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Coming out… of the IT cupboard.

It’s been 335 days since I last wrote a blog post for this site, and it was looking like it might even be a bit longer.  That period has been nothing short of manic both personally and professionally – and professionally I have had to step out of the IT cupboard.

The most important thing which happened in that intervening period was of course marrying my best friend  –  a gorgeous day, surrounded by our friends and family; a day which made a lifetime of memories. I’m not going to gush too much about that here – this has always been a semi-professional blog and I don’t intend to change that (if you want the story, buy me a beer!).

The IT Cupboard.

I’ve always worked in IT, from manufacturing IT systems for multi-nationals to running smaller IT functions for companies in marketing services, logistics and warehousing. I’ve done everything from Email to Azure, Development to ERP – and latterly that has been as an IT Director for medium sized firms (~150 employees, ~£5m – £10m turnover), and was even involved in a management buyout of one of those firms.  However, despite sitting on boards and helping define company strategy and then deliver the digital tools to support that strategy, I’ve always been in “The IT Cupboard.”

You know “The IT Cupboard” – every company has one – it’s where you put the IT people, it’s where you go when your system doesn’t work, or you’ve an idea for changing a process, improving something and you need a system to help.  It’s been a place where many fear to tread in the past.   In reality – it’s a great place, it’s the engine room of successful businesses.  It’s one of the few places which should know how nearly everything works in a business – it’s unique in that it sees everything from accounting processes, manufacturing, customer service, phones to email.  IT departments have had to shed the overprotective,  “can’t do” attitude of the 1990s and become enablers and innovators of change – in no small part down to increasing digitisation and the influence of “disruptive” millennials coming into the work place.

I enjoy IT. There, I said it.  It’s great when it’s done well – it can help (non IT) businesses make more money and get things done.

Stepping Out.

Over the past 2 years I’ve been spending my evenings working on a project with a business partner which over the last year grew to a point where it generated enough profit that I could leave the “security” of employment, which I did in October 2016.  Whilst I have retained some IT consultancy, my primary focus is now that new venture.

Leaving full-time employment in IT, has also meant stepping out of the IT cupboard – whilst I (obviously) run the IT side of the new venture, I now have to run the operations of the business too; but importantly (for me) I’m starting to work on selling too.

My previous roles always included client facing work, but never working on new business directly. Fortunately my business partner is from a sales background and his experience and hard work has allowed us to get here; but now I want to use the time previously occupied by employment wisely and aggressively grow our new venture.

I’ve joined a business network and started going to various events to get “out and about.”  Building my name, brand and learning to soft sell..  2017 will be a great adventure!

 

Success: It’s Made From Swiss Cheese

I have a non-professional personal interest in aviation – I fly helicopters for a hobby. Part of that draws me to reading accident reports (mainly from the UK AAIB) so that I can try and make sure I don’t make the same mistakes that others have made.

Of course, there are lots of anecdotes and theories out there about safety in aviation and how accidents come to be; but one has become widely accepted and used in industries outside of aviation:  The Swiss Cheese Model.  Much to the annoyance of risk managers and accident investigators, I’ll over simplify it:

The end result of an accident rarely happens because of one single failure. Instead it happens because of a series of failures which alone are not enough to result in the accident, but when combined in the right order (the holes line up) you get the accident.

Risk managers and the like will describe each layer of the cheese (with a hole in) as a defence against an outcome you don’t want.

But What If You Do Want The Outcome?

I’ve been thinking a lot about success lately, what defines it and what gets you there (in no small part thanks to visiting Cmdr Chris Hadfield and listening to him talk).  We use the Swiss Cheese Model and we assume the outcome is negative and something we don’t want… but what if we turned that around and at the end it was the outcome we wanted; it was our success.

Once you’ve defined your idea of success you need to get there. Sadly very, very few people get there instantly (and even if you could, would there be the same sense of achievement?).  Instead we work at it.

What we really do is make a series of small decisions and eventually they should all line up like the proverbial Swiss Cheese.

Lining Up The Holes.

Making the decisions (the hole in each slice of cheese) is the easy bit – we can all make a decision.  What we need to do, to complete my analogy, is make sure we’re making the right decision and that it lines up with where we want to be… does it line up with our aim, our desired outcome?

Swap Hazards & Accident for Decision & Success.
Swap Hazards & Accident for Decision & Success.

When we’re making those decisions, choosing which hole in the cheese we want to take a path through, we have to do so knowing our ultimate aim:  make sure we chose the hole which fits with our strategy.

For example: If we’re implementing a Windows ERP solution and need to select a web server then we need to bear in mind our strategy is Windows and we’re building that skill base; an Apache server may not help the holes line up!

Each small decision lines up our Swiss Cheese slices – the culmination of those slices (decisions) is the result we want.

 

I Was Wrong About Gamification: It Works.

What feels like way back in early 2012 I was still dabbling with a little bit of coding from time-to-time and scoffed when Microsoft announced that they were bringing the XBox to their Professional development environment, Visual Studio.

VSAchievmentUnlocked

Visual Studio Achievements, as the plug in for Visual Studio was called, meant that developers could ‘Unlock Achievements’ and take part in leader boards to exhibit their prowess in particular areas of Visual Studio.  They could even share their achievements on social media, their blog and in a public leader board.

This was part of the emerging trend of Gamification – the act of taking game like characteristics such as point collecting, leader boards and the like, and applying them to other areas.  This was (and still is) spilling over from digital marketing, where it’s proved a very effective marketing tool for big and small brands alike.

My background has always been in Line-Of-Business application development, and predominantly for engineering or process-orientated companies: I worked in what I regarded as ‘the grown up world.‘  I didn’t like this approach and didn’t see how it would encourage quality code – although I could see how it would increase quantity.  It seemed like the ‘dumbing down’ of the business world, and where would it end?

Gamification – I Was Wrong & It’s Addictive.

I was wrong, and I may even be a convert. While I don’t use Visual Studio as a daily tool any more, so VS Achievements doesn’t apply to me, I do use a To Do List tool called ToDoIst to help me manage the tasks I have to do and remember those coming up.

I started using ToDoIst because it had some great reviews in some productivity blogs I happened to be reading at the time, it is easy to add tasks to, you can add them to ‘projects’ and it works easily across various devices.  I soon became addicted and it earned its place as a pinned tab in Firefox next to GoogleApps and Trello.

Then I noticed the ‘Karma‘ tab at the top.  It was gamifying my to-do list.  You get karma points for adding tasks to the list, more karma points for completing them and there are even achievement levels for karma. I found myself checking this often – it’s a really handy, easy measure of how productive I am being!

ToDoIstKarma

The real killer for me though, was the ‘Last 7 Days’ and the ‘Streak’ function.  You can set a target number of items to get done each day, tell ToDoIst what days you work and it’ll tell you whether you’re hitting that goal – and it’ll keep a track of how many days in a row you’ve done that.

Once you get on a roll and get a few days in a row when you’ve hit your target, you really don’t want to drop out, and you want a longer streak.  My record is 9 days – but I’m not doing so well this week! DailyStreak

So, I’ll have to admit: When presented well gamification can be great motivation.

It’s just evolution though…

That got me thinking about what was really going on… is gamification really any more than an evolution of the long established industrial / business tool of ‘visualisation’.   In factories and process businesses across the world, output and problem visualisation is a core component of getting the most out of the process – it dates back decades and is linked to The Toyota Production System’s concept of Jidoka.

andonBoard

Jidoka is the second of the two core principles of TPS and relates to the stopping of work as soon as a problem occurs (thus eliminating root cause as early as possible and increasing quality).  In manufacturing environments, Jidoka normally manifests itself as a production board which shows the problem when it occurs, but in normal running those boards (called Andon boards) display output… much like my ToDoIst Karma graphs.  I can see a problem immediately: my graph drops off and I’m not being productive – the root cause is harder to find though!

Could Gamification just be the application of Jidoka and Visualisation to non production / process work?

HM Revenue & Customs Logo

HMRC Anonymous Data? Be Careful…

This weekend we awoke to hear of plans by Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (the UK tax authority, akin to the IRS in the USA, but with more power) to start selling anonymised tax data where doing so “would generate clear public benefits, and where there are robust safeguards in place.”

Although there is no formal announcement on the HMRC news section, you can see some of the press coverage on The BBCThe Guardian or The Telegraph.

You’ll see that one of the Government’s own MPs has described the plan as “borderline insane,” a tactic no doubt employed to garner some headlines and ensure that his opposition is well known; especially given the likely public reaction and HMRCs not-all-to-great record on data protection. But is it that insane?

Setting aside the plans to sell the data, and the slightly more nuanced debate that the sale of public data brings (and of course the OpenData / Data.gov movement) I’d like to concentrate on the anonymisation of the data which HMRC might be proposing to use, and just how flawed that can be in the age of Big Data and Cloud Computing.

It is likely the proponents of the HMRC plan will assure the general public that their data won’t be identifiable and the principle of tax-payer confidentiality will be upheld… Well, it turns out that’s really hard to do!

Re-Identification

Anonymous MaleRe-identification is the process of taking a dataset which is believed to have been anonymised of any personally identifiable information and by means of processing or data-matching re-establishing the personally identifiable information (PII) with some level of confidence.

In practice this generally means combining other publicly available information with the ‘anonymised’ information in a data-matching / ‘jigsawing’ exercise.  Historically this was hard, processor intensive work which could take days or weeks and thus was usually cost or time prohibitive – even with just one data set to combine.

However, the advances in ‘Big Data’ over recent years, combined with the scalable power of cloud computing, mean that multiple data sets could be combined in a matter of moments – making the re-identification of data not only possible but also practicable.

An often-quoted example of this process is when Netflix first released some anonymised usage data as part of the Netflix Prize was combined with IMDB reviews (and thus IMDB user names). It was possible to identify the user who had watched the Netflix movie, then link that to their IMDB review based on the time – a seemingly innocuous data point in the Netflix set. By then reversing this process it was possible to take the IMDB reviews and user names and come up with a complete listing of films watched by each user. More information on that here.

This was with two data sources – IMDB and Netflix Anonymised Data. Imagine if the researchers here had then added in social media data, perhaps by looking for similar user names, or perhaps looking for posts containing the films name around the correct time – something not that complicated to do with Big Data and Cloud tech. It would have been comparatively easy to go from anonymised film usage data to a picture, name and social media details of the person watching it, along with their recent film history.

Just think of the consequences if the same happened with your tax data!

What Do We Do?

Of course, we all want open data, don’t we? But if we get scared by the possibilities like those above, we’d never release any data. A similar recent debate in the UK formed around government plans to allow research based on NHS medical records – Care.data. Fundamentally few people would disagree with using existing medical knowledge to try and improve care for the future, but medicine is complicated and you need a lot of data about an individual person to do that reliably. So, anonymised data would help, and surely we all want better health for our future generations (and maybe even us!).

Obviously we have to be careful HOW we anonymise data. The devil is in the detail. As data professionals we can take obvious steps to anonymise data effectively against the threats we know about at the time we anonymise it. We also look to anonymise data down to the lowest level needed to provide meaningful data for research & development, social good etc – perhaps by aggregating data into groups (for example postcode area SW1A rather than SW1A 2, or even SW1A 2AA – Downing Street).

The problem comes, as with most information security, that there will always be someone with more knowledge, more skills or a stronger, often nefarious, desire to break the defences put in place to protect that information. This is the “motivated intruder” attack. It is our job to protect against this as best we can when we anonymise data – it’s a higher standard than “can a reasonable person link data.”

Motivated Intruder Test

So, when anonymising our tax data, HMRC must think of the motivated intruder. In fact, The Information Comissioner’s Office details this exceptionally well in the Code Of Conduct for Anonymisation. HMRC will have to think about some, all, and hopefully more than the following:

  • What other information is out there?
  • What other information could be “jigsawed” with the tax information?
  • What information they release:
    • Can they aggregate without losing utility of the data?
    • What data points are in it which may help to identify a person?
    • What could the data be used for?
  • How difficult (and therefore likely) is it to use this data?

Some of these will be very hard to answer, or even unknown to HMRC. They are the realm of specialists who devote their whole professional life to this sort of question. It’s just like any other form of Information Security – you don’t know what you don’t yet… so best ask someone who does nothing else.  Actually, ask two people – or better still 20.

When we launch a new website, or service, or even maintain an existing one, the prudent amongst us employ the services of at least one (sometimes many) security consultancies to “penetration test” them. They use all the techniques they know how to try and break in / break the service. Anonymised data should be no different – HMRC must test their data sets with as many 3rd parties as possible and they should make those results public to instill confidence.

The publification of anonymised tax records could be very useful for so many aspects of life, some commercial, some social – but the potential harm of doing it incorrectly is huge and the risk of doing so is high. HMRC would be wise to tread very carefully and walk very slowly into this one.

Return After Hiatus.

It’s been over two years since I posted a blog entry on here and for the bulk of that time the blog itself was taken down from the internet (yes I’m aware nothing really disappears).

I took it down back in 2011 as I engaged in a lengthy legal battle with my former partner over custody of and access to my son.  Everything possible was being dragged up and thrown at me, in a spate of underhand and unnecessary tactics.  It wasn’t a happy period of time – no two reasonable people should resort to what we both did.  I won’t be dwelling too much on my little man, or my personal life, now the blog is back; but I thought I should explain why it went away.

Now I’m Back….

I should probably explain the inspiration for being back, seeing as I’ve explained the rationale for being away.  It is, as described:  Inspiration.  I do some work with the Duracell bunny that is Warwick Tweetup, and his partner in crime Jo’s Correctional Facility – and the energy from both of them is contagious.

If you take that and combine it with the fact I feel I have something useful to add these days, and take inspiration in content form from some of the blogs I enjoy reading (particularly Maria Langer’s ‘An Eclectic Mind’ – a great mix of Aviation and real life from the USA!) – I wanted to get back on with blogging.

As you’d expect, an awful lot has changed in the intervening two years; including my life and my little bit of the world.  I’m older, and hopefully a little wiser – I’m certainly a little more reflective before reacting to anything.  One little snippet I learnt along the way:

“Will it matter in a year?  If not, then it probably doesn’t matter now.”

With that mantra in mind, I intend to start blogging again probably on a more professional and business based basis than before; although still with a heavy hint of aviation!

For now I’ve just restored the old site, as was and upgraded WordPress – but over the next month or so I am going to tidy it up (looks and content), and ensure everything is linked properly to my social media bits and pieces, and then try and think of something interesting which you can all read!

It’s good to be back.

Be The Solution – Corporate Tweetings

I normally have a strong distaste for “motivational” expressions, witticisms, insights and the like; especially those sent down from above in the form of managerial nonsense.  I distrust them and often wonder who on Earth actually reads, believes and tries to live by them.

However, this week I have been reminded of the importance of one such little gem.  The gist of it is

Be The Solution, Not The Problem.

This maxim, this veritable pearl of wisdom applies especially to customer service environments, or when dealing with a customers problem.  It’s hit me twice this week; once including a good use of Twitter!

Sky.

I recently ordered Sky HD for my apartment, but the engineer was unable to put a dish up on the gable end of my building (right next to an existing dish) because Sky have changed their rules on laying out long ladders on the ground and “flipping them” up against the wall. However I can get a single feed from a communal aerial socket.  This leaves me with half working Sky+, I can only watch & record one channel at a time.

I like Sky and prefer it to Virgin Media and am minded to keep it, but it feels a little unfair to be paying full price and only getting half the service.  I emailed Sky customer services and suggested that if they gave me my HD package for free, or at least reduced, I’d keep my subscription rather than cancelling it as I am entitled to do in my cooling off period.

To me this makes good sense for Sky.  They’ve spent some money sending out an engineer and providing equipment.  At full price they would get £35.25 from me a month.  If they gave me the HD pack for free this would be £25.  If I cancel they get £0 and have lost money installing it.

The response I got was clearly from a foreign call centre and simply restated my problems with additional explanation of how Sky+ worked.  No solution, or even a direct answer to question.  I emailed back and asked for an answer from someone who understood what I was saying.

I got a flat refusal.  It was “Sorry, no can do, cancel if you want.

Twitter.

This morning I saw a friend beating up Sky Customer Services (@skyhelpteam) on Twitter, so I thought I’d have a moan and ask if they wanted to retain my custom; expecting the same “No, cancel if you want; we’re not giving you discount.”

Not what I got.   They didn’t address the issue of discount, but they have offered to get another specialist engineer out to me to try and get a dish up.

It’s really refreshing when large companies with millions of customers take the time to use Twitter in such a way.  It must be more efficient for them too, as I haven’t tied up a call centre for 10/15 minutes explaining; the 140 character limit keeps it succinct.

Who knows if he or she will be able to get the dish up, but I am very impressed with Sky for at least trying to offer a solution.  I really hope it works, as I’d rather have it working than discount… but if it doesn’t and I can’t get discount I’m a little more likely to stay with them because of one little act of “can do.”

Apply some “can do” to your life today!

NTFS on a Mac

Seagate 500Gb USB Hard Drive
Seagate 500Gb USB Hard Drive

I recently bought a 500Gb external hard disc drive for the purpose of backing up my iTunes collection, which isn’t covered by TimeMachine.  I also hoped to use it with my Windows 7 laptop so I could take it away with me and have all my films to watch (albeit not in iTunes).

That being the case I opted for a mobile disc which doesn’t require power.  It’s been a long time since I bought one of these, and the last time I did the biggest you could get was 160Gb – now you can get 1Tb +.  I paid a little over the odds by shopping locally rather than ordering on line, because I wanted it quickly before I went away for a week skiing – I was hoping to take my films with me.

Without thinking I just plugged the disc into the Mac and started copying across everything from the disc which my iTunes is on, and downloaded an app to keep these two volumes in sync whenever I plugged the portable external disc in.  Super!

File System

What I had totally forgotten to consider was the file system which the disc would use.  MacOSX formatted the drive as HFS+ which is a system which isn’t readable in Windows 7.  So all the files I had copied (about 300Gb) were useless on my PC.

As most of the machines I encounter are generally PCs I decided I’d rather have the disk as NTFS.  However this is only readable on a Mac, you can’t write to it as standard.  A bit of research revealed various blogs (here & here) which suggested installing something called MacFUSE and then NTFS-3g.  However it seemed these were a bit of an “effort” by a Google employee and weren’t supported anymore and a little hard to get hold of.  Not really ideal to trust your data to.

The websites where NTFS-3G should have been in turn pointed me to Tuxera – a commercial offering. It is priced at a very reasonable €25 per person (IE if you have 3 macs you can install it on 3), but had a trial offering which was fully featured but time limited.  This is surely the best approach to trialware, as I like to check something really does work before paying for.  It does!

All I can see is that after a reboot (which the installer suggested might not actually be needed) this software works a treat and is very quick.  Can’t recommend it enough…  Tuxera NTFS For Mac.

HI Air

Don’t Airlines Normally Have Aircraft?

The BBC recently ran a story entitled “The Worlds Youngest Airline Boss at 17” – and it obviously caught my eye.  It’s a short video about a young man called Joseph Hayat who has set up Hayat International Airways.  While I don’t want to berate what this young man has achieved, but it is clear to me he is considerably better at courting the media than he is at running an “airline.”

The BBC really let themselves get had in here.  Hayat International Airways is not an airline.  It owns no aircraft, leases no aircraft, employs no pilots, has no Air Operators Certificate – oh and also has had no passengers. Or Customers.  By their own admission.

What it is, is a charter broker.  A middleman between an aircraft operator (with an AOC, an airline) and someone wanting to charter an aircraft.    Surely it is obvious it’s not an airline, and certainly does not operate “International Airways.”  What Mr. Hayat has done is set up a website with some pictures of planes & get some media interest; and very well done he has too – it’s certainly raised his profile.  I hope it doesn’t pan out as another Varsity Express – the over ambitious talk of a young man!

I would love to write more about this, but I am off to become the worlds youngest boss of a bank (admittedly I don’t yet have a banking licence, any money or any customers – perhaps the BBC can help me?).

Two Days In Madrid

It’s been quiet around here for the past couple of weeks as I have been on holiday and I purposefully didn’t go on the computer very much at all while away…  and some kind soul in Portugal even helped me with my “de-tech” by relieving me of my iPhone by way of theft on the first day!

Setting aside the iTheft, I spent a few days in Portugal and some time in Madrid & Ibiza.  I had a great time; Ibiza & Albufeira were exactly as I expected – typical holiday resorts.  Madrid however was amazing.

The City That Never Sleeps

Except on a Monday. Madrid has a reputation as Europe’s New York, it never sleeps – it’s famed for Spaniards rolling out of night clubs and into work; sleeping at lunch time and starting all over again.  So, I arrived late on a Monday evening and was surprised to be told by the taxi driver that at 1AM nearly everywhere was closed; Monday is apparently a day of recovery from the weekend.  I contented myself with a beer from the hotel bar and hit the sack.

The following day I was sat in Plaza Mayor (the old main square), having a well earned drink after some exploring when a group of Segway’s rolled past.  You don’t see Segways very often in the UK because they are illegal to use on public roads (because our arcane traffic law has no way of classifying them), so they caught my eye.  The lead rider had a high visibility vest on, advertising City Tours on Segways….  what an absolutely genius idea.

Seg City Tours.

After a bit of research on line, the tours are organised by a firm called Seg City, so I thought I would take a walk down there and find out a bit more.  Jan, the owner, was super friendly and explained that they don’t normally do single person tours (I was travelling alone) but would try and fit me on another tour the next day.   He took my number, and text me later in the day to confirm a 10AM start the next day.

The Segway i2
The Segway i2

I was leaving at 5PM the next day, so figured it’d be a brilliant way to spend the bulk of the next day.  I wasn’t wrong.  The tour was nothing short of amazing.  I was paired with a Spanish family of 4, and we did the 3 hour full tour, on a fleet of new Segway i2’s, led by Jan.  Jan is incredibly knowledgeable about Madrid, and really keen to share the city with us.

I’d never ridden a Segway before (in fact I am not even sure I had seen one in the flesh), so the tour started with 10 or 15 minutes of getting accustomed to them outside the SegCity office, which is thankfully on a really quiet street only minutes from the Anton Martin Metro station.  They are so easy to ride, you just lean in the direction you want to go – the only “odd” bit is when the in built safety system kicks in and pulls back, this happens if you’re going too fast on rocky ground or up hill, but is fine when you get used to it.

After that we were off.  The tour is so much better than similar open top bus tours because you are taken through all of the back streets and get to see and find out about loads of the local background knowledge too!  I would say that a good 50% of the places we stopped at were not accessible by road and certainly weren’t in any of the guide books I had read.  As a side product, you also become a bit of an attraction as not many people have seen Segway’s before – loads of people say hello and ask the tour leader about it.

Seriously – if you’re going to Madrid; do this tour.   You won’t find a better way to see the city!  My only regret was that because my phone had been pinched I didn’t have a camera to take any photographs with.

Time Sink.

Or Facebook as it should be known…

This week I have been particularly productive, or at least I think I have.  I seem to have got an awful lot of tasks done, including some which have been on my list of jobs for quite a while.  It’s self fulfilling though – the old adage “if you want something doing, ask a busy person” seems to have applied.  While I have had lots to do I have been adding extra things to my list and constantly working through them.  I currently only have 2 emails in my Inbox, which I tend to use as a list of stored up jobs.  I have even been chasing down “sniffs” of new work from customers.

The reason for this apparent productive spell:  avoiding Facebook.  This may seem like stating the obvious, but Facebook appears to be a massive time waste (not a waste of time), in that you can inadvertently spend a lot of time achieving not a lot on it.  There have been various studies in to this sort of thing, and the bulk of the opinion seems to agree with my experience – although there are those that say it adds to productivity (I totally fail to see how).

So, with my self imposed Facebook ban during the day, am I missing out on anything?  Nope.  But this is the feeling that Facebook wants you to have, it’s addictive.  I might pop on it briefly on my phone if I am walking somewhere, or reply to a friend on it very quickly during the day, but other than that no browsing of it; and guess what?  Everything is still there when I have a look when I get home in the evening.

Interestingly Twitter doesn’t have the same effect on me, I still watch my twitter timeline during the day and this hasn’t affected productivity at all.  I think this may be because it’s much more concise and you can “skim read” it quickly and move back to the task you were doing!

So, if you want to increase your productivity then avoid Facebook -it’s a time sink.    Also avoid putting something off:  “I’ll deal with that later,” means it’ll get forgotten!

Anyone else have any time management / productivity tips?