Showing all posts tagged work:

Happiness in Typesetting

In my usual spirit of always wanting to try an alternative way of doing something - partly in hope that the alternative might be better, partly due to my latent hipster gene trying to express itself - I have always been curious about LaTeX. It's a big commitment, though, and until now I had lacked data to drive my decision.

Somebody (shockingly, they are in Germany) has done a scientific comparison of LaTeX vs Word.

So it turns out that a specialised tool is really good at a specialised task, while a jack-of-all-trades tool does better at general tasks. Big whoop.

The interesting question to me would be a breakdown of how many Word users know how to use even fairly basic features. The style sheet functionality seems to be a mystery even to people who really should know better.

People complain a lot about Word being obtrusive, and there is definitely truth to that complaint: try nesting tables, or trying to pad them, or doing two-column layouts that don't flow, and then come back and tell me about Word - but only once you stop swearing and twitching, please. However, many of the complaints that I hear tend to be more about people not knowing about a feature in Word, or not using it properly.

Part of that problem is of course due the design and usability of Word itself, but it's noticeable that all of the alternatives to Word run into the exact same problem of complexity, as soon as they get past the basics. It's often said that 80% of users use only 20% of the features of software - but Word is the perfect example of the fact that everybody has a different 20% subset that is critical to them.

Anyway, while it looks like LaTeX only really shines for mathematical equations, since LaTeX users appear to be happier, I may yet have to give it a go.

Watch this space…

No Booth Babes

Predictably and depressingly, people are making fun of RSAC's new "no booth babes" policy.

Oh, you brave freedom fighters, snarking away in defence of… what, again?

If you can't see the problem with hiring women as eye candy, I can't really help you. Sure, as hackers we all look at policies and processes and think about the failure modes, and the fact that RSAC phrased the ban as clothing guidelines leaves the obvious opening of "wait, are you trying to ban my shorts/utilikilt/mankini? OPPRESSION!!11ELEVENTY!".

This is completely missing the freaking point. I can’t say it better than this:

As I reported a while ago after my own uncomfortable trade show booth experience, it turns out that hiring booth babes doesn't even work - so you are demeaning women for no reason. And make no mistake, you ARE demeaning women by doing this. Whether it's the traditional booth babe in a skimpy outfit, or the newer variety of miniskirted presenter who only knows a script, you are insulting both the women you hire for this idiotic job, and all the other women who are there as professionals with a job to do.

I suppose I should know better than to expect anything from humanity, and IT people in particular, but still. Grow up.

Cube dwelling

I complain a lot on Twitter about open-plan offices, but they are not the worst working environment. Every time I spend any length of time in a US-style cube farm, I long for an open-plan office. Cubes are the worst of both worlds: enclosed enough that you feel hemmed in and cannot see daylight, but without any meaningful sound isolation.


Working from the living room table is good, but I really need to sort out the connectivity to my home office so that I can use it properly. A project for my copious free time!

Two Pizza Disruption

So you have an idea, and you kick it about with some people and refine it, until it's time to take it out into the world. Now that insight gets paraphrased and simplified and reduced to sound-bites, and those sound-bites get passed around by people who don't necessarily understand all of the context behind the sound-bite. In fact, I wrote about this process already: SMAC My Pitch Up.

In what we laughingly call "software engineering", the current favourite delaying tactic to postpone the onset of cargo cults is the two pizza rule. The rule was coined by Jeff Bezos of Amazon: if a team couldn’t be fed with two pizzas, it was too big1.

The problem with the two pizza rule is not that it doesn't work. Small teams can indeed get a lot more done in a hurry than big teams, which inevitably get bogged down into management by committee. The problem is that very quickly you end up with many two-pizza teams, all eating in different rooms and not talking to each other.

Sooner or later, some bright spark will suggest that there should be a committee to manage the interaction between the various teams. In accordance with the Iron Law of Bureaucracy, the requirements of communication proliferate until people in the individual two-pizza teams are spending more time on formal communication processes than on the original purpose that they sat down to thrash out over pizza.

Congratulations: your two-pizza team just reinvented the org chart. As tempting as it may be to set sail in your own pocket battleship, it's generally better to figure out a way to achieve your goals within the corporate structure, or without upending it entirely. Revolution sounds fun, but evolution actually gets results.

  1. Incidentally, having grown up in Italy, this rule has always confused me. Does Jeff Bezos mean that the ideal size of a team… is two people? One pizza each? Because sure, that will cut down on unnecessary arguments and politicking within the team, but it’s not much manpower. 

Home Office Backlash

Teleworking is back in the news!

The very technology that enables telecommuting and working from home could be destroying its value. Although productivity may increase in the short term, working from home may prevent your teams from working effectively.

I've had both office-based and home-office jobs, so I have an idea of the upsides and downsides of each. I last wrote about teleworking more than a year ago, when Yahoo first banned the practice. Here's what I said at the time:

... the office is where I go to have impromptu conversations and face-to-face meetings, but it's not where I am most productive, even with my headphones on. I am much more productive at home, in aeroplanes, or in hotel rooms without distractions.

I think the sort of togetherness that the Forbes piece describes is real. I work in a team that is entirely remote: no two team-members share an office. For the type of work we do, this works well. It's great to meet up, and we take every opportunity to do so, but mostly we're fairly loosely coupled, so we get on fine as is.

There is another dimension to consider here. If companies gather all their employees except for local field support into one central location, they may have all sorts of serendipitous conversations around coffee machines, but there is a significant risk of an echo chamber effect developing. Silicon Valley is all well and good, but what works there will not necessarily work elsewhere in the US, never mind Europe, Asia and so on. If everyone involved in deciding and communicating the strategic direction of the company lives their entire lives in Silicon Valley, surrounded by people doing exactly the same thing, the company will develop a huge blind spot to the realities on the ground.

Not to mention all the employees spending their bonuses on noise-canceling headphones just so they can get some work done in the office again...

Why Shadow IT exists

Let me share with you a short e-mail conversation I had earlier today, which perfectly illustrates why users will do anything rather than deal with their IT department, up to and including running their own servers.

Me: Hey IT, what are the video conferencing standards we can support?
IT: Just use Lync - it's the standard!

Me: No, it's somebody else's meeting, and they asked what video conferencing standards we can support.

IT: I don't know anything about this meeting, and anyway it's up to them to send you an invitation you can accept.

Me: Agreed, and they are asking what I can accept, hence my question about which video conferencing standards we can support.

IT: * silence *

As usual, Dilbert is spot-on: I am obviously dealing with Mordac, the Preventer of Information Services.

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.


I was reading a piece in the WSJ which is a perfect example of a very common mistake in product strategy: The Business Card Will Not Die.

When the tech-savviest people on the planet meet, how do they exchange contact info? The same people who hail taxis by app and pay back friends via email have a wild way of sharing details: They hand over paper business cards.

And the only thing worse than handing over business cards is not having any to hand over. My own new business cards have yet to be printed. But if everyone I meet these days has a smartphone, with memory and wireless capabilities galore, why do I even need these 3.5 x 2 inch pieces of card stock?

The question is phrased as if it were obviously absurd - but it’s not. The article goes into a few of the suggested replacements, and guess what? None of them are as good as the humble business card!

One requires NFC, which not many phones have. Another requires scanning QR codes, which is fiddly. Bumping phones seems like it should work, but I had the app on my phone for a year and never met a single other person who used it. Ditto for the audio tones in Evernote Hello.

If you want to replace a universally-adopted technology, your replacement needs to be not just as good as what you are trying to usurp, but substantially better. Business cards have a very high bar for replacement:

  • Universal compatibility

  • High legibility

  • No battery life constraints

  • No network connectivity requirement

  • No potential security hole

What, security on business cards? Well, yes. Any time you accept data into your device, you run the risk of unwittingly executing malicious code. NFC seems the most vulnerable tech, but a QR code could redirect to a trojan, and do so transparently so that users are not even aware their connection has been hijacked.

In contrast, the business card works as-is in just about any situation. You can exchange cards in a moment, stick them in a pocket with confidence that they will still exist and be legible later, and carry effectively unlimited numbers about until you’re ready to go through them.

This doesn't mean that you’re stuck with the cards, of course. Cards work well as a vector for information, but less well as an archive. For a start, the search capabilities are terrible. Personally, I import the data with Evernote Hello, which makes it easy to scan and OCR the contact info from the card itself, geo-tag the contact, add notes on the conversation, and save the lot in the cloud.

The answer is obvious for business cards, but too many businesses try to do the same sort of thing in other fields. If you get frustrated with explaining how your app is better than existing options, it might be time to take a step back and see whether you’re not better off building a complementary solution instead of attempting a displacement.

Image by Diogo Tavares via Unsplash

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