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One Year with VCE

February 4, 2012 Leave a comment

Early January marked my one year anniversary with VCE.  I was hired to be a Program Manager on the virtualization team and my first project to lead was bringing vSphere 5 to the world of Vblocks.  I didn’t think this would be as difficult as it turned out to be.  I knew I would be herding cats, but I didn’t plan on herding cats from outside the herd.  About midway through the project, both Cisco and EMC informed us that they weren’t going to certify vSphere 5 on older levels of firmware.  In the case of Cisco, this meant the we were going to move all the Vblock platforms to UCS 2.0.  For EMC, it meant upgrading the firmware for all our supported storage arrays.  In essence, I was actually leading a project to upgrade all the components in a Vblock platform.

If I do say so myself, I did a great job.  But it wasn’t just me.  I worked with a great team of engineers, tech writers, product managers, trainers, and more.  This was truly a cross-functional project and involved over 50 staff across three companies by the time the project completed.

In this same one year, VCE had gone through tremendous change.  When I hired on, VCE was basically a startup.  About midway through the year, a certain level of operational maturity was needed.  We had achieved significant growth, both in sales and in head count. Thus began a series of reorgs.  There was basically one large reorg and a series of refining reorgs.  In my case, I went through two refinements.

The first reorg moved the virtualization team in with the rest of the Product Management team.  It also moved the bulk of our engineering staff into one engineering group.  This was a smart move as it removed barriers to introducing new product. Unfortunately for me, all Program Managers were moved into a formal Program Management Office.   While I did a great job on the vSphere 5 project, I found that this wasn’t the position for me.  Luckily, my managers recognized my talents and kept me on the virtualization team, which was now part of the Product Management group.

As the vSphere 5 project was winding down, the virtualization team was disbanded and we moved into the direct chain of Product Management.  Again, not a bad idea but it did leave me in a bit of limbo since Product Management does not have a need for a Program Manager.  Again, I got lucky.  The director of Product Management recognized my abilities in the areas of process management, barrier breaking, and general mayhem.  A product management operations team was created and I was assigned to it.   Our charter is simple: keep things moving.  Think of us a “fixers”.  If a project is in trouble, we show up and get it back on track.  If someone is not getting things done in a timely manner, we will.  We are also developing various policies, processes, and procedures for the Product Management team as well as working with other teams inside of VCE to develop company-wide policies and processes.

It’s been interesting to me because I am being exposed to areas of the business that I have not had previous exposure to.  For example, I am working with the marketing group on website redesign and developing launch materials.  I am also working with our supply chain managers on setting appropriate stocking levels.

I’ve had an exciting first year.  I’m betting the second is going to be even better.

Practice What You Preach

October 29, 2011 Leave a comment

There’s a saying in the medical profession that goes something like, “Doctors make the worst patients”. It due to them thinking they know what’s wrong with them or them thinking that nothing is wrong with them. It really should say, “Medical professionals make the worst patients”. Case in point: my mother. She’s a retired nurse that is DOWN to a pack of cigarettes per day. She has this cough that is so bad I swear that she’s going to hack up a lung on of these days. She says she’s fine and refuses to seek treatment.

So how does this relate to IT? Well, back in the 90’s I worked for a IT consultancy firm. You wouldn’t believe how bad the internal systems were. You would think that with all the fancy certifications and brain power that my local branch had, we would have a working network and such. Not so. It was really a simple choice: fix our own infrastructure or be out in the field and generate revenue. Revenue won.

 

The same can sometime happen in one’s own house. How? Let me regale you with a tale of woe.

Sometime around VMworld (can’t remember if before or after), I noticed my house lights flickering. My UPS/surge protector started making some funny noises for a few moments and then went back to normal. Things were good, so I thought.

A few hours later I noticed that the lower level of my house was quite warm even though the A/C was running. I turned off the A/C and called the repair company. The next morning when the automatic schedule kicked in, the A/C ran fine. The repairman thought that some of my attic insulation had clogged the A/C unit’s drip pan/pipe and that the water level in the drip pan rose to the level where it triggered the auto shutoff. Simple enough. I have a split system: The compressors is outside, but the air handler is in the attic. What I thought was a functioning A/C system was really just the air handler circulating air.

Over the next week or two I experienced my first blue-screen in two years. Then my UPS would randomly start beeping. Nothing like a 1am BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! to scare the crap out of you. Other oddities would pop up every now and then until finally, I went to wake my computer from sleep mode and it wouldn’t wake. I did the turn off/on trick and no video, no beeps, no nothing. After a lot of manual reading, troubleshooting, and the occassional sacrifice to the gods, I finally determined it was the CPU that died.

I’ve never had a CPU die. I’ve had them arrive DOA, but I’ve never had one just go bad on me. Thankfully, my Intel CPU carried a 3yr warranty. I played the 20 question game with Intel and got it replaced. Guess what? System still wouldn’t come up. So I took it to a local computer shop and asked them to run diagnostics on everything. They got my system up and running, but in the process they reset the BIOS back to factory defaults. That really sucked.

I run an ASUS motherboard that has built-on RAID. Resetting the BIOS set the drive controller back to standard IDE mode. Since this entire process of troubleshooting, a short vacation, and replacing parts took over 30 days, new Windows patches had been released. I run with “automatic updates” turned on so it had downloaded a few patches and installed them. Upon reboot, I got the dreaded “No boot device detected” message. Seems the combination of losing the RAID setting and patching screwed up the boot loader. “No problem”, says I, “I have my Win7 DVD so I’ll just boot to it and do a repair”.

DUMB! DUMB! DUMB!. Windows warned me that the repair process could take over an hour so I walked away and let it ran. I checked it the next morning and it said it was done. I rebooted to find that I no longer had anything installed on my hard drive except Windows. Everything was gone…iTunes: gone. Other Apps: gone. All my data: gone.

Sigh.

Sigh, again.

 

OK, I lost everything. Thankfully, I really didn’t have a lot that I couldn’t replace or rebuild (virtual machines). Largest loss was photographs. I can recover about 10% them from various web sites that I’ve shared them on. The rest are lost. My iTunes library consists of about 3000 CDs. I own them all on physical CDs so I can re-rip them. The other major loss was years of personal emails.

To prevent this from happening again, I went out and bought another drive and a copy of Ghost. I also turned on the backup feature of my Synology DS211. Yes, I ‘ve had a backup system at hand for over six months and never used it. I bought the DS211 for iSCSI and NFS storage capabilities for my home lab. Now I back up to my DS211 every night and Ghost once a week to the new drive.

As an IT Pro, I should have known better. How many times have we expressed to our employeers, clients, and whomever else will listen, the importance of backups? If we make claims to our customers regarding best practices, shouldn’t we follow them ourselves? Are we “doctors” when it comes with diagnosing our own IT issues?

 

By the way, I had another A/C failure a week ago and a different technician was sent to fix it. He found that the electrical connection on my A/C compressor had melted somewhat. Hmm…flickering lights, A/C outage, UPS issues, CPU dieing..I’m betting that I took a massive hit and my UPS didn’t do it’s job of protecting my equipment. Or it did, but it took some damage and eventually passed it on. Maybe the beeping was a hint.

So I bought another UPS. Like the extra drive and Ghost, it’s cheap protection in the grand scheme of things.

I’m also still experiencing random wierdness. I’m going to hazard a guess and say that whatever took out my UPS and CPU also may have damaged either my RAM or motherboard. Looks like I may be making my way back to the part store in the next week or two for some replacements.

Sigh.

Latest Thoughts on Training

Let’s talk training again.  I recently had the opportunity to attend two classes.  One was self-paced using pre-recorded content; the other was an online instructor led class.  Before I get into what I think about them, I want to define a few items:

Tutorial:  good for single item topics and are generally short.  Tutorials should teach how to do a task, not provide comprehensive knowledge.

Instructor led, classroom environment:  This is the traditional training setup.  With this style of training, you drive to some facility to sit in a classroom with a bunch of people you may, or may not know, and tell war stories to each other all week.  .  All the while you hope the training facility has some good restaurants around it for lunch.  Instruction gets in the way of all the kibitzing, but you find that you actually learned a lot when the class is finished.

There are two variants of the Instructor Led, classroom environment type that are becoming very popular with the training providers.  They are:

a.      Instructor Led, classroom environment, equipment somewhere else and

b.     Instructor led, online environment, equipment somewhere else.

Self-paced:  This is where you download videos, watch slideware, and more often than not, find yourself bored almost to the point of falling asleep.  This type of instruction can be so boring that a class that normally takes 40 hours might take two months to complete.

Now you may not agree 100% with my definitions and that’s fine.  But for the sake of this post, just pretend to agree with me.

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A little over a year ago, I wrote about a Cisco UCS class that I took.  It was of the Instructor Led, classroom environment, equipment somewhere else variety.  One of my chief complaints about it was the lab environment and all the problems we had accessing it.  Well, my recent experience with an Instructor led, online environment, equipment somewhere else type class shows me that the access issues are still prevalent.

Not a day went by where we didn’t have problems with either the presentation tool or accessing the lab servers.  I can understand why training providers like the equipment somewhere else concept.  It means fewer dollars spent buying equipment.  It also means that you can get better utilization of the equipment that is purchased.  However, this introduces a dependency on remote access systems, your network, and the availability of folks in some equipment room/data center to troubleshoot when problems arise.  In my case, the requirement was for a perfect network.  Any slight hiccup and you got kicked out of the presentation software.  If you were unlucky enough to have this occur twice in one day, you were SOL.  The only fix was for the instructor to kick everyone out and reset the class.

I will say this though: my training partner learned a lot about communication tricks during our labs.  Towards the end of the second day of class, I got kicked out of the presentation software (which also acted as a softphone) and could not communicate with my lab partner.  Rather than having the instructor reset everyone, I just used various little tricks to send him messages.  Tricks such as changing the Message of the Day in vCenter, opening notepad on our vCenter server to write him messages, and using the old “Net send” command from a command prompt.  It worked, but was not very efficient.

Even if there were no technical difficulties, I can definitely say that I am not a fan of the Instructor led, online environment, equipment somewhere else delivery method.  More specifically, I am not a fan of the online environment component. I thrive on all the interaction that takes place in the classroom.  I typically learn more from the other students than I do from the instructor and official content. (As people are apt to say, nothing beats real world experience.)  With an online class, it is very hard to interact with the other students.  I can’t really describe it, but it’s hard to carry on conversations.  There are no facial cues; it’s hard to get people’s attention, etc.

I also missed out on the troubleshooting opportunities.  In a classroom environment, when someone has a problem, everyone will huddle around their screens and work together to solve the problem.  Not easy to do in an online class.

Unfortunately, I foresee even more training occurring online.  Why?  $$$.  It’s cheaper to have an employee sit at home or his/her office space than it is to send them to a physical classroom.  This becomes more evident if the class is held out of state.  I only hope that training providers get more resilient software and other infrastructure.  Otherwise we’ll have ended up going backwards.

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As for my second class, it was a self-paced network training program.  All I can say about this class was that it was extremely boring.  It was so boring that it took me almost two months to finish a 40hr class. The class was basically slideware that read itself to me.   One peculiar oddity to note: If I accidentally clicked “Next” before the audio completed, it would pick up physically where it left off from the previous slide on the new slide.  Huh?  Yes, if the audio was in the middle of a slide and I clicked “Next”, it would then proceed to read to me from the middle of the new slide.  It acted as if it was a screen scraper of some sort.  You won’t believe how happy I was when I found I could turn off the audio.

At that point, I turned into a speed reader and went at a more comfortable pace.  I think I finished about 30hrs of instruction (according to student guide) in about 10 hours.  It’s amazing how much that audio slows you down without adding value.  I think I learned more with the audio off than I did with it turned on.

Remember what I said up above about interacting with fellow students?  Well, forget about it with the self-paced model.   What really killed it for me was the inability to ask questions and get answers in a timely manner.  Yes, there was an “ask a question” link, but I had to wait up to 24hrs for a response.  What should I have done while waiting for a response?  Continue? Wait?  Talk about a momentum killer.

I also have to add that I thought the content was fairly light.  It seemed to have a fair amount of business driver/marketing type slides as opposed to technical information.  It was also fond of rehashing them.  While there is value in having this info, I would have preferred more technical related content.

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I know times are tough and everyone is looking for ways to save money.  But maybe we need to rethink how training is provided.  If the goal is to prepare the employee, then maybe saving a few bucks isn’t so cost effective.  While I personally feel that most training is overpriced (come on, $500+ per day for many classes), I don’t think saving a grand is worth it in the long run.  I wonder how much more effective I would be at my job if I got more out of the training classes?  Would it be worth that extra grand in two months?  How about three months?   Could the payback be even a month?  Think about it.

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Categories: Philosophy Tags: ,

My First 60 Days at VCE

March 3, 2011 5 comments

Everyone seems to post a “My first 30 days” type article so I figured I would be lazy and wait 60 days.  What’s it been like?  Crazy.

 

Let’s start with some organization structure.  All the glory hounds, ahem, people you probably know are in some sort of sales/services group.  Names like Aaron Delp, Kendrick Coleman, Steve Chambers, and Ken Hui come to mind.  Those guys are customer facing.  They get all the training and they do all the partying, er, traveling.

I, on the other hand, am under the umbrella group known as Platform Engineering.  This is the development side of the Vblock. It’s doubtful that I will ever meet a customer unless it is at a trade show or a customer advisory board meeting.

Platform Engineering itself is broken down into three general groups: hardware, mgmt. & orchestration software (think UIM), and virtualization.  I’m in the virtualization group, where we are responsible for all things VMware in a Vblock.  My specific position is Principal Program Manager, which basically means I am a project manager.  I am also the technical relationship manager between VCE and VMware.  Notice I said “technical”.  I am not involved in the business relationship.  Instead, I coordinate with my VMware counterparts to get the VMware technical resources folks at VCE may need.  Part of this relationship management requires being the keeper of roadmaps, license keys, grantor of access to partner websites and materials, and so on.

Now every development company has their own version of a product development lifecycle process.  It just so happens that VCE formalized its process a few weeks before I started.  Since my project was the next to start, it gets to beta test the new process.  So what is my first project?  It’s a doozy.  I am managing the development/integration of the next major vSphere release into the Vblock.  It’s so high profile due to it being the first to follow the process and it’s subject matter (vSphere) that more than half my project team is made up of observers.  I would categorize project team members into three groups: folks with deliverables, folks just watching to see how the process goes, and folks who just want to be aware of our vSphere work.

You would think that it would be as simple as installing the next release and saying it’s done, but it’s not.  Decisions have to be made about what features to turn on/off, how they are to be configured, upgrade processes/procedures, etc.  It really is a lot of work.  Then all that has to be tested and documented.  At the same time, sales/services (including support services) staff needs to be trained, and marketing materials need to be developed.  All that has to be tracked and coordinated and that’s where I fit in to the picture.  Yes, I herd cats.

It hasn’t been easy because I don’t really know who all the players are.  Every week I get at least one email telling me I left so-and-so off the project list.  Part of the issue is growth (people changing positions), the other is based on organizational structure.  Some groups in VCE have names that sound like they perform internal work only and wouldn’t be interested in vSphere.  Nope, many are actually customer facing and perform technical work.

Once the first project is done, we (meaning myself and other project mgrs. in VCE) will have a better idea how things will flow.  Kinks in the process will be worked out, roles will be determined, etc.  It’s nothing that other fast growing companies haven’t experienced themselves.  In that regards, I am lucky because a number of people I am working with came from fast growing startups so I have their experiences to draw upon.

What else has happened in the first 60 days?  Acadia became VCE, which required all docs, websites, presentations, business cards, etc to be updated.  EMC released VNX.  Cisco released new UCS firmware.  VCE became participants in some of VMware’s beta programs.  The list goes on.

 

One last item to note: my last post touched upon the personal reasons I joined VCE.  Lisa Caywood said I was giving myself a personal stretch assignment and she was right.  I referred to myself as not very socially adept.  What I really should have said is that I do not get personal.  I can walk into room and strike up a conversation with no problem.  You want to talk computers, politics, or economics; easy-peazy.  Just don’t ask me if I am married and I won’t ask you.  I don’t know why, I just don’t get personal.  It’s not that I don’t care, because I do.  Heck, I don’t even know my wife’s favorite color, favorite song, etc.  Well I wanted to change that.   And I have.  I know the marital status and family setup of my immediate co-workers.  I even know some of their hobbies.  When I talk to people, I ask how they are doing and I mean it.  It hasn’t been easy getting into the habit of doing this.  My monitor is adorned with Post-It notes reminding me to be personal.  The good news is that I am starting to ask these question without the reminders.

I also mentioned my desire for order and control; two things I do not have at VCE.  I’m getting used to it now and it’s spilling over into my home life.  This is a positive because I don’t get annoyed as much when things are out of place and I don’t get as frustrated when things in my personal life go awry.

I am still working on recharging myself.  I didn’t expect it to be instantaneous and it hasn’t.  I am getting there though.

Categories: Life Tags: , ,