Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A Dishwasher that "Technically" Works

Have you ever had an appliance that didn't quite work right? I had an experience once with a dishwasher that just didn't clean very well. It seemed to work. It went through all the cycles. Things got pretty clean. But sometimes dishes had to go through twice and glasses only got really clean when placed in certain locations.

So I called the repair shop and they sent someone out. He poked and prodded, opened up the insides, and generally gave it a once-over. He even checked the motherboard (they have motherboards, apparently). Everything was fine.

"Everything is working," he told me. "I can't fix it because nothing's wrong."

Hmmmm. Well, something's wrong.

Nothing is "technically" wrong. But something is wrong.

"True," he said, "But it's as fixed as it can get."

Okay. Now we're getting somewhere. The machine works. It works as well as it can. Nothing doesn't work - technically. It's just not performing as well as I'd like, or as well as I know a dishwasher CAN perform.

Maybe I can make this old machine work better, but it would involve replacing every part - even though it's not broken - with a brand new part. And if I spend enough money, I can probably get that old dishwasher to work 80% as well as it did when it was new.

But it will never be as good as a new machine, even if I spend more money than it costs to get a new machine.

Sometimes Your Computers "Technically" Work

Your computers are similar to this.

When a computer gets to be old, there's a limit to how well it can work. The hard drive is old. The fans are old. The chip sets are old. The operating system is old.

Even when a computer "works" technically, that doesn't mean it works well or that you should expect it to be as fast as when it was new. Yes: It boots up. The lights come on. The hard drive spins. The screen works. The keyboard works. It "works" - as well as it can.

You probably spent more on that computer than you would spend on a new computer. That's the way computers are. My first computer cost $3,500 and had a 10 megabyte hard drive. That's tiny. My second computer cost $2,500 and had a 20 megabyte hard drive. That's also tiny.

Today a good business computer can be had in the range of $800-$1,000 with gargantuan hard drives. If you need more, you can certainly spend twice that. But most businesses run Word, Excel, Outlook and a web browser. You probably don't need a monster machine.

Your crappy old computer might technically work for the next ten years. That doesn't stop it from being a crappy old computer.

I'm sorry you paid a bunch of money for your old computer, but it's no different than a car. A ten year old car is still ten years old, no matter how much you care for it. You can love it and care for it, but it will still be a little more rattly and a little more dusty than when it was new.

Bottom Line: You need to buy new computers from time to time. We recommend every three years. I can get by with four. But five years is too long. A five year old computer is three generations old. The rest of the world has moved on and you are far less productive if you're still using that old computer just because the light still comes on.


Friday, April 12, 2013

Do Not Install Every Windows Update

As a Managed Service Provider (MSP), we manage our client's computers. One of the most important things we do is to make sure that patches, fixes, and updates are installed. But that's a bit more complicated than it sounds.

For example, Microsoft released an update three days ago that is now causing many machines to fail.Today we see this headline:

Microsoft Tells Windows 7 Users to Uninstall Update - PCs Can Fail to Restart

Please see "The Problem" at the end of this blog post. The bottom line is: An automatic update applied to all machines on Tuesday is making some machines fail and others to display false messages about licensing.

Now Microsoft is recommending that you un-install this patch and wait for a patched patch that doesn't have the problem.

Lesson: Do Not Install Every Update!

Okay. So you should not install every update. Or at least you need a system to determine which updates should and which should not be installed.

A good computer consultant (managed service provider) will have a process for patching machines. It looks something like this:

- Microsoft releases patch

- Patch is tested by a third party to verify that there are no problems

- If blacklisted, patch is not deployed to client machines

- If whitelisted, patch is deployed to client machines

A good computer consultant will use a Remote Monitoring and Management tool to deploy patches. That way, everyone gets them at once. But they only get the ones that are safe! That's one of the reasons we call it managed services. We manage your machines.

You might think this service costs extra money. But most MSPs simply include it as part of their regular support. After all, the computer consultant has to spend less time fixing machines if the "patches" are all safe and whitelisted. And you, the client, can keep working without interruption.

In a perfect world, you should never have to know that a patch was released and failed. You should just keep working. Your consultant should help you avoid these issues altogether. Your consultant should NOT be charging you to uninstall patches like this simply because he doesn't have a system to avoid them in the first place.

If you don't have a managed service agreement, of course you'll need to pay someone to uninstall this patch. But if you do have a managed service agreement for your computers, then this is just another beautiful Spring day where you can worry about what YOU do for a living and not about your technology.

Lesson: Hire The Right Consultant

Before you hire a technician or consultant, ask about the patch management system they use.

If they stare at you, then blink, and say that they rely on Microsoft's "Automatic Updates," you need to keep interviewing. Automatic Updates put your machine at risk. Yes, they're safe 99.9% of the time. But if you just spent three days trying to figure out why your machines won't start, then that .1% becomes very expensive.

In the 21st Century, every computer consultant should be using an automated patch management (remote monitoring and management) system. If your I.T. person doesn't even know what that is, you should step up to more professional support.

It's guaranteed to cost you less money because you'll have fewer problems and more UP-Time for your computers.

The Problem

Here's what's going on.

1) Microsoft tried to fix a potential security problem. See Microsoft Security Bulletin MS13-036. The "fix" was release in Microsoft Update 2823324. See the Knowledge Base article on Microsoft Update 2823324.

2) Some machines (Windows 7 as far as I can tell from the reports) do not restart after the patch is applied.

3) Some machines give false reports that software licenses are not valid.

4) Now Microsoft is recommending that you uninstall that patch while they work on patching the patch.

Microsoft maintains a blog for talking about these things. See the Microsoft Security Center Response blog. Here's what they say about the issue:

"We are aware that some of our customers may be experiencing difficulties after applying security update 2823324, which we provided in security bulletin MS13-036 on Tuesday, April 9. We’ve determined that the update, when paired with certain third-party software, can cause system errors. As a precaution, we stopped pushing 2823324 as an update when we began investigating the error reports, and have since removed it from the download center."

Friday, April 5, 2013

Don't Panic - and Don't Click!

Every once in awhile, the evil people who run phishing scams and spread viruses figure out a way to get an email past your spam filter and into your InBox. They can be very tricky and scary. For example, look at this email:

It's confusing. Did someone just take $760 from my PayPal account? It sure looks like it.

Note: I didn't click on anything here, so I don't know if this is a virus attack, a phishing scam, or something else.

Virus Emails

If it's a virus attack, clicking on anything in this email will execute code that says "You have my permission to install nasty stuff on my computer." You need to take those words very seriously. Assuming you have a decent virus scanner installed, viruses cannot attack your computer unless you give them permission to do so. When you Yes or No or an email link or anything, you give them permission.

So when this kind of thing shows up, there's only one thing you should do: Delete it. Move it to the deleted items folder and then empty that folder from time to time. Never click on anything like this.

Phishing Emails

Phishing scams work this way: You get an email like this and your first response is, "I didn't authorize that." So you want to log into PayPal and check it out. You click on the link, enter your username and password. Now the bad guys have your PayPal account information!

At that point, one or two things happen most commonly. One is that you are redirected to your real PayPal account and logged on with the credentials you just gave. The other is that you get an error message. The kind you normally ignore. That might prompt you to go log into PayPal, which you do successfully. You don't realize that you've just given away your credentials.

Checking Fake Links

There's an easy way to check fake links. Just hold your mouse cursor over the link. The geeky computer code link will pop up. It will look something like this:

Notice that domain name: - I don't know what this is, but it's NOT PayPal.

Don't click it. Don't be curious. Don't even get angry. Just delete it.

Don't Infect Yourself - It Costs Money

One of the common questions we IT Consultants ask each other is "Do you charge managed service clients to fix viruses?" (Managed service means you pay a flat monthly fee for the maintenance of your computer systems. It can't include everything, but it normally includes almost everything.)

My answer is: We will fix one for free. But if the same person infects her machine three times, then she's not really trying very hard to avoid viruses.

Technically, by clicking on that link, you give the bad guys permission to attack your computer. Once you know that and continue to do it, then fixing your computer becomes a billable event. So in addition to costing you downtime, give access to your PayPal account, and potentially opening a security hole in your entire network, you might get a bill from your tech support people.

All in all, it is very easy to avoid these scams. Just make sure everyone in your office knows what to do.


Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Does I.T. Certification Matter?

You may have wondered whether certifications matter with computer consultants. From time to time you might hear a technician say something like . . .

- "Certifications don't mean anything."

- "I know technicians with no certifications that can outperform 90% of the people in this business."

- "I know a guy who has lots of certifications and he's the worst technician you'll ever find."

So what really matters? What role does a certification really play? Here's my two cents.


In 1995 I was hired as the Site Manager for PC Software Support at HP's Roseville plant. That means I led a team of 25 people who supported all the operating systems and software on 7,000 computers for 5,000 employees. Every person on my team was required to be certified in Windows 3.1.

I was not required to be certified even though I was the technical lead. But I decided that I would get the same certification required of my employees. It just seemed like the right thing to do.

I'd been using Windows 3.0/3.1 for a few years, so I thought I must know pretty much everything I needed to know. I could click, I could drag and drop, and I had a rock solid process for making it operate in a special way so it would work on the Internet. So without studying, I took the exam.

I failed.


I didn't know what I didn't know.

The exam covered amazing details about different ways to set up Windows, configure it on complex networks, and troubleshoot it. There were five areas of knowledge. I passed one!

Of course I studied and studied and studied. I bought a book and exam practice software. I studied until I could consistently pass the practice exam. Then I passed the real thing.

I'm not sure how many Microsoft (and other) exams I've passed since then. But it's a lot. Maybe close to 20. And I studied very, very hard for every one.

The point of all that is this: Exams cover lots and lots of information that no one can get simply using a product (hardware, software, or operating system). The process of studying for an exam is a huge educational undertaking.

If a technician studies for an exam to the point where he is absolutely sure he'll pass, then it doesn't matter whether he takes the exam. It's not the certification that matters. It's the training and preparation that matters. Big companies like HP require certifications because they guarantee that someone trained enough to know enough to pass the exam. If they had another way to guarantee that, they would use it.

Yes, morons do sometimes pass exams.

Here's the secret about nerds: We're 99% left brained. Success in our society is based on left brain abilities. For example, we know how to pass tests! So we can get certified and know a lot less than someone who's not quite so left-brained.

But even with that, the process of certification puts knowledge and experience into our heads. And someday we might just access that. If we never study for the exams, we might never be exposed to that knowledge.


Point #1: When a Fortune 10 company takes something seriously, it probably has value.

Point #2: When people say that someone knows as much without certification as someone else with certification, they probably don't know what they don't know.

Point #3: Studying for certification is where all the value lives. But how will you know if someone studied enough if she never passed the exam?

What Does All This Mean To You?

I think certifications matter. And I think current certifications matter. They don't guarantee that someone is competent. (Trust me. I have stories.) But they do mean that the person has been exposed to a great deal of information that others probably haven't - no matter how good they are.

Knowledge accumulates. The deeper and wider your level of knowledge is, the more problems you'll be able to solve.

If you have a choice between someone who is certified and someone who is not, I think it is wise to choose the certified technician. Even in the small business space, knowledge brings value to the job.