Archive for February, 2005

Are newspapers dead?

Scoble responds to the question, “Are newspapers dead?” What he is really addressing is the delivery mechanism — newsprint vs. online.

I don’t think we’ll see the death of newsprint any time soon. The format is too convenient when compared to the current alternatives. I tried our local paper’s online version a few years ago. The newspaper was published in a PDF format and it was laid out just like the printed version. I liked the hyperlinks and the ability to access additional photos. However, I did not abandon my printed copy.

There are two major reasons that I did not care for the digital format:

  • Too much scrolling
  • Not easily portable

Laying out the online version like the printed version just doesn’t work. You can’t fit an entire page of newsprint onto a computer screen in a reasonably sized font. Too make the font readable, the user has to scroll the page a lot. It was especially annoying because the layout used the traditional multi-column format.

This problem is easily resolved, and my local paper now has an online format that is more navigable than the original attempt. However, even with a format suitable to online consumption, I still don’t think that I would switch from the printed copy.

The portability issue is not so easily resolved. Yes, slate/tablet PCs are very portable. They are the best choice for reading digital content. But I’m not willing to take a tablet PC all the places that I take my newspaper. When I’m reclining in the jacuzzi, I can read the newspaper. The printed newspaper can be read while working out on an aerobic machine at the gym. I can read the printed newpaper in the sauna. I’d be very nervous about using a tablet PC in any of these locations.

Another concern which limits portability is loss. I can take a newspaper to the beach or the pool. When I want to take a dip, I don’t have to worry if somebody is going to take off with the printed copy of the newspaper. I would have to worry about that if I was using a computer to read the content.

Weight is also an issue. If you saw me reading the newpaper, you would see that I am often in a reclining position, and I hold the newspaper in the air as I read it. The newspaper weighs a few ounces. A computer held in this position is going to cause a lot more stress on my body.

I don’t know if heat is an issue. I have used laptops that become uncomfortable when actually used on your lap, due to the heat. Most PC manufacturers have official warnings about this. Do tablet PCs have this problem? The newsprint never becomes too warm.

And what if you own a wood burning stove or fireplace? Can you start a fire with your computer? I wouldn’t recommend it. πŸ™‚

Finally, I think about electronic books. There have been a number of products that were supposed to replace printed books. None of them have taken off. I suspect my reasons were considerable factors in the success (or lack thereof) of these devices.

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Job opening in Champaign, IL

Eric Sink posts a job opening on the SourceGear Vault team.

Qualifications from the site, with my responses added as if I were making a pitch to be hired:

You have deep expertise with development using Microsoft SQL Server. You know how to use triggers and indices and foreign keys and inner joins and stored procs and views and all that other SQL crapola that I’ve never understood and don’t care to. Most importantly, you know to make these things run FAST.

I would question that these requirements constitute a deep expertise in SQL Server. IMHO, these are core requirements if you want to be a developer. Eric may not understand this stuff, but I surely wouldn’t want to be using a database that was designed by somebody who doesn’t understand this stuff. I would probably add an understanding of normalization as a requirement.

As far as making stuff go fast, I have a custom SQL Profiler template on my system which is used just for analyzing the performance efficiency of code. I can interpret and explain to a non-programmer (usually our department head) why things are slow. When doing performance-focused work, I believe in the mantra of the carpenter — measure twice, cut once.

I don’t want to reveal too much about the details of my work, but here are a couple examples of some performance tweaks I have done.

We had a procedure that used loops to do most of its work. It took about 45 minutes to run. I added a couple key indices, converted a stored procedure to a user-defined function, and converted most of the loops to set-based statements. The run time was reduced to under 2 minutes.

We had another procedure which used a transaction log to calculate the state of individual records at any point in time. The original procedure, which took about 15 minutes to report the state of all the items at any point in time, consisted of a single complex query which contained several subqueries. My eventual solution was not what I would call intuitive (therefore it is heavily commented), but I was able to reduce the run time to under 5 seconds by utilizing temp tables and breaking up the big SQL query into several smaller queries. The sum of the parts was much better than the whole!

You have experience with C, C++, C# or Java.

Sorry, I can’t claim this qualification. I did a little self-study with Bjarne Stroustroup‘s classic book almost 15 years ago, but I’ve never produced any tangible product in these languages. My experience has been in VB and SQL. I think that my lack of experience in these languages is made up for by my other qualifications.

You have experience using a source control tool.

Yes, but not Vault. πŸ˜‰ We use VSS in our office.

You have a bachelor’s degree in computer science from a good university.

Can’t claim this qualification. I don’t have a degree. I did go to a good university on an ROTC scholarship for computer science. I wasn’t very disciplined at age 18, so I only spent a year there. I got As in my first-year programming courses.

You are smart.

Despite my lack of success at university, I would still claim to meet this qualification (who doesn’t think they’re smart?). I would add creativity to this as well. I think this qualification is what makes up for the lack in other qualifications. Even though I’ve been a full-time developer for less time than most of my colleagues, I’m the “go-to” guy on our development team for learning new products and guiding the design of major features.

You have excellent written and spoken English.

I always did well in English classes, without ever having to study much. I’m a bit of a nitpicker regarding grammar. When I worked in technical support, I had the task of editing our support logs for technical accuracy and grammatical correctness before they were sent out with the customer’s support bill. My wife is a technical writer, and she can confirm that I am a little anal about using precise and concise wording.

You are a developer, not a programmer.

I work for a small ISV now, and wear many hats. The company wouldn’t survive if we weren’t a team of developers (vs. coders).

You know how to read code, not just write code.

I believe that understanding the big picture is critical to being able to write successful code. The actual code writing is a minor detail. Mistakes in code don’t usually require weeks to fix. Mistakes in design often do. You can’t design on top of existing code without being able to read the code and develop an understanding of it that transcends the lines on the page.

You are willing to live in Champaign, Illinois. (To be a part of our core team, you have to be here. No telecommuting.)

Well, here is a problem. Urbana-Champaign is a nice college town. But there is not much nearby. I like lots of cultural opportunities. I play trumpet/cornet in a couple community bands. If I had the time, I could be playing in a different community band every night of the week. I like attending plays and musicals. There are a dozen community theatres within 45 minutes of my home. We subscribe to the Broadway Series at Playhouse Square.

Yes, these things are available in Champaign. But not to the same degree. Chicago is very appealing, but it’s a little too far to see a show on a weeknight.

I’m sure that I could make more money working for another company, but the intangibles offered in my work environment and my community keep me where I am.

At the end, Eric comments, “Corey and I would really like to discriminate against anyone who is not an Illini fan, but Dan is an Indiana grad so we never seem to reach consensus on that issue.” Even though my time at Michigan was short, it has remained in my heart. Would I be allowed to put a small, tasteful block M on my door?

If I were interested, would I qualify? I’m sure there are lots of good developers out there who Eric would love to hire. Joel Spolsky has written on the topic of hiring good people. I generally agree with Joel’s views regarding the hiring process. I wish Eric luck, and I hope I can convince our team to try out his company’s product someday.

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Public, but private?

Eric Gunnerson asks about things on his blog that he’d prefer people don’t mention in a large group. Having a weblog is a window into your life that you are making public. However, you have complete control over what you choose to reveal. Most bloggers are not being pursued by paparazzi. Most of us have very private lives. Even high profile bloggers, such as Mark Cuban and Wil Wheaton, have private lives that they don’t reveal on their blogs.

I have chosen to remain mostly anonymous on my blog. I develop for a small, privately held software company, the name of which I choose not to reveal. I occasionally discuss experiences from work, but in a general way, to avoid the possiblity of any backlash. I don’t reveal too much personal information.

I think of the weblog as a conversation at a big party. I don’t say things that I wouldn’t say in the company of strangers. Eric says he doesn’t like the idea of people taking his words and repeating them to others. Would Eric have revealed that he likes Jane Austen novels at a party? If one of the revelers had repeated that later, would it have bothered him?

The real question, from the viewpoint of Sigmund Freud, is why is it bothersome at all? If you’re secure in your self, why should it bother you?

I know some people who are very private and don’t like others to know much about them. These people are not maintaing weblogs. You shouldn’t maintain a weblog unless you are secure in yourself and your beliefs.

Update: With Eric worrying about public vs. private, I wonder what Don Box thinks about this post?

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Grouping applications

Rory writes about 3D desktops. I agree with the arguemnts that he makes about this idea. It probablly won’t catch on.

However, Rory adds a little extra note:

Why don’t we allow users to group applications?

If you read the post, Rory goes on to describe how he would implement the grouping of applications. Again, I agree with Rory. This would be a great feature. In fact, this feature was one of the reasons that I used OS/2 for several years. What Rory describes was called Work Area Folders, and I liked them a lot.

I really do miss it sometimes in Windows. I especially miss it when I want to debug our COM+ applications with our client application. Now I have to open each project separately. It would be nice if I could click on one folder and have all the projects open up automatically. We have 12 different COM+ applications that interact. You can’t debug them in a group. They have to be in different instances of the IDE.

Rory’s idea is good, but it is not new. I wonder if Rory knows that he won’t be able to patent it?

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Congratulations and condolences

Congratulations to the New England Patriots on truly establishing a dynasty that will be remembered for as long as the Super Bowl is played. This game has made my grandmother, a native Cape Codder, very happy.

Condolences to my youngest brother, who has been a Philadelphia Eagles fan since he was a kid. I don’t know what’s wrong with him, but at least he didn’t pick the other team from Pennsylvania to root for! πŸ™‚ (In case you didn’t know, I’m in northeast Ohio.)

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Funny coincidences

So I posted earlier today about a site I ran across with some good advice for consultants (and really customer service in general). Then tonight I get an invitation for an online survey. What’s the topic of the survey? Job satisfaction and using online job boards.

Really, I’m happy with my job. πŸ™‚

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Want to be a consultant?

Once in a while, I have thoughts (scary ones!) about losing my job. I don’t have these thoughts for any particular reason. They just kind of pop into my head.

When they do come into my head, I always wonder what life would be like if I decided to work as a freelancer instead of as an employee. Steve Friedl has written what I think is a great post of guidelines for consultants. In reality, many of his guidelines apply to business in general.

Some examples:

“Trust” is your best job security
You are primarily in the customer service business, not the technical business
If you routinely take ownership for your own mistakes, you’re much more likely to be believed when you claim something is NOT your doing
It’s a huge asset to communicate well — cultivate this skill vigorously
The best way to make a lot of money is to make your customers a lot of money
Being known for your integrity is the Holy Grail of consulting

A lot of these “maxims” come down the Golden Rule. If you treat your customers the way you would wish to be treated when you’re the consumer, you’ll do just fine. I’m fortunate to work for a company that takes that philosophy to heart from the top down. We really do try to do what’s best for our customers, even if it sometimes costs us a little money. Because of this culture, the company has a low turnover rate with regard to our customers and with our employees.

If I ever found myself needing to support myself as a consultant, I’ll try to follow all of Steve’s maxims.

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