No Contract No Commitment

No commitment graphicNo contract, no commitment is a business reality that means if there is no agreement then you should expect nothing. You read that right and let it sink in. We often forget this important adage and clever marketing sometimes nabs the unsuspecting, who quickly learn no obligation literally implies that you can’t really complain about lousy or no service.

A character from some obscure nonprofit approached me be about a year ago to partner in technology. The nonprofit had no technology expertise or emphasis, but was going to offer technology services at nominal cost to other nonprofits. He had a hardware vendor and was looking for services vendors. We came highly recommended for our managed services and cloud computing expertise, but this was nonprofit and of course pricing must be low to give back. I really didn’t think much would happen, but soon we did a significant deal that I’m sure he thought was high risk, but we do one hundred of annually and went very well. Then we did several more deals all flawless, even teaching our partner with low-level understanding some of the basics.

A couple of times, we even offered to do small projects for free in exchange for Partner of Record (Microsoft pays a 2% fee of the monthly subscription). Suddenly, we should do all projects for free as our expertise and effort was now deemed not worthy of charging. Our partner now had an employee he wrenched from a customer and 5 high school students all sitting in one small office, that purportedly did managed services without any systems, processes, or leadership.

Not long after that the flame came. We were told we violated our “agreement” by doing managed services with a mutual customer we signed 6 months before the partner’s organization was even viable and that we had sold hardware that should have gone through the partner’s hardware vendor. Further, since we would not do free projects and as retribution, Partner of Record was changed to a third-party unknown to the customers. It didn’t appear to matter, that we pointed out the hardware vendor was fraudulently not selling product at advertised nonprofit pricing. Why couldn’t we couldn’t we refuse to sell the server and tell the customer they had to buy from the other vendor at the higher price?

In a rare occurrence, I lost discipline and not so politely told our partner to “stick it”. I also visited with several mutual customers in person, but they had no understanding that they were captured and simply wanted to stay out of the fray. It was then that I realized we had no written contract and while we had been wronged ethically, there was nothing a judge or anyone could look at to determine right and wrong.

Karma often repays bad deeds. Microsoft changed the cloud nonprofit program and offered a no cost subscription to most nonprofits, which of course had no Partner of Record fees. The feedback from the channel is our former partner’s expertise is lacking for all but the most basic desktop support. In fact, several nonprofits feel they can offer a similar service with better expertise and actual nonprofit pricing for products. Further, since no written agreement or contract is used with customers for their managed services, response is slow and problem resolution lacking. The service is cheap, but customers polled aren’t happy and looking for alternatives. Whether for disputes or performance, these customers are also being reminded of the business lesson – no contract, no commitment.

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Improve Your Worth in 2013

Improve WorthIn mid January, James Altucher wrote a post for TechCrunch titled “10 Reasons Why 2013 Will Be the Year You Quit Your Job“. It was a tug at the hearts of technologists during a motivational time of the year and ingeniously designed to keep readers coming back for inspiration. Altucher is one of those unsuspecting souls from high school that went on to become quite successful as a writer for the Wall Street Journal and lucrative investment entrepreneur – all launched from a stint with HBO as a computer programmer in the mid 90’s.

While there is a radical school of thought that you should start a business in a down economy, quitting your job with the current economic turmoil to start a new venture is just plain crazy. In the late 80’s, I traveled the nation implementing bar coding and scores of data entry personnel went on to do more meaningful, better paying jobs like inventory analysts. Even at that time, much of the Northeast was littered with massive, empty buildings. It’s more than ironic that someone from Wall Street would just now notice causal vacancies. Not to mention that failed, huge government, welfare states like New York have forced the average person to work multiple jobs for the last 30 years to stay in the middle class.

Today, I help business owners and their management escape broken legacy thoughts about technology in order to improve profitability. Smart IT people don’t lose their jobs to managed services. They are happier doing brain work moving their organization forward, rather than worrying about mundane updates and backup. The rank and file employees also embrace cloud computing and other new technology, knowing their worth only improves. Any lost counterparts that throw up their hands in resistance and confusion quickly land in unemployment.

Improvement is the harsh reality of the world and has been forever. Live every day, improve your skills, learn new things, and follow your dreams. However, I’d be wary of Altucher’s message to choose yourself for success and escape the job prison. I envy him because he’s made it to the show. Unfortunately, it’s not from self-publishing books as most books sell less than 250 copies per year and 3,000 copies in a lifetime. Once you start with that fact, I wonder how Altucher was able to quit his job and don’t you then question the rest of the article?

Network Administrator Pay

Most Oklahoma employers and technology employees are out of touch with current technology trends or changes in required staffing and associated compensation. The trend is fewer IT people per employer, along with shrinking technology infrastructure due to cloud computing and offerings like Virtual CIO and Managed Services.

While every major staffing firm or industry trade magazine has a salary guide, the problem is sample size is small and the participants and publishers have a vested interest in making sure the salaries are high with no verification of real wages.

The right way to determine what to pay and expect for a position is listed at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) by state. The following shows the average pay for individuals with 7-10 years experience in Oklahoma:

Position                                          # Jobs     Mean       Hourly

Network Administrator              2,650      $57,360    $27.58
Computer Network Specialist   4,490      $50,085   $24.08
Computer Support Specialist    6,330      $42,810    $20.58

You can verify this information and check other Computer and mathematical positions for Oklahoma at the BLS. These figures do not include bonuses or benefits such as healthcare and individuals job duties with the above titles often varies drastically. In Oklahoma and throughout the nation, the technology industry is schizophrenic with some very good people making low wages and nominally skilled ones raking in above average salaries. Because it is a competitive industry, most employers find it difficult to retain technical employees for 1-2 years – most employers provider no training, measurement of performance, management, or significant room for advancement to technology employees.

For the reasons just above and given the average additional cost of 30%  for taxes and benefits, most employers under 300 employee are electing to outsource technology support to a managed service provider.

Disaster Drills

How often do you try out your disaster plan? If you’re a small or medium business, the default answer is “what plan?” or “we’ll find out when it happens”. The reason is cost, complexity, and apathy. CFO’s balk at the cost of most technology. Technology folks struggle with where to start and how to justify, as not all disasters are equal or require the same response. Finally, the norm for most management is that even when knowing the first 2 facts, they do business as usual because “it’s never happened before because we have smart people and redundancy” (or whatever helps them sleep at night).

Rather than bore you with steps to take to recover from a disaster, the following are some current and nominal cost approaches of how we run our business (and of course help clients do the same):

  1. Recently, a key employee’s spouse was badly injured in a car accident. We were able to advance some additional salary for a short period during the spouse’s recovery. Cash is king in business. You don’t want to have too much as it signals possible operations problems to potential buyers and excess dollars should go to shareholders, but you must have enough on-hand or readily available to cover such situations.
  2. After another summer storm, our main domain controller died. As best practice, this server shared no data or ran any key applications. The second domain controller took over ready and able to service the whole network, using DHCP failover strategy. While operations ran normally, our team was able to seize critical roles and manually remove the domain controller from Active Directory.
  3. Major storage for a client failed. Fortunately, our online backup had a full copy of the data, including databases and server system states. We managed to keep the storage running in a degraded state and minimized customer downtime, by moving data and virtual servers to other locations. Online backup continued to run regularly and after the hardware problem was resolved, the data moved back and synchronized with the off-site backup.
  4. A contractor blew the transformer for our building. Fortunately, we run our business using cloud computing with services like Office 365. Our personnel were able to easily and securely work from home for a day with no loss of operations for customers.

Now the scary part – all of these things happened in the same month. We survived because of business acumen with little additional cost. Our Virtual CIO services can help you identify how to run operations that are disaster ready. If you were the average business, would you still be in business without your key employee, main server, critical data, and a power outage?

Winter Ready

One day in late October, the day ended at 91 and then just like that the next morning it was freezing and the high was in the 50’s. Then the Northeast got dumped on and just like that it was flashback to ice storms of 2007 for Oklahoma – only this time the 5 inches of ice also had another two foot of snow. The state was gridlocked, but the world didn’t care. They were out of the polar blast zone and customers had needs and employees had to work to earn a living.

Fortunately, Edward had learned a lot since then and his company wouldn’t suffer through the following 2 weeks. In 2008, he hired a Virtual CIO that helped to reduce the amount of servers and IT cost with managed services. Accounting, CRM, e-mail, and standard documents had all been moved to cloud computing for better security and built-in business continuity at much less cost. The IT guy Bill was great, but we no longer needed him and fortunately the Virtual CIO was connected and landed him several other opportunities.

In 2009, Edward helped the economy and moved to another house where the power lines were buried. He’d also picked up some disaster recovery skills having an annual backup of SharePoint Online on an external drive, critical contact information, and extra battery backup at the house. Whether a disaster or sunny day, employees accessed the applications from anywhere there was Internet access. No costly failover to Houston or wherever or liability of having employees try to travel to a failover facility or underground bunker that was likely flooded and unreachable. Add a few cheap mifi’s and you’re good to go even if your cable or satellite goes out.

Most of Edward’s peers still wanted to “touch” their servers or had contracted with some local hosting company, that was either over-run with those fortunate to make it to those facilities or otherwise occupied with the misery of new prospects. All the while their employees were at risk for severe injury or death, the cost was overbearing, and even so business was at a standstill. Of course, Edward knew he was lucky as few technology companies understood the cloud or even the business processes of moving there. If the company hasn’t been around for more than 20 years with proven industry recognition, skip them and run not walk away from the “we’re gold, platinum, diamond” whatever pitch of the day.

The phones had been remotely forwarded. There was another order. Purchasing processed it and the sales people had even put a few opportunities into the pipeline. Accounting processed the invoices and payroll. Marketing had updated the website and was responding to followers via Twitter. All in all, employees had a couple of days working from home in pajamas by the fire and most importantly customers were impressed and knew the company was there for them when most of the rest of the industry was not.

Kevin Fream on Google++Kevin Fream

Washing Machine Syndrome

washing machineAt some point in your life, it happens. The washing machine stops spinning out or simply dies. What a major inconvenience to have wet and soapy clothes. You may have to go buy some underwear for the next couple of days or try to find a laundromat. It costs as much to repair as it does to buy a replacement. If you’re fortunate, you whip out the credit card on the weekend and try not to get sucked into your favorite color or cool front loader with the matching new dryer. Depending upon your stage in life, you may be forced to hit the garage sales and get a friend with a truck to pick one up.

Regardless, the old washing machine is removed and the new one plugged in and screwed to the hot and cold water. You’re back in business and wash away without another thought until it happens again in another 6-8 years. The problem is that many companies take the same approach with their servers and it’s not as simple as replacing the washing machine.

Anyone in business can tell you, there is significant risk and lots of small and massive failures. Owners have a lot of moving pieces to understand and must have the courage to make decisions like that old Kenny Rogers song – count your money, be ready for the cards you are dealt,  and know when to walk away or run. These same people wouldn’t dare try to not pay payroll tax for a couple of months (which can never be escaped), but regularly risk it all to run 12 – 36 months out of warranty on servers running the business.

You see I have a unique ability to tell the future about when a server will die. Well, actually it’s simple. Servers are generally warranted for  3 years with some limited options for upfront 4 or 5 years. That means there are no parts or extremely limited spare refurbished parts throughout the world at warranty end – thank you lean manufacturing. So that means if you have only one power supply that shorts out, it’s 5-10 business days to have a new server shipped plus emergency recovery because complex hardware and software just isn’t like plugging in a new washing machine. Bad RAM, that old type is probably not available. If you have RAID and one drive dies and the machine is still running, try 5 times the cost of a new one with 5 times the capacity wasted to replace.

I’ve heard it all: “That’s the best server we ever bought” or “We just got that server in 2005″. This is generally begun or ended with some explicative or irrational statement about so much was spent, it should last for 20 years. Then, wait for it, the new equipment won’t run any of the old software and the new software requires other new software.

Treating your infrastructure like a washing machine just costs the business half to a full month’s expenses and revenues, plus lost goodwill with employees, customers, and suppliers – along with bad press and loss of new potential sales. But its IT or that support firm’s fault right? We’ll just fire those bastards. After all, IT has no budget authority and those consultants were crazy and the recruiter of the day with PC Magazine says anybody can do this stuff.

Ding. Ding. School is in. While it may feel good to fire someone in this situation, how about trying to prevent it in the future? Fact: your equipment is only as good as the warranty. Often it’s only like $200 – $400 more to get that 4 hour 4 year warranty part replacement from Dell. Then a hardware problem is fixed quickly versus doing everything by hand, waiting 10 business days for a new server and weeks to workout restoration with the waterfall effect of upgraded software.

Back in the day like 10 years ago, the answer was to buy two of each server or a spare parts kit for each server. The cost was exorbitant and the software configuration overly complex and rarely worked. Today, you stop repeating the washing machine syndrome by:

1) Cloud Computing – Get rid of most of your servers. Escape the cost of hardware, software, maintenance, and upgrades. Along with less cost, a big chunk of your disaster recovery is also resolved.

2) Virtualization – What servers are left should be virtual with reduced equipment cost and the side benefit of running on older versions of software on the virtual servers longer.

3) Managed Services – You’ve outsourced everything from the coffee service to payroll because those services do it better and for less cost. Why not shrink or eliminate your IT staff for the same benefits? The good ones manage cloud computing and virtualization, as well as keeping you current for anything on-premise.

IT Spring Forward

Back to the future in the late 80’s, I started with a company that did automatic identification (bar coding) and data collection for Fortune 500 manufacturers and distributors. At that time, single hand laser scanner and data terminals started at nearly $4,500 and label printers at $7,000.  My first day was spent cleaning and organizing. The kids may not be in bed, so to put it politely there was debris everywhere. Files and software on the computers were even in more chaos.

The job was to bring some technical and business analysis, along with software development to what was previously limited manufacturer demos for scanning and labeling. The company had Billy (not his real name) who worked part-time after hours and had done some minor software tweaks and loved the hardware. The problem was that Billy was just plain odd throwing often expensive things around like a monkey, rummaging through every drawer in the company, and in a few lucid moments breaking a full suite of demos that had been restored.

So the second day, I went to the owner and told him it was either me or Billy. It could have been over with dismissal as some punk kid. Instead opportunity abound working with some of the most well-known customers in the nation and the ever-changing wave of leading manufacturers and latest hardware and software over the last 20 years. Looking like you know what you’re doing sets a tone and only helps to build trust, along with solid action.

Q1 one is done and gone, so you can continue status quo with your lost hour of sleep or spring into action. Clean off your digital and physical desktop, donate or disperse that bone pile of miscellaneous technology, delete or file the myriad of haphazard files in your user folder, and do some real work and re-establish your priority and project list.

Now, what is it that you and/or your IT staff spend the most time doing or costs the organization the most? If you have no case history and use gut feel, that’s another problem – but  a start for now. Rank the task/project list and put columns for start and end dates, cost for products and support, and yes/no for management buy in or approval. Now be realistic about effort and available time. Then be further pragmatic of what management will accept.

You’re all cleaned up and ready to perform. Pick the one thing that is a win-win-win for lowering organization cost going forward, improving your productivity, and hopefully learning something new. You’ll have a double sense of accomplishment and many of the answers are getting easier with cloud computing, online backup, and managed services.

Some things management will not understand or may choose to gamble with high risk. Let it go as it’s not something you can control and you’ve done your part by bringing a problem/opportunity to their attention. After you knock out one project, move onto the next. One thing is for certain like everything in IT, you’ll be doing this routine next year. If the project list hasn’t changed significantly by then, serious reflection is in order. Step up, continue as usual with no grounds for complaint, or move on.