common benefits of consultants and offsites

April 29, 2008 at 8:13 pm | Posted in Business, Professional Development | Leave a comment

Opinions on consultants are typically strong. People swear by them, or they swear about them, and sometimes they swear at them. Detractors tend to believe that “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, consult.” The sentiment is that a consultant gets to come in with pie-in-the-sky recommendations based on theories that don’t match reality. That said, I think there are two primary ways a consultant can bring value to an organization or a problem.

First, you can bring in an “expert.” The value here is that they have seen your current situation and/or problem many times over. Experts are most valuable when you have an acute problem like “How do I acquire a small company without crushing their individuality that has made them successful?” Second, whether an expert or not, you can gain a lot of benefit from someone NOT familiar with your particular problem and especially your organization. Freshness of perspective often reveals “simple” problems and solutions that may be hidden right under your nose.

For situations like that, you may not need a consultant – maybe you just need an off-site. I just attended one last week, which is what got me thinking about this. Yes, it had its share of boondoggle elements, but those were, in fact, what ultimately led to some of the best dialog and ideas. We were removed from the culture, so to speak, and could really get a fresh look at things. This leads to significant “why didn’t we think of that before?” moments. Then there’s the personal element that brings people closer together in a way that is difficult to do in an office, and investments in relationships always pay nice dividends. Off-sites can be expensive in terms of direct and opportunity cost, but I believe the freshness of perspective and clarity of thought that they can bring makes them worth it a couple of times a year.

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it’s just a game

April 28, 2008 at 7:42 am | Posted in Professional Development | Leave a comment

In a previous post, I talked about an exercise that a small group of me and some colleagues did that was intended to help us gain some perspective between work and life. In this post, I’d like to balance that point of view. Or, maybe better said, I’d like to refine it.

I was coaching high school football when the terrorist attacks of 9/11 took place. Like the rest of the nation, we struggled with the appropriateness (or not) of playing a football game just four days after the attacks. There were no “right” answers. Just lots of discussion. Through it all, one phrase kept coming up by well intentioned people. “It’s just a game.”

That got me thinking, “if it’s ‘just a game’ why in the world am I spending so much time with these kids?” It was a big commitment and it certainly didn’t feel like “just a game to me.” I loved those kids like my family. I was teaching them life lessons and along the way was getting plenty of lessons on life myself. Those things were not “just a game.” They mattered. Deeply. What I eventually concluded was that the wins, losses, and stats… those things were “the game.” But the time and energy committed was anything but. Those were investments in people’s lives.

Same for business. It’s not just about the market share, product, and numbers. Or at least it shouldn’t be. It’s also about the people. Every day presents an amazing opportunity-the opportunity to change someone’s life just by how they are treated. Rarely does that kind of investment not pay remarkable dividends in the individual, which ultimately leads to the best chance of success in market share, product, and numbers. Starting with the people feels like the right order of events toward success.

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the worst day of your life

April 25, 2008 at 9:02 am | Posted in Professional Development | Leave a comment

I was at an off-site meeting the other day with four others where we were doing all-day reviews of the business, thinking about upcoming challenges, etc., etc. As is normal in sessions like that, some of the discussions were tense, some light-hearted, some a bit heated. Business can be hard and full of things that make you want to pull your hair out. It can get to you.

At the end of a very long day, we’re sitting around after dinner and my boss says, “tell me about the worst day of your life.” At first, we weren’t sure if he was kidding or not. He wasn’t. Now, for some context, this isn’t even close to the first time we’d met. Most of the crew had been together for more than 5 years, so it’s safe to say we were all friends. Still, that’s a heavy duty question and it comes with some risk, but we all told our stories. There was a different feel over the group and some of it was even a bit emotional.

After we were finished, the conclusion that he drove home was that nobody mentioned a business situation as the worst day of their life. What he was doing was giving us perspective. As I said, business can be hard, but it often doesn’t compare in scope and scale to “life.” Keeping it in perspective is so helpful. And as an aside, if you feel comfortable enough in your team, this was a great exercise to help us become closer as friends. Risky to be sure, but the benefits were really worth it in this case.

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5 reasons DBAs are specializing

April 23, 2008 at 1:48 pm | Posted in Technology Trends | Leave a comment

About five years ago, there seemed to be a trend toward multi-platform DBAs. Today, I’d say about 85% of the customers I visit are moving (or are in) the exact opposite direction. Now the need to silo the DBA groups into a particular platform seems to be the norm. When I inquire as to why, I usually get responses that can be summed up as follows:

1) Databases are being pushed to the limit and DBAs are needed who can get very deep under the covers and fine tune.

2) The application stack is blending into the world of the database, and DBAs are moving up and into that stack for troubleshooting and sometimes administration. For example, Oracle’s application components. Well, says the manager, it says “Oracle” so it’s clearly part of the database you need to manage. (No, I’m not joking… one customer actually told me that’s what his Director said in a meeting.)

3) The number of databases being managed by a single DBA is rapidly growing, therefore, any extra bandwidth they may have is consumed with doing more of the same on more systems as opposed to learning other platforms.

4) Chargeback mechanisms to the business are often easier accomplished when you can put full people into buckets instead of fractional spend allocations. Most businesses are tied to an application, and an application typically only resides on one database platform; therefore, a DBA can be charged back full time to a particular business unit.

5) DBAs are being asked to move down and into the code and schemas created by the developers. This is the one I’m just starting to hear more about, but the feedback is getting consistent. It is very similar to point one above, but it moves in the other direction. Again, this means their bandwidth is being consumed learning more intricacies about one platform as opposed to moving laterally into other platforms for general administration and configuration. This used to be true largely in SQL Server, but I’m now starting to hear about it much more frequently in Oracle as well.

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the one in the middle

April 22, 2008 at 10:43 pm | Posted in Professional Development | Leave a comment

I was listening to an interview the other day with Jim Lehrer, host of the News Hour on PBS. He seemed to be a very well rounded guy who had accomplished many of his life’s goals. At the end of the show, a caller asked him to retell a story about his military experience in the Marine Corps, many years ago. I didn’t figure him for a Marine, but was really interested in where the conversation led.

He recounted how he “corrected” the drill instructor on the first day of his training on how to pronounce his name. The DI responded, “If I tell you your name is Little Bo Peep, then your name is Little Bo Peep, do you understand me!?” He got the point. The host later asked him if the military taught him anything of value. One of his answers was, “I’m the guy in the middle. There is a guy on my left, and a guy on my right, and I need to learn to trust them with my life, and they are counting on me with theirs.”

I then thought about an org chart. Through necessity, the chart presents a top-down view of the world and conveys the authority structure. That’s fine, and it is useful. But in our heads, I wonder if we shouldn’t keep an image of our organizations as a circle. We’re standing with incredible dependencies on those around us. Yes, there will be times when decisions have to be made and it’s lonely at the top and all of that. But it’s equally valuable to remember we’re standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the middle of others. And maybe if we – or at any rate, if I – would remember that more often, an even better sense of teamwork and enablement would develop.

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why IT might be closing again

April 21, 2008 at 6:42 pm | Posted in Business, Technology Trends | Leave a comment

Earlier, we took a look at the opening of IT. Now let’s consider why it might be closing once again. One thought as to why IT opened in the first place was because the business rank-and-file could have a reasonable conversation with the IT crowd because there was a relatively common framework for the discussion. Home networks looked an awful lot like the data center – at least conceptually. What’s happening today is creating a new Tower of Babel.

Talk to your average business person about: virtualization, iSCSI, guests, hosts, hypervisors, superdomes, grids, RACs, clouds, SaaS, green computing and the like. That conversation is going to go nowhere fast. More than just the conversation barrier, there is also an increasing difficulty in charging back costs granularly in those types of environments from a technical perspective.

I sat with a customer the other day who runs a very large data center. He told me that the business will come to him and demand their own box. When I asked him why, he said, “Because they want their own box.” Uh, OK. But why? “Because they feel like if they are giving money, they want to get exactly what they are paying for, and to them, that means their own box.” I would suggest that kind of thinking has a LOT to do with the familiarity they have with their home setups, which tied back to the basic concepts in a data center for the past several years.

Lots of data centers are just saying “No.” They’re telling them that’s not how things work anymore and they’re going to have to accept that’s the way it is. And, if you don’t want to do that, and you are going to fight me for your own box, even though it makes absolutely no sense? Fine. Pay me triple the cost of the shared environment, and you’ll get your box. And with that, I sense the lights are beginning to dim, and the monolith is beginning to reemerge.

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why IT opened up

April 18, 2008 at 8:33 pm | Posted in Business, Technology Trends | 1 Comment

In the last five years, there has been a major push for IT organizations to think and act more like a business. For the longest time, IT was a black box full of wizards and warlocks and fairy dust. You just put a bunch of money in, and – poof! – out would come information on your computer. Over time, and for several reasons, the box began to open so that the business world could see what was inside. Three of those reasons stand out to me.

First, the cryptic, magical, mystical world of computers became commonplace in the home and it was that same general technology that was residing in the data center. So the business guy who set up his home network and bought a couple of external USB drives could start to really conceptualize the Windows servers in the data center accessing a SAN. I didn’t say they fully understood it, but at least reasonable conversations could ensue with a lot of analogies to the home setup. Being able to have that conversation was big. Businesses started asking a lot more questions and for the first time ever, the questions actually made some sense.

Second, the business simply required it due to diversification. When a business is running with a single purpose, there is an unbroken chain from the technology world to the business world. When the business has two or three objectives, it gets a little more complicated, but still very much under control. But what happens with 20 different lines of business under the same umbrella? Each of those businesses, in some form or fashion, is given responsibility for its profitability and it wants to know where all that money is going. That means pulling back the curtain and figuring out to allocate costs.

Third, mergers and acquisitions required it. How do you know what you can achieve in terms of economies of scale until you understand how the IT investment aligns with the various business needs?

So, like a reluctant oyster, IT opened up, and just as business is about to grab the pearl, the shell is starting to close again.

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nice summary of the cloud and next-generation databases

April 15, 2008 at 10:23 pm | Posted in Technology Trends | 2 Comments

A little while ago, I posted a very basic introduction to some cloud terminology (is your head in the clouds?) In a recent discussion with a colleague of mine (who is far more knowledgeable in this area), I found that he was working on a draft document summarizing not only cloud initiatives, but also some thoughts on next-generation database technologies. If you have time for a bit longer read that will give you a nice overview, you can read the draft here.

It feels like we’re in the beginning stages of a revolution, possibly the magnitude of the shift from mainframe to open systems 20ish years ago. I can’t imagine that it will have significant business impact for at least a couple of years, but those who understand the early days of any major shift will always have an advantage. Plus, it is some of the most exciting stuff that’s happened to database and application architecture in a long time… even if our heads are a bit in the clouds over it!

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to virtualize, or not to virtualize, that is the (database) question

April 14, 2008 at 11:01 pm | Posted in Technology Trends | Leave a comment

Over the last six months I’ve been asking customers what their virtualization plans are as they relate to their database environment. Here are some trends I’m seeing…

1) Most answers are very passionate, one way or the other. In other words, there’s not a lot of half-hearted answers. There’s either a very aggressive plan in place to virtualize, or an adamant stance that it is not going to happen.

2) When it comes to databases, Microsoft SQL Server consistently comes up as the key database platform to consider for virtualization.

3) As such, there was a long period of “wait-and-see” toward Microsoft’s Hyper-V to determine performance metrics against (primarily) VMWare.

4) There are still far more questions than answers around virtualizing a production database environment in terms of its full implications.

5) About 70-80% of those I talked to see the idea of consolidating under-provisioned systems into larger SQL Server instances as a more attractive alternative than virtualization.

Will continue to keep an eye on this one as we move through the year and Hyper V gets mainstream. One thing is for certain, whether it’s virtualization or moving smaller databases into larger instances, “consolidation” is definitely on everyone’s mind way more than ever.

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what does microsoft face in 10 years?

April 13, 2008 at 3:25 pm | Posted in Technology Trends | 3 Comments

I have a cousin with whom I am very close. She’s a 20-something junior in college and about six months ago we decided to stay in touch more often. So, being a late 30-something guy, I naturally started sending her emails. I was disappointed. Weeks went by with no reply.  I decided to send her a text message. She responded in about 45 seconds.

When we finally did connect for a live conversation, I found that she (and presumably her friends) check email about once every week or two. 90% or more of her communication is now tied to three things: Text Messaging, Facebook, and MySpace. Her using email feels roughly akin to my using a fax machine about 15 years ago… you *could* do it, but why would you?

This summer I’m going to start teaching my kids (elementary age and younger) basic word processing and spreadsheet usage. We travel a lot, throughout the year, to see family and friends; so the kids will often do their school work in part while we’re away from home. Everywhere we go, people have a computer. Everywhere we go, those computers are connected to the Internet. Few run Office at home now that pirating it is more difficult, but everyone can get to Google Apps. Hmmm. Guess what I’ll be training them on?

So, the operating system is becoming the textbook definition of a commodity (I just need to get online), Outlook is a pure “business” application to today’s college students (if they know the name at all), elementary kids like mine are learning “office-like” skills on free tools like OpenOffice and Google Apps, and cell phones are getting ever more functional. What will this mean for Microsoft? Only time will tell, but when you look at it through the eyes of future generations, it will create some interesting conditions for a very-long-time incumbent.

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