Thursday, October 28, 2010

Looking forward

     I almost wrote another post on how and why I got into software development.  I was thinking a lot about that after I downloaded a Texas Instruments 99/4A emulator.  I was amazed at how much my fingers remembered.  Double tap the 1 key and start typing line numbers and commands.  Anyway, I'm not going to do that.  I'm going to talk about what's ahead for me in software development.

     Mobile development.  That's what I see when I look forward.  The place where I work is getting into iPhone development.  I tried to get my department to give the windows mobile platform a shot but even I couldn't take WinMo 6.x after a while.  Maybe Windows Mobile 7 will be better but for now it's the iPhone.  People like using their iPhones.  People love it when you write an application that gives them yet another reason to whip out the iPhone and start two finger tapping.

     So far I've been writing the back end web services that handle the data part of our iPhone applications and my co-worker, Kotaro, has been writing the front ends on his Mac in Objective C.  The web services part is great because since it's just XML/Soap, any platform could connect to it and make use of the services, with proper authentication of course.  What I'm trying to do now is expand my skill set to include actual iPhone development using tools from Mono Touch by Novell.  The Mono Project is an open source .Net framework that allows a developer to write .Net code and target Windows, Mac and Linux.  I want to do iPhone/iPad development with it but it'd be great to get familiar with those other platforms as well by writing code for them.

     Why learn a new development platform?  Same reason I learned the first one, because it's fun.

     I've also been thinking about the gaps in my skill set.  One of the problems that comes from being a self taught developer is that I've wasted many hours writing something that has already been written.  Also, there's this gnawing concern that there is so much about development, even on the Microsoft platform, that I don't know that...I don't know what I don't know.  Sometimes I come across posts like this and this and think, "Dangit!  I've been doing this over a decade and I've never even heard of some of this stuff!"  At first I tried to tell myself that it was just one guy's opinion (it is) and that there's lots I know that isn't on those lists (also true) and I've been doing this for years so I must be doing something right (right?).  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I was just a few Google searches and test projects away from being able to answer all of the questions in those two posts.  Just another visit from the binary thought system 0 (I'll never figure all this out) and 1 (Why shouldn't I be able to figure it out?).

     Still reading? Even after that 0 and 1 nonsense?  Okay.  I'm trying to go deeper.  In episode 6 of This Developers Life, Scott Hanselman and Rob Conery talk about "The Stack" and how much a developer should know about it.  Professional developers  are constantly running into things they don't know how to fix (at first).  Take a look at this Twitter stream and you will see.  The Stack is all the stuff between what a developer types and the 1s and 0s the system actually works with (sort of).  For example, when I write code in a high level language like Visual Basic .Net or C#, it looks something like this:

string firstname = "John";
string lastname = "Smith";
string fullname = firstname + " " + lastname;

     Not beautiful code, but you get the idea.  I click "Build" and several steps later it's processed into something like 10011010010101110001010...and the machine does something.  The point is, I don't really know how to program a computer at all.  I stand on the shoulders of giants standing on the shoulder of giants so I can reach high enough to pull the lever and make the computer spin.  I only know how to write descriptions of what a program should do and then I let the magic of MSIL and various compilers actually write the program for me.  So when I say I want to get deeper into the Stack, I mean that I want to learn more about what goes on after I type up all my C# or VB code and hit Build.  That means getting into things like C++ and Assembly.

     Now it's possible I'm going to get into the Stack and run screaming from what I find there.  There is a part of me that says I'm 36, I am what I am and it's hard enough to learn all the new stuff let alone all the old stuff.  


     But thinking about this stuff reminds me of a story I read about a modern boat that ran aground several years back because of a GPS error.  The crew on board could have used their map or just looked out the window but the GPS said everything was fine so they went full speed ahead until the hull split open.

     So I'm going to write a program in C++ that does something useful but simple.  Then I'm going to write a program in Assembly.

     If you made it all the way to the end of this post and you want more, I suggest:
     The next post will be...a true life entry.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Try the Kindle

Last week I wrote a long post about how I use Amazon's Kindle and how freaking great it is.  I had all these great little stories and use cases.  Then I read over it and decided to scrap the whole thing.  Why write about how I use it when you could just try it yourself?  So like I said, I chucked that post and wrote this, much shorter one, instead.

You don't have to spend money to get books in the Kindle format.  You don't have have to buy a Kindle at all.  If you have a Windows PC, Mac, iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, Android phone or Blackberry you can get Kindle stuff without buying the device itself.  All you need is an Amazon account.  Download one of the free software applications for your device and start using Kindle stuff right away.  Lots of great classics are free or .99.  You can get sample chapters of dang near everything to try before you buy.  The built in dictionary is great for when you're reading David Copperfield and you come across words like blandishment or scapegrace.   You can highlight passages, add notes and they'll sync across all devices.

Maybe you'll hate reading books in an electronic format.  I thought I would.  Just try it out.  It'll cost you nothing.

You can download the software free from Amazon here.

Once you are set up, here's a sample of some books you can read for free:

The die roll says another tech post.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Wrong Major

     "You are in the wrong major."

     It was the spring of 1992.  I was attending Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and  I was sitting in the office of my Human Genetics professor.  I had demonstrated some software I had written that simulated the random generation of nucleotides and then told you if any interesting amino acids would form as a result.  That may sound impressive but it really wasn't much of a program.  It generated some random numbers and told the user if a certain set of numbers occurred.  Only instead of showing the user random numbers, the program displayed words like "guanine" and "cytosine" and some other terms that I cannot remember.

     Anyway this was in 1992-1993 when it was rare for a non-engineering freshman to have a computer in his dorm room let alone be able to write programs on it.  The program was nothing big, just odd, given the circumstances.  It wasn't an assignment, I just thought it would be a fun way to implement some of what I had learned in class.

     "You're a film major?" the professor asked.

     "Yes.  I've always wanted to be a film maker," I said.

     The professor shook her head.  "You are in the wrong major."

     Of course I blew it off.  It was flattering that she liked the program but there was no way no how I was going to switch majors away from film.  Certainly nothing to do with computers.  Film was/is cool.  Computers were not cool then and, Apple products aside, they are not cool now.  I was finally free of the computer nerd stench that clung to me all through junior high (where I won two programming contests) and high school(where I always did well in science fair by writing software).  I was going to be an auteur.  Truth be told, I felt like I already was one.  Did you see my 8th video project called Tenja the Teenage Ninja?

     But the film career never got going.  I decided, for a number of reasons, to drop the film degree but I sure was not going to do anything related to computers.  That was for dorks.  Did I ever stop writing code though?  Nope.  I wrote code for my employers.  I wrote code for friends who were still in school (I dropped out of college altogether).  The bulk of what I wrote was just for me, just to see if I could make the computer do something.  I bought books on PC hardware and software development and read them cover to cover.  I eventually ended up working in the tech shop for Best Buy (this was pre-Geek Squad).  I worked tech support for Intuit where I finally finagled my way into doing some software development.  Five years of unmet expectations had finally gotten through to me.  Life had given me a mountain of software development was time to make some software development lemonade.

     I thought about this the other day as I was reading Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell.  He talks a lot about the Rule of 10,000 which says that if a person devotes 10,000 hours or more to a certain interest they will become very, very good at it.  I set the book aside, did some quick calculations and realized that I had cleared the 10,000 hours of software development before I ever got paid a dime for doing it.  My parents tell stories of my early teenage years where they would be sitting in the den and have a conversation that went something like this:

     "Where's Jon?" asked my mother.

     "In his room I guess," said my dad.

     "He's been in there for hours.  What's he doing?" asked my mom.

     They got up and knocked on my door.  No answer.  My dad cracked open the door and there I was sitting in front of my TI 99/4A complete with b/w TV as a monitor, coding a way.  I had the headphones on with the Walkman blaring Van Halen or The Police.  My dad would come back around 11:30pm and if I was still awake he would make me go to bed, where I would read Dragonlance Chronicles  by flash light until I fell asleep around 1am.  I nodded off in class a lot.

     Anyway, I'm thirty six years old now and finally back in school.  However, I still haven't decided on a technology related degree.  I'm really digging the English courses I'm taking now, but Cognitive Science is looking pretty interesting.  It does not really matter since I plan to be in school for a long, long time.

     Sorry for the disjointed post.  I'll do better next time.

     Next up, a tech post!