Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Dogfooding IT with Office 365

Have you heard the term, "eating your own dog food?"  Microsoft manager Paul Maritz wrote an e-mail in 1988 that created the term and loosely it means... use what you sell.

I took the challenge to heart a while back and decided that if I was going to sell cloud services I needed to use them myself.  This idea really took off for me with Office 365 this year.  As I started talking to more and more clients about the benefits of cloud-based e-mail I first signed up for Business Productivity Online Services (BPOS, the precursor to Office 365) and then the beta of Office 365.  I used BPOS and the beta as test beds to learn the products and to assess their viability for my clients.  I wasn't ready to migrate to them internally yet however.

Eventually, just as Office 365 was releasing my first client wanted to get moving.  I had been talking to them about it for months.  My experience with the beta had been good so we went ahead.  I signed up for the full product and started moving over e-mail at the same time I was installing it for this client and actively selling the product to my other clients.  I figured it was time to eat my own dog food.

So, here's what happened: my client had some growing pains but Office 365 has turned out to be a good solution for them; I've had several other clients express interest and installed it for them successfully; I love using it internally and am recommending it to anyone that listens.  I did learn some lessons though:
  1. Doing your research really pays off.  It did for me!  I avoided several land mines by doing a beta assessment first.
  2. The entry-level Office 365 SKU (P1) doesn't come with phone support.  It isn't worth the $4/mo savings... get the E1 SKU, you won't regret it.  There's also a 50-user cap for the P1 SKU.
  3. You cannot switch from the P1 to E1 SKU.  Tell me it ain't so!  This was a real bummer for me.  I still don't understand why.  I'm sure there's a good technical reason.  You have to do a full migration to move between these SKUs.
  4. I know Office 365 is supposed to be easier than self-hosted Exchange, but it's no cakewalk and still requires significant technical knowledge and capability.  Your average tech-savvy client isn't going to do a migration without assistance.  Some of the migration stuff gets pretty complex.  Besides, most businesses just don't *want* to do the administration.  They have other stuff to worry about... like running their business and making money.
  5. The amount of money you'll make on Office 365 (aside from ancillary services) is negligible until you get in to hundreds of  deployed licenses.  Don't plan to make your money on monthly recurring revenue.  It's a 6% share per year plus 12% if you're the initial partner of record that signs up the client.  That's a maximum of 18% the first year plus 6% per every year after.  Make your money on services, that's all I can say about it.  It's not nearly as profitable as providing a hosting service if you do that.  If you do provide hosting services plan on this being a big competitor!  Stress the customization options you offer that Office 365 does not.
  6. A properly run and well maintained Exchange server doesn't take much more work to service than Office 365.  You'll still get the bulk of your work on user adds/deletes, adding new domain names and aliases and on the user-side support of Outlook.  You just don't need to monitor the hardware any more.  Oh, and you have a new administrative interface to learn.
  7. Including Microsoft Office in your Office 365 subscription seems like a good idea and it may be for some clients that have very seasonal workforces.  Do the math before you decide on this course though.  You have other options for subscription based Microsoft Office, like Open Value Subscription and sometimes Services Provider License Agreement (SPLA).
  8. There's no private branding or resale of Office 365.  It's 100% direct bill from Microsoft.  You don't get to mark it up.  This makes it hard to include in a fully managed service agreement by the way.  Microsoft really needs to fix this to increase adoption by Managed Service Providers (MSPs).
  9. Just like any service IT WILL GO DOWN.  Make sure your clients understand that 99.9% of the possible 8,760 hours in a year equals about 9 hours per year of down time.  That's a full day and then some and it could happen at any time.  Just the same, it's likely to be much more reliable and secure than self-hosted Exchange for most small businesses and may make sense for larger ones as well.
  10. It comes with some nifty additional products you may or may not use.  Bear in mind that you don't get as much of each product with each Office 365 SKU so learn your product before you sell it.  Also, don't try to sell Lync to people using Office Communication Server as an onsite VoIP unified communications system.  There's no integration with the public communications infrastructure yet.  That means for right now it's an internal-only system.  Cool, but not blow-me-outta-the-water awesome.
I like Office 365.  I've tried Google Apps and while that worked okay, Office 365 just feels more like a business solution to me.  It's been reliable and pretty easy to set up.  Most days I don't even notice I'm not hosting my own Exchange server any more.  And isn't that the idea?  Apparently, dog food ain't so bad!

Are there any best practices with regard to Office 365 that you've found and I've missed?  How many seats do you have on Office 365 and how has it been as a profit center for your business?  Let us know with your comments!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Job Title Soup. Making Sense of IT Job Titles.


Have you looked at job postings lately?  If you're one of the 14 million unemployed in the U.S., odds are you have.  Even with information businesses and providers of professional and business services increasing payrolls there are still a depressing number of people in Information Technology looking for work.

So, how do you interpret the job titles employers use to understand a potential job's responsibilities?  Human resources people and recruiters are often tasked with finding the perfect candidate for a position without really understanding what the position is.  Often, the hiring manager just gives them a list of requirements and a title. There may not be any guiding policy from the company about filling the position and the same job, posted by two different managers may have very different titles and descriptions.

Let's take a look at some of the titles used to describe technology services positions.  I'll try to make a few observations about each... I'm going to be stereo-typing each of them on purpose.  If you disagree with me or have a differing opinion I'd love to hear it.

Wikipedia definition:
An engineer is a professional practitioner of engineering, concerned with applying scientific knowledge, mathematics and ingenuity to develop solutions for technical and practical problems. Engineers design materials, structures, machines and systems while considering the limitations imposed by practicality, safety and cost. The word engineer is derived from the Latin root ingenerare, meaning "to create".

My take:
Engineer has a professional connotation and generally refers to a very technical person.  When you say engineer it brings up visions of people using Autocad or some other design software and the word often is used to refer to non-IT people who are professionals in one of the engineering disciplines.  It is used in IT for very technical software and infrastructure positions.  It is similar to the technician title, but engineer positions often require more experience or training.


Wikipedia definition:
A subcontractor is an individual or in many cases a business that signs a contract to perform part or all of the obligations of another's contract. [...] While the most common concept of a subcontractor is in building works and civil engineering, the range of opportunities for subcontractor is much wider and it is possible that the greatest number now operate in the information technology and information sectors of business.

My take:
Contractor is actually a term referring to the type of employment rather than a position title in itself although it is often misused as a title by sloppy recruiters.  Being a contractor is actually a shortening of subcontractor or independent contractor.  Businesses hiring contractors may actually be referring to someone doing anything from coding to infrastructure to plumbing or janitorial work.  You'll need to look deeper in the job description for a useful clue about just what is required.  Often, businesses will use contractors to outsource internal business processes when it is too expensive or unjustifiable to keep someone on staff.  Contractors often are used for long periods of time rather than for shorter projects.  1099 employment is often referred to as "contractors."


Wikipedia definition:
A consultant is usually an expert or a professional in a specific field and has a wide knowledge of the subject matter. A consultant usually works for a consultancy firm or is self-employed, and engages with multiple and changing clients. Thus, clients have access to deeper levels of expertise than would be feasible for them to retain in-house, and may purchase only as much service from the outside consultant as desired.

My take:
Consultants tend to be higher trained, sometimes with advanced degrees or certifications. In reality consultant really just means "professional."  A consultant generally works for a company that provides consulting services on particular subject matter like IT Infrastructure services or application development.  Just like contractors, the word is more of a description about the type of employment rather than the work they will do. Often, consultants are used for shorter projects rather than long contracts where contractors are used.  Consultants work for a business that provides services rather than directly for a client as 1099 contractors do.


Wikipedia definition:
An architect is a person trained in the planning, design and oversight of the construction of buildings. [...] The terms architect and architecture are also used in the disciplines of landscape architecture, naval architecture and often information technology (for example a software architect).

My take:
In the IT industry the word is often used to describe one of the most senior level technical positions available. The technical architect or software architect is generally the person responsible for the highest level design of a system or application.  They provide a higher level of technical capability that also goes hand in hand with some level of business savvy and a great deal of experience.  The IT architect is generally a mid or late career position that has much higher requirements than normal.

(System) Administrator

Wikipedia definition:
A system administrator, IT systems administrator, systems administrator, or sysadmin, is a person employed to maintain and operate a computer system and/or network. System administrators may be members of an information technology (IT) or Electronics and Communication Engineering department.

My take:
Administrator generally indicates the person most responsible for a particular system.  This might be a system, network, server, database or other administrator.  It is generally a role for someone with an IT infrastructure background rather than in coding with the exception of database administrators.  In larger organizations, this may be a low management position where a number of other "administrators" are part of a team headed by the head administrator.  The term is often misused to mean just about anything the job posted would like, however, and the actual position may be a more junior position than the word seems to indicate.


Wikipedia definition:
Specialist frequently refers to an expert in a profession. An expert [...] is someone widely recognized as a reliable source of technique or skill whose faculty for judging or deciding rightly, justly, or wisely is accorded authority and status by their peers or the public in a specific well-distinguished domain. An expert, more generally, is a person with extensive knowledge or ability based on research, experience, or occupation and in a particular area of study. Experts are called in for advice on their respective subject [...]. Experts have a prolonged or intense experience through practice and education in a particular field.

My take:
Specialists tend to concentrate on a particular technology to the exclusion of most others.  You often see this title used with regards to particular software packages or hardware technologies.  For instance it is not uncommon to see positions like "Cisco Specialist" or "SAP Specialist."  Sloppy wording may apply the word to something that requires a lot of additional skills in addition to the primary one, so once again, be careful to read the entire description.


Wikipedia definition:
A technician is a worker in a field of technology who is proficient in the relevant skills and techniques, with a relatively practical understanding of the theoretical principles. Experienced technicians in a specific tool domain typically have intermediate understanding of theory and expert proficiency in technique. As such, technicians are generally much better versed in technique compared to average layman and even general professionals in that field of technology. [...] Technicians may be classified as either skilled workers or semi-skilled workers, and may be part of a larger (production) process.

My take:
Technician connotes a more technical, closer to entry-level position generally.  Technicians may be very experienced but will generally move in to a job with a different title before long.  Generally, you move out of technician positions when your communication and business skills develop.

(Business) Analyst

Wikipedia definition:
A Business Analyst (BA) analyzes the organization and design of businesses, government departments, and non-profit organizations; BAs also assess business models and their integration with technology. [...] The role of Business Analyst has evolved from someone who was a part of the business operation and worked with Information Technology to improve the quality of the products and services being delivered by the IT organization to someone who apart from gathering Business Requirements, also assists in Integration and Acceptance Testing, supports the development of training and implementation material, participates in the implementation, and provides post-implementation support. Business Analysts today are also involved in the development of project plans and often provide project management skills when these skills are not available in other project participants.

My take:
Analysts or Business Analysts are generally higher trained, more mid-career positions.  They often have advanced degrees in business or management.  Positions may include some technical components but are much more focused on business.  Unlike consultants (who may be business analysts also) a business analyst is expected to understand the effect of Information Technology on the business and to assist in the evaluation and manage the implementation of appropriate technologies.

These are just some of the job titles you might see if you looked on a job board like Monster, Career Builder or Dice.  If you took any three similar jobs at different companies and compared their descriptions they would all be very different.  There is no standardized language or use of titles especially amongst recruiters who often barely understand the actual requirements for the positions they are trying to fill.

I find that the most successful recruiters are those that take the time to educate themselves about the technologies and detailed requirements for the positions they are responsible for filling.  The most successful candidates understand that to get their dream jobs not only will they need to get noticed, but they'll need to navigate the alphabet soup of IT job titles successfully.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Snips and Snails or Sugar and Spice? Just what are Consultants Made of?

"What are little boys made of?
Snips and snails, and puppy dogs tails
That's what little boys are made of!

What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice and all things nice
That's what little girls are made of!"

Mother Goose Nursury Rhyme

Have you ever heard the phrase: "It takes all kinds to make the world go 'round?"  Well, it does.  Especially in Information Technology.  But, I'm of the opinion that IT people come roughly in two flavors.
  1. Technicians (or Engineers)
  2. Consultants (or Analysts)
What's the difference you say?  Well, here's my definitions:

Technicians are technical.  They understand the *how* of a technology, how to make it run, how to service it, install it, create it.  They're great with machines, coding, and complex troubleshooting.  Often they're the kind of people that just can't stand to *not* know why something broke and want to fix it no matter how long it takes.

Consultants look at business process and are more interested in why and where and who and what rather than the how of a particular technology.  They may also be very technically capable, but they generally marry superior customer service, business analysis, and communication skills with that technical capability.

Here are some common questions I've heard about technicians and consultants:

Q. Can you train technicians?

A. You can give people knowledge about a technology, but it's much harder (if not impossible) to train the intuitive grasp of *how* technology works.  Contrary to what most people think, the creation, operation and support of technology is as much an art as it is a science.  It changes so rapidly and the complexity is so overwhelming that if all you have is book knowledge and you don't just "get it" you're not going very far.  This is one of the real advantages young people have in growing up with technology that their parents did not... they just get it since they've been dealing with it their whole lives.

Q. Can you train consultants?

A. You can train consulting skills for sure.  You can teach people to look at business process and to consider the business implications of using one technology or another.  You can train people to be good with customer service and you can educate them in the use of written and verbal language skills.  But, once again, there's a certain something that separates good consultants from technicians.  You have to not only "get it" the same way a technician does but you need an intuitive grasp of how people think and how they interact with technology.

Q.Can a technician become a consultant?

A. Certainly!  I did!  I think we all begin as technicians.  You only develop an ability to see the larger picture and the business savvy required for consulting over time and with experience.  It requires development especially of your communication skills, both verbal and written.  If you didn't learn to spell and your grammar depends on Microsoft Word's spell checking you're in for a hard ride as a consultant.

Q. What's wrong with being a technician?

A. Absolutely nothing.  We need both technicians and consultants.  Technicians do things with the actual technology that consultants just can't.  Someone has to make this stuff!  Someone has to code the applications and build the servers.  But would you put a technician in front of a client and ask them to deliver a presentation to C-Level management?  Definitely not.  It's not a good use of their skills and they probably wouldn't enjoy it.

So, which is better?  Technician or Consultant?  It depends on your business needs.  And since I'm a consultant, would you like a presentation on the topic?

IT Management Gets Cloudy

CIOs and IT managers are slowly realizing the benefits of Cloud Computing but there's still a long ways to go. Product offerings for hosted services have matured and exploded but there are so many options now that it's hard for IT management to keep up.

So, here's a quick guide to the Cloud technologies that are out there.  I've broken it out in to the three major Cloud services areas to help you better understand what's available and how:
  • IaaS (Infrastructure as a Service) or HaaS (Hardware as a Service)
  • PaaS (Platform as a Service)
  • SaaS (Software as a Service)
Infrastructure as a Service
* In a nutshell: you pay for full access to a server that someone else hosts for a monthly fee.  These services generally include some sort of terminal access to a virtual computer instance that you populate with your own operating system and software license.  Often, you'll access the server through a terminal service client of some sort. *Note: HaaS often is confused with IaaS and generally refers to on site (not Cloud) equipment provided along with support services by a service provider for a monthly fee rather than as an up front capital investment.

* Who needs it: anyone that needs full configuration capability for a server but doesn't want to actually host the server themselves.

* Benefits: host equipment so you don't need to build your own Tier-1 datacenter for access to a highly reliable and secure environment.

* Challenges: even though you have full access to the "box" your applications are deployed on the "box" may actually be a virtual server rather than a full server... limiting the configurations on the actual hosting hardware.  If you're trying to move a locally hosted server to the Cloud the performance may not be the same since your connection now goes over the internet.

* Prominent vendors/examples:, Amazon Web Services, GoGrid.

Platform as a Service
* In a nutshell: highly-reliable hosted operating system software that totally obscures the hardware infrastructure. Services may be accessed through a web browser or application client of some sort.

* Who needs it: application developers that need a platform (.NET for instance) for their applications but do not require complicated customized infrastructure.  Anyone who wants their application to "scale" quickly on a fully virtualized platform without downtime for software and hardware upgrades.

* Benefits: the infrastructure disappears. You get a reliable and scalable service for a monthly fee.

* Challenges: customization of the platform may be restricted to enable broad use by many types of applications. You may not have all the options you would like. Some PaaS services do not provide all the debugging, test and development tools you'll need or may use tools you're unfamiliar with.

* Prominent vendors/examples:Amazon Beanstalk, Google AppEngine, Microsoft Windows Azure, Salesforce

Software as a Service
* In a nutshell: perhaps the first and most recognizable of the cloud services, SaaS obscures the whole back end and simply provides a web-based application generally accessed through a web browser.

* Who needs it: anyone wanting to host a highly reliable web site or service generally accessed through a browser like Internet Explorer or Firefox.  Some applications may be quite complex and may even interface with hosted databases and other web services but require no access to the underlying operating system or hardware on their own.

* Benefits: the cheapest and least complex platform and also the easiest to develop for.  Applications can be deployed very quickly.

* Challenges: configuration options are often accessed through a web console and are limited in scope.

* Prominent vendors/examples: (main CRM app), 1&1 Website Hosting, Carbonite Backup.

There's something for everyone in Cloud computing.  With so many options, the question is not whether you need Cloud computing any more, but WHERE you need Cloud computing.  Many companies are taking baby steps in to the technology through obvious Cloud computing targets like hosted e-mail and CRM.  Especially small and medium sized companies that have difficulty investing capital in secure, highly reliable onsite infrastructure will be interested in the opportunities that Cloud computing presents.

Even large enterprises can find Cloud computing synergies.  How powerful would it be to pay a monthly fee for an application you don't need to deploy across hundreds or even thousands of desktops?  Wouldn't it be nice to simply deploy a shortcut to a hosted application instead?  There would be no need for internal development and no need for additional help desk resources.

If you're a CIO or IT manager, do yourself a favor.  Get educated and get moving.  The Cloud is here like it or not.
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