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Wednesday, Jul 15 2015

4 Tips for Managing a Remote IT Team

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4 Tips for Managing a Remote IT Team

It's common these days for IT teams to have team members in multiple locations around the world, whether to take advantage of specialized talent or cost factors. Technology helps these scattered teams communicate, but there are still challenges that come when co-workers aren't co-located. Here are four tips for managers to help their remote teams work effectively.

Plan ahead

Projects always work more efficiently when there's a plan, and planning is even more critical with remote staff. There are fewer opportunities for casual interactions and questions to clarify assignments, and if confusion crosses time zones, delays can extend for days. Make sure you have a plan, so everyone knows what they're expected to do and when it needs to be done.

Schedule time to communicate

Because team members don't see you in person on a regular basis, they don't often get a lot of feedback. Don't rely on email; it's not dynamic enough, and meaning doesn't always come through. Plan a regular virtual meeting, perhaps once a month, to meet with your remote staff and give development guidance and other feedback. When possible, use videoconferencing, not just audio, so facial expressions and other non-verbal feedback are part of the communication process.

Build processes and systems to support the team

When people are in the same place, you may not need formal processes to address issues that arise; casual communication and spur-of-the-moment working sessions help sort things out. When people are around the world, a formally defined process ensures that everyone knows how to raise concerns, and that everyone is able to contribute input to solutions.

Build team spirit

Remote teams still want to feel like part of the team. Make sure remote staff are included in team celebrations. If possible, have managers visit the remote site periodically, and bring senior members of the remote staff for working visits to the home office. Besides providing an opportunity to build a shared work culture, these out-of-office experiences allow you to get to know remote staff as individuals and treat them as the unique people they are.

Tuesday, Jun 30 2015

3 Tips For First-Time IT Managers

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3 Tips for First Time Managers

Moving from a hands-on role to a manager's role means a big change in what you do on a daily basis. It also means a big change in how you relate to co-workers, especially if you now manage former peers. Here are three tips to help you adapt and succeed in this new role.

Draw on Your Experience, but Continue to Learn

The most important thing to recognize as a new manager is that you don't actually know how to do everything the job requires. Your technical skills will help with some aspects of the job, like developing project schedules and deciding if an application is ready to release, but the management role requires other skills, like budgeting and conducting performance reviews, that may not have been needed previously. Plan to take the necessary training and find mentors to help you continue to develop.

Communicate Effectively

As an individual contributor, your success was evaluated solely based on your own performance. As a manager, your success depends on the success of your team. It's important to get team members to buy in to project priorities and deadlines, which means setting goals clearly and being open to feedback. Make sure the team knows you're open to their opinions by having an open-door policy. Some team members may hesitate to speak out in a group setting, so seek them out for one-to-one discussions.

When things aren't going well, get the team's perception of the problem and their input on ways to improve it, rather than dictating a solution or imposing a new process on them. Be sure to celebrate the team's success, too; you don't want them conditioned to expect bad news when you walk into the room.

Support Other's Development

Your success as a manager may inspire others to aspire to management roles. Encourage team members to grow and develop skills, technical and other. Take the annual goal-setting process seriously, and help team members set goals that are achievable, and will benefit them as well as the company. Create an environment that supports learning, by encouraging training. Mentor team members to help them develop. Helping your team develop their skills will make them stronger contributors, increase your team's success, and help you climb the management ladder.

DevOps Requirements

You may think the transition of an application from development to production happens at the end of the software lifecycle, but achieving a successful transition requires thinking about it all the way back at the start of the development process. Here are 10 things you can do during development to make it easier for the operations team to take responsibility for the app in production:

1. Make it easy to gather metrics. A key part of the operations team's job is monitoring what the application is doing and how it's doing it. That's a lot easier when the application gathers basic information and provides hooks for ops to check other performance numbers.

2. Document system dependencies. No system runs in isolation, but if the ops team doesn't know your application depends on some obscure package, that package may end up getting deleted to free up space. Put together a list of all the necessary components to make sure they get installed and stay installed to keep your app running.

3. Degrade gracefully. Don't write an application that falls apart when there's any sort of problem. Applications should flag problems and alert the support team, but continue functioning as fully as possible. This means applications shouldn't fail to come up just because the log file system is full.

4. Keep compatibility in mind. If your application can run with past and future versions of third-party products, the DevOps team will have a much easier time deploying your application and managing it, especially if it runs in a shared environment where other applications may want different versions of those components.

5. Make it easy to change configuration settings. A key responsibility of the DevOps team is keeping applications running when the environment around them is shifting. Building connection strings and other configuration settings into compiled code makes it impossible for DevOps to do that.

6. Provide configurations settings and flags for as much as possible. If a feature isn't configurable or can't be turned off and on, the DevOps team has no way to control it and manage the impact in production.

7. Build with scalability in mind. If you're lucky, your application will be wildly successful and have to grow to support more users. A well-designed application will let DevOps handle this by running the app on more nodes. If you don't design the application well, it may need to go back to the development team for a rewrite before the user base can expand.

8. Think about support scripts. The support team would love to automate as much of their job as possible. This means making sure application functionality can be invoked from a command line, rather than only by clicks within a GUI.

9. Provide a regression test suite. DevOps wants the application to keep running when the environment around it changes. A robust regression test suite lets them verify the system will still work after they make changes.

10. Document. Document. Document. There's a ton of critical information that exists only in the developers' heads. Writing it down means the DevOps team won't need to call developers in the middle of the night to find out where to change a configuration setting.

Introverts More Extroverted

Many roles in IT are, by nature, solitary work. But as user experience becomes more important, it is vital that your IT team be able to engage effectively with both internal and external consumers.  Introverts may not choose to become more extroverted on their own. You may need to provide your team with both the encouragement and tools they need to increase their interactions with co-workers and customers. Consider these tips to help your introverted IT people engage more comfortably.

Expand their comfort zones

Many introverts who find personal interaction uncomfortable are quite chatty and engaged online. Continue to provide channels for continued online interaction, but also schedule some one-on-one and small-group meetings to slowly get them accustomed to increased engagement.  Provide a mix of group and solo time for best results. Even those who make the leap to becoming more extroverted will likely need some alone time to recharge.

Bolster team engagement

Schedule team-building activities for your IT team to give them the opportunity to interact with employees in other departments and get to know them on an informal basis.  Focus especially on group activities that require different competencies, work styles and cooperative efforts to succeed. The skills and relationships forged in team activities can be brought into the workplace to increase confidence and comfort on the job.

Share what they know

As with most people, introverts are more confident when speaking on topics they understand in depth. Begin a program for IT professionals to give presentations on their areas of expertise. Start with small groups or internal lunch-and-learns.  Allow attendees to ask clarifying questions as needed, and solicit feedback on what they have learned.

Once the speaker has gained confidence in this controlled environment, consider larger venues for the most successful speakers. This can help position the employee and your organization as thought leaders.

As technology grows increasingly consumer-centric, it's critical that every employee is able to interact at every level. Change the internal perception of techies as being standoffish and introverted by providing opportunities for interaction. With increased visibility comes increased engagement, which is good for both the employee and the organization.

04 10 Key Ingredients for a Successful User Experience

As the digital landscape becomes increasingly crowded across every channel, and users continue to tune out traditional advertising, it’s more challenging than ever to differentiate online. For this reason, more companies are seeking IT pros who are able to provide exceptional user experiences.

What makes a great user experience? Here are 10 important considerations for making your websites, apps, or programs user-friendly — and more likely to succeed.

1. Familiarity

The majority of companies still use Windows tools and operating systems for one primary reason: It’s what they’re used to. Familiarity is a key component for a successful user experience. Basically, it means that accomplishing something within the environment should be obvious and not require explanation, such as a back button — a familiar tool that’s used in every Internet browser.

2. Responsive feedback

Websites, programs, and applications often include a number of micro-tasks, such as login screens. These tasks should include validation through feedback whenever possible — such as notifying users when they’ve successfully logged in. Without relevant and responsive feedback, users end up focusing intensely on micro-tasks and become frustrated.

3. Smooth performance

It goes without saying that performance is a crucial issue for user experience. If a website, program, or app suffers from performance issues, the user perceives the product as poorly designed or malfunctioning, and won’t be likely to continue using that product.

4. Intuitiveness

This attribute relates to the level or degree to which the use of an application, website, or program is obvious to the user. In addition to an intuitive interface, efficiency in features and functionality can enhance the user experience — particularly if there are more advanced tools that can be used with greater efficiency as the user becomes more familiar with the product.

5. Utility

Products that are actually helpful to users in accomplishing real goals deliver a better user experience. If a program, website, or application solves a business problem but disregards user needs, the experience is diminished for the user.

6. Relevant content delivery

A satisfying user experience should include relevant and valuable content, delivered in a timely manner. Ecommerce giant Amazon has mastered this aspect of the user experience with features like product recommendations, customer reviews, and a powerful and intuitive search function that deliver the right content at the right time.

7. Internal consistency

The user experience is enhanced when an interface or application handles similar tasks in similar ways, making the overall experience more intuitive and shortening the learning curve. In addition to internally consistent functionality, consistence in visual design is vital for presenting a professional and well-organized product.

8. External consistency

This refers to the visual appearance of a program, website, application, or interface aligning with its purpose and matching the expectations of its target audience — such as a polished and professional look for a website offering legal services, versus a fun and colorful theme for a site offering products for children.

9. Contextually appropriate

The interface for the user experience should match the environment in which the product will be used. For example, a product used for military applications should be more compact and rugged than one used in a restaurant, where the environment allows for a larger and more detailed interface.

10. Trustworthiness

In many cases, there is an implicit trust when users first work with an application or interface that the product will work as intended. Any issues that impact user engagement, such as error pages or non-working features, can erode that trust and diminish the user experience.

Mobile and Cloud Security What to Expect Going Forward

Security has been a concern for IT from the beginning, but with the increasing prevalence of mobile and the cloud — along with several high-profile data breaches, many of which have occurred in the past year at large organizations — keeping digital data secure is taking top priority for many. Recent research has found that security and data loss, the mobile workforce, and cloud technologies are the most important concerns for IT professionals in the coming year, as well as long-term over the next three-to-five years.

IT concerns by the numbers

The most recent annual Digital Leaders survey from BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, found that the top three concerns for senior IT in the next 12 months are:

  • Information security (60 percent)
  • Cloud computing (55 percent)
  • Mobile computing, including BYOD (53 percent)

For the next three-to-five years, the survey found that information security and cloud computing will remain priorities at 54 and 40 percent, respectively. Another long-term top concern is big data, which 42 percent of IT leaders said their companies would focus on during this time frame.

Another new study from IBM looked at IT security leaders specifically, and found the same chief concerns among them. This study found that:

  • Almost 90 percent of IT security leaders are planning cloud initiatives or have already adopted the cloud
  • 75 percent expect cloud security budgets to either increase or increase dramatically in the next three-to-five years
  • Nearly 80 percent believe that potential security risks due to standards and regulations have increased in the past three years
  • More than 70 percent stated real-time security intelligence is increasingly important for their companies
  • Almost half said new security technologies are the top focus for their organizations

Challenges facing IT security

While more organizations have realized that developments in security, cloud, and mobile technology offer advantages in productivity, business continuity, and more, many IT leaders feel their companies are unable to meet the right goals. In the BCS survey, 92 percent of respondents felt their organizations lacked the resources to address the issues they’ve prioritized — with 53 percent stating a lack of enhanced IT skills among their existing workforce, and an equal number citing a shortage of additional IT staff.

Challenges discussed by the IBM survey primarily addressed mobile technology. In the study, less than half (45 percent) of IT security leaders believed they had an effective mobile device management (MDM) strategy in place. And while the majority of respondents said their companies were concerned about digital security going forward, most did not prioritize security for mobile devices.

As the movement toward mobile, the cloud, and the Internet of Things gains momentum, the IT of the future will have to prioritize security, and find new ways to work within diversified infrastructures to keep data safe.