Tuesday 10 December 2013

All I Want for Christmas is to Close Skype

This morning I began writing about a subject that has been on my hit list for some time now. I’m referring to those in-your-face applications that are commonly used but have chosen to disregard the common courtesies users should expect.

The two worst offenders these days are Adobe, who have for years been obtrusively nagging us about updates, yet show no hesitation when it comes to trying to sneak Chrome and the Google toolbar onto our systems as part of the update by pre-selecting a tick box that is all too easy to miss as you work your way through the installation.

The other miscreant is Skype which seems to combine universal popularity with universal dislike with its constant version changes (each with a new layout for us to learn), and which this morning was once again asking to be upgraded.

Skype tries to sneak in Bing as my search engine and MSN my home page, which is to my mind a bit like asking me if I really want to set my system clock back to 1993.The MSN homepage is famous for its popularity, but that’s because it has for years been the default home page for Internet Explorer. In all my years of configuring computers for people I’ve never once been asked to set a homepage to MSN, and you can be sure that I unchecked that option as I upgraded Skype.

Just about then Chrome, my browser of choice, crashed and I was forced to kill it through task manager, and when I restarted it I was furious to find that my homepage was now MSN, with Bing as my default search engine. This only takes me a few seconds to change, but then I’m hardly an average user, and I know from experience that fixing this sort of minor change is beyond many of our customers’ abilities, which is when they call us.

Call me cynical but I wonder if this is Microsoft, who own Skype, trying to sabotage my installation  of Chrome, which is owned by Google? Considering that Skype is owned by the same people who wrote Windows, you would also expect Skype to play according to the rules when it comes to usability, yet it absolutely fails to do so unless you open up the bonnet and start tweaking settings to remove it from you task bar when you aren’t using it. You know it’s irritating people when it’s the subject of a Dilbert cartoon.

Another program which users complain about constantly is the McAfee Security Scan which I’m constantly having to remove from PCs – thanks again Adobe, but these days everybody already has antivirus software in place. Running two antivirus scans simultaneously will at best cripple the performance of your computer, and at worst damage system files and render your computer unbootable.

Software vendors need to show a little more respect for their users. Adobe has already created enough enemies with its punitive pricing policies which see UK users paying far more than their American cousins for the same software. Once you lose the respect of the market you become increasingly vulnerable to a challenge by competing products, and there are few people I know who would miss Adobe if this came to pass.

So here’s my Christmas request for the giants of the software industry: It’s time to start showing your customers more respect, so stop trying to trick them into installing software they haven’t asked for as part of an update, and start treating them like people who use your software because they want to, not because they have to.

A very merry Christmas to you all!

Saturday 23 November 2013

Hammersmith and Fulham Brilliant Business Awards 2013

This month we are all sporting smart new email signatures bearing a blue and green rosette. So a huge thanks to all our customers who voted for us as H&F Brilliant Business Awards. Last year, when we won a runners-up award, I was determined to launch a well-organised campaign to ensure victory this year, but as ever events overtook us as we were at full stretch trying to get our Surbiton branch up and running, so this never happened.

I was therefore both extremely surprised and hugely proud of the efforts of my team when we were voted as the winners of the Hammersmith and Fulham Brilliant Business Awards Best Business Supporter of the Community. A big thanks to Nicki Burgess at London Borough of H&F Economic Development Learning & Skills for organising such a popular event.!

It’s hard to believe it’s taken 9 months from first finding the new  premises, but taking a business from one branch to two requires a huge amount of extra work to ensure that the infrastructure works.

Our old phone system used 3CX, which is a software based PBX, but while this would have been scalable in theory, we simply don’t have the in-house expertise to deploy and support it across two sites. I should stress that this isn’t a shortcoming on our part – our philosophy is ‘Choose what you do, and do it well’. When it comes to phones, rather than dabble ourselves we would rather work with experts who we know and trust in the form of Spitfire. Our recommended solution for small businesses is hosted PBX, so it made sense to migrate our own phone system to this platform so that we can provide fist line support to our customers based on our experience with working with it ourselves, as well as knowing what the system is capable of, which in turn means we can better advise our customers on which configurations would best meet their requirements.

Now that everything is up and running we’re all delighted; each site has its own geographical number, but shares the 0800, number which rings four times in Fulham before spilling over to Surbiton in case Fulham is busy. For internal calls we have extensions beginning with 20xx for Fulham, and 21xx for Surbiton, as well as caller display so we know who is calling. We are using dedicated SIP trunks to carry the traffic, as well VDSL (the acronym for fibre) for our data which is welcome improvement of our ADSL speeds. For any business out there that isn’t using IP telephony this is your wakeup call – ISDN is looking decidedly dated.

It’s great that we can configure pretty much anything to work the way we want it to, but the main consideration is that it no longer depends on our own server. That’s not to say our server is unreliable; although we have had our fair share of hardware issues the redundancy features mean that or downtime has been minimal, but we have to face the fact that these huge, power hungry behemoths (there are two of them, of course) are now getting old in server terms, and as we grow we are working to eliminate single points of failure – outsourcing your telephone network to a highly resilient service provider is a sensible step along this path.

We have until recently also used our servers for file and email services, as well as hosting our database, so it made sense to move our Exchange email service to the cloud at the same time – we’ve now competed our migration to the Microsoft Office 365 platform, with our next steps being to more our data to SharePoint and our database to SQL Server on Azure.

At this point we will be using our servers for storing client backups, and domain security, and that’s about all. I have to say that as the person who carries ultimate responsibility for everything working properly, this brings a certain peace of mind.

Because we work with smaller businesses we’ve always recommended avoiding the expense of running a server if you can, but the viability of Microsoft’s hosted services is such that even larger businesses can start thinking about outsourcing their email and data to the cloud to reduce their reliance on the on-site server, and we’ve seen this part of our business grow in leaps and bounds – we are just about to print up another batch of mouse mats, and for the first time in years you’ll notice that we’ve changed our list to services to include hosted services. A sign of the times.

Monday 12 August 2013

Find me in Paradise

After a bit of a hiatus I’m back – the break was enforced by an increased workload due to both the demands of getting the new service centre open, and of getting married. Of the two the wedding was probably the least stressful as I’m now getting pretty used to planning complex operations and then having to trouble shoot on my feet.

Flying out to my honeymoon on a new Emirates Airbus A380-800 was a delight – the economy cabin is more comfortable than some business classes, but the in-flight entertainment system blew me away.  The sheer range of entertainment options meant that I had trouble sleeping despite the great seats, and the console included power outlets for laptops as well as allowing me to plug my iPhone into a USB socket (with a little bit of trepidation, as I really didn’t want to have to take over flying the plane) for a quick charge. It’s refreshing that the decrepit entertainment systems that most planes still carry are being replaced at last – the last generation are getting on for ten years old, so it’s a bit like moving from a very sluggish installation of Windows XP straight to the slick interface of Windows 8. You may laugh, but I’ve always wanted to see my house from the plane, but as I live directly under the flight path the only way to do this would be from the cockpit; on my return flight I got to use the downwards facing camera, one of three external cameras, to zero in on my very own roof as we passed overhead.

Before setting off I did a little research and downloaded a few apps to help us explore Dubai (18 hour stopover) as well as a few offline maps of the Seychelles using the excellent MapsWithMe App. This free App is simply brilliant as you can select countries and download detailed maps before you leave, and then use it without relying on a data connection. This is something you can also do with Google Maps, but in practice it’s means zooming in to the required levels of detail and then copying dozens of map tiles to cover an area, and to describe it as clunky would be to flatter it greatly.

MapsWithMe worked superbly once we arrived in the Seychelles on our island hopping holiday, but I did discover something about my Wi-Fi-only iPad which surprised me. While it worked well while I was connected to Wi-Fi, as soon as I left my hotel it would be unable to locate me on the map. While connected I did some research and found out that the iPad’s GPS module is part of the 3G board, so the Wi-Fi only iPads use Wi-Fi to locate themselves. In a city where there are plenty of Wi-Fi signals to browse this means that the device can easily position itself accurately, but out in the islands signals are few and far between, and it gets lost pretty easily.

By chance during my stay at this particular hotel the wireless router failed, and I lent a hand in diagnosing the problem. When the hotel replaced the router for a new one I was surprised that despite it using the out-of-the-box identifier of ‘Linksys’ my iPad still knew exactly where it was. This got me thinking. A router, like all network devices, has something called a MAC address which is in theory unique. So how did my iPad know that the new MAC address was located exactly at our hotel in Praslin Island? Router’s don’t have GPS receivers, and the ISP couldn't as far as I could see work out exactly where the router was either even if it were using postcode look-ups. It seemed to me that the only way it could know my position so accurately is if another device connected to the same router was telling it. This seemed a little unlikely, but it also seemed to be the only logical answer to this mystery, so now I’m back I decided to see if I was right, and after a little digging it turns out that I had hit the nail on the head. 

Simply put, as soon as an apple device with GPS identifies a wireless signal it transmits its position and the unique MAC address back to Apple who store this information in a database. So even if I want to keep my router’s location a secret and turn off Apple’s location services on my own devices, Apple can still locate the router as soon as the first iPhone without location services disabled sees my wireless signal, and to clarify, it doesn't need to connect to my router, it only needs to be able to see the station identifier.

In itself this still isn't really that sinister as lots of people know where my router is; my ISP, my neighbours, Apple… but now imagine a government wants to combine this location database with something really useful, such as a router firmware enhancement which logs and transmits all MAC codes that connect to a router to, say, the NSA, and you start asking yourself if something that useful to the NSA won’t already be out there. And if Prism has taught us anything, the answer is probably yes.

Friday 12 April 2013

Why trusting your IT company just became a whole lot more important

When we book a computer into  our workshop we use a paper form which includes a box for the password for the computer we are going to work on. Often we may also need the password for the customer’s email account – and we’ll either hack that using a tool called Mail PassView or ask the customer for it if we need to.

I’ve never really thought about the security implications of this process as I trust my staff implicitly, however we do intentionally keep the password off the database system as it’s pretty hard to hack a piece of paper, and once we are done with the worksheet this can be either filed under lock and key, or shredded and pulped.

If the customer is concerned about their security they have the option of changing the password afterwards, but in practice I’m sure very few bother as it’s not always easy to manage, particularly now you have to change it on all your mobile devices too.

One of the big changes in Windows 8 is the reliance on a Windows Live ID, which is often associated with the customer’s main email account. The implication is that we now need the email password to do pretty much anything on the computer, including tasks such as installing Office 2013 which must be linked to a Live ID account.

Whereas before a single password would give limited access to a system, with cloud services and Windows Live ID integrating with everything, it’s a case of one password to rule them all. In many ways this is great as Microsoft have long been the champions of a single authentication for everything, but as soon as you need to give your password to a third party for essential work to be carried out this model presents a huge security risk.

What does this mean for the average Windows 8 user? Well for starters you need to be able to trust your technical support as never before, as now they get access to everything. Suddenly that shady PC repair shop on the corner with the second hand laptops and the phone unlocking sign in the window isn’t looking so attractive is it?

One of the problems with our industry is that there’s very little regulation – the organisations that claim to act as trade associations are mostly just glorified social clubs who would much rather organise another members’ golf day than actually get involved in policing their members. It’s left to organisations such as the council run Trading Standards Officers to weed out the bad boys

In some ways this is good news for us as we work to defined procedures which include DBS (previously CRB) checking our employees. We also have excellent relations with our local Trading Standards team and have assisted them in bringing some of the less reputable operations in our borough to account.

However I do sometimes feel that companies like ours are in the minority – I can count on the fingers of one hand the other companies in our sector that I’d confidently recommend. When it comes to handing over your entire on-line identity what is really needed is something like a valet key, which are commonly employed in the US where valet parking is everywhere. This is a clever little key that allows the valet to drive the car and lock the door, but not to open the boot, for example, and some even turn off the engine if  the car travels more than a short distance.

If Microsoft allowed a temporary service account password to be created that worked alongside the main Live ID this would provide an elegant solution to the problem. It could be configured to automatically expire after a set number of days, and could include features such as allowing the ‘valet’ to see email headers, but not open them to read the full content. So there in a nutshell is both the problem and a solution. Over to you Microsoft.

Wednesday 3 April 2013

Raccoons, Easter, and Ungoogleable

When Google Maps added ‘treasure’ to their ‘map’ and ‘satellite’ views I’ll admit I was taken in completely. I thought that the locations were for Easter Egg hunts, based on the fact that the treasure marker closest to me was at the same spot as a local egg hunt. I'm still not sure if it really was an April Fool but the consensus seems to be that it was.

Google + Easter have caught my attention a few times in the past week or so. Last Tuesday it was reported that the word "ungoogleable" was to be removed from a list of new Swedish words after a dispute between the search engine giant and Sweden's language watchdog.

This spat got me thinking about how we use Google, and what makes something difficult to Google for.

A few months ago I was trying to track down an old TV series that I remembered from my youth that featured a very clever computer called Box. This was more than an idle search – the voice interface between Box and its owner was, as I remembered, similar to the voice interface used by Apple’s Siri. By demonstrating prior art it’s possible to stop corporations from destroying any chance of innovation by limiting their ability to patent anything and everything they can. But enough about our horribly flawed patent system – my problem was that armed with a common word like ‘box’ I couldn't frame a sufficiently specific search term, so here was a question that was a perfect example of "ungoogleable". In the end I had to resort to posting messages in a science fiction forum, and within hours a helpful member had told me exactly where to find Star Cops, which I ended up watching all over again. And Box was indeed just like Siri, only smarter, and slightly less smug.

Usually I'm pretty good at Googling for  things and I've learnt many subtle Google-specific techniques that allow me to search effectively; it’s a real skill, and one I'm far too quick to exercise whenever I need a question answered. But of course there are some questions that just don’t have answers.

Easter morning is an exciting time for my niece and nephew who live in California. It starts with an Easter egg hunt in their garden, followed I guess by gorging themselves on chocolate until they feel ill. Imagine how distraught they were to find that the local raccoons had beaten them to the gorging part. I don’t know who I feel sorrier for; the poor raccoons who must have been feeling ever so ill; my sister who somehow managed to  stop herself from laughing out loud at her children’s distress; or my poor niece and nephew who were in fits of tears.

My niece is now 8 and is a technically savvy as most children are these days. Her reaction? She went to the computer and Googled “"What do you do when Raccoons eat your Easter Eggs?" Which is another perfect example of a question that Google just can’t answer.

Friday 22 March 2013

CeBIT on 25MB a day

This month  I attended CeBIT in Hanover  which is famous for being the largest tech show in the world. I hadn't been for 10 years, and although the show is slightly smaller these days it still takes a full three days and a huge amount of walking to get around everything.

What's changed most since my last visit is the huge influence of mobile technology which can potentially make both the show experience and the ordeal of travelling there so much better.

While this is great in theory until recently it simply wasn't an economically sound proposition due to the extortionate data roaming charges, so I was very excited to read that O2, my mobile provider, were offering  something called O2 Travel which meant that I'd "never pay more than £1.99 a day for data".

You can do so much with a  smart phone when you're travelling. The BA app let me easily check in to my flight from my iPhone, and get reminded when it was time to board without waiting by a departure board. On my arrival in Hanover Google Maps with its excellent journey planner which includes public transport meant that I knew exactly where to go to catch my train to the city centre, and what time it departed. Then on arrival I was able to navigate to my apartment without a hitch. If I'd needed to, Google Translate would have let me 'speak' German too.

Early the following morning Google Maps again got me on the correct train to Hanover Messe, and I was happy to receive the following comforting message:

On the train I noticed that everybody was using their smartphones, and this continued in the many halls that make up the exhibition centre. On arrival  it was on to Dropbox to retrieve my booking details, and the official CeBIT App to find my way around; the 3G infrastructure capacity that it takes to handle that many simultaneous connections without speeds dropping was pretty impressive, especially when you realised that the official Wifi service at €10 an hour probably wasn't attracting many takers. 

My first stop was the conference centre for the  keynote speakers including  Gary Kovacs, and it was great to be stay on top of my email and do a bit of light surfing while listening - until that is I received this:

It was all going so well, but it turns out that the 25MB limit imposed by O2 simply isn't fit for purpose in the real world. After turning off data roaming for the rest of that day I carried out a few tests. It turns out that a single Google map search and a sync with my mail server (downloading message headers but not the actual content) took up 2Mb of my limit, and with no web surfing and email polling only I was up to half my limit by lunchtime. On their website O2 describe 25MB as being:  

At least that last part is true.

Saturday 16 February 2013

When Computers Lie

It’s been said that as computers simply process data they are incapable of lying, but ever since HAL 9000 started murdering its crew in  2001: A Space Odyssey I’ve never trusted them. Simply put – while they may follow clear rules and be incapable of deviating from a set of instructions, if those instruction are telling them to lie, then lie they will.

Take for example one we see quite often : “Your Computer has 2,120 Viruses on it. Do you want Windows Antivirus 2013 to remove them?”.

Or the infamous “Metropolitan Police: Attention! Illegal activity was revealed! Your operational system is locked as a result of Great Britain law violation!”. I mean – seriously – would the police really use that many exclamation marks?

But malware excepted, our operating systems regularly deceive us in order to improve the ‘user experience’ by concealing information from us. One feature of all PC operating systems since windows XP has been the default behaviour of hiding file extensions from us. The extensions usually take the form of a dot with three letters, so a program would typically be called ‘program.exe’, but all Windows shows us is ‘program’.

This feature has regularly been exploited by malware authors – typically by attaching files that we see as something like ‘report.doc’ when in fact the file is really called ‘report.doc.vbs’, where vbs indicates a script that will run and probably compromise your PC if you try to open it.

Before Mac users get all smug, I’d like to point out that there’s another piece of subterfuge that has been built into operating systems since the days of ARPANET and actually predates the mechanisms of networking and the internet itself. It’s on your Mac. It’s on your PC. It’s probably on your iPad too if only you could access the file system to find it. Welcome to the hosts file.

When you clicked on the link to load this web page a bunch of clever things happened. The link, blogger.com, was converted to a network address that is a 32-bit binary number which for ease of reading we convert into human-readable notation. For blogger.com this is Your computer knows that Blogger.com resides at this network address thanks to the magic of The DomainName System (DNS) which you can think of as a huge distributed telephone directory of every computer or network device on the internet. This is a complex but interesting subject that I’m not going to explain in detail, but click though the links if you want to know more.

In the beginning, though when the earliest computers wanted to communicate by TCP/IP, there was no automated directory. Instead, just as the earliest telephone exchanges were operated manually, so a single file was used to maintain the directory of computers and network addresses. When you imagine that we are talking about tens or dozens of computers then you will see that it made perfect sense to manually create and maintain this system. And the name of that file was ‘hosts’. No file extension.

If you want to look for your hosts file and you use a PC you should find it at C:\Windows\system32\drivers\etc\hosts ;  on a MAC look in private/etc/hosts. I regularly look here if I’m working on an infected computer because it’s a simple and effective way for malware authors to hijack network traffic, so last week it was one of the first places I looked. I double clicked on the hosts file – as it has no file extension I usually have to select notepad to open it, but this time it obligingly opened in notepad without me having to do this. This struck me as very slightly odd, but the penny didn’t drop just then. The hosts file was clean, and I removed the malware without a hitch, expecting this to resolve the browser pop-ups that were irritating the hell out of my client.

I really thought I‘d cracked it and was preparing to leave when suddenly, against all expectations,  a pop-up appeared bottom left of the web page I was testing. I delved a little deeper in to page code, and it seemed as if the problem was being caused by, of all things, the Google Analytics hooks that were embedded in the code of the web page. Could Google themselves have been compromised? Then, thankfully, the penny dropped.

I returned to the hosts file in Windows Explorer, switched on file extensions, and also asked it to show hidden and system files. All was revealed. The hosts file I had looked at had a .txt file extension that had been hidden from me. This is why it had opened in notepad without prompting. Alongside it was the real hosts file; this one was flagged as hidden and marked as a system file, meaning that windows would normally hide it from me. The file was also flagged as read-only and locked down to be as difficult to access as possible, but once I knew what I was dealing with it was a simple case of firing up the  command prompt, changing permissions and attributes to return the file to normal, and in a minute or so it I was able to open it to reveal…. nothing.

Seriously, after all that trouble the hosts file looked to be devoid of any spurious entries. For a full minute I failed to spot the scroll bar on the right. Then the second penny dropped, and I actually laughed. About a thousand lines of blank space below the standard hosts file entries I found half a dozen entries that were telling the PC that the network addresses for Google Analytics, as well some other embedded features were actually a server in China. Honestly.  With a few deft keystrokes these lies were gone, and the problem was solved.

So the moral of the story is that our computers do lie to us. They do so all the time, and it’s usually to make things easier for us as computers are insanely complicated, and the networks they connect to are unimaginably huge. It’s important to remember  this – particularly if you work in our field, because once in a while you need to unravel some of these lies to get to the root of the problems.

If you’re an end user you probably think the hosts file is of absolutely no interest to you. But consider the dilemma of a parent who wants to keep their child away from Facebook, for example. By navigating to C:\Windows\system32\drivers\etc\, opening the hosts file in notepad, and adding the line ‘  www.facebook.com’, then restarting the PC they can block this page. This works for Macs too, see above for the location of the hosts file. And iIn the unlikely event that their child manages to discover this little trick the parents should immediately contact Computer Angels so that I can offer their child an internship.

Thursday 7 February 2013

Life without Internet

I’m writing this because I’ve run out of jobs to do that don’t require the internet, which right now is down due to an exchange fault. It's been almost an hour and already the staff are plotting who to eat first. I think I'm safe as I'm lean and gristly but Lee is looking distinctly worried. 

It’s at times like this that you start thinking about the cost of service interruptions. When our broadband works it’s fantastic, but even though we rate the technical support we get from Be quite highly, the impact upon our business when it does fail is pretty severe.

Apart from being reduced to the two phone lines that come with ISDN because we lose the outbound VOIP call routes, our credit card terminal is also on broadband so we can’t take card payments. Email is of course a non-starter, and we lose our remote support facilities. We rely increasingly on cloud services, but the more reliance we place on these the more important it is to assure continuity of broadband service. While you can install industrial strength data connections, these are quite pricey compared to simple ADSL, however it doesn’t take much down time before these start to seem attractive as well as economical.

When we first set up our business we had a single phone line, but pretty soon it became clear that we would need more than one line. When we moved into our first Service Centre on Munster Road I did a lot of research before deciding to use a software PBX using the excellent 3CX system.

3CX does lots of clever things including using VOIP for outgoing calls, and a mobile gateway that uses two SIMs for ‘free’ outgoing calls to mobile phones as we get bundled minutes on the SIMS. At the time SIP trunks were still bleeding edge so I opted for ISDN2e from BT for incoming calls – this gives us two incoming lines, but as the PBX call routing rules mean that these aren’t used for outgoing calls that was enough. Mindful of the fact that I would be using SIP trunks in the future I signed a three year contract which was the minimum available.

The migration was anything but smooth. The BT engineer turned up and installed the new ISDN trunk in about ten minutes as promised and left, but when we tried plugging in our carefully configured PBX nothing worked. After an hour of fiddling with settings I decided to re-route our 0800 number to a secondary line that we use for our broadband. The very first call was from a local takeaway saying that they were getting inundated with calls for us. BT were quick to respond and the engineer returned, but it still several hours before we had a working PBX interfacing with the ISDN line, and the experience cost us a great deal in time and lost business.

Now that we are opening our second service centre we’ve decided to look at new technologies that will allow us to move away from ISDN, and we are working closely with Spitfire with whom we have successfully partnered on a number of projects. Today’s experiences have made up my mind about using Spitfire to provide our data connections as well – the advantages of a single end-to-end technical point of contact for both PBX and data services are pretty obvious, particularly to a man sitting at a computer without internet.

Just when things were starting to take shape a new problem arose – BT are convinced that we are on a five year contract with them. I was adamant that I would never have agreed to this, but BT were insistent. Fortunately I managed to find the original paperwork supporting my claim, but even then I simply couldn’t get BT to address the problem, and the familiar pillar to post routine began. I really don’t have time for this bollocks so I simply sent in a cancellation notice to BT with a copy of the contract and this seems to have done the trick. And it also served to remind me why I’m happy to move on.

Now if I can only figure a way of posting this which doesn't require an internet connection... 

Friday 1 February 2013

A New Year, a New Service Centre

Christmas is a quiet time of the year for us – things don’t really pick up until the second week in January when everybody has returned to work and we get a deluge of two weeks of accumulated problems hitting the office all in one go. Add to that the usual sprinkling of snow that brings the whole of London to a halt, and January turns into what I would describe as an eventful month.

Something that has made it even more eventful than usual is the news that we have finally found suitable premises for our Surbiton Service Centre which we hope to open in March or April, depending upon the speed of the lawyers in drawing up the lease. We are taking over a shop unit in St James Road which is about 100 meters from the station, and that means the next few months are going to be a whirlwind of organising the fixtures and fittings for the new premises, liaising with suppliers, organising signage, utilities, and all the hundreds of other tasks that a new branch requires.

I've been meticulous in keeps lists of everything we required to get our Fulham service centre up and running, including the suppliers we liked (and those we didn't like the flooring contractors who simply never turned up). We are also using the experience of the last four years to shape how we are organising the new shop, building on what works, and working to maximise efficiency within the limited space available. All this should mean that the process is as streamlined as possible, and by knowing exactly what we want we can keep the fitting out costs to a minimum.

We've also taken our first apprentice on board, which is another exciting development. I was wary of the apprenticeship scheme until I met some candidates and was impressed by their enthusiasm. Aaron has been with us for a couple of weeks and it’s great to see how quickly he’s picking up the real-world skills we need to do our job. I know more than a little about the way information technology is taught in our colleges, mainly because I get to see the end result, and I'm amazed that there is still such dislocation between what industry requires, and what education gives us. I’ll keep you posted on how things go but I think the apprenticeship scheme could be a fantastic alternative to spending three years accumulating a huge debt.