It is fall in the mountains

Air curling up from the hollows on either side of the mountain runway shoves against the sides of the plane so that it shudders and jumps as we descend. We bounce once, then a second time before making a solid connection with the tarmac – turboprops roaring, reversed full speed.

We wait while the gate agent makes small talk with the stewardess. “Them planes sure are big,” she says, pointing at several military, cargo planes across the runway from us. This goes on for several minutes before she glances back at the passengers staring at her, anxious to get off the plane. “Oh! Sorry!”

We’ve landed in West Virginia.

The downtown market seems frozen in time. Every shop is still in business, every worker still employed. I order a fish sandwich and clam chowder at the seafood stand, determined to eat all of it even after my stomach aches.

We walk through rows of produce, mums, and pumpkins. We laugh at over-fed birds picking at crumbs, too fat to fly. It is simple and unassuming, but it is one of the golden places of the world.

We drive through our old neighborhood and find it has lost its luster. It was growing and healthy when we moved away, but development has stalled. Houses sit unfinished, some built but abandoned, scaffolding rusted in place. The concrete of the road erupts into the air and is interrupted by tall weeds and small trees. Unmaintained and poorly irrigated, just five years old and the earth is pulling it apart and back into itself.

Still, it is fall in the mountains.

The next day we visit with friends for lunch and dinner at favorite restaurants. Downtown is resilient, small businesses abound. Books and ice cream and pizza. The night air holds a chill we’ve missed – sweater weather, no wind.

We walk back to the hotel full.

We stop for biscuits in the morning, buttery fuel for a day hike. Winding roads take us to the New River Gorge and a forest I’ve missed.

Most of the trail is empty, we pass only occasional groups of hikers and rock climbers. We watch rafters navigating the river below and a train snaking along the valley track.

The leaves are burning through the shades of fall, deep greens to reds to oranges to browns to empty air. The moss remains constant – four season flooring.

Thousands of people are just a few miles away at a bridge festival. We’ve been here several times on festival day, but we’ve never been to the actual festival. The trees are better company.

After the hike we stop at a restaurant we’ve tried to visit on every trip to the Gorge. Their schedule is random and we’ve always missed business hours by an annoyingly small margin. Today, we arrive five minutes before opening. It doesn’t disappoint. Salmon and creamed beef and sweet potatoes.

We finish our meal with coffee and chocolate tortes, then begin our drive back to the city. We make a stop on the way back at a gift shop in a log cabin where I buy a hand sewn monkey, then a final stop to look out over the Gorge and watch people ride a funicular.

Back in town, it’s time to re-pack and prep for an early morning flight.

We walk around downtown before going to bed. It is cold, but neither of us mind.

How to make the most of tech conventions

Your hotel is booked. You’ve got your plane tickets. A cheerful registration e-mail is in your inbox. Maybe you’ve even signed-up for a few training sessions.

Right now, the plan is that you’ll show up to the convention, get the keys to your room, and just see where the week takes you. You are stoked. Yay, convention!

This is a terrible plan and you should feel bad because you came up with it. Go stand in the corner and reflect on the bad decisions you’ve made up to this point.

Such. A. Noob.

Here’s a better plan.

Plan your ground game

There are two major groups of convention-goers – those that roam around aimlessly, following signs to free drinks and swag, and those who walk with purpose, ignoring the cattle chutes and doing their best not to run over the smaller, slower members of the herd.

To get value from a convention, you need to be planning your ground game weeks in advance.

  • What do you want to learn about?
  • Who do you want to talk to?
  • What questions do you need answered?

Assuming you’re going to a vendor’s convention, this is the time to pull in your account team. Communicate your priorities and ask them to help.

Ideally, you’ll arrive onsite with your calendar pre-booked with appointments to talk to product managers, engineers, and other customers dealing with similar problems. These discussions will be 1000 times more effective and valuable than sitting in on sessions.

Also, make sure to book some time to get work done. Staying semi-caught-up will make your return to the office much more pleasant.

There are only three sessions worth your time

  1. The keynote – Any big announcements will be in the keynote. Yes, there will be a lot of marketing speak and things you don’t care about, but the keynote gives context to where the vendor is headed and highlights a lot of business info your management will want to hear about.
  2. Round tables – These are small, interactive sessions with engineers, managers, and fellow customers. Round tables tend to be far more content-rich than standard sessions. There’s more opportunity to ask questions and generally less marketing. These are good sessions to find out how other people are solving problems that you are trying to solve.
  3. Bootcamps – Onsite training. Most bootcamps are tied to a certification track. Standard sessions are not. Go educate yourself and get certified. You’ve already carved time out of your schedule for the convention. Make the most of it.

Vendor parties are for chumps

“Customer appreciation reception” is a euphemism for “opportunity to gain leverage over you.” Nothing is free, everything has strings attached and unintended consequences.

That drunk customer swinging from a chandelier is going to have a hard time negotiating come renewal time. Don’t get me wrong, I like to chandelier swing as much as the next guy, but I’m not going to do it around people I do business with.

Going to a vendor party to “network” is a pipe dream. Ninety-five percent of the people there will be too inebriated to explain what they do for a living and the other 5 percent will on some spectrum from “Please shut up about your dog and/or ex” to “I bet you have a basement dungeon”.

The music will be too loud for you to hear anything anyway. Wubwubwubbbb womp womp womp.

Go have a nice, quiet dinner instead, catch up on work, and rest up for tomorrow. If you’ve planned well, you have a busy day ahead of you.

Image Credit: Cydcor

Why I’m a bully about change

I spent the last few days in West Virginia, visiting with friends, eating lots of good food, and hiking along the New River Gorge.

It’s always a bittersweet visit.

I love the forests and mountains. I love the people and the rain. West Virginia is a beautiful state.

The towns are obvious rivets in the Rust Belt, but even the industrial decay of old machinery and factories holds a hipsterish appeal – wilted roses of rust and slowly growing coats of moss & lichen.

Those elements are historically distant enough to be somewhat romantic. The more recent scars, less so.

We drove to an area outside of the capital where we used to live and passed by a housing addition that broke ground roughly five years ago. Six of a potential 100+ houses had been completed. Two of those half-million-dollar homes were abandoned, covered in ivy and encroaching weeds.

Very few of the office buildings we passed were without for-lease or for-sale signs in their windows. Some had been vacant since we moved away.

There are pockets of resiliency and growth I don’t quite understand (How downtown Charleston, WV supports the great restaurants and bars that it does is a mystery to me. And I dare you to name a city with a better farmer’s market.) But the death of the coal industry put the eastern part of WV into a coma.

Everything dies, everything changes

I started my career during the dial-up revolution. I watched a thousand little companies pop-up out of seemingly nowhere and then shutter almost overnight when cheap broadband came to town.

I worked in the PC industry as it raced to the bottom and was at Gateway when it was dismantled by former rivals. I watched the mid-end market completely dry up until there was only the sub-1%-margin low-end and the high-margin top-end that Apple now dominates.

And I watched Appalachian coal make a stubborn last stand against what appeared to almost all outside observers as inevitable doom.

“You guys need to be planning for something else. This putting all your eggs in the basket of the coal industry thing is running out of runway.” – Everyone

“Nuh uh, you can’t tell me what to do. You aren’t my real dad.” – West Virginia

This is the cycle of things. Industries are born, they are disrupted, they die, and occasionally are re-born.

I know I hammer this gong a lot, but this is why. I have seen friends and family thrust into unfortunate situations because either they or those around them had a philosophy of adaptation that amounted to maintaining the status quo plus one percent.

Sometimes that’s because day-to-day survival is suffocatingly hard and a person can’t spare cycles to think about the future. But if you’re reading LinkedIn, that’s not you.

So go learn something new, teach people about it, and figure out how it’s going to affect your life and career. Prep for change and help others.

If others don’t care, that’s fine – I’m sure our future robot overlords will find some use for them – maybe as fuel.

Image credit: Jon Diez Supat

I saw the future at AWS reInvent

I spent last week in Las Vegas at AWS reInvent. It was my first visit and was very different from the other conferences I’ve been to in the last couple of years.

The food was terrible, the sessions and hallways were uncomfortably packed, and we didn’t have the fast-track access to product managers and other experts that I’ve become accustomed to at other conferences (Thanks, account teams!), but it quickly became one of my favorite events.

The attendees seemed equally split between startups and enterprise – from single person companies to behemoths like GE and CapitalOne. And they were mostly dev and devops. Unfortunately, they were almost entirely white and male, but I have hope that is starting to change.

You will be replaced by a very small shell script

I talked to very few people in traditional infrastructure roles. This was a conference for the new guard. These are the people who are building the future of IT – a future that has little need for sys admins and network engineers. Those jobs will still exist for a while, but they’ll get pushed further into the fringes: small business services and cloud-vendor/ISP back-offices.

Everyone seemed excited. They were making things and focused on what the world will look like tomorrow and how they need to meet those challenges. Even the enterprise folks were launching full bore into the future. They seemed hyper-aware of the risks of traditional enterprise IT sluggishness. “Our business cannot afford to keep doing things the same way.”

Sure, there were buzzwords and the standard marketing pitches, but for the most part, people were able to back it up. When someone said “big data” I generally had the impression they knew what they were talking about.

These attitudes were universal across both AWS employees, vendors, and attendees. Everyone got it. Everyone was on board. They’re pulling away from the station and leaving everyone else behind.

It was an exciting place to be and I came away from it feeling stronger than ever that traditional IT folks(including myself) need to rapidly adapt to the new landscape or find a new career. I got home and spent a significant portion of the weekend brushing up on my Ruby skills.

Glued to the past

Comparatively, at other conferences and events this year, I’ve seen companies completely lost as to where they should head. Some have plans to buy their way forward without a cohesive strategy other than “follow-the-buzzword” and I mourn for each acquisition.

Others are crippled by their legacy customers and internal division. They have good intentions (and plans) to move forward but struggle with execution. A good idea would be put on display followed by shouts of terror from the audience (“Witchcraft! Heresy! Burn them!”). I saw product managers with their face in their hands and have great empathy for them.

I got the same reactions when I talked to attendees about what I considered to be relatively conservative ideas like cloud identity and Desktops-as-a-Service.

“Whatever, fancy wizard. If my baby turns into a goat, I’ll come find you.”

That, honestly, gets a little disheartening when you hear it all the time.

But reInvent got me recharged. I’m going to continue to move forward and pull everyone I can with me. No more servers, no more managed devices, no more unwieldily corporate IT.

There’s a great big beautiful world out there, full of potential and interesting problems to solve. Let’s go build awesome stuff together.

Image Credit: Tom Simpson

The opposite of Hunter S. Thompson’s Las Vegas

I haven’t been outside in three days. The hotel maze has continually redirected us back into the hotel. We went outside earlier in the week to try and find food but were steered back inside without realizing it. It’s easier to stay inside, so we do.

I have no interest in gambling or shows or anything else on The Strip. The rest of Las Vegas doesn’t hold any appeal either. Outside of a couple state parks close by and a sprinkling of jarringly green golf courses, it’s an urban wasteland.  Vegas is a glowing, cancerous growth upon an otherwise pristine desert.

Lobbying by the local taxi cartel meant that we could not grab an Uber or Lyft car when we arrived at the airport.  Instead, we were directed into the cattle shoot of the taxi line and herded along until a taxi was available. Moo… Moo… Move along.

I’m sure some taxi lobbyist somewhere was simultaneously arguing about the superior customer experience of their business.

Check in, get an upgraded room, then off for food. Google Maps reveals that my favorite Vegas taco shop has closed its location on The Strip. Is nothing sacred? It was the only Vegas thing I was looking forward to.

We find an alternative nearby that is decent but overpriced and poorly served. It does provide a good opportunity for conversation and people watching though. Drunks at the bar shout at the football game on TV. One of them throws his hat is disapproval.

I poke and prod my travel companion with questions. I want to know who he is and what we have in common. I’m impressed by his ability to redirect when I touch a nerve or he senses controversy nearby. I am certain that we disagree on many things, but he seems disinclined to embrace ideological extremes. That’s all the common base that any two people need.

Later in the week, I’m put further at ease when he asks me “Who’s Ayn Rand?” after I mention seeing one of her books in the window of a casino bookstore.

“A selfish hypocrite.”

We are in town for a convention that seems close to overflowing the walls of the Sands Expo. The subject matter is interesting, but the food is terrible and every room is uncomfortably packed. They open the show floor for two hours on the eve of the convention for a reception and navigating the clogged mass of humanity slowly rolling through the room borders on frightening.

The me of ten years ago would have abandoned ship after looking into the room or otherwise collapsed in a ball of anxiety and claustrophobia.

I have the advantage of height and can see above the crowd, but struggle to not trample on the shorter people around me. Keep moving and get out of the way.

We settle into a cycle of vendor meetings, eating, walking the show floor, and catching up on work. The day/night cycling of artificial light and sky-frescoed ceilings merge the days together. We are relieved when we discover a route from our hotel rooms to the convention space that circumvents the gaming floor, which is filled with cigarette smoke, sadness, and an ignorance of statistical probability.

In the evenings I stare out my hotel window and work on a presentation I’m supposed to give at the next convention I’m scheduled to attend. Unfortunately, that means I’ll be back in Vegas in three weeks.

Every IT department should hire a designer

One of my favorite business books is “The Ecology of Commerce” by Paul Hawken. It’s widely lauded as a pillar of business ethics and environmental stewardship, but to me, it’s really a book about design.

I’m a design geek at heart. I’m not very good at the aesthetic aspects of it, but I enjoy all different flavors of design: industrial, architectural, graphic, technological, etc.  Because the root of design is problem solving and reading authors like Hawkin and Buckminster Fuller gets me thinking about problems systemically.

What are the inputs, the outputs, the unintended consequences, the constraints? What variables do I need to keep in balance? What can be sacrificed or excluded to improve the whole?  What is the ideal compromise?

I do my best to bring these questions to everything I do in IT.

All that may sound a little high-minded and fancy – when someone talks about design, people tend to think of Jon Ivey waxing poetic about the chamfered edges on the latest iPhone, but I’ve found approaching IT through the eyes of design to be exceedingly practical.

If you’re thinking about the whole system you’re plugging into (the technology, the business, the world), you’re forced into making hard decisions and have to re-examine your solutions and ideas, usually for the better. You have to learn how to compromise.

You’re driven to murder your lovelies and stifle your ego. That awesome idea you had that you are super emotionally vested in may really be awesome in a vacuum, but it may be terrible when applied to a real system and the thousand things you didn’t think of when you first wrote it down.

But the biggest benefit that comes from this type of systemic thinking is a holistic vantage point. IT departments are in a unique position, given that technology might touch every area of a business, to provide a comprehensive view of how different processes and departments intertwine. And if they’re doing their job right and the business trusts them, they’re using that understanding to provide insight and solutions.

As technology becomes more and more abstracted from IT staff and the business as a whole – the further we get from the metal – our job increasingly becomes one of analysis and consultation. That change reinforces that the point of IT has never really been technology, it’s been information and enablement. That’s hard to see if you’re approaching IT purely with your engineering hat on.

In Lego terms, it’s less about adding pieces and more about making sure everyone understands how the existing blocks fit together. It’s studying and reporting on the ecology of a business. That’s where the interesting problems are and where IT can provide value, not whatever someone is blathering about in CIO Magazine this week.

Image credit: Mathias Ripp