So two weeks ago, HP made it’s announcement that it was considering leaving the PC business, and I made my speculation that Dell might fill in the gap.
Then I went home for the weekend and found this headline on the cover of EWeek:
“The World According to Dell: The Company Michael Dell started in 1984 has expanded into areas Dell Executives didn’t even consider give years ago: Software, Services, and Cloud Computing.”
It’s almost as if the folks at Dell strategically timed a marketing push, just at a time when the traditional competition was at it’s weakest.
nah. That would actually make … sense.
The article is fascinating, and a good read; here are a few of my favorite gems:
Did you know that “We’re Sorry You’ve Been Laid Off?” condolences are now a major Hallmark greeting card category?
Perhaps the greatest irony is in IT, where technology really has enabled self-service and productivity, perhaps so much so that we need less IT support per hundred employees, meaning … oh wait. Ouch.
In the old days, a project management system cost six figures, required a purchase order, a fair amount of hardware, and half a full-time sys admin to support. Today, Joe the intern uses the corporate card and suddenly the entire department is on basecamp or pivotal.
And no, that is not a hypothetical — one of my largest clients recently signed the whole team up for pivotal, used it for two months (for free), then went to management to get the corporate card to allow them to continue with the tool past the initial offering period.
Meanwhile, IT jobs become harder and harder to come by.
There are lots of reasons for this; one of them is the increase in managed services companies; the kind that took Gartner’s advice and started to offer infrastructure as a service, which allows them to split up on support rep over a large number of companies.
My friend (who I will call Shawn) has spent most of his career in corporate IT; today he works for one of those managed services firms that stole someone else’s job. I wanted to hear his take on the IT employment situation; here’s what he had to say.
And, I have to admit, this one threw me for a loop.
Four days ago, Hewlett-Packard fired it’s CEO, Leo Apotheker, after just ten months on the job, and announced they were hiring Meg Whitman as his replacement.
And then it gets weird.
So far, we know that HP has signaled a desire to get into the software market, especially enterprise software, and a desire to exit the PC market.
For a moment, let’s forget about the why’s, and think about the “what’s next?”
Not for HP, but for the rest of us.
Last time we took at look at HP’s situation through a different lens – the lens of management consulting.
Today I’d like to take a different approach; on based on history.
But first, a story.
A Long Time Ago
There was a very large, international company. Once known for being innovative and shining, the company grew large and slow. Over time, the company’s personal computer business grew from wildly profitable to essentially a loss-leader, a sort of “yeah we also do that” thrown in so that the company could sell more expensive, high-end servers. Finally, the company developed an operating system that was technically superior, yet came too late to market. After a brief, painful struggle, the company abandoned it’s shiny new operating system
What company am I writing about?
It’s certainly been an interesting few months.
First HP Fires Mark Hurd; choosing to hire Leo Apotheker, an executive with an all-software background. ( Shortly thereafter, Apotheker makes a bid to purchase Autonomy Software for 10 billion dollars while looking for buyers for it’s PC business.
Meanwhile the company shuts down it’s touchpad division forty-nine days after it’s release.
To paraphrase one recent Wall Street Journal staff writer, you couldn’t come up with a better plan to ruin the company and take it out of business if someone paid you.
Yes, clearly, something is rotten in Denmark. Yet somehow I doubt that these people are all actually insane, trying to destroy the very company they are charged with protecting. It’s much more likely that something else is going on, some system of forces beyond our perception, that makes each individual move seem like a good choice, even as the company slowly lurches toward the brink.
If we take the approach of trying to understand the decision, we have a chance of learning something, perhaps things we can apply at our own little companies.
First, let’s talk about HP’s strategy.
Most of us know that the really big companies aren’t structured like Ford in the 1920’s. Instead of one big chain-of-command, conglomerates are more like a portfolio. Instead of owning stock, the headquarters unit owns entire companies, providing services for them like HR, and computing and the web site.
Structured this way, the biggest part of the CEO’s job is managing the portfolio — selling some business units, buying others, and finding ways to get them to work together. There are lots of ways to figure out what to buy and sell, but perhaps the most popular is the Strategy Matrix made famous by the Boston Consulting Group:
Holding this handy-dandy cheat sheet, a CEO can split his business units up into cash cows (making money but not growing), dogs (losing money and not growing), question marks (not growing but the market is) and stars (owning a lot of an increasing market.)
From there, the decision is simple: Sell your dogs, harvest the cash cows (and sell the husks when harvest is over), purchase stars, and figure out ways to make the question marks perform … or ditch ’em.
Let’s think about the classic business units HP works in: Servers are the cash cows, laptops are the dogs, the TouchPad was a question mark, and enterprise software and services are the new stars. (For that matter, Apotheker actually knows how to manage software groups. That’s got to be a plus.)
From this point of view, all of HP’s recent moves make sense. Instead of getting embroiled in an expensive advertisement and price war they could not win, they pulled the plug on the TouchPad early.
If Apotheker has any regrets, it’s likely that he didn’t pull the touchpad earlier, but, c’mon, the guy was new, the plans were advanced, and HP is a big company, so changes of direction happen slowly.
This matrix is simple and it’s easy to follow. Nearly anyone of modest intelligence could use it to analyze HP and come up with a strategy for managing the portfolio. After all, it’s sort of like a game of dice, where some of the dice are rigged, and, based on your throws, you get to decide which dice to invest in, right?
The only problem is that it doesn’t work.
A Portfolio is Not a Game of Craps
Framed this way, the role of the CEO is to acquire and merge all day long, selling off bad investments and purchasing more of the good.
Done without insight or vision, the strategy works just like it would in the stock market: You end up paying too much for the companies you buy (because they are “hot”) and selling your dogs for a big loss, because they are “not.”
More than that, the mergers and aquisitions have transaction costs; real human lives that are laid off, real businesses that are disrupted.
It also turns out that while executives are in merger meetings, looking busy, the one thing they are not doing is running a business — giving the competition time to catch up, and sometimes pass you.
Have you noticed that Apple Computer doesn’t do a lot of these mergers, acquisitions, spinoffs and layoffs? They are too busy running the business.
In the end, the matrix can be used to make effective choices, if the decision makers understand the history of the market, it’s system of forces, and where things are headed enough to make accurate predictions.
I will give the folks at HP one thing: At least as far as products are concerned, they know that whatever they were doing before wasn’t working, and more of it likely won’t help. So they have decided to try something new.
It looks, to me, like they are trying to pull an IBM.
More to come.
So I saw Dick Cheney, former Vice President of the United States, on USA Today this morning.
He wanted to talk about his new book, “In My Time.”
One statement Cheney made during the interview flabbergasted me: He claimed the the interrogation techniques used by the Federal Government during the Bush Administration were both safe and effective.
Really? Effective you say?
Come on folks. Does anyone else remember the claim that Iraq was somehow linked to the terrorists of 9/11? Or the claim that we had to go into Iraq because Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction?
How about the claim that Al Qaeda had series of complex, secret underground fortresses? (Follow the link; it is the secretary of defense explaining the fortresses to the American people on national television.)
None of that turned out to be true.
We got that information from people we were pressuring for information!
And we call our interrogation techniques effective? Really?
From here to there
When I look at the story of this recent involvement in foreign affairs, it seems so familiar. As if I’ve heard the story before.
Then I remember: I have heard it before.
Replace “American” with “conquistador” and “hidden fortresses” with “seven cities of gold”, and you’ve got essentially the same story: A technologically superior people from across the sea became convinced that the less-tech-savvy people have something they want, and they are willing to use advanced interrogation techniques to get the answers.
After hours, days, or weeks of saying ‘no, there are no seven cities of gold’, tired, beaten and exhausted, the people of the other civilization eventually give up and say “oh, fine. Okay. The cities are three days ride to the east. Will you leave us alone now, please?”
That said: this post is not about Dick Cheney; it is about you.
I am not setting to attack a man who served his country as best he could. In fact, quite the opposite: the most charitable interpretation may just be that Mr. Cheney made a certain type of classic mistake. That is, to be so certain you are correct, that the quest for information subtly becomes a quest for data to re-enforce your bias.
You may be going through it right now on a smaller level.
A more personal scenario
If, for example, you’ve never worked on a project that a deadline plucked out of thin air, then had a project schedule reverse-engineered to fit it, well, consider yourself fortunate.
If you’ve never worked near a boss, eager to please senior executives, who made up numerical targets for sales, or website adoption, then wanted you to make the plan to actually hit those numbers, again, consider yourself fortunate.
If you’ve never felt the subtle, or not-so-subtle pressure to hide mistakes, to slide messes under the rug, or to paint a better picture than reality, well … that’s good.
If you can manage to make your entire career without it, well, I’m curious if your company is hiring.
Yes, these problems are worse when they involve the clash of entire civilizations. They are worse when people are desperate for food, water, or shelter. When we have the benefit of “just” squabbling over the annual raises, bonuses, promotions and stock options, things do seem a bit more civilized. (We do have our stories about Enron and Worldcom, though.)
Fifty years ago, in a little-known graduation speech at King’s College, the author and professor C.S. Lewis had this to say about the subject:
To nine out of ten of you the choice which could lead to scoundrelism will come, when it does come, in no very dramatic colors. Obviously bad men, obviously threatening or bribing, will almost certainly not appear. Over a drink, or a cup of coffee, disguised as triviality and sandwiched between two jokes, from the lips of a man, or woman, whom you have recently been getting to know rather better and whom you hope to know better still—just at the moment when you are most anxious not to appear crude, or naïf or a prig—the hint will come. It will be the hint of something which the public, the ignorant, romantic public, would never understand: something which even the outsiders in your own profession are apt to make a fuss about: but something, says your new friend, which “we”—and at the word “we” you try not to blush for mere pleasure—something “we always do.”
And you will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world. It would be so terrible to see the other man’s face—that genial, confidential, delightfully sophisticated face—turn suddenly cold and contemptuous, to know that you had been tried for the Inner Ring and rejected. And then, if you are drawn in, next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still, but all in the jolliest, friendliest spirit. It may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude; it may end in millions, a peerage and giving the prizes at your old school. But you will be a scoundrel.
That is how it works in the IT shop.
How the conflict emerges
There are plenty of books about how to lubricate interaction between humans. There are books about how to tell jokes, change the subject, compliment the other guy’s shoes; there a books about how to start the discussion from agreement and how to convince the other guy that your idea was his.
I know, because I read all those books, because I kept getting feedback that I was hard to work with. There is, indeed, some wisdom in those books.
Eventually I realized the problem wasn’t my social skills; it was that I was being ordered to compromise on what I viewed as moral grounds and refused to do it.
Of course I was hard to work with.
I was the guy who said no.
There is more to come, but, for now: Here’s one way to deal with this issue
The Big Secret
The big secret, of course, is the secret.
The boss has a secret agenda to hit the date (to get a bonus), or to hire his contractor (to get the kickback), or to hide the number of failures in production.
You’re not the one with the problem. You get to sleep at night.
The boss is the one with the problem.
The way to win the game is simple: You need to make it clear that, if the boss doesn’t come clean with this information you will.
It is that simple.
Along the way, you’ll need to create opportunities for the boss to save face, to slowly change the official story, to have the change in direction be his idea.
All of this is possible, it’s even easy. All you have to do is remember one thing:
When someone else has an integrity problem in the office, and they want you to fix it, someone does have a problem.
You get to decide if that someone will be you.
One final piece of encouragement: This is America. You’re not going to starve. Neither will your children. Worst case, you have to downsize your life a little for awhile while you figure things out.
I know, I know, when the boss looks at you funny and you are trying to decide if you can afford that vacation in the catskills, it can be a tough decision.
Forget the vacation.
Think about what your children will think of you the day you retire.
Think about what you’ll think of yourself.
More to come.
I’ve been writing about trends in IT Staff — how the traditional role of the full-time staff is giving way to staff augmentation and services outsourcing, and how the more tech savvy crowd is supporting themselves.
Meanwhile, economic trends aren’t in our favor.
Yes, most developed nations are struggling with low employment numbers, but it’s the why of those numbers that is most ominous. Many large organizations have been choosing to grow through mergers and acquisitions for years.
Why is that so ominous?
Yes, some companies try to merge in order to gain customer lists and cross-sell, or to enter to new markets. However, in many, if not most cases, one of the compelling factors is cost savings.
If the two companies merge, they will suddenly have redundant HR departments, redundant Purchasing departments, redundant finance departments, marketing departments … and IT departments.
Hence the term “made redundant”.
On the one hand we have business forces squeezing out the IT department, and on the other, well … business forces squeezing out the IT department.
Eight years ago, I wrote a little article called “After the Coming Bust” for a website called, ironically enough, AngryCoder.com.
As the saying goes: Friend, the party is over. The long run is here: It’s time to get sober.
It’s time to talk about you.
* Get really close to your customer. If you work at a large business, you probably service end customer — people who want the printers, and the email, and the Sharepoint server to just work. The IT literature in the 1980’s and 1990’s was all about insulating the department from those pesky people; by having a helpdesk that took the calls and routing them. By separating ourselves from the customer, we became a ‘service’, the kind of thing one pays for … and switches when things aren’t going well. If you want to keep your job, don’t abstract yourself from the end customer — connect with the end customer. Be “Bob, the guy who solves my problem.”
* Work for the outsourcer. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. ISPs, Hosting Providers, and Domain Registrars need people too. HP, IBM, Microsoft, Amazon, Yahoo, and other top-flight companies all have data centers, and data centers need IT staff. Or work for a smaller, local company offering IT services to comparable-sized companies. Once you figure out how it’s done you can …
* Provide your own managed services. Three of the people in my small circle provide independent IT services. Instead of working as part of one company, they have three to thirty clients, all of whom only really need part-time IT Services. One good place to look is startup companies that don’t develop software, just coming off an incubator or just becoming big enough that they need formal help. Between setting up the website, managing the social media, connecting gmail and google docs to domain they’ve purchased, and supporting any devices that get flaky, you might just find a niche. (And yes, you can fill in end-user support too.)
* Chase the niche. It may sounds as if IT jobs are “going away”, and some are, but the reality is much more complex than that. Large organizations, like banks, insurance companies, and government and military organizations have inertia. Even if some new online, cheap Software-As-A-Service alternative for payroll magically appears, the State of California would need to extract it’s payroll data in order to convert, and it would be cheap (at least this year) to keep the DBAs, sysadmins, developers, and testers in place on the existing system than to covert — at least this year. Those same forces will be around next year too.
* Do Project Work. The economy may be ‘hollowing out‘, and companies may be outsourcing and cutting staff. But have you noticed that there is still work to be done? Somebody has to keep WebSphere running, and somebody needs to figure out the disaster recovery plan, and somebody has to figure out the backup plan for sharepoint, and routinely apply security patches to the web server. Some of these things can be defined and done part time; others will be project work. Companies will continue to need this work done, and smart companies may develop a network for freelancers they turn to in order to get these goals accomplished.
In the end, all of these approaches have one thing in common: In the next ten years, we in the IT field have got to get closer to our customers, or else we risk becoming irrelevant.
I’m putting my money where my pen is: Four months ago, I went independent, and now I contract directly with companies to solve their problems, not to respond to tickets from a queue.
What about you?
Let’s talk a bit more about IS Lite.
Yes, last time I criticized the idea as it was typically practiced. That’s not a criticism of the idea; it’s one of implementation.
The idea with IS Lite isn’t to shift to managing a bunch of contractors for IT services. It’s to identify the services that can be provided by the free market, and find partners to provide those services.
With IT Lite, you don’t pay a contractor and a license for MS Exchange; you find a company willing to service and support email. And internet. And your login service. And your print service. Helpdesk. And Hardware.
No, again, don’t look at me like that. I’m not saying the company should sign some huge outsourcing agreement with a big vendor, layoff the IT staff, then have the vendor hire the same people back at half the pay — though that has been done before.
No, I’m talking about real services that can actually be outsourced.
That means the services will either need to be very horizontal (“the internet”, “website hosting” and “basic IT support” come to mind), your business better be very simple technologically speaking, or the partner is going to have to get to know you very well. That might be good for the vendor, but to the hiring company, that might end up looking a whole lot like “vendor lock-in”, which is a fancy way to say that the sourcing partner can hold your company hostage.
This is not kids stuff. It’s easy to get wrong, hard to get right, and very well might have a direct impact on your career in lots of ways.
But before I take a look at your career, let’s digress.
Personal IT Verses Corporate IT
Consider, for a moment, just how wildly different personal IT is from corporate IT.
In the personal world, if you want an app, if it’s email or a spreadsheet, word processor, invoicing application, billing application, bookeeping or blogging, you can probably go get a free application right now. At least, it’ll be free for thirty days or so. Then, bam, you’ve got the software, delivered as a service.
If you don’t like facebook, you can go try GooglePlus. If you don’t like GooglePlus, switch to twitter, or flikr, or whatever.
I work with one team that did just that. The company had a standard for project management online — It came from Microsoft and it’s title was SomethingPoint. The team decided to sign up for PivotalTracker, which is free for the first sixty days, try it for a month, then ask for the four dollars per person-month to use the application.
Now imagine you have to work in “IT” in such an organization, or maybe one where the CEO brings in his shiny new iPad, and if IT won’t support, IT is the one with a problem.
Fight this, and you become irrelevant amazingly quickly.
In fact, some of the Software As A Service vendors have given up on selling to corporate IT entirely, selling directly to the end customer with budget.
Lines like “face it, corporate IT is dead” may be a bit dramatic, but think of it another way: The SAAS vendors are selling services, in the same vein as IT Lite.
Let’s go beyond pivotal tracker. Think about the Gen-Y journalist brining in his own iPad to work, who uses his own blogging service, google for email and google docs or Socialtext for collaboration, with basecamp for project management. How can IT serve that kid?
We’d better find some way to do it. Because there will be more of him.
To survive, we folks who consider ourselves corporate IT need to either provide some different services, or go work for services companies, or find ways to stich together existing services and sell convenience, or else, perhaps, re-invent our role in some other way.
More to come.
Last time we looked at trends in staffing, and found that they fluctuate. This causes a problem with hiring, because, well, it takes time to ramp people up, and laying them off is expensive. As a result, companies that rely on IT with only full-time employees tend to find themselves occasionally understaffed, occasionally overstaffed, or some of both.
One classic answer to this is to use contractors and other temporary help.
No, don’t look at me like that.
Consider Shotz, the Milwaukee Brewery where Laverne and Shirley worked in 1973. At Shotz, the work itself was broken down into repeatable jobs you can learn in an hour. If the pace of orders picked up, the company might hire more employees … but if the pace of orders was cyclical, the hire/layoff cycle would become very expensive, in terms of unemployment insurance, severance packages, and damaged relations between the employees, management, and the community.
No, better to hire some temps. After all, temporary workers can take two-thirds the pay of full-time employees, cost no benefits, no vacation time, and can be let go at will, without any stigma or implied social contract.
Of course, it’s all tradeoffs — you might argue that such a model is bad for society. But it doesn’t have to be. Shotz might try hard to find a temporary workforce that is perfectly amenable to this; say, for example, new high school graduates trying to decide if college is right for them, mothers who are considering returning to work, but just a little bit on the fence, starving artists and musicians who are trying to decide who they want to be when they grow up. Some of these folks might decide to leave the work force in three months; I expect all of them would be grateful for the opportunity to try and decide later, without stigma either way.
I hope you might agree, for a certain type of job of Shlotz, this kind of hiring practice could be done in a way to benefit the workers and the company. (With low unemployment, it could also be a manipulative scare tactic. I’m not talking about that.)
The question is: Does it work for IT?
Whether it works or not, people have been willing to try; perhaps the best example of this is a strategy developed by Gartner known as IS Lite, or sometimes IT Lite.
IS Lite: What is it?
The basic idea of “IS Lite” was that IS performed three essential functions:
* Driving Innovation
* Delivering Solutions
* Managing Services and Sourcing Relations
In the future, IT would perform only the ‘middlin’ bits of the functions, as some functions would be absorbed by outsourcers, and some by the business units. This idea was ‘captured’ by a drawing something like this:
That said, my experience with IS Lite has been less than stellar.
The right side of the equation, I can understand. Once you have IT set the technology policies, you need content for your websites, product descriptions, graphic designs … the kind of thing done by marketing, sales, and other things traditionally considered “the business.”
Having IT provide the utility, the “Grid”, that independent business units can tap in to — like I said, I get it.
But then you have the left hand side of the equation, and we are back to Laverne and Shirley.
The classic model to do outsourcing, the one we discussed in Part I, is a bit of a staff augmentation model. When your company has needs, you hire temporary workers, which you take away again when the needs go away.
The problem is, predicting those needs is hard to do. Once you can predict the needs, you’ll have to hire staff — and unlike the factory worker in the brewhouse, the job can’t be learned in an hour. So you have to interview.
And interview, and interview. Because, sadly, the folks who are most available, who most desperately want a job, that are willing to take temporary wages … those folks generally don’t have the kind of high-end skills you need to get new projects rolling.
‘Quick’ staff augmentation might work to deal with increased demand on a helpdesk, but for a linux server farm? Forgetaboutit. Your worker is going to need to know plans, policies, procedures, passwords, and, likely, a host of custom systems and commands. (One company I worked with did the math, and came to the conclusion that, once you count search, interview, and training time, anything less than a twelve week contract simply wasn’t worth pursuing.)
The companies I know that have pursued something like a staff-aug IT like generally end up with a professional staff of liason-people — the “systems analysts” who exist to create clear, unambiguous requirements for the outsourced help, and to manage the project. In my experience, the ratio of systems analyst is often as high as one-to-one — that is, you could simply staff the project will full-time employees actually doing the work. And it gets worse.
In these kinds of organizations, when someone is retained in such a staff augmentation role, the relationship isn’t so much temp as it is contractor. In theory, contractors are paid more than employees — one bonus for not getting vacation or time off, another for not getting insurance, and a third bonus for, well, being disposable. That’s all well and good — the problem comes when the company extends the contract for years, then pays a small army of liaison people that wouldn’t need to exist if the contractor were just an employee.
The good news is, this isn’t the only way to do outsourcing — and it certainly isn’t the only way to deal with the problem of fluctuating needs for staff.
More to come.