Dropbox

Since I wrote this article over a year ago, Dropbox has become pervasive. In short it's everywhere. As well as being cloud based storage, it is the "sync and store" solution for mobile devices like the iPad, iPhone, Android, laptops and web based warriors. Frankly, if you are not using Dropbox, why not?

If you work at home and don't lug a laptop around, install Dropbox on your work and home PC and your files will be waiting for you when you get home. Any changes you make are automatically synchronised back at work. And they keep backup versions in case you changed something and messed it up. Try doing that at work, you'll be groping for backup tapes and doing restores.

Think of Dropbox as a file server in the cloud.

There are files that are too big to email. Imagine popping in to your local Australia Post office with a pallet load of bricks and asking the nice lady behind the counter how many stamps you need.

If your file is larger than 2Mb, don’t email it, the chances of it getting through are low.

Enter Drop Box. It allows you to save files into the cloud (the Internet) and access them from any PC. You can share files, or keep them private, or both. I use mine to store my (encrypted) 1Password file which is very private and also I have a public folder for the common utilities I like to share. I have a semi-private folder just for EMC so I can share the log files with my senior engineer at EMC, no one else can see those files.

There’s a DropBox client (program) for Windows, Mac. Linux and iPhone. This allows you to have a folder on your computer that syncs to your DropBox. The files are store both on your computer and in the cloud at DropBox and kept in sync for you. So you can access them even if you have no Internet.

Use it to move files around, use it to backup to the cloud, use it to give several computers access to your files anywhere in the world. Just use it.

And best of all, its free. You get 2Gb storage for free and can buy a premium account if you need more. Since Drop.io died a death of Facebook, DropBox is my solution.

www.dropbox.com

RIP S Kenneth Stoke

I first met Stuart Kenneth Stokes (who changed his name to S Kenneth Stoke and was always known to me as S) in 1978 when he was my relief teacher at Taroona High School. Some time during the class he let slip that he had a computer and at the end of the class I approached him with “got any software?”

S had bought an Exidy Sorcerer computer from the local Dick Smith agent, Carl Vasos (Aero Electronics) and in those days if you wanted software, you wrote it yourself.

S had some beauties - space trader, star trek and many more. He was a database administrator before the world ever knew what one was.

Over the years S taught me so much. I recall he did an audio recording of my school friend Stephen Hand telling Norse myths backed by recorder played by Tony Storey. This was the first recording session I ever saw and it turned me on to sound recording. I don’t think I would have had my own studio and released albums if S had not been that inspiration.

Later I went with him to 7-THE-fm and watched in awe as he delivered a live radio show. Some years later I tried my hand and eventually became a committee member helping to run that station for a period of time. S encouraged me to run training sessions for new broadcasters and that was probably how I first learned to be a trainer.

There were many other things S introduced me to and many of the practices I use today I learned from S. My daughters will attest to “clean side/dirty side” in relation to the kitchen sink for example.

There was one fabulous night where we were brain storming business ideas. We had this venture capital idea and had figured out if we could take investments and then use that money to pay back the limited number who would want to cash out rather than re-invest, we could steam roller this thing into a right little earner. Then a raucous round of uncontrollable laughter when we realised we had just “invented” the bank.

S was a founding member of “The young independents and S” which became Up and Running Promotions, my first company. After a failed heavy metal concert (Metal Mania), we all went our separate ways and the company became Up and Running Computers in 1993.

There were many parties, lunches and just late nights talking. There were wild ideas and sound ones too. Many came to pass, many did not.

He was my teacher, mentor, business partner, inspiration, and above all he was my friend.

S passed away 26-Sep-2010 at the Whittle Ward after a battle he could not win. He was only 68.

Missed but not forgotten.

Media Diet

I've blogged about several diets it seems; Microsoft Diet, Atkins Diet... But a media diet is something else.

It seems I am in a constant state of stimulation, and I'm not talking about THAT kind of stimulation. With newspapers, TV, news on the Internet, blogs, RSS feeds, podcasts and the likes, I am bombarded with information all day long. And that's before I get to work! At work, there are constant interruptions, email (fracking heck I HATE email!), jobs, and the constant pull of fifty million things to do and no time to do them. It seems I get pulled off one thing before I can finish it and onto another. Nothing ever gets done properly.

I call this The Whirlpool. It had to have a name and that was the best I could come up with.

Sometimes I think I am winning the battle, The Whirlpool is in retreat and life isn't so hectic. But lately it has staged a come back. It is certainly in a winning position now.

So how to battle? Well start with limiting the stimulation. Cut out news, stop reading RSS, stop Facebook, Twitter, Google Reader and triage the email into "absolutely important, I have to respond to this" and "delete" (everything else).

When Merlin Mann's book comes out, I will be on the waiting list. Certainly "Inbox Zero" is where I need to be. But for the rest of the barrage, I think a little self-discipline will be enough. I gave up newspapers over a decade ago. Just stopped buying them. Well, I do buy the Sunday Tasmanian just for the TV guide. But lately I have caught myself reading the rest of it. It seemed a shame to burn it unread. But, heck, I need the fire starter. The wood fired pizza oven needs paper. That's what that publication is for. The TV guide comes out, and the rest goes in the "burning box".

Then there's TV news and so called current affairs. Just plain say NO! These programs are the pits. They are full of sound-bite journalism and sensationalism for the sake of ratings. Between Today Tonight, A Current Affair and whatever the other one is, they are worse than John Laws! Absolutely designed to get my blood pressure up. But they are also incredibly addictive. Watch just one second and you want to keep watching. They must be avoided completely. I feel like an alcoholic holding a bottle of gin. Resist, resist.

Now to my blog habit. I'm not sure I can do this. I am pretty choosy about what I read. I like Victor, Rita, Steven and the rest of the Hobart foodie circle. I like Andy, I like Leo and I love Macworld and Mac Rumours. Can I kick this habit? I have to.

That leaves me with podcasts. I have been very ruthless lately. Try new ones, they get one episode to hook me, then I hit "unsubscribe" and "delete" and they are wiped. I fell like a wave of "get this crap off my computer" madness comes over me, but they go.

I hang on to my comfort food. The Chillcast, I just can't give this one up. I rationalise that Anji is good for my soul. All that laid back music helps me drift off. It can't be bad, can it?

So my media diet begins.

Next to my work environment. I'm going to change offices. The concept of being in the open-plan section overlooking all my team is a good one, but it just plain doesn't work. Firstly I have no privacy. Secondly my staff feel free to interrupt me every 45 seconds. It just doesn't work. So under guise of "I have to shut the door for security and privacy reasons" I'm going to shut the bloody door. Let's see how that goes.

I just downloaded an e-book called "Zen Habits - Handbook for Life" which is all about simplifying your workspace and stripping down the clutter. Seems like its worth a try. But, oh bugger, I just took on another new "media", did I just break my diet?

Bad customer! Service?

There are some customers who deserve a punch in the mouth, or at least the audience’s line from “Am I ever going to see your face again?”.

There are some people who should have their licence to shop taken away from them.

Let me give you some theoretical examples;

The “customer” that couldn’t afford to get his laptop fixed. He brought it in. The price is on wall, it gets explained to him, quoted to him and he signed to say he understood. The bloody laptop is worth $1500, you telling me he can’t find a hundred bucks??? So he gets time to pay, lots of time. Then he pisses off to Queensland (strangely that would have cost more for the flippin’ air fare!) So he gets phone calls, letters and a dozen chances to make a arrangement, any arrangement, but he doesn’t. So he gets a final notice, long after the 3 months we promised (in writing) that we would keep trying. And when all else fails, we reluctantly sell his laptop to raise the money he owes. A year later he wants to know where his laptop is. Did he get the letters? Yes he did. Does he remember speaking to us on the phone? Yes he does. Does he remember the bit about “final notice - we will have to sell your laptop to recover the cost” yes he does. Which bit of “we sold it” does he now not understand?

The “customer” that asks for a quote to fix his laptop. He pays the quote fee, we quote. Strangely enough, our quote matches the one he got elsewhere because they came to the same diagnosis we did. But that’s not good enough. He wants it “diagnosed”. Hang on, that is what we did. Hence the quote, we’ve tested, diagnosed and we now know what is wrong and have provided a plan and quote to fix it. But sorry, that is not good enough. (repeat the above paragraph 8 times, going round and round in circles...) So he’s claiming we breached our contract and wants to go to court. Frankly, I’ll welcome an adult taking a look at this case.

The turkey that dropped his laptop. That’s not why he’s a turkey, we’ve all dropped a laptop, that’s an accident, they happen. Its how you move forward that defines if you are turkey or a reasonable human being. So, he brings it in under warranty. Obviously he had forgotten to mention to the manufacturer’s call centre the bit about dropping it. So we do what we can, we order parts and we don’t mention the dropping bit either. But when you order a screen, keyboard, top case, bottom case, DVD, mainboard, hard drive and just about an entire laptop, there are going to be questions. So when asked by the manufacturer “Has the laptop been dropped or otherwise damaged?” I quietly say “maybe”. And his warranty is cancelled by THE MANUFACTURER, not me. But of course who does he want to punch? That would be me. He’s a turkey.

Are we allowed to punch them in the face or tell them “no way, get F’d, F’off”? No, we are not. That would be bad customer service. We grin and bear it. We try like heck to focus on the 99% who are decent human beings. We’re in the service business after all.

So the next time you have an issue with the service anyone provides, may I suggest you remember they are human beings too? Quiet, polite, honest and above all respectful will get you places, shouting, abuse and insults will not.

Do we screw up? Yes we do. That would be the human part. Do we have good intentions and will we sort it out given a reasonable chance? Of course.

Buying a laptop

Laptops are very popular because they are small, portable and neater than a desktop PC. But how do you pick a good one?

I see laptops at their worst, when they are broken. So my perspective is a little different. What I also see is how the various manufacturers react to a fault and how long the poor customer waits to get their laptop working again.

Brands I like; Dell - The service is second to none. Dell warranty gives you 4 hour (or next day if you went for the cheaper option) response. What this means is that within 4 hours of your call Dell will have a technician and the parts available on site in Hobart! They keep most parts in Hobart and meet this goal virtually always.

Apple - Of course. Elegant design. Reliable. Easy to service. 2 day turn around on repairs from my limited exposure.

Brands I avoid; HP - Used to make great stuff. Now made in China like everything and not all that well designed. Spend hours on the phone to India, then take it to the service centre. Wait a day or so for the paperwork to come through and then a few more days for the parts to turn up. Then it’s fixed within 24 hours of that unless it needs more parts.

Whenever I think of HP, all I can say is “how the mighty have fallen”.

Compaq - HP under another name. Same applies. Classic example of how NOT to outsource to India successfully.

LG - Obviously inferior construction and design. Built to a price. Parts take weeks sometimes.

Toshiba - To be fair Toshiba makes 2 lines of product. The blue/silver stuff you buy from Harvey Norman and the black stuff you get from a specialist. The cheaper stuff is Ok-ish, but not as good. The pro stuff is good. They do include some advanced features such as spill protector, shock sensors, padding etc. Parts take a few days. They should be the leader in portables but I won’t give them this title. If you were buying a fleet of corporate notebooks and you didn’t want Dell, Toshiba would be a good second choice. You’ll pay more than Dell. Toshiba parts are expensive.

IBM - All right until you want service. Call centre is in Brisbane but no parts in Tas and no IBM engineers. Work outsourced to contractors. Customers report poor experience. Several Tas Govt departments have ditched IBM because of the lack of service. The laptops are solid but not stunning performers.

Acer - Junk.

Asus - Cheap and cheerful. No service in Tas that I know of. In this day and age when you can buy really well supported brand name stuff (like Dell) why would you want a Chinese clone?

Fujitsu - Nice looking. No idea on the service backup. Expensive. I did price a part for one and the customer said no to the repair because of the price. They have a really cool tablet PC.

NEC - Bad. NEC “left the country” and no longer has an office in Australia. AVOID

Packard Bell (NEC bought them a while ago) - Real crap.

E-mail etiquette

How to use e-mail effectively, get your point across and NOT look like a total dork.

When two people converse face to face, scientists tell us that about 70% of the information transferred from one brain to the other is NOT in the actual words spoken. It’s in the way they are said, the tone, inflection, facial expression, body language, past history etc.

e-mail is just the words. So maybe 30% of what you are trying to say can be put into an e-mail message.

There are some specific rules about e-mail you need to know.

E-mail etiquette: In this day and age, we expect everyone already knows how to use every tool in the office and so we don’t often discuss policy or etiquette. Do we think that new employees will magically absorb the company way of doing things just by being here?

Take e-mail, used properly it is wonderful, used badly it is the single biggest time waster and cause of miscommunication and misunderstanding.

This document seeks to provide some guidance on how to use e-mail properly.

  1. Be concise and to the point. Do not make an e-mail longer than it needs to be. Remember that reading an e-mail is harder than reading printed communications and a long e-mail can be very discouraging to read.
  2. Answer all questions, and pre-empt further questions. An e-mail reply must answer all questions, and pre-empt further questions – If you do not answer all the questions in the original e-mail, you will receive further e-mails regarding the unanswered questions, which will not only waste your time and your customer’s time but also cause considerable frustration. Moreover, if you are able to pre-empt relevant questions, your customer will be grateful and impressed with your efficient and thoughtful customer service.
  3. Use proper spelling, grammar & punctuation. This is not only important because improper spelling, grammar and punctuation give a bad impression of your company, it is also important for conveying the message properly. E-mails with no full stops or commas are difficult to read and can sometimes even change the meaning of the text. And, if your program has a spell checking option, why not use it?
  4. Make it personal. Not only should the e-mail be personally addressed, it should also include personal i.e. customised content. For this reason auto replies are usually not very effective. However, templates can be used effectively in this way, see next tip.
  5. Use templates for frequently used responses. Some questions you get over and over again, such as directions to your office or how to subscribe to your newsletter. Save these texts as response templates and paste these into your message when you need them. You can save your templates in a Word document, or use pre-formatted e-mails.
  6. Answer swiftly. Customers send an e-mail because they wish to receive a quick response. If they did not want a quick response they would send a letter or a fax. Therefore, each e-mail should be replied to within at least 24 hours, and preferably within the same working day. If the e-mail is complicated, just send an e-mail back saying that you have received it and that you will get back to them. This will put the customer's mind at rest and usually customers will then be very patient!
  7. Do not attach unnecessary files. By sending large attachments you can annoy customers and even bring down their e-mail system. Wherever possible try to compress attachments and only send attachments when they are productive. Moreover, you need to have a good virus scanner in place since your customers will not be very happy if you send them documents full of viruses! When sending e-mail internally, you can attach a hyperlink to the file (if it is located on the server) rather than send the actual file to everyone. Attachments take time to send, especially to users outside the head office.
  8. Use proper structure & layout. Since reading from a screen is more difficult than reading from paper, the structure and lay out is very important for e-mail messages. Use short paragraphs and blank lines between each paragraph. When making points, number them or mark each point as separate to keep the overview.
  9. Do not overuse the high priority option. We all know the story of the boy who cried wolf. If you overuse the high priority option, it will lose its function when you really need it. Moreover, even if a mail has high priority, your message will come across as slightly aggressive if you flag it as 'high priority'.
  10. Do not write in CAPITALS. IF YOU WRITE IN CAPITALS IT SEEMS AS IF YOU ARE SHOUTING. This can be highly annoying and might trigger an unwanted response in the form of a flame mail. Therefore, try not to send any e-mail text in capitals.
  11. Don't leave out the message thread. When you reply to an e-mail, you must include the original mail in your reply, in other words click 'Reply', instead of 'New Mail'. Some people say that you must remove the previous message since this has already been sent and is therefore unnecessary. However, I could not agree less. If you receive many e-mails you obviously cannot remember each individual e-mail. This means that a 'threadless e-mail' will not provide enough information and you will have to spend a frustratingly long time to find out the context of the e-mail in order to deal with it. Leaving the thread might take a fraction longer in download time, but it will save the recipient much more time and frustration in looking for the related e-mails in their inbox!
  12. Add disclaimers to your e-mails. It is important to add disclaimers to your internal and external mails, since this can help protect your company from liability. Consider the following scenario: an employee accidentally forwards a virus to a customer by e-mail. The customer decides to sue your company for damages. If you add a disclaimer at the bottom of every external mail, saying that the recipient must check each e-mail for viruses and that it cannot be held liable for any transmitted viruses, this will surely be of help to you in court. If your company has an e-mail policy in place and adds an e-mail disclaimer to every mail that states that employees are expressly required not to make defamatory statements, you have a good case of proving that the company did everything it could to prevent offensive e-mails.
  13. Read the e-mail before you send it. A lot of people don't bother to read an e-mail before they send it out, as can be seen from the many spelling and grammar mistakes contained in e-mails. Apart from this, reading your e-mail through the eyes of the recipient will help you send a more effective message and avoid misunderstandings and inappropriate comments.
  14. Do not overuse Reply to All. Only use Reply to All if you really need your message to be seen by each person who received the original message.
  15. Mailings > use the Bcc: field or do a mail merge. When sending an e-mail mailing, some people place all the e-mail addresses in the To: field. There are two drawbacks to this practice: (1) the recipient knows that you have sent the same message to a large number of recipients, and (2) you are publicising someone else's e-mail address without their permission. One way to get round this is to place all addresses in the Bcc: field. However, the recipient will only see the address from the To: field in their e-mail, so if this was empty, the To: field will be blank and this might look like spamming. You could include the mailing list e-mail address in the To: field, or even better, if you have Microsoft Outlook and Word you can do a mail merge and create one message for each recipient. A mail merge also allows you to use fields in the message so that you can for instance address each recipient personally. For more information on how to do a Word mail merge, consult the Help in Word.
  16. Take care with abbreviations and emoticons. In business e-mails, try not to use abbreviations such as BTW (by the way) and LOL (laugh out loud). The recipient might not be aware of the meanings of the abbreviations and in business e-mails these are generally not appropriate. The same goes for emoticons, such as the smiley :-). If you are not sure whether your recipient knows what it means, it is better not to use it.
  17. Be careful with formatting. Remember that when you use formatting in your e-mails, the sender might not be able to view formatting, or might see different fonts than you had intended. When using colours, use a colour that is easy to read on the background.
  18. Take care with rich text and HTML messages. Be aware that when you send an e-mail in rich text or HTML format, the sender might only be able to receive plain text e-mails. If this is the case, the recipient will receive your message as a .txt attachment. Most e-mail clients however, including Microsoft Outlook, are able to receive HTML and rich text messages.

  19. Do not forward chain letters. Do not forward chain letters. We can safely say that all of them are hoaxes. Just delete the letters as soon as you receive them.

  20. Do not request delivery and read receipts. This will almost always annoy your recipient before he or she has even read your message. Besides, it usually does not work anyway since the recipient could have blocked that function, or his/her software might not support it, so what is the use of using it? If you want to know whether an e-mail was received it is better to ask the recipient to let you know if it was received.
  21. Do not ask to recall a message. Biggest chances are that your message has already been delivered and read. A recall request would look very silly in that case wouldn't it? It is better just to send an e-mail to say that you have made a mistake. This will look much more honest than trying to recall a message.
  22. Do not copy a message or attachment without permission. Do not copy a message or attachment belonging to another user without permission of the originator. If you do not ask permission first, you might be infringing on copyright laws.
  23. Do not use e-mail to discuss confidential information. Sending an e-mail is like sending a postcard. If you don't want your e-mail to be displayed on a bulletin board, don't send it. Moreover, never make any libellous, sexist or racially discriminating comments in e-mails, even if they are meant to be a joke.
  24. Use a meaningful subject. Try to use a subject that is meaningful to the recipient as well as yourself. For instance, when you send an e-mail to a company requesting information about a product, it is better to mention the actual name of the product, e.g. 'Product A information' than to just say 'product information' or the company's name in the subject.
  25. Use active instead of passive. Try to use the active voice of a verb wherever possible. For instance, 'We will process your order today', sounds better than 'Your order will be processed today'. The first sounds more personal, whereas the latter, especially when used frequently, sounds unnecessarily formal.
  26. Avoid using URGENT and IMPORTANT. Even more so than the high-priority option, you must at all times try to avoid these types of words in an e-mail or subject line. Only use this if it is a really, really urgent or important message.

  27. Avoid long sentences. Try to keep your sentences to a maximum of 15-20 words. E-mail is meant to be a quick medium and requires a different kind of writing than letters. Also take care not to send e-mails that are too long. If a person receives an e-mail that looks like a dissertation, chances are that they will not even attempt to read it!

  28. Don't send or forward e-mails containing libellous, defamatory, offensive, racist or obscene remarks. By sending or even just forwarding one libellous, or offensive remark in an e-mail, you and your company can face court cases resulting in multi-million dollar penalties. Never send an e-mail in anger. Wait until you have calmed down before you send it.
  29. Don't forward virus hoaxes and chain letters. If you receive an e-mail message warning you of a new unstoppable virus that will immediately delete everything from your computer, this is most probably a hoax. By forwarding hoaxes you use valuable bandwidth and sometimes virus hoaxes contain viruses themselves, by attaching a so-called file that will stop the dangerous virus. The same goes for chain letters that promise incredible riches or ask your help for a charitable cause. Even if the content seems to be bona fide, the senders are usually not. Since it is impossible to find out whether a chain letter is real or not, the best place for it is the recycle bin.
  30. Keep your language gender neutral. In this day and age, avoid using sexist language such as: 'The user should add a signature by configuring his e-mail program'. Apart from using he/she, you can also use the neutral gender: ''The user should add a signature by configuring the e-mail program'.
  31. Don't reply to spam. By replying to spam or by unsubscribing, you are confirming that your e-mail address is 'live'. Confirming this will only generate even more spam. Therefore, just hit the delete button or use e-mail software to remove spam automatically.
  32. Use cc: field sparingly. Try not to use the cc: field unless the recipient in the cc: field knows why they are receiving a copy of the message. Using the cc: field can be confusing since the recipients might not know who is supposed to act on the message. Also, when responding to a cc: message, should you include the other recipient in the cc: field as well? This will depend on the situation. In general, do not include the person in the cc: field unless you have a particular reason for wanting this person to see your response. Again, make sure that this person will know why they are receiving a copy.

The cc: actually means “courtesy copy” and not “carbon copy” as most people think. So only send a copy when it is a courtesy to do so. For example sending a stern reply and copying in that person’s supervisor is NOT a courtesy – it is a veiled threat. Don’t do it.