Archive for the ‘General Comments’ Category

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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Merry Snowpocolypse

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009

As we look forward to a potential snowpocolypse or snowmageddon here in the Twin Cities, or what I like to call as a Clevelander “rush hour flurries,” the wife and I have split last-minute holiday duties. I’ll be going from store to store completing our final gift purchases while she’ll be stocking up on food and, more importantly, beer, in case we are snowed in over the holiday weekend. We will be snuggled up playing Rock Band, enjoying the snow and not sliding down the highway in our Jeep. While we will be comfortably enjoying the weather, one man in a red suit will be out in the storm heading from rooftop to chimney to make sure all those well behaved children have a wonderful December 25th. The wife assures me that any stop at our house will not be on my behalf.

How are we to know where Santa is on his annual journey? I need to know when to put down the beer and fake plastic guitar and go to bed. The solution is NORAD. They have been helping to track old Saint Nick since 1955 and all because of an error in an advertisement. The short story is Sears published an advertisement with a promise to let kids speak to Santa by calling a specific number, but the published phone number was actually a secured military line. Oops! Rather than dash the dreams of the kids that were calling, the airmen pretended they were Santa and gave the callers info on Santa’s progress from the North Pole. The story is especially sweet because we normally only hear about incorrectly published phone numbers when they’d get someone put on the naughty list and not when it develops into something nice. I encourage everyone to read the article from CNET on how this volunteer program has blossomed into this large undertaking. It just helps to prove you never know what great things can come from seemingly small mistakes.

Lorton Data will be closed December 24 and 25 and January 1.

Happy Holidays!

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Data Story Time

Thursday, December 10th, 2009

Every Wednesday night for the last fourteen weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of sitting through the academic equivalent of a giant bowl of beets. Before going after a Master’s degree in MIS, I needed to take a prerequisite course in financial accounting. The class has been fantastic for fleshing out my deep transactional understating of business. Financial accounting brings to mind old-time images of guys with adding machines and visors; the reality is this course should have been called “Storytelling from an Economic Perspective.” That’s all numbers really do, provide information to help tell a story. I think we get too caught up in presenting the numbers and forget to talk about what the numbers really mean.

While I am not going to present myself as a business intelligence expert, I did spend two years doing sales operations data analysis and translating between the sales organization, finance and IT departments to get projects completed reasonably on time. This means taking data that has no context and making it actionable. It means geeking out by using the same application I use to make grocery lists. It means being mocked by my family and friends. It means Excel.

I’d like to offer some key points about data analysis and presentation from my experiences that might be useful. As always, your mileage may vary.

1. Numbers tell a story, they aren’t the story.
Nate Silver’s Five Thirty Eight is a fantastic illustration on how to tell a story from the numbers. Nate is a stat-head, but he’s able to translate that information into a story or argument which makes sense for anyone, regardless of their background. The primary purpose of generating data in a number format is to help provide evidence for an opinion. Think back to the last time you had a writing or speech assignment in school and they talked about supporting evidence. Keep that in mind any time you are presenting information that involves numbers.

2. GED – Good Enough Data
This is a concept people have a difficult time getting their arms around, but I found it has been very important for getting things done.  Your information doesn’t have to be 100% accurate all the time.  For example, if you are trying to illustrate to a team of sales reps that gross margin is low and they need to be negotiating better, you don’t have to pull every transaction for the last six years and spend hours slicing and dicing it.  Get close to the pin to illustrate your point.  You aren’t preparing a report for the SEC, so don’t spend more time creating a report than time your audience spends using it.  It doesn’t make sense.

3. Customize for your audience
Seriously, one spreadsheet does not fit all. The chart you make for sales should be different than the one for operations or finance. It’s just like public speaking; extract the data that illustrates your point and makes sense for your audience. Kick out the extraneous stuff that you’ll want to explain, but won’t make sense for your crowd. It is just boring and will confuse your point.

4. Make the information actionable
Summary information should also contain (on another tab) the line item detail that proves your point. Do this not so you can win an argument, even though that is fun, but so that after the presentation people can take your data and do something with it. I know that sounds like crazy talk, but the point of this stuff is to reach a goal. Most meetings aren’t FYI–although one might argue that a lot of them feel that way—they are to get a team together to go somewhere. Make it easy for them.

5. Bite sized chunks
If your data fields stretch out to column AA, it might be just a hair too much. If it stretches to column AZ – delete it. Immediately. It isn’t useful to me, you, or anyone who looks at it. Information overload makes it really easy to be dismissed. If it’s dismissed due to complexity, you’ve killed the whole actionable idea. If it takes hours to figure out what you’ve done, then you are wasting people’s time.

6. Data expires quickly
Any data extract is a point in time. This is especially important to remember for transactional or customer information. Tell your audience what that point in time is and try to keep it reasonably close to the point of presentation. If it takes weeks to massage and tweak your data, it’s probably going to be too old to still be reasonably actionable.

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Patriotism is alive and well where I stand this Veterans Day.

Wednesday, November 11th, 2009

I just returned to my desk from the cafeteria in our office building where more than 100 people from multiple companies spent 45 minutes in recognition of this Veterans Day. We gathered to pledge allegiance to our flag, sing our national anthem, spend time in silence for those who have fallen in service to our country, recognize the veterans in the room and those actively serving today, hear from a Major assigned to The 34th Red Bull Infantry Division of the Minnesota National Guard (http://www.theredbulls.org/), and close the ceremony singing God Bless America.

The event was sponsored by Country Financial, the owner and major tenant of our office building. This is a practice they’ve had for years, but new to me since we just relocated our offices here. I haven’t experienced or felt that concentration of intentional patriotism for far too long. It feels good. Hats off to Country Financial, and to all who have served, or are currently serving, in our military forces.

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Welcome to the inaugural post of Lorton Data’s blog!

Thursday, September 10th, 2009

I’m kicking off this effort, but others will be contributing regularly. We hope that this forum develops into a robust community of readers and contributors. Topics posted here will generally be related to Direct Marketing and Data Management.

We expect the personality of our company to be reflected in these pages as various members of our team contribute. Opinions expressed here may not always reflect the official position of the company, but that’s what blogs are for – a place to share news, ideas, and differing views on relevant topics.

I look forward to the dialogue that can develop here.

Regards!

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