Category Archives: firsts

they asked the right question

Let me compare the experience I wrote about yesterday to another I had the same year with the first customer I was ever sent to – HSBC.

Just a couple weeks after starting with ProServe in 2008, I was sent to Chicago to do a final PoC for HSBC. Someone else had done a PoC the previous year, but with HP’s acquisition of Opsware, HSBC (along with many other customers and potential customers) held-off on signing a purchase contract so they could bundle “everything” they wanted from HP under one big honking purchase order.

And due to changes in the underlying product architecture, HSBC wanted a fresh demo to play with for a little while before writing-in that line item into their PO.

Enter me. A freshly-minted consultant who hadn’t yet developed a solid cheat sheet. So fresh, I thought staying 20 minutes away in a Comfort Inn to save $12 a night was smart (it’s not – always stay as close to your customer as you can (that is within budget) when you’re traveling). But I digress.

After a set of unexpected flight delays, instead of being able to start Monday before lunch, I didn’t even get to meet the customer team until almost end-of-business Monday. Tuesday morning, my main contact met me at the door, escorted me into their lab, and introduced me to the “spare” hardware I’d be working on – a ~5-year-old Sun server running Solaris 10 (thankfully – they’d only just upgraded from Sun OS 9 on that machine a couple weeks before).

Like my main contact in Nutley later that year, my main contact at HSBC was an old hat Solaris admin – he’d been using and administering Sun equipment for nearly 20 years. Smart guy (but, unlike the guy in NJ that summer, he wasn’t a Sun fanboi purist).

The reason we were using retired (and, possibly, resurrected) hardware was because they didn’t trust one of the sales reps (who had since been fired) who made some pretty sweeping promises to them early on in the sales cycle. And, whomever had been in several months prior to do the first PoC had apparently complained bitterly about “having to use Sun”.

So they partially set me up to fail – but I was too dumb to realize it at the time…a perfect instance of the old phrase, “you can’t fool me, I’m too ignorant”.

I did have to suffer through slow network access (the NIC onboard “supported” 100Mbps … but it was flaky, so it had been down-throttled to just 10Mbps. To put this is a little context, that was slower than my home internet access – even then – 10 years ago!

Wednesday about lunchtime, the HSBC project manager for “HP automation initiatives” introduced herself and through our conversation, casually asked, “if you had your druthers, what kind of hardware would you install SA on to support our environment?”

So I answered what I’d use: each server in each SA Core (they were going to have 3) should have 16+ x86-64 CPUs, at least 32 GB RAM, and ample storage (at least 100 GB just for the install, let alone extra space which might be needed for the software and OS libraries). Oh. And it should be running RHEL – don’t use Solaris as the host OS for HPSA.

She pressed me to find out why I suggested this, and I told her, “because SA is written on Linux, and the ported to Solaris; every major issue SA has run into in the last few years regarding OS conflicts has happened on Sun hardware & OSes.”

A little while later, she thanked me for our conversation, thanked me for getting SA up and running so quickly (even on half decade out of date hardware, I had it installed and ready to demo to them in only a little over 1.5 days), which gave me time to go through its functionality, show-off some new things in 7.0 that hadn’t been possible (or as easy) in 6.1 (or 6.5, or 6.6), and even be told I could head out to the airport a little early on Thursday! Win-win-win all around.

Fast forward a few months.

I get a phone call from the engagement manager I’d worked with on the HSBC PoC week, and he asked me if I had a current passport. I told him, “yes,” and asked him why he wanted to know.

He then informed me that HSBC was getting ready to finalize a $12+ million dollar hardware, software, and services sale … but would only be buying SA if I was available to install it.

That’s cool – getting asked back is always a Good Thing™ … but what does that have to do with having a current passport? Bob elaborated: HSBC has a policy of vendors doing installs on site (not weird). And two of those “on site” locations were not in the US: one would be in London England, and the other in Hong Kong. “Would I be able to do that?”, he wanted to know.

“Yes. Yes, I would.”

“OK,” he said, “I’ll send travel dates and details in a few days.”

I hung up, then wondered if I’d said “yes” maybe a little too quickly: who gets asked to be the installation engineer who’s holding-up the finalization of a multi-million-dollar sale? Especially when I knew there were folks at least as qualified, if not much more so, available?

This was my first experience with being asked-back as a consultant (I’d been asked-for when I worked in Support, but that was very different).

And, ultimately, it’s what led to the single best services engagement I had for quite a while. And giving me a [partially] company-paid vacation to the UK. And getting my first stamps in my passport. And establishing a friendship with a customer contact in London who’ve I’ve stayed in touch with ever since.

All from not knowing the “project manager” was actually high-enough up in the HSBC management chain that her recommendations/requests for external personnel would be honored even on big contracts – and being truly honest with her when she asked what I viewed as a casual, throwaway question in a loud computer lab on a cool Wednesday afternoon in April.

The upshot is to always treat everyone you meet as “just another person” – whether a CEO or a janitor, they put their pants on the same way you do: one leg at a time.

steam by andrea sutcliffe

Andrea Sutcliffe’s book Steam: The Untold Story of American’s First Great Invention was a pure joy to read. Being the second review I’m writing with my “new” system, I hope you find this book as interesting as I have.

In 1784, James Rumsey designed a boat that could, by purely mechanical means, move its way upstream. What he devised was truly brilliant: imagine a catamaran or pontoon boat with a platform across the two hulls. Anchored to the platform is a waterwheel. The waterwheel dips into the river, and is connected via a linkage to poles that push the boat against the current like a Venetian Gondola.

Why did he develop such a device? Because at the time, shipping by barge etc was incredibly simple downstream – you load-up the barge, give it a small crew, and float downriver. But because there was no way of mechanically returning the vessel upstream (without using sail power, which can be fickle to use, and uses a lot of otherwise-usable cargo area). So barges and shipping vessels tended to be crudely made so they would only ever go downstream – at their destination they’d be turned into building materials. And the crews would have to return on foot. To put this in perspective, it took about 4 weeks to float a barge from Pittsburg down the Ohio to the Mississippi to New Orleans. And it took about 6 months to get home.

Enter the need for reliable mechanical ship propulsion.

Beginning in his teens as a surveyor for the 6th Lord Fairfax, George Washington became enamored with the idea of inland navigation – that is, using streams, canals, rivers, and lakes to transport people and goods instead of the ocean. During his tenure as a surveyor, then an engineer, then a general, he never lost sight of what he viewed as the budding nation’s biggest hurdle to westward expansion – the overwhelmingly high cost of transporting goods from east to west, and vice versa. Along the coast, transport was simple and cheap. But to go far inland made prices exorbitantly high for both consumers and shippers – which made markets hard to tap.

The initial days of the steam wars are proof that ideas are worthless. Stationary steam engines, like those made by Boulton & Watt were too heavy and inefficient to possibly consider putting on a boat – at any scale. So while the idea of steam-powered travel had been running around folks’ minds for 20+ years by the time Rumsey built his simple mechanical boat, there was no way to practically use it.

What was needed were major improvements on steam engine design and implementation before wider applications for their power could be found. This is where the steamboat wars start to become exciting. Independently, Rumsey and a man named John Fitch (with his business partner) developed the pipe boiler which reduced the amount of water needed for operating an engine for the same power output, increased fuel efficiency, cut heating time, and lightened the engine itself. Traditional steam engines used a pot boiler – effectively a massive tank of water that would be heated in gestalt. As anyone who has ever timed how long it takes to start boiling water in a tea kettle vs a stock pot knows, water is very difficult to heat, and lots of energy is needed to move it even a couple degrees.

The fact is, that one new idea leads to another, that to a third, and so on through a course of time until someone, with whom none of these ideas was original, combines all together, and produces what is justly called a new invention. –Thomas Jefferson

Fascinatingly, Thomas Jefferson was against the idea of patents and copyright law, and likely would have campaigned heavily against it in the Constitutional process had he not been Minister to France. From a letter he wrote years after serving on the first Patent Commission Board:

He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature… Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property. Society may give an exclusive right to the profits arising form them, as an encouragement to men to pursue ideas which may produce utility, but this may or may not be done, according to the will and convenience of the society.

Contrast this to the efforts of both Fitch and Rumsey who lobbied for patent boards of some kind (at both the state and federal levels) between the end of the Revolutionary War and the ratification of the Unites States Constitution.

Sutcliffe’s account of the first “steamboat wars” shows that intellectual property litigation is an expensive, time-consuming, and distracting effort – whose end may or may not have any value.

Progress is an illusion, it happens, but it is slow and invariably disappointing. –George Orwell

Thornton’s condenser is undoubtedly one of the best calculated to condense without a jet of water, but I conceive the difficulty of getting rid of the air insurmountable .. when [the air] is drove back again by the steam to the cold condenser, it becomes nearly equal to common air in density, and skulks into the bottom of the condenser for security. –John Fitch (describing a new condenser design in 1790)

Based upon the extensive research Ms Sutcliffe has done into the early history and designs of steam engines and their associated mechanical conveyances, an old idea of mine has newly gained plausible validity: that of a steam-powered tank. Back in high school I postulated that both the power-to-weight and power-to-size ratio of steam engines had advanced sufficiently by the late 1850s that, in conjunction with a primitive form of caterpillar track design (which Fitch would have called an “endless chain of feet” (vs an early idea of his to use an “endless chain of paddles”)), that the first fully-mechanized war machines could have been built and sent into battle not in WWI, as the first tanks actually were, but instead during the Civil War – 50 years sooner. Leonardo Da Vinci has designed a human-powered armored car in the late 15th century. Replacing man power with steam power could have been a logical thing to have done – but no one ever did.

In the availability of men willing to persevere with a possibly “ridiculous” idea, America had an advantage. –Frank D Pager on the early successes of the Industrial Revolution in America.

Fitch and Rumsey took their war to the people in a series of “pamphlets” published over the course of many months. From Sutcliffe’s description of a “pamphlet” in this context, it seems they were the late 18th century version of a sourced blog or op-ed. Ranging from 20 to 50 (or more) pages in length, with affidavits, letters, and histories presented, the pamphlet was the common man’s research or position paper. I suppose they may have been used by others, too – but the context given in Steam shows them used as marketing and propaganda pieces.

He that studies and writes on the improvements of the arts and sciences labours to benefit generations unborn, for it is impossible that his contemporaries will pay any attention to him. –Oliver Evans

It’s the same each time with progress. First they ignore you, then they say you’re mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you. –Tony Benn (British Labour politician)

Seems that’s where Ghandi may have gotten the inspiration for this famous quotation:

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.

Or perhaps it was Benn who was inspired by Ghandi. Or maybe they just realized the same thing independently.

reading experiment

In follow-up to a recent blog post shared to me by my friend Steven, thinking about my aunt’s old practices, and comments from my wife and another friend, I’m engaging in a “consumptive”/”reactive” reading experiment wherein I am going to do something I haven’t done in a non-workbook book since my time at HVCC – I’m going to try writing in a book.

Two, actually. One is To Engineer Is Human (by Henry Petroski; my review). The second is Knowing God by JI Packer.

Wish me luck. I’ll report back when I’ve completed at least one of the books in the experiment.

“Books are made to be broken–literally or figuratively. I recently bought a 80+ year old book for $76 (a rare book called If It Had Happened Otherwise). I took special pleasure folding the pages and writing on them. It’s mine, why treat it like a delicate flower?” –Ryan Holiday

groupon is no good!

I think I might have to boycott Groupon: a few months back they had a deal for an introductory flight, first ground school time, and pilot log book for about 50% off the normal rate from the local flight training company, NexGen Aviation.

I arrive at the airport a little before 1400 for my flight on Sunday. Adrian, my instructor, is an intensely friendly man. He’s originally from Zimbabwe, though has spent enough time in Kentucky that now his family think he has an accent 🙂

NexGen has a Piper Warrior – a four-place, low-wing, single engine airplane they use for lessons.

Things I did not know about operating an aircraft – you steer while you’re on on the ground with your feet.

Adrian opened the door and told me to get in first. That was not what I expected – that put me in the pilot’s seat. After doing a quick preflight, he started the engine, and we started taxiing… more accurately, while he radioed the tower for clearance, he had me taxi us out onto the runway.

So that was pretty cool .. but it got better: when we got to the runway, and the tower had cleared us, I got to take off =D

Adrian ran the throttle, and he took care of the trim tabs and explained to me what I had to do, but otherwise he let me fly for the about 30 minutes we were up – the only time he took over was for our landing. We toured around Lexington at ~2500 feet (buzzing up to nearly 3000 as I tried to maintain our heading, steer, look around, and keep us flying level-ish.

I got to see our house from 2500 feet, and a variety of other parts of Lexington that I think may help when it comes to driving, too.

Now for the bad news: I’m hooked. And the total time and outlay that getting my license will entail will be at least 40 hours of flying time (including different type of solo time), along with several hours of ground school. And all of that combined with needing to take a written test so the FAA will eventually be willing to give me a check ride so I can get my license.

Sigh.

That’ll run ~$6650 … if I go as quickly as I can. Taking too much time between lessons will help to reduce retention, so I’m probably more realistically looking at about $10k to complete my license.

I’m accepting donations, though 😉

family reunion and a new trip

A couple weeks ago, my wife and I flew up to NJ for my family reunion (held near South Bound Brook every last Saturday in June). I’ve missed the last few due to other things getting in the way (like living in Singapore and getting married ;)) – so it was great to be able to catch up with some people I haven’t seen in 3+ years, but sad that not everyone could make it.

Excluding the cruddy service we got on US Air from CVG, the trip was pretty good. The Sheraton at Newark Airport bumped us to the “lounge level” (that floor you need your room card to get to). The picnic was fun. And dinner that evening at one of my favored restaurants in Whitehouse Station was tasty, too.

Sunday early we got to Newark Penn Station to do something neither of us has ever done before in the US (and my wife, well, ever) – take a “substantial” train ride! I’ve taken the train back and forth between Albany and NY Penn a few times, and I’ve taken the train in the UK, but never anything longer than a couple hours in the US.

The Cardinal line runs 3 days a week, and hits myriad stations on its way from NY Penn (the stop before we got on) to Chicago (we got off in Cincinnati).

Some things we learned:

  • coach class seats are comfy – for the first few hours; after this, a room would have been a LOT better
  • had we bought a room, our meals would have been included
  • it’s intensely bizarre to eat going backwards at 75mph
  • the NRHS does narrated tours of part of the Cardinal run (West-to-East) a couple days a week
  • there are way more train stations in this country than I would have expected: but never quite where you want them to be
  • meals are eaten with whomever they set at your table – so unless you’re in a group of 3+, you’ll be eating with total strangers

We’re both constantly checking Amtrak now for any future trips – both leisure and business – to see if taking the train is a better deal than flying… and a non-trivial percentage of the time, it is turning out to be so 🙂

The only truly bad part of the trip was the taxi ride from the Cincinnati Amtrak station to CVG – the guy who picked us up waited until we got to the airport to claim his credit card reader was down (future reference – if the machine is off/”down”, it’s probably that the driver wants cash in his pocket, or for change, but he is still REQUIRED to take your card info by hand). Then he offered for us to “just buy gas” for him instead of pay him. Then he didn’t shut the meter off when he drove us to an ATM (at the airport terminal) to get cash out for paying the sheister. When I talked to the taxi owner the next day, he set us straight on how that should have worked, and fired the driver for cheating us. Oh – and he also told about all the “mechanical and electrical” issues his car had.. yeah – extremely unprofessional 🙁

firsts – programming

I realized earlier this week that it’s been 19 years since I first started programming. Not my first exposure to computing, which was in about 1986 on my aunt’s Mac 512 .. but still a long time ago 🙂

My aunt gave me a Tandy 102 laptop that had a whole walloping 21446 bytes of storage. It had the capability to store up to 19 files, and the names had to be in a 6.2 form (ie, not the “standard” DOS 8.3 naming convention).

It shipped with MS BASIC somethingorother, and had a 40 character wide by 8 character tall screen. Oh, and don’t forget the built-in 300 bps modem (that ‘rotary’ dialed)!

I learned BASIC from Learning BASIC for the Tandy by David A Lien. I learned a LOT from that book – not the least of which was that color doesn’t work on a monochrome screen 🙂

I also learned how pseudorandom numbers can be “manipulated” to help you win games .. and that typos suck : mightily.

Some of my programming habits that I still carry (even in writing “throwaway” scripts), come from my time of writing programs on an extremely limited machine.

After playing with BASIC for a year or so, I started writing for my aunt’s old Mac iiVX (which had 5MB RAM and an 80MB hard disk!) using Microsoft QuickBASIC 1.0 (a compilable BASIC), then moved into Turbo Pascal for a couple months, and then into C++ in 1993. My introduction to C++ was in the form of working with a family friend from church who wanted to learn C++ (but knew C), and who wanted to try-out some ideas he had for work with finite element analysis software. So we (I built the mesh generator/parser, and acted as syntax fiend) built a FEA application using Borland C++ 4.0 on his 486 running Windows 3.11 for workgroups. That was a screamer compared to my little laptop: it ran at 66Mhz, and had 16MB RAM! Wow: those were the days 🙂

My cell phone has more RAM than that now, and a faster CPU, to boot!

I know I didn’t start as long ago, or as young, as some of my friends, colleagues, and cofiends – but there’s my story 🙂