The Best Kind of ERROR

Our modern experiences have taught us to be familiar with different types of error messages. These are not always unpleasant. They’re just part of the feedback loops of our modern ecosystem. Various projects have even attempted to make this a more enjoyable experience. In Chrome you can play with a dinosaur while you wait for your internet to be restored.

If errors are normal (and they most certainly are) what is the best type of error?

I’d like to submit that the best type of errors are user errors.

Yes, people failures are the best types of failures to have.

Yesterday I was on a call where we spent 45 minutes troubleshooting an error message that we could have easily cleared out by hitting the enter key twice. We just didn’t know that at the time.

Sounds like a waste of time, right? It felt like it too.

But that’s the exact opposite of what it was. A waste of time would have no positive benefit.

Almost at once we were all in the zone of trying to get past the message. We were all in our learning framework. We activated social networks to help us troubleshoot. We were all focused on the same obstacle. It was a great unintended team building activity.

When we did discover the solution there’s not a single one of us that didn’t learn what it was. We were all in our learning mode, and the hard to find answer helped to solidify the solution in our memories.

We’re not going to do that again.

The other reason why I believe user errors are the best kind of errors is that users can be trained. In the above example we’re not going to make that same mistake again and we left notes and videos for anyone that followed us so they don’t have to learn the same lesson with the same frustrating feelings.

Equipment and software aren’t so quick to fix. There’s a logistical chain that has to be considered when addressing an equipment error. In software there’s a development chain that has to be considered. In my experience neither of these have as quick of a response of asking someone to do it differently.

What’s the best type of error? User Error.

Because users can be trained and once they are they’re changed.

So, dear reader, are you easy to train?

Fortnight–A Technical Challenge

One way to overcome NOCZ (Near Optimum Comfort Zone) is to engage in a fortnight technical challenge. Try something different for fourteen days!

I’ve been doing this challenge for years but especially since I started working with my new employer. The tool set available at work is not insignificant and often times there’s two or three applications to choose from. At first I took the road less traveled on a few of these just to see if it would impact my work flow.

It didn’t.

Then I started realizing that my position had me as the bridge between an off-site contracted workforce and the traditional employees at the company. Every two weeks I would make choices to use tools and technology that more closely resembled their tool set. Recently it paid off–big time!

We transitioned from Wave 1 of the project to Wave 2. That transition included changing a lot of the project team. More of the workforce was further away and not as familiar with the company’s policies and tool set, but to be productive they needed to be.

A lot of what Project Management looks like from the outside is managing Gantt charts and running numbers to communicate Scope, Schedule, and Budget. In my world it’s much different (though I can do those things). I found myself needing to coach/train the project team on the tool set for the project.

Had I only be familiar with the intended company experience from my onboarding I would not have been in any position to help them through the steps needed to be functional. Because I had challenged myself (two weeks at a time) I was able to support them through the learning process and get them up and running efficiently and effectively.

If you’re on the Microsoft Office 365 suite here are some suggestions to try:

  • Ditch Outlook and try the online version. The interface is clean and capable. I’ve gone up to 7 weeks without using native Outlook–and the only reason I had to use it was because Skype for Business doesn’t have the setting I needed built into the app.
  • Ditch Skype for Business (SFB) for MS Teams. Not only is SFB the worst app I used in 2018, it’s so bad Microsoft is switching it’s biggest SFB clients to MS Teams. MS Teams is designed to compete with Slack and it involves a different perspective on communication. It will take time to adapt to its work flow but it’s a powerful tool for anyone who has the need to communicate.
  • Try the online versions of Excel, Word, and PowerPoint. When there’s a feature missing opening the file in the native app is just one click away (so it’s pretty good training wheels). Find out what you can and can’t do.

If you’re doing this as a team make it a fun challenge to come back to the team and report what you’ve learned. This doesn’t have to be a full-fledged team activity, but something that could be discussed a couple times a month over lunch. There will be challenges in doing this, but if you can create a space where those can be shared you should see a shift from it being a gripe session (complaining about the software) and turn into narratives of overcoming the challenges of learning.

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

FileZilla Reenters My Workflow

I recently acquired some old hardware and was working on giving it a purpose when I felt a particular set of problems could be solved by using a physical disc to install the operating system on one of the machines. So, I burned a DVD. This particular set of projects began in part with my youngest son (11) working towards his computer merit badge for scouts. His younger sister (8) became quite interested in what we were doing and would ask questions between cartwheels. When it came time to burn a DVD they thought I was crazy.

Daughter, “Dad, you’re going to BURN a DVD?” Thinking I was going to get out matches and start a file she yells, “Mom! Dad’s going to BURN a DVD!!!”

I then explained that I wasn’t going to burn it by starting a fire, I was going to use lasers.

I should have had my camera ready, the expression on her face was priceless.

Things have changed over the years in how we use technology. One of my favorite go-to apps that used to be a routine part of my workflow has recently entered back into my workflow, FileZilla. With all the machine repurposing I’ve been doing, there’s been a significant need to move files around on the network.

After TechSNAP 350 I knew I didn’t want to use Samba unless absolutely necessary. It wasn’t because there’s a risk to my particular network, but I want to make sure I’m using best practices in my home environment. From a speed standpoint FTP kicks SMB’s butt, so I started looking at FTP. As I was working through a few articles and a couple of tutorials, I realized how awesome, old, and insecure the protocol is. By this point I had installed FileZilla, but before getting it to run I had a thought. If I chose to not use SMB to resemble best practices how was FTP following best practices? The answer was simple, it wasn’t.

I was looking forward to reusing FileZilla for nostalgic reasons. It brings me back to an era when static HTML was acceptable and there’s something about watching files upload in its queue that just warms my heart.

Because I was managing these systems remotely as much as possible, I was getting more comfortable working in SSH. So, I thought, SSH runs on port 22. What happens if I tell FileZilla to connect on port 22?

So I imputed the server information, specified port 22 and Bob’s you’re uncle, I was in! Not only was I in, but the transfer rates were considerably closer to what you get from FTP as opposed to SMB. I had secure, screaming-fast transfers across my network.

I had one of those OH-WOW moments immediately followed by a feeling of “I’m sure everyone else knows this already.” I had just discovered that I never need to use FTP again because it’s baked in to SSH as SFTP. While it may not be new to the community, it certainly was new to me.

So I decided to test this outside my network to see what would happen. I spun up a droplet at DigitalOcean and got transmission working. Then, I set it up to participate in tormenting one of my favorite distro’s ISO file. I then tested downloading that ISO from the Downloads directory to my machine using SFTP. Performance and security as expected.

I’m sure this is one of those things that’s common knowledge among professionals and most hobbyists, but it was something I hadn’t learned yet and I’m both excited and hesitant to share. I’m excited because this is freakin’ awesome! And hesitant because I’ve been poking around with Linux for more than a decade and never have I realized this was possible.

This makes me wonder, what other basic tools have I been missing?

As it turns out there’s not that much difference between me and my eight-year-old. I just used SSH to transfer files. It doesn’t sound nearly as cool as using lasers to burn a disc. In this house we have a lot of learning to do.

A Colmar Conversation

The clouds which hovered all day finally started letting go of a bit of rain on the town of Colmar, France.  My wife and I ditched the kids in front of the television at the hotel and went downtown for a date.  As we wound our way through the streets of wooden framed buildings we passed a few fountains.  Rumor is that one of them served as the inspiration for the Bonjour scene of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.  One of my colleagues at work had served his Mormon mission in this area and recommended we try the local flam (a thinly crusted pizza).  When we found an open cafe with the dish we sat down outside the building under the awning and began to do some people watching while waiting for our order.

My wife who speaks fluent German and I both feel equally out of place in France.  Neither one of us knows the language and after a couple of days of just us and the kids, this date was likely going to involve the same routine conversation.  Then a family sat at the table next to us who obviously spoke English and that gave me an opening for breaking up our conversation with one that involved our new neighbors.

We didn’t exchange names.  I’m rather terrible with names and I don’t ask for them when I don’t have to.  Asking gives the false impression that I might actually try to memorize what you’re called instead of all the other interesting facts like how you feel about a certain subject.  After a small round of exchanging travel notes we began to talk about our employment.  When it was his turn the gentleman explained that he works selling finance and accounting software.  I mentioned working on my masters in IT/Project Management and that I’m a fan of open source.

“Oh, you’re just like some of the people that work for me!  If they had it their way they would have open sourced the whole suite.”  I smiled back.  “But,” he continued “I like selling licences.”  He said this glancing over at his wife and son.  Then looked back at me as if he was waiting for me to be offended.

I wasn’t.

The gentleman’s appearance told me he had probably ten years on me by age so I assume that he’d been around enough to have had this conversation before.  I think he was surprised that I offered no argument.  My only response was “I like open source software because it’s helped me solve problems when nothing else was accessible.  In addition I really appreciate being able to leverage the volumes of information on troubleshooting that I can’t find anywhere else.”

There wasn’t much he could say to that, and to my enjoyment he wasn’t upset by my response.  The dialogue continued.  The flam came, was delicious, and all in all we each passed a pleasant evening as the rain subsided and gave way to a sunny conclusion to the day.

I have a theory about people with bad ideas.  Sometimes it’s worth correcting on the spot.  Other times it’s more helpful to let them keep talking because eventually they’ll realize they’ve painted themselves into a corner.  I’ve also learned that sometimes the latter strategy takes years.  

That’s why I don’t mind licensing for various proprietary closed source software.  It’s a model that paints the manufacturer into a corner.  I don’t mind Lightroom and Photoshop requiring a subscription.  I consider them tremendously useful applications.  Will they always be proprietary?  Probably not, but each month when I pay the subscription fee I’m getting a useful set of tools and investing in letting Adobe make those tools better.

Subscription fees are wonderful tools for paying for software.  Unlike a one time sale, they provide a steady income that facilitates paying the bills while investing in more features.  World of Warcraft taught the industry how successful the model could be, and it’s taken the industry quite a few years to mature to making this model become the norm.  Microsoft and Adobe both offer subscriptions for their software and can easily analyze their metrics when the subscription model starts to fail.  This makes the system much more responsive to customers than previous payment schemes.  

The real leap of faith for us is trusting the customer.  Matt Hartley, editor for FreedomPenguin.com has repeatedly stated that people just want their machines to work.  They don’t necessarily buy them to tinker.  They buy them to get a job done.  Currently they’re willing to exchange a portion of their wealth for the productivity of the tool.  No over priced model can function forever as long as those with the wealth have a choice about how they spend it.  The subscription model improves the communication between the manufacturer and the customer.  When those customers start to see that they have the option to be productive without exchanging their wealth–or find a system that provides them with more in exchange for that same amount of wealth–then they’ll move to open source.

The missionary efforts of the Mormon Church include good media production, but as my colleague at work will tell you referrals from friends are the most successful.  This year is the year of the Linux Desktop for all the thousands of people who get an invitation to switch and act upon it.  The year you switched was your year of the Linux Desktop (2008) and I’m happy to report that the food in Colmar still tastes good even if an invitation gets rejected.  Ironically I’ve come to realize that Beauty and the Beast is a simple story about overcoming an act of impetuous rejection.