In the past few weeks as I wandered Chile’s ruggedly stunning Patagonian wilderness, traversed seemingly infinite salt flats, and explored vast alpine plateaus of the Atacama desert, I admittedly wasn’t thinking much about engineering or enterprise software. Well, except for my brief and distant glimpse of the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) observatory – which unfortunately was not admitting wandering visitors. Aside from that one distraction, I was in another world. This fact no doubt magnified my puzzlement as my wife challenged me to relate something in our Chile expedition to engineering and enterprise software. And the answer would be realized in the same context for which many great answers throughout history have come forth into the world: lunch.
But a little background first. When visiting this vast and varied South American country, one fact remains clear: Chilenos -especially in the urban center of Santiago- sincerely adore their hot dogs. In their quest to perfect presentation and delivery of the almighty Frankfurter, they have created what may very well be the modern world’s ultimate hot dog. Starting from a substantial load-bearing bread bun, the sausage is topped with loads of cheese, miles of sauerkraut, heaps of palta (mashed avocado), and a mountain of chopped tomato. The finishing touch is an utterly ridiculous drenching of mayonnaise, probably about two spoons less than a lethal dose. A sight to behold, it is called, appropriately, a Completo. Having amassed all the fat and cholesterol in the world into one formidable, yet portable meal delivery mechanism is the very definition of completion. Ordinary versions are about the length of your typical hot dog and typically eaten in pairs (believe it or not), but the real deal are the titanic foot long varieties which threaten the age of men to come crashing down. It’s not served on a plate, but what is best described as a miniature dry dock.
“This…” I muttered as I struggled to heft the Completo aloft, my arm buckling from the weight of a thousand mayo bottles. “This is enterprise software.”
Let me qualify that further. One might ask what a gargantuan hot dog bathed under a tsunami of mayonnaise tastes like. The answer: it tastes like mayonnaise. I tried a couple different varieties such as the Chacarero, which throws green beans (of all things ) into the mix. Not surprisingly, that variant also tasted like -you guessed it- mayonnaise. That’s right, I had trouble telling my Completos apart, being the amateur Americano that I obviously was. Some investigative action was required – and some engineering disassembly of my Completo commenced, probably horrifying locals in the process. My discovery was that the constituent elements of my Completo were all quite tasty and remarkable in of themselves, but I’d be hard pressed to detect any of that under an ocean of mayo. Armed with this new found knowledge, my second Completo lunch in Valparaiso was more tactical. I ordered the plainest Completo in the country consisting of only cheese aside from the sausage. Additional toppings I would borrow from the ample surplus in my wife’s laughably ginormous sandwich, which could be best described as an entire pork farm on an island of bread with an avocado tree thrown in for good measure. The tactical approach was mighty tasty.
The Completo is a perfect metaphor for what we find in most enterprise software today, Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) especially. It illustrates a paradoxical point in the dilemma of delivering enterprise software value and capitalizing on it strengths, but remaining palatable to the end user. It helps explain why we are where we are.
And so here are a couple of thoughts that I consider to be rather universal truths:
1. There are bits of amazing functionality in most enterprise software products. It’s in there. Somewhere.
2. Most people are seriously overwhelmed by enterprise software, and consequently aren’t terribly impressed. In fact, we hates it, precious.
Enterprise software burdened with the Price of a Thousand Functionalities, often struggles to make some of the more compelling features both relevant and transparent to the end users. In other words, even though there’s supposedly a lot of flavor under the hood, too much of enterprise software tastes like mayonnaise.
The mayo is the mountain of menus, buttons, frames, widgets, and excess clients illustrative of most enterprise software today. It’s undoubtedly a contributor as to why such a small percentage of total functionality in these products is actually used in deployed environments. Sure, many products have some methodology to tailor the interfaces down to digestible levels. However this approach is too heavy handed, because it often removes the discoverability that is necessary for users to grow with a piece of software as their skills improve and expand. Furthermore, techniques like command suppression becomes a crutch, such that developers no longer bother to understand the product presentation and efficiency as a whole. OOTB menus that scroll off the screen is ripe evidence of usability failure.
The key is not to just add features, but make them a natural progression of the features that came before such that the end product follows a cohesive and continuous progression throughout its functional range. But for the most part, we have an endless supply of bolt-ons and afterthoughts that are just piled on top to the point that the really interesting stuff is mostly lost in translation. Functionality that isn’t readily discoverable might as well not exist.
We’re all forced to eat the same Completo, and attempt to eat around the mayo. It’s enough to give anyone some enterprise-sized indigestion. Anyone still hungry?