Tech Job Seekers of the World, UNITE!

I am excited to announce the launch of my first ebook!  I have been working on this for some time now and I am really pleased with how it turned out.  My thanks to all of the people who helped me out with proofreading, research, and general encouragement.  I couldn’t have done it without you! 

To all the folks out there looking for jobs in the technology industry, I would love to hear your feedback and stories.  Please, let me know how (if) this helps you out.  If you know someone who is looking, please pass it along!

Download it here!

Kindle Findings

A while back, I broke down and bought a Kindle.  It’s shiny.  It’s well-made.  I take it with me everywhere.  It does not, however, accelerate or even keep a pace with my reading speed of paper.  A while back I said that I would be testing this thing out with my first three books.  Here are my results:

  Pages in the Print Version Total Time to Read Pages/Minute
Drive (Business) 256 3 h 51 m 1.11
First Lord’s Fury (Fiction) 480 4 h 15 m 1.88
Beginning Ruby (Technical) 656 8 h 21 m 1.30

Just for a reference point, I read paperback fiction at around 2.3 – 2.5 pages/minute.  It goes down from there for technical and business type books.

So, I read slower on the Kindle.  Quite a bit slower, actually.  I couldn’t figure it out for the longest time, but then it dawned on me.  I have to turn the page MUCH more often.  There is the slightest delay as the screen redraws itself and it happens every time you hit the Next Page button.  I’m pretty sure that’s the culprit. 

Anyway, apart from the speed issue, I love the device.  I can get books in the airport, sitting in the car waiting for during my kids’ piano practice, or in my bed at one in the morning.  Some titles I’ve looked for and they don’t have for Kindle yet, but the vast majority of what I have wanted was right there.  It’s too easy, actually.  When you search on the device for books, the Buy button is highlighted by default and if you click on it, it’ll charge your card and start sending the book in less than 20 seconds.  Impressive, but dangerous for someone like me…

I Have Drunk The Kool-Aid

And it is good.  I broke down and bought a Kindle the other day and it just showed up.  I have to say, I really like it.  I knew it was going to be compact and sleek, but I really am amazed at how well crafted the device is.  Also in the exceeding expectations department, I was dumbfounded by how easy the ordering/delivery of the book was.  Stunning.

I know there is nothing new here, so at the request of a friend of mine, I’ll be doing some speed trials with this.  You may have gathered that I read a lot.  I also read very fast, at least I did on paper.  So I’ve selected a business book – Drive by Daniel Pink, a fiction book – First Lord’s Fury by Jim Butcher, and a technical book – Beginning Ruby by Peter Cooper.  These should give me the gamut as far as how reading on the Kindle stacks up versus paper for me.  More to follow.

A Tale of Two Techies

I recently had a conversation with a group of young tech workers.  They are all VERY intelligent and great technicians.  They even have what I would consider very good people skills.  The topic of discussion was the role of technology (consultants and managers primarily) in keeping the business up to speed on what technology workers are working on.  The group seemed surprised by my assertion that it is every bit as important to report on the work as it is to do the work well.

Let me clarify with a story.  Let’s imagine two technology managers (or consultants or even entry level, really).  Let’s call them John and Ray.  They are both excellent with technology and work very hard for their companies.  They both have great experience and try to pay attention to their people skills.

John is a very reserved kind of a guy and somewhat of an introvert.  He does his job well, stays weekends and nights when he needs to and really tries to do the right thing in all situations.  He assumes that his hard work and diligence will be noticed by his managers and users (customers) and they will appreciate him without his having to “blow his own horn”.  This mentality is his justification to ignore what he thinks of as office politics (he thinks they’re beneath him) and he focuses most of his attention on the technology itself.

Ray is a little more outgoing.  (For a computer geek, he’s actually the life of the freaking party.)  Someone told him years ago “Perception is reality” and it always stuck with him.  As a result, Ray always sends his manager a rundown of his department’s activities when they work over a weekend and he makes sure to take an extra few minutes to explain how the business will benefit from whatever they did.

Ok, let’s throw a situation at these two guys and see how they fare.  It’s the end of the year and both of these guys are naturally thinking about raises and maybe even promotions.  They each have a review with their manager.  This is what it might sound like:

John’s Review

MGR:  We’re glad to have you John.  I know you care about doing a good job.

John:  Thank you.  The team and I have been putting in a lot of nights and weekends.

MGR:  Really?  That’s good to hear.  Keep up the good work.  Do you have any other questions or concerns before we wrap up?

John:  Well…is a salary increase at all in my future?

MGR:  An increase, huh?  Wow.  That’s going to be tough to swing this year with the economy and all.  We should all be glad we even have jobs.

John:  I AM glad we all have jobs, but I really feel like I’ve had my nose to the grindstone and should at least be considered for a raise.

MGR:  John, I will do my best to get you some consideration, but if you look at the numbers, IT is one of our biggest expenses.  Also, maybe I shouldn’t tell you this, but our CEO was really ticked off about his little email outage…

John:  He’s mad about that?  We got him up and running as soon as we got the word he was having problems.  The Exchange server punked out again and wouldn’t let him connect.

MGR:  I know, it’s not really your fault.  I only bring it up to let you know I have the deck stacked against me.

John:  Ok, I appreciate whatever you can do.

MGR:  No problem.  I really mean it when I say thanks for all that you do.

 

Ray’s Review

MGR:  We’re so glad you’re here, Ray.  I don’t know what we’d do without you.

Ray:  That’s great to hear.  The team and I have really tried to get a lot done before the end of the year.

MGR:  I know you guys have put in a ton of late nights and weekends.  It really has made a difference around here too.  Which is as good a lead in as any, I guess.  Ray, we’re going to give you a raise, congratulations.

Ray:  Wow.  I can’t thank you enough.

MGR:  You’ve really earned it.  Not only have you put in the time and made a difference, but pretty much everyone in the company feels like you’ve brought all of us along for the ride.  I can’t tell you how many people have told me how glad they are that you can explain things in a way that they can understand.

Ray:  I’m glad to hear that.  We try to keep our focus on the needs of the business.

MGR:  Keep up the good work!

 

OK, I know it’s a little cheesy, but I have seen and been a part of conversations that are VERY similar to the ones above.  If the business doesn’t KNOW that it’s getting good value from what you’re doing, do NOT expect it to act like it’s getting good value.

I’m not advocating walking around and spouting off how great you are or how much you know.  That will be self-defeating.  I’m talking about little things like sharing the metrics with your organization.  How many calls did we handle last month?  What was our average resolution time?  What kind of growth have we experienced recently?  How has technology made the work life of users better?  Things like letting management know not just that you’re working overtime, but what that work will MEAN to the company and the people who work there.

Trust me, I’ve seen this one play out many times.  Heed this advice and I GUARANTEE you will have a more successful career.

2009 Geek Lust Satisfying Gifts

I have been accused of being hard to shop for.  I have to respectfully disagree with that notion.  I find it all too easy to shop for me.  I like to play with technology, I like to cook, I like to read and I play guitar a little.  To me that’s a fairly target rich environment.  Anyway, here is a list of surefire gifts for the geek in your life. 

  • Motorola DroidYou probably have seen the commercials.  (My favorite is the Misfit Toys one…)  This device is pretty sweet.  It’s sleek and angular, has a 3.7” screen and integrates with Google Everything.  Toss in GPS, Video and Music, and a 5 MP camera and you’ve got yourself some bona fide geek bait.
  • Kindle DXI absolutely love books.  I love bookstores.  I hate trying to pack around technical books.  They’re HUGE and you have to think in advance which ones you might need.  The Kindle solves all of that and most of the tech books cost about half of the print version.  The DX is quite a bit more expensive than the smaller one, but if you’re going to be reading a ton of tech material, it’s the only way to go!
  • Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 This is a great sequel to a great game.  In the single-player campaign you play as a couple of different soldiers ranging from the British SAS Special Ops branch to a grunt in the US Army.  I particularly loved the missions set in Brazil and the very authentic graffiti and billboards and also the Portuguese cursing bad guys.  This game is fun even when I’m getting absolutely stomped while playing online.
  • Flip Ultra HD  This digital pocket camcorder will record 120 minutes of video in widescreen 720p high definition.  It’s a slick little device that’s easy to keep close at hand to catch those co-worker moments that just beg to posted on YouTube.  You know, like the first time you see one of them REALLY getting into Wii Boxing, for example.
  • Brain Bag by Tom Bihn – I have struggled with the ideal bag for years.  I’ve packed around the obligatory Tech Conference giveaway bags to cheap messenger bags to expensive leather shoulder bags.  This one spanks them all.  You can put a tremendous amount of stuff in this thing and it stands up to abuse like no other.  There’s even a slide show of them dropping an egg inside of the laptop case and it coming out just fine.  It’s not cheap, but it will be the last bag you ever buy.
  • Leatherman Skeletool CX – Working in technology occasionally will require actual physical tools.  Seriously, stop laughing.  I’m not talking about a torque wrench here.  Opening boxes full of shiny new toys, swapping out motherboard screws, trimming zip ties, you know, that kind of thing.  Anyway, playing the “who has the screwdriver game” may have sounded like fun in college, but not so much when you’re trying to get things done at work.  This tool is compact, versatile and well made.  (That’s what she…nah, not gonna go there…)
  • Dragon Age: Origins – As fun as I think Modern Warfare 2 is, it really doesn’t hold a candle to the good old fashioned sword and sorcery role playing game.  This is a great throwback to the Baldur’s Gate era of PC gaming and will help the most hardcore geek out there get his D&D on.  They even have it for Xbox and PS3.
  • Dell 3007WFP-HC 30” LCD – This one isn’t cheap, I’ll grant you.  But if you want to see a look of pure ecstasy on the geek in your life, this will almost certainly do the job.  It has fantastic color, great accessory features like USB, firewire and an SD port.  Killing zombies has NEVER looked so good. 
  • Razor Mamba Wireless Gaming Mouse – Ok, so 1200 buck might be out of your budget.  This wireless gaming mouse is a mere tenth of that amount and is also the best device in its class.  It has an ASTOUNDING 1ms response time and can be used either wirelessly or wired.  Even the packaging is a thing of beauty.
  • Titanium Spork – A roundup for geeks like this could not be complete without a titanium spork.  Eating is always a priority to the geek on the go and never has there been a more perfect utensil for it.  Seriously, it combines the liquid retention ability of a spoon with the impaling ability of a fork.  It’s really quite ingenious when you think about it…but wait!  This just in…a STAR TREK STARFLEET ACADEMY SPORK!!  Truly we live in an age of wonders.  I can die happy now.

Microsoft Office 2010 Beta. Meh.

Ok, that may be a little overly harsh, but don’t expect any earth-shattering new functionality from it.  Before I get into my thoughts, let me share a little bit about how I use Office.  In order of most to least used the applications are:

  1. Outlook (By far)
  2. Communicator
  3. OneNote
  4. Excel
  5. Word
  6. PowerPoint
  7. InfoPath

This is the lens through which I experience this suite of applications.  Measure your grain of salt accordingly.  Also, keep in mind that this is a beta and all is subject to change.

My first blush headline impression would be “Office 2010:  The Ribbon Takes Over!”.  Outlook, OneNote and InfoPath all got the ribbon treatment.  The rest of the apps had their ribbon refreshed and mostly improved.

Outlook – The conversation view is pretty good, but still not as good as what you find in Gmail.  It groups (at least in part) by the subject line, so I have found instances where separate threads were shown to me when they had nothing to do with one another. 

The “Quick Steps” feature on the ribbon is pretty slick:

image

It allows you to configure series of common tasks and make them single clickable.  For example, I can select an email and click “To Manager” and it will forward the message, go to Active Directory and find out who my manager is and drop their email address into the To field. 

The other thing I really like is integrated Communicator.  It embeds itself in the lower right hand corner and shows my contact list all the time.  I love not having to open the Communicator client all the time to check presence.

OneNote – The ribbon took just a bit to adjust to on this one, but I think is an overall slight gain.  I like that you can dock it to your desktop and link a file from another app into your notes.  The sharing is supposed to be a whole lot better in this version also.  I couldn’t find the 2010 version of OneNote Mobile to try out, but I read that you can easily do over the air syncing with it.

The Rest – Excel, Word and PowerPoint all look a little fancier and have some improved menus, but I have yet to uncover anything that really wows me.  The integration with Office Live is pretty slick (you can sync your files to the cloud, sort of like LiveMesh). 

The Verdict – I’m not sure yet.  So far I haven’t seen anything that makes me think I will recommend this upgrade to my clients in general.  I will let you know if that changes!

Encoding DVDs for XBox 360 and Windows Home Server

This (really) should be the last post in this line.  My apologies to those who could care less about my media rantings. 

In the last exciting episode, we got My Movies 3, WHS and my Xbox 360 to all play nice together.  Now let’s take the plunge and talk about how to rip and encode your DVDs.  First, you’re going to need a couple of programs.  One is free and the other, contrary to my strong predisposition towards only using free tools, is about 75 bucks.  That seems like a lot, but it is GREAT software and will make life much easier.  (Like when you’re trying to rip those damn Disney movies.)

The tools are:

Got those installed?  It’s ok, I’ll be here when you’re done.  Ready?

  1. Insert your DVD and after a second you’ll see AnyDVD spin up and tell you to wait while the disc gets ready. 
  2. Once the disc is ready open up Handbrake and you’ll see a screen that looks like this:

    Handbrake

  3. Click on the Source Button at the top left.  Select your DVD drive and it will tell you to wait a minute while it scans the disc.  Once it’s finished, choose the Xbox 360 Preset on the right hand side.  In the Destination field, select a location where you want the MP4 file to be saved.  I put my files on a drive that’s mapped to the server, and I learned through trial and error that you have to create a separate directory for each file for My Movies to index it.
  4. Once the file shows up in the directory,  My Movies will see the file, try to figure out which movie it is and add the cover art, cast info etc.  If it can’t figure it out, you can manually change it.

Now that I’ve written up the steps to do this, it seems trivial.  Handbrake does all the work and it has an awesome preset to take the thinking out of it entirely.

Easy to Talk About, Hard To Do

Reading this blog may have given you the impression that I am the ultimate support person.  OK, I am, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have times when I drop the ball, miss things, or lose Outlook data from my wife’s computer.  (Sorry, honey.)  Don’t worry, I’m not going to go into the gory details of my domestic squabbles here. 

Before I get into my actual point, let me describe the customer interaction pattern that I preach to everyone who isn’t sick of hearing me talk about it:

image

  1. Listen to the customer’s problem.
  2. Communicate your plan of attack.
  3. Act on the plan.
  4. Test your fix against the problem identified in step 1 (it’s best if the customers can do this for themselves).
  5. Inform the customer of the results and any further steps needed.
  6. Repeat as needed.
    So this wasn’t a customer situation, really.  I had a friend of mine call me and tell me about several issues he was having with his computers.  He just lives down the road a bit from me, so I went over to see if I could help.  I wasn’t going to take any money for helping my friend (even though he tries to pay me every time).

To make a long story short, I fixed the problems he was having, made some recommendations for some low cost upgrades he could do, and then asked him if there was anything else he needed help with.  He told me about what he called a minor annoyance and said it really was no big deal.  Of course, Super Tech here couldn’t let that go unanswered, so I dug in and figured out the setting that controlled what was annoying him, and changed it.  And then I packed up my stuff and left amidst a shower of thanks and praises, and <ahem> a feeling of smug self-satisfaction.  (Anyone in tech support can already hear the ominous music…)

Like I said, I think I’m a pretty good tech and very good at customer service.  I have a system, for crying out loud.  I have a whole power point presentation on it.  None of this, however,  protected my ego when my friend calls me back 30 minutes later and says “I’m not sure what you did, but I just rebooted and now Outlook doesn’t work, my desktop looks completely different, and I can’t get anything to work right.”  Wow.  Total service failure.  And it was all me. 

The moral of this story is that it’s SO easy to fall down in tech support.  Whether it’s because you’re in a hurry, or you’re overworked, or you’re a chubby computer geek who lives out his super-hero fantasies by saving unsuspecting users from the dark forces of technology problems, you have to stay focused on the person you’re trying to help and think through the law of unintended consequences.  It’ll bite you every time.

Free Tools Friday 6

As a field tech (not to mention son-in-law, brother, cousin whatever), you have to work on many different people’s computers.  You never know what you’re going to have to work with in terms of the applications they have installed.  Chances are very high that they won’t have all of the utilities you need to help them out.  This is why most geeks carry jump drives with them. 

Here are some of the tools that I carry on my keychain jump drive:

What tools do you pack around on your jump drive?

What If I Just SAY I Won – HowTo for WHS and Xbox 360

So I didn’t exactly do everything I wanted to.  I came close though.  Close is good, right? 

I satisfied all of the requirements I set for this project with the exception of 1A which was NOT to need a Media Center PC to be running.  Since I have totally hijacked my own blog for this, I figured it was better not to sink any more hours into this and get back to our originally scheduled program. 

So here it is broken down for you in living color, my Media (not quite) Utopia.

 Capture

At the end of this journey you will have:

  • Ripped DVD content encoded to MP4 files encoded with H.264 at very high resolution
  • A slick graphical Collection Management system
  • Direct streaming from WHS to any Media Center PC
  • Streaming from the WHS via a Media Center PC to the Xbox 360
  • A (fairly) straightforward method for ripping your DVDs directly to the Home Server

I am assuming that you already have:

  • Xbox 360 with latest updates, connected to your Media Center PC
  • A functioning Windows Home Server
  • At least one Media Center PC, joined to the Home Server
  • Network connectivity between all of these devices (the faster the better)

 

1.  Download and install My Movies 3 for WHS on your Windows Home Server. I just opened an RDP session to the server (Start > Run > mstsc, then enter the IP or name of your server) and installed it that way. 

RDP

2.  While you’re RDP’ed into the server, make sure that the “Windows Media Center” Group has modify permissions to the folder D:\My Movies\File Storage or your 360 will throw a File Storage error.  (My Computer > D: > My Movies > Right Click FileStorage and then click the Security tab.  If you don’t see Windows Media Center in the Group or user names: box, then click the Add button and then type Windows Media Center and then OK.  Then in the Permissions for Windows Media Center box, click the Modify check box under Allow.)

FileStorage Permissions

3.  Open the WHS console and go to Settings > My Movies.  Enter in your Web Service account (you can create one at the My Movies forum) and make all of the service lights are green.

4.  Download and install the My Movies Client installer on your Media Center PC.

5.  Launch the Collection Management app on your Media Center PC, and then enter your WHS name or IP when prompted.  You’ll also have to enter your My Movies Web Service account again. 

MyMovies_Connect to server

6.  Make sure that your “Videos” share on the home server (or whatever share you are going to use to store the movies) has the Guest account set to “Read”. 

image

7. Now you’re ready to get some movies going.  Under the videos share, create a folder (it doesn’t matter what you call it, but I use the movie name) and copy an MP4 or a VIDEO_TS folder into it.  After just a minute you should see some additional files appear in that directory (if My Movies can identify it, that is).  My success rate has been pretty high so far. 

Folder

8.  Once the files show up, you can look at the info in the Collection Management app on the client.  If it can’t figure out what movie it is from the filename, then you can click the Change Title and Source button and either scan the barcode off of the DVD case (very cool) or manually search for the right title.

My Movies_Collection Management

9.  At this point you should be able to launch Media Center on both the PC and Xbox and see the My Movies Menu option.

My Movies in media center

In the final (!) installment of this train wreck, I will show you how to use Handbrake to rip and encode your DVD’s right to your Windows Home Server.