Email is not dead

After trying collaboration tools like Yammer for a while, email had a renaissance at freistil IT. Our decision of giving the dreaded mailbox another chance was triggered by a post about how the team at Stripe practices email transparency. We've adopted their system and it works well; we still need to get more used to it, though.

This is how it works: Every team and project by default has three or four mailing lists (like Stripe, we're using Google Groups for Business):

  • A conversation mailing list ("marketing") for the communication within the team. Everyone in the team (and maybe beyond) subscribes to this list.
  • A low-traffic announcement mailing list ("marketing-announce") that reaches many or even all coworkers.
  • A "bacn" mailing list ("marketing-bots") that receives automatically generated emails, for example from social networks and external services. Everyone that manages or uses such a service subscribes to this list.
  • An archive mailing list ("marketing-archive") that is mainly used to preserve emails that don't concern anyone at the moment. Very few people will subscribe to this list, but it makes it easy to share emails instead of hiding them in personal mailboxes.

The effect of this approach is not only easy written communication but, just as important, transparency:

"As we’ve grown, the experiment has become about both efficiency and philosophy. We don’t just want Stripe to be a successful product and company. We also want to try to optimize the experience of working here. As as we’ve grown, we’ve come to realize that open email can help."

By sorting the daily email influx into many mailing lists (Stripe has more than 100) to which only these people subscribe that have the need, the amount of email anyone has to deal with stays on a managable level.

At freistil IT, we still need to get better at adhering to the addressing rules described in Greg's post. Too much email still only reaches personal mailboxes without being shared in a group visible to the team. I think I'll start by copying the rules into our Company Runbook and from there get them into people's heads (mine included).

But apart from that, it's an interesting experience. As I wrote in a previous post, email can be very disruptive to my daily work. At the same time, being able to at any time tap into exactly these email streams that I'm interested in is engaging and efficient.

Good bye, iPhoto.

As a long-time disciple of Jobs, I use Mac OS applications for almost every task. And if there's a solution from Apple, it's normally the first I try out and probably use. Photo archiving is no exception -- well, was no exception. I've been using iPhoto for quite some time and over many a version jump.

But recently, I've noticed that iPhoto doesn't quite fit my requirements as much as I'd like it to. Especially, I missed having access to my photo library from every device I use. I'd like to be able to process new photos on the fast Mac Mini, sort them into albums during work breaks on my Macbook and show off the latest cute picture of my adorable baby son on my iPad over coffee.

I felt that a change was necessary and it was finally triggered by Sven Fechner's blog post "Exporting your iPhoto library to Dropbox". Using the tools described in the article, I was able to export all my photos together with their metadata into Dropbox/Pictures/Library. To be exact, they're sorted into subfolders for every month. And all pictures that Dropbox downloads from my iPhone or that I put into Dropbox/Camera uploads manually get automatically sorted into the right month folders by this magic fairy named Hazel.

Other people are obviously doing the same. Just while Phoshare was exporting my iPhoto library, a blog post by Panayotis Vryonis appeared in my feeds. And the subtitle after Leaving iPhoto for Dropbox puts it very succinctly: "from feature rich to future proof". Yes, iPhoto has many useful features and Dropbox won't apply face recognition to automatically tag photos with names. On the other hand, I'm now independent and can choose whatever tool -- and device! -- I like to manage my photos. That's what made it worthwhile for me to spend 20 minutes on exporting all my photos to Dropbox.

Take control of your email

This week, I realized that I’ve got a problem with email. I was wondering why I struggled so much with finishing my important tasks and found that I've been living in my inbox. I’ve been constantly looking out for new messages from colleagues and customers. While this made for great response times, it prohibited me from concentrating on what I needed to work on. So many times, I have read the advice to not get addicted to my inbox and still, I did.

That’s why I’ve decided to limit my checking for new email to a few times per day. I’ll still be notified of anything important or urgent by AwayFind and by the support request escalation of our Help Center. I’ve also reinstalled the Concentrate app on my computer to minimize distractions while I’m working on a certain task — for example writing this blog post.

Since email is obviously a both useful and disruptive medium, I’d like to point you to a great article by Kelly Forrister, a Senior Coach with the David Allen Company. In Email best practices for your team, Kelly gives the following tips:

  1. Match the message to the best medium.
  2. Be discerning about your use of “To:” vs. “Cc:”.
  3. Use subject lines that clearly describe the topic; add short codes for minimum reading effort.
  4. Resist the urge to simply click “reply to all”.
  5. Set a standard for response time and use the leeway it gives you.

Since I seem to have blind spots regarding the influence of email on my productivity, I’ll take a good look at which of Kelly’s tips might further improve my work style. Read them on the GTD blog in full length!

Working hours vs. living hours

Following up on my recent post on Tactics against burnout, I’d like to shed some light on the aspect of working hours. In the tech space, it seems popular to boast with insane work durations. “Mine is longer than yours”, anyone?

Rob Ashton disagrees with this behaviour, as do I. What he describes in his article “A note on working hours and working at home” is basically an example of what is called “ROWE”, a Results-Only Work Environment. (You can read all about ROWE in the book “Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It: The Results-Only Revolution”.) In short, work should always be about the results you generate, not about the time you are (seemingly) busy. If you can finish your tasks within 5 hours, there’s no sense in doing 8 more just to impress someone (whom anyway?).

I can’t see any contradiction in his approach to the Github article with which he “passionately disagrees”, though. The article is even titled “Hours are bullshit” and in it, Zach Holman explains:

“When you’re in the right mindset, your best day of coding can trump weeks of frustrated keyboard-tapping.

Again, it’s not about how long you’re busy but how effective you are. Both guys also have similar conclusions:

Zach: “By allowing for a more flexible work schedule, you create an atmosphere where employees can be excited about their work.”

Rob: “When I decide what I’m doing with regards to work (when summer hits), I find it hard to believe I’ll be working at any company who is enforcing 9-5, or have some rigidly described “flexi-time” as part of their contract in an effort to seem cool.”

Okay, one sentence in Zach’s post might be easily misunderstood:

“Ultimately it should lead to more hours of work, with those hours being even more productive.”

In my experience, having the freedom to decide when to work often actually leads to more time spent working than in a normal 9-to-5 frame. Nobody is productive all the time, right? When I start to feel tired at 15:30, I don’t have to spend the remaining time mindlessly staring at my screen or scrolling through Google Plus for another 90 minutes, just to leave as soon as the clock strikes 5. In the long run, this just makes people hate their job. Instead, I take a break, go for a walk or maybe even spend some time at home with my family. Rob obviously handles this similarly.

Now, if I don’t have other important things, I’ll continue where I left off later. I might now work for another 90 minutes, but maybe also for 120 or 180. Because I’m working at a time that’s right for me and because my efforts have a visible effect. Which lets me keep loving my work.

Yes, this blurs the line between work and the other important things in my life. Because my work is actually one of them. And I think that’s what Zach meant with “Working weekends blur into working nights into working weekdays, since none of the work feels like work.” Work isn’t something evil that keeps me from enjoying life, it’s an integral part of it.

Or as Markus Cerenak puts it in “Warum das Konzept “Work-Life Balance” ein Irrtum ist.” – “Why the concept of work/life balance is a falsity”:

“When you follow your passion, you don’t have a need for balancing.”

Complaining? You're doing it wrong.

I'm a stoic. Have been for a long time, will ever be. "Love it, change it, or leave it." That's my motto. I hate listening to people complain. Complain about their job, complain about their neighbours' kids, complain about their car mechanic, complain about the economy, complain about the weather. Please stop it. STFU.

Fortunately, D. Keith Robinson wrote "A Short Manual" on how to effectively stop ineffective complaining. It comes down mostly to being honest with yourself and with the people around you.

Tactics against burnout

Being an entrepreneur in the tech space means working 60 to 80 hours a week and hustling from one opportunity to the next. That’s what many people think. That’s what many entrepreneurs in the tech space think. It’s what I thought, too, when I started freistil IT in 2010. The temperature started rising. It felt like a fever. And I mean that in the literal sense.

One busy day, my body started heating up and I started to feel weary and devoid of energy. It felt similar to a flu, but I had no other flu symptoms on top of the 40 degrees. I remembered that I had experienced this before. Back then, I went to a doctor and had blood samples taken. No conclusive results at all. Now that it happened again, I started to recognize a pattern: This was how my body alerted me that I was hitting my limits. So I dropped what ever I was sweating about, went straight to bed and switched to private mode completely. No email, no phone calls, no pondering business issues. Soon, the fever vanished and I slowly got into business again, carefully ramping up my workload. Since then, it never happened again because I’ve become much more aware of what drains me of energy and motivation, and because I learned how to replenish my mental fuel.

Andrew Dumont describes his experience with this issue in his blog entry “Avoiding Burnout”. These are his tactics to stay in good shape:

  • Morning Workouts
  • An Evening Walk
  • Fiction Reading
  • A Day A Week
  • Intellectual Hobbies
  • Small Wins
  • A Healthy Diet
  • Limiting Decisions
  • Yearly Unplugs

While I’m doing many of these myself already, the yearly unplugging is something of which I still need to make a habit. When work – even hard work – is fun and fulfilling, it’s sort of addictive. But Andrew is right in that work as an entrepreneur needs to be more than just hard:

It’s taken me years to realize that overnight success is fictional. Overnight success comes after years of hard, sustainable work.

A library of animated GIF reactions

swissmiss:

Ever wished you could easily find an animated GIF for a specific reaction? YES! This is quite wonderful. Claps.

Simple but useful sysadmin tools

Sysadmins offen happen upon simple tasks for which there's no actual shell command. For example, you may want to run a command after a random delay of up to 3 minutes. Well, there's sleep and there's $RAND, so you'll probably quickly solve that problem. If you need to do this more often, you'll likely build some kind of script to make this task as easy as possible.

Being an awesome sysadmin, Steve Kemp not only wrote a bunch of small sysadmin tools for frequent needs but also published them on Github:

  • ago: Show how long ago a file/directory was modified in a human-readable fashion.
  • dupes: Report on duplicate files, via a SHA1 hash of the contents, recursively.
  • empty-dir: Indicate, via return code, whether a given directory is empty or not.
  • maybe: In a similar vain to true and false the maybe command exits with a status code of zero or one, depending on a random number.
  • multi-ping: Ping a host, regardless of whether it is an IPv6 or IPv4 host.
  • mysql-slave-check: If the current host is a MySQL slave this script will test that the slave replication is still working.
  • randpass: Generate a single random password via /dev/urandom.
  • since: Show the new output since previously reading a file. This is useful for keeping track of logfile updates.
  • splay: Sleep for a random amount of time, limited by the given max value. (Default is 5 minutes).
  • ssl-expiry-date: Report the date, and number of days, until the given SSL certificate expires.
  • timeout: Timeout allows you to run a command which will be killed after the given number of seconds.
  • until-success: Repeat the specific command until it succeeds - run at least once always.
  • which-shell: Identify the shell we're running under.
  • with-lock: Run a command, unless an existing copy of that command is already running, via the creation of a temporary lockfile.

Thanks, Steve!

The benefits of daily meditation

Being a leader in a growing business with all the duties and responsibilities is a challenge that requires me to learn new skills all the time. For every task that I get done, two new ones seem to grow back. I actually enjoy that. But I also realise the hidden dangers of losing focus and going into burnout.

That's why I'm making it a habit to start my day with 20 minutes of mindfulness meditation. Concentrating on my breath alone and putting all the thoughts whizzing around in my head back to their waiting line (again and again and again...) helps me keep my peace of mind and trains my mental muscles.

Buffer CEO Joel Gascoigne lists "5 reasons as a CEO you should develop a habit of daily meditation":

  1. You will easily handle the inevitable ups and downs
  2. It will save you time, by reducing procrastination
  3. You will have bursts of creative genius
  4. You will feel alive and healthy and have better sleep
  5. It will make you happy and you’ll find meaning

And If You're Too Busy to Meditate, Read This.

Going to DevOps Days Berlin

Just a quick announcement that I'll be in Berlin Monday and Tuesday next week for DevOps Days.

If you're going to be there too, feel free to leave me a comment or an email and let's have a chat (and probably some drinks) there!

Date snippets for TextExpander

One of the utilities that I immediately install on every new Mac is TextExpander. It makes typing routine stuff so much easier.

In a recent blog post, David Sparks wrote about his TextExpander snippets for date and time, describing two simple but effective use cases: Shortcuts like "xm8", which expands to "August" (why haven't I thought of this myself?), and date calculation snippets like "d--" that inserts yesterday's date.

Using David's snippets on your Mac requires only three mouse clicks (on the link above, on the download link in his post and finally on the snippet file).

Distance to Mars

Recently, I've had a discussion with my precious about the song "Clouds across the moon" and how the laws of physics make a phone call in the common sense between Earth and Mars impossible.

Had I known that there is a website with an awesome visualisation of the distance to Mars, this would have been far easier!

(via swissmiss)

OmniFocus Icons

It's common knowledge that productivity means getting shit done, not fine-tuning your task management tools. Improving the usage experience from time to time may be necessary, though.

I've been using OmniFocus for managing my tasks for years. In the company, we're now using Asana with great success, but for my personal stuff, I've kept using OmniFocus so far.

I've got a bunch of customised perspectives that show me certain aspects of my workload. The most important ones sit in the tool bar and I'm happy to have happened upon a collection of icon sets that give the OmniFocus tool bar a consistent design. You can find them over at SimplicityBliss.

Meetingless Standups

Keeping the whole team in the loop about what its members are currently busy with is essential for effective collaboration. Especially for distributed teams. For them, the most common method, the daily Stand-up Meeting, doesn't work as well as it does with co-located teams. At freistil IT, we've replaced them with daily status check emails.

In his blog post "Kill your standup, Alex Godin describes a variant of the email approach practised at Dispatch.io they call "Show and Tell". Obviously, email as a communication tool is far from dead.

Quick git actions with tig

For the most common git actions like commits and branches, nothing beats the speed of the command line. But when it gets more complex, a user interface could help make things more clear and easy to manage. There are many GUIs available for git but unfortunately, they tend to get convoluted at times, which defeats their purpose.

Now, there's a console UI that claims to be "the mutt to your Outlook, the Vim to your Emacs, the w3m to your Firefox". Its name fits its philosopy: "tig". Quick, simple, easy to remember.

Read more about it on the Atlassian blog.

Cool jazz for cold weather

I decided to spend some quiet time at the office today. After a few stressful days which made me take the tram to save time, it was time to do my 5000 steps to get into the city again.

Inspired by David Sparks’ blog post “Farewell Dave Brubeck” which I read this morning, I chose the “Time Out” album for my walking entertainment instead of my usual podcasts or audiobooks.

I enjoyed listening to the music of the recently deceased Jazz giant very much while walking through the cold winter air. Thanks to my Stupidity Shield™ earbuds, I heard almost nothing from my surroundings and I felt like in the opening scene of “When Harry met Sally”.

The only problem with listening to Brubeck during a walk is that synchronizing your steps with the music will be difficult (and certainly awkward) with many of his songs. As David puts it:

“Dave will be missed but people will be unsuccessfully trying to tap their feet to his music long after anyone remembers any of us. Farewell Dave.”

Motivation increases uptime

We IT operations people love our disaster porn and exchanging war stories is always a great reason to have some drinks together. Recent hurricane Sandy certainly let the book of Ops Tales grow quite a bit. This morning, I came upon the story of how the folks at Squarespace, Fog Creek and Peer1 carried generator fuel up 17 stories to keep things running. I think that's awesome from a lot of perspectives:

  • Customer care: They could have just said "Don't blame us, blame the elements.", publish a status page and be done with it until the water was gone. Instead, they did everything they could come up with to keep their services running.
  • Team spirit: Their people could just have said "There's nothing in my contract about hauling buckets of fuel around in the dark". Instead, they pulled up their sleeves and went at it.
  • Leadership: Getting people to volunteer for this work is already a great leadership achievement. Keeping this up without people dropping out left and right even more.
  • Communication: They kept customers in the loop, didn't sugarcoat impending outages and finally delivered much more than they promised. That's perfect PR.

Guys, I bow before you in respect.

Another App.net user

I was late to the game when yesterday, I made the decision to back App.net. So I’m now, like Bernie put it, part of the App.net posse. My temporary user page is at https://alpha.app.net/geewiz.

I’ve put my $50 into the tip jar because I’m curious if it’s really possible to maintain a stable microcommunication platform in competition to Twitter. Back when identi.ca tried this, it didn’t gain strong adoption and Diaspora obviously took its name as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

There are people who object that, as James argues in a comment on Bernie’s post, “we don’t need another (centralized) network”. Well, we had all that already when they launched identi.ca aka StatusNet – open, decentral, federated. But from my perspective, it’s not the technology that matters first, it’s adoption. I’m optimistic that App.net will add federation later after they transform the healthy adoption that gave them more than $500,000 in start money to a stable user base.

App.net could be the right thing at the right time, as Twitter continues to alienate its user and third-party developer base. And they have something to show, only a few weeks after first announcing the project. The alpha version of the website works well (granted, with minimal functionality) and their developer ecosystem is bustling. I also like the transparency the App.net team strives for, for example by using Github for maintaining not only their software but also their TOS.

I’m looking forward to what my fellow App.net users and I will make of the platform. For a start, we’ve already put our money where our mouth is.

Work where you work best

I love working on my own terms. For many years now, I’m deeply convinced that the freedom of choosing your own work style is an important basis for good work results.

Working from home can be a really great way of achieving a balance between work and the other things that are equally important. I’m not going to call this “work/life balance” because to me, work is not an opposite to life but an integral part of it. The flexibility of working from home was one of the reasons I decided to make freistil IT a virtual company. My daugher was only about a year old and I intended not to miss most of her early development sitting in an office away from home.

Like walking a tightrope, achieving work/other balance needs constant adjustment and there are many things that threaten to throw you off. A screaming baby will quickly steal your attention and a stack of unwashed dishes is a great excuse to procrastinate. In my case, another kind of distraction that recently happened is going to lead to new screaming next January. ;-)

With a bit of reason and discipline, though, working from home has great advantages. For example, doing productive work while others waste their time commuting. If you’re interested in or already practicing working from home, I recommend you subscribe to the “Home Work” podcast. Aaron and Dave have great insight into home office reality.

I found that my home office isn’t the holy grail of work spaces, though. Unfortunately, I won’t have a separate room until we move house next year. The main problem of this situation is that I’m physically at home while being mentally at work. During the time my daughter is in day care, it’s rather quiet, so I only have to fight for focus on the weekends. But sharing the place with my partner all the time without sharing her current tasks and concerns can also be a source of conflict.

That’s why I’ve tried the offer of a local real estate company that rents office space by the hour. (Yes, this model can actually also be used for rooms with a desk.) Every time I needed a change of scenery or had to make sure I’m protected from disturbances, I booked a room for a few hours and went to town (literally). This worked quite well and proved to be a good complement to my desk at home.

Coworking spaces are another “lean” alternative and I have first-hand experience since we have our two-day strategy meetings at the coworking space my business partner Markus helps to run. They offer inexpensive desk space as well as other important infrastructure like a printer and a fridge stocked with Club Mate. They also provide something I didn’t realize I was missing at first: social interaction. Joining folks for lunch or just having a chat while waiting for the coffee to brew can be a healthy break from self-imposed isolation and an opportunity to exchange thoughts.

Unfortunately, there is no real coworking space in my home town. But there’s a company that does office sharing on a daily or monthly basis, and I’ve decided to give them a go. After a test period of a few days, I got myself a good office chair and a big monitor and moved in permanently. So, this is how my work place looks now:

My new office

I use the screen in the middle for my current task, the laptop screen on the right displays chat windows connecting me with colleagues and customers, and the one on the left shows a dashboard view of our IT infrastructure.

My triple-screen setup

So far, I’m really happy working at this office community. The building is in the city centre, about 50m from my favourite Starbucks – in other words, perfectly located. My office mates are nice and their different occupations make for interesting chats.

I can work there whenever I want, too – I wrote this blog entry at the office on a Sunday afternoon. I was in need of some solitary time, so I first had a Chai Tea Latte at Starbucks, where I read the second half of Steven Pressfield’s “Turning Pro”. His writing in turn motivated me to get something done myself, so I went the few steps to my desk and started typing. Now I feel balanced again.

Productive virtual meetings

At freistil IT, we’re not sharing an office. Instead, our work environment is completely virtual. “Coming into office” means logging in to our internal chat server – from home, from a coworking space or (quite frequently, in my case) from Starbucks. On our IRC server, we have channels for different purposes, for example the “virtual watercooler” without a pre-defined topic, or the “#incident” channel where we manage an ongoing systems outage.

This means that our meetings are virtual, too. We mainly use Skype (since there’s actually still no better alternative). While meetings that have all people in a room have their own problems (hands up if you thought at least once “Oh dear, please, someone shoot me now”), virtual meetings need even more effort to be effective.

On LifeHack, I recently found a great list of Tips for Having Great Virtual Meetings. The most important point comes right at the beginning of the article: “The three most important ingredients of a successful virtual meeting are trust, communication and ready access to information.” These three ingredients actually depend on each other and create the foundation of productive teamwork.

From the list of tips, these are the three I think are most important:

  • “Before the meeting, make sure attendees have all the preparation materials they will need and the time to review them.” That’s a prerequisite for every kind of meeting, virtual or not. The worst meetings are those where everyone comes unprepared.
  • “Solicit participation.” By keeping everyone engaged in the meeting, you can prevent people “spending their time more effectively” by checking email or Google Plus.
  • “Assign a meeting monitor.” Having someone focus on feedback coming in from the different participants helps that everyone feels being “heard” and connected.

There’s also a tip on the list that I disagree with: “Begin with a quick warm-up.” If all participants already know each other, I don’t think it’s necessary to spend (may I say “waste”?) time on things that don’t contribute to the purpose of the meeting. This reminds me of a story where, in a meeting at Apple, somebody started to chat about the weekend and quickly got interrupted by Steve Jobs saying “Can we raise the tone of conversation here?” I feel the same. There are other ways of letting colleagues know about each other’s news outside of meetings, for example in chat rooms or on an internal social network like Yammer.

Instead, I’d add this tip to the list: Keep the meeting’s agenda and minutes in a shared document that all participants can follow in real-time, for example on Google Docs. This keeps everyone literally “on the same page” and even spares the effort of having to write and send a protocol after the meeting concludes.

What’s your experience with virtual meetings? How do you make sure they’re not a waste of time and bandwidth?

Recommendation: Logitech Mini Boombox

Most of the time, I get my iPhone’s audio delivered to my ears by a pair of Etymotic hf3 headphones. There are a few situations, though, when I need a speaker. For example, when I take a power nap – since I can’t sleep lying on my back, the earbuds would start to hurt quickly. Or when I’m under the shower where the need for cordless operation is obvious.

Until recently, I’ve put up with the iPhone’s built-in speaker, but that’s a revelation neither in terms of volume nor of sound. Then I read about the Logitech Mini Boombox that got an ever better review than its bigger sibling, the “Logitech Boombox”.

So I invested about 60€ and have been very happy with it ever since. The speaker is easy to pair with all kinds of audio sources via Bluetooth, has practical touch sensors to change volume, start/stop the audio source and skip tracks. For its size, it has enough punch and still is small enough to fit into my hand or even my travel luggage. Since it’s powered by a battery that can be charged via a standard USB charger, the Mini Boombox is highly mobile.

Conclusion: If you need a small, simple Bluetooth speaker, try the Logitech Mini Boombox!

Three tips to keep you sane in your business

I’ve been working in my own business for over 2 years now and I enjoy it very much. Success and fun in business is a great thing but what about the rest? Although — and since — there are more things to life, I sometimes struggle to keep the business from eating up all my time and energy.

In “Stay Sane While Managing Your Business”, I’ve found three good tips that can help prevent your work life from overwhelming you.

Tip no. 1: Cut Clutter

Even if you’ve never heard of entropy, you can see it in action everywhere in your life where disorder tends to grow. Clutter means extra work, so it’s important to fight it whereever it rears its ugly head.

Tip no. 2: Take Control

Never let go of the steering wheel of your ship, especially in heavy waters. Set yourself goals (both for your business and your personal life) and keep them in sight.

Tip no. 3: Have Fun

Fun is no extracurricular activity. “Never continue in a job you don’t enjoy. If you’re happy in what you’re doing, you’ll like yourself, you’ll have inner peace. And if you have that, along with physical health, you will have had more success than you could possibly have imagined.” (Johnny Carson)

If you have 5 more minutes, read the article for more details on each tip!

When the pieces just fall into place

There are things you are struggling with over a long period of time, only to see them resolved all of a sudden. Yesterday, I had three of those experiences on one day. It will not surprise people that know me that all three ended some kind of IT dilemma. So, if you’d indulge my techno babble, here’s my triple “Yay!”:

Sometimes, there’s another choice

If you’re running a big IT infrastructure as we do at freistil IT, it’s not enough to regularly check if a server still has enough disk space or free processing power. It’s equally important to be able to see how these metrics develop over time. These statistics help understanding past events (“Look, right before the server crashed, its free memory dropped to zero.”) and preventing future incidents (“At this rate, the disk will be full in three days.”). But building those statistics for hundreds of servers means collecting thousands of data points per minute.

Of course, there are powerful solutions for this, for example statsd, developed by the devops team at Etsy whose virtual marketplace is powered by am impressive server farm. Although statsd looked very appealing, I restrained myself from trying it because it would make it necessary to start using node.js, a technology we don’t have much experience with. While I love entering new territories, I also need to focus on the work at hand. I’m still getting used to code in Ruby, the language in which our infrastructure automation tool, Chef, is written. So, I was sad to realize that statsd is a can of worms I just can’t open right now.

Well, turns out the guys at 37signals were in the same situation, so they built batsd, a data collection agent that is compatible with statsd but written in Ruby. Let’s start gathering metrics. Yay!

Sometimes, the choice between A and B is C

Mac OS X is a great combination of graphical user interface and UNIX technology which makes it the ideal tool for a sysadmin come business owner. Unfortunately, some of its components are not as great as others, and Finder is a particularly sad example because it lacks many features that an experienced computer user simply expects from a file manager.

I’ve been using PathFinder as a better substitute but it can’t replace Finder completely because it’s just not as integrated into the OS (for example, its missing the Dropbox item in its contextual menus and other applications still open Finder). The newest PathFinder version is a paid upgrade and I’ve been hesitant to shell out the money because I don’t want to have to work with two competing file managers.

Yesterday, I found TotalFinder which takes another approach: It expands the Finder’s functionality instead of trying to replace it. So, more power but seamlessly integrated. Yay!

Sometimes, you don’t have to choose at all

I live my life as much paperless as possible. Paperless to me means efficient and flexible. And nowadays, there are strong bridges between the material and the digital world making the paperless life easy, for example my ScanSnap scanner and my Kindle ebook reader. David Sparks’ new “Field Guide” book for the iPad, appropriately named “Paperless”, is a great read on this topic and contains a lot of helpful advice in form of text, pictures and videos. Among many other things, it describes alternatives for organizing a growing number of digital files.

A few years ago, I chose DEVONthink Pro Office for that purpose because it has great searching, tagging and sorting features and comes with built-in OCR to add even scanned documents to the search index. One of DEVONthink’s downsides is that it’s hard to share the database that contains all the documents. When we got help with accounting, I found it necessary to get our bank statements and invoices out of DT and put them into a nested folder structure in Dropbox. Since then, I had not been able to decide in which direction to go now – should I choose the power of DEVONthink or the flexibility of a simple folder hierarchy?

As luck would have it, yesterday I read Fletcher Penney’s blog post about his PDF reading workflow in which he mentions that DEVONthink has an “index a folder” feature that indexes files inside a certain disk directory without moving the files themselves into the application’s database. Best of both worlds. Yay!

Great findings on on single day. Let’s call it a Satur-yay! (Okay, it’s late. Please don’t sue me.)

Everyone. Needs. Backup.

Devops podcasts

While there hasn’t been a shortage on IT engineering blogs for a long time, podcasts that deal with devops topics are a rare sight. That’s why I’d like to recommend the ones that I currently subscribe to:

  • DevOps Cafe Podcast: Damon Edwards, John Willis and guests talk about interesting news in the datacenter world.
  • The Changelog: A show that “covers what’s fresh and new in Open Source”, hosted by Wynn Netherland and Adam Stacoviak
  • The Food Fight Show is a bi-weekly podcast for the Chef community, or, as hosts Bryan Berry and Matt Ray put it, “The Podcast where DevOps chefs do battle”
  • itkanban’s podcast comes also bi-weekly and covers news about lean and agile IT management methods.

Do you know any other podcasts a self-respecting system administrator should listen to? Please post them in the comments!