Jun 24, 2005

Summer Project

Now that I am out of school for the summer, I thought it would be fun to brush up on some web application skills that have been neglected in recent years. Why would I want to do web programming? Well, I firmly believe that the future of my participation in geekdom rests in my personal ability to throw together some kind of web application. To be a true geek, you must be able to program in some language. This is because geeks want their computer to do what they want, not what some other programmer thought would be cool or useful.

I used to fill this need using Delphi. I love using Delphi to this day; however, now that I have sworn off Windows for Mac OS X, I wanted to branch out and participate in something new and innovative. After hearing all the raves about Ruby on Rails, I decided to give it a try.

Ruby on Rails has several advantages for me. First, it is simple. That's good! I need something I can learn in about 6 weeks spending maybe 2 to 3 hours per week. Second, it's new and innovative. Based on the Ruby scripting language, Ruby on Rails provides a true Object Oriented language for web applications. This will also give me a refresher in OOP. Third, in about 2 hours, I was able to setup a full development environment on my Mac Mini. This was much easier than previous environments I've struggled with setting up (LAMP for example). So far the environment is running just fine with full connectivity to MySQL. (I will probably do another blog on how I got all of this setup later.)

So, what is my project? I have decided to pursue one of my programming dreams and build a Family History application. I have used Family History applications extensivly in my own research but I have not yet found one that I really liked. Believe it or not, I have put quite a bit of thought into designing such an application. My first phase requirements are pretty simple:

1) Build a ruby script that will import a GEDCOM file into a simple database.
2) Build another ruby script that will parse the GEDCOM database into a relational normalized database.
3) Build a simple UI using Ruby on Rails for navigating through the individuals in the database.

If I can accomplish that before school starts, I will be really pleased with myself.

Jun 13, 2005

The Burden of Trusted Information

In a recent (June 2005) article published by DM Review. Authors Timo Elliot and Darren Cunningham talk a little about The Burden of Trusted Information. I have been very interested in this topic for well over two years and was interested in what they had to say that could help me in my quest to provide "Trusted Information" to the business. Like most of the articles that I've read in DM Review, they only were able to give me a theoretical, high-level view -- most of which I was already aware of. Elliot & Cunningham spend a good portion of the article explaining the problems and identifying some of the root causes surrounding data quality. About half-way through this article, I thought to myself that a lot of these problems could be taken care of by a well implemented Business Intelligence Competency Center (BICC). To my surprise, once the article finished explaining the problem, the authors explained:

"To remedy these problems, organizations should implement a trusted information framework that ties together the different elements of the corporate information systems. Given the complexity of today's corporate information systems and the diversity of organizational structures, there is not one single way to do this. However, one key step is to establish a group focused on ensuring that the organization is getting a return on its information assets. There has been strong growth in recent years in BI (business intelligence) competency centers staffed with data, IT and business experts, and such a center is ideally oriented to carry out the role of coordinating between the different teams involved in data manipulation and use. Many organizations find that a less formal 'virtual BI competency center,' with regular meetings between members of the different teams (data warehousing team, data stewards, BI and business users), is a good first step toward a more strategic solution. "

It's good to know that my thoughts and ideas are on track with industry experts. But at this point, that's really as far as it goes. I have been in the middle of organizing a BICC for about a year now and it is much more difficult than it sounds on the printed page. Virtual team or not, a BICC is such a resource intensive engagement that I believe companies will really struggle to implement a team that can do all of the things that experts say a BICC should do.

At a minimum, I believe a BICC should:

* Work with the business to determine the Business Intelligence needs of the company.
* Provide an authoritative access point for all questions regarding data definition and quality.
* Develop a Business Intelligence road map for the company which includes long-term and short-term goals.
* Have authority to oversee and implement all Business Intelligence initiatives within the company.
* Provide accountability when data is wrong.
* Provide analytical expertise to information consumers.
* Be involved in the implementation of corporate controls involving information storage and retrieval.

I personally am not convinced that Business Intelligence solutions need to involve 20 people and cost millions to implement. The size of the project should be aligned with the business need and capability. A BICC consisiting of a few virtual team members from different parts of the company (Operations, Sales, IT, Reporting, etc...) should be sufficient to get a BI initiative started. The value that the BICC brings is in communication, organization, and control. Without these, a business will never realize the power of BI and will find themselves in a perpetual whirlpool of meaningless information and costly implementations and re-implementations of BI systems.

IBM a reluctant user of Wine software

I was reading an article on open.itworld.com about IBM's reluctance to admit that they use Wine internally while trying to push Linux to the desktop of its employees. The article points out that they are using it to run Lotus Notes.

Reading between lines it is easy (at least for me) to see why IBM would be reluctant to talk about wine. First of all, HAS ANY ONE EVER SEEN ANYTHING REALLY RUN UNDER WINE?! I personally have never seen it work. I've even seen people run Crossover Office and think that it was the greatest thing ever.... for a week. After they had used it for a while and put up with the lock ups and other anoying quirks they just switched to Open Office.

I think IBM and others, like Novell, should concentrate on making OS agnostic applications that can compete with Microsoft dominance. I believe there is a vast market out there hungry to utilize the cost savings of Linux, BSD, MacOS, etc... if they could just break free of the proprietary limitations put on all of us by Microsoft product users.

Jun 6, 2005

Performance Management Technology is NOT for Call Centers

I don’t pretend to be a call center industry expert by any stretch of the imagination. I do try to read up on the industry and follow the latest trends, especially when it comes to IT Operations surrounding the industry. Having been a call center agent for 4+ years I am amazed at the technology that has emerged, especially in the last 5 years, that claims to bring more productivity and profitability to call centers by providing agent incentives based on complex performance measures and analytics.

Shrouded in terms like “Performance Management”, these technologies are complex and extremely expensive. Not only are initial startup costs a heavy burden for call centers, but ongoing maintenance and administration costs can be smothering. Although the companies providing these technologies boast ROI, I personally don’t see how throwing technology providing rich analytics at a call center can increase the performance of an agent.

It is my opinion that if call centers want to increase the productivity of their agents, they should start with their agent’s supervisors. Training should be provided to ensure that supervisors know how to properly motivate their agents and inspire them to do the work that they were hired to do. As an agent, I was rarely (if ever) motivated by a supervisor pointing out to me how profitable I was or how many calls I can take in an hour. I already knew that. What I needed was a supervisor that could instill in me the motivation to improve and help me identify ways to perform better. In this regard, technology budgets are better spent on agent monitoring (or recording) and coaching tools.

Call centers are notorious for having small margins. That is why I don’t understand how expensive Performance Management tools can bring profitability. Call centers will get a lot further by developing cultures of growth and development based on simple and inexpensive agent incentives. With this model, call centers do NOT need to invest (if you could call it that) in advanced Performance Management technologies.