Friday, July 10, 2009

Up Against the Wal-marts

Up Against the Wal-marts is a story about the mom and pop stores of America and their fight against Wal-mart. According to the book, written by Don Taylor and Jeanne Smalling Archer, the smaller company goes out of business because of the larger and seriously dominant retail chain. It's a sad story but there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

Similarly, my Web Services team at North Carolina Central University faces its own giant. Today, that giant's name is CampusEAI. If you recall a previous entry entitled, "MyCampus vs. MyEOL: War of the Campus Portals," I spoke about an upcoming battle. Well, that day has come.

It began around 1:30 pm and most of the decision makers from ITS were in the room. Each of us awaited the appearance from the CIO, who held the instructions for the conference call. During this time, I felt confident in our work and believed we would come out of this call scathed but victorious. Boy, was I wrong.

From the moment CampusEAI representatives began talking, I felt an uneasiness and invisible weight creep its way onto my shoulders. I knew that after two hours, we would have a better picture of what this consortium was really made of, but it would also be two hours of selling the product. Not that I lacked confidence in our MyEOL solution, but this company was ready to throw everything they had at us. From the look on people's faces in the meeting, their campaign was working.

With each new feature they showed, we were running out of competitive ammunition. Then, like Kobe overtaking Jordan, CampusEAI walked us down and turned on the nitro. It was a very humbling experience. They came into our house and ran circles around us with a well-crafted product and related support. Did I mention they are willing to give it to us for only $30k a year, with minimal work on our part? How can we say no to that?

Following the meeting, a number of us got together. Some saw little value. Others agreed that MyCampus was a good product. Personally, my loyalty is with MyEOL, but I also recognize a superior product when I see one.

In adopting CampusEAI's MyCampus, it requires a paradigm shift in how we view our contributions to the state and students of NCCU. Quietly, I hear the Chancellor say we are not in the web development business. Then, I recall a statement by GE's former CEO Jack Welch who said that a company should strive to be the best in an industry or get out all together. Web Services is not equipped to be the best web developers in the world, but rather to support the education of our students. This means we shouldn't spend so much time developing applications but rather seek to acquire the best solutions.

It's a tough pill to swallow. Being a self-taught web developer with a "can do" attitude towards life, it's an admission of defeat to buy a solution that we can easily build ourselves. Unfortunately, I also realize that my team cannot do everything. We are limited in number, time, and resources. The needs of our campus outweigh our single-handed ability to serve them all.

So, what does that mean? It means that we need to reinvent ourselves. We need to look at how we can provide the best service to the campus. I believe that is by overseeing the web infrastructure, but not necessarily doing it all ourselves.

If we were building an e-mail client for the campus, would it make sense to compete against Gmail? Absolutely not! We don't have the time or resources to offer a better product for free. So too, then, is our reality with CampusEAI. They provide a better product for an amazing price. My team and I would be fooling ourselves to think we could compete against a giant with resources spanning the globe.

While the situation may appear clear-cut, do understand that I am a little shaken. The foundation on which my team has worked these past few years has been tested. Change is coming. Today, I see us as administrators or managers of the web, not necessarily the builders of it. It’s a sad story, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

I'd love to hear your feedback and stories. Until next time...

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Damond L. Nollan, M.B.A.

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