Geographically Dispersed SharePoint and Other Collaboration Tools

For those who may have mised the #CollabTalk TweetJam today, hosted by our good pal Mark McGovern @DocPointMark from MetaLogix and Chistian Buckley @BuckleyPlent, we're posting our Q&A from the event.

From the event description:

Many organizations are looking for ways to reduce costs, and improve performance associated with managing SharePoint between geographically-dispersed teams. While many organizations struggle to make their environments highly-available and performant, the breadth of SharePoint content available does not focus on SharePoint in high-performing, high-availability scenarios – and the purpose of this tweetjam is to share some of the community knowledge and expertise for these environments. We're assembling a great panel for this event including MVPs and other industry leaders.
Mark McGovern and Christian Buckley promise a blog about the event soon, to recap the entire conversation. You can also see the full conversation including responses from other participants at http://twubs.com/CollabTalk The tweetjam was also captured using the #CollabTalk hash tag, so you can use the Twitter platform of your choice. 

Q1. What are the top 3 issues geographically dispersed teams face when trying to collaborate?
A1 #1: Disconnected Teams: Updates in the field don’t make it back to the head office and updates at the home office don’t make it to the field.
A1 #2: Latency: Whether you have a single farm in one location, or separate farms with synchronization, somewhere there will be delays in getting data where it needs to go.
A1 #3: Networks: team members may be working in locations with limited bandwidth or inconsistent/poor connectivity.

Lots of chuckles about the poor quality of conference calls, background noise, heavy breathing, etc.

There was also a bit of back and forth about latency and the fact that people not only do not understand the difference between bandwidth and latency - but also most folks cannot tell whether their performance issue is coming from the network or the browser.

It came in a bit late, but I really liked Michael Herman's garden hose metaphor for latency. No, I don't mean, "it's not how long your hose is; its how you use it." In this case its all about how long the hose is; in other words, latency is the time it takes water (information) to get down the hose (internet) after you turn it on. Bandwidth would be the size of your hose I guess, and I need to stop making these metaphors, because I've got a dirty mind - and.. yeah. Movin' on!

Q2. How have social and mobile impacted your worldwide collaboration?
A2 #1: They’ve allowed us to reach out to the community for collaboration - at least as far as the dev and support side.
A2 #2: We are now able to share information with our client as it happens, ex: Tweeting key points of a SharePoint Saturday presentation in real time.
A2 #3: We see more new customers coming from outside of our core operating area, nationwide and abroad.

Q3. What technologies have you found that can improve geographically dispersed collaboration/communication?
A3 #1: Faster and more reliable cellular connections. This applies to broadband too.
A3 #2: Cloud services have come a long way in making this more manageable, ex: SharePoint and Lync Online.
A3 #3: There are also products/appliances and applications that do well to synchronize SharePoint content between farms.

We talked a bit here about the F-5 BigIP. Some folks on the TweetJam have had good success using this appliance. Liquid Mercury Solutions is an F-5 partner. We can sell, service, and implement F-5 based solutions using the BigIP.

We had a great discussion about security, and maybe we can convince HelloItsLiam to participate in a panel specifically about SharePoint security at some point soon. It suffices to say this is a topic that needs some more attention.

Q4. If your team is geographically dispersed, is your best option to move your data to the cloud? Why/why not?
A4: Sometimes: it depends on the type of data and the location of team members.
A4 Why #1: Having data in the could improves access, assuming the cloud provider has distributed their datacenters across a large geographical area.
A4 Why #2: Greater availability to resources - gets around firewalls, corporate networks / VPN, and political boundaries.
A4 Why Not: Some data is too sensitive to store in the cloud without a plan to protect it. Ex: defense, proprietary secrets, healthcare PII.

The cloud is great from some circumstances and not so much for others. If you are on the borderline between these two scenarios and would like to talk to us about securing your sensitive data in the cloud, we are a CipherPoint partner and can develop you a solution using their on premises or in-the-cloud product offerings. By the way, F-5 BigIP is another solution that can enhance cloud security for SharePoint content.

Q5. How do global collaboration teams deal with poor quality bandwidth/connections?
A5 #1: Use asynchronous communication channels like e-mail, Yammer, and Lync instead of Skype, etc.
A5 #2: SharePoint 2013 can reduce the amount of transfer using MDS feature (Minimal Download Strategy).
A5 #3: Develop low-bandwidth tolerant branding (ex: Metro UI) and apps (server side vs. AJAX). There are optimizers for JavaScript and CSS, as well as ways to do this at the firewall/proxy/load-balancer.

Collaboration tools are an indispensable part of today's business world. How many of us could survive without GotoMeeting (or something like it) for example. What starts as a competitive advantage will eventually become the standard by which all businesses are judged, and tools like SharePoint are no exception to this. Someday, all restaurants will be Taco Bell. :-)

Yammer gets a lot of attention, but people are unhappy with the limited (read: "weak") integration between Yammer and SharePoint. In 2012, when Microsoft purchased Yammer, I shelved plans for a Yammer+SP product release in order to see what they would do. Seeing that they have not decided to eat our lunch, Liquid Mercury Solutions has plans to release a stronger Yammer + SharePoint integration solution in the very near future. The best way you can find out about this tool is the subscribe to our blog or newsletter (It's over there in the upper-right part of the page).

I made an additional comment here about using all the tools in the drawer, no silver bullet.

Q6. What are the best ways to maintain multiple systems/versions of your collaboration platform, such as SharePoint?
A6 #1: A communication plan with stakeholders + predictable schedule for updates / merges is essential to make sure everyone knows what they're seeing and how out of date it may be.
A6 #2: Assigning a "system of record" is extremely important to maintain one version of the truth.
A6 #3: There are tools in SharePoint like content syndication, cross-farm publishing, etc. - as well as a variety of third-party tools that fill this need nicely. Syncing at the SQL level is also an option, but less favored than it used to be.

Somebody said that they had 5 versions of a document to maintain. If this sounds like something you have to deal with on a regular basis, talk to us, because we may have a solution that will work for you.

Q7. What are the leading factors that restrict organizations from maintaining high-availability systems?
A7: Factors that limit orgs use of High availability and DR include cost, bandwidth, product limits, undefined SLA, lack of institutional support, and insufficient technical knowledge and/or best practices.

Money was the big winner on this question. There is always, always, always going to be a relationship between your budget and the capabilities you can obtain. My adivce is to be up front with with your IT professional about your budget, and work with them to understand how to get what you need within your means, and don't set your expectations unneccessarily high.

Q8. How does a geographically dispersed infrastructure impact disaster recovery planning?
A8 #1: If the primary datacenter is impacted by a disaster, then the outlying datacenter will experience higher loads and in some cases becomes the systems of record.
A8 #2: If it not previously planned and drilled, during major disasters (natural or civil), communication to outlying centers re tactics - or even that there's a problem - can be confused or conflicted.
A8 #3: Sometimes switching back to normal after DR can be just as difficult.

Can't say it enough, when it comes to disaster preparedness "Drill, baby, drill!" ;-)

I hope you enjoyed our recap of today's #CollabTalk tweet jam. If you feel like I've left something out, or if you just want to throw your 2 cents in, leave us something in the comments. If you found this information helpful, please give us a 5 Star Rating on PinPoint, so so we can reach more customers.

Why Choose Office 365 Instead of Buying Office 2013?

Back in August, I received a call from a new customer asking for a quote for Office 2013 licenses.

While I was looking for pricing, I came across an interesting article, Microsoft really doesn't want you to buy Office 2013. The gist of this seemed to be that MS has structured things to make buying Office 2013 unattractive.

How outrageous! But can it be true? And if it was ever the case, does this still hold water today?

I was really curious about the ROI of the subscription pricing vs. pricing conventional software. I decided to do a little napkin math. So, let's do some cost comparison and explore the return on investment from renting Office 2013 instead of buying it.

Comparing Traditional Office 2013 with Office 365


Firstly, we need to decide what we're comparing to what.

For my example, I'll stick to pricing for small business. This is where most of the interest in Office 2013 prices seems to come from - at least based on the calls I get here in the office. Microsoft refers to their small business discounted pricing as "MS Open for Small Business".

Also, I am going to stick to MS Office Professional Plus. You could save some money buying MS Office Standard, but there are a lot of components missing from the cheaper package. Since Office 365 is Professional Plus edition, we'll compare similar options here.

Office 2013 Professional Plus comes in two flavors, you can buy it with software assurance or without. If you buy without SA, you're basically saying that you want to pay the full price to go ahead and upgrade to 201x whenever that version comes out. If you buy with SA, then you'll pay about 50% more, and you'll have to renew the SA in 2 years, but your cost for the upgrade is covered by keeping the SA agreement current.

Here are our MS Office Professional Plus prices for MS Open Small Business: 

  • without SA is about $475*
  • with SA is about $740* 
    *Prices are from October 2013; if you need current prices, please contact us using one of the the links below.

Let's use an office of 25 staff as an example. This is pretty typical, although I've certainly worked with customers who have as few as 10 - or even 5 - employees.

If you consider that Office P+ with SA is going to cost about $740 per user, then 25 users is an $18,500 up front investment. That’s not tiny. Assuming a shelf life of 3 years, which is typical for MS software, you’d be looking at a monthly “budget” of $513.89. Say I took that budget and broke it up across the 25 users. Your cost will be about $20.56 per user per month.

Suppose you run the same numbers without software assurance, which is probably the better apples-to-apples comparison - since at the end of the product's useful life you'll be spending the full amount all over again. Your total up-front investment would be $11,875 for the fleet, at a monthly budget of $329.86 or $13.19 per user per month – compared to $12.00 if you subscribe to the license via Office 365.

Can that really be right?

I ran these numbers again at the wholesale prices that my distributor gives us. Even at that slightly discounted rate, I was only able to shave a few cents off the monthly cost compared to Office 365.

And these calculations assume that you can actually pay the monthly cost over time, interest free. If you finance the purchase obviously you'd pay even more.

Different Prices for Different People


One important thing to keep in mind here is that Microsoft will require you to buy a different license - and thus pay different prices - depending on who you are and what kind of organization you work for.

There are also different prices for with and without Software Assurance and different editions of Office such as Standard, Professional, and Ultimate. And then there's OEM pricing, which assumes you're buying a new PC to go with your software. This leads to the most confusing matrices of prices and options humanly possible!

Here's some more example pricing for Office '13 (P+ w/o SA) that I found from CDW and other major chains**:

MS Select Plus Academic $58.99 (CDW)
MS Business Academic $86.99 (CDW)
Product Key Card $379.99 (NewEgg)
Retail Box $399.99 (Office Depot)
MS Select Level D $379.99 (CDW)
MS Select Level A $479.99 (CDW)
MS Open for Small Business $495.99 (CDW)
MS Corporate Business $505.99 (CDW)
**Prices as of 11/11/2013 - YMMV

So, as you can see, the ROI of subscription software is going to be different depending on whether you work for or attend a college, are employed by a gigantic mega-corporation, or are part of the government. Everybody else is paying more. I'm assuming this is usually because smaller groups buy less volume, though the evidence doesn't always bear that out.

So which way should you go? The magic number appears to be $432. Taken over a 3 year lifetime, this translates to $12 a month. So if you have a pile of cash sitting around, and you can get Office for less than this price, you may want to just go ahead and buy it. Everyone else most likely does better paying for it monthly.

Some More Reasons to Choose the Office 365 Subscription Model

Assets, liabilities, and business property taxes


This is the distinction between assets, capital expenses, and operating expenses. Office 365 is considered an expense and will generally treated that way by accountants. I don’t know if you pay business property taxes, but here in Maryland we pay a tax on any software “asset”, whereas with Office 365 we write 100% of it off, no depreciation, and no taxes. Also, there's no need to worry about depreciation with expenses. (Note that some localities will let you depreciate 100% of the cost of software, so it depends on where your business is located).

Up-front Costs, Budget Approvals, and CAPX vs. OPEX
In the above example $18k is a sizable investment. If you have more than 10 workstations to license, your finance people may prefer it if you subscribe rather than buy. Otherwise, it may be a while before you could get the funding approved. It might even be CAPX, and nobody likes that.

Buying it All at Once vs. Pay as You Go
In the above example, if you truly need all 25 copies right now, your cost would average out to $320 or $520 per month over the 3 years you use the software. (There are a lot of reasons that you wouldn't want to keep running back to buy more licenses every few months in this way.) With Office 365, you can start with only 10 or 15 copies and easily add new licenses as you need them. This way, your cost would only be $120 (for 10x) or $180 (for 15x) month to start. On that budget, it's about the same as buying just one “boxed” copy of Office every 3 to 4 months.

Additional Cost to Renew SA
SA (Software Assurance) is a 2 year deal, not three. You’d incur an extra fee to renew the SA agreement at the end of the second year. And - many companies either forget to do it, which means paying full price for Office anyway the next time you upgrade it. Others forgo the SA pricing, and end up buying the software all over again later. Some folks pay for SA and then later decide they can’t afford to renew. These folks then end up using older copies of office for 4 or 5 years which ultimately affects productivity, drives up IT support costs, and that adds up to greater expenses down the road.

Same Price with Added Value
Finally, there are other bundled cloud services that make Office 365 even more worthwhile. MS charges $12 a month for Office Pro 365 which is a pretty advantageous cost, but the whole suite including Exchange Online e-mail and a SharePoint intranet (and public facing web site) is just $20 a month. Just moving e-mail service alone can save many thousands per year in server maintenance and licensing costs.

Where to from Here?


Whether or not you're sure that what I've described here is the right option for your small business, you can reach out to me and I'll help you figure out your individual ROI on Office 365.

When you're ready to go, we can help you choose the right combination of Microsoft Online Services tailored especially for you. I’d also be pleased to set up an appointment to walk you through creating your O365 account and setting it up.

If your needs are straightforward and you already know the number of seats you need, here are some links where you can start a free trial or purchase a subscription. These links include delegated administration from LMS, so we can help you get the most out of your account.

Office 365 ProPlus

30 day trial 25 users

Buy 5 users

Buy 10 users

Buy 25 users

Mid-sized Buisness Plan

30 day trial for 25 users

Buy 5 users

Buy 10 users

Buy 25 users

Enterprise E3 Plan

30 day trial for 25 users

Buy 5 users

Buy 10 users

Buy 25 users


if you're outside the US, want to integrate your Office 365 accounts with your current Active Directory, or have more complex needs that don't quite fit into the table above, please contact me with your specific requirements so we can create a custom solution that's right for your business.

Also, please note that there are significant technical differences between the Mid-size Business and Enterprise plans - and you can't readily migrate from one to the other - so ask us if you have questions about which one is right for you.

Well, that’s about all I have to have about buying Office – rent it; don’t buy it. It’s a no brainer.

How to Smoothly Migrate Files to Office 365 SharePoint Online

Many clients ask me what they can do to make their Office 365 migration into SharePoint Online go as smoothly as possible. Often, they're sincerely looking for a way to reduce the costs for everyone involved.

In part 1 of this series, I'll focus mainly on the technical complexities of moving files from traditional shared folders into SharePoint Online. In future episodes (that's what my shrink calls them) we'll take a look at things from the architectural and strategic perspectives.

First, let me say that Office 365 customers come from all sorts and sizes of business. Some have IT staff supporting hundreds of users. Others are just a handful of folks with one or two office administrators - who often work double-duty as the IT help desk. Whether you're big or small, IT savvy or technophobic, on the bleeding edge or upgrading from Windows 3.1, planning to use commercially available migration tools or making your unpaid intern Carl copy all the files by hand, there's something here for you in the lessons we've learned.

Communication Plans
They say that communication is key. Like any other project, this is absolutely true with a major migration like moving into SharePoint Online. There are lots of things that probably should go into every communication plan. In a future part of this series, we'll tackle the fuzzy stuff. For now, let's focus on some of the hard technical details that many project managers forget to include when they coordinate an Office 365 migration.

Locked Files
It is important for users to understand that files which are open are likely to interfere with the migration procedure. This can even include folks who have a network share open in Windows Explorer on their desktop. While it's possible to work around these issues, during critical times, it might be a good idea to encourage users to close unused folders and documents in Office.

Note this is especially true for files open in MS Office, as it not only locks the file but also creates an auto-recovery file starting with ~$ that can't and shouldn't be migrated into SharePoint Online.

Backup Window
Often users will want access to their documents right up until the last minute. Whether you're using ZIP files, Acronis, or some other strategy to do a last minute backup - really any backup method, it is important to let the users know after what point their files will no longer have a backup.

File Move Timing and Locations
If you're doing everything under cover of darkness, then one day folks will come into the office to find all their files have been moved. If you're migrating during business hours (my personal preference is to not stay away all night babysitting a file move) then some users will still be working up until the last minute. Either way, you need to communicate to the users when the files will move and where they are going. This is especially true if you're doing some reorganization - whether elective or forced by Office 365 limitations.

Remember to Include in Your Communication Plans:
When will the move be taking place, including regular updates
Instructions about closing windows or office apps - or logging out completely
Advice on when files will no longer be backed up
Information about who to reach out to if there seem to be problems after the move


Technical Gotchas

Permissions


File permissions are one of those things that we've found can create a lot of problems when migrating to Office 365. Even though you may be using an administrator account with high level access, there may still be the occasional file buried deep in a folder structure that maybe was copied from a user's desktop and dragged very limited permissions along with it. Or, there may be entire folders that somebody locked down - sometimes with good reasons long forgotten about.

Obviously, you can't do much with these files if you can't get to them. It can be even more frustrating to find this kind of issue late in the game, when they'll blow up a move operation or a ZIP archive that's only halfway done.

Illegal Characters in File Names
One of those things that can be really vexing about moving to Office 365 is the limitations on the characters you can use in file names. The restrictions on Windows file names are not as stringent as they are on the web. So many users will have files with ampersands, hash-signs, and other "illegal" characters. But, I've also seen really exotic characters such as the registered trademark and copyright symbols, long-dash, and other unusual stuff.

Here's something to consider. When you get into Unicode and upper ASCII, the list of invalid characters can be quite long. If you're screening against the list of known illegal characters, you might let one slip through. Consider checking against known legal characters rather than known illegal ones.

Why is it that Office 365 has these restrictions?
Well, a lot of it has to do with the way the web actually works. For example, characters like “#”, “&”, and “?” All have special meanings when they are used in URLs. When you upload a file to SharePoint using the web site, these characters get converted to special codes that are safe in URLs; this process is called URL encoding. However, the encoded filenames look like unreadable gibberish when they're viewed through Explorer View (WebDAV) and other places, so we try to avoid using them at all.

Still other special characters may be using something called Unicode that allows the display of things like Chinese and Japanese characters alongside English. Unfortunately, web addresses use older standards called ANSI and ASCII which only allows English characters (and a few extended characters that are implemented so inconsistently across all the different computer systems that we really can't rely on them anyway).
Oh yeah, and these restrictions count for folders too! And while we're at it, did I also mention that there are certain names you're not allowed to give to a file in SharePoint, and certain words you cannot end the file name with? 

Renaming these files by hand is extremely tedious; it's so tedious that I actually made my son do this as a rite of passage when he first joined us here as an intern at Liquid Mercury Solutions. Needless to say he was very excited to have software that would do this instead.

Fortunately, you can use PowerShell, download a tool, or buy any of several products that will take care of this step for you.  You'll want to have some input into how files ought to be renamed, and the configurability will vary from solution to solution.

If you hire IT folks to do your migration for you, then they should have at least one of these methods.  Here at LMS, we generally use a combination of PowerShell and products from MetaLogix and ShareGate to complete Office 365 migrations. Other good choices come from MetaVis, Dell Software (formerly Quest Software), AvePoint and others.

File Name and Folder Structure
But, file names alone are not the only problem. There are additional limits.

For example, ZIP files have a limit in how long any given file name can be, so good luck backing your files up if you go past this threshold. (Some of this can be avoided by using WinRAR or newer versions of WinZip instead of the built in Windows ZIP file utility.)

Windows also has a slightly longer limit of no more than 248 characters in a file name and no more than 260 characters for the full file path including folders. This can be problematic if the file was copied to a network location using a mapped drive, but you need to access it using the longer UNC file share name.

SharePoint itself has a limit that the URL pointing to a file, including the DNS name of the server and path to the document library, can't be longer than 255 characters. So woe to you with lots and lots of sub-sites - or long domain names like liquidmercurysolutions.com.

Blocked File Types
There are a number of file types that are blocked in SharePoint Online. This is done for security reasons, including DLLs and executable files (EXEs).

It's worth noting that Microsoft has sole discretion on what file types are blocked. I was recently very surprised during a demo I tried to upload an MSI file to show that it would get blocked - and surprisingly it worked! So check to see what the latest list of block files is before you start; this can be done from the Office 365 management portal.

Miscellaneous Poor Fit for SharePoint
In the course of evaluating content, you're likely to encounter files or even whole folders that just aren't a good fit for the cloud. For example, thumbs.db and desktop.ini files are great for making Windows UI more useful, but they serve no real purpose in SharePoint - and they can lock the file system which can complicate moves. Likewise, Office recovery files (those that start with ~$) or their analog in WordPerfect (*.TMP) can be a nuisance since they're marked as hidden and system files.

Large files like AVIs, ISOs, and ZIPs may be a poor fit for SharePoint. While technically you can put up to a 2GB file into SharePoint Online, some folks just don't have the bandwidth to put the files into the cloud and also have them be useful. Even in circumstances where you're just archiving the file, you should consider that you might spend a very long time uploading it only to find that the operation will time out and the effort will be wasted. You best bet is to test your bandwidth, then decide where to draw the line.

A folder full of executable programs - and probably all the non-executable stuff in that folder too - is a poor fit for SharePoint. Use your own judgment, and don't be afraid to exclude certain parts of the folder structure altogether if they seem to support running software.

  • Before You Start: File Structure Check
  • Permissions
    • Take ownership of all the files you need to archive and/or move.
    • Make sure you have permissions to all the files by overwriting the current permissions.
  • Illegal Characters
    • Avoid &, ?, #, and others - get the complete list here
    • What tools are you using to rename files?
    • Check folders as well as files
    • Legal characters or illegal characters
  • File Types / Filename Extensions
    • All files must have an extension
  • Check for blocked file types - get the complete list here
    Length of Individual File Names
    • Beware any single file with a name longer than 60 characters; here there be dragons!
  • Best bet: try to keep them 50 characters or less
    Length of Folder Paths
    • Can your backup solution handle long file paths?
    • Check the windows path of all files to ensure it doesn't go over 248 characters
    • Check the intended destination URL for each file to ensure it isn't longer than 255 characters.
    • Best bet: try to keep them under 200 characters
  • Misc. "poor fit" for SharePoint
    • Delete desktop.ini, and thumbs.db files
    • Move or otherwise deal with any ~$*.* or *.TMP recovery files
    • Test your bandwidth to see if it supports very large files
    • Consider what to do with very large files such as AVI, ISO, ZIP, etc.
  • Optional, if using ZIP with legacy support:
    • Make sure your archives will not exceed the 4GB limit.
    • Make sure your archives will not have more than 65,535 files/folders total.

Office 365 and SharePoint Limitations

As if all this were not enough to consider, you're going to have a number of limits and options on top of this when moving into the SharePoint Online platform.

A lot of these impact choices about site and information architecture, which is where Liquid Mercury Solutions comes in to help our customers. Even if you're using custom tools, it's often best to have a SharePoint specialist who can help you choose the right way to organize your sites and files.

Here are a few of the not-so-fuzzy limitations that we often have to work around.

Begin Your Start: Check for SharePoint Limitations

  • User quotas - if you're not a site collection admin
  • No single file can be > 2 GB
  • No more than 5000 items in a single folder
  • No more than 100GB in a single site collection ("supported limit" is 200GB)
  • No more than 30,000,000 items total in a single document library, including all documents and folders
  • SkyDrive Pro has its own weird limits which are different


Other Best Practices


There are lots of other best practices to take into account when moving to SharePoint Online - so many that we'll have to save them for another episode in this series. So, tune in next time!

Meanwhile, here's some more information for you. We recently saw a very thorough presentation on this topic given to the Baltimore SharePoint User's Group by my friend Mark McGovern from MetaLogix. And, our colleagues over at ShareGate have written a good article that starts to scratch the surface on some of the complexities involved.

If you'd like to purchase tools to help with your Office 365 migration, or if you want a professional consultant's advice please contact us and we'll be happy to help you. If you find these tips helpful, and want to give migrating to SharePoint Online a try on your own, please consider joining our free support network. Whatever path you decide to take, we wish you the best of luck!

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Know Your Meme: SharePoint Staffing Anti-patterns

Over the years, the Microsoft SharePoint ecosystem has given rise to new and wondrous beings. These mythical memes deserve some light shed upon them, lest one find oneself trapped in their terrible clutches or wandering the Development Wastelands, like Sir Percival, in search of an impossible quest.

Join me now as we explore the first of what may become many entires to the compendium of hiring anti-patterns for SharePoint.

The SharePoint Unicorn


The SharePoint Unicorn is someone who can do it all - and perfectly too! She or he is a project manager, consultant, architect, administrator, and developer all rolled into one; a one person wrecking crew; cheap-by-volume, quick, often very hard-working, and has near-perfect delivery; and a multitasking master who is so damned good that instead of costing money, they can recover the cost of the project before it's even finished. In other words, SharePoint Unicorns have so much ROI that their net billable rate is actually negative - no matter what they charge. ;-)

I won't deny they exist, I’m pretty sure my friend, fellow Baltimore SharePoint Users Group commitee member, and founder of SharePoint-Careers.com, Shadeed Eleazer, is one such being; he actually coined the term “SharePoint Unicorn” back in 2011 along with Marie-Michelle Strah and Mack Sigman. People have sometimes accused me of being one, so much so that it’s become sort of a running office joke. There's even a @Shareicorn on Twitter, although I am a bit peeved they haven't posted anything ever. You can go to any SharePoint Saturday and if you swing a broom around too vigorously you’ll probably knock 4 or 5 SP Unicorns over. Seriously, don’t do that; we don’t like getting hit in the head with a stick, no matter what your hiring manager says!

But, people like this are rare - and almost impossible to pin down. Much akin to the equine Unicorn of legend, which can only be approached by virginal maidens, one must be damned sexy to capture the SharePoint Unicorn. Don’t all you LMS clients feel super-special now?

These masters of their craft have worked hard to become so and know their own value. They want to work only on well managed, challenging, and interesting projects. They're typically well into their careers, and many would rather be consulting or going on speaking tours than developing in a cubicle for months on end. Many of them get scooped up by Microsoft or other best of breed SharePoint consulting firms. They're in very high demand, and thus probably not available for your random meetings. They will not be cheap.

A SharePoint Unicorn is not one of your cavalry horses. They will not be your full time employee - unless you're prepared to offer something truly unique. They're best leveraged as a precision instrument to ensure designs are sound, lead technical discussions, overcome specific obstacles, and find creative solutions to truly tough problems.

One last word of warning. If you think you are about to capture such an amazing creature, Ware the SharePoint Rockstar, which may be lurking just beneath a thin façade.

The SharePoint Rockstar


This clever beast is a brilliant mimic of the SharePoint Unicorn, a wolf in sheep’s clothing if you will. The SharePoint Rockstar is a young intelligent individual who has the ability to do every aspect of a SharePoint development project (or at least they think they can and tell you so). But, once they are hired to consult, design, or architect they begin to hoard technical responsibility insist that you only use them for the entire project.

Like the movie Aliens, there may be a voracious Ego that dwells within the architect or developer, incubating until it erupts to insinuate itself into every aspect of development, eventually becoming too expensive to remove. It then transforms into a prima donna and/or drama queen, sowing decent and causing friction within the whole project team. The Rockstar has a lot of talent and appeal, but ultimately they become more trouble than they're worth.

Possible indications that you have encountered such a beast are: 1) you think you hired a SharePoint Unicorn; 2) their Ego arrives at the meeting 15 minutes prior to their person; 3) they're not helpful to and well-liked by the rest of your team; or 4) they tell you not to hire any other developers, they can do it all themselves. A little Ego can be a good thing. The problem is that the Rockstar does not play well with others.

Protect yourself by considering personality as well as a candidates technical skills. Let your technical team interview as a group - and collect candid feedback from them. If you are interviewing the first person on your team, consider a relaxed social setting to see how they behave when their guard is down, and craft interview questions that make them reveal their personality and how they work with others and share responsibility.

Given enough time, a SharePoint Rockstar may mature into a SharePoint Unicorn. Indeed, they can become an invaluable and irreplaceable asset - but at a terrible cost to you. Caveat Emptor.

The SharePoser, aka SharePoint Shyster, or SharePoint Fraud


These vile parasites may be masters of illusion - but they are very real! They are senior-seeming people who don’t know anything about SharePoint at all. They exist only to suck the lifeblood out of a company. As comedy, Jen Barber from the “IT Crowd” is a good example. But seriously, I once met a SharePoint Architect who was actually just a regular building architect and somehow got hired to lead the whole SharePoint development team.

Frighteningly enough, I’ve seen this kind of thing happen at more than one organization. It sounds like something that should be rare, but it is not. Lots of reasons for this, I suppose. Firstly, there's a legitimate shortage of qualified SharePoint talent – though that problem solves itself slowly over time. Secondly, lots of people are attracted to SharePoint because it is such a marketable skill. Many are ethical, hardworking folks - a few are not.

If you’re lucky, you only hire someone at a low level who sneaks through the interview by saying all the right things. It would be bad to hire a Windows Admin who doesn’t know how to add users to Active Directory, a SharePoint Developer who doesn’t know the difference between a Site Column and a List Column, or a SharePoint Architect who has to ask the developers if a Web Part Zone can hold more than one Web Part – but it’s not the end of the universe. Just fire the bum and move on! (By the way, these are all real life examples.)

The damage is really greatest if the SharePoser actually establishes their power base. One needs to be especially careful when qualifying those in leadership positions like project manager, architect, or consultant. The well-spoken Fraud flourishes when there’s no one to vet their technical skills and disqualify them during the hiring process. IMHO these creatures are the gateway to hell; in order to perpetuate the lie and insulate themselves from discovery, they often hire a whole department of equally inexperienced or incompetent people who can do the work - slowly - but are too beholden to them for the job to rat them out. Thus begins the downward spiral to the underworld of underperformance and waste.

Possible indicators of these individuals are: 1) a well-padded resume, 2) unreachable contacts or not-so-professional references, 3) lots of buzzwords during the interview, 4) claiming to have “all the SharePoint certifications”, 5) and/or a secret copy of SharePoint for Dummies in their briefcase. Remember that insecurity is the hallmark (and weakness) of the Shyster, because they live in the constant shadow of being exposied.

Protect your company by vetting hires using real-world work simulations (instead of just interview questions), having a proven expert screen and qualify your team, verifying any Microsoft certifications, and hiring a variety of differently-skilled individuals who complement each other (and can keep the each-other honest).

Tune in next time for The Do’s and Don’ts of hiring a SharePoint Developer.