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LotusGuru - How It All Began


Notes...A Love Story

It was almost love at first sight.  The year was 1996. Corporate WANs were in bloom, Netscape and Windows 95 were the coolest things around, and I was just beginning to fumble my way through something called "database development".  I had arrived at this unlikely and unexpected place through a combination of risk taking and serendipity. Only a few years before I had earned my "liberal arts" degree from the University of Virginia and emerged into the post-cold-war world more eager to travel Europe than get a "real" job. That I had only the faintest idea what career path I wanted to follow probably had something to do with that, but the early-90s economic recession meant there were few good opportunities anyway. The mostly unplanned journey through those few years included extended periods living and working in London, Dublin, and Toronto, as well as the odd business trip to Hong Kong and China and a few months on the Eurail circuit. The marketable skill that funded the journey was an ability to master the various Word Processing packages - Lotus Manuscript, WordPerfect, and eventually MS Word. "Mastery" in this case included devising all sorts of tricks (aka "macros") to avoid the more tedious aspects of the job. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but Laziness, it turns out, is it's remote-control-loving, mini-fridge-next-to-the-barcalounger, couch potato father. This character flaw would come in very handy later on.

So there I was in late 1995, newly departed from a 2-year stint with a boutique management consulting firm based in Toronto, looking for my next challenge. As in previous such episodes, I planned on using my ability to create fancy documents as a way to sneak in as a temp to companies I might want to work for. Of course, when printed these documents would leave me complicit in the destruction of vast swathes of forest - did I mention I was an environmental science major? Anyway, the idea was to have the temp agency find me very short assignments at organizations which fell under the categories of "international" and/or "consulting", and then show up to play secretary dressed in a suit, and get noticed. A pretty successful formula up to then, and a few months and half a dozen assignments later, I hit paydirt again...

The setting was ATKearney Executive Search's Washington, DC office.  ATKearney as many of you may know is one of the premier international management consultancies (it was actually spun out from McKinsey in 1939).  The job at hand was initially even more mundane than usual: take a stack of resumes and enter the information into a Lotus Approach database. Even setting aside the "Lotus Approach database" component of this task, it was actually more interesting than it sounds. You see, these resumes were for folks with titles like CEO, CFO, COO, SVP, EVP, and even the odd VP. But as interesting as that was, it still fit under the description of "tedious" so I immediately starting hacking forms to speed data entry and appease the gods of laziness. It didn't matter that I had never seen Lotus Approach before then, as I had by that point mastered the art known as "reading the help file." Not long after that I was asked by one of the recruiters to put her candidate list (a WordPerfect table to be precise) into a proper database. Having learned quite a bit from the shortcomings of the database I had been using up to that point, I proceeded to build a new one from scratch. Despite the fact that my programming experience up to this point consisted of an obligatory PASCAL class in college ("no way am I doing THIS for a living") and a bunch of macros, my software development career was born.

Keep in mind that at this point in time, ATKearney was typical in that there was no corporate WAN connecting offices, no corporate email, indeed almost no internet connectivity save the odd AOL user. But the truly frustrating thing from a "database as a business tool" standpoint was that you couldn't easily *share* such a database with other users. There was no "server" as in "client/server".  Lotus Approach, just like MS Access and unlike Oracle or DB2, was a *desktop* database tool - simpler to use but very limited as well. The best you could do was put the file(s) on a file server and hope you didn't corrupt them with multiple users accessing simultaneously.  A marginally "less bad" option was to put the whole thing on a zip disk and Fedex it to a colleague in another city, and then run occasional exports/imports of the "changes" and try to reconcile them manually. Ugh. Of course, once you start distributing the entire database (data AND design) to multiple offices, updating that design was a logistical nightmare ("and don't forget to run the data cleanup agent").  As new as I was to the software game, I still had a pretty bad feeling about the chances that arrangement would be sustainable (I hadn't quite figured out what scope creep was yet, but never mind ).

With this business challenge as a backdrop, ATKearney had by mid-1996 started rolling out its "KnowledgeNet" initiative which finally connected the entire organization via a WAN and brought email, discussion groups, and the world wide web to all employees, most for the very first time.  The email and discussion component was of course handled by our good friend Notes (v3). Once I saw how the whole client/server thing worked, and how data AND design could be replicated across offices as opposed to centralized on a single server, I was, to say the least, enthralled.  Finally, sharing AND updating data AND design among dispersed (and perhaps even disconnected) users was a snap.

Unfortunately ATKearney's foray into Lotus Notes was fraught with technical challenges, mail routing being the most noticeable ("Tell me again why I shut down my AOL account?").  On the bright side, the Notes discussion groups (over 100 of them) really took off. Employees all over the globe could connect in ways never before possible. But it wasn't long before it became clear that the "Bulletin Boards" had been rolled out prematurely.  for example, posts could be categorized by Industry or Region, but the choice list was hard-coded and largely irrelevant. Translation: the dummy choices used in development were left in.  Not a good sign.

While the KnowledgeNet rollout proceeded over the course of 1996, I had started working with a couple of Notes developers from EDS (ATK's parent company) to translate my Lotus Approach work to Notes. I later came to recognize the arrangement as a classic example of pure programmers in over their heads, with little business understanding or empathy for users. Even worse, time and again I would ask "can you do x" in Notes and be told "no", only to figure it out myself and end up teaching the teachers.  Not a good sign.

I don't remember when I first heard about it, but at some point during this time the question of whether ATK should give up on Notes and switch to Exchange came up. So while I was busy learning everything I could about Notes development to try and keep my project on track, I also recognized that if Notes were to remain the useful corporate tool it had become, someone needed to polish off the Bulletin Board database designs. So I did it myself.

A switch to Exchange made about as much *technical* sense then as it does now, and it certainly didn't make any business sense considering the growing investment in Notes applications (including my own).  After all, as I had proven (to myself at least), some of the problems were fixable.  Surely the folks running IT wanted to fix those problems, right? One answer to that question came in the form of a "thanks but we don't have time to test them" response to my Bulletin Board fix.  "Um, how much worse can it get? The production design is already broken." Not a good sign.

In early 1997 I was asked to participate on a sort of "how do we fix this" committee, made up of about 40 people from around ATK and EDS.  As folks went around the room introducing themselves, I realized I was the ONLY person in the room from the business side of the organization. Everyone else was part of IT - network engineers, programmers, IT managers, etc. In other words, no one else in the room had a good grasp on how high-powered consultants worked with technology. No one was there to say "users will never accept that" or "user can't be without their computers for a day while you fix a modem". Worst of all, there was no one capable of making the mental connection between some emerging technology tool and an existing business problem it might help address.  Making THAT connection is after all the whole point of IT (the concept, not the department), isn't it? But what did I know?  I knew this was not a good sign.

Although it looked for a time like reason was going to prevail, that assumption was unceremoniously laid to rest when the decision to kill Notes and move to Exchange was announced. I'm sure there were many plausible sounding justifications thrown out to support and explain the decision to senior management, but the real reason was more likely to save face by shifting blame for the problems to the software. Whatever the reasons, the decision was a huge disappointment to me personally as I was really starting to get the hang of this Notes thing. I did hang on for the rest of the year, helping to move my application to yet another, Oracle-based, platform, but by the end of 1997 I had finally found a consulting shop willing to take a chance on somebody with little "real" Notes development experience (and none in the emerging R4 version).

A few certifications and a few successful projects quickly validated my new career choice, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The lesson I took away from this experience was that for information technology to truly bring value to an organization, you need to have people leading the way who understand BOTH business and technology and who can connect the two in creative ways.  The mistake made at ATKearney and in pretty much every place I've worked since is to treat technical disciplines as entirely separate from the business. Thinking about it, one could even argue that the emergence of centralized IT departments in most large organizations has proven to be a step backward.


1 - Nicely written. Thanks for sharing!

2 - Nice story, nice lesson.
Tx for sharing.

3 - That's sounds a bit like me--I had never used Notes, but out of necessity (and frustration with existing and poorly designed Notes Db) I taught myself, and my database replaced 2 versions of a web app developed by the IT department.
Several years ago there were rumors that our company was going to be "moving away from Notes." I knew it was not possible (or at least, the most foolish choice), since we have hundreds, if not thousands, of databases containing critical data. And here we are, three years later, still using Notes! I liked your comment: "...but the real reason was more likely to save face by shifting blame for the problems to the software."
Everyone hates Notes, they say. Everyone doesn't hate Notes, everyone hates the crappy databases. Ditch Notes and move everything to a web interface and you _still_ will get crappy web apps.

4 - I too learned Notes with R3, primarily as an add-on to my other network admin responsibilities. My first application was an inventory database for the network management center of the telecomm I worked for, and I too attempted to learn from the high paid consultants who work working on integrating Lotus Notes and Sybase. These highly paid, certified consultants were constantly asking me and my fellow IT staffers how to do things. Eventually I moved out to consulting and got a big pay raise. After nearly a dozen years, including a year working with SharePoint Startup, I am back to working full time with Notes and love it!! SharePoint is getting the same kind of buzz Lotus Notes had back in the 90's, but it is still years behind. One Lotus Notes server takes multiple Microsoft servers to provide the same capabilities, email, content management, workflow, security, web hosting, etc.

For awhile I thought Lotus Notes might turn into a niche product, but the buzz seems to be growing again. Plus, not being the most popular kid on the block seems to have weeded out most of those highly paid certified consultants that didn't really know what they were doing.

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