Archive for January, 2010

All Things Trivial Are Not What They Seem

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

5:45 AM 1/27/2010

The Wife says, “Are you awake?”
My reply was a relatively unintelligible, “mmmhrmph.”
“Ed Begley Jr.,” she forces out with a tired sigh.
I reply with a surprised, “Oh!”
The Wife then says, “zzzzzzz.”
And I offer back, “zzzzzz.”

For most people this conversation wouldn’t occur, or would be so out of context that one would assume it’s a bizarre dream that shouldn’t be discussed with the world. But for us, it is Trivia Week and something as simple as “who the heck was the guy from that commercial Monday night?” takes on significant meaning. This Friday, The Wife and I will pack our bags and head down to sunny Kaukauna, WI (it would be warmer if that was an HI) for Lawrence University’s Great Midwest Trivia Contest, where we, along with hundreds of other fools, will attempt to correctly answer a question every three minutes for fifty straight hours. If I’ve learned anything from the Googlefest that is Trivia, no matter how you attempt to present your information on the Wide Wide World of Web, people aren’t going to find you if you haven’t made an effort to be found. In other words, it isn’t just a matter of differentiating your web presence from your competition: you need to make yourself available to be found.

My trivia team is ready to go. We have enough technology to make Skynet jealous. Our team includes lawyers, professors, and technical folks that have spent years working with or for Apple, Microsoft and IBM. Our 40 person team comes from all over the country and all over the globe. We could actually make a pretty cool deck of cards from all the different driver’s licenses! We eat better than at Thanksgiving or Christmas. We have a bank of phones that would make a call center jealous. We will be blogging and tweeting throughout. And we will win. Again. Our team captain John Brogan described us as the New York Yankees of trivia. While I bristled at that description, he’s right. We are going for 10 straight years of winning the off-campus division.

I was roped into this study in sleep deprivation four years ago by The Wife. My addition to the team has been described (to stick with the baseball metaphor) like picking up a veteran left-handed bat for the pennant run – the type of player described as a “professional hitter.” Sure my knees are shot and I can’t run anymore, but I keep focused and provide some important hits in the clutch. For example, in the final stages of the contest two years ago, I managed to find Jim Morrison’s passport number.

What I’ve learned over the last four years is that one can’t possibly anticipate all the different methods people will use to try and find something on the internet. I am not a Search Engine Optimization expert, nor will I pretend to be. But when you put an American, a Brit, a Canadian and a Texan next to each other and have them search for the same information—they are all going to go about it in a different way. Any business needs to keep this in mind when developing a web presence. It isn’t just about throwing up some XHTML, pretty pictures and a description of what you do. You need to think about how you reach your customers and how they can find you. While it might seem to be a lot easier than hoping someone’s fingers walk to you in the Yellow Pages, it is actually a lot more challenging. It’s not just about differentiating yourself; it’s about developing a strategy to help people find you. I’ve thought for several years now that Google, Yahoo or Bing could learn a lot about their search engines by analyzing the search data from the Great Midwest Trivia Contest.

If you are curious, or just a masochist, you can follow all fifty hours of the Great Midwest Trivia Contest and listen online at WLFM Radio. Just make sure to root for the Bank of Kaukauna as we go for ten titles in a row!

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On Demand Pineapple

Monday, January 18th, 2010

We’ve been throwing out lots of words around the office lately: Distributed Computing, Software as a Service (SaaS), Pineapple, Cloud Computing, On Demand. To many people, those are just words. They float around with little bits of meaning, but they are not really concrete ideas associated with a current technology environment. Most people want to turn on their computer, generate emails and spreadsheets, check Facebook and have everything work. We don’t really want to think about what’s behind the scenes. So when a company like mine releases an on demand direct mail solution called A-Qua Mailer, many people are just hearing words and not getting the point of how cool this A-Qua Mailer “thingy” really is.

Let’s try to demystify the concept of cloud computing. If I suggested that you close your eyes and imagine for a second, it probably won’t be good for productivity, so keep them open and pretend that you run a small business. We will call it I Need Pants, Inc. and you provide Pant Solutions to a myriad of verticals in the bodily attire market (wait a minute, I think I just delved too heavily into marketing speak). So you make pants and every time a customer orders pants you put them in a box, and send them off for delivery. It doesn’t matter if your customer is down the road or across the country. Maybe you have ten deliveries a day, maybe a hundred, but you have a fleet of drivers to deliver each package. That seems pretty silly, doesn’t it? A driver and a vehicle for each package? Do you have any idea how much it costs to park a car in downtown Minneapolis? In reality you’d call UPS and a dude in brown shorts and socks (even in winter, this is Minnesota) will come pick up all your packages, and your products will “automagically” arrive at your customer’s location. Pretty cool, right?

Scenario one is a simplistic explanation of what actually happens in a typical IT infrastructure. At the enterprise level, a different server controls each function of the business. Maybe one runs your CRM, another controls your invoicing system, a third ensures you have email, a fourth gives you access to the interwebs, and server five controls inventory, and so on and so forth. It’s like having a fleet of cars and a bunch of grizzled mechanics trying to keep them on the highway so you can deliver each box of pants separately. It’s not efficient and it’s not cheap. And if you’ve ever been in an overcrowded data center, you know it is hot enough to bake fresh cookies.

Internally we use a UPS driver to power our CRM. Actually, we use a pretty cool SaaS solution called SugarCRM. SugarCRM gives us all the flexibility of having an in-house CRM tool, without having to pay for all the equipment and maintenance needed to implement and run it ourselves. Our IT team is busy enough and this keeps them from getting too cranky. The best part for us, is that we actually only pay for what we use. We don’t have to pay for software to maintain, and we don’t pay a king’s ransom for an enterprise license. Instead, every time we add a sales rep we add an additional user (or seat) license to access the application. We don’t have those large infrastructure and deployment costs associated with housing the application in our datacenter. To use the metaphor, I want to pay to ship each box of pants, instead of paying for the potential need to ship pants. Having our CRM application in the cloud and hosted by the vendor and available on demand allows us to do just that.

To bring this to a desktop comparison, Gmail and other email applications are the perfect examples of services that replace desktop software much like Lorton Data’s A-Qua Mailer does for mailing applications. Outlook is a great email client for work, especially when you have someone else in charge of making it work for you. If you used it at home for personal email, it would be a pain to get it initially set up and then you’d only be able to check it on that machine. Unless you wanted to install Outlook on other computers, or constantly change settings when you are on a new PC, Outlook isn’t really convenient for personal e-mail. It is much easier to start up Firefox or Internet Explorer, head to the website of your email service and log in. No additional software required. No obnoxious updates that try to reboot your system when you are in the middle of something. All the maintenance is done for you by the service provider. Using a third-party provider like Gmail (or UPS in my earlier example) allows for both increased efficiency and ease of access.

Our A-Qua Mailer provides the same ease of use. As long as you have a formatted file and a web browser, you can get your mailing list processed for the deepest levels of USPS discounting available to you. Without having to buy software, or update it, or make sure you have the latest and greatest USPS requirements up to date on the system or pay for modules you don’t use because some day you might. Instead we take care of all that for you. All you do is pay for your processing. And that is pretty cool.

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