Thursday, February 28, 2008

Management understanding staff concerns

Joel Spolsky, a childhood friend of mine, writes a rather well read blog. ("Well read" in the same way that, say Bill Gates is moderately well off.) He's recently started a column in Inc magazine; his March column of how executive management can become detached from their staff reminded me of one of the best managers I've ever encountered.

Like Joel in his Army days, I was working on grueling project (although no live fire ammunition!) at a site in Florida, preparing to give a major demo to a government customer. Everyone had been working around the clock for weeks, and was tired. One of the VPs showed up one day, for what we expected would be a "pep talk" similar to the general's talk in Joel's story. But it was the opposite - she didn't ask what she could do to help technically, because that wasn't her skill. Instead, she went out to get food for everyone and offered to do laundry (which no one accepted, of course).

I've wondered since then whether such an approach would have worked with a male VP, but regardless of that, it struck me that she understood the role of management is to enable the workers to get their job done effectively and efficiently. The president of Ford or AT&T doesn't do anything that serves the customers, but the people on the manufacturing line or sales floor do. So the best thing the president can do is bring lunch to the person who's sweating to make that deadline.

I've tried to incorporate that lesson into my management philosophy, sometimes succesefully. My goal as a manager is to do whatever is needed to make my team successful - whether that's bringing them lunch, getting the equipment they need, or running interference with whatever part of the organization is in their way. These are the things that all managers do to some extent - but I try to remember that they're the main reason for my being there.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Teaching users to be phishing victims

I received the following (genuine) message from PNC Bank today (somewhat edited for length):

At the end of the PNC Save and Win Sweepstakes, [...]

If you don't have a PNC Statement Savings Account, open one today online, or by visiting any PNC branch or by calling 1-800-762-5684.

[...] Emails from PNC are intended to inform you of our offers, promotions and updates. PNC will never ask you for confidential account information to be sent by unsecured email or provide a link in an email to a sign on page that requires you to enter personal information. If you need to communicate sensitive customer information to PNC, you should go to, sign on to Online Banking, and communicate with us via the secured messaging center.
This email message may contain an advertisement or solicitation. If you no longer wish to receive such messages from PNC, click below to Unsubscribe.

Review the PNC Bank Web Privacy Policy by clicking the link below.

The text in red is an attempt to combat phishing a bit, but generally this is a terrible idea. Other than spelling errors, it has all of the usual characteristics of a phishing attack.

As for their "no part of this publication" notice, tough luck, PNC - don't send phishing messages!

Friday, February 22, 2008

Pew report on the status of paper in voting systems

Interesting new report titled "Back to Paper: A Case Study" was released by Pew on the history and current state of paper ballots for elections, focusing on Florida, California, Ohio, and Colorado. It's reasonably well balanced, although there are definitely things I disagree with.

One of the really awful things about the report, though, is this horrendous picture found on page 17. I'm no User Interface specialist, but a map with three shades of blue (and relatively similar shades at that) seems more designed to confuse than enlighten.

Friday, February 15, 2008

The people be damned

I spent this morning at the meeting of the Virginia House Subcommittee on Privileges and Elections, mainly to urge passage of several bills I've been working on this year (SB 35 which makes recounts slightly meaningful, SB 292 which in its watered-down state allows some pilot audit programs, and SB 536 which strengthens the requirements for voting machine certification).

But the most contentious bill was SB 38, which calls for creating a bi-partisan commission to do the redistricting after the 2010 elections. The room was packed, with people standing in the hall outside, despite the fact that the meeting started at 7am and was not well publicized. I was encouraged by the vocal support of many different groups who frequently differ, including the League of Women Voters, AARP, Virginia 21, the Libertarian Party, the Richmond Chamber of Commerce, and the Virginia Redistricting Coalition (a non-partisan group of political and business leaders). As has been pointed out, virtually all Virginia political leaders of both the Democratic and Republican parties from the past 20 years have come out in favor of this bill, including Governor Kaine and former governors Mark Warner, Allen, Wilder, and Baliles; US Senators Allen, John Warner, and Webb; and many others. In fact, there was only one person in the room who had anything negative to say about the bill: Delegate Chris Jones.

Unfortunately, Delegate Jones is the only one whose vote actually counted, and the bill was killed on a party line vote, without going to the floor of the house.

Washington Post coverage doesn't begin to capture the frustration in the room and in the halls afterwards.

Delegate Jones should be ashamed of himself for disgracing the people of Virginia.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Really bad error message

Security people sometimes wonder why users have such a hard time using their systems securely. This summary from an installation of a Nortel VPN product typifies for me the problem - what is a non-crypto expert supposed to do with this information???

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

United really doesn't want to hear from you

Not related to security or voting, but a rant about poor customer service today.

Yesterday, United Airlines announced a change to their baggage check policy - for mere mortals, it will now cost $25 to check more than one bag. Now I don't do that very often - and it's their right to make changes - but it's a bad policy anyway. It'll just encourage people to carry on even more and larger suitcases and try to stuff them into the too-small overhead bins.

So I decided to give United my opinion. Went to their customer service page, and clicked on "Submit a Question". It says " ERROR: Could not create process" which seems appropriate - United is unable to create any sort of process that involves listening to customers or thinking through the results of decisions.

I guess when my kids go back and forth to college (which frequently involves multiple suitcases), they'll cross United off their lists.