Monthly Archives: January 2009

Regime Change

This post was originally published on the Idealware Blog in January of 2009.

I’ve been pretty fascinated by the news reports about how the Obama staff reacted to the technology in place at the White House. If you haven’t been tracking this, you can read the full story, but the short story is this: the Mac/Blackberry/Facebook-savvy Obama staffers were shocked to find ancient systems and technology in use at the White House “Windows XP, MS Office 2003, traditional phone lines, and web filtering in place” in other words, the same stuff my org uses. I found myself both sympathetic and skeptical regarding their plight, because I am a big fan of all of the new technology that they are familiar with, but they walked into a network that is a lot like 90% of the businesses out there. The Bush Administration, perhaps surprisingly, was fairly current in their use of technology.

Some quick things I draw from this:

* The Obama campaign distinguished themselves by their smart use of modern, internet technology, and that use played a major role in their successful campaign.

* The shock they’re facing is less about the technology in place than it is about the culture they’re moving into. Political teams run freely and nimbly, and Howard Dean established the Web as the infrastructure of choice in 2004. Businesses, like the White House, do not drive so close to the cutting edge, for a variety of good reasons, such as the need for standardization and security.

* Over the next few months, the Obama-ans are going to compromise, and I’m dying to learn what choices they’ll make.

In my work, I’m on both sides of that fence every day, working with staff to understand why we have to standardize in order to manage our systems, stay a little behind the curve in order to avoid risk, and stick with applications like Microsoft Office because they have the mature feature set that we require. At the same time, I rally my staff to be creative in finding tools and solutions for our people, to stay abreast of which new tools are going to be worth the risk in terms of the benefits they offer, and understand that, should we get too far behind, it will be as risky as being too far out on the technological edge. We don’t want to fall off of any cliffs, nor do we want to stand still as all of the other cars race around us.

Some of us, like the leader of the free world, can’t imagine a day without a Blackberry; others, like a former free world leader, don’t even want an email account. Most of us live in this world where we have to creatively embrace the new while we tighten our grips on the traditional, because technology platforms thrive on stability while they obsolesce rapidly. Where the Obama White House winds up might be a good indicator of where we should all be. I hope we’ll have a window into that.

Bit by Bitly!

A bizarre bug in a Firefox plugin pretty much 86ed this blog for anyone using IE in the last month or so. I installed the Bitly Preview Firefox plug-in, which expands shortened urls in web pages so you can see where they’ll take you. Seemed useful, since I’m active on Twitter and they show up there all the time.

Anyway, this plugin apparently had a bug. If you had the 1.1 version installed, and you edited anything in a rich text editor (like, um, the one I’m writing this post in), it would toss a little javascript code in after your text. The code wasn’t malicious – it was pretty ineffectual – but Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, versions 6 and 7, were completely dumbfounded by it (MS admits that this is a bug and say that they’ve fixed it in IE8). Anyone visiting the blog in those browsers recently has been hit with a pop-up error complaining that the page can’t be displayed. This blog is not the biggest destination site on the web, and I’m pretty sure that most of you are reading this in the comfort of your own RSS reader (you should be – look for my upcoming Idealware article explaining how and why, if you aren’t).

Anyway, the fix was to remove or upgrade the bitly plugin; load up PHPMyAdmin on my server and run the query:

select * from wp_posts where post_content like ‘%bitly%’;

then, since I only had a handful of matches (my last five posts), select them all and remove the line at the bottom of each post, which was a script containing the text:

s.bit.ly/bitlypreview.js

Definitely one of the odder glitches I’ve experienced!

The Death of Email (is being prematurely reported)

This post originally appeared on the Idealware Blog in January of 2009.

Friends of mine who are active on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter are fond of proclaiming that email is dead. And, certainly, those of us who are active on these networks send less email to each other than we used to. I’m much more likely to direct message, tweet, or write on someone’s wall if I have a quick question, comment or information referral for someone, the latter two if it’s a question or info that I might benefit from having other people in my online community see.

But I don’t see these alternatives as ships carrying the grim reaper onto email’s shores — I think they’re more likely the saviors of email. As I said a couple of weeks ago in my “Myth of KISS” post, email applications are heavily abused, and they’re not very good at managing large amounts of information. This hasn’t stopped a good 90% of the people online from using email as their primary information aggregator. We get:

  • Personal emails
  • Mailing List items
  • ENewsletters
  • Automated alerts
  • Spam!
  • and a host of other things

in our email inboxes every day. The inbox places new messages on top and older messages scroll down and out of sight. Almost every email program on earth lets you, as you make time for it, pull emails into named folders, mark them as important, order them by name or date or subject, search for them, and archive them to some other part of your storage space, but none of them do more than some basic filtering and prioritizing for you, perhaps IDing 90% of the spam and, if you’re a power user, allowing you to place messages from certain people in special folders.

The exception to the standard email processing rules is Google’s GMail, which does innovative threading and labeling, allowing for, in my opinion, a superior tool for information management, but it’s still a lot of work. The tools will improve, but it’s kind of like hiring a better maid service to clean up congress – they’ll make the halls shinier, but the same legislators will show up for work on the next day.

The answer is to acknowledge that email applications, as we know them, were never meant to process upwards of twenty or thirty messages a day. The information management defaults assume a manageable number of items, and many of us are way past that threshold. The power of alternative messaging mediums is that they are tailored to the types of messages they deliver, and their tools sets are accordingly more refined and targeted. If you get newsletters and alerts in your email, switch to RSS. If you do a lot of short messages or work coordination, look at IM. If you announce or broadcast information, or survey your contacts, use Twitter or Facebook. These mediums are, so far, much less susceptible to spam, and you can ignore messages once you’ve read them or skipped them, they don’t have to be deleted. The closer you get to only receiving personal email in your inbox, the easier it will be to keep up with it

So these new mediums aren’t gunning to eliminate our old, old electronic friend – they’re just allowing it to go on a long overdue diet.

Help for the Helpers

This post was originally published on the Idealware Blog in January of 2009.

If you’re in a job that involves supporting technology in any fashion, from web designer to CIO, then the odds are that you do help desk. Formally or not, people come to you with the questions, the “how do I attach a file to my email?”, the “what can I do? My screen is frozen”, the “I saved my document but I don’t know where”. Rank doesn’t spare you; openly admitting that you can do anything well with computers is equivalent to lifetime membership in the tech support club.

A full time tech support job is, for the most part, an extended roller coaster ride with more down slopes than up. People who are drawn to this work are generally sharp, eager to assist, and take pride in their ability to debug. The down side is that, day after day, it’s grueling. There’s always a percentage of people who would just as soon smash the machine and go back to their trusty Selectrics. They aren’t always happy or polite with the friendly tech who comes to help them.

But the most debilitating aspect of the work is that support techs don’t manage their workload. It’s randomly and recklessly assigned by the varying needs of their co-workers and the stability of their systems. They never know when they’re going to walk in the office to find the donor database is crashed, or the internet line is down. The emails come in, the phone rings, and, to the people calling, everything is a crisis. Or it certainly seems that way. The end result is that career support techs often develop a sense of powerlessness in their work, and the longer it goes on, the less able they are to take proactive action and control of their jobs.

So here are two complimentary actions that can be taken to brighten the life and lighten the load of the support tech.

1. Deploy a trouble ticket system. And make sure that it meets these specifications:

  • Incredibly easy for staff to use. Web-based, linked from their desktop, with, ideally, three fields: Name, priority and problem. The software has to be able to grab additional information automatically, such as the time that the ticket was submitted, and, optimally, the user’s department, location and title, but the key point is that people won’t use the system if the system is too annoying to use.
  • Every update is automatically emailed to the user and the tech. This is critical. What an automated trouble ticket does best is to inform the customer that their issues are being addressed. Without this communication in place, what stands out in user’s minds are the tickets that haven’t been resolved. Confirmations of the fixes, sent as they occur, validate the high rate of responsiveness that most help desks maintain.
  • Be clear that the scope of the problem will influence the response time. Fixes that require spending or input from multiple parties are not slam dunks. This communication might warrant additional checkboxes on the submission form for “requires budget” or “requires additional approvals”, but formalizing this information helps the customer know that their issue hasn’t just been dropped by the tech.
  • Have a default technical staff view that puts open tickets on top. In environments where the telephone is the primary support funnel, things get forgotten, no matter how good and organized the tech is.

There’s more to it – good ticket systems feed into, and include links to additional support resources. And they don’t replace the telephone – IT has to be readily available. But there should be an understanding that users follow up phone calls with tickets. These are the key strategies that help the seemingly unmanageable stream of support calls fall in line.

2. Allow the support staff to breathe. There has to be an understanding, primarily understood by the support tech, but reinforced by his or her manager, teammates and staff, that only emergencies demand emergency response times. In fact, treating every call as an equally important, must be fixed immediately situation is a strategy for failure. Support Techs need to do effective triage, and put aside time to analyze and act proactively to solve user problems. If they deal with the same questions over and over, they have to write and publish the solutions. If the calls indicate a common problem that can be solved with a better application or an upgrade, they need to be able to step back and assess that. Smart managers will enforce this measured approach. At first, it will go against the grain of service-oriented staff, but it’s a must, because the measured response begets the more comprehensive solution to any problem.

The Myth of KISS

This post was originally published on the Idealware Blog in January of 2009.

Keep It Simple, Someone*! If there ever was a common man’s rallying plea relative to technology, this is the one. How many people do you know who got an iPod for XMas, only to learn that, before they could use it, they would have to learn how to rip their CD collection to disk? And upgrade the hard drive, or buy additional storage? All of which is a piece of cake, when compared to setting up a wireless network or removing persistent spyware. The most frequent request that I get from the people I support as an IT Director? “I just want it to turn on and work!”. I can relate. Which is why I’m here to tell you that keeping it simple can be a questionable goal, at best.

The fact is, it’s not easy to manage even a home computer. It’s gotten better: they’re nice enough to color code the audio ports on a new PC, and put little labels below the connectors, and more and more things connect over USB, making the “where do I plug it in?” question a little easier to answer. And, wow, they even put a few ports on the front now. But we’re a long way from the day when operating a computer is as easy as operating a toaster, and I, for one, question whether that will be a happy day.

My biggest case in point is email. Email is the application that everyone in the family knows and uses. It’s compelling. Even the most technology-averse people can’t escape the argument that communicating with family, friends and associates electronically is inexpensive and convenient. But the problem I see is that, once most people learn email, they don’t want to learn anything else. Want online community? Sign me up for the email mailing list. Want news headlines and informational updates? Send it in the email. The problem with this is that email is an astonishingly useful application, but there’s a point where it breaks down, and that point is when the volume of email becomes greater than the capacity to keep up with it. Email has a huge flaw as an information management tool: important things scroll out of sight. It’s a FIFO medium (First In, First Out), that doesn’t prioritize information for you, so that message from Aunt Irma supercedes the spam from the travel agency which supercedes the alert that your home is in foreclosure which supercedes the announcement that dog food is on sale… you get my point. And managing the email, staying on top of it and storing it in folders is a job.

So I advocate for making an early investment that pays off later — learn a few more applications. Read RSS feeds in an RSS reader; visit your major social networks and online communities at their web sites; eschew the mailing lists — or subscribe using an alternate email account that you follow with another application. Do some research before investing in any application or gadget — there’s a powerful argument that digitizing your music will save you time and effort in the long run, but that’s of little use if, as happened with a friend of mine, you buy the iPod the day before you’re shipped out to an island on military duty, with no chance to get any music on it. Keep It Separated, Sally, and Knowledge Informs Strategy, Sam. Because the idea that funneling all of that information through one conduit is somehow simpler than doing some up front research, management, prioritization and segmentation of information is a self-defeating myth.

* Substitute your favorite subjective noun starting with the letter “S”.

Facebonked

This week has brought some pretty blizzardy weather on the Facebook front, so thick that I’m in a real quandary as to how I should navigate through it. Understand that, when it comes to Facebook, I try and keep my visits to the neighborhood to a minimum. Short story: I like the ability to keep up with people, but hate the annoying, incessant and spammy applications. I would have no use for Facebook if everyone would simply accommodate me and use LinkedIn and Twitter instead. But, as you might have noticed as well, the whole world apparently got Facebook for Christmas. I now have triple the old grade school/high school friends to connect to, and people from every social group I’ve been associated with for the last 40 years are popping out of the virtual woodwork. It creates a few challenges.

1. Should my Facebook community include everyone I know from work, professional circles, friends and childhood acquaintances? That’s a lot of communities slammed into one. I already wrestle a bit with the fact that most of what I talk about on Twitter is probably not interesting to some of the family and non-nptech friends who follow me. My online persona is my professional one. I’m not pretending to be someone else — the personal things that come through are authentic — but I really don’t want to bring every aspect of my life and interests online.

2. One of the main things that I dislike about Facebook is the applications. I keep pretty busy, with a demanding job; my family; active blogging/writing/presenting and volunteering duties; friends and relatives; an appreciation for movies, music and television; an unhealthy addiction to news, culture and technical info; and a love of crosswords. I’m not sure how I do all of this — and sleep — in the first place. So filling out Facebook movie comparison quizzes (and the like) does not qualify for a spot on my schedule. If you are connected to me on Facebook, and you’re hurt that I haven’t responded to the numerous gifts, games and trivial pursuits that you’ve invited me to, please don’t be. If you message or email me directly you’ll get a reply!

3. I think the people who run Facebook are unabashedly doing it in order to mine marketing info from the membership. And, since the main thing that you do on Facebook is connect with old friends and family, they’re using some fairly extensive personal history and interaction as fodder for their advertising streams. This is the nature of the net, of course, as I have Google ads in my email and a slew of ad tracking cookies no matter how often I clear them. But Facebook manages to be ten times creepier than any other web site I visit when it comes to this stuff. I just don’t trust them.

I’ve seriously considered doing whatever it takes to delete my account. I even emailed everyone and warned them of that intention at one point. But it’s getting to the point where deleting Facebook is kind of like boycotting food — you might have good reasons, but you’ll probably hurt yourself more than help, particularly since there is real value in having the place to connect, and, sadly, it isn’t LinkedIn that’s grabbed the zeitgeist.

Communicative

The contact form is back, with an annoying little verification routine that will hopefully be enough of an annoyance for my spammer friend that I won’t have to upgrade it to a full-blown captcha (which I have the code for, but I hate those things – they always take me three tries).

This interesting research article suggests that phishing scammers make such a ridiculously low amount of money at it that it’s insane that they bother. They could deliver newspapers or beg in the street and be much more profitable. I have to think that the same kind of dogged stupidity is a trait of my spammer, as he obviously spent some time perfecting his script, maybe up to three or four hours work, that sends messages with links to, um, nature sites – or sites where wildlife and humans, if I’m guessing correctly, do inappropriate things together — to me. Only me. I don’t click on them, reply to them, or forward them to my Mom.

Anyway, I’m ready to continue the battle, and I’ve fired a salvo by restoring the form. But I hope this idiot is as bored with it all as I am!

Filling the Communication Gaps

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

We’ve come a long way since the Pony Express. It’s hard to imagine living in a time when your options for communication were limited to face-to-face, sllooowww mail, and, perhaps, carrier pigeon. Today, we have the opposite problem: there are so many mediums to choose from that a key communication skill is to gleam the method that the person you want to reach prefers. I was taken aback by an Australian ruling that Facebook was an acceptable medium for serving subpoenas, until I read that the defendants had been unreachable by phone or email for months beforehand. At first I thought they were just avoiding the subpoena — still a big possibility — but then I reconsidered. How many people have completely abandoned their primary email accounts, assuming that anything in them is spam, in favor of only reading their mail on Facebook or MySpace? Probably a considerable number. I know, just from my day-to-day business dealings, that I will reach some of my coworkers more effectively by phone than I will by email, and vice versa.

So we have postal mail, the telephone, the telegram, facsimile, short wave radio, walkie-talkie and intercom holding up the old guard. And we have email, cell phone, IM, chat, IRC, blogs, Twitter, forums and social networking services charging in as new(er) mediums. And I’m sure I’ve missed a bunch. The internet has opened up a Pandora’s box of communication mediums. So why use one over another? If we break it down to a manageable number of mediums, say, Phone, IM, email and Twitter, there are some intriguing differences. These differences don’t imply that one is better than another, but, certainly, one is more practical, courteous or efficient than another in a given circumstance. I evaluate the mediums on a few defining attributes:

Private or Social? While allowing that you can send group emails and IMs, and hold phone conferences, these mediums are primarily suited for one to one or a few conversations, whereas Twitter, and many of the web-based mediums, are social, with a large and partially unknown audience included.

Ambient or Invasive? A phone call is invasive, as is, to some extent, an IM. The sender is sitting there waiting for a response, so the courteous thing to do is to immediately re-prioritize whatever you’re doing and respond to them. Email and tweets, on the other hand, are casual mediums. Ignoring either one for an hour is within the bounds of the sender’s expectations.

Convenient or In Need of Management? I can send and receive IMs and Tweets and forget about them; phone calls as well, although voicemail needs to be dealt with. Email, on the other hand, is a demanding application. i have to manage it, sort it, categorize it, and clean it up.

Disposable or Archived? Phone calls and IMs, unless I record them, disappear after the conversation is ended. Emails and tweets are saved and searchable, giving me an always available archive of my communications (unless I delete them).

I suggested in a post last week that Twitter bridges the gap between email and IM, just as email bridged the gap between the letter and the phone call. Since then, I’ve been trying to figure out if a social, ambient, archive-able and convenient medium like microblogging is compelling in my organization. I took a look at Socialcast, one of the many corporate Twitter clones popping up, and I was very impressed with their implementation, which breaks the messages into statuses, ideas, questions and links.

Selling my staff on a tool like this is proving to be a challenge. The argument for it is fairly nuanced, and urging anyone to try something new on faith isn’t easy. They’re asking why this is better than the Microsoft Messenger chat application, or a more full-featured Sharepoint site? Those are good questions. Micro-messaging software lacks some of the features that these other mediums sport, but it provides a very simple and powerful, approach to information sharing that is far more collegial and less invasive than chat, while it’s simpler and quicker to use than Sharepoint. And my bet is that, in the war of communications mediums, it will ultimately be the ones that are easiest to use and least disruptive that win. Or it should be.