A Business Technology Place

Finding Felix

It all started with a tweet.

Last week my local public library tweeted “GCPL has the solution to your quest for genealogy information….#HeritageQuest”.  Squirrel!

The message captured my interest and before I knew it, I was hooked on a modern day treasure hunt for information on my family lineage. 25 years ago I did some basic family research at the state archive building and found census records back to 1910. With the Heritage Quest tool from the library, I was able to view my father’s family line in the census records in every census back to 1840 (except 1890 because most original records were destroyed by fire).  Time travel never felt so real.

Digitization of records.

The big win is the census records are now digitized with metadata. Unlike 25 years ago, when I was searching Microfilm, I was able to complete a wide array of searches very quickly. I could use first name, last name, birth year, death year, places lived, and family members to help narrow search results. Linked to each family unit was the scanned image of the original census document for visual confirmation. Using this new capability I was able to quickly find census record data back to 1880 for my father’s family line. But I wasn’t done. Felix awaited.

One challenge with the metadata is sometimes the interpretation of the original handwriting is wrong and sometimes the original census data has inconsistencies in what is recorded. There were variations in spellings, middle initials, and ages that made it difficult for me to get a match in a few of the years. So I had to examine the data in-context to find matches (approximate ages, children names, place of recording, etc.) Basically, the tools of the digital age combined with manual human intellect to solve a puzzle.

Finding Felix.

1840 Census Document

Before this past week, I knew the name of my great grandfather and great-great grandfather (from my great aunt while she was living). I also knew the cemetery where my great grandmother was buried. Using the cemetery information I was able to locate her grave using the site findagrave.com. At the bottom of her gravesite record was a comment from a lineal relative of mine previously unknown to me (a distant cousin). I emailed her a question asking if she knew the name of the father of my great-great father. Within hours I had the name, Felix.

Using this new information, I went back to the census search. Within a few hours I found Felix in the census records for 1880, 1870, 1860, 1850, and 1840! Hello Felix.

Digging required.

To get to the next generation, I’ll need data from additional sources. The 1790 through 1840 census records only show head of household by name and then headcounts for other family members. I was able to match Felix in 1840 because I knew the age of his spouse and children in the 1850 census.

Over the last four days, I’ve seen the power of metadata searching, optical character recognition and digitization of written records. I just hope I can find Felix through another historical document to tell me a little more. It’s a treasure hunt for another footprint in the past. It’s a story waiting to be told.  

Onward and upward!

Do more with what you have!

We need more people. We don’t have enough resources.

Every week I hear about the conflict between the number of employees in the organization and the amount of work to do.  The underlying presumption is the organization can accomplish more by adding more people. The problem with this rationale is it takes the focus of solution delivery off the processes used to deliver solutions. Adding more people to a team is complicated:

  • It adds more strain on inter-team communication. Whatever inefficiencies exist in the current team environment will become more apparent with more people.
  • It creates the need to train and develop new people in the culture, business, and process flows of your company.
  • It moves the process bottleneck to another departmental team. For example, if you add more developers then you need more business analysts for requirements documentation.
  • It values urgent things over important things.

The right process will give the right results.

There are times when staff should be expanded. But it can’t be arbitrary and because the existing staff feels stressed about the existing workload. A better approach is to first examine the current environment for ways to work smarter and more focused. Process focused leaders look for ways to work smarter knowing that in the long run it will deliver greater capacity and more value added results. I don’t consider this doing more with less. I like to think of these actions as doing more with what you already have. Consider these approaches:

  • Write less code – If our first solution to solving a problem is writing code, then we’ve missed the opportunity to solve the problem by simplifying the process. The ultimate solution may require less code. Keep it simple!
  • Align value streams to your mission. – The activities we do that should be more important to us are the ones that align to our mission. The mission is a guide-post when deciding between what’s urgent and what’s important.
  • Develop existing employees before adding more. – The existing staff can provide more capacity if they work on the right things with more efficient processes. To do more with less we have to believe that getting existing people to understand the power of process efficiency, focus, and alignment adds more capacity. Get employees to work harder, but not before you help them work smarter.

Onward and upward!

Photo Credit: Jim1102 via creative commons.


Got Password? Can Microsoft simplify?

Who makes the rules?

Hackers love them. Security auditors like to engineer them. The average person hates them. IT support teams use them for jokes. Our computer passwords have an identity crisis! Do passwords protect us or are they just a nuisance to our everyday lives?  I find weekly articles about how hackers can crack most passwords in minutes. For some thieves, cracking a password isn’t enough fun, so just steal them. It seems the value passwords bring for protecting information is diminishing.

Industry experts created password complexity rules we should all follow to make the passwords more secure. That makes it a little harder for hackers to crack a password but does not make them theft-proof. Unfortunately, it also drives many people without a password system to write down their password on paper. Who can remember words with all those special characters and capitalizations? In essence, to get the user more secure the rules made their system less secure.

Businesses implement password complexity rules to meet a couple of constraints: a security control they are given and limitations from the software system they are using (i.e. field length, characters allowed). The result for all us is an inconsistent set of rules to govern passwords for all the systems we use. Is it 8 characters or 10? Does it require special characters? Can I reuse a password I used two years ago?

What you know and have.

Several years ago, a popular method for authentication security was created to offset the weaknesses of a single password system. Two-factor authentication is based on the idea of something you know and something you have. So for example, I know a password and I have a phone where you send me a second code. Or I know a password and I have a physical security card I can tap or read.

Now, Microsoft is experimenting with removing the password requirement completely. Their new system would make life easier for their customers because it doesn’t require a pesky password for data access. Well kind. It requires a pin from the phone to get access. I see this as a hybrid two-factor authentication. Something I know, my phone PIN. Something I have, my mobile device.  If I lose or misplace my phone they say there is an option to revert to a standard password. Would you use this?

Human behavior.

Protecting data with authentication systems is a good study in human behavior. We protect the data because we don’t want others to see it. We protect access because some people steal data. We develop authentication systems that try to find a balance between human usability and password complexity. I can see this as a college class. Psyc 231 – Human behaviors for data access and protection.

Got password?

Photo Credit: Thomas Au via Creative Commons. https://flic.kr/p/dT3HaA


Mapping software development to Lean IT.

The right process will produce the right results.

A core concept of the Toyota Production System is the right process will produce the right results. The “right process”. What exactly is that? Software development practitioners spend entire careers in search of it. Everyone has ideas and rationale to support various methods including Waterfall, Agile, and Hybrids.

But there is more here than a methodology match. As I consider how to adopt and grow Lean business principles in IT, I face a classic dilemma; how do I influence standardized tasks and visual controls into a software development process? Software developers are a different breed of office worker. Many of them have personality traits which make consistent processes quite a challenge.

Are software developers rule followers?

Here’s what I know about guys and gals that write code for a living:

  1. They are puzzle solvers
  2. They are inspired by writing code not documenting progress
  3. They don’t enjoy estimating because they don’t want to time box their craft
  4. They are artists who care more about how code is written than the process used to govern the project

So here’s my dilemma. A software developer is a person who is a creative problem solver that needs space to be an artist and really just wants to write code. How I put that person in a system that seeks to define standard processes and visual controls as a means to provide customer value?

Software developers are rule followers. They write code against a predefined language syntax. They crave requirements up-front before they start writing code. But software developers are also artists. They want freedom to express their talents through what they create, not a set rules defined by someone else.

Lean IT. Finding common ground.

When faced with opposing viewpoints, I believe the best approach is to focus on common ground. What do Lean IT and the attributes of a software developer have in common? Everyone wants these things:

  • Eliminate waste – Businesses like the effect on the bottom line. Developers don’t like spending their time on busy work.
  • Increase customer value  – Businesses like the effect on sales and repeat sales. Developers like having jobs and customers giving them new problems to solve.
  • Standardized work – Businesses like repeatable tasks that can be improved. Developers like a clear definition of what is expected of them.

Starting with these concepts, I think it’s possible to get developers on board with Lean IT.  With a little flexibility, compromise, and focus on the core business principles of Lean, a team can move down the path of increasing customer value. Let’s start there.
Onward and upward!

Photo credit: https://flic.kr/p/6U71RM – Jeff Sandquist via Creative Commons

Roku 3 stuck on update from 5.6 to 7

I solved a problem with a Roku 3 update this past weekend. The Roku box was a freebie from my internet provider when I signed-up for their streaming service package. The initial setup worked fine, but after a few weeks the system froze. I had to power cycle the unit to get it back online. After a second-time freezing I checked manually for system updates. At this point the online prompts told me there was an update available to version 7 of the Roku OS. It looked like the update successfully applied. However after a reboot, the system went back to version 5.6.

The solution I found was to do a factory reset of the device. During the reset the system automatically updated to version 7 of the Roku system software. I did have to re-authenticate with my Roku apps, but that was much better than the system freezing and I’m happy the Roku device isn’t defective.