Tag Archives: Craig Murphy

How I Got Started in Software Development

Craig tagged me for this ages ago, so I guess I’d probably best put in my answers!

How old were you when you started programming?
I think I probably started aged around ten or eleven, with the arrival of a Sinclair Spectrum at home and a BBC Model B at school.

How did you get started in programming?
I’m not really sure of this one, but I guess it was just the interest in how the respective computers worked, and the challenge of getting them to do things.

What was your first language?
Definitely Spectrum Basic. Until I was actually doing a proper Computer Science course at school – something that seems to have fallen by the wayside for generic ICT classes now – most of the software development was at home, thanks in part to the listings that the computer magazines produced. Indeed back then there was even an entire magazine devoted to listings, Sincliar Programs, which I used to read and copy in the listings from.

What was the first real program that you wrote?
I’m not really sure, probably the old classic “Hello World” in Spectrum Basic. In terms of a real serious project, that was probably the programming project for my A-Level in Computer Science.

What languages have you used since you started programming?
Basic – Spectrum/BBC/VB6/VB.Net, C, C++, Modula-2, 68000 assembler, Pop-11, Occam, COBOL, SQLWindows, Java, C#.

What Was Your First Programming Gig?
This was a summer job as a result of a work experience week, working for the British Holstein Friesian Cattle Society in Rickmansworth. Their business was keeping pedigree records for several different breeds of cattle and sheep, and on request producing the lineage of an animal, usually when the animal was being bought or sold. I spent the summer there during a key period from the point of view of their computers as they were moving from an old system written in COBOL running on an ageing ICL ME-29, over to a system written in C on a UNIX box. The COBOL was probably the experience that left the biggest impression, as in COBOL the indentation of the lines of code is important, and the editor only went forwards through the file, and only allowed you to edit the line at the bottom of the screen!

If you knew then what you know now, would you have started programming?
Definitely yes, not least because if I hadn’t have gone into programming professionally I would have probably become one of the worryingly large group of amateur programmers I’ve come across hacking together key business applications, all of whom would much rather be doing a programming job than the one they ended up in.

If there is one thing you learned along the way that you would tell new developers what would that be?
One of the main tips I’d give is to give yourself a broad and general base – having done a couple of crash courses in VB doesn’t make you a programmer. Most of the best ones I’ve come across over the years have been flexible and adaptable, and usuall spent several years doing a broad based course – generally a degree of some sort – where they have been given the broad basis that allows them to cross-train quickly as technologies change. They’ve also got the broad IT knowledge to understand what else is going on around their job – you might not ever program professionally in assembly, or do any deep level AI research, but it is surprising how much of that sort of stuff is useful in ‘normal’ programming. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve met quite a few people who have learnt programming on-the-job and can cope, but equally I’ve met a lot of others who aren’t adaptable and end up stuck. For example one contractor we’ve had at work is self-taught and writes great ASP code – unfortunately he was hired to write ASP.Net, and he really doesn’t get the differences. With our entire suite of software being rewritten in a multi-tier C# design, using an object-oriented design – because he’d been taught how to write ASP pages in VB, rather than being taught software engineering he was effectively unable to do what we needed.

Along those lines, I’d also advise anybody to keep your skills current, and be especially wary of companies that don’t keep up to date, or program in something that isn’t mainstream. The biggest problem to get into is ending up in a very small niche programming market as I did with SQLWindows. Luckily I found a new employer who was happy to cross-train me into VB. You’re never going to totally escape from maintaining the creaky old VB6 systems, but make sure you’re in a company where you get a balance.

What’s the most fun you’ve ever had… programming?
I’ve had times when I’ve enjoyed programming professionally, but still one of the most fun bits of programming I’ve had was on the LPMud we had running at university. The game was all running in a variation of C, and one you reached wizard level you got to add to the game by writing code – indeed the wizards got programming level access to the guts of the game so you could actually manipulate the game environment on the fly. Programming for that there wasn’t really any pressure, and in terms of the game there weren’t really any limitations on what you could produce. Professional programming, the majority of the time you are working to a spec, and for a customer, and you don’t get nearly so much freedom in what you do.

Vista Adoption Numbers

As a result of a posting by Thomas Lee on a way to get some sort of measure of Vista adoption, Craig Murphy highlighted the OS section from his visitor stats.

It’s not really a stat I particularly look at for my site, but just out of interest I dug out the table for the last thirty days and produced this pie chart of the results.

operatingsystempie.gif

Aside from the overwhelming numbers of XP visitors there are some other interesting things to note.

Firstly I’m getting more PowerPC Mac users than Intel based, not surprising when you consider that most Mac users tend to keep their Mac for a long while before upgrading – certainly something to bear in mind when developing for the Mac.

Secondly there are quite a few people using older versions of Windows including quite a few on Windows 2000, a few still on Windows 98, and even three visitors who are using Windows NT. On that subject the browser stats make interesting reading too – an almost equal split between users on IE6 and IE7…

Government Moving to Tax Personal E-mail?

Craig Murphy highlighted this article from yesterdays Times, which flags up a change in the tax rules brought in by the recent budget. Whilst in computing terms most coverage concentrated on the loss of the Home Computing Initiative that encouraged home computer ownership by offering a tax break on the purchase cost, in some ways this part of the finance bill has the potential to be much more worrying.

Effectively the move seems to be going after companies that give employees a computer as part of their job, which then also gets used for general usage. For example a salesman or consultant that is given a laptop, and then at night uses his laptop at home for personal stuff, maybe checking his hotmail account, or doing a bit of online banking, essentially removing the need for a home computer. Under the new rules, this would be regarded as a benefit, and both the employee and the company taxed accordingly.

The issue to which the article in the Times alludes is that the legislation states that computers are exempt if usage is ‘not significant’, so it entirely depends on where you draw the line, and what you define as personal usage. Certainly with the fairly vague definition given in the legislation it has the potential to be a massive minefield for employers and employees, with the possibility that someone sending personal e-mails from a work computer could land both themselves and their company with a tax bill, depending on the definition of significant usage. Certainly whether it does end up being a tax on e-mail or not, it seems like a great opportunity to grab a nice lot of extra cash for the Treasury, and one that up until now has sneaked under the radar of most commentators.

The amusing thing is that now the government is now backtracking, saying that the chances of having to pay the tax are virtually zero – but if that is the case, as Craig says why bother to bring in the rule at all?

Sometimes it is Good to be Reminded

Craig Murphy has posted a great article highlighting the general lack of concern home PC users have over security under the title “PC security is not the first thing on the mind of a home user�.

He is absolutely right, PC’s are sold, and most people buy them in the same way as they buy anything else like a TV, a kettle or even a car. They expect the PC to sit there, allow them to read their e-mail, write a few letters and just work, in the same way that they expect that their kettle won’t suddenly burst into flames. Essentially with all of them they are bought to just work. The description of what happens is spot on too – the free security software never gets extended, and people put up with a lot – I know of people who quite happily clicked through about 20 porn filled pop-up windows to get to a browser window to do their online banking, without even considering what else could be on the machine onto which they are typing all their important financial details. I’ve also known a number of people who maintain that they don’t need anti-virus or security software because they don’t view dodgy sites, and don’t open attachments from unknown sources – all of them have ultimately found out to their cost that their are nasties on the Internet now that will transfer onto a PC without any intervention at all from the user, and generally ended up having to spend a lot of time and/or money getting their machines sorted out.

In fact, in general I tend to find that many people don’t start taking PC security seriously until they have had a problem like this. However, it’s not too difficult to protect yourself. Craig has some good advice and recommendations for both paid for, and free alternatives for the various essential bits of software that you need before you let your PC near the Internet. I also strongly back up his advice to go get a proper router instead of using a USB based ADSL connection. The added protection by having this extra layer between you and the internet makes a big difference.

Of course, the one suggestion I would make that Craig wouldn’t, is to consider whether you really need a PC at all. Want to read some e-mail, browse the web, do your online banking and write a few letters? You do all of those on a Mac – I do – our PC gets used for games mainly, everything else is on the Mac. Go along to somewhere with knowledgeable staff, like John Lewis or even better one of the six Apple Stores around the country to see one in action. If you can’t get one of those, get hold of a Mac magazine such as Mac Format or MacWorld – you’re even going to be able to pick up a Mac from Tesco now! Of course, I’d still recommend getting hold of a virus checker, and following Craig’s good practice, even with a Mac, but currently it’s a much safer platform to work with, and certainly not buried under nearly so much of the spyware and viruses that attack PC’s.