Saturday, October 23, 2010

Joys of Data Entry

There are times that I feel I am at my most creative when I work alone.

When I work alone, I am not bound by other's past failures. When I am cheerful, I don’t realize how monumental a task I have broached. When I cannot build on the work of those that came before me, I am not hindered by their missteps. And there are conventions in Telecommunications industry of which I am completely ignorant.

A few years ago, when we first started documenting the physical infrastructure of the University of Florida there were only a few student laborers and myself. I don’t think any of us truly appreciated the breadth of the task we were undertaking. In the beginning, we were only tasked with documenting OSP fiber cables. Now, piece by piece, the breadth of that project has grown to encompass every physical aspect of the UF building networks. We have grown as well. From a group of student laborers and me, we have grown to include over 20 full time staff members.

In the beginning, each individual staff member held complete responsibility for documenting their own work. Any one person that deployed a new circuit held responsibility for documenting every component of that circuit. With only four staff members, we clearly could not hand off our documentation to any other group. In addition, by deploying a new labeling standard we were in a position where no one else could understand the significance of the labels we were creating. No one person was expected to be an expert but each staff member was expected to be able to navigate a plethora of systems managed by other groups. By documenting the physical cabling infrastructure we interfaced with our networking core group, our facilities group, all local IT support personnel, and UF’s physical plant division.

As VoIP began to take hold on our campus, we experienced the now common struggle of integrating our telecom staff with our networking groups. I am sad to say that over time, the majority of our telecom staff has been let go. But, as the few that are left have been brought into the fold, there is an interesting idea taking hold.

A number of us that grew out of the telecom industry are asserting that we could increase productivity by removing data entry and documentation responsibility from the field technicians and move it into the hands of data entry specialists. The idea has some merit. Data entry specialists can be expected to know the ins and outs of our documentation systems and should have an easier time sorting out system problems. This would free up our network technicians to focus on solving network problems and focus on delivering new network services. If we had more staff to begin with, we may have gone this same route.

Our own core networking group has student staff dedicated to updating their logical diagrams and router documentation. But, we didn’t, and I’m glad.

I am certain that the separation between those that do the work, those that update the documentation, and those that use the documentation does irreparable harm.

For our core group, logical diagrams are often out of date. An engineer that does work may forget to hand off the documentation work. The doc team, for all of their good intentions, has no follow up capability because they don’t know what each member of the core group is doing. The most reliable documentation they maintain is based on dynamic querying of the devices that they manage.

For our telecom group, this means that a technician hands off notes from a work order to a customer service rep to enter into their billing system. The CSR enters what they are given but have no true understanding of activity in the field. Where there is confusion between the technician and service rep, the technician must be available to clear up the problem. In a situation where they must call back a technician to explain, the department then has to account for those hours since each technician’s hours must be billable.

So, a documentation specialist calls a technician/engineer for clarification.

The technician/engineer is not responsible for documentation so they delay in answering questions.

This rewards the service rep for “figuring” it out.

This corrupts the documentation.

The documentation then has no value for the field technician.

The field technician does not document their work.

And the cycle goes on, and on.

Our staff who spent time working in telecommunications lament the days where others performed data entry and documentation. In their minds, the older system worked. Their tasks were simpler, and they weren’t hounded for documentation mistakes. Where before they handed folders off to data entry specialists they are now expected to document their own work and account for any errors they create in the system. The transparent nature of this model makes it appear less credible than its telecommunication predecessor.

Our current system constantly checks itself for documentation errors. Those errors are assigned as work orders and corrected. Current error counts are public record and currently stand at .47% of our total record count of 50,000 records. But, the old system never reported errors because it had no method for discovering them. Therefore, it was perfect.

The paradigm shift from specialized data entry staff to distributed data entry can be difficult for staff. Any change can be difficult. There are those here that still bemoan the expense of labeling a cable. But, for our application, holding individual technicians responsible for their own documentation has paid dividends over and over again. Not only can individual technicians document their own work, they invest the documentation with value through their own use.

Unused documentation is not worth having.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Age and Progress

I just read the most recent edition of BICSI news. It had a wonderful article in it concerning Ray Gendron, a former president of BICSI and the progenitor of BICSI Cares. For those who don’t already know, the BICSI Cares committee collects money at each BICSI conference and donates it to a local children’s charity based in the location that is hosting the conference.

Let me start by saying, these guys are good. They are the definition of good: both in how they operate and in their goals. At my first conference, I was approached a number of times and asked, quite politely, if there was anything I could spare. I can be a pretty cynical guy so I kept my money to myself and my head down. They wouldn’t leave me be.

My boss showed up and laughed while he explained things to me. For just a little bit of money, the BICSI Cares committee would put a little sticker on my badge that would let everyone know that I had made a donation. Then, they would leave me be. I laughed out loud at the thought: a charity protection racket.

This is where Ray enters the story. The next morning, the morning of my RCDD exam, I wandered down the hall and approached the BICSI cares committee booth to get my sticker. I walked up and an older gentleman asked if I wanted to make a donation and I pulled a twenty out of my wallet and started to hand it over. At the last second, I pulled it back.

“You know,” I offered. “I’m testing for my RCDD today.”

“Good for you!” He reached out and shook my hand. There was warmth to his smile and genuine cheerfulness. It had a childlike quality that made me smile. “What do you think your chances are?”

“Fair to middling,” I said. “I’ve got a deal for you. You can have this twenty now, or forty tomorrow if I pass.” To this day I don’t know what possessed me but it seemed funny at the time.

The old guy drew himself up and looked me up and down. He smiled even more and stuck out his hand.

“I’ll take that bet.” He stuck his hand out.

The next day I went back and paid my forty dollars, happily.

For the next two years I happily went back to the booth to make my donation the first day of each conference. Each year he remembered me and would call out to me before I got to the booth. He would stop my donation and ask a simple question.

“You testing this year?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow then. Don’t forget us.”

I didn’t. That man was Ray Gendron. I can’t say that I really even knew him and a number of people have already sung his praises in more public venues than my little blog. But I wanted to share my story of a man who genuinely appeared to enjoy life.

I’ve known another man who had a similar impact on my life.

My father has an older friend who he hunts with from time to time. They were much closer years ago and I’ve known him since I was a child. He’s in his eighties now.

Warren isn’t a powerhouse of a man. I’ve never really thought of him as a great leader, or visionary, or anything that marks a man as important. But he has always been a good friend to my father and a good friend to me.

I work in information technology and the only real constant I have to work with is change. One of the most frustrating aspects of my job is dealing with entrench bureaucracy and people who are frightened by change. Because of this, older persons get a bit of a bum rap in my industry. As we get older, things seem to get more static. Old ways are more comfortable and new ways of doing things just seem trivial.

But, as a child, Warren took me to his study to show me his new Nintendo gaming system. He had a childlike glee to his eyes as he sat me down to play. He explained the ins and outs of the game we were playing (Metroid for those who care) and talked about life.

“You’ve got it good Sheard T”, he would tell me. “We never had toys like this when I was a kid and they’re only gonna get better.”

His wife rolled her eyes from the kitchen. She didn’t approve, but then again neither did my Mom. We all wasted too much time on video games. But in Warren I saw a man who wasn’t afraid of new things – change.

A few years later I was a teenager and I sat down with Warren at his kitchen table. We were talking about how things used to be in the great nation of America and Warren started laughing.

“Sheard T,” he smiled. “Don’t talk to me about how things used to be. I was there and it wasn’t as great as people keep sayin’ it was.” He told me about separate but equal. He told me about friends passed over for promotion. He told me about all manner of injustices and he did it without ever losing his smile.

“That was yesterday Sheard T. It wasn’t all bad but don’t let anybody tell you it was all good. We fought in World War II but we did some bad things too.” Then he told me about all the good things we had today. The KKK was a shadow of what it used to be. Women could be anything they wanted to be.

I started to protest. Things weren’t that rosy. Warren waved me off. “It’ll never be perfect. Just keep workin’ at it. If you do it right, it gets better all the time.”

Last year, I stopped by Warren’s house on a cross-country drive to visit family. We talked about family, he played with my kids, and we generally got reacquainted. Somewhere in the conversation I let my vision roam over the living room and smiled.

Underneath the TV there was a Nintendo Wii.

I pointed it out to Warren and he just smiled. His eyes twinkled and he leaned in to me.

“Do you want to see the PS3? It’s in the other room.”

These men have both taught me valuable lessons. They didn’t mean to but just by watching these little pieces of their lives I’ve learned to appreciate where I am and the opportunities available to me. I don’t lose myself in nostalgia.

And each night I tell my little girl, the best is yet to come.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Fallacy of Numbers

In 1988 I was sitting in calculus class when I learned something that has stayed with me ever since. I’ll paraphrase Mr. Massey without his permission.

“It is a pity,” my teacher began, “that we use numbers for so much but few people understand what they mean.” He proceeded to draw out on the chalkboard how our grades for his class would be calculated. He drew boxes representing four exams and a final box to represent the average of those exams.

“We like to use numbers to communicate. Numbers have power. If you put a number on something, we like to think we have a better understanding of what’s happening. The entire field of statistics is based on this premise, but consider the following.”

He drew in the grades of two students. Both students received grades of A, B, C, and D. One received them in ascending order while the other received them in descending order.

“Which one has a better understanding of the subject matter?”

Obviously, the student that started slow and finished the semester with an A had a better understanding of calculus. His point wasn’t lost on any of us. Both would end up with the same average grade. He then went on to explain how we would be graded on a different scale where later exams would have heavier weight. He reserved the right to nudge our grades upward if he believed we deserved it.

I was thinking of this a few years ago when the University of Florida’s Human Resources department redesigned their method for performing annual performance appraisals. Each year managers across UF are expected to file performance appraisals for their staff members. There would now be a greater emphasis on not only expecting those appraisals to be done but there were now more criteria on which a staff member could be evaluated. Each criterion would be based on a number of 1-5 and then summed to a final score of 5-25.

We were guided by numerous presentations and exhortations to treat performance evaluations as a chance to discuss performance with our staff. The assignment of numbers was less important than the chance to truly communicate with our subordinates.

I carried out the evaluation of my staff and moved on with my work. It wasn’t very shocking that six months later I was asked to defend my request for a raise for one of my subordinates. Apparently, his performance numbers were lower than a number of other candidates. As an explanation, I offered up that I am a critical supervisor and expect a great deal from my staff.

Comparison of performance numbers assigned by different managers is problematic at best. Some supervisors are best friends with their staff. Some managers have difficulty criticizing staff and some subordinates do not respond well to any criticism. Communication is key, but reducing that interaction to a number implies an impartiality that simply does not exist.

Both examples serve to illustrate the dangers of relying upon numbers to reflect and evaluation of performance. Unfortunately, in any significantly large institution there comes a point where we must rely upon numbers to record performance. People need to remember what assumptions lie behind all of those numbers. When we forget those assumptions, we put ourselves in a position where we are relying on “fuzzy Washington math.”

Organizations are constantly looking for metrics in order to evaluate their own performance. Managers look for appropriate metrics in order to justify budgets, request new staff, defend their policies, and for any number of other reasons. Managers need information in order to make decisions and there need to be metrics in order to inform those decisions.

When organizations spend so much time concerned with litigation, metrics can be used to not only inform but defend decision making. Efforts to remove someone from an organization are usually greeted with calls for documentation. Has the employee been counseled? Have they been informed of their sub-par performance? Is there record of their sub-par performance? And, the power of numbers here cannot be understated. A steady record of low appraisal numbers recorded over time has as much impact as a record high performance numbers.

But, as time has passed, the metrics used for evaluation have evolved. More and more, recorded opinions of management are giving way to more objective criteria: how many tickets resolved, average ticket lifespan, customer survey based information. I believe this trend has serious power and great potential to help management make informed decisions about the organizations they run.

As long as we understand the assumptions behind those numbers, all is good. Without true understanding though, numbers can lead us more astray than forward.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Category 6 revisited

Once again, my own stubborn pride has kept me in the middle of a debate concerning Category 6 UTP cabling. My earlier blog posts, Why I passed on Category 6 and Category 6 and PoE, as well as some public comments have generated criticism from a number of sources. I’m happy to say that all debate has been civil and I’ve found some new perspective on the question.

I’m happy to stand behind my past comments. For the University of Florida, Category 5e cabling remains our minimum standard for new telecommunications cabling installed on campus. Category 5e supports the data rates we need at a lower cost than Category 6. Category 6 provides no tangible benefit for the increased cost.

During our debates on the topic, the participants fell into two camps that were oddly split along departmental lines. Those that worked in building construction and held RCDD’s firmly believed that Category 6 needed to be the new minimum standard in our Telecommunications Standard. Those that worked in supporting building networks stood by the assertion that the extra money for Category 6 purchased nothing that we, as end consumers, needed.

I won’t go over the arguments either for or against either position. I’ve detailed them rather well in my past blog posts. Instead, I would like to focus on the resolution of the debate.

In the end, the UF Telecommunications Standard has Category 5e listed as the preferred minimum level of UTP cabling that will be accepted for new building construction. The wording is appropriate for a standard born of compromise but doesn’t really do a fine job of presenting a coherent vision for the University of Florida network.

As a final attempt to sway opinion, our Inside and Outside Plant Coordinators requested the opinion of Mel Lesperance, the BICSI southeast regional coordinator. I don’t know Mel very well personally but I have known him by reputation for many years. The question was resolved before Mel fielded his opinion but as a parting shot, his opinion was forwarded on to the committee.

Mel wrote an elegant piece supporting the requirement for Category 6 in new building construction. Nothing in the piece changed my opinion but I was moved by the professional demeanor of the paper Mel wrote. He presented all of the arguments I’ve previously mentioned in a simple and direct manner. Given that he was stepping into a known area of contention, he did so with distinction.

But, he didn’t present any new information. Personally, I’m no stranger to agreeing on all the facts but still holding a differing opinion than my colleagues. His message did prompt me to take another look at my own beliefs and ultimately led to a small epiphany.

I’ve often said that my position is a little unique within BICSI. In my profession, I represent an end customer that has a direct need to have someone with extensive cabling knowledge. Few organizations that are not dedicated to the cabling industry have a need for people with such expertise. But, as an end customer, I also sit in on discussions concerning the role of networking electronics, end user electronics, and the design of our data center. That puts me in a rather unique position; I sit in the role of an end user.

Mel’s eloquent support of Category 6 was presented as the position of a cabling system designer. As an end user, I can state that we will not ever be using 1000BaseTX electronics. By referencing our campus video group, I can state that will not need to distribute analog television signals across our academic buildings. With no need for either of those applications, Category 6 offers no value for its increased price.

Cabling designers and architectural engineering firms do not have that luxury; they cannot say with any certainty what their customers will do with the cabling plant they design. A designer may ask the end consumer what his needs are but we have all had the experience of a customer changing his mind. I know what applications I will need. Designers cannot hope to have an understanding of a customer’s needs that rival’s my own understanding of the University of Florida’s current and future application.

Given that, it behooves a cabling designer to specify Category 6 cabling. Their customer may be one of the few in the country that uses 1000BaseTX. Their customer my want to use the UTP cabling plant to distribute analog television signals. And if they don’t need it today, they may tomorrow. If the cabling plant does not support their application, the cabling designer may quite appropriately be held to blame.

But, before I give the impression of a changed man, we still don’t need Category 6 at the University of Florida. I would bet that most other customers don’t need it either. But, if I was designing a cabling system for another consumer, I might specify Category 6; sometimes it’s better to be safe.

Monday, February 22, 2010

On Certifications

In my few years of management, I’ve done my fair share of interviewing and hiring. Even before the current troubles with the economy, there have always been a number of applicants for the positions in our department. The University’s movement toward a centralized network support model has always drawn a love/hate relationship from the IT professionals that currently work on campus. A number of them worry about Computing and Networking Services (CNS) moving in and taking over their duties. At the same time, others are looking to sign on with us to improve their careers. The two groups are not mutually exclusive.

When passing through dozens of resumes are crossing my desk, I’m usually looking for reasons to exclude someone from the interview process instead of bringing them in. A piece of paper is a poor report of someone’s skills and there isn’t anywhere near enough time to interview them all. On that topic, it is hard enough to judge an applicant given a fifteen minute interview – but that’s for another time.

The easiest ways to exclude people include setting up minimum educational/certification requirements. We’ve done this for architectural firms that apply to do work on campus. They are required to have an RCDD on staff in order to be eligible to design buildings for the University of Florida. We required it in an attempt to ensure that architects understood the issues surrounding low-voltage cabling requirements. It has paid some dividends but the results have highlighted the flaws in establishing certification requirements for staff.

Not everyone that holds a certification holds an equal amount of skill, expertise, or commendable work ethic.

Certification/education requirements are easy ways to establish a minimum criterion but, once established, often act as a defining requirement. If someone needs to have a CCNA to be considered for employment, holding a CCNA requirement often becomes a justification for holding the job after the fact. CCNA certification becomes the established proof that the employee holds the skills necessary for the job.

Unfortunately, this is often not the case. Certifications and educational requirements do not communicate effectiveness in job duties. Those with higher educational degrees have known this for years. Holding a college degree usually signifies that the individual is capable of learning, not that what they learned in college is truly applicable to the employment. For years, programming firms have snatched up graduates with engineering degrees thinking that an engineering degree proves that the staff member is capable of the ordered reasoning necessary for programming.

Certifications have often seemed to be more applicable to the tasks performed. Different organizations that offer certifications target their tests more to the individual job requirements of the fields they serve. One would think that the certifications would have more applicability to the actual tasks at hand. In general, I don’t really think so.

I personally hold a number of certifications. I have an RCDD from BICSI, accompanied by their NTS and OSP specialty. For three years, I held a CCNA from Cisco. Just to be complete, I also have a BS in Psychology and a BA in Criminal Justice. Yes, I’ve been at UF a long time.

I had to study a long time for every certification exam listed above but I think it’s important to understand what these tests truly reflect. Each Bicsi certification exam represented an ability to memorize an incredible number of facts. Truly understanding the principles of low-voltage transmission can make this feat much more manageable but the test itself truly concerns memorization skills. Those who hold an RCDD should be able to communicate amongst themselves using a shared language that they all understand. But, the certification itself does not guarantee understanding.

I found the CCNA more demanding in regard to working skills. The questions on the exam seemed less concerned with my ability to memorize facts than my ability to use those facts to solve the networking problems that they presented. But even then, after passing the exam I would say that I had an introductory level of knowledge. I was ready to learn how to work on a network.

I think the important thing to learn from my experience is this: certification does not imply professionalism or expertise. When a professional is asked to defend their claims, they should be ready and willing to do so. Anyone who claims that they should be believed because they have a degree/certification is only admitting that they cannot truly defend their claims.

A true professional is ready to explain their understanding to all. In fact, as people, we have a responsibility to do so.