Archive for July, 2007

technology: good solution builders are scientists and artists

Too often we focus just on the science when we build things. Solutions need to more than just work, they need to be elegant. With elegance comes the collection of ‘bilities (consumability, reliability, extensibility, securability, etc.)

Cooking is as much science as art. Yet we may think about it mostly as an art. But the behavior and interaction of food elements definitely has a science to it, a set of discoverable and consistent properties and rules. But the end product of cooking is appreciated mostly in an artistic context, how it pleases the palette, eyes, nose, and texture. But to get there, the cook had to understand and apply the science of food.

I think software development ought to follow the same model: the developer needs to understand and apply the science, but the science is a tool to build something elegant and pleasing, and which can be appreciated by the user. The end result should be measured in terms of value to the user, not the developer’s ego. In many places it seems that software has lost the art aspect, it can be added back relatively easily if you put a little effort into it. Don’t forget the art in development. Make it elegant for the user.

things i wish i knew before working marcelk 24 Jul 2007 No Comments

tech: finally, a good battery tester

This may not be in the “inexpensive” category, but it is good to find one that works well.

We use a lot of rechargable batteries in our house, and in a few places we use standard alkaline or lithium batteries. When you have 50 batteries in a desk drawer, sometimes the full ones and the empty ones (waiting for the recycle bin) get mixed up, especially when the kids have been in the drawer. I’ve had a number of battery testers, but they never seemed to work well, especially the inexpensive testers.

The testers I like apply a load to the battery instead of simply measuring the voltage without a load. I bought the ZTS Mini-MBT9R for $30 from Thomas Distributing who included a free case.

What the product description doesn’t quite say clearly is that there is an included test lead wire (similar to most multimeters) that is used when testing non-9V batteries. For example, if you have a AA battery you want to test, you touch the battery’s positive terminal to the tester and then touch the test lead to the battery’s negative terminal. It’s not extremely ergonomic, but it does work. The test lead can be tucked into a slot around the case’s seam to store it.

Unlike the previous ones, I believe I’ll be using this tester for quite some time to come.

cool stuff that doesn't cost much marcelk 23 Jul 2007 No Comments

technical knowledge: I never used all those math classes

For my CS degree, I was one class away from getting a math minor. Yet in the 15+ years since then, I’ve never used all the math I learned. As a result, I’ve forgotten most of it. So were all those math classes a waste of time? No. I think what the CS students were supposed to learn from those classes is a way of thinking, an approach to problem solving, and overall training. There are some industry jobs that require heavy math, and others that don’t. I ended up in the latter category. I’m not a manager, so I don’t have that excuse. So my point is to not be surprised if you find yourself math-less too.

things i wish i knew before working marcelk 23 Jul 2007 No Comments

travel: Fat Tire Bike Tours

I was just in France for business, and extended a couple days to do some sightseeing. While in Paris, I went on a guided tour with a group aptly named Fat Tire Bike Tours. Consider this a review. No reservations were required, I just showed up at the designated meeting point on the day I wanted. The guides are outgoing college students from the US (mostly from Texas), so they are easy to understand and humorous.

The bikes we rode were what I would call beach-style cruisers, with big handle bars and sitting upright. Compared to my mountain bike, it was like moving from a sports car to a boat car, but I did get used to it after a while. So when they say “fat tire”, they don’t mean mountain bike. When one of the participants got a flat tire midway through the tour, the guide was able to fix it right there on the spot.

The tour was about four hours long. We went at an easy pace, and stopped midway for a snack and rest at an outdoor cafe (food not included in the tour price). We were able to see an amazing number of sights in those 4 hours, and I was very pleasantly surprised at how the bikes made it quick and easy to get around town. I think it is much better than what you could do on foot or on the Metro. Of course, we didn’t have time to go inside the buildings that we saw, but if you want to do that then this tour would be a great introduction / orientation to whatever you’d like to do on your own in-depth. There was plenty of opportunity to visit with the other participants, especially since they all spoke English, and compare notes on their experiences in the country.

Their shop where we started and ended the tour was set up for visitors, with free bathrooms, ponchos for 1 € (it was sprinkling that day, and they even offered to buy them back if unopened), free Internet access, snacks for sale, etc. The tour itself was reasonably priced (24 €), I never had the feeling I was being ripped off. In fact, it seemed to be quite a good value. The tour was well executed, the equipment was good, and all the staff was really nice.

They also offer specialty tours, such as “Paris at Night” and tours on Segways. I would have loved to have taken the Segway tour, but I would be in trouble if I did one without my wife who is a big Segway fan.

The tour was a lot of fun and an excellent way to spend your time in the city. Based on my experience, I give these folks a big thumbs up. If you find yourself in a city where these tours are offered, give them a try and you may be pleasantly surprised.

cool stuff that doesn't cost much marcelk 02 Jul 2007 No Comments

technical knowledge: learn a little about a lot of things

Specialists are everywhere. It may be a person that focuses on a particular technology, a particular product, or a particular use case. That kind of focus is good and is needed. But a world only of specialists is not a good thing.

Some of the most successful people I’ve seen have a broad array of knowledge. They definitely are not experts in everything, but they know enough to get around a little bit. What they don’t know, they can look up or route. They have specialties, but they also know a little about a lot of things. They know enough to recognize patterns and remember history. You may think jack of all trades, master of none, but they do have some areas of focus that they can lead in. But they have had a varied past without purging their previous lives. Those people can apply concepts from other areas to the problem at hand.

It has been mentioned by others that nothing we go through is new, it is just history repeating itself. For example, many of the recent advances in personal and mid-range computing are lessons learned from the mainframe 30 years ago. There are definitely new ways in which technology can be applied. People who recognize patterns and remember history have an advantage in determining those best ways to apply. Combining invention with insight, meaning how to apply the invention, is the way of innovation.

Broad knowledge also applies to understanding the context of any situation. The more you know about how another part of the system works (i.e., related component, customer process, etc.), the more optimal your part can fit with the rest of the whole.

Broad knowledge also applies to careers in general. You should get to know something about all the parts of a product life cycle: customer requirements, design, development, testing, support, sales, etc. This means working with all different kinds of people in different circumstances. With diversity comes capability.

Particular skills combined with a broad foundation is key to success.

things i wish i knew before working marcelk 02 Jul 2007 No Comments

technical knowledge: learn how to learn

Fully keeping up with technology is impossible. You need to learn how to learn, especially just-in-time learning. You don’t have to take a class to learn. Here are some ways to learn:

  • Wikipedia. This may sound lame, but it works quite well. So picture this scenario: you are in a meeting, and in the discussion suddenly there are terms and acronyms you’ve never heard before. Everyone else seems to know these things except for you. You are about to get left in the dust. You need a quick explanation of what that stuff is. What should you do? Do a quick search on Wikipedia. The entries for technology and pop culture are especially well written, but I don’t care about pop culture. Read the first paragraph or two of the Wikipedia entry and you are back in the game.
  • Play. Budget some time to explore some areas you’ve always wanted. You may be surprised at the payoff, even though it may take a while. I got a wonderful job because of something I did as an unrelated side project. It doesn’t have to be related to your current job responsibilities. But be careful not to take noticeable time away from your current job.
  • Follow links. Click one level deeper than you usually do. Do a little exploratory reading. Not only does it give you more context, the cool thing it gives you is more relationships.
  • Listen. Spend time listening to people outside of your core area. You’ll be surprised at what you can apply from them. You will see patterns emerge that cross multiple areas.
  • Read. I’ll explain in more detail in a later post, but consume lots of summaries. Go for breadth instead of depth.
  • Ponder. My best ideas come either in the shower or driving in the car with the radio off. Take time away from work and give your brain some space to wander around unguided. For me, this happens when the screen and speakers are off.
  • Get a devil’s advocate. Take your favorite topic that you believe the most in, and let someone pick it apart as if it was a series of mistakes. Contrary to what you may think, there is always more than one way to do it. You may find a better way. Unpleasant as it may be, being pushed and challenged is a great way to get better. And some of the best lessons learned are the lessons that come from mistakes. Pain has an amazing way of improving your memory. :-)

If you thought you were done learning when you graduated from school, think again. In the I/T field the learning never stops. The question is: can you keep up?

things i wish i knew before working marcelk 02 Jul 2007 No Comments