Blog Fiasco

August 4, 2014

How I keep organized despite being an unorganized person

Filed under: Musings,Project Management — Tags: , , , , — bcotton @ 8:45 pm

I am not, by nature, a well-organized person. I’ve known people who are always on top of what they need to do and where things are. I can’t do that. And even though I generally do my best to make sure I meet my responsibilities on time, I’ve been known to let things languish too long by accident.

When my wife became pregnant with our second child, I was forced to adapt. Although the pregnancy ended with a healthy, full-term baby, it was a rough one for my dear wife. She was, much to her dismay, effectively confined to the couch for the better part of nine months (at least to the degree that one can remain stationary while parenting a two year old). This left me responsible for the bulk of the housework, in addition to working, grad school, and trying to be a husband and father.

Clearly, I needed to step up my organizational game. For a long time, I used TuDu to manage my todo list. It’s still, from a feature perspective, my favorite such tool, but the fact that mobile access required SSHing to my desktop was not the best user experience. I found Wunderlist and soon decided it was not only a great application, but also worth paying for.

Wunderlist soon became my crutch. Everything I had to do went into Wunderlist. With due dates, categories, and hashtag searches, I could easily see only what I needed to see. I knew the only way I would do things like clean the bathroom on a regular basis was if I had a gentle reminder, so I loaded up with recurring events. During a particularly hectic April (a major project at work had me working almost every night and weekend), I completely outsourced my days to Wunderlist. Whatever the list said, I did. I’m fortune that no one compromised my account,  because I’m not sure I would have paused to consider a “give me all your money” task.

Wunderlist, and more importantly my regular and dedicated use of it, has helped my organization tremendously. Gone are the days of accidentally forgetting to pay a bill because it wasn’t due at the same time as the rest (yes, yes, autopay. I only do that for bills that are semi-regular.) Despite being a one man show, the house is probably cleaner than it was with both of us able to contribute simply because things were regular and scheduled.

Another tool that I’ve fallen in love with, though I haven’t yet started making full use of is Trello. I was introduced to Trello at work. It’s what we use to track development work and large projects. I recently took my list of blog post it was out of Wunderlist and put them into Trello. Now I can have various posts in a variety of states and see at a glance where they are. I’ve introduced it to a community blog I contribute to and to a local free/open source software group I’m a part of.

Of course, I still use TaskJuggler for some things, but it’s not necessarily well-suited for managing my entire life. If I were to attempt to put all of my personal and work projects into a single TaskJuggler project, my computer might explode.

The downside to having everything I need to do mapped out for me is that it’s all so damn visible. When I get sick or tired (as of this writing, I’m a little bit of both), this wall of todo can be incredibly overwhelming. But I am disorganized and lazy by default,  so the fact that I have tools available to help me overcome these traits is generally a life-improver. Now if only there were an app that would clean my office for me…

July 29, 2014

Who’s competing with whom?

Filed under: Musings,The Internet — Tags: , , , — bcotton @ 7:33 pm

In Sunday’s Lafayette Journal & Courier, the USA Today section included an article by Matt Krantz comparing Microsoft and Apple. He treats the two companies as arch rivals, comparing them to the Cola War participants and to the longstanding animosity between fans of Ford and Chevy pickups. And he wasn’t wrong 20 years ago, but he is now. The OS wars are, if not entirely over, at least in a state of permanent cease-fire. Microsoft has very clearly won in volume; Apple turns a handsome profit. With the move toward a browser-based world, the OS on desktops and laptops is becoming increasingly irrelevant to mainstream consumers.

Indeed, the desktop and laptop are becoming less relevant (though not irrelevant, despite the slower sales in recent years). Over half of Apple’s Q3 2014 revenue came from iPhone sales. Macs (and the attendant Mac OS X) were a mere 15% of revenue. Apple could completely abandon the PC market tomorrow and still be fine. They’re clearly in the mobile device (and services) business today. Sure, Microsoft has a mobile offering. I’ve used a recent Windows Phone and it was pretty nice. But Microsoft is competing with Apple in the mobile space the same way that Apple is competing with Microsoft in the desktop OS space. As a hint, it’s the same way that this blog competes with Ars Technica.

If Apple is a mobile company, then who are they competing with? The obvious answer is Google. While Google doesn’t really do devices, they control the Android ecosystem (although the degree of control is debatable). Steve Jobs was willing to declare “thermonuclear war” on Android. I’m not aware of him harboring a similar hatred for the Windows Mobile devices that existed many years before.

I mentioned this on Twitter, and Krantz argued that Google is an ad company, whereas Apple and Microsoft are “technology companies”. The distinction is lost on me. Technology is such a broad term that it is effectively meaningless. And while Google may derive most of its revenue from advertising, it’s only capable of generating that revenue because of the technology it produces and acquires.

There’s just not much meaningful competition between Apple and Microsoft these days. Both of these companies compete with Google, but in different spaces. The recently-announced partnership between Apple and IBM may bring Apple back into competition with Microsoft, but that remains to be seen.

So what are the lessons here? First: just because a guy has a money column in USA Today, that doesn’t mean he understands the technology (overly-broad term used intentionally) industry. Second: just because you were once bitter rivals with a company (or a person), you may not stay that way forever. Third: it is very important to be aware of who is in the space you want to be in so you can do it better than they do.


July 15, 2014

Humans as investments, not resources

Filed under: Musings,Project Management — Tags: , , — bcotton @ 10:24 am

As I last week, two tweets on Sunday morning lead me to a lengthy pontification about HR and how organizations treat employees. In part two, I focus on an article shared by Mrs. Y in which we find that the longer you stay in your position, the more money you’re robbing from your future self. I’m approaching the eight year anniversary of the start of my first professional job and just passed the one year anniversary of the start of my fourth. I just ran the numbers: assuming a 2% annual raise (which is probably generous), I’m making nearly 60% more than I would had I stayed in that first job.

Money isn’t everything, of course. I’ve never left a job because I wanted more money (though I’ve never complained about getting more money). Every time I left a job, it’s because I ran out of room to grow my skills and responsibilities or because I was dissatisfied with the organization. In those cases, throwing more money at me would have been at best a short-term inducement to stay. Still, it has been my experience that the best way to get what you want is to leave and go get it elsewhere. This is fundamentally broken. How much productivity does an organization lose when years of experience walk out the door? How much frustration does a person gain when they have to re-learn a new job, a new employer, and often a new city?

The basic issue is that all too often, organizations treat employees as resources to extract value from. Viewed properly, employees are investments that will help the organization grow. I’ve heard managers say “why should I send you to that training? You’ll probably end up leaving.” Of course, the manager is sure he’s right when the employee does leave. But maybe they’d have stayed if the organization was willing to invest.

When an employer gives a big raise or other consideration to an employee, it tends to be in reaction to the employee receiving an offer from somewhere else. “If I give you more money, will you stay?” is a losing proposition. At that point, the employee is already heading for the door. It’s far better to keep the good employees sufficiently happy such that they don’t get those offers in the first place. Of course, some people will always leave, and there’s no stopping that. Prolonging the period of mutual benefit is the best possible outcome.

The notion of loyalty to an employer strikes me as being misplaced. When an employer won’t take proactive steps to aid the development of an employee, why does the employee owe any loyalty? There are good organizations out there that really do try to keep employees on an upward trajectory when it comes to pay and skills. Those that don’t aren’t necessarily bad, but they’re not doing themselves any favors.

Of course, the blame isn’t entirely on the shoulders of the employer. Employees have to understand that their bosses aren’t mind readers. My major regret from my last job is the fact that I wasn’t more vocal about what I wanted from the position along the way. Maybe something could have been done that would have made me want to say “no thanks” when I was offered my current job. Or maybe not. But at least then I would have had to choose.

July 7, 2014

Organizational silos in the 21st century

My friend Joanna shared an interesting Harvard Business Review article yesterday morning entitled “It’s Time to Split HR“. Along with another link article that was shared by someone else a few minutes later, I found myself making a rather lengthy pontification about how organizations treat employees, particularly with respect to pay. Originally, I was going to focus on that, but the more I thought about it, the more I think there are two separate-but-related posts. So in this one, I’ll focus on the HBR article.

Ram Charan lays out an interesting argument for bifurcating the traditional Human Resources department into administration (e.g. compensation, hiring, etc.) and leadership (e.g. personnel development) roles. It’s certainly a proposal worth considering. As commenter Jonathan Magid pointed out, the two roles of HR are essentially to protect the organization from its employees and to develop those same employees. HR effectively has to serve two masters. In most cases where there’s a conflict of interest, HR will side with the organization. That makes sense, since the organization is the one writing the pay checks.

Charan, however, doesn’t really address this. His main concern seems to be the lack of strategic understanding within the ranks of HR leadership. Chief Human Resources Offices (CHROs), he writes, are too specialized in HR functional areas and lack understanding of the larger organization. This is true of all areas, though. Especially those that are not core to the business. Too often, IT leadership is painted (appropriately) with the same brush. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the area needs to go away.

The best employees are familiar with other areas of the business, not just those under their direct purview. This is true of all functional areas and at all levels. In a previous job, we frequently lamented that HR wasn’t as helpful as they could be in vetting resumes because they didn’t understand technology. Go on any forum where technical people gather and eventually you’ll find disparaging remarks and advice to game keywords because that’s all HR will understand. In my experience, the issue isn’t that HR staff are terrible human beings, it’s that they’re just too siloed.

Everyone “knows” that silos are bad. Bureaucratic fiefdoms tend to be self-reenforcing and lead to reactionary, defensive tactics like information hoarding in order to keep justifying their existence. What I find so interesting is that organizations can’t seem to avoid forming silos. Siloization is like an organizational version of entropy: left alone, it will increase over time.

There are certainly benefits to silos. They make the organization easier to understand. They allow for deep specialization. Knowledge transfer is simplified. But they’re a losing prospect in the longer term.

A good friend of mine directs the IT support organization for a large academic unit within a large midwestern university. This group is notable because it provides excellent customer service (according to their internal measures, the opinions of the customers, and their reputation on campus) and actively suppresses silo formation. He told me that silo suppression is “extremely expensive, and very difficult to explain/justify to people.”

Silo suppression is expensive because it’s a long-term investment in the organization. Rotating senior personnel through phone duty is expensive as compared to putting the newest, cheapest hire on that task all day. Requiring all knowledge to be shared among at least one colleague requires a larger staff. Hiring and retaining people who buy into the organizational philosophy is a slower and more expensive process. All of this looks terrible in a short-term view.

Where silo suppression pays off is in the long term. Vacations, illnesses, and employee turnover are less disruptive because the knowledge is retained. Someone else in the organization can pick up dropped issues without a long spin-up time. Employees develop a broader view of their work and can make useful suggestions for areas outside of their main expertise.

There are undoubtedly psychological and sociological reasons that we gravitate toward developing silos. Organizational leaders must be aware of this tendency and actively work to counter it. The problem with HR isn’t that the people or the functions are bad. The problem is that HR is not out “among the people.” Embedding HR representatives within other functional areas of an organization is almost certain to improve HR’s understanding of the larger business. In addition, it may help make HR more approachable and better understood by the rest of the organization, allowing employees to make the best use of the HR resources available.

Organizational silos are interesting. We know that they’re bad, but we always end up reverting to them over time. Maybe just we need better silos. Silos built around projects that can easily be torn down and put up somewhere else may give us the best of both worlds.

June 20, 2014

Is storm chasing unethical?

Filed under: Musings,Weather — Tags: , , , — bcotton @ 8:03 pm

Eric Holthaus wrote an article for Slate arguing that storm chasing has become unethical. This article has drawn a lot of response from the meteorological community, and not all of the dialogue has been productive. Holthaus makes some good points, but he’s wrong in a few places, too. His biggest sin is painting with too wide a brush.

At the root of the issue is Mark Farnik posting a picture of a mortally wounded five-year-old girl. The girl was injured in a tornado that struck Pilger, Nebraska and succumbed to the injuries a short time later. To be perfectly clear, I have no problem with Farnik posting the picture, nor do I have a problem with him “profiting” off it. Photojournalism is not always pleasant, but it’s an important job. To suggest that such pictures can’t be shared or even taken is to do us a disservice. 19 years on, the picture of a firefighter holding Baylee Almon remains the single most iconic image from the Oklahoma City bombing.

None of this would have come up had Farnik not posted the following to Facebook: “I need some highly photogenic and destructive tornadoes to make it rain for me financially.” That’s a pretty awful statement. While I enjoy tornado video as much as anyone, I prefer them to occur over open fields. Nobody I know ever wishes for destruction, and I’d be loath to associate with anyone who did. This one sentence served as an entry point to condemn an entire hobby.

Let’s look at Holthaus’ points individually:

  1. Storm chasers are not saving lives. Some chasers make a point to report weather phenomena to the local NWS office immediately. Some chasers do not. Some will stop to render assistance when they come across damage and injuries. Some will not. In both cases, my own preference is for the former. Patrick Marsh, the Internet’s resident weather data expert, found no evidence that an increase in chasers has had any effect on the tornado fatalities. In any case, not saving lives is hardly a condemnation of an activity. Golf is not an inherently life-saving avocation, but I don’t see anyone arguing that it’s unethical.
  2. Chasing with the intent to profit… adds to the perverse incentive for more and more risky behavior. Some people act stupidly when money or five minutes of Internet fame are on the line. This is hardly unique to storm chasing. Those chasers who put themselves or others in danger are acting stupidly. The smart ones place a premium on safety. What’s more, the glee that chasers often express in viral videos is disrespectful to people who live there and may be adversely affected by the storm. Also true. The best videos are shot from a tripod and feature quiet chasers.
  3. A recent nationwide upgrade to the National Weather Service’s Doppler radar network has probably rendered storm chasers obsolete anyway. Bull. Dual-polarization radar does greatly aid the radar detection of debris, but ground truth is still critical. Radar cannot determine if a wall cloud is rotating. It cannot determine if a funnel cloud is forming. It cannot observe debris that does not exist (e.g. if a tornado is over a field). If you wait for a debris signature on radar, you’ve already lost. In a post to the wx-chase mailing list, NWS meteorologist Tanja Fransen made it very clear that spotters are not obsolete. To be clear, spotters and chasers are not the same thing, even if some people (yours truly, for example) engage in both activities.

The issue here is that in the age of social media, it’s easier for the bad eggs to stand out. It’s easy to find chasers behaving stupidly, sometimes they even get their own cable shows. The well-behaved chasers, by their very nature, tend to not be noticed. Eric Holthaus is welcome to not chase anymore, that’s his choice. I haven’t chased in several years, but that’s more due to family obligations than anything else. I have, and will continue to, chase with the safety of myself and others as the top priority.

June 3, 2014

If you never test it, it doesn’t exist

Filed under: Musings,The Internet — Tags: , — bcotton @ 7:55 pm

Did you hear the one about the Texas couple who spent seven years paying for an alarm system that never worked? It’s easy to blame the vendor (especially since it’s Comcast) since 1) the system was not correctly installed and 2) when the homeowner noticed, the customer support agent said the system hadn’t reported in since 2007. Certainly Comcast shoulders a lot of the blame. After some pressure, they agreed to refund the full seven years worth of payments. However, the Leeson family is responsible as well. In seven years of paying for an alarm system, they apparently never tested it themselves.

A service that is never tested does not exist. If you don’t test it when you don’t need it, you can’t count on it being available when you do. It’s why emergency managers test outdoor warning sirens. It’s why hospitals test their generators. It’s why sysadmins test their backups. So here’s my challenge to you, dear reader: think about systems you rely on and test them — before you need them.

May 25, 2014

IT as an insurance center

Filed under: Musings,Project Management — bcotton @ 9:04 pm

Not all companies view IT in the same way. Some see it as an expense to be tolerated (a.k.a. a cost center). Others view it as a way of making (more) money (a.k.a. a profit center). A company’s industry, age, and management demographic are significant influencers of how a company treats its IT organization. A while back, a post on Reddit described a third view: IT as an “insurance center”.

It’s an interesting idea. The thought of IT being a mitigator of loss instead of simply a money hole certainly helps sell expenditures to executives. On the other hand, it seems that a lot of the risks mitigated with IT services are a direct result of the services themselves. An email system may be more efficient than typewritten memoranda, but does the email system really prevent or mitigate loss? If anything, it’s more likely to introduce loss when the system that everyone depends on goes down.

The more I thought about it, the more I’m convinced that it’s folly to treat IT as a monolithic organization, at least when it comes to characterizing the kind of center. Characterizations should be made at the service level. Basic infrastructure, no matter how necessary, will almost always be a cost center. Services that enable the business to do more of whatever business it does, to expand into new areas, or to otherwise bring in more money are profit centers. Services that protect the company against loss are insurance centers. A healthy company will have all three, but they can’t be managed the same.

April 20, 2014

Ten years since Jamestown

Filed under: Funnel Fiasco,Musings,Weather — Tags: , , — bcotton @ 8:47 pm

Ten years ago, I was sitting in my apartment on a rainy Tuesday afternoon. My last class of the day ended around 1:30 and I was settled in to get some work done on the forecast game that I ran for the University. WFO Lincoln had issued a few tornado warnings and there were reports of cold air funnels, so my friend Mike Kruze and I decided to spend the afternoon driving around getting rained on. Instead, we saw one of the most photogenic tornadoes ever recorded in Indiana. And then another one. And then a third (though this one is unofficial, since we could not see the ground from our position and no damage was observed in the empty field).

This was only two days after Mike and I had returned from a marathon drive to northern Iowa, where the most we saw was vivid lightning and large hail after sunset. By this point, I had been chasing for a year and a half. Chase attempts evolved from some undergrad doofuses piling in the car and driving around to a fairly mature venture with thoughtful forecasts, data stops, and real efforts to be in position. Of course, as luck would have it, April 20 ended up being somewhat of a doofus day. Mike had a data plan on his Sprint PCS phone, and it was just enough for us to pull up the occasional radar image. Without that, we’d never have found ourselves standing in rural Boone County with a tornado directly to our west.

At the time of the Jamestown tornado, wasn’t even a gleam in my eye. I was planning on making a career in the National Weather Service. I figured chasing would be a thing I did with regularity. Ten years on, I’ve earned my meteorology degree, but I’ve never worked as a professional in the field. I have one chase day in the last five years, and I’m less than a year from a decade-long tornado drought. I’ve still only chased west of the Mississippi twice. With a toddler and home and another baby due early summer, I’m not likely to get out this year. But I still feel the gentle tug of the storm, pulling me to go out and seek it. I know I will at some point. I just don’t know when.

April 15, 2014

Bug trackers and service desks

Filed under: Musings,Project Management — Tags: , — bcotton @ 5:58 pm

I have recently been evaluating options for our customer support work. For years, my company has used a bug tracker to handle both bugs and support requests. It has worked, mostly well enough, but there are some definite shortcomings. I can’t say that I’m an expert on all the offerings in the two spaces, but I’ve used quite a few over the years. My only conclusion is that there is no single product that does both well.

Much of the basic functionality is the same, but it’s the differenences that are key. A truly excellent service desk system is aware of customer SLAs. Support tickets shouldn’t languish untouched for months or even years. But it’s perfectly normal for minor bugs to live indefinitely, especially if the “bug” is actually a planned enhancement. Service desks should present customers with a self-service portal, if only to see the current status of their tickets. Unfortunately, most bug trackers present too much information for a non-technical user (can you imagine having your CEO using Bugzilla to manage tickets?). While this interface is great for managing bugs, it’s pretty lousy otherwise.

Of course, because they’re similar in many respects, the ideal solution has your service desk and your bug tracker interacting smoothly. Sometimes support requests are the result of a bug. Having a way to tie them together us very beneficial. How will your service desk agents know to follow up with the customer unless the bug tracker updates affected cases when a bug is resolved? How will your developers get the information they need if the service desk can’t update the bug tracker?

Many organizations, especially small businesses and non-profits, will probably use one or the other. Development-oriented organizations will lean toward bug trackers and others will favor service desk tools. In either case, they’ll make do with the limitations for the use they didn’t favor. Still, it behooves IT leadership to consider separate-but-interconnected solutions I’m order to achieve the maximum benefit.

March 27, 2014

Fun with birthdays

Filed under: Musings — Tags: , , , — bcotton @ 9:09 pm

Sometimes I get distracted by shiny trivia. Shortly before St. Patrick’s Day, I noticed that seven of my Facebook friends happened to celebrate their birth on that holiday. That seemed surprisingly high, so I went through and counted up the birthdays for all 459 of my Facebook friends who have their birthday listed. The results are interesting. I don’t know if they’re meaningful or not.

As you can see from the I-should-have-made-it-larger chart above, any given day is most likely to be the birthday of one of my Facebook friends. It is slightly less likely to be the birthday of none of my friends. That was the most surprising result: I would never have expected that 108 days a year are empty when there are 459 birthdays to go around.

St. Patrick’s Day is the most frequently-birthed day with seven, although June 4 has six. According to the New York Times, those are the 134th and 146th most common birthdays. The most common birthday for those born between 1973 and 1999 is September 16, yet none of my Facebook friends claim that day.

May and December are the most common months for my friends, both with 52 birthdays. January is the least common with 25, though February and November each have 26. February gets some credit for being the shortest month, but it is still among the three months with less than one birthday per day. January does claim the longest stretch of birthday-less days, with eight.

How about days of the month? The 31st has the highest average, due to the 5s contributed by March and May (interestingly, these are the only two days with 5 birthdays). In second place, is the 22nd, which has the highest total count at 24. The lowest is on the 20th, which only has 6 birthdays. Two days before and after are in the 20s, so it’s a notable dip.

The full spreadsheet is available in Google Drive if you want to make your own observations.

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