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August 2002

Fill your sails before you shift your IT course

NewsWire Editorial

At the height of the sultry summer we sailed across Chesapeake Bay, celebrating a big birthday with a trip. The 34-foot boat eked out its advances in slight winds, breeze that seemed to be fighting us off our bow much of the trip. It may have felt a bit like your course through this summer of torpid commerce, churning through an industry that seems becalmed.

Sailing on such days, whether you’re in a boat or working to advance your company’s information ability, takes patience and the flexibility to tack. Fortunately, you have enough computing sail to tack, a technique where you don’t chart a direct course for your destination.

On the boat where we celebrated Abby’s sister Nancy’s 50th birthday, we made a series of turns. I’m no expert at the helm, but our limited crew of four meant that I held the wide aluminum wheel of the Indulgence, a boat taking its first trip across the Chesapeake in winds well under 10 MPH. My brother-in-law Gary had taken the Coast Guard courses and studied Chapman’s Piloting, the bible of boating and a book nearly as important as the life jackets. He knew how to trim the sails, tie the knot on the mainsail’s halyard, set the wing-and-wing combination that kept us moving through the salty bay.

Do you have a Gary-like guide in your crew? Think of them as somebody who knows how to get more out of limited resources, keep an older system performing, tell you when that HP 3000 model is as worn out as a frayed jib sheet, needs to be upgraded. It might be you, if you’ve studied your piloting. Or you might have moved that person onto other platforms, and kept the HP 3000 locked on course.

We were never so tempted on the Bay. I told a friend I’d been sailing across it, and he quipped, “Sailing? I thought you could wade across the Chesapeake!” He was only kidding a little. A wonderland of aquatic life with its crabs and oyster beds, the Chesapeake has shallow shoals aplenty, places where the water is less than 6 feet deep, even at high tide. Since our sailboat’s keel was 5 feet deep, we had to adjust course often to sail through the Eastern Bay, down the Miles River and into St. Michaels, a 250-year-old shipmaking town with fabulous crab dinners right at the marina. The wheel on the Indulgence could be locked down on a course, but we seldom tightened that knob and left the winds to steer us. Crab-pot markers, whose lines could foul the rudder, were often along our way.

The fixed-wheel kind of navigating is easier in what sailboat lovers call “blue water,” out off the coastlines of oceans or seas like the Mediterranean. These days, many of your charts show a lot less water. Companies are reluctant to begin IT projects with more than a 9-month payback. MIS directors are told to make do without spending the budgets they have. With less capital to draw upon, larger companies are watching their depth gauges as closely as we eyed ours that weekend, trying to steer a course that delays spending.

There’s risk in that kind of piloting, or the lack of it if you’ve got your ship’s wheel locked down. If you eliminate new projects, stand fast to systems and applications, you risk being unprepared for new business opportunities. It’s harder to see new prospects if your information’s scope is limited. That kind of vision is what IT is supposed to deliver to top management, especially when everybody is looking to lift their business and profits.

There’s another danger to consider as well, the unseasoned pilot syndrome too common for HP 3000s. Plenty of owners of the reliable computer have left the systems to steer themselves. They consider the lack of panics, ease of configuration and ready integration a reason to leave the piloting to less experienced IT people, or nobody in particular. One company offering planning services this summer calls the syndrome “leaving the flight attendants to do the piloting.” I’m not saying that’s happening at your company, but you might know of places where the HP 3000 is run by office managers or finance execs. Good people, yes. But I was good at the wheel of the Indulgence, so long as the wind was up and the water was deep.

I needed a real pilot to lead the tacking that kept us moving. Gary would grab the jib sheet, stand at the ready, and Abby would play out the other line for the foresail. It was up to me to set everyone into action, waiting until we had all the wind we could get going in one direction, then shifting course. I’ve had a lot of fun on boats in my life, growing up along the Maumee Bay in Ohio. But I never had as much thrill as calling out “Coming about,” spinning the wheel to a new heading, the boat turning like an ice skater on a tight axis as the sails shifted to grab more wind. When we did it well, the Indulgence would heel over at a 20 degree angle, picking up speed on the new heading while a few stray dishes shifted below.

One of the tricks in tacking appears to be keeping your sails as full as you can for as long as you can, to give yourself as much momentum when heading into a new direction. We’re all headed toward new directions in this market today, in the months beyond HP’s announcement of its 3000 exit. If you’re homesteading, you prepare for a new services and supply chain, getting support and systems from places outside the vendor’s business reach. Your challenge is to find the wind. If you’re taking a heading toward migration, you know some day your applications will rely on a new environment, a choice that could be 180 degrees different from the all-integrated solution of MPE. Your mission is to make moves that won’t upset business continuity, shifts so sudden they throw your advantages overboard.

I don’t think it stretches the imagination too far to consider IT information to be the wind in your sails, especially if you’ve got one of those companies with true pilots at the wheel of your computing systems. Knowing what to install, when to upgrade, what to buy and replace, who to hire, what to learn and where — these are the breezes that push your company along, keep it moving forward to new opportunities. That breeze is still strong in the MPE community, where there’s much to be improved and tuned on systems that have been long set on autopilot.

At our best pace of nearly 7 knots, we “sailed close to the wind,” right at the heading where the sails were just shy of luffing, the noisy ripple giving away forward motion. You sail too close and lose speed, just like homesteaders can steer HP 3000s where they always have, toward too much reliance on HP or on the autopilot that can lure you into the shoals. Migration-bound customers can let their 3000s drift while they outfit new systems, and find themselves too far out of efficient positions to make smooth turns.

Piloting at your best means making the most of the wind and momentum you’ve got, getting ready to come about by keeping those sails full. Look around and be sure you’ve got the pilots to keep you on the right course, the one that prepares you to change directions smoothly. Don’t stop searching for ways to advance, even if the wind evades you in this season of calm.

— Ron Seybold 

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