Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Microsoft IT Camp

I was invited to attend a Microsoft test event on Monday 12th December. The Technet staff were trialling a new format of training session and wanted to get some feedback on the format from people within IT, and how people felt it would work if rolled out as part of Microsoft's normal training material. The session was held at Cardinal Place in London; a great venue, very modern with superb facilities but as I’m based down in the South West, this was a long way to travel.

The event was opened by a rather hoarse Simon May who left a lot of the talking to Andrew Fryer. The basic idea was to showcase the updated versions of the System Center products, with a specific emphasis on Virtualisation, making use of Hyper-V. However, they also wanted to focus particularly on the setting up of clusters. I’d seen some previous material on the earlier versions of these products, but was keen to see the 2012 versions due out next year.

For those that don't already know, there has been a move towards much more integration of the various products within the System Center range. Each product is now seen more as an integral part of the overall suite, rather than as a separate product that just happens to work with the others. This seems to a sensible move and it means that sysadmins should have access to all of the tools they need to manage their data centres.

Rather than use high specification equipment, Andrew wanted to demonstrate that it was possible to set-up a test lab using older machines; the sort that can be obtained using ebay or that might be sold off after an equipment refresh. He had several laptops; 2 acting as the Hyper-V hosts and one that was acting as a type of SAN unit. He proposed to join the 2 hyper-V hosts as clusters on a single node.

The presentation did not go quite as planned! He actually ran into several key issues during the set-up, but as many of the people present were very familiar with the product, they were able to highlight a number of the factors that had caused the hiccups. What was interesting was that even with these technical issues, the whole process didn’t actually take that long.

During the day, and also at the end, the staff asked for feedback on the event which it has to be said was generally positive. However, quite a few people (myself included) felt that they had missed a trick; many of us had our laptops with us, and it would have been a really impressive feat to have got these working as part of the set-up as well. There was a general feeling that most delegates would have been more than willing to bring their own equipment, possibly even downloading and installing some items in advance in order to make this more effective.

Having said, they were more than willing to consider this and a couple of other ideas that might allow those present to take a slightly more active and positive role. I’ve seen a couple of VDI infrastructure plans, and I feel that they would easily be able to set-up something that could be used for attendees to connect to and work with VMs in order that they could get a real “hands on” experience.

The plans are for the new format to be modified, based partly on experience but also on the feedback from those that were there. They also hope to develop it further to encompass more topics, and the organisers were keen to get feedback on which ones were of the most interest. Some comments were made about making sure that any future events would be held in other locations; the Microsoft offices are great, but not everyone can get there easily. Although there were no commitments, it seems that they intend to try to cover more of the major population centres than before; and that can’t be a bad thing!

I have to be honest I do enjoy these sorts of events. I feel quite strongly that those of us that work in IT can all too easily develop a “silo mentality”. We get so wound up with day to day problems, and all too often work in small groups, and it’s far too easy to forget about the bigger picture. This can also make the job less enjoyable; it’s just too easy to find the passion for the work drifting away. By going along to the various sessions, it’s possible to see new ways of working that might otherwise pass us by, to meet with other professionals and hear what problems they face. I find that it can help generate a new enthusiasm for the work that can all too easily be lost when you are dealing with very basic problems most of the time.

All in all, I found it to be an interesting, useful, enjoyable day. I suspect that future events will be along the same lines, but will benefit from the comments of those that have taken part so far. If you see one in your area, I would urge you to go along; it will most definitely be worth the time and effort.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Jeux sans Frontiere

Back in the 1970s & 1980s, there was a TV programme called “It’s a Knockout”. This featured teams of people from across the UK competing in a series of increasingly silly games. These programmes were presented by the wonderful Eddie Waring and Stuart Hall; and anyone who watched, will remember the way that Stuart used to collapse in fits of uncontrolled laughter at the various antics.

The format was so successful that it spawned an international contest “Jeux San Frontieres” (Games without Frontiers), and towns from across Western Europe would take part, host these crazy contests. It was a lot of fun, and sometimes I wonder if it wouldn’t be a good idea to resurrect the concept.

I mention this because it’s clear that there are a lot of companies in the SME market that are now having to deal with cross border relationships; even quite small businesses like ours are able to sell to other countries thanks to the power of the Internet. In our case, we have offices in other countries, and there is a need for our IT staff to support users in those countries as well as in the UK.

This is not easy. I now have an enormous respect for those support people in call centres that provide facilities for multi-language telephone support. Bearing in mind that my French was learned in school some 40 years ago, and was of the “Ou est la plume de ma Tante?” method of teaching, I was quite nervous to have to try and deal with potentially complex technical issues in another language.

Part of the problem is having the confidence to try to speak in another language, particularly if you don’t do this regularly. If you mutter something in an embarrassed way, and the other person then responds with an impatient “Quoi?”, then it’s easy to get nervous and that just makes things harder. However, it’s surprising just how much you can communicate with a relatively small vocabulary and if you speak confidently.

Try this; think of a phrase or sentence at least a couple of dozen words long. Now write out every third word on a piece of paper and give that to someone to read. The chances are that they will still understand what you mean with only the few words selected. There have been numerous studies and this has been proven to work in almost all cases (and not just in English), even when using complex phrases. It’s not necessary to get grammar or syntax absolutely correct, as long as you use the appropriate words. We just had to learn the right phrases, and be able to use them appropriately.

About a year ago, I bought an older server specifically to support a virtual platform. Then I used the Technet site to obtain copies of Operating Systems in the relevant languages we have to support. Although the configuration process and screens will be the same, it’s helpful to know some of the differences in technical names; for example, in French “Computer” is "Ordinateur", but “My Computer” is "Poste de Travail";. Getting the correct phrase is not just a case of a direct translation!

This has helped enormously, and I can confidently tell people on the phone to “Clicquez-vous en Demarrer", "Aide et Support", "Assistance a Distance"…” etc. etc. It’s also allowed us to take screen shots of the various windows with the appropriate language text in French, German and Hungarian, and these are used to create user documentation for inclusion in a FAQ section of our help desk software.

The end result is a better service for the end users. It makes them feel more confident in the support that we provide, and we have had some really good feedback from their staff. It also means that our support staff (i.e. me!) can feel a bit more comfortable when the dreaded “34” country code appears on the CLI of the incoming call.