Windows 8: First Month Impressions

Windows 8 Start Menu

This is the new start menu for Windows 8

Unless you really don’t care about technology (and that’s totally okay), you likely know that Windows 8 came out today and unless you have been following closely, the main thing you know about it is they’ve completely redesigned the start menu and navigation for a different user experience. So far, it’s had fairly mixed reviews.

I’ve used Windows 8 for about a month on my laptop, my secondary computer. I use this computer about 10 or less hours a week and use it mainly for email, quick look ups and special programming projects not related to my primary functions of my day job. I’d consider myself a moderate user on this machine. I upgraded a boot camped version of Windows 7, which I had a lot of problems with, but won’t penalize Windows 8 for these problems.

The new menu and interface

Let’s discuss the elephant in the room first- the new changes to the menu and interface throughout the operating system.  It takes a little getting used to.  Your start menu has been converted into this large, bubbly, square mess of buttons.  It’s not necessarily bad but if you had lots of applications it’s a little intimidating and hard to find applications.

Finding settings also take a little bit getting used to.  The standard control panel is still there but it’s hard to find.  My recommendation is to start typing “Control Panel” and you will see it as an option. There’s also a settings area for the Windows 8 interface which are different from the classic control panel so it feels like it’s hard to find all the settings.

Section of Windows 8 style apps. Your desktop shows up here as well. Just drag your mouse to the top half of your screen.

Fortunately, you can switch to the classic view.  Windows 8 treats it like it’s own app.  Other than the lack of start button, the classic interface is fairly unchanged:  You still have a task bar and a tray and the experience hasn’t really changed.

Within the Windows 8 style, you can anchor screens to the left and right of the screen real estate. On a 1680px width, it uses 320px.  Maybe I have to see other apps released but right now, I get no use out of it and wish it had more flexibility, such as allowing me to resize the width.

Finding anything can be difficult at first but once you learn shortcuts (and believe me, you WILL have to learn shortcuts to be productive) it’s it becomes nice to use.  For example, to run a program, you can type the windows key and start typing the name of it and you will be able to easily run it.  I also like the lo gin and start screen for what it is worth.

All in all, I think I understand what Microsoft was trying to accomplish but I don’t believe it’ quite there.  I believe you should be able to mute the Windows 8 style and only use it for the start menu.  Instead, it insists on popping up in certain times, like viewing a photo.  Jumping from classic mode to Windows 8 leaves you lost.  I guess I could set all default file associations to programs which use the classic view but I shouldn’t have to do that.

General Usage and Performance

This is one area where I believe Windows 8 really shines.  They got rid of Aero (which I did like) and made the window management way more responsive without compromising too much of the visual appeal.  Start up also takes a lot less time as well.  Aside from my initial install problems, I’ve had very little to complain about in terms of speed and functionality.

Windows 8 Split Screen

This is the docking mode for the new style, and I just don’t care for it. Windows key + Left, Right are better.

One thing which is really annoying, especially with certain programs using the Windows 8 style, is you may upgrade software (I’m looking at you Chrome) and all of a sudden, it’s in the Windows 8 style!  I don’t want my browser on the new style!  Flipping between the new style and classic is clunky.  You can open Chrome in classic mode, but you have to open it from the classic task bar.

Development (.NET)

If you are a developer who uses Visual Studio, and especially if you are looking to use Visual Studio 2012, you should be happy to know that Windows 8 never gets in your way (Visual Studio opens in classic mode) and IIS 8 works fine.   When Visual Studio was released, I was worried they would try and make Visual Studio use the Windows 8 interface.

Final Verdict

I’m not in love with the Windows 8 style.  I wouldn’t say it sucks.  I get it, and perhaps I’ll grow to like it.  I just think it’s clunky and sometimes causes me to be less efficient.  I’ll be interested to see what Microsoft does with mixed feedback.  I have briefly used the consumer preview on a touch device and it’s very slick for it.  I bet the surface is going to be a cool device.

The speed of the operating system on the other hand is great and I believe a step up from its predecessor.  I’m also happy with the introductory price.  I think while still more expensive than Mac OS X, they are starting to gravitate towards a more friendly pricing model.  I was fortunate and got it for free via MSDN, but knowing what I know now, I might have sprung for the upgrade.

Should You Upgrade?

If you are on Windows XP or Vista, I’d say upgrade, given your computer can handle it.  In fact, why aren’t you on Windows 7 already?

If you are on Windows 7, I’d say it’s probably a good upgrade but not essential, at least not yet.  However, the pricing on it is $39.99 to upgrade until January 31st so it may be worth it.

If you are looking for a new computer and they give you the option, definitely go with Windows 8.  This is definitely not a Vista or XP decision.

Lastly, if you have a mac book pro and for some reason you need windows on a portable computer (I need it for work) then I would wait until Apple and boot camp come out to say Windows 8 has supported  drivers.  My upgrade didn’t go smoothly, but at least it’s working.

Let me know what you think of it.  I think overall, it’s a positive upgrade… once you figure it out.

What Software Design Can Learn From Lego

Lego Emporium

Completed Emporium

Are you a Lego maniac? I’d consider myself one. I have collected a few of the recent modular designs. These are 2000+ piece kits which connect to each other. They are great, because it’s relaxing to build a kit and they are display pieces after they are done.

In my constant education about software design, it dawned on me a few days ago that there is a lot to learn from the Lego company and their products when it comes to software development. NOTE: Keep in mind I am not saying that “building software is like building a Lego model,” which would be WAY over simplifying software design.

What can we learn?

Early designed bricks work with current Lego models
It took the Lego company a few tries in the beginning but once they settled and patented a design in 1958 it hasn’t changed (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lego). If I had bricks from 1958, they would fit my current models in 2011.

In software design, sometimes new technologies come along, old ones are considered old, have passed support life cycles and it’s required to make changes to the software. However, software patterns and practices don’t change too frequently. It’s better to plan out a design as if it will last 50 years rather than to have a short term attitude of “eh, it will change in 5 years anyway.” Have pride in your initial designs!

Quality is important
I just checked, I have about 30 Lego boxes in my closet.  I cannot think of a single time when a piece has been malformed, broken or missing from a kit. Not. One. Time. These models are generally not cheap, but instead of paying for only a brand name, I pay for a brand name and the knowledge in which my model will be complete and perfect.

In software, it’s okay to charge your customers a premium, given your product and service is perfect.

Lego Modules for Emporium

Module Demonstration

Modular building
The beauty of the modular designs is that… well they are modular. The picture on the left shows 4 parts to the building. This allows for an easier build as well as gives builders easier, shorter tasks to complete the model. It also helps budget time to finishing a model and it gives easy stop times.

In software, sometimes we build and build and build and build, eventually causing a tightly coupled system which is hard to implement unit and quality assurance testing, thus leaving more room for mistakes. Software must be planned out into the most modular components and designed as such. The authorization provider should not have to depend on the logging provider and vice-versa.

Slow and meaningful release schedule
As a consumer, sometimes this can be frustrating. However, the Lego company doesn’t spew out mediocre model after mediocre model and when one is finally release which I am interested in, it’s almost euphoric. They spend lots of time and resources planning every one. Even though I don’t care much for the Star Wars or Harry Potter series, I know that if I were to buy a kit, it would be fun and nicely detailed. There’s a consistency among all the models.

I get frustrated with fast release timelines because it becomes difficult to know where you are on the curve and whether your system is compatible with build 494820. If you are designing software, focus on a solid, well thought out, well planned release so that the wait was worth it, rather than slapping it together. I’m more impressed with software releases which benefit me as a customer rather than who updates the most.

Know what you are building
On the Lego box, there is a nice bright picture of what I’m building, as well as details on the back. In the instruction manuals, images are language-agnostic, precise, colorful, and represent exactly what is being built.

In software development, an SRS document is essential for major products. Software needs documentation before it’s built! Every architecture, connection between two modules, business requirement and design must be available. Think of it this way: if I needed to hire a developer, how long would it take for them to realize the project’s vision? If the answer is anything but “however long it takes them to read the documentation” then the documentation needs to be revised and completed.

Lego Manuals

Lego Manuals

Extensive instruction manuals
Lego provides great instruction manuals, which anyone can follow along. They have no words or complicated diagrams but still convey a great answer.

Provide users with detailed instructions which aren’t too wordy or complicated so they may get the best experience.

Users will find interesting ways to break your model
The awesome thing about Lego models is that they don’t HAVE to be built exactly as Lego intended it. While I generally don’t do this with buildings, I always try to modify vehicles so they perform better. When I was a kid I used to roll vehicles down the stairs so I can fix and rebuild them.

Users will find unique and unintended ways to use your system. While rewarding this behavior (as Lego does) may not be advantageous in a program, the user needs to be redirected to the right path without insulting them with a bizarre error message or blank page.

So are you a maniac?

Better Code: Code Reviews

In my new role at Brand Integrity as lead developer, I am tasked with the responsibility to perform code reviews on our platform.  It’s one of my favorite parts of the job (besides the fame, fortune and socialite lifestyle) because not only does it help the platform, it helps me become a better developer as well.

If you look up “how to perform code reviews”, you can find a plethora of blog posts on how to perform and survive code reviews.  I’ve decided to highlight a few things to share that I have learned from my experiences which I believe are very important.

For Reviewers

Consider doing the review in two pieces:  one together and one separate.  Generally whenever I code review, it’s mainly because an important module has been changed or a developer is working through a unique solution.  It takes time to understand approaches.  I’d suggest as a reviewer, take a look at the code before meeting together and write down anything you would like to review. Once you get together, you can have a healthy dialog about how a particular piece of code was approached, rather than wait 15 minutes while the reviewer goes traverses the source code.

Only make minor changes, don’t make major changes.  It is the developer’s responsibility to fix and rework the code based on the review.  If there are simple code guideline changes, it’s okay to make those changes as long as the developer is aware of it (it’s just easier and quicker).  Make sure before you end your review both the developer and reviewer know what is expected to be completed.

Don’t do surprise reviews.  I just think this is a terrible practice.  I did it once and felt bad after it.  Allow someone to decline the invitation.  Sometimes someone just isn’t ready for a review on a particular module.

Make a list of priorities specific for the review. Everyone involved in the process (the reviewer and developer) should be aware of what is important within the review.  While developers should not code just for what is in the review, it’s good to know what you as a reviewer are looking for.  This can be different between reviews, and it should be reflective on what is important to the development department as a whole.

For Those Being Reviewed

Have pride and confidence in your artIn most blog posts, you will see “don’t take it personally” a lot, and generally as one of the most important points.  I respectfully disagree with the advice.  It is true that you shouldn’t be emotional in a code review and think any recommended changes as a personal slight, but have pride in your work and you SHOULD take it personally!  Have faith in yourself as a developer and explain why you did it your way.  As a reviewer, I may have not have realized what you’ve done (after all, I’ve only looked at your code for a small time) and you may be right.

If you are the one reviewing work, recognize you may be treading into sensitive territory, and recognize that everything is generally written for a reason.

Be prepared to justify your work. Be ready to defend what you did. You wrote it and it is yours.  If you are in a situation where you are truly not sure if what you did is the right approach, still try and justify your solution because it may still be the right path.

Coding in General

Make functions do precisely one task.  One thing I’ve learned as a reviewer (anyone’s code, including mine) is that it is infinitely easier to review code which has been structured where functions have a single and specific purpose.  Of course, this seems like “well duh” but if you do a lot of UI coding, it’s easy to forget.   One of the worst offenders is within code behind development on .NET pages.  It’s easy to put all functionality within the event handler.  It’s obvious what btnSubmit_Click does within the context of the control.

Given little to no context however, it’s difficult to review and make design decisions.  Having the general knowledge of the system, I don’t remember what btnSubmit_Click on page X vs. page Y does.  I may remember however, that page X  and page Y has a function called SaveUser.  Because of the duplicate functionality, it’s obvious that both page X and page Y should share the same SaveUser function and its functionality should be pulled outside of the view tier.

Comment frequently but don’t write a novel. I feel that young developers, especially those who went to school, are beaten over the head about creating a lot of comments.  I think this is much better than no comments.  However, it misses the point.  The BEST form of commenting is to program your code to be self commenting.  This means that variable names must be clear and concise,  the flow must make sense and be as simple as possible and the code formatting must be consistent and standard.  This is FAR better than a ton of comments.  As a reviewer, it’s more important for me to read the code than the comments so I can make better suggestions.

If it feels wrong, it probably is.  Go get it reviewed.  Sometimes you write code which just doesn’t feel right.  You are probably right to feel that way and something just isn’t right.  Get your code reviewed before it goes into QA or even into production.  However, come to the review with a description as to why you chose your approach.

A Month Later — Self Employment

After one month of consulting, I am not much closer to figuring out what I want to be when I grow up.  I am fairly confident I want to create my own company… not because I want to make millions of dollars, not because I want to be my own boss (although those are perks I wouldn’t mind having) but because I truly believe I have the chops to do it.  I consider me being self employed was a test, to see whether I would prevail or crash and burn under it all.  So far, so good!

I feel like I have more creativity when working by myself, managing my own projects.  I can work at my own pace, for how long I want, take as few or as many breaks as I want.  I don’t have anyone breathing down my neck about deadlines, I am not getting lost in a sea of politics, and day to day annoyances are minimal.  It’s nice to take a break from work to… work on a blog post!  Lastly, it’s nice to stay home and not bother with the ridiculous amount of snow we’ve gotten here on Long Island.

It’s not like I don’t have deadlines and sometimes, they take me to working a lot of nights and weekends.  You have to really work on the relationship with your clients, because they are providing you with work so you can make money.  If you are sick or just not into the day, you HAVE to make up that work… there’s no sick days or vacations.  You have to watch your money LIKE A HAWK… because you don’t get a check every two weeks.  You have to make sure your computer is working at all times; there’s no IT department to replace your computer.   Obviously, as with all important decisions in your life, there are a lot of huge pros and cons.

I decided to reflect on my success and my failures.  As an aspiring leader/owner of a company, one thing you need to do is be positive but realistic.  However, I’ve come up with a list of things that I’ve learned and accomplished unrelated to my profession in case this is all a really big failure:

  • I’ve upgraded my home operation to be more secure and more backed up.
  • I’ve learned how to manage my money better
  • I’ve learned how to manage my time better
  • I’ve become more organized
  • I understand taxes a lot better
  • I’ve learned how to express my opinion a lot better
  • I’ve learned that sometimes the biggest failure you can have is the failure you didn’t have.

I am generally honest with myself and would admit if this wasn’t working for me.  So far, I’m enjoying myself and recognize that over the next several months I need to make some big changes and advances.  I hope I don’t burn out and lose sight as to what I want to accomplish, even if that hasn’t been truly defined yet.

Leading up to my full-time consulting gig

Here is a disclaimer:  I wrote this for me, to congratulate myself on my accomplishments.  Sometimes is just feels good to write out a pat on the back.

Ever since graduating college, I’ve wanted to run my own gig.  I was looking into business school and wanted to focus on degrees which focused on entrepreneurial studies.   I also knew that having more business experience was beneficial for me, so I looked for everything.  Long story short, I got kind of the best of both worlds… I landed a job working with Brand Integrity on a project with just two other entrepreneurs.  I learned a lot about building a company from the ground up, some of the difficulties start ups have, to work as efficiently as possible with the leanest budget as possible and most importantly perhaps, how to work in a coffee shop.

After three years, I decided to leave the location and move back home, because I was missing family and felt I could severely benefit from more experience.  It was the hardest decision I’ve ever made.  When I came to Long Island, Brand Integrity allowed me to work full time at home.  I was able to find a job working for a larger firm with an actual IT department.  I felt it was a necessary jump.    I learned lots there, but something was missing…

After a short while, I realized where my passion was:  helping clients solve IT problems.  It’s broad and almost impossible to do 100%, but that is what I wanted to do.  Working at a larger firm made me realize that working without being on the ground floor of the decision makers was not what I wanted. I thought about project management training, but really, I just wanted to run my own consulting practice.

And that is where I am today.  I am self-employed and loving it.  Working for myself has unique challenges I must face every day which force me to be creative and efficient. I pray that I will have the strength and intelligence to keep this up for a long time.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: Quick Review

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World for those who don’t know is a movie about a 23-year old played by Michael Cera who finds the girl of his dreams in his dreams and has to defeat her seven ex-boyfriends in order be with her. For more information on the synopsis, go to IMDB, because I am not going to do the explanation justice without ruining it.

This movie was a must see for me.  Michael Cera is one of those actors whom I enjoy in just about anything he has done.  The idea of a movie which borrows very heavily from a video game plot is refreshing and the production, while ridiculous, was necessary.  Being a gamer myself, I didn’t get insulted.  There wasn’t a moment where I felt the writers and producers have never played a video game before.

The production value was excellent.  The fight scenes were well choreographed and the video game elements were great, and not too obvious.  If you are not a big fan of fighting movies, there not enough fighting where you couldn’t enjoy the movie.

The movie wasn’t overly sexualized either.  Video games sometimes tend to overdo it (impractical clothing for women and stupid “that’s what she said” stereotypes for men for example). Anything ‘sexy’ between any characters felt necessary and important to the plot.

My only complaint about the movie is the ending.  I am not going to spoil it (it’s probably obvious from the synopsis what the conclusion is) but it seemed like it was wrapped up funny.  Then again, it did remind me of some of those “awesome” retro video game endings. I am probably over-thinking it.

If you are in the mood to try something different, love Michael Cera or love video games, this is a must watch.  For the rest of you, go check out the trailer, I think you’d enjoy it.

Opening to a New Window – Why Isn’t the Target Attribute a Valid Tag?

Ever since I was a young web developer going through college, it has been drilled into me to be standards compliant when developing for the web.  In fact, it went as far as being 20% of your grade just to be XHTML 1.0 Strict standards compliance.

Just to be clear, I am talking about XHTML 1.0 Strict.  Transitional, while it has its uses, doesn’t capture the essence and spirit of why we want to be standards compliant.  Creating your web sites to be standards compliant is something as web developers we should strive for.  It promotes standardization of markup, it helps to separate layout from content, and it creates the ability for all modern browsers to display the site same way… sort of.

One thing that really gripes me is the target attribute for the <a> tag.  This was marked as obsolete, and in the strict specifications, it’s invalid.  Why is this the case?  It’s very helpful,  unobtrusive, and works really well with tabbed browsers.  I can understand every other valid XHTML ‘no-no’ such as not using align attributes or a center tag, just this one just kind of escapes me.

<a href="http://www.google.com" target="_blank">Why is this invalid?</a>

So why is it invalid? As far as I can tell, it’s because we shouldn’t assume it is what the user intended and that it should be left up to the user.  I really hate this explanation.  It makes me think whomever thinks it has never dealt with a real world user.  Most people outside of the technological world are not savvy enough to right-click and open a page in a new window.  For us that do know how to do it, it’s actually quite annoying.  Besides, when I link to a webpage outside of my domain, how often would we want the user to navigate away? It is not very user interface friendly in my opinion.

Another reason is the page loses the effectiveness of the back button.  Okay, I can buy this, but it’s packed neatly on a new tab on all new modern browsers.  It’s easy to navigate back to the original site.

A last reason I can discover is because of screen clutter.  This is becoming a moot point due to the fact that almost every popular browser uses tabs rather than opening a new window.  In fact, the only browser which doesn’t utilize tabs is IE6, and it’s popularity is quickly dying.

The standards compliant solution: Use Javascript. Bah!  That’s just something else I have to test.  target=”_blank” works fine in all cases.  Using Javascript to do something the browser does natively feels silly.  I know the code is pretty compact and with jQuery you could literally do it in one line, it’s not nearly as clean and understandable as target.

My user experience friendly solution: In order to appease the target-hating standards compliant gods, my solution is this:  Provide a setting on the top of the page which asks “Open all links in a new window” and “Open all links in the current window.”  This way, you allow the user to decide how it works, it’s standards compliant, and it’s fairly simple to implement.

Perhaps help is on the way. Doing some research on the topic, I came across the spec document for CSS3 Hyperlink Presentation (yes, this opens in a new window!) which describes using CSS to determine target parameters.  I can easily get on board with that!  Hopefully we can see CSS3 implemented across all major browsers in the not-to-distant future.

In Conclusion: I will still be using target=”_blank” to pop up new tabs on my blog.  The blog is validated in Transitional anyway.  My belief is that any hyperlink in a blog post will be clicked on to allow further reading of the topic.  That is the experience I want to provide for my readers.