On Methodical Problem Solving

Seeing the sky through the trees

Co-workers who have solved problems with me over any period of time have heard me talk about “building the matrix”. Sometimes its an actual table on a whiteboard (virtual or on the wall) while other times it’s in my head or in a notebook, but I’m almost always building a matrix when I’m working a problem.

And when I encounter someone working a problem and see them flailing around, I encourage them to slow down and develop a matrix, as a way of moving forward.

What’s in the Matrix?

The matrix can be as simple as a list of steps tried and their results. Or it can be more, tracking fields such as the state of different components during that test, any hypothesis and a place for tracking results.

Continue reading

Posted in Management, System Administration | Tagged , | Comments Off on On Methodical Problem Solving

Case Study: Security Controls in small, non-traditional Organizations

Several unfortunate events were used together to defraud a 501(c)(3) of nearly all their operating funds during a transition from one managing group to another, highlighting the needs for stronger controls in a wider spectrum of organizations than usually considered.

The Scenario

The attacker gained control of a person’s email account at a large consulting firm, presumably because the company’s high-profile name and contracts made them a more important target for attackers. The employee using the compromised account was using the company account for personal purposes, one of which was as a team member working to transition an unrelated 501(c)(3) from one managing group to another.

Continue reading

Posted in Other Thoughts | Tagged , | Comments Off on Case Study: Security Controls in small, non-traditional Organizations

Off the Shelf: July 2021 (The Checklist Manifesto)

Of all the several books I read in July, the most impactful was The checklist manifesto, by Atul Gawande.

Checklist for Checklists
A Checklist for Checklists
(from the Appendix)

The Checklist Manifesto

Early in the book Gawande introduces research proposing that there are “three different kinds of problems in the world: the simple, the complicated, and the complex.” In my experience, simple problems are like the process of making pancakes. Practicing technique is helpful, but following a recipe (a form of checklist) is key to increasing your chance of success.

Gawande proposes rocketry as an example of a complicated problem. It can “be broken down into a series of simple problems” but there’s no pancake recipe to follow. While making pancakes can be done by just about anyone with an inventory of ordinary materials, a valid recipe and access to a few common cooking resources, sending a rocket to the moon involves many multiples of highly-trained people, a variety of teams, specialized materials and more expertise than can be easily collected in one place. Many of the problems can be made simple by breaking them down, but much remains complicated, and working through the logistics, timing, coordination and the results of Murphy’s Law is not straightforward.

Continue reading

Posted in Management | Comments Off on Off the Shelf: July 2021 (The Checklist Manifesto)

Off the Shelf: June 2021

Most of June’s reading was for fun, but each stands out for something unique.

I first put I sing the body electric! on my e-reader a few months ago because I knew I’d soon be needing a collection of short stories, things a little more self-contained than a longer novel, and Bradbury delivers.
“Night Call, Collect” may be my favorite of the collection — a man stranded on Mars attempts to keep his future self company through hundreds of electronic recordings that call him and interact with him years later, but ends up driving himself nearly (completely?) mad. A thoughtful story that made me stop and muse about some things for a few days after finishing.
“Tomorrow’s Child” explores the love of a father and the love of a mother for their unique child, born into a different dimension from the parents. After a year of trying to bring the child into the parents’ dimension, the scientists announce they can transport the parents to their child’s dimension, but cannot go the other way. Faced with the options of being united with their child (and isolated from the regular world) or of staying estranged from their child (but living in the regular world), they make a choice.

Continue reading

Posted in Other Thoughts | Tagged | Comments Off on Off the Shelf: June 2021

Off the Shelf: May 2021

Looking back at the month, I finished more books in May than I had thought, including two that I’ve been working on for a long time and two that I rushed since the Library wanted them back sooner rather than later.

I first heard about Paper Trails (Blevins, 2021) from a WSJ book review that caught my eye in March of this year. I’ve long been interested in the visual representation of data (see Tufte’s works) and here was an entire book telling a different perspective on the story of “how the west was won” through the dry data of when and where US Post Offices were opened in the 1800s. My local library didn’t have it yet, but I put a hold on it and it arrived quickly (and they wanted it back rather soon, too). Blevins takes a potentially dry subject and breathes life into it, resulting in a fascinating story.

Continue reading

Posted in Other Thoughts | Tagged | Comments Off on Off the Shelf: May 2021

Broken Everywhere

I catch some good-natured and well-deserved ribbing from my co-workers and colleagues about this precept, but frankly, I take it in stride. It’s true that sometimes the new hires don’t understand it right away, but once explained and demonstrated, I don’t generally get much push-back.

Stated simply, “Broken Everywhere” means:

A single device or installation should never stop working as a result of a change to (or near) a similar device or installation somewhere else. Continue reading

Posted in System Administration | 1 Comment

Ban “Interesting”

Let’s ban the word “interesting” (at least for a while). Think about it for a moment. When was the last time you used the word when it actually[1. Let’s ban “actually” next.] meant something?

“What did you think about the incident management presentation?”
“Oh, it was interesting.”

Does that tell you anything? It’s a cop-out answer, a filler word Continue reading

Posted in Other Thoughts | Tagged , | Comments Off on Ban “Interesting”

Never too early—rarely too often

We’ve got a rather large project going on at the moment and a shrinking window to get it done. The deeper we dig into this mound of work, the more and varied things we pull out. What started as a “you’re almost there already” project is now starting to look rather daunting.

My strategy? Limit the scope and focus solely on that scope. If it’s not in that scope, it gets left out and doesn’t get done. Continue reading

Posted in Leadership | Tagged | Comments Off on Never too early—rarely too often

A Manager’s Smile


We moved offices this past week, relocating the IT department (and one other) into a new space. The new space is light and airy and is laid out on the open office plan.[1. I believe that the only fans of the open-plan offices can be found in the workplace design profession. However, they simply cannot back up their claims of productivity increases. As Tom DeMarco and Tim Lister wrote many years ago, “The only method we have ever seen used to confirm claims that the open plan improves productivity is proof by repeated assertion.” (emphasis in the original)

DeMarco, Tom, and Timothy R. Lister. Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams. Addison-Wesley, 1987, p 53.] Initially we were skeptical but we’re making the best of it and it appears most everyone is settling down and adjusting well.

We have two new conference rooms, a large dedicated IT workroom, lots of community (but very little individual) storage, an awesome kitchen and a very welcoming lunch space. Continue reading

Posted in Other Thoughts | Tagged , | Comments Off on A Manager’s Smile

5 Reasons Why Not to Use Your Work Computer to Do Your Personal Taxes

  1. You don’t have local admin.
    TurboTax requires[1. See “Administrator Rights In Windows 7 And Vista – Turbotax Support“. Web. 8 Feb. 2017.] it and you probably don’t have it, nor should you.
    Admins take away local admin because users frequently don’t look before clicking and because users install things they shouldn’t, possibly introducing malware or putting their organizations at risk of license violations.
  2. You just saved, on a device you don’t own, your sensitive personal information.
    Enough of your (and your family’s) sensitive personal information[2. See  NIST’s “Guide to Protecting the Confidentiality of Personally Identifiable Information (PII)” (pdf). Web. 8 Feb. 2017.] that even a mildly competent criminal would find it easy to exploit. And you saved it for them all in one spot. With pointers to it.
    There are methods to encrypt this file and make it harder for them to exploit it. But it’s still possible.
    Oh, and that PDF you saved, just in case? It has everything the criminal needs, too. Continue reading
Posted in Other Thoughts, System Administration | Comments Off on 5 Reasons Why Not to Use Your Work Computer to Do Your Personal Taxes