Still… Proud to be an American

As we start to close out 2014, I realize that I’ve traveled a lot this year – almost 100,000 miles by plane alone. This travels have taken me to a number of different countries.

As a well-educated, well-traveled American, it’s easy to be… well, a little apologetic for my country, sometimes. Our 250-ish year history as a country pales next to the centuries-old countries I’ve visited. We’re often the brash upstarts on the world stage, our power and influence often seeming to eclipse our maturity and experience.

I’m always amazed at how in-tune folks form other countries are with American politics, at least at a high level. They all know our President’s name, they know our political parties, and they know the basic issues we’re arguing about at the time. They can’t always fathom why we’re arguing about those things – and they often ask, politely, if I can explain the issues. In most of Western Europe, for example, residents find it inexplicable that we argue about something that they take as basic – like universal healthcare. I explain the history behind our situation, some of the different viewpoints, and point out that we’re not really one big, unified country so much as 50 strongly allied little countries – with all the sense of independence and difference that implies.

I sometimes worry about how US citizens are perceived by citizens of other countries. From the inside, I could see how others would view us as overly militant, possibly belligerent, and probably intolerant of diversity. Many of our citizens never travel outside their own towns, let alone to other countries – and I could see how we’d be viewed, at least in part, as backwater hicks. The sensationalist news feeds coming out of the US probably support those views – our own news rarely shows us at our best, of course.

But walk the streets of nearly any town and you’ll see a lot of familiar American icons: Nike. McDonalds. Reebok. Levis. Ford. Apple. Microsoft. Our brands are everywhere. Our music is everywhere, too, America having contributed some of the most lasting genres, like rock, jazz, and country-western. That’s not to say our culture is taking over – no, far from it. The countries I’ve visited still very much have their own identity, their own traditions, and their own brands. They have their own foods, their own favorite music, their own art. They’ve simply taken what they like about American culture, and blended it into their own lives. The US has been called the Great American Melting Pot; we’ve certainly leaked some of our blend into other peoples’ pots as well.

I took the time to ask a few random folks why so much American culture has been so readily adopted. I was initially surprised at how friendly everyone was – it’s easy to imagine Americans not being so friendly to foreigners, except that my own experience traveling our country shows that we’re all pretty damn hospitable. And the answers I got were fantastic, perhaps best summed up by the most concise one: “America is just cool.”

We’re still seen as a land of opportunity. “In Europe, it’s all been done. It’s all built up, and there’s just not a lot of reason to change anything. America is change. You’re always doing something difference, and you don’t care who does it.”

“You argue,” one person said – meaning it as a positive. “We all try to be so polite that nothing gets done, because nobody talks about the issues.” While that’s certainly not true in every country I visited, it’s notable that our penchant for argument and debate isn’t solely a bad thing.

My favorite response: “You’re like the loud friend someone invited to the party. You drank a bit too much, and you fell over a lot, and everyone rolled their eyes. But secretly they were really glad you were there.”

Watching cable news and listening to our politicians, it’s easy to forget how many friends America has across the world. It’s easy to forget that we are still seen as the home of the American Dream, and that the dream is very much alive. Nobody sees as as perfect, of course – but they certainly see us as a desirable set of friends.

And what friends we have. America may not be the greatest country on the Earth – and perhaps we never were the “greatest.” But there’s an old saying: You can judge a man by the company he keeps. If that applies to countries, then America is certainly one of the best, because we’re in the very best of company.

Happy Holidays.

Help Me Make Your Help Desk Helpier

I could use your help. In fact, if you could bring this post to the attention of everyone in your IT team, and anyone else in IT you know, I’ll be hugely indebted.

I’ll get straight to the point. In the comments of this post, please provide a simple list of the skills and knowledge you believe someone should have in order to get a job on a company’s entry-level IT team (typically the help desk, and that’s where I’m focusing).

This should not include anything specific to your environment, like custom apps. Imagine there’s a super, world-class “help desk school” out there someplace, and they teach a perfect curriculum, and people are dying to hire their graduates into entry level IT positions. What is it they teach?

Be as specific as possible. For example, don’t write “AD Management,” because you and I both know your help desk isn’t “managing” AD. Perhaps they’re unlocking accounts and resetting passwords – so write that.

Don’t go overboard, either – we’re looking for entry level skills, not the skills you wish the help desk had so that they could do your job for you.

Think about soft skills, too. Phone skills? Conversational skills? Anger suppression skills? What does your help desk, at work, do really well? Write those things down. What do they struggle with? Write those things down – provided they’re in-scope for what an entry-level IT person would be expected to know.

I’m going to run this through the end of January 2015 (so don’t bother adding-on after that), and I appreciate your help. Read on for my reasons behind this, and to offer your input.

If you’re looking for more detail on why I’m doing this, I’ll tell you. I’m massively frustrated that our entire education system funnels kids towards massively expensive four-year college degrees for everything, and acts like there’s simply no way to get a job outside that system. Kids are saddled with $60k or more of debt when they’re just starting out, or they beggar their parents going through a program that usually has zero applicability to what they end up doing. For-profit colleges are raking it in hand over fist, and it’s not fair to our kids. 

The equivalent of a two-year associates certificate from a career college should be sufficient to get someone an entry-level job in IT – and from there, experience will get them a lot further than expensive credit-hours. Unfortunately, most of those two-year programs come from commercial career colleges, which charge upwards of $24k a year for the privilege. Sure, some community colleges do a good job for tons less – but they struggle with funding, and they struggle to find good curricula.

I’m in a position to create a good curriculum, and to populate it with training from some of the industry’s best, and that’s what I want to do. This is kind of a personal mission for me. I didn’t go to college myself, and I took a lot of ribbing for going down a more vocational path, but it’s worked out damn well for me. I love IT, and I think a lot of younger folks would do really well in it – if weediest stopped jamming college down their throats as a solution for everything.

Thanks for your help. I want to make this as practical and as real-world as humanly possible, and knowing what your help desk actually deals with (in a generic sense) will go a long way toward helping. And again, please help me get as many eyes on this as possible. Don’t worry about writing duplicate information, I’ll sort it out.

Again, thanks.

The Weird Reasons that Facebook “Works”

I have a Facebook account, of course. My “friends” list is pretty limited to actual, in-real-life, lives-near-me friends, in part because some younger family members are “friends” and I’m sensitive about what goes on my timeline. (I do have a public Facebook page, though.)

I have a few friends that have transitioned more or less entirely to communicating with me via Facebook’s messaging system, even though they have my e-mail address. I started thinking about why that would be.

First, I suppose there’s an argument that some folks are “in” Facebook all the time, and so messaging from there is just convenient. I’m not sure I buy that, though, because they’re also “in” e-mail all the time, which should be just as convenient. No, I think the reasons are deeper.

I think a big part of it is that, of the entire population of the planet, Facebook represents a tiny “whitelist” of people you want to hear from. That means you’re much less likely to get spam, and you don’t have the overhead of needing to manage spam filters, search through spam folders, and so on. Spam has, in many ways, made e-mail a lot less useful. What would be nice is if e-mail from known people (or domain names) could go into your Inbox, and anything else went into a “pending review” folder. Of course, you’d need to prevent sender address spoofing, which SPF does, but which almost nobody actually uses. So… nevermind.

I think another big factor is that Facebook messages tend to be short and concise. They don’t have e-mail signatures, attachments, and all the dreck that goes with e-mail. In short, we’ve made e-mail suck. I get e-mail from some people where the “extras” (signature, “confidentiality” notice, logo graphics, etc) are triple the size of the actual message.

Then I start to think where else these things apply. What else have I, and others, screwed up in an attempt to make things “better?” Calling a store on the phone, for example. I hate it, because so many companies turn answering the phone into an advertisement: “Hi-thank-you-for-calling-GameStop-can-I-tell-you-about-our-preowned-game-tradein-program-or-our-new-preorder-offer-for-XBox-3Million?” No, dammit. Shut up and let me talk, I’m the customer here.

TV advertising has become just so much spam, and it’s been that way for years. It’s a terrible way to bring original programming to the public (and HBO, Showtime, and Netflix have all demonstrated it isn’t the only way), and there are just so many ads, all the damn time, that we treat it like spam e-mail: into the “ignore” part of our brain. And TV shows are still forced to craft their stories around designated commercial breaks, which means we’re possibly not getting the best artistic product. Yet fewer, more well-crafted commercials might be appreciated and enjoyed – and there’s ample evidence that can be the case.

We see this in the workplace, too. Nobody in an office was deprived of e-mail in this past decade, yet now everyone also has to have instant messaging. Why? Because it feels “less formal” than e-mail. Because e-mail has all that crap attached to it. So why do we use both e-mail and IM? Beats me. Same reason I suppose we still need voicemail, right?

What sort of useless cruft do you have in the workplace that seems useful but is really just making something less useful? What’s redundant? More importantly – why is it redundant? Was it useful at some point, and just became less useful somehow? It’s worth looking at those things, if for no other reason than to understand what happened, so you can watch for it as it happens to the next thing.

[UPDATE: I cancelled my Facebook account. Turns out too much exposure to my friends could have left me without friends. Safer this way.]

Measure Your Process Overhead

How much of your work life is spent on overhead?

That is, for any given task you perform at work, how much of your time is spent actually performing the task, and how much is spent on associated overhead processes?

For example, helping a user solve an IT problem is productive work; the associated help desk ticket paperwork stuff is overhead. Reconfiguring a domain controller is work; the change management meetings leading up to the work are overhead.

Overhead isn’t inherently bad; a certain amount of overhead helps keep everything running smoothly, helps people coordinate with each other, and helps prevent unwanted change in the environment. But you do need to become skilled at measuring the overhead with some accuracy. That way, you can look at the costs of not having the overhead, look at the cost of the overhead, and decide if the overhead is worth it.

For example, when I was with Bell Atlantic, our help desk handled the usual number of “forgotten password” and “account lockout” calls. It literally took them three times longer to fill out the help desk ticket than to solve the problem – and so in many cases they wouldn’t complete the ticket. I didn’t blame them, but it meant we lacked crucial metrics on a common problem. So I modified our ticketing software to include “quick tickets,” which essentially only required the help desk to enter the user’s name. The ticket would open, resolve, and close itself using boilerplate. The overhead became smaller, and was worth the metrics we gained on the problem category.

Knowing your overhead can also help justify better management tools. “Generating this report takes 10 hours a week” can have a specific amount of currency associated with it, and that amount might well be more than it would cost to implement a more efficient way of performing that overhead task. “We spend 8 hours executing change management processes for a specific change that, even if it went wrong, would impact only 2 people for 5 minutes.” OK, the overhead is probably costing more than the problem it’s meant to prevent – so reconsideration is in order.

The difference between “business people” and most “tech people” is that tech people don’t tend to consider these kinds of metrics, like the cost/benefit analysis of overhead processes. You can do a lot for your career by becoming a little more business-y!



Verify Your Assumptions and Gripes

Folks often make important decisions based on inaccurate, unverified assumptions. Whether you’re at work or at the voting booth, it’s important to research the facts that underpin your assumptions – and what you’re being told – and either validate or refute them.


The Price of Gas

For example, folks often rail against oil companies for the high price of gas. And there’s no question that oil companies make a lot of revenue – but who really keeps all the money?

On average (it varies by state), $0.50 of each gallon goes to the government in the form of taxes. The gas station owner keeps about 2.5% – almost nothing; they make their living by selling items from the convenience store, mechanic services, and other stuff. The gas is just to bring you in. On a $4 gallon, that’s about $0.10 per gallon.

So far, the oil company is getting about $3.40 on a $4.00 gallon. But here comes the government again, with the ever-popular invisible corporate tax. On oil companies, it’s around 55%. Yeah. The Department of Labor and Statistics figures that it costs about 40% to manufacture and transport the cost (it varies a lot; I’m averaging out the last decade), so of that $3.40 the oil company gets, roughly $1.40 is cost-of-goods; that leaves about $2 in gross profit. Assuming zero overhead, zero R&D, and zero other expenses (which isn’t the case, obviously), the company pays about $1.10 in taxes per gallon, and keeps about $0.90.

That’s a 22% profit margin, roughly, which isn’t bad – but the government is getting almost twice that much, close to 40% of the retail cost per gallon. Oil companies’ massive revenues come from their massive sales volume, not from massive profit margins. The government’s the one getting rich on oil.

So when you think a politician is soft on Big Oil… maybe they’re just sweet for the IRS.



Remember many years back, when the old woman got burned by the hot cup of coffee at McDonald’s, and sued for millions?

Pretty much everyone made a joke of it. I mean, it’s coffee. It’s supposed to be hot. WTF?

Well, much of that feeling came from the massive publicity heaped on the issue by McDonald’s lawyers, and by like-minded industry groups who were thinking of the companies. Using that and a couple of other cases, they were able to get voters and politicians to pass sweeping tort reforms, limiting the damages someone could collect from cases like that.

Thing is, that old lady was severely damaged. Her coffee wasn’t hot, it was superheated – well above boiling. It literally stripped the skin off her inner thighs, causing permanent nerve damage. She had to go on medications for the rest of her life, couldn’t walk normally (the muscle tissue was damaged), and generally lived in hell. A million bucks is a lot of money, but would you be happy with it if someone stripped skin and muscle off of your legs, essentially ruining your life and condemning you to a permanent drug haze?

I made the same assumptions almost everyone made when I first heard of the case – more ridiculous lawsuits! But the tort reforms in most states now mean that there’s a hard cap on how much money you can receive above and beyond your actual medical costs – and in terms of compensating you for your life essentially being taken away, it’s not much. In Nevada, where I live, it’s about a million. If I were damaged badly, and unable to work, a million bucks wouldn’t last me through to end of life. But that’s my cap, thanks to tort reform.

Big corporations fought for those tort laws… so who benefits from the laws?

They won by mocking the “trial lawyers” who go after “big settlements” on “ridiculous cases.” It’s easy to get the public in a gnash against trial lawyers; nobody likes ‘em. But pay attention to who is riling you up against the trial lawyers, because they assuredly have a motive, too.


Point Being

Be real careful about what you see online, hear in the news, and what’s fed to your brain in general. There’s always another side to the story, and it’s never as simple a narrative as you’re being handed. Research. Make sure you’re getting the full story. Make sure it all adds up in your head – and that you’re not simply buying a simple version of the “truth” that someone wants to sell you. Make sure you know the motives. It doesn’t matter which side of the argument you eventually decide is “yours;” what matters is that you’re not letting someone lead you to that decision. Make it on your own.




Is There Any Future in Being a System Center Guru, Career-Wise?

There was a well thought-out post on that I wanted to respond to. I’ll quote out the post, and respond inline. I’m doing this here because it’s a topic near and dear to my heart, and one I want to be able to easily refer people to in the future.

As someone who has invested a significant amount of time learning the System Center product suite, I am beginning to wonder if focusing on System Center is a good move career-wise.

It’s pretty clear that the importance of DataCenter management tools is lessening. The trend is for companies to move to the Cloud and leverage SAAS and IAAS solutions.

Well, yes, but also no. Private data centers will remain hugely important for a long time, and you’ll need tools to manage them – as well as tools to manage your public-cloud assets. It’s going to be a hybrid world for the foreseeable future. Many organizations simply won’t go heavily public; there are a lot of political and legal concerns around it right now that aren’t going to be resolved real soon.

The prevalence of On-Prem tools is diminishing and everything is moving towards a service-based model.

Well, no. Your own datacenter should have been moving toward a service-based model – e.g., a service you provide to the organization – a long time ago. You need on-prem tools to do that. One reason the public cloud has been successful is because so many internal IT teams utterly failed to provide their organizations with what the organization really needed, often due to a lack of executive leadership.

How many Sharepoint and Exchange admins do you need when you have Office365?

Fewer, for sure, but O365 isn’t admin-free. Frankly, most organizations I see are heavier on communications admins than they need to be. It’s O365’s automation that lets you get away with fewer admins; it’s automation you could have implemented internally some time ago.

Why stick with System Center when you have free Open-Source solutions such as OpenStack available?

The same reason you use Windows instead of Linux. Open-source isn’t the perfect solution for every organization. Many organizations will find benefit in having multiple stacks serving different business purposes.

Why invest in SCOM monitoring when you can just use AWS and leverage AWS Cloudwatch which is free?

Because you’ll still monitor internal assets, and because Cloudwatch doesn’t monitor to nearly the level that SCOM does. Further, you’ll need to monitor hybrid assets, and something like SCOM is well positioned to do that if your public cloud assets happen to be in Microsoft’s public cloud. Yes, System Center is a proprietary stack – it’s pretty much always been that way. Everyone else’s stack is proprietary, too; “Open” Stack might be open-source, but it still wants you to implement its components rather than someone else’s. I don’t mean that as a bad thing, just pointing it out.

Why use SCCM to patch servers when you can slipstream patches into your server build scripts with CloudFormation scripts?

Personally, I question whether you’ll use SCCM for anything for much longer, as I think better solutions are coming. But, this isn’t a “does System Center offer any value” question, it’s a “whose stack do you want to play in” question. If you’re implementing a Microsoft stack, and that’s inclusive of Azure-based assets, you’ll use Microsoft tools. This question is like saying “why would you use SCVMM when vCenter does the same thing?” The obvious answer is, “because they’re different stacks.”

Why use Orchestrator when you have SMA?

You probably wouldn’t. Orchestrator isn’t Microsoft’s go-forward solution; SMA is. But SMA is part of System Center; this doesn’t in any way point to System Center being less relevant.

Why bother deploying SCSM when you can leverage a SAAS solution like ServiceNow and take the complexity of owning and operating a helpdesk application out of the equation?

Again, this is a stack question in part. SCSM is the hub that, along with SMA and Orchestrator, tie most of the Microsoft stack together. And SCSM isn’t terribly complex to own or operate. I also expect Microsoft will someday rent us a SaaS version of SCSM (and likely SCOM, along with other bits). You have to be a bit careful about making this an “on-prem vs. cloud” argument, because System Center is edging toward being “cloud” itself.

Look at what Microsoft has been doing: They ended Technet subscriptions. They ended MMS and have combined all of their conferences into one huge uber-conference. They ended the Master MCSE certifications.

This doesn’t really have anything to do with the System Center question; this feels more like a “is Microsoft abandoning IT pros?” question. And yes, in part, they are. The days of clicking next-next-finish to manage your infrastructure are ending; DevOps is what Microsoft wants running the datacenter now, and that means admins who think a bit more like developers… and that means ending the separation between “dev” and “IT pro.” You don’t have to like it; you can certainly point your career elsewhere if you think Microsoft is off it’s rocker. But this is what they’re doing.

The Master MCSE certifications were almost always doomed – few people took them, they were expensive, and they just weren’t following the business trends. They were, in some ways, a day late and a dollar short to get really entrenched. Do you have one? I never did.

TechEd, MMS, and the other conferences were, in my opinion, just a stupid marketing move. I don’t think they’re part of any bigger pattern, apart from little fiefdoms inside Microsoft who were getting agitated that other people were running conferences.

Everything they are pushing now is Azure Azure Azure. Microsoft is transitioning into becoming a service-based company.

True, and they’ve been very upfront about that with phrasing like “cloud-first engineering.” Microsoft’s customers drove them to it, in part, by sitting on a single server operating system for over a decade. If Microsoft can’t sell you software in a steady stream, they’re going to rent it to you instead.

Look at their latest System Center technical preview: SCVMM now no longer supports Citrix XenServer and VMWare:

Which is hugely disappointing, but not unexpected. You’re right in that the company is pushing for what they need in Azure, and the SCVMM team doubtless felt pressured to drop “outlier” support and focus on core stuff.

The bottom line? The Microsoft IT admin career path is changing. That doesn’t mean System Center is going away, but it’s going to morph. Being a guru is probably still a safe career path, provided you keep up with the changes. Don’t tell me you’re a guru in SC2007; nobody cares. But if you’re solid on all the latest – and the change is going to be fast and drastic from here on out – then you’ll be of great value to many organizations. But, if you’re just the guy who runs the Deployment Wizard in SCCM… yeah, I’d start looking at other futures.