Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The EnvisionWare Decade

It is a little-known fact that decades and centuries begin with the number one, not zero. Think about it: when you count to ten, do you start with zero? For that matter, does anyone ever ask you to count from zero to nine?

I know what you’re thinking: “Okay, Man In The Purple Shirt, are you saying that when I was partying to the ubiquitous Prince song ‘1999’ on December 31st, 1999, I was not in fact saying goodbye to the 20th Century?”

That’s exactly what I’m saying. The real event came the following year. Did you miss it? Sorry…I’m just the messenger. Perhaps, though, it is some small consolation to know that we now stand poised at the turn of a new decade. And I’d like to capitalize on this momentous occasion by reflecting on how the library industry has changed in the last 10 years, and how EnvisionWare® has had a hand in all that. Scraping the cobwebs from my brain, I recall that the libraries of 2001 loaned out scrolls rather than books, were populated by bespectacled old ladies in long black dresses, and were powered by complex generators that used a hybrid of steam, coal, and a hamster running around on a treadmill.

…Welllll, not really. But when we contemplate the seismic shifts that have occurred in technology since 2001, my parody really isn’t that far off. Consider that in 2001 the preferred medium for viewing films at home was still videocassette, and that the most common method of accessing the internet (at least for home users) was dial-up. The inevitable introduction of networked computers to the library environment posed many questions for staff: Should anyone visiting the library be able to use a PC and access the internet, or just cardholders? Should there be time limits on usage? And how would these be enforced? What about printing? What if someone printed a 500-page PDF? Would they be required to pay for that print job, even if it was a mistake?

EnvisionWare was already there with the answers. In 2001, our LPT:One™ printing solution had been available for nearly three years, and PC Reservation® was spreading across the land like kudzu. The company rapidly expanded, adding solutions for online fines payment, self-service circulation, copier payment control, and printing via deposit account. Service centers opened around the country. In 2006, EnvisionWare seized the cutting edge and dove headfirst into the RFID/AMH market, bringing the concept of OPEN STANDARD RFID to the United States, and not too long after that, we partnered in the creation of EnvisionWare Pty Ltd in Adelaide, Australia, effectively broadening our global reach. Back at home, we began the deployment of the largest RFID/AMH library project in North America. Those are just a few highlights. Not bad, not bad at all.

What can we expect in the next decade? Well, I’m not going to give away any company secrets, but it seems fitting that we have gone “back to the future”—updating our classic PC Reservation® product to meet the demands of the new era. We also have a new version of EnvisionWare® eCommerce Services™ on deck that conforms to the most current PCI standards and, as RFID continues to sweep the land, we continue to innovate in that field. The key to the company’s success is no secret. As per our website:   

“We make ‘software that works the way you want it to.’ Making incremental decisions and commitments with an eye on the longer term vision, the Company can turn on a dime and adapt to changing market conditions and new requirements from its customers. It is the Customer, not developers, that makes decisions about development.”

Suffice it to say, wherever libraries go, EnvisionWare goes. It’s an exciting ride.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

I, EnvisionWare 3: Return of the Native

I must confess that I’ve never actually read Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native, the classic English novel that describes as “a tale of doomed love, passion, alienation, and melancholy.” However, it sure does make for an awesome movie title, doesn’t it? And since we are now at the third installment of the immensely popular I, EnvisionWare series, I thought, hey, why not? Return of the Native is in the public domain, after all. So what if it has nothing to do with today’s topic of software support? This is what they call a “bait and switch.” If you’ve read this far then it’s done its job.

Let’s close the door on that native now, shall we? We know that he has returned and he’s gotten our attention. If you want to know more about him, his story can be purchased for $8.95 from the Modern Library. Or you can opt for the film version starring Catherine Zeta Jones and Clive Owen.

We are now walking down a long hallway. The next door we pass is for Professional Services. Remember them? Give those good-looking folks a wave, but let’s not let them chat us up right now, okay? We’ve got another appointment.

(Insert sounds of footsteps to signify our long walk - Clop, clop, clop).

Ah, here we are, the EnvisionWare Support Department! Let me tell you, there is no group at the company that I place on a higher pedestal than these folks. In an age when many businesses outsource their support responsibilities to clueless unseen third parties in far-flung locales, EnvisionWare employs an in-house team that is thoroughly trained on its products. There are no scripts. These are real people with real brains, and they will spend as much time assisting you as you need them to.

A typical Support toolkit. (Pink Floyd coffee mug: optional;  Snacks: essential).

Through my own work with Support over the years, I have come to recognize the enormity of the job they do. It takes a special kind of person to be able to dive headfirst into an issue, do the necessary research, troubleshoot it, and emerge with a solution, then turn around and do the whole thing again, and again, and again—keeping up continuous communication with the customer during all stages of the case. Quite frankly, it's a marathon. Imagine Sherlock Holmes completing a difficult investigation, then beginning another one right on its heels. Working in software support, he would not have the opportunity to kick his feet up and play violin for a few hours between cases. And actually, I think the long suffering Dr. Watson would appreciate that.

There are two ways that EnvisionWare support cases can originate. The Customer Center (located in the “Support Tab” at the EnvisionWare website) is a powerful tool that enables customers to create and monitor their own support cases. Via the center, they can also review current and previous case history, and download software installers and documentation. The Customer Center is in many instances the best way to get a support  case started; it enables customers to give a detailed description of the problem in their own words and set the priority. But those customers, if they wish, may also opt to call the Support Department directly. We pride ourselves on the fact that 9 out of 10 calls are answered immediately by a support technician, and all calls receive a reply within 2 hours. (More detailed information on our support services can be found here).

Having worked for EnvisionWare for almost five years, I can say that everyone in our Support Department cares about both the products and, even more importantly, the customers. Because there is no impersonal wall between “us” and “them,” relationships are built and customers who have been with us for a while come to recognize the voices that greet them on the other end of the phone. We are all in this together, and are all working toward the same goal: bringing libraries into the 21st century and offering new, exciting, and empowering self-service options to both patrons and staff.

Friday, October 29, 2010

I, EnvisionWare 2: Escape From Witch Mountain

Okay, that’s not really the topic for this week’s blog, but I figured it would get your attention.

Actually, I’m here to talk about the Professional Services Department, which happens to be the corner of EnvisionWare, Inc. where I hang my hat.

The Professional Services Department essentially constitutes the front line of the company; it’s the Pro Services Implementation Consultants, after all, who work directly with libraries after the software has been purchased, assisting with the customization and implementation of the product. We train the staff in the proper usage of that product. Heck, we wear the purple shirt (or, if we feel like spicing it up, a white long-sleeve with purple embroidery – see attached photo), and therefore set the style and tone for the long-term relationship between the customer and company.

The natty attire of a Professional Services Implementation Consultant

I find my work challenging and immensely rewarding. Some of the installations are conducted on-site and some remotely, but in either case, a rapport is established and relationships are developed over the span of the project. You may recall how I wrote last week of the miraculous transformation a software product undergoes from a “dream” in the heads of the developers to a downloadable installer to a fully functioning system (be it for printing, time management, fines payment, RFID, or any number of other permutations) in a physical library. The Implementation Consultants are the sorcerers (just bear with me here, I tend to think in these terms) weaving spells (customized configurations) to bring the dreams to life. Yet that analogy only goes so far; Merlin never shared his secrets with the knights, but library IT teams and staff become full partners in an implementation, learning how to expand the software ever outward—taking control for themselves of the product which EnvisionWare has worked with them to sculpt.

Getting down to brass tacks: a project typically consists of four phases: planning, installation, training, and post-installation. It’s not my goal here to go into the details of each; the titles are pretty self explanatory. But the length of time spent on each depends on a number of variables including the customer’s general level of technical ability and/or previous experience with the products, customer resources (time, personnel, funding), and the overall size of a project (i.e. how many branches are to be installed, and how many PCs in each branch will carry the software). In short, each project is unique—the shape of which is determined by the needs of the customer.

These projects are like musical compositions: there is structure, a series of pre-determined movements, but also fluidity—what jazz players call “free play.” The free play is the ever evolving dynamic between the library and EnvisionWare, and the ongoing fine-tuning as the “dreams” take on tangible form. And it's this human factor that really keeps me engaged. Isolated lines of code holds little interest for me, but seeing people—library staff and patrons—make use of the software in real libraries (rather than test labs), and watching their eyes light up as they grasp the potential of what we have built together—that is magic.
Dreams made real

Next up: A Day in The Life (of a Support Technician)

Thursday, October 21, 2010

I, EnvisionWare: An Introduction

Reporting to you from the Arizona office. Beautiful sunset not included with software purchase.
"By their fruits shall ye know them." So the saying goes. And EnvisionWare®, of course, is known by its products. It's hard to go into a public library these days without seeing something bearing the EnvisionWare logo--be it our PC management software (PC Reservation®), printing (LPT:One™), RFID solutions, or any number of self-service tools that have revolutionized the library industry. But who are the architects? What unseen hands give corporeal shape to these phantasms?

I recall having a revelation a few years ago at one of the annual EnvisionWare summits. Sitting there with my colleagues, listening to a guest lecturer, it hit me that the tangible assets of EnvisionWare were the brains of the people gathered in that room. Of course, this could be said about virtually any business, but the highly abstract nature of software development sets it apart from, say, an automotive company--which can point to rows and rows of cars coming off the assembly line and say "This is who we are."

At EnvisionWare, as with the automobile company, the product begins as a dream. But unlike the automobile company, our product essentially remains a dream (i.e. a concept rather than something physical) until the first customer loads it onto a computer. This is a generalization, of course. We do sell physical products such as the Coin and Bill Acceptor (CBA™), Case Controller, and gates. But by and large EnvisionWare really is the collective mind of its employees. I'm not able to open my door, point out into the back yard at a fluffy, six legged animal grazing in the garden and say, "Look, it's the fabled LPT:One! Want one of these cuddly little guys for yourself?" No, LPT:One is no bigger than the installer file the customer downloads from the EnvisionWare website. It is to a large extent up to the customer to determine the physical shape EnvisionWare takes in their library.

You could put us on a plane with a couple of laptops and send us to Ohio, and that's where EnvisionWare would be from that moment on. If GM were to move from Detroit to Santa Barbara, I'm guessing it would be a bit more of an undertaking. So--I really am EnvisionWare. We really are EnvisionWare. And the products are our dreams made real.

It is my intention over the next few weeks to highlight different departments at our company, giving you--the reader--a better idea of who we are and what we do. And perhaps I have an ulterior motive: Not too long after I started working for the company, I tried to explain to a friend what it was I did for a living. In the middle of my confused ramble, my buddy interrupted by saying, "Obviously you work for the C.I.A., but they really could've given you a cover story that made more sense!"

Thursday, October 14, 2010

My Home, The Library

Old acquaintances of mine sometimes remark on how odd it is that I followed my Master of Fine Arts degree with a career in the software business. Presumably I should be schlepping away somewhere as an adjunct English professor earning wages that would shame an indentured servant. But it begins to make more sense when I tell them that EnvisionWare, Inc. makes software (and hardware) for libraries.

You see, I grew up in libraries. I spent nearly every free minute in them, and I learned more from the books contained therein than I ever did from my teachers. In fact, I would often go to the library and read books of my choosing in place of the books my teachers had assigned me. I can recite to you a long list of the libraries that I have called home over the course of my life: Washburn Public Library, Hennepin County Library, Kitsap Regional Library, Athens Clarke-County Library, Ogeechee Branch Library (Savannah), Statesboro Regional Library, New Hanover County Public Library, Scottsdale Public Library, Phoenix Public Library, Tempe Public Library, and the respective libraries of the University of Georgia, Armstrong Atlantic University, University of North Carolina-Wilmington, Arizona State University, and Scottsdale Community College. That’s a lot of buildings and a lot of books through the years, and there’s a good chance I can tell you where the fiction, biography, music, and history sections are located in each. They are more familiar in my memory than the apartments and houses in which I’ve lived.

I wish I could convey the palpable thrill I feel walking amongst stacks of books. It’s known as bibliophilia, or “the gentle madness,” and you either have it or you don’t. I’ve sacrificed a big chunk of my social life to the gentle madness but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. When I crack open a volume of Mark Twain, Coleridge, or Philip K. Dick the pages hum with a still-living energy that has been alchemically transmuted from the brain of the writer into words, and then from those words into my brain. The library is the middleman in the delivery of the imagination drug to the dreamers.

EnvisionWare is a direct player in all this. Somewhere in the world right now, the next Stephen King is checking out a stack of books that he could not otherwise afford.  Maybe he’s got some H.P. Lovecraft, Robert Bloch, P.D. James, Daphne De Maurier, and William S. Burroughs tucked under his arm. And you know what? He’s probably scanning them at an EnvisionWare® OneStop™. Then he walks out through EnvisionWare® RFID gates. Four weeks later, ensnared in the clutches of Cthulu and the horrible squid beast, he nevertheless manages to wrest himself free long enough to pay down his fines via the EnvisionWare® eCommerce Services™ Web Module so he can hold on to old Lovecraft just a little while longer.

So no, it’s not odd at all that I work for a software company. I facilitate the delivery of the imagination drug.