Posts Tagged 'Email'

March 10, 2010

The Case for Task Managment Systems

How many times have you received a “task” through email with no priority or due date attached? Just “Hey, do this…” with nothing more. It leaves you wondering when this particular “task” is supposed to be completed or how important this task may be. What if you’re slammed with about 5 different items at once and the email with the “task” disappears into the mass of emails you receive all day? Now you have the author of this “task” upset because their task was not completed by the time they didn’t specify in the email lost in your inbox. It’s a disaster just begging to happen.

Emails get lost. Task notes get thrown away by the cleaning crew. The dog ate my task. In using a task management system, none of these situations could ever happen.

A Task Management System is either a frightening or salvatory three words for the disorganized among us. It’s a savior for those desiring efficiency and a nightmare for those unwilling to change.

Wow, you are really convincing! So, what type of task management systems are out there? I’m glad you asked that question...

Task Management Systems range from the simplest (Ta-da Lists - http://tadalist.com/) to the more advanced (JIRA - http://www.atlassian.com/software/jira/). Both, of which, could meet your needs exceptionally well.Wow, JIRA looks really awesome! What are some pros and cons of the task management system? Another excellent question… PROS:

  • Task organization
  • Task prioritizing
  • Task collaboration between employees
  • Task status updates
  • Custom reports for Tasks
  • Task history CONS:

  • New system to learn.
  • That’s really about it, honestly.

It’s really a no brainer that the task management system is a major improvement over basic email and can bring about high efficiency in the work place.

December 3, 2009

Hey, I just got an email saying I won a million dollars! *Click* Wait, what just happened to my computer?

This is usually how it starts. Some shady person sends out spam telling people they have one a million dollars or a free laptop or mp3 player with a link a form they need to fill out to claim their prize. Only you don’t win an mp3 player or laptop. You win an infected computer that is now a drone in a much larger botnet. This botnet is either for direct malicious purposes (Denial-of-Service attacks) or indirect malicious purposes (spam, phishing, etc). How do you stop this from happening to you and you becoming “that guy”? Don’t click links in email unless you’re 100% sure who it’s from and what it’s for. That’s the basic rule to remember. Secondly, make sure you have an anti-virus program that’s capable of scanning email and keeping your system protected from malicious browser exploits. Thirdly, (and this should go without being said, but I’m saying it anyways) make sure your computer (and all software) is up-to-date. Sure, there’s the occasional bug and 0-day exploit on up-to-date systems, but there’s a whole slew of exploits and things that can be done to an un-patched system. Keep your systems up-to-date and you reduce the “known” exploits from literally thousands to maybe a few.

Think about this, 80% of the world’s email is considered spam. Of that 80%, the vast majority (more than 75%) is sent using infected computers (drones). If everyone would re-think blindly clicking links in emails and on webpages (social networking sites have a history of people trying to fool users into clicking bad links) then the spammers wouldn’t have drones available to them to send spam. Interesting thought, isn’t it? Let’s stop spam by being smart internet users and denying the “bad guys” the resources they need to send out the spam.

August 30, 2008

Telephone Support

What can be more aggravating then paying for a service that does not work? The other night I got home after a long day and go to check my email. It doesn’t take long before I realize I am unable to connect to my mail server. In a few moments, I realize my internet service is down. So like any person would in this situation, I call my ISP to see what is going on. I promptly receive a message that the DSL department is closed and I am given their working hours and am told to call back then, alternately I can email them and they will respond as quickly as they can. At this point I am floored; an ISP that does not have 24/7 phone support. As my email is down, it’s not like I can just send off an email to them which I assume wouldn’t be answered anyway until the next day. What choice do I have, I wait until the next day.

Upon calling the next day, I am greeted with a wonderful message telling me all technicians are currently assisting other customers and that my call will be answered when someone is available. After 30 minutes on hold, I finally get to talk to a live person. I go through the steps to prove I am the owner of the account and to my surprise I am told I am being transferred to someone who can help me and am immediately dumped into another call queue. So I am thinking ok, they have someone who just verifies the user and passes them to a tech. When the tech answers, I yet again go through all verification on my account (what was the purpose of the first person I talked to?). I explain that my internet connection isn’t working and explain to him the steps I have taken such as rebooting the DSL modem and router. I am told that I need to reboot the router, rather than explain I have already done this I do it again. I them again do the same to the modem even though again I have already done this.

Things go downhill from this point. I am then asked what OS I am running, not really sure what this has to do with my router not having an internet connection but I answer without thinking and tell the tech Linux. This promptly results in the tech telling me my OS is not support and that’s the problem, I need to run Windows or a Mac to use their service. I attempt to explain to the tech that it’s not an OS issue; the router doesn’t have an internet connection. This resulted in a stone wall, the tech just repeated that the OS I was using does not work with their system. I tried to explain to him that I have been using Linux on their system for over a year now. After arguing this with me for over 10 minutes, I ask to be escalated to a level 2 technician. After sitting on hold for another 10 minutes, the phone start to ring and I am dumped into another call queue.

At this point, I feel I am justifiably upset. Another tech answers and yet again I verify all information on my account. I am again asked to reboot the router and modem. Based on the way they are asking, I can tell the tech is simply reading from a script. I interrupt the tech and tell him that I have already gone through this with the last tech and while I realize it’s not his fault, I need to speak with his supervisor. I am put on hold again, just as I think I am going to be dumped into yet another call queue; a new voice picks up telling me that he is the supervisor on duty. I explain the entire situation to the person. He apologies for the inconvenience and I am forwarded directly to a level 3 technician. After only 2 minutes on the phone with the level 3 technician I am informed that there is an outage in my area and that they expect it to be corrected shortly.

When I finally got off the phone, I realized that I had spent over 2 hours on the phone and spoken to 5 different people just to be told there was a network outage. This is when I think to our own SoftLayer support system and just couldn’t imagine support running any other way. Sitting in a call queue is so incredibly frustrating, especially when your end up talking to someone who doesn’t actually know anything other than to read a script and hope something in their checklist fixes your issue. Here at SoftLayer, we have no call queues to get stuck in. When a technician answers the phone, you have just that a technician who will actually take the time to work on an issue with you to get it corrected. There is nothing more satisfying then calling into a support department, having your call answered immediately by a person who can actually help you. I am honored to be a part of this incredible support team that strives to make the customers life as easy as possible. Now if only other companies could follow this path making telephone support something you can count on rather than something you dread having to use.

-Mathew

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July 25, 2008

Thinkin' Like a Programmer

"I can't figure this out. My email client says I can't attach more than 10 M of data, but then it says I have 16501 K of data attached, and it can't send that. What's a 'M'? What's a 'K'? Why is the second number so big? I only attached a few files!"

I explained to my uncle that "M" stood for Megabyte, and "K" stood for Kilobyte. That a simple calculation to convert "K"s to "M"s was to take the last three digits off the "K"s and you had the size in "M"s, give or take one. That he had 16-17 Megabytes of data attached to his email, and he can only have 10.

His response was to wonder (1) why didn't the client just tell him he had "too much data," and (2) why did the program give him Ms AND Ks, instead of picking one?

My reply consisted of (1) it did, that's what the message said, and (2) because the programmer was thinking like a programmer.

See, my uncle is a very, very smart man. He worked in a video arcade as the guy who rewired the arcade machines when they exploded when somebody poured a Coke on them. He knew how the machines worked in and out. And got paid good money. When he moved back to Texas, he took up industrial and residential electric work, and is now a fully licensed foreman who's in high demand all through the area. When he says "I won't take a job that pays less than $20 a hour," it's not because he's picky, it's because he doesn't have to. Sharp as a tack. But he's not a computer pro. Not a problem, people can't be pros at everything. This ain't the 1700s, where you can pick up a test tube and learn everything known about chemistry in a few days.

But why would a programmer write a error message for an email program that would be unreadable to end users? Because it's perfectly readable to him! When my uncle read out the message, my first response was "You have about 7 Megabytes too many attachments. Send a second email."

Therefore, a programmer checking his work would think this was a great error message. Not only does it tell you that the email can't be sent, but it tells you why. The limit is in Megabytes, but email messages are typically sent in Kilobytes, so the data is already there. See how helpful I am! And the unit conversion between Ks and Ms are very easy; programmers do it 10 times a day and wouldn't even notice it.

That's why we have end user testing, to try to catch these things that programmers won't notice. It's just a simple conversion of units! But for an electrician trying to send an email, it was as opaque as to him as if he had told me that I had a single pole dual throw make-break when I need a dual pole single throw break-make. It makes perfect sense, if you're used to it. And if I think about it for a minute, I could figure it out most likely… but the point is, his error message is useless to me as it's formatted. But it makes perfect sense to him.

So, what's the moral of the story? Well, moral 1 is, try to be sure that all users of your product can understand what you say. We have an extensive testing process here at SoftLayer to make sure our data screens are usable without any confusion. Moral 2 is that programmers don't "actively" attempt to "keep people from using their computers" by "making their programs too complex." For us, it's completely transparent and useful, as useful to us as a circuit diagram is to an electrician. Just let us know if we make something a bit to opaque; it wasn't on purpose, and sometimes it's an easy fix. We were just thinking like programmers.

-Zoey

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March 12, 2008

Things I Learned at the Post Office

I send exactly one letter a year: a signature form to the IRS to say that yes, indeed, I have eFiled my taxes. Other than that, I use the Internet, and to a smaller part mobile phones, for all of my communications. It's faster, easier, and significantly cheaper.

Walking into the post office, I felt as my Mom must feel when she comes with me to Fry's Electronics. A million options, and not a single clue where to go. All I knew was that, using the US Postal Service, I had to convey this sheet of paper to another post office in Austin.

Some lessons I learned:

The IRS requires a signature. On paper. For filing your taxes online. Or a "super secure five digit pin number" (which I used, once, a year ago and cannot remember). Or my return amount from last year (which is currently stored on hard cellulose media in a backup (box) somewhere in my garage). So signature it is.

Letters require an envelope. Email does not. However, being a post office, this was easy to rectify. For $.25

Letters require postage. Not only did they charge me for the paper sleeve, but they also charged me for "postage." The postal worker handed me the envelope and the stamp. I put the stamp on the envelope and handed it back. He took a rubber stamp and defaced that $.41 square of paper. Why didn't he just save me the extra step?

The post office doesn't automatically affix a "FROM" field to the envelope. He then handed the letter back, gesturing to the top left corner. Apparently, I needed to write MY address there, in case they couldn't find the recipient. Right!

First-Class Mail doesn't actually mean First. In fact, Priority mail goes out before first class. And so does Express mail. In fact, there doesn't seem to be a "Class" of standard mail below first class, making it "Last Class" mail (there is Parcel Post and Media Mail and Bulk Mail, but these aren't standard on-the-price-board listed services). This is like the old joke about the Soviet Union reporting that their car made second place, and the American car made second-to-last, without mentioning that it was a two car race.

Surliness is one of the few free services provided by the Post Office. Along with dinginess and long lines. Then again the guy behind the counter didn't have to make such a show of his open disdain for my inability to "properly" affix postage.

Unlike Internet forms, real world forms have two sides. With a barely restrained sigh, the federal agent behind the counter handed back my form, and made a twirling motion with his finger, requesting that I put my return address on the back of that form. Didn't I already give them my return address on the letter?

After filling out the envelope (twice) AND a certificate (both sides), the federal agent then proceeded to place stickers and stamps all over my envelope. When he was done it had no less than 3 stickers and writing over the entire surface. He then handed me a paper with a convenient 20 digit number I could use to check on the progress of the letter. By calling a "1-800" number. With a phone. It cost me $7 to send a single sheet of paper with my signature on it a mere 200 miles.

As I walked out with the civil servant's stare burning into my back, I thought to myself...

...why couldn't I just have encrypted my tax forms with my private key? Wouldn't that have been easier? And more secure.

Apparently the Post Office, headed originally by Benjamin Franklin (also known for the glass harmonica and a carriage odometer, along with other trifling achievements) used to be the fastest, and dare I say sole way to communicate over long distances. How did they ever get anything done? Seems like an incredible hassle to me.

-Zoey

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October 16, 2007

The Miracle of Email

"You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat."

-- Albert Einstein, explaining radio.

Email, like Telephones, the Internet, Power Lines, Credit Card Terminals, ATMs, etc. have become so much part of our daily lives that we just accept it without really thinking about it. You click "New," put some data into a form, then click "Send." In a couple of seconds (minutes if your mail servers are suffering a spam blizzard), your LOLCAT Email has zipped from one end of the Internet to the other (This proves that, unlike radio, Email does have a cat). Do we marvel at this paragon of technology? Not really. I generally grumble at the mixed blessing that has brought me spam.

A while back, I made the mistake of reading the Wikipedia article on the Power Grid. I was amazed at the mechanics of the system that allows a handful of uranium melting itself into slag in Glen Rose, Texas to shove electrons across a couple hundred miles of copper, through a handful of coils... all to be stopped by a little switch in my wall before they could excite the gasses in my Compact Fluorescent light bulbs. For two weeks after that, I was a road hazard. In the middle of my commute, I'd glance at my right hand mirror, gaze out my side window, and think "Hey! I didn't know they were running two phase power out here!" I must say that I couldn't have been a more dangerous driver during those two weeks if I was dryping.

My latest project at SoftLayer (WHOIS management for ARIN... look in the portal under SWIP) had me doing research on Email (as all transactions are conducted through Email).

Like David Bowman staring into the black monolith at the end of 2001, I was struck by the simplicity and beauty of the Email system!

Let’s tag along with an Email message, so you can see just how cool this is.

Bob is currently taking a vacation in Glen Rose, Texas (taking the tour of the Nuclear Power Plant). Sitting in the lobby of the Visitor's Center (thinking about this giant reactor being at the beck and call of his little switch), he has a firm wish that Alice could come see this. He's a cheapskate, though, (that’s why he’s at a local power plant instead of, say, Disneyworld) so he's not going to waste money on a Power Plant Postcard and stamp at the gift shop. No sir, he opens up his blackberry and sends a short Email to Alice ("Wish you were here!"). A few seconds later, Alice's Email client pops up an alert that she's received an Email from Bob. The Email itself is simply a block of text… really! No magic going on here! Here's what the Email looks like:

From: bob@example.net
To: alice@example.com
Date: Wed, 10 Oct 2007 12:54:08 -0400 (EDT)
Received: From EXAMPLE.NET
 by EXAMPLE.COM with SMTP
 Wed 10 Oct 2007,
 12:55:00 -0400 (EDT)
 
Wish you were here!
 
---
Bob
Sending to Alice for over 30 years.

Simple, huh? To help visualize this transaction, Figure 1 shows a “RFC 2822 Compliant Post Card:”

Bob opens up his Email client, and writes "Wish you were here!" in the message area. He then adds his signature, and writes in the subject. The Email client adds headers to the address area of the Email (From, To, and Date), then drops the Email into Bob's local Email server (EXAMPLE.NET).

The Email server at EXAMPLE.NET looks at the address section of the Email and notices where it is to be sent to Alice (who has an Email box at EXAMPLE.COM), and opens up a SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol) connection to Alice's mail server. It then sends the message and moves on.

Alice's Email server puts a “postmark” header on the Email (the Received header) and drops a copy of the entire text block into Alice’s Email box.

Alice opens up her Email client, which then downloads all the text files from her Email box. It reads the From header and tells Alice that she has an Email from bob@example.com

That’s it! Simple, huh?!?

If Bob's Email server can't send the mail directly to Alice Email server, it can send the Email through a relay server. This server adds its own "Received header" to the Email. If you look at the headers of any Email you've received (spam is not only a good source of vitamin Sodium Nitrate, but also an excellent resource for Email headers), you can see every single server your Email passed through. It’s like those neat stickers customs officials stick to your luggage as an apology for cracking your locks when you fly internationally.

That's all there is to it! A simple block of text, passed off to an Email server. And the actual protocol is just as simple. Here's what the communication between Bob's Email server and Alice's Email server looks like (modified from the example on Wikipedia's SMTP article):

Bob’s server connects to Alice’s and identifies itself:

ALICE: 220 smtp.example.com ESMTP Postfix
BOB:   HELO example.net
ALICE: 250 Hello example.net

Bob's server then tells the receiving server about the Email:

BOB:   MAIL FROM:<bob@example.net>
ALICE: 250 Ok
BOB:   RCPT TO:<alice@example.com>
ALICE: 250 Ok

Bob's server then tells Alice's that it's ready to send the real message:

BOB:   DATA
ALICE: 354 End data with <CR><LF>.<CR><LF>

Next follows the RFC Compliant Email message from above, ending the data with a ".", which tells Alice's server that Bob’s message is complete:

BOB:   From: bob@example.net
BOB:   To: alice@example.com
BOB:   Date: Wed, 10 Oct 2007 12:54:08 -0400 (EDT)
BOB:   Received: From EXAMPLE.NET
BOB:    by EXAMPLE.COM with SMTP
BOB:    Wed 10 Oct 2007,
BOB:    12:55:00 -0400 (EDT)
BOB:   
BOB:   Wish you were here!
BOB:   
BOB:   ---
BOB:   Bob
BOB:   Sending to Alice for over
BOB:   30 years.
BOB:   .

Alice's server lets Bob's know that the message is queued to go, and Bob's server signs off:

ALICE: 250 Ok: queued as 12345
BOB:   QUIT
ALICE: 221 Bye

I marvel at this technology. Every Email in the world is transmitted by this simple protocol. The whole of electronic communication takes place by handing small blocks of text from one Email server to another, until it finally makes its way to the recipient's inbox. That's all! No magic potions, no hocus pocus, no tying messages to carrier pigeons or pulling cat tails.

Not only this, but your message is flying through a blizzard of spam. Because the protocol is so simple, people build simple tools that blast out millions of messages at a time, flying all over the Internet. But the awesomeness of this just makes Email that much more awe inspiring. Email has been running, nearly uninterrupted (as a whole) for DECADES under the most concerted distributed denial of service attack of all time.

And STILL your Email gets to its destination. Benjamin Franklin would be proud.

Think of this the next time you forward the latest list of funny jokes to everyone on your Email list. This incredibly simple protocol will make sure that your vital Email gets to every recipient listed! "Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds..."

-Zoey

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July 30, 2007

Being in Sales

Being in SLales (SL + Sales = SLales - we're so clever), I talk to around 200 people or so a day via email/tickets/telephone/chat/etc. I like to think of our SLales team as the "A" team in the industry. Going along with Jason's “we wear many hats”, we must have detailed knowledge of every single product and service that we offer -- networking capabilities, what program/software/application works with what hardware all the while fitting what each particular clients unique needs are into their budget.

A typical day for the SLales team involves getting to work and going straight for the Monster or coffee (or both) depending on your preference. Get to our cubes and login to our side of the customer portal, chat and check our email. This is when the fun begins. Immediately we are engaging people on chat, catching up our shared SLales and personal email inboxes, talking to clients or potential clients on the telephone, verifying orders, IMing with different divisions, putting through payments, credit card changes and grabbing tickets from existing clients looking to cut a deal for upgrading and/or adding servers and services – all at the same time. We take multitasking seriously here!

On top of all of that we have to make sure that customer billing is accurate when ordering these services depending on the deals we have available, which are always going to be inventory-based. Also, we are making sure that everything is working correctly on each customer's server and if not, coordinating a game-plan to make sure that the client is satisfied and running along smoothly, as quickly as possible.

At the end of the day we want all of our clients to be comfortable, happy, making money and enjoying themselves – because if you are, we are too!

-Michael

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