Don’t build technology, build Business Solutions

In case you forgot, most people are not in the technology business

Most people do not create software and information technology for a living. (This makes the world a lot more interesting than it would be if we all did so.) Instead, they work on providing the goods and services we all use everyday to live complete lives: housing, medical care, energy, food, entertainment, etc. Too many people in the technology business forget this. As a result, they focus on designing and delivering technology from the perspective of technologists. This tends to create hard-to-use products than can often miss their mark. If you do not believe this, take a look at all the comedy sketches and commercials that make fun of software crashes and that not-so-popular tech support guy.

We need to design technology for people who are not technologists

When we design technology, we need to start with the following questions:

  • Who do we intend will use it?
  • Why will they want to do this?
  • How will this make their life — or what they do for a living — better?

This is not a new concept. It has been around for years in many formats. The Chasm Group calls this product positioning. However, they did not invent the concept. The Rationale Unified Process (RUP) calls this the Problem Statement (and airs it with a Solution Position). Most of my friends in Marketing call this Market Positioning.

When we start with these questions, we build “Killer Aps” that are wildly successful. Many software and information technology examples come to mind, from WYSIWYG word processors to TiVo to iTunes.

This is just as important in the enterprise space

Often I hear people say that the above questions are great for consumer products but do not apply in the enterprise space. I am always confused when I hear this… Do people mean that we should not design enterprise products with a focus on enabling business (and public) leaders to make their day-to-day jobs running their companies and agencies easier, more intuitive and more productive? Just look at how successful SalesForce.com was at doing this. (Remember their “No Software” campaign tag line?)

What happens when we design enterprise products around the technology (instead of the business)? We create whole new problems when trying to solve old ones. When do know this has happened? When you hear things like “you need to do [X] because [System Y] requires this,” and start to see job postings for people to run System Y — or worse — enter data into (and run reports from) System Y. Why would you ever build something so non-intuitive that you need to create a whole new profession just to operate it?

We can avoid this in the enterprise space by building “business solutions”

I coined the term “Business Service” (in the context of software and information technology) about six months ago:

Busi•ness Solu•tions |’biznis səˈloō sh əns | (noun)

  1. A reusable configuration of technology designed specifically to solve an enterprise problem (or address an enterprise need)
  2. That does not require its end users to understand how the technology is designed, built or adminstrated
  3. Which directly solves a business problems of the enterprise (or meets and unforeseen need).

I found this definition to be a good litmus test: technologies that are Business Solutions support their customers’ businesses, technologies that are not need to be supported by their customers.

What happens when we build Business Solutions?

  • We generate huge ROIs
  • We make our colleagues’ (or customers’) professions easier
  • We build something soon businesses cannot do without

I challenge all of my fellow enterprise technologists to build Business Solutions

Note: I am currently CIO and Vice President of Technology at Neighborhood America. We have codified this concept into the term Business Services (you can read Gartner’s discussion of this concept, here)

What is the difference between Simple ASP and True SaaS?

What is an ASP?

asp-200pxWhat an ASP does for you can vary widely:

  • They can simply providing hosting services
  • They can build and host an application on your behalf
  • They can build, host and manage an application on your behalf (what management includes can also widely vary)

It is really important to check what you are getting when you purchase ASP services. If not, you will have to perform many services yourself. At a minimum, this will be costly. In the worst case, this may leave you in an impossible-to-manage situation (especially if you are not at IT company).

What is a SaaS provider?

Of course, SaaS means “software a service,” What does this really mean? It means the provider enables you to acquire, setup and manage your software as a something you simply pay for like a utility. As a result, you do not have to allocate any more resources to manage your software than you do for other high-feature utilities, such as conference services or your benefits program. This is incredibly useful (especially if you are not a technology company) as it lets you focus on your core business (instead of managing software)

So what is the difference between SaaS and ASP?

SaaS and ASP are not mutually exclusive from each other. SaaS-based solutions are those that fall into the upper-range of the continuum of ASP-based services:

asp_to_saas

Service Continuum: From Hosting Only to Full Software-as-a-Service

Everything is included in a true SaaS model:

  • Building (or Configuring) and installing your application
  • Hosting it in a secure, high-availability environment
  • Proactively managing it in terms of monitoring, performance tuning, conducting preventative maintenance and adding or removing capacity as needed
  • Performing updates as they become available (anyone who has ever managed an upgrade of their enterprise application or infrastructure can appreciate how valuable this is)

How do I know if I am getting SaaS or ASP?

Here is a basic “truth table” that will let you roughly gauge what you will get from your provider and what you will need to perform (on contract on your own)

A. Do I need a hosting provider?

Will the Provider host the purchased software for you? If not, you are dealing with an on-premises solution. See my last post for the costs associated with this type of solution. It may seem obvious to ask this, but I encounter situations every few months in which an associate of mine has been told by a vendor they are getting an ASP or “ASP-like” solutions — they only need to hire the hosting provider recommended by the vendor (at extra charge, of course)

B. Do I need an implementation vendor?

If the answer to any of the questions is “No” (actually if the answer is anything but a clear, unequivocal “Yes”), you will need to hire an Implementation Vendor. In many cases, the vendor will be certified by the application provider (to ensure a minimum level of consistency and quality). In all cases, this will require extra money (usually on a time-and-materials basis, usually under the nomenclature of “Professional Services”:

  • Will you capture all of my configuration needs from my business and technology stakeholders?
  • Will you configure and integrate the software to implement these?
  • Will you test these configurations and certify their correctness?
  • Will you project manage this whole process for me?

C. Do I need a systems administrator or systems admin services?

If the answer to any of the questions is “No,” you will need to acquire systems administration resources. Again, these can be additional services provided by a “partner” of the ASP vendor. They are often lumped into: Professional Services, Setup Services, or Systems Integration

  • Will you analyze my proposed transaction volume and determine my hardware needs?
  • Will you configure these servers (application and database) with the correct operating system, applications, and patches?
  • Will you install the software for me?
  • Will you verify correct operation of the software?

D. Do I need support services?

If the answer to any of the questions is “No,” you will need to acquire systems administration resources. Again, these can be additional services provided by a “partner” of the ASP vendor. They are often lumped into: Maintenance Services or Level 2 Support

  • Will you monitor the software’s operation to address problems that emerge pro-actively?
  • Will you monitor load to determine when you need to change the hardware footprint (up or down)?
  • Will you add or remove capacity in response to load changes?
  • Will you provide upgrades (on your own) as they become available (without requiring time and attention from me)?

E. Do I need help desk services?

If the answer to any of the questions is “No,” you will need to aquire a Help Desk or Customer Support service. Again, these can be additional services provided by a “partner” of the ASP vendor. They are often lumped into: Customer Support, Training, Level 1 Support or Help Desk services

  • Will you train my primary users?
  • Will you setup a help desk that they can contact to report issues, problems or questions?
  • If so, when will be open and how many ways can I contact them?
  • Will you provide a knowledge base to help my users based on my configuration?

Why SaaS is different?

When you have a full SaaS solution, you get “Yes” answers to all of the above. This makes it much easier to focus on your business (instead of building, setting up and (perpetually) managing an lower-tier ASP solution.

5 points where tech balances between life and work