Blue Man Regroups on Email

By Ericka Chickowski  |  Posted 2009-06-09

When he took a job at Blue Man Productions a little over two years ago, Antonio Palumbo was faced with a job that felt as daunting as the complex acts performed by his company’s painted stars. Blue Man Productions is the company behind the global troupe of eponymous stage artists, which produces shows in seven cities around the world, as well as frequent tours.

Palumbo needed to move Blue Man's e-mail systems from MDaemon to Microsoft Exchange servers hosted by AppRiver’s Secure Exchange Service. The growing company found MDaemon unwieldy and non-scalable, which posed problems for such a geographically diverse organization.

“We live and die by e-mail,” Palumbo said. “The sheer volume of e-mails that Blue Man was generating, we had to constantly be buying new servers just for data.  If the user servers went down, if the internet went down, we were down. Because it is a global and international company, our sheer volume of support tickets was still heavy.  I would say a 50% to 60% of all IT issues were e-mail related.”

Migration can be a tough nut to crack. IT management must ensure as little downtime as possible, while delivering not just the system users ordered, but the one they thought they ordered, too. 

Since AppRiver was already chosen for him, Palumbo’s task was to handle the migration. He was able to accomplish the task within six months with no major issues and a happy user base at the end of the process by following a set of best practices that had him not only managing his team, but also the end users affected by the migration.
Managing IT

Because the AppRiver service takes care of e-mail management once users are actually migrated to Exchange, Palumbo and his team only needed to worry about getting user accounts onto the system. “It was just gritty IT work,” he said. “The approach we took was to tackle accounts city by city. It sounds very boring, but there wasn’t anything elaborate, we just broke it up and approached it like a guerilla movement. I basically said, ‘Alright, troops, we’ve each got ten users per day, let’s go.”

Before he got to that point, Palumbo laid the groundwork for a smooth transition with thorough system testing to ensure things would work flawlessly once individual user account migrations were underway.  He was concerned because not only was Blue Man geographically diverse, its endpoint platforms were very heterogeneous. As a creative organization, Blue Man caters to a lot of Mac users. And with users in Japan and other far flung locations, Palumbo was also dealing with multiple types of Windows XP versions.

Thorough testing brought to light a DNS issue with web access in Safari on the Mac which he had AppRiver fix within its systems before he started any Mac migrations. And other little issues that cropped up were documented so that his workers could easily implement workarounds once they started migrations in earnest.

“There were a lot of variables, but I feel like we did a great job on the front end to make sure that these issues and their workarounds were well-documented,” Palumbo says.

The real challenge with migrations, however, is less about managing the work involved and more about managing the expectations from end users, Palumbo says. The reason why so many migrations are a headache is because they are instituting a change, and when it comes down to it, most users hate change.

“One of the last things I wanted to deal with, and which I feel all IT departments hate, is backlash,” Palumbo says. “I didn’t want to have one end user who just got migrated going to the user who is scheduled next week to say, ‘Exchange sucks. The new system sucks.’”

In order to nip the negativity in the bud, Palumbo decided that his push also needed to include a healthy dose of internal PR to get users excited about Exchange.

“We did a whole lot of explaining about what was great about Exchange and what was to come in the next few months,” Palumbo said. “We wanted that conversation to be more like, ‘You’re not on Exchange yet? Wait to you get on it. We can share calendars, we can share folders, we can share contacts.’”

Part of the PR effort also entailed selling the seamlessness of the system change. Palumbo reassured users that their e-mail addresses would stay the same, that they’d still have access to their saved e-mail and everything else they needed to get their jobs done.

In addition to pumping users up about the benefits of Exchange, Palumbo also worked to take the covers off the process for users so that they had a high degree of transparency into the who, what, and when of the migration. Users were regularly updated about who was lined up next for migration, what kind of downtime they would experience during the process, and when they could expect full functionality from the system.

Palumbo’s team was also very explicit about hiccups that would occur in new functions during the six-month migration, as certain upgraded offices would still not be able to share information with other offices still working with the old system.

And finally, Palumbo was sure to remember to train the users once migrations were complete. Part of the migration process was taking five to 10 minutes with each user, either in person or using GoToMeeting, to explain the system, show them how to use new features and functions and to answer any questions they had.

“It was these little details that were crucial,” he said. “You want to make sure once the hand-off is complete that they’re comfortable using the system.”

All in all, the extra PR efforts seemed to work. Not only was there minimal backlash to the new system, but Palumbo and his team actually received compliments from the users. More importantly, Blue Man’s IT was running an e-mail service that drastically reduced help desk calls and allowed Palumbo to concentrate on more strategic work.