Wednesday, April 25, 2012

How to Keep Up to Date on Tech Trends

Tech trends come and go. Some re-emerge at later dates, using improved technology and ideas to refine a product. Staying current with trends requires a bit of reading, attending conferences and subscribing to newsfeeds. If you have the passion for technology, you’ll turn into a loyal reader of certain blogs, magazines and social media outlets to gather the inside scoop.

For a student pursuing a computer science degree to the tech consultant wanting to keep track of new software and gear, some ways prove more effective at helping you stay tuned to what’s releasing soon. From print media to Web media, each serves its purpose in exposing you to new trends.

Social Media
Compared to print and Web media, social outlets serve as a great source for connecting fans with the creators of new technology. Simply add or subscribe to an electronic giant’s news feeds or tweets and get the inside scoop on the latest ideas engineers seem actuated to design. Pictures, clues and even snippets of information manage to leak onto social media websites that let you validate rumors and even get a glimpse of new software and hardware.

Many of the social outlets are run by CEOs while others become managed by marketing companies to discuss new technology and to gather feedback from community members. These insiders will give you the most recent statuses on new projects, show you beta builds of a piece of software and some may even include a video or two about a recently completed project.

Web Media
Social media works great for granting inside access to fans, but Web media, such as blogs, websites and videos, let the enthusiast read, see and interact with the latest tech trends arriving soon. Some websites aim to attract readerships interested in rumors, such as the case with MacRumors, a website dedicated solely to Apple products.

Other Web media outlets use their well-placed media sources to gather facts, quotes and news stories from heads of electronic companies to help readers stay informed. With RSS feeds and newsletters, individuals can subscribe to all the latest information in order to stay current with the technology trends.

One of the newer forms of Web media – podcasts – also work great at providing information from tech news giants or large electronic companies. As with RSS feeds and newsletters, individuals can use subscribe to podcasts to hear the latest on tech trends. With playback options, users can listen to a podcast anytime they wish from their MP3 device or computer.

Large tech conferences aim to accomplish one goal: Bring together the biggest players in the industry to show off and discuss new products and software making its way to the market. Attending one of these conferences makes for a surefire method of staying on top of current trends arriving, but also, makes for a spectacle for playing with new devices.

For teachers managing computer classes, tech conferences will lend an inside scoop as to the latest trends in software and hardware, from newer specs on computers, new chip sets arriving and even the most current security patches being implemented into systems. Conferences also make for a great place to network and rub shoulders with executives and software engineers. Networking aside, you’ll be showered in pamphlets, vibrant gadgets and colorful displays.

The key to staying up to date on current tech trends is by reading, attending and having a passion for the industry. Staying in tune can help you better attend to customers, avoid excess spending and clue you in on new gear soon to be released.

Summa Technologies (2011)
Yahoo (2010)

Captain Joe

Follow me on Twitter @JPuglisiLLC

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Start With The End In Mind

One should always start with the end in mind.

I borrowed this concept from Steven Covey who wrote the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, a book everyone should read at some point. This is also the basis for the ever popular "gap" analysis, a technique in which we determine where we are and where we need to be. Then we look at the delta, the difference or, in the parlance of the technique, the gap and figure out how to get from here to there.

It is important to have a clear vision of where you want to end up. Another old saying comes to mind. When you don't know where you are going, any road will get you there. I sometimes sense this is the way systems evolve. The planning is incremental and the enhancements are a patchwork of little improvements or fixes done over time. At the end of the day, you wind up with a quilt-work instead of a smooth and uniform process flow.

If a business process is completely manual, partially automated or perhaps broken, and there is a desire to improve service or increase efficiency, it is often tempting to take a look at a small portion of the process and address it.  We look for the major flaws or the low hanging fruit. We shoot for a quick fix, a small and easy adjustment that may improve things a lot. We move slowly and carefully so as not to be too disruptive.

While I applaud the effort to avoid having a negative impact on the business, we sometimes draw out the pain and introduce more problems than we solve. Running parallel can be overly burdensome and when only part of a process is reinvented we force people to do double or triple the work for extended periods of time.

At some point this even becomes counter productive. It can lead to more mistakes and distrust of a new process. One has to look at the total picture and decide what the ideal process would be. If we are talking about order entry, for example, ultimately we want the order to be in a specific format and contain all of the data necessary to both execute the order and collect the proper payment.

All too often the focus will be on "streamlining" by locking down one field on a form or adding some calculations and pushing a snapshot of data to some interim holding file for analysis. Eventually the order process gets modified again and the data, after it has been pulled for analysis, are changed. Without a holistic view we wind up carrying multiple versions of the truth.

Take the time to develop the end state vision first. Then, work your way back to the beginning of each process and make sure you fully understand the flow of the data from start to finish. Change the entire process and find ways to phase it in that minimizes the need for parallel operations.

One more old proverb comes to mind. It seems there is never enough time to do it right the first time, but there is always time to do it over. Let's identify the ultimate destination up front, chart a safe and direct course from here to there.  Let's not wind up beached in a sand dune or dashed on the rocks.

Captain Joe

Follow me on Twitter @JPuglisiLLC

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Iron Rice Bowl

It is often said, the beauty of standards is that you have so many to choose from. The irony of this statement is, of course, there should only be one standard. But we often find, as I have in many prior situations, that standards are local and sometimes not known, understood or even followed.

Standards lead to efficiency. There are countless examples of equipment, software and business process where the variety in place lead to unnecessary complexity, difficult interactions and rework. But this applies to more than just IT. People will tend to develop their own "standard" process unless they are provided documentation or training. Even then, they are likely to add their own special twist and perpetuate its use by handing it down to the next person who will perform the same task or job function.

Once, while automating the "standard" process for starting a new project, we encountered Louie, the keeper of the job numbers. Louie's job was to maintain the book which listed the identifying number of every job the company performs. Louie has the privilege of assigning the job numbers and so every project eventually came across his desk so he could open the book and allocate the next number. Louie designed and owned this process.

Everybody along the way had a "standard" way of initiating the work that had to be done in their particular department for the new job to get underway. Whether it was the scheduling of manpower, purchasing of materials, preparation of documents or management approvals, there were a myriad of steps using various paper and electronic means to enter and process the same data.

The process was riddled with many forms in duplicate or triplicate which were physically passed around the office and often copied, annotated and then stored in multiple locations. As you can easily imagine, this was a cumbersome and inefficient way of alerting each department about a new project. Forms were misplaced, incomplete or contained old information. Time was lost as they moved around and often information was inaccurate, incomplete or inconsistent from one department to another.

We saw an opportunity to streamline this process and set about identifying the key steps, data elements and reasons behind each. If I had a nickle for every time I heard "because that's the way we've always done it" I could have retired years ago. A new, more rational process was designed and approved by management.

The process was then automated from start to finish using imaging and on-line forms with drop down menus limiting choices and having the intelligence to display those fields which were relevant to the different departments. One set of forms with one set of data living in one physical place meant everyone always had the latest and most accurate information and could get it at any time from any location.

The story has one twist. Perhaps you are familiar with the expression that someone has an iron rice bowl? This means they have their position or seat at the table forever. No one can take it away.

It seems Louie had an iron rice bowl and so the entire automated process still had to grind to a halt so Louie could open his (physical not metaphorical) book and allocate the next job number.

Perhaps the ultimate irony was that someone had to enter this job number as Louie was not technical enough to do it himself.

Captain Joe

Follow me on Twitter @JPuglisiLLC

Friday, April 6, 2012

A Change In Course

Beginning next week, View from the Bridge will only be published once per week. As an independent consultant, my schedule was pretty much my own. That allowed me the discretion to allocate the necessary time and energy needed to produce content every week day. My goal was to share my knowledge and experience in the hope that it would help others in their interaction with technology, in business or just every day life in general.

Next week I will take the helm of a new ship. I will be joining the management team of  a privately held company based in New York City. As their CIO, it will be my job to put all of the lessons I have shared with you here and the rest of what I know into practice. Together with the other members of the IT staff, we will take this company to the next level of success through the use of technology and sound business practices.

Most of my energy will now be focused on learning the business and identifying the opportunities to change, improve or introduce business process and technology in furtherance of the goals of the company. This will perhaps lead to more lessons and interesting war stories down the road. But in the near term it is going to necessarily limit the time I can devote to writing this column.

In July 2011 I set a personal goal to write something worth publishing Monday through Friday of every week. I am pleased that I was able to meet that commitment and, apart from the week between Christmas and New Years, Memorial Day, Labor Day and Thanksgiving, I am proud to say I never missed a day. The column may have been a little shorter and completed in the wee hours of the night, but there was one there for just about every date up to and including today.

It has been a wild and enjoyable ride for me, and I hope for you as well. Keep your eyes on this space as occasionally time may allow for more than one a week, and forgive me if once in a while I miss a week.

Thank you for reading, sharing and commenting on my thoughts.

Engine room, hard to port. We're coming about.

Captain Joe

Follow me on Twitter @JPuglisiLLC

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Six Of One, Half Dozen Of The Other

There is this popular expression of unknown origin that I frequently use. "Six of one, half dozen of the other" is just a different way of saying something simply doesn't really matter. Faced with two equally good options, you are more or less indifferent and would be happy with either one. Any choice is a good one, as long as you pick one.

This is how I often feel about a selection of a technology or process standard. Today, much of the hardware and even common software systems are essentially commodities. There is often a heated debate around which is best and should therefore be designated as the standard across the company. It is easy to spot the ongoing rivalry among fans of particular operating systems or cell phone carriers. Debates extend to internet browsers and a variety of other basic tools. But at the end of the day, what's really important is to make a decision and stick to it.

I can recall the discussions, years ago, at a company that lacked any personal computer standards. At that time, the predominant choices for desktop and notebook computers were either HP, Dell or IBM. The choices obviously would be somewhat different today.

But at the time, among the IT professionals throughout the organization, each brand  had a number of strong supporters and a group of fairly vocal detractors. Certainly each of the brands offered a wide range of models with a variety of unique features people found very attractive. The differential in cost was minimal and each manufacturer would regularly introduce new, faster, cheaper models, often leap-frogging the others.

So the question became how do we choose. Well, for me, it was six of one, half dozen of another. The company happened to own more of one of these brands and after fairly brief negotiations this allowed us to put a volume purchase agreement in place and choose it as the standard.

In my view, it wasn't worth an extensive amount of research or debate. We chose one horse to ride and began to accrue the benefits almost immediately. There were far more pressing needs in the company.

Certainly there will be other, more critical evaluations where the technology or application is more complex and will have greater implications or major impact on the company and its operations. This is where you should spend your time and energy. Don't lose sight of the business.

Remember, the cash register has to work, but it is just a tool to facilitate a transaction. Actually selling your merchandise is what will make or break your company.

Captain Joe

Follow me on Twitter @JPuglisiLLC

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

It's Finally Over - You Got The Job

Imagine that great feeling when the long weeks or months of search finally draw to a close. When all the scanning of job boards, networking, teleconferencing, writing, research, travel and interviews are behind you. You passed the rigorous HR screening and all the interviews went well. Happily, all your references check out and an offer is extended. It is a good one, the job you always wanted so you accept. You breath a huge sigh of relief and can finally relax. Right?

Well, this may be the end of one journey but it is only the beginning of another, hopefully even longer one.

Remember all those accomplishments you touted, and all that skill and knowledge you said you had? The interviews were easy because you only had to talk about them. Now you have to put them all into practice. Of course, you were honest and gave a fair and true accounting of your history. Still, as they say in financial reports, past performance is no guarantee of future performance. You may be faced with an even steeper hill to climb.

When my children were younger they complained, as children often do, about school, their teachers, homework and tests. They especially dislike tests and, in particular, midterms and finals. My advice to them was to relax because this part of life is easy. You study hard, learn the material, take the test and move on.

In real life, I told them, every day is a final exam. There are no study guides. No one tells you what will be on the test, and there are only two grades. You either pass or fail. Often, there is a lot more at stake than just having to take the test over or, heaven forbid, failing the class. In life, bad outcomes can lead to much more severe consequences.

So it is when you have a new job. You can only guess what new problems or opportunities each day will bring. You are confident and expect the knowledge and experience you have will be sufficient to address problems and lead to success. But you must maintain the same level of determination you had when you were trying to get the job.

Continuously probe and learn more about the company and its people. Build an organization chart and develop relationships with everyone below, above and at your level. Understand the business and apply your skills to make it a better place for the employees to work and to improve the experience for customers.

As Yogi Berra once famously said, "It ain't over 'til it's over."

Captain Joe

Follow me on Twitter @JPuglisiLLC

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Keep Your Back To The Wall

We've all attended lots of presentations. Some are more memorable than others. There are sometimes issues with the sound system. The speaker's position causes feedback or the battery dies and his voice fades out. We have seen speakers fumble when the slides don't work or the embedded video plays with no sound. I've even been in conferences where the power failed and we were left sitting in the dark.

Speakers can be good, even great under all of these circumstances. Speakers who know their material can be informative and engaging without all the electronic paraphernalia. Recently during a presentation a speaker was on item seven of ten when the AV staff fouled up the slides and couldn't get them back on the big screen. After a moment or two of stalling, the speaker simply talked us through the three remaining points.

Nothing disturbs me more during a presentation than staring at the speakers back while the speaker meticulously reads each and every word from the slides. These slides are sometimes so densely packed with text a smaller font size was needed to make them fit on one page. The speaker has to read them because no one else in the room can.

This bothers me on several levels. It suggests to me the speaker does not know the material but relies instead on reading to deliver their message. Everyone in the room could read what is on the screen if the speaker has printed and distributed hard copy. But what would be the point?  We didn't come here to read an article. We want you to tell us something we don't know or reinforce your major points with real life examples. Slides should be the outline, notes, key points or lists we can take away.

Often when the speaker presents to his slides you cannot even hear or understand what is being said. Presenters who read slides often mumble and trail off as they read. They give the audience the impression they can't wait to get this over and get off the stage. This is the complete opposite of engaging your audience and capturing their attention.

Finally, I am always baffled when the slides are sourced from a laptop which is in front of the speaker. If you must look at the slides, perhaps you could look at them on the screen in front of you instead of the big screen behind or off to the side. At least the audience would then see your face and might get the impression you are speaking to them. In larger venues, monitors are placed on the floor in front of the stage. Use them to view your slides instead of turning your back on the audience.

In my view, when you present, there are a few basic rules you should follow. Make sure your slides are both sparse and crisp. No more than three main points per page. Use font sizes for text and numbers on charts big enough to read from the back of the room. Know your script cold. Practice a run through the entire talk without the slides. If you can do that, you are ready to take the stage.

Captain Joe

Follow me on Twitter @JPuglisiLLC

Monday, April 2, 2012

Don't Party Like It's 1999

I went to a birthday party yesterday for Jens Graikowski. He is a fine fellow I met only recently, but with whom I have shared many thoughts and views. It was a small, intimate gathering of only a few close friends of the birthday boy. I was pleased and honored to have been included among them.

Jens organized a special gift for himself. He booked a private, personal concert performed by a singer, song writer, Ryan Van Sickle. Jens was good enough to extend this marvelous gift to just a handful of his friends, inviting them to attend and enjoy the concert and the company of each other.

Jens, of course, lives on Tenerife, the largest and most populous of the Canary Islands. A few guests were from Germany, Austria and other parts Europe. Several  others came from this side of the pond, including  Canada and the US. I was able to stay for the whole party while others casually dropped in and out.

I had some delicious food, laughed a lot and really enjoyed the music. In fact, I even sang a song or two for the group. One of the other guests had his young son play a short piece piano. It was just a wonderful time.

What does this have to do with technology? Well, none of the guests and the party boy himself had to travel to attend this party. We gathered in a Google Plus hangout. A hangout, you may recall, is a video chat with up to 10 simultaneous participants.

Ryan, our guest performer, joined in from his home in Canada. But we were all able to sit and enjoy his strumming and singing, and interact with him and with each other for the entire time. Whether only five minutes or for the entire two hours, attending this party and wishing Jens a happy birthday was as easy as click, click, click.

Hangouts have been around for a while and they have been used for news shows, concerts, training sessions, interviews and a variety of other purposes. But I believe this may have been the first global, virtual birthday party hangout.

With friendships increasingly spanning geography and time zones, and with the high cost of travel, I can see this novel approach to celebrations catching on. This could be a whole new segment in the party business.

Happy birthday, Jens. Thanks for having me.

Captain Joe

Follow me on Twitter @JPuglisiLLC