Not long ago, I was having trouble with my new digital cable box. The details are boring, but the gist is that it took three visits from a technician to resolve the problem. Unfortunately, the company’s customer support app didn’t allow for the tech to report what had actually gone wrong—it wasn’t an option on the list. His solution: He called it a broken cable box on the form, dropped a new box on my TV, and took the old (and entirely unbroken) box with him. No harm, no foul.
I didn’t think much about it until the other day, when a cell-phone sales rep told me his own tale of getting around those unfeeling sales apps. Seems a woman had been accidentally overcharged on her bill for three months before she noticed the trouble. When she came in to argue the point, the rep admitted that a mistake by the original salesperson had caused the problem, so the woman was owed $60. Unfortunately, the sales app would let reps correct the problem only if it had occurred within the past 30 days. What to do? The rep called his manager. A few minutes later, the manager called back and said “Tell the customer that she just made six new referrals—she’ll get $20 credits for every pair of them to cover her overpayment.”
An informal survey here at the CXO offices produced a number of other examples. Delivery company apps that could be fooled into allowing deliveries into “unserved” areas. Product return apps that had to be tricked into accepting the return of “free” merchandise. And somewhere at each of these companies, there’s someone looking at a report or a dashboard and making decisions based on faulty information. Bottom lines no longer add up. Equipment replacement projections are out of whack. Projected sales figures are artificially high.
Why? Because some inflexible application needed to be bludgeoned into line with reality. Worst of all, IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT!
At least, that’s likely what all those sales reps and customer support people were thinking: “Damn those geeky IT guys who never get these things right.”
Worse, you’re going to get blamed twice. Once when the app doesn’t work as expected, and again when the garbage said app now spews becomes the input for yet another reporting tool or business intelligence program that will produce nonsense numbers.
But I have the answer. End User Development Tools! A new generation of companies are beginning to hint yet again that programming can be made so simple that the unwashed, C#-illiterate masses will be able to build industrial strength applications with minimal if any help from IT. Point! Click! Drag! Drop! It’s like a big game of RollerCoaster Tycoon but with real money and the same odds of watching people get sick all over the pavement (“Um, Bob, I think I just accidentally rerouted three million burgers to Bangalor. Will that be a problem?”)
Think I’m overreacting? The Association for Computing Machinery dedicated a big chunk of its September 2004 issue (including the cover) to the topic. They even tossed around some numbers to show that end user development could cost less than going with IT pros (sure, the initial development might be more expensive as users fiddle with and learn the tools, but those will be offset by: 1) having apps that automatically work the way end users expect they should and 2) by letting users tackle opportunities immediately, without having to get over The Hurdle That Is IT.)
Yes, who needs IT folks anymore? We’ll outsource the hard stuff to India, hire a contractor to come in every second Thursday to vacuum the keyboards and keep the screens shiny. And we’ll let the end users, the Business People, handle all the apps. And what a beautiful world that will be.