Techno-Man!

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Techno-Man

27. January 2014 08:31
by Dave
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The Wizard of Woz

27. January 2014 08:31 by Dave | 0 Comments

So this last week was the 30th anniversary of the Mac and that got me thinking back to the early days.  My first "personal" computer was an IBM 5150 I purchased back in 1982.  It had a whopping 576k of memory, twin 5 1/4 floppy drives (because I was living large) and a Hercules graphics card that displayed all the colors you could want provided all you wanted were black and green.  This was long before there were things like hard drives, and I paid more for this than I did for my car: to wit, my Honda Civic cost me $1200, and the 5150 was nearly $11,000.  Oh yeah, and the thing weighed about 7 pounds less than the Honda.

It's been a long, strange ride since then.  If not for the foolishness of Gary Kildall at Digital Research, Bill Gates and company would never have had the foothold on the computer business they enjoyed.  If it wasn't for Microsoft and the relatively easy access to literally anyone who wanted to write software, the personal computer probably would not be as personal a tool as it is today.  If not for Apple (and the infusion of cash they received from Microsoft so MS could avoid the appearance of being a monopoly), we might still be working with large beige boxes instead of sleek laptops made from aircraft-grade aluminum.  If not for Nokia and Symbian, Microsoft and Apple might never have realized that a phone could be more than just a communications device.

At the end of the day, though, it really is as Steve Ballmer so famously - and comically - said: developers, developers, developers.  Because the IBM PC proved such a success, it inspired so many others to enter the market.  The Commodore 64, the Amiga, the Radio Shack Color Computer, Texas Instrument's TI-99 and the Timex Sinclair.  Pretty soon these affordable computers were in just about everyone's home, and in between playing Zork and Zelda, we started to learn how to program in BASIC.  

Back in 1984 I had my PC and a Radio Shack Color Computer (or the CoCo as it was affectionately called).  Since my PC seemed more for business than it did for fun, I started writing programs for the CoCo and storing them on cassette tape.  I wrote two programs I sold under a concept back then known as "shareware" - try it before you buy it.  You'd never know it to look at me today, but I used to ride bicycles cross-country, so I created an app called "Velo" which helped me keep track of the routes I rode, when I rode them and how long it took.  And because my (now ex) wife complained about how much money I spent on bicycles and computers, I wrote "Wealth" to keep track of my non-existent finances.  I sold each through Rainbow magazine as mail order for $1.99 each, and I think I made about $500 - but then, it really wasn't about the money.

Somewhere around this time I learned about Turbo Pascal for the PC from a company named Borland.  I put my $99 down and bought a copy, and realized that I could make a living writing programs for other people.  Well, to be fair, I was already doing that via IBM mainframes, but this was more intimate because I interacted directly with my users.  So I went to my boss at McGraw-Hill with a crazy idea about how I could write a PC program to help save paper by intercepting and storing press releases our analysts received from a satellite feed.  He saw the benefit to the company, gave me the thumbs-up to write the code, and about a month later I delivered an application that prevented things like printer jams and ribbon malfunctions from causing the analysts to miss data.  

And I have been a programmer ever since.

But I digress - perhaps to Olympian lengths.  The anniversary of the Mac made me ponder for a moment how far things have come.  The original Mac had a monochrome screen, and although it was much smaller and lighter than my IBM PC, the one button mouse was nearly the size of my Honda Civic.  The takeaway here is that this really introduced for the first time an non-game oriented graphical computing environment.  Back then, it was pretty difficult to write programs for this new operating system and computer, but as time moved forward tools and languages emerged which lowered the bar to entry, freeing programmers like me to think more about the application than the environment.

When you compare languages and tools today with those 30 - or 20 or even 10 - years ago, you can see the amazing distance we have come.  I was there throughout this journey and it is easy today to take for granted the gains the tools we use have given us.  It is interesting to reflect, though, on where we were back then, how far we have come, and where we are going.  Today we think less of the big box computer and more of the device - the small, usable tech we have with us all the time.  We consider sharing the load of computation over a great number of computers rather than on what a single computer can do as we tackle tougher and larger problems.  We are beginning to see that our tendency towards functional programming is somehow hostile to the larger amounts of data we work with, so our focus is shifting towards tools and languages which help us analyze what we learn.  And because the barrier to programming is lowering itself at a fairly steady rate, we are coming to realize that more of us are programmers than we previously thought.

Happy birthday, Mac.  Thank you for being a pioneer and growing with us.  It will be fun to reflect again on your 60th birthday just how far we have come.  By that time you will probably be an implant interfacing directly with my brain.  If so, I am looking to you to help program a reminder for me...

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12. December 2013 10:01
by Dave
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Professional Dating

12. December 2013 10:01 by Dave | 0 Comments

“A job interview is like a first date.  You dress up, pretend to be someone else and spend the time wondering if you’re going to get screwed.”
- Azgraybebly Joslan

I have spent an inordinate amount of time in the last few months interviewing candidates at my day job for a number of positions.  Like so many other companies in the tech arena, it is increasingly hard to find qualified people without personality quirks so onerous you wonder how the candidate is able to survive in the real world.  If you are reasonably competent in your field and can form a coherent sentence, there are plenty of jobs that can be yours. 

 Be fiercely individual and continue to enjoy the unemployment line.

 In today’s rant I am going to talk a bit about why I declined to hire some recent candidates and along the way try to help applicants read between the lines when they don’t get the job.  First on my list is an obvious target in the tech world – the geek with mad skills that do not extend to the closet. 

Most days I wear jeans and a nice shirt to the office.  Comfortable, clean and business casual.  I can attend a meeting with a vice president or crawl under a desk to connect cables, whatever the job requires that day.  I know that the days where a candidate arrives in a suit and tie are pretty much long gone, but I expect that he or she will dress in at least the same style as I do.  When an interviewee arrives in flip flops, shorts, a t-shirt and all of them dirty, my initial thought is “did you read the name on the front of the building?”  And that is immediately followed by “if this is the interview outfit, is he going to think pants are optional if he gets the job?” 

This one is pretty easy.  Dress slightly better than you think the job requires.  If you don’t know what that is, try business attire – shirt and tie for men, business casual for women.  Your outfit won’t make a huge impression unless it is too far in the extreme, and when that happens your chance to land the job is already gone.

Then there is the guy who literally knows everything.  He or she is not looking to impress – there is no need to, the work and their obvious skills should speak for themselves.  These people will tell me in great detail during the interview what is wrong with the questions I am asking, how what we as a company are doing badly and just how easy it will be for the “wunderkind” in front of me to fix our problems.  He asks no questions and begins most answers with “I would have done it this way” or “I solved that problem by…”.  The end result of this is that I think you are either arrogant or you are overselling yourself.  Either way, you are a pass in my book.

Along similar lines, there is the “flash in the pan” candidate.  Magicians perform most of their tricks through the fine art of misdirection, and this candidate tries to cover up his inexperience by asking too many questions in an attempt to get me to answer for him or to avoid having to answer at all.  When put on the spot to provide an answer, he often resorts to playing “buzzword bingo” where I am supposed to be dazzled by his command of marketing terms.  When all is said and done, you appear weak technically and not at all like you possess a keen analytical mind – which is what you were going for, right?

Sometimes I just can’t connect on some level with the candidate.  He or she refuses to make eye contact, uses inappropriate language (generally speaking, I am not sure there is ever a good time to drop an F bomb in your average interview) or makes no attempt to connect with me as a person.  When the interview is over, I can’t see myself working next to you, and that’s a problem.  We don’t have to be soul mates, but I do need to feel like you are a real person.  I don’t want to spend my days wishing we were in a relationship so I could dump you. 

Preparation is also a problem.  I can’t begin to tell you how many candidates arrive at the interview with virtually no idea what the company does.  It gets worse when I turn the table on the candidate and allow him/her to ask me questions about the company and I am met with confused silence.  A few minutes time prior to the interview to familiarize yourself with the company, to prep some questions specific to the job (and not benefits or salary related questions, because you are not at that point in the process yet) will go a long way towards making me feel like you are concerned about the work.

There are times, however, when no matter how well you dress and how spot-on your skills seem to be that you still won’t get the job.  You might be passed over on the “soft sciences” like not being an accurate match for what most workplaces describe as their “culture”.  The team may be laid-back and you might have displayed too much energy in the interview.  As attractive a find as you might be, maybe there is one person in the company who is crucial to the job, and you have the kind of personality which will turn that person homicidal.  It isn’t you, it’s that guy.  These are things that in a perfect world would not matter, but actually do because you will be working with real human beings, warts and all. 

And sometimes the company has unrealistic expectations about what your worth in the marketplace is.  You will be called in to an interview where the company is hoping to entice you to join the team knowing that you are already making more than it is willing to pay.  Many times the decision to bring you in – which you perceive as a waste of your time – happens outside the scope of the people who are interviewing you.  Most likely I have no idea whatsoever that this is the case, and when you want to turn the conversation towards salary all I can do is suggest that you take it up with the people who scheduled the interview. 

At the end of the day, there are a lot of candidates I have to pass on for some of the reasons above.  Because we live in a litigious society and human ego being what it is, spelling out the true reason for the rejection rarely happens.  Instead we tend to rely on euphemisms that placate you while protecting us.  We tell you that you are overqualified for the job, which means that we either underestimated your skill set or you currently make too much money for our job.  When you hear that you are not a good match for the corporate culture, it generally means that your choice of message t-shirt worn to the interview was not a good one or that treating the interviewer like something you found stuck on the bottom of your shoe was not the best strategy.  And “we’ve decided to go in a different direction” is code for we want someone who isn’t going to fight us on every decision or who we do not have to educate before they become productive.

Going into an interview, I have no agenda shy of finding someone qualified to do the job and that I can work with.  I don’t know you and have no bias against you, so I have no reason NOT to want to work with you.  A little prep on your side combined with the right appearance and attitude will take you 90% of the way.  Spend some time up front to learn about the company, show up on time and appropriately dressed, let me know what you have accomplished without bragging, and be prepared to ask me a question or two about something germane to the job.  It’s the difference between being “employable” and “un”.  And for the most part, the choice is yours.

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4. December 2013 11:01
by Dave
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Engineering Magic

4. December 2013 11:01 by Dave | 0 Comments

“Any science or technology which is sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic.”
-Arthur C. Clarke

“Any technology that is distinguishable from magic is not sufficiently advanced.”
-Gregory Benford

Magic.

Most people don’t want to know how their phone works, they just want it to work.  But much like the difference between David Copperfield and your average kid’s party magician, how well each phone platform pulls off the magic is the question.  The answer depends on which platform you have chosen and how impressed you are when a quarter disappears vs. the Statue of Liberty.  And so we come to our latest installment of my Windows Phone 8 series.  Along the way I intend to beat the “magic” metaphor like a cheap mule and stretch it like Jersey shore salt water taffy.  You have been warned.

In order to understand where Windows Phone 8 is today as a performer, it is important to understand its roots.  While many consider the Windows Phone platform as a whole the next evolutionary step from Microsoft’s original Windows Mobile platform, I am here to tell you it ain’t necessarily so.  Back in the early 2000’s Windows Mobile was the attempt to bring something similar to the desktop experience to mobile devices.  In other words, all of the good AND bad that you lived with on your desktop was present in Windows Mobile.  Sure, this made the operating system reasonably powerful for developers, but for people looking for a simple phone with the ability to handle email and time management Windows Mobile presented a busy, complicated and ultimately confusing system.

So, when Windows Mobile 6 was nearing the end of its lifespan – and with the advent of consumer-friendly mobile systems like Apple’s iOS on the iPhone – Microsoft literally went back to the drawing board to create the successor.  Windows Phone 7 debuted in late October 2010, bringing with it an interesting design metaphor which bridges the gap between iOS with its collection of pages of “dumb” icons (icons which launch applications but which do not on the surface present any information by themselves) and Android where the interface could have anything from those “dumb” icons to full-fledged programs.  Dubbed “Live Tiles”, the interface allowed links to applications, but the developer could choose to provide some level of intelligence with the link where their application could provide basic information about whatever it is the application did.  It was marketed as a “glance and go” approach where you could look at what was happening without having to launch a bunch of programs, and then you could get back to your life.

Cue the crickets.

The response to Windows Phone 7 was underwhelming to say the least.  While the new operating system won some awards for the design metaphor, it gathered many more hit points from reviewers for things like an almost non-existent amount of device security, incredibly bad versions of Office (a Microsoft flagship product, no less) and an abandoned customer base.  The latter came from the fact that the new operating system did not have backwards compatibility with Windows Mobile, and with that Microsoft disenfranchised the very market they had built-in.  That included me.  I was there on day one and was a witness to the train wreck.  After spending years playing with, building applications for and loving on Windows Mobile, I spent a couple of weeks with Windows Phone before I was ready to get back into the mobile device dating pool.

I’m sorry, but it would appear that I have taken a trip to Tolkien land.  Let’s skip forward.  As each successive release of Windows Phone has emerged from Redmond, the operating system seems to have improved.  At the same time, Microsoft seems to have some animosity towards their customers, because with each improvement they managed to get someone in the customer base angry.  Own a Windows Phone 7 device?  Sorry, you won’t be able to upgrade that to Windows Phone 7.5.  Are you a Google person?  Sorry, you’re gonna need to use Bing.  Love those Live Tiles?  Sorry, we’re not going to make developers use them so apps like Twitter and Facebook are really just dumb icons.  Like video chats?  Sorry, I know we own Skype but you should probably go get another app to do that with.

So we arrive at today.  As I mentioned in a previous installment, I am working on a project developing a Windows front end to an exciting online service called Meshfire (check them out – if you have any interest in Twitter or social media as anything more than a vehicle for your thoughts on the jelly donut you had this morning, you should be talking to these guys), so it is time to once again taste the Windows Phone dog food.  I am hoping that Microsoft’s magical skills have progressed far enough that I don’t feel compelled to throw stale birthday cake at them as they attempt to pull a stuffed rabbit from a top hat.

I’ve already told you about my struggles to be entertained by my phone and the state of email, so today I am going to focus on Windows Phone as that – a phone.  I know, old school.  Who talks on the phone these days?  I do, but I also intend on covering texting and multimedia messaging because those functions are intrinsic parts of the smartphone landscape these days.  So, while I am tempted to place the “ado” further I will resist and actually get somewhere near a point.

Making a call on Windows Phone 8 is pretty straight-forward.  Either open the dialer though the Live Tile or open the People Hub and find a contact.  Answering a call?  Not so easy.

On both Android and iOS when a call comes in the phone displays an information screen telling you who is calling.  To answer the call from the handset, simply swipe the screen one way or to ignore, swipe the other way.  Turn the phone face-down to silence the ringer without explicitly rejecting the call.  One step actions.  Nice.

Windows Phone, on the other hand, is a two-step process that I routinely manage to screw up.  When the phone rings I get an information screen that I have to admit is visually appealing, but that is where the praise ends.  In order to take any action on the call, I have to swipe up on the screen to open a collection of buttons, and then I have to press the appropriate button – answer or reject.  While I appreciate the option they add to send an “I’m busy” text message to the caller via another button, I find the “gravity” based swipe needed to open up these options to be troublesome at best.

This is what I mean: I would have hoped that a simple flick of the screen would allow me to expose the call options, but I actually have to swipe a fair portion of the screen to get there.  I had had times in the last week where the beefy appendages at the end of my hands (called fingers) had difficulty making the appropriate swipe and actually caused me to miss calls.  Because we are at the beginning of winter, gloves make that process much worse. 

Another problem is how easy it is to silence the phone.  With my Android device unless I deliberately turned the phone face-down on a solid surface, the phone would continue to ring until the caller went away or I dismissed the call.  I have been reaching into my pocket to pull my Windows Phone out and accidentally pressed the power or volume buttons with the result of silencing the phone.  As soon as the phone goes silent, I wonder if the caller hung up (butt-dialing, anyone?) and tend to put the phone back into my pocket.  An hour or so later I find I have a voicemail from the call I silenced.

Yes, you are right.  If I have a Bluetooth connection to a device I can get a single button press to answer a call.  I just choose not to wear a headset all the time, however.  It isn’t much of a solution if you require a separate device to counter a deficiency in another device.

Texting pretty much works as expected.  Not a lot you can do to mess this up.  The only quirk I have found is when I am on any screen and get a text notification I am unable to go directly to the text message I just received.  I can tap on the notification, but that takes me to the main messaging page where I see the list of people I text with.  I like that the unread message is at the top of the list and highlighted, but I am used to the notification taking me directly to the message.  You’d think Microsoft was headquartered in Texas given their apparent love for the two-step.

Call quality is such a subjective thing.  It depends on where you are, whether there are cell towers nearby, how many other people are currently using their phone around you, what network you are on and I suppose whether you are on the even or odd numbered side of the street.  My Lumia 1520 has been no better and no worse than any other device I have owned.  I can hear the people I am calling and most of the time they can hear me.  Understand me, that is another story, but they can at least hear the words coming from my noise hole.

So, as far as the phone features on Windows Phone go, the magic is there if not exciting.  Not as much a birthday party magician but certainly not a David Copperfield.  Probably something like the kind of performer you end up with at 1:00 AM in a Vegas lounge after spending the night in a bar.  Impressive at the time, but when you sober up you’ll wonder why you spent the $25 cover charge.

Tomorrow we will talk about other things like Near Field Communications, the kind of stuff you never knew you needed, didn’t have any desire to learn about and will feel like an IRS audit would provide more fun.  You know, tech stuff.  In the meantime I have to find another metaphor that I can kill.

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