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Skype for Teams

I wrote a howto on using Skype for my team, and then thought that others could probably take advantage of this too, so here it is. Shout if you have any questions, comments or additions!

These days, most companies above a certain size have some sort of official internal IM/chat solution. In most cases, that solution is Microsoft Communicator or its newer cousin, Lync.

The problem is, the blasted thing just doesn’t work very well, at least on a Mac. Lync goes offline spontaneously at least once every half-hour or so, and it crashes several times a day. It crashes predictably when the Mac resumes from sleep, but it also crashes randomly whenever it feels like it. Finally, Lync is only useful within the company.1 If you need to talk to customers, partners, or contractors, you need an alternative solution.

With that in mind, and in a spirit of Bring Your Own Solution, here is a guide to using Skype for team communications.

Using Skype for basic one-to-one communication is simple enough. Add your team-mates to your contact list, and you can IM or voice chat with them at any time. I would recommend adding team members to your Favorites so they are always available. You can do this by clicking the star icon on each contact, or by right-clicking on their name in the contacts list and choosing "Add to favorites".

Where it gets interesting for a team, though, is that you can set up multi-user chat just as easily. When in a voice or video call, press the plus button in a speech balloon below the contact, and select "Add people…" from the pop-up menu.

You can do the same in a text chat by selecting the plus button and adding people to the chat. Note that history is persistent, so it might be better to start a new group conversation rather than dropping new people into an existing chat session.

In a conversation, it is also possible to share your desktop. Simply go to the “Conversations" menu and choose "Share screen…". This will allow you to do real-time group edits or share a presentation with other participants in the call, much like WebEx and its ilk.

Skype is not just useful for calling other Skype users. One of the banes of my existence is conference calls which only have US toll-free numbers. Even if I’m in my home country, calling the US from a mobile gets expensive fast, and it’s much worse if I’m roaming. If I can get on wifi, I use Skype to call the US toll-free number. This is free and does not require Skype credit, although performance will depend on your wifi connection. It’s fine for listening to a call, but if you are a primary speaking participant, I would not recommend this approach.

With that caveat out of the way, all you have to do to dial national (not just US!) toll-free numbers with Skype is to bring up the Dial Pad, either by clicking on the little telephone icon beside the search field, or by going to the “Window" menu and selecting "Dial Pad".

Here you can dial as normal: +1 for the US (or the correct country code for the number you are calling), and then the number. Unfortunately DTMF tones do not work during dialling, so you can’t save conference numbers and PIN codes directly; these have to be dialled each time. Not all conferencing systems seem to receive DTMF tones from Skype even during call setup, so if it’s the first time you are using a particular conference, dial in with time to spare and have a plan B for how you are going to access the call if Skype doesn’t work.

There are mobile Skype clients for all major platforms. They work fairly well, but synchronisation is not guaranteed to be real-time, so if you move from one device to another, you may not be seeing the latest updates in your IM conversations. Also, if you send a message to an offline user, they will not necessarily receive it immediately upon signing on. Anything time-sensitive should go through another medium. At least the delivery receipts in Skype will tell you whether the message reached the intended destination.

I hope this guide has been helpful! Please share any additional tips that you find useful.

  1. It is technically possible for IT departments to “federate" Lync installations between two companies, but that requires lots of work, sign-offs, and back-and-forth to achieve, and anyway only works if both participants are using Lync. 


I believe you'll find that goes for almost all employees, in fact.

UPDATE: the conversation then continued on Twitter.

I need to find the time to write up these ideas and give them the serious, >140 char treatment they deserve.

Where is cloud headed in 2014?

Cross-posted to my work blog

There's an old joke that in China, it's just food. The main thing that will happen in 2014 is that it will be just computing.

Cloud has gone mainstream. Nobody, whether start-up or enterprise, can afford to ignore cloud-based delivery options. In fact, in many places it's now the default, which can lead to its own problems.

The biggest change in 2014 is the way in which IT is being turned inside out. Whereas before the rhythm of IT was set by operations teams, now the tempo comes from users, developers, and even outside customers. IT operations teams had always relied on being able to set their own agenda, making changes in their own time and drawing their own map of what is inside or outside the perimeter.

The new world of IT doesn't work like that. It's a bit like when modern cities burst their medieval walls, spreading into what had been fields under the walls. The old model of patrolling the walls, keeping the moat filled and closing the gates at night was no longer much use to defend the newly sprawling city.

New strategies were required to manage and defend this new sort of city, and new approaches are required for IT as well.

One of my first customer meetings of 2014 brought a new term: "polyglot management". This is what we used to call heterogeneous management, but I think calling it polyglot may be more descriptive. Each part of the managed infrastructure speaks its own language, and the management layer is able to speak each of those languages to communicate with the infrastructure.

That same customer meeting confirmed to me that the polyglot cloud is here to stay. The meeting was with a customer of many years's standing, a bank with a large mainframe footprint as well as distributed systems. The bank's IT team had always tried to consolidate and rationalise their infrastructure, limiting vendors and platforms, ideally to a single choice. Their initial approaches to cloud computing were based on this same model: pick one option and roll it out everywhere.

Over time and after discussions with both existing suppliers and potential new ones, the CTO realised that this approach would not work. The bank would still try to limit the number of platforms, but now they are thinking in terms of two to three core platforms, with the potential for short-term use of other platforms on a project basis.

When a team so committed to consolidation adopts the heterogeneous, polyglot vision, I think it's safe to say that it's a reality. They have come down from their walls and are moving around, talking to citizens/users and building a more flexible structure that can take them all into the future.

This is what is happening in 2014. Cloud is fading into the background because it’s everywhere. It's just... computing.

Image by Kelly Sikkema via Unsplash