The Zen of Software Asset Management – A Modern, Practice Twist to Centuries-old Advice

By Bruce P. McDowell

A number of years ago, I was presenting information about a software asset management solution to a division of a Fortune 10 company. I explained that over the years my company had made inventory – the foundation for software asset management – so simple, accurate and easy to implement, that it really only represented about 10-15% of the project. “So what’s the rest of the deal?” she asked. Well, I explained, it’s gathering the purchasing data, understanding the licensing implications, and bringing it all together through a reconciliation process.

At this point, the executive to whom I was presenting paused, slid her notes to one side, placed her forehead on the table and – thump, thump, thump – gently banged her head on the table. Then she sat up, took a deep breath, recomposed her notes and explained that she hadn’t anticipated this would be such a big and stressful project.

Starting a software asset management program can be daunting – it will be a lot of work for nearly any company. But you need not be intimidated if you plan well, take your time, and approach things rationally. Some of the teachings of Zen may be applied to how you approach your task, and perhaps will help smooth your path to enlightenment. Or, at least license compliance.

Zen Rules for Software Asset Management

Much has been written about how to live a better life according to Zen. One blog article – “12 Essential Rules to Live More Like a Zen Monk” by Leo Babauta – highlights a set of process recommendations that I have made for many years. Here are these rules, re-interpreted to help you lead a better life as a software asset manager.

Rule 1: Do one thing at a time

There is a proverb that provides a basic tenant for Zen monks: “When walking, walk. When eating, eat.” In other words, single-task instead of multi-task.

Ask anyone who has managed a software asset management program and they will attest to the large number of moving parts to be handled. To be able to make sure you can do the best job possible, break larger tasks down into smaller components that can be managed with relative ease. Then, focus on the task at hand alone. Speaking from experience, you don’t want to be reformatting purchasing data that needs to import correctly while at the same time researching and understanding a complex licensing model you’ve not worked with in the past.

Rule 2: Do it slowly and deliberately

Rushing your work will lead to mistakes, so take your time and do each task right the first time. There can be a lot on the line – managing software well can save your company a lot of money through reallocating rather than purchasing new licenses, but managing it poorly can result in potentially hefty fines from an audit.

Say you’re building up an entitlement for a version of an application that includes some downgrade rights. That word “some” is important; if you just blindly add all the old versions and editions to the entitlement, assuming that you can roll-up everything, you’ll certainly finish faster. But, will that treatment survive the scrutiny of an auditor, or will you be found out of compliance? Clearly, it’s far better to spend a bit more research time on the exact terms of the downgrade entitlement.

Rule 3: Do it completely

When breaking your projects down into smaller component parts, try to get down to parts small enough to be completed in a finite and reasonable period of time – say half a day or a few hours. However you work, make sure that at the end of the allotted time you’ve finished the sub-project with nothing dangling to pick up the next time. If, at the end of one task, there isn’t enough time to move on to the next, stop and wait for another day. If you must break in the middle of a task, document where you are to make it easier to pick the task up later.

As an example, maybe a Microsoft EA agreement doesn’t have too many components to it and can be managed in an afternoon. But a more complex agreement could easily take much longer, depending on the license terms to be modeled in your tool. In that case, take a little time up front to “decompose” the overall agreement into several more manageable segments and add the individual segments to your task list.

Rule 4: Do less

You can only accomplish so much in a day, so don’t over commit. If there’s too much on your plate, the quality of your work will suffer, and your schedule will break down and spiral out of control.

Leave time for planned tasks to take longer than expected. I worked with a customer recently on a “simple” reconciliation exercise. There were 14 apparently simple purchasing events for a single product. I figured we’d be done in an hour. By the time we evaluated each document, understood whether we were looking at a new purchase, an upgrade, or some other type of entitlement, glued together a timeline manually on the back of a piece of scrap paper, and concluded that we knew what was going on, 3-1/2 hours had passed. So much for simple – and so much for the whole afternoon!

Rule 5: Put space between things

A lot of the work of a software asset manager can be repetitious and – dare I say – boring. If software management is not 100% of your job description, then break up the boring parts with other tasks. If it’s all asset management all the time for you, find the parts you like and scatter them in with the less exciting jobs. Also, when a task runs longer than expected, you’ll have some time to absorb the overrun without crunching into your next task.

You may find that you become more efficient if you spend, say two hours on license reconciliation, then some inventory management (have I mentioned that I love inventory?!), then a little spreadsheet work for purchase data import. That’s a nice day for me.

Rule 6: Develop rituals

I liken this rule to building checklists and procedures. Consistency and reproducibility are essential in our work. As you learn and refine tasks to simplify and “own” them, document everything. The documentation will support your future efforts and make it easier to transition someone new into the work as your company grows – or when you catch the big promotion for saving the company all that money!

Also, over time, you will discover efficiencies that will make your job easier. Watch for them and revise your procedures to take advantage of what you learn. I learn something new from every customer I visit and every class I present.

The auditor for one recent customer understood that there was software that did not need to be actively managed – mainly free software and tools bundled with other applications. All she required to be happy was a report that listed the excluded titles and why they were excluded. To accomplish this, I used a feature of the asset management application to tag each piece of excluded software with a label that could be used in reports; this was not how the designers of the tool expected the feature to be used.

Beyond that, I researched a lot of software titles in that enterprise to determine which ones to exclude. That has grown into a “crowd sourced” project to build a list of titles that can be excluded. This published list (see the “Best Practices” page on has close to 700 titles as of the most recent update.

Rule 7: Designate time for certain things

There are regular tasks in software asset management that must be observed:

  • Inventory must run to refresh data on a regular schedule to know your installations
  • New purchasing data must be updated monthly or quarterly to stay on top of entitlements
  • Existing reconciliations need to be watched to make sure that – when changes to consumption and entitlements are factored in – compliance has been maintained, or action must be taken

These cadences provide the background and the structure against which all other tasks may be scheduled. These items need to be done first to keep everything running smoothly; then you can think about layering new tasks into your schedule.

Rule 8: Devote time to sitting

Sometimes you just have to step back and take a break. You just spent the last two weeks figuring out your Adobe licensing and you’re actually compliant – yay! Now, step away from the inventory and take a break. Do something else for a while and celebrate conquering a beast.

Rule 9: Smile and serve others

This one is really important. If you look at the inter-relationship of all the Key Process Areas defined by IAITAM, you realize that you’re not in this alone – you rely on many other people and groups around you. If you don’t work with them, they won’t work with you and you’ll fail. So, you need to make friends with those who manage the processes that aren’t in your portfolio – acquisition, legal, financial – whatever it takes. Let them know what you plan to do and how their help can make everyone successful. Be prepared for them to ask you to help their efforts – a symbiotic relationship will benefit everyone.

Rule 10: Make cleaning and cooking become meditation

I know what the Zen masters have in mind here and for a while I thought I might skip this rule. After all, what do household chores have to do with software asset management? Then I remembered a “mantra” I suggest to my software asset management class students: always look at the usage. In between the tactical work – entering purchase data, reconciling licenses – always take a moment to look at the application usage statistics to find unused or under-utilized software that can be removed or reallocated.

Put another way –

“Before enlightenment chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.” – Wu Li

In the midst of all other tasks, always come back to the usage.

Rule 11: Think about what is necessary

Scoping your software asset management program is a very important part of getting started – what needs to be done, what needs to be done first, what are all the competing priorities. It’s equally important to manage the scope going forward and pay attention to internal and external factors that may change your priorities. Finally, it’s rarely necessary – or possible – to manage every software title in the enterprise. Triage applications to remove low- or no-risk titles out of the scope, and be sure to document your rationale and decision-making process.

I worked a project for an engineering company with a fairly heavy investment in Autodesk applications. Besides the cost of acquisition and the annual maintenance, this software was mission critical for the company, and accordingly was easily placed into the first tier of software to be managed.

At the same time, I learned that there is a large group of small companies or individuals that create add-ons for Autodesk software. These are relatively inexpensive – $9.95 to $29.95 – and discovery showed 1-5 copies of any given title. Should these titles be licensed properly by the company? Absolutely. Should they be prioritized equally with the $1,000 / year applications that they snap on to? No – it was easy to drop them into our lowest priority group.

Rule 12: Live simply

There are two factors here in regard to software asset management. On the personal side, you need tools to manage the enterprise software. Try to find a tool that does the job and works the way you do. Try not to have multiple overlapping tools that need to be glued together to accomplish your tasks.

From the perspective of the software that you’re managing, look for overlapping tools in your software estate. If you have two tools that perform the same function and you’re paying for upgrades and support for both of them, cutting back to one solution is a great way to save some money.

“Smile, Breathe and Go Slowly”

That quote from well-known Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh simply and eloquently describes the way I approach software asset management:

If you take the time to work with your corporate partners and listen to your internal users, software asset management need not be antagonistic or stressful for anyone.

Don’t let software asset management consume you. Make time for other work – and life.

Remember that software asset management is a process, not a project. Once you get started, it will take on a life of its own. Learn to live with the process and not fight against it.

About the Author

In 1990, Bruce was a founder of Tally Systems, helping to bring the first hardware / software inventory tool to market and later working with the professional services group, managing on-site inventories for Fortune 1000 companies and product implementations. After Novell acquired Tally Systems in 2005, Bruce worked in a number of roles including Product Management for the inventory, recognition and asset management components of ZENworks. Since 2009, Bruce has been an independent consultant working on configuration and asset management projects mainly based around Novell’s ZENworks product line. He has also developed and presents several courses for Novell Training.