Monday, April 29, 2013

The 5 Books That I'm Glad I Read Before Taking My New Position

Outside the video games, comic books and other geek-related stuff, I enjoy reading a good book every now and then. Surprisingly, most of the books I read are about professional development & growth. Here are five books that I have read that in the last few years that have provided excellent information that I have been able apply in my new position as IT Supervisor over the past few months.

While these choices might not be the viewed as the "de facto standard" leadership books to read by many CEOs, CIOs, etc., I found them full of real world, practical information and strategies for making IT supervision/management/leadership a more successful and less stress-inducing process especially for someone new to the role.

I'm curious to what books other IT professionals have read that have helped them.

Monday, April 22, 2013

When tech gets old

I recently spent an entire Saturday cleaning out my parent's storage house. I went through boxes of stuff that my parents had accumulated over their many years of marriage (ok, I admit some of it was mine and my sister's stuff too). Surprisingly, some of it was tech from the '60s and '70s. Probably top quality during it's day. However, it's pretty much useless now except for when you want to reminisce over old videos recorded by a vintage Kobena 121 on Super 8mm film played on a vintage Ricoh Auto 8P Dualmatic projector (that's assuming they still work).   Makes you wonder how the tech that we buy now will be viewed 30 or 40 years from now when it's pulled out of storage.


Friday, April 12, 2013

What I Use: Roku 3

The new Roku 
The future is in streaming and that is even more evident with the new Roku 3. I can boldly start by saying that the Roku 3 is the best streaming box on the market today. Period.Yes, Apple fanboys, it is even better than your beloved Apple TV.

Connections on back
As soon as you take the Roku 3 out of the box, you'll notice that it has an updated yet simple design similar to the last generation models. There's an indicator light on the front panel. On the back, you have power, Gigabit Ethernet, HDMI, reset button and a microSD card slot. There is a single USB 2.0 port on the side. The differences become apparent once you turn it on. That's when you'll immediately notice that it is a vast improvement over past generations. The new interface and faster processor made it feel quicker and more responsive. Roku claims that it's five times faster than that of the Roku 2 XS. I believe it.

New interface
The first time you use the new user interface, you'll notice that the menus shifts back and forth pretty quickly. You'll also notice that most channels take only a few seconds to load. The new interface also supports skins, and comes with five different choices to make the menus look slightly different (you're not stuck with the plain purple). While the new interface is currently exclusive to Roku 3, all current generation Roku boxes (Roku LT, Roku HD, Roku 2 XD, Roku 2 XS, and Roku Streaming Stick) will eventually get the new user interface via a software update.

More than 750 channels are supported on the Roku 3, including many popular options such as Netflix, Hulu Plus, Pandora, Tune In, Amazon Cloud Player, Amazon Instant, HBO Go, and Vudu (but no CinemaNow), which is hundreds more than any competing streaming boxes (cough, cough Apple TV). Sadly, it still does not provide a YouTube channel. Nevertheless, whatever your media tastes, there is probably a channel for it available. And yes, you can still play Angry Birds on it.

Roku's new remote has a built-in headphone jack that lets you listen without disturbing others. The remote also works via WiFi Direct, rather than using standard infrared or Bluetooth. This basically means you don't have to point the remote at the box. Additionally, you can control the Roku 3 with your iOS or Android device with the free Roku app, available in the Apple App Store and on Google Play.  The Play On Roku feature in the Roku app, lets you push music and photos stored on your mobile device directly to your TV very similar to Airplay. Unfortunately, that is where the similarities end because you can't stream movies or mirror displays from your mobile devices.

Apple TV next to Roku 3
Some may argue that the Apple TV is better choice than the Roku especially with the AirPlay functionality. There is no argument that using Airplay with an Apple TV is a elegant yet simple solution. No other digital ecosystem lets you stream music, photos, and videos stored on your iOS devices or newer MacBooks with little effort. However, if you don't own any Apple products or not deeply tied into the Apple ecosystem, then it is useless.

The one downside to the Roku 3 is that it is not great at organizing and playing back large libraries of personal digital media that you may have stored locally. Plugging a storage device into the USB port on the side lets you play a few digital media file formats: mp4 and mkv for video, aac and mp3 for music, and jpg and png for images. This is an area where the WD TV Live Hub outshines the Roku for some people (plus it has CinemaNow and YouTube).

With its superior selection of streaming services, the Roku 3 is the best, most versatile, and most usable set-top box on the market at this time. If you're not an Apple user or don't have much need for AirPlay, the Roku 3 is the only streaming box to consider purchasing.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

What I Use: ASUS VivoTab Smart ME400

ASUS VivoTab Smart
Decisions. Decisions. I had been in the market for a true Windows 8 tablet since Microsoft released their new operating system but held off because of price. Call me cheap, but many Windows 8 tablets are over-priced in my opinion. This led me to holding off buying a tablet for awhile.

As expected, the price of many Windows 8/RT tablets started to drop so once again I began looking into purchasing a tablet. I eventually narrowed my choices down to the Acer Iconia W510 and ASUS VivoTab Smart ME400. I have to be honest by saying that the Acer was my original choice because I recently have had good experience with other Acer products such as my  Acer Aspire V3-551-8887. Oh, did I mention that the Microsoft Store had it marked down at the time to $400? Unfortunately, our local Microsoft Store did not have any in stock. Bummer.

iPad, VivoTab & Surface RT

Just like being rejected by the first girl asked to the prom, I went with my second choice: the ASUS VivoTab Smart ME400. My initial impressions were that the build quality was pretty good. It felt sturdy and the soft touch backing is nice (but a fingerprint magnet). The tablet is very comfortable to grip and hold. It weighs only 1.3 lbs. and measures just 0.4" thin. It is a bit smaller than the Microsoft Surface but bigger than the iPad. The specs for the ASUS VivoTab Smart ME400 are decent and expected for a tablet under $500:

  • 1.8GHz Intel Atom Z2760 processor 
  • 2GB RAM
  • 10.1" IPS 5-finger capacitive touch screen with a 1366 x 768 resolution 
  • 64GB eMMC on-board memory for storage
  • PowerVR SGX545 graphics
  • 2.0MP front-facing webcam and a 8.0MP rear-facing camera with an LED flash 
  • Digital media reader that supports microSD and microSDHC cards
  • Micro USB 2.0 port
  • Micro HDMI
  • 2-in-1 Audio Jack (Headphone / Mic-in)
  • 802.11b/g/n wireless LAN and Bluetooth 4.0
  • NFC sensor
  • 25Wh lithium-polymer battery capable of 9.5 hours of life

The ASUS VivoTab Smart ME400 is very similar in physical design to ASUS VivoTab RT, which runs Windows RT. However, unlike it's sibling, it lacks the metallic-like look and feel of the ASUS Transformer Android tablets. Physical controls are straightforward: a power button on the top left corner, a volume button on the right and the Windows logo Home button. Below the volume button there is a tiny reset hole in case you have to restore your tablet to it's factory settings. Connectivity is limited to four ports: a micro USB port mainly for charging, a micro HDMI port for video output, a micro SD/SDHC card slot, and a combination headphone/mic jack.

The new Clover Trail dual-core Intel Atom Z2760 processor is more powerful and energy efficient than past Atom processors found in older netbooks. Unfortunately, this still limits the tablet to the 32-bit version of Windows 8. The additional software installed on the tablet is surprisingly limited to a mix of apps from the Windows Store (Netflix, Kindle and Skype) and a bunch of ASUS proprietary programs (ASUS Camera, MyLibrary, MyDictionary, ASUS WebStorage and LiveUpdate), which could be useful to some people. There are also some Xbox Live games pre-installed: Microsoft Solitaire, Microsoft Mahjong, Taptiles and Pinball FX2. No unnecessary crapware installed. 

TranSleeve Cover
In addition to the tablet,  I purchased the ASUS VivoTab Smart TranSleeve Cover.  It is basically a foldable cover that can transform into a stand for your tablet. A magnetic hinge attaches the Transleeve to the VivoTab Smart for protection very much like the iPad Smart Covers. Sadly, it doesn't work as well as a Smart Cover.  I found that it detaches from the tablet rather easily. In addition, it doesn't put the tablet to sleep or wake it when on open or close. While there is also an available ASUS VivoTab Smart TranSleeve Keyboard accessory, I decided to use the Microsoft Wedge Mobile Keyboard and Microsoft Wedge Touch Mouse with mine. I couldn't be happier. 


Overall, the ASUS VivoTab Smart ME400 is a fantastic bargain for those looking for a relatively inexpensive tablet running Windows 8 instead of Windows RT. The touchscreen is very responsive and it is comfortable enough to be used for long periods of time. It is a balanced, well-designed tablet that is  fast enough for anything except hardcore gaming and heavy media editing.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

What I Use: Livescribe Sky Wifi Smartpen

Since Livescribe released their first smartpen several years ago, I have been fascinated by how their technology worked but never broke down to buy one because I didn't see an immediate need. That changed recently and I finally succumbed to my urge and bought the Livescribe Sky WiFi Smartpen a month ago. I can say that it has been well worth the money.

The Sky WiFi smartpen from Livescribe, has 2GB of memory that can record up to 200 hours of audio and thousands of pages of notes (4GB and 8GB models are available as well). It can then wirelessly sync your notes and audio to your Evernote account. This allows you to search, replay and even share your notes in Evernote from any device running Windows, OS X, Android or iOS. This creates a totally wireless workflow accessible at anytime on any device.

The basic concept is that a person will write less and listen more as the smartpen captures everything presented in a class or a meeting. At the bottom of the pen, where the ink cartridge is located, there is a small gap that allows the Sky's camera to record what you're writing. The smartpen also has a built-in microphone. During meetings or classes, record audio while you take notes and then transfer them to Evernote over a wireless network. Everything you hear and write will be captured so you won't miss a single word. After you have taken notes, you can play them back and hear exactly what was discussed. It also will sync to what was said by simply tapping anywhere on your notes to hear the audio that was recorded at the same time that you wrote it.

All of your handwritten notes and audio recordings are uploaded to your Evernote account by pressing Sync Now in your Livescribe dot paper notebook. Your handwritten notes appear in two colors: green and black. Notes that do not have any audio recordings associated with them appear in black.  Notes that appear in green means that there is an audio recording associated with them.  To play back a note's recorded audio, click on a note that has a recording attached to it and Evernote will open a new page and play the recording in full automatically. The audio fidelity is also surprisingly good.

Of course there has to be a catch. The Livescribe Sky WiFi Smartpen only works with special Livescribe dot paper. Livescribe dot paper uses standard paper printed with a unique pattern of tiny microdots. These tiny patterns allow it to capture the exact location of everything you write on the dot paper. Alternatively, you can print your own dot paper using any regular inkjet or laser printer, but  it's just not as nice as the off the shelf notebooks are. They aren't terribly expensive and well worth it if you are going to use your smartpen regularly.

The one downside to the Livescribe Sky WiFi Smartpen is that the writing experience is awful, like using a very cheap ballpoint pen. This has been the one thing that I have not liked about any of the other Livescribe smartpens such as the Echo and Pulse. That said, this is also not a pen that you would use for all day, every day writing tasks so the pen quality is not a deal-breaker. 

If you're like me, trying to take notes get in the way of actually paying attention during meetings. Add in the fact that trying to keep those notes organized can be a hassle as well. The Livescribe Sky WiFi Smartpen is the best device I have used that builds a bridge between traditional paper note-taking and a person's digital life in the cloud. 

Friday, April 5, 2013

Are You Willing To Pay The Price For A Career In IT?

During a past class session, a student asked me if there was an easier way to get into the I.T. field because there was just too much reading involved and he didn't have time to do it. Suddenly, I started hearing the music that plays when David Banner turned into the Hulk from the old TV show. My initial instinct was to tell him that the I.T. field doesn't need more people like you who manage to worm their way into a position, lack the passion needed to be successful and screw it up for other aspiring I.T. professionals who are working hard to get into the field. Fortunately, I remained calm and turned it into a learning moment.

I took a very long, deep breath and politely told him that an I.T. career is not something that you can just add water and in a few minutes you have instant success ESPECIALLY as a minority. I continued to explain to the student that being an I.T. professional is much like being a doctor. Doctors are required to earn a license to practice medicine or even legally be called a physician. Furthermore, licenses are not granted automatically to anyone with a medical degree.  Even after earning their license, doctors have to stay current with the latest medical breakthroughs that will allow them to provide the best care to their patients. They are regularly reading medical journals as well as attending seminars and conferences. It's a constant learning cycle that never stops at any point during their careers. Additionally, knowing the rigorous path one has to take, a person has to be dedicated in order to become a doctor. It’s not something that happens overnight. It’s a lot of work. That dedication, along with a passion to help people, is what makes a person a successful doctor.  

While a career in I.T. might not be as intense as that of a doctor (subject to opinion), there are some parallels. While having a license is not required, certifications can validate an I.T. professional’s skills and level of knowledge. What’s more, I.T. professionals are limiting themselves if they're not picking up the latest technology magazine or browsing the computer book section in Barnes & Noble or listening to tech podcasts in order to keep abreast of the latest technical trends. Successful (and sought after) I.T. professionals are always spending time to polish up their repertoire of skills to make sure they remain competitive because I.T. is a market that changes quickly.

Yes, in some rare cases, a person can "luck-out" and obtain an I.T. position making a fairly decent salary without doing a whole lot. Heck, even a blind squirrel finds a nut every now and then. However, those who do manage to slip in under the cracks usually don’t go too far in their careers. Not only are those individuals limited by their knowledge (one-trick ponies), they are usually the first ones targeted if there has to be a R.I.F. (reduction in force better known as getting let go) within the organization. As an I.T. professional, you basically have to decide whether or not you want to train yourself to be relevant for tomorrow or keep doing what you're doing for a model that eventually may no longer exists.

By the time I finished speaking with that individual student, I think he fully understood the point I was making. I ended our conversation with something that Vince Lombardi once said: “You can accomplish anything if you are willing to pay the price.” How much are you willing to pay for a long and successful career in I.T.? 

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

New Phone for Wife

Nokia Lumia 822 next to old LG Cosmos
Since my wife was eligible for a phone upgrade from Verizon, I decided to surprise her today with a new Nokia Lumia 822. Keep in mind that this is her first smartphone, moving from the LG Cosmos that she has had for years. So why not an iPhone 5 or Samsung Galaxy S III? One word: FREE. Plus, since this was going to be her first smartphone, I wanted to get her something that had a familiar feel to it since she uses Windows and other Microsoft services such as SkyDrive. I like the phone so much that I wish I could have gotten one for myself because it makes my HTC Trophy look and feel old. She was excited so it looks like I made the right choice. I earned the "Happy Wife, Happy Life" Xbox achievement today. 

Monday, April 1, 2013

One Month Later....

Amazing how time flies. It has been one month since starting my new position as an IT Support Supervisor. The entire time has been a very positive learning process. Having great leadership at the top who sincerely want to see you succeed as well as a good team has made the adjustment much, much easier.

As it should be expected, the first three months in my new position will be very challenging, however, it sets the stage for a very productive next nine months. The first few months paint the picture of what must be accomplished to be viewed as successful during the first year. Look, listen and learn.

My first month has been spent learning the culture and personalities in that culture as well as taking the time to make sure I understand why things are done the way they are done now. This also allowed me to  identify a couple of positive changes that I could make immediately to score some early "wins" but without moving too fast. This is a marathon, not a sprint, so I have to pace myself accordingly.

The biggest challenge that I've encountered is realizing that I am not the one doing tech support anymore (at least not as often). I have to trust my team to provide quality service to our clients. Simply put, I have to focus more on being a leader and mentor for the team and less on being a tech.

As I start my second month, I plan to spent more time with each team member to get to know them personally and professionally. I want to know what can I do to help them do their job more effectively. What can I do to help them grow professionally? What have I learned over the years that I can share with them in order for them to be successful?  My goal is to build the capabilities of the team and each of its members, which in turn benefits the whole organization. To quote Henry Ford, "Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success".