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!

How to use a remote shell over flaky connections without losing your nerves

Recently, I’ve stumbled upon the Mosh remote shell application, and since then I can’t stop talking about it! If you need to access your servers’ command line interface over slow, unreliable connections, you want to use the Mobile Shell.

As the website describes it, Mosh is a…

Remote terminal application that allows roaming, supports intermittent connectivity, and provides intelligent local echo and line editing of user keystrokes.

And – spoiler alert – it works so well that I’ve completely replaced ssh for mosh for accessing our many servers. SSH is still necessary, though, because the Mosh client first opens an SSH connection to the target server and then launches its server component there. After establishing an UDP connection between the client and server components, the SSH connection is dropped.

By using a new protocol called the State Synchronization Protocol (SSP) which is based on UDP, Mosh provides a shell connection that’s far more usable over slow and flaky connections than SSH, for example when using a 3G network from a train. It even survives reconnects that change the client’s IP address. I was really amazed when, on my first day with Mosh, all shell sessions I started in Starbucks simply resumed after I opened my laptop again in my homeoffice.

Local Echo is another great feature that makes working over unreliable connections far less annoying. While SSH doesn’t display your keystrokes until they have been sent back from the server, Mosh shows them immediately without requiring the roundtrip. That way, you can spot and correct typos without wait and finally hit the Enter key with all confidence. It may take some time until you see the effect of your command due to your slow connection, but at least typing it was no hassle at all. Whily typing, Mosh gives you visual feedback about the synchronization process by underlining those parts of the command line that have not yet been acknowledged by the server.

Of course, Mosh also uses encryption, so you don’t lose any security by switching from SSH to Mosh. Installation is easy, too, so don’t wait any more. Start moshing!

Putting my money where my mouth is

day in the life: lunch money

The Iron Blogger Freiburg initiative made me realize how much an incentive the threat of losing money can be. Basically, it’s a bet against myself that I can write at least one blog post a week. Which I do at this precise moment, once again only a few hours before the deadline.

So, recently I had the idea of betting against myself in another area I’ve made much less progress than I’d like to admit: losing weight. Of course, I know all the benefits of not being overweight by heart and I appreciate them. So I tried time and time again, but eventually I always lost my discipline and gained back the little I had been able to shed.

This changed a few weeks ago when I decided to literally put my money where my mouth is: Yes, I want to lose at least 10kg, and yes, I’m going to pay cash if I fail. It works like this: I set a new weight goal at the beginning of the month and for every kilo I’m off at its end, I pay 20€ to my partner. Since the difference is always rounded up to the next full kilo, missing my goal by only 100g means handing over 20€.

Lo and behold: Suddenly, I’m steadily losing weight (4kg so far)! Between losing money and missing a few sugary pleasures, I choose the latter. And since I’m setting realistic goals (2kg per month at the moment), I still have fun eating.

Looks like if the motivational carrot just isn’t enough, I need to find the right stick.

Drink!

Father Jack Hacket

It looks as if the Iron Blogger Freiburg initiative really was able to breathe some life into the blogs of our small group of spare-time writers!

Money is quite an incentive, I’ve come to learn. The impending “fine” of 4€ for missing the entry deadline on Monday morning makes sure that on Sunday evening at the latest, I force myself to launch my writing software. It’s been only two times now that I didn’t deliver; one time I spent the weekend in Rome and last weekend, I’ve been far to knackered to still write coherent sentences.

With Carolin and Heather, who both turned themselves in unsolicitedly for missing the deadline, we’ve now an open account of 16€ for the tab on our first meetup.

Speaking of meetup: Heather is going to visit Freiburg in May or June. Will we have accumulated a tidy sum until then? Anyone else who wants to clear their concience? ;-)

Family First

Founding my own business has proven to be a very fulfilling venture, but it’s also very time-intensive. Balancing my professional duties with the responsibilities of a father and partner actually is a challenge every day.

Over the years, I had many opportunities to experience how much the support of my family means to me. That’s why I follow Gary V’s advice in “Crush It” (which, by the way, did immensely influence me) and chose “Family First” as my rule number one.

Now, how do I put this rule into practice? The article “Manifesto for a Freelancer with a Family” on FreelanceFolder has a great answer with which I agree wholeheartedly! Author Brian McDaniel makes the following declarations, adding to each some concrete guidelines:

  • My Family Will Always Come First
  • I Will Keep My Marriage Healthy
  • I Will Pour Myself into My Children
  • I Will Keep Myself Healthy and Sane

I think having these principles really helps in making the right decisions and achieving something like “work/family balance” (I don’t like the term “work/life balance” since I regard my work an essential part of my life). That’s why I copied the Manifesto into my “Important Notes” folder and reread it from time to time.

I have to admit that there are still some points I’m struggling with, for example with “Be present. Not just physically, but completely present, even when I’m working.” because it seems to conflict with my very focused working style.

Since I know from experience that working as an employee can be as taxing on your family life as is working for your own business, I recommend reading Brians article to every professional that has (or intends to found) a family.

How to survive and succeed at conferences as an introvert

Hello, my name is Jochen and I’m an introvert. This isn’t easily apparent because when I meet people I can draw from enough self-confidence and eloquence to appear open and communicative. But deep down, I often feel more or less uncomfortable with people I don’t know well.

As a business owner, being an introvert can be quite a challenge. Especially at conferences and business meetings, you are supposed to engage in smalltalk, connect at lunch or dinner, meet new business prospects as well as existing clients, and generally present yourself and your company in the best possible way. You meet many different people, many of them for the first time, and each has their own personality. This is the arena of the extroverts, the High-I’s of the DISC typology, who enjoy the limelight. But for an introvert, it’s tempting to stick with who you already know and then leave sooner rather than later.

I was at the airport, waiting for my flight to the Drupal Process Meetup in Amsterdam, when I read an article in Harvard Business Review by Lisa Petrilli titled “An Introvert’s Guide to Networking”. In this article, Lisa talks about her natural aversion to networking, her realization that she’d need to overcome it to get on with her career, and the strategies that helped her to do so. It immediately struck a chord with me because I had been anxious for days in advance how I would be able to blend in at this conference where I didn’t know most of the people yet.

It took me a few minutes to read the article and then a few more seconds to buy and download her ebook “The Introvert’s Guide to Success in Business and Leadership” to my Kindle. I read it on the flight and with every page, I learned more on how to make my trip to Amsterdam a worthwhile business expense.

“Introversion is simply a preference for the inner world of ideas because this is where we get our energy.”

Her explanation why introverts feel uncomfortable in crowds made immediately sense to me: We draw energy from the creative process, from developing and refining ideas. On the other hand, opening up to others drains our energy. That’s why we often feel especially spent after an intense conference day.

Lisa has got a great tip how this can be mitigated: When you’re in a networking situation, engage in one-to-one conversations with a single person. With this tactic in mind, I was able to take many opportunities during the meetup to get in touch with other participants and always had great conversations.

She also urges her fellow introverts to overcome the fear of introducing themselves to others, especially to people to which they feel somehow inferior.

“I learned over time that when I extended my hand with a smile and an introduction my effort would be reciprocated, even when I approached executives above my rank.”

This encouraged me tremendously to approach even the executives of million-dollar companies that were at the meetup. It was one of those CEOs that was the first to connect to me via LinkedIn shortly after we talked.

Thanks to Lisa’s explanation how introverts gain and lose energy, I felt comfortable to excuse myself from the pub tour after dinner and to instead recharge for the next conference day all by myself in a comfy chair in the hotel lounge.

After a great conference experience without feeling uncomfortable once, I now happily look forward to the next one in two weeks! The trip already paid for itself – and so did Lisa Petrilli’s ebook.

Internet, my much better radio

I’m not very sophisticated in regards to music. In my early years, I relied solely on my favourite radio station to provide me with enjoyable songs, so my taste developed quite mainstreamish.

Thanks to the Internet, it’s getting better. Spotify is very useful to quickly check recommendations of interesting artists and bands I find in magazines or online.

What I find very interesting is how YouTube plays an increasingly important role in my musical education. Recently, I’ve came across very creative works that I never would have heard on the radio.

A good example is two very different cover versions of “Somebody That I Used to Know”. I’ve actually never heard the original by Gotye, but I suspect that these two cover versions are both more creative and more entertaining.

The first version is by the awesome Walk off the Earth and features many people playing one instrument:

The second version has one person (Ingrid Michaelson) playing many instruments:

But it doesn’t have to be cover versions. Here’s “In Your Arms” by Kina Grannis:

The song doesn’t impress me so much by its musical qualities as by the effort that went into producing the video:

So, thank you, Internet, and keep the great music suggestions coming!

Travel light, travel relaxed

I spent this weekend in Amsterdam at the Drupal Process Meetup, and it’s been a great experience! I had many interesting talks with other Drupal business owners, learned a lot in the Openspace-format discussion rounds and enjoyed having dinner together in downtown Amsterdam. As I’m writing this article, I’m reclining in an Eames Lounge Chair and listening to relaxing music at the amazing CitizenM hotel near Schiphol Airport.

Since I intend to do much more business trips this year, I put some thought into making my travel as stress-free as possible. I flew with EasyJet who let you print out your boarding pass in advance. When I arrived at the airport, I could go directly through security without having to check in (and pay for) baggage because I was able to fit everything I needed into my backpack. I had it on me all the time, so I didn’t have to worry about my stuff getting stolen. After landing in Amsterdam, instead of having to wait at the baggage claim, I went directly to the hotel and arrived there completely relaxed.

Packing light means to consciously limit yourself to the things you’ll actually need. That you need fresh clothes for every day of your journey doesn’t mean you need different clothes for every day. I didn’t have that realization until recently; before, when I prepared for a 5 day vacation, I packed 5 T-shirts. This time, I simply packed a tube of travel detergent. By washing my stuff, I can get by, for example, with three pairs of socks: One to wear today, one for tomorrow and one that’s currently drying after doing the laundry. Especially outdoor and travel clothes will easily dry over night.

Choosing equipment that makes traveling light easy does of course also apply to tech stuff. With my iPhone, Macbook Air and Kindle, I carried around both my complete office and my book shelf, all adding up to less than 2kg.

These are two of many articles you can find on the Web about packing light:

Try it out, you’ll be amazed how stress-free traveling becomes when you minimize your baggage!

Hacker movies: Unrealistic but inspiring

I recently came upon an Irish Times article about a science week event in Dublin in 2010 about “Hackers and Hollywood”. In his talk, Damien Gordon explained how many hacker movies are based on the same formula as fantasy epics like Lord of the Rings: The protagonist gets a magical item and is guided by a wise figure before fighting evil. This is especially true for my favourite hacker movie of all time, Wargames (1983): David Lightman gets access to an (all too) powerful mainframe computer and, with the help of Dr. Falken, defeats the warmongering WOPR programme.

Of course, hacker movies are intended for an audience that knows as much about computing internals as the film makers themselves. The actual hacking action in those movies usually ranges from “embarassingly unrealistic” to “hilarious if you’re able to spot the reference to real technology”.

I started with computers in the early 80s when hacker culture had just begun to spread. I learned to program from day one (the VIC 20 manual was in fact a programming manual) and soon felt the power to force your analytic will onto a machine. Later, I hooked up a modem to my parents’ PC and discovered that networks like CompuServe and FidoNet allowed me to connect with people that I would never be likely to meet in person (and also that it only takes a few days to rack up a four figure phone bill…). Back then the foundation was laid that I have my own humble IT company today and am slowly losing my nerves because our DSL broadband has been down for two days now.

Hacker movies mix existing and invented technology and exaggerate its potential to form an entertaining plot. Unrealistic as they may be, they can have an inspiring effect on young people, as Gordon pointed out in his talk. They certainly had in my case.

That’s why I collected a list of computer geek movies from the last 30 years (WHAT, three decades already?!) that I like:

  • Wargames (1983) – At that time, any computer geek could relate to David Lightman. He felt bored in school, disconnected from his parents and insecure towards the other sex. After successfully breaking into the mysterious mainframe, he gets acknowledged both by the girl and his adult mentor, and finally saves the day. And you also got to see that there’s a fine line to becoming an ubernerd like the two guys in the data center…
  • Tron (1982) – This movie had high-end computer generated imagery and asked the question about what would later be known as “immersion”: What if you actually could become part of the game? (The sequel “Tron: Legacy” from 2010 isn’t nearly as groundbreaking, but its soundtrack is my favourite hacking music.)
  • Weird Science (1985) – Well, everybody knows that you can’t just scan in pictures of scantily clad women and put a bra on your head to create a totally hot woman (“like Frankenstein, only cuter”). But one can dream, can’t one? And there’s also the message that sometimes, it only takes a bit more self confidence to get ahead in life.
  • Sneakers (1992) – In this movie, we see both sides of hacking: The good hacker (who had to go underground) and the evil hacker (who became rich). It’s the one that has the social skills to enlist help from his friends that wins. Again, the technology portayed is unrealistic, but the villain’s insight isn’t: “The world isn’t run by weapons anymore, or energy, or money. It’s run by little ones and zeroes, little bits of data. It’s all just electrons.”
  • Jurassic Park (1993) – Hacking doesn’t have to be limited to computers, author Michael Crichton realized, and so this movie’s plot is based on hacking amphibian DNA. I wonder if I’d rather have been raised with SGI workstations instead of Legos, just like hacker boy Lex must have been (“It’s a UNIX system! I know this!”).
  • Hackers (1995) – This movie shows that hacking doesn’t have to be a solitary hobby. It can also be a team sport, in a subculture with its own language, cool code names and greeting gestures. And with Angelina Jolie.
  • The Matrix (1999) – The lesson here: When you hack the artificial intelligence that is enslaving the whole human race, you do it in style. And you use nmap to scan its ports.
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2010) – Even after 30 years, the image of the lone but unstoppable computer expert is very much alive. I rather not share Lisbet’s past, but being able to spend high five figures at IKEA after some “transactions” must be fun.
  • MI4: Ghost Protocol (2011) – Today’s kids won’t relate to a David Lightman inserting 8“ floppies into an IMSAI 8080. In MI4, they see familiar iPhones and iPads as tools of the trade and listen to Eminem as musical background. Ah, that song in the first action sequence, you ask? That’s Dean Martin with ”A Kick in the Head”. You’re welcome. Get off my lawn.

A new Freiburg Iron Blogger

I just made a new entry to the member list of Iron Blogger Freiburg. And it's certainly a bit unusual, because Heather actually doesn't live in Freiburg. She's from Minneapolis, which is a teeeensy bit away from here...

But she's asked so nicely that I didn't hesitate to add her to the list:

I'm wondering whether you'd consider adding someone to your group who doesn't currently live in Freiburg — but who will be there in September to settle any fines she may incur. (Heck, even if I *don't* incur any fines, I'll gladly pick up a round or two of beers.)

If you'd like to check out my blogging qualifications before answering, I'm at www.hmunro.wordpress.com.

I'd say you're more than qualified. So, welcome to Iron Blogger Freiburg, Heather! I'm looking forward to meeting you in September!

Man, this whole thing may only be a few days old, but it's already becoming incredibly fun and motivating!

Make temporary files non-executable

At DrupalCONCEPT operations, our intrusion detection system recently notified us that it found a rootkit in the directory /dev/shm on one of our servers. This directory is writeable by the Apache webserver, so attackers that find a vulnerability in the installed software are able put hostile content (aka rootkits) there.

Of course, the vulnerability shouldn’t be there in the first place. We’re doing security updates all the time, but only on the OS and hosting infrastructure level. Since the actual web applications running on our infrastructure (in our case, Drupal) are maintained by our customers, we don’t have the same kind of tight control here as we have on the OS level.

Okay, we may not be able to prevent attackers from deploying their scripts. But we can prevent those scripts from doing any harm. This is where the noexec filesystem option comes in handy. Files on filesystems that have this option enabled can’t be executed even if they have their execution permissions (“x” ) set.

We use a Chef recipe to modify /etc/fstab accordingly. The first execute resource does a remount of the /dev/shm filesystem, but only if triggered by another resource. Namely, the following bash resource that modifies /etc/fstab if it’s not already hardened:

[gist id=1550976]

Since we include this recipe in our base Chef role, it’s applied to every server we set up.

A great tutorial for creating Chef cookbooks

System administrators who are looking for a tool that helps them automating their maintenance tasks and have no or only little experience with Chef should really take a look at Joshua Timberman's great tutorial "Guide to Writing Chef Cookbooks".

In his article, Joshua describes all steps he takes to create a new Chef cookbook that installs and maintains smartmontools (a set of tools to monitor hard disk health). It's a great example how straightforward it is to automate systems operations tasks with Chef.

Even with two years experience in using Chef, I learned one or two bits from this tutorial. And it just so happened this week that I needed a smartmontools cookbook. So, thanks twice for writing this up, Joshua!

Travel tips for sysadmins

OpenDNS recently added a datacenter location in Frankfurt, Germany. On their blog, George Patterson, Director of Operations for OpenDNS, not only posted some pictures of their server rack but also a bunch of tips for sysadmins that have to travel to a remote facility:

  • Have a solid deployment checklist of everything you want at the site. If you don't bring all necessary tools and equipment with you, getting them will cost you extra time.
  • Set up all your power at the datacenter and make sure it's working before you leave. Don't waste time waiting for the datacenter staff to have your power supply connected. And have them install a remote manageable power distribution unit, so you don't have to pay remote-hands charges.
  • If you can avoid it, don’t book a flight until your gear has cleared customs. Depending on the country, customs handling can take from a few days to several weeks. Don't just hope that your gear will arrive earlier than you.
  • Always plan for extra days. You shouldn't have to go into fast-forward mode because something took a bit longer than planned; that will only account for more problems. Plan for some extra days and if you'll finish early, there probably will be more to go and see than only a datacenter.
  • Take photos along the way, and at the end. If your site documentation includes images, it's very easy to point a remote tech to the right place.

Read George's whole blog post on the OpenDNS blog!

Emacs and The Second Coming of TextMate

A text editor is one of the most important tools of a sysadmin, software developer, documentation and blog writer. So, after switching from Linux to Mac a few years ago, I immediately starting looking for a good editor software. On Linux, I had been using Emacs for many years, but its Mac versions available at that time didn't convince me. They rather reminded me of the reasons for which I replaced my desktop OS after all. It didn't take me long to find TextMate and it became one of the first in the long line of applications I purchased in my Mac life. And I've been using it daily ever since.

TextMate is a very capable editor and its add-on "bundle" concept makes it easily extendable. There are bundles for every common programming language, for using version control systems and even a bundle for blogging that lets you not only write and preview your writing but also publish your finished post.

But there is also one concern that's been bugging TextMate users for a long time now: the author is working on version 2 of the software. At least that's what he uses to claim on his blog every few months. Recently, Watts Martin must have lost his patience and in "Text Editor Intervention", he makes a compelling case that there are proven alternatives to eternally waiting for the Second Coming of TextMate:

But in the meantime, you gotta get work done. Either pony up money for BBEdit, pony up time for MacVim (or Emacs), or stick with TextMate.

Shorty after reading his thought-provoking post, I came upon Joshua Timberman's blog post "Switching to GNU Emacs". I did a short search and it almost looks like there is an Emacs renaissance going on.

As you may already have guessed, I decided to give it a try and join the movement. Why?

  1. Back in the days, I've been using Emacs for almost everything that had to do with plain text. I know I'll be able to accomplish all the tasks for which I've been using TextMate.
  2. GNU Emacs has been ported to Cocoa in the meantime, so its UI runs natively on Mac OS X.
  3. After installing Emacs, I realized that all of the important Emacs keyboard shortcuts are still stored in my muscle memory.
  4. Getting Emacs fit for a variety of tasks is easy with pre-configured packages like the Emacs Starter Kit.
  5. The effort of customizing and extending probably is more effective if put into Emacs. As Watts puts it:

Why do I recommend three stodgy old warhorses? Well, any editor that has a still-growing community after two decades is probably doing something right.

And finally, as GNU Emacs is the embodiment of Free Software, I certainly won't have to pay another license fee for the next major version.

Repentantly, I return into the arms of the Church of Emacs.

The Barking Seal: Fun with date

Over at The Barking Seal, I found a nice demonstration what's possible with the date command: Fun with Date.

Especially, the handling of Epoch timestamps and relative dates is very useful.

Weeknote #49


Over the seas in all degrees

Markus left yesterday in direction of the Pacific south east. He’ll take a few days off. Until July, actually. Taking the opportunity to get away from the usual life is a great idea in my eyes and I wish him all the relaxation and inspiration he’s hoping for. I wonder, though, how long it will take until the urge to code on some ideas kicks in. I guess I’ll find out on Twitter or his vacation blog.

Private yes, but professional?

We’re a distributed company and not all of our work is done by the owners or employees. We also hire freelancers and last week, I gave delegating some work to a VPA a try. I contacted Strandschicht and they assigned me an assistant from Romania. He speaks good German, as Strandschicht requires for all their VPAs. I have to concede, though, that his first job left me only 80% satisfied. First, he promised to do the work on Friday but when I contacted him on Saturday, he apologized that he had to do another client’s job first. He then actually got to work on my assignment on Monday. Overall, he did well. Where he left a bit to desire was where he came back to me with questions that were already answered in my instruction email. And, most annoyingly, in three of the emails I had him write to our clients, he forgot to change the salutation. Big doo-doo. I consider people’s names very important and just can’t accept that three clients got greeted with “Dear Mr./Mrs. -“. I’ll still have to decide how to proceed from here. (Please, tell me in the comments how you would!)

Office space

I’m writing this weeknote in the “S-Office”, as I lovingly call the Starbucks in the Freiburg city centre where I spend a lot of time working (Mayor, of course!). Although I have a great workplace at home, I need a bit of variety from time to time. And when Amalias’s home all day (like yesterday, to recover from a cold), there’s not much working without disturbance any more. Unfortunately, Starbucks isn’t that quiet a place sometimes, either. Every now and then, there are days when all tables are taken and patrons are bustling in and out. Even my trusty Etymotics earphones can’t provide a complete shield against the flurry then. That’s why last week, I signed a contract with a company that rents office space on an hourly basis. All I have to do is to reserve a room in advance on the online calendar. Yesterday, I used the office for the first time and really, it’s great to have a quiet space to retreat to while at home, three kids are trashing the place while their mothers are having tea.

International business

When we started DrupalCONCEPT last year, we targeted our domestic market first. Now, business gets more and more international. And it’s not only our Drupal hosting clients that are distributed over the world, our IT infrastructure is increasingly, too. A growing number of clients demands minimal website response time regardless where in the world their visitors are coming from. The standard solution for this is a Content Delivery Network (CDN), a network of globally distributed servers that deliver content to the website visitors most nearby. Most CDNs work on static content only, but we need to deliver page content locally, too. That’s why we decided to build our own infrastructure: a network of caching servers all over the world. This week, for example, we’ll deploy a caching satellite in Brazil. It’s a great example for our main business objective: Delivering top-of-the-line IT solutions.

Weeknote #44

You’re feeling as if time crawls like syrup? Get sick while having a heap of work and watch time fly by! That what I did over Christmas. I got a head cold and couldn’t get any of the tasks done that I had planned to work on during the quieter days. It was really hard for me to accept that I would have to tell clients that we still weren’t ready for their projects after two weeks of downtime. But I also knew that forcing it would result in mediocre work and maybe me getting more seriously ill, so I kept my feet still and tried to recover as fast as possible. Of course, when I finally got back in business, many tasks had transitioned from “important” to “important and urgent”. That’s why January became a month of hustling. With the most pressing projects done now, we got back in control of our workload, so I’ve got time to write another weeknote.

Action days

An article on GigaOm describing the concept of an “action day” caught my immediate interest in December. Actions days foster results-oriented working, engagement and motivation in teams by an hourly exchange about achieved results and the next tasks about to get done. Our first try at an action day went so well that Markus stated “It almost feels like we sit in an office together”. So we decided to have an action day every Wednesday.

By the way, we didn’t use a teleconferencing solution to report our results, but instead a feed created especially for this on our company site on Yammer.

Social days

Like last year, visiting conferences and, ideally, giving talks there will be one of our most important marketing efforts this year, too. In Open Source services, nothing beats personal contact and the opportunity to prove one’s competence and answer important client questions at the same time.

Friday, Markus and I will be on trains to Brussels for the Drupal Developer Days where I will give a talk about “Developer-friendly Drupal hosting”. In this talk, I’ll try to explain how DrupalCONCEPT differentiates itself from the many hosting services on the market. We’re also a Silver sponsor of the weekend. (Probably the only one not appearing on the print materials because we couldn’t procure a vector version of our logo…)

I also happily accepted the invitation to give a talk about systems automation with Chef at the Open Source Datacenter Conference in April. All of our servers (of which we got more than 40 already) are maintained from a central Chef instance which lets us reduce the time spent for repeating system administration tasks to a minimum. Without such a system, I would do system administration all day and wouldn’t have time for any of my business tasks.

Since I’m going to do some traveling this year, I really appreciate how TripIt makes it easy for me to put together a travel itinerary. I just forward my DB Online Ticket to them and they create a nice overview with all train connections and reservation information. Then I add my hotel reservation and find everything I need in one place, which is the TripIt app on my iPhone. Very handy!

Vacation days

Markus is going to go on a big trip from March to July. In February, he’ll finish his running projects so there should be no loose ends when he’s off. While he’s hopping from beach to beach, I’ll keep the stations manned, dreaming about where I’ll disappear to after he comes back.

Two very different acquisition notices I received today

Dimdim:

Dimdim has been acquired by salesforce.com. Your free Dimdim account will remain active until March 15, 2011. After that date, you will no longer be able to access your free Dimdim account.

Please see the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) for additional information.

We appreciate your understanding, and we thank you!

Pursuant to the Dimdim Terms of Use (the “Agreement”) governing the use of Dimdim Inc.’s (“Dimdim”) Site and Services (as defined under the Agreement) by you (“You”), Dimdim is hereby exercising its right to terminate Your Dimdim Account and the Agreement in its entirety. Dimdim will continue to provide Services to you until March 15, 2011. Following March 15, 2011, neither You nor Dimdim shall have any further rights or obligations of any kind under the Agreement, including the right to access the Site, or receive or use any Services. Dimdim thanks you for your business, and wishes you success in the future.

Socialite:

Socialite

That notice above makes me glad I never used Dimdim for serious work. The other one makes me reconsider giving Socialite another try.

Themed Christmas Presents

This year, my family chose theme packages as my Christmas presents:

My father invests into my startup business by feeding my thoughts.

And my brother seems to have noticed a certain trait of my personality…

I love my family. Thanks, Dad! Thanks, Tom!