Awful, Awful IT Management. Just Awful.

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So we’ve all heard the news that the UK and Dutch governments are paying Microsoft million$ to consider supporting XP for them.

I am appalled. What a waste of taxpayer money. Frankly, everyone in charge of IT in these organizations should be fired. Maybe imprisoned. Here’s why:

You didn’t see this coming? For Jah’s sake, XP is 12 years old. You’re telling me that you were so blindsided by the end of support that you have to spend millions to support an outdated, highly vulnerable operating system, instead of upgrading?

You lack capability? What, you can’t efficiently roll out a newer desktop operating system in a reasonable period of time? For shame. I sure hope you don’t have to react to anything important anytime soon.

As an aside, I find it hilarious that the UK government is one of the two entities (so far) doing this. These are the folks who invented ITIL, remember, a framework I have long held as being expressly designed to halt change. I mean, I get the value of change control, but I truly don’t feel ITIL is designed to manage change so much as make sure it doesn’t happen much. Giggles.

You’ve got expensive stuff that only runs on XP. Ah, most people will use this to get a pass on the XP thing. Not from me. You’re telling me that, some years ago, you acquired some technology solution and didn’t ensure it had an upgrade path? You what, thought XP would be the last version of Windows ever? If you put Neil The Help Desk Guy in charge of acquisitions, I’d expect that kind of naiveté. I don’t accept it from technology executives. Part of your procurement process should always be, “what’s the path when Windows ___ is retired?” You should be planning to upgrade everything you buy. Not waiting until it’s a fait accompli and then paying through the nose to support 12-year-old software.

The last guy didn’t do anything to prepare. And you’ve been doing what since we hired you? Your first move wasn’t to find out what kind of obsolete stuff you had lying around, and start to plan what to do about it? Your answer is to spend millions so a software company can support something that’s older than the most recent tax code?

 

…breathe…

I want to acknowledge that governments are never terribly efficient. I don’t necessarily want them to be. There’s a downside to businesslike efficiency when you’re not in the business of making a profit, and I don’t want my government making a profit. No danger there, fortunately. But this is just amateurish. Nobody making these “spend millions to support old software” decisions should be managing anything. Like, not even the local pub.

Things in IT are moving faster, not slower. XP is officially old enough to qualify for a “Classic” license plate in some states. Your car is probably newer than XP. Management that didn’t have an XP plan four years ago is incompetent; management that’s paying extra money to support an obsolete OS isn’t incompetent. They’re criminal.

Especially if they’re spending your money to do it. There should, honestly, be hearings.

Target’s CIO resigned over a lesser offense. One that was, arguably, less predictable. I mean, nobody told Target in advance they were going to be hacked. Microsoft has been telling us for years that XP was going away. There’s been time. 

Sorry. Bit of a rant. This really frustrates me. If our IT leaders can’t get their heads screwed on any tighter than this, then we’re all screwed. Because I guarantee you, if there’s been no XP plan, then there’s damn sure no plans for anything important. Like protecting your personal information.

(And, as an aside, folks in the US should be bloody amazed that HealthCare.gov had as few problems as it did. The tech standard, for governments, is apparently not very high.)

 

…and an update…

As you’ll notice from the comments, at least a few folks aren’t grasping the point of the story. The point isn’t, “you should ditch XP now.”

The point is about learning from your mistakes. 

Okay, so you’re stuck with XP. You should be called up on charges, because you definitely saw this coming. More importantly, what are you doing to make sure this scenario doesn’t happen again? Before you buy that expensive whatever-it-does, are you making sure the vendor has a plan to do something about software obsolescence? I’m sure that if you make that a sticking point on the sale, they’ll come up with an answer. And yeah, vendors go out of business – I get that. But we should be doing all we can reasonably do to make sure we don’t get into this “XP forever” situation again. Maybe we’re screwed this time around… but you know the saying. Screw me once, shame on you….

Hopefully everyone can look at this XP situation, where some people (even if it isn’t you) are going to be stuck with XP for years, and make sure that becomes a discussion point with every vendor. “So the machine cures cancer, huh? What’s the upgrade path when Windows 9.2 is 10 years old? You’ve no idea? Okay, well maybe your competitor does.”

But I truly hate the attitude of, “well, there’s nothing we can do, now or ever, can’t even try harder next time.” It’s just lazy. We should all be pushing for more manageable, more secure, more stable technology. All the time. And I know almost everyone does, and I know sometimes, in edge cases, the situation is what it is.

…not to mention…

And, by the way, let’s draw a bit of a line and make sure you’re reading the preceding rant. I’m not kvetching about a business who got stuck with some specialized controllers running an embedded or near-embedded OS. I’m talking about millions and millions of dollars being spent by governments to support what in most cases are general-purpose PCs. I think there’s a bit of a difference there. These aren’t folks who are stuck. They’re folks who didn’t plan.

Internal IT “Customers” don’t Have to be Happy. They Have to be Productive.

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I don’t know exactly when companies’ IT departments were asked to start thinking of internal users as “customers.” I mean, I get it – businesses exist to make money, and you primarily do that by making customers happy, so happy customers = better business. Sure. Except that our internal users aren’t customers, and we in IT are frequently put in the position of not giving them what they want. Users aren’t paying us, and they often ask for things that are opposed to what’s wanted by the folks are are paying us.

Let’s say you walk into Macy’s and buy some shoes. So long as you pay for them, nobody in that store is going to tell you that you can’t have the shoes, right? On the contrary, they’re going to help you try those things on, and possibly suggest some lovely socks to go with them.

IT just doesn’t work that way. Users don’t pay for things, so we don’t always let them have what they want, and we certainly don’t suggest some add-on items or offer a discount if they use their store charge card. Now, maybe we should. Companies that adopt “private cloud”-ish management practices may indeed give authorized “customers” whatever they (or their department) can pay for. But there aren’t a ton of IT departments being managed that way. Not yet. Maybe someday.

No, our users aren’t customers, and they don’t need to be happy. They need to be productive, they need to be safe, and they need to be compliant, and in many cases making sure those three things are true will make the users happy in some form. I mean, it’s not ice cream, but it’s getting the job done. I had one customer whose IT department mission statement started with “…to delight our internal and external customers.” That’s silly. That’s like being delighted with the water cooler. When IT is doing its job right, we’re invisible, like electricity. We’re not delightful. We just work.

That’s why I don’t like the whole “customer” word being used for internal users. It’s a completely false analogy. It’s one of those Dilbert phrases that we all know is ridiculous, yet we persist in using anyway. Like saying something is an “issue.” No, it’s a problem. Magazines have issues. Stamps have issues. Computers have problems. Calling users “customers” starts to set up this whole mental chain of associations – like the need to “delight” them – that just isn’t accurate. Keep saying “customers” enough, and HR will start surveying users’ level of delight, which is a completely useless metric. Everyone will take the “customer” thing and run with it. I’m sure some of you have seen that happen in your own organization.

IT should probably never be asking itself, “what can we do to make our customers happier?” We should probably be asking, “what shall we give our users to help them be safer, more productive, and more compliant with company rules?” That’s what the company certainly should want us to do, right? Our users are our constituents. Through their representatives (e.g., management), they determine if we in IT have a job or not. Our users are obviously incredibly important – they’re the reason we go to work every morning – but they’re not our customers. They’re partners, for certain; to some degree, we’re all “in it together” to make whatever the organization does happen every day. But not customers.

Words are important. Analogies are especially important. Like the late George Carlin, I think we spend too much time sapping the power from important words, and then misusing other words and creating false impressions. A problem is a problem; a user isn’t a customer. I understand that we need to be respectful to our partners and constituents, and that “users” might not be seen as respectful, but I don’t think we do anyone a service when we start lying to ourselves and to each other about the kind of relationship we’re all in.

And by the way, IT doesn’t get patted on the back all that often. Usually, we’re heads-down working on the next problem. But it’s worth taking a few minutes, perhaps in your weekly or monthly team meetings, to remind yourselves what you’ve done to make your constituents more productive, safer, and more compliant. Remind yourselves what you’ve done (or not done) to not achieve those goals. Retailers ask themselves what they could do to make customers happier – there’s no reason IT can’t have a similar attitude and ask what we can do to make our partners lives’ easier, safer, and more compliant. Heck, most IT teams do just that, all the time. Sure, we’ll joke about not liking our users – but we know they’re an important part of the picture. Taking a little time to borrow one customer-centric behavior from retail – just modifying it to focus less on “happy” and more on company goals – is certainly a good idea.

That just doesn’t make our users customers. 

Why Stores “Penalize” You For Not Using Your Gift Card Within a Year

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I used to work for a retailer, and we issued gift certificates – these days, they’d be preloaded gift cards. Except back then, certificates never had an expiration date.

We hated our gift certificates. And the reason why might surprise you. Today, a lot of retailers start charging fees after a gift card has been unused for a year. Most folks see that as a “penalty” for not using the card, and assume that the motive is sheer corporate greed.

Not exactly.

While I’m not saying it’s any more fair, the reason has to do with accounting. A gift card isn’t a sale by the retailer to you; it’s a “tender exchange.” Meaning, they’ve taken cash, but they can’t count it as revenue because they’ve issued a debt instrument (the card) to you. That card represents a liability until it’s expired, cancelled, or fulfilled – and the accountants have to account for it every single year. It makes the books look funny, too, and a big enough liability like that can make it tough to sell a company, because a potential buyer might look at the outstanding debt vs. the company’s ability to fulfill it and get tweaky.

The fees aren’t so much a penalty as they are an incentive. The merchant really really really wants you to use the card so (a) they can finally count that money as revenue and (b) get the debt off the books.

Again, not saying it’s any more fair, but the motive isn’t purely corporate greed. Call it corporate laziness, if you prefer, as that’s more accurate.

Obviously, some jurisdictions disallow these no-use charges, and some retailers do a better job of disclosing them up front than others.

Frankly, I’ve been in conversations about this with a few retailers, and if they could come up with a better incentive to make you use the card, they probably would. I know one or two smaller ones have tried offering a small discount on your purchase when you use the card within a year (“turn your $100 card into $110 if you use it now!”); those typically don’t have huge success because the discount isn’t usually easy to communicate (people like to buy cards with fancy designs on them, not marketing text).

Keep in mind that a lot of retailers hope your gift card will go to someone who isn’t already a regular customer, thereby earning them the chance to bring in a new repeat customer. So they don’t, in most cases, want to penalize the recipient… they want them to bloody show up and spend the money, already.

BTW – one reason the first folks started charging those “no-use” fees (which are often a few dollars per year) is because there was once talk about letting a consumer cancel a gift card, and get their money back with interest (!!!). Treating the card as a loan instrument, in other words. In that scenario, charging the no-use fee was intended to make the card look less like a loan to regulators, and more like a carrying service. That loan thing never happened anyplace that I’m aware of, but once they had the fees on the books, stores obviously felt inclined to leave it there.

And yeah, I’m sure they don’t hate the income. Remember, I live in Vegas, where thousands of dollars in unredeemed slot machine tickets fly out of town every week. Those expire after a couple of weeks, and we get to keep the cash. We dump it into the pool at Luxor, and all the locals get together once a month and swim in it, while chuckling madly.

Anyway… not saying it’s better or worse, but thought you might appreciate knowing the backstory.

5 Points Each if You Know These People (Throwback Thursday)

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Can you name all four people in these photos?

Yeah, when I was high school-aged, I used to help run some of our local Star Trek conventions, such as Sci-Con, Beach Trek, and others. You definitely want to ask me about Tasha Yar’s underwear sometime. At a bar. You’re buying.

The Myth of the Homogeneous Environment

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For as long as I can remember, organizations have tried to achieve the Holy Grail of technology: a homogeneous environment. More on the desktop side, perhaps, but having one-and-only-one of something in the datacenter was always seen as desirable, too.

You’re probably familiar with the alleged benefits. The big one was “cheaper to support,” on the theory that only maintaining one of something is cheaper. You only train for one thing, you maintain a set of tools for one thing, and so on. You can support things faster, because you only have to keep one set of rules and issues and whatnot in your head.

Some organizations took homogeneous pretty far, trying to lock down their environments as much as possible to prevent drift, variation, and chaos. As a sidebar, I know that lock-down can be useful for security, compliance, and other purposes; I’m not addressing those. I’m talking about homogeneous desktops solely for the sake of sameness, and for no other benefit. I worked in more than a few ships where that was the goal, long before ‘compliance’ was even a concern.

The problem is that very few shops of any size ever actually achieved a fully homogeneous environment. There was always a set of edge cases – Macs for the design department, wacky printers, executives who insisted on a different computer brand because it was available in black instead of beige (this happened to me; we seriously considered spray-painting a Dell).

The common-sense benefits of homogeneity were so… well, obvious, that most of us just went right down that path. We were then hit by the career-switcher rush, in the early and mid 1990s, when a lot of IT folks started moving into IT. Some of those “switchers” brought very little IT experience, and so it was an effort for them to be effective in supporting one technology, let alone dozens… and that reinforced the “benefit” of a homogeneous environment. In other words, it wasn’t cheaper to support, it was just the only thing we could support, because we were working with relative newcomers who had smaller skill sets.

Unfortunately, it was all a pack of lies.

I’ve never been able to find a credible study that showed it was cheaper to support a homogeneous environment than a heterogeneous one. The “obvious, common sense” of the argument for homogeny didn’t play out very well except in the very smallest environments. Believe me, I have had a tremendous problem coming to grips with this because the argument for homogeny is just so… well, so duh. I mean, of course it’s cheaper to support one thing instead of twenty things, right?

Apparently not. You see, most organizations already spend so much more than they should when it comes to per-unit (desktop or server) support, that the ‘extra’ costs of supporting another OS become almost meaningless.

Look, if you’re a single person, then the argument works. “I know how to support Windows, and I know it well. Ask me to support Linux, and I’m going to be a lot slower, and you’re not going to like that. I’ll miss little things, because I don’t know Linux.” Except that attitude doesn’t actually scale to organizational levels. First, we could always hire a Linux person. It turns out that, in most organizations, if you right-sized the skill mix of your team, you’d get about the same size team and be able to support whatever you wanted. Yeah, dragging 1000 Macs into an all-Windows environment would be disruptive, but if you brought in 1000 new clients you’d have to bring in new support staff anyway, so they might as well know Mac.

BTW, I’m not suggesting all operating systems are equal when it comes to manageability. I firmly believe Windows is far superior an operating system when it comes to “being managed by an IT team.” The homogeneous argument is used in all-Windows shops, too – it’s why companies want “all XP” or “all Windows 7″ with no variation. Once you acknowledge that Windows is a damn good enterprise client OS, why stick with just one version? The homogeny argument. Anyway…

I recently worked with a couple of customers on a fairly extensive study that compared large (5,000+ seat) departments, some of whom were homogeneous on the desktop, and others who, for operational reasons, were mixed-OS (the mix was often Windows versions, not necessarily non-Windows machines). Support cost difference between them? Zero.

We did find a massive difference between the homogeneous environments and the non-homogeneous ones. Let’s call them the “Samers” (all running one client OS of a single version), and the “Differs” (running a mix of operating systems and versions). That difference: The Differs could incorporate new technologies into their environment massively faster, with less disruption. They were more flexible. Having accepted the need to be Differs, they’d put tools, processes, and training in place to accommodate that need. Their IT folks were generally fearless of new technology; the Samers tended to argue against new technology as much as possible, holding to the “one” thing the were used to.

Take a population of cats, inbreed them enough, and you’ll start getting sick cats. Let them mingle with other populations, and you get genetic diversity that makes them stronger, healthier, and all that. It’s well-known – but it turns out the concept applies to IT as well.

IT teams that thrive on technical diversity are, quite simply, better IT teams. Natural selection ensures that those teams don’t include many less-than-talented people, because you have to be smart just to get by every single day. They spend more time formalizing processes, patterns, and tools that help them manage a diverse environment – so when the CIO wants to bring in some wacky new thing to support a business need, they just shrug and get on it.

This isn’t, of course, saying that everyone who works in a Samer environment is stupid and lazy – but Samer environments allow you to be so, if you’re of a mind. A lot of Samer environments can be so unchallenging (which is the point of homogeny, remember) that the really talented folks get bored and leave before long. It’s tougher to “keep up” in a Samer environment, because you’re just not exposed to much. You’re challenged less.

Differ environments also, I believe, have fewer IT-related political issues. They tend to concentrate more on using technology the way it was meant to be used, because they’re already challenged by the diversity they have to manage. That means technology isn’t held up (as much) by the squishiness of fiefdoms and other political crap that takes place in corporations.

When working with Differs, I find that the end users are often a bit more flexible, too. One company, for example, ditched mapped drives a decade ago. They stood up a DFS tree and made everyone memorize friendly UNCs instead of drive letters. Everyone complained for a minute, and then moved on. Why did they do it? They’d brought in a bunch of Unix boxes to do graphics rendering, and those machines don’t really do mapped drives the way Windows does (drive letters have, after all, been ridiculous for almost 20 years now). So rather than maintaining two sets of standards and processes, they changed the processes to accommodate the different technologies. They didn’t struggle to jury-rig drive mappings onto Unix – they just walked away from what was, to them, an outdated and single-platform concept. Both Windows and Unix treat UNCs the same, so they went that way.

So, what kind of environment do you work in – Samer or Differ? And what kind would you prefer to work in, if you could work anyplace? And how many of your “technology” problems would go away if you worked in an environment where processes, concepts, and users could change to better fit the way the technology works?

Here’s Why YOU Should be Blogging

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On a recent PowerScripting Podcast episode, I brought up the topic of PowerShell Desired State Configuration, and pointed out that I thought folks should be learning this important technology. There was a bit of a debate – some folks disagree, of course. But putting that aside, at least a few folks agreed with me and set out to learn the technology.

Jacob Benson was one of them, and he’s been blogging – daily – about his learning experience.

It aptly demonstrates why I think everyone should have a blog – even if it’s a private one that nobody else sees, but I really think anyone working in IT should have a public blog. Writing something down reinforces it in your head. The act of writing forces you to organize your thoughts; Benson’s been doing it chronologically, which is fine. He’s documented his failures, too, which is going to prove useful to someone else in the future, because he also documents his fixes.

You know that you truly know something when you can teach it to someone else – and forcing yourself to write down what you’ve learned proves to you that you’ve learned it that well. Blog selfishly: make every entry a reminder of what you’ve learned, and you’ll always have a reference to go back to. If you’re at work, blog there, too. Use SharePoint or something to document problems you’ve solved in an informal fashion; that can supplement help desk ticket notes and serve as a long-term reference for others in your environment.

And you do have time. Remember that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, and that’s never been more true than in the IT industry, where I see people constantly making the same mistakes over and over. If you don’t document history, everyone forgets it. You can’t afford not to.

Sure, other people don’t read. I get it. I’m constantly re-answering questions that I’ve already answered in a book or something. But that’s often because people aren’t used to other people writing stuff down, so they don’t bother to look. You can help cure that. When you “re-answer” a question, politely refer the person to whatever writing you’ve done on the subject, so they start getting used to looking for those answers.

Don’t like to write? Fine – start a YouTube “blog” instead. Get a screen recording application, a decent microphone, and record your learning experiences. They don’t need to be pretty – they need to be helpful. 

We live in an age of unprecedented ability to document and retain information forever. What are you doing to help build the knowledge base?

Off-Topic: My RV Years

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This is my personal blog; the amount of business-related stuff you see in here simply tells you what my life tends to look like :). I work a lot.

But not all the time. From sometime in 2001 until sometime in 2003 – almost three years – I lived in an RV. A 40-foot fifth wheel, towed by a dually truck (starting with a Chevy gas and then moving to a GMC diesel). In those years, I worked a good bit – but I did so whilst traveling. We stayed in one place for anywhere from a week to six months, depending.

Being who I am and doing what I do, writing a book about it seemed in order. And so my partner and I sat down and reminisced, and pulled together a book – which you’re welcome to read. It’s mostly funny – there were some odd times, let me tell you. Some of these are still the stories I tell around the bar.

It’s definitely a bit of an outsider’s tale, at least at first – we kind of went into the trip with a set of expectations and concerns. We finished with a completely different view of the country we live in, and its people, and it isn’t – shock of all shocks – the one you typically see on CNN or Fox News or MSNBC or whoever. In fact, the use of the word “zoo” in the title was very much because we expected to be touring and “looking in,” when in fact that didn’t always turn out to be the case at all.

Anyway, this is completely a personal post – but I’ve made a lot of friends who’ve been agitating to read this, and so I figured I might as well put it up. If you’re mainly interested in my technology doings, you can safely ignore this ;). If you’ve mainly been interested in my technology doings, but you’re thinking, “hey, I’ll read it,” just know that – like you – I’m a different person “at work” than “at home,” and this reflects that. Be forewarned.

ZooBook (PDF – note that this is the original formatting for Lulu.com, which is why it’s an odd page size.)