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 – as well as cutting from the underside.

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.

Milton Keynes Geek Night – three years on and going from strength to strength (#MKGN)

I don’t remember how I first became aware of Milton Keynes Geek Night but, three years ago, I turned up in a room above a converted bus station to see what this new event would be like. 13 Geek Nights later (plus a special Geek Mental Health event too) and I haven’t missed a single night*, being described as a “groupie” by one of the founders. I even brought my wife along once…

In the early days, I used to blog about the topics of discussion. More recently I’ve struggled to find the time but the audio from the talks is on SoundCloud (well, all of the talks from Geek Night 3 onwards, that is).

Last night’s MK Geek Night lived up to expectations. Not being a designer or a developer, I tend to find that some of the talks are a little beyond my knowledge but still good for an IT architect to understand at a conceptual level.

I thought that, as MK Geek Night celebrates its third birthday, now would be a good time to look back on some of my favourite talks:

…and then there are Ben Foxall (@BenjaminBenBen)’s talks which are in a category of their own – they need to be on YouTube not SoundCloud! I just cant do them justice in words but how he gets 200 people to join in on their devices and illustrate some amazing functionality inside a browser I do not know. Similarly, Sii Cockerill (@siicockerill)’s dynamic art based on maths/environmental considerations was incredibly visual but you can at least see the results on the web.

I’ll sign off with massive congratulations and a huge thank you to Richard Wiggins (@RichardWiggins) and David Hughes (@DavidHughes) who organise and MC these events – and to all of the sponsors (without whom they wouldn’t be able to take place) – and of course to the speakers too! Here’s to many more years of #MKGN.

 

*There was also an MKGN All-Dayer which I was unable to join but hey, that’s not a “geek night” is it?!

Dabbling at DIY: fixing dripping taps and wiring bathroom extractor fans

This week, my blog is in danger of transforming from markwilson.it to markwilson.diy. Fear not, normal service will be resumed soon!

As I’ve worked through the seemingly never-ending list of jobs-that-need-to-be-done-one-day this week, I dabbled in some minor plumbing and electrical work… I thought I’d blog some notes because I’m bound to have to come back to this again one day!

Changing the ceramic valve in a dripping tap

The Franke Panto taps that were installed in our kitchen/utility room have been great – after all, their function is pretty straightforward: all I want a tap to do is look good and dispense water on demand!

Unfortunately the kitchen tap had begun to drip on the cold flow. A mini science experiment with my sons told me it was losing quite a lot of water every day so I turned off the cold supply using the isolator valve below the sink. I couldn’t see how to fix the tap though, so we asked advice from a plumber we’ve worked with before. He didn’t know how to get into the tap but told us it would be the ceramic valve that needed replacing (cue sucking of air through teeth and “it’ll cost you” look) and we might as well get a new tap.

What nonsense! After 3 months of confusion about which part to buy based on my Internet “reaseach” and putting off calling Franke’s spares/service partners for fear of being bamboozled, Central Services were really helpful, a new ceramic valve cost me just over £15 and I installed it myself in 5 minutes…

One of the challenges I had was whereas it seems for many taps you can prise away the cap on the end of the tap (the bit with the red or blue marker on it), ours didn’t work like that as the Panto just has a tiny marker on the front of the tap to show which side is hot/cold. Then I realised that there was a cap on the end – it was on a screw thread, which then exposed the grub screw inside, allowing access to the valve, which was then easily removed with a spanner (after removing the collar that covers it).

Of course, after I had asked a plumber, procrastinated, and finally done the job myself I found this video (ignore the sexist comments if you view it on YouTube…):

Blue and yellow wires for live and neutral?

Another job was to change the old, noisy, bathroom fan for something quieter as part of my preparation for an upcoming bathroom refit. When I took the old one out I was surprised to find that the wiring used red/yellow/blue (what appears to be three-phase wiring) instead of twin and earth.

(My house was built in the 1990s – today the red/yellow/blue would be brown/black/grey.)

I could see that blue was neutral and yellow was live (based on how the old fan was wired) but couldn’t understand why until I found this advice on installing a shower extractor fan. Yellow (now black) is switched live (cf. red/brown for live, not used in my installation).

 

Some observations on modern recruiting practices

The weekend before I start a new job seems like an ideal time to comment on my experience of searching for the right role over the last several months.  It’s been a long time since I had to seriously look for work – all of my interviews since late-2003 have been internal, or with organisations where I already had a working relationship – and boy has the world changed!

In many cases, writing a covering letter and attaching your CV seems to have gone out in favour of automated recruitment systems. Recruitment consultants can help get you in the door (the good ones can, anyway) but many organisations only work with certain agencies – so you need to build the right contacts. And LinkedIn is all over the place…

But it’s not all bad – the interview experience should be two way – for the candidate to gauge the potential employer as well as the other way around. That’s why I’m going to write here about two roles I applied for. In both cases I was unsuccessful – for different reasons – and both left me with negative feelings (about the organisation, or about the process). Written at another time it might have sounded like sour grapes; today I hope it won’t!

Organisation A

A friend who works for a large financial services company commented that he’d seen some Solution Architect roles advertised on their job site. Sure enough, there was one which looked a good fit on paper – and it sounded extremely interesting. He referred me internally and I navigated the company’s Oracle Taleo-based job site to apply for the post.

A few weeks later, I was invited to a telephone interview to “describe the role in some more detail and get a better understanding of my experience”. With just a 30 minute telephone interview (and having done my homework on the company’s interview process), I was expecting a fairly high-level discussion with subsequent interviews going into more detail.

What I got was a technical grilling, without any context about what the role entailed, and when I tried to ask questions at the end of the interview (to understand more about the role), it was clear that the interviewer was out of time and overdue for their next appointment.

It was probably the worst interview of my career – I hadn’t performed well, partly because the questioning was not what I expected in a first-stage telephone interview; but also bad because the interviewer was pretty poor at managing the time, representing the company in a good light and allowing the candidate to discover more about the role.

My last contact with the resourcing team was over seven months ago, when they promised that they “would let me know as soon as they have feedback”. That feedback has never come, despite internal chasing and we’re now way past the time when it would have any value (the interviewer won’t remember anything useful at this late stage).  What it has done though is set me a poor impression of this particular financial services company – and that impression is one I’m likely to share with others in my professional network. No-one wins in this scenario.

I’ve logged in to the recruitment website this evening and my application is still there… showing as “Submission Status: Interview Process” with the last update dated the day before my interview. Meanwhile the position remains open for applications.

Organisation B

The second job application was with a major national infrastructure organisation. I do admit I allowed myself to get very excited (and then very disappointed) about this one but imagine my joy when I found out that the only person I know in that particular company worked in the department that was hiring. We met up and they told me more about the role, I made sure that my application was the strongest it could be – and then it failed at the first stage.

Even though I’d made sure that the team recruiting for the role knew my application was on its way, analysis of the communication I received from the HR department leads me to believe it failed a keyword search from the automated screening systems. That might sound like a candidate who thinks they are perfect and I’ve seen enough CVs pass over my desk to know that first-round screening can be hit and miss; however, using your network to make sure that the application is expected ought to help a little. Unfortunately it wasnt to be the case for me. I’ve since learned that one commonly-used trick is to paste the entire job spec into the end of your application, in white text, and a tiny font.

A piece of LinkedIn advice

One piece of advice I received from a recruiter, which seems to have been very worthwhile, is to turn on InMail in LinkedIn (it’s under Privacy and Settings, Manage, Communications, Member Communications, Select the types of messages you’re willing to receive.

Since I enabled InMail, the volume of contact I’ve received has hugely increased. There’s a lot of noise but some of it is worthwhile (especially now recruiters are having to target more carefully) and it may just bring you a contact that leads to a great new opportunity.

And finally

The good news for me is that I have a new role – one I’m really looking forward to starting on Monday. I applied directly via the company website and the interview process has been enjoyable, just as when I was growing my team at Fujitsu and I recruited people who I genuinely enjoyed meeting and talking with about how they would fit in and what we could do to help them achieve their goals.

Now I have a six-month probationary period to navigate but logic tells me all should be well.  The difference with the company I’m joining on Monday is that they were as keen to make sure they would fit me as that I would them. Good recruitment works for all parties – it’s the human part of “human resources” that needs the emphasis!

Miscellaneous painting and decorating tips

This week, I’m between jobs (technically, I’m on holiday from Fujitsu, but I’ve already worked my last day there). I was going to spend time sorting out the myriad things that never get done in my home office but, unfortunately, some decorating (ahead of a replacement bathroom) has got in the way and this got me thinking about some decorating tips I’ve picked up over the years:

  • Cheap paints can be a false economy. Almost every wall I’ve ever painted with a DIY (B&Q, Homebase, etc.) paint has looked tired after a while, whilst walls painted with branded paints seem to have kept their finish for longer.  I don’t know how much difference it makes but I always buy Dulux Trade paints from my local decorators’ merchant (Brewers) rather than the consumer Dulux paints from a DIY shed.
  • Having said that it’s sometimes worth buying branded paints, there are jobs where it’s just not worth the expense. All of our ceilings are painted with white emulsion (Albany Supercover), and the high-traffic rooms with magnolia walls (like our halls/stairs/landing) also use decorators’ merchant paints. I’ve just accepted that they need painting more often anyway!
  • There’s no such thing as “one coat” paint – it’s pure marketing! Some paints are thicker than others though and you might get away with fewer coats (for example two coats rather than three when trying to cover a bold colour).
  • Kitchen and bathroom paint is not just a way to sell a more expensive product – it really is moisture-resistant (and I really do wish I’d used it in our en-suite…) but there is an alternative. For my current job, in order to have the finish that I want (matt ceiling, soft sheen walls), I used the same paints as normal but added some VC175 mould-killer to the paint before applying it (as recommended by the Manager at my local decorators’ merchant).
  • Brushes and rollers can be wrapped in cling-film overnight; trays of paint can be placed in a bin liner (folded over to keep the air out). This saves a lot of paint wastage between coats, when you need to come back to the job the next day anyway! Of course, brushes, rollers, etc. should always be properly cleaned when the job is finished.
  • Most decorating jobs will need some holes filling, or minor repairs to plasterwork. After years of fighting with (and losing to) consumer-marketed products like Polyfilla (from Polycell), I found a product that’s really easy to work with and does a great job – unfortunately it only comes in large bags! It’s called Gyproc Easi-Fill and it’s made by British Gypsum. (This tip came via a professional plasterer and was recently reiterated by our bathroom fitter.) Even though I’ve only used a tiny amount of our huge bag of Easi-Fill over the years, it doesn’t seem to have “gone off” and is still working well – I’ve also used it as plaster for modelling purposes.
  • Baby wipes are great for cleaning up – like if you didn’t mask a door handle (because you weren’t painting the door) but it got splattered with specks of emulsion from the roller… actually, baby wipes are great for cleaning all sorts of things!

Just bear in mind that I wouldn’t take IT advice from a professional decorator – so those who paint people’s houses for a living might not entirely agree with my decorating advice!

Moving on…

Just under ten years ago, I wrote a blog post to say I was leaving Conchango, and (re-)joining Fujitsu (it was ICL when I left).  Since then, I’ve moved through a succession of roles (technical, IT strategy and governance, management and pre-sales), worked with some extremely talented people and I’ve had some good times (as well as some less good) but one of the highlights has to be when I was given a Fujitsu Distinguished Engineer award last year.

Receiving a Fujitsu Distinguished Engineer award from Michael Keegan (Head of UK and Ireland region) and Jon Wrennall (CTO), in October 2014

Now, that time has come to an end, because today’s my last day at Fujitsu before I take up a new role in just over a week’s time.

For those who didn’t see my tweet last month, I’ll be returning to technical consultancy, joining the unified communications team at risual.

risual is a dedicated, UK based, globally recognised IT Services organisation delivering business aligned consultancy, solutions and services based solely on the Microsoft platform.  Along with several thousand others, I first came across risual when their corporate video was launched at Microsoft Future Decoded last year and what a refreshing change it made! Digging a little deeper told me they have a great reputation – and that’s capped off by appearing in The Sunday Times’ top 100 best small companies to work for list.

I have to admit I am a little anxious about the move – but really excited too and looking forward to joining the risual “family” and getting stuck in.  And, if ever there was proof of what a small industry we work in, I already found that I’m linked to quite a few of my new colleagues through Twitter or this blog!

Excel formula for calculating a price, based on a known cost and margin percentage

A couple of years ago, I blogged about the difference between margin and markup. Since then, there have been a number of occasions when I’ve wanted to know the formula to take two cells in Excel, one with a cost and the other with a margin percentage, and then calculate the price. I’m sure I’ve blogged that too, but I can’t find it now – so here it is (after I worked it out again this afternoon)…

Using the example above, the formula to calculate the price in cell C2, based on cost in A2 and margin in B2 is =A2/(1-B2).

Please be honest…

It’s appraisal season where I work and I spent a significant amount of this morning writing feedback on various colleagues’ performance.  One that did amuse me though, was the annotation on one colleague’s form:

“Please be honest. Feedback is a gift, like a woolly jumper from your auntie at Christmas. You might not like it but you take it with good grace and remember that it was sent with the best possible intentions.”

Nice one. Many people take constructive feedback as a negative (and it can be hard to give). At least this approach encourages others to provide honest opinions.

A manifesto for improved use of email

Email. A critical business communication tool: ubiquitous in its use; with global reach – it’s clear to see how the benefits of improved, anytime, anywhere communication have broken down barriers and created efficiencies. But has email reached a tipping point – where the volume of messages and the need to respond have changed the focus from email as a tool that helps us to perform our work to one where email has become the work itself?

The problem of email overload has led some people to call for “no email days”, or to consider the “email rapture” (i.e. what would we do if email suddenly didn’t exist) and some organisations (most famously Atos) have initiated programmes to reduce or remove the use of internal email, using evocative terms like “information pollution”. (Forrester Analyst Philipp Karcher has an interesting view on this too.)  Others have targeted other drains on productivity (e.g. Coca Cola’s crackdown on voicemail) but it’s clear that there is a huge hidden cost associated with unproductivity in the way we communicate in the workplace.

I became an “email bankrupt” recently where, on return from the Christmas holidays, I processed the new items in my Inbox and moved everything else to an archive – starting a new year fresh with a new (empty) Inbox and vowing to stay on top of it (tidy Inbox… tidy mind).  Many of the archived messages were over a year old and whilst I intended to take action on them, there just wasn’t enough time in the day.  Mine is not an isolated case though – there are many stories on the Internet of those who have found it cathartic to start afresh – and many more with suggestions for keeping on top of things. Some ideas have gained traction, like the Inbox Zero approach evangelised by Merlin Mann or Scott Hanselman’s Outlook rules for processing email but the problem was perfectly summed up for me late in 2014 when I saw Matthew Inman’s cartoon depicting email as a monster that craves attention.

A cultural issue?

Many of the issues associated with email are cultural – in that it’s not the technology that’s at fault, but the way that people use it. For example, email is an asynchronous communication mechanism – i.e. the sender and recipient do not both need to be online at the same time for the message to be sent and received; however many email users seem to expect an immediate, or at least rapid response to email.  Multiply this by many tens or hundreds of emails sent/received a day – and their replies (possibly in various threads as people are copied or dropped from the distribution) – the resulting volumes of email become significant, as does the effort required to process it.  Consider the cost of this email mountain and the numbers are staggering (one infographic estimates the cost of processing email in North America alone to be around $1.7 trillion) – so anything that can be done to reduce the volume of email has to be positive.

In an age of smartphones and mobile communications, out of office messages may seem a little quaint (although we all need to take holidays – and that should include a break from business communications – although that’s a topic worthy of its own discussion) but the need to say “I’m travelling so my response may be delayed” is indicative of an organisation whose culture expects emails to be answered quickly – and where email is used as a task manager, rather than an information-sharing and collaboration tool. Not that there’s anything wrong with using email as a task manager within a workflow system – that’s a perfectly valid use of the technology – but when knowledge workers send an email asking someone to do something (often without context) as if it somehow absolves them of responsibility for a task and passes the baton to another, email becomes a giant “to do list” over which the owner has no control!

Paradoxically, the rapid response to email (fuelled by notifications each time a new one arrives) is feeding the email habits of others – if your colleagues are used to receiving rapid responses, late night replies, etc. to their emails then you make the problem worse by continuing to respond in that manner – a conditioned reflex which could be thought of as “Pavlov’s Inbox” (credit is due to Matt Ballantine for that observation).

Time for change – an email manifesto

In the 1990s, as email was rolled out to large populations in government and commercial organisations, it was common practice to include training on email etiquette. Back then, the focus was on use of informal language for business communication and the implications of emailing other organisations, forwarding/replying/replying to all/copying, capital letters (shouting), emoticons, etc. but maybe we’ve reached a point where we need another round of cultural change – a new email etiquette for 2015 – an email manifesto?

  1. Email should only be used where appropriate. If an immediate/rapid response is required, consider alternatives such as instant messaging, or a phone call. Save email for communications that are not time-sensitive. Use other systems (e.g. enterprise social media platforms and RSS-based newsfeeds) for collaboration/knowledge sharing.
  2. Emails should include a clear call to action. If it’s not clear what is being asked, you’re unlikely to achieve the desired outcome.
  3. Email sent does not equal action taken. Consider that emails may not be received, may not be read, or may be ignored. Just because something is a priority to one person, department, or company doesn’t mean it is to another and, if you need someone to do something, make sure they are on-board and ready to work with you. If you don’t hear back, follow up later – but consider using another method of communication.
  4. Carbon copy (CC) or blind carbon copy (BCC) means “for information”. If you expect someone to take action (see previous point), make sure they are on the “To” line.
  5. The subject heading must be relevant to the content of the email. Topics sometimes branch off in new directions as the conversation develops and if someone new is brought in to the discussion then it really helps to have a relevant subject line!
  6. Keep it brief (but not too brief). Emails should be concise – a couple of paragraphs – any more and it won’t be read. If you have to spell things out in more detail use bullets, etc. but consider the reader – they might be reading the message on a mobile device and if you make it easy to understand you’re more likely to get a positive response.
  7. Check your email before you send it. Brevity is good but does your message make sense? All too often one line responses require the recipient to decipher ambiguity or read through pages and pages of message history to understand the context.
  8. Check calendars when scheduling meetings. This is only tangentially related but, if the email system includes calendar functionality, take the time to check availability before sending a meeting request. It may be the best time for you – but is everyone else free? On a related note, emails to groups of people asking “when’s best for a meeting” are a waste of everyone’s time – use the calendar scheduling tools!
  9. Consider the cost of email. Not the cost of running the systems but of continually checking email. Multitasking is a myth. Turn off email notifications and try to get out of the habit of glancing at your smartphone in meetings. Focus on one thing at a time and do that thing well. Think before you send email and consider that every email costs money and time!