Flash Fiction: Skippy & Mrs. Kribshaw

I wrote this piece of Flash Fiction in 2012 from the 25-Dec-2012 Write Now Prompt posted at Today’s Author.

There was a knock at the door and suddenly the Christmas lights went out…


IMG_7500 by chapman_photography is licensed under Creative Commons | Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0)
IMG_7500 by chapman_photography is licensed under Creative Commons | Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0)

There was a knock at the door and suddenly the Christmas lights went out.

Although startled by the abrupt rap, rap, rapping noise of boney knuckles on a metal-lined door, Vanessa kept her head down for an instant longer, just long enough to finish reading the last three lines of text on her Kindle’s screen.

Who’s that?, she thought.  Do I want to get up and answer the door?  And why did they unplug my outdoor lights?

Vanessa had a habit of letting her imagination run rampant when she was alone, more so after the second mugging incident from four years earlier.  She was just twenty at the time, a junior Psychology major at Metuchen University’s Fredericks City campus when she took a small penknife puncture in her lower abdomen.  She still keeps the torn, black MU hoodie she wore that night in her closet as a reminder of that cold Friday night in February—she fondles the tear with her index finger whenever she’s running short on gas money and considers mugging another female student on campus.  The first incident netted her a crisp twenty; the second a trifecta trip to the hospital, police station, and court.

Standing up, Vanessa took a few steps toward the front window to peek out onto the street to see if she recognized any double-parked cars, but the oak hardwood planks beneath her feet cried out in long, slow, agonizing squeaks and pops.  Vanessa’s face cringed at the noises which were clearly loud enough to be heard from the porch stoop.  Rap, rap, rap again echoed throughout the room as a strong fist again pounded the front face of the door.

She opened the door slowly, cautiously with her weight ready to lunge against and snap the door shut in a hurry.  “Oh, hi Mrs. Kribshaw,” Vanessa said sweetly as she sighed a breath of relief.  “Come in.”

Mrs. Kribshaw, a fiesty widow in her mid-seventies, lived in house number 72 across from Vanessa’s 71 Pickering Street row-home address.  Mrs. Kribshaw—Kathryn—and her deceased husband Ed raised three children in the neighborhood.  Before retiring a year after Ed’s unexpected passing, Kathryn worked as a telephone operator with the phone company where he worked as a linesman.

Vanessa held the metal storm door open for Mrs. Kribshaw as her eyes scanned the landscaped shrubbery, now void of the twinkling white glow of the mini bulbs that were lit moments earlier.  “Merry Christmas.  Please, come in.  Come in.”

“Merry Christmas.  Wow, your house smells delicious.  What are you baking?”

Vanessa smiled and pointed to a sugar-cookie scented Yankee candle on the art-deco end table.  “No, not baking.  It’s just a candle.”

“Well your house looks beautiful nonetheless,” replied Mrs. Kribshaw, admiring the soft glow of the large Douglas-fir standing proudly in the corner of a room filled with mismatched, second-hand furniture.  “Home alone for Christmas?  I saw Emily and Michelle packing their cars this morning.  They said they’re both going home to their parents’ for a few days.  What about you?”

“Alone for tonight.  My parents are going to my brother’s tonight for Christmas.  His wife and I don’t speak, so I’ll leave early tomorrow morning and spend the day with my parents.”

Not knowing quite what to say next, Kathryn set the pleasantries aside and got down to business.  “Sorry to bother you.  I just came over to chase Skippy away from your porch.  I was sweeping the pavement when I saw him chewing the wires to your front porch Christmas lights.  He ran between the houses toward your back yard when I tried to pick him up.  I unplugged the lights just to play it safe.  You can see the copper showing through the casing—right near the plug—where Skippy was chewing.”

Vanessa started to roll her eyes, but caught herself.  “Cats will be cats,” she said with what she felt was through an obviously-phony smile.

“I’m so sorry, Vanessa.”

“Really.  Don’t worry about it.  It’s easy enough to fix.  I’ll just twist some electrical tape around the wires and it’ll be fine.”

Kathryn started her way onto the porch as Vanessa followed behind, “Safe travels tomorrow.  Merry Christmas!”  Vanessa rolled her eyes and snapped shut the door.

At six thirty the following morning, the sky was overcast as Vanessa loaded three cardboard boxes and her purse into the back seat of her car.  It was a two and half hour drive to her parents house, and she’d be ready for breakfast and a second cup of coffee when she arrived around nine.  For now, she’d settle for a cup of Panera coffee before making her way out to the turnpike.

Her blue Honda Civic shook and rattled for the entire two-hour southerly turnpike journey before the last half-hour stretch on county road 255.  By now it was eight thirty and the sun had begun to poke it’s way through the cloud cover.  Vanessa pulled the car over along a stretch of 255 book-ended by two fields of dry soybean.  One by one, she pulled out and opened the three boxes.

“Goodbye, Daisy,” she said as she opened the first box.

“Goodbye, Muffin,” as she opened the second.

“Goodbye, Skippy,” as she opened the last.

Flash Fiction: Rose Brand Curtains

Back in November 2010 a friend e-mailed me the message below.  The note struck me as being funny; it seemed random and perhaps intended for another recipient. Here’s the original e-mail and the quick response I cranked out to him. I made a couple edits to protect the innocent and make the posting blog-friendly.

Thanh's S2k01unmarked by joenguyen112 is licensed under Creative Commons | Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Thanh’s S2k01unmarked by joenguyen112 is licensed under Creative Commons | Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

—–Original Message—–

From: Brice

Sent: Monday, November 01, 2010 7:20 PM

To: Matt

Subject: Rose brand curtains?

Have you ever heard of rose brand curtains? I ended up sitting next to one of their salesmen today on the plane to Atlanta. Seemed like a good guy.


Do not believe him. He is not who he says he is. I’m surprised he had the audacity to reveal himself to you.

I met Rich three years ago on the underground race circuit. I had little cash. He fronted me a late model Civic and five hundred dollars earnest money to race Lord Suarez for pinks. Suarez had a Toyota Supra. Rich told me to race for pinks, and when I won (he was confident I would) then I would give him both vehicles and in exchange I would keep the five hundred.

I remember like it was yesterday. It was a Thursday night, about 12:15am at the commercial warehouse park sandwiched between the turnpike and Route 130.

I drove the blue Civic up to loading bay with the sign that read “Imaging Diagnostics, Inc.” There, Suarez’s pal Piper came out, registered me, and held the five bills. The instructions were simple. Three laps around the deserted warehouse complex for a total of three miles.

I was to leave immediately, to drive to the west end of the complex and wait for further instructions. It was there I was met by Lord Suarez in the silver Supra. I looked across at him; he made no eye contact. Within seconds, a race “tree” lit up in the distance. When the green hit, I popped the clutch and pressed my foot to the gas. The turbo inhaled effortlessly, the short-throw shift eased into gear as I pulled ahead from Lord Suarez. It was a tight race throughout the meandering lot of the warehouse complex, but somehow I pulled it off. I managed to beat Lord Suarez for pinks.

As we pulled back to “Imaging Diagnostics, Inc.,” the front for Suarez’s garage, Piper returned handing me my five bills he held as collateral. There, Suarez stepped out from his Supra, only to be surprised when Rich appeared from nowhere, gun in hand. Rich pointed at Suarez and fired a single shot. Suarez stood stunned for a moment, looking down at his chest clutching his shirt looking for a bullet hole.

Rich laughed.

“A blank,” he shouted at Suarez. “Now keep outta my part of town, you son of a b—!”

Suarez gasped for a breath.

“See my friend Matt here? You better not give him any trouble from here on out! He will be watching my territory as I travel to and from Atlanta for the next few years under the guise of Rose Brand Industries.”

With that, Rich walked over to the Supra, reached in and pulled out the keys.

“Have fun, kid” Rich shouted to me as he tossed the keys my way. “Keep the Supra in safe keeping until I come back for it.”

That was four years ago. I lost the Supra three years ago, but that’s a story for another day.

Flash Fiction: The Smuggler

“Good evening, Mr. Stock.  Please step over here so we may have a look in that backpack, please,” bellowed the school’s vice principal, Mr. Stuckley.  “Planning to do homework at the homecoming dance, are we?”

Trophies by Mr.Fink's Finest Photos is licensed under Creative Commons | Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Trophies by Mr.Fink’s Finest Photos is licensed under Creative Commons | Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

I turned my head to see who Mr. Stuckley was speaking to.  So did the two volunteer mothers manning the ticket table, and I found amusement as both their facial expressions drew noticeably uncomfortable once seeing the target of Mr. Stuckley’s attention.  It was Adam Stock, another sophomore in my class who was dressed-to-impress this evening wearing black jeans, a tuxedo-printed t-shirt, polished cowboy boots, and a top hat that would make Slash envious.

“You know the routine,” said the vice principal, his arms folded across his puffed-up chest.  “Let’s see the contents of your backpack, Mr. Stock.”

Adam flung his neon-green backpack off his shoulder and onto the folding table set up beside the trophy case.  His swift movement stirred the air enough that I managed to catch a whiff of patchouli oil, a scent I try to avoid whenever within a short radius of Adam.  He reached into his backpack and pulled out a small nested tripod, a hand-held Sony digital video camera, two weathered spiral-bound notebooks with a pen stuffed into the spiral of one of them, and a soft-covered book titled The Dune Chronicles.

“Very well, Mr. Stock, thank you” said Mr. Stuckley, his voice softening a bit this time.

I’m still amused how Mr. Stuckley can maintain speaking in a voice clearly forced two octave lower than his normal register.  He must drink a lot of herbal tea each night to prepare for the next day of school.

Adam stuffed the items back into his bag, handed one of the mothers a crumbled five, and shot me a quick glance before walking into the gymnasium.

Amateur, I thought.  He never checked the top hat.

Disney or DMV: Our colleagues view us as a brand

Like it or not, our colleagues view their daily interactions with us similar to a corporate brand.  Here are five intentional behaviors I use to actively manage my personal brand.

Do you actively manage the brand you project? Plan Ahead by Oregon Department of Transportation is licensed under Creative Commons | Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic
Plan Ahead by Oregon Department of Transportation is licensed under Creative Commons | Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

Several weeks ago I participated in multiple concurrent assignments where none ran smoothly according to my standards. I found myself frustrated with what was shaping up to be my new normal—my days consisting largely of redundant throwaway work and a greatly reduced operating efficiency.

If you’re a planner like me, you’ve likely experienced this frustration before and know how terrible it feels.

I knew something had to change. Why? Because several evenings passed where I found myself reflecting on the interactions I held that day. “How did my attitude come across in that meeting? How was my tone in the next unrelated meeting with an entirely new set of stakeholders? Did that e-mail I fired off come across as passive-aggressive?”

This got me thinking: “If I were a corporate brand, would my colleagues compare interactions with me to that they experienced at Walt Disney World or, in contrast, the local Department of Motor Vehicles?”

Uh oh. I was due to make some course-corrections.

There are times we all get frustrated at work. As a planner, I know one of my biggest pet peeves is addressing the same problem repeatedly. If something isn’t working correctly I like to put a process in place so I don’t have to address it again. But we don’t always have that luxury.

After several evenings of self-reflection and speaking with trusted friends, it finally clicked that protecting my personal brand was first and foremost more important than addressing resulting redundancy and inefficiency. Not to say addressing those items is not important, but the goodwill of my personal brand was starting to suffer and that needed to be addressed immediately.

To help me get back on track, I started to list my behaviors I developed over my career that I believe have contributed to my (hopefully) positive personal brand. I came up with the following:

I view my role as a theatrical performance

The moment my car’s front bumper reaches the office parking lot I consider myself “on stage” in contrast to the moment I leave the parking lot in the evening. Hallway interactions are important, even if I don’t know an individual’s name or the role they perform within my company. They are a colleague and a potential future consumer of the services me or my department offer.

Millennial tip: Remove those earphones when walking the hallways at work. Make eye contact with those you pass and offer a smile and perhaps a greeting. Years ago a classmate of mine landed himself a job at the New York Yankees with nothing more than a variation of this simple approach!

I try to catch flies with honey rather than vinegar

No matter the quality of my processes and documentation, there will be those individuals who require a more personal touch and significant hand-holding through a process. I still need to perform those duties with a smile rather than pushing people off and telling them to go read my process documentation. Instead, I take them through the process verbally and then summarize with, “Here’s where you can find the documentation that more thoroughly describes what I just took you through.”

I explicitly set the tone rather than be subjected to it

Human interactions and empathy must come before process compliance. No amount of “you must” and “no exceptions” and exclamations and ALL CAPS will make my job easier or less stressful. In fact, leading off with this approach is likely counterproductive by putting the customer on the defensive before a dialog even begins. As difficult as it is sometimes, I always take the “How can I help?” approach. Many businesses haven’t yet grasped this simple concept.

No multi-tasking during meetings

It’s tempting to multi-task during telephone meetings. I found my overall productivity improved and my re-work decreased by focusing on the meeting at hand. At times I even flipped up my laptop screen and turned on my video camera to help prevent me from multi-tasking by knowing my engagement level was being projected to others.

Rarely assert authority over others

I rarely attempt to assert authority—it will work some of the time at first, but generally I discovered it will backfire in a big way later. I attempt to earn authority naturally.

After a week of revisiting these behaviors and internally emphasizing them to myself at work, my weeks were again ending less stressful. A few times I did have to politely state: “I agree with you that x is inefficient and has room for improvement. This is the current reality as it stands and currently this is the confines within which I must work.” While I don’t know if this approach offered any consolation to my peers, it has made my evenings at home more enjoyable again.

Goals and objectives can be strengthened with cross-functional peer reviews

The yearly goals and objectives (G&O) process in most organizations is often perceived by staff as a mundane HR activity required solely to support year-end performance appraisals. Here’s my thoughts as to how directors and managers can strengthen the process with cross-functional peer reviews.

Goals and Objectives.  Climbers by Jaroslav Kuba is licenses under Creative Commons | Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic
Climbers by Jaroslav Kuba is licensed under Creative Commons | Attribution 2.0 Generic

In my experience, the goals and objectives process is typically structured and communicated as a vertically-siloed exercise held between a supervisor and employee. Staff are asked to create tactical objectives to help achieve broader goals that cascade down from executives within a single department like I.T. or Finance.

But let’s be honest—objectives either don’t cascade down from the top as planned, or they’re developed the same time junior staff are required to submit their own objectives into the performance management system like Trakstar or SuccessFactors. As a result, staff secretly view the process as a tedious, necessary evil that falls to the bottom of everyone’s to-do list.

Goals and Objectives – a free planning and scheduling opportunity!

Those with a few years under their belt working in a medium to large organization already know first-hand that goals and objectives vary greatly across functions within the same department, not to mention cross-departments. Within Information Technology, for example, the goals and objectives of the Project Management Office will differ from those of Infrastructure, Security, etc.

I’ve experienced that most directors and managers don’t know—or don’t ask—about the goals and objectives of their peers. I think here lies the problem. Within organizations exist hundreds of mini roadmaps, with each visible to only one employee with his/her direct supervisor. How did it get this way? Staff blindly followed the HR-communicated process necessary to “tick the box” without feeling empowered to take a step back and consider this a planning and scheduling opportunity through cross-functional peer reviews.

Think about your own experience in the goals and objectives process. You probably agree:

  • The success of your G&O are highly dependent on assistance from your peers
  • You don’t anticipate 25% of your time in Q3 assisting someone else’s initiative
  • You push back on your peers as the timing of their priorities contradict with yours

So what can be done to change the perceived value of the yearly goals and objectives process? Speak with colleagues who work outside of your silo. If you’re in I.T., ask your Finance peers whether they envision needing a chunk of your time this year for one of their initiatives.  You now have content to round out your objectives and have identified appropriate start dates for said objectives!

A cross-functional peer review doesn’t have to be formal. Thirty-minute discussions among one’s top-three peers will go a long way in helping achieve one’s own goals and objectives.

It’s possible to purchase 1 terabyte of online backup for $20

By no means am I a data pack-rat requiring vast needs of online backup. I’ve accumulated only 600 gigabytes of data over the past twenty years that consists mostly of photographs, edited home video projects, and miscellaneous Microsoft Office documents.

Blank USB Thumbdrives by Matt Robb is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Blank USB Thumbdrives by Matt Robb is licensed under Creative Commons | Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

For years I shuffled these digital assets across multiple storage devices in my home. At some point I started to wonder, “What happens if my home catches fire or my external drive fails? This data is surely gone forever.  Should I investigate an online backup subscription?”

To remedy this concern, two years ago I purchased a one-year backup subscription from Carbonite for about $100. This plan allowed me to back up data from one computer, but it excluded network-attached storage devices. While the service worked as advertised, it felt unnecessarily expensive for my needs as I was most interested in protecting my longer-term archived files.

Last year I let my Carbonite subscription lapse in favor of purchasing a one-year subscription from SOS Online Backup for $150. While the cost was 50% more than Carbonite, it afforded unlimited devices and storage. This plan worked swimmingly for my needs until my contract expired, the unlimited plan was discontinued, and I was offered the replacement $400 yearly subscription to meet my 600 gigabyte storage needs.

As I’ve heard people say, sometimes to solve a problem you must approach the solution from another angle. Here’s why I purchased a one-year subscription Microsoft Office 365 for $100—to leverage the included 1 terabyte of online backup storage!

A subscription to Microsoft Office 365 Home allows purchasers to install a local copy of Access, Excel, OneDrive, OneNote, Outlook, PowerPoint, Publisher, and Word. For me this is a fabulous deal for the value since I use Excel, OneNote, Outlook, PowerPoint, and Word on almost a daily basis. Here’s the hook—

  • A subscriber’s OneDrive account is increased to 1 terabyte of storage
  • A subscriber is permitted to include four others on the same account
Screen capture of Office 365 Home demonstrating subscription sharing
Send an invitation to four e-mail addresses

For $100 a year, five users can leverage Microsoft Office Home locally and have 1 terabyte of online storage secured separately using separate Microsoft IDs and passwords.

I suppose a clever group of five could pool their money to drive down each individual’s investment to $20.

If you choose to go this route, there’s one configuration tweak required in OneDrive to maximize the 1 terabyte of online storage. If you’re like me and you want to back up data not kept on your primary computer, you’re going to have to exclude a backup folder on your OneDrive account so that the application doesn’t try and synchronize this data back to your laptop or desktop.  This is especially important if your local computer is low on disk space.

Screen capture of Microsoft OneDrive online backup synchronization settings
Exclude a backup folder so that the data isn’t re-synchronized back to the computer

To save data to your OneDrive account you will visit https://onedrive.live.com and press the Upload link to select files from your computer and save them to the Microsoft server.

It may not be the most elegant solution, but it’s hard to argue against the value.

Frequent Agile SaaS deployments are disrupting end-user value

Like most, I spent the recent year-end holidays reconnecting with family and friends over a tin of homemade Toll House chocolate chip cookies and non-fat cappuccinos. We laughed. We cried. We debated the merits of Agile SaaS deployments and Minimum Viable Product (MVP) delivery.

Agile SaaS Deployments.  SML Books by See-ming Lee is licenses under Creative Commons | Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic
SML Books by See-ming Lee is licensed under Creative Commons | Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

It began as an innocuous statement:

“Drive-thru windows at coffee shops. Call-ahead seating at chain restaurants. Online order pickup at big-box stores. Clearly we’re an impatient society. We know what we want. And even if we don’t, we want it now, anyway.”

This particular meet-up was between myself and a senior programmer with whom I worked fifteen years ago. He was always a better-trained and better-skilled programmer than me, a computer science major with a firm footing in C/C++ and Assembly, whereas my computer information systems degree shifted focused to higher-level programming languages and business classes like accounting, marketing, and economics.

We reminisced about our time as programmers together and jointly landed on a few takeaways:

  • It’s difficult to be a good programmer today; organizations want programmers focused on speed of delivery, not quality
  • The decline of quality programming became more prevalent with the introduction of managed code, particularly Microsoft .NET, as it allowed inexperienced programmers to deliver products to market
  • Availability of quality software further diminished with the introduction of smartphone applications
  • Somewhere between then and now, organizations began touting Minimum Viable Product (MVP) and Agile deployment to mask what could best be described as impatience—usually on the part of the provider who holds the financial benefit
  • Enterprise cloud software developers have not embraced the plug-in model to better support an organization’s appetite for change—mainly because it requires more attention on early application architecture

As I progressed in my career as a programmer within ten-person startup companies during the dot-com era to thousand-employee enterprise organizations, I experienced the disheartening feeling that end-users don’t care about software systems as much as programmers think they do. Consider the origins of the RTFM meme, for example. Clearly people don’t and won’t read the…ahem…manual.

As a previous system administrator for two cloud hosted project portfolio management (PPM) systems, I came to learn that the average end-user learned just enough about the enterprise software to get by in their day-to-day role. And when an end-user did master a feature in the product, it usually changed in some minor way a few weeks later when the developers pushed a new feature or update to an existing feature.

So if end-users won’t read the manual and only make an effort to learn a fraction of the application’s capabilities in order to perform their job, do frequent Agile deployments of hosted software diminish value? In my opinion: yes.

Wearing my change management and system administration hats, I feel deployments of enterprise cloud software are best received and adopted by end-users when limited to once or twice yearly. This ensures the organization can take appropriate measures to evaluate, learn, and understand the new features as well as define and change management and training strategy that’s right for the organization based on the team or function’s current level of maturity in the particular application and/or application processes.

As new enterprise cloud software manufacturers enter the market I believe they can grab a competitive advantage from their peers by focusing early application architecture efforts on developing their software to utilize a plug-in architecture. From there the deployment cadence and new feature adoption can be managed by the customer to better maximize end-user value.

Change Management Training: Selecting the right employees to attend

Not every employee is the ideal candidate to attend formal change management training. This article presents a few considerations organized by role.

Change Management Training. Change by Conal Gallagher is licensed under Creative Commons | Attribution 2.0 Generic
Change by Conal Gallagher is licensed under Creative Commons | Attribution 2.0 Generic

I’ll always remember my first experience being on the receiving end of an enterprise software replacement project that occurred without a formal change management strategy. I had just returned from a week’s vacation and discovered the introduction, rollout, and three (and only three) software training sessions for the new system all occurred the week I was away. The system adoption results were abysmal.

Change management, defined as a formal plan to help reduce a human’s natural resistance to some form of change, is more widely embraced today than five years ago when Internet searches on the topic yielded few results. Part communication and part training plan, change management is about balancing the “sell” versus “tell” by iteratively addressing questions like:

  • What is going to change?
  • Why is it going to change?
  • When will it change?
  • Who is impacted by the change?
  • What specifically do I need to do differently?

It’s becoming clear that many organizations are now embracing formal change management. Compared to five years ago, an Internet search will now provide curious project managers and leaders with free templates and guidance on how to implement some basic change management principles. But more than that, member and training organizations like Prosci, Association of Change Management Professionals, and Change Management Institute offer frameworks and certifications to better ensure successful change acceptance.

Change Management Training:  Who should attend?

When an organization is ready to sponsor and pay for a cohort to attend change management training, it’s important to recognize that not every employee is the ideal candidate to attend. Here are a few considerations organized by role:

Senior Management

Large organizations tend to select seasoned leadership—senior managers and directors—to attend change management training because these roles typically champion the organization’s large change efforts. Be cautious if individuals in these roles have broad responsibilities in the organization that prevent a deep focus on one specific effort. Strongly consider whether these individuals will have the bandwidth to draft, execute, and adapt change management plans while driving other major responsibilities. Further, leadership tends to be somewhat removed from watercooler talk happening among more junior staff, which can limit effectiveness of addressing appropriate concerns of the target audience.

Program/Project Managers

Program/project managers are generally successful change managers, but there’s often difficulty performing the two roles simultaneously. Project management activities will always take precedence to change management and communication activities, as do business analytic activities that sometimes fall to the project manager. Take an honest assessment of how your project management office is organized. If each project manager is assigned to multiple complex projects or is required to function as a subject matter expert or business analyst in addition to their role as program/project manager, the change management effort will be least effective.

Managers and Individual Contributors

Managers and individual contributors who typically have more than five years of work experience and have served in a project management, business analysis, or technical writing capacity in the past can make excellent change managers. Their experience usually has afforded them an opportunity to have experienced at least one failed change effort in a professional environment. Once trained as a change manager, the organization can rotate these individuals in and out of different projects to gain exposure to other aspects of the business, reducing boredom or burnout for individuals in roles that are generally operational in nature. Unlike some technical certifications, the organization will benefit from the training as long as the employee remains within the organization. Change management training is not department-specific.

At the end of the day it’s up to an organization to select the appropriate staff members to attend change management training. There are pros and cons to each type of employee in the organization, and the correct answer isn’t always clear-cut. The training is effective and the materials and experience will serve the individual well in their career, but it’s up to the organization to ultimately leverage the training.

Calling Web Services within Microsoft Office via the SOAP protocol in the year 2013

In the early to mid-2000s Microsoft Corp. painted the world a beautiful picture of the ease at which one could exchange information across disparate systems, whether across the LAN or across the Internet.  The company simultaneously eased both Office users and professional developers into unfamiliar terminology like Web Services, Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP), and XML.

A bubble by Jeff Kubina is licensed under Creative Commons | Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic
A bubble by Jeff Kubina is licensed under Creative Commons | Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

Don’t worry about the new terminology, Microsoft told Office users (paraphrased).  With a few drag-and-drops and mouse clicks, we made it simple for you to call a web service with little to no coding experience.  You’re going to love how easy it is to push and pull data using Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) within your Office files—namely Excel (paraphrased).

And then there were the professional developers.

Don’t worry about the new terminology, the company told us (paraphrased).  With a few drag-and-drops and mouse clicks, we made it simple for you to create your own web service.  You’re going to love how easy it is to expose your application’s properties and methods so that others can push and pull data from your system (paraphrased).

At the time, Microsoft’s vision was truly spot-on.  An Office user who wanted to call a public (non-authenticated) or private (authenticated) web service from within an Office document simply needed to download and install a free Microsoft Office Add-In, Microsoft Office XP Web Services Toolkit 1.0 (for Office XP), or Microsoft Office XP Web Services Toolkit 2.0 (for Office XP), or Microsoft Office 2003 Web Services Toolkit 2.01 (for Office 2003).

Writing the code to consume a web service within an Office file was analogous to installing a modern gas stove.  It really wasn’t really programming, but more like making a connection or two like the flexible gas hose and AC power cord.  If you were slightly handy and could follow directions, within an hour or so you’d be up and running.

Most importantly, it was brilliantly-simple to share one’s documents with others.  There was no application be to packaged, distributed, and installed.  Other than Office, no additional software was required on client machines, not even the toolkit itself.  That’s because the required library file to make the technology work, MSSOAP30.DLL, was automatically installed by default with Office.  And, if as a professional developer you wanted to create your own web service, it was only slightly more difficult to expose public and private data to the world using a more sophisticated software development tool, Microsoft’s Visual Studio.

So what do you think happened next?  That’s right, people adopted this wiz-bang technology!  Professional developers started writing their systems to expose data and Office users started to consume data within their Office files.

All good things must come to an end (for the Office user)

For a short while life was good.  Housing prices in the US skyrocketed.  Starbucks shops appeared in neighborhoods worldwide.  But Microsoft had different plans for the Office user.  While very little changed for professional developers in the way they created web services, it became more and more difficult to consume web services from Office files due to an increase in variability amongst client computing in industries across the world:

  • Microsoft introduced 32-bit and 64-bit varieties of Windows Vista;  few companies adopted
  • Microsoft introduced 32-bit and 64-bit varieties of Windows 7; slow company adoption
  • Microsoft introduced 32-bit variety of Office 2007 with brand new UI; few companies adopted
  • Microsoft announces it’s Web Services Toolkit is obsolete due to .NET technology
  • Microsoft stops support of Microsoft Office 2003 Web Services Toolkit 2.01 in 2008
  • Microsoft introduced 32-bit and 64-bit varieties of Office 2010; slow company adoption

Today, browsing the Internet for information on how to call a web service from Office files conjures imagery not unlike parts of Ukraine that surround the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.  Newsgroups and forums display remnants of what was once a thriving community—now nearly abandoned—with questions and answers time-stamped from 2004 through 2009.  Well-intentioned, but ill-informed newsgroup participants (including Microsoft’s own forum administrators) point users to obsolete web service toolkits, even though those posting in forums clearly state they’re using Office 2007 or 2010.  Some thriving vagabonds even propose wild and unimaginable solutions for handling and parsing your own XML without the need for a Web Service Toolkit, which I admit is doable, albeit cumbersome for most but the seasoned developer.

For me though, the coup de grâce is that Microsoft casually recommends the newest solution to accomplish the task through an Office file project within Visual Studio—leveraging managed code—using .NET technology.  What’s discouraging in this approach, however, is that those posting on behalf of Microsoft don’t acknowledge, recognize, or understand the unique business challenges that approach brings, namely now requiring compilation and deployment of projects using Windows-installed packages.  Gone are the days of simply sharing an .XLS file with another Office user like the good old days.

As corporations now embrace Windows 7 and Office 2007 and Office 2010, it’s becoming more difficult for Office users to maintain and update their existing legacy Office files that consume web services, let alone develop new solutions.  Office 2003 is phasing out of corporate environments.  References to the MSSOAP30.DLL file are breaking as end-user machines are migrated to 64-bit Windows 7 and 32-bit or 64-bit Office 2007 and 2010.

Hope for the future

There’s a glimmer of hope that Microsoft identified it’s faux pas.  For an unsupported, obsolete technology, Microsoft Office 2010 installs an updated version of the MSSOAP30.DLL file.  That’s interesting.  Also, early indications show that Office Excel 2013 will include three built-in formulas that allow for calling web services:  EncodeURL(), Webservice(), and FilterXML().

In the meantime – scenarios and workarounds

Some Office users may have it easier than others depending on whether their web service project is used by one individual, one department or company, or whether distributed to other companies and clients.  But all Office users are on borrowed time.

If you want to make a new connection to a web service within your project today, you’re going to need development machine with Office 2003 installed so that you may also install Microsoft Office 2003 Web Services Toolkit 2.01.  Otherwise, you’re going to have handle and parse your own XML.

You’re in a bit better shape if you simply want to modify your projects but not necessarily add, edit, or remove existing connections to a web service.  Although your project can be opened in Office 2007 and Office 2010, your Office 2003 file will need to be opened in Compatibility Mode and will need to reference the MSSOAP30.DLL in the correct shared folder path which changes with each subsequent version of Office and the 32-bit vs. 64-bit version of Windows.  You’ll probably need to get creative with your code, namely when your file opens, in order to programmatically select the path to the SMSSOAP30.DLL depending on the versions of Windows and Office installed.

Finally, if you have a project deployed to a large number of client machines that have since upgraded to newer versions of Windows and/or Office, you may have luck by simply copying/pasting the currently-registered version of MSSOAP30.DLL file into a directory path that mimics that of an older version of Office.  You would do this if your project is set to reference MSSOAP30.DLL in a particular folder, or if you did not programmatically set the path to the MSSOAP30.DLL within your project.  I found this to be successful when our organization migrated from Windows XP and Office 2003 to Windows 7 and Office 2010.  Just remember that C:\Program Files\ folder is not the same as C:\Program Files (x86)\.

Summary

I re-posted this article I wrote in 2013 with the hope that it helps save others some troubleshooting time in the future.  Ten years have passed since I was a full-time software developer but I know that legacy code exists in the modern office environment.

New illustrated book touches on family blending, love, and loss of loved ones

 

how-brady-deucey-became-buster-lucy-to-get-princess-autumn-home

A new illustrated book was released this week on Amazon.com by an author-friend of mine, J.A. Zaremski, with illustrations by Lauren Scott.  The book is titled, How Brady & Deucey Became Buster & Lucy To Get Princess Autumn Home.

The story, as told by Brady (the Boxer), is intended for all ages and “gently touches on themes of family blending, love, the loss of loved ones, and—most primarily—the idea that our loved ones always come back to us, even if in different forms.”

I’m looking forward to picking this one up.  It’s in-stock and available with Prime 2-day shipping, too.  Perfect timing for holiday gifts.