Organizing a Hack-a-day at work

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I’ve always been fascinated with the hack-a-day or hackathon events that promote groups of people getting together for a short burst of brainstorming, prototyping, and coding to create something useful. I decided to organize such an event at my place of employment to see if I could provide value to the business with it.

The Objectives

  • Result of the work is something the business could use to grow revenue or cut costs. Some of results of the competition should turn into project and tasks.
  • Cross departmental collaboration.
  • Team building.
  • Spirited fun through competition and learning.

The Idea
Create teams composed of members of the IT group that work with a business partner from a chosen area within the business (Finance, Operations, Marketing, etc.). The IT members interview and watch the business partner work for two hours so they can see the business processes and tools that each member uses to do their job. After two hours the IT teams huddle to brainstorm, prototype, and organize ideas to help improve the work flow from what they observed. Then at the end of the day all the teams and business leaders assemble for the team presentations. Three neutral judges that are SMEs are drafted to judge and prizes are awarded to the winners.

Pre-Planning
I targeted a particular work area within the business to partner with the IT group during the event. I setup a meeting to explain the idea and concept and to see if they could support the event by providing a business liaison to work with each team. To keep the playing field even, I wanted each business liaison from an area in which they performed the same business function (i.e. accounting, procurement, estimating, etc.)

I also invited HR to the pre-planning meeting to get their buy-in. I was taking team members out of their normal jobs for a day!

After I obtained buy-in from a business group, I sold the idea to the IT team. Well, I should say I presented the idea to the IT team. They loved it of course. It’s a free day to compete with each other and do something a little different. Techies love to compete with each other.

We set a date and I emailed invitations to reserve the calendar spot.

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Teams
I split the teams by having a member from each area of IT so that I could create equal diversity in skill set. For example, a programmer, a data analyst, a project manager, and in infrastructure member for each team. I looked at tenures and genders to create and equal distribution in company knowledge and diversity as well.
I did not announce the teams until two days before the event. This was to keep it a surprise and build some excitement.

Hack-a-day
On the day of the event, I had breakfast delivered for the participants. Everyone gathered in the break room to be paired with their business partner/liason. The teams left together and for the next two hours they asked questions, watched, and learned about a business process they may not have been exposed to in the past.

After two hours the teams were assigned a conference room to huddle and hack. This lasted for five hours (we brought in Pizza for everyone). Then for the last two hours of the day, the team assembled to present their ideas.

The presentations
There was a definite energy in the room as the teams presented. I had previously given them rules about how they would be judged (value to the business through revenue generation or cost reduction). Some teams elected a spokesperson while others had multiple team members present.

The presentations included everything from observations of challenges and problems, to specific suggestions for improvements. Some of the presentations included screen mockups for software updates. Other presentations included quick hit suggestions to help with automated workflows.After the judges selected the top two teams I awarded gift cards to winning participants.

Mission accomplished. Now the real work.
The feedback I received from employees was 100% positive. There are a few tweaks we’ll make before we do it again. The day was full of cross departmental collaboration that would otherwise not happen. I know the participants learned more about the business and felt like they could present ideas to help the business operate better.

It’s important to turn some the suggestions from the event into real work. Team members need to see that the event was useful to the business to drive their participation in future events like this. It has to be credible.

Yahoo removes email addresses from contacts list

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This week I found out that Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer is on the cover of Vogue Magazine and I received an email from Yahoo with the subject line “An update was made to your mail account”. The two events are not related and it’s not that the Vogue cover didn’t get a reaction from me, but the email message was much more interesting. My first thought was that the message was a phishing email. By chance, I am currently working on a security awareness presentation and phishing is a topic. So I opened the email anticipating I would find the opportunity for a screenshot and example to share in my presentation. I was wrong.

The email read as follows:

Yahoo Updates Contact List

The two email addresses are real contacts in my address book, so I navigated to the address book on my own (not through the link) to check. Sure enough, the email addresses for these two contacts are now empty.

The Yahoo ID cleanup

Yahoo announced they were removing inactive Yahoo accounts that had been inactive for at least 12 months. So it makes sense they would also remove email addresses to these accounts from customer’s contact lists.  This prevents other Yahoo mail users from sending emails to the account when it could now be reassigned to a completely different individual.

Is this an invasion of privacy or is it a nice customer service feature?

What’s different about this particular notification and event for my contact list is that the two addresses removed were not Yahoo email addresses. They were from different domains. I looked in the Yahoo Mail Terms of Service.

The TOS gives Yahoo the right to “scan and analyze all incoming and outgoing communications content sent and received from your account (such as Mail and Messenger content including instant messages and SMS messages) including those stored in your account to, without limitation, provide personally relevant product features and content, to match and serve targeted advertising and for spam and malware detection and abuse protection. “

But I could not find any place where I agreed to allow Yahoo to remove contacts from my contacts list without asking for permission. If you are a Yahoo user and you know where this is stated please let me know!

Who benefits from this?

So just who benefits from this action by Yahoo? Why did they really do this?

If the addresses were reassigned to someone else by the provider it could eliminate the potential for me to send personal correspondence to the wrong address. In this scenario it could also reduce the potential for spam for the new owner of the address. But I don’t suspect Yahoo made this change to help me or the potential new owner of the email address.

It helps Yahoo reduce the number of bounced messages coming back into their system for undeliverable mail. I don’t know this for sure, but I would think that the number of undeliverable messages to a destination provider increases the chances that the destination will classify your domain as a likely spam source. Since Yahoo is a free email service, it already has a higher potential for spammers to register accounts there. So I believe this is an ongoing battle for Yahoo.

My .02

At the end of the day, I’m not hung up on some privacy angle with this move by Yahoo. The move helps me to know that these contacts are no longer using the address and gives me the chance to either update with their new email address (if I call them!) or remove their record from my contact list. In this instance Yahoo did not completely remove the contact record. They on removed the email address of the contact record.

Everyone wins.

How To Disable Android System Apps

The Android OS does not allow you to uninstall system applications the way it does for regular apps. So removing or uninstalling Android system apps is not a straightforward process.  There are methods to do it by gaining root on the phone, but for those who don’t won’t to go through this trouble and risk there is an easier alternative. You can disable system applications from running after first restoring the app back to the version that was preinstalled on the phone.

I discovered this after an update to the Slacker Radio app, which I don’t use, started to consume a large percentage of battery life during a single charge. When the battery life on my Android phone was noticeably less than typical I looked under Settings → Battery and found that Slacker Radio had consumed 40% of the battery life when I had not used the application. As I uninstalled all the previous updates I then noticed an option to completely disable it. After looking at some other system applications they all allowed for the same capability. Following this practice could assist with keeping memory free and improving battery life for all Android users.

My Setup
Phone – Android 4.0.4, Samsung Galaxy S2
Tablet – Android 4.1, Samsung Galaxy Tab 2

How to disable the system applications
1. Go to the main system settings → applications → All (tab)

Screenshot_2013-08-16-19-21-05

2. Find the application and select it. The select the uninstall updates button.

Screenshot_2013-08-16-19-19-56Screenshot_2013-08-16-19-20-09Screenshot_2013-08-16-19-20-17Screenshot_2013-08-16-19-20-24

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3. Now select the disable button.

Screenshot_2013-08-16-19-20-36 Screenshot_2013-08-16-19-20-44

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That’s it! No need to worry about any system apps that you never use or desire to use. You should now see disabled apps in the “All” tab.

Screenshot_2013-08-16-19-21-05

Classic IT Challenges – Technology outside of IT

This is the seventh and final post in a series of writings to discuss issues facing Information Technology (IT) departments. If you have not read any of the first six challenges you can find them under project work vs production support, prioritizing work, operations vs innovation, estimating work, understanding complexity, and reducing costs.

IT shops vary in size, budget, and processes. But all IT shops share a common set of challenges that shape how they interact with their inter-company customer base as well as the clients of their organization. There isn’t a single answer to these common challenges and they don’t disappear after a process is put in place to address them. The manner in which IT management chooses to respond to the challenges is interwoven in the culture, processes, and services of the group. My thoughts are more around framing the problem than presenting solutions.

Challenge #7- Technology outside of IT

It’s not uncommon in a business environment for departments outside of IT to make their own technology decisions. This might include the purchase of desktop software or subscription to a software service platform. The IT department, with priorities to take care of the day-to-day operations of the business, may not have the capacity to handle new growth initiatives on a timeline that is acceptable to the business stakeholder.  Additionally, IT may not really be qualified to evaluate the business processes contained within new solutions. How many team members in IT are qualified to evaluate software that automates marketing campaigns?

One challenge for IT is if they are asked to support the new technology in some capacity. It’s a tough position to be in because the new technology may require a new skill set or training. Business stakeholders want support work completed as quickly as possible and without prior knowledge of the tool the IT staff is not positioned optimally.

Another challenge is if the new technology creates a duplicate solution within the organization. An extreme example could be the Marketing department purchases a tool to help them with customer list management for campaigns. But the Sales department has already purchased a different tool for this same function. That increases costs in total spend for everyone and increases the support complexity for IT.

Perhaps the biggest challenge associated with the introduction of new technology into an environment without IT input is integrating the new technology with existing systems. One of the primary goals of IT is to drive out costs in the organization through automation. One way to do this is to integrate systems so that information flows between the two without requiring manual touches. Integration usually requires programming and configuration.

Example

The operations department looks for a way to automate their quotes and job estimates to customers. The existing process they follow requires manual labor to deliver simple quotes for standard products. Management would like to eliminate this manual with a solution that allows the customer to find a price quote online. While the customer has to do work to find the quote themselves, the solution would greatly reduce the turn-around time of the quote. Operations purchases a solution in the marketplace and it does not integrate with any existing workflow programs within the company. Ultimately new project requests are created to integrate the quoting tool with the order management system.

The real challenge in all this.

Businesses must move forward to survive. For their part, IT departments must realize they have a finite capacity to produce work over a given time period and that often business leaders from other areas need to find solutions outside the IT service portfolio. On the flip-side, management should also understand that choosing technology without the input from IT can lead to difficult situations on the backside of the decision such as support, maintenance, and integration requests.

A technology solution is a means to an end, not the end. What’s the ultimate goal? It is to make money by providing a service that some customer is willing to buy. All departments share that goal. So the real challenge is creating a partnership to involve all departments during the selection process of new technology such that everyone supports the same objective.

Classic IT Challenges – Reducing costs

This is the sixth post in a series of writings to discuss issues facing Information Technology (IT) departments. If you have not read any of the first five challenges you can find them under project work vs production support, prioritizing work, operations vs innovation, estimating work and understanding complexity.slash-cost

IT shops vary in size, budget, and processes. But all IT shops share a common set of challenges that shape how they interact with their inter-company customer base as well as the clients of their organization. There isn’t a single answer to these common challenges and they don’t disappear after a process is put in place to address them. The manner in which IT management chooses to respond to the challenges is interwoven in the culture, processes, and services of the group. My thoughts are more around framing the problem than presenting solutions.

Challenge #6 – Reducing costs

The Information Technology group of a company shows up in the financial statements under the general and administrative costs of the SG&A section.  Management teams want to keep their costs in alignment with revenue and have target percentages for total costs as a ratio of revenue. Budget cuts, expense deferrals, and lay-offs are all activities associated with managing costs.

The biggest percentage of the IT budget is labor and the two most common ways of controlling labor costs are through shared services and offshoring. Shared services is a method to remove redundancy in staffing. So two IT groups may be combined into a single IT group that provides services to multiple locations. Presumably some staff are eliminated because their job functions are redundant.

Offshore labor for IT services such as development, QA testing, and infrastructure support is attractive because of lower labor rates. IT managers use this tactic to keep the number of contributing team members the same while at the same time decreasing overall costs. Other attractive features to offshoring include reducing benefits expenses, eliminating the need for office space, and removing the administrative management tasks for the individual (annual reviews, etc.)

The Challenge

The core challenge for IT management really centers around justifying the expense that IT  creates within an organization. In simple terms, this is a mindset that thinks “how do I pay for myself”? There are two ways to justify the expense:

1. Enable automation that reduces operating costs – Leaders in other areas of the business often look to IT to automate processes that require manual work or to automate  repetitive  processes in their area so they are completed faster. Not unlike offshoring or shared services, the other areas of the business are really looking to reduce their own labor costs.

2. Enable new revenue – IT shops may create software that is sold as a product or software that is used as a service to facilitate sales (eCommerce). IT managers want to show that the revenue generated by their work exceeds the costs to create the work.

Make no mistake, the battle to contain costs is constant. It’s an everyday battle for IT managers. The most effective IT managers change the mindset of their organizations to think of IT in terms of revenue enhancement and automation. If IT is simply a number on a financial statement then the business doesn’t recognize the value that IT creates to offset this number. That’s a dangerous place to be because you can’t cut your way to growth and prosperity.

Next Week

Challenge #7 – Functional groups introducing technology without IT input