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.

healthcare.gov

As an information technology professional, when a web site has performance problems, I sigh, gnash my teeth, and gripe just like everyone else. However, twenty minutes later I realize I have been there and feel bad for those having to deal with the mess. Also, should I feel hurt that I am not among the nation’s brightest IT minds since I was not asked to help?

GeorgiaVIEW, one of the projects on which I work, has about four thousand active users on average and with topping out around 5-6 thousand week days and eight during an abnormal event. When users are having problems, they tend to come back which gives them a new session yet the old one has not expired, so the system deals with more and more sessions compounding a performance problem. Some of the descriptions people gave about having problems with healthcare.gov sounded like they came back over and over trying to enter.

The most annoying thing about the healthcare.gov problems though are the pundits. Early on, I heard they should have hired Silicon Valley companies to build the site as though IT people only come from there. They specifically named companies famous for their high profile meltdowns to build the health care exchange as experts in building huge sites without problems. Later came the small companies who build web sites for others, but not at this scale.

It is extremely difficult to build a site to the perfect scale. Overbuilding is expensive, so there is pressure to scale back. Business workflows are murky at best because until people use it, they really are unsure what it is they want. (They just know what was built is not right and why.)

IT Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow proposed a theory in A Theory of Human MotivationPsychological Review, motivation works to fulfill baser needs before addressing loftier needs. In a discussion the other day, I mentioned we have to have a rock solid infrastructure and stability of services to the point they are a utility and no users think about them causing them problems before we can focus well on innovation.

It occurred today maybe this would be an information technology equivalent to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The IT Value Hierarchy proposes something that looks like what I was thinking.

    • Paradigm Shift at the top
    • Competitive Differentiation
    • Integrated Information
    • Security and Stability
    • Infrastructure at the base

Once the infrastructure issues are solved such that the foundation is solid, then organizational focus can turn to security and stability. Without a solid infrastructure, security and stability are undermined. People fight fires that distract them from what they should be doing. The investments in equipment and time should be prioritized to ensure these.  The message from leadership should recognize the infrastructure foundation as more of a priority to get right than innovation at the time. Signalling the paradigm shift is most important means we should neglect the foundation. Not that we really can neglect the foundation, it just becomes a constant barrage of emergencies such that the paradigm shift becomes painful.

Privacy and Technology

Isaac Asimov has an interesting pre-World-Wide Web quote, “The advance of civilization is nothing but an exercise in the limiting of privacy.” Janov Pelorat in Foundation’s Edge (1982). Think about the word “civilization”. The root, civil, means to treat others well. In one ideal world, everyone would treat everyone else well for no reason. In hunter-gather societies, groups were small because groups were split when the group grew too large. At these small sizes, human abilities to track trustworthiness worked. Farming attached people to the land, making laws and people to enforce the laws necessary.

Privacy is good for the individual. Eliminating privacy is good for the state. Both claim their point of view is good for society. Both are right. A state with too much ability to see into the lives of  individuals will eventually abuse that power to mistreat its citizens. A state with too little ability to see into the lives of individuals will be too blind to protect citizens from mistreatment by criminals. During times of war, people want the state to protect them and the refrain, “Innocent people have nothing to hide,” gets resurrected. During times of peace, people want the state to leave them alone. It has everything to do with trust. When people no longer trust each other, they turn to the state. When people can trust each other, they stop trusting the state.

Ah. Oversimplification

As technology improves, we gain access to tools which allow us to do more with less effort. With information technology, this means we can gather more and accurate information. At the same time, it means less privacy for us.

Part of my work is to provide evidence to deans, department heads, and instructors about student online behavior. Students would be surprised at how much I can find about what they did in our system. Of course, the campus administrations would like us to be able to know everything about what the students and instructors are doing. To get the same in the bricks-and-mortar parts of campus, cameras and microphone would record and store all the audio and video for every classroom and office.

TED Talk: Hire the hackers!

As a freshman in college, I made… some poor choices involving computers. (As all such stories go there was a girl involved, but I was not interested in her. My friends were. There were plenty of other girls I was interested in tangentially involved though.)

As a result of the poor choices, we were brought before the Assistant to the President for Information Technology. He tells us we violated federal law. But also… When cases like ours come before him, he wished that he could hire the culprits. A few years later he really would hire me for my first professional job. Not having done that really stupid thing might have me in a completely different career. Having this story about coming close to getting expelled over using a computer was the most exciting thing that had happened to me. Okay…. It still is.

Over the years, catching university students breaking the academic code or law with computers brings to mind that conversation. Some of my best work stories are tracking down and interrogating them. I do wish we hired them. I am friends with a few of them via social networks still.

I have previously heard the computer geeks / hackers are more likely to have Asperger syndrome. BBC on Gary McKinnon’s diagnosis.

P.S. Parallel Play: Growing Up with Undiagnosed Asperger’s was an interesting book to read. It solidified my belief I do not have it despite being one of the most relatable books I’ve ever read.

Organization Relationships

A friend of mine who I used to work with once remarked (2007-ish) the University System of Georgia does not really work like a system so much as a loose confederation fighting over money. Given I have no access to budgets, I would not know. GeorgiaVIEW works remarkably well given there are only a few people running the system and hoards of people administrating it for their campus. There is a mostly correct mix of grassroots and top down pressure.

The Board of Regents Information Technology Services have fostered a culture of “help requests must go through the tickets”. Tickets allow the team to better triage issues. Tickets show leaders we are helpful. The unintended consequence is weakening the relationships we have. Tickets indicate we are too busy to be helpful. Relationships are accountable so an individual shows vulnerability to me by admitting not understanding, breaking, or other problems. My part of the relationship is to console, advise, or fix the problems. Tickets make all this harder because they are less personal.

When I talk with my coworkers, we covet the connections we hold across the system for they are the true value. How do we develop these relationships inside the formality of processes which fail to incentivise them?

We have email lists, instant messages, weekly Wimba sessions, etc., but there is obviously  a problem when the same people who have these things only tell me about things when they see me in person. I’m reminded of the ITS CIO spending time going to campuses to talk to them about their needs. Maybe that should something we do throughout the organization especially at my level? Also, when I was at Valdosta State, my best information about the needs of faculty members and students came from visiting them not the technology I developed to encourage reporting issues.

Technology is not magic. It does make those who are not communicating start. It just shifts the form and potentially makes it more difficult. Ideally the difficulty will be so slight no one will notice. One can make communication easier by going from a more difficult technology to a more easy form. Still… It is not as good as being there with the person.

Dunbar on Facebook

You’ve read my previous posts on Dunbar‘s Number, right?

Go on…. I’ll wait.

Remember the one on Scoble and Facebook? Good. For a while, I fastidiously ensured my number of friends stayed below 150 because I took the idea of Dunbar’s number as a life strategy. Then I let it slip to 200 which I pared back down to 150. My laziness let it hit 500.

It appears Robin Dunbar is now studying Facebook users to see ‘if the “Facebook effect” has stretched the size of social groupings.’ He says despite the large number of friends people only interact with about 150 of them. Maybe like most of psychology, the subjects are college students who supposedly are almost all on Facebook. In the real world, most of the people with which I have regular interaction, exactly those Dunbar’s number covers, are not my Facebook friends.

My Facebook friends instead are my information buffet. Social networks are how we keep in touch with what is happening in the world. My information technology friends provide me what is happening in my career field. My photography friends provide me with useful tips for a big hobby. Also, the bigger our social network, the more opportunities for help from or being consequential strangers. Social networks are a strategy not a replication of the brain.

The term “friends” used by Facebook, I think, is a brilliant marketing ploy. People would much rather show up as my friend than my contact.
🙂

IT Skillz

12 IT skills that employers can’t say no to:

[T]he market for IT talent is hot, but only if you have the right skills. If you want to be part of the wave, take a look at what eight experts — including recruiters, curriculum developers, computer science professors and other industry observers — say are the hottest skills of the near future.

Independent Verification of the Truth

Some of my latest work has been in chasing cheaters or “Vista ate my homework” claims. Some background: I work for a project that hosts online classes for 32 of the 35 universities in our system. We have about 125,000 users who have performed at least 100 actions this term. We have had about 50 million hits this semester (over in a couple weeks).

Read moreIndependent Verification of the Truth

Connotations of a Pronoun

Ezra Freelove, Information Technology

“When she saw that the web address was wrong on letterhead, she helped us correct the problem. Thank you, Ezra!
Valdosta State University I Caught You Caring

I do recall an occasion while at VSU in which I noticed a memo telling people to go to an address using “www.” when the host didn’t support that as an alias of the host. So I contacted the DNS folks and got new aliases so it would work.

Why she? It suggests whomever wrote this knows very little about me.