The Peelian Help Desk

22 March 2016
Categories: Uncategorized

I’ve worked in IT for more than twenty years. Along the way, I have worked in a lot of different realms: academia, government, finance, publishing, manufacturing. What’s strange is how each of these very different fields—any field, really—is pretty much the same from an IT standpoint: provide user and systems support, manage improvement projects, and enable data flow. It almost doesn’t matter what the data is, as long as it flows quickly and smoothly, and as long as the users can do their work, what the work itself consists of is immaterial.

Much has changed in those twenty-plus years, yet some things don’t, and primary among those is the fact that IT, in particular the help desk, is all about customer service. It’s also an unfortunate fact, and an even more unfortunate stereotype, that many of the people who find themselves in IT due to their technical skills lack some of the all-too-essential people skills to maximize their potential in that role. I have therefore long striven to improve my own abilities in that respect, and have likewise tried to improve the people skills of the IT teams I have led.

At one point in my career I supported the law enforcement community, which was an interesting and eye-opening job—I could tell some stories. But one thing I came across during that gig has stayed with me more than anything else: Sir Robert Peel and his nine principles of community policing.

Sir Robert Peel

Sir Robert Peel, 2nd Baronet, FRS

Sir Robert established London’s Metropolitan Police Force—hence the nickname for London cops, “bobbies”—and in the process created the concept of modern policing. The Peelian Principles are still essential to law enforcement today, more than 180 years later. (One can find the Peelian Principles in their original form many places online, such as here.)

Now, IT support techs are not cops, even those techs who act like they wish they could be issued a gun and badge. That said, IT support is much like law enforcement, in that both are essentially public service roles that strive to minimize the troubles of the community. Therefore I believe that the Peelian principles apply as well to the IT help desk as they do to a police force.

We can take the nine principles and in each case replace “police” with “help desk,” “public” with “users,” and “the law” with “good computing practices.” Replace “crime and disorder” with… well, with all the disorderliness of IT: bugs, errors, downtime, crashes, and yes, even user error. Lo and behold, at least on a conceptual if not strictly literal level, Peel’s principles suit IT very well.

Here they are, rephrased for IT:

  • The basic mission for which the IT help desk exists is to prevent computer problems.
  • The ability of the help desk to perform their duties is dependent upon user approval of IT actions.
  • The help desk must secure the willing co-operation of the users in voluntary observance of good computing practices to be able to secure and maintain the respect of the users.
  • The degree of co-operation of the users that can be secured diminishes proportionately to the necessity of the use of physical force. [Think of “physical force” as the more drastic (if not Draconian) methods of IT, such as user account lock-out, restrictive computing policies, and unscheduled shutdowns.]
  • The help desk seeks and preserves user favour not by catering to user opinion but by constantly demonstrating absolute impartial service to good computing practices.
  • The help desk uses physical force to the extent necessary to secure observance of good computing practices or to restore order only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient.
  • The help desk, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the users that gives reality to the historic tradition that the help desk are the users and the users are the help desk; the help desk being only members of the users who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every user in the interests of community welfare and existence.
  • IT help desk should always direct their action strictly towards their functions and never appear to usurp the powers of upper management and corporate policy.
  • The test of IT help desk efficiency is the absence of IT issues, not the visible evidence of help desk action in dealing with them.

I particularly like that last one. What it says to me is this: help desk efficiency is not about how many trouble tickets you can clear, nor how quickly. Efficiency is the result of actively working to improve the computing environment, not only with better and more reliable systems but also with user education and involvement: training, documentation, and open communication are all essential.

In fact, open communication may be the most important element of all. I often reiterate to my teams: communicate it first, fix it second. When something is broken, five minutes of radio silence from the help desk can seem like a catastrophe, but one well-timed and well-written email to the users, explaining that the help desk is aware of the issue and working on it, can buy untold amounts of leeway to work the issue and come up with a solution.


Laura: Out of a Misty Dream

27 September 2014
Categories: Film buff

Watching Laura on TCM tonight… I’ll try to avoid spoilers, but… in the middle of the film, just before the big twist in the plot, Lieutenant McPherson (Dana Andrews) is in Laura’s apartment late at night, going through her personal items in what he wants to pretend is a search for clues to her murder, but really is an attempt to know more about the dead woman with whom he’s falling in love. He pours a glass of Pinch Scotch and sits in the armchair beneath her luminous, magnetic portrait. Soon, he falls asleep.

McPhersonAt this moment, director Otto Preminger trucks in on a close-up of the bottle and Andrews’ sleeping face, pauses there for just one beat, then trucks out again to show Andrews, unmoved—though by now the glass has vanished from his hand. (Presumably, he has dropped it… or has he?)

He wakes up, and… well, you know… spoilers.

But here’s the thing: in cinematic shorthand, that kind of camera move, so obviously showing the director’s hand when no other shot in the film is quite so arch, opening out to a scene where everything is exactly the same except for a few minor, almost imperceptible details, could be used to indicate the passage of time—or it could be used to connote the start of a dream sequence.

What I’m saying is—and this is something left unmentioned in TCM’s “Essentials” discussion of the film—maybe everything that happens after Lieutenant McPherson falls asleep in Laura’s apartment is a dream. Certainly the film ends (bit of a spoiler) with what I’d say is McPherson’s version of a happy ending.

Maybe it’s all in his head?

“Get some sleep. Forget the whole thing like a bad dream.” –Mark McPherson to Laura Hunt

“They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for while, then closes
Within a dream.” –Waldo Lydecker, quoting Ernest Dowson

Well, sure enough. According to at least one source, the original script called for it to all have been a dream. And of course, that’s part of what elevates this film above its B-movie-noir source material. To flatly state “it’s all a dream” would be crude and obvious. To leave all those clues in—the many references to dreams, that dolly shot—and then never even mention that it might be a dream: brilliant.

How to Ruin a Perfectly Good Ballpark, in Six Easy Steps

14 June 2013
Categories: Chicago, Sports

Stop me if you’ve heard this one…

Step 1: Acquire a professional sports team that plays in an aging but hallowed and much-beloved stadium.

Step 2: Declare the team incapable of financial solvency if it doesn’t receive a new stadium.

Step 3: Threaten to move the team out of town if it doesn’t get everything it wants.

Step 4: Hire a top-dollar design firm to create a stadium plan that pays lip service to “tradition” and “history” but satisfies neither.

Step 5: Demand millions of dollars in public funding to build the new stadium.

Step 6: Overhaul—or raze—the old stadium, replacing it with something that is both an architectural monstrosity and a soulless fan experience.

Am I joking? Let’s see…

Comiskey Park, built in 1910 for the Chicago White Sox. A classic of the early modern era albeit with its share of obstructed views. Itasca and Addison, Illinois are among the threatened move-to cities. The replacement, U.S. Cellular Field, is built at a cost of $167 million by the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, a government agency. For supposedly historical reasons, the new stadium puts home plate nearest 35th Street—since that’s where it was in Comiskey, which stood a block to the north. As a result, the view toward the outfield faces some of the city’s most notorious housing projects (now razed and vacant lots) instead of the spectacular skyline to the north. A dozen follow-up renovations in as many years can never fix that.

Soldier Field, originally built as a memorial to fallen American servicemen following World War I, and home of the Chicago Bears since 1971. After a proposal for a domed replacement tanks, Hoffman Estates and Aurora are floated as options. The Chicago Park District, which owns the stadium, pays about 62% of a $660 million renovation. The resulting transformation retains the original colonnades but dwarfs them beneath an enormous and incongruous silver alien-spaceship-looking structure. Meanwhile inside, the stadium *loses* 5,000 seats, so that after a two-thirds-billion-dollar reno it is the smallest in the NFL.

Of course, there’s always an exception to the rule… that being Chicago Stadium, home of the Blackhawks since its opening in 1929, and the Bulls since 1967. A grand old edifice and site of many historic events—but really not much more than a glorified barn. You know, the kind of place hockey is meant to be played in. Owners Reinsdorf (Bulls) and Wirtz (Blackhawks), neither one a saint, nevertheless do not (so far as I have found) threaten to pull out of town. They build the United Center without using public funds, getting only various tax breaks in return. I say “only” because the estimated $5 million per year in property tax savings seems a pittance compared to… say, Soldier Field’s cost to the rest of us taxpayers. And the UC is not a bad arena, though it’s much, much better for sports than it is for concerts.

So be prepared for the worst, Cubs fans. Because the Ricketts have already completed steps 1 through 5 like clockwork, as if they have read the Gimme a New Stadium Handbook cover to cover. Step 6 is inevitable. And as much as they want to pretend that their Wrigley Field overhaul will be sympathetic to the landmark structure, that it’s a “restoration” to some supposed (but unprecedented) historic ideal, that it’s all for our benefit, nothing about a massive Jumbotron is meant to improve the fan experience—it is purely for profit.

This for a team that is “incapable of financial solvency” (my words, but strongly implied by numerous public statements by the owners), despite having the highest operating income—and fourth highest revenue—in Major League Baseball.

The Trib’s Cheryl Kent wrote a well-reasoned overview of the Wrigley Field plan from an architectural and urban-planning standpoint, revealing that despite including several good improvements it suffers from a severe lack of authenticity and a shortsightedness that runs counter to any claims by the owners of being “in it for the long run.”


Canning the “smart cans” for a while (if not longer)

10 April 2012
Categories: Chicago

Vanishing actEarlier this week, the trash can disappeared from the street corner near my office. The only sign of its prior existence: two quartets of severed bolts protruding from the darkened pavement, their shiny tops a bright testament to their recent rendezvous with a reciprocating saw.

Chicago Tribune article explains the disappearance: it was a BigBelly “smart can,” and it was deemed a potential hazard to next month’s NATO summit.

This raised all sorts of questions for me.

Are the BigBelly cans a good idea?

Yes, I think so. They’re solar-powered, so they require no infrastructure to install: just plant and go. Their internal compactors mean that they have much greater capacity than ordinary cans, and their output will take up less space in a landfill, which is a huge issue for the city these days. Also, according to the Trib, they send an email when they get full, a system that appears to result in quick response—in addition to its labor-saving benefit to workers that only have to empty cans that need emptying. Fuel savings and reduced air pollution are other positive factors. This is a technology that works.

How much of that labor-saving benefit is now being negated by having to remove the BigBelly cans, and later re-install them?

A lot, I’ll bet. Most of it, maybe—the cans were only installed a year ago. And yes, the work is being done by city workers so we’re all paying for it. Meanwhile who knows when, if ever, the smart cans—which cost nearly $4,000 each, part of a $2.5 million deal—will return to Chicago’s downtown streets. (“When the city’s public safety departments have deemed it appropriate to do so,” says the Streets&San spokesperson. Uh-huh.)

But isn’t the city right in thinking them less easy to check “for anything dangerous”?

Are we safe yet?Well, yes, I suppose so. With their drop-box hatches it’s not all that easy to view the contents of BigBelly cans. But aside from that, they’re not all that much more opaque than old-fashioned wire baskets, as the photo at right shows—the wire baskets house solid plastic inserts. Let’s be realistic: it is, unfortunately, not that difficult to make an effective, er, “dangerous anything” that can be readily camouflaged as innocuous-looking garbage, such that any wire basket more than half-filled with trash will conceal it from all but the most thorough checks (i.e., dumping everything out and sorting through it).

So, if it’s not likely to make much of a safety difference, why do it?

Here’s the rub: if something hidden in a wire basket goes bang and hurts people, the word is that it was hidden “in a trash container.” If it goes bang in a BigBelly can, that brand name is splashed all over every headline—right above a big colour photo of mayhem and destruction. In short, this is all a matter of pre-emptive face-saving on the part of the city, which has an option to buy many more BigBelly cans in the future.

I don’t blame the city for doing this; I really think it’s in our best interest, although I’m still a little disappointed to see these neat pieces of smart tech vanish from the streets. But let’s not pretend it’s going to make anyone any safer. It’s no substitute for what’s really needed, which is for every member of the public to take personal responsibility for public safety: to maintain awareness, to report suspicious activity, to “see something, say something.”

And finally, the big question few in this town ever seem to see fit to ask…

Which of former Mayor Daley’s friends and/or family made a buck off the BigBelly deal?

Come on, you know that’s what makes this “The City That Works.”

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, et al, by John le Carré

20 March 2012
Categories: From the armchair

I have of late become totally obsessed with the spy novels of John le Carré.

I started with his classic The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, a paragon of the genre, then went straight into Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy—wanting to finish it before checking out the latest film adaptation starring Gary Oldman. That book was so riveting that I don’t think I’ll be able to stop at least until I finish the entire “Karla Trilogy,” and as such I am now well into The Honourable Schoolboy and have Smiley’s People waiting in the wings.

The thing that so fascinates me about these books—aside from the mere fact of their high literary quality—is this: I think we’ve all gotten used to the notion that a “spy thriller” is what we get from James Bond or Jason Bourne or Jack Ryan. To wit, a contiguous sequence of action set-pieces; squealing tires and machine gun staccato and elaborate fisticuffs and a massive explosion at the end. But le Carré uses almost none of these tropes. The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is bookended with brief moments of violence, but that’s it for “action” as we’ve come to expect.

His actors aren’t supermen, nor indestructible forces of nature; they’re real people, human, fallible, prone to doubts and fears and errors. The stakes are high, so they tread carefully—and when a colleague dies, they feel the loss deeply. They don’t steel their jaws and move on in vengeful stoicism; they cry.

What happens in these novels is, for the most part, people sitting in rooms talking. Or walking together and talking. Or just… thinking about things. Much of the action takes place off-stage, while we learn of it through someone (usually George Smiley) sitting at a desk and reading the pages of an agent dossier or case report.

And yet—it’s all so gripping. There’s tension on every page, and the build-up to the climax (albeit often a quiet, sitting-in-rooms-talking kind of climax) keeps the pages turning. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is almost a mystery novel, rather than a spy novel, as Smiley gathers the clues that allow him to expose the mole within the Circus. As a protagonist, he’s closer to Jane Marple than James Bond. When, toward the end of the novel, he carries a gun, it’s almost shocking. You don’t want him to have to be so uncouth as to have to arm himself, let alone squeeze the trigger. But you root for him all the way nevertheless.

On top of that, there’s the fact that the author himself worked for the British intelligence services for many years. The sense of reality contained in his tales is so deep that I have to remind myself that these books are not historical non-fiction; that George Smiley didn’t really exist; that MI6 was not infiltrated by Soviet moles in the 1970s and very nearly brought to its knees (at least, so far as we know).

And it’s clear to me that the real world of spycraft is much more like the world of le Carré and George Smiley, all research and information-gathering and thinking, than it is like James Bond or Jason Bourne. And that makes these novels all the more interesting and exciting.