Even with an improving economy, there’s still a lot of developers out there who are looking for work. And though it may make seasoned Open Source hackers cringe at the thought, one quick way to find employment may be to go over to “the Other Side” and become a Microsoft SharePoint developer. I recently attended the SPTechCon conference, and talked to Gary Blatt, founder and current board member of the Washington D.C. Sharepoint Users Group, about the overwhelming demand for SharePoint-savvy developers, especially in the federal government. We also discussed Vivek Kundra, the new Federal CIO, and the things that Gary likes and dislikes most about SharePoint.
James Turner: For those people who might not be familiar with it, why don’t you start by describing exactly what SharePoint is.
Gary Blatt: Sure. At the highest level, Microsoft’s vision for SharePoint is as a collaborative tool. That word ‘collaboration’ means a lot of things to a lot of different people, but at a certain level, it means teams of people, groups of people, more than one, working together, whether they be on office documents or other types of material in a collaborative fashion. SharePoint is also seen as a portal-type application that allows you to bring disparate systems together into a one-stop shop type of environment.
James Turner: Now in D.C., obviously, your biggest customer there is going to be the federal government.
Gary Blatt: Absolutely.
James Turner: I heard you say yesterday that 100 percent of the federal government has SharePoint licenses. Is that through some GSA deal or is it individual purchases?
Gary Blatt: I’m not familiar with the exact details of the sales, but I know that in August of 2007, the figure that was released was 92 percent. And, obviously, it’s been almost a couple years since then, so I don’t think it was one fell swoop that they did it, all under one GSA contract. But Microsoft sales people, obviously, were pretty proficient in pushing the product out into the federal government space.
James Turner: I also heard you say, though, that only about 30 percent of the agencies are using it. Why do you think that there is a lag in adoption there?
Gary Blatt: A good percentage of that lag in adoption is not for want of wanting to do it. The buzz, quite frankly, is tremendous. I interact with a lot of agencies in addition to the one I might be currently contracting with. And the buzz is, “When can we do SharePoint?” I go to my user group meetings and you meet people from many different federal agencies that are like, “Well, we have the license for SharePoint, but we don’t have anybody to execute it for us or help us with it.” And that is the prime motivating factor, that there’s this huge demand for SharePoint resources and a total lack of supply.
James Turner: We have a new CTO for the federal government that President Obama has appointed. He’s known to have somewhat of a penchant for open source, but also he’s known as a take-charge guy. He was the CTO for the District of Columbia before he went on board.
Gary Blatt: Correct.
James Turner: Have you heard anything about what he was like as the D.C. CTO?
Gary Blatt: Of course, there’s lots of new stories coming out now about previous perceptions. But the perception is that he was a very informed person in his previous role, and that he was also very effective in explaining to the non-technical high-level people that he was interacting with the salient points that mattered, not getting too technically detailed because that’s not the correct audience. So the hope — when it was announced that there was going to be a national position for this, before he was even selected — the hope among the community, the general buzz was that, “Wow, now we have a champion. We have somebody. But they’ve got to pick the right person. If they pick the wrong person who’s going to get in there and try to be a geek and get down to these low level of details about what’s going on with technology in the field, then they’re going to lose the audience just like we do when we deal with clients and we get too technical.” So when it was announced that he was the appointee, there was a great general hoorah, if you will, in that he’s definitely seen as a very efficient advocate for technology in the federal government, being able to communicate at the proper levels the important information.
James Turner: Getting back to SharePoint a little bit, I’ve also heard you talk a lot over the last couple of days about the huge pent up demand there is for SharePoint developers and I guess it’s not only in D.C. but just in general.
Gary Blatt: Basically across the country. I’ve had the opportunity to get exposed to some of that marketplace. I keep my resumes active. I’m a contractor, so I’m always looking for the next gig. Other industries that are jumping on it, other than the federal government, is the legal profession — K Street, down in the D.C. area, of course — as well as all over the country. Larger industries like the healthcare industry, the pharmaceutical industry, again, around the country, and in some cases around the globe, are adopting it because they see the value that it provides in the environment.
James Turner: There’s obviously still a lot of developers out there who are looking for something to do. And certainly there’s a lot of them that don’t have a Microsoft skill set right now. They’re coming out of open source, Java, or some other community. If somebody wanted to try to take advantage of that, first of all, what’s the learning curve and learning path for that? And, second of all, how long would you say it would take for say a 15-year developer to become proficient enough in those technologies to be hirable?
Gary Blatt: Since I’ve had direct experience with that, I can give you an exact anecdote. I worked with a gentleman who had about 12 years of experience in non-Microsoft technologies recently in the Java space. He was exposed to object-oriented in the Java space, but realized when he and I spent a little bit of time chatting, that object-oriented programming in .NET, which is what SharePoint is based on, is very different. So as a trainer myself, the approach that I take or I recommend even if I’m not doing the actual training is don’t spend weeks or months getting all wrapped up in the full details, but spend a little bit of time before you even take a look at SharePoint in refamiliarizing yourself with OO as it relates to the .NET environment. Orient yourself with basic .NET OO policies and procedures. Go out, there’s plenty of resources out on the internet now, .NET’s been out for almost nine years, that can be Googled and looked for to assist you as somebody that’s looking for that. From my perspective, I do not recommend running out and signing up for a SharePoint developer course. You’ll be lost, number one. Number two, you need to have at least some base to take as a starting point. That’s why I say when I start with a one-on-one student, for instance, that has a similar background, this gentleman had 12 years of previous experience, we focused strictly on what are OO principles in the .NET environment. And I gave him some web-based ASPX applications to build as homework. To get his fingers wet, so to speak, in the .NET environment. No, let’s not go through a three-month heavy detailed thing, and then let’s focus on what is a SharePoint developer? That’s another major issue that we have in the environment, is that everybody knows what a .NET developer is or a JAVA developer. You spend the majority of your time writing code. You might get involved in other parts of the SLDC in design and requirements, but you write code. And you produce these pieces of functionality. In SharePoint, because of some of the grey areas involved between development and configuration, it’s not always as clear.
James Turner: Right. I’ve seen a lot of people — just in the examples over the last couple of days — seem to be doing as much point-and-click, drag-and-drop as they were typing.
Gary Blatt: And where the debate comes in on that is how much of that point-and-click, drag-and-drop you want to push down to the end-user level, the power user level, the admin level and so forth. Where a lot of companies and organizations, including some of the government, make a mistake is they see the same type of thing that you got exposed to and they go, “Well, we don’t need the developer. We don’t need any design. I don’t need any governance. I can just get my admins to install this product and I’ll point-and-click my way through it. And I’ll figure it out later.” So it’s flexibility is both a blessing and a curse. It fools people into thinking that you don’t have to do a lot of advanced planning. But as somebody that gets called in to clean up those messes frequently, I can tell you that lack of planning is definitely a major issue. And the companies that say, “Well, I want a standup SharePoint,” or government agencies say, “Okay. Well, go get me SharePoint developers.” They don’t even know what to ask for. In a lot of cases, they’ll take a web developer job req, scratch out web, change it to SharePoint and say, “Here, that’s what I want.” And that’s not accurate.
James Turner: About how long would you say it would take somebody to get to that —
Gary Blatt: Somebody with a solid programming experience, I could care less what that language is, even if they’ve never seen any OO in general — I mean although it helps — even if they’ve never seen any of that. And let’s just take a scenario where they’re working fulltime. They can’t just walk away from their existing revenue stream. So we’re talking basically evenings and weekends. This person that had that 12 years of programming experience took about two-and-a-half months. And he wasn’t 100 percent dedicated. It wasn’t every night; it wasn’t every weekend. But he was a pretty motivated person, quite frankly. And he got a lot of assistance from me. I did a little bit of one-on-one training. I pointed him at the right resources.
James Turner: So you’ve dealt with a lot of SharePoint installations at this point. My experience in a few of the places I’ve worked is it’s essentially plopped down by ITs. Somebody does a quick little hierarchy or a taxonomy and then they hand it off to the users or there’ll be like one guy in every group who becomes the SharePoint guy. And you end up with this amorphous blob. Nobody has the right permissions to do anything.
Gary Blatt: It is endemic to the platform. Remember, now, SharePoint was first released in 2000, as STS, SharePoint Team Services. So it’s been around nine years. In our industry, that’s a tremendous amount of time. But yet, the level of education is pretty low. No matter how intelligent the people are, it’s not really based on that. It’s based on what they’re exposed to. SharePoint is a very different platform. It’s not your father’s web, so to speak. And I am exposed to what you just described more often than I’d like to be because there is no planning. People, either because of budgets or lack of understanding or lack of education or just sheer stupidity, to a degree, I hate to say it that crass, but the bottom line is that they say, “Well, my admin installed it.” Because all you’ve got to do to a default install is “next, next, next.” You could install SharePoint, you know?
James Turner: Right.
Gary Blatt: It’s right after the install that you have to do like 10 to 20 administration steps to get it ready to run. And nobody does those. They just ignore that. As a quick example, I’ll leave the name out. But a large, large organization, a 22,000 user deployment, never looked at the search configuration and left it in the out-of-the-box mode. Therefore, they went live into production with it set up to reindex their content on an incremental basis every ten minutes. But because of the size of their thing, it took more than ten minutes for that to happen. So every ten minutes it would interrupt the existing process to reindex. And their indexes never got updated.
James Turner: Sounds like a deadly embrace.
Gary Blatt: Exactly. And they had no clue. They did a lot of other things right, you know? But search was not part of their governance. And they did a lot of things right. There’s companies that don’t even know what the word governance means in a context of this. And people love to pick on Microsoft and make fun of them and all of that. But you know what? In some regards, they have made huge efforts with SharePoint because they recognize some of these problems. When you go out to the Microsoft sites that are available, both technical and non-technical, there is planning worksheets. There are documents, how to plan for your deployment, SharePoint governance checklists.
They’ve done a much better job than in the earlier days of making it easier if you A) know to look for it and B) take the time to look for it and do the planning. But in a lot of cases, especially in a government space, the government as a client says, “You have three weeks to get this up and running.” Well, it takes three weeks for the scope of what they’re talking about to just do the governance. “Well, sorry. No time for governance. Just get it up and running. We’ll worry about it later.” And that’s why there are some people in the technical community that get exposed to that and go, “I want nothing to do with SharePoint.” That’s ridiculous, you know? “I’m a developer. I write code.” Or, “I’m an administrator. I do all this important stuff.” And when they see what’s happened in other environments, they don’t get what its potential is.
James Turner: So if you had to pick one favorite and one least favorite thing about SharePoint, what would it be?
Gary Blatt: I’d say that my favorite part of it is the concept that when done correctly, you can empower lesser employees, whether it’s on a pay scale or a title or whatever you want to say to do anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of what you’re paying higher level people to do. Some people see that as a negative because they think it’s going to put people out of work, but it’s just the opposite. It allows those higher level people to do the more important things and give less support issues to the higher level people. Plus, the lower level people can now do a lot more work. On the down side, it is almost the same thing. It’s that level of flexibility.
As a quick example, in the latest version, 2007 that came out in late 2006, Microsoft added item level security. That means that an individual who either added a piece of data or uploaded a document has the rights to change the security so that only select people can see that. They’re the owner of that. On one hand, that’s very empowering. On the other hand, you get 300 support calls sometimes because Bob and Sally can’t see the document and Sue down the hall can, so why can’t I see it? And there aren’t a lot of great administrative tools yet to handle that type of thing. So its great power is also sometimes a great liability.
James Turner: If I had to vote, it would be the wiki.
Gary Blatt: Yeah. But let’s face facts, in my personal opinion, the blog and the wiki were thrown in, of course this was in 2006 while they were still working on it, in the ’07 version because social computing was just coming up. Just like when Mr. Gates woke up in 1995 and went, “Oh, what’s this internet thing?” You know? They realized they were missing the boat on social computing. And blogs and wikis were the two hottest thing in ’05-’06 timeframe. So without a thought to true functionality and implementation, they threw them in there and said, “See, we’re doing that. We’ve got that covered.” They’re making promises that 2010 will change that. They’ve had time to think about it and so forth. But you’re right, it’s frustrating because end-users see that and they know what blogs and wikis do outside of SharePoint and think, “Oh, I can have that in my SharePoint environment? That’s pretty cool.” Then they go to create one and they realize it’s not even close to cool.
James Turner: Why don’t you end by talking a little bit about your user’s group and how people can get involved with it?
Gary Blatt: Sure. The user’s group was founded almost four years ago. I was living and working in the D.C. area so that was the geographical focus. Although as my jobs and my living arrangements changed, we chose to move the meeting groups out into the Reston area, which is a suburb of D.C.. The meetings are the second Thursday of every month. Typically, we might have a holiday skip, but in general, we meet all 12 months of the year. The main website where you can get information about our meetings is SUGDC.org (SUGDC for SharePoint Users Group of D.C. .org). And not only can you get information about the meetings, but we also have a link where you can request access to our SharePoint site which is obviously running on SharePoint and has all of the resources, the documents and the tips from users and all of this other valuable information that we provide as a local resource.
You do not have to live in D.C. or attend our meetings to request access to our site. You are more than welcome to request that access. And, of course, on the main public site, we also have information about our upcoming conference. In this case, it’s June 26th and 27th. But we pretty much stick with that date every year. So if you’re hearing this after June 26th, feel free to come by next year.
James Turner: All right. Well, Gary Blatt, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us.
Gary Blatt: Thank you, James.