When Change Is Wrong

The last bit about proprietary solutions strikes a chord…

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CHAD DICKERSON: “CTO Connection” InfoWorld.com
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Wednesday, July 23, 2003

WHEN CHANGE IS WRONG

By Chad Dickerson

Posted July 18, 2003 3:00 PM Pacific Time

In my experience, most CTOs are incredibly reasonable people.
In fact, I would argue that most CTOs have risen to their
position by looking at technology choices within the context
of their business, which means compromising on technical
excellence in favor of business expediency. Still, deep in
every CTO’s heart there is at least one technology that
elicits a visceral reaction that threatens to drown all
reason. For me, that technology is Lotus Notes. Recently, I
relented in a crusade to replace Lotus Notes at InfoWorld.
The migration was going to be too disruptive for our users, a
case perhaps of elective open-heart surgery on our
organization when it wasn’t absolutely necessary.

Why does Notes bug me? For starters, it’s a big, tightly
coupled, staffing-intensive solution in an era of small,
loosely coupled solutions. Granted, Notes offers component
services that will fit into a loosely coupled environment —
LDAP, IMAP (Internet Messaging Access Protocol), even SMTP —
but the more you decouple these pieces of Notes, the more you
wonder Why should I use this piece of software to perform
these commodity functions? Of course, Lotus Notes was an
amazing revelation when it was launched in the 1980s and it
continues to deliver value for thousands of customers, but it
just doesn’t “click” with me.

Six months ago, I dumped my Lotus Notes client; had our Notes
administrators enable IMAP on my account so I could switch to
the more robust Mozilla Mail client; and my crusade began.
The central theme of this campaign “If I can use a non-Notes
client for e-mail and function perfectly well as an employee
of this company, so can anyone else.” I had grand visions of
the Notes monolith toppling like Saddam’s statue in Baghdad,
but as time went on, I realized that my warrior’s desire to
vanquish Notes was causing me to make rosy assumptions about
the stability of a post-Notes environment. In the end, I
decided it was an ill-conceived battle that was not worth
fighting.

One lesson I relearned is that IT is not necessarily about
being “right” or even offering the best solution. Quite
often, IT is about providing a reliable and mostly invisible
service to the company. Nothing is less invisible than a
massive user migration. One finite resource that many IT
managers forget to recognize and manage in their project
portfolios is quite simple: change.

We’ve experienced a lot of technology change at InfoWorld in
the past 18 months. We’ve introduced a new contentmanagement
system, migrated desktops to Windows XP, and just begun
planning a move to a new Web hosting facility. In considering
a migration from Lotus Notes, I had to consider how much
organizational change I wanted to “spend.” Yes, the usual
daily grumblings about Lotus Notes continue unabated, but it
has never risen to a deafening roar. (I thought: “Migrate
from Lotus Notes and if all goes well, no one will
particularly care — no one will be cheering the troops in
the streets. If it goes poorly, our business operations will
grind to a halt.”)

Another lesson is just as important: Don’t lock your company
into proprietary solutions that will ultimately be incredibly
difficult to untangle. The primary issues that drove me to
want to replace Lotus Notes (for example, I would like to
have the freedom to leverage best-of-breed, standards-based,
commercial and open source products for Notes’ various
component services) are exactly what keep me in the Lotus
Notes camp. As an “all-in-one” solution, it’s too tightly
coupled to break away from slowly. There are migration tools
out there, but after careful consideration, it’s really all
or nothing.

Enterprise IT decision-making shouldn’t be constrained by such
“injustice” — or a CTO on a techno-ideological crusade.

Chad Dickerson is CTO of InfoWorld.

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