Tag Archives: Microsoft

DDD8 – Apples, Boots and @blowdart

Major embarass @blowdart session!  #DDD8Today was the eighth annual(ish) gathering of four hundred of the Microsoft Development community for a day of free technical training. Once again it was spectacularly over subscribed – sold out faster than Glastonbury (all the places went within fifteen minutes) and with no Microsoft speakers had the usual mix of sessions, some of which perhaps you wouldn’t expect to see at Microsoft.

The day started off cold – although there was no snow it was definitely a case of scraping ice off the car, and if you were in any doubt, one look at Rachel Hawley’s footwear could tell you! Having said that, as has become traditional at these events, bacon butties to warm you up awaited those who got there early.

First off a couple of observations. For a Microsoft Developer Day, it was a very good advert for Apple! Of the five talks I attended, two were obviously running off Mac’s. One was about iPhone development, so using a Mac was a given, although the presentation was also given using Keynote (and all the more slick for it) and rather than messing around with font sizes as all the PC based presenters have to do Chris Hardy used the built-in OS X zoom gestures to quickly focus in on what he was showing. The other Mac based presentation given by Ian Cooper wasn’t anything related to Mac development at all, but was presented in MacOS X, using the Mac version of Powerpoint, with a windows development environment running in VMWare. It’s not so long ago that developers would buy a Mac, largely ditch MacOS X and stick Windows on it – it does seem that even with the advent of Windows 7 that isn’t always the case now… The other massive advert for Apple was not surprisingly the vast numbers of iPhones in evidence. I certainly think it would have been worth somebody doing the same as Scoble did at Le Web to get a ball park figure of how many there were. There were a good few Google Android phones around, but few if any Microsoft based phones in evidence. This was also reflected in the sessions – no talks on Windows Mobile development, but there was a talk on using MonoTouch to develop iPhone applications!

As is normal for these days, what I thought I would attend, and what I actually attended were slightly different. I initially thought I’d just take up residence in Chicago 1 for the day, but in the end I fancied a change of pace.

First up I attended a talk by Ian Cooper on Real World MVC Architectures. This in part was because I’ve just done my first ASP.Net MVC project, and I was half expecting to find I’d done it all wrong, as to a large extent I’ve put it together as felt right rather than following any explicit paradigm. To my relief it seems all the talk of proper architecture seems to be sinking in, and the way I’ve constructed it is pretty much as was suggested, even to the point that I’ve used particular techniques without having read about them as yet in my MVC book in that I understood why they were being used but didn’t recognise the idea by name! I suspect the session might have been pitched a bit too much towards the beginner end of things for experienced MVC programmers, but for me it was certainly a good reinforcement of the techniques.

Next I slipped next door for a change of gear, and a non-technical talk by Liam Westley who was talking about how to be a small software development outfit and not go bust. To be honest, the principles Liam outlined can apply equally well to large software houses, a number of which I’ve come across who don’t get this stuff right, and even to people in a corporate environment like me as getting these sorts of things wrong will at the very least have your internal customers looking elsewhere for their software, or at the worst put you out of a job. Liam gave us a set of broad principles that any software developer should be doing as a matter of course – things like delivering properly tested software, applying proper logging (even in a corporate environment fixing a problem before the users have got round to reporting it scores serious brownie points), and understanding your users, all go to making people happy to give you their software work, and not go elsewhere.

For session number three it was a first for me, in that it was the first time that I have heard Jon Skeet speak. His name will be familiar to anyone who frequents Stack Overflow – and as his reputation is testament to he sometimes seems to answer C# questions within seconds of them being asked. What is slightly more surprising is that his day job is at Google as a Java developer. Even more surprising he fits all of that in with being a Methodist Local Preacher too – but I suspect that stands him in good stead for being able to deliver material well, as from the experience today his reputation is well deserved. The latest version of C# brings in some interesting, but quite complex new ideas, and he did manage to put them over in a way that even with the early start on a Saturday I pretty well followed them. Having said that whilst I liked the presentation, and many of the new features, I was less than impressed by the return of the ubiquitous VB variant data type, in the guise of the dynamic type. Whilst I am well aware that the way the variant and the dynamic work are rather different, it’s much more about how it will end up being used, or more likely abused. I’m with Jon Skeet on this in that I much prefer a situation where the types can be validated at compile time. Whilst there are legitimate reasons for adding dynamic, and as an exercise in language design the implementation is very impressive, as with the variant I am quite sure it will end up being thoroughly misused, and will lead to many a difficult to nail down bug.

Next up was lunch, and was the traditional scramble for a lunch bag. Unfortunately it seems that the entire occupants of the Chicago 1 side went the same way and got all the non veggie and non seafood sandwiches (I have to watch having too much of certain types of seafood with my gout) and as always it was a bit of a lucky dip as to what else you got, so I ended up with a sandwich, crisps and an apple that I wanted, and a can of diet coke and a snickers bar that I didn’t want. I know they’ve tried various things over the years, but I still think there has to be a better way than this, as it was pretty obvious looking around that not everybody wanted what was in their lunch and there was a lot going to waste.

The lunch time Grok Talks had relocated this year, and were in the atrium in building four. This certainly gave a bit more space, but did seem to make the security guards mighty jumpy – I got a stern “I’ve just seen you behaving strangely” from one for taking this picture – I just liked the look of the clear blue against the white of the building structure and was going to make some comment about the weather! The Grok Talks were marred rather by problems with the technology. For a start the speakers were badly positioned in relation to where the presenters were standing leading to endless feedback problems. The talks also took an absolute age to get started, and when they did people seemed to overrun, which as a result led to people who were further down the running order being disappointed. There were a couple of interesting talks though, and it was especially interesting watching Gary Short intensely watching somebody else demonstrate Code Rush! Looking at the response hopefully there will be a few more converts from Resharper, a jump I made many years ago!

After lunch was one of my personal interest talks. As an iPhone owner and software engineer I’ve always quite fancied giving an bit of iPhone development a go. The problem is that as well as learning a new platform and new environment, developing for the iPhone requires learning a new language, Objective-C. However Chris Hardy was demonstrating a way that I could leverage my existing C# skills using the Mono environment and an add on to it called MonoTouch. Whilst developers still need to be able to read Objective-C to understand what is going on, and still need to learn their way around the Apple API’s, it allows them to develop entirely in familiar C#, and even brings advantages in terms of some of the extra type safety that C# brings. I have to say I was pretty impressed at the environment and what it can do. I was less impressed by the price – $399 for a personal license, which only covers you for a year of updates, with even more for a corporate license – far too much for your average hobbyist programmer to even consider. I can’t help thinking that they are missing a trick here, and providing a low cost or free license for developers in return for a share of the revenues, maybe using some sort of phone home code to keep track would certainly broaden the base of programmers using it.

My last session of the day, to be honest I would have gone to even if Barry was just reading the phone book, as this was potentially his last appearance at a Developer Day before he loses the essential qualification for being allowed to speak of not working for Microsoft, as in a scant few days he will be starting a new job working for Microsoft at one of their offices in Redmond. As always there was the classic banter with people he knew in the audience, in particular Jon Skeet who was attempting to pose increasingly difficult questions it seemed. Barry also started off by hijacking the session next door as Ben Hall, the speaker had a birthday and was foolish enough to tell somebody! What I was also expecting, and got in spades were interruptions marking his departure from the UK development scene. His book Beginning ASP.NET Security featured in several. In the first Liam Westley gave a touching and heartfelt tribute, and said how much he had been looking forward to the arrival of the book – as it was just the right size to prop up his wobbly table. In another they spoofed the winter cold adverts, suggesting that the book was good fuel to keep the elderly warm. The session finished off with a clip from his appearance many years ago on The Crystal Maze, and several of the organising team appearing in T-shirts especially prepared for the occasion. All in all it was a memorable way to finish off the day, and hopefully a memorable occasion for Barry as he heads across the Atlantic. The one question that remains is whether all the spelling mistakes in the presentation were down to Barry, or whether somebody did get at his presentation before he went on…

All in all it was an excellent day, and although I know there were a couple of sessions that had problems, the ones I attended were all excellent, and well worth the spare time given up. It was great to catch up with friends from the community, previous developer days and previous jobs. Whilst it does appear that the day is very much a victim of it’s own success (even with local developer days around the country people still travel from far and wide to attend this one in addition to their local days) hopefully a way can be found to allow it to keep running in future years, and all credit to the organising team, and the staff at Microsoft for keeping the whole day running smoothly.

Apple Hit Back

Last month, Microsoft launched a campaign called “I’m a PC” directly targeting the well known Apple “I’m a Mac” campaign, with a number of big name celebrities endorsing the PC.

Now we get to see the first salvo in the response from Apple, not a new campaign, not even an attempt to out celeb the competition, but a very funny addition to the existing set…

I’m a PC

Microsoft are in a strange position. Despite still producing the operating system that holds the dominant position in the market, still producing the office platform that holds the dominant position in the market, and still producing the dominant web browser, they are seen as being under threat. The reason? Their share of the market held by their products is not as high as it used to be, as the competition is making gains. More than that being the dominant platform they are the prime target for a variety of viruses and malware, and if they aren’t being criticised for the security issues in their software, it is their business practices that got them to the dominant position in the first place.

Being pragmatic you could argue that with the position they held about the only way their share could go is down, putting aside the interventions of the EU and the US government, even in a market that they dominate quite as much, competing companies can still come out with innovative products and change the balance. For example Google came out of nowhere and Microsoft were left scrabbling to compete. However you could also argue that Microsoft themselves have caused some of their problems. Vista was very poorly recieved by many people, both in terms of performance where it was visibly slower than XP, and from simple usability where the security features were downright obstructive. So many professionals ended up sticking with or rolling back to XP. I can also show you a number of end users who are continually frustrated with their Vista machines who wished they could have XP instead. The latest Office wasn’t quite so bad but the ribbon bar didn’t go down well, nor did the new file format – for example one member of the church regularly has to send round documents twice because he is using Office 2007 and his documents are incompatible with the older versions in use by other people.

Probably the most high profile perceived competition to their core product is the ever resurgent Apple. While it is certainly not making much of an impact in the corporate world, Apple is certainly making inroads into the home PC market. Whether it is thanks to their advertising, the much vaunted halo effect from the iPod, the distinctive design of the products, or a combination of all three, Apple computers are selling in larger numbers than they ever have.

Looking at the Apple advertising campaigns that directly targeted the PC market, first off we had the switcher campaign. This consisted of a series of real, sometimes celebrity users talking about their experiences and why they switched to the Mac. The Microsoft response was frankly an embarrassment, with them being caught faking a Mac to PC switcher.

Since then we’ve had the Get a Mac campaign. All the adverts follow the same general structure, opening with a relaxed looking casually dressed man introducing himself as a Mac, and a more straight laced man in a suit introducing himself as a PC. The advert then compares some aspect of the PC with the Mac, including crashing PC’s, changes in Vista, and numerous other perceived issues with the PC platform compared to the Mac.

Interestingly, Microsoft haven’t repeated the direct attack on the adverts as they did with the old switcher campaigns. We’ve had a bit of a mix, including most recently the criticised Mojave Experiment. Even with their latest campaign, it didn’t seem they were going to do that, as they started off with two adverts featuring Bill Gates and Jerry Seinfeld that were frankly bizarre, before moving on to phase two.

Phase two for the first time seems to directly attack the Get a Mac campaign, opening with someone who has obviously been cast to look just like the PC in the original adverts (although certain people seem to think he looks a lot worse) and then follow that up with a large variety of other people, including celebrities again, who also say they are PC’s.

Interesting things to note are that there are Microsoft employees in there, whose e-mail addresses are posted on the screen during the advert, but also note that Vista isn’t mentioned at all, and also that aside from addressing the stereotype in the Apple advert, it doesn’t address anything else in those adverts – the message of the advert is basically that lots of different people use a PC.

It has to be said, that after the fallout from the Mojave Experiment, and the bemused responses to the Jerry Seinfeld adverts, the response to this advert has been pretty good, and I’m pretty sure that given that the Get a Mac campaign has been going for two years it will bring a new campaign from Apple in response. But then is the new Microsoft campaign saying anything other than lots of people use PC’s?

Update: A little post-script to this story – a revelation that has caused much merriment amongst the Mac faithful – the advert may show lots of people who use PC’s, but the people who made the advert aren’t one of them, as the advert was put together on a Mac.

Bye Bye Bill

Even if you don’t much like Bill Gates, you can’t deny the influence he has had on the world of computers. As such, his decision to change his focus from his work at Microsoft to his charity work merited a special, hour long edition of The Money Programme, shown last night, looking back at his time at Microsoft, and forward to what is to come.

Programmes about Bill Gates have a chequered past. Often in order to get an agreement to interview the man, there appear to be so many restrictions that the final programmes appear to be pulling their punches, and largely become an advert for the man and the company. The Money Programme had apparently negotiated long and hard to get the interview, as such it certainly was a friendly interview. However, it did seem that they had got some flexibility this time around, as unlike some interviews in the past there were some questions over past events that sometimes get avoided – the multiple court cases being a key example – needless to say Bill Gates feels that the company acted properly and that it was their treatment by the various governments that was wrong rather than what his company did to rivals such as Netscape, but questions were asked none the less.

The programme also featured some critical voices, putting the other side. In particular Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus Software and chair of the Mozilla Foundation, both organisations that have been in competition with Microsoft over the years. Mitch is pretty clear what he thinks of some of the tactics, in particular the advantages that Microsoft gained over his company by writing software for an operating system that they also produced. It didn’t go into that much detail, but the contrary point was able to be made.

We also got some glimpses of the man at work, showing Bill reviewing projects, and comparing that with older footage, indicating that perhaps Bill has mellowed somewhat in the way that he reviews – somewhat quieter and with rather less shouting! The picture it painted of the company was interesting, with the presenter commenting on how much of a focus Bill Gates is within the organisation, and posing the question of how things might be different. We also heard from some of the early staff at the company, and even a contribution from Sir Alan Sugar talking about Amstrad entering the PC market and negotiating with Microsoft. They even had a contribution from IBM, and whether their decision to allow Microsoft to separately license the OS for their machine to other companies was a good or a bad move.

The programme didn’t limit itself to business views. Bill Gates senior appears. Decidedly unhappy when his son dropped out of university to write software, eschewing a good career as a lawyer, he is rather happier about it now, and assists his son with his philanthropy. We even get to see the school where Bill started writing software on punched cards – although amusingly one shot of a class full of laptop using students at the school had one right in the centre with a Mac…

By virtue of the fact that Gates approval was needed, this was never going to be a massively probing interview – certainly being the Gates version of history the infamous dismissal of the rise of the internet as a serious event followed by a swift turnaround, was re-crafted as Gates sending an e-mail to all staff announcing a change of focus in the company, without mentioning the major rewrites that were made to Gates book The Road Ahead.

Talking about the road ahead, the programme comes right up to date looking at competition with Google, and the ill-fated attempt to take over Yahoo.

For those in the UK the programme is available for the next week on iPlayer, for those outside, there is a bit of the footage on the BBC News site. If you missed it, even for the flaws, it’s still an entertaining insight, and well worth a look.

Wading into the Calendar/Contact Sync Swamp Again

Ever a glutton for punishment, I’m again wading into the calendar/contact synchronisation swamp in an effort to get my address book and calendar details from the Exchange server at work onto the Mac at home. If you’ve followed my previous expeditions into the swamp you’ll remember that the basic problem is that I need to be able to keep track of both a large number of Church appointments, alongside all the work commitments. I’ve been doing that for the past couple of years using a Dell Axim X50v PDA, hooking up with ActiveSync to the Exchange Server.

There are a couple of things that have pre-empted this current attempt to get it all sorted. Firstly, the only thing I now do on the Dell is now my calendar – web browsing, multimedia, everything else is better handled by my iPod Touch which could handle the calendar too if I wanted to reconfigure it to hook up to a PC. Alongside this, the other big driver is that I’m changing jobs, and start at a new company in about a month – as a result I need to get all my contact and calendar details off the corporate Exchange Server.

The tool of choice for the current attempt to scramble my calendar and address book achieve synchronisation nirvana is Plaxo. Now it has to be said that in it’s earlier form, Plaxo achieved a good deal of notoriety by the number of times it spammed people with sign up requests when someone created a profile and added your e-mail address as a contact. However in response to this, they do seem to have one of the most stringent privacy policies I’ve seen – certainly it is an interesting exercise to compare it and the level of control with that offered by Facebook… By way of an example, in both services you’ll quite likely end up with a mix of family, friends and business contacts, with Plaxo you can present a different subset of your profile to each group – key for example if you don’t want your business contacts getting hold of your home phone number. Since Plaxo are also including Facebook like picture and tagging facilities, and FriendFeed like life streaming features, it also allows you to keep business contacts clear of all the embarrassing pictures friends may upload – features sadly lacking from Facebook.

Anyway, my primary interest is in the synchronisation facilities. The list of supported platforms is pretty extensive, in terms of the ones I need it includes support for Outlook, and also an equivalent MacOS X plug-in for the synchronisation on that end. If you’ve currently been using systems such as Hotmail/Windows Live or Google Mail/Google Calendar it can link in to those services too – although at time of writing the Google Mail/Google Calendar connection is not bi-directional. In terms of other devices, Plaxo does have some support for these, but I’m sticking with synchronising those through Outlook and iSync respectively.

I did the basic set up yesterday, and I’m now going through the inevitable process of ironing out the bumps with duplicated data where I had different copies of the same contact in both Outlook and Address Book. The most common problem is having phone numbers in different slots so the synchronisation produces multiple phone number fields all holding the same information – this is usually made worse by there being variations in how a particular phone number is formatted including international formatting, brackets around area codes, and all sorts of stuff like that. Alongside this, there is a bit of time getting used to how e-mail addresses map between platforms. On the Address Book end, addresses are marked as either ‘Work’, ‘Home’ or ‘Other’, and you can have several of these – Plaxo also identifies addresses in a similar way. Outlook on the other hand just has three numbered slots for e-mail addresses. Plaxo has to map these fields to suitable slots in the Address Book structure, and tends to go for ‘Work’ if there is only one. I’m slowly working through getting those sorted using the address book in Plaxo – hopefully once that is all cleared up, the synchronised systems should fall into place.

Calendars I haven’t done that much with so far, which is basically because it is a big job and I wanted to get the contacts sorted first. The fundamental problem is the significant differences between the operational model used by Outlook, and the model used by iCal and Google Calendar amongst others. The intention with Outlook is that the user will operate on a single calendar, and use categories to distinguish different sorts of appointments. iCal on the other hand positively encourages you to work with multiple calendars, so for example I have a work calendar, a home calendar, a Church service calendar, a choir calendar and so on. What this does is allow people to share calendars, so for example the choir schedule could be kept on a single shared calendar and distributed to all members. The different calendars roughly correspond with my Outlook categories, and this is what most synchronisation solutions tend to map. However, it is incorrect to say that Outlook doesn’t support multiple calendars – it does, however the support has always been obstructive. For example until the 2007 release you couldn’t overlay the different calendars – only side by side views were available. When it comes to synchronisation with a PDA, only a single calendar is synchronised, so effectively you can’t operate with multiple calendars using Outlook if you’re synchronising on from there. The idea of multiple calendar support seems to very much be to allow you to look at other peoples calendars, but then the implication is that you’re going to put relevant events into your own calendar.

The issue is that Plaxo doesn’t synchronise categories with calendars. The Plaxo model supports multiple calendars, so your multiple iCal calendars map to multiple Plaxo calendars, and thereby onto multiple Outlook calendars. Whilst this works fine if you’re synchronising something like an iPod Touch or an iPhone using iSync as they all understand and can deal with multiple calendars – even if the devices appear to work on a single calendar model. Doing the same from Outlook, and especially with a Windows Mobile device, you’re back into single calendar world, and you’ll have chunks of your schedule missing. Since Outlook can cope with multiple calendars, albeit badly, I could probably move to syncing the mobile devices with iSync and use Outlook 2007 at the PC end – but I’ll have to stop trying to keep the Dell Axim in sync. I’ll also have to go through a process of splitting my calendar out, as it’s currently all rolled up into a single categorised calendar, rather than the multiple calendars that iCal would support.

So, it’s so far, so good – Plaxo seems to be working okay, and I haven’t come across any of the annoying time and date shifting problems that beset any attempt to use Entourage hooked up to an Exchange Server. The real challenge though is still to come – when I try to pick apart my calendars…

Microsoft Word Fast Saves

This morning I had a plea for help with the computer in our Church Office. Our Parish Administrator had tried four times to send a Microsoft Word document to my fellow Churchwarden, and every time it had come back with a weird failure message. Taking a look I tried resending the message, and after about five minutes of disk thrashing and network traffic it again produced the error message, saying that the upstream mail server had broken the connection.

What was slightly more weird was that other messages were being sent and received without problem, so I took a look at what was actually being sent. On the surface it seemed relatively innocuous – a little bit of an accompanying message, along with a four page word document. The document included a couple of pictures and some clip art, but nothing out of the ordinary. Then I looked at the size of the file – 16MB!

A quick dig around the options on the install of Microsoft Word found the problem – ‘Allow Fast Saves’ was turned on.

A bit of explanation, Fast Saves is a feature in Word that does exactly what it says on the tin – makes saving your document faster. The way it does this is pretty simple, rather than recreating your entire document file from scratch, it instead attaches a new block to the end of the file detailing the changes you have made since the last save. If you’ve got a very big document, and only make small changes it’s quite a neat little trick, however conversely if you have a relatively small document that changes a lot, the file can get significantly bigger, and here’s the rub – our Parish Administrator was trying to send a document that goes out monthly, and the way she does it is by taking the document from last month, and changing it – and this month she’d done quite a lot of inserting and removing graphics, all of which were embedded in the document. As a result, when I turned off the ‘Allow Fast Saves’ option the file size plummeted from 16MB to a paltry 73k – over a 99% reduction in the size of the file!

So, if you’re not writing vast multi-page documents in Microsoft Word – and really most people don’t – it’s worth going into your Options panel, looking under the Save options, and if ‘Allow Fast Saves’ is checked, turning it off.

One other thing to consider about what Fast Saves does too, especially if you’re dealing in company confidential data, nothing you delete from a document is every really deleted if it is turned on, it’s all still sitting there in the old data that sits around in the document, and can quite easily be retrieved…

Developer Day Number Six

Today was the sixth of the Developer Developer Developer events at the Microsoft Campus in Reading, and as with the previous events, I spent the day enjoying the sessions. As in previous events what I actually attended didn’t quite match up with what I thought I would attend, but the beauty of these days is you can quite easily switch dependant on what takes your fancy on the day, or indeed which sessions have seats!

First off I sampled the first part of Oliver Sturm’s double presentation on producing business applications with Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF). Like most people, what I remember about WPF is the flashy eye candy filled demo applications – what Oliver aimed to do was show that alongside the eye candy was a strong platform that could produce the kind of ‘boring’ business applications that most people end up writing, something in which he very much succeeded.

I commented after DDD4 that the kind of material that Oliver covered needed an early slot, rather than the graveyard slot where everybody was tired, and it is great to see that the comment had been taken on board, as a result I thought I gained a lot from attending both the first and second parts of the presentation (although it would have been better in successive slots I have to say), and certainly have a better idea of what I can do with the new framework.

Another session that gave me a better idea of what I can do was the slightly mis-titled Cruise Control .Net session presented by Paul Lockwood. I say mis-titled as the titular piece of software only appeared at the end of the session, much of the earlier part was looking at all the other bits of software that Cruise Control .Net actually uses, and which provide much of the power of the continuous integration process. No matter as it was an interesting session, and certainly gave me some pointers towards what is needed in setting up a continuous build process. Having said that, at work we’ve been saying we’re going to set up a continuous build process for a long while, whether we’ll actually get round to doing it is another matter!

After that it was back to see Oliver for part two of his session, and then from there on to lunch.

The main lunchtime activity was the Grok talks, of which more in a moment, but first the one thing that really annoyed me about the day (well aside from the car service indicator, but that’s another story) which was the way lunch was handled. Now they’ve tried various ways around this from full scale hot food, through to the bagged lunches they have now. The bagged lunches seemed to have worked fairly well, but it is always slightly slow because they randomly pack the bags so whether you’re just like me and fussy, or more importantly have food allergies you sometimes need to look through to find a reasonable combination. Now obviously there have been comments about this, as this time they had taped all the bags shut and the only option was vegetarian or meat – but still with the same random selection. There were also Microsoft Events staff posted at each table handing the bags out and being downright rude if you tried to have a look at what was in the bags. Heaven help you if you actually had a legitimate reason to be careful what you got. Luckily my random selection was pretty good and I didn’t get a sandwich ruined by tomato and cucumber, and even struck lucky with the flavour of crisps. But seriously taping the bags shut may remove a symptom of the problem, but it’s not actually solving the problem, it’s just annoying!

Anyway, onto the lunchtime talks. In an improvement from last time they were actually held in Memphis rather than in the foyer. There was still a bit of a problem with noise as the doors were open and people were chatting outside – not helped by the lack of a microphone for the speakers in that room, but it was a definite improvement. Whilst on the subject of microphones, in answer to the organiser, who shall remain nameless, who introduced and closed the day in Chicago by saying both times “you can hear me, I don’t need a microphoneâ€?, “we can’t, and you doâ€?! I know it’s a pain to use a microphone, (and I know other people who don’t like it and think they can get away without) and it’s probably not comfortable, but you can’t be heard at the back if you don’t.

Anyway, back to the Grok Talks – there was a good mix of topics including tips on packaging up your custom controls, a demo of Windows Power Shell and some tips on how to speed up Reflection. Probably the two most memorable were firstly a senior programmer, whose name unfortunately I don’t remember, who did a primarily non-technical presentation about a recent project he led implementing a patient record system in the UAE. Basically by reviewing the project from a business perspective it highlighted all sorts of gotcha’s for other people developing software in foreign countries. In terms of software design, things like other countries having names that don’t fit neatly into the forename/surname structure used here are important, also the d’oh moment when they realised that having a picture of the patient was pretty useless when large numbers of the women wore a burqa was good to share. He also highlighted that the scheduling aspect of the system was complicated by Ramadan as the scheduling algorithm would be different in that period. He also highlighted issues of staff morale, and just getting things done – all useful stuff that some might consider common sense, but are easy to miss on a complex project.

The second most memorable was for totally different reasons. This one was Guy Smith-Ferrier talking about Extension Methods. It was memorable not because of the topic, but because Guy chose to do it as a Pecha Kucha where the presentation is limited to twenty slides, each shown for exactly twenty seconds. After those twenty seconds the slides automatically move on, whether the speaker is finished speaking to the slide or not! Even if you’re not really massively enthusiastic about the subject, the format itself does bring in a strong element of interest as you watch to see if the speaker succeeds or doesn’t manage to keep up. Although there were a few points were Guy fell behind, and even one occasion where he was waiting for the slide to move on, he largely succeeded in coping – maybe an idea to try for more speakers next time?

After lunch I stayed put in Memphis for a Question Time style session on recruitment, not because I was massively interested in the subject, but because the panel included Barry Dorrans on the panel alongside a recruitment consultant. To understand why, have a read of some of the posts on his blog… Anyway, it was a worthwhile session, as there was a good discussion of the pros and cons of going freelance – something I’ve considered before, but rejected – which was an eye opener, particularly the comments from the recruitment consultant about the issues with trying to swap back again. I also felt somewhat better about the lousy pass rate we got on the programming test we gave to potential developers on our most recent recruitment round – the manager on the panel said only one in twenty programmers pass his simple test which sounds much the same as ours. I also came away with a great little test for helpdesk operators too which I guess I’ll have to pass on. As to Barry he was entertaining and animated as always, and managed to not lay in to the recruitment consultant too much – and when he did, about the lack of technical knowledge they have, he largely agreed!

The final session was perhaps the one I had least idea before hand which I was going to attend. Eventually I resisted the temptation of Swaggily Fortunes, and went along to hear James Winters talk about how to write a Facebook application, mainly out of curiosity.

The first thing I learned from the session is that in order to make money from writing for Facebook you don’t need to do anything complicated, indeed James showed us an application that recently sold for about $25,000 that in reality took about three hours to write. To understand why, you have to go back and look at how the Facebook model actually makes money – advertising. Therefore the more users an application has, the more it is worth – so all the stupid little applications that some of the people wanting to use Facebook as a business tool tend to look down on are actually worth significantly more because they generally have many more users than the more serious applications.

The general impression I took away from the session is that a basic Facebook application is actually relatively simple to produce – the real skill is coming up with an idea that has the sort of viral penetration to spread through thousands of users, which is how you can make any sort of money as a Facebook developer. Aside from that the applications are really just web applications, albeit with some functional limitations imposed by Facebook.

Anyway, all in all it was a good day, and I picked up lots of useful bits and pieces – and maybe if I can think up a good idea I’ll make my millions writing a Facebook application… maybe not. Oh and if you’re wondering why I wasn’t micro-blogging along with some of the others on Twitter, blame the Twitter mobile service, as I tried to hook up but it wasn’t until I got home that I realised I wasn’t following the feed, so nothing had worked. Maybe next time…

DDD6 092 and DDD6 125 originally uploaded by blowdart2000.