Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Cross-Domain Business Intelligence

One problem that seems to plague organizations these days is a lack of understanding of how Business Intelligence techniques apply to more than just the typical “what’s our sales performance” question. (See my previous post for more on applying BI techniques to IT data).

I think the root of this problem is much deeper than simply trying to understand BI technologies. I believe the problem stems from a fundamental lack of understanding how to apply a technology solution to a business problem. This may sound a bit like Dilbert-esque crazy talk, but I think I can make a pretty good case for this argument.

There’s a lot of talk and “noise” in the industry right now about “Cross Domain BI” (some call this pervasive BI, but I don’t agree with applying that term to this problem) where BI techniques are being used to tie together data from multiple dissimilar sources within an organization. This provides a unified view of just how well each aspect of the organization is performing. I think that this movement is destined for a very bumpy road unless organizations fundamentally change how they approach problem solving in general, and “BI” in particular.

Distilling the Problem

Anyone who’s been in an engineering role (not necessarily limited to software engineering by the way) for awhile has been faced with the problem of imprecise requirements or specifications. As engineers, we tend to understand how to deal with that problem (it depends a lot on the engineer, sometimes the lack of a good spec makes for a great excuse not to get the job done, or worse, leads to a product simply “built to spec” and sometimes it forces the engineer to become more involved in understanding the problem they are trying to solve) and move on. Unfortunately the trait doesn’t always hold true with those outside of engineering who typically drive Business Intelligence projects.

Agile Business Intelligence

I’ve made the base before that BI projects *must* be driven by Agile methodologies if they are going to succeed. The main point of my argument there is that a successful BI project must be able to adapt to changing requirements along the way, and must be extremely flexible in terms of the data provided to the end-user. I believe it’s also true that for “Cross-Domain” BI to succeed, there must be an Agile component to the business as a whole. If an organization is rigidly structured, with well-defined “silos” of information, any attempt to develop cross-domain BI will likely end up in several BI silos that ultimately become useless when combined. For a cross-domain BI project to succeed, each of the silos of information must understand how data from other silos can be used to improve their own performance. In order to accomplish this, there needs to be an over-arching description of the business goals for the BI project, as well as a description of the goals for each silo. Generally speaking, this is done by following the “Business Scenario”-focused process such as the Microsoft Solutions Framework (MSF).

This brings me back to my original point. In order to properly apply BI techniques to the “Cross Domain” problem, organizations must first understand the problem that they are trying to solve. If they do this by creating an over-arching “cross domain” Business Scenario that contains the following steps:

  1. What questions are you trying to answer?
  2. What data do you need to answer the questions?
  3. Where does the data exist?

They are more likely to succeed at delivering a useful solution. If they don’t follow this simple approach, they are likely to be left wondering what happened.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

BI for the IT Guy (or Gal)

One of the things that I have struggled with in the past in explaining “my” product (Configuration Analytics Manager – CAM) to people who’ve not seen it, is connecting the dots from the “elevator pitch” to the real business proposition. When most IT people think of Business Intelligence (BI) products, they automatically think sales management or maybe they think “Advanced Reporting”. Since people generally tend to classify things into buckets that they can understand, once they hear “BI”, they’re automatically framing everything else said about the product into one of the above categories. When people hear about CAM and they hear, “It’s BI for IT data”, there is either a blank look of, “Why do I need *that*?” or even, “That’s cool, I can have charts and graphs on my reports now”.

The problem that I have with the above is IT management is a maturing industry. IT used to be the cost center that simply provided the business with the tools it needs to prosper. IT used to be “those people” that you only had to talk to when something was wrong, or when something new was needed. (Unless of course you are in IT management, in which case you only got to talk to people when something was wrong or when something new was needed). These days IT has become a first class citizen in most corporate environments, and is being seen as much more than a simple cost center. IT is being measured by much more than just how well they managed their budget.

Given all of the above, sometimes it feels like I’m on a crusade, and the first step is to try and get IT managers and directors to start thinking of their work in terms of business profitability. If IT managers start thinking in terms of a given process (be it keeping an application running, managing a service desk, monitoring an application, or any of the other day to day tasks an IT person performs) as their “product”, and improvement of that process as being their “profit”, then BI solutions built using IT management data will start to become a pervasive requirement for IT organizations. (What better way to help improve profit than to analyze what is and isn’t working?) CAM is poised to be *the* product to help IT when that day comes.

Friday, June 12, 2009

More on the transition to EMC

If you follow this blog, you know that I’ve recently become an employee of EMC. As a matter of fact, I just got my badge today. (As a side note, why do badge photos have to be so horrible?) It has been a whirlwind transition, and has actually been only my second experience of being part of an acquisition by a larger entity.

I realize that it’s early in the game, but I have to honestly state that I have been impressed by the attention that I’ve received by various folks throughout the EMC organization. From the management of my new organization, down to bloggers and tweeters who’ve sent their “Welcome Aboard” messages, I’ve felt as if I’ve personally been welcomed to the EMC family.

Which brings me to the point of this post..

Joe Tucci (CEO of EMC) wrote an open letter to Data Domain employees basically telling them what life at EMC would be like. (If you haven’t heard the story, EMC has made a bid for Data Domain – read about that here: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/06/01/emc_bids_for_data_domain/ ) and several EMC employees have added to the conversation by stating why they feel EMC is a great place to work. (See Polly Persons blog here: http://www.pollypearson.com/main/2009/06/emc-folks-add-to-the-discussion-why-do-i-work-at-emc.html). As a brand-new-to-the-EMC-culture person, I feel that I don’t really have much to add to the discussion, but I can say one thing for sure, if all people that EMC have absorbed through acquisition are treated as I have been (yeah yeah, I know that it’s still early!) then the folks over at Data Domain are in for a very pleasant surprise!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

and Hello EMC!

If you read my previous post, you know that I still had some issues to clean up around the Configuresoft to EMC transition. I’m happy to say that these issues are all now nicely put to bed, so I can now move forward as a member of the EMC team!

My official title is, “Principal Software Engineer”, which, in an organization like EMC, is not a bad title to have. I will be part of the (soon to be rebranded, more on that in future posts) Resource Management Software Group (RMSG), which is essentially the group that manages the datacenter. Effectively my world went from building tools that satisfy a small slice of the data center management problem, to now being a part of a much larger and more exciting data center management strategy. (Kind of a hoot to click here and see “my” product at the top of the list)

Anyway, I’m still learning my way around, and will likely keep a low profile for the next several weeks. Having said that though, I’ll be travelling to the “mother ship” (kind of cool to have a “mother ship” after so long *being* part of the mother ship) next week for more integration meetings.

Exciting times await!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

So long, Configuresoft…….

For those that know me, you know I’ve spent untold hours over the last seven years working with a fantastic company and some of the best people I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing. When I first came aboard, Configuresoft was a very-small-yet-vibrant company trying hard to make a mark in the IT Configuration Management field. Over the years, I’d say we hit that goal and then some.

With all of the consolidation in the Configuration Management market, and the economic realities of the day, it was only a matter of time before we became part of something bigger. That day came last week as it was announced that Configuresoft would be acquired by EMC corporation. My personal thoughts on this vary, it’s sad to see the company that has been such a huge part of my life over the last several years disappear, but on the other hand, the forward-looking opportunities are simply amazing. We became part of the (soon to be rebranded) RMSG group within EMC, which means that we have the resources of a $15B, 47,000 employee company behind us, and a suite of products in our arsenal that are second to none in the industry.

I don’t yet know what this means for me personally. I think I am going to stay, but there are some legal issues that need to be worked out. I do know that “my” product, which has been branded by EMC as “Configuration Analytics Manager” (CAM) will play a huge role in RMSGs strategy moving forward, and if it works out, I’m going to be very excited to play a role in all of that.

So, goodbye Configuresoft, it’s been a wonderful ride!