Saturday, December 31, 2011

Is technology really getting more affordable? That depends on who's saying it...

Article originally published on Technorati as "Is Technology Really Getting more Affordable?"

This is a time of year when everyone has a list.  Best of, Worst of, Predictions for and the like.  Seems we have a preoccupation with looking where we've been while trying to guess where we're going.  At the beginning of 2011 most technically inclined folks were preoccupied with the next Iphone and Net Neutrality.  Now we're debating SOPA/PIPA and whether 2012 will finally bring an Android tablet to rival the IPAD. 

Oh yeah, and maybe we'll get a new version of Windows that will realize Microsoft's hopes to rival Apple's omnipresence on a myriad of devices...

That's all fine and good but one thing that hasn't changed is the push to make our data portable via "The Cloud"  and the costs associated to get it there.  With maturity and broader acceptance (read that volume) we usually enjoy better service at reduce costs.  That doesn't seem to be the case, however.

I'm a frequent viewer of Leo Laporte's Twit.TV video podcasts.  In fact I watch them more frequently than regular television.  I'm sure I'm not alone in my viewing habits.  It's an excellent source for tracking technology trends and news where you prefer a more relaxed but still professional presentation.

Still, as I watch I sometimes feel a sense of incredulity at what the hosts consider an acceptable price  when discussing products and services.  For example, Ford is a sponsor of a number of Twit.Tv podcasts with Twit produced commercial spots interwoven in their shows.  On one the 2012 Ford Focus is featured.  Economy, styling, and of course technology are featured in the spots with Ford's Sync technology being the centerpiece.  Sync can apparently integrate with the features and services on your Smartphone and make them available via voice control without distracting you from driving.

I have no issue with Ford or Twit's celebration of a technology.  What I take some issue with is what is considered affordable.  In one commercial Leo claims the Focus with Sync is affordable.  I went on Ford's website and built a similar vehicle with features equivalent to the example in the commercial.  When I was done I was looking at a $24,000 subcompact with a 4 cylinder engine. 

I personally don't find $24,000 for an entry level car line to be affordable regardless of whether it integrates with Pandora .  If you want the all electric version be prepared to shell out #39,500 for a base model.  That's not affordable either.

I'm not picking on Twit, however.  They're just  part of a larger community with a passion for new technology to the exclusion of all else.  It seems that technology companies are trying to redefine what affordable is whether or not it has any basis in reality.  Can the latest Smartphone make you more productive?  Perhaps, but is it worth the $200 price and 2 year commitment at a ridiculous monthly rate? 

Is it worth $300 for an operating system for your computer whose only purpose is to provide an environment for even more expensive software suites?   Probably not but we've been conditioned to accept the ridiculous as necessary.  Our personal fortunes may be waning but Apple, AT&T and Microsoft are doing just fine thank you.

I'm not against technology or progress but I'm stalwartly opposed to their marketing being promoted as the basis for my personal economy.  Market forces can dictate what a fair price is but they seem to be getting ignored with the latest technology trends.  Just as a box of fruit loops at $50 with a one year contract isn't justifiable or even sane;  Costs of $120 or more for  monthly cell phone bills aren't either for what you get. 

Technology features prominently in our future and promises to change the very concepts of work and play.  I applaud the liberation it's already brought to those who couldn't flourish without it.  But the price we pay needs to be dictated by those who use it, not someone's marketing department. 

I'd just like to see tech journalism push for real affordability instead of the perception of it. 

Monday, October 31, 2011

Are Macs invading the enterprise?

"Better watch out, better not cry Macs are gonna make your IT guy sigh..."
Set to "Santa Claus is coming to town"

Usually I ignore the daily LinkedIn updates in my inbox informing me of the goings on of people who may know people that were once in the same state as a guy I sat next to in Burger King 1o years ago.  Wow, that whole 6 degrees of separation thing must be true...

So one of those strangers in my inbox was recommending a link to a story on Business Insider talking about the increase of Macs in the workplace.  The cliff notes version goes something like; Rich professional people are really creative and like Macs more than PC's and because of it they want to use them at work. 

I've actually seen evidence of this in action at my last employer.  The entire organization was run on PC platforms but there were a few Macs floating around as well as some Mac "servers" Which were glorified 1U server chassis' running Snow Leopard.  AKA, not a server.

True to the assertion of the article, our Mac users were in the executive suites and generally didn't want to do more than get their email and browse the web.  Anything else required running terminal server sessions a la' Parallels just to edit a word document. 

I remember on my first day I got called to the office of the regional manager whose only complaint was that the terminal server session and desktop wasn't like his Mac desktop.  Great first impression I made that day.

By the time I came along the Mac users already accepted the fact that we could never be a pure Mac shop mostly because everyone else had to do lots of boring uncreative stuff that didn't work on Macs.

I've written other articles about Macs in business environment so I won't belabor the point here.   Suffice it to say that as long as Apple treats all their products  as consumer devices (even if it says "pro" on it) with no regard for business  process, there will always be resistance by IT departments.  In this case, resistance is not futile because the bottom line is that Macs don't play well with most enterprise networks and applications.

This isn't meant to be derisive it's a simple statement of fact.  Remember that the sandbox that is Apple rejects conformity.  99% of enterprise networks are running non-Apple hardware and operating systems.  They conform to the evil IBM model because they have to, there isn't a good alternative.  Linux is still somewhere around the level of Windows 98 for the desktop and Macs have to use Microsoft office because they still don't have a good productivity suite. 

If you live in a sandbox, sometimes you gotta order out...

I'm sure the Mac enthusiast is thinking, "Well, the enterprise needs to change then"  Yes, maybe it does but right now it hasn't and honestly it can't.  As long as the bulk of corporate America doesn't produce anything more creative than a suggestive photo at the Christmas party nothing will change.

Until corporate America finally decides to drop its 19th century labor model and realize that people don't have to be under your nose to be productive, nothing can change.  Journalists, consultants and others not dependent on a corporate cubicle have figured out how to excel without the chains of corporate IT conformity.

That works out fine for them but if you go to work in a cubicle decorated with pictures of places you'd rather be don't expect the revolution any time soon. 

Mac's by their very design are non-conformist.  From the ambivalence of the file system organization to its lack of support for common enterprise applications Macs are meant to accommodate the user not vice versa.  That's the way Steve Jobs wanted it so don't expect it to change.

With the advent of cloud services, Google docs and online meeting options , it's possible that someday we may not have to waste years of our lives in pointless commutes to some dreary office building.  This is where Macs can become a viable option.  To make a Mac work for business you have to get it out of the office and give it an Icloud account. 

Apple is all about creativity and connectivity.  Everything from the sandbox is meant to work with everything else with an Apple logo.  Online experiences are supposed to be ABOUT the content not the process of getting TO the content. 

Enterprise IT doesn't work that way.  Enterprise IT has to control all the channels if for no other reason than to protect its information assets.  It's not about WANTING to control everything it's about HAVING to.  IT departments don't have a choice in the matter.  If given the choice without repercussion most IT guys would let the free for all happen if for no other reason than to be hated a little less. 

But we all know the corporate network would be in flames in 20 minutes.  It's human nature to be freeform which flies in the face of any IT organization trying to secure and provide reliable resources. 

So it is, so shall it be.

Macs are to Enterprise as Smartphone  is to Blackberry. 

Similar function, different methodology. 

There's nothing wrong with using a Mac if it fits your style of work but it's very design is guided by the premise to NOT be like a PC.  That's why they never seem to fit well into enterprise IT architectures. 

I'm not anti-Apple, I just know it doesn't work well in the prevailing IT construct. 

If the world decides to throw away the construct and do it Apples way, however, then it's conceivable that Apple could become a catalyst for finally abandoning an outdated work methodology that says work only happens in an office.

Article first published as Are Macs Invading the Enterprise? on Technorati.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Shiny Objects, Dull Minds....

I hold two beliefs,  one is that technology  will never stop advancing and the second is that human beings will always gravitate toward shiny objects. 
Crows like shiny objects too.  It's been suggested that they take them to attract a mate.  Hmm, maybe that's why all the geeks feel the need to get a new Smartphone every 6 months. 

I watch a lot of technology podcasts where all the Uber geeks and tech pundits get all misty eyed over the latest bit of techno kitsch.  I t never fails.  They anxiously await the latest whatever and when they get it in their hands they fawn over for about 15 minutes;  playing with every button, adjusting every setting and trying out every new feature.   
Then the facade starts to crack.  It could be a change in how a feature works or even the removal of it entirely.  It doesn't really matter, you can always tell by the look on their face.  It goes from a happy kid on Christmas morning to a blank stare.

The end is always the same.  Unless the thing catches fire in their hands there'll be allowances made.  Phrases like, "They'll fix that in an update" or "This is an early production model" 

We're supposed to dismiss the deficiency and focus instead on the promise of this great new thing even if it's to our own detriment.  

Smartphones are a perfect example.  It's not enough for your phone to make calls anymore.  It has to be able to surf the net, update Facebook and entertain you with a game or a movie.  It's almost as if there's some grand plan to cause the world to develop Attention Deficit Disorder.
 I still find it amazing that people went so nuts over the Iphone when it had so many issues like being chained for two years to a horrible data network, high cost, call quality and usability problems.  Still , even if you had a bad experience with the phone it still managed to check off all the items on our shiny object list.

Like the MP3 that's largely replaced the CD ,we tend tolerate a lesser experience  for greater convenience or just the chance to look cool.   There may be a more insidious penalty than that, however.
Technology can be the catalyst for inspiration but it can also be a debilitating crutch .  In his book "The Shallows: What the internet is doing to our brains" Nick Carr suggests that we may in fact be gradually becoming dumber because of our addiction to connectivity.

It's not so far-fetched an idea.  We don't even care if a phone can be relied on to make a call anymore so long as our Netflix download doesn't buffer too much.   Oh yes and we must be sure that Foursquare knows where we had lunch.  I'm sorry but nobody has the right to know that much about my habits even if I didn't notice your 30 page irrevocable EULA. 
I guess it's too bad if your favorite sushi restaurant is next door to an S&M shop.  If Google maps can't pinpoint my house accurately I suppose I should forget about any hopes of public office.  There are people who believe the president of the United States  has a fake birth certificate.  What hope do I have if my favorite  sushi restaurant is suspiciously located?
It seems we'd rather not use our long term memory either.  It's simpler to just Google whatever it was that we're too lazy to remember.  Google's a godsend then; protecting us from having to spend more than 30 seconds on any stray thought.

Any forum discussion on the topic invariably degenerates into a shouting match ending in a flurry of hyperlinks supporting their point of view.  That's sad.  We're so addicted to the internet that we can't even have a debate without using it.  Are we so enamored with our connectivity that we're becoming incapable of independent thought? 
If a Pulitzer prize finalist believes it's possible then I have to believe that there has to be some truth to it.   But then, I found out about it on the Internet.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

IT and Steve Jobs

As most of you know by now Steve Jobs passed away yesterday 10/5/2011 after a long battle with health problems. The tech industry may have seen it coming but it's a blow felt no less sharply.

I will say this. No Technology CEO, including Bill Gates, has ever been a more visible leader in any technology company. He was a marketing genius and had a public persona that inspired an almost cult following.

Here's where I lose the Cult of Mac....

His passion was undeniable and his vision unquestionable. Still his most valuable trait was that he was a brilliant opportunist.

Consider the following observation.

I've often said to colleagues over the past twenty years that IBM created nothing. IBM Chose instead to obtain innovation and mold it to their vision. Steve Jobs at Apple was not so different in method but his motivation couldn't be more different.

In jobs we had a conquering hero beating back the stagnation and rigidity of faceless corporations concerned more with quarterly profits than usability. He could not only mold someone else's idea to his vision but convince you it was in your best interest to come along for the ride. He knew how to speak to the consumer and convince him that his offerings were superior simply because he'd offered what you wanted before you knew you wanted it.

As far as IT goes, however, I can't be as upbeat about Apple in the enterprise. Apple products are designed from the outset to be consumer devices. That makes sense. Under Jobs' direction that was what technology was meant to be. Computing devices were meant to be enablers of a creative process not some turbocharged calculator.

I've worked with Apple products in organizations and it's blatantly obvious that they were never meant to be part of a typical IT enterprise. Most of the time I find Macs running Parallels just to properly interoperate with other network applications and resources. That's a good thing since replicating that functionality is difficult and in some cases impossible without such software.

I hear the wailing now but when you get past the fanboy devotion you find the real argument is that Mac folks believe Steve got it right and everyone else got it wrong. You'll never convince anyone on either side of the argument of the other's view so don't bother to try. In a way it speaks to how similar Apple's "Different" argument really is to the other guys.

In fact it would go against the core belief of "Think Different" if you believed that in spite of its failings, your way was the only way. In that case you're no better than the evil empires which you spurn.

If Jobs weren't the brilliant marketer that he was, Apple would have had no hope of survival. Over most of its history, Apple products have carried a price premium over and above what was considered tolerable by the market. Jobs was able to combat that by convincing the consumer that he offered a premium experience not offered by his competition. Whether it was worth it was entirely subjective.

Under Jobs Apple undoubtedly had great triumphs but also great missteps. One of the greatest in my view is the closed sandbox that remains central to Apple to this day. To promote change you must get your product into the hands of the masses. From a strictly business standpoint that's a difficult proposition if you're the only one manufacturing it.

Back in 2006 when Windows Vista was released it disappointed a lot of people. So much so that Microsoft finally admitted after a year of denials that it was indeed a poor replacement for the now stable Windows XP and virtually all press turned from Vista to an upcoming release that we now know as Windows 7.

In my view, it was during this time that Apple missed a golden opportunity. At that time Mac OS was at version 10.4 and capable of running on Power PC or Intel platforms. A handful of companies sprang up offering "Hackintosh" computers which were basically PC architectures running Apple's OS. Since MAC OS X 10.4 was less than $100 it was an opportunity for thousands of users to get the Apple experience for far less than the 30 to 40 percent price premium for the same hardware in an Apple branded case.

It was a missed opportunity because millions of dissatisfied Windows users were looking for alternatives to Vista. Many explored Linux, some jumped into Macs with both feet while most were forced to stand pat with Windows XP until Microsoft came up with a better option.

It's my belief that Apple could have grabbed at least another 15% of the market had they allowed OSX to run on non-Apple hardware. It would have allowed a lower cost of entry into the realm of Apple and accelerated the entry of Apple into the enterprise. It would have also, finally, offered a viable alternative to Windows.

Instead, at the direction of Jobs the Hackintosh movement was crushed and an opportunity lost. The message being, "Buy it all from us or go away".

I understand the advantages of operating in a sandbox. Your support costs are lowered since you have only have to support one platform. You minimize your vulnerability to the ills of the Windows platform by offering a smaller attack surface for malware. Finally you can exercise complete control over anything associated with the brand.

It's this last point that has Jobs written all over it. Jobs was fearful of Apple suffering the same fate that befell IBM with the PC and the clones that followed.
What was missed is that while IBM allowed for clones to use their architecture, the premium PC always had an IBM brand on it. If you wanted innovation on the platform you first looked toward IBM. Especially true for business customers who wanted and would pay dearly to have the support of IBM's vast resources.

But then, IBM was the evil empire and Apple was going to be different. Even if it meant being the same in the end. I think Steve misread his customer base. Sure you may have had a whole lot of new Mac users without an Apple logo on their case but you would have also had a lot of peer pressure.

I have no doubt that the Mac forums would have been filled with flaming statements like, " When are you going to get a real mac?" or "Apple hardware doesn't have that kind of issue." and eventually the "MacHacks" would have come fully into the fold.

In the meantime the Apple OS could have matured to become more business friendly without losing its identity. After all I'm talking about an alternative not an emulation.

Such are the failings of our heroes. There's no doubt that Apple owes its existence to the vision of Steve Jobs. I'm hoping that it is his spirit of innovation and not his execution that lives after him.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The upgrade mill, The IT version...

I maintain this and another blog,

That blog allows me to express my opinions and my passion about all things important to a middle aged gamer. One of my first posts was called, The upgrade mill

In that post I bemoaned the evils of the gaming industry driving consumers toward upgrades that don’t necessarily make their lives any better. I’m sorry, but if you can’t do better than a 5FPS improvement in my favorite game after spending the better part of $1000 U.S. I’m going to feel a bit cheated.

So it goes with IT.

As an independent consultant as well as a full-time IT professional I see the same formula applied and it’s almost criminal.

Let’s take the example of Windows Server 2008. Now I personally have nothing against Server 2008. It’s a fine Server OS and with a new server there’s no question that it’s the right choice for 90% of any enterprise.

That’s not what the marketing guys would have you believe, however.

Well, at least not 12 months from now when Server 8 or whatever it’s going to be called (I agree with Paul Thurrott by the way, in hoping they dont’ get too ambitious with the naming.) You see When server 2008 came out most Microsoft centric enterprises on Server 2003 were encouraged to upgrade.
Now Aside from being against any DOT Zero Microsoft release I saw no compelling reason to upgrade the OS on legacy hardware but Microsoft would have you think otherwise.

The reasoning came straight from the marketing department. Better support for 64 Bit processors, better memory management. Better support for Virtualization. It would be more secure, easier to administer and more cost effective….


Let’s get one thing straight. Other than the inevitable phaseout of security updates there was no compelling reason to move from Server 2003 to Server 2008. None, zip, zero, nada. Any argument to contrary to me is nothing more than marketing brainwashing.

Let’s take a little trip back to 2006…

Microsoft dropped the ball with Windows Vista and desperately needed a Hail Mary play to fix the situation. So enters Windows 7 or should I say Vista Service pack 3. Knowing that Microsoft had unified the code base between server and client OS’s meant that anyone with a modicum of insight into the way Microsoft does things may have some doubt about a new server OS based on the same kernel as Windows Vista. Since Server 2008 showed up 2 years after the Vista disaster it was far enough removed from the stench to be identifed more with Windows 7 than with Windows Vista.

Ok, since server OS’s are notoriously picky about hardware it’s accepted that most of your old stuff wouldn’t work. Tolerable in a server OS, notsomuch in a client OS.

Server OS’s are generally optimized (read that stripped down) to do a few things very well without a lot of frills. I’ve worked in organizations that have standardized on Server 2008 and usually there are usually a few old Server 03 servers hanging around running legacy apps. Admittedly, that’s the fault of unpatched legacy apps and not the OS.

So what’s the big difference between Server 2003 and Server 2008? Mainly interface tweaks and an annoying trend with every new version of the OS to needlessly overcompicate simple administrative functions. Oh yeah and powershell. An add-on in Server 03 and a centerpiece in server 2008.

The only real reason to upgrade a Windows Server OS when alternatives can run for years without the need for an upgrade boils down to our old friend the marketing department. Oh, and that nasty End of Life thing that makes a serviceable platform obsolete with an ad in EWeek…

Server 8 (or whatever they’ll call it) is part of the new family based on a new kernel with powershell even more integrated into core OS administration. Oh yeah and a bit of the Metro interface for administration tasks. Great, just what I need, a tile to add a new user…

Microsoft says that Server 8 is designed to be administered remotely and not meant to be as “console friendly” as previous versions. Good luck with your ISCSI client and RAID controller installs…

The “upgrade mill” parallel here is actually a continuation of a theme. The only thing that drives an upgrade in a Microsoft environment is the marketing department. Unless the previous version was a complete failure.

With each successive version of WIndows Server, Microsoft has moved toward making administration less intuituve and more reliant on scripting and Microsoft VARs to accomplish what used to take a few clicks and 30 seconds. Some will say scripting is a godsend and is exactly what windows has needed. I say it’s a giant step backward. Why have a GUI if all the important stuff is accomplished at a command line.

Let’s face it, there’s nothing sexy about a server OS. Linux knows that which is why they don’t give you a GUI by default in most server distros. In UNIX-land Server OS’s are supposed to be ugly, cryptic and intuitive only to the most geeky or the Uber geeks. It’s an ego thing…

So why does a Server product called “Windows” whatever need to rely more on command line scripting and less intutive interfaces? Is it ”Nix envy? Well I can get that for free without confusing license schemes. No it’s something more insidious. The more needlessly complex you make a server OS the more you rely on VARS to make it run right. That means more money spent on training, consultants and every other related product or service in the food chain.

It’s a money mill with minimal return.

I’m not against upgrades, I’m just against waste. Waste of time, resources and effort for little to no return on the investment.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Windows 8 thoughts

I frequently watch the Twit.TV video podcasts and one of my favorites is Windows Weekly. It was on this podcast that I discovered the Microsoft Build conference held in Anaheim Ca. last week and with it the availability of the Windows Developer Preview (Windows 8).

I downloaded the 5.1GB full development package, followed the directions for setting up a bootable USB drive and then found that I had to find a compatible version of bootsect to let it complete the process. I downloaded and attempted to create the bootable USB on a 32Bit Windows XP pro system so the process of creating the 64Bit bootable USB drive took this extra step.

What I found once installation was done was an OS that at first blush was more about the user interface than any great leap forward in OS design. If you have two monitors as I do the system will automatically configure itself to display a familar desktop environment on one screen and a series of "tiles" on the other which open a number of programs and system utilities when clicked.

In this permutation of Windows you figure out fairly quickly that the familiar desktop is merely another application. In fact it shows up as another "tile" in the so-called "Metro" interface.
The look of Winows 8 closely mimics the UI of Windows Phone and as I understand it that's by design. This new version of windows is designed to be uniform across platforms from the lowliest IPAD competitor to full featured PC's.

It's a common fact that notebook pc's have surpassed desktop pc's in sales and a portion of those are pc tablets designed for touch sensitive applications. Windows 8 is a "touch first" experience with traditional mouse and keyboard controls available but not obvious.

It's been mentioned elsewhere in the blogosphere so I won't dwell on the next point but it needs to be mentioned nonetheless. Up till now Windows was an unimpressive tablet interface. Touch was eschewed in favor of a stylus to control many functions of Windows. That's great for handwriting recognition but can get tedious if you're just trying to move around the interface.

Conversely, Windows 8 is all about swipes and drags and taps with nary a stylus in sight. Anyone familiar with newer smartphones like the IPhone, or Android phones will feel right at home with navigation. Windows 8 has been designed to work on small tablets as well based on ARM processors.

Thus we finally have a Microsoft entry into the IPAD and Android based consumer tablet wars.
That's great for a consumer device but what about a business pc?

I've heard that there will be a business version of the OS that is more focused on the desktop and less on the "tiles". On the other hand i've also heard that the only change to the OS will be improved or at least more obvious keyboard and mouse shortcuts to navigate through the UI.

Microsoft wants developers to move toward designing for the Metro interface and leave the desktop for legacy application compatibility. Unfortunately this wreaks of another push to do things "The Microsoft Way".

To expect a business customer to conform to an OS interface designed to be a consumer offering is more of the same old, "My way or the Highway" thinking from the past.

I put it right up there with the reliance on Powershell in Exchange 2007 and 2010 and the horrible filesystem organization in Vista and above. In both cases Microsoft was attempting to force a change in user behavior for it's own rather then the customer's benefit.

I still find no great innovation in Server 2008 (outside of better 64 bit compatibility) that would force a move off a well functioning server 2003 deployment. If Windows 8 Server offers little more than a more annoying interface what's the impetus to upgrade?
Management functions tend to get less intuitive with every iteration of Windows Server. Windows 8 and it's Server counterpart (also recently released to MSDN subscibers) continue this trend. What works great on a consumer device isn't necessarily going to be ideal in a business environment.

Another thought comes to mind. If I deploy a version of Windows 8 to my desktop clients that has a deprecated Metro interface then I'm basically left with a shaky Windows 7 installation. In that case it's pointless to do the upgrade.

I heard last week that support for Windows XP Service pack 3 has been extended for another 3 years (approx.) That means there's still enough of a user base to merit Microsoft continuing the support of it. That also means that Microsoft trying to be all things to all platforms may not be the best approach to bring those holdouts on board. Reliability and performance will always trump a pretty interface.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The IT Job Posting Code...(updated)

When times get a little rough in consulting I look for "regular" work to tide me over for a while.

You know my penchant for project and consulting work so when that fails me I end up resorting to the 9 to 5 grind.

The popular 80's phrase of "work smarter not harder" is important to keep in mind when reviewing job posts.

Now I know in this economy one should be willing to take any job just to get by but I'm a long-term thinker. It does no good for my reputation or my resume to land a job that ultimately makes me miserable, doesn't improve my skills and in general just wastes everyone's time. It runs contrary to my own little personal crusade of ridding IT of the "Frauds" who make life miserable for the rest of us striving to be more "Fundamentalist" in the field. If you're not engaged you're not really contributing anything so when looking at job postings keep these tips in mind:

1. If a posting doesn't fit at least 80% of your skills or experience don't bother with it. (Or Know Thyself...)

Recruiters (company or agency) have little punch lists given to them by the hiring manager. Hey, they're HR people not tech geeks and they won't understand any of your technobabble explanations about equivalent skills. If most of the posting looks like greek to you don't bother with it. Even if you landed the job I can guarantee you'll end up miserable and likely be out the door in less than 6 months. Of course that would let you list those new buzz-words on your updated resume but then you'd just be heading down the road of a "Fraud" which is ultimately unfullfilling.

2. Buzz Words ( Or fitting what you DO know into their little punch lists)

This may seem contrary to the previous guideline but it's not. Since these little punch-down lists are so important to HR recruiters it's important to give them what they want if you're actually qualified for the job they're advertising. Remember they're not tech people they can only go off what's in front of them on their list. So, if the posting says something like "Day to day administration of Windows Server 2003 and 2008 servers" Don't put "Windows Servers" on your resume. You're going to have to match their little punch-lists if you want a shot. If you have Server 2003 and 2008, list that skill.  

Otherwise you could be sending the impression that you're not confident in the platform they use. Often resumes are scanned for content and those without matching buzz-words are eliminated. Don't end up in the round file because you got lazy with your listed skills. Conversely, don't overload your resume with skills either. Nobody has the time to read all of that crap. Think newspaper articles. Get the important stuff they're interested in right up in their face and don't waste space on skills they don't care about unless they have some relevance. For Example, if you're a system admin with real experience in VMWare make sure to put it down if the posting happens to mention virtualization of any type.

3. Scan the posting carefully. (Or watch for the ambiguous)

I hate these types of posts. They remind me of classified ads for used cars (you know "Clean, runs good".) but nothing substantial about the job itself. It usually starts off with something like, "We need a Windows System Administrator with SQL Server and some Web development skills for our busy office in North Wonderfulville." Which is usually followed by 2 paragraphs about what a wonderful company they are and how great the benefits package is. You get a commercial for the company and almost nothing about the job. In this economy why are they selling themselves so hard? It's an immediate red flag that the hiring manager doesn't have a clue about the job or what they're looking for. I've responded to ads like this only to find out the job wasn't a System Admin but a web developer. I've actually had to explain that to the interviewer too. At the end I felt like I should have billed them for my time. Approach this type of posting at your own risk.

4. Dealing with employment agency and head hunter posts

You're more likely to deal with an employment agency or head hunter when getting a job these days. The previous guidelines apply with a few caveats. First, know that you're dealing with a middleman. It's not unlike the car salesman on a dealer's lot. Promises will be made that won't always be kept and when you discover the truth expect to be left holding the bag. It's not that I hate agencies, I just have a low tolerance for BS. It's actually worse to deal with an agency that it is to deal directly with an employer's HR department. Agencies get the same punch list and try to match it to their own skills database which may or may not be relevant to the employer's needs.

Turnover tends to be high in employment agencies and I've actually had my recruiter leave in the middle of an assignment and been dumped on another recruiter who has no clue about the employer you're assigned to. In that case they fall back on the basics of whatever the agreement is and you have virtually no representation from them if a problem develops. If something goes amiss they'll drop you like a hot potato and you'll never hear from them again. You've become a "difficult placement" which makes you a pariah even if you've done nothing wrong. Agencies are in it to make as much money on your labor as they can. Anything that gives the impression of threatening that throws the kill switch. Unless you love the job and expect to stay there after the contract is done, don't expect any long-term love from an agency.

Also watch out for long-term temp to hire contracts. If you're involved in a contract for more than a year know that you probably won't get paid vacation, medical benefits or any of the normal trappings. After a year it can be kind of rough to not have any benefits but all the responsibilities. On the upside you usually get a better hourly rate. Of course you have to question an employer that takes more than 6 months to commit to hiring someone. That's why I like contracts with a definitive end. I like to do my thing and get out before I go postal :)

5. The liars

Wow, that's a strong statement here's what I mean by it.

Caveat Emptor applies here. If you go through all the stuff I've already mentioned above you still have to be wary especially with an agency posting. Into this group I firmly place the resume stackers who operate on the shoot first, ask later principle.  If you've put a resume on in the past decade you've likely already heard from these types.  You know them, they're the ones who demanded your life history, mother's maiden name and social security number for a mid-level job that promised a CEO's salary.  Perhaps not that bad but it's a lie all the same.

Examples are usually more descriptive than paragraphs of babble so here's a good one....

I apparently applied for a position recently and the agency recruiter decided to get back to me on it. It took so long that I didn't even remember applying for the job so I was already at a disadvantage and the recruiter didn't help. There was no indication of when I applied, how I applied or who the job was for just a bunch of ambiguities..

Here's a piece of the posting and the email from the recruiter..

"I just left you a message regarding this opportunity. You had applied to my dice posting.
I'm going to include the job description for ease of communication.
I can be reached at xxx-xxx-xxxx.

Job Description
This position is not a laid back network/server monitoring position. This person must be able to handle the workload, corporate environment and interaction with executive level employees and global vendors. Candidate will be expected to be a leader guiding the network/server environment throughout the America's once they champion the PHX office. Previous corporate/enterprise experience on a team environment is important.

Any skills listed as required must be from hands-on work experience and not solely based on certifications or testing/home experience. This person will be a leader guiding the network/server environment throughout the America's once they champion the XXX office."

I looked over the job description and saw a couple of red flags right at the outset...
"This position is not a laid back network/server environment" Ok, That tells me one of two things. 

Either the management team is a bunch of insufferable jerks or they've been burned in the past. Either way

I can expect to be monitored like bacteria in a pitre dish. Great way to start a new job!

"Any skills listed ...must be from hands on work experience and not solely based on certifications or testing/home experience."

Ok, now I know they've been burned and have an attitude problem to boot. At this point I'm definitely NOT interested but wait there's more..

"The scope of the position also requires managing implementation projects falling under the scope of the Region for Liner and Logistics. Limited after normal business hours support responsibilities. Travel will be minimum."

Read that as "We own you" We all know there's no such thing as "limited after hours" when it comes to a global logistics company or any other company for that matter.  No thanks, that flies in the face of my "It's a job not a lifestyle" credo. The promise from the agency recruiter didn't even match up to her own job description as evidenced below...

The posting says "travel will be minimum" When I asked the recruiter about that she responded, "There isn't any travel------The company is global---it's a logistics company"


OK, Now I know I'm being lied to. How is travel NOT a requirement when it says it in the posting and requires you to be,"a leader guiding the network/server environment throughout the America's once they champion the PHX office. "?! 

That much use of the adjective, "limited" is always suspect.

This is a CYA move so the agency and the employer have an out when they start flying you all over the place and you start asking what "minimum" means. Sorry but that's a lie in my book.

The lie and the attitude turned me off. I wouldn't last a month in that kind of environment. I'd love to do some contract work for them but when offered, the agency turned me down. I guess I wasn't "humble enough".

Know thyself and you'll stay out of a lot of trouble. For me this wasn't an opportunity it was a noose...

6. You've landed the job, congratulations!  Don't get too comfortable...

Here's a little bit of advice that will make you life a whole lot easier.  Warning, this goes contrary to what most recruiters will tell you which is how you know it's true.  Remember, they're experts at placing candidates not doing the jobs they're trying to fill.

Here we go...

Treat every job like its a contract position even if its a regular full time gig.  It's rare to have one job for the rest of your life anyway unless you're self employed.  Most people move on to other positions every 3 to 5 years which doesn't exactly allow a lot of time to grow roots.  Be task oriented, take advantage of any new skills you can pick up and be ready to move on when the time is right.  Remember that loyalty comes from dogs not employers, don't be a dog.

Many people make the mistake of thinking their job is somehow a reflection of themselves. That's completely wrong, a "job" is one specific task to be completed and dismissed.  A career is compromised of a series of "jobs."  So don't be afraid to mix it up a bit.

There's an old adage that goes something like expecting to get a different result from doing the same thing repeatedly is madness and it is.

Life's too short to deal with other people's hangups for too long so keep your options open and save your loyalty for your own well being.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Why malware works

I've just returned from a late night session at one of my clients. 

It all started with an email from a user at the site informing me that another user was having issues with their PC running slowly and not allowing their email client to function.

Most of my client sites are small offices with less than 10 users so reporting issues to me is an informal process.  So while I got the report about the other user I also had a few requests from the user that sent the email.

Turns out the other user's problems were related to a rather nasty piece of malware (TDS4 rootkit) that did all those nasty things that rootkits tend to do. 

It was polymorphic so it evaded the virus scanner...
It denied access to task manager and loaded the CPU to 100% with constant attempts
to download more malware...
And finally it tried to open random nefarious web pages.

I've been dealing with this kind of issue a lot lately but usually it's the XP 2012 Fake AV that fools users into installing the malware then digs itself in, destroys the user profile and in some cases downloads more malware allowing the infected pc to become part of a torrent serving botnet.

I had just cleaned up both the reporting user and the other user's pc 3 weeks before.  They knew what happened and why.  They were given admonition against trusting anything they didn't already use on a regular basis and shown what it was that caused the problem I had to fix.

So I got the obligatory nodding of the head and promise that they'd be more vigilant because after all security is everyone's responsibility right?

Well, I guess I should just accept that it's just my responsibility.  You think I'd learn after almost 20 years...

The sad fact is that users can care less about the damage a malicious trojan or entrenched rootkit can do to their PC.  After all, that's what you're there for and they expect you'll fix it before they're back from lunch.  The next killer app that promises endless coupons or installs a cute dancing cow on their desktop will quickly nullify every attempt to counter such social engineering.  It's not unlike a speeding driver who when caught blames the car for his actions because it goes too fast.

Not the best analogy, I know...

So the battle for social engineering is lost.  It must be because we've been droning on about responsible use of computers for decades now and our advice is still largely ignored or at least quickly forgotten. 

So now we have to take preemptive action.  That usually involves the installation of a layered protection system consisting of not just Anti-Virus but also anti-malware software to save the user from themselves. 

At my client sites I currently use Sophos for Anti-Virus and Malwarebytes for malware protection. I find it a good combination of security software that keep a small footprint and don't fight with each other when doing their jobs.  This part is important.  Avoid bloated packages that get in the way of workflow and perform only marginally.

I'm not afraid to say openly that I find Most Symantec and McAfee products to be absolutely useless when it comes to malware and rootkits.  Worse, if the consumer versions end up in a business setting. They become almost completely ineffective and are sure to cause user complaints as these lumbering giants steal system resources and get in the way of every mouse click needlessly. 

The KISS principle is very relevant here.  Stick with products that do the one thing they do well and don't try to be anything else.  I used to recommend AVAST! until it contracted the Symantec bloat disease and became an ineffective security solution. 

If you find yourself at an infected user's PC searching the Internet for another software package to do what you thought you had already paid for it's a good indicator that it's time for a change.  Sounds obvious but it's surprising how much an IT department will put up with just because they have a history with one vendor.

In some cases a user will figure out how to shut off the security software if they feel it's too intrusive.  Try to avoid that scenario if possible.  Unfortunately if your clients are still using Windows XP and have legacy software then you'll have a hard time keeping them out of the settings since there are still far too many applications that require administrator privileges.  Since an Administrator account trumps all else, any pc with user running as local administrators is at risk.  Expect some type of security issue at some point in this case.

In spite of all your efforts to deploy the perfect security suite, you're bound to get complaints from users that they can't get their favorite site to work anymore. What they don't tell you is that it's the same site that almost destroyed their PC on their last visit. They'll scowl and complain regardless of the evidence or they'll claim the security software interferes with their work. 

Unless their work is collecting coupons or evaluating dancing cow version 2.3.2 I can honestly care less.  I'm not draconian, I just don't want to bankrupt my client fixing the same problem over and over again.  It's boring and hurts your credibility in the long run.

This is where communication comes in.  You have to let your clients (the ones who sign your check) know what's going on and why you're doing it.  Explain to them the implications to their business and stress the costs involved including: lost productivity, lost data and of course the cost of having you waste more time fixing the same problem.

The only way to fight entrenched bad habits is irrefutable evidence that it's costing your client/business money.  Nobody in their right mind is going to argue your logic especially if they sign your checks

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Maintenance Windows

Subtle admonitions, Strict adherence to SLA's or boldface demands...

Ever try to convince an entire enterprise that you need to take down their servers for a weekend?  There's always resistance and even if you get your time window somebody's going to complain that they can't get to their stuff. 

Maybe somebody higher up in the organization will make you postpone your maintenance window just because they can.  "No, we can't send our satellite office of 3 people home an hour early.  It will impact our performance!"

Ah, office politics.  The great monkey wrench...

It's understandable in this day and age of 24/7 everything that users expect zero downtime.  That's reasonable given ideal circumstances. My experience has yet to show me an enterprise where that ideal exists.

In fact, it's impossible unless the enterprise is based on IT.  Think online universities or Large software companies.  Unless IT is at the core of the business it's not a priority.

Strangely enough, IT is at the core of most businesses whether the business knows it or not.  Your users just take it for granted.  "It worked yesterday so it'll work tomorrow so there's no need to inconvenience me."

There's a few approaches to deal with this.

You can just ignore the necessary maintenance and wait for something to blow up.
Then you get all the time you need to take care of things.  The downside is you're probably going to lose a weekend, the department will be blamed for being incompetent and somebody's going to get shown the exit.

You can force extensions to maintenance window by ignoring the predetermined time limits but you won't make too many friends and that exit door is likely to be in your future.

You can make the argument that 24/7 availability is unrealistic without putting resources in place to make it possible.  That's reasonable but will likely fall on deaf ears.

Seems like a no-win scenario. 

Unless you can get support from someone other than your IT director it is.

Unreasonable maintenance windows and a lack of proper resources is a systematic problem outside of your ability as an IT professional to fix. 

The fact is, if you're in an organization that won't allocate resources to meet demands then you need to get out.  It's really that simple so don't overthink it.

Discovery Channel's Mythbusters may have been able to successfully polish cow patties but in the end they were still cow patties.  Take a lesson from that...

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The 2 faces of an IT pro.

So after my first post you've probably concluded I'm an arrogant SOB with an attitude problem.

Well, I'll fight you tooth and nail about the arrogant part but the attitude problem I'll fully embrace. :)

Over my career thus far I've seen two primary types of IT people; I like to call them the Fundamentalists and the Frauds.

Wow, that sounds like some kind of profound observation there!  Actually, I'm just pleased that I found another word that starts with "F" to go along with "Fraud".

Now I'm not saying that there's a bunch of IT people who sacrifice Xbox consoles to some giant, flame encircled Proliant server somewhere.  Nor do I suggest the other group is running bot nets and stealing PIN codes from your local ATM.

No, what I'm getting at has more to do with an IT person's motivation for doing the job.

Fundamentalists (from my point of view) are those whose motivation stems from a deeply rooted desire to leverage technology for the benefit of their organization.  There's no room for BS in this definition and the status quo is nothing more than a starting point.  Force a fundamentalist into a badly managed IT organization and you'll soon have a full scale revolt (of 1) on your hands.

We'd all like to believe we fit that definition wouldn't we...

Maybe, maybe not.  A devout fundamentalist strives for the ideal to exclusion of all else.  That can be a problem.  I've met brilliant IT people who couldn't hold up their end of a conversation to the point of almost social retardation.  Unless you're writing code for Face book your career opportunities will be few and far between. 

Now, the Frauds (again from my point of view).  Frauds aren't necessarily bad IT people.  They're not the laziest or least dedicated.  In fact the very thing that makes them frauds is the elaborate construct they painstakingly maintain just to appear valuable to their organization.  At some point the Fraud settles for the status quo and tries not to be the squeaky wheel.  Only high profile projects that support their construct are given priority and all available resources are marshaled to support it.   Frauds aren't born, they're made and we've all been one or will be at some point in our career.  Here's why...

At some point many IT people tire of running headlong into the brick wall that is senior IT management that many enterprises employ.  Instead of constant frustration they learn to game the system by only involving themselves in projects where their supposed herculean efforts can be easily seen. 

If there isn't a high profile project available they'll often create one.  They'll work innumerable hours, sacrifice personal life and family just to maintain the construct.  Unfortunately, all this time and effort maintaining their image leaves little time for dealing with...wait for it...Yes! the fundamentals of their job.  Maintenance of the infrastructure and upgrading of skills fall by the wayside with more work being assigned to lower level IT people and heavier reliance on outside consultants to perform tasks that should be basic to their job.  "Ah, but if senior management sees my great deeds and supposed dedication I'll be just fine!"  Yes, for awhile you will...

I've run into both types in varying degrees.  Maybe it's the former clerk who happened to be the techie person in the office and is suddenly the network administrator.  Being an expert in Excel and clearing paper jams in the printer is a poor foundation for dealing with network issues.  Still it was probably a bump in pay and how hard could this computer stuff be anyway.

It could be the grizzled veteran who just got sick of hearing the word "No".  So he/she gets the lay of the land and figures out what it takes to make the executive suites happy with the minimal amount of effort. 

The key difference here is the divergence of motivations.  The fundamentalist motivation is rooted in accomplishment with or without the laurels.  The Fraud is more concerned with self preservation.

Stay in a badly managed organization long enough, however, and even a fundamentalist can become a fraud.  The lesson here: Get out when you don't care anymore.

There is no black and white steadfast rule.  Life is about shades or grey.  We're IT and we have to deal with people so a degree of self-preservation is of course a good thing from a financial point of view at least.  Still the motivation has to be (or should be) more fundamentalist than Fraud.  Let's give it a ratio of 80/20 nodding toward the fundamentalist. 

Anything less and your just wasting time and making yourself miserable.  How much fun can it be to constantly be watching your back anyway?