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Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Draining the meeting bogs and how not to suffer from email overload (part 3)

This is the third in my series of blog posts about how we unknowingly often let our IT determine how we communicate, and what to do about it.

Teams need to communicate at three different speeds: Tomes, Task Tracking and Information Ping-pong. When we don't have the right IT support to for all three, things go wrong.

In this post, I'll talk about team communication Information Ping-Pong.  Information Ping-Pong is that rapid communication that makes your job efficient. You ask the expert a question and you get an answer back immediately because that's their area, and they know all about it.

It's great: you can stay in the flow and get much, much more done. It's the grail of an efficient organisation; using the assembled team of experts to their full.

Unfortunately, what I see in most organisation is that they try to use email for this.

It doesn't work.

Occasionally the expert might respond to you quite quickly, but there can be long delays for no obvious reason to you. You can't see what they are doing -- are they handling a dozen other queries at the same time? And worse: it is just contributing to everyone's over-full inbox.

The only alternative in most organisations is to prepare a list of questions, and call a meeting with the relevant expert. This works better than email, but it's hard to schedule a 5 minute meeting if that's all you need. Often the bottom half of the list of prepared questions don't make sense in the light of the answers to the first half, and the blocked-out time is simply wasted.

The solution which has worked quite well for many organisations is text-chat, but there are four very important requirements for this to work well.

GROUP FIRST Text chats should be sent to virtual rooms; messages shouldn't be directed to an individual. If you are initiating a text-chat to an individual, you are duplicating all the problems of email overload, but also expecting to have priority to interrupt the recipient.

DISTURBED ROLE There needs to be a standard alias (traditionally called "disturbed") for every room. Typically one person gets assigned the "disturbed" role for the day for each team and they will attempt to respond on behalf of the whole team. This leaves the rest of the team free to get on with their work, but still gives the instant-access-to-an-expert that so deeply helps the rest of the organisation. (Large, important teams might need two or more people acting in the disturbed role at a time. )

HISTORY The history of the room should be accessible. This lets non-team members lurk and save on asking the same question that has already been answered three times that day.

BOT-READY Make sure the robots are talking, and plan for them to be listening. If a job is completed, or some event has occurred, or any other "news" can be automatically sent to a room, get a robot integrated into your text chat tool to send it. This saves wasted time for the person performing the "disturbed" role.

Most text chat tools also have "slash" commands or other ways of directing a question or instruction to a robot. These are evolving into tools that understand natural language and will be one of the most significant and disruptive changes to the way we "do business" over the next ten years.


Skype and Lotus Notes don't do a very good job on any of the requirements listed above. Consumer products (such as WhatsApp) are almost perfectly designed to do the opposite of what's required. WeChat (common in China) stands slightly above in that at least it has an API for bots.

The up-and-coming text chat tool is a program called "Slack", although Atlassian's Hipchat is a little more mature and is better integrated with the Atlassian suite of Confluence and Jira.

Unlike most of the tools I've written about in this series, the choice of text chat tool really has to be done at a company level. It is difficult for a team leader or individual contributor to drive the adoption from the grassroots up; generally it's an IT decision about which tool to use, and then a culture change (from top management) to push its usage. Fortunately, these text chat tools are extraordinarily cheap (the most expensive I've seen is $2 per month per user), and most have some kind of free plan that is quite adequate. Also, there's a good chance that a software development group will already be using Hipchat, which means that adoption can grow organically from a starting base.

Outside of a few startups, text-chat is very rare. And also outside of a few startups, everything takes far longer than you expect it to and inter-team communication is painfully slow. It's not a co-incidence. We think this mess is normal, but it's just driven by the software we use to intermediate our communications.




The next post in the series will hopefully be next Tuesday.

I'm hoping to put this (and many other thoughts) together in a book (current working title: "Bimodal, Trimodal, Devops and Tossing it over the Fence: a better practices guide to supporting software") -- sign up for updates about the book here:  http://eepurl.com/bMYBC5

If you like this series -- and care about making organisations run better with better tools -- you'll probably find my automated estimator of effort and duration very interesting.


Greg Baker (
[email protected]is a consultant, author, developer and start-up advisor. His recent projects include a plug-in for Jira Service Desk which lets helpdesk staff tell their users how long a task will take and a wet-weather information system for school sports.

Friday, 19 February 2016

Backup Navigator Trial -- last chance

If you are in Australia, New Zealand or Germany, HPE is offering a trial of Backup Navigator hosted in the cloud. If you want to take this up, you really need to sign up now because the the APAC hosting will end at the end of February and the remote agent needs a bit of time to upload your data. Sign-up form here: http://engage.hpe.com/Reg_NavTrial_Blog

On the other hand, if you are reading this in a different time or space, then here's a link to
Buy a Backup Navigator License. I can also organise for you an ISO of the Navigator software or a pre-configured virtual machine with a 60 day evaluation license.


Greg Baker is an independent consultant who happens to do a lot of work on HP DataProtector. He is the author of the only published books on HP Data Protector (http://www.ifost.org.au/books/#dp). He works with HP and HP partner companies to solve the hardest big-data problems (especially around backup). See more at IFOST's DataProtector pages at http://www.ifost.org.au/dataprotector, or visit the online store for Data Protector products, licenses and renewals athttp://store.data-protector.net/ 


Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Draining the meeting bogs and how not to suffer from email overload (part 2)

This is the second in my series of blog posts about how we unknowingly often let our IT determine how we communicate, and what to do about it.

Teams need to communicate at three different speeds: Tomes, Task Tracking and Information Ping-pong. When we don't have the right IT support to for all three, things go wrong.

In this post, I'll talk about team communication by Tomes.

Tomes are documents that answer "Who are we? What do we do? How did we get here? Why are we doing this?"

These are often important things to say, but they aren't particularly urgent. They might or might not be read by people inside the team. Quite often they are read by people outside of the team, but often weeks or months after they were written.

Examples include:
  • Project decisions
  • Strategic plans
  • Frequently asked questions
  • Status reports for long, ongoing projects 
  • Minutes of meetings
  • Discussions about any of the above

These are often tedious to write, and the task is often given to the person with the most free time using whatever tools are at hand. Generally, this means either email or MS-Word documents. There are serious flaws with both of these. Writing emails just contributes to the email overload problem. Writing a Word document and putting into a fileshare (or on to Sharepoint) leads to more meetings because it won't get read. Emailing a Word document around (which is probably the most common approach) manages to be the worst of both worlds.

I've made an attempt at distilling the 5 requirements for a tool to support Tomes. If you can think of more, let me know.

NAME MENTIONING If someone is mentioned in a Tome they need to be notified automatically. This keeps everyone on the same page (virtually). A common miscommunication I've seen is where everyone was expecting a response or involvement from someone outside of the team -- but the individual was never aware that they were supposed to be doing anything. Automatic notification mitigates this.

TASK ASSIGNMENT AND DUE If a task is mentioned in a Tome, it should be easy to assign it to someone and to give it a due-by date. The task should automatically appear on that person's to-do list. Otherwise, it is too easy for the task to get lost.

LIVE TASK STATUS When someone marks off a task as completed from their to-do list, this should be reflected automatically in the Tome. If a task has a lifecycle (e.g. it has to be reviewed by another team before it can be marked off as "Done"), then the live status of the task should appear.

This saves time in meetings working out whether something has been done or not. One of the most frustrating meetings I can remember (and I've had a few) is was a pointless nothing-to-report meeting: everyone admitted in the meeting that they hadn't had time to do anything and that there was nothing to report. This could have been trivially seen by the project manager who convened the meeting if he had been able to see the lack of progress on the task list of the minutes of the previous meeting.

IN-PAGE COMMENTS Comments about the Tome should appear with the tome. It should be easy to discuss and have a conversation about any part of the Tome.

CHANGE TRACKING AND WATCHING It should be easy to change the Tome. If it is changed, then it should be easy to see what changed even though the Tome displays the latest version by default. It should be possible to register an interest in changes to the Tome and get notified when this happens.



These seem obvious, and seems like a reasonably complete list.

  • Email can do #1 (you can CC someone outside your team). If you are using Outlook you can drag the email into your todo list (and Gmail can do something roughly equivalent), so that satisfies #2. But #3 and #5 are impossible, and #4 by email is a recipe for giving everyone a full inbox that just gets dumped.
  • Word documents in a portal or fileshare do #1 very poorly; #2 is even worse. #3 is impossible, but does OK on #4 or #5.
  • Slightly more innovative companies will use Google Docs. The collaborators list can act as #1, and it does as well on #4 and #5 as a Word document does. #2 and #3 are sort-of possible if the tasks are put into a Google Sheets document instead, but it is rather fragile, complex to set up and means that there are multiple documents for the one event or topic.
  • Startups often use Confluence. It nails all 5 requirements very well.



So what usually happens?

In large, traditional organisations, I see teams with Word documents being emailed around by a project manager, a deluge of emails (CC'ed to everyone the project manager sent the project tracking document to) and then meetings at least once a week so that everyone can work out whether or not they were supposed to have done something, and why that probably wasn't a high priority anyway.

Smaller organisations manage better, although the ones that try to do this with Google Docs tend to be very chaotic, and have someone always complaining about how they really haven't got their procedures and processes sorted out yet.

We think this mess is normal, but it's just driven by the software we use to intermediate our communications.

The next post in the series will hopefully be next Tuesday.

I'm hoping to put this (and many other thoughts) together in a book (current working title: "Bimodal, Trimodal, Devops and Tossing it over the Fence: a better practices guide to supporting software") -- sign up for updates about the book here:  http://eepurl.com/bMYBC5

If you like this series -- and care about making organisations run better with better tools -- you'll probably find my automated estimator of effort and duration very interesting.


Greg Baker (
[email protected]is a consultant, author, developer and start-up advisor. His recent projects include a plug-in for Jira Service Desk which lets helpdesk staff tell their users how long a task will take and a wet-weather information system for school sports.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Draining the meeting bogs and how not to suffer from email overload (part 1)


Some meetings are important; sometimes face-to-face is the best way to work through an issue. And email is a necessary business tool. But in many of the organisations I work with, I've seen meetings and emails used as a crutch because their staff aren't given what they need in order to work more efficiently.

I blame IT for this, perhaps too harshly, but IT should be thinking both about how individuals communicate, and also about the requirements for teams to communicate.

In general, there are three broad ways that teams communicate:
  • With Tomes that answer "Who are we? What do we do? How did we get here? Why are we doing this?"
  • Using different ways to say "We're working on it"
  • By playing Information Ping-pong


To be efficient, it's important that staff from outside the team can "lurk" (watch what is going on) without engaging the team across all three methods.

If other staff can't lurk -- they will either email you or ask for a meeting.

What I see all too often is desperate staff, who are over-worked because they are forced to use email and meetings -- tools which are very ill-suited to all three speeds of communication.

I'll discuss each of them in follow-up blog posts; I'll schedule them for Tuesday each week unless something else more interesting crops up.

I'm hoping to put this together in a book (current working title: "Bimodal, Trimodal, Devops and Tossing it over the Fence: a better practices guide to supporting software") -- sign up for updates about the book here:  http://eepurl.com/bMYBC5

If you like this series -- and care about making organisations run better with better tools -- you'll probably find my automated estimator of effort and duration very interesting.


Greg Baker ([email protected]is a consultant, author, developer and start-up advisor. His recent projects include a plug-in for Jira Service Desk which lets helpdesk staff tell their users how long a task will take and a wet-weather information system for school sports.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

VMware 3PAR integrated backups

HPE recently added a feature to Data Protector which will appeal to customers running VMware and using 3PAR storage. You can now backup your VMware environment by taking 3PAR snapshots and then backing up the snapshot. This reduces load on your VMware environment. You can also leave the snapshot around in case you want to do a fast restore.

If you already have licenses for 3PAR snapshots (which most customers do) and you are using a Data Protector capacity license (which most recent customers are) then you can do this for free.

(Customers using Data Protector classic license need to pay for a ZDB license but they are surprisingly cheap.)

I've got a customer doing this right now, and they are getting around 250MB/s of backup speed (this is LAN-free, with a relatively old Windows server mounting the snapshot and then writing to a D2D4700 using Catalyst-over-Fibrechannel).

The documentation has a few holes (such as neglecting to mention that you need to use omnidbzdb --ompasswd to tell Data Protector which 3PAR account to use) but overall it seems to be more reliable than traditional VMware snapshots.

Here's the backup flow:

  • Prepare all the virtual machines
    • Tell VMware to snapshot the VMDK
    • Tell the 3PAR to snapshot the LUN the VMDK is on.
    • Tell VMware to release the VMDK snapshot
    • Mount the LUN snapshot on a spare ESXi server (which can be part of the Vsphere environment, it just has to be explicitly also imported into to the client list)
    • Mount the snapshot LUN on a physical host that has access to the 3PAR storage and your backup device
    • Tell VMware to make a virtual machine (named after the original virtual machine)
    • Attach the VMDK on that snapshot LUN to the new virtual machine
  • Backup the virtual machines
    • Tell the ESXi server to snapshot the VMDK (dumb, I know)
    • The backup host reads from the LUN, and writes to the StoreOnce
    • Unmount the LUN from the backup host
    • Tell the ESXi server to release the VMDK snapshot
  • Clean up each virtual machine
    • Destroy the virtual machines on the ESXi server.
    • Destroy the LUN snapshot on the 3PAR

If this is something you want to do -- and it really does work very well -- let me know and I can organise licenses and/or implementation for you.

Greg Baker is an independent consultant who happens to do a lot of work on HPE DataProtector. He is the author of the only published books on HP Data Protector (http://www.ifost.org.au/books/#dp). He works with HPE and HPE partner companies to solve the hardest big-data problems (especially around backup). See more at IFOST's DataProtector pages at http://www.ifost.org.au/dataprotector, or visit the online store for Data Protector products, licenses and renewals at http://store.data-protector.net/