Sunday, February 24, 2008

Links and Resources: February 24th, 2008

  • My post on Green IT discussed how we need to measure and monitor power to make sure we really save money/environment. In this video clip from Microsoft Technet someone describes the process and tools they used to do just that.
  • Although males make up the majority of the IT workforce, studies show that it is females that are responsible for content creation on the web. This NY Times article talks about young women on the web.
  • Eva at the Education Virtually Anywhere blogs about informal science lecture series held in pubs and cafes in Seattle called Science on Tap.
  • Glen Hiemstra over at blogged about future proofing your college. Among others things, the campus may provide residential and social context while learning will take place here, there and everywhere. Glen, who is based in Kirkland, did a great presentation on the future of education in 2000 at the UW. The show is still available online at UWTV here.

The Great Debate

Being children of the 70's, neither Eva or I thought much about IT careers in high school and college. So last week I asked her, in hindsight, what classes, activities or education from her youth indicated that she was destined to be, like me, a systems analyst. Oddly, we both had the same immediate response: debate.

First let's talk about systems analysis. A systems analyst gathers business goals, objectives and needs, then translates them into computer systems that help to achieve those goals. The systems analyst is usually responsible for the overall implementation and support of the system as well. You can draw an analogy with an architect who elicits requirements for a building from the owner and then translates them into designs for the contractor to build. The role demands excellent interpersonal skills, business knowledge and a technical background. This description of the systems analyst from the Bureau of Labor Statistic is reasonably good and shows that the pay levels are excellent and job prospects for the next 5 - 10 years remain good. In addition, the related role of business analyst is emerging as an alternate path that provides more entry level opportunities and requires less technical skills overall. For either position, the key is to remember they are first and foremost analytical jobs, not technical.

Which brings us back to the original topic - debate. In retrospect, we can now see how debate both encouraged the development of, and clearly demonstrated, the analytical, interpersonal and communications skills that are the hallmark of a good analyst. Here are some lessons learned from debate that helped us as analysts:
  1. You don't choose the topic in debate, it is given to you. Likewise the systems analyst normally works in a number of business domains over his/her career. In fact, learning new things becomes one of the perks of the job. Some analysts do "go native" and specialize in one topic, but where's the fun in that.
  2. You don't get to choose your position on the topic either. Just as the debater must argue all sides of the topic, the analyst must come to understand the perspective of all the stakeholders, whether VP or intern. Further, the analyst, like the debater, must understand that it isn't about his/her opinion.
  3. You must thoroughly research a topic and organize the information so that it is easy to find. First, it means the debater and the analyst must resist the urge start with an opinion and work backwards into supporting documentation. Plus, you must be able to discern between good evidence and suspect. Second, both must think carefully about how information and data are categorized, organized stored and retrieved. Even though my database of choice is now SQL Server, not 3x5 cards, it still informed the way I think about information.
  4. Your argument must be a logically structured set of assertions, supported by the evidence. The analyst is not generally in a debate, but must regularly make the case for a system or course of action. Argument structures like plan-meets-needs or comparative advantage provide the analyst or debater a reusable framework to build a case.
  5. During the debate you flow the argument and rebut with evidence to the contrary. Creating a flow chart of the debate gives a quick visual map of the argument, which lays the foundation for analyzing and refuting your opponent's argument. The analyst also use models, like flowcharts, to document and validate the requirements of the system. Also, the analyst questions assumptions and challenges assertions with the same critical thinking skills the debater uses to refute an argument.
The point is, we were both preparing to be systems analysts without having a class in systems analysis or knowing that such a role existed. As more work becomes analytical in nature we need to have programs that help students develop those capabilities in general even when we aren't training them for a specific job.

Wax on, wax off.

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Saturday, February 16, 2008

What's the Word

At an advisory board meeting this week we got onto the topic of introductory computing classes and the perceived expertise of students with computers and office productivity tools (Office, OpenOffice, etc). I've heard several times from high school instructors that they are concerned that, in general, their students don't have the computer skills that they and their parents think they have.

I started to ponder the things someone heading to college and/or the professional world ought to be able to do with Office. Most people don't need Access, and use it incorrectly when they do, so let's skip that one. PowerPoint is evil, so no sense covering that. I could probably use some classes in Excel myself, so I won't be passing judgment on anyone's Excel skills. Which leaves us Word. Everyone creates documents - proposals, user guides and the not-so-great American novel. So here is my list of Word features that everyone should at least be familiar with:
  1. Style sheets and Templates - Don't re-invent wheel if you don't have to. The combination of style sheets and templates simplifies formatting and layout tasks; creates a consistent look within and across documents; and saves a lot of time. It also helps people to separate formatting and content. Did you know that Word allows you to have two separate template directories - one for your templates and one for team, department or company templates?
  2. Tables - Nothing screams rookie more that turning on the formating to see a gazillion tabs. What are people thinking? Tables are so easy to build and you can format them to break across the pages. They allow you to type in your text and sort it later. You can also use simple macros, like summing a column of numbers. You can convert text formatted with tabs to a table so quickly. Works great with form fields too (more below).
  3. Bullets and numbering - There are times when you really want to make a handful of points really standout and bullets allow you to do that. I customize them, bringing in different images from the Webdings and Wingdings character set. Nothing like a check mark, airplane or smiley face to add emphasis. Same with customized numbering schemes. I'm not sure people realize how much formatting control is available with custom numbering, including indentation and leading characters inherited from the previous line.
  4. Table of Contents - I remember when I couldn't imaging how I would ever fill two whole pages with text. Now I can't image keeping a requirements document to less than forty (with graphs, tables and appendix, of course). Wait until you do a request for proposal (RFP) on an enterprise software package. If you use the proper headings your table of contents builds itself. Makes you look like a pro.
  5. Section Breaks - It's pretty common for me to generate an analysis document that mixes portrait 8 1/2 x 11 paper with landscape 11 x 17 paper (flowcharts and data models just need more room). The only way to do it, without manual collation, is to use section breaks. Section breaks are also useful at chapter breaks so you can reset header and footer information (like chapter title or page numbering).
  6. Forms - I know, everything is suppose to be electronic, but guess what, it ain't. Sooner or later you need to create a form with check boxes and Word form fields are the way to go (use a table for alignment). Even when you stay electronic you can lock the document fields so the drop-down boxes, check boxes and text fields are interactive. Yes, InfoPath does replace it, but it still good to know form fields.
  7. Versions and Tracking Changes - Tracking changes allows you to keep a record of the changes you or others are making to your document and then accept or reject individual changes to create a final document. It is essential for multiple editors but useful for just one person too. Along the same lines, you should be able to use the compare file/merge (merging two versions of the document into one) and the commenting (commenting is different than editing) features.
  8. Mail Merge - I use it a lot less than I use to, but it is really handy to know it. You can pull data from a database or spreadsheet and merge it into a template to create a form letter, mailing labels, name tags, etc.
  9. Drawing Tools - It's really handy on user documentation to draw a big red circle on top of a screen shot with a couple of arrows and callout text that says "look here". For simple graphics I'll use the drawing tools instead of jumping out to a graphics program or Visio.
  10. Cross-referencing - It is really helpful to be able to reference a section, page, appendix and/or figure in the text of a document. The problem is that as you build the document the name or location of the referenced material will change. If you use the cross-referencing feature then your reference to "The War of 1813 on page 75" will be automatically updated when you correct the section title to "The War of 1812" and push it to page 78.
Bonus Non-Word Tip: Lorem Ipsum is the text that looks like Latin, but isn't. I've recently started using Lorem Ipsum when building styles, templates and prototypes. The text "looks" real so it flows, but it isn't real so you don't get into discussions about the content. See Lorem Ipsum - All the Facts for the history and a Lorem Ipsum generator.

That's my top ten. If a student can't do these I don't think they should be skipping any classes (and if you aren't teaching this stuff, why not?). What are your top "gotta know" tricks in Word? The ones that got you noticed or saved you time. College instructors, what would high school students benefit from knowing before they arrived on campus?


Thursday, February 14, 2008

Green is the new Black

Many IT departments are instigating their own green initiatives in response to concerns of global-warming, green-house gases and dependence on foreign oil. We are finding that, in IT, being eco-friendly green can lead to monetary green, too.

If you're not familiar with the concept of a data center, its a facility ranging from the size of a closet to several large buildings where servers, disks, phone systems and network components are lined up. The floors are often raised so that you can get underneath to feed cable through. There is a hum that is a combination of air conditioning, fans and spinning disks. While we think of this as something large corporation have, it's standard for medium-sized business and some small business too.

The problem is all that equipment draws a lot of electricity. It also gives off a lot of heat, hence the air conditioning. Even in our region, where outside temperatures rarely warrant inside cooling, we have air conditioning running all the time. The air conditioning draws a lot of electricity itself. It is generally accepted that the cost to power and cool a server over its life will exceed its purchase price. Outside of the data center desktops, laptops and monitors consume a reasonable amount of power considering that they sit idle most of the day. Don't forget the energy to build and deliver the equipment and the nasty, nasty stuff inside that makes it all work.

I've assembled a list of GreenIT links at my site In particular, let me highly recommend Dave Ohara's article called Build a Green Datacenter in the October 2007 Technet magazine (a podcast interview is here) and his blog Green Data Center Blog. When you're done reading Dave's article you'll wonder if you weren't reading an accounting magazine. Welcome to corporate IT - it's not about the tech, it's about helping the business. A few thoughts that occur to me as I scan the articles:
  • Data centers, even small ones, are expensive to site, power and cool. The information needs of the organization, however, mean there won't be a decrease in the growth in IT equipment. Green IT can help to mitigate that cost.
  • The greening of IT crosses a wide range of occupations (and education levels): chip and power supply designers, network administrators, electricians and HVAC specialist to name a few.
  • There is a place in the industry for people who want to work with computers and want to do something good for the planet. In fact, there are now emerging specializations devoted specifically to greening IT.
  • IT professional who can demonstrate business acumen, technology knowledge and analytical skills is going to be able to make a name for themselves in the corporation.
In terms of education, three opportunities strike me as valuable. The first is the exercise of developing of a Green IT business case. Without having to implement technology, a student can go through the process of estimating costs and benefits; investigating and selecting technology; and building the business case. A student can demonstrate math concepts, critical thinking and analysis, use of office productivity tools and presentation skills. Could make for a good senior project.

The second is server virtualization, a technology that allows one physical server to run multiple logical servers, called a virtual machine (VM). Virtualization allows each VM to share memory, disk and processor of the underlying physical server so each is used to its fullest extent. It's the computing equivalent of only running your clothes washer when you have a full load, except it allows you to wash whites and reds at the same time (without everything being pink). It also saves a ton of space and reduces cooling demands. At the City, for instance, about 40% of our servers are virtual. As a result we have been able to avoid costly expansion of the server room and climate control systems. Virtualization needs to be included any networking and server administration programs at the college level.

The final opportunity comes at the desktop by using the PC's power management and Wake-on-LAN capability. Think about it, the average work PC is used at best 8 to 10 hours a day, 5 days a week. However, at many organizations like mine we don't want the PCs shutdown at night because we have automated scans, downloads and updates running. It is possible to put the computer into a low-power mode, then send it a signal to wake up, run its maintenance and go back to sleep. It too should already be on the agenda for desktop management programs.

It would be great to hear stories from practicing professionals about their use of these or other green techniques in the data center and on the desktop. What Green IT skills do you think would help a student in the job marketplace? What topics and/or classes would encourage you or your staff to get back in the classroom?

Image Citation: P1000990 by Ronnie Garcia under Creative Commons Share-Alike license.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

A new blog: No Sno U

I suppose it's a little late in the process, but I have just started a blog called No Sno U. As you might guess from the title, I'm not a big fan of the proposed 4-year university in Snohomish county. Anything that takes money away from education and moves it to construction is a bad deal from my perspective. Feel free to stop on by if you would like to discuss how we might improve technical education in the county for a little less than a billion dollars and a little sooner than 20 years.

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