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Monday
Jul262010

Is the Pandemic a bust like Y2K?

Is the Pandemic a bust like Y2K? A real problem that didn’t happen?



 

Over the last year we have been inundated with messages about the Swine Flu, H5N1. One needs to be vaccinated, one needs to be prepared. Is your family ready, is your business ready? What will you do if the flu strikes? What will you do if you can’t work, infrastructure breaks down? Hmm? What will you do?

Sounds like a bad insurance ad. Well, last year’s flu season has come and gone….and by gosh, the world didn’t come to an end and there were no Monty Python-like scenes of bodies in the streets with shouts of bring out your dead. OK, so I exaggerate but only a little. To listen or read the public health information, the picture painted was dire. Many of us got vaccinated or at least got our children vaccinated.

Thoughts of the Bird Flu or Swine Flu and Pandemic motivated many to action. On the positive side, families got vaccinations, schools and businesses worked to educate and improve health practices. What practices? Like teaching kids to sneeze into their elbow and not sometimes catch it in a little hand. Same for adults. Washing hands thoroughly every time you even walk by a bathroom….and use soap (for the kids of course)

Also, the sale of hand sanitizer went through the roof. Many buildings have dispensers next to all the elevators and stairs.

Is hand sanitizer effective? At one time I used to work in a 30 + story building and was part of the life safety team for fire drills. At the rally point, I had a clipboard and staff rosters. I needed to account for my teams. With my ‘GO KIT’ I also had a bottle of hand sanitizer- a small one the first time, a bigger one the second time and HUGE one the third. Why? Figure there are about 200 people per floor, and you are on floor 20. Heading downstairs, you will put your hand on the railing that 4,000 people just touched. What a great way to spread a cold or other nasty bug. Just think of that, 4.000 people, itching, scratching, picking (ok gross, but you get the picture)

When my teams came up to check in I offered them some hand sanitizer. At first people we ‘nah I’m good.’ After the above scenario, now I see may people sharing a squirt from their own stash of hand sanitizer. Almost reminds me of college days and shots of schnapps. That would work as a sanitizer too and you could drink it <LOL>. Somehow I don’t think the HR folks would be digging that. Sure would improve everyone’s outlook on fire drills! I digress. 

Back in the late 90’s we were all made aware of the dire consequences of not taking action. Planes would from the sky, phones would not work, and everything would stop working. Well, Y2K came and went and nothing happened. Except, we spent a fortune improving infrastructure and testing testing testing with the result that Y2K was a non-event. Post January 1, people asked, “why did we spend that money?” Was it necessary? Would it really have been that bad if new didn’t spend that money?

 

  

The parallels with pandemic planning are interesting. Since the predictions of dire results from massive flu outbreaks failed to occur, the predictions are like crying wolf.

The problem is the government ramped up their Pandemic response plan and the pandemic failed to have the impact expected/predicted. Just like Y2K, everyone got hyped up, but Armageddon didn’t happen. The flu failed to cooperate.

It would be nice to say that this isn’t going to happen again. It will. The problem for emergency managers and planners is the public will be skeptical to act so soon after the Swine Flu outbreak of 2009-2010. The take away from this article is being prepared and aware will always be beneficial, it is never a waste of time or resources especially since these plans can be reused and recycled as needed.

Think it doesn’t happen, think again. I was vaccinated against the Measles in 1966. My mother actually had my records! The firm I was working for a few years ago was in the process of buying a smaller firm. During the course of due diligence, many site visits were conducted. Well, lo and behold, some of staff from the target firm had just returned from extended tours overseas in an area of the world that didn’t practice immunization as the US and much of the first world has. The company made a decision everyone in the building needed to either provide proof of immunization or get the shot now.

The firm had a flu/ pandemic/communicable disease plan. They didn’t need to think about a response. They had one ready to roll. The Business Continuity team presented it to senior management with the options. The management team had what they needed on a timely basis, well thought out with options. This allowed them to implement a measured response to the incident.


Regardless of event size, planning and practice will always be beneficial, even if a predicted ‘big event’ doesn’t turn out. While the Swine Flu of last season didn’t turn out to be as bad as anticipated, the H5N1 Avian flu is still building and could break out to be on the scale of the great Flu of 1918. Let’s hope not. Being prepared and aware is the best response.

This post was prepared by John Manning, Associate Partner at Harvard Partners.  

He can be reached at john.manning@harvardpartners.com

Sunday
Jul182010

Why Apple WINS

My coworkers like to gently rib me about my newfound appreciation for all things Mac.  It’s fun and I enjoy the teasing especially because I’m so often reminded of why Macs and other Apple products are so popular.  Here’s the most recent occasion.



Windows is obviously the OS of the business world and in some ways Macs still can’t quite cut it in the office, so I recently found myself buying Windows 7 Professional. Despite the $300 price tag I was excited to install it (yes, on my Mac via “Parallels”) and found the process simple.  Now, Window’s needs to be protected from evil people who write viruses so bundled with it comes antivirus software – I mean a “Security Suite.”  I don’t wish to slander the famous man (who perfected the smug, arms crossed, “I Have What You Need” look) or company producing this software so instead of calling it by name I’ll refer to it as “Trixie.”

I’m quite sure Trixie is a capable and invaluable product but like most things Windows it is often a royal pain in the backside.   Yes, I want to know I am “protected.”  Yes, I appreciate being told (constantly) Trixie is running in the background (continuously!).  YES, thank you Trixie for cleaning up those temp files where God knows what evil may lurk.  Of course, thank you, dear friend Trixie, for being ever present and in my face about every little thing you do for me and for slowing down my machine as you do it.  I realize I can ask my guardian Trixie to be less intrusive or obvious but have you actually tried to do it?  The point is I shouldn’t have to, it should just come that way.  

Trixie, Microsoft and many Windows-related products don’t understand many technologies should be ubiquitous and invisible.  Apple gets this hugely important notion and that’s why people who are new to Macs say they are so easy to use.  Think about your corporate network—or any network.  Good ones are just there and work.  They don’t tell me about how they are forwarding my packets or travelling long distances at light speed just to deliver my information, they just do what they are supposed to do.  Printing is another example (ok, except when the printer is jammed or out of paper).  I appreciate how powerful Windows tools can be but they should just work and not haunt me about every little thing they are doing.  It seems to remain important and relevant (read: something someone will pay for) Microsoft and its pals must make sure you know their software is there working its little kernel off.  So they tell you.  Constantly.

If all the meany virus authors got together and decided I’m sure they could cause serious problems for Macs, necessitating more significant “Security Suite” software to save us.  However, I’m equally sure Apple and its partner vendors would figure out how to do it with behind-the-scenes elegance that just works and doesn’t have to tell me about it all the time.  They get what Microsoft still doesn’t.

This post was prepared by Charles Kling, Associate Partner at Harvard Partners.

He can be reached on his Mac at charles.kling@harvardpartners.com

Monday
Jul122010

AT&T & Apple

A federal judge has thrown down the gavel at Apple and AT&T allowing a class action lawsuit to proceed against the two companies. Here are our thoughts.

Full disclosure: I am a technologist, not a lawyer. I am an AT&T (wireless) customer (because the service at my home is great), and have been from back in the day when AT&T stood for American Telephone and Telegraph and they ran wires (yes, wires) to everyone’s home. And they provided the devices at the end of the wires…actual telephones.




One would think there would be some antitrust lawyers still hanging around AT&T (the name resurrected by Southwestern Bell1), AT&T Wireless (formerly Cingular) and Apple because the current series of lawsuits makes it very reminiscent of the old days.

AT&T’s biggest saving grace may be it is a separate company from Apple, although words like “collusion” come to mind.

If you buy an iPhone, it only works on AT&T’s network. AT&T sells 2 year deals, and it’s our understanding there is a 5 year agreement between AT&T and Apple.

Apple is tightly controlling the applications on the iPhone. For a company priding itself on being open, they get a little persnickety when it comes to pesky competitors like Google using their device.

If your iPhone drops calls, is it the nifty new case antenna,


Or an AT&T network issue?

Or an AT&T capacity issue? One would think the production and sales forecasters at Apple would share projections with AT&T allowing AT&T to build out capacity on demand.

AT&T’s response is brilliant. Manage capacity by deploying wi-fi in congested areas (a good move), and raising prices.

Consumers have the ability to use other carriers is they are willing to carry extra devices. We’ve done this in our labs and it works fine….albeit with the drawback of needing a Tumi bag to carry all the accessories.


We’re not big fans of litigation and the associated costs. We are big fans of open markets.

So we believe the justice department may have some fun with this one. While separate companies, there’s a certain about of blending going on. Until the result is in years and years from now, we may be better watching “Will it Blend?” video, or using arguably less aesthetically appealing devices offered on other carriers. 

1 AT&T was “broken up” following the 1974 U.S. Department of Justice antitrust lawsuit against AT&T, United States v. AT&T, leading to a settlement finalized on January 8, 1982, where “Bell System” agreed to divest its local exchange service operating companies, in return for a chance to go into the computer business, AT&T Computer Systems. Effective January 1, 1984, AT&T’s local operations were split into seven independent Regional Holding Companies, also known as Regional Bell Operating Companies (RBOCs), or “Baby Bells”.

All logos and trademarks are the ownership of their respective companies. 

Tuesday
Jul062010

… but Macs don’t break

Let me begin by stating I have no bias as to what type of computer people want to use. For me, it’s about people having the right computer to do their jobs and to not have to ask me for support.

With that said, let me share a story of the first day at a new account. A colleague wanted to use his personal Macbook instead of the clients PC. The Macbook had MS Office and could easily connect to the client’s wireless network. The problems all started when the client provided us with a dedicated printer (HP LaserJet) for our use. After downloading drivers, the PC was able to fully able to use the printer while the Mac was unable to connect. This followed with the requirement of MS Project leading to the installation of Windows XP running on the Mac in order to run the application.

What was interesting were the number of people who thought I would be happy about a Mac not being able to perform the functions of a PC. Why do we still feel this way? Unless you are a support organization, what difference does it make?

These feelings stem from corporate PC support organizations. Over 20 years ago corporations began to purchase large numbers of PCs for their employees. Then, one day, someone brought in their Mac from home and wanted to use it in the office. They said it was much more productive for them and we (those providing PC support) were living in the Stone Age. The same thing happened when we selected BlackBerry’s as the corporate standard for PDAs. Within days from the announcement of the iPhone, users were asking why they had to use an antiquated device such as a BlackBerry.

So, why can’t establish desktop/laptop/PDA computing standards that allow multiple devices to be used? Progressive firms are considering allowing employees to “Bring Your Own Technology (BYOT)” to the office. Managing an environment of mixed hardware requires standards, processes, and support training designed to treat problems more in the abstract. The diagnostic process for resolving issues on any platform is the same. The problem is support people don’t follow the process. They tend to be so busy knowing how to solve the technical issue; they lose sight of the problem.

At the same time, I get pretty upset with support personnel who ask me 20 questions in order to understand what I could explain in one sentence. They are following a process in order to deliver a consistent set of information for problem resolution. Maybe I need to be a little more tolerant and practice what I preach.

Monday
Jun282010

Tradeoffs – Lessons for IT from the Gulf Disaster

Seeing a “Gulf Disaster – Tracking the Numbers” chart on CNN.COM this morning made me ill:


CNN.COM June 29, 2010, 9:00AM EST

As an engineer by training, and a lifelong technologist, I know there’s no good reason for the shortcuts taken by my fellow engineers on at BP.

And while the company is working feverishly to clean up their image, the Gulf area will take decades at minimum to recover:


BP Website

Think about systems in the rest of the world. In the following picture in a hospital ER room, there are


Picture by Author

a wide variety of systems working together in harmony and safely. There’s power, oxygen, vacuum, heart monitor, eye/ear devices, and the ubiquitous television (the TV is out of the picture, and the control is not.) And then there are mechanical systems (gurney, HVAC, structural, lighting, etc.) This picture was taken with a RIM BlackBerry, and sent to my hosted Microsoft Exchange email over the AT&T network.

By having solid designs and safeguards, these tools make the medical profession more effective and save lives.

When it comes to energy, we shouldn’t have to decide between oil or the environment. Engineers know how to do things safely. When shortcuts are taken (as is now being suggested in the Gulf), inevitably “bad” things happen.

Engineers are not infallible. Mistakes, or out of bound conditions do happen even to the best with disastrous results:


tokyo5.wordpress.com/2009/07/

As systems types, we are often “under the gun” to deliver things quickly. And with some planning, “just in time” philosophies, and some smarts, we can deliver!

When you are asked to make a professional compromise….consider alternatives to mitigate risks and achieve the objectives. And remember what can happen when risks are not mitigated.

Monday
Jun072010

Free WiFi – as a Public Service

Like the “all you can eat” buffet, wireless carriers are scrambling to change their menus to ala carte.

Soon, the one price covers all usage plans will be replaced with tiers offering a “pay as you go” approach.

Personally, I think this is subtlety devastating. Whether on a SmartPhone, PC or an “iWhatever”, the ability to capture large amounts of data to a remote device is on the increase.

I’ve been lured to watching the oil gushing from the bottom of the Gulf sea, waiting expectantly for the oil to stop leaking and hearing a neighborhood cheer in unison for the triumph of good over evil. And if one feed isn’t enough, BP offers 12 live feeds from their remotely operated vehicles: http://www.bp.com/genericarticle.do?categoryId=9033572&contentId=7062605

That’s more content than I get at my local Cineplex.

So as AT&T, Verizon and others begin ratcheting up costs and reducing my ability to affordably stay abreast of current events (or watch YouTube), what are we to do? Reach farther into our pockets during a challenging economic time to help AT&T?

I respectfully submit there’s a better way, and the Town of Brookline, MA is the working model. In a unique partnership the Town of Brookline offers residents free wireless on a merged wireless/public safety network.

 

Announced in 2007 this program has been working successfully allowing residents full access.

http://www.brooklinema.gov/index.php?option=com_content&task=blogcategory&id=275&Itemid=242

Here’s an example of a town well ahead of its time. Other towns are following suit (for example, parts of Boston are now “lit”.)

While a grass roots effort could be undertaken opening free wireless via home wi-fi, a coordinated approach would have better coverage and maintainability.

All towns should look into providing “free” wireless to their citizens as a value added service.


 

Wednesday
May262010

Robust Software

We use Microsoft Exchange as our email platform and purchase it as a service from a leading (and very large) hosting company. In general, it works well, but they do seem to have many small outages. Our clients also use Microsoft Exchange, but internally hosted. They do not seem to have as many outages.

As we see more-and-more people working from home (be they employees or consultants) we are challenged with maintaining a productive work environment. Downtime from telecom vendors and home PCs, software, and devices is high. All of those represent single points of failure and therefore a potential for outages. Consumers have accepted a lower standard of reliability than companies. How much time is wasted because software does not work properly?

Why should we be concerned with single points of failure?

Businesses invest a large amount of money in high availability to eliminate single points of failure. They do this to avoid user impact from a hardware or software failure. I fully appreciate the need for redundancy for hardware failures, but I can’t understand why we should have to pay for software companies’ inability to build software that will not fail.

Why build robust software?

I would postulate that software companies are not incented to prevent software from failing. We have come to accept a level of failure from all software and have also come to accept our software vendor’s weaknesses. We also accept that we should pay software vendors an annual maintenance fee (around 20%) to fix problems in their software. Shouldn’t they incur the cost of fixing those problems? Is it that they don’t make enough money?

In addition to maintenance fees, we (as buyers) are not willing to pay for more robust software, but we are willing to pay for more features. If you are a software company, where are you going to invest?

What can be done?

This is a wide-open question and one that is very difficult. In many areas quality standards are high or there is regulation protecting us. You don’t hear (too often) about medical devices failing or having bugs. That would be bad. There is now talk of more rigid testing standards for on-board computers in cars (post Toyota debacle). This is a good thing.

Software defects are only tracked internally by vendors. Wouldn’t it be great to see the count posted on their web site? Wouldn’t it also be great for software companies to admit when they have a problem? When was the last time Microsoft admitted it had a bug in a product. I remember working for a hardware vendor (years ago) where the acceptable level of bugs for release of an operating system was 10,000! Bringing transparency and awareness to the issue will help to make software companies accountable.

As consumers, all we can do is vote with our dollars. Unfortunately, our choices are limited. There is little, real, competition in the software industry.

There is one solution, Linux. Linux software is very robust, efficient, and functional. The reason for this is simple. Development and selection of features is a community process driven by consumers. Who wouldn’t put robustness, efficiency (small footprint), and cost as high priorities. They can’t be captured in a screen shot, but they make our lives more productive.

Monday
May242010

Back to Basics

The battery in my backpack sprayer doesn’t seem to hold a charge any longer. Trying to spray for weeds with a battery operated device with a non-functioning battery is a problem! Ordering the replacement exposed one IT organization’s weak customer focus.

Recognizing the battery was on charge over night and just wasn’t working any longer, I sat down for lunch on the deck at a favorite restaurant Saturday noon and did a quick Google search for a SHURFlo battery pack using my trusty BlackBerry 9700. Sure enough, one of my suppliers where I have free shipping has the battery in stock!

As much as I love the BlackBerry, I’ve used the browser enough to know it’s never a great experience trying to order over the browser. It’s not about security, it’s about the BlackBerry browser tending to be rather limited…and inevitably not working quite right (Apple has it right on the iWhatever, RIM isn’t in the same league.)

In any event, I decided to call Gempler’s and place an order by phone. After all, lunch hadn’t arrived, and I was heavy into multi-tasking.

After an extended hold (odd – it’s a Saturday), the representative from Gempler’s gets on the phone.

“I’m sorry sir, our systems are down for an upgrade. We can’t tell you pricing or availability.”

Hold on, the website shows the price as $42. Why can’t you see that?

“I’m sorry sir, I can’t see pricing or availability.”

At this point, getting an order through becomes sport. “Can you take an order?”

“Yes, I can’t tell you pricing or availability.”

“So, hold on. I can see pricing and availability (at least for quantity one) on the web. You can take an order and can’t tell me pricing or availability. We can work as a team to get through this, right?”

Pause. “Ahhhh, yes, I can take an order, I can’t tell you pricing or availability.”

We now know the back end processing for Gempler’s is separate from the web interface. We also know the IT staff at Gempler’s hasn’t planning for concurrent maintenance, instead preferring to take the production environment down for an upgrade.

I’m not in the business of selling “work stuff” like Gempler’s, and somehow a weekend in May sounds like a reasonable time to have an upgrade. What is unclear is how the IT staff could leave customer service so incapacitated.

There are many ways to avoid a situation like this. Upgrade the Disaster Recovery environment first, then use it as production. Let the Customer Service people use the web interface. Freeze one environment, and apply changes after the fact. Do the upgrade “after hours” or during a holiday when customer service is otherwise unavailable (Gemplers understandably doesn’t offer 24 hour live customer service.)

Full disclosure: Gempler’s is a good company I’ve otherwise regularly used happily. GEMPLER’S® is a division of GHC Specialty Brands, LLC (whomever they are.)

The Gemplers’ IT staff forgot Gempler’s is in business to service customers. The reason Gemplers’ IT exists is NOT to do upgrades during the day.

And imagine the irony when calling on Monday morning to check the status of my order (it is not showing up on-line) when the person at the other end of the call was…the same customer service rep! Yes, your order is placed! Great team effort.

Monday
May172010

Interpersonal Communications - an argument for Desktop Video

Here are my communications preferences in order:

  • Face to face
  • Video
  • Telephone
  • Email
  • Text
  • Social Media (Twitter/ Facebook)
  • Snail Mail

Call me a “high touch” kind of guy…and I personally value the ability to judge the non-verbals.

For years, business has been conducted face to face, telephone and email (for memorializing EVERY statement for latter retrieval instant retrieval.) Video was reserved for use in conference rooms, with very expensive equipment.

And not that long ago I had a Tandberg desktop video system…very pricey, great quality, and super for my calls to Hong Kong (where my friend William would enjoy breakfast as I was munching on dinner….obviously an arrangement suitable when people are comfortable with each other.

Today, I use Skype all the time. Skype allows simple low cost (free if you use an existing connection, and you’ll need a camera (standard in many laptops these days and speakers) video communications. What could be simpler?

By working remotely, yet staying in touch with Skype, a basic tenant of work mobility is attained.

With video, the non-verbals are apparent (my partner Matt does an expressive eye-roll easily seen on video…and conversely he can observe me staring out the window as I think about a comeback for something I’m reacting to….)

Skype is now in Beta for group video (a function competitor ooVoo already offers.) Group video allows a small team to work together and hold meetings. Desktop video offers a virtual alternative to having to be there for the staff meeting.

It also drives home the importance of a recent survey by Plantronics, the company producing the headsets used in many companies, about the adoption of Unified Communications, systems bringing together the full suite of communications, from online chat to Voice over IP to mobile technologies. The survey found the biggest companies already have Unified Computing strategies, with only two percent of the Fortune 1000 not considering it.

What often gets in the way is security. The Data Security people need to engage early and acknowledge cutting off the network may not be the BEST security profile. To the contrary, they need to understand how to allow advanced technologies in a secure manner.

Also, desktop video is a great way for keeping up with the kids at college. While their preferred method of communications is texting, checking in with video is a way to see how they are adjusting in college…or being Dr. Mom/Dad if the student has a cold.

Monday
May032010

Plug and Run 2

Why don’t software and services just work?

My friend Matt has decided to use Microsoft SharePoint as a collaborative tool in his business. The companies’ email provider offers SharePoint, but at a price far in excess of a large, well known company (did I say Network Solutions?)

Matt likes working weekends. It is his down time….and a perfect time to implement SharePoint.

Here we are Monday afternoon and it is still not working.

Why?

Matt is a sophisticated user. He can write code (sometimes the bane of my existence), and is very, very patient (a trait I want to learn!)

Matt has been on the phone with Network Solutions through the weekend. Their support clearly has scripts to follow, and sadly doesn’t seem to understand when the request is silly.

For example:

  • “What browser are you using?” IE 8.
  • “Please try a different browser.” Huh? Why? Does this make any sense?

Matt patiently searches the Microsoft site, applying knowledge base patches seeming to match. Network Solutions is on the hook to call back…and hasn’t so far.

Why is this so hard?

Personally, I wouldn’t have the patience…it should just work out of the box. Matt is paying for this service; it is not “free.” Obviously there is some subtle set up issue somewhere…

Is it possible Matt is the first to use SharePoint on Vista or Windows 7? Not likely.

Between Microsoft, who ultimately owns SharePoint, and Network Solutions, who is offering this a service, the code should just work.

Skype works this way… Oh yeah, it’s free. Maybe that’s Matt’s mistake.