Wednesday, October 31, 2012

#WorkAnywhere - Downsides of the Cloud

So this week has already provided some important lessons.

On Monday I was with a new client, a major force in their industry with multi-million household name customers of their own representing some of the biggest household names in several sectors ... The IT manager was very clear that he is not comfortable using cloud-hosted services because his customers won't risk him putting their data into a cloud-baed service.

Then, yesterday, #Sandy. As a business we, like many others, use a variety of suppliers, some of whom have services, or provide services, from cloud-hosted centres. As the effects of the hurricane and super storm hit the NE of America one of our key internal systems, a hosted project management and file storage environment, was taken offline.

It turns out that their computers are located in a building somewhere in Manhattan. They were safe from the floods because they were on a high floor. But they weren't protected from the power outages: they just didn't have enough fuel to run power generators indefinitely (who could?!). And with all the transport disruption as a result of the storm, they couldn't get fuel on site quickly enough. They had to go off line and we were disrupted for several hours, along with all their other customers.

It was at this point that it became clear just how important it was for us not to have all our eggs in that one project management basket. Because I'd got separate notes of what we'd put in there, we were able to sustain development without disruption.

But, there are still plenty of lessons here and much for us to reflect on as I prepare for a meeting next week with Directors of another client business before our full-scale off-site test of their business disaster recovery systems, including re-location to an off-site empty office ready to take their relocated staff.

With some 20% of businesses facing a significant disruption if not full-blown disaster each year, this is a subject you shouldn't ignore!
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Monday, October 29, 2012

#WorkAnywhere - Ethics in action

I wasn't expecting to be writing this blog post today, from the train. But a conversation over lunch gave me an utterly different take on the #WorkAnywhere tag.

I've always thought of it as the inspiration to work any time, any place ... Free from geographic constraints, within limits.

But today I met a man who graduated in a particular branch of computing that meant he could work anywhere, for pretty much any employer with an interest in his field. And he was courted by some government and defence industry organisations.

However, this man has strong feelings about using technology for peace, climate change and similar issues. For him, the freedom to work anywhere is constrained by a higher commitment to ethical values.

It's admirable to find someone reflective enough to live by his principles. It's hardly unique, but sadly nor is it that common.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

#WorkAnywhere - application building on the fly

Doh! Computers are literal things: they can't know that when I typed the field name 'Setails' I had really meant to call it 'Details' !!

A single typo meant that our app couldn't match its fields on the form with columns on SharePoint, so it failed exactly as intended (with a nice error message) to protect the central repository of data ...

  • The really nice thing is that I had got everything laid out, 
  • with data filled in, 
  • when suddenly I noticed that I'd forgotten to put the Submit button on the form (doh, again!). 
  • I simply opened up our Toolbox, 
  • added a Submit button and re-published the form; 
  • then I tried the submit of my data again, 
  • discovered why it had failed and corrected the Details field name, 
  • re-published, and submitted data successfully
... ALL without losing the data I had already filled into the form! That's actually pretty amazingly friendly for an end user! And 'publishing' the form is as simple as closing the Toolbox down - there's no extra step for the user to take :)
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Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Getting ready to launch

Entrepreneurs are generally optimistic people. And many of us have demanding, high standards. It's so very tempting to keep working towards a vision of perfection, adding another feature, polishing the ones we have already built.

But it's important to "get out of the lab" and launch a product, even before its ready in all the perfection I'd like. That way, we get feedback from customers sooner; we establish which features are already the most important, which we need to add next; and we start to generate the revenue that will justify and sustain development.

So, stand by, we are getting very close to the next release ;)

#WorkAnywhere - How to protect privacy

It was fascinating to read a bit of a fellow passenger's report off their laptop screen in front of me on the train this morning. It was marked CONFIDENTIAL and, once I saw that, it took a real effort of will to tear my eyes away!

The technology frees us up to work pretty much anywhere, and we can get caught up into a multi-media engagement with work, or private, situations that are many miles way from our present location.

But as we concentrate on being an active participant in a conference call, and sometimes have to talk loudly to make a contribution over the background noise, it's vital to remember who else might be listening in.

Here are some of the principles I advise people to follow:

  • Be aware of who else can see your screen

  • Be conscious of who might be listening in

  • Be aware of your present surroundings, not just the remote situation you're trying to engage with

  • Be security conscious and keep valuable devices - and the data on them - physically secure, in your presence or locked down

  • Keep everything you can protected with passwords and remote-wipe capability

Monday, October 15, 2012

How to avoid dangers of the electronic echo chamber

It's bad enough when you write an email and get your "tone of voice" misunderstood at the other end ...

We've all had the experience of people leaping to the wrong conclusion as a result of something we have written that has been read differently from how we intended. That's why people started writing 'lol' and putting smiley faces and things in their emails and texts. It helps. A bit.

Now, though, the dangers of misunderstanding get multiplied by Facebook and Twitter. There are more people impacted by what you write; and many more lurking, just reading without commenting. So many more opportunities to get it wrong.

So what to do:

  • Write when you're calm. Never sound off in anger

  • Use neutral phrases and stick to facts, not feelings, where you can

  • Read it back "out loud" (in your head!)

  • Try to imagine how it could be read accidentally, or maliciously

  • Use the emoticons and 'lol' cues to signal your feelings and intentions

  • Sit on it - delay posting

  • If in doubt, don't post

  • Deal with difficult stuff face to face or over the phone in preference to a Facebook wall post or page rant

  • Be a peace-maker, not breaker

Friday, October 12, 2012

#iOS6 Limit Ad Tracking and profile building

The way in which Apple allows advertisers to track a user's browsing habits on an iDevice changed with iOS6. And yesterday I did a full restore of my iPhone and iPad from the iCloud backup to test and confirm that my backup processes are working. Guess what? My advertising privacy got re-set back to Apple's default 'on' state after the restore was completed.

Here's how to ensure your privacy:

  1. On iPad or iPhone with iOS 6 go to Settings
  2. Select the section called 'General'
  3. Then go to 'About'
  4. Scroll all the way down to the bottom until you can select 'Advertising'
  5. Turn the option for 'Limit Ad Tracking' to 'ON'
It's pretty well hidden, isn't it?! Of course, Ad Tracking is On by default; the chances of users finding this option to turn it off by accident are slim (you'd naturally look in the new Privacy option in Settings, but in vain). That, of course, is part of the plan to maximise options for advertisers.

Apple's Help states, "iOS 6 introduces the Advertising Identifier, a non-permanent, non-personal, device identifier, that apps will use to give you more control over advertisers' ability to use tracking methods. If you choose to limit ad tracking, apps are not permitted to use the Advertising Identifier to serve you targeted ads. In the future all apps will be required to use the Advertising Identifier. However, until then you may still receive targeted ads."

So, note that you'll still receive ads; just not targeted ads. And you might prefer to receive targeted ads that are supposed to be more relevant to your interests. However, by turning off the Advertising Identifier in this way advertisers won't be able to gather information about your browsing habits to build up a profile that they can then sell on to others or aggregate with other information. And, like me, you might value your privacy enough to give up the apparent relevance of targeted ads.

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Thursday, October 11, 2012

#WorkAnywhere - What I did while travelling

First, let me stress: I am not driving! Instead, I am working while sitting on UK public transport to London.

  1. As we set out, I fired up the mobile WiFi thing and connected the MacBook Air to the Internet.

  2. I started with a Skype conversation from UK to a mobile phone of the chief software developer in the USA, getting a briefing on the latest software build.

  3. He sent the build over by email which I picked up on the MacBook; downloaded and installed over a sync cable to the iPad, all as we made our way through the early morning English Cotswold countryside.

  4. With the MacBook off and stowed, probably for the rest of the day, I played with new features of the iPad software; while keeping up an iMessage conversation and clearing a couple of customer emails.

  5. I used the new software release to build stuff for today's demo in London; and took a few screen shots to show off the latest to another customer, which I sent over straight away by email, before he'd got into his office for today.

  6. The software works and I was able to login to a customer SharePoint site remotely, while travelling, to confirm the data I'd just scanned and submitted had arrived. Success!

  7. Meanwhile, I got on with a few Tweets, emails, browsing (and, of course, writing this blog and scheduling to publish later)...

I've just glanced out of the window and realise we are making good progress. Maybe I've time to relax and listen to music or watch one of the movies that I've stored for moments like this when I've put in a good few hours of work, but its still early in the day and I'm making use of the otherwise dead travel time! Truly it feels like I can #WorkAnywhere

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

iOS Apps

I often get asked which apps I use on my iPad and iPhone. Here's the list:

  • Calendar
  • Clock
  • Met Office (UK weather)
  • Messages
  • BBC News
  • Bible (YouVersion)
  • Maps
  • Settings
  • Camera
  • FaceTime
  • Photos
  • YouTube
  • Notes
  • Twitter
  • Skype
  • Starfish CI (my company app in dev't)
  • Remote
  • Keynote Remote
  • AppStore
  • Find friends
  • Find iPhone 
  • NHS BMI Tracker
  • RunKeeper
  • TrueWeight
  • NHS Drinks Tracker
  • Pocket Money
  • Shazam
  • The Economist (news stand. Easier on iPad, but I used to read on iPhone. Good news for my optometrist)
  • Kindle
  • IBooks
  • Pages
  • Numbers
  • Keynote
  • Night Sky (awesome)
  • Wonders (on iPad. Awesome)
  • TubeMap
  • IHandyLevel
  • XE Currency
  • Convert Units
  • IMindMap
  • Jazz FM
  • MtgPlanner
  • Nightstand 
  • PayPal
  • Sudoku
  • SketchBookX (on iPad replace paper)
  • ITapRDP (on iPad remote desktop)
  • Oxford Today
  • Intelligent Life magazine 
  • iPhoto (on iPad)
  • Paper
  • Design Museum collection
  • Planetary

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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Keeping mobile

As I wrote last week, I don't really need an office anymore. Here's a check list of what keeps me mobile:

iPhone, though I used to use a BlackBerry and have used an Android phone also. The important thing is to have constant access to email, voice and SMS or instant messaging regardless of geography. The iPhone scores over the BlackBerry by being great at web browsing and viewing of Excel sheets and PDF attachments. I can't travel without a charge, though, and top up the battery with power as often as I can throughout the day.

iPad which gets me through the day on a full charge, and is so very much more portable than a laptop. The WiFi-only version is fine because I use the "Personal Hotspot" feature of the iPhone to connect to the Internet while out and about. This works great apart from the iMessage facility that currently doesn't know to check for an Internet connection over Bluetooth so I have to stick to using iMessage on the phone when the iPad is not on WiFi.

Also in my bag are headphones; a charge / sync cable and a micro-USB charging cable for my Jawbone Bluetooth headset. Oh, and a pen. I almost never need that (Autosketch SketchBook Express gives me all the virtual paper I need).

The final thing in my bag is an iPad VGA adapter: along with SketchBook and a projector I then have a replacement for flip chart or whiteboard.

This lot fits easily with room to spare in my STM bag and means I can run for a train and spend a day working and travelling without breaking a sweat.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Justifying cost return on the project

Recently a customer told me how easy her project with us had been to justify.

They sell, install and maintain equipment in their customers across the South of England. Last year was a 'good' year, but they still failed to invoice GBP £10,000 simply because they lost or couldn't read the documentation that their engineers were supposed to complete.

By giving her a system that makes that documentation legible and unable to be lost that business is able to add £10k to the bottom line; an easy justification for a project that cost much less than that to implement!
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Thursday, October 4, 2012

Measuring information systems succeess

We've been approached by a university lecturer who wants to use what we're doing as the basis for a research dissertation project by a post-graduate MSc student! It'll be fun to engage with a more academic approach, but with both statistically quantifiable data and analysis gained from semi-structured interviews and surveys as part of the process.

So, I've been asked to put together a brief for potential MSc students to bid for their involvement in the project:

Our customers use iPad and Android phones and tablets for mobile data capture, business intelligence reporting and process improvements. They are looking to cut costs, increase revenue, strengthen relationships with customers and lock out competitors to gain strategic advantage ... 

In running this project you will demonstrate the effectiveness of this innovative approach to mobile information systems, displaying your valuable research, analysis and consulting skills.  You will establish the marketplace impact and the success of mobile information systems to improve overall system quality, information quality, use, user satisfaction and the impact on users and their organisations. To do this you will be confident in combining hard data-analysis skills with qualitative analysis derived for example from semi-structured interviews or surveys. Your output has the potential to be the first rigorous and independent assessment of the impact of tablet computer technology in the UK SME marketplace.

That's the first draft: let's see who we get wanting to run it!
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Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Why the blog gap?

So I was asked why I'd been silent on the blogs and Tweet spaces for some months... Simple answer, it's actually a thought-through response to a particular client situation: rather than have to watch what I write to make sure that I didn't give any of their game away, it was easier just to impose some silence on myself.

The interesting thing has been to see that the blog readership has not dropped off a cliff in the months since the beginning of May! People are still finding this blog; and still reading some surprisingly old but still relevant posts. Very heart warming, thank you!

Now, though, it seems like a good time to banish the voluntary writer's block and gradually contribute some new material... The next month or so is going to see quite a lot of new activity in several of our product lines and across a couple of quite different industry sectors. And we've got some innovations that are going to be worth showcasing.

Meanwhile, the tech world around continues to move at a rapid pace and there continue to be important developments that are worth commenting on.

Thanks for reading: stick around and I'll be less cryptic about the new stuff as the weeks go by...
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Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Permission to be sick

I freely admit that what most women dismiss as a mere cold has me, as a man, wanting to call in the air ambulance.

This morning I had to send the same email three times because I made a silly mistake on the first two attempts and I'm left feeling that I really shouldn't be left in charge of a keyboard today, still less encouraged to talk on the phone.

The technology means that I can work wherever and whenever I have an Internet connection; but there are times like today when it's best just to hide behind voice mail and ignore the buzz of incoming communications ... I have a feeling that I'll get well again faster and have fewer apologies to make for mistakes made under the influence of Paracetomol.

It's hard to switch off, and that's today's learning point, but it's important to do so, to give myself permission to be sick and time to recover.
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Monday, October 1, 2012

Mobile workforce - use the office only for interaction

A chat today with the very talented Emily Davis convinced me that I really should start blogging again.

We were talking about how today's technology changes mean that nice office spaces are less and less critical to business success; and yet in other ways couldn't be more vital. Here's the paradox:

On the one hand, after a recent business trip to a client's UK office I was able to park up the car outside a local store to buy my lunch; then have a voice and video chat in the sunshine with colleagues in America to keep a project on track.

Similarly, last Friday I carried on an instant messaging conversation as I flitted between meetings in London and across underground public transport on the Tube where I had no Internet connection ... The result was that I had everything I wanted set up for me, confirmed by phone as I walked up to the office in Canary Wharf fifteen minutes before the meeting started.

And my day had started out with me receiving an overnight software build, installing and testing and setting up my demo on the train in to London.

One tool that helps us stay on track is FogBugz which lets us document issues and share resources across a team that doesn't have to be in the same place and, in our case, is dispersed across time zones... And a carefully thought through approach to secure storage means that we can operate from shared resources without needing access to a filing cabinet or server in the same physical space.

On the other hand, the nice office space lets us whiteboard and bounce ideas around, look folk in the eyes and pick up on the unspoken messages that only body language conveys. We can get stuff done without that facility, but it's harder.

So what I need in an office is more like a lounge in a coffee shop: somewhere bright and breezy that stimulates thought and interaction, but with space for quiet breakout sessions and small group meetings.

What I don't need, with appropriate use of today's technology, is a row of cubicles to which workers show up and attempt to appear productive just by being there. If my programmers are going to sit at a desk plugged into headphones and swapping messages with the next desk by IM and email then I can save a lot of money by letting them work somewhere else and renting a smaller space. The shared office only adds value, in this day and age, as a place to interact with folk.
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