Saturday, September 30, 2006

The IT Miracle

I believe you have all experienced a client who asks for the impossible, but despite all odds you some how pull it off. You produced what I call the "IT Miracle".

Depending on your perspective and beliefs, a miracle can have many meanings. So for the sake of this discussion I propose the meaning to be this:
1. an effect or extraordinary event in the software development world that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a supernatural cause.
An IT Miracle is simple. The user asks for something you figure can only be accomplished by using a time machine, a magic wand, pixie dust, telepathic communications, more money than the customer has, and a truckload of Staples Easy buttons.

Not only do they ask the impossible, they put up several roadblocks, leave out critical details, respond slowly to questions, accelerate deadlines, and maybe toss in a few extra last minute requirements they got to have or the project will not be deemed a success.

Some of these impossible tasks are driven by business needs, some are necessary to provide competitive advantages, some of them are wild and crazy ideas by pointy-haired-bosses, some are in response to project disasters, some are necessitated to help users who are desperate for help, some are driven by governmental legislation, and the list goes on...

Add in the dependency of others pulling their weight on the project. Maybe it is counting on a project manager to handle all the critical paths, solid specs from the business analysts, developers providing good estimates and finishing up their components on time, DBAs making the data changes on time, testers building the proper and efficient test plans, users performing acceptance testing, tech support folks coming up to speed on all the changes, hardware being delivered on time and in some cases designed/developed/built. Maybe you are in charge of all these aspects, which may or may not be better than having others help you.

Clear communications is always one of the biggest stumbling blocks. Forget one little communication and the whole house of cards can come tumbling down.

Quite frankly, I am amazed the simplest of projects come together. Maybe every project is an IT Miracle.

I just finished working on my latest IT Miracle project. It really was not a whole lot of fun. Usually they are fun. Five conversions from four different database schemas to one common database in three months. This means five different customized conversion source code bases (even the data in the common database schemas were different enough from each other). Lots of code had to be written and had to be perfect to ensure no data was lost. Three of the conversions were from databases we had no prior contact. The last time we did one of these from scratch it took four man months and we were asked to do all five in three months. I told the customer it was going to take an IT Miracle. The client was not open even slightly to any deviation to completing this before September 30th.

The last conversion happened last night despite the odds. Only because key players on the team did what ever was necessary to get the job done. This is the key. Find people who are dedicated to pulling off the impossible and be flexible enough to work around those who are speed bumps along the way. Adrenaline junkies with a a few of these qualities: a sense of humor, excellent coding skills, lots of patience, the ability to skip sleep cycles, willing to pick up the slack from others, ability to communicate clearly, and take the heat of those who call you on the carpet and question your integrity. The few and the proud.

I have been lucky in my career to have surrounded myself with quality developers with these qualities.

The question pestering me today: how many IT Miracles are we allowed in our careers? Reading my earlier conclusion about the possibility all projects are IT Miracles has me thinking I should be praying there is no limit.

Fortunately most of my clients have reasonable expectations. For this I am blessed. I am sure the next IT Miracle project is just over the horizon so I have decided to enjoy the break in between them this time while I work in projects with sane requirements.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

More ISS Transit shots

I was surfing the Web this morning looking for the latest images of the International Space Station to see the latest changes done by the crew of STS-115. My hunt lead me across some more transit pictures and actual video of one such transit with the lunar surface as the back drop. Check out the video on Ed Morana's page to see how fast ISS is traveling when some of these pictures are captured. Very impressive stuff.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The impossible shot made possible

Shuttle Atlantis and IIS with the sun as a backdrop. The local weather guy on channel 4 showed this last night on the broadcast and sent me the link (thanks Chuck). I thought taking pictures of lightning was difficult.

If I remember the details correctly: this picture was only possible from a six mile wide slice of Earth for 6 tenths of a second. More details on the Web page with the images.

I am in total awe.

Sunday, September 17, 2006 - Thanks Mike Hogan

Here it is a late Sunday night in Sterling Heights. I worked hard today painting the outside of the White Light Computing World Headquarters and stained some windows. Manual labor that I am not cut out to be doing (I was born to code).

I am suppose to be working on two projects because I am taking tomorrow off. Instead I get distracted and start surfing the Web. I have no real idea how I got here, but I come across I recall reading something about this a while back, but tonight I went through the site.

I really enjoyed reading the different success stories, but I must say I got a big "pick-me-up" when I read Vassilis Aggelakos' post: VFP does Windows. We have sold very few copies of Deploying Visual FoxPro Solutions, but reading how it impacted Vassilis really made my night! It is posts like this and the emails we get on how the book helped a developer makes the 600+ man hours I worked on the book completely worthwhile.

Anyway, a special thanks to Mike Hogan for creating this site!

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Conference blogging catching on

It looks like Andrew MacNeill's and Kevin Ragsdale's call to bloggers to cover the conferences is really taking off. I thought the Prague coverage by Dave Crozier and Doug Hennig was really good, and the FoxForward "day one" coverage is instantly heating up. Check out Kevin Ragsdale (wall flower, right!), John Koziol (who is giving the behind the scenes of the Fox Team session), and the real behind the scenes coverage by conference organizer Kevin Cully. (any I missed??)

Are there any negative side effects to the bloggers covering the conferences? I started thinking about this a little bit this morning as I was going through the FoxForward posts. Does this mean the UniversalThread coverage is dead? Could be. Is there a need? I see both the Southwest Fox and German DevCon will have official coverages. I know the conference organizers have costs associated with the coverage. With so many bloggers picking up the coverage, why should they add this cost to their already tight budgets? One reason is the bloggers are doing this on-the-fly with no guarantee it will be done. The official UT coverage has deadlines.

I really like the different perspectives. This is much better than just one blogger covering the conference like I did for the Advisor Summit 2006 and German DevCon 2005.

The one thing I disagree with in some of the conference coverage is the concept of doing screencasts of the sessions. I don't think it would be hard to do with Camtasia, and I doubt it would concern me as a presenter because I could rehearse it before I arrived at the conference. My concerns are with the availability and how this would affect future conferences.

If this material is so readily available to people who don't attend, what will be the incentive to go to the conference? Sure there is the networking and the ability to ask questions in person. But if the material is accessible about half the incentive to attend will be removed and conference will completely evaporate. I have been involved in many conversations about how the Internet has impacted conferences already. There is so much information easily accessible, so do I really need to attend a conference when I can read someone's whitepaper online the next week? Same thing with selling the conference proceedings, slides and whitepapers. I want the conferences to flourish and this is completely dependent on attendees attending.

My hope is the conference coverage will make you feel you are really missing the experience and raise your desire to attend. I can tell you this is what the Prague and FoxForward posts are doing to me. Pick a conference and go, they are all good. It is simply the best way to get training on your career.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Southwest Fox 2006 - save $50

Just in case you wanted to save yourself or your employer US$50, make sure to register for Southwest Fox 2006 before midnight Friday September 15th. Time is running out. The clock is ticking. Come on, what are you waiting for, a personal invitation? Okay, here it is:
Rick Schummer personally invites you to come to Arizona next month for Southwest Fox. This was the highest rate conference of the year here in North America last year and I expect nothing less this year. So join me for lots of Fox education and fun with fellow friends in the Fox Community.
I must have missed it (or forgot about it so it is new again to me), but it looks like Bob has added another pre-conference session with Kevin McNeish's: .NET for VFP Developers. And it is free! I'm not sure which session I will be attending, but I am pretty sure I will be in one of the pre-cons. Tough choices.

Bob also has posted the Who's Coming list. Looks like my home state of Michigan is tied for second in number of attendees.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

FoxTalk: update from the editor

One thing I have enjoyed in my interaction with Jonathan Rabson (the newest editor of FoxTalk) is his willingness to discuss hard issues. He is listening. He kindly responded to my email and addressed my issues, including some harsh criticism I had with his version of KitBox. I believe he wants to make this publication better. As I mentioned to him today, he has a vested interest in making this a better publication because his job depends on it.

So there is some good news to report. Jonathan has listened to the Fox Community's desire to have the two-column format, and FoxTalk will be back to two-columns starting with the November issue. You heard it here first. Remember, this is with the November issue. So the September and October issues will remain with the yucky three column format, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. This is not a trivial change as they have to get the authors, editors, management, and graphics people all onboard with the change. I applaud them for listening!

I have also been reading comments in the Fox Community (mostly on ProFox, some in personal emails) where people are going to ask for refunds and let subscriptions lapse. This was not the intent of my post. I want to cause change. I want FoxTalk to succeed. Giving up so easily is not the answer. Forcing change and having FoxTalk remaining competitive is what we need Eli to do. The Fox Community will be better having more than one publication producing Fox content.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Open letter to publishers of FoxTalk 2.0

I have heard from a lot of Fox Developers concerning my January 10th post: Subscribe to Fox Periodicals. I listened to people complain how the could not afford the peroidicals. I listened to others say they expected employers to pick up the tab. I listened to those who said the Internet resources were better. I listened to others applaud and cheer because they want the magazines supported so they stay in business.

A lot has changed in the last eight months. A lot.

Two major things have happened. First of all Eli Research bought out Pinnacle Publishing, owners of FoxTalk. They turned around and brought in their own editor, and some how convinced Andy Kramek, Marcia Akins, and Doug Hennig to stop writing for them (some 190+ articles between the three of them). Then they started the "fake invoice" barrage of snail mail and emails.

Advisor on the other hand has improved their content by recognizing the importance of the authors discarded by Eli.

I have talked to the editors of both publications. I am encouraged by the changes the folks at Advisor are making. I am not encouraged by the folks running FoxTalk. They don't seem to understand how they are impacting their customer base.

Today I got the latest email from Eli. I decided to respond since it came from Jannie Wilsen, Customer Retention Manager. I figure at this point this is the most important person at Eli, with respect to the future of FoxTalk. So I sent her the following email:


Price increases for FoxTalk 2.0? I'm shocked! You have only sent me more than a dozen "fake" paper invoices telling me this and I am sure more than a dozen emails. I know already. I renewed my subscription months ago and will give you more of my hard earned money when you prove to me you are going to continue publishing this magazine. It surely needs help.

As to the statement: "We are sure you are finding your monthly issues informative and valuable."

Well, not exactly. There was hardly any FoxPro content in the last issue. A long product review of WebConnect, an interview with the product developer Rick Strahl, a SQL Server article probably republished with a couple of "FoxPros" dropped in for good measure, and a horrible attempt at faking the Kit Box column Barbara and Paul, then Paul and Andy, and finally Andy and Marcia did naturally for so many years. Art and Gertie? Seriously?

The entire issue is practically written by Jonathan. This is not the hard-core FoxPro magazine I have loved over the last 15 years. This is watered-down FoxTalk.

The core of Andy and Marcia and Doug Hennig are long gone. You guys let the cornerstone of the magazine go to the competition. A huge win for Advisor Media. These authors probably have more articles in FoxTalk than the next 20 authors have combined. Sad. The quality has been high for years under Glenn, Lisa, Whil, David, and Rainer as the editors, but has slipped considerably since Rainer was dismissed. I understand the reasons the authors left. What I don't understand is why you guys are not working to get new authors to write. Maybe it is the format of three columns, and the hard to use template that makes it hard to write and read a technical journal. It might be fine for end user magazines, but not for publications printing code examples.

I feel cheated. I blogged back in January how important it was for Fox developers to subscribe to both FoxTalk 2.0 and the Guide to Microsoft Visual FoxPro (see the March issue of FoxTalk for the details when Rainer used my blog entry in his editorial). My advice was good back in January when I first blogged it, but today I know it is bad advice.

You guys are getting hammered in the Fox Community because of the incessant invoicing/renewals you are sending out. I mean this: your marketing is backfiring badly. If you want people to be loyal, don't keep reminding them you are going to charge them more for less.

Rick Schummer

Friday, September 08, 2006

Advice for Kevin Ragsdale and others

Kevin Ragsdale posted about the nightmares he is experiencing before his conference debut at FoxForward next week. At the end of his post he is wondering if anyone else has these experiences.

Nope, Kevin you are a freak of nature on this one (…holding my breath, keeping a straight face, trying not to laugh…), HA, HA, HA, HA. Sorry.

Yes Kevin, I cannot tell you how many times I had the dream of showing up in Milwaukee, knee deep in snow (because Whil always said it was sunny and 70F in Milwaukee no matter when the conference was), without my laptop, and wondering what sessions I was going to give. I’d wake up in a cold sweat swearing I would not forget my laptop (and not worrying about the weather or the topics).

So I am at the opening keynote of the GLGDW 2000 and I was sitting next to Toni Feltman. She asks me if I am nervous. I was not. Not even a little. I had done close to a hundred presentations to user groups, presented in front of General Motors and GMAC Financial Vice-Presidents, and countless other presentations to large groups including the Microsoft DevDays back when VFP 6.0 was released. I had rehearsed my sessions numerous times to the dog, and at the Detroit Area Fox User Group, and all went well. I had the sessions down cold.

She proceeds to tell me how her first conference presentation she “blanked out” for a moment and forgot the topic she was presenting. Seconds tick along and it all hit her and she presented the session without a problem. So we laugh and listen to the keynote.

Guess what happened when I went to present my Fishing with a Projecthook session? Yep, my brain fried. I forgot my name and the topic I was presenting. Fortunately, I had the first slide up on the screen and both the topic and my name where there to jog the memory and the session went fine. I only have Toni to blame for the glitch. {g}

So here is my sage advice:
  1. Rehearse over and over. Present to the dog, the spouse, the kids, the neighbors, or the walls. Run through the presentation at 1024x768 and make sure you have SET RESOURCE ON and bump all the fonts to 14point bold. Make sure every demo works when disconnected from the network. Rehearse to others at least once, more if possible. Know the time you should be at and be able to adjust the speed of the presentation at any point in the presentation. I keep the timings on my slide notes (more on those notes later). I have seen some presenters who mail it in. You know they are doing the session for the first time live in front of the paying public. Those sessions usually stink.

  2. Make sure you have hyperlinks to examples. Nothing worse than spending time navigating through a File Open dialog looking in folder X which is ten node up and down the tree.

  3. Have someone spell check and grammer check your slides and read your whitepaper. This bit Alan Griver at Advisor DevCon last month and even one of my samples in a live installation routine had a typo during my Real World Deployment session at the same conference. So it happens to everyone, but the more you can minimize it, the better.

  4. Back every thing you need for the session to two CD-ROMs, thumb drive, and load it on a Web server. Print off your slides and keep them in a binder with your white papers. If something happens to you machine (I hate hardware) you can ask to use someone else’s. This happened to Doug Hennig at GLGDW 2006 in April and Doug was able to borrow my machine and still do his presentation when his laptop refused to cooperate with the projector. Years ago at Essential Fox, Toni Feltman has a projector blow a bulb in her session, but she was able to use her printed off slides to keep moving while the technicians fixed the problem. I also use the paper slides to keep notes in case I forget something. I also use them on the plane to review my sessions. I ship one CD in my checked luggage and one in my carry on. I keep the thumb drive in the computer bag. Naturally, the Web server copy is in case everything is lost and stolen. Disaster recovery covered!

  5. Relax. All of the people attending your session are nice people and pretty much forgive a mistake. Speakers make them all the time. Speakers are human. The key is to not let people see you sweat. The easiest way to avoid this is to eliminate the nerves, but keep the adrenaline because it will help with your enthusiasm. Have fun.

  6. Oh, and go to the bathroom just before your session. You will be a better presenter on an empty bladder (sorry for being a little graphic here). Also, make sure there is water for you to drink during the session. It is natural you for your mouth to feel like you are chewing on cotton when you are speaking. Water is a perfect solution to this.

  7. Don't be afraid to say "I don't know" when someone asks you a question during the session when you don't know the answer. Nobody knows everything. I lose respect for people who answer with a bunch of baloney to sound like they are an expert. Offer to do some research after the session if it makes sense in the context of the question.

  8. If something goes wrong in a session with a demo, apologize only once, discuss what they should have seen, and move on. You might try one fix, but I guarantee you the odds it will work in front of everyone are slim. If you fumble for 10 minutes you will lose 10 minutes of content and people’s minds will wander to the food they are hoping to get after your session. You will lose them. Keep them engaged with what you hoped to show, and only apologize once. Remember, the people in the seats are very forgiving.
So it sounds like you are pretty normal Kevin. I hope this little post helps you (and others) next weekend.

Wish I could be there to throw tomatoes, I mean write up a great review in a blog, but FoxForward is on a bad weekend for me as you know. Good luck to all the speakers, both in Prague and Atlanta next week.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

German DevCon 13 - Another trip

Rainer informed me yesterday that I will be returning to Germany this year to speak at the 13th German DevCon. Lucky 13 - and I feel very fortunate to be asked back. It was a terrific conference last year, and is always highly rated by the attendees. I am really looking forward to this trip and this conference. I guess I did not upset Rainer too much by hogging the pages in the whitepaper book last year {g}.

I will be presenting four sessions:
  1. Debugging Essentials
  2. Error Handling Best Practices
  3. Professional Developers Toolkit
  4. Using and Extending the Data Explorer
There will be some terrific speakers presenting English VFP sessions this year including: Marcia Akins, Craig Berntson, Y. Alan Griver, Doug Hennig, Venelina Jordanova, Andy Kramek, Beth Massi, and Lisa Slater Nicholls.

German VFP session speakers include: Andreas Flohr, Sebastian Flucke, Uwe Habermann, Kirsten Hinrichs, Jochen Kirstätter, Armin Neudert, Michael Niethammer, Patrick Schaerer, Torsten Weggen, Markus Winhard, Christof Wollenhaupt, and Jürgen "wOOdy" Wondzinski.

There is a SQL Server and .NET conference going on at the same time.

If you want to read more about this conference head to the conference Web site which will be updated next week, or to the Great Things About DevCon Germany Fox Wiki entry with more specifics.