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

Friday, November 29, 2013

From Stickies to Stories

A wise man once said “knowing is half the battle.” With this thought in mind (though we may not have quoted G.I. Joe aloud in our team meeting) the very first thing that happened after my team moved into our new office space was to begin papering the walls with Post-It Notes, each one representing an open question, interface, customization, report, or other unit of work. Little squares of paper everywhere, multiplying like Drosophila.

They were not yet user stories, but they represented a means of visualizing our work, a tool for the meta activity of building a backlog for the backlog, the prioritized inventory of the stories we need the product owners and others to re-arrange and elaborate so we can build our “real” product backlog before kicking off our first scrum next week.

Since Scrum is new to almost my entire team, I expected some hiccups. However, some challenges in the first two weeks were unanticipated: how important it to buy the “super-sticky” notes lest items fall to the floor in the night and find their way into the cleaning crew’s basket; the impediment of indecipherable handwriting (including m own); and whether or not the color of the paper carries meaning.

Those hurdles aside, this seemingly simple activity proved an incredibly powerful (and simple) visioning activity, and it helped get people into the spirit of the new approach we will be taking here. People started bringing pads to every meeting and asking “is that on the wall?” when potential integration points or enhancements come up. The walls become the truth; if it isn’t on the wall then it doesn’t exist. The story isn’t there? Then write the damn note (legibly as possible) and slap it on the wall. Problem solved.

Of course, the one-line notes are not enough to work from. Soon enough, several fully baked user stories and acceptance criteria appeared on the wall across from the first 500 Post-It Notes. Rolling collaboration carts (courtesy of Ikea) showed up and we stocked them with 5x8 index cards, Sharpies, Painter’s Tape and ton’s more super-sticky Post-It Notes. The team started fleshing out the stories and within a few days each first-pass one-line Post-It was replaced with a real story card. To get around the handwriting problem (and to grease the wheels of loading these stories to JIRA in the near future) many people typed up their information and glued printed copy to the cards. Elementary school arts and crafts to the rescue!

It is interesting how much better it feels, in the context of a technology initiative, to go back to basics instead of relying upon online tools. We are heavily invested in the Atlassian suite (JIRA, Confluence) but starting there proved ineffective. While we need those tools for a host of reasons – reporting and analytics, simplified creation of release notes, calculations of velocity, notifications, etc. – wall-and-paper is proving (knock on wood) a better place to start our Agile journey.

I can’t wait to see how it goes from here.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Cloud Strategy? Hm.

We had a long talk last week at the senior information technology leadership team meeting on the subject of “cloud.” I’ve grown to hate all the IT buzz phrases, my adverse reaction about those marketing terms, in almost all cases, the polar opposite to my feelings about the actual technology the buzz phrase intends to describe. Most of the “trendy” technology topics are potentially revolutionary and every day I think about how we can harness these technologies to deliver value to my institution; what gets my goat is what happens when complex topics are boiled down into one-word over-simplifications. Cloud. Social. Big data. Useful shorthand but also veneers of simplicity and straight-forwardness that can get you in a heap of trouble. 

Take this simple question: what is your cloud strategy? That is like asking (apropos of today’s holiday) me to define the “cooking strategy” at my home. What’s the context? Is the question whether I believe in cooking? Am I trying to bake a cake or scramble eggs or braise kale? There are common tools (for sure) and ingredients (perhaps) but the only unifying strategies across those three challenges are to avoid hurting oneself, burning down the house, or over/under-cooking. (And to extend the metaphor, even if I mostly cook at home, some nights we’ll go out to dinner and other nights we’ll have pizza delivered).

Yet executives expect and rely upon neat, pretty, and formal strategies (I am far from immune to this desire). The question is how to write the strategic vision while preserving flexibility and supporting a vast array of use cases that will change the day (hour?) after we remove the “DRAFT” watermark.

There have been many articles already written about cloud and I’m not going to add a lot to that discourse. The business executive who says “I want the cloud!” doesn’t know what he’s saying but proves the efficacy of marketing. It is an old problem: users postulating business requirements in the form of solutions. We fight this tendency all day in the applications arena. I need a red button! No, you need some capability to perform some function; we’ll decide later if a red button is the best solution.

So here is my answer to the question of enterprise “cloud” strategy. 

1. Educate. Develop an educational program to unpack that word so that people outside Central IT need to understand the diversity of information technology solutions buried within the buzzword. This runs contrary to the reductio ad absurdum marketing tactics, but cloud technologies need to be understood for what they are—powerful technology capabilities, neither magic bullets nor terrifying monolithic monsters. 

2. Keep pace. The landscape changes rapidly -- and although many in IT pride themselves on being nimble, few are truly accustomed to the plate tectonics in the cloud computing arena. Service offerings change daily; books are outdated before they are published; best practices emerge in real time. Get on Twitter and find a way to get your teams there, too.

3. Ask the right questions.  What are you trying to achieve? How long do you need it for? How much do you want to spend? How fast do you need it? What skills do you have? What assistance do you expect to receive? These are the questions one must answer. 

4. Exploit the technology where it fits. I don't quite know how else to put this. There is no one-size-fits-all rule that you can (or should) follow. There are a million choices we make in IT every day, and cloud computing technologies, in all their variation, are no different. Remember that and apply the same thoughtful logic you should be applying in other cases, matching your budget, capabilities, and requirements against the choices and making the best situational choice you can.

So to distill things back again: the best “cloud strategy” I can muster is to build and sustain competence, ask the right questions, and know what to do with the answers.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

PS UX Transformation Part 1 - Faculty Interviews

My organization's top concern before embarking on an implementation of PeopleSoft Campus Solutions was the usability of the application, especially for faculty and advisers. We have several interventions at play here, including membership in the Oracle Usability Advisory Board (OUAB) which I'll be attending next week (another story for another blog) and access to training (one of my analysts attended a full-day UX training before OOW13). One of the key commitments was for the UX Direct team to conduct on-site User Research. This has been referred to as "ethnography" (which always makes me of college anthropology courses) but due to time constraints, we are conducting these now as two-hour interviews. Several seasoned researchers are visiting us in December.

The invitation went out early this morning to 31 faculty members. We're not talking about the bush league faculty; I was particularly terrified to email Michael Sandel, whose class was the nadir of my undergraduate career (grade-wise). As I Google'd the c.v.'s of each person on my list I was reminded what an insanely talented faculty we have here. (As this site showcases: http://campaign.harvard.edu)

We are using Qualtrics to collect the responses; we will exploit our University-wide contract with Qualtrics as often as survey-ly possible. I received one rebuke earlier this morning (but have been advised not to take it personally). Otherwise, I've filled about half the slots in our first study.

While the expert researchers are doing most of the heavy lifting, my crack business analyst team has been assigned to this effort in several critical ways:
  • Building out the final schedule and logistics
  • Consolidating information (e.g., profiles) on the final slate of interview subjects
  • Participating in the interview process to capture meeting notes, assist with identifying theme and adjusting interview scripts day-to-day
  • Learning the techniques of user interviews so we can extend the model in the future to conduct additional research
It isn't clear what exactly we'll yield from this research. We certainly hope that some of the results will inform Oracle's strategy for improving adviser and faculty self-service in Campus Solutions. But we also know that we will bear much of the burden for enhancing the user experience. Feedback captured in this process may inform parallel efforts such as Identity and Access Management or Learning Management. Or it may suggest business process changes. Or, taking a glass-half-empty perspective for one moment, it may yield nothing more than a few user stories for our backlog. Absolute worst case, it gives us an opportunity to engage critical stakeholders early and ensure their voices guide us into the future.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

15th Year Harvard Report

I have procrastinated long enough; there is now less than one week left to submit my entry for the Fifteenth Anniversary Report for the Harvard and Radcliffe Class of 1999...

This is surreal on many fronts. Seriously, can it have been fifteen years? Fuck me, we’re old.

The personal essay prompt doesn’t help. It asks for a statement on "whatever you would like to say with reasonable brevity about yourself, your family, and our quarter century." I like the phrase 'reasonable brevity'; that last phrase 'quarter century' makes me feel about ten years older than necessary… Last I checked, 15 years is only 60% of a quarter century. Which makes me feel a little younger, I guess?

What’s happened over the last five years? Think quickly and list five things:
  • Adventures with Keryn
  • All things Eliot
  • Trips to Switzerland, France, Puerto Rico
  • Leaving the Back Bay for Cambridge and then moving "all the way" to Arlington
  • Working way too much but learning a lot
So there you go, right? Should be a snap to write an essay on those topics. Except the essay is not some ephemeral pfft on my blog read by the maximum of my 400 Twitter followers (of whom 200 are probably fake, if conventional wisdom applies). No, it becomes part of the permanent alumni red book record and there’s the potential for 1600 people, most of them belonging to far more accomplished people--physicians, scientists, novelists, entrepreneurs, scions, hedge fund multi-millionaires--to read whatever I write about my life. And then it sets the agenda for a hundred 30-second conversations at the reunion in May/June. One must get it right! Talk about pressure... More pressure than any essay I ever wrote in four years at the College!

Saturday, November 9, 2013

4 Months to HEUG – Presentations Accepted!

I was very excited to learn yesterday that one of my proposals for the Higher Education User Group was accepted to the General Interest track for the Alliance Conference in March 2014. This gives me only EXACTLY four months to come up with a compelling / upbeat story and handsome slides. A smart man would take advantage of this lead time, but I have a sneaking suspicion that I’ll be blogging on March 8th to say I’ve only got a day or two left to prepare...

Last night I tweeted that this kept my seven-year streak of presenting at the HEUG Alliance conference alive… Then I went to update the presentations page on my website and realized that, inexplicably, I didn’t present in 2012! (Made up for it last year with three presentations in three days!)

My presentation will cover our in-progress implementation of Oracle PeopleSoft Campus Solutions and Oracle Business Intelligence, although the focus will be less on the technology details than the decision process leading to the project’s launch, our internal organization and approach, and key strategies that hopefully lead to a successful first launch in November 2014 and major go-live sometime in 2015. It is always tricky to present on anticipated success – I’m not a particularly superstitious guy, but one must fear the jinx! In case any attendees wonder at the constant noise emanating from the lectern, that might be me knocking wood with each forward-looking sentiment.

I was also thrilled to learn that our Exalytics proposal was accepted – in this presentation, we will discuss the two parallel efforts to implement Exalytics at Harvard. The SIS Technical Lead will present our work to implement OBIEE and OBIA Student Information Analytics, while the Hyperion Product Manager will present their project to migrate our large, complex Hyperion Planning and Essbase environment. It’s quite possible I’m more excited for their presentation than my own…