Build Slides Are Evil

 

HammerAndSaw

PowerPoint is a necessary evil. No program allows us to convey as much information in a short amount of time. PowerPoint is almost a requirement for speaking in front of groups. Information can be shown in a very effective manner for audiences of five or five hundred. But PowerPoint also allows presenters to do some very silly things that impact our ability to learn.

Not Built In A Day

The biggest offense in the land of PowerPoint is the build slide. Build slides are those that have elements that must be layered together in order to show the complete picture. In some cases, build slides have complex graphic overlays with many different elements. They may have clip art overlays. But build slides can also be simple bullet points that appear one at a time in a list. The key is that all the parts of the slide must progress in series to “build” the whole thing.

Build slides look very awesome. They provide the appearance of motion and give a movie-like quality to a static presentation. And they often take up a large amount of time during the creation process. But they are almost always unnecessary.

When built properly, a slide conveys a single idea. It may have one or two supporting ideas, but overall it should be pared down to the minimum necessary to get the idea across. Having a page full of bullet points confuses and distracts the reader. It doesn’t matter whether those bullet points are unveiled all at once or sequentially. Each additional piece of information runs the risk of the entire message or idea being forgotten.

Worse yet, the elements of a build slide can be a mystery to everyone, even the presenter. How many times have you watched a presentation where a presenter gets ahead of themselves and reveals a bullet point before it’s on screen? Or perhaps the presenter lost track of how many points were on the slide?

Another strike against build slides is what happens when you’re forced to deal with them outside of presentation mode. Build slides break down when you can’t project them properly in a mode that simulates a projector. Like over a web presentation or screen sharing program. Build slides are also a bad idea when presenting on video. If your slide deck doesn’t come across well, there are options to insert slides into the video recording. But if you have build slides, those slides can’t be inserted without either using the completely built slide, which ruins the suspense of a build up, or looks crowded and complex in many cases.

One Slide At A Time

A build slide is needlessly complicated. If you have four bullet points on a slide, you have an opportunity to make each of those into a separate slide with different information conveying the idea. Like a single supporting fact or statement. Or a picture to help visual learners internalize the idea. There are a multitude of ways to make a slide stand out without pointless animation.

You’re probably thinking to yourself that adding slides to your presentation will make it longer than it needs to be. In fact, the opposite is true. By paring your deck down to a single idea per slide, you can effectively communicate that idea and move on to the next slide. If your original slide had five ideas and took five minutes to talk about, then it follows that one idea per slide spread over five slides should take the same amount of time. In a few cases, it may take less thanks to the reduction in tendency to wander through a long slide.

If you must have bullet points supporting an idea, make each of those bullet points a new slide. Just copy and paste the existing text into a new slide with a new bullet. That allows you to add to what you’ve said previously while still capturing the progression easily. You may also find that you’re adding unnecessary steps that can be removed along the way.


Tom’s Take

I don’t give presentations to amaze people with my PowerPoint skills. People come to hear me talk, not see what transitions I built between my deck. To that point, I don’t use a lot of bullets or make them fly in to wow the people reading my slides. Instead, I stick to the ideas of using lots of pictures and keeping the text short.

When you look at some of the most public presentations from well-regarded speakers, you find that they follow these same guidelines. They keep their presentations simple and focus on ideas and not text. They try to keep all members of the audience focused, but aural and visual learners. They realize that build slides don’t actually offer anything to the audience aside from showing mastery of esoteric aspects of PowerPoint wizardry. Keep it simple and build your audience’s knowledge, not your slides.

 

The SDNicorn

SDNicorn and the CLUS Princess

SDNicorn and the CLUS Princess

Cisco Live is a conference full of characters. Larger than life people like Scott Morris (@ScottMorrisCCIE) and Terry Slattery. Even I’ve been known to indulge in the antics sometimes. Remember the tattoo? This year, I wanted to do something a little different. And with some help from Amazon I managed to come up with one the best and worst ideas I’ve ever had.

The SDNicorn

Why a unicorn head? It’s actually an idea I’ve had for Networking Field Day for quite a while. The Wireless Field Day folks already have their own spirit mascot: the polar bear.

GlassPolarBear

I wanted to give the networking folks their own mascot. What better animal than the unicorn? After all, when things just seem to happen for no reason, who says it isn’t because of unicorns? In addition, Amy Lewis (@CommsNinja) of Cisco is a huge unicorn fan. If you’re going to go for something, go all the way right?

The SDNicorn Rides Again

When I pulled the mask out at the Sunday evening tweetup, it got a huge round of applause. People started lining up for pictures with me. It was a bigger reception than I could have hoped for.

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I thought it would have a few laughs then I would retire the unicorn head until the next day. That’s when it took on a life of its own. I started looking for picture ideas. Rob Novak (@Gallifreyan) got a picture of me drinking an energy drink.

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It is unicorn fuel after all. The best part came when a random group of Cisco interns shooting video for an executive event asked me to put on the mask for a quick pickup shoot. That’s how you know you’ve made an impact.

The rest of the event was just as fun for me. I wore it to the CCIE party when Amy Arnold (@AmyEngineer) got a great shot of me enjoying wine.

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George Chongris (@th1nkdifferent) got a nice selfie too.

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A few people even remarked that I was a little bit scary. I took the mask down to the World of Solutions and ran into Mike Dvorkin (@Dvorkinista), where he proceeded to borrow the mask and trot around the WoS asking for hay. I was doubled over with laughter the whole time.

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I also got J. Michael Metz (@DrJMetz) to admit that Dynamic FCoE is really powered by unicorns.  Hat and all.

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The Customer Appreciation Event had to be the highlight, however. I wore the mask with the CAE hat of course. But people started borrowing it to do other things. Bob McCouch (@BobMcCouch) got a great shot of Kale Blankenship (@vCabbage) in the mask enjoying a beer.

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James Bowling (@vSential) was a highlight with his cloud-powered video too.

Tom’s Take

I admit the unicorn was a bit silly. But it was memorable. People have been tweeting about it and writing articles about it already. I plan on bringing the SDNicorn to Networking Field Day 8 this fall as well as VMworld in August. I think this idea has a bit more life left in it yet. At least I’m covering something up instead of showing off again, right?

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Software Release Models

If you remember a while back, I wrote all about the ways that software companies name releases and what they really mean.  Then I started thinking about all the ways companies release products without actually letting you get them.  You’ve heard it before: a big release announcement followed by questions about availability that never get answered.  I thought I’d take a moment to decode a few of them for you.

Early Field Trials – This thing is still broken.  We thought we fixed all the bugs but when we let someone outside the company install it they managed to screw it up.  So we gave it to three of our biggest customers and parked an engineer in their office for the next six months to iron out all the bugs.  No, you can’t buy it.  We don’t make enough money from you to justify parking one of our people in your office.  Check back next year.

New Product Hold – Buy our stuff! We released it and you can order it.  But we don’t think it’s quite ready for production.  Plus, we want to make sure you aren’t going to install it wrong and make us look bad.  So we’re going to make you ask for permission to buy something from us.  We’ll give it to you with the understanding that you can only install it on these two platforms on the second Tuesday in July.

Generally Available – We had to release it before our CEO went on stage.  You can order it, but we haven’t actually built any of them yet.  So while it’s available, it will still take another three months for it to get to you.  We hope to have all our supply chain issues sorted out just in time for it to become obsolete.

Expanded Release – We farmed the manufacturing out to some third world country to get this thing into stores.  The quality is going to be pretty dodgy until we can get our own facilities up to snuff.  Good luck on these things lasting more than three months.  In fact, we’re probably going to exclude these from any kind of warranty or support.  It’s cheaper that way.

Continuous Release – Bigger numbers are better, right?  Instead of waiting to release it, we’re just pushing every nightly build down to you.  The release number doesn’t even mean anything any more.  What’s a version?  Oh, and we’re going to break things right and left.  If you’re in the beta channel then abandon all hope now.


Tom’s Take

I bet you all have some funny ones as well.  Leave them in the comments!

50 Shades of IT

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Lots of things in IT sound much naughtier than they really are.  We’re constantly inserting and removing things.  We have to get down on our hands and knees from time to time.  We even give orders that must be followed.  Needless to say, there’s a fair amount of giggling that goes on sometimes.

Enter mainstream literature.  Specifically, the 50 Shades series by E. L. James.  It’s been a bit of hit from what I understand.  The subject matter is a bit more…mature than the usual paranormal romance or magical coming of age story.  It’s about control and domination and other such heady things.  I’ve never actually read it myself.  But based on the number of people I see on airplanes secreting one of the three volumes under a scarf or blanket, I dare say that many have read it.

These two worlds collide from time to time when someone says something rather saucy in regards to enterprise IT.  On Twitter, I’ve seen hashtags for #50ShadesOfNetworking and #50ShadesOfStorage.  They always elicit a good laugh or two.  In keeping with that idea (and to avoid polluting Twitter streams), I present my list for 50 Shades of IT: The Series.

Note: None of these are inherently bad.  That being said, I’m not going to be responsible for where you mind ends up taking it.

Networking

“He bound her ports together in a lovely Etherchannel.”

“She was confident enough to display all her assets in public cloud.”

“The hosting contract defined our relationship.”

“He was pleased everyone’s router recognized him as VRRP Master.”

“He watched as she flapped the tunnel over and over again.”

Security

“His packet inspection was the deepest she’d ever seen.”

“He had to do what he was told.  After all, she was root.”

“He injected a packet flow into her secure tunnel.”

“She wondered if the hackers would be able to penetrate her unsecured backdoor.”

Storage

“Quiesce my snapshot.”

“She gasped as he hot swapped the drive into her array.”

“She mounted his disk quickly.”

“I need you to format my partition.”

“I like big LUNs.”


Tom’s Take

If you need me, I’ll be in my bunk.

Objective Lessons

PipeHammer

“Experience is a harsh teacher because it gives the test first and the lesson afterwards.” – Vernon Law

When I was in college, I spent a summer working for my father.  He works in the construction business as a superintendent.  I agreed to help him out in exchange for a year’s tuition.  In return, I got exposure to all kinds of fun methods of digging ditches and pouring concrete.  One story that sticks out in my mind over and over taught me the value of the object lesson.

One of the carpenters that worked for my father had a really bad habit of breaking sledgehammer handles.  When he was driving stakes for concrete forms, he never failed to miss the head of the 2×4 by an inch and catch the top of the handle on it instead.  The force of the swing usually caused the head to break off after two or three misses.  After the fourth or fifth broken handle, my father finally had enough.  He took an old sledgehammer head and welded a steel pipe to it to serve as a handle.  When the carpenter brought him his broken hammer yet again, my father handed him the new steel-handle hammer and said, “This is your new tool.  I don’t want to see you using any hammer but this one.”  Sure enough, the carpenter started driving the 2×4 form stakes again.  Only this time when he missed his target, the steel handle didn’t offer the same resistance as the wooden one.  The shock of the vibration caused the carpenter to drop the hammer and shake his hand in a combination of frustration and pain.  When he picked up the hammer again, he made sure to measure his stance and swing to ensure he didn’t miss a second time.  By the end of the summer, he was an expert sledgehammer swinger.

Amusing as it may be, this story does have a purpose.  People need to learn from failure.  For some, the lesson needs to be a bit more direct.  My father’s carpenter had likely been breaking hammer handles his entire life.  Only when confronted with a more resilient handle did he learn to adjust his processes and fix the real issue – his aim.  In technology, we often find that incorrect methods are as much to blame for problems as bad hardware or buggy software.

Thanks to object lessons, I’ve learned to never bridge the two terminals of an analog 66-block connection with a metal screwdriver lest I get a shocking reward.  I’ve watched others try to rack fully populated chassis switches by brute force alone.  And we won’t talk about the time I watched a technician rewire a 220 volt UPS receptacle without turning off the breaker (he lived).  Each time, I knew I needed to step in at some point to prevent physical harm to the person or prevent destruction of the equipment.  But for these folks, the lesson could only be learned after the mistake had been made.  I think this recent tweet from Teren Bryson (@SomeClown) sums it up nicely:

Some people don’t listen to advice.  That’s a fact born out over years and years of working in the industry.  They know that their way is better or more appropriate even against the advice of multiple experts with decades of experience.  For those people that can’t be told anything, a lesson in reality usually serves as the best instructor.  The key is not to immediately jump to the I Told You So mentality afterward.  It is far too easy to watch someone create a bridging loop against your advice and crash a network only to walk up to them and gloat a little about how you knew better.  Instead of stroking your own ego against an embarrassed and potentially worried co-worker, instead take the time to discuss with them why things happened the way they did and coach them to not make the same mistakes again.  Make them learn from their lesson rather than covering it up and making the same mistake again.


Tom’s Take

I’ve screwed up before.  Whether it was deleting mailboxes or creating a routing loop I think I’ve done my fair share of failing.  Object lessons are important because they quickly show the result of failure and give people a chance to learn from it.  You naturally feel embarrassed and upset when it happens.  So long as you gather your thoughts and channel all that frustration into learning from your mistake then things will work out.  It’s only the people that ignore the lesson or assume that the mistake was a one-time occurrence that will continually subject themselves to object lessons.  And those lessons will eventually hit home with the force of a sledgehammer.

I’m Awesome. Really.

Awesome Name Tag

I’ve never been one for titles. People tell me that I should be an engineer or an architect or a senior this or that. Me? I couldn’t care less about what it says on my business card. I want to be known more for what I do. Even when I was working in a “management” position in college I would mop the floors or clean things left and right. Part of that came from the idea that I would never ask anyone to do anything that I wouldn’t do myself. Plus, it does tend to motivate people when they see their boss scrubbing dishes or wiping things down.

When I started getting deeper into the whole blogging and influencer aspect of my career, it became apparent that some people put stock into titles. Since I am the only employee at The Networking Nerd I can call myself whatever I want. The idea of being the CEO is too pretentious to me. I could just as easily call myself “janitor”. I also wanted to stay away from analyst, Chief Content Creator, or any other monikers that made me sound like I was working the news desk at the Washington Post (now proudly owned by Jeff Bezos).

That was when I hit on a brilliant idea. Something I could do to point out my feelings about how useless titles truly are but at the same time have one of those fancy titles that I could put on a name badge at a conference to garner some attention. That’s when I settled on my new official title here at The Networking Nerd.

I’m Awesome.

No, really. I’ve put it on every conference name tag I’ve signed up for including Dell Enterprise Forum, Cisco Live, and even the upcoming VMworld 2013 conference. I did it partially so that people will scan my badge on the expo floor and say this:

“So, you’re…awesome? At The Networking Nerd?”
“Yes. Yes I am.”

It’s silly when you think about it. But it’s also a very humorous reaction. That’s when they start asking me what I really do. I get to launch into my real speech about empowering influencers and coordinating vendor interactions. Something that might get lost if the badge scanner simply saw engineer or architect and assumed that all I did was work with CLIs or Visio.

Past a certain point in your career you aren’t your title. You are the work you do. It doesn’t matter if you are a desktop technician. What matters is that you can do IT work for thousands of systems using scripts and automation. It doesn’t matter that you are a support engineer. It matters that you can diagnose critical network failures quickly without impacting uptime for any other systems. When you fill out your resume which part is more important? Your title? Or your work experience? Title on a resume is a lot like GPA. People want to see it but it doesn’t matter one bit in the long run. They’d rather know what you can do for them.

Being Awesome is a way for me to buck the trend of meaningless titles. I’ve been involved with people insisted on being called Director of Business Development instead of Sales Manager because the former sounded more important. I’ve seen managers offer a title in lieu of a monetary raise because having a big title made you important. Titles mean nothing. The highest praise in my career came not because I was a senior engineer or a network architect. It came when people knew who I was. I was simply “Tom”. When you are known for what you do it speaks volumes about who you are.


Tom’s Take

Awesome is a state of mind for me. I’m awesome at everything I do at The Networking Nerd because I’m the only person here. I also Suck equally as much for the same reason. When you’re the only employee you can do whatever you want. My next round of Networking Nerd business cards will be fun to make. Stephen and I will decide on a much less pretentious title for my work at Gestalt IT. But for my own personal brand it really is cool to be awesome.

A Guide to SDN Spirit Animals

The world of computers and IT has always been linked with animals.  Whether you are referring to Tux the Penguin from the world of Linux or the various zoological specimens that have graced the covers of the O’Reilly Media library you can find almost every member of the animal kingdom represented.  Many of these icons have become mascots for their users.  In the world of software defined networking (SDN), we have our own mascot as well.  However, I’m going to propose that we start considering a few more as well.

The Horned Wonder

If you’ve read any kind of blog post about SDN in the last year, you’ve probably seen reference to a unicorn at some point.  Unicorns are mythical creatures that are full of magic and wonder.  I referenced them once in a post concerning a network where I had trouble understanding how untagged packets were traversing VLANs without causing a meltdown.  When the network admin asked me how it was happening I replied, “They must be getting ferried around on the backs of unicorns!”  That started my association of magical things happening in networks and their subsequent attribution to unicorns.  Greg Ferro (@etherealmind) is fond of saying that new protocols without sufficient documentation must be powered by “unicorn tears”.  Ivan Pepelnjak (@ioshints) is also a huge fan of the unicorn, as evidenced by this picture:

Ivan rides his steed into battle

Ivan rides his steed into battle

The unicorn is popular because it represents a fantastic explanation for a difficult problem.  However, people that I’ve talked to recently are getting tired of attributing mythical properties of various SDN-related technologies to the mighty unicorn.  I thought about it and realized that there are more suitable animals depending on what technology you’re talking about.

King of Beasts

griffin

If you ask most SDN companies, they’ll tell you that their spirit animal is the griffin.  The griffin is a mythical creature with the body and hindquarters of a lion combined with the head, wings, and front legs of an eagle.  This regal beast is regarded as a stately amalgam of the king of beasts and the king of birds.  It typically guards important and sacred treasures.  It is also a popular animal in heraldry, where it represents courage and boldness.

You can tell from that description that anyone writing an API for their existing OS or networking stack probably has one of these things hanging in their cubicle.  It stands for the best possible joining of two great ideas.  Those APIs guard the sacred treasures for those that have always wanted insight into the inner workings of a network operating system.  The griffin is the best case scenario for those that want to write an effective API or access methodology for enabling SDN.  But as we all know, something the best strategies are sometimes poorly implemented.

Design by Committee

Chimera

The opposite of the griffin would have to be the chimera.  A chimera is a mythical beast that has the body, head, and front legs of lion.  It has a goat’s head jutting from the middle of the body and a snake’s head for a tail, although some sources say this is a dragon head with the associated dragon wings as well.  This nightmarish beast comes from Greek mythology where it was an omen of disaster when spotted.

The chimera represents what happens when you try to combine things and end up with the worst possible combination.  Why is there a goat’s head in the middle?  What good does a snake head for a tail really do?  In much the same way, companies that are trying to create SDN strategies by throwing everything they can into the mix will have end results that should use a chimera for a mascot.  Rather than taking the approach of building the product with the best and most useful features, some designers feel the need to attach every thing they can in an effort to replicate existing non-useful functionality.  “Better to have it and not need it” is the rallying cry most often heard.  This leads to the kind of unwieldy and bloated applications that scare people away from SDN and back to traditional networking methodology.

Tom’s Take

Every project needs a mascot.  Every product needs an icon or a fancy drawing on the product page.  Sooner or later, those mascots come to symbolize everything the project stands for.  Content penguins aside, most projects are looking for something cute or cuddly.  Security vendors are notorious for using scary looking animals to get the point across that they aren’t to be messed with.  I think that using mythologic creatures other than the unicorn to symbolize SDN projects is the way to go.  It focuses the developers to ground themselves in real features.  Hopefully it helps them avoid the mentality that could create nightmarish creatures like the chimera.