Dean Haddock is the Manager of Information Technology for StoryCorps, a nonprofit organization which provides Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of their lives. Dean recently attended the SugarCRM conference and is sharing his experience here as a guest blogger.

SugarCRM LogoNow that we're two years into our SugarCRM implementation I thought it would be good to visit the annual developer conference in San Francisco. Nevermind that this meant visiting one of the most beautiful, friendly, and progressive cities in the country. As anyone who's attended a professional event like this knows, there isn't much time to explore your surroundings. So with a few vacation days tacked on to my itinerary, I set out from New York to the Land of Woz ' and the home of TechSoup ' to learn a little bit more about the world's leading open-source CRM platform and the people who use it.

If you're unfamiliar with the customer relationship management (CRM) buzzwords, then you probably already have a similar system in place and just don't know it, or you are up to your neck in spreadsheets and databases scattered about your network. Take my advice: if you are a small and growing organization, find yourself a CRM that fits your culture and processes, and move away from the spreadsheets. Using a CRM ' and especially a web-based CRM ' will make sharing data and reporting on goals incredibly easy and efficient. The reliability of your data will drastically improve, and the growing pains that every organization experiences from time to time will be much less harsh for your IT team and, more importantly, your users.

SugarCRM is one such CRM option. It has come a long way since its inception in 2003. Last year they changed leadership, and Larry Augustine seems to be steering the company to a slightly brighter future. Their model hasn't changed. They still offer a free, thinned down, Community Edition alongside the fee-based options. But the software is slowly becoming more stable, and there is a new emphasis on the user interface and cloud services.

The genius about SugarCRM though isn't really in the software, or even in the fact that it's open source. What ultimately has the potential to give this software a long life is the market the company has created around its product. Not only are developers making careers out of modifying SugarCRM to solve various data management problems in organizations, but entire companies are being sustained on the increasing demand for implementing and modifying the system and for teaching people how to use it.

In short, SugarCRM, as it stands today, is a shining example of what open-source technology is all about, and this year's conference brought together hundreds of people who want to be a part of it. There were eight tracks from which to choose: CRM Strategy, Open Source and Open Clouds, Business Apps in the Cloud, Extending Sugar, Beyond CRM, Getting Social, Partner Innovation, and SugarU. I spent most of my time in SugarU and whatever talks I could find about implementing SugarCRM's powerful email campaign management tool. In the end, I was somewhat disappointed to find that most of the talks centered on features in their Professional version or in presentations from vendors with add-on products. But I was delighted to put faces to usernames that I've been communicating with for years and to make a few new friends in the SugarCRM development community.

Unlike the hacker conferences I've been to, there wasn't any hands-on development work happening. But I think Sugar would do well to facilitate on-the-spot collaboration for things like module building, feature enhancements, blue-sky thinking, and interface design. You also won't find much hands-on training at a conference like this. If hands-on guidance or solving a particular problem is your interest, then you'll do better to chat with the nice folks at Plus Consulting, Levementum, or any of the other sponsors who can help you with your implementation. The reason you want to attend the SugarCRM annual conference is to get real use case examples of CRM strategies and to collaborate with a community of brilliant technology professionals.

For instance, over lunch a gentleman from ProcessMaker.com sat next to me, and it happened that we work mere blocks from each other in Brooklyn! Then later at the reception, which was a very nice yet modest event, I found myself conversing with one of the presenters from the afternoon, David Kraus of Leading Results. Interestingly enough, he isn't a SugarCRM developer or user at all, but a sales and marketing strategist. His presentation, "Seven Steps to Marketing Success," was extremely informative. After quizzing me on what I had learned from the afternoon, we spent some time brainstorming about my own organization's promotional strategies, and he gave me some very interesting ideas to share with my colleagues on the sales team.

This was great insight into the sales world from an IT perspective, too; it drove home the point that a system like SugarCRM works because it is flexible enough to adapt to almost any sales or marketing strategy. You can tailor it to track and report on just about any organizational data you can think of, from customers and sales to technical support tickets, contracts, documents, and inventory. Sure, it can be a little buggy, and the Community Edition GUI leaves much to be desired aesthetically, but it works very well as a system to track and share all kinds of organizational data in one place. All it takes is a little customization.

Now that I've been back in the office for a couple of weeks, I'm starting to realize that I came back from the SugarCRM conference with a slightly new outlook on IT. The funny thing is that it's been right under my nose all along: Information technology is all about relationships. It may be a misnomer that we emphasize "customer" in CRM because there are infinitely more applications for a CRM beyond customer service and order fulfillment. There is a marketplace of information inside your organization, and if you look carefully you will find bottlenecks and roadblocks to people sharing this valuable data. In economics, these are called transaction costs. (Esoteric spreadsheets and homemade databases are a good place to start your search!) Giving the same attention to these transactions as you would to customer service can unlock your organization's potential, save you money, and ultimately help you to deliver a better product ' whether your product is providing a direct community service, advocacy on an issue, or something else.

Looking back on when I booked my ticket to the conference six months ago, I was unsure exactly what I would get out of this event, but I'm very glad I went. The SugarCRM development community is a big group of bright people who are all eager to talk about the challenges and opportunities in your organization, from the executive level all the way down to the customer. Unlike most developer conferences, however, there is a strong emphasis on business processes, and the participants never lose site of the non-technical forces at play within an organization. My only criticism is that I wanted to hear more people presenting their own experience and best practices. I find that hearing about how others use the same technology as my organization helps me formulate goals, and it's incredibly useful if you want to avoid common pitfalls. With any luck, Sugar will invite me back next year to talk about how their software has helped my organization! Maybe I'll see you there!

Learn more about cloud computing for your nonprofit or library on TechSoup's cloud page.

Becky Wiegand is the Webinar Program Manager at TechSoup.org
@bajeckabean on Twitter