Who will bring SexyBack?

With apologies to Justin Timberlake, I read with interest an article in CIO Insight today about a blogosphere debate over the merits of ‘sexiness’ in enterprise software.

It seems that Bill Gates started the maelstrom by insinuating consumer technologies got more than their fair share of press coverage versus the enterprise offerings.   Thus a blog dispute was born by some heavyweights about whether or not enterprise software needs to be friendly, let alone sexy.  I have trouble with both of those terms since they’re pretty nebulous.

When they say friendly I guess they mean intuitive, logical and allows the end user to complete their tasks in minimal clicks.  Or does it mean providing context sensitive information so the user is presented what they need to know or task specific help at the time they’re following through a business process?  Maybe it’s all of the above.  But ‘sexy’?  What is that in relation to enterprise software?

The author of the CIO article tries to define it later on when he states ‘Usability is a measure of sexiness…’  I can live with that although I think usability is also an overused term.  If end users tell me they want better usability and provide no more details, then I’d have a hard time guessing what specifically they want.  Faster processing?  Different colors?  Less clicks?  Or perhaps more options to drill down into information?  Any of those items could fall under usability.

Finally, I find it very ironic that CIO Insight is covering this topic on sexy software when they themselves have one of the ugliest websites around.  They have more junk all over their page than I certainly prefer and a lot of it is advertising.  Also, where can readers leave comments and see what other readers have posted to spur some lively debates on the topic?  Oh yeah, you can email their editors and they’ll be sure to get back to you. 

 Not very sexy if you ask me.

The ‘S’ in SaaS doesn’t stand for ‘sticky’

I attended an interesting conference yesterday called the Software Marketing Perspectives Conference here in Austin.  Although the focus of the conference was on Product Management and new trends or solving some common issues for product managers, the most interesting portion I found was a discussion we had about the growing emergence of SaaS (Software as a Service). 

I’m sure most everyone is familiar now with SaaS since the rise of certain companies like Salesforce.com have given legitimacy to the concept, so I certainly don’t want to expound on the virtues, many thought there may be.  I was definitely more interested in the challenges of creating a product that is SaaS focused and how to sustain and grow said product. 

Certainly one of the big benefits for SaaS is the low cost to get started when using an application.  I don’t know how much Salesforce.com costs, but I am focusing more on smaller applications anyway, such as an application like OpenProj from Projity.  They have an MS Project killer application on their hands that costs only $19.99/month per user.  Awesome!  Hereis a recent review of OpenProj.

Here’s the issue I thought of yesterday when I was discussing this with one of the conference attendees…what is there to stop anyone from switching products as often as they gas up their Prius?  As I mentioned in an earlier posting, there is no shortage of companies out there trying to sign you up as a customer for their next killer project management application.  Certainly given the low cost (or often free for a while) price tag companies can continually shop around trying new products and seeing who truly is the best of breed.

Here’s the bottom line – the challenge for SaaS vendors, especially smaller ones who may come late to a market, is how do you keep your customers coming back after you’ve given them the taste of your product?  What keeps your products sticky?  It’s much easier for big enterprise companies because the investment up front was already substantial and to switch to another large enterprise vendor will cost considerable dollars.  But in this new nimble world of smaller, on demand software what is going to be the catch that keeps the customers coming back when the barriers to switch are getting lowered all the time?

Distractions and confidence? What do they have in common?

I said a little while back that I was going to review some of the Project Management software out there.  Funny how quickly things become a little while back, then turn into a longer while back, then it becomes too embarrassing to even bring it up again.

This is a good segue into one of the first products that I thought had some really interesting features.  A company called Devshop has focused their sights on planning for Software projects.  Even though they have a narrow focus, that doesn’t detract from the value of some of the features they built into their product.

The first one, which relates to why I’ve been remiss in updating this blog, is all about distractions.  Who doesn’t have distractions these days with the ability to be contacted by almost anyone in numerous ways throughout the day.  When you’re trying to focus on completing project tasks the amount of distractions that come your way directly affects productivity, your progress and then of course the on time delivery of your project.  This is handled in Devshop by allowing you to tag tasks as distractions.  These are non-project related tasks that pull your resources away from completing their project tasks.

I remember my days when implementing PeopleSoft at customer sites back in the later 90′s.  Using a mouse and Windows was often a new experience for some of our manufacturing customers.  They were used to the green screen systems.  So a large part of my time was spent teaching them how to use a mouse, how to open and utilize multiple windows, where to find the Solitaire game, etc etc.  Being able to show my PM all of the distractions that happened during the day would have been a great way to raise the visibility of those time sucking tasks.

Also, by being able to track the distracting tasks and make them visible to project executives, it makes it easier to get change control items approved.  Of course anyone could create new project tasks to track distracting activities, but I like how Devshop has considered this and built it right into their product.Another key feature I think they’ve built in is the confidence factor.  Anyone can create a plan with dates and say when they believe the project will be done.  That doesn’t do PM’s or executives any good though when dates keep shifting as the project moves along and tasks slip.  If decisions are made based on those dates, wouldn’t you want to know how sure the PM is that those dates are truly achievable, and how much of it is pie in the sky, best case scenario?The confidence factor in Devshop is directly tied to how many requirements, designs and time estimates are in approved or unapproved status.  The more that are approved, the higher the confidence level and therefore the more ‘confident’ you can be in your plan dates being hit. 

The simplistic beauty of this confidence index number is that when someone asks a PM for a finish date on a task or the project overall, the PM can give them an answer along with a caveat based on the confidence number.  Now you’re giving more information to the decision makers.  Do they want to go ahead and order some expensive new equipment when a dependency task has only a 10% confidence factor that it will be done on the current scheduled date?  If that confidence factor is 80% how would they feel?

The other important thing to remember is that these confidence scores come from actual work being done and approved.  They aren’t just a best guess of the task owners collectively so you can put some faith in the number.

A bevy of Project Management software abounds

There was an interesting conference in San Francisco last week called Office 2.0.  I was sad not to be able to go, for one because every attendee got a free iPhone (the obsolete 4 GB sadly), but more importantly because they had a specific session on Project Management.

The goal of the Office 2.0 conference is ‘aimed at discovering the future of online productivity & collaboration.’  They still claim it’s in an experimental phase, which probably makes it a lot more interesting than your average conference.  If you want screw ups and snafus to go along with your push the envelope kinds of ideas, I think they had all of those in spades.

Disappointingly there is very little information about what went on during the Project Management session and they didn’t even bother posting an abstract.  Given the conference motto of  ‘discovering the future of online productivity & collaboration’, nothing screams project management as much as that line.  Project management is all about teams collaborating on a collective goal and productivity is key to achieving that goal in your resource and time budget.   If anyone out there reading this happened to attend I’d love to hear back what was discussed.

It was an interesting lineup of speakers however.  I know Marc O’Brien and he has been around the Project Management world for some time.  His new product, Projity,  looks like a Microsoft Project killer.  (OK, that’s a bit dramatic but it’s an excellent alternative) 

One very useful link provided however was a laundry list of online tools for project management.  As I scrolled down the list there were some familiar names and some not so familiar.  Basecamp has been getting a lot of press lately, and Projity that I mentioned earlier, but many of the names were new to me.  In total there were 27 different companies linked as an online project management tool!  I’m sure this isn’t even a comprehensive list of all of the competition out there.  I was surprised that eProject and @Task weren’t on the list.  Maybe the fact they’re more established than the majority of the companies at Office 2.0 means they didn’t want to lend credence to the viability of the smaller players.  Or Web 2.0 isn’t their ‘gimmick’.

I started drilling into some of these smaller upstarts however to see what is it that makes them all think they have the next killer app for project management.  After getting through several of them, I was impressed and also disappointed at various times.  While each of them bring a slightly different feature set to the market and target a niche they hope will set them apart, the offerings aren’t all that useful, especially from an enterprise standpoint.  (Remember my bias?  Read my 411 if you forget!)  In some cases they just webify (webenize?) tools people have used to track projects for a long time – ie. Excel and email.  Yes, of course online collaboration is much more efficient, but how many of these companies are really going to be able to find enough customers and be able to charge enough to pay the bills?  There will likely be some consolidation going on in the near future.  That might be the best answer for some of the incomplete offerings to survive anyway – partner up with another vendor who complements your features.

Ideally each of these products will be used by small teams or individuals that can work alone as an island, not in a highly integrated enterprise setting.  And if that’s what your small company is, or your small team inside a big corporation, then these tools might just solve some of your day to day headaches when trying to track projects and work in a collaborative environment.  There is certainly no shortage of good ideas that even enterprise software companies can look to borrow.

In my next few blogs I’ll start to document some of my favorites.

Oracle sweeps 22 industries @ Forrester

In a recently released report titled “Introducing Project-Based Solutions”, Forrester Research showed that compared to 14 competitors Oracle was the only vendor with a “High” rated product in every one of 22 sub-industries examined.

Forrester’s inaugural coverage of project-based software solutions (PBS) identifies a new category of software designed to manage and support project-based business processes, provides a business justification for PBS, and assesses the key vendors and their solutions. Use of a project-based solution will be one of the key competitive differentiators for successful enterprises competing in a people-centric marketplace. 

Forrester interviewed 32 customers and 15 vendor companies representing 17 solutions, including: Agresso, BST Global, Computer Methods International Corp. (CMiC), Deltek, Epicor Software, IFS, Lawson, Maconomy, Meridian Systems, Microsoft Dynamics, Oracle, Primavera Systems, Sage Software, SAP, and Tenrox.

Oracle Press release

Forrester Research article excerpt