Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Finally Some Usable Storage

I've tried a boatload of different synchronization tools and finally found one that actually works as advertised and meets my needs: Dropbox. Since I'm a very picky consumer (read: perfectionist), it is rare that I say a product is very good.

So what makes this product unique? It works simply, works quickly, and it is free for normal consumption. Considering that my definition of normal is anything but the norm, that's a big statement.

Basically, you install the Dropbox client on your machine (Windows, Mac, Linux, what-have-you) and set the location for your Dropbox files. Anything that shows up there is automatically updated on the server. By using multiple clients with the same account you get real-time-enough (that's a technical term) synchronization across multiple machines.

I use Dropbox for all my OneNote notebooks. And my work documents. And some source code. And some pictures. Pretty much anything I want to have A) backed-up automatically and B) available anywhere.

Your free Dropbox account is limited to 2GB of data, and even for a storage hog like me this is plenty. And did I mention that the synchronization is fast? That's because it looks inside and synchronizes parts of files.

I use a notebook, a netbook, a Mac, and a desktop PC throughout every day for work. As I was typing meeting notes into OneNote on the netbook I noticed it synchronizing in the background. Every few minutes the alert on my desktop popped up that updates were downloaded. Talk about peace of mind. When I'm done for the day, I walk out with my netbook knowing all my machines have the same information on them. I can edit any file on any of the machines and they all just stay in sync about as fast as I can switch from one to the other. When I type a new article on the plane, as soon as I get home, my laptop syncs. In the span it takes for my Mac to boot up, my files are already being downloaded. I can get right to work knowing I'm using the latest versions of the files, hassle-free and worry-free.

For a while I was using the Gladinet software but it wasn't reliable, was too slow, and expensive. The GoodSync tools are really slow. In addition, it won't run on my desktop PC because I run Windows Server (boo!). With both of these, as with most of the sync solutions I've tried, the synchronization algorithm doesn't look inside the files so I was able to confuse the client with multiple updates and then lose some data. Inevitably this happened and pissed me off. And of course both of these cost money too.

Among other things, I keep a Box.net account, a SkyDrive, a private FTP server, and heaps of both Amazon and Google Storage. Most of this is for work and collaboration, and I use them for encrypted back-ups too. But none of these make moving my data around easier than Dropbox. If Box.net (my previous favorite), or any of the big boys wants to know how to do synchronization right, check these guys out.

And no, I'm not paid for this, I'm not affiliated in any way with Dropbox et al. I just rarely get the chance to toot the horn of something truly great and with such mass appeal.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The Gorilla in the Clown Suit

In my line of work, you deal with all sorts of different "leaders" and "managers". Typically, they've achieved their position through some confluence of skill, opportunity, and luck. They all have their positive and negative attributes, depending on the needs of the situation and your vantage point.

The one I find most fascinating though is the Gorilla.

The Gorilla type of leader is epitomized by being unruly and unpredictable, beating their chest when things are rough, blundering around leaving banana peels for others to trip up other people, and applying brute force to solve any problems they can't avoid by putting their hands over their eyes. Oh, they seem intelligent enough at first, but don't forget that their typical response to even minor irritations is to start flinging feces.

When trying to identify a Gorilla, watch for them to put their hands over their eyes. You will notice this by listening to how they handle ambiguous requirements. You will often hear them using phrases like "I interpret this to mean. . ." and "I think what was intended. . .". They will insist on asking everyone to estimate their completion dates, but are totally uninterested in keeping track of the actual work required to hit those dates.

Because they don't actually manage risks (or a traceable work plan) their project will inevitably have unexplained delays. They handle this through beating of the chest in more meetings about the dates and the issues. In these meetings they studiously avoid detailing the actual work involved or assigning any accountability. Unless of course, they think they can pin blame on some small monkey. At this point, they jump right on top of the unsuspecting ape and demand a full accounting.

While this chest-beating occurs, they routinely change the process and expectations. This creates wonderful opportunities for others to fail in meeting these new expectations or realigning to the new process quickly enough. These little banana peels are perfect for tripping up the unsuspecting. These little slip-and-falls usually provide them with several potential candidates for assigning future blame.

With all this mayhem occurring, the delays generally get worse, which means they now need to apply their brute gorilla strength in an effort to get things back on track. Since they haven't really been paying attention, and there are banana peels everywhere, this is harder than it sounds. So of course, now they get frustrated and voila! the feces flinging commences.

If you find yourself working with (or heaven-help you FOR) a Gorilla, keep these simple rules in mind and perhaps you'll do okay.

First, don't look them in the eye. Calling out that the endless meetings is a bad idea and unproductive is like poking the gorilla with a stick. It will only get you labeled as "uncooperative" or "not a team player". Instead bring your laptop and get your own work done if you have to be there in person. If possible, make it a conference call so you can put yourself on mute and get something done while the gorilla beats his chest.

Secondly, watch the ground for banana peels. If the rules are constantly changing, give yourself plenty of time to do lots of non-value-add work aligning and re-aligning. This means get your monkeys up in the trees away from the gorilla so they can do the real work. Keep them isolated so that if (or more likely when) you stumble into one, you're the only one that gets hurt and your team stays productive.

Lastly, find and maintain a poncho. Inevitably with a Gorilla there will be flung feces and finger-pointing. Make sure you've cataloged and highly publicized your risks and issues while maintaining transparency with your schedule, dependencies, and work plan. When things do turn nasty, keep your cool and trust in your poncho. If you've kept your poncho in good repair (being transparent and publicizing early and often) you should be prepared for the worst of it.

In closing, it's worth pointing out that Gorillas aren't all bad. They are especially useful in death marches and suicide missions. When what is being undertaken is just completely unreasonable or the situation will likely require someone's career if it is to be successful, a Gorilla is a great candidate. When the situation is already beyond repair and you are just trying to salvage something, then chest-beating and brute force are great strategies for maximum gain. As a leader of multiple teams, unleashing a Gorilla to work for you is a quick way to identify which teams have their feces together and which people on which teams are worth saving. Good resources will escalate around a gorilla, and good peers will already have their ponchos firmly in place, rendering the gorilla ineffective.