Thursday, December 29, 2011

Digital Literacy

It was a bit of a surprise to get some attention for a tweet I posted recently about digital literacy. Digital literacy is a topic we've been putting some additional effort into at the place I work since it is an issue we run into frequently. We have a fairly diverse workforce with some people having been with the organization for over 40 years so there's some pretty stratified ability levels when it comes to technology. With this kind of employee base you expect to find some interesting questions at the help desk, but some issues were so common and cropped up so often it was hard to ignore. We had a digital literacy problem.

So what is digital literacy?

The biggest problem I see with most computer training: people are trained in how to use a specific tool. Obviously this kind of instruction does not make you digitally literate. At best it makes you an assembly line worker.

My concept of Digital Literacy is a set of basic skills that enable a user to understand, navigate, and successfully utilize tools regardless of familiarity. Simple things that technologists take for granted. Things like universal shortcut combos, finding standard commands (even knowing what standard commands are in the first place), or how to manipulate data.

The concepts of how to manipulate data, understand where you store it, and how to find the work you saved seem very obvious to a person that is digitally literate. To a digitally illiterate person these things are nothing short of voodoo.

A common help desk conversation I run into goes like this:
User: "I can't open this PDF file!"
Me: "How are you trying to access it?"
User: "The same way I always do."
Me: "Can you walk me through it step-by-step?"
User: "I saved it out of my email, then opened Word, went to file, then clicked open..."
Me: "But its a PDF, Word doesn't open PDF files."
User: "If I don't go into Word, though, I can't access files."
Me: "What do you mean?"
User: "To access files I always go to Word and then file, open. That's where my files are"

A few literacy issues become very obvious during this exchange
1. Understanding file types,
2. Knowledge of File Explorer (we're in the Windows world here)
3. Inability to deviate from a scripted pattern in the user interface

We cause our own pain.

Its pretty obvious this isn't a technical problem. What we have is an educational gap. Its something deeper than training. We technologists don't help the problem by treating it with a helpdesk ticket. That only furthers the problem by enabling people to continue without improving their skill set. In turn, we keep fighting the same support battles over and over.

So we're choosing to do something about this. It improves our own lives in the IT department and, in turn, improves the quality of work while lowering the stress level in business units that are experiencing ever increasing levels of technology churn.

That's a win-win!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Motorola Atrix 4g Lapdock

So its been six days that I've had the laptop for my Motorola Atrix 4g. If you're unfamiliar with what this critter is, here's the link to Moto's website about it. Its basically a fancy little netbook chassis that you hook the phone to in order to get a bigger screen, a trackpad, and a keyboard.


The lapdock and the Atrix 4g are a taste of the future. They're not THE future but its a step in that direction. I'll explain that in a little bit. First off, my impressions.

All around, this is a nice device. Quality is good. Typing is pleasant and quick, though like all netbook form factors, you need to train your fingers for the smaller keyboard. The trackpad is responsive and not overly so. The mouse buttons below the trackpad feel cheap but function fine. Screen is nice and bright and of good quality. The screen is a bit too glossy for my taste but I'm a matte screen sort of guy.

There is a battery built into the lapdock to power the functions that are separate from the phone. I've heard conflicting reports about the amount of charge the onboard battery can hold but it seems to be somewhere between 6-8 hours. It also charges the phone while it is docked.

I've really enjoyed this device. I've always wanted a netbook and the Google Chromebooks were very tempting since I've gone nearly all in on the Google cloud. This device helps me split the difference. You basically just get a Firefox browser on the webtop mode of the Atrix phone. There are some other integrations but the browser is mostly what you get. There have been a few things I miss about not having things like a native office suite to read files that are resident. You get used to it. You learn early on how to work around the limitations.

I've seen the future and this ain't it

I think in the end, this is something only a technologist like myself would appreciate and enjoy. It is a taste of the future though. Here's why: This is the ultimate identity consolidation.

We have all these devices in our lives and each one has a little piece of us on it whether it is a wallpaper, a photo collection, music, remembered passwords, etc. Sure, there's cloud services that allow you to sync or make these parts of our identities available to multiple devices. These are workarounds to some extent in my opinion. The Atrix paired with the lapdock is a slick thing. Your identity and experience is seamless. Everything on your phone is automatically on your laptop and vice versa.

This is the future of personal computing devices. Not just services that consolidate your identity across devices via cloud, but actual unification on a single device. It makes sense that it is a smartphone. They're the most personal of computing devices! With multicore processors, lots of memory, a built in data connection they're just as powerful as most "good enough" solutions.

Final thoughts

I'm pleased with this purchase. It was a refurb unit with 2 day shipping for $80. Worth it for the charging capabilities alone. I will probably use this device a lot, it satisfies a need I had for a netbook/notebook of my own that wouldn't be missed if I took it out of the house. The fact that its my phone just makes it all the better!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Dirty Buzzwords

Heard a couple of buzzwords pop up again in different places regarding efficiency in government. One instance was a newly-elected fellow, someone I support and am rooting for. The other was a trade magazine where buzzwords abound every other word.

Accountability. Performance-Based measures.

These subjects are anathema to government especially when it comes to managing knowledge workers. These concepts require effort on the part of management and employees. Worse yet, we might find out something we don't want to deal with!

The Star Tribune did a good write up about how this discussion is happening in Prior Lake, MN. It gets down to this: "We know what we're good at and we know we're busy. Now how to we help decision makers understand this?"

Fact is, private sector already does this stuff. Doing it isn't hard. It comes down to the fact that staff has little incentive to change. If we start peeking under the hood people will see how poorly things are done and tough decisions will need to be made.

But we need to do this. Let's set goals and decide on metrics. Let's start defining success and work toward it. This is the only way forward. We'll get better efficiency, more informed management, and satisfied citizens. Best of all it will be the first step toward properly managing knowledge workers for what they are, not unionized assembly line workers!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Opportunity, Success, and How We Define Them

I've been thinking a lot about opportunity and the community I see around me. There's a lot to love about New Ulm and Southern Minnesota in general. Yeah, I'm biased; its home. Its where I grew up. But its also where I chose to stay after (very brief) time away. Bias aside, it bothers me to see people dismissing this area without taking a thoughtful look around to see what the possibilities are.

As I've been mulling, I opened the Sunday paper (on Monday) and ran into a wonderful story printed from a MN Public Radio report about a doctor in Osakis, MN. Dr. Susan Rutten Wasson is building a practice in this town of about 1,500 people 12 miles from Alexandria, MN. She doesn't take any insurance payments, just cash. Its a great story and I recommend you take a moment to read it or view it.

As I was reading the story about Dr. Wasson, there were three things that made me say "exactly!"

1. She understood she wasn't going to get rich
2. That was ok, because:
3. The lifestyle and quality of life is wonderful

I'll be writing some thoughts on these three points eventually, but the thing I hope the world can learn is this: Money is not the same thing as success. Opportunity is not a chance to grab what you deserve.

I truly believe this. It is why I choose to live and work where I do. Its been the foundation of how I approach my customers and co-workers.

If we choose to redefine success not in monetary terms, but in terms of our community and family, there are a lot of new business possibilities present themselves. As a technologist, I see this part of Minnesota and see a fertile field ready for sowing. Now we just need to find the seed.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Sharpening the Focus

Most hours on my timecard, ever. Three weeks jammed into two and there was even a 24-hour straight stretch in there for good measure. Network restructuring is never easy, never quick, and never painless. But we already knew all that.

The reason for the bloated timecard was initially a project to implement dual WAN for our network since we had severely outgrown our two bonded T1's. This effort quickly evolved into a massive overhaul that standardized a number of things in the environment and also corrected a few issues that had been hanging over my head since I came into this job.

So what came out of this?

Well, the project accomplished its intended end result and I'm happier with the way things are structured. There's something more though. When a person labors with that monk-like concentration day and night sometimes things come into focus a little better than they did before.
  • Do decision makers understand the cost of understaffing IT? Its NOT a cost savings. Its gobs of downtime between periods of treading water.
  • Planning is key to success. Seems like such an obvious thing but it isn't when you're in the middle of something. If you don't plan for 5-8 or even 10 years down the road when designing your infrastructure you will be screwed in less than 3 years.
  • Users have no idea what IT does. And it shows about half way through a transition. Right around where people start calling to complain that "such and such isn't working" when it was very clearly established that downtime would be happening. My favorite are the folks who call me, the "network guy", for an Excel problem when they know the network is down and being worked on.
  • Doing something the right way isn't what organizations want if it isn't the cheapest, quickest, and least amount of trouble short term. I see the point, but its a hard sell if I've been working for 30 hours with only 4 hours of sleep in the middle of that.
I'm still mulling over the experience. I'm sure there's more to learn from it.