Archive for the ‘ICT’ category

Technical Sales

January 11th, 2014

Disclaimer:  Forgive me for the ramble.  I started this blog off on quite a separate topic, and in doing so found myself on quite a different train of thought..  If you do end up staying with me to the end, I’d really appreciate reading your comments so I can start to formulate a more cohesive account of what we are trying to say.

One of the most challenging jobs I consider is the role of technical Sales. I’ve been involved in quite a few software businesses where the salesperson has to have a full grasp of not just the company’s immediate offering, but how it may strategically evolve to become the right choice for the customer.

Ironically there is a parallel here with car industry. Companies like Lucas used to develop car headlamps (their premium models branded “King of the Road”) and other specialist car parts. I have a vague recollection of being on holiday in the West of France with my family when the Vauxhall Frontera was relaunched with a fundamentally different rear suspension system, dramatically improving the car. From the AA:

“Semi-elliptic rear leaf springs gave these early models an unrefined ride, but things changed for the better in April 1995 with the introduction of a coil-sprung rear axle, plus better brakes and improved rear door opening with lifting glass.”

The real crux here is that when there is a major leap forward in technology or innovation, there is a transitional period where the customers who don’t understand the technology need to have a technical salesperson explain the benefits. Once the technology is bedded in, there is less of a need for the technical sales as the technology has become, if not ubiquitous, at least understood in the realm in which it is used.

For digital communications, this same phenomenon appears to have occurred. In the late 90s and early 00s digital was about having an online presence; it then became the focus of communications experts to align the online presence with the offline marketing plans. Following on from this we’ve seen the social media boom, and now marketing departments are starting to understand what social networks are, their advantages and drawbacks, and aligning all their messaging accordingly.

It seems to me that the next jump is going to be another technical one. With the imminent introduction of browser-to-browser communication, what are the innovations or restrictions that such technology may carry? Having recently read (and commented on) @Documentally’s piece on the ‘Perfect Prison‘ – what could the internet look like in another 5 years?

In the last 200 years the majority of the Western World has been fortunate. We’ve been able to align the progress of time with what feels like improvement. This story, perpetuated by the media and by ideas such as “Moore’s Law” has made us believe that through the simple passage of time things will get better*. However, could the real story be that, as a society, we are starting to regress?

I am a huge fan of Hans Rosling, though his talks on the wealth of nations in comparison to life expectancy over the last 200 years aligns more with the first story than the latter.  In them, however, you’ll see anomalies that don’t match the overall story are ignored.  In the disclaimer there’s also the admission that due to the pure volume and scarcity of data, some of it has been ‘normalised’ and ‘interpolated’ to enable its use in the chart.

One of the most intriguing articles I read at the end of 2013 (it was actually published in Feb 2012) was on against TED.  I’ve always had a soft spot for TED.  I used to spend afternoons at college with a friend pinging each other TED talks.  They were a ‘cool’ glimpse into what would be possible in the future.  Intelligent role models taking time to share their ideas in a way that we could easily digest.  The most intriguing part of the criticism for me was the following paragraph:

At TED, “everyone is Steve Jobs” and every idea is treated like an iPad. The conferences have come to resemble religious meetings and the TED talks techno-spiritual sermons, pushing an evangelical, cultish attitude toward “the new ideas that will change the world.” Everything becomes “magical” and “inspirational.” In just the top-ten most-viewed TED talks, we get the messages of “inspiration,” “astonishment,” “insight,” “mathmagic” and the “thrilling potential of SixthSense technology”! The ideas most popular are those that pander to a metaphysical, magical portrayal of the role of technology in the world.

Technology is what we make of it.  As a technologist myself, I’m sometimes the awe of my friends when they come round and see that I’ve got my heating system graphing hourly electricity usage, and I can set my alarm in the morning to not bother turning the hot water on because I know I’ll be showering at work after cycling in.  This isn’t mystical, nor is it a ‘great leap forward’ – it’s actually using five year old technology in a way that the original inventor did not intend.

Behind all the technology that we’re currently using is an inventor that has set the technology up and is manipulating it in some way.  Sometimes it’s obvious and we are fully aware of the manipulation and carry on; other times it’s more subtle.  I think the big change over the next few years will be algorithms that are not used simply to manipulate, but to identify where this manipulation fails and find ways of making it work.  We will be made redundant from our roles as technical salespeople, as people think they understand how the technology works and can make the decisions themselves, but with the oversimplification of the technologies so ‘everyone can understand it’ comes a price.  The price, in this case, is the freedom to choose.

Hooking the user

January 10th, 2014

Last year, I directed the concept development of a rowing app that has gone on to get quite a reasonably sized organic following. Its success was very much unpredicted, but post-rationalising and having read ‘the Hook model’ by Nir Eyal, I noticed that we had ended up incorporating quite a few design patterns from the book.

Hopefully we’ll get the budget to develop the app further, as there are plenty of more ideas learned from the book that we could incorporate. The slideshow below is a nice summary of the concepts, but I recommend supporting Nir and getting the book on amazon here:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Hooked-How-Build-Habit-Forming-Products-ebook/dp/B00HJ4A43S/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1389375947&sr=8-1&keywords=nir+eyal+hooked

The wonderful world of computing

January 2nd, 2014

Well it seems like 2013 gave me a little hiatus from blogging – it wasn’t planned but so many of the projects I was working on were about implementing previous knowledge, not pushing the boat out and learning new things.  In hindsight, I realise that is a big mistake, as well as a bit of an untruth – as pretty much every configuration I’ve touched has improved in some way.

2014 is going to bring with it its own challenges, and I hope to keep as many of them catalogued as possible.  2013 brought me into the world of Rackspace – on both their co-location and cloud services – and I’ve found them  ‘fanatical’ about everything, just as they claim.

I’ve also started picking up some AngularJS and using Yeoman for my scaffolding.  I hope to learn a CSS tool, such as Compass/LESS/SASS and use a templating language such as jade.  I’m also going to kill the blog at www.andyloughran.co.uk and bring it back here.  There’s no point in separating my personal and technical blogs, I’ll just make sure I tag them properly on here so people can read what they choose.

Welcome back, and I wish all of you a prosperous 2014.

Project Management

March 5th, 2012

I’ve worked in a new role for nearly two months now, as a Project Manager for Score Communications.  It’s been a very relaxing transition from my earlier more technical roles.

I’m really enjoying working with a great new team, and the support and help they’ve given me so far as I settle into the new role.  The challenge I face is how to make my mark on the company without adding ‘red tape’ to their development work.  I know all too well that having to fill in too many forms and statuses can make the job of administering/developing very tedious.  The key part is capturing project timescales, rather than developer timekeeping.

The next few months will be incredibly challenging, but hopefully even more enjoyable.  I look forward to sharing a bit more information about our ‘stack’ and what tools we’re using in the future; I also hope to get feedback from the people reading this blog about what they use.  We’re playing around a bit with Agile Methodology, whilst trying to transition from the existing methods.

I’m also hoping to use the blog a bit more – much of my time over the last few years focused on my online presence on Twitter, LinkedIN and Facebook – a much lazier approach to ‘Social’ Media.  I’m also hoping to kick off a few side-projects and keep my technical skills up to date.

Amstrad Emailer

November 11th, 2011

I have recently spent time back on eBay after a few years’ break due to an unfortunate incident which damaged my confidence in the eBay payment protection policy. It was a few years ago now and I’m very much impressed by the improvements made by eBay and Paypal. Though I’ve only been on it a few weeks, they have already successfully blocked someone attempting to defraud me, and though I had my suspicions, it was for low value goods, therefore a good opportunity to help test my confidence in the new systems.

One of my recent purchases has been the Amstrad Emailer Plus. It’s an interesting little device originally sold in 2002 by Amstrad for circa £200, dropping to £15 only two years later in Tesco, and finally discontinued on July 14th 2011.  As you can see, it is quite a chunky but pretty device – as well as providing convenient access to email – so why did it fail?

Though the market for email on a household phone is probaby quite a small one – the Emailer Plus definitely has the ‘geek’ factor as well as being a little bit ‘retro.’  I bought one, not because it can give me access to emails, (I can do this well enough from my Samsung Galaxy S2 already,) but because it has got personalty.  The big blue display not only displays a nice clock in standby mode, but it also has the ability to play ZX Spectrum games, and other little tidbits that when integrated properly could make the big display quite useful.  The standard issue BT phone I have on my desk at work costs more than this, but offers much less in terms of functionality.

The failure in the Amstrad Emailer Plus is down to a naivety in understanding the direction that the internet and email was taking.  In the early days of modems and dial-up internet, it could cost 5p per minute to get online – webmail wasn’t taking off because staying online to write emails was costly – so it was better to have an offline client to do the writing.  The Amstrad Emailer required a ‘phone home’ call at least once a day – with a cost of 14p per call.  It’s a bit of a premium price to pay for receiving a bulk email delivery – plus, unless you were sensible enough to group your outgoing emails up into a single batch – the outgoing cost was also 14p per connection.

It’s a real shame, as I think had Amstrad had the foresight to see that the screen was valuable real-estate, the Emailer could have been a market-changing device.  It has the ability to host ‘widgets’ or ‘apps’ as they are now commonly known.  Amstrad have learnt it all now, with their ‘Amscreen’ – a backwards piece of technology consisting of essentially a flatscreen with a red LED ticket attached to the top in a bulky, ugly black case – being used to broadcast advertising.  The technology itself isn’t expensive or interesting – the real value is in where the screens are.  I recall a seminar at Warwick Business School a few years ago, with the General Manager of McDonalds in the UK.  When asked ‘What is McDonalds’ core business?’ most people responded with ‘selling burgers’ – when he replied that it wasn’t, the majority looked fairly confused.  His answer was ‘acquiring prime real-estate, to prevent our competitors selling burgers.’

In the same way, strategy needs to look at pushing alternatives to the core market of a project.  Sure, there may be a specific target market to aim the product at – but individual markets are a finite resource.  Look at alternative uses for your product – can it be abstracted and re-marketed at a different sector?  Do you have to sell it for it to benefit you?  The end result for the Amstrad Emailer was for Amstrad to use it as a loss-leader for selling their Emailer service.  It’s a shame that the device couldn’t be rescued from obscurity by diversifying.  Hopefully I’ll be able to make some use of it and deny this technological marvel it’s resting place on some gadgetry wasteland for a few more years to come.

 

 

My thoughts on Unity.

October 24th, 2011

I love ubuntu.  The Community, the Operating System, and especially the philosophy; “I am who I am because you are who you are.”  It can be applied to so many things in life, and is a great mantra for an Open Source Project.

Unity.

I have to be honest; when unity first appeared I though it looked like a very interesting idea – and since studying UI design at University (even doing a project on UI design in Gnome2) – there were lots of opportunities to be taken up by differentiating Ubuntu through it’s clean, friendly, UI-driven linux desktop environment.  However, Unity seems to be on a pathway to division.

A key paradigm across all my software development has been “developers are not the users” – and ‘clever’ design lies in simplicity, not complexity.  Users should be able to intuitively pick up and go without having to think about how the desktop works.  I personally believe this last bit to be especially true.  Many people are of the belief that using a computer and mouse is unnatural; that may well be so – but through consistency of action, and predictability of response – all systems can be easily learned.

The big issues that I have with Unity at the moment, are that simple things are no longer simple.  When left click used to mean ‘action something’, and right click brought up a menu – users were able to innovate and design and mess with their own desktop.  With the unity approach, even experienced computer users are having to open google to work out how to add an application to the sidebar.  I no longer know where to find things in the menu, and am finding myself having to rely on pressing a combination of keyboard buttons and mouse movements in order to do relatively simple things.  I can’t see an easy way of adding an application to the launcher, and there appears to be very few casual customisation options available to the end user.

Of course, the caveat to all this is that it’s still an unfinished product.  I see the non-LTS releases of Ubuntu as glorified BETAs – showing the developers and community the vision for what can be put into an LTS release.  I’m not sure where or how I’m going to cope with future upgrades, but for now a quick ‘aptitude install xbuntu-desktop’ has put me straight back into my comfort zone.  I hope that’s not the same story with too many other people.

Connecting to SMB shares from the command line in OS X

October 19th, 2011

 

I’ll keep this one short for brevity. It’s sweet and simple. If you’re anything like me you’re probably using at least 10 different operating systems at once. Well, that might be a slight over exaggeration, but I certainly use at least three in my home. Here’s the problem that I faced this evening and how I overcame it.

I have a linux server which is sharing some data using a samba share (SMB). Connecting to this from my windows box is simple, since microsoft is good enough to make mounting shares over SMB a piece of cake. My MacbookPro running OS X Lion, however, was a different story.

One option is to use the finder to manually connect to the share, but since I often connect to various computers using SSH I wanted to find a purely command-line solution. Thankfully, it’s super simple. Just use the UNIX command mount – as follows:

mount -t smbfs //<username>@<ip or fqdn>/<share name> <mount point>

The example of this on my network is as follows:

mount -t smbfs //james@192.168.0.4/james /Users/jamesanslow/linuxserverfiles

Note: you will require smbfs + samba installed + configured for this to work (duh?)

Networking – let’s get complicated.

October 18th, 2011

Ok, so things have hotted up a notch in here.  My networking knowledge has come on leaps and bounds in the past few months, but I need to learn more, lots more, and fast. Here’s where I’m at:

A firewall doesn’t always sit at the edge of your estate, sometimes a HIDS device belongs there instead.

A firewall can do lots of things, but can do a lot of things badly.

There is more than one way to skin a cat.

So I’ve been looking at some interesting reading, courtesy of Mez, and have come across the following:

http://oreilly.com/catalog/fire/chapter/ch04.html - Firewall Design.

This interests me muchly, as I currently use, and have always designed server-networks in the past as follows:

However, it seems that pretty soon that can have an adverse affect on the firewall; for each connection hitting the firewall from the net, there’s at least 6x the traffic passing through it. (  NET -> FW -> DMZ -> FW -> BACKEND -> FW -> DMZ -> FW -> NET )  This isn’t good, especially if you’re looking to purchase a firewall with a pretty low ‘max sessions limit.’  It gets worse if you’re thinking of splitting the ‘BACKEND’ into a number of different zones.  However, there is a nifty little improvement:

With this approach, you can move your ‘internet facing’ machines into their own DMZ zone, and still communicate with your backend services without passing too many times through the firewall.  It means that the number of connections the external firewall needs to handle is fewer, meaning you can get a more powerful machine, cheaper – and don’t have to compromise because of that pesky connection table limit.

Using this diagram now gives even more flexibility, as there is now a nice segregation between the networks behind the interior router.  This setup means that you can have a single-purpose network zone, which is neat, as PCI DSS states that all servers should have a single purpose.  If those have a single purpose, they should share a similar communications port setup – therefore it seems sensible to group them all into the same zone.  They’ll also probably not need much by the way of ‘interzonal’ communications – and if they do, it’s segregated off the external firewall.  It will also be much easier to spot problems introduced by an external event (DDoS, Digg Effect, Social Media Strategy Success), and those introduced by those pesky web developers (internal connections increasing).

Switching

This is where it starts to get complicated.  Where do you use switches here?  How do you segregate the switch.  Well, I guess I need to look into VLANs to segregate the switch.  Using the diagram above, the two Internal Networks could probably exist on the same switch, providing it was VLAN’d into separate blocks.  It’d be interesting to know if anyone has any preference here in terms of switch – or will a fairly basic switch do what you’d want it to do in this situation?

Conclusion / Call for Recommendations

With all this in mind, and the network infrastructure suddenly growing from what was essentially just a ‘firewall’ with loads of devices plugged into it to a much more complicated setup – how important is it that the technologies used in each of these individual networking devices are integrated?  There are a couple of vendors selling solutions that would integrate the entire networking stack, using the same technology in routers, switches and firewalls. Is it better to go with a single vendor to reduce the management headache, or will the benefits of an integrated solution only come about when many more devices are connected?

I look forward to hearing what others have done, and I look to sharing more of my decision making progress as things progress.

 

Guest Bloggers

October 13th, 2011

I’ve decided to allow a couple of other guys to post a few guest blogs. I’m going to update the ubuntu planet to only pull my ‘ubuntu’ tagged posts in future.

iPhone4S or Galaxy S2?

October 12th, 2011

So it’s come to decision time – I’m giving my current Galaxy S phone to my little sister (so she can tether away to her hearts’ content). This leaves me with a dilema; what phone should I upgrade to?

Though I have recently purchased an Apple MacBook Pro, I am not yet ready to sign my entire technology stack off to them, and I’ve been really happy with my Android devices over the past 18 months. I’m loving the synchronisation between my gmail account and my phone, and it’s a really slick platform that I think is going to get better and better.

So all I need now is a Samsung Galaxy S2 case, and then I’m away.

I’m not sure anyone else would suggest going for the iPhone 4S – it just looks like too much – the tariff will be 33% more if I go for that, and with a 24 month contract, it’ll be out of date and crippled come the end of it.

Is there any new phone to be released that I’m missing?