Dell Venue 8 Pro – iPad mini Competitor?

What a Tablet is to Me

We recently ordered a few Dell Venue 8 Pro’s for testing. The timing worked out really well for me because I was toying with the idea of replacing my iPad 3 with an iPad mini with Retina Display. I figured the Venue 8 Pro might fulfill the use cases I have for a casual tablet, or if not, at least confirm my eventual choice of the iPad mini.

I suppose I should explain that for me, my iPad has always been a “companion” device.  Unlike my wife, who uses her iPad as a real computer, doing real work, I’ve mostly used my iPad as a reading device of one kind or another.  I read books on it.  I browse the web.  Most of what I write on the iPad I write either in short emails or Twitter.  I say that to highlight that I didn’t bring any expectations to my use of the Venue 8 Pro other than that I’d like for it to perform as a stand-in for an iPad mini for me.

It’s with that in mind that I mention the very first thing a coworker asked me about the Venue 8 Pro she’d received was, “can we put these in Active Directory?”  The answer to that is no.  Only Windows 8 Pro and above can join an AD, and the VP8 doesn’t come with Windows 8 Pro, but rather just Windows 8.  The next question I was asked was, “Can we put our Windows 8 Enterprise on them?”  And yes, there are guides/walkthroughs out there that describe how to do that.  I discouraged that, however, as it isn’t something a normal user could do and, perhaps more importantly, it would run contrary to something I believe Dell would back me up in saying about the Venue 8 Pro – this 8” tablet is not intended to be used like or replace your desktop or laptop computer.  Honest.  And the quicker you put the thought of treating it like a “little computer” out of your head, the quicker you can go about being reasonably satisfied with what is, on the whole, a fairly inexpensive iPad mini-like Windows companion device.

Tech Specs & Pics

Let’s get some basics out of the way.  The Dell Venue 8 Pro is an 8” Tablet running Windows 8.1.  Several options are configurable via Dell’s website, but mine has an Atom CPU running at 1.33 GHz, 2GB of RAM, and a 64GB SSD.  That SSD reports as 52.3GB usable, probably due to formatting and also some sort of recovery partition.  The VP8 also has a Micro-SD card that supports cards up to 128GB.  The screen runs at 1280×800, so this isn’t really “retina” quality – although it looks great to me.  The VP8 has front and rear cameras, although I’ve only used the front one for video conferencing.  The VP8 has a single Micro USB port for charging and data transfer.  You can also connect an OTG (On the Go) cable to the port and use it to connect a keyboard, mouse, flash drive, etc.

Here are a few pictures of the VP8 in the real world.  First, a picture of the VP8 next to my iPad 3.

Vp8 ipad3

A shot of the VP8 in the Dell Tablet Folio and holding the Dell Active Stylus.

Vp8 case 

And finally, a shot of the VP8 setup for note-taking with the Dell Tablet Wireless Keyboard.


Venue 8 Pro – What I Like

Size.  While I’ve bought (and returned) both the original Kindle Fire and Kindle Fire HDX, I didn’t love either of those tablets, so I kept coming back to my iPad.  And since I have yet to purchase an iPad mini, that meant a full-sized tablet.  For what I use a tablet for most of the time, a 10 plus inch screen is just overkill.  The 8” tablet really does seem to be just the right size for the use to which I plan to put a tablet.

Performance.  I can’t claim to have run benchmarks on the VP8, but it is peppy enough for my needs.  I used it off and on for several hours a day for a week while in orientation and never felt like I had to wait for it.  

Price.  Our Venue 8 Pro’s were purchased from Amazon for just over $300.  After installing the full Office 2013 suite along with a handful of smaller apps, I have 30GB of space left on the tablet.  Compare that to an iPad mini with less storage for about the same price, or a higher price for close to the same storage.  Granted, the accessories (case, stylus, and keyboard) add to the price – but they do that for the iPad as well.

Good Metro/Modern/Tile apps.  Internet Explorer in the touch/tile interface isn’t half bad.  The touch/tile version of OneNote is awesome.  OneNote itself is pretty close to being a killer app for any tablet, since it’s available on iOS, Android, and Windows.  There are a handful of other Windows 8 tile apps that are good – Facebook, Tweetium, and Skype among them.  Is the Windows 8 Store comparable to either the iOS or Android store in scope?  Nope – but it’s coming along.

Windows 8.1.  Windows 8.1 improves what was already a pretty good OS in 8.0.  SkyDrive OneDrive integration is fantastic, and definitely improves my efficiency when moving amongst my desktop, laptop, and tablet.  As a long-time Mac user, I don’t mind Microsoft doubling down on the more modern aspects of Windows 8 in 8.1.  In fact, I’d like to see them do more. 

Venue 8 Pro – What I Don’t Like

Battery Life.  It may be that I’m so used to ARM-based device battery life that even the mobile-friendly Intel Atom CPU will just never deliver the kind of battery life I expect.  I suspect it may also be the case that Windows is simply not as draconian about preserving battery life as iOS.  My VP8 dings and dongs at odd hours, seemingly receiving mail when I’d rather it just be asleep.  I know I can leave my iPad sitting for days on end and flip it open to find plenty of battery left.  I simply can’t say the same about the Venue 8 Pro.  If I were using this tablet a decent amount every day, I wouldn’t mind charging it nightly, but I made the mistake of leaving it in my bag for a few days and took it out to find the battery completely drained.

Bad Metro/Modern/Tile apps.  I hate the Kindle app.  Not only does it do a subpar job of laying out and rendering text on the screen compared to the iOS or native Kindle app, it lacks basic functionality.  I have a subscription to the digital version of Poets & Writers magazine.  I can read it on my hardware Kindle device, either my iPhone or iPad, and the Kindle Fire tablets as well.  The Kindle app for Windows does not support magazine subscriptions.  This is a huge problem for me as I consider whether the Venue 8 Pro or any Windows tablet could replace the iPad as my tablet of choice.  I could go with Zinio for this and other digital subscriptions, but I buy and read all of my books and magazines via Kindle, and there’s a Kindle app on Windows – it just doesn’t support subscriptions.  I hope this is resolved soon, because I have no desire to carry two tablets, and remember, for me, a tablet is mostly about reading, web browsing, email, and social media.  

Desktop Apps.  They’re useless for me on a screen this size.  In fact, I would much prefer an “RT” version of the VP8 to one that includes Desktop functionality.  The screen is too small to use apps that aren’t touch-friendly and my fingers are too large to tap 1/8” touch targets.  I try my best to avoid Desktop apps and stick only to touch/tile apps.

Venue 8 Pro – Who is it for?

Folks who are most comfortable with Windows who are looking for an iPad mini-sized device.  Folks who don’t get confused and think they’re going to turn this little device into a replacement for their 15” laptop.  Folks who don’t want to pay the Apple Tax on iPad storage increases.  Folks who want a book-sized device that runs an OS that should always work better with OneDrive and other Microsoft services than iOS or Android will.

Additional Thoughts

So is the Venue 8 Pro an iPad mini competitor?  For some people, I’m sure it can be.  For me?  Not really.  In fact, I’ve already begun to carry my iPad in my bag again.  I will eventually buy myself an iPad mini with Retina Display, but for the time being, my iPad 3 does everything I need it to do and I don’t feel like paying $500 or so for a 32GB mini.

I will say that the Venue 8 Pro served me very well in numerous occasions at work when I needed to be able to take notes and keep an eye on incoming email.  The Dell Tablet Wireless Keyboard is too small for me to touch type with any speed, but I can still hunt and peck on it much more quickly than I can write out notes by hand – either on paper or using the stylus.  The VP8 is also tiny enough that I can keep it in front of me in a meeting, tapping away when I need to jot something down, but ignore it when I don’t need it.  If I ever get good enough with the stylus (my handwriting is terrible and I write with a pen very rarely), I may just take notes that way.


Do you have a Dell Venue 8 Pro?  I’d love to know what you think about it and whether you agree or disagree with my opinion!



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Saying Goodbye to a Great Team

I began 2013 making a huge transition in my life.  I left an employer for whom I’d worked for nearly 17 years and joined a VAR, LPS Integration, as a Citrix Engineer.  I knew it would be a big change, moving from the customer side of things to the reseller side, but I don’t think I could have anticipated just how different the VAR environment would be until I jumped in.  In fact, if you’re considering a job at a VAR, I’d suggest you stop reading this post and go read a post written by a buddy of mine named Matthew Norwood entitled “This Job Isn’t for Everyone.”  Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

* * *

Back?  Great, I’ll continue.

I’ve spent the last seven months working with some of the best, smartest engineers I’ve ever met.  To be truthful, I wondered more than once during my first month on the team if I had the chops to be a part of it.  Working with them has made me better and pushed me to learn more.  I know I’ve been exposed to more and done more varied and complicated things in seven months on the numerous client systems I’ve worked with and consulted on than I could have done in years of working on just my own systems – no matter how large their scale.

I’ve learned about more than just being an engineer at a VAR.  I’ve worked closely with a veteran Account Manager and his Pre-Sales Engineer (we call them Technical Consultants) and have enjoyed learning about the sales cycle, from beginning to end.  This side of the business was so new to me, I literally felt like I was going to school again for the first several weeks of pre-sales calls and visits.

I’ve learned, for the first time in my life, what it’s like working for a truly small business (number of employees-wise, if not revenue-wise) and that has been both exhilarating, especially given my background at a state university and the Army, and sometimes confusing.  My coworkers laughed at me quite a bit over the first few weeks as I tried to adapt to there not being a mountain of process, forms, and approvals for things like purchases and taking time off.

So working for a VAR has been an amazing experience for me, but it’s one that is coming to and end, at least for now, this week.

* * *

Why?  Well, if you read Matthew’s post I linked to above, you might think I experienced some or all of those negative aspects he refers to, and maybe they counterbalanced the positive aspects, leaving me, on the whole, unhappy with the experience.  But you’d be wrong.  I linked to Matthew’s post because I experienced some of all of those things, both negative (1) and positive (2), and I think it’s a great perspective piece on being an engineer at a VAR.  I also think they’re universally true, no matter the VAR.

But no, my decision to change directions right now is pretty simple – I found that being away from my little boy for several days at a time, even if it wasn’t an every week kind of thing, was just too hard on me.  Heck, I got to go to Citrix Synergy this year and deliver a technical breakout session and hang out with a couple of rockstar members of my team, in the city and state of my birth.  While there, I got a free night at Disneyland, for Pete’s sake.  What should have been a week of pure fun and excitement turned out to be a strange mix of fun and misery, as I just plain missed the crap out of my wife and son.  I then traveled 3/4 weeks in June, including Father’s Day weekend, and every week when I flew back home (don’t get me started on how miserable flying frequently as a non-veteran traveler can be), I saw real changes in my son – new words, new mannerisms, new things I hadn’t been there to see for the first time.

My son is just about to turn 17 months, so I’m still new at this parent thing.  I have lots of friends who travel for work and I figured if they could do it, so could I.  What I discovered is that, for right now anyway, I would rather have a job that minimizes the amount of work-related travel, especially for several days or weeks at a time, I might have to do.

So I’ve accepted a position that will allow me to do that and work on exciting new problems.  More on that later.

* * *

For now, to my fellow engineers on Team Citrix at LPS – Patrick, Brian, Daniel, Joel, Kevin, Rick, and Wael – thanks for the amazing experience working with you has been.  I will miss it.

To my coworkers based out of East Tennessee – Tim, Chris, Drew, Jose, and Jennifer – thanks for making me feel welcome and for putting up with me as I acclimated to life working at a small company.

To the entire LPS family – I wish you all the very best.

* * *


(1)  The negative item on Matthew’s list I struggled with the most was #7 (Sometimes you don’t know the answer).  I hate not knowing the answer and it was a real struggle for me getting to the point of not equating not knowing the answer to failure.  I was a much calmer, happier engineer once I figured that out – or rather once I started listening to everybody from my coworkers to my boss about it.

(2)  The positive item on Matthew’s list I valued the most was a combination of #1 (You get to see some cool stuff) and #2 (Experience).  I was able to work with a major financial services company, a huge operator of acute care hospitals, multiple government agencies, and several higher education institutions, just to mention a few.

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Nokia Lumia 920 – A Brief Review by an iPhone Fan

A few months back, I saw a tweet from my buddy, Jeramiah Dooley, mentioning that he’d just received a loaner Lumia 920 from the Nokia@Work program.  Seems they were sending out loaner Lumias (say that fast three times) to folks who agreed to give them a try for a month, with an eye towards evaluating them for use in work/business.

Since I’d recently started a new job, and especially since my new company only offers a choice of an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy III, I reached out to Nokia@Work and offered to give their new Windows Phone 8 device a test drive.  We exchanged emails and postal addresses, and in short order, a Lumia 920 arrived on my doorstep, along with a personalized card.

IMG 4329

I thought about writing a long review comparing this feature or that feature of the Lumia 920 and my own phone, an iPhone 4S, but I don’t think that would really matter much to most people.  If you’re looking for an in-depth comparison of the Lumia 920 and the iPhone 4S/5 or some other smartphone, there are plenty of gadget blogs out there that can do a far better job of that than I can.

In this review I want to focus on a few items that make the Lumia 920 a phone I feel confident I could use on a daily basis – something I thought I wouldn’t be able to say before receiving it, and indeed even after playing with/ it lightly for a few days.

Size Matters

The first is size.  I knew the Lumia 920 was larger than my iPhone 4S, and even larger than the iPhone 5.  I’ll be frank, though – I’d bought into the iPhone fan mantra that stated the iPhone screen was the “right” size – and anything larger was just too large.  I was wrong.  Here’s a picture showing the Lumia 920 next to my iPhone 4S, with both sitting on my iPad.

IMG 4338

So why is bigger better in this case?  Photos and videos look better on a larger screen, and as a new dad, I take a lot of pics and videos of our son.  Speaking of which, the camera on the Lumia 920 seemed just as good as the one on my iPhone.  Reading websites and email and Facebook posts is also easier on my eyes on a larger screen.  I might still look at some of the gigantic “phablet” phones and consider them too large, but if they work for some people – great.  The Lumia 920 screen, at 4.5 inches, is something I grew accustomed to very quickly, and something I missed when I returned the phone to Nokia.  I’m no longer sure I’ll buy an iPhone 5S if that’s the next iPhone model, because I’d prefer a larger screen.

Apps Don’t Matter as Much as I Thought

There’s no denying it – the iOS App Store has many more apps than the Windows Phone store has.  I’m sure for some people, that’s an absolute deal-breaker.  I thought it would be for me, but just as I thought size wouldn’t matter, I was wrong in thinking the extreme difference in numbers of apps available would be a deal-breaker for me.

Could I find equivalents on the Windows Phone store for every single app I have on my iPhone 4S?  No way – but guess how many apps I have on my iPhone right this minute?  155.  How many of those do you think I use on a daily basis?  Counting built-in apps as well as 3rd party apps – about a dozen, and they are (moving up from the bottom of my home screen):

Google Voice
Foursquare (which is just stupid and I should stop)

So why do I have 155 apps on my iPhone if I only regularly use 12?  Hell if I know.  I have maybe another dozen or so that I use less frequently, such as:

Jabber IM

When I started using the Lumia 920, I didn’t try to find equivalents for the 155 iOS apps I have on my iPhone – I focused on those apps I use every day.  Just as several of those were built-in apps on the iPhone, Mail, IE, OneNote, Facebook, Weather, an SMS app, and a calculator came built into the Lumia 920.  I found a decent RSS reader, a Google Voice client, and several free Twitter clients, as well as Evernote.  The only app equivalent I would say I was dissatisfied with was the Twitter client, but for all I know, if I’d been willing to pay for one, I could have found one that compared favorably to Tweetbot.

What surprised me, but really shouldn’t have, once I admitted I only used a fraction of the apps I had installed on my iPhone, was that my app usage is fairly mundane, and fairly reproducible across platforms.  So from an app perspective, the Lumia 920 worked just fine for me.  If anything, it might have begun steering me towards working with OneNote rather than Evernote.  Even though I’ve paid for a Pro Evernote account for a while now, several of my teammates use OneNote, and they were reluctant to give Evernote a try since you have to pay for the pro account to enable sharing.  So I began playing with OneNote and discovered how good the web client is, even on my Mac.

LTE is Nice

I took the Lumia 920 with me on a 3-day assessment at a client site, and I’m glad I did.  Their network was locked down so tightly I couldn’t easily do everything I needed to get my job done, whereas most of what I needed them to do was connect to me via GoToMeeting.  So after an hour or so of dealing with their firewall and web content blocking system, I’d had enough, so I turned on the hotspot functionality on the Lumia 920 and got down to business.  I spent the next three days tethered to the Lumia 920 and didn’t notice a single hiccup in the AT&T LTE service.

I ran a speed test on my MacBook Pro at our Knoxville office while connected to the Lumia 920 and it easily trounced the 1990′s style 1.5mb DSL connection we have.

And yes, I know the iPhone 5 has LTE, but my 4S only has the faux AT&T 4G, which isn’t nearly as fast.

The Real Question

Would I get a Nokia Windows Phone, either the Lumia 920 or whatever comes next?  Probably – especially if it continued to have a larger screen than the current iPhone.  I love my iPhone, just like I love my iPad and my Macs.  But using the Lumia 920 for a while taught me something very important – aside from a handful of regular apps that seem to be available for every major mobile platform, all I really want from a smartphone is a big screen, good build quality, and good performance.  The Lumia 920 has all of those.  If my employer were to offer a choice between a current iPhone, Samsung Android phone, or a Nokia Windows Phone, I’d go for the one with the biggest screen and call it done.  Will I make the switch with my own money later this year when my contract is up with AT&T and the new iPhone comes out?  Maybe – especially if Apple keeps insisting it doesn’t need a larger screen iPhone.

Thanks to the Nokia@Work program for letting me try out the Lumia 920!

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A New Chapter Begins

2013 is already shaping up to be a good year.  It will definitely be a year of change for me – moving to a new city, buying a new house, and starting a new job.  When I decided I wanted to move my family back home to Nashville so my son could grow up close to family, I also decided I wanted to make the transition from the customer/end-user side of the table over to the vendor/reseller side.  I’ve loved working in higher education, but after working with some awesome account managers and engineers over the last few years, I knew that’s the path I wanted to take.

Having said that, this week I’m pleased to have begun working for a great company, LPS Integration.  I’ve worked with the engineers at LPS for a few years now, and joining their rockstar team is both exciting and humbling.

I’ll continue to blog as I have before, but just to be clear, I’ll be doing so as Mike Stanley, Some Nerd, not Mike Stanley, Official Voice of His New Employer.

Have a great 2013 – I’m certainly going to!

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Saying Goodbye after 17 Great Years

I haven’t mentioned my employer by name on my blog, mainly to make it clear that when I express opinions about things, I’m only speaking for myself.  I’m going to break with that habit today, because I did one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done in my professional life a few weeks ago – I handed in my resignation letter.  

I’ve had the pleasure to work at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville full-time for 17 years, and even longer if you count my time as a student worker.  Along the way I met my wife-to-be, earned a couple of bachelors degrees (Latin and English Creative Writing), and found myself, quite by accident, beginning a career in IT and working with some truly wonderful people.

I started writing a long (even for me) tale describing my professional history at UT, but rather than publish that, I’m just going to say thank you to all of the fine coworkers and management I’ve worked with for the last 17 years.  

So why am I leaving a place I love after so long?  My wife and I had our first child this year and we’re going to be moving back to my hometown of Nashville so my boy can grow up with his grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins nearby.  I’ve accepted a position with an awesome company back home.

I’ve been lucky enough to work with so many great people at the university, and I will miss them.

UT mug

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First Experience with Remote Training – VMware vSphere: ICM Class

I spent this week at home, remotely attending a class, VMware vSphere 5: Install, Configure, Manage.  This is the first time I’ve ever taken a class in this format, after being too skeptical to try it until now.  Given the cost-savings to my employer (no travel expenses) and the fact that I don’t have to be away from my family for a week, I was willing to give it a shot, especially for this particular class.  I’ve worked with one version or another of VMware’s virtualization products since implementing our IT organization’s first production virtualization system in 2005 using ESX Server 2.5.  So I figured if I were going to risk taking a class that didn’t work out well, I might as well do it with one for a product with which I have a decent bit of experience.

I’ll save you a bit of reading if you’re only interested in my final opinion – remote/online training isn’t my cup of tea at all.  I imagine there are times when it would be better than nothing, but not by much, at least not for me.  Now for the why.

No personal interaction with the instructor or fellow classmates

And by none, I mean zero.  No eye contact.  No facial expressions.  No body language.  Just you and a screen filled with (in this case anyway) the WebEx app showing a slide deck and a chat window.  Disembodied voices filling the room.  Thankfully I did this class at home, because during the same week my wife remotely attended a couple of training classes, but oddly enough at a New Horizon learning center, where she got to sit in a room with other people, each with headsets on and attending various remote classes.  No way I’d ever do that – then the disembodied voices would literally be in my head.

I’ve been dubious of this class delivery format for a while.  In fact, I rebuffed numerous attempts by a local training provider to consider attending Citrix classes this way.  But several of my coworkers have attended training this way during the past year, and they all said the experience was good.  One, however, laughed when he finished telling me that, yes, he was satisfied with the format.  He told me that I would hate it because, in his words, I’m “too much of a people person.”  And he’s right.  I’m an extrovert, and I enjoy training classes because I get to meet a variety of people who work in my field, and usually at least someone with more experience than me.  I feared that a remote/online class would eliminate all of the social aspects of the class – lunches with one or more fellow students and/or the instructor, conversations about our respective data centers, major systems we run, war stories of failed upgrades, etc.  And I was absolutely right.  This week the only people for whom that was possible were the two students who were sitting in the training facility with the instructor in Colorado.

What did those of us, nine in all, attending the class remotely, get, as far as personal interactions go?  We introduced ourselves over our various crummy phone/VOIP connections at the beginning of the first day, after which we all promptly forgot what everyone else had said – or at least I did.  I remember there was one woman in the class, mainly because her audio connection was pretty bad, and I remember my lab partner’s name, Mohamed, and that’s about it.

The technology for doing this is surprisingly mediocre

I attend a lot of webinars, and have given a presentation over one, and aside from the problem of people not remembering (or caring) to mute themselves, I’ve been reasonably happy with the experience.  Nearly all of those webinars have been delivered via GoToMeeting, which makes sense considering how much of my professional life has focused on implementing Citrix products for the last few years.  So I’ve grown accustomed to clicking the GoToMeeting link, having it do its thing on my Mac, and listening and often speaking via my Logitech headset.  In fact, after trying to sit through an hour-long webinar a few years back using some random crummy headset I had at work, I ordered the same Logitech headset my wife and I use at home for raiding in World of Warcraft.  I knew there was always, or almost always, an option to dial into the conference, but why would I?

So I was surprised this past Monday when I clicked through to the WebEx session for the class and didn’t hear any audio.  Luckily I signed in 15 minutes early so I had time to ask in the chat window if dialing into the conference was the only option.  Indeed it was, which presented me with a moment of panic, as I checked my AT&T usage for the month and saw that I only had 140 of my 550 minutes left for the month, with 8 days left in the billing cycle.  Yes, my wife and I have the puniest minutes plan for our iPhones because a) we don’t make that many phone calls and b) those we do are usually to each other.  I guess that’s one thing I won’t have to worry about when I switch us over to Verizon and get unlimited minutes, but last Monday I needed an alternative.  Thankfully, I was signed into my Gmail account and I saw the little chat window with the phone icon above it and said to myself, “I wonder if Google is still doing free VOIP calls over Google Talk in the US?”  Yes, Google is.  So that problem was solved, although I discovered the hard way during lunch that Google cuts off calls after about 2.5 hours.

Which leads me to another annoyance.  We weren’t actually dialing into a WebEx conference, but rather to a separate bridge provided by the training company.  Boy did that bridge stink.  Every single time anyone connected or disconnected, the bridge loudly announced to everyone, “Someone is entering/leaving the conference” followed by the person’s name if they provided it during the prompt when the person dialed in.  I stopped providing my name after the first day, but several of my classmates dutifully provided it every day.  So for the entire week, and throughout each day, class was interrupted numerous times by these obnoxious announcements.  Was there a way to silence them?  Beats me.  My instructor wondered aloud if he could do something about it, but said he’d have to check with the training provider and for all I know he was told no.

So the audio stunk.  But the screen & application sharing wasn’t exactly trouble-free either.  There were plenty of times when the instructor couldn’t show us something he was doing on his laptop, and several times when the breakout rooms didn’t function properly.

Maybe I’m being unfair to the class format or to WebEx, and I’ll readily admit this is just my opinion and I’ve only gone through this one time, but I just didn’t expect for there to be this many glitches.  I’d give the audio side of this class an F and the screen-sharing side a B-.

The instructor was pretty good

I’ll give the guy credit – he did his best to make lemonade with all the various lemons he found himself working with in this format.  He had a lot of energy, was very friendly, and caught on several times as a couple of us tried to express some smidgeon of personality via emoticons in the chat interface.  I wish I’d been in the same room with him, because I think he would have been a good guy to have lunch with or to talk about aspects of the class that we didn’t spend a ton of time on.  He tried to make the remote students feel included, and he did a pretty decent job of monitoring the chat for questions.  Not a perfect job, as he was standing in front of a couple of real live students in Colorado, but a decent job.  Having delivered a webinar myself, I understand it is much more difficult to maintain two-way communication with multiple people who are only just voices on the line.

I will say that this instructor didn’t seem to fit my idea of the perfect instructor – that being a consultant or engineer who works with the technology on a regular basis in a variety of production environments and moonlights as an instructor.  He seemed to be a professional instructor, but he knew his stuff and he did a good job not only of covering the very basic material in the beginning of the class, but of handling student questions about the material or its implications outside of the classroom or lab.

One thing the instructor couldn’t overcome was the inherent limitations of not being in the same room with his students.  Problems with labs that could have been solved with a quick glance at a student’s screen took much longer to deal with when the person having the issue was a remote student.  Even getting the instructor’s attention to ask for help with an issue was inefficient, and typically required either waiting for him to stop talking, or interrupting him to try to get the issue addressed without waiting for him to notice a question in the chat window.

Final Thoughts

So would I take a class in this format again?  Only if it was my only option.  Saving travel expenses was good for my employer.  Avoiding a week away from home was good for me and my family.  But this was, without a doubt, the least satisfying training experience I’ve had.  While I know personal preference and my own extroverted personality contributed to my dissatisfaction, I also know the format itself and the imperfect technology supporting it were to blame as well.  I also know that my wife, who is very much an introvert, also found her remote classes to be dissatisfying, for many of the same reasons I did.

I also admit to having a bit of an attention span problem.  I like to multitask, and while I typically limit that to glancing at my iPhone every now and then during an in-person class, I was much more easily distracted this week.  Having a real live person standing in front of me and real live students sitting around me just makes it easier to stay focused on the class, if for no other reason than simple courtesy.  Sitting in my house alone, with the class running on my iMac and my MacBook Pro sitting right next to it, meant I payed less attention to the class and more attention to work email and Twitter.  I’m sure my employer appreciated me responding to email quickly and remotely tackling a few fires that popped up, but each of those came at the expense of paying closer attention to the class.

Before I would take another remote/online class, I would investigate available self-paced options.  I don’t believe that was an option here, as part of my goal was to finally get my VCP certification.  But next time around, if attending a class in-person isn’t an option, I would prefer a self-paced alternative, either one provided by the vendor or a company like TrainSignal.  I’m working through a Cisco UCS course from TrainSignal right now, and I plan to write a post about it soon, as well as a comparison between in-person, remote/online, and self-paced courses.

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A Growing Respect for Salespeople II: SE’s

My last post covered a few awesome salespeople / account managers I’ve been lucky enough to deal with over the last few years.  In this post, I’m going to discuss some great Pre-Sales Engineers (or similar folks) I’ve dealt with.

But first, let me mention that, for many years, I had just as many negative experiences with vendor engineers as with their salespeople, both on the pre and post sales side.  My favorite example was an “engineer” from a VAR who argued with me during an install of a product his company resold that FQDN’s (something I had to explain to him) weren’t necessary when using their product, then wanted to call support when I proved to him they were, rather than just accept our large university environment was a bit more complex than what he was used to.  Every experience we had with that VAR over the next few years reinforced that initial impression – that their engineers were skilled primarily in clicking next and calling the vendor support number when they ran into problems.  Was every VAR or vendor engineer I worked with that bad?  No.  But none of them were good enough to balance out the really bad ones.

A Pair of Great Engineers

All of that changed when I began working on my Citrix XenDesktop project.  I never encountered an actual Citrix SE during that process, primarily because LPS Integration brought their Citrix Team Lead, Patrick Coble, to the table.  I remember thinking after the first meeting we had with Patrick, “damn, this dude might be better than me.”  That probably makes me sound arrogant, but it was the first time in a very long time that I’d met someone who knew more than I did, not about some product or technology I didn’t work with, but about something I’d worked with for years.  Patrick attended several meetings with my team and larger groups, whiteboarding everything from the design of the various Citrix systems to the server hardware and storage.  He’s also the guy who introduced us to the possibility of using Cisco UCS.  Through it all, Patrick demonstrated the casual comfort that only comes from being awesome at what you do.  Don’t misunderstand – he’s not humble, but people who operate at this level never are, nor should they be.  What sets Patrick apart from many technically excellent engineers I’ve encountered, though, is that while he can play his role in “stump the chump” with the best of them, once all the “alpha nerd”  stuff is settled, he treats his technical counterparts on the customer side with respect.  You’d think it would be obvious to anyone working in an SE or similar role that getting into a nerd chest-thumping contest with the people who are thinking of buying your products would be dumb, but you’d be wrong.

Another excellent SE I’ve gotten to work with over the last year is Joey Jackson from NetApp.  Joey had instant credibility with our team because, before moving to NetApp, he worked for a large public university.  Maybe that sounds shallow, but you’d be surprised how many vendor folks we deal with who sell to the higher education market and don’t understand it.  Not having to explain concepts like, “our faculty have tenure – we can’t make them use this just because we say so, we have to show them how it benefits them” is huge.  Joey not only demonstrated time and again he knew NetApp storage and how we might use it, but could reference specific projects and use cases he’d tackled when he was a customer and administrator himself.  Joey’s laid back, polite, and confident enough with his own skill that, on the rare occasion when I might have asked him a question he didn’t know the answer to, he had no trouble admitting that but saying he’d get me an answer.  Another thing you’d think would be obvious, since nobody can be expected to know everything, but I can’t tell you how many SE’s I’ve spoken with who obviously don’t know something, but insist on doing a bad job of pretending they do.

A Wildcard from the Twitterverse

I first encountered Joe Onisick via Twitter about a year and a half ago, when we were first looking into the integrated stack / converged infrastructure options.  He was one of the bloggers I followed on Twitter, and I believe he saw a tweet I sent asking for opinions on the topic.  He reached out to me and offered to discuss it over the phone with me.  We had a great chat about it, and he detailed the pros and cons of the various options.  I didn’t know much about Joe besides the fact that he ran a blog I admired and that he was generous enough with his time to spend almost an hour talking to a stranger about technology.  I later learned that he works for World Wide Technology, and that not only gave me a favorable first impression of WWT, it drove home the point that all of these interactions we have with people over Twitter, on the blogs, at conferences – they all can reflect back on the companies we work for.  In Joe’s case especially, his generosity with his time with no expectation of making a sale or anything, reflected well on WWT.  By the way, Joe wrote an excellent post titled The Art of Pre-Sales – and it’s definitely worth a read.

And that’s really the point, isn’t it?

All three of these guys know a ton about technology, and just knowing a lot would probably be enough to make them decent at their jobs.  What makes them awesome at their jobs is more than just what they know, it’s how they communicate it to others.  It’s how they listen.  It’s how they explain things and design solutions that meet the needs of the business.  Even more than that, it’s how they act, the passion they have for technology, and how they represent the company they’re working for and the products they’re selling.

These guys are pros, and they’re the standard to which I hold SE’s to now.  Which SE’s do you know or work with that you would say that about, and for what companies do they work?

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