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Friday, December 23, 2005

Java's Demise?

A couple of weeks ago BusinessWeek published an article titled: Java? It's So Nineties. The main points of the article are some somewhat questionable stats and comments about companies moving away from Java to .NET, PHP, LAMP, etc. At one point the article mentions that large web companies like Google do not rely on Java. Hmmm...I recall an interview last fall with a Google software engineer who stated "Google makes extensive use of the Java platform. Large parts of popular Google products are written in Java. We also use Java in many internal systems and products under development. " For the rest of the interview, click here. Before taking this article too seriously, I suggest you read the on-line responses to it as well as other responses around the web such as those found at Slashdot and

Personally, I think scripting languages like PHP are fine for lightweight web applications. For those needing more computing power, Java is a great choice. What scares most neophyte developers is the sheer volume of libraries, apis, etc. that make up Java. It's hard to know where to start and what to adopt. For a language/platform (because let's face it, Java is more than a language) that is "so Nineties" there's a lot of work being done in the open source community that extends Java. Is the same thing happening for platforms such as .NET? Don't get me wrong, I'm not knocking .NET. I'm just not seeing the same buzz of activity around it that I do Java.

Monday, December 19, 2005

ComControl Bug Fix

A couple of years ago I wrote an article for the Borland Developer Network about the Java Communications API. Based on the hundreds of emails I've received about it, a lot of developers have read the article. I took the example java code from a real world scenario. However, I created a much less involved version for the article. This version contained a bug in the serialEvent() method. The statement: outputStream = serialPort1.getOutputStream(); should actually be outputStream = serialPort2.getOutputStream();. The article text actually references the correct statement. The flaw is in the example code.

I've uploaded a new version of the code Borland's Code Central site. My thanks to all of you who've read the article and sent so many gracious comments. My thanks especially to Steven Ong, the developer who found the bug. Vive la open source!

Sunday, December 18, 2005

VoIP Challenges

Information Week recently ran an article about VoIP Gotchas. If you're looking to make the switch from traditional PBXs and digital phones to a Voice over IP system, read this article. This year, we began implementing a VoIP phone system. Fortunately, my network team spent a good deal of time preparing for the installation and were ready for the issues.

In preaparation for moving to a new system, we researched several alternatives including hybrid switches. If you're not familiar with hybrid switches, their main attraction is their support for both digital and VoIP phones. The catch is, you need a fairly recent digital phone system in order to use existing phones. Because of the age of our current system, the hybrid switch wouldn't support our phones. So, we decided to bite the bullet and implement a complete VoIP solution. So far we've implemented the new phone system at only one campus. If all goes as planned, we'll convert our corporate campus next fiscal year.

How did our installation go? It went fairly well. The biggest issue we ran into was a bad network card that caused circuit failures. We've received a lot positive responses from the departments now using the new switch. Unified messaging, the ability to have voicemail messages sent to email, is a big hit. The biggest complaint; people can't forward voicemails between the old system and the new one.

How do I like the system? I like it a lot. It has a number of strategic and tactical advantages. On a purely personal level, I like the software client that allows me to use access the phone system from my laptop via an Internet connection.

Friday, December 09, 2005

CIO Insight Article: Measure of Alignment Predicts Success

In the Fall Alignment issue of CIO Insight magazine, there is a very good article on IT/business alignment. IT consultants Thomas Lodahl and Kay Lewis Reditt talk about measuring IT contribution to profit margins and earnings growth. In the article, Lodahl states "...profit margin is a great measure of performance, because it deals both with revenue growth and cost reduction." Some companies miss this point when it comes to their IT departments. All too often, companies think about IT in terms of cost reduction. These companies ask questions like, "How do we automate to reduce costs? How do we save money on hardware, software?" Those companies that view IT as a strategic partner look beyond costs to the impact of IT on revenue growth. They ask: "How can we leverage our IT to promote revenue growth? What systems do we have, or can we obtain, that add value to our customers and can give us an advantage in the marketplace?"

Churches and Technology

Last night I read a CIO Insights article titled Megachurch Megatech. As a sometimes web designer for my church's praise and worship service site, I was intrigued by the technology being used at the larger churches. According to the article, there are an estimated 1800 megachurches. Some of these churches have technology budgets of over $1 million. At my church, we get excited over simple things like a new sound board, lcd projector, and the like. Just this year, we've added some streaming videos on our site...I'm still politicking for live streaming of Sunday services. What I wouldn't give for WiFi in my church. I wonder if the pastors in these megachurches get distracted by the clicking of keyboards as people surf the web on their laptops during the church service? Also, exactly what would people be using their laptops for during the service? Maybe they are setting the lineup for their fantasy sports teams.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

More Video Streaming

After months of experimenting with several streaming technologies, I've finally settled on one I like, Flash, as in Macromedia's Flash FLV files for small video files and the Flash Communications Server for larger files. Why Flash? Simply put, Flash has become one of the lowest common denominators with browsers. In other words, most browsers support Flash and most corporate firewalls do not block it. The same can't be said for some of the other streaming technologies I've used. While the servers may allow one to change the streaming port, I've found that some corporate firewalls do not allow for downloading the client required to play the video. The bottom line, if you want to stream videos (and audio files) consider using Flash...either FLV files or the Flash Communication Server (Macromedia offers a free developer version). For more information visit Macromedia.

Friday, November 11, 2005

CIO Article Bound to Fail

I recently found an excellent article in CIO Magazine regarding the risk of maintaining legacy systems: Bound to Fail. Many companies today are still running back office operations on systems that are 20+ years old. It is hard to replace a trusted application running on mostly depreciated hardware, with a new application that may require extensive capital outlays, has an appreciable learning curve, and is running on an unfamiliar platform. Change, especially change from "green screen" environments to GUI environments, is difficult. Based on my experience, changing systems is often much harder on the end users than it is on the IT departments.

Keeping a legacy system just because it runs well is not necessarily a good idea. As Jim Collins says in Good to Great: "Good is the enemy of Great". Not long ago, I experienced a near disaster with a "good" legacy system. One morning while heading to my office I made a shortcut through our Network Operations Center to check on things. As I passed a particular set of mission critical SCO boxes I noticed a programmer staring dumbfounded at a screen. I asked what the problem was. He told me the server died with a disk crash and wouldn't come back on-line. He'd called in support and was told that the system was no longer being serviced by the vendor, and the only person who had a clue about how to fix it had retired a few months earlier (no joke). I asked the programmer about the "hot swappable" backup server. He said that it had never been tested (still not joking). My reply: "It's about to be."

I'm the kind of person who enjoys rolling up his sleeves and working on problems. I booted the backup server and began reviewing the network activity. Seeing no network traffic on the server, I looked at the connections coming into the back of the box. It turned out that this server not "hot swappable" had never been hooked up. I rerouted the network cables from the dead server to the backup server, and the programmer and I began configuring it. After several tense minutes we were able to get the backup server up and running. The total outage was less than 2 hours.

Problem solved? No way. We were still running a system that was "bound to fail." I'm happy to report that by the end of the year the old system will be replaced. That incident, while not as dramatic as the one mentioned in the CIO article, taught me something about legacy systems. Just because a system is in place and running well for years, doesn't mean that it is without risks. As they age, computer systems become ticking time bombs. You never know when a drive will crash, a CPU will fail, or a power supply will die. My advice, make systems replacement part of your overall IT strategy.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Darwin Streaming Server

A few months ago I began researching Java Media Framework and streaming. This research ultimately led me away from Java Media Framework to Apple's open source streaming server Darwin. After some experimentation, I've got Darwin up and running on Windows 2000. The biggest issue I've found is that Darwin's web based administration server interferes with the streams. No big deal really, just turn off web administration. If anyone has a solution to this problem, I'd love to hear about it.

If you would like to view a sample stream click here (Quicktime Player 7 is required). You should see a short video of me and some friends playing the song "In The Jailhouse Now" at my son's school. That's me on the left playing the banjo. Jamey Ratzlaff is playing the mandolin. Next to Jamey is James Cole singing and playing the guitar. And, next to James is Steve Dodson on the bass.

My apologies to Jimmy Rodgers and the creators of the "Oh Brother Where Art Thou" soundtrack. :-)


Friday, April 29, 2005

Managing IT Investments

In his April 2005 Strong Signals,column, John Parkinson writes: "Managing a portfolio of IT investments only gets harder when the benefits are unevenly distributed." I agree. It can be difficult to garner the capital required for investment in technologies that appear to have little or no short term ROI. Fortunately for me, I work in a company whose vision and strategy that includes IT investments.

John's column can be found here.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Server Virtualization: Back to the Future

Server virtualization is a hot topic these days. As IT leaders balance the need for better server utilization with the need to maintain costs, they are turning to products like VMware. In a nutshell, VMware allows for the creation of virtual servers.

Server virtualization is nothing new. 20 to 30 years ago mainframe providers like IBM were building software to allow their users to create virtual machines. The theory being that while users needed multiple systems, multiple mainframes were expensive to implement and maintain and often under utilized. VMs became a very popular alternative. You couldn't find a mainframe shop today that doesn't use VM...yes contrary to popular opinion mainframes still exist.

In the distributed world, virtual systems began to appear as people wanted to share applications across the network. Eventually terminal servers and virtual clients were created, allowing IT departments to centralize client maintenance, etc. Today we've come full circle with the whole virtual machine concept. Instead of filling our operations centers with server farms, we're turning to products like VMware to consolidate server management and increase efficiency. Sure there's the problem of what happens if we lose one of these consolidated servers running 20 or 30 virtual servers. But hey, that's what redundancy, back up, and disaster recovery are for.

My team is installing VMware. Our approach is initially to consolidate just our test servers. Using VMware we can completely mirror our production environment with a 10th of the hardware traditionally needed. How well will it work? That's yet to be determined. However according to the industry folks I talk to, companies are rapidly pursuing VMware for server virtualization.

For more information read the following ComputerWorld article: Virtualization Creates Need For More-Resilient Servers.

Thursday, March 31, 2005

JDatastore: A Small Footprint Java Database

My DBA, Tim Caylor, recently started a blog about his DBA experiences called The Trenches. If you're interested in a small footprint pure Java SQL database take a look at his post on JDatastore.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Open Source RSS aggregation Classes

A few months ago my team was approached by our president to develop a website that would serve as a aggregation for employee blogs. While working on this project, I came across Informa...a set of open source Java objects for aggregating RSS feeds. I used their classes to develop the prototype. My team, working with our web designers, did a much better job developing the full site which should be live soon.

If you're looking for a decent set of Java tools for RSS aggregation , you should take a serious look at the Informa site.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Less Java Media Framework

After a few frustrating weeks spent playing with the Java Media Framework (JMF), I give up. It's not that the player doesn't does. It's not that you can't stream can. It's just too much trouble.

Tonight, I spent about 30 minutes installing Apple's Darwin Streaming Server (an open source implementation). It can be found here. The only drawback to Darwin is that it requires Perl. Since I'm running a Windows server, I chose the ActivePerl implementation found here. Over the next couple of days I'll provide a link to my streaming server so you can test it yourself.

Now for the reason I needed a streaming server in the first place. In my spare time I'm working on a little experiment involving Java, a microcontroller, servo motor, and a webcam. Assuming that everything works out like I think it will, you will be able to remotely control the webcam's direction via a web page. Why you ask? Because I can.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Even More Java Media Framework

I'm taking the week off to spend Spring break with my family. Hopefully as you are reading this, we're tooling around the Indiana countryside on dirt bikes, fishing, exploring caves, or just hiking in the woods.

I'm also working on a little Java project while I'm out of the office. I can't tell you much about it yet (don't want to spoil the surprise), but it involves JMF and other Java APIs. By the way, I discussed this project with my wife and kids and they think it is really "geeky".

More about it later this week. Until then have a great week -Rick.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

ComputerWorld Article on VB6

Carol Silwa, an editor at Computerworld contacted me to participate in a quick survey regarding Microsoft's decision to drop support for VB6. This is her article: Update: Users push Microsoft to extend VB6 support.

One of the points I made in my comments to her was that Microsoft's history of not providing backward compatibility (within reason) helped drive our decision to use Java as our primary application development language. We also chose Java because we're a multi-platform IT shop and Java plays well in our environment. We're running cross-platform Java applications in our production environment, not only as our front-end B2B apps, but also as an integral part of our back office processing.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Running IT Like a Business

A few months ago I blogged a little about IT Metrics. While searching for information about IT metrics, I ran across this Computerworld article: Running IT Operations Like a Business Not So Easy, Execs Day. It makes some good points about chargeback systems. Over the course of my career, I've worked in chargeback and non-chargeback environments. Personally, I think having a chargeback system in place helps make everyone more accountable and aware of real IT costs.

IBM's Frustration at the Java Community Process

An interview with IBM's software chief Steve Mills on Java and IBM's direction What's Wrong with Java. I found the comments about IBM focusing on small to medium sized businesses interesting since small and medium sized businesses have been steering away from IBM.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

CIO Insights Article

A few months ago I was contacted by Debra D'Agostino, a writer for CIO Insight magazine, about the perception gap between the CIO and his or her lieutenants with regards to IT/business alignment. Her article Can a CIO Become too Strategic? is very good and worth your time if you are currently in an IT leadership role or considering one as a career choice.

Sarbanes-Oxley Compliance

Here's a good Sarbox article from CIO Insight Magazine for those of you in smaller public companies: Sox Hurting Small Business?

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Apologies to Lou Gerstner

Last month I created a posting called Learning from the Past. In that post I inadvertently referred to Lou Gerstner as Lou Gersner. My apologies to Mr. Gerstner for misspelling his name.


Monday, February 14, 2005

What Happens When a Company is Defined by the CEO

Here's an interesting article in my local paper. From the Associated Press: A celebrity CEO rarely shines on the company's bottom line. It brings to mind something a professor told my grad school class. He said something like, "How do you know when a company's in trouble? When the CEO is spending more time on his or her image than on the business of the company."

Then there was the CEO I used to work with who had an image consultant. He was eventually replaced by a CEO who didn't. In all fairness, there are high profile CEOs who run successful companies. For instance the article doesn't mention Bill Gates or Larry Ellison.

Outsourcing Java Projects to Students

This morning I read a thought provoking editorial in the JDJ: Digital Edition titled Outsourcing to Students. While searching through computer science classes at various colleges, Yakov Fain found the same thing I have: it appears that very little Java is taught at the undergrad level.

Mr. Fain talks about outsourcing projects to college students as opposed to outsourcing to developing countries. I like that idea, but not for the reason you might suspect. As someone who is (will be) looking for that next generation of developer, I want to see more Java classes being taught at the colleges in my area so that I will have a larger pool of developers to choose from. Too, it would be fun to have a group of college students work on one of my programming projects as part of their course work...or even have some computer science students co-op with my company.

Even more telling on the issue of Java education is the feedback I get from articles I've written. Most inquires, questions, comments, etc. come from developers beyond the US border. I'm not totally sure what that says. Admittedly my articles tend to tackle easier development issues. But, I don't think the US is so far ahead in Java programming that the solutions I write about are not germane. Rather I think other countries are ahead of America...especially on Java development that extends beyond websites into the enterprise. The issue that may ultimately drive companies to offshore outsourcing may be one of expertise rather than cost.

Prove me wrong, if your college is teaching Java courses and training the future for a career in IT, let me know. If your company is doing enterprise Java development (not necessarily EJB) let me know that too.


Thursday, February 10, 2005

More Java Media Framework

Spent some time with Java Media Framework this past week. Biggest complaint: not enough documentation. At least there's not enough good documentation. I'll admit that I haven't bought a book on JMF, but I've poured over articles, newsgroup entries, etc. A lot of people are talking about it...mostly from the client side.

The link for the JMF API can be found here. If you try running some of the examples, there's a couple of things to keep in mind. The examples are set up to run RTP over UDP. This means that the program that is transmitting the audio, video, etc. is transmitting to a specific IP address on a specific port. Translation: you need to know the IP address of the computer receiving the stream. The receiving program needs to know the IP address and port of the sending program as well. I'm going to give you a big hint here: you will need 2 computers to run the examples. The reason: you can't transmit over a port and receive over that port at the same time.

JMF works well sending and receiving via RTP. But, I cannot get Windows Media Player to receive the transmissions (it does not like the RTP:// address). This is frustrating. My goal is to create streaming media server whose streams can be received by a generic player such as the Windows Media Player, not something requiring an applet I create or JMStudio from Sun.

When an opportunity arises, I'm going see if JMF allows for RTSP transmission. I think this will solve the problem. Unfortunately the docs are a little vague on this. More later. If you've worked with JMF, I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on the subject.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Small Prejudices

Saturday morning I went to the barber shop to get a haircut. I say barber shop because that's what it is. Not to be confused with a hair salon, the old fashioned barber shop I go to feels more like a sepia toned memory from my childhood. No pictures of models on the walls, abstract art, and no vanity fair or GQ magazines scattered around. You'll find no books filled with the latest hair styles. There are no backlit glass shelves filled with a variety of hair care products...the proper use of which baffles me.

My barber shop's plain white walls are covered with area high school, college, and pro sports lineups and schedules. There is an old magazine rack filled with copies of Sports Illustrated, Car and Driver, and Field and Stream. While you wait for a haircut, you can read the stats on your favorite team, find out about the latest car models, learn to tie a fly, or discover the 10 tactics for taking a trophy buck.

There are eight old fashioned barber chairs, standing side by side like a group of old soldiers in parade formation. Behind each chair dutifully stands a barber. The youngest of the group is about 50. The oldest close to 70. These guys are the real thing complete with combs, scissors, electric clippers, tissue for wrapping around your neck, brushes to brush away the clippings, and talcum powder to apply liberally to your neck when they're done.

Another interesting feature of the barber shop is the clientele. This shop is frequented by some of the city's leading men; doctors, lawyers, businessmen, name it. A mirror runs the length of the wall behind the barbers. Taped to the mirror are autographed pictures of celebrities, mainly country music personalities. While getting my haircut, I've sat next to CEOs and fry cooks. You never know who will be there.

What does all this have to do with prejudice you ask, we'll I'm gonna tell you. My eight year old son and I walked into the shop. As usual for a Saturday morning, it was crowded...standing room only. My barber, let's call him Ed (not is real name), had an open chair and beckoned me over. Ed is a short balding man in his late 60's. He's soft spoken and a little deaf, which makes for interesting conversations while you're getting a hair cut. I don't know much about Ed's life other than the fact that his wife is ill, and his daughter and her teenage son live with him. After a few conversations with Ed, it is clear he's had a hard life.

Ed is a man of few words...most of them opinions. His favorite subject is Vanderbilt University men's athletics, specifically football and basketball. No matter what the season, I can always count on Ed to offer an opinion on how Vandy can win their next game. If you know anything about Vanderbilt, you know that between football and basketball, the only opportunity for winning seasons comes from the later. I should also tell you that I don't follow Vanderbilt sports closely.

Back to the story. Saturday, Vandy was preparing to play a particularly tough basketball game against the University of Kentucky Wildcats. Ed asked me if I thought Vandy would win. I replied something along the lines of they could if they make all their three pointers. That's when Ed said it. Something that surprised me so much I didn't know what to say. Ed said, "they'll win if that N... plays like he did the other night." Ed was of course referring to one of Vanderbilt's African American basketball players.

Sitting there, hearing that comment I felt a little like a guilty bystander. It is not a word I use. It is not a word my children know. As soon as Ed said it, I glanced around to make sure that my son was out of ear shot. He was across the room engrossed in a Sports Illustrated magazine. I didn't say anything to Ed, I didn't reprimand him or even give him a disapproving look. Rather I sat there in guilty silence thinking about the word.

I don't think Ed meant anything hateful by the word. Ed's a product of another era in the South, an era that thankfully started changing 50 years ago. I am convinced it is a word that he uses all the time. That's unfortunate. Think about his teenage grandson. Imagine growing up and hearing that word from an influential figure in your life. My own grandfather, who lived a life of wealth in relationships and caring rather than money, never uttered that word. At least in my presence. I doubt he said it to anyone. As I said earlier, my children have never heard that word. I know this because they are still at an age of innocence where new words are tested and tried out on mom and dad to gauge a reaction.

No. If I have to fault Ed for anything it's the small prejudices that live inside his heart. The world has changed, we've moved to a different place. Ed's still in the past. I so different from Ed? I didn't challenge his comments or make my objections known. I just sat there.

Silence can mean many things. It can mean both thoughtfulness and ignorance. It can mean disdain. It can mean respect. Silence can also mean agreement. As I've searched my own heart I know I don't agree with Ed, if in fact agreement is the right term. I know I do not hold the same prejudices. I do hold prejudices though. Different ones, but ones I am sure are just as hurtful. Prejudices my faith tells me I shouldn't have. They are hidden. If I search hard enough I can find them though, waiting for an opportunity to come out.

Think about it. What are your small prejudices?

Friday, February 04, 2005

Communication Problems

A colleague forwarded me the following article from FBI Urged to Scrap Computer Overhaul. As I read the article I was reminded of similar, albeit smaller in scale, situations that I've seen over the years. Although I'm not personally familiar with this project, I'll bet the problems result from poor communication. Issues like this happen when the vendor doesn't take the time to really understand what the customer is saying about requirements, but makes assumptions based on perceptions. Likewise, the customer doesn't take the time to understand what the vendor is saying about its system's capabilities. Both sides lose.

One of the missions for those of us in the Information Technology field is to remind our users of their responsibility to clearly communicate their needs. We have to help them do that. We also have to press the vendors about key parts of their solutions (customizations or otherwise) and take the time to learn what the systems really do before we implement them. One way to do this is to attend a training class prior to selecting a product. A training class is far more useful than a sales pitch.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Java Media Framework

I'm working with that Java Media Framework (JMF) this week. If I'm successful in building a streaming media server, I'll probably write an article on it. Or I may just provide the source code listing on this blog.

If you're reading this and have an interest in JMF, email me and let me know. Also, if there's a Java topic that you would like me to write about, let me know that too. I'm always looking for new topics. I'm developing an article now about network intrusion detection using Java.

Monday, January 31, 2005

IT Metrics

Like many, I'm looking for better IT metrics. Translation: I need a better way to communicate IT to my company. I'm playing with various financial ratios to see if they make sense as a measure of IT performance; ratios like ROA and IT asset turnover.

Expressing IT in financial ratio terms seems better to me than using some kind of IT productivity measurement. As you well know, IT productivity is a hard thing to measure. If you talk only in terms of requests handled, you leave out measures of complexity of task. If you talk in terms of hours worked, even if you slice the hours into separate tasks, you miss something. All to often, companies want to make IT into assembly line processes...something that just doesn't work.

Whatever. As I find measures that make sense, I'll let you know. You let me know if there are metrics you like to use to tell your story to your company


Sunday, January 30, 2005

Upcoming Article on Creating Java Web Services

I've just completed an article on turning servlets into web services for the Borland Developer Network. Click here for a sneak peek at the code.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Java Confession

I have a confession to make about Java. As much as I like the language for its portability, features, etc., I hate Java Swing. I understand why Swing is the way it is. But, I don't have to like it. And I don't.

The problem is in order to maintain the "write once run anywhere" philosophy, Swing adds a layer of complexity not present in platform specific GUI development languages. I'm not saying I can't develop in Swing...I can and have on multiple platforms. I'm just saying I will do anything to avoid using it. Often I look for solutions that can be JSP/servlet based instead. While I think that Java is a cool feature rich language, I must confess that, at least to me, Swing is one of its least desirable features.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

IT/Business Alignment

I have a question for you: when did IT and business units fall out of alignment? In every organization I've worked for, IT existed at the behest of business units. Without a business need, there would be no need for an IT department...or at least one of any size. Yet in those companies, there we were serving business unit needs.

Sometimes there were over 100 employees in IT and sometimes as few as 20. Regardless of size, the IT departments worked for the business units. Does this mean that IT was always working on the best interest of the overall company? Not necessarily. In cases where strong executive leadership drove the company's priorities, IT and the business units were perfectly aligned. In cases where there was chaos at the top and no clear direction, IT departments struggled to figure out how to best align with business units. Regardless, IT was serving the business.

Does IT/Business unit alignment mean IT is serving all the needs of all the business units? Nope. Sometimes issues that seem important to a business unit are not important to the overall organization. Small departments that, while they play a role in running the company, do not bring much to the table in the way of revenues or cost savings cannot expect IT departments to drop everything to work on their requests. Those department heads would say that IT is not aligned with their department.

So...even though I've read the myriad of books and articles on the subject...I'm still very confused about the apparent lack of IT/Business alignment. It's very odd.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Learning From the Past

As I was recently reading the book "Why Smart Executives Fail: and What You Can Learn From Their Mistakes" by Sydney Finkelstein, I was reminded of when I worked for IBM in the early 90's. At that time, IBM was an incredibly large, bureaucratic nightmare of a corporation. I was hired by their recently formed technology services and outsourcing division, Integrated Systems Solutions Corporation or ISSC (later known as IBM Global Services). ISSC was the new model for IBM; a tougher leaner organization where things like "a job for life" weren't a given. Most of the company did not know we existed. Those who did called us "light blue" as if to say we really weren't "true blue" IBM employees.

Shortly after I was hired, I moved into a management position on an outsourcing contract. As a new manager with IBM I was sent to IBM Leadership Development a.k.a New Manager School in Raleigh, NC. I was the only ISSC employee in a class of about 20 people. The first thing I noticed was the shock and disdain the IBM lifers had for me. Not only was I a professional hire, but I was also a manager. How dare the company promote someone from the outside so early in their IBM career. I found the whole situation very funny.

One of the things I remember about the class was the instructors' insistence that my division (ISSC) was going to be the model for the whole company. We talked about company loyalty. I offered that I was loyal to the company as long as they were paying me and there was a job for me to do in IBM. There was an audible gasp in the room. People argued with me that unconditional loyalty to the company was the right way to go. I argued that ISSC didn't promise me a life long proposition. Instead, I was offered a position at an outsourcing contract that had a finite life span. After the contract was over there was no guarantee of another contract for me to go to. To the surprise of most of the class, the instructors agreed with me.

Not long after that class IBM North America went through a massive restructuring effort, laying off thousands of employees. I wonder how many of the new IBM leaders I went to class with got caught in the layoff. Of those that did, what would they say about unconditional loyalty today?

Another memorable moment from that trip was a tour I took of an IBM PC manufacturing facility. I was surprised by the lack of automation. Prior to the tour I had visions of machinery and robots working endlessly buidling computer equipment. I was disappointed to see that instead of high tech, there were lots of people putting boards into PCs. But, the biggest surprise was that within a few blocks of this facility there were 2 other manufacturing sites making competing IBM PC models. IBM was so big and behemoth like, that the company was competing against itself.

IBM of the late 1980's early 1990's was what Mr. Finkelstein calls a "zombie business". According to Mr. Finkelstein, zombie businesses are companies that have a such an insulated corporate culture, so many employees with deep loyalties, and have an emphasis so focused on the positive that they fail to see negative business signals. These companies are often the biggest in their industry. They maintain a "constant awareness of their closest competitor" and they are always trying to improve internal metrics.

In Mr. Finkelstein's opinion, these zombie businesses fail to see not only what's happening in their industry, but also fail to take into account their customers and the customers' needs. The positive attitudes are so bad that people do not want to tell bad news...even to the point of not telling the CEO the truth out of fear of disappointment.

In all honesty, I can't tell you what was going on at the top of IBM...I was too far removed from it. But I can tell you from where I sat, the company was in bad shape. I don't want to imply that IBM was a bad company, or unpleasant to work for. It wasn't and there were a great many benefits. IBM just believed its own press and lost sight of reality.

When Lou Gerstner came on board, things changed for the better. Gerstner took the company through some hard times and ultimately produced a much different company. He "rocked the world" of many IBM lifers. I'll bet you they are still bitter about it.

Having been gone from IBM for about 7 years, I can't tell you too much about them today. The outsourcing contract I was on has run its the way I left the company before the contract ended in case you're wondering. I still maintain some friendships with those IBM employees who found either found jobs within the company and those who didn't.

What's the point of all this you ask? Well the point is...Sydney Finkelstein is right when he talks about zombie businesses. They exist. On the surface they can seem like great places. Underneath, there is trouble. It is tempting to focus on how well your company is doing and how great a place it is to be. However, remember to pay attention to your customers, industry, etc. If you don't, you may end up a zombie. =:-o

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Socket Programming in Java

It's funny what you find on the Internet. Several months ago I submitted a couple of articles to Borland Developer Network. Receiving no communication back, I assumed that the articles were rejected. A couple of evenings ago I stumbled across a reference to one of the articles on the site. I was floored. It seems that Borland did decide to post the articles after all...they just decided to wait till December to do it. Go figure.

Click here for my article about socket programming in Java.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Windows Service Article

A few months ago I sent one of my blog entries "Running Java Applications as a Windows Service" to the Borland Developer Network. Click here for the article.

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