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  • Michael Krakovskiy 9:36 pm on November 17, 2009 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , contractor, creative googled-up solutions, , Eric Sink, , , Vault   

    The Vault 

    A friend of mine, a contractor, recently came to me with a strange problem. He did an excellent job renovating my apartment, and since then he got used to me delousing his Windows computer and coming up with creative googled-up solutions for just about anything. This one has me stumped though.

    Right now he is demolishing a location, previously occupied by a bank. It has a vault door in it that my friend needs to cart away.

    He wants to sell it. I mean, the thing looks valuable – but I have no idea of who would want something like that. Movie people? A restaurant? Eric Sink (his company has a product called Vault and he must be flush after Microsoft buying a chunk of his stuff). I wonder what would happen if we did place it on eBay. Well, in fact there are a few of them there, and people don’t seem to be buying.

     
  • Michael Krakovskiy 4:41 pm on November 17, 2009 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Algorithm, , , , , COBOL programmer, Coders at work, , , , contractor, , Enterprise Application Software, exaustive algorithms, hapless developer, Lawson Software, Literate programming, , , Pete Cambell, , , , , , , Salesforce.com, sane IT manager, site supervisor, , ,   

    Semi-literate Programming 

    I recently finished “Coders at Work“, a series of interviews with famous programmers.

    On one hand, reading a book like this is a downer: it’s very clear to me that I occupy a place that is very close to the median of the bell curve, and the skill level of programmers is a very steep non-linear curve in itself. I’ll never be as good as JWZ or Brad Fitzpatrick. But I knew that before, and I am ok with it. On the other hand, this book inspired me to read more code.

    The programmers in the book disagree on many points, but they mostly agree on the importance of writing readable code and educating yourself by reading other people’s code. I make my living writing in scripting languages, and I haven’t written a line of C or C++ since college. But there’s nothing preventing me from downloading and taking a look at the source of Apache, PHP, MySQL.

    It’s important for me to understand “how the sausage is made” in the PHP stack, and as it turns out, what happens between Apache PHP and MySQL in term of requests and timeouts is not as simple as one might think. I asked at StackOverflow about this, but all the diagrams that people pointed me at were of the very rudimentary type: “look, here’s a happy cow, it goes to Bovine University, look – it’s all shrink wrapped on the supermarket shelf” instead of “sausage farm/slaughterhouse/truck/factory tour, starting with cow insemenation”.

    When I downloaded the source code of mod_rewrite, arguably the most useful Apache module in the world, I was amazed to find out that it’s only 5000 lines of C with comments.

    The book ends with the interview of Donald Knuth, and another two major questions that the interviewer is asking everyone is – “have you read Knuth’s books and have you tried literate programming”. It was interesting to find out that most of the famous programmers use Knuth’s the same way that I do. The books sit on my bookshelf, I look at them, I sometimes try to read them, I skip most of the math. They serve as a constant reminder to me that I suck at computer science even more than I suck at programming, and luckily there are people out there who know all of this stuff who are not idiots like me.

    Here’s a photo of my cubicle at TV Guide circa 2002, Knuth’s books are holding a place of honor next to the mini fridge. By the way, taking pictures of the places where you work and live is something that you should not forget to do: years from now nobody will care about those pictures of flowers, shadows, and sunsets, but

    I’ve read the book about Literate Programming at the time, and was rather inspired by it. Ok, maybe I didn’t read it and more like skimmed it. I don’t think I understood what real literate programming is.

    The way I understand it, Literate Programming is a way to write programs as a narrative that is readable to computers and humans. My father, in his former career a site supervisor (a type of a contractor) is very fond of giving very detailed instructions to me, the same way he used to give instructions to construction workers. His instructions usually are exaustive algorithms, with error handling. I think that his instructions, expressed as a flow of conciousness, would work not only on me and construction workers, but on computers as well, and are similar to what Donald Knuth has in mind. All you really have to do is to build a layer of abstraction between these instructions and a computer language. Also, since computers don’t forget things, he would only need to repeat his instructions once.

    These days my dad is a COBOL programmer. Everybody dumps on COBOL, but in my mind it’s a language worth of a lot of respect. It has a syntax that is very English-like, something that makes reading COBOL code easy. Well, maybe it’s like reading some old-timer’s newsgroup post written in all caps, but it’s still much closer to English than most other computer languages.

    At the time I was reading “Literate Programming” I was using ASP 3.0, IIS, and SQL Server 97. My task was to write a system that would account for booked and pending business. This is something that had to be done since the age of Mad Men. You see, the dealings of clients, account executives (like Pete Cambell), their bosses, account coordinators, creative department, etc are rather convoluted. But in the end, to get paid, you have to have a system that will track who brought in what business, who handled what, and how the commissions need to be split.

    This is normally the realm of something called EAS (Enterprise Application Software). Back at the turn of the century, this area was still dominated by a company called SAP, but there were a few smaller players, like Salesforce.com that tried to package these applications. Any sane IT manager looks to see if an EAS solution can be purchased first. It turned out that TV Guide’s buseness logic was impossible to shoehorn into any existing solution. SAP folks said – yeah, no problem, we’ll build you what you want, but our prices start at $1M, and then there are consultant fees. ERM world is a crazy place, you can read about some true craziness in “Cube Farm”, an account of one hapless developer’s adventures at Lawson Software. It’s a truly riveting book, and I fell that every developer out there should read it. It’s literally Lovecraftian in nature, that book.

    In any case, it fell to me to develop the application from scratch. Inspired by Knuth, I decided to write some semi-literate code. Me and a project manager, Brad, went to the clients and interviewed them at length, documenting their existing process (aka the most complicated set of spreadsheets you’ve ever seen). In the past, before cheap computers, all you needed was a Joan Holloway, but I believe they stopped making them.

    Brad went on to go back and forth with a very terse document about 5 pages in length that described how the new system would work. He would sit down with the clients and go through the narrative, step by step, confirming that this is what they wanted. Meanwhile I created an object oriented library that made dealing with the database, creating forms and navigation elements much easier. This is similar to to what you might find in a CMS like Drupal, only a little cruder.

    When the document shaped up, I created the database schema, and then I took a big chunk of the document and pasted it into one huge comment block. I proceeded to break off chunks of that block and writing the code around it. Interestingly enough, as time went on, the project manager started helping me to write the code: enough of scary database abstration was hidden by simple classes and method, and there were tons of self-evident examples all around to copy and paste. I switched to writing reports that involved cubes, rollups and other fancy stuff. Stored procedures that did the reports also received comments from the document that described the reports.

    This wasn’t a monolythic system – I was writing it for 2 years or so, releasing a chunk after chunk. In the end it was handed off to another developer, the whole transfer took only a couple of hours. There weren’t any major bugs, maintanence issues (I believe I received only one phone call about it after several years of continuous use). All in all I was pretty pleased with this approach and can absolutely recommend it.

    I believe this is the reason why so many English majors become excellent programmers: if you can write for people, you can write for computers. Sometimes there are reasons why you can’t do both at the same time, but there’s no reason not to find some middle ground.

     
  • Michael Krakovskiy 11:34 pm on April 2, 2008 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , contractor, , , Piping, , , , , worst permanent solution   

    Plumbing Chops 

    In my line of work I am often reminded of this brilliant passage from  Ellen Ullman’s “The Bug” (which I reviewed earlier):

    “Programming starts out like it’s going to be architecture–all black
    lines on white paper, theoretical and abstract and spatial and
    up-in-the-head. Then, right around the time you have to get something
    fucking working, it has this nasty tendency to turn into plumbing.


    It’s more like you’re hired as a plumber to work in an old house
    full of ancient, leaky pipes laid out by some long-gone plumbers who
    were even weirder than you are. Most of the time you spend scratching
    your head and thinking: Why the fuck did they do that?”

    To take the metaphor a little bit further, let me bring up one actual plumbing nightmare that I faced when I was renovating my apartment. One of the contractors clumsily knocked  off a valve on a piece of  water piping that did not have a local shutoff. The only shutoff was in the basement, and required turning off the water for the entire line. And the super, who could do the shutoff  was not in for a couple of days.

    Another contractor knew exactly what to do in that case. He created something that he called a “chop” (I found out later that the term is Ukrainian). It’s a conical piece of wood, shaped like a fat pencil that is hammered into the hole in the pipe. In a couple of minutes the wood swells up and completely plugs the leak. Add some duct tape around it, and you got a very good temporary plug that is almost as strong as the unbroken pipe.  It makes the worst permanent solution (wood rots), but the best temporary one (it can be applied without taking the whole system down and is reasonably strong).

    Chops, or as they are called in English – thru-hull plugs, are a maritime invention: they are used for emergency repairs on boats. These days you can even buy a ready made set.

    People think of software as of something static. Well, dynamic websites are more like a ships out at sea. Sometimes you have to patch them up in a storm. And then a good, strong “chop” is the best you can hope for until you can repair the leak permanently. And you are going to sink unless there’s somebody around who knows how to make a “chop”.

     
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