Archive for the 'System Administration' Category

Things I’ve learned about Time Management

It’s easy enough to say that you don’t have enough time, but the reality is that time is the medium in which we live. Complaining you don’t have enough time very much like a fish complaining that he doesn’t have enough water. So, rather than complaining about the amount of time I have, I’ve been learning to think about my time management issues differently.

Where David Allen lead me wrong

The first insight I had is that Getting Things Done (GTD) has steared me wrong. This is hard to say because I think it’s a great book with a lot of great insights. In particular the strong admonition to get everything you need to do down on paper has changed the way I live and think. That list includes all the major and minor commitments I’ve made, and having it out of my head and in a system that I trust reduced my stress levels imensely.

But I found that I still have a lot of stress. And I found that I was still thrashing back and forth between projects without making the kind of decisive progress on any of them that I wanted to.

Why wasn’t the GTD process enough?

Because, as I eventually learned the GTD “inbox processing” strategy as described in the book is broken. You are supposed to choose between three options for each input: do it, deligate it, or defer it. But really there’s a key fourth option that is the really important one if you’re life is anything like mine.

What is that all important forth option?

  • Don’t do it. Say no. Avoid adding another commitment to your list.

Wait, there’s science behind this!

This is really critical because like any queue that’s processed by a limited resource (in this case my time and attention) filling it too full actually causes the system to break down. This process of breakdown even has a technical name that feels exactly right, it’s called “thrashing.”

Every programmer and computer user knows what this is like. Open too many apps at once, and your machine grinds to a halt, data keeps getting swapped out to disk and the rate at which the machine can process information goes down exponentially.

Ok, so know I knew the name for my problem. Naming it is good, but it’s not the solution.

So, how do I stop thrashing about and get stuff done?

At some point, i’m not exactly sure where, I had a realization that in life, just like a manufacturing line, or a software resource issue, there are two keys to preventing thrashing.

  1. Avoid too much multitasking. A system spends time switching between tasks and is less efficent when time-windows for work are too small, and task-switching happens too often.
  2. When multiple commitments are being made that require real-time or near real-time responses, you have to keep the task-switching window short enough that high-priority tasks can be scheduled immediately. This, of course, creates a tension with the first principle which suggests larger time windows between task-switching.

This is where Getting Things Done’s todo list system provided me with a lot of help. It helped me reduce my task-switching costs, and that’s allowed me to get a better balance on these two pressures.

Letting the work FLOW

I think there’s a very clear analogy with what happened at Toyota in the early days. Manufacturers had die presses which took a long time to change, so they would run them for a long time. This was great in that it helped keep the machine working and limited the downtime. But it also meant that there were long delays in the system since the switching time and the time for the long runs added up. Toyota decided that since they couldn’t afford more machines, they needed to figure out ways to reduce the cost of switching, which reduced total cycle time, made them more responsive to bugs (quality problems) and helped them to get more done in less time.

Reducing the cost of switching made it possible for the system to run differently, rather than batching up lots of work and pushing it through, it Toyota discovered that you could pull what you needed through the system just in time. This same thing works for time management, when you aren’t overloaded you can be more responsive to today’s needs, and you avoid the inevitable mismatches that come with long delays between request and response.

What happens when there’s still too much to do?

But, to come back to my main point, even when you’ve done everything you can do to reduce the task-switching costs, you still can have significant thrashing problems when the resource (that’s you or me) gets overscheduled.

Most projects I’ve worked on ended up in this situation at some point, where working harder stopped producing results because of schedule pressure and resource contention.

This is why saying no is a critical skill.

If you limit the commitments you make, you can provide rapid turn around on the commitements you do make, and everything runs much more smoothly because you’re thrashing less, and wasting less time on task switching.

Beyond the basics, I’ve discovered that one really critical notion is to have enough slack in your system to handle emergencies. If you schedule the system full, any high-priority, high-urgency task that enters the system can break the whole process.

Without slack in the system emergencies snowball…

I know this from experience, as I’ve had my share of emergencies in the last couple of years, and when there was slack in the system things settled down quickly, and when there wasn’t I ended up with new emergencies caused by the first emergency delaying things just a little bit too much.

So, when you are tempted to take on another commitment, think about what would happen to your life if you had to take a week off to deal with a death in the family, or to help a sick relative. If you don’t see any path to recovery, perhaps you’re over-scheduling your most important resource — you.

When No, really means Yes

In the end I discovered the biggest irony of time management: it’s only when you say No to some things, that you have the ability to say Yes, and make real commitments.

When you say no to helping a friend move, or to visiting family, or whatever feels valuable to you you will feel terrible. But, if you don’t say no sometimes to at least some of these things, you’ll end up not being able to do any of those things anyway, because you’re always behind and never quite able to fulfill the commitments you make.

I learned the hard way, hopefully you don’t have to ;)


Prolonged adolecence is not a new problem, it’s just new to the masses:

Children of kings and great magnates were the first to grow up out of touch with the world. Suburbia means half the population can live like kings….

Paul Graham

You can’t shelter people from everything bad or scary, and expect them to live in the real world.

Project managers, System Administrators, and parents should take note of this.

People can only step up and take responsibility when they actually know what’s going on. Seems to me that there are lessons for how we talk to people about project risks, how we handle e-mail spam problems, and how we think about IT services. It’ll be a while before I figure out what exactly all of those lessons are….

Using the Terminal Server Console

Remote administration is the name of the game for the independant contractor. In a past life I did system administration for a living, and programming as a hobby. Now the situation is reversed, except System Administration is a boring hobby.

But at least with good tools, I can participate this odd hobby in the comfort of my own home.

SSH makes Remote administration of linux/Unix servers remarkably easy. Unfortunately Windows 2k/2k3 requires a GUI for Remote administration, but Microsoft generosity has alloted two Terminal Server Clients for remote administration purposes on every Windows 2000 and Windows 2003 Server they sell. Unfortunately, sometimes you get disconnected unintentionally. If this happens twice, you could get the dreaded “The terminal server has exceeded the maximum number of allowed connections” error.

Now, you can’t even connect to disconnect the old sessions. You’re screwed, and you need to drive an hour to the server and get to the machine and kill the inactive sessions.

Not really, you can just:

start | run - mstsc -v: /f -console

This attaches you to the special “console” session, which kicks whoever is logged in locally off and allows you to remote control the machine again. You can then kill the inactive sessions and move on with your life. Always kill the inactive sessions first, because if you get disconnected again you will have to drive in.

Since I normally run Linux at home, I don’t use the above command, I use:

rdesktop -0

I also have a shiny new MacBook which isn’t always booted into Ubuntu Linux, sometimes it actually runs Mac OS X. Have no fear I can use the Remote Desktop Client to connect to the console session:

No fancy command line option here, but you can hold down the command (open apple) key and click the Connect button.

If you control the server, and you don’t have any long running user processes you want to be able to reconnect to on the server I highly recommend also setting up your servers to automatically disconnect inactive sessions.

That way even if you get disconnected, you just have to wait a few min. until the first connection to drop times out.

Moodle at Work

I’ve been using Moodle here at Compound Thinking for the TurboGears classes (look for new classes coming soon!) and I am setting one up at work. The classes will be optional, but we’ll do contests and prizes for the most activity, the highest average quiz score, etc. It all started as a way to get people to take the time to find new ways to use their computers to do cool things. The classes will teach things like logging, editing photos, using flickr, putting together DVD sideshows, along with the standard Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Open Office training.

Hopefully other people outside IT will post classes that will help us bring new people on board more quickly. This is functionality we need, but I am hoping that it also helps to communicate that the IT department exists to amplify people’s ability to execute on their creative ideas.

Too many companies have an ingrained view of IT as nay-sayers and obstructionists. Or, even worse they see IT people as trying to automate them out of a job. The tools we deploy, and the way we deploy them speak volumes about how we view our jobs — and people know how to read the message we send.

How powerful would it be if everybody saw IT as a lever they could use to move their individual worlds? What if they believed that IT connected to the things they really care about — even if those things aren’t always work related.

Studies at Gallop show that people are consistently happier and more productive when “someone at work cares about [them] as a person.”

So, if IT’s job is to make people more productive, it also needs to be IT’s job to care about people.

Excel Date Weirdness

A strange Microsoft Excel problem got passed up the chain to me today. We had to re-create a workbook that had lots of links to data from other workbooks. Yea, one of those Excel is a database nightmares that I keep wanting to replace, but we never have time or money to do it.

Anyway, the new sheet showed dates that were four years and 1 day older than what they ought to be. So a project with a billing date that should have been January 20, 2006 was showing up as billing on January 19, 2002. Nobody could figure it out, and because it is something pretty critical to our business (billing is about as business critical as it gets) it made it’s way up to me right away.

The dates were formated in different ways in the original spreadsheets, but if you turned them back into plain numbers you could see that they were both coming up as 37275. Anyway to make a long story short, it turns out that Excel has a feature labeled “1904 dates system” which is available under the options menu.

This means that under the covers Excel stores dates as the number of days since January 1 1900. Unless of course you have “1904 date system” turned on, in which case it counts days since January 2nd 1904.

As features go, this one seemed pretty absurd to me, but it turns out that this has something to do with Office on the Mac and some 10 year (at least) bug in Mac OS.

It seems like a little bit of foresight 15 years ago would have prevented Microsoft from having to maintain this feature for I don’t know how many versions of office. But, even though the bug this was originally designed to work around has long been fixed, the workaround is still generating work at Microsoft, and for helpdesk people around the world!

Oh well, at least this kind of thing keeps our lives interesting.