Local Hack Day 2019

Learning

In December, I once again spoke at the South Hills School of Business and Technology for their Local Hack Day. I shared some of the lessons I learned throughout the year, and would like to share them here on my blog as well.

Team Members

Throughout the year, I encounter people who would like some development work on the side. They may be experienced developers looking for additional work, recently graduated noobs, or people just trying to find a place to start on their software engineering journey. As a small business, I don’t have the bandwidth to take them all on. But when I see potential, I try to see if I can plug them in. This year, I learned three valuable lessons about staff. First, inspect what you expect. Just because someone says they possess a particular skill does not mean they actually do. Finding this out late in the game can be very costly. Second, I would encourage noobs to check their attitude at the door. If you’re just starting out, don’t assume you know more than me. You don’t. Third, friends don’t always make great team members. They may be great to hang out with, but mixing personal and professional relationships can be dangerous.

Customer Relations

As a software engineer, learning to deal with customers is a new challenge for me. This year, I learned the value of contracts. While I have always preferred to do business with a handshake, I’ve learned that customers may not always think the same. Without a contract, you have no recourse when your customer relationship goes south. On the flip side, when you do have a signed contract, treat your customer like the girlfriend (or boyfriend) that you’ve always wanted. Show them how much they matter as a customer. Otherwise, they’ll find a service provider who will!

Productivity

I started this year doing a lot of work that yielded no value. As a business, I must focus on those things that generate revenue for my organization. Some of that work is obvious – such as billable customer hours. Others tasks are essential, but don’t generate revenue directly – such as advertising efforts. Still other tasks are utterly useless – stop doing them. For things that are essential but don’t generate revenue, find ways to automate them or to lesson the workload. I use Hootsuite for my social media, for example, because it optimizes my social media workflow.

Valuable Tools

As a developer, it’s important to have the right tools available to not only be in a position to exploit future opportunities but also to be able to meet current business demands. I have been telling people for the last year to learn OpenCV and Artificial Intelligence. The future will undoubtedly involve computer systems doing work previously only done by humans. In the meantime, learning how to create PDFs is a far more practical business need for everyone. I’ve also found LaTeX to be a very useful tool for creating business documents. Not only can I easily check the documents into source control, but I have 100% control over the layout without my software injecting the style it thinks I want.

Education

In the tech world, you can never be left behind. You need to always be learning new tools, frameworks, and languages. Go to sites like Udemy or Coursera and further your tech skills. Seek out valuable certifications and read books. Louis Pasteur famously said “luck favors the prepared”. In the tech world, that’s typically the programmer with the broader skillset.

Conclusion

Each year of our lives, we should strive to be more than we were last year. The starting point for that is to reflect on the last year and learn from your successes and your mistakes and then to apply those lessons to the coming year. Look back on your last year and take note. This year can be the best year ever if you put in the effort to ensure you’re on the right path.

Apple vs Android

Cell Phones

I’ve been an Android user for the last decade. This was driven by two main factors. First, Android devices come in a variety of sizes, colors, and configurations. Second, I find the Android developer environment to be far superior to iOS development. I’ve previously shared posts about iOS development horrors as well as the difficulty of automating iOS builds. So, when it comes time to buy a new phone, I don’t hesitate to purchase an Android device. Whether it’s Google or Samsung, or if I’m looking for a cheaper ZTE device, I love Android phones.

Recently, I was asked by a client to download any iPhone-only application needed for our project. Since I already have an account with Google Fi, I decided to purchase an iPhone and use my Google Fi sim card . I decided I would carry both phones around for a few weeks and see how the iPhone compared.

The most striking thing I found about the iPhone was how well it integrates into Apple’s product line. As a MacBook Pro user, I make frequent use of the Notes application. These notes automatically appeared on my phone. I have countless WiFi access points on my laptop, and they too were immediately available. Calendar, reminders, Safari passwords, iCloud data, everything I checked was immediately there for my use. My Android phone can access Google Drive as well as contacts, but the integration is nothing like Apple. Of course, Google isn’t working with either Microsoft or Apple to integrate their tools into the OS, so this isn’t surprising.

Now, as I’ve found the iPhone integration so valuable for my business, I see myself continuing to use both. While I have never been a huge iOS fan, their integration with their OS is truly amazing. Who knows – maybe I’ll eventually use an iPhone as my primary phone!

Microsoft Account Mayhem

Mayhem

Recently, I purchased a laptop for a non-profit organization. The user was not a super tech-savvy individual, so I decided to get everything setup as much as possible for her. Since the laptop was running Windows 10 in S mode, I would need to first upgrade to the standard Windows 10 version. During the initial laptop startup, I avoided using a Microsoft account. However when started the upgrade process, the first thing Windows did was ask me to sign into my Microsoft account. No problem, I enter my credentials and wait for the upgrade to complete. As I continue, however, I notice that Microsoft added my OneDrive account and had started downloading my data. Then, I see that Microsoft Office is registered to me. Obviously, I didn’t want any of this. So, now I go through everything piece by piece and remove my account information.

A few days later, I’m at a client site setting up Office. I enter the credentials for the user, and am provided with an error that another Microsoft user is already signed into the machine. Search as I may, I could not find out what Microsoft was complaining about. Fortunately, after a reboot I managed to get it working again.

I really like how Microsoft has integrated their services into Windows. OneDrive is an amazing tool to easily share between machines, and using a single sign-on to enable all the Microsoft services can be convenient. Or, it can be a nightmare. Microsoft, how about you stop forcing someone to login to get a Windows update. Or, better yet, ask if we want to use that same sign for other services. While you’re at it, change Office registration to be more friendly for business users. I think we’d all rather have a product key than to worry about registering Microsoft accounts for every member of our team.

The Simplest Solution

Simple

When we encounter complex problems, do we seek the simples solution, or the most complicated and costly solution?

Recently, I had to upgrade a client machine. The old machine was running Windows 7, and I suggested that the client upgrade to a newer machine running Windows 10. Fortunately, the client’s requirements were rather simple – they needed Microsoft Office and the program they use for creating a lot of their printable resources – Print Shop. Their data was all stored on OneDrive, so this would be a simple upgrade. Or would it?

Unfortunately, the version of Print Shop the client was running was from 2006. We looked at newer versions, but it appeared that there was a substantial risk that their existing documents would not transfer to the new version without substantial rework. While the client was willing to accept this risk if necessary, their preferred route was to get it working on the new machine.

I started the installation, and patiently waited for it to complete. At the end, a screen asked me to wait while the installation concluded. I waited and waited, but the screen did not go away. I was able to run the installed application, but the installation would not terminate. I hit the cancel button, hoping the dialog would disappear and we could go on using the application. Unfortunately, hitting cancel caused the application to uninstall.

I thought that maybe there was a glitch or that I needed to wait longer. I installed the application again, and the same dialog appeared. It hung just as before. So, the first step was to wait… for three days. Unfortunately, the dialog still didn’t go away. I thought of just rebooting, but was worried that would, ultimately, cause the application to uninstall again. I could copy the files and the registry, but that could have caused more problems than it solved.

What would I do? I took the simple answer – I unplugged the machine. Since I didn’t cancel, and didn’t shut down, Windows didn’t try to uninstall the application. And, upon reboot, the software was still there!

While I don’t like unplugging machines, in this instance – it was the simple solution that worked. Sometimes, we need to put aside the technically correct answer and just go with what works. In the end, the client doesn’t care – they just want their problem to go away!

Coding Style

Writing

One of the most important skills for any team of engineers is to develop a consistent coding style. Without it, development and debugging times increase and productivity decreases. Coding style is much like the rules of writing a story. Sentences start with a capital letter and end in a period. New ideas are started in new paragraphs. Spaces exist between letters of words. If someone were to write a book without following those conventions, it would be substantially more difficult to read. Coding style works the same way.

One of the projects I worked for years was a complicated telephony system. It included low-level code for interfacing with the phone boards as well as high-level code for displaying data to the user. This was a lengthy project that took substantial time to develop. During development, John and I worked to develop a consistent coding style. A mentor on the team, Mark, would review our code, provide feedback, and fanatically insist on standard coding conventions and style.

At first, this seemed silly to me. I’m a developer, let me do what I do! But, as time went on, it became increasingly apparent how valuable it was. After a while, I was unable to tell the code I wrote from what John wrote. While this may seem silly, this meant that when bugs were found, either of us could feel equally comfortable understanding and changing the code.

Today, when I learn a new language, one of the first things I try to do is learn standard coding conventions for that language. Some languages, like Java, have well established and followed conventions. Unfortunately, many other languages do not. When that happens, the team needs to determine what conventions they will follow for their team. If not, expect bugs to take longer and development to be slower.

Mac – Not For Business Anymore

Catalina

A few years ago, I fell in love with the MacBook Pro. From the amazing display to the incredible battery life and everything in between, the MacBook Pro is an amazing machine. Unfortunately, Apple started killing that when they removed support for standard USB and I decided not to upgrade. Now, Apple has placed the final nail in the coffin for professional users with Catalina.

Apple has grown accustomed to telling their customers what they want and providing few options. Whether it’s the iPhone, the iPad, or their computer products, you typically don’t have many choices. This has always been a complaint lodged against Apple by PC users. But during the last year, this has killed the effectiveness of the MacBook Pro for business users. With Catalina, Apple has removed support for 32-bit software applications. Unfortunately, as a business user, I don’t have the luxury of upgrading my system if it’s going to kill applications I need for my business. In the business world, legacy code and applications may exist for a decade or more. So, I need to support those systems until they are end-of-life. This means insuring that I having support for 32-bit applications well into the future.

So, as of Catalina, I am no longer an Apple fan. I will keep my current MacBook Pro until it is no longer usable, but my next machine will be a Windows laptop. I can pick what ports I want, and find the corresponding laptop. I can decide what OS I want and what software. I don’t need Apple to tell me what I want – I’m a business user and I know my tech needs far better than they do.

WiFi Calling

Vintage Telephon

During the last few years, WiFi calling has become an option for cellular users. This is particularly exciting for those who use smaller cellular providers, those in rural areas, or those in building with poor cell coverage. But how good is it?

I have two cell phones – one that I use strictly for development and one for general use. A few months ago, I purchased a cell plan for the development phone to use Google Fi. My personal phone uses Verizon. My office is in a concrete building that does a pretty good job blocking cell signals. I do, however, have pretty solid WiFi. So, it only made sense to setup both phones for WiFi calling in my office. Now, no matter what, I can make calls from anywhere in the building.

My Experience

Unfortunately, the only option for WiFi calling on my Google Pixel is on or off. I can’t specify which should receive priority – WiFi or 4G – and I can’t specify what access points to enable WiFi calling on. So, when I’m in my car (with cellular WiFi), my phone uses the car’s WiFi for calling. Hardly optimal given that I pay per megabyte for data. When I’m at home, I have an excellent cell signal – so there’s no reason for WiFi calling. But that won’t stop my phone from defaulting to WiFi anyway.

This wouldn’t be a big deal if WiFi calling was as good as the cell network. But, unfortunately, it’s not. Even on an access point without any other users, my WiFi calling tends to break up or be delayed. Sometimes, it’s so bad that the other party complains and I’m forced to call back later. Of particular annoyance is that there’s typically a several second delay after the other party answers.

While I think WiFi calling is a great idea, it’s not reliable enough – at this time – for me to rely on. If I’m in an area without cell service, I may switch it back on, but until then I’m keeping it shut off.

MATLAB

Code

Running my own software company, I run into people trying to solve all kinds of different problems with software. As such, I end up using a variety of different technologies, languages, platforms, and frameworks. Recently, a client project required me to download MATLAB in order to experiment with several existing toolkits needed for the R&D phase of the project. The first thing I noticed was the price tag. Today, the overwhelming majority of development environments are free. However, MATLAB carries a hefty price tag of $800/year for commercial customers. After installing the application, I found out that the plugins (called toolboxes) averaged an additional $500/year. All told, this development environment was going to cost me around $3000/year after all necessary plugins were purchased.

Is It Worth It?

Seeing that MATLAB is so expensive, and so highly regarded by many in the research and academic community, I assumed that the MATLAB user experience was going to be epic! How wrong I was. The code I was examining contained dozens of files across numerous folders. Of course, this isn’t abnormal for any large project and I expect any decent IDE to be able to handle it. Any IDE except MATLAB. Need to find where a function is defined? Don’t expect any tools in MATLAB to accomplish that! Of course, you can do a find in files for all references of a string, but that’s not particularly helpful when a function is called dozens of times or has a short name. How about displaying a call hierarchy so that you can see where functions are being called? Nope – that’s not possible either. Ever aspect of the IDE proved to be well below what was commonly available in other IDEs.

If you’re not intersected in the user experience, I guess MATLAB is great. Apparently, its ability to perform all kinds of mathematical wizardry is beyond compare. It’s great for solving linear algebra problems and other advanced math tasks. Unfortunately, I wasn’t interested in that.

Open Source Code

I managed to find several open source projects and toolboxes for MATLAB. I was interested in understanding how these particular toolboxes work, so I started examining the code. MATLAB, like so many other languages, is a weakly-typed language. While weakly-typed languages do offer many benefits, readability is rarely one of them. MATLAB also does not require variables to be defined before use. This can be very difficult to follow particularly when the bulk of the code I saw contained neither useful variable names nor adequate comments to understand what’s going on. Very typical of people without a development background.

Conclusion

I was very disappointed with everything I saw in the MATLAB community. I assume most of the users are mathematicians and have no idea the kinds of features that are available in modern environments, so they have no idea what they’re missing. Likewise, I assume they’re used to digging through poorly documented code with variable names like g, f, c, and y. For me as a developer, this is neither acceptable nor maintainable long-term. For number crunching, I much prefer R. It may not have the most advanced IDE, but it doesn’t set me back anything either!

Value & Time

Growth

When we think about value, we think about the cost we pay for something. However, that’s a very shortsighted definition. We probably only consider cost as defining value because most of the things we buy are defined this way. For instance, when we go to a grocery store, we look at two brands of cheese, and the cheaper one is the better value. It doesn’t matter much which is the better quality cheese, it simply matters which is the cheaper cheese. As consumers, we typically only consider the cost. To me, the definition of value is far more complicated.

Buying Vacuum Cleaners

Twenty years ago, when I would buy a vacuum cleaner, I only considered cost when purchasing. The cheapest vacuum was the best value and the one I would purchase. But time and time again, I found that my value vacuum cleaner would stop working after about a year. So, I’d go back to the store and buy another one. I was paying about $100 per year to purchase vacuum cleaners. Note that now my value definition has a time element. After several years, I considered buying a Dyson vacuum cleaner. It was four times as expensive, but I had hoped it would do a better job than the $100 vacuum cleaners and that it would last longer. And today, 15 years later, I still have that same Dyson vacuum cleaner. If it were to break today, I would have spent $400 over 15 years for my vacuum. That’s a substantially better value than before!

Value of Technology

The cost of computer technology is very similar. You can buy the $300 laptop and expect to replace it next year, or you can buy a MacBook and have it for 10 years. But custom software is a little more difficult to directly compare since the price tag isn’t as clearly defined. What I’ve found is that when customers purchase consulting services or software development services based solely on the cost of those services, they often find that the price tag explodes over the lifespan of the product due to poor development. When you find the developer with the lowest cost, he probably has the least experience. He will take longer to accomplish the work since he’s bound to run into more snags than an experienced developer. He’s also likely to overlook things that a senior developer wouldn’t. These issues will result in additional costs during the lifetime of the application to fix in addition to lost time and productivity from your software users.

Conclusion

Paying for custom technology services is more like buying a vacuum than it is purchasing a block of cheese from the grocery store. The true value of those technology services will be defined not by cost alone, but by how long those services solve your technology problems.

Samsung Galaxy Watch

Galaxy Watch

Over the last several years, I have owned several smart watches. Unfortunately, I was never impressed with any of them. Early smart watches had horrible battery life. At the end of the day, it was not uncommon for my watch to have less than 20% battery  remaining. Use your watch more heavily, and you could expect to recharge mid way through the day. While early smart watches were nice toys, they lacked any real use case beyond being able to read your text messages.

How things have changed. I bought a Samsung Galaxy Watch hoping to give smart watches another try. Not only is the battery life amazing, but so are the features. At the end of the day, I typically have 70% or more battery remaining. I can now go multiple days without charging! In addition to being able to send and receive text messages, I can use my watch to make calls! The Samsung Galaxy Watch includes WiFi, NFC, optional 4G, and is even waterproof!

The Samsung Galaxy Watch is also an amazing tool for runners, hikers, bikers, and anyone who wants to keep track of their exercise or heart rate. With GPS, altimeter, barometer, step counter, and heart rate monitor, the Samsung Galaxy Watch is the perfect tool for any fitness enthusiast.

The Samsung Galaxy Watch has rewritten the book on smart watch technology. Their watch is absolutely amazing and is the first smart watch I have ever really loved.