Pencils Down

This weblog is about my experiences in software development

Browsing Posts tagged Industry

A recent article talks about a software company’s reasoning for bucking the trend of responsive design.  Responsive design to me means have one user interface that works for any display size.  Interesting idea.

In a previous instance that I worked on we had a fairly complete web application developed with different categories of users.  Maybe 75 pages.  Since this was prior to “responsive design” we went through the application and cherry-picked the items of interest that would make sense on mobile devices.  I think there are about 15-20 pages on the mobile version of the app.  This seemed like a reasonable approach.

In the author’s reasoning the first item was “expected mobile usage”.  He provides a pretty low number (2%).  The mobile version of the app we developed has been live for about a year.  I think the percentage usage for us was much lower.

Now we are coming up with another web application.  Since responsive design is all the rage, guess what we are doing?  There are a couple of sample screen shots that run the vertical length of the page and have been scaled to fit in a standard page.  That means we can expect mobile pages to go on for 3, 4, 5 mobile screens?

I guess it feels like another trendy thing to do in the programming world: you have to do it or people think you are inept.  Just wonder how long it will take to go away.

Historically companies have laid off contractors before employees.  The idea was that they cost the most.

Under Obamacare I think things are reversed: employees cost more than contractors.  Several firms had already announced layoffs if Obama got re-elected.  They have already determined that the differential pay for a contractor is LESS than the total, benefit laden cost of an employee under Obamacare.

Imagine you are an employee of a larger, older firm.  Even worse, imagine you work for one of the companies that pre-announced layoffs if Obama got re-elected.  What do you do?

I think we may see a resurgence of agencies that hire these laid off employees and place them back in their old companies as contractors.  As I remember, that was really not such a nice place to be when it happened several years ago.

Interesting times.  I wonder how it will really play out?

Let’s see (Microsoft close to buying Skype):

– eBay buys Skype for 3.1 billion (all assumed it was a collosal mismatch)

– eBay sells 2/3’s of Skype for 1.9 billion (told you it was a bad idea)

– MS buys Skype for 8.5 billion

– That leaves (3.1 – 1.9 + 2.8 (8.5/3)) 1.6 billion net to eBay

It sounds like Meg is a lot better at this than many people (including me) thought.

Of course, the whole question of whether MS can do something useful with Skype or should have paid anywhere near this amount is iffy.

Maybe this means all of these companies with large cash hoards are finally getting out there.  Unfortunately it sounds like everyone is deciding at the same time, hence the price tag for Skype.  Assume there is competition for the company.

Watson Wins Jeapardy

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This week the popular tv game show Jeopardy featured a contest between two human Jeopardy champions and Watson, a mammoth computer from IBM.  Before the games there was some thinking that the humans might be able to compete against Watson.  Kind of like the talk about chess programs when they first started challenging humans.  The thinking was that the game is built upon a lot of nuances that a computer would have a hard time grasping.

Wrong!  Watson kicked butt from the get go.  Watson beat the nearest human rival by a factor of 3.  I’m sure some marketing types at IBM were sweating it out before the games.  Now, with the success, IBM is marketing Watson to solve other complex problems, notably some medical problems that require a vast amount of knowledge to interpret.  Sounds similar to the game show knowledge base.

Radio station disc jockeys all noted the win with humor and a tinge of fear in their voices.  I don’t think it would take a full Watson to replace some dj’s/talk show hosts.  Callers were making references to the Terminator series and other science fiction.  Such fiction portrays the self-awareness of machines and a bad outcome for humans when the computers realized they were better than humans.  One reference expected self-awareness to occur around 2045.

It’s interesting that IBM is marching straight ahead with the win to other big, complex knowledge bases.  I know it’s silly but it reminds me of the line in Jurassic Park, “You were so happy that you could do the science that you never thought about whether you should.”  I wonder if the IBM’ers have some thought in the systems like the Asimov robot rules built in.  At what point do the recommendations coming out of Watson have some filter that checks whether the recommendations might hurt someone?

The other idea floating around in my head is I thought that IBM/United States had lost the lead in supercomputers to the Japanese years ago.  What kind of system have they got floating around that might make Watson look like a child?

WebDAV Rules

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I guess I have been living under a rock for several years and never noticed WebDAV.  Or maybe I heard about it and thought yet-another-web-standard.  WebDAV is Distributed Authoring and Versioning.  Techie speak for keeping versions of stuff on a simple web server.  Yes, just builds on top of everyday HTTP.  It’s everywhere: Microsoft SharePoint, several hundred independent share-ware vendors, and more than a few version control systems use it as a base.

Of course you need something to talk to the server.  Click on a document under WebDAV control and down comes the document with a MIME type.  If the associated editor is WebDAV-enabled it will take immediately attempt to talk back to the server to see if it is a WebDAV server.  Again, Microsoft to the rescue with the entire Office suite and many of your other favorites.

Then some smart guys looked at the V in WebDAV and decided to take a gamble.  Presto, a version control system sitting there with almost no work.  (Yes, I know there is more to it)

WebDAV should be a favorite of IT staff everywhere: they can toss whatever home-grown CMS that gives them nightmares and just install SharePoint.  I think MS is being treated as an enterprise player these days.  Maybe.

Lastly are the developer shops with a proprietary product that kinda, sorta does WebDAV things.  Maybe they have been living under a rock as well.  More likely the idea of ripping apart their product and replacing it with something from Microsoft gives them nightmares.

I think I need to look at job descriptions for other things that should be in my toolkit versus just keyword match on stuff I already know.

The Massachusetts appliance rebate program went into affect last week. The state gave away over 6 million dollars in a few minutes. Consumers had to register at a government run web site for a coupon and later go to a store to use their coupon. The site crashed within minutes of opening. Call center volumes were in the many thousands.

A local radio station, WAAF, with a particularly Republican bent went on air lambasting the whole process. Included in the rambling was mention that:

  • The government employees involved should have been able to better guage the resp0nse.
  • The web programmer(s) involved will probably not be held accountable
  • They developed a back-door website which could be used during failover, but did not publicize it’s existence

The station really appeals to working class, blue collars in the eastern Massachusetts area.  Several callers dialed in their similar belief of the points above.

I think this episode marks some common perceptions of (web) programmers:

  • They can accurately measure/estimate web usage
  • They have the tools and know-how to make a site like this work
  • Scale is not really a factor – they could have made this work
  • Putting in a back door is just another hacking incident – they expected the site to fail, but wanted a way to provide access to selected insiders

Overall, it makes programmers sound very sinister; lacking morals; careless about the effects of their craft.

I wonder if the people that did this have any idea how badly they have maligned the industry.

We have an architect on the project.  The architect makes no decisions, judgement calls, directives, etc…  Everything is up for grabs by developers from the basic class syntax all the way up to authentication.

Again, this is a longer term employee that appears to be following the company path.  Maybe there is enough history that people who have done so get hammered for making decisions that turned out to be ‘bad’.

Well, our fundamental client is the DOD.  I would assume such a bureaucracy is risk averse.  I would further guess that changes downstream on a project are treated very badly.  Lots of huffing and puffing.

Now, you have some lower level line manager that should be making calls.  They should be doing so.  But I guess everyone around them is saying don’t do that.  Don’t make a decision.  Investigate further.  Take your time.

How can an industry like this encourage risk taking?

Our group is composed of mostly non-Java developers.  We have recently started looking at error messages that have to bubble up to the ui.  The natural course is a resource/property file.

However, the implementation pattern we are to follow involves using a wrapper that has enum’s of every message (to avoid collision) which we must access to get to a resource.  So, every time we add a message we are also changing source code.

It seems to happen a lot in this company (and another defense co): we keep deciding that we can do something better than an off-the-shelf solution.  So, we put a wrapper around good, solid functionality that drops features and usually adds noise to the system for no other reason.

And further, the incumbent players will argue to death that wrapping is a good idea.

Just painful.

Talking to a number of companies that are looking for software people.  I guess the first thing to notice is: there are quite a few postings out there these days.  Take a glance at craigslist for your area, guaranteed at least a hundred jobs per day.

Secondly, talking to a small shop in town they are turning down work below a certain $N,000.  Talking further, the bigger shops in town are turning down work for less than $N0,000.

It really feels like the press has been so caught up with the stupidness of banks lending money to people that could never pay.  The result is they are ignoring the apparent large scale demand for services, at least for technical people.

Third hit point was a survey run by a pretty good outfit that should only have gone to hiring managers.  The number one question was “how are you dealing with the shortage of technical pool?”.

I guess things are still in pretty good shape (for s/w companies anyway).