Thursday, May 24, 2007

My Boy’s All Grown Up!

I am happy to say that I am no longer a blogging virgin! It’s amazing how much you can learn and develop in such a short period of time when pushed outside of your comfort zone. They say that if it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger. Not only has this assignment made me stronger by building my knowledge of current technology trends, I actually found it to be the most enjoyable experience of the entire MBA program thus far. Over the weeks, months, and years to come, I‘ll surely forget many of the facts that were memorized and regurgitated during this past year. However, with such a high engagement level on this assignment, I will never forget my first blog.

I was out of town on the first day of class and therefore missed the course introduction. Looking at the syllabus, the steps involved in creating a blog were unclear to me. I thought I would place a short call to my fellow students who would fill in the gaps for me….nope. No gaps to fill in. They knew no more than I. It was “sink or swim” time, baby! I have always found this to be the best way to learn. However, it’s one of those things you generally look back on with positive feelings. On day 1, the sink or swim approach can be a real tension builder. Now that I am a seasoned veteran, I calmly refer to my site as a blog, having replaced the original name I gave it: “*!#!-ing BLOG!”.

Honestly, it began as tedious task. My thinking was “let’s just bang out 10 articles and get this thing over with”. However, after getting started, I found myself completely engaged in the content. The goal was no longer to “knock them off”. The new goal was to create articles that could be entertaining and informative. In addition to the articles, I became very interested in providing blog add-ons that would enhance the visitor experience. Using my own interests as the foundation, I added a sports ticker and a Sudoku game, along with a few others. As a major fan of both sports and Sudoku, I can entertain myself for hours on my site. I find that having your own forum to post your views is like having your own little talk show.

Although I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience of creating and maintaining my own blog, what I have found to be the most enjoyable aspect of the course has been following the blogs of my fellow “MBAers”. With such busy lives, we don’t get to know each other like we would if we were undergrads. We have families and jobs. These blogs have provided me with the wonderful opportunity of getting to know my classmates just a little bit better. What began with a simple visit to has culminated with a network of entertaining, informative sources.

Gaining Competitive Advantage Through Technology with the Poor Man’s BMW

During the last year of my programming career, I had the opportunity to design and build a computer assisted ordering system for Co-op Atlantic. The company had been suffering from overstock and out of stock problems in the Co-op Basic stores for some time. The total value of lost sales was unknown, but was estimated to be quite significant. The money tied up in inventory had the stores in a very precarious financial position. Something had to be done, so we set out to design a system which would alleviate the situation. We looked around the industry to get ideas on what style of system to purchase/develop. One of the most well known ordering/replenishment systems was the one utilized by Wal-Mart. Unfortunately, we did not have millions of dollars to spend. After considering our options, we embarked on a development effort with a shoestring budget of less than $50 K.

We decided to use the Pocket PC technology, with Symbol technologies being selected as the supplier of handheld computers. Essentially, the system worked as follows:
1. On a nightly basis, the store’s sales figures were loaded into a SQL Server database located on a back-end PC.
2. The average daily sales of each product were calculated for the past 8 weeks.
3. The average daily sales figures were then transferred to the handheld Pocket PC.
4. The store employee would begin the ordering process by entering the dates for the next two scheduled deliveries (for example, if it was Monday morning, he may enter Wednesday as the next scheduled delivery day and Friday as the following scheduled delivery day). The goal was to order just enough inventory for the next delivery that would last until the second delivery. The system design was our attempt at creating a Just-In-Time inventory system.
5. The employee would then walk the aisles, scanning the bar codes of the products. The handheld Pocket PC would then calculate the number of units to order based on the average daily sales figures and the days between scheduled deliveries. The employee had the option of accepting the recommendation or ordering a different quantity.
6. After walking the aisles, the Pocket PC would transfer the order information to the back-end PC.
7. The back-end PC would transfer the order to head office via existing communication technology.

We launched the system in 30 stores within the first month of rollout. We estimated the first year savings to be $500K. Last I heard, the system had been successful in achieving its objectives. After I left the organization, I came across an article which referenced the system.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

MS Office Project Server Web Access Time Entry: Welcome to my Nightmare!

If you had a sibling growing up, you may be familiar with the following scenario: you’re working hard to complete a complicated puzzle you’ve been struggling over for hours. You think you are getting close until……wham! Your kid brother comes along, knocking the puzzle onto the floor into several pieces, then runs away laughing. If you’re like me, several “F-bombs” would be going off in your head or better yet, coming out of your mouth. My experience with Microsoft Office Project Server Web Access has provided me with the same “character building” opportunities, having left me with a few grey hairs over the years.

I’ll start by saying that I love working with Microsoft Project. It makes schedule development a fairly painless process. Its ability to link tasks and allocate time to tasks is an invaluable asset to the Project Manager. However, when you attempt to integrate the web access Time Entry functionality, it’s like setting a bull loose in a china shop. If managed correctly, it can be fairly painless. The challenge is in managing it correctly. In my last job (my favorite part of my new job is that there is no time to approve), we were responsible for approving time on a weekly basis. There is an expression that states the only certainties in life are death and taxes. For me, the third certainty in life was that my project schedule was going to look like crap every Monday after approving the employees’ time. Here is why:

1. Using a very simple example, assume you have 5 tasks in your schedule: Task 1, Task 2, Task 3, Task 4, and Task 5.
2. In creating the schedule, you estimate that each task will take 5 business days.
3. You only have 1 resource, so you schedule the tasks to be completed consecutively. In order to do this graphically, you set it up so that Task 2 starts after the completion of Task 2, Task 3 after the completion of Task 2, etc. In the end, you have a nice, tidy 5 week schedule.
4. The next step is to publish it to the MS Project Web Server, so that your employee can enter his time on Fridays.
5. On Monday morning, you approve the employee time entry. However, rather than entering his time into Task 1, your employee enters 40 hours against alternate tasks, some on different project schedules.
6. When you look at your schedule, it has pushed out a week. It was anticipating 40 hours worked on Task 1 for the week. When it didn’t arrive, it assumed that the task was late starting and shows your project as being behind schedule.

However, this is not a realistic scenario. In a real project, you’ll have many employees with many task assignments. In my last position, I had over 50 employees entering time concurrently into my project schedules. Some weeks, the damage was minimal, other times fairly significant. All this being said, it can be tightly controlled if the Project Manager is given the time to manage the schedule. It is a full-time job. With only a couple of hours per week to work on schedule repair, it puts the Project Manager in a difficult position. This was a major point of contention with my fellow managers. In fact, one outburst was captured on security video, as seen below:

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Love in the 21st Century: The Proliferation of Online Dating

For a variety of reasons, singles are the fastest growing population group in North America. The challenge for many singles today is where to meet that “special someone”. From my own experience, it seems like almost every person who is in a relationship (married or dating) has an opinion on where you need to go to meet the “person of your dreams”. Locations such as the grocery store, gym, and library have been suggested to me as the “places to go”. Ironically, none of these people offering the advice have ever seen it work firsthand. They always seem to know someone who knew someone who heard of someone who had met someone in this environment. Take the grocery store example. I’ve been grocery shopping more than a couple of times now, and honestly have never felt that it was the hotbed for love. For many of us, the location that allows us to get to know each other the best is work. When you spend 8 hours a day in the same location, you’re likely to form strong bonds with people. Unfortunately, dipping your pen in the company ink has never been supported as a great idea from a career perspective, as the adverse effects can be severe.

With today’s available technology, many people are turning to the Internet. Statistics show that an increasing number of people are engaging in online dating, as evidenced by the proliferation of online dating sites, such as Lavalife, Eharmony, Plenty of Fish, etc.
This social avenue works for many people. They prefer online dating to the club scene because of the lack of pressure and competition. In addition, the club scene has many distractions that prevent people from really getting to know each other. These distractions are virtually eliminated online.

Plus, there are many sites that will match you with someone who fits your ideal mate. This saves a lot of time, as it may take weeks or months to really get to know someone through traditional dating methods. Even Dr. Phil is getting on board, with his support of If Dr. Phil says it’s right, how can it be wrong?

Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Demise of the Music Industry: Music Piracy

Personally, I miss the days as a child when a visit to the music store was a real experience. I used to love to look through the records. After buying one, I couldn’t wait to get it home and remove the cellophane wrapper. Aah……the smell of the vinyl recording. The crackling sound as the needle made contact. Great memories. Although it’s not as exciting as it was as a child, I still go shopping every week for CDs.

With today’s available technology, I can understand the move to new music distribution methods such as iTunes. However, call me a prude, but I never been able to support the idea of illegal music downloading. I have found it very frustrating that so many people do it, as I have always viewed it theft.

According to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), “many do not understand the significant negative impact of piracy on the music industry. Though it would appear that record companies are still making their money and that artists are still getting rich, these impressions are mere fallacies. Each sale by a pirate represents a lost legitimate sale, thereby depriving not only the record company of profits, but also the artist, producer, songwriter, publisher, retailer, … and the list goes on.”

The adverse effects include:

1. Consumers (such as myself) lose because the savings enjoyed by music pirates drives up the costs of legitimate products.
2. Retailers lose because they can’t compete with the prices offered by illegal vendors.
3. Record companies lose. It is estimated that 85% of music recordings do not generate enough revenue to cover their costs. Record companies require the revenue from the profitable 15% of recordings to sustain their business operations. Without it, they are at risk.
4. Creative artists lose

In a very public case, the Red Hot Chili Peppers were angered when their Stadium Arcadium album was leaked to the public and distributed online prior to its official release. As recording artist Tool noted, "Basically, it's about music -- if you didn't create it, why should you exploit it? True fans don't rip off their artists."

Thursday, May 10, 2007

My Ebay Experience: Am I The Only One Getting Screwed?

I would classify myself as an early to late adopter of new technology. I am definitely not out there leading the pack when it comes to purchasing the latest “toys”. Last summer, I decided to try Ebay for the first time. It seemed like all of my friends had been using it for some time. Our rounds of golf would not go by without one of the boys talking about some great deal he got on a golf club from Ebay. I went in search of such a deal.

I decided that I wanted the new TaylorMade R7 driver, the hottest club on the market. It was retailing for $499.99 CDN, $574.99 with tax. I set my maximum price based on the retail price and the savings I was looking for. A few days later, I was thrilled to win the bid for $320 US, $340 US with shipping. Unfortunately, my excitement turned to rage when the club arrived. There were two additional charges: duty and a very expensive UPS brokerage charge that I was not expecting. With the addition of these two charges, the total came to $563.07 CDN. So, for the great savings of $11.92, I spent two weeks waiting for the club to arrive, while losing the customer service and product guarantee I would have secured by purchasing retail.

I decided to give Ebay another shot before Christmas. I won the bid on a statue and promptly paid the seller. Unfortunately, I never received the statue nor my money back from my trustworthy PayPal transaction.

Support your local retailer!

Secure online shopping, my butt……It must be Karma.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

My I.T. Skills Used to be Marketable: What Happened?

I’ll start by acknowledging that I have been out of the programming game for a few years now. Had I stayed in the game, I would have surely made efforts to keep up with the latest technology as best I could. That being said, I still find it amazing how quickly the “cutting edge” skills I came out of school with less than ten years ago have become obsolete. Gone is the high demand for programming knowledge in Visual Basic and Active Server Pages, having been replaced with the likes of Flash and Java.

I remember starting my programming career in 1998. I used to listen to the mainframe software developers complain about the lack of programming opportunities for people with their “outdated” skill set. I remember feeling sorry for them and their plight, all the while believing that it would never happen to me. In my opinion, my skills were hot and were always going to be hot…..I was the man! In fact, to highlight my value, I took the time to study for and obtain Microsoft’s premiere programming certification: the Microsoft Certified Solution Developer (MCSD). Having this certification was supposed to qualify me as a Microsoft programming expert…Microsoft said so!

Unfortunately, I seemed to be the only one in my neck of the woods that had ever heard of the certification. In fact, most people assumed that MCSD was an abbreviation for a Masters in Computer Science, with the exception being those that actually had a Masters in Computer Science. I began to wonder if those hundreds of hours of study were worth it.

I must admit that I am embarrassingly out of touch with today’s hottest technology: blogs, Blackberrys, FaceBook, Wi-Fi…’s all been Greek to me. This course has come along at a good time, as it is forcing me out of the dark days. I am starting to feel like I am once again somewhat knowledgeable with the latest “toys”.

Thankfully, SQL Server and Oracle are still around, so I can at least discuss database technology with today’s I.T. talent. Ironically, the certification I received so long ago is still valid.