Hey you, get off of my cloud!

There’s a war raging right now amongst accounting software providers. The spoils are potentially massive, and as in any war, the propaganda campaign is almost as important as the actual fighting.

Hopefully it’s pretty clear by now that we think the future of the accounting practice lies in collaboration – between accountant and client – using a single file for data entry and report preparation. So we’ve put our future in the hands of Xero.

But this isn’t an exclusive relationship. We’re free to see other people. We believe in many cases Xero is the perfect accounting solution for businesses in Australia. But we don’t want to force a square peg into a round hole. There may be any number of reasons why a client may not want or need Xero. Perhaps they already have a solution they are comfortable with, or maybe there are some features that they must have that are not yet readily available in Xero. Whatever the reason, it’s not our intention to compel our clients to use Xero where they don’t want it or it won’t suit.

To that end, we had the opportunity to trial an alternative ‘cloud’ solution a couple of weeks ago. This product is touted as being ‘2nd generation cloud’. In this ‘2nd generation’ world, Xero and others are supposedly ‘1st generation cloud’, requiring a constant internet connection and possibly a stripped down feature-set to make the experience browser friendly. ‘2nd generation cloud’ installs fully functional desktop software locally and syncs data files to a central online repository when it can. The benefit lies in the fact that a user can continue to work offline, when internet access isn’t available, using a suite of software that is far more feature rich.

A few more happy workers on their way to the cloud.

Or so says the propaganda. There’s a difference though between the official account of proceedings and the reality of the frontline. What follows is a real-life story of one recent battle we had with ‘2nd generation cloud’.

Let’s set aside for now the general experience of many that syncing type solutions traditionally cause problems. If you’ve ever sync’d anything, be it your contacts or Evernote data or whatever, you know that it’s often a recipe for losing information. Let’s even allow for the fact that this was a trial and so perhaps there were still some bugs to be ironed out. We still ended up with a pretty clear picture of where the future of the cloud lies.

In short, our morning went something like this (and make no mistake – it did take an entire morning to sort this out):

  1. Received an email inviting us to be added to our client’s company file.
  2. Clicked a link to download the latest software to be installed.
  3. Downloaded and installed the software, but there was no way to access the client file online.
  4. Called the client, then downloaded and installed a different version.
  5. Could now see how to access online data generally, but still could not see our client’s file.
  6. Called support and it turned out that we still did not have the right version – we had 2012.0 and we needed 2012.7. The correct version was not actually available for public download, so we had to download and install yet another version from an email link provided exclusively to us.
  7. Over two hours and a GB of data later, we were able to access the file and start working.

2nd generation offices now have two phones. Go crazy!

Versions? Installation? Really? One of the things we’re desperate to free ourselves from is the constant productivity drain of wrestling with different versions. The software provided by the two biggest players in the Australian market are updated frequently, and each update requires a new installation to be able to access your client’s data. There are even times where you seem to have the same version as your client and still can’t open their data file. Each mid-year release or service pack requires an updated data file that will not work in any other version. I’m not sure we’ve ever totally understood why the versioning in SME accounting products has to be so specific. It’s like getting a Word document that has been created in Office 2003 and not being able to open it in any other version and even worse, not even being able to open it in Word 2003 if the creator has installed a minor service pack and you haven’t! This endless versioning cycle and the restrictions that come with it is something that costs accountants money in lost time. The cloud promises to put an end to this by having everyone on the latest version, all the time. Or it should.

And what happens if I’ve borrowed a computer or I’m working from a tablet? This isn’t how it’s meant to be! We’re no experts, but this doesn’t seem like cloud to us.

Calling this ‘2nd generation cloud’ is like calling regular postage ‘2nd generation e-mail’. Sure, today’s mail systems are far more ‘electronic’ and take advantage of the internet and other connectivity advances to improve processes and add services. But e-mail it ain’t!

And neither is this ‘cloud’. Call it 2nd generation desktop if you like, but not cloud. It uses online storage. It allows a degree of collaboration. But this is not what the cloud is meant to be – at least as far as we’re concerned.

Another ‘world’s first’…

If you’ve ever been to Adelaide, you may know that we have this crazy one-way freeway that changes direction half way through the day. It allows traffic to come into the city in the morning, then funnels it out in the afternoon, but it only ever goes one way at a time. It’s an infuriating construction, mainly because it always seems to be going in the wrong direction whenever you want to use it. The truth of the matter is most likely that the funds were not available at the time to do the job properly, and so we ended up with half a freeway. In typical government spin though, it was hailed as the ‘world’s first reversible freeway’ – or superlatives to that effect. Perhaps there was a reason why nobody else in the world had done it? Marketing hype can’t mask reality once you start using a product.

Spin it however you like, but as far as we’re concerned, there are no ‘generations’ when it comes to the cloud. There’s cloud, and then there’s everything else.

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All a-twitter about Twitter

One common concern with the cloud is the ‘what-if’ factor. What if there is a security breach? What if the cloud provider winds up or goes into liquidation? And what if the service is offline? Last Thursday, WorkflowMax went offline – and it really wasn’t that bad.

This is not really a story about the perils of being offline. The bottom line is that with any server based application, be it online or local, you have glitches from time to time. So far there’s been nothing with Xero or WFM to cause us any great concern.

No, this time I’m talking social networking, and Twitter in particular.

On Thursday last week we came into the office to find a variety of issues affecting WorkflowMax. For some it was excruciatingly slow. Others couldn’t get to a log in prompt at all – it would just time out. There didn’t seem to be anything wrong with the rest of our internet service, so we figured it had to be a problem with WorkflowMax. I took to Twitter to find out.

It’s a pretty big deal for Twitter to be my first thought. Six months ago, as a firm we had no social networking presence whatsoever – and a year or so ago neither did I. In the space of a few months it’s become instinctive to turn to Twitter when I need up-to-the-minute information.

But there’s another reason I turned to Twitter. Fresh in my mind was a story I’d read just a couple of weeks prior. When Xero experienced problems with one its providers, CEO Rod Drury took to Twitter and publicly admonished them for not keeping their customers abreast of the current state of play. One of his tweets lamented ”why would a cloud data centre not have a Twitter account?” He clarified this later by saying ”One of my suggestions to them was it would have been great to have a Twitter account so all our staff around the world would have known exactly what was going on. What [Xero] has learned in the few times we have had outages is it is important to communicate.”

Being relatively new to the cloud space and all that, this really resonated with me. So when WorkflowMax, now a subsidiary of Xero, was experiencing some problems, I took to Twitter for all the same reasons.

The WorkflowMax social media department in action.

What I found was silence. In fact, the WFM team hadn’t tweeted anything for close to three weeks! Yet Xero CEO Rod Drury had only recently declared how essential was the use Twitter account during times of outage.

A number of users had taken to Twitter to ask the same question – is there a problem with WorkflowMax at the moment? – and were getting the same response, or lack thereof.

This in itself, however, is a great example of the value of Twitter. Although there was no response at all from the WorkflowMax team at this point, at least I knew that others were having the same problems as us.

Still, this lack of interaction from the WorkflowMax team was enough to break the naively over-enthusiastic heart of a new recruit like myself. Maybe this whole thing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be?

But this is where the story takes a turn for the better, because believe it or not, this tale isn’t about calling out WorkflowMax for their lack of Twitter engagement. Rather it’s about what a difference this new way of operating actually makes.

I wasn’t about to let my fervour for the new paradigm be crushed by this radio silence! So I tweeted:

This was my attempt at igniting some action! For the uninitiated (and I say that with no condescension at all, given my background) the @names in the tweet are ‘mentions’. They are the Twitter handles of other users, and in this example their identities should be obvious. By using them in a tweet like this, it specifically alerts the people concerned about this message. So this was an explicit shout out to Xero, WorkflowMax and Rod Drury himself. Why not shoot for the top? He set the goal posts after all!

I soon received a response from our partners at FGS. Then not long after that, a reply from WorkflowMax themselves!

By this stage, things had pretty much righted themselves, so I let them know it was all good again. And the Twitter updates kept flowing from WorkflowMax. I couldn’t be sure, but was it anything to do with my tweets? I may never know. But to be sure I got my message across, I thought a follow up was required:

The short link was to the Rod Drury article. I was pretty high on my own success by this time so perhaps I was being a little cheeky. But they might as well know why I thought it mattered.

Then a couple of hours later, it happened. A tweet from the CEO himself!

In the space of only a few hours, my query had made it all the way to the top. I like to think that it it also resulted in some action behind the scenes, but perhaps I’m getting a little too full of myself.

Getting support for our old system could often take a while.

This is the point – has there ever been a time when it’s been this easy to interact with your software vendor and get action? We had a problem and were able to find out almost immediately that others were experiencing the same thing. And we did it without having to sit on hold for 20 minutes. Sure, in this story, the WorkflowMax team weren’t as proactive as they could have been. But all we had to do was agitate a little – a few characters in a tweet – and they were spurred into action.

And has there ever been a time when a CEO can be this accessible to the unwashed masses – if he or she chooses? This was, in truth, a relatively minor issue. I was having a little fun, and there was no need really for a personal response. It was only three words from Rod Drury – but it meant the world! A small gesture that probably took a few seconds, results in an immensely more satisfied customer. It’s win-win. This is what it’s all about – customer and vendor working together in collaboration.

Twitter isn’t simply an optional luxury in a cloud based strategy. It’s becoming an indispensable business tool – for any business, regardless of their systems. And I say this not as some gen-y attention junkie who tweets as instinctively as breathing, but rather as a forty-something manager of an accounting practice who had never used any form of social networking 12 months ago. If I can get this, anyone can. And of course I haven’t discussed here at all the fact that we can use Twitter in the same way as Xero – conversation with our clients – to build and enhance our own brand. Chalk this one up as another lesson learned.

Thanks to the WorkflowMax team, and thanks to Rod Drury.