Web Site Monitoring made simple… i.e. no multi-million dollar monitoring systems.

Do you need to monitor a web application, but don’t have an expensive monitoring system available?  Do you have more than one server?  Well, you are in luck.

I have servers in multiple data centers on different subnets that allow me to have one monitor the other.  This is far from foolproof if you lose the network you have lost both, but if the network is down then both are unreachable anyway, monitoring is not important.  Everyone knows that everything is down.

This lightweight monitoring lets you know when your tomcat server or IIS server has stopped.  When your javascript web app has crashed, etc…  or when it failed to start after a reboot

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Changing Jobs? – Don’t get bitten by COBRA. Short-term insurance is a great option.

So you did it.  You found that job that you want.  You did the research, put in the time, had the phone interviews, did the in person interview, and got the offer letter.  You just sent your resignation e-mail because you cannot find your boss.  You are looking around your office wondering if you need one box or fourteen to get all the things you acquired over the years to your car.  You have a checklist because you are the kind of person who makes checklists.  You have on there to investigate rolling over your 401K, and somewhere near the bottom, you have, “investigate the cost of COBRA.”  You know about COBRA.  More than a decade ago you used it when you changed jobs, with the new Federal Insurance rules it cannot be worse.  So you do not worry about it.  You might want to rethink that.

Then you get that sheet from HR during your exit interview and find out that COBRA cost is almost four times what you are paying per month.  In that instant, sitting in the HR Managers office, you start to think:  Do I need insurance for a month?  Sure if you were single you could risk it, but you have a family.  Maybe you have a health condition.  You can stock up on meds.  You will be fine.  For a fleeting moment, you wonder if you could retract that resignation letter.  Then you go.  It will work out.  People change jobs all the time.  It will work out.

So there you are, sitting at home trying to figure out how you are going to come up with $2000 for one month of insurance.  This new job is starting to look like a huge mistake.  Stop right there.  You realize that there are insurance plans available thanks to the affordable care act.  You can just do that for a month.  It has to be cheaper.  Surprise, it is cheaper, but you have to commit to using it for the rest of the year.  This is now a total disaster.  You are stressed.  What can be done?

You can use short-term health care.  Insurance companies know that there are people like you out there.  People change jobs all the time; people have life-changing events that make it necessary.   So you do not need to forgo food,  cancel your cable, drop your cell phone, and take money from your savings just to cover the cost of your insurance with COBRA.

Short-term health insurance is the option.  A great place to start is https://www.ehealthinsurance.com/short-term-health-insurance.

The deductibles are high; the costs are low, but if something bad happens you are covered.  You will not have to go bankrupt because of a hospital stay.

Things to know, these short-term health insurance providers do have the right to reject customers for pre-existing conditions.  That is why short term policies are cheaper than major medical and or COBRA.  This may mean you have no option other than COBRA if you or a family member has a serious health condition.  These are also short term.  1 to 6 months.  If your new job starts insurance after six months you need to look at something else.  You need to keep these two things in mind.

For most people short-term health is a much better option than COBRA.  It was for me.  Why should changing jobs mean hurting yourself financially?  You have lots of things to worry about: learning new people’s names; where to do to lunch; what are the unwritten rules of the new job; learning your new job.   Taking care of your family should not be one of the things you have to worry about while changing jobs.

Wunderlist – How we track complex desktop deployments

Legal IT has some unique challenges.  One of the largest is the most obvious when you think of lawyers and staff, they are not technical and should not have to be.  Lawyers, paralegals and support staff are specialists.  They focus on their work product.  Successful Legal IT involves helping the department/firm produce work product without getting in the way.  We use the term, “white glove” treatment at Turner for executives and other specialist that due to their job don’t have time and would not be expected to do their own computer updates.   Consider that you do not want the company treasurer or head of programming to be sitting and her desk worrying why a prerequisite for an install gave an error.  We face the same thing but on a larger scale.  If a member of the legal department is delayed or has their time “wasted”  it is most likely delaying something that either makes money for the company or saves money for the company.

A common requirement for my team is to perform an update of all legal systems software on computer.  Fortunately all computers are standardized.  Unfortunately, the desktop software has some finicky installation requirements.  We automated what we could with 6000 lines of combined Powershell and batch file code.  That said, we still face approximately 2 hours of work for each machine:

  • Uninstall all legal software
  • Uninstall MS Office (This is not fast, and requires a reboot)
  • Install New version of MS Office (This is just not fast)
  • Patch Operating System (This is the unknown time sink)
  • Install Legal Software
  • Verify configuration (There are some steps that the automated procedures just hiccup on about 10% of the time.)

How in the world do you manage to keep all of that straight with a limited time frame, 15 offices spread around he globe and only a handful of employees and few local resources?

Answer: A great checklist.

We have great checklists and instructions, but it is easy to lose track of who is where and who is doing what at what time.  We use Wunderlist and a shared list.  My lead support analyst has gotten quite adept and maintaining and update the lists despite the lack of an import feature.

With Wunderlist installed on our phones, desktops and accessible via the web, as a manager I know exactly where we are in the upgrade process and where I can redirect resources to help.  Sometimes that resource is me, sometimes it is other teammates that have completed their work and are now available to assist.

The high level of up time, low cost ($0) and versatile ways to access make Wunderlist a key tool in our Legal IT toolbox.

How many hats do you wear at work?

I have a hat rack in my office, I am a People Manager, Technical Manager, Project Manger, Business Analyst, Programmer, Database Administrator, Data Modeler, System Administrator, System’s Architect, and occasional furniture mover.  I am sure I have forgotten a hat or two, they are probably stuck under another hat.

How do I wear all of those hats?  One at a time and very carefully.  I am very lucky to be in a job that allows me to be a “hybrid” IT professional.  I have had jobs that were only one hat, Programmer, or Database Administrator.  I found those to be restrictive.  I am not sure that I could go back to just having one job to do each day.  I am never bored, and I have a to do list that my successors will still be working to clear, regardless of when I retire.

How do you handle the hat juggle?

Why people don’t use Service Level Agreements

Service Level Agreements  are scary.  They are a contract between you and the customer spelling out when you will start and how long it will take you to do something.  That is terrifying when applied to the unknown.  We would never work as IT professionals without an agreement as to how much we will get paid and when.  Why do we expect the customer to work without a contract spelling out how we will work for them and when?

Many IT people think of SLAs as a restriction that ties them up in knots.  Many customers have no idea what and SLA is.  They just want to know how long you are going to let their application be broken.  We need to look at the SLA as a “living document.”  Not a set of commandments that we need a lawyer to interpret for us.
As IT professionals if we are constantly failing to meet the agreed SLA we need to sit down and determine if we are doing all that we can to meet the SLA.  If the answer is yes, then we need to go back to the customer and discuss the reality of the situation and adjust the SLA or increase the budget for the support.  A frank discussion must be had, about costs and trade offs.  if you can’t do it, promising to do it is worse that saying no.
The SLA should not be seen as an excuse to avoid work or something to avoid because it binds you to an agreement.  It is a tool for IT professionals to use to improve the customer relationship.  In the end the relationship with our customers is all we have.

How to survive being outflanked by your workload and what that has to do with IT work.

Step one: do not let yourself be outflanked.  So that failed…  What do you do now?

Being out flanked on a battle field is when the opposing force manages to move around you and block your ability to maneuver in a direction that is advantageous to you.  When this happens it is almost always bad for the unit that is outflanked.  To get a good idea of this, imagine you  are a general and you have carefully planned out your battle strategy.  Suddenly the place you were going to maneuver to after the battle started is now filled with enemy soldiers.  Your plan just fell apart.

<Military Anecdote>

There is a basic infantry combat tactic taught in the Army.  When you are outflanked and unable to maneuver your entire unit moves toward a single point in the opposing force.  You can’t fight all sides at once and can’t panic.  Both are the sure way to lose everything. There are no guarantees for the unit that is already outflanked and unable to maneuver, but staying disciplined and working as a single unit is the only way to survive.

</Military Anecdote>

Why would an IT professional think about this?  It is the same thing you face everyday at work. You likely have a list of tasks and projects that could not be completed before you die if there were 10 of you.  You are effectively outflanked by your workload.

What can you do?  Stay calm, and pick a point to attack.  If you have an unpleasant call to make, make it.  if you have an ugly mess of a wiring harness that just needs to be torn apart and rewired, do it (provided you can get the system downtime.)

Much like an infantry battle you will be overwhelmed and lose if you stay in one place and try to fight on all sides at once.  When someone tells me they are overwhelmed and they don’t know what to work on first I always say, “Go left to right.”  It sounds silly when you read it but invariably that person just starts working.  Maybe they do so just have me stop giving them silly advice, but they are working nonetheless.   I actually mean it.

When I don’t know what to do with a desk covered in work , I go from left to right.  I don’t think about it, I just start.  I my case that generally means checking messages and returning calls since my phone is on my left, sending emails and handling reminder notes when I get to the middle, project documentation work which sits on the largest open part of my desk and then process my physical inbox which sits on my far right.  I get the inbox more often than you think.

This goes back to core idea of Failing Faster:  Don’t just sit there, do something!  Next time you are outflanked, you will know what to do.  Pick a target and fight your way out.

Don’t be a cat herder

The phrase, “Managing IT people is like herding cats” has always troubled me.  IT people are highly intelligent, highly trained professionals.  They work independently and occasionally in small teams.  They often appear indifferent to coworkers and sometimes indifferent to reality.  That is because they are  smart, educated and do not see the advantage to conforming to societal norms as a necessary requirement for their success.

Cats are independent, confident semi-social animals that most definitely do not want to be herded.  If one attempts to herd them, they are just as likely to attack, go perpendicular to where you want them to go, or sit down.  Cats do not want to be herded.  IT people are independent, confident semi-social animals that most definitely do not want to herded.

These are of course generalizations.  I am certain there are small herds of cats out there, just as I am sure there are groups of IT people that like to show up for meetings, and love discussing corporate financial metrics at length with business representatives.

Why would one even try to herd cats?  You entice them to come to a location.  You accept their eccentricities.  Why would you ever want your IT people to fall in line and do as everyone one else does.  You need to entice them to a location and then accept the fact that they climb on the furniture and claw at the drapes.  You use a spray bottle of water to teach them to stay off the expensive couch (show up to meetings on time.)  You put out food when you want to see them (get a status update.)  You tell them what you want but are not surprised when they ignore you as often as they listen.

The best you can do is train them to stop destroying your curtains, and know they probably will leave a swath of destruction when you are gone too long.  Give them the attention they need and accept what they are.  You don’t herd cats, you live with them.  You entice them to come to a location.

You will find programmers that love meetings and are genuine people persons.  You will find support people that are awful with customers.  You will find system engineers that are amazing meeting attenders and add a lot to the conversation.  This is more about knowing your employees and managing them.  But please, never try to herd them.  That is a fast way to stress yourself and them.  Entice and encourage, don’t herd.