Tech Skills: Business Needs to Give Back to Education?

Another day, another skills and tech education rant…

My thoughts here are partly triggered by this tweet about the HE system being effectively broken, from Martin Bryant of Tech North:

The overall takeaway is that the current HE models aren’t working for the tech sector on two counts: a) It moves too fast and b) There is too much to learn. Sounds like a perfect storm. The syllabuses and the people doing the teaching are continually at risk of being out of date.

I agree with the comments in the article that there is an expectation mismatch going on.

Companies can’t realistically expect graduates to just drop into a position and be as useful and productive as a person with several years’ experience, nor can they expect them to know the ins and outs of every protocol or language. As an employer, there needs to be some sort of development plan in place for every person you hire.

I’ve previously written about my own entry into the tech industry, somewhat by accident, in the 1990s: that I left University with a degree in nothing to do with tech, but with a solid understanding of the fundamentals, and basically ended up learning through apprenticeship-type techniques once on the job in an ISP.

Where I believe tech companies can help is by pouring their real-world knowledge and experience back into the teaching, and by this I mean moving beyond just the usual collaboration between industry and education and taking it a stage further: Encouraging their staff to go into Universities and teach, and the Universities to do more to guide and nurture this.

Yes, it takes effort. Yes, for the tech firms releasing staff members one or two days a week to teach, it’s going to be a longer term investment, the payback won’t immediately come for three to five years. But once it does arrive, it seems that the gift will keep giving.

For the Universities, they will need to support people who maybe aren’t experienced in teaching and find new ways of making their curriculum flexible enough to keep up.

I see this potentially having multiple positive paybacks:

  • For the University: they are getting some of the most up-to-date and practical real-world knowledge being taught to their students.
  • For the Students: increased employability as a result of relevant teaching.
  • For the Industry: a reducing skills gap and more inquisitive and employable individuals looking for careers.
  • For the tech employee doing the teaching: a massively rewarding experience that can help increase job satisfaction.

For this, I’d like to put my industry colleague Kevin Epperson on a bit of a pedestal. Kevin is an experienced Internet Engineering professional, and has worked at big industry names such as Microsoft, Level 3 and Netflix, in senior Network Engineering leadership roles. Kevin also teaches at University of Colorado, Boulder and is the instructor of their IP Routing Protocols course.

This is something Kevin has been doing for 15 years, during tenures at three different employers, and recently received an award for his contributions to their ITP courses.

The value of having a real-world industry expert involved in instructing students can’t be underestimated, yet I can think of very few people in my part of the tech industry – Internet Engineering – that actually teach in the formalised way Kevin does. All I can really think of is people doing more informal tutoring at conferences, and helping to organise hackathons and other events, which don’t necessarily reach the HE audience we’re discussing in this article.

The industry needs to be willing to move outside the rigid “full-time” staff model that I still find many companies wedded to, despite claims to the contrary, and be confident about releasing their staff to do these things, in order to give back. It may even improve staff retention and satisfaction for them, as well as produce more productive new hires! Be interested to see if people have real stats, or just good stories, on that.

Yet, at the same time, we’re talking about an industry that won’t give many members of staff a day out of the office to attend a free industry event which will benefit their skills and experience and improve their job satisfaction. Why? Who knows? I have hard data on this from running UKNOF that I’m willing to share if folks are interested.

The answer that I don’t have is how receptive the Universities would be to this? Or do they have their own journey of trust to go on?

Net Eng Skills Gap Redux: Entry Routes into Network Engineering

While I was recently at the LINX meeting in London, I ended up having a side-discussion about entry routes into the Internet Engineering industry, and the relatively small amount of new blood coming into the industry.

With my UKNOF Director’s hat on for a moment, we’re concerned about the lack of new faces showing up to our meetings too.

Let me say one thing here and now:

If you work in any sort of digital business, remember that you are nothing without the network, nothing without the infrastructure. This eventually affects you too.

Yes, I know you can just “shove it in the Cloud”, but this has to be built and operated. It has real costs associated with it, and needs real people to keep it healthily developing and running.

I’ve written about this before here, almost 3 years ago. But it seems we’re still not much better off. I think that’s because we’ve not done enough about it.

One twitter correspondent said, “I didn’t know the entry route, so ended up in sysadmin, then internet research, and not netops.”

This pretty much confirmed some of my previous post, that we’d basically destroyed the previous entry route through commoditisation of first-line support, and that was already happening some time around 1998/1999.

It’s too easy to sit here and bleat, blaming “sexy devops” for robbing Net Eng and Network Infrastructure of keen individuals.

But why are things such as devops and more digital and software oriented industries attracting the new entrants?

One comment is that because a large number of network infra companies are well established, there isn’t the same pioneering spirit, nor the same chance to experiment and build, with infrastructure compared to the environment I joined 20 years ago.

My colleague, Paul Thornton, characterised this pioneering spirit in a recent UKNOF presentation titled “None of us knew what we were doing, we made it up as we went along” – note that it is full of jargon and colloquialism, aimed at a specific techie audience, but if you can excuse that, it really captures in a nutshell the mid-90’s Internet engineering environment the likes of he and I grew up in.

Typing “debug all” on a core router can liven up your afternoon no end… But I didn’t really know what I wanted to do back then, I was green and wet behind the ears.

Many infrastructure providers are dominated by obsessions with high-availability, and as a result resistance to change, because they view a stable and available infrastructure as the utopia. An infrastructure which is being changed and experimented upon, by implication, is not as stable.

do-not-touch-any-of-these-wires
DO NOT TOUCH ANY OF THESE WIRES

Has a desire to learn (from mistakes if necessary!) become mutually exclusive from running infrastructure?

In many organisations, the “labs” – the development and staging environments – are pitiful. They often aren’t running the same equipment as that which exists in production, but are cobbled together from various hand-me-down pieces of gear. This means it’s not always possible to compare apples with
apples, or exactly mimic conditions which will exist in production.

Compare this to the software world, where everything is on fairly generic compute, and the software is largely portable from the development and staging environments, especially so in a world of virtualisation and containerisation. There’s more chances to experiment, test, fail, fix and learn in this environment, than there is in an environment where people are discouraged from touching anything for fear of causing an outage.

This means we Network Engineering types need to spend a lot of time on preparation and nerves of steel before making any changes.

Why are the lab environments often found wanting? Classically it’s because of the high capital cost of network gear, which doesn’t directly earn any revenue. It’s harder to get signoff, unless your company has a clear policy about lab infrastructure.

I’m not saying a blanket “change control is bad”, but a hostile don’t touch anything” environment may certainly drive away some of the inquisitive folks who are keen to learn through experimentation.

Coupled with the desire of organisations to achieve high availability with the lowest realistically achievable capital spend, it means that when these organisations hire for Network Engineering posts, they often want seasoned and experienced individuals, sometimes with vendor specific certifications. You know how I hold those in high esteem, or not as the case may be, right?

So what do we need to do?

I can’t take all the credit for this, but it’s partly my own opinions, mixed in with what I’ve aggregated from various discussions.

We need to create clear Network and Infra Engineering apprenticeship and potential career paths.

The “Way In” needs to be clearly signposted, and “what’s in it for you” made obvious.

There needs to be an established and recognised industry standard for the teaching in solid basic network engineering principles, that is distinct from vendor-led accreditations.

In some areas of the sector, the “LAIT” (LINX Accredited Internet Technician) programme is recognised and respected for it’s thoroughness in teaching basic Internet engineering skill, but it’s quite a narrow niche. Is there room to expand the recognition this scheme, and possibly others have?

A learning environment needs to exist where we enable people to make mistakes and learn from them, where failure can be tolerated, and priority placed on teaching and information sharing.

This means changing how we approach running the network. Proper labs. Proper tooling. Proper redundant infrastructure. No hostile “change control” environment.

Possibly running more outreach events that are easier for the curious and inquisitive to get into? That’s a whole post in itself. Stay tuned.

Concilio et Labore – “it’s all about ME!”

…or, as I’m calling it, the “Manchester Experiment”.

Saying “It’s all about me” sounds terribly self-indulgent, doesn’t it? Maybe this is, but it’s something that I need to do:

I am going to try out living in Manchester for a couple of months.

2016 marks my 20th year of living in our hectic Capital.

For the first 3 years after arriving in London I was a young guy working at a small tech company, surrounded by lots of people of the same age. Many of us were recent graduates who had moved for the job and lived locally to our workplace. Some of us could be out almost every night. Very sociable. That changed as the company grew. We started to recruit people who lived further away, others moved on, some folks moved back home after a year or two. Some paired off with boyfriends and girlfriends and chose loved up nights in so this social group started to break up.

Then I changed job myself.

For the next 10 years I probably “lived in the world”, more than I lived in London.

I often found myself travelling internationally, both for work and pleasure. I had a frequent flyer “habit” that supported premium status in two different airline programmes. I wasn’t away so much I qualified for a tax exemption, but I had wondered on more than one occasion. I’d even dated people that weren’t in the same country (or at one point the same continent!) as me. My home in London really wasn’t much more than a bolt hole. A place to keep my stuff and sleep when I needed it, near the workplace that I sometimes went to.

Reading it back, it sounds like a lonely existence, but it wasn’t. I was in an almost continuous circuit of conferences and meetings, working with my colleagues, and leaping on planes to go and meet my international friends. The time that I did have at home was “me” time, a respite from the whirl of our conference circuit, and I really didn’t mind that.

The last 5 years have been different again, and during that time I feel that I’ve reconnected with the area I come from in so many ways.

I guess this started in 2010 when I became involved in volunteering with the East Lancashire Railway, and grew during a career-break that was extended by family illness.

My folks are still in the North West and they aren’t getting any younger. 5 years ago my father managed to survive cancer, but it brought me back “home” even more. I already regret that I haven’t seen as much of them as I’d like in the preceding years, so it’s time to make amends. Being around 5 hours drive away just isn’t working for me any more. I’d like to be able to drop in for a brew and a chat, not have to thrash my way through the misery Friday night London traffic and stay for the whole weekend to make it worthwhile.

Many of my closest friends are in the North, I’d say there are more there now than in the South East. Some of them moved there from the South over the years, Northerners that returned home themselves or Southerners that have been willingly “converted”, some are old friends from my early life, while others are new friends I’ve made along the way.

Because so many people I know down in the South East don’t even live in London, but in the circle of “Zone 6-plus” towns that people race home to at the end of their workday, I’ve grown tired of almost everything I do having to be seriously pre-meditated, orchestrated, arranged well in advance. Doesn’t lend itself to anything spontaneous like grabbing lunch together or meeting up for a quick coffee or cheeky pint when you’ve got an hour’s journey each way. For an extrovert like me, it’s a tough way to do things.

A couple of months ago I was talking about these feelings to a friend who lives in the North West. He asked me “Where is it that you feel alive?” “Here, in the North”, I answered, “In London, all I seem to do is exist.”

Another friend told me, “Your soul is already here. It’s time that the rest of you followed.”

I’ve been thinking off and on about this for a while. For more than the past 5 years if I’m honest. When I took my career break and no longer had a full time position in London, a lot of people asked when I was moving back North. They assumed it would happen. They probably know me better than I knew myself at the time.

For a while, things have conspired to stop me going ahead with it. Now they can’t. Now it is time, my turn to come “home”. Back where I feel I belong.

So, from mid May until mid July I’ve got myself a place to call home in the North.

I’ve decided to base myself in Didsbury. A great neighbourhood, close to transport links and lots of other good stuff. A quick hop onto the motorway to go and see my folks – close enough to visit easily, not so close I fall into the trap of being there all the time – a healthy distance! Easy day trips to friends on both sides of the Pennines that I simply don’t get to see enough of right now. A quick drive to my hobby of rail preservation over in Bury. I can even take my work with me too. Manchester has a great tech community which I’m looking forward to participating in.

As for what happens next, once the “Manchester Experiment” is over? Well, I’ll take things one step at a time. Walk before I try running. Come back and ask me in the first week of July.

The Manchester coat of arms contains the motto “Concilio et Labore” – this loosely means “By wisdom and effort”. It remains to be seen how much wisdom has been involved. I feel like I’m making the right choice, but only time will tell. One thing I can assure you of is that it’s certainly taken a lot of effort to get this far, and there’s likely more to come. This is just the first step.

In the back of my mind I hear “Wherever you go, there you are”: that even if you change your surroundings, you’re still the same person inside. But actually I liken it more to being a fish out of water. Twenty years ago, I almost literally washed up in London. Didn’t think I’d stay here this long. Now I’m getting back in the water – no jokes about the great Manchester weather – and I’m really looking forward to it.

Hopefully this is a wise move and it is worth the effort. Hopefully I’m not just being foolhardy and brave.

Weird Harmonics? A Whistling HP 6830 Printer?

I have a HP 6830 printer.

It is making a high-pitched, barely audible, but just enough to be annoying (to me anyway) whistling/singing noise, that sounds a bit like modem noise.

The frequency and pitch of the noise changes when it’s wifi client is switched off. It’s still there, just slightly different.

The whistling noise is still present even when the printer is in standby.

It changes pitch again when it is powered down.

It goes completely once the mains lead is removed, and returns when the mains lead is plugged back in.

Sadly, I’ve tried recording it, but nothing I’ve got seems to be able to pick it up clearly.

Anyone else got one and come across this?

You can take the boy out of the North West, but…

Last week, a record was released to help raise money for The Christie Hospital in Manchester, a tribute to the life and memories of one of it’s more famous patients, a certain Anthony H Wilson, music impresario, tv journalist, and “Mr Manchester”.

It’s not supposed to be a floor-filler, but more of a fond eulogy, a modern poem, that’s been set to an arrangement of New Order’s “Your Silent Face”.

“Saint Anthony, Saint Anthony, please come round, because something that’s lost cannot be found…”

The first time I saw and heard this I really was teary-eyed, with a lump in my throat.

Not only was it set to a favourite piece of music, but many of the faces staring back at me out of the screen were, like Tony Wilson himself, those from my own upbringing in the North West.

I was never lucky enough to meet him in person, but I was one of those people that grew up in the age of Tony Wilson, the music of his bands on my walkman, his face on my TV. Not only did he run a record label and a nightclub… but he read the news too. Was there anything this man couldn’t turn his hand to? Best of all, he was from the North and vociferously for the North.

It also made me think of a more innocent time in my own life. When I had my whole life ahead of me, when I felt I could do anything. When we’d get the train into Manchester and visit places like Afflecks, and if you’d asked me where Granada was I’d answer “Quay Street”, not Spain.

New Order’s Bernard Sumner wrote about Tony, “He always seemed so young and enthusiastic in spirit, he had the attitude of a man in his 20’s…”, and it was with this enthusiasm Tony made those around him believe that Manchester and the North West could do anything, if only they tried… “This is Manchester, we do things differently here.”

When I graduated from University, I chose to move South, where I’d been offered a job. South to follow the money. Ravaged by 17 years of London-centric Tory policies, the North West didn’t look so attractive to someone in their mid-20’s with a freshly minted degree, I guess.

I found myself wanting to dig inside me for something that I’d become worried might have been lost from so many years in the London rat-race, my own Twenty-something spirit, that bit of me that lives for today, that thinks it can do anything, my own inner Northerner. Was I worried it was buried under a metaphorical jam of red London buses? I needn’t have been.

I looked and I’ve found it. It’s bruised and battered, but it’s still there.

Try as the world might, you can take the boy out of the North West, but you can’t take the North West out of the Man.

One day, I’ll stop wandering. One day I’ll come home.

Those who know me will know that my own family has twice already been touched by cancer. There’s a 50% chance everyone in the UK will need to be treated for cancer in their lifetime. If you liked “St Anthony” you can buy it, and if you didn’t, you can still donate money to The Christie Hospital in Tony Wilson’s memory and help others in the future. Give, and give generously.

CashZone cash machine: Terrible UX

The cash machine at my local Co-Op used to be run by the Co-Op Bank. Then, this banking bit of the Co-Op had an encounter with a capital shortfall somewhere in the region of £1.5bn, and has since been restructured and rehabilitated.

As part of the restructure, the Co-Op group own less of the bank, and most of the cash machines which aren’t in a branch have been sold off to a commercial operator called CashZone, as part of a cost-cutting exercise.

It still gives out money, that’s fine. It’s the getting to the point where you get it which is frustrating.

The menu system is a paragon of terrible UI design. Here’s an example…

You tell it you want “Cash Only” from the list of options, and it asks you if you want to see your balance. No! If I’d wanted that I’d have pressed “Cash with Balance”. Likewise, if I’d wanted a receipt, I’d have pressed “Cash with Receipt”.

If I press “Cash Only”, I think it’s fairly safe to assume that I only want that.

Most of all, the “circular questioning” of the CashZone menu system seems to seriously confuse some folks. It’s clear that the transactions are taking longer since the machine was converted. It frequently has a queue of 4 or 5 people in front of it, where as it seldom had a queue of 1 or 2 before.

How is this supposed to be an improvement in service? Well, it isn’t. It’s a step back.

The CashZone menu system is an example of a terrible user experience, designed by someone who probably never has to use the damned thing.

However, Co-Op have made £35m out of wasting our time, so that’s okay, I suppose?

Update: One of my twitter followers @jamesheridan pointed out that CashZone may receive a micro-payment for showing a balance enquiry. Still doesn’t make it any less slower or sucky.

Premier Inn Wifi – If only it were consistent.

I recently heaped praise on Premier Inn for providing a good wifi service in one of their hotels.

Sadly, this is not consistent across all their properties. I’m currently staying in another Premier Inn just down the road from the one with the good wifi (which was already full for this evening).

The wifi performance here isn’t great at all…

This is as good as it got. Fail.
This is as good as it got. Fail.

It does have sensibly laid out 5GHz and 2.4GHz spectrum like the other Premier Inn, so it seems the wifi architecture is sound, however what’s different here is the backhaul technology.

The other property was on what appeared to be a VDSL line from a more specialist business ISP. It also had the advantage that it was only shared between about 20-odd rooms.

This Premier Inn is much larger, but based on the ISP (Sharedband) it is likely to be using a link-bundled ADSL2 connection, and is shared amongst many more users – about 140 rooms. I’ve noticed several other Arqiva-managed hotspots using Sharedband as the backhaul technology, and these all have suffered from very slow speeds, high latency and signs of heavy oversubscription and congestion.

Notice the “star rating” on the Speedtest above. One star. Lots of unhappy punters?

I’m currently getting better performance on a 3G modem. (No 4G coverage on my provider in this area.)

It would be great if Premier Inn could offer a more consistent experience in it’s wifi product, and I mean a consistently good experience such as the one I enjoyed just up the road in Abingdon, and not the lowest common denominator of the congested barely useable mess here.

They aim for a consistent product in the rest of their offerings and for the most part achieve it, however if I was only staying here in this property, I’d be asking for a refund for the wifi charge.

Update at 1am in the morning, after the fire alarm went off around 11.30pm and caused the hotel to be evacuated…

I can just about get 3Mb/sec down (and less than 256k up) out of the connection here now, and I assume the large majority guests are sleeping. Still less than great. This is very obviously based around oversubscribed link-bundled ADSL stuff.