Sunday, April 28, 2013


Saturday morning we learned that Dad had lost his battle with mental illness. This is not the way this is supposed to end. The arc this story took was not even close to the plot we wanted; It was supposed to be different. This is not the final word, though. Mental health is something we should not, and cannot be silent about. But that is just a footnote to the entire story.

Dad was a man who deeply loved his family. He had compassion for everyone around him. His honest caring for people made him a lovable fellow. Dad could ask people deep, philosophical questions that would take them off guard but he asked because he genuinely wanted to know. The Tom Beran we were so lucky to love was creative, artistic, witty, thoughtful, hard working, and so many other adjectives that a thesaurus would probably be in order.

His children learned many life lessons from him. The chores we didn't want to do were good for us because "they build character". You love your family because you've got them for life. You work hard and do it the right way because you'll probably be the guy stuck fixing it next time it breaks. It takes a strong man to be gentle. Pray about things. Sometimes you light the fireworks all at once with the torch because it'll be fun to watch and, well, why not?

I miss you Dad. I've been missing you in many different ways for a long time now but time does not make it any easier. I remember being little and wanting to be like you, just like I imagine my boys think about me today. I'm going to keep trying to be the man you wanted me to be.

I love you Dad.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Providing Services Isn't Enough

I was doing a demo with some co-workers for a product we are considering subscribing to. A nifty product that facilitates polls to determine the best time for meetings among many participants. While we were looking through the interface a few questions were asked by my co-workers about polling internal participants and syncing calendars with the product in question. They basically wanted to sync many employee calendars to the product to view the best time to set poll questions.

Of course, you can already do that in Outlook. The Scheduling Assistant has been there all along and does exactly what they were looking for in that use case. I flipped my screen over to Outlook and showed them how it worked.

"Why hasn't anyone shown us this before?!"

The response I got, almost verbatim.

Look, IT can provide services and tools and tech all we want but in the end we have to communicate to the end-user what they can do with the STUFF we provide and put it in a context that makes sense to their jobs.

Front line staff are a great example of this scenario. Whether you're dealing with bank tellers, cashiers, customer service reps, etc they are essentially the modern assembly line worker.Their jobs are 100% volume based. Instead of assembling widgets they're assembling customer service. Front line workers don't get paid to be innovative (the low wages they get paid reflect that), instead they are paid to be as efficient and consistent as possible. As a result, staff in those positions are often most resistant to change. They stick to the old processes like glue because change impacts their primary purpose, often negatively.

However, they'll accept change in a heartbeat if it the usefulness and context to their jobs are made clear! I've seen cases where a new tool I offered was immediately adopted because the benefit and usefulness was obvious. The acceptance was not solely because of me providing the tool, it was in me matching the tool with the need and the legwork it took to explain its purpose and use.

This is more than a training issue, although training is certainly an aspect when trying to get people to use a tool. When IT is not working side-by-side with their co-workers in other business units the worse this problem gets. Context is the most important ingredient.

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Longest 10 Minutes

The recent events in Boston have brought people to comment on the professionalism and courage of law enforcement. Its sad that it takes a tragedy to show people the incredible things the thin line does for us every day. The big events are the only ones on the national news. The rest of the time the heroics are smaller but just as real.

During my years doing IT in public sector I spent quite a lot of time supporting law enforcement. There were times when I'd be working on equipment in a 911 dispatch center quickly backing away from the workstation as calls came in so that the dispatcher could take them. The calls were only audible to the dispatcher, of course, but the radio traffic was there for everyone to hear.

The longest 10 minutes you'll ever experience is when a call for assistance is received and emergency personnel are in route.

While you sit there knowing what's happening to the person calling for help and you're waiting for help to arrive you're stuck sitting there. Helpless.

Emergency personnel do the job because of a desire to help people. And they do that, day after day, despite the horrible things they see and deal with. It was an eye-opening experience to learn about the depth and breadth of what law enforcement and emergency personnel deal with on a daily basis that we, as citizens, are shielded from. Seeing the videos and pictures, and hearing the stories that don't get told outside of the office is frightening.

All of it is handled with professionalism and courage, and the vast majority of the time with compassion and understanding. Every single day.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Taking the time

The other day I had a conversation with a co-worker ("user" in IT speak). We started talking during my lunch break but I hadn't looked at the clock. After a while I started to get a little anxious about the time...was my break almost over? After a while, I decided that it didn't matter and committed myself to the conversation. Lunch went a half-hour over but I relaxed and was a much better participant in the conversation.

When I was in college I took a cultural anthropology class because, hey, a guy's gotta fill requirements. Right?

The professor pointed out the different ways that cultures think about time. We western folks are very linear and regimented. Work starts at 0800, lunch is at 1200, day ends at 1700, and so on. Some other cultures take a more circuitous view where time is more relative. 

The instructor's example was like this: Someone from a western culture might meet a friend while walking to work, stop to talk but cut the conversation off after looking at their watch and finding they're not on schedule to arrive on time. Other cultures would find that offensive and would take as much time as necessary to finish the conversation before continuing on their way. Time isn't as important as the person.

We often don't value people as much as we ought to. Relationships are important. Being a part of the organization is important. We use metrics and frameworks to make workers and processes as efficient as possible but people aren't machines, yet. Yes, timeliness is still important and we can't simply change ourselves and our workplaces into an anything-goes sort of schedule. As with most things in life, there's certainly a middle ground we can achieve.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

More on IT Partnerships

I had a wonderful conversation this morning that finally made me understand my own misgivings about managed service providers (MSPs) and IT vendors. It was actually a conversation about our own business and relationship with our customers (actually members, we're a cooperative). I think I finally understand why I don't trust vendors and why thinking of a vendor as a "partner" is nearly impossible to me.

The problem sums up like this: An MSP/vendor in the IT space assumes a lot of our money but does not assume any of our business risk.

In the case of a financial institution doing business lending you have a lot of risk. When you agree to loan money you become inextricably entangled and self-interested in ensuring the success of the borrower. There is an inherent vested interest in ensuring the growth and continued success of the recipient of the service. You make sure they make the right decisions. You check up on them on a regular basis. You question them when decisions are made that jeopardize their success and your investment.

In the case of an MSP, or any other vendor looking to establish a "partnership" with IT there typically isn't that vested interest. Yes, you can write fancy contracts (if you have the legal team and staff to do so) or you can make the argument that the prospect of continued and expanded business is interest enough. I don't have the resources to demand such a contract and I don't believe that vendors are as driven by continued/expanded business as many people think. This is especially true in the SMB market where contracts are rather small and there's an awful lot of potential customers. Growth is ensured to any vendor as  long as they just keep signing on new clients.

So what does a partnership mean to me now? It is a relationship where an MSP/vendor provides me services I need AND assumes enough of my risk to create a vested interest in my success and growth.

I've had close relationships with some vendors and have grown to trust some of their employees. In the case where the employees were also personal friends I've been very comfortable trusting the organization. This is still not a vested interest. Am I going to disown a friend over their employer's bad behavior? Probably not. Trust is not enough. There needs to be a pain point to make sure that everyone is focused on the same goal: success.

Remember - no one is as interested in the success of your business as you are (well...besides your lending institution that is).

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Good Service Template

Funny thing about service - good service generally looks the same no matter where you approach it from. IT is not the first sector to approach the challenge of providing good service! I've had the disadvantage (or some might claim advantage) of learning the art of IT service through trial and error and the school of hard knocks.

I've lived through lost data, angry customers, irate phone calls, ten 1hr onsite service calls in one 8hr day, unreasonable expectations, small business, medium business, enterprise. Service ain't easy, and it's even harder under pressure. Everywhere I've been, and in every job I've done its been remarkable how good service never changes.

Here's the template:
  • Make yourself available to provide service
  • Interact plesantly with the service consumer
  • Listen to the consumer
  • Demonstrate that you've been listening
  • Paraphrase or restate the problem to verify understanding
  • Create plan for providing service or resolving problem
  • Communicate plan to consumer
  • Follow through with plan
  • Communicate with consumer upon plan completion
  • Follow up with consumer later
Managing service is an even larger thing, of course. You need frameworks and procedures to be able to pull the disparate disciplines of IT together into a manageable package. When you have MBAs with no IT experience and IT types with no management experience trying to heard the cats a framework helps keep everyone sane and on the same page.

I love to talk about service in IT. It's a fun topic because in our young industry is continually waking up to the fact that there are other people around us and that we are a part of a larger organization called a "business" or a "corporation".

Talking about service also helps IT/IS remember that we are dealing with PEOPLE not gadgets. People are the most important part and if you're going to be working in a SERVICE sector job you have to live that mentality.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Springtime In The Computer Room

All those expensive servers and switches in that computer room, remember those? We all know that we only go in there to push power buttons from time to time. Maybe run a new patch cable. Have you gone in to check the temperature lately?

In the northern parts of the US, at least, warm weather is still on its way so its not too late to check your A/C. If you're at a new job and you haven't learned where the filters are and who typically does maintenance now's the time to figure that out.

I was putting a filter in a pass-through grate the other day and while I was on a ladder I noticed that the head unit on one of our A/C systems had a door. I opened it up and found this:

Those filters don't look so good. Let's take a vacuum to that.

Ugh. That's just terrible.

Much better! That would explain why the airflow was so rotten. I'll be adding that to my quarterly checklist.

So remember kids, buildings are filthy. The world doesn't like your technology and is actively working to destroy it. Be proactive and practice good computer room hygiene.