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Choose the Right Tool for the job

Over the years, I've worked with a number of systems which aggregate data in some way. These have included simple RSS aggregators, the importation of multiple XML formats, and even interacting with a multiple of bug tracking systems. Regardless of the domain, there is a simple concept here: There are a particular set of actions we wish to perform on the data, but quite often the data sources have a variety of data structures.

For some reason, most people immediately jump to the "simple" solution of building a inheritance heirarchy, each with a distinct class/structure beneath it to a specific data structure. This can work fine for quite a few situations and ends up being quite elegant in patterns such as the Data Access Object and others where you can completely encapsulate the data structure and simply forget about it. Unfortunately, this doesn't work in all scenarios.

For example, I'm involved in a large scale Java system where we are retriving XML data structures from a series of different sources (think aggregation). When we started there were twelve different sources in two different formats and the solution looked simple, we would simply import each of the structures and be done with it.

Since I've been bitten by this before, I proposed a different solution. Instead of doing the import in a single step, we would use a Two-Step Pattern to first convert each data structure into our custom structure and simply import that. We've been able to implement this by building a single importer class and creating a new XML-to-XML XSL transform for each new data source.

Just in time too, within 2 months, we were up to 7 different formats from 237 different sources...

Pave the cowpath

At my alma mater, Ball State University, there is a dirt walkway affectionately known as the cowpath. It is a makeshift shortcut from one of the dorms (er, residence halls) to classrooms on the other end of campus. It emerged out of need and student's tendency to take the shortest line between two points. The cowpath has existed for decades, and unless something has changed in the last five years, it remains a dirt trodden path.

What does any of this have to do with producing and managing software? Put simply, when we observe people wearing a path that we didn't anticipate, like when they use our software in interesting or peculiar ways, we have a few options:

  1. Slap the user's wrist and tell him not to mickey with the software
  2. Analyze if the software's user interface created some confusion
  3. Observe the user closely to understand his motivation

If you do #2 and #3 you will most likely choose to pave the cowpath instead of discouraging the user from doing what he wants to do. While I wouldn't advise retrofitting a spreadsheet into a flight simulator, developers and project managers should keep an open mind about creative ways that people repurpose software. A practical example is the Friendster software product. From presentation notes given by Danah Boyd to the Supernova Conference:

What was successful about Friendster had nothing to do with its original purpose or design [dating]. Instead, users saw it as a flexible artifact that they could repurpose to reflect their social practices. As i learned how people embedded Friendster into their daily lives, i was fascinated by how it manifested itself as so many different tools to so many different people. Some saw it as an information gathering tool, allowing them to learn about friends and strangers. Others saw it as a performance tool and a venting site. It was also used as a gaming device, a distribution channel for the drug dealer, an anti-depressant for the voyeur, a popularity contest. Many also saw it as a cultural artifact necessary for all water cooler discussions.

At first Friendster resisted the use cases they didn't ordain, but gradually they saw value in what their user base wanted from the service. They were fortunate to have a flexible system, which helps. They revised their software in minor ways (pave the cowpath), but mostly they just needed to get out of the way.

The next time your users surprise you with the way they (mis) use your software, consider if the possibility that the user knows something you don't. As a consequence you may tap into new markets for your software, and at the very least, by adapting your software to the needs of the user you will make their experience more pleasant.

Ruby for the PHP Programmer ...

This will be a series of my findings in the syntax and language of Ruby from a PHP perspective.

Displaying and formatting output is one of the first things you need to know when learning a new language.

PHP:

echo Look it up at PHP.net
echo value [,values];
This is not a function, so ( ) is not needed. It is a language construct. Hmm, something I just learned. it will concat the variable for you and display. This might come in handy, sometimes is a pain to always do print $var1 . " " . $var2; Sometimes those periods are easy to forget!

Example:

$first = "Nola";
$last = "Stowe";
echo $first, ' ', $last, "<br>";

print Look it up at PHP.net
print value;
Also not a function but a language construct, so () not needed here as well.

Example:

$first = "Nola";
$last = "Stowe";
print $first." ". $last."<br>";
// or
print "$first $last <br>"";

results in:
Nola Stowe

For more on the differences of print and echo, read: http://www.faqts.com/knowledge_base/view.phtml/aid/1/fid/40

In most cases, I usually use print.

Also availble in php, but I never rarely use:
printf (string format, [, mixed args]); uses a formatting string
sprintf (formats as printf, but reutrns a string rather than printing)
vsprintf (like sprintf, but accepts an array of values instead of a variable number)
vprintf (like printf, but accepts an array of values instead of a variable number)

Ruby:
(which BTW, does not require ; at end of line, local vars don't have $ those are reserved for globals)


first = "Nola"
last = "Stowe"


print first, ' ', last, "<br>"

prints contents of variable test followed by test2

results in:
Nola Stowe

However, it appears some special variables (lookie! a $!!! that means they are global)


$, = " " #displayed between variables in print
$\ = "<br>" #displayed at end of the line

Will set some defaults for the print statement, so once those are set, all you need to do is:


print first,last

To get the same result. Cool, huh?

Also in Ruby I found puts, and putc. I need to do some more investigation on those. Perhaps a reader can shed some light?

So you can see, PHP's echo is most like Ruby's print. That should help us die hard php programmers who normally use print exclusively.
Also in Ruby, which seem to work like the php versions:
printf
sprintf

Introducing Gavin

Hello everyone, and welcome to CodeSnipers. I'd like to start by saying how excited I am to be a part of this, and by thanking Keith for setting the whole thing up. I think this is going to be a lot of fun, I know I'm going to learn a lot by participating in the discussions and reading the posts of all the contributors. I already feel like I'm learning, and all I've done is a quick tour of the blog roll.

My name is Gavin Bowman, and I'm a software developer based in the north of England. While I was heavily into computing at an early age, it was mostly for the games, I didn't really do anything productive with them until I started work. My first job was a general trainee tech support role, but with the help of some great people, a flexible environment, and a lot of personal study time, I was able to spend most of my time catching and incubating the coding bug. When it was time to move on, an offer of some contract work on the side came as a happy coincidence, and without really thinking about it I'd gone it alone. Somehow I've managed to keep myself afloat ever since.

I tried forming a consulting/services company with a long term colleague in 2000, but it gradually morphed into a Micro ISV, and we have spent most of the last 3 years developing and selling our products online. Despite being a programmer first and foremost, I have to spend a large amount of my time on marketing, or trying to learn how to do marketing, and often need to dabble in web design and scripting. My early development adventures were in VB and VBA, but these days I work almost exclusively in C#. You probably shouldn't expect, or wish for, any malloc or vi tips from my posts.

What I think my posts will focus on is the Micro ISV life, occasional C#, and possibly my learning experiences with various web technologies and marketing techniques. I can't wait, and I hope you find something here that helps or entertains.

Whois Rusty Divine?

One night while laying quietly in the top bunk at a medical testing facility and using a pen light to read the university's course manual, my aspirations to be a mechanical engineer like my half brother came to an end. If it wasn't for Dynamics, which I did finally pass after three attempts, but which I'm sure hexed my soul, I may be a mechanical engineer today.

And thank God I'm not, because I can't write one line of code without breaking the compile! Imagine the masses of innocent lives that would have been snuffed out by my bridges, cat walks, and handrails (in that order, as my career spiraled into oblivion) if I hadn't given up on that fateful night! It may be your life I saved.

So what did I discover in that course book? It actually was about as far away from computers as I could get (unintentionally; I have been a computer hobbyist since before puberty). I read about Geology. Man, after spending years in a stuffy engineering department where some of my professors didn't even have necks, the thought of hiking around mountains, camping, and hitting rocks with a steel hammer really appealed to me.

Maybe it was the Prozac talking; or maybe I was low on blood after the 43rd draw of the day, but switching majors turned out to be one of my better life decisions. I met my future wife in the Geology department and have followed her career to our current rookery in Seattle where we live with our two Greyhounds.

My first job after college; well, the week I spent mucking out a glorified stomach deemed "The Digester" for $7/hr that broke down salad dressing waste water in a sandy slurry of bacteria doesn't count (in fact, I try hard to repress that memory...especially the part about the dead rats..); was at an environmental engineering company. I quickly transitioned into the "Database Guy" role, and later the "ASP Web Guy". After that, I bought about 200 pounds of computer books and have spent evenings and weekends constructing electronic fortresses and exploring new territories.

I've worked at environmental consulting companies ever since, and have specialized in ASP.Net with SQL Server. I wear a lot of hats though, from project management, analysis, development, through completion.

I love working in consulting because every few months I get to start a new project where I learn a client's business process and then work to automate and improve it.

I also enjoy reading, writing and arithmitic (expect dynamic arithmitic) and I look forward to sharing my experiences in the consulting world and learning about your reactions and your world views.

<?="Nola's Introduction"?>

Greetings fellow developers! I hope to use this blog to share some things I’ve learned and generate some good discussion. Feel free to point out my flaws and add your thoughts. Although I am stubborn, I do admit when I am wrong… if you succeed in convincing me that is! ;)

Where I Started
I got my first computer when an Uncle gave me his TRS-80 and we hooked it up to a small tv. We plugged in cartridges and played games. In the summer I turned 13, I found a BASIC programming book, learned how to do simple programs, save files to cassette tape and use the 6 inch wide thermal paper printer. I made the screen flash random colors and make math games for my siblings. That was the end of my summers playing outside.

From there, I progressed to a Tandy 1000sx. I discovered Print Shop, and spent hours making big blocky graphics. In fact, I used the printer so much, one day it started smoking! Luckily, it was 1 month before the warranty was up, and I hauled it back to Radio Shack. When I got a color monitor and Photo Shop Deluxe, I was ecstatic. I don’t think I slept for a week. I could make my own fonts and produce fairly crisp graphics. I bought some more Basic programming books and made more simple applications.

Later on, I dabbled in C/C++ and VB. I discovered online BBSs when I was 16. I saw all the shareware available and was very disheartened. Surely nobody wanted anything I could ever write. I still programmed but didn’t have any goals of making anything grandiose applications. I remember a friend of mine going to college around 1996 and asked if I would like a “Homepage.” What’s that I say? He said a page about you for the Internet! I was like, ummm..no. Not having a clue about the Internet. When I got on the Intranet myself about age 18 using my Dads university account, I found out for myself what it was all about using Lynx, Zmodem downloads and gopher!

I thought I would like to do Desktop Publishing, so I took a class then went out to find a job. Nobody wanted to hire some crazy girl marching in saying she knew how to do DTP. So I went to college and majored in Computer Information Systems and minored in Design Studio. I better understood programming languages now, design concepts and databases and found that I was good in web development, since it can include programming AND design. I found my niche in the programming world!

Where I am Now
I work for an international engineering firm, doing mainly intranet programming with PHP and MySQL. On the side, I do contract work for Casey Software on various web development projects and some projects on my own. I have a dedicated webserver where I manage around 14 sites for friends, family and a few businesses. I am interested in OS projects like DotProject, SugarCRM, Smarty, Gallery and plan on being involved in new development where I can assist.

Where I want to go
Never content to just know what I know, I am always learning something and trying new things. I dabble in .NET from time to time, play with VB and Java. I spend most of my time with things like perl (which I know some, but not very well), python and ruby. One of my quests is to write a php class worth of being includedin PEAR.

So thanks "Al-Gore" for "creating" the Internet… it pays the bills now :)

Me in an Austin Powersesque Nutshell [Ben]

I can't help but think of fellow-Canadian Mike Myers curled up on his back swivelling his hands saying "this is me in a nutshell." That is appropriate for a computer programmer stuck inside a (C?) shell, with all the communication problems that entails. My writing is not my strength, I am an observer above all, something signified in my mediocre Anthropology pursuits at the University of Toronto (1988-91), while I pulled my average up with the Computer Science half of my double major. Having an English teacher for a mom, I can put sentences together and spot spelling and grammar errors (especially in other peoples' writing), but that is altogether different from writing something that is a compelling read.

C++, Windows, and MicroISV are going to be regular subjects here. Hopefully I can be of some service, but I expect to learn a lot in the process.

Although I grew up and schooled in Canada, I was born to U.S. parents and when I graduated in 1991 I switched over to the U.S. and started working in Virginia where I have been except for a 15 month stint in the Caribbean. I started firstobject.com in 1999 and started selling a small source code product on the side in 2001. That's me in a very small nutshell, I look forward to introducing myself more through the course of writing articles for this site.

Introductory remarks [John]

Hello all!
First, I'd like to say thanks to all the fine folks responsible for getting this up and running, and to everyone for contributing. There's a big difference between thinking 'gee, it would be cool if..." and actually doing something. So, cheers!

As for me: I'm just this guy who's been pounding on keyboards for twenty some-odd years and still hasn't learned to type fast. Oh, and I never wanted to grow up, which is why I didn't even go to college until the age of twenty-five. But go I did, and it was there that I found the discipline to turn my curiosity into productive work.

I graduated with a CS degree in 2003, and have been working full-time as a developer ever since. Mostly, I write Java that powers back-end stuff behind web services, but occasionally I write UI code in C#. (One thing I'm looking forward to this fall is an increase in my .NET workload, which should be fun). Overall, I enjoy my work and take it seriously, and derive great satisfaction from conversing with those who care about it as much as I do. So I'm looking forward to sharing ideas and experience with all of you, as well as with the world-at-large. This should be quite rewarding for all of us.

A Quick Introduction - Keith

I'm a software developer living just outside Washington, DC. I have worked in both the government and corporate worlds for both internal and external customers. The bulk of my work has involved various Open Source projects in primarily Java and PHP. A significant amount of this development has revolved around the development and usage of various XML standards, but in recent years, I have been working in the integration of existing Open Source Projects.

Last year, I formed my own company - CaseySoftware - based on the belief that small and medium businesses are missing out on critical pieces of technology infrastructure simply out of ignorance of the tools available. There are a number of tools available that can improve workflows, provide better management, and capture information better than the Excel spreadsheets, Access databases, and emails currently floating around out there.

Prior to enter the working world, I began my professional education by earning a BS in Electrical Engineering from Rose-Hulman along with a number of non-technology minors. While there I learned how to flip bits, filter signals, and have an intelligent conversation about various areas of political and economic theory and application.

About Joseph

So let me start this introductory, I'm a software engineer, perhaps a drone, trying to break out of this existence! That statement always reminds me of Apple's 1984 commercial that borrowed its clever plot line from Orwell's 1984 title. And like the drones of software engineers, I don't live in Silicon Valley, I don't work for Microsoft, nor do I have any contacts like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or even Linus Torvalds for that matter. Much to my dismay, no capital venturist has been knocking on my door to fund me with the capital for this venture.

I have been programming all my life, as early as the age of 12 in basic, under MS-DOS, and I later 'graduated' to coding in debug! If you guessed 80x86 assembler, you're right! By my teens, I was as dangerous as a teen with a supersoaker gun, armed with idle time, phrack magazines, 2600 booklets, I spend alot of time trying everything I could from phreaking to penetration.

This was all before we knew what the Internet was, back then, Datapac and Tymnet was all we had for connecting at 1200/2400 baud modems to around the world. PBXes were too poor to use back then, that was until the USRobotics 14.4k HST modem, this was the Ferrari of modems, and then, all hell broke loose and that's perhaps the quintessence of my curiousity.

Today, I spend alot of time on securing code, and put alot of time in its asset management. I also like to put alot of time in refactoring code, and better design, with cross platform widgets.