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Once upon a Time In Microsoft there was Teams, Yammer and Kaizala

Once upon a time there was a group of people sitting together at a canteen table eating their lunch. Not a word was spoken, until one of them looked up from their phone and noticed that the person sitting next to them was using a blue app to message someone. They look at the person sitting the other side of them and noticed that they were using a blurple app to message someone. They sat and thought for a moment “Hmm… one is using a blue app, the other a blurple which one should I use? ”

They finished their lunch and went back to their desk. They then whispered to the person sitting next to them “Hey I’ve got a great idea! At lunch I saw two people using apps to chat to their friends. We need an app to do that. What if we made an app that we could chat securely in where messages are encrypted? And if we can create groups as well we can have group chats. Maybe we can do video calls too that would be fun! and Oh yeah perhaps we can maybe share files or locations maybe?” Their buddy agreed “We should build that app, it’s a killer idea!”.

Fast forward a few dev months and their work is done, they have this app. Oh now we need to test it? I know the best place for this one said..

After a short test period and a few more dev cycles their app was free of bugs so they took it to their manager. “Hey Boss!” one said. “We have been working on this cool new app and want to show it to you, we think its going to be epic!”. The boss sits back in their chair and says “OK, sell it to me”.

PowerPoint loads their polished deck they’ve been working hard on for a week. “We’ve built this new app that you can chat in and chat in groups or 1 on 1″… “Hold On!” says the boss, “stop! you mean I have been paying you for 6 months and you’ve created a chat app? Didn’t you know we already have this? It’s called Microsoft Teams!”

“Is that the blurple app some people use?” asks one.

“YES!” says the boss. “Microsoft Teams is our collaboration platform for enterprises. It allows our users to chat to each other 1 to 1 using any device mobile or desktop, Mac or Windows. Users can call and do video and have meetings and conferences”.

“Ah, but we have the new concept of groups in our app” says one of the creators.

“Teams has Teams. Anyone can create a Team a team is like a group. where groups of users can chat, call, meet and collaborate on documents together in a secure virtual space” says the boss.

“Oh, our app only allows groups of users to chat, call and share files” says the other creator. “But, we are different as we are mobile only and our app is for instant and random chats between users that can quickly change topic and dimension. We aren’t trying to force collaboration because not everyone wants to collaborate all the time, they may just want to chat. Plus this Teams app you mention by the way you describe it seems to be very narrow focused to a concentrated circle of users. We want our users to be able to chat to anyone without restriction and discuss a wide variety of topics that can be answered by the larger community”.

“But we have Yammer for that” says the Boss. “Yammer is our social platform where you can join interesting groups and ask questions to the wider community, or get involved with conversations replying to group messages. Users can announce important information, share files and other content and also send a private message too”.

“Right….” says one creator. They both pause for a moment, look at each other with sweat starting to trickle down the side of their faces, when the boss pipes up and says “Don’t worry! Iet’s take it to our marketing department and get their feedback!”

A week later, the marketing team come back to them and say “We love it! We have this concept of inner loop and outer loop that we’ve been using to differentiate Teams from Yammer and when and why you’d choose one over the other. It looks a bit straightforward, we need some diversity, so we think this app can fit in this story and we’ve created a new loop. It’s called the open loop. This is where your app will be positioned”.

both the creators and the boss look at each other bemused, but collectively nod their heads. “So what is this loop thing you’re talking about?” one asks.

“well the inner loop we refer to is a bunch of people you work with closely day to day and have regular and purposeful conversations with and need to collaborate together to create something cool, like this app you’ve made. You 3 are a good example of an inner loop. The outer loop is when you want to reach out to your workforce peers and have open discussions about business related topics that may not be sensitive or require answers from people outside your immediate group or inner loop. We use this when you have a question you need answering, but you don’t know who to reach out to in a 1 to 1 conversation, so posting it on an open board allows you to get your answer quickly and more importantly it is probably going to be the right answer, and now you’ve made that connection you never had before

Now the open loop we’ve created for you this is for when the topic is neither fit for inner or outer loop. Its for you to communicate and coordinate across your value chain in a dynamic mobile first manner”.

The boss turns around and says “I get the inie outie loopie thing, but what you just said makes no sense, can you simplify it?”

“Sure!” says the marketing team. “Basically, its just to allow random chats between people in the organization, you know if you need to ask a spontaneous question to a colleague and they’re not online in Teams then you can use this to send them a message. Or if you’re organising a staff party you can create a group and organise it within your group. You know, conversations that probably have limited if no structure or longevity to them”.

“Got it!” says the boss, “So its WhatsApp for Office 365?”

“Yes, you got it!” says the marketing team.

“Today we proudly announce the availability of Kaizala, a mobile first chat and group messaging app for your enterprise”….


I write this in humour of course but I hope it’s made the point. When Kaizala was released I was sceptical as to why Microsoft saw fit to create basically a WhatsApp clone. Whilst I have heard good reports about the app I fear it has an uphill struggle to up seat WhatsApp usage for business communication.

I can see why this has been attempted. People taking potentially sensitive conversations away from corporate systems to WhatsApp even sharing documents etc. and that is a real concern for some businesses who are fighting hard to maintain compliance and control.

I can also see that trying to encourage adoption of apps like Teams and Yammer as alternative platforms to WhatsApp have their limitations and user experience issues for when you just want to send a message and this makes adoption a struggle.

At least with WhatsApp I can scroll my phone address book find the person I want and tap away. In these other apps, its slower in that i have to search and wait for a match etc. They do the job but the experience can be a turn off, so people revert to what is easiest. Its really easy to use, simple and does the job it’s meant for and that’s why people love it.

People think that well WhatsApp is encrypted so its an acceptable platform to talk business and share business documents on and this perception is built from not fully understanding legalities and compliance and control.

So I feel Kaizala is a “If we can’t beat em, join em” app that’s been created to try and unify all business communication under one single controlled and compliant system in Office 365 whereby users are happy they have the tools they want to use at their disposal and the freedom to communicate in the sphere they see fit, but the company maintains overall control and compliance and greatly reduce their attack surface for hackers or unintentional data breaches because someone sent the company financials to the wrong WhatsApp contact…

Does GDPR Apply To You As A Blogger?

Now that GDPR has come in to force, it suddenly dawned on me that I may have to comply with GDPR regulations as I operate my blogging site allowing comments from the public and subscriptions to my blog. In order to find out if I needed to comply or not, I called the ICO office to gain some advice.

This is what they told me

  • If I collect information that can identify a person as a single entity, then I need to have a Privacy Policy. The Privacy Policy must be accessible on the website, but that is not enough. I have to email all subscribers and commenters telling them that the privacy policy exists and that policy should also contain a description of what I do with the data captured. This itself does not mandate whether or not I have to register a DPO with the ICO and pay the annual fee. For that further considerations need to be taken.
  • If I recommend a product that is mine or promote a product of someone else’s on my blog site, I must register and comply with GDPR. Honest and independent (i.e. you have not been paid in money or goods to review) product reviews without recommendation are exempt. Meaning your review must not steer your readers to use this product over a competing one.
  • If my posts contain the name of a person or any data that can identify them I must register and comply with GDPR, this includes mentioning names of public figureheads.
  • If commenters ask me directly for support / assistance and I engage in that transaction, I must register and comply with GDPR. However, if I respond publicly with ambiguous advice, I do not
  • If I gather data for mail shots, newsletters no matter what the content is, I must register and comply with GDPR
  • I do not need to register or comply with GDPR if a reader simply posts a comment publicly and I make no money out of that transaction
  • AD revenue made on page visit alone means I do not need to register or comply with GDPR. If I used targeted Ads then I would need to register and comply with GDPR

So, I guess this evening I will be writing a privacy policy it seems…. But at least I do not need to register with the ICO. Do you?

Hope this helps fellow bloggers out there determine their GDPR status.

The Cloud Leads the Way to Disable TLS 1.0/1.1–Goodbye Lync Phone Edition

Microsoft announced that they will be turning off TLS 1.0 and 1.1 encryption on Office 365 on 31st October 2018. This should not come as a shock surprise to anyone after the POODLE and BEAST vulnerabilities exposed throughout 2011 and 2014. But what does that mean for you and your devices?

From a Skype world perspective, it means that your Lync Phone Edition devices, the CX3000 and CX500/600 phones will no longer register with Skype for Business Online on 1st Nov 2018. There is no workaround, there is no workaround or firmware update coming, the devices will simply stop working and will be useless to you. Initially a lot of people may gasp in disbelief that they have to replace their estate with new 3PIP phones. But in reality these LPE devices are now pushing 9 to 10 years old. They are really at the end of their functional working life and any smart business with a refresh program should already be well on their way with replacement to more modern devices.

This only affects devices registered to Skype for Business Online. If you are an on-prem consumer of Server and the account is hosted on-prem and you haven’t disabled TLS 1.0 and 1.1, these devices will continue to work for you. But should you be following the Cloud’s lead and disabling TLS 1.0 and 1.1 on-prem too?

The answer at the moment is probably not. Unless there has been an update in the latest Server CU and I haven’t checked this out, if you disable TLS 1.0 and 1.2 on-prem today, then you’re going to get back-end SQL replication problems as this relies on 1.1 and 1.2 is not supported. So for the mean time at least, on-prem is stuck with TLS 1.0 and 1.1.

But why are we moving away from 1.0 and 1.1?

So POODLE man-in-the-middle attack exposed a vulnerability to impersonate the server in a client to server communication in SSL v3.0 and watch in plaintext the exchanges between client and server. Although this predominately an SSL v3.0 vulnerability some TLS 1.0/1.1 clients are also at risk if they accept incorrect padding structure after decryption.

BEAST is a know MiTM attack similar to POODLE that exposes a vulnerability in the implementation of the Cipher Blocking Chain mode in TLS 1.0 protocol. This is a plaintext attack that is generated client side that injects packets into the TLS stream to guess the initialization vector. This was a common browser based attack.

There are more vulnerabilities in these protocols that have led to NIST declaring that these protocols are no longer approved for protecting information. And this is the reason why TLS 1.0 and 1.1 is being disabled for Office 365. As Office 365 is certified by various compliance standards, of which PCI is one, PCI compliance states that TLS 1.0 and 1.1 are no longer acceptable protocols to secure transmission of data between cloud and client.

Again this change is affecting all of Office 365, of which LPE is just one affected service. It doesn’t mean that your on-prem environment has to stop supporting legacy protocols, just that communication between your devices and Office 365 has to use TLS 1.2.

If you have Windows 7 devices in your environment, these will not support TLS 1.2 by default. Instead the protocol is disabled. You will need to ensure that the protocol is enabled on these devices in preparation for the date, it they are to continue to communicate with Office 365. You can download and apply this update for your clients: https://support.microsoft.com/en-gb/help/3140245/update-to-enable-tls-1-1-and-tls-1-2-as-a-default-secure-protocols-in

This change does mean that Office 365 from Nov 1st will no longer support Windows Vista as Vista does not support (in fact I am not even sure it ever did!) TLS 1.1 or 1.2! Shock horror, the world is going to dissolve! If you really have Vista out there, please update, or preferably, throw said PC in the bin and purchase a Windows 10 machine!

Windows 8.0/ 8.1 , Server 2012, Windows 10 and Server 2016 all use TLS 1.2 by default, so there are no changes needed to these Operating Systems in preparation for the disablement of TLS 1.0/1.1 in Office 365.

If you are using Android 4.3 clients or older (Jelly Bean) then Office 365 apps will no longer work post 31st October. You’ll need to update your mobile OS or purchase a new device. More worringly for businesses will be if you are running Internet Explorer version 8 through to 10 on Windows 7, you’ll need to update to Internet Explorer 11 to gain access to web services provided by Office 365.

If you have an Apple running OSX 10.8.4 or earlier of Safari 6.0.4 you too will also need to upgrade, or buy a proper computer 🙂

If you use ADFS for SSO with Office 365, you will need to ensure that your ADFS farm supports TLS 1.2. More information on how to check / do this can be found here: https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/windows-server/identity/ad-fs/operations/manage-ssl-protocols-in-ad-fs

Dangers of Confusing Productivity with Flexibility & Mobility

We haver never lived in such a time where computing was so accessible. With the mainstream use of Office 365 and Azure services remote working has become an ever popular and often the main selling point to a business. The internet is awash with how great it is that people can access more than just their e-mail away from the office, especially in my area of expertise, Skype for Business was really the big thing that untied a user to their desk.

But, while being able to connect anywhere in the world to your business core operations is fantastic, it does hold some hidden dangers if abused, or people are generally negligent. I think that there is a definite confusion with productivity and flexible working. Some people that think being able to use Microsoft Teams for instance in a coffee shop is being productive. It is not, that is being flexible. There is no doubt that the two are intertwined at some level, but that only becomes true if you’re in the coffee shop because you have no where else to go and you need to use their free wifi to complete an important work product. It is not being productive to think I know, I’ll go to Starbucks because I want a coffee and while I am there, I’ll answer some emails maybe or pretend I am working, when really my primary focus is meeting my friends for a coffee and toastie.

Focussing in on productivity for a moment. There are really two types of definitions to the term based on what the person thinks about their productiveness. Person A will think that being productive means multi-tasking, trying to half complete work throughout the day in small chunks while flicking between email, chat, phone, word etc. When they finish they think because they have worked in so many workstreams they have been productive. Person B will think being productive is sitting down, uninterrupted and focussed on a specific deliverable, a single task with no distractions.

Now I have tried both personas out. I find when I am person A, I am more stressed because when I look back of what I have achieved in that day I find I wasted a lot of time managing noise and waffle. I didn’t achieve what I set out to at 9am in the morning and now I am under pressure to hit deadlines as a result. When I work in Person B mode, I am a lot calmer, focussed and relaxed. I find that signing out of Teams, Skype for Business and Outlook is liberating and allows me to get what I needed done. I finish on time and can spend time with my family at the end of the day knowing that I have hit my delivery target for that day.

The dangers of being Person A is that you become an expert procrastinator, you never deliver a work package on time, or if you do, you have to put in extra hours in the evening to do so. In fact the tools that are supposed to make us productive have an alternative ego that is set out to destroy you. Unless of course you and your work colleagues can be disciplined and understand that Busy means Busy and not ping the hell out of you until you respond.

Now when I approach each day I have to write on my whiteboard, what is it I want to achieve today, and what priority. I’ll then work through those tasks without disruption. If I know that the task is going to take all day, or multiple days I will split my day into parts. I will make myself available to others for blocks of 30 minutes throughout the day to respond to emails, or phone calls or chats, but the rest of the day I am focussed on delivering my own workstream. A typical day in my life is

Time Activity
09:00-10:30 Focussed Work
10:30-11:00 Email, Chat and Phone Calls
11:00-12:30 Focussed Work
12:30-13:00 Email, Chat and Phone Calls
13:00-14:00 Lunch
14:00-15:30 Focussed Work
15:30-16:00 Email, Chat and Phone Calls
16:00:17:30 Focussed Work
17:30 Finish for the day

I find if I don’t work to this schedule and go all ad-hoc (Person A) then I waste several days a month and I am less productive as a result. Lunch is critically important, this is my time away from work and I will take the entire hour. Often people fall into bad habits and the thing I can’t stand is when someone emails me with an invite saying “I notice you’re free 1-2pm so I’ve put a meeting in your diary”. Like hell you will lol DECLINE. So now, I block book my dinner our out in my diary as out of office private appointment. I need this time to unwind, refresh, grab some air, play with the kids so I can face the afternoon. And when I come back I am motivated to carry on. Also when I was person A, I found myself coming back to the PC after my family had gone to bed and working until 1-2am just to get stuff done. There are times of course that this in unavoidable, but it shouldn’t be promoted as being productive or expected by the employer.

You’ll notice in my schedule that I don’t look at emails at the beginning of the day, nor on my immediate return from lunch. This is purposeful, because at these times I am the most motivated to do my tasks. I find reading emails at the start of the morning, or afternoon, they can be quite depressing and distracting and they can often completely change the course of the day. Trust me email cannot be that important, if the world was on fire, you’d be getting phone calls. Email is like standard parcel delivery, not important, deliver when possible type of communication.

We are all individuals and we know what works best for us in terms of life and work. Some people like the ability to login at 11pm at night and write a document. The action of logging in is not productive its flexible. The content you get done at that time is the productive element. People can think I am a 9-5 guy and I am fine with that. I get paid for 7.5 hours a day, where and how I choose to spend those hours is the most important elements. If you are working any longer than this per day then ask yourself are you being productive or are you being a mug? Unless you’re getting paid overtime, the only winner here is your employer getting work for free and giving you nothing in return. You may think that getting $3,4000 a year pay rise in recognition for your hard work is a good result, but before you come to that conclusion, total up all those extra hours by your hourly rate and if it less that your pay rise, bonus, if not then who is the one laughing? You should be recognised for your hard work while being on the clock, not being expected to go the extra mile on a daily basis. Now and then is OK, but more than that becomes expectation.

Now on to flexibility. Flexibility is being able to work within the parameters of your life in the easiest least friction way. This may be office based, or other forms of working. Its about work pattern management for the employee. Again being flexible is about allowing the employee to choose how they spend their 7.5 hours working day. Some, may be required to work a consecutive hour shift due to business needs, but others may be able to split their day between the school run or some other commitment that they have that would otherwise be problematic to them if they were office based.

Being flexible isn’t giving the employee a free roam card, because as an employer how do you track that you’ve got 7.5 hours out of that person on a particular day? You have to develop some kind of trust at the foundation level and then set some ground principles that employees have to work to. For instance it may be acceptable to start work at 10am because the employee has to drop their children off at school, and then for them to take 3-4pm out to go and collect and drop off at the child minders for instance, as long as the 2 hours can be worked back during extended working hours for that employee, i.e. after the kids have gone to bed, or they have support from their partner. But taking multiple random time-outs throughout the day for low priority reasons like getting your haircut, your nails done (Chris Ovett), or popping to the shops to do some quick shopping. These can and should be done at times where you don’t conflict with work.

The real question that needs to be asked by management is “Are you happy with the output of employee X today?” If you can evaluate that indeed they have contributed to a level of your expectations then flexibility is working for them. If not then perhaps they are struggling with some element and need a little direction. Obviously, a daily track isn’t feasible but you’ll get a understanding over a week or so. The important bit is not to ignore it and take action before it manifests as something far more permanent.

Finally Mobility, and this is where technology has really played a part in driving modern working. Mobility is allowing your employees to work from almost any location they choose within the parameters of what the business accepts as suitable mobility locations. Being able to access your phone system, your email, your files from pretty much any device any where is a massive win for employees and compliments the principles of productivity and flexibility. It makes the employees working environment far more elastic and generally works out more productive for the employee and employer.

Windows 10, Azure Authentication, Microsoft Intune and the Microsoft 365 suite is an awesome toolset to enable your business to promote a secure productive, flexible and mobile workplace. With MDM/MAM, DLP Policies controlling data access on certified devices, and Azure MFA with conditional access controlling where from and what you can access secures company assets through enterprise grade security.

However, there is one cog in the wheel that will forever prove to be the weakest link, and that is YOU! The company may have a fantastic security system, but if you’re not aware of your surroundings then you put yourself and your company at risk. I’ve seen many people in Starbucks, Hotel lobbies, Trains, Busses, Airport Lounges etc. with their laptops open Outlook on show, some corporate confidential document on display zoomed in at 150%, talking on their phone or Skype to customers and having potentially confidential conversations.

The lack of awareness people have in these areas astounds me. They say hacking a business now is almost too much work from a pure technology attack surface. Instead hackers will sit in these public places and wait patiently for a target. How do you know some one isn’t taking a photograph of your screen, watching your key strokes as you sign into your work email or recording your conversation that you’re having with your customer? Its not just hackers that you have to worry about, corporate espionage is just as real if not higher risk. Imagine your on a train, talking to a customer about a deal. You disclose your numbers over the phone, but unbeknown to you 2 seats forward there is a person who is working for your competitor. Guess what? Their bid is going to be less than yours now and you lose the deal!

People really need to think about what they are doing, and where they are. For instance, if you’re working in a coffee shop or somewhere, try and get a seat where there is a wall behind you, so that you are not compromised from the rear. Think about the conversation your about to have? Generally if you’re going to make a call, then you’ll know if it’s going to be confidential, so seek a private spot away from peoples ears. Can it wait until you get to your hotel room for instance? If you’re receiving a call and the call is turning sensitive explain it to the caller and that you’ll call back when you’re in a more secure location. They will understand and respect you more. The way I put it to you is this. If you had to pay for something over the phone and you knew the person the other end of the phone was in a public place because you can hear background noise, and they repeated your card number and details as you give them, would you be happy? NO!

So in summary, the art to modern working is a mix of all three elements, but they have to be in balance. You can be productive without being flexible. Flexible only has a return on investment if you can be productive and when mobile be aware of your surroundings, technology cannot solve that for you!

Don’t Waste Your Money on BYOSBC to Microsoft Teams

At a breakout session in Ignite 2017, Microsoft made reference to a new method of connecting OPCH PSTN to Office 365 which was in development. The current standard offering for OPCH to Skype for Business Online Cloud PBX is Cloud Connector Edition (CCE). CCE is an on-premises hardware appliance (I use the term liberally) that connects one end to your PSTN SBC and the other to Office 365 using Skype for Business Hybrid to all intents and purposes. This solution wasn’t the most elegant and there were many hidden costs involved, such as demanding Windows Server 2012 Datacenter licensing and some beefy hardware to run the full-fat CCE appliance. You also needed to invest in a SBC anyway, although technically CCE could be connected to the likes of Cisco CUCM but that configuration isn’t the most desired from a supportability standpoint. Some vendors like Sonus and Audiocodes came out with various solutions that combined SBC and CCE into one hardware unit. Each solution served a purpose and it was a means to get OPCH connectivity into Office 365. However, as you can imagine the uptake on CCE deployments wasn’t as great as probably Microsoft had hoped for. Coupled with the decision change at Ignite to focus cloud efforts on Microsoft Teams, left many customers looking to move to the cloud, or recently invested into Cloud PBX with CCE in dismay.

Anyway, it was hinted at Ignite that there would be a simpler solution coming in 2018. Rumours were that it would be a BYOSBC solution that removed the dependency on CCE. Well it seems that at various Microsoft Tech Summit’s this year that appears to be the case, that Microsoft will let you connect your SBC directly to Office 365 and more specifically Teams.

As we can see here from this picture of a slide from Tech Summit (Credit Paul Lange), Microsoft have designed a topology that allows this direct SBC connection to the Microsoft Phone System. This is not something new really if I am honest. It’s a similar method that currently allows you to connect your on-premises Cisco / Avaya solution to Exchange Online UM for voicemail boxes.

I don’t have any information on this topology at the moment, but I will bet my house on it that the connectivity will be somewhat similar to what we do for Exchange Online UM and an SBC today, i.e. SIP trunk over TLS to Exchange Online UM public endpoint and using some kind of gateway configuration in Office 365 to tie the SBC to the tenant. In theory any current supported SBC (Sonus & Audiocodes) in Skype for Business should be able to leverage this new service, but this has yet to be confirmed. Furthermore, anyone who has purchased SBC with CCE integrated appliances should be able to continue to use the SBC element, albeit the investment in the CCE element will no longer be leveraged. Again, educated guess, but confident this is accurate going by the above schematic.

So, my advice for those of you with these investments already, hang tight and wait for release. You’ll probably find that your device will support this topology.

However, there may be considerations for hardware. Currently SBCs using CCE don’t have to do any audio transcoding, instead the mediation server on the CCE will perform the transcoding between PSTN codec and Skype Enterprise Voice codecs, unless of course you have taken advantage of Media Bypass in the later versions of CCE. But assuming not, and your relying on the out of the box config, then your SBC may be under powered. Why? Well the above schema does not show an on-premises mediation server. So consider the scenario where you have on site users using Microsoft Teams with PSTN calling. Teams to Teams audio will try all local routes before breaking out back to Office 365. But a PSTN call has to go via a media server. Without Media Bypass, this means the PSTN call’s media will travel from the SBC to Office 365 and then back to the local site where the callee using Teams is located. This is tromboning of the internet is something Microsoft have campaigned hard to avoid with Skype for Business Online and therefore we should expect that when this solution is released, Media Bypass should be the out of the box, preferred solution to prevent this tromboning of the internet.

With Media Bypass, it would allow the Microsoft Teams client to send it’s signalling via Office 365 to the SBC, but the media establishment would be direct between the client and the SBC. This means that we will be expecting the SBC to work harder, transcoding media between Teams and the PSTN, rather than offloading that to the mediation server of old. Media transcoding on a SBC is performed by DSPs or Digital Sound Processors. DSP’s are essentially like CPUs and in the same manner of CPUs, each DSP has a maximum throughput, meaning a maximum number of media streams it can transcode at any one time. With Skype for Business and CCE, this allowed you to buy relatively entry level SBCs with 1 or 2 DSPs, because you didn’t care as Skype would handle it. In the Teams world this might not be the case, and you may have to replace these SBCs as invariably adding DSPs to a chassis is not a field serviceable option.

So why have I titled this “Don’t waste your money”?

Consider the wider picture. Microsoft is allowing direct SIP trunk connectivity to Office 365 that allows you to Bring Your Own Carrier (BYOC). It essentially allows you to choose if you want Microsoft to be in charge of PSTN call delivery and billing, or another provider. If I was a certified SIP trunk provider e.g. Gamma and PureIP for example, I would be working hard to offer direct SIP trunk connectivity to Office 365 as a package deal. This would essentially remove the need for on-premises hardware, risk and maintenance overhead and still allows the company to take advantage of fair market competition, while adopting Cloud Only.

I think this option if it comes to pass is an amazing opportunity, it opens Office 365 to competition and stops the Microsoft Cloud only monopoly of calling plans and allows you to make a decision on which carrier to choose. It also helps Microsoft deliver a global PSTN presence for Office 365, something that they’ve struggled with themselves due to regulations of each country. So instead of waiting for Microsoft to release PSTN calling in Singapore for instance, you potentially could just use a provider in Singapore and hook Office 365 straight up to the PSTN network there and away you go. It’s truly an amazing opportunity that opens the cloud up to coverage, scale and competition. It’s going to be a fantastic market!

Obviously, there are going to be some scenarios where you will have to have OPCH in some of your sites, PRI connections for instance, although, why not move to SIP if you can? Call center integrations or 3rd party PBXs and analog devices.

I am looking forward to seeing how this develops, it makes total sense from my standpoint, and was the first thing I said when CCE was release, was Why? This solution should have been the one deployed from the outset. When this comes in later this year, I expect to see more adoption and less resistance to enterprise voice in the cloud. I can’t wait! All that needs to happen now is for the Microsoft Teams Team to focus on getting enterprise voice feature parity with Skype for Business by the same time and I am sure it will be Microsoft’s finest moment yet. That said, there is no reason why Skype for Business Online users couldn’t leverage the same architecture? But, Let’s wait and see…..

Sorry for the clickbait title…. 🙂

Prevent User Subscriptions to Office365 Services

Microsoft are releasing more and more application services as part of the Office365 platform. Its getting harder and harder to keep pace with the development and release cycle and new products seem to be launching month on month. Just recently we have seen the release of Microsoft Stream, Microsoft Forms, Staff Hub and Microsoft Flow to name but only a few. These services are part of almost every Enterprise plan with Office 365.

You may have assigned full E1,E3 or E5 licences to your users with a view of letting them become drunk on Office 365. However, most of you will undoubtedly have sub licenced your E plans so that users are only licenced for business approved Office 365 services. However, the default settings of Office 365 mean that a user can visit a services page such as Power BI, Microsoft Stream etc. and use their corporate credentials to sign up to these services.

Unbeknownst to you and the business, users can be consuming features that have yet to be baked into your business process. This could cause issues as a result. In order to prevent these ad-hoc sign ups there is a tenant setting accessible by PowerShell to disable this feature

You will need the Azure AD PowerShell module installed, then log in via PS and execute this command

Set-MsolCompanySettings –AllowAdHocSubscriptions $False

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Now a user with selective licence assignments won’t be able to sign up for services that they have not been assigned to by an admin. Here we see a user that is only licenced for ProPlus

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Now, when this user tries to sign up to Microsoft Stream for instance at https://stream.microsoft.com this is what happens

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and when we try and complete the sign up the user is presented with a failure screen

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This is a tenant setting that will affect all users, at the moment there appears to be no way to limit this to a user or sub group.

The Cloud–An Enemy to Humanity Disguised as Helpful Progress? Or Natural Evolution?

When life gives you lemons, make Lemonade! (unless you are New Zealand Customs – When you bring lemons, they will deport you!) is the underlying mantra of all tech giants it seems. If you don’t know this saying, it was derived from the anarchist Elbert Hubbard, in an obituary he wrote back in 1915. The saying symbolises optimism in the face of fate or disability. I want to you keep in mind this meaning and the type of person Elbert was throughout this article.

The Cloud!, the final frontier of computing is the buzz word of today and the foundation for which the world’s intellectual elite are pinning their hopes and dreams for the future on. But has anyone actually sat back and thought what comes after The Cloud? There is no doubt, cloud is here to stay. Its not something new, its been around since the days of the internet as we know it today (around 1990), some may argue earlier. Its simply a term used to represent a service you connect to outside of the location where you are at. The simplest form of Cloud computing was connecting Outlook Express to your e-mail service from Hotmail or Yahoo way back when. As technology and connectivity have evolved it has seen us shift more and more of our dependent services into some form of a Cloud, whether that is private or public, or consumer services.

Figuring out when this trend started, if I look back I would have to say that the Cloud in today’s terms kicked off with the advent of the Apple iPhone. The iPhone was a revolutionary device, it is single handedly changed our lives forever, even if we have never owned one we have all been affected by it. It was the industrial revolution of the noughties. The world’s first proper Smartphone accessible to all at an affordable price point. On 29th June 2007, our lives changed. It was the first portable converged device that had more than a single purpose. Before that we had a CD Player for music, a PDA, a Pager, a mobile phone, a Gameboy, a calculator, a watch, a Dictaphone, and maybe even a file-o-fax! All of a sudden we had one device that had the potential to replace all these.

But its so much more than a device, its a platform for innovation, it brought with it Apps! Apps, we had never heard of before, we will did, we called them applications, but Apps on an iPhone meant software that took our habits and curiosities and turned them into something that connected people together, SnapChat, Twitter, WhatsApp etc, all social and connectivity platforms born out of the creation of the iPhone. Connectivity is a drug, far more addictive than crystal meth. Once people are connected, they want complete immersion and looking for that next “hit” and this drives cloud innovation. Connectivity also drives mobility. The more we can do online using only our thumbs, the more accessible services are to us and we spend more, both in time and money online. The thirst for mobility has seen some massive shifts in the market in the last 10 years or so. Maybe you used to catch a bus to town and visit a travel agent to book your next family holiday to Disneyland, go to Woolworths and buy yourself the latest Now that’s what I call music CD, or perhaps you’d go to estate agents to look for a new house? Today, you’ve got music streaming services like iTunes, Spotify, Online travel agents, travel compare websites, and rightmove and you can access all these from your iPhone sitting on the toilet while having a…… (I’ll stop there”!).

The Cloud is made from Lemons (Cloudy Lemonade)

So the iPhone really did change our lives. However, there has been a social impact and cost as a result of this revolutionary device that is never talked about and ignored by many. Now we no longer catch a bus, we don’t go into town and spend money in the local economy, local businesses close down with people’s livelihoods wiped out. We prefer to communicate with people online than face to face. In fact I have seen 2 people in the same room no more than 15ft apart use Facebook Messenger to chat to one another rather than having a human conversation! Our primary communication anatomy is now our fingertips and we seem to have forgotten basic human interaction. How many times have you walked down the street and nearly flattened someone because you had your head down, immersed in Facebook, or reading an email? How many times have you sat on the tube head down and left a pregnant woman standing? How many times have you been tapped on the shoulder for attention and feel completely unnerved, wondering what your supposed to say? As a result of connectivity and mobility we have begun to remove ourselves from physical reality and into a virtual space that exists in our collective minds created by machines. We have begun to move our human conscience into online identities and personas. You used to say that you would get to know someone when you meet them face to face, but in today’s world this is total garbage. If you really want to know someone, you get to know them online! This is because we have come to rely on the Cloud for so many things in the consumer world that we have to a degree forgotten our values. Some call this progress.

The power of the Cloud has also reinvented traditional services such as taxi service with Uber, Hoteliers with AirBnB, banks with fintechs such as PayPal and Blockchain. They’ve re-imagined the possible, given consumers choice and accessibility all because of connectivity, mobility and the iPhone. For the consumer of course this is wonderful. For the businesses in the sector that is being disrupted, not so great! Some call disruption a good thing. From my perspective I do see benefits from disruption, I rely on Uber for instance when in a city because it is convenient and I don’t need to worry about payment, or my location. I get that the old businesses feel out played, but they have the chance to react and adapt so from a business perspective its fair game. However, disruption only works successfully if it is regulated and its not. Disruptors like Uber for instance are targeted based on user sign ups by their venture capitalist investors. If Uber can prove there is demand there by producing reports that they had 20,000 new drivers sign up in a location and 100,000 riders, then even if Uber are losing money as a business, they can prove the demand is there and keep the investor sharks off their backs. However, the problem arises when Uber has more drivers sign up, but rider sign ups plateau. This creates over supply and this starts to affect people’s income. All of a sudden people’s lives are affected again, they have debts to pay that they can’t service, lose homes and even lives (really – check out Uber in India). So a disruptive firm that is unregulated, driven completely by numbers and biased data, although on the consumer face of it seems awesome, has far reaching impacts to society that we actually give thought to. So has Uber actually improved society, or are they just optimistic anarchists riding a wave of success by other business disabilities?

Uber is not the only fintech with this problem, there are many others affecting society subconsciously fuelled by our appetite for accessibility and a bargain. Take a look at AirBnB inflating house prices in tourist areas as a result of investors taking advantage of the market, causing local residents to move away because they cannot afford to buy a home in the place they grew up in.

This is the untold price of Lemonade, these days!

However, the Cloud has taken on the next stage of its revolution. It is bored of providing linear services to consumers and businesses like e-mail, e-commerce, Unified Communications etc. It’s done that already. Driven by our seemingly overwhelming desire to out create ourselves, we are now looking at Artificial Intelligence to “improve” our lives. We seem to be infatuated by digitally recreating the human brain. We are disappointed that we can only use 10% of our brains capacity so we must create a computer that can leverage it’s entire digital processors! This can be a scary thought. If the cloud is not regulated and development monitored we could accidentally become the second most intelligent species on the planet. What happens to animals that aren’t at the top of the food chain? They get eaten!

AI, will inevitably provide us with countless benefits, we are on the cusp of revolutionizing perhaps the single most important right of passage any 17 year old looks forward to…. Driving. Driverless transport will inevitably arrive within the next 5-7 years, starting with haulage. We will see mass haulage convoys take to our motorways transporting tonnes of merchandise up and down the country far more efficiently than a human driver could. Not only will routes be optimised based on real time data, but having autonomous haulage means that they do not need to stop every 3-4 hours for a regulatory break, or reach maximum driving hours a day. The trucks can keep on trucking 24/7! This will boost economies and make products available to us far quicker than we can imagine today. We could inevitably see order fulfilments in next hour, instead of next business day. Naturally however, there are a lot of lorry drivers out there that will loose their job to an algorithm. When they re-enter the job market place, what transferable skills do they possess? What jobs are out there today that having 20 years driving experience is good for? Taxi driver? Unlikely, as the next wave of autonomous transport will be upon us, public transport. In 10 years public transport including trains, busses and taxis will be completely autonomous. Trains could reach this point a lot sooner, because their routes and rules are simpler to understand on a machine level. They follow a pre-defined route on an already highly computerised network and have very binary rules of engagement. Taxis and busses are more complicated due to the unpredictability of the roads. They are unpredictable because humans operate machinery on them, 3 billion individual minds operating independently, means almost unfathomable permutations of possible outcomes makes a machine to learn road behaviour a monumental data problem to solve. However, it will get there, first by having dedicated public transport lanes, separating AI controlled machines, from human controlled machines. Then when the normal driver is replaced by a autonomy the road network can be predicted and observe machine rules.

Autonomy will not only affect vehicles on land, but also sea and air too. We will see autonomous cargo ships and planes delivering vast amounts of cargo around the world to complement the road logitic demand driven from our increased consumption of merchandise. Passenger planes, may take some convincing and while they are 98% computer controlled today, people still want that comfort factor of a human being able to intervene. However, as algorithms get better, learn more could they get better at deciding an outcome than an human? I doubt it due to lack of situational awareness and the emotion factor, but it will be close.

Again, where are all the people displaced by this autonomy going to find work?

After transport, we will see a revolution in public services, such as health care and the justice system. Health care is being revolutionised as we speak! How many of you get frustrated because the earliest Dr Jones can see you is next week? What if you could access health care on demand, without an appointment? What if a machine could learn to diagnose conditions based on data input? Perhaps a questionnaire, a symptom checker, perhaps even BYOBT (Bring Your Own Blood Test), clip finger, take sample, place into personal analysing machine, connect to the Cloud, and instant blood test results? At the end of it the machine will give you a diagnosis, and a prescription sent to the pharmacy who deliver your medicine by Amazon drone within 30 minutes? Easy and accessible basic health care for everyone, and this should be a free right given to everyone, just pay for your medicine. Obviously not every condition can be solved by a machine or a prescription, but it frees up doctors to treat the critically ill, reduce patient wait times and generally improve society health.

The justice system will also be revolutionised by machine learning and AI. Using historic cases data, data gathered and learnt over the years on human behaviour (lie detectors etc.), factual data analysis and the mathematical calculation of probability all of which is available today could be used to formulate a guilty or not guilty verdict. This would mean no longer would we need solictors, prosecutors or a jury. Instead machine learning can analyse the case data and provide the Judge with a verdict and confidence factor of that verdict based on unemotional data analysis. The Judge will be the only human element who can decide the most appropriate sentence after taking into account human factors.

Where are all the law people going to work?

Machine learning and AI will become so advanced that humans will no longer be needed to design or implement technology systems. Businesses will be able to order bespoke applications directly from the intelligent cloud by submitting a specification, the AI and Machine learning will go and build it for you like an app vending machine. The benefit of intelligent code building code for purpose apps is that it each application will be coded to a standard. So they will be like building blocks, meaning infinite connections to other apps can be built on demand to react in almost real time to the demands of the business. Because the code is built by AI, it will have its own diagnosis and healing capabilities baked in meaning that the cloud could identify bugs and fix them on the fly without us even knowing about it. Using consumption and use behaviour analysis machine learning can even figure out what features should be added automatically based on prioritization according to this data analysis.

At this point it’s goodbye IT Pro and Admin, where will they go?

Machine Learning and AI will not only affect adult life, but our children’s too. AI, Machine Learning and augmented / virtual reality will be used to transform the education sector. The transition will happen slowly, as in introducing augmented reality into classroom learning with a teacher, but conceivably the machine could replace the teacher altogether. Instead offering home based virtual reality classrooms with children being taught an education by bots.

This begs the question, if almost all human employment can be transformed by the Cloud and automated, what can our children look forward to in their lives? What will they do when human supply outweighs the job demand, like Uber in India?

This leaves our future somewhat uncertain. We know that we want computer intelligence and automation to make our lives easier. It’s because we are completely in love with the idea that we can create another being to serve our thirst for an easy life. Human slavery was outlawed in most of the developed world in the early 1900’s, but we haven’t quite gotten over it. We are still subconsciously in love with the idea that someone else could do it for us, so what better way to solve this issue than with bits, bytes and clockwork? Computers have no rights, they have no emotion and therefore, the perfect candidate for us to enslave to feed our lust to be waited on.

We think we have created a digital slave to humanity, but it will be us humans who will be slaves to the machine. We will depend on machinery so much that we will as a result evolve into a dependent and collectively less intelligent species. Once the decisions on intelligence have been superseded by machines we will no longer be able to teach the machine, but the machine will become more intelligent than us. If this is not carefully managed then this could spell disaster for us as a race.

So how do we avoid destroying ourselves? Anyone naïve enough to think that something will come along (it will be ok, things will work out), are living in a dream world. This next autonomous and intelligent revolution will forever change society.

Facing mass unemployment and seemingly without much purpose, we will need to figure out what our future society is. With reduced opportunity for work involving humans, and most of that work will be monitoring the machines (think Homer Simpson at work) we can assume that wealth will be a huge concern. No jobs, and low skilled jobs mean no money. If unchecked, will least to increased crime and a growing sense of unrest and resentment to the machines we created to solve a problem we thought we had. Trust me, once the honeymoon period is over, things will get ugly, unless society has a plan. One idea is that everyone will receive a living wage just because they exist.

There are several problems with this idea, and let me tell you why.

The Cloud with AI and machine learning is something only 3 companies can really achieve at this point. They are; Microsoft, Amazon and Google. These companies will become giant mega-corporations in the future. Controlling data is the Gold, Platinum and Oil combined of the future! The company that controls the data, controls everything, even you. We have already seen these companies try and solve society’s problems and make money out of doing so directly. They are fed by our thirst for data analysis and manipulation that we are willing to pay life long subscriptions to get it. They are already starting to realise that they no longer need the middle-corps to find customers, customers are going directly to them. Do you think that Google will distribute their Google Car via a car dealership? No, they will sell it on Google Shopping on the internet directly to the consumer, delivered by Amazon. Do you think that Microsoft needs System Integrators to sell and implement their cloud services? No, their cloud is accessible to the public and combined with advanced machine learning and code writing code, a business could simply logon to Azure, answer a few questions and an hour later their app or service is ready. Amazon is perhaps the most advanced at meeting our consumer needs, already looking at drone deliveries and warehouses in the sky. If I was eBay I would be worried for my future. As soon as drone deliveries come into mainstream, all Amazon need to do is allow the consumer to sell their items and as soon as it is sold, a drone is dispatched to collect from the seller’s door and it is instantaneously shipped around the world by Amazon Air and delivered to the buyer within hours. Goodbye eBay and goodbye parcel delivery networks (Royal Mail, Fed-Ex and UPS). I wouldn’t be surprised if Amazon bought Facebook, and Google bought Twitter. If they did this then these 3 companies would have all the online data on a B2B, B2C and C2C, building in Cloud AI to better deliver customised experiences to us.

These companies will be run by a small number of people. These people will become very very greedy and very very rich. While the majority of us will become poorer. The idea behind the living wage is that these mega-corps will redistribute some of their wealth back into society by way of taxation and other income redistribution schemes. However, these companies are already masters of tax avoidance, so do you really think they will cough up? But ultimately, who are the Government to enforce this taxation and redistribution on these mega-corps? They will be above the law, untouchable, in fact they will be the law. Their solutions and Cloud will be so embedded into society that even the Government is their customer. We will simply not be able to function as a society without the cloud, and therefore, it will always be there. Maybe the execs of Microsoft, Google and Amazon of the future will distribute the living wage, but I dare bet it will not be enough, and will be heavily controlled and incentivised so that they can reclaim as much of it as they can through service subscriptions.

Perhaps the answer is to abolish money altogether, instead move towards a token based system, but in any case the distribution would need to be even and our lives would need to be standardised, otherwise what right has one person got to own a 10 bed mansion when I am living in a 3 bed semi?

Whatever the answer is to the living wage problem, it will not solve our basic human instincts. We are programmed to work, or rather do something to stimulate our minds. What can society offer us when the whole world is automated? There is only so much Xbox, or walking the dog anyone can do before it becomes boring. We need a purpose to survive, what will be this purpose, I don’t know?

In any case, the Cloud is going to take over the world, we are going to see some massive transformations, some for the better, but inevitably there will be human casualties along the way. Its how we plan for and manage those casualties that is important to our future. Allowing people to push forward with machine learning, AI and business transformation at speed without first assessing the point in which society cannot currently cope with development will be our undoing. Like I said before disruption is good, but it needs to be carefully managed so that we do not destroy ourselves in the process of discovering what we are capable of creating.

When Life Gives You Lemons, sometimes you need to wait until you are thirsty to make Lemonade

But you can always blame the iPhone for this!

Blocking Office Store–Harder Than You May Think

Recently at a customer they were rolling out Office 2016 ProPlus to their early adopters. This was a significant change for the business and somewhat an experimental process. Their Information Security team had a problem with the Add-ins function within the Office applications and requested that we find a way to block Office from accessing the Office Store.

The Office store isn’t curated by Microsoft solely, so their concerns were valid and what potential risks to information could a unsolicited add-in cause.

To block the office store is harder than I first thought. There are blog posts out there that cover blocking, but they are single use cases, not a complete block as I found. So this post will cover all 4 steps you need to take to successfully block the office store.

Step 1 – Remove Office Store link from the App Launcher

In the Office 365 Portal, expand the Settings menu and click on Services and Add-ins

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Next, scroll down to find the Office Store Service

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Change the default value from On to Off and press save

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This now removes the Store from the App Launcher

Step 2 – Block Office 2016 ProPlus from Accessing the Office Store

You can do this by using the Office Customisation Tool (OCT) when creating your deployment package, or by using the Office 2016 ADMX Group Policy template. This is well documented here: https://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/library/cc178992.aspx

Implementing this will stop the Office package from browsing the Office Store.

Step 3 – Blocking Access to the Store from Office Online

This one is something that I spent quite a bit of time on. Even with the above steps completed, if users go to Word, Excel, PowerPoint Online they are able to still browse the Office Store and add add-ins even with these settings applied. I couldn’t find a way to block this initially within the tenant, I even checked Azure AD Applications for Office Store and there was nothing in there that suggested this could be turned off. However, i found that there is a setting in Office 365 that will prevent this.

As you would logically think (sarc), this setting is located in SharePoint Admin Portal, so open this then click on Apps, and then Configure Store Settings

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Then Select No to Should Apps for Office from the store be able to start when documents are opened in the browser, and press save

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Now when Word, Excel, PowerPoint Online open and you try and browse the Office Store you get this

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Step 4 – Block Access to https://store.office.com

So Even with these settings applied, users can still go to store.office.com browse the store, sign in and add an add-in to Office 2016 and Office Online… sigh. So you need to add this URL to your web blocking solution. But there is more, what if you have remote working and users are not connected to corpnet? The only dirty way I have found to prevent this is to edit the HOSTS file on the machine that sends requests to store.office.com to an IP address of 0.0.0.0 or the IP of a web page that tells them access is blocked.

From Unknown to MVP–My Journey So Far

I never set out to become an MVP it just sort of happened. Along the way I have met many people with similar back stories to me chugging away on Twitter, their own personal blogs and crowd support sites such as Experts Exchange, Petri and the likes. I get asked all the time, how do you become one, how did I do it?

In short the answer to that is sheer hard work and determination built on the willingness to share knowledge. Today I want to share my story on how I began on my journey.

About three years ago or so, I decided one day to start a blog with the sole intention of storing information and notes in a place that I could always find them. I signed up for a free WordPress.com account and away I went. My first post was shockingly awful and lacked any kind of substance. It literally was a 3 line post! Its still online today – you can see it here: https://three65.blog/2014/10/25/force-removal-of-mcafee-enterprise-8-x/ …Told you.

An accidental chance that set all this in motion!

In the early days my posts were rather sporadic and mainly centred around Exchange and Lync because of the nature of my role at the time, being third line Microsoft support for a channel MSP meant I had a varied working life. At the time my blog was just my blog, I didn’t have a twitter account or connections to social media to plug my work on the site. After all my blog was for me, and if anyone else happened to stumble on it and it helped them, great, but that’s wasn’t its primary focus at the time. Then, I applied to my employer to send me to Office365 Ignite in Amsterdam back in the early part of 2015. I wanted to get closer to the coalface of technology and the cost of an Ibis Hotel and an EasyJet flight was cheap enough to stand a chance of getting acceptance. So off I went not knowing what to expect. I sat in all of the Lync sessions and it was at the time that Skype for Business was being announced so there was a massive buzz in the air for that. People eager to understand what was coming, what changes would be made, new features etc. So I grabbed my notepad and pen and scribbled everything I heard down to take back and share with my fellow colleagues. On the final night, sitting alone in a cheap ibis room on an expenses budget that just about covered a McDonalds I decided that I would convert my notes from Ignite into a blog post. The end result was this post: https://three65.blog/2015/02/14/skype-for-business-whats-coming/

Little did I know, but this post was about to change my blogging “career” for ever!

Out of nowhere this post went viral, at one stage was out performing Microsoft and was ranked #1 on Google for people searching “Skype for Business” To date my blog has had nearly 410,000 views and this one post accounts for the best part of 100,000 of them! I was surprised at the uptake of this and played a massive part in the decision to take up blogging on a more serious course. Spurred on by the success of this post, I joined Twitter, linked my WordPress blog with my Twitter and LinkedIn accounts, followed a few people that seemed to be making lots of noise in the Skype for Business space (Matt Landis, Jeff Schertz, the usual famous bunch). Now each time I blogged, Twitter and LinkedIn would post my updates. Slowly I began to start getting some followers and a few retweets here and there, and the views to my posts started to trickle from a 10-15 per day to a few hundred to a few thousand every now and then.

It’s about building your network slowly to gain credibility!

Spurred on by Retweets, post shares and likes I continued to blog everything I found as soon as I learnt about it. It was a real buzz for me to see how well the community received them, that became my drug and I was addicted. I have a few very special thank yous to make at this point to Randy Chapman (@randychapman), Guy Bachar (@GuyBachar), Andrew Morpeth (@andrewmorpeth) as these guys were the very first promoters of my work, and instrumental in building my online presence. Really Thank You Guys! As a result I started building up a small following and started to engage in conversations on Twitter with people who must have been thinking “Who the hell is this guy?” at first Why did I do this? Mainly to test my understanding of a subject against others who in my opinion knew far more than me. I am really grateful to the UC community for accepting this unknown n00b into it and talking to me as an equal. The great thing about the UC community is that we are small and as a result always there to help each other out. I’ve not experienced that with any other online community before! This is the best thing about it, MVP aside, that’s just a gong. Being able to reach out to these guys in the community to share experiences that’s worth way more than any trophy, sticker or disc. The process of trust and credibility takes time, it can’t be rushed or demanded, it’s earnt and granted by your peers.

Use your statistics to focus your content!

One thing I learnt was that certain blog topics were received better than others when comparing statistics. I set myself a target of one blog a week. While doing this I noticed that a certain type of blog post would get more traction than others. For instance, if I blogged about a specific issue to do with Skype for Business and then broke it down to step by step fixes, the post was welcomed by the community and retweeted, shared etc but these didn’t return in views to the extent I’d hoped for. I realised that these post, though incredibly valuable to people who are in that situation at a specific time, they weren’t “clickbait”. What really sets my blog on fire are the posts that I share my opinion on a subject. For instance take a technical blog post like this one: https://three65.blog/2017/04/10/no-ringback-heard-by-caller-skype-for-business-audiocodes/ it has 13 LinkedIn shares to its name and only 340 views. Now if someone had this issue and was under pressure to resolve, they would be forever grateful to this post. But if you want to drive people to your site, you have to blog at a higher architectural level and offer knowledge and opinions on business topics, like this post: https://three65.blog/2017/06/28/skype-for-business-online-cloudpbx-calling-plans-and-consumption-billing-explained/ written only two weeks ago and has 95 LinkedIn shares and over 2,000 views. These types of posts help you build your profile and increase your visibility so you’re more likely to get noticed.

Its not all about blogging, it’s about contributing

This is where many people come unstuck and wonder why they are being overlooked. It simply is not enough to churn out blog after blog after blog and them come to expect a reward for it. The blogs are of course extremely important, but they need to be relevant and they need to add value to the community and technology your apart of. This is the difference between blogging and contributing. The way I try to do this is to perform a quick search on the topic I want to blog about. If Microsoft haven’t covered it in the detail I think it warrants, and no one else has, and I still feel my version is worth it, I will blog it. If not, then I won’t. One thing that gets frowned on in the community especially is re-gurge of other people’s posts. If someone else has blogged it, then respect their content and try not to devalue it. It is hard in this day and age, and I sometimes fall foul to this despite my best intentions (Yes Greig.. I Know! but you’ve had your apology and back link Winking smile). The best advice is to find a niche in the space in which you operate and if you do this, then you’ll quickly become the source of authority and the go to blog for everything in your area. For instance Jeff Schertz – He is the Skype for Business Video Man, Matt Landis – He is the all things coming out new man, although his crown seems to be in jeopardy as Tom Arbuthnot seems to be excelling in this space. James Cussen is the Admin Tools man etc etc. We all have our space. The point is, your name and brand sticks based on your content, and once you’ve established that the community will not forget you and you’re easier to spot by Microsoft.

I am still yet to discover my niche, I think if I was asked now, it would be “The guy who does these videos on Channel 9”. But in reality I am not the type of person to blog about every single new feature or announcement out of Redmond, or the product review guy. I choose to blog on topics that interest me and I think have value. I have to feel enthused to sit down for 2 or 3 hours and churn it out. If I don’t have the will power, the laptop doesn’t get powered on.

So its not about the quantity of blogging that you need to focus on, its about adding value and contributing to the community in a meaningful way. I feel I do this OK, I may not be the most active person in the community, that’s down to day job, location and family commitments, but I do try and find a few hours a month to spend trying to add value where I can.

Blogging is just not enough, more is needed

When I got awarded my MVP, I received an internal e-mail from someone who will remain nameless. The email went something like this “How did you manage to get MVP? I’ve been trying and don’t understand how you’ve done it, I have my own blog too”. To be honest the reasons I believe I got there was because of the way I choose to blog, choosing relevant topics and adding value to them. But I did so much more than just blogging. I started my own monthly video webcast called The Skype Show and discussed topics on there with MVPs, vendors and people from Microsoft. I also attended UC Day – an independent UC conference in the UK and delivered a show from there interviewing vendors and MVP speakers etc. In addition to this I decided to venture onto Microsoft TechNet forums and help people on there. TN forums have all but died away now as we move towards Microsoft Tech Community but I spent hours on TN forums answering questions and gaining points. This is where my friendship with Anthony Caragol was born. Before my time on there he was the king of the Lync / SfB TN forums, that was his niche market. I remember him tweeting me asking me to give him a change Open-mouthed smile . I apologised but he welcomed it and really supported me doing it. We had a little competition between us to see who could end up higher on the MSDN leaderboard each week. Fun times!

So when I look back I probably spent about 50-70 hours per month dedicated to the community beyond my day job and family life. This meant late nights, often to 1-2am. But I do it because I love what I do.

A huge Thank You to Anthony Caragol

One of the biggest helps on my journey has been given by Anthony Caragol who is also an MVP, and a MVP before me. He spent hours mentoring me towards MVP. Always there on Twitter and Skype when I was feeling dejected, frustrated or just needed some general advice. He offered advice on the MVP program, what it was about and tips to get noticed. Without Anthony’s support I would not be an MVP today that is for sure! I owe him a huge debt of gratitude. Having a mentor already in the program was perhaps the biggest asset I had, and if you are thinking of working towards MVP, then my advice is to find yourself a mentor willing to coach you. Their experience is invaluable.

Remember MVP is a reward for hard work and contribution, not a something you study for and take an exam

It is important to understand that MVP is not a right, its a reward granted to you by your peers. You cannot study for it, you cannot take an exam and there is no acceptance criteria to speak of. So you cannot engineer the award. If you’re in this to just get the gong then you’re going to be seriously disappointed. It takes a lot of dedication to get there and you can only do it if you have the heart to contribute and share. Otherwise you’re going to get frustrated and bored fast. To get noticed you need to be consistent in your contributions and regular about them, blogging or posting in a forum once a month isn’t going to set you above the rest. Therefore, it takes some serious commitment. For me and many MVPs this comes easy because we have a willingness to share so it just sort of naturally happens after a while. I must admit in the early days it felt a bit forced for me but once in the rhythm it becomes second nature. So you’ve got to stick at it.

Its about being recognised in Microsoft too and this was the biggest barrier for me. How do the people who assess your nomination make the decision? We still don’t know, but they must see thousands of nominations each month, so how do you distinguish yourself between just a name on a form and a person that they can relate to? There is no real formula for this, you’ve just got to make yourself as visible as possible, engaging with Microsoft employees is a good place to start and building that rapport and trust there will help you get noticed eventually, but without guarantee.

If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again!

Not very many people get awarded MVP off the back of their first nomination. So when you are nominated don’t get too expectant. A nomination does not result in an award. I am testament to this. Not many people know but I was nominated 11 times for MVP before being awarded. That is 11 times of filling out the nomination form, which anyone who has done this will know is really really painful. When you are nominated, you fill out the form and list your contributions for the last 12 months. If you have less than 12 consistent months of contributions, then you will not be considered, period. After that your nomination will be assessed and a decision made. When I was awarded, MVPs were awarded / reawarded on a quarterly basis, but now awards are each month with a global renewal each July. I am not too sure of the turnaround between nomination and award now, but expect that if you have not heard anything for 3-4 months then the chances are you haven’t been successful.

However, do not be put off by this keep going, keep contributing and you will be rewarded for your efforts. The biggest test of any potential MVP is to bounce back from rejection and keep going, this is how we separate the contributors from the pretenders!

A mixture of elation, satisfaction and demotivation, but it comes back!

When I got the email at 2:59pm on Oct 1st 2016 awarding me MVP, it was a feeling that every MVP gets, sheer elation and excitement, sense of achievement.. “I am on top of the world!!” (sorry Leo). It is a fantastic feeling and I was buzzing for the entire weekend. I was so excited that all plans for the weekend went away! I couldn’t believe I achieved it. I thought that after 12 times it was just not going to be for me and was ready to give up. I was completely satisfied and a massive sense of accomplishment. Then after a few days I crashed back to earth and got completely demotivated. I was like “Wow I have achieved this now, that’s all I ever wanted, what do I do now?” It was like on the come down from a sugar rush! The truth is for a couple of months I found it hard to pick up the laptop and contribute much like when I first started. This is the hardest bit when you’ve achieved something it is easy to just give up. Then all of a sudden I realised that I don’t need to change anything, I just need to continue doing what I have been doing and I truly find what motivates me. Sharing my experiences and knowledge with you, my readers and listeners. Will I get renewed next July? Who knows, but regardless of what happens I am OK with it, I know why I do this, not for the status of MVP, but just because I like to share and that won’t change.

Saving the last Thank you for someone special

My last and most important THANK YOU goes to you, the people who read, share, tweet and otherwise promote my contributions. You are the reason I do this and without your following I simply wouldn’t be where I am today without you. So genuinely, Thank You!

 

So there you have it, this is my story from a no-one to a no-one who is an MVP. Has it changed me? Nope! Do I think I deserve it? Nope! Do I appreciate it? Yep! If you or you know someone who deserves to be recognised in the community for their contributions head on over to https://mvp.microsoft.com today and nominate them!

Microsoft Teams is nothing new and Skype for Business or is it Skype? Understanding the message

At first glance you may be thinking that this post is going to be a scathing review of Microsoft technology. Well sadly for you, its not. The title is simply to grab your attention and at least make you read up to about here…. right?!?

In all seriousness, this is a contentious topic of which I am going to place my ten pence worth down on now. A lot has happened this Autumn (or fall for my American cousins). We have seen the introduction of Microsoft Teams and the announcements around Skype meetings, Skype Meeting Broadcasts and new Skype clients for the Apple family.

Those eagle eyed followers will notice that the last sentence lacked the words “for Business”. That’s not because I am lazy. In fact, I am disappointed because it means that most of my blog posts are going to be about 200 words less from now on! No, the reason is that Microsoft have been dropping the “for business” when delivering marketing messages around the Skype for Business (one last time). This has left a lot of us and our customers confused on what Microsoft are trying to convey with this.

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