Oracle Backups and Archives In The Cloud

Back at Oracle Open World 2008, Oracle gave some lip service to how they would get into cloud computing... in case you are not familiar with the term, "cloud computing" is a way of designing your systems so that your data resources (and sometimes your services) behave as if they are "in the internet cloud." Its a combination of a service-oriented architecture, software-as-a-service, and storage-as-a-service. Developers love it, but system administrators are still a bit weary...

Basically, you rent the computational power and storage you need, and only pay for what you use. In theory you can rely on your provider -- such as Google or -- to take care of backups for you. Its a great idea for startups (Twitter does it) and mid-sized companies, so they can keep costs down, while still leaving room to grow. For large companies with their own dedicated data centers, cloud computing makes less sense for production software... but its usually a great idea for development and testing.

Anyway... I was curious how Oracle's "Cloud" strategy would develop... and I was pleasantly surprised to find some recent collaboration between Amazon and Oracle. They put together some Best Practices for Oracle In The Cloud, which I found on Justin Kestylyn's blog:

"Oracle in the Cloud" AWS Webinar
View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: amazon aws)

I really like the idea of encrypting database backups, and storing them in the cloud. That's an excellent idea, for pretty much anybody... and it is supported back to Oracle Database 9i. Check out the Cloud Backup Whitepaper for more info...

I also really see the value for using the Amazon cloud for the persistence layer for archives. The Oracle Universal Online Archive could be a real killer app, but proving its value will need about a Terabyte of storage, just to do a proof-of-concept. Unfortunately, that's not exactly something you can run on a VM Ware virtual machine... but you could do it as an Amazon Machine Image (AMI).

I wouldn't be surprised if we saw more and more archiving solutions that use Amazon's Cloud for persistence...

Transforming Infoglut: Available now!

I had expected that it would take another 3 weeks to release this, but my second book is now available for purchase! As promised, this is more of a business strategy book, and less of a technical book... however, Andy and I did sneak in some good implementation details along the way. We designed this book so every member of your ECM team should get something useful out of it.

The purpose of the book is to present what we call a "pragmatic strategy for content management." For multiple reasons -- both political and technical -- it is rarely feasible for all of your content management products to be from one vendor. Perhaps you just merged with another company and you each have different vendors; perhaps you need blogs and wikis now and cannot wait for your ECM vendor to create a decent offering; perhaps SharePoint has grown like a fungus in your enterprise, and now you need some way to manage the insanity.

Some say the solution is rationalization: consolidate all content into one system... but that's not the whole story. You don't want to wind up like those poor saps running Lotus Notes, do you? Your users will rebel if you take away their nice collaboration tools, or if you tell them they can't have new ones. Entire departments will collapse if you eliminate content silos without any concern for users' productivity.

Instead, the pragmatic approach is to do the following:

  • Consolidate content when possible into a "strategic ecm infrastructure." This can -- if desired -- be the single repository that satisfies all your content management needs; however this is not a requirement.
  • Federate content services to tactical and legacy applications. This means managing content in other repositories with a combination of enterprise search, universal records management, and enterprise mashups.
  • Secure content wherever it lives. Ironically, in most cases your data is only secure when it is not in use! Once you move it from one system to another, it is at risk. Your information should always be secure, whether it is locked down in a database, or in a USB thumb drive at the bottom of your sock drawer.

The book is 250 pages long... but you don't have to read the whole thing. The chapter breakdown is as follows:

  1. The State of Information Management: a good grounding in what exactly ECM is all about, and why it is important.
  2. A Pragmatic ECM Architecture: the steps you need to take in order to realize the value of an ECM initiative.
  3. Assessing Your Environment: make a big list of what needs to be done, and by whom. Which content should be consolidated, and which is best left where it is?
  4. Strategic ECM Infrastructure and Middleware: this is the "strategic" part of the puzzle. Consolidate to this system whenever cost-effective, and extend it to your portals and enterprise applications with SOAs, ESBs, or ECM standards (WebDAV, CMIS, etc.).
  5. Managing Legacy and Non-Strategic Content Stores: all the tools for "tactical" integrations with systems that are not (yet) cost effective to consolidate. Your content management strategy should never punish you for failing to consolidate: the goal is to make content manageable.
  6. Secure Information Wherever It Lives: tools for making sure content is secure, even when it leaves a secure repository.
  7. Bringing Structured and Unstructured Strategies Together: your ECM initiative should be a part of a broader information management initiative. This chapter presents tools that helps you bridge this gap.
  8. ECM and Enterprise 2.0: here we present a (better) definition of Enterprise 2.0, and how ECM fits into the ecosystem. It presents a strategy for Pragmatic Enterprise 2.0, and explains how many Enterprise 2.0 initiatives could fail without a comprehensive strategy.

Chapters 1, 2, and 8 are relevant no matter which vendor you use for Enterprise Content Management. We do mention Oracle numerous times, but you can just BLEEEEEEP over that if you use tools from different vendors.

Chapters 3 through 7 show how to implement a "pragmatic ECM strategy" using Oracle tools. Some of this data may or may not be relevant to non-Oracle customers. In most cases, you should find it helpful to see what is possible, so you can determine the distance between where you are now, and where you want to be tomorrow.

I worked pretty hard on this, and I'm relatively pleased with the results... but I'm sure the haters out there will find something to complain about ;-)


Year-End Book Review

I usually like to give verbose book reviews... but I realized that I've fallen more than a little behind lately. Writing my second book sucked up a lot of my free time, but I was still able to squeeze in about one non-fiction book per month... not to mention the hundreds of hours of podcasts on ancient history (my current obsession).

I decided to avoid books on programming and technology this year, and focus mainly on business and communication. I think it was a good idea: partly because I get the best software news from blogs, partly because of the utter lack of software innovation in 2007 and 2008, but mostly because I felt the need to read more about economics and management. If more software geeks did the same, I think the world would run a lot more smoothly...

Anyway... below are the books I read in 2008 that I felt worthy of a review on Amazon and my blog. I hope you find them useful:

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow -- I read this because I had a long standing white-hot hatred of Hamilton, so much so that it deeply amused my friends. Sam White suggested I read this book to get a different perspective. After a few years, I finally did, and it really did turn me around a bit. I now have a lot more respect for Hamilton, and can see through the obvious propaganda that was set against him... Hamilton is still a political fool, but he's a military and financial genius, and the USA would be much worse off without him. And Aaron Burr was a tool.

Getting To Yes by Fisher, Ury, and Patton -- Highly recommended! This is a great book about negotiation, both in theory and practice. It demonstrates how there are three general kinds of negotiators: soft, hard, and principled. Its the latter category that will always be able to find a solution that satisfies both parties, without either party feeling like they gave in. I've used this concept multiple times recently -- sometimes with more success than others. It will always remain a useful tool to help me find the win-win situation in every conflict.

The Influencer by Patterson, Grenny, Maxfield, McMillan, and Switzler -- the follow-up to the book "Crucial Conversations," this book gives some pretty practical advice on how to set up systems that promote positive change. This is a combination of individuals, social groups, and the environment itself... all 3 areas need systems that encourage both the ability and the motivation for positive change; otherwise it will not last. In each area, there are multiple tools that can help, but a true "Influencer" will know what tools to use and when. Highly recommended for anybody who wants to make lasting change.

Speak Peace in a World of Conflict by Marshall Rosenberg -- This is a good grounding in the principles of Non-Violent Communication. It shows some basic techniques for how to communicate in a language of needs, rather than in a language of good/evil/right/wrong. It has more real-world examples for folks, which makes it more accessible to skeptics, and first-timers. If you like it, I would also recommend Non-Violent Communication, Getting To Yes, and Crucial Conversations.

Three Cups of Tea by Mortenson and Relin -- This was a fun read... its a real-world story about a man who failed to climb mount everest, and wound up lost in a remote area of Pakistan. The people there were so kind to him, he promised to return to build a school. After multiple setbacks -- and some hard lessons about life in this region -- Mortenson now runs the Central Asia Institute, and has built nearly 80 schools in the region. He gives an interesting perspective into the instability of the region, including the Taliban and the real causes of 9/11.

The Turnaround Kid by Steve Miller -- A fairly timely book for anybody curious about the US automotive industry. I've always been fascinated by turnaround CEOs: people who relish taking a failing company, and making it profitable again. Steve Miller was one of my heros there, because he engineered the turnaround of about a dozen companies... most recently Delphi. In case you didn't know, Miller was the real brains behind Lee Iacocca's turnaround of Chrysler in the 1980s. He has quite a few words of advice for US manufacturers, which you might want to heed before you need his help!

The Warren Buffett Way by Robert Hagstrom -- Forget it. You will never be Warren Buffet. Accept it. Don't invest your money in the stock market: invest in your business, or yourself. Even if the stock market is your business, you're probably not going to pick stocks better than a computer. Nevertheless, if you want to know how Warren Buffet made his billions, this is a good primer. The book also constantly reminds you to not get carried away: put your money in a S&P index fund, and get back to work. Stock speculation is only profitable for insiders with nearly illegal insider information, or people who work amazingly hard at it every day (like Buffett).

Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis -- I liked this book... its a short book, geared for both US history buffs, and the general public. It was a good overview of six important moments in US history: the Hamilton/Burr duel, the Hamilton/Jefferson/Madison dinner about debt assumption and the creation of Washington DC, the early arguments about the slave trade, Washington's retirement after a mere 2 terms, the early Adams and Jefferson presidencies, and the later friendship between Adams and Jefferson. I'm not positive it deserved the Pulitzer Prize, but it was certainly one of the better history books I've read.

E-Myth Mastery by Michael Gerber -- the latest in the E-Myth series. This book helps entrepreneurs create systems that allow their company to run, so that they can free-up their time to build and grow the company. As a computer geek who has observed highly ineffectual business process, I was skeptical that this book could teach me anything. I was pleasantly surprised... its a bit big, and I wouldn't recommend it unless you are actually running a business -- or a part of a business -- but it certainly opened my eyes to the value of a culture of entrepreneurialism. It does suffer from a fairly tedious writing style, and perhaps others in the E-Myth series would be a better fit -- such as the E-Myth Revisited -- but it opened my eyes a bit so I'll give it a solid 3 stars.

The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford -- decent coverage of scarcity theory, and slight coverage of comparative advantage, but not much ground-braking information here. Its not as good as Freakonomics, which I also disliked. I'm still looking for a book on classical economic theory that I can tolerate... any suggestions are highly welcome!

Blink by Malcom Gladwell -- this follow-up to The Tipping Point was a bit of a disappointment. There was a lot of good data in it, but I felt that his entire thesis was flawed. Its all about "thinking without thinking," by trusting your "gut." Yeah, that always works out... there was some good data about folks who could read emotions by observing facial muscles, and how the mind operates when under stress, but otherwise it wasn't very thoughtful. Worth reading if you take it with a grain of salt.

CMS Watch Predicts Oracle Will Suck in 2009

Well... this is pretty negative...

CMS Watch came out with their 12 predictions for 2009, and number seven was "Oracle will fall behind in the battle for knowledge workers." Here's the relevant quote:

At one level, Oracle had a banner year in 2008: completing or consolidating numerous large acquisitions that bring in heavy streams of ever-beloved maintenance revenues. But 2009 will expose Oracle's weakness with front-office applications at a time when Microsoft, IBM, and many smaller players are fighting for the hearts and minds of knowledge workers.

Customers are already feeling indigestion, as different Oracle teams market overlapping and often incomplete solutions. For example, Oracle is struggling to combine four different enterprise portal offerings, and many customers are chafing at the financial and architectural challenges of aligning with the putative winner, Oracle WebCenter Suite (OWS). Similarly, collaboration and social software services remain divided between OWS and the new Beehive offering -- a bad situation made worse by the fact that both are really development platforms and not finished toolsets. Meanwhile, longtime Stellent UCM customers complain that Oracle is moving away from the product's Web CMS roots to emphasize heavy-duty document and records management.

Some thoughts...

First, the acquisition of BEA did really shake up Oracle's whole knowledge management / collaboration / Enterprise 2.0 strategy... and yes, there is considerable overlap in the product offerings. However, ultimately this will be a good thing, because only the best of the best will become strategic products under the "WebCenter" brand. This will take time to digest... it may or may not be "all better" by the 11g release in 2009, but I remain optimistic based on the previews I've seen... so the architecture will likely become much more simplified.

Although, I do have to agree that a lot of Oracle's offerings here are platforms, instead of complete applications -- Stellent/ECM being one exception. The WebCenter platform will never be huge, unless it has pre-packaged "Killer Apps" built on it. This is a general fact about all platforms, and is very much true here as well. There are several in the works -- collectively called "Fusion Applications" -- but I have no clue when they will be released.

Second, regarding the financial challenges, I guess I don't know what he means here... the current WebCenter bundle is a bit pricey, mainly because it's a bundle of so many different tools. Remember, WebCenter is a brand, and not just a single piece of technology. Oracle will probably figure out smaller, cheaper bundles that sell better, so I don't see this as that much of a long term problem. Maybe some folks are upset about the price of migration from older platforms to WebCenter... but nobody is forcing them to upgrade. They'll have to do a technology refresh at some point, and Oracle will continue to support and make new released of their non-strategic product lines... so I guess I'll need to hear more before I can respond.

Third, regarding existing Stellent UCM customers, Oracle is actually moving in both WCM and document/records management at the same time. The heavy-duty document and records management offerings are badly needed by many of their existing enterprise customers, so there's a lot of sales opportunity by productizing a few enterprise-level integrations. While at the same time, they spent a lot of time and energy in the next version of Site Studio (Web Content Management) including their Open WCM initiative... This will be big in 2009.

The Stellent faithful have been hearing this line for a long time, but their patience will be rewarded as soon as January.

For those who watched the December 10 customer call, you'd know that you will be able to play with this next-generation of Site Studio relatively soon. A lot of it will be released as Site Studio 10gr4 at the beginning of 2009. The rest will be released in 11g, which is slated for some time in 2009. Alan Baer will be doing a Deep Dive into Oracle Site Studio 10gr4 in January, if you want to know more.

And finally, we should note that of the dozen 2008 predictions by CMS Watch, they claim seven came true, three did not, and two are in the "maybe" pile... so take this prediction with a grain of salt. Oracle has several decent ECM products due out in 2009... so this warning could be both a wake-up call, and a self-denying prophesy.

OMG... Ford Motor Company Admits They Are Just An OEM...

I was just watching Ford's CEO Alan Mulally on CNN... Ford is actually doing fairly well, and doesn't need much of the bailout money, so a lot of people were confused about why he would stick up for GM or Chrysler went bankrupt. At first glance, you think it would be great if your competition went bankrupt, because then you could gobble up their market share... but Ford was actually very concerned.

Initially, I suspected something of an old-boys-network thing. Mulally is sticking up for other Detroit car companies, simply because they need to stick together if one of them needs to go to Washington to ask for help against Japanese or German car companies... so it might be just cynical, political self interest.

Mulally's explanation was oddly different...

He stated that the majority of the auto industry is in the suppliers, not the auto makers. Since all auto companies use the same suppliers, and suppliers are hurting as well, then one bad company puts the whole thing at risk.

For example, if GM goes bankrupt, then Delphi might go bankrupt, and not be able to supply parts to Toyota, Ford, or Volkswagen. That puts them all at risk if a company as large as GM goes bankrupt.

What shocked me was that during the interview, Mulally called his own company an "original equipment manufacturer!" This is a common term in both software and manufacturing, usually shortened to just OEM. It basically means Ford doesn't manufacture anything; it wraps pre-manufactured products with its own brand. They don't make engines, doors, wheels, brakes, transmissions, or pretty much anything anymore... they just slap together other people's stuff, put the word "Ford" on it, then sell it through their distribution channels.

I was wondering how long it would take them to admit this... and how folks would react... The CNN guy just brushed it off as "auto company speak," so I don't think they actually understood what Mulally meant.

Cringely brought this up a few weeks ago in his article What if Steve Jobs ran one of the Big Three auto companies? He suggested the same thing... Car companies should act more like Apple: let other companies do the dirty work of creating the "parts," then focus the big 3 on design, sales, marketing, and customer services. The whole article is very good, I recommend reading it.

Hearing Mulally openly admit that Ford is nothing but an OEM is very telling... and it gives me hope that some folks in Detroit "get it," and might actually be able to turn around the industry... but it might take a while longer for the folks at CNN to "get it."

Technology Cannot Replace People

There have been millions of technological innovations since cave men first invented the wheel... many of them -- such as the printing press, the sewing machine, and the robot -- have put people out of a job. However, it is completely illogical to state that technology eliminates jobs. If that were true, then 10,000 years of innovation would mean no jobs left on the planet... The relationship between technology and jobs is much more complex than that.

Put simply, innovations may be disruptive, but they can never replace a human who actually gives a damn. This may be difficult to believe -- especially if you recently lost your job because a robot/computer could do it faster... but innovations don't fire people; managers fire people... and both labor and management use technology as a scapegoat.

Here's my theory on how this all works:

  • For better or worse, the majority of people are motivated by economic means. Not entirely, mind you, but significantly... and everybody would prefer to have more money if possible.
  • The primary thing that keeps an economic system growing and creating new wealth is increased worker productivity.
  • Technological innovations make workers more efficient.
  • This means a short-sighted employer can purchase new technology, lay off workers, and maintain existing production levels... however, this trick is easy for the competition to replicate, so its a terrible long-term solution.
  • Alternatively, workers could learn how to work with new technology, and become phenomenally more productive than just technology alone. This is difficult for the competition to replicate, because it relies on a culture of training, sharing knowledge, and institutional learning... so its a great long-term solution.
  • Therefore, employers who use new innovations plus retrained labor will always be more competitive, and the first to find and cultivate new markets.
  • When this happens, overall worker productivity increases, and more wealth is created for everybody: investors, innovators, managers, and workers.

Scribes lost their jobs when the printing press was invented... but cheap books created huge demand for new kinds of books, and the printing industry boomed. Tailors lost their jobs when the sewing machine was invented... but cheap clothes created huge demand for new fashions, and the clothing industry boomed. Naturally, this doesn't always work for low skilled workers, and all this amoral capitalism is painful for people who lose their job... so a smart government would provide its citizens with temporary unemployment pay, education, and jobs programs to help them through the disruptive phase. But, that's a blog post for a different web site ;-)

This same rule applies to knowledge workers... don't think of them being "replaced" with software, think of them being "empowered" by software.

I am personally highly skeptical about "Enterprise 2.0" software that claims to help people effortlessly find content, seamlessly connect with people, and make effective business decisions as a "crowd". That's not to say these tools have no value... but they are no replacement for people who know what they are doing, and have a desire to get better at it.

Neither Wikipedia nor Google can replace people who intuitively understand a subject, and can weed out "false" information from the mountain of badly written presentations, reports, and blogs... Neither LinkedIn nor Facebook can replace the people who genuinely love connecting with thousands of friends, staying in touch, and helping people out... And nothing, nothing can replace a manager with leadership and consensus building skills. All these people have a genuine talent for discovering useful information, connecting people to each other, and managing a group.

If you have talented employees, you can never replace them. If you don't have them, then software is a stop-gap solution; not a substitute. Technology can only raise the bar a little... ordinary folks will use technology to become slightly better than average at a task... but those with talent can use the exact same technology, and leave everybody else in the dust.

What's Your Twitter Agenda?

Everybody has an agenda... folks use twitter for many different reasons, but the folks over at Twit Tip compiled a ist of the ten most common twitter agendas.

Some hype their business (agenda #4: gold digger), some hype their personal website (agenda #1: blog vomit), some hype how awesome they are each time they have an expensive glass of wine (agenda #2: sucks to be you).

Most just dwell upon the mind-numbing minutia of everyday life and hope somebody is listening... usually these folks don't quite seem to understand that you should not tweet what you are doing; tweet what has your attention. Do that, then the odds are much higher that somebody else will also be interested.

Following this advice, I set my agenda a long time ago to be agenda #5: Rodney Dangerfield. This means that you don't talk about yourself much, you only send random one-liners out into the world. I typically tweet insightful quotations that I just finished reading... Its really hard to squeeze some of these bad boys into 140 letters, and provide a reference... but its a good exercise in editing skills.

For example, recently I saw a great quote by Fred Brooks, but it was waaaaaaaaaaay to long for twitter... so I shrunk it down and tweeted this:

"Much of the essence of software development is debugging the specification." -- (shorter) Fred Brooks

Zing! It captured 100% of what he said, within Twitter approved guidelines. I'm trying to do the same for other notable quotes, but it can sometimes get tricky. I frequently have to rewrite the entire phrase to fit into Twitter... which raises the question as to who should get attribution for the quote.

So, what's your Twitter agenda?

Haiku of the day...

Not in my cubicle, dude.
Better luck next time.

--Denise Harry

(Hat Tip: Infonomics)

HUGE Opportunity in Content Management: Electronic Medical Records

President elect Obama announced parts of his economic recovery plan in his weekly "radio" address. There are a lot of good pieces to it that should help America's down economy, and some that will be a huge boon for the Enterprise Content Management industry:

In addition to connecting our libraries and schools to the internet, we must also ensure that our hospitals are connected to each other through the internet. That is why the economic recovery plan I’m proposing will help modernize our health care system – and that won’t just save jobs, it will save lives. We will make sure that every doctor’s office and hospital in this country is using cutting edge technology and electronic medical records so that we can cut red tape, prevent medical mistakes, and help save billions of dollars each year.

Gee... Obama says medical records should all be electronic to help save the economy? I agree! And there's nothing like a presidential endorsement to boost your industry, eh?

Many ECM experts have been preaching this for years... in fact, a lot of them have recently reminded folks about how much hard cash you save with a coherent, electronic, information management system. Just recently, over on the AIIM Blog, John Mancini's most popular posts are all about using ECM to cut costs. Oracle recently started their Survive Or Thrive with ECM web conferences, which give hard data from customers about how ECM made them more efficient. There should be one or two per month for a while... The presentation by Emerson Process has some especially useful statistics for Return On Investment.

Aside: I know some free-market fundamentalists hate the idea of government spending, but this kind of initiative is necessary. The economy is in the early stages of a deflationary spiral... which makes banks are scared to loan cash, consumers hesitant to spend cash, and debtors without cash will find themselves deeper in debt. Deflation may be a good thing for gas and house prices... but the spiral soon forces business to sell products for less than the costs of production. In order to stay in business, they are usually forced to lay off workers...The best way to stabilize deflation is for the government to purchase a wide range of commodities.

This month, there is a great article in Forbes about deflation... what are its risks, and how to we stop it? Instead of throwing money at banks and wall street, the best option is for the government to purchase glass, steel, concrete, computers, light bulbs, and stuff like that. This drives up overall demand, which reduces supply, which stabilizes prices, and ensures businesses don't have to lay off workers.

The Forbes article questioned whether Obama could launch an initiative of sufficient size and usefulness in time... but I'm hopeful, because everything Obama proposed -- make government building more energy efficient, launch a large-scale broadband initiative, repair broken school buildings and bridges, and force municipalities to "use or lose" their federal grants -- all sound practical and swift. The government will soon be buying up a bunch of commodities, and using them to make America more efficient. This will create new jobs, stabilize prices, and get the economy going again. More projects are needed, but this is a promising start.

The potential extra business for my industry is just an added bonus ;-)

In Defense of Content Silos...

"A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention" -- Herbert Simon

For the longest time, many people believed that one of the biggest information management problems is simply getting access to data. Previously, data was hidden away in a "silo," making it difficult to obtain, because you had to deal with an "information broker." You know the stereotype: somebody who rations their hoard of information for job security purposes, and refuses to share unless forced to... Not always, but many times this "broker" frequently acted more like a "bottleneck."

20 years ago, this led people to believe that if we could only bypass these brokers, and access the information directly, then all our problems would be solved! If only we could get the raw, unfiltered data, we would be much more efficient!

It turns out, not so much...

If you want a successful ECM/Knowledge Management/ Enterprise 2.0 initiative, one of the biggest mistakes you could make is to focus too much on sharing information.

Don't get me wrong: there are many situations where sharing information is vital... however, those situations are pretty obvious. You won't need to look hard to find them, and solving information access problems is fairly straightforward. Sometimes its technical, in which case basic content management tools can help out. Some times the problem is political, in which case the optimal information management strategy requires you to first understand the cultural reasons why your employees refuse to share information... after which you can either chose a software solution, or just force everybody to go to anger management training.

But... assuming that you break down the cultural bottlenecks to innovation, now you have another problem: "infoglut." In other words, information overload. Emails you don't read, presentations that don't make sense, reports that don't flow, the proliferation of websites, blogs, wikis, and social software across the enterprise... people talking a lot, but communicating very little.

In many ways, the best solution to infoglut is to bring back the information broker. Now that information is completely free, you need some kind of filter to let you know what information is relevant. This does not mean that you should bring back the information bottlenecks... instead, you need tools that makes the information broker more effective. This may include:

  • Smarter search engines: the current ones try to determine relevance just based on keywords, which doesn't work so well. Google's search engine does a great job on the heavily hyperlinked web, but its a terrible tool for the whole Enterprise. Smarter search engines need to use identity management and analytics to know what content is currently popular with people similar to the current user. They also need a human to maintain a controlled thesaurus, in order to get a vague idea about what content is similar.
  • Polite relevance filters for email: how many of you would love to have a customer support queue for your email inbox? "Thank you for your email! I currently have 1000 unread items in my inbox, all flagged 'important.' The average wait time for a response is 97 hours." Of course, you might also need one for your phone...
  • Recommendation sites: these allow your greater audience to "vote" on what content is relevant. Examples include Digg and Reddit, which are both good, but only for highly broad topics. I know what's hot in "Technology," but not what's hot in "Embedded Linux."
  • Better tools for human information brokers: I firmly believe the broker is the solution, not the problem. Instead of replacing them with technology, work with them to design systems that are more effective at brokering information. If they see their influence increase the more they share, they will do everything they can to get the right information to the right people at the right time. There isn't much commercially software along these lines at the moment... but that doesn't stop sites like AllTop from doing it anyway.

In short, don't blindly bash content silos and information brokers. Sure, they kept data hidden from you... but it was data you probably didn't want to see in the first place. Replacing a human broker with a Digg-clone may work for a while... but that's easy. And since its easy, soon everybody will be doing it, and it will cease to be a competitive advantage. As I've said many times, no technology can ever replace a human being who actually gives a damn.

Technology should empower your brokers, not replace them. Otherwise, you'll soon be swimming in useless information... just like everybody else.

UPDATE: There's a bit of confusion about what I mean by "broker." I do not mean to imply that information should go back to being "locked away." That is both illogical and impossible. Rather, I'm stating that the role of the "broker" has changed into being more of a "filter," and is arguably more important than ever. As Clay Shirky says, "It’s Not Information Overload. It’s Filter Failure." Sometimes a broker is one person, sometimes its several people, sometimes its a software algorithm. None is superior to the other: they all have merits. Therefore, its important for the filter to be a combination: better search algorithms based on relevance, Digg clones for the enterprise, and better tools to help individuals who choose to become brokers. This means multiple silos will be built upon the same raw information, based solely on which filter you pick. Like it or not, its already happening... and people will use whichever one makes them more productive.

Want to Know What New Words Have Been Added To The Dictionary? Meh.

Meh indeed...

You know the phrase... The universal sign of such tremendous apathy, that you don't even care enough to say a real word... Until now, that is, because in 2009 "meh" will officially be in the dictionary.

Hurray! New words being born! A chance to celebrate!

Of course, the linguistic circle of life dictates that other words must die so new ones can be born... As others have noted, two unfortunate deaths include "anticipate" and "irony". The former being used in place of "expect," and thus losing its individual meaning, and becoming a dead word. Irony, of course, has been misused in place of "coincidence" and "odd" for so dang long I'm surprised when somebody actually uses it correctly...

Example... Assume some guy named Turd Ferguson is a college football player. He's exceptionally good, and is drafted to be in the NFL. However, in his very first game, he gets tackled hard, breaks his knee, and ends his career. That's not irony: that just sucks.

Next, assume Turd has a son: Turd Ferguson Junior... who is also an exceptional football player, and who also winds up n the NFL. However, in Junior's very first game, he too is tackled hard, he too breaks his knee, he too ends his career. That's not irony: that's just coincidence.

Now... assume that instead of getting hurt in his first game, Junior tackles somebody named Mikey... Mikey breaks his leg, and Mikey ends his career. NOW its ironic! It would be even more ironic if Mikey's father was the man who initially broke Turd Ferguson Senior's knee twenty years ago...

But does anybody care about the proper use of "irony?"


Communication Tip: Never Speak More Than 40 Words

The Trappist Monks are widely known for making the best beer in the world... most of it is made in monasteries located in Belgium, using centuries-old processes. These Trappists are the quintessential monks: quiet, pious, hard working, and frugal. And man, they make great beer!

Contrary to popular belief, Trappist monks do not take a vow of silence; rather they vow to speak only when necessary. Which, surprisingly, is almost never.

To gabby outsiders, they speak so little that we just assumed many of them took a vow to never speak... Who wouldn't be making idle chit-chat while brewing a batch of awesome beer!?!? The alternative was just too bizarre for us to comprehend: speaking is rarely necessary, even when creating a world-class product.

And this rule applies for people who aren't even monks. Let me explain...

Last year I was introduced to a technique called Non-Violent Communication, which had many excellent suggestions for effective dialogs and running productive meetings... They stressed that besides empathy, the most important communication skill is brevity. Specifically, you should limit yourself to no more than 40 words before coming to an actionable request.

State your case quickly, express what you need briefly, and then make a positive request of one specific person.

For example, a manager shouldn't just call a meeting, let out a deep sigh, and lament about how the sales numbers really suck this quarter... and then go on and on and on about what's wrong. That's a waste of everybody's time. I'm certain your employees already know that the numbers are bad. I'm certain your employees already know they "shouldn't drop the ball next time." They know, they know, they know... and now you just wasted an hour of everybody's productive day.

They don't care about what they shouldn't do... they only care about what they should do in order to move things forward.

Instead, try to realize that speaking is rarely necessary, even for a world-class team. Get clear on what it is that you need... determine specifically what actions need to be taken, and by whom. If you don't know what actions need to be taken, then your request would be to have your team help you find out. State your case in 40 words or less, make your request, and move on to new business.

Naturally, there are some concepts that are difficult to explain in fewer than 40 words. In those cases, you should write a report. No, I don't mean a mind-boggling array of Power Point slides... I mean a real, honest to god report. Publish it to your content management system, where it is widely available, then share it with your team. That way, your request would simply be "Please read my report, and send me your comments." Otherwise, the data will still be there in the future, on the off chance that anybody needs it.

Verbose information belongs in a published report, or a wiki... not in an email, and not in a meeting. Keep this in mind at all times, or you'll never make anything as good as a bottle of Westvleteren 12...

Oracle Community Call For ECM

The next Oracle customer call for UCM users is coming soon:

Americas / EMEA time zones: Customer Update
December 10, 2008
9:00am US PDT / 12:00pm US EDT / 16:00 GMT

As before, you need to register for the conference. There will be a repeat of the webcast at 7pm PST on December 10th, for those in Asia.

If you miss it, they will have old recordings on Metalink... but you might want to check this one out. Last time they announced that Oracle was supporting the Site Studio Blogs and Wikis... and I have it under good authority that something equally cool will be announced at the next call...

Speculate amongst yourselves...

Wall Street Meltdown: Blame Software?

James had a curious post about the Wall Street meltdown... and how some of the blame lies with bad programs from IT.

Did you know that a significant portion of all trades executed by Wall Street don't have human intervention and are submitted by computers? Did you know that you can write your own trading algorithms and put computers directly in the NYSE data center to avoid the latency of network hops to make your bad programs execute even faster?

Would we have had a subprime crisis if Wall Street banned algorithmic trading? The notion of Quants has the ability to take a bad situation and make it even worse. More importantly, many used quant strategies as a way to hedge their other bets but never considered that the logic behind the programs might be flawed...

Interesting thesis... but I think James is asking the wrong questions.

The problem was not in the software, or in any of the algorithms that IT implemented... The problem was inherent in the financial models themselves. The IT folks simply implemented those models... and the software programs were simply dumb agents that did exactly as they were told.

Now... if we banned computers from trading, would we have avoided this problem? Absolutely not. If we banned computers, then the financial "wizards" who got us into this mess would simply use different "dumb agents" to do their bidding... in other words, stock brokers.

Back in the 1980s, there was a classic book on how Wall Street was completely crooked... called Liar's Poker. It was an autobiography of a stock insider. The author was right out of college, and was paid huge sums of money to give stock advice to millionaires... despite the fact that he had neither the training nor the desire to do so. Recently, the author came out with an excellent article on the sub-prime mortgage crisis, and the few folks who saw it coming... it was utterly chilling to read how reckless, irresponsible, and deeply stupid some wall street financiers were. They weren't just liars; they were idiots.

For example... one huge reason why this crisis came about was because people were turning risky sub-prime mortgages into bonds. Not a bad idea... but somehow they would take a collection of highly risky BBB loans, smash them all together, chop it up, and claim they were now ultra-safe AAA bonds. The entire point of bond credit ratings are to prevent this kind of crap... Since a BBB bond is high risk, it usually pays a large interest rate. In contrast, since AAA bonds are "safe," they pay a low interest rate... so if you could claim a BBB bond was AAA, your fake AAA bond would pay a much higher interest rate than actual AAA bonds, and thus be in huge demand... you would make a killing, and it would create pressure to make more and more of these sub-prime mortgages, just so you could sell them as fake AAA bonds. Just like Alan Greenspan said, the "demand for paper" drove this crisis, because Wall Street demanded that lenders lower their standards, so they could get more crappy loans.

It was a complete and total con, and the guys from Marketplace have a great video describing how it worked. But what was more shocking was how the ratings agencies went along with the scam. Naturally, you can't just claim your crappy bonds are rated AAA, any more than you can claim a R-rated movie is a G-rated movie. No... you have to get the bond ratings agencies (Standard & Poor, Moodys, etc.) to agree that you bond is AAA... essentially, the bond rating agencies didn't do their job:

[Moses Eisman] couldn’t figure out exactly how the rating agencies justified turning BBB loans into AAA-rated bonds. “I didn’t understand how they were turning all this garbage into gold,” he says. He brought some of the bond people from Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, and UBS over for a visit. “We always asked the same question,” says Eisman. “Where are the rating agencies in all of this? And I’d always get the same reaction. It was a smirk.” He called Standard & Poor’s and asked what would happen to [mortgage] default rates if real estate prices fell. The man at S&P couldn’t say; its model for home prices had no ability to accept a negative [growth] number. “They were just assuming home prices would keep going up,” Eisman says.

In other words... The frigging ratings agencies were using financial models that assumed that house prices would never drop in value.

Whiskey. Tango. Foxtrot.

Wall Street has been flying blind for the past 2 years. Its a mistake to blame automatons for this... the blame rests squarely on the deeply stupid people designing these models... and the equally stupid people who refused to regulate the markets.

Don't Share Information; Instead Teach Knowledge

When there is a lack of unified purpose, information sharing leads to chaos... and sometimes can cause more problems than it solves. To illustrate this point, I'd like to share the legend of King Ammon.

In a dialog between himself and Phaedrus, Socrates told the tale of king Ammon. He was a wise and just ruler, and all the gods admired him and his virtues.

One day, Ammon was met by the Egyptian god Thoth, who was an inventor, and the "scribe of the gods." Thoth admired Ammon, and wanted to share his inventions with Ammon and all his Egyptian subjects. Ammon was impressed with most of the inventions... except for one: writing.

Ammon was not a fan of writing... and chided Thoth for creating it:

What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not memory. And as for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it but not the reality: they will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction, and in consequence be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant. And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom, they will be a burden to society.

Hmmm... so Ammon feared what would happen if somebody read something, didn't understand it, quoted it anyway to appear wise, but in actuality had no real wisdom... and in doing so became more powerful, perhaps even respected, so that people even followed him... but because he only appeared to be wise, he made bad decisions, and ultimately became a significant burden to his fellow men.

gee... sound like anybody you know?

Naturally, we only have this great story because of the written word... so nobody would go so far as to claim that writing is bad. However this legend does bring up a valuable point for knowledge management systems:

We should NOT focus on sharing information; we should focus on teaching knowledge.

You shouldn't just dump data to a blog and expect people to read it... you shouldn't dump half-baked documentation into a wiki and expect others to maintain it... you shouldn't just deploy an enterprise search or ECM system, then allow it to become a dumping ground for "data."

What we need are systems that teach; not systems that share. Because without that context, without teaching, and without experience, sharing information could very likely lead to problems...

...and it might actually make you a burden to your fellow men.

My Blog's Personality: INTJ

There's a new website out there called Typealyzer that offers free personality tests for your blog. It appears to be based on the popular Myers-Briggs personality test, and it tries to analyze your writing style to determine the "type" of blogger you are.

I've taken Meyers-Briggs numerous times, and I'm almost always an ENFP: Extroverted, iNtuitive, Feeler, Perceiver... It may sound bizarre for a computer geek to be extroverted (not introverted), and a feeler (not a thinker), but it's not uncommon. In fact, software is one of the recommended careers for ENFPs, probably because we excel in the constantly shifting landscape of technology and project requirements ;-)

Strangely, however, my blog's personality is INTJ! Introverted, iNtuitive, Thinker, Judger. I don't know if this reflects poorly on the Typealyzer test, or if it means that "Blogger-Bex" is less fun and more judgmental than "Real-World-Bex"...

Perhaps its because I write on very INTJ topics, like science and technology... As you might have noticed, I tag all my posts with different topics. You can use the drop-down list of topics on the left to filter this blog based on those topics. Curious, I decided to ask Typalizer what's my blog's personality if I filter it to only specific topics?

The results were close to what I'd expect... all 14 topics fell into just four personality types:

Huh... not quite sure how to take that last one...

Again, not a single one of these topics reflected the personality type that I have in real life... that might be because I try to keep this blog professional, so it mainly reflects my logical/analytical side, since I think that's what my audience wants. I have to lock my extroverted, humanity-loving side in the trunk while I write... lest I lose readership.

So, what's your blog's personality?

(Hat tip Garrick Van Buren)

Next Yahoo Main Page: Running ENTIRELY on JavaScript!

About two years back I was strongly encouraging readers to get familiar with JavaScript user interface toolkits. These things will be the future of web programming... forget heavy .NET or Java frameworks that draw HTML... instead, make your data and services easy to reuse (with SOAP, ReST, AJAX, or Remote Scripting), and push the UI layer right into JavaScript. That makes your code much easier to port from one application to another...

And they look pretty dang slick, too ;-)

Of course, there were so many even back then... about sixty to be precise. I placed my long bet with the Yahoo User Interface Library (YUI), for multiple reasons. First, it has a huge sponsor (Yahoo), a large community, tons of documentation, and the most liberal license out there (BSD).

Well, it turns out that the next page will be built ENTIRELY with the Yahoo User Interface library! You can preview it if you'd like... Naturally, if the YUI is fast enough and flexible enough for, then its probably a no-brainer for your site.

YUI is currently at version 2.6... but the next Yahoo home page will use YUI Version 3, which is still only in pre-alpha preview release. That's kind of a risk, but the benefits of YUI 3 compared to YUI 2.x vastly outweighed these risks:

  • Lighter
  • Faster
  • More consistent
  • More portable
  • More powerful

I'm certainly going to be watching this launch closely... if they nailed all the usability and accessibility problems with YUI 3, and its slick and easy to use, it will probably be my main choice for designing rich user interfaces in a browser.

Please note, there are many other decent toolkits out there... JQuery being probably the most popular... and there are certainly other toolkits that are easier to use. However, I'd still recommend YUI for the vast majority of enterprise users.

Microsoft Launches BizSpark for Startups

This should be a pretty disruptive initiative...

Microsoft recently announced a new program for startups called BizSpark. Its intention is to be a "kick start" for startups who might not be able to afford tons of software at first, so Microsoft will just give you software for free! Free dev tools, and unlimited production servers for qualified startups! You also get tech support, and some enhanced visibility to venture capitalists and other Microsoft partners so you can grow your business.

Sounds pretty dang cool... if you're starting a .NET based company, or leaning in that direction, you might want to give this a quick look.

In order to be eligible, your company needs to be the following:

  • A private company building a software-based product or service
  • In business for less than 3 years
  • Less than USD $1M in revenue
  • Need to be nominated by a Microsoft "Network Partner"

(Hat tip Don Dodge)

Apparently, there's some sort of election going on...

I had no idea...

Some of my fellow bloggers have said who they intend to votes for... about 2 years ago I had very few strong opinions on the matter. My personal motto is "never vote for an incumbent," so I was leaning Democratic. Although I had no strong dislike of either of the Republican front runners. McCain was decent, Romney was a bit odd but proved himself a competent administrator, and Ron Paul was a hoot.

Two things made me eventually side with Obama. First, was a 2007 article by (gay Republican and 2-time Bush voter) Andrew Sullivan. He made the very strong case that Obama genuinely would help us move past the culture wars of the 60s, since by his very birth (date, race, country, age) it was impossible for him to take sides on the most divisive issues. He also made the strong case that nothing would improve relations abroad more than Obama -- both with former allies, and amongst states leaning towards "rogue" status... As Sullivan says:

Consider this hypothetical. It’s November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man—Barack Hussein Obama—is the new face of America. In one simple image, America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm. A brown-skinned man whose father was an African, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, who attended a majority-Muslim school as a boy, is now the alleged enemy. If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology, Obama’s face gets close. It proves them wrong about what America is in ways no words can.

Talk about cognitive dissonance...

That made me lean Obama... but the thing that really cinched it was his Yes We Can speech... although the remix was better. The line that hit home was this:

This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected.

This was the central argument behind pretty much every one of the Founding Fathers... if you've read as many books on the subject as I have, you'd realize that the history of the USA is highly unlikely... and those who talk about inevitability, superiority, or destiny, just don't get it. The only thing that ever held us together was the drive forward, the American Dream, to make a "more perfect union." Those who make demands just because "America is #1" will only lead us to lose touch with that dream, and lead us to chaos.

Does Obama lie? Yes; he's a politician, and lies are his weapons. Are his ideas so different than anybody else? No; he surrounds himself with the same advisers as other politicians. The difference is his temperament, and his unique perspective. He views the world in a totally different way than most people do... And I think that's exactly what we need right now.

But that's just my opinion, maybe I'm wrong.

Book Review: First, Break All The Rules

If you are a tech geek, having your boss read this book is probably the next best thing to reading "The Mythical Man Month."

Geeks have said for a long, long time that there is easily a 10-to-1 ratio of productivity between the best developers and an average developer. There is tons of evidence to this fact... however it is still a difficult reality to swallow for some folks. In many cases, you're better off with a team of 3 good developers, than a team of 20 average developers. This book not only validates this claim, but also provides proof that this productivity ratio exists in every job role!

This was based on data from a 25-year survey by Gallup... they interviewed over 100,000 people, trying to find out who were great managers, and what they knew. Almost uniformly, they knew that the standard rules about managing people were completely bogus. They break down what attributes your employees have into 3 buckets:

  • Knowledge: Basic information; "book learning." People with knowledge interview well, and test well, but that doesn't always translate into productivity. Training people "knowledge" is fast and easy.
  • Skills: This is applied knowledge. A great deal of accounting and data entry is applied high-school math, but that doesn't mean any high schooler can do it. They need the skills to know when to apply what knowledge and when. Training people a "skill" takes time, and not all people are cut out for every skill.
  • Talent: The most important of the bunch... somebody not only with skills and knowledge, but their brain is wired to be exceptional at this task! You can have a talent for sales, accounting, data entry, development, bartending, housekeeping, management, anything! Training people a "talent" is extraordinarily difficult, but you can find it during an interview.

This book validates what I have said for a long time: manager is a role, not a rank! Only people with the "talent" for being managers should be managers. It should not be an expected career path for all.

One talented employee is easily more valuable than 10 of her peers, across the board. This book provides sufficient examples that should make any decent manager rethink their methods of using their employees like cogs in a giant "process machine." A good manager should look for "talent," and not "skills" or "knowledge" during an interview... and then figure out a way to help their employees harness their latent talent. If so, then you will see 10 times more productivity out of a talented employee, compared to an average one.

This has nothing to do with knowledge, skills, or process... the talented ones just "get it." They see the problem, they know inherently how to solve it, and it brings them tremendous joy to solve it. Don't promote these stars to management; that's not their talent. Instead, let the exceptional employees -- like exceptional baseball players -- make more than an average manager. They call this "broad band" pay scales, and in practice they work pretty well to make sure everybody is exceptional at their role.

What about developers? They had a few things to say about them... somewhat oversimplified, but they said a common career path is from developer to systems analyst. In other words, go from designing one system, to designing integrated systems that work together.

This is a HUGE mistake.

Why? Because both roles require different talents! Developers are problem solvers, but in general they need ALL the pieces of the puzzle before they want to try to solve it. There is no feeling more frustrating to them than not being able to solve a problem because you weren't given sufficient data... or a complete specification.

To illustrate... Imagine you work at a software company. If you ask a talented developer a technical question, but you don't give sufficient information, you might have just cost your company a full day's worth of developer productivity. Why? Because the developer will seethe, and stew, and gather his buddies for a hallway bitch-session about you... which will cause others to likewise seethe and stew, and grumble about how "nobody ever gives them enough information." It all adds up to a full day lost.

It happens. I've seen it.

In contrast, a systems analysts (or architect) thrives on incomplete information. They know they are designing a system with a lot of people, a lot of requirements, a lot of needs, and thus a ton of moving parts. People don't know what they want, because nobody really knows what is possible. An architect can't wait around forever to create a specification: he needs to experiment a little. This means iteration, agility, extreme programming, and all that garbage.

It is certainly possible for one person to have both skills... but usually the best developers have a mild weakness at integrated systems, and vice versa.

Getting your manager to read this book might be tricky... "you suck! read this so you suck less!" Nevertheless, its a good book that will help you make the case that there is talent in every role... you're not asking for special treatment when you ask to play to your strengths. You're asking that your manager let you do what all great managers do.

Simple as that...

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