Technology


– The Star Trek Zone –

Have you ever been watching the news about a social ill or sitting at work puzzled over a productivity issue and said, “I thought we already had a handle on that.” If you were wrong, as it turns out I have been as well, you may be living in what I call ‘The Star Trek Zone (STZ).’ Many might say, come on now, you don’t really believe transporters and replicators exist. The answer to which is obviously no, but I do have a certain expectation with regard to our technological level that may be overinflated by too many hours of Star Trek and Babylon 5.

What is this magnificent zone where all of societies problems have already been solved? I was reading a post about the worst IT worker in the world and wondering why it was that some members of the IT/IS staff share so much contempt for non-tech employees. Sure there are always those who forget their password, can’t see the network printer or think the mouse is used like a remote control, but then there are those special circumstances where they want the impossible from the current system, hence living in the STZ.

– Full Automation AI –

My personal expectation is the belief in a fully automated factory. “Why are hands touching this product at all?” I’ll give you an example, my wife used to work for a pharmaceutical wholesaler. What a surprising number of people do not know is that the backbone of shipping and receiving of drugs is handled not by the manufacturer, but two to three large wholesalers. Anyone who gets a great deal of spam for discount Viagra and Lipitor or who has paid any attention to the practice of importing drugs from Canada, is familiar with the governments warnings on counterfeit drugs. Some states such as Florida have gone so far as to introduce paper pedigree systems to ensure drug purity. Another problem stems from some shipments, particularly narcotics, “falling off the back of the truck.” My initial thought, where is the automated factory with materials going in one end, products being loaded via robot onto truck and delivered factory sealed to the end user.

– How William Shatner Changed the World –

It turns out there may actually be something to this effect as Discovery recently had a special on How William Shatner Changed the World. Now it is highly unlikely that those who are non-technical watched much Star Trek, yet the fact remains that many continue to expect more from technology than is currently possible or probable. At the very least maybe this will provide a humorous idea the next time someone wants the impossible from IT.

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From Slashdot,

“New survey data suggests that Americans are split over whether Blackberrys are chaining them to work. While people who own Blackberries feel ‘more productive’, those with Blackberrys are more likely to work longer hours and feel like they have less personal time than those without. A Director of Marketing Strategies who owns a Blackberry pointed out that many employees feel obligated by employers who have handed out the devices. ‘While being always on in a social context is a natural for young people, many of those in the 25-54 age group with families and corporate jobs are struggling with work-life blending. There is a need for the mainstream workplace culture to offer ways to counterbalance.'” Is the constantly connected, often mobile nature of the modern workplace a good thing, or not?

At the height of juggling two projects, I learned to sleep with my Treo next to the alarm clock a few feet from my head. Often waking long enough during the night to check my email once. Colleagues would often tell me and others they would be available 24 hours a day. It became almost impossible to enjoy a meal whether it be breakfast at 7am or dinner at 8pm on a Saturday evening.

The amount of stress associated with being constantly connected is well documented. Work-life balance is severely diminished and the ability to make rational decisions, when inundated with constant communication, decreases. The nature of information for the 21st century has also increased productivity expectations beyond what is attainable. Could this lead to our inability to concentrate or perhaps something more?

From Dr. Richard Restak’s, The New Brain,

“The demands upon the human brain right now are increasing,” according to Todd E. Feinberg, a neurologist at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. “For all we know, we’re selecting for the capacity to multi-task.”

Feinberg’s comment about “selecting” gets to the meat of the issue. At any given time evolution selects for adaptation and fitness to prevailing environmental conditions. And today the environment demands the capacity to do more than one thing at a time, divide one’s attention, and juggle competing, often conflicting, interests.

To not surprise, this has been associated with the growing prevalence of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) among younger populations, but could it also be once step in approaching the competency for chaos?

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It seems the city of New York is at it again. They are on the precipice of loosing their status as the world’s center of finance to the growing threats of Hong Kong and Dubai, but they have more important things to worry about, banning iPods when you cross the street. That’s right, NY, who has banned smoking in public places, trans fats in restaurants, is now trying to ban the use of electronic devices while crossing the street. State Senator Carl Kruger commented,

“Government has an obligation to protect its citizenry. This electronic gadgetry is reaching the point where it’s becoming not only endemic but it’s creating an atmosphere where we have a major public safety crisis at hand.”

He further said: “But what’s happening is when they’re tuning into their iPod or Blackberry or cell phone or video game, they’re walking into speeding buses and moving automobiles. It’s becoming a nationwide problem.”

I can appreciate the scientific research on the effect electronic gadgets have on our ability to reason and make decisions. There is compelling evidence that cell phone use should be banned while driving, particularly among the teen and elderly populations. I am consistently amazed at people in the grocery store who can’t seem to push a cart and talk on their phone at the same time (not that they should). When does the hand-holding stop? If we continue to insist on public institutions based on the concept of free will, then people must be “free” to exercise it, that and a little common sense. Perhaps the No Child Left Behind Act cut out funding to look both ways before crossing the street.

In an earlier article on the smoke and fat issue, I commented that Dr. George Reisman’s assessment of the situation was a little too Orwellian, but perhaps he was right.

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NY lawmaker hopes to ban iPod use in crosswalks 

To say that I like Google’s products is an understatement. From GMail to Google Earth, they have all made my life a little easier. When the Mountain View based company was given the Fortune Best Place to Work honor earlier this year I can’t say I was too surprised, that was until I read the list of do’s and don’ts for getting hired.

Do

1. Go to Stanford, Harvard, or MIT. though Google has relaxed its GPA standards of late – and now considers candidates with less than a 3.7 average – be prepared to discuss any B’s you may have earned.

2. Stress how well you get along with others. Unlike some companies that tolerate lone wolves, Google (Charts) wants team players who’ll gladly work cheek by jowl with their teammates.

3. Talk about your many diverse interests (“I fly-fish! And love chess! And breed water buffalo!”) Narrow interests or skills are a big time turnoff at Google.

4. Be prepared to get up at a whiteboard and write software code during your interview. Brush up on “bit twiddling,” by the way. Really.

Don’t

1. Joke about the whole Don’t Be Evil thing. Googlers take their goodness very seriously.

2. Go on and on in your interview about the doctoral project that you didn’t bother building or trying to commercialize. Google likes doers, not thinkers

3. Talk about money. they’ll think you’re just trying to get rich. Even though you probably are, it’s something you’re not supposed to discuss out loud

4. Mention the competition. in its eyes, everything at Google is sui generis. Other than programming languages, if it wasn’t invented at Google, it’s not worth discussing.

This is a dangerous philosophy with which to lead a company. Once an organization begins neglecting outside ideas, more commonly known as Not-Invented-Here (NIH), it cuts itself off from a significant source of knowledge and makes itself susceptible to groupthink. Of course with a target share price of $550 they can afford to be a little picky, but let’s hope they learned the lessons from some of their brethren at Apple and IBM, among others, who fell victim to the same sense of invulnerability in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

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Internet usage in China, much like construction, is booming. According to a report on ECommerce Times,

The number of Internet users in China increased more than 23 percent in 2006, topping out at 137 million with an estimated 104 million of those having some level of access to a broadband connection.More than 70 percent of China’s Internet users are under 30 years old, and 58.3 percent of the overall users are men, with 41.7 percent women, the CNNIC report noted. The two largest age groups for users are 18 to 24, with 35.2 percent, and 25 to 30, with 19.7 percent.

In addition to internet growth, the number of mobile phone users in China has topped the total US population. These staggering numbers are due to the lowering cost of hardware and improved service access. This increased communication promises to introduce a growing Chinese middle class to the global economy providing additional finance and marketing opportunities.

It also seemed to promise the spread of democratic and capitalistic ideologies, but there is reason to worry. Today Chinese Communist Party Chairman Hu Jintao dually promised

to maximise the economic potential of the web, while seeking to “purify the internet environment”Hu told the politburo the party should “strengthen administration and development of our country’s internet culture”. He continued: “[To] maintain the initiative in opinion on the internet and raise the level of guidance online, we must promote civilised running and use of the internet and purify the internet environment.”

It is still unclear to what extent this statement is meant to be carried when censoring unpopular ideologies on the internet. There may be some light at the end of the tunnel. Yesterday a code of conduct was announced by several high-tech companies, including Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft and Vodafone. These companies, already facing serious ethical dilemmas from past dealing with the Chinese government have agreed that free internet expression is a top priority.

Later this year the group of companies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) will produce “a set of principles guiding company behaviour when faced with laws, regulations and policies that interfere with the achievement of human rights”, said the statement. Those that commit to those principles will be held accountable to them, it said.

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Is IT under siege?

So why was the rest of the team so willing to kick their IT support off the island? This could be for several reasons, the least of which is the fact that many in IT/IS share contempt for those who are not.

Dan Tienes writes,

“Why does IT get a free pass to insult users? Slamming customers isn’t acceptable in any other profession; doctors don’t call their patients “meatbags” — at least, not publicly. But IT professionals think nothing of wearing their scorn on their sleeves (or at least their chests — just check out ThinkGeek). There’s more at stake here than just a few hard feelings. IT may be seriously damaging the credibility of the profession.

IT for several years is obtaining the “god-complex” attitude that has long been associated with surgeons.

“Many IS organizations preserve this ‘we’re gods’ attitude,” says Sarah Douglas, professor of computer and information sciences at the University of Oregon. “Born of the hacker culture, IS workers are often resistant to working in teams, and they often don’t give users proper training on the systems they impose on them. They just say, ‘Here, use it.'”

Having been an engineer and having some experience in IT I can certainly understand the feeling of superiority by having more knowledge than the standard user, fortunately I learned early on, belittling people would not serve me well along my career path if I wanted to branch into operations. As with every situation, however, there is more than one side of this story.

When IT was in its infancy, there were few power users to handle the various aspects and demands of the organization. Today however a majority of systems have been simplified, and become outright requirements of many job functions. Yet many users still consistently ask for what are considered menial tasks such as configuring a network printer, forgetting their portal access password and setting up Outlook. This was the topic of another commercial where Bob in IT finally get to his desk after a series of interruptions only to have someone pop their head in to say they think they just blew up the printer.

In addition there need to be further attempts by non-IT personnel to not only learn basic fundamentals of computing, but also improve communication between their respective departments. This will allow both the identification of areas needing improvement as well as targeted training. Human resources also needs to work more closely with all departments to determine the specific IT requirements for job descriptions and ensure they are adequately addressed in first round interviews. The standard assumption that candidates are knowledgeable in basic computing and MS applications is still not valid as these daily mundane requests are still being made (I am reminded of one instance where an individual who claimed to be an intermediate user of Excel asked how to cut information from one sheet and paste it into another).

In the end, there will always be IS gurus who know more about the company’s IT infrastructure than any person in operations would want to, but with improved communication and effort to improve, perhaps some of the contempt between departments can be minimized. It’s always a good philosophy to “learn everything about one thing and a little about everything else.”

Commercial Culture Series:

Commercial Culture #1 – Pizza Hut $5 Deal
Commercial Culture #2 – GoDaddy.com
Commercial Culture #3 – Silver Bullet vs. King of Beers vs. Napa Valley?

Commercial Culture #4 – Chevy & Our Country

 

 

01/14/2007 – Raging Ants: Culture Commitment and Teams

01/15/2007 – The New Young Manager – Culture & Failure

01/17/2007 – The Signal and Privacy – Personal Paparazzi

01/18/2007 – Telecommute at Your Own Risk

01/19/2007 – 10 Minute Movies Part 2

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