Archive for January, 2007

Windows Power Tools is a collection of brief tutorials and overviews of freeware and open source .NET development tools. What kind of rating you might give this book depends largely upon what type of background that you’re coming from. If you’re the kind who has stuck religiously to the Microsoft Press series of books and acknowledge only the old testament, than this book will be either an epiphany (5 stars) or outright blasphemy (1 star). If continuous integration, test-driven development, and object relational mapping (new testament type stuff) are terms that you are fairly conversant with, then this book will probably land somewhere in the 2-4 star range.

Windows Power Tools

Since I put myself in the 2-4 star group, I’ll start by mentioning that there are great online tomes of knowledge that contain most of the tools listed in this book and a bunch others not listed here. One of the most respected and well linked lists belongs to the author of this book’s forward, Scott Hanselman. His Ultimate Developer and Power Users Tool List for Windows has been dutifully updated on an annual basis. Despite the fact that there are free, decent resources out there that fill some of the same purposes as this book, I enjoyed thumbing through the book and picking out tools I hadn’t heard of to fill in some knowledge gaps.

The main reason that I landed on a 3 star rating instead of a 4 star rating is that the brief tutorial format that worked so well for James when describing Visual Studio functionality is his previous book, Visual Studio Hacks, just doesn’t do justice to tools that represent significant pieces of an application or support infrastructure. I would have preferred to see less tools and deeper coverage in certain areas. Understandably, since not everyone would want to see the same tools as me; a broader, shallower approach trades off depth and detail for marketability. I’ve included my complete list of pros and cons below so that you can see how I came to my rating:

Pros

  • Great reference book with enough of an introduction to get you started with a broad array of tools
  • If you’re an O’Reilly Safari subscriber, this book is included in your subscription
  • The authors aspire to keep materials current on the book’s companion Web site. At the time of this review, the site is little more than a list of tools in the book

Cons

  • Lots of this material is available for free on the Web, if you have the time and inclination to find it
  • Introductions to tools are not sufficiently in depth to communicate any more than the most rudimentary of use cases

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Technologists who spend their time working on line of business projects are typically exposed to subtle and not-so-subtle messages about business ethics. Most recently, the implementation of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act has touched most of our lives in some way, shape, or form. At a bare minimum, it has heightened our awareness of how terribly wrong things can go when the trust afforded certain practices (accounting and reporting, in the case of SOX) proves to be misplaced.

As strong as the reaction to Enron, Tyco, and WorldCom debacles was; it surprises me again and again to see just how willing the corporate community is to shrug off major IT project failures. This is especially true when you compare the strict regulations, codes of conduct, and ethical guidelines in place for the public accounting community and the almost complete lack of anything resembling these structures in the professional software engineering community. Enron and Tyco may be examples of otherwise ample process controls gone awry. In the software engineering community, we don’t even have a process.

Software Engineering, Ethics and the FBI Virtual Case File System

The recent IT conversations Podcast on the utter failure of the project to stand up the FBI Virtual Case File system reinforced this point for me. For those of you who want to get the down and dirty on the FBI Virtual Case File story, the IEEE has a pretty good article containing what appears to be a fairly objective history of the project. “So what does this have to do with ethics?”, you ask.

I think most laypeople, let alone professional software engineers, perceive about halfway through the IEEE article that this project was a train wreck in the making. So why was this not apparent to the 200 plus contractors and countless FBI staff involved in the project? Have we, as a profession, been conditioned into silence or is virtually every software project so fraught with journeys into uncharted waters that we have become ethically ambivalent to the dangers?

The real “story within the story” here is the tale of Matthew Patton, a security contractor who, despondent about lack of management concern, posted his concerns about the project to a Web-based bulletin board. The Web post, which has been archived online, lead to an FBI investigation, denial of his clearance, and a situation in which Mr.Patton had little choice but to resign. Perhaps it’s just me but I find it a bit ironic that Mr.Patton was forced out of the FBI project in the same year that an FBI employee made it onto Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” cover along with whistleblowers from Enron and WorldCom.

There have been movements in our profession (if I can refer to it as such) to institute a code of ethics and similar measures. Both IEEE and the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) support a unified software engineering code of ethics. With membership in these organizations representing just a fraction of the population engaged in software engineering, this code has nowhere near the professional impact of similar measures released by organizations such as the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). Where does this leave us as software engineers?

* We need more people like Matthew Patton amongst our ranks because there are certainly more train wrecks like the FBI Virtual Case File system just waiting to happen.

* We have to start taking software engineering as a profession seriously. The fact that late and over-budget projects have come to represent the norm needs to change.

* We need to think long and hard about how to police ourselves as a profession. Accounting and auditing tried, failed, and then Congress stepped in and told them how to run the show as part of Sarbanes-Oxley. If we don’t figure out how to do this ourselves, someone will tell us how we have to run our show.

We as software engineers are bound by the same laws that we created. There are no silver bullets for the issue of ethics in software engineering. There is only the fact that a lot of software projects are delivered late, over-budget, or both. It is our ethical obligation to speak up or support those who do speak up and call out the doomed death-march projects before they’ve done too much harm – to us, to our organizations, and to our profession.

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The Technology and Venture Capitalism Podcast on IT Conversations featured some interesting guests who brought a lot of good ideas to the table. Phil Windley, the moderator, got the guests to kick around the concept of patterns for applications that are good prospective candidates for funding in the VC world. The discussion started with the simple advertising-only model (a’la Google) and the group then moved onto the Apple iTunes / iPod model.

The premise of the Apple discussion was that the combination of offering digital media services (iTunes Store), a rich user management interface (iTunes), and a non-traditional computing device offered a model that might be increasingly followed in the future. The group referred to Tim O’Reilly’s O’Reilly Radar presentation, in which Tim cited hardware hacks as an important trend to watch in the future. They also chatted a bit about the Chumby, a much-hyped hardware hack that is available is being circulated in prototype mode to über-Alpha-geeks.

All of this talk got me thinking and putting together a mental model. It brought me back to a McKinsey interview I had in the late dot-com era where the interviewer asked me to draw out a value map for several emerging digital media technologies. Granted, there were no iPods or Chumbies back then but the value map visual seems to work just as well for these newer technologies too. I’ve included a simple map of some representative technologies (circa 2006-2007) below.

Value == Services + Device

In the diagram, the dollar signs [$$$] represent where the primary value derivation occurs in the chain. If you buy into the Value == Services + Device equation, TiVo and Apple are set to come out on top since they control both services and devices. Brings to mind all types of questions around potential commoditization of the services and devices as well as to what strategic leverage (aside from high switching costs) these companies enjoy. Audible and MySpace own only the services, having to rely upon complimentary products (MP3 players and the browser, respectively) to deliver their services. The Chumby is in an interestingly unique position, controlling only the device but not the services. This makes me wonder what the long term value potential is for this product. It would seem that, without very strong branding and product loyalty, the Chumby would be exposed to all sorts of knock-offs. I guess time will tell.

All of this makes devices like the iPhone very interesting in the future. With the combination of very strong branding and the ability to integrate content from all of the major media channels, it would seem that the iPhone is a market killer in an increasingly mobile society. With all of that power in one place, you might want to keep an extra one or two handy, just in case…

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Try this on for size – the EPAct2005 is the Y2K of Y2K’07. No, this is not an anagram. No sooner is 2006 behind us and folks are already worried about “the next Y2K”, the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Between January 1st and January 3rd, I’ve received no fewer than 8 emails on this topic. These emails include everything from details about software and hardware that will require some form of remediation to EPAct2005-related business opportunities.

Energy Policy Act of 2005

What is the Energy Policy Act of 2005 exactly, you ask. If you read the Wikipedia entry on EPA2005, you will get a face-full of legislative overload. What’s important to look at, at least if you’re in the IT industry, is the one section titled Change to daylight savings time:

“The bill amends the Uniform Time Act of 1966 by changing the start and end dates of daylight saving time starting in 2007. Clocks will be set ahead one hour on the second Sunday of March instead of the current first Sunday of April. Clocks will be set back one hour on the first Sunday in November, rather than the last Sunday of October. This will make electronic clocks that had pre-programmed dates for adjusting to daylight saving time obsolete and will require updates to computer operating systems. The date for the end of daylight saving time has the effect of increasing evening light on Halloween (October 31).”

“Will require updates to computer operating systems”. Ugh, that sounds both nebulous and uggy. The links below lead to the vendor specific remediation instructions.

From the links it doesn’t really look like things are so bad. What makes this a bit less containable than it appears at first glance is the pervasive nature of embedded devices, occasionally connected devices, and computing systems other than the ones with keyboards and monitors on them. Y2K turned out not to be so bad because it was a bit easier to quarantine the old iron running the offending code. With EPAct2005, getting to the desktops and big machines is only part of the battle. There are just so many other devices out there running on computers of some form that much is bound to slip through the cracks. Then again, your DVR and your kids’ robotic dog aren’t exactly air traffic control systems.

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Over the holidays, I had the chance to catch up with some back reading and Podcasts and there was one, in particular, that caught my attention. The book / Podcast combo on transforming state governments by Deloitte & Touche provided some really interesting, innovative, no-holds-barred analysis of the problems that state governments are facing in the early 21st century. Recorded the day after the 2006 elections, Deloitte’s Bob Campbell and Bill Eggers collaborate with Deloitte advisor, former governor of Pennsylvania and first secretary of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge to produce an excellent Podcast. The Podcast serves as a solid introduction to the more extensive analysis in their book, States of Transition: Tackling government’s toughest policy and management challenges.

States of Transition Bookcover

The Podcast is available via iTunes or as a download on Deloitte’s Web site. You can also download a decent sized book excerpt here. I have also mirrored the book excerpt as well for the sake of speed and continuity. I’ve highlighted some of the interesting points of the Podcast and book below. I encourage you to listen to the Podcast and pick up the book. My experience with state government leads me to believe that Deloitte’s analysis is spot on. Many of the truths analyzed in the book / Podcast are the veritable elephants in the room of state government. As important as these insights are for public policy and administrative specialists; they are equally important to technologists. As I have told several clients, the business architecture issues of state government such as workforce, political, and organizational constraints must be offset by tradeoffs that will ultimately affect the application and technical architecture solutions that we as technologists are asked to provide. If you are a technologist providing solutions to state governments, it behooves you to understand these business architecture constraints.

Before I go into the highlights of the book / Podcast, I’ll start with a bit of ethically obligatory disclosure. I am a Deloitte employee. That said, I am not writing this blog entry to tout or profit from my employer’s intellectual capital in any way. The materials I am blogging about are, obviously, all publicly available. Furthermore, I am writing about them because I feel that they would be of interest to the majority of this blog’s readers. Enough of the fine print; highlights as well as a matrix excerpted from the book can be found below:

States of Transition Highlights

  • Bob Campbell hits the nail on the head but citing federal entitlement programs as the drivers of siloed state government operations. Makes you wonder if things like the Federal Funding Accounting and Transparency Act are eventually going to have trickle down effects on the states.
  • Focus on states as the “laboratories of democracy” and drivers of innovation. This is especially important since states have the potential to be much more agile than the federal government in addressing policy issues and providing innovative solutions.
  • Coverage of the tough choices needed to fix an ailing Medicaid system. Innovations such as the Vermont Medicaid waiver system are included in the discussion. One fact that I found both interesting and scary (though not surprising) is that, were state Medicaid budgets the basis of independent operating entities, nearly half of the states’ Medicaid programs would be Fortune 500 companies.
  • Detailed analysis of state government workforce issues. There is a lot of information about unfunded liabilities on state retirement and healthcare plans. Governor Ridge went as far as to compare state government with the steel and automotive industries; a comparison I contemplated a lot on my recent trip to Detroit.
  • Critical look at an infrastructure deficits and discussion of the need to increase focus on this area. There are some interesting examples of the public-private partnership model at work. One in particular that came up during the Podcast was the purchase and execution of warranties on roads by New Mexico. For those with further interest in this area, I’d encourage you to listen to the IT Conversations Podcast about transportation networks.

Trying to remain fair and unbiased, there are also several things for which I would have liked to have seen analysis and opinions. It’s understandable these issues didn’t make the cut for a text that is already tackling a lot of huge issues. However, I’d be interested to know where folks stand on these issues:

  • Detailed analysis of the real cost of a state worker (per hour). When you factor in the number of hours worked and the liberal pension and healthcare benefits, what is the actual cost of your hypothetical state worker? I’d be interested to know.
  • Focus on the citizen-centric viewpoint of government. That is, with my cable company, whether I go online, call on the phone, or walk into one of their storefronts, they can ask me a question or two to establish my identity and then pull up all of the information they need to help me without asking me to provide it again. Government, on the other hand, comes across as having a serious case of amnesia when trying to pull off the same act. “Need to file taxes? Tell me your name, your address, your dependents…”, “Need Welfare? Your name, your address, your dependents…”, “Need a license…”
  • Discussion about digital and energy infrastructure as well as physical infrastructure. Not to diminish the value of physical infrastructure, but last time I checked, we didn’t rank too well globally in terms of the pervasiveness of high-speed network connectivity. We also have a serious addiction to dead dinosaur juice. While energy policy tends to be largely a federal thing, states like California are well versed trend setters in this area. If states really are to be the drivers of innovation, what could they do in this area? Check out my post on the Destiny USA project. Seems like New York has mixed emotions about being too much of a trend setter.
  • Realistic view of drawing the best and the brightest to state government work. I’d be interested to know how many states offer tuition reimbursement as part of their employment package. Anyone, anyone?? Also, with the private sector increasing chunking work into projects and matrixing staff across projects, I’d be interested to hear ideas about if and how a hierarchical organization such as state government can be contorted to follow this precedence.

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