Technology Truth #4: It’s Not a Technology Problem

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When my phone rings, and a client says, “We have a technology problem,” immediately, I know one thing for sure: They don’t have a technology problem.

A few years ago, I got the “technology problem” call from a client. A private equity group had invested in a new publishing venture in a then-hot sector. The venture was subscription-based and also had potential data revenues in addition to ad dollars. This sounded good. So much better, I thought, than the majority of media companies who spend all their energies trying to convince themselves (and everyone else) that the ad-supported model works.

However, the technology wasn’t working according to plan. Features hadn’t been delivered. Integrations were failing. There was cut-and-paste where there should have been free flowing data. Sounded like a technology problem.

Digging a little deeper, I discovered $7MM had been invested in a proprietary content management system and backend database. To boot, the passwords for the entire system were in the hands of a disgruntled employee threatening to sue. In a scene out of a bad B-movie, I agreed to meet this person in a train station, handed over a check and collected the passwords. All this drama and intrigue for a website that had a total subscriber base of 450 registrants.

That situation was a lot of things. But the one thing it was not was a technology problem.

Though perhaps my most dramatic example of a non-technology-problem problem, I have encountered dozens of similar situations throughout my career, enough to conclude that when I get called in to solve a “technology problem,” my best bet is to look anywhere but the computer room.

It’s odd, perhaps, to hear a technology consultant like me saying she doesn’t solve technology problems. So what is it, then, that I do?

In truth “technology consulting” is business consulting in a modern guise, because so many of our business issues and technology issues intertwine.  And “technology problem” is really a 21st-Century verbal fig leaf disguising all kinds of profound management problems.

It’s safer, however, to blame the machines.

A word of advice, then, to business leaders: When you hear the tell-tale We have technology problem in your company, ask yourself what real business wolf is masquerading in this sheep’s clothing.

Five Technology Truths: #3 Technology Debates Are Religious Wars

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Rails vs. Java. Drupal vs. Alfresco. Microsoft vs. Opensource Anything.

The worst situation is when the CEO has just spent a transatlantic flight sitting next to the CMO of Microsoft. For the next two months you’ll hear nothing but Sharepoint.

 With client after client we participate in the evaluation of dozens of technologies. And though every client’s situation is different, one thing remains the same: Technology discussions are religious debates. Sometimes religious wars. Belief always enters the picture when facts fail.

 So why do the facts fail?

 1. Too much complexity

 Most technology evaluations are far too technically detailed for the average person to understand. Evaluating a CMS can produce decks and decks of comparison grids, this feature versus that, this performance stat versus the other. The key decision makers who normally have a 15-second attention span cannot possibly weigh and digest it all. So people fall back on opinion or a pet “expert.”

 2. No control group

 In a technology rollout, no one can ever run a control. You can’t adopt Oracle eBusiness Suite and in some parallel universe adopt SAP, let it run a few years and see how it all worked out.

 So since you can never have all the facts, here’s what happens next: The company’s decision-making stakeholders break into factions, each with its own passionate belief that their technology preference is the right one. I’ve even seen expert witnesses brought in from each side like an IT evaluation had somehow morphed into an episode of Colombo.

 What can you do?

A. Get perspective

 Or course you have to do due-diligence and compare features and functions of systems. However, the idea that someone has the “right” answer on a complicated technology decision is a fantasy. At some level, you are always going to be making a best guess on the information available. Consultants don’t change that. Two years of research doesn’t change it. In fact, I have seen companies so paralyzed by this reality that they do, in fact, spend two years in analysis only to find that by the time they are finished the technology has changed. Something new has become available. Then they go on to evaluate that.

 B. Make technology passion unacceptable

 I like passion. Particularly in fellow Yankee fans. However, good technology leaders should frown on a team member who is too passionate about a particular technology. Why? It’s the hallmark of an amateur. Most technologists understand that tech is tech. Every system has its pros and cons and there’s no perfect answer. If a person is so out-of-his-senses passionate about a particular technology, he should go work for whoever developed it, and leave the rest of us alone.

 The truth is technologies catch fire, wane, and sometimes catch fire again. Right now Drupal is ablaze and a lot of people are rushing to adopt it. But if history is any guide, within a few years something else will be the hottest thing and Drupal will be viewed as simply a good technology among others.

 C. Let the crowd have what they want

 If there is a lot of passion toward a particular technology, the worst thing you can do is to fight City Hall. Here’s why.

 Say my sister wants a Mac. But I know that given her usage, and the software her son uses, and so on, she would really be better off with a PC. It’ll cost less, run faster, and she’ll have fewer issues.

 So she gets the PC on my advice. And something goes wrong (because this is technology and something always goes wrong.)

 “Stupid PC!” she shouts. “This would never have happened with the Mac!”

 Hit rewind: “Sister, dear, get the Mac. It’ll make you happy.”

 Now, something goes wrong. Now she says, “Poor little Mac. It was trying its best.”

 Companies generally have more tolerance for the foibles of systems they believe in. Sure, it would be better to subtract the passion, add some perspective, and eliminate the religious fervor. But when you can’t, the only choice may be to go with the flow.

 (Excerpted from AdMonster’s Keynote Speech, 3/7/11)

Five Technology Truths: Truth #2 IT Does Matter

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In his disruptive 2004 book, Does IT Matter?, Nicholas Carr argued that innovations are so rapidly replicated that it essentially neutralizes the strategic advantage of technology. He coined the phrase, “vanishing advantage” to apply to technology and called it a “perfect commodity.”

 The book caused a firestorm of reaction, as if Carr was the first one to say these things. I think, in fact, he was just tapping into a business zeitgeist that had already been around for nearly ten years.

 This argument goes that technology is like electricity. You don’t have to understand it. (Who really knows how a transformer works?) You just have to be able to employ it to your advantage. Carr, under the Harvard Business imprint, was endorsing businesses wanted to believe anyway.

 Here’s a secret: Employing the word “commodity” is business code for demeaning something because you’re afraid of it. Calling something a “cost center” is just another flavor of the same ice cream.


Technology is so ingrained in most businesses, especially media and publishing, that calling it a cost center is a ridiculous and outdate idea.

 Here’s another ridiculous idea: “What we’ll do is wait until the dollars are justified by digital revenue, and then we’ll invest.”

 I had a client whose famous internal wait-to-invest phrase was, “We want to be settlers and not pioneers.” The trouble was, by the time they decided the digital media revolution was far enough along to justify investing, they simply couldn’t catch up fast enough. Any large-scale technology roll-out takes two years. But even more difficult to overcome, the cultural and educational issues that exist in an organization that hasn’t been bought into the digital future all along.

(Excerpt from Admonster’s keynote, March 7, 2011)

Five Technology Truths: Truth #1

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(Excerpts from my Keynote Speech at the Admonsters conference in Memphis 3/7.)

 Executives at the top of media and publishing companies don’t understand technology.

 A story.

 I am in the office of a client who is a billionaire. He is in the process of making a decision about an investment in one of his portfolio companies in media and publishing. Here is how the conversation went:

 HIM: So, Anna, you say the database is like the stapler.

 ME: No. No. The database is like the file cabinet.

 HIM: Really? I thought it was like the stapler.

 ME: No. File cabinet.

 I removed the stapler from the table. It was confusing the conversation, and this man needed to make a seven-digit decision.

 This can’t really happen? You can’t really mean the C-level executives, investors, and board members you interact with are that technologically illiterate?

 Yes. They are.

I have been asked why email notifications can’t be sent to alert executives when email is down. I have been asked to estimate the cost of a system migration when no one in the room can tell me what the current technology is. I have been asked, “Where does the Internet live?”

 The only possible answer to this last question is, “Arkansas.”

 I hear: You can’t actually be suggesting that CEOs of media and publishing companies have the equivalent of engineering degrees?

 I can and I do.

 Barack Obama recently said that technological innovation was the key advantage that would bring jobs back to the United States. And in media and publishing, there is broad agreement that technology is not only necessary for success, but for survival.

 So exactly what expertise is appropriate to expect from the leaders of our industry?

 A word about arrogance. Many CEOs are.

 (Newsflash, I know.)

 However, in the future it will be said that it was on the watch of this particular generation of media and publishing executives that entire swaths of American journalism died.

 You might say that the industry is facing hard problems. And you’d be right. How exactly do we change our digital pennies back into dollars? The truth is nobody knows. Get a bunch of publishers in a room and throw out the phrase, “Monetize video.” Instantly the gathering turns into the equivalent of an AA meeting.

 “Do you know how to do it?”

 “No. Not me. We’re losing our shirts. How about you?”

 Sure. The problems are hard. But last time I checked, Google was solving hard problems. Cancer researchers are too. Pixar creates pure magic capturing light and dimension in algorithms.

 Or maybe, if we got the best minds all focused on these core issues of how content survives and gets paid for—maybe they would all conclude that there is no solution. If that is indeed true, we all need to quit wasting our time.

 What’s the alternative? Go out and meet the future. Or better yet, create it. Jeff Bezos, despite legions of naysayers declaring that eBooks would never work, literally made the eBook market in this country. That’s what making your own future looks like. As everyone knows, waiting for the future to happen to you looks like the music industry.

To tackle these big issues, we need strong leadership. Strong, technologically savvy leadership.

 I just returned from the AdMonsters conference in Memphis. Talk to anyone who works in a company with any kind of traditional media legacy, and you hear a similar story: Entrenched technological ignorance is keeping their publications from addressing and solving the big issues they face.

Truth #2 to come.

Recap: The First Drupal Business Summit 11/9/10

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I could not have felt more out of place at DrupalCon last April. As I walked around in San Francisco’s Moscone center in a suit, a sea of Drupalers in jeans and all manner of droplet t-shirts, bandanas, and even body art recoiled from me. I was not one of them.

It was funny. But then I started to think about the implications. As a business person, it was tough to find information to consume at DrupalCon, where some of the most well attended sessions featured PowerPoint slides stuffed with snippets of code.

Which is how the idea for the Drupal Business Summit came about: Creating content that helps business people understand Drupal and what it can do for their organizations.

Well the first Drupal Business Summit happened yesterday in New York City, and was a sold-out success. Co-hosted by my company, tmg-e*media and Aquia, the enterprise guide to Drupal, the conference provided rich case studies and discussions targeted at business leaders. Here are session highlights:

Kathleen Reidy, analyst of the 451 group, dissected the Web Content and Social Media space. A key point: Sometimes businesses don’t have an accurate view of where technologies fit in the spectrum. They might compare a content management technology like Plone with a social media technology like WordPress. She had a killer ven diagram illustrating where these products fit.

Next up, Andrew Hoppin of the New York State Senate chronicled his journey of transitioning the state government sites to Drupal. Now senators have their own mini sites that they can manage. And the public can get visibility into the law-making process that never existed before.

I started my panel on resourcing Drupal by saying, “If you’re not worried about the resourcing issue, you should be.” It was the number-one problem attendees cited when asked what their challenges were. Jamie Clark of Zagat survey talked about going to meet-ups and immersing herself in the Drupal community to retain talent. Jay Hartley of Taunton Press described the cultural differences in hiring and retaining Drupal talent. And yours truly and Sandra Matthiessen at Time Out New York outlined the innovative training program we kicked off to “roll our own” Drupal team.

A true highlight of the afternoon was Mike Meyers’ case study. He rolled out, a citizen journalist startup and sold it to the Examiner, who wanted him to work the same magic for them. A massive undertaking, the site is the earliest enterprise Drupal 7 release. In case you haven’t been tracking these things, Drupal 7’s not out yet.

Bob Kerner, a former U.S. Naval crypto linguist, told us his tale of storming into the NYSE, cleaning house and starting from scratch. With management’s support, he ditched a multi-year, multi-million dollar effort that had gone awry and took the enterprise down a nimble, open-source Drupal path, complete with frequent deliverables and truly agile teams. As Bob reminded us, most companies think they do agile but don’t, and also, “Waterfall is a lie.”

Rounding out the afternoon, we saw the great work VML had done on behalf of Cartoon Network. Martin Coady took us to school on how to create truly flexible site that can be managed by the business. For example, rather than taking the easy route and creating a flash movie for CN’s animated-character navigation, VML created small movies nodes that could be managed in Drupal. Now, Martin says, he comes to the CN site and doesn’t recognize it. A good thing! Because the client is completely empowered to change the look and feel of their site on their own.

Thanks to all who helped make the first Drupal Business Summit a success. Future summits will take place in DC and San Francisco.