Programming

No-one loves bad ideas

Charles Arthur has an interesting piece of post-Guardian vented frustration on his blog. His argument about developers and journalists sitting together is part-bonkers opinion and partly correct. Coders and journalists are generally working on different timeframes and newsroom developers generally don’t focus enough on friction in the tools that they are creating for journalists.

Journalists however focus too much on the deadline and the frenzy of the news cycle. I often think newsroom developers are a lot like the street sweepers who clean up after a particularly exuberant street market. Everything has to be tidied up and put neatly away before the next day’s controlled riot takes place.

The piece of the article I found most interesting was something very personal though. The central assumption that runs through Arthur’s narrative is that it is valuable to let readers pre-order computer games via Amazon. One of the pieces of work I’ve done at the Guardian is to study the value of the Amazon links in the previous generation of the Guardian website. I can’t talk numbers but the outcome was that the expense of me looking at how much money was earned resulted in all the “profits” being eaten up by cost of my time. You open the box but the cat is always dead.

Similarly Arthur’s Quixotic quest meant that he spent more money in developer’s time than the project could ever possibly earn. Amazon referrals require huge volumes to be anything other than a supplement to an individual’s income.

His doomed attempt to get people to really engage with his idea really reflected the doomed nature of the idea. British journalism favours action and instinct and sometimes that combination generates results. Mostly however it just fails and regardless of whom is sitting next to whom, who can get inspired by a muddle-minded last-minute joyride on the Titanic except deadline-loving action junkies?

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Software

Passive-aggressive collaboration

One interesting (and depressing) aspect of post-Github open source development is the use of the pull request as a passive aggressive way of putting off potential contributors, users and testers.

I have had the experience of discovering an issue with a piece of open source and raising an issue for it only to be “invited” to contribute a reliable failing test case, with a fix and all to the project’s contribution standards.

Now the joy of open source is being able to scratch your itch and prioritising your own problems by contributing solutions.

However there are often very good reasons why the maintainers should be the ones fixing the issues.

Firstly the maintainers should be the ones who gain most from fixing issues. One cool thing about Git-based development is that forking allows you to use existing codebases but not share the views and priorities of the original project. If I disagree with the direction or design of a project I can fork it and completely change the code to match my own aesthetics and priorities.

However in most cases I agree with the direction of the maintainers and I am simply pointing out an issue or problem that maybe they haven’t encountered in their context. I could scratch my itch but it is often more effective if the maintainer took my use case into consideration and reworked the codebase to include it.

Maintainers:

  • have more context on the code base
  • know more about the problems the code tackles
  • know their conventions and coding standards better than I do
  • have more invested in having an effective solution than I do

Looking at things like Guava which while open are effectively not open to contribution. This is a more honest approach than inviting non-trivial contributions.

Trying to take the perspective of the maintainer I know it is tedious when people do things outside of your area of interest (i.e. IE fixes when you’re not targeting that version of the browser or Windows fixes in a project targeted at UNIXes). However telling people to “fix it themselves” is not as honest as saying “that’s not our focus”. People can then decide whether they want to fork or not.

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Work

Agile: are scrummasters the masters?

One of the fault lines in modern Agile development remains the purpose and application of process. For me the fundamental conflict between a developer and a “scrummaster” is to do with what the main purpose of that role is. Scrummasters often profess a servant manager role for themselves while actually enacting a traditional master hierarchical function.

The following is the acid test for me. The servant manager is one who takes the work I am doing and expresses it in a form that allows people outside the team to understand what I am doing, the progress I have made on it and make predictions about when my work will be complete.

The traditional manager instead tries to control my work so that it fits neatly into the reporting tools that they want to use. They don’t hesitate to interfere, manipulate and control to make their life easier with their own superiors.

Calling yourself a servant manager but then telling people how to structure their work is paying lipservice to a popular slogan while continuing a strand of managerial behaviour that has been proven to fail for decades.

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Web Applications

Give Draft a go

Draft is a terrific new service that I’ve been using for a while. Imagine Dillinger but with documents stored in the cloud, and the clutter-free aesthetic influence of Svbtle and a lot of additional helpful utilities such as a dynamic word count. It is a really simple idea that in some ways has you kicking yourself for not having thought of it yourself.

I’m using for a mix of purposes, partly replacing Google Docs where what I want is to ultimately generate ¬†clean HTML, partly to provide a drafting facility for products that don’t include (Posthaven and Google Sites for example). It is also handy simply as a document drafter rather than having to install an app like Markdown Editor or UberWriter on various machines.

The service also offers the ability to collaborate with others on the draft documents which is something I’d like to give a go as having to discuss other people’s writing by passing emails of drafts back and forth is painful. So therefore I’m encouraging people to jump on the service and give it a go.

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Software, Web Applications, Work

String Templates, or what I learned from Python and doing nothing

It’s an ill wind that blows no-one any good. The same is true of projects (although money generally helps more here; it’s an ill project that is making no-one any money).

I’m currently meant to be doing some work on Accessibilty for some new HTML pages. I thought it would be pretty easy but I was really wrong and it is changing the whole way I look at the View part of the (deceased) MVC web paradigm.

On my last project I was looking at things like Groovy’s Markup Builder and marvelling at how my collegues managed to put together a 30 line Freemarker template that did some pretty compex HTML assembly. In my spare time I have been looking at Haml as a way of escaping the verbosity and monotony of XHTML and to have the code guarantee the correctness of my page structure to avoid validation grind.

That’s because in those projects I was a developer/web designer. I wanted accurate, compliant HTML with minimum effort and which was easy to style without having awful CSS hacks.

On my current project I’m in the utterly baffling (for me anyway) world of .Net. There is no way that I can understand the huge variety of C#, XML and templating overrides that make up my current project. Having code generate HTML is a massive barrier to me being productive because, while I know a far bit of HTML having to root around an entire Visual Studio project to find the fragment that generates the problematic Div element you actually want to work with means I spend the whole day knowing nothing about .Net rather than applying the knowledge I do have.

Now some people are going to say that having a wacky Component model is different from having a nice templating language but look at something like Haml or Freemarker. The former is concise and fun and full of obscure rules; the latter is tremendously powerful, more firmly rooted in HTML and not much less obscure. For power users I agree, they are the bomb. They are a massive barrier to entry though, in a way that HTML just isn’t. People may do HTML badly but they rarely don’t do it at all.

This experience put combined with using Django/Jinja/Google App Engine is leading to me have a huge rethink about the way templating and views are put together. Passing a map of parameters to a template that is essentially exactly the way the output will look on the final device is obviously the way this problem should be tackled.

To try and get the HTML to generate in the current project I spent a day trying to get: SQLServer, BizTalk, Active Directory and Windows MQ to work together. This is utter madness and can only have been created by programmers who have no idea how to collaborate with non-programmers.

Why should I be trying to install BizTalk when what I want to do is actually generate some sample HTML so we can have a quick check of WAI standards? It should be possible to define some fixture data and then just generate HTML from the templates. It really shouldn’t be hard.

This experience is really changing the way I think about web frameworks. I am already determined to learn String Template, then I am going to look at whether my current favourite frameworks allow me to use it. I’m going to look at frameworks that ask you to put the HTML template next to the Java code. I want to know if I can put those templates in the same heirarchy that the actual website uses.

In short if I need to work with people outside the project team on a web project again, how can I get all the good things about templates and combine them with both simplicity and intuition as to how a website is organised?

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