Posts Tagged ‘tips’

Ten Tips for writing better blogs posts

This post will share ten specific things you can do to imrpove your blog posts.

  1. Make sure your post is worth reading
  2. Use a summary sentence
  3. Use lists to summarize content of long posts
  4. Use screenshots and pictures
  5. Complement your post with video
  6. Include hyperlinks
  7. Open links in a separate tab or window
  8. Let your personality come through
  9. It’s all in the title
  10. Go back and edit your post

1. Make sure your post is worth reading

Abandon the philosophy “I blog therefore I am”. Writing a blog post can be a selfish act, you may be really happy about something, or really angry about something or maybe you just figured something out and you want to show the world ‘look what I figured out”.

Ask yourself – What will the reader get out of reading this post?

There is too much “stuff’ on the internt. When you add to that collection of stuff, make sure it’s worth someone’s time to read it.  Are there successful blogs that rant constantly? Yes, but the successful ones are deliberately written to entertain or inform. Make sure you have a take away for your reader in mind. What will I learn from your post?  ‘how to install node.js’ ‘how to make a healthy snack your kids will actually eat’ or ‘how to avoid overspending on a laptop’

imageHere’s an example, this Imagine Cup post is a first person story by a student who won first place in a competition. What’s notable is the content helps a student understand the value of participating in the competition. It’s not just a brag about winning.

2. Use a summary sentence

When you search online for ‘what laptop should I buy?’, you get two thousand matches. How do you decide which search results is worth clicking?

The average user spends about 5 seconds glancing at a page before they decide whether it’s worth staying to read that page. Remember point #1 make sure your post is worth reading! The user wlil take about 5 seconds to decide if your post is worth reading. So, provide a single sentence to tell me what I learn if I take the time to read your post.

It helps to make your summary sentence stand out visually by using italics or a different colour.

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Another advantage to the summary sentence: Your summary will appear in the details of the search results soI know what I wil learn from the search results page as well. I wrote this post two years ago and it still gets hits (Mental note: go update this post so people aren’t finding out of date information…)

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3. Use lists to summarize content of long posts

Sadly some of the best blog posts are the least read.

Why? Because when someone takes the time to write out all the details to explain something, the end result can be a very long blog post.

Your reader may be looking for something very specific. You may provide that information half way through your post, but they are unlikely to read through 4 pages to see if you cover that one topic. If you break your post into sections, you can provide a list at the top listing all the sections. If you really want to make the user happy, add hyperlinks so your reader can click on a topic and go straight to the section of interest to them.

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4. Use screenshots and pictures

A picture is worth a thousand words!

If you are going to try and show me how to use a piece of software, or how to bake a cake, please include pictures and screenshots.  It is visually appealing and can be more effective than describing with text. Pictures also break up the endless text in a longer blog post. If I see a really long post with nothing but text I am less likely to read it.

If you are going to share screenshots, invest in software that will let you capture delayed screenshots so you can show pop-up menus. It helps to have an editor so you can add boxes, arrows, and highlights to your screenshots.

All the screenshots in this post are captured and edited with Snagit.

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5. Complement your post with video

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video can be worth a million!

Whether you are showing me how to apply a compression bandage, how to cook an omelet or how to deploy an Azure website, video can be a great complement to your blog post. But keep it short. If you embed a 57 minute video in your blog post, chances are your video will go to the ‘when I have time’ list along with a number of other excellent recordings that I really want to watch when I have the chance. I find somewhere in the 4-9 minute range is about the longest video I will watch when it is embedded in a blog post. You are better off creating 4×5 minute videos than one 20 mintute video if you can find a way to break up the content.

As with screenshots, take the time to invest in some software for recording your video and a microphone to improve the audio quality of your recordings. The other advantage to short recordings is they take less time to redo when you make a mistake. If you are doing a software demo, increase the font sizes and consider a tool like Zoomit to help highlight and zoom in on the important parts of the screen during your demo.

Watch the video below and try to imagine writing a blog post to explain how to use this feature instead of using video. FYI, I used Zoomit to zoom in and draw a few arrows. (my Zoomit skills pale in comparison to @GeekTrainer who uses it really effectively in his Microsoft Virtual Academy videos). FYI, I used my headset instead of my Snowball Microphone for this recording and I did get feedback from a viewer saying the audio was hard to hear.

Sample video using Zoomit and headset microphone

6. Include links!

When you recommend a tool or resource, please provide a hyperlink!

I LOVE bloggers who include links to related resources. If you are showing me a recipe for a cocktail and the recipe calls has an ingredient of “ginger simple syrup” please give me the link to a recipe for ginger simple syrup, that’s not somethig I can just pick up at the store! If you are writing a technical post and you start tell me I need to have a Microsoft account and Visual Studio installed, give me links on where to create a Microsoft account and where I go to install Visual Studio! Please!

I suspect one of the people who read this post has already clicked on a link in this post. If not here’s one for you to click now.

7. Open links in a separate tab or window

Don’t lose your reader!

You’ve added links to your blog post, but what happens when your reader clicks on them? Do they leave your post? Will they ever come back?

If you don’t open links in a new window or tab, I may click on that link in and never return. You put time and effort into the post, you convinced me to start reading it. Increase your chances of me reading the whole thing by opening links in a new tab or window.

8. Let your personality come through

This is your blog post! You have a personal style, let it come through in your post.

Whether it’s a  tradition of including a picture of your cat in each blog post, links to random silly videos, song parodies, or a tendancy to write run on sentences, something I have been accused of doing from time to time even though that goes against best practices when writing blog posts.

9. It’s all in the title!

You may have written the best explanation of how to change a tire ever! But if you gave it the title “I figured it out and so can you” Chances are I will never find your post when I am searching for tips on how to change a tire.

Your title needs to give me an indication of what I will learn or at least catch my attention so I am curious enough to visit your post and read your summary sentence.

Personally I despise titles with hyperbole such as “The most amazing unbelievably scrumptions chocolate sauce ever” I find them too much and they actually turn me away. So do be careful with adjectives in your title. I prefer a simple descriptive title “An easy dark chocolate sauce recipe” is more likely to get my attention especially when you add a nice photo of a slice of chocolate cake draped in your velvety sauce… hmmm hungry now.

When in doubt, a popular title is Top Ten <fill in the blank>, people often search for top laptops, top video games, top new features, top attractions, so it’s a good fallback title, of course it does force you to come up with 5 – 10 good points to cover in your post!

10. Go back and edit your post!

Edit and then edit again!

Re-read your post and look for spelling mistakes. Spell check won’t catch everything! I recommend reading the post from bottom to top to look for spelling mistakes. After all their mite bee some words that spell check says are syntactically valid but inn you’re post are used inn the wrong context.

A good friend of mine writes short stories and has had several published. She told me when you finish a store or chapter, you should go back and edit it with the goal of removing sentences and words that do not add to the story. When you are finished your edit, your story should be about one third shorter! The result is a cleaner, faster paced story. You would be amazed how much you can remove while still delivering the same message sharper and cleaner!

Go forth and write!

There are many other ways to write great blog posts, but hopefully this helps! Apologies  to all my readers for all the posts I have written where I didn’t folllow my own rules!

Women in Tech–10 Tips for balancing family and business travel

ViewFromAPlaneAfter twenty years of working in high tech and just about every one of those years involving business travel, I won’t even pretend to have perfected the family/work balance but, if you are about to embark on a job that involves travel, I have a few tips that might help.

1 – Accept you may catch some moments in reruns

First steps, losing a tooth, scoring a goal at the hockey game, as a parent you will get to witness many amazing moments in your child’s life. If you travel for work, you are going to miss some of those moments.  It’s not the end of the world, find pleasure in listening to your spouse or child tell you all about that awesome moment. They will be thrilled to have an opportunity to relive it with you when you call or get home.

2 – Find a farewell routine

Life is easier when you have a routine. It helps to have a routine when you leave on a trip. My routine is fairly simple, when I leave town I give the kids (and my husband) a bedtime kiss and hug for each night I will be gone (a little tougher now the boys are teenagers). This is my way of letting them know that even though I am not home, I am still thinking of them. It also gives them a sense of how long I will be gone. A 3 year old doesnt really understand the difference between a 2 day and a 5 day trip. But, kids figure out quickly that only one extra hug meant a short trip. I still remember the night before a two week trip, my 7 year old son stepped back and looked at me and said ‘that’s a lot of extra hugs mom.’  Some people count sleeps until mom or dad gets home. You could make a countdown with post it notes or tear out pages from a day by day calendar and leave them behind one per day. Whatever works for you. Just make sure it doesn’t require too much work beforehand, if you are travelling regularly, you won’t always have the time and energy for complicated rituals.

3 – Do what you can to make your time away easier for your spouse

Leaving for a week? maybe you should call a cleaning service to come and clean the house while you are away, or arrange for someone to mow the lawn. Maybe, the best way to help is by getting someone to help get the kids to and from their various activities. I try to make arrangements for someone to drive my son to his hockey practices so my husband has doesn’t have to manage supper, dishes and driving to and from the arena. Sometimes I can make his life easier by doing something as simple as baking the kids favorite cookies before I leave, so there are peanut free snacks to put in the kids lunches. When I had a two week trip I made arrangements for a friend to come to the house and take the kids to dinner and a movie over the weekend, so dad could have a night off. (We don’t have the luxury of grandparents in town to help out, but if you do, they could also be a great resource to give your spouse a break when you are away)

4 – Set expectations on when you will call home

In this world of text messages and Skype, there are lots of ways to stay in touch when you are on the road. But, it’s still a good idea to just have a quick chat with your spouse to manage expectations. Will you be available during the work day to exchange a text message or an email? A call may take some planning. What nights will your spouse be busy with kids activities?  When will they be busy with bath time?  When will you have privacy for a voice call? a video chat? Are there nights when you have evening commitments on your trip? Are you going to talk every night? Are you caliing to talk to your spouse at one time and your kids at a different time? In my early days of business travel (pre cell phones) my husband used to call my hotel room in the evening, on my first couple of trips I missed the calls and came back to my hotel room to a blinking light and it was too late to call back (don’t forget to factor in time changes as part of your planning). You may be busy on your trip, but your spouse is still at home dealing with all the day to day activities and may be craving some adult conversation, or a chance to unload after a bad day. Sometimes you can just call on the spur of the moment, but it’s good to have a couple of pre-planned times just in case!

5 – Don’t buy everyone presents on every business trip

If travel is going to be a regular occurence, you don’t want the kids to expect a gift every time you go away. Don’t hesitate to bring home a little something from time to time, but you don’t need to be rushing around the airport gift shop every time you have a flight. Like everything else you need to find a balance. My approach was to pick up a gift when I am visiting somewhere new or out of the ordinary. Of course, sometimes you stumble across something you just can’t get at home, a favorite brand of chocolate bar, an interesting bottle of wine, a cool pair of socks (no seriously, my son loves wearing funky socks, and I never know when I will find a cool pair). When it’s unexpected it’s a bigger treat.

6 – Share your travel perks and points with your family

If you have status on the airline, make a point of going to the airport with enough time to visit the lounge with the family (assuming your kids are old enough to get a kick out of the free cookies and drinks). Can you cash in some air miles to get free admission to the zoo? How about using your hotel points to stay at a fancy hotel for one night, cash in your upgrade coupons on a family trip and give your spouse a turn in first class. If your kids are older and are well behaved travellers, consider giving them a turn in first class as well. Please remember that smaller children should not be sent up to first class on their own, I have a friend who when upgraded ended up sitting next to a 3 year old (not sure of the age, but he got my friend to cut his meat up for him so we are going to guess the 3 year old range) this boy was providing his own loud commentary as he watched the in flight tv, was rude to the staff, kicked the seat in front of him, and was generally loud and disruptive. Meanwhile his father was somewhere in economy oblivious to the whole thing. My friend was getting the dirty looks because they thought he was the parent. So while I applaud taking kids on trips and giving them the opportunity to experience first class, with younger kids that should only be done supervised by mom or dad. But I digress, the main point here is your family is affected by your business travel, it’s stressful for them, so if you get a few perks try to share the benefits with them.

7 – Listen and ask questions

When you come home from a trip or you call home during a trip, chances are your spouse or kids will have news to share. Even if you had an exciting day/trip listen before you tell your story. Ask about the science test, the doctor’s appointment, recess, bath time.

8 – Try to be home before bedtime

I’ve discovered that if my kids see me before bed, they don’t consider that a day away. So sacrifice a little sleep in the hotel bed to catch that early morning flight so you can be home by suppertime. When going on your trip, try to avoid those early morning flights so you at least have breakfast with the family before you take off.

9 – Set limits on your travel

How much travel is too much? Best to discuss that with your spouse before it happens. You should also ask yourself which family events should not be missed. Sometimes the answer when the boss says ‘can you do this trip’ is no. I call it my domestic air miles balance. When I take a trip I am cashing in domestic air miles, and when I get home I need to earn them back. Occasionally, if I am travelling somewhere really interesting or in a city where I have friends or family to visit, I cash in a few extra domestic air miles and spend an extra day in the city to explore. If I have had a few trips back to back and another one comes up I might tell my boss that I have cashed in all my domestic air miles and need some time to earn them back before I travel again (If you do turn down a trip, tell your spouse you did it, I’ve discovered letting them know I said no to a trip helps me earn back a few more of those domestic air miles). Saying no from time to time is not going to hurt your career. If you have accepted a job with very heavy travel, then it’s important to stop from time to time and discuss with your family if the job is worth that much time apart.

10 – Give your spouse a chance to be an awesome parent

When you are away, the household routine may vary. maybe the kids get ice cream as a bedtime snack instead of fruit. Maybe they get to watch a tv show you normally don’t let them watch, or they get more video game time than you would normally allow. A little rule stretching can actually help the kids feel a little closer to dad. Maybe there is a restaurant, tv show, or movie that you don’t like but they do, what better time to do it then when you are out of town! They will still want to spend time with mom, and tell you about their days and adventures when you get home. If the kids get a little quality time with dad and bond doing something you wouldn’t normally do, even some minor rule breaking, maybe that’s okay. I honestly believe that my kids are a little closer to their dad because I am occasionally out of town.

Jobs which require business travel can be exciting and great opportunities, but they will absolutely impact your life at home. A little foresight and planning will make it easier on everyone! Safe travels and share your tips as well!

Be a better blogger – Add a Summary Sentence

Adding a summary sentence to the top of a blog post helps a reader decide if they want to stay and read your post.

My team took a great course on writing for the web where we learned a number of tips and techniques to improve our blogs. I want to share some of what we learned so you can be a better blogger

The average user spends 10 seconds looking at a web page before they decide if they want to stay and read it. That means you have 10 seconds to convince them they want to read your post. Now having said that, not every post is intended for every reader. When I write a blog post about the Imagine Cup competition it is aimed at university and college students taking Computer Science or Engineering. Whereas this blog post is aimed at bloggers. You don’t need to hook all readers, just your intended audience.

The easiest way to tell someone in 10 seconds or less what is in your blog, is by adding a summary sentence. I find putting it in a different font size or color helps it stand out.

Don’t believe me? Test it out

Look at this blog post for 10 seconds. Do you know what you will learn if you take the time to read that blog in full? Was 10 seconds enough time for you to make a good decision as to whether you want to read that blog?

Now look at this one. A little intro paragraph at the beginning helps doesn’t it?

Now look at this one. See how the opening two lines give you enough information to decide if this blog is of interest to you?

Now look at the first sentence of the blog post you are reading right now, did that sentence catch your eye? Did it help you understand what you would learn by reading this post?

It doesn’t take long and your readers will appreciate it!

Do you hate SharePoint? Part 4 of 4

If the answer is yes, could your hatred be caused by your local implementation? In this final post of our blog series we look at the last of four common problems with SharePoint implementations and how you can address them.

Once again, a huge thank you to Neil MacIsaac, SharePoint MCT, for putting this entire series together. Happy reading!

If you missed the earlier posts you can find them here

  1. Business Intelligence

This week we look at Business Intelligence.

4. Business Intelligence

Are there organizations out there that are really striving for Business Unintelligence? Wouldn’t everything that an organization does be in an effort to do something better? I love the term Business Intelligence (BI) mainly because of its massive overuse and its wide misunderstanding as ‘reporting’. So the question really becomes "How do we maximize our BI?" First, it is important to understand what BI really is. It is about making better decisions. If we have better data, and a better understanding of our data, it would be logical to conclude we would make better decisions right? Not necessarily. The theory is correct, but in practice most organizations fail to implement this properly by not focusing on the decision that they are trying to improve and instead only achieve in bombarding their key decision makers with an avalanche of reports. What is also surprising is that most of the decision makers in an organization are probably the ones asking for the reports in the first place. Let me give you an example. In a sales based business, you might see some monthly sales figures like this (overly simplified for the sake of discussion)

Sales Member

Monthly Sales (Units)

John

5,437

Mary

8,350

Bob

3,043

Jim

7,410

Why do we need to see these sales figures? The typical answer you will get will be "Because I need to know if there are any problems and to see if we are doing better or worse than last month or last year." So, with the above numbers, where is the problem? Most people would focus on Bob because his numbers are lower than the others. What isn’t shown with these numbers is that Bob is the newest of team and manages the smallest sales area. Can you still spot where the problem is in the above sales numbers? The typical failure in implementing a BI solution within SharePoint is usually in the disregard for a proper BI solution that focuses on those key decisions which strives to achieve a better decision by supplying as much data around the factors and drivers of the data as the data itself. Instead we see fancier reports of the above sales table and hope that our decision makers will ‘figure it out’. Another interesting point concerning SharePoint and BI integration is the potential for SharePoint to implement the decision. If our BI solution is focused on key decisions, a good solution should allow the user to implement the decision as quickly and easily as possible.

Conclusion

As you can see, SharePoint offers many challenges when deployed into an organization and requires due diligence to maximize your return. I hope that some of my tips may make their way into your organization and perhaps save you from some of the common pitfalls that have trapped others. There is good reason why SharePoint has become as popular as it has and hopefully you will be better able to get the most out of your implementation.

My love affair with Visual Studio: Error Correction

I have been working with Visual Studio for years, and I’ve found a few tricks along the way that make my coding easier. In this blog post I’ll show one of my favourite time savers the Error Correction feature.

When you are writing code for a form or a class as part of a team, or even if you are just starting work on a project which will be made up of multiple classes, you always end up having to reference classes, properties, or methods in your code that haven’t been written yet. So you either have to comment out those calls, add them later, or add stubs so your code will compile. In Visual Studio 2010 they added a neat little feature that will add the stubs for you!

Say I am writing code for a click event handler that will create and populate an instance of a Student object who will be registering for a course. I haven’t created the Student class yet so I see a squiggly under the word student and this little rectangle at the end of the squiggly.

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Now comes the cool part, I can carefully hover the mouse over the tiny rectangle and a little warning symbol will appear, if I hover just right it will appear with an arrow beside it that I can click on.

ErrorCorrectionOptionSmall

Clicking on that little arrow will bring up a menu of options that will fix the error for me! By the way, if like me, you find using the mouse to bring up the list fiddly, you can use the keyboard to bring up the correction menu by putting the cursor on the word student and hitting CTRL + . that’s CONTROL KEY and a PERIOD.

ErrorCorrectionListSmall

Visual Studio is offering to create a Student class for me, or to define a new type (variable essentially). If I click on Generate ‘Class Student’ I can see a new class appear in Solution Explorer called Student.vb

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If I open up the Student class I see it has not only created a class, but because my code called a constructor and passed in two variables, it created a constructor method in the class as well that accepts two variables!

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The code isn’t complete by any means, but it’s enough to get rid of the squiggly on Student in my event handler!

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Of course now I have squiggly lines under vFirstName and vLastName because I haven’t declared those yet, but if I bring up the Error Correction list for those variables I select Generate field for vFirstName and then Generate field for vLastName and it adds the declarations for me!

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Sure, it didn’t’ know what data type to make the variables, it’s not perfect, but when I am trying to test something quickly these little Error Correction tools that will generate code stubs for me can be a real time-saver.

This blog also appears on the Canadian Solution Developer Blog

Do you hate SharePoint? Part 2 of 4

If the answer is yes, could your hatred be caused by your local implementation? In this second part of our blog series we continue to explore four common problems with SharePoint implementations and how you can address them.

Once again, a huge thank you to Neil McIsaac, SharePoint MCT, for putting this together. Happy reading! If you missed Part 1 – Information Management, you can read it here

SharePoint is an interesting platform and as it grows as a product and with its already incredible adoption, it is an important cornerstone for many organizations. But ask the people that work with it, and you will find a divided love it or hate it passion for the product.

Why hate it?

It’s my experience (which dates back to the site server/dashboard days), that many customers have difficulty handling the product and I mean this a number of ways. Here’s the issue:

SharePoint will amplify your problems.

So why do we hate it? I would hate anything that made my problems larger. But did SharePoint create the problem? That would be like blaming the carpenters hammer for building a crooked house. The problems are our own doing in the majority of cases. In my experience, the most common problem SharePoint seems to amplify are the following;

  1. Project Management
  2. Information Security
  3. Business Intelligence

Last week we looked at Information Management, this week let’s look at Project Management.

2. Project Management

There are some interesting numbers on the frequency in which SharePoint projects fail. I won’t bore you with numbers mainly because individually they succumb to a lot of subjectivity, but ask anyone that’s been around the block a few times and they will tell you that the majority of SharePoint projects fail. Why? Blaming SharePoint for a bad project is kind of like blaming a poor house design on the hammer in the carpenter’s hand. SharePoint is a tool, albeit a very complex one, but the result is always the result of its usage and rarely the tool itself. SharePoint has its quirks, the vast majority of products do, and part of a proper SharePoint implementation is to address those quirks as best we can. But that’s not where projects tend to fail. The common culprits are the following;

Scope management

This is a really tough one to control in a SharePoint project. When the decision has been made to use SharePoint and people soon realize that it has the potential to solve the majority of your organizations problems, many organizations attempt to solve everything at once or completely the opposite, choose to only solve a single problem with SharePoint.

SharePoint projects are commonly either scoped too large, or too small. Too large a scope, and you are overwhelmed trying to coordinate a very complex solution. You get bogged down with the intricate under wirings of your organization to the point that your project will be stuck in the requirement gathering stages for years. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen organizations that have planned for a year and not really yielded any results. On the other hand, organizations that start too small usually create an inadequate solution for growth. So where is the happy medium?

To properly manage scope within a SharePoint project you need to understand a bit of the big picture of your environment and then focus on one problem at a time. The best place I have found to start is by establishing proper Use Cases for your organization, and not just the ones you think should go into SharePoint. Properly created Use Cases are one of the most powerful architecture tools that we have in IT and is something that every IT department should have on hand already. They truly help focus our solutions to be task oriented and not data oriented. By understanding what our people do or need to be able to do, we can create a better solution for them. After collecting Use Cases, we need to establish an overall vision for the SharePoint solution. This can be a little bit daunting to staff that are new to SharePoint structures. If we look to our Use Cases, we can group the cases that are shared by common roles with the idea being that those roles should be able to complete those tasks as easily as possible. By grouping them, we can establish areas in SharePoint where an employee in that role can go to and complete those tasks. We now have an idea as to the scope of our project – make an area in SharePoint do cases x, y and z. Many areas can be identified with their Use Cases bound to them, and realistic timelines could be better established for each area.

Requirements Gathering

Most organizations feel they are pretty good at requirements gathering because they’ve been doing it for so long. In my experience, they’ve just established that they don’t understand process improvement. It is the question "How can we do this better?" where we establish our daily pursuit of perfection and question our assumed excellence. There is a lot of information elsewhere on different approaches, so I will cut this down as simply as I can. If you are not using an iterative process in your IT projects, you are doing it wrong, plain and simple.

Have an Architect

I should expand on this a bit. You should have a qualified SharePoint architect or architecture committee. "We don’t have one, so where can we find one?" Good luck. There are a lot of lousy consultants out there for various reasons, but you really need to have a good architect in an IT project who understands the impact of various choices they make. When it comes to SharePoint, I offer this advice. Give your solution architect a business problem you wish them to solve in SharePoint, and ask for 3 different solutions and the pros and cons of each. If they can’t do it, RUN! They are obviously under-qualified to be supporting you. A really good architect should be able to rough out more than 3 different solutions.

Testing

Wow. This is one of my absolute worst pet peeves of the IT industry. If the only testing you are doing is User Acceptance Testing (UAT), and maybe some regression testing, you have really missed the boat. I have a whole spiel on this topic which I will save for another blog someday. When it comes to SharePoint, test your solutions including your code and go beyond the question of "Does it work", and ask "Does it work well?"

Use SharePoint to run SharePoint

This is one of my favourites mainly because it is one of the most overlooked. I often ask my clients how someone in their organization would go about creating a new site, say, to manage a project. The answer is typically that the person making the request would send an email to their manager, where it would eventually be forwarded to IT after a couple of emails going back and forth for approvals and information gathering, an IT staff member would then go and manually create a site for the requestor. My reply usually goes something along the lines of "So, you gather some required information, invoke a workflow with steps for approvals and further data collection, and create a site based on the data. Why isn’t that automated in SharePoint?" By using SharePoint to manage SharePoint, you can establish a more consistent structure and daily routine. In the above example, the data can be collected via a list. Workflows can be initiated for the approvals and further data collection and in the end a site could be created automatically as the final successful step in the workflow process. The result would allow IT staff to be involved less, the results more consistent since we reduce the amount of manual steps, and the process to flow much faster. Managing IT requests are also business procedures so don’t ignore them when developing your Use Cases for SharePoint.

Next week part 3 Information Security…

This blog is also on the Developer connection

Do you hate SharePoint? Part 1 of 4

If the answer is yes, could your hatred be caused by your local implementation? In this blog series we look at four common problems with SharePoint implementations and how you can address them.

SharePoint is one of those tools where the line blurs between the developer and the administrator, much like SQL Server and much like SQL Server, SharePoint is everywhere! So even though this post is not about coding for SharePoint, I thought it had some great information that many of us could use when dealing with SharePoint implementations, either as a developer supporting an implementation, or even as an end user (did I mention I use SharePoint at work? Hey boss, you reading this?).  A huge thank you to Neil McIsaac, SharePoint trainer extraordinaire, (bio at the end of the blog) for putting this together. Happy reading!

SharePoint is an interesting platform and as it grows as a product and with its already incredible adoption, it is an important cornerstone for many organizations. But ask the people that work with it, and you will find a divided love it or hate it passion for the product.

Why hate it?

It’s my experience (which dates back to the site server/dashboard days), that many customers have difficulty handling the product and I mean this a number of ways. Here’s the issue:

SharePoint will amplify your problems.

So why do we hate it? I would hate anything that made my problems larger. But did SharePoint create the problem? That would be like blaming the carpenters hammer for building a crooked house. The problems are our own doing in the majority of cases. In my experience, the most common problem SharePoint seems to amplify are the following;

  1. Information Management
  2. Project Management
  3. Information Security
  4. Business Intelligence

Without a doubt, this is not a definitive list of problem areas, but from my experience, these are the key ones that help make or break your experience with SharePoint. So let’s take a look at them.

1. Information Management

In my mind, this is the biggest problem area and by a considerable margin. Why? Well, if you think about information management, it really encompasses all of the other areas. It is a really broad topic. What is surprising is as an industry whose core revolves around titles such as Information Management and Information Technology; you would think that we’d be better at it. Let’s look at an example: The shared documents library within the default team site is fairly widely used by organizations. At face value it seems like a perfect solution for the sharing of documents. After all, it is called the ‘shared documents’ library.

When I was a kid, I remember going to the library. I am talking about the real one that had shelves and shelves of books that you couldn’t carry around in your pocket. I won’t refer to those times as ‘the good old days’ because they simply weren’t. What fascinated me was the organization. I had the power as a kid, to walk in to the library and find various books on a topic that interested me, and to browse some additional information about each book before ever finding the book on the shelf. You might be thinking that I am referring to the ability to sit down in front of a computer and search, but I’m older than that. I’m referring to the cataloguing system called the Dewey Decimal system.

That’s right, no computers. Yet I could search amongst a huge amount of material systematically and rapidly (for the times). 135 years later, and I’m watching organizations fumble with taxonomy and metadata like new borns driving a car.

So what’s the problem?

If we look at the shared documents library like a real library and a document like a book, if you let your employees simply start saving their document in the library it becomes almost the equivalent of having a library where you open up the front door, and chuck your book into the building. Imagine trying to find that book a week later. For the first hundred books or so, you might be ok, but what about the first thousand? Every time you see the default shared documents library being used, you should picture a real library, with nothing more than a mound of books in the middle of the room and people frantically trying to find things in the pile. The first thing that might come to many peoples mind is that "Well that is what we have Search for!" No we don’t. Well, not exactly. Search doesn’t organize our data for us; it makes the retrieval faster in larger systems. If you don’t believe me, do an internet search for a topic such as Shakespeare and tell me what the most current and correct material is on the subject. So how do we go from a pile of books on the floor, to nicely organized books on the proper shelves? The answer is 2/3rds metadata, and 1/3rd taxonomy.

Metadata is data that describes data. In the case of the Dewey Decimal system, that data helped to organize books into categories such as fiction or non-fiction, and provide additional tags such as animals, psychology, religion etc. so that you could much more easily identify basic keywords that described the material. In the library system, that information is collected, identified, and then recorded when the book is first brought into the library so that the material can be properly placed as well as be identified within a cataloguing system to be more easily retrieved. Do your SharePoint libraries behave like that?

Taxonomy is the organization of metadata. In the example of the library, who determined that fiction and non-fiction should be one of the primary organizational metadata to categorize books? Why not hard cover and soft cover? Within your own organization, the determination of metadata and the taxonomy surrounding it is purely yours. It needs to reflect your organizational goals, which is why companies like Microsoft can’t exactly make that an out of the box feature. YOU have to address it, and unless you like sorting through a million books, you need to address it yesterday.

If you haven’t already addressed it, let me help you with a few tips.

Focus on process

Data is a byproduct of process. Data simply wouldn’t exist if it didn’t have somewhere to go or something to be done to it. Knowing and understanding the key processes in your organization is a must. What can be more difficult is the identification of key areas where your processes will likely change, or where you would like to change in the future. The reason we need to identify this as best as we can is so that we can better lay the ground work now. In other words, after we know what the current process is, we need to ask "What is likely to change? What additional information might be needed to identify problems or opportunities that we could leverage to further improve the process?" As an example, if we examine a simple project management site where we record change requests and have their statuses updated, could you easily identify the total amount of time it took to go from request to resolution? Could I easily identify the chain of events that happened after receiving a change request? And is either of those 2 details important to me or will be important to me in the future? Questions such as those will help take you beyond simply recording a change request and marking it as ‘resolved’. Better metadata = better taxonomy = better processes.

Have Multiple Taxonomies

Taxonomy is fairly simple in concept in that it is leveraged metadata. I think I’ve already established the importance of having some type of taxonomy. Although what I am about to say is really two versions of the same thing, for the sake of the SharePoint argument I am going to separate the taxonomies into 2 types; Navigational taxonomies and categorical taxonomies. The reason for the separation is so they can be planned according to their primary usage in that users are either finding the data they need, or working with the data to make decisions. By focusing on their usage, we can hopefully make a better taxonomy.

With navigational taxonomies our focus should be on the Use Cases that you have established for the project. By focusing on what people do with the site, we can streamline their access to their data. You won’t be able to establish that unless you understand what people do with your site, and Use Cases are the best way to establish that.

You should also support more than one navigational taxonomy since there isn’t only one way to complete a task. The goal of the menu navigation should be task focused, so how do we add a second navigational taxonomy? By adding more menus? No. In SharePoint, we can add these extra navigational taxonomies through the introduction of a Site Directory focused site, and/or through the use of custom search pages and results. Both of these options are relatively easy to implement and will allow your users a second and or third way to find a location in your growing architecture.

Categorical taxonomy can be a bit harder to implement since it deals directly with content. We need to collect metadata on content to better describe it, but what should that metadata be? How should it be best structured? Great questions and the first answer lies within understanding the various processes surrounding your data. How it will be used, what decisions need to be made on it, etc. The metadata from this is typically well understood and most organizations have little trouble in establishing what the metadata is rather they have trouble in establishing how to best implement it within SharePoint.

Let me give you some tips in establishing categorical taxonomies;

Use Content Types

Content types are a way of establishing a common structure that can be shared amongst lists and libraries. Use them if you want to establish some consistency.

Use the Managed Metadata Service (MMS)

You can think of the MMS as a place to store the common vocabulary for your organization which can be used and shared in a number of ways. Another advantage is that you can disseminate the administration of the terms to the people that use them and not IT. Be aware that the MMS interface within the Document Information Panel is only supported within Office 2010.

Support Views

Views are a great way to change to look and organization of a list or library. They work by changing the display of the data, such as sort order, which columns are shown etc. Good views require good metadata.

Support Soft Metadata

Hard metadata is metadata that directly fulfills a business requirement. In other words, it really needs to be there and usually in a very structured way where we control the terms and their usage. Soft metadata on the other hand is metadata that doesn’t have a direct business relationship but can offer some insight to the content. A good example would be in the way that we tag photos. Quite often we will need some hard metadata such as the date that the photo was taken and the location, but we want to support soft metadata so that users are able to tag the photo with open terms, such as ‘wildlife’ or ‘Christmas Party’. But why do we want to support this? To which my answer is ‘Do we really want to turn away free information?’ Granted there is a minimal support cost to this. In the end, we have content that is simply more usable, and with any luck, could be leveraged one day, so I often tout that the support costs are minimal with a potential for much gain, so why not. SharePoint 2010 can implement this many ways including using keywords, and/or open MMS term stores.

Archive

This has been a thorn in my side almost wherever I go. We work in the information age and are so-called masters of information technologies, so why are we so bad at archiving strategies? A common dialog I often have with my clients goes something like this: "Our data retrieval is slow because we have a lot of it, over a million rows.", "Why do you have over a million rows in your table?", "We need to keep our data for X years.", "Did anyone say you need to keep it in the same storage medium as the daily production data?", "Ummm, no.". Archiving data does not have to be offline, it can be online and accessible, it simply has a different purpose than your live, day to day, data, most importantly it should be separated. Every time you create a new location where users can add content, whether it be a list, or a library, or a database, or a file share, you should ask yourself "How does this content retire?" and "When does it change its purpose?" After that, automate the process. Without an archival strategy you are setup for failure, you just don’t know when. By accumulating data over time, you cause the live, day to day, data to slowly become harder to use when it is left in the same storage medium. Retrieving data will be slow, and it will often get in the way of users trying to find the correct content while they are trying to accomplish their day to day tasks.

Next week Part 2. Project management…

NeilMcIssacNeil McIsaac (MCPD, MCITP, MCTS, MCSD, MCDBA, MCSE, MCSA, MCT) is an accomplished educator, consultant, and developer who specializes in enterprise application development and integration, application architecture, and business intelligence. As an instructor, Neil shares his knowledge and years of experience with students on a wide range of topics including SharePoint, BizTalk, SQL, .NET development, and PowerShell. He recently did an interview about SharePoint in the Cloud with .NET Rocks

Neil is an owner of BlueGreen Information Technologies Inc., and has over 18 years experience working in the IT industry in both the private and public sectors. His focus on large scale application development and integration keeps Neil involved almost exclusively with enterprise level companies. However, he also works in every level of government.

Neil lives in Moncton, New Brunswick Canada. In his spare time, Neil enjoys downhill skiing, golf and a new motorcycle.

This blog is also posted on the Canadian Developer Connection

Want Your Presentation to Rock? Hook Your Audience Early!

Every day professors there is a lecture room with someone standing up front talking about Fourrier Transforms or looping algorithms. Whether it’s a class presentation,  a lunch and learn for fellow students, or a presentation on a co-op term, all of us are called upon to present from time to time. When we put together a presentation it can be tricky to deliver the information the audience needs in a way that will hold their attention. You want a presentation that will grab and hold their attention. Luckily there is a very easy 5 slide structure you can use in your slide decks to quickly get the audience invested in your presentation.

I really believe you have to get your audience hooked right from the beginning. Whether you are presenting at a conference, to a client, to your boss, or to co-workers. You want to make sure the audience understands what you will be talking about and why they should care right away! We all have limited time, so when I sit down to listen to someone else present I want to know right away what am I going to get out of this presentation.

The structure I use at the start of my decks is based on the principles in Beyond Bullet Points by Cliff Atkinson.

Let’s say I wanted to talk to a group of programmers about developing an application for a Windows Phone. A typical presentation might start out with a slide that shows a picture of a windows phone, then it might display a slide that lists the tools you need to download to start developing, then a slide listing the hardware and software requirements to use the tools, you have a few slides talking about the different types of phone applications you can build, then maybe you do a Hello World example, and you do various code examples and demos and finish up with talking about how to publish an app to the marketplace. Sound about right? That’s fine, but it could be so much better! All you need to do is put careful thought into the first 5 slides!

Slide 1 The Setting

The very first slide in your deck should give your audience the setting, telling them where we are right now. Think of it like a sort of one sentence status update, a state of the union. Ideally this setting should be expressed as a single sentence with a single image on the slide to reinforce it. For example

“The Windows Phone MarketPlace offers great opportunities to get noticed” and an image of someone who stands out in a crowd.

Other examples of setting statements

“SQL Server 2012 CTP3 has just been released”

“MVC is becoming a popular model for web development”

“All companies need accurate information to make decisions”

Slide 2 The Protagonist

The second slide should help the audience understand how they fit into this setting, so they can understand how your first statement is relevant to them. Again keep the slide simple, one sentence, one image!

“You know .NET, so you can code a windows phone application” with a picture of a happy programmer, or the .NET logo, get creative have fun with it.

Other examples

“We are currently running SQL Server 2005”

“Our team maintains 15 corporate websites”

“We have 45 databases at our company storing 61 TB worth of data”

Slide 3 The imbalance

This slide should give a sense of the conflict, the problem, it should start to make people feel like we need to do something. Stick with the one sentence, one image format.

“The Windows Phone Marketplace is an untapped opportunity” with a picture of Monty Burns from the Simpsons rubbing his hands together with glee (like I said you can have fun with the images)

Other examples

“We need the business intelligence features in SQL Server 2012”

“None of our websites share code”

“There is wealth of information in our data that can help our company succeed”

Slide 4 The balance

This slide should tell the audience the desired outcome, where we want to be in a week, a month, a year, or even in an hour when this presentation is completed. Oh and guess what format the slide should be…yup one sentence, one image. By the way lets be clear, I do mean an actual sentence, with punctuation and everything, a bullet point is not a sentence.

“We want to develop windows phone applications” with an image of a windows phone showing the company logo on a tile

Other examples

“We need to upgrade to SQL Server 2012”

“We want our code to be re-usable across websites”

“We can get information about trends and patterns from our company data to plan company strategy”

Slide 5 The solution

Now it’s time to reveal what you will really be talking about in your slide deck, the solution, how will we get from where we are now to where we want to be, from the imbalance to the balance!

“You can develop a phone application” with an image of a finger pointing at the audience.

Other examples

“There is an upgrade path from SQL 2005 to 2012”

“MVC will allow us to re-use more of our code”

“SQL Server Analysis Services cubes will help us report on trends in our data”

Put it all together and it comes out like this

The Windows Phone Marketplace offers great opportunities to get noticed. You know .NET, so you can code a windows phone application. The Windows Phone Marketplace is an untapped opportunity. We want to develop windows phone applications. You can develop a phone application

or

All companies need accurate information to make decisions. We have 45 databases at our company storing 61 TB worth of data. There is wealth of information in our data that can help our company succeed. We can get information about trends and patterns from our company data to plan company strategy. SQL Server Analysis Services cubes will help us report on trends in our data

If you were in the audience after these slides, would you know what was coming next? that’s the whole point, now I understand what you’ll be covering, how I am affected, and why we are having this discussion.

Just 5 slides and you are well on your way to a great presentation. An interesting aspect of these first 5 slides: they don’t take long to cover in your audience. I probably average about 30 seconds a slide on these. So they add very little to your overall presentation time yet they go such a long way towards setting the stage for the rest of your presentation. So next time you are firing up PowerPoint, before you jump straight into the content, take a minute to think about those first 5 slides. By the way, if you go back and read the first 5 sentences of this blog post…you’ll see this format can work for introductions to blogs as well Smile

 

This blog is also posted on the Canadian Solution Developer

Exam Taking Tips for Certification

For many people taking an exam can be really stressful. In this blog post I’d like to see if I can take some of the fear away from taking that exam. This is the final post in my series on How to get certified. Before you take the exam you should complete the first 3 steps. Let’s be clear, I said before you TAKE the exam complete the first 3 steps. I recommend scheduling the exam as soon as you have chosen your certification goal (step 1). By scheduling your exam you commit yourself to a date and suddenly you have a target, instead of taking the exam ‘someday’ you now know exactly when you are taking the exam. Just setting a deadline makes you more likely to meet your certification goal. We have four steps to complete to earn a certification:

  1. Choose your certification goal/exam
  2. Figure out what you don’t know
  3. Fill in the gaps
  4. Take the exam

We’ve talked about how to prepare in the blog posts describing the first three steps, now it’s time to focus on the exam itself.

Scheduling the exam

You schedule your exam at a Prometric testing center. They have locations across the country. When you visit their website to schedule an exam you will be provided with a list of testing center locations to choose from. After you select a location you will see a calendar which displays the available exam times at that testing center. The website also gives you the option of phoning if you need help scheduling your exam. You will also find answers on the website to frequently asked questions such as how much does the exam cost? and What is the policy for rescheduling the exam. Keep an eye on the Microsoft Learning site for promotions that might give you a discount or a free second try of your exam if you don’t pass the first time.

What’s that? Did I say “If you don’t pass!” Yup, I think that is everyone’s greatest fear, failing the exam. Okay now think about this for a second, if, worst comes to worst, and you don’t pass. You are out the cost of the exam. You will not be the first or the last person to fail an exam. Take a deep breath, shrug your shoulders, look at your exam score sheet to check where you scored well, and where you need to study. You just completed Step 2: Figure out what you don’t know, now re-execute Step 3: fill in the gaps with some more studying, and try again.

But let’s do everything we can to help you pass the first time! You’ve scheduled your exam, you’ve researched what is on the exam, you’ve studied the topic areas to fill in the gaps of your knowledge, now it is time to walk through that door and take the exam itself.

The day of the exam

I recommend giving yourself extra time to get to the testing center. Plan on arriving 30 minutes early, that way if you do get lost or stuck in traffic you will still make it on time. If you arrive early, all the better, you can fill out the paperwork, and sit down for a few minutes reviewing a few notes before you start. Don’t forget to bring government issued Photo ID and the exam confirmation information which has your Prometric ID, Exam number, and start time.

At your appointed start time you will be asked to hand over your cell phone, and any bags such as a purse or backpack you have with you. You will be given either a pad of paper and a pen, or a plasticized piece of paper and a whiteboard marker and eraser that you can use to take notes for yourself during the exam.

You will be taken to a computer where the test administrator will make the sure the exam is loaded onto the computer and help you launch the exam. You will be presented with a series of questions you need to answer. There will be a timer (usually in the top right corner of the screen) that indicates how much time you have left. Some exams are broken into sections and you are given a fixed amount of time for each section, other exams give you a fixed amount of time to complete the entire exam. So don’t panic if you see a timer counting down 15 minutes when you are only on question one. Expect somewhere between 40-60 questions.

The questions generally follow a fairly standard format. First you are given a scenario “You are maintaining a SQL Server 2008 database on a Windows 2008 Server”, then you are given a problem statement “your project needs to store binary data and requires very fast update and retrieval capabilities” then you are asked the question “which solution best meets the needs of the team”. Watch for statements such as  which solution “best” meets the needs of the team, that will help you narrow down which answer is correct, you can use VARBINARY, or Filestream to store binary data, but which is faster? remember the question stated the team required fast update and retrieval.

You may be asked to choose one correct answer, or two correct answers that together make a correct answer, or two correct answers each of which is correct on its own. Read carefully to make sure you understand what is being asked.

When you see a question you are unsure of, you can mark the question for review. After you have answered all the questions a summary screen is displayed and you can go back and review any questions. Personally I do not go back and review every question, instead as I go through the exam, I use the Mark for review option to help me remember which questions I wanted to go back and spend more time on if I had time.

Quick tip, if you have answered a question and the Next button is disabled, the system has not crashed, the exam is designed to force you to see all the answers before you can move on to the next question, so you may have to scroll down to see the the bottom of the last answer before the Next button is enabled.

After you have answered all the questions you will be given a chance to provide feedback on the questions and the testing center. After you submit the survey you will see a screen pop-up with your score, and at that point all you hope for is that magic 700! 700 is the passing score for a Microsoft certification exam, and just to clear up a common misconception, 700 does not equal 70%! Every exam goes through a beta testing process that helps Microsoft determine a reasonable passing score, so for an easy exam you might need better than 70%, for a tough exam you might need less than 70% to pass. There is a blog post on Born To Learn that explains this in more detail.

700 may not equal 70% but in my mind 700 = 1000. What do I mean? If you look at your transcript it will simply show that you passed the exam. I have passed exams with scores varying from 700 to 980, in the end all that really matters is you passed!

I have taken many certification exams over the years, so today’s Top 5 is all about Tips to help you when you take the exam, but this week you get double for your money a Top 10!

Top 10 Exam Tips

  1. Don’t Panic! Yup, Douglas Adams had it right when he wrote HitchHikers Guide to the Galaxy. I have taken exams where I had no idea what the answers were to the first 5 questions. Don’t panic, just do your best and carry on. In the words of Captain Taggart in Galaxy Quest Never Give Up Never Surrender! Don’t give up part way through. Always finish!
  2. ANSWER EVERY QUESTION! I cannot emphasize this enough, even if you have no idea what is the right answer, guess! You do not lose points for answering incorrectly, so you may as well guess, you might get it right.
  3. Rule out wrong answers Sometimes when you aren’t sure of the answer to a question, you can look at the answers and determine that one or two of the answers are incorrect. Now your odds of guessing the right answer just went up. Sometimes incorrect answers are blatantly obvious.
  4. Spot the difference. Sometimes you have four very long answers to choose from. Instead of spending 10 minutes trying to understand the answers in detail, if you compare the answers you might discover that the only difference between the choices is one parameter. So you may not need to figure out the entire answer, if you can find the difference between the answers you can use that difference to determine which answer is correct.
  5. Mark questions you don’t know and come back to them. Sometimes you get a question later in the exam which will help you figure out the answer to an earlier question.
  6. When in doubt go with your first instinct. Your first guess is usually the right one
  7. If you have to memorize options, write them down, then just before you walk into the exam room review them one last time. You will have to throw out or give the administrator your piece of review paper. But as soon as you sit down in the exam room you can jot it down on the paper provided while it is still fresh in your mind.
  8. If you know the answer before you read the suggested answers go with it! Sometimes I read a question and my brain immediately thinks “I know what feature they want here”. You are probably right. So now just go look for the answer you thought of in the suggested answers and select it.
  9. Check the time a quarter and half way through the exam. Don’t stress yourself out by checking the time after every question, just do a quick time check at the quarter and half-way points to make sure you are on track
  10. Get a good night’s sleep. Chances are one more hour of sleep will help you more than one more hour of cramming.

If you have taken an exam, I bet you have your own exam tips to share. So tell us your tips! and GOOD LUCK ON YOUR EXAM!

This blog post is also posted to the Canadian Developer Connection