Open Insights 65 – How Many Hats?

What is your strongest suit?

I talk to a lot of clients, prospects, and human resources folks everyday.  Every so often I’ll be asked “What is your strongest suit?  Would you say you are stronger in Oracle or MySQL?  You’re really on the database side, so you don’t do much systems administration, right?”   I hesitate to go with an either or answer because my exposure to technologies really has been mixed.  It’s easy to think in either or terms.  You can’t be expert at both database platforms, can you?  A lot of folks do specialize in one platform, or one type of work so it’s not surprising we tend to compartmentalize without thinking about it.

What about a jack of all trades?

Perhaps a better question to be asking is how many hats can you wear?  A generalist who can deep dive into the details when necessary can be a great asset to a business.   A manager who is watching costs, and a tight budget needs resources who can solve a lot of different types of problems, and hiring folks who wear a lot of different hats can be a great asset to them.

Specializing Job Roles

Unfortunately due to the way we think of education, we normally major in one thing, and further specialize through years of on-the-job experience.  This type of focus is important, but it can also be a detriment.  Psychologists argue that we naturally have mental blind spots.  Because of that we tend to bias heavily to what we are most exposed to, and see things with those glasses.

Take for example if we specialize in a particular programming language, we’ll likely see that as the best solution for all tasks.  If our job is on the operations side, we may see the business and it’s application in terms of the components and servers that host it.  We probably think about security, and performance, and reliability.  And if we are a developer, we’ll see it as a series of software components that interact in a certain way.  We may well focus on functionality, and the details therein, but think less about performance or upkeep of those infrastructure that sits on.  If we’re a manager or CEO, we will see the business as a whole and what solution it brings to it’s customers.  We are intimately aware of costs in human resources, infrastructure, and day-to-day operations that it takes to make the business continue to move forward and grow.  However we may not understand the intimate details enough to notice a design flaw a developer might, or understand the security implications to the business of a certain infrastructure decision.

The forest for the trees

Given all of this we can see how pervasive each of our blind spots are, and how they influence our frame of mind.  It’s very easy for us to miss the forest for the trees unless we are vigilant.  Communication can help us, and goes a long way towards helping the business as a whole be able to do this.  It can’t hurt to also have a few generalists who can wear many different hats, and plug in to projects in different and creative ways for the business.

BOOK REVIEW:  Cordelia Fine – A Mind of It’s Own, How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives

Here’s an interesting read that elaborates and clarifies how we are biased, how our minds tell us convenient fictions everyday.  Most people are overly optimistic, for instance about their driving ability, or their chances of success.  She explains that this is exhibited by healthy minds, and that there are a class of people that actually see things closer to reality.  Their perceptions of themselves are more even, and their predictions tend to be more realistic.  Apparently people with this unusual quality tend to be clinically depressed.

She divides the chapters up into some of our favorite vices, vanity, immorality, delusions and further being over emotional, secretive, weak-willed or bigoted.  Whatever areas are our particular trouble spots, we all exhibit some of these traits at times.

The author goes a long way towards explaining how and why we do this, and what can be done to improve the situation.  With her insights in mind we can hopefully make better decisions, and communicate better with those around us.

View A Mind of It’s Own on Amazon

Success Story–Media and Entertainment Conglomerate

The Business

A website aggregating twitter feeds for celebrities, with sophisticated search functionality.

The Problem

Having been recently acquired by a large media and entertainment conglomerate, their traffic had already tripled.  What’s more they expected their unique pageviews to grow by 20 to 30 times in the coming six months.

Our Process

We worked closely with the lead architect and designer of the site to understand some of the technical difficulties they were encountering.  We discussed key areas of the site, and where performance was most lacking.

Next we reviewed the underlying infrastructure with an eye for misconfigurations, misuse of or badly allocated resources, and general configuration best practices.  They used Amazon EC2 cloud hosted servers for the database, webserver, and other components of the application.

The Solution

Our first round of reviews spanned a couple of days.  We found many issues with the configuration which could dramatically affect performance.  We adjusted settings in both the webserver, and the database to optimally maximize the platform upon which they were hosted.  These initial changes reduced the load average on the server from a steady level of 10.0 to an average of 2.0.

Our second round of review involved a serious look at the application.  We worked closely with the developer to understand what the application was doing.  We identified those areas of the application causing the heaviest footprint on the server, and worked with the developer to tune those specific areas.  In addition we examined the underlying database structures, tables and looked for relevant indexes, adding those as necessary to support the specific requirements of the application.

After this second round of changes, tweaks, adjustments, and rearchitecting, the load average on the server was reduced dramatically, to a mere 0.10.  The overall affect was dramatic.  With 100 times reduction in the load on the server, the websites performance was snappy, and very responsive.  The end user experience was noticeably changed.  A smile comes on your face when you visit your favorite site, to find it working fast and furious!

Results

The results to the business were dramatic.  Not only were their short term troubles addressed, as the site was handling the new traffic without a hick up.  What’s more they had the confidence and peace of mind now to go forward with new advertising campaigns, secure in the knowledge that the site really could perform, and handle a 20 to 30 times increase in traffic with ease.

Success Story – Location Based Nightlife Business

The Business

A location based nightlife and entertainment company built on mobile smartphone platforms.

The Problem

The website was sluggish, and performance of the mobile applications were running slowly.

Process

We worked closely with the CTO and development team, discussed sticking points focusing on relevant areas of application and infrastructure.  We drilled down to the different components of the application, such as the network, cloud hosting (amazon EC2), webservers, load balancers, and backend database.

We identified that the heaviest components were the complex mechanisms and code used to calculate location itself.  Since this was an integral part of the service, users’ mobile devices would use GPS, identify their locations, and search the database for relevant venues and information around them.

Solution Options

We identified two possible solutions, one short term and one long term.

  1. Apply an advanced database indexing strategy which specifically addresses location based information.  By utilizing this technology, we would eliminate and vastly simplify the code being used to search for venues and information based on location.  Being the central component to the application, this would provide a dramatic boost in performance.
  2. Build a completely new and streamlined solution to the location searching functionality, by using square location areas, instead of the more intuitive circular location area.  Since users really just want information about venues around them, they likely don’t have a specific, precise, or mathematical idea of what “around” means.  Therefore a more loose definition can lend itself much better to computer database storage, and subsequent indexing of information.

Results

By implementing the short term plan, and performing further benchmarks, the business was able to release it’s new mobile application on the blackberry carousel store.  They were featured in the carousel store, highlighted as a new business bursting with exciting features and technology.  As a featured application, they received huge spike in volume of ten times their previous average.

With the changes put in place, they sailed through this challenging period smoothly, and with confidence that their application was performing beautifully.

Their long term rollout of the more general high speed solution has been an even greater success, ironing out remaining bottlenecks, and allowing the application to scale and grow rapidly as their mobile user and customer base  expands.

MySQL Professionals

Looking for a top-flight MySQL DBA to help tune or troubleshoot your application?  You’ve come to the right place.  At Heavyweight Internet Group we have fourteen years experience identifying bottlenecks in your services and systems, and resolving intractable problems.  We tune, optimize and rearchitect your application as necessary, to deliver you a better site.  One that performs better, and handles all of your customers as your business grows.

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