The Earth Is Shifting Under Our Feet

I have been an independent spreadsheet developer for 25 years and an independent Access developer since 1992.  In that time I saw my rates triple and the billable hours sustained to the point where  I was able to consider myself a “professional” of some kind and where I considered my gig equivalent to a “job” in IT management.  I fear that unless something is done, and fast, by people who have the ability to influence the marketplace (and it isn’t people like me by the way), the jig is up – so to speak.

I am seeing a market where corporations will simply not spend money on Departmental applications as they gather all their IT Dollars (or Euros or Pesos, etc, etc) into a circle behind the Enterprise computing model.  Worse still I see where all IT spend is now controlled by IT themselves therefore the era of “Departmental” applications arranged, planned and paid for by Line of Business managers is over.   IT has taken the levers of all spend on technology – even spending on a small database or a budget spreadsheet application.

This means several things:

1. In the near future corporations will in effect be run by user-developed (mostly bad) spreadsheets as IT fails to deliver the lower-level technology solutions that people like myself have delivered for the past generation.

2. There will be no funds available for anything like a “professional” class of specialists in the area of Spreadsheets and smaller databases (such as Access).

3. It is time for people who are currently employed by or who have a long-term gig with one client doing their internal specialized Excel and/or Access apps to realize that if their gig disappears (which it eventually will – NOTHING last forever – especially in this business climate) they will have to go do something else – or work as a volunteer – and stop kidding yourself.  They must consider their options and soon.

The tragedy of all this besides the obvious personal tragedy for us who ply our trade in this space, is that there will ALWAYS be a need for this kind of work.  Furthermore if there is no way that people (especially younger people) can make a decent professional living supporting this space and see a future for their efforts, there will be no new players and no continuity.

The loss to Companies everywhere (both directly and in lost opportunities to be more productive) will be huge.  The loss to Microsoft will be significant (but they’ll never notice – or at least they’ll never admit it). 

Have a nice day🙂

Dick

About Biggus Dickus

Dick is a consultant in London, ON Canada who specializes in Microsoft Excel and Microsoft Office Development.
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15 Responses to The Earth Is Shifting Under Our Feet

  1. Simon says:

    Yep
    I’m seeing the exact same thing, and it is a real shift.
    I’m expecting a few lean years, hopefully followed by a bonanza when all those hideous spreadsheets fall over or fail to migrate to the next Excel. (I feel tied to Microsofts support lifecycle).

    The bonanza will be shared between less devs than there are now as so many will be forced out by the drought coming up.

    cheers
    Simon

  2. Dick Moffat says:

    Simon:

    You win the prize !!!! You are the first ever post on my blog !!! And I am VERY honoured that it is you, my friend.

    Thank you for your referencing me – things are starting to happen here.

    With regards to the “bonanza” you mention, I hope you are right, but I’m afraid this is a trend that may not be reversible. Because of Corporate reliance on IT for running their businesses, and now that IT has complete control of the levers, I suspect that it is going to be very unlikely that BDMs will ever get back control of the purse for this kind of work.

    There is only one company that could do something about this and I don’t think they will do anything. It is obvious to me that they only care about IT buying EA’s now and really don’t give a damn about End-Users or the Businesses that get value from their software. Of course they will deny it is the case, but it IS the case – sorry😦 ..

    Biggus

  3. Ken Puls says:

    I hear what you’re saying, but I do wonder, to be honest. In the large scale corporate environments, you could be dead on. As the IT Pro/Accountant in my organization, I am building my Budget package in Excel, linked to a database. Fortunately, I don’t have to struggle with the IT guys, only my own worries about succession planning.

    I’m not in a large corporate though. I’m in a “SMB” or small-medium business. And I think that there are a LOT more of them that people think out there. Over the past few years I’ve seen huge hardware vendors start marketing directly into our space with high quality, lower cost hardware, and even some software vendors doing the same. While Microsoft may push towards the centralized IT approach of Sharepoint, the realities are that the SMB’s don’t have the capital or human resources to implement these kind of solutions, let alone maintain them on a daily basis.

    You guys have way more experience in the consulting area than I do, so I’ll defer to your views on the larger corporates, but I’d still have to say I see some opportunities on the smaller client front. Smaller scale jobs, but I would think that the market pool is larger, and probably destined to grow as employees displaced from the larger corporates due to economic pressures begin to found their own smaller businesses.

    Fwiw, I very much agree on the one company not doing anything here. Despite the number of SMB’s, they lack of a cohesive voice. Couple that with the number of desktops that corporate IT can demonstrate that they control, and they’re obviously going to have more pull.

  4. Dick Moffat says:

    Ken – welcome…

    I agree that there will be a “need” in the SMB “space”. I have found over the years though that the SMB market is notoriously cheap🙂 … sorry but it’s true. My goal is to see what we do be considered a “professional” pursuit that justifies adequate compensation. Anyone I know who is supporting the SMB space is not making nearly enough money for the effort they are putting into it.

    IMHO there has to be business for us in Large businesses partly because their cheques tend to bounce less, partly because they are used to being ripped off by the Big consulting firms and also beacsue they don’t get so twitchy about large invoices (in fact they tend to get more uptight about small ones for some reason)…

    Without work in the “Bigs” then our market rate will continue to drop to the point where the only people who will be able to do our work will be unmarried men who live in their parents’ basements (or over their garage depending on their climate)…

    Biggus

  5. Ken Puls says:

    LOL! I take no offense to the cheap side, believe me. The only reason I learned to work with VBA in the first place was because I was too cheap to pay someone else to do it for me. (I didn’t realize I was part of an industry trend!)

  6. Dick Moffat says:

    “The only reason I learned to work with VBA in the first place was because I was too cheap to pay someone else to do it for me. (I didn’t realize I was part of an industry trend!)”

    Funny – but true. In fact isn’t that how we all started? But fortunately there isn’t someone like us working in every company and even if we are, then our bosses have to accept that a large part of our time is spent on VBA and Excel/Access development instead of our “Real” job – and let’s not talk about the “What if you get hit by a truck?” question😉 … It’s even in your company’s interest to have people like us out there (just in case you win the lottery or some such thing).

    Biggus

  7. Omar says:

    Ken articulates my situation quite well. I develop because my boss and I don’t have the right information, or we want to add a simple tool to the sales force. Succession planning (or even allowing me room for promotion!) is often on my mind.

    The reason we don’t buy outside products can probably be summed up in that we don’t actually know what we want or need. It’s easier for me to flesh out a simple idea and gradually add features as we better understand what we want, and as my abilities improve. We’re at a point where we might sometimes be willing to pay for outside developers, if only we knew what we wanted.

    I just hope I’ve left enough clues for an experience Excel person to take what I’ve done and make something from it.

  8. Dick Moffat says:

    That’s just great that you have the skills and the interest and the boss to allow you to do that – it’s a perfect situation and you and your company are lucky.

    I have enjoyed that scenario as in effect a “temp” employee with several companies over the years. It isn’t necessary that I work for the company fulltime. Frankly the perfect scenario is where I have several on-going clients that call on me irregularly and pay me a premium for having me available as needed. It’s just that, as my post mentioned, that relationship is pretty much banned in most large Corps now. The only way you can do that is if you get brought in by IT, but I can guarantee that will simply not last – until the first IT management change :-)…

    Biggus

  9. Marcus from London says:

    Hi Biggus,

    There certainty is a trend. I have just joined where, for the first time I have ever seen, MS Access is missing from the corporate environment – completely. Oh, I’ve worked in IB’s where Access was forbidden but still ubiquitous. Here it’s not even part of the SOE. You can’t even request it.

    I’m still dealing with business people who want solutions which ‘don’t involve the IT department’, but they’re losing control of the reigns (and purse strings) in this area.

    The trend is also reflected in this IB by a mass migration of most of their spreadsheet models to a ‘strategic’ platform. Excel will eventually be relegated to nothing more than a GUI, which obviously devalues all of its other benefits.

    Cheers – Marcus

  10. Dick Moffat says:

    Yep Marcus … this IS happening !!

    Going to centralized managed spreadsheets is not normal – YET – but is definitely a risk. I think though that spreadsheets will be left on the desktop because otherwise users will go NUTS !!

    So, as Simon alluded to, eventually the pendulum has to swing back. Remember that while IT is locking things down they are also cutting IT staff and off-shoring like crazy. It will not be long before there is a collision between the needs of the business and this IT power-grab/budget cutting.

    It’s almost as if businesses can’t stand the fact that IT is a cost, a service, even though they need IT more and more to run their business. And what money they ARE spending is millions on SAP and Oracle software while they’re cutting headcount like crazy to cut costs. It’s very short-sighted for a bunch that talks so much about “Strategic” issues (??). Aren’t people Strategic assets too?

    Of course there will be degrees of all this and some corporations will swing back sooner than others. If we want to stay in this business we will have to somehow search out those companies – that’ll be the tough part.

    Future posts will discuss what I think has to be done to turn back this Sunami.

    Biggus

  11. Harlan Grove says:

    Cynical me: one thing going on here is asymmetric information. IT/IS is more aware of outside departments’ software screw-ups than outside departments are of IT/IS screw-ups. One reason for this is that outside departments seldom have more than one Excel or Access expert, so when the resident expert leaves, anything they developed becomes IT/IS’s responsibility. This never goes the other way.

    That’s NOT going to change. Senior management will still receive the message that outside departments make all these errors or waste so much company resources by doing things inefficiently while IT/IS assesses its own job performance.

    There’s also offshoring. An individual department or two isn’t going to waste time or resources checking out developers in south Asia, but a big company’s IT/IS department could and likely would. When IT/IS shows the cost numbers to senior management, which way do you believe senior management will go?

    Recentralization may prove to be penny wise, pound foolish, but reversing the trend will involve a lot of senior people admitting they’re wrong. I think that may take a while.

  12. Hi Dick, First time here…

    Interesting post and discussion, thanks!

    I’m not sure I agree though. Although the trend is definitely there, I can’t help thinking it is a temporary one. Many, many businesses have cost-cuts to do and hence out-of-pocket projects are the first to be rationalised (which means your project gets zapped :-)).
    I expect that as soon as the economy revives, we’ll see companies catching up with their backlog of postponed IT investments.

    Maybe the corp IT departments do to move towards making life harder for the in-house “guru’s”. I think that is an opportunity.

    Office developers create professional solutions which are (generally) easy to implement in any corporate environment. Having an Office developer create a reporting system in Excel using databases generally is much faster (and cheaper) than having a truckload of SAP consultants come in and update the corporate BI system. Often such solutions are used as a prototype for the next update of the BI system.

    We’ll see what the future brings.

  13. Dick Moffat says:

    Hey Jan Karl …. welcome aboard.

    “Office developers create professional solutions which are (generally) easy to implement in any corporate environment. Having an Office developer create a reporting system in Excel using databases generally is much faster (and cheaper) than having a truckload of SAP consultants come in and update the corporate BI system. Often such solutions are used as a prototype for the next update of the BI system.”

    You are right about the technology of course, and I hope you’re right about the swing back from Rec/Depr-ession but I think it’s not going to be as easy as it has in past economic downturns (and believe me I’ve seen a few – I’m immortal you know – or at least it feels like it :-))…

    The problem this time is that, as I said before, IT has taken control of all the levers and all the budget (thanx also in part to Mr Sarbaines and Mr. Oxley and the folks in Basel). Today’s scene reminds of a ratchet where there are now structures in place to prevent things from going back once they’ve moved toward centralization.

    As I’ve said before, the only company that can do something about encouraging things to ease up and allow things to swing back this is “you-know-who” and they have shown me zero interest in doing so. In fact the opposite seems to be the case.

    Biggus

  14. Marcus from London says:

    interesting discussion…

    This phenomenon has historically been fairly cyclical. IT (fed up with poorly implemented office solutions) tries to centralise development. Eventually, a business unit becomes fed up with IT’s inability to keep pace with the business (IT has always been reactive) and hires resources to perform some ‘under the radar development’.

    So I believe senior people have been able to admit they’re wrong. Alternatively new management blood comes in and feels the need to leave their mark and so they change how things are done.

    However, I don’t believe that it’s the same this time as it has been historically (at least not in the IB sector in which I work). As Biggus mentioned, SoX and Basel have played a part. When a project is regulator inspired (enforced) as my current one is; it suggests ‘trend’ not (management) ‘fad’.

    Another ingredient in the mix is the decline in MSO developers. Strong MSO development skills are organically grown in the business; they are not cultivated (let alone encouraged) in academia or IT depts.

    While the jury is still out as to whether this shift is for better or worse, I don’t believe the pendulum will swing back to the way things were.

    cheers – Marcus

  15. Dick Moffat says:

    “IT (fed up with poorly implemented office solutions) tries to centralise development.”

    Too true. But I find two things about this:

    1. Their opinion is only an “opinion” most of the time and is not based on any real analysis and is almost always more reflective of their bias than any truth.

    2. I find that when Excel and/or Access solutions are failures or inadequately “fitted and polished” most of the time it is because there isn’t enough money, time or discipline allowed by the business (and most often IT) to do it right. It’s almost always a “quick and dirty” and the old “You get what you pays for” rule kicks in. It’s a self-fulfilling failure🙂.

    This is one thing that we as a “Community” can influence or at least speak up about.

    Biggus

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