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Skyline Annual Retreat

The company I work at, Skyline Technologies, hosts an annual retreat for its associates every year. I thought it would be worth talking about what I think the great things Skyline does at these events and how they help foster and grow great teams.

Our founders, Pat Deprey and Keith Kaufman, felt it was important that our associates and their families get to know one another. When you are a consulting company, with associates at various customer locations, it takes organizational focus to make sure people know one another and feel like part of the organization. We have now had the annual retreat for over twenty years, with CEO changes and ups and downs in the economy; preserving the Annual Retreat has always been a top priority. As a matter of fact, as we have added offices in Appleton and Milwaukee, and have associates working all over Wisconsin and the Midwest, it has become even more important.

Previous years have been in Sister Bay, WI, where we took up two different resorts. As our company grows, especially our Milwaukee office, we moved the event further south in Door County to Egg Harbor so we could have all associates at a single location.

So what makes our Annual Retreat such a great event? Let's talk about a few of the ways company get-togethers can help any group grow the strength of their organization:

Family Fun

Here is a picture of my kids and their friends as we headed on the road.

As you can see, they are an excited group. The Skyline team that puts together the Annual Retreat makes sure that there are events going on throughout the weekend for families. Some of those events are kid friendly, some of those events are spouse friendly, and some of them are even teenager friendly.

Friday night starts off with a dinner where associates and their families have the opportunity to get together and socialize. The team I am part of, has associates working out of Madison, Milwaukee, Appleton and Green Bay, and we are pretty evenly distributed. The dinner and social aspects of the weekend are one of the few times each year we are all in the same place and get to have fun together.

On Saturday, we have an overview of the business and how things are going for the company and where we are going. Associates are encouraged to invite their spouses/significant others to join the meeting and learn about the company. With so many new associates joining each year, it is a great way to introduce the organization to our associates' families. For new associates, it really drives home what makes Skyline different from other consulting and tech companies in the Midwest.

Fun Events

Organizationally, Skyline is also committed to making a fun work environment. We even have a Director of Fun, who organizes events throughout the year. Door County is littered with events for associates and/or their families to attend. A small example of them:

  • Poker Game

  • Cribbage Game

  • Board Games like Settles of Catan, Carcassone and many more

  • Scavenger Hunt

  • Magic Show

  • Fish Boil

  • Bonfire and Smores

  • Karaoke

As you can see from some of these pictures, a good time is had by all!

Associate Recognition

Another big highlight during our Annual Retreat are the associate recognition awards. In the state of Wisconsin, Skyline has more certifications than any other Microsoft partner. Below is a picture of all the associates who received certifications in the last year.

This is one example of an award during the weekend. Skyline has always made it a point of recognizing associates who contribute to our organization. These awards have become one of the highlights of the annual retreat. One of the best parts is recognizing the people who do good work in front of their spouse/significant as well as their peers.

Highlights for making a great company event

  • Make it family friendly

  • Provide opportunities for spouses and significant other to learn about the company and its leaders

  • Provide recognition for employees

  • Have events for employees and their families

  • Provide downtime

  • Provide opportunities for community


 

Setting up email for a Custom Domain on a Windows Azure hosted website

Update - May 27, 2014 Microsoft has announced that it will no longer support custom domains using Outlook.Com. As a result, this content of this post is no longer valid. They are encouraging customers to use Office 365 moving forward. You can find out more at domains.live.com

The blog site you are currently on, jptacek.com, is using Windows Azure websites, which is a great way to quickly get a web presence up and running. The site also provides very low barrier to entry for setting up blogging engines or CMS applications. The one thing it does not do though is offer email services out of the box.

One way to remedy this is to use Google Apps to create a domain for hosting of email. I use Google Apps for my personal email for me and my family and it works great. In the hope of learning something new, I thought I would see what Microsoft has to offer in the space and see what setup was like.

In the Microsoft world, their Google Apps competitor is really Office 365. This is overkill for what I want, since I am just looking for email. It also costs money. Microsoft offers Custom Domains which allows us to use the Outlook.Com email service for our domain.

Steps for getting this setup

  1. Go to http://Domains.live.com. Note, you are going to want to use Chrome for this. The IE 10 browser looks awful

Versus Chrome

  1. Click the sign in button and use your Microsoft account and then click the Get Started link
  2. Type in the custom domain you will want email for, in our case, jptacek.com. Make sure Set up Outlook.com is selected for your domain mail service, and then hit the continue button
  3. You will then need to battle Microsoft's exceedingly unforgiving CAPTCHA system, after which you will be taken to the registration screen. The first step is to configure the MX record (MX is the DNS record used for mail)
  4. Log onto your DNS provider, in our case DNSImple.com, and add the record. This varies by DNS provider. IN the case on DNSimple, we go to the Advanced section, and choose Add a Record and select MX from the dropdown
  5. Our next step is to create a server trust record as recommended on the admin screen. This is a TXT DNS record that helps verify our email address and helps prevent the email from the site from being marked as junk
  6. Next, we want a URL we can use to access our email. To do this, we create a CNAME record that points back to the Hotmail/Outlook . We will use mail, so mail.jptacek.com will be the URL we use when accessing email. You could use kwyjibo if you wanted to, just remember it J The CNAME record needs to point back to go.domains.live.com  

  1. It can take up to 60 minutes for your domain to resolve, you can see if your domain records are updated by using your favorite command prompt and typing the commands

    1. nslookup -type=mx jptacek.com
    2. nslookup -type=txt jptacek.com

These should display values you entered earlier

  1. Return to Domains.live.com and log in with your Microsoft account. It will show you the domains. In this step, the DNS configuration can take a while too
  2. When your domain is active, you can add accounts, up to 50 of them. To do this click the domain name, and click the Add button for member accounts

Enter the account you want to create a long with a password

 

You are done! You can now go to newly created email site for your custom domain, and login with your user name.

 

You can now email me at blog [@] jptacek.com

Update - May 27, 2014 Microsoft has announced that it will no longer support custom domains using Outlook.Com. As a result, this content of this post is no longer valid. They are encouraging customers to use Office 365 moving forward. You can find out more at domains.live.com


 

Creating Sitemaps.xml file for Wordpress blogs on Azure Websites

When running Wordpress on Azure websites, you have the ability to create sitemaps. This enables search engines such as Google and Bing to make you content more discoverable. You can find out more about Sitemaps from Google.

The first step in the process is to upload placeholder files for the sitemap files. These are two files, Sitemap.xml and Sitemap.xml.gz (a compressed format). These files are both available on the Wordpress site, so download both Sitemap.xml and sitemap.xml.gz locally to your computer. For this example, our local directory will be c:\scratch.

Next, you are going to need to upload the files to your hosted Azure website. This requires using FTP. The Azure management site has the link to this.

 

Clicking the URL will pop up the FTP client in your favorite browser. I hate that FTP client (this hate is browser agnostic). Instead, I use the FTP client on the local OS, in this case Windows 8. Go to the command prompt and:

  1. Type ftp server.ftp.azurewebsites.windows.net
  2. Type in your FTP user name, being sure to include the domain name
  3. This will put you at the top level of your hosted Azure website. You can see the files there by typing LS (the UNIX version of the Dir command)

  4. You will need to change directories to the location on your server that is the root for Wordpress site, in our case that is wwwroot; cd site\wwwroot

  5. Now change your local directory to the location of the sitemap files you downloaded earlier using the FTP command LCD. This will change your local directory for you. In our example the location directory is c:\scratch, so LCD c:\scratch
  6. You can verify the files are present locally by typing !dir, which shells out to the command prompt
  7. For each file, type PUT filename;
    1. PUT sitemap.xml
    2. PUT sitemamp.xml.gz It goes without saying you can use your favorite FTP client to upload the files, I just made sure to document at least one.

Now that the sitemap files are present, you need to create the content for them. This can be done by installing a Wordpress plugin. The one I use is the Google XML Sitemaps application that can be downloaded here.

To install this on your Wordpress site hosted on Azure is easy enough. Log in as administrator to your account.

  1. Go to you Plugins and choose Add New and type Google XML Sitemaps and click search
  2. Click Install Now and move onto setup You will want to verify the location of your Sitemaps file, which the plugin automatically detect

 

The basic options are fine for most implementations. The Plugin will automatically create zipped up files of your sitemap, rebuild on content change as well as notify Google and Bing of changes

 

The plugin allows you to build the sitemap for the first time. After it is done, you will see

You can verify the sitemap by looking at the xml for the file. In the case of this blog, http://www.jptacek.com/sitemap.xml

 

 


 

John Ptacek I'm John Ptacek, a software developer for Skyline Technologies. This blog is my contains my content and opinionss, which are not those of my employer.

Currently, I am reading Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

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