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How can we help IBM make better core level decisions about the Notes client and Designer?

By Andrew Pollack on 12/10/2008 at 10:02 AM EST

Note: I originally wrote this commentary in another venue, and have edited it to be more appropriate to the blog audience.

When it comes to the vision for Notes and Domino Designer, I strongly believe there is a huge hurdle to consider that stems from the very nature of IBM as an organization.

Directions get taken based on talking with large IT shop management, but also very much on trends and goals within IBM which is itself one of the biggest customers of the products in the world. It is not, however, a good representation of the rest of the customer base. Hardware costs, licensing costs, and diversity of skills costs are very much skewed at IBM when compared with the rest of the world. There are very few companies out there who can just throw J2EE server management skills, or Domino management skills, or AD management skills, or programmers of virtually any language at problems nearly at will. There are very few companies out there who can allocate new 20,000 dollar servers at will. If compared as a country, IBM has one of the largest economies in the world. What drives the things IBM wants to do are very different from what drives a lot of the rest of the world.

IBM is so big, that to some extent Notes & Domino end up being the result of an internal corporate IT development project that gets shared to the rest of the world. If you don't believe that, consider that there is code in shipping beta (and possibly production versions) that is specifically related to internal IBM end user tools and would never be executed outside IBM.

To validate their ideas, IBM presents them to their big customers. These customers that IBM presents their vision to see a very clean and crisp representation of it. A very senior IT executive sits in a room and is presented an idealized picture of what the next generation vision from IBM will look like. He agrees that he wants more control over the client side desktop, that he wants the kind of integrated wiring represented by 'dashboards' and 'portals' (speaking generically, not about Portal itself). Its like taking a poll of the population and asking "Do you want clean air and water?" Of course. Everyone wants clean air and water. How many people are capable, when asked that question, of fully evaluating the different ways to get there and what those implementation details will mean on the ground?

Lawyers will tell you that in the process of a "Grand Jury", any decent prosecutor can get an indictment for a ham sandwich. That doesn't mean the sandwich is guilty of murder or that the case will be won in the open battle ground of a court. The IBM executive briefing process is very analogous to this. Given well crafted presentations, shiny slideware, and promises of integrated portals, secure desktop management, and cool looking clocks and things; its fairly easy to get executive buy in for the new product suite. When it comes time to capture the market share in a broader sense and the real work and costs of doing things come in, its much harder to win in court.

So you start with a vision and direction strategy that is based very much on a viewpoint that is radically divorced from many of the customers, then very skilled sales and presentation people get the customer buy in through these customer briefings, and you end up with a self-validating set of design plans.

IBM Lotus has had a "Design Partner" program for several years now. That it exists is no secret. I believe this has been a serious (and very welcome) move toward balancing the internally reinforcing nature of the design and architecture process. As painful as it is, I honestly think that the barrage of harsh criticism IBM gets from some of us has in fact helped the product. But not enough. As DP's we feel often that we're brought in too late to make the really important changes. I know I have a pretty strong vision for what a Notes front end needs to be in a next generation world. I could drive a couple of hours to Westford and present my thoughts -- and I'm sure I'd be given the courtesy of an audience, but I have no doubt that it would be met with at best blank stares, and at worst outright derision once I'd left.

There are some of us in the DP program that have a pretty realistic understanding of the real forces that push success and failure at the client and designer level. I don't mean just on a bug-fix or UI layout sense, but on a real architectural level. While we've had some input lately, it seems to often come too late for the kind of changes we're asking for to be implemented.

How can IBM do a better job at getting more of the kind of real core level feedback in time to make the right decisions?

There are  - loading -  comments....

re: How can we help IBM make better core level decisions about the Notes client and Designer?By Peter Presnell on 12/10/2008 at 11:24 AM EST
Hey Andrew,
My suggestion would be for IBM to drink some of their own cool-aide.

IBM are pushing collaboration as one of the important merging technologies. A
few IBM'ers such as Ed Brill and Mary-Beth Raven's team are out there actively
communicating with anyone who cares to listen (and many do). They are making
great ground with the Notes client, and even if they don't make it exactly the
way I would like I at least feel I have the opportunity to provide some input
and can accept that they made the decisions they have after considering the
views of many.

The Notes application development side is the complete opposite. I feel I have
a greater level of understanding of the inner operations of the CIA that I do
of IBM's plans for Domino Designer and LotusScript. While almost everyone
knows Ed Brill's name, how many people can name the person who heads the
Designer development team. I have been doing Notes development for 15 years
and I don't!!. I would like to see IBM share more information in the public
domain (and not just at annual events such as Lotusphere) as well as getting
more people involved in the idea process using tools such as blogs, connections
and IdeaJam. Communicating a strategy ahead of time would also be a help.
e.g. X-Pages seems to represent a huge change in approach but nothing has been
really said what this is and how this reflects on strategies for Notes client
and Web client development strategies moving forward.
re: How can we help IBM make better core level decisions about the Notes client and Designer?By Alan Bell on 12/10/2008 at 11:39 AM EST
Maureen Leeland isn't it?
How to design a productBy Roland Reddekop on 12/10/2008 at 11:32 AM EST
Well, I assume you're painting an extreme (possibly bordering on inaccurate)
picture of the situation to provoke discussion. Suggesting that IBM's modus
operandi is to limit their input to just big customers in controlled situations
is hyperbole. Mary Beth Raven's blog, as an example, is seeking grassroots
input. And there was her LS presentation about how Notes 8, particularly the
GUI, was developed through consultation. You may argue that this only affected
the product's "window dressing" not the core functionality, and that's a fair
comment. Regardless of how input is gathered (polls, focus groups, interviews,
etc.), in the end decisions are made by individuals who have their own
perspectives. Hopefully they consolidate and weigh all that input in a
reasonable way. I suspect if things are not happening in the direction you/we
want, turning up the volume of criticism (and supplying positive suggestions)
in all the media that IBM is listening to (e.g. blogs, IdeaJam, community
forums) is the only way to get through unless you have direct access to a key
decision-maker in the particular area you are concerned about.

You think so?By Andrew Pollack on 12/10/2008 at 11:43 AM EST
Blogs, ideajam, forums -- great, but all of that input is late in the game.
How much architectural and overall direction input do you really believe you're
seeing from those sources?
re: How can we help IBM make better core level decisions about the Notes client and Designer?By Alan Bell on 12/10/2008 at 11:38 AM EST
In the Open Source software world things get done by people who want them done.
In this situation the people who want things done can't scratch their own itch,
but have to describe to IBM's dev team what the itch is and how important it
is. If I were in charge of IBM I would push for more openness of the
development process and more public visibilty of the dev team. Not just in
scheduled design partner presentations where they show what they have been
working on but constantly using tools such as forums, IRC and bug tracking
tools like bugzilla or trak with design partner (or all partner) access to
binaries from nightly builds or developer sandboxes so that the development and
feedback process can be more itterative. I don't think this would require
releasing the source in any way nor do I think it would be unmanageable any
more than it is in popular Free software projects.
re: How can we help IBM make better core level decisions about the Notes client and Designer?By Alan Bell on 12/10/2008 at 11:53 AM EST
to add to that a bit, generally if there is a feature you really want in some
Free software but the core maintainers of the software sort of agree it is
harmless and mildly beneficial but they can't be bothered to actually implement
your suggestion they will respond with "patches welcome". To some this seems
rude and unhelpful, however it is meant with sincerity. Patches are indeed very
welcome. With Notes if a customer or partner really wants something and makes a
suggestion which doesn't meet IBMs prioritised list the response is either
silence or "No". Patches are not welcome, or possible.
re: How can we help IBM make better core level decisions about the Notes client and Designer?By Paul Gagnon on 12/10/2008 at 02:45 PM EST
you could try something at Lotusphere, turn the tables on IBM and have them be
the listeners and the customer be the presenters with ideas.
re: How can we help IBM make better core level decisions about the Notes client and Designer?By Charles Robinson on 12/10/2008 at 03:45 PM EST
I think IBM has all the tools and sources they need. They're the one pushing
collaboration as the new new thing, after all. They just need to close the
loop and actually listen.

I really don't think it's up to us to make them listen. They have always done
what they do, and they will continue to do so. It should be obvious by now
they really don't care what you, me, or any group of 5,000 devoted fans says.
re: How can we help IBM make better core level decisions about the Notes client and Designer?By Henning Heinz on 12/10/2008 at 05:29 PM EST
I do neither believe that IBM thinks their core level decisions are wrong in
any way nor that they need more feedback to do a better job. Much of what I
have read from Steve Mills was about streamlining the development process,
concentrating on core level technologies and keeping away from the consumer
market. I know too little about IBMs business if this is a good or a bad
decision but I think that IBMs software business is quite good in following
this strategy.
re: How can we help IBM make better core level decisions about the Notes client and Designer?By Jo Grant on 12/11/2008 at 01:02 PM EST
Do you think a JIRA like submit-enhancement-and-vote-on-it site would help?
re: How can we help IBM make better core level decisions about the Notes client and Designer?By Ben Poole on 12/12/2008 at 03:48 PM EST
Many of IBM's product decisions are the direct result of what they think their
biggest clients want. Why do they think they know what these customers need?
Because they are *told*, frequently and loudly. In fact, they beat IBM over the
head with threats to move elsewhere if their demands are not met. Simple as

And the people charged with telling IBM what to do? Well they're *not* users,
nor are they administrators, developers or power users.

They are -- shudder -- "enterprise architects" and upper management.

So, smaller customers, BPs intimate with the product looking to improve it, and
other interested parties simply don't count.
re: How can we help IBM make better core level decisions about the Notes client and Designer?By Thomas Schulte on 12/15/2008 at 04:17 AM EST
The "smaller customers" part is in my opinion the core problem. Smaller
companies tend to be faster than the big ones. And while they are not those
type of heavy weight lifters the big ones are (not that much seats) they would
be a real valid source to listen to for IBM.

The company i work for has approx 600 seats. Not enough to raise any eyebrow
within IBM regarding our needs (those i often have spoken about in public and
to IBM direct). But if i look at us and let us say another ten companies i know
about, using !!HELP!!, we are up at may be 25000 seats.

So if the problem really is that you need some weight over at IBM to get heard
then we perhaps should build a more aggressive and not SO informal group which
bundles seats and then can be seen as ONE BIG PLAYER by IBM.

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