Freedom Road

​This is the latest in a series of occasional posts relating to my song-writing hobby – in each post I provide a copy of the lyrics in full, a link to the song (performed to the best of my ability) and the story behind it (be it real or imaginary).

Freedom Road is probably one of the fastest songs I have written (in terms of time taken) – done over a period of just a few weeks. I decide that I wanted to try and write a classic 70s power ballad. Think Foreigner and you’re in the right place.

For me, song-writing is normally about the lyrics. I usually start there and spend a long time honing them before turning to the music. This time I started with the music and once again turned to the brilliant EZkeys from Toontrack. I have a number of midi packs that include power ballad samples. I soon hit on one I liked and built a first cut of the song really pretty quickly.

Now I needed a title and despite some fairly bizarre suggestions from a friend and colleague at work, I settled on Freedom Road. ‘Freedom Road’ sounded like something I could build a story around. The story was pretty easy to create – imagine a situation in which someone or something is trapped and implement an escape plan. Sad beginning and happy ending – nice and simple. The lyrics are not a labour of love and I think you can tell – it’s pretty formulaic stuff:

Freedom Road

Intro

Verse 1

It’s time to say goodbye 

The truth was never here

Don’t look, don’t ask me why 

Don’t turn, don’t cry a tear 

Pre-Chorus 1

The road is long, but open wide

I hear the call, I feel it deep inside 

Chorus

This is the truth I’ve found

This is the path for me 

I’m taking Freedom Road 

You and I weren’t meant to be 

I’ll sleep beneath the stars 

And greet the morning sun 

I’m taking Freedom Road 

A new day has begun 

Verse 2

I’ve paid the price of love

And I always take the blame

Although I’m dreaming of

Seems it always ends the same

Pre Chorus 2

But in the end, I’ll take my chances 

I’ve turned down, too many dances

Bridge

I’ll take the floor, trip the light

It will be my chance to shine

Sweep you up, make it right

Want you, hold you, make you mine

And then you’ll see, all you mean to me

Pre Chorus (Instrumental)

This is the truth we’ve found

This is the path we share 

We’re taking Freedom Road 

On our way anywhere

We’ll sleep beneath the stars 

And greet the morning sun 

We’re taking Freedom Road 

A new life has begun 

Outro

We’re taking Freedom Road

Ad lib and fade

© Andrew Ball 2016

The melody was quite tricky to establish, requiring the skills of a far more accomplished vocalist than me. What I ended up doing was simplifying the melody so that I could just about sing it. When you have a voice like mine, Melodyne is your friend – they call it ‘Melodyne Essential’ for a reason.

Now don’t get all sniffy about my use of pitch correction software, if I’m going to inflict my vocal talent on an unsuspecting public, the public have a right to be protected. Think of of Melodyne in my case as digital ear defenders for the listener!

Another brief deliberation about whether to include a guitar solo or not, but as this was supposed to be a 70s power ballad it was a no-brainer in the end. I’m a better guitarist than I am pianist, but ripping lead riffs aren’t a particularly strong area. As my son sharp-eared son observed:

‘Is it me, or do all your guitar solos sound the same – do you just play the same notes in a different order’?

Hmm the wisdom (and tact) of youth, but I have to admit that he may have a point.

Finally to embellish with a few harmonies and then add the drums. I picked an 80s power batter kit in EZdrummer and used the excellent song creator feature to build a drum track from suggestions based on the piano midi track. Lots of tom fills and cymbal crashes – very 1970s – all very clever stuff.

Anyway that’s the story behind Freedom Road. I hope you enjoy it.

Listen to Freedom Road by AndyB01 #np on #SoundCloud

Tidal Flow

This is the latest in a series of occasional posts relating to my song-writing hobby – in each post I provide a copy of the lyrics in full, a link to the song (performed to the best of my ability) and the story behind it (be it real or imaginary)

This particular song is called ‘Tidal Flow’ chosen for no other reason than the fact that I quite liked it. This is probably the first track I ever tried to record after I first got my very own digital piano (about 14 years ago now). I am no great shakes as a pianist but at around that time my kids were still young (around 5 and 8) and I owned a digital video camera and would happily record their every waking moment (if they would let me). Holidays were a favourite and – like lots of Dads – I used to spend time between holidays editing together video clips of the previous one (digital video was a lot more complicated back in the days before smartphones were invented). No self-respecting video could be considered complete without at least some background music and I was after some for some beach scenes I had shot. Of course you can use the work of your favourite artists for such things but firstly, it’s basically a breach of copyright and secondly, where’s the fun in that?

So I was riffing at the piano working on a little chord progression that sounded original to me and I decided to record it. It took soooo many takes over numerous sessions to record it that I lost count. To say it has a few timing issues would be putting it mildly but they are all part of track’s feel I think – perfection is over-rated.

My favourite part is the drum track – of course back in those days I never ever made notes of what drum parts I used (more on that later) but I had great fun building the drum part on this track and still think the drums stand out really well.

There are no lyrics – never have been. It was intended as a backing track for a video as an instrumental and that is how it will stay.

When it was first recorded it was a lot slower and the guitar wailed all the way through as tried various licks that all ended up sounding much the same. In those days I did actually own an electric guitar (a red Yamaha AES620 pictured above). So in the end I upped the tempo slightly and decided the piano should play the main melody over a multi-tracked accompaniment with a dedicated short guitar solo. The piano playing is all mine this time (hence the appalling timing) and the instrument voice occasionally changes to a pad which – on reflection – does not really work but you learn from these experiences. The guitar solo is really quite simple to play and Steve Hackett (of ex-Genesis fame) inspired. I love the sound and sustain he gets and so I used loads of gain, echo and reverb to get this sound. The amp was actually a cheap 30w Behringer practice amp and it sounds pretty impressive for entry-level gear.

I practised that guitar solo till I could practically play it blindfold, but it still took several takes to get right – it sounds a lot harder to play than is actually the case and slightly Hackett-esque in style – or so I like to think.

The truly sad part is that after a computer crash and rebuild (I had backups) I found that the backup of this particular recording was corrupted and I was unable to open it for editing. I’ve tried re-recording it since, but without a note of the drum tracks I used, I have been unable to re-create the same feel so I have left it – with all its flaws – frozen in time just as it is.

I may decide to re-record it someday – who knows. So with no more to say – here it is:

 

Wine o’Clock

This is the first in a series of occasional posts relating to my song-writing hobby – in each post I provide a copy of the lyrics in full, a link to the song (performed to the best of my ability) and the story behind it (be it real or imaginary)

This particular song is called ‘Wine o’Clock’ a phrase popularised by both the UK press and the wider media in an attempt to bring attention to the issue of accidental alcoholism.

We’ve all been there – hard day at work, followed by a long commute, a list of chores, helping kids with homework then eventually nailing them into bed only to finally collapse on the sofa in front of the TV watching – frankly – anything that might happen to be on as you’ve long since stopped caring. Your reward – a large glass of wine:

‘me time’

Once a week – why not?

Every day or a bottle in a session – well that might be the start of a problem…

I’m absolutely not moralising or judging here – just highlighting an issue that had gained some interest in the media and seemed a good story for a song.

My story was about a woman – the ‘problem’ is mainly attributed to women. She had to be a single-parent, it just felt like the right demographic. No age given but – but in my mind – under 30 and possibly a fair bit younger than that. Three children, three different fathers – all long gone – and a very unhealthy wine-drinking habit.

A lament – yes. Some recognition of a need to change – but ultimately a failure to do so.

So a sad song – yes. A depressing song – arguably – but not one entirely without hope.

Maybe she does climb out of her vicious spiral – we will never know.

I first penned the original lyrics back in 2014 – I had either watched a news story/ documentary or read an article – I can’t really remember which the inspiration was. In my mind this was always going to be an acoustic guitar track – very stripped back but I just couldn’t get the right chord progression. So it stayed unrecorded for a couple of years.

Then last year I acquired some new music software called EzKeys by Toontrack. I am not a very good pianist – if you can’t play at all then I could impress you briefly but I don’t do requests. 😉 EzKeys comes with a bunch of pre-canned phrases and variants for intros, verses, choruses, bridges and endings that all work perfectly with each other and can be used in any combination to build a song track. You can alter the key, the chords, the tempo and even the time signature. Now you might call that cheating but this is the way a lot of modern music is built – I can’t play drums either but you wouldn’t criticise me for using a digital drum program so why are keys any different?

So I picked up my old lyrics and restructured them – songs are supposed to have a shape: Intro | Verse | Pre-chorus | Chorus | Bridge (or Middle 8). Mine rarely do – they typically wander all over the damn place – so I applied a little discipline this time and changed and added some of the words to improve the structure. I still didn’t have a melody at this point.

Then I built an accompaniment I liked in EzKeys that followed my lyrical structure and started to play with melodies to see what would work in a key I could sing and at a suitable tempo. Once the words and the melody were there I added some drums, acoustic guitar and a bass track. Now to decide on whether or not to add an instrumental, I decided this track needed one. There is a lament after the bridge and I wanted the guitar solo to give the impression that the subject in the song had just broken down after the previous lyric; I hope that is the impression it creates.

For those interested in such things, the guitar solo is actually played by me on my Taylor 314ce acoustic-electric with sound effects from Guitar Rig to make it sound like an overdriven electric guitar. Isn’t technology wonderful?

So here are the lyrics in full:

Wine o’Clock

Intro

Verse 1

It’s wine o’clock again

Comes around too fast

Kids are all in bed

It’s time for me at last

Just one more sip

To ease the way

And dull the pain

Of another day

Verse 2

Wake up on the sofa

It’s a quarter after three

Kids still sound asleep

And Oprah’s on repeat

I hear a small voice say

Mom – are you OK

I almost crack a smile

As I reach across and say

Chorus

Just a little tired darlin

Just a little worn

Come sit here next to me

And keep your Momma warm

Just a little crazy

Just a little torn

Lie down here beside me and

We’ll chase away the dawn

Verse 3

Light seeps through the curtains

It’s a quarter after five

My little girl is sleeping and

I barely feel alive

I’m running out of time

Like the ending of a season

It’s a brand new day

And I just need a reason

Bridge

I got three good reasons

Looking back at me

I can see their Fathers’ faces, just a faded memory

I can see their dreams, they’re all mixed up with mine

I could see more clearly, if it wasn’t for the wine

Pre-Chorus

But Wine o’clock is coming

As the light begins to fade

I’m staring in the mirror

I can see the mess I’ve made

 Instrumental (4 bars)

 Chorus

Just a little tired darlin

Just a little worn

Come sit here next to me

And keep your Momma warm

Just a little crazy

Just a little torn

Lie down here beside me and

We’ll chase away the dawn

Outro

Wake up on the sofa

It’s a little after two…

Wake up on the sofa

It’s a quarter after three…

Repeat and fade

© Andrew Ball 2016

I am really proud of this song. It would benefit hugely from a female vocalist (or any kind of vocalist other than me) and better production but for all its flaws I still love it. I hope you enjoyed the back story and the final product – here is the finished article in SoundCloud:

The Art of Project Management Audit

Book reviews are for Amazon – right? Well mostly I would agree with you but in this case I am making an exception.

First off the disclaimer – I am writing this review in an independent capacity as someone who has more than a passing interest and experience of project performance reviews and the way they are done. The views expressed herein are mine alone and do not reflect the views or opinions of my current employer – just so we’re clear there.

I’m not a great fan of management and how to books, but sometimes one comes along that sparks my interest. “Project Performance Review” by Dr. Alexia Nalewaik and Dr. Anthony Mills is one such book. I first happened across Dr Nalewaik in a twitter chat I sometimes take part in called #PMChat. She was a contributor to a session I ran on project audit and we seemed to agree on quite a few things, so when this book was published I was interested to read and review it.

I have replicated my Amazon review below – if you are involved in the commissioning, management or delivery of project management audits, this book really should be on your Christmas list.

This book is a seminal work and highly significant in the field of project performance audit. I didn’t get any further than the Foreword before realising I was going to love this book. Having worked in performance audit for almost 13 years with the UK Audit Commission, I feel like I could have written this myself. It cherishes and promotes ideas and outcomes I believe should be integral to performance audit. It dismisses the dead hand of compliance-based monotony that auditors and clients are heartily sick of and dares to envision the existence of experienced professional project auditors rather than accountants indulging an occasional side line. Allow me to quote by way of example:

The auditor-accountant skill set does not readily lend itself to performance review or substantive evaluation of projects

That statement needs no further explanation or expansion. It’s not intended to offend or denigrate my many accountancy friends and erstwhile colleagues but you wouldn’t want me to review the accounts now would you?

Chapter 2 covers just about every crime against project audit I have ever witnessed (and trust me, that’s quite a list) as well as every trick in the book played by organisations hell bent on obfuscation and derailing the audit process. The section on Agency theory describes a market model I know well, although I like to think that there a still a few fellow-auditors out there with more than a shred of professional ethics in their DNA. Certainly the authors are right to call out what I refer to as ‘no win-no-fee’ audits as ‘unicorn reviews’; clients need to learn that high-quality truly independent reviews cost real money and the only way to get one is to pay the going rate for it and be thorough in your commissioning process. This book is a game changer and should be mandatory reading for all those already in or entering the audit profession.

Throw away your audit standards and endless checklists; (or at least the sections on auditing projects) and follow this book instead. Your clients will love you for it as you actually start delivering audits that bring about profound, significant and sustainable change.

As for the method itself, I like the flexible modular approach that can be applied iteratively throughout the project lifecycle. If I could make one change I would add a module dedicated to Change Management. This is covered under Management Controls, but here in the UK that phrase comes with its own particular set of baggage so for none other than semantic reasons I would separate this out.

I have huge respect and admiration for the authors and what they have produced here. Audit is a profession steeped in tradition and challenging the status quo is both difficult and risky. This short volume packs more value into 86 pages than any paper or literature on performance audit I have ever read. I simply cannot commend it highly enough and it deserves to make large waves in the world of project audit that has languished in a sea of mediocrity for far too long. Let this be the book that changes the old joke from:

‘Why did the auditor cross the road, because they looked in the files and that’s what they did last year.’

to:

‘Why did the auditor cross the road, because they really, really wanted to know what was on the other side.’

I congratulate and thank the authors for their excellent contribution to the profession. If you want to know more you can find the book on Amazon

Breaking Habits – The Art of Unlearning

Learning new skills is hard and the older I get the more difficult it gets to stuff information into my brain and retrieve it on demand. My brain feels full already. If there is one thing harder than learning something new, it’s unlearning something old.

I recently encountered this situation with a piece of music I have been trying to master on guitar. It has three distinct parts or movements and I mastered the first part years ago, I could play it in my sleep and at a fair lick but it never sounded quite as it should. However I had never mastered parts two and three and I had recently sourced the sheet music.

The sheet music immediately confirmed what I had always known deep down, the way I was playing Part One was completely incorrect and fretted in the wrong position – no wonder it sounded so off.

So began the long and tortuous process of rewiring the well-established circuits in my brain that ‘knew’ how to play part of this piece (or thought they did). Why was this so hard? I think it boils down to three things:

  1. Gratification – playing it ‘properly’ robs me of something I used to be able to do well and initially sounds terrible. But I can play it the ‘wrong’ way giving a false illusion of skill, dexterity and capability. I am deluding myself but I still prefer to ‘play it wrong’ and sound good than to ‘play it right’ and sound bad.
  2. Deceit – very few people who hear me play it would ever know the difference. They also will not realise that the correct fretting is much harder so I will make more mistakes and sound less fluent. The irony being that despite actual increased skill, dexterity and capability; I initially sound as though I have less ability.
  3. Laziness – a real lack of motivation based on the fact that I am a ‘king amongst fools’ (see 2). That sounds very conceited and insulting to my ‘audience’  – it is not meant to be – but when you can get by or even succeed on mediocrity; why strive for excellence?

So how do you set about unlearning something so ingrained where the reward for doing so is difficult to determine beyond self-satisfaction?

Firstly, allow yourself to occasionally indulge the old habit – this worked for me – usually after a dedicated practice session playing the ‘right way’. This permitted lapse proved I could actually still string the first movement together and play something recognisably melodic; I guess you could call it a kind of comfort blanket.

Secondly, make dedicated practice time – I dedicated 10-15 minutes at each practice session to working on the correct fretting to the exclusion of everything else. I also committed to practice at least three times a week.

Thirdly, make a public commitment – I uploaded the incorrect version on a music sharing site for musicians (SoundCloud) and stated that I was working on mastering the correct fretting and would post it soon. As soon as I mastered the first movement I uploaded the correct version as a contrast to the original and promised to post the full version – a very public commitment to master the remaining two movements. I have very few followers on SoundCloud but that is almost irrelevant – it’s the act of public commitment that actually matters – you could use Twitter or Facebook in the same way.

Fourthly, set a major goal – for me I decided I wanted to make three separate video tutorials on how to play the piece ‘correctly’ on YouTube. I posted the first one and that was a glaring public commitment to deliver on the other two.

Over four months I slowly mastered each section, memorised the fretting and improved my accuracy and speed until I could play the entire piece correctly. I did sometimes lapse into my old technique but these lapses became increasingly rare because not only did I know how to do it right, the correct fretting actually gave better results.

The tutorials are now on YouTube for others to benefit from my hard work – I wouldn’t say they’ve exactly gone viral with less than 50 hits each but again that isn’t the point – the feeling of self-satisfaction and achievement is considerable.

So if you’re trying to break a bad habit and need to unlearn it remember the following five points:

  1. Make a plan and set a reasonable time objective
  2. Forgive the odd indulgence or lapse – this is part of the unlearning process – we can all use the occasional comfort blanket at first
  3. Set one or more public goals
  4. Dedicate time to change and ingrain the learning
  5. Find a way to celebrate your achievement – maybe through a knowledge share or even a blog article

So if you’re looking to unlearn or re-program a flawed skill, try the above and let me know how you get on.

Links:

If you’d like to know how the piece in question sounds then click this SoundCloud recording

If you’re an aspiring guitar player and fancy a crack at learning to play it, try the tutorial videos:

 

 

 

 

 

My Taylor Story – Thanks Ben

I’ve been playing guitar since I was about 12 (around forty years) and have owned quite a few guitars in that time. Everything from second-hand acoustics with warped necks and worn-out varnish, budget acoustics with actions so high they would (literally) make your fingers bleed, and budget electrics. I’ve never had a really high-end guitar before so a couple of years ago, after neglecting my solid-body electric for literally months at a time, I decided I wanted to re-discover my passion for playing again.

I knew it had to be an electro-acoustic and so I started researching Martins and similarly priced models. Taylor guitars were not on my road map until I was telling my sister of my planned purchase and her well-informed son Ben (also a guitar player) asked me what my budget was. When I told him he said, ‘you’re in Taylor territory there’ which planted the name in my head.

Some months later I ventured to a decent city-centre guitar store with my old Yamaha AES620 in tow hoping for a px deal. In my mind, I was coming home with a Martin GPCPA5. This was the guitar I had researched and it sounded like just what I wanted.

On entering the store I handed over my old Yamaha and said what I was looking for. The Martin was duly delivered and I was shown a soundproof booth where I could let rip. My technique was pretty poor with such a lack of practice so I was glad nobody else could hear. The Martin felt nice, sounded nice plugged and unplugged but it didn’t wow me in the way I expected. The assistant asked how I was getting on and offered me a few comparisons. Sure I said, recalling my nephew’s words, do you have any comparable Taylors?

I was handed a Taylor 314ce. Sitka and rose wood with a matt finish on the sides and back which I immediately liked. I struck a chord and the tone rang like a bell, a really bright but well-balanced tone. I played the Martin again which sounded dull and flat in comparison, to my ear at least.

Next I tried a Gibson, probably the most uncomfortable acoustic guitar I have ever tried to play and so quickly rejected it. After a few more contenders I was brought a Martin in all mahogany which had a sweet deep tone. Nice I said, enquiring the price, £3,500 came the reply. Take it away I said, but even at a much lower price point the Taylor was still drawing me back.

What decided it for me was not only the brilliant deal I was offered but also the versatility of the 314. Strummed, flat picked, finger picked and even playing classical that really belongs on a nylon guitar, this one instrument could do it all. I also loved the expression system.

So the deal was done and since purchasing I’ve played guitar more than I have in far too long, mastering and re-mastering pieces that I thought I would never play correctly again. The guitar makes me smile every time I open the case, it’s a joy to play and to record with via the ES2.

Buying a Taylor is like joining a family, once you become a member I doubt you’ll ever want to leave. I’d certainly love to add a few more to my collection. The more you find out about Taylor as a company, the stronger the loyalty you feel (well I do anyway). I remain grateful to my younger and better-informed nephew for bringing me to this wonderful brand. As the title of this post says: ‘Thanks Ben’

All Change – Here’s To New Challenges

On 1st July 2016 Andrew Ball Consulting Ltd ceased trading. The company will still be around until I close it down formally next April but after over four years as being my business it’s time to close the door and move on.

I’m returning to the salaried sector in a permanent role with Capgemini which gives me the scope to move away from requirements and analysis back into the project and programme management space. PPM is in my heart, it’s the first job (along with IT) I had that I loved and I’m delighted to have to opportunity to do more of it.

So it’s goodbye to contracting – it’s been great and hello PAYE. I’ll certainly miss the freedom but the uncertainty and the administration perhaps not so much.

In many ways this is the perfect time to make this switch and I’m really looking forward to the future.

My #PMChat Session on Project Audit

Here is an embedded Storify version of my PM Chat session on project audit

Credit goes to Ivan Rivera for compiling the recaps each week – he does a great job!

Online Conducting and Losing Control with #PMChat

I’ve given quite a few presentations in my career. I don’t consider myself the most natural or gifted speaker but I generally got a good reaction. This, in almost every case, was down to detailed planning and preparation. A lot of time and effort perfecting slides, scripting the commentary and rehearsing the timings.

I quite enjoyed the presenting part because I was in almost complete control – real comfort territory for a classic introvert like me. The bit I disliked was the question and answer session at the end: now I’m not in control, I’m busking furiously and miles out of my comfort zone. However you need to stretch yourself in order to grow and learn, you do more Q&A and you skill up – becoming more accomplished as you gain experience.

So having recently enjoyed regular contributions to the excellent weekly #PMChat Twitter discussions, the opportunity presented itself to run a session as guest host. I had watched others do it and secretly thought, I could do that and eventually I put my name forward. The host gets to choose the topic so I selected project audit. Something I am experienced in, qualified in and have a fair few opinions on. Back in control and on my own territory.

I carefully drafted my questions and even prepared a short lead-in video just to try and raise interest. Once again, classic attempts to try and set the agenda and to be in control. As the date approached, the usual #PMChat marketing machine kicked in and lots of people started to pick up on my video and tweet about it – no pressure – who was I kidding.

So the big day arrives and around an hour before kick off, a regular contributor messages me in the spirit of ‘full disclosure’ to tell me that project audit was the subject of her PhD dissertation that had just gone to the publishers! Still, too late now so I decide to treat it as a positive and before I know it we’re off and running.

Q1 gets some good early answers and so I pitch Q2 as the debate warms up. I feel like a conductor at the head of an orchestra. A retweet here, a favourite there, a quick response of my own – encouraging the flautists who are being drowned out by the horn section. By Q3 my running order is shot and I jump to question six, trying to remember to re-number it before posting. At Q5 I’ve completely lost count ‘you’re all doing great’ I shout above the frenzy as I try and retrace my steps.

My orchestra knows the tune by now however and are making beautiful music, I can only sit back and briefly admire the quality of the responses and intellectual insight before realising that I’m supposed to be in charge and another question is called for.  A spammer rocks up at this point up to try and spoil the party but they are quickly and unceremoniously dismissed by a couple of the regulars with a little help from me.

We even manage to crack a few jokes and my ‘PhD’ contributor was a brilliant foil for my questions and we found an immense amount of common ground. The quality of debate and depth of insight from everyone who took part was more than I had dared to hope for.

In the end I fire off nine questions in all and end up after an hour with 80 odd Twitter interactions, three new LinkedIn connections and an incredible feeling of euphoria and achievement. I’m mentally and physically exhausted but had the most incredible time.

Sometimes you need to lose control and take yourself out of your comfort zone. It can really pay dividends. I’d like to thank everyone in the #PMChat community for taking part and making it such a brilliant session. If you’d like to find out more or even have a go yourself – check out www.pmchat.net for more information.

Ding Ding – It’s Time for #PMChat

#PMChat is a great space that happens every (well most every) Friday on Twitter at around 5pm GMT, or 12:00pm if you’re on EST. It’s global and folks log in from all corners of the globe.

Each week there’s a topic and a host and guest hosts are positively encouraged.

So the thing about this week – it’s my turn to guest host!

I’m really excited about doing this and have not done anything similar before so to say I’m a little apprehensive would be understating things somewhat. However the regulars are a friendly bunch so I’m hoping they’ll have lots to contribute to my chosen topic which is…

Well why not watch the video to find out more:

I’m hoping to get a wide range of views and experiences that I can draw on in a future blog post on this topic.

So I have my questions ready and I’m all set (I think)

See you on the 19th for another round of #PMChat

Wish me luck!

The DAWK Principle

I first came across the DAWK Principle on a PRINCE2 Practitioner course over fifteen years ago when the course leader announced we would be following the DAWK Principle (pronounced d-o-r-k) as part of the study approach and he assumed we were all familiar with it.

Of course we all thought it was a joke based around the word ‘dork’ and a new take on the ‘no such thing as a stupid question’ mantra you often get on such courses. Turns out however it is an acronym and stands for something else:

Don’t Ask Won’t Know

It is a reticence to ask questions and be inquisitive that so often stifles our progress and makes us look like chumps. I recently observed a mother with her two children in a waiting area where I was sat: a girl around eight I would guess and boy probably approaching two.

They had a picture book and the boy was pointing at things repeating the same question over and over again – ‘whatsat’.

The answers kept coming at first but after just a few minutes the mother and elder child’s enthusiasm for this game was visibly waning. It’s often said that you spend the first year of your child’s life teaching them to talk and the next 17 telling them to shut up!

Who was it said:

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.

Often dubiously attributed to Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln but actually this gem first appeared in the Book of Proverbs 17:28

One of the ways we learn is by asking questions – when we’re only two we don’t worry about looking stupid – we don’t know what we don’t know so we just keep on asking ‘what’, swiftly followed by ‘why’.

It doesn’t take long however before self-consciousness kicks in and especially in peer environments like schools and classrooms. When I was at ‘big’ school it was definitely considered cool to look thick, stay mute and be awarded multiple detentions for missing or poor homework. Schools still struggle to overcome this reticence to ask questions today but I’m pleased to report that the science of learning has advanced massively since 1973!

Asking questions however is a professional skill that we all need to learn. Nobody can know everything and better to clarify your understanding than make a flawed decision. When elicting requirements and understanding acceptance and assessment criteria, this is a particularly critical skill.

In a former life as an IT auditor I often used to run facilitated workshops and came up with an idea for an ice-breaker to cover exactly this skill set as part of improving project and programme communications in organisations.

Delegates were split into small teams and supplied with blank sheets of A4 paper. One nominated delegate from each team was asked to join me in a room where they were each given the written instructions to make a paper plane. They were told they could read the instructions to other colleagues but were not allowed to show them the instructions, give a practical demonstration or practically assist – instruction must be verbal only.

Each team had five minutes to make a plane each (except for the person instructing), choose the ‘best one’ and hand it in endorsing the plane with a name. Teams were told that we would ‘assess’ the planes and award a prize to the winner.

Once the planes are handed in, we noted the names of each plane and attempted to fly them. After this we asked the teams what they thought the assessment criteria were.

Typical answers included:

  • Longest flight
  • Straightest flight
  • Most neatly folded
  • First to finish

The actual assessment criteria was – the most amusing and orignal name – people looked pretty crestfallen on being told:

‘you could have handed in a plain sheet of paper with the best name on and saved yourself a lot of effort.’

Typical team  effort was around 90% of time spent making the plane and 10% selecting a name.

The interesting dynamic here is that had anyone asked us what the assessment criteria was – we would have told them. Which opens up a further interesting dilemma as to whether the team ‘in the know’ chose to share that information with other teams.

However – nobody – ever asked

The upside was they all learned how to make a great paper plane!

The lesson here is – remember the DAWK Principle – always find out what you are being measured against before you start work. You could save yourself an awful lot of time and trouble…

If you would like to download the instructions in full for this ice-breaker,  use the links below that will enable you the relevant MS Word and MS PowerPoint files:

Making a Classic Glider

Ice Breaker

IT Security – Organisations Really Must Do Better Than This

It seems that every week brings with it a new headline about a security breach. Lame duck CEOs, badly briefed, lurch helplessly on camera from one mumbled apology to the next whilst trying to remember all the things their lawyers told them not to say.

Meanwhile those of us who so far have escaped the hackers wait to see if we might be next. While targeting services aimed at adults for financial gain is pretty low, particularly when the elderly and vulnerable are so often scammed as a result; I am truly appalled by a hack targeting services aimed at children and children of preschool/ primary age at that.

This hack is nasty, pernicious and damaging on several levels.

This is data about kids, every data owner should do their utmost to protect the data they hold but with childrens’ data they should be at the very top of their game. I can only quote the words of Rik Ferguson from Trend Micro:

“It is unforgivable, for a technology company making products for children. They had an enormous duty of care and they failed.”

I can only guess at the motives of the hacker given that no financial details appear to have been stolen, but that doesn’t mean money was not the motive. One hopes it was financially motivated or just a script kiddie trying to prove their ‘credentials’. Please let it be the case that the market sector of the target organisation was no more than an unfortunate coincidence.

Parents are rightly cautious about Internet access for very young children but devices are ubiquitous and peer pressure to join in can be overwhelming. So enter Vtech – who wrap the Internet in a child-friendly and brightly-coloured bubble – which makes it seem safe and secure – a virtual play pen if you like. Parents are only too ready to buy into that.

Kids need the Internet, they need to understand the opportunities and learning it presents as well as the risks. As they get older and mature, their online voice will be as important as their physical voice. Many parents will be asking themselves some hard questions after the Vtech breach and the decisions they take may damage what until now has seemed like a relatively safe way to open a window on the Web to young minds; that is why the hack is so damaging.

As for Vtech, assuming what I have read is correct, their information security was woefully inadequate. When you store sensitive data like passwords you secure them by encryption. This obfuscates the true value of that password. Now not all encryption is built the same, the complexity and security can vary enormously.

Vtech used a hashing algorithm known in the trade as MD5 (MD is short for Message Digest in case you were wondering). MD5 was invented way back in 1991 – when even I had a full head of hair and my kids (now 18 and 21) were not even thought of less still on the planet! So it’s old – very old.

Encryption technology is like a dog – it ages ten years for every one human year so we are talking ancient here.

MD5 takes a string value like a password and turns it into a 32 bit hexadecimal string of gibberish (hex is base 16 which uses the numbers 0-9 and the characters ABCDEF). No matter how long the input string, applying the hash always produces a 32-bit hex string.

So how does it work? Lets encrypt everyone’s favourite password:

Password + MD5 = dc647eb65e6711e155375218212b3964

which is different to:

password + MD5 = 5f4dcc3b5aa765d61d8327deb882cf99

Notice how dissimilar the hash values are, even though the only difference between the input strings is the capitalisation of the letter P.

You may think that looks pretty secure and back in 1991 many other people thought so too – but MD5 was compromised within just two years of its invention. Using such an ancient and flawed algorithm was Vtech’s first fatal mistake.

Their second fatal mistake, was failing to ‘salt’ the hash. Salting, in cryptographic parlance means adding a (usually) random string to a value which makes the output string unique.

If multiple users happen to share the same password for a site (a more common occurence than you might imagine), the resulting hash value would be the same. However if the hash is salted – our passwords may be the same but the hashed value will be different. This makes a password attack by a hacker much more difficult.

You would imagine that a technology company, targeting children would at least be using up to date hash algorithms (like SHA-2) and best practice security to protect customer data.

However there’s the ‘and finally’. For their final fall from grace, Vtech stored customers’ security questions and answers in plain text. You know the kind of thing: name of your first pet, first school, mother’s maiden name and so on. This type of data is reused by people on many sites – you only had one Mother after all and she only had one maiden name!

To be honest, as an IT professional, I’m struggling here to comprehend the scale of the incompetence. As the title of this post says, organisations – and my profession – can and must do significantly better than this.

Arrogance or Incompetence?

Have you upgraded to Windows 10 yet or are you still thinking about it?

For those of us brave (or stupid) enough to make the switch, November 2015 was quite important – because Microsoft released what used to be known as a Service Pack.

The first Service Pack of a new OS is the one that many users wait for – it’s a sign that things have finally moved out of Beta and into a General Release. 😉

You can tell when a MS update is a Service Pack in three ways:

  • It’s a whacking great download (3Gb in this case).
  • It takes a long time to install.
  • When it starts up for the first time after install, the screens and messages look very much like the original set up routine.

However Microsoft aren’t calling this a Service Pack, oh no. It’s called “1511”, “Threshold” or “TH2”. It is, in essence, a completely re-engineered version of the OS.

I’m guessing 1511 was named after the release date, or possibly the collective IQ of Microsoft’s Test and Assurance Team (assuming there are more than twenty of them).

The update has lots of cool updates I am sure – mainly to Cortana which is just one of the many new ‘features’ I instantly disabled as soon as I upgraded. It will also incorpoorate security fixes and updates – so I’m of the view that it’s generally better to be patched than not patched.

However, the update has some other hidden features Microsoft omitted to mention. If you use any of the following software:

  • CPU-Z;
  • CPUID;
  • CCleaner;
  • SmartFTP;
  • Avira Antivir Security;
  • Novell client;
  • Cisco VPN client;
  • NetGear Genie; and
  • ESET AntiVirus.

Then you might be in for a surprise when you next come to use them.

These are the ones reported so far that the TH2 will uninstall – silently in the background – without warning and without asking permission.

Arrogance or incompetence?

Now it may be that some or all of these have known compatibility issues – in which case what you do is publish this information to your users. This needs to be upfront and IN YOUR FACE before you even download the upgrade; let alone run it.

You might also give a screen warning when the update executes – giving the user the chance to cancel and requiring active confirmation by the user that they wish to continue.

Really good code might even scan for the existence of these applications to customise the warning message for your device.

Doing this without warning and without permission is not acceptable – whether by design or accident – either way it’s supreme arrogance or unbelievable incompetence.

Some of the above apps are free and some are or have paid-for versions. I run CCleaner Pro and I was not best pleased to find it unceremoniously dumped off my system without my consent!

So what do Microsoft have to say about this – well check out the T&Cs for this nugget:

“This is part of the Services agreement and thus should be expected by the user.”

And there’s more…

“The Microsoft Services Agreement allows Microsoft to change or discontinue certain apps or content where we deem your security is at risk.”

Security eh – I think defining CCleaner as a security risk is stretching it.

In fact the apps are not deleted – they are removed and saved in the C:\Windows.old folder. So as well as deleting apps it doesn’t like – what else does it do:

  • Well you might find a few default programs you have changed have been reset.
  • You might find drivers you have updated manually have been overwritten with older (or newer) versions.
  • You might find some of your peripherals no longer work as they should (my scanner being one example).
  • Some video and telemetry settings may also have been reset.

And finally, re-check all those privacy settings you disabled in case some have been inadvertently switched back on.

As this kind of full update is the intended MO Microsoft have announced, expect more of this kind of behaviour. If like me, you’re not particularly impressed then get on line, vent your spleen, email or tweet Microsoft and let them know that their user community doesn’t like underhand behaviour and a lack of transparency.

As for Microsoft, you need to learn that – in this case – it’s better to ask for permission instead of forgiveness.

So Why Blog?

I have three primary reasons for blogging:

  1. It’s one of the best ways I can meet CPD requirements for professional qualifications that require me to spend a minimum number of hours contributing to the profession. Contracting makes attendance at CPD events like conferences and professional away days difficult; writing articles is a great alternative to gain credits.
  2. It’s a great way to keep in touch with my network and remind people that I’m still around. If they choose to read and comment on my posts, so much the better. I like the interaction and discussion some posts generate.
  3. I actually enjoy writing and crafting articles. It’s very therapeutic and it is fascinating to see which articles get a reaction and which do not. I am consistently surprised by the ones that generate the most reaction – it is never the ones I predict. Working out why that is will, I hope, make me a better writer given time.

There’s another reason though, if you’ve read any CVs lately you’ll know how few differentiators there are. My writing helps me project a little of my personality. I write about things I care about and try to reflect on things that get me out of bed in a morning as well as those that (sometimes) keep me awake at night.

Hopefully any potential client or employer can get some insight into what makes me tick and whether we’re going to work well together – that way we can both save each other a lot of expense, time and effort.

So have you started blogging yet, if so what’s your motivation and if not what’s stopping you? If you’re reading this and haven’t started then why not give it a go? You’ll find you have more to say than you think and you’ll find it both a positive and rewarding experience.

Why I’ve Gone Off the Internet (a bit)

Surfing the web used to be quite an enjoyable way to pass some time. Lots of new stuff cropping up here there and everywhere. At first I was very much a consumer – other people were making content and I was reading it.

Building websites (not to mention getting them hosted) was rather technical and could be a frustrating process. However, perseverance brought immense satisfaction at seeing your work ‘in print’ so to speak.

Enter easy to use hosted platforms like Blogger and WordPress, not to mention Facebook and suddenly everyone was creating content – lots of it. The web wasn’t yet really that commercial; much of the content was good and it was free but the number of cat pictures and video was beginning to increase alarmingly. 😉

Making connections and building networks became simple and people have built careers making sense of the web and how it can be exploited. But there it is, the ‘e’ word – exploitation. The web is a marketer’s dream and the marketeers have turned the surfing experience into some kind of living Hell. Every time I go on line now I find I am hit with one or more of my pet hates – here’s my top ten (in no particular order):

1. Pay Walls

I have no objection really to news providers and content generators charging for their content – after all if I wanted a newspaper I would pay for it and why shouldn’t they monetise their IP. The problem is links to articles on Twitter, LinkedIn etc (often shortened) that look interesting will take me to the FT, the Telegraph or the Times and then what do I hit – a Pay Wall. If I’m not subscribed then I can’t see the article so I have wasted my time. Pay walled links should be flagged so I know it’s  behind a pay wall before I click it.

2. Register to Download Our Latest White Paper

Again, it’s good marketing sense to build up a list of potential customers who visit your website – why wouldn’t you? I’ll tell you why, because it pisses me and countless others off no end. Don’t force me to register so I can get a copy of your white paper. Publish your white paper and make it so good that I actually want to register and make sure I don’t miss any future content; a subtle but important difference. Think of it like fishing – if all you put in the water is a hook bait you won’t catch much. You need to throw in a few regular freebies to get the fish interested. I’m much the same – feed me first – then offer me the hook! However make sure the freebies are as good as the hook bait and not some inferior crap or I will swiftly learn to ‘feed’ elsewhere.

3. Interstitial and in-text Link Advertisements in Articles

Try and find a product review or read on line publications and there you are scrolling down an article reading away when you just catch one of those words that has a mouse-over trigger and up pops a video that starts playing away completely distracting you. Most of this text is visible to be fair but articles like this will make me shut down a web page faster than a teenage boy who’s Mom just walked in the room! This to me is barely one up from malware, stop it now.

4. Breaking Conventions

So I’m happily browsing away and up pops an ad, or some other irritating content I don’t want and so I look top right of the window for the X to close it. However there’s a problem, it’s not there. It has moved: bottom left or top left or maybe been grayed out so it’s barely discernible. Naughty that, come on play nice and stick to the rules.

5 Inflating Your Profile Views and Activity Ratings

Posts on Linkedin are the worst for this:

“Look at this grid and post the first word you see.”

This and similar nauseating puzzles are just sad and pathetic attempts to increase profile views and activity rankings. As if these numbers ever mattered in the first place – social and professional networking is about quality not quantity. If you have nothing of value to say, they don’t say it.

6 Click Bait

When did you not see the likes of this on LinkedIn recently:

“Want 500 free emoji or 1000 clip art images – just leave your email address in the comment below.”

Wow man, so kind, thanks for sharing, email me at sucker@ilovespam.com or open.toallmalware@infected.com

I mean really – do I have to explain?

7. Advertorials

Defined as an advertisement in the form of editorial content. Again LinkedIn is the prime target here. Some of the Pulse and other articles I read on LinkedIn are well-crafted and thought-provoking pieces of writing into which people have put considerable effort. Others aren’t, they may as well just say ‘Buy My Stuff – It’s Great’ in large letters.

“Buy My Stuff – It’s Great”

I have no problem with people advertising their products and services but please don’t pretend you’re not advertising when you really are. That’s basically dishonest and will make me far less likely to buy from you or engage with your content and brand.

8. Chat Now

Offering me a chat experience with a customer service operative who probably can’t breathe unless they are given a script to follow that tells them how to do it is not my idea of great customer service. Publish your email address and phone numbers, have a well-manned Twitter channel, employ some ‘real people’ and answer the bloody phone within a reasonable wait time (by reasonable I mean not exceeding five minutes). That is what good customer service looks like.

9. Fancy a Cookie?

OK hands up – my website does this too – although I tried to use the most subtle plug-in I could find. They all do it – and why – because of the wretched EU cookie law – one of the worst pieces of legislation to come out of Europe ever. Although the ICO in the UK has now removed the requirement for explicit consent, this lunatic legislation continues to cause misery for web users and web designers – especially those working with mobile devices. There really must be a better way to manage consent then an ugly pop up or sidebar that craps all over your web design like an unwelcome seagull.

10. Twitter Freaks

Random people (or bots – who knows) that crop up from nowhere on Twitter to follow me. All manner of exotic creatures and people I’ve never heard of adding me to lists I have no wish to be on without asking my permission. It’s a tiresome game of cat and mouse, blocking the bots and the nutters – I should probably take a more relaxed all-comers-welcome approach but that’s never going to happen.

It can’t just be me, what are your pet hates when using the web and what tips do you have to avoid or nullify them. Share please.