Vehicle Travel during Inclement Weather

It is so upsetting to read in the news of travelers freezing to death in cars during snow storms. I am updating this article in the hopes that people will invest just a few minutes into adding a survival kit to his or her car, it is well worth it in the long run.

As an IT employee, you may find yourself working all hours of the day and night due to a myriad of initiatives (like rolling out a new application during a time when all users are offline) or problems (server goes down in the middle of the night). 

Often times you are able to “remote in” to any machines requiring attention from the comfort of your own home.  Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to “remote in” due to hardware failures between your home and work as a result of bad weather, power outages, etc. and you find yourself having to navigate through a messy world to get to where you need to be to get a job done.  It is within this stage that people begin to panic or lose focus due to a lack of preparedness.

Vehicles are the greatest invention EVER! They give us absolute freedom to go wherever we want to go, whenever we want to go.  But a vehicle may also put us in a potentially dangerous situation if it fails (like in the middle of the desert at night).  If you operate a vehicle, it is up to you to prepare yourself for vehicle failures.

If you own a car, and it is your primary source of transportation, then you have a 1’x1’x2’ area in the car somewhere that you can dedicate as your emergency preparedness zone.  This is the area where you will keep one small back pack (or in my case a big colorful designer hand bag – oh yeah!) at all times.  The bag will include items to keep you safe in case you get stranded in your vehicle or will assist you if you have to walk a long distance if your vehicle becomes disabled or traffic has been stopped indefinitely.  The contents of the bag need to be changed out twice per year to allow for temperature changes.  If you have children, it is best you let them assist you in packing the bag so they understand what it is for, it is an easy lesson they will take with them throughout adulthood.

Based on our health, the region in which we live (North Carolina) and the regions we primarily travel to (the Virginias and Ohio), this is what the bag contains in my car (this list is based on the assumption that the driver has a charged cell phone and sunglasses with them during each car trip and the driver is wearing clothing designed for the general weather forecast – in other words, don’t wear a bikini if you are driving into the Blue Ridge Mountains in December):

October 1st through May 1st:

4 plastic bags (like grocery bags) for covering feet inside shoes (keeps feet dry when walking long distances in snow), 1 pair of winter boots, 1 big no scent candle, I big soup can for containing the candle, 1 pack of all-weather matches, 3 granola bars, 3 bottles of water, first aid kit, knife, flashlight, gloves, socks, blanket, scarf, notepad, pen  and a few baggies (for leaving a note hanging from your window in case you have to abandon your vehicle – state who you are, when and why you left and where you are headed), chemical hand/body warmers, sunscreen, a compass and reflective tape.

May 2nd through September 30th:

4 plastic bags (like grocery bags) for covering feet inside shoes (keeps feet dry when walking long distances in rain), 1 pair of good tennis shoes, 1 rain poncho, 3 granola bars, 5 bottles of water, first aid kit, knife, flashlight, notepad, pen  and a few baggies (for leaving a note hanging from your window in case you have to abandon your vehicle – state who you are, when and why you left and where you are headed), sunscreen, a compass and reflective tape.

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Why Application Documentation is so Important

Any application written, no matter how large or small needs documentation.  It doesn’t have to be fancy but the documentation must be written and it must be kept up to date – no exceptions.  The documentation can be as simple as a one page document that spells out to anyone who supports the application the following things:

  1. What the application does, how it works
  2. Who uses the application
  3. Where the application lives (server names/passwords)
  4. Databases it relies on (server names/passwords)

If this information is not documented (and the documentation not kept up to date), then troubleshooting the application may take hours which means the users are left waiting for (sometimes critical) applications to be fixed.

This is a typical scenario of what can happen when documentation is not updated (it happened to me yesterday):

We have a vendor written application that resides on two servers and it has several passwords and databases.  Years ago when I was a part of setting up this application, I documented everything about it.  I wrote a short one page document of all the critical stuff: how it worked, its databases, passwords, and server names.  Then, a few months ago, another team member upgraded this application and put the application and its databases on new servers.  Did this employee document any of this? No. Is this employee still with our company so I can ask him anything about this application? No.  Are we in a bind because of this? Yes.  Do you know why? Because the application went down yesterday.  We looked at the documentation I had written about the application and discovered it had not been updated so we didn’t know any of the new passwords for getting into the administrative side of the application; we actually had to hunt and peck through the registry to find this information.  Troubleshooting this application yesterday was a complete nightmare and it took several unnecessary hours.  If the documentation had been properly updated, it would have saved us hours of frustrating work.  The fix was something so simple (a particular executable had to be running 24/7 before the application would work and this executable had stopped due to the server getting hosed due to the a/c going out in the server room) but since no one had documented this new process, we had to figure it on the fly which kept our users waiting.

Many IT employees will complain that they do not have time to write documentation or update documentation.  The only reason they do not have time is because they either don’t make it a priority or the clients don’t understand the importance of the documentation.  IT has the power to address both of these issues head on by making documentation a priority and letting clients know that if they want fast service in a stable application environment, then documentation needs to be considered as important as the application itself.

Communication Overload – Gadget Courtesy

These days, we have a variety of user-friendly means of communicating with other human beings:

  • smart phone
  • cell phone
  • pager
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • home phone
  • work phone
  • email
  • instant messenger
  • fax
  • in-person
  • sky writing
  • billboard advertising

Note the following behavior I have routinely witnessed in the course of passing non-critical information between two individuals (our actors for this example will be Fabio and Merenna):

Fabio calls Merenna’s personal cell phone and gets no answer. He immediately hangs up and calls Merenna’s work cell phone and gets no answer. He immediately hangs up and calls Merenna’s home phone and gets no answer. He immediately hangs up and calls Merenna’s work phone and gets no answer. He immediately gets online to see if her instant messenger status is set to ‘Online’, it is – so he sends her an instant message to call him. Merenna, who is on the phone with another person, sees the instant message come in. Since an instant message did not immediately come back from Merenna, Fabio also sends Merenna an email saying to call him. Merenna finishes her current call, hangs up and calls Fabio. Fabio comments about how difficult it was to reach Merenna, Merenna explains she was on the phone with another caller. Fabio says “oh” and proceeds to say “I was just calling to see what’s up”.

Merenna is now left with the following chores as a result of Fabio’s multiple communications:

  • Canceling out the “missed call” alerts on each cell phone.
  • Listening to and deleting the hang-ups on her traditional phone answering machine/voice mails.
  • Reading and deleting the email.
  • Reading and closing the flashing instant messenger window.

The numerous communication devices at our disposal have created a generation of “I must know what you are doing and where you are at all times for absolutely no reason” users. Try to avoid falling into the endless abyss of meaningless communication and irritation by using gadget courtesy.  If you are unable to reach someone, just leave them a message.  If they never call you back it means one of these four things occurred (all of which you can handle given enough time and support):

  1. The person is very busy and hasn’t had a chance to address the message you have left for him or her.
  2. The person did not get your message due to environmental, hardware, or human malfunction.
  3. The person could care less about you and is not interested in communicating with you.
  4. The person has unfortunately passed away and therefore is unable to respond to your message.

Free Social Networking Web Sites

Use extreme caution when participating in free social networking web sites. Understand going in that you have no control over the security of the content you post, no control over the content others post about you, no voice in how long your content remains in storage after you think you’ve deleted it, and you will at some point interact with users who claim to be someone they are not for either illegal or just irritating purposes.

In an environment such as this, refrain from posting photos or information about anyone other than yourself unless you have the consent of all pictured parties to do so (this is a standard practice that should be followed in secure and unsecure environments at all times).

Nothing is free. If you participate in a social networking site “for free”, know that they are able to stay in business and offer their service due to money they make from various strategies including the data they have collected from you.

There is one extremely beneficial side to social networking web sites: they enable you to connect with wonderful human beings all over the world and for this I will always assume the risk:)

Example of a list of Requirements for a Simple Application

This web page is an example of a simple application (it is a web form): http://mummey.com/contactus.aspx. This form allows a visitor to enter his or her email address, a message and click on a submit button. When the user submits the required data, the data is sent in email form to a general mail box at mummey.com. An application of this size and complexity will take a programmer about 15 minutes to write. A full hour if you throw in testing, handing off to the client for user testing, writing proper documentation and publishing to production. However, this estimate could go up to several hours if you wanted the programmer to create artwork.

If you wanted a simple application like the one listed above, your requirements to a programmer would translate to something like this:

  1. One form that displays 6 items (welcome verbiage, navigation of some kind, graphics, form fields of email address and comments and a submit button).  We will provide the images and descriptions of the items to the programmer.
  2. The visitor to the form should be able to enter their email address, a message and then submit the message via a submit button.
  3. When the visitor submits the form by clicking on a submit button, the visitor email address and the message the user entered will be submitted as an email to this email address: xxxxx@xxxxx.com.

Tips on How to Foster a Good IT Environment

I am one lucky gal. I’ve been a computer programmer for about 14 years now and my experience with working with men and women in IT has been wonderful (I know, life isn’t always peaches and puppies but this posting will focus on all of the wonderful things because there have always been more good than bad). This post will offer some insight into a few things that can be done to create an effective IT environment. These are things that have happened in IT groups I have been a part of and they really make a difference in the quality of an average IT day:

Each day as you travel to work, remind yourself of one thing: you are fortunate to have a job, just pick up any newspaper in any city in the world and you will see how worse off some people are. So no bad attitudes, walk in knowing that each day could end up being the best day of your life. If you know you cannot do this, and you’ve had a bad attitude for 20 years, it’s time you find a job where no interaction with living creatures is required. Maybe something like: go on a lone 30 year mission to mars, confine yourself to your garage to invent things, or learn animal taxidermy. Otherwise, read on!

Share what you know. If a newbie is on the way in, write up a short, one page document or email that describes who you are, what you do, what apps you support and how you can be reached for questions. This allows the newbie to reflect on you after you are briefly introduced (nervous people rarely remember names and if they have a document or email explaining who you are then they won’t forget you).

Document your application as soon as you send it to production for the first time. It can be short and sweet but is meant to help your coworkers when you are out of the office (and you when you have to update the application 10 years from now) so it needs to describe the application you just wrote (what it does, who the clients are, where the application resides, where the code is, what language the code is written in, any passwords and any database information if it relies on a database). Consider your documentation equally as important as the application itself.

Provide a quite space for uninterrupted thought. Plopping programmers down in cubes in the middle of the phones sales team isn’t going to work, there are too many people talking. Eventually many folks learn to drown out background noise but until this skill is mastered, money is lost. If you have no choice in location, then make sure employees have noise cancelling headsets or try out working from home a few days a week.

Provide clear direction to clients. They have their own job to do, don’t assume they know how IT works. Look at it like this: I am a computer programmer, if you put a tax form in front of me I go blind, I have no idea what to do. Same goes for clients, if they tell you they need an application built then give them some direction. Sit down and work with them face to face to hash out requirements, then give them a list of the basic application life cycle so they have an idea of what to expect and when.

Say thank you, everyone likes to hear it.

Avoid bashing someone else’s work in a group setting. By doing something like, you risk giving the impression of egotism, ignorance and paranoia to those on the receiving end. If you don’t like the way something is done, focus on a positive delivery by offering suggestions instead of demanding your ego be petted like a soft kitty on a rainy day.

Get your home life in order. Home is your only escape from an often brutal world. If your home life is not a safe, pleasant escape from the world, then it’s time to make a change – it won’t be easy but it’s the most important thing to do. Your home life needs to be solid before you can be happy doing anything outside of your home.

I need a programmer to write an application for me, where do I start?

Before finding a programmer, understand the basic application life cycle.  It is something like this:

  • Client comes up with a list of requirements (be as specific as possible).
  • Programmer is given requirements to study
  • Programmer gives estimate of time and cost of job based on requirements given
  • Programmer builds application
  • Client tests application and the programmer fixes any bugs in the application – this step loops until user agrees product is good. DANGER – it is in this step that scope creep can show its expensive head.  Scope creep is when a client at this point adds more requirements to the application, this is very easy to do because the client is excited about the project and the programmer is excited about the work and making the client happy.  If more requirements are thrown into the project at this point, the client needs to understand that the original estimate of cost and time no longer apply.  It is best to meet with programmer with a new set of requirements so the programmer can establish a new estimate of cost and time and if this new estimate exceeds the timeline of the client, then the application needs to be pushed to production as is with the original requirements and a new timeline/cost should be established for Phase II (new set of requirements) of the application with the programmer.
  • Programmer publishes the application to production.
  • Programmer delivers documentation in electronic form the client. Two forms of documentation are delivered: a user guide and a tech guide.  The user guide is a detailed step by step document of how a person would actually use the application (covering all of its features).  The tech guide is a detailed document containing the actual code of the application (or a link to where the actual code can be found), any passwords required of the application, detailed information regarding the database (if the application uses a database) and the language the application is written in.  The tech guide is to be given to any future programmers who may have to work on the application after the original programmer has won the lottery and moved to California:)
  • Client pays programmer.

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