Category Archives: 2700

Community Server and Feedburner

The discussion about knowing how many people read your blog was started the other day by James Green. I quite like the idea of waiting for people to tell me they’ve read my blog, or referring to it in their own blogs, or posting a comment on my own one. But feedburner can be useful too.

If you’re using Community Server as your blog engine (as I am), there’s a trick to this. First, you need to go to communityserver_feedburner the Syndication Settings page and look to see what the private RSS feed is. This is the one you tell feedburner to use. Then you should tell Community Server that you’re using an external RSS feed. On this same Syndication Settings page, you tell it your feedburner feed. Then anyone who’s subscribed to your normal feed will be redirected to the feedburner one, which in turn will redirect to the real one. No-one should really notice, except that you’ll start to have feedburner record that extra bit of information for you.

But it still doesn’t help tell you how many people read your blog through other aggregators, like TechTalkBlogs (which I really like, and use, but then people like James Green don’t see me as a subscriber).

And why is it actually quite important to have an idea about if people are reading your blog or not? Well, if you feel like your audience is a worthwhile one, then your quality of posts will improve, which will improve your audience, and soon you might be getting a laptop. Umm… I mean, soon you might find that you are a better writer, with a higher profile, more confident about your views, and generally stronger in your field.

Ok, who didn’t get an Acer laptop?

I was just looking at the list of some of the people who got these things.

In no particular order: Robert Scoble, Craig Pringle, Mitch Denny, Brandon LeBlanc, Scott Beale, Joey deVillaMauricio Freitas, plus a heap of others I’m sure.

Naturally I went to Wally McClure‘s blog, expecting to see that he got one too, but no!

Jay Furr, a friend of mine who was very much an A-list tech-community person way back also missed out. Jay is famous for being the person who first called unsolicited email ‘spam’.

Presumably anyone who’s employed by Microsoft is ineligible, so maybe His First Scoble only got his because he has left?

I think people should obviously write to Aaron Coldiron to let him know that these guys missed out!

Ok, I don’t think anyone should actually write to Aaron about it. But I do wonder what makes some people qualify and others miss out. Wally is certainly well known around the tech community, and many who were around in the early usenet days know Jay. I suppose a lot of it comes down to reputation too.

Reputation is an interesting thing. The MVPs are largely considered to have good reputations, and I’m sure that most of the people who got these laptops are MVPs. You can’t build credibility overnight, but many of these people will soon enter their fifth calendar year of blogging (2003-2007) and have probably found their way into many people’s reading lists. I only started blogging during 2005, and fully appreciate that I don’t have the same kind of sway as many of the bloggers out there. And I’m still more accessible via Msgr than newsgroups.

In conversations about the Acer laptops thing, I’ve started to wonder about magazines compared to blogs (because I think no-one would’ve complained if Microsoft asked someone to review Vista on a particular piece of hardware for a magazine article). If someone in my generation wants an answer to something, they will search the web for it, rather than look through magazines. On the other hand, a magazine is more likely to be read in an evening or on a bus. I read a lot on my PDA / phone, and happily convert PDFs into Reflow mode for that. I think online magazines are good, and increasingly, magazine subscribers are being given logins to read the information online. But if only subscribers can read them, then search engines don’t tend to find the data too well.

Blogs really are the new magazines, just like podcasting is the new radio, but it can be hard to find the good ones. I could add a new blog to my reader most days, but what I have trouble with is culling them. And even finding time to go through them! It’s like I need to set aside time each day just to go through them, and more to work out what is worth spending more time on. Ah – the joys of balancing professional development and the rest of life.

The only way to do a handover

Over the years I’ve seen a few people quit their job, and typically as soon as they hand in their notice, panic sets in as the person’s replacement is identified and a handover is done.

And how is a handover done? Essentially by pair programming. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a role that involves writing code or whether it’s a role that involves handling clients, or even making coffee. The handover is done by having two people sit at one desk for a period of time.

I say typically, because of course there are times when it’s handled differently.

I’m sure that when I leave my current role (or any role for that matter), there will be an element of handover that needs to be done – me explaining to people as many of those unwritten things that I can think of, in the fear (their fear, not mine) that after I’ve gone, things will fall apart because they can’t get at the information that I store in my head.

Luckily, I often can’t get at the information in my head either.

Don’t chuckle, I’m serious. And if you’re serious about your work, you’ll know that you can’t get at all the information in your head when you need it either. Otherwise you wouldn’t make project plans, or to-do lists, or write anything down. It would all just be there, able to be accessed whenever you needed it.

But the answer isn’t just to write everything down. Nor is it to store it in a database. 🙂 I think the answer is to write handover documents for everything you do as you do it. I don’t mean documenting every line of code, or every decision you make. That can be useful, but it doesn’t actually help when someone tries to do your job for a while. What you need is something which describes all those things that you do. Like an expert system. The “I’ve found a problem with this… where do I start looking?” kind of documentation. All that information you have (yes, in your head) that makes you the best person to do your job.

I know that skills can’t be written into a document. I’m not talking about skills. And in fact, you should be able to assume that the person who’s reading your documentation is skilled at what they do. So you probably wouldn’t need to explain why a particular control was used somewhere, but you do need to make notes of any quirks that you have come across with that control before. Not something that might get put into official project documentation (although it should), but definitely something that your successor would need to know.

So in my opinion (and of course your mileage may vary), the ONLY way to do a handover is to just give your successor a pile of handover documents and then wait for the questions. Every time there’s a question, your handover documents aren’t complete. You amend the document so that the answer to that question is in there, and the handover continues. As soon as you need to sit at the same desk, you have a problem. You’re passing on information that is in your head – using a medium (speech) which does not record easily.

Obviously this documentation needs to be kept up-to-date. Yes, I know this is a nightmare for all kinds of reasons, but if your documentation is suitable for a handover, then you need to be able to find it easily and make sure that anything that anyone may need to know to do your job is written in there. If you tweak something, write down why you tweaked it, so that someone else doesn’t untweak it. Or so that they can tweak it in a similar way another time. 

When I left my previous job, my successor didn’t remain at the company long after I left. So anything that I had told him didn’t remain either. The only thing that was left was stuff that had been written down. The company survived, and continues still today, but clearly the handover could’ve been done differently.

So why not practise your handover? If nothing else, you’ll be able to go on holiday without getting a phone-call. But hopefully when your boss realises that you are replaceable, they’ll sack you. I mean, promote you. Give you new responsibility without worrying that you’ll keep getting called back to do your old job. If you’re not replaceable, you’re not promotable. Of course, you might not get it right first time. You may find that you do a handover and that your documentation isn’t up to scratch, to the point that you get questions and need to amend those documents. Once those documents are done though, and you find that the people under you can cope just fine without you, then you can afford to get hit by that bus, or go on a holiday, without feeling like anyone needs to call you. And perhaps when you come back, areas of higher responsibility may have fallen your way.

Simulation questions in 70-431

Earlier this year I was one of four people who wrote a bunch of simulation questions for 70-431. Today I heard from someone who has sat the exam with that content in it. It’s great to get feedback on them, because it really helps Microsoft Learning work out how to improve the exams even more.

If you’re reading this and have done the exam with the simulation content, please feel free to drop me a line (rob_farley at hotmail.com)telling me what you thought of them. Don’t comment on my blog, because that’s public… but feel free to send me an email directly to let me know your thoughts. If you’re worried about non-disclosure, you can confirm I’ve done the exam myself by checking out my MCP transcript – use 707979 and Adelaide to get access.

On learning (Calvin and Hobbes, the ACS and digital natives)

Digital natives learn differently. How do we take advantage of that?

The funny thing is that right away, I’ve written this from an external perspective, when I’m probably in a mixture of both camps. Feel free to consider me in either camp as you read this.

At TechEd Australia this year, the keynote was from Anne Kirah. She talked about the concept of the digital native. That’s someone who has grown up in a technology culture, and therefore thinks differently to someone who has grown up in a non-technology culture and come into it. I was born in late 1974, and I grew up without being surrounded by technology, although at the age of 8 or 9 I got a C64 and started writing code, doing my homework on a computer, thinking about ways to use a computer in better ways, for better purposes. I’ve never really considered myself a geek, because I’m actually far more interested in people (although not how to use people in better ways for better purposes, <insert evil laugh> well, not really). But I do find the cross-over between technology and the rest of the world fascinating. I certainly enjoyed Anne’s talk a lot.

I’m also a fan of learning. If you have read my blog in the past, then you will appreciate that I have done a lot of Microsoft Certifications, I run a user-group, I have a few degrees, I’m generally a big fan of the whole learning experience.

But more than being addicted to learning, I’m very interested in the study of learning. My wife did part of a Bachelor of Teaching, and I really enjoyed having conversations with her about the different things that enabled or hindered a child’s ability to learn. Now, several years later, we have our two sons at a boys’ school, because we appreciate that boys learn very differently to girls, and that teachers seem to be far more able to cater for the boys in the class if there aren’t a bunch of girls in the class, accentuating the differences between the two.

Just as there is a difference between the way that boys learn compared with the way that girls learn, there is a difference between the way that ‘kids these days’ learn. And when I say ‘kids these days’, I largely mean ‘digital natives’.

On Thursday morning, I saw this Calvin and Hobbes cartoon strip. I apologise if I’m breaking copyright by posting this here – but hopefully you’ll all be inspired by this go and buy a book of C&H – it’s well worth the investment.

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Just like Calvin, digital natives hate the idea of sitting in school. I’m the same, with some differences. I love being in a learning environment. I’m very happy to go to a lecture. But I need to be able to ask questions. If I can’t have the learning experience be more like a conversation, I’m frustrated. People who were at the SQL Code Camp in Wagga Wagga earlier this month will have seen evidence of this.

At the ACS SA Branch AGM on Wednesday night, we heard Dr David Lindley talk about some of what he does in the Professional Development programs that the ACS run. He talked about the fact that the system they find very effective is to have people post opinions on matters, and then once everyone has submitted their ideas, the ideas become public (within the group) and people discuss them. Sounded like a blog to me, but David suggested that the differences are massive because the initial feedback on the post is from an appointed mentor, not the wide community. I really liked his opinions on learning through discussion though. I think the opportunity to learn is primarily through the discussion, rather than through submitting thoughts on a matter and then having them ‘marked’ by a ‘mentor’. I think a mentor should guide learning, but not necessarily teach. But more on this later.

A quick point about blogging. I think there’s a massive benefit to blogging from a learning perspective. When you write your ideas down, they solidify much more in your head. This is partly down to the principle that when you teach someone something, you have to know it so much better, but it’s more just that in writing it down, you see things from a different part of your head to when it was just a thought. But there’s more opportunity to learn from blogs, as I’ll write later.

Many digital natives are finding themselves getting into the IT space without first going through the university system. They grok computers already, and can’t see the relevance of sitting in lectures to learn things that may not be relevant to their careers. Their opinions about learning is based on what they know from school, and it’s just not cutting it (I can make similar arguments for God and the church – you don’t need to get me started on that to be able to quickly see the parallels). If you were to suggest that they enter any kind of formalised learning program, they’d laugh. These people are even against Microsoft Certifications, because they have become so prejudiced against learning because of school.

Let’s address Calvin’s problem first. He wants an environment where he doesn’t have to learn anything. Where there’s no teacher and no other kids. I’m sure when Bill Watterson wrote this strip, he wanted to list every aspect of school. His point would have been “Calvin just doesn’t want to go to school”. But we see elsewhere that Calvin is interested in learning. He asks his dad questions (although his dad doesn’t give him the right answers), and talks about quite deep things with Hobbes (who of course is his imaginary friend).

Perhaps the fact that Calvin’s dad gives him the wrong answers is part of the reasoning behind David’s consideration that the primary feedback should be from a trusted mentor. I offered to be a mentor in David’s program, but apparently I’m too young (I’ll be 32 in early November). More on this later too.

As someone interested in making sure that Calvin is able to learn effectively, we need to find a way of having him learn without being at school. I’m not saying that home-schooling is the answer for kids, I’m just saying that learning cultures are changing and this needs to be addressed.

Paul Stovell is a good friend of mine. In some ways, I mentor him. I learn a lot from him too. He has just turned 20. He will never go to university (he’s actually not opposed to the idea, he just can’t see the relevance). But he’s starting to realise the power of blogging, as he writes in his article at http://www.paulstovell.net/Posts/Post.aspx?postId=b07d1424-ae9a-40e6-881a-d22fc28de646

Paul has found that if he writes on a topic, the community of his peers who read his blog comment on it, tell him where he’s wrong, expand on his ideas, and together, they all learn something. Naturally, this being open to the entire internet, there is a risk of people writing rubbish. But the opinions that Paul values more than the others are the ones to which he pays the most attention (and typically, these people are slightly more experienced than him, but within a similar culture, rather than being people who are necessarily older and wiser – useful mentors, but perhaps not the types of people who would be a traditional choice of mentor). Of course, by writing in the public domain, you also have the opportunity to release your thoughts to the people who are the experts in the field, and this then present an even bigger opportunity for mentoring.

So Paul has a way of learning without going to school. Of course, it’s a learning environment that he’s driving himself, but Paul could just as easily become part of a learning environment that was slightly more structured, in that it suggested discussing particular points.

This is more like what David is doing. He facilitates discussions about the topics, guiding people in what they need to be learning.

You see, IT present the opportunity to allow people to learn in a manner which suits them. I think David could take it much further again, but there is a risk that fall into the trap that many home-schooling parents find themselves in – that much of the syllabus can get missed.

Developing a learning culture for digital natives (which would include many of the highly skilled people in IT) is a massive challenge. I love that the ACS is trying to find ways to address this, and if I can help them develop their ideas, then I will do so. Microsoft Learning are also trying to address it, with a move towards e-learning, away from instructor-led courses.

The biggest opportunity here is that the IT Industry is full of people who have been digital natives longer than anyone else. I don’t mean people in their 50s, I mean people in their 20s and 30s. If we can work out how to teach these people (including myself), then perhaps the rest of the education industry can see what we are doing and apply the same to non-IT learning. Kids learn history by playing computer games already, but there needs to be more to it than that, so that they realise they are learning and can start to love the learning process.

The fact is that digital natives won’t do school. But they still want to learn. If we want to be a part of that, we need to reinvent school. The burden is on us, because traditional learning cultures have hurt education significantly.

PS: This doesn’t cover anything about assessment, such as the concept of MS Certification exams – that’s a whole nother topic as well.

What’s wrong with IT?

To a large degree, it's the perception of experience. The IT industry has so many things wrong with it. It tends to be 'governed' (I don't know of a better word for what I mean there, 'run' would be wrong) by people in their 50s. It's also full of Cowboys and Indians (and I don't mean 'people from India' here, I mean 'people who will work for a pittance'), and this means that some degree of governance is actually quite important.

My blog post about "How they know you know" really is a much bigger factor than assessing a candidate or helping your CV stand out from the rest. If you consider the insurance agency who need to work out how much professional indemnity to cover people for, then that helps to start consider the size of the problem. If someone's going to trust their critical data (or processes) to you (or a company for that matter), they need to be quite sure that you're not going to break everything.

If there was a boom in the health industry like the .com boom of the late 90s, you'd see hospitals popping up everywhere, full of people who had no clues about what they were doing. But would you go to any of them? No of course not… you wouldn't dream of letting someone operate on you if they didn't have the proper credentials. And yet we in the IT industry perform surgery on people's businesses on a daily basis.

The ACS is really great in that it is trying to govern the industry in some way, but in many other ways, I think they need shaking up a bit. The ACS encourages Professional Development (which is often sorely missing in professionals). They encourage community (they sponsor several special interest groups). They are active in campaigning to government and other industries of the virtues of IT. All great things, which a younger crowd might not do. But that's part of the problem. The people that run the ACS typically aren't the younger crowd.

I don't want to come across as ageist here. These people have learned a lot over their years in the industry, and really have a lot to give. They are probably the ideal crowd to be doing this type of thing. But if the perception of them is that they are irrelevant, don't understand the later generations (let alone their technologies), and are just 'governing' for the sake of it, then half the battle is lost already. And if any of this is actually true, then that's even worse.

And of course, if they are perceived this way from within the IT industry, then our industry is already a house divided against itself, and it's got no chance. Law, Accountancy, and all the other professional industries are united. They ALL get the relevant certifications and hold them dear. That makes them stronger. A lot stronger. As industries they are far more united than IT. IT can't even agree between "pro-Microsoft" and "anti-Microsoft", but that's a whole nother post.

Is the ACS the right conduit for this stuff? Well, I think probably. Who else would you pick?

And if you consider that the ACS is the right conduit, then you have to get involved, to help them change the way they're perceived, and to help them achieve their goals, which ultimately help all of us in IT.

ACS SA Branch Committee

I've been nominated for the ACS SA Branch Committee. I've been a member of the ACS for a few months now – a Senior Member even. But it hasn't really meant a lot so far. As I want to be an influencer, particularly in regards to promoting IT in Adelaide (it's where I live, and I figure that if I can help develop IT as an industry here, then that's good for both me and anyone else who lives here), I had toyed with the idea of joining the committee. Nominations close this Friday, and after checking with Roslyn about the extra night out per month (my time feels quite limited already, but I think this is worth the investment), I agreed to let myself be nominated.

It doesn't mean I'm on the committee yet though. There may be more people putting their hands up than there are spots available, in which case it will come down to a vote. I'll keep you posted.

Developing presenters with an open mic night

In August I ran a tag-team user-group meeting. The idea was that people within the group would get up and give a really short presentation about something which they thought was cool. I had a few people put their hands up, and I prompted a few more people as well. All in all, the meeting was really good. Numbers were down, but I think this comes down to people not really knowing what to expect (but let's face it, numbers are down when I'm listed as the speaker – I think it's the familiarity thing).

Since then, I've noticed some other groups doing similar things. And some of those people have asked me about the whys, and hows of it.

The Why is easy for me.

Firstly, it lets me know who in the audience is willing to present (and who has a knack for it). More than that though, it tells me who I could potentially help develop as a speaker.

Secondly, it gives me an idea about the things that people are interested in. The section of the evaluation form that says "What should we have presentations on in the future?" is almost always blank.

Thirdly, it saves me having to find a speaker that month. Actually, this is a really big thing. Getting speakers to come to Adelaide can be awkward – we're a bit isolated from the rest of the world.

The How is a bit more complicated. I have a list here, and these are in no particular order.

First, you need to give people a lot of warning. Tell them a good two or three months in advance, and also tell them that you'll be prompting people.

Second, you need to prompt people. You didn't get that from the first point? Hmm… You will get people who just volunteer, but you'll also find that a lot of people won't. So just ask them. Especially those people who you think would do a good job.

Third, It helps to have a prize for the best talk. If nothing else, you'll find that some people really like the prize and want to pursue it. Greed can help. 🙂

Fourth, give people ideas. I don't just list them, but I tell people I have some ideas, and then when I prompt people, if their excuse is that they can't think of anything to speak on, give them a couple of topics to choose from.

Fifth, warn people that you might not get through them – and have these people as the seasoned presenters who really don't need the practice. The newbies will go overtime, almost guaranteed.

Sixth, don't stop those people that go overtime. Be really encouraging to them. Actually, be really encouraging whatever happens.

Seventh, get people's notes in advance and prepare good questions. If someone's struggling, you can turn their talk around with a couple of well-placed questions. This can really help.

Eighth (wow, there's a few), have a bunch of tips yourself that you don't need slides for. You can give these tips while people swap machines – just a way of filling in time between presentations. Keeping it flowing will really help.

Ninth, offer to have an interview-style presentation if you know someone has something
good to say but will be nervous about presenting. For many people, the problem is just standing in front of other people. But if you get them to just have a conversation in front of everyone else, then that could be the break-through they need.

There are more, of course. But I can't think of them right now. I guess that's where 'comments' come in. 🙂 I'd like to hear feedback from anyone else who has run similar meetings, to hear how they went.