Best Headsets for Effective Remote Working

July 24, 2020

Advice from an audio guy and long-time work from home advocate

How are your (work from home) co-workers these days? Is there whining in the background? Are they fighting with each other occasionally / constantly? Are they running around loudly wearing only a diaper and a cowboy hat?

Although your work environment may have changed recently if you started working from home (especially with kids), there are a few things that haven’t likely changed dramatically compared with the open floor plan many offices have today – noise, distractions, and interruptions.

I’m a full-time techie at work and play, and I’m also a big advocate of “the right tool for the job”, so I want to share my experience and advice on your work from home tools focusing today on headsets.

The main problem I’m considering is that noise is always around us – it affects what we hear and when we’re on calls, it affects what others hear (or don’t) when we speak.

The best headsets will help us hear others more clearly AND help them hear us more clearly.

Common Factors

The newest and most helpful technology we use is referred to as ANC, or active noise cancellation. The challenge is that the industry uses this term when talking about the earphones, but we don’t have a term that’s used exclusively on the microphone, so you’ll just hear about the “call quality” or perhaps “voice isolation”. This is super subjective and you’ll find that few products are focusing on solving for noisy environments. Historically, consumer-focused solutions wanting to boost your voice and quiet the ambient noise would either need to get a boom mic in front of your face, or use bone conduction (aka “Jawbone”) sensing.

The good news is that both input and output have been getting better in recent years – but since communication is a two-way street, I’m only going to recommend a few products that are excellent in both categories.

Another factor for all these wireless technologies is how they charge. The latest USB-C ports are now widely prevalent, but there are a few manufacturers that have not made the conversion and hang on to the “legacy” micro-USB port.  The newer USB-C port usually provides more power which is helpful, and being able to plug a cord in without scrutinizing the connection or getting it upside-down 50% of the time is beautiful. I’m REALLY looking forward to the day when I replace the last of my micro-USB, mini-USB, and lightning devices to have a single charging connector.

A last feature that I’ll call out is known as “sidetone” and it’s the level that your own voice is heard when making a call.  If you’ve spoken with someone who can’t hear their own voice, you know they often talk louder to compensate. Being able to control the side tone is very helpful so you don’t unconsciously raise your own voice, especially when dealing with the latest in noise canceling technology which can mean your voice sounds much quieter to your own ears. In this case, all three of the “over both ears” headphones I’ve called out below support sidetone.

Type 1 – over both ears

This is a category I know well because it’s what I use all the time. There are really two main contenders in this category.  Both of these models can pair with two devices (e.g. phone and computer at the same time).  Typically whichever sends sound most recently is what you will hear – but calls take priority over music.

Bose nc700

If there’s one company that has been known for setting the standard in noise canceling headphones, Bose is that one. Their QC (quiet comfort) line of headphones has been in use for several years, but I would not personally recommend any of those for office use because the earlier products picked up all the ambient noise when you would speak.  The NC700 headset, on the other hand, has 8 mics and they are able to sort out your voice from the ambient noise and provide excellent call quality for that reason. Additionally, they provide some of the best-in-class earphone quality for your listening pleasure, whether that be conference calls, Mozart or Beastie Boys. These also charge via USB-C.

Plantronics 8200 UC

This headset is what I use.  The earphone noise canceling is good, but not best in class. The call quality is top notch. Plantronics used a different approach for voice isolation which you can see in use on the sidelines at most pro football games – a parabolic dish to pick up only the sound wanted. Of course, the headphone “dish” is not that large, but equally effective. I’ve been in a convertible with the top down while talking with no issues. I’ve played music at “club level” in my office and the person on the other end has heard only my voice.  I will add one other key (from my perspective) feature specific to these headphone – they are a “UC” or unified communication headset, meaning they come with a USB dongle to connect with your PC to headset without requiring you to pair the Bluetooth connection. It can be really nice to not have to worry about your computer Bluetooth compatibility or reliability, which, while Bluetooth has gotten better, is never 100%. When I’m dealing with VOIP communication for work, I appreciate this feature.  The dongle shows blue when connected and red when muted. The ONLY downside about these headphones, from my perspective is they charge with a micro-USB connector.  BUT, at least I can charge and use them at the same time if needed.

Sony wh1000xm4

There is a new contender which is expected very soon, but not released as of June 23rd, 2020.  This unreleased model is purported to be much better for call quality than its predecessor (the wh1000xm3), and purported to pair with two devices like the others I recommended above. So – cautiously – this product may also meet (my) requirements for an office headset. Also, like their predecessors, these will charge via USB-C.

Type 2 – over one ear

These types of headsets are lightweight and many of them have a boom to help with microphone voice isolation, providing excellent call quality.  This is not a category I focus on because I prefer to listen to music with the headphones, so I need a stereo solution. Covering the second ear definitely helps me hear calls much better as well. Those feelings seem to be the consensus; based on what I’m reading this particular market segment is shrinking while the stereo headset market is growing. That said, this article on wireless Bluetooth headsets is a good place to start, and there are many other articles like it.

Type 3 – “true wireless” (no connecting wire) earbuds and earphones for both ears

There are a lot of earphones and earbuds nowadays. Earphones seal the canal, which helps noise “isolation”. You can think of the airpod pros when you think about earphones.  Earbuds sit just outside the ear canal, which can help if you still want to hear what’s going on around you. The regular airpods are a typical example of earbuds. Again, not a category I focus on personally, but here’s a review which includes a couple of examples of true wireless earphones which have better than average call quality.  Apple’s products in this category charge via their proprietary Lightning connector, others vary widely with the cheapest models sticking with the legacy micro-USB connection and newer or pricier models supporting the USB-C standard.

There are many topics we can dig into related to work technology and I’m happy to dig into them with you. Feel free to reach out for pointers and advice.

When (if ever) is High Availability “good enough”? Do I always need disaster recovery or business continuity plans?

July 24, 2020

When businesses discuss how to minimize or mitigate risk with IT folks, the topic can be a challenging one – but these conversations are even more critical in today’s climate. One area of confusion that sometimes comes up is the difference between high availability, disaster recovery, and business continuity solutions. These are actually three distinct ideas, each with its own similar but distinct focus.

High Availability (HA) – is a per-application environment which is “available” (operating) almost all the time (typically defined as “five nines”, 99.999% or better) and which relies on automation to avoid user impact

Disaster Recovery (DR) – focuses on getting IT infrastructure and processes up after a catastrophic failure

Business Continuity Plan (BCP) – focuses on planning for adverse conditions, how a business responds, how it returns to normal, and what the new normal is. 

Target use caseScopeFailover timingAutomationLoss of dataUser experience
High availabilityApplicationCriticalRequiredNot permittedNo impact (seamless)
Disaster RecoveryIT InfrastructureImportantNot typicallyMaybe permittedImpacted
Business ContinuityBusinessImportantNot typicallyMaybe permittedImpacted

Key words to remember with a high availability solution are “automated” and “seamless”. In other words when there is a failure in a high-availability system, the recovery is automatic and users should not notice. Well designed HA systems avoid single points of failure.

High Availability (HA) notes

So, the big question is “When (if ever) is an application’s HA implementation good enough?”. I would say when it’s a “well-designed and geographically redundant” system, such as in the example diagram.

Most of the challenges with implementing high availability in a corporate or enterprise environment relate to the product vendor or application design – especially when dealing with newer or more niche products. I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine that few programmers or product managers in most small organizations have had to support or understand the rigorous requirements of supporting a 24×7 mission critical application. That lack of experience and institutional knowledge can (in my experience) lead to product architectural decisions that are incompatible with enterprise high availability solutions and lack the robust response we typically want and require.  For example, I’ve worked with more than one vendor solution that runs on a single server and won’t run on a second server without the first server down. This automatically means high availability is out of the question. And, since a key tenet of HA is lack of user impact, this means if (when) there is a failure of such a system, there WILL be user impact. (even if it’s easily mitigated)

So, if you are evaluating a smaller or niche vendor application and you have a requirement for HA or DR, I would focus a lot of energy on this topic because it’s almost always a second-rate solution.

A robust HA system is created from the ground (code) up. The best systems will often isolate discrete components from each other, then provide a method of interconnection to allow the process load to balance and have redundancy. When roles are separate and connections are stateless (or resilient), it allows seamless (or near seamless) failover when any host or component is unavailable.

Taking this a step further, geographic load balancing can provide an extra layer of safety that can avoid the need to execute a disaster plan in some cases. This is what I alluded to earlier, saying that an HA system with geographic load balancing can sometimes avoid the need for DR. The key requirement is that geographically diverse infrastructure needs to be sufficiently far apart that it would be nearly impossible for an event to impact all locations. This is easier when you think about floods or fires, but becomes more challenging when considering threats such as grid power outages such as the 2003 blackout of the northeast USA which reportedly affected 8 states and 45 million people.

The best apps are (among other things) highly resilient, or high availability by nature – this could be summed up from a user’s perspective as it “just works”.

Disaster Recovery (DR) notes

A typical failure requiring the exercise of a DR plan in America today would be a datacenter power or network connection being cut – but natural disasters such as floods, tornadoes and hurricanes are the historical examples. Today there are even more nefarious circumstances that could trigger a DR event, such as malicious hacking or ransomware that encrypts user or server data.

When a DR “event” occurs, impact has already happened. High availability has hit its limit and the application(s) or servers are down and/or unavailable.  The terms that will be discussed related to such an event are most often “RTO” and “RPO”.  These relate to the recovery time objective, and recovery point objective, respectively. In other words, what time are we coming back online, and which point of the day will our restored data come from?

Putting it all together

Hopefully it’s obvious that a good plan for business continuity could include both HA and DR, and needs to cover both natural and man-made events.  For most scenarios a well-architected and engineered product will not need to execute a DR plan because the HA components will seamlessly provide continued function across geographic regions. When the DR plan is required though, a lack of planning – and TESTING – will seriously hamper your recovery. I’ve heard it said your backups are no good, only the restores matter – so don’t skip this step.

For more ideas around business continuity, read our recent post – The New Business Continuity in the Age of Pandemics

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Working Remotely in the Time of Coronavirus

May 28, 2020

COVID-19 has thrown millions of Americans into the world of remote work.

To adjust to working in this new environment, we need to understand who we are and how the environment affects us.  Once we know that, we can select tools that will maximize our success.  

Types of Remote Employees

The Seasoned Pro: This person has worked at home before or does so now.  They know the routine and how to get stuff done. In the current environment, even the Seasoned Pro will benefit from dusting off the Remote Working toolkit.

The First Timer: The COVID-19 pandemic has jolted thousands of people into remote work with little preparation with tools to transition to this new way of working.  This environment without a co-located team can be isolating.  Technology challenges are stressful. Mental and emotional reserves are taxed.

The Caregiver: Schools are closed and students have moved to remote learning.  With children at home 100% of the time, parents have been thrust into the roles of employee, teacher and parent at the same time.  Some people are also caring for loved ones in the same home. These competing priorities are difficult to balance.

Remote Working Toolkit

Here are some tried and true tips to help you make your new office environment work for you.

  1. Move: Not having a commute is nice.  It saves on gas and reduces stress.  But, it’s easy to forget to move during the day now that you’re not walking from the parking lot, to lunch, to the printer, etc.  Add a reminder to your calendar to stretch.  Take a walk and soak in some sun. Have lunch outside.  Don’t have to be at the computer for a call?  Take your phone on a walk!  Play with your kids or dogs.  Do something that gets the blood flowing.  Can’t get away from the desk? Try deskercises!
  2. Structure the Day: When you’re in the office you have work hours even if you don’t punch a clock.  Set a routine and stick to it. Keep an alarm set to wake you up.  Take breaks.  Make sure to take time away from the computer.  It’s easy to sit in the chair and not walk away from the computer for 8 hours.  This can lead to burnout and decreased productivity.     
  3. Separate Work from Home: It’s easy to let work and home overlap when working at home.  Dedicate your work space separate from home environment to the extent possible.  This is especially true as we are self-isolating during COVID-19.  Children, partners, pets, are all looking for attention.  
  4. Create a space dedicated to work, like a corner of the living room.  Try not to work at the kitchen table or the bedroom.  Studies show that using the bedroom for non-sleeping activities increases insomnia.   Also establish expectations and boundaries with others in the home for interactions during the work day.  Have a visual indicator like a sign indicating you cannot be disturbed.  
  5. Set Up Your Workstation: Good ergonomics help you work at a desk for 8 hours and be able to walk away without muscle strain and pain.  Setting up an ergonomic workspace makes all the difference.  On a lot of conference calls?  Invest in a good headset.  Being comfortable and pain-free can make a huge difference in your health and productivity.
  6. Prioritize Interaction with Colleagues: Working remotely can feel isolating.  That’s especially true right now when we’re not able to be social outside the home.  When you’re in the office you see faces and talk to people all day.  Human beings are social creatures and interacting with others is important to our mental and emotional health.  Find opportunities to talk on the phone instead of sending an email or instant message.  Even better, use video conference calls!  Reading body language and seeing active listening goes a long way to making the remote working experience better for everyone.  Leave time in meetings for casual conversation.  Knowing there are people on the other end of the line gives perspective. It may surprise you how much it adds to your productivity.
  7. Get a Web Cam: Selectively turn on your video in a conference call. It’s not the same as actually meeting in person but meeting virtually “face to face,” helps you connect with colleagues much better than audio-only. Calls are often more productive when participants can see their colleagues engaged. Virtual eye contact goes a long way! As a bonus, if you’re someone that has trouble focusing while working remotely, a web cam may provide the extra accountability that you need to avoid multi-tasking on your next call!

The Myth of Multi-Tasking

Multi-tasking is when a person deals with more than one task at the same time. According to a 2014  Psychology Today article, people do not multi-task. They task switch.  Each time we switch tasks, there is a stop/start process that goes on in the brain.  That start/stop/start process is rough on us. Rather than saving time, it costs time (even very small micro seconds). It’s less efficient, we make more mistakes, and over time, it can sap our energy. Structuring your day, separating work from home, and setting up the ideal workstation goes a long way to preventing the need to multi-task.

The speed at which coronavirus has changed the world has added tremendous complexity to working remotely.  We have the tools for success to achieve healthy work/life balance and maintain emotional and mental health.  Together we will successfully shift this paradigm.

McAfee MPOWER Intro

May 20, 2020

Industry conferences are a great way for you to network with other professionals, improve relationships with vendors, and learn about new products and trends in your field. While these are all good reasons to make the trek, there’s another less tangible side effect that is even more valuable. Attending a conference provides a necessary interruption to your routine. The break-out sessions, trainings, presentations, and keynotes cultivate inspiration, offer new perspectives, and renew excitement for subject matter that can become stale in the context of the daily grind.

This past November I attended the McAfee MPOWER conference in Las Vegas and it was just what I needed to reinforce and stimulate my interest in all things cybersecurity! I was invited to MPOWER by McAfee, based on my 18+ month role delivering the McAfee MVISION Cloud CASB at a client. As the primary Solution Architect responsible for the project, I have been responsible for everything from the design of the supporting infrastructure to the creation of enterprise patterns that describe the integration of the CASB with eligible applications. My experiences highlighted some key concepts that I often overlook in my daily role as a Security Solution Architect:

Cybersecurity impacts EVERY industry

My primary clients at Systems Flow have been in the Financial Services space which was very well represented across the 1,000+ conference attendees. However, I was quickly struck by the diverse set of industries represented – public sector, private sector, insurance, and manufacturing among others. It became clear very quickly that Cybersecurity is ubiquitous. Bursting out of my Financial Services bubble gave me a different perspective on the challenges that we face on a daily basis.

Migration to the Cloud is causing major waves in the Cybersecurity space

Okay, so this shouldn’t have been much of a surprise – the rapid emergence of AWS, Azure, GPC, and other Cloud technologies has been a major disruptor across the IT landscape. Cybersecurity is at the heart of all things IT so it would make sense that it would be impacted as much as anything else. All that said, it was a bit jarring that every presentation and discussion turned to the Cloud before too long.  The security implications of PaaS, IaaS, and SaaS intersected with every conversation, as expected.  The migration of various security tools and devices to the Cloud was less expected, considering that these are typically tightly controlled in isolated on-premise networks.  The bottom line is that you can no longer talk security without talking Cloud.

Integrating Cybersecurity tools and managing data are a top priority

I’ve always disliked the phrase “Single Pane of Glass.” It’s one of those buzz-terms that is often misused or misplaced in marketing materials to set unrealistic expectations with unsuspecting business stakeholders. Over the course of the MPOWER conference I realized that, while the phrase may fail in most specific situations, it is an admirable goal and one that is becoming more and more necessary for Cybersecurity professionals. The set of security tools that are moving from “nice to have” to “must have” is ever-expanding, and those tools all produce data…lots and lots of data! User activity logs, web traffic, security alerts, configurations/policies… mountains of data are gathered and processed on a daily basis and it is quickly overwhelming Security Operations Centers’ ability to adequately respond. Integrating tools and implementing intelligent methods to find meaning in the noise are quickly becoming hard requirements for an effective Cybersecurity practice.

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