Thursday, October 22, 2009

Mopping up operations

No administrator means... when things go wrong, we fix it. Well... actually having an administrator means we fix many things anyway, but lots of things the administrator checks up on and sorts out before we get water everywhere.

It's still pretty warm [34C] here in Cyprus and the water cooler is an important part of the office. So, when David came in and found it leaking everywhere it was not cool... well, the water was, but it was now all over the floor.

But the good news is we have an administrator who will hopefully start next Monday. This is definitely and answer to prayer, and she has gifts in other areas too... she has worked professionally in photography and has an interest in art, so maybe there will be more pictures coming out of the office to show you what is happening.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Recession, web 2.0 and the way forward

While I was in the UK I got the chance to visit the CEO of a very big group doing similar work to us, except their budget is approx 200 times bigger than ours. I like them a lot and there is a lot of synergy with them. Because we are in the non-profit area we act as partners rather than competitors.

When I visited I was shown a new integrated social networking and media platform that they will launch in a few weeks. It's close to some of what we had talked about as a group early in the spring. They had the budget to execute it very well. Not that some of the projects we do aren't done well. There is a very creative project we are also about to launch within the next few weeks... but... overnight and today it set me thinking.

This group are also involved with another very large project for audience interaction that I went to see in Australia at the beginning of the year. It's excellent, but very 'heavy weight'. We are working on a module to integrate SMS into that system right now. I have two programmers working on that for the next two weeks.

Yesterday I had an email from the external partners co-ordinator for this project. He challenged us 'Given the rapid changes occurring in social media, this may need to be more a loosely aligned organism rather than a complex system to cope with these changes.' That is what really set me thinking. How and why are projects so difficult to achieve?

We have not always succeeded by a long way, but I always try to be 'fast and light' rather than 'big and heavy' since the world is changing. My target is that if it is not achievable within 6 months then its probably too complex. The Desk Top Publishing [DTP] war is an example of what I mean:

Originally there had been two DTP programs head to head: Aldus Pagemaker and QuarkXpress. By the mid 90s QuarkXpress had become the world leader with Aldus/Adobe Pagemaker a second runner. Both were big complex programs. By 1997 Quark was in version 4.0 and so slow was development it took till 2002 to release a 5.0 version.

Adobe purchased Aldus and then released InDesign in 1999. InDesign was a small simple program with many, many plug-ins. So radical and stable was version 1.0 of InDesign Quark were forced to bring out a 4.1 version within months.

I think that is the way of the future and allows rapid and evolving development. I think their model is right: a small simple core with plug-ins that can be upgraded easily and quickly to do the majority of the work.

I'm looking at one of our projects. It has been excellent with very good audience feedback. It was that project that I mention that in the spring said we needed to integrate social networking into the core of the project. At the moment there is a large amount of interaction, but it still has a significant publishing aspect to the project.

Globally we have two things happening simultaneously:
  • A recession leading to a post-recession
    I believe that early next year there will be a second dip, the upturn will be for the Christmas period only, and will then be approx 12 months before we see a real upturn from the recession.
  • Web 2.0
    Web 2.0 will permanently change the way we do things. Publishing is dead, long live self-publishing. Well, maybe that is a bit strong, but it is the direction of the future.
One respected media consultant put it this way 'While traditional media isn't going away, you basically have two choices: Evolve, or disappear.'

So that's the challenge I have been thinking about today. Chatting with Peter he mentioned that his brother, who is a software developer, said their company only does projects that are achievable within 4-6 weeks. That was exactly what I was thinking about: Light and fast. RAD. Rapid Application Development. And that's the model Adobe took with InDesign.

We have to change - we have to develop a method of working that allows every project to be achieved in 4-6 weeks. Its a different way of thinking. RAD implies developing a prototype very quickly and then evolving it into the final product using customer feedback. So the specification is inevitably light, not tied down.

This doesn't mean that it's flaky - let me quote the media consultant I have been reading again: 'Are People More Creative or Productive Working without Limits? No. Absolutely not. Boundaries matter. One of the biggest threats to not reaching your goal is working without limits.' For us the boundary needs to become time.

When I worked for the BBC many, many years ago I used to work on TV news. The 6 o'clock news went out at 6 o'clock. Plus or minus no seconds! I remember well dubbing a film [yes, we shot film in those days] which was number three in the running order while number one in the running order was going out. At the same time I was listening to production talkback, and hit the rewind button on the telecine machine which would allow a few seconds grace by the time it had rewound ready for play out. The 6 o'clock news went out at 6 o'clock. Plus or minus no seconds!

In so many ways we have lost the concept of deadlines. And computers have caused this. When I was dubbing that film I did the best job I could, then grabbed a few extra gramophone records with sound effects, ran to the studio and added the extra effects live as it went out. It was the best we could do and the audience would have believed all the sounds were real.

But 'the best job I could' doesn't work for computer programs - they either work or they don't work. Looking nice but not working is useless. So we have become used to massive overruns and time slips to make it work.

Somehow we need to change our approach and methods so that we can return to the concept of making something workable within a limited time frame and within a limited budget. But something that is nevertheless good enough that the audience accept it, enjoy it and interact with it. The combination of the recession and web 2.0 are forcing that upon us. We have to embrace it and 'evolve or disappear'.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

October? Where has the summer gone?

October already... where has the summer gone? It's difficult to catch up with a blog 2 months old, but I'll try.

Normally we aim to spend approx 3 months doing security stuff for our servers per year. This involves upgrading the applications and looking at new ways of doing security better. Sometimes it might also involve rebuilding one or two servers completely. That we did over the new year, from November to February this year. It was more painful than we expected, but worthwhile.

We were expecting a new colleague and so some of the extra things we hoped to do were put off... 'David can do that when he arrives...' Well, David has arrived and getting him sorted out has taken time too, and he is now taking some of the load, but... we had three security problems this year which meant that we didn't actually get much break from security and we are still doing it 10 months later!

That's not good news for me as the technical stuff I don't really like. I'm hoping that this month will be the turning point from the technical and I can get back to some media work. We'll see. The big thing we are doing is integrating 'dual factor authentication' to our systems. Dual factor authentication is where you have two 'factors' to get into the system - this is something you know and something you have. Banks use this: Often you log in to an online bank with a username and password [something you know] and a pin number generated by a little keyfob device [something you have]. Our system is similar, but its a really huge job doing it.

In between all this I have been working on the scripts and getting equipment for a pilot for a serious of short films we hope to make next year. If all goes well we will shoot the pilot this November. I'm really looking forward to this as media production is much more what I enjoy and get a kick out of.

September, we went back to the UK for 3 weeks. It coincided with my son's 21st birthday and also allowed us both to meet friends and have some business meetings in the UK. It was good but tiring.

Now, less than a week back we have two programmers out from the UK, working on new code to upgrade our SMS [mobile phone text message] system. One of the programmers has been out before - he developed the original version of this system - and with him is another programmer working on 'web services' to integrate the system.

Web services is a strange, but very helpful new concept where servers go to and read web pages themselves to communicate with each other. In this case it will allow servers to send and receive text messages. Servers sending text messages themselves? Whatever for? Well... one use is for a server to send us a text message to tell us it is having a problem and please could we fix it!

I still have an unbelievable amount of email to catch up with... I HATE EMAIL... well... no I don't really but it seems to be that the volume of communication has increased exponentially and I am having problems keeping up with it.

So that's about it. Not the most exciting summer [you'll have to see my other blogs about other activities which were more interesting] but worthwhile and hopefully moving.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Work expands to fill the time available?

We now have an extra person working with us. He's a professional System Administrator from the USA. He's with another group, but on placement with us for two years, spending approx 80% of his time with us and 20% with the other group. His character is laid back and fits in pretty well with Pete and me. So far he has just started... but...

We have had many attacks against our systems recently so have been involved in upgrading the security systems for all our servers. One of the primary ways of doing this is through what is called 'dual factor authentication'. OK, that's a horrid techie phrase, but what does it mean? Here's the problem:

Normally we use a username and password to log into the systems, be that email or website admin or whatever. But if there is someone listening across what we are doing they can capture our user name and password and impersonate us and use it themselves. We have had this happen twice from one of our partner groups in Egypt.

The solution is simple - change the password every time you log in! Sounds simple but complex to administrate in a way that works for normal people. So what we actually do is have the normal user name and password as an identifier plus a password that changes every time. That changing password is either displayed on a little dongle that the user caries or is something you plug into your computer to send the password automatically. The dongle you remove when you are not using it. This latter solution is what we have chosen.

But now we have to get it all to work. This means integrating with all our various systems on 9 live servers. So although we have extra help, we think we need extra extra help. In fact, looking at what is happening worldwide we know that cyber-security will only get more complex. Indeed yesterday Barack Obama launched his cyber security plan. Acts of terror today, he said, could come "not only from a few extremists in suicide vests, but from a few key strokes of a computer - a weapon of mass disruption."

Alongside this we are planning a pilot series filming some illustrative stories almost allegorical, but not quite. At the end of last year we had some funds available to purchase hardware, so have invested in a new camera system. We've not bought all the equipment needed yet for the series, but will have enough for filming a couple of pilots which we hope to do this summer.

In between this, our administrator has left, so there is more admin to cope with. And I HATE COMPUTERS. Yesterday I tried to update our accounts package. It took ages and was complex and the problem I thought would be fixed with the upgrade [some of the statements were refusing to print] are still there. So I have to talk to technical support about that.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Another month gone by...

We have spent the last week trying to get an end of year report completed for Companies House in the UK. Hopefully by the end of next week [when she returns] it will be complete!

One big task we have completed is a complete 'asset register' - that's a list of all the things we own for the non-accountants amongst us. Every year it has been a bit of a nightmare - we get given things, we buy things and we scrap things. Now of course those of us who work here know which thing is 'SATA 300 Gbyte Hard Disk' or a '4x4 812 filter' but financial whizz kids don't and so there has always been a difficulty correlating them. OK, so some of them have little value as far as the accounts are concerned, but they do have value as far as replacing them... so all the things we have around the place have to be listed for calculating the insurance value.

Well... to cut a long story short we have upgraded what we do by attaching a 'asset register number' to each and every significant thing around the office. This means that we can look at a chair with a label that says it is 'item 386' and know on the list what it is and how much it is worth from an accounting point of view and how much it is insured for, or a server... or a 'SATA 300 Gbyte Hard Disk'. It didn't take too long but it will allow us to grow in the future.

I started this company about 8 years ago from a borrowed office [I was caretaker while the owners were away] and a broken laptop [if you can get it to work you can have it]. When I started my aim had been to be 'equipment light' - have as little as possible/necessary since I'd seen the headaches of owning too many things from other companies. Now looking at the asset register I realise that God seems to have had other ideas - there are things all over the place... hundreds of them... I'm amazed and what we have here. Within the last year we have been given loads of pieces of equipment... and taken over responsibility for distributing loads of DVDs since another company closed down.

Our internal auditor looked at the 'to do' list on the whiteboard just as we were about to leave the office and asked how many were still needing to be done. Sadly I could only wipe one of this long list off the board. One item illustrates how frustrating things can get at times - when we first started here the company didn't exist, so everything was in my name, bank accounts, lease, utilities, domain registrations etc. Now we are trying to unwind all that and make it all in the name of the company. Not easy... so I write emails, I fill in forms, I phone and so on. Some I need others for... like the utilities have to be done with the accountant from another company and me at the electricity company at the same time... and then all the emails, forms and phone calls.

One of the things that got into this state were the bank account statements for the organisation. It took ages [emails, forms, phone calls etc] to eventually get access to the online banking and when we did I found that I could only look at the last 45 days record of transactions. So I talk to the bank [see the various blog entries about how bad banks are] well when I say talk I mean I write emails, fill in forms, phone them [quite a few times] eventually... eventually... they said last Tuesday they could send me copies of all the statements. They would be 'sent out today, but the postal service take 7-10 days to deliver them' Really? I thought first class mail was overnight! No, for sure it will take longer than that 'definitely they will be posted today, its just the postal service that takes so long'. We need those statements to complete the end of year accounts.

One the good side, we [Peter and I] had been chasing a problem with email security and it appears that we cracked it this afternoon...

Next week a couple of couples [that's 4 people] are coming out from the UK to do some maintenance work at the office. They are staying at the office guest flat. There is repair work to be done in the bathroom, to the alarm system... basically all around there are little repair jobs that they will be doing.

And... the following Tuesday a new family from the USA will join us. David will be taking over much of the technical support for the servers! They have 3 kids and its the first time living abroad for them. It will be a big step.

And finally... Our administrator has retired now in preparation for the family moving back to the UK. So we have no administrator. She has done huge amount of work. We really really need an administrator. A couple who are early retired came out from the UK to see what it is like out here [and to have a holiday] - they are pretty experienced in finance and administration so could be ideal. Their comment was 'well... nothing we have seen has put us off...' Also a friend of mine [we sail together] said his wife might be interested in helping with the admin. So... well... we need someone urgently and one comment our past administrator made was that she felt the administrator needed some accounting skills.

That's all for now.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Back from Oz

Here is update on what is happening...

Peter and I are somewhat frustrated at the moment.

1) We are getting technical problems that interfere with going forward... Peter is trying to upgrade the security of all our systems, which involves putting in a new system called IPSEC. The server concerned keeps crashing - we suspect hardware even though its only 12 month old. Because he is testing for incoming connections, this stops incoming connections working, including our phone system!

2) This is only part of the security upgrade which we need to do this year. We had already planned this, but as a result of Peter going to ICCM in Holland earlier this year it has become a bigger priority. He met with folk from another similar group and in discussions with them security became a larger priority than it already was.

3) Coming back from Australia I am still feeling I am catching up. Australia has left me feeling I would be happy not to get on another plane for quite a few years - but expect I will have to - I really need to visit a couple of countries in North Africa soon. Australia was good - meeting with another group that is very similar to us and maybe have some projects together. However the main purpose was to meet with a group who have developed a replacement audience follow-up system which we need to replace pretty soon. It was good meeting with them, but concerning in that IF we partner with them and a group others here in the Middle East to roll out the system in Arabic it will mean committing one of our two programmers for a few years to the project.

4) The economic issues are affecting our programmers - one of our programmers is facing the challenge of trying to get a second job paying equal too or more than we pay to try to support his retired parents. There is no adequate pension in the Middle East! This means two things - firstly he will be less available to travel and secondly he aims to be working about 16 hours per day to get the money he needs. Its a nightmare really for people in this economic crisis.

5) I bought a new camera for the office in Brisbane [cheaper than UK or Hong Kong strangely] and have been getting all the extra bits needed [some on ebay] to make it do what we want since returning from Australia. I look forward to making the short pilot films we have planned for this year. I hope I don't get sidetracked by all this boring techie stuff... I am finding all the techie stuff wearing me down.

6) On a personal note, last week I sprained my arm moving the boat [I still feel 18 inside even though I'm slightly older than that] and didn't rest it and was climbing over the lighting grid at the youth theatre, and moving a table to the office guest flat and doing more lighting and then sanding down the seats for the boat... silly really... but left me with a VERY painful arm on Saturday - almost too much pain to sleep. It is getting better now, but I must rest it. Rest is not a word I really understand.

That's about it

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Email... I hate it

I was recently chatting online with a colleague from Egypt and mentioned that I had spent the trip out to a series of meetings in Australia trying to catch up with my email. Well, I've been here 3 weeks and I have just spent the evening filing some of the emails that have arrived and been dealt with since I have been here. I am beginning to hate email... and flying but that's another story...

Anyhow, he mentioned that he couldn't find a suitable way to file his email into folders. I'm sure mine is far from perfect, but Mac Mail has a great search function. Anyhow he asked me what my system was - it is firstly person name for those I deal with quite a lot, then alternatively company/organisation name for those companies that I deal with partly anonymously and partly when I don't have relationship with a person so might forget their name and finally I have some general topic folders for emails that don't fit into either of the other two categories.

But it is so big and so tiring dealing with emails. OK, so yes the emails to and from my family when I'm traveling are not tiring to deal with I like them... but the rest. I currently have about 450 individual person folders for people I deal with fairly regularly, 180 company folders and 40 general folders.

One of the things we deal with at the office is spam... creating methods of reducing it. Currently over 95% of the emails we receive at our server is spam. We have various methods that we employ to reduce that, so we get almost no spam into our email boxes. However the quantity of spam is increasing and increasing... and it looked like it might get to the stage where the world could not cope with the quantity of spam circulating and email would cease to function. Sometimes in my heart of hearts I privately hope this might happen... then at least I would not have to deal with them all!

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Out of the bubble...

Years ago I had a friend who as a psychologist who used to work among media people in Southern California. One of the phenomena he talked about which rang bells with me was the 'bubble effect' among media people. When they were working on a project they went into a bubble and were not like normal human beings, emerging as [relatively] normal people from the bubble when the project was over.

As a result of the attacks we had in October 2008 we decided to upgrade two of the servers. These servers would be three years old this January. They have a life span of approximately three years before needing an upgrade. Each time we upgrade, it's not just a case of new hardware and put in the CDROM and type install but we have to think through of the needs, particularly security needs, for the entire life of the server. So, Peter and I thought through what we felt we needed for the next three years.

The last time we did an upgrade it took Peter and I approx one month - ie two man months of labour. This time we then brought a colleague over from Egypt and between us we hoped that in one month we could get the new hardware and software working to replace the old. We expected that three man months would be about right... but it wasn't... it has taken approx nine man months of labour to do the upgrade!

Why so much more? We were adding many extra security features which proved very much more complex than we expected. In fact, the added security was somewhat frightening for me. I was thinking back over the steps to get here... from the original servers... to the upgraded servers... to these new servers. The complexity seems exponential. The upgraded servers were about twice as complex as the original, and the new ones about four times as complex as the upgraded ones. Hence I'm already getting edgy about what it will be like in time years time... sixteen times as complex as these new servers?

The main security issue is for each application within the server to be isolated from every other application, running in a virtual server with its own security. That way an attack on one part should not affect the whole. So in reality it's like going from two servers with eight primary applications to having eight servers with one major application each. But they cannot be totally isolated and we then had to work out secure ways that each application could talk to the others that they needed to. Yipes... yes, horribly complex and hence why I was concerned about the future.

Over Christmas we had another colleague and his wife over so that he could have extra training and to plan together the next step of the project he is working on. So... having been in the upgrade bubble and not completely out of it, it was straight into another bubble. Not that it was bad, but it did mean we didn't get a break at all.

We also had end of year calculations to do and create budgets and plans for 2009. Actually doing this took Pete and me out of the upgrade bubble for a while and did enable us to see the 'wood for the trees' which was helpful. But budget planning is not one of my favourite pastimes. Just before the end of the year Peter remarked, 'You know, I wouldn't do this if they paid me...' I had put into works exactly my thoughts!

Then we discovered that for various reasons we had to upgrade one of the other servers that is only one year old. We lease the hardware, so strangely enough because of the drop in price of hardware the new server will be under 2/3 the price of the old one! We had to wait for delivery of the hardware which was handed over to us yesterday. Yes, that means we are still in the upgrade bubble.

One Egyptian colleague is still working with us on the upgrade process, which we hope to complete by the end of February. It should be quicker now on the extra server as we know roughly what we want and can copy the two we already have working.

So does that mean its all straightforward for a while? No, not entirely... tomorrow Peter is off to Holland for five days to attend a conference and then next Wednesday I fly off to Australia for about a month, partly to attend a conference, partly to evaluate some new software and to see if a partnership with an Australian group will happen and partly to visit other organisations and... but... its not coming together easily...

A couple of days after I had finally booked my tickets I heard that there will be a delay on the new software, which means I shall probably have to go back to Australia sometime later in the year. It's both a huge expense and a huge cost in my time. I am not best pleased to put it mildly. There is only one light at the end of the tunnel as far as the trip is concerned. If everything works out I shall see my son for a couple of days on the way back through Manila.

So there we are... it almost seems like we cannot get out of the bubble, but the bubble is expanding to keep us inside it!