“You need to work less”, said David Hughes (@davidhughes) as we were discussing why I carried a power supply with my Surface Pro. This was in response to my observation that the device will get me through the work day but not through travel at each end as well.
“Actually, you have a point”, I thought. You see, weekdays are pretty much devoted to work and pseudo-work (blogging, social media, keeping up to date with tech, etc.) – except for meals, sleep, the couple of hours a week spent exercising, and a bit of TV in the evening.
David commented that he reads – rather than working – on the train (I tweet and email but really should read more). And when I asked how he organises his day, he introduced me to ToDoIst. It seems that having a task list is one thing but having a task list that can work for you is something else.
Today was different. I knew I wanted to get a blog post out this morning, finish writing a white paper, and find time to break and meet with David in my favourite coffee shop. I’m terrible at getting up on working-from-home days (more typically working well into the evening instead) but I had managed to be at my desk by 7am and that meant that when I left the house mid-morning I’d already got half a day’s work in. For once, I’d managed some semblance of work-life balance. The afternoon was still pretty tough and I’m still working as we approach 7pm (my over-caffeinated state wasn’t good for writing!) but I met my objectives for the day.
Now I’ve added ToDoIst to my workflow I’m hoping to be more focused, to wrap up each day and set priorities for the next. I need to stop trying to squeeze as much as I can into an ever-more-frantic existence and to be ruthless with what can and can’t be achieved. Time will tell how successful I am, but it feels better already.
In common with many people who travel for work, I keep a record of my journeys so that I can claim mileage expenses. For the last couple of years, that record has been a spiral-bound notebook (for driving) and Strava (for cycling) – though I haven’t actually claimed any mileage for cycling yet! I wanted to replace my analogue system with a smartphone app and, following a conversation a few weeks ago with my colleague Brian Cain (@BrianCainUC), I decided to create something using Microsoft PowerApps.
For those who are unfamiliar with PowerApps, it’s a technology solution provided by Microsoft to help normal business users – people who are not developers – to create simple applications to connect systems and data. The resulting apps can run on mobile devices, as well as on Windows 10.
PowerApps is available in my Office 365 subscription (though I think there are other ways to sign-up too) and I set to work creating my Mileage Recorder. A few minutes later I had something functional. Not long after that I had tweaked it to be pretty much what I needed. So I created an app in less than 30 minutes and it’s taken me three weeks to write this blog post! Hmm…
Creating my first PowerApps app
My app is a simple three-screen app – taking a table in an Excel Workbook from OneDrive for Business as a data source. PowerApps recognised the data types in the columns of the table and formatted accordingly, then I tweaked things a little in PowerApps Studio.
I haven’t looked in detail at the architecture used by PowerApps but essentially the PowerApps app provides a native OS wrapper for any apps that I create. This means my app will work on any platform where PowerApps is supported.
I can also create a direct link to the app on my phone’s home screen but the look and feel is one of a PowerApps app – not a native application. None of that is an issue – if I want more complex cross-platform apps then someone who can cut code (not me!) can use Xamarin – but for a simple app, PowerApps seems to do the job.
I did have some challenges worth noting but none are show-stoppers:
The Windows 10 smartphone that I use for work doesn’t meet the PowerApps hardware requirements, which is a little bizarre. So, I needed to use the app on my personal iPhone. I had created my PowerApp using my employer’s Office 365 tenant and a data source in my work OneDrive but I also use the Outlook app on iOS to connect to my personal Office 365 tenant. This combination was causing challenges that required re-authentication. I couldn’t find an easy way to move the app between tenants (though I’m sure there is one) so I moved the data source to my own tenant and recreated the PowerApp. I’m pretty sure that there must be a proper way to import and export apps, I just haven’t found it yet!
The web version of the PowerApps Studio seems a bit flaky at times but it is still a preview. Installing the Universal Windows Platform (UWP) version on a Windows 10 PC worked flawlessly though, even without any admin rights on my company Surface.
I couldn’t work out how to make a date and time field work as a simple date field. I really don’t need to record the time of my journeys – just the date!
PowerApps doesn’t support formulae in Excel workbooks. Instead, I had to apply some logic in the app to calculate the miles travelled, which displays in my app but doesn’t get written back to the data source. I’m pretty sure that’s fixable – I just haven’t worked out how, yet…
Is it really a good idea to let users create their own apps?
In my customer conversations, it’s quite common to hear IT people saying they don’t want their users creating PowerApps. I can see why – after all, we’ve all seen Access databases and Excel spreadsheets become “business-critical applications” that then create issues for the IT department. For what it’s worth, my view is that if something is really business critical, the business will invest resources into developing something that’s properly supportable. If it doesn’t reach that bar, then it’s not a business-critical app – and why would you prevent users from generating their own tools that help them to work more effectively, albeit unsupported by corporate IT?
To put it another way, people will do what they need to do to get things done, with or without IT’s blessing – so why not give them the tools to do things in a manner that integrates well with existing (supported) applications and services?
I’ll be at Microsoft tomorrow, attending a training event around PowerApps and Flow. That should give me a good opportunity to build on the experience from creating my Mileage Recorder. Together with PowerBI (something else I really need to learn more about) these technologies provide a trilogy of tools to empower users to do more with data. And on that note, I should probably end this blog post, as I’m starting to sound like a Microsoft marketing representative…
For some time now, Outlook has supported the use of multiple Exchange servers inside a single profile. This is very useful because I can use a single client to connect to my work email (@risual.com), my Microsoft email (until recently), any email accounts that are provided by customers (e.g. for project purposes) and my personal email account.
There are a couple of gotchas though:
My employer uses Azure Information Protection (AIP) to classify email and the AIP client will not allow me to send a message unless it’s classified, regardless of whether I’m sending using my risual.com account or one of the others.
I have to be careful to make sure that I don’t accidentally send business email from my personal account. This isn’t a problem when responding to an existing message but is possible if the focus is on my personal Inbox and I start a new message thinking “I just need to email so-and-so about something-or-other” (often out of hours).
The first of these is just a minor inconvenience – I just send as Unclassified if I’m not using my risual.com account. The second requires a little more thought – and my colleague Simon Bilton (@sabrisual) suggested creating a transport rule in Exchange Online (who said Engagement Managers aren’t technical?).
So, as of now, the following rule is in place:
<?xml version="1.0" encoding="utf-16" standalone="yes"?> <rules name="TransportVersioned"> <rule name="Prevent accidentally sending work email from personal account" id="a0f59e36-93f1-4f2e-bccb-3eddf0c097e1" format="cmdlet"> <version requiredMinVersion="184.108.40.206"> <commandBlock><![CDATA[New-TransportRule -Name 'Prevent accidentally sending work email from personal account' -Comments ' ' -Mode Enforce -RecipientAddressContainsWords 'risual.com' -ExceptIfSentTo 'email@example.com' -SetAuditSeverity 'High' -RejectMessageReasonText 'This email contains recipients at risual.com and you are sending from your personal account' -RejectMessageEnhancedStatusCode '5.7.1']]></commandBlock> </version> </rule> </rules>
This rejects email sent from my Exchange Online subscription to any risual.com address except firstname.lastname@example.org. That exception allows my wife (on the same server) to send email to me and still allows me to forward emails to myself at work (e.g. receipts for expenses using my personal email address).
I’ve tested by sending to both email@example.com (allowed) and firstname.lastname@example.org (blocked) so accidentally emailing someone at work from my personal address is no longer a concern!
Last year I wrote a post about data residency options for Office 365 customers in the UK. At the time, Microsoft was publishing a window for UK-based customers to request data moves between December 2016 and February 2017 but then the web page was updated to say “TBA”. Now, the how to request your data move page has been updated again (thanks to @gavinmorrison for the tip-off), giving UK customers six months between 15 March 2017 and 15 September 2017 to request a move to UK-hosting. Microsoft will then take up to 2 years to complete the move.
This is a one-time opportunity to request a data move (although tenants created after UK datacenter availability will already be hosted in the UK) but it’s only recommended if your organisation has strict data residency requirements. If you don’t see the option to move, it’s probably because:
You’re using the old Office 365 Admin Center – the option is only available (under Settings, Organization Profile, Data Residency Option) in the preview Admin Center.
Your tenant is not eligible for the move.
All of your data is already located in the new region.
Once you’ve started the move process, it cannot be cancelled.
A couple of days ago, I was having issues with the Surface Pen that I use with my Surface Pro 3. Microsoft’s Troubleshooting Surface Pen page suggested I needed to replace the AAAA battery and, sure enough, a quick test on a battery tester confirmed that my battery was indeed flat.
I went to Amazon and bought a pack of 4 AAAA batteries and was pretty pleased to find I could get near-instant gratification, with the batteries delivered around 4 hours later!
Needed an AAAA battery for my #Surface Pen. Ordered early afternoon. Delivered at ~17:30. Now that’s pretty awesome @AmazonUK#Prime
I had to test this out so, yesterday, I disassembled an old battery that was due to be recycled and, sure enough, there were 6 AAAA-sized cells! In the image below you can see the disassembled PP3 on the right, with the old Duracell AAAA and the new Amazon Basics AAAA cells to the left:
The Amazon and Azure models are slightly different but in the past we’ve seen outages to the Azure identity system (for example) impact on other Microsoft services (Office 365). When that happened, Microsoft’s Office 365 status page didn’t update because of a caching/CDN issue. It seems Amazon didn’t learn from Microsoft’s mistakes!
Randy Bias (@RandyBias) is a former Director at OpenStack and a respected expert on many cloud concepts. Randy and I exchanged many tweets on the topic of the AWS outage but, after multiple replies, I thought a blog post might be more appropriate. You see, I hold the view that not all systems need to be highly available. Sometimes, failure is OK. It all comes down to requirements:
@randybias Depends what the system is. Not everything needs to be highly available. There’s a requirements/cost/risk trade-off
For Azure there are more regions and these are paired for availability (for example when using geo-redundant storage). In addition, each region will consist of multiple datacentre facilities.
So, if we want to make sure our application can survive a region failure, there are ways to design around this. Just be ready for the solution we sold to the business based on using commodity cloud services to start to look rather expensive. Whereas on-premises we typically have two datacentres with resilient connections, then we’ll want to do the same in the cloud. But, just as not all systems are in all datacentres on-premises, that might also be the case in the cloud. If it’s a service for which some downtime can be tolerated, then we might not need to worry about a multi-region architecture. In cases where we’re not at all concerned about downtime we might not even use an availability set…
Other times – i.e. if the application is a web service for which an outage would cause reputational or financial damage – we may have a requirement for higher availability. That’s where so many of the services impacted by Tuesday’s AWS outage went wrong:
Of course, we might spread resources around regions for other reasons too – like placing them closer to users – but that comes back to my point about requirements. If there’s a requirement for fast, low-latency access then we need to design in the dedicated links (e.g. AWS Direct Connect or Azure ExpressRoute) and we’ll probably have more than one of them too, each terminating in a different region, with load balancers and all sorts of other considerations.
Because a cloud provider could be one of those single points of failure, many people are advocating multi-cloud architectures. But, if you think multi-region is expensive, get ready for some seriously complex architecture and associated costs in a multi-cloud environment. Just as in the on-premises world, many enterprises use a single managed services provider (albeit with multiple datacentres), in the cloud many of us will continue to use a single cloud provider. Designing for failure does not necessarily mean multi-cloud.
Of course, a single-cloud solution has its risks. Randy is absolutely spot on in his reply below:
@markwilsonit Public clouds are walled gardens and create significant points of lock-in. Long term AWS is no different than Oracle software.
It could be argued that one man’s “lock-in” is another’s “making the most of our existing technology investments”. If I have a Microsoft Enterprise Agreement, I want to make sure that I use the software and services that I’m paying for. And running a parallel infrastructure on another cloud is probably not doing that. Not unless I can justify to the CFO why I’m running redundant systems just in case one goes down for a few hours.
That doesn’t mean we can avoid designing with the future in mind. We must always have an exit strategy and, where possible, think about designing systems with a level of abstraction to make them cloud-agnostic.
Ultimately though it all comes back to requirements – and the ability to pay. We might like an Aston Martin but if the budget is more BMW then we’ll need to make some compromises – with an associated risk, signed off by senior management, of course.
[Updated 2 March 2017 16:15 to include the Mark Twomey tweet that I missed out in the original edit]
I follow some very smart people on Twitter. Sometimes they tweet and blog stuff that’s way over my head. Often I agree with them. Occasionally I don’t.
Last night, I spotted a tweet from Matt Ballantine (@ballantine70) that I felt compelled to rebel against. I’m late to the party (the tweet is nearly a week old – which is an age in the Twittersphere) but this is what Matt had to say, together with my response:
20 years of locking down corporate PCs have left the workforce without the heuristic skills necessary to safely navigate the internet…
I’ve long held the view that locking down PCs is missing the point. Even when BYOD was “a thing” (around 2010), I was writing that we needed to stop worrying about devices and operating systems and to start looking at data and applications. Now that’s becoming mainstream thinking – mobile device management (MDM) is finally being replaced with mobile application management (MAM) – and organisations are finally realising that laptops and “hybrid” devices are also mobile devices (it’s not just about tablets and phones).
The age of lockdown is also starting to wane. Yes, organisations will still have corporate builds and still control what employees can do with the tech running on their networks but to get back to Matt’s statement – I simply don’t buy that the lockdown is causing people to have an inability to navigate the Internet safely.
A general lack of digital skills
You see, I’ll suggest that the reason “the workforce [do not have] the heuristic skills necessary to safely navigate the Internet” is a general lack of digital skills. We (in general) have not evolved our technical skills for the use of “office productivity” tools since the mid-1990s. When I was at Uni’, I used MS-DOS 6.0 and WordPerfect 5.1. By my final year, I had progressed to Windows 3.11 for Workgroups and Word for Windows 2.0. And the way most people use a word processor they might as well still be on that platform. In general, people don’t use the features and functionality in our bloated Office products. They just type words, put blank lines in for spacing, pick some fonts manually (ever heard of styles?) and save. I could use similar examples for presentations in PowerPoint or for spreadsheets in Excel. The introduction of the ribbon in Microsoft Office circa 2007 was said to be an attempt to surface the features people use the most (but features couldn’t be removed entirely because telemetry told Microsoft that everyone uses some of the features, just not all of us, all of the time).
At his Middle School (then aged around 9-11), my son was commended for his tech skills because he was able to offer classroom IT support to the teachers. That’s not because he’s a tech genius but because the staff at the school didn’t know how to use Windows+P to connect to an external screen. To be fair to his teachers that’s not unique to them – it’s the same in most offices too. Similarly for booking calendar appointments for meetings (a black art to some) or not sending email attachments to share documents. The list goes on.
We teach our children to be safe on the Internet but many adults struggle too. “Would you like to see the dancing pigs?” Oh, go on then – click anything to make the box go away. Followed by “Oops, why is my browser opening all of these windows showing sites with pictures of scantily-clad ladies?”. This is not a new phenomenon either.
I’m in danger here of going off on a bit of a rant, so I’ll stop for a moment and focus on what many of us talk a lot about today – digital transformation – or rather how the digital skills gap is hindering our ability to transform.
Consultants like me work with organisations to help them adopt new technologies in order to address business issues, embrace change and, ideally, adapt their business to innovate – perhaps even disruptively. At least, that’s the idea – far too many organisations seem to want to “run an Office 365 project” rather than to “deliver a flexible workstyle facilitated by modern end-user computing services delivered using a software as a service model”. If they can’t see past the tech, it’s unlikely they will deliver true digital transformation.
Even if their business processes evolve, do the staff have the skills to embrace the change? Do we have one generation (mine) still stuck in 1995, whilst the millennials want to do everything with apps on their phones (incidentally, I think a lot of the stuff written about millennials is rubbish too – but that’s something for another post)? As Lewis Richards (@stroker) notes below, being digital is a mindset.
81-year-old woman makes iPhone app after only starting to use computers at 60 https://t.co/wvKTPULFfD being digital is a mindset #ln
Many of us understand change management from a technology or service standpoint – but what about people change management? This is where models like the ADKAR model (from Prosci) can help*
ADKAR stands for Awareness, Desire, Knowledge, Ability and Reinforcement – as illustrated below:
It’s about taking people on a journey and helping to manage organisational/people change:
We build awareness with communications, model offices, etc. to help people become aware that a change is on the horizon. People are naturally resistant to change, so we need to make them aware of it, take away the initial shock and let them get their heads around what’s happening.
After we’ve made people aware of change and helped them to understand why it’s happening, we turn our attention to helping people to embrace the potential. Initially, this is about desire – selling the benefits of the change so that people are asking “when can I have this?”.
Knowledge is developed through training. That might not be classroom-based – it could take many forms – but fundamentally it needs to address the skills that people need to adapt to the change – avoiding the digital skills gap I mentioned above that’s be brought on through years of introducing new systems and expecting people to just “get on with it”.
Once equipped with desire and knowledge, people gain the ability to function in the new way.
Finally, business changes need to change to take advantage of new capabilities. Critically, the new methods and processes need to be reinforced to ensure that organisations don’t fall back into their old ways of working.
Using this model (or something similar), we can equip people to adapt to change and even embrace it. And with suitably skilled people on board, digital transformation has a much better chance of success.
People’s apparent inability to use technology well is not down to the way that corporates have traditionally managed devices. It’s down to a general lack of education and training around digital skills. As we navigate the current wave of digital transformation we have an opportunity to redress that balance. And if we don’t, then we won’t see the benefits and we’ll fail to transform.
*This is not an advert for ADKAR – that’s just the model that I’m familiar with. Other change management methodologies are available. Your mileage may vary. etc. etc.