Monthly Archives: December 2008

Greening Your Gadgets

This was originally published on the Earthjustice Blog in December of 2008.

It’s a conundrum: how can you reduce your carbon footprint without giving up all of your nifty electronic gadgets?  And, if this isn’t your conundrum, it’s surely your spouse’s, or your kid’s or your cousin’s, right? Cell phones, iPods,  PCs, laptops, TVs, DVDs, VCRs, DVRs, GPSs, radios, stereos, and home entertainment systems are just a fraction of the energy leaking devices we all have a mix of these days.  While selling them all on Ebay is an option, it might not be the preferred solution.  So here are some tips on how to reduce the energy output of those gadgets.

Shop Smart.  Look for energy-saving features supported by the product, some of which will be listed as such, some not.

1.    Energy Star compliance.  Dell and HP sell lots of systems, and some are designed to operate more efficiently.  The Energy Star program sets environmental standards for technology and certifies them for compliance.  You can browse Energy-Star compliant products at their web site.

2.    EPEAT. The Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool is a website that, like Energy Star, rates products according to environmental standards.  Focused on computers, laptops and monitors, this is another great resource for identifying green products.

Use Only What you Have To.  Most electronics continue to draw power after you turn them off.  This “feature” is designed to allow them to boot up faster and be more responsive, but it’s been widely deployed with no sensitivity to environmental or even budgetary concerns about idle power use.

1.    Truly turn off devices. Newer electronics, such as DVD Players and stereos, offer options to truly turn off when the power isn’t on, with an accompanying warning that the product might take longer to start up.  It’s worth the wait.

2.    Convenient, green charging. Of course, when you charge your phone or iPod, you don’t leave the charger plugged in when you’re done. But this makes it dangerously easy to plug a cord into your phone without remembering to plug in the other end.  Look for devices that can charge via the USB ports on your computer, instead of a wall charger, not because that takes less energy to charge them, but because it eliminates the need to plug and unplug the wall charger.

Be Virtual.  If there’s a way to do what you want to do without buying another electrical device, go for it!

1.    Backup online. Instead of buying a backup machine or drive for your computer, use an online backup service like Mozy or Carbonite (There are many more online backup options, as well – these are two popular ones).

2.    Squeeze multiple computers into one.  Sound like magic?  It’s not.  If you use a Mac and a PC (say, because you love the Mac but need a Windows machine for work compatibility), pick up Parallels or VMWare Fusion, programs that allow you to run multiple computer operating systems on one computer, and retire the second machine.

Go Solar. Costco, Target and other retailers are starting to carry affordable solar chargers, $30 to $50 devices that can replace your wall sockets as the power sources to charge your phones and iPods.

Be Vigilant.  Turn things off when they’re not in use, aggressively tweak the power settings on your systems, and make green computing a habit, not a special project.

Take it from a techie like me: we don’t want to abandon the 21st century in order to insure that there’s a 22nd.  But we do want to curtail our energy use as much as possible.  These are relatively easy first steps in our personal efforts to stop global warming.

Uncommunicative

I’ve taken down my contact page for a while. If you need to reach me, leave a comment – I have a good spam filter on those that should lock out the pest who has been sending upwards of 50 messages a day through my contact form containing links that, from the descriptions, I would never click on, even if I was foolish enough to click on a link in a message that I had no context for in the first place, which I’m not. I’m on vacation; when I return I’ll use some of the methods I’ve used on other web sites to discourage this type of creep.

Keys to the Kingdom

This post was originally posted on the Idealware Blog in December of 2008.

Being a career nonprofit IT type, I’ve repeatedly had the unpleasant experience of walking into a new job, only to find that critical information, such as software licenses and server passwords, are nowhere to be found. So before I can start to manage a new network, I have to hack it. This sort of thing happens in other industries as well, but it strikes me as something that plagues nonprofits. On one extreme, we might have staff who become bitter and malicious as they depart, destroying records and withholding passwords. But even if the situation isn’t that dramatic, keeping track of sensitive, critical data is a bit tedious, and concerns about security and confidentiality make it additionally complex. Protecting and keeping this information available to the staff that need it can save a lot of time, money and frustration. Here are some suggestions:

Follow procedures: in tight budget and staffing conditions, the approach to IT management is often reactive and chaotic. Many key NPO IT Managers came into the role as “accidental techies”, which implies that many nonprofits only support technology by accident. In an environment where the Office Manager, Donations Clerk or a volunteer ends up deploying the servers and installing applications, it’s a safe assumption that there aren’t well-crafted IT policies in place. In this environment, losing critical passwords — or even failing to ever write them down — can be a regular occurrence.

Involve all stakeholders:Don’t assume that your It staff – who are already struggling to juggle the big projects with user support — are keeping good records. Audit them, assist them and back them up. Finance can take a role in tracking license keys along with purchase records. And far too many nonprofit executives don’t even ask for the system passwords. There is no good reason – no matter how many a tech might come up with – why the CEO or head of security shouldn’t keep an updated, sealed envelope with key passwords in the safe in case of sudden turnover or emergency. I’ve worked with a lot of techies who would scream about this. “The CEO can’t have the password! They’ll delete files! They’ll mess it all up!” Well, the CEO shouldn’t use the password. But they should definitely have it.

Foster a culture that allows technology staff to succeed: in two of my personal cases, the staff before me had left en masse and bitterly. They took the main network password with them and wiped out a lot of the IT records. Clearly, this is immature and unprofessional behavior. I wouldn’t think to defend it. But the circumstances that lead some immature techs to be resentful and abusive can be fostered by certain work conditions. If you are a nonprofit executive, there are some things that you can do to create an environment that is less conducive to bitterness and abuse.

  • Have realistic expectations for IT. If you don’t know how easy or hard it is to, say, upgrade a server or roll out a CRM system, don’t make assumptions. Hire a consultant, get a sense of what’s required, and adjust your expectations accordingly.
  • Participate. Have all staff participate in technology planning and adoption. There are people who install systems and there are people who use them. The installation has to be a joint process. Techs can not be held accountable for determining user’s needs, and users can not be solely responsible for evaluating technology. Whenever IT buys the system without user input, or users pick a system without technical oversight, the relationship between IT and staff becomes strained. Joint responsibility and accountability for system choices is required for a healthy environment.
  • Be appreciative. Tech support can be a very thankless job, and the smaller the staff and budget, the less rewarding. When your computer stalls or malfunctions, it can be frustrating. Even if you, personally, don’t take that frustration out on the tech who comes to fix it, are the rest of your co-workers that patient?
  • Don’t hire extremes. When hiring technical staff, assess their people skills. Make sure that their focus is on how technology supports the org, not strictly on the technology. At the same time, assess the non-IT staff for their technical skills, and hire people who are competent and appreciative of technology. We are long, long past the day when all computer support and expertise could be delegated to the IT Department.

It boils down to organizational culture and priorities. The hectic, resource-strained environments that many of us work in aren’t conducive to good record-keeping habits. This problem is bolstered by the general case where upper management is, for various reasons, ranging from misplaced faith to technophobia, not thinking of IT as a keeper of critical organizational records. But the truth is that a failure to keep it all written down is inevitably going to cost you, in dollars and productivity. The best solutions are holistic – create a culture where accountability for organizational assets is clear to all and shared by all, and, in particular, understand enough about the technical demands put on your IT staff – accidental and otherwise – to allow them to prioritize the small stuff along with all of the big projects and constant fires they put out.

Why We Tweet

This post was originally published on the Idealware Blog in December of 2008

Skeptics take note – I agree with you that Twitter, the “microblogging” service that your friends are pressuring you to join, appears to be the ultimate synthesis of vanity and wasted time. All of that potential is there, and, worse, the service seems to advertise those traits as its raison d’etre. But I’m going to ask you to bear with me as I offer some arguments for the service.

Twitter is, at its core, a messaging service that is more immediate and casual than email, but less immediate and intimate than IM (Instant Messaging). Just as email bridged the gap between the letter and the phone call, Twitter bridges these digital extremes. But, unlike email – and more like, say, Delicious or Flickr, web sites that take what were traditionally private things – bookmarks and photo albums – and make them social, Twitter makes this messaging social. You can protect your tweets so that they can only be seen by people that you approve, but the majority of tweeters don’t do that.

I came to Twitter via NTEN. In 2007, as we were revving up for the annual conference in DC, a bunch of us signed up for Twitter accounts and used them — to mixed success — for casual announcements, off-agenda organizing and “Hey, what session are you in?” friend pinging. By the 2008 NTEN shindig in New Orleans, Twitter was an incredible asset. Even before the conference I was alerted to nationwide problems with flights, as I followed my friend @kariapeterson (and others) stories about being trapped in airports hours after their flights were due to leave.

Joining Twitter with a good chunk of my social/professional community was definitely a boon. If you sign up without a group of friends established, it can be a fair amount of work to identify and connect with people that share enough of your interests and motives for using Twitter. Because using Twitter involves more than just finding interesting people. It’s also about finding people who will interact with you on Twitter in ways that fit your needs and goals.

Margaret Mason’s wonderful blog entry on Twitter tips breaks down Twitter users into two camps:

“With the usual exceptions, people on Twitter tend to fall into two main camps. There are responders, who use Twitter as a channel to interact heavily with other users, and broadcasters, who use it primarily as a micro-blogging platform.”

The nptech crowd that I hang out with is squarely in the Responder’s camp. This is a social tool for us, not additional brochureware, and we use it to engage each other. For me, this has primarily meant that I have a casual channel to share and query my professional community on. I ask and answer a lot of questions. I engage in casual conversation. It’s allowed me to learn more about people who I share my nonprofit and technical interests with, broadening into family, film and music conversations, but in a way that is far more natural, friendly and interactive than poring over their Facebook profiles.

But the real power comes from the crowd. For example, @johnmerritt, who works as IT Director for a SoCal YMCA, did a Twitter survey about email server message limits. He requested that survey response tweets include the tag “#inboxlimit”, and then he set up a web page subscribing to an RSS feed for that tag, so that we could share a growing list of responses. This survey helped me provide context to my staff about our email policies.

On Monday, @webb, co-Exec at an awesome San Francisco nonprofit, asked us all what non-financial giving we have planned for the coming months, with the request that we tag our answers with “#givelist”. If you want to be inspired, and learn a lot of ways that you can be philanthropically productive without increasing your budget for donations, then the responses are a worthwhile read. You can learn even more at this website.

The typical assumption about any social networking site is that it will allow you to market your mission and, possibly, increase donations. Twitter, of course, can do those things, as Facebook or MySpace can, under the right conditions. But it’s a far more natural tool for generating ideas and camaraderie than cash. If you’re writing it off as just another place to promote yourself or your cause, I’d say that it deserves a deeper look.

Managing by Maxim

This post was originally published on the Idealware Blog in December of 2008.

I’m a big fan of maxims, adages, anything that sums up an important, and possibly complex point in a sentence that can convey, if not the whole point, at least a conversation starter. The main challenge for a technology manager is communication, particularly with those who are uninterested and/or threatened by technological terms. I live and breathe this stuff, but I understand that I’m in the ten percent, the ten percent of people who like and are completely comfortable with technology. The rest of the world ranges from averse to highly competent, but not gaga over it all, like I am. Remembering that, and approaching each project and decision with that in mind, has helped me accomplish significant things for people who aren’t necessarily bought in to all of my ideas on first listen.

My current favorite maxim is Users own functionality, techies own platforms. This encompasses a couple of key concepts. First, technology isn’t owned by IT or the people they serve; it’s owned by both those who install it and those who use it. Therefore, technology can’t be evaluated and planned for solely by one group or another. But I’ve seen lots of cases of both – IT rolling out a fundraising database or point of sale system with no input from the people who will base their revenue goals on the systems’ capabilities; and staff rolling out equally complex systems with little or no IT guidance. Both situations are likely to be a big waste of funds and effort. Second, the breakdown is clear – IT might be wowed by the cool, Ajaxy interface on that web app, but if it doesn’t have the reporting capabilities that the users need, they might be better served by something less flashy. That’s for the users to decide. But IT will have a better read on how sound a database structure is for querying and reporting, or what will integrate successfully with other key systems. So IT should have sway over the technologies used, to a large extent.

If you build it, they won’t come is another favorite. Unlike some cinematic baseball greats, techies can’t build huge systems in anticipation of user’s needs and expect them to be adopted, no matter how great the systems are. Clearly identified needs and ample amounts of input and involvement are required for home-grown system development. At my job, I am pushing agile development, which includes user testing and input from early on in development. This means that I’m teaching my staff how to let go a bit, and be more open to feedback, as I’m teaching the non-techie staff how to evaluate functionality in unfinished, and possibly somewhat ugly systems. It’s not as much training as it is imploring all parties to have some faith in each other.

In business communications, you haven’t said anything until you’ve said it three times in three different mediums. This one was taught to me by one of my greatest mentors, an ED at a commercial law firm that I worked at in the 90’s. It boils down to the terser rule of thumb: Assume that they haven’t read your email. The biggest mistake that we all make is thinking that we’ve made our intentions and priorities clear by sending a memo or an all staff email. The truly important initiatives that you’re pushing through should be reiterated and the message diversified, to reach people who may not respond to your favorite medium. And, as Paul has well-pointed out, at least one of those mediums should be verbal, and hopefully in the same room.

What are the maxims that you manage and survive by? Leave your best ones in the comments.

The Lean, Green, Virtualized Machine

This post was originally published on the Idealware Blog in November of 2008.
I normally try to avoid being preachy, but this is too good a bandwagon to stay off of. If you make decisions about technology, at your organization, as a board member, or in your home, then you should decide to green your IT. This is socially beneficial action that you can take with all sorts of side benefits, such as cost savings and further efficiencies. And it’s not so much of a new project to take on as it is a set of guidelines and practices to apply to your current plan. Even if my day job wasn’t at an organization dedicated to defending our planet, I’d still be writing this post, I’m certain.I’ve heard a few reports that server rooms can output 50% or more of a company’s entire energy; PC Magazine puts them at 30-40% on average. If you work for an organization of 50 people or more, then you should look at this metric: how many servers did you have in 2000; how many do you have now? If the volume hasn’t doubled, at least, then you’re the exception to a very bloated rule. We used to pile multiple applications and services onto each server, but the model for the last decade or so has been one server per database, application, or function. This has resulted in a boom of power usage and inefficiency. Another metric that’s been quoted to me by IDC, the IT research group, is that, on average, we use 10% of any given server’s processing power. So the server sits there humming 24/7, outputting carbons and ticking up our power bills.

So what is Green IT? A bunch of things, some very geeky, some common sense. As you plan for your technology upgrades, here are some things that you can consider:

1. Energy-Saving Systems. Dell, HP and the major vendors all sell systems with energy-saving architecture. Sometimes they cost a little more, but that cost should be offset by savings on the power bills. Look for free software and other programs that will help users manage and automate the power output of their stations.

2. Hosted Applications. When it makes sense, let someone else host your software. The scale of their operation will insure that the resources supporting your application are far more refined than a dedicated server in your building.

3. Green Hosting. Don’t settle for any host – if you have a hosting service for your web site, ask them if they employ solar power or other alternative technologies to keep their servers powered. Check out some of the green hosting services referenced here at Idealware.

4. Server Virtualization. And if, like me, you have a room packed with servers, virtualize. Virtualization is a geeky concept, but it’s one that you should understand. Computer operating system software, such as Windows and Linux, is designed to speak to a computer’s hardware and translate the high-level activities we perform to machine code that the computer’s processor can understand. When you install Windows or Linux, the installation process identifies the particular hardware on your system–the type of processor, brand of graphics card, number of USB ports–and configures the operating system to work with your particular devices.

Virtualization is technology that sits in the middle, providing a generic hardware interface for the operating system to speak with. Why? Because, once the operating system is speaking to something generic, it no longer cares what hardware it’s actually installed on. So you can install your Windows 2003 server on one system. Then, if a component fails, you can copy that server to another system, even if it’s radically different – say, a Mac – and it will still boot up and run. More to the point, you can boot up multiple virtual servers on one actual computer (assuming it has sufficient RAM and processing power).

A virtual server is, basically, a file. Pure and simple: one large file that the computer opens up and runs. While running, you can install programs, create documents, change your wallpaper and tweak your settings. When you shut down the server, it will retain all of your changes in the file. You can back that file up. You can copy it to another server and run it while you upgrade components on it’s home server, so that your users don’t lose access during the upgrade. And you can perform the upgrade at 1:00 in the afternoon, instead of 1:00 in the morning.

So, this isn’t just cool. This is revolutionary. Need a new server to test an application? Well, don’t buy a new machine. Throw a virtualized server on an existing machine.

Don’t want to mess with installing Windows server again? Keep a virtualized, bare bones server file (VM) around and use it as a template.

Don’t want to install it in the first place? Google “Windows Server VM”. There are pre-configured virtual machines for every operating system made available for download.

Want to dramatically reduce the number of computers in your server room, thereby maximizing the power usage of the remaining systems? Develop a virtualization strategy as part of our technology plan.

This is just the surface of the benefits of virtualization. There are some concerns and gotchas, too, that need to be considered, and I’ll be blogging more about it.

But the short story is that we have great tools and opportunities to make our systems more supportive of our environment, curbing the global warming crisis one server room at a time. Unlike a lot of these propositions, this one comes with cost reductions and efficiencies built-in. It’s an opportunity to, once in place, lighten your workload, strengthen your backup strategy, reduce your expenses on hardware and energy, and, well — save the world.

Stylin’

Those of you who read the blog at the site, as opposed to via feed, might have noticed a dramatic update in the blog’s appearance. To keep a dull story short, I haven’t been happy with my website at Techcafeteria for a while, so I rebuilt it last month, using a foundation called Frog CMS. Now I’m really happy with the site, simple though it be, and I wanted my blog to share the design. After a couple of days of serious CSS hacking, I dare you to tell me where I haven’t cloned it to the point that you can’t tell that you’re leaving Frog CMS and going to WordPress. As of this writing, there’s still a bug in the positioning that i’ll resolve so that the sidebar stays put, to which I’ll only mutter the traditional curses against IE 6 and 7 and their broken HTML compliance. And I’ll revisit the Sidebar content soon as well – is the picture necessary?

Anyway, always good to have an excuse to keep those web skills up.