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.