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Nerds Don’t Get It

CluelessRaymond Chen recently wrote a blog post where he talks about blocking shutdown in Windows versions since XP, and – being Raymond Chen – also the history and the why of certain decisions coming out of Redmond. This blog post was picked up on Reddit and people are slamming Windows for every possible thing.

What is interesting is that these people, who are suggesting that “Linux never had to do this”, just don’t get it. Linux is getting better, but it is *still* not user friendly. 90% of the people that work at companies that I’ve worked at could not run Linux without a lot of help. My grandparents couldn’t use Linux without a lot of help. Windows is generally easy to use.

If I generalize a bit, it almost seems like operating systems have their own “magic triangle”. You can have inexpensive, stable, or easy to use… pick only two. Linux is inexpensive and stable. It is free for the operating system and it runs on almost any hardware you can get, but it is NOT easy to use for the average “non geek”. Mac is stable and easy to use. It is known for all of its “user experience” and “it just works”, but it is not inexpensive. Once you own Mac hardware, upgrades to the OS are inexpensive, but to run the OS, you need expensive hardware. There is no good $300 Mac option.

Windows, on the other hand, is inexpensive and easy to use. It is growing more stable, but it still has a lot of quirks, particularly due to being able to support tons of hardware and tons of decades-old software. But easy and cheap is a tradeoff that many users are going to take. Because of that, Windows is going to have a place in the market for years to come, even if its marketshare will continue to erode as the marketshare of the desktop itself erodes.

But my theories about operating systems aren’t the point of this post, they are merely the backdrop. The point is that “nerds” (programmers, sys-admins, geeks, and all computer-savvy types) don’t sympathize enough with the average user. The computer elite just dismiss the average user as “dumb” and wonder why they can’t just remember to type “sudo apt-get install flashplugin-installer” to install flash on their system.

Remember, there are users that take classes on how to use Microsoft Word! They need lessons in “Saving a Document”, “Performing Cut and Paste”, and “Changing the Document’s Font”. I’m not mocking them for this, I’m pointing out the reality that these people are dealing with. To ask them to understand “sudo” and “apt-get” or scavenging the web to find some “driver” for their video card (“what’s a driver”, “what’s a video card”) is asking too much. They just want to get on Facebook, do their taxes, check their email, and watch movies or YouTube. What makes sense for we Nerds does not make sense for them.

Building up that sensitivity to the plight of the average user will make you a better IS/IT person. As long as the prevailing opinion of computer geeks is that the user should be able to perform these <my_sarcasm>easy</my_sarcasm> tasks, people that sympathize with the user are always going to have an easy time finding employment.

I’ve said this before, but I feel like it is one of the most important things I can say to the professional developer/IT pro: “We are in the business of solving other people’s problems”.

Solving other people’s problems doesn’t mean solving them with what works for us. It means giving the best solution for them. It doesn’t matter if you work for a product company or in-house enterprise development. You need to create solutions that meet your customers where they are. The sooner we realize that these things are not always in alignment, the sooner we will delight our customers with the solutions that we suggest and build.

James Whittaker Hates Search

My Opinion of Your OpinionA blog post came onto my radar today after it made the rounds on Hacker News. It was by James Whittaker and it was titled “Why I Hate Search“. Full disclosure is that James works for Microsoft, so some people have the notion that he is just hating on search (and therefore Google) because it is in Microsoft’s best interests to do so. I am someone who typically takes someone at their words and – in cases like this – prefer to examine the argument based on the facts at hand.

James’ post starts off by talking about the entire notion of search is negative and is only actually positive when the search has concluded and you’ve found what you were looking for, be it car keys, a missing person, etc. He further argues that in “real world” searching, you learn from your searches and don’t have to start from scratch every time. For instance, if I lose my keys often enough, there are four or five places that I’ll check first and likely find them. His argument is that web search is a “start from scratch every time” proposition.

James claims that it is not in search companies’ best interest to make this problem better. Those that make money from ads (hi, Google), want you searching and spending time on results pages, generating impressions and click-throughs, and whatever else they make money on. In his estimation, the alternate to this kind of product is a “find engine”, like Siri. He points out that Siri comes from a company that doesn’t have a stake in search (Apple). His quote that summarizes this position is, “There’s no more reason to expect search breakthroughs from Google than there is to expect electric car batteries to be made by Exxon.” He says that “Search is dead. The web doesn’t need it and neither do we.”

It could be that I’m entirely too stupid to understand this post or that I’m not forward thinking enough. Siri barely works if you get outside of a very small comfort zone. The way that I use Google every day is that I search error messages, and bits of quotes or lyrics, and generic problems that I can barely phrase coherently. Things like “what is the default LDAP port for Active Directory”. I just asked Siri that and she did capture my question correct with voice recognition, but her response was “I don’t know that. Would you like to search the web for it?”. In the end, it was a Google search that was performed that gave me the answer of 389.

That example is a COHERENT question of mine. What about when I need to search for something like examples of calling a SOAP web service from Android? I Google “SOAP Android” and find answers. Even if I form that into a coherent question, “How do I call a SOAP web service from Android?”, Siri says, “I don’t see Soap Web Service From Android in your address book, should I look for businesses by that name?”. Siri heard “call” and thought telephone and then screwed up the rest of the message, even though SOAP and Web Service should have given the AI a semantic clue.

I don’t want to belabor the point, though. Natural language processing will get better. However, I think that it is a pipe dream to expect that I can ask my question and Siri or the great great great great granddaughter of Siri will just give me my answer. Often in my searches, what is the answer for me is not the answer for someone else. I just can’t fathom a reality in which I can ask one question and not have a list of answers (yes, search results) to pick from. Even on Star Trek: TNG, for the hard questions, Data would ask the computer a question and have to search through tons and tons of information flowing past the screen to find the results he was looking for.

Search isn’t dead. In fact, more and more products and companies are starting to get rid of boxes where you have to search with “context” (put the first name here if you know it, the last name here if you know it) and instead moving to “Google-style” searches. The “single search box” is here whether it is Bing, Google, Stack Overflow, Sharepoint, Wolfram|Alpha, or even implicit ones like on Siri. The only difference I see between James’ imaginary future and our present is the ability for someone to give you the “one answer” that you are looking for, instead of results.

I’ve learned one thing by watching users and that is that people SUCK at search and they SUCK at asking questions, too. As long as people can’t form coherent questions or at least isolate the important parts of their inquiry, I don’t think search will ever change from the lineage that we are on.

Why I Hate Agile

Okay, now that I got the link-bait title out of the way, I am going to rant just a little bit. I imagine that I’m like most of you and I think that some flavor of agile (little a) is really the best way to develop software.

I think that collaborating with the business and getting things in front of them as soon as possible so that you can make changes to it as you go is a very valuable model. I am also very much for the short release cycles that most agile shops prefer.

What I despise, however, is what I call “Agile as Snake Oil”. There are a lot of disreputable companies that are putting the word out there that all you have to do is hire them and they can “sprinkle a little agile” on your project or your company and you will magically get everything you want.

Uncle Bob's Agile BookThey crow that Agile means that you can not make up your mind on what you want until the last minute because Agile Developers have to do what you say and are bound by the Laws of Agile to always change the software for the client. They want their cake and to eat it, too. They want all of the spec changes and none of the timeline changes or compromises.

Oh, that they would actually read something like Robert C. Martin’s book, Agile Principles, Patterns, and Practices. I’ll tell you what, I think that if people only read the end of the book, where Uncle Bob tells a tale of two cities, a project where the team does a “traditional waterfall approach” and the same project where the team practices an “agile approach”, it would make a world of difference.

As you can imagine, the waterfall approach ends in disaster, with stress and hard feelings abounding. In contrast, people are satisfied – almost happy – with the agile approach. The HUGE takeaway from the agile story, however, is that it was not a 100% win for either side. They did not hit their original deadline with 100% functionality. Features had to be traded in if the timelines could not move. However, the business stakeholders were the ones who went ahead and made that call.

I covered this in my last “Agile” post over a year ago, but I think that it bears repeating. Every agile project should do these steps

  1. Gather requirements
  2. Estimate requirements to determine length of project
  3. Work requirements in iterations
  4. Gauge velocity in coding requirements against estimate
  5. Determine whether your velocity requires you to either cut requirements or extend timelines
  6. Lather, rinse, repeat

Developers always get a bad rap for number 5 and it is always largely based on our lack of skill at number 2. Estimating is something that developers really should improve on, however, the business needs to understand two major things. Number 1, those timeline estimates are based on developers being able to work on the project at “perfect world” capacity – meaning 75-80% of their time. If developers are interrupted with conflicting priorities, original estimates and timelines are null and void.

Second of all, those who live in glass houses should not throw stones. If the original requirements are so ill-planned that they need to be drastically refined or changed, then developers should be able to refine and change estimates, too, since they are basically working on a different project than the one they started with.

There are obviously no perfect people in this world, so that means that there is no perfect system. Any system will invariably break down because of those imperfect people going around and “being human”. That being said, the best way to get to nirvana is to act like the participants in Uncle Bob’s Agile Story and rely on the two C’s, “communication and compromise”.

Compromising is the original agile. Be retro.

The Number One Trait of a Great Developer

JudgementAfter reading this article that I saw on Hacker News some time ago, it really got me thinking. The gist of the post is that “Great Judgement” is the number one trait of a great developer.

There are a lot of developers who only want to do the “latest and greatest” thing. They practice what I like to refer to as RDD, which stands for Resume Driven Development. Every project is just a way to make their resume that much more enviable. It is even a little hard to fault these people at first blush because in the IT industry, if you aren’t pressing your skills forward, you are quickly becoming irrelevant. However, sometimes developers forget that they are being paid to deliver a solution for a client or employer. The client’s needs should always come first.

Are you doing work for a PHP and MySql shop? Could Ruby or Node or Cassandra help them solve their problem? Sure, but their existing code is in PHP, their on-staff developers know PHP, and finding PHP developers to hire is easier than finding a good developer who knows Node or Cassandra. You may very well be doing them a huge disservice by building them a “blazing fast web scale” solution.

That’s where Great Judgement comes in. New technologies may offer benefits, but there are always trade-offs in technology. The first is your own knowledge. If you are very familiar with C# and .Net and don’t know Ruby, but you try to put together a Ruby on Rails solution for a client that isn’t mandating Ruby, you are very likely going to cost them time and money while you deliver more slowly, let alone any mistakes you are sure to make or hard-to-maintain patterns you might leave behind because of your inexperience.

The second trade-off is the number of available developers to maintain and build upon your code. The system may really hum when you write it in Brainf*ck, but you just pretty much made sure that there are maybe 30 people in the world who could help that company maintain or grow it. Larger companies aren’t as susceptible to this as smaller companies because they usually have rigid standards in place, but the “market” for your code – be it the language, the framework, or even your patterns – should be at the forefront of your mind as you plan.

The third trade-off is not to over-engineer. Some developers want to create a highly robust and scalable system with a caching layer, failover clusters, and load balancing for every one of their solutions. They want a pluggable architecture and a side of fries with that. The problem is that they are making a small inventory application for the secretary to maintain her office supply levels for a staff of 9. Sad to say, but a simple Access database that would take an hour of your time to create may be all that they need.

I haven’t thought enough to actually assign Great Judgement as the number ONE trait of a great developer, but I definitely have to agree with the author, Tammer Saleh, on many of his points. If Great Judgement isn’t number one, it is certainly in the team picture. If you use Great Judgement, you are a long way to delivering valuable solutions to your clients and that may improve your resume way more than buzzwords.

Why Be Passionate?

Malcolm Gladwell - Image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Malcolmgladwell.jpg
“Absent love for your field, you can’t be a genius. You can’t.”– Malcolm Gladwell

Scott Hanselman posted this quote on the Internet last week and it really resonated with me. It is no secret that I work in an industry full of “geniuses” and we were all most likely the smartest kids in our schools and among our relatives. Some of us (full disclosure: I can definitely be guilty here) still like to occasionally hold a somewhat lofty view of ourselves among the ranks of “the geniuses”.

Mr. Gladwell has written some very good books about ideas, intuition, and observation. I generally enjoy his writing and here I believe he is right on. I keep coming into contact more and more with developers who are not passionate about what they do. By not being passionate, they are doing their employers and themselves a disservice by not maxing out their genius potential. There are several reasons for this lack of passion – I’d like to focus on two.

The first group to consider may have at one time been passionate developers, but have since burned out. I know for a fact that this is fairly common and have come close to burnout a few times myself. Preventing burnout is a broad topic for perhaps another post, but it is beyond our scope here. I don’t think that I’m breaking new ground to suppose that burnt-out developers aren’t blazing the genius trail.

Our second group is made up of those developers who only do this because they were pressed into service at their jobs or they entered this profession because it pays well. If these people suddenly became wealthy, coding is not how they would spend their time. What that means is they are likely also not spending their free time on this craft.

I’m not claiming that individuals in either group are bad people. They are not. At the same time, however, I believe that individuals who don’t love their field will never attain guru/ninja/genius status. You cannot just put in your 8 hours and expect to be on that “next level”. This goes for lawyers, physicists, and therapists, too. If you aren’t putting in your own time reading journals, blogs, attending seminars, or just “thinking the big thoughts”, you aren’t going to grow.

The bright side is that this love can be cultivated. Much like marital love, you can rekindle your love for your craft. The same principles even apply. A common recommendation in marriage counseling is that you really get to know your spouse. Find out things about who they are and who they’ve become that you didn’t know. Fall in love all over again.

In development, that means finding out different things about programming that you didn’t know before. For instance, if you’ve only ever done middle tier work, learn the UI. If you’ve only programmed application code, learn the database. If you’ve only ever worked the Microsoft stack, give Open Source technologies a try. Make the field new, exciting, and alive again.

Even if you are someone for whom life or finances has guided toward technology, you also have hope. Much like individuals in arranged marriages can “learn to love” or “grow to love” their spouses, you can learn to love your profession. Like the last group, branch out and find a niche you are passionate about. Computer science is a very broad profession. You may find you love writing compilers, embedded systems, device drivers, mobile applications, web, rich media, etc. However, if you only ever log your hours and go home, you’ll never know what is beyond your 9 to 5.

I don’t want to sound preachy, but I truly felt compelled to write when I read that quote. Remember the old adage that when you point one finger, you have the rest of them pointing back at you. I write as much for my current and future self as I do for my readership. While I am “on fire” and “in love” with programming now, the natural ebb and flow of life may take that away from me. When it does, my natural desire to compete and be great are going to remind me of this post and I will have to heed my own advice and find something new that excites me.

I hope you have something that excites you, too.

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