Design Thoughts

Ever look at a product and wonder, “why did they design it that way?” I know I have, and I have some examples I want to bring up.

Years ago, over dinner, I had a programmer from our Wisconsin office basically ask, “why the hell is your file system for your web servers setup the way it is?”  It was a fair question. It wasn’t something one would normally see.  But before I explain that…

Like any modern American, I’m physically incapable of being more than 10′ from a flat screen TV in my house.  We have several, including one in my office and one in the kitchen. I couldn’t tell you the brand of the one in the kitchen (well I could, but I’m too lazy to go downstairs and find out) and the only reason I can tell you the brand of the one in my office is because I can see it from here. It’s an Inginsia brand.

Both serve the same function: they allow me to watch TV. But both have design quirks.

Their button layouts are a bit different (note the layout of the numbers and the volume/channel control buttons.)

Kitchen TV Remote

Kitchen TV Remote

Office TV Remote

Office TV Remote

The kitchen TV also has a built-in DVD player, so it has additional controls for that.

So obviously, there’s different design philosophies and requirements here. But I want to go a step deeper and talk a bit about functionality.

The kitchen TV remote, if you mistype a number, you can hit the Vol – button and it will essentially backspace and delete the number. Actually a handy feature.  The Office remote has no such functionality, though hitting EXIT will remove the entire channel already entered.  Score one for Dynex. (Ok, I did go downstairs so I could grab the remote and take a photo).

But, the Dynex has one annoying quirk I’ve never figured out. When I hit the OFF button, there’s a noticeable delay of 1-2 seconds before it actually turns off. For the life of me, I have NO idea why. I mean I’m turning off a TV. It’s not like I’m shutting down a computer where it has to write the contents of memory to disk and perform other tasks. Sure, maybe it has to save the last channel I was tuned to, but it could do that right after I tuned into that station. Same with the volume.  Every other TV in the house, including my office one, when you hit the off button, turns off instantly.

I’m reminded a bit of early computers that had the big red switch. There was something satisfying about turning off an early PC. You knew it was instantly off. There was no two questions about it. Now, shutting off a PC is a far more complex operation and can take sometime.  But a TV? I’d love to know why the kitchen TV takes a long time to turn off.

Now back to the file design the programmer was asking me about. Essentially we had 5-6 web front ends, each with a virtual directory in IIS pointing to a NAS. Not an entirely awful setup, but uncommon at the time.  We were offering a web platform to newspapers so they could publish their content. Originally we tried using a 3rd party package to make sure the content on all the servers was always in synch (since a newspaper could upload content at any time to any of the servers and wanted it available instantly). What we found was sometimes we’d get into race conditions where files could actually end up erasing themselves. The 3rd party company kept assuring us they had the solution. Well after a desperate call at 4:00 AM call from my on-duty NOC person, I drove into the office, scrambling to figure out a better solution. On the drive, the idea of using the virtual directories to the NAS occurred to me. We implemented it in about 30 minutes and solved our problems. It was supposed to be a temporary solution until we came up with a more robust, permanent solution. But, 18 months later it was still in place, working great and I was explaining it to our out of town programmer. He went from, “that’s nuts” to “Hey, that makes a lot of sense.”

So, I like to think that when there’s a design I don’t understand, the designers at the time had their reasons. But, to be honest, I’m not always sure.

For example, the photo that should be heading up this article, of a shampoo bottle and a bottle of conditioner, both from the same manufacturer, both designed to be cap down, are printed the opposite way. The only reason I can think of that makes sense is so that in a befuddled, sleep deprived state, I can more easily determine which is which. But even if that is the answer, why this way, and not the other? Inquiring minds want to know!

And yes, the shampoo bottle can be placed cap up, but the conditioner bottle can’t be. Again, why? The viscosity of the two aren’t that different. Again, inquiring minds want to know.

Shampoo/Conditioner bottles

One of these is upside down!

 

Don’t…

call yourself an ally.

Just don’t.  You may think you’re an ally. You might actually be one, at times. But, don’t call yourself an ally.

Note, I didn’t say you can’t be one, nor did I say you can’t strive to be one. I’m simply saying don’t call yourself one.

I don’t care if you volunteer for the local LGBTA+ outreach group, if you serve on a women in tech diversity panel, or have all the “right” stickers on your car or laptop. You can do all the right things and be an ally, but don’t call yourself one.

Now, if members of the groups you’re helping want to call you an ally, that’s great. You’re doing good work. You’re doing something right. And it’s ok to enjoy the praise and thanks, a bit. But, still, don’t call yourself an ally.

Here’s the thing, I’ve got about every privilege box I can check in the US. I’m white, cis-het male, with a decent income. I have friends and family members that don’t quite hit all those boxes. I like to think I use my privilege to help others.

And it’s true, I’ve found in online debates I can say almost the exact same thing one of the people identifying as female says and somehow my words get taken with more gravity.

And yes, in the IT field, I’ve seen multiple times my coworkers talk over or ignore someone who wasn’t cis-het male, despite the other person’s knowledge and wealth of experience.

I’ve used my privilege to try to bring equality into the IT spaces I’m in. Sometimes I’ve succeeded, sometimes I’ve failed.

I’ve called others out for homophobic jokes, cat-calling and more.

But, as I’ve grown older, and I like to think wiser, I’ve realized even more, how I can’t call myself an ally.

It’s not for lack of effort. Let’s be clear, NO amount of effort will allow me to call myself an ally. And here’s why:

I’m not a member of the groups I’m trying to help. I’ve never truly experienced the discrimination and bigotry they’ve faced. Even when I’ve been associated with them, I’ve come to realize I’m “other”. This isn’t a fault or a failing, simply my reality. I can be among a group of gay men celebrating a friend’s birthday at the Green Lantern in Washington DC, and be perfectly comfortable, but know I’m “other”. And they know it too. The next day at work, even if I encountered a homophobic coworker, I can still disassociate myself from that weekend’s activities. It’s not a core part of WHO I am, it’s simply a part of something I did.

If I support women in tech, and I’d like to think I do, no matter how well I listen, I won’t truly have the gestalt experience of walking to my car at night wondering, if something happens, will someone’s first question be, “Well, what where you wearing?”  I’ll never be in a meeting and have an idea shot down and wonder, “was my idea dismissed because it was bad, or because of my gender presentation?”

I will always be “other”.

In a related manner, I can, intentionally, or unintentionally stop being an ally in an instant. I can intentionally choose to sit down and not be an ally.  Or, I can make a misstep and fail as an ally. And I don’t get to decide if I’ve succeeded or failed.

I will give an example of this: via Twitter I saw one woman speaker comment on how she felt offended that she had been asked, in part because of her gender, to speak at a conference. The person approaching her had made it clear he wanted more women to speak. Generally, this could be seen as being a good ally; making sure conferences aren’t full of manels and/or only have a slate of male speakers. Other women stepped in and said they wouldn’t be offended at all, that they appreciated the effort to include more women, even if at times it came across as ham-fisted or overly obvious.

So here’s the thing, the person asking probably thought of himself as an ally and might have called himself one. But, clearly the first woman didn’t agree, but others did. This is why he can’t call himself an ally, but others can. Perspective makes a huge difference here.

So in conclusion, let me end with what I opened with: not only can you work to be an ally, I would in fact encourage you to work to help others obtain the privileges and opportunities you have. BE an ally. But let OTHERS determine if you’re their ally. If they call you an ally, great! Keep it up.

If they however tell you that your actions or words are not helpful, listen to them. They are in the best position to determine what helps them. Unless they ask for input, don’t tell them what they’re doing wrong or why they’re wrong to not accept their help.

42

How many roads must a man walk down, before you call him a man? – Bob Dylan

There’s a trailhead to Whiteface Mountain in the Adirondacks that starts on an old forest road. It’s probably left over from the days of logging. I haven’t been on this trail in probably 20 or more years. It might be closer to 30. And yet, for some reason I can picture it in my mind almost perfectly. Or at least I think I can. I mean without going back, how can I be sure I accurately remember it? But the reality in my mind is that I recall it perfectly.

I also remember key points along the trail. Sometimes I will wander down this road in my memory and remember the joys of this particular hike. I should do it again someday.

There are many physical roads like that that I travel down in my mind and hope to go back to again someday.

But, at night, as I lay in bed, there are some roads in my mind I find I just can’t travel down anymore. Or at least not now, perhaps in the future. Last night as I was drifting off, I started to remember my father’s property in the years soon after he bought it. It had a number of outbuildings that had been built over the years. I’m still not sure what they were used for, since it was a never a working farm or anything like that, and even so they weren’t the sort of buildings one would use for such a purpose. I do recall one had some old nudes pasted on the wall.  I remember having grandiose plans for turning one into sort of a clubhouse for me and my friends, but for various reasons… life happened and that didn’t.

Travelling down this particular road started to bring up other memories of my father, who would have been 72 this year. And I stare down these lanes of memory and have to stop myself. Some I know I can explore and laugh and smile as I travel down the fond memories, others… well I have built gates across them. The memories are too close and too raw and I fear if I travel down them any distance I’ll get lost in those memories and the pain will be too much. So, I look over the gate and say, “not now…”

Gradually I’ve found some of those gates I can open, but not all.

The Road goes ever on and on,
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say. – JRR Tolkien

My father introduced me to both the poet and author I quote here, but he was more fond of one, and I the other. I’ll leave it to the reader to guess or know which is which.

So, I don’t know how many roads I have to travel down, or how many I can. But they’re there, beckoning.

Too Many Tabs Open

It’s been one of those “busy-slow” weeks. I get these sometimes when I’m consulting. On one hand I’m busy, but work is slow. What do I mean? Well Monday I was on a train all day (literally other than a 1.5 hours layover in NYC) coming back from Atlanta. That’s another story but suffice to say, I wasn’t much in the mood to get work done. Tuesday, when I generally write this blog, I had a couple of customer meetings and was busy, and then the rest of the day busy with non-client work. Same with Wednesday and Thursday.

Finally today, I had a few minutes to catch up on some stuff. I FINALLY took the time to look at one of the tabs I had open in my browser. Admit it, you do it too. “Oh look, that’s cool I want to read/watch/listen to that, but not now, I’ll just keep that tab open.” And then weeks later you’re like, “what is this tab?”

In this case it was a video post by Grant Fritchey on “Why friends don’t let friends upgrade to SQL 2014.”  I was curious about this because at a client I had to recently upgrade two servers to SQL Server 2014. I had preferred SQL Server 2016 or 2017, but the 3rd party software vendor said “no”.  Fortunately nothing bad has happened, but, it’s posts like Grant’s that I appreciate because it helps broaden my knowledge base.

One thing that makes humans incredible is our ability of language and ultimately our ability to create forms of communication that transcend time.  None of us can learn EVERYTHING. But what we can learn is who knows more than we do, or how to access that information. If I want information on query tuning, I’m going to ask Grant or pick up one of his books. If I have a question on Power BI, I might reach out to Kellyn Pot’Vin-Gorman or Cathrine Wilhelmsen. In other words, I don’t need to be an expert on everything, though I’d like to be! I just need to know who to reach out to.

Similarly with my cave rescue world. I’m proud to say I work with some of the greatest people in the world, people who literally have written the book on cave rescue. And yet, at our recent meeting (the reason I was down South), two of my colleagues, Roger Mortimer and Eddy Cartaya reported back on their trip to Europe where they attended the ICARS conference and brought back some great information on how the Europeans are doing some things differently when it comes to cave rescue. This has prompted some discussion between Roger and myself on some medical topics.  Again, none of us are the complete expert on the field, but we know enough to know what we know and don’t know and how to learn more.

So, keep those tabs open and keep adding to them. I know I’ve got at least one video on air plane accidents I need to listen to when I get 30+ minutes. What tabs do you have open?

 

Wear their shoes

Last night I had the pleasure of hosting our local SQL Server User Group and having Rie Irish speak. Despite it being a remote presentation, which usually draws a smaller crowd, we had one of our larger crowds in awhile; I was quite pleased.

The topic was “Well Actually… Don’t be THAT guy in IT.” I first saw her present this at the Atlanta SQL Saturday 2018 and knew I wanted her to speak again to my user group.  She had previously presented “Let Her Finish” and this was a good follow-up.

One of the points she makes during this particular talk is that men don’t know what it’s like to be in a woman’s shoes.  This triggered a memory of when I was a wee lad.

Let’s jump back into the old Time Machine and dial it back to early September 1985. It’s evening on the campus at RPI and a young college freshman is hanging out with one or two other guys trying to figure out what evening session for their student orientation they should go to. They see a session provided by the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) talking about women in engineering. One of them says, “Oh that should be fun” in a voice that probably had at least a bit of snark in it. So, this young, intrepid and naive freshman follows along, after all, at a school with a 5:1 ratio, one might as well go where there’s some women.

Now, this young freshman can’t quite remember the entire session, but he did come away with a very different impression than he thought he would. Basically it was an “Oh wow” moment. Prior to that he had no idea the sexism women might face at an engineering college where in theory one was admitted solely on merit. It was eye-opening.

Jumping back into the time machine, we can dial it forward about 18 months and set down at a house off campus where he’s talking with one of his housemates. She mentions she had started as an architecture major but changed majors, for a variety of reasons. But, one thing that stood out was her first day of class where a professor made it quite clear that he didn’t think women should be architecture majors. He was a bit shocked that such attitudes still existed, but by then wasn’t entirely surprised.

Again, jumping in the time machine, he dials things forward about 2 years later. He’s sitting in the backyard of a sorority house talking with his girlfriend and a mutual friend. The mutual friend is a geology major. She mentions how she has gotten into the habit of submitting her homework and papers with simply her first initial and last name. This less naive man doesn’t quite get the reason why at first until she points out that this way, her professor can’t as easily identify her gender, and it makes her life easier and she tends to get better grades that way. He doesn’t want to believe it, but he does, because he figures she has no reason to lie.  It angers him though that she has to do it.

Let’s jump forward now about two decades. Due to his then current work situation, he’s actually staying with the now former girlfriend from college. In the years since they graduated and broke up, she had gone on to become a VP of engineer at a medical devices company before eventually quitting and going into consulting. He’s making dinner when she comes home from a meeting she had with a client. She’s visibly upset.

He asks why. After all, she was simply going there to give her final report on an item she had been asked to review and to get paid for that report.  The client had accepted the paper, and then asked her for a date. What had been a professional setting now became an awkward setting where she was placed in a position of having to say no to something she never expected to come up and to still make sure she got paid.

Jumping into the time machine one last time, we return to the modern day where Rie is still speaking. This no longer young man has to agree.

He’s had glimpses into what close friends have gone through, but, that’s exactly what they are. Glimpses. He didn’t experience them. He has never, as another friend has had happen, been told if he gave a blow job, he would get the job.  He’s never had a door close behind him and a manager awkwardly try to make a move on him.  He hasn’t woken up most mornings wondering, “who will question my credentials today because I have large breasts.”

Today’s takeaway for a number of my readers is: listen to your colleagues and believe their experiences, but don’t for a minute claim to fully understand them. Many of us never can and never will.

Oh, and one more comment: this author is far from perfect when it comes to handling gender and other similar issues. It’s an ongoing process.  I’m still trying to learn and grow.

 

Followers and CPR/First Aid

Yesterday, I performed a little social experiment and was pleased to find it worked. I’ve got to say, sometimes it’s the small things that make me happy.

Despite the below zero (Fahrenheit, so really cold, not that warm-cold of 0°C) temperatures, my son and I decided to head up to a local state park and do a hike.  Surprisingly, OK, maybe not, when we arrived, the parking lot was completely empty.  It had been plowed, but there was still a layer of snow over the entire thing, so it was impossible to see where the parking lines were. Now in the summer, this parking lot can be completely full, but I wasn’t too worried about that occurring when the temp was about -4°F.

So, which way to park? Well, there was some sun, so I figured I’d park so that the windshield would get the most sun and hopefully warm up the car just a bit while we hiked. I was sure at the time and later confirmed, this was at a 90° angle to the way the parking lines run. Ironically it was also about 90° colder than the summer temps!

Even when we started hiking, no one else had shown up. But, I have to admit, in the back of my mind I had to wonder if I would start a trend.

Sure enough, 1.5 hours later, when we arrived back at the car there were 3 other cars.  Not only were they parked in the same orientation, they were all parked right next to my car.  This parking lot probably covers 3 acres. They could have parked pretty much any place they wanted in any direction they wanted. But, because I had randomly picked a spot (and not so randomly a direction) 1 car was parked next to me in the same orientation and the other 2 parked facing us.

So what does this little experiment have to do with First Aid or CPR? Have you ever been at an event when someone has a medical event and at first no one reacts? It’s actually fairly common.  Everyone is standing around waiting for someone else to react. But once someone reacts, others tend to follow.  Be that person that others follow.  Learn CPR and learn First Aid so that when something happens, you can be the first to react. Sometimes people just need a leader to follow; and often they don’t necessarily realize it.

There’s no good reason anyone else parked just like I did, and yet they did. But there is a good reason for people to follow you if you can be the first to react in an emergency.  And you don’t have to be an expert. Obviously it didn’t take “expertise” to park yesterday, but people followed anyway. You don’t have to be an EMT or paramedic to react at a medical emergency. You can be the person that simply shouts, “Call 911” and gets people reacting.

That said, I still highly recommend taking a CPR and First Aid course. Not only do you learn very useful medical response skills, it will help you be that person that reacts first.

And stay warm!

Barriers

Years ago, I had my team building out our racks at our new datacenter. I was quite proud of it. It was going to be our first planned from the start build-out of 6 racks, as opposed to the hodge-podge build-out we had done of 5 cabinets we had previously rented. Instead of just cramming in equipment where it would fit, we could plan where every piece would go and where we’d leave room for future expansion. This was in 2001, so it was still during a big Internet boom.

One of the things I had decided on doing early on was color coding cables. Red was for anything in front of the firewall for example.  On the backside, every server had two network cards, one for outgoing traffic (the “front-net”) and the second for traffic between the servers (the “back-net”).  To help distinguish between the two, I had ordered a bunch of green cables for the front-net, since that data was “safe” and green is “safe”, and blue cables for the back-net, both start with “b”. Sure, somewhat silly mnemonics, but they worked.

Until, about a week after we finally completed our datacenter move, not one, but two members of my five person team commented, “oh, they were different colors? I couldn’t tell, I’m colorblind.”

“Doh!”  So much for my nice color-coded system.  It can be fairly easy to overlook barriers when you don’t see them. Sometimes it takes more thought and action on your part. Sometimes it takes asking questions, or observation.

Lately I’ve been trying to look for more barriers that I might not have seen before and looking into what I can do to remove them. I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not always successful and I’m still learning. But hopefully we call can.

One area I’ve been focusing on this is in my work for the Capital Area SQL Server User Group. Right now I’m looking at two possible barriers. I say possible because I honestly don’t know if they’re issues or not:

First, I’m trying to find someone who can provide ASL interpretation.  Here’s the thing: we have never had, as far as I know, a deaf person attend one of our events, or even express an interest. Is that because there are no deaf DBAs in the area or because they know if they do attend, they probably will face barriers an person with hearing won’t face?

But, that actually begs the question: if there are no deaf DBAs in the area, why? Perhaps there are deaf people who WANT to become a DBA, but can’t because the barriers that exist well before they even attempt to attend one of our events.  I don’t know, but I hope to explore this issue a bit more.

Another item I’ve started to look into, is whether some sort of child-care services at our SQL Saturday event would help encourage more people to attend. My initial thought is, “it’s Saturday, so ideally a spouse can watch kids” or a similar solution. But, that’s assuming every attendee has a spouse or the extra money to hire a babysitter for an entire day. In other words, it’s making a lot of assumptions.  There’s definitely some major logistical concerns that I have to continue to explore before we can even think about offering it. But I’m also simply trying to figure out if it would make a difference.  Unfortunately, currently for our user group meetings itself, it would not be practical. But even then it may be worth looking into.

On a personal note, I have a friend who had a service dog. She was interested in joining me on a caving trip.  So we actually discussed the logistics of it and determined that it was in fact possible to take her caving with her service dog.  There was some logistics we had to work out and I did have to get permission from the cave owner.  Unfortunately, our scheduling never quite synched up and we had to forego the trip. But the point is, barriers CAN be overcome if one works at them and is willing to be a bit flexible.

Today’s takeaway: What barriers have you looked for and tried to remove? They’re out there, even if you can’t see them.