Striding Edge

#TimOnLoan: borrow me for a week for FREE (worth £3000)

Are you drowning in emails? Trying to get some things done whilst juggling a bunch of other things?

Perhaps I can help? I want to lend out my skills to organisations in Manchester for free:

Is this you?

  • You know decision makers need your product or service but it sometimes feels like they speak ‘different language’ to you?
  • You’ve built a thing, and whilst you’ve almost done the technical side of things, you’re aware that making enough people sign up to the product is something you’ve not thought much about?
  • You have an onboarding flow which could do with improvement?
  • You have a technology setup, but no-one has looked at it in several years – and you wonder if there are better ways of doing things today?
  • You have lots of customers that need talking to, and you wonder if you process for communicating could be more streamlined?

What can I help you with?

Tim Dobson

  • understanding customers / customer development
  • improving your customer support setup
  • how to market & sell to your customers
  • copywriting and email templates
  • linux systems architecture & systems administration
  • photography
Can you apply to this?
If:
  • You’re genuinely interested in what you do
  • You’re in a technology sector, or technology enables an important part of what you do
  • You’re a youngish or small & growing organisation probably with a relatively small headcount
Who are you?
You can see on my LinkedIn I’ve years of experience in technology & sales, I’ve tried building several startupy projects and landing pages.

 

How can I apply?


What people say:

He’s the friendly, approachable face of what can be quite a daunting world to folks like me from outside the natural world of Linux hosting and sysadminry.

I’ve always felt Tim was happy to chat to me and he’s always been full of good ideas both technically in terms of wider business/marketing.

Q & A

How much will this cost me? Nothing. Free. £0.00

My organisation doesn’t quite fit your bullet points? Is it worth me applying? Yes. If you don’t try, you don’t know. Be bold and try!

What if you turn out to not be a good fit? Then it’s great we both find out quickly without losing any money.

When can you start? The first week I want to do this is the week starting 20th of March.

When is the closing date for this? Soon. I’ve not decided yet, but if you’re considering applying, apply now, because sods laws says I’ll close it right before you wanted to sign up.

What if I want you to keep working for me? My standard rate is £600/day, with discounts for block booking & speedy payment (eg 10% 7, net 30). If things are going well, let’s chat.

What do you get out of this? Not being bored. Chance to work with different people. Opportunity to work on interesting real life interesting problems. Insight into how different organisations work. Chance to help customers. Chance to develop my skills.

Will everyone who applies be accepted? Almost certainly not.  Sadly I’m fairly sure practicalities of time make it impossible.

Will you sign <some kind of thing> with us? Probably. I like things in plain english that are easily understandable.

Does my organisation have to be based in Manchester? If you work from an office, then it’d be best if you were at least somewhat based in Manchester. If you work in a distributed manner – sure I’d be delighted for you to apply (I’m mostly in the UK timezone)

Are charities/projects/social enterprises/etc allowed? Sure.

What criteria will you use to choose? A simple one: I’ll choose the one I like the sound of most right now.

I’ve worked with you before, can I apply? Sure!

This isn’t how my organisation’s bureaucracy works. Can you contact us with a CV & cover letter please? Thanks – I suspect we’re not the best fit for right now.

Is this a deep commentary of our socio-capitalistic ritual of workplace subjugation? No.

A great example of big society in action? No.

Are you aware how lucky you are? Yes, I’m very aware that being able to offer this is a privilege I’m lucky to be able to exercise.

I have another question? Leave a comment or drop me an email? :-)



Getting it wrong

This One Time I Screwed up (or Sorry I Was a Dick)

I don’t think there’s enough analysis and sharing of non-technical mistakes for others to learn from (see a dramatic hiking trip postmortem).

It must have been a year or so ago now, I was sponsoring and exhibiting at a conference. Also exhibiting were a company I’ll call FooCorp from an industry that I have a strong distaste for. As delegates piled in, FooCorp’s team fired up this well oiled process of handing paper to people walking in. As a one man band, I felt a bit outdone.

I’d used twitter ads at events before, and so quickly I fired up a campaign. Trying to be edgy, I said something along the lines of “if you don’t want to be leafletted, and have your email added to a database, come and find me for a chat”. I can’t remember the exact wording, and whilst I don’t think it went any stronger, I can’t find the original copy so I can’t be sure. I thought “heh, why bother leafletting when this is so much more efficient”.

Learning from mistakes
Learning from mistakes

One might think “I don’t care about any companies in this industry, so this is a good approach”. One might think “I have no relationship with these people, so it doesn’t matter”.

Those points may be true (though these days, I have doubts), but I hadn’t anticipated the thing that happened next.

The conference organiser came up to me and said “Tim, we need to speak”, to their absolute credit took me to a private area and lividly explained that I needed to:

  • immediately delete the tweets
  • apologise to the people in question.

A wise or experienced person might have anticipated that, whilst I didn’t have a relationship with the FooCorp people, actually, lots of people around me, whose mutual support I depended on, did have a relationship with the people, and would like to continue to have one after the event. They might want to continue to ask FooCorp people to sponsor events they run etc. I realised that I’d failed to consider this point of view at all. That was poorly thought through. :(

When someone explains reasonably to me that I’ve upset people, and can easily avoid this, I know that I should do as they say.

Apologising to people face-to-face is hard. Apologising to people, who support an industry you have a distaste for, is harder.

But what makes it even more heart wrenching is when you notice that at the end of the day, they’re real people, trying to do good things, to help their children and families have a better life, and that I’d needlessly upset them.

As it turned out, my heartfelt apology wasn’t enough to undo the impression I’d already given them and I’m pretty sure that any memories that remain of me are about “that awful man”. 

Were one anticipating this situation beforehand, one might assume one would be comfortable with that if it happened. Instead, I feel sad that I had to learn this like this.

And I have learnt from this.

I could be chatting with someone whose sector I utterly, totally cannot endorse, and I aspire to treat them with respect and humility. I reserve the right to continue to dislike their sector, even them personally – but if I meet or interact with them, I’ll treat them with the same respect and humility I show to my friends.


So I guess if either of the two parties in the story are reading this – you know who you are:

Conference organiser: I’m sorry for putting you on the spot in front of your other sponsors and for behaving poorly. I massively appreciate your approach to resolving this. You had a multitude of options, and you took the most professional route, and allowed me to do what I could to right the situation. For that, I’m forever grateful.

To the people of the company I’ve called FooCorp: I know I ruined your mood for the day, and I’m really sorry I wrote those tweets. I wish I could have done things differently now, but what’s done is done, and a lesson has been learnt. I’m sorry that my learning that day was at your expense. As you can hear, it’s a lesson I vividly remember many months later, and I hope it’s one I never have to relearn. Thanks for talking to the conference organiser and allowing this to be resolved in the manner it was. I really appreciate your professionalism under the pressure I know and regret that I put you under.

Happy smiley face

The problem with April Fools day…

The problem with April Fools day is a problem also associated with Christmas, and other days.

I love a good joke, but lots of corporate April fools jokes miss the point.

In the same way that Christmas shouldn’t be the only time you’re generous to your family, April 1st shouldn’t be the only day of the year companies should have fun with their communications.

I mean, a funny joke-prank is just as good a bit of content to share with the public on April Fools day, as almost any other day of the year.

And the advantage, from a marketing perspective: you have much less media competition, and people won’t be expecting it – so they’ll probably find a well executed idea, a lot funnier.

So tomorrow, when the April Fools day jokes have worn old – why not think about how you can help your potential customers have a bit of a giggle, and introduce them to you…

Descending Beinn Alligin, Torridon, 2013

Try not to be amazed, confused and maybe a bit tearful, when you read my plans for 2014

My first plan for 2014 is not to use upworthy-style headlines to drive people to my blog again, but since you’re here, why not take a glance?

Over the past few years, I’ve tried to make plans for the upcoming year.

Read over some of my plans for the coming year from 2013201220102009 – all guaranteed to make me cringe, and you giggle.

For 2014, there are various things I’d like to do: (in no order)

  • Pass my driving test and take lots of post-test tuition.

    • I don’t need or want a car in central Manchester, but I would like to be able to drive/hire cars for long trips.
    • I’ve taken about 30 hours of tuition in central Manchester in 2013, but haven’t sat my practical test yet.
    • I’m not really interested in it for the ‘reduced’ insurance premiums, and I think I’ll find motorways relatively similar to motorway-style dual carriageways.
    • My aims are to:
      • be a safe driver by having experience evaluating the complex and worst case road scenarios and thinking through the best course of action.
      • be able to park and manoeuvre with impressive precision.
      • get experience driving different vehicles (small vans, automatics, non-power steering, 4×4, trailers etc.)
      • get experience with less-than-optimal road conditions (snow, single-track, rain, night, steep hills etc)
    • I’ve booked my practical test in early February, so I’ll prepare for that, and we’ll take it from there.
  • Learn a new sport (or several)

    • This year I’ve learnt to climb. I wouldn’t say I’m very good, but I know enough basics to pass them on to other people.
    • Often people pose the question, “what would you do if money was no object?”. Well, I’d learn a new, exciting adventure sport (or maybe several). So that’s what I’m going to try and do.
    • I’m quite interested (at some point) in learning to:
      • snowboard
      • hangglide/paraglide
      • pilot/glide
      • jetski (without being a dick)
      • windsurf
      • surf
      • kayak (whitewater and/or sea)
      • ski (cross country and/or downhill)
    • Other stuff that is on the list but isn’t really as appealing:
      • skydiving
      • caving
      • horse-riding
    • For the moment, I’m learning to snowboarding at chillfactore in Manchester, and we’ll take it from there.
  • There are several skills I’d like to develop:

    Climbing indoors in Manchester
    Climbing indoors in Manchester
    • Photography:

      • I’m really pleased with what I’ve done in 2013, it’s been a big step up from 2012
      • I’ve started combining it with climbing, and I want to do more climbing/mountaineering photography
      • I’m hoping this year that perhaps I can take more landscape/action sports photos with people in shot.
      • I want to be better at framing and composition – specifically I want to break ‘the rules’ more – things like:
        • overexposing the sky on purpose
        • chopping off the top of peoples heads (just on photographs though!)
        • shooting greyscale
    • Climbing:

      • I’m really pleased how can far I’ve come since I started in March:
        • Indoors: I’ve led some 5+’s. I can currently top-rope some 6a’s.
        • Outdoors, I’ve done various little bits, but most significantly I’ve seconded a trad HS route.
      • This year, I’d like to:
        • Develop my stamina on overhangs (which are often within reach in terms of difficulty, but are too tiring).
        • Do more outside:
          • second more easy trad routes.
          • setting up some top ropes on easy climbs/grade 2/3 scrambles, to make fun scrambles better protected.
        • Improve my knowledge of different roping techniques, such as:
          • what to do if you drop your belay device
          • how to get down from high places
          • how to place simple gear on easy trad routes
          • how to setup a belay
          • do more multi-pitch trad routes
          • gain knowledge in snow related ropework and belays
    • Descending Beinn Alligin, Torridon, 2013
      Descending Beinn Alligin, Torridon, 2013
    • Mountaineering/Hiking/Walking

      • I’ve done a lot in 2013:
        • Snow camping on Pennines, camping to Langdale, winter mountaineering in Torridon, backpacking in the Mammores, exploration/backpacking in Kyrgyzstan
        • Assorted day hikes
      • Whilst I’ve done some impressive things in 2013, I feel I got out less frequently in 2013 than I did in 2012. I’d like to spend more days on the mountains in 2014
      • I’d like to improve my micro-navigation skills.
      • I’d like to do more things in snow.
        • In Jan/Feb/March, I’m planning to do several days winter backpacking fun, possibly in Scotland.
      • I’m going back to Skye around Easter and am on standby to decamp into a tent in the Peak District at the first sign of a snowy weekend.
    • Public speaking

      Speaking at FLOSSK13 in Pristina, Kosovo
      Speaking at FLOSSK13 in Pristina, Kosovo
      • I’ve done various bits of public speaking in the past, this year I even ‘keynoted’ at the FLOSSK13 conference in Pristina,
      • I think I have what it takes to be quite good at public speaking – confidence, interesting anecdotes, and the patience to try and breakdown high level concepts into things other people can understand, all wrapped up in a compelling narrative.
      • I’d like to do more public speaking events, of all sizes, and I need to establish a way of doing that, and find a style and set of topics I’m comfortable with. I’m considering joining Toastmasters.
    • Systems Engineering

      • I quite enjoy making systems do things. In the past when I’ve been on holiday, after several days I’ve found myself designing scalable live video streaming platforms in my head.
      • In the past I’ve blogged about systems a bit, but I’d like to investigate and play with more tools and test them different situations.
      • In particularly, I’d like to become more familiar with Varnish-ESI, which is currently powering this blogs Recently Added Articles box (though not in a very effective way) and discover and play with more server tools like that, which can do exciting things.
      • I’d like to play with Varnish-ESI, Icinga,
    • Personalised mug at Barcamp Blackpool 2013
      Personalised mug at Barcamp Blackpool 2013

      Marketing

        • In 2013, I’ve spent a good deal of my time thinking about marketing, promotional and communication questions – from reading a book on crisis PR and blogging about epic customer service, to visiting 20+ conferences for work and getting personalised mugs into the hands of thousands of people.
      • In 2014, I’d like to:
        • improve my analytical skills in rapidly prototyping and iterating campaigns and pulling conclusions from from them.
        • find better ways to understand of the potential customers, so as to tailor things to them as best possible.
        • improve at identifying areas where the users see the most pain. and then optimising those processes to reduce wasted unnecessary steps (essentially applying the Toyota Way to web-service end users).
        • understanding and using ‘clever’ and perhaps underused strategies to create self-amplifying campaigns.
        • improve my understanding or how good and bad PR works, in industries I’m unfamiliar with.
    • Programming

      I'd like to learn to understand programming better
      I’d like to learn to understand programming better
      • I can write basic bash scripts, and in the past I’ve written trivial programs in PHP, C++ & Javascript.
      • For a long time, I’ve largely been only able to read/hack around with high level programming environments. Obviously this has lots of benefits and can get you a long way, but even a small, self-written bit of code added to an existing codebase which does something I need, would be a massive step forward.
      • My ambition here isn’t really to become a good programmer, but simply be more literate, and able to use tools better to get things done.
      • I’d like to
        • Meticulously go back through a basics book for a common programming language to make sure I understand the concepts that frequently occur correctly.
        • Make sure I under some basics in procedural programming.
        • Learn to use these limited skills to manipulate a library/existing codebase that does stuff I want.
        • Have a look round and see where I want to get to next.
  • Lose weight

    • At the start of January 2013, I weighed 11 & 1/2 stone. I currently weigh 13 & 1/2 stone.
    • Losing weight makes Mountaineering easier (less weight on knees), it makes climbing easier (less weight on arms) and whilst it doesn’t make photography easier, it would leave more room for weighty camera gear!
    • I have enacted low carb diet, round two.
    • In 2014, I’d like to reach and maintain 11 stone, and then develop a sustainable lifestyle around that weight band.
  • Blog More

    • It’s super embarrassing that there are 3 months in this year where I didn’t publish a single blog post.
    • I don’t expect anyone reading to find it embarrassing, but I do – I enjoying writing blog posts. It’s challenging, and often very fulfilling to get my thoughts into a coherent shape..
    • I’d like to do a month of blogging again, but I don’t feel that frenetic “months of blogging”, with large gaps in between them, is the way it has to be.
  • Read more.

    • I grew up without a TV and when I was a child, before I had a computer, I ingested most knowledge through books. Then dialup came along, and suddenly, everything was a short-form article or video consumed  through a screen of distractions.
    • I am resistant to DRM-encumbered ebook platforms, but I enjoy dead-tree-style reading materials and have a great deal of books I’d like to read.
    • In 2014, I’d be very happy if I got through 24 decent length books from my “unread” shelf. I think its ambitious, but not unrealistic.

      Smoke and Lasers!
      Smoke and Lasers!
  • Socialise more.

    • Over the past year, I’d say I’ve done quite well at channeling and training introverted & extroverted sides for different tasks. I love my solitude, but I also enjoy catching up with friends.
    • Last autumn/winter, I held two ‘epic parties’, that were great, but on reflection aren’t going to be repeated. (Too large, too inpersonal, too disparate).
    • This year, I think I’ll try and arrange several gatherings, that are smaller in size, but more focused and perhaps easier to enjoy.
    • I’d like to try to perhaps aim to spend at least one day a week socialising with people who I don’t see every week – which is a great excuse to make contact with old friends.
  • Travel as much as is appropriate

    • I don’t have any particularly noteworthy travel plans, nor do I have particularly strong urges to go anywhere right now.
    • Most plans, I have tend to be semi-spontaneous, or preplanned and then rapidly executed when the occasion arrives.
    • On balance, I probably prefer solo-travel due to reduced communication requirements, and not feeling responsible for others’ welfare.

      Me and my fixer Jules in Kyrgyzstan
      Me and my fixer Jules in Kyrgyzstan
    • My current travel interests
      • Currently I’m interested in (historically) Russian/Soviet influenced areas (particularly Baltic states, Eastern areas of Europe and Central Asia), the Middle East and Northern Africa.
      • I have a personal preference to climates that don’t stray far outside ~-10C -> ~25C whilst I’m there.
      • I’m not a fan of painful insects (mosquitoes, midges, etc), parasites, viruses or large omnivorous animals (bears).
      • I prefer countryside to cities, cold to heat, cheap to expensive, obscure to well-touristed, quiet to busy, self-planned to chaparoned.
      • Selfishly, I prefer countries where a significant proportion of the population’s first or second language is English, Russian, French or Swedish.
    • I’d like to do more travel on a bike in 2014. I don’t really have an ideal bike for this, not that it’s stopped me before.
    • The chances are 2014 offers a few scenic tours of the UK, perhaps with one trip somewhere cool abroad, but if the opportunity presents itself, you’ll just see a blur as I grab my stuff and go!

And that’s it! I think that’s all my current plans and aspirations for 2014. What do you think?

Do you think I should be focusing on something I’m not?

Explain in the comments! :)

“can u help” :: Howto win at Friend-Tech-Support-Roulette

Being a techie isn’t always easy. The technology, yeah, that’s easy, but the social implications can sometimes be tough.

I recently got a rather flashy camera and, seeing it round my neck, a guy at an event asked, “Can I ask you something about cameras?”

It was, of course, a rhetorical question – there was no polite way to point out that I just bought the camera, I don’t consider myself an authority on other people’s attempts to take photos, and in fact, I don’t really understand photography very well. I certainly don’t consider myself “a photographer”, and the only photos, I’ve ever taken that I think are worth looking at, are landscape photographs – not photos at weddings, clubs, family gatherings or whatever else they’re fantasising about when they ask me vague and open ended questions…

But as a techie, I’ve had to suffer through these types of questions for about the last decade.

The problem with this kind of question, is that the moment you help them, you’re taking responsibility for someone’s problem. That person will come back to you to ask you how to set it up, to ask you how to do things, to ask you what “secrets” or “tips” there are, if you can do maintenance for them.

Now, a reasonable line of thought – to most people at least – might be – “oh, sure I wouldn’t help anyone, but you know, if a friend really really asked, of course I’d help where I could”. The thing is, being roped into helping a friend, is a painfully quick way of turning your friend into a non-friend.

Sign at Access Space Sheffield
Sign at Access Space Sheffield

But this is boring! Let’s look at some real life examples I’ve had, and why specifically they’re unhelpful!


them: tim, i cant figure out why my computer isnt playing sound and i have a feeling gits something really easy and stupid….

me: I only have one answer: is it muted

them: im using youtube, that is not on mute. my volume control on the laptop keyboard is on, up and not muted, and the sound thing in the bottom right is not muted

any other ideas

me: not really

them: i thougth you were the comupter whiz :P

fix it tiiimmmm :P


There isn’t any more context to this – this is my entire conversation with them verbatim.

Not only is their grammar really depressingly poor, they seem to think it’s my job to help them fix their problem. Do you notice any “please” or” thank you”‘s in any part of the conversation? I don’t have any kind of special friendship with the other person – is there any suggestion of why I should help them? The last two lines are particularly patronising – an attempt to belittle my ego to stoke up some “competitiveness” to fix their problem. Um, “no”.

Now actually, this is not an exemplary response on my behalf, I could have handled it much better.

The correct answer is always to deny, right in the first place, that you can help at all. Once you offer help once, then you’ve implicitly offered your help for everything from the person’s camera, to their computer, dishwasher, and work photocopier.

If I’d responded straight away:

  • me: “Sorry but I only do paid work, my standard rate is £85/hour.” (Follow up: “and I only charge in one hour blocks!”)

or even better:

  • me: “Sorry, I only know about Linux, what distro is it running?” (Follow up: “sorry, I only know about Debian!”)

or

  • simply not responded,

I wouldn’t have had to deal with any of the subsequent technical questions, and I wouldn’t have committed myself. There are some slight risks with each option, but I think the odds are worth the risks.

I do actually know know Debian well enough to support it without just saying “reboot” and banging my head on a wall, and there are sufficiently few friends running it, that it’s a risk I’m happy to take. Equally, there’s a risk someday, that someone will happily agree to pay me £85/hour to look at their Windows problems, but at least in that case I’d be getting some compensation for the tears.


The thing is if you know about all these things, or enjoy googling their problems for them, then it can be ok – with Debian, I know that the logs will be there, that I can run things verbosely, and that I’ll be able to understand where an issue is. Occasionally, with a nice user it can be very rewarding, usually your users won’t be so great at communication, and won’t make you feel appreciated. Understandably, they’ll have a tiresome time with something, it’ll be frustrating, scary and they’ll feel like they’ve wasted a lot of time with something not quite working how they wanted it to, and they’ll be somewhat upset. It’s not that hard to understand.

However once you build up a number of users, you’ll need to bear in mind that there will be “a person” will hold you responsible for any of these problems – whether or not you had anything to do with them. When they don’t understand the problem, and don’t care to understand the problem, they’ll assume that the virus scan or “system upgrade” you did on their system last week has caused their monitor to flicker more, their shift key to stop working, or better still, for that important document they need urgently to disappear. This is when you know you’re doing desktop support for someone for free, and this is when you’ll wish you’d told them that you didn’t know anything about Windows (or computers, printers, cameras, phones or fridges).


Consider this message from someone I hadn’t spoke to for ages:

Hey Tim! How are you?

I have a little favour to ask Im trying to do $SomeoneElseIHadntSpokenToForAges a cd for their birthday with photos/ videos etc from the past few years and I was wondering if you could possibly send me some of your videos??

Me and $TheirFriend had a look today and these were the ones we liked:

-Video1

-Video2

-Video3

And do you possible have one of the $ThisSpecificTimeAtThisEvent? That would be hilarious! Thank you xxx

right i have to go! if you have a few mins to send me the videos it would be very much appreciated, my email is user@user.com

Speak soon xxx

Now this isn’t *that* unreasonable. It sounds like they know it’s a favour, they say “Thank you”, they say “appreciated”. There are some kind of weird bits like – they want to use stuff I did as a present for someone else, as a present from *them*, which seems a bit weird to me, but hey, whatever.

Now the difficult bit is that these videos were shot and encoded in some arcane raw video format, that means that each of rather low quality videos they asked for as really large, and are stored on a mass of poorly labelled DVD backups. How do you actually send someone a 3GB 640×480 file? Whatever the answer, it’s non-trivial, but I started to investigate what was required (in my spare time around my other commitments). It was going to happen (slowly but eventually), but then I got the message:

tim have you honestly not had 5 mins spare to send me those videos?

At which point it dropped to the lowest priority. I considered explaining/arguing with the user, explaining that it’d be at least two hours of my life spent doing shit to make it happen for them.

I realised I had the most to lose – in terms of my time, and the easiest thing to do was to ignore it and get on with my life. So that’s what I did.

Now to be fair, the fault should be bourne by me twofold – firstly for ever suggesting I might even look into it – for talking to them after they asked, and secondly for not communicating the work involved. I don’t actually feel, however, that the latter is really the issue – I didn’t feel they had an appreciation for my time, and I’m not sure communicating what was involved would have helped in any way.

From their point of view, the snarky comment was completely the wrong way to frame such a question – it questions my integrity, suggests I’m lazy and vastly devalues my time – are any of those aspects, actually motivational to people, or is it simply intended to humiliate the person?


“Urgent” is sometimes added by users to their requests to their ‘helpdesk friends’ who unwisely talked themselves into the role.

There is a phrase in some circles:

Poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine

It’s not in any way universally agreed upon, and many poor friends have spent many hours trying to help their friend find the important document they saved in the wrong folder or with the wrong file name, however sometimes people can assume that because it’s important to them, it’s important to you.

In industry, there’s a general desire to serve the client, and shitty clients are sometimes suffered simply because it’s worth it to pay the bills, but these aren’t the clients that get the best service. When one is doing someone “a quick favour” there is no such motivation, and getting into providing tech support to friends and colleagues can quickly degenerate into this – as as demo’d here:

Alice wrote:

Bob has a major problem which is blocking his e-mail. Even after consulting the internet, we are unable to resolve it.

The problem is that which is outlined at:

<a link to a page showing the error message>

However, the “<error message Bob keeps getting>” message blocks everything else to do with MailProgram and prevents us from doing anything. We need advice about where to press on the screen to change this.

Could someone contact Bob asap? He has urgent messages to send out.

Thanks

Now, if you look at that, it’s actually got some really good things:

The users have clearly tried to resolve it, and the description of the problem is actually relatively effective in suggesting where the remedy might be suggested.

The downside is the language used. Now users, usually, aren’t managers who know how to value people helping them, or masters in communication, so expecting perfectly formulated requests is unrealistic, however this clearly has some issues.

“major problem”, “need”, “asap”, “urgent”

The “major problem” is not actually a technical one, from a technical point of view, it’s probably a trivial clicking of “OK” buttons. The problem for the user is that they wanted to do something but can’t, and have other constraints in their life.

In this particular instance, once I’d brought my blood back to body temperature, I dealt with the issue and wrote this response:

Hello,

Thanks for getting in touch.

By the looks of it you were almost there. So close! I think you just needed to click the “$specificaction button” and then the “$specific-action button” in sequence. (ie one after another). Well, that’s what I did anyway and how I would have thought it would work. I’ve no idea why it happened in the first place or didn’t work for you.

Anyway, you were well along the way! I’m really pleased to see that you had had a crack at fixing it and were also able to explain the issue very quickly to me via that link. It was very helpful as I knew what it was about and how to fix it instantly, even if actually making it happen at your end took a few extra minutes. :)

Let’s be honest and be clear to specifically praise the things that were done right. Heck, probably one of the reasons they were so wound up is because they tried to fix it themselves and failed – we want them to keep trying!

I do, however, feel quite upset by the tone of the email. I know it’s frustrating when things don’t work, especially when it’s been affecting one for some time, and I understand it’s easy to feel stressed out when you’ve tried everything and have things you need to do.

Let’s be gentle and non-confrontational – rather than directly accusing somebody, explain how I feel and be clear I can empathise with how it is for them.

When I see the word “urgent”, I assume there is a critical situation where my assistance is instantly required.

For example: someone has sustained a life threatening injury and I am required to inform and/or liaise people to ensure everyone is kept up to date and that all the logistics are dealt with appropriately.

This is “urgent”, because there is a situation which is absolutely essential that I attend to THIS INSTANT, breaking through business meetings, dates, meals etc. Clearly this is quite disruptive, but in an “urgent” situation, one doesn’t stop to think about this, because help is needed instantly – it simply can not wait five minutes.

Let’s be detailed in what was wrong. This could have possibly been clearer, but the sense of urgency is what is pervasive in the message, there’s no need to split the message.

I know it wasn’t intended, and I know you can do better. You’re good at doing this ‘right’ and I know it was just a little slip up so take a deep breath, take this onboard and get some sleep. It’ll work wonders. :)

Let’s re-enforce that we have faith in them, not pile and pressure or “blame” and defuse the situation as gently as possible – tech support is stressful enough without actually having to actually get involved in an argument.


Anyway, every semi-technical user has had someone ask them to help, and my advice to you is:

  1. Run away
  2. Run away
  3. If you’ve not run away, set your limits – (“I know nothing about printers or iPhones”)
  4. Run away
  5. Offer to bill them at your “standard hourly rate of £85/hour”
  6. Sneak away whilst they’re not looking
  7. Pretend not to know about computers
  8. Politely decline to get involved
  9. Be happy to tell your best friends and all your acquaintances that it’s too much like work
  10. Be happy to fall our with your best friends and acquaintances over a file they can’t find.

Or:

Just run away.

Seriously, the best to win at Friend-Tech-Support-Roulette is not to play.

Do the right thing.

The Art of Deception :: Talking net security at Blue Light Camp

I recently came across this this photo – some of the things that I took on holiday with me back in 2006:

Holiday 2006
Holiday 2006

I was struck by one of the most recognisable items in the picture – The Art of Intrusion by Kevin Mitnick.

The book is an interesting mix of Kevin Mitnick – a notorious former black/greyhat computer hacker/cracker – talking to former associates about other alleged hits.

Obviously, in the same way as watching Frank Abagnale‘s Catch Me If You Can doesn’t mean you support the passing of fraudulent checks or posing as airline pilots, clearly I also don’t endorse any of the things described in the Art of Intrusion – but the really valuable thing about the book is that it allows you to get inside the minds of ‘the bad guys’, see and understand how and why they do things.

The prequel to The Art of Intrusion is slightly different. The Art of Deception is the story of Kevin Mitnick’s own run from the FBI – Mitnick famously evaded the FBI for 2 and a half years before his arrest, during which time he managed to gain unauthorised access to the voicemail of the FBI officer who’d been assigned to his case (allowing him to evade capture for some time longer).

A few weekends ago, I was Blue Light Camp – billed as “the first truly interdisciplinary emergency services unconference in the UK”. As the name implies, there were many people from a variety of different emergency services backgrounds and so when I saw a talk titled The Art of Deception, I vaguely remembered the book, and wandered along. Kate Norman of an NHS trust (or known better to me as a friend of Ian Forrester), had recently read the book and was interested in people’s opinions. No-one else had read the book, but the discussion that followed was quite insightful.

I hadn’t gone along to talk internet security, in theory, yes, I’ve been in ‘Cyber Security’ competitions but largely my aim of attending this event was to listen, learn and meet some passionate and enthusiastic “blue lights”. The discussion was interesting because we really covered a lot of ground; privacy online, uses of social media and website’s being taken down/defaced.

The question was: “What can one do about one’s website being defaced/hacked/DDOS’d/etc?”

I think really the answer is quite simple: “You can apologise and do your best to bring things back to normal as fast as you can with the resources you have available”.

Ultimately, whatever you do, you can never be fully confident your website is secure – in the same way that you can be confident that whilst you’re a good driver, even if you’ve done advanced driving courses, someone can still drive into your rear end at a traffic lights or cut you up on a motorway and a collision happens. Even if you took all the possible precautions, there’s still some risk involved.

In terms of compromise of websites; even if your penetration testers haven’t found any serious flaws in your CMS (hint: if this happens, hire someone else), even if your base operating system is all patched and up to date, it’s not unlikely that tomorrow, someone will discover a vulnerability that affects one of them, and that your regime of patching doesn’t happen that quickly because you value stability.

It’s a very thin line to tread, and ultimately, it’s wisest to recognise that you’re going to do your best, but at some point in the next 10 years, you’ll need to apologise to your users. Being good at apologising to your users is not a skill to be sniffed at. If you can do it well, explain what happened in terms the users and your management understand then so much the better. There are worse things your could do than looking into the best ways to apologise to your users – to me this seems like a good use of training time.

During the session at Blue Light Camp I brought up this XKCD cartoon:

It was their main recruiting poster, hung nearly ten feet up a wall! This means the hackers have LADDER technology! Are we headed for a future where everyone has to pay $50 for one of those locked plexiglass poster covers? More after the break ...
XKCD explains...

The amusing thing about me reading The Art of Intrusion was that it was 2006. 6 years ago. I was a teenager. I was still at school, and that must have been a library book (I’ve never owned a copy of it). It was just one of the security orientated books I read at the time (along with Bruce Schnier’s “Secrets and Lies in a Networked World”)

The types of attack, the types of thinking described in the books are alive and well today – there isn’t a problem with legislation – illegal acts are quite clearly illegal – yet really there’s been many years in which to learn how best to respond to security issues.

What scared me though is how far we’ve come in terms of the pervasiveness of technology since 2006 (back then government websites were mainly brochures, I hadn’t joined Facebook yet, Twitter really didn’t exist), and yet the basic premises of responsible and realistic net security are still not well known.

How can we fix this? How can one explain net security to the masses? As in ‘nothing is ever truly safe’ not ‘you need a password with lower and upper case and numbers’? As in ‘we fucked up, we’re really sorry, have some cake’.

I don’t know the answer, but I think it’s probably not going to be by prepending everything with “cyber” and trying to scare the shit out of everyone.

At Blue Light Camp I described Kevin Mitnick as “a bad person”.

I was asked: “well did did anyone die because of him?”

I responded negatively..

“Well on the scale of people we deal with, he’s not a very bad person then!”