Examining the ongoing challenges of delivering high-quality, value-added ERP services in Higher Education.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Adventures in Agile and GreenHopper

They say that one should put process before tool. In fact, I often say this myself (thereby I confess my occasional membership in the troublesome, faceless "they"). The statement reflects the fact that so many IT projects fail when they pursue a backwards approach (none of mine of course; wink-wink). Despite knowing better, and going against the advice of our Agile trainers, I recently forced my team to employ Atlassian's GreenHopper product in our department's first Agile BI project.

Just to make things more interesting, an experienced Scrum Master arrived on-site only during the last week of the three-week virgin sprint. And the director of the department (that's me) acted as both Product Owner and Developer (and occasionally Scrum Master). And, as if that were not enough, this project was the first hands-on exposure to a data model (Noetix EBS Views), a development tool (OBIEE), and a methodology (Scrum-like)? Yeah, it was a lot.

So how did it go? Pretty darn well, on the whole, though hardly a Scrum case study...

Without betraying the confidence of our Sprint Retrospective too much, several of us cited the tool (GreenHopper) as one of the best aspects of the experience. (The Daily Stand-Up got a lot of love, too.) And, of course, nothing really compared to the ecstatic looks on our customers' faces at seeing what we actually delivered in this new technology on such an aggressive timeline!

For me, personally, GreenHopper was a revelation. Despite being a few generations behind (we are upgrading the Atlassian suite next month), the tool made a tremendous difference in what could have been a complete disaster. How did it make such a difference? To break down the differences, I'm going to look at things through a few different lenses...

GreenHopper Task Board: Drag tasks through the workflow

As a member of the sprint team... It was immensely gratifying to drag a task through the stages on the Task Board; almost as good a feeling as crossing off a to-do list item or deleting an email. And to quickly see all the tasks assigned to me and where they stand--fantastic. I found it motivating to watch the colors of the progress bar change, the red portion shrinking toward nothing. It also liked flagging impediments and knowing they would get rapid attention.
Wearing my Scrum Product Owner hat... I loved drag-and-drop planning and prioritization, loved watching progress and clearing impediments, and how easy it was to write new stories. But mostly I feel in love with visibility: filtering the Task Board, watching the Burn Down Chart, responding to comments and questions raised through JIRA. It was a very different experience for me and I think it will be interesting to see how some of my business partners feel about it!

And on more perspective: as a "former" Project Manager I wished I had something like this long ago. Clearing impediments at least daily in the stand-up meeting is certainly a game-changer, no matter what one's feelings about all the other rituals of Agile/Scrum.

Now what about what went wrong... Other than the fact that I don't really recommend biting off a new data model, new technology, and new methodology all at once... Nor to start with an unusually aggressive sprint duration. But setting that all aside, how did it play out? See the below chart -- far from what you'd hope to see in a burn-down chart.

Not the burn-down chart you want to see...
A few issues contributed to this ugly chart:

  • We were not clear on decomposition of Stories into Technical Tasks; this happened after the sprint began, which accounts for those blue spikes of new issues! 
  • We did not set clear ground rules for transitioning items through the workflow steps, so a lot of tasks remained "in progress" until a clean-up activity at the end.
  • Our stories may have been too "big" and perhaps need to be decomposed further even before the step of defining technical tasks. 
  • Every single moment was a learning moment for the team... 
  • In the end, what matters the most is that we delivered some great functionality to the business and learned a ton through our "trial by fire."

    Friday, October 5, 2012

    Oracle Open World 2012 Day 5 Recap

    By the final day of Oracle Open World, it is hard to muster a lot of brain power – even if you skipped the big Pearl Jam concert like I did... Which is too bad, really, because the last day contains some of the most interesting presentations. I was discussing this with my colleague while watching one of the strangest spectacles I think I've ever seen (more on that later) – without a doubt the most practical content falls on Sunday (user group day) and Thursday (all the senior executives – Oracle and not – have gone home). Perhaps it is because the other days are so busy that it can be like finding a needle in a haystack.

    After an early conference call to the East Coast, I hustled down the hill just in time for the start of the morning keynote: "See More, Act Faster: Oracle Business Analytics." The first part of the demo was based around simulating an event in Chicago and using Endeca to analyze social media, police incidents, etc., including spatial overlays and lots of dynamic visualizations. It was a neat idea, but more than a little clumsy in the execution. There is no question that the products are exciting, though once an integrator always an integration – how much work would it take to configure the dashboard they were showing?

    I won't lie – after an hour I headed to Mel's Diner. But the YouTube replay is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V-X_SxnoEXU

    At 11:15 I attended an interesting session called "MetLife’s Roadmap for an Integrated BI and EPM Environment" that talked about many initiatives related to an operational excellence and technology rationalization effort at MetLife. They have really standardized on OBIEE and Hyperion (EPM, HFM, Essbase), moving away from a heterogenous environment that included Cognos, Actuate, and the old PS EPM product (among others). The clearest takeaway for me was their definition of the core domains of a BI Center of Excellence:
    • Design authority – they may not build everything, but they have authority (I like the word) for adherence to standards and best practices
    • Delivery management
    • Training and advocacy
    • Governance
    • Application Administration and Support
    I was also pleased to learn that they followed exactly the same methodology we are advancing now at Harvard – going "on the road" to sell the benefits to stakeholders. Although the product may speak for itself... people need to see it to hear its voice!

    My next session was a fun one for the the geek lurking inside me... Stewart Bryson (Rittman Mead) on "Report Against Transactional Schemas with Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition 11g". His slide deck was crazyily ambitious. The basic purpose of this session was to dispel the "myth that OBIEE only works with star schemas" by demonstrating OBIEE models against a third-normal form transactional database as well as a flattened (single-table) database such as log data. It was a deep-dive, with screenshots from each step in the process of building dimensions and "factless facts" in the OBIEE Business Mapping and Modeling layer. I think I actually got it, though can't really imagine a situation in which, given my official duties, I might put it to use.

    And finally, a session called "Cut Costs by as Much as 90 Percent with Accounts Payable Automation" which focused on the integration between Oracle WebCenter and E-Business Suite. We will be pursuing an imaging/workflow solution in the second half of this year, so this was a very helpful meeting with both Oracle product management and a real case study presented by a client. It is always helpful to hear lessons learned (and outstanding defects) rather than straight sales. Overall, it looked like a good fit but I can't make heads or tails of the licensing.

    With that, OOW ended... Except for yet another event in the Buena Vista Gardens. Without a doubt, the most surreal scene of this long event was the front-man of Swedish rock band The Hives, obviously not fluent in the details of OOW or its crowd, urging the crowd of DBAs and programmers to come closer, jump, yell, and conduct acts inappropriate to name in this blog. I wonder what Larry Ellison would have thought about the band's creative use of his brand name!

    Thursday, October 4, 2012

    OOW Day 4 Recap

    Hectic Wednesday (the day exhaustion begins to set in) at Oracle Open World today. It turned out to be the strongest slate of the week:
    • How—and Where—Oracle Is Investing in Education and Research 
    • Supplier Collaboration with Oracle Payables 12.1
    • Personalize and Extend Oracle E-Business Suite Applications with Rich Mashups 
    • Oracle Sourcing and Oracle Procurement Contracts: Strategy, Update, and Roadmap 
    • Oracle Business Intelligence 11g Data Visualization Best Practices
    The most compelling story of the day -- and the conference -- for me came from the San Diego Unified School District, an analytics success story that has been buzzing around on Twitter but I was glad to hear it first-hand. The abbreviated version is that they realized that because their revenue was tied to average daily attendance, even a minuscule increase would translate into real money: 0.01 increase = $70,000. Using Oracle Business Intelligence (and eventually powered by the Exalytics BI Machine) they deployed an analytic solution that provided real-time analysis on attendance by school, drill down to grade, individual classroom, and student, with drill-through to the detailed attendance record (with explanations) for that student.

    I also really enjoyed the data visualization session. We have had some internal discussions at my office regarding data visualization, notably the work of Edward Tufte and Stephen Few, including the focus on dense visualization and the problem with pie charts. This session covered a lot of the same terrain, but using OBIEE's actual visualizations to talk about best practices. Many images from the latest OBIEE BP2 Sample Application were used, albeit modified by the presenter to better align with best practices for layout, color scheme, etc. I took some good stuff from this session:
    • Support for something I heard way back early in my consulting career -- avoid stoplights in case your audience is color blind!
    • ColorBrewer.org -- online Java applet to help you pick good color schemes based on the number of data ranges (designed for maps, but could be applied elsewhere)
    • Trellis charts can be awesome, but if each chart has its own scale... and users don't realize that and try to draw lines across... they might find themselves misunderstanding the story behind the data.
    • The consulting firm (Vlamis Software Solutions) giving the presentation has a slick service to provide an individual "lab" of OBIEE -- provisioned in minutes and expiring after five hours...
    • The OOW deck is not yet available for download, but here is a very similar presentation from earlier this year.
    Sadly, since I was faced with a 6am conference call on Thursday morning, I cannot comment on the big Pearl Jam, Kings of Leon, and X concert over at Treasure Island; according to Twitter they put on quite a show!

    Now off to hear Mark Hurd talking Business Analytics before a surprisingly heavy schedule. Red-eye tonight!

    Wednesday, October 3, 2012

    OOW 2012 Day 3

    The unusual blast of summer weather continues here in San Francisco. Haven't needed any of those sweaters I packed! (Not complaining one iota).

    Yesterday was another busy day dashing between Moscone South and West, Yerba Buena Gardens, Mint Square, the InterContintental Hotel, and more. Even though I followed the keynotes only via the active #oow twitter-stream, I was basically brain-dead by the time my last session concluded at 6pm. It shows in the waning quality of my session notes...

    My day started with a healthy dose of "misery loves company" with stories a presentation entitled "Oracle Projects Drives Efficiencies Across Global Organizations" that was more of a "how we use E-Business Suite" panel with three engineering firms: Schahin Engenharia, Black & Veatch, and WorleyParsons. Their stories held a lot of familiar elements to those I've seen in higher education: heavy customization, too many interface points, paved cow paths. Goes to show that it doesn't matter what industry you come from; we are all the same. Fortunately, we also all strive to make improvements. From the inventory of initial pain, each presenter talked about the efficiencies they've obtained by leveraging Oracle Projects as the centerpiece of their implementations. As an organization that does not yet using Projects within the E-Business Suite ecosystem, there were a lot of interesting charts and diagrams that I hope to poach once the materials are posted to the site.

    I followed this presentation with some time at the Demo Grounds to see the product (there were no screenshots in the customer presentation) and dig into some questions about our potential use cases. It was a helpful discussion, even if all the Oracle demo servers seemed to crash right as I arrived...

    A session on 12.1 Payables yielded a couple of observations / thoughts back for my team: 1.) should we implement invoice approval? and 2.) what license(s) is required to use the Progress Payments feature with built-in retainage and advances? Somebody in the audience tried to ask that question and, not surprisingly, the presenters (from Oracle product team) did not know!

    Final session of my day was "Boost Oracle Hyperion EPM Reporting ROI with Oracle Business Intelligence Foundation Suite" from MarketSphere Consulting. The basic premise was that they are seeing (or recommending) a shift away from the "native" EPM reporting tools (Web Analysis, Interactive Reporting, Financial Reporting) toward Oracle BI Foundation tools (mostly Answers, but also OSSM). They focused on "ten key plays" but the top two seemed to be the driving forces: establish common user interface for analysis and reporting and make it possible for analysts to consume reporting and analytic content from any device. There were some interesting observations and thoughts, including a "story board" of a completed solution. But I had a few quarrels with the presentations: 1.) glossed over the real limitations of Essbase integration within the Oracle BI meta-data layer -- although this keeps getting better, all the other experts I know or follow have a lot to say on this topic; 2.) didn't even mention the significant gaps in navigation and integration between EPM and OBIEE -- which we hope to see fixed in the next release; 3.) dropped the ball relative to financial reporting and SmartView, suggesting that SmartView was a fine tool if you have "an Excel culture" but not acknowledging the OBIEE roadmap, which (as I understand it) includes augmentation of SmartView to query ALL subject areas in OBIEE, including those not based on Essbase sources. When that happens, watch out -- SmartView will explode.

    Summary filed, now off to an extended session on Oracle's investments in Education and Research...

    Tuesday, October 2, 2012

    OOW 2012 Day 2

    An intense day at the Moscone Center (and friends -- had two sessions at the Intercontinental) with sessions from 10:45 to 5:45 with hardly a break. And only because I watched the 8am keynote from my room.

    Not an amazing day; I learned a few things, for sure, but frustrated by the lack of insight into future direction. Without major releases in the last year, at least one of the sessions (E-Business Suite Financials Roadmap) was a repeat performance. And despite attending both the BI and EPM sessions I have no clearer picture for when the two products will finally be interoperable. Lesson learned for the rest of the week: I am done with roadmap sessions. All the announcements that matter get tweeted anyway. To give one example, I only learned about the extensions to Extended Support for both 11i and R12 via Twitter, not in any sessions I attended...

    Here are the things I learned:
    • Hyperion Planning can now run in Exalytics
    • Oracle Hyperion Planning will soon be available as Oracle Cloud SaaS; big changes to the site overnight. Information page now live
    • Spam tweets can be hilarious -- when the #oow hashtag was hijacked by porn it was rather hilarious, except for the resulting confusion re: #oow (official) and #oow12 (briefly traffic moved here during porn-storm; some stayed there)
    • They tacked on another year of Extended Support for EBS 11i and 12, largely because of the delays with 12.2 (which is still "in the next year")
    • Endeca is everywhere; saw a demo of it within iProcurement and it is very slick but definitely not free... We will be seeing Endeca integrations in every App for sure, and it seems like things are moving unusually fast.
    • More advanced visualizations (waterfalls, heatmaps, more trellises) are coming to OBIEE and they have invested a lot of R&D in revamping OBI Mobile "HD"
    • There was not a single woman on stage for the "Masterminds" session featuring Oracle Applications SVPs
    • Facebook managed to make even E-Business Suite look stylish and modern through configuration and customization
    • In many organizations the CFO is becoming the "Chief Decision Officer" (according to Deloitte) and becoming more involved in strategic planning beyond just financial operations
    Off again for another busy day... Hard to believe the week has barely started.

    Monday, October 1, 2012

    OOW 2012 Day One Notes

    Had a great first day out here in San Francisco, which has been "painted red" (quote from this morning's keynote) rather literally -- Oracle logos everywhere!

    "Oracle Scorecard and Strategy Management: The Un-Scorecard Manual" - Kevin McGinley (Accenture)

    Interesting session demonstrating how to think outside the box and put OSSM -- one of the four building blocks of Oracle BI Foundation Suite -- to optimal use beyond the narrow scope of scorecards. By not locking oneself into the meaning of "actual" and "target" and recognizing that you can co-opt the KPI Object to compare ANY two measures, content developers can save themselves a lot of effort and deliver value more efficiently to business users.

    Takeaway: business intelligence solutions require creative problem-solving more than anything else... It's more "art" than science.

    "Oracle Fusion Middleware in Higher Education" - Tina Thorstenson (AVP and CISO of Arizona State University), Selim Burduroglu (Oracle) , Susan Beidler (Oracle)

    After a primer on the components of Fusion Middleware (so many acronyms, so little time) the presentation focused on success stories across Higher Education with Web Center (Texas A&M), Business Process Management (UVa), OBIEE (FSU), among others. ASU advice was to start small and pick something low risk but highly visible. Success breeds success and all that... There was also a very interesting (though not relevant for me) overview of how Campus Solutions, now divorced from the other PeopleSoft applications, is pursuing a very different path to Fusion -- switching over to ADF and the Fusion UI over next several releases.

    Takeaway: need to have our success stories up on that stage next year!

    "The Neuroscience of Change" - Grace Chang (UCLA, Professor, NeuroLeadership Institute), Samad Aidane (Project Manager, Aidane Group LLC)

    Now this was a surprise... Don't think I ever thought I'd hear "neuroplasticity" or "basal ganglia" at an IT conference... Not even at EDUCAUSE. But this is such a valid and important topic -- projects almost always succeed or fail in lock-step with the change management program. According to the presenter, not only is resistance completely natural, but we should embrace it; resistance shows engagement and that's better than ambivalence or blind acceptance. They introduced another five-letter acronym and framework -- SCARF, which stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness. It reminded me of this article http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2012/09/managing-just-fine from the Harvard Gazette last week.

    Takeaway: people see your IT project as "a big carnivorous animal" trying to eat them.

    Higher Education User Group
    Final session of the day was a presentation by the Higher Education User Group (HEUG). Two big(ish) announcements were the launch of a Young Professionals Group (to qualify one must be sub-34, so alas I missed the cut) and an evaluation of the existing Product Advisory Group structure to ensure the right level of engagement with Oracle. Mostly this was a networking opportunity, so happy to have spent some time chatting with colleagues from Wisconsin, South Africa, North Dakota, and more.

    Off to the Moscone Center now for Day Two!