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Living In Olden Days January 22, 2010

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Technology.
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Recently, a friend was kind enough to share with me an unusual book: the 1924 Ford Model T parts catalog.  This beautiful book includes detailed drawings of most major parts, along with descriptions and pricing for every component of a Model T.

For each part, the catalog includes part numbers and the appropriate model year, as you might expect.  But it also includes an odd item: a “code word.”  What on earth is a code word, and why would you need one for car parts?

It turns out that back in 1924, people would often send their orders to Ford via telegram, a very early precursor to shopping on the web. Given that you paid by the word to send a telegram and that errors could be costly, you could specify your part using its code word instead of its part number and description.

Thus, if you were in need of a crankcase lower cover (part number 3101) you would send the code word “Closure.”  This ensured that you would not wind up with a complete crankcase (part 3100), whose code word was “Closet.”  That’s a big difference, since a crankcase lower cover would run you $0.35 while the whole crankcase would set you back $11.00.

There were also code words for shipping, so that the terse message “Closure Topersteen” would order one crankcase lower cover and ship it to you via standard freight.  If you want to upgrade to express shipping, you’d use “Closure Toperig” instead.

We live in an age of glorious technology, which leads us to believe that previous eras were backwards and hopeless.  In fact, people have always been clever and creative; they simply had different tools at their disposal.  Using those tools, they crafted the best possible technical world, one that seemed glorious and amazing compared to previous times.  Imagine how they lived in the olden days, when they ordered car parts by mail and had to wait three extra days as a result! Code words and telegrams were an amazing improvement.

As we struggle to build, deploy, and exploit all the new technology that comes our way, both personally and professionally, we would do well to remember that we will be seen as living in a hopelessly backward time.  “Imagine,” they will say, “how people lived with such primitive tools.  They must have been miserable!”

Not at all.  We are always living in the best of all possible worlds, in the best of all possible times.  And with luck, determination, and perseverance, we’ll continue to make it better and better.

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Pick Your Bridge January 18, 2010

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership, Technology.
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Regular readers know that I have some strong concerns about cloud computing, especially in the arena of security.  I’ve enjoyed a number of vigorous debates with both vendors and fellow CIOs regarding their comfort level with cloud-based services.  Personally, I’m comfortable moving small, non-material business processes to the cloud, but will continue to manage my core business applications in my own data center.  Other CIOs are at different points on this spectrum, with valid reasons for their decisions.

Invariably, many of these discussions reach a point where a proponent of cloud stuff will point out that some very large companies have made big commitments to cloud technology, moving some or all of their infrastructure and systems to the cloud.  The implication, of course, is that if these big companies are comfortable with the cloud, I should be, too.  As my mother would be quick to point out, if these companies were to jump off a bridge, should I jump off too?

There is a comfort in following the paths of others, but there is no guarantee of success.  The only thing that matters in a decision like this is what is important to your company.  Other companies are making decisions based on their own criteria; they may or may not match yours.  Simply assuming that large companies are somehow smarter than you may not be a wise decision.

In the classic Simpson’s episode Krusty Gets Busted, Bart’s idol, Krusty the Clown, is accused of robbing the local Kwik-E-Mart. The entire town of Springfield rises up in opposition to Krusty.  Bart is horrified to find that even his father Homer has turned against Krusty.  Bart complains, “Dad, you’re giving in to mob mentality!”  To which Homer replies, “No I’m not, I’m hopping on the bandwagon!  Now get with the winning team!” In the end, of course, Krusty is exonerated when it is discovered that his evil sidekick, Sideshow Bob, was the real culprit.

So many technology decisions seem to become a choice between mob mentality and joining the bandwagon. In reality, what others do should not factor into the decisions we make for ourselves and our companies.  We need to make a decision based on the unique merits of the case.

That said, critical market mass should be factored into a software or system decision, since it affects long-term maintenance and support pricing.  Nonetheless, simply assuming that something is right because others are doing it is a poor decision process.

CIOs have to pick their way through these minefields everyday.  Where will you find yourself today? As part of the mob, happily on the bandwagon, or following someone off a bridge?  What would Bart (or your Mom) think?

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Losing Words January 13, 2010

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings, Technology.
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In their 1972 hit Sylvia’s Mother, pop group Dr. Hook tells the story of a jilted lover trying to reach his ex-girlfriend, only to be stopped by her mother.  As he pleads his case on the phone, the memorable hook of the song tells how the operator kept breaking in, demanding “forty cents more, for the next three minutes.”

As I listened to this song recently, it occurred to me that a younger audience might be puzzled by these unusual lyrics.  What is an “operator?” Why would they be demanding money?  Forty cents for three minutes? How would you pay them? Technology has marched on, leaving language (and old pop hits) behind.

The operator, of course, was a human who helped complete calls.  Before cell phones, people used pay phones to make calls away from home, ponying up spare change to stay on the line.  While the first three minutes might run you a dime (and later, a quarter), subsequent blocks of three minutes could cost a lot more.  To stay on the line, you fed change into the phone.

To the modern ear, this sounds no different from instructions on how to tan your own leather or fashion a thatch roof.  The concepts are so foreign that the words barely make sense.  Yet this song describes things that were commonplace just thirty years ago!

Much of our language is derived from current technology, forming a common cultural base. As the rate of technological change increases, language cannot keep up, stranding all sorts of shared phrases.  While amusing, I think it also creates an ever-wider disconnect between generations, making communication more difficult.

Even in the past ten years, many ideas have simply disappeared.  Back last century, people needed to rewind things.  Now, no modern device requires rewinding.  We’re at the point where nothing spins to make music; how would a 50s DJ describe his world if unable to “spin stacks of wax?” People will soon wonder why we “dial” phones.  I suspect that the number of US citizens that have actually operated a dial telephone is rapidly declining.

In a similar fashion, acronyms continue to shrink, encoding more information in shorter sounds.  During World War II, acronyms started out as concatenated syllables from related words, pronounced as a single word.  “CINCPAC” is the Commander-In-Chief of the Pacific, “CONUS” is the Continental US, and so forth.

By the 1960s, acronyms became individual letters strung together to make words (NASA, ASCII, etc).  This happy state has existed for a while, and no product or process worth its salt is without a clever acronym that forms a related word.

Now we’ve started pronouncing the acronyms for shorthand abbreviations, creating new words. I’ve actually heard people say “lol” and “brb” in running conversation, without a hint of sarcasm.  This is different from traditional acronyms, which typically represent nouns.  Now we are collapsing and pronouncing verb phrases and even whole short sentences.  This cannot be good for general communication.

What to do? Not much, I’m afraid. In between more-frequent trips to Urban Dictionary, I’ll go back to listening to Dr. Hook. They had another hit song that involved getting their picture on the cover of a magazine.  As I understand it, a “magazine” is like an entire web site, printed and bound as a sequence of “pages.”  The “cover” is the first page, and often had a photo on it.  Imagine!

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Method CIO December 16, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Technology.
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It is said that during the filming of Marathon Man, Dustin Hoffman stayed up for several days to appear appropriately disheveled for a particular scene in the film.  When his costar, Lawrence Olivier, asked why, Hoffman explained that method actors were trained to actually experience the role they were playing.  Olivier replied, “Why don’t you try acting?”

While actors may choose to act or to use Stanislavski’s classic Method, I don’t think that CIOs have that luxury.  To be effective, a CIO needs to be a Method CIO: directly experiencing the systems, technologies, and platforms that they will subsequently select, acquire, deploy, and manage.  It is not enough to consider technology at arm’s length.  Technology must be experienced first-hand to be fully understood.

I have always embraced technology, long before I moved into a management role.  Even when I held technical positions, it became clear that reading about new things was not the same as using and exploring them.  The technology we use is too unpredictable, with side effects and unintended consequences that can only be discovered through first-hand use.

I can remember the first time I tinkered with a PC, or used email, or set up a network, or created a web page, or configured a RAID array, or used any of a hundred tools that have since become part of the technical fabric of our lives. My expectations of the technology were dramatically different from my actual experience.  The longer I used the tool, the more I discovered about it.  The lessons learned and the overall experience made it much easier for me to understand the system and be able to decide how and when to use it.

Even as I’ve shifted away from a direct technical role, I’ve stuck with my decision to directly experience as much technology as I can.  That’s why I blog, and use social media tools, and experiment with mobile devices.  It’s not that these tools hold a sudden fascination for me.  Instead, they are simply the next generation of potentially useful technologies that may or may not matter to me and my company.  I’m expected to be able to evaluate these tools for their personal, professional, and corporate potential.  I can’t do that effectively without directly using them until my curiosity is satisfied.

Obviously, no one has the time (or the wherewithal) to try everything that crosses their path.  We have to use some discretion to sort out the potentially valuable tools from those that may not be worth a look right now.  Even the list of potential tools can be long and unmanageable; that’s when we need to engage other like-minded folks to experience those tools and share their impressions.  Others who share the enthusiasm for the “Technical Method” can be a tremendous help in sorting through the ever-increasing amount of stuff that comes our way.

With all due respect for Sir Olivier, I think that Method CIOs develop a deeper understanding of the technology they manage.  Were Dustin Hoffman ever to turn his attention to IT management, I suspect he would agree.

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Way Too Much Information December 2, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Technology.
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I received an invitation to Google Wave a few weeks ago.  I was anxious to try it, but got little traction.  Since then, a few more friends have joined, and I’ve been able to experiment a little bit.  The jury is still out on the ultimate usefulness of the tool, but there is one “feature” that gives me pause.

If several people are actively participating in a conversation, the Wave interface actually shows their typing, in real time.  This is the next logical extension of existing instant messaging platforms, which note when another party is actually typing.  This was a handy feature, since it let you know if the person at the other end was actively participating.  Wave’s extension, on the other hand, is unnerving.

Very few people, myself included, write complete, rational thoughts on the first try.  Instead, we type, think, delete, edit, retype, and iterate until we have composed a complete message.  We often start out with something that we later contradict, or use a word or tone that we might regret and subsequently remove.  The end product represents a finished thought.

Google Wave exposes that entire process.  It is weird, and a bit voyeuristic, to watch someone in the act of composition.  In one conversation, I actually began responding to a person’s message, only to have them edit and change it before after I had posted my now-inappropriate response.  My response made no sense, and they knew I had been privy to a thought they later chose to retract.

It should be obvious by now that I am a big fan of all these new-fangled communications tools.  I like the idea of being instantly connected, and I enjoy the immediacy of keeping up with other people.  Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn: I get it, and I use it.

But this crosses a line.  I am happy to share what I am doing, but I am not willing to expose my actual thought processes before they are fully formed.  Rapid communication is fine, but at some point there are aspects of what I am doing that I absolutely do not want to share.

I suspect that the folks at Wave did not set out to design a “thought exposure” feature.  Instead, I suspect they think that this is just a cooler way of showing that the other parties are typing and interacting.  I’m hoping that they’ll see the error of their ways and at least let me turn this feature off.

The whole experience reminded me of a scene from the show Married… With Children. Peg Bundy and her long-suffering husband Al are sitting silently on the couch.  Peg finally tries to break the ice by asking, “Al, what are you thinking?”  Al, speaking on behalf of every man on earth, replies, “If I wanted you to know, I’d be talking.”

Google, if I want people to know what I’m thinking, I’ll click “Done.” Until then, I’ll keep my keystrokes to myself.

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