it – especially since it’s Google that’s trying to sell them on the idea.

Current mood: amazed
Current music: Evita Soundtrack – The Lady’s got Potential

Monday, January 22, 2007

Brave New World

Last week, the local paper ran a story saying that the new state rep announced a $500,000 grant to help grow the computer gaming industry in this part of the state. It’s supposed to be part of a larger initiative to spur economic development in the fields of information technology and alternative energy.

Personally, I see this as a positive thing. This region needs help in the economic department. It honestly does.

Unfortunately, a lot of the local people disagree. They like their towns the way that they are even though the jobs that the people once had are going away.

They say that they want their towns to be prosperous, yet they decline any opportunity that is presented to them because it would change the way that things are done in the town.

The responses to the article are a case in point. You can’t see all of the comments (or the user names of the people who made the) unless you register, so I’ll give a run down of the general trend in the comments.

The first one was accusing the representative in question of trying to bring the gambling industry into the state when it stated quite plainly that it was console games like the PlayStation and XBox that they were trying to encourage the development of.

After that was cleared up, one of the people there started stating that we shouldn’t even try because this region would never be the IT capitol of the state let alone the country.

I spent the rest of the day going back and forth with this person on the issue because having a viable industry in any given area does not require that you be the “capitol” of the industry. It simply requires that you have the necessary prerequisites (which this town does. It is close to two universities that have good CS programs, is within 1.5 hours of two major cities, has good infrastructure, low cost of living, and plenty of available office space).

After that point was made, the person started attacking the local universities (which I proceeded to defend). In the end, they started to backpedal and lied, saying they were only kidding and trying to get a rise out of someone when it was painfully obvious that they were being serious.

It’s a sad trend, although it is a common one in the Appalachian region of this state. The people in this area are notoriously isolationist. I’m not saying that to be mean or weird. I say it because it’s the honest truth. It comes, for the most part, from the fact that this area was pretty isolated until the highway system was built.

This fact is made fairly obvious by the very distinctive accent that people from this region have (I am an exception to this). Travel an hour to the north (which is out of the Appalachian region), and the accent is completely different.

Before that time, the only ways to get into this area were through mountain passes or to come down one of the rivers. For the most part, the people who settled here were pretty much on their own.

The people in this area need to learn that they can’t just be the big fish in their very small pond. It will take more than a couple of manufacturing plants to save and support the economy here.

Simply graduating from high school and going to work at the mill is not going to cut it for a lot of the people that are in school now, and a lot of the older people in this area think that is exactly what the younger generation should do. They express the general opinion that if their kids or grandkids did anything else it would be a sign that the kids thought they were too good for where they came from.

The older generation honestly seems to think that their kids will grow out of it, get back to reality, and get a job at the nearest factory. The kids, on the other hand, leave the town and only come back much later if at all. There are very very few people in the 18-35 age range in this town. I really wish I was kidding.

They’re going to have to learn to accept change. This is going to be a real challenge, because it’s something that most people who live in this area are very reluctant to do.

Current mood: contemplative
Current music: U2 – Until the end of the World

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Complex Answers

Some people just try to make problems much more difficult than they actually are. Granted, this applies to everyday life, but in this case, we’re talking about making software.

While talking to a friend of mine the other day, he started ranting about having to re-write some code where he works. It appears as though one of his co-workers is a fan of making things difficult.

The problem in question was finding a path from point A to point B. The solution his co-worker came up with was a complex process that involved concentric circles and all sorts of other things. It made my head hurt.

It made my friend’s head hurt too. Apparently this guy has some sort of a fetish for solutions with a big O of n^2, n^3, or worse.

The best answer in this case would be to simply determine the angle that you need to travel at by doing a little math with the X and Y co-ordinates of each point. It gives you the shortest path and the big O of the solution is more than acceptable.

Even the brain dead solution which I came up with off the top of my head since it was 2am and I didn’t want to look up the math was better than the one that my friend had to replace. In fact, the computation time in this case is minimal and the path length isn’t horribly bad but the answer I gave above is a lot better.

The brain dead answer? Starting a point A, travel along X until you reach the appropriate value and then traverse Y until you reach point B.

Like I said, that solution is not optimal, but it’s still better than what was there originally.

Why do people have to make these things so bloody hard?

Current Mood: amused
Current Music: Michelle Branch – Paper Pieces

Long Winding Road

I went back to my alma mater on Tuesday for a gathering of area alumni. I figured it would be a nice distraction from life in general.

I spent a while wandering around campus while I was there, and it struck me just how much of an outsider I was now.

When I was going to school, campus was home. Everyone knew me, and I couldn’t go anywhere without being stopped by two or three people. I was quite literally one of the best known people on campus. It was my element and I couldn’t picture being anywhere else.

Now I can’t picture being there again. It’s kind of funny really – being a nameless face in the crowd where you used to be one of the few names.

After wandering around the campus for a while, I stopped by to see one of my favorite professors. No, this one is not in the CS department; he’s in Philosophy. We chatted for an hour or so and generally caught up with each other.

He also spent some time asking questions about some of the things I’d done in the past that he sort of wondered about. He’s another one of those people that tends to find the weird path I’ve been on fairly interesting.

He’s still convinced that he’s going to see me on the cover of a business magazine at some point. A lot of people think that about me. I find that amusing. Personally, I’m just amazed that I’m still alive after some of it.

However, the one thing that the trip really underlined for me was that campus is yet another place that I no longer belong. Maybe I will find somewhere I do belong at some point.

As it stands, though, I feel like a perpetual wanderer. There are places that I stay but none of them are really home no matter how long I am there.

All I know is that out there, somewhere, is something that feels different. It’s just a matter of finding it. Until then, I’ll just have to try and enjoy the journey.

It’s like they say – you can never go home again.

Current mood: contemplative
Current music: Ambeon - High

Friday, January 05, 2007

James and the Apothecary

I have a problem – I expect specialized shops to have what they say they specialize in.

A few months back, an apothecary shop opened here in town.

Personally, I thought this was a great thing. It meant that I might be able to pick up some things that I occasionally have use for locally instead of on the net (hey, I believe in supporting local businesses when I can), and that I might even be able to meet a few more people here.

The first time I walked in was a few days after they opened, so they didn’t have a lot of stuff on the shelves yet. That was pretty understandable, and I decided to come back later when they were better stocked.

Well, I went back today.

If this is someone’s idea of an apothecary, they really need to get out more. Maybe they could even visit an actual apothecary shop.

There was about one and a half small shelving units of the capsules of things like flax seed oil and the like, tubs of powdered vitamin C, etc. Then there was a 3’ wide basket of bagged herbs, some scented oils (on another shelf), and a couple of shelves of “whole foods”. Oh, and ear candles. They actually had those, and that belongs in this section.

Here ends anything in there actually resembling an apothecary (I include the whole foods and capsules in that list though they don’t all necessarily belong there. I’m trying to be fair here).

Apart from that, there was a little incense (which can be found in most shops), but it appeared to be lower quality cones and a few things like incense burners and aromatherapy oil lamps.

The rest of the store? Candles. Lots of scented candles. And soap.

The best part? Many of the items in there are also found in several of the big box retailers in town. Funny thing is that they’re basically identical to those items and marked up a dollar or two…

The bottom line? The “apothecary shop” had probably two short isles (maybe two and a half) of shelves with three shelves per isle and a basket worth of things that actually belonged in an apothecary shop. The rest of it was basically things like scented candles and soap.

Granted, I’m used to apothecaries with a rather full selection, but this was really bad. The sad thing is that a lot of people who walk into that shop will really think it’s an apothecary because they don’t know any better.

Give me a shop filled with assorted containers full of various fun things (for a wide range of definitions of the word “fun”) and a person behind the counter who really knows what they’re doing. “I think it’s used for $X” is not a great way to earn my trust in your ability to run an apothecary shop (which I overheard when someone else in there asked him a question about one of the products).

To run a shop of that sort, you *really* need to know your stuff. It takes a lot of experience, and generally involves an apprenticeship. Heck, even I wouldn’t hazard running one, and I have a grasp on more than a little bit of it. It’s a really specialized kind of place.

So, it looks like I’m still going to be ordering pretty much everything online that I can’t get fresh unless I run into it on my travels.

Current mood: amused
Current music: K’s Choice – Iron Flower

Monday, January 01, 2007

Happy New Year.

May this year be better than the last.

Current mood: tired
Current music: Michelle Dockrey - Mal's Song