Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Interfaces for humans

This week I'm on training for IBM's Tivoli Storage Manager. For those that don't know, it's 'enterprise' backup software. And we all know what enterprise means - high price tag and steep learning curve. But sometimes, you just want something to work with a little less pain.

To be fair, Tivoli does what it says on the tin. It's a powerful, flexible, backup application that's been around for about fifteen years, long before Windows and point and click wizards. I used it about seven years ago in a limited fashion and I though it was decent. But this time around I'm getting my hand really filthy with backup policies, management classes, off-site rotation and all that lovely stuff. But I lie - it's not lovely. If Tivoli was a woman, she'd be high maintenance. You'd have to work to keep her happy, learn her moods and quirks and faults. And if you mess up, you'll be sleeping on the sofa. At your mate's house.

Too much software is like this, lots of power, not enough design. Many companies get it right, but a lot get it wrong. For end users like myself, interfaces are crucial to getting the most out of software. Time is in short supply and if you're spending too much time learning how to do something, you have even less time to think about what you're doing. Products are often created by engineers for engineers, which is perfectly understandable. But (most) of us are still human beings, and need software that works for them instead of the other way around. Software that's easy to use cost less to deploy and operate. And sells more. Line managers might sign the POs but engineers have a big say in what's on the PO. And given the choice, I won't sign up for unnecessary pain.

So, 'enterprise solution providers' - for this relationship to work you've got to help us out. We need your tools and you need our company's money. So why not make it easy on everyone and make interfaces for humans?

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Day One: "Just don't break anything"

I got my first IT job in January 2003. It wasn't a good time for IT. The industry was limping from the aftermath of the dot com crash and many of us were searching for jobs that had long since dried up. I looked for months and couldn't find anything so I thought, well I'll just work for free to get the experience. So after a few covering letters to the first companies listed in the Yellow Pages, a small IT infrastructure firm took me on. Before I started work, we had an informal chat in a coffee shop where gave me the lowdown on the business.

He and his business partner were the sole owners of the IT company that had been running for about five years. They had made it through the dot crash but times were lean. Normally this kind of talk was the precursor to 'We can't pay you what you want', but as I was ready to work for free, I guess he was telling the truth. They had big and small customers. But here was the important stuff:
"Please please, don't break anything. These customers keep us alive so don't mess with them. And please don't break anything."
As I would find out later, these words would be really important. I learnt more about the fundamentals of IT Operations in this job than in any other. When you're small, you had to be good to survive. Customers pay for the services and Ops keep the services running, so it's really best not to break anything.