The world according to Frank

by Frank 14. October 2012 06:10

I run a software company called Knowledgeone Corporation that builds an enterprise content management software solution called RecFind 6 and that sells to government and private corporations all around the world but mainly the western world. That is, Australia, New Zealand, the UK, the USA and Canada. Thankfully, I don’t sell much into mainland Europe so the imminent collapse of the Eurozone will have little short term impact on my business.

Whereas we are not immune, Australia has fared better than most but mainly due to our resources industry exports, not our self-congratulating politicians. Have you ever noticed how politicians are quick to claim credit for good times but never claim blame for bad times? When bad times arrive all we hear from our previously brilliant economic managers is that it is out of their control and due to external issues like the world slowdown. I wish I could get a job like that.

Because I have to guess what the future will bring I get up early every morning and watch the overseas news and business channels. I also watch the Australian business news when that comes on around 7:00am.  At work I subscribe to a number of business newsletters and I monitor the markets using a Bloomberg app on my iPad. In other words, in the limited time available (I do have a business to run), I try to get as much information as I can about ‘what is happening’.

In December 2011 I wrote a blog titled, “What will be the real impact of the meltdown in Europe? I have just read it again and today looks pretty much like I forecast. China has slowed down and Europe and the USA continue to talk rather than do.

Europe is still a mess, Greece will never repay its debts and we are still to face the fallout of bigger countries like Spain also not being able to repay its debts. Germany and France are now in a much worse state than they were in 2011. France is now under a socialist government that doesn’t believe in cutting wages or pensions and Germany is facing the real prospect of moving into a recession.

The UK lurches along with an incompetent government run buy upper-class university debaters and teeters on recession while the USA in election year is going backwards fast and may get much worse in 2013 if they don’t soon fix what they are calling the ‘Fiscal Cliff’ or the imposition of a much heavier tax burden on everyone starting in the new year.

I read an article in the Financial Review this morning where a pundit said no one should expect any improvements in Europe until around 2018. We should be so lucky.

I have listened to Gillard, Swan, Abbott, Bernanke, Obama, Romney, Draghi and countless experts and none have filled me with confidence. In fact, none have yet convinced me that they have any idea how to solve the world’s financial problems.  

It is obvious that we have not improved since December 2011; in fact, we have gone backwards since then.

The well-fed and pampered bureaucrats of the EU are now promoting what they call ‘closer fiscal union’ to solve the problems (and protect their jobs and extensive benefits). However, ‘closer fiscal union’ translates to “Give up your sovereignty and your right to self-determination and let us faceless bureaucrats in Brussels make all the decisions for you” and most ordinary people of Europe are smart enough to know this. This is a solution proposed by the elite for the benefit of the elite and ordinary Europeans would be crazy to accept it.

The alternative of course is the breakup of the Eurozone and the loss of tens of thousands of cushy jobs for the useless paper pushers and senseless legislators now protected within the walls of the EU monolith. It is their jobs they are worried about, not the jobs of ordinary people in Greece and Spain and Portugal and Italy and France, etc.

However, I am now going to forecast that the Eurozone will break up and that all the extended, protracted negotiations and procrastinating going on in Europe is just to delay the inevitable.  It is to give the elite and the banks time to get their houses in order and to minimize the impact of the break-up when it comes. I think we will see the first fall-outs in 2013. Greece is the best bet closely followed by Spain, Portugal and Ireland but an even bigger danger is that the German taxpayers will get tired of paying extravagant southern European pensions and will revolt and force Germany to leave the AU.

In a way the procrastination of the European leaders has been good for Australia because it has given our banks and financial institutions the time they so badly needed to do as much as possible to isolate themselves from the inevitable European collapse. As far as our major banks are concerned the longer the talks go on the better because it allows them to withdraw from Europe and minimize the inevitable impact.

China is slowing and this is to be expected given that since the beginning of modern economies we have moved through economic cycles and that natural cyclic rhythm isn’t likely to change. Ups and downs are part and parcel of the game. However, when you consider the growing demands of the Chinese middle class and the fact that China adds twenty to thirty million new job seekers to its economy each year it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that China will continue to grow for many years to come and will continue to buy our food and resources. In fact, China’s insatiable appetite for resources and food, especially food, will become even more so.

India is also growing but India is so corrupt and so inept at the top that it won’t keep pace with China’s much better managed economy. However, the future demand from Asian powerhouses like China and India and even from lesser economies like Indonesia will continue to power western economies like Australia albeit at a lesser intensity than a few years ago. We in Australia may have to downgrade our expectations and manage our money a little better but we are not yet facing the prospect of a recession, just slower growth and higher unemployment. Worst case is you may have to buy a Toyota instead of a BMW (if you still have a job).

The real and most painful impact in Australia will be in the loss of jobs particularly in the manufacturing and services industries. I think my industry, IT, will be hard hit as our big banks and financial institutions continue or even accelerate their cost cutting programs as they prepare for the mini Armageddon of a Eurozone collapse and of the USA also sliding into recession because of the gross ineptitude of its government. I believe that it probably won’t be until around mid-2013 that we will all become aware of the real extent of job losses in Australia. This coming bad news is also probably why we may see an early federal election called. The current federal government is cunning enough to want to go to the polls on the basis of promises and a good news story, not the unpalatable facts.

Let’s see if I am right.

The PC is dead, or is it?

by Frank 7. October 2012 06:00

The financial and IT news services tell us very pessimistic stories about the major PC players like DELL and HP. The general gist is that sales of PCs are down and sales of tablets are up and that the share prices of DELL and HP are falling. Just yesterday, the CEO of HP announced to a stunned market that 2013 will likely be worse than 2012. She also lamented the frequent turnover of HP CEO’s since the demise of Carly Fiorina. But to my mind that was a strange thing to do when also announcing that she won’t be improving anything and in fact will be in charge when things get worse. The mental picture I get is of the captain steering the ship into the rocks. My guess is that the musical chairs game at the top of HP will continue for some time yet because market analysts don’t like bad news and shareholders don’t like falling share prices.

So is the PC dead? Will we see it completely replaced in our homes and offices within a few short years? Are you still planning to buy a new PC? If so, why? Is business still planning to buy more PCs, for example to support Windows 8?  Will business in fact move to Windows 8 in 2013 or 2014 or 2015? Why would anyone be investing in expensive new PC hardware for their home or office? Are there better alternatives available now?

To my mind the global financial crisis that began in 2007/2008 has at least as much to do with falling PC sales as the advent of clever tablets from people like Apple. All over the western world people are holding back on spending money and are simply not replacing ‘older’ PCs or notebooks. In fact, I see the current crop of tablets as complimentary devices to PCs and notebooks, not replacements.  I blogged about this previously in “Why aren’t tablets the single solution yet?” and still believe my arguments to be valid.

My customers for example, still use PCs in the office to run my enterprise content management system RecFind 6 and use notebooks to run it when travelling. However, they are also now demanding that I provide support for a range of mobile devices including smartphones and tablets. But my customers are not replacing their PCs and notebooks with tablets, they are using tablets in an appropriate way to extend what they can do with mobile workers.

I also think that companies like DELL and HP are their own worst enemies. They have both exhibited a surprising lack of innovation and salesmanship and their marketing people seem to be about five years behind the market. They have both outsourced their services and support to awful Indian call centres and focussed more on reducing costs than on improving customer service. Customers have a way of showing their disapproval by walking away and I believe this is what they are doing.

So whereas I think tablets are the future I don’t think they are capable enough yet to replace PCs and notebooks in the office environment. I think most people have a tablet in addition to their PC and notebook (and smartphone).

I don’t see tablets, even the next generation, having all the functionality and screen size and power we need to replace PCs in the office. Even in the home, the small screen size of a tablet mitigates its value as does the lack of applications and connectivity; not everyone wants to replace their working backup drive and USB printer just to accommodate Apple.

I also think that PCs and notebooks are too expensive and that Intel, DELL and HP are too used to big margins. In economics we talk about the intersection of the price and demand curves; the theoretical point at which we make the most money. Set the price too high and you sell fewer and make less money. Set the price too low and you sell more but make less profit. Somewhere in the middle is the point where we set our price to get the optimum sales and profit results.

For example, if Apple priced the New iPad at $5,000 if wouldn’t sell any and it wouldn’t make any money but if it priced it at $10 it would sell a shed-load but also wouldn’t make any money. At $400 plus it seems to sell as many as it can produce and also make the maximum profit. Apple has found its optimum price point.

Every vendor struggles for the optimum price point and over time as technology matures and becomes more common, prices have to drop. I don’t think the prices of PCs and notebooks have dropped enough. It’s just economics stupid, your PC and note book prices are way above your optimum price point and that’s one reason why people are not buying them.

So no, I don’t think PCs are dead. I think their sales have dropped because of a combination of the ongoing global financial crisis and poor management and product decisions from the major players like Intel, DELL and HP. Apple has cleverly capitalised on this situation, it didn’t create it. Apple is clearly innovative, HP and DELL are not.

I believe that we are yet to see at least one more re-invention of the PC and notebook, albeit of a higher quality and with more innovation that Intel’s Ultra Book attempt at reinventing the notebook. The re-invention should also come with a new lower pricing algorithm, not a raising of prices as attempted by Intel with the Ultra Book range of notebooks.

So, Intel, DELL and HP; the ball is firmly in your court. You all employ scores of really smart and innovative people. Why don’t you give them the challenge? If you come up with a realistically priced and innovative new PC solution I would certainly buy a few. But, please do something about your service levels; I for one am really tired of being bounced around Indian, Singaporean and Philippine call centres. If foreign call centres are part of the new deal I am afraid that I want no part of it. That model is broken. If you want my business then I demand better service.

 

What will be the next big thing in IT?

by Frank 29. September 2012 23:42

I run an application software development company called Knowledgeone Corporation that develops enterprise content management software applications. My customers are generally big business and big government and part of my job as the designer of our applications like RecFind 6 is to predict what my customers are going to ask for in twelve or twenty-four months’ time.

I read a lot of technical papers and forecasts and blogs and try to ingest and evaluate as much as I can about where our business is moving so that I can make the changes necessary in our products to meet future demand. I have been doing this for twenty-nine years and like most pundits, sometimes I get it right and sometimes I get it wrong.

Like Gartner (that never seems to get it right) I have been silly enough to publish a number of my predictions as white papers and they make interesting reading years later. Some examples are listed below:

2009   Windows 7 – Frank’s views

2007   Technology as a Tool – Where is Records and Document Management Heading?

1998   The Thin Client – The Next Panacea?

1997   Knowledge Management – The Next Challenge?

1996   Information and Records Management Towards 2000 – Electronic Document Management Principles.

1995   Document Management, Records Management, Image Management, Workflow Management,…What? The I.D.E.A.

I have also published more predictions in my blog, a few examples follow:

09/2011        Will developers, Corporates and Government upgrade to Windows 8?

11/2011        Mobile and Web – The future of applications?

12/2011        The real impact of mobilization – how will it affect the way we work?

01/2012        Will desktop virtualization be the final nail in the computer room coffin?

03/2012        What is the future of software applications in 2013 and beyond?

The obvious problem with publishing prediction is that you can’t always get it right and you will be judged at a later time when everyone is a lot wiser. However, people in my business have to predict the future because we start working on a new product a year or more before we are able to sell it. In a way, it is a silly business. We invest man years and large amounts of money designing, building and testing software applications long before we can get any kind of return on our investment.

Games makers have a similar problem, they have to invest millions and many man years long before they know if their game is going to be a success or not. This is why we have to predict the future and why we need to get it right more times than we get it wrong.

Right now I happen to believe that the world of software applications is going through a major paradigm shift. The advent of powerful mobile devices that really began with the first iPhone has changed the way most people want to work with applications. Like the PC network paradigm change of the early 1980’s, this one is also end-user driven, not IT Department driven. In fact you may conclude that the often reactionary IT heads of the commercial world have been dragged kicking and screaming into this revolution just as they were in the early 1980’s.

The availability of smarter and more powerful mobile devices like the iPhone and iPad have already had a major impact on PC and notebook sales and have caused major vendors like Intel to re-evaluate their product lines and strategies. In Intel’s case it first tried to leverage off old technologies with the promotion of ultra-books and now it has announced a move into new processors for mobile devices to rival those from companies like ARM and Qualcomm. Similarly, Microsoft, late to the party as usual, is now focusing on its new range of surface tablets and new versions of Windows 8 to support mobile devices.

As I said above, it is significant than none of these major changes have been driven by the usual suspects like Microsoft and Intel, they have been caught napping and are now in catch-up mode.

So, what are my chances of correctly predicting the future if giants like Intel and Microsoft with their huge budgets and research departments can’t get it right? Or, is the problem not one of budget but one of corporate arrogance? I will leave that judgement to you.

In my view the move to faster, smarter, more powerful and more user-friendly mobile devices is inexorable. When I now look at my office with its bulky PCs and masses of wires and connections it looks like a museum honouring the 20th century. My iPad in contrast, looks like the beginning of the 21st century; still not there yet but definitely the progenitor of coming office computing.

I see the same picture when looking at enterprise application software. Most of it, including my product RecFind 6 (based on the very latest Microsoft .NET technology), needs to be completely redesigned for the coming mobile world and this is the real challenge.

Everyone now knows (or should know) how to design games and small simple apps for mobile devices like the iPhone and iPad but most of us are still struggling with the redesign of heavy-duty, feature-rich and enterprise-strength applications like RecFind 6 for the new mobile platforms.  We can’t just scale them down, we have to come up with a completely new way to communicate with our mobile end users. We have to discard the technology we are most familiar with and re-invent our solutions using new and unfamiliar technology.

Just like Intel and Microsoft we have to change our game and we have to do it fast because this particular revolution isn’t being driven by us, it is being driven by end-users and the innovative people at companies like ARM and Qualcomm and Apple all of whom have had very little impact on corporate application software in the recent past.

The current paradigm shift is still in its early days but it will completely change the way we all run our businesses in the near future. If only I could predict exactly how.

Oh Dell, wherefore art thou?

by Frank 23. September 2012 06:51

I own and run a software company that designs, build and supports enterprise content management solutions. As such I have a lot of servers and workstations and performance and reliability are of paramount importance to me.

I had been a loyal Dell customer for many years. I have bought 40 or 50 servers, hundreds of workstations and dozens of notebooks plus other assorted paraphernalia such as racks, projectors etc. Back a few years ago Dell was a great company to do business with and its website made the selection and ordering of all the equipment I needed a breeze. Its support, both sales and technical was also top notch.

Even though I still think that Dell servers and OptiPlex workstations are great quality I no longer buy anything from Dell.

The reasons are to do with lousy service and the quality of its Australian web site.

The website is no longer easy to use or bug free and it is just annoying and no longer the really helpful resource it used to be. I have tried to tell Dell this on many occasions but no one is listening.

I also hate dealing with Dell’s Indian support centres and absolutely refuse to deal with an Indian based sales representative. If Dell wants my business then it needs to start doing business in Australia with Australian resident staff.

Every time in the recent past when we have had problems with Dell equipment it has been a nightmare trying to get things resolved. Again, I have gone out of my way to document these occurrences and tell the local Dell people but no one is listening because nothing has changed. If anything, and based on my experience today trying to get service for a Dell printer, it has gotten considerably worse. I do not enjoy being bounced around Indian call centres. Why does Dell senior management think it can reduce its costs by making me waste hours or days of valuable time when all that should be required is a few minutes?

Obviously, the powers to be at the top of Dell think reducing costs by reducing the service level is good business. Let me tell you as an ex Dell customer that it is not good business. Because I am a small customer in the scheme of things Dell probably doesn’t care that I have stopped buying Dell equipment. But, I can’t be the only Dell customer that is absolutely fed up with the new model with everything outsourced to India and the annoyances of the Dell website.

My point is that Dell used to be the best hardware company in the world to deal with and that it had the most reliable equipment and the best service level. Then someone at the top had all these bright ideas about how to lower costs. In my humble opinion, that person at the top needs to be replaced with someone who understands that customer service is paramount and that as the service level drops then so too will sales.

I still love my super reliable Dell servers and OptiPlex workstations and would dearly like to deal with Dell again but I and my staff are simply no longer willing to put up with the frustration of trying to do business with Dell via Indian call centres.

Hopefully someone with clout in Dell will read this Blog and realize that Dell’s fall in sales world-wide has less to do with the global financial crisis and more to do with its cost cutting. Hopefully that person will also be concerned with the massive eroding of its customer base and want to do something about it.

Here is my free advice. Dump your useless and unbelievably annoying Indian call centres and bring support back to the local country. Stop playing around with your website and give us the previously easy to navigate, easy to use and easy to configure and order website of previous years.

I would love to start buying Dell equipment again but you have alienated me just as I am sure that you have alienated hundreds of other previously loyal Dell customers.

Dear Dell, please give me a reason to come back.

Are you also confused by the term Enterprise Content Management?

by Frank 16. September 2012 06:00

I may be wrong but I think it was AIIM that first coined the phrase Enterprise Content Management to describe both our industry and our application solutions.

Whereas the term isn’t as nebulous as Knowledge Management it is nevertheless about as useful when trying to understand what organizations in this space actually do. At its simplest level it is a collective term for a number of related business applications like records management, document management, imaging, workflow, business process management, email management and archiving, digital asset management, web site content management, etc.

To simple people like me the more appropriate term or label would be Information Management but as I have already covered this in a previous Blog I won’t beleaguer the point in this one.

When trying to define what enterprise content management actually means or stands for we can discard the words ‘enterprise’ and ‘management’ as superfluous to our needs and just concentrate on the key word ‘content’. That is, we are talking about systems that in some way create and manage content.

So, what exactly is meant by the term ‘content’?

In the early days of content management discussions we classified content into two broad categories, structured and unstructured. Basically, structured content had named sections or labels and unstructured content did not. Generalising even further we can say that an email is an example of structured content because it has commonly named, standardised and accessible sections or labels like ‘Sender’, ‘Recipient’, ‘Subject’ etc., that we can interrogate and rely on to carry a particular class or type of information. The same general approach would regard a Word document as unstructured because the content of a Word document does not have commonly named and standardised sections or labels. Basically a Word document is an irregular collection of characters that you have to parse and examine to determine content.

Like Newtonian physics, the above generalisations do not apply to everything and can be argued until the cows come home. In truth, every document has an accessible structure of some kind. For example, a Word document has an author, a size, a date written, etc. It is just that it is far easier to find out who the recipient of an email was than the recipient of a Word document. This is because there is a common and standard ‘Tag’ that tells us who the recipient is of an email and there is no such common and standard tag for a Word document.

In our business we call ‘information about information’ (e.g., the recipient and date fields on an email) Metadata. If an object has recognizable Metadata then it is far easier to process than an object without recognizable Metadata. We may then say that adding Metadata to an object is the same as adding structure.

Adding structure is what we do when we create a Word document using a template or when we add tags to a Word document. We are normalizing the standard information we require in our business processes so the objects we deal with have the structure we require to easily and accurately identify and process them.

This is of course one of the long-standing problems in our industry, we spend far too much time and money trying to parse and interpret unstructured objects when we should be going back to the coal face and adding structure when the object is first created. This is of course relatively easy to do if we are creating the objects (e.g., a Word document) but not easy to achieve if we are receiving documents from foreign sources like our customers, our suppliers or the government. Unless you are the eight-hundred pound gorilla (like Walmart) it is very difficult to force your partners to add the structure you require to make processing as fast and as easy and as accurate as possible.

There have been attempts in the past to come up with common ‘standards’ that would have regulated document structure but none have been successful. The last one was when XML was the bright new kid on the block and the XML industry rushed headlong into defining XML standards for every conceivable industry to facilitate common structures and to make data transfer between different organizations as easy and as standard as possible. The various XML standardisation projects sucked up millions or even billions of dollars but did not produce the desired results; we are still spending billions of dollars each year parsing unstructured documents trying to determine content.

So, back to the original question, what exactly is Enterprise Content Management? The simple answer is that it is the business or process of extracting useful information from objects such as emails and PDFs and Word documents and then using that information in a business process. It is all about the process of capturing Metadata and content in the most accurate and expeditious manner possible so we can automate business processes as much as possible.

If done properly, it makes your job more pleasant and saves your organization money and it makes your customers and suppliers happier. As such it sounds a lot like motherhood (who is going to argue against it?) but it certainly isn’t like manna from heaven. There is always a cost and it is usually significant. As always, you reap what you sow and effort and cost produces rewards.

Is content management something you should consider? The answer is definitely yes with one proviso; please make sure that the benefits are greater than the cost.

 

Why isn’t Linux the universal desktop operating system?

by Frank 9. September 2012 06:00

I own and run a software company building enterprise content management solutions (RecFind 6) and I have a love/hate relationship with Microsoft Windows.

I love Windows because it is a universal platform I can develop for that provides me access to ninety-percent plus of the business and government organizations in the world.  I only need one set of source code and one set of development skills and I can leverage off this to offer my solutions to virtually any organization in any location. We may say that Microsoft Windows is ubiquitous.

I hate Windows because it is overly complex, unnecessarily difficult to build software for, buggy and causes me to have to spend far more money on software development than I ought to. There are many times each year when all I really want to do is assemble all the Microsoft programmers in one place and then bang their heads together and shout at them, “for heaven’s sake, why don’t you guys just talk to each other!”

Linux on the other hand, even in its many manifestations (one of its main problems), is not ubiquitous and it does not provide me with an entry point to ninety-percent of the world’s businesses and government agencies. This is why I don’t develop software for Linux.

Because I don’t develop application software for Linux I am not an expert in Linux but I have installed and run Ubuntu as a desktop operating system and I really like it. It is simple, clean and easy to use; more ‘Apple-like’ than ‘Windows-like’ to my eyes and all the better for it. It is also a great software development platform for programmers especially using the Eclipse IDE. It is also free and most of the office software you need (like OpenOffice) is also free. It also runs happily on virtually any PC or notebook and seems to be a lot faster than Windows.

So, Ubuntu (a flavour of Linux but a very good one) is free, most of the office software you need is also free, it looks good, runs on your hardware and is easy to use and uncomplicated. So why isn’t it ubiquitous? Why are people and organizations all over the world paying for (and struggling with – who remembers Vista?) inferior Windows when Linux varieties like Ubuntu are both free and better? Why are users and organizations now planning to pay to upgrade to Windows 7 or Windows 8 when alternative operating systems like Ubuntu will do the job and are free?

I read a lot of technical papers and IT blogs and I notice that the Linux community has been having similar discussions for years. As an ‘outsider’ (i.e., not a Linux zealot) it is pretty obvious to me that the Linux community is the main reason Linux is not ubiquitous. Please read the following ZDNet link and then tell me what you think.

http://www.zdnet.com/linus-torvalds-on-the-linux-desktops-popularity-problems-7000003641/

When I read an article like this two terms come immediately to mind, internecine bickering or sibling rivalry. How many versions of Linux do we need? The Linux fraternity calls these distributions or ‘distros’ to the insiders.  At last count there are around 600 ‘distros’ of which 300 are actively maintained.  Ubuntu is just one of these distros. How would the business world fare if there were 300 versions of Windows? Admittedly, most of the 300 have been built for a specialised use and the real list of general use versions of Linux is much smaller and includes product names such as Ubuntu, Kubuntu, Fedora, Mint, Debian, Arch, openSUSE, Red hat and about a dozen more.

But, it gets worse. On Ubuntu alone there are there main desktop environments to choose from, GNOME, KDE and Xfce.  Are you confused yet? Is it now obvious why Linux is not the default desktop operating system? It probably isn’t obvious to the squabbling Linux insider community but it is patently obvious to everyone else.

Linux isn’t the default desktop operating system because there is not a single standard and there is never likely to be a single standard. No software developer is going to invest millions of dollars in building commercial applications for Linux because of this. Without a huge library of software applications there is no commercial market for Linux. Windows reigns supreme despite its painful problems because it provides a single platform and because software developers do invest in building millions of commercial applications for the windows operating system.

Until such time as the Linux community stops its in-fighting and produces a single robust, supported version of Linux (when hell freezes over I hear you say) the situation will not change. The inferior desktop operating system Windows will continue to dominate and Linux will remain the plaything of propeller-heads and techies and old guys like me who really like it (well, the Ubuntu version that is, there are too many distros for me to become an expert in all of them and that is the core of the problem).

Could you manage all of your records with a mobile device?

by Frank 2. September 2012 06:00

I run a software company and I design and build an enterprise strength content management system called RecFind 6 which among other things, handles all the needs of physical records management.

This is fine if I have a big corporate or government customer because the cost is appropriate to the scale of the task at hand. However it isn’t fine when we receive lots of inquiries from much smaller organizations like small law forms that need a records management solution but only have a very small budget.

A very recent inquiry from a small but successful engineering company was also a problem because they didn’t have any IT infrastructure. They had no servers and used Google email. However, they still had a physical records management problem as well as an electronic document management problem but our solution was way outside of the ballpark.

Like any businessman I don’t like to see business walk away especially after we have spent valuable consultancy time helping the customer to understand the problem and define the need.

We have had a lot of similar inquiries lately and it has started me thinking about the need for a new type of product for small business, one that doesn’t require the overhead and expense of an enterprise-grade solution. It should also be one that doesn’t require in-house servers and a high overhead and maintenance cost.

Given our recent experience building a couple of iOS (for the iPhone and iPad) and Android (for any Android phone or tablet) apps I am of the opinion that any low cost but technically clever and easy-to-use solution should be based around a mobile device like a smart phone or tablet.

The lack of an in-house server wouldn’t be a problem because we would host the solution servers at a data centre in each country we operate in. Programming it wouldn’t be a problem because that is what we do and we already have a web services API as the foundation.

The only challenge I see is the need to get really creative about the functionality and the user interface. There is no way I can implement all the advanced functionality of the full RecFind 6 product on a mobile device and there is no way I can re-use the user interface from either the RecFind 6 smart-client or web-client. Even scaled down the user interface would be unsuitable for a mobile device; it needs a complete redesign. It isn’t just a matter of adapting to different form factors (screen sizes), it is about using the mobile device in the most appropriate way. It is about designing a product that leverages off the unique capabilities of a mobile device, not trying to force fit an application designed for Windows.

The good news is that there is some amazing technology now available for mobile devices that could easily be put to use for commercial business purposes even though a lot of it was designed for light weight applications and games. Three examples of very clever new software for mobile devices are Gimbal Context Aware, Titanium Mobile SDK and Vuforia Augmented Reality. But, these three development products are just the tip of the iceberg; there is literally a plethora of clever development tools and new products both in the market and coming to market in the near future.

As a developer, right now the Android platform looks to be my target. This is mainly because of the amount of software being developed for Android and because of the open nature of Android. It allows me to do far more than Apple allows me to do on its sandboxed iOS operating system.

Android also makes it far easier for me to distribute and support my solutions. I love iOS but Apple is just a little too anal and controlling to suit my needs. For example, I require free access to the file system and Apple doesn’t allow that. Nor does it give me the freedom I need to be able to attach devices my customers will need; no standard USB port is a huge pain for application developers.

I am sorry that I don’t have a solution for my smaller customers yet but I have made the decision to do the research and build some prototypes. RecFind 6 will be the back-end residing on a hosted server (in the ‘Cloud’) because it has a superset of the functionality required for my new mobile app. It is also the perfect development environment because the RecFind 6 Web Services SDK makes it easy for me to build apps for any mobile operating system.

So, I already have the backend functionality, the industrial-strength and scalable relational database and the Web Services API plus expertise in Android development using Eclipse and Java. Now all I have to do to produce my innovative new mobile app is find the most appropriate software and development platforms and then get creative.

It is the getting creative bit that is the real challenge. Wish me luck and watch this space.

 

Do you really want that job you are applying for?

by Frank 26. August 2012 06:00

I own and run a software company that builds, sells, installs and supports an enterprise content management solution called RecFind 6. As such, I employ programmers, support specialists, accountants, consultants, trainers, pre-sales people and sales people to name but a few categories. This means I am always hiring and always reviewing applications from candidates.

Basically, most of the applications I receive are rubbish. They are badly written, badly formatted, not ‘selling’ documents and almost never focussed on the position I am advertising.  This is very sad but it does make vetting an avalanche of resumes pretty easy. I would probably spend no more than a minute or two reading each resume in the first pass to separate the real candidates from the flotsam. I move the results into two folders, one called possible and the other called ‘No way’.

This may sound a little impersonal but I have no patience with people who waste my time by firstly not reading the advertised job description properly and then by sending in a non-selling document. In fact, most resumes I see are great big red flags saying, “Please don’t hire me, I am a dope who didn’t read your ad properly and then couldn’t be bothered even getting the spelling and grammar correct or trying to sell myself in any way”.

So my first advice is if you are too lazy to allocate the time and effort required or can’t simply be bothered to sell yourself in the most professional manner possible then don’t bother because all you are doing is wasting your time and the time of any prospective employer. Prospective employers also have long memories so rest assured your next application to the same firm will be instantly relegated to the waste bin.

I only hire professionals and professionals do not send in a non-professional job application.

I only hire people who respect my time and I only hire people who manage to convince me that they really want the job I am advertising and are the best person for that role.

I figure that the effort you are prepared to expend on what should be your most important task at this time (i.e., finding employment) is indicative of the quality of work I can expect from you as an employee. If you send me a poor quality application then I assume everything you would do for me as an employee will be of a similar poor standard. If you are too lazy or too careless to submit a winning application then I can only assume you would also behave in this manner after employment so I have zero interest in you.

This is the bit I struggle to understand. How come the applicant doesn’t understand the obvious correlation any prospective employer makes between the quality of the job application and the quality of the person?

Please allow me to give you some simple common-sense advice that comes from a very experienced employer of people.

Always:

  • Read the job ad very carefully. Note the prerequisites and requirements; the employer put them in for a reason and he/she would really appreciate it if you didn’t waste his/her time by applying for a position you do not qualify for.
  • Always include a cover letter personalized for each and every job application. Your objective should be to convince the prospective employer that the job advertised is perfect for you and that you are in turn a perfect fit for the job.  If your past experience or skillset isn’t a perfect fit, use the cover letter to explain why it isn’t a problem and why you are still the right person for the job being advertised. All potential employers are impressed by someone who takes the time and trouble to align their skills and experience to the job on offer. Most importantly, use words and phrases from the job ad in your cover letter. This helps convince the potential employer that you have really thought about the position and have put intelligent time into your application.
  • Clean up your resume, spell and grammar check it and convert it to a PDF for a much better and more professional looking presentation effect. All potential employers can’t help but appreciate a well presented and professional looking resume; it sets you apart.

In the end it is all about the initial impression you convey to the prospective employer. You have one shot so make sure it is a good one.

You need to convince your prospective employer that you selected their advertised job to respond to because it really interests and excites you and that you have the attitude, aptitude, character, experience and skillset required to make the most of this position. You have to convince them that you would be an asset to their organization.

It doesn’t take long to write a personalised cover letter, maybe an hour or two at the most and it should never be more than one page long. My final advice is that if you don’t think the advertised position is worth an hour or two of your time then don’t respond because you will be wasting your time. Don’t ‘shotgun’ job opportunities with multiple low-quality and non-selling applications. Instead focus on just the jobs you really like and then submit a smaller number of high-quality and personalised applications. I guarantee that your success rate will be much higher and that you will be asked to more interviews and that you will eventually get the job of your dreams.

The simple message is that you will get out of the process precisely what you put into the process. It is a tough world but in my experience effort is always rewarded. For your sake, please make the effort.

Are you addressing the symptoms or the problem?

by Frank 19. August 2012 06:00

We are a software company building, selling and supporting our product RecFind 6 as an information management system and enterprise content management system. We have an in-house support department (we don’t outsource anything) and thousands of customers that contact it with questions and reports of problems they are having.

However, like I suspect happens at most software vendors, it is often very difficult for my support people to initially diagnose the real problem. Obviously, if there is an error message then it is easier to resolve but in most cases there is no error message, just an explanation of what a user thinks is the product not working properly.

If we can connect in to the user’s workstation using GoToAssist then we can usually ‘see’ firsthand what the problem is and then help the customer. However, this is not always possible and in a lot of cases my people are working ‘blind’ via phone or email and the only recourse is a question and answer dialog until we get to the point where we can define what the user thinks is going wrong and we can get the history of the problem. That is “When did it start to happen? What changed? Does it happen with everyone or just some users?” Etc., etc.

My people are pretty good at this process but even they get caught occasionally when the customer describes what he/she thinks the solution is rather than what the problem is. This usually takes the form of the customers telling us the ‘fix’ we need to make to the product to solve his/her ‘problem’. The wise support person will always ask, “What were you trying to do?” Once you can determine what the customer was trying to do, you then understand why they are asking for the particular ‘fix’. In most cases, the real problem is that the customer isn’t using the right functionality and once shown how to use the right functionality the need for a ‘fix’ goes away.

Problems also arise when my support people start mistakenly addressing the symptoms instead of the problem. In all fairness, it is often hard to differentiate the two but you can’t fix a problem by addressing the symptoms; you have to go back further and first define and then fix the root problem. Once the root problem is fixed the symptoms magically disappear.

For example, a customer reports multiple documents being created with the same auto number (i.e., duplicate numbers) as a problem. This isn’t really the problem though that is how the customer sees it. It is in fact a symptom and a clue to the identification of the real problem. In the above example, the root problem will be either an auto-number algorithm not working properly or an auto-number configuration with a flawed design. The former is what we call a ‘bug’ and the latter is what we call ‘finger trouble’; the configured auto number configuration was working precisely as designed but not as the customer intended.

Bugs we fix in code but finger trouble we fix by first clearly understanding what the customer wants to achieve and then by helping them to configure the functionality so its works as expected.

All experienced support people get to know the difference between:

What the customer thinks is the solution versus the problem; and

The symptoms versus the problem.

In my experience these are the two most common challenges faced when handling support calls. Recognizing both as early as possible is critical to achieving a speedy resolution and minimizing frustration. Not recognizing both as early as possible leads to longer resolution times and unhappy customers.

If we extend our support experience to real life we realize that these same two challenges face us in everyday life and in all of our social interactions. It why we often argue at cross-purposes; each party seeing the problem differently because of different perceptions of what the real problem is.

The challenges of misunderstanding are also often harder to overcome in real life because unlike a support call which has form and structure, our social interactions are mostly unstructured and opportunistic. We don’t start with a problem, we start with a casual dialog and don’t realize we are about to enter a conflict zone until it sneaks up upon us.

So if you find yourself in an argument please take pause and take the time to ask yourself and the other party, “Just what is it exactly we are arguing about?”  Which upon reflection, is exactly how we should handle each and every support call.

If we take the time to properly define the real problem we would spend far less time arguing and making people unhappy and far more time enjoying the company of our customers and friends. It is a no-brainer really, who wants to go through life in constant conflict?

For my part, I will just continue to ask to ask, “Before I address your request for a change would you mind please explaining what you were you actually trying to achieve; can you please show me?” And “What were you doing when you first saw that problem? Please start from the beginning and walk me through the process.” These two questions have worked for me for a very long time and I certainly hope that they work for you.

 

Is Information Management now back in focus?

by Frank 12. August 2012 06:00

When we were all learning about what used to be called Data Processing we also learned about the hierarchy or transformation of information. That is, “data to information to knowledge to wisdom.”

Unfortunately, as information management is part of what we call the Information Technology industry (IT) we as a group are never satisfied with simple self-explanatory terms. Because of this age-old flaw we continue to invent and hype new terms like Knowledge Management and Enterprise Content Management most of which are so vague and ill-defined as to be virtually meaningless but nevertheless, provide great scope for marketing hype and consultants’ income.

Because of the ongoing creation of new terminology and the accompanying acronyms we have managed to confuse almost everyone. Personally I have always favoured the term ‘information management’ because it tells it like it is and it needs little further explanation. In the parlance of the common man it is an “old un, but a good un.”

The thing I most disliked about the muddy knowledge management term was the claim that computers and software could produce knowledge. That may well come in the age of cyborgs and true artificial intelligence but I haven’t seen it yet. At best, computers and software produce information which human beings can convert to knowledge via a unique human cognitive process.

I am fortunate in that I have been designing and programming information management solutions for a very long time so I have witnessed first-hand the enormous improvements in technology and tools that have occurred over time. Basically this means I am able to design and build an infinitely better information management solution today that I could have twenty-nine years ago when I started this business.  For example, the current product RecFind 6 is a much better, more flexible, more feature rich and more scalable product than the previous K1 product and it in turn was an infinitely better product than the previous one called RecFind 5.

One of the main factors in them being better products than their predecessors is that each time we started afresh with the latest technology; we didn’t build on the old product, we discarded it completely and started anew. As a general rule of thumb I believe that software developers need to do this around a five year cycle. Going past the five year life cycle inevitably means you end up compromising the design because of the need to support old technology. You are carrying ‘baggage’ and it is synonymous with trying to run the marathon with a hundred pound (45 Kg) backpack.

I recently re-read an old 1995 white paper I wrote on the future of information management software which I titled “Document Management, Records Management, Image Management Workflow Management...What? – The I.D.E.A”. I realised after reading this old paper that it is only now that I am getting close to achieving my lofty ambitions as espoused in the early paper. It is only now that I have access to the technology required to achieve my design ambitions. In fact I now believe that despite its 1995 heritage this is a paper every aspiring information management solution creator should reference because we are all still trying to achieve the ideal ‘It Does Everything Application’ (but remember that it was my I.D.E.A. first).

Of course, if you are involved in software development then you realise that your job is never done. There are always new features to add and there are always new releases of products like Windows and SQL server to test and certify against and there are always new releases of development tools like Visual Studio and HTML5 to learn and start using.

You also realise that software development is probably the dumbest business in the world to be part of with the exception of drug development, the only other business I can think of which has a longer timeframe between beginning R&D and earning a dollar. We typically spend millions of dollars and two to three years to bring a brand new product to market. Luckily, we still have the existing product to sell and fund the R&D. Start-ups however, don’t have this option and must rely on mortgaging the house or generous friends and relatives or venture capital companies to fund the initial development cycle.

Whatever the source of funding, from my experience it takes a brave man or woman to enter into a process where the first few years are all cost and no revenue. You have to believe in your vision, your dream and you have to be prepared for hard times and compromises and failed partnerships. Software development is not for the faint hearted.

When I wrote that white paper on the I.D.E.A. (the It Does Every Thing Application or, my ‘idea’ or vision at that time) I really thought that I was going to build it in the next few years, I didn’t think it would take another fifteen years. Of course, I am now working on the next release of RecFind so it is actually more than fifteen years.

Happily, I now market RecFind 6 as an information management solution because information management is definitely back in vogue. Hopefully, everyone understands what it means. If they don’t, I guess that I will just have to write more white papers and Blogs.

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