Friday, June 19, 2020

The Human Side of Technology - People Come First

We are definitely living through some very strange times.  Our county has been under a 'shelter-in-place' order for 3 months and now extending into month 4.  We are starting to see some relaxation of the very strict guidelines, but our COVID-19 numbers have also been manageable/workable, by our first responders and healthcare workers.  We have been lucky here.   But there is another toll that is starting to take root and instead of talking about technology and the health of our networks, I thought it would be good to step back, don my sociology hat for a bit and talk about the health of our workers and employees - not just the physical health, but the mental health and well being.

Setting the Foundation

Let me start off by telling you a fairly brief story.  Back in 1999-2002, I was employed by a tech startup called eHealthInsurance.  It was everything in a technology startup, I wanted.  A fresh approach to health insurance, a dynamic management team and the company was eager for me as I was eager for it.  I was young.  I was hungry.  I did wonderful things for that company.    In 2001, I spoke with my manager and told him I was expecting a new baby and that I wanted to transfer to our Folsom location and work out the Sacramento area.  I got approved to do that.  Sold my house in San Jose - moved in with my in-laws, purchased a home in Roseville and the plan was to stay in San Jose until my daughter was born in 2002.  Life has a way of throwing these wicked curve balls at you.  First, 9/11 happened.  As an ex-Firefighter/EMT with Saratoga Fire District, I was devastated.  There is a special bond and trust firefighters go through.  That was hard. 

Then the dot com bubble burst and we entered a bit of a recession at the end of 2001, beginning of 2002.  It wasn't until the beginning of 2002 that the VP of engineering who oversaw my IT department, caught wind of my impending move to the Sacramento area.  Without mincing words, he rescinded the entire deal.  Revoked the approval for me to transfer to Sacramento.  Mind you, this was 2 months before my daughter was expected and I had been living with my in-laws for about a month.  I had sold my home in San Jose.  Moved in with my in-laws and was two months short of my daughters birth and three months short of moving to Roseville.  Talk about a shock to our system.  What were we going to do?

The Last Meeting

I spent the next month or two working my butt off and trying to keep the lines of communication open between me and eHealthInsurance.  By the VP of Engineering (I won't mention names - he knows who he is) wasn't having any of it.  To add insult to injury, the company had a telecommute policy in place that extended a work-from-home day to any employee who lived more than 50 miles from the office.  At our last meeting, I was summarily told that my position would not be transferring to Folsom. Furthermore, I would be required to work from Sunnyvale, 5 days a week and, even if I did move to Folsom/Roseville area (some 120 miles North), I would not be granted the current telecommute policy or be allowed to work even out of the Folsom office on that 5th day.  I was dejected and sad.  But I knew after 2 months of negotiations and me trying to do the honorable and right thing, that this was it.  I walked out of the office, to my desk, grabbed the three pre-typed letters (my just in case, letters) and walked my resignation back to HR, my boss and the VP of Engineering.  My time at eHealth Insurance was over.  There is a lot more to my story afterwards, but that is best saved for another time. 

My point with the preceding was to help point out that as managers we have a responsibility for the health and well-being of our employees, before that of their jobs.  Our most critical resource and assets are the people, themselves.  This VP lost sight of that.  Business was business and there would be no middle ground. He didn't care about my circumstances or the crumbling economy around us, or my new baby girl, or the very fact that my manager, the Director of IT, authorized this change 6 months prior. 

Understanding Now

Fast forward to now.  Now, I am a Vice President of IT.  I manage people and have responsibilities and I answer to people still above my pay grade.  But that doesn't negate the compassion or empathy I must have to effectively manage my people with their myriad of issues, personal and professional.

I spoke with one of my employees today and they need to talk with me about their mental well being and feelings of depression since the world was halted by COVID-19.  I immediately sympathized and told them they weren't alone in their feelings.  There have been mornings that I haven't wanted to crawl out of bed.  It is like being in a state of limbo, caught between some sort of permanent vacation and work. 

 lines between personal lives and professional lives have been grayed out completely to the point of stretching work days into 10-12 hours interspersed with being cooped up in your home with 4 other people who aren't co-workers.  Some days, I don't take showers.  Some days, I don't wear pants (not if I have a video call!), but you get the idea.  I have had two haircuts now, from my wife.  She has done a wonderful job, but she is a Marcom Coordinator for another tech company - she isn't a hairstylist. 

So I listened and we talked for a bit.  It doesn't matter what the employee was seeking from me.  It mattered that I listened, was receptive and more importantly, with compassion and understanding, I was accommodating during a very difficult economic and health crisis.

This employees health and well-being, was more important to me than their job.  I understood what they were saying.  The conversation ended very well. 


What was interesting is that as I was reflecting on this meeting, it occurred to me that I was the VP I needed to be, to the person, in every way that I needed my VP to be to me, back in 2002!   In 26 years of working in Information Technology, my goal has always been to take the best of the best managers I have had and couple it with my passion for I.T. and be the best version of a boss that I could be.  And subconsciously, I proved it with this person, recently.

I was a better version than that VP of Engineering from eHealth Insurance in 2002.  My conscious is clear and I now feel a strong moral victory. 

It is important that as managers and supervisors of people, we take the time out to be understanding and live with compassion and empathy.   Yes, business is business, but that is not how I run my organization or business. 

We are living in very strange times.  COVID-19, forced shelter-in-place orders, the recent protests for #BLM movement and the new economic recession we are in are taking a mental toll on a lot of people.  Our expectations for a separation of work life and personal life have slowly been stripped away over the past 100 days.   Depression and mental confusion will seep in.  Maintaining focus on projects and tasks becomes more and more difficult.  It is our jobs to do what we can, to take care of the people in our charges, be them engineers, or firefighters, or nurses, or clerks.   The mental well-being and health of my employees, comes before any job or task they need to perform - always.  This should be how we all operate, everyday.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Cloud Strategies and Authentication Methodologies

Like any forward thinking IT Department, we have been vigilant in trying to find more and more efficient methods of connecting our users with their data/resources.   Do more with less resources is the mantra that no IT person ever wants to hear, but it is chanted by every executive, either breathlessly behind closed doors, or touted as the norm.  While I have never been a stranger to this, working in start-ups for the past 25 years, it has become more about how efficiently I can run a department by offloading repetitive tasks to automation while maintaining the integrity and security of a system. 

Clouds are Brewing

A lot of companies 'doing more with less' have adopted cloud strategies where only on-premise systems used to live.  At first - 10 years ago - I was against moving things to someone else to host/serve.  Why would I want to give up control of a system or service - the hardware, the software, the management and configuration, not to mention the customization.  

My first foray into cloud services was Online Exchange - this pre-dates Office 365 by about 3 years. At first, the thought of me allowing my Sys Admin skills in managing a mail system going stagnant was horrifying.  But then the ease of managing a system as complex as Exchange, yet offloading all the technical bluster to a 3rd party was exactly what I needed at this new job I was starting.  

Gone were the worries about disaster recovery or day-to-day maintenance that Exchange systems love to produce.  If there was a problem, I engaged that 3rd party to find the solution - they became my 1st level of technical support for issues.   I could learn to like this.  It was providing me more freedom to grow into other areas and focus on the company and not the tools.

Fast forward 10 years and now a lot of companies are adopting a cloud strategy or culture (cloud culture).  It allows the offloading of otherwise critical systems that would require multiple administrators to manage/run.  My exchange system today consumes over 3.3 TB with 375 active e-mail accounts.  It services a global community of sales, services and support folks and remains very accessible and has an up-time around 99.99%.  To run that same system on premise, would take a lot of hardware, dedicated storage area network, with replication to a hot site some place, not to mention a full time admin if not two. 

How Many Passwords?

Now we come to the crux of the article - and that is the disparate nature of cloud systems/services.  This new urban sprawled compute environment has one glaring issue.  Each system usually has its own set of logins - ways to authenticate and/or password systems specific to that resource.  That is until companies like OneLogin or OKTA came around to help extend a single authentication schema that could be used across multiple different platforms, including Atlassian, O365, Salesforce and online ERP systems like Netsuite or Dynamics 365.  Again - looking at doing more for our company but with less manpower to do it with.  Instead of several different logins I have to remember and onboarding processes, I can now relay upon a single provider to assist with authentication and provisioning of these different systems. 

Virtana uses OKTA.  They are a very robust provider of authentication services, ranging not only from the actual SAML Authentication process, but multi-factor authentication, automated provisioning/deprovisioning services that ensure the mitigation of user errors.

Fast forward to today and we have deployed this single solution (OKTA) in over 20 different services my team provides for our company.  Couple this with employment of multi-factor authentication with rotating keys or SMS verification and we have a fairly robust and stable authentication mechanism.

Now when we are tasked with bringing online a new system (SurveyMonkey or Monday), we first look for the SAML integration points and how we can continue to leverage our single sign on system.  

Monitor My Cloud!

Recently, Virtana acquired a company called Metricly.  This company has a wonderful framework for monitoring Cloud systems - like AWS instances.  This became the third pillar in our triad of performance monitoring solutions, called Cloud Wisdom.  Now - this isn't an infomercial or advertisement.  It is a product that truly delivers what it says - an analysis of your infrastructure and an uncovering of the abstract nature of what cloud service providers currently offer.  The best part of this platform is the Cost Optimization model (from an OPEX point of view).  It is one thing to say AWS cost us $50,000 this month - but it is another thing to see that breakdown and understand that by shifting and moving resources around, we could save the company some dollars!  That is extra money that we could use to innovate more or invest in infrastructure or people!  I might be biased - then again, I also just might be experienced!   Check out CloudWisdom here: