Saturday, May 30, 2009

a giant moves on

Thanks to Twitter, I recently learned that Ian E. Wilson had retired from his post as Librarian and Archivist of Canada and joined the University of Waterloo as strategic adviser on the Stratford Institute, one of the anchor hubs in the new Canadian Digital Media Network.

I went to GTEC for the first time last year. Six of us squeezed into a van and drove from Moncton to Ottawa. Mr. Wilson spoke on the last day, the day of the cabinet shuffle, and he plain knocked my socks off.

He spoke passionately about digitization and the preservation of Canadian culture. He spoke on information and knowledge. It was maybe the first time I'd really considered the distinction.

He said information only becomes knowledge when a person learns it and can make use of it, that we have much more information than we do knowledge.

He quoted T. S. Eliot: "Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? / Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"

I was a developer. 13 years in what I thought of as "IT". Gradually coming to think of myself as an IM practitioner. I was eating this stuff up with a spoon.

He said this:

"The real organizational structure is based on how the information flows."

(emphasis mine, from the Westin Hotel notepad on which I hastily scribbled it down)

Socks, consider yourselves knocked off.

All this to say that the federal government's loss is Waterloo's gain, and I wish Mr. Wilson all the best in his new challenge.

Friday, May 29, 2009

campaigning to innovate, redux


How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Open Source Zealots

Actually, I didn't learn that at all. I spent the better part of the week worrying about them, so suave and debonair, with their convincing tales of heightened productivity using and Ubuntu, and their laser cannons, that's right, they're armed, and they're also aliens from the planet Firefox. Fear them!

This is what passes for humour chez Jeff after a long week of trying to brainstorm, encourage, document, and comment. OK, they're not laser-toting aliens, but as a developer and an end user in a predominantly Microsoft environment for a pretty long time, I often felt painted as the one to be feared.

You know what?

Microsoft makes some damn good products that are reasonably priced for the business value they deliver.

That felt better than I thought it would.

I'm way out of my comfort zone playing the evangelist, but some of the comments that I've read on the GC IT Innovation Campaign site this week have gotten my back up. I'm not normally an MS zealot, but I could play one on TV for a few minutes, right?

You want open standards? Try ECMA-376 and ISO/IEC 29500:2008 on for size.

You want the source code? Why on earth? You're a government programmer, for crying out loud. If you have the time to patch security holes yourself, you clearly have too much time on your hands and you're not spending enough of it delivering value to the public you're supposed to serve.

Calc is just as good as Excel? You're talking about the #1 business intelligence tool in the world here. Can you handle a pivot table drilling into an OLAP cube? Maybe. How about building a library of pivot tables, charts, and key performance indicators that a user can drag-and-drop on a web page to build their own custom dashboard? Man, I love Excel Services!

Not to mention that with the guidance of our dev shop, smart people with no traditional systems development experience are building apps with Office and SharePoint, so we can say "yes" to our business owners more than we ever used to doing completely custom development. Now let's talk about productivity!

OK, that was a little exhausting. But kinda fun. That is so not my way, but when faced with the outright negativity of so many people, in what was supposed to be (and was, for the most part) a constructive effort to do a better job as IM and IT practitioners in the public service, I think it was an understandable reaction.

But we pay so much for Microsoft licenses! And Ubuntu is free!

Don't give me that. Talk to me about the total cost of ownership. Talk to me about training. Talk to me about support contracts. Talk to me about manageability. Talk to me about user productivity, translated from hours into dollars. (Time is money, I hear.)

Look, I love that there are free, open source options out there. I've used a lot of them myself, going back to installing Debian on my 386 in 1997, from like a dozen 1.44 MB floppies, to run gcc for school. But they're not for every problem, or for every user. Let "I Am Not My User" be your mantra.

You want free? So do I. I want the freedom to decide for myself, because I know my business better than you do. That freedom hasn't always been extended to people who have wanted to leverage open source offerings in their work, and that's unfortunate, but the other extreme is just as bad.

I know that this issue is more complex and nuanced than this, but complexity and nuance were in short supply in way too many comments on the campaign site. It's been a long week, I'm tired, and I've got to work overtime this weekend. Call this my emotional knee-jerk reaction. But my mind is open to a reasonable debate. I love that I got a thoughtful comment out of nowhere on my first post on the issue.

That is all. *yawn* Good night.

Friday, May 22, 2009

campaigning to innovate

I tweeted this today:

Government of Canada IT Innovation Campaign: Support the good ideas and help crush the bad ones! #gcitic #GoC #cpsr

First off, I love this campaign. A government-wide initiative to gather ideas on improving the development and delivery of programs and services for the Canadian taxpayer? What's not to love? The organizers built a community site where public servants can add ideas, write comments, and vote for the ideas they like. It's just fantastic, and I applaud anyone involved in its implementation.

Here's the thing: not every idea can be a winner.

An all-too-common pattern: "I think we should standardize on <Product X> across the government for <Requirement Y>! <Vendor Z> sucks!" Let's let X = "Firefox", Y = "web applications", and Z = "Microsoft" for the sake of argument. I like Firefox as much as the next guy, but I support a legacy line-of-business web app built on ASP, COM+, and SQL Server, and it's full of IE-specific JScript. We have neither the time nor the money to make it work in Firefox, and even if we did, it would still be an enormous waste of taxpayers' money.

A lot (most?) of people who work in IT are control freaks. I'm one myself, though I'm learning to let go of certain things. I can completely understand the mindset of "I love <Product X>, everyone should use it!" But if you impose it on me, you're tying my hands when I'm trying to deliver the best, most cost-effective service I can to the Canadian public. Nightmare scenario: "Here we go again, build vs. buy. Hmm. Well, that perfect COTS app needs a SQL Server back end, and we're limited to MySQL, so I guess we're building yet another custom system. We would have done it with SharePoint in the good old days, it would have been cheaper, and we would have gotten it done faster. Oh well." Sounds ridiculous, and it should, but I worry that it's not as ridiculous as I'd like to think.

Full disclosure: as you might have guessed, I work in a predominantly Microsoft shop. But I'm not a zealot. I believe in finding and using the right tool for the job, whatever the source. As a public servant, it is my duty to provide the best value possible for the public, and "value" does not equate only to up-front costs. It's the TCO, stupid! What's your value proposition?

I'll quote myself, from an email I sent to my directorate today: "In an exercise like this, those who participate are the ones whose views are heard, so it’s important for us to voice our opinions." So please, if you work for the Government of Canada, sign up for the campaign web site. Vote up the good ideas. Don't even vote low for the bad ones, you're just padding their scores. And comment, whether it's to say "yes, that's great" or "what are you smoking?"

The leaders of the GC IT community want to know what you think. Let your voice be heard.


My name is Jeff Rose and I work as a jack-of-many-trades developer slash architect for a regional economic development agency in the Canadian federal government. I maintained a personal blog more or less regularly for a year or so then stopped finding time for it when I started dating my girlfriend in 2005.

I joined Twitter in January 2009 and have found it just phenomenal, especially as a tool for technological community building. Following SharePoint people like @joeloleson and @andrewconnell has provided great information and made me feel like part of the community, even though I haven't been tweeting that much about SharePoint myself to this point.

The nice thing about Twitter is that I actually find the time to compose 140 characters on something I find interesting when I might not go to the effort of a full blog post. The flip side of Twitter is that I am naturally long-winded and sometimes I just can't do my thought justice with that inherent limit. I encountered that today, and felt compelled to elaborate on a tweet. So here I go again, with a new blog and no idea how often I will post. I've got good intentions as far as contributing to some of the communities that I've been getting so much out of, but you know what they say about the road to hell...