Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Mindtouch 2010 launch event

Documentation. We all need it but never seem to have the time to do it properly. Mostly because teams are too busy firefighting and don't fully understand the impact of documentation, and partly because there's not too many people who can write a full sentence without a TLA, backslash or semi-colon. Mindtouch have just released Mindtouch 2010 which focuses on delivering accessible, quality documents over the web. I went to their launch event on September 9th.

Knowledge Management - the capture, organisation and sharing of knowledge - is one of my special interests. Software for documentation, collaborative intranets, document collaboration, are all forms of knowledge management. It's very important because when it's done well, it really provides a boost to the team performance.

Mindtouch started life as the open source project 'Deki Wiki' about five years ago and since then has developed into a commercial platform for data integration and document collaboration. Mindtouch 2010 is aimed at people who need to write manuals for external and internal users. Mindtouch Platform v10 or Mindtouch Core (the open source version) are more like the wikis you may have used.

Like many launch events, it took place at a prestigious London location - in this case in the financial centre of London, a few steps from the Bank of England head office. While the location was fashionable the venue itself was not ideal for a such an event. It was situated in the basement of a  lovely building very close to Bank Underground tube station, so close you could hear and feel the rumble of trains as they passed every five minutes or so. It would have been much better to be in a venue with natural light and better air conditioning (even prestigious basements are not known for their ventilation qualities). However it didn't mar the event too much.

After a short introduction about Mindtouch the mic was passed to a 'technical communicator' from Brady PLC, an existing client. He spoke well about the challenges of creating documentation, justifying its value to the business and how they used Mindtouch. I happen to have seen and heard of Mindtouch before and know that they also operate in the same market as the very popular  Atlassian's 'Confluence' . So I had to ask, "Why Mindtouch instead of any of the alternatives?". "Ease of use" and "enterprise features" came the answer. I took more notice of ease of use as it wasn't clear what enterprise features were useful. As he explained, software that's easy to use makes for more adoption much easier.

The demonstrator took us few a couple of features however these weren't really the key features of the product. Note to Mindtouch or any other company: demonstrate the product through use cases and not individual features, it's much easier to get a feel for the product that way. The key features of this release were
  • Curation analytics - find out how customers are using the documentation. Includes stats likes ratings, most edits, views and following the activity of individual users. Some of this information is provided in a graph over time which is helpful
  • Adaptive search - search results make use of popularity ratings to modify search results.
  • File reservation - As well as storing a version of each document, an author can reserve a file so that it can't be edited by other users at the same time
  • Desktop integration - Microsoft Word document can be dragged and dropped to create Mindtouch documents
I can't give a detailed review because I didn't get to play with it myself, but it looked easy to use and the interface was pleasing which is a good start. If you want to know more check out their website or download it and give it a try.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

IT Operations need to adapt, Borg style

The picture in my last post made me reflect on the nature of the infamous Borg.

The Borg were pretty bad. They enslaved a few billion people (killing a few million in the process) and robbed them of their freedom to live life as an individual. On the plus side they had the right idea about self improvement. Something we can learn from in Ops.

When the Borg faced a challenge, their mantra was "We will adapt." This is good. Every day, organisations face problems, and sometimes they need to adapt to overcome them. However in IT (like many other departments), the mantra is "We will not adapt. We like things the way the are. We will stick to our way until it fails us so spectacularly that stories of our demise are told for years to come." This is bad. Things don't get fixed, people get pissed off, the company make no money and staff either leave or get made redundant.

But people like that status quo. However, "If it ain't broke don't fix it" only applies to things that are not broken. The average IT department has approximately 2,312 things that are broken at any one time but has somehow learnt to live with them. But there's at least 10 things in there that broken really badly and really need to be fixed.

Tips on self improvement for Ops
  • Gangrene is a killer - If you've got a problem eating away at your time on a day to day basis, you need to deal with it. It's only going to get worse. A couple of everyday teamsters can really put a dent in your productivity
  • Quick fixes are not necessarily quick fixes - I've noticed that when you have a number of people solving a problem incrementally with quick fixes, it's often worse that one person spending the same amount of time to get it done properly. Too many cooks does indeed spoil the broth.
  • Copy from everybody else - You don't always need to think hard about how to solve a long term issue, as the problem is probably not unique so some one's bound to have done it already. Just do what they did and move on...
The bottom line is that to provide a half decent service, at some point engineers/managers are going to have to take stock of what's going on in the team and decide to do something to make things better. Otherwise it's a slippery slope towards an environment that staff really don't want to work in and does do any favours for the business either.