Apparently I am a Dumbass

imageEarlier this week, I gave two presentations in Orlando, FL. One, at the AIIM Conference was well received; it was about SharePoint and ECM and will take a few blog posts to sort out.

The second presentation was to the Service Provider Executive Forum (SPEF) and unfortunately, it’s very easy to describe. The vendors attending SPEF are the ones who sell scanning services, document storage, printers, copiers and scanners. SPEF was one of those conference-within-a-conference deals, and my presentation was part of a ‘User Feedback’ panel.

I worked hard on this presentation. It was a good presentation. It just wasn’t the message this group wanted to hear. I’m sorry for that, but I don’t have a great history with this industry. My message wasn’t a feel-good story. I talked about why we don’t use many of these services, and how our most recent encounter has gone somewhat off the rails. I had hoped that the organizer was right when she told me:

They will appreciate your candor

Here’s a tip: if you ever hear those words, run. Drop everything, don’t tweet about it, don’t snap a picture, don’t think twice – just run.

Our story in a nutshell – we are small. This industry’s story in a my-opinion-nutshell – they are commodity brokers seeking a sale at any cost.

The best analogy I can come up with is that buying these services or products is like buying a digital camera; they all take pictures, they all have good battery life and they all let me move pictures to my PC, tablet, Cloud storage, etc. Once I decide the few, somewhat unique features (zoom, video, and form-factor) that I want, it comes down to picking the one that’s most comfortable.

The problem – that we have experienced – is that some salespeople want to be the mystic swami in your life. They don’t want informed customers. They don’t want to hear your story; they want to tell you theirs.

My presentation carefully presented our position, our real-life experience and then I took “questions” I put that in quotes because most of what I heard were not questions per se.

Why didn’t you buy a scanner? Scanning to SharePoint from dedicated scanners seems to provide more robust options than scanning from multi-function copies (MFCs)…who knew? More importantly, who cares? The fact of the matter is that we don’t have a space for a dedicated scanner, nor do we have the volume to justify one. In addition, we only want to have to learn how to use one device.

Why didn’t you do an RFI first?  Seriously, an RFI for two MFCs?

You’re ignoring the money you could save by outsourcing all the scanning to us. I reminded this person that I had explained the very, very high cost of teaching someone how to classify and index our documents.

Finally, a white knight emerged. Addressing the audience, he said:

What I’m hearing is that you guys are saying that Dan is a dumbass

Ah…well…thanks?

His point was that I failed to engage with them according to their preferred sales method. Apparently, from their perspective, that was my mistake.

One woman came up to me afterwards and said “I don’t think you’re a dumbass, but this managed metadata thing sounds like a unique requirement.” I reminded her that it’s a mainstream feature of a major product. I didn’t invent it; I just want to use it. More importantly, it was a written requirement that we were willing to explain.

One guy followed me to my next presentation, all the way telling me that if I had done an RFI he would have been able to explain why we needed a scanner. I explained, again, why we chose MFCs over a dedicated scanner.

He turned up again later as I was boarding the bus to the conference social event. He started telling me about the features of the scanner. The one we don’t want – as if he thought that if he gave the same pitch often enough I might just buy one. My friend (who sells a high-end ECM product) said:

This guy sells hammers. You have a screw, but he still has to try and sell you a hammer.” He added, “It’s a sales technique we call show-up and throw-up.”

I’ll leave you with the message in my final two slides. When we look for vendors to help us, we look for a vendor who will:

  • Be a business partner with us
  • Let us do the portions of the project that we feel we need to closely control
  • Accept that we know our business and know enough about yours to evaluate you/your product or services as compared to others that are available
  • Think long term; think beyond this sale and this commission.

Oh, and don’t lie to me. I can handle the truth.

Avoid the Excel Trap

clip_image002Earlier this week, Marc Anderson called attention to an article in the Boston Globe about a company that is requiring all of its employees to learn JavaScript. That spawned some comments on Twitter which led to a blog post by Marc, which led to a comment by me. Before I start singing “there’s a hole in the bucket dear Lisa…” let me jump to the point. Systems development, of any kind, by anybody, for any reason, should always follow a few rules.

In my comment on Marc’s blog, I called attention to my three favorite development rules:

  • Design your solution following generally accepted principals of systems development
  • Test your solution thoroughly
  • Document your solution adequately

Now, I am going to add a fourth rule:

If your solution is even moderately complex, don’t build it in Excel!

Excel has been biting me in the hind parts, all week long. I have written several blog posts about the fact that SharePoint is a much better choice than Excel when building solutions that primarily store and lookup information. My suggestions sometimes fall on deaf ears, but when things go south, the problem-child spreadsheets often end up in my lap. Here are two that landed there this week:

Seek and Ye Shall Find – One powerful feature of Excel is the ability to write formulas that gather data from other parts of your sheet, other tabs, other spreadsheets, and even data sources outside of Excel. The problem is that these formulas work even if the lookup data is out of date. Earlier this week, we suffered a curious error due to the fact that someone left a 2010 version of a lookup list in a spreadsheet that had been updated to 2012. This is precisely why I prefer building these solutions in SharePoint and using External Lists or Data View Web Parts to access back-end data. These are live connections to the data and they don’t require the person using them to push “Refresh All” to make sure the list is populated.

It Should Work – One of the most powerful functions Excel has is vLookup(), the ability to find a value associated with an item by finding the item in one column of a table and retrieving the item of interest in an adjacent column. You specify the place to look, and the offset to use when retrieving. The place to look, is a Range of rows and columns either in the a1..c17 format or a defined Range Name. Unfortunately, when you add rows to the data you are looking things up in, you also have to make sure that the range gets expanded. If you don’t, you have the other error we experienced this week, the item isn’t found. Even more unfortunate is the fact that vLookup() doesn’t return “Item not found” by default, it returns the value associated with the last item it checked, which is the last item in the range. Here again, I find myself longing for a solution where one SharePoint list looking up stuff in another SharePoint list. I just have to point to the right list; I don’t have to define the top, bottom, left and right sides of the list.

I know that spreadsheets were the first “killer app”, and some say that nothing has come along on the PC that can rival them; I disagree. Spreadsheet use is out of control; people trust them to do too much work, and they ignore all the rules while building them. Every really complex spreadsheet that I’ve ever seen, was written while one or more people were “in the zone”. They weren’t really designed; they simply morphed into shape as needed. In addition, those solutions are undocumented or poorly documented, poorly tested and they remain in the same fragile state they were born in. Version control is performed by pressing “Save As” and appending a year, event, or people string to the file name. On top of that, I’d be willing to bet 50% or more of the spreadsheets in use today include at least one formula that has been overwritten with a fixed value.

SharePoint offers us an escape from these traps. Rather than try and force Excel into pseudo-database mode, we have a product that is actually is capable of supporting a solution that requires the power and reliability of a database and the control of a content management platform. On top of that, SharePoint gives us a wide variety of ways to extend solutions through workflows and programming. We can automate, protect, distribute and decentralize functions and features without exposing critical elements to random, unauthorized and undocumented changes. I know that it’s easy to reach for Excel. I know how tempting that row-column blank slate can be, but it’s a trap, pure and simple.

Stop Using This Word

Every now and then, I slip the word “platform” into a training session; if my boss is in the room, I usually catch him rolling his eyes a bit. It is a Homer Simpson D’oh moment, because I hate the word, almost as much as he does. We (SharePoint folk) like to say “SharePoint isn’t a system, it’s a platform” – well, SharePoint isn’t a system, but calling it a platform doesn’t help people understand. Platform is a distance inspiring techie term that should never be uttered in public.

Platforms are something you work from; you don’t build things on platforms. Platforms are temporary, only as stable as the law requires them to be and include only the most primitive components necessary to get the job done. Walk by a construction site, look up at the planks laid across scaffolding, and ask yourself: “do I want to live there?” You build things on foundations, not platforms. But, SharePoint isn’t a foundation.

Webster’s does say that “platform” can also mean “OPERATING SYSTEM” (they put it in all caps, not me) but SharePoint isn’t an OS. Personally, I think an operating system is closer to a foundation than platform, but I guess I’ll defer to Merriam on that one. Webster’s also says platform can mean: “an organization’s beliefs” OK, now I’m thinking of political party platforms and the association I make is with “the things they say but never do” or “the things they say to appease people” or “the things they say that we really don’t understand” – seriously, why do we use this word?

The other word that gets tossed around in these situations is “Infrastructure.” I hate this word too but it does have its place. Infrastructure is “the large-scale public systems, services, and facilities of a country or region that are necessary for economic activity, including power and water supplies, public transportation, telecommunications, roads, and schools” – phew, that’s a mouthful. If we think about SharePoint in the context of infrastructure, SharePoint connects us to our network infrastructure; maybe SharePoint is a building.

If SharePoint were a building, it would be the empty building next to the highway ramp. The building would have connections to power lines, communications, water and sewers. It would have plenty of parking, attractive landscaping and it would be close to shopping. The space inside the building could be built out as retail, industrial, commercial or residential. The building would be empty but it would have walls, floors, plumbing, electrical, elevators, HVAC, etc. – the term to describe this would be ‘office space’. “Office Space” (the term, not the movie) is “the quarters in which a commercial, professional, or government organization carries out its activities” – that’s SharePoint! Then again, SharePoint could help with those TPS Reports too.

Yes, I know, “Office Space” is a stupid term. We cannot say “SharePoint is office space”, but we can say “think of SharePoint like office space.” The picture at the top was the space across the hall from our office about a month ago. The bottom picture is what that space looks like today. That’s what I want people to think I can do with SharePoint for them. I tried this out on a coworker today and he actually seemed to understand.