Don’t Fear The Technology

Use a read-fire-aim approach to technology.

By Erik J. Heels

First published 1/2/2007; Law Practice magazine, “nothing.but.net” column; publisher: American Bar Association.

My friend Paul and I were recently discussing the security and privacy risks associated with using web services such as social networking and web-based email. I commented that I was shocked at how willing some people are – including lawyers – to trust these service providers with their data. Paul answered that most people use these services oblivious to the risks and are quite happy with the results. He said that my problem is that I am too close the technology and, as a result, am unable to see the forest of advantages for the trees of disadvantages. Just like how an experienced automobile mechanic would think twice about purchasing a stick shift from Oldsmobile.

When faced with a legal problem, lawyers analyze the facts, apply the law to the facts, and recommend to their clients how to proceed. Lawyers are generally risk-averse. When I was working at Verio, many business initiatives died an unceremonious death after the legal department concluded that the risks of proceeding were too great.

Similarly, when faced with the need to make a technology decision, technologists analyze the requirements and recommend a course of action that they believe is best for the company.

When a business needs to make a decision, however, it should consider all of the factors – legal, technology, marketing, human resources, etc. – that impact the decision. No one factor should hold a trump card. A company that lets the legal department have veto power over business decisions will find itself taking a conservative path that may look good in the long term but might doom the company in the short term. A company that lets the technology department kill projects because the technology isn’t ideal might never get new projects off the ground.

The excellent books “Selling the Invisible: A Field Guide to Modern Marketing” by Harry Beckwith and “Rules For Revolutionaries: The Capitalist Manifesto for Creating and Marketing New Products and Services” by Guy Kawasaki and Michele Moreno make the point that a good solution today is better than a perfect solution tomorrow. A ready-fire-aim approach (implement first, then iterate to fix mistakes) is generally better than a ready-aim-fire approach (wait for the perfect solution, then implement). You’ve still got to aim. You’ve still got to fire. But you may need to reconsider the order.

“Selling the Invisible: A Field Guide to Modern Marketing” by Harry Beckwith.

So if you’re starting a new law firm, starting a new business, or starting a new project within a business, don’t be afraid to take risks. Consider the following issues as you chose software, hardware, and services for you new venture.

Choosing The Right OS: Windows, Macintosh, or Linux?

I use all three of Windows, Macintosh, and Linux and have described myself a “operating system agnostic.” I have criticized Microsoft for its monopolistic business practices, buggy software that puts my privacy and security at risk, and lack of innovation. Macintosh systems are certainly better, faster, and stronger than Windows in all aspects, but they are also more expensive. Linux allows you to embrace “freedom” in your operating system environment, but you pay the price with your time trying to get Linux to work.

As much as I hate to admit it, Windows is the best operating system for a new law firm (or company). You can buy computer hardware with the Windows operating system pre-installed from many vendors (in fact it difficult to buy PC hardware without Windows – there are those monopolistic business practices again), there is more commercial software, shareware, and freeware for Windows than for any other operating system.

The Macintosh is great and remains the best choice for multimedia, but the fact that you can only buy Apple hardware means there is no price competition. There is plenty of software available for the Macintosh that makes is possible to run a law firm, but certain applications are available only on Windows, and that’s not going to change any time soon.

Linux is cool, but idealistic notions of “freedom” are overrated. Just because a company decides to make its source code available for free doesn’t make that company morally superior to a software company with proprietary source code. Sun decided to make Java an open source project not because it was altruistic but because it has a business model that doesn’t relay on software sales alone. Many of my firm’s patent and trademark clients are small software companies whose businesses would cease to exist if they abandoned their software patents in favor of an open source model. Don’t get me wrong, I love open source software and use as much of it as possible on all three operating systems, but certain key applications (e.g. FileMaker for databases and QuickBooks for billing) are not available on Linux. And probably never will be.

Choosing The Right Applications

The right application for a particular job is the one that will do the job at a price you’re willing to pay. I prefer applications that are available on all three operating systems over ones that are not, those that are free over those that cost, which makes it easy to choose OpenOffice for my office suite and Firefox for my browser. But you’ll need more than word processing and web browsing to run your business, so when choosing other software applications, you should consider not only their capabilities and price but also how easy it is to switch to something else later. Take billing for example. If you choose QuickBooks today but want to eventually switch to Peachtree, make sure that the new program be able to import the data from the old program.

Choosing The Right Services

There are risks associated with using all technology service providers, but there are also rewards. Put another way, there are risks for not using certain technology services. One service that I cannot live without is off-site backup and restore services from Connected.com (now part of Iron Mountain). About once per quarter, I need to restore a file that was accidentally deleted or modified, and Connected.com provides this service seamlessly and reliably.

Service that I have previously avoided, such as business-oriented social networking sites like LinkedIn, I am now reconsidering. I admit to focusing too much on the risks of such services (including privacy and spam concerns) without fully considering the potential rewards. Anyone with similar concerns can and should learn to temper them – or at least put them in their proper context. For example, rather than inviting people that I know to join my LinkedIn network from within LinkedIn, I can call or email them separately first, outside of the LinkedIn system. This way, I can’t be accused of giving LinkedIn information that my contacts might not want shared.

Vroom Vroom!

Implementing new technology can make your business more efficient. Implementing the wrong technology can have unintended consequences, but if you’ve done your homework and aren’t afraid of making mistakes, you can undo a bad technology decision and move on. Often this is the better approach than not having acted in the first place. Just like there are advantages and disadvantages to every make and model of car, there are advantages and disadvantages to choosing computer hardware, software, and services. But in most places in this country, you need a car to get around. And you need technology to do your job. Fear not the risks, focus on the potential rewards. Get going – vroom vroom!

2 Replies to “Don’t Fear The Technology”

  1. Great article! I think it’s especially important to pay huge attention to the title. Don’t fear trying out new technology. Linux seems scary, OpenOffice.org seems like it would be too much of a pain to learn, but if you just install them and take a look, they’re surprisingly similar, easy, or both, to what you’re used to.

    A lot of my students get a look at OpenOffice.org for the first time when they come to class, and their apprehension just melts away when they see that they can barely tell the difference between the main OOo Writer toolbar and the main Word toolbar.

  2. We’ve been 100% OpenOffice since January 2003 at our office. I do not miss MS Office. So OpenOffice is one of those programs that plays nicely on the three major desktop operating systems.

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