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Technical Debt Isn’t All Bad (Usually)

We’ve all complained about technical debt and legacy code, but it’s not all bad.

When I was a junior dev, I would complain about lots of existing legacy code that I encountered. I ran into a lot of it doing contract consulting work. This wasn’t just the obviously bad stuff, either, like finding some homegrown ORM using non-parameterized SQL queries being read from XML files. 😬

I complained about the little things. Like using a loop or if statement that wasn’t the most optimal, or copied code, or someone not using some library I thought they should be using.  Honestly, I still fight that temptation sometimes. It took a few projects to really get perspective on technical debt, where it comes from, and how to appreciate it.

spider web on green plants
Photo by Chris F on Pexels.com

Often, technical debt sold the software to allow you to have a job.

Think of the times you had to add technical debt. It was likely to hit a deadline or meet some pressing customer need. Those pressing sprints were typically when a high-paying, critical customer needed something. They to effectively working with technical debt is don’t become over-leveraged.

Strategic technical debt can bring you key wins at times that you can pay back later, but if you become over-leveraged with technical debt, and don’t pay it down, you eventually come to a point where you’re unable to move forward at any reasonable pace.

Sometimes code isn’t optimal but increased MRR (Monthly Recurring Revenue) just enough to allow for hiring a new person – you.

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"Conversion to Dalvik format failed with error 2" with Android and the Team Foundation Server 2010 Eclipse Plugin

Recently I’ve been working on an big Android application where I work set for release later this year.  It’s going to be a great help to employees and distributors in the field letting them do all sorts of things they normally need to be at a computer for.  I’m using my Macbook Pro to do development as it’s easier to not have to switch back and forth from OSX to windows as I’m building application features in parallel in an effort to release simultaneously (which may or may not be smart).  One thing, though is that we use Microsoft’s Team Foundation Server at work, which is, of course, a Microsoft product.  Luckily they bought TeamPrise somewhere along the line and now there’s a great Eclipse plugin (unfortunately and frustratingly, only available to Bizspark or MSDN Ultimate subscribers – license key required upon install) to let you check in/out right from within Eclipse.  However, I had one problem that I couldn’t seem to figure out until I accidentally seemed to find something that works…

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JavaScript Best Practices for Increasing Website Performance

If you’ve done any web development before, you’ve probably had to work with JavaScript.  It’s the secret sauce that makes the web come alive and has in recent years gone from a language that was looked down upon as 3rd rate to one that is taking the web by storm.  With AJAX and JQuery the key pieces of interactive web design, and users becoming more performance-demanding every day, it’s important to know how to tune your site for speed and efficiency.  Luckily, Nokia (yes, the old school cell phone company!) has a great cheat sheet to help prune JavaScript and make your code scream.

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"Enabling SessionState for SharePoint 2010" OR "This report failed to load because session state is not turned on."

SharePoint is a configuration nightmare.  There are so many settings that the more configuration settings you learn, the more you learn there are more settings that you’ve not even discovered yet.  For reporting, and specifically for me, running reports under an Issue Tracking site, SessionState must be turned on for the SharePoint 2010 web application.  If you don’t, you’ll get the error:

This report failed to load because session state is not turned on. Contact your SharePoint farm administrator.”

To enable SessionState, follow these steps:

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Why Math is Important for Software Engineering (Even if You Never Use it Again)

Math is important.  No, really!  I’m not just talking about that 2+2=4 stuff.  I’m talking about the big stuff.  The Cal III type stuff.  The problems that keep you up all night long.  The problems where the professor gives you 5 problems on Monday to do in a week and you say “Oh, shoot, 5 problems?  That’s it?  Pfft.  I’ll start next Sunday night at 9PM because Halo 3 just came out!”  Then you pull an

math in software

all nighter on Sunday and barely get four of the problems done.  Yea, I may or may not know about that first hand.  But really, I ask, why are you learning all this?  Are you really going to need all these crazy formulas for programming and software development?  Can’t just pull them out of a math book later?  It’s just a formula, right?  To be honest, there’s probably a 2% chance you will ever need this kind of math as a software developer.  Unless you go into graphics programming or something like that, you’ll likely never need it, and even then you’ll have references in the real world.  So why do I still think (really) hard math as absolutely essential to being a great developer?  Allow me to explain…

From a broad and practical point of view, math IS software development.  Math problems are solved exactly like you have to solve software problems in the real world, and there are direct parallels between math and programming.  Let’s go over them:

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Why I don't write for the iPhone (Or, Why I'm Not Scared to Invest in Android)

One of the things I say a lot is the quote “Incentives make the world go round”, and that, my friends, is true.  So why do I develop for the Android platform and not the iPhone?  The iPhone certainly has that “cool” factor about it.  I even own a MacBook pro and have access to an iTouch for testing, so I have everything I would need.  When I was looking for a new phone last November, one of the top priorities for me the prospect of developing and releasing new applications for my device of choice.  So why then didn’t I pick up an iPhone?  Let me explain…

There were three major phone platforms out in the Winter of 2009: iPhone, Windows Phone, and Android.  I knew iPhone would currently be the most popular device to release an app for.  Second would be Android, since its market share was (extremely) rapidly increasing.  Then, there was Windows Phone, which showed great promise with Zune integration (I LOVE my ZuneHD).  There were a few different things that I had to consider when I was picking out a phone (and ultimately, a platform), but let’s focus on the ones that matter from a software development and business aspect:

  • Current and Future Popularity
    • iPhone was definitely leading the pack at the time, but Android was passing it up quickly, and is doing quite well now.  Windows Phone looked great, but was late to the party for me to consider it at the time.
  • Interfaces
    • No lie here, iPhone has an amazing interface, partly due to no (and now minimal) multitasking.  Android is good, but could use some work, partly because screens are different across devices, so apps have to be built in such a way that all devices have a great experience.
  • SDK
    • The SDK for both are great.  There are lots of APIs to hook into and lots of functionality to leverage (I wrote a very light iPhone app for version 2).  The documentation for iPhone is good, with several videos explaining the development process.  However, Android’s developer center is absolutely top-notch.  They have videos and in-depth tutorials that are the best I’ve seen in a long, long time.  The best part, however, is that Android’s developer forums (used for Q/A) is actually officially integrated as a part of StackOverflow.  That community is amazing and very quick to help you understand anything you’re banging your head against.
  • Development Language
    • If you’ve ever switched from Java to C#, or vice versa, you’ll know they are very, very similar.  Windows Phone is C# (.NET) based.  Android is Java based.  Both are popular, solid languages with tons of support and lots of community involvement.  iPhone development uses objective-C, an extremely popul…wait…objective-C?  Oh, you didn’t say C?  Not even C++?  So, wait, wait…is it anything like those?  The syntax is totally different you say?  Oh…well, looks like you had better start your steep learning curve so you can get that app out the door.  Also, you better ask your boss for an extension, because this could take a while.  Or, you could always write for the iPhone using a mixture of .NET and the convolutedness of the the way objective-C and development on the iPhone is structured.  Good luck with that.
  • Marketplace
    • The marketplace on both are good…once you get and stay there.  The iTunes store feels like the cheapest app is $0.99, whereas the norm for Android apps is Free.  So, if you’re after making money, iPhone is probably the way to go.  Of course, you have to be approved…and stay approved…and Apple has to not change their mind.  You see, on Android, Google and the community builds in functionality like tethering, and cool apps like the Google shopping app.  Also, you have community options like ShopSavvy.  Just because ShopSavvy’s functionality is the same as one of Google’s apps, Google just tries to BUILD A BETTER APP, whereas Apple simply bans you from the marketplace altogether and causes your app to shut down.  From Apple’s perspective this reduces competition, provides a more consistent interface, and cleans out duplicate apps (read: anti-capitalism).  From an app developer’s business point of view, this increases risk DRAMATICALLY.  Would you be willing to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars into an app, only to have Apple steal your idea, integrate it, and then kick you out?  Tough luck, chump.  Android is the only sure bet that you will 100% have a chance.

So that, in a nutshell, is why I write for Android and not the iPhone.  Or, it could just be that I have a Droid and AT&T service is terrible where I live.  You know what they say, “Incentives make the world go round”.

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How To Check a Web Page For a String Using .NET C# Using HttpWebRequest

using System.Text;
using System.Net;using System.IO;
HttpWebRequest myRequest = (HttpWebRequest)WebRequest.Create(URL);myRequest.Method = "GET";WebResponse myResponse = myRequest.GetResponse();StreamReader sr = new StreamReader(myResponse.GetResponseStream(), System.Text.Encoding.UTF8);string result = sr.ReadToEnd();sr.Close();myResponse.Close();

//Now, once you have this, perform the search on result string
int stringFound = result.IndexOf("My search string");

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Android Project Part II: Reading RSS Feeds

The first real goal for the Android app was getting news updates into the app.  One of the main goals of the app is to be able to get up-to-date information that mirrored that of the harvesttn.com website.  As you probably already know, content is typically served up using an RSS feed in today’s world.   With that in mind, the first real piece that I needed to write for getting news notifications was to build a way to consume and display an RSS feed.

One of the great things is that reading an RSS feed
in code is an extremely common activity.  The first thing I did was look for a library that I could use to grab and read the feed.  I eventually found an article from IBM with code using Android’s SAX parser to parse an XML feed and place it into a ListActivity.

I copied over the code, and basically used the MessageList class as a template for my NewsUpdates class in my app.  Not much needed to be changed, except for the way it loads the feed.  The code on IBM’s site grabs a feed from a hardcoded URL in the FeedParserFactory, and out of the box only contains a .getParser(ParserType type) method, passing in what method you want to use to parse the XML (I used Android-SAX).  I figured that I may need to reuse the FeedParser again, so I overloaded the getParser method to pass in not just the type, but also a feed url, as you can see me using  in the code below.Once I did that, the rest of the code is just getting and displaying the information that the FeedParser got for me.  first, you just get the items out of the parser into something that you can use. Here’s a simple way to get and parse the RSS feed, modified from the ListActivity in IBM’s code and simplified for easier use. Here’s a simple way to get and parse an RSS feed once it is modified (read the whole article if you’re cutting corners):

/*In a ListActivity class, this is in a loadFeed(ParserType type) method. Of course, this isn’t really necessary to read a feed. Only down to the “List<Message> messages = parser.parse();” line is necessary. You can then iterate through each message and call standard getters for each of the items to get the Title, Description, etc.*/

//Get a new FeedParser from the factory.
//Pass in the type of library you want to
//use as well as the URL of the feed
//you want to grab.
FeedParser parser = FeedParserFactory.getParser(type, getString(R.string.News_RSS_Feed));

//Parse the feed into the Messages so you can
//use the feed data more easily in your app.
List<Message>= parser.parse();
String xml = writeXml();

//Iterate through each RSS entry and grab the titles to use as the content in the ListView
List<titles>= new ArrayList<string>(messages.size());
for (Message msg : messages){
titles.add(msg.getTitle());
}

//Add the ListView via an ArrayAdapter
ArrayAdapter<string> adapter =
new ArrayAdapter<string>(this, R.layout.row,titles);

this.setListAdapter(adapter);

DONE! Simple as that. RSS is a great way to integrate content into you mobile application and have a similar (and often better) experience to the web version. The original IBM post is located below, where you can also download the full source.  This code was writted for Android SDK release 3, but it worked perfectly with the 7th release (Android 2.1). Remember that when you copy over the code into your project, ensure your manifest file properly registers all the appropriate activities. Otherwise, you’ll get a force close.: http://www.ibm.com/developerworks/opensource/library/x-android/index.html

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Android Project Part I: Background

For starters, let me give you some background on starting this blog series.  I spend a lot of time looking things up and learning.  The downside?  I forget things.  So, this will be a win/win.  I can write things I find out down here so that I don’t forget them AND since Google will crawl this site, I will be more likely to re-find it in the future!

I’m going to be writing a miniseries on Android App development.  My home church is Harvest Community Church (or Harvest for short) in Kingsport, TN.  Like many churches, you can get updates, listen to sermon recordings, watch videos, and the like.  The problem for people like me who are very mobile oriented, is that I rarely “go” to a site from a real web browser anymore.  There’s an “app for that” on my phone that aggregates all that information and brings it straight to me.  My calendar, contacts are all synchronized with Facebook and Twitter and my information is all brought to me via Google Reader and the magic of RSS.

The problem is that trying to stay up-to-date with what’s going on at the church from day-to-day is hard!  Nobody wants to have to spend 15 minutes swyping the bulletin calendar into their phone.  This is the motivation behind HarvestDroid and what I want eventually to be an open source ChurchDroid template for any church to use (replacing RSS/Photosharing/Content addresses and locations). My initial requirements and posts will be:

Requirements

  • A Tab menu to divide the following sections
  • News Tab
    • This is a list of announcements
  • Radio Tab
  • Sermon list
  • Videos
    • Open media with music player intent
    • Open media with embedded player
  • Visit! Tab
    • Phone call integration
    • Email integration
    • Google Maps Directions/Navigation Integration
  • Future Enhancements
    • Android notifications of updates
    • Social integration
      • Facebook?
      • Foursquare?
    • UI Skinning (Gotta fancy it up, right?)
    • Offline Access/Caching (This targets 3G/Media, so I assume the app to be connected 99% of the time you use it)
    • Add events to the Google Calendar app

So, as of now, that seems like a nice list.  What do you think?  If you had a mobile app for your church, what would you want to help you stay connected?

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Software Development: Academic VS Real World Education

Should you learn software development by going to school? Or go straight to the real world? That largely depends on what you want and where you are in life.

I am lucky. I knew that I wanted to do something in computers since I was in the 5th grade. 

My class got an old (new) machine with a green screen, a math/vocabulary game starring a rabbit, and my favorite – BASIC (the programming language). Yes, “10 Print” and all. I wrote my first video game on that machine’s Magic 8 Ball. It was pretty simple. You entered your name and your gender, and then, if you were the girl that I liked in class, it would tell you who you would end up kissing me by the end of the day. Ahh, memories. How did I learn how to code that? I can’t even remember. Was it learning from class? Was it trial and error and figuring it out? What was the most important?

As I got older, I took dual enrollment classes in high school, one of which being a programming class where I met a guy from a state government agency that offered me a paid, full/part-time internship that I ended up taking all through college. I got four years’ worth of experience working as a developer on systems that hundreds of people used, and the apps eventually won awards. At the same time, I also got a CS degree. I graduated with four years of experience under my belt (not lame tedious internship work, actual hardcore enterprise-level .NET development work). Who does that? I then went on to graduate school at George Mason, getting my MS in Software Engineering over the next two and a half years full of long nights of theory and projects. To pay for grad school, I got a job at Amentra, Inc. in 2007. At that time, it was an aggressive, young software consulting company where almost everyone in the company was in their 20s or, at the most, 30s. I worked there by day and took classes two nights a week. The projects were long. I learned enterprise Java and .NET, JBoss, Biztalk, Sharepoint, ESBs, SOA, Agile, and more. Everything was new to me, and every client needed me to be an expert yesterday. Many times, my school suffered because I was working late. Other times, I would walk into a class to rattle off the final exam as soon as I walked through the door. Eventually, that little company got bought by Red Hat, Inc., which is when I thought I had arrived. I couldn’t believe it. In just seven years into my development career, I had gone from a town of a few thousand people where nobody leaves to working for THE Red Hat. I learned and heard many things during that time about how software, people, and the world works.

I’ve heard many people say that “Grad school is nice, but you learn all that stuff at work anyway, so why would you need it when you can just learn it by working?”.

Ok, first off, I worked at Red Hat. I don’t know about you, but working at Red Hat, Microsoft, or Google is not exactly your “typical” software company. Especially where I am from, Northeast Tennessee, not everyone is as bleeding edge as the Juggernauts of software. Here are the PROs of education in software engineering and computer science.

  • The academic environment gives you the resources to study topics and projects that EXCITE YOU.
    • You aren’t getting paid, so you can build whatever you want.
    • Schools have labs and funds to get you the hardware and software you need to build the project of your dreams.
  • You get a big piece of paper.
    • Computer scientists and software engineers know that technology changes. Still, the person hiring sees that you have a big graduate degree tick beside your name, which bumps you above the next candidate.
    • Hiring managers often see graduate school as a replacement for work experience. So, what happens if you work AND go to grad school? Extra free years? I’ll take it.
  • You get PRACTICE. Education without practice and understanding brings you nothing. Software development is a craft. You perfect your work through practice. Eric Raymond, the author of The New Hacker’s Dictionary, says, “Computer science education cannot make anybody an expert programmer any more than studying brushes and pigment can make somebody an expert painter.”
  • You learn to work with “contrary” people.
    • Many of the most challenging problems you will encounter as a developer are people problems. 

Here are the CONs of education in software engineering and computer science.

  • It costs money.
    • Grad school costs tens of thousands of dollars. On a positive note, many employers will allow you to expense your tuition in exchange for a certain number of years’ commitment. Generally, more advanced leadership positions in more traditional companies require an advanced degree to match.
  • You could be spending that time making money.
    • With the time you would put into classes, you could have a second job as a freelance developer or work on an open-source project to gain experience.
  • You don’t need a degree to write high-quality code.
    • I’ve seen people from all walks of life transition into software development. I’ve seen former teachers, cognitive science majors, chemists, CPAs, lawyers, English majors, artists, musicians, you name it. Lack of formal education can always with experience and hard work.
    • Formal education can always be substituted by more focused hard work since formal education typically has a very structured goal and plan for achieving that goal, combined with projects that help you practice concepts. These outcomes manifest when you do the work yourself, with the only difference being the grades and degree recognition.
  • You don’t get experience working with a large team.
    • Five people is not a “large team.” Large teams can include dozens of developers, a whole testing department, an operations team, a security team, and more. Classroom projects can be more fun and motivate you, but the social dynamic is just different.

When you look at someone who has advanced school credentials, remember that the value is still about hard work and experience over time. Graduate school is an excellent opportunity to work hard and learn a lot and, indeed, was the right choice for me. Always remember that additional schooling is just that – an opportunity. I had to work hard for the degree to mean anything other than a piece of paper, just like you will.

If you want to read more about hard work in Software Engineering, here is a great, timeless article: Teach Yourself Programming in 10 Years by Peter Norvig.

May I also suggest: Discipline Outdoes IQ in the Long Run.