Zoho MS Office plug-in falls short of my expectations

I started this post rather upbeat, intending to sing praises to Zoho and its nifty Microsoft Office plug-in. Alas, as I was writing this and experimenting with the plug-in at the same time, a couple of things had dampened my excitement.

As of late, I’m pretty much exclusively use Zoho for my personal documents. My work documents are still all done in MS Office and will likely continue to be so for years to come. But Zoho has become the vehicle of choice for anything not directly related to PSC.

In all this time of logging on to zoho.com, I don’t know how I did notice a nifty little Microsoft Office plug-in, which allows me to work with documents and spreadsheets on Zoho through my local copy of Word and Excel. Don’t get me wrong, I like Zoho, but still nothing beats the auto-correct features in Word. So, I am loving the idea of being able to use Word to open a document straight from Zoho, work with it and then save it right back.

A few things disappointed me though…

  1. No auto-login feature. The plug-in can remember my user name and password from Zoho, but doesn’t log me in when Word starts. I have to click on the Login menu option before I can do anything.
  2. Ctrl-S doesn’t save the document back to Zoho. I have to click the ‘Save’ button on the Zoho plug-in menu in order for my changes to be committed back. I imagine that clicking Ctrl-S saves the entire document in my local temp folder. Not cool.
  3. Fonts and paragraph format gets messed up moving the file back and forth between Word and Zoho. It seems to eventually resolve itself. But it is freaky to see the document reformat itself.
  4. Internet Explorer script crash on Save. Trying to save the document from Word back to Zoho repeatedly generated a couple of script errors.  Talk about a moment of panic after you spent half an hour typing.

So in short, the Zoho Office plug-in is a cool idea but, in my opinion, it needs to fix the few things that I mentioned before it goes from cool to great.

First day of PMP Prep workshop

What fun! 8+ hours of a glorious summer Saturday spent indoors attending the first of 4 sessions of a PMP Prep workshop.  A few eye openers:

  1. It’s been too long since I was forced to sit for so long in one spot.  By the 7th hour I could hardly refrain from getting up and pacing around the room.
  2. It’s been too long since I sat in a classroom.  My head simply hurt, a lot, after 8 hours of nothing but PMP stuff.
  3. There’s a lot more to project management that what I do at PSC.  You need a project implementing SAP, building a submarine or launching a mission to Mars to be able to run a project according to PMBOK.
  4. There’s a lot of demand for PMP certification.  A couple students in the workshop had Master degrees in Project Management.  Yet still they talked about being passed for a promotion just because they didn’t have a PMP certification.  It sounds like companies are placing more values on certification than degrees.
  5. There really is a lot of demand for PMP certification world-wide.  The students in the class talked about needing to become certified to be promoted, to be moved up to senior management.  The instructor talked about companies flying in employees from all over the world to go through the workshop and making PMP certification a condition of conitnued employment.
  6. I’m worried about getting approved to take the exam.  I have to be able to show 4500 hours of project-related work over the last 6 years.   This involves managing projects and simply being a part of the project team.  Not too bad.  But I have to remember all the projects, their deliverables, how many hours were spent performing each activity — one heck of a daunting task.

There are probably more, but my head still hurts from all the new knowledge that was put in there today.  The sight of 3 rather large books sitting on my desk is a bit depressing too.  I think I’m going to be a very busy boy over the next few weeks.

The importance of being professional or How to behave on a conference call

Today more and more of my meetings happen via conference calls with meeting participants joining the calls from home, from their cars, from offices around the country and, in some cases, around the world.  The benefits of modern technology and the convenience of being able to bring people together for a meeting without all of them being in one place is undisputed.  But all these benefits are not without a price — a price of managing to come across as a professional.

When you’re not in front of people, when you’re not looking in the eyes of the persons you’re meeting with, it is all too easy to be lulled into the perceived safety of a conference call.  After all, nobody on the call can see that you’re still in your pajamas and are picking your nose, while listening to your boss.  It is a hard job not to allow yourself to slip into that perceived comfort zone and forget to behave like a professional.

  1. Don’t be late — It is very annoying to hear that familiar bell, announcing a new person joining the call, and the chairperson having to stop the conversation and ask who just joined.  You probably wouldn’t want to be walking into a meeting room full of people 5 minutes after the meeting had started.  It is never a comfortable feeling. Then why would you do it on a call?
  2. Don’t be late — More so if you’re the chairperson of the call.  The meeting can’t start without you.  The on-hold music is annoying enough by itself, why make everyone listen to it for any longer than they need to?
  3. Find a quiet place — The convenience factor of conference calls is undisputed — you can be in the meeting at any time and still do your own thing.  If your own thing happens to be shopping at Walmart or walking down a busy street, plan ahead and find a quiet place where you can talk.  Everyone else on the call doesn’t need to hear that cleanup is needed in isle 5.
  4. Use the mute button — If you can’t help it but be in a noisy environment during a call, explain the situation to the people on the call in advance, excuse yourself, and make ample use of the ‘Mute’ button when you don’t need to speak.  Every phone has a mute feature.  If you don’t know how to use yours, listen to the instructions at the beginning of the call — most conference bridges provide a mute feature in the form of *6 or something similar.
  5. Use the mute button in the car — Even though your car may not seem to fit the criteria of a noisy environment, the road noise can be very audible on a call.  If you don’t need to speak much or at all, just mute your phone.  If you do need to speak then…
  6. Pull over — If you’re attending a conference call while driving, pull over — it will be better and safer for everyone involved.  This applies even more so to drivers who tend to be very critical of other drivers and like to express themselves.  Just like the scorpion stinging the frog, it is in your nature, you will curse someone out even while on a conference call.  I’m guilty of this myself.  I once, while on a call, said quite a few not so nice words about a driver who nearly side-swiped my car.
  7. Stop other conversations — If there are other people around you who are not part of the call, don’t carry on previous conversations.
  8. Don’t start new conversations — Other people on the call don’t need to hear you giving instructions to your handy-man who had just arrived or telling your kid that it’s bed time.  While some people may find your dialog with the kids cute, not everyone can relate and you’re wasting everyone else’s time.  If you absolutely can’t avoid having to start a side conversation, see #4.
  9. Don’t multi-task — Pay attention to the call.  Don’t make people repeat themselves just because you were busy reading the news.
  10. Use a good phone — If your cell phone’s low battery indicator is blinking red, or you know that your provider’s coverage isn’t good in the middle of a forest preserve, chose a different phone or a different spot.

All in all, treat getting on a conference call just like walking into a board room and you’ll be all right.

On lack of Lotus Notes integration

When talking to customers, one of the arguments against Lotus Notes that comes up time and time again is the lack of integration options.  There are many examples.  Book a flight on-line or buy tickets to an event and there’s likely to be a link on the page to add this event or this flight to your Outlook calendar.  There is never a link to add this to your Lotus Notes calendar.  Go to your contacts in GMail and you can import existing contacts using a CSV file.  “For best results”, GMail suggests “please use a CSV file produced by Outlook, Outlook Express, Yahoo!, or Hotmail”. Again, strangely enough, there is no mention of Lotus Notes.

Ask a software vendor if their product has email integration and they will tell you how well they integrate with Outlook.  Mention to them that your company uses Lotus Notes and, in the ensuingcomplete silence, you will be able to hear the gears in salesperson’s head turning to come up with a plausible answer.

I was reminded of the sad state afairs last week while listening to an IBM webinar on social networking strategies for small business.  The presenter, Cheryl Contee, tried to educate attendees on benefits of social networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn.  She mentioned several times how great these sites are and how well they integrate with Microsoft Outlook address book.  And this is on a webinar for IBM Business Partners.  Pardon my sarcasm, but someone had obviously forgotten to tell Ms. Contee that IBM and presumable a lot of IBM’s Business Partners use something called “Lotus Notes” to manage their email and address books.

So what is going on here?  According to the IBM website:

  • “Lotus Notes and Domino software has 20 years of leadership in the collaboration space.”
  • “Over 46,000 companies around the world use Lotus Notes and Domino software.”
  • “Over 140 million licenses of Lotus Notes and Domino software have been sold worldwide”.

Yet, the rest of the world acts as if all these millions of users don’t exist.  Is this a giant conspiracy to eradicate Lotus Notes?  Or is it lack of effort on the part of IBM towards securing 3rd party support for their product?  I certainly don’t know.  But if I were IBM execs, I would spend a little less effort on trying to rebuild Microsoft Visual Web Developer in the form of XPages and spend a little more on making it easier to add an appointment to my calendar from without of my trusted but neglected by the rest of world Lotus Notes client.

Bad news, good news

We are continuing to bring you the news from the Lotus Notes/Exchange Chicago front. I wish I could say that it was all quiet on the Chicago front. But the battle rages on.

One of PSC clients has just completed migrating all of their email users from Lotus Notes to Exchange. They are keeping Notes for now — a lot of their business uses a Notes application, which was developed over many, many years. However, even that application is scheduled to be replaced by a 3-rd party .NET application. Although it is not clear at this point when the replacement will actually take place.

Another PSC client has just decided to stay with Lotus Notes. Looking at Notes 8, they determined that it offered UI improvements enough to pacify the end-user community, complaining of the “horrible” Lotus Notes client. The perceived advantages of an Outlook client vs. Lotus Notes were not enough of a business case for them to justify spending a great deal of money on a migration project. I am glad to be able to add this to the list of stories of companies choosing to stay with Lotus Notes based on the merits of Notes 8.

How to read everything you should read

It’s bad enough that I can’t keep track of the books I read.  Everyday I’m faced with massive volumes of information that I should be reading.  What to read first: the book on my nightstand, the several dozen blogs I have in my Google Reader, the pile of magazines on my desk, the online publications I have bookmarked?  How to read all of that and still have a full-time job, time to eat, time to sleep?  How do other people cope?

Business life and personal creativity or I used to brilliant

Business is bad for good writing.

Following a chain of blog posts — Seth Godin in his post linked to this post, which linked to this post — I read an old essay by Paul McHenry Roberts.  Reading it, I thought to myself, I used to be able to think, write and otherwise express myself like that — I used to be brilliant.  As a teenager in Mother Russia I would compose stand-up comedy acts, doing pretty good impressions of Mikhail Gorbachev.  As the same teenager I would write atrocious poetry, imagining myself the next Sergei Yesenin or Alexander Blok.

Even in Canada and America I maintained similar albeit diminished aspirations.  But it was not to be — I did a 180 turn and went to college.

What do I write now?  Proposals, emails, performance reviews and memos of understanding.  I fear that the late Mr. Paul Roberts would have difficult time understanding my Memos of Understanding or Statements of Work and would argue over sentences like “… network utilization analysis, focusing on specific aspects of server configuration, which may lead to instances of less than optimal performance…”

I no longer feel capable of putting together a presentation on why senior citizens should be restricted from driving during the rush hour.  (A presentation that I did years ago for a public speaking workshop.) I have lost the ability to sling verses, even the really bad ones.  The life of business and business writing have wrung my brains dry of creativity.  Reading business books and trade rags has rendered me oblivious to joys of poetry, unable to comprehensibly recite iambic tetrameters.

I have to admit that my business writing is good.  But the rest of my writing is hardly what it used to be.

On the flip side, I find that many people in business simply cannot write.  It is on a daily basis that I read horribly written emails, proposals and other materials plagued with run-on sentences, lack of punctuation and convoluted meaning.

It’s a vicious cycle out there.  People in business read business and technical literature.  They read trade rags and blogs.  They don’t read well-written literature and poetry.  As the result, their writing skills follow the dialectics’ principles of changes moving in spirals. Only in this case, the writing skills of today’s businessmen are moving in a downward spiral — they are deteriorating.

How to remember the books you read

I can’t believe that I’m about to say this, but my mother was right.  She was right when she was trying to make me keep a journal of the books that I read.  When I was a kid, after I finished a book, before she would let me start another one, she would make me sit down and write down the book title, author and a synopsis of the story.  Of course, as a kid, I would rebel, try to get out of doing this — after all, I had great memory and would never forget any book that I read. Or would I?

Not long ago I happened to pick up at my local library a copy of Moby Dick.  As I started reading the book, some part of me was incredulous at the fact that I never read this classic of American literature before.  Yet another part of me seemed to remember some bits and pieces, seemed to remember reading it before.  As I sat there, I came to realize that I’ve forgotten a great many books that I had read.  I always thought that I could remember the obvious ones, the classics, the monumental works of fiction.  But something like Moby Dick?  I would expect myself to remember it and yet I wasn’t sure.  The early signs of old age?  Alzheimer’s?  Call it what you will, but I’m forgetting the books that I read.

So now I’m on this kick to remember and list as many books as possible.  The obvious ones are the ones I own. I wonder if my library can pull up a list of everything I had borrowed over the years.

Like Sherlock Holmes, I find that my brain is not able to store every bit of information I come across.  There is simply not enough room for information that is not relevant to the functions of my day-to-day life.  Like Sherlock Holmes who chose not to know that Earth is round, I choose not to remember every birthday and every book — I choose to use technology!

True to the Information Age, I found a website LibraryThing.com that lets you keep a list of books you own.  I’m cheating and using it to keep a list of books I read: the ones I own and the ones I don’t.  I just hope that one of the site’s 500,000 members won’t call my bluff and ask to borrow a book I don’t own.

Lessons from Mexico or Where NOT to go in Mexico

For quite some time now I’ve been wanting to visit a city in Mexico. Any city. I came to North America in 1990 and in all this time never been south of the US border. I know a lot of people who had vacationed at one of the many resorts in Mexico. People talk about Acapulco or Puerto Vallarta, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone mention an urban vacation to Mexico.

So, when I had a chance to visit Guadalajara this week, I eagerly took it. I don’t quite know what I expected to find there but in 3 short days I learned a lot of lessons…

Lesson 1 — I am never doing this again. The only reason I may ever go to an urban center in Mexico out of my own free will is to go to Mexico City for bullfights or a soccer game. Otherwise — no, thank you, but no.

Lesson 2 — Apparently I don’t look very American. Everyone tried to talk Spanish to me. Restaurant and hotel staff, flight attendants and everyone else would switch to English when I would openly admit my ignorance of Spanish language. I have to admit that I like that. I don’t want to be thought of as a stereotypical American from a movie.

Lesson 3 — It is amazing how much you can fit into a Nissan Sentra. 3rd generation Nissan Sentras apparently are still being made in Mexico and seem to be the vehicle of choice for a taxi. My cousin drove one of those for many years in California and Canada and I used to think this car was a very small death trap on wheels. In Guadalajara, however, it fits 4 large suitcases and 2 to 3 people in the back seat and still does 60 mph. Granted, I don’t think those people were from the Midwest.

Lesson 4 — Mexicans don’t believe in Air Conditioning. Taxis, restaurants and even planes seem to regard air conditioning as some unnecessary luxury. The inside of a Nissan Sentra populated by grown men for any prolonged period of time with all the windows rolled up against pouring rain can quickly get rather uncomfortable without the A/C. Well, OK, perhaps it was uncomfortable only for me, my driver didn’t seem to care all too much.

Lesson 5 — Mexicans CAN drive. When I grow up, I want to be able to drive like them! Not sure what happens to some of their driving skills when they come to the States, but in Guadalajara it was pure poetry in motion: turning right from the left lane across 2+ lanes of moving traffic, merging into a solid wall of traffic, maintaining following distance of no more of 4 inches — I don’t think I’d have the guts to drive like that. When I saw a 14-year-old boy driving a semi, I stopped carying about the actions of my drivers.

Lesson 6 — Not all workers have to work. Everywhere I looked, for every 1 person working, performing an actual task, there were at least 4 people standing around and watching him. It was worse than watching a unionized road constructrion crew in Chicago.

Lesson 7 — I am glad I did not buy a Mercury.  When I was shoping for a car, I had considered a Mercury Milan. The car is made in Mexico. After visiting Mexico, I don’t have much confidence in the quality of things manufactured in Mexico. (I know that this is a horrible statement. I am sure that I have a lot of things that were made in Mexico and they probably all work well. And there many cars that were made in Mexico. But I just can’t seem to shake off this feeling.)

Lesson 8 — Knowing too much may be bad for you. I went to Casa Herradura on a tequila tour. Learning how tequila is made and watching it pour into fermentation tanks almost turned me off that drink for good. Luckily, a couple of shots of the finished product helped me change my mind again. I wish I skipped the tour and went straight to the important part — tequila tasting.

Lesson 9 — We, the Americans, don’t know how lucky we are.  The city of Guadalajara is only a short flight away from the US border. Yet it truly is a whole different world. Driving on a bus to Casa Herradura through the Mexican country-side, I was looking all around me at houses, cars, people. I saw at least 6 people piled up in a rusted Chevy pickup truck and I am upset with limitations of Bluetooth integration in my new car?! Our values are truly skewed. I now can understand why someone would brave a desert border crossing just to come to the United States. I think I’d try it too.

Lesson 10 — I CAN be happy to see a US customs officer. I never thought I’d experience this, but when a customs officer at the Chicago O’Hare airport scanned my passport and said “Welcome back”, I was actually happy to hear those words.

In addition to the 10 listed above, I now know a few other things, too. But those should not be mentioned in a mixed company… Ask me in private, I might tell.

    Happy birthday, America!

    I’m writing this sitting outside on my patio at 11 o’clock at night on this uncommonly cold July 4th. I’m wearing long pants, a long-sleeved shirt and a sweatshirt — so much for global warming. My clothes were made in Asia, mostly China and Macao. My laptop was made in Malaysia, I bet that it was in Penang. My laptop battery is from Japan. My BlackBerry, which happens to be next to me, was made in Mexico, I bet that it was in Guadalajara. Its battery, again, happens to be from Japan. I’m drinking a beer from Holland and sitting on patio furniture from China.

    Tonight I saw several firework displays that were put on by all the towns around me. And, despite the late hour, the neighbours all around are too joining in on the fun of the fireworks. As the night is filled with the sounds of made-in-China illegal fireworks going off in every direction, I can’t help but be reminded of a line from Captain Mayne Reid’s The Scalp Hunters — a book, which I, a Russian-Canadian immigrant, read still in Russian as a kid many, many years ago…

    “And this is the progress of three hundred years! Why, these people have hardly passed the first stages of civilisation (sic).”

    “Rather say they are passing the last stages of it. Here, on this fair oasis, you will find… fireworks, with all the little amorous arts that characterise a nation’s decline.”

    Happy birthday, America! May you live long and prosper in this great new world.


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