Friday, August 28, 2009

Why corporate IT should unchain our office computers.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

During a town hall meeting for State Department workers last month, an employee named Jim Finkle asked Hillary Clinton a very important question: "Can you please let the staff use an alternative Web browser called Firefox?" The room erupted in cheers. Finkle explained that he'd previously worked at the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, where everyone enjoyed Firefox. "So I don't understand why State can't use it," he said. "It's a much safer program."

You don't have to know Jim Finkle or anyone else at the State Department to recognize their pain. Millions of workers around the world are in the same straits: They've heard about the joys of Firefox, the wonders of Google Docs, or any number of other great programs or Web sites that might improve how they work. Indeed, they use these apps at home all the time, and they love them. But at work they're stymied by the IT department, that class of interoffice Brahmins that decides, ridiculously and capriciously, how people should work.

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The secretary of state didn't know why Firefox was blocked; an aide stepped in to explain that the free program was too expensive—"it has to be administered, the patches have to be loaded." Isn't that how it always is? You ask your IT manager to let you use something that seems pretty safe and run-of-the-mill, and you're given an outlandish stock answer about administrative costs and unseen dangers lurking on the Web. Like TSA guards at the airport, workplace IT wardens are rarely amenable to rational argument. That's because, in theory, their mission seems reasonable. Computers, like airplanes, can be dangerous things—they can breed viruses and other malware, they can consume enormous resources meant for other tasks, and they're portals to great expanses of procrastination. So why not lock down workplace computers?

Here's why: The restrictions infantilize workers—they foster resentment, reduce morale, lock people into inefficient routines, and, worst of all, they kill our incentives to work productively. In the information age, most companies' success depends entirely on the creativity and drive of their workers. IT restrictions are corrosive to that creativity—they keep everyone under the thumb of people who have no idea which tools we need to do our jobs but who are charged with deciding anyway.

If I sound a bit over-exercised about what seems like an uncontroversial practice, it's because I am—for too long, office workers of the world have taken IT restrictions sitting down. Most of my co-workers at Slate labor away on machines that are under bureaucratic control; they need special dispensation to install anything that requires running an installation program, even programs that have been proved to be safe—anything that uses the increasingly popular Adobe AIR platform or new versions of major Web browsers. Other friends are blocked from visiting large swaths of the Web. IT departments install filtering programs that block not only adult sites but anything that might allow for goofing off on "company time," including e-mail and chat programs, dating sites, shopping sites, and news sites like Digg or Reddit (or even Slate).

Related in Slate
Farhad Manjoo recently wrote about why the new Firefox augurs great things for the Web. In 2006, Jeff Merron debunked the myth that "workplace interruptions" cost the U.S. economy $588 billion each year. Emily Yoffe explained why our brain hard-wires us to love seeking. Plus, Meghan O'Rourke reviews Joshua Ferris' meditation on how office work can destroy our identity, The We Came to the End.

Different IT managers have different aims, of course. At some companies—like Slate—the techs are mainly trying to keep the network secure; preventing people from installing programs is a simple and effective (if blunt) way to ensure that corporate computers don't ingest scary stuff. Other firms want to do something even more sinister: keep workers from having fun. These companies block the Web and various other online distractions on the theory that a cowed work force is an efficient one. But that's not really the case.

One obvious problem with such restrictions is that they're arbitrary. In blocking "dangerous" sites or programs, IT managers inevitably restrict many more useful applications. One editor at a large New York publishing house told me that the art department at his company is constantly running into the firm's net-nanny filtering program. An artist will need to look up, say, pictures of 14th-century Ottoman swords in order to illustrate a fantasy novel—and she'll run into a notice saying, "Access to that site has been blocked because of the following category: Weapons." (It's a measure of the IT department's power that all the office workers I interviewed for this article would talk only on background; no one wants to get on the wrong side of his tech master.) Or consider this madness: Even though many companies are now looking to popularize their products or brands using social-networking sites, IT departments routinely restrict access to Facebook, Twitter, and their ilk.

What's worse, because they aren't tasked with understanding how people in different parts of a company do their jobs, IT managers often can't appreciate how profoundly certain tools can improve how we work. As I've written before, switching from Outlook to Gmail changed my life; hosting my e-mail at Google freed me from methodically backing up old mail, which is an important way I remember my reporting contacts. When I worked in an office not long ago, though, a new man in IT decided that forwarding company mail to my Gmail account might violate the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. I tried to explain that was ridiculous—Sarbanes-Oxley proscribes deleting mail, which I wasn't doing, and, anyway, the IT department had no problem forwarding mail to people's BlackBerries and iPhones. But he wouldn't budge. And it's not just Gmail: I can name several programs—plugins for Outlook or Firefox, desktop Twitter clients, local search programs like Google Desktop, and lots of other apps that have yet to be invented—that might let people work faster or more efficiently. But IT departments can take years to approve such advances; there are office workers all over America still stuck using IE 6.

You might argue that firms need to make sure that people stay on task—if employees were allowed to do whatever they wanted at work, nobody would get anything done. But in many instances, that claim is ridiculous. My fiancĂ©e works at a hospital that blocks all instant-messaging programs. Now, she and her co-workers are doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals—they've been through years of training in which they've proved that they can stay on task even despite the allure of online chat. Can anyone seriously argue that the hospital would suddenly grind to a halt if they were allowed to use IM at work?

Indeed, there's no empirical evidence that unfettered access to the Internet turns people into slackers at work. The research shows just the opposite. Brent Corker, a professor of marketing at the University of Melbourne, recently tested how two sets of workers—one group that was blocked from using the Web and another that had free access—perform various tasks. Corker found that those who could use the Web were 9 percent more productive than those who couldn't. Why? Because we aren't robots; people with Web access took short breaks to look online while doing their work, and the distractions kept them sharper than the folks who had no choice but to keep on task.

Corker's finding fits in with a long line of research that shows distractions can sometimes be good for the mind. Doodling, for instance, helps us stay more alert at meetings. Indeed, Daniel Pink, the author of the upcoming Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, has pointed out that some of the world's most innovative companies are also the most relaxed about goof-off workers. At Google—which, like most big tech firms, imposes no restrictions on workers' computers—people are encouraged to spend time doing stuff that is unrelated to their jobs. Everyone at Pixar is allowed to spend many hours every week attending classes on filmmaking, painting, drawing, creative writing, and other subjects. And Netflix has no vacation plan—people can take as much time off as they like as long as their work gets done.

There is a jargony HR phrase that describes these forward-looking firms: They're called "results-only workplace environments," where people are judged on what they produce, not how. As Netflix CEO Reed Hastings once told a reporter, "I want managers to come to me and say, 'Let's give a really big raise to Sally because she's getting a lot done'—not because she's chained to her desk." This jibes with Pink's argument that it's a sense of autonomy—rather than money—that drive employees to work hard. People work best, he argues, when they feel they're being left alone to do their jobs. But it's hard to feel that way if your computer is constantly throwing up roadblocks in your path.

OK, but shouldn't firms at least do something about viruses and porn? Sure. Rather than restrict access for everyone—ensuring that nobody ever learns which programs are genuinely bad news and which are blocked just for convenience's sake—they can educate workers about how to use their computers. IT departments could also block the most-obviously ruinous sites, places that traffic in illegal material, like the Pirate Bay, or that have been flagged as repositories of dangerous software. But doing any more than that is counterproductive. As one locked-down worker told me, blocking parts of the Web "systematically makes the company stupider" about the innovation now flooding into our lives. Systematic stupidity is rarely a plan for success.

Killer Apps: Farhad Manjoo reviews Ninja Words, the best dictionary for iPhone.

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Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. You can e-mail him at ")'); and follow him on Twitter.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.


I work at an IT dept that supports 500 desk based employees. Our users run the gamut from extremely tech savvy to living in fear of computers. When a user runs into a problem they can't figure out, they call our help desk (as they should). Usually our help desk operator can respond with a quick "Go to the Edit menu, choose options, and unclick blah blah blah". Pretty standard stuff. We deploy MS Office, a terminal emulator, and a few proprietary apps. If the operator doesn't know what to do, then they ask a more senior member of the IT staff or look it up. Occasionally, we'll all be stumped and have to really dig in to some combination of features and installed components to see what is causing the trouble. This happens all day everyday with just a basic set of apps. If somebody that just doesn't know better starts shuffling spreadsheets between Excel, Google Docs, Open Office Calc, and whatever else that I can't even begin to predict, and then our hosted database can't read it anymore and their report is due this afternoon, who are they going to call? The points of failure in a 'system" like that are infinite, but the responsibility for "computers" still falls on my team. Asking an IT dept to know everything about everything is absurd, and in a corporate environment, the sort of self-assumed responsibility needed to make that work just doesn't exist.

I have no doubt that a portion of our users are more than capable in making wise decisions in choosing, installing, and operating their own handpicked selection of extra apps. The problems would occur with the remainder. To us and to some others, a pop up screaming CLICK HERE FOR PICTURES OF PUPPIES is a huge red flag. So much so, we wouldn't even begin to consider it. Super ultra obvious bad news. But not to Jim on the 3rd floor. He loves puppies and is pretty stoked about the offer that the magic box on his desk just gave him. And if someone calls in like:

User X: "I can't make the letters bigger. I need them bigger."
IT: "You mean make the font larger?"
User X: "Yeah, sure, I guess. How do I do that?"
IT: "What program are you using?"
User X: "FreewareText7000."
IT: "I'm not familiar with that. I can't help you."
User X: "Don't you guys fix these computey machines?"
IT: "Yes, we do, but we don't support that program."
User X: "Well, Tina in Finance uses it and her letters are bigger."

Then what?

IT: "Very sorry sir. It sounds as though Tina is not a drooling idiot and has figured it out for herself. You? You stick with Word and let me know if you have any questions."

No time for all that. No time.

-- jmnale
(To reply,
click here)

Thanks for your letter. Can you -- or any other IT person who's responded in the Fray so far -- e-mail me? I'd like to chat about your job for a future article. Thanks.


-- Farhad Manjoo
(To reply,
click here)

What did you think of this article?
Join The Fray: Our Reader Discussion Forum

With all the problems with IE, I don't see why the government doesn't force staffers to use Firefox.

Wake The Fuck Up Coffee, 1lb.

Now THIS is some serious coffee

Considering starting a "CF Fringe" podcast focusing on the bleeding edge of CFML, hacks, etc.--any interest?

This won't be weekly--I learned my lesson there. It also will be down and dirty, much like the content, meaning the long hours of production we put into ColdFusion Weekly ( won't be there. It'll likely be myself, Peter Farrell, and miscellaneous guests jumping on Skype to talk about open source in the CFML world, cool CFML hacks, and other topics for 15-30 minutes every so often.

 Definitely would like some feedback on this--I've been mulling over some ideas for quite a while and I think this one has some legs. And I don't want it to turn into "the Matt and Peter show" by any means, because there's a ton of people out there doing a ton of cool stuff, so the more the merrier.

 And who knows, the web site could turn into a place for how-tos, cool hacks and sample apps, maybe even some screencasts ...

 My motivation is that I know from Twitter and through the grapevine that there are a lot of people out there doing some very interesting things, and I don't think there's an outlet for things like this since, at least in my opinion, the current CFML podcasts have turned into "Sunday morning news shows" as opposed to being technical. There's a place for that, but that certainly shouldn't be the only thing going on and given that the more technical episodes of CF Weekly were also our most popular, there's a void there that needs to be filled.

 Anyway, let me know what you think if you have an interest or opinion on this.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

12-words-you-can-never-say-in-the-office.html: Personal Finance News from Yahoo! Finance

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If you're old enough to understand the reference in this headline -- George Carlin, anyone? -- then you're old enough to need a refresher course when it comes to talking about technology.

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We've put together a list of outdated tech terms, phrases that you shouldn't be using at work anymore because they will make you seem old. This is especially true if you're looking for a new job. For example, on an interview, you should be talking about "cloud computing," not "ASPs" even though they are basically the same thing.

This list is useful for 20-somethings, too. Now when the senior person in the office uses one of these terms, you'll know what he's talking about.

1. Intranet

Popular in the mid-90s, the term "intranet" referred to a private network running the Internet Protocol and other Internet standards such as the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP). It was also used to describe an internal Web site that was hosted behind a firewall and was accessible only to employees. Today, every private network runs IP. So you can just use the term virtual private network or VPN to describe a private IP-based network.

2. Extranet

An "extranet" referred to private network connections based on Internet standards such as IP and HTTP that extended outside an organization, such as between business partners. Extranets often replaced point-to-point electronic data interchange (EDI) connections that used standards such as X12. Today, companies provide suppliers, resellers and other members of their supply chain with access to their VPNs.

3. Web Surfing

When is the last time you heard someone talk about surfing the Web? You know the term is out of date when your kids don't know what it means. To teens and tweens, the Internet and the World Wide Web are one and the same thing. So it's better to use the term "browsing" the Web if you want to be understood.

4. Push Technology

The debate over the merits of "push" versus "pull" technology came to a head in 1996 with the release of the PointCast Network, a Web service that sent a steady stream of news to subscribers. However, PointCast and other push technology services required too much network bandwidth. Eventually, push technology evolved into RSS feeds, which remain the preferred method for publishing information to subscribers of the Internet. RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication.

5. Application Service Provider (ASP)

During this decade, the term "Application Service Provider" evolved into "Software-as-a-Service." Both terms refer to a vendor hosting a software application and providing access to it over the Web. Customers buy the software on a subscription basis, rather than having to own and operate it themselves. ASP was a hot term prior to the dot-com bust. Then it was replaced by "SaaS." Now it's cool to talk about "cloud computing."

6. Personal Digital Assistant (PDA)

Coined by former Apple CEO John Sculley back in 1992 when he unveiled the Apple Newton, the term "personal digital assistant" referred to a handheld computer. PDA was still in use in 1996, when the Palm Pilot was the hottest handheld in corporate America. Today, the preferred generic term for a handheld like a Blackberry or an iPhone is a "smartphone".

7. Internet Telephony

You need to purge the term "Internet telephony" from your vocabulary and switch to VoIP, for Voice over IP. Even the term VoIP is getting old-fashioned because pretty soon all telephone calls will be routed over the Internet rather than the Public Switched Telephone Network. It's probably time to stop referring to the PSTN, too, because it is headed for the history books as all voice, data and video traffic is carried on the Internet.

8. Weblog

A blog is a shortened version of "Weblog," a term that emerged in the late 1990s to describe commentary that an individual publishes online. It spawned many words still in use such as "blogger" and "blogosphere." Nowadays, few people have time to blog so they are "microblogging," which is another word that's heading out the door as people turn Twitter into a generic term for blasting out 140-character observations or opinions.

9. Thin Client

You have to give Larry Ellison credit for seeing many of the flaws in the client/server computing architecture and for popularizing the term "thin client" to refer to Oracle's alternative terminal-like approach. In 1993, Ellison was touting thin clients as a way for large organizations to improve network security and manageability. Although thin clients never replaced PCs, the concept is similar to "virtual desktops" that are gaining popularity today as a way of supporting mobile workers.

10. Rboc

In 1984, the U.S. government forced AT&T to split up into seven Regional Bell Operating Companies [RBOCs] also known as Baby Bells. Customers bought local service from RBOCs and long-distance service from carriers such as AT&T. Telecom industry mergers over the last 15 years have formed integrated local- and long-distance carriers such as AT&T, Verizon and Qwest. This makes not only the term RBOC obsolete, but also the terms ILEC for Incumbent Local Exchange Carrier [i.e., GTE] and CLEC for Competitive Local Exchange Carrier [i.e., MFS].

11. Long-Distance Call

Thanks to flat-rate calling plans available from carriers for at least five years, nobody needs to distinguish between local and long-distance calls anymore. Similarly, you don't need to distinguish between terrestrial and wireless calls because so many people use only wireless services. Like pay phones, long-distance calls -- and their premium prices -- are relics of a past without national and unlimited calling plans.

12. World Wide Web

Nobody talks about the "World Wide Web" anymore, or the "Information Superhighway," for that matter. It's just the Internet. It's a distinction that Steve Czaban, the popular Fox Sports Radio talk show host, likes to mock when he refers to the "Worldwide Interweb." Nothing dates you more than pulling out one of those old-fashioned ways of referring to the Internet such as "infobahn" or "electronic highway."

Intranet is outdated? Man I'm old.

Trying out posterous ...

Seeing where all this shows up and what it looks like.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Friday, August 14, 2009

Open BlueDragon + BlazeDS HowTo Guide

BlazeDS integration is on the roadmap for a future release of Open BlueDragon (hey, give us a break, we have more cool stuff planned than we can keep track of!), but in the mean time I've put together an OpenBD + BlazeDS HOWTO on the OpenBD wiki.

Note that the HOWTO is really more of a guide for gearheads (like myself) who are interested in how all the pieces fit together. If you just want to grab a clean slate on which to mess with things, or see a couple of very simple sample Flex apps in action, you can do that too:

Next step is to rework the OpenBD BlazeDS adapter to support returning queries directly to Flex, and then Flex lovers are in decent shape on OpenBD until we do the official integration.


Thats cool. Thats real cool.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Passionate Programmer and Value Rigidity

I have to thank Mike Brunt for the mention of Chad Fowler's The Passionate Programmer on Twitter (yes, occasionally worthwhile stuff crops up on Twitter ...), because it's one of the best programming books I've read in recent memory. It has nothing to do with coding or a specific technology, but I strongly believe it's one of the more important and impactful books a programmer can read, regardless of their choice of technology.

Personally I love reading things that cause me to question at a very fundamental level what I'm doing and why I'm doing it. If you don't do this every once in a while you may find yourself off in the metaphorical weeds, having a hard time getting back on track or even figuring out what direction you're supposed to be going. The Passionate Programmer made me question something about what I'm doing and where I'm going with every chapter.

Coincidentally enough I watched the documentary TED: The Future We Will Create last week. It was inspirational throughout, but there was a particular moment that resonated with me. One of the TED prize winners that year was Cameron Sinclair, who is the cofounder of Architecture for Humanity, which advocates for "building a more sustainable future through the power of design." One of the more amazing examples he gave in his TED talk was a building that was planted (as in using seeds), grew to 14 feet in height in a month, and then could be eaten when the building was no longer needed.

That's extremely cool in and of itself, but another architect at TED that year was Rem Koolhaas, who designed the Seattle Public Library. I haven't been to the library since I moved here, but after seeing this film I looked into it more, and it's an amazing piece of modern architecture, both in terms of its visual impact as well as how the space is designed to suit the specific purpose for which the building was built.

In a brief interview with Koolhaas in the TED film, he said that the presentation that impacted him the most was Sinclair's, because (and I'm paraphrasing here) it made him fundamentally question his approach to architecture and what he was doing with his skills. Coming from a guy who built such an acclaimed building (and I'm sure he's done many other great things in his career), that's rather astounding.

So back to programming. The Passionate Programmer is fantastic throughout, but what hit me like a ton of bricks, and what made me think of the TED documentary, was a chapter entitled "The South Indian Monkey Trap." Without going too much into the reference, this chapter makes the point that "rigid values make you fragile," and that fragility is definitely not a good thing for a programmer. Quoting the book:

"For example, it's easy to get hung up on technology choices. This is especially true when our technology of choice is the underdog. We love the technology so much and place such a high value on defending it as a choice for adoption that we see every opportunity as a battle worth fighting--even when we're advocating what is clearly the wrong choice."

I'm sure folks in the CFML community recognize the tendencies here. Clearly I'm not saying CFML is a bad choice--far from it. I wouldn't continue to use CFML if I thought it was bad. But one of the points I made in my "Best of Both Worlds" presentation at cf.Objective() this year (you can watch it here if you missed it), is that while CFML is a great choice for a lot of things, we do ourselves a disservice if we get too myopic on our technology choices. If the only tool you have is a hammer ...

Now on the flip side of this, you may look around and find that seeing what else is out there reinforces your notion that CFML is a great tool for most of what you do. Even if you come back to where you started, however, there's a tremendous amount of value in the exploration.

The other thing I love about The Passionate Programmer is that each chapter ends with an "Act on it!" section. In the case of this particular chapter the actions suggested are:

  1. "Find your monkey traps," meaning identify your rigid values and do some soul searching on them.

  2. Know your enemy: pick a technology you hate, and build something in it. Not only does it help knowing what you're fighting against more intimately, you add a new skill to your toolbox and might even find that the technology you hate does some things pretty darn well.

So that's some of what's been going through my head lately. Agree or disagree, I really do encourage you to read The Passionate Programmer because it will inspire you far more than I possibly can in a blog post overview.


Just added it to my Amazon Wishlist, thanks for pointing this out. "The Pragmatic Programmer" is another good one from the same publisher.

Sounds interesting. I hope I will find the time to check out this book.


I'll have to check it out. On a side note, TED talks are just the most amazing thing since sliced bread. Clark Valberg turned me on to them a year ago. It's like candy for my brain.

Hi Matt,

I got the original version of the book when it first came out (My Job Went to India: 52 Ways To Save Your Job) and remember an interview with one of the prag publishers (I think it was Andy Hunt) who said he wished they'd picked a better title because they felt the title killed the sales of the book.

I'm glad they re-released it the other month with a new title, and I think it's a great read. Hopefully with the new name it'll get the sales it deserves (well, the new title, and of course the plug on your blog :-) ).

I was looking at "The Passionate Programmer" on the Pragmatic Programmers site last week, along with "Pragmatic Thinking and Learning". I would have bought them both by now, but my strategy for managing my spending is to keep telling myself whenever I want to buy something that "I don't need it yet". This post (along with the fact that today is my pay day) has convinced me to go ahead and get them.

To correct Ryan's comment, The Pragmatic Programmers (Andy Hunt & Dave Thomas) wrote the book "The Pragmatic Programmer" but are not the publishers for it, as they wrote it before getting into the publishing business. The biggest consequence of this is that there is no eBook version available of that title. I believe Dave & Andy have made a point of selling DRM-free eBook versions of all the titles they publish, which I think is pretty darn cool.