My Intro to Management – a Bucket, a Mop and an Illustrated Book About Birds

This was supposed to be my first post back from my hiatus, but I had two on scale that came first. Here is the post as it was written. It seems fitting to post this today. It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything. I’ve been writing a lot, but the tone of many of the posts just wasn’t where I wanted it. My professional life has changed quite dramatically from the last post. I am now a member of the Leadership team! I help drive the Primary Storage number for the Americas. I’ve learned a lot over the past few months. I’m going to try to stick to the top three.

The TL:DR:
1. Always take the help with the bucket (and help others with theirs too!)
2. The mess you expect is rarely the one you get. Keep your mop handy.
3. The vision you paint needs quite a bit of maintenance. What started as a drawing of a single could very well evolve into an illustrated book about birds.

Always take the help with the bucket (and help others too!)

I spent quite a bit of time in November writing up a business plan and talking to the bulk of my stakeholders about it. I took their input, made a few modifications and had a rock solid plan entering January by the time I found out that I had the job. A week later, massive amounts of change came rolling in. The plan was solid enough to roll through the changes, but it was clear that it needed some adjustments to account for the new teams that needed our help, new products and other roll outs. I had a bucket full of things to do and more and more things kept flying in and forcing other items out of the bucket.
I started talking to people about my plans. Those who were in offered to help. Scott Delandy jumped down the rabbit hole with me on this idea and put in a lot of effort to make it successful. He and I made a video explaining the appliance modeling for the VMAX All Flash with beer! (See previous post.) Lauren Malhoit got me out there on the In Tech We Trust podcast to talk about my role, changes taking place in the industry and other things. The next step there will be an interesting one! I’ve been on the road every week since taking the job except for one, When on that kind of travel sprint, it’s really hard to get all of the extra administrative stuff done, coordinate schedules and keep up with everything that is going on. By hard, I mean impossible to do alone. I’m fortunate to have a team that can divide and conquer, but also to have people in the field that have enough faith in me already to call when they see something that needs attention. I recently caught a dinner with a few other EMC Leaders in Boston. I sat with a few of them and two pulled me aside to give me some encouragement. That whole conversation brightened my spirits for days afterwards. Sometimes all it takes is finding a way to show that someone notices what they are doing and that it matters to make their outlook much brighter. That started a chain of me going out and finding people who were in the same boat: helping, under time pressure and working as hard as they can. Then all it really takes is showing them that I notice. It’s made a huge difference in morale and outlook for the team. I highly recommend taking a step back from a stressful situation and finding those key people that have been putting in the extra work and showing them some appreciation. So many people grind these things out in an atmosphere that feels thankless; a change in tone or a thank you can take you a long way. I am working to get my team to do the same.

The mess you expect is rarely the one you get. Keep your mop handy.

A week into the job the biggest problem I thought I would have in moving the needle and driving results with my team was solved for me. I picked up a new problem: How to help an entirely new set of people, most of which were new to the platforms we support. This is not a bad problem to have to solve at all. More help is always welcome! That said, any time such a shift in priorities happens, a lot of questions come out of the change. Most of my time has been spent talking to people about the importance of this change and how it will be better for us and for our customers. One off my favorite mentors once pulled out a hierarchy of human needs and shared it with me.
A lot can be learned about how to help someone based on what stage they are at in the hierarchy. This is where the mop comes in. A lot of my work these last two months has been in apologies, genuine assurances and thank yous. It’s about learning how people want to be treated and interacted with: where they find value in their role, what they want to do next and how they prefer to interface with others. This is one of the most messy but also the most rewarding parts of what I do. I come in every day trying to puzzle out how to bring the individuals and the teams closer together… connecting people, discovering what works and what doesn’t.

The vision you paint needs quite a bit of maintenance. What started as a drawing of a bird could very well evolve into an illustrated book about birds

Maybe a Bob Ross reference would have been better, there is always room for more happy trees, but that would have totally killed the Meat Puppets/Nirvana reference. Ideas evolve and change. The simplest concept can grow into a big production, or die on the vine. With the amount of work to do, the best way to do it is to talk to people. Find those people with similar interests and make a suggestion. Once that happens, see where it leads -everyone will have their own spin. The ideas will change and that’s ok. I would love to be the person who just goes out and executes on these things, I had fun doing that stuff. The problem is scale. I can’t drive what’s needed if I do it all. That means some ideas will fail, but it also means that others will succeed in ways I haven’t considered. For the failures, there’s always a chance to try again. I’ve spent a fair bit of time in the past month worrying about getting it all done. More and more, I’m embracing the power of asking for help and letting the team conquer some of the obstacles. Asking for help and sharing the vision/village have been key to starting to scale. Am I ready to declare victory? Not even close, but I am learning.

“Who needs actions when you’ve got words” has a bad rap. Words are powerful things. They can be a catalyst for action, or inaction. They can change someone’s outlook on their job (and maybe their life) or solidify someone’s choice in not helping you. The actions behind the words are still very important, but without the right words the actions don’t get us very far on their own. All three of my points could be summarized into one: Communication. The problem with simplifying at that level is that plenty of people communicate, but that alone isn’t enough. I have a million unread emails in my inbox to prove it. The how is very important: attitude makes a huge difference. Be excellent to each other (and no that doesn’t mean you have to be a pushover) -just try it and see what happens.

A special thanks to Ana Vasquez, Mary Stanton, Lauren Malhoit, The In Tech We Trust Podcast Crew and those in my village that always seem to answer the call to help.

Scaling up and Out – Scott and Melissa’s Excellent Adventure

About 6 weeks ago, we were running through internal deep dives of the VMAX All Flash in preparation for launch. I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if we took this great content and explained it simply so that people would understand the architecture and packaging? Here is the resulting video:

What I love about VMAX All Flash is that it brings our customers performance at scale without sacrificing data services. What other product out there can bring our customers the reliability AND the massive scale they need at a consistent level of performance? Add in the ability to do metro distance active-active clustering in 4 clicks… The future is here kids -and it is beautiful!

I shared the original concept for this idea with my partner in crime, Scott Delandy, who wrote the script for this with me over Twitter DM and went above and beyond to ensure it was successful. Thank you to Scott for jumping in with me on this and activating the team of people that made this video possible. You are awesome! Thanks also to the EMC social media team, Jennifer Rivet, Jessica Kline, Francesca Melchiorri, Adam Temple and Joe Fleischmann for your help in making this video possible.

Enjoy the video. I am excited do more of these videos with Scott. I hope he’s in! As always, feedback is welcome.

Scale, Clouds and Where Things Go Terribly Wrong – a View from the Silicon Forest

Scale is a very important topic. I speak to our customers a lot about scale and the problems that come from doing epic things. I specialize in primary storage and replication, but the solutions I touch involve business-critical and cloud native applications that touch every part of the data center, wherever it lives. I have seen customers build wildly successful clouds from the ground up. I have seen others fail at scaling a single application or process. This is a summation of a few lessons learned over time from watching those successes and failures. It is how I advise my customers on solutions. Their behaviors in these categories drive the solutions I position with them.

The TL:DR:
1. Start with standardization and stick with it
2. Anything worth doing once is worth teaching someone/something else to do it.
3. The answer to the “what problems do you anticipate with this solution?” question is always scale.

Start with standardization and stick with it.

I’ve been on the ground in the Silicon Forest for a while now. I’ve lived and worked here for over a decade. I’ve supported just about every major company in the region in some capacity. There’s incredible value in meeting with all of these IT shops and seeing what they do and how. If you pay attention, there’s a lot to be learned in how people do things and how they don’t. Two of the most successful IT shops I have worked with had the same thing in common: standards for their hardware and software. Every major escalation I’ve worked has a commonality too: snowflakes. Holding on to that one special app from 1983 that runs on an OS that hasn’t been supported for a decade? I don’t care what it does for you, kill it. Kill it with fire. Kill it before it kills your business and my holiday weekend. PLEASE!
Ok, that was an extreme example. I’ve seen many minor settings, small software version discrepancies and other minor “special” tweaks on hosts cause huge performance issues, production outages that cost millions, data corruption and lost jobs. So what does good look like? In short, it looks just like converged infrastructure. If that isn’t an investment you want to make, you build it by choosing one or two hardware skews for server builds, extending the same model to Operating Systems and other data center components. Once you have that established, work with vendors at each layer to come up with a testing plan for all software and firmware upgrades. Put that stuff in a lab. Test. Verify. Go. The fewer variables you have in your data center, the easier it will be to get to that low time to resolution when an issue pops up. The goal is to provide consistent, reliable infrastructure and cut it like cookies. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. Being rigorous in enforcing standards will buy time for your IT shop to be flexible in driving the results your business needs. This is how two successful cloud companies started their journey, but even if you aren’t building a giant cloud, there is tremendous value in standardization. If you make exceptions, you are wasting time, money, energy and morale.

Anything worth doing once is worth the time spent teaching someone/something else to do it

This is a life philosophy for me. Any technical task done in the data center eventually gets repeated. (Except maybe accidentally hitting the power switch on your UPS when booting your laptop, but that’s a story for another time.)
I don’t like repetitive tasks. I like to do cool new things, learn and have fun. I’ve had coworkers and seen admins that like to keep their work a secret and do it manually thinking that they are somehow protecting their jobs. We are knowledge workers. We should be spending our time advancing our knowledge to ensure our value. Time spent on repetitive tasks or alone in our work is time we are squandering our value to our employers and our community. The worst I have seen in this scenario is a company who had to rebuild thousands of virtual machines without a single template/image/script. This hurts the standards plan too because no human can repeat a process like that flawlessly that many times. Steps get missed. Here’s what an A+ looks like: bundled automated OS load, scripted software installs based on server role, configuration of cluster via a one-to-many terminal setup, configuration management with naming conventions and processes so well documented (and easily accessible) that any member of the team could pick it up and run with it. Do you need all of this to be successful? No, but it sure doesn’t hurt. For my work, I document everything I do as I do it. This is critical to what I do because I support so many customers and have 9 years of solutions out there -remembering what I did yesterday can be a challenge. I also try to start with scripting my process. I take each command I run and put it in a simple batch script and/or a macro in a spreadsheet. The first pass is manual. Get the process, document and build a repeatable script. On the second pass, I use the base script with some waits and add some intelligence. If someone is shadowing me, I make them run the keyboard and tell them what to do/explain while I document. There are usually a ton of screenshots and hacks listed. I haven’t posted many of these because they were customer-specific, but I plan to convert them into something more generic and put them on github. I’ve never been the person to enjoy giving up my personal time. I’ve never been all that interested in doing the same thing all of my life. I try to share what I know, sometimes it has to be pulled out of me, but that has more to do with all of the things happening in my head than a willingness to share. I feel that the more people know how to do what I do, the more free I am to do whatever excites me next. Automation and knowledge sharing are key to my ability to move and learn more. these are all things you need if you move to the cloud as well. After all:

The answer to the “what problems do you anticipate with this solution?” question is always scale.

II try not to use words like always, but scale is such a big and nebulous thing it’s an easy answer to this question. I try to anticipate and plan for any bottlenecks up front, but the obvious issues are rarely the ones that pop up if you are any good at building a solution. Lab testing just doesn’t happen in life size, and even if it did there are many ways that scale can break a solution. I’ve seen several OpenStack efforts fail due to a lack of resources. As technologists we often underestimate the amount of time we need to spend on care and feeding for a given endeavor. Human scale is vitally important -all the more reason to standardize and automate to eliminate unnecessary work. For a given piece of hardware, there are limits to how high it can scale and limitations on making that choice. Sure, you can build a giant server to handle an app, but eventually that app can surpass the resources of a single server. Scaling up is great until you hit the ceiling and are stuck with an app that chokes on the bottleneck. So then what do we do? We scale out and throw more servers at the problem. Scaling out works for a while, but we almost always outgrow that too. Before the app outgrows the technology, we often find other issues with scale: Fix the component that was once the issue, find a new one. I asked a guy in our IT department about lessons learned from our HANA deployment a few years ago. He said that deploying an in-memory database was a great way to fully expose bad database queries. After years of storage performance reviews and escalations, his answer felt like justice. I wanted to record it and broadcast it outside the offices of all of my customers like John Cusack:
Storage admins, I’m still with you! Scale is the reason we have jobs. It’s what makes my job fun and frustrating. It enables me to revisit solutions every few years and solve the old problem in a brand new way. Every customer and project eventually has issues here. Those that handle the issues the best understand their workloads, standardize, automate and find ways to leverage technology such as non-disruptive migrations in order to account for growth and sudden changes in workload requirements. This is where we learn the most. This is why it is important to standardize and automate as much as possible from the beginning.

In closing, if you want to enjoy your life: standardize, share knowledge and automate. The use of converged infrastructure, public or private clouds can be an “easy button” for getting these things done, but it is possible to build a great environment without it. The issues always arise when operating at scale. Understanding your workload and leveraging advanced data services can help combat issues that arise at scale quickly -provided the proper groundwork has been done.