by John Edwards

New programming technologies entice and challenge CIOs.

Oct 01, 20006 mins

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and e-commercestartup was determined to create a working website assoon as possible.

“The dotcom market was slipping,” recalls Steve Stinton,’s CTO. “The investors wanted to see something now,and we had nothing to give them.” The business plan Stinton haddeveloped with CEO Lonnie Wills and COO Tim Shanahan called to provide a health-care supplies comparison-shoppingservice. The Vancouver, Wash.-based venture aims to helpclinics, doctors’ offices and similar facilities find the bestdeals on rubber gloves, needles and other widely used medicalproducts. Great idea. But like zillions of other dotcomstartups, Stinton and his partners had put the cart in front ofthe horse, polishing their business plan before creating afunctional technology. Now, facing increasingly skepticalinvestors, they had to build the service’s basicarchitec-ture–fast.

After considering and rejecting several e-commerce-orienteddevelopment tools, the team settled on NQL Solutions’ NetworkQuery Language, a scripting language designed to simplify thecreation of intelligent agents, bots and Web applications. “NQLis a solid company, and its technology is easy to use andsuperior to the competition, particularly its pattern matchingand recognition tools,” says Stinton. But the language was alsovery new–still at the beta-test stage–which meant found itself risking its future on a product that hadno commercial track record. Yet Stinton felt it was moreimportant to use a technology that provided the required rather than settle for a less capable buttried-and-tested tool. “Sometimes you have to cross your fingersand hope for the best,” he says.

Rolled Over By Rollouts

As new programming languages and development tools roll acrossthe IT landscape, more than a few CIOs are tossing dice andpraying to whatever idols are conveniently available. These CIOsare finding themselves in a pinch, says Larry Perlstein,research director of Gartner Group, a technology researchcompany based in Stamford, Conn. “In order to stay competitivethey’re forced to use tools that they and their programmersdon’t yet fully trust or understand.”

CIOs tend to have a love-hate relationship with emergingprogramming technologies, says Vito Legrottaglie, former vicepresident of IT systems and operations for Programmer’sParadise, a Shrewsbury, N.J.-based software reseller thatspecializes in languages and programming tools. “On the onehand, new languages and tools enable programmers to developapplications faster than before. On the other hand, they alsorequire significant investments in research, training and otherresources.”

Life as a Guinea Pig

For, the gamble with NQL is paying off. After somefour months of planning the service’s design and scope, E-botzused the product to develop a working model of a product-pricingservice in a mere two-and-a-half weeks. Then E-botz was able topresent that model to both current and potential investors. “NQLhelped by providing the technology and by reducing our learningcurve to the point where we can bring a developer on board andhave that person writing pretty decent stuff in a couple ofhours,” says Stinton. After some more refining and a period ofbeta testing with clinics, the service is scheduledto begin operation by January 2001.

Yet, while things are working out well for, not everyencounter with a new programming technology is trouble-free. JimRuggiero, chief technology officer at Novo, a SanFrancisco-based e-services company, recalls his organization’srecent experience with a less-than-perfect development tool.Late last year, Novo selected San Mateo, Calif.-based BlueMartini Software’s e-tailing architecture Customer InteractionSystem to help it create an e-commerce website for SanFrancisco-based cosmetics retailer According toRuggiero, the toolkit wasn’t quite ready for prime time,although he had entered into the venture fully realizing thatNovo would be the technology’s first user. He attributes theproblems he encountered to the increasing complexity ofdevelopment tools. “The latest products are extremely useful andpowerful. Yet they are so complicated and have so many differentlayers of technology that it’s virtually impossible to getthings right without calling on the vendor for help.”

As it turned out, Ruggiero and his staff needed a lot of help.”In some ways we were the guinea pigs,” he says. “There werelots of things that didn’t work the way they were supposed to ordidn’t work at all.” Fortunately, Blue Martini proved to be verycooperative, even to the extent of bringing experts to Novo’ssite so that they could work shoulder to shoulder with thecompany’s developers. “They were fixing the bugs as we werefinding them,” recalls Ruggiero, who feels the experience lefthim wiser and generally satisfied. “At day’s end, the technologyworked very well, and we had the benefit of nonstop vendorsupport. Not a bad deal.”

Support, Stability And Viability

Whenever a CIO considers a new language or programming tool,vendor support, stability and viability are critical concerns.”Vendors often go under or change direction,” says Gartner’sPerlstein. “With a new development environment it’s verypossible that only a single vendor is supplying and supportingthe tools, so one has to look for all of the available optionsand choose wisely.”

Yet simply keeping up-to-date on new and potentially usefulprogramming technologies can be a major challenge. AtHewlett-Packard Co.’s OpenView business unit, in Fort Collins,Colo., technology brainstorming is a team effort. Programmers,researchers and other IT experts are invited to participate inbrown-bag meetings where they discuss and debate emergingprogramming languages and tools over lunch. “People who arefired up about a new technology like to share their thoughts,”says HP OpenView Product Engineering Operations Manager DwightSchletter.

Once a new technology has been selected, retraining currentprogrammers or finding qualified new developers looms as a majorchallenge. While XML and many other frameworks are relativelyeasy to understand, more complex technologies, such as Java,require a much longer learning curve. “It can take anywhere fromsix to 18 months before an individual becomes proficient inJava,” Perlstein says. Yet hiring programmers already skilled ina particular technology–potentially a quick fix–canalso be expensive. “A new technology, combined with high demand,equals a shallow talent pool and costly, hard-to-find workers,”he adds.

Even so, the latest, greatest tool–and its promisedpotential–can be pretty appealing. But Legrottaglie urgesCIOs not to get carried away by enthusiasm for a newtechnology.”It’s quite possible that once you’ve analyzed your situation,you’ll realize that you’ll be able to get the same results byusing a less risky methodology.” But if using a new technologyis inevitable, the best thing a CIO can do is to thoroughlyresearch the field and brace yourself for a rollicking, yeteducational, roller-coaster ride, says Legrottaglie. “As theysay in the gym,” he quips, “no pain, no gain.”