Opinion: Don't block PO Boxes unnecessarily

In some countries, post office boxes are quite anonymous. And for that reason, some vendors aren't keen to send goods to PO Boxes. But that's not all countries. In Australia, for example, you have to provide all sorts of ID to the post office to be able to get one.

Why PO Boxes?

The fundamental reason that many people use PO Boxes is to have a relatively safe location for their mail to be collected. At so many houses, letter boxes are quite unsafe. And for people living in apartments, the situation is often far, far worse.

Like everyone else, we've been doing a lot more online shopping lately. What has really frustrated me though, are vendors who don't handle address details properly.

Losing sales

I've had many sites who have a rule built into the UI to prevent entering a PO Box for a shipping address. Even though I'd prefer it wasn't that way, I'm OK with that. But then they use the same address validation logic for a billing address.

Please, please, please don't block PO Boxes in billing addresses. That makes no sense.

I've had sites where I want to buy products, and I can't because they won't let me enter my actual billing address (i.e. a PO Box) for the credit card.

At that point, I can't proceed with the purchase.

And identity theft issues

Stealing mail from street letter boxes, etc. is a common cause of identity theft. Yet, I often find that exactly the sorts of suppliers who should be concerned about identity (utility companies, banks, local councils, etc.) often insist on sending mail directly to street addresses. That's not sensible.

Awesome image by Mathyas Kurmann

Worse, I've seen people move to a new address, and the bank sends details of the change, to their old address ! i.e. the place where they are no longer living.  I understand the decision process that led them to do that (in case the move wasn't real) but think what they've just done: 99% of the time, they've sent private bank-related details to an address where someone no longer lives.

Another common situation is where people travel a lot. While that's not an issue for us right now, it is at times. And having mail hanging out of a street letterbox isn't helpful security-wise. We fortunately have good neighbours who will deal with that but the issue is that we shouldn't need them to do that.

 

Opinion: Does a human respond to your website contact requests?

Most websites that I visit have a link at the bottom of the page that suggests that you can use it to contact either the website team or the company that owns the site. (Might not be the same people) Based on years of trying, my expectation of ever getting a response from using one of these links is close to zero.

If you have a website that has a contact link, does it lead anywhere sensible?

Does it have a contact form that sends the request to an email address that no human ever monitors?

I see two common issues: the website creator bit bucket, and the sales-proof company.

Website Creator Bit Bucket

This is one of my least favourite issues. Countless websites have flaws that stop you interacting with them. Often, the team that designed the site might have included a link for letting them know if you have a technical issue with the site.

So often, the team that built the site has moved on, perhaps aren't even associated with the company any more, and the output of the contact form might as well go straight in the bin. No-one is ever going to see it.

Sales-Proof Company

This is the worst of the two, and it's especially important in the current pandemic-related situation. I'll give you an example.

There's a tech company in Melbourne that I've loved to deal with in the past. Their people are knowledgeable and friendly and are just pleasant to deal with.

So when I wanted to buy another high-end NVMe drive the other day, they were the first people I checked. Their site said they had them in stock, the price was fine, and I decided to buy one from them. However, their online order entry application would not allow me to enter the correct billing address for my credit card, based on silly rules. (I'll write more about that another day).

Bottom line is that I couldn't complete the order. If that's happened in the past, I've called them, and they've processed it over the phone. But with COVID-19 happening, they haven't managed to get a good system to divert calls to their own sales people working from home. So they just have a note saying their phones are temporarily not being answered. (Mistake #1)

I had no choice but to use their "Sales Enquiry" contact form.

The Wait

I waited, and waited and heard nothing. (Mistake #2)

After two days, I ordered the drive from another supplier, and it arrived quickly.

Nearly three weeks after I filled in their contact form, the first company did send me an email to check if I still needed help. But that was way, way too late.

But they did respond

On the positive side, they did at least contact me. I've read reports that say that up to 80 percent of online sales enquiry forms are never responded to at all.

Don't be one of these companies!

 

Opinion: On forums, don't do DBTs (drive-by trashings)

I hear about frequent drive-by shootings in some countries. Fortunately that doesn't happen where I live. But what I come across all the time on Q&A forums, is what I'd like to call DBTs (Drive by trashings).
 
It usually starts when someone makes a genuine effort to try to help answer a question. The DBT (drive-by trasher) pops in and leaves a nasty unhelpful message. It could be "That's misleading" or "That's wrong" or "You don't understand how it works".
 
But a telltale sign of a DBT is that they never go on to explain anything about their objection. They leave the nasty or condescending message that helps no-one. In the end, all they achieve is to add to the toxic nature of many forums. 
 
Often when I see one of these people, I challenge them. Far from being useful, invariably their comment often turns out to relate to some rare edge case. It isn't relevant in the slightest and more importantly, it isn't helpful to the person asking the question. 
 
It's posted as a put-down.
 
I've written before about how toxic many of the forums are. The worst offenders are also PBs (points-bandits). Their very existence seems to be to chase as many points as possible on the forums. They'll do as little as possible to help the person asking the question. Worse, they are also often DBTs. Their aim is to put down anyone else who might try to answer questions.
 
It's simple. If you are super-knowledgeable and know that what someone has posted is wrong or incomplete, don't be a DBT. The purpose of the forums is to help people, and you're not doing that. Explain yourself, or it's time to step away from the keyboard.

Opinion: Don't add pages to your website if you're not going to update them

Today I wanted to call out a common mistake that I see at websites all over the country. Don't add pages to your website if you're not going to update them.

I'm particularly talking about pages with names like "News", "Articles", "Blog Posts", etc. They're often added when someone first builds a website and is full of hope for how it will be used.

And then it isn't.

Old News

I've lost count of how many sites I visit where there's a News section and when I visit it, there are two or three entries, often years apart. Or worse, there are a few entries from five years ago when the website was first created.

Old newspaper
Awesome image by Holger Link

This makes your company look worse than if you didn't have those pages at all, so remove them.

Old Social Media and Blog Posts

I see a similar issue at companies that I consult at. I watched tools like Yammer being introduced, and the CEOs obliging someone, by making a post or two. And then the CEO is never heard from again.

It's the same if your website has a link to the CEO's blog. If it does, there had better be a bunch of pretty current content, or you should remove it.

The worst version of links to blog posts, is when the only posts are ones that apologise for not posting lately, and promising to post more regularly. And then that last post was two years ago and there's been nothing since.

It's simple: don't have these deadwood links in your sites. It's not the front door that you want to show to the world. 

Opinion: Calling things Modern or New is a mistake – soon they won't be

I was working with another client recently, and they were changing the working IT environments for their staff. What struck me as odd was that they called the new environments the Modern ones.

Modern was actually the name of the environment. I'm sure they currently see the environments as the modern ones, but soon enough, it won't be modern or new, and then the name looks really, really odd. In a few years' time, they'll have more recent ones, and it then gets tricky. Are they then the Even More Modern environments?

I see it a lot in IT, and I always think it's pretty naive to call something Modern or New.

I'm OK with those words in the marketing (like in the Windows 3.1 main image above), but not in the product or object name.

Please don't do this.

Opinion: If your work isn't free, don't expect everyone else's to be either

I work with a number of clients in a variety of industries. I'm constantly amazed by the larger companies that simply do everything they can to avoid paying for things that they should be paying for.

I'll give you two simple examples.

Many companies use TeamViewer. It's easy to use and it works well for what it's intended for. However I'd say that over 90% of the clients are using it as the free personal edition that says all over it for non-commercial use. I don't get why companies that are turning over tens of millions of dollars, or who are managing billions of dollars of other people's funds struggle to pay the correct licensing for basic utilities that they depend upon.

In the online course creators' groups that I'm part of, people are highly protective of their own intellectual property and endlessly concerned about people pirating courses. Yet when the same people need some graphical work, or they need some B-roll video, or they need a video recording and editing tool, the first thing they always expect is to find a free tool.

It's simple: if you want these types of tools to exist, please be prepared to pay for them.

 

Opinion: Don't just tell me I left the basket empty, ask why

I do quite a bit of online shopping. One thing that many sites have implemented, is an attempt to recapture your attention when you've added items to a shopping cart, and then abandoned the cart.

This is seen as a feature in many implementations of carts for online stores.

Manipulate them?

Given it's so common now, I've also found that many can be manipulated. For example, one clothing store that I like, will send me a reminder about my abandoned cart one day later. Often at that point, they'll make an additional offer, like free shipping.

But that's so predictable that every time I shop there, I put items in the cart, abandon them, and wait to see what deal is offered.

First lesson: Don't be predictable on this.

But why?

Now I'm sure that some purchasers are hesitant, and a simple reminder will get them to purchase.

But what many sites don't seem to "get" though, is that I will often have abandoned the cart for a reason. Something wasn't clear or something wasn't quite what I wanted.

I've noticed that none of the sites ever ask me why I've abandoned the cart. There is an enormous amount of value that they could learn if they just asked that question.

Instead, they annoy me, by continuing to send me reminders about my abandoned cart, without ever addressing my concern or hesitation.

Second lesson: Don't just pester people about abandoned carts. Ask they why or how you can help. You might be surprised by what you learn.

 

 

Opinion: Please don't spam me about not responding to your spam

There's another annoying trend that I want to call out. Every single day, I receive emails like this:

I'm sure others get them too. Now I'm sure Tatyana is a lovely lady who's just trying to do her job and struggling to find business for her company. But I haven't the slightest interest in what she's offering.

Now I used to respond to these, and just say "No thanks" or "No interest".

Then I started saying "No thanks. Please don't spam".

But now I get so many of these per day that I just don't have the time to be responding to them. (I'm glad I'm not in the remote web development business).

So what's changed?

Now what's changed, is they've started spamming me for not responding to their spam.

Really? So now I'm getting anywhere up to 50 or 60 percent more mail from these people, because I didn't respond to their previous mail.

And some aren't done then. They'll keep sending it over time. Some even start to get nasty about not getting a response.

There's probably some sales coaching course somewhere that tells them that this is a good idea. It's not.

Please don't do this!

 

Opinion: When comparing cloud costs, are you considering opportunity costs?

As I work at different client sites, I see a lot of discussion about the cost of cloud-based services, in comparison with on-premises or self-hosted equivalents. One aspect that always seems to be forgotten is opportunity cost.

So many times, I see people comparing raw incremental costs of virtual machines in the different environments. Invariably they aren't making an apples vs apples comparison. They aren't considering staff costs, training costs, power, real estate, support costs, etc.

But a really big one for me is the difference in opportunity costs. Let me give you an example.

I was working at a client site where we decided to test an application's interaction with Availability Groups in SQL Server. I asked if I could spin up a few servers in Azure to try it. I was told that that wasn't their policy and that they'd provision me servers to work with locally.

  • It took four weeks to get a quote for the hardware.
  • It then took six weeks for the hardware to arrive.
  • Then I was told it would be another four weeks delay because they couldn't take a power outage to install them in the racks.

I wish I was joking.

This had added over three months delay in the project. So much could have been achieved in the meantime. If we had done that in Azure, I could have had the work complete by the next day.

There's no easy measure for the cost of the lost opportunity but it's significant. Don't ignore it when comparing costs.

 

 

 

Opinion: If you're a DBA and want to retrain, what should you learn?

On our SQL Down Under email list today, someone asked:

My title is DBA but my job is more into SQL Developer, fixing data involved in applications. Do you think if I study Power BI that I can get a better job?

I get asked this sort of question regularly, particularly from traditional DBAs who see their roles disappearing.

The most basic answer is to adapt what you're doing across to roles that are still in need like data modelling, query performance tuning, DB design in general, etc. However, I wanted to make some more broad recommendations for those considering something more radical.

Historical Answer

Over the years, when I've been asked this, I point out that a key advantage of BI is that it tends to appeal to the people who pay the bills.

Awesome image by Sharon McCutcheon

If you work on core business systems like invoicing, order entry, accounting, and so on, you can have a rewarding career. However, you'll be spending your life working in what the organisation sees as a cost of doing business. And that's something that they want to minimise.

Awesome image by Krill Sharkovski

The higher you can move higher up the IT ladder (in terms of value to the business), the better funded your projects usually are, and the more interesting your role is likely to be.

BI Example

A simple example, let's consider a company like Amazon. The people who do all their IT for core order processing, shipping, etc. will have busy and probably interesting jobs. But their life will be full of head count restrictions, budget cuts, and an endless desire to minimise their costs. To get funded, most new projects will need to show that they lead to a reduction in existing costs.

Then consider the people who do the "hey you bought this, I really think you should consider this as well" code.

I can't say for sure, but I'd almost guarantee their projects are funded at an entirely different level, largely because they can directly affect the profitability of the company. New projects in these areas are much more likely to be seen as investments. They will also be likely to attract funding from outside the normal IT chain of command, probably from the Marketing team.

(I've seen predictions years ago that most of IT will eventually report to Marketing).

That advice has worked well for us, and still works now, but it's yesterday's advice, and now I see things differently.

Today's Answer

Tomorrow's corporate battles, and even potentially the survival of the companies will be largely based around their ability to implement AI.

The first generation of AI was all about super-specialists, deep thinking, and looking for breakthroughs.  It was owned by the 7 big corporations working in AI and their association to a handful of universities doing advanced work in the area.

This next phase of AI (following on from the development of deep learning) is all about implementing these current AI concepts, and applying them to so many aspects of business and the community. Even though the biggest wins will come to those who own the big data sets, there are and will continue to be amazing opportunities for commercialising existing AI concepts.

Our most interesting projects today are ones that are based around AI tooling, that's letting us solve business problems that we simply could not have solved any other way, at least not economically.

And if you want an area that's crying out for short to medium term wins, that's security.

Awesome image by Liam Tucker

The problems in this area are now almost already completely out of hand. There are estimates that this year alone, there will be shortages of hundreds of thousands of IT security people, but we're talking about serious security people. And this is going to get much worse.

The only foreseeable way to solve most IT security issues is via AI.

I'm not too worried about retraining now but if I was in my 30's or 40's, aiming directly at the intersection of AI and advanced IT security would seem a really safe bet.