WcW007: About that storm…

September 17, 2007

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Web Conferencing Week

Previous post in this series, hopefully (I suppose) titled “Quiet before the storm,” we commented that it had been a considerably quiet summer.

MUDGE is here to announce that, despite the 75° temperatures as this is written at 8:15pm, summer is over.

We spent the entire day today “on location” covering three large scale meetings for three different internal clients.

Alas, MUDGE is employed by a company with not only global aspirations, but a substantial global footprint.

Today’s first meeting, client: our manufacturing division, was scheduled to accommodate third-shift workers coming off shift and first shift workers grabbing a meeting before clocking in, and of course many, many employees in Europe.

In Western Europe, the meeting began at 1:00pmCET.

In the U.S. Central time zone, tech call for this 6:00am meeting was 4:30am.

There oughta be a law.

But, there ain’t.

So we rolled out of bed at 3:10am.

It’s a wonder I wasn’t decapitated shaving.

But I got there. Good thing the sedan knows the way.

Meeting went fine; there were about 40 people in the room and about 25 connected on line.

Grabbed some breakfast (fortunately, this meeting, due to be repeated two more times throughout the day [although not on line] was actually located in half of a large company cafeteria), took down my equipment (two laptops, mini network hub, cables, telephone headset with transformer for monitoring the conference audio, etc.), and literally took it all downstairs to deploy absolutely all of it again in another conference room, where a significant department of our legal division was about to begin a marathon annual meeting.

This meeting had no global aspirations, as it was important enough that the global players had all flown in for the occasion, but one or two U.S. based individuals could not get away, and at the last minute (for my calendar, a request received two business days ahead is last minute) I was asked to provide service.

So let’s talk about what I do in such a meeting with all of that equipment.

A web conference is a lovely thing to behold, when it’s sitting on a desk in front of you.

Not so great if it’s projected onto a very large screen in a large conference room.

So we split the difference.

The presentation (usually the ubiquitous PowerPoint) is run completely independent of any network involvement off of a PC connected to the conference room projector. This delivers what we call the “Steven Spielberg experience” (you know, dark room, bright screen, maybe popcorn — and they were delivering popcorn to the second meeting as I was leaving!) for the local audience.

The web conference, with all of its exposed plumbing (participant list, chat area, hand raising buttons and all) is run in parallel at the back of the room, and is thus invisible to those physically present, who might after all have tomatoes to throw if displeased with the experience.

In larger setups, such as the manufacturing meeting, the presentation is also controlled by an a/v technician at the rear table, which can be a crowded place: audio technician with his microphone receivers, amps, mixers and telephone equipment; a/v tech controlling the slides, with two PCs (need a backup after all) connected to the projection system; often a representative of the speaker to supervise, especially if the presenter is, as was true at this early morning meeting, a corporate VP; and yours truly with two more PCs, the mini hub, cabling for both, etc.

Quite a scene.

The legal division meeting had an audio tech (lots of microphones in the room — our attorneys value every single word they utter) but the meeting was run from a PC at the podium, so my two PCs occupied the space next to the audio tech, a respected friend, without other interlopers.

Seemed a lot of effort though, for just two remote participants.

Just as well, since when we left that meeting SIX HOURS LATER it was still going on. Yeah, there were some breaks, and they did provide a snack and a cold cut lunch, so it wasn’t onerous.

And, one or two of the speakers (attorneys all) were almost entertaining.

Almost.

Had to leave early, as a previous commitment to my own IT division’s VP’s meeting took highest priority. Took down the PCs, the mini hubs, cables, etc. Packed it all away, trundled out to the car to drive to the north end of campus.

The third meeting of the day began a mere nine hours after the first one officially began.

For the third time today the complete setup was deployed. Dual PCs, hub, cabling — you’ve got the drill.

This one was a low budget affair. No audio tech after it began, just an ordinary Polycom speakerphone at the podium, and a portable projector in the middle of the room (a satellite cafeteria as it happened, very convenient for vital pre-meeting hydration and snacking) substituting for the built in equipment of the earlier meetings.

But it also went well, with more than 70 people connected, primarily in the U.S., as expected for a 3:00pmCT start. The previous Friday morning’s version of the same meeting in the same locale had accommodated one of the larger groups, with nearly 300 remote participants, including a bunch from overseas.

So I guess I’ve been leading a charmed life, with four critical meetings across two business days proceeding without incident.

Meanwhile, our server environment has experienced nothing but incidents. Our almost-but-not-quite-productionized past is overtaking us.

But whatever shrapnel thrown up by server failures missed me, and considering the visibility of the meetings, for that I am most grateful.

So, approximately 12 hours after arriving, and for the third time, we packed up laptops, mini network hubs, cables, extension cords etc., and dragged our bags out to the parking lot to head home.

Sometimes it can storm while it’s 80° and sunny.

But, a good day-and-a half, all things considered.

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE


WcW006: Quiet before the storm

August 29, 2007

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Web Conferencing Week

Late summer doldrums here at the Heart of Corporate America (HCA, not my employer’s real name).

One might hope that the lull in formal activities would provide some time for reflection, and so in fact it has.

As I’ve explained before (here and here and here, for example), as do most people in corporate surroundings, I wear a multitude of hats:

  • member of the IT technical team supporting collaborative tools (email, instant messaging, web conferencing);
  • teacher of our instant messaging and web conferencing tools to our internal business clients (more than 3,500 served in five years, thank you very much!);
  • “manager of the end-user experience” as defined by our vendor’s on-site support manager — while not in the direct flow of help desk activities (at least not yet), the canniest of my 3,500 students, and their underlings and bosses, know me well enough to contact me if they have issues, and since no one on the team, or in the support arena in general has anywhere the amount of experience with our tools as have I (over six hundred classes, all conducted using web conferences, plus countless mission-critical meetings facilitated throughout the enterprise), the answer to my correspondents’ questions is probably at the ready.

As teacher, I’m always running 8-10 classes per month, although during the summer average attendance is way down.

As end-user experience manager (an honorific provided by a suck-up vendor: remember, grunt that MUDGE is, he’s manager of no one) the phone just isn’t ringing very often, as people wrap up their summers before Labor Day provides the symbolic halt to all things sunscreen.

As member of the technical team, decisions are pending and work is progressing.

HCA uses for its instant messaging and web conferencing requirements IBM Lotus Sametime.

HCA has long been a Lotus shop: Its Lotus Notes product has long been handling enterprise email and its rapid application environment supports thousands of database applications and has done so here for more than 15 years. So the choice of Sametime was not a surprise in that light.

And, indeed, Sametime is a common choice for collaboration among large corporations, seeking the rock-solid enterprise grade solution similar and related to the rock-solid technology that so well supports the earlier applications: email and databases.

The best web conferencing and instant messaging choice today?

An excellent question that is not yet on the table.

Like many issues in corporate technology, the problems faced are multi-dimensional: hardware, software, the quantity of personnel applied to the task (fortunately, personnel quality is not an issue, among the talented administrators and architects that I am fortunate to work among).

Instant messaging and web conferencing at HCA exists not as the result of an organized deployment campaign, but rather more like viral marketing. It grew out of a pilot (when I joined the company, about 5½ years ago in a related but not directly connected IT position, there were nominally 800 accounts).

And the pilot became an “extended pilot” which gradually became a production system, without ever really becoming a true, bullet proof enterprise-grade product, at least as implemented here at HCA.

Insufficient servers (both in capability and in numbers), and insufficient personnel (as above, just the numbers are insufficient — the people are champions [and they won’t read this, so trust me, I’m not sucking up!]) to keep order in an operation that has grown to more than 26,000 accounts.

This number represents less than half of the available client base, because no one knows how to handle the establishment of the necessary 30,000 new accounts efficiently, much less want to confront the reality of insufficient hardware and personnel to handle the existing organically grown client base.

And, finally, the software. HCA upgraded (quite tardily) to Sametime version 6.5 about 21 months ago, and our team has been working on upgrading to the current standard version 7.5 for nearly that long (remember the tardy part).

HCA never never never never wants to be the early adopter of anyone’s hardware or software. The 100th adopter, maybe, so we delay, by time-honored policy, both IT and fiscal, until (hopefully most of) the bugs are out.

But we really need to move on this upgrade (the 2005 upgrade from long-used version 3.1 to version 6.5 was a marketing nomenclature upgrade — to the end users it looks and acts as if it’s version 3.2!), and the delay has not been HCA’s sole doing. And version 7.5 has many new and attractive and desirable features; it would be a true upgrade.

But we’re not there yet.

And therein lies an interesting story.

But this long story will need to be continued next time, because…

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE


mm111: Charmr: The Apple aesthetic meets the insulin pump

August 21, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

Among the zillions of sites that this observer doesn’t get to nearly frequently enough, Ars Technica stands out.

arstechnica

Charmr: The Apple aesthetic meets the insulin pump

By Thomas Wilburn | Published: August 17, 2007 – 03:16AM CT

Editor’s Note: Hosted by user experience firm Adaptive Path, UX Week 2007 brought together application programmers, graphic artists, and web designers from around the world to discuss the challenges of everything from evolving Web 2.0 applications to redesigned pharmacy bottles. The event featured keynotes from professionals at Milton Glaser, One Laptop Per Child, and Nokia, as well as presentations from eBay, Yahoo!, and CNN, among others. From Washington, D.C., Thomas Wilburn provides an excerpt from the UX Week sessions.

One example of “sweet” design: Adaptive Path, organizers of the UX Week conference on user experience, showed off concept images for an easier-to-use insulin pump Tuesday. Dubbed the “Charmr” for its charm bracelet-like display component, the device would be a drastic change from the bulky pumps currently in use—a difference that designers highlighted by naming the conference session “Wear It During Sex.”

As one who has a loved one who wears an insulin pump, this one just jumped out at me. And note above the reference to One Laptop Per Child, another point of interest here.

And, in my professional life, it’s all about the user experience. Recently, I was (surprisingly to me) characterized the “manager of the web conferencing user experience” by an objective observer (who I’d never thought was that impressed with what I do).

The rest of the story is short:

[Per L-HC’s reformed process, please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Charmr: The Apple aesthetic meets the insulin pump

Someone’s got to build this thing, pronto!

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE


WcW005: Four-Hundred-Thirty-One!

August 13, 2007

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Web Conferencing Week

Once again, real life events overtake sketchy plans. Isn’t life like that, though? (Now I’ll need to find the quotation about life being the thing that happens while you’re planning your life.)

Got lots of interesting clipjoints to share; got a professional conference in Boston to write up (for my boss, as well as for faithful reader).

But this is too good to pass by.

I do web conferencing. You’ve more than figured that out. As a grunt in a corporate IT department that supports various collaboration technologies for a global enterprise, technologies whose common bond is its vendor, IBM, I am the informal “manager” of the customer experience for our web conferencing and instant messaging tools, IBM Lotus Sametime.

As I’ve explained, in this role I teach the use of our tools eight to 10 times per month, having developed the courseware, and delivering the classes using the web conferencing tool. One learns while using it.

Another hat worn is that of electronic meeting facilitator. As in those only semi-irritating BASF advertisements, I don’t run the meetings, I provide the technological expertise so the meetings run better. And that’s the role I was playing today, when the routine suddenly became extraordinary.

Our diversified enterprise has a tentpole product, and much of the work I’ve done over the past three years has been in support of that product’s US field sales training organization.

Today’s meeting was not another in the regular series, but rather was put together rapidly over the past few days as a new strategic initiative needed to be launched right now!

Ordinarily two meetings are presented with identical content and presenters: one at 9am or so for the central and eastern time zones; the other at 4pm or so for the western half of the country. Demographics have caused the morning meetings to routinely be quite large for our technology, often in excess of 150 connections and sometimes 200 or more. The afternoon sessions are about one-third the size of the morning ones.

Now, put this in the perspective of the technology and our experience. First, the technology: Last week at our vendor sponsored conference, several of the technical experts supporting Sametime (including the wizard who helped write the original code before Lotus bought it) confirmed that one server is designed to handle 1,000 concurrent users, with no more than 200 in any one meeting.

Now, our experience: In a typical month with several thousand scheduled meetings, more than 20 separately connected participants (and of course, some connections may represent entire conference rooms of people, but we’re talking physical connections) in a meeting is good sized, and meetings of more than 100 connections occur only two or three times per month if that, one of them no doubt being that month’s tentpole field sales morning events.

The largest meeting I’ve ever seen, and without false modesty I can say with some degree of certainty that if I haven’t seen it directly, or consulted with clients about it, it probably didn’t happen, was a division’s “all hands” meeting a couple of years ago in which I noted 296 (global!) connections at the peak, a meeting which I ran and which as a result went smoothly.

Why the emphasis on the number of connections? Web conferencing is a particularly network sensitive application, and in our current version of the software, the responsiveness of the conference rests in great measure on the number of connections, and the quality of the network through which the connections are made.

So, today’s meeting, where in order to cover all the bases (much behind the scenes work with management required to launch this complex new initiative) someone decided that the meeting should not be duplicated, but rather the entire organization should gather at noon, to get everything started without time zone delay.

Frankly, I hadn’t paid much attention to the ramifications, but as the troops gathered in the small conference room from where we originated the “broadcast,” and the field started logging in, I began to be a bit excited, concerned but excited. 100 was passed; 200 went by; 300 and the concern started to overwhelm the excitement.

By the time the sales vice president kicked off the meeting a few minutes past noon, nearly 400 people were connected. Remember network sensitivity? These were field sales people connecting via broadband from home offices, or managers in small local offices connected to the enterprise network through a secured enterprise VPN (jargon alert: Virtual Private Network).

Then, as I was quietly marveling over the still growing size of the meeting, the dire message suddenly flashed on my screen (and of course on the big screen in the conference room to which my laptop was connected): Disconnected. With the vice president seated and emoting right next to me.

[I’ve indicated before that my technologist colleagues wouldn’t have my job for any compensation, due to this up front and personal exposure when things (inevitably) go wrong.]

As I routinely do in small less equipped conference rooms, I had set up a powered mini-Ethernet hub for the benefit of others in the room; I keep this mainly for my own use, when I have one connection and two computers. Today I had one computer, but going in I wasn’t certain if one of the sales organization functionaries in the room was also going to need a connection to our meeting, and two or three others had connected to the hub.

Anyway, this less than year old piece of plastic clothed electronics chose that precise moment to crap out. Remember Murphy’s law?

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Of course my first thought was that the meeting itself had been clobbered, that the server, which had experienced its first serious failure in over four months just the previous work day (during a class I was teaching that was truncated as one unhappy result), had died under the load.

No, it was the mini-hub; the meeting on the server itself, still growing, was fine, although without yours truly connected it wasn’t going anywhere, since one of the little details that can tip a meeting into the success column is that such a large meeting is locked for all but its Moderator. In other words, in a Moderated meeting, no one but the authenticated moderator can push any of the buttons to move the presentation slides. (For completists out there, the other choice is Collaboration, in which all connectors can push all of the buttons — a total no-no for a meeting larger than five.)

But at least the meeting was running. While the Veep vamped for a few moments, I pulled the network cable out of the back of the now worthless hub, plugged it directly into my laptop, performed the three-finger salute on Internet Explorer to kill it so I could restart a new instance (fortunately I didn’t have to reboot, a much lengthier process on my elderly laptop), and in a couple of tense minutes (it’s tough not to pay attention to the man behind the curtain when I’m sitting right at the conference table NEXT TO THE VP and everything going on on my PC is projected for all to see!) we were back in business. Whew.

From there it was nearly anticlimactic. In the end, I spotted 431 simultaneous connections at the peak, an absolutely stunning performance, 135 more than the previous record. Once my connection was restored, the meeting went smooth as glass, again because of network issues not always a given regardless of the number of connections. Amazing, and wonderful.

Now there are wonderful commercial alternatives out there, even for our internal people whose requirements don’t always fit the hammer I wield. But for this meeting alone, the capability of using our in house tool allowed my clients to save at least $2,500; in a billion dollar enterprise a drop in the bucket of course, but I’m a shareholder too.

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE


WcW004: Telepresence: Finally, videoconferencing that works

August 1, 2007

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Web Conferencing Week

I do web conferencing. But you might be surprised that videoconferencing is often what my web conference supplements — right there in the conference room.

Videoconferences predate web conferences by many years; although the state of the art is still as primitive as it is, one reluctantly admits, for web conferencing.

It’s all about the bandwidth.

Let’s take a look at this recent story from Computerworld, regarding what appears to be a pricey, but better, mousetrap for the videoconference process.

[Per L-HC’s reformed process, please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Telepresence: Finally, videoconferencing that works

computerworld

Telepresence: Finally, videoconferencing that works

It’s still not cheap, but telepresence technology takes videoconferencing a giant step forward. And did we mention that it’s really cool?

John Dickinson

July 31, 2007 (Computerworld) — If necessity really were the mother of invention, enterprises and small businesses would by now have highly functional, standardized videoconferencing and collaboration technology at their disposal. Instead, travel across the continent and around the world remains the dominant collaboration paradigm, despite the ever-increasing pressure of time-consuming security requirements and budget-killing airfare and hotel prices.

Back in the 1960s, the old AT&T Co.’s Western Electric Group demonstrated its Picturephone to a doubting world, and the world has remained doubtful ever since. That’s because videoconferencing systems developed since then have remained expensive and unpredictable, gadgets that usually delivered small, fuzzy, herky-jerky video images, often uncoordinated with people’s voices because of communications latency and unreliability.

When the Internet came along, there was hope that Web conferencing might fill the void, even though it lacks the collaborative impact of video images, relying solely on shared documents, especially presentations. Web conferencing has not been very satisfactory, requiring reserved bandwidth, separate telephone hookups for sound and notoriously troublesome desktop technologies.

[Per L-HC’s reformed process, please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Telepresence: Finally, videoconferencing that works

I ashamedly plead guilty to all of the above limitations of web conferencing. We don’t use reserved bandwidth in our instance, and we’ve finally gotten some priority (called Quality of Service) over competing internal traffic, but bandwidth, the potential sound quality issues of the accompanying telephone conference that still is required for our web conferences due to flaky VOIP (a subject of a future rant, I’m sure) — all of this adds up to a lot of compromise.

Telepresence technology is proposed as a spendy answer to the limits of the primitive state of current videoconferencing, and may well obviate the need for my specialty, web conferencing.

Telepresence configurations can use as few as one HDTV screen or as many as 16. Screens are positioned to be at eye level when local conferees are seated, and the images on the side-by-side screens are “stitched” together so that viewers feel they’re looking at one very wide screen. Speakers are positioned so that the sound appears to emanate from the mouth of the person at the remote site who is talking, not from the center of the table or some random location elsewhere in the room.

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Okay so the illustration, provided by one of the vendors, is somewhat idealized, but HOW COOL IS THAT?!

It costs how much?
Telepresence is an expensive technology, and only enterprise customers with large travel budgets can afford it. Once installed, telepresence systems are essentially free to operate, but it’s the installation that’ll get you.

A single-screen Cisco TelePresence system can be installed for $79,000 and a three-screen system for $299,000 per room, according to David Hsieh, Cisco’s director of marketing management. You have to multiply that by the number of rooms planned for the telepresence network.

Teliris VirtuaLive system costs are similar, with a single-screen room costing $60,000 and a four-screen room coming in at $250,000. Those costs include access to the Teliris dedicated network.

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It’s expensive, but large enterprises, such as the one that employs yours truly has significant travel budgets, important outposts all over the globe, and the numbers just might work.

“Think of it as a nice substitute for a corporate jet,” says IDC analyst Nora Freedman. That comment is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but Forrester’s Dewing thinks it is realistic. “Figure that at Cisco, they’ve cut their corporate travel budget by 6% by using their own TelePresence systems internally,” says Dewing, who is familiar with Cisco’s internal usage pattern. “I don’t know the exact number, but that’s a pretty big hit.”

The factor that remains the greatest limiter to success with this otherwise ferociously attractive technology, is as with web conferencing I’ve learned the hard way these past five years, the state of the network.

The network is key
Networking has always been the Achilles’ heel of traditional videoconferencing, and it’s still a concern with telepresence. If the video isn’t smooth and perfectly coordinated with the audio in real time, the whole system devolves to being just like traditional videoconferencing. That’s important, says Ferguson. “With traditional videoconferencing, you can only sit there for about an hour. But with telepresence technology, a two- or three-hour meeting is quite reasonable,” he says.

As a result, one vendor runs their systems on a proprietary network, increasing the opportunity for a successful connection, but obviously representing an increment over using existing corporate network facilities.

Here’s how it hits conventional web conferencing:

[Teliris’] Telepresence Gateway can also communicate with traditional videoconference technologies, such as those offered by Polycom, and Web conferencing technologies such as WebEx and Microsoft’s LiveMeeting. Teleris also offers WebConnect, a Web-based telepresence product that enables a conference participant who is unable to be at a VirtuaLive-equipped site to join a conference. As Dewing points out, you don’t need expensive telepresence for applications like telecommuting, but linking traditional systems into telepresence systems can give those applications a boost.

I’m certainly aching to learn how soon our vendor, IBM/Lotus will provide a communications interface to this awesome tool for its Sametime web conferencing tool.

Because, no one has mentioned it to me (crawling around in the trenches as I do), but I’m certain one or more of those fancy installations is either planned, or already installed somewhere in the enterprise I call home.

And, let me explain why web conferencing tools even belong in the conversation about videoconferencing.

You still need to see the presentation, and a web conference provides a very elegant solution. At some of our organization’s highest level meetings, with video going out to several important sites, I’m sitting near the audio and video techs in the room sending out the slides via web conference, because they’re much easier to read in a medium optimized for presentations. The standard procedure is to use one of the screens in the receiving videoconference rooms for the web conference feed.

Notice the illustrations above: people — big beautiful high definition people — but not documents. That’s the job of web conferencing, and I want in on that telepresence action. Soon!

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE

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WcW003: Sometimes, it’s all about teaching

July 28, 2007

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Web Conferencing Week

As filled with unusualities as was last week, this past week… was not.

The main theme was teaching. We wrote about this facet of my career quite extensively in mm018 and I don’t feel compelled to rehash here. It’s a significant portion of my responsibilities here at HCA (Heart of Corporate America remember, not its real name).

And, like all things everywhere, it either dies or changes. I vote for change.

For more than a year, we’ve been attempting to turn over some of the basic courses to an expert in our division’s training department. To that end I’ve provided annotated course material, one on one instruction, the opportunity to practice. I am this good teacher, right?

It’s been a bust. Last year the explanation was that the designated person didn’t start that year with this goal in her list of goals, and thus was unable to devote the time and attention required to mastering the material.

This year began with this turnover on this person’s the goals list, but after a kick-off meeting in February, and prompt transmission of updated curriculum to answer some concerns, the person has simply not responded to my queries for nearly three months.

I’ve been teaching this material for so long I suppose I have underestimated its challenges. You simultaneously are teaching a collaboration tool while smoothly utilizing that tool to deliver the lessons. And in order to teach effectively, you are attempting to interact with your students using a very limited sensory array, just their voices and whatever of the conference’s tools they are able to begin to understand.

Pretty demanding, upon reflection, and I believe totally overwhelming for the training department’s MIA “expert.”

So, Plan B. Our vendor has a partnership with an organization in the UK that has produced some workmanlike Computer Based Training (CBT) modules that I’ve persuaded our department to purchase on an enterprise basis. These don’t provide the HCA-specific content that so richly fills my curriculum, but as our IT division’s underlying software philosophy is to customize purchased applications as little as possible, the generic CBT should be quite sufficient, at least for the basics.

The idea always was to remove some of the repetitive burden of teaching the “level 100” coursework (originally to a live instructor), leaving the advanced curriculum, as well as individualized instruction for higher level personnel to yours truly.

So, this week: mostly teaching. The scheduled three classes, two of them with that 3:00pm start time (to accommodate West Coast participants, a few of whom, I’m thankful to note, were present) that is supremely wearing on me, as this type of teaching seems to demand an energy level more difficult to tap 7½ hours into my business day.

The week’s one conference facilitation gig (my other public responsibility — and hey, it’s July!) turned out also to be about teaching, although that was not the intention of that meeting’s leader, nor mine.

Arrived at the designated conference room a few minutes earlier than the routine 30-minute lead time called for, to find a dark room, arranged poorly to accommodate my gear, and without a built in projector for the expected live audience, or a speakerphone for the conference.

Then the leader arrived, simultaneously with the caterer with a snack array (odd for an 11:00am meeting), which mystified that leader, who by the way arrived without a portable projector.

Her assistant apparently had misconstrued the purpose and intent of the meeting, which it turned out could have been much more conveniently conducted from the leader’s office, since there was no expected audience in the room; the presentation was meant to be transmitted solely to a conference room at a facility in Massachusetts.

Okay, so I walked down to the nearby Audio-Visual crew office, to request that a technician deliver and install a speakerphone (which had not been ordered by that assistant), and we determined that as it was just the presenter and me that we could forego a projector, and simply sit together at one of the 12 tables in the room and work off of my laptop.

So, with much conversation about the assistant’s misinterpretation of the leader’s instructions, which concluded with my promise to forward said person (a former student, who apparently assumed that she understood web conferencing because she took my course; well in her defense the two of us had lots of popcorn and canned soda available!) a document we created a couple of years ago and which is posted on our website titled “Successful Sametime Conferences,” a checklist which calls out key requirements like projectors and speakerphones.

But as we waited for the 11:00am conference start, the discussion turned to what she does: Corporate Learning and Development, and her group’s increasing need to respond to the globalization of our employer. It is a small measure of the silos permeating HCA that she had no idea of what I do (the teaching part I mean) or how I deliver it. And we’re both part of same broad corporate organization.

Meanwhile, we sat on the phone, and in the web conference, patiently awaiting our Massachusetts audience to join us. 11:00am goes by, 11:05, 11:10, nada.

She gets up and uses the house phone outside the room to contact a different assistant, who phoned back shortly thereafter to report that the HR manager at the other end who had requested the presentation, and had called more than once to confirm that it was on the schedule, had suddenly that morning decided that her team had higher priorities that day and had unilaterally canceled the session, apparently without notifying anyone outside of Massachusetts. Ouch.

And, while my direct customer is not the subject of this next Life Lesson, her customers certainly qualify:

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So, a lot of furor for nothing. But, a good outcome, selfishly for me, and perhaps for her organization, since I was told that I will be asked to an upcoming meeting of the Learning and Development management team to discuss my globe-spanning technology (and perhaps more?).

What on earth took them so long?

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE


WcW001: Web Conferencing Week

July 20, 2007

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Web Conferencing Week

Trying something different here at Left-Handed Complement — back to my roots, or at least my original intentions for this space, to regularly explore my professional existence. I have previously written about what I do, and my very recent, quite futile aspirations toward management, but it’s been sporadic at best. Not my intention when I started.

This is an attempt to apply some discipline — maybe most work weeks haven’t recently seemed very interesting to me (although the one just completed was altogether not routine), but I believe that what I do is quite unusual in any corporation, small or large, so I’ll explore those unusualities (have I just coined a MUDGE-ism?) in this space, I hope every week or more often.

And, for you completists out there, clicking the “Web Conferencing” tag cloud on the sidebar will catch you up.

The tent-poles for many weeks are the large scale conferences (or even small, but critical ones) for which I provide consultative, or substantive services. This week was busier in that respect than many lately.

For one thing, I assisted a high level HR manager as he ran a focus group with a group of administrative assistants for one of HCA’s (remember, Heart of Corporate America, not it’s real name) most hidebound and traditional divisions, its corporate attorneys. In the year 2007, I must admit it was jarring to hear more than one of these women (and they were all women) refer to themselves as secretaries. Is it any wonder they had a lot to complain about?

My role: to make the HR manager’s slides available to the several administrative assistants connecting from outside the navel of the known universe (the heart of the Heart, as it were), including one humorous (or perhaps I simply mean good humored) person in Europe for whom the meeting started after 5pmCET (Central European Time, did you know?), and for her didn’t finish until about 7pm.

This meeting was both easier, and more complex for me than usual. Easier because there were few enough remote participants, and the slide content was simple enough, that the PowerPoint slide deck could simply be “Screen Shared,” so that those in the meeting room and those connecting remotely watched exactly the same presentation at the same time.

Complex, because I had arrived at the conference center first (always my goal) and found the room dark, furnished correctly but otherwise unprepared electrically and electronically. The electronic podium had been pushed out of the way to accommodate a meeting that I had worked a day and a half earlier, never replaced in position and thus was totally inert.

I dug up an A/V tech, who found a bunch of thick cables in the floor, and (I hoped) matching ones curled up in the podium that needed to be connected, a job that took this stranger (and I thought by this time I knew most of the guys) about 20 minutes. There had to be 30 colored wires with metal connectors for each end among the cabled groups; glad he wasn’t color blind!

I offered the manager the opportunity to sit at a table closer to his group, so as a result I stood by the podium to advance the presentation slides at his command, which I must admit got a little old after 90 minutes (actually, between arriving early, and the meeting starting about 25 minutes late due to the above mentioned technical snafu I was standing for well over two hours, not my favorite way to spend a late morning, especially a late morning under-snacked and under-hydrated). Such is show business.

But the wonderful news, as I related the high points to my manager later that day, was that the technical issues were A/V ones, not web conferencing ones. Whew! Our system has been behaving itself of late, and I don’t take that for granted, working as I do out there among my customers.

My colleagues on the team are, by training and by inclination, telephone support types. Let’s face it, most IT professionals take up the career because they are introverts who are more comfortable relating to hardware and software than the people who consume their work product.

The thought of encountering a real live client having trouble with our technology makes them sick to their stomach, and I’m not really exaggerating — they’ve told me so countless times. So the fact that I go out there so frequently putting my own ego, as well as my team’s reputation on the line, in person, confounds them.

It’s what I do.

But as always, it was fascinating to pay attention to the content of the meeting. This little job of mine provides a very unusual opportunity to be a fly on the wall for some most interesting sessions, and as touched on above this was one of those.

I guess HCA’s corporate law department is stuck in some 1950’s time warp, as distinct from “public” law firms which I have to feel are somewhat more up to date (one person recently arrived from one reported that for the work she and most her colleagues do at HCA, a public firm would describe and compensate them as paralegals, not secretaries).

The attorneys like it this way, I’m sure (more than one of the women described their bosses (male and female) as “needy,” for example working in longhand [on legal pads, I’m sure] and claiming not to know even the basics of their computers), but I don’t understand how the assistants can stand it.

By the way, the IT building I work in must have close to 600 employees; maybe eight of them are administrative assistants, and I’m sure that the bean counters think that this number is twice as large as necessary. We are hardly needy — we do for ourselves.

What I wanted to say to this group of put-upon legal division employees (and of course I didn’t since flies on the wall don’t say a word, ever) was, be thankful you work for whom you do; any other department and there would be half or fewer of you!

And that’s just one of the several meetings and or events this week, and I find that reflecting on it has spent my Friday evening energy, but we’ll renew this effort later this weekend, I promise.

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE

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mm067: By the way, I do earn a living!

July 14, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

I realize that it has been some time since I broached the topic of my career, and what I do to afford the leisure to pursue this blogging thing. Lot’s of Bloomberg here; just not in this post, sorry!

Faithful reader will remember that what I do is web conferencing, an increasingly useful tool that should be adopted by more and more corporate entities due to its transformative capabilities.

My employer in the Heart of Corporate America (HCA) is a grand old conservative organization, proud of its financial performance measured over generations (a quarterly dividend paid without interruption since before my late father was born!). It seldom moves quickly where infrastructure technology is concerned, rightfully (I admit with admiration and affection that I have come to see it as rightfully) expending whatever fleet instincts it possesses towards the tooth of its tiger, not its tail.

Which is a long explanation for the fact that HCA has only been using web conferencing for a few years, mainly the five-plus years that I have been there. That’s an interesting tale. I found myself “at liberty” after my previous employer, having entered into a “merger of equals” disappeared utterly, as far as most of its human capital is concerned.

I had been part of a vigorous corporate information technology department of 155 people, getting real work done, largely supporting a marketing organization that had just launched a blockbuster product. Our “partners” swept in shortly after the “merger,” and told us there were jobs for each and every one. 1,000 miles away. Five of us took them up on their kind offer; the rest of us took a severance package.

So there I was, with a lengthy résumé, but not much current IT experience, but what was current was useful: Documentum, a complex but growing document management system, and Lotus Notes, the collaboration environment beloved of many large corporations for its rock-solid email system as well as its rapid database development feature.

The Documentum piece got me a 4-month consulting gig at HCA, doomed to frustration as the hiring manager, whose vision had created the opening I filled, cheerfully moved onward and upward (and to another campus) about a week after I reported for duty.

After a two-month interval, I was interviewed for a business analyst position by another team in the same division, and what got me the consulting gig, six months long but renewed several times, was tucked away on page two of the position description: experience with telephone and video conferencing.

I had that experience. Our Documentum team at my previous employer had outposts in several cities in the US and Europe, and, while I didn’t create the bi-weekly telephone conferences (and the occasional video conference) that the head of the corporate team had established, I did a great deal of the heavy lifting there: I published the invitations, agendas, prompt minutes; and led most of the meetings with a relaxed and welcoming style that created esprit de corps among people who had never met. We weathered the Y2K circus with ease, thanks to the cooperation and collaborative successes engendered in those bi-weekly (in 1999, weekly) sessions.

Yes, I could talk the talk about conferencing. And almost immediately after I started, additional to the conventional Lotus Notes business analysis work I had been assigned, I was asked to go see the division’s key contact for a web conferencing pilot then underway, using Lotus’ product called Sametime. The manager in question said, “thanks for coming over. Have a seat at my desk. Here is hard copy of the presentation. We’re about to demonstrate the tool in a web conference. Why don’t you lead it?”

With that sudden immersion, I never looked back. Indeed, I have led countless demonstrations since (with a good deal more assurance than that first, sweaty session). I have taught over 3,000 students the tool, all using the technology to teach the technology, in order to provide tactile, experiential learning, key for adult learners. I have surveys from 130 of the most recent of those classes, going back nearly 18 months, and my composite score is 4+ on a 1-5 scale. I facilitate key meetings, remotely from my desk as well as on location in offices and conference rooms on-site and offsite. And yes, both my corporate email signature, and my business card contain the title, “Mr. Sametime.”

My passion for collaboration created a niche for me in HCA, and by the way, has led to significant cost savings. Using IBM Lotus methodology for an analysis earlier this year, I made a believable case for $5 million in travel avoided last year; a number I think is conservative. HCA has over 60,000 employees in 130 nations around the world. Imagine not having to fly 16 regional managers from Latin America to Miami for training just as effectively delivered and received in one’s office! Just eliminating cross-campus and cross-county travel to meetings large and small in and around Corporate HQ must provide hundreds of hours of productivity savings daily.

Finally, I try to keep my passion pure, as it were. Yesterday, I was asked to participate in a bi-weekly telephone conference with a group of field-based high powered advance-degree technical managers, as there were questions about the web conferencing tool they were concerned about. The upshot? I cheerfully directed them to a third-party outside resource. Yes, a more expensive solution than my in-house one. But in their field application, the outside resource is, I believe, the more effective answer. As I told them, just because I have a (most wonderful) hammer, not every client’s problem is a nail.

Finally, I did apply for my soon to retire manager’s position, as I previously reported I would. And, as is their wont, HR never communicated one word to me beyond the automated receipt of the on-line application (don’t you dare call us — we’ll call you).

I’m not management material at HCA, that is obvious, and of course I’m disappointed, but as I said previously, I do love what I do, and where I do it. Some would ask: why on earth would you screw that up by moving into bean-counting-obsessed management?

Why, indeed.

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE

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mm043: Rip van Mudge awakes!

July 1, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

This blog, having just become active less than 60 days ago, is the symptom of a quickening of interest in life, in the world and its politics, in my career. especially, that is most unexpected, even unlikely, at my (corporate reference only!) advanced age.

Don’t misread me, I’ve always been ferociously interested in my career, especially the part where the electronic deposit to my bank occurs like clockwork every second Thursday. And especially the global collaboration part, in my position as evangelist for our enterprise’s web conferencing tool, a role I’ve played to rave reviews for more than four years.

But, the career development part here in the Heart of Corporate America (HCA, remember, not it’s real name!) I’ve left dormant.

One, because I’ve been there and done that. At times in my life I’ve carried the big titles like corporate controller and vice president operations, often in lieu of deserved remuneration. But they were more than titles, and I have frequently had occasion to exercise my management muscles as well as my (earned at Hard Knox U, class of 20??) finance competencies.

Second, because, I’m not sure I need the bigger aggravation that comes with the bigger bucks.

Third, because as I might have mentioned and that I really need to make clear, I really, really love what I do, and I’m pretty good at it as a result. Why move out of a comfort zone?

You might well ask what bee stung my dozing nose (how did R.v.W. wake up anyway?) and caused me to think these previously unthinkable thoughts? A year ago the program manager for the technologies I support became our people manager also, a well deserved promotion for her. I’ve always found her highly competent yet easy to work with, and the role expansion went quite smoothly. She (like most everybody else I work with) is some years younger than I, so for that as well as all the other expected reasons it came as quite a shock to her team earlier this year when she announced her imminent retirement.

She’s served the HCA for an order of magnitude longer than have I, and despite her relatively young age and good health (of course, from their point of view just because of those things!), she and her husband are taking the very good money and running far away from corporate and metropolitan life.

Well they finally got around to posting her job this past week, and damned if I don’t think that I’m highly qualified to fill the position. Yeah, the management money (not quite high enough for the super bonus status that department directors receive, but I figure it’s got to represent an increase) would be welcomed, but more to the point I think that I’ve lately figured out that I also once again have the stomach for the management aggravation.

So, come morning, I’m going for it. Have been working today polishing up my résumé (something I had rather hoped not to have to do quite so soon! Go figure…) and a suitable cover letter.

And I’m back in harness in the most important job all of us have ever done professionally — applying for a new job.

This will be no tip-in folks:

  • Issue: I’m not your likely candidate as I’m an “individual role player” rather than an experienced (at HCA) manager. Response: I do have extensive operations, people and financial management experience. There is a world outside the HCA, and I’ve had some success managing there.
  • Issue: As a person probably eight years older than the retiring(!) incumbent I’m going to face (at least I would expect to face, even if employment law forces them into inference rather than overt speech) questions about my anticipated plans in that direction. Response: Way back in mm001 I discussed my retirement story. Place me in this position and they’ve got me for at least 15 more years — i.e., as long as they can stand me!
    • Issue: Finally, what I do in my chosen field, supporting global web conferencing by teaching it (over 3,200 satisfied customers and counting, thank you very much) and facilitating mission critical meetings, is unique to the enterprise (if not the world!) and there is no likely person nearby with the passion, skills and talent, moreover the interest to backfill my position, whereas experienced managers are a dime a dozen here at the corporate HQ of HCA. Response: I’ve worked with this team for over four years, with the underlying technology for five. I well know: the technology; our technical experts (and have their respect I believe) who are my teammates; our enterprise colleagues and our vendor with which entities we must interact closely; and finally our customers (because of my role and how I perform it no one knows them better). And I’m a training specialist — put someone in place to replace me and just watch how fast I get her up to speed. That I have done before here.

So, for all of the above issues I consider this a long shot indeed. But it appears that, despite my own expectations, I’m ready for new challenges, even if the likely increased compensation is itself compensated by increased pummeling that comes with the management role. But, newly awakened as I am, damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE

Quote of the Day:
Men achieve a certain greatness unawares, when working to another aim.
–Ralph Waldo Emerson

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mm025: Tsar of All the Electronic Meetings?

June 21, 2007

MUDGE’s Musings

So, I have to say that I laughed out loud as I read this article in The Economist (glossy hard-copy version) at lunch today. LOL is easy to type, but in my case, seldom occurs when I’m reading, especially alone. But, there it is, I laughed. Does this tickle you the same way?

Absurd titles

Tsarstruck

Jun 14th 2007
From The Economist print edition

It is time to let the Russian royal family rest in peace

Peter Schrank

WHEN, a few years ago, word came that British bird lovers anxious about the decline of the house sparrow had appointed a sparrow tsar, it seemed that the tsar vogue must have reached its zenith. France already had a crime tsar, London a traffic tsar, Japan a banking tsar, the European Union a foreign-policy tsar, and America had tsars for adoption, baseball, B-movies, manufacturing, record labels, you name it. No one, however, could outdo the sparrow tsar, or so you might think. Surely he would prove to be not so much the reductio ad absurdum as the dernier cri, the ne plus ultra in the once-rarefied realm of tsardom? But no. The latest newcomer, unless one has been added since you started this paragraph, is President George Bush’s war tsar.

In fact, tsar-creation has never even faltered. Newish title-holders include Canada’s copyright tsar, New Orleans’s recovery tsar, Singapore’s baby tsar, Tony Blair’s respect tsar, Thailand’s condom tsar and America’s nipple tsar (Michael Powell, whose job as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission was to prevent a repetition of Janet Jackson’s televised bosom exposure). They join an ever-swelling band of AIDS tsars, counter-terrorism tsars, cyber-security tsars, economy tsars, food-safety tsars, learning-disability tsars, piracy tsars, water tsars and even mental-health-service-user tsars.

All of which is a bit odd. One of the few points of agreement for most of the 20th century was that tsars were a Bad Thing, a particularly nasty example of natural selection that started with some brutal caesars, took in some belligerent kaisers and found its most excruciating expression in the Russian variants. Their rehabilitation in almost every quarter must rank as the most sudden, surprising and complete in the history of brand management. Republican Americans cannot get enough tsars. The purist-nationalist French, overseen by the Académie Française, seem ready to embrace them. And the Russians—yes, of all people, the Russians—have succumbed to an advertising tsar. A haemophilia tsar cannot be far away.

Nowhere is the triumph of the tsars more evident than in the wicked world of drugs. This world is divided into countries whose citizens yearn to see a drug tsar appointed and countries that have already got one. Why is a drug tsar so universally necessary? To see off the drug barons, of course. Until quite recently barons were a Good Thing. They brought bad King John to heel at Runnymede. Now they are a Bad Thing. What next? Führers, Caudillos, Duci, Gauleiters and Generalisimos must be due for a comeback.

It is time to put a stop to all this. The English language, borrowing, as so often, from Latin, already has a word for a supreme head. It is supremo. Journalists should try using it (they can fall back on big cheese occasionally). For their part, governments should try using titles that accurately describe the activities of their officials.

Bring on the serfs and kulaks

Once upon a time Britain had a minister for war. Now the same job is done by the secretary of state for defence. It also has a Captain of the Yeomen of the Guard. No one would guess it, but he is a deputy government whip. Minister for delivery and quality sounds plain and straightforward, but no one knows what he delivers, never mind its quality. Does the minister for social exclusion promote social exclusion, just as the minister for education presumably promotes education? Perhaps it does not matter: in Britain obfuscation is all.

Japan, by contrast, has a minister for the privatisation of the postal services. That is explicit. Unfortunately, minister for the rechallenge is not. His job is to give people a second go in life, though that sounds very much like the responsibility of the minister for disaster management. In Japan, however, that title means what it says. Elsewhere it refers to damage limitation, a task for spin doctors.

Now did the tsars have spin doctors? They certainly had lifestyle gurus. Time, surely, to rehabilitate Rasputin.

In the Heart of Corporate America where I toil, I fit in a particular niche: no one else in the company does anything like what I do. I am the champion (if I worked on the left coast I might style myself the evangelist) of our web conferencing technology; I teach it in formal on-line classes two or three times per week, week in and week out (over 3,000 people have attended one or more of them) and have done so for years; and I travel the local empire to assist the coordinators of large-scale or mission critical conferences to “broadcast” them via our web conferencing technology.

I think that I must be the Web Conferencing Tsar.

It’s it for now. Thanks,

MUDGE

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