Three Ways To Make Sure that Your Next Big Software Project Is A Success

This post also appeared on the Cloud for Good Blog today.

Buying a new fundraising CRM or replacing your finance and HR systems are big investments with critical outcomes. These are the types of projects can have a huge impact on your ability to accomplish your mission. Poorly planned, chosen and deployed, they will do the opposite. If you’re grasping for a cautionary tale, just look at the recent Healthcare.gov rollout, or the worse related stories in Maryland and Oregon. But successful implementations happen every day as well, they just don’t grab as many headlines.

How can you make sure that big software projects succeed?  Here are three recommendations:

1. Know what you need

All too often, the decision to replace a system is based more on frustrations with your current system than identified improvements that a new system might bring.  And, far too often, those frustrations aren’t really based on the capabilities of your existing system, but, instead, on the way that it was configured.  Modern software is highly configurable.  In nonprofit environments, where administrative staffing is low and people are juggling multiple priorities, the proper investment in that configuration is sometimes skipped. It’s important that you take the time to thoroughly catalogue your current processes and goals; clearly identify your reporting needs; and establish your core requirements before you embark for this sort of project.

Technology automates processes. If you automate bad processes, you get bad technology.  So making an investment in business process mapping, and taking the time to streamline and enhance the way you work with information today will insure that you know what your new system should be doing for you as you configure it.

2. Be prepared to change the way you do things

Ideally, you’ll invest in software that does exactly what you want it to do for you. In reality, there will be limitations in the way that the software was programmed, or the way that it has to be configured in order to integrate with your other applications, that will be out of sync with your preferences. Software doesn’t have a mind of it’s own; instead, it inherits the assumptions and biases of the developers that created it. They might assume, for instance, that you collect donations from individuals and have no need to recognize households in your system. Or they might assume that your average employee turnover is less than 20%, whereas, at a workforce development agency that hires its clients, 50% is more on the mark.  If the best system you can find suffers from some of these limitations,. you will have to either work around them, or buy the second best system, if it requires fewer workarounds, because you do want to minimize them.

Regardless, you’ll want to understand the underlying assumptions in the application and have a strategy for working around them. Some companies will go so far as to commission or design their own systems (commonly called “build” vs “buy”), but you need to weigh the cost of having a supported system vs. a homegrown one, because, unless what you do is truly unique, those will not be worthwhile trade-offs.

3. Hire a consultant for their expertise and compatibility, not their billing rate

We all want to get these projects done for as little money as possible. So there’s a tendency to hire consultants based on the lowest bid. I’d caution against this. major system configuration projects are generally open-ended — determining the exact configuration and number of hours that it will take to get there before the project starts is akin to inviting the whole city to a dinner party and determining the number of plates that you’ll require before anyone RSVPs. So you want to work with consultants who are very efficient at their work, and very conversant with your needs. What you don’t want to do is hand your project to a consultant who doesn’t really understand your requirements, but has their own idea as to how it should be done.  You could well be left with a system that met the budget, but not your needs, or one that exceeded the budget while being reworked to satisfy your requirements. A good consultant will work closely with you.  they’ll spend more time meeting with staff to learn about your needs then they will setting up the project, but they’ll set it up quickly and correctly based on their thorough understanding of your goals and needs. The hourly rate might be double the low bid, but the total cost could be equivalent, resulting in a usable system that will compensate for the initial dollar outlay all that much faster.

Here are slides that I developed for a talk/discussion on creating Requests for Proposals that vendors will appreciate at the recent Nonprofit Technology Conference.  These include some key strategies for making sure that you hire the right person or firm.

In conclusion, how you go about a software project has far more to do with how you conduct your business than it does with the actual technology.  Make sure that you’re investing wisely by taking the time to understand your needs, know where you can compromise, and hire the best partners.

The Palotta Problem

uncharitableIf I have a good sense of who reads my blog, you’re likely familiar with Dan Palotta, notable in the nonprofit world for having raised significant amounts of money running the Aids Rides and Breast Cancer walks.  More recently, he’s become a outspoken and controversial crusader for reform in the sector.  He did a much-viewed Ted talk, and he’s written a few books outlining his case that “The way we think about charity is dead wrong”. And he keynoted the recent NTEN conference in Minneapolis.

Palotta’s claim is that nonprofits, in general, are their own worst enemies. By operating from a puritanical, self-sacrificing ethic that says that we can’t pay ourselves as well as for profit companies do, and we can’t invest heavily in marketing and infrastructure, instead prioritizing that every penny go to our program work, we are dramatically ineffective. He is advocating for a revolution against our own operating assumptions and the Charity Navigators, tax codes and foundations that are set up to enforce this status quo.

His message resonates. I watched his Ted talk, and then his NTEN plenary, and tears welled in my eyes on both occasions   They were tears of frustration, with an undercurrent of outrage.  I doubt very seriously that my reaction was very different from that of the other 1500 people in the room.  We are all tired of the constant struggle to do more with much less, while we watch entertainers, athletes and corporate CEOs pocket millions. Or billions.  And this is not about our salaries.  It’s about the dramatic needs of the populations we serve; people who are ransacked by poverty and/or disease. Should reality TV stars be pocketing more than most NPOs put annually toward eradicating colortectal cancer or providing legal assistance to the poor?

But, as I said, Palotta is a controversial figure, and the reactions to him are extreme to the point of visceral.  Even among his most ardent supporters, there’s a bit of criticism.  The key critical threads I heard from my NTEN peers were distrust of the implied argument that the corporate model is good, and frustration that a person who did well financially running charities is up there being so critical of our self-sacrifices.  In fact, since his nonprofit went under amid a storm of criticism about his overhead ratio.  Reports are that it was as much as 57% (depending on how much the reporter dislikes Palotta, apparently). That’s between 17% and 42% more than what nonprofits are told to shoot for, and are assessed against. But the amount of money he raised for his causes was ten times that of any similar efforts, and it does dramatically illustrate his point. How much opportunity to raise money is lost by our requirement that we operate with so little staff and resources?

I’m sold on a lot of Dan Palotta’s arguments. I don’t think that NPO’s have to emulate corporations, but they should have equal opportunity to avail themselves of the business tactics, and be measured by how effective they are, not how stingy. But I still can’t rally behind Dan Palotta as the leader for this cause.  It’s one thing to acknowledge that the nature of the “do-gooder” is one of austerity and self-sacrifice. It’s another to criticize it. Because, while most of us can recognize the disadvantages that our nature tends towards, we’re proud of that nature. It’s not as much a bad business orientation as it is a core ethical life view. The firm belief that relieving the suffering of others is of greater personal satisfaction and value than any financial reward pretty much fuels our sector. So standing on a stage and chastising us for not being more competitive, more greedy, and more self-serving, no matter how correct the hypothesis, primarily offends the audience.

By putting this criticism front and center, rather than acknowledging the good intentions and working with us to balance them with a more aggressive business approach, Palotta is undermining his own efforts. The leader who is going to break these institutional assumptions is one who will appreciate the heart of the charity worker, not one who – despite their good intentions – denigrates us. I applaud Palotta for raising a lot of awareness. But I’m still waiting to meet the people who will represent us in this battle. Palotta has raised the flag, but I’m not convinced that he’s our bannerman.

The Role of Information Technology At Nonprofits NTC Panel

Just in case this late addition to the Nonprofit Technology Conference Agenda slipped your radar, I want to plug it.

Nonprofits and IT, a “Big Idea” panel, Saturday, 10:30 AM, Ballroom G: http://myntc.zerista.com/event/member/76206

As regular readers of my blog know well, nonprofits have struggled with the integration of technology strategy and leadership in their organizations. Since I transitioned to a career in the sector in 2000, there has been a clear acknowledgement that this integration is critical, but there’s still been a lot of uncertainty as to how it’s done. NPO’s now get that integrating finance, ECRM and donor databases is critical; migrating to the cloud is imminent; and telephones are now computing devices. But they wrestle with questions like “Where does IT report?”, “How much should we pay IT staff?” and “What is IT responsible for? Servers? Web site? Donor database?”

I’ll be sitting on the panel with :

  • Donny Shimamoto, CEO of Intraprise Techknowlogy, a nonprofit-focused consulting firm in Honolulu;
  • Michael Enos, CTO of Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties, CA; and
  • Laura Quinn, CEO of Idealware.

Lindsay Martin-Bilbrey, NTEN’s Program Director, will moderate the session.

We’ll tackle the big questions, like what is the role of the CIO? Will IT be necessary when we’re all in the cloud? And, my favorite (one to debunk!), Should you replace your Chief Information Officer with a Chief Digital Marketing Officer? I know that the members of the panel won’t agree on everything, either, so the conversation should be robust.  We’ll leave plenty of time for audience questions.  If, like me, you consider these questions to be of critical importance, I do hope you’ll join us.

The Nonprofit Management Gap

I owe someone an apology. Last night, a nice woman that I’ve never met sent me an email relaying (not proposing) an idea that others had pitched. Colleagues of mine who serve in communications roles in the nonprofit sector were suggesting a talk on “Why CIOs/CTOs should be transitioned into Chief Digital and Data Officers”.  And, man, did that line get me going.

Now, I’m with them on a few points: Organizations that rely on public opinion and support to accomplish their mission, which includes the majority of nonprofits, need to hire marketers that get technology, particularly the web.  And those people need to be integrated into upper management, not reporting to the Development VP or COO.  It’s the exact same case I make for the lead technologist role.

Let’s look at a few of these acronyms and titles:

COO – Chief Operating Officer.  In most NPOs that have one, this role oversees operations while the CEO oversees strategy and advances the mission with the public.

CIO – Chief Information Officer.  CIOs are highly placed technologists whose core job is to align technology to mission-effectiveness.  In most cases, because we can’t afford large staffs, CIOs also manage the IT Department, but their main value lies in the business planning and collaboration that they foster in order to integrate technology.

Some companies hire CTOs: Chief Technology Officers.  This is in product-focused environments where, again, you need a highly placed technologist who can manage the communication and expectations between the product experts and the technical staff designing and developing the products for them.

IT Director – An IT Director is a middle manager who oversees technology planning, budgeting, staff and projects. In (rare) cases, they report to a CIO or CTO.  In the nonprofit world, they are often the lead technologists, but they report up to a COO or VP Admin, not the CEO.

CMO – Chief Marketing Officer.  This is a new role which, similar to CIO, elevates the person charged with constituent engagement to the executive level.

This is how many nonprofit CEOs think about technology:

Public Domain Image

Say you, at home, have a leaky faucet.  It’s wasting water and the drip is driving you crazy.  You can’t just tear out the sink — you need that.  So you hire a plumber.  Or, if you have the opportunity, you get your accidental te– I mean, acne-dented teenager to read up on it and fix the leak for you.  So now you have a plumber, and your sink is no longer dripping. Great!
Now you want to remodel your house.  You want to move the master bath downstairs and the kitchen to the east side.  That’s going to require planning. Risk assessment. Structural engineering. You could hire a contractor — someone with the knowledge and the skill to not only oversee plumbing changes, but project management, vendor coordination, and, most important, needs assessment. Someone who knows how to ask you what you want and then coordinate the effort so that that’s what you get.  So, what should you do?
Have the plumber do it.  He did a good job on the leak, right?
Every job that I’ve had since 1990 has, at the onset, been to fix the damage that a plumber did while they were charged with building a house.  Sometimes I’ve worked for people who got it, saw that they needed my communication skills as much or more than they needed my technical expertise.  At those jobs, I was on a peer level with the other department heads, not one lower.  Other times, they expected me to be just like the plumber that I replaced. They were surprised and annoyed when I tried to tell them that what they really needed was to work with me, not delegate to me.  At those jobs, I was mostly a highly-functional pain in the ass.

Some of those jobs got bad, but here’s how bad it can get when management just doesn’t get technology.

So, back to my rant, here’s my question: why would we increase the strategic role of marketing at the expense of strategic technology integration?  Is that a conscious desire to move just as far backward as we’re moving forward?  Is this suggestion out of a frustration that people who manage technology aren’t exclusively supporting communications in our resource-strapped environments? In any case, it’s a sad day for the sector if we’re going to pitch turf wars instead of overall competence.  There is no question: we need high level technologists looking after our infrastructure, data strategy, and constituent engagement. But we can’t address critical needs by crippling other areas.

Get Your IT In Order — I Can Help

While I look for that new job (see below), I’m available for IT consulting gigs.

Not every NPO has a full-time IT Director, and outsourced services can provide some guidance, but many of them aren’t focused on the particular needs of nonprofits.  I’ve had considerable experience running IT Departments, consulting and advising NPOs, and developing strategies for maximizing the impact of technology in resource-constrained environments. This gives me a unique skill set for providing mission-focused guidance on these types of questions:

  • What should IT look like in my organization? In-house or outsourced, or a mix? Where should It report in? How much staff and budget is required in order to get the desired outcomes?
  • What type of technology do we need? In-house or cloud-based? How well does what we have serve our mission, and how would we replace it?
  • We’re embarking on a new systems or database project (fundraising/CRM, HR/finance, e-commerce, outcomes measurement/ client tracking, virtualization, VOIP phones – you name it). How can we insure that the project will be technologically sound and sustainable, while meeting our strategic needs?

The services and deliverables that I can offer include:

  • Assessments
  • Strategic plans
  • Staffing plans
  • Immediate consulting and/or project management on current projects
  • Acting CIO/Director status to help put things in order

If you want some tactical guidance in these areas, please get in touch.

 

Looking For A New Job

Today is my last day at Earthjustice, coinciding almost exactly with my first day at the job five years ago. Some of you might ask why I would leave one of the best orgs on earth, and I’ll discuss that below.  But, right up front, I want to tell you about the two things I’m looking for and ask you to be on the lookout for me. Here’s my resume.

First, A CIO/VP/Director Technology position that meets the following criteria:

  • Serves a mission that improves lives.  I’m not terribly picky about which mission — social/economic justice, environmental, educational, etc. Nor does it have to be a nonprofit, if the for-profit has a social good component factoring in it’s bottom line. I’m a big believer in social enterprise models, and my combined business/NPO background is well-suited for that environment.
  • Presents a good challenge.  A decent sized company, somewhere between 200 and 2000 employees, with multiple locations.  I have a strong background putting in the standard data and communications systems, but I think my best talent, as demonstrated by my work at Lillick & Charles and Goodwill, is in data strategy and integration. So my dream job includes, but is more than just managing the staff and systems.  I want to take an organization closer to their mission via their technology.
  • Pays enough for me to be the sole provider for my family.  Not looking to be wealthy, but my partner has the harder job doing the homeschooling, so we need to get by on one income.
  • A direct report to the CEO.  This is my new requirement; I used to think that it was acceptable to report to the COO, but my recent experiences have proven that organizations that don’t consider technology an important enough topic to sit on the executive team don’t get technology. You can install servers from middle management, but you can’t sufficiently prepare for and oversee the organizational change required for putting in strategic systems like CRMs and information management tools. I’m not power-hungry, and I have no care to dictate strategy. But deploying technology requires collaboration and cooperation across departments, so I need a position that puts me on the team that sets organizational priorities and direction.
  • Any geographic location. Most of these jobs are on the east coast, and we have lots of family there, so, while we love the SF Bay, we’re willing to relocate.

Finding this job won’t be a slam dunk, so I’m also looking for temporary gigs to keep my family afloat while I look for this position.  I’m best suited for Acting CIO/Project Management work or IT management consulting. But I’m open for all sorts of things, and, as an IT Generalist with plenty of hands on installation and development experience mixed in with the management skills, there are a lot of things that I can do.

So why did I leave the best org on earth? It’s not because I don’t deeply respect the work being done at Earthjustice, and I’ll miss the people, particularly my staff. In some ways, it’s because I was spoiled by other jobs.

In the 90′s, I architected a data strategy for a commercial law firm that, by 2000, had all data systems integrated for single data entry, with other systems being automatically updated, and most applications, including the Intranet, hooked into Outlook — document management, CRM, voicemail, etc.  It thrilled the efficiency geek in me to have a clean, managed data platform and an easy to use portal, a bit ahead of the rest of the corporate world.
At Goodwill, I built an intranet platform that eventually included a sophisticated retail management and reporting system that served Goodwill’s thrift needs far more directly than any commercial product.  I started the e-commerce business, which is now the most profitable store there, yielding the highest-paying jobs for their clients.
In both cases, my technology planning, strategy and creativity came into play, and the results were measurable.  I realized soon after I landed at Earthjustice that what was wanted from IT was something less challenging.  Earthjustice is an organization that does amazing legal and advocacy work protecting the environment, and the people who work there are brilliant.  But, so far, they haven’t been focused on using technology to manage or analyze the case work. Accordingly, I got to do some great work there, including greening the server room and rolling out VOIP and video.  But the work wasn’t as transformative, or as demanding of my talents, as work I’ve done elsewhere. It was all about the infrastructure and not so much about information.
It was a great comfort knowing that, at the end of the day, even if they weren’t using technology the way that I thought they should, they were still an amazingly effective organization doing some of the most important work of our time.  That tempered my frustration, and carried me through five years.  I think they will reach a point where they see more value in data and document management systems — presumably, my successor there will get to take on those projects. I’ve brought the technology to a stable point and built a good team to manage and support it, so this is a good time for me to move on.
If you’ve read this far, then you are likely a member of my extended nptech network and a friend. I’m not going to get the type of job described above by submitting cold resumes: I’m asking you to alert me to opportunities and, if possible, refer me in to the ones that fit. I’m counting on your help.
And if you’re an IT Director looking for a great job with an amazing org, you should check this opportunity out.

Sleazy Sales Tactics and Social Networks

usedcar
Image courtesy bonkedproducer

This is a public service announcement (aka rant) intended for IT product and service reps. In a nutshell:

If your spam and cold calls haven’t resulted in a business relationship, tracking me down personally on LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook won’t work either.

Let’s be clear: it’s not a secret that I have purchasing responsibility for IT at my company, and my business contact info is easy to find (or purchase). Mind you, I don’t hire companies based on their ability to locate that information and email or call me. I hire consultants and purchase products based on the recommendations in my communities. So cold contacting me might be inexpensive and easy for you to do, but all it tells me is that you don’t respect my time or privacy and you can’t sustain your business based on quality and word of mouth. Two strikes against you, whereas, before you cold-contacted me, you had none.

But, in failing to spam me into a relationship, taking it to LinkedIn or the contact form here is taking your pathetic and unprofessional approach to marketing into a whole new realm of sleaziness and creepitude. Cold-contacting me at my business email or on my business phone is annoying and pathetic, but far more appropriate that tracking down my personal, non-business addresses and contacting me at those. It’s called stalking.

I’m looking at you, Server Technologies. The fact that you’ve spammed me in the past does not mean that we have an established business relationship, as your LinkedIn invite falsely indicates.

And local IT Recruiters 58 and Foggy — you take the cake. Within two minutes, out of the blue, you cold-called my work number, emailed me personally via this blog, and sent me a LinkedIn invite. That was so over the top annoying that I not only will never do business with you, I’ll make sure that all of my professional acquaintances are warned away.

Because I seriously question what a company that violates my privacy as a means of introduction would do if I actually relied on them and dealt with them financially. Ethical behavior? Not a safe thing to assume. Professionalism? Already in the toilet.

Social networks offer a great avenue for the type of business promotion that works for me — word of mouth. Sincere recommendations from people who think you’re good at what you do because they’ve used your products or services. You can foster my business by doing well enough with your current customers that they will speak well of you online. You can also demonstrate your expertise by publishing materials and distributing them on Slideshare and other public repositories (including your web site, of course). If you put your energy into establishing your credentials, instead of shoving your uncertified opinion that you’re great into every channel that you can reach me through, you’ll get a shot at my business. But using these networks to harass and annoy potential customers is incredibly stupid and short-sighted.

The SysAdmin Trap

Terry Childs is Guilty.

In mid-2008, Terry Childs, the (then) System Administrator for the City of San Francisco, was called into a meeting with the COO (his boss); the CIO of the SF Police Department; a Human Resources representative; and, unbeknownst to Terry, by phone, a few of the engineers he managed. He was ordered to share the system passwords for the network. He made them up. Subsequently challenged with this fact, he refused to reveal the passwords, ending up in a city jail cell.

Close to two years later, Childs has been found guilty of felonious computer tampering and faces up to five years in prison (he’ll likely be let off in two, with his racked time counting toward the total).

Open and shut, right?  The city claims, and the court found it believable, that Childs’ obstinate refusal to provide passwords resulted in over $200,000 lost city revenue.  He lied to his employer.  He held the city ransom.

Childs’ defense has always been that he was protecting the city’s network.  He wasn’t going to share sensitive passwords with people who, in his estimation, wouldn’t respect the sensitivity of those passwords, and would likely share them other employees and contractors.

To my mind, while that’s a valid concern, it doesn’t clear him.  He still works for the person who was asking for the passwords, and he was obligated to provide them.

The real crime here, though, is not that Childs’ hoarded the keys to the system. It’s that the meeting occurred at all, and the reasons that it came to the point of a stand-off are all too criminally common.  Was Childs guilty? Sure! But others shared guilt in bringing it to that point.  Consider:

  • The System Administrator reported to the COO.  No CIO? No VPIT? No IT Director?  This means that there was a gap between the absolute tech and the non-technical businessperson, and that’s a critical layer, particularly for an organization as large as the government of a major U.S. city.
  • There were no policies governing use of system passwords. The fact that Childs was allowed to be the sole keeper of the entire network was a lapse in operations that never should have been allowed.
  • Childs was a city employee for ten years.  If there were concerns about his trustworthiness or reliability, shouldn’t they have been addressed earlier in that decade?

All too often, IT departments are isolated from the organizations they serve.  Part of this is due to the nature of technology work and techies — we speak a language of our own; enjoy working with the tools that many people find obstructive and confusing; and the majority of us are not very good at casual socializing. More of it is due to the fact that most people — including the CEOs and VPs — don’t get technology, and don’t know how to integrate technology tools and purveyors into the organization.

But that lack of comprehension shouldn’t be a license for persecution.  Everyone’s a loser here, most personally Childs, but the city suffered from a situation they created by not investing properly in technology.  And, by investing, I don’t just mean hiring the right amount of staff and equipment — I mean that CEOs, COOs and everyone up the chain has to step out of their comfort zone and either learn more; hire staff and consultants to vet and translate; or, optimally, both.  The CEO doesn’t have to be as knowledgeable as Bill Gates, but they have to have educated oversight on how IT is run that “gets” what IT is about and how the technology practitioners operate.

As much as Terry Childs is guilty of a crime, he’s tenfold a victim of one, and it’s a cautionary tale for any of us who work in environments where management is happy to let us build a big, isolated kingdom.

What drove Terry Childs to commit a felony was a crime unto itself.

Putting The Tech Back In Nonprofit Technology

We’re all back from the Nonprofit Technology Conference, where nine of the ten Idealware bloggers congregated, along with some 1,440 of our peers in the nptech community. What a gas! NTC, as we call the conference, is what high school would have been like if everyone had been a member of the popular clique. The combination of peer education and celebration of our common interest in saving the world with heart and technology make for an exuberant occasion. And I can’t say enough about the awe and appreciation I have for Holly, Anna, Annaliese, Brett, Sarah and Karl, and the amazing event that they recreate year after year for us.

But, enough gushing. One of my (many) rants regards my concern that, although the biggest group of people that we call “nptechies” are the ones who support technology in their organizations, our biggest nptech conferences focus heavily on social media and the web (NTC, Netsquared, and now SXSW). It is true that the advent of social media and the interactive web is spawning a revolution in the way that we do advocacy and fundraising. But there is no less of a revolution in our server rooms, where virtualization, cloud computing and wireless devices are changing the entire way that we manage and deliver applications.

Our System Administrators, Support Specialists and Accidental Techies need to share in the peer support that can inform their efforts and help them feel more connected, both to their missions and the broader community. This year, in deference to a throat getting hoarse from ranting, I took a first stab at addressing this gap.

The Tech Track

The tech track was conceived as a six session “mini” track; five of the proposed sessions made the cut. The topics went from the basics to the broad overview:

  • Tech Track 1: Working Without a Wire (But With a Net): Dealing with Wireless Networks, Laptops, and Cell Phones
  • Tech Track 2: Proper Plumbing: Virtualization and Networking Technologies
  • Tech Track 3: Earth to Cloud: When, Why and How to Outsource Applications
  • Tech Track 4: Budget vs Benefits: Providing Top Class Technology in Constrained Resource Environments
  • Tech Track 5: Articulating Tech: How to Win Friends and Influence Luddites.

Joining me in these sessions were fellow blogger Johanna Bates of OpenIssue, Matt Eshleman of CITIDC, Tracy Kronzak of Applied Research Center, John Merritt of the San Diego YMCA, Michelle Murrain of OpenIssue, Michael Sola of National Wildlife Federation and Thomas Taylor of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance.

Subject Matter

Instead of doing the usual Powerpoint presentations and talking to the crowd, we pulled the chairs into circles for these sessions and put the session agenda up for grabs, asking each group what issues, related to the session topic, were foremost in their minds. The conversation was rich, and served as a healthy catalogue of the challenges facing nonprofit technology practitioners. Some highlights:

  • Supporting remote laptop use in a western state with very little wireless bandwidth available
  • Securing our networks while making network data accessible on mobile devices
  • Supporting use of and crafting fair policies to address the boom in mobile devices
  • Understanding the risks and benefits of virtualizing servers and desktops
  • Knowing how and when to virtualize, and how Storage Area Networks fit in the big picture
  • Weighing the risk of cloud computing, which also entails weighing the risks of our non-cloud networks
  • Knowing what to ask a cloud provider to insure that data is safe, even in the case of the provider going out of business
  • Assessing the cost of owned vs service-provided applications
  • Assessing the readiness of Cloud Computing, and moving large, complex server rooms to the cloud
  • Chickens and eggs: what to do when IT is asked to budget, but is not part of the planning process prior?
  • What strategies can be applied to provide good technology with limited budgets?
  • What tools and resources are available to help with the budgeting process?
  • How can we engage our users when we roll out new technology?
  • How do we get them to attend training?

Next week, I’ll follow this up with some of the answers we came up with for these questions.

Dealing With Domains – Part 1

.biz .com .edu .org .net .gov .info .mil

Domain Name Management: not a very sexy topic. This will be a rare post for me that won’t mention popular search engines, the latest “superphone“, content management or rumored tablets. But I hope I can provide a good glossary on a geeky subject that anyone with a web site sporting their organization’s name has to deal with.

You have a web site and you have a domain, and as long as the web site is up and running, everything is fine. But what happens if your domain is hijacked? What if you need to make changes to your domain registration, or register a new one, and your registrar is simply disinterested? What if they go out of business? Your domain name is a valuable property, and you should keep it in pro-active and trustworthy hands.

How Domain Registration Works

Domain registrars provide the service of keeping your domain name mapped with current information so that it can be found on the web. Domain names are meaningful aliases for numeric IP addresses, and aren’t technically required in order to host a web site. But, the internet would be hard to navigate if we could only find things by their numeric addresses.

The primary thing that a registrar does is to keep your contact (whois) data maintained; point your domain to the appropriate name servers; and allow you to move your domain to another registrar if you choose to.

Domain Services

In addition to domain registration, most registrars offer additional services, such as:

DNS Management (address mapping) for subdomains (which allows you to host your main domain on one server, but, perhaps, an online store called “store.yourdomain.com” on another server),

Aliasing of Addresses (so that both http://yourdomain.com and http://www.yourdomain.com go to the same place),

Backup Mail Handling, so, should your primary mail server go down, messages sent to you will be stored until they come back around;

Web Forwarding, so you can, say, register yourdomain.org, yourdomain,.com and yourdomain.net, but forward all visitors to the .com and .net sites to your website at yourdomain.org.

SSL (Secure Socket Layer) Certificates, to encrypt sensitive data, like online donation forms.

Things to Look For in a New Registrar

  1. Are they accredited? ICANN, the organization that oversees domain management , accredits registrars. If they aren’t on ICANN’s list, they aren’t trustworthy.
  2. Do they add a year to the existing expiration date, or charge you for a full year as of engagement? They should do the former.
  3. Do they offer automated access to all functions (via web forms), including locking/unlocking domains, retrieval of authorization (EPP) codes, and modification of all whois records? (Some registrars prefer to list themselves as the technical contact. It should be up to you whether they can have an official name on your domain, not them).
  4. Do they list a telephone number, and is it promptly answered during business hours?
  5. Do they respond promptly to emails and support requests? The ability to communicate with your registrar is rarely needed, but, when it is, it’s critical – you don’t want them out of the loop if your domain is subject to an attempted hijack.
  6. Do they offer the ability to manage DNS for mail servers and subdomains? While this is an added feature, it’s common enough to be worth expecting.
  7. Do they have any additional services (examples above)? While these supplemental services are far from critical, they are convenient. More to the point, a company that is engaging in a robust suite of services is more likely to be focused on their business. The truth is that anyone can be a domain registrar, if they make the proper investment, but whether it’s a going concern or a neglected piece of extra income for them is a question you’ll want to ask.

Next week: Safely transferring domains and a word on web hosting completes the topic.