Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Hacker In The Mirror

For me, the word "hacker" conjures up visions of pimple-faced kids in a cold state somewhere - toiling away with "cool hacks" in their parent's basement - or nefarious underworld thugs in 3rd world countries trying to spam, steal and worm their way into stealing people's identities.

Take a look at what "hacker" actually means (from the American Heritage Dictionary):
  1. One who is proficient at using or programming a computer; a computer buff.
  2. One who uses programming skills to gain illegal access to a computer network or file.
  3. One who enthusiastically pursues a game or sport: a weekend tennis hacker.
  4. [Perhaps from hacker, amateurish or inept golfer or tennis player (possibly from hack), or perhaps from hack, practical joke, clever scheme (from dialectal hack, to embarrass, confuse, play a trick on).]
Although these are good - I have one of my own: A person who enjoys exploring the details of something and knows how (or learns how) to tweak and stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users, who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary.

If you look at it from that point of view - I'm definitely a hacker - and you probably are too.

I just happen to be in the software business - but anyone can hack anything. You can hack the freeway system by taking side streets, hack the boarding line by faking an injury, hack the check-in luggage cluster by shipping your bags overnight, etc.

Most of us use a computer most of every working day (some crazy people like me also use it in their off time as well!). Most of us use software - some good and some bad - most of every working day.

Because software was created by man, it is inherently flawed. There is no "perfect" software package. Either it does 80% of what we need 90% of the time, or it just plain "sucks" but we're forced to use it for reasons outside of our control.

I was talking to a customer that had the same problem. They were using Microsoft Dynamics - which they have used for years and years before Microsoft bought it. The accounting people were happy. The salespeople would rather poke their eyes out than try to price out custom configurations of their products (which is about 90% of their business).

The problem was that in Dynamics, they had room for the specs and a price to charge the customer, but they had all these business rules and pricing and costs that needed to be taken into consideration.

So they did what any other hacker would do - they had created souped up Excel files, flat file databases, and all kinds of other tools that would help them get the configuration - and thus the cost and price correct. But it's not really hacking the system, because this data wasn't shared and everyone had their own way of doing it (very successfully, btw).

Then, the true hacker showed up. This person suggested that they write their complicated business logic and configuration rules in some software that everyone could share, then link that to the Dynamics system and read/write the data they needed there - rather than having to hand-code everything. Oh yeah, and each Dynamics seat was $5,000 - so they did "rounds" of data entry to share a named user.

Answer: Servoy. They got hooked up with a consulting group they had a relationship with - and proceeded to write a completely customer configuration editor that would give costs in realtime, and then when the client said "yes" - they literally pushed a button and the invoice came out of Dynamics. They were also able to steer the customer during the configuration and view realtime inventory (coming from Dynamics) and make substitutions or tell the customer what the status of an order was, or get a firm delivery date based on when the materials were coming in.

They learned that the answer isn't necessarily to throw out what isn't working - but rather - hack the system to meet the disparate needs of everyone in the organization.

So let your inner-hacker, fire up a copy of Servoy and see what you can hack today...

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