QueTwo's Blog

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Category Archives: MSU

IT in your business : Do you have customers or partners?

Pipes at MSU Power PlantIn my department at Michigan State University, we are having interesting conversations revolving around the notion of “customers” and “partners” for the people that we serve.  In many IT organizations, like many other service organizations that exist, there is a well known notion to call the people that depend on you for service as “customers.”  We are told to treat these people as “customers first” in an attempt to think about how to best evolve our own service to make them happy.  We have come to realize that while we call them customers, and attempt to treat them as if they were customers at, let’s say a grocery or department store, we really don’t.

Really, most IT organizations need to make a decision on how to serve the people that depend on them for service and decide how they really want to interact with them.  There is not a single right or wrong answer, but you can’t choose both.  The method you choose really depends on your own overall organization and how you feel you can best serve them.

What is a customer?  A customer is a person or group that approaches you to fill a need.  Let’s say they need a new printer and they contact you to order a printer.  You might have one or two models that you support and you offer it to them.  The customer agrees to one of your options and you order it, install it, and make it work on their PCs.  You provide service with a smile and everybody is pretty much happy — you were able to fill their need, and they were able to accomplish the task they sought out to do.

Where the customer methodology typically breaks down is when the customer has a need that can’t be filled by your typical offering.  How would this methodology change if, lets say you only offered black and white laser printers, but the customer needed a high-capacity color printer.  Would you allow the customer to go somewhere else and get the printer that best meets their needs?  Would you get the printer they found that fits their needs, or would you tell them “NO.” The best fit for this methodology would have been to allow the customer to buy their own (or even better, for you to buy that model and do what you do best) — however many IT departments feel that they lose control and can’t possibly support that “one-off.”

A printer is a pretty easy thing to visualize — it’s tangible and something I’m sure IT departments already deal with multiple models of.  But think about other examples where customers have made requests — like PC models (like a Apple Macbook), operating systems, CRM software, browsers, etc.  Often times, if a customer is making a request for a particular piece of software or hardware it’s for a reason — and if you treat the end user as a customer, you have to be prepared to allow them to make those choices.  This often involves bending your own standards to allow them to make the best decisions for their own organization.  After all, the customer probably knows their line of business much better than you do.

This method is all about providing great customer service and allowing the customer to do what they need autonomously.

What is a partner?  A partner, or an even better term would be a business partner, is somebody that you work with to accomplish a goal.  When a group approaches you to help solve a problem or business need, they will depend on you to help them make the best decision.  But being a partner is not a one-way street — it also requires you to approach the end-user and ask them how you can best help them accomplish their goals.  There is a clear nuance here, but let’s dive into this a bit more.

Using our earlier example of a customer needing a new, specific printer, a business partner should have noticed the requirements of that user before they formally asked for help and offered to help mitigate the need.  This could have been forming a better partnership with an outside entity for doing those color prints, or maybe partnering with an inside organization that also has a similar need, or proposing getting the printer.  Conversations change from “What can I do for you?” to “Can we suggest XYZ to make your life easier?”  A quick consequence of this relation often is that changes to it systems are often done for the benefit of the end customer, rather than the IT group (ask yourself how many of the IT policies that are in place are to make it easier to manage your systems, vs. helping the customer).

Now the downside of being a partner is that it is much more human capital intensive.  It requires that your IT department becomes involved in all the line of businesses that happen at the organization that you support.  It requires that they have at least some institutional knowledge of accounting, etc. in order to help these organizations.  I’ve seen some implementations of this where the IT department has their staff distributed among all the groups they support — for example, they might have a cube next to the secretary so they can glean how they do their job and be their advocates in the overall IT plan.  Other ways to accomplish this would be to have certain people “deputized” (actually have access to work on systems that the group needs) within these groups and represented in IT staff meetings, again to help evangelize what the needs are of the groups they represent.

This method is really about empowering the end group to participate in IT.

The danger zone.  Where a lot of IT organizations run afoul when serving others is that they pick either neither of these methodologies or, sometimes worse, pick BOTH.  Hybrids of these methodologies never work — because quickly everybody becomes confused in their role.  The most common is where a customer is told they aren’t allowed to install or request application X onto their PCs to fulfill a role, yet their IT department also refuses to give them any alternative to do their job (neither methodology is chosen).  Another example would be that the end user is allowed to chose a particular piece of software to meet their business needs, but then expects the IT department to change the way they do business in order to meet the needs of this software (both are implemented).

IT departments need to also be careful to not switch methodologies on customers either.  Either allow them to be a customer or a partner — don’t change on a project by project or product by product situation.

How do you interact with your end-users?  This may be the most telling way of how your operate as an IT organization.  You do have helpdesk software that you ask people to “put in tickets?” or a common phone number that you direct all users to call for every IT interaction?  You are most likely treating end users and groups as customers.  Do you have staff sit in organizational meetings (other than meetings with groups like department heads), or invite end-users to your department meetings on a very regular basis?  You might have business partners in that case.

Some questions to think about as you assess your IT business :

  • Do you know the IT strategy of all your organizations businesses?  If you don’t think they have an IT strategy, you may want to ask.
  • What was the last software that you installed for an end-user that was “non-standard”.  Do you know why they requested?
  • What was the last software that you didn’t install for an end-user.  Do you know what business need they were trying ti fill?
  • What was the last thing you did to increase productivity to an end-user?  Is this something that you brought to the table, or something they requested?  Did this actually increase their productivity?
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As a teacher

ChalkboardI, in general have been very quiet in the technical front as of late.  This last fall one of my very good friends and mentors Ron Choura passed away suddenly.  After loosing another close mentor of mine this just the year before it hit me really hard.  Both Ron and Dr. Muth were instrumental in my schooling and career advancement. 

With Ron Choura’s passing, his upcoming class was missing an instructor.  I was asked to fill in for the class that was set to start a few weeks later; I couldn’t think of a better tribute than to teach the class that I enjoyed most during my time at MSU.  My manager at my day job helped with the class as well.  The class was titled “Advanced Network Design” and had a focus on how the telecommunications world works from the phone jack of your house to the jack of the other person you called.  It also had a project where the students were to write an extensive RFP (Request for Proposal) for a telecommunications based company. 

The class itself went off without a hitch.  It made me realize how much work running a class like that really is.  Despite knowing the material cold (heck! it’s stuff I do during my day job), it still required about 12 – 14 hours of prep time for every week’s class.  Between prepping for the power-point, grading, setting up the next assignment and setting up the next exam (we had exams each week), it took a lot more man-power than I had ever expected out of a 4 hour class. 

I’ve been out of school for nearly 7 years at this point, so interacting with the students was very interesting.  When I found out I was going to be teaching the class, I immediately dove in and did the research as to what tools they would want to use to communicate, how to best reach out to them, etc.  I had a chance to reach out to my favorite EduTech professional Leigh who also gave me some useful pointers. 

 Some of the things that as a telecommunications professional I “knew” but my students made very apparent :

  • Not a single one of them had a land-line telephone at home.  Many of their parents didn’t have one at home either.
  • Only two of the students were on Twitter.  Most of them saw Twitter as what the older generation and celebrities used.
  • They all, at one time had MySpace accounts.  None of them have logged in to the service in ages.
  • Facebook is their primary communications method — but only to their friends. 
  • To many of them, the phone company IS their wireless provider. 
  • They see getting most of their telecommunications services (data/video) in the future either via wireless or fiber. 
  • They are not excited by offerings from their telecommunications providers — AT&T / Comcast / etc.  They feel there is always more marketing behind their offerings than substance.

All in all, the class was a lot of fun, and it gave me insight into how I can best offer MSU Telecom’s own services to the current generation of college students.

So, now all that is out-of-the-way — it’s time to return to my tech and telecom blogging 🙂

Creating Mobile Applications from a Photoshop Prototype

Thanks to Dr. Coursaris for this photo.

At the WUD Conference, East Lansing, MI

This past Thursday, I was given the opportunity to present on a really cool, but obscure topic — creating mobile applications from Photoshop prototypes, for the World Usability Day Conference.  Essentially, my job was to show people a workflow that is possible when using Adobe Device Central to create a Photoshop file, that is then turned into a working prototype using Adobe Catalyst, and then programmed using Adobe Flash Builder. 

All in all, the conference was excellent, and I was honored to be on stage after notable presenters from the State of Michigan, Motorola, Nokia and well, even the University of Michigan.  The focus of this year’s conference was on usability, and how it relates with mobile applications and devices, which was a perfect match for the presentation I was doing.

After my quick introduction to the subject, I demoed making a complete application from scratch and deployed it to a series of working phones.  I was able to accomplish this workflow in under a half hour, which was completely amazing for not only myself, but the audience too.  It is really cool to realize that the technologies that I’ve been using as betas for so long have actually matured to the point where I can use them to make real applications.

The session was recorded and hopefully will be posted online soon.  You can view my powerpoint here (I did have to disable the live voting, but I did keep the results for historical purposes), and download ALL the source code that and asset files that we used during the presentation here.  Please keep in mind, that the logos in the demo code are subject to the use standards found here

Thanks to the WUD East Lansing team for inviting me!

Computing in the Cloud… A thought

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At a recent conference I was at, I got in a rather lengthy conversation about Cloud Computing, and its effects on both society and computing.  My thoughts were in the minority, but I guess I come from a unique position.

Cloud Computing, for those who are not familiar with it, is the concept that you can load your applications and data into some server "out there" or "in the sky".  Your application may reside on a single server, or multiple servers — but you really don’t care.  Your data may be under your control, or it may be essentially rented to you for some price (this may not be in dollars, but in ad revenue).

What are my thoughts on it?  Cloud Computing is a great concept, but it is essentially taking us back to the old Client/Server days, except we no longer have control of our own destiny.  Sure, this may be great for personal, or projects that are no critical, but would you rely your business model on this?

One of the first examples people, or businesses bring up is Google’s gMail service. Google offers a crazy amount of email space which is always available to you as long as you are connected to the internet.  They ask for nothing in return, other than to retain your data (email), and serve you advertisements based on the email you get.  If you get lots of email on chemistry advancements, then you will get lots of advertisements for test tubes and petery dishes.  For most people, they would ask where they could sign up! The two problems I see with this is:

  • What happens to your sensitive data?   Google doesn’t care what your line of business is, but what about others that have access to Google’s data?  What would happen if an advertiser (competitor?) is able to drill into your data — data they may be entitled to because they paid for that advertisement.  Even if you are protected from such cases of accidental espionage, the fact that Google (or your service of choice) is building such a close taxonomy of your data, they know exactly what your business is up to — before your employees and shareholders for instance.  Remember, they essentially own this data, and you lease it from them.
  • What happens if the network is disrupted between you and them?  Sure this could happen if your resources are local, but in that instance you are in much further control of the availability of the data.  Could you last a day without access to your calendar, email, voice or other hosted applications?  How about two or three days?  If your internet connection goes down and you host these services locally, then chances are, while you will be in a rough spot, you can still operate your business. 

I keep seeing the trend of people moving to these services without much thought of the value of their data.  Have you ever read through the license agreement of your favorite cloud service?  Did your lawyer?  Do you even know where to find it?  I am a person who is very tied to many, many laws and regulations in my industry.  Not only do I have to worry about education specific laws such as FERPA, but I have to abide by many of the laws and regulations that the FCC and Homeland Security throw my way.  Oh, and did I mention that I’m paranoid about my constitutes intellectual property?  Michigan State University currently has a set of rules that prohibits the use of many popular cloud services for email or offline storage — a view that seems to be unpopular by the industry for some odd reason.

Another service, which I do tend to like a bit more (and do use for personal use) is Amazon’s cloud services.  In their setup, you essentially launch and maintain a computer out in the cloud.  You pay a per-minute charge for the amount of usage that you use, but you maintain full control and access to your own data.  You maintain the root password, you maintain the encryption, and you maintain the storage.  Now, you can still run into the issue of network connectivity, and its facacilities, but this style of service makes both me and my lawyers breathe a bit easier at night — we own our data 🙂

360|Flex Indy Wrap-Up

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So, another conference has come and gone… But as usual, 360|Flex rocked everybody’s socks off! This time around, I was asked to speak on ColdFusion, Flex and LCDS Magic, which ended up being a very fun and interesting topic to present on — well at the very least, I’m passionate about it :) 

I was also very fortunate to have one of the local companies, TechSmith come along with me.  Not only did they sponsor the show, but they also sponsored the Michigan Flex User Group’s transportation down to Indy!  Betsy and Brooks were excellent hosts, and continue to be great assets to the User Group, and the community at large.

The location of the show this time around was pretty awesome!  The show itself was held at an old train station, actually the first train station in the United States.  Great, beautiful halls, and lots of history made this place really unique.  If I wasn’t there to learn, I probably would have had my camera out all the time, snapping photos 🙂

As usual, the sessions were top notch.  Even topics that I convinced myself that I knew a lot about, I learned tons.  I was able to listen into Michael Labriola’s presentation hour long presentation on Arrays which was just excellent, and I was peek into Christian Contrats’s sessions on LCDS and Data Management.  I even learned a lot from Joe Johnston’s session on Design and UX processes 🙂

Overall, this conference continues to be my favorite, and I’m looking forward to 360|Flex 2010!

My session’s code samples, recording and power point will be posted soon 🙂

Innovation in Education

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This post is inspired by the MSU IT Conference Keynote by
Gerry McCartney.

The education sector in this day and age has really fallen behind
in its traditional role of innovation in the IT field.  Lets take a look at some history first:

Back in the 60’s and 70’s there were two camps as far as IT :  IBM/Bell and the Universities/Government.  Sure, there was some other small groups out there, such as Xerox, but for the most part ‘new’ things really came from those two places.  The big businesses were focused on deploying their technologies to other big businesses and selling their mainframes, etc Universities were focused on research, and actually creating these technologies. 

The most popular programming languages, C, C++, COBOL, PASCAL, PERL, etc. were all developed in the education sector. The TCP/IP stack, Email, HTTP browsing, etc were also a direct result of the education world. These are all things that essentially shaped where we have gone in the past 20 years.  A few more examples are in the hardware that we use — sure today’s PCs are based on IBM’s, Apple’s, et all’s designs, but a lot of the research from computing projects such as the
Atanasoff–Berry Computer (ABC), MIT TX-0, and the MISTIC resulted in advances such as vector processing, clustered memory access, and RAID.

Sure, the big boys of the time had their innovations too, but the universities were for the most part. apart of the leading edge.

So, where is the innovation today?  Gerry asked this question to the group and it really struck a chord with me.  Why didn’t universities pioneer the Search Engine?  The DVD-RW?  The latest wireless standard? 

Universities are most focused on the things that make them the most money — cures for cancer (yes, this is important), research on how to improve the process of making ethanol into fuel more efficiently, and better ways to finger print a person by their DNA. Bio-medicial stuff. If I were to ask which universities were doing research on, lets say, a new email protocol that wasn’t susceptible to spam, nobody would be raising their hands.

Why are the colleges of the USA forced to purchase anti-spam, anti-virus, email servers, directory servers, web servers, desktops, file servers, network gear, etc. from one of the largest companies in the world?  Why are better versions of what we can buy today not developed (or at least experimented with) in house?  Sure Linux is out there, but it has become a commercial enterprise.. There is very little left of Linux that was developed without the help of Novell, Corel, Red Hat or IBM (yes, this is a gross overstatement, but the point is to be made). 

Universities are currently teaching old, tried-and-true technologies to their students.  Students are learning Microsoft Office 2003, on Windows XP.  They are being taught Microsoft C#, and Sun Java.  Companies are paying for computer labs to give the students skills to do the basic knowledge to to jobs in the workforce.  Sure, that’s great.  But where is the innovation.  Why is it that students no longer come to their first job and say "When I was at xyz-U, I helped with research on a solid-state memory chip that could read and write in less than 1ns!"  Today they come to their first job and say "I know how to write a Visual Basic application that can say ‘Hello World’ on the screen." 

As our society transitions to a mode where remedial labor is cheap and intelligence is what sets us apart from the other countries that we sub outsource our work to, the colleges and universities need to grab the bull by the horn and find out what made us the place to be in the days of yore.  What possessed us to hand-build a super-computer in our labs?  What caused us to have our students work on an operating system that was unique just to us?  Why have these things gone on the way-side and left the void to be filled by the major corporations?

MSU IT Conference, etc.

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Well, the MSU IT conference is long and gone, so I’d figure I would write some sort of review of it.

All in all, it was a very well run and organized conference.  A conference consisting only of the people that you work with seems weird to people who work in small to medium sized companies, but when there are over 1,000 IT staff in a place that has 10,000+ workers (and 50,000+ people all together), you tend to build silos, and not communicate between them.  This conference was designed from the ground up to break these silos.  Things like assigned seating during meals with people you typically don’t know really helps with this.

Breakfast and the keynote speaker were great. 
Gerry McCartney, the Purdue CIO had an excellent speech about innovation within the education scope.  It made a couple things click in my mind, and really raised some questions within our own community.  I got to talk to him a bit after the keynote, and got to talk about the same innovation topic a bit. 

The sessions were good as usual. I got to sit in on Jeff Utter and Jeff Goke-Smith’s presentation on network security.  Both really know their stuff, so they made it difficult for me to give them a hard time.  Their presentation really should have been about two hours, but they did really well with the time they had.

After a brief lunch I had my session on VoIP technologies.  I had a packed room, with people standing by the door, and only two chairs left in the entire place. I talked about our department, what VoIP was, what were the pros and cons of using VoIP on your data network, and of course the demos. 

I had some great questions from the group, so the time I had for demos got greatly compressed, but that’s ok.  I showed :

  • EC-500
  • Unified Messaging
  • Avaya 4610 VPNremote Phone
  • Avaya  9640 IP Phone (with Calendaring and synced Contacts)
  • Avaya IP Softphone
  • Avaya 3645 WiFi Portable IP Telephone (with paging)
  • MSUtv (IPTV).

It was great to finally show some of these projects we have been working on.  I ran over by about 10 minutes, but just about everybody stuck around!

The final presentation I went to was proper techniques for deploying web applications.  It centered around PHP, and lots of OSS stuff, so it was neat to see another point of view.  A lot of the problems they were trying to solve were never really problems with ColdFusion, and the ones that were I’ve been implementing for quite a while already (by using SVN and things like that).

Finally, the conference wrapped up with a Q&A session with the guy who runs a majority of the IT on campus.  Lots of good questions, and really helped people figure out where our campus is going in the future.

Speaking at the MSU IT Conference

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Well, it seems that all I’ve really been talking about on here is what conferences I’m going to, or where I’m presenting.  This post continues that trend (sorry!).

On Wednesday, April 23rd, I will be traveling long and hard to speak at the MSU IT conference, just down the road from my office.  While this conference is MSU specific, I will be preseting on some of the new technologies that we are devloping in our office, including : IP Telset deployments, Presence, WiFi phones, Digital Cable, and a sneak peak at IPTV.  It should be lots of fun (if I can get the demos to work).

There’s Voice in Them There Wires: A Discussion About the State of VoIP on Campus
Nick Kwiatkowski, Michigan State University Telecom Systems

Voice-Over-IP (VoIP) has become a relatively familiar name, but very few MSU employees are aware of how it is used on campus, and what policies are in place for its use. MSU Telecom Systems has built a robust telephone network on campus that uses VoIP and includes many different voice-based applications. At this presentation, learn what VoIP is, how MSU Telecom uses it on campus, and what services are planned to be deployed in the future. See the new technologies such as the latest VoIP phones, WiFi phones, and Presence solutions.

If you work for MSU, or just want to see what is going on, the link is here. Register here.

Customer Service

I have always thought as customer service as one of the most important virtues for any business, public or private.  Why would people stand for being treated like a cow about to go to slaughter?  But it seems that regular customer service is just deteriorating away from underneath us in almost every angle.
Read more of this post

ACUTA Conference

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Just got back from the Fall ACUTA conference.  This conference is for higher-ed professionals in the IT field (specifically, the Telecom world).  This conference had two tracks — Emergency Preparedness and Mobile Communications.  I spoke in the Mobile Communications track on “Mobile Options at MSU.”  We (nearly) filled the house with what seemed to be about 60-70 people (which was great, considering there were about 120 people at the conference!  Not only that, but the demos actually worked!

Picture taken about 10 minutes before our sessionOur session covered MSU’s entrance into the “Mobile Communications World,” or as I call it, the modern world. In the past year, we began to roll out things such as SIP softphones, SIP hardphones, EC-500 and Unified Messaging.  Pretty much, all the buzzwords that you are hearing from the industry.  I also have a pet-project that I am working on that I showed the group called MSU Presence.  It allows users to run their own secure IM clients, all the while being able to communicate with people’s desktop telephones via IM and SIP.  Really neat stuff. 

All the SIP stuff seemed to amaze the audience.  They even asked us to submit our setup to some sort of awards thing they have going on at the national ACUTA conference.  We will see how that goes.

The other sessions of the conference only slightly interested me. Most of the topics in our track were about Wireless data technologies, which I really have nothing to do with.  It was pretty neat to see people presentations on 802.11n and Meru, but I really don’t have any application for them.

The other track really scared the hell out of me.  It had a lot to do with Disaster Planning, E-911 planning, Disaster Preparedness and the works.  It’s scary how many schools admitted they have done NOTHING to communicate to their respective communities that something bad happened on their campus.  While our campus has done something, I doubt it would work well (our police department likes to do things on their own, on the cheap, without input from others that may have advice or expertise on how those systems work).  One topic that was real interesting was the former director of the Firehouse in Columbine, CO during their event in 2000.  One thing that resonated with me from his speech was that all of the different departments that were involved (SWAT, Fire, EMS, School, etc.) all were tuning into the MEDIA for information, because they never thought they would have to communicate with each other to that point.  Each group was running their own scenarios, but had no way to interact among each other. Scary stuff.  What is even more scary is I’m sure this would still be a problem for a majority of the nation.

All in all, I’m glad to be back for a while — I don’t have any conferences I’m expecting to speak at for for at least a few months.  That should be nice 🙂