The Market Will Save Us

clip_image002I just finished reading a blog post by Sahil Malik which refers to a blog post by Marc Anderson and other posts and comments on the subject of the soon-to-be-gone-but-not-forgotten design view in SharePoint 2013. I have followed this story from the beginning when Marc was hinting that the design view was missing, up to and now well beyond, the seemingly official death sentence that was published by the Microsoft SharePoint Team on their blog. That the design view is going, going, gone seems certain at this point, but whether that will result in a wave of power users learning the art and craft of development or just skyrocketing demand for existing developers is not so clear. I can only say with clarity what will happen in my little world – nothing.

I should rephrase that “nothing will happen right away” and by “nothing” I mean SharePoint 2013. It won’t land here at least until this time next year because activity is underway that relies on the work that members of my team are performing in SharePoint Designer, using design view. Those projects will be completed and an annual event that depends on some custom Data View Web Parts that we assemble will be supported on SharePoint 2010 as it has for the previous two years. Switching canoes in the middle of this stream isn’t appealing and it won’t happen. This isn’t going to hurt Microsoft, (unless SharePoint 2013 marketing success depends on posts in this blog) because we have SharePoint under Software Assurance.

While people are lining up to prognosticate as to which way companies will go (developer of just plain SharePoint) I have faith that good old marketplace economics will save the day. Somebody will build a tool or an add-on tool for something like Dreamweaver, to once again empower the end-users and designers to push SharePoint beyond the limits of its dumpy box. If that doesn’t happen, then other market forces will bear down on the situation and other platforms may benefit from this decision. Again, I can’t speak for the market, or the broad content management / collaboration community, but if I have to turn developers loose on an ECM solution, I’m going to take a hard look at Nuxeo before I start buying more copies of Visual Studio.

Of course, I probably don’t even have to go that far. Before watching Marc Anderson deftly build a Data View Web Part using j-this, j-that and SPServices, I was using Ruby and Dreamweaver to put the information I wanted in a Web Part. I certainly prefer the approach Marc taught my crew, but I can always revert to other options. In fact, I may not have to revert to Ruby; much of what we display in Data View Web Parts can be rendered by SQL Server Reporting Services, another technology my crew is adept at using. Then again, the market may save the day in other ways. When I was using Ruby, I coupled it with Dreamweaver because someone had written a Dreamweaver extension for working with RHTML. I’m willing to bet that there are way more SharePoint power users than there are Ruby developers so I wouldn’t be surprised to see a solution become available for building the kind of solutions that we continue to need in SharePoint from a different development starting point.

Microsoft may want SharePoint to look like SharePoint, and as I have said before on this blog, I support that to a degree. The more SharePoint solutions share a common look and feel, the easier it is for people using SharePoint to move from one solution to another. Still, sometimes what you need isn’t in the box. When intelligent and enterprising people are confronted by the absence of the things they need, they find them elsewhere or they figure out how to build them. When enough people start building things, vendors bring tools to the market. Maybe Stanley will come out with the Fat Max Editor for SharePoint – I would buy that in a heartbeat.

Thank You

imageEarlier this week, I was honored to receive AIIM’s Distinguished Service Award at their Awards Dinner in San Francisco. I can’t begin to describe how great it felt to receive this award, especially since I truly believe that I receive so much more from AIIM than I give back. I have enjoyed and benefited from AIIM programs, AIIM NE Chapter events, AIIM Education and the friendship and support of some of the nicest, most professional people I have ever met. I am particularly grateful to several people, and I want to thank them here today:

Ed LoTurcoEd nominated me for this award. Ed is retired now, but when I met him, he was the president of the AIIM New England Chapter. Ed’s accomplishments in the industry are too numerous to mention, and to be honest, I don’t know them that well. I know more about his tireless work to keep Lexington, MA a great place to live, his contribution to the lives of many hundreds of young track and field athletes that he coached, and his conquest of the grueling Pan Mass Challenge every year for as long as I can remember (if you want to join me in support for Ed, his rider ID is: EL0032). Mostly, I remember Ed from the first time I attended an AIIM NE meeting. I knew almost nothing about content management back then; I knew less about AIIM, and I felt out of place. But I only felt out of place for about a minute; Ed made me feel welcome. He explained the event, the chapter; the association and he introduced me to people who have been mentors and who have become friends. After Ed nominated me, the following three people supported my nomination with recommendations:

Jill Hart – I met Jill totally by chance at iPhone/iPad DevCon last year in Boston. Jill was attending with one of her clients, and it quickly became clear that Jill was knowledgeable and passionate about User Experience in everything. After a 30+ career in IT/Systems Development, I was only warming up to the notion that Usability Matters. I capitalized that because it’s also the title of an AIIM NE event where Jill and I gave a joint presentation last November. My coworkers should also thank Jill; without her infectious spirit, I would not be nearly as concerned about their experience in SharePoint and in the other systems we build.

Christopher Luise – I have known Chris for over 20 years. Like Ed LoTuco, Chris’s accomplishments in business are too numerous to mention. His accomplishments in the community are also almost too numerous to mention. He is serious about and seriously talented at making technology work in ways that add value to companies and benefit people. He is serious about mentoring the young people in a variety of fields, including one young person who is very important to me and my wife. Chris is Executive VP at ADNET Technologies, a company that has been instrumental in the success of technology at ANI almost as long as I’ve been working there. Chris and I are not related, but he shows up in my contacts and social media listings under the heading of ‘family’.

Jane Zupan – I met Jane at an AIIM NE event shortly after she had transferred to New England. In an attempt to emulate Ed, I reached out to Jane to try to make her feel welcome to our Chapter. I was fascinated by her marketing work with Nuxeo, and she and I have been friends ever since. Last fall, I was asked to make a presentation at the University of Connecticut on the subject of content management. The UConn audience was considering SharePoint, but also wanted to know more about Open Source solutions. This wasn’t a sales opportunity, it was only an opportunity to educate people, but Jane drove down from Boston to join me in that presentation.

George Turner – I would be remiss if I didn’t include George, President & CEO of American Nuclear Insurers. George assigned the task of content management to me back in 2001 which sent me to AIIM and Ed, and the start of this journey. Given our disparate backgrounds and responsibilities, George once suggested that I probably don’t learn much from him. To the contrary, I learn by his example, every day about decision making, the importance of planning and doing the right thing. Most important, I have grown while working for George; I hope the people in my department can say that about me.

Notice the connections, the common threads, the way these people seem like a close knit group despite the fact that most of them don’t know each other? I am blessed to have these people in my life, and I sincerely appreciate their support and friendship.

Welcome 2012…Reprise

clip_image002As far as years go, 2011 wasn’t one of the best. Personally, I started the year in the care of a physical therapist struggling to mend a shoulder injury. Turning to business, and keeping in mind the business that we are in (insuring nuclear power facilities), 2011 brought us a little bit of everything. Topping the list were the devastating events in Japan, and as the year comes to a close, our thoughts and prayers remain with the hundreds of thousands of people affected by the earthquake and tsunami in March. Closer to home, our domestic insureds had brushes with tornados, floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes. Our offices were closed due to snow on three occasions and dark for a total of 5 days from storms Irene and Alfred. 2011 was also a year in which we seemed to make a technological bet against Microsoft. We agreed on a strategy that put an iPad in the hands of about one third of our key users and saw us solidify our support for iPhones. As I write this blog entry, I am watching my MacBook Pro receive files from my MacBook Air and those files include my XCode development environment. So, what is it that has this SharePoint guy looking forward to 2012? In a word, everything.

If you follow any of my blogs, you know that we made a lot of progress on several SharePoint projects in 2011. We are entering 2012 on a roll, and one of the first things we will do is showcase some of that success to others in our small company. In addition, when we placed our bet on Apple, we counted on Microsoft to see the light and support iOS too. On Christmas Eve, I had a conversation with a friend from his iPhone Lync client, four days later, that client was running on my iPhone too. Rumor has it that Office apps are not far behind, and that’s a good thing for me, for Apple and for Microsoft, at least according to my own informal research – the top story on this blog in 2011 was “SharePoint on My iPad!”

My optimism is bolstered by the awesome performance of my team. My Systems Admin took everything we had learned about SharePoint and the way we use this powerful tool, and built our SP2010 environment from the ground up to fit our needs like a well-made glove. The woman on our team, who has been responsible for the user experience of SharePoint, stepped forward from the confidence-infusing session we had with Marc Anderson, and crafted some awesome features for our engineers. More importantly, she helped demonstrate that SharePoint has a role in our future development. Again, my informal statistics would indicate that SharePoint as a development platform is a good thing for others as well – “Symply the Best” my post about our training session with @Sympmarc, sits nicely in the top-10 SharePoint Stories posts of all time.

For the non-SharePoint fans in my world, we will be hiring a new developer in 2012, and he won’t be focused on SharePoint. His (or her) job will be to replace an aging generation of applications that run our niche business. On the other hand, he won’t be able to escape SharePoint’s reach entirely. Our users have already told us that they want the things that SharePoint does well to reside in SharePoint. So, contacts, tasks, and documents will be in SharePoint; while workflow and reporting will walk the lines between fat-client, client server and a browser powered by SharePoint.

2011 started with what seemed to be a series of sharp divisions between Apple and Microsoft, SharePoint and desktop, and documents and structured content. 2012 is starting with all of those worlds beginning to coalesce around the concepts of information and solutions. That brings me to AIIM, the organization that has been predicting, nudging, supporting and cheering this merger on for years. Rounding out the list of (my) popular blog entries is a collection of stories that are grounded in the concept of Content-Centric Applications, the term introduced to me by Jane Zupan of Nuxeo that I have embraced as the model for my future. As we start to define and build our next generation applications, structured and non-structured data will share center stage. AIIM has anticipated this development and seems well prepared to help lead the way with a new certificate program, a new conference and, at least in our corner of the world, a renewed interest in chapter events. I won’t quote Mr. Scrooge and claim to be “as giddy as a schoolgirl”, but I am looking forward to 2012 and I wish you all a Happy and Prosperous New Year.

Ta Da!

imageWhen I was a kid, I tried several times to make a product from the bowling pins my father swapped out of his bowling alley every summer. I bought a used lathe and I came up with ideas from mortar and pestle sets to small planters. Pictured to the right is a paperweight and paper clip holder. I would sell these things door-to-door, starting with a neighbor. I would always be excited and a bit nervous as I began the sales process. Sometimes, the initial feedback was negative, like when people realized that a top-heavy paperweight is an accident waiting to happen. This week, I had that same queasy feeling as we delivered our first homemade SharePoint solution.

Eight months after rolling out our workflow-driven process to manage engineering inspection reports, and three months after perfecting that process on the heels of a post-implementation review, we unveiled the management dashboard for the head of the department. This guy manages a group of engineers, so to say that he’s case-hardened is an understatement. We were optimistic, given that he had defined a few general concepts that he was interested in, but we were also a little nervous. After all, this is the first time we had built a dashboard. I have mentioned before that the hard part of introducing technology to people is getting the design right. It’s hard because you don’t know enough about their business to know how they manage it, and they don’t understand the technology well enough to know what to ask for. In an agile environment, you can work from a build-test-review-redesign cycle that keeps things flowing, but that process didn’t suit our circumstances. In this case, we needed to keep working while the customer travels and conducts business. He didn’t have a lot of time to interact with us. This time, we got a “here’s what I want” speech to be followed a few months later by a “let’s see what you’ve got for me” meeting. Fortunately, I have a resourceful team.

We took a pretty simple approach for a dashboard; low on glitz but high on useful. We worked from a web part page with four columns which gave us a pretty good canvas. The left column holds the aggregate statistics about the current activity, including the things that might be going off the rails. The right column presents the historic view of this process, including the reports we are back-filling into the library. In the center is a group of detailed activity by engineer – one column for the current year and one for the prior year. In addition to presenting the information requested, the parts we assembled illustrated the key things we wanted the VP Engineering to know we can do, including:

  • We can count things based on metadata and content type.
  • We can perform date math on various status milestones. As I read that, I feel cheated, since it took a lot of work to figure out some of the bits and pieces of date math.
  • We can create a wide variety of views that let you quickly drill down into the details behind a particular statistic.
  • We can group things by person, type, facility, date, or any other attribute you like.
  • We can perform basic math and logic functions like Average, Total, And, Or, Not, etc.
  • We can use fonts and colors to draw your attention to certain elements (although we didn’t spend a lot of time proving this).

Jane Zupan at Nuxeo introduced me to a phrase that I love – Content-centric Applications. I told her I was going to steal that phrase to describe this process; because this is a business application. It just happens to be gleaned from the normal processing of reports that used to be tossed onto a virtual heap called the K: Drive. This is truly the beautiful part of SharePoint, the fact that we can collect, store, manipulate and display data about a process during the normal course of a business activity, and then turn that data into information.

Drawing conclusions from the demonstration, I’d say we met our goals. I counted at least three “I like that’s” and a couple of “nice’s”, and the all-important “whoa, what the heck is going on there?” That last observation led to a request for a few changes, but the request itself indicated two important things to me: 1) The VP understood the tool we had given him, and 2) He had begun to understand what else we could do. That’s a win as far as I’m concerned. We have a little more work to do before we can put this project in the “done” column, but we aren’t throwing anything away and we aren’t far from the bulls-eye.

Would I Still Choose SharePoint

imageLast Tuesday, I felt a little like I was in enemy territory. Despite having attended Big East (for now) rivals WVU and Pitt, I spent the afternoon on the University of Connecticut campus. Fortunately, this wasn’t a sporting event, this was Content Management. A friend had invited me to share some of our experience with a group of people who are working to implement ECM and WCM solutions, and SharePoint is one of the options they have to choose from. It was a diverse group, and some of the people had also expressed interest in Open Source solutions, so I invited Jane Zupan (right) from Nuxeo to join me. In my presentation I touched on a collection of things I wish someone had explained to me before I started our SharePoint-ECM journey in 2005. Jane talked about Open Source in general with an emphasis on ECM and WCM, and a bit about Nuxeo.

Despite the fact that neither presentation had been a sales pitch, when we finished, the woman who arranged the meeting asked me if I would consider Open Source if I were making my decisions today. That was a fair question, and my answer is “yes – when you’re spending someone else’s money, you should always consider what might be a viable lower cost option.” If that wasn’t my answer, I might be looking for a new job. Considering a lower cost solution doesn’t just mean looking at price though, we selected SharePoint because the combination of features and cost appeared to represent a good value for our company. If I were making the decision today though, I would consider the following:

There’s cost and then there’s cost – We eased our way into SharePoint via WSS (2003) and gradually moved up the food chain through SharePoint Portal Server 2007 and on to SP2010. During that journey, my budget was stretched to accommodate many things that I hadn’t considered at the outset, like the extra licenses to “properly” deploy SharePoint. On top of licenses, there are CALs and on top of those, we have Enterprise CALs. We discovered that some vendors selling add-on software, license their product by user, some by web front-end, some by farm and some with variations on top of those variations. We have a wide variety of products both for administration and to improve SharePoint’s user experience and those license fees add up. In fairness, there are analogous real costs to open source software as well. I am not saying that SharePoint is too expensive, but it is taking us longer to afford the SharePoint environment that we want, than I thought it would.

IT Support – When we started working with SharePoint, we imagined a world with greater participation by our end-users. Web-based, easy to configure, intuitive process based on a series of similar offerings (once you realize that everything is really a list) led me to believe anyone could master SharePoint. Well, that may be true, but it hasn’t been our experience. One of the most popular blog entries I ever wrote was “Remember, They Have a Day Job” and over a year later, it still describes my world. SharePoint needs and should have IT support. For example, our best SharePoint users are our attorneys, they went to law school, they understand res ipsa loquitur – they don’t want to learn JavaScript. Clearly, any open source solution would have this same requirement. Also, I don’t think that this is a negative consideration for either solution. I think it’s time IT organizations realized that unstructured data is a company asset worthy of their time and budget. IT has (or should have) the skill set to make ECM an awesome experience, and I think that making it awesome should be one of their goals.

Extensibility – While it’s fair to say that I wanted SharePoint to be less expensive and easier to support than it turned out to be, it’s also fair to say that I have been surprised by the scope of requirements SharePoint can satisfy. Our SharePoint implementation expanded, in the number of servers, products, person-hours and hard dollars beyond our plan, but there has been a commensurate expansion of value provided to our organization.

If I were selecting an ECM solution for our company today, I would absolutely take a hard look at Nuxeo. I learned during Jane’s presentation that it’s a well-designed, modern and capable ECM solution. I am sure that Nuxeo would appeal to the systems developer in me, but SharePoint would still probably be able to leverage greater value for us. We are a small, Microsoft-centric shop, and SharePoint works well for us. I do like the fact that there are solutions like Nuxeo to choose from though – competition in the ECM marketplace is ultimately good for everyone.