Rethinking “OS” and “Windows”

Ran across the Microsoft Drawbridge project while researching Midori (an MS Research project that has moved into one of the commercial business units). It’s fascinating.

Understanding “library OS” really requires that you unthink a decade or two of Microsoft shorthand (and a little propaganda). You could also just go back a few years in time. Back then, “OS” meant “the software that dealt with the hardware.” An OS always provides an Application Programming Interface (API) that let applications ask the OS to draw stuff on the screen, talk to memory, write stuff to disk, things like that.

Modern versions of Windows have much the same structure, actually. Atop the core, low-level OS is what you might call a Windows “personality.” Today, that consists of a kernel-mode service as well as a user-mode service. That “personality” is essentially an expanded set of APIs (100,000 or more) that make it easier for developers to draw windows and buttons on the screen, write complex data structures to disk, manage memory, and whatnot. But at its heart, the low-level OS functions really are separate. Remember, Windows was designed to have a “POSIX subsystem,” which was essentially another “personality” of APIs layered atop the core OS, enabling Windows to “run UNIX applications” (massive overstatement, but you get the idea).

Modern virtualization is a high-cost (in terms of performance), low-effort way of running multiple “personalities” atop a single OS. Essentially, the hypervisor becomes the OS, dealing directly with hardware. Each VM emulates other hardware, so that you can just plop a regular old OS inside the VM and have it run. But the whole “emulate hardware and run a whole OS and its personality” is a lot of overhead: virtualization as we know it today is extremely high-overhead. We tend to not notice because of Moore’s Law.

Drawbridge proposes (and they’ve got a working model implementation) scaling back the core OS to just the deal-with-hardware stuff. Everything talking to those low-level APIs has to go through a security layer, placing a hard-and-fast security bottleneck around your core resources. The core OS can also provide some basic API stacks.

Atop that, you run what I guess we’d call user-mode processes. Imagine taking the Win32 APIs and rebuilding them to talk to the underlying Drawbridge OS. Each application runs its own copies of the Win32 APIs, right in-process. Essentially, you’re moving the layer of abstraction so that each application comes with its own little “personality.” That may seem absurd, until you remember that it’s exactly what modern hypervisors do, only without also emulating hardware. If you ran a copy of Word and Excel, they could presumably link to the same “personality” (e.g., Win32 APIs) much like they link to DLLs today. The result is “virtualization” of a more efficient nature.

The Drawbridge concept also includes the ability to suspend an application, and to resume it on other hardware – a la VM snapshots, really, only again without the overhead of emulating hardware. You could easily run multiple “personalities” in parallel, since each would be in a separate process. Again, like we do today with hypervisors, but without emulating hardware.

So basically, instead of Windows being an “OS,” Windows becomes a giant “library” (or DLL, to use a familiar implementation term). You just separate the bits that deal with hardware from all the other bits, basically. This would require all of your OS “personalities” – Windows, Linux, and whatnot – to be written to a new set of APIs. Well, translates. Right now, they all do work with a common API – the core, BIOS-based APIs that our computers’ firmware speaks. Drawbridge just proposes that they be refactored to talk to a slightly different API, which would run the software in slightly different ways.

It’s a fascinating approach that’s been around academically for about a decade; Drawbridge just appears to be the first practical attempt to make it work as commercial software. Kinda neat.

The “cloud” advantages are pretty obvious – if you can suspend/resume/migrate individual processes rather than entire virtual machines, you gain a markedly higher level of productivity and flexibility in terms of availability and workload management.

Be interesting to see where MS Research goes with it, huh?

Losing Your Religion

It’s fairly well-known that I use an Apple Macbook Air laptop when I’m on the road. I’m frequently the target of friendly jokes about it, which is fine. But I’m also frequently put down by people who claim I’ve “spent too much” on it, and who insist they can get “the same laptop” for much less.

(As an aside, I always find it odd that many of these folks drive fairly expensive cars instead of a cheaper model that does the same thing – drives them to work.)

There are two reasons for their comments, and it’s important that you be able to recognize both reasons, both in yourself (so you can knock it off) and in others (so you know what you’re up against). This is as true in professional IT as it is in your personal life, although the professional consequences can be more dangerous and annoying.

The first reason is justification. If you make the same decisions I make, then I was right; if you make a different decision, then I might have been wrong, and I hate being wrong. Americans in particular have got real problems with diversity. We tend to migrate ourselves to communities where folks feel more or less like-minded, and we’re not often confronted with radically different things. When we are confronted – well, you only have to turn on cable news to see how well we don’t deal with it. Technology is no different. I spent almost half an hour one time, whilst setting up for a lecture, listening to a guy harangue me about how I’d spent too much on my laptop (he clearly had access to my credit card statements). He argued dollar-per-GHz, dollar-per-GB, you name it. He was pushing hard to have me “admit” that I’d made the wrong choice – thereby justifying his.

The problem is that you can be right without other people having to be wrong. My choice in laptop is driven by some very specific factors and compromises that are important to me; that choice won’t necessarily hold true for someone else. For example, my laptop is literally my lifeblood. It’s my only computer, and it’s where all of my work happens. I need it to be reliable, and when it breaks I need reliable service. I’m tough on a computer: in the past, I’ve ruined HPs by running too many VMs too often, causing the CPU to overheat. I eventually got those laptops to the point where they could barely run at all. I also personally dislike cheap, plastic-y laptops covered in manufacturer logo stickers (“Intel Inside”). That’s not a functional choice; it’s aesthetic. I like my aluminum laptop. It feels sturdier, and that makes me feel more confident. I also compromise entirely toward portability. I don’t need 16GB of RAM; I need a laptop whose weight is measured in ounces, not pounds. I travel up to 40 weeks a year, and I feel every single ounce. So I have the 11″ Air, despite its lower hardware spec.

None of those reasons might matter to anyone else. They might prefer a glossy black plastic laptop with a 17″ screen and shoulder-destroying weight – that’s fine. I’m happy for their decision and wouldn’t dream of convincing them otherwise. But that’s the trick with justification: you need to recognize when someone is doing it, and dig into why. Why do you feel your solution is best? Do your reasons apply to the current situation? In business decisions, how many of your reasons are aesthetic, and does that really matter to the overall direction?

The other reason is fear. People dislike change, and as a long-time advocate of Windows PowerShell I can assure you that many professional IT people loathe the idea of having to learn something new. So they’ll often campaign for solutions that fit within their existing scope of knowledge, or they’ll stay willfully ignorant of other solutions. For example, I help run PowerShell.org, and it’s based on a LAMP-stack (Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP) web server running in Azure. That shocks folks… but I love LAMP as a web stack. I understand the alternate WISA (is that a thing? Windows, IIS, SQL Server, ASP.NET?) stack, but it wasn’t the best tool for a WordPress-based site. I could have made it work, sure, but it would have involved a lot of hackery up-front and ongoing. Azure, happily, doesn’t care what I run with it, and the Azure folks I know were happy to help me get my CentOS server up and running. They believe in the right tool for the right job, too. I don’t know Linux terribly well, so I had to learn a lot in order to get things configured properly – and it was kinda fun. And now I know a bit more about Linux than I did.

There’s a trick in “right tool for the right job” that a lot of folks don’t get, which is that you need  to (a) know what the job actually entails and (b) know what all the possible options look like. A lot of folks fall down on (a) and most fall down on (b). If you don’t know Linux, for example, you might argue for Windows simply out of ignorance. That’s willful ignorance, because the resources certainly exist for you to inform yourself. I would never, ever, ever choose or recommend a solution without learning as much as possible about all the choices – that’s one reason I enjoy heading up the research paper projects my company produces. I love learning about new tools, and figuring out their strengths and weaknesses.

Both justification and fear are often wrapped up into something we colloquially call “religion,” as in, “I’m a religious fan of Windows.” Formal religion, for some folks, certainly has aspects of justification and fear. Many religions are evangelistic, meaning they seek to bring more people into the fold – that’s not entirely like someone trying to convince me I’ve picked the wrong laptop. Many religions are also resistant to change, and to incorporating new elements. Many religious adherents are also willfully ignorant of the “competition.” As a kid, I spent a lot of time learning about different religions, because I simply didn’t want to live in a world where I knew nothing about what the rest of the population was thinking. Knowing didn’t necessarily change my choices – but at least I made informed choices.

And that’s an important note: simply because you know about choices doesn’t mean you won’t make the same decision you would have made before knowing. For example, in an organization with zero Linux expertise on staff, the WISA stack might be the right answer simply because there’s nobody to support the LAMP stack. If we needed to roll out something fast, it might be worth hackery (if needed) to run on Windows, because we’d have the hackers lined up and ready, as opposed to having to spin people up on Linux skills. That’s definitely a consideration. It isn’t the consideration, though. It’s one of many, and in some scenarios it might be outweighed by others, and someone might be tasked with coming up to speed.

Regardless of your personal religion, when it comes to professional IT, you should lose your “religion.” Your only truth should be, “the right tool for the right job,” and your crusade should be to clearly define what the “job” is, so that you can best select the tool that goes with it. If that means you have to learn something new… well, so be it. Hopefully you got into IT because you were excited about constantly learning new things, not just because it offered a bigger paycheck in the mid-90s. After all, the more you know, the more situations in which you can be useful – and that’s just good career advice.

We’re coming up on the new year. Consider making a resolution that, in 2014, you’ll never make a recommendation or product/solution argument without being fully informed about the requirements and about all the possible choices. Be an analyst, a consultant. Recommend things that you might need to learn more about. Be flexible. Not “religious.”

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The Five Guys Burgers and Fries franchise in Las Vegas, including a half-dozen open and profitable stores, is for sale. Anyone interested? I think the owner was trying to “flip” the franchise – buying the rights cheap, opening outlets, and selling the package for more than he invested. Smart if he pulls it off.

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It is all but impossible to get an unprotected EPUB into iBooks on my iPad, now.

The Importance of Google Fu

Whatever search engine you prefer – Google, Bing, Dogpile, whatever – it’s hugely important that you be good at it. Especially if you’re in the IT industry, the ability to hunt stuff down on the Web – and to get useful results – is massively important as a job skill.

It pains me to see IT professionals punching in search queries like “how to install something using powershell.” That’s an inefficient query; the search engine is going to drop all but “something” (pretend that’s a product name), “install,” and “powershell” because everything else is a “noise word.” “Using” and “how” might be used to filter the results a bit, but that’s a pretty inefficient query. Word order is also important to search engines; I’d probably rephrase that query as “something install powershell” to put the emphasis on the product first, installation second, and powershell last. I might even search for something install “using powershell”, putting “using powershell” in quotes to force it as a phrase.

But learning from your results is important, too. For example, I recently got a fee t-shirt from some tequila brand during a promotion in a bar. I love this t-shirt. It’s very comfy and it fits great. Problem is, the tequila brand had their own label printed, so I can’t tell who makes the thing. But they did list the fabric as a cotton-polyester-rayon blend.

To the cloud!

I started with cotton-polyester-rayon blend t as my query. The first page of results was mostly some American Apparel retailers, with a bunch of Alibab.com hits. Not useful unless you want crates of shirts. But most of the results featured the phrase tri-blend, suggesting that’s a common industry term for this kind of shirt. Awesome. Off to Amazon, which will restrict my results to a more retail-friendly listing. I might not want to buy from Amazon, but by using their more-specialized search engine, I’ll get more specific results.

tri-blend men’s tee turned up several nice hits. I could add ringer, I found, to get shirts that have a color banded color and sleeve openings. Using Amazon’s category-narrowing for just “men’s shirts” helped trim the result event more – I was really looking for a manufacturer brand or model, so I could see what colors and shirt styles were available. I didn’t see any of the major commodity brands like Hanes, suggesting I’d be shopping more in the lifestyle brands like Hurley or Volcom or something. Okay. A quick search at Hanes.com for tri-blend confirmed they don’t offer anything.

That means Amazon might be my best bet, and Next Level seemed to have several types that looked like the fit I wanted. Back to Google for next level shirts, leading me to the manufacturer’s Web site, nextlevelapparel.com. I wanted to see if they sold to any major chains I might have locally (I’m twitchy about buying clothing online), and their Web site helped me find some choices. This all took about 5 minutes, not counting the time I spent typing this article ;).

Anyway… the point of this is that I went with a pretty decent query to start with, eliminated noise words on my own, and used word order to get the search engine to focus on what I wanted most. I learned a new term (“tri-blend”) that let me get much more specific, and move to a more-specific search engine (Amazon) to see what else was available. Narrowing down a few specific brands helped even more.

Search fu. You got any?

If you have nothing to offer, you’re useless, right?

I often find myself in a position to offer someone else an opportunity to contribute their experience to some effort. Perhaps it’s someone who’d like to try their hand at technical writing, and I’ll offer to publish a blog post for them at PowerShell.org.

I’m confounded, however, when I run across folks who say something like, “I wouldn’t really have anything to write about.”

Now look, if your answer is, “I’m a terrible writer and I don’t have the inclination to fix that,” no problem. It’s definitely work, and if it’s not your thing, vaya con queso. But so say you have nothing to write about means you lack any experience, wisdom, or knowledge that someone else might not have. In other words, everyone already knows everything you know. That makes you completely useless. 

And the thing is, almost nobody is completely useless. Small children, maybe, because they truly do lack experience. Maybe you personally don’t place a lot of value on some of your experiences… but your value assessment isn’t universal; one man’s trash, as they say, is another man’s treasure.

“Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it” is another good paraphrasing, here. Most IT professionals, when confronted with a problem, turn where? Google. They try to see if anyone else has experienced the same thing that they’re experiencing, and to see what that other person did about it. That makes every experience valuable and worth documenting.

And let’s take another look at the “I’m not really a big contributor.” Are you a leech? Would you say that the net of your contributions to the world are more than, less than, or equal to your net receipts from the world? I’ve written millions of words in my career, and I’m still way on the negative side of the equation. I’ve definitely received a lot more knowledge and wisdom than I’ve given – but that doesn’t stop me from trying to catch up.

People have this idea that writing, or lecturing, or teaching, or whatever, means you somehow have to create new information. Unless you’ve got something new and unique to offer, you’ve got nothing to offer – you’re just a net consumer of other people’s information. That outlook is wrong, wrong, wrong. High school teachers didn’t invent algebra, or language, or history, or politics. I didn’t invent VBScript or PowerShell. Contributing typically involves taking existing information and repackaging it for a specific audience. You’re explaining something.

Back in the day, I was migrating a NetWare file server to Windows (yes, back in the day). First run through, I was checking folder permissions, and saw “Everyone:Full Control” on every single folder. Whaaat? Delete everything, migrate again, same thing. Hmm. Opened a ticket with product support at Microsoft. Dumb me, I had left the default permission on the root of the drive, and so everything we migrated simply inherited that in addition to the migrated permissions. Duh. So I wrote about it. It wasn’t a new experience, it wasn’t a unique experience, and it wasn’t even very complicated – but someone else might come along and benefit from it, so it was worth having the information out there. Turns out several folks had written about it, but they hadn’t used the keywords I’d been looking for – so I was repackaging my experience into terms that would have helped me… and it’s likely someone else, too, down the road.

So never be afraid to contribute your experiences, especially ones that were challenging for you. You never know when it might help someone else, and it’s only when we can all share information with each other that we’ll all truly succeed together.

The Ruckus over Disney’s MyMagic+

The Disney fan blogosphere has been in a ruckus over the company’s new MyMagic+ program, being implemented now in Florida’s Walt Disney World. Specifically, long-time fans are irked by the new FastPass+ system.

For you non-Disney-elite, some background is in order. And trust me, you’ll find it interesting.

Years ago, Disney introduced a system called FastPass. For their more popular attractions, you could go up and get a “return time” ticket, rather than waiting in the normal queue. At the designated time, which was always a 1-hour window, you could come back and use a shorter queue, getting on without waiting as long. The system only let you have one ticket at a time: you couldn’t get a new one until the window started on your existing one. That limited the number you could have each day.

People, of course, gamed the system. They knew Disney’s trained-to-never-say-no cast members would let them come back long after their window had expired, and so they’d gather up multiple tickets and then storm the rides. Folks would also work out fairly elaborate plans based on known ride wait times and so forth, flitting from ride to ride and scoring FastPasses as often as possible.

Disney Parks, at least Walt Disney World, is in the process of turning off that old system and replacing it with FastPass+. You use their Web site, in-park kiosks, or a smart phone app to get your FastPasses now, and they’re connected to an RFID-enabled wrist band that is also your park entry ticket. You tap in at each attraction entrance, and if it’s in your return time window, you get on.

Let’s acknowledge something up front: Any system like this will increase the wait time for the “normal” queue, because you’re letting folks in “head of the line.” The idea, from Disney’s perspective, is to help better accommodate people who are on a once-in-a-lifetime trip, and who don’t know all the elaborate schemes that can be used to game the system.

Let’s also acknowledge that the current system has been in place for over a decade, and plenty of regular park-goers do know how to work the system, and they’re not going to like that being taken away.

Under the new system, you get to pick – as far as six months before your visit – which attractions you want passes for. There’s a limit, often “choose 1 from Group A and 2 from Group B” kind of thing, with Group B being high-capacity, low-demand attractions like shows. The intent is to let a family do that must-do attraction, on their once-in-a-lifetime trip, with little wait; they’ll have to use the regular queues for everything else. There’s no intent to make every line move faster for everyone. That’s physically impossible, as the attractions have a fixed maximum number of people per hour they can move (called the Theoretical Hourly Capacity, or THC, and no, I’m not kidding, it’s a statistic).

Now you don’t have to reserve your passes 6 months out; Disney says a certain number of slots are released at intervals, and some are saved for day-of.

Now for the gripes, and this is where it gets educational.

When I had to schedule three experiences a day I found myself really disliking the thought of sticking to a schedule to the detriment of experiencing other attractions or just the park itself.

Well, you don’t have to schedule anything out in advance, and you certainly don’t have to stick to a schedule. You could just experience the park. And if you’re an annual pass holder, you by definition don’t have any “must-do-on-my-once-in-a-lifetime-trip” attractions, so you can use the normal queue.

If I’d spent $3,000-$6,000 for a week for my family of four and we were relegated to planning at this level, I know that we would have missed a lot more than a typical vacation. Especially with the limited Fast Passes and the longer queues for the D- and C-ticket attractions.

That’s nonsense. It’s appalling to think you’d spend what is, for you, a lot of money on a vacation and not do some advance planning, especially when Walt Disney World is known for being an overwhelming, planning-is-mandatory vacation. Especially for first-timers. The fact that the FastPasses are more limited shouldn’t in any way change your planning process. The fact that some attractions have longer queues than others has always been true. That’s not changed. The Magic Kingdom alone will get 40,000-50,000 people on a somewhat busy day. There’re gonna be lines.

It seemed obvious that the waits for standby were longer than should have been, Both Pirates and Mansion were over a half hour with barely anyone using the FP+ entrance.

Well, now you’re just being contradictory. If the FastPass+ entrance was barely being used, then you were seeing normal park traffic in those queues. They weren’t “longer than they should have been,” they were exactly as long as they should d have been, without any artificial skipping-to-the-front offered by FastPass+.

Honestly, there didn’t seem to be a good reason to use My Magic + unless you wanted to reserve experiences well before your trip. If you’re family had one attraction that was a must do, then you could do it. But, if you’ve got seven to eight attractions (like at the Magic Kingdom) that are must dos, then you are going to miss some things or spend more time in queues.

Yeah. That’s the point. If you don’t have a must-do, you don’t need the system. And if you have seven or eight must-dos, well, that’s nearly ever damn major attraction in the park. You’re going to have to wait in some lines, just like people have been doing since 1971. This is not new, and the old FastPass system didn’t significantly change that.

In my case I found myself watching the clock more than enjoying the parks because I was afraid of missing an experience.

Oh, please. It’s called “set an alarm on your smartphone” for pity’s sake. People act like they’ve never made a reservation for something – dinner, lunch, show (which only run at scheduled times), etc. Don’t be a drama queen.

Another issue was that I needed to use the Disney World app all the time to keep up with my reservations. Of course, that killed my battery and had me messing with my phone more than enjoying the parks.

Right, because there’s no other technology that could have let you write down a couple of return times. Like a pencil. Or an alarm on your smartphone, which you apparently have. You are what we call willfully ignorant. 

 

So, what’s the lesson in all this?

People hate change, especially when you’re changing something that was advantageous to them, even if it wasn’t advantageous to a large portion of your clientele. It also means you need to be a bit careful with how seriously you treat customer feedback. Your biggest fans will often be your biggest detractors, too, and it can be tough to balance that against the needs of the less-vocal majority. That’s a problem, for example, our US political parties do not do well with: they tend to go for the squeaky wheel, even if that only comprises a fraction of the audience.

You also need to be a bit careful about your customers’ biases. “If I asked my customers what they wanted,” Henry Ford said, “they’d have asked for faster horses.” In other words, sometimes you have to trust your own judgement on what’s best for you as a company. Sometimes, that may mean letting customers go, when they don’t fit what your company needs to do to grow and flourish.

It also means that when you are a customer, you should try and watch for yourself doing these same things. Try to recognize the bigger picture – not just “how does this affect me?” but “what’s the overall affect on the entire population, even if perhaps it isn’t entirely beneficial to me?” Complain about things that are wrong, but understand that you’re not the only one in existence, and sometimes organizations have to try and strike a middle ground, or perhaps focus on an audience that has markedly different needs than your own. It doesn’t make anyone “wrong” or “right,” it just means different parties have different priorities.

Microsoft’s taken no amount of bitching over the Start menu / Start screen “debacle.” They backed down a bit in Windows 8.1, providing a button to get to the Start screen, and changing its presentation to make it less dramatic of a switchover. But so far they’ve held the line on the Start screen; it remains to be seen if they’ll continue to walk that line or not. But the company did what it did because it believed it was the right thing to do for the company. Personally, I think they overstepped – and that’s why were seeing some backing down. But I admire them for taking the step, at least.

There’s a final lesson: The customer, contrary to popular belief, isn’t always right. They just get an unnatural amount of slack. 

Give that slack to your own customers… but recognize when they’re not always right. When you can, try to explain your goals – even if you only do so to help them understand that your goals are not necessarily their goals. Don’t be afraid of saying, “you’re not our target customer, so we’re not going to match up 100% with what you need.” You can’t please all the people all the time, right? Just be honest about not wanting to please everyone, and politely let someone know when they’ve stepped beyond what you’re able to do for them.

The “Get Windows 8.1 for Free” Travesty

Ugh. You know, I still want to be a big fan of Microsoft, but there’s a reason I tell people these days, “I’m a server guy, I don’t care about the client.” What the Windows client team continues to do is just embarrassing. I can’t be a fan.

And I’m not talking about the Start Screen thing – I got over that pretty quickly. No, now it’s the constant (what is it, daily?) “Get Windows 8.1 For Free” full-screen modal reminder that insists on popping up right when I’m trying to do something important. Like record screen video so I can help Microsoft’s customers understand the technology.

So I finally give in and click “Go to Store.” And nothing happens. Because I’m logged in as an Administrator account, which isn’t allowed to go to the store.

See, this is the company just not thinking it through. First of all, a weekly, can’t-be-disabled, modal prompt to upgrade my OS, whether it’s for free or not, is just wrong. I tell you, if anything should disabuse you of the notion that your Computer is somehow still Personal, this should do it. It’s not your computer, clearly, when you can’t even control the experience of reminders like that. Second, popping up a reminder and then it not even working is just awful planning, awful testing, and an awful experience. It’s heavy-handedness coupled with the worst in Ivory Tower mentality.

“Well, you shouldn’t be logged on as an Admin.” It’s my computer and I’ll bloody well log on as whoever I want, thankyouverymuch. You shouldn’t be forcing me to download an entirely new operating system just to continue using my computer without interruption. Gah, I just can’t believe the hubris involved. Is it absolutely necessary for anyone’s survival that my work computer suddenly stop working and demand to be upgraded, whether I want it to or not? And that there’s no way to make it freaking quit?

And people wonder why I choose to do most of my work on a Mac. Apple is far, far, far from perfect, but they’ve never made me interrupt my work and potentially miss a deadline so that they could install a piece of software I don’t actually even want. I use a Mac because, on balance, it’s massively less interruptful than Windows client. That Mac comes with a butt-tonne of baggage, yes, but it tells you how much I hate Windows client’s in-your-face-ed-ness that I’m willing to put up with it.

Jeez.

UPDATE: Seems you can uninstall KB2885699. Somehow, this is worse. Microsoft deployed this stupid annoying modal message by means of a channel which is supposed to only deliver fixes to the operating system. So they’ve subverted their own trust, taught me to forever disable automatic updates, and made me truly believe they don’t care much about their customers. After some digging, in a domain you can disable this via GPO (which is a reg hack). Hopefully that’ll help anyone who runs across this. This is one of the worst decisions the company has made with regard to user experience. Just terrible.

Microsoft’s Vexing Marketing “Strategy”

I am finding myself increasingly vexed by Microsoft’s marketing “strategy” for Surface in particular, and for Windows in general.

It seems to go something like this: “Let’s trash the competition by making specious comparisons that highlight the very few things we do better.” Seriously, you’ve seen the Surface ad where the big selling point is that the Surface has a snap-on keyboard. Which costs extra.

The latest is the “Don’t get Scroogled with a Google Chromebook, buy a real laptop for $300 that runs Windows.” Google, they inform you, tracks everything you to do display ads. True, of course, but it’s fear-mongering. They even show some terrified young woman who’s clearly surfing something awful, because she does not like the idea of being tracked. Not that Bing does the same thing. But nothing in the commercial tells me why I should love Windows, it only tells me why I should dislike a Chromebook.

That’s terrible marketing. It’s a company that doesn’t even know why I should love its products, which makes me wonder if Microsoft even loves its products. I’m so glad my career is built around the server stuff, which doesn’t have to do all that consumer marketing BS.

This stretches back to Vista, which was a good OS partnered to an epically bad marketing campaign. I swear, I sat in a movie theater and watched a 90-second commercial for the now-defunct “Flip 3D” feature. Seriously. That’s why I should love your product: it moves windows around in simulated 3D. Really.

It’s kind of surprising, because Microsoft’s current Apple envy has them copying absolutely everything from Apple except the one thing that matters. They copied Apple’s retail stores, but they didn’t copy Apple’s marketing. Apple never talks about the competition (well, not anymore… “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” was successful because it was funny). They just talk about how magical everything is. Doesn’t matter if it’s true – I’m not looking for true. I’m looking for Microsoft to get a little (just a little) self-obssessed and freakin’ evangelize me for a change.

Oddly, MS knows how to do that with Xbox. Just not with anything else. Weird.

Ah well, back to my servers. Which I’m accessing from my Mac, by the way. 🙂

Do you have a job? Or a career?

I meet lots of IT folks at classes and conferences, all around the world. I’m struck by the marked difference in attitude that some folks have about what they do for a living.

Now, before I go further, note that this is just an observation. I’m not pinning one attitude as “good” and another as “bad;” they’re just different. They do result in different outcomes, and so long as your attitude is getting you the outcome you want – great! It’s when your attitude doesn’t match your desired outcome that you might think about why.

And the big difference is basically this: some people have jobs in IT, others have a career.

For me, a job is something you do, get paid for, and go home. Some folks will categorize these as “blue collar” workers, although I don’t think that’s an especially helpful term. But it means you don’t really take your job home with you. Sure, you might be on call or something, but when you’re not at work or dealing with an on-call problem, you’re playing with your kids. You’re watching a movie. You’re cooking dinner. Work time, in other words, is different from life time.

A career (and I realize I’m just kind of using these words and then defining them in a way that you might not agree with, but it’s helpful for the conversation) for me is someone who… well, kinda does take their job home with them. Maybe not their job per se, but the career. Ugh, that doesn’t make sense, does it? But in IT, it’s the guy who has a home lab, where he plays with new tech that his company isn’t using, yet. Or the gal who has a side business that’s tech-related – maybe Web design or something. Someone for whom technology is a hobby, something that continually fascinates them, something they’re passionate (hate that word, but there it is) about. Yeah, they play with the kids, they cook, they do all that – but they might do it a bit less than the “job” person.

Someone with a job does what the job demands. They learn what the job needs them to learn. But that’s as far as it goes. Someone with a job updates their resume when they’re looking for a new job. Someone with a career, on the other hand, always has an updated resume. They’re constantly learning new things, because they want to, not necessarily because it applies to their job.

So what about the different outcomes?

When a problem comes up at work, I find that career people are more likely to be efficient at researching a possible solution and then working to bring that solution into the environment. They did to have a bit of a longer view. They’re not necessarily convinced they’ll be at their current workplace forever; their career is IT itself, not the guy who’s paying the check this year. An employer that treats them right gets to keep them, but they’re not terrified of moving on, either. These career folks are more likely to be involved with a broader community: they’ll start a local user group, earn a vendor award (like MVP or vExpert), perhaps have an independent blog.

Job folks are more likely to fight a fire with whatever’s at hand – many of them tend to be less skilled (or willing?) when it comes to researching new technologies and trying to convince the boss to adopt them.

The disconnect I sometimes see is when someone who behaves like a “job” person gets annoyed that they’re not getting the outcomes of a “career” person. Why don’t I have an MVP award? Why don’t more people visit the blog I started, but haven’t posted to in eight months? Why is it so hard to find a job now that I’m laid off? The “career” folks have some definite advantages. They’re more flexible in the jobs they can hold down, in part because they’ve learned more. They’re more likely to be “recognized,” which helps too. But the “career” folks pay a price for their advantages: they’re more likely to spend less time with family and on hobbies. They’re a bit workaholic-ish. They may not even have a family.

So I’m not necessarily advocating being a “career” person. There are sacrifices to be made, no doubt. Yes, there are advantages. I’m just suggesting that you review your situation. Are you a “job” person who wants the “career” advantages? Then you’ll have to make some changes. Are you a “career” person upset that you have too little free time with the family? Maybe you’ve got some changes – although they may come with downsides, too.

The point, really, is to actively look at what kind of worker you want to be, knowing full well the pros and cons of different approaches to work.