Weeknote 14/2020: Podcasting, furlough and a socially-distanced birthday

This content is 4 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

We’re living in strange times at the moment, so it seems as good as ever an opportunity to bring back my attempts to blog at least weekly with a brief precis of my week.

In the beginning

The week started as normal. Well, sort of. The new normal. Like everyone else in the UK, I’m living in times of enforced social distancing, with limited reasons to leave the house. Thankfully, I can still exercise once a day – which for me is either a dog walk, a run or a bike ride.

On the work front, I had a couple of conversations around potential client work, but was also grappling with recording Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA) skills for my team. Those who’ve known me since my Fujitsu days may know that I’m no fan of SFIA and it was part of the reason I chose to leave that company… but it seems I can’t escape it.


On Monday evening, I stood in for Chris Weston (@ChrisWeston) as a spare “W” on the WB-40 Podcast. Matt Ballantine (@Ballantine70) and I had a chat about the impact of mass remote working, and Matt quizzed me about retro computing. I was terrible in the quiz but I think I managed to sound reasonably coherent in the interview – which was a lot of fun!


A few weeks ago, most people in the UK would never have heard of “Furlough Leave”. For many, it’s become common parlance now, as the UK Government’s Job Retention Scheme becomes reality for hundreds of thousands, if not millions of employees. It’s a positive thing – it means that businesses can claim some cash from the Government to keep them afloat whilst staff who are unable to work due to the COVID-19/Coronavirus crisis restrictions are sent home. In theory, with businesses still liquid, we will all have jobs to go back to, once we’re allowed to return to some semblance of normality.

On Tuesday, I was part of a management team drawing up a list of potentially affected staff (including myself), based on strict criteria around individuals’ current workloads. On Wednesday it was confirmed that I would no longer be required to attend work for the next three weeks from that evening. I can’t provide any services for my employer – though I should stay in touch and personal development is encouraged.

Social distancing whilst shopping for immediate and extended family

So, Thursday morning, time to shop for provisions: stock is returning to the supermarket shelves after a relatively small shift in shopping habits completely disrupted the UK’s “just in time” supply chain. It’s hardly surprising as a nation prepared to stay in for a few weeks, with no more eating at school/work, no pubs/cafés/restaurants, and the media fuelling chaos with reports of “panic buying”.

Right now, after our excellent independent traders (like Olney Butchers), the weekly town market is the best place to go with plenty of produce, people keeping their distance, and fresh air. Unfortunately, with a family of four to feed (and elderly relatives to shop for too), it wasn’t enough – which meant trawling through two more supermarkets and a convenience store to find everything – and a whole morning gone. I’m not sure how many people I interacted with but it was probably too many, despite my best efforts.

Learning and development

With some provisions in the house, I spent a chunk of time researching Amazon Web Services certifications, before starting studying for the AWS Cloud Practitioner Essentials Exam. It should be a six hour course but I can’t speed up/slow down the video, so I keep on stopping and taking notes (depending on the presenter) which makes it slow going…

I did do some Googling though, and found that a combination of Soundflower and Google Docs could be used to transcribe the audio!

I also dropped into a Microsoft virtual launch event for the latest Microsoft Business Applications (Dynamics 365 and Power Platform) updates. There’s lots of good stuff happening there – hopefully I’ll turn it into a blog post soon…


Saturday night was a repeat of the previous week, taking part in “Nick’s Pub Quiz”. For those who haven’t heard of it – Nick Heath (@NickHeathSport) is a sports commentator who, understandably, is a bit light on the work front right now so he’s started running Internet Pub Quizzes, streaming on YouTube, for a suggested £1/person donation. Saturday night was his sixth (and my family’s second) – with over 1500 attendees on the live stream. Just like last week, my friend James and his family also took part (in their house) with us comparing scores on WhatsApp for a bit of competition!

Another year older

Ending the week on a high, Sunday saw my birthday arrive (48). We may not be able to go far, but I did manage a cycle ride with my eldest son, then back home for birthday cake (home-made Battenberg cake), and a family BBQ. And the sun shone. So, all in all, not a bad end to the week.

Six months to set up a new blog! What were you doing man?

This content is 13 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

Yesterday, I wrote about how I’ve been working on setting up a blogging platform at work.  But I also said I’d been working on this for six months.  Six months! To set up a blog! What took so long?

To be fair, it didn’t take me six months.  At least not six months of solid work, just six months of elapsed time.  And, if you’re thinking about doing something similar in your organisation, this post includes some of the things you might want to consider.

Getting organised

All the usual project management, technology and service management issues need to be covered.  Starting out from a project mandate, I needed to ensure that all stakeholders were in agreement as to what we’re producing, and tie down some clear requirements against which a technology platform and service wrap-around could be designed. In my case, that was pretty straightforward, but it still required co-operation from various business functions in several geographies.

Getting organised and selecting a technology platform

With some requirements covered off, it was on to technology selection, and it’s no good just setting up a web server and putting it on the ‘net – the solution needs to be manageable and supportable, long after I’ve ceased to be involved!  Furthermore, because we’re a managed service organisation, it doesn’t look too good to be buying in web hosting services from outside, so it needed to be something that we manage ourselves.

As it happened, I found that some of my colleagues elsewhere in the company were already doing something similar – and they had space on their platform for us to set up an new instance.

Bingo! That’s the technology sorted, what else needs to be done?

Getting organised, selecting a technology platform, and sorting out the marketing

The whole purpose of this activity is demonstrating thought leadership – and thought leadership is marketing (argh! I’ve become a marketeer – much to the amusement of my marketing professional wife, as she witnesses her tame geek cross over to “the dark side”).  It’s no good going off half-cocked and so I worked with some of my colleagues who really are marketing professionals (not just playing at it like me) to create a social media marketing strategy.  Branding was another element.  It’s no good just picking a theme that I like from the ‘net and applying it to our platform.  I worked with our internal agency’s designers and developers to ensure that the appropriate brand standards were followed, so that the eventual blog platform site had the same look and feel as the corporate site, and that it functioned well in an accessible manner, across many browsers.  Ah yes. The corporate site. Time to work with the Web marketing team to ensure that the appropriate links and redirects are in place.  So, it seems that creating a corporate blog platform is not as easy as just throwing up a new WordPress instance then!

Getting organised, selecting a technology platform, sorting out the marketing, and the service management

I mentioned service management earlier.  However few users the solution has on day one, I needed to be sure that, as it grows (as these things tend to), there would be a supported route for managing capacity, ensuring that servers and software are maintained and kept up-to-date, and that if someone calls the IT helpdesk for support, the calls are routed appropriately.  There’s actually a whole load more to it than that, but you get the idea.

Getting organised, selecting a technology platform, sorting out the marketing, the service management, and the content

Content. Yes, content. Content is king and all that.  We talked about marketing, and we knew what we wanted to achieve in broad terms but someone has to actually write something to post on each blog.  Writing is a creative process; it’s not just something you can site down and do at 9am each day, but all of the content providers need to be sure that they can put aside the necessary time to write new posts – and consistency of posting is more important than frequency.  I don’t mind if there’s only one post a month, as long as there is one post every month. That meant creating a funnel of ideas for our content producers to draw inspiration from.

Getting organised, selecting a technology platform, sorting out the marketing, the service management, the content, and the supporting policies

Most large organisations will have policies that govern things like use of the Internet, marketing, speaking on behalf of the company, etc. and those policies may well cover the use of social media; however there’s a world of difference between responsible use of Facebook/LinkedIn/Twitter/whatever as individuals and writing on the company’s own website.  Also, it’s simply not practical (or even ethical) to pre-approve blog posts in the way that we might for a press release.  That meant that some policies might need to be updated, and some additional training needs to provided to users.

All of this is just scraping the surface

It’s been a long haul – I’ve covered some of the main considerations in this post but, of course, as should be expected in any large organisation there were various challenges to overcome that I haven’t gone into the details of here. It’s been a steep learning curve for me, but fun too. And it’s great to look back and look at the number of things that we had to do to get to where we are today, and how many people were involved, each adding their own unique element to the project.

That’s it for the work-related posts on this blog – for the time being at least – but this isn’t really about the company that I work for, it’s about the effort that’s involved in pretty much any new technology implementation.  And if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well!

Thought for the day: coping with information overload

This content is 15 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

As I return from a well-earned family holiday, after what has been a pretty crappy few months, it seems like a pretty good time to remind myself of the key points from a magazine cutting that is permanently above my desk at home. Entitled “Your Route to the Top: Coping with Overload”, this appeared in the December 2005 edition of Management Today magazine and looks like good advice with which to reacquaint myself (indeed, an updated version of this list appeared in the May 2009 issue of the magazine):

Focus. Successful people are rarely frantic, and frantic people are rarely successful. Take a close look at your schedule and clear out the clutter.

Make you time your own. Is your diary driving you? Take control and be as careful with commitments as you are considerate of other people’s time.

Let go. Trying to achieve everything is admirable, but impossible. Realise that an active imagination will generate more proposals than there is time to get done.

Have a single point of reference. A master to-do list will triumpth over an abundance of sticky notes, text reminders and diary scribbles.

Prioritise. What’s critical in the next hours, days or weeks? Choose your priorities and fix a later time for less urgent things.

Ditch your dependants. Are there people in your team who rely on your time? Support them in solving their problems alone. They will feel more confident; you’ll find more time to breathe.

Lighten the load. Are there ideas where others can help? Match interests to tasks – could someone else write the first draft or attend a new client meeting?

Break down big tasks. Split a job into its components and tackle each part as needed, rather than struggle to do it all now.

Bring clarity through sharing. Engaging others at the start can reassure you that you’re on the right track. It also ensures their support and cuts the risk of having to invest time later.

Use others to estimate your time. Research has shown that other people give more accurate estimates of how long something takes than the person doing the task.

Get on with it. Once you have worked out where your focus is, stop organising and start doing.”

Also on my reading list whilst I was away were a couple of MindGym books that my wife bought for me some time ago and David Allen’s Getting Things Done: How to Achieve Stress-free Productivity. Paradoxically, getting around to reading books like Getting Things Done, is something I’ve been consistently failing to get done for the last couple of years! Let’s see if any of this reading helps me to be more effective when I return to work next week!

[Postscript: I wrote this post and set it to publish whilst I was away… I never did get around to reading the Getting Things Done or MindGym books. Nor did I finish the one about understanding my strong-willed child, or even the Harry Potter that I’m mid-way through. I did manage to read a few photography magazines though and catch up on my backlog of Sunday Times motoring supplements! Never mind… maybe applying some of the actions above will help me to make the time to catch up on my reading!]

So, you want to be an infrastructure architect?

This content is 16 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

Over the years I’ve had various jobs which have been basically the same role but with different job titles. Officially, I’ve been a Consultant, Senior Consultant, Project Manager, Senior Technical Consultant, Senior Customer Solution Architect (which would have been a Principal Consultant in the same organisation a few years earlier but management swapped the “architect” word for a drop in implied seniority) but if you ask me what I am, I tend to say I’m an infrastructure architect.

Issue 15 of The [MSDN] Architecture Journal included an article about becoming an architect in a systems integrator. I read this with interest, as that’s basically what I do for a living (believe me, I enjoy writing about technology but it will be a long while before I can give up my day job)!

The Architecture Journal tends to have an application focus (which is only natural – after all, it is produced by developer-focused group in a software company) and I don’t know much about application development but I do know how to put together IT solutions using common off the shelf (COTS) applications. I tend to work mostly with Microsoft products but I’ve made it my business to learn about the alternatives (which is why I’m a VMware Certified Professional and an Red Hat Certified Technician). Even so, I’m stuck at a crossroads. I’m passionate about technology – I really like to use it to solve problems – but I work for a managed services company (an outsourcer in common parlance) where we deliver solutions in the form of services and bespoke technology solutions are not encouraged. It seems that, if I want to progress in my current organisation, I’m under more and more pressure to leave my technical acumen behind and concentrate on the some of the other architect’s competencies.

Architect competencies

I’m passionate about technology – I really like to use it to solve problems

I understand that IT architecture is about far more than just technology. That’s why I gained a project management qualification (since lapsed, but the skills are still there) and, over the years, I’ve developed some of the softer skills too – some which can be learnt (like listening and communications skills) – others of which only come with experience. I think it’s important to be able to dive into the technology when required (which, incidentally, I find helps to earn the respect of your team and then assists with the leadership part of the architect’s role) but just as important to be able to rise up and take a holistic view of the overall solution. I know that I’m not alone in my belief that many of the architects joining our company are too detached from technology to truly understand what it can do to address customers’ business problems.

Architect roles
OK, so I’m a solutions architect who can still geek out when the need arises. I’m still a way off becoming an enterprise architect – but do I really need to leave behind my technical skills (after having already dumped specialist knowledge in favour of breadth)? Surely there is a role for senior technologists? Or have I hit a glass ceiling, at just 36 years of age?

I’m hoping not – and that’s why I’m interested in the series of webcasts that Microsoft Consulting Services are running over the next few months – MCS Talks: Enterprise Architecture. Session 1 looked at infrastructure architecture (a recorded version of the first session is available) and future sessions will examine:

  • Core infrastructure.
  • Messaging.
  • Security and PKI.
  • Identify and access management.
  • Desktop deployment.
  • Configuration management.
  • Operations management.
  • SharePoint.
  • Application virtualisation.

As should be expected, being delivered by Microsoft consultants, the sessions are Microsoft product-heavy (even the session titles give that much away); however the intention of the series is to connect business challenges with technology solutions and the Microsoft products mentioned could be replaced with alternatives from an other vendors. More details on the series can be found on the MCS Talks blog.

This might not appeal to true enterprise architects but for those of us who work in the solution or technical architecture space, this looks like it may well be worth an hour or so of our time each fortnight for the rest of the year. At the very least it should help to increase breadth of knowledge around Microsoft infrastructure products.

And, of course, I’ll be spouting forth with my own edited highlights on this blog.

Regaining control of e-mail with Inbox Zero

This content is 16 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

In my day job (the one that pays the bills… not this website), my boss is a guy called Garry Martin. At the risk of sounding sycophantic, I can learn a lot from Garry – not only because he somehow manages to walk the fine line between technical knowledge and effective management, but because he seems to do it with effortless efficiency. Modestly, he tells me that its all a façade and that I should see his office at home but there is a saying that perception is reality – and my perception is that he is highly productive – so I’m trying to learn some of the life hacking techniques that he uses.

The first on his list of techniques is Getting Things Done (GTD). I haven’t read David Allen’s book on GTD and my attempt to listen to the audio version on a transatlantic flight last November resulted in my falling asleep – so that didn’t get much done. Even so, I do listen to a lot of podcasts featuring Merlin Mann, who is something of a GTD evangelist, and have been meaning for some time now to watch the Google Tech Talk video on the method of e-mail management that Merlin refers to as Inbox Zero. It’s no co-incidence that Garry uses this method, and after he helped me to convert to the system last week, I’m hooked.

You see, I have long since been a slave to my e-mail – and as for RSS feeds, I rarely find the time to look at them (ironic for a prolific blogger). I also find instant messaging and SMS very inefficient methods of communication. So, I decided to start 2008 with a new system for managing mail – less frequent e-mail checks, fewer hierarchical folders, and more efficiency. It didn’t work. I still found that every month I needed a day to sort out e-mail. That is not the idea of productivity that I had in mind. I had the right ideas but was failing to process to zero.

Enter Inbox Zero.

“One of the most important soft skills you can have is figuring out how to deal with a high volume of e-mail.”

[Merlin Mann]

Inbox Zero is based on GTD – also known as advanced common sense. That is to say that the principles are obvious, but that we don’t always do obvious things. In his Google Tech Talk, Mann outlined four principles for e-mail management:

  1. E-mail is just a medium.
  2. There is one place for anything (no need for hierarchy).
  3. Process to zero (every time that you check e-mail – just checking is not enough).
  4. Convert to actions (even if that action is just to delete the message).

“One of the most important soft skills you can have is figuring out how to deal with a high volume of e-mail”

Mann suggest that just 5 verbs are enough to process all e-mail (delete, delegate, respond, defer and do) – I’m using a slightly different set of folders but the principle is the same – sorting messages (both Inbox and Sent Items) into a limited number of categories:

  • Action – I need to do something with this.
  • Archive – one folder, no hierarchy, searchable.
  • Review – have a look at this later.
  • Someday – this might be interesting, but not now.
  • Waiting – waiting for a response from someone else.

So that’s the structure, but how does it actually help to Get Things Done? Firstly, stop leaving e-mail open all day – get into the habit of regular processing – Merlin Mann suggests these tips:

  1. Do e-mail less (go and work!). Do you really need to look at your messages more than hourly? I try to only look at my mail only three to five times a day but that is practically impossible with the mail client open and notifications appearing every few minutes. So close Outlook/ Entourage/Evolution/Thunderbird/Mail, or whatever you use. And only open it for as long as it takes to process the Inbox to zero, a few times a day. It may feel a bit like going cold turkey but believe me, it’s worth it.
  2. Cheat. Filter e-mail and check daily, weekly, or whatever. So, for example, I receive a bunch of corporate communications that rarely require action. I can filter them straight to my review folder and check them daily.
  3. No fiddling. Forget the “where did I put stuff” mentality that comes with hierarchical storage systems. Inbox Zero is about creating and managing actions – anything more than that is just playing with e-mail.

Finally, when you set up your Inbox Zero structure, what about the pile of e-mail that is already waiting to be processed? Mann suggests two possibilities for this:

  1. E-mail bankruptcy – BCC everyone in your address book and tell them you are starting afresh and to resend anything that is important.
  2. That may not go down too well in a work environment so try an e-mail DMZ – copy everything to a folder, set up the Inbox Zero folders and process the DMZ in batches, as and when time permits. It still needs to be processed to zero but starting off with a mountain of e-mail will not help to get you organised.

The Inbox Zero video embedded above (or the audio version) should be mandatory reading for everyone in my organisation. The first 30 minutes are Merlin Mann’s talk and the second half consists of audience questions. Having managed to regain some control over my work communications (and it’s early days but I have a good feeling about this), I’m going to attack my home e-mail – all 3612 Inbox items (2504 unread), 1634 sent items, and hundreds of folders worth of messages.

Time to think logically

This content is 16 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

I’ve been working with a customer to perform a healthcheck on their Active Directory in order to (hopefully) mitigate the risk of issues as they migrate users and mailboxes between domains. One of the things that concerned me was that dcdiag.exe – one of the Windows Server 2003 Support Tools that I was using as part of the healthcheck – was crashing part way through.

I was pretty stumped, so I used one of the support incidents on our Microsoft Premier Support contract… and as my expert colleagues in Fujitsu’s Enterprise Support team guided me through the troubleshooting process towards a resolution (which was obvious to anyone thinking clearly), I realised that I should have been able to work this through by myself.

Now that the issue is resolved I’m kicking myself for effectively wasting an incident on what should be straightforward but that’s what happens when you spend so much time talking about technology and designing solutions and so little actually resolving problems (it probably also has something to do with spending so much time travelling and so little time sleeping).  So, at the risk of embarrassing myself in years to come with a post that proves what an idiot I can be, I decided to post a little lesson on troubleshooting incidents like this, in the hope that someone else finds it useful…

  1. Don’t panic.  OK, so you’re on a client site, on your own, and the customer is paying for your expertise but (as one of my customers taught me many years back – thank you Andy Cumiskay if you’re reading), an expert does not necessarily know all the answers.  An expert knows how to analyse a situation and ask the right questions to find the answer.  Stop and think.
  2. What are you doing?  In my case I was running dcdiag /e /c /v /f:dcdiag.log and it was aborting.  So, what was I actually asking the computer to do?  Well, /e means for all servers in the enterprise – so what if I run the command against individual servers? Does it affect them all – and is there a pattern to the failure? /c means comprehensive – is there just a single test that’s failing?  /v is verbose – that’s probably fine, and /f for logging to a file, no problem there either.  Using this method, the problem was narrowed down to a single domain controller.
  3. Could this be done another way? In my case, I was running the command from a remote server – what if I run it from the target computer?  In my case, the problem existed whether run locally or remotely.
  4. Having narrowed down the problem, look at the diagnostic evidence.  At first , the errors in the event log didn’t seem to tell me much.  Or did they?  What about the version number of the faulting application?  Does it match the version of the installed operating system.  In my case the application log had an error message where the description read (in part): "Faulting application dcdiag.exe, version 5.2.3790.1830, faulting module ntdll.dll, version 5.2.3790.3959, fault address 0x0002caa2".  So, ntdll.dll is the service pack 2 version (3959) and dcdiag.exe is at service pack 1 (1830) – i.e. not at the same service pack revision.  If the event logs don’t give this much information, try looking at file version information in the file properties.
  5. Is an alternative version available?  Google (or Windows Live Search, Yahoo!, Ask, etc.) is your friend.  After downloading and installing the service pack 2 version of the Window Server 2003 Support Tools, dcdiag.exe stopped crashing.  Problem solved.

All it needed was a little logical thinking.  Thanks to Richard and Alastair in Fujitsu Services’ Enterprise Support group – not just for the diagnosis but for reminding me how to solve problems.

Crowdsourcing for advice on PC security software

This content is 17 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

What would you do if you received a message that started like this?

Hi chaps,

In a somewhat strange experiment, you have found yourself BCC’d on this e-mail as the people whose technical and professional opinion I value the most. If that doesn’t feel right to you, perhaps Outlook auto-complete ended up selecting the wrong person from the GAL or my Personal Address Book! ;-)

If your spam filters hadn’t already picked it out you might stop reading right there, except that this was the start of a message from one of my colleagues, who was experimenting with an alternative method of gathering information – crowdsourcing. The theory is good – after all, why spend hours reading lots of highly subjective reviews of software, probably biased by the vendors public relations efforts, when you can ask some trusted colleagues to spend ten minutes telling you what they think (in this case, which anti-virus/anti-spam/personal firewall products they use and why they use them?). For those who are unconvinced by this method of research and say that those ten minutes are valuable and that you could be doing something worthwhile instead, think about this… we’re talking about people who trust one-another’s advice here – one day that favour will be returned.

In this case, my colleague returned the favour by sharing the information – and allowing me to post it here! What follows is the Garry Martin guide to selecting PC security software:

Most of you swear by AVG Free and those that don’t, use “commercial” products instead (such as those from Symantec, McAfee or Microsoft etc.) that were either free, or that they have paid very little for under various special offer programmes. Only two of you appear to have paid retail prices for a product. Whilst there was some anecdotal evidence of issues with different programs, no one strongly warned me away from a particular product or manufacturer.

Again, most of you use the free Windows Defender (http://www.microsoft.com/athome/security/spyware/software/default.mspx) and those that don’t, use the anti-spyware capability of their “commercial” suite products (Symantec, McAfee etc.). Some of you supplement this real-time scanning with the occasional run of Ad-Aware 2007 Free or the freeware Spybot – Search and Destroy just to be sure. Many of you have found things that Windows Defender has let through using this method.

Most of you are happy with the Windows Firewall built in to Windows XP and Windows Vista. Those of you that use something different do so generally because it is part of your “commercial” suite. Many of you mentioned that you were happy anyway as you were also behind the hardware firewall of your ADSL router.

Content Filtering
Only one of you uses web content filtering. This use is primarily to protect the prying eyes of little ones, and the product used is CyberPatrol.

One notable mention from me is that I also use the freeware CCleaner to clear my tracking cookies on every boot and through a batch file when required. CCleaner allows you to tag cookies you want to keep, so is very effective in protecting your privacy. I’m sure it has hundreds of other features, but this is the only one I use it for and it works very well.

So in summary, my personal “crowdsourcing” experiment worked, and worked very well. I didn’t need to research this myself, and hopefully in the process have put together some useful information for all of you. Result. Oh, and hopefully my PC is now at least as secure as your PC is!

[I was one of the mugs who paid retail prices for a product… although in fairness it was for my wife’s business…]

Garry’s experiment doesn’t have to stop there though – if you have any views on either the crowdsourcing concept or on PC security software, please leave a comment on this post.

Totally protected

Finding a balance between an effective presentation and “death by PowerPoint”

This content is 18 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

If, like me, you attend a large number of presentations from suppliers and partners, you are probably acquainted with the concept of “death by PowerPoint” but more recently I’ve noticed a trend towards using alternative visual aids (or even none at all) to grab the attention of the audience.

A few weeks back, Microsoft’s Steve Lamb was planning to give a full day seminar with no PowerPoint slides. I don’t know how that went (probably quite well, as it was a technical event with lots of demonstrations) but I recently saw CA’s Executive Vice President for Technology Strategy and Chief Technology Officer, Mark Barrenechea, speak without PowerPoint and I found the event to be very disappointing. Far from inspiring the audience with his presentation, the lasting impression with which I left the impressive Ditton Manor venue was one of a poorly-prepared presenter who scribbled some unintelligible notes on a few OHP foils (remember them?) and ran out of time. I’m sure that Mark was actually extremely well prepared, but that was the impression with which I left the event (and that will stick in my mind).

Whilst dropping PowerPoint is a commendable idea, in order to dump the visual aids (in whatever form – PowerPoint, OHP foils, or flipchart), an extremely charismatic presenter is required who can hold the audience’s attention completely and, in the business world, there aren’t too many people who can carry that off well.

I’m sure there is a balance to be struck somewhere between PowerPoint overload and completely disregarding any pre-prepared visual aids. Personally, I find that a slide deck can be a useful aide memoire when presenting – maybe that’s what it should be (too many people try to cram too much information onto each slide).

Having said that the slide deck should just be an aide memoire, when attending events, I like to be given a copy on which to take notes. Having to wait a few days (or even weeks) to download the slide deck after the event doesn’t work for me, but by the same token, I rarely give out my slide deck in advance if I’m using PowerPoint at an internal meeting (because I find that a small audience of customers or management tend to jump ahead and read the slide deck rather than listen to the message I’m trying to present).

Today, I’m at an event with a difference. In common with many Microsoft technical events, today’s event includes a lot of demonstrations; however instead of the usual slide with the word “demo” emblazened across it, around which I’m normally madly scribbling notes, John Craddock and Sally Storey from Kimberry Associates have included slides called “doodles”. These doodles are one-slide summaries of the key points from the demonstration, which are not presented but which allow attendees to concentrate on watching the demonstration instead of writing notes. I’ll certainly give the concept a try next time I demonstrate a technology to an audience.

So you want to be a consultant…

This content is 19 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

Earlier today I posted a link to Steve Friedl’s illustrated guide to IPSec. Steve’s site has a whole load of technical tips, but one item I stumbled across was his extremely interesting review of consultancy practices (subtitled as “Why work 8 hours/day for someone else when you can work 16 hours/day for yourself?”).

As an IT consultant (albeit one employed by a global IT services organisation), married to a PR consultant, I can really relate to some of Steve’s consulting maxims, the most pertinent of which I’ve quoted below:

  • “‘Trust’ is your best job security”.
  • “You are primarily in the customer service business, not the technical business”.
  • “For a good consultant, your voice is comforting: Be very easy to find”.
  • “The best way to appreciate the value of a good [specification] is to do a project without one”.
  • “Customers hate ‘unhappy surprises’ much more than ‘timely bad news'”.
  • “Ongoing business is much more important than maximizing every billable hour” (which goes hand in hand with “hourly arrangements of any substantial magnitude require that you have earned your customer’s trust”).
  • “It’s better to give away some time than to throw away your reputation” (but remember “if the customer doesn’t know you did work off the clock, you don’t get credit for it”).
  • “Detail is comforting to a customer”.
  • “If you routinely take ownership for your own mistakes, you’re much more likely to be believed when you claim something is not your doing”.
  • “Your best advertisement is publishing of original, technical content”.
  • “It’s a huge asset to communicate well – cultivate this skill vigorously”.
  • “Your references are your reputation in the consulting world”.
  • “The customer is not always right”.
  • “The Internet never forgets: don’t provide dirt for your future”.
  • “If you’re booked up solid, your rates are too low”.
  • “Your long-term customers are your best customers”.
  • “The best way to make a lot of money is to make your customers a lot of money”.
  • “You must know how to read your customer”.
  • “Your customers are buying your judgment, not just your time”.
  • “Being known for your integrity is the Holy Grail of consulting”.

He also makes some useful observations on technical skills and certification:

“Your references and your experience are far more important than your certifications. What counts here is truly learning the subject matter, and there is no harm in obtaining the certificate in the process. But if the goal is just to collect some paper, it leads to the prototypical computer jockey with lots of alphabets after his name but limited power in the driver’s seat.

Where the skills question gets tricky is when getting outside your comfort zone: a customer will ask you about a project that you are almost, but not quite, qualified for. Surprisingly, this happens a lot: if you have conducted yourself well, your customer would rather find a way to use you – a known quantity – than find somebody else. This occurs over a fairly wide range of skills.

When considering one of these projects, the first rule is: never lie to your customer about your skills. Be completely candid with your customer about what you know and how you would address the project. This would likely include substantial off-the-clock time as you got up to speed on the technology in question.”

Well worth a read for any consultant (whether self employed or not) and for any customers who employ consultants too!