DIY Disasters

When people take on home renovation “Do-It-Yourself” projects beyond their skills, disaster ensues. Apparently, this is so common that you can base a whole TV series on this theme – where professionals rescue the disastrous DIY project for the grateful and clueless amateur handyman.

I’ve seen the same thing happen in many IT projects. The people in the organization overestimate their own skills and are unable or unwilling to pay the cost of professional external assistance. Unfortunately, the outcome is often the same as for the DIY home projects above.

A recent example is the still-not-finished Cover Oregon healthcare website. IT World reports that Oregon decided to do the system integration themselves, using software and consultants from Oracle Corporation. They struggle and are blaming Oracle. Contrary to the usual commentary from large IT vendors, Oracle is pushing back strongly, saying “Cover Oregon lacked the skills, knowledge or ability to be successful as the systems integrator on an undertaking of this scope and complexity.”

You need a realistic picture of your skills before you start a major project to avoid DIY disasters. Contact me if you think you could benefit from an independent review of your organizational skill level vs. the task at hand.

Unfocused Learning

The manager was proudly showing off his new IT classroom.

“Where is the projector?” I asked.

“Oh, we don’t need a projector. The instructor can just take over everybody’s screens.”

I have been teaching in environments like this, and it does not work well. When I have a piece of information or a computer screen projected in large format in front of everybody, the class has a common focus on the task. If I am pointing with my mouse and each participant is looking at his own screen, focus is greatly reduced.

I guess the manager has never given a class himself. If he had, he would have known that a class needs a common focus point. Don’t implement technology simply because you can.

Good IT hygiene

Everybody knows they need good dental hygiene – daily brushing and flossing, regular checkups at the dentist. But many IT professionals don’t realize they need good IT hygiene as well – regular maintenance, security patches, etc.

If you don’t practice good IT hygiene, you will experience pain down the line. I’d like to help you avoid that – get in touch.


My carpenter has been putting in a new floor in a room in my house, and I noticed that he makes some of his tools as he goes along.

It’s not that he doesn’t have a hammer and a cordless electric screwdriver. But every once in a while, he needs to move, align or support something in a way that his standard tools do not support. So he immediately builds an ad-hoc tool out of scrap wood.

The need for custom tools has been recognized since Fred Brooks wrote about having a specialized toolmaker on the team in The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering in 1975.

Today, you still need to be able to build your own ad-hoc tools. Even if you consider yourself a “pure” Java programmer, make sure you know a few helpful additional technologies like Perl, Python or Regular Expressions.

Information Evaporation

Have you noticed that knowledge about IT systems seems to evaporate over time? I’ve seen quite a few systems where the only knowledge left was a few pages of yellowed paper in a dusty binder.

Information EvaporationHowever, in some application systems, this does not happen. Why is that? Because the information about what the system does is stored in the code.

Keep system documentation inside your code to prevent information evaporation.

Dutch Cars – Technology That Fits

I was just in Amsterdam last week, and they have the smallest cars I have ever seen:

small_carAt first, it looks counter-intuitive, given that the average Dutchman seems to be several meters tall. But really small cars is actually a very obvious solution for a crowded city like Amsterdam with many canals, narrow roads and very limited parking. These mini-cars are actually parked on the pavement, probably avoiding the 5 Euro per hour parking fee intended to kick cars out of town.

Technology that fits.

Thinking it Through – Nest Smoke Alarm Fail

The company Nest, recently acquired by Google for the usual billions, makes smart thermostats and smoke detectors. Unfortunately, they did not think through the user experience of their Nest smoke and CO detector.

In principle, it’s great that you can turn off your smoke detector by waving your hand at it – like in “oh, cut it out, I just overcooked my microwave popcorn a bit.”

Less great is that if people experience an actual fire, they are likely to be also waving their hands around. Ouch.

Nest has issued a Consumer Safety Notice and have turned off the hand-waving feature in all internet-connected devices.

Creating a good user experience is hard – you need specialized skills and proper testing with actual users. Do you think your user experience all the way through?

Don’t Automate Half-Way

I watched in horror as the updated application was deployed to the test server. The application was fine, having been subjected to the first test by the developers, but the deployment process was bad. There were various home-built utilities to run with very specific parameters in order to build the deployment package that would then be semi-automatically installed on the test server. It took a new developer a whole day and 20-30 attempts to build a simple deployment package.

You reap the full benefits of automation – what I call “automation nirvana” – only when you automate all the way.

The Automation PlateauThere is more on automation in tomorrow’s issue of my weekly Technology That Fits newsletter. Sign up here.


Come back when we’re open

I subscribe to Microsoft Office 365 and had a payment stuck on an expired credit card. Even though there was a new card, the billing system kept trying the old one.

In a modern cloud service, I would open a service request and expect things to be handled for me. But this is Microsoft. And with the arrogance of the monopolist they used to be, they require you to please show up when they feel like serving you.

Your users expect to be able to submit a service request 24×7 – not to have to wait until standard business hours Monday to Friday.