Moving from Windows – My First Week With Ubuntu (Hardy Heron)

For the last week, I have been using Ubuntu 8.04 (Hardy Heron) on my personal laptop. I can say that the experience has been mostly transparent for me, even with the need for a complete re-build last night after an attempt to install a complex theme replacement.
I can say that it has been transparent because I have been using Linux desktops in one form or another on an intermittent basis since 1999. When business was slow in the Fall and Winter of 2001/2002, I was the Guinea Pig in my organization to see if Linux could be a corporate replacement for Windows for all desktops and laptops.
So, when I say that the process has been transparent, you will have to realize that I have been a technical user of these desktop interfaces for a number of years. But I can say that since my first positive experiences with the Red Hat Fedora and the Ximian Gnome replacement interface, things have come a very long way.
Ubuntu 8.04 is the first real interface that seems to work predictably, efficiently, and effectively with external devices and programs that are business friendly. This is especially the case if most of the tools are Web-based, as Firefox and Opera work seamlessly. OpenOffice 2.4 can open DOCX files, and media players support most of the files I want to watch/listen to.
It prints to the home network printer.
It accesses the home file server.
I can share and synchronize files among my computers using DropBox.
Some caveats to my positive experience.

  • I work mainly on the Web
  • I do not play games
  • I have been using Linux in various forms and editions since 1999.

If you have technically savvy friend, or really want to push and expand your knowledge of computers and highly configurable operating systems, I would definitely suggest giving Ubuntu a try on the extra computer you have lying around. My laptop is at least 3.5 years old, and not anywhere near as fast as my work laptop running XP. However, with Linux, the two are comparable in speed and performance.
Go on. Try it. I know you want to.

Web Performance: Nice Display. Now Show Me the Data.

Today’s Web interfaces are all about the Flash (literally). Smooth charting, cool effects, callouts to references — ways to try and simplify complex data collections.
Problem-solving and diagnosis requires a far deeper dive than the flashiest interface could ever provide, because it comes down to the numbers. The actual measurements that make up the flashy chart. If you look at the data used by a professional trader and a someone at home looking at stock charts, there is a substantial difference.
When you get down to that level of analysis, the interface becomes irrelevant. Any analyst worth her or his salary (or salt – same thing) can tell you more from a spreadsheet full of relevant numbers than they can from any pretty graphic. This is true in any field.
When do traders or Web performance analysts use pretty charts? When they have to explain complex issues to non-technical or non-specialist audiences. When these analysts work on solving the sticky problems faced in the everyday world, they always fall back on the numbers.
Web performance data consists of the same few components, regardless of which company is providing the data. In effect, beyond a few key pieces of information about how the measurement data is captured, all Web performance data is the same.
Just because the components that make up the data are the same does not guarantee that the data from two different providers is of the same quality. In an imaginary system, Web performance data from all the major providers could flow into a centralized repository and be transformed using an XSLT or some other mangler so that it would be indistinguishable in most cases to tell which firm was the source.
But a skilled analyst would quickly learn to recognize the data that can be trusted. That would be the data that quickly and accurately represented the issues he was trying to diagnose. The data that flowed with the known patterns of the Web site. The data that helped him do his job more effectively.
In the end, a pretty interface can go a long way to hide the quality of the data that is being represented. A shiny gloss on poor data does not make it better data. It is critical that the data that underlies that pretty chart is able to live up to the quality demands of the people who use it every day.
Selling the interface is selling the brand. Trust in the data builds the reputation.
Which one sold you when you chose your Web performance measurement provider?

Web Performance: The Strength of Corporate Silos

When I meet with clients, I am always astounded by the strength of the silos that exist inside companies. Business, Marketing, IT, Server ops, Development, Network ops, Finance. In the same house, sniping and plotting to ensure that their team has the most power.
Or so it seems to the outsider.
Organizations are all fighting over the same limited pool of resources. Also, the organization of the modern corporation is devised to create this division, with an emphasis on departments and divisions over teams with shared goals. But even the Utopian world of the cross-functional team is a false dream, as the teams begin to fight amongst themselves for the same meagre resources at a project, rather than a department level.
I have no solution for this rather amusing situation. Why is it amusing? As an outsider (at my clients and in my own company) I look upon these running battles as a sign of an organization that has lost its way. Where the need to be managed and controlled has overcome the need to create and accept responsibility.
Start-ups are the villages of the corporate world. Cooperation is high, justice is swift, and creative local solutions abound. Large companies are the Rio de Janeiro’s of the economy. Communication is so broken that companies have to run private phone exchanges to other offices. Interesting things have to be accomplished in the back-channel.
This has a severe effect on Web performance initiatives. Each group is constant battling to maintain control over its piece of the system, and ensure that their need for resources is fulfilled. That means one group wants to test K while another wants to measure Q and yet a third needs to capture data on E.
This leads to a substantial amount of duplication and waste when it comes to solving problems and moving the Web site forward. There is no easy answer for this. I have discussed the need for business and IT to find some level of understanding in previous posts, and have yet to find a company that is able break down the silos without reducing the control that the organization imposes.

Performance Alerting: Is Louis Gray the Canary in Your Coal Mine?

Yesterday in the Fast Company Live Fail Whale session [mention on Scoble’s blog here], Paul Bucheit of FriendFeed jokingly said that his company’s external alerting mechanism was Louis Gray.
I cringed when I read that, as the last people who should be letting you know you have an issue are your visitors or customers. I know that FriendFeed is new and may not have the ops team that Dorion Carroll and Technorati have developed over the years, but it is still critical.
You have done a lot as a company to build a brand. Don’t let your internal and external performance sully your reputation. There are a number of low-cost and free ways to watch your performance and alert you before things break.
Louis Gray is a great guy. But he is not an objective and reliable way to alert you when something is wrong with your site.

Why Do I Do This? – Educate, Guide, and Solve

This is the year I turn 40. As a result, I am looking back upon my life, my career, and trying to determine what I do best. If I could make my life into an elevator pitch, what would it be?
I decided to take what I do right now and see how low I could take it. What does my career boil down to?
It came down to three simple words: Educate, Guide, and Solve.
Each of these describes a facet of my career that provides a profound sense of personal satisfaction. Each of these is unique in that they give me the chance to share what I know with others, while still gaining new experiences in the process.
These three things are simultaneously selfish and selfless. I believe that in order to have a successful, productive, and fulfilling career, these three things need to serve as the foundation of everything I do.

Educate

I work in a small community of Web performance analysts. I have spent years training myself to see the world through the eyes of a Web site and how it presents to the outside world. As I taught myself to see the world this way, I was asked to share what I knew with others.
At first I did this through technical support and a training course I helped develop. Then I moved into consulting. I began to blog and comment on Web performance.
I needed to share what I knew with others, because it is meaningless to hoard all of your knowledge. While I am paid well as a consultant, it is also important that as many people as possible learn from me; and that doesn’t always need to sold to the highest bidder.

Guide

While some may say that there is no difference between Guide and Educate, I see a profound chasm between the two.
We have all been educated at some point. We have sat through classes and lectures and labs that convey information to us, and have provided the foundation for what we know.
But we have also encountered people who have shown us how to step beyond the information. They place the information that they are giving us in a larger context, allow us to see problems as a component of the whole.
That is what I strive to do. Not only do I want to give people the functional tools they need to interpret the data, I want them to then take that data and see the patterns in the data. I work closely with colleagues and customers, helping them see the patterns, understand how they tie to the things I say everyday, and then be able to solve this type of problem on their own the next time.
A guide is only useful when the path is not known. Once I have showed someone the path, I can return to my place, in the knowledge that they are as experienced on the path as I am.

Solve

Once you have shown someone what the data can do, how to see the patterns, it is critical that they have an understand how to take that pattern and change it for the better. Seeing a pattern and understanding its cause are only the beginning.
I can share my experiences, share how others have solved problems similar to this one, help them fix the problem.
And then be able to show that the problem is solved. An unmeasured, yet resolved problem, is meaningless.

Summary

This is the skeletal description of what I want to achieve in my career. I could expand these topics for a lot longer, but the question I propose is: What three concepts can you boil your career down to?

Branding v. Reputation: Idea Pairing

I spent some time today pairing ideas that separate Branding from Reputation. These came from my discussion of Branding being closed-source and Reputation being open-source [here].
It’s just a start, but it’s a start.