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Rays Development Blog - Thursday, 14 October 2010
A look into the mind of a VB Developer
 
# Saturday, 02 October 2010

Oddly enough I just noticed today how annoying this IE dialog box is:


The example above shows an attempt made by a web page that I visited to reach out on my behalf and open a web page that I happen to have on my ‘Trusted site’ list within IE8. Yeah, I put FaceBook on my trusted sites list because I got tired of having to allow certain things every time I went there and I do trust it enough, because I regulate very closely what features I have enabled and what I use FB for, on my own.

I imagine more and more of us are seeing this nowadays as we are becoming entrenched in the draw of sites like FaceBook and other socially oriented sites and that other web sites are leveraging them as ways to get their sites noticed and voted for, etc… I imagine that it is going to be happening more and more as the line between sites with links such as these gets blurred more and more. Rank this, rate that, yadda, yadda, yadda…

To be honest, I am not 100% clear on the VALUE of this type of cross linking yet, or if it is really more of a passing fad that will soon fizzle out in favor of the next cool ‘thing’ that comes along. But I digress.

The point I want to make is for all those UI centered development folks out there (myself included I am afraid) that often times maintain a somewhat shortsighted focus on the task at hand and perhaps don’t look forward a little bit further and ask the next question:

“What else would make sense to include here as part of the design?”

So, I ask you, what else do YOU think would make sense here as part of this design?

Theme to Jeopardy playing quietly in the background…

BUZZ!

How about this as a suggestion?

How about offering the user (me) the ability to ADD the currently ‘Un-trusted site’ to the ‘Trusted sites’ list from here?

To me, this is a HUGE miss in this design. Why? Because had the simple question been asked there are so many easy ‘quick hitter’ options that could have been done to enhance the user experience here with very little effort.

The current state

As it sits right now, the user has the ability to click the ‘Yes’ button and tell IE to trust this link request. The problem is that if there are multiple areas of the currently un-trusted linking to trusted sites you have on your list, even if the URL is the same, you get asked each and every time if you want to allow it.

This can cause two problems.

First - if the site address does not change the user can either think that they didn’t click properly, or maybe they moved the mouse as they clicked, something that people with physical issues often have problems with, and the click didn’t register so they get frustrated at themselves and the user experience as a whole.

Second - they get stuck in a cycle of having to click on so many boxes that they accidentally allow a site that perhaps they really didn’t want to.

In addition to this really poor user experience it is frustrating to think that the only way to avoid having to do this again is to write down or remember the address of each of the sites that popup (probably write them down manually?) and then add them to my trusted sites list latter as a manual effort.

NOT a great UX to say the least.

What could we do here?

So, being the proper engineer here I always have in mind the idea that before I go to someone and say ‘you did this wrong’ I should take the responsibility to bring along my ideas on methods on how to make it right. After all, it is easy to point a finger and laugh, it is harder to think about possible ways to suggest how that problem be solved. Pointing and giggling just makes you an annoyance, offering viable solutions makes you part of the process of solving the problem.

UI Option #1

Provide the user with a button in this window to allow them to just jump right over to the ‘Internet Options’ and then the ‘Trusted sites’ dialog box with the URL filled in and just offer the user the chance to add the site to their list if they want to.


UI Option #2

The second option is very simple. Just provide the user with the ability to add the site to the ‘Trusted sites’ list using a simple check box on this dialog box as I have shown here:


I am sure given a bit more time we could come up with a few more ways to make this work, but the point is that it appears as if the effort was not made at all, and even a small step would have provided some fantastic user level value with a minimal amount of design, code and testing efforts.

You could even go one step further and have the OS keep track of how many times you have allowed a specific URL access and provide the user with a pop-up dialog box in the system tray area maybe once a week or so and let them know that hey, they trusted this site x number of times over the last weeks or months, maybe they want to consider adding it as trusted.

There are so many options that would be simple, add some real value, and enhance the UX in this case, and through so many releases of the OS and IE I have yet to see this addressed once.

If there is someone out there from MS reading my blog (yeah, I am sure there are  - NOT!) then let me know if you think I am saying makes sense. Actually, if there is ANYONE out there reading my blog (I know there are a FEW – I watch my daily logs) then reach out and comment here.

Do you agree with me or not? If not, then let me know why.

I am always open to others opinions in cases like this, and since I do design as well write code, I ALWAYS welcome user feedback.

Let me KNOW what YOU think would be the best way to address this.

 

Saturday, 02 October 2010 14:52:33 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #    Comments [0]   Design | Interfaces | Requirements  | 
# Sunday, 26 September 2010

Well it has happened again?

Found yet another inconsistency on the Microsoft Office suite that for some reason annoys me to no end now that I found it. The issue lies around the ability to select colors.

Within outlook you can create message categories and assign them to messages in the mail list. This is pretty useful when you need to quickly identify groups of messages visually. I actually make use of this myself to help me separate personal emails from work related emails, and then a bit more granular to help rate them by importance via color (IE: light are less priority, darker are higher priority). It seems to work pretty good so far and helps keep me organized. However, lately something has just been itching at me about the way it works and looks, and suddenly last night it hit me. The color picker dropdown box that the Outlook colorization category uses is not a standard color selection dropdown. Here is what it looks like:

Problem #1 - It's just wrong! Windows has a standard color picker dialog box, why not use it? Someone had to:

  • Take the time to design the control interface.
  • Take the time to create a drop down control JUST for this use and include it in the code.
  • Test it.
  • Release it

Problem #2 - It's been done wrong! The UI of this control is awful and it is non-standard.

  • It mixes the look and feel of a combo box and a menu control. Notice that the control uses a dropdown arrow to indicate the available action but then the option area is not a list style control, but instead is a menu style area, and even contains the light shading on the left where the menu would normally place icons that show this options equivalent location on a tool bar.
  • The available colors are all mixed up. They are not in any specific order (IE: Light to dark, grouped by tone value, etc?) Very bad design indeed.

It's clear that someone at Microsoft does know how to design a color selection control, because they offer one. I see it used all the time, even in the same application (Outlook) when I want to change the color of my text. It looks like this in case you have forgotten:

See? Now THAT'S how it is supposed to look. Gives you access to the standard colors most often used, allows you to select form a nice wide range of other colors, arranged in (some) hue order to create a theme style, and then gives you the option to jump over to a more advanced selection dialog (using the More Colors?) option, where you can mix your own colors using not just the RGB or HSL scale but also brightness.

THAT is how it's done.

Now I am not going to argue about the effectiveness of the color selection dropdown I am showing above, I am simply showing that it exists, is considered a standard within the Microsoft community, both by internal developers and external customers, and seems to be effective enough for general use. I would not settle for this style in a high end art-centric application, but for what it needs to do as part of the Microsoft Office package I think this design is clear, concise and effective.

I do have to say however that even this design seems to have been perverted a bit. Taking a look into the same type of area but within the Microsoft Publisher application reveals this color option:

Bluch! Boring!

 

BUT at least it gives you the ability to jump to the more advanced option just like the others do using the ‘More Colors…’ option, and there you get the same dialog as shown above. In fact, because this is a professional (semi at least) desk top publishing application, this dialog box offers you the added option of using the Pantone color scale as well as the other RGB and HSL styles (who ever though that selecting a color would be so darn complicated?)

 

Since I was poking around I decided to crank open my copy of Microsoft Expression Blend 3 and see what that did for me. I figured as I went upwards in application complexity and relative use in the graphics industry I figured this one would be a bit more advanced (IE: Complicated) and I was presently surprised at the available features AND the obvious usability.

 

There is surprisingly very little labeling within the control itself, but I think most you can get the idea about what you can do with it pretty quickly. As I have often sighted to various groups in the past that have had to listen to me drone through usability discussions, quite often it is simple UI and the ability to play that leads towards an efficient design. You do not always have to GIVE the answers explicitly as long as you allow people the latitude to try and undo, leading to the adage that experience often leads to the best learning

So, I just HAD to do one more thing and revisit my old buddy PhotoShop.

Wow, it is actually not too bad. Funny, but it was kind of better than I had expected it to be. I do however notice that they may need a usability person to review this because the various types of color selections should really (IMHO at least) have a box around them showing that they are grouped together.

So, what have we learned here?

Yeah, I know, beyond the fact that I can get overly picky?

I think that the message is clear. Consistency is key.

As a developer, there is not really a need to go off reinventing the wheel. What would have been wrong with a dropdown solution similar to this?

At very least I think this leverages the idea I am trying to get across. And, it would give me more darn color options instead of just the static 25 that I am apparently stuck with for my categories.

Oh, and DO NOT GET ME STARTED on the fact that this listing of categories is the SAME listing that I have available between my CALENDAR and my CONTACTS!

UGH!

That is the subject for another blog post!

<Shudder>

Sunday, 26 September 2010 20:55:02 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #    Comments [0]   Customer Interaction | Expectations | Interfaces | Planning  | 
# Saturday, 31 July 2010

I have to say that I am NOT surprised in the least.

Avast, the (IMHO) WORLDS BEST anti-virus package available (aside from their lack of support for the Windows Mobile 6 platform apparently :) ), has come through and delivered.

I was contacted by Adam Riley (a member of Avast support whom I had been previously working with) and at this very point, my refund through the processing center @ Element5 is in action. I have been assured that the refund will be processed in the next week or so and have already seen the paperwork notifications come through.

Again, I would like to say that I am not surprised. Avast has always done their best in the past to take care of me, has provided service when needed, and to top it all off, unlike a majority of the other Anti-virus packages and companies out there, provided a VERY consistent and high quality product. I will continue to use them myself, but more importantly, I will continue to recommend them to others.

Although it did take some rather drastic steps, what matters MOST is that the company came through in the end, admitted there was a design problem and that it was taking longer than first anticipated to address (something that as a developer I can both understand and feel frustrated about), and promptly followed it up with processing a refund.

Bravo!

So, to all those that I dealt with @ Avast, as well as all those working behind the scenes on a product that has consistently blown my socks off with effectiveness and performance, all I can say is 'keep it up!' don't stop, and teach those other AV vendors how it's done.

 

Saturday, 31 July 2010 12:10:01 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #    Comments [0]   Business | Customer Interaction | Service  | 
# Sunday, 04 July 2010

Honestly I would never have thought that I would be here using my technical blog to be venting about a vendor, but I really feel the time has come. This effort has gone far too long to go 'un-published' any longer.

The offender is Avast Antivirus. http://www.avast.com/index

I have been using their free home version for years and have been promoting it all over the place to every one. It works flawlessly and has caught so many things that other AV vendors have missed that I had decided to NEVER use anything but Avast on any system that I set up for any person. Business of course have to pay for the product because that the rules at Avast. I am FINE with that. in fact I think it is GREAT that they have thought enough to understand that home users are in need of a great AV app (the Avast provides) and that business are in a better position to pay for the support and all that. I have NO problem with them charge business and not home users at all.

So... the McAfee install that came as part of my Motorola Q phone had run out and I figured that I would go to my friends at Avast and purchase the mobile version of the app and install it on my phone and get rid of the junk that came on it for free. On 11\19\2009 I ordered and received my copy of Avast 4 PDA version and installed it. Email confirmation assured me that I would get my license code via email latter, and I did. The instructions told me how to enter the Avast license code. The PROBLEM was that the UI on the phone display did not include the 'About' button that they referenced so I could enter any code. Hmmmm

I opened a support case on 11\28\2009 explaining the issue I was having, and was responded to by Tomas the very next day that my phones 320x200 screen resolution was not yet supported and they would try to implement this feature in a future release. I asked him when they anticipate having this since I love using Avast and wanted to keep it going. I was told that they should have support for that resolution by sometime in January 2010. I felt OK with that date and told them that I would wait for the next release and figured that I would work out the license cost issues latter with them since I was going to be a few months off between having the license and being able to actually use it. I figured they would be good for it and we would work it out.

So, January comes and goes... Other things in my life had happened... I decided to follow up on April 4th 2010. Noticed that I could no longer find any listing of my original support case (AFO-665966) so I opened a new one (RSB-517949) asking for a status on my old case and if no help was going to be forthcoming then I would be expecting a refund of my $20. on 4\9\2010 I got an email back from Petr telling me that I can download Avast 5, get my license file resume to me if I forgot it, yadda, yadda, yadda.... I replied to him, and explained that I thought he was a bit confused, I was referring to Windows Mobile, etc... provided with again with the original support case # and asked for followup. As of 6\6\2010 I have yet to hear back from Petr at all and that case is still open.

In the mean time I posted about this on the public Avast message area, thinking that maybe if I started asking for any other people who maybe had the same issue I would get a response form at least the public. So far, no response from anyone (public or Avast) there. OK, what ever...

So, I decide enough is enough, I contact Avast sales and am at this point simply now asking for my $20 back. Shown below is the opening interaction I posted to get this started:

"I would like to request a refund of my purchase of Avast 4 PDA edition. REF#305093845. I have been trying to get support now since my purchase on 11/19/2009 under 2 ticket numbers (AFO-665966 and RSB-517949) and have gotten no where. I hate to move away from using Avast on my mobile phone (I use it at home on all my PCs there and love it and just recently just purchased a package of license for there) but I am not getting any help with the version I am running on my mobile phone at all. If someone can help me get a version that works on my phone I will keep running it (I love Avast) but I do not want to go longer without a functioning AV on the device and I am not getting any responses or help."

Thusly opens another ticket (XAP-831717) with a person named Adam. He asks me for details again and promises to 'look into it' for me. I give him the same technical details i Had given originally:

Motorola Q 9h global running Windows Mobile 6.1 - 2.4 Inch display 320x240 - 120 MB RAM - Avast 4.1.19 PDA

That post was on 6\23\2010. Here we are on 7\5\2010, no response. No refund, and no functional AV on my phone.

I don't get it.

When did support stop being important to people that pay?

I have worked in support most of my technical life. I worked as a phone jockey for Sony desktop and laptop support (I was agent C02E way back in the day if you remember me :) ) and was held to EXTREMELY high standards (phone monitoring, customer surveys, technical information and documentation audits, etc...). I Left there to do engineering level support and technical training for a local company called Voice Technologies Group (VTG) that built interface hardware to allow systems like IVRs, Voice Mail, and latter on Unified messaging systems interface between servers and PBX systems. They were bought by Dialogic so I ended up working for them, they got bought by Intel, and then Intel sold them off to a company called Icon Networks from Europe that ended up putting the name back to Dialogic again. Every step of the way I was involved in the servicing processes in some way, weather through support (phone or on-site) acting as a technical evangelist at all the various trade shows, writing and presenting training classes, or even stepping in and helping customers design solutions, and then test them using our hardware\software. At every step of the way I was held to the highest standards of customer interaction. If I just let a support case lie dead for a week my butt would be in a sling and I would be getting emails from customers, CEOs, you name it.

Now, I will admit that that perhaps the support expectations for a $20 bit of software is slightly lower than a hardware card or IP gateway that runs between $2000 and $10,000, but the idea is the same. You have a paying customer that plopped down some cold hard cash for and has some expectations. with respect to how they are treated and how they are interacted with. I am at this point not even expecting to get it working. I KNOW that they are simply NOT going to address my issue only because of the fact that my phone (as I have been told so many times now) is outdated and has too small a screen. The software is built for an actual 'smart phone' with a larger screen and that is that.

Simply have the personal where-with-all to just email me back and TELL me that fact and then GIVE ME A REFUND.

At this point I am not sure if I would ever buy Avast again even if I did upgrade my phone to something newer. Why? Because the level of support I have received until this point has been abysmal. Why would I expect that to change?

Avast support: Suggestion - Give me a version of SW that works or give me back my $20. I am not going away and I can have a tendency to become very persistent. I have tons of experience knowing what gets attention from the customer side of a support case.

 

Sunday, 04 July 2010 15:20:36 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #    Comments [1]   Business | Customer Interaction | Expectations | Hardware | Roles  | 
# Thursday, 07 January 2010

Touch touch touch…

To be honest I don’t get it.

I touch my computer every day already. I use a mouse and a keyboard to do it, but to be honest I see very little sense in using my finger to manipulate objects on my computer. My finger tip is large, and my monitors (all 4 of them) are at a 90 degree angle to my desk. Why would I want to use my hand to reach out (and up) to manipulate objects on my computer screen when I can use the mouse to do it?

Now other devices like game tables, interactive kiosks, digital book readers, Maybe PDAs and stuff, that’s fine, but I have yet to see value in a touch screen PC that is not at very least stylus oriented. And on that subject, what is the hot thing about handwriting recognition. I specifically use a computer (and previously a typewriter) because my handwriting sucks :) Why on earth would I want to write on my PC screen? Sign a digital document? Sure, but now get someone to trust that ‘I’ signed it and we will be all set. That technology is still not proven yet and most people don’t really trust it. Using a finger print is a better option, and far more trusted, but still not entirely mainstream yet.

Yes, the touch demos that I have seen show fancy things like dragging and throwing photos around a table top, or playing games, or ordering off of a virtual menu, and those are all good examples of the use of touch technology, but at a very narrow focus and scope. The demos about interactive touch counters in the stores that allow you to compare multiple products side by side are cool too but also relay not JUST on touch but also on RFID technology that is not really related to touch. You could do one without the other. Games like chess, checkers, solitaire (every computer HAS to come with a copy of that right?) are fine for touch, but would you really want to play WOW or DOOM using touch? 

I have YET to see one ultra compelling demonstration of using touch in an office environment that wows me more than a mouse does. Can you imagine trying to do photo-retouching using your finger? Editing code or creating an application form in Visual Studio using your hands? How about highlighting text and dragging it around or changing fonts using your hands? Now picture doing all that on a 17 or even a 21 inch screen.

I am not saying that touch does not have it use, it does, but on a somewhat narrow scope I think. I think you will see (my prediction) that touch WILL finally take hold at some point, but more along the lines of interface technology that we are already familiar with today. Give me a keyboard that I can reconfigure on the fly based upon the application that is active on my screen, and do it that way. Give my a touch pad to replace my mouse, or maybe two touch pads (one on each side of my virtual keyboard) so I can do multi-touch stuff. Maybe I will reach out to my screen a bit and do larger granularity things like flip pages on a large document, or open an application by tapping on an icon, but touch is not the generic answer to one problem.

It looks cool in movies, and sounds cool in high level technical talk, but in reality, where I live, I need what works, and I just don’t see touch being a PC related thing with a ton of impact like most do.

FORCE me into a touch only interface and loose me as a customer. I WOULD use a stylus more instead of a mouse on a laptop, but don’t make me write what I can type MUCH faster or you loose me as a customer.

My prediction is that the next big wave will be multi-modal interfaces. Provide me the ability to use touch where it makes sense, and then at the same time allow me to use a mouse or stylus or keyboard where it makes sense, at the same time and at MY whim. I want to scroll down in an online book a few pages by using my hand to grab and flip a PDF down a few pages then as they scroll by use my right hand with my mouse to grab the page as I see it, stop it, and then select a few words on the screen so I can reach up and press the bold button with my left hand on the screen? That’s great.

And before all you naysayer out there bring up all the cool ‘things’ from movies like Minority Report, keep in mind that was a ‘gesture based interface’ NOT touch based, and I think that is closer to being far more useful than pure touch, but a subject for another blog entry.

Thursday, 07 January 2010 11:40:10 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #    Comments [0]   Business | Design | Hardware | Touch | Interfaces  | 
# Thursday, 17 December 2009

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Perspective

 

Life, as in business, is all about having perspective.

 

I have recently myself just been given a very large dose of personal perspective that, after a lengthy period of internal debate have decided to share with a larger community of people here because I think it is highly relevant to the everyone’s life, both personal and business related.

 

I just recently found out that I have a Brain Tumor. In the grand scheme of the ones that you could ever have, this one is a bad one, and is almost garmented to shorten my life by some unknown factor of time. The word ‘inoperable’ was used, and for a time I have to admit that I fixated on that word alone, and it drove me to many cascaded thoughts after that that, that if left unchecked, could have put me in a very bad place. But at one point I made the conscious decision to examine that word for what it really meant.

 

It DID NOT mean ‘untreatable’.

 

It simply meant that ‘surgery’ was not a viable option.

 

Why am I announcing this on a business, even more so an IT, related blog?

 

Because it really relates to exact conditions that we run into in IT and in business in general.

 

Like most business and IT leaders, we plod through life knowing that there are unknowns that we will have to handle, but for the most part we simply plan for what we know is going to happen, and then handle the issues that arise by adjusting the plan as we go. And in reality that is fine, because it is life. There are always going to be possibilities that we don’t see something coming, or that something outside our sphere of influence of vision will come crashing into our timeline and effect us. For those things we TRY to be prepared by having contingency plans, disaster recovery plans, etc, but in reality we are really still flying by the seat of our pants and simply reacting.

 

We pat ourselves on the back as managers because we have plans in place to handle the unknowns that can come flying at us (as if we CAN REALLY plan for the unknown) but in reality, just as with me not knowing until recently that I had brain cancer, we simply move from our point of origin to tomorrow and beyond just taking things day by day, following a plan that we all know could completely fall apart tomorrow. And for some reason we are happy, maybe even proud, to be doing that.

 

Wake up like I did.

 

In life, any time you are given a piece of information that you did not have before, no matter how bad it is, you need to be happy about it.

 

Why?

 

Because it now changes your perspective, that’s why. It GIVES you a piece of solid foundational information on which you can review, analyze, and make solid adjustments to your actual plan, then and take steps to alter your direction without guessing anymore.

 

I found out that I had brain cancer. Maybe you will find out tomorrow that one of your largest customers has been secretly interviewing other service providers that could potentially replace YOU as a vendor, or maybe you suddenly start to see alarms on a sever that indicate an impending massive failure.

 

Are you going to be shocked? Yes.

 

Are you going to be worried? Sure

 

Are you going to be upset? Probably

 

Get over it.

 

You have been given a gift, the gift of information. Everyone needs to understand that INFORMATION is critical in life and in business. Those that have it rule the world because it gives them a perspective, and thus the ability to plan for alternatives and make judgments, that those without it can’t do accurately at all.

 

Get over the bad news.

 

Bad news is really only bad when it comes after the condition has occurred. In my case REALLY BAD news would have been along the lines of having brain cancer that was so advanced that it was not only inoperable but ALSO untreatable. Mine was NOT both. It IS in a VERY bad location (making it inoperable) but because of that location the effects were noticed very early while it was SMALLER and thus TREATABLE. Compare this to getting a an alarm on a server console that says you have a DEAD hard disk that needs to be replaced vs. one that is starting to fail and you now have time to act on it before the really bad stuff starts to happen, or getting that call that your major customer has already signed a contract with a new vendor and will not be renewing with YOU, and that negotiation is not an option because they already inked a deal with the other vendor and you are now out of the running completely.

 

Again, it is all a matter of perspective.

 

There is a set of lines in the latest Star Trek film between Kirk and Spock that I find highly pertinent in this case:

 

= = = = =

 

Kirk: You say he’s from the future, knows what’s going to happen, the then logical thing is to be unpredictable.

 

Spock: You are assuming that Nero knows how events are predicted to unfold. The contrary, Nero’s very presence has altered the flow of history beginning with the attack on the USS Kelvin and culminating in the events of today, thereby creating an entire new chain of incidents that cannot be anticipated by either party.

 

= = = = =

 

The gist of this exchange is that once you know something, your perspective changes.

 

You are given an opportunity to plan for a once unknown condition, and that your ability to plan is now balanced out with either side because both of you (in my case me and my cancer, but this could be the conditions of you finding out about your biggest customer in negotiations with other vendors also) are now on a more equal playing field. You know something that you did not before, and can therefore start to plan in advance to change the conditions of tomorrow’s results, and the other side now has to also re-plan.

 

In actuality, one major shift in perceptive when you get bad news in both life and business can also be this.

 

YOU have just been given a gift that has turned the tables and given YOU the advantage.

 

YOU now know something that the other side does not know. YOU know their plans and they may not know that you do. This actually switches the advantage over to your side simply because it now allows you to start planning alternative strategies to account for the variance in the relationship. You can now go on the offensive before the other side has a chance to develop their own strategies to react to what is now going to be your plan of attack, be that a very well established, focused, and thought out plan of Chemotherapy, targeted Radiation, and advanced imaging to monitor progress, or your sales departments ability to prepare a revised contract to adjust the terms to meet the current needs of your largest customer, or your IT departments ability to purchase, stage and implement a new NAS server to replace the one that is currently starting to fail.

 

Once again, it is all a matter of perspective, and in business, perspective is KEY because it means that you understand the conditions of the world and have the ability to thoughtfully react instead of just reacting to events that pop up.

 

Remember, I don’t think that there is really ever bad news. There is news that can deliver a bad message, but the fact that you get the bad message can be an opportunity.

 

Keeping that opportunity in perspective is the key.

 

Thursday, 17 December 2009 05:31:53 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #    Comments [2]   Business | Planning  | 
# Sunday, 21 June 2009

Let’s be clear, to innovate you need to reach.

There are many companies that I have run into over the years that have continuous innovation as one of their core values, but have a buy instead of build mandate. They want to reach for the stars, but they feel they need to (or even can) do it using existing technology.

Why are people so build averse?

One thing that I have noticed is that even when you are in a ‘buy’ environment you end up building, the building is simply different. Instead of building UI, databases or business rules you end up building glue. Glue code that connects disparate systems. Glue code that moves data between stores. Glue code that provides services to secondary consumers. Glue code to allow enterprise level reporting where reporting was not available in the purchased system.

So explain to me again why people are so build averse?

Innovation starts with the ability to take a risk and move in a different direction.  It is difficult to consider moving an industry in an entirely different direction when you are building on top of existing applications that fit into a different paradigm.  After all, are you not looking to do something different? Are you not looking to accomplish something that the industry is not yet fully ready for in order to get a jump on the competition?

If you answer to these questions is yes then how do you expect to be efficiently innovative using what already exists to move forward in a different direction?

I know that it is simpler to buy something off the shelf and place the responsibility to make it work on the shoulders of a vendor. I also know that it may seem to be cheaper to buy a bunch of cots products and spend time to data integrate them using tools like Informatica, and other data integration methodologies. But once you stray from being able to open a shrink wrapped box and being able to simply install and use you have strayed into a build situation, like it or not. It is similar to putting a ton of effort into deciding what car you want to buy then once you take ownership you drive it right over to the custom shop and have the engine replaced with one that has more power, the interior redone to what you really wanted, and the exterior modified. If the car you bought was under powered and the interior was not what you wanted and the exterior was also not to your liking then why did you buy it?

Consider also what gets induced when you spend your money to glue stuff together and the industry changes. It sounds like you are insulated in cases like this because you feel that the vendor is responsible for bringing the application you purchased into regulatory compliance, and they are, but what about all that glue that you built? The vendors responsibility ends at their borders and whatever you have done to augment your systems over the years is not their responsibility. When push comes to shove they are not responsible for how you use the system and are only bound to deliver to you a system that fulfils the legal and regulatory requirements of the line of business as well as the stated requirements and features of what you purchased. They can’t be held responsible for what you glued onto their product, and nor should they be.

Additionally you cannot predict how they are going to make changes as time progresses so you are stuck working your changes to their time-lines and schedules. You will find yourself having to wait for their release cycles and then your install, evaluate and test cycles to complete before you can even start any decent planning to make changes to your internal systems of glue code before you move a new version into production. If your processes are not fast enough, or your vendors release schedule very aggressive, you can find yourself stuck in an endless cycle of install, test, modify, and move to production, a process that can place some very high stress on both people resources as well as hardware and software costs, not to mention the potential for harm to your business if things do not go right.

I am not saying that it always makes sense to build. No one can say that. Buy Microsoft Office and be happy that you did. Buy an accounting package and be happy that you did. But if your business is unique, or you need to make it unique as a differentiator, then consider the build task, even if you need to live with a coddled together bought system in parallel as you do it.

 

Saturday, 20 June 2009 23:31:35 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #    Comments [0]   Design | Requirements  | 
# Thursday, 30 April 2009

I catch myself correcting people all the time when these terms are used because not many seem to use them correctly, at least correctly by my judgment. I am going to speak my mind here, and put out into the public eye, what I think the difference is between each of these roles.

I say roles because they are not people. They can be people, they most certainly are almost always jobs within a company, but at the lowest level they are roles. Each of these is a pattern that a person has to fit into to serve that particular purpose. Multiple people can fill each of them at once, just like one person can fill several, but at any one given time a person fits into either one of them. Because of a persons experience and knowledge levels, as well as their underlying personality, they may be qualified to fill one of these roles or they may not. They may be good at one or not.

I am going to start by putting out a very crude diagram to show my personal view (perhaps rash generalization based upon my experience) of how these roles fit within a development hierarchy.

 

The first thing you will notice is that architects are on top and programmers are on the bottom with developers nicely placed in between. This is not out of any disrespect for either developers or programmers, but we must be honest with ourselves, there is a certain level of expectation between these roles that places them within a very specific hierarchy. Like it or not, professionally speaking, one step up and better than the lower. I use ‘better’ as a relative term here to mean more experienced, more accepting of responsibility, and shouldering more expectations. I know that sometimes programmers can feel the entire weight of the project on their shoulders, but in reality, if they are then someone above them in the hierarchy is not performing in their role properly.

So, how do I place these roles within this hierarchy? What criteria do I use? How do I measure the expectations?

Architect

This person(s) is responsible for the technical footprint of the solution. When it comes down to understanding how all the various piece-parts talk to each other, this person knows. When it comes down to understanding the difference between a clustered and a load-balanced set of servers, this person knows. When it comes down to understanding why clustering is better than load-balancing within the context of the enterprises architecture, this person knows. When it comes to understanding how a specific messaging architecture fits in the system, this person gets it. When it comes to understanding why it may be better to use a server with multiple physical CPUs vs. one with multiple processing cores, this is the guy to ask.

Can they do the work of everyone below them? About 80-90% of it, yes. Should they be responsible for doing low-level work within their project? I don’t think so. Why? Because for a really technical person that has to work at the implementation level it is very difficult to shift gears to a high level technical view and stay objective, to not select one method over another strictly on the merits of its contribution to the overall business need instead of what may be simpler, or cooler, to implement. If an architect is going to be required to actually do work on a project at a lower level then I don’t think it should be on their project. If they are going to switch gears then I think it should be a clean switch.

Architects have to not only be able to work at this high level, but they need to be happy working there. I have seen many cases where developers have been promoted to architect simply on merits such as length of service or their great ability to lead a team of developers and programmers, but be miserable wrecks when they reach the level of an architect because they miss the thrill of the compile. They need to be able to feel personal fulfillment by the act of a project coming together more than the rush of seeing a passing unit test. They need to be well with the fact that they made a good decision on what message transport they selected rather than feeling the high of spending all day working with WSDL and message versioning. They need to feel comfortable sitting in an ivory tower once in a while, even if those bellow them feel a bit off because of the view..

Developer

Developers are the top of the ‘do-er’ list. These people do the work. The build the systems designed by the architects and understand the low-level implementation details of HOW to build the stuff that was designed. You want to know the various methods available on an object? This is who you ask. You want to know how large an XML message is as it goes across the wire between servers? This person can answer that. Do you want to know how two objects connect and what the ripple effect of a change is going to be? Ask these folks.

Developers know it all within their areas of expertise. And to be honest, developers need to maintain a specific area of expertise because software development changes so darn fast that you cannot possibly know it all to a high degree of efficiency and knowledge. You can be very knowledgeable in a ton of areas, but when it comes down to knowing how the bits move in a specific way you need to really have a core set of technologies that you are great in. These folks need to understand how tools like UML help them and how they can hinder. They need to know the difference between book theory and implementation reality. They need to know that ‘pattern’ is not a magic word unless it can really solve your problem, and that OOP is not a mandatory way of life, but you better think at least a little before you decide that it isn’t. This role also understands why you should need a note form your mother to use a global variable in development, but also understand that doing so does not make you an evil Satan worshiper. Developers understand the reason that code comments are useful and that not every line needs to be commented.

Some people can feel confused and worried living here because they think that they need to know it all at a very low level. I think these people are best to live at one level lower, as a programmer until they get a level head enough to move a level higher as an architect, and they  may actually end up being very good architects given enough experience.

Programmer
 
Beginner, Script-kitty, copy-paste-developer, these are the first words that come to mind when I think of this moniker. Don’t get me wrong, being a programmer is part of the natural progression of becoming a developer, and then an architect. Most of us learned to crawl before we could walk, and learning to write software is no different. Programmers understand the syntax, but probably not the reason behind using different patterns. They understand the idea behind separation of concerns and multi-tier development, but are probably not completely clear on the subtle nuances that can make it work well or bring a system down around their knees. They can debug most of the code they write, but get itchy when they have to read others code, or work on code that was written years ago but someone else. They also may not view the process of design, review, and code as having much worth and feel more comfortable by just sitting down with their beverage of choice and writing code to hit a mark. These folks maybe great at writing glue, the code that binds the ‘stuff’ of a project together, but they have not yet had enough experience to be responsible for all the low level details of an objects overall implementation. They are, the good ones, hungry for knowledge and want to learn as much as they can, but focus until they get closer to being a developer they are in an endless search for the silver bullet, the best way, the one true method that allows them to work efficiently and write the next killer bit of code. These guys comment their code because they are told that comments are good but for the most part it is feast or famine. They either comment everything or nothing.

So there we go. If I make it sound like one role is better than the other as in architects are just better people than programmers are, then please accept my apologies as that was not my intention. I think every one of thee roles is very important for a well balanced development team. Like I have always said, the world needs both planners and doers if it wants to get anything done. If there was no one to put their head down and code then it does not matter how good the design is, nothing gets done. So, if you are a programmer that is learning and growing, and understands their role and plays well there, then I say congratulations to you for being a necessary cog in the system. If you are an architect and feel that I am giving programmers or developers too much credit for their jobs then shame on you and get out of the industry because your attitude is getting in the way. Everyone has to start somewhere, it's a natural progression that everyone should go through.

Thursday, 30 April 2009 12:05:59 (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #    Comments [0]   Roles  | 
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