DO YOU PAY ATTENTION?

This is going to be an odd post, I think. I’ve become… disquieted. Not upset, not concerned, just a bit at odds with something, and I’m not even sure how to clearly express it.

It’s about paying attention to details.

Now, I’m extremely detail-focused. Clinically so. Possibly pathologically. But I feel I have to be; it’s easy enough to make mistakes (and I make plenty) if you’re not paying attention, and in my industry a single mistyped character can break things in pretty awful ways. So I think detail is important to what we do.

So I’m a bit amazed at the folks in my industry – presumably folks just as concerned with detail as myself – who have remarkably little grasp of detail. For example, I got an e-mail from someone the other day who was trying to find my “Learn PowerShell at Lunchtime” book. He’d read about it, but was having trouble tracking it down. That’s probably because the title is Learn PowerShell in a Month of Lunches. First, that little detail is important. Second, I can’t believe a technology person couldn’t have punched “powershell lunch” into Google and not come up with the right title. And this is hardly the only, or even worst, example I could come up with. I’m sure you’ve run across folks, possibly even colleagues, who are the same way: give them some piece of information, and within minutes they’ve gotten it messed up in their heads.

There are actually a couple of deeper reasons behind this. The big one is that we’re all so damn busy all the time! So our brains go into this deliberate “triage” mode, trying to filter out as much noise as possible and store just the “Cliff’s Notes” version of what was just jammed into the frontal lobes. That’s what turns “Month of Lunches” into some twisted alternative. It is critical that you recognize when your brain is doing this to you. It means you’re too busy, and not retaining important facts. That will come back to bite you.

Another reason is that not everyone processes facts in the same way. If you’re a visual person, and someone audibly says something, you might not pick up on it right away. Again, you need to know this about yourself so that you can immediately re-position the information in a way your brain will retain. Whether that’s taking notes, asking the person to write it down, or whatever – get the information into “your” format as fast as possible so that your brain will keep it.

I get the same thing when I’m discussing theme parks with some of my friends. I’ll say, “Disneyland in California,” just to be clear; not everyone immediately makes the distinction between that and Walt Disney World in Florida. Within moments, I have a couple of friends who’ll say, “wait, the one in Florida?” And it isn’t because they’re distracted and simply didn’t catch it – their brains just don’t seem to process audible information very rapidly, and latched onto “Disney” but not the state name when the information came in.

A lot of folks will say, “you know, this is a real nit-pick, Don. Relax. It’s a book title/theme park.” Yeah, I know. The book title thing doesn’t bug me, really. But it is inevitably a marker for folks who lose lots of little details, including important ones, throughout every day of their lives. When you’re too busy to quickly retain detail, or when you’re simply not the type of person who does so easily, then there are certain jobs you simply can’t do. You can’t be an air traffic controller, for example, because that job requires near-immediate and incredibly complete recall. I’d also suggest that you won’t make it very far in IT. Sure, you might be fine with next-next-finish, but if you’re not good at collecting and recalling details, tools like PowerShell are going to prove vexing to you.

One of the first things I’ll check, when I’m teaching PowerShell, is folks’ ability to retain visuals. For example, I’ll type a couple of commands like Get-ChildItem or Get-Service, and then point out that the command name consists of a verb like Get, a dash, and then a noun like Service. I’ll make it clear that while it might be verbally pronounced “get service,” there’s always a dash in between the two words. Moments later, I’ll have folks typing “Get Service” (without the dash), and I’ll spend some time figuring out what works better for those students than the on-screen visuals. Often, we can find something that helps them retain better; sometimes, guys will struggle for the entire week because those little syntactic details (which are, after all, inherently visual) won’t “stick.”

Details are important, and being a wizard in IT means being able to quickly process and retain those details.

So, some action items:

  • Pay attention to your own ability to recall details. If you’re proving not-so-good, work on it. Figure out tools to help you retain more immediately and more completely.
  • Pay attention to the same ability in those around you. Folks who can’t get the name of favorite TV shows right maybe should not be reprogramming routing tables in the infrastructure. At least not without a peer review of their work.
  • Understand that folks with better retention will always be better-suited for some jobs than folks with lesser retention. If you find that you do have good detail retention, start using it. It’s a big boost to a better job or a promotion, if you play your cards right.
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Proverb: Make it easier to have YOU do it than to do it myself. That’ll be why you have a job. No other reason.

Public PowerShell Classes Now Being Scheduled

I’m finally going to try holding some public PowerShell classes in the US! I’m nailing down a few possible cities, but I’ve put together a larger list of future candidate cities.

Sign up to be notified, and I’ll let you know if I schedule a class near you. This mailing list won’t be used for ANY other purpose, I promise. I do suggest using a personal email address – I’ve found that a lot of corporate mail servers and service providers block these messages, even before they hit your junk mail folder, so you’ll never see them.

Note that right now, this city list is all that’s on the table. For a variety of business and legal reasons, I’m not currently considering public classes outside the US. However, you’re more than welcome to have your local training center contact me if they’d like to host a class.

And please, tell a friend – the more serious interest I have in a given location, the more likely it is (obviously) I’ll show up and run a class. Most classes will either be 3 or 5 days, depending on what else I have scheduled at the time.

Our Toolbar Icons Have Become Outdated

Our toolbar icons have become dated.

Many of Apple’s iOS fans have, for several years, bemoaned the use of skeumorphism in the design of Apple’s iOS (and even Mac OS) applications. “Skeumorphism” refers to the use of real-world interface elements in a decorative sense. The stated goal of the approach is to make people feel familiar with something by providing visual cues to the real world: wooden rulers, “torn pages” on a calendar, and so on. iOS 7 was notable for abandoning the approach in favor of a flatter, more iconic design.

But the fact is that nearly every OS has relied, to a degree, on skeumorphism. Many common icons come straight from the real world – and they’re becoming increasingly less relevant.

For example, could any young person be excused for not knowing why the “save” button is a picture of a floppy disk? Didn’t we stop using those in 1998 or something?

How long can mail applications identify themselves by using an envelope icon? My ten-year-old niece doesn’t see many paper envelopes – to her, a mail address is something with an @ sign.

What’s a good icon set for copy and paste functions? Should we even be calling it “copy and paste?” The days of cutting out actual clip art, and pasting it onto a board, is straight from the 1950s. “Clipboard” doesn’t even have any modern relevance. Maybe we should call it “copy” and “insert” instead?

Why does a magnifying class connote “search” functionality? Have you ever searched for something using a magnifying glass?

So many icons are driven from our analog world. But not all. For example, the “play,” “stop,” and “pause” icons may have originated on analog cassette decks, but those icons had no other connection to the real world. They were as arbitrary on their first use as they are today, which is why they still work. Sure, you have to learn that the little right-pointing-triangle means “play,” but once you do, you’re good to go. That seems easier than explaining why an icon of scissors means “copy that text into an invisible portion of memory, and then delete it from the screen.”

Volume icons are typically meant to resemble a style of analog audio speaker that hasn’t existed since the 1970s. Wouldn’t an ear be better? Ears seem unlikely to change anytime soon, and an ear icon is pretty easy to understand.

As you look around the things in your IT world, and wonder why your users sometimes don’t “get it,” ask yourself if things are really as obvious, at first glance, as you might thing. Maybe a re-think is needed.

You’re too Hard to Reach

I’ve been watching something awful build up over the last few years in the IT industry. You know, IT pros – the folks we call “admins” or “sysops” or whatever, as opposed to software developers – have a reputation in the IT industry. It’s a reputation that’s pervasive across ISVs, conference organizers, nearly everyone. Even Microsoft knows it. That reputation: You’re too hard to reach. 

That is, when one of those folks wants to tell you something – about a new service, about a security vulnerability, about an upcoming conference – it’s nearly impossible to reach you.

This isn’t entirely your fault.

Here’s the thing, we’ve all hopped on Google and looked for some solution to some problem. We’ve often gotten a hit on a Web site like TechTarget, or BitsOnTheWire, or whatever. Then we find out that, to read the article we found, we’ve got to sign up for a newsletter. Then the e-mail starts rolling in: “newsletters” filled with little but promotions for various vendors. Then that e-mail address gets shared and rented out, and before you know it our inboxes are awash in things we didn’t ask for and don’t want. It’s a loathsome practice.

We compensate by using one-off, disposable e-mail addresses. That way, we can get the content we need without receiving the spam. We dial up our organizational spam filters to DEFCON 1 levels. And we start getting really, really picky about what we sign up for. Unfortunately, this creates a problem: as professionals, it becomes impossible to communicate with us. As technology professionals, in a rapidly-changing industry, that’s terrible.

Now, I know what you may be thinking: “I don’t need newsletters, I’ll just go find what I want, when I want it.” Bad attitude. In fact, this is going to come across as incredibly rude, but if that’s truly the attitude you or a colleague has adopted, please try hard to leave the IT industry. You can’t learn new stuff that way. You’re just learning in reaction to events. If you don’t know some new technology exists, you won’t go searching for it. You need, for a certain amount of time each week, to just do “pure education.” Learn about new things that aren’t immediately applicable, so that you can have them in the back of your head should need arise.

Perhaps instead you’re saying, “I don’t want push communication; I’l consume my pure education through pull outlets like blogs.” Okay, that’s cool. Provided you’re doing it, and not just reading Engadget or Gizmodo. Nothing wrong with those, but they’re not the “pure education” in your industry that you need.

But here’s the thing: I’m constantly running across amazing new technologies and approaches that nobody seems to know about. Part of that is because we, as IT pros, have gotten ourselves into a dastardly combination of (a) fully locked-down and (b) crazy-busy. With no “push” communications coming into our inboxes, we’re actually not finding out about critical new ideas in our industry. Ever heard of FlashSoft? everRun MX? Two examples of excellent money-saving “killer apps” that just aren’t as well-known as they should be. I’m not saying you should rush out and buy them; I’m saying that you need to know things like this exist, for when a need arises. Excellent events like TechMentor (better education and far more affordable than TechEd, in my opinion) are relatively unknown. All because the only means they’ve got to communicate are, by and large, those e-mail newsletters we all hate so much.

So what do you do?

Well, that’s hard to answer. I’ve got an idea, but you’re not gonna like it. I’d sure like to hear any ideas you might have.

My basic idea is to set yourself up with a free mailbox that you use to subscribe to stuff. Be sensible about what you subscribe to, but don’t be overly restrictive. Remember, you’re not going to have this coming to your main inbox, so when you’re busy it isn’t going to be in your way. Sign up for content-based newsletters, like the one at PowerShell.org or Mark Minasi’s excellent publication. Sign up for a few vendor-y ones, too, especially from companies like 1105 Media (where you’ll get a variety of vendor insertions, not just one or two all the time). Get the info flowing in.

And then skim it. Once a week maybe, go through and just scan. See what’s being described. When something catches your eye, click through and read up on it, or perhaps bookmark it for reading on the train or the next time you’re waiting at the DMV.

You know how you’ll read something like Engadget, kind of skim the headlines, and end up clicking through to a few stories that especially interest you? Same thing. I treat my “spam box” like a big blog. When I see something I want to know a bit more about, I’ll click through. People are constantly asking me how I “keep up” with everything in the industry. Well, that spam box is a big part of “how.” It lets me know what vendors and similar folks are up to, so I can have a kind of “big picture” of what’s churning in the industry at any point. For something especially compelling, I’ll even follow-up with the vendor and maybe ask for a demo or something. I’ll make it clear I’m not buying, but that I’m simply educating myself so that I have a broader solution set on recall.

Although in most cases they’ve given us plenty of reason to treat them as the enemy, we can’t continue to treat ISVs and other vendors like the bad guy. Yeah, they’re out to make a buck – but in some cases what they’re selling might be exactly the solution you need. And even if it isn’t, simply knowing what’s out there can spark other ideas, help you learn effective new search terms (“enterprise SSD” was one I learned that way), and generally be more informed about what our industry is up to. Microsoft does’t (and can’t) include everything you need “in the box,” so you’re going to need to keep up with the bigger world. And even if you’re a dedicated DIYer, it’s nice to know what commercial companies are developing, in case there’s an approach you can adapt into your own DIY projects.

How do you keep up with what’s emerging in our industry?

FREE: The Nine Principles of IMMEDIATELY EFFECTIVE Instruction

Nine Principles of Immediately Effective Instruction

This is a book I wrote several months ago, and self-published over at Lulu.com. It’s essentially my instructional design methodology; we needed to codify it in some fashion to help support several course and class design projects, and the book seemed like a natural way to do so.

Enough kind folks picked up the print or ebook edition that I was able to get some return off of the time needed to write the book. Now that that’s happened, I’d like to offer you a copy of the book at no charge.

Nine Principles of Immediately Effective Instruction – PDF

Nine Principles of Immediately Effective Instruction – EPUB

Note that these are revised somewhat, to correct errors found by early readers. The entire design approach was the result of more than three years of trial, study, surveys, and feedback from thousands of students in dozens of classes. It’s pretty solid stuff; we’ve been successful with it in a number of projects. I’m not saying it’s easy – designing anything around these principles requires a ton of work. But it has helped ConTech make some incredibly well-received courses. This is also the methodology that my In a Month of Lunches series is built around.

I’d love to hear what you think – drop a comment here, reach me on Twitter, or find me on Facebook. If you don’t already, I’d certainly appreciate a follow/like as well.