Wednesday, August 15, 2012

WebFOCUS Tipping Point

It is quite obvious that "Web" is in front of "FOCUS" in the "WebFOCUS" enterprise BI product's name. This is the FOCUS 4GL that was re-created for an internet architecture.

Still, all along it has seemed to me that the "FOCUS" was more important than the "Web."

I am ready to say that in 2012 my worldview of WebFOCUS has changed. It has become clear to me that we recently hit a tipping point in WebFOCUS where the web technologies are more important than the FOCUS 4GL aspects.

Since the mid-1990s, Information Builders has been working on GUI tools that could automatically generate the FOCUS 4GL. They are near the point where they do such a great job that painting a sophisticated report is simple. Looking under the covers is almost unnecessary.

Their upcoming re-design of the Developer Studio IDE into the new-and-improved Application Studio is proof of that. That improvement comes after their great job in producing InfoAssist, a beautiful end-user ad hoc report writer that rivals that from competitors such as Business Objects, IBM Cognos, and MicroStrategy.

The new Application Studio is intended for IT professionals but is meant to resemble the easy-to-use InfoAssist.

With each new enhancement to its GUI tools, IBI has made building reports easier. What has become harder, however, is all of the web application development work needed in the overarching web solution. Information Builders is releasing the new BI Portal in WebFOCUS 8 which should address some of this.

However, today we are building many WebFOCUS dashboard applications by hand. That means a WebFOCUS developer must be an expert in dynamic HTML with JavaScript and cascading style sheets (CSS). That skill has become more important than knowing the underlying FOCUS 4GL.

It's not just sophisticated web portals and dashboards, but mobile applications as well. A web BI developer needs to be well versed in HTML5 while keeping an eye on native mobile app technologies such as Objective-C.

If you want to succeed as a WebFOCUS developer, place more importance on your web skills than on WebFOCUS itself. If you have been specializing in the FOCUS 4GL for decades, I know this is hard to hear.

Now is the time to view your FOCUS 4GL skills as an old favorite tool to be stored away in your technology shed. Hang it on a peg on the back wall where you can get to it if you need but, by all means, stop wearing it on your belt. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Life as a WebFOCUS Specialist

From the sidelines, I have been watching an online forum conversation started by a gentleman named Larry about the seemingly low hourly rates offered for WebFOCUS BI developers. Today, I decided to respond with, I hope, minimal backlash. Here are my personal opinions: 

Against my better judgment, I will add my thoughts on the current status of the WebFOCUS services market. 

We all realize that while Information Builders was the leader in the 4GL market in the 1980s, they are one of the smaller players in today's big BI market. Some customers like how IBI is privately held and innovative but most want the security of buying a big name like Microsoft, Oracle, SAP, and IBM. 

Information Builders seems to be happy where it is and is organized to handle its $300 million in annual revenue where it has been for the past decade. It seems happy not becoming a multi-billion dollar BI giant. It is like the corner pizza shop with a cult following with no desire of becoming the next big Pizza Hut in the mass market. If this is a hobby and a lifestyle for the owner, there is nothing wrong with the approach. 

The job market has lower demands for a small software vendor's products; there is less respect which translates to lower wages for practitioners. To Larry's point, that can mean lost opportunity costs for WebFOCUS people. You might personally be losing money specializing in WebFOCUS instead of in a product from one of the market leaders. It could be a bad career choice. 

IBI is not just a software vendor; it has its own quasi-independent professional services firm. Most new customers will go the safe route and choose the vendor to do initial and difficult projects despite the high cost. After that, customers want to build their own internal expertise so as to not be held captive by vendors. Outside firms and independents competing against IBI services will only get the table scraps. If they really want to get in on the game, competitors must offer quality services at a much lower price. 

The WebFOCUS marketing message is that it is very easy. Customers get the idea that anybody can sit down at the screen and do it. Here enters the "McDonald's principle" of wages. If you can take any average Joe off the street and train him quickly to do a job, there is no reason to pay him more than minimum wage. You can always replace him with another when he complains about wages. Only when more experience and training is needed and it is harder to replace the person does the wage need to increase. 

WebFOCUS is an enterprise BI tool which means a practitioner needs to know lots of different things: platforms, databases, security, web application development, and so forth. I've heard this called being a "T-professional." Represented by the horizontal top of the T, you have a broad understanding of lots of things but no real in-depth knowledge. For the vertical part of the T, you have a deep understanding of one thing, which is WebFOCUS and (as we have seen) not highly respected in the marketplace. That is Larry's point of being paid less to do WebFOCUS and Oracle together than just Oracle work by itself; to make more money, you have to flip the T to be respected. 

The idea of 4GLs as viable development tools died in the early 1990s. Customers do not want to have to know a 4GL to build a web dashboard. They do not want to have 4GL coders on staff. 

WebFOCUS must hide the 4GL under the covers and IBI sales people only mention the code when it can be used in a positive difference from other products that don't have an underlying, accessible language. This general anti-4GL sentiment means WebFOCUS developers must be proficient with the GUI and only touch the 4GL code in rare instances behind a closed door. So even if you are a really great 4GL coder, you are forced to keep your mouth shut or be perceived as anachronistic trying to use technologies from decades ago. The market has no respect and no demand for 4GL coders. 

For all these reasons and more, there is a dearth of WebFOCUS professionals. Seize the day! 

To be truly successful, however, you should deepen your knowledge of enterprise business intelligence and web application development. Flip your T and go deep in technologies that are widely respected and in demand.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Why not WebFOCUS 8 on 8/8?

I have to tell you that I am disappointed today. I was truly excited to see an early-morning Information Builders press release about WebFOCUS 8 being made available to the general public on August 8th.

You know, the 8th version of WebFOCUS announced on the 8th month and 8th day at the 8th hour?

I fully expected such cleverness. But it did not happen.

Instead, we are evidently waiting until the end of August (or perhaps even September) for WebFOCUS 8 to be released. Currently, it is still in beta testing with a select few customers.

For more information on WebFOCUS, click here.

About Me

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I am a project-based consultant, helping data-intensive firms use agile methods and automation tools to replace legacy reporting and bring in modern BI/Analytics to leverage Social, Cloud, Mobile, Big Data, Visualizations, and Predictive Analytics. For several world-class vendors, I led services teams specializing in providing software implementation and custom application development. Based on scores of successful engagements, I have assembled proven methodologies and automated software tools.

During twenty years of technical consulting, I have been blessed to work with smart people from some of the world's most respected organizations, including: FedEx, Procter & Gamble, Nationwide, The Wendy's Company, The Kroger Co., JPMorgan Chase, MasterCard, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Siemens, American Express, and others.

I was educated at Valparaiso University and the University of Cincinnati, graduating summa cum laude. In 1990, I joined Information Builders, the vendor of WebFOCUS BI and iWay enterprise integration products, and for over a dozen years served in branch leadership roles. For several years, I also led technical teams within Cincom Systems' ERP software product group and the custom software services arm of Xerox.

Since 2007, I have provided enterprise BI services such as: strategic advice; architecture, design, and software application development of intelligence systems (interactive dashboards and mobile); data warehousing; and automated modernization of legacy reporting.