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Thought leadership from SAI to accelerate your performance
 

Systems Alliance Blog

Opinion, advice and commentary on IT and business issues from SAI

One of the benefits of passing the halfway point in life is an accelerating focus on what’s important, what we can change, how we can impact others, etc. A recurring theme that anchors much of what we do at SAI and what I see outside of the office is the recognition that we would all be happier, healthier and contribute greater value if we were in challenging, valuable jobs.

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The temptation is great these days to assume that all is lost as the displacement of humans by AI platforms and robotics is just around the corner. Lost amidst the clanging, ratings driven news noise is an overwhelming and growing body of evidence that indicates that humans have a significant role to play for the foreseeable future. More importantly, we have the ability to accelerate economic growth, take control of our destiny and improve many of society’s ills by making some relatively minor adjustments in the way that we train ourselves and our colleagues.

The World Economic Forum released an eye opening white paper “Towards a Reskilling Revolution” this week that crystallizes much of what I’ve heard as we built and brought our Acadia product to market over the last couple of years. Some highlights:

  1. “… more than one in four adults reported a mismatch between their current skill sets and the qualifications required to do their jobs.”
  2. “Even among people formerly working good jobs, disruptive technological and socio-economic forces threaten to swiftly outdate the shelf life of people’s skillsets and the relevance of what they thought they knew about the path to social mobility and rewarding employment.”
  3. Manpower Group’s 2017 Talent Shortage Survey found that 40% of employers can’t find the skilled talent they need, resulting in employers retraining twice as many employees since 2015.
  4. “… by 2020, across all types of occupations, on average, more than a third of the core skills needed to perform most jobs will be made up of skills currently not yet considered crucial to the job.”

Foundational “how to think” training through colleges and universities is still clearly a desirable path into the workforce but we simply can’t rely on long form training any more to continuously reskill and upskill our workforce. Speed and accessibility to quickly changing training content is key to increasing the alignment of workforce capacity with requirements.

I had the pleasure of watching our first Year Up program participant at SAI graduate earlier this week from a twelve-month program that quickly empowers low income young adults to go from poverty to professional careers in a year. Key to Year Up’s success across multiple cities and thousands of graduates is the ability to quickly impart IT, business and finance skills in an environment to aspiring, motivated young men and women with a thirst for knowledge.

Likewise, I’m watching workforce development programs at local non-profits like The Helping Up Mission work with the Community College of Baltimore County to quickly design and deploy workforce development programs that equip job seekers recovering from addiction and homelessness with the right skills to gain employment and move into life changing jobs.

Among our Acadia customers, we’re seeing some of the world’s largest brewers, manufacturers, banks and healthcare providers rapidly upskill their employees with minimal investments in continuous improvement programs and technology.

With an unemployment rate of 4.1% and a historically low labor force participation rate, you might imagine that we couldn’t possibly have more than 3 million open jobs (500k in manufacturing alone).

To make room for folks entering the workforce, we need to get busy and focus on upskilling our team members that are currently employed and we need to collectively focus on increasing the number of opportunities for those that desperately need and want to improve their skills.

We need to worry less about the robots and focus more on how we can quickly and continuously increase our skills and capacity. Let me know if you have ideas that you think will help and I’ll share those across our network.

SAI Headquarters

How to Get Hired at SAI

Our software business is booming, our consulting practices are growing and our team is rapidly expanding. What could be better?

At SAI, we’re laser focused on identifying high potential candidates that are interested in learning, growing and earning more. We recruit candidates that have just graduated with CS, business and marketing degrees … we recruit experienced hires that bring with them the skills and expertise to help us grow fast …. The common denominator on our team is the inner drive to be something more …. more capable, more effective in helping our clients be successful, more financially successful …. More.

Our recruiting strategy at SAI is focused on identifying candidates that will be successful as they move from one role to the next, gaining experience, new skills and capabilities. We see the recruiting process as bi-directional – will this candidate perform well in the current role and can they grow with us, and just as importantly, is SAI a great fit from the candidate’s point of view.

I have interviewed thousands of candidates over the last 35 years. Unfortunately I’ve missed out on the opportunity to meet thousands of others because of poorly written resumes, typos, not showing up on time for interviews and other poor preparation.

Deciding where you want to spend a large chunk of your work day is a momentous decision. Shouldn’t you spend at least as much time prepping for an interview as you do investigating new car options?

We want you to bring your “game winning” persona to your interviews at SAI. In that spirit, here are some suggestions:

 

  1. Do your homework – would you fly to another country on vacation without doing research? Go to our websites (www.systemsalliance.com, www.acadia-software.com), https://www.saidigital.com, learn more about what we do, how we work with clients. Come with questions! You will undoubtedly be asked to describe how we serve our clients at some point in the interview process (there are no right or wrong answers) and not being able to respond will indicate that you didn’t care enough about the interview to do some research.

 

  1. If you’ve gotten to the interview stage, we’ve already done some research on you … we’ve studied your resume, your LinkedIn profile, etc. Invest time in ensuring that your resume is in great shape and that your LinkedIn profile and other on-line information provides enough detail for us to understand how your skills and experience line up against the position description.

 

  1. Early is on time; on time is late; late is …. unprofessional; late without a phone call is disrespectful. Arrive early and have a cup of coffee across the street at Wegmans or Panera. It’s less stressful and you’ll have time to look around a bit and decide if this is an area where you would like to work.

 

  1. Be prepared to discuss how your capabilities and experience maps to the position. Check lists are a great way to organize your thoughts ahead of the interview. Clearly articulating how you line up with the position and acknowledging any gaps will make the process easier for all of us. On more than one occasion, we’ve interviewed a candidate that didn’t necessarily fit the position description and we’ve been able to refer the candidate to someone else in our network that has subsequently extended an offer.

 

  1. Ask questions! We are extremely proud of our team and our culture. Ask about how we work with clients, how we work with one another. You’ll know quickly whether SAI is a place where you’ll be happy for years to come.

 

We all benefit from lining up the best candidates with the right roles. Happier team members, better service to our clients and community; it’s all good. Let’s work together on this and see what we can accomplish together.

I look forward to meeting you soon in an interview at SAI.

High-profile media coverage over recent ransomware attacks have brought substantial attention to cyber security issues.  The potential for a serious incident to undermine the viability of an organization feels higher than ever to many business leaders following the news.  If high profile organizations with huge IT budgets including Sony Pictures and the UK’s National Health Service can’t deal with ransomware effectively, how can smaller teams cope?  C-Level executives and board members are now faced with an unsettling question – “Could we be next?”

Limit Malware Risks

When discussing the potential for a cyber security incident, leaders without an IT background may feel ill equipped to assess their overall risk.  Taking the word of technical staff isn’t necessarily going to assuage their fears.  IT professionals’ skillsets do not necessarily include the ability to communicate effectively with senior leadership.  Complex technical architecture, arcane industry jargon, defensiveness over turf, and confusion created by an ever-changing security environment can all contribute to miscommunications.  This does not absolve leaders of the responsibility to understand and mitigate risks in IT.  So, what indicators should leadership teams use to assess the health of their IT department and their readiness to deal with an incident?  Here are three suggestions on where to focus additional attention:

Patching

Patching of software should be a routine item on the IT Operations calendar. It is one of the most critical steps you can take to avoid an incident.  The impact of the WannaCry malware would have been negligible had users been working on fully patched and fully supported systems.  Clearly this means patching isn’t being done in an effective manner in many organizations. So why doesn’t patching always occur? 

First, the patch may break some other critical component.  If your organization is running software that is incompatible with the patch, it may be impossible to install it without losing a critical application.  This is also why most enterprise IT shops do not use “automatic updates” that deploy patches as soon as they are released.  Patches need to be tested and understood before they’re deployed or the consequences could be just as bad as malware.

Second, there may be contractual obligations for hardware and software provided by a third-party vendor that prevent your team from patching the systems.  These systems and their interaction with the rest of your network need to be carefully studied and well understood.  For high profile organizations, they can expect that they will be the ones who take the reputation hit, not the third-party vendor.

Third, you may not have any maintenance windows available.  Patching usually requires IT to take systems offline for an extended period.  In some industries with a 24x7 workplace, this is difficult to get approved, especially if IT cannot effectively communicate just how big the risks of not patching are.  In other industries, there may be seasonal rules on when systems can be modified that prevent patching.  Retailers are very averse to making any IT changes during Q4. Any restriction that prevents patching should be carefully reviewed and understood by the leadership team.

Policies, Procedures, and Documentation

Having policies and procedures in place may strike some as mundane but it’s a good indicator of the overall health of an IT department.  Many IT organizations have some challenges when it comes to keeping their documentation fully updated.  If, however, there’s almost no documentation, inconsistent or informal policies, and no internal procedures that should be a major red flag to leadership.

Documentation of your networks, systems, and integration points is a critical tool for maintaining your IT investments.  It is also a critical resource should there be an incident, to be able to understand and isolate the damage.  Without effective documentation, the knowledge trapped in the IT team’s heads will be difficult to share and could potentially be lost if a key team member is unavailable.  You would not want to purchase a building without any documentation of its systems and you should feel equally as anxious if your organization relies on IT systems with no documentation.

Policies and procedures play a different role but are equally as critical.  End user policies and procedures govern how systems can be utilized, set user expectations for service, and help to inform users of their shared responsibilities around reducing risks.  In some cases, policies may exist but a deeper look would reveal that they aren’t being followed or enforced.  Security policies are the most obvious place to look, but the processes for provisioning and de-provisioning of accounts is often more telling.  Lack of consistency in this area not only creates extra work and confusion but can also create unintended risks. Without robust controls around how accounts are built and delivered you may have users getting inappropriate levels of access.  If there aren’t constant checks to make sure accounts for users no longer at the organization are decommissioned, you may have zombie accounts that become an easy vector for malicious activity.  Imagine the potential damage if an employee, terminated for cause, retained access to your systems after they’ve departed from your organization.

Backups

Backups aren’t always considered when thinking about cyber security but when dealing with ransomware, they may be the best tool available.  After all, if your files are locked out, the easiest approach may be to simply wipe out the affected drives and restore from the last good backup.  This begs the question – how good are our backups?

When it comes to backups, the most important thing to understand is what is being backed up and how often does the backup occur.  Often there will be different backup schemes for different users, departments, systems, or applications.  Understanding the nuances of these backups and where their limitations exist is important.  Hard choices should be made here because backing up “everything” does not align with budgetary reality for most organizations and the complexity of a system that could do that would be very high.

The second piece to understand is restoration of data.  Restoration is all about two different components: Recovery Point Objectives (RPO) and Recovery Time Objectives (RTO).  These are often found as part of the organization’s disaster recovery plan.  RPO specifies what point in time a backup should go to – i.e. if we do a daily backup at midnight each night, we know what we can always restore to that last point.  RTO is focused on how long the backup takes to deploy once a decision is made to restore from backup.  In most cases this is not an instantaneous process so understanding the amount of additional downtime is important. 

One other item that usually gets overlooked with backups is a testing plan.  Backups should be routinely tested to ensure that the contents line up with what is expected and that they can be fully restored within the RTO.  You want to have confidence in your backup technology and the only real way to deliver that confidence is through testing.

Conclusions

Proactive questions from leaders can highlight gaps that may have otherwise been overlooked.  While these discussions may initially be uncomfortable they may also reveal governance issues with how IT decisions are being made. Decisions made at the IT level about what risk to accept may be very different than what the rest of the business can tolerate.  Inappropriate decisions in either direction can be damaging.  If risk tolerance is too high, the potential for an incident may increase.  If risk tolerance is too low, the expense to operate IT may be unsustainable.  Looking at patching, documentation, and backups is an easy way to start conversations and assess if there are major gaps in your IT department.

Looking for a more in depth discussion or an outside assessment? Our IT Strategy and Operations Practice focuses on the intersection of people, processes, and technology.  We can provide an impartial outside look at IT and the ways in which it can better support your business.  Our impactful work at organizations large and small often starts with a simple conversation.  Reach out and let us know what you’re concerned about.

When we began work on SiteExecutive version 2017 (SE 2017), we had three goals in mind:

  1. usability,
  2. usability,
  3. and usability. 

Alright, maybe that was only one goal; however, it embodies every decision we make as we improve SE 2017. This goal, coupled with the great feedback we have received from all of you, makes us excited to share some of the enhancements planned for the next release. Read on to catch a glimpse of the improvements we are making to the page editor, accessibility, reporting, event calendar, and overall product usability.

Editor Enhancements

We are making some significant additions to the editor in SE 2017. The editor itself has been upgraded to add support for all modern browsers and to do a better job of pasting formatted text. Also, you will be able to use 20+ additional HTML tags within the editor. Finally, the HTML Snippet tool has gotten an overhaul complete with syntax highlighting and automatic tag completion.

Accessibility

We heard repeatedly how important it was to ensure that your visitors can successfully interact with your sites, regardless of their physical abilities. As a result, we are reviewing every application and module in SE 2017 to ensure that they hold up to Section 508 accessibility standards. Additionally, we are providing controls that will assist you in enforcing attributes such as “alt text” across your site. As an added bonus, these changes can also have a positive influence on your site’s search engine optimization (SEO).

More robust reporting on usage

We’ve received lots of positive feedback on the extended usage report that was added to each item within SE 2015. We want to continue to provide more visualization regarding how objects are used within the system. In the next release, we will extend this visualization to any JS or CSS files used within the head sections or dynamic head sections of pages and templates. This should make site updates and redesigns significantly easier for any of you web developers out there!

Create your own Event Calendar tags

In addition to tagging events with locations and types, we are giving you the flexibility to add your own categories. Want your events to be tagged with specific schools or regions? Go for it!  We are also enhancing the layouts and viewlets to be more flexible by providing more control on the display.

Bug fixes and updates to the user interface

Along with the calendar updates, we have resolved many reported bugs and issues. Based on feedback, we are also cleaning up various sections of the interface to make it more usable. Our focus is to reduce unnecessary screen clutter while maintaining the familiar interface that many of us have become accustomed to. 

We hope that you’re as excited about these new features as we are. You can look forward to the new release of SiteExecutive this spring. Thanks for all the great feedback we have received, it really drives each iteration of SiteExecutive, keep it coming!

2016 has been a year of substantial results and great progress for our clients at SAI. We are very grateful for the opportunities that we’ve had to work with you this year and we look forward to another year of collaboration to serve your customers and improve your organization.

This has been an exciting year for SAI as well as we’ve worked on a series of continuous improvement initiatives during a period of rapid expansion. Not your typical technology company, we’ve always been obsessed with the idea of delivering world class software products and consulting services with a passionate team and doing it with reasonable, transparent pricing and predictable results. This recipe has worked well for us and resulted in high customer retention rates and lots of referrals.

Finding new opportunities to better serve and support our customers has always been at the top of our priority list and this year has yielded several new opportunities to do exactly that. With our recent growth, we’ve had an opportunity to “re-imagine” how we can improve the customer experience for every one of our customers. So now we’re going all in with a commitment of more resources to a larger Customer Success team, equipped with even better tools and an increased focus on ensuring the success of every SAI customer.

Customer Success

The charter for our expanded Customer Success team will be expanding in the weeks ahead to include a greater focus in three key areas:

1. We will be more proactive in the delivery of information that will support your business, hopefully just before or at the time that you need it. We see this as an opportunity to build upon our already high customer satisfaction rates for our support team with proactive industry knowledge and experience that helps our customers succeed with operational challenges. Connecting our customers with one another, sharing best practices, tips and suggestions, will accelerate your success.

2. We will be more intentional in collecting, organizing and reporting back to you about your suggestions for new product features, new consulting services and other opportunities for us to make your life easier and more productive.

3. We will be deploying new tools and processes to more accurately measure customer success and we’ll be sharing those results with you on a regular basis.

I often think about how our culture has evolved at SAI and the strong correlation between how we think about our customers and how we relate to the local community. November is our month of service at SAI. Watching our team fill up carloads of food for a local food bank or swarm over a local park and nature center with hammers and paint brushes exemplifies the deep compassion that SAI team members have for those in need.

We are enormously thankful for the relationships that we have with our clients and we wish you well this Thanksgiving season.

Lastly, If you’re looking for a way to help those in need this Thanksgiving, I strongly recommend checking out the folks at the Helping Up Mission in Baltimore (http://helpingupmission.org/). They do fantastic work with very limited resources.

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