While dishing up my third helping of turkey and mashed potatoes this past Thanksgiving, it dawned on me: The IT world’s transition to e-business is not unlike the events that led up to the first Thanksgiving back in 1620. Settling in the New World, already inhabited by the Native Americans, created some interesting challenges for the Pilgrims. Although the two groups existed side by side geographically, they led separate lives. It wasn’t until the Indian Samoset walked into the Plymouth camp and said, in English, “Welcome,” that the two sides started interacting and sharing ideas.
Although both sides could see the advantages of idea-sharing and working together, there was still a barrier of prejudice and fear. But the Pilgrims soon discovered they needed the Indians’ help if they were to survive the winters, and the Indians realized these newcomers were not going away. Faced with reality, the two groups began sharing knowledge and skills, and the lives of the Pilgrims and Indians were forever changed.
We face the same problems 380 years later in the IT world. Web professionals and legacy IT people are living side by side in the new world of e-business, and integrating the two cultures and technologies is creating challenges on both sides. Our lives have been forever changed. No longer do we simply deal with locally connected users who interface with the system via twinax cables and a 5250 green-screen. Many of us have customers, suppliers, and business partners who want to access our back-end systems.
This empowerment of the customer and integration with suppliers and business partners has changed the face of many companies’ IT departments. In addition to the platform (in our case, the AS/400) that runs business applications, other platforms have been added to the mix. Companies that have always been AS/400-only shops may have decided to run Web sites on a cluster of Windows NT servers or UNIX boxes. New languages, such as Java, HTML, and XML, are making their way into our application- development life cycles. Other software technologies such as Web application servers may have your IT staff scrambling just to keep up. Not only are there new platforms to take care of but also new services on existing platforms. Many AS/400 shops are pushing to understand the HTTP server, which has been on the AS/400 for a long time but was previously not required knowledge for these shops.
In many organizations that are exploring the world of e-business, the Web- development and business-application groups are working side by side but not together. Like the Pilgrims and Indians, they are leading separate lives. If we want our businesses to survive, someone needs to break camp and say, “Welcome!” Management can make the transition to working as a single, unified group easier by rethinking how IT is structured. New roles will have to be established, and existing ones will have to be tinkered with. New staff may need to be brought in, and existing staff may need to be offered training that will help them work better with those new people. If the two cultures are truly going to be integrated so that all the new platforms, languages, and technologies can work together to support the business in the best ways possible, everyone involved will need to have an open mind, patience, and be willing to cook up many helpings of hard work.
Defining the Roles
E-business often does not allow one person to design and code every piece of an application, from the user interface to the business rules and everything in between. There are multiple platforms to traverse and a variety of languages and techniques with which to traverse them. Who will replace the single end-to-end programmer? An integrated team of experts. Some of the necessary roles in this team are user-interface designers, object- oriented designers (OODs) and object-oriented programmers (OOPs), database specialists, and business-rule experts. You will also need operations and administrative staff to handle the new hardware and software technologies.
The user-interface designers should be a mix of business-application staff members and Web page designers. You need good Web designers who know how to make the business data look and feel good to the user. They may not understand your back-end systems, but they do have the expertise needed to make a Web site graphically appealing. You also need business-application staff members, who may not be familiar with Web technologies, but who are well-versed on your unique business systems and who are flexible enough to work out solutions to the challenges posed by opening up this new avenue of data access. You will probably require the services of object-oriented programmers and designers who are responsible for writing the code that serves Web pages and accesses business rules and data (assuming this isn’t accomplished in the legacy application). A database specialist will help the OO programmers get to the business data and could be either someone from your business-application staff or a database guru who knows SQL and can get to any DB2 database, regardless of platform. The business-rule experts help programmers get to the business rules and will most likely be made up of your programming staff—but could also be made up of business analysts, database specialists, or even OOPs. Last, but certainly no less important, is the operations and system administrative staff.
Give Thanks for Component-based Design
If completed correctly, the combination of all this technology and specialized expertise will result in a solution everyone can be thankful for. A successful e-business implementation is, like a delicious Thanksgiving feast, a result of component-based development. While one person may be responsible for the turkey and stuffing, that alone will not fill up all the guests. Aunt Marge pitches in with her sweet potatoes and marshmallows, Aunt Nan contributes her green bean casserole, Uncle Keith shows up with the homemade cranberry sauce, and cousin Kate bakes up the pumpkin pie.
Component-based design is the best solution to e-business challenges for more than one reason. In addition to combining a group of experts to make the best solution possible, component-based design and development allows parallel tasks to be completed. This means that one group can be designing Web pages while another group is coding business rules. Another advantage to component-based design and development is the potential cost benefit. If you want something done fast and done right, it’s best to get the right tool for
the job. Aunt Marge could use a hammer to mash her sweet potatoes, but it won’t work as quickly or as well. By having Web specialists work on the Web and business application specialists work on the business applications, you won’t pay for ramp-up time or less-than- optimal solutions.
I Can’t Believe I Ate the Whole Thing!
While the feast of new technology, specialized expertise, and e-business capability that an integrated, component-centric IT team cooks up may be delicious, it can have some unpleasant side effects. Too much turkey and stuffing, and you may wind up with a stomachache or a few extra inches around the middle. Not enough planning and effort, and you can wind up with communication nightmares like the ones that plagued the Native Americans and Pilgrims.
In addition, integrated e-business teams can have challenges caused by the difference in development and development cycle philosophies between the Java programmers and the application-development folks. The business-application side can be slower than the Web-development side. In part, this is caused by the fact that there is usually a set development cycle in place on the business application side. Because Web development is often a new addition in an organization, that set development cycle may not exist. Combine that with the pressure to get e-business projects done on the accelerated schedule of “Web time,” and you have a pace disparity that can cause frustration and misunderstandings on both sides. The business application programmers may think the Web team is being flighty, while the Web team may see the business application programmers as standing in the way of progress. Neither side is entirely right or entirely wrong, and this is where the patience and understanding I talked about can become absolutely crucial.
Management has to be standing by with a dose of medicine to fix these bellyaches in the midst of a cross-platform, cross-language, and cross-cultural department. What happens instead in many shops that I’ve worked with is that managers aren’t positioned correctly, and they end up siding with one group or the other and amplifying the issues instead of solving them. Remember, another piece of pecan pie isn’t going to help anything; new challenges call for new ways of doing things.
I have been told that I shouldn’t complain about something without providing a solution. I have also been told that understanding a problem is the first step toward solving that problem. So, since I have already stated the problems, it’s only appropriate that I offer some guidance. The new e-business roles can be integrated beautifully if communication is improved. It might be a little more difficult than simply walking over to the Web designers and saying, “Welcome, dudes!” But, it’s a start. Still, there are attitude adjustments that need to be made and fears and prejudices to overcome. It’s each individual’s responsibility to put down his musket or bow and to get to know the other side. Management can greatly aid in this process by setting communication and development expectations and standards and by seeing that all players follow them.
There are advantages to component-based development, but you don’t want each group developing on an island and not communicating with the other group. There should be compromise on both sides. Remember that the goal is the same: developing and implementing the best e-business site possible. To get there, it’s going to take some time and effort. Maybe years from now, Thanksgiving will be celebrated not only in honor of the Pilgrims and Native Americans but also in honor of the Web developers and business application developers who put aside their differences and worked together for the common e-good. Now, pass the turkey!