A Weird Week at Work -- 01/20/01

In my first (and thus far only) entry for this brave new year I mentioned the various events that had made the first week of January so busy but promised that I would be updating more frequently once I returned home (having been writing that entry from a hotel room in Cambridge, MA). Well, here it is late in the eventing on January 20th and I have posted nothing in the intervening week (okay, week plus a few days).

I had anticipated a fairly relaxed week. I did have to prepare a classroom for a course I am teaching this coming week, but mostly I had looked forward to exploring some of the exercises from the course I had just taken, making sure that I fully understood and could use everything that had been presented in that course. In the evening I would come home to my family and could relax and perhaps even post a few entries here.

'Twas not to be.

One "little" thing I had to do, barely worth mentioning, was to check out a particular CICS region on a mainframe in England, to determine that the software installed in that region was functioning properly and could be used to teach a certain course which had been requested. I had been communicating with a systems programmer there and while I was in Boston I'd received email from him saying that he had accomplished some tasks I had requested... so I could just spend half an hour or so checking things out, perhaps on Monday, and then assure everyone concerned that everything was working. Except, of course (yes, as you have no doubt guessed), things were not working properly.A key program was not available... Email to systems programmer in England... but, of course, five hour time difference, by the time I discover this, he has gone for the day.

This went on all week as I kept finding more and more problems... It seems that this system had been dumped to tape and moved to a different mainframe several months ago, but had never been tested as nobody had needed it. Some of the software had been loaded, but many of the files had been left on the tapes instead of being restored to the system. It will take at least three or four hours more of system programmer time to restore everything to the point where I can test it. And, of course, what I fear is that after doing all this work, the customer will decide not to pay for the class to be held but will just send two or three programmers over here to take the class.

Meanwhile, of course, I'm attempting to get things set up for my class next week. This is the class I began teaching last year (the one, for instance, that I went to Norway to teach in the early fall)... however, since the last time I taught it (back around Halloween) a new release of the software has come out and the course has been revised to reflect that. I have never been sent the new material.

We use graphics files (usually FreeLance Graphics... if you are a Microsoft user, think PowerPoint presentation) to project images that match what students have in their books... these images may just be a short bulleted list of items, or might be a section of java code, or perhaps a diagram of flow through a system, etc. Last week I had requested the location of these graphics files, also for any possible system images that I could use as the basis for configuring my machines. Eventually someone sent me a pointer to a Lotus Notes database in Pittsburgh that supposedly had the graphics.

I download the file to my PC. It's a .zip file, so I use PKZIP to extract the files. No. The file is encrypted. Okay, more email... what is the password? They don't know. Okay, start emailing more and more people: what is the password? (Meanwhile, I get copied on an email request from someone in France who is seeking the same graphics. Sorry, wish I could help, but...) Finally on Wednesday afternoon I get a phone call from someone who tells me the password. Now I can unzip and extract the files. I get three files. One just contains a single general purpose welcome-to-the-course screen. Another contains the graphics for Day One of the class. I open it and look at them... hmmm, they actually have improved some of these graphics... they aren't in the format I would prefer, but some of them look much better than the older graphics. Okay, now open the remaining file -- oops, "file damaged" -- "unable to open file" -- Isn't this wonderful. I now have the graphics for just one out of the five days.

[Perhaps you think I exagerate and embellish? If anything, I am making this shorter and more simple than the exceedingly frustrating reality.]

Finally, Friday afternoon, I hear from another instructor who then emails me the needed files.

Meanwhile, of course, I need to make a system image. It would take weeks to install all of the needed software on all of the compters in the classroom one at a time. Instead, we install everything on one computer and then burn an image of everything onto a CD (or, in this case, onto two CDs) and then copy that image onto each of the classroom machines. (We call that "ghosting" because we use utility software from Norton called "Ghost" to do this.) Since I was not able to get an image of already installed from elsewhere, I ended up having to install everything. I won't list all of the software, let me just say that I cannot install this stuff on my laptop anymore -- it only has 288 Megabytes of memory and the minimum configuration requires 384 Meg. -- my classroom machines have the recommended amount of memory, 512 Megabytes of RAM. At best, if all goes well, installing everything is a full one day process; most people say to allow for two full days. I won't tire you out by listing the various problems encountered; let me just say that I have some complaints about errors in the instructions for configuring the software for this class.

I didn't finish until noon on Friday.

I had expected the books for the class to arrive on Wednesday. When they had not arrived on Thursday I was, uh, somewhat concerned. On Friday I was told they were here. They actually had arrived on Thursday but did not have my name or phone number or the name of anyone in the department.... they were just labelled "class presentations" and addressed to the Big Computer Company. Friday afternoon, while waiting for our tech support person to burn the CDs for me (she was having problems getting the image copied properly) I decided to take a set of books home with me over the weekend so I could look over the changed material -- much better than seeing it for the first time standing in front of a class. Uh-oh... The covers are fine, the title page is fine, this is for the 3.5 version of the software, and the copyright page is also good... but all the other pages are for the old version of the course!

It was at this point that I stopped by my manager's office to say "Hey, David, have I mentioned that I'm planning on taking five vacation days next week?"I finally got two CDs that work (more than a gigabyte of stuff) and began to ghost the images onto the classroom machines. This takes some time. Start a machine with a boot diskette, insert the first CD, step through a series of commands, and it starts to copy.... eventually it will ask for the second CD... and once I've swapped the CDs, I can start to work on the next computer...Still, even overlapping the process, by six p.m. I had five student machines plus the instructor PC left to do. It would take me until seven-thirty or eight to complete the job (one machine wasn't even in the room yet)... so I elected to come home and go into work over the weekend to finish configuring the machines.

So I'll be starting the class using last year's books and graphics while waiting for the correct books to arrive Tuesday morning. Fortunately, most of the key changes in the software aren't covered on Monday. Also, I may have two people helping me. An instructor who works for another company that is a "business partner" of my company will be coming to co-teach. He has just gone through a training process and has worked with the new material three times and has a list of problems to expect with the exercises. We will probably do this on a tag-team basis, taking turns presenting lectures. I've also been told a second "business partner" may come to work as an apprentice instructor assisting with the hands-on exercises.

Maybe next week's class with go smoothly. Surely all of the problems must be behind me now, right? Well.... I still have to go to work on Sunday to finish configuring the machines... this is about a twenty mile drive each way... We have had light snow alternating with sleet on and off all day... there is a winter storm warning now in effect... The current forecast says "Freezing rain...mixing with and changing to sleet and snow near or after midnight. Precipitation may be heavy at times after midnight. Snow accumulation by early morning 3 to 5 inches. Windy. Low in the mid 20s. Northeast wind 20 to 30 mph." And the forecast for Sunday is more snow and high winds. It should be so much fun driving over the Jamestown and Newport bridges!

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