I am honored to be speaking to my University of Calgary Alumni association, Computer Science Chapter, on May 7, 2020 from 5:30-6:30pm. Everyone is welcome.
The Internet. Big, bold, confusing and, most now say, critical.
Trevor Textor has journeyed through the world of “the network” for nearly 20 years. In this presentation he’ll be looking at the Internet from the lens of a rural municipality that had to build their own network just to get the vendor to provide service to their residents. Together we’ll explore the Internet’s many facets and hopefully dispense with a few myths.
“Built by Canadians for Canadians” CIRA’s Canadian Shield effort is a massive enterprise-grade security upgrade for all Canadians’ Internet Security that adds another layer to our collective tool-kit. Implemented with help from the Canadian Security Establishment (CSE), the initial “go live” was 23Apr2020 and presumably this roll-out was fast-tracked due to #Coronavirus #COVID19 elevated threat levels.
How to Turn It On
To enable, users will need to manually update their systems to get the benefit. As explained here, for every system but mobile (explained below), users just need to update their home router DNS settings. This means that users will not have to install and maintain software to get the security benefit.
Note: Some users may have to additionally modify computer DNS settings if they use a manual IP (advanced).
What is DNS? It’s the thing that translates human readable URLs like “Textor.ca” to an internet protocol (IP) “188.8.131.52”. You can read more about what DNS is here.
Canadian Shield has three levels of service based on the level of protection the user chooses. The level of protection is determined by which IP addresses the user chooses to configure their DNS with. The three levels are:
Private: DNS resolution service that keeps your DNS data private from third-parties.
Protected: Includes Private features and adds malware and phishing blocking.
Family: Includes Protected and Private features and blocks pornographic content.
What I like about Canadians’ Internet Security newest addition is that it’s a non-ISP based Canadian DNS service. Currently the DNS servers are located in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver and Alberta may need to route via Seattle to get to these services. This makes me skeptical that it will remain fast so I’ll keep this entry posted with updates. The devil is in the details.
OpenMedia.org believes the service is better because “…Canadian Shield … is entirely hosted in Canada, so unlike most free and paid alternatives your Internet data will not travel internationally and become subject to foreign surveillance practices. We also appreciate CIRA’s promise that any information related to your Internet activity is deleted after 24 hours, in contrast to many home ISPs who otherwise handle our web traffic which retain that data longer, or may not guarantee to delete it at all.”
At home, mobile users will pickup DNS settings from their home router. The challenge is when they are away from home.
For mobile users away from home, my understanding from reddit.com is that users install a CIRA app that enables a VPN. This may be fine for light users but likely will create a bit of havoc for advanced users and their configurations. A reddit users says “Tested the VPN app (iOS) today. First thing I always check is performance. Downstream speed took a hit, upstream was 10% of normal. I’ll skip it for now.” On the Google Play store app a user’s feedback is that it “Blocked access to safe programs” and CIRA asked the user to follow-up by emailing them at [email protected].
I’m recommending all users avoid the mobile software for a couple of months to let users that are ok with beta testing work out the bugs.
In the article the advice is “Do not expect employees to be as productive”; but I’m not sure that’s the right statement. I think staff can be more productive in the hours they work, but do not expect them to work a contiguous 8-hour day as if they were in the office. During Coronavirus, the pressures of family life are more acute than ever. Specifically: caring for young kids, caring for seniors or both if you’re unlucky enough to be part of the sandwich generation (like we’ve been).
Why I became a Freelancer Project Manager
Myself, I became a freelancer because the freelance arrangement is focused on productivity, not the office hours you keep (see article “When Your Employees Are Remote, You Have To Stop The Body-In-Seat Mentality”). I’m able to bill my Clients for only the hours I work and they don’t have to worry that they paid for an 8-hour day when I only worked 4 because of “this or that” like what would happen with an employee.
Personally, burnout, and managing Work from Home Burnout, was a big factor in encouraging the freelancer move and in becoming a PMP certified Project Manager. Being a PM allows me to help my team smash stress as I’m in a leadership/culture role but I’d like to expand on the freelancing angle.
The Critical Personal Events that Lead to Burnout
Let me rewind to the late 2000’s. I had just been cleared as a cancer survivor and the expectation to overwork was exploding. The company I worked at unnecessarily, and possibly foolishly, decided to split into two. As I was a member of the networking team, we were the first team to work on the split (splitting and acquisitions create critical networking work). The CIO made a sweeping edict that all IT take their vacation before the actual split date. The edict decimated the networking team by 70%. Because the entire project depended on the network being installed as soon as possible, I spent an entire month building most of the new company’s data centre myself. For those who don’t work in IT that means a sterile environment with no food and water and a nice cool breeze that encourages you to forget about thirst. It’s migraine city!
Closely following the split my company decided to move data centres. I wasn’t directly part of that project but I helped out a number of times. One of the important events was that my boss decided that the on-call person would be enough to cover any issues during the actual move ignoring the team’s advice to assign a person to manage the move. It’s important to note that this is not a physical move. It’s more like transferring a consciousness from one computer system over to another one using the network. In this instance, one would assume that the network is critical.
That weekend I spent 16 hours on two conference calls in my basement; one headset on each ear. One conference call was to direct my network staff and the other call was to communicate with the wider project. This created a “firewall” so my team could get the critical work done (me included). There were no breaks. My wife brought me food. When I got up to go to the bathroom I could barely move. I called in the entire network team sans my boss who was disappointingly absent despite receiving a lot of phone calls from me and the other project leaders. Clearly, he had turned off his phone on purpose. The following week other IT leaders decided to declare that they were the person who fixed the networking issues burying my contribution to the entire project (which was ultimately successful).
In addition to this, on the same project, my boss had screamed at me over the phone about why I couldn’t move a 500 lb router by myself when it was at the loading dock. This is the only time I’ve cried at work. Subsequently this boss and three other guys installing it in the data centre ultimately dropped it because it was too heavy. The same router later caught fire while in the data centre.
Yes, it was events like these that lead to my burnout. In contemplating my career changes, I wanted to have control over my life because I knew there would be controllable and uncontrollable stress. Working stress, in my opinion should be largely controllable. That is, it’s my hypothesis that stress in work environments is largely unnecessary and caused by culture and leadership. And if it’s controllable, then that should free up bandwidth to deal with the uncontrollable stress.
As a freelancer I can, and have, said no to clients. I’m always clear I get the job done but how it’s done is up to me. I was often told that moving to being a contractor wouldn’t help with managing the stress but that’s because no-one considers that freelancing is a lot different than being a full-time contractor*. So more than 5 years later, I can say I proved my hypothesis.
Unfortunately, for most people, the game (employee/full-time contractor) is rigged and most people will fail and experience burnout. Hopefully, the silver lining of #Coronavirus #COVID19 is that companies accept there are alternate arrangements that exist and they might work a whole lot better in the right situations. Then maybe we can meaningfully reduce burnout, including work from home burnout.
I would like to call it what it is: a fake employee. It just changes where the number falls on the balance sheet. No surprise that nothing changes.
Unfortunately due to how slow large organizations go, Professor Small will not get funding until September. But, in the meantime, I reached out to Professor Small and she indicated an alternative organization has a smell test online that we could use: https://smelltracker.org/.
Professor Dana Small is a Canadian researcher currently at the Yale School of Medicine. If anyone has further questions, reach out to her here.
The “body-in seat” fallacy is one I’ve followed for well over a decade and COVID-19 may finally tip the scales. I’m talking about “… [The] insidious attitude permeating many companies; that when employees have their bodies-in-their-seats, it means they’re productive.”
“…[T]here’s much to be said for focusing on the results someone achieves rather than how long they sit in front of a computer. But when we’re operating with a body-in-seat mentality, we’re de facto telling people, ‘it’s not what you get done but how long you sit there that matters.'”
He further goes on to explain why top freelancers are more productive and how they do it. I highly recommend having a full read if productivity is of concern.
The internet cannot crash. Like a highway, it is built to handle separate discrete “vehicles”. The problem with the internet is that it will get congested and become slow. As my rural users say “This is worse than dial-up!!”. It can become so slow that you’ll move the mouse and wait 10 seconds for the screen to update where it went.
However, there is a tool to help manage congestion; it’s called “Quality of Service” (QoS) which can recognize and prioritize critical packets (e.g. critical vehicles like fire trucks and ambulances). QoS is usually only implemented on private networks but during a crisis, it could theoretically be enabled on the internet.
I use QoS at home to ensure my work computer gets priority to the house’s internet connection (the “last mile”). Here’s what it looks like to setup on my home router:
Let’s be honest though, streaming services are not “critical” and will not get QoS priority. That is, no one is going to die, the economy will not suffer if someone’s television isn’t optimal. So this is the situation that video streaming is in:
How can video quality be reduced? Via compression, frames per second (fps) and/or resolution. How much benefit is there from reducing this? Consider the “Standard Definition” digital equivalent is about 480p resolution. As portrayed in the bandwidth usage charts here, Netflix bandwidth usage of 480p @ 23.976 fps versus 4K @ 59.940 fps is staggering! ~792 MB per hour vs ~7 GB per hour for a factor of over 7 times (700%)!
The impact may be annoying to some or some people might not even notice. I run all my video services at SD digital equivalent quality even pre-crisis because I don’t care and don’t really notice. I like that the videos load faster when they are smaller. Users may notice more so these differences on larger screens.
Compared to analog television, it doesn’t matter what the streaming services cut, it will still be better!
As Telecom networks deal with “unprecedented” pressure it may feel like there isn’t much you can do to prepare yourself for working remotely from home. While that’s somewhat true, it isn’t entirely true. Here are some things you can likely do:
Plug directly into your internet service modem/router. If you think you don’t have a cable, try looking in your original computer/modem/router boxes if you still have them. They usually come with a cable and you may have collected some unwittingly over time.
If your router has a Quality of Service (QoS) feature, use it. Assign your work computer to the “highest” setting while making sure junior is watching TV on a lower QoS setting. Break out your router’s manual to find out if you can do this.
Set any video, including video for a teleconference, to its lowest quality setting. Most video streaming services have a “download to device” feature which can make sure the device is not streaming while you’re trying to teleconference. Switching from HD to SD can save up to 25% of your bandwidth – article: “Netflix And YouTube Switch To SD To Ease Pressure On European Networks“
Think you’re ready for your work teleconference? Test your changes to see how well you did. The Cisco Spark WebEx Network Test measures all pieces of your internet service to make sure you’re ready; it’s not just about bandwidth!
While you might not need a webcam, you’re going to need a really good headset (again, if you can still order one online). I talk more about this in my “PMI-SAC Remote Working Tips” article. Don’t forget to mute if you’re not talking while on a teleconference!
Make sure your workspace is ready:
Have a room with a door that can be closed and that is quiet.
Have a proper desk and chair setup. Do your best to make it ergonomic.
Wear something that makes you feel productive. For many people this means not wearing pajamas but if that’s not you, then you’re good!
Keep consistent work hours as much as possible.
Go outside at least once during the day; especially important for those who live in areas where vitamin D supplements are necessary.
Get used to thinking about what is the best way to communicate to your team members depending on your needs. For instance, if you need to discuss something right away and at length, instant messaging might not be the right forum. Know when to pick up the phone or start a teleconference.
If you need 1-1 check-ins, schedule them. Don’t assume someone is going to stop by regularly; make that happen.
I hope it’s clear that being good at working remotely doesn’t just “happen”. It takes preparation and some skills development. Don’t beat yourself up though, it takes time. Try to make the changes gradually if you can.