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Working Up in Project Management, Systems Engineering, Technology, and Writing

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Cloud Computing Thoughts

July 28th, 2014 · No Comments

by Dwayne Phillips

After several recent experiences, I know a little about cloud computing.

I have been experimenting in several ways recently with cloud computing. The basic sales pitch from a cloud computing provider is:

We’ll buy and maintain the computers.

You rent them from us.

This takes us forward to the past to a day when people couldn’t afford to buy their own computer. Let’s go way back to time-sharing of computers (anyone remember that?). Even in the late 1970s, I would go to an I/O room (not Google I/O but simply the “input-output” room) and send my software to a computer that was somewhere else. I would have a couple seconds of that computer’s time after my “job” waited in line for a day or so. I was somewhat happy in that I didn’t have to try to buy my own computer. I shared a computer with a few thousand of my closest friends.

So here we are now. People still find computing problems for which they can not afford to buy a computer that is powerful enough. The answer: rent a computer from a cloud computing provider.

The difference today is that several companies, e.g., Amazon and Google, but they are not the only ones, have figured out how to be more efficient than anyone else was in the past. They have software that configures virtual computers, runs jobs, tracks time, sends bills to users, etc. with little or no (expensive) human intervention.

It appears to me that the vast majority of human employees in the cloud industry are in sales, but that is another blog post for another day.

And still, the cloud computer user needs a computer, albeit a relatively inexpensive computer—$200 may suffice. But, and this is the big but, the cloud computer user needs a relatively expensive link to the Internet. Yes, you can sit in your car in the parking lot near the Starbucks, but that wears thin quickly as a lot of those formerly nice free Internet access providers have smart software that kicks you off after an hour with little or no (expensive) human intervention.

Once we move past all these factors…yes, it is cheaper to rent a thousand servers for an hour or a week than it is to buy them. Jump in, try something, fail, jump out. If you have what may be the next great idea, this is a great time to be alive.

→ No CommentsTags: Broadband · Communication · Computing · Technology

Udacity.com: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

July 24th, 2014 · No Comments

by Dwayne Phillips

I take a Udacity.com online course and find good, bad, and ugly.

I recently took an online course from udacity.com. As the post title suggests, I found…

The Good: I was excited about the nanodegree program that udacity—one of the big players in MOOC—was about to offer. Companies were creating courses to teach what they wanted new hires to know the day the walked on the job.

Great! Something practical and practice-able. Take someone who works at Adobe (one provider) and let them tell you, “This is what I wish I knew when I was hired.”

The Bad: I wanted to work through the Data Analyst nanodegree. I often see job openings for data analyst, data scientist, data systems engineer, etc. and I wanted to apply for those.

The bad was that the first course in the series is Intro to Computer Science. This isn’t a bad course in itself, but it fits badly into the idea espoused for the nanodegree. This isn’t a course created and led by someone in industry. It is a college course. As a freshman college course, it is fine, but not for real jobs.

The course has video segments followed by quizzes. There are about a dozen items in a lesson, and seven lessons in the course. Thankfully, the longest video segment is five minutes. I grew weary of the hand writing on the white board or smartboard or whatever they use. I could read the writing, but please, just show powerpoint fonts. And the drawings—please, show something drawn with software so the circles are round, the rectangles have 90-degree corners, and the straight lines are straight.

The lessons build on one another as you build a web crawler.

The course is an introduction to Python programming with some web concepts and general ideas tossed in.

It seems that college computer science professors haven’t changed much in 35 years. They still love little questions where they can say, “Aha, tricked you. You always have to allow for the case where there may be a space after the comma when preceded by two spaces and a period in collusion with a semi-colon…” Who cares?

The word that kept coming to mind regarding the course was tedious. Then again, I’m old and don’t have time for games and minding commas and periods and spaces and all that.

The Ugly: I completed the course in ten days. Udacity expects the typical student to be working a full-time job and spending about an hour a day on the course. They estimate the time to complete the course at seven weeks. I was unemployed and worked hard at finishing quickly.

My motivation for working so hard and fast was that I had two weeks free. I wanted to finish before my two weeks were done so I wouldn’t have to pay the $150/month fee for this class.

I submitted my Final Project and was told that I had to pay a one-month fee to get a certificate for the course. Earlier in the course I had asked a Udacity coach about receiving credit for the course. I was told that all I had to do was complete the Final Project. So much for that. I never received credit for the ten days of hard work.

The Summary: Udacity does a good job of presenting material. They have good videos and a nice way to submit computer programs in their browser to test the code.  You could always argue that Python is a bad language for teaching, but you have to pick something and, even though I have yet to see a job advertised for a Python programmer, well, you know.

I am still upset about not receiving a certificate for my work. I guess I should have read the 11-page Terms of Agreement to find the sentence tucked at the end of a paragraph near the end of page 8. Then again, “You always have to allow for the case where there may be a space after the comma when preceded by two spaces and a period in collusion with a semi-colon…”

→ No CommentsTags: Education · Learning · MOOC

Drive Out Fear

July 21st, 2014 · No Comments

by Dwayne Phillips

If a workplace is full of fear, nothing else matters. Drive out the fear.

I recently attended a presentation where the topic was trust. The presentation reminded of something, i.e., it helped me re-learn what I knew:

If a workplace is full of fear, nothing else matters.

Years ago I worked in a place full of fear. People were afraid to laugh at a joke. People were afraid to tell a joke. People were afraid to answer any question with anything other than “yes” or “no.”

I hated going to work. Most people in the place hated going to work.

This hit me hardest one day when half-a-dozen of us who had known one another for ten years were in a room with the door closed. We talked for half an hour. We laughed a lot. At the end of the time, one person stood to leave for another scheduled meeting. Before he opened the door, he turned to the rest of us and said something like, “I haven’t felt this relaxed in a long time.”

For a few moments, he had been in a safe place—a room without fear.

After many months, I left that job for another. After many more months, other people left as well. Fear disappeared. There were a few people who roamed the halls wreaking havoc. They frightened the rest of us. The rest of us allowed them to frighten us.

  • Drive out those who bring fear.
  • Encourage those who are full of fear to toss it aside.

Easy remedies that are not so easy to implement.

→ No CommentsTags: Fear

Did You Notice the World Change?

July 17th, 2014 · No Comments

by Dwayne Phillips

Twitter and the World Cup show that the world changed. Most people, didn’t even notice.

The world changed. When I show people, they shrug. “Of course. What’s the big deal?” is the usual response.

This web page has a story about how 300 million people tweeted about the FIFA World Cup. So what? Note:

  • Most of the world is watching the same event at the same time
  • Most of the world is corresponding to each other in real-time
  • These two activities occur via a handheld, battery-powered device

The first item has been available for a couple of decades. The second item has been available for maybe a couple of years. The third item is what I consider the magic. I walk about in the woods and follow the world each second. I hear the “official” version of history. I also hear the version from the guy standing on a street corner in Cairo or in the woods of Washington. And I tell these two guys what I think.

The world has changed. Did you notice it changing?

→ No CommentsTags: Change · Technology

Commitement, Control, and Risk

July 14th, 2014 · No Comments

by Dwayne Phillips

Simple yet oft-forgotten principles: commit to only what I can control. If I commit to things that are outside my control, I am assuming risk.

I ran into the situation recently There are many times in my life when I am surprised to find people doing things that go against time-proven principles. I should get over these surprises.

Commitment: I was do such-and-such by such-a-date. It is important to meet my commitments. If I don’t, people will label me as unreliable, undependable, and just maybe a big fat liar.

To avoid these labels, I should only commit to things that are outside my control. For example,

I will be at the coffee shop at 8AM tomorrow.

I can control almost everything related to that. Yes, if traffic is snarled, I won’t make it on time. If someone hits my car, I won’t make it. If I wake with the flu, I won’t make it. Those events, however, have a low probability of occurring and they are largely in my control.

Risk: Try this example,

I will have coffee with you in the coffee shop at 8AM tomorrow.

This assumes that the coffee shop will be open as advertised tomorrow. They coffee shop probably will be open tomorrow, but I have no control over that.

This second commitment causes me to assume risk. Something can go wrong (the coffee shop doesn’t open), and that possible bad situation is a risk.

Am I willing to assume that risk? If the coffee shop doesn’t open, I could be labeled as unreliable, undependable, and just maybe a big fat liar. Am I willing to stake my reputation on the reliability of the coffee shop?

→ No CommentsTags: Risk

The em dash and Learning

July 10th, 2014 · No Comments

by Dwayne Phillips

I still learn new things. I still want to learn new things.

I recently learned how to make the em dash and en dash characters in OS X with keyboard shortcuts. I no longer have to go to the “insert symbols” function to insert these special characters.

One of the disappointing results of this is that I have yet to find anyone who cares about the em dash or en dash or recognizes any value in them.

There are, however, more encouraging results to report. One is that I never knew how to do this before. Now I know and I can complete my writing in less time than before. Hence, I have improved one aspect of my writing. As I consider that, I can denote aspects of my writing that I have improved each of the last thirty years.

There are (at least) two consequences of this experience:

  1. Don’t wait until you know how to do it all correctly before trying to do it.
  2. Don’t settle for what you now know.

A third consequence is that when I meet someone who doesn’t know how to make the em dash with keyboard shortcuts, I remind myself that there was a time, and that time lasted for decades, when I didn’t know how to do that either.

→ No CommentsTags: Education · Learning · Writing

Change and “Fixing” Things

July 7th, 2014 · No Comments

by Dwayne Phillips

A change in the behavior of a system means that someone has changed something. We as people, often love to ignore this.

Here is a situation I experienced a few years ago in a digital signal processing laboratory. One day, a piece of software didn’t work. A user ran the software, and the software stalled in a state so that the process had to be killed by a system administrator.

Someone investigated the problem. They found that if they changed one line of code, the software would no longer stall. The error was corrected.

A skeptic, (those skeptics can be a pain, but we must have skeptics about to keep us honest) was upset with the “fix.”

“That line of code was the way it was for ten years,” chided the skeptic. “The software never stalled before.”

The skeptic was correct. The problem, whatever it was, was not in the software. Yet, changing the one line of code did fix the problem. The skeptic, however, was unable to convince anyone of his thought. Given some twenty years of consideration on my part, here is the convincing:

Something had changed to “break” the software. That errant line of code had been present for ten years and had never caused a problem. Now, all of a sudden, out of the blue (toss in any other cliches you know), that line of code was incorrect(?).

Some possibilities:

  1. The data the user ran on the software caused something that had never occurred before.
  2. The operating system of the computer had changed in a way so that the line of code damaged the operating system.
  3. There were too many people running too many programs with too much data on the computer. That new situation caused the software to stall.

Given time, I could create other possibilities.

What did we do? We kept the change in the one line of code. After all, the software did run correctly after the change. We did not investigate any other change possibilities. After all, the we had too many other things to do that day. We never knew what really caused the software to “break.”

Still, I must go back to the italics statement earlier. The software worked one day and was broken the next day. Something changed, else the software’s behavior would not have changed. Practical considerations, e.g., time, money, headaches, etc., pushed us on to other things.

→ No CommentsTags: Change · General Systems Thinking

Change and Cause and Effect (or the other way around)

July 3rd, 2014 · No Comments

by Dwayne Phillips

Any change to a situation will change the situation. It is often difficult to discern which came first.

When a new person walks into an existing group of people, that group changes. There is no way around this—at least I know of no way around it. To have a new person without change, I would have to find a person who is exactly like the persons who are already here. I don’t know how to find such an exact match in a person.

In a reverse, round-about way, a change in a situation means that someone has changed something. For example, several years ago I was part of a group of cars driving to a soccer game. One person’s car did not start. The car worked fine two days before. One day before, the car was in an auto shop where they “did something.” Of course, the fault in the car was caused by the auto shop.

That car problem was easy to diagnose as there had only been one change made to the car, and that change happened one day earlier.

One day we notice that an organization of a hundred people is different. What was the change that brought the difference? I don’t know how to discover the answer as there are too many people and too many days and too much that could change. (I can easily find persons who “know” what change brought about the organization’s change. I quickly dismiss those people as being overly optimistic in their powers of observation.)

So, write this down:

(A) If a situation has changed, it is because someone changed it.

Also, write this one down:

(B) If you want a situation to change, change something.

If you know someone who can always find the one little change that will lead to the desired big change (from (B) above), please introduce that person to me. I really need them.

→ No CommentsTags: Change · General Systems Thinking

Want Time to Think?

June 30th, 2014 · No Comments

by Dwayne Phillips

If you want time alone to think, do something distasteful to your colleagues. They will leave you alone.

A few years ago I was in a job where we had a small refrigerator of soft drinks in the office. One thing that comes from such is that someone has to refill the refrigerator—almost daily in our case. I found myself often doing this.

I can be overly conscientious at times (a birth defect). Instead of putting warm soft drinks into the front of the fridge, I would pull the few cold drinks out of the fridge, put warm drinks in the back, and put the cold ones in the front. That way, if someone bought a drink, they would have a cold one. This little stocking exercise took ten or fifteen minutes a day.

I noticed something: no one spoke to me while I was doing it.

It seemed that they were embarrassed to see me doing the menial task while they wandered about doing nothing.

I looked forward to this stocking exercise everyday. I could move the drinks about quietly and think about my job. No one interrupted me. It was the only uninterrupted thinking time of the day. Wonderful.

I mentioned this to a friend, Jerry Weinberg, who is a noted author and consultant. He replied that he had done something similar while he was a college professor. He walked about the campus picking up trash and putting it into garbage cans. There was always plenty of trash on the ground, so he had all the quiet thinking time he wanted. No one interrupted him. They were embarrassed to do so because they weren’t picking up trash.

Quiet Thinking Time: If you want such, find a menial task that needs to be done but is distasteful to your colleagues. They won’t bother you while you are doing it. Stock the fridge. Clean the fridge. Pick up trash. Think with out interruption.

→ No CommentsTags: Thinking · Time

At Least I Accomplished Something

June 26th, 2014 · No Comments

by Dwayne Phillips

It is easy to let other people control your day and make it a big waste of time.

Here is a story, a true story.

I was at work. Later in the day I was to brief a roomful of important people. But for now, and the next few hours, I had nothing to do. I decided to go to the grocery store and buy a large amount of soft drinks for the office refrigerator.

I walked down the hall towards the exit. Standing outside the conference room were two conscientious persons waiting their turn to brief a roomful of important people.

I went to the store and bought a large amount of soft drinks. I parked my soft-drink-filled vehicle next to the office entrance. I went to find our office cart to haul the soft drinks. On my way to the cart, I passed the conference room and noted that the two conscientious persons were still standing by waiting to brief a roomful of important people.

I found the office cart and headed back towards my vehicle. On the way, I passed the conference room and noted that the two conscientious persons were still standing by waiting to brief a roomful of important people.

I filled the office cart with the soft drinks and entered the building. On the way to our soft drink storage area, yes you know, I passed the conference room and noted that the two conscientious persons were still standing by waiting to brief a roomful of important people.

I put all the soft drinks in the soft drink storage area. I returned the cart its proper place and headed back to my vehicle still parked in front of the entrance. Once again—yes this is monotonous—I passed the conference room and noted that the two conscientious persons were still standing by waiting to brief a roomful of important people.

I went outside and parked my vehicle. I entered the building and on the way to my desk passed the conference room. Still, two conscientious persons were still standing by waiting to brief a roomful of important people. They had been standing there while I had done my soft drink run. This took about an hour.

I could no longer stand it. This time I stopped to address the two conscientious persons standing by waiting to brief a roomful of important people. I told them

What I’ve done probably isn’t very important, but at least I accomplished something.

We all smiled.

It is easy to allow other people, like all those important people filling that conference room, to control our day and turn it into one big waste of time.

→ No CommentsTags: People · Work