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.

Everything That You Know About Spam Is Wrong

At least, if everything you know about it is everything that I knew about it before last week. I attended an NTEN 501TechClub event where Brett Schenker of Salsa Labs spoke on how the large mail services identify Spam emails.  It turns out that my understanding that it was based primarily on keywords, number of links and bulk traits is really out of date.  While every mail service has their own methods, the large ones, like GMail and Yahoo!, are doing big data analysis and establishing sender reputations based on how often their emails are actually opened and/or read. You probably have a sender score, and you want it to be a good one.

Put another way, for every non-profit that is dying to get some reasonable understanding of how many opens and clicks their newsletters are getting, Google could tell you to the click, but they won’t.  What they will do is judge you based on that data.  What this really means is that a strategy of growing your list size could be the most unproductive thing that you could do if the goal is to increase constituent engagement.

As Brett explained (in a pen and paper presentation that I sadly can not link to), if 70% of your subscribers are deleting your emails without opening them, than that could result in huge percentages of your emails going straight to the spam folder.  Accordingly, the quality of your list is far more critical than the volume. Simply put, if you send an email newsletter to 30,000 recipients, and only 1000 open it, your reputation as a trustworthy sender drops.  But if you send it to 5000 people and 3500 of them open it, you’ve more than tripled the engagement without soiling your email reputation.

I know that this goes against the grain of a very established way of thinking.  Percentage of list growth is a simple, treasured metric.  But it’s the wrong one.

Here’s what you should do:

  • Make sure that your list is Opt-In only, and verify every enrollment.
  • Don’t buy big lists and mail to them. Just don’t! Unless you have solid reasons to think the list members will be receptive, you’ll only hurt your sender score.
  • Put your unsubscribe option in big letters at the top of each email
  • Best of all, send out occasional emails asking people if they want to keep receiving your emails and make them click a link if they want to.  If they don’t click it, drop them.
  • Keep the addresses of the unsubscribed; inviting them to reconnect later might be a worthwhile way to re-establish the engagement.

Don’t think for a minute that people who voluntarily signed up for your lists are going to want to stay on them forever.  And don’t assume that their willingness to be dropped from the list indicates that they’ll stop supporting you.

Even better, make sure that the news and blog posts on your web site are easy to subscribe to in RSS.  We all struggle with the mass of information that pushes our important emails below the fold.  Offering alternative, more manageable options to communicate are great, and most smartphones have good RSS readers pre-installed.

One more reason to do this?  Google’s imminent GMail update, which pushes subscriptions out of the inbox into a background tab.  If most people are like me, once the emails are piling up in the low priority, out of site subscriptions tab, they’ll be more likely to be mass deleted.

Google Made Me Cry

Well, not real tears. But the announcement that Google Reader will no longer be available as of July 1st was personally updating news.  Like many people,  over the last eight years, this application has become as central a part of my online life as email. It is easily the web site that I spend the most time on, likely more than all of the other sites I frequent combined, including Facebook.

What do I do there? Learn. Laugh. Research. Spy. Reminisce. Observe. Ogle. Be outraged. Get motivated. Get inspired. Pinpoint trends. Predict the future.

With a diverse feed of nptech blogs,  traditional news,  entertainment, tech, LinkedIn updates, comic strips and anything else that I could figure out how to subscribe to,  this is the center of my information flow. I read the Washington Post every day,  but I skim the articles because they’re often old news. I don’t have a TV (well, I do have Amazon Prime and Hulu).

And I share the really good stuff.  You might say, “what’s the big deal? You can get news from Twitter and Facebook”  or “There are other feed readers.”

The big deal is that the other feed readers fall in three categories:

  1. Too smart: Fever
  2. Too pretty: Feedly, Pulse
  3. Too beta: Newsblur, TheOldReader
“Smart” readers hide posts that aren’t popular, assuming that I want to know what everyone likes, instead of research topics or discover information on my own. There’s a great value to knowing what others are reading; I use Twitter and Facebook to both share what I find and read what my friends and nptech peers recommend.  I use my feed reader to discover things.
Pretty readers present feed items in a glossy magazine format that’s hard to navigate through quickly and hell on my data plan.
The beta readers are the ones that look pretty good to me, until I have to wait 45 seconds for a small feed to refresh or note that their mobile client is the desktop website, not even an HTML5 variant.

What made Google Reader the reader for most of us was the sheer utility.  My 143 feeds generate about 1000 posts a day.  On breaks or commutes, I scan through them, starring anything that looks interesting as I go.  When I get home from work, and again in the morning, I go through the starred items, finding the gems.

Key functionality for me is the mobile support. Just like the web site, the Google Reader Android app wins no beauty contests, but it’s fast and simple and supports my workflow.

At this point, I’m putting my hopes on Feedly, listed above as a “too pretty” candidate.  It does have a list view that works more like reader does.  The mobile client has a list view that is still too graphical, but I’m optimistic that they’ll offer a fix for that before July.  Currently, they are a front-end to Google’s servers, which means that there is no need to export/import your feeds to join, and your actions stay synced with Google Reader (Feedly’s Saved Items are Google’s Starred, wherever you mark them).  Sometime before July, Feedly plans to move to their own back-end and the change should be seamless.

July is three months away. I’m keeping my eyes open.  Assuming that anyone who’s read this far is wrestling with the same challenge, please share your thoughts and solutions in the comments.

 

 

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.

Talking Databases For A Change

NTEN‘s new issue of Change is out and I got a chance to sound off to Idealware‘s Chris Bernard about the dream of “one database to rule them all” — doing all of your organization’s Constituent Relationship Management (CRM) in a single system. My interview is on page 22, but the whole issue is a dream for NPO’s struggling with wrangling information.

Suggestion: use a big monitor to view this. Change is a great magazine, but the Bluetoad viewer is somewhat tough to use on small screens.

NTEN Change, Issue 4

Talking NPTech in Marin

Yesterday I joined my frequent collaborators John Kenyon and Susan Tenby at the Marin Nonprofit Conference, where we presented a 90 minute panel on nptech, from servers to tweets. John deftly dished out the web strategy while Susan flooded us with expert advice on how to avoid social media pitfalls. I opened up the session with my thesis: You have too many servers, even if you have just one”. I made the case that larger orgs can reduce with virtualization tech and smaller orgs should be moving to the cloud. The crowd in Marin was mostly from smaller orgs, so I focused the talk more on the cloud option, and that’s where I got all of the conversation going. My goal with the slides was to do a semi “ignite”, given that I only had 25 minutes and I value the Q&A over the talking head time.

The Evolution Of The NTEN Tech Track

My friends in the Nonprofit Technology Network know that I have been championing a resurgence in plain old tech talk at NTEN’s annual conference for a few years now. While “technology” is part of the organizations name, it’s seemed to translate to “social media” for the last few years, to the point in 2009/10 that it seemed like the social media focus of NTEN might overwhelm the nonprofit one — the NTEN conference was trending on Twitter and more and more social media mavens were referencing “NTC” along with “SXSW“. Meanwhile, the tens of thousands of staff and consultants that deal with servers, routers, wireless, Windows and virtualization at nonprofit oprgs were finding little of interest in the NTC session list.

So, in 2010, a group of us put together the first “tech tracK“. A subtrack of the IT Staff track of sessions, it included topics like Wireless Computing, Virtualization, Cloud Computing, Budgeting, and Change Management — the core things that IT staff are dealing with these days. The mini-track was conceived as a peer learning and community building subtrack. We eschewed Powerpoints and daises for a more informal discussion format, mining the attendees for both issues to discuss and expertise to share. It was a great success: five high-rated sessions with good attendance and a stated appreciation for the takeaways provided. In 2011, the Tech track was back (even though I didn’t attend that year) and was also a success.

So the 2012 NTC planning is well underway, and I’m declaring the ultimate victory. There will be no Tech Track this year. Instead, the IT Staff track definition has been narrowed to this:

IT Staff: This track is for staff and consultants who manage and support technology infrastructure. This is a resource-sharing track for all nonprofit techies, no matter how you arrived at your role, looking to share success stories, challenges, voice concerns, and glean wisdom from each other.

To my mind, this is how it always should have been — a fifth of the sessions dedicated to those of us who toil in the IT trenches, providing the tools, systems and platforms that enable mission-focused endeavors.

So now’s the time for you to speak up — if you’ve taken on the challenge of supporting your org’s use of technology, what do you need help with? What do you want to see on the 2012 NTC session list that you can bring to your CEO and say “send me to San Francisco, because this is information we need to know?” NTEN is seeking submissions for session topics. You can submit one without committing to present on it. The goal is to hear about what interests you, and they’ll match up the session submissions with speakers and/or facilitators later on. So, have at it! Click here to submit your sessions.

One Size Fits

Here’s a rant aimed at Apple and Microsoft.

Mac OSX Lion came out today, and it sports a lot of new features cribbed from IOS, the iPhone/iPad operating system. Steve Jobs has pretty much decided that the days of the PC are waning, and we want a mobile OS everywhere we go. He said that a year ago, and Microsoft was listening. Reports are that Windows 8 will be one operating system (that looks a lot like the boxy new Windows Mobile 7) for all platforms. I imagine that I’ll be running to Linux soon…

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a fan of convergence. I like watching TV on my laptop and I appreciate the ability to do email on my phone. I anticipate that, within a year, I’ll be commuting with a tablet (I’m waiting for the Android technology to mature a bit). But what’s wrong with letting the tools go with their strengths?

This is almost the reverse error that Microsoft made with the first Windows mobile, an OS for phones that had a start button, Programs folder and dropdown task list. And zero usability. Microsoft thought the same thing they’re thinking today: one size fits all; our users want standardization, and are willing to sacrifice usability in order to get the same interface on every device. WRONG. Users want tools that are good at getting jobs done. Neutering the PC, or making the phone too obtuse to navigate, in order to standardize the interface is more like servicing your branding needs at your customers expense.

Of course, what concerns me more about these moves are the fundamental differences between the sophisticated computer OSes (Windows 7, Snow Leopard) and the mobile OSes. Mobile OSes are, somewhat justifiably, rigid. You can’t offer the same level of customization on a low-powered, small screen device that you can on a powerful PC or laptop. Apple, of course, has taken this a step further by tightly controlling the flow of content via iTunes. And taking the additional, controversial step of censoring the content available via iTunes and the app store. While most of us (I think) aren’t upset by a vendor-imposed restriction on pornography, Apple has also censored Pulitzer-prize winning political cartoonists, adaptations of classic literature, and magazines about competing products. We now have an app store for MacOS and one for Windows under development, and Microsoft has looked, once again, like an Apple-wannabee with their recent product moves.

So are we moving into an era where our major computing tools providers have graduated to content managers and censors? It sure looks that way. There’s a lot of easy money to be made — as Apple’s string of record-breaking profit quarters will attest — in taking the computing out of computing, and turning convergence into simply entertainment-delivery, while user content creation tools and environments get the back seat at the drive-in. I’m not happy with the trend.

Why Google+ Will Succeed Where Wave And Buzz Failed

Geoff Livingston of NPTech Strategic consulting firm Zoetica held a little contest yesterday, and I won a copy of his book. The challenge? Explain, convincingly, why Google’s latest attempt at social networking, Google+, is not just a shiny object. Or why it is one. I chose the former, here’s my winning post:

Here’s my take on why, after the shininess fades, Google+ will still be an active social network.

First, they’ve learned from mistakes, theirs and others. They learned a lot from the failed Wave and Buzz projects, making privacy front and center; doing uncharacteristically flashy UI design (even stealing one of the Apple guys to do it); and not being too heavy-handed in the rollout. They are leveraging the Google App ecosystem, as Buzz tried to, but this seems like a cleaner and more serious effort — instead of just pasting a social network onto GMail, they’re incorporating apps like Picasa into it. Those of us already drinking the Google Koolaid (and they say that Google Apps is a high priority) will find it very useful (as opposed to redundant, as Buzz largely was).

The biggest lesson they learned was to not let people stream pollute as easily as they could on Buzz. I maintain that Buzz is a great platform for communications. It’s the ultimate cross between a blog and blog comments that could foster great conversations and raise the art of information sharing, if we didn’t have to wade through 20,000 redundant tweets to get to the good stuff. Google opened a floodgate of noise there, and too many users — including very good friends of mine — were happy to add to the din.

Second, they’ve created something compelling. It out-Facebook’s Facebook for interpersonal sharing and it can stretch to Twitter functionality. What’s powerful here is that, unlike Facebook, where targeting subsets of your friends requires advanced knowledge of the platform and a lot of patience, this interface makes it easy to either have an intimate chat or broadcast info widely. It’s easy to follow strangers that I’m not really interested in conversing with, at the same time that I can have deep talks with my close friends. They really got it right with Circles — friend/follower management on FB and Twitter is ridiculously kludgy in comparison. So, unlike Wave, which was too obtuse, and unlike Buzz, which wasn’t compelling, this is elegant and compelling. It wins people over.

Third, they’ve nailed SEO. The early adopters are raving about the hits it’s generating and the great statistics available. That’s going to be a more sticky draw than the shininess.

Most of all, they’ve emulated the cool Facebook stuff while shedding all of the annoyances. You can friend strangers here without over-sharing with them. You can +1 a commercial entity (or NPO) without inviting them to flood your stream with ads. You can tell your best friend something without sharing it with your mom. And that’s all easy; there’s no complicated help screen or multi-level privacy settings to contend with. It just works.