When change is wrong

In my experience, most CTOs are incredibly reasonable people. In fact, I would argue that most CTOs have risen to their position by looking at technology choices within the context of their business, which means compromising on technical excellence in favor of business expediency. Still, deep in every CTO's heart there is at least one technology that elicits a visceral reaction that threatens to drown all reason. For me, that technology is Lotus Notes. Recently, I relented in a crusade to replace Lotus Notes at InfoWorld. The migration was going to be too disruptive for our users, a case perhaps of elective open-heart surgery on our organization when it wasn't absolutely necessary.

Why does Notes bug me? For starters, it's a big, tightly coupled, staffing-intensive solution in an era of small, loosely coupled solutions. Granted, Notes offers component services that will fit into a loosely coupled environment -- LDAP, IMAP (Internet Messaging Access Protocol), even SMTP -- but the more you decouple these pieces of Notes, the more you wonder Why should I use this piece of software to perform these commodity functions? Of course, Lotus Notes was an amazing revelation when it was launched in the 1980s and it continues to deliver value for thousands of customers, but it just doesn't "click" with me.

Six months ago, I dumped my Lotus Notes client; had our Notes administrators enable IMAP on my account so I could switch to the more robust Mozilla Mail client; and my crusade began. The central theme of this campaign "If I can use a non-Notes client for e-mail and function perfectly well as an employee of this company, so can anyone else." I had grand visions of the Notes monolith toppling like Saddam's statue in Baghdad, but as time went on, I realized that my warrior's desire to vanquish Notes was causing me to make rosy assumptions about the stability of a post-Notes environment. In the end, I decided it was an ill-conceived battle that was not worth fighting.

One lesson I relearned is that IT is not necessarily about being "right" or even offering the best solution. Quite often, IT is about providing a reliable and mostly invisible service to the company. Nothing is less invisible than a massive user migration. One finite resource that many IT managers forget to recognize and manage in their project portfolios is quite simple: change.

We've experienced a lot of technology change at InfoWorld in the past 18 months. We've introduced a new content management system, migrated desktops to Windows XP, and just begun planning a move to a new Web hosting facility. In considering a migration from Lotus Notes, I had to consider how much organizational change I wanted to "spend." Yes, the usual daily grumblings about Lotus Notes continue unabated, but it has never risen to a deafening roar. (I thought: "Migrate from Lotus Notes and if all goes well, no one will particularly care -- no one will be cheering the troops in the streets. If it goes poorly, our business operations will grind to a halt.")

Another lesson is just as important: Don't lock your company into proprietary solutions that will ultimately be incredibly difficult to untangle. The primary issues that drove me to want to replace Lotus Notes (for example, I would like to have the freedom to leverage best-of-breed, standards-based, commercial and open source products for Notes' various component services) are exactly what keep me in the Lotus Notes camp. As an "all-in-one" solution, it's too tightly coupled to break away from slowly. There are migration tools out there, but after careful consideration, it's really all or nothing.

Enterprise IT decision-making shouldn't be constrained by such "injustice" -- or a CTO on a techno-ideological crusade.

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