All posts by leon

Moments

We’re told to visualize success. And when we do – when we imagine ourselves winning, it’s in a moment.

But there’s another moment we should be envisioning – the moment before the moment. The one that comes before the winning move, before the piece of code that pulls it all together, before the report is handed in to smiles and nods and thumbs up.

And there’s a moment before that moment, too.

If you plan on winning today, you might want to spare some time to imagine for a moment what it looks like in those moments before the moment where you win.

Because that’s probably where the winning actually happens.

The Four Questions – Introduction

This article originally appeared in a scaled-down version here on PacketPushers.net. I’m posting it in it’s full form here as an introduction to the full series.


For people who are interested in monitoring, there is a leap that you make when you go from watching systems that YOU care about, to monitoring systems that other people care about.

When you are doing it for yourself, it’s all about ease of maintenance, getting good (meaning useful, interesting) data, and having the information at your fingertips to deflect accusations that YOUR system is down/slow/ugly/whatever.

But if you do that job well, and show up at enough meetings showing off your shiny happy data, inevitably you will get nominated/conscripted into the monitoring group where it is expected you will take as much interest in other people’s sh…tuff as your beloved systems from your former job.

And this is where things get especially tricky.

Assuming you LIKE monitoring as a discipline, and find it exciting to learn about different types of systems (and ways they can fail), you are going to want to provide the same levels of insight for your coworkers as you had for yourself.

Inevitably, you will find yourself answering The Four Questions. These are questions which—for reasons that will become apparent—you never really had to ask yourself when you were doing it on your own. The four questions—with brief explanations—are:

  1. Why did I get an alert?
    The person is not asking, “Why did this alert trigger at this time?” They are asking why they got the alert at all.
  2. Why didn’t I get an alert?
    Something happened that the owner of the system felt should have triggered an alert, but they didn’t receive one.
  3. What is being monitored on my system?
    What reports and data can be pulled for their system (and in what form) so they can look at trending, performance, and forensic information after a failure.
  4. What will alert on my system?
    I’d like to be able to predict under which conditions I will get an alert for this system.

…and the Fifth Beatle… I mean question.

5. What do you monitor “standard”?
What metrics and data are typically collected for systems like this? This is the inevitable (and logical) response when you say, “We put standard monitoring in place.”

In the coming (weeks/days/months/series) I’m going to explore each of these questions in-depth, and offer techniques you can use to respond to each one.

Lose, Survive, or Win?

My teenage son has had a rough patch lately – like many teens. Getting up for school requires Herculean commitment. Being civil, let alone kind, is almost impossible.

No surprises there, it’s all part of the journey.

This morning as I drove him to school, I asked him if he was going to let the morning’s bad start ruin the rest of his day.

“Nope” came hims typically verbose reply.
“So,” I asked. “Do you plan to lose, survive, or win?”
“Uh…. survive?” he answered, clearly thrown off his recalcitrant game.
“Interesting choice.” I said, and left it at that.

But I think it’s worth asking ourselves each day. As we prepare to meet the challenges inherent in the day of a typical IT pro, do we envision ourselves losing, surviving, or finding a way to win?

Sometimes it’s not important whether you actually win. Sometimes what matters – on day 463 of your job – what your plan is.

The rest is part of the journey.

MovieBob and Magneto

(Inspired by the article: “Magneto was Right” which has subsequently been taken down, but the video is here)

I really liked the character of Magneto in X-Men 1 and 2. The character had a point and a purpose and an inner consistency. He wasn’t “evil” any more than most of us are, he simply framed things differently than Xavier and acted based on his own values.

It’s like this: The power goes out in my neighborhood and some people think “candle light block party” while others lock the doors in case there’s looting and riots. Neither option is totally far out, it just depends on how you see the world.

Coming back to Bob. I got picked on in school. Most of the people I associated with got picked on too. Depending on the day and context, it was because I was a band geek, or a theater dweeb, or a fashion train wreck, or socially inept, or somehow being “an easy target”.

At least, that’s what I’ve always assumed. And since it was me getting picked on and not me picking on them, I assumed there was a flaw in me that invited the abuse.

But I think MovieBob is truly onto something, and not just because he’s using comic book characters as his foil.

My favorite point:
Bullies pick on us NOT because “we’re different” (MovieBob says “I can attest that they came in all shapes and sizes. A veritable rainbow coalition of torment.”).

NO, the thing we all suspect deep down is that it’s not that we’re different, we’re BETTER.

Bob uses images from Revenge of the Nerds in his discussion, and that might be the most accurate. The narrative of the geeks realizing their own self worth and playing to their strengths may be a fantasy, but it’s definitely a satisfying one as well as one that is actually playing out in reality with more and more frequency.

Breaking the Loop

There are times when doing it all over again can be part of a brand new discovery. And there are times (maybe MOST of the time) when it’s not.

There are times when doing it over is just busywork, repetition, your own little slice of Groundhog Day (but without getting Andie McDowell at the end, or becoming a surgeon, or anything).

Welcome to 80% of the work of IT. Figuring out a solution once and then doing it again and again and…

Hopefully, right about now, you are asking yourself “who would want to do that?”

If a response is known, repeatable, and predictable, shouldn’t it be automated? If a service stops, automatically restart it. If a disk is filling up, clear the temp directory. If the server has too many connections, clear the ones that are old, or stale, or showing no activity.

“But it’s not that simple” you say? Each solution is a snowflake, unique in it’s particulars? That’s fine. NOT repeatable or predictable happens too.

But if you find yourself locked into a circular routine, each ticket blurring into the previous one, it might be time to look for a pattern so you can break out of it.

LINK: Do what you love

And thanks to Doug at http://www.asknice.com for pointing it out.

http://www.paulgraham.com/love.html
How to Do What You Love
January 2006

To do something well you have to like it. That idea is not exactly novel. We’ve got it down to four words: “Do what you love.” But it’s not enough just to tell people that. Doing what you love is complicated.

The very idea is foreign to what most of us learn as kids. When I was a kid, it seemed as if work and fun were opposites by definition. Life had two states: some of the time adults were making you do things, and that was called work; the rest of the time you could do what you wanted, and that was called playing. Occasionally the things adults made you do were fun, just as, occasionally, playing wasn’t– for example, if you fell and hurt yourself. But except for these few anomalous cases, work was pretty much defined as not-fun.

And it did not seem to be an accident. School, it was implied, was tedious because it was preparation for grownup work.

The world then was divided into two groups, grownups and kids. Grownups, like some kind of cursed race, had to work. Kids didn’t, but they did have to go to school, which was a dilute version of work meant to prepare us for the real thing. Much as we disliked school, the grownups all agreed that grownup work was worse, and that we had it easy.

Teachers in particular all seemed to believe implicitly that work was not fun. Which is not surprising: work wasn’t fun for most of them. Why did we have to memorize state capitals instead of playing dodge-ball? For the same reason they had to watch over a bunch of kids instead of lying on a beach. You couldn’t just do what you wanted.

I’m not saying we should let little kids do whatever they want. They may have to be made to work on certain things. But if we make kids work on dull stuff, it might be wise to tell them that tediousness is not the defining quality of work, and indeed that the reason they have to work on dull stuff now is so they can work on more interesting stuff later. [1]

Once, when I was about 9 or 10, my father told me I could be whatever I wanted when I grew up, so long as I enjoyed it. I remember that precisely because it seemed so anomalous. It was like being told to use dry water. Whatever I thought he meant, I didn’t think he meant work could literally be fun– fun like playing. It took me years to grasp that.

Jobs
By high school, the prospect of an actual job was on the horizon. Adults would sometimes come to speak to us about their work, or we would go to see them at work. It was always understood that they enjoyed what they did. In retrospect I think one may have: the private jet pilot. But I don’t think the bank manager really did.

The main reason they all acted as if they enjoyed their work was presumably the upper-middle class convention that you’re supposed to. It would not merely be bad for your career to say that you despised your job, but a social faux-pas.

Why is it conventional to pretend to like what you do? The first sentence of this essay explains that. If you have to like something to do it well, then the most successful people will all like what they do. That’s where the upper-middle class tradition comes from. Just as houses all over America are full of chairs that are, without the owners even knowing it, nth-degree imitations of chairs designed 250 years ago for French kings, conventional attitudes about work are, without the owners even knowing it, nth-degree imitations of the attitudes of people who’ve done great things.

What a recipe for alienation. By the time they reach an age to think about what they’d like to do, most kids have been thoroughly misled about the idea of loving one’s work. School has trained them to regard work as an unpleasant duty. Having a job is said to be even more onerous than schoolwork. And yet all the adults claim to like what they do. You can’t blame kids for thinking “I am not like these people; I am not suited to this world.”

Actually they’ve been told three lies: the stuff they’ve been taught to regard as work in school is not real work; grownup work is not (necessarily) worse than schoolwork; and many of the adults around them are lying when they say they like what they do.

The most dangerous liars can be the kids’ own parents. If you take a boring job to give your family a high standard of living, as so many people do, you risk infecting your kids with the idea that work is boring. [2] Maybe it would be better for kids in this one case if parents were not so unselfish. A parent who set an example of loving their work might help their kids more than an expensive house. [3]

It was not till I was in college that the idea of work finally broke free from the idea of making a living. Then the important question became not how to make money, but what to work on. Ideally these coincided, but some spectacular boundary cases (like Einstein in the patent office) proved they weren’t identical.
… read more here: http://www.paulgraham.com/love.html

I’d Like the Record to Reflect…

What do you do when creativity refuses to cooperate? When you have the intention to create something, but that spark, that “thing” just isn’t happening?

Author Elizabeth Gilbert (“Eat, Pray, Love”) gave a speech about nurturing creativity at the 2009 TED conference. I strongly recommend it to anyone who has 19 minutes to spare:  http://www.ted.com/talks/view/id/453

Near the end of Ms. Gilbert’s talk she speaks to the invisible externalized part of her that provides inspiration:

You and I both know that if this book is not brilliant, that is not entirely my fault, because you can see that I am putting everything I have into this […] so if you want it to be better, then you’re going to have to show up and do your part of the deal […] but if you don’t do that, then […] I’m going to keep writing because *that’s my job*. And I would please like the record to reflect today that *I* showed up for my part of the job.

As I.T. professionals, we don’t always think of ourselves as particularly “creative”. But if we are honest, we know there are moments. We actually seek them out.

When I.T. pros connect with their creative selves, “just fixing it” turns into a solution which is elegant, inspired, and repeatable.

Don’t Tell Me “It’s Complicated”

HT to my hero and writing inspiration Seth Godin. His post here got me started, and his style is something I have wanted to emulate for years now.


Please

don’t tell me that it – monitoring – is complicated.

Don’t tell me you’re a snowflake – unique in your need for 1200 alert rules.

Don’t tell me “but our company is different. WE create value for our shareholders. Not like your other clients.”

Don’t tell me you can’t do it because…

Because

I’ve been creating monitoring solutions for over a decade.

I’ve designed solutions that scaled to 250,000 systems, in 5,000 locations

I work at a company that has written millions of lines of code to do this one thing, and do it well.

So please Don’t tell me it’s complicated.

Tell me what you need. What you want. What you wish you could have.

And then LISTEN to what I have to say. Because I’ve seen this before. I’ve done this before. And it’s NOT complicated. It’s also not easy.

But it is simple.

Colored Perceptions

I will freely admit up-front that I know little, if anything about businesses, startups or even management – except for the kinds of work environments and management styles I prefer to be an employee of/in/for.

Having said that, Bob Lewis’ recent article on the Phoenix principal (http://www.weblog.keepthejointrunning.com/wordpress/?p=2972) reminded me of Crayola.

In my mind, when thinking about how successful a company can be in the future, the starting point is “what do they do?” – well, “everyone knows” Crayola makes crayons. Everyone knows that.

[note: when reading over this, my wife quickly pointed out that “everyone” is obviously people who don’t spend a lot of time being with or shopping for kids. Because what I discovered below is pretty common knowledge in her circle of associates. As always, YMMV.]

As far as product diversity, my assumption was that their product line would include different sized boxes of crayons, and that they’ve branched out into washable markers. I figured they probably get some revenue from supplying those small 3- or 4-crayon packs to restaurants. After that, there’s not much to say, right?

Take one look at their web site though, and the whole theory is blown out of the water. This isn’t a crayon company. This isn’t even an art-supply company.

From what I can see, Crayola sells artistic inspiration, and it’s target consumer group is one which universally – to the last person – believes they are imminently talented artists. Kids.

The Crayola web site is completely focused on encouraging visitors to be artistic. There are coloring pages. Lesson plans for teachers. An e-card creator. An online calendar that lists events like National Wildflower week (May 4-8), International Museum day (May 18) and the Dragon Boat festival in china (May 28).

This point was driven home (hah!) when my wife showed me a sidewalk paint foam sprayer she bought for my son’s birthday.

A Sprayer. For paint. That foams. On your driveway.

That’s about as far from waxy crayons as you can get and still be in the same solar system.

Maybe I’m lionizing them and this is just good business (again, I’m not a business guy so I could be overly impressed by nothing). But it seems to be that this is a company that is thinking hard about their essential mission, and choosing not to be stopped by artificial boundaries with regard to “this is what we make”.

Someone once told me that Cisco bills itself (internally at least) as a software company. Not hardware, that’s just a means to an end, which is delivering the IOS (among other things) to customers. I have a few friends in Cisco now, and I’m not sure that’s really the case. But at the time it struck me as a novel way for them to look at themselves.

This realization has, in turn, made me think hard about what my mission is – in life, in business, in my usual work day. Do I really just fix computer problems? Is there (or could there be) something more noble to this, a higher purpose which would inform my choices?

I’m sure a lot of people may see this as a cynical exercise in re-branding – doing the same thing but calling it something different. But this has to be more than billing myself as “a sanitation engineer” instead of a garbage collector. This needs to be a change in focus and philosophy, or else it will be easily detected for what it is – a cheap marketing ploy.

So that’s it, my big idea for the week. I think I’m going to go crack open that package of glow-in-the-dark finger paints and see what kind of mess I can make.