Archive for the ‘enterprise’ Category

Last few hours of conference discount

Friday, 6th January, 2012

The Early bird discount for the 2012 Excel Developer conference expires tonight at midnight (ish). (European time, CET not GMT) (11pm for the Brits).

Please visit the booking page here ASAP and get yourself booked on.

After tonight, the price goes up to 250 GBP, still a staggering bargain actually.

Hope to see you there,

cheers

Simon

Academic and commercial spreadsheet errors

Thursday, 22nd December, 2011

[I just posted this on Eusprig – but I suspect it is too long to hold the interest in a list post]

I think there is a total chasm between
a. academic researchers whose main spreadsheet experience is the classic ‘student grades’ thing and
b. business spreadsheet jockeys who are in spreadsheets all day everyday.

group a think several hundred formulas is big, group b think several thousand is small.
group a think most commercial spreadsheets have material errors, group b rarely see any error effect.
a think b are over confident, b think a are inexperienced.

Within Eusprig I think we need to find a way to reconcile and explain these two completely opposed views of apparently the same thing. Otherwise neither side will ever gain any credibility from the other.

Personally I don’t believe many commercial spreadsheets have material errors, because most commercial spreadsheets are immaterial. They are a small piece of a bigger effort.

Yes I have seen spreadsheets wrong by millions, and 10+ % or whatever you want to call materiality. But did it change anything? no, not ever.

In a billion dollar, multi year, deal evaluation model, a multi million formula error can be dwarfed by inflation or interest rate assumptions. But whatever, if the price comes in at 1 billion and the client only wants to pay 900 million, then the whole analysis, errors and all, is largely irrelevant. Now the question is ‘are we prepared to take the risk that we can deliver this and survive for 900m?’ or slightly more cynically ‘will they ever tie cost overruns back to me and take back my bonus?’

In my experience spreadsheets are normally one of many inputs to important decisions, any inputs out of tune with the majority are either reviewed for credibility or rejected.

So I agree that most spreadsheets have defects, and I agree that very few lead to an erroneous outcome. And I agree that this is the Human element of spreadsheet interaction, ignored in much academic research. I also believe that the big issue is wasted time and effort, around ineffective spreadsheet use, not error impact.

Maybe we need some more holistic research that covers the whole person/spreadsheet system (in a commercial setting) rather than the spreadsheet in isolation.

I would highlight that in my experience when a spreadsheet changes hands (for holiday cover, job role change or whatever) there is a huge spike in wasted time and risk of nonsense outputs, and external support requests.

What’s is your experience? have you also found that the complete information system that includes these potentially erroneous spreadsheets is usually somewhat self healing? (and self learning – ‘x in reporting is useless, I now ignore everything they send me’)

cheers
simon

The tar pit

Friday, 16th December, 2011

My hero Mr Fred Brooks wrote about a tar pit. He was referring to projects that just seem to slow down and deliver less and less as if drowning in treacle (and not nice smelling treacle).

But it occurred to me recently that companies get to the same situation, (maybe I have been doing too much fractals recently?)

Small companies with simple chains of command can move quickly. Big companies with complex chains of command, endless meetings, gate reviews, go/no goes etc can’t. At all.

It dawned on me one of my (many ;-)) pet hates is fake bosses. If your boss can’t answer and take responsibility for 80% or so of normal work questions then they are not a real boss. Can I take the day off on Friday? – ‘I’ll check’, Can we use a database for this database, instead of Excel – ‘Let me get back to you,’,

They are the tar slowing the org down. At first I thought they were the grease keeping the working parts of the org working in harmony together, but no, they are the gloop slowing all progress.

I’m fascinated by corporate culture development, I mainly work in big companies and it’s interesting to see how things vary, and what works and what does not. I am always amazed how much professional management is still based on Taylorism. Taylor made huge contributions to industrial management over a hundred years ago, not sure how well his approaches translate to software developers. Well I am sure actually, but as a technical specialist rather than a toy manager its rarely my place to point out.

Do any of you work in a large company that you feel is well managed? (no names, just a yes/no and maybe a why)

cheers

simon

Stock out

Sunday, 6th November, 2011

Retailers understand the cost of stock outs, well, the successful ones do. Customer comes in to buy something, you don’t have it in stock, they leave the rest of their basket in the aisle and go to a competitor.  Then they shop there for the rest of their life, or until they have a stock out. In principle the cost of not having something in stock can be way more than the missed margin on that single item. Its easy to think of this as being relevant to just physical goods.

However a similar thing happened at work recently.

One of the projects needed a dll writing to sit in front of a vendor component. Only trouble being there were no licencses left for the vendors tool.

Sys admin to dev team and project manager ‘If I had known you were going to need additional licenses I could have ordered them last week and they would be here now’

Dev team to sys admin ‘we only decided this was the only solution today’

Sys admin ‘I’ll order the license now, it should be here in a couple of days.’

Leaving aside for a minute the nonsense of a purely electronic item taking more than nano seconds to arrive…

The cost to the project is several day of no progress, so lets say it is 3 days late because of this and is delivering business benefits of 200 k per year, then thats 3 grand just lost. Against a license of a few hundred quid.

To me it seems that keeping a couple of spare license for core enterprise systems in the top drawer could be a good investment. The alternative would be to work with suppliers who can get you moving within minutes not weeks I guess.

I suppose some less scrupulous admins might propose to ‘borrow’ a license for a few days, and I suspect many vendors would live with that too.

Anyone else seen this license delay problem?

I can see it as an issue if you have hundreds of disparate tools to cover. I don’t know, for example if you had a policy of using the best tool for the job. But as most places obsess about minimising the number of tools no matter how inappropriate, I think a bit of slack in the license stock would actually be cashflow positive.

I have seen similar at places with concurrent database user limits, come the period end everyone starts fighting to get on the system because there are 100 busy users sharing 10 licences.

Have you seen this sort of thing?

cheers

Simon

The ex computer maker HP

Sunday, 28th August, 2011

Does WTF count as 1 word?

If so that’s the only word I have for the news that HP is selling its computer manufacturing biz.

I’ve worked with HP for years, and I know they have fingers in many pies. But exiting such a major part of their business seems odd.

Years ago I worked for Bass the brewers, I worked in the bit that looked after the pubs. We got a new boss who used to work for a hotel chain. He sold off all the pubs and bought loads of crappy hotels the other chains wanted rid of, and within a year turned Bass, a very successful brewing and pub management company into a 3rd rate hotel company. I don’t know what happened to the company in the end, bought out by some 4th rate, social climbing, hotel firm probably.

What I never understood though was if he wanted to run a hotel company why he didn’t get a job at thf (remember them?) or holiday inn or whatever. Many of the beer brands are still going strong.

So HP have got in an ex software CEO who wants to turn the worlds leading PC manufacturer into a software and service co – WTF??? couldn’t he get a job at a software co? Or maybe HP couldn’t get anyone else – they haven’t had the best success with CEOs for a few iterations. Thinking about it I don’t think I have ever had an HP pc. But I did want an Ipaq for a long time (when they were cool ;-)).

I understand of course that under certain circumstances SW can be more profitable then HW. But I never understand these companies that exit their core competency. Focus, defocus, invest, divest, spin off, fine, but abandon the core?

Why do they do it? (apart from dysfunctional bonus schemes of course!)

cheers

Simon

Dawn of realisation

Wednesday, 29th June, 2011

For pretty much as long as I can remember I have wondered why people in organisations persist in doing things in Excel and VBA that would be sooo much better in almost any other technology. We have discussed many of the reasons in the past but I got hit by a new one the other day:

The corporate process for requesting the right tools for the job is so long winded, painful and uncertain that no one bothers. Its quicker, easier and less pain to build an Excel monster instead.

To me this is a disaster, a dereliction of duty by IT, and just an all round FAIL.

IT should be proactively monitoring the markets and trialling interesting looking software and services with a view to proposing them to the business. Not sitting back, blocking all the interesting websites and file shares waiting to obstruct any other attempts to get the job done. (Hardly the work of a Strategic Business Partner is it?)

I have been through these processes a few times, some stuff like getting your Office install upgraded to Pro to get Access is normally a few clicks, an approval email and a cross charge. Getting approval to deploy some VSTO components and some C++ dlls at one place was a bit harder, including a half hour interview on the benefits and risks. I totally don’t mind needing to justify this stuff, but in many cases IT should already have proactively tested and approved it, imo. (or in the case of C++ understand they already have it all over)

I was looking at these processes for not so standard stuff at a few places that publish the detail, and sure enough it can be 6-8 weeks to get approval for an install. That’s ok if its bill and bobs virus ridden utility, but if its a part of what should be core infrastructure then you’ve already missed the boat.

So if you are in IT here are some tips

Developers need developer tools, they can and will develop without proper ones, but it wont be pretty – and it will be your fault for not providing the right tools.

Users need intelligent flexible access to complex data. If you don’t have the right tools, (Think OLAP/BI), then it is your fault when they do it badly in Excel.

just sayin…

What is the most long winded, laborious, misguided IT process you have had to go through? was it for software approval?

cheers

Simon

Evil spreaddie fingered in RSA hack

Monday, 4th April, 2011

Dunno if you have been following the recent SecurID hack at RSA?

They fessed up then went quiet for a few weeks so a few people assumed the worst.

(If you dont know what SecurID is, is a little token (about 10mm by 30) that generates a new 6 digit number every minute. That number can be synched to a login server to ensure only people with the right physical token can login in.)

Anyway the latest news is that an Excel workbook was infected with a targeted, malicious flash swf containing a zero day.

It does appear to be a very clever attack, the spreadsheet had such an interesting name that one of the targets pulled it from the junk folder and opened it running the flash. I didn’t see anywhere whether the workbook had any VBA in or not.

One important point though is that it was a Flash vulnerability they exploited, Excel was merely the delivery mechanism. No Excel vuln was used, just its ability to act as a container.

I didn’t see how they were discovered either, but it sounds like the attackers pretty much got most of what they were after.

I wonder how many other orgs have been hit by this sort of attack, and either haven’t discovered it yet or haven’t admitted it in public?

Got any good links?

cheers

Simon

Love documentation

Wednesday, 16th March, 2011

One of my mates was asked if he likes documentation in a recent interview.

“No, I hate it” was his reply, or ‘I rushed so fast to get the no out that it almost came out as on’.

Hmmm, career limiting I thought.

Hmmm Hmmm, it only limits you in careers doing the type of job you don’t want though. Hmmm…

Me, I love relevant and useful documentation. Well, I think I would if I ever saw any.

Dick over on DDOE had a relevant interesting post recently. I was going to comment there, but after deleting two out of control rants I gave up. This point is very relevant having just binned my last role.

I look forward to hearing from the people who took over from me (if we are still friends ;-) ) what they think of my legacy. But I assume it will be like any builder who comes to your house. They always criticise the work of those that went before. That’s not to say I could have done a better handover. Or done some other stuff better either. (We found an error in some of my test SQL on my last day – it’s not my first or last error I’m sure).

My big point on this though is that Excel is best for tactical short term systems. And the dev process should match that short term, medium risk, medium value return. Heavyweight development processes with a documentation focus are inappropriate imo. Yes many of these things become business critical over time, at which time they should be reviewed/migrated with that new status in mind.

Anyone looking for a tactical Excel developer who loves documentation has got the wrong end of the stick I reckon.

Smurfs guide to good Excel system doco:

  1. one paragraph description of what the system does from a business pov
  2. a couple of pages of design overview about the big technology lumps that address those business needs
  3. One sentence description of each worksheet, easy to find in each sheet
  4. explanation of any complex formulas or queries
  5. Meaningful variable and procedure names in code, table, query and field names in databases

Developers can work the rest out if and when they need to.

Too much documentation is written for managers who don’t understand the business problem being addressed or the technology used to address it.

Sorry but its not realistic to fix those two fatal flaws in one word document no matter how long and involved it is. If as a manager you feel the need to understand all that stuff then learn it yourself don’t burden your devs with your education. And whilst you are at it review how you see your role as a manger – perhaps you could just trust the experts in each area and actually ‘manage’?

Generally I think devs hate documentation because so much of it is pointless. At my last job my manager kept asking me for more documentation, I kept asking if they had read the stuff I had already done? No, was always the answer. Read it and tell me what you think is missing I would say in a groundhog day style weekly cycle.

how much do you like documenting your systems? recieving documentation on projects you take over? whats your definition of useful doco?

cheers

Simon

More blogging coming

Tuesday, 15th March, 2011

A significant change in circumstances means I should have a bit of time for blogging, at least for the next couple of months.

I sacked my job off!

I had a really good job, working with nice people, using interesting technology to address important business issues. Then incompetent IT mismanagement got involved…

I’m not very good at doing pointless busy-work, especially when critical business problems that are trivial to fix are left whilst everyone focuses on write only documentation and MicroMcManagement issues like task lists, micro time recording, tick lists, etc.

So if anyone knows anyone looking for a business oriented developer who prefers delivering usable apps to documentation no one will read, give me a shout. I expect to work in collaboration with the eventual users, not conflict.

cheers

Simon

Smurf on 2011

Saturday, 1st January, 2011

My 2010 predictions were a little tame I think, so I’m going to go more out on a limb this time around. I’ve covered a broader area this time too. I normally limit myself to spreadsheets and software, I’ve had a pop at some more general stuff this time.

IT Market

  1. Google will overtake Microsoft in market capitalisation (190 v 240 currently)
  2. MS won’t bid for Adobe.
  3. MS is fading fast as a general brand, especially with consumers, this will continue and probably accelerate
  4. Apple will pick up most of that consumer mind share in computing and software.
  5. I think someone might bid for HP this year, possibly Oracle if they can digest Sun in time. I don’t see too much anti competitive hassle from this and Larry has been softening them up with body blows for a few months
  6. Yahoo will surely disappear, I’m not sure how they survived this long
  7. Once people get bored of facebooking about facebook surely it will do a myspace?
  8. Linux won’t do much in 2011, I really thought netbooks would do it 2009/2010, but I was wrong. I don’t see a better chance in 2011. Tablets? I’m not convinced this time around.

Software

  1. Phone and tablet software will be massive in consumerland. iOS and Android (and Blackberry), not Windows phone.
  2. PC consumer software will be a non story (in the general media)
  3. MS Office is in a death spin where no one understands the value it can generate so no one invests so no one discovers. MS will continue to fail dismally to market Office. They will cut marketing spend so they will send less of the wrong messages to the wrong people.
  4. Quite a few corps will start to migrate to O2010 in 2011 as many skipped 2007 and 2003 will be 2 years out of mainstream support. They won’t leverage many of the new features though, as its ‘just Office’ not an integrated part of strategic IT infrastructure like it should be. (message/people…)
  5. I think Windows 7 may be due for deployment in a lots of companies too.

Office development

  1. We will still be undervalued.
  2. We will still be loved by users and loathed by IT, who will continue to prevent us from using the best tools for the job.
  3. Office will continue to be userland so VBA still key, although job ads will request a knowledge of C#, but then not let you have Visual Studio.
  4. Microsoft will still not have a plausible .net/Excel development story. VSTO isn’t it
  5. .net developers will continue to abuse Excel as they don’t understand the object model or native code.
  6. Access will still be looked down on as a zero credibility toy – an image which hampers SharePoint uptake as Access is a million times better for managing lists than the 1970’s web UI. I’m currently calling my Access development Jet development to avoid raising the Access Alert.
  7. Office 15 Beta 1 will probably make it out of the door before the end of the year. Expect the ribbon to be nearly as good as 2003 toolbars, lots of unusable lock-in to server components that corps won’t deploy. Beefed up power features like cluster udfs in 2010 (perhaps performant .net udfs???). More eye candy cabbage/inappropriate intra suite standardisation. Closer Excel/Access integration may be on the cards, even as many corps seek to ban Access altogether, it may cheat death once again.
  8. Plenty more vacuous ‘spreadsheet control’ projects will start in 2011, although most will be tick box half hearted affairs. The crash knocked a bit of the wind out of the compliance gravy train sails. (can I mix methaphors like that?)
  9. there will be plenty of opportunities in financial services for folks with Excel/VBA/business – this market is hotting up after being depressed for 18 months or so – so many devs will have moved on.
  10. LibreOffice will continue where OpenOffice once went as the leading Office competitor, before Oracle alienated the whole dev community. Still won’t be much of a competitor though, sadly. OpenOffice will be gone by the end of 2011 imo, at least ‘gone’ like StarOffice.

General development

  1. Java will lose some light as it has been scuttled by Oracle, I think this will cause more of a general splinter rather than a mass migration to .net for example. Ruby, Python etc will likely be winners on the web/server, but maybe C++ will find some love, it has done with MS in VS2010.
  2. Or maybe there will be an unbreakable Oracle Java?
  3. Silverlight is doomed, so VS2012 might be useable. Silverlight is the Access of UI. MS just don’t know what to do with it. Smart devs will steer clear till they decide. Gone by 2012 imo.
  4. Objective C will probably be a worthwhile skill in 2011 (not a great synergy with VBA though :))
  5. F# will get plenty of buzz, but not a lot of actual traction, just because OO is inappropriate for whole swathes of software doesn’t mean it isn’t deeply engrained (as the ‘correct/best/professional’ way of developing anything)

Hardware

  1. Well derr – tablets will be a big news story in 2010
  2. Netbooks will be replaced by tablets, in news, if not physically.
  3. The march to smartphones will make iPhone/Android/Blackberry development a very viable business model, especially compared to banging your head against the office dev wall.
  4. If the Ubuntu Tablet appears I’ll buy one ASAP.

I try not to be a ‘Microsoft watcher’ blogger partly because lots of people already do that, and partly because its hard to hit the right tone between sycophant (I earn my living in their tech after all) and irrelevant moaner.  But…

Microsoft

  1. MS is in a cost control phase at the moment. That means every investment/spend needs justifying.
  2. Plenty of possibly viable techs have been axed after massive investment over the past few years
  3. some of those have been brave (or mad – depends your pov) decisions
  4. This means very little is unquestionably safe – its perceived cost benefits, financially, ruthlessly.
  5. I think MS have lost the consumer space so they will focus more on the enterprise (which seems to work well for Oracle for example).
  6. Tight Office/.net integration? cost? benefit in increased unit sales income? – unlikely then…
  7. Windows phone? If it goes well in the next 6-12m then maybe, if not its out. Microsoft could exit this whole market with no obvious income loss (short term at least). (imo gone by 2012)
  8. Silverlight? compelling benefits or the next VB script? (imo gone by 2012)
  9. VSTO? essential .net/Office bridge? unfinishable unloved bodge? (imo VSTO will survive for a while as it joins a couple of cash cows)
  10. VBA? trusty workhorse? or poor implementation of a bad design? (imo safe as houses, there will be nothing that could be construed as a hint of retirement plans for this utterly vital (to MS) tech. Unless you take the complete lack of investment and development of the IDE as a hint of future plans of course)
  11. VSTA? remember that? VS editor in Office. Hmmm… I really don’t know if better .net/Office is coming to Office, If you pushed me I would say no, I don’t think O15 will have an integrated C# IDE.

Economics/etc

  1. No double dip recession (if anyone thinks we are out of the last one yet) just a slow (er than reported) creeping recovery.
  2. 2011 will, in line with solar physicist predictions (again), be colder than 2010 by any reasonable measure.
  3. The Urban Heat Island effect will get some attention to try to explain the gaping void between what global warming ‘scientists’ say and what normal people see and feel.
  4. We will see more climate comedy – where a council or org has made a big business decision based on promises of global warming, only to be totally shafted by actual weather. Step forward Geneva canton and Lytham council – both allegedly sold their snow clearing equipment in recent years then struggled last winter and this winter. (could we include Heathrow?)(we can take UK road salt supplies as a consistent snafu.)
  5. Financial market volatility will increase, especially on the down side as algorithmic trading gets more aggressive safety cut outs.
  6. 2011 will be even more fad-tastic than 2010, game shows, reality tv, shit music, phone apps, blankets with sleeves…
  7. No big UK bank failures
  8. Another couple of Euro zone rescue plans will be required, someone might even notice the state of the UK economy.
  9. A Euro will almost certainly be worth more than a pound, although they are both in a race to the bottom at the moment.
  10. More intrusive security pantomime mischief will make air travel even more unpleasant but no more secure.
  11. Did I mention that spreadsheet development will still not be cool?

That’s about it for now, I need to go out mountain biking now the snow has melted. Sorry this is so long!

What do you see as the big news stories of the next 12m?

All the best for 2011

cheers

Simon