Happy new year: and a reflection on 2020

Hi Folks,

Just wanted to make a post to wish you all a happy new year for 2021.

I doubt there's anyone much on the planet who didn't have a very, very peculiar, or very, very difficult 2020, and while there's a glimmer of hope with the virus now as vaccines arrive, I suspect that 2021 is still going to be dominated by the coronavirus, and a very tough year for so many.

2020 was also a very lonely period for many people, particularly as lockdowns occurred. Make sure you reach out to anyone you know who might be affected.

At this point, I just hope you all try to stay as safe as possible. Hard (or even disastrous) as other things might seem, everything else can be worked out later. Your health can't be.


Opinion: Development vs Professional Development

We had a new house built a while back, and in a few rooms there was a double switch: one for the light and one for a fan.

But which is which?

Now the old way to do that would have been to put a label on each one. Seems like a reasonable idea but unless that's a braille label, and you can read braille, that's not going to help you in the dark. You want to just reach in and turn on the correct switch. That's easy enough to do, but it really only works if the electrician who installed them followed a pattern i.e. the switch furthest inside might be the light, and the one closest to the door might be the fan.

If you only had one room like this, it mightn't matter much, but if you have several rooms, you'd hope they're done the same way in each.

But they weren't.


And that got me thinking about someone who does it the same way each time, and someone who doesn't. A licensed electrician might install it safely, and both switches work but a more professional electrician would check not only that it works, but that it was done in a consistent way, throughout the house, and throughout all the houses that they worked on.

When I see someone who installs things differently in different parts of a house, it leaves me with an uneasy feeling about the overall quality of their work. It's a clear indication of their lack of attention to detail. There might even be a standard for how that should be done. If there isn't, there should be. So perhaps there is a standard and they didn't follow it.

For a number of years I worked as an engineer for HP, in the fun days where they had the best commercial minicomputer systems in the industry. That involved working on large pieces of equipment (including some that were quite scary to work on), with an enormous number of pieces and screws to hold them together.

If I ever started to work on a piece of equipment, and found screws were missing, even if they were where the customer wouldn't see them, I got a really bad feeling about whoever worked on the same machine before me. Fortunately, I generally knew that whoever did it was unlikely to be based in our office, as the engineers doing work out of our office were meticulous about that. It was an unwritten rule about doing quality work.


And so the same things apply to development work. Are you hacking together something that works? Or are you aiming for more than that?

When someone needs to do further work on a project that you worked on, how will they feel about it?

Congratulations to Dr Georg Thomas !

Many years ago, I spent a lot of time in universities. I ended up finishing my studies at QUT in Brisbane

and I have a great and continuing fondness for that institution. Earlier on though, amongst other universities, I did quite a lot of study through Charles Sturt University

Over the years, I've maintained a continuous link with my friends at Charles Sturt University (CSU). Back when we used to run Code Camps for both developers and DBAs, CSU were only too pleased to jump in to help us. From the minute we arrived that first day in Wagga Wagga, I knew it was going to be good. Associate Profession Irfan Altas was an amazing help and remains a friend to this day. I'm always pleased to get to chat to him.

Irfan asked me to be the guest speaker at a CSU graduation a few years back. That was a great honour.

What many people might not realise is that I've also been helping as an industry supervisor for students in PhD or Doctor of IT programs.

And that's the reason for this post. I was so excited yesterday to hear that one of the students that I've been supervising (in this case together with Professor Oliver Burmeister) has completed all the requirements to be admitted to his Doctor of IT degree.

Congratulations to Dr Georg Thomas ! That's a major life achievement for you.



Opinion: Please don't schedule online meetings for full hours

I've seen a lot of people lately complaining about meeting burnout. It seems that in our pandemic-isolated world where staff members and others are available pretty much on call all day long, it's become really common to have a much larger number of meetings than we used to.

I'm interested in why this is. Perhaps it's the lack of contact leading to a desire for more contact and conversation, but if there were a lot of unproductive meetings before, nowadays that seems to have increased so much that it seems almost silly.

Endless interruptions are also a problem. I've been watching developers lately who can never "get into the zone". Some device around them is beeping every minute or so to alert them that another message has arrived from their favorite chat application: Teams, Slack, etc. And every time I see them losing their train of thought.

But the worst aspect of the current meeting culture seems to be this incessant need to fill every possible minute of each hour (or half hour) of a scheduled meeting. I partially blame our calendar apps. Why do they automatically allocate meetings right up to the end of an hour (or half hour)? Who designed that?

Back when we were in office, you'd see people hurrying to get from meeting to meeting but often that was only one or two. Now I see people with back to back meetings for a large proportion of their days, and every meeting occupies the entire timeslot.

There's no opportunity for them to be human for a few minutes in between.

Please learn to schedule meetings for say 50 minutes instead of full hours, and let the humans recover, get a drink, take a bio break, answer a message, etc. in between meetings.

What does the consistency of your work say about you?

I work with many different clients and I see work that's great and I also see work that's not so great. But the work that frustrates me the most, is inconsistent work.

When we built a house a while back, there are a number of rooms that have a combination light switch like the one shown in the main image. One switch is for the light, one is for something else: most likely a fan in a bathroom, etc.

Note that the electrician who installs them doesn't label which is what I want anyway. And if they did, that would look both ugly, and wouldn't help you in the dark anyway.

What I normally see though, is that they've done it the same way in every room. I don't care if the furthest in is the light, or the closest to the door is the light. I'd prefer it was the same in every house, but in the end, either is fine.

But when only one or two is done differently to all the rest, I'm left wondering about the quality of work that the electrician did. It might seem a minor thing, but I think about how many of these he/she has installed in their career, and puzzled that they don't have a standard. Even if there's no formal standard, you'd think there'd be one in their heads.

How's the consistency of your work?


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.