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Friday Philosophy – Sometime The Solution Has To Not Only Match The Problem But Also… August 4, 2017

Posted by mwidlake in Architecture, development, Friday Philosophy, Perceptions, Programming.
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…The People!

When you design a system for end users, a good designer/developer considers the “UX” – User eXperience. The system has to be acceptable to the end user. This is often expressed as “easy to use” or “fun” or “Quick”. But in reality, the system can fail in all sort of ways but still be a success if the end user gets something out of using it. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again and again until I give up on this career. In my opinion:

User Acceptance is the number one aim of any I.T. system.

OK, you all know about UX probably. But what about solutions that have no End Users? I’m thinking about when you create a technical solution or fix for an internal system, to be used by fellow I.T. professionals. How many have you considered the skills and temperament of the people who are going to house-keep the solution you create? I suppose I have had opportunity to think about this more than some of you due to how I work:- I’m a consultant who gets called in to fix things and then leave. At times I have chosen a solution that has been influenced by the people who will be looking after it.

I’ll give you an example. At one site that I worked at for about 9 months, I did a lot of work for one system. The developer/systems administrator who looked after the system was…stupid. I don’t really like saying that, we all vary in our skill set, experience, intelligence, *type* of intelligence (I know some people who can speak 3 languages or know a lot about history but could not wire a plug). But this guy really seemed to struggle with logic, cause-and-effect or learning anything new. And I had to help him look after this database application with one main, huge, hulking table. It had to be partitioned, those partitions maintained and the data archived. I implemented the partitioning, I explained partitions to him several times, what was needed to maintain them, where to look in the data dictionary for information. It was like talking to my mum about it. He just seemed not to understand and his efforts to code something to do what needed to be done were woeful.

I knew it was not me, I’ve run enough training sessions and presented so often that I know I can explain myself (Well, I hope so! Maybe I am deluded). He just was not getting it. Maybe he was in the wrong job. So I wrote him a set of SQL-generating scripts to get him going. He kept messing up running them. In the end, I knew I was about to leave and when I did within 3 months the real customer would have a broken system. So I wrote a mini-application in PL/SQL for him to do what needed to be done. And set it to email a central team if it failed. The team he would call when he broke it all again. I also simplified the solution. My original system had some bells and whistles to help with future changes, such as over-riding where new partitions went or how old ones were compressed. I stripped it out to keep it as simple as possible. I altered the solution to suit the person that would run it.

I’ve done something like this a few times over the years. Usually it is more to do with the skill set of the team as opposed to actual ability. I’ve on occasion worked with people who are new to Oracle and my time is limited so, rather than give them a solution written in PL/SQL that none of them know, I have done so with SQL and cookery instructions/shell scripts. It’s not the best solution but it is something they can live with.

More recently I had to look at fixing the performance of some SQL statements. Baselines would have done the job perfectly. However, the team were all Java experts and had no desire at all to learn about database administration. (To be frank, they had no time to learn either, it was the usual situation of them having 75 hours of work each every week as management thought just shouting would get things fixed, not hiring enough people). I strongly suspected that they would forget about the baselines and if they had a problem they would be confused as to what was going on. So I fixed the key SQL statements with a set of hints to force both the overall structure of the execution plans as well as which indexes to use etc – and said over and over and over and over that if they ever changed indexes or migrated to a later version of Oracle, those hints would need reviewing. They were, in effect, part of their code base. A big advantage of the hints was that they would see them in their code and it would remind them what had been done. They seemed happy with that.

My point is, sometimes the “best” solution is not the correct one, even when you are keeping within the walls of the computing department(s). Sometimes you need to think about who you are giving the solution to and change the solution accordingly.

Friday Philosophy – If Only I Was As Good a Programmer As I Thought I Was Aged 22 January 29, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, humour, Perceptions, Programming, Uncategorized.
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I saw a tweet that made me smile a few days ago:

programmer quote

Like many of you, I started out my working life in IT as a computer programmer. Like some of you, I still am a computer programmer from time to time. I don’t think I’ve had a year of my working life when I did not do either some application development programming or some database infrastructure programming. I am constantly writing small (or not so small) SQL or PL/SQL programs to do what I do in Oracle.

I started programming in school, I did an “O” level in computer studies (the exams we sat in the UK aged 16, up until 1988!), and I was pretty good at the programming as compared to my fellow class mates. My first “real” program played Noughts and Crosses (tic-tac-toe to our American cousins and maybe others) and version 2 was unbeatable. Which at the time I thought was pretty cool.
but Wikipedia now tells me is pretty easy :-). I also remember someone in the year above me unrolling some huge printout of the role-playing game he was writing (you know, the old textual “you have walked into a room where there is a lion, a bar of soap and a chandelier, what do you want to do?” sort of thing) and telling me I would never be able to do it. I just looked at the code and thought: Why have you hard-coded every decision and used all those GOTOs? Some sort of loop and a data block to look up question, answers and consequences would be much smaller and easy to extend? I don’t think he liked me voicing that opinion…

I did not do any programming of any consequence as part of my college course but after that I started work as a computer programmer (sorry “analyst programmer”) in the National Health Service. Again, I seemed better at it than most of those around me, fixing bugs that others had given up on and coding the tricky stuff no one else wanted to touch. And after a year or so, I was convinced I was a programming god!

I wasn’t of course. Part of it was my juvenile, naive ego and the other part was that, fundamentally, many of those around me were bad programmers. Anybody decent either did not join in the first place or got a better job elsewhere that paid more than the NHS did. I eventually did that myself and joined Oracle. Where I realised that (a) SQL confused the hell out of me and (b) when I started using PL/SQL there were plenty of people around me who were better at traditional programming than I.

I think it took me about a year to feel I was damned good at both of them. Guess what? I was wrong. I was simply competent. But after a year or two more I did two things that, for me, finally did make me into a good programmer:

  • I went contracting so I worked in a lot of places, saw a lot more examples of good and bad code and I met a lot more programmers.
  • I think I hit mental puberty and woke up to the fact that I needed to listen and learn more.

Since then, I think my own opinion of my coding skills has generally dropped year on year, even though I would like to think I continue to get better at actually constructing computer programs and suites of programs.

So yes, I wish I was as good a programmer now as I thought I was aged 22. And after 25 years at it (actually, pretty much 35 years at it on and off!) just like Rich Rogers (or is it John D Cook? I can’t quite decide if it is a quotation or not) I think I am finally getting moderately good at writing programs. If I continue to follow this trend, on my 65th birthday I will be convinced I can’t program for toffee and yet will finally be a Good Programmer.

I wonder if  anyone would still employ me to do it by then?