Maarten Balliauw {blog}

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Community guidelines to stay out of the busy trap

For the past few days, an interesting blog post on the NY Times has been popping up in my Twitter timeline. In your as well, probably, since almost everyone I know has retweeted it a couple of times. Which blog post? The one about the so-called “busy trap”.

The idea is simple: we’re all caught in the busy trap. Everyone feels busy, runs their life and activities at 200%. Here’s a great summary from the blog post:

The present hysteria is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it. Not long ago I Skyped with a friend who was driven out of the city by high rent and now has an artist’s residency in a small town in the south of France. She described herself as happy and relaxed for the first time in years. She still gets her work done, but it doesn’t consume her entire day and brain. She says it feels like college — she has a big circle of friends who all go out to the cafe together every night. She has a boyfriend again. (She once ruefully summarized dating in New York: “Everyone’s too busy and everyone thinks they can do better.”) What she had mistakenly assumed was her personality — driven, cranky, anxious and sad — turned out to be a deformative effect of her environment. It’s not as if any of us wants to live like this, any more than any one person wants to be part of a traffic jam or stadium trampling or the hierarchy of cruelty in high school — it’s something we collectively force one another to do. – From http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/30/the-busy-trap/

Everyone I know from the Belgian IT community is in this trap. I’m in there. My wife is in there. My boss probably is, too. We’re all too busy to realize this. We’re used to it, and it’s really easy to say “yes” to things because those things nag you and you just want to get them over with. And the easy way often is not saying “no way!”, it’s often just doing it. Reinforcing that same busy trap.

Lately, some people I know quit their 16-hours-per-day-consultancy-job and switched to a nine-to-five closer to home to gain time for themselves. Another one is maxed out and on the verge of cracking and relying on social security for a couple of weeks, if not months (if you are this person or you know him, have a break and get well soon buddy!). I find myself in this busy trap too, but I usually manage to balance it pretty well. There are of course periods in the year where the balance flips over to busy, but I have established a few ground rules that I agreed on with my wife and family.

  • During the week, I’m owned by the community (and work, that too). That does not mean I will be out every night to some event (our Belgian community has interesting sessions almost daily). It does mean that I don’t really have a problem being out one evening a week.
  • The weekend is sacred. Weekend mean: No computer will be switched on. Ever. Unless it’s to order pizza or to do taxes or something.
  • In the weekend, don’t use Twitter. Unless an occasional check (some of my friends don’t txt me, they send me tweets) or to tweet about drinking/brewing beer or having a great barbecue.
  • Vacation? Long weekend? The computer stays at home. Roaming and wifi on the smartphone get disabled. Phone call from anyone but close relatives and friends? Ignore it (by pushing the ignore button, voice mail will handle it).

These don’t get you out of the busy trap, but it will help. It certainly helps me. Which rules help for you? Comments welcomed!

[edit]

Here's a list of tips I got from the community:

AZUG Windows Azure Saturday overview

Windows Azure SaturdayAs one of the board members of the Windows Azure User Group in Belgium, I wanted to write a post on an event we organized last weekend. We do more events (one each month), however this one was way out of our comfort zone. Typically, we have an evening event in which a speaker delivers one session to around 40 attendees. Last Saturday, we organized our first Windows Azure Saturday, a hackaton followed by a barbecue.

Here’s what I will remember about our event…

The event

The idea for a “hackaton plus barbecue” emerged a couple of months ago. The idea was simple: get a group of Windows Azure enthusiasts together, code for a couple of hours and have a fun barbecue afterwards.

At that time, the idea was small. We’ve done some hands-on events under our “Code d’Azure” brand earlier, so we had the idea of having some 10 attendees bringing their laptop, especially since we were planning to host it on a Saturday. We were wrong…  Almost 50 people registered for the hackaton and barbecue!

“10 EUR entrance but you get it back”

On regular events, there’s always a number of no-shows. Not a problem although it’s always difficult to know how much sandwiches to order. This time we had a barbecue so to ensure we did not order too much meat, we’ve asked attendees to pay for the event. If they showed up, they would get their money back. Otherwise the money would be used to cover the cost of the barbecue.

This system worked out well! In fact, people wouldn’t have had a problem with the user group keeping their 10 EUR (in fact, some attendees refused to take it  back and offered to sponsor their 10 EUR as well).

Applications developed during the hackaton

Here’s a list of the applications developed during the hackaton:

  • shellR - PowerShell over the web – A really cool application providing real-time PowerShell to any machine over the Internet.
  • Autoscaling document translation service – An autoscaling service which translates PDF and Word documents.
  • XBox game score comparer – Compare XBox game scores with your friends.
  • TwiBo – A Twitter bot which analyzes a specific hashtag and can retweet based on specific characteristics of the Tweet.
  • Positive/negative review analyzer – Analyzing text and giving a positive / negative sentiment score. Great to analyze what people are saying about a specific subject.
  • Worker role as a service – Hosting assemblies in a worker role, as a service.
  • PDF creator service – Creating PDF files from plain text files.
  • Service bus webcam picture transmission – A Netduino streaming webcam pictures over the Windows Azure Service Bus.
  • BBQ as a Service – Order BBQ meat via a Windows Phone 7 application.

To be honest, I did not expect too many good applications. We only had 3,5 hours to code and a s a developer I know that’s almost nothing. Again: wrong. The apps that have emerged were really, really cool! shellR for example (the guys who won the grand prize) was offering a PowerShell console through a browser, which could connect to PowerShell agents around the globe enabling you to manage a computer through your browser. A startup idea in my opinion!

Windows Azure SaturdayThe barbecue

RealDolmen provided us with the location for our event. We were looking for a location that could house 50 attendees and their laptops, had a room to eat (in case of bad weather) and a garden in case of nice weather. Their main office had it all! The weather was nice so we had a great barbecue in their garden.

On a side note: when organizing a party, the guys from ”Lekker Beest” are absolute masters in the art of cooking meat and fish! Yummy in the tummy!

Sponsors

Thanks to our sponsors, we were able to provide the following prizes to the apps being developed:

  • 2 ReSharper licenses sponsored by JetBrains
  • 2 Cloud Storage Studio licenses sponsored by Cerebrata
  • 3 one-year MyGet Small subscriptions + a free Pro NuGet book sponsored by MyGet
  • 25 Pluralsight 1-month subscriptions

The first prize was a unique thing: a 2 person Windows Azure North Europe region datacenter tour (flights, dinner, hotel and a tour through the datacenter where you've deployed your app) sponsored by Microsoft.

Thanks to all of our sponsors!

Wifi

Every conference has wifi problems. We had none. Which does not mean we didn’t have networking issues. The Internet uplink we arranged was an ADSL connection, an “asymmetric" digital subscriber line”. All blahblah, except for the asymmetric aspect: if someone launched an upload to Windows Azure, others were experiencing a really slow connection. And as uploads were happening all the time, well, guess what: the connection was a bit flakey. This is something we would do different on a future event.

Conclusion

It was a blast! Have a look at the Tweets around our event. We will definitely do this again. Thank you sponsors, thank you attendees and thank you fellow AZUG board members for making this a splendid event!

The world is changing: the future of IT

imageI’ve had my say on cloud and the new world of IT already in an earlier post, Predictions for the future. Today, I’m seeing signs the world is in fact starting to change. Sites like Instagram started small and grew big in no time. Were the founders IT wonders? No. And you don’t have to be.

Not so long ago, it would have taken you a lot of time and resources to get your idea up and running on the Internet. Especially if it required multiple datacenters and scalability. You would have to deploy a bunch of servers and make sure you had an agile IT environment in place in order to get things running and keep things flexible, a key requirement for many startups but also for large organizations.

Today, cloud platforms like Windows Azure change the rules. Anyone can now build an advanced application architecture backed by an advanced infrastructure. Platform-as-a-service offerings like Windows Azure offer you the possibility to distribute users between different geographical regions. They offer you storage in multiple datacenters. They enable you to continuously deploy new versions of your software and easily rollback should things go wrong.

The cloud is not new technology. Virtualization is used. System administrators still run the datacenter. It’s about new ideas and possibilities. The datacenter we knew before, is just the fabric in which your ideas come to life. A thin software layer on top of the giant hardware pool that is available makes sure that anyone can quickly combine a large number of easy-to-use building blocks to empower your idea. It makes advanced, global-scale projects easy and cheap and yet, more reliable.

Everyone on the globe, a small startup or a large organization, can now take advantage of the same IT possibilities that were previously only available for businesses running their own datacenter. Today, I can set up a global application that scales in a few hours at a very low-risk and price.

Of course, you need some supporting services for your business as well. For the development part, source control and issue tracking may be useful. GitHub, TFS Online and many others offer that as-a-Service, up and running in no time. For local teams, for distributed teams. The same story with e-mail, customer relation management, or even billing your customers. You can easily set up a new company or a new team based on the capabilities the new world of IT has to offer.

All of this has an impact on several areas. As small, agile startups or teams start working on their ideas and have a low time-to-market due to all of this, they can benefit over slow, unadapted large organizations. They can make higher profits because of the commodity services available in the cloud. They can make higher profits because organizations not making use of these technologies will fall behind. Probably sooner than we all think at this point in time. Large organizations will have to adapt to small, lean teams that know both the datacenter fabric they are working on as well as software. Silos will have to be broken down into lean teams, ready to make use of all that’s offered at the platform level. Ready to be fast-to-market or even first-to-market. Much like startups are small teams that often already make use of these new techniques.

Make your idea come to life in this changing new world.

Predictions for the future

It’s almost the end of 2011. Typically a time where bloggers start to write about their past year and what they’ll do in the next. A time where the Forrester, Gartner and McKinsey-alikes make predictions about next year. I know, normally I blog about technology in its technological sense, but today I feel like blogging about my vision on the future. Not 2012, but the future. And the present. Here’s my story in which I try to capture todays world and how this will influence technology.

The world in which we work

Let’s start with some context. I live in the wonderful country of Belgium. A small country, known for its fine chocolates and more importantly: its massive amount of fine brews like Trappists (nothing beats Rochefort 10!). Unfortunately, we are now also known and will probably end up in the Guinness Book of World Records as the country having the longest negotiations to form a government. Around 540 days between voting and formation. (and these guys now have Christmas holidays, of course). But I digress. This country is also a small part in the European crisis which involves monetary issues, banking crisis and so on. The reason? People who don’t want to take responsibilities for their actions. People who don’t want to see change, as they are in a good position. Or people who do want changes but enforce changes that are based on short-term vision. Or tunnel vision: some data required to make decisions does never ever bubble up to higher management (or isn’t cared about).

I know, this post starts to feel like a governmental rant but it isn’t. There’s more to this story: it involves all of us. It involves every single corporation with management levels and focused on making money. The problem is: the larger these companies (or countries, too) get, the more overhead is involved. This is a required step though: you don’t want your CEO to micro-manage everything, the poor guy would have no sleep, ever. What is wrong though, is most of these processes (or laws) come in place and are never optimized. Where processes should support the business in its goals, a lot of processes evolve from supporting to “business prevention”. In fact, I believe in every single country and/or enterprise, a lot of business prevention units and processes exist. And I wouldn’t be surprised that this number is a lot higher than the number of rules that support the business. I’m not saying all of this is happening intentionally, but it is happening.

I’ll give you a fine example of something I witnessed earlier and triggered me into finally writing this post. Someone at some company in a role that involves experimenting with “unapproved” tools, required a simple, clean virtual machine. A process was in place: the request for a VM should be motivated (why do you want this?). Not a problem: the why is easy. Future earnings by investing in some research. Unfortunately, the guys executing this process (your typical IT department) had several other questions. Why isn’t this approved tooling and applications? What resources do you need -oh- that’ll be difficult. Demotivation from the people executing this process. Why? Because they, too, don’t want to follow the food chain up through the organization to ask for an internal budget of, say, 250 EUR per month. A budget that already was spent informally by e-mailing and calling back-and-forth instead of just getting the damn VM in place. In fact, those external hosters with a VM for 25 EUR / month seemed attractive. 25 EUR, or even 250 EUR, for a potential future business idea? An idea that costs almost nothing but may (or may not, it depends) offer return in the future. A budget that has already been spent by just preventing this idea from happening.

Meet the next generation of workers. Many people entering these large enterprises (or becoming residents of countries, again, the same ideas apply for any organization involving more than a few people) are disappointed. Disappointed with the fact that their ideals (making the entire group of ants move forward) is tempered by that same group of ants working in the opposite direction. And the thing is: this group of ants will keep doing this as long as other groups of ants throw some meat into the ant pile. Money.

Earlier this year we’ve seen protests around the world. The Middle East protests, Occupy movements, … All sorts of people fighting against their pile of ants. In some cases this will work, in some probably not. The same happens in enterprises: people fight these business prevention processes but are fighting a fight that will never work. That’s why management layers and business prevention processes are in place.

This story may sound depressing but it isn’t. There are new ants growing to the top and more fresh ants are entering the higher regions of these management layers and business prevention units. They too are frustrated with things not happening, just because. They are trying to change all this. But unfortunately, the pace in which this happens is slow? Utterly slow.

The flipside

We are on the flipside. Companies in technology, very much focused on small layers of overhead and business prevention, are introducing new products and technologies. Tablets, “apps”. The Internet. Telecommuting as a solution to those traffic jam that only cost money and create stress and health problems. But not everyone is in that world. Yet.

People will become more vocal, that’s what we’ve seen with all the protesting. People will want to bring their own hardware to work (because it’s faster than that crappy Windows XP machine they are forced to use). People will bring tablets. People will want to work distributed, when they want and where they want. People will start placing their own goal at the same level of the goal the group of ants has: they’ll strive for personal happiness and at the same time meat for the group of ants. But in order to achieve those two goals, they’ll force change. They’ll want to get rid of business prevention processes because they cost time. And losing time means losing moments to enjoy family and friends. And the group of ants loses at the same time, too.

Now how will this change happen? Well, through consumerization and technology. Over the last years, we’ve seen people adopting the Internet. Desktops are being replaced by laptops, smartphones and tablets. People want their favorite tools, in which they can work most efficient. Just like people wearing orange socks instead of black socks. People will want to be more efficient, and their tools at hand make them feel efficient. And this continues at a higher pace than before: I see a lot of people running around with tablets. I see smartphones being used. I see social media being used as a focused and immediate communication channel to get things organized. Much like the consumerization of the governments in the Middle East, consumerization in enterprises will happen. Be prepared and focus on these things:

  • People will bring their own devices. They’ll bring in the right tool for the job. A tablet? Sure. A web browser on any device? Why not. As a company, better start preparing to become an ISP for your employees instead of an IT department doing nothing but blacklisting. People are used to this at home, so why not in the world they work in? Prediction 1: Bring your own device.
     
  • In my example earlier: people want to keep their pace. Why fight when all you need is a credit card to open up a cloud somewhere? Employees will do this. Managers as well: they too feel the fight and see easier, more efficient ways out. Why remove “your inbox is almost full” e-mails daily when there’s 25 GB of inbox space waiting to be unlocked for 5 EUR / month? Prediction 2: Cloud momentum will rise.
     
  • Silverlight is dead? The Web is dead? Apps are dead? If you’ve followed Twitter these days, those predictions were made. I say: nonsense. I see things converge. Smaller, less bloated but more agile ways of working, whether if it’s trough a small app or through a small, focused website. The actual technology will not matter, the way people work with it will. Prediction 3: UX and how we use apps will matter, technology will be supportive.
     
  • People want to work together. Move forward, together. One way of doing that is to open up your silos. Create API’s which focus on exposing information. Don’t focus on the software consuming those. Maybe it’s better to create an API instead of creating an extranet application. Let the consumers decide how they’ll work with that data. Prediction 4: API’s.
     
  • Some business models are dead. Large enterprises still exist because money keeps flowing in. But what if the consumerization stops that? Look at the music industry. People wanted fast and easy access to their music. Nothing happened in the industry. Consumers did their thing and invented things like Napster. Until one company with a fruit logo was smart enough to see a business model in this. Be prepared. Consumers, be it in their personal or work life, may no longer be happy with your business model. They’ll request change or change it themselves. If you don’t, you’ll end up like the music industry, fighting a fight that you can never win. The book industry got it right: they changed the way books are being distributed to e-book readers. Sure, there are alternative and illegal ways to read a book, but they are winning their fight. Small change but supporting the consumer. Prediction 5: Business and revenue models will (have to) change.
     
  • Smaller projects. You probably know those two-year projects were a lot of stuff gets analyzed and implemented. Project fails. 2 years of money and effort wasted. But since we don’t want to see this failure bubble up or down means that we do put this thing in production. Which forces users to start consumerizing faster. The return of the MS Access database! Prediction 6: Projects will become smaller and more focused.

Those are my predictions. And all are the result of consumerization and technology enabling people. I don’t know if 2012 will bring all of these. I do think some of them will start emerging. Be prepared for change.

PS: I promise, my next blog post will be about angle brackets again.

PS 2: I am not targeting any specific government or specific enterprise.

Windows Phone 7 First Impressions

Windows Phone 7Back in june of this year, I received a very surprising e-mail stating that I would receive a Windows Phone 7 developer device. The reason for this? No, not that I’m handsome. But the fact that I paid $99 for listing an application in the marketplace that they were hoping me to port to Windows Phone 7. The wait continued: july? No phone. August? No phone. By september I thought I was not getting a Windows Phone 7 anymore. Until this week: another e-mail stating that the device was shipped. And today, FedEx kindly handed me over a developer device.

After installing my SIM card and starting the phone, I was welcomed by the nice looking Windows Phone 7 tiles. And that is where the rest of my journey started…

Disclaimer: This device is not a production device. It is a prototype developed by LG and I have absolutely no clue how this thing will look like and perform in the production model. Next, I have only used this phone for a few hours yet. Therefore do not base final judgements of the product on this blog post.

By the way, seems like Scott Hanselman also received a prototype phone and blogged about his experience.

Things I like

Here’s a list of the things I really, really like:

  • Windows Live, Google, Yahoo and Exchange are data sources for contacts and calendar information. I added my Windows Live account, Facebook, GMail and work Exchange account and WP7 is happily synchronizing everything.
  • With all that synching, WP7 seems to identify contacts: my wife’s Windows Live contact details, Facebook details and GMail details are all combined into one contact on the phone which is extremely useful. All contact information is centralized in that way.
  • The photo camera (5 MP) has a dedicated button. A button that also lets you take pictures if the phone is turned off! No need for a 20 seconds boot time if you want to quickly take a picture: just push the button and take a picture.
  • The tiles on the main screen are a very refreshing UI concept. Also, the UI is very smooth and fast compared with any other phone I used in the past.
  • Everything is very straightforward: you can get up and running in no time.
  • This model has a hardware keyboard which is a nice addition. Typing using the on-screen keyboard works but I do have thick fingers that are wrong sometimes. No problem in English as the English dictionary is helping as you type, but there’s no Dutch dictionary in this one yet which gives me a lot of mistakes. Unless I use the hardware keyboard, which I like better than on-screen.

Things I miss

There are some things I miss and may have me ending up with 2 phones in my pocket: my WP6 and WP7 phone. Here’s a list of things I miss:

  • A decent Twitter application. There's an app for that but not yet something like PockeTwit which I used on WP6.
  • Facebook is nicely integrated, except I can not find a place to update my status. Writing on people’s wall and commenting on people’s posts is possible but I seem to be missing a place where I can just enter “What’s on my mind?” Found here how it works.
  • There’s no such thing as Outlook synchronization! I have a GMail account for e-mail and tend to maintain contacts and calendar in good old Outlook. After looking at how to synchronize these I haven’t found a good manner to synchronize these contacts and calendar. My current solution was a bulk import into Windows Live contacts and calendar which works but is not very straightforward if you are used to just ActiveSyncing everything. Actually I started liking Windows Live for this matter. So maybe you'll miss it but I no longer do.
  • I have TomTom on my WP6 phone, does anyone know if they will release a WP7 version that does not eat your data plan?
  • Tethering! Really, every modern phone supports this!

Things I dislike

Another list of items… I dislike:

  • I don’t really like the Zune software. It appears very bloated and requires a lot of clicking to get some basic stuff done.
  • Fortunately I have a data plan with my cellphone operator. If you do not have such a thing, the WP7 will cost you a lot of money. If you would turn off data on the device, it will have less functionality.
  • There’s no Outlook synchronization. I fixed this with a workaround (see “Things I miss”), but would rather see this supported out-of-the-box.
  • Battery life seems rather short (+/ 1,5 day before having to recharge?)
  • No tethering???

Conclusion

If you look at the lists above, you will notice that I like the device and OS. There’s some lacking functionality and apps, but I’m sure these will be available soon after the release. It’s very surprising how smooth this device works and how easy it is to work with. Looking forward to the first official devices! And hope they will sync with Outlook and will support tethering...

BlogEngine.NET comment spam filtering

SpamIt’s been a month or three since I was utterly fed up with comment spam on my blog. Sure, I did turn on comment moderation so you, as a visitor, would not notice this spam if I did not approve it as a valid comment. However, I found myself cleaning up comment spam from in between legitimate comments in the BlogEngine.NET admin interface.

In an effort of trying to reduce comment spam, I tried the following:

  • Close comments after 90 days – This effort worked for a few days, but afterwards I was just seeing more comment spam on the topics that were still open to comments.
  • Use a CAPTCHA – This effort reduced some comment spam, but not all. Which makes me believe there are people actually making a living by just sending out comment spam and filling out CAPTCHA’s out there.
  • Whining and cursing while again cleaning out comments manually – This effort worked, until I found out that this was what I’ve been doing before the other 2 efforts. Back to start…

Luckily, the latest version of BlogEngine.NET (and also earlier version if you go down the hacky road) featured a new comment system, including spam filtering. After using it for a few months, I must say I’m very close to zero comment spam!

The results

I have configured BlogEngine.NET as follows:

  • Comments enabled, never closed
  • Comment moderation: “on” and “automatic”
  • Whitelisting rules enabled (if you have 5 legitimate comments, you are probably OK)
  • Spam filters enabled: AkismetFilter, StopForumSpam and TypePadFilter

Now if you look at the results, there’s an interesting difference between the spam filter services being used:

image

The accuracy of the spam filters is mostly > 90%, for Akismet it’s even 97.30 %. Which I also feel: a small check every week on whether there are spam filter mistakes is quite enough. Only the TypePadFilter is letting me down there, and I will probably disable this one and rely on only two filters.

Replacement during my vacation: Wilson

This morning, I arrived at work after a great week of skiing in Pitztal, Austria. Unfortunately, I found my chair occupied by a new colleague looking a bit like Wilson. Good to see he enjoyed working early, like I do. But still, that was my seat and PC he was using… Thank you, dear colleagues, to see myself replaced by a plastic, smiling ball…

Wilson, my replacement

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