why is critical data all over the place?

April 12, 2008 at 10:44 am | Posted in Technology Trends | 1 Comment

Things are rarely going as well as they seem in today’s data centers. You would think that with all of the audits, documentation, procedures, and policies that exist today, everything would be very buttoned down. But as I visit customers, they candidly tell me it is anything but. Today, I just read a Business Week article talking about cyber-espionage. Interesting article, but here is a quote that really caught my attention, which really wasn’t intended to be any sort of main point in the story:

While hardly the most sophisticated technique used by electronic thieves these days, “if you have any kind of sensitive documents on Access databases, this is getting in there and getting them out," says a senior executive at a leading cyber security firm ... Commercial computer security firms have dubbed the malicious code "Poison Ivy."

Now here's the thing, in 2008, we should never even SEE the words "sensitive documents" and "Access database" in the same sentence! Yet, we do. And most folks I talk to who are candidly honest will admit that there is more data than they care to think about in more places than they care to imagine. It's not hard to see why when you look at the problem bottom-up. Databases like Access and (from the end-user's perspective) Excel, are and were super easy to use, and rather than wait on IT procedures and delays, they just did things themselves. Suddenly, they start to contain all kinds of sensitive data that would send an auditor (and some top executives) into a coma. And right now, I'm only talking about databases, let alone "unstructured" data like Word documents, PowerPoint slides, etc.

Data growth is exploding. DBA growth is essentially flat. End users are impatient.  Houston, we have a problem.

It is my opinion that the only way to effectively solve it is to counter it the same way it started: from the bottom-up. Starting from the top-down is necessary and appropriate, but incomplete.  Remember the words of that famous Business Analyst, Princess Leia when she was talking to the CIO of the Dark Side trying to shut her down: "The more you tighten your grip, the more systems will slip through your fingers." First laptops were the big issue. Then came USB drives. Now more and more people are using online storage such as Google Apps. Users seem to always find a way.

We'll talk a lot more about this and similar problems in future posts. For now, if we just start to think about why end users are doing these things, that might generate some ideas on where to begin.

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throwing down more challenges

April 11, 2008 at 12:02 pm | Posted in Professional Development | Leave a comment

In college, I was an offensive lineman. That means that me and four other guys had to function as a single unit for a play to be successful. I still remember the first time my coach put me in with the starting line up. There was me, and four other guys who were way better. It was a rush and I played at a whole new level. Fast forward many years and I found myself as a coach. It was then I learned why my college coach used to throw me in with the starters.

Take a kid with average skills and throw him into an environment where he is on the same unit with kids that are much better, and guess what… almost invariably his game steps up. Conversely, take a kid with great skills and put him in a mediocre bunch, and again, almost invariably, his performance drops. From an athletic perspective, I know why: athletes love The Challenge.

Can the same be true in business? I think so, but I’m actually in the process of testing it out more and more. Everyone is familiar with the Carrot and the Stick approaches to motivation, but I want to add a third category: The Challenge. What if we tried laying out the problem and simply telling folks, “I need you to come through here” and then really believe it! In other words, instead of looking down on under-performers, try pulling them up into your circle of “starters” and simply expect them to perform at your level, but treat them as a peer. Maybe that rush will hit them and they will find another gear. For me, it’s worth a shot.

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Why measure?

April 10, 2008 at 11:12 pm | Posted in Business | Leave a comment

At halftime of football games, coaches are handed a slew of statistics from the 1st half of play. I remember at one point i was looking at over 30, and I was just a high school coach — imagine the pros! During one game I noticed we were all huddled around admiring or bemoaning this or that statistic while the kids sat about 20 yards away. And sat. And sat. That weekend, we whittled our halftime review stats back to five.

Recently we hit the end of the first quarter. Not of a football game, but for 2008. Spreadsheets, databases, and BI tools are hard at work. Numbers, ratios, increases, decreases, graphs and charts whiz through our heads day and night. So much so that stats can become and end in themselves while the business sits. And sits. And sits. A good question I am asking myself these days is “why am I measuring that?” If I can’t apply it to a business action or consequence, I need to let it go. And, I also need to really fight the urge to torture the numbers to defend a point rather than exploring the numbers to discover a hidden gem.

“Why am I measuring that?” I don’t have a universal answer, but it’s just a good question to ask the next time I open excel.

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Earning a right to be heard

April 10, 2008 at 2:57 pm | Posted in Professional Development | 1 Comment

I had a great conversation today with a colleague about this blog.  His thoughts were that my entries were too long to do a new reader much good — that they wouldn’t stick with it.  I countered with: what good is a blog with all sizzle but no meat?  (Not surprisingly, he is in marketing!)  But his point is valid.

It was a good reminder that we have to earn our right to be heard by a new audience.  He asked me if, as a coach, I would stand in front of a team for the first time and give a 30 min speech. The fact is I would.  But, that’s only because I have a captive audience!  Out here, and in life in general, it’s different.  We don’t have a captive audience in most cases — at least not in the early going.

So my lesson to myself for the day is to remember that it’s important to connect to those with whom you are trying to communicate, before you actually get into deep communication.  Perhaps nowhere is this more important than the realm of the blogosphere.

Another reminder was… ooops, there I go again.  We’ll save that for another entry.

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Dark Clouds and Real Virtual Problems

April 10, 2008 at 8:59 am | Posted in Technology Trends | 2 Comments

As usual in the world of technology, the media hype far outpaces the actual implementation and trust in the technology. So much so that Gartner put together something called a “Hype Cycle” that is actually one of the more useful tools that I have seen from an analyst firm. I think I like it so much because it captures the essence of how something goes from buzz to reality. Right now, there are two major technologies that definitely have the IT world all a buzz: Virtualization and Clouds.

Virtualization is the much older technology and has been implemented in nearly every IT shop in some form or fashion. It could be as basic as a developer team using a virtual image to do their testing, or as advanced as an entire data center consolidating production machines. But it’s there, and it’s growing.

The Cloud is relatively new and has everyone thinking that this could be a really game-changing initiative that could be the ultimate “hosting” solution. Right now, Amazon is the clear leader in this space with its EC2 (Elastic Compute Cloudand S3 (Simple Storage Service) offerings as components of their AWS (Amazon Web Services). If you really want to oversimplify how to think about the offerings, we could compare it to an old fashion system. You could view AWS as the interface the developers program in (like their language), S3 represents the disk drives (storage), and EC2 represents the motherboard (processors, memory, etc.) Just picture all that one web, essentially unlimited in size and power. You use what you pay for.

So everyone is talking about the hype, but what are some of the downsides? Turns out there are many, so we’ll just look at a few of them to get the idea.

First, we have decades of management software and human expertise built into our current solutions. So when you move to something different, it’s going to take a long while for the ecosystem to mature around it. And like any new technology, these are both very easy to implement small scale. They get implemented on a system or two, folks love it, a few more get implemented, they love it more, then suddenly there are hundreds of them out there with no way to manage them effectively. This is the kind of sprawl that keeps IT VP’s up all night.

Second, bad people are going to look for bad things to do with new technology. There was an interesting article in Forbes that talked about some of the recent attacks on Virtualized machines. They are scary and it will take a while for security to get ahead of these things. Get used to hearing ominous terms like “hyperjacking.” While we haven’t heard a lot about the same kind of attacks on the Cloud technologies, I think it’s only because it’s not mature enough yet. It will happen.

Third, reliability only comes through the test of time. Amazon’s Cloud has now gone down a couple of times. (Here’s one of them) Amazon’s response was something to the effect of: Systems fail all the time. Ugh. Not exactly what IT shops want to hear. This really opens the door for Google to step in as “the cloud done right” and they are already on that path.

Fourth, everyone has become very dependent upon detailed monitoring — the cousin of detailed management. How are you going to monitor a system that might reside on a virtualized machine with 10 other virtual machines (already an auditor’s nightmare) that then connects to a cloud storage back-end that is hosted who-knows-where right alongside who-knows-what, and it talks to the cloud via a bunch of web services residing somewhere next door or on Mars… you just don’t know. Now, monitor that to the granular level that you can put a Service Level Agreement on it. Good luck. That head of IT I talked about earlier losing sleep is now getting therapeutic counseling for stress overload.

It’s a brave new world, and these technologies are great. In fact, they are probably revolutionary. But be careful. Don’t get too enticed early on and suddenly find your data center out of control. Take it slow and watch the industry, and most importantly, watch the third-party vendors. I don’t just say that because I work for one. They are actually very good indicators as to when something is going mainstream. And in the early days of any technology, you generally need them until the vendors catch up (usually many years later) with tools of their own to do the job.

It will not be boring!

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picking on google

April 7, 2008 at 10:28 pm | Posted in Professional Development | Leave a comment

I know, if there’s anyone who can stand up for themselves, it’s Google, right? I mean, these are the guys poised to take-on Microsoft. While I’m not sure I am going to defend them, per se, I do find some recent commentary on their hiring practices pretty interesting.

For a long time, folks have taken an issue with Google’s hiring practices (here is a representative example), but it has flared up again recently with the firing of some 300 employees from recently acquired DoubleClick. Some people seem to think it didn’t have anything to do with redundancies (like here), but rather it was because the DoubleClick folks that were let go didn’t pass Google’s intense hiring standards.

I don’t know either way for sure, but suppose that was the case. Suppose they did let them go because they didn’t pass the hiring tests. Is that really so wrong? This started a very long email thread at work, and most everyone chimed in with something like “Well, I guess I would never get hired at Google” — all said with a bit of condescension. My response is actually a little different.

No, you probably would not get hired at Google. And that’s OK. You don’t work for Google, you work for us, and we need you to be mostly the way you are. If you’re not a freaky-smart straight A student, that’s more than acceptable here because our corporate culture is different. Not better. Not worse. Just different.

I wrote an earlier post that talks about figuring out who you are, and then building around those core attributes and beliefs. Google needs to be Google. It made them very, very successful, so why wouldn’t they continue the practices that got them there? You don’t need to work there and they don’t need to hire you. Welcome to life in a free economy.

This certainly doesn’t mean Google can’t improve and learn something from others, but nor does it mean that they are mean, stupid, and evil for doing what they know works. There’s an old saying in coaching: “Dance with who brung ya.” Google is doing just that.

Lastly, leaders take a lot of arrows in the back; both from competition and from the jealous masses. Certainly their success HAD to be luck, or HAD to be timing, or HAD to be ANYTHING but really smart, hard-working people plowing through adversity to be one of the most successful software companies around. It’s OK to criticize, but it’s better to learn. That’s what Sam Walton did in the early days. Whatever you think of them now (Sam’s long since gone), most admire his early approach of analyzing the competition. He never let himself focus on their negatives. Instead, he fiercely studied their positives and either emulated them, or tried to improve them, but always incorporated them into the style that was uniquely his.

It takes confidence and humbleness to learn from others more successful than yourself, but in the end, it is usually worth the effort.

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Beware the shiny objects in the tank

April 4, 2008 at 9:08 am | Posted in Professional Development | Leave a comment

Football coaches are never satisfied. By nature, most are a very curious lot who are always on the lookout for any tip, trick, or technique that will give them an advantage. If you look at successful teams over the years, it is hard to find a pattern. Some practice very long hours with full contact many days a week. Others keep it short and have multiple days off. Some coaches rant and rave and others hardly raise their voice above a whisper. Some teams are aggressive and risky and their offense, others are ultra conservative. Some playbooks are as thick as New York City phone books, and other coaches don’t even hand out a playbook at all. Yet they have all enjoyed success.

There is a danger in that variety, which I call the “shiny object in the fish tank” syndrome. A hungry fish is happily swimming along when suddenly a shiny object is thrown into the water. Bang! Instantly he darts to it forgetting everything else. Throw another object in the other side of the tank and, Bang! He’s darting again.

We can sometimes be like that fish. You read a book on a new management technique. You listen to a successful CEO give a motivational speech. You see an article on team building. You admire someone in your own company. These are all excellent things to do that can provide you with a tremendous pool of ideas, but they can be distracting when you become a hungry fish darting around from one to the other in search of — and here’s the key — replicating someone else’s path to success.

This is where things get tricky. I think it is a fantastic idea to read about, understand, and observe a very broad range of techniques and styles. But if you think that you are going to find the magic bullet technique that you can simply copy with equal success, you are probably going to become the fish. You are you. Life is dynamic. And people are messy. Take those three things combined and you have a very complicated equation when trying to find success in the business world. Thinking that you can replicate someone else’s success by copying their style isn’t practical and will only frustrate you.

So what do you do? I recommend following what the best leaders seem to all have in common. They know who they are. Take some time to really become self-aware. I don’t mean some zen-like, crystal-gazing trance. I mean take an interest in understanding who you really are. Personality tests can be a good place to start, and often listening to a close friend or family member can be even better. Make a list of your own strengths and weaknesses. Talk to those you trust about your list and ask for their honest feedback (family will usually never lie, and good friends won’t either). There will be surprises. Get a thick skin.

Once you do that, then make some decisions about your style. You gotta be you. If you are a quiet personality by nature, don’t force yourself into a leadership style that contradicts that. If you don’t believe in managing by metrics, don’t sell out to a system that requires it. If you aren’t comfortable being buddy-buddy with people, don’t fake it because a team building book said it would take you to the top. Be who you are, but really also UNDERSTAND who you are. Write a list of defining characteristics or principles that become your foundation to measure yourself against.

The final step is refinement as opposed to constant wholesale change. Once you have a firm grasp of your style, THEN you can smooth the rough edges. The best coaches I know are ALWAYS looking to other teams and colleagues for improvement. They observe something successful, evaluate it in light of their style and the capabilities of their team, and then decide whether it is useful to them. If so, they find a way to intelligently incorporate it (or aspects of it) into their system, which leads to refinement or enhancement. Ultimately this makes them better and better, but never forces them into something that is not “who they are” at their core.

When you have that kind of self-awareness and confidence in your own style, then you can read a book, or hear a speaker, or observe someone you admire, (all beneficial things) and make intelligent decisions about what to incorporate (or not) without darting in a completely different direction to the next shiny object that will probably only frustrate you.

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