Avatars. Weird. Just Weird.

Of all the things I am, I am NOT a gamer. In fact, if you want to build your self esteem, invite me over for a night of CoD (Call of Duty, not the fish). While you are massacring the enemy hoards, I will still be trying to figure out which button does what while contributing to the body count by being an easy target for the opposing side.
But I do watch my 16 year old play. I am fascinated by many of the games in his drawer (and online) that allow you to create your Avatar, your online persona. It seems this extends to the virtual world, including Second (and apparently its last) Life.

I tried Second Life, for a grand total of about 30 minutes, since it was being highly promoted for online learning communities at the time. One of the first things you had to do was create your Avatar for the Second Life community. I selected the basic male. I was there to learn how this world operated more than I was there to build an alternate me. Once I started exploring, it would appear that "normal" is more likely "abnormal" in this world.

Much like your first day on a tropical beach in winter, everyone knows you are a newbie by the very obvious lack of sun exposure. I encountered Avatars that were anything but normal who ignored me since I was obviously new. The ones in the picture above are a tame, and I repeat, tame version of what I saw.

I'm not judgemental, but, or should I say BUT!!! It's incredibly hard to have a "conversation" (nevermind a meeting) with someone in the form of a chipmunk, a green alien with a long tail, or NSFW clothing. Is this how people REALLY want to be seen?

As I mentioned, my Second Life was extremely short, and it appears I am not alone by the almost dearth of articles and news lately. But the Avatar thing hasn't gone away.

Since Second Life, there has been an upsearch in Social Media. It's not uncommon for people to have a Facebook account, a LinkedIn account, multiple Twitter accounts, and one or two other online communities. Each of these "worlds" allows you to post an indentifying photo (I KNOW these are not Avatars, but play along with me here). Normally I wouldn't get involved, but I recently enabled the Facebook and LinkedIn connectors for my MS Outlook. What that means is this - you send me an email, and if you have a Facebook account, your profile picture is displayed in a frame below the message preview, whether or not we are Friends on Facebook. You may think that only your Friends get to see this picture. Not true.

Normally, this is very useful. You can put a face to a name. Where it gets iffy is when your holiday picture shows up on my monitor at work. Did I REALLY need to see you without your shirt on? Our meetings will never, ever, be the same. Ewww.

But let me encourage you to let this knowledge be used for good. Check out your profile pictures and make sure they present you in your best light. Drop any picture that involves beer, or your car, or pet (use your blog for that :) ), or has you sooooo small that nobody can tell what you look like. As a professional, you are ALWAYS on call when you have an online presence.

Keep that in mind as technology moves forward, your Avatar will matter. In my opinion, Microsoft's Kinect plays a key role in upcoming collaborative strategy. As we operate with global teams on every corner of the planet, sending Avatar information over the net is much more efficient than sending a video signal. I've heard it mentioned that facial tracking on Kinect is moving along nicely, which means your Avatar will smile when you smile, frown when you frown, and remain stoic if someone inadverdently makes body noises in a meeting (probably not, but one can dream for our professional reputation).

This means we will all have to create an Avatar. So I did.

I recently got a Windows 7 phone. It connects to an XBox Live account (but the WP7 experience is a different post). I went online and started the process. I built an Avatar to represent me in the online world that somehow looks remarkably like Brad Pitt. I get mistaken for him all the time.

Actually, Avatar Me ended up looking like... well, me.

The real issue comes with the hair. I have what my son describes as a "sideways Mohawk". Second Life did not offer this choice, XBox did. My online persona is one that is accurate to who I am.

After all, as a leader, shouldn't you be on "game" all the time? Why would there ever be a different you online than the person your family and co-workers need to live with every day?

Now I'm not saying you shouldn't have fun, but don't make the mistake that many leaders make. Your online persona is not the 'private' you. It is way more public than we are truly able to comprehend.

Disagree? Then use the comment field below. Agree? Do the same.

Be wise, and lead well grasshopper.

NOTE: This was also posted as an entry on http://blogidol.ca/


Getting Rid of the Pointy Haired Boss

First a disclaimer.  If I don't visit the barber fairly often, I do bear a striking resemblence to Dilbert's pointy haired boss.  That is the only way I resemble him.  But back to the posting.

I'll bet you thought that I was talking about your boss, right?  Wrong. I'm speaking to you (and me, too).

As you begin your career, you usually end up working for someone.  Sometimes it's great, other times, let's just say not.  Marcus Buckingham, in his book First, Break All the Rules mentions that people do not usually leave their company when they quit their jobs, they leave their manager.

Your career progresses.  You may come to the crossroads of decision.  Do I apply for that management role, or do I stay in "the trenches".  For many people in IT, the pressure of mortgages, kids, etc. tend to tip the skills in favour of the management role.  It's the only viable career track in many organizations.  Even if you are the best developer, or network admin in the company, you hit the salary ceiling.  If you want to make more money, you either rob a bank (not wise), leave the company, or become a manager.

It is this situation in my opinion that contributes greatly to the PHB (Pointy Haired Boss) syndrome.  There are a large number of skilled technical people suddenly faced with management tasks (i.e. HR, budgets, leadership, mediation, etc.) for which they have had little or no training.  Pity their former colleagues who now have to work for them!

The solution is really simple to say, but difficult to implement.  But just because it's hard, doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. (How many apostrophes can you put in one sentence? but I digress...).  There is no shortage of good material to help you frame your issues and find a solution.  I'll include some in future posts.

If you are a senior leader in your organization responsible for IT, you need to review the development of your managers.  Do they have the tools and skills to be successful?  If not, you may be the one modelling PHB behaviour.

Note: This posting was published as one of my entries in Computerworld Canada's Blogging Idol Contest.


Free, As in Puppy? Or Free, as in Beer?

This is Isabel.  Our dog.  Or should I say my son's dog that somehow has become our responsibility.  But that is another story.

While Isabel was not a "free to a good home" puppy, the price we pay to feed her, vet her, and replace the things damaged by her, the sleep we lose when she decides 3am is a great time to go out, eclipse the price of admission.  Not that we regret it, there are some benefits... at least SOMEONE is happy that I come home.

But that is not what this post is about.  There is a perception out there that organizations should jettison their costly licenses for operating systems, email, office applications, databases, etc. and start using opensource applications instead - because they are free.

I've been in the world of IT for more than 20 years, and I've run across this perception that opensource = free for almost as long.

For those of you who have been in the business for a while, you know that the hardware and software component of any enterprise wide deployment averages around 20% of the total cost, once you factor in cost of switching systems, support costs, training costs, data conversion, system integration, etc.

Saving on the license fees will have less of an impact on the overall project once you add the increased support and training costs to the project.  Just say to yourself... "Opensource is free as in puppy, not free as in beer."

There is some great opensource applications out there.  But don't choose opensource for cost savings, choose it because it allows you to meet all of your objectives.


I Chew Bread for People's Ducks

Do you ever find yourself in the difficult situation of explaining what you do to people who aren't in the industry?  Long ago, I discovered that if I actually got into specifics when asked "So, what do you do for a living?", that more often than not resulted in the same sequence of events.  I'd get the nodding head, then the glassy eyes, then the eyes quickly unglassing (is that a word?) scanning the room for the first available exit, then the "Oh! Look at the time!" getaway.  By that point I could be sure I wouldn't be receiving another invitation to their party.

As a defense mechanism, I started responding to the question with a completely random group of words, such as "I chew bread for people's ducks."  For some reason, it was more understandable to my audience that the real answer.

So you have to ask yourself, why would ANYONE pick a career that is social suicide?  Willingly?

Here's my feeble attempt at an answer:

- As a kid, I could never, ever get enough of puzzles and problem solving. (This was LONG before the Internet but during the time of indoor plumbing and electricity).  I loved the rush you got in figuring out a complex problem.  I knew that whatever I did in life, I would need to have lots of puzzles and problems to solve.

- I found out that I could get the same rush when I was able to help someone else solve a problem, or do things more efficiently, or accomplish more than they could before I helped.  I could also get the same rush vicariously, helping others, help others.  (Hey! I'm a blogger not an English major).

- The next stage had the same level of EUREKAbility that our ancient ancestors might have felt when they discovered a lever or the wheel... using a tool, one could do much more than without the tool.  In my case, this "tool" came in the form of a Commodore PET...  I could control a machine with a few commands!  As a kid raised watching the race to the moon, having an actual computer in the room, under my command was an epiphanal moment.  Then I discovered that the supply of "new" computers never stopped.  Every day brought new, more powerful devices and software.

- And lastly, I discovered that I am constantly in search of the "What's next?"  My wife would say I'm addicted to change.  I know I would not do well in a static, unchanging environment. I cheered when Bobby Kennedy said "There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why... I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?"

So the short answer to the question as to why I chose IT as a career? Given the way I am wired, I have no choice.  Even if it means I don't get invited to your party.

Note: This posting was entered into Computerworld's Blogging Idol Contest )


Do I Buy a RIM Playbook? Or a Hamster?

RIM launched its new tablet, the Playbook yesterday. (If you weren't aware of this, you really should get out more..) Do I want one? What kind of IT person would I be if I didn't? Will I get one? No. And here's why.

This is not a review of the Playbook features, flaws or benefits. It's not an analysis of whether or not it's an iPad killer. My reason for not getting a playbook is simple. I don't have enough room in my pockets, on my desk, or in my satchel (it's NOT a man purse!). If I add the Playbook, something gets relegated to the "collect dust on the shelf" phase before it becomes one more contribution to the mountain of e-Waste we humans produce every day.

It's not that I don't like technology. My current personal arsenal includes an LG WP7 phone, an iPhone, an iPad (original flavour), a Fujitsu T580 small format hybrid tablet PC (my travelling machine), a Fujitsu T4410 full size hybrid tablet (the standard model used at Appleby), an Entourage Edge eReader/Android netbook (for reading my Kindle and Kobo books outdoors), an HP desktop (at home), AppleTV, and so on... I know you are thinking one of two things... "Is that ALL?" and proceed to list your arsenal, or "This person needs therapy!" Hi, my name is Kevin, and I have techno-lust.

There actually is a very good reason (in my deluded state of mind) that I need each and every one of these devices. Each of these devices does something better than all the other devices. I haven't found the Swiss Army knife of personal technology. So I end up carrying a boatload of technology around. But I digress... this is a topic for another post.

The point I really want to get across is that in a year (or less), all of the items I have listed will become obsolete, if they aren't already. The average lifecycle for a cell phone is approximately 18 months, my iPad didn't even go a year before the iPad2 replaced it. Let's admit it. We really, really like the smell of new technology when we unwrap it. We LOVE casually putting the latest model of phone/tablet/etc. out on the table hoping someone will notice it. We are consumers. We LOVE consuming things.

This post is not a rage against the machine, but a personal reflection on a personal choice. Would I buy a Playbook just because it's new? Or would I buy one because it actually meets a need I (or my organization has)? The chances of the Playbook becoming a dust collector in 12 months is statistically high, at which time that beautiful sculpted piece of plastic, metal and silicone will have a net value of approximately $0.

As an IT leader, should I focus on the ever changing plethora of end point devices, or focus on the environment that will allow any of these devices to work well? Are they evaluated on latest or greatest, or how they will allow my team, my company, and myself to do things we need to do better, faster, or in a way that differentiates us from our competitors?

After thinking that through... the Playbook didn't make the cut. Sorry RIM.

As for the hamster? The lifespan of a hamster is about 2-1/2 years and you can find one for less than $20. At the end of its life, the hamster would still be doing what it does best, not superceded by Hamster 2.0. It would appear that hamsters are a better investment than a new tablet in terms of longevity.

Note: This post appeared as one of my entries in BloggingIdol contest.


Cisco's Flip Flop

Sorry,  I couldn’t resist the heading for this post.  As you will find out during the course of reading my blog, I dearly love words, their meanings, and how they intermingle and create alternate meanings.  I’m a textbook polysemaniac.  But enough of that.

If you follow the blogosphere, you will have noticed that Cisco recently announced it was shuttering its Flip camera division.  Depending on the industry you are in, this may not have meant much to you, but to many in education, it is significant.  This simple to operate video camera was becoming a foundational piece of technology in a number of schools, providing a cost effective, easy way for students to create and share media.

Cisco has restructured to get back to its core business line, but rather than sell off a division that was holding its own, it decided to close it.   With the ever increasing video recording capacity of smart phones, it is tough to justify buying a single purpose device… but the niche education market found the Flip camera entirely appropriate, since they cannot build curriculum around the expectations that students will bring their own smart phones.

The demise of Flip was unexpected by many.  Who would of thought that a product with an established market, from a major company would suddenly go away?    Why wouldn’t I build strategy around a product such as this?

In today’s IT world, the real issue here for IT leaders is this – we should not be building our strategy around endpoint devices.  I would be so bold as to suggest that this would extend to the devices our employees use at work.  We can no longer be prescriptive around the tools our constituents use.

I do know all the arguments about standardization, and management, and let’s face it, control.  It’s just that the game is changing.

In 2007 Gartner Group predicted that by 2012, over half of technology decisions (with regards to the technology they use) would be made by employees themselves rather than IT. If you believed them, you would have started planning how you would change your delivery model through virtualization (both application and desktop) and looking at hosted solutions on the Internet (now called Cloud).  The technologies were immature at the time, but have made great strides.

We are still responsible to maintain the availability, integrity and security of the information that flows on our network.  Rather than wrap up all the management in the endpoint, we have to be open to seeing the network itself as our killer app, and our medium, rather than traditional IT management.

This won’t happen overnight.  If I was the CIO in a bank, in government, or a host of other industries, the transition away from managed endpoints is a complex process swamped with potential issues.  But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have to lead the change.

While the Cisco Flip phone is a small blip in the technology landscape (if you call $590M a blip), it shows how a technology product from a major vendor considered safe, might just go away.   Just to jog your memory… I used to buy IBM computers that ran on a Nortel Network.

Please note: This posting was also submitted as my entry on Blogging Idol ( http://blogidol.ca )


If you don’t much care about where you want to get to…

"Cheshire-Puss," she began, rather timidly, as she did not at all know whether it would like the name: however, it only grinned a little wider.

"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"

"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.

"I don't much care where---" said Alice.

"Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Cat.

"---So long as I get somewhere," Alice added as an explanation.

"Oh you're sure to do that," said the Cat, "if you only walk long enough."
It's hard to read any technical publication, visit any conference, or attend a meeting of IT leaders without the term "Cloud Computing" being mentioned.  But what is it? Why does it matter to me?

G.K. Chesterton said (approximately 80 years ago) "“It isn't that they can't see the solution. It's that they can't see the problem.” His words still ring true when I look at the "solutions" being presented to me in the area of cloud computing.

There is great danger of failure as IT leaders if we build our strategy around current trends and buzzwords. If we do not clearly understand the organizational issues we are trying to solve, we will select the wrong tools. As the old maxim goes... "When the only tool you have is a hammer, it's amazing how everything starts to look like a nail."

It is my opinion that we need to approach cloud computing vendors with a list of our current challenges? How will this allow me to connect to global offices? How will this help me manage a finite budget and resources and allow me to focus on the things that differentiate my organization? How will this help me ensure we are compliant with regulations? What happens in my offices with sporadic connectivity to the Internet? (If you think I'm kidding, try and set up a regional office in communities in Northern Ontario like Temagami).

If you can't define your story, you will be like the unfortunate Alice in the excerpt above... eventually getting "somewhere" with cloud computing, while all your competitors are leaving you in their dust.


Male Bovine Fecal Matter

I wish I could buy one of these BS detectors, but I'm afraid it would be worn out in a week based on all the information of questionable accuracy that comes across my desk, my email, my voicemail, and even in face to face meetings with vendors.  I'm not saying that they are lying, but...   if the claims were true, I would have eliminated all my network problems, we would be operating in a complete paperless environment, that the computers would last for years, and I would save so much money I wouldn't need an IT budget at all.

As an IT leader, I need to recognize BS in all its forms and as an old saying goes - "Separate the sh*t from the Shinola".  Decisions get made on solving my problems, not on a specific piece of hardware. (See my previous posting on the CIO's Declaration for Potential Partners).  But this post isn't about the vendors use of BS, but ours...

How often have you used the same "features" and "cost savings" in your presentations to your executive and board to secure funding for a new project, or hire more people?  Do you wonder why your proposals are turned down so often? If you are wincing right now, perhaps you've forgotten that the people you are "pitching" to, have a very well developed Male Bovine Fecal Matter Detector themselves.  They wouldn't be where they are if they didn't.

Learn to present real benefits in the language of your executive team.  Tie these benefits to the stated goals of your organization. If you can't state what these are, then you have some work ahead of you. I'll talk in future postings about how IT leaders can get a seat at the table.


In Preparing for Battle, Plans are Useless...

... but planning is indispensable.
(Dwight D. Eisenhower)

An IT leaders, we are very familiar with crisis management.  Equipment never fails at a convenient time.  Our systems are critical to our organization's operation, and as such we are usually part of first response in a crisis where business continuance is impacted.

The Pareto principle (also known as the 80-20 rule) states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.[1]
Let me take some liberty and apply this rule to IT management.  It is my observation that IT organizations are spending approximately 80% of their time in a reactive mode, and 20% of their time in a responsive mode.  It's easy to look busy in IT... something will break soon! Planning is usually relegated to a few meetings a year, when the IT Operating Plan is sent out (usually during budget season).

To be effective, today's IT leader needs to reverse the ratio. 80% of your operation should be responsive - helping the organization achieve its strategic goals, increase its efficiency, or be even more differentiated from its competitors.  Things will break, so leaving 20% of your operation to be reactive is not a bad idea.

Does this sound unbelievable?  It won't be a quick transition, and you won't do it alone. Gather the best and brightest resources around you (some of them likely work for you already) and block out time to engage in planning your transition, planning your response to key trends (e.g. consumer devices), planning what it would look like if everything in IT was working as it should.

We can't predict the future, or determine exactly how things will transpire (i.e. the Battle), be we can engage in scenario planning.  A great tool for IT leaders is Daniel Rasmus' book "Listening to the Future".  

Let me end this post with another quote:  "If you fail to plan, then you plan to fail."


Outstanding in your field... or out standing in your field?

John Maxwell has said "If a leader thinks he/she is leading, and has nobody following, he/she is merely talking a walk".

The most important component of your IT leadership is the team you lead.  Too often the discussions of IT leadership revolve around hardware, software, upcoming trends, business cases, and more often than not, the latest gadgets coming down the pipeline.  While all of these are important, it becomes impossible to deliver on anything without a solid team.  As a matter of fact, your team is more likely able to keep the network running, and key operations going without you.

How much time do you invest in your team? Do they have the resources they need to do their job well?  How much have you budgeted for skills upgrading? How much latitude do you provide them in decision making?  Jim Collins in Good to Great outlines the importance of getting the right people on the bus, (and the wrong people off the bus) in order to be able to have your organization deliver excellence. If you as the CIO do not take an active role in determining the skills mix and the culture your IT team should have before you hire new people, then you deserve the organizational dysfunction you likely have. 

There is much to unpack in this area, and  I will do so in future postings, but for now let's stick with this one thought.  If you do not spend as much time in developing your leadership skills as you do in planning your technology infrastructure, then you are missing a key element in your ability to lead a 21st century IT organization.

Otherwise, you will end up as the fellow in the photograph... out standing in your field... all by yourself.