Stealing the T

The Georgia Institute of Technology has a tradition of stealing the letter T. I first ran across this in a local news media story where the letter T was stolen from signage. The main tradition is stealing the T from Tech Tower which has “TECH” on each of the four sides. (They return it during halftime of the homecoming American football game.)

It occurred to me that it would be especially hilarious for some GT alumni to steal the Ts in Trump Tower in Manhattan. It would become Rump Ower.

“Job Title”

No one knows what is a Technology Strategist. So, a while back, I changed my title on LinkedIn to Systems Architect and Engineer.

The side advantage to this is I can tell the source of where people have gotten my information. If they were looking at my Curriculum Vitae, then they would see Technology Strategist. If they got it from a conference I attended, then they would get the same.

The past several cold calls have all been the job title from LinkedIn. So, I decided to change the one on the CV to Application Infrastructure Architect. Now, all three have different titles. All three are fair.

Post Conference Spam

Sadly information technology conferences give our email addresses and phone numbers to the vendors who attended. That results in me getting an uptick of spam especially in the weeks after it. It is easy to tell the spam from the conference because the vendors mention the name of the conference. All the conferences do it. It is just one of those things from going to them.

One recent gem: “Sorry we missed you.” Actually, I intentionally did not visit the vendor area. I have no budget authority,  so I am pretty much wasting their time. Last year I did with an old boss and ironically used my familiarity with Desire2Learn to get him a moose doll for his son. (He’d already gotten one for his daughters but felt bad about getting a third. Family stability is more important than some extra spam.)

Technically spam is “unsolicited usually commercial e-mail sent to a large number of addresses.” This is commercial email. The number of addresses is modest so not large. But, I think where it gets interesting is whether or not it is solicited. One could make the argument that the conferences solicit the email addresses of attendees as an enticement for the vendors to attend. The quality of the vendors entices attendees. (I’m pretty sure people who care enough at all are a small proportion.)

It is tempting to ask the conference if it is possible to have the vendors mark categories of products they sell and attendees to mark what categories they are interested in hearing. Unfortunately, I would expect 93% of attendees to mark nothing as their interests to avoid getting spammed. Maybe a mitigation is say if you mark nothing, then we send you everything. (So pick your poison.)



There is a Twitter thing running around where people post their first seven jobs. I do not think mine would fit in a tweet, so I put it here. This title should show up there as a hashtag and be my contribution.

If you count by employers, then I have had 1-3.

  1. University System of Georgia
    1. Valdosta State University
      1. Odum Library
      2. Information Technology
    2. Board  of Regents

Valdosta State is part of the USG. One perspective is I have only had one overall employer. VSU is just a bigger unit than say the library. One could say I have had three employer entities.

If you count by position codes, then I think the list is (not counting repeats in the same position):

  1. Student worker: Reference book shelver
  2. Casual laborer: Reference book shelver, Inter-Library Loan, Government Documents
  3. Student worker: Government Documents
  4. Casual laborer: Reference desk manager
  5. Student worker: Peer Reference desk
  6. Casual laborer: Webmaster Cooperative Education intern
  7. Casual laborer: Assistant Webmaster (CSSII)

Wow, those are all the crazy positions I held before become permanent staff. The next job in the list is the first permanent staff position. In total all seven were just over 5 years.


Integrate PeopleMap With Office

I work to integrate systems. So, when I learn about things, I guess my mind drifts into how would we use it. And then into how would tie together this with other things we have to make them better.

Used with permission from atmasphere

Last week news dropped about Microsoft (MSFT) buying LinkedIn (LNKD). The big deal people seem to be making of it is the Customer Relationship Manager (CRM) potential for Microsoft. Imagine in Outlook having a guide about whomever you are emailing. LinkedIn potentially could supply the data.

So Friday I also took a PeopleMap System communication training. (Leader-Task) The idea is that people have innate preferences for how they process information. Understanding their preferences and tailoring your communication to key off them will make one more effective working with them.

I guess the MSFT-LNKD deal was still on my brain because it seemed like what we really needed was a PeopleMap plug-in to Outlook which would remind us the type of the individuals we are emailing. My vision was since everyone was providing management with our types, that information would be populated into the directory service. Then a plug-in would use the email address of the recipient(s) to display that person’s type and perhaps advice on how to communicate with that type. No more wracking one’s brain for what is their type and how to deal with them.

Of course, I used Google to look to see if this already existed. It pointed me to PeopleMaps which is a service for exploring one’s social network to find connections to sales targets and get an introduction and avoid cold calls. Microsoft’s Social Connector would pull photos from Facebook for contacts.

Carbon-Copy Evangelist

Sometimes I feel preachy when advising people to carbon-copy (CC) emails. Lots of good email etiquette advises to avoid using “reply all” with emails. I think the matter is a bit more nuanced. Thinking of the perspective of a small team…

  1. The more eyes that see discussions about work decision history, rationale, and possibility the better. Also, anything I write is my perspective which other coworkers might disagree with or challenge. Including the group allows everyone to be on the same page and have the information necessary to do so. Unless the email is of a personal nature, any email about a project should include the group.
  2. I may be tied up with other things or even gone. Including the whole team makes them aware of what is going on such that one does not need to track down as many messages to bring others up to speed. They will have a general idea of what is going on and enough to get quickly up to speed.
  3. Supervisors see what employees are working on, what help they may need, or directions they are pursuing.
  4. Keeping conversations in one-on-one conversations can lead to situations where one unexpectedly goes too far down an unwanted path when other could have advised on a better one. Those outside the group like to email a specific individual directly about things. That individual CC’ing the group in replies ensured others are aware of what is asked or wanted.

Admittedly I do often brazenly initiate one-on-one side conversations from group ones. “My hypocrisy knows no bounds.” – Doc Holliday, Tombstone.

Learning Tech

I learned electronics as a kid by messing around with old radios that were easy to tamper with because they were designed to be fixed.

Lee Felsesnsteinin The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson

The story I tell about how I ended up working in information technology is about having a computer all my life as a child, breaking it, and most importantly knowing that I had to fix it before my parents found that I had. The typical takeaway is that I was intelligent, talented, etc. But, really that reveals the wrong assumption.

More correct takeaway is by this point in computer history, people designed computers to be fixed. The above quote suggests radios were initially custom built, which made them expensive to fix. To accomplish mass production, modular components make it easier to assemble but also as a side benefit easy to swap failed parts. Computers followed the same path but not only on the hardware side but the also software. Modularity to software is how we can patch, install new software, change settings, etc to fix issues.

Even today, I see people look appalled that smartphones can be successfully sold without an easy way for the owner to replace the battery or a microSD slot to add storage. We like to be able to fix our stuff. Maybe it is our Do-It-Yourself cultural biases at play.

Making things fixable lowers the bar to tinker with it. Tinkerability makes something more accessible to learn where, when, how, why it behaves the way it does. Those experiences in turn make a user self-taught into a power user and eventually into a computer administrator who really is just a power user given the keys to offlimits parts.

TED Talk: End Bad Meetings

David Grady shows a clip, but here is the whole thing. It feels quite familiar.

His TED Talk:

2015-04-11 15.51.22 Personally, I hated status meetings for one project but liked them for another. The bad one was purely about going over the project plan every week and 40% of the time was spent telling the project manager what to type in order for the director to understand the item. The good one we talked about what everyone was doing and spawned side discussions about dealing with where people were stuck.

Certain people I know respect everyone’s time, so I’ll blindly accept everything they throw at me. Anything my boss sent me to I’d just go. While I may not know why, my time was never wasted.

The worst? A certain vendor in investigating issues affecting thousands of users in production, would schedule a time for us to meet about their findings. The content of the meeting would be, “We have not found anything yet, but this is still our top priority. Can we meet again at <new time>?” Yeah, this is a waste of everyone’s time. Just send an email a quarter hour ahead of time explaining you need more time and pick a new one. This is so important people will MAKE time to be there.

For years, I have tried to make sure I include the why of a meeting in the invite. And if my “bad meeting” radar goes off, then I will inquire about the why for it.

March of the Machines (Automation)

Saw a tweet about and interesting piece in ABC News Australia Digital disruption: How science and the human touch can help employees resist the march of the machines. Basically, many jobs are going away due to automation. W.I.R.E.D. has a similar story: Robots Will Steal Our Jobs, But They’ll Give Us New Ones.

One of the long struggles I have ever pushed in my career is automation of machines. My approach falls along the line of: if it is going to be done more than once or will take a really long time by hand, then it needs to be automated. This is hard to do. The temptation is to do it by hand once, see how it went, then write a script which does it for the next time. The trouble being that if this is done between having completed the first one and the second, then there is little incentive. Best is to make the automation part of doing it the first time, the second time can include any remediation necessary to make it more perfect.

All this automation makes us more effective employees. My team of three managed hundreds of web servers and dozens of database servers for ten sites. Without automation that would have been a nightmare. The replacement product was more difficult to automate so with fewer servers we needed more people. Yet the drive to better automation is making lives easier. (Technically I left that program about a year ago when my replacement was hired and took over my spot in the on-call rotation.)

A fear I hear about automation is that people will lose their jobs. It reminds me globalization and manufacturing moving overseas to China. Highly repetitive, mindnumbing jobs were the most at risk and as those work forces got better, what was at risk moved up the complexity ladder.

The fear of both globalization and automation led to books like A Whole New Mind. The idea is that if your job is highly repetitive or analytical, then it is at risk to these forces. Becoming the person who designs, describes, coordinates, or finds meaning in stuff (aka “right brain” activities) is the way to survive the coming storm. This book very influenced how I started thinking about my work.

Back in 2003, I automated everything I could because I was overwhelmed with work and little resources beyond great computers and my own skill to make it better. My supervisees focused on meeting with the clients to talk about the web site they wanted and build that. I wrote code to report about or fix problems to prevent people needing to call or email about problems.

Where I wish we would head is more like You Really Don’t Need To Work So Much. I meant to send this to my boss (maybe he’s reading this blog)? All our efficiencies should mean we have less to do not more, so why do we work so hard?

The past fifty years have seen massive gains in productivity, the invention of countless labor-saving devices, and the mass entry of women into the formal workforce. If we assume that there is, to a certain degree, a fixed amount of work necessary for society to function, how can we at once be more productive, have more workers, and yet still be working more hours? Something else must be going on.

From my experience, the to-do list gets ever larger. Not because there is more to do, but because more is possible. I’d just rather spend more of my time on solving hard problems than easy repetitive tasks.

P.S. This post really only exists because I loved the phrase “March of the Machines” enough I wanted it as a title for something on this blog.

Ideal CIO

Our CIO is leaving us for another job. My boss wanted to give my name to someone on the search committee seeking staff input for what we need in a CIO. This is just an organization of my thoughts and conversations I have had.

A couple recent conversations netted these:

  1. Big picture. There are over 100 people working on implementation. You should spend your time deciding what are the goals and priorities not meddling in the details of making it happen. Sure, reports on progress should percolate up, but quality people were hired to make it work, so let us.
  2. What do you bring? What experience do you have? Someone from another kind of environment may lend to a very different operating style than exists here. We operate in higher education but not academia. We work with universities and their users, but we are not ourselves academic. The “needs of many outweigh the needs of the one.” The CIO should fit into our culture and needs.

My own thoughts on the kind of leader I would like:

  1. Students first. We work in higher education, so you need to love students and want what is best for them. If the choice comes down to what is best for students vs what is best for faculty / staff, then the student choice should be the winner every time.
  2. Under promise and over deliver. Failing to meet a deadline even a “super tentative” one makes people unhappy. True, you will survive the first and n times, but eventually these failures will catch up to you. (True, we can sometimes save your ass by getting something out there and refining over time, but that early delivery sucks and the clients know it.) I learned under promise over deliver my sophomore year of college, so it surprises me how so many people at the top level can throw down an unrealistic arbitrary date before we even have looked at specifications or planned what is involved.
  3. Empower automation. My ideal CIO will have me replaced with a shell script. Well, lets me replace myself with them. My goal always is to replace everything monotonous I do with shell scripts and wherever possible schedule them. Why should I spend any time a week on tasks by hand a script can do for me? The first thing sacrificed in insane deadlines is the automation with the hopes of circling back around later to build it. Unfortunately, the success of meeting the deadline by sacrificing some things is more commitments which means no time to circle back around for automation. But, also distance from the initial development makes doing it later harder as what seemed trivial then gets forgotten and complicates the future revisiting. This is also where under promising helps as items like this stay on the plan so it gets done right the first time.
  4. Open architectures. Haters gotta hate. Salespeople gotta sell. That sometimes means glossing over the crappiness of their product(s). Really they cultivate relationships to feel needed. Just like I want to test drive a car before I buy it, I want to stand up the product and have end users clicking every button, administrators running every job, and engineers running it for some portion of the community in a pilot to ensure it works as expected. Pre-sale we learn how wonderful software is and how it will change our lives for the better. We learn just how terrible software is and no different from what we had prior running it for real the first six months.
  5. Need vs want. Our clients will say they want the buzzword of the day, but really they want a specific aspect or another thing entirely who might be somewhat related. Buzzwords create confusion because everyone intends something different by them. They know these are important concepts and use them to sound relevant. You need to tease out their vision and share your own so that when we can deliver yours, they get the thing they expect.
  6. Risk assessment. If you want to do something big, then we are going to tell you what are the risks. It may sound like “No,” but really we are laying out the groundwork for what needs to be overcome for success. Think of it as part of the planning. Pay attention to what is being said as you might learn what seemed easy enough will take far more effort than originally assumed. Use it to set expectations for #2.
  7. Introverts. This is information technology. Some people who work here like computers better than people. (Easier to understand. Consistent.) Extroverted activities are fine, but do not force us to attend. An extrovert is more like to be CIO, but they need to understand we are not all that way.
  8. Real costs matter. Good services improve efficiencies such that people can do more than the past. Bad services bog people down such that they spend more time to do less. One-size fits all products tend to fit into the bad services category. They try to cater to every users’ needs such that they have too many buttons with wrong terminology. Too much time has to be devoted to training just so people can feel comfortable using it. Too much time has to be devoted to support issues so people can figure out how to do basic mandatory tasks. Because really they only ask for help on those issues and curse us for all those tasks they give up on trying to accomplish because it was too hard but not mandatory so ultimately not worth the effort.

The search committee should thoroughly investigate the hire before announcing it. From past experience they will interview, select 1-4 finalists they bring for us to meet, and offer to one. A piece of advice: Any finalist and definitely whomever gets the offer should be vetted beyond just the resume, references, and background check. Do Google searches on them and their last few employers. Investigate further anything publicly negative about them. Even better, talk to people there who are not listed on the references because we the ground level will find out any dirty laundry within days of the announcement. If they are leaving because of a scandal, then you need to know before we do.

(Technically I wrote a draft of this a month ago, but I did not schedule it to publish until later because of this part. A few more items were added since. And decided to publish password protected.) Less than six months into the now outgoing CIO’s reign, I was very unhappy. I was thinking long and hard about how bad of a fit this was to me. The grumbling came from everywhere around me. The last time the people around me were this discontent, I jumped ship and landed here. So I was preparing to jump ship again. In the end, my enormous respect and loyalty to my boss (who had no idea) saved me from going. The difference between last time and this was the great boss.