Monday, June 30, 2008

The problem with "I'll wait until my manager sends me to training"

[This was originally posted at]

With all the new technologies coming out, many software developers want to get sent to training seminars. Sometimes "Training" is fun - your company spends thousands of dollars to send you to a fancy building, during regular working hours, where you have an in-person expert guide you through some marketable skill. It lets you feel like you're part of an elite group, and on the insider track. Usually these sessions even provide free snacks!

This is great - until a developer uses it as an excuse for inaction, as in "Rather than learn technology XYZ on my own, I'll wait until my manager sends me to training." For the vast majority of mainstream development technologies and techniques (C#, SQL, JS, HTML, XML, security, performance, automation, etc...), such thinking has some big problems.

  • Because live training seminars are expensive, managers are very reluctant to send you.

  • If you're truly motivated, usually there are free (or cheap) alternatives instead. For example, there may be free user groups that meet in your area that offer presentations on hot topics. Sometimes there are even free MSDN events. Worst case, you can buy the $50 book.

  • Therefore, by the time management is willing to sink $3000 to send you to a training seminar, you could probably learn it faster yourself via some other method.

Having special training for a cutting edge technology or proprietary tool is great. But a motivated developer shouldn't need to wait to be sent to training before learning C#, or how to improve code performance because that information is already freely available in many other formats besides in-person training seminars.


Sunday, June 29, 2008

Silverlight TruckWars 2.0 - Migrated to SL2 Beta 2

[This was originally posted at]

I migrated Silverlight TruckWars to the SL Beta 2. I started working on TruckWars as a way to learn Silverlight back in the Alpha last year. Being a Microsoft product, there have been two more betas (with plenty of breaking changes), but I've finally migrated it.


Things of note - Beta 1 started supporting buttons, which obviously simplified things. For example, it helped me remove keyboard input. It also had some subtle changes that affected the gameplay. Also, there still is no dropdown. Before I was using an HTML dropdown to select the levels. Rather than jump through hoops, I just ceded the dropdown part until the next release.


Because the code has been migrated from an alpha, to a beta, to another beta, it's becoming pretty screwy. Not the best, most agile code out there, but good for a demo of what cool stuff Silverlight can do. You can play it here.


Friday, June 27, 2008

The first LCNUG meeting - Windows Workflow Foundation

[This was originally posted at]

The first LCNUG meeting occurred this past Thur, June 26. It went well - about a dozen (very talented) people. Scott Seely presented on Windows Workflow Foundation, which you can download from the website. The small number of attendees (as compared to the hundred who normally attend larger groups) allowed more community interaction and networking. Overall, a good success for the kickoff meeting of a new group. I'm proud that Paylocity can help sponsor this.


Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Do you have time to blog?

[This was originally posted at]

I enjoy blogging, so I encourage others to try and enjoy it too. I've met many people who say they'd like to blog, but "just don't have the time." I understand that we're all busy. I figure a single blog post can be small, with a few paragraphs, much like a big email. And, an average blog may have 2-3 posts a week. So, if you can cut out just one pointless email, every other day, then you'll have enough time to blog. And if you blog about what you're actively working on, then it's much faster, because the words, concepts, and code snippets are already at the tip of your tongue. Optimistically, there are ways to squeeze blogging into one's life.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Minimalist Code Samples

[This was originally posted at]

A minimalist code sample is a snippet that demonstrates a specific purpose, requires no extra context, yet can still run. For example, explains design patterns with a "real-world" sample, and a "structural" (i.e. minimalist) sample. Because it abstracts out the context, the minimalist sample has several benefits:

  • Easier to apply: It is easier to apply to different contexts - such as new projects.

  • Easier to remember: It is much smaller (no context means less code), therefore it's easier to remember what the code was about. For example, I have a folder essentially called "LearningSnippets", where I categorize different coding tricks. By keeping all the snippets small, they're fast for me to physically load, "mentally load", and then run. The last thing I want is to dig through some 2000 line project, scratching my head, thinking "how did I do that sorting algorithm?"

  • Easier to learn: It's easier to learn new concepts. Removing the irrelevant context means there's less to get distracted by, so you can focus on the specific concept that you care about.

  • Easier to show others: It is easier to show to others, such as a newsgroup, where other developers don't care about the business context. I sigh when I see some poor guy post a 5 page code question on a forum, because few people will sift through all that.

  • Easier to enhance: It can be much easier to enhance because the code is not constrained by some rigid business context.

  • It is a courtesy to others: If you just care about a 3-line algorithm, it would be long-winded of me to hide that behind hundred of lines of business context and plumbing.

In .Net, many errors come down to a few bad lines of code - you've got the wrong method, a bad input parameter, or some syntax error. It becomes very convenient when working with others, or learning new concepts, to be able to isolate code down to the minimalist sample.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Natural Language Processing

[This was originally posted at]

I got very bad marks in grammar during middle school. It wasn't until after I graduated public school that I cared about writing, and hence grammar. Now, I find it quite fascinating, so I was interested to read about a CodePlex project - SharpNLP. In their own words:

SharpNLP is a collection of natural language processing tools written in C#. Currently it provides the following NLP tools:

  • a sentence splitter

  • a tokenizer

  • a part-of-speech tagger

  • a chunker (used to "find non-recursive syntactic annotations such as noun phrase chunks")

  • a parser

  • a name finder

  • a coreference tool

  • an interface to the WordNet lexical database

So, you could type in a paragraph, and it parses that out into the different sentences, and then different words and parts of speech. Of course, I began to think if maybe this could be extended to be like the FxCop of technical articles. For example, according to the Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications, the rules to merely capitalize a sub-title are non-trivial - there are 10 rules and it takes a full page to explain them. I wonder in theory if you could have a NLP (Natural Language Processing) tool run through a subtitle (as an input string), and apply the rules, much like you can parse a arithmetic expression for correct syntax. I was starting to toy around with it, but it seemed to quickly get difficult, so maybe I look at it another day.


In the meantime, if you're interested in NLP, check out SharpNLP.


Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Is developing a young person's profession?

[This was originally posted at]

Talking with another developer the other day, we began discussing if software engineering is really a young person's profession (we've both been doing this for a while, have families, and aren't jumping to do the 70-hour weeks of boring features with boring technologies). Given the rapid turnout of new technologies, pressure from out-sourcing, and demanding projects, one might view the software world as incompatible with an older person, especially someone with a family who didn't want to spend 70 hour weeks at work.


I'm an optimist here, and I think that no -software engineering is certainly not just "a young person's profession". There's a lot of advantages that older developers have, they:

  • Have more experience, so they usually have better intuition and a broader understanding with which to learn new technologies. For example, someone who already knew J2EE would pick up .Net much more quickly than someone with no computer background.

  • Have more understanding of the purpose of technology. They've seen lots of business applications, so they know what they're trying to do.

  • Have a wider stash of reusable tools and source code to work with

  • Can be wiser about what they invest in learning

  • Have deeper knowledge. New technology is often built on top of old technology. I've seen lots of young "copy and paste" developers become paralyzed when their program does anything abnormal - like throw a COM exception or accidently encode files in an unexpected format - whereas the older devs have been around and know how to handle that.

While new technologies do come out frequently, there are also many older technologies and concepts that still form the backbone of enterprise apps. Html, JavaScript, Xml, CSS, Sql, code generation, automation, and object oriented languages like C++ and Java,  have all been around since the 90's. A senior developer who already knows these technologies can focus on learning just the new stuff, whereas a young developer still needs to come up to speed on these basics.


Of course, I wouldn't say that older developers are necessarily better, but rather give everyone their chance. There's a lot to look forward to in software engineering, for both old and young developers.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Upward spiral

[This was originally posted at]

We've all heard of the dreaded downward spiral, where you're behind schedule with lots of bugs, so you cut corners and rush sloppy work, only to create more bugs and get further behind. Some folks seem to think this is just a right of passage for computer programming, but it doesn't have to be that way. Just like there's a downward spiral, there's also an upward spiral, where you do good process and coding upfront, which saves you time, with which you can further improve your tools and process.


I'm a big fan of the upward spiral. The best way I see to jump on the upward spiral is to focus your resources on things that last, and avoid spending your resources on things that don't. For example, there's no benefit to you to waste hundreds of hours writing data-access plumbing code. You learn nothing new, you're probably not energized by it, and everyone around you likely just takes plumbing for granted. Things that "last" include your personal and technical knowledge, tools, helper classes, and any other thing that you can take with you to the next project or feature. Things that "don't last" are tedious bug fixes, plumbing code, obsolete technologies, and pointless trivia. These things help with the immediate task, but then are (usually) useless afterwards.


Practical ways to spend your resources on things that last:

  • If you're developing on your own time, if at all possible, focus on learning new technology and techniques that you find interesting - as opposed to just plugging on a boring feature because it might impress your boss. Knowing the new techniques will let you develop much faster later, which will both permanently enhance your developing skills, and impress your boss.

  • Try to learn something new each day. Usually if you're working for 8 hours, you can squeeze in a half-hour of experiments that relate to that work. Learning something new each day will quickly add up. Ideally, a developer could happily answer the question "what did you learn today?"

  • Actively pursue features that will teach you something. All else being equal, a good boss will want to give you features you're interested in because they know that you'll then be motivated to do a better job of it. So, aggressively show interest in the features that give you learning opportunities. Consider even investing your own personal time to prepare for it. If you invest two hours on the weekend to understand enough of the background to be qualified on a feature, which then lets you spend two weeks actually programming it hands on, that's a great investment.

I understand that sometimes your current project forces you into a rut, and you're just trying to survive. I still remember several 70 hr/week projects when I used to do consulting.  But it's always good to keep your eye on the prize - even if right now sucks, at least be aware of that in order to strive for something better.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Smart vs. Smart Aleck

[This was originally posted at]

An intellectually grueling field like software engineering will attract a lot of smart people. It also attracts smart alecks too. There's a big difference.


Smart personSmart aleck
Uses their smarts to help the project succeedTries to get people to think how smart they are. Usually their facts are wrong and their ideas are impractical.
Tries to build positive things up - i.e. create new process, actively solve problemsConstantly nitpicking trivia and tearing things down, without offering alternative solutions.
Ready to actually implement ideasRetreats to empirical trivia or theory (perhaps by considering themselves "visionary")
Willing to admit they're wrong in order to find the best solutionAvoids offering any criteria for falsification because they don't want to be "trapped" or be wrong.
Eager to have their own work reviewed in order to get the best product, and learn from others.Eager to review (and critique) others work, but resistant to apply the same standard to them self.


No one likes smart alecks. I don't have a cure, but here's some ways I've found to deal with them:

  • Encourage them to funnel their efforts into something good. For example, saying things like "That's an interesting idea, why don't you try building it?" or "That's interesting trivia, but do you see anything with a higher rate-of-return to focus on?"

  • Don't be intimidated - smart alecks often try to intimidate others with big buzzwords or obscure trivia. But you can cut through the buzzwords by asking them to explain it in plain English. Smart alecks are dangerous to a project, so good developers have an obligation to defend the project against the smart aleck's ego.

  • Put the smart aleck in their place, perhaps using a standard pass-or-fail approach with agreed-upon rules. For example, you may say "if your idea is right, then this C# method should not compile, are we agreed?" Nothing like having the compiler itself crush a smart aleck's ego.

  • Fire them. It can be tough, but if they're writing bad code, while constantly distracting others with false alarms via pointless trivia and argumentative questions, they may just be "not a good fit" for the company.

There's a saying, "If you have to tell someone you're a lady, then you aren't one." Likewise, smart people don't need to try impressing or convincing others that they're smart, usually people just recognize it as a side affect of the value they add.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

The problem with "It's not what you know, it's who you know"

[This was originally posted at]

I remember when job-hunting back in college, lots of business majors would tell me "It's not what you know, it's who you know." Some kids even used it as an excuse to avoid studying in order to go to parties instead ("Why waste time studying pointless knowledge when what really matters is having a strong social network?"). While there is some merit to the idea - i.e. you do want to build your network - this paradigm doesn't apply well to skilled labor that can be objectively measured, like software engineering.


If a job doesn't require much skill, such that there are tons of qualified candidates, then of course personally knowing the hiring manager is a competitive edge. From their perspective, if all else is equal, hiring a known acquaintance mitigates risk. But, if a job does require a lot of skill, such that recruiters are actively competing to find that top talent, then they will beat a path to your door. In software engineering, if you have the knowledge, then people will want to know you. It's a two-way street: developers what to be employed, and companies want the best employees.


I think of it like talent in the NBA - some players just play better than others (I believe all people are equal, they just some have different skills). That's why scouts are running all over the nation, constantly trying to woo the top free-agents. If you're the top NBA draft pick, even if you don't know anyone yet, scouts are going to want to know you.


Sure, I understand that cronyism and nepotism exist, but in software engineering, such corruption would put that recruiter at a serious competitive disadvantage. Worst case, I'd expect that a corrupt manager's greed would trump their cronyism, and they'd hire the best talent. Anything else would essentially be throwing away money.