Monday, November 27, 2006

Even Royalty Is Getting In The Act!

Photo Credit: The Prince of Wales Official Web Site.

Ever since the 1930s, the British royal family used new technology to communicate with the people. HRMs Edward VIII and George VI used the radio to broadcast their speeches. In 1954, HRM Elizabeth II allowed television crews to film and broadcast her coronation. In 2006, HRH Charles, The Prince of Wales, is also following the lead of his family by sharing information through blogging.

Prince Charles's Official Website:

Starting today, Prince Charles will be posting video blogs on his web site containing news and information about the royal family. His intent is to reach the youth with his messages by using a modern way of sharing information. According to royal watchers, Prince Charles wants to bypass the standard media (television and radio) and use the video blog for news releases about his family to make him appear more accessible to the people.

When I went to the web site, I couldn't find a direct link to the videos. However, I did a search on the web site and found this link:

Whether you are a royalist or a republican, I'm sure you will agree that this was a wise decision on the prince's part to use modern technology to communicate. This decision shows that his highness understands the Internet's growing role as a media outlet.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

What Inspired You to Study Technology?

I've been working in the industry for nearly 15 years in a variety of capacities (mostly software design and development), but I've been an adjunct instructor in Information Technology for nearly 6 years (I took a year off from teaching to complete my Master's Degree). As I worked with these students over time, I always wondered what inspired them to pursue a career in technology.

Let's be honest - while the end results of technology are exciting, such as the latest gaming consoles that are causing riots in the US or the slick robot that will help increase productivity, the "nuts and bolts" of technology is dry and boring. Don't believe me? Nearly all of the "techie shows" on TV focus on the end product, and of these shows, most of them focus on gaming. Rarely do they focus on the "behind the scenes" processes.

So if the nuts and bolts of technology is so flipping boring, then what inspires someone to go in this field? When I first started teaching, here was the breakdown of my "unofficial survey":

  • 1/2 of the students were inspired by the large paychecks that companies were paying to either prevent or fix year-2000 problems or to prevent their staff from going to the latest "dot-com" company.

  • 1/4 were inspired by the latest game creations, and many of these students were interested in developing the next big game.

  • 1/4 actually liked the field. These were the people that really enjoyed taking apart things and tinkering with them to make them better or make them suit their own needs.

Not all of the dot-com businesses failed during this time. Amazon is one of the biggest success stories of the dot-com boom. Technology had very little to do with the cause of the dot-com failures. The main reason why dot-coms failed is the people who were running the failed dot-coms were not "business people". They did not have a good, solid business model nor did they have a business plan. In addition, they did not spend their capital wisely. For more information, this article explains the reasons why the dot-coms failed.
However, when the bottom dropped out of the IT industry in about 2002 (beginning of a recession in the US, hot "dot-coms" were becoming "dot-bombs", trend of US companies to outsource IT work to countries charging 1/3 the labor costs), the number of students in IT dropped dramatically as well. When I taught a Java class in 2001, there were 18 students in the class (the college maximum), with 5 students on the waiting list. When I taught that same class in 2003, there were 6 students in the class. My "unofficial survey" results have changed dramatically:

  • 3/4 of the students were displaced IT workers who were looking to update their skill set in hopes of being more marketable.

  • 1/4 actually liked the field and were taking the classes for fun.

What fascinated me was even when the demand for IT workers dropped in 2002, why would these displaced workers continue with studying IT, and not change to a field that was a dead cert to land a job (like medicine and nursing)? Simple answer - they loved the work.

So what's so "cool" about IT? To be totally frank, IT was not my first choice. My first choice was medicine. I always liked the problem solving element of medicine where one has to think of the best answer - if Plan A is not feasible, then you need to find a Plan B. However, after my first biology class in my first year of college, I didn't have the constitution for this field. I did very well in the class, but the experiments that we had to do really didn't sit well with me. As a hobby, I played with computers. My computer teacher, Dr. Flowers, suggested that I go in computers. A lot of the elements that I did like in medicine were in computers, and I didn't have to go to school for a very long time. So I gave it a try. I really liked it, and I'm still in the field today. At this stage, I'm redefining my role in the IT industry where I'm trying to do more business-related and research work, but I still like writing a program that does something cool.

I'm interested in hearing about what inspired you. Post a comment and let me know.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

An Open Letter to People Who Use Free Tutorial Sites

There are a number of "free" tutorial sites on the web. I put the word "free" in quotation marks because developing and operating a site is not free. It costs money (and hours of time) to create, host, and maintain a web site.

While I can't fault anyone who offers their tutorials for a price, I admire people who put up their tutorials for free. I, personally, know the cost and the hours it takes to run a tutorial site. I also know the satisfaction one feels when many students use and appreciate the information - after all, it's one less thing for them to have to purchase toward their education. However, my pet hate is when users who are able to provide support to the site fails to do so. These users don't give donations, visit advertisers, or purchase products and services offered by the site.

The main reason why people don't provide any support for the site is many of them think that "someone else will do it". Unfortunately, if the operator of the site notices that the return on investment for offering the content for free is low (because no one is donating, visiting advertisers, or purchasing products and services), the operator either changes to a different business model by charging for all the material through subscription services or the operator takes down the site because the operator doesn't have the funds to maintain the site. The amusing thing about that situation is the users who didn't do anything to support the site are the first to complain because the site is now pay-per-service or the site no longer exists.

Please don't get me wrong - I understand that most people don't have a lot of disposable income. However, I know that most people do have some disposable income. It seems that the same people who use the excuse that they don't have $10USD to purchase a product that a site is offering are the same people who can instantly come up with $10USD to buy liquor or pot for the "next big bash".

I'm making a request - if a site has provided you with useful information, you should do something within your means to show your appreciation. Make a donation to the site. Visit the advertisers on the site. Purchase products and services from the site. If you really and truly are stone broke, volunteer your time and labor to help. Your visits to the site are nice, but it doesn't pay for the upkeep and for the labor involved in making the site.

Best regards,

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Java Goes Open Source

Open Source: A practice that promotes access to the end product's source materials, usually source code

For the past two years, there's been speculation on whether Sun Microsystems will make their programming language, Java, "open source". On Tuesday, the rumor has been confirmed. Sun Microsystems announced that by March 2007, the source code for their programming language, Java, will be available under the GNU General Public License (with the exception of a few modules that aren't owned by Sun - the modules were not named).

I applaud Sun's decision to go "open-source". By opening the source code to the community, this gives programmers the chance to fix bugs quickly and to contribute new ideas. This sense of community is what made Linux the contender that it is today.

In the 1990s, Sun was a major player in the IT industry. Since 2000, Sun has lost billions of dollars and, according to business analysts, is struggling to stay afloat.

While some may critique Sun's decision to go "open-source" because of Sun's current business condition, this may help them in the long run. While Sun is looking for programmers to be able to create software to support Sun's product line, I think that Sun can easily follow the Linux manufacturers' (SuSE/Novell, Red Hat) business model to be profitable by selling support packages.

Will the My Mwalimu site still offer Java programming tutorials? Absolutely. While the tutorials will not explain how to work with the source code that created the Java programming language, the tutorials will demonstrate how to use the Java programming language to develop applications.

I'm very interested to see how this decision unfolds. Personally, I think it's a wise decision, and I think that more software manufacturers and applications developers will choose Java as their language of choice because the "open source" nature of the product will give them more flexibility on what they can develop.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Buy this's legit...honest!

It seems that there's been a rash of spam arriving in many users' e-mail accounts promising riches if the person buys their penny stock.

What's interesting is many of the e-mails appear to be able to bypass spam-blocker software, because they are arriving in my regular inbox instead of my "junk mail" inbox. From what I've seen in some of the e-mails that I've received, they are using strange word combinations in the subjects (like "sociology adjudication") and they are putting in a lot of "gibberish words" (it usually looks like a snippet from a short story) in the body of the message so it can bypass the spam-blocker software. In some cases, they are making the e-mail look like a genuine stock news feed.

From a non-technical perspective, I wonder if there are people who really buy what these messages are selling. If they wouldn't buy a "designer" scarf from a street vendor who claims that it's a genuine Hermes, why would they buy stock from a stranger who sends you an e-mail claiming that the stock is a "sure thing"? Usually, these "penny stock" spams are pump and dump schemes (Read this article from the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) if you want to know what pump and dump is).

If you are an IT professional (ex: network administrator) who is receiving questions from your user base about these messages, here is some advice to give to your base:

  • Tell them to let you know about the spam, and after they let you know about it, tell them to delete it.

  • Warn your user base on purchasing stocks from these solicitations.

  • If you receive the e-mails on your home e-mail address:

    • Report the e-mail as spam to the manufacturer of your spam-blocking software and your ISP.

    • If you are in the United States, you can report the e-mail to the SEC at

As the IT professional, you should report the e-mail as spam to the manufacturer of your spam-blocking software and your company's ISP. Time permitting, you can try to perform a trace on the e-mail to find out where the e-mail originated. However, many of these e-mails are using spoofed addresses or they have hijacked someone's e-mail address or mail sender to use to send the spams.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Beyond the Digithead: Why You Need Skills Other than I.T.

The students in my project management class inspired me to write this column. One student made some valid arguments on how some of the subjects that he had to learn in his degree program were a waste of his time because he could not see how he could apply the subjects to his career in information technology. Another student had a more colorful analogy when he was talking about his thoughts on learning about business principles. I don't want to give the exact analogy, but it has to do with a vice strategically placed on a body part. I explained to them that in order to be successful in your career, you need to know about more subjects other than I.T. Here is the explanation that I gave to my students:

I feel your pain. Believe me, when I was in school, it pained me to sit through my History of Religion class because I could not see the significance of it in relation to my career goals. To this day, I still don't see the significance, unless I've decided to work in a theological institute. There is a method to the school's madness, though.

The business climate may be changing (especially in I.T.), but business's goal remains the same - make a profit. For the sake of profitability, companies are going to choose their human resources carefully. Why should the company pay you a starting salary of $40,000 to do nothing but write programs when they can pay a more qualified, more educated individual in another country nearly 1/2 that salary to do nothing but write programs? Maybe you are a knowledgable network administrator with industry certifications, and you may think that you are virtually immune to outsourcing compared to your software programmer or technical support colleagues. So, network administrators, what can you offer the company other than "you know how networks work"? A company can outsource their network needs to a local, third-party company - a contractor is treated differently than an employee regarding taxes (to the business's advantage), and even if they pay a retainer fee, it's cheaper than hiring a human resource.

Companies view human resources as an investment because there is a lot of cost involved with hiring someone - salary, benefits, bonuses, and federal and state taxes. They want a high return on that investment. You need other skills besides I.T. to make yourself valuable to potential employers. An employer needs to know that they're not just getting a "code jockey" or "technician". An employer wants an employee that can do more, such as:

  • Write memos about I.T. issues in a way that everyone can understand.

  • Write documentation for Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) or Internation Organization for Standardization (ISO) compliance, and understand what SOX and ISO is.

  • Provide training and support to internal and external customers in a way that a layperson can understand.

  • Assist in the interview process

  • Assist with business decisions for a technology, such as: cost analysis, business justification for the expense, and impact on the current day-to-day business

  • Design the product (hardware or software) not just to "look cool", but to improve the business process

  • Assist with product sales and marketing

  • Understand the positive or negative impact on the company that a decision or decisions can cause

  • Understand a customer's culture

The non-technical classes give you the additional knowledge that you need to be competitive in the job market and to be a valuable investment to a company. It is not a requirement to like the courses, but it is a requirement for your career development to learn in those courses.

Tuesday, November 7, 2006

More on Election Day in the US

It's quite exciting to see what an impact that today's technology is having on the elections. Some points of note:

  • Nearly all national news outlets in the US are talking about the impact that technology is having this Election Day. In particular, they are focusing on the e-voting machines (see yesterday's article for an explanation on e-voting machines), since this is the first high-impact election where e-voting machines are being used more widespread across the country.
    When I voted this morning, my polling place was using one of these e-machines. To me, they were very easy to use. The concerns that I did have were:

    • Pennsylvania is one of the states in the US that doesn't have a "back up" system or paper trail in case something goes wrong. If one of the databases becomes corrupt, and there is no back-up system, those votes may get lost.

    • The way that the polling place arranged the machines, I was able to see for whom my neighbor was voting!

  • The use of technology sites and tools, such as Youtube, blogs, and instant messaging (IM), can make or break a candidate. For example:

    • IM and e-mail messages to a 17-year old male page caused the downfall of Rep. Mark Foley, who happened to lead a task force against child pornography.

    • Bloggers are exposing inaccuracies or missing information being reported in the US national news about politicians. In one instance, bloggers were able to prove that a story on the CBS news program 60 Minutes about President Bush's service record was a hoax, which caused veteran news anchor Dan Rather to step down one year before his retirement.

    • A video of Sen. George Allen's campaign rally when Sen. Allen made racist remarks was published on Youtube.

Sunday, November 5, 2006

Election Day in the US

Do you remember the US presidential election in 2000? If you do, you will remember that the US did not know who was going to be the next president for a few months. What was causing the hold-up? The problems that occurred with the paper ballots in Florida. The election was so close that the US had to wait for the results from Florida to determine who would be the next president. To help prevent this problem from happening again, electronic voting machines were introduced in the US in 2002, and their use is increasing.

Electronic voting ("e-voting") machines are not new. Other countries, such as Belgium, Australia, and the UK, have been using e-voting machines before 2002.

The use of E-voting machines have caused debate in the US. Supporters state that e-voting machines make the voting process easier and faster. Critics state that e-voting machines can be easily hacked. The example used by the critics is Princeton University's Professor Edward Felton's experiment to show that machine tampering could occur and how tampering can dramatically affect an election outcome.

Other problems reported with the voting machines include: miscounts, frozen machines, and missing memory cards. (Note: Diebold Incorporated, the largest manufacturer of e-voting machines, reports that these problems have been fixed).

The Technology Perspective
The IEEE wrote a white paper on a security analysis on e-voting machines. The paper highlights the security problems with e-voting machines, and it devises a solution to the security problems with e-voting machines. It is a recommmended read, especially for IT students who are specializing in system security. Please note that this white paper was written in 2004.

Source: Sisco, Paul. Electronic voting machines under scrutiny Voice of America. 3 November 2006. Retrieved from on 5 November 2006.