Learn to type!

I’m surprised each time when I discover another in the seemingly too long list of people at work who can’t type.  The fact that there are people in many modern workplaces who seem to be happy hunting and pecking at their keyboards puzzles me greatly.

Keysleft.com is a simple web site which might help you understand why I’m so puzzled.  Keysleft‘s wonderfully clear, and slightly depressing, tagline is: “You have a finite number of keystrokes left in your hands before you die.”  They suggest various tricks to reduce how much you have to type, like blogging the answer to questions you get in email and replying with a link to the blog; that way you can reuse the keystrokes you invest in the answer the next time someone asks the same question.  Tell Keysleft your age and typing speed and it’ll tell you how many keystrokes you have left in your life, roughly.

There’s an implication to be drawn from the figures Keysleft generates; learn to type!  You only have a limited number of hours available to type so make the most of it by typing faster or, if Claire is to be believed, drink the right kind of tea.  Set aside a few of those limited hours to improve your typing speed and you’ll end up with more emails, tweets and facebook statuses available to you before your inevitable demise.  You could even invest some of the additional typing capacity in something enjoyable like a book, a blog post or an essay.

I think Keysleft’s calculation of available keystrokes is a bit off so let’s do my own:

  • I’ll ignore typing at home and concentrate on work based typing.  (You can think of it as typing I get paid to do…)
  • I can type at around 70 wpm, but I’m more likely to sustain around 50 wpm when I’m typing simple things like emails or work notes.
  • I spend a variable amount of time at my desk, but let’s assume it works out at only 1 hour a day of actual typing.
  • There are 253 working days in a typical year (removing weekends and the UK Bank Holidays).
  • I work at a University so we have a very generous holiday allowance which means I’m at work for 216 days a year.

Given the assumptions above I’ll type approximately 648,000 words whilst at work in 2014.

That’s a little shy of 28,000 tweets, close to 6,500 emails or the equivalent of 6 novels (in Harry Potter terms it would be 8.42 Philosopher’s Stones or 2.52 Order of the Phoenixs).

So, when you get an email from me this year don’t think “Oh no! Phillip wants something again.”  Think instead that you’ve just received 1/6,500th of my available, paid for, typing output for the year.

[ Word count: ~ 480 or 1/1,350th of a typical work year's output. ]

Don’t think outside the box

An all too common, and commonly lampooned, management phrase is “think outside the box”.  I love this particular example of a reinterpretation of that concept.

The AeroVelo team have recently been awarded the Sikorsky prize for creating the world’s first human powered helicopter capable of reaching an altitude of 3 metres in a flight lasting at least 60 seconds.


The “outside the box” reference comes from an article by John Pavlus.  The quote I like is:


Another nice line relates to my previous post about problems:

It’s often said that solving tough design problems isn’t about bashing your way to a difficult solution as much as it’s about bashing your way to the right question.

Good luck to everyone in finding ways to get to the right question for whatever problem you’re trying to solve.

Atlas Human-Powered Helicopter – AHS Sikorsky Prize Flight


What’s your problem?

Yesterday (Tuesday 23rd July) we held a “scoping workshop” which is part of the fixed asset management project I’m working on.

I spent a very useful couple of hours in the company of members of the University LEAN Team and a little over 20 people from across the Schools and Professional Services in the University.

We started by asking the question “What is an asset?”  It sounds like a simple question but it doesn’t generate an entirely simple answer.  We then looked at the various types of assets (a potentially very long list) and the information we, as an organisation, need to keep on each type (which could generate an even longer list).  After that we split into groups and each group came up with their list of current “issues” around the handing of fixed assets.

So why did we do this?  Why did we expend around two weeks¹ staff time writing lists?

Because we need to define the problem.

The first step in solving any problem is understanding what the problem is.

I’ve been used to working that out for myself but, when you are considering solutions to a problem which affects a lot of people in different ways, you need to understand the problem as a group.  The people involved need to have a common understanding of the problem so that they, together, they can see the common solution.

The scoping workshop started work which will continue for the next few months further defining the life cycle of an asset and the processes, people and information involved in that life cycle; defining the problem far enough that we can start to work out what a common solution might look like.


1)  2 weeks based on a standard working week of 35 hours.  There were approximately 25 people at the workshop each person giving 2.5 to 3 hours, including the time taken to travel to and from the venue.

From small to CAPITAL

I recently made the move from small “p” and “s” to Capital “P” and “S”.

I’ve worked in a support role in the university since I started in the Physics and Astronomy department in 1989.  My first job was to provide programming services to researchers in the department using the latest parallel computer platforms.  I moved from that to providing systems services on the department’s Unix network, a network which I was building along with other staff in the department.  After 15 years and 5 jobs in Physics I moved to Psychology where, as well as continuing to provide systems and IT support, I managed the IT Team that provided local support services in IT, graphics, web and other areas.  All those jobs were in areas which could be considered to come under the umbrella term “professional services.”

In May I started a secondment with IT Services – so I’ve gone from professional services (small “p”, small “s”) to Professional Services (capital “P”, capital “S”).  I jumped the fence to a potentially greener pasture.

My first few weeks on the job have been mostly about learning.  Learning the processes, the structure, the culture; basically learning the way things work around this place.  That has meant meeting a variety of different people and there’s been a lot of talk about what doesn’t work, about where processes are missing, poorly implemented or overly burdensome.

People are genuinely frustrated by the fact that things don’t work as well as they should.  In fact I’m struck by how similar the expression of frustration is to people I’ve spoken to over the years working in Schools.  I think I expected it to feel a little different from this side of the fence.

The fact that people are complaining might sound negative but I’ve been struck by the enthusiasm and the general desire to fix things, to make things work better, to improve the service that is delivered.  This is an enthusiasm and a positive desire for change which is shared equally by people in Schools and people in IT Services.

Everyone I’ve spoken to, though they can see problems, has ideas for solutions and a commitment to see the problems solved.  That is a truly professional attitude – whether you use a small or a large “P”.

Quick report on Gregynog Colloquium 2013

The annual HEWIT and WHELF colloquium for IT and Library staff was held last week in Gregynog.  Here’s a few brief thoughts sparked by some of the sessions I attended from Wednesday to Friday (the presentations are online and there were other Cardiff people about – in case you want to ask about sessions I don’t mention).

Open Educational Resources

There were some sessions which covered the concept of open resources for education.  Some open resource systems are aimed at providing content for lecturers to reuse (e.g. JorumInformation Literacy Resource Bank) and some aimed at delivering content directly to students (e.g. any MOOC you care to look at).

There are a number of issues with the adoption of open resources, one of the most mentioned on the Lecturer side is “if the materials are freely available will I still have a job?”  If you take a look from the student side for a moment you’ll find the answer to the lecturers question is “yes” because students need people to teach them.  With students having to pay for their university education they will want more than a bunch of stuff to read (be it online or on paper) they’ll want contact time with knowledgeable people who can guide them through the information and help them in their understanding. 

A university is not a content delivery platform its an environment where the people are important, not only in terms of contact hours between students and staff but also in terms of the community of students who support each other in learning and do all the other things a community of students does.


Andrew Cormack (who some Cardiff people may remember) presented on the Bring Your Own Device concept.  His quick summary:

  • Its not new.  
  • Its not technically difficult.  
  • Its not scary.

People have been using their own devices for work for a long time, its just that now they bring the devices with them.  

One idea that stuck with me from Andrew’s talk was the BT idea of training lunches.  These were set up to teach people things that would be useful at home, for example “How to do e-banking securely”, which cover concepts that are also useful at work.


Not the person-to-person type, of which there was a useful amount, but of the computer-to-computer type.

There were networking related presentations around EduroamJanet,networking in student halls and the Superfast Cymru project.

The basic message is that a fast and reliable network is a fundamental requirement for any educational institution, business or home.  

The scale of the Janet network is staggering; their backbone is simply too fast to be able to monitor all the traffic going across it (good news for the privacy fans out there), even so they monitor the data so as to resolve issues and predict where problems may arise.  Doing a basic analysis of 1 in 50 packets that passes through the network results in 600GB of data per day.  Every 30 minutes the network sends data to 4 million unique IP addresses.  Almost 50% of the incidents that the security team deal with are the results of malware somewhere on the network.

Janet’s network is big and fast but has a limited number sites that are connected.  The Superfast Cymru project, sponsored by the Welsh Assembly Government, is aiming to connect 95% of Welsh homes to high speed (24Mb/s or more) broadband.  Our presenter was pleased to hear that various technical staff in the audience had already got connections and were very impressed by the speed and stability of the network.

Cardiff Metropolitan reported on their network in halls of residence.  The staff running the project reported that they’d completed the work under time and under budget.  That really shouldn’t be something to note but it did come as a surprise to their management and, I suspect, it would in most organisations where the norm is for projects to take longer and cost more than people expected.


Finally, for any of you who want to know how to make a computer work faster, we had a presentation on running PCs with Solid State Disks (SSD) instead of Hard Disk Drives (HDD).

Cardiff Met had decided to see whether the £50 (or so) cost of putting an SSD into a computer would be worth the investment in terms of the improvement in speed it delivers.  Their conclusion was a resounding yes; an SSD is the most cost effective performance upgrade you can make.

An end-of-life, 4 or 5 year old, Core 2 Duo PC with an SSD outperformed a brand new Quad Core i5 PC with an HDD on a number of tests which look at the kind of performance that matters – i.e. how fast does the machine do the basic things people need?  Those basic things being:

  • Go from off to on.  I.e. From powered off through boot up to the point where someone can login.
  • Go from logged off to logged on.  I.e. from the point where someone types their login details to the point they can do something useful.
  • Start up stuff.  I.e. start up a browser, email client, word, Photoshop etc.

In all those tests putting the operating system onto and SSD instead of an HDD massively improves the performance, anywhere from 3 times to 10 times.  The performance improvement can add a year or 2 (or even 3) to the useful life of a PC.

The main location this is being rolled out by Cardiff Met is into student PC rooms because the machines don’t need much storage and the SSD upgrade improves performance in exactly the areas that the students will perceive.  They are also beginning to add SSDs to staff machines as staff begin to comment on how much faster the student machines seem to be…

Starting Again

Every now and then you get the opportunity to start something new, I recently had such an opportunity in the form of a secondment to a job in IT Services.

Cardiff University gives people the chance to go and work somewhere else in the organisation for a while, and that’s what I’ve just started doing.  I moved from Psychology to IT Services 4 weeks ago, in the process moving from professional services (small "p", small "s") to Professional Services (capital "P", capital "S").

In Psychology I managed the IT support provided locally in the School, a varied job covering IT strategy, management, training, service design, technical service delivery and hands on IT support.  Here in Information Services I have 3 main things to do:

  • Pick up an existing project aimed at improving the way the university deals with fixed asset management.
  • Work with the Project Management Office on improvements to the various project and project related processes.
  • Bring an understanding to Information Services of what it means to provide IT support in Schools.

That last one might seem a bit nebulous but it affects the other two areas considerably.  

For quite a while I’ve worked in a position where on the one hand I’m responsible for providing services to a group of people whilst on the other I’m in the same position as them as a consumer of services from elsewhere.  I’ve been wearing a couple of different hats; service provider and service consumer.

I know what it is like to have to deal with people in the School who are jumping up and down because their work is interrupted due to a failure in a service I support and I’ve been the one jumping up and down when something Information Services support is broken and the work of the School has been affected.  I’ve been frustrated when a system is introduced centrally that doesn’t do what I need it to do (why, oh why didn’t "they" listen to our requirements?) then deal with someone who is bringing an identical complaint to me regarding a system I was responsible for introducing for the School.  I’ve sometimes found it difficult to deal with Information Services, to get information or support or get a new project started, then realised the people I’d been supporting were having the same issues with me.  I’ve complained at the lack of transparency and maturity in processes around central IT provision, then realised the processes I was responsible for were equally opaque and underdeveloped.

Hopefully, now that I’m working for the main IT service provider to the University, I won’t forget too quickly what’s it like wearing the service consumer hat when I’m wearing the service provider one more often. 

Where has all the Facebook gone?

For four years now I’ve been running Introduction to Computing sessions for Psychology undergraduates and this year something happened that I did not expect – no one was accessing Facebook during the class.

The class is a very simple introduction to a few important things they need to know about the campus network.  The students find a PC and login, once they are all settled I talk for a while, then the students work through some very simple examples.

In 2007 we saw how big Facebook had become for students.   I finished talking, they started working on examples and Facebook started popping up on screens all over the lab with people exchanging, verbally, the names of various groups that they were joining.

In 2008 they sat down, logged in and started Explorer.  When I started the talking 90% or more of the screens in the room were showing the same layout of screen with that telltale Facebook blue colour scheme.

In 2009 there was no sign of Facebook what so ever.  With 6 of us wandering around helping out we didn’t spot a single Facebook page all session.

I think there are a few factors, and I don’t think it is because Facebook is waning in popularity is one (we’ve got another year or two before that happens).

1) INSRV get internet access for the halls of residence working for students very quickly.  By the time they get to my intro class in the middle of week 0 they’ve probably been online for 3 or 4 days so the Facebook surge is dealt with.

2) All the students are carrying smart phones.  Psychology isn’t usually the subject that technophiles choose but there were a large number of smartphones in evidence at the class, N97′s, Blackberries, G1s, G2s and so on but, and here lies another mystery, I didn’t spot a single iPhone all day.