Part 1 – Finding The Right People

This is the first (actual) post in a series that I first mentioned a LONG time ago.  I even posted some assumptions that would go along with the rest of these posts.  The idea was (and is) to lay out some specific steps that can be taken to build and keep a great technology team, get that team aligned with what the business needs, and measure success along the way.  Sounds fun, right?

There’s a game called Wii Play which has a mini-game called Find the Mii.  The point of the game is to endlessly pick the right person out of a crowd according to ever-changing criteria.  Whoever finds the right character first, scores points.  It’s a low impact game that my kids really like to play. 

I am not such a fan.  Staring at monitors for the better part of 15 years has not been very kind to my eyes, so I kind of suck at seeing some of the fine details that distinguish the creepy little Mii guys.  Not only that but my brain seems to be much better at retaining the thing we were looking for in the last round as opposed to the round we’re currently playing.  My 11 year old daughter owns me at this game every time, it’s embarrassing.

Finding the right people for your technology team is a lot like this game.  The selection criteria changes because of corporate and industry shifts, it becomes hard to differentiate the candidates after just a few interviews, and you’re constantly racing against the clock.  So, here are my steps to finding the top notch people without the constant urge to throw the Wii Remote through the nearest plate glass window.

Know What You’re Looking For

Logical, right.  You’d be surprised at how many companies write up a 1 paragraph job responsibilities blurb and call it good.  I’m not saying that you need to write volumes, but you should have a VERY clear idea of what you need this (let’s be honest) very expensive person to do for your team.  Take the time to develop a list of Evaluation Criteria.

Within all of the disciplines of IT, the same rule holds true.  It is far easier (you business types can read:  cheaper) to change something on a whiteboard than it is after implementation.  In hiring someone, the same is true.  Figure it out before you even start looking at resumes.  What does the ideal developer look like for your team?  Is it a C# guy knows everything there is to know about the .NET framework with a little SQL thrown in?  Or how about a jQuery person who has Fine Arts training?  How about the analyst that you need on this project?  What types of businesses have they worked for in the past? 

Once you get a wish list going, don’t forget to add in the more intangible things like what type of personality would mesh well with the rest of the team, what kind of peripheral interests might be of interest to your longer term plans, and so forth.

Above all, make sure you absolutely define in black and white what this person NEEDS to contribute to the success of the team and the success of the business.  Don’t get bogged down in HR-speak or technical talk, either.  I think it needs to be no more than a few sentences and drop-dead easy to understand.  (This will come in handy when you go to get the position approved, trust me.) Here’s a sample:

We need to add a new IT administrator to our team to reduce the average time to resolve a help desk issue, provide backup for emergencies and outages on nights and weekends to provide the highest possible uptime, and to take charge of server patching and upgrading to better secure and stabilize our network. 

Don’t forget to add in the benefits to the business.  How do we hope this new person’s contribution will be seen through the eyes of the rest of the company?  Once you have your Evaluation Criteria, you’ll be in good shape to go shopping!

Participate in the Community

So none of these steps are going to be easy.  They require time and effort and genuine interest on your part.  As far as time and effort go, this one is the big one.  You must get involved with the community, possibly even more than one.  Finding the best people is all about relationships.  The best way that I have ever seen to form lasting and meaningful relationships is through Service.

You can’t fake this one.  You can’t just show up for the meeting, eat the pizza and hand out your business cards.  Generally, the best people in tech out there want to give back to their communities.  They want to be thought-leaders and share their experience and insight with others.  What better way to get to know them than by supporting the forums that enable them to do it? 

If your company won’t support you doing this kind of thing, then volunteer on your own time.  If you truly want to seek out (and eventually employ) the best people possible, you’re going to have to step up.  This type of service will come back to you in countless ways.  Trust me, you’ll be amazed.

Once you’re there, make sure you take the time to actually connect with people.  Everyone out there has something fascinating about them, you just have to listen attentively and sooner or later you will find out what it is.  Ask them about people they’ve worked with, projects they’ve been involved with and what they thought about them.  By paying attention to the things they liked and disliked about former teams and companies, you can learn a lifetime of lessons to apply to your own team.

Keep a List

You know what you’re looking for.  You have put in the time by volunteering and supporting the communities that you’re targeting.  Don’t waste all of this effort by not keeping track of people that you’d like to work with.  Even if you know they’re not looking, keep your Missionary List up to date.

LinkedIn is a great tool to support this.  Not only can you keep up with where all of your top choices are working now, you can check out all of the places they’ve ever worked.  This can be invaluable when interviewing people that you don’t know, but may have worked with one of them.  Remember that those top people generally try to pass along the things they’ve learned to their teammates, which can really help you to evaluate that candidate.

Use Recruiters Strategically

A good recruiter can actually be a shortcut on some of the steps I’ve recommended.  I’ve worked with some great recruiters over the years.  I’ve also worked with some really sorry ones.  The good ones will make your life so much easier by really getting to know what you’re looking for, what your company and team are like, and actually screening people instead of just burying you with resumes.  In my opinion, a good recruiter is a good connector.  They see connections that will be mutually beneficial and then make them gracefully. 

As much as I like to have a talented and honest recruiter in my corner, they are not cheap.  If you’re paying what they will ALL say is the “industry standard” of 25% of the first year’s salary (even though I never paid more than 18%), you’re looking at starting around $10,000.  That is a healthy chunk of change no matter how big your company is.  That is why we must use them strategically.

To me, using a recruiter when you’re in the market to fill a short-term need is a no-brainer.  Why would you spend your time and effort on someone who will not be a permanent member of the team?  That’s not to say you want to short-change any of the process.  If you screen them carefully, and you find that you MUST have that role filled permanently then you have the room to hire them. 

The rest of the strategy is a little more dependent on your situation.  Are you completely buried in work?  Is it hard to carve out 30 minutes for a status meeting, let alone the couple of hours that a good technical interview would take?  If you are already past the red-line as far as workload goes, you probably need to just bite the bullet and go with a recruiter.  Your time is better leveraged that way.

 

I hope these ideas will spark some thoughts of your own on how to find the right people for your team and not get caught up in the Find the Mii game.  Good luck and let me know how it goes for you!

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. 

Media Utopia for the Home

This is completely off topic.  It has nothing to do with business, and less to do with technology than my frustrations with getting my own junk to work.

I have this pie in the sky ideas about what my home entertainment system should look like.  Allow me to break it down for you.

The “Must Have” List:

  1. It must store the media (music and movies mainly, photos are really an after thought for me) on a centralized, always on system. (Currently a Windows Home Server in my garage)
  2. I must be able to use the content from:  My Windows 7 Ultimate PC, my Vista Slate, My Wife’s Vista PC, My Daughter’s Windows 7 Home Premium PC or the Xbox 360 in the living room.
  3. The movie content will be displayed GRAPHICALLY, like with cover art, so that my illiterate children (5 year old and soon the 1 year old) will be able to select movies without shouting across the house “WHAT DOES THIS SAY MAMA?”

The “Would Be Nice” List:

  1. The ripping process should be relatively painless.
  2. Movie descriptions, ratings and cast info.
  3. If the disk space could be minimized, that would be great.

So these are the things that I am after.  I have implemented some pieces of this system without having defined the whole, which has left me with a fragmented and disappointing solution.  I assure you that I know better, and to prove it, I’m going to chronicle my journey to accomplish the above.  Fasten your seat belts.

Times are Tough out There

 

You can’t turn on the news without hearing it.  Unemployment up, spending down, cats and dogs living together…mass hysteria.  But seriously, things are definitely tougher out there for all kinds of business, not just the small ones.  The advantage that I see that small businesses have, much like those tricky prehistoric mammals, is the ability to quickly adapt to the climate.  Big business, like those overgrown lizards of prehistory, adapt slowly if at all.  (I was going to insert some jabs at a few of them here, but the list is too long to choose from.)  The point of all of this is to share some of the ways that I have seen small businesses SAVE MONEY.

1.  Cut out Ma Bell completely.  There are many options out there that can save you some serious money AND give you more options.  Skype is a great VOIP service that’s free to call from PC to PC (great if you have distributed employees or close partners) and just 2.95/month for 10,000 minutes to US and Canada (it’s 30 bucks for a year of inbound calls with a subscription, though).  You can buy a pretty sweet handset for about a hundred bucks that makes it so you don’t even need a computer to use it.  Gizmo5, and even Google Talk are other ways that you can stay connected (although not as slick as Skype).  Not only can you call in and out with these services, you can also do Conference calls, call forwarding, and voicemail.

2.  Free Financial Help.  Online financial services sites like Mint, GeoZeo, and Buxfer can help manage cash flow, notify you when balances are low and do budgeting and reporting for you.  The beauty of these services is that they’ll go get your transactions from your bank and attempt to classify them for you automatically.  It doesn’t always get them right, but it is very easy to correct and saves a ton of data entry.  You can even set them to send you an email or a text message with a summary of your status.

3.  Forget About Microsoft Office.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love Excel and Outlook as much as the next guy, but the prices that you pay (between $200 and $600, depending on the version) to get it are outrageous.  Check out Google Docs, Google Calendar and Gmail.  They allow you to easily collaborate with others, you don’t have to install anything on your computer, and best of all, they’re free.  These tools probably aren’t a fit for everyone (browser crashing while you work is a pain), but you can get an awful lot of mileage out of them.

Obviously I’m a big on using technology to increase efficiency, cut down on overhead and hopefully help the bottom line.  What are you doing to save money in these tumultuous times?

Open EPS Files with Word

This one comes up every now and again.  How can I open EPS files?  These are files that are created by Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop.  They are both great programs, but they’re very expensive.  Many times your printer (you know business cards, yellow page ads etc) will ask you for your logo or ad in this format or even send you a file to proof in this format.  So is there a free program that can do this?  Not exactly, but if you have Microsoft Word installed, you can place the file in a blank document.  Just open Word, then go to Insert > Picture, then browse to the EPS file and click on the Insert button.  Word will then convert the file and you’ll be able to see it.  Anyone know of another way (that’s actually free) to open EPS files?  I think the GIMP is supposed to, but the plug-in kept dying when I tried to open the file on my Vista machine.

Microsoft Finally Starts Protecting Me from Myself

And of course it bites me.  When setting up Distribution Groups in Exchange 2007, there is a silly option that is set by default that will prevent sending to that group from external sources.  I suppose it’s a security feature, making you manually enable that address to be accessed from unauthenticated users, but it can be a head scratcher if you’re not looking for it. 

The error you would get if you tried to send to this group from outside would look something like:

Delivery has failed to these recipients or distribution lists:

yourlist@yourdomain.com

Your message wasn’t delivered because of security policies. Microsoft Exchange will not try to redeliver this message for you. Please provide the following diagnostic text to your system administrator.

Sent by Microsoft Exchange Server 2007

Diagnostic information for administrators:

Generating server: yourdomain.com

yourlist@yourdomain.com

#550 5.7.1 RESOLVER.RST.AuthRequired; authentication required ##

….

Final-Recipient: rfc822;yourlist@yourdomain.com

Action: failed

Status: 5.7.1

Diagnostic-Code: smtp;550 5.7.1 RESOLVER.RST.AuthRequired; authentication required

X-Display-Name: yourlist@yourdomain.com

 

So, after you create the Group, right-click on it, then go to properties.  Click the Mail Flow Settings tab and it looks like this:

 image_4

Select Message Delivery Restrictions, then click the properties button and you’ll see:

image_6

Uncheck the box that says "Require that all senders are authenticated", and you should be good to go.

Setting up WordPress on GoDaddy Economy Hosting

Setting up WordPress on my GoDaddy account was more of a challenge than I thought it was going to be.  I figured it would be a good place to start this blog.

1.  So first, you have to get yourself set up with GoDaddy.  I chose the Linux economy plan for 4.29/month.  After you go throught the Account Set-up wizard, it will tell you the status is “Pending” for a bit, and then after a few minutes, it will change to “Setup”.

2.  Click on the “Open” link under Control Panel on the Web Hosting Accounts.

3.  In the Hosting Control Center, click on Databases, then MySQL.

4.  Click the “Create Database” button, and then fill out the fields, taking note of the database name and password that you supply.

5.  The status on the Database page will say Pending for a bit, and then change to Setup.  Click the Open Manager Link that appears.

6.  Log in to the manager page that comes up with the username and password that you supplied in Step 4.

7.  Click on the “Databases” link, then take note of the IP address that appears near the top of the page.  It will look something like  “Server: 10.x.x.x”.

8.  Download the WordPress files from the site, extract them, and then rename the file wp-config-sample.php to wp-config.php.

9.  Open the wp-config.php file with a text editor.  Change the lines that look like:

define(’DB_NAME’, ‘putyourdbnamehere’);    // The name of the database
define(’DB_USER’, ‘usernamehere’);     // Your MySQL username
define(’DB_PASSWORD’, ‘yourpasswordhere’); // …and password
define(’DB_HOST’, ‘localhost’);    // 99% chance you won’t need to change this value

On the fourth line, it says you probably won’t have to change it, but you actually need to set it to the IP address that we got in Step 7.

10.  Upload (FTP) the WordPress source files with the modified wp-config.php file to your account.  Filezilla is a good open source FTP package.  If you want the blog to appear at the root of your site, ie. http://yoursite.com, just copy the files to the root.  If you want it to be in another directory,  ie. http://yoursite.com/blog, you need to create it in your FTP client and then copy the files to that directory.

11.  Now you just need to open a browser window and point it to:  http://yoursite.com/wp-admin/install.php (or wherever you copied the files). 

12.  If all went as expected, you will be asked a few questions to set up your new blog.  If something is not right, it will tell you in a fairly specific way.