My social media journey

Last week, I spent some time with the risual Marketing team recording a short interview on “my social media journey”. The idea was that I have an established blog and I’m prolific on Twitter – what could colleagues pick up from my experience that might help them?

Then the team decided to put it out on YouTube! You can watch the video below but I apologise for the constant glancing at my Surface screen – I only had 20 minutes to prepare and we shot it all in one take!

For those without time to watch the video – these are the notes I prepared in advance for Jordan’s questions:

risual: First off, can you talk about what influenced/inspired you to start using social media/your blog?

Mark: I started blogging in about 2004. We didn’t even use the term “social media” then around about then having a “weblog” had started to become popular. I just wanted somewhere to store my notes and thought they might be useful to others too. 13 years later and there are around 2500 posts on there!

I’m pretty bad at remembering things – even today it surprises me when I search for an answer and my own site comes up in search results!

Twitter was a bit different. I really didn’t “get it” at first, then it clicked one day when I was watching a keynote video and saw the moderated tweets on the hashtag alongside. I could really see the value. I started tweeting soon afterwards (at a Microsoft event) and over time Twitter has become my main social media output.

risual: In terms of starting off, did you have a goal? How did you build up your follower count?

Mark: I didn’t really have a goal, but the site sort of took off – as I wrote more, more people read it. Then I put some ads on the pages and it started to make money. Then Google changed their algorithm and I started to lose money ;-). I’m not in it for the money though.

Actually, there was a time (around 2005) when I was double-blogging on my own site and my employer’s site – myself and Jamie Thomson [@jamiet] (who also went on to be an MVP) had a bit of an internal battle at as the company’s most prolific bloggers – me for infrastructure and him for data!

As for followers, I’m not too worried about the number of followers – more in the quality of those followers.

If you create good content the followers will come naturally.

risual: How much time do you spend updating your blog or using social media daily?

Mark: Not enough and too much at the same time! I would like to have more time to write blog posts but you do have to be in the right frame of mind. I have loads of part-written posts – and even set up a Kanban board in Office 365 Planner a few nights ago to try and sort out my blog post planning!

Twitter is a lot easier – you can tweet on the train, in gaps between meetings, etc. But it’s good to tweet at times when people are around (UK and US business hours) – all too often I find myself catching up on Twitter at bedtime when I should be sleeping. It’s not healthy!

risual: Do you think it’s helped you engage better with other tech professionals with the ability to keep up to date with what topics are “hot”?

Mark: Absolutely. My personal brand has been greatly enhanced with blogging and tweeting. It’s probably how I got my MVP Award and, even though I’m not an MVP anymore I’m still recognised by Microsoft as what their marketing folks call an “influencer”.

risual: What do you get out of it all personally? You’ve obviously got a very busy job and have no obligation to do it, but do, why?

Mark: Narcissism! No, not really. I think personal branding is important in our industry. It’s amazing how often I meet people in the real world that I know via social media. In fact, I once attended an interview where the interviewer told me he read my blog – that was a bit of a curved ball!

risual: It may seem like an obvious question, but what’s your own advice for those starting out on Twitter hoping to build a following?

Mark: Not obvious at all!

  1. Just dive in there and start RTing things you think are relevant.
  2. Tweet links to your own blog posts.
  3. The more you tweet the more followers you will get. It’s just the way it is. Having said that, quality is more important than quantity.
  4. Engage, reply – don’t just broadcast.
  5. Don’t just tweet things to advertise your company! People don’t want to be marketed to (at least not in an obvious way). I sometimes tweet risual posts that I’ve been involved in – or if it’s something that could really make a difference to people – like what we’re doing in Education. But I also mix it with lots of tweets from other people (not just Microsoft!) and about 10% personal stuff. People follow people, not brands!

I have about 43,000 tweets at the moment. Over an 8 year period that’s not many a day (<15 on average) although I have to admit a big chunk of my tweeting was when I was working in a role where it was actually a part of my job!

risual: How do you keep up to date with the latest technology news in order to talk about them when they’re still hot out of the oven?

Mark: I listen to podcasts (like the Microsoft Cloud Show and WB-40) and Twitter is my main news source. I’d like to read more blogs but don’t have the time.

Twitter is a bit of an echo chamber at times but I’ve created some lists of people who tweet interesting content (I have a CTO watchlist, a Microsoft watchlist and a risual list) and I try to keep up to date with them. I don’t actually read all of the tweets for all the people I follow – mostly just the ones on these lists!

A month without social media. Well, sort of…

Ben Seymour (@bseymour) made a very pertinent point in a recent Milton Keynes Geek Night talk when he said:

“At no point did I find myself wishing I’d spent more time on Twitter”

So, when one of my friends said he would give up social media for January, I thought it would be worth a try too. After all, if a brand and marketing communications Consultant can do without #socmed, then so can I!

Actually, I made some exceptions:

  • Twitter is work. It’s how I keep up to date – and how I build my personal brand (if that doesn’t sound too pretentious). Having said that I’ve been too busy for most of January to tweet much.
  • Ditto for my blog.

I turned off notifications for LinkedIn, Facebook, Facebook Messenger and some more. And then I realised how many channels I have – for example WhatsApp is one of the methods my son uses to contact me. That’ll be another exception then. Then there’s Strava. Hmm… well, I guess it’s not so much social media as where I track my activity…

The main one to drop was Facebook. So, how did that go? Really, I haven’t missed it at all. Sure, I was probably the last person in our town to know that a McDonalds is being proposed for the BP garage 2 miles up the road (which apparently has divided opinion…) but is that really so important in the great scheme of things? I did miss some contact on Messenger – but anyone who knows me well also has my mobile number…

And the biggest observation from my month of social media abstinence? Well, I watched a few series on Amazon Video (two seasons of The Man in the High Castle and Mr Robot). As my wife noted, it seems my digital addiction just switched channels…

Making the Airfix A20005 Engineer Jet Engine Educational Construction Kit work

Airfix manufacture educational construction kits for both combustion and jet engines. The combustion engine is set A42509 and the jet engine is set A20005. My son was very keen to receive a jet engine for Christmas and he very quickly set to work building it.

I can’t recommend the kit because the instructions are poor (the black and white images don’t exactly help) but we got it working – sort of – in that it would whir and puff but the fans wouldn’t turn.

My son didn’t seem to mind, but it annoyed me that his new toy didn’t work. So, this afternoon, I set to work with my favourite search engine and found some really useful advice. Firstly, making sure the compressor turned freely (thanks to Phil Parker):

“By taking the red cone off the back and shoving the spindle back and forth once everything is in place you can put enough lash in to get really free turning.”

After following Phil’s advice I could blow on the blades and turn the compressor but it didn’t work under its own power. So, I found some more advice on the Unofficial Airfix Modellers Forum:

“[…] clean up the parts where you’ve removed them from the sprues […]”

My son set to work with a knife to remove a couple of bits of plastic on the main fans that were snagging. After this, we were able to run the engine with a “twist start” and after it had run for a while and loosened up some more, we were able to start it using the controls in the kit.

Looking at the reviews on Amazon, there are a lot of people struggling with this kit (we wouldn’t have bought it if my son hadn’t been so keen) but hopefully, this post will come up in someone’s searches and help them out…

A tale of three road tolls: part 1 (the Dart Charge)

London’s orbital motorway, the M25, is not a circle (as many people suggest) but has a short section of trunk road joining the ends and crossing the River Thames east of London. That road, the A282 Dartford Crossing, has an associated charge which, until recently, was collected at toll booths.

Originally the tolls were to be removed on 1 April 2003 under the original Private Finance initiative (PFI) scheme contract that was used to finance the Queen Elizabeth II bridge but instead, under the 2000 Transport Act, the A282 Trunk Road (Dartford-Thurrock Crossing charging scheme) Order 2002 allowed the continuation of the crossing fee, which officially became a charge and not a toll.

Since 30 November 2014 the toll booths have been removed and replaced by an electronic charge [update: there are some overnight journeys that are not charged], but that’s not without its issues, as I found when I travelled to Dartford and back a few weeks ago.

Dart charge warning letter and PCNI hadn’t used the route for years, but had heard about the changes (I even contacted the operator to see if my new tag for the French motorways, also operated by SANEF, would work – it won’t!). I also saw the signs advising me to pay by midnight the next day (confusingly using the same symbol as the London Congestion Charge, which is unrelated). Unfortunately, faced with congestion, delays, a stressful day with a difficult customer and an equally stressful journey home (total driving time for the day was 6 hours for around 180 miles – a pathetic average speed considering it was mostly on motorways!) – and I forgot.

It was an honest mistake and, when I realised a few days later, I called the Dart Charge contact centre. Aided by some extremely patient and helpful people, I was told not to worry, to wait for the penalty charge notice and that I would be given a chance to pay (without penalty) on my first infringement. But I’d travelled both ways! In turns out that’s OK too – just pay all outstanding charges on receipt of the first notice.

I was also told how I could sign up for automatic payment in future (a facility I tested on a journey to France a few weeks later) – if only the official government website for the Dart Charge made that clear but it’s one of those sites that’s been so over-“simplified” that it’s no longer clear.  The warning letter is equally confusing: because my PCNs arrived on different days (and I needed to pay before leaving the country on Easter holidays!), I couldn’t see how to pay all outstanding charges in one hit online. Luckily the contact centre for the Dart Charge came to my rescue again!

Gov.UK suggests setting up an account but doesn’t mention the advantage of doing so is to provide a pay-as-you go facility. Indeed the only reference to payment in advance is by post! There’s actually better advice in the Daily Telegraph article about the changes!

So, if you are planning to use the Dartford Crossing (by bridge or tunnel), I recommend signing up for an account and paying as you go by credit or debit card to avoid a lot of stress (and potentially hefty fines). Definitely worth it!

A few tips for easier expense claims with Concur

Since our company switched Expenses systems from Xero to Concur a few months ago, I’ve been having a monthly rant about the amount of time it takes to submit an expense claim (typically 3-4 hours a month).

Finance teams may be more efficient but what about the rest of us?

There are a few tips though that can help with the form-filling. And I am trying to spread the load by doing things as I go…

  1. First up, use the ExpenseIt app. This goes further than the normal Concur apps by performing some analysis on a picture of a receipt and pre-populating some of the metadata for the claim.  It’s not perfect, but after photographing a pile of receipts I can make some edits in the app whilst travelling/watching TV/in a couple of minutes whilst waiting for a conference call to start and then bulk upload.
  2. Once the expenses are in exported to Concur, I bulk edit as much as I can. Fields like project code, business purpose and customer name can be edited for several receipts at once.
  3. Receipts that arrive electronically (e.g. PDFs of parking receipts, train bookings, etc.) can be emailed to receipts@concur.com – and as long as they come from your registered email address they will be available automatically for attaching to a claim.
  4. Mileage claims for journeys can be bulk-entered from the quick expenses form.
  5. If at this point there are any receipts that have warnings, there’s no getting away from the need to individually edit them and add things like the type of meal.

It’s still far from streamlined… but a few tips like this save me a lot of time. Sadly the ExpenseIt app is not available for Windows Phone…

Compact and bijou – my home office!

As the Christmas holidays draw to a close (and they have certainly rushed by), I’m reminded to write about how I spent my previous “holiday”. October half term was a busy one as we swapped my eldest son’s bedroom and our home office, redecorating and refitting along the way… or, as I wrote on Facebook at the time:

“1 half term: 9 days of DIY; 3 visits to IKEA; 40+ boxes of flat-packs; 2 trips to the tip; a car full of cardboard; 11 sacks for the bin men…

…a new (smaller) office for us and two happy boys – one with a much bigger bedroom!

Back to work for a rest tomorrow!”

Now, where’s the relevance of all that for my blog? Well, I thought I might write some notes on how we converted the smallest bedroom in the house (approx. 2.15×2.59m) into a reasonable workspace for two people.

Decorating

First up – making good any damage to walls, etc. A plasterer once recommended Gyproc Easi-Fill to me and it’s wonderful stuff. Easy to work with, and sands to a smooth finish.

Next, white paint.

It wasn’t that I didn’t believe Garry Martin’s comment on an earlier post, more that I’d had limited time to prepare and that I thought I’d support a local business instead of my usual decorators merchant. Hey, ho!

Luckily Homebase had an offer on Dulux white emulsion, although I actually used a couple of coats of their own-brand high opacity paint in the end…

Fitting out

With the room repainted (albeit taking more time than I hoped), my attention could turn to fitting things out. My previous office had a length of IKEA Pragel kitchen counter installed as a desk (my son has it in his bedroom now). IKEA don’t make that counter any more, but they do make some good table-tops  (Linnmon) that are very reasonably priced (and also a lot lighter to carry, because the centre filling is basically cardboard – not chipboard).

I needed to cut the table-tops to fit the room and make an L shape, and I also decided to fix them to the wall – lengths of 50x25mm (planed) timber screwed to the wall as battens did the trick there (no need to paint as they are out of sight), with strategically-placed IKEA Adils legs and some brackets to fix the table-tops to the battens (and to hold the table-tops together). The Linnmon tops are also pre-drilled with holes for the Adils legs, which makes things a little easier.  I found some good advice for setting the desk height too.

IKEA Signum desk grommetNext came cable-management. My previous desk had used IKEA Signum desk grommets but they’ve been discontinued. Luckily they are the same size (65mm) as a spare I had from an old desk, so that could be used in my son’s room, whilst I recovered a matching set of 3 for the office.

I also used some IKEA Koppla extension leads with built-in USB ports to provide some above-desk power. Cheaper alternatives are available, but I think they look good screwed to the wall just above the desk.

Shelving came in the form of the ubiquitous Billy bookcase (re-using an existing set of shelves), added to which I put a Bestå frame with a shelf under my desk.  A Stuva wall-cupboard lets me hide away most of my clutter, and some Mosslanda picture ledges finish things off for personal odds and ends around the workspace with a Jansjö LED lamp for desk lighting.

Fixing the cupboard to the wall was a challenge. The wall it’s fixed to is just a stud wall with plasterboard and normal fixings were not really up to the task.  I picked up some 25mm GripIt fixings from my local DIY store that claim to be good for 180kgs each. These fixings (featured on Dragons’ Den) are really strong and easy to use (although drilling a 25mm hole in my wall did fill me with some trepidation at first). I haven’t tested the load up to the full weight but I can say that the cupboard is fixed really solidly now (although I did use some longer M6 bolts to make up for the gap between the back of the cupboard and the wall).

Finally, somewhere to sit. Whilst my wife prefers one of our dining chairs at her desk, I bought a Flintan swivel chair with Nominell armrests (and so far have been very happy with it).

Compact and bijou: my home office
Ignore the apparent curves on the desk – that’s just a dodgy iPhone stitched image!

What next?

I’m trying to keep as little in the room as possible but I think some more bookshelves/another cupboard are inevitable and there’s also the matter of fitting a new blind to the window (on my to-do list, already made to measure by Blinds 2 Go).  I’m also reducing the installed IT: the Cisco 7940 is no longer in use, nor is my old Fujitsu-Siemens S20-1W monitor; and I’m sure Microsoft will want their Lenovo B50 all-in-one PC back soon as I’m doing really badly at writing Windows 10 blog posts (the reason it’s loaned to me), although that means I’ll need to buy another monitor (or two). If you look closely, you’ll also see that I have some work to do tidying some of the cables under the desk…

New year, and a new(ish) role as I move back to architecture

Back in May, I moved from Fujitsu to join risual. There were many reasons for me leaving, including that I think systems integrators are in for a really rough time as they attempt to adapt to a changing marketplace; that I was unhappy with some changes being made to the organisation and to my professional community; and that I had serious concerns about the company’s strategy for working with Microsoft (a partner whose technologies have been key to large parts of my career). I also wanted to get closer to technology again, and that wasn’t really an option for me where I was.

Jumping ship to a small but growing consultancy was a risky move and a six-month probation period gave me some concern but I’ve come through that and I have to say I’ve really enjoyed the last 7-and-a-half months. Of course, there have been challenges along the way but I’ve joined a great team (or family, as the directors prefer to refer to it) – and learning just after I joined that risual had been named Microsoft UK Partner of the Year for 2015 was a special bonus. I’m working bloody hard… but I don’t mind hard work when I can see where it’s headed, that it’s worthwhile, and that I’m enjoying it.

At its heart, risual is a consultancy business. That means that everyone who joins risual joins as a Consultant. The only exceptions are the support roles, sales people and Engagement Managers. risual doesn’t hire Architects directly, regardless of previous experience and background.

We do have an Architecture team though – and, earlier this month, I learned that my application had been successful and that, with immediate effect, I was to become one of the Enterprise Architects in risual’s Business Group. Whilst I’ve enjoyed working in the Unified Communications team, I’m a generalist and the guys there are specialists with some really good (deep) skills. My work now becomes more focused on achieving business outcomes through technology, helping customers to shape their strategy and leading some of the larger projects that we have from a technical perspective.

2015’s seen a lot of change as I rediscovered what it is I want to do and how to enjoy work again. 2016 looks like it will be the year I consolidate and build on my experience to drive my career forward. I’ve certainly got an increasingly-full diary with a challenging project to move a Government department to the Microsoft cloud, interspersed with some interesting business consulting engagements – and that’s just the next couple of months!

So, with that little update, I’m signing off for 2015. For everyone who reads this blog and the constant stream of tweets @markwilsonit, I’d to thank you for your support and to wish you all the best in 2016.

Marketing for small businesses

I’ve blogged about Milton Keynes Geek Night many times over the last 3 and a half years – and it’s still just as good as ever. Last Thursday’s geek night (number 14)  had possibly the most eclectic mix of talks I’ve seen in a while though – with a talk about Life on Mars as well as the usual collection of web design/developer topics. And then there was Chloe Briggs’ 5-minute talk about marketing for freelancers.

Although Chloe (@clever_cloggs) called it marketing for freelancers, I recognise a lot of this being applied in small-medium businesses too. Indeed, it’s only the large enterprises I’ve worked for that don’t seem to “get it”. Even so, Chloe gave what I consider to be some very good advice, so I’m blogging it here!

  • Stand out from the crowd:
    • Use blogging as a tool
    • Know your audience
      • Think about who your existing clients are and what type of clients would you like to work with?
      • Target your content to this audience
  • Look after existing clients:
    • It’s good to keep in touch
      • Send a well-crafted newsletter every month/quarter
        • Click-throughs from email outperform social media
    • Clients often appreciate a call every few months to check in
      • They will increase their loyalty to you and make them feel supported
      • You will pick up extra work
  • Productise your services:
    • Tiered packages make it easy to compare services
    • Packages provide a jumping off point to start a discussion
  • Be a specialist
    • Create your own niche
    • You can easily become knowledgeable about a particular product or service
    • Creates trust and authority
    • Increases your value
  • Create residual income
    • Sell after-sales support for maintenance etc.
    • This can be a package including other services, e.g. hosting, analytics reports, etc.
    • Retaining your services on a monthly basis creates loyalty

Hopefully these tips can help others to build their businesses and attract/retain the right clients.

Cutting laminate worktops – a fine blade makes a huge difference

Mrs W has promised our eldest son a larger bedroom. That means a smaller office for us… and lots of clearing out plus a week’s DIY planned for October…

Last weekend’s trip to IKEA in preparation also taught me that a) they don’t make the Pragel counters I currently use in the office any more; and b) the Linnmon table tops I’m using in the new office need to be cut down to fit (because they are 2000x600mm and the room is 2590mm wide – so the tops will be 1cm too long to fit in an L-shape!).

My last attempt at cutting laminate tops was pretty awful. Thank goodness the cut edge sits in the corner, against the wall, hidden by the computer monitor on top of it because the chipping is so bad. And I used masking tape along the cut on the finished side – as well as cutting from the under side.

Mrs W did say I could buy new tools… and the guy in IKEA was clearly trying to convince her I needed do do some Makita shopping but, to be perfectly honest, my JCB-branded-Chinese-import-bought-from-a-DIY-shed-circa-2002 only gets used once a year and the biggest job was our decking… circa 2002…

20 teeth circular saw blade is no good for cutting laminate worktops
This is not a fine blade!

It turns out the problem was the blade I used. Lots of reading about cutting laminate worktops told me to get a fine blade… but how do you define a “fine” blade circular saw? One post I read said 24-30 teeth. So I bought one on Amazon that had 100 teeth – that should do the job, right?

Well, a test cut today suggests so – look at the picture here and you can see my old ragged (20 teeth) cut on the left, and the new one on the right (100 teeth). Still not perfect but passable…

On that basis, I’ll risk it. And if it all goes horribly wrong, its only £25 for another counter top… or I could always chip a centimetre out of the plasterboard wall instead!

Further reading

Cutting Pragel countertops (via The Wayback Machine, as IKEA’s lawyers appear to have forced closure of the original Ikeafans website).

Mobile broadband: not just about where people live but about where people go

As Britain enters the traditional school summer holiday season, hundreds of thousands of people will travel to the coast, to our national parks, to beautiful areas of the countryside. After the inevitable traffic chaos will come the cries from teenagers who can’t get on the Internet. And from one or two adults too.

This summer, my holidays will be in Swanage, where I can get a decent 3G signal (probably 4G too – I haven’t been down for a while) but, outside our towns and cities, the likelihood of getting a mobile broadband connection (if indeed any broadband connection) is pretty slim.  I’m not going to get started on the rural broadband/fibre to the home or cabinet discussion but mobile broadband is supposed to fill the gaps. Unfortunately that’s a long way from reality.

Rural idyll and technological isolation

Last half-term, my family stayed in the South Hams, in Devon. It’s a beautiful part of the country where even A roads are barely wide enough for buses and small trucks to traverse and the pace of life is delightfully laid back.  Our holiday home didn’t have broadband, but we had three smartphones with us – one on Giffgaff (O2), one on Vodafone, one on EE. None could pick up any more than a GPRS signal.

In the past, it’s been good for me to disconnect from the ‘net on holiday, to switch off from social media, to escape from email. This time though, I noticed a change in the way that tourist attractions are marketed. The leaflets and pamphlets no longer provide all the information you need to book a trip and access to a website is assumed. After all, this is 2015 not 1975. Whilst planning a circular tour from Dartmouth by boat to Totnes, bus to Paignton and steam train back to Kingswear (a short ferry ride from our origin at Dartmouth) I was directed to use the website to check which services to use (as the river is tidal and the times can vary accordingly) but I couldn’t use the ‘net – I had no connection.

To find the information I needed, I used another function on my phone – making a telephone call – whilst for other online requirements I drove to Dartmouth or Kingsbridge. I even picked up a 4G connection in Kingsbridge, downloading my podcasts in seconds – what a contrast just 8 miles (and a 45 minute round trip!) makes.

A new communications role for the village pub

Public houses have always been an important link in rural connectivity (physically, geographically, socially) and Wi-Fi is now providing a technological angle to the pub’s role in the community. From my perspective, a pint whilst perusing the ‘net is not a bad thing. Both the village pubs in Slapton had Wi-Fi (I’ll admit standing outside one of them before opening hours to get on the Internet one day!) and whilst visiting Hope Cove I was borrowed pub Wi-Fi to tweet to Joe Baguley, who I knew visits often (by chance, he was there too!).

Indeed, it was a tweet from Joe, spotted when I got home, that inspired me to write this post:

No better in the Home Counties

It’s not just on holiday though… I live in a small market town close to where Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire (OK, Milton Keynes) meet. Despite living on a hill, and my house being of 1990s construction (so no thick walls here), EE won’t even let me reliably make a phone call. This is from the network which markets itself as the

“the UK’s biggest, fastest and most reliable mobile network today”

3G is available in parts of town if some microwaves stretch to us from a neighbouring cell but consider that we’re only 58 miles from London. This is not the back of beyond…

Then think about travelling by train. On my commute from Bedford or Milton Keynes to London there is no Wi-Fi, patchy 3G, and it’s impossible to work. The longer-distance journeys I used to make to Manchester were better as I could use the on-train Wi-Fi, but that comes at a cost.

Broadband is part of our national infrastructure, just like telephone networks, roads and railways. Fibre is slowly reaching out and increasing access speeds in people’s homes but mobile broadband is increasingly important in our daily lives. Understandably, the private enterprises that operate the mobile networks focus on the major towns and cities (where most people live). But they also need to think about the devices we use – the mobile devices – and consider how to address requirements outside those cities, in the places where the people go.