Sunday, January 25, 2009

Office Politics

WARNING: the following blog is vague and nebulous to protect the innocent and the guilty. If you can't follow along, draw a picture. That usually helps.


I've noticed something this week. People handle thing differently. No real big surprise there, but I wanted to share two different situations with you.

Situation number one.

I work as a contractor for the military. Not a building contractor. I have a contract with a branch of the military to do specific work for them. My military boss is a Lieutenant Colonel. For those of you who don't know, lieutenant is derived from the French for "in the place of", and colonel, well, it has the word colon in it, so use your imagination (just kidding on the colonel part). Military people move around a lot and have different job experiences within the same career field. This particular Lieutenant Colonel (Lt Col from now on) has had many "assignments", to include being in Hawaii for several years at the Pacific Air Forces headquarters.

Recently, a new military person came into the office; a Major, with more time in the military than the Lt Col who is in charge. That's not an issue in the military. It's not about time seniority, it's about what you wear on your sleeve or collar that matters. Here's the interesting part. The Major worked at Pacific Air Forces headquarters at the same time the Lt Col did; but at that time, the Lt Col was a Captain, and the Major was still a Major, so was of higher rank. The roles had changed. The interesting thing with the dynamic here is, there's no animosity, no angst, no anger. That's just the way it is in the military some times. Now the student is the master.

There's no power play, no "Ha ha, I outrank you now!" none of that nonsense. It just works. The Lt Col is in charge, knows what needs to be done, delegates work to everyone in the office, including the Major, and everyone reports back on progress. That's how it is with the contractors in the office, too; most of them are retired military, one a retired Colonel. We all know who is in charge, do what we're assigned, and report progress or lack thereof to the boss. It's a very smooth operation, mostly because the boss takes most of the heat for all of us, but that allows us to continue to do our jobs.


Situation number two.

This one goes back almost two months. As background, one of my responsibilities is the standardization of all operating system and office productivity software for this particular branch of the military. One of the individuals in a cubicle near mine was having issues with a particular piece of office productivity software. It seemed to be a configuration issue. The problem started about two months ago, but I was asked about it two weeks ago. Because of my responsibility, I know a lot of the folks responsible for configuration control of the software on all the computers in this service. There was a configuration change made at our office (mandated from above) that "broke" this particular office productivity product. As far as we can tell, they are the only office in all of this branch of the service that is using this software. Like I said, I was asked to help out, and I volunteered to step in to see what I could do.

The issue seems to be bigger than we all thought. I had people in many places working on the problem, with minimal success. Since any changes will likely affect more than just this piece of productivity software, great care must be taken not to break any other software with this fix. However, the boss of the individual I volunteered to help is getting concerned that the repair is taking so long. That boss has threatened to bring in the bosses of the people who are trying to fix the problem. Now, I don't know these particular bosses. I will say, I'm not impressed with the techniques used to try to expedite the resolution. If I were trying to solve a problem directly and you threaten to get my boss involved, I would hope that my boss would support my stance and tell you that I'm doing all I can considering I have other responsibilities. What I'm hoping is that over the weekend the problem gets fixed and no bosses need to get called. But if that doesn't happen, I hope that one of those bosses tells the individual who is trying to play politics that they need to back off and let people work.

I guess it all boils down to this: threaten me all you want; I know I'm doing the best that I can do and that's better than anyone else can do, so just wait until I'm done. If I weren't the best at what I do, I wouldn't be here. That's not being conceited, that's being honest.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Windows Home Server (WHS)

Windows Home Server (WHS). For some people, it conjures up visions of rack mounted systems with blinking lights heating up the basement. For others, it is just a way for Mr. Super Geek to show off his stuff. Well, WHS has been on the street for a while now (it's been out in final version since November 2007 and Service Pack 1 has been out for about six months). I finally got the chance to "play" with WHS. It's been 30 days now, and I'd like to let you know what I've discovered.

Let me start off with the fact that I didn't get one of those ready-made WHS boxen. No, I can never do that. I had an older desktop system that I replaced a year ago with my current AMD Phenom quad core from Gateway. I started out with an FIC K8-800T AMD Athlon 64 3000+ based system with an 80GB SATA primary hard drive, NEC DVD-RW drive, and an old Matshita LS-120 super floppy drive. [Just wanted to note here that Word 2007 just crashed on me and I lost the next paragraph or two, so I'll have to rewrite them. Anyone know of a better blog editor that works with Blogspot?] I then added a Maxtor 6L300R0 300GB EIDE drive and a Seagate ST3400832A 400GB drive. I would like to say that the K8-800T is a great motherboard, but I ran into some issues that I'll get to later.

The install was flawless. Booted off the DVD, wiped the drives clean, and then installed everything. It took a few reboots, but it was up and running in about two hours. If you're doing a user install of WHS, remember you need to name your server, so be ready. I named mine SERVER. I know, it's accurate but unimaginative; give me a break here, I can't always be creative! Once SERVER was up and running, I created user accounts for everyone in the house and created the client software install CD. Don't forget to create extra shares if you want them.

The Client Install CD ensures the client PC can see the WHS box, makes a link to the WHS shares on the desktop, ensures the passwords are in sync between the two boxen, and then installs the remote access software. It was about three hours total and I had my server (don't forget the name – SERVER; tough one to remember) and two clients up and running, sharing files and being all happy and stuff. Then I began the process of modifying SERVER.

If you know me, you know I can't leave well enough alone. I need to make it faster, better, smarter than it was. So, what's first? Let me start with explaining you can manage your server from any client using the Windows Home Server Console, which is a nice GUI that shows useful information about the status of your server. It's also extendable by adding in, well, add-ins. If you know me very well, or have been reading this blog, you can guess what my first add-in had to do with. My first add-in was TiVo Publisher. TiVo Publisher allows you to publish music, photos and video from your WHS to your TiVo. This is a one-way connection, so you can't pull video files off your TiVo to your server. More on that later. TiVo publisher installed easy (you can download the software on a client, copy it to the \\SERVER\Software\Add-Ins folder, then run the console and install the software). Now my TiVos can see the music, photos and video files on my WHS box. One down.

The next one was a little more difficult. You may remember me writing about Galleon
before. Galleon is a Java based TiVo client / server for any platform (did I mention it was Java?). Galleon is really cool and I've been playing with it for a few years now. I knew it would run on a WHS box because I had read about it (and everything you read on the Internets is true, right?). So, my first step was to install the Java JRE on the server. Luckily I had a monitor, keyboard and mouse connected to SERVER, so I could do this directly on the box. Not sure how you would do it otherwise. Once the JRE was installed, installing Galleon was quite easy. I got the windows install package and ran it on the server. Once Galleon started up, I noticed my Living Room TiVo was not talking to the network. Ok, no problem; it's on wireless, I'll just tweak it a little and it'll be good to go. Nope. It was dead. No lights, nothing. Wouldn't start up. More on this fix in a bit.

OK, so TiVo Publisher is installed so I can share files to my TiVo(s), and Galleon is installed, so I can pull video off the TiVo(s). Now I can share TiVo files to all the PCs on my home network, right? Yeah, I can share them, but they're *.TiVo files, so nothing can play them except TiVo Desktop and I don't want to load that on all my computers. There must be a solution to this problem! There IS!

The solution is the TiVo File Decoder. You see, the *.TiVo files are simply an encrypted mpeg2 file. All you need is a decryption tool and you're good to go. TiVoDecode is that tool. TiVoDecode uses the Media Access Key (MAK) assigned to your TiVo(s) when you get TiVoToGo to decrypt the files. That's all I know. I know if you have TiVo files, your files are encrypted with your MAK and mine are encrypted with my MAK, so in theory we can't share them unless we share MAKs. TiVoDecode uses your MAK to decrypt the files and saves them as an mpeg2 file. These files are playable with the standard mpeg2 CODEC. I haven't found (or written) a way to automate the decryption process, so I have to check the "daily downloads" for .TiVo files to decrypt. Once the decryption is done, I delete the *.TiVo file, but can still share the file back to the TiVo because of TiVo Publisher. SWEET!

I also tried a few other add-ins, but I'll talk about them another time. Now, here's the sad part.

I had SERVER up and running for about 3 days when the inevitable happened. If you remember, I had server issues when it was running Linux. Stupid me, same server, same drives. I thought wiping and low-level formatting the SATA 80GB drive would fix the problem. NOPE! Dead as a doornail. This is the reason I keep my hair short now; not long enough to grab onto to pull it out in frustration. I pulled the 80GB drive off the system and re-installed SERVER in the same software and data configuration (no backups, just did it all again from scratch / memory). So, I lost 80GB of space, but added to my experience by doing the install again. So when my birthday email from Best Buy came and they said I'd get triple reward points if I bought something this month, I knew what I was going to do. Seagate has a 1TB SATA drive (ST31000333AS) that would be perfect for my server. Best Buy had it for $120, and I had $40 in reward cash from getting my notebook in November.

I got the drive and waited until the weekend to install it. I thought "SATA is SATA, right?" so I just shut it down, installed on the same channel the 80GB was on, and powered back up. The server just sat there. After about five minutes (which seemed like an eternity) it booted, but didn't recognize the drive. Research time. It seems like SATA is not SATA. The new drives support 3.0Gbps throughput, vs. the old 1.5Gbps throughput, but Seagate puts a jumper on their drives to force the drives down to the 1.5Gbps speed. Shutdown the server, pull the drive, set the jumper (incorrectly the first time, but fixed it the second time), reinstall the drive, power up. The server just sat there. WHAT IS GOING ON?!

Research time again. After many hours of very frustrating research, I discovered that the K8-800T uses the VIA VT8237 south bridge chip. Why is this important? Well, it seems the VT8237 chip doesn't correctly support the 3.0 to 1.5 jumper and will not auto-negotiate the drives down to 1.5, so it won't even recognize the drive attached if it defaults to 3.0Gbps. Back to the store. This time, to Micro Center. My research had told me that the Silicon Image chip would recognize the drive. So I picked up a Syba SIL-3114 PCI SATA card. Once I installed the PCI card and connected the drive to it, BANG, it was recognized.

WHS is easy to add a drive to (assuming you don't have hardware issues, of course). Once the server came up and I logged into the console, I went to the Server Storage tab, noticed the nice juicy ST31000333AS 1TB drive sitting there, I told it to format and add it to the Data partition. Five minutes later, I had 1.55TB of space on my server with about 60% free, vs. the 18% free I had before the new drive. Now I'm down to 54% free. Too much TiVo.

So, what's the bottom line? I like WHS. I wouldn't say it's your mother's or grandmother's server, but if you are a light to moderate geek you should be able to set it up and configure it within a day if you're building your own, and less if you buy one off the shelf (I'd still like to try one of them if anyone from HP is out there reading this!). If you have a lot of media files (and who doesn't these days) I'd recommend the WHS because it's easy to use and configure.

Oh, and the dead TiVo in the living room? After more research, I found which sells TiVo replacement parts, and information pointing to the fact that my power supply was dead. I ordered a new power supply from, 2nd day air (which doesn't include weekends and holidays, so it took 4 days to get here!), but the replacement took about 10 minutes and it was back up and running again!

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

IT Job Security in the DC Metro Economic Bubble

How safe is your IT job? And for people like me living in the DC area, does living here make your job any more secure?

There's been lots of rumors and out-right lay-offs in the past month or so, and lots of them in the IT industry. Here's some titles from today's news: IBM employees buzzing about layoff rumors, Microsoft layoff rumors continue their swirl, Bay Biz Buzz: Logitech joins local layoff parade, Widgetmaker Clearspring makes cuts, Lenovo denies rumors of layoff plan, LiveJournal Makes Deep Personnel Cuts, Chelmsford's Kronos cuts jobs, . . . do I need to continue? And that's just TODAY's news! It's hard to think about IBM and Microsoft thinking of laying off folks. I've always thought of them as the most solid of the IT area.

I'll be honest, about a year ago or less I was thinking about switching to a non-government type job. No, I'm not a government employee, but I'm the next best thing. I'm a government contractor, also known in this area as a "Beltway Bandit" or "Parkway Patriot" (my personal favorite). But working as a government contractor does not make my job much more secure. Let me give a pre-recession example.

I've worked for the same company for over three years now. The first contract I worked on was as a lead software development engineer (read project manager) for an online database for the Air Force. Due to several issues (none of them my fault or the fault of my company or coworkers) the customer asked that I be removed from the contract. This should have been the first sign of a problem, because the customer had no issue with me or my work, we were just "overspending the budget" for the contract. So what do you do when money is tight? Get rid of the most expensive person on the team you hired. It doesn't matter that without a team lead the rest of the team needs to pick up the management slack that I was keeping them isolated from. OK, so now you have developers doing their normal job and the management and demonstration aspects of the project. Another warning sign. Three months later our next option year on the contract was not exercised; we (as a team and as a company) were fired.

Now, understand that this contract expiration did not affect me directly (it did affect my company, as we lost several really good people because of this, and I'm still burning a little inside from it). When I was removed from the contract, my company had fortuitously gotten a new contract working in a different part of the same branch of the service. That's when I started in my current position. I've been there coming up on two years now, and every time a contract comes up for annual review I get nervous. The military is spending so much money supporting the war that there is very little money left to pay for contracted efforts that need to be done. Why does the military need so many contractors? Because the government has told them they can only have so many people (many times less than there used to be) but they (the service) need to continue to do everything they used to do. Do more with less by "working smarter, not harder". Yeah, right. As a contractor, I can only work 40 hours a week. There's no overtime on my contract. That's good for me. But I feel bad when I get up and walk out at the "end of the day" and the military and civilian folks are still there, sometimes until 9:00 pm at night.

I really didn't want this to become a dissertation on what's wrong in the military services today. What I'm saying is, in answer to my question, I would say that government jobs in the DC metro area and federal government jobs in general are safe; for now. To be honest, I don't have a good feeling about the next few years. (Heck, I don't have a good feeling about the next few weeks, but that's another story). I don't know what the answer is. I really haven't figured out what the question is! I just know that money is tight everywhere right now, and soon the government will start to feel the pinch. You can only print so much money until it is so devalued that it's useless.

I remember back in 1987 the Air Force sent me to Sicily for a month. Our team decided to go out for pizza (what else would you get in Sicily!). When the meal was over, the bill came to over 120,000 Lira! I looked at it and my jaw hit the table. I'd never seen that many zeros on a restaurant check before. 120,000 Lira! Good Lord! That must be an outrageous amount of dollars! Actually, it came out to about $10 each for the eight of us. Over time, the Lira had become so devalued that you paid rent in the millions.

I don't want to paint a bleak picture of the next few years. We don't know what the future will bring. Right now, there seems to be an economic security bubble over the DC metro area (I heard today we're only up to about 3% unemployment in northern Virginia). However, don't let your guard down. Anything can happen.