Friday, November 26, 2010

I've Got You Under My Skin

If there's one thing that irks me more than anything else in the Information Technology field, it's the attitude of "Hey, as long as there are all these problems, I'll have a job, right?"

To me, that is wrong on just so many levels.  First of all, do the support personnel, developers, and the entire industry around them actual believe that this is what's best for their customers, or even for their bottom line?  Forget personal satisfaction for a job well done, hell even forget professional pride for being able to solve the real problems users have.  Is this really about "as long as my needs are met, I'll keep doing the same ineffective things"?  Okay, so everyone out there, yours truly included, wants to keep their job and remain gainfully employed.  But there has to be a better way!

Since everyone seems to relate to car analogies, let me try one of my own here.  You have a car that maybe randomly accelerates, and braking doesn't effectively stop it.  Or maybe under certain circumstances turning on the left turn signal while turning the steering wheel to the right will cause the gas tank to explode (in very rare instances, of course).  Well, being a common technician, let's see if we can come up with what would be a standard answer -- a workaround, or a patch that will make the situation work in spite of these flaws.  In the first scenario, if the car starts to accelerate uncontrollably, just shift the gears into neutral; you'll probably blow out your engine, but the car will come to a safe halt and you can then take the issue up with the manufacturer to get things all fixed up again.  In the latter situation, it's even simpler:  don't turn your steering wheel right while you have your left turn signal on; it's a rare problem anyway, so it's best to just avoid doing that.

How does this relate to the IT industry?  I'm sure any techs out there have already made their own parallels.  But here's one:  "My computer keeps getting infected with malware of one sort or another, and I keep my antivirus, firewall and antispyware up-to-date.  What do I do?"  What do you do with a rash of malware seemingly targeting some users?  Tell them to stop visiting "those sites"?  Maybe it's not the sites they visit, or the company they keep.  Maybe the problem is the software they use to do what THEY choose to with THEIR computer.  But it keeps us techs employed, cleaning up their messes, so no alternatives are usually given.

Which gives me a nice segue way into security.  Large institutions tend to try make their network secure, by limiting the number of outside access points they have, or by making access without a properly-authenticated computer difficult.  It doesn't matter if this can effectively make some computing equipment useless; at least everything is secure, and hey, it's another problem so it keeps someone employed, right?  What about new equipment or software that doesn't fit the security standard?  Should that just be forbidden and never allowed?  What about non-standard software that doesn't function properly within this "secure" environment?  Don't turn right while signaling left...

I think it's high time for the IT industry as a whole to quit looking at the "bottom line" and actually start providing solutions to user problems.  There are more than enough of those to keep all of us employed for many years to come!  And just think of what progress we'll make!

What irks you about the hardware and software that intrudes into your life?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Take the Ubuntu Challenge!

In a blind taste test, 4 out of 5 users couldn't tell the difference between Kubuntu and Windows Vista.  Okay, so this wasn't a very scientific survey, but it goes to show one important point: people will use what they have in front of them and as long as it looks new and shiny they'll take your word for whatever claims are made about the product.

Well, I'd like to try something similar, but with you, the survey participant, being told up front: this ain't your daddy's OS. We're talking Linux here, Ubuntu to be exact, and I'm throwing down the gauntlet.  I dare any Windows user out there to try Ubuntu for a solid 30 days and report back.

There are enough resources and support forums available that you should be able to meet just about every need with either the same ease as your current operating system or better. And for the skittish, I can even suggest a way to get through the month without partitioning your hard drive: use  to download everything you need to boot right from a USB drive. No commitment necessary, and if you decide to keep your new environment, the installer is right there waiting for you.

So go ahead, try something different. The only thing you have to lose is Windows...


Thursday, September 30, 2010

School Daze

It is ironic that just the other day, I forwarded a "reminder" link to my boss, mentioning the success of another school district in adopting open source and Linux (and on further inspection, I actually sent info on the wrong district -- this was yet another that had adopted open source and Linux successfully).  Today, I ran across this blog post, and it has refreshed my confidence in all that is open source and that it is the right way to do things within a public institution.

In researching this post, I found that quite a lot of B.C. school districts are taking the step of adopting Linux and open source as their computing environment of choice.  So the question stuck in my mind (as it has been for over a decade now) is why does my school board make more use of Linux and open source; not just for savings, but for the expanded options it gives to the end users: the students.  Now, I know first hand there are a lot of users in a school board that need computers, but you have to remember, without the students, what the heck are they doing?

To me it just makes sense to build the whole ecosystem around acceptance.  Really, it's not unlike including French in the curriculum, or even the grudging acceptance of Macs, netbooks, iPods, iPads and other gadgets into our computing environment.  Linux adds diversity and provides options the vanilla Windows experience can't touch.  Using Linux can help students (and teachers, and administrators, and even us techs) see things in a different light.  I'm not saying it's a problem-free environment -- it still has a ways to go, just like any other operating environment -- but the problems are different and how you go about fixing them, coping with them or discovering different options to provide the same function are miles from any other environment.

We have run a pilot project to test out how well the Linux Terminal Server Project works (using the Ubuntu implementation, Edubuntu).  It has been running for 5 years on the same hardware, and just this year someone thought to buy a few new PCs and netbooks for the classroom of 15-20 students (on average).  Maintenance is generally the security updates run at the beginning and end of a semester and the "start-up" creation of user accounts.  All other computer service calls to this location are to support the Windows-based teacher laptops.

I'd say this project is a start, but it's been forgotten about.  It works out too well, so it doesn't get any attention.  When it became time to add the new equipment to the classroom, the suggestion was to just put our basic Windows image on the computers and leave it at that.  I just don't get why the acceptance of any alternative is that difficult, even when it's been working so well.

Can anyone enlighten me?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Much Ado About Nothing

It seems politics trumps technical decisions no matter what you try. Regardless of my attempts to automate anything, it was never an option. Our goal, as it turns out, had been to automate the process I was looking into; politics has stagnated that process. Maybe one day I will detail what went on and explain the whole thing, but for now I think things are best left alone.

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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Courting Disaster

Sometimes it just seems I don't know when to leave well enough alone.

Like when I know a process can be automated and can't see a good reason not to. I don't consider things like cost, or job security; I tend to think about making life easier through the removal of redundant, repetitive tasks.

And other people don't always see eye to eye with my way of thinking.

If you could cut hour of manual labour out of your job today and in the long run it would save your company money, you'd want to do it, right? I know I'm being vague here, but I'm dealing with a real world situation that probably has more variables than I'm seeing.

And I don't want one of those variables to include a reprimand for stating my opinion, no matter how logical. Is it really that important to play politics with the people you work with at the expense of improving the technological well-being of your customers?

Hell, I'm going for it, so let's hope this system works. Maybe more details after successful implementation - or the reprimand.

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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Ordinary People

You and I, we're not like ordinary people. From my experience, ordinary people don't read blogs, let alone even know what they are.

Ordinary people just want to live their lives, use their computers to keep in touch with friends, scan the news, maybe even do some work -- or play games. A computer is just another tool, the Internet their workshop (or playground) and life is no different for ordinary people than when kids used to play outdoors until after dark and you could leave your doors unlocked at night.

But we, dear readers, are not ordinary people. We know that if you let your guard down, the mainstream media misses the important stories. We know that the e-card cousin Jan sent was actually a virus, and that Bill Gates is not, in fact, tracking your email to send you some of his fortune.

Please, do not bring this post to the attention of ordinary people; it would probably offend their sensibilities. They'll look at you like you have two heads and say, "What the heck was that all about?" Ordinary people get to live their lives in the comfort zone the rest of us allow them. You know who you are, you've come this far.

And if you still think you're an ordinary person, think about me while you're cleaning up after that next virus, or removing spyware embedded so deep it IS the operating system. Ordinary people. Yeah.

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