One size never fits all: This week Paul and Rich discuss two needs — to decentralize or centralize software platforms. Worried about the dozens of unintegrated platforms that have appeared over the years? Feeling restrained by the old legacy software system you’re using? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. We give some tips on how to move forward when dealing with these issues and how to avoid them in the future. Hint: get a product manager, develop a product roadmap, and be cautious of giant pieces of software that claim to solve all your problems.
Rich Ziade “What about my last seven years, Adobe?!?”
Paul Ford “Oh, no problem.”
RZ “What are you gonna do?”
PF “Oh, no problem.”
RZ “But all that content!”
PF “We got it!”
RZ “Where’s it gonna go?”
PF “It doesn’t matter!” [Both laugh; intro music fades in, plays alone for 18 seconds, ramps down.] You know what? We get called for two reasons.
RZ Just two?
PF Well, lots of reasons. But there’s two in particular.
PF We can’t keep going with the old thing. We have to stand up a bunch of new things because the old central thing just doesn’t work anymore [music fades out].
RZ The legacy system.
PF The big, integrated system that we built ten years ago to solve all the problems, doesn’t solve the problems anymore.
PF And then we get, “We stood up all these different systems and now we need a centralized system.”
RZ “We need one big system.”
PF One big system. And what I’ve started to notice because I’ve been around for a little while is that these aren’t discreet. These are part of a process that things are always either centralizing or decentralizing. Meaning everybody is either saying, “We need this one big system to solve all the problems.” Everybody’s off, runnin’ around in the different divisions of this organization, standing up their own content management systems, building their own trading platforms. Whatever industry you’re in.
PF And the new like CTO or the leader comes in and they say, “We need one solid platform that [yes] everybody can use. Call Postlight.” Or! They say, “We have to get off this one solid platform that they built five to seven years ago.”
RZ “It’s too rigid.”
PF We need to be able to just let anybody stand up the technology they need to use, using open technologies.
PF Exactly! I wanted to talk about— so first of all—
RZ Is there such a thing— I really— this is a good topic [yeah]. I really wanna nail down, like a new phrase [mm] and I want it to become a thing that gets put on white papers, and I think I have one.
PF What is it?
PF I’m sure somebody’s done it.
PF Well, no, you know what? Macroservices are just monolithic services.
RZ But I wanna say it in a positive way.
PF No, but they say— yeah, I know, mono— well sometimes you want a monolith.
PF See we’ve entered— we’ve entered a post-anything being particularly good phase in technology where every solution is basically ok. [Rich laughs] Let’s stop being so abstract. I’ll give you an example [yeah]. Let’s start with content, we’re gonna have one CMS.
RZ Ok, a content management system is a system, a platform, or a tool that people use to get content out into the world, and usually it has workflow. There are different actors that are involved [mm hmm]. Sometimes you’ve got art; sometimes you’ve photography; sometimes—
PF Somebody puts a draft in—
RZ A writer, editor, publisher. I mean a whole slew of decisions get made.
PF Let’s be clear: every single organization of any scale, not just media organizations, uses a CMS to manage their content.
RZ Yes! It’s a Content Management System.
PF And then they get really specific cuz if you’re pharma you have to communicate outwards . . . to millions of people about, you know, drug issues and you need to translate that into 12 languages, and so on.
RZ Et cetera.
PF This is where when people talk about like content strategy and information architecture, these are the problems they’re solving.
PF So what’s happened is you’ve got 20 divisions in your company.
RZ Mm hmm.
PF Over the last 20 years—
RZ 15 platforms came up.
PF At least! Sometimes it’s hundreds.
PF In a big global like— I bet if you go to Procter & Gamble.
RZ Mm hmm.
PF There are thousands of websites because when Crest did the like “Bright for you” campaign which I’m making up—
PF With the tooth sandblaster.
RZ Mm hmm.
PF And the little guy and the little robot, they needed that microsite set up. So they went and they called some ad agency.
RZ Who called?
PF The marketing people at Crest.
RZ For that one thing?!
PF For that one thing they said—
RZ So this is the key thing we should hone in on, right? Which is what people don’t realize— well, people maybe do realize— is that power is rarely neatly routed.
PF No, it’s really hard to do.
RZ It’s hard to do and if you’re a VP over in the Crest new flavors department.
PF Mm hmm.
RZ And you’ve got a budget, and you tested the flavor, the bubblegum flavor, with kids.
PF Mm hmm.
RZ It’s killin’ it. You’ve decided that a great way to do this is to create an addictive app that lets you squirt toothpaste into alien rotten teeth. Ok?
PF That’s right. A game. That you can download. And they’ll be a little ad for it on the box, it’s all part of your integrated marketing plan.
RZ Yeah. And you want that, and here’s the thing: [mm hmm] you are not going to go through the chain, up the chain, if you don’t have to. You’re just gonna go do it.
PF Well also let me give you the reason why . . . Q3.
PF Meaning that like I’ve got three months to get this done.
PF And you go to corporate and they go, “Well, we don’t even have a platform for delivering dynamic tooth decay shooting applications onto Android and iOS.”
RZ So, a platform gets created.
PF You go over to some agency, not one necessarily like Postlight, but like there’s places like The Barbarian Group or whatever where like you go and you talk to them and you say, “I need to build this experience.”
RZ Yes, “And I don’t wanna do it once.” That’s the smart move they make where like, “I’ll spend a little more because I’m gonna need a lot of these apps.”
PF Wait, now you should come to Poslight.
RZ Yeah, you should come to Postlight.
PF [Chuckles] Yeah, we’ll help you out.
RZ You’re giving us a thing that’s gonna be longer term and whatnot.
PF Yeah, that’s right.
RZ When we walk into an organization— now fast forward ten years—
RZ And we see 11 apps or 11 platforms and sort of 11 teams that share some people across. And it just looks like a sloppy mess, do you know what it reminds me of?
RZ An archeological dig.
PF It is, right?
RZ It’s history. It’s the history of the org manifest through the tools and the teams and the little fiefdoms that got created around what they needed at a given time.
PF Let’s describe this situation because I can’t tell you how many times people come to us and they describe a situation and we’re like, “Yeah, that’s pretty normal.” And they’re like, “I thought we were the only ones.” So, [Rich laughs] one: there’s no source code; two: the app is failing in the app store but you’re a national brand and you don’t know how to fix it; three: there’s a Content Management System that powers the app, not any webpages, just the app, nobody knows where the password is or how to update it.
RZ Or! Even worse, you have what I call the hostage situation [mm hmm]. It’s two people. And if those two people got hit by a bus, the weird convoluted tool that they created for themselves, cuz it’s not— it’s a very strange tool—
PF No, it’s not like— it’s not like they set up WordPress.
RZ No. No, no. It’s this weird thing that only they know how to do. We have a client right now that they take enormous pride in the convoluted process they go through. They think it’s cool.
PF Oh yeah 20, 30 steps.
RZ They actually think it’s like— it’s like, “Check this out, watch this.” And then it’s this person that has become very spec— created these specialized skills for this one [sure] thing.
RZ And you’re like, “Well, that’s insane.” But you know what? When that guy had to get it done before the holiday season, and it had to go out, he got it out.
PF You know what it is? It’s like— it’s like being the kind of mason who can work with horsehair plaster—
RZ Is that a thing?
PF Yeah! I mean you and I would put up drywall. But if you’re restoring a colonial house and you wanna get the plaster to have that good firmness, you might mix in some horse hair like they did 800,000 years ago.
RZ See now you’re showin’ off again.
PF I didn’t mean to.
PF I’m just using a—
RZ Is that what they did?
PF Yeah, I mean, there’s all these archaic things that you [sure] used to do. Like [sure], you know, I’m sure that the bricks in the office building we’re in came at like— the oven technology is probably— didn’t have thermometers.
RZ Honestly, my grandma making the old Lebanese dishes.
PF That’s right.
RZ There’s no recipe. She’s kinda wingin’ it. It comes out spectacular every time. But, you know, she takes pride and defends her specialized knowledge.
PF And she didn’t learn on like a really nice gas cooker.
RZ No, she calls it instinct, she says that this is, you know, that is how it’s done.
PF You just— you’re there—
RZ “I can’t help you.”
PF You have some source of heat and you better make it work from there.
RZ There’s no science. It’s a little bit, “I love you all.” [Chuckles]
PF I’m— “I’m gonna embody that.”
RZ I’m not saying that that those two front-end developers that you got for that app loved you— this came out of love— but that people defend their specialized knowledge.
PF But also it’s a charitable way to see them, it’s the grandmother who knows how to make the special bread. It’s not two people— they’re like, “I have a craft here. I have a thing I do.”
RZ Exactly. And they take pride in it and they’re needed and they’re important to people.
PF But seriously though, if you’re listening and you think, “Oh my God, no one could ever understand how bad we’ve let our tech platform get, and how poorly we’ve managed all of our stuff.”
RZ Utterly normal.
PF You have no idea how normal that is. It is—
RZ Utterly normal.
PF Incredibly normal.
PF So now, ok, zoom out.
RZ Zoom out! Either new CTO gets hired or someone’s been given the mandate to clean all this up cuz what happens is the cost of maintenance, the cost of upkeep of these things, starts to compound and the inefficiencies are massive.
RZ Massive inefficiency, right?
PF What happens too is people are defending the systems because this their job and how they do it, but the friction starts to leak out. A good example is: “I can’t update the homepage . . . without— it takes an hour every time.”
RZ And! If you zoom out, we zoomed out now, there are 200 people.
PF “And I can’t get the app to update because everybody tells me there’s this huge process. I wanna ship— we have a bad bug and the people in South America can’t use the app.”
RZ There is a quote one of our stakeholders and one of our clients used and he was echoing what the president of the company said, and they said that she said, “I just want my thing.”
PF That’s right.
RZ She just wants her thing.
PF Just— “I don’t wanna know all the details but I know that I have these problems and I want them to go away.”
RZ And you’re the whole fourth floor.
PF Yeah you’re— [chuckles, Rich laughs] that’s right, there’s 280 of you.
RZ [Laughing] You’re the whole fourth floor!
PF “There’s 280 of you and we’ve accidentally published a profanity in Spanish and over two newspapers [Rich laughing] have put us in the home— on the front page, and we can’t update the app. So—”
RZ And it sounds horrible and really unsympathetic and cold when the CEO shows up and says, “I just want my thing.” But really it’s— it’s a good test.
PF It’s probably the ultimate forcing function.
RZ It’s a good test!
PF What happens is everybody who’s been protecting their territory— it’s like the, you know, in the movies where aliens descend and suddenly old enemies are forgotten and everyone is gonna work together.
RZ Mm hmm. Yup.
PF Like you just don’t defend territory anymore.
PF So this is mass decentralization. Everybody’s got their own thing and suddenly the CEO says, “Get me something.” But what happens now?
RZ Eliminate those inefficiencies. Don’t just get me the thing in the same half-assed, inefficient way.
PF Now as the signal goes out that this problem exists, this is when enterprise software just appears like angels [Rich chuckles] flapping their wings, like the minute the CEO said that suddenly like Adobe shows up and is like, “Oh hi, I hear you might need some help managing content across your multiple platforms.” SAP shows up if it’s like a big enterprise problem [mm hmm] and it seems like you have a lot of different HR and enterprise—
RZ We will swallow it all whole.
PF They’re ready to come in with the one true solution for all of your problems: Oracle, Microsoft, everybody.
PF Except for Apple.
PF And not Amazon or Google, they have their own things going.
PF All I can tell you is that Sitecore has done amazing things for enormous companies much like yours. [Rich laughs] All I can tell you is that experienced manager has solved this for, you know, and then you put the slide up with 200 logos.
RZ Oh! It’s a killer slide though, isn’t it?
PF And then— and this is actually a funny place for us to be because we tend to be— if we’re in the room at that time, it’s very hard to compete.
RZ It’s very hard to compete.
PF Because they’re hearing Adobe and they’re hearing like IBM and they’re hearing like, “Oh we solved it for, I don’t know—”
PF “Universal Music Group or whatever,” right? And so if you’re the big company and you’re like, “Uh, I better just go with this one.”
RZ Yeah, yeah.
PF “It’s gonna be expensive and no one seems to know what they’re talking but clearly [Rich scoffs] — clearly there’s a solution here.
RZ Yeah. And, you know, they use words like, “Migration Assistant”.
PF Oh, it’s so good.
RZ When I think ‘assistant’, by the way, I just imagine someone helping an old person cross the street [laughs].
PF This whole— exactly. This whole part of the world is simply like an attempt to solve the problem of there being a very, very limited amount of genuine talent and very few people who actually listen to you, and turn it into like simple processes and software, when what you really need is to find someone who will listen to you. Anyway, that all comes in— then there’s like a two-year period while the enterprise solution gets worked out and starts to fail [laughs]. Sometimes it lasts. There are SAP that have probably been there since before Moses.
RZ Well, look we— we haven’t talked about the consulting side of this.
PF Yeah, I mean that’s Deloitte. You know?
RZ I mean you look at a product like Sitecore.
PF Mm hmm.
PF and RZ Adobe Sitecore.
RZ And there are—
PF You know what you can always tell, by the way, these are [chuckles] these are products when you go and try to figure out what they are from their websites, there’s never any screenshots.
RZ No, it’s very cryptic. It’s very cryptic.
PF It’s just solutions. Right? You got solutions.
RZ A lot of charts, yeah.
PF Mm hmm. And there’s a lot of guys just lookin’ at things.
RZ Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
PF A picture of a— and then there’s a conference.
RZ You know what’s a favorite of mine? When the screen reflects on the glasses of the person.
PF Oh yeah! The really thoughtful, attractive woman and she’s got— and it’s got bar charts on it.
RZ [Laughs] Yeah.
PF And you see that.
PF And then the next shot— the next— you scroll down and the next content module on the page is like “Reno, Nevada Sitecore Fest.”
RZ [Laughing] Oh boy. Oh boy!
PF Yeah, exactly.
RZ Look: there’s a billion dollar services industry that is fueled by these tools; the implementation of these things is never neat.
PF We should be really clear too—
RZ You need experts to come in and stand this up. Migrate the information. And make the necessary changes. That’s the thing—
PF Also, you said billion. But like multiply that by ten or a hundred. Right?
RZ It’s a massive, massive—
PF We’re little babies that swim in that stream and, look, we knew this goin’ into this business but it is— that is a thing that happens. But the problem is that one size never fits all. It just doesn’t.
RZ It ain’t pretty. A lot of times—
PF What they do is they go like, “Well, no, don’t worry. I know it doesn’t—”
RZ “We can make that change for you.”
PF Yeah, it’s the way that like Salesforce got into not-for-profits.
PF “Oh we got special pricing tier and really aren’t all problems customer relationship management problems?”
RZ We’re all humans [laughs]. We’re all people.
PF Everybody has to move a card from one column to another [yeah]. Everybody does that all day [Rich laughs]. Doesn’t matter if you’re like tryin’ to keep a kid out of jail or tryin’ to sell a Ford Mustang.
RZ Alright, so Paul this is one long mocking rant. What can we tell someone who, I mean, they all live in it? Right? They’ve got— there are ten— there are ten CMSs in their office. It’s just so many. I don’t know how many Hearst has but the number of rogue projects that have kicked off in big organizations that—
PF Look: let’s skip ahead, right? Because [yeah] we didn’t even talk about—
RZ Like what do you do? So you’re saying don’t call Sitecore?!
PF No, here’s what I’m saying—
RZ Don’t call Adobe?
PF First of all, we’re talking about the sudden centralization urge but then there’s also the old system’s too rigid and now we just need to let everybody run their own little domain again.
RZ Oh God.
PF What I think you need to do and what— it’s hard to give this advice because ideally you wanna be, if you’re us, you wanna be in a position where you’re like, “We’re gonna give you a solution. It’s gonna solve everything for all time. Everybody relax, we got it.” The reality is you are always somewhere in a cycle of either centralizing or decentralizing all your stuff. You’re either reacting to the big legacy system or you are trying to bring everything together so you can achieve more efficiency. The really mature thing to do and the thing that very senior leaders are capable of doing is saying, “Where am I in that cycle? Where would I like to be? What can I do to avoid the risks?”
RZ You’re— you’re touching on someone very, very important here, and fundamental, which is the big leaders, the good leaders, step out. Because when you look at the history of a system, right? What you’re seeing is a bunch of reactions to business need.
PF That’s right.
RZ To business need, right? Not stepping back and let’s chart out what the big ten year picture looks like.
PF Because the fantasy in software systems is that you’re gonna drive the business but the business is always going to— like and not just the business, the organizational goals are always gonna be ahead of what the software can do.
RZ That’s right. We recently had a long pitch relationship with someone. They had a near term like 2019 goal. And they were like, “How would you solve it?” And we have this tool we’re thinking is the right way to solve it, should we use that? What we did was we pulled back and said, “You’re gonna go in and do this, why not just do it in a manner that solves 2019 but also positions you for the things that are gonna come afterwards?” When they hear that, they hear, “Lot and lots of more money.”
PF It’s true but what you’re really saying, and it’s whether it’s Postlight or somebody else, build up capacity for change. Don’t just try to solve this with a single platform or piece of software. Like get the knowledge and the skills and the people into the organization around so that you can keep adapting cuz someone’s gonna wanna put— they’re gonna say, “Can the background be blue instead of red?” And then they’re gonna say [right], “Can— can we model the relationship between cousins and customers?” [Right] And you’ll just be like, “If you’ve chosen the off the shelf, one size fits all, you’ve probably got their faster but now you gotta solve that problem somehow. And if you’ve chosen the ultimate abstract everything engine that can do whatever you want—”
RZ That’s a trap too.
PF “You’ve never shipped anything.” So it’s finding that compromise and just accepting the two words ‘it depends’.
RZ Yup. We’re just now, by the way, getting to a point where there is product representation inside a business that stands on its own. Technology is just now emerging out of IT services, right?
PF By which you mean specifically like for us as a services firm, often our client is a product manager who works for the other company.
RZ Yes. But that person’s role is very alien to a lot of companies still to this day because [mm hmm] the transition out of IT services, getting my email fixed was really not that different than getting me the app for the new population that we think could improve our brand or something.
PF That’s right.
RZ It was the same— it was a request.
PF We’re standing up the hundred page website that had all the pictures of the leadership on it.
RZ It was just an ask.
PF Yeah. .
RZ It was just a request, right?
PF And it was like yeah and then they built like a three person team to manage that.
PF And it’s— if your IT org is like 200 people cuz you’re a global firm or— or 2,000.
PF Those little services orgs are like 20, 30 out of the whole so why not?
RZ I’ll share one last client story—
PF But now you have such a thing as like a Chief Product Officer, right?
RZ That’s right. And that person has been given, ideally, been given space and priority to not be reactionary and to actually think in a longer view way about the needs of business rather than like, “I got request A, B, C, and D,” and we’ve seen it. We’ve seen people come out of Silicon Valley massive companies who are world class product managers and get parachuted into traditional business and get absolutely eaten alive because the organization—
PF Over and over and over.
RZ The organization was not ready to give that person true control and power.
PF I’ve seen— I’ve seen it so many times in media, so many times in finance. Cuz what happens is you go, “We need that product smarts,” that’s a leadership decision but then that person is dropped into an organization where the metabolism around technology is completely different. You know where you see it? Finance actually is really good at shipping, like they get their stuff done because they have to get their trades done; get their bonuses and make money, right? But it’s really hard to ship inside of finance. It’s very water— and same is true in media. They make the magazine go out every month or they make the paper go out every day—
RZ That’s— that’s the sun rising and setting.
PF Right! And then the IT org tends to be really formal and rigid in response.
RZ Yeah, well it’s supportive.
RZ It’s viewed as supportive not as something that can actually form its own agenda. The idea of product forming its own agenda is alien. Now this—
PF You know why? Because there’s service.
RZ They’re service!
PF They don’t get to drive and so they become service providers [that’s right] which always leads to waterfall.
RZ This often falls under like this shift often falls under digital transformation. The idea of technology not being a supporting actor but actually being the thing that is going to drive your business, but it’s still early days. People don’t think it’s early days, everybody’s phones are computers now in their pockets. It’s early days, man. They are just coming to terms with this.
PF It’s so tricky because it’s not ‘drive your business’ in that technology sets the agenda, it’s just that it’s the partner in the same way that like you need a good office space that’s continually— you know the lights need to turn on like it’s like a piece of your infrastructure that has to be continually improved.
RZ I said earlier Paul that the CEO walked in and said, “I want my thing,” and we talked about how incredibly powerful and actually effective that can be sometimes but, man, if they’re going to IT services and asking for their thing [mm hmm], like, “I just want my thing. I want my Wifi to be faster in my office. In my corner office,” then back to square one.
RZ But if they’re going to their product leader or someone that represents their product agenda that is going to bake in that need into a product roadmap that’s prioritized and thought fully out, then that— then you’re gonna be in a better place. But if you’re just gonna react and freak out, then you’re back to square one. You’re just gonna have just another layer— I don’t— I’m not a geologist, Paul, but they have those layers of rock.
RZ Smart guy. Strata. You know it’s just more strata. If you’re going back to IT services, it’s just gonna be more and more layers of shit and just color— like it’s really pretty, there’s different colors and stuff, but if you really wanna break that pattern, product has to have integrity within an organization and there are very few companies that have that figured out.
PF Well which means it has to be empowered. There’s no fantasy [they have to be empowered]. See what they’re hoping is they’re gonna drop that person from the West Coast in the middle and they’ll be able to fight tooth and nail with all the other leaders.
PF And they don’t have the tools, they’ve been there for 20 years, they don’t know how to wield a knife in the octagon [that’s right] in finance or media.
RZ That’s right, you know what’s a common move to give that product initiative integrity? Is to name it a thing and move it out of the office [yeah] and get like an office that has nice curved chairs and like has a nice kitchen so it feels like a startup.
PF But then how does that drive the core platform of the business? The thing that I think is worth noting is that, you know, we’re saying, “Hey! Decentralize! Or centralize! Which should you choose?” Everybody thinks that there’s an answer, it’s just figure out where you are. Look for incremental— look for an improvement over like six to 18 months.
RZ Put that product advocacy in place in your org [yeah] and then figure it out.
PF Be cautious about giant pieces of software that will solve all the problem [sic], you know? Sometimes they’re really good and they are really good, like, I don’t wanna go— I don’t wanna argue with SAP for like a Fortune 100 company. I don’t know.
PF God bless us all.
RZ [Laughs] Not our game!
PF Click that form. That’s, you know, put in that HR information. But no, I think, it’s like anything: it depends.
RZ Product first. It’s a brand new concept.
PF Product first. Trademark it.
RZ Boom! [Music fades in.]
RZ Paul, speaking of product—
PF Yeah, you know, if I wanted to get a digital product built by which I mean like an app or something that was some sort of API powered, maybe a mobile website.
RZ You know where I’d go, Paul? A digital products studio.
PF Oh! That is exactly the kind of company that I would go to. Maybe even a small one where people really, really listen hard, try to understand the needs of my actual business, and then came up with a good solution for me, a roadmap, and a strategy for actually building it and getting it to the market. But unfortunately there’s just no such place.
RZ I think there might be one.
PF Really? You’ve heard of one?
RZ Yes! It’s on 5th Avenue in New York City.
PF Oh my God! That’s where we are!
PF firstname.lastname@example.org is how you reach us.
PF That’s all you have to do: you just go into your email client.
RZ And give us five stars on iTunes.
PF Mm! That would be really, really good.
RZ For Track Changes. We’re really— from what everything— we should just read quotes off of iTunes reviews. People think it’s great [laughs].
PF Just about every night I just pop those up there.
RZ Yeah, just get a few in.
PF Ah! Just to feel alive. You wanna hear something interesting? Fun fact?
PF At The Library of Congress they have the effects of Abraham Lincoln from the night he died. And there are newspaper articles about how great a president he is, that he kept in his wallet.
RZ [Sucks teeth] Aw!
PF Because he just needed that little boost.
RZ Of course!
PF So, you know, remember Abraham Lincoln, the greatest we’ve ever had.
RZ He had insecurities too.
PF And go ahead and give us five stars on iTunes.
RZ Five stars [chuckles], everyone! Have a lovely week [music ramps up, plays alone for four seconds, fades out to end].