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

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Fifteen Minutes, Zero Slides, and a Pulpit?

The last (only) time that I entered Harvard's Memorial Church, the late Reverend Peter Gomes led my graduating class through non-denominational prayers prior. In eight days, I will be standing on stage there addressing Harvard's information technology community (500+) for 15 minutes on our progress implementing Oracle's PeopleSoft student information and business intelligence software.

Remind me to have somebody snap some pics of the first and only time I'm likely to stand on that stage... (Time to update the Twitter bio photo?)

Daunting as the location may be, I also have the distinct misfortune of following Harvard's Provost, Dr. Alan Garber, the keynote speaker. How can I possibly make data conversion, computing infrastructure, and application set-up even a tenth as interesting as anything he says? My palms are sweating at the thought.

And as if all that were not enough, they took my PowerPoint away! Handicap enough in a dark conference room that seats eight, being without my precious crutch scares the bejeezus out of me. No TED Talks imitation. No bullets and no clip art. Just spoken words, hopefully not too many uhs, umms, or curse words uttered when I forget my lines. The only solution is a script and lots upon lots of rehearsal.


Tuesday, January 21, 2014

2014 Resolutions (a bit belated)

It’s a little late to record 2014 resolutions and goals, and while it would be fine and dandy to blame the polar vortex or whatever they’re calling today’s surprise blizzard (surprise to me, anyway, who knew nothing of the sort was coming until mid-afternoon), I have simply neglected to schedule blogging time into my schedule… Too bad, because one of my resolutions for the year was to reaffirm last year’s botched goal of posting 52 blogs this year. I’m already three weeks behind schedule!

On the professional side of things, this year proves relatively straight forward to define in terms of top-line objectives: go-live with Campus Solutions, or at least the first components of it, at my institution. When the project started last May, it felt downright cozy to speak of the first go-live being a full eighteen months hence… But there is nothing cozy about a ten-month target. That is practically tomorrow.

Major milestones wait between here and there: experiments with Amazon EC2, mobile application development, complex data conversion programs, and a bushel of customizations. Much of our work this year, while supporting the proximate launch, lay the foundation for the next two years of expansion and transformation. Not to suggest there’s pressure on everything going perfectly.

Of course, it won’t go off without a hitch, which is one of the many reasons we need so badly to be agile. This in itself is a risky proposition, as highlighted in my presentation to the project steering committee last week; they had some reservations about blazing trails in the application of Scrum to PeopleSoft but I stood by my belief that this approach will ultimately serve us much better as an organization. Most projects here have fallen victim to a reality that enhancements only happen during the initial implementation or costly triennial upgrade projects; we strive to be dynamic, always moving forward, always improving and evolving – and I believe the agile mindset is critical to achieving that vision. My goal for 2014 is for the teams under my leadership to thrive and to foster an environment that lets them do so. Their success and failure will be the metrics by which to judge how I did this year.

The other major area of growth for me this year is UX – watchers of my blog / twitter know that I’ve been learning this space in dribs and drabs. My personal resolution is to become fluent in this arena and build a competency center that will calm the skeptics and show that we actually can deliver an enterprise system that (some) people actually like using (not all – it would be lunacy to suggest such an outcome). To achieve this I have to immerse myself, read everything, follow everyone with UX in their Twitter bios, hire some great people into my team, participate in activities, champion the cause, maybe build a few wireframes...  In other words, just some light dabbling here and there. It's my own fault -- I'm the knucklehead who put "excellent user experience" right in the project vision statement!

As for all the normal life stuff -- hoping to keep the balance best as I can, despite project demands, keep reading, tweeting, cooking, and running! Plus I've got to shed some pounds before my big college reunion in early June!

So there you have it, 2014 goals in five paragraphs. Stay tuned to hear how it goes.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Taking Stock of 2013: Part III: Food and Books

I like to wait a couple days later than everyone else to reflect back on the year and how I did against my various resolutions. Overall, I’m kind of amazed by all that happened in 2013 – started a new job, bought a new home in a new town, watched my son turn three, experienced my first wrong-side of 35 birthday, attended my second Circleville Pumpkin Show, celebrated my 5th wedding anniversary, and otherwise kept myself pretty busy...

My fitness goals were a complete disaster, although according to RunKeeper I ran 279 miles in 2013 which in the grand scheme ain’t bad – more mileage than the average non-runner, but far short of my goal. And there were other personal improvement goals in this arena that weren’t even that close…
Let’s blog instead about food and books.

Back in 2011, my wife and I decided that to affirm our commitment to reading – despite the presence of that new infant in our home – we would set a reading resolution. My goal then was a whopping dozen. Twelve whole books, one per month. This felt perfectly reasonable: achievable but requiring a degree of discipline. I guess I must have really fallen apart in 2010 to have set the bar so low. I read 47 books in 2011 – a high watermark for sure – and 30 in 2012. This year, I aimed for 30 – and am happy to report I soundly defeated this resolution (it is a contest, you know) and ended the year at 38! Not too shabby with all that other life stuff going on.

Book of the year? From a work-related stand-point, the hands-down winner was Designing With the Mind in Mind by Jeff Johnson, an insightful and interesting book on user interface design, with lots of human psychology thrown in for good measure. From a personal point of view, I devoured the entire Jack Reacher series by Lee Child – they blur a little in retrospect, but Killing Floor (#1) and The Enemy (#8) may warrant re-reading… And Gillian Flynn sucked me in, too. Read her first three books in about two weeks and I eagerly await her fourth, whenever it comes…

Another renewed resolution was to continue my experiments in the kitchen. I’m no budding pro, but have built a far improved repertoire of specialties through forced innovation – setting a goal that makes me sift through the piles of Bon Appetit magazines and subject my family to frequent torture and occasional delight. This year I reached for the lofty goal of preparing 40 new recipes – and with a Christmas recess flurry exceeded my goal by two. There were some failures (e.g., gnocchi batter gone awry) and lots of mediocre dishes whose instructions we sent to recycling, but we added a few winners to the permanent rotation. Here are three good ones for you to try:

1. Orecchiette with Brown Butter Broccoli
2. Scallops with Apple Pan Sauce
3. Bucatini with Butter Roasted Tomato Sauce

So far, 2014 is off to a helluva start – I’m already 20% of the way toward my annual goal with 99% of the year still ahead of me!

Taking Stock of 2013: Part II: Social Media

As I started drafting this blog, I was feeling pretty smug about my social media activity during 2013. 

Then I downloaded an archive from Twitter and re-examined my year. Only 893 messages (including re-tweets) for the year. Peaked at 188 in September (courtesy of frenzied activity at Oracle Open World) and I’m not sure what happened to me in May, when I managed a measly 29 tweets (less than one per day!) My goal coming into the year was 2,000 tweets, a completely arbitrary figure that was just slightly off the mark… I spend both ends of my daily commute, all elevator rides, and a few too many other stolen moments catching up on my feed… How the really active guys – those with 100K tweets to their name -- keep up their pace, I’ll never understand. Maybe I’ll set the bar at 1,500 and see how it goes.

My other goal for 2013 was to reach a total of 400 followers – another arbitrary figure, one that teetered within reach since September; the ebb and flow of followership teased me for months, as I’d hit 399 on Monday, get a notification of new followers (yay!) only to find that my total had dipped to 398. But as of today the meter reads 411, at least half of whom are actual human beings.

Nothing against the brilliant technologists and leaders I follow, but Faces in Things (@FacesPics) often makes me laugh aloud in public – hands-down the best follow I made in 2013. I realize that this account in many ways justifies the common conceptions of Twitter’s inanity, but the facts are the facts – no other feed makes me look at the world so differently, seeking the eyes and smiles in everyday spaces.

More seriously, what amazes me most is how I can learn so much and derive consistent value from Twitter and yet utterly fail to convince any colleagues, direct reports, or friends to engage. There are a thousand IT professionals at my organization and my guesstimate is that only 10% have Twitter accounts and barely 5% are active. For me, this is a strong proof against the long-term viability of the Twitter business model… I’m glad they raised so much money in their IPO, enough to keep Twitter around for a few years in case that business model never coalesces!

The final dimension of social media to consider in recapping 2013 is this blog... Every year I tell myself that this is the year that I'll commit to blogging. Really commit. Blog daily, attract a following, maybe a book deal. I set a target to blog once weekly -- 52 total posts. This should be an entirely realistic goal -- think of all the prolific bloggers in this world who post daily (or more)! But alas, my discipline wasn't there. Only 35 blogs for the year... I hang my head in shame and renew the same target for 2014. Let's do it!

Friday, January 3, 2014

Taking Stock of 2013: Part I: IT Leadership

A year ago I blogged about my 2013 goals – business intelligence, ongoing delivery of projects, becoming more engaged with my team, adopting Agile/Scrum. If you told me then that I would leave my wonderful team for a brand-new challenge leading Harvard’s Student Information System implementation program, I’d have called you crazy. And yes, I knew the project was on the horizon. Yet on May 1st I officially began life as the Managing Director of the Harvard SIS Program.

This is an unbelievably difficult undertaking – far more complex than someone outside higher education or lacking Harvard context could probably understand. Nothing quite so vast and unwieldy as the HealthCare.gov clusterfuck, but there are enough similarities that I’ve been keeping careful track of the publicized failure points – inadequate testing, system-to-system integration points, internal/external politics – to make sure we avoid them. Yet it is also a truly remarkable opportunity to improve the experience for students, advisors, faculty, and administrators… It has been amazing to learn how things are done today, the struggles with accessing relevant information, the proliferation of shadow databases to overcome limitations, and the appetite for almost anything that improves the current state. "I just want something that works" said one future user, although I know that expectations are far higher than that – it is Harvard, after all. 

I tried to leave my former department in the best shape possible, though there have been more situations than I can count on two hands where I chastised myself for missing the mark. We did secure funding for three major projects back in the spring, so that was good. And I was still there to see us close out several other successful projects – all credit to the teams. Thanks to sharing a Confluence portal, I can still pay attention to what’s happening amongst my old colleagues – and only occasionally chiming in (a bit voice-from-the-grave for some folks, I bet) with kudos and remarks. But I still feel awful about a few things that got lost in the shuffle during my transition.

My new student information systems team began life as a single node on a virgin organization chart. Fast-forward to our holiday party three weeks ago – nearly forty people playing at Yankee Swap. Of all my accomplishments for the year, that’s definitely the greatest – though most of the credit belongs with our superb recruitment lead, all I do is interview, collect feedback, and make the yay/nay call. This team is poised for greatness; it will take every ounce of greatness to pull this thing off… But we can defer that topic to a future blog on 2014 goals. 

Beyond mustering the troops and the far-from-trivial task of securing the funds necessary for this endeavor, we made real headway on delivery. We completed in-depth requirements discussion and began application design and configuration. We completed several rounds of Scrum/Agile training and launched multiple teams to operate under those principles. We initiated usability research to support the design of an advisor/faculty portal. We moved into our permanent (3+ years) office space and I learned more than I wished to know about office furniture pricing. And we have a solid plan in place for going live with the first major components of the system in November 2014. (Though it frightens me to put that on the Internet).

From a more personal standpoint, I continued to learn a lot – still dabbling with OBIEE, immersing myself in Scrum, learning the details of PeopleSoft Campus Solutions (student systems I know, but it had been ten years since I’d seen Campus Solutions), implementing Salesforce for project management, and becoming fluent in the tenets and vocabulary of “User Experience” (UX). I learned a great deal from things that didn’t go as planned – OBIEE adoption in my old department, my first draft of the SIS project funding model, the first three attempted approaches to engaging school subject matter experts for SIS – to name three from a much longer list. We urge our people to embrace risk-taking so they can learn from fast failures and I can certainly say that I've modeled that behavior. For example, I feel so much more confident about my second attempt at mobilizing Scrum teams after realizing all the things I screwed up last time!

Overall, 2013 was a good year for me as an IT leader, but not a great one. There was just too much turmoil – I look forward to a more coordinated (though no less fast-paced) in 2014!