Friday, January 30, 2009

What have we done?

Back in the "heyday" of Information Technology, I.T. was seen as the Golden Grail of business. Projects were funded without hesitation, a good salary was a given, and grand songs were composed for the "computer guy" hero.

It's apparent that things have changed. Today, I.T. is looked at as a necessary evil, costs (including salaries) are being cut, singing has turned into mourning, whining, and threats of throwing equipment out the window. What happened?

For starters, it was a bit easier back then. We were replacing typewriters with word processors, sticky pads with email, and pencil smudged paper with self calculating electronic coolness. We were increasing productivity and profit exponentially, and everyone was happy. Then… it (I.T.)happened.

We dug ourselves into a technological black hole. We've got to understand that the same technology that made people sing our praises eventually proved to be our undoing. Let's face it; we computer guys love technology. In fact, we've become so immersed in zeros and ones that we have developed our own culture. We talk geek speak, shop, play, and even romance online. We live in a virtual world where we can use cheat codes and God mode, and rule! We have grown out of touch with people and made them our arch nemesis - the "user."

We are not entirely to blame. The "don't make me think" attitude of the end user has become the symmetrical antithesis of our "computer guy" culture. People, who use technology on a daily basis but refuse to understand it, will even boast about being "computer illiterate" or "technologically challenged." – and this attitude sets us off. We retreat into our bat-caves, log-into the Matrix, and devise a new plan to take over the world! Muahhahahah!!!

Somehow we've got to bridge the virtual gap. I believe that, in order to bring the worlds of "user" and "computer guy" together, we’ve got to cross sides. We must get into their world, stick our feet into their shoes, and truly understand their needs, wants, and desires. We must find an emotional link to synchronize our cultures. Only then can we find ways to empower people, replace typewriters, sticky pads, and smudge laden paper, and once again become the hero of the day. Only this time let’s remember that spoiling the user with new gadgets, and impressing them with what they don’t know isn’t going to create lasting relationships – but working with them - along side them - will.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Price of Free

In a previous post called “Everything Internet,” I asked the question; “How much of my job can I do online… for FREE?”

There’s a problem with that question, and so the answer, as it turns out, is – not much. As the IT Director of a Church, I have to keep 70+ staff members and oodles of volunteers working. A more appropriate question would have been; how much can I help them do online… for FREE? My conclusion, after doing some research, is… not much.

While there are many online apps; more often than not there’s a price to pay. The price will vary from app to app, and is not necessarily monetary in nature. Take email for example - Gmail has become a popular choice for people who want an online email service; they have a good product, and it’s free… or is it?

Currently the free addition of Gmail has spam filtering, 25GB of storage, Google Talk, and search abilities. While this is all good for personal email, it falls short in the enterprise arena. If you want central administration, archiving, and security (and we do want it), you’ve got to pay. Microsoft’s Hotmail is another good choice for personal email. Once again, Hotmail doesn’t stand up to the “corporate” test. If you move up to OfficeLive there’s quite a bit of goodies to choose from - with varying prices of course. Another, more elusive, cost is in the area of privacy. With any system there’s a chance that private data can be, well, not so private. In the case of an internally controlled and secure system; it’s usually human error that causes leaks. With services like Gmail; you don’t really know who’s reading your mail. At one point Google was scanning email for keywords and presenting advertisements to the end user. I’m not sure if they are still doing it; but I don’t like the idea; and I’m sure most people share my perspective, especially concerning business data.

When it comes to free applications – the tools we use on a daily basis, such as word processing, spreadsheets, and presentation software – there’s some real potential. StarOffice, provided by Google, simply can’t cut it for most of us. The real cost you get from switching to these free apps is in usability and simple change. The free apps are just not as powerful. Plus; the years of usage and training people have, goes out the window.

I’ll take a step back here and say that it is possible to benefit from these not-so-free solutions, and many people are doing just that. It all comes down to TCO and practicality – If the solution provides what you need, and you can justify the costs (financial or otherwise), it is likely a smart move. If you can lessen the management of local hardware and software, and still provide an adequate platform for end users, you may just have a winning solution.

When it comes down to it; no one can get by on offering free services alone. They can’t pay for all of the powerful equipment and highly trained staff it takes to make “free” without some kind of income. So; we’ll all continue to do what we’ve been doing – research, evaluate, and use what it takes to get the job done.

Chances are that we will never escape the fact that we have to pay for things… at least for the things that really work.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Three cheers for the Helpdesk!

I’ll begin by saying that our helpdesk system rocks! At this moment, we have only 16 total requests in queue, and most of those requests are project related. Our system has allowed us to stop being fire fighters all of the time; and become a proactive IT team.

About two years ago we implemented an IT Helpdesk system. The system included helpdesk software (ServiceDesk Plus from, an actual desk (counter area in the hallway with an office and workbench in an attached room), and a helpdesk email address and phone number. We got our pastors and administrative staff on board, and was given the go ahead. We gave our staff three ways to contact the helpdesk – by phone, email, or walk up. Our helpdesk software has the ability to notify one or more IT staff by email or SMS text whenever it receives an email request; and the helpdesk phone can be forwarded to the cell phone of whoever is on helpdesk duty.

As I said above; the helpdesk is actually in the hallway. This hallway is constantly filled with people trafficking back and forth to events, groups, funerals, weddings, and other Church stuff. Because of this, the “IT” helpdesk gets bombarded with non IT questions – “can you tell me where room 200 is?” “Excuse me; where is the restroom?” “Do you know where I can find Pastor Bob?” “Can you tell me when Mom’s study starts?” – You name it, it’s been asked. Not only that; but the helpdesk is often a place for one staff person to ask where to find another staff person. My guess is that only about 10% of the questions asked at the helpdesk actually pertain to IT. Does this sound like a good place for the helpdesk? Well… probably not. We originally adopted this space because it was simply the only space in the building for us. We took what we were given and attempted to turn it into something useful.

Now; I have to stop here and explain something… Not only does someone have to man the desk in the hallway; in our case that spot had to become a permanent space for some brave soul. That someone is Dave, and Dave’s “office” IS the desk in the hallway. So much of the credit for the success of our helpdesk system goes to the one who gets asked all of those non-IT questions; the one who has to try and concentrate through all of the distractions while compiling asset lists, troubleshooting problems, and trying to stay ahead of the learning curve. Much of the helpdesk success goes to Dave, who graciously answers each question, passionately puts out fires, and still finds time to share a prayer (or a Dilbert cartoon) with a staff member.

Another reason for our success is a person that I hired about a year ago. Paula came on board after Jeff Berg left to run his new business, Ministry Centered Technologies. Paula gets to help with helpdesk (as do we all), but mainly gets to work on projects. Now, these are the kind of projects that every IT department has – pie in the sky projects that usually sit in the “someday” task list because of lack of time and resources – important projects that are just plain hard to get done. Paula is tenacious when it comes to projects, and she always finds a way to get it done.

So with Dave being the hub of the Helpdesk and my shield, Paula tackling under-budgeted, under-equipped projects with flair and enthusiasm, and our software keeping us all informed and organized; we’re able to do our part in making ministry happen. So – three cheers to the helpdesk!!!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Blast From the Past

About two years ago; we started using Katharion as a third-party email filter; and up until now there’s been no problems. In fact; things were so great I turned off our local spam filter.

For the past week or so; we’ve been blasted by an influx of malware laden email. I contacted the helpful folks at Katharion and they said that they were working on it.

I re-activated our local filter; and it seems to be capturing quite a bit of infected email. I’m not sure why Katharion is not able to catch these; but I really hope they get their act together. Managing a spam filter is almost a full time job; and one I don’t enjoy… at all.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Why I don’t Twitter

My typical day is flooded with information from; email, phone calls, voicemail, text messages, RSS feeds, read and write blogs, and have face to face meetings.

Well… I learned a long time ago that I gain energy in silence. I recharge when it’s quiet. I just can’t see introducing more noise into my life.

Maybe I’m wrong about Twitter. Maybe somehow Twitter could actually make things less noisy. It would take quite a bit to convince me of that though.

Oh yea – I don’t use a desktop messenger for the same reason.

Friday, August 22, 2008

How would you like that?

I was visiting Saddleback Church a few years back; and Eric Busby said something that stuck with me. I'm sure he didn't come up with it, and I don't know who did, but it's fantastic:

Good - Fast - Cheap
Pick Two
Good + Fast = Expensive
Good + Cheap = Slow
Fast + Cheap = Inferior

I'm sure you've seen this before; but it has saved my skin more than once, so it's worth repeating.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Can you hear me now?

It’s that time again. Another contract is up; and it’s time to start digging for “the best deal.”

I switched from Verizon to TelePacific for phone services a few years back. We got better rates, and just as (or more?) important, much better service. Even the monthly invoicing was better – all in one envelope. Happy days!

Well… the contract is up. I would love to just sign a new contract with TelePacific; and I’m guessing that’s what will happen in the end. I must do my due diligence, however, and see what’s out there that may be better.

Is there something out there that will blow traditional services out of the water? Will the cable company let us convert everything to cable and keep our numbers, like at home, for “one low rate?” Is there a “Skype” type of service that would allow us to make most of our calls for free?

In addition to services; we’re about to grow out of our present system, the Nortel Business Communications Manager. So I’m looking at Switchvox (based on Asterisk) as potential solution. Would switching to one of these systems give us more options? The problem is – I’m not a telephony expert – by any stretch of the imagination – Nor do I want to be.

So the hunt begins.