Freedom For Ideas

Sharing ideas, concepts and thoughts, mainly about Information Technology – and consulting

Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Poor, transparent tools

Posted by Yannick Martel on October 26, 2009

Poor, transparent bike

Coming back to Tools for Conviviality, I want to share some thoughts on software architectures. Software products and associated frameworks on which we build them are tools. As such, the criteria of choice is usefulness to our goals. They should be servants.

Ivan Illitch advocates that “the simple, poor tool is a humble servant; the elaborate, complex, secret tool is an arrogant master”. How many times have we seen choice of tools which we do not master? Which are “elaborate, complex, secret”, and the more fascinating because they are? Can we mention:

  • Complex, poorly understood architectures, based on new concepts which are barely understood?
  • Huge packaged products, which contains the expertise of generations of analysts and programmers, but which you don’t pretend to master in a lifetime?
  • Sophisticated frameworks, which are supposed to do it all and are the best you can get. But cannot sometimes the best be too much?
  • Assembly of “best of breed” products, which can turn into “poorest of suite”?

Have you seen these? For myself, I have seen them too many times. With Ivan Illitch, I want to advocate a preferred choice of “simple, poor tools”, which can be mastered and are not too much for our hands, and this apply too well to our software architectures. Thanks to Tools for Conviviality, we have guidelines for selecting them when KISS is not enough. Guidelines which show us how to put at the center the human beings who are going to run, use and rely on them.

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Towards post-industrial IT

Posted by Yannick Martel on October 20, 2009

Modern railways station

After reading Tools for Conviviality from Ivan Illich, it seems to me that the large IT organizations I know are some of the best examples of industrialization gone wild.

Ivan Illitch introduces a maturity model for the industrialization of a product or process. Before the first threshold, the costs of industrializing exceeds the benefits. It is like transportation with the very first steam machines: noisy, filthy, not much good for anything. Then maturity arrived, and usefulness exceeded the costs – when steam power was mature enough to be applicable to helping in the real life. In this way, many products and services were industrialized successfully and transformed the world: medecine, transportation, education, food…

But then the cost of industrialization in terms of energy, human life, environment, excessive complexity, indirect costs can become too high and exceed the benefits, at least considering the overall society – some people or groups can still benefit by concentrating wealth and power. Ivan Illitch defends the case that many services in in developed countries have exceeded this second threshold, the threshold of decreasing marginal usefullness.

In large IT organizations, industrialization has been used as a set of methods for tackling complexity and volume. Up to a certain point, we have seen some success. New, more complex, more ambitious software applications are being developed, improved, and are to a certain extent serving the business. But as a method for improving the efficiency of the business, the industrialization of large IT systems seems to me to have exceeded the second threshold. Every new aspect which is submitted to industrialization and centralization, turned over to experts, adds a cost which is out of proportion with the benefits the company gets from the move. This added cost takes many forms: human life essence, efficiency, resources, indirect cost on users or customers…

What should we do? Turn to industrialization with the same tool which has helped in the beginning: rationality. We have used rationality to industrialize, but are not applying rationality anymore if we consider the tools of industrialization as mandatory, as an ends in themselves. We should realize that it is not rational anymore to go on applying these tools without any discrimination, that we should better add some new tools, the tools of conviviality to be able to develop a post-industrial IT.

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You don’t need a damned e-shop, your customers deserve more!

Posted by Yannick Martel on September 24, 2009

Going shopping?

I admit it, I am a telco guy, having worked in that sector for longer than I care to count. It is thus a pleasure for me to see telecom operators transform and adapt, when they do it for good. I appreciate seeing new ideas take form and shape for the benefit of all, vendors and customers. But it seems to me most telcos are struggling with their Internet strategies. They have a hard time setting up nice enough Internet site, keeping them up and running and attracting customers to them.

Probably that’s the reason why I want to share here what I would like to tell them, especially after reading Jeff Jarvis.

1- Stop calling the Internet site where you promote your products and sell them an e-shop or an Internet boutique.

Once you know a thing’s name, your control it. That’s the nice side of the coin. The other side is: you name it wrong, you get it wrong. Naming your selling site a boutique means it will be only this, a copy of a physical shop, where you only expect to sell at a reduced cost – to you. Thus at best it will provide a slightly worse experience than a physical shop. Don’t ask why your customers are still going there.

Instead, you should find what else it could be, and try to do it. But that should be something better, unique, which can be done only via the power of Internet – and we know that we can do many new things thanks to Internet. If you don’t, just take a tour before building your web site.

2- Stop positionning it as a competition to your physical shops

A bit of a competition is good, too much can be dangerous, especially inside a firm. Build your business relationships, most of all with your colleagues, on trust and cooperation, not competition – don’t worry, competition will come by the side, even if not encouraged. This means you should develop the Internet media as a new, original one, which has its own niche, and is complementary to shops. If your Internet presence compete with your physical shops, it means that you are not promoting at their best the advantage of each channel. And don’t forget: while your are busy managing the devastating effects of internal competition, others might be taking care of your (old) customers.

3- Create a community and hand it control

The Web 2.0 is all about communities. We are lucky in that mobile phone and even Internet access are already community-oriented. Mobile phones are trendy gadgets, and for many accessing the Internet via an operator is being part of his community. Not for everybody, but you only need a small critical mass to start with it.

So the advice is, straight from What Would Google Do?: make your on-line presence a platform on which communities can live and flourish. As a side-effect, these communities can help you sell your products, or better use them. If you take care to listen and cooperate with them, they can help you improve your products, get better support, package them the right way or price them the right way. First, you accept to be influenced, and then you give them some control. Then they can help you and work for you – by working for themselves.

4- Don’t do it all yourself

If this program sounds pretty difficult, you are on the right way. But don’t do it all yourself! You can build the minimum infrastructure, hand them the tools, and then get ideas and help from the masses. Your devoted users can help you design your next best-selling products. They can also build many aeras of your next successful community platforms (aka web sites). Allow and encourage plug-ins and links.

5- Provide them access to your best deep resources

That’s the best of true SOA and SSOA. If you really want to get help and you are serious about it, you should do your best to those people devoted to help you. You should give them access to your most valuable resources, to the depths of your IT, network and service infrastructure. And the best part of it: be happy if they are using it better than your own guys.

And now, where do we start?

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Discipline and teams, part 3

Posted by Yannick Martel on September 24, 2009

A social activity

I know I should be doing some sport. I like running and live close to the forest. I know it would be better for my body and my health and I do not have any reason not go running every Saturday morning. Or do I? I just cannot discipline myself to go. Comes my son, Simon. He wants to perform better at the running competition organized by the schools of the sector. He then suggests that we should go together to run a bit every Saturday morning, that it would be better for my health. And I say “Yes!”, with good chances to stick to it. I have even stopped using the elevator for getting up the six floors to my flat.

Alone, I lack the discipline. The two of us are stronger. Interestingly, Scott Peck does not develop much this topic, but only mentions group therapy exercises without developing much. My point is that the two of us are a team: a group of persons oriented towards the same goal and willing to cooperate towards it. Simon wants to perform at the competition and his dad to be healthy, I want the same, we have found a way to work together to the two objectives. And I think we will stick to it more easily because we will support one another. This can be the same with a husband and wife couple, and this is the same with a team at work, a true team.

Indeed a group of people can be much worse or much better than a single individual. When not performing, it can be lazy, prone to self-indulgence and sustain poor results – bad attitude can be reinforced. On the opposite, a well-oriented team can offer very strong support to its members – each one is helped by the others and by the conscience of the team.

This is the reason why I have a lot of hopes in the power of team to help in making deep changes in firms, such as infusing a new culture of customer orientation or continuous improvement. Peter Scholtes in The Leader’s Handbook mentions that change is a social activity – we can make better changes in groups if we treat it first as social change, as change in relationships. And we can make better changes if we get help from true teams!

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Discipline and teams, Part 2

Posted by Yannick Martel on September 15, 2009

Beach at sunset

Let us go on today with discipline, following my first post.

Discipline is not a very popular value today, in a cultural environment which is prone to anxiety, leading to withdrawal and the erection of barriers and walls. What is the worth of discipline when hope is missing? “Lack of hope may give place to despair or cynicism“, and hope is surely missing a lot today.

We must be strong, perform, be autonomous and so on, but we look for magic bullets, easy ways of becoming what we wish to be. And lots of people are ready to sell them! We want quick results, not years of slow progress! We cannot understand that some results can be obtained only by a long, disciplined and oriented effort.

This is still worse when we wish to discipline others: “il est interdit d’interdire” (“it is forbidden to forbid”), from the students movement in May 1968. I nevertheless realize that if we believe we can help other people grow, either our children, colleagues, team members or customers (our boss?), then hope and discipline are required – from us and from them. How then can we foster discipline?

Indeed, true discipline cannot be enforced. Going back to The road less traveled, we understand that discipline is nothing less than a grace, which can be accepted or refused.

Scott Peck finds that some patient can improve spectacularly when another, with a much less serious case, does not. Professionally, some people have this inner strength and willingness to improve. They will learn new things, experiment, trying to get better and better. They will also lead when required and follow when it is better. Some other people will just do what is required to avoid problems, and be happy with it, without trying to help when possible, without seizing opportunities.

Why is that so? For sure, personal histories, environments, corporate culture have a role to play. But they fail to explain it all. A huge part of it is indeed a mystery.

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Discipline and teams – Part 1

Posted by Yannick Martel on September 10, 2009

Britanny, early in summer

I have recently read the french translation of The road less traveled from Scott Peck. I particularly appreciated his arguments on discipline as the base for any progress, including spiritual growth. I would like here to share some of what I noted in the book, and then some thinking on teams which it lead me to. As it will be a bit longish, I am going to split the post in two or three. So bear with me, we are for today talking about discipline.

Scott Peck presents discipline as necessary for any progress or growth. Discipline is necessary for succeeding in any difficult learning situation, any spiritual evolution or any improvement process. The opposite of discipline is laziness, which leads to stagnation, and allows entropy to take over – and thus regression and return to mediocrity. Discipline here is meant as self-discipline, I believe, the one which is coming from inside, not enforced from the outside.

I see everywhere real life proof of the pertinence of this model. Let us imagine that I have just received an e-mail which makes me angry. I know, intellectually, that I should not answer it immediately, but wait a bit to cool down before doing so, or not answering at all. I can succeed first because I know it, second because I have the discipline to wait for a moment that I know is right – thus deferring my reaction. On the longer term, I can learn about situations in which I can answer immediately and other situations in which I would better defer my reactions – thus being a bit wiser and less subject to my emotions.

Or another example: it is clear to me that producing working software applications is a difficult activity, requiring creativity and inner strength to put it to work, day after day. We find people who are strong enough to put their hearts in working for the progress of the group or company they are in, putting things in perspective and making sure everyday that they do whatever they find the best for this progress. We find other people who are just doing whatever is fun and pleasant at the moment, doing barely enough to avoid trouble, ignoring what they indeed know they should be doing. They just don’t have the discipline to inquire really on what is best to be done today and stick to it. They wait for external guidance and act minimally on it.

A last, more complex example, from some typical mission of OCTO Technology: we can explain to a software developer good practices and convince him. But the practices will actually stick and bring progress only with discipline. One such good practice consists in first creating a new automated test each time a bug is found in an application, and then only to try correcting the defect. Then you make sure that the next time somebody makes a change to the application which provoke to the same bug it will be detected very soon, during unit testing and not in production. We produce arguments, explain rationally how defects found early and much less costly than found later, how it is a good practice to stop and set this test first because you will not do it later. Still a lot of people will not have the discipline to stick to the practice and will just correct again and again the same defects – or transfer them to unfortunate colleagues…

Posted in Books, Management, Motivation | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

The Wave

Posted by Yannick Martel on February 3, 2009

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After going straight in a direction with my previous post, I came across The Wave. I was fascinated by the experience it described, got a copy from the local library and finished reading it in parallel with a busy weekend. The Wave is a novel based on an experiment performed by an history teacher, when he wanted to teach about the rise of the Nazi movement in Germany and the atrocities which came from the movement.

At first, the teacher used his authority and charisma to channel students into the experiment, discipline them into a more efficient group. Then discipline, peer pressure and the positive feeling of being part of a group took over as driving forces, making the group still stronger and more disciplined, more together. The teacher himself was then no more leading the movement – he was being lead and driven by it. Independent thinking was then felt as a threat to the movement – and thus to be condemned. Any objection was to be rejected.

I take many lessons from this story (as far as the book is true to the original experiment). One of them is that fascist monstrosities can be awakened any time, any place if we forget about the past. Another one is the power of the group as providing:

  • a sense of community, of being well together;
  • efficiency for some activities;
  • a relatively egalitarian environment, or at least leveling the traditional hierarchies of performance or popularity.

These are relatively positive characteristics, which makes group-imposed tyrannies the more dangerous. A group can be a wonderful environment, but it can also turn to be de-humanizing: a human being lost in a certain group with certain values can become a machine, losing critical mind and independence.

I appreciate that in all human systems, discipline and authority must be balanced by some regulation mechanism, especially when they are self-imposed by the group where they can be stronger and more cruel than when imposed from the outside. In the case of the experiment, the regulatory mechanism was the outside world, parents, other teachers, the principal, the history teacher’s wife, and himself. This mechanism played its role before it was too late.

How is that relevant to this blog? One reason amongst many: I have still more reasons to appreciate the value of thinking outside of the boundaries of the system, any system, thinking on it, thinking about it, understanding its mechanisms and meaning, while not being bounded by it. An illustration of the pattern is the retrospective practice used in Agile methodologies to look back, improve and make the team a better team. Here – hopefully – members of the group can reflect on it, criticize it and work together on improving it. Thus we avoid declaring as absolute what is only relative.

But, in itself, this experiment does not provide a proof against my thesis that discipline and authority can be good. It certainly provides a nice boundary to this declaration.

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Something new on Mashups and SOA

Posted by Yannick Martel on December 3, 2008

Before / After Services

At least something new about SOA! Many articles and discussions on SOA only address the technical or implementation aspects of SOA. We then wonder SOA is only a technology for IT departments to worry about, or whether it really concerns IT users. I have frequently been frustrated by some of the debates about SOA: much ado about nothing… Of course technology has evolved, but, more or less, service-oriented architectures have been possible for a long time, and have not been invented with Web Services. Limiting the debate on SOA with reorganizing existing IT applications around services restricts the debate to technicians – with only incremental improvements to bring to users. So why should they pay for major changes? An incremental improvement can justify only a progressive introduction, always guided by business requirements or a quest for optimizations.

Mashups Corporations brings something new with inviting directly the corporation’s strategy into the discussion. Organized as a novel (in the tradition of The Goal), its introduces us into a “brick and mortar” corporation, which is ultimately lead to evolving its IT under pressure from some Marketing product manager attracted by the new possibilities of Internet and Web 2.0.

This corporation’s IT is at the beginning of the book organized traditionally as a cost center, an expensive black box, tolerated as necessary for the company, secured and closed. In the shadow of this official IT, a “pirate” IT (the Shadow IT) survives, developed by employees avid to put new technologies in the service of their innovative ideas. Change arrives when the Shadow IT opens up to the outside (quite inadvertently at first) and allows third parties (client, prescriptors…) to interact with it. To cope with the new flow of transactions and revenue then generated, the official IT must open up (just a bit) to the Shadow IT. Then we begin to see the real, bottom-line certified justification for services and a service architecture. From a central fortress, opened only via GUIs, with a few Shadow IT autonomous cells, we switch to a central core, which provides access to internal and external applications via well-defined interaction points – services. This is the justification for SOA, as opposed to morphing an existing stable architecture into a service-oriented one, with limited business value.

This transformation creates new problems for the IT department, as well as provides a new positioning: from a cost center, attached to the CFO, the IT department becomes an innovation facilitator, supporting fundamental and industrial processes as well as new ideas – for people who can experiment, try, fail and succeed, develop new revenue streams, whether they are part of the company or not. IT must change its culture and its mission at the service of the rest of the company. Shadow ITs becomes authorized and officially supported.

What is the recipe for attracting and retaining customers in the XXIst century? Let’s allow third parties to develop new applications which process transactions by interacting with the core applications of the company. Once these third parties, prescriptors, clients, communities, are hooked onto your systems, they are attached to you. They find a competitive value in the interaction with your IT, which your competitors does not bring them – yet. The merit of Mashups Corporations resides in this perspective of SOA related to Web 2.0, justified by new capabilities to innovate and open. The technical information brought by Mashups Corporations (in appendices) is pretty standard, bringing nothing new as compared to mainstream SOAP-SOA – no debate on resource vs RPS styles, nor alternatives to Model Driven approaches. But that’s not the core of the book, nor of the debate.

Posted in Books, IT, Management, SOA | 1 Comment »

Agile Adoption Patterns, 1, 2, 3

Posted by Yannick Martel on September 16, 2008

A sleeping volcano in Auvergne (France)

This looks like a plateau, but is in fact a volcano. Beware!

Let me confess it: I am not an expert in Agile. I have yet read only the first three chapters of Agile Adoption Patterns, from Amr Elssamadisy, and I already want to share with you how much it has inspired me. Especially in relationship with a specific project we at OCTO Technology are helping to get Agile. I will go on reading the remaining 43 chapters and may later review them here.

Agile is nowadays quite fashionable, and this very success generates its own problems. Amr mentions that the very first teams adopting Agile “methods” obtained 500% improvements in productivity, but that as Agile is becoming more pervasive and adopted by a wider audience we see more teams getting instead only 50% improvements, or failing to obtain any improvement at all. Indeed I now realize that the project I have in mind has probably reached this 50% plateau. Amr’s intention is to help us overcome this difficulty and implement an Agile adoption strategy to go much beyond.

For this, Amr’s gives me two keys. The first key is learning. Learning is the bottleneck in software development, the limiting factor in your effort to develop efficiently useful and dependable software. Learning might be about the functional domain, your user’s preferences, technologies, software development processes, whatever. Thus many of the Agile practices help people examine frequently what they have done and get an opportunity to learn and improve: short cycles, retrospectives, test-driven specifications, etc.

My “plateau” team is not today using some of the most important learning-oriented practises, such as refactoring and retrospective. The emphasis is more on velocity, not on learning. IMHO, this explains the plateau: once you have adopted some basic practices, you don’t improve anymore if you are not willing to experience frequently the slight unease of realizing you could have done better and turn it into the next incremental enhancement.

The second key is personal responsibility. The best Agile teams are self-directed, self-improving and responsible. Collective responsibility can only be based on the individual responsibiliy of team members. Many Agile practices help people in the team evolve towards more individual responsibility. Just as an individual cannot be ordered to be responsible, a team cannot be declared self-directed, but you can help it.

My “plateau” team is not today self-directed. It is composed of individuals moving in a hierarchical environment, which does not encourage personal responsibility. Agile adoption has not been positioned as a change in culture, only as “just another software development methodology”. I think we have not worked enough to empower the team, maybe because we did not fully appreciate the effects of the cultural gap.

The third chapter is about business values. What are your most important goals? What are your reasons for improving your software development process? Amr suggests some candidates, and invite to look for the right motivation for your team. If we know why, we have better chance to improve, and in the right place.

My best idea right now is to talk to the various members of the team and project sponsors, and try to understand what is the motive for getting the team Agile. Time to market? Yes, we would all like to get a release a few months sooner. Cost? Yes, of course, as everybody. But isn’t there any other reason, more specific to their situation? Then, I hope we will be able to get them motivated and empowered to overcome the plateau.

Posted in Agile, Books, IT, Methodologies | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »