As I was relating to Anne earlier today, even the modest popularity of the ongoing RedMonk IT Reports continues to surprise me. Their original purpose was twofold: first, a mea culpa for some past IT failures, and second as an opportunity to solicit a bit of advice on our decision making process – which was clearly not producing the best results. But curiously, they seem to be of interest to external parties, if the comments and emails are anything to go by. While I can’t say that I necessarily anticipated that, it’s good to hear.
For this iteration of the RedMonk IT report, I thought I’d reflect on some of the services that we use to run our business. Maybe they’ll help you, or perhaps you’ve got better ideas. Either way, I thought it was worth discussing.
When we founded the company, like many other businesses I defaulted to QuickBooks. While I was never overly fond of the package, it did its job and was more or less navigable even for an accounting neophyte such as myself. What was less ideal was shipping exported copies of our account file to our accountant; the process seemed antiquated. After moving to Denver and engaging both a new bookkeeper and new accountant – both of whom are remote – the transition to QuickBooks Online was both a natural move and one that solved some basic problems for us. Overall, it’s been a fine accounting package.
Pro’s: Online, easy for QuickBooks users to learn,
Con’s: IE only (requiring me to install CrossOver Office), a bit clunky at times
- Collaborative / Social Bookmarking (and Commenting):
Although he held out for a while, we eventually got James to come around to del.icio.us and now that’s the primary mechanism for all three of us to collaboratively annotate and bookmark the links that pique our interest. While I couldn’t make the del.icio.us birthday party this week, we remain happy users of the service and it’s become an integral part of our research activities.
Pro’s: Critical mass (everyone uses del.icio.us), tooling (the plugin is quite nice), blog integration (those of you who aren’t using the service to post your links to your blog should be – how else am I to comment on your comments?)
Con’s: Speed (talked to Josh not to long ago – they’re working on it), text size restriction (255 characters isn’t much to work with), metrics (needs to be easier to discover how/when we’re being del.icio.us’d), tag gardening (need to be able to better manage my own duplicate tags)
- Project/Hours Tracking:
At one time or another, we’ve tried most online team room / project management interfaces out there, from Basecamp to Lotus to Sharepoint. The problem with most of them was that they were far more functionality than we required – and in a couple of critical areas, less. All we really need to do was track customer status, hours project hours, and so on. All of the solutions we considered had such facilities, but came along with functionality that just got in the way. Further, we wanted to the ability to selectively share some information with external parties; project hours with clients, as an example. This was not easy to do.
But eventually, like Zend’s Mark de Visser, we turned to simple online spreadsheets for our project tracking. This approach has been a hit internally, yes, but more externally. Instead of having to ship spreadsheets around and wondering if they have the latest and greatest, we simply have one copy online that we – and the appropriate, permissioned third parties – can access. We use Jot Tracker here instead of Google Spreadsheets as does Zend, but same principle. This is highly recommended.
Pro’s: Online (sensing a theme here?) collaboration, dead simple to use, versioning is a non issue
Con’s: Never did get a response to my support request (the trackers were restored after a day or so), occasionally get emails asking to resend the “link”
- Logging / Stats Tracking:
I’ve written most of these up before, but currently we’re using a grab bag of different tools to monitor our various web properties. CrazyEgg is used because it has the best visual representation of traffic (the Blog link on redmonk.com is quite popular). Mint was deployed because it does the best job of rolling up a variety of statistical elements, including Feedburner stats and more. Lastly, Statcounter is employed because it does – in my experience – the best job of reverse lookups on IPs so that we can determine where traffic is coming from, and who’s reading what. Google Analytics has been turned on at various times in the past, and may be lingering here or there, but is overly complicated and geared towards commercial scenarios that are not what we’re looking for.
Con’s: None are complete solutions, and it’s still difficult to get a good impression of who’s doing what with the site when.
I’ve been with Feedburner for a long time now, as have Cote and James and I really can’t say that I have a single complaint. Sure, I wish the metrics were better – but there’s only so much that Feedburner can do, and they’re far better than I’d have otherwise. Just as important, every little niggling Feedburner problem I’ve reported in the blog here has attracted a swift and proactive response from the Feedburner gang – the responsiveness is excellent.
Pro’s: Metrics, additional features (email subscription), staff responsiveness
Con’s: Metrics, link disparity (people linking to feed links rather than web links), etc
While James and I were sporadic users of Skype before bringing on Cote, it’s really been his addition that’s pushed us over the top to where Skype is now our primary mode of communication. Not that he’s a huge evangelist of Skype, it’s more that he got us on the podcasting bandwagon and Skype’s key component of that, and the fact that it’s much easier to do multi-party conference calls on Skype than it is on our traditional land lines.
At this point I’d say that better than 95% of our communications internally go over Skype, with the remaining 5% driven by a.) hardware / software failures or b.) us being out of the office and away from a headset (which is why Matt’s recommendation of this was so interesting).
All that said, I can’t give Skype a ringing endorsement. First, unlike its competitor Gizmo which we dabble in from time to time, Skype relies on a non-standard, proprietary protocol. That’s strike one. Strike two is that the Linux client is way behind the Windows client. Strike three is that – as my colleagues can attest – Skype hates me. When we have problems on conference calls, it’s always me echoing, or me dropping out, or me having weird sound levels. I was in the middle of a rant about how Skype was pissing me off last week while on Skype, and it dropped me; my colleagues were deprived of a perfectly fine rant. Beyond those complaints, Skype is finicky about seeing people online; quite often one or the other party in a conversation won’t appear online though they are, and only do so after a quick reboot.
Overall, Skype’s good enough – barely – and free.
Pro’s: Free, call quality (comparable with a cell), critical mass (big time), device support (see link above)
Con’s: Call quality on SkypeOut, proprietary protocol, client reliability (on Linux, Mac and Windows)
- Word Processing:
As in the case of project tracking, there are times when we just need to take some joint notes or quickly collaborate on a document, and in such cases traditional office suites – be they Microsoft Office or OpenOffice.org – are not just overkill, they’re inefficient. Why email around documents, after all, when you can simply edit them in place in an access controlled setting? Some of you may be thinking “wiki” at this point, and it’s true that they’re ideal for many of these types of tasks, but we’ve been using Writely for this for some time now. While wikis enjoy advantages over Writely – particularly in the versioning area – Writely wins on exportability, a key concern for many of our documents.
Overall, I’m still not ready to make the argument that Office 2.0 in RedMonk terms will be a purely online application, but we’re getting closer and closer to that point, I think. Aside from complex document formatting needs, which we don’t do much of anyway, there really isn’t much that Writely can’t handle effectively. And it’s nice to be able to easily collaborate with third parties on as well.
Pro’s: Online (again) collaboration, simple interface (only what I need), ODF support
Con’s: Lack of support (though it hasn’t failed yet like Jot Tracker), spotty permissions system (last document sharing effort didn’t issue permissions initially, then sent them two or three times after that)
I hope this look at the services that power RedMonk is both helpful to you folks and spurs comments about what we’re missing. One other service I’m actively considering for backup purposes – either as a compliment to or replacement for rsync.net – is Amazon’s S3. Jeremy worked out the math, and it seems pretty fair.