Saturday, May 04, 2002

Eric Knorr's 30 April article in ZDNet Tech Update titled Web Services Meet Process Management made me think about the many different directions we are going. Yes, we need to integrate process design and management into the architecture of systems we're designing and building. However, is yet another process notation or methodology needed? Given the activity surrounding Web Services Flow Language (WSFL) my question is moot. Personally, the best approach I've seen so far is that proposed by Nick V. Flor in Web Business Engineering. Bemoaning the fact that this well thought out approach is being ignored accomplishes nothing. I can console myself that at least the importance of process as a foundation is recognized and standards are being developed. I've collected a number of articles and documents about Web Services Flow Language and encourage anyone who is involved in the design and development of web-based systems to become familiar with them:
If you're developing a business case for e-commerce, or are exploring the business and technical impacts of implementing a major initiative I strongly recommend reading Handbook of E-Business.This is an expensive book that will be a sound investment for the right audience and a disappointment to others. The right audience consists of high-level management in business process domains, IT executive management, marketing and strategic planners.

I'll start with what this book is not, which will help you determine if it's right for you. It is NOT:

What this book does provide is a high-level, succinct discussion of the major issues and factors that will be of interest to its target audience as I've defined it above. Although Jessica Keyes is credited as the author she is really the editor who has pulled together articles from experts and those in the trenches and one of then more frequent contributors. Ms. Keye's selection of content and her skills as an editor are showcased in this book, which consists of 6 sections (A through F), that address specific aspects of e-business as follows:
Section A: Introduction. Although one would think that all businesses have thought this through, most are still reacting to the phenomena of the web and its possibilities, with no realistic idea about the opportunities and pitfalls that are inherent. Highlights that I like are: selling and value propositions from a business perspective, learning from mistakes, partnering and alliances, implementation strategies, personalization, and a strategic framework for e-commerce.

Section B: E-Commerce. This section covers customer retention, e-commerce testing, driving revenue and customer satisfaction, e-merchandising, and strategic models.

Section C: E-Business. How to recast your thinking from bricks and mortar to e-business. Highlights include: integrated B2B, selling hard goods and info to businesses (business models and product development life cycles), ASPs, transforming your business into e-business-best practices, budgeting & reporting.

Section D: Financials. This is the most business-focused section, and one that is in line with Ms. Keye's extensive background in business and financial analysis. It includes: valuing an internet business, financial model for CFOs, e-procurement, taxation, e-service, infrastructure investment decisions, finance dept role in e-biz development, developing e-business plan, raising money for internet venture, web revenue models, measures for e-business, outsourcing and initial costs to build e-business, procurement savings.

Section E: Social Aspects, including legal issues, advertising, trust management, and e-culture and change.

Section F: Technology. This collection of articles is a high-level overview that is aimed at upper management and decision makers to reveal the technical issues. Included are: content as cornerstone, testing, underlying technology, security and the impact of e-business on IT organizations.

Each chapter is an easy read and is packed with only the essentials. In fact, I marveled at the way the information is condensed and presented because most chapters were less than 10 pages, yet captured everything a decision maker needs to know. In many respects this book is similar to a highly focused collection of Gartner or Meta Group reports, and therein lies the value - busy executives can quickly get the information they need to make strategic and tactical decisions without getting bogged down in unnecessary details.

Friday, May 03, 2002

Last week I briefly discussed reliability and quality in a few entries. Both of these topics are heavily grounded in probability and statistics, as are most of of the activities in which IT professionals engage. I use three basic tools, depending on the type of work I'm doing: Excel for business and simple computational problems and analysis, MathCAD for more complex work, such as queuing and linear programming/optimization, and risk analysis, and STATVIEW for heavy statistics.

Each tool has its place. If you're using Excel and want to learn how to tap into its power I recommend Management Decision Making: Spreadsheet Modeling, Analysis, and Applications . This college-level text is also useful to business and IT professionals because it provides a refresher for decision techniques that are the foundation of a number of disciplines. The book is divided into two parts:

  1. Deterministic methods, mainly focused on linear programming and optimization
  2. Probability and queuing.
What makes this book valuable to the practicing professional is that it uses one of the most common business tools, Microsoft Excel, and shows how to apply this tool to real world problems. The accompanying CD ROM comes with TreePlan for developing decision trees and CrystalBall for Monte Carlo simulation, as well as workbooks that are used to support the plethora of realistic examples used throughout the book.

Although the book is business-oriented and better suited for operations analysis and MBA students and practitioners, I've used it as a reference for project planning, computer system capacity planning and performance analysis, and IT security risk management - these practical uses of the material show the value of the book in the real world. The supporting web site that the author maintains has materials for lesson plans, errata and additional resources that make this book particularly valuable for the academic and business environments.

For more intense computations the best tool is MAthCAD 2001 Professional. This progam is valuable because there are limitations to spreadsheets for performing advanced statistics, differential equations and graphing. Yes, if you're clever with common spreadsheet applications, such as Excel, you can work wonders. However it's time consuming, clumsy after a certain point, and often requires third-party add-ins. MathCAD, on the other hand, allows you to perform complex operations with a simple drag and drop from its extensive library of built n operators and functions.

I use it for computer systems capacity planning and performance analysis, general statistical analysis and probability in project planning and control. In that respect I haven't begun to tap into the power of this program because, especially calculus and matrix operations. However, what I do use it for gives me an idea of the time savings that results from building equations by dragging the symbols onto the screen, adding the variables and seeing the results immediately. The graphing function is as easy (and powerful). What I can do in MathCAD in less than a minute would take hours to set up in Excel, for example.

What I particularly like about MathCAD is the document management capabilities that are built in, the fact that it seamlessly integrates with Microsoft Office applications (you can drag your equations and graphs into a Word document, for example, with the same ease as an Excel table or graphic), and ability to save your documents as HTML.

Another strong point about MathCAD is the large collection of files and electronic books that are freely available from the publisher's website. They serve as a clearinghouse and solution sharing point for MathCAD users and the solutions that are available cover every business, scientific and technical discipline. An example that is in my technical area of expertise is the Closed queuing network analysis solution that came in handy when I was analyzing batch processing optimization.

If you work with equations and have reached the limits of your spreadsheet application you may find MathCAD to be a great value. You'll certainly become more efficient and productive with it. You'll also find that the learning curve is relatively flat because the user interface is similar to Microsoft's Office family of products. You'll probably wonder how you got along without the ability to build equations with drag and drop shortly after you begin using it. Technical support is responsive, the documentation is clear and complete, and the publisher's web site provides a wealth of add-ons and other tools.

When it comes to probability and statistics one of the best programs is Statview 5.0, which is one of the more popular statistical programs used in business and scientific applications. Amazon sells a student version, and the only difference between it and the professional version is the licensing. The student version has all of the features and capabilities, but you are restricted by legal terms and conditions of the license from using it outside of the academic environment. This is also an ethical issue.

What it contains: a comprehensive suite of descriptive statistical, statistical process control capabilities, regression, analysis of variance, factor analysis and non-parametric test functions are built in. The power and ease of use comes from the innovative user interface, data management and reporting features. In particular, the user interface stands out as my favorite feature because of its simplicity and power. It contains two types of windows, dataset and view, which accounts for its simplicity, and interactive browsers that allow you to access and data and apply analytical functions that account for the power. The dataset window is similar to a spreadsheet, and the plethora of functions allow you to perform any common (and many less common) analyses. You can also analyze more than one dataset in a single analysis, and you can save the work as a template to save time for similar analyses. Results can either be displayed in tabular or graphical format at literally a click of your mouse. The preview feature allows you play 'what if' in the same manner as spreadsheets, by changing data or parameters, seeing the changes. Page layout is powerful and flexible, which is something one expects from a professional tool.

If you are a student and qualify for the license terms and conditions STATVIEW is a bargain and a time saver. In addition to getting a tool that will make short work of statistical analyses regardless of whether you're majoring in social sciences, business or technology, you'll be learning the same software that you'll probably use after graduation because SAS Institute, the publisher, is one of the most respected names in statistical software.

If you are not a student and want a more focused statistical program I recommend JMP Statistical Discovery 4.0. Unlike STATVIEW, which is for general statistical analysis for a number of business and technical disciplines, this application is focused on operations analysis, statistical process control and design of experiments.

What makes this an industrial-strength tool is the fact that it works with mainstream applications, such as Microsoft Excel (open tables can directly access Excel files), and with any database that can be accessed via ODBC (MS Access, Oracle, SQL Server, etc.). Further ease of use is provided by the column browser that combines a familiar spreadsheet view with powerful navigation capabilities. Additional flexibility is given by extensive reporting features (easy layout, save as HTML for web publishing, and editing data while in the report function). If you want to automate repetitive tasks JMP also includes a scripting language that is reasonably easy to learn and is integrated with the formula editor.

One of the more powerful functions is design of experiments, which sets this application apart from general statistics programs - if you use DOE or Taguchi methods then you have ample justification for investing in JMP because you're be significantly more productive.

In addition to DOE/Taguchi methods JMP does descriptive statistics (eliminating the need for a separate statistics program), linear models, correlations and multivariate computations, statistical process control charts, and time series analysis. These capabilities make it ideal for anyone involved with quality assurance, R&D, operations analysis and reliability modeling. This is a professional tool that will save more time than more general packages such as the company's other product, STATVIEW, or applications such as MathCAD.

Thursday, May 02, 2002

VoiceXML is a topic that I am currently researching in support of developing a business strategy for Unmesh Laddha's company Thinking Minds, Inc. and our team's resources for end-to-end support for VoiceXML systems. Among the best resources I've found are:Additional resources of interest include IBM's AlphaWorks VoiceXML resources (IBM is one of the major contributors to W3C's VoiceXML specification), Websphere's Voice Server page and World of VoiceXML, which is a personal page maintained by Ken Rehor.

One of the most highly regarded books on the subject is VoiceXML: Professional Developer's Guide with CDROM by Chetan Sharma and Jeff Kunins. This book has received consistent praise and is up-to-date (it uses the VoiceXML 2.0 specification as reference).

Wednesday, May 01, 2002

Loose Ends. A new month is here and that means new themes, unplanned entries that reflect whatever we are individually and/or collectively doing, and the occasional rants about pet peeves. I want to share a few files that I've accumulated, but didn't have an opportunity to work into an entry during April. Sans rhyme or reason, here are the ones that didn't fit but I found interesting:

Tuesday, April 30, 2002

The Role of Business Case Analysis in Software Engineering is an excellent 81-slide PowerPoint presentation on an important topic. The presentation's author, Donald J. Reifer, wrote Making the Software Business Case, which Linda reviewed on Amazon on 22 September 2001.

In my 21 April entry I wrote about a book titled Requirements by Collaboration: Workshops for Defining Needs. This book synthesizes three approaches to collaboration, including joint application development (JAD). The PowerPoint presentation on JAD shows how one collaborative approach works. I've also have a collection of documents that support collaborative workshops. Collaborative requirements, like business case analysis, are keys to bridging the gap that exists between the technology focus of IT and the bottom line focus of the business. That gap needs to be bridged.

Monday, April 29, 2002

Arc of Quality is an interesting paper on measuring the effectiveness of the testing process. If you're involved in testing this paper offers a sane, cost-effective approach to assuring quality.

Although unit testing is a developer activity it's important because it's the foundation of software assurance and integrity. The three MS Word documents in the Zip archive containing unit test artifacts provide unit testing guidelines, a developer checklist and unit test plan.

Rounding out the test theme of this entry is a PowerPoint presentation on security testing fundamentals.

Sunday, April 28, 2002

In my 23 April entry I waxed enthusiastic about A Practical Guide to Feature-Driven Development. I have a few additional documents that support the book's approach and FDD in general:On a different topic I read an interesting paper by Ed Bryce titled Failure is Not an Option. It discusses the costs associated with maintaining 24x7 systems, and the costs of those systems failing. This paper is closely aligned to Linda's Recovery Management whitepaper that she discussed in her 26 April entry.

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