2019 year in review: my top 10 books

Even though it’s not quite the end of the year yet, I’m going to post my top 10 books for the year, selected from the 102 I’ve read so far. Closer to the end of the month, I’ll post the rest of the year’s list, but for now, here are a few that I thought especially worthy of mention, in no particular order.

  1. Star of the North: terrific spy thriller set mostly in North Korea based on a simple premise: what if you found out your twin sister didn’t die, but had instead been kidnapped by the North Korean government? Remarkable characterizations and a realistic portrayal of life inside the Hermit Kingdom. 
  2. Valley of Genius: a compilation of interviews and quotes from Silicon Valley luminaries, some of whom you may never have heard of, tell the story of how Silly Valley came to be what it is today. Features the usual suspects (Jobs, Woz, Stewart Brand), but also mentions many lesser-known people whose contributions, although important, never got the same kind of visibility. 
  3. Freedom’s Forge: do you know who Bill Knudsen was? How about Henry Kaiser? What if I told you that, if not for them, there’s a good chance the US would have lost World War II? True, and fascinating, story. (Along the way, it explains the “Permanente” part of Kaiser Permanente’s name). 
  4. Those Who Wish Me Dead: part mystery, part thriller, part wilderness exploration, the plot and characterization and dialogue here are among the best I’ve ever read. Koryta makes a forest fire into a believable, and fearsome, character as part of this tale of revenge and escape. It would make a terrific movie. 
  5. Chief Engineer: it seems remarkable, maybe even preposterous, to us now that a single man could be chiefly responsible for a huge public works project, but that’s exactly true of Washington Roebling, the titular engineer and the man who gave us (among other contributions) the Brooklyn Bridge. Masterful biography of the man and his wife Emily, whose role in Roebling’s bridge-building career has mostly been skipped over but deserves wider exposure. 
  6. Creative Selection: thoughtful meditation, with lots of amusing stories, about Apple’s design process at the start of the iPhone era by one of their lead iPhone engineers, the man whose epitaph will probably read “Autocorrect Was His Fault.” 
  7. How Bad Do You Want It? Absolutely fascinating survey of what we know about the links between mental resilience and toughness and elite sport performance. Fitzgerald does a masterful job of highlighting different areas of mental development that are applicable to everyday athletes, explaining why they matter, and discussing how to develop them. 
  8. Exploding the Phone: I grew up at the tail end of the “phone phreak” era, and I’d always thought I was pretty familiar with it, but I learned a ton from this well-researched and cleverly told history… including that AT&T used to tape millions of toll calls in a project named “Greenstar” and that John “Cap’n Crunch” Draper didn’t actually invent the technique for making free calls that came to be strongly associated with him. Great stuff if you’re interested in the history of technology at all. 
  9. A Few Seconds of Panic: Most grown men would know better than to try to make it as a walk-on player in the NFL, but not sportswriter Stefan Fatsis. I very quickly started rooting for him as he made his way through Denver Broncos training camp; he had a marvelous adventure and told its story clearly and well.
  10. The Path Between the Seas: speaking of “marvelous adventure,” how abut that Panama Canal? During the nearly 45 years of its construction, countless people died,and the political and commercial maneuvering incident to getting the Canal built left marks that we still see today in the US and Panamanian governments. I knew nothing about the engineering or politics behind this work, so this entire book was a terrific learning experience for me. 

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Office 365 Exposed, Episode 17: Live from Ignite 2019

Tony and I are back again, this time from steamy Orlando. Recorded in the Podcast Center at Microsoft Ignite 2019, this episode features special guests from Microsoft: Mark Kashman, grand poobah of SharePoint, and Ross Smith IV, mobility ninja. Listen in to hear about Project Cortex, Microsoft Endpoint Manager, and a few other goodies. 

 

Episode 17 from Microsoft Ignite 2019!

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Office 365 Exposed, Episode 16

It’s everyone’s favorite time of the year: Ignite Season!

See the source image

In this episode, Tony and I are joined by Anna Chu from Microsoft; she has some pretty interesting answers to the questions we asked her about Microsoft Ignite, including why there’s an increased focus on developers and what she thinks the biggest change from years past is. Along the way, we also talk about the spreading evil of self-service license purchases and make a few predictions about things you might see from the show floor at Ignite.

 

Office 365 Exposed, episode 16

Good news– we’ll be recording an episode from Ignite this year, so plan to tune in week after next for more Ignite-y goodness.

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Seeking to drive adoption, Microsoft fumbles customer service

Let’s subtitle this post “A tale of two tickets.”

The other day, I got a request from one of my staff: could we please start using Shifts for scheduling his team’s on-call rotations? “Sure,” I said, little realizing what a journey that would entail. To make a long and painful story as short as possible: Shifts didn’t work in our tenant, so I filed a ticket, which took six weeks and multiple escalations before it got to someone who actually realized the problem (it was a back-end provisioning issue) and fixed it.

Six weeks. Hold that thought.

Now, a digression.

It is no big secret that Microsoft is working very, very hard to increase adoption of their cloud services. At their recent Inspire partner conference,  there was a steady drumbeat of adoption-focused messaging directed, loudly, at Microsoft partners, and many Microsoft partner and sales personnel have found that their fiscal year (FY) 2020 compensation is directly tied to increasing adoption. For example, one person I spoke to told me that in FY 2020, the target they were expected to meet was to drive Teams adoption in their target market year-over-year (YoY) up by more than 250%.

Now, really: I get it. Microsoft is selling their “three clouds” (Dynamics 365, Office 365, and Microsoft 365) as hard as they can, but the old phenomenon of “channel stuffing” rears its head when customers buy licenses for those three clouds and don’t use them fully. If you buy a bunch of O365 Enterprise E3 licenses, for example, but only use Exchange Online, Microsoft is worried that you might a) buy less expensive licenses at renewal or b) defect to Gmail. They therefore have a really strong interest in not only selling licenses for these services but ensuring that people actually use what they’ve paid for.

Not only that, if customers don’t use the licenses they already have, it’s darn hard to upsell them more expensive or more capable licenses. This is a major brake on Microsoft 365 adoption: it’s hard to sell people a new SKU for Windows 10 and Office 365 when they already have O365 licenses on a multi-year agreement and perpetual Win10 licenses on their existing devices.

Side note: Azure is of course a Microsoft cloud, and it absolutely has its own, and rather daunting, adoption and consumption targets, but since almost all Azure services are priced based on actual usage, the play in Azure-land is to get people to use more rather than to get more use out of what they’ve already bought. Thus the intense focus on topics such as “digital transformation,” which translates to “getting stuff out of your on-premises data centers and into Azure” and the various Azure security offerings (which translate to “pay us per-minute to do cool security stuff on your Azure-hosted resources.”)

To recap: Microsoft wants customers to use all of the workloads in their O365 or M365 SKUs because doing so helps them keep customers around longer and sell them more stuff. In fairness, customers can benefit too by getting better value (defined as “more productivity” or “better security” or whatever) from their existing investment, but I think Microsoft is mostly interested in this because “customers can benefit” directly turns into “customers give us money.”

With that background, you’d probably think that Microsoft is always looking for new ways to increase user adoption… and you’d be right. That explains the mail I received this morning.

It looked like a support ticket, but I figured it must just be a decent phishing attempt. After all, I didn’t open a ticket, so the “Your request…” language was suspicious. Then I read it and damn near threw my coffee mug at the monitor.

Why?

Think about it. This is Microsoft sending me a “support ambassador” to try to convince me to use more of their services, i.e. to increase adoption, in a test tenant with only 1 paid license… something which only benefits Microsoft.

Meanwhile, users in my production tenant have to wait SIX WEEKS to get an actual problem fixed, one that directly affects their ability to work. Oh, by the way, fixing that problem would drive adoption of the service! We wanted to use Shifts but couldn’t until the problem was fixed– so no need to manufacture a fake support ticket to try to get me engaged.

Apparently there are enough “support ambassadors” roaming around to waste time dunning the admin of a single-user test tenant because “[their] system detected that not all users are using the services included.” Now, of course I realize that the “support ambassadors” here are not really support engineers in the same mold as the people who answer, y’know, actual support requests. What this email really means is that Microsoft is spending money on trying to drive adoption that would be spent better on the actual support organization.

This is part of the same tiring and worrisome trend we’ve seen in Office 365 for years now, where Microsoft does questionable stuff behind their customers’ backs. Here are a few examples:

  • Contacting the tenant admin (me in this case) to drive adoption based on data I haven’t seen about what my users were doing– perhaps this would be an unpleasant surprise to admins who don’t realize that user usage data is used for this purpose
  • Faking a support ticket as a means to fool customers into thinking they should read the adoption-related propaganda. (I split this one out separately because it irritates me so much.)
  • Pushing feedback surveys directly to Teams end users. Here’s some feedback for y’all: don’t talk directly to my organization’s end users without permission. Interestingly, the Teams team has made no public comment on this feature despite the uniformly negative feedback I have heard they’ve received.
  • Sticking transport rules into customer’s Exchange Online tenants. (Hear more about that here.)
  • Magically generating O365 Group objects from distribution groups and making them appear in the GAL
  • Turning on any number of other features by default so that they appear to end users with little or no warning. I do appreciate that the roadmap communications have gotten more detailed, and more frequent, as the service has matured, but since I still don’t know exactly when feature X will hit my tenant, it’s harder to do adoption and change management than it should be.

MVPs have a reputation for giving Microsoft candid and honest feedback, so here it is in two short digestible sound bites.

First, tighten up the support organization so that it doesn’t take multiple weeks to fix any problem. I can migrate a 100,000+ user organization in the amount of time it takes Microsoft to recognize and fix simple provisioning problems.

Second, stop bypassing (or trying to bypass) the tenant admins. Be very, very judicious with which new features are on by default; provide admin controls for new features on day 1 (and not later), and don’t assume that your customers are OK with you interacting directly with their end users.

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Office 365 Exposed, Episode 15

Just a little palate cleanser this time before Microsoft Inspire gets started! Tony, Vasil, and I talk about Teams security, the Search-Mailbox cmdlet’s journey to Death Row, and whether or not emoji reactions in email are a tool of the devil.

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2020 edition of Office 365 for IT Pros now available

It’s July 1, so you know what that means… or maybe you don’t: the new edition of Office 365 for IT Pros is available. Each year, around this time, we release a new edition. herewith a rude Q&A that might be informative and/or useful (but probably not entertaining)

Q: It isn’t 2020. Why are you calling it the 2020 edition?
A: Car manufacturers do this too. Unlike cars not made by Tesla, though, we release monthly updates to upgrade and update the thing you buy today into the next calendar year.

Q: What’s different about this edition?
A: The cover has a new animal on it.

Q: No, seriously, what’s different?
A: We reorganized the content, so now there’s a separate companion volume (included with your purchase, of course) that holds some older material. This frees up space and word count for new stuff. In this edition, MVP and identity management legend Brian Desmond took over the IdM chapter from me, which automatically makes the book at least 16% better. There’s also significant new content covering new features in Planner, Teams, Intune, SharePoint Online, OneDrive for Business, and the various other parts of Office 365.

Q: What are your plans for updates to this edition?
A: We’ve already covered a ton of 2019 updates in this initial edition– for example, the switch to the “Microsoft 365 admin center” branding and all of the new goodies around information protection are included. Microsoft has already publicly announced or started to RTM several major new features that we’ll be covering, including information barriers for Teams. Then there’s a whole shedload of new stuff that Microsoft has discussed under NDA that we’ll be covering once it’s publicly mentioned. Plus, there is always room for surprises, like the rainbow themes Microsoft added to the admin center, OWA, and a few other apps in June 2019.

All joking aside, we’ve got lots of new content planned for the book, and one key advantage of our book is that you’re buying a year’s worth of updates, not a single point-in-time copy. As Microsoft evolves and grows Office 365, we cover the changes to help you learn what you need to effectively plan and manage your Office 365 deployment. I hope you’ll give the new edition a look and let us know what you think.

 

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Flying Friday: Avidyne IFD540 10.2.3.1 upgrade notes

For a while now, I’ve been waiting for a new update to the GPS software in my airplane. The last major update was about two years ago, so it was about that time. Avidyne had originally planned to release this set of features as version 10.3, but it turns out that, for some mysterious reason, the FAA update process for a “major” update applies to a version update. So releasing the software as 10.3 would have required a longer certification cycle than releasing the same thing as 10.2.3.1, which makes very little sense to me given that this update touched literally every part of the IFD’s firmware and software.

After the software was finally done, Avidyne had just submitted the software for certification and… government shutdown.

Then they decided to do a separate release just for the GPS week-number rollover bug. That update could be released nearly immediately, but it didn’t include any new features. However, like all software updates for avionics in certificated airplanes, you can’t just plug in a USB stick and go; updating the software is considered to be an alteration and so requires a logbook entry signed by a certificated airframe & powerplant (A&P) mechanic. Rather than make a separate trip just for the GPS fix, I elected to wait until the full release was ready, and so when it dropped last week I immediately emailed the shop to make an appointment.

As with every other software product, this update was a combination of bug fixes and some new features. The new features that I was most interested in were the ability to stream ADS-B data from the IFD to Foreflight and the ability to load instrument arrival and departure procedures without a transition. Here’s how my first flight with it went.

First, I preflighted and flew the short hop from Decatur to Tullahoma, Tennessee, where XP Services is located. XP is a great shop: they are quick, efficient, and they do good work. When I pulled up to the hangar, the tech already had the installation instructions printed and a GPU cart waiting, which is mighty fine service for a Friday afternoon before a 3-day weekend. I went into their conference room to work while the mechanics worked through the long install procedure. It requires continuous power to the GPS, along with a bunch of separate reboots and firmware updates. The instructions have a lot of dire warnings in bold red type. I’d certainly have been capable of doing the update myself but I liked the security of having the shop do it so that I wouldn’t make a stupid mistake that bricked the unit.

The update went fine; they billed me for 1.61 hours (oddly specific, but OK, whatever) All of my settings were properly preserved, and immediately after the update I was able to load the 23 May navdata cycle without incident. I happily flew home $156 poorer but eager to see what the update brought.

Last year, the FAA announced that they would start sending additional weather data over the FIS-B data link protocol. I have a box (the SkyTrax 100) that is essentially a modem; it receives ADS-B data (which includes FIS-B weather), demodulates it, and passes it as a stream to the IFD. That box didn’t require any updates to display the new weather data (which includes lightning strike, icing, and cloud-height data) but the IFD couldn’t interpret it until this update. I really wanted the lightning data for the summer and the icing data for the winter— both of these are important cross-checks that help clarify what’s really happening inside the clouds. Once I was airborne and established, I was able to see lightning data in some storm cells off to my west, so that part of the update clearly works. The weather was sunny and clear for probably 200nm around me, so there wasn’t much else to see.

The other major feature I wanted was integration with Foreflight. Since early in its life, the IFD series has been able to wirelessly connect to external devices to upload and download flight plans, send GPS position data, and send ADS-B streams. The idea is that if you’re using a tablet app like Foreflight or FlyQ, you can use your panel-mounted GPS and ADS-B receiver to feed position, weather, and traffic data to the tablet app. For a variety of boring technical reasons that I won’t go into here, ADS-B streaming hasn’t worked properly with Foreflight until this release (although GPS position streaming and flight plan up/download did work). Now it does— those little blue arrows are other aircraft, and the radar display is live FIS-B data (including lightning data). I was also able to look at the icing level forecast, which is going to be invaluable in the wintertime for tactical weather avoidance.

IMG 0011

There’s one thing that Avidyne took away in this update, though. They previously had an aural “traffic!” announcement that was triggered when the IFD detected traffic within a certain radius. The unit still gives you a visual indication, but no more audio prompt— having it violated some FAA standard or other. However, I was happy to see that Foreflight provides audible traffic callouts based on data from the IFD– so now I probably need to decide whether it’s more valuable to have my phone or iPad connected to the AMX240 during flight.

The second thing I wanted was the ability to load arrival or departure procedures that don’t have a transition. This requires a bit of explanation. These procedures (SIDs for departures and STARs for arrival) specify a route for how you arrive at or depart from the airspace near an airport— they provide a way to transition between the terminal environment and the en route environment. For example, see this plate for the SWTEE.1 arrival procedure, which is used in Atlanta airspace to handle aircraft arriving from the west and slotting them into the correct flow for whatever airport they’re going to. ATC will usually assign the arrival while you’re still en route, and they may or may not assign a transition. For example, they could give me BIZKT.SWTEE1 (pronounced “biscuit transition for the sweet tea 1 arrival”) or LPTON.SWTEE1. So the IFD expects you to specify a transition point when you load a SID or STAR. The problem is, sometimes you don’t get one assigned from ATC (and you can’t just make up your own). When I fly in from north Alabama, my direct route will normally take me north of those routes, so typically when I’m somewhere just northwest of RMG, ATC will call me and amend my route to give me something like “direct OKRAA, thence the SWTEE1 arrival”. It’s simple enough to load the STAR and then sequence the leg I want, but keep in mind that the flight management system (FMS) in the IFD is always expecting that you’re telling it what waypoint to fly to next— so any time you have to change waypoints or insert a gap in your route, you need to be extra careful. The 10.2.3.1 update solves this problem by allowing you to load a SID or STAR with no transition, so you can just go direct to whatever waypoint ATC gives you. Simpler, with fewer opportunities to make a mistake.

Even though this update took a little longer than I would have liked, I was delighted to see how well it worked and I look forward to racking up a bunch more hours flying behind it this summer.

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