Building culture

River Gade and the Kodak building, Hemel Hempstead

River Gade and the Kodak building, Hemel Hempstead (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was my first day in a new job and coincidentally the first time I saw the office building in which I was to work. It was a plain, red brick, shoebox shaped affair. It must have taken all of 5 minutes work for the architect to come up with the design. Inside, the fittings were elderly and tatty. When I reached the door to our particular office, I took a moment to take in the atmosphere.

It was untidy. In one corner, a pool table sagged under the weight of old computer equipment. There were shelves everywhere struggling to support the myriad of computer books, some of which wouldn’t look out-of-place in the British Museum. The whole place reeked of quiet industry, everyone far too busy to even think about tidying up.

The company had just been acquired and a move to smarter premises was afoot. We moved into a floor of Kodak House, the tallest building in Hertfordshire. Although the building itself is drab on the outside, no expense was spared on the internal fixtures and fittings. Although it was nice to have such a pleasant place to work, there was a part of me that missed the atmosphere of the old office.

We weren’t there for too long before we moved into a brand new state of the art building. It looks very space age from the outside with vanes that track the angle of the sun to shade the building from excess sunshine. Unfortunately, they don’t work. They track the sun OK, but unfortunately don’t block it out so they are effectively useless. In fact they are worse than useless, because a man has to come out in a cherry picker now and then with a big spanner to tighten the nuts. If it gets too windy, the vanes blow off in spectacular fashion threatening to decapitate any passers-by.

Not only that, but the air conditioning is poorly configured. We are on the ground floor and we freeze. The guys on the top floor get so hot they cook so there’s no air conditioning setting to keep everyone in the building happy. The landlord’s solution – to fit heaters on the bottom floor so that we can keep out the worst of the chill. It’s such a clunky, inefficient fix but at least we don’t freeze anymore. The feeling of quiet industry is still there but there is more of a pride in keeping the place tidy.

We managed to maintain the culture despite occupying 3 very different office buildings. It was not the same story when I worked for BP. We had an aging tower block in the town centre, part of which was condemned. The office culture was amazing – everyone knew everyone else, despite it being a large building. We moved to a purpose-built affair close to the motorway. The building, allegedly in the style of a country manor house, won many awards for its architecture. Unfortunately, the layout of the place meant you were unlikely to bump into many other people day-to-day. Almost instantaneously, the buzz about the place died.

Our working environment has a big effect on the culture that exists within so it’s no wonder that companies like Google and Apple spend so much money on providing world-class office blocks for their employees to thrive in. In doing so, they need to be very careful they don’t lose their culture along the way.


There’s no excuse for a crap presentation

Microsoft PowerPoint

Microsoft PowerPoint (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s a fact of life that anyone who works in any kind of professional environment has a lifetime of powerpoint presentations ahead of them.

Some of them will be really good. Unfortunately, these will be in a minority. Most of them will be average and some of them will be absolutely atrocious. We forget the mediocre in a heartbeat, but the atrocious and the very best will stick in our minds.

There are many reasons for giving a powerpoint presentation. Some are given to inspire people. Some are to explain concepts or teach people. Some are to make people laugh. What they all have in common is communication. If you want people to remember your performance, you need to be either very good or very bad. The only way to get people to remember what you said is to be among the best – no pressure then.

The first thing to think about is the structure of your presentation. A lack of structure is one of the main reasons for poor presentations. If you don’t know what you want to say or how you want to say it, how on earth will your audience grasp your point. Remembering a poorly structured presentation is hard and difficult to prepare. You are also more likely to overrun or under run your time slot.

People like stories, so a structure that tells the audience where we are today, where we want to get to, how we’re going to get there and what it will be like at the end of a journey will naturally appeal. Another structure that works well is to tell them what you’re going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them again. Then there is the old favourite that follows the PREP acronym; make your (P)oint, give them the (R)eason for the point, then show them the (E)vidence and then remake your (P)oint.

The exact structure you choose doesn’t matter so much as long as you’ve got one and it suits your subject material. As a rule of thumb, I spend most of my time thinking about the structure and what I want to say.

Then you will need some slides. I’m fairly anal about slides. I try to keep text to a minimum and I have a special hatred for bullet points. Words are for manuscripts and blog posts, pictures are for presentations. Every slide should communicate a single concept. Once you have a concept – a Google image search or a chart should be enough to get that concept across. In the later versions of powerpoint, you can even recolour your images so that they all match.

Once you have your slide deck, go through it a few times. I guarantee you’ll see some mistakes. You will also see the best place to break up your presentation with some chapter heading slides. There will also be the occasional slide that appears in the wrong place. A good few passes through remove any howlers and to make the deck flow better.

Then practise. I’m not wildly passionate about practise because if you overdo it, you will lose any spontaneity. The first thing I do is go through the deck and count how many slides are in each section. I write out each slide title and write a bubble around each section of slides with the count next door. So for example, my list might look like this;

  • Intro (4 slides)
  • Where are we now (5 slides)
  • Where do we want to be (4 slides)
  • How we’re going to get there (6 slides)
  • What will it be like (3 slides)
  • Conclusion (3 slides)

I run through that a few times until I can write the section / slide counts out from memory. I then learn the slides at the end of every section so that I’m never taken by surprise when I switch from one chapter to another. Once you can remember that much, it’s only a short leap to being able to write out your entire 25 slide deck from memory.

If you can do that, the presentation itself will be a breeze.

In the cloud

IBM Cloud Computing

IBM Cloud Computing (Photo credit:

One of the more interesting areas I have been lucky enough to work with is cloud. We run some banks live in the public cloud. The scale of the cloud offerings is simply staggering. There are three main big players; Microsoft, Google & Amazon. Between them, they bought 31% of the world’s CPUs in the last two years and Microsoft alone is pumping a billion dollars a year into the initiative.

I was surprised to learn that the datacenters that make up the cloud are not stocked with the latest generation machines, because slightly older stock makes much more sense on a dollar per CPU cycle basis. Also, the economics are quite surprising. CPU power accounts for less than 1% of the overall cost of the data centre. Between 50 – 90% of power that feeds into the datacenter is eaten up by lighting, cooling, transforming etc. and a sizable proportion is taken up by the storage arrays.

Siting the datacenters is extremely important. The first consideration is power. You need a lot of it and it needs to be reliable & cheap. You also need good internet links. There’s no point siting your fledgling data centre next to a nice shiny power station if people can’t connect into it. Climate is another consideration. Obviously, the hotter the country, the more your cooling costs will be. The last consideration is security. Obviously, the more the customer base builds up, the more attractive a cloud data centre becomes as a terrorist target. The ideal site for datacenters is Iceland. The climate is cool, there is plenty of cheap geothermal energy and all transatlantic internet links pass through Iceland. The UK is a very expensive place for a datacenter due to high land and labour costs.

The datacentres are populated using pre-fabricated containers containing 5,000 CPUs in readymade racks, preconfigured with storage. When the container is delivered, they plug in power, network & water (for cooling) and the container starts initializing. Not all the servers in the container can start up at the same time as the thing would melt, so they start up in waves equally spaced around the container. A typical datacenter will have many of these containers with typically 2 – 3 being added every week.

With this many machines, hardware failure is a fact of life. Anything up to a 3% failure rate is business as usual. If the failure rate hits 10%, the machine vendor dials in and performs remote diagnostics on the container. If the failure rate hits 30%, the machine vendor sends out an engineer to inspect the container and perform any remedial action necessary. If the failure rate hits 50%, the container is powered down and replaced.

I was surprised by how flexible the Azure cloud is. There are three ways you can use it. The first is what they call the “web role”, which allows any kind of web-based activity (web pages, active server pages, web services etc). The second is what they call the “worker role” which allows you to do pretty much anything providing the software you want to run does not require installation (i.e. it can be copied across) and does not need to access the registry.

There were big challenges to overcome. Because you never really know which machine your application is running on or where your data is, it gives regulators a heart attack. There is also the fact that the database is what they call “eventually consistent”. Because your data is spread around and copied onto different machines, there is no real backup as we would normally consider it. You can back up your data to a local backup, but if your database is big, you may want to take advantage of the service they offer whereby they post you a tape once a day. There is no such thing as a printer connected to the cloud so if you want a hard copy of anything, you have to get creative.

The costs of a cloud based solution are *very* compelling, especially when you consider that you are effectively getting a fully managed, fault tolerant data centre. There are a number of pricing options depending on how much you want to commit to. There is everything from pay as you go, right through to volume licensing. If I had my way, I’d put every server in the cloud.


A change of identity


Baileys (Photo credit: Ivana Di Carlo)

Changing a name is a risky business. Especially if you have an established brand name that’s known around the industry and yet some of the most famous corporations around us have been through a name change. Ever heard of Backrub? Probably not, and yet, that was the chosen name for the corporation that today is known as Google. What about Computing Tabulating Recording Corporation? It has to be said, IBM is a lot snappier.

When I was growing up, the name Datsun was synonymous with rusty old bangers that were reliable, but unfortunately fell to bits. Daewoos used to be the reliable but dreadful cars from Korea that were basically reincarnated Vauxhalls. Today, these cars are bang up to date and adorned with the name “Chevrolet“, which used to be synonymous with American muscle cars.

Her Majesty’s Royal Mail is a fine name for a postal service, in place since Charles the 1st, but the management thought differently. This fine moniker was superseded by “Consignia” because it was modern, meaningful and entirely relevant. The public didn’t think so, and the name quickly reverted to the one that had been in place for centuries.

It’s not just companies that change their names. Somehow, I doubt Michael Sinclair Vincent would have made it, so it’s probably just as well he changed his name to Vin Diesel. How about Frances Ethel Gumm? Somehow, Judy Garland has more star quality.

During a routine meeting the other day, we established that a third of the people were no longer known by the name they were given and I was one of them. I grew up as Martin Grimes. Mum remarried when we were kids and everyone took the new surname of Bailey, except me. I don’t really remember why, probably because I was in the middle of secondary school.

When we came to get married, we talked about names. I wasn’t attached to Grimes. I remember having to spell it out to a call centre worker three times once before the penny dropped and she said “Oh – Grimes. As in dirt”. I tried on my wife’s name for size; “Emburey”. I wasn’t sure about that either, so we agreed to take the name “Bailey” when we got married.

Every so often, I get a reminder of my past moniker when I find an old exam certificate or some old correspondence. Some of my friends I’ve known for a long time will occasionally call me Grimesy. I can’t say I miss my old name, and yet whenever I sign anything, it is my earlier name I scratch out in barely legible writing. Old habits die hard.

Information overload

Big Data: water wordscape

Big Data: water wordscape (Photo credit: Marius B)

Information is the most valuable tool we have. Without reliable information, decisions can only be made on hunches. One of the main benefits of computers was that they were supposed to help us deal with information, but there are some unfortunate side effects. Partly because of our hunger for ever more power and partly because of progress in making bigger and better computers, they have steadily grown ever since they were invented in a phenomenon is widely referred to as Moore’s law.

Not only that, but devices have become cheaper and cheaper. The Sinclair Spectrum was priced at £179 at launch 30 years ago, a sum probably equivalent to double that now. That was a machine with no screen, 48K of memory and no storage. Nowadays you could have a tablet, or a phone or even a couple of netbooks all with power that would completely dwarf the humble spectrum. As computers have become more affordable, they have proliferated.

And not just consumer devices. It now makes perfect sense to use computational devices in almost every setting thanks to the cheapness and the ingenuity of the Chinese. IBM told me at impact that there are 9.5Bn connected devices in the world today growing to 20Bn in 2015. All of these devices are producing data at an alarming rate. Storage companies fall over themselves to tell you how fast this data is growing, but take it from me – it’s exponential.

The other side effect of computers is that the average human being now has the attention span of a hyperactive goldfish. Because the answer is available from Google in 0.2 nanoseconds, why would you want to read a report or a book? Twitter delivers a constant stream of news in 140 character long chunks. This means that we are no longer happy to do lots of analysis to get our answers, we want to know instantly.

So how do we make sense of this muddle?

I have always been a fan of infographics as a mechanism for presenting complex information. Ingeniously through pictures, infographics helps the reader to understand the big picture. Spatial and relative relationships are easily picked out, but detail is not. Newspapers use info graphics to great effect – especially when trying to explain concepts like exactly how much money we all owe thanks to the financial meltdown. This is a great site to see some really good examples;

Big Data was a much vaunted concept at IBM Impact too. If you want to process the huge amount of data available today, then traditional methods are just not going to work. Reading all the data into a relational database and then running a query will mean you need a huge building to house the storage, a power station to feed the computers and half a century to wait for the result. The only way to process this data is as a stream – a bit like the water coming out of a firehose. Then you need to use something called complex events processing to look for relationships between the data.

One of the most interesting concepts in dealing with the information overload is the semantic web. The idea is that computers need to make sense of all this data themselves and answer any questions we have. This is the technology behind the Siri voice response software in the latest iPhone. There is even a search engine. It’s not perfect by any means – try searching for “Who is the richest man in France” or my personal favourite “Who is the sexiest woman” 🙂 But what is interesting is how often it does get it right.

One day – the characters in Star Trek the next generation talking to their computers will look positively antiquated – and I for one can’t wait.