On Twitter, if you follow back reflexively, the spammers win

Are you among those who believe that if you don’t follow someone back on Twitter, you’re being snobby and arrogant?  Then this post is meant for you. My purpose here, quite candidly, is to persuade you that reflexively following someone back is not only a habit which encourages spam, but is in fact a major contributor to making Twitter a thriving spam platform.

For those who reflexively follow, in other words, I ask you to consider the ramifications of your behavior to the greater community, especially when multiplied by the thousands or millions of Twitterers who may behave likewise. Basically, you’re helping the spammers win.

First, let’s think about this: why does anyone follow anyone else on Twitter?  Three main reasons come to mind:

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“Getting” Twitter, from the technology executive’s perspective

I don’t want this to be just another post about Twitter, the current hot trend of the Internet.  Rather, I’d like to relate this new Twitter fad to a long-planned important topic here.

Specifically, what can we in technology do to keep current and stay up-to-speed on our various areas of interest and expertise? There’s more out there than any of us can learn, and new technologies come along all the time.  Truly staying current, at a reasonable depth level, would be a more-than-full-time job.

Here’s how I’ve come to grips with that basic reality. These remarks are most relevant to the executive level, but to some extent they apply across the spectrum of roles in IT.
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Mantra for IT: “Participate in the process rather than confront results”

Let’s sail into a stretch of a metaphor this time. You probably know by now how much I embrace metaphors as a way to impart, often via a concrete example, ideas and concepts that are hard to grasp. So let’s go way back and talk about a metaphorical influence from long ago.

When I was in early high school, we would occasionally spend English class watching and then discussing a variety of short subject films, many of them from the fertile minds at the National Film Board of Canada.  Some of these films, described by the NFB as “socially engaged documentary”, bordered on (or transcended) the bizarre; they thus spurred all sorts of avid arguments among teenagers, easily as much as Ethan Frome or Wang Lung, the more literary staples of the curriculum that I can remember from that year.  There was one such film in particular, in fact, that has stuck with me for decades.  After some digging, I’ve finally been able to identify it by name and origin.  The researchers at the NFB have now kindly confirmed for me that the film is titled “I.B.M.”, and that it was directed by Jacques Languirand. When I reflect on it, the film’s staying power with me makes sense, since it not only features IT elements, but also serves admirably and in multiple ways as a metaphor for IT issues.

As I recall the five-minute film, it features an unchanging close-up view of an automated keypunch machine, punching out a series of IBM computer punchcards with a mysterious and incomplete common message. The film shows the cards sliding into place and getting punched, one at a time, then rolling off into the output hopper. Only parts of the full message can be read at first, since some of the letters of each word are omitted or obscured. Little by little, though, over the course of the film’s duration, each successive card that is punched contains more and more of the message, until it becomes clear at the end of the film that the text reads, “Participate in the process rather than confront results.”

Think about the wisdom and depth of that line: “Participate in the process rather than confront results.” Three ways come to mind of relating this metaphor to IT, to its role across the enterprise, and even to effective IT management of staff. They share a common aspect: the duty (and the reward) of emphasizing participation over passive observation.
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More astounding IT utterances

A few months back, I wrote a post on various “Astounding Sayings” that I’ve encountered in my career in information technology.  It turns out that it’s been one of the more popular posts I’ve written, judging from page views, so in true Hollywood fashion, it must be time for a sequel.  I am retitling it slightly, though, to distinguish it from the Peterisms I post from time to time.  The point of writing about the “astounding” sayings was that they usually reflect misguided energy (or, to put it bluntly: wrong-headed thinking); the point of the Peterisms, on the other hand, is to distill and communicate absolute, undeniable, sublime truth and wisdom at every possible turn. (Hopefully it’s unnecessary, but just in case, <insert smiley face here>.)  Hence, I’m now going to call these non-truthful, unwise sayings “astounding utterances” instead.

Here are two more such utterances, with moral-of-the-story observations for each.  Note: as before, these are true stories.  I may have changed some of the facts, lightly, to make them less identifiable.  They also always come from at least several years in the past, to provide a healthy amount of distance for everyone.

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“Astounding IT sayings”: the inaugural post

I haven’t given myself the luxury of telling an IT anecdote or two here recently, so it’s about time: here are two, with moral-of-the-story observations for each.  Note: these are true stories.  I may have changed some of the facts, lightly, to make them less identifiable.  They’re also always at least several years in the past, to provide a healthy amount of distance for everyone.

I’d actually like to make this post the first in a recurring motif, a series that I’ll call “Astounding IT Sayings,” for what I hope are obvious reasons.  The saying that I consider to be astounding, in its context, will be highlighted for you below in bold.

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Climbing the ladder to CIO/CTO: a biographical sketch from eWeek

Another heads-up to readers: I was recently interviewed by eWeek for my thoughts on the difference between mid-market CIOs and enterprise CIOs.  As these things sometimes go, the interview turned into more of a discussion of career path and how you climb to executive ranks in IT.  I’ve written about this topic before, but if you want to read some more on this, with a little more detail about my own path, do check out the article here; it appeared this week.  The interview also gave me yet another opportunity to make my now-familiar points about some pet subjects, such as IT needing to be a service organization, the importance of being a partner to the business, and so on.

CIO pet peeves: small drains on personal productivity

I promised a while back to write more about some of the pet peeves I’ve developed in the CIO/CTO role. So here are a few more.

We all have pet peeves. Working as an executive in IT seems to present a lot of opportunities to develop a long list of these. They’re minor grievances, to be sure, but they also really matter, in that they drain away little smidgens of productivity or create frustration. And most are easy to address, so in the interest of enhancing the world’s productivity, I’d like to list a few of these. I’ll confine myself just to the ones that crop up at least once a week in the course of my workday. Consider fixing these a high priority to show good business etiquette and professionalism:

Pet peeves:

  • Email aliases that aren’t of the form first.last@company.com

Yes, I know it’s rare that anyone has to actually type an email address from scratch. Nonetheless, when you do, you shouldn’t have to guess. Hmm, is Brian Wilson going to be brianw@xyz.com, or bwilson@xyz.com, or brianwi@xyz.com? Every company should standardize on the predictable, canonical form of first.last@company.com, at least as an acceptable alias. A speaker at a conference I just attended told the audience to contact him at kzw@company.com, and everyone actually had to scribble that down! He thought it was simple, no doubt, since it was only three letters. But the point is, you shouldn’t have to remember yet another token about a person. Even Microsoft, for its employees’ email addresses, doesn’t do this email address standardization right, at least not as a standard across the board.

  • Documents (spreadsheets, in particular) that won’t print cleanly

If you make a document, even in this paperless world, assume that someone will probably want to print it, if only to read on the bus or something. Spreadsheets in particular need to be print-previewed and examined to see if they’ll print cleanly. Use the “Fit to” option, and shift from portrait mode to landscape mode where appropriate; use the “rows to repeat at top” option to get consistent headers on subsequent pages. It’s pretty irritating to print a document and discover that its columns are spread across four separate pages, unnecessarily.

  • Documents that don’t have titles, dates, authors identified clearly on every page

Whenever I bring this one up to someone passing around an unlabeled, undated document, I always hear, “Oh, that’s because it’s only a draft, you see.” That’s all the more reason to make sure it’s labeled, since there are bound to be later revisions floating around. Excel and Word both have excellent header/footer functionality. Use it. While you’re at it, page numbers are also nice.

  • Spreadsheets with empty tabs

90% of the spreadsheets I get sent have three tabbed worksheets: one with data (Sheet1) and two with nothing (Sheet2 and Sheet3). I then exercise my unavoidable and infamous anal retentiveness by diligently bringing up all three tabs to view, just to be sure I’m not missing anything (and every once in a while, sure enough, I discover data in one of the tabs I’d assumed was probably blank). Come on, everyone: the three tabs are the unfortunate Excel default (yes, you can and should change this, instantly, with any new Excel installation), put in place by Microsoft marketing, which spent no doubt countless meetings arguing over the best way to make sure people knew that tabs were a feature. (Count your blessings: the default for a previous release of Excel was 16 tabs for every workbook!) Get rid of empty tabs; they add no value. If you need a new tab, add it then. While you’re at it: if you do use extra tabs, please name them something meaningful.

  • Email without clear subject lines

Email is my knowledge repository, often, representing an important trail of decision points and the reasoning/history behind them. I need to be able to find stuff in that haystack. Fill out a clear and specific header! For example, when I’m sifting through that haystack for a particular nugget, a vague subject line of “Question” isn’t nearly as good as “Question on CRM functional requirements deadline”.

  • Email from close business associates (people I see at least once an hour) that still have to begin with “Hi, Peter”.

It’s a business email, not a personal letter. Salutations aren’t really necessary. I promise: I won’t think you rude for omitting one.

  • Email that doesn’t copy the thread of discussion (when germane) at all

See above point about the need for subject lines. When I’m cruising quickly through email, I don’t want to have to pull up other messages to retrace the flow of discussion on the topic.

Little things, minor irritations, all of these… so why not avoid them?

More Peterisms: lessons learned on IT practices

More pithy sayings that (at least in my view) I reuse in an attempt to succinctly express key concepts and lessons. Or, perhaps in many cases, to annoy my staff via tireless repetition. I have several dozen of these sayings, most likely (I haven’t actually counted), and for many of them I can no longer remember their origin. The ones this time around, though, are attributable. You are free to draw conclusions or insights about my cultural values from the breadth of sources represented here. Aside from the theme of wildly disparate cultural derivation, though, these apothegms have another common thread to them: they tend to come to mind as you go through the standard back-and-forth negotiations with business stakeholders about features, projects, workload.

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