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The topics discussed here grow out of the bread-and-butter issues that confront my consulting and software clients on a daily basis. We'll talk about prosaic stuff like Membership Management, Meetings and Events Management and Fundraising, broader ideas like security and software project management, and the social, cultural, and organizational issues that impact IT decision-making.

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Friday, July 28, 2006

First Thoughts on Second Life

I've been listening with one ear to the buzz about Second Life and non-profits for a while now, and paying it very little attention. But Beth Kanter has an interesting post on July 25th that grew out of a conversation she had with Susan Tenby of TechSoup. The chat focused on Techsoup's recent enthusiasm for the virtual reality site -- Susan and her colleagues have constructed a virtual office for TechSoup on the SL and recently held a public online event there.

The interest in using Second Life for online community building in the non-profit space has been high lately, and not just on the geeky fringe. The American Cancer Society recently held a virtual Relay for Life fundraiser on SL that raised over $40,000 in pledges! You can read about the ACS interest in virtual reality here on their site.

Mark Sirkin, who is the e-Marketing Director for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society has also participated in both the TechSoup and ACS events and seems to be quite bullish on the potential of the technology. But check out his post yesterday for some more critical musings on this new medium. He's commenting on a lengthy review of the ACS event that appeared in the Second Thoughts blog.

Serious people are talking about SL - and raising some serious money. But I have to admit that while the idea of doing serious work in a virtual environment is very appealling to me - I am a big Neal Stephenson fan after all - I haven't been able to make myself make the required investment in time to explore the place for myself. Instead I've been exploring Javascript libraries, which I had expected to be the subject of today's post. Hunh.
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Monday, July 24, 2006

Programming is different

In my work, I alternate between periods where I am very involved in the coding of our programming projects, and periods where I am taken up with managing projects, consulting with our users, or talking to prospective clients. Each time I become immersed in the coding for a few weeks, I rediscover that programming is different than most other forms of work. A number of writers have commented on how programmers are different from other professionals - take a look at Bryan Dollery's Understanding the Psychology of Programming, for example. But I suspect it is the work, not the people, that creates the stylistic difference.

A case in point. Dollery says:
...programmers usually do have a longer attention span and a greater ability to concentrate than the majority of the population...
But I think its possible that the programming itself compels this form of attention. Programming has an addictive quality about it. For example, when I'm responding to an RFP, I'm very ammenable to breaking for lunch when my co-workers seem to be doing the same. But when I'm programming, I just wave them them on... seems I'd much rather figure out why the Next button isn't "greying out" on the last record anymore. And even when I am not at the keyboard, I find that it's very difficult to get my mind off the issues pending in the programming project.

It's not just that I'm willing to devote very long and intense periods to the programming - Once I am truly involved in the code I find it next to impossible to break my thought away from it. So during such periods I'll find I am thinking about my code in the middle of a dinner table discussion about an issue I'm normally quite passionate about.

In addition to the attention/concentration issue, other writers have commented that techies are motivated by different factors than other staff members, and have a tendency not to care about the overriding organizational motivation for the work they are asked to do. Watching my personality realign itself when I drift in and out of intensive technical work has helped me grasp the problems some managers have in leading the IT effforts. If you find yourself supervising techies at your organization and are not sure what makes us tick, you might pick up a copy of Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead the People Who Deliver Technology by Paul Glen, David H. Maister and Warren G. Bennis. Perhaps overstating the case just a little, these guys say that
Simply having geeks is not enough. They must be effectively integrated into the organization and focused on appropriate tasks... the future of your organization depends upon your ability to lead geeks effectively.

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Friday, July 21, 2006

Friday Links: July 21

Non-profit IT Staff
Last month I pointed folks to "Today I Cried" - a blog maintained by an anonymous one-person IT department in a nameless Manhatten non-profit. The blog celebrated its one month anniversary with this summary posting. The author's daily musings provide a great window into the conflict between non-profit culture and a technologist's attempts to be proactive in resolving technology problems that are impacting mission.

Non-profit blogging: Everybody's talking about you!
Non-profit execs often shy away from starting a blog because they aren't sure their organization should be out there in an out-of-control medium. In this full-length article, non-profit PR maven Nancy Schwartz makes it clear they are already out there, and they'd better deal with it.
What happens when control of your nonprofit's message(frankly, always an illusion)passes from your organization, and the traditional media, to your audiences? Well you better figure it out quick, because it's happening right now.
Jeff Jarvis of Buzz-Machine had a run-in with Dell's new effort to be aware of the blogosphere that shows how NOT to manage your organization's new-media image. When Jeff complained about Dell customer service in his blog, a Dell summer retorted with a lengthy comment - here's just one morsel:
I’ve been working with Dell the past three weeks researching trashy blogs that worms like you leave all over that frigen blogosphere
Application Development
Christine Herron has been taking on a lot of the big issues in the software development world lately. In her July 17th post, she tackles some of the real world problems inherent in the "web 2.0" promise of making all data and applications acessible from anywhere, including legal and security concerns, pointing out that while users are demanding user-anywhere convenience, they may expect to keep their data on their own servers.

Toolbox: Speeding up Firefox.
Steve Pietrek has a great programmers blog, "A Continuous Learners Weblog" Check out his July 14th post for some useful tips on configuration changes that will speed up Firefox's performance.

And now for something completely different...
From the Czech Republic, it's Functional Beer!


Thursday, July 20, 2006

Reading pdf files without Acrobat

About a year ago we began creating all reports and other printer-friendly output from our Members Only applications as pdf files and opening them for viewing. Most of our users were very pleased with this approach. Because the pdf file format has become a standard, any report can now be easily posted to a website or emailed to a colleague. Moreover all the outputs were searchable in the Adobe Acrobat Reader. Finally, we were still preventing user modification to system-generated reports, as most of our clients' auditors demand. But a few users were dismayed at how slowly the Acrobat Reader opened, and chose to shut this feature off.

Today, Nick Hodges, newly in charge of the Delphi product line at Borland, pointed out the Foxit Reader. This little app opens with lightening speed to display, search and print pdf files. And its free! Give it a try - even if you're not a Members Only user!
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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

SplineTech Javascript debugger

If you've been working with Javascript in your web applications, you've no doubt spent some time wishing you had a real programmer's tool to work with - some way of setting breakpoints, inspecting variables, and the like. Instead, most javascript development proceeds by sticking in alerts and document.writes all through the code to see what's going on.

Maybe this can change. I've just downloaded the SplineTech Javascript Debugger Pro, and while I haven't really settled into using it yet, it seems like it might be the missing link in Javascript development. Launch your web page in it, and it opens IE to display your application, while tracing the code in a multipane debugger window.

There's a watchlist where you can set up global variables to watch; but there's no need to do this with local variables, which appear and disappear in the local pane as they are defined or go out of scope. The variables in this pane are tree-structured: you can go to a variable holding the return of an XMLrequest and inspect the entire DOM. I was particularly pleased with the inclusion of a current variable pane, which provides a scrolling window to display a single variable; I found this very useful when trying to inspect long strings holding HTML or XML source. The debugger also allows you to hover over any variable in the code to inspect its value.

Installation was simple and straightforward. But after I installed, I was unable to get the app to stop at breakpoints to allow me to debug. I wrote Splinetech support, and got a prompt reply asking for my Windows and IE versions. Within twenty-four hours I was issued a new Splinetech executable where the problem was solved.

One limitation of the program is that it works only with HTML web pages. Pages that were produced by server scripts - such as php or ASP pages, must be captured by viewing the page source and saved as HTML before debugging. This works fine, but it adds a step to the debug-edit-run cycle. Your instinct is to edit the page in the debugger directly. But instead, you need to edit the asp file, launch it, and recapture it as HTML. I got into a cycle of working and editing in the static page for a while, then copying the changes over to the ASP page. It would be very nice to have all of this automated some way.

But overall, here is a Javascript debugging tool that really seems to work like the development environments we're used to. You might really want to take a look at it if you're doing any Javascript work.

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Friday, July 14, 2006

Friday Links: July 14

People: Further thoughts on Bill Gate's Departure
Jason Stamper, blogging in Computer Business Review Online, muses about the fact the Microsoft stock registered hardly a blip on the announcement of Bill Gate's planned departure.
When Sun COO Ed Zander left after 15 years there, Sun's stock fell 14%, shaving $2bn from its market capitalization. When it was announced Zander was joining Motorola as CEO, Motorola's stock rose 4.2%, adding almost exactly $2bn to Motorola's valuation.What happened to Microsoft's stock when Gates announced he is leaving in two years' time? Virtually nothing, and since then it has actually risen.
PC Privacy: Microsoft Private Folder 1.0
Via the Geeks Are Sexy blog I spotted the announcement of this utility from Microsoft to allow the creation of a password protected folder to your account on an XP-based system. If, for example, your family shares a home pc on which you need to sometimes work on confidential client files, this tool can allow you to save documents with at least some sense that you are meeting your obligations to protect this data. But while it might be useful at home, Geek points out what a nightmare Private Folder will be on your organization's net - it allows users to create folders that are not accessible by the administrator account! Available for free download.

Email: Innovations have been slow to arrive.
Writing from Zurich, Gabor Cselle is correct when he reminds us how little email software has changed in the last decade.
For the last 10 years, the three-pane has been the standard view of looking at email. A pane for folders, a pane for folder contents, and one showing the selected email. Even though mail clients are highly configurable, this has been the standard view of many users. It isn't likely to change soon: The beta of Microsoft Outlook 2007 sticks with these conventions.
The rest of the article goes on to present a variety of innovative ideas culled from academic research on new ways to look at email, taking workflow and task-oriented approaches to what has become the predominant form of business communication. Gets you thinking!

Email: Knowledge Management
Speaking of which. I've commented before on the problem of building truly organizational knowledge to minimize the impact of individual staff departures from your non-profit. In a recent post in her Joining Dots blog, Susan Richardson talks about one specific way in which this happens: the deletion of the departed staff member's email account. One aspect of her solution - just as I was urging last year - is to encourage users to publish valuable information that might otherwise languish in email using some form of organizationally accessible collaboration tools.

Blogging: Guy Kawasaki's interview with Technorati CEO David Sifry
Technorati has become one of the principle portals for searching the blogosphere, and its emphasis on tagging and pinging have become standard in blog applications. Here Guy talks to David Sifry about how Technorati works, and how you can use it to get more attention for your blog.

Snippets: A really nice carousel widget for your websites

Via mhub I found this flexible javascript code from Bill Scott. Based on the Yahoo User Interface Library, it lets you create a slideshow or other "carousel" style component in a web app, with very smooth animation options. I've got an application in mind for it already!

And now for something completely different...
Real Tech News pointed out this frightening bit of silliness... the UK is outlawing energy saving standby mode on office technology, in the belief that people will then shut their photocopiers and other equipment down completey down after each use.


Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Don't mourn, organize!

Today's the day they bury Windows 98. The Washington Post's Rob Pegoraro writes:
Microsoft pulls the plug on Windows 98, 98 Second Edition and Millennium Edition today: no more bug fixes, no more technical support, no more nothing.
Before people start revolting in protest, consider this: It's Microsoft's business decision to make, and it makes sense.
I am sure many of our clients will mourn a little, but not I. An organization that is mourning the passing of 1998's Windows release has some real problems in the organization of its information system. Many of the non-profits that we work with have hung on to a motely crew of old pcs running a mix of vintage Windows versions, along with assorted versions of popular applications. There's an illusion -- among the execs more often than among the more technically inclined -- that by hanging on to these old systems until they finally give up the ghost, they are saving the organization money. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

I'm hoping that Microsoft's announcement will make it easier for IT personnel to make this case to their bosses. Maintaining a heterogenous collection of out-of-date platforms costs your organization money every day. But you need to stop and look closely to see it. The cost of an upgrade is a clear line item, while the costs associated with not upgrading are hidden. The less uniform your network, the more time it takes you to maintain it. Upgrading a pc that is still "working fine" is elective, while replacing a computer that has crashed is obviously a necessary expense. Never mind that the lost work time and damaged data make it a far more expensive proposition. No one would tell you to wait till your tires blow-out to replace them, but quite a few non-profits run their networks this way.

The more cost-effective alternative is to establish, as a part of your basic operating procedure, a clear concept of hardware and software lifecycle and replacement schedules. In other words: don't mourn, organize. While scheduled upgrades and replacements may appear to increase your budget, they will actually lower the volume of unplanned emergency expense, enhance your data security, lower the risk of virus and malware attack, and free up your IT staff's time to help your organization move into the future.
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Friday, July 07, 2006

Friday Links: July 7

Help Desk as Customer Service
I had a client years ago who ran a company providing continuing education to nurses and other health professionals. From time to time I'd be there when one of the folks working the phones would get an irate call from a customer who was ticked off about something. The boss always told them to feel perfectly free to pass these calls straight to him. "Happy customers never call" he told me, "so these are pretty much the only customers I get a chance to talk to. Of course, I make sure they are happy by the time we hang up!"
How committed are you as a technologist - as a consultant, IT staff person, or software developer, to making your irate users happy? Dr Zimmerman's Customer Service Tips are meant for any industry -- but feel right on target in the IT world. His current tip sheet focuses on my old friend's game of turning a complaint into a compliment.

WiFi Security
Are your staff and board members connecting in more from their homes? Wondering how secure those home networks are? Here's a comprehensible introduction to home WiFi security from one of my favorite techy sites. This can't be your entire work-from-home policy though - with all the reports of personal data on stolen laptops, we've got to worry about what data we allow to go out into the world slung over our user's shoulders. In Ten Top Laptop Security Recommendations, SecurityProNews advises that you
Leverage advanced data protection technology to remotely wipe sensitive information in the event that your computer is lost, stolen or nearing the end of its lifecycle.
But they don't suggest particular products or approaches. It's certainly something we should all begin exploring.

Blogging for Non-Profits
Techsoup has added quite a comprehensive review of blogging tools in their always expanding library of great technical information. The article was created by Laura Quinn's Idealware project - a New York based organization that strives to be a Consumer Reports focused on non-profit IT.

Still lost on the whole RSS thing?
Every tech blog I know has, for at least two years, posted the occassional tutorial on how to use RSS to access information feeds. But surveys still show that rss and related technologies are being adopted very slowly. PBS's Mark Glaser in tries his hand at the RSS tutorial in his MediaShift blog this week. It's pretty non-technical and easy to follow - if you are still string to get a handle on this one, give it a read.

And now for something completely different.
From time to time I've focused on videoblogging and citizen-video sites. Here's a short documentary that caught my fancy. Anyone want to help her out?

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Beach blog

I just got back from a week at the beach.

Each morning I grabbed my laptop and bopped off to the internet cafe with Doria to have a latte and make sure we weren't missing something in our email that might change our lives.

Part way through the week, I accepted an automatic Windows update. When I rebooted, the computer bluescreened. Every time I rebooted, the computer bluescreened. But it booted up fine in Safe Mode, giving me confidence that the problem had to do with software, not hardware. Indeed, as I stepped it through boot failure about ten times, I noticed the name of the file causing the problem was displayed ever so briefly on the blue screen before it vanished.

I found the file in c:\windows\system32\drivers, and renamed it. The computer now booted happily, but I discovered that the wireless had become inoperable. Googling by name for the removed driver, (using another computer), I discovered that it was indeed a driver distributed with my wireless pcmcia card, and has been causing other users trouble with the latest Windows patches. I took the newest version of this file from the vendor's website, and lo! the computer boots again and has wireless access.

What is the moral of this story? I needed to find one because I was going to get back from vacation and need material for a blog entry.

First I considered using it as fuel in my ongoing dispute with Raven, our network administrator. She's adamant that we should all be taking the latest automatic Windows updates as they become available, that she cannot maintain the network if everyone has different patches installed. But I'm always afraid -- because it's happened two or three times -- that one of the updates will stop me in my tracks. As it did over my latte this morning. So I always avoid taking them. But on reflection, it's not much of an argument - the OS has got to win over apps meant to run on it, and indeed an updated release of the app was ready and waiting for me. So while it is possible a Windows update can cause a problem, its probably best to take it and debug any problems later.

Then I thought, let's use this in my ongoing thread on problem solving. After all, this was your typical near disaster that illustrates the zen of computer problem solving. And it illustrates several of Michael's Problem Solving Rules. (1) Your problem is probably caused by the last thing you did. (2) Your new problem was probably caused by fixing the old problem. (3) If you do not know how to fix your problem, watch it blow up over and over again. (4) Someone else has probably had this problem.

Ultimately, though, this story gets back to the thread about managing pc failure - how do you set policies in place to minimize the effort to get one of your users back up and running when their pc becomes inoperable? Especially laptops, which are so rarely attached to the company network. Fortunately, I did not need to reinstall Windows, replace my hard-drive, or aim a fire extinguisher at my flaming keyboard. But it's all happened before and it will happen again. Backup is only a part of the solution. Making your deskops as interchangable as possible for the general user is the key to solving this problem. But what can you do for your prima donna developers?
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