Archive for the ‘insights’ Category

apps on the network

{This started as a Disqus reply to Eric’s post. Then I realized blog comments shouldn’t be longer than the original post :) }

The app-on-network concept is fascinating: and one I think I’ve thought about previously, too.

Hypothetically, all “social networks” should have the same connections: yet there’s dozens upon dozens (I use at least 4 – probably more, but I don’t realize it). And some folks push the same content to all of them, while others (including, generally, myself) try to target our shares and such to specific locations (perhaps driving some items to multiple places with tools like IFTTT).

Google’s mistake with Google+ was thinking they needed to “beat” Facebook: that’s not going to happen. As Paul Graham notes:

“If you want to take on a problem as big as the ones I’ve discussed, don’t make a direct frontal attack on it. Don’t say, for example, that you’re going to replace email. If you do that you raise too many expectations…Maybe it’s a bad idea to have really big ambitions initially, because the bigger your ambition, the longer it’s going to take, and the further you project into the future, the more likely you’ll get it wrong…the way to use these big ideas is not to try to identify a precise point in the future and then ask yourself how to get from here to there, like the popular image of a visionary.”

That’s where folks who get called things like The Idea Guy™ go awry: instead of asking questions, you try to come up with ideas – like these 999. And if you can’t/don’t, you think you’ve failed.

Social networks should be places where our actual social interactions can be modeled effectively. Yet they turn into popularity contests. And bitch fests. And rant centers. Since they tend towards the asymmetric end of communication, they become fire-and-forget locales, or places where we feel the incessant need to be right. All the time. (Add services like Klout and Kred, and it gets even worse.)

I would love to see a universal, portable, open network like the one Eric describes. All the applications we think run on social networks (like Farmville) don’t. They run on top of another app which runs on “the network”.

Layers on layers leads to the age-old problem of too many standards, and crazy amounts of abstraction. Peeling-back the layers of the apps atop the network could instead give us the chance to have a singular network where types of connections could be tagged (work, fun, school, family, etc, etc – the aspect of G+ that everyone likes most: “circles”). Then the app takes you to the right subset of your network.

Of course – this all leads to a massive problem: security.

If there is only One True Social Network, we all end up entrusting everything we put there to be “safe”. And while some of still follow the old internet mantra, “if you wouldn’t put it on a billboard, don’t put it on a website,” the vast majority of people – seemingly especially those raised coincident to technology’s ubiquitization – think that if they put it somewhere “safe” (like Facebook), that it should be “private”.

After all, the One True Social Network would also be a social engineer’s or identity thief’s Holy Grail – the subversive access to all  of someone’s personal information would be their nirvana.

And that, I think, is the crux of the matter: regardless of what network (or, to use Eric’s terminology, what app-atop-the-network) we use, privacy, safety, and security are all forefront problems.

Solve THAT, and you solve everything.

Or maybe you just decide privacy/security doesn’t matter, and make it all public.

what to automate

I have been in the world of automation for quite a while. Specifically in the realms of server, datacenter, and cloud automation – but I’ve been interested and/or involved in other tasks that tend towards automation (even for a short period of time) for far longer than just my post-college time in the world of HPSA and its related ilk.

One of the first questions customers ask us when we arrive onsite (heck – even way back in the technical presales cycle) is NOT what can be automated, but rather what should we automate and/or what can we automate first.

Analyzing the environment and finding some prime, low-hanging fruit to target in an initial automation push is vital.

To quote Donald Knuth, “We should forget about small efficiencies, say about 97% of the time; premature optimization is the root of all evil.”

In the realm of automating, that means picking on tasks that, while the tools at hand can make quick work of them, are done so infrequently as to not warrant an immediate focus, since the ROI on infrequently-done tasks is not going to be readily seen* should be skipped.

This is part of where being a good architect comes to bear.


That’s not true.

This is where being a good listener and collator comes to bear. In a future post I’ll talk more fully about the art of architecting – but for today’s topic, let’s focus on the true key personality traits you must display to get a successful project started, implemented, and running.

You need to listen. You do not need to “hear” – you need to process what is being said, ask it back, take notes, ask for clarifications, etc. In the counseling world, this is called “active listening“. In the rest of life, it’s called being an attentive, thoughtful, caring, intelligent, adult human being.

When you hear a customer say they have a real problem with some task or other (beware – managementspeak coming!) – ie, they have “pain points” in various places, ask about what those individual tasks are actually comprised of. Investigate what can be touched today, what can be planned-for tomorrow, and what needs to be tabled for a future engagement (for you architects and sales folks reading, this translates into “what can we sell them later – after this project is successful?” – how can we build and strengthen this relationship?).

Take these notes and conversations you have to your colleagues and tease-out coherent lines of attack. Collate all the notes form everyone involved into commonalities – what has everyone heard a customer say? What did only one guy hear? What order did each person hear them in?

After you’ve listened, after you’ve taken your notes, after you’ve powwowed with your colleagues – then comes the fun part of any engagement: the actual automation!

Bring your cleaned-up and trimmed-down notes back to the customer in an easily-digestible form, and give a solid plan for what we will do now, what we want to do soon, and what really needs to wait to be done til later. Put an N, S, or L next to each item on your list. – it’s a first-cut priority draft. Then ask your customer for how they view those tasks, and listen to what they say are their priorities (including “real” dates, if any exist). You may need to reorganize your list, but keeping it involved in all project discussions will show you’re truly paying attention to them.

And at the end of the day, everyone’s favorite topic is themselves. Always – even shy people want to hear themselves bragged-up, talked-about, promoted, and given attention.

When you showcase your individual focus and attention on your customer, it will show in their willingness to accept you into their closer rings of trust – their readiness to receive you as a “trusted advisor”, which is what you want to be for them: you want to be who they can talk to about problems they’re seeing in their environment (current or potential) so you can bring your expertise to bear on their issues.

The role of any consultant who wants to be more than a mere grunt is not so much technical or business acumen, but that of their business therapist and/or best friend. You want to be able to say with Frasier Crane, “I’m listening”. And you want them to know that you really are.

Some of the early steps you can take today to bring yourself there are to:

  • avoid electronic distraction in meetings
  • document everything you do for work
  • be detailed
  • know industry trends, what competitors are doing, etc
  • treat everyone you come in contact with at a customer as if they were the most important person there
  • anticipate what you may be asked, and where you want to go
  • never speak authoritatively about that which you do not know
  • learn – be a “Lifelong Learner”: the day you stop learning is the day you stop growing, and the day you stop being reliable to others

*Unless, of course, those infrequent tasks are only infrequent because they’re “hard”, and therefore automating them will yield a solid ROI by allowing them to be done more often

first experiment follow-up

I’ve been attempting a “reactive”/”consumptive” reading experiment recently.

The first book I tried it on was the Henry Petroski’s horrid To Engineer is Human (my review). That turned into a failure as I couldn’t stomach his writing, and so “reacting” to it was going to pretty much be an exercise in futility.

So I’ve ditched that book – maybe someone else will not find it so poor a read.

Many of the books I read (and review) I get from my local library. All of which, therefore, are poor candidates for consumptive reading in the sense Ryan Holiday used the term in his blog post.

But as I dove through his writing a bit more, I saw his mention of a “commonplace book“.

“A commonplace book is a central resource or depository for ideas, quotes, anecdotes, observations and information you come across during your life and didactic pursuits. The purpose of the book is to record and organize these gems for later use in your life, in your business, in your writing, speaking or whatever it is that you do.”

Specifically, he was taught how to do one by Robert Greene (author of Mastery, The 48 Laws of Power, etc), and he cites various individuals in history who have maintained them. It’s also something that Roald Dahl mentioned obliquely in his book The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More (one of my favorites by him (PDF)) in “Lucky Break” – namely, that he always keeps something on which to write nearby (a notebook, a scrap of envelope – even the dust on his car bumper) so that whenever an idea strikes him, he can jot it down in case it was good enough to actually write about:

“Sometimes, these little scribbles will stay unused in the notebook for five or even ten years. But the promising ones are always used in the end. And if they show nothing else, they do, I think, demonstrate from what slender threads a children’s book or short story must ultimately be woven. The story builds and expands while you are writing it.”

This got me to thinking about how I might integrate the idea myself – though, of course, in a slightly different way. And that’s where I am progressing to now: instead of “consuming” all the books I read, ones I find interesting I’m taking notes on in a composition book (specifically a quad-ruled one, as those are my favorite). I’ve found so far it’s helped form better reviews. It’s also not the only place I’ll keep those notes – many will end up on this blog. Others will end up on Twitter. Others maybe in email signatures, or Facebook posts, or wherever.

In our amazingly digitized world, writing by hand seems, well, old-fashioned and trite. Or hipster-ish and cool. (Depends on who sees you doing it, I think.) Sometimes I’ve already found my notes being done electronically – via SMS to myself, or draft blog posts, or just a quick Notes session on my laptop.

Anyways, where I’m going with all this is instead of always being a mere passive consumer of writing, I’m trying to be a bit more “thoughtful” about it :)

the ultimate measure of financial success

How many times have you heard someone suggest that all their financial problems would magically disappear if they only made more money? But high incomes can’t guarantee financial freedom; there are countless examples of people who earned millions yet still ended up bankrupt. The common thread among folks who get into financial trouble — no matter how much money they make — is their inability to consistently spend less than they earn.

The bottom line: The ultimate measure of financial success is not the size of your paycheck. Rather, it’s the money left in your pocket after paying for all your obligations.

source: Len Penzo

conference connectivity

My friend Trent posted last week, “[m]eeting organizer Protip: select a location that gets cell phone service.”.

I am fairly certain I disagree. I disagree with Joel Spolsky on this, too.

If you are organizing a meeting, conference, or the like, there should ONLY be connectivity if you want your attenders to ignore the meeting – whether they ignore it by live-tweeting, or by playing Angry Birds, having access to the internet (or your cell phone) during meetings is bound to end poorly.

If you’re 100% OK with attendees missing >90% of what is said/shared/taught, then go ahead and ensure connectivity. If the purpose of the event is primarily a networking and socialization one, and the presentation content is only to help enable those other two activities, then by all means ensure your attendees can get online.

But if your intent is for attendees to remember what they hear and use it later, you’re far better off ensuring they cannot get online easily (if at all).

why nations fail by daron acemoglu and james a robinson

I first came across Why Nations Fail at my local Half Price Books. After seeing it on the shelves a couple times, but still being unsure about whether I really wanted to read it or not, I reserved it at my local library.

Now I wish I had bought it (and likely will) – Daron Acemoglu & James A Robinson, while sometimes slipping into an academic, journalistic tone, present a fantastic historical, economic, cultural, and international view into the similarities, and differences, of “national” failures around the world over the last several centuries.

They spend a great deal of time expounding on the differences of countries that succeed and those that don’t – and offer insights into how failing nations could, potentially, turn themselves around.

Interestingly, the factors that play-into national success and failure are similar throughout history – critical junctures, inclusive/pluralistic political and economic environments vs extractive/exclusive political and economic structures, empowered citizenries, overbearing rulers, literacy, economic incentives (positive and negative), etc.

The Iron Law of Oligarchy:

the overthrow of a regime presiding over extractive institutions heralds the arrival of a new set of masters to exploit the same set of pernicious extractive institutions (p366)

My recommendation? Buy it. Read it. Share it. The background and conclusions this book presents and reaches should be required reading for anyone who wants to see their nation “do better” – politicians, businessmen, citizens, NGOs: all would benefit from applying what is demonstrated in this excellent work.

  • Quality of writing: 4/5
  • Quality of content: 4.5/5
  • Historicity: 5/5
  • Educational value 4.5/5
  • Overall: 4.5/5

the “best” industries for starting a business?

I generally really like Inc magazine.

But this article is kinda ridiculous: “The Eight Best Industries for Starting a Business.”

By the time an industry has landed on a list like this, the odds that you’re really going to be able to capitalize on it are super slim. There’s nothing “wrong” with starting a business in any of those industries – but you shouldn’t pick an industry because it’s “hot”; you should start your business in the industry you know and are ready to compete in.

If you’re already running a business, perhaps expanding your market reach into some of these “hot” industries is a good idea – and perhaps not. Make sure you are solving problems and delivering solutions.

The rest is gravy.

Sidebar – if you’re relying on mass-market publications like Inc to do your business research, you’re doing it wrong.


I am the [proud] holder of subscriptions to several magazines.

As part of my attempt to vary my reading materials, I get Wired, Inc, Fast Company, Western Horseman, and several others.

However – I’ve discovered that I just don’t care about most of what is any given issue; there are times when more than half of the magazine is of interest, but usually it’s substantially closer to 10% (excluding ads – include them, and you’re probably down to 5-6%).

It’d be awesome if there was a way of getting a print analogue to an RSS aggregator – in fact, if you know of any, please let me know!

But since there’s not, I’ve adopted a fairly-stringent policy of recycling magazines that show up in my mailbox if I don’t get to them within 2 weeks: and if somehow I miss that deadline, they definitely get scrapped when the new issue arrives.

The only time I will read an out-of-date magazine is when I’m waiting in a doctor’s or dentist’s office, or at the oil change place. There’s just no reason to read “news” and “insights” that old when you can still get them digitally from the magazine websites within days of the print copy arriving in your mailbox.

group admin in the era of facebook

Along the difficulties of initially building a good group/community, comes the hassles of managing said [virtual] community – especially on the book of the face.

I am a coadmin on the Ontario & Western Railways Historical Society Inc Facebook group. My friend Peter is a coadmin of the Linux Mint group.

Something both of us have noticed is the ridiculous spam problem Facebook groups have developed over the past 1-2 years. It’s not a new problem, of course – Stack Overflow has had problems since very early on, too: they printed A Theory of Moderation to outline the issues they were seeing, and how they planned to handle it.

The real problem at the root of all the spam lies, though, not in technology, but in people.

Even with active community self-regulation, moderators occasionally need to intervene. Moderators are human exception handlers, there to deal with those (hopefully rare) exceptional conditions that should not normally happen, but when they do, they can bring your entire community to a screaming halt – if you don’t have human exception handling in place.

Spam doesn’t arise on its own – it’s all developed by people. Until the people problem of spam can be addressed, it will continue. Sadly, technology, in and of itself, cannot deal with the people problem.

So instead we have human admins and moderators whose [typically volunteer] job is to ensure that the communit[y|ies] keeps to a general standard, as defined by the community itself. By assuming technology could be made that would fix the problem, we’re asking the wrong question: human behavior needs to be addressed and improved; while technology is wonderful and can aid in the process, it is no panacea.

Encouragements for moderation teams can come in the form of gamification (the SO model), community accolade, or just the individual admin’s personal satisfaction.

The drawback is that this task can become so overwhelming at times and in places that it those tasked with caring for the community, when the community itself won’t do anything about the problem(s), give up because they adopt the view that it’s everyone’s problem, and presume that since it is everyone’s problem, it’s not “theirs”.

What are the solutions to these issues? I can think of a few – but many remain yet unanswered:

  1. the community must encourage the admins
    • if the community isn’t doing something to make their admins feel appreciated, the admins will, eventually, leave
  2. better tech
    • it’s not possible to solve all problems with technology, but there are certainly many areas that can be improved in this regard
  3. community engagement and education
    • seasoned community members and admins alike need to take the time to “mentor” new community members to make sure they stick to the guidelines of that community
    • community members need to be proactive in assisting the moderators when inappropriate items are posted, or conversation degrades below the stands of the group
  4. a willingness to say “no”
    • admins and the general community needs to be willing to tell some people they are not welcome
    • this should [almost] never be in a hateful, grudge-bearing manner, but it must be done to ensure the integrity of the community in the long-term
  5. a willingness to morph
    • the flip side of (4) is that the community needs to be willing on a regular basis:
      • review its own guidelines
      • change / modify rules
      • find new admins
      • welcome new members who aren’t yet versed in the ways of the group ( related to (3) above)

I am sure there are many many more items that can be added to this list. But this is the starting point for every successfully-maintained community I’ve ever seen.

What others would you add, or what would you change?

never run out of dry erase markers

They always go dead when you need them most – so stock up.

Especially at employee personal whiteboard, meeting rooms, and class rooms.