Monday, 14 November 2016

The first day

It occurs to me that, having been working at the University of Bath forever, I have experienced very few first days. For obvious reasons I've been thinking about working environments a lot recently, along with expectations from both employers and employees. The less-than-insightful thought being that the world would be much better if there was less fear. I wonder how many people would make positive changes in their lives, such as moving job, if it wasn't for fear. I know that I'm scared to be moving. Scared that the new place will reject me, scared that I wont be able to do the new job, scared that I wont like my new colleagues. None of these have any basis in reality. There hasn't been anything to suggest the new place will be anything but lovely and although the work will be different I'm definitely up for the challenge - plus they interviewed me and decided I am capable and they should know better than me at this stage.

So really my fear is based on the loss of my old job (which was full of lovely, talented people and a great environment) in the face of an unknown future. But moving on has been the right decision. It has allowed me to advance my career and re-evaluate my professional worth - both of which are Good Things for anyone to do. In turn, the university is going to have to face questions about how it employs developers - questions it can (understandably) avoid while it has people in post - also a Good Thing for the industry as a whole.

If movement is good, why isn't there more of it? That brings me back to fear and for the moment the first day. I know that one way or another I'll be uncomfortable on my first day and that is mostly due to my history of first days. I'm expecting the next one to be better and I'm looking forward to being involved in making them better for others when I'm the experienced one.

My first first day

My first job was as a lifeguard in a place which shall remain unspecified. Memories from that day involve arriving around 5.30am (eugh) and pretty much immediately being sent to set up some giant trampolines on my own. I later discovered that there are supposed to be six trained people involved in setting these things up. Fortunately I was rescued by some more experienced colleagues.

My second first day

My second job was at Unilever. It was a great job but day one was a mess. I was sent to the other side of the country, where nobody knew who I was or why I was there. I ended up interviewing people about a project I knew nothing about all the while wondering when I was going to wake up from the crazy dream.

My third first day

This was the first day working on the University of Bath Helpdesk, although the strongest memory was of the interview. I'd been sitting with a friend (who already worked there) fixing a laptop for him. The supervisor came over, saw what I had done and asked if I wanted to cover the next free shift. I was thrown straight into the action, with a small amount of shadowing an experienced colleague to show me how things worked.

I actually remember very little of this day so it must have been pretty smooth overall.

My fourth first day

My first day as a developer. I was shown to a small office which was about big enough for one and a half people. I was the half. Over the next few days I managed to cannibalise a working computer from various contacts around the university, including some flatscreen monitors from the dawn of time (the desk wasn't big enough for the more common CRT monitors). I managed to borrow a chair from a generous colleague in another office (he had two) then I was shown around the various systems on which I would be working - of which I understood exactly nothing.

Oh and the office let in the rain.

Not that I'm knocking this job. As I'll write about in another post I feel incredibly lucky to have had this opportunity!

No real conclusion here. I suppose the direction I'm heading is that if we want to improve our industry we want to encourage people to be the best they can be, which will likely mean enabling people to move around easily. One problem to overcome is the fear of moving and one of the things to fix there is the inevitably-scary first day. Each environment is different, but some basics (meeting people, first day activities, desk, computer, access) are going to be consistent and we really should have this nailed as an industry by now. So much of fear is the unknown - simply sending out a basic itinerary of the first day should help quell that.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

The rambling story of how I became a developer - part 1

Just recently I've had the privilege of advising a few amateur developers on how to step into the world of professional development. I find this a difficult question but since working with and helping encourage those new to this world is very important and something I hope to be doing a lot more of in the near future I thought it best to get some thoughts in order.

How did I get there?

First things first - I can't claim to be any kind of career expert. My own tale has been a combination of providence and hard work, not particularly shrewd choices as I've progressed - at least not deliberately.

My first IT job was a summer spent as a business analyst, working through a huge data manipulation job and providing the technical expertise to the project manager. This wasn't why I was hired - I was supposed to be doing some kind of data entry as a holiday job - but by a series of coincidences I ended up talking to everyone who the project affected and accidentally doing some in-depth user analysis which led me to ask lots of questions about the best way to move forward. In my first job I learned the importance of the end users.

Next up, I spent a year in user support on a help desk, helping look after a campus full of computers. Again, lots of opportunities to talk to the end users and hear their difficulties and frustrations. This sort of experience is really important for someone who wants to be a good developer. Being able to create great code is important, but if you don't understand the people who will be using your product you will only ever be able to create to the specifications provided by others and that will limit your ability to be effective and put a ceiling on your career.

The help desk also gave me my first proper chance to effect change on my working environment. We had many processes which needed to be more efficient and I was fortunate that the people around me (and particularly my manager) were open to experiment and change. This is understood with the benefit of hindsight and experience - at the time I just had an idea, had a bit of a chat with my manager and gave it a go. Looking back I'm honestly surprised they gave me as much freedom as they did. Being able to critically analyse and successfully question the status quo is an important skill for anyone working in a team and especially in the rapidly-changing world of development.

The first summary

So far I think the key points (other than the rather obvious "make the most of your opportunities") are:

  • get involved with the end users
  • question the world around you

It's never too early in your career to ask "is this the right thing to do?" - it will probably be the most important question you learn. Of course, the other vital part of this skill is being able to ask without annoying and alienating your colleagues. While sometimes it is important to challenge authority or speak truth to power, or whatever the phrase is at the moment it is rarely a good idea to directly butt heads with people higher up the food chain. In a good working environment, questions and discussions should be encouraged (if you're finding you can't ever ask "why" then you're working in the wrong place) but you need to know how to approach such a conversation and when to back out.

Basically, soft skills matter.

More at some point.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Still at university

Breaking with tradition here, I’m going to ramble about work a bit - or at least some of the weird effects of working at a university. I’ve been thinking more about them recently, partly because I’m getting old and senile and partly because after 15 years I’m finally going to leave university and work Somewhere Else.

It started a few weeks ago when I left a meeting in the university library and walked across level 4. When I was a student (some 12 years ago or more) level 4 of the library was our territory. It was where the maths textbooks laired, and called us to gather even if we never actually looked at the things other than to marvel at their number and the amount of dust that had accumulated since the last pilgrims had arrived. At that time the floor was filled with bulky computers, with CRT monitors perched atop them like the rock piles in Blair Witch, and laid out in uniform lines which both made economical use of the space and sapped any will to live from you. Now though? Well, now it’s…

Library level 4

Well, exactly the same really but with more modern tech. The weirdest sense of deja vu. I have to wonder if the Silver Fox is still haunting the place, seeking those students who dare to consume something other than blessed water in his hallowed halls.

This time-bubble warps perception everywhere and our relatively low staff turnover only encourages it. This week is Freshers’ Week, which means hundreds of school leavers are roaming the grounds in an attempt to find the fabled “north buildings”. They are aided in their quest by the returning students and it is so very easy to look at these second and third years and relate to them, thinking “that was me not so long ago”. And yet it was more than a decade since I was a third year student, worrying about coursework and helping run a radio station. I have many friends who have had children - several children - in that time who are now going to school and looking at us as the uncool adults we really are.

It is a frog on slow-boil problem I feel (minus the brain-removed issue those frogs experienced, although…). I haven’t left so I haven’t aged. Despite doing adult things like getting a mortgage, life has failed to convince me that I have become, in theory at least, a responsible member of society and A Proper Grown Up. Maybe it is because I haven’t had that moment, a variant of which I assume everyone else goes through, where I suddenly become my Dad, understand what’s going on in the adult world, learn to appreciate sport and discover the enjoyment in gardening.

Yesterday, I was sitting in the Plug (the student bar) drinking diet coke and MMMBop started playing over the speakers. Aside from the video being projected onto the wall (and the lack of a half-completed piece of maths tutorial work), this could have been a scene from 15 years ago - except I was a bit fitter (although I’m more flexible now - in your face younger me) and had a bit more hair. Fortunately the modern world dragged me back from my time travel experience as the bar audio has a feature which lets anyone add music to the playlist from their phone anywhere on campus.

Back in the day nobody played anything but URB if we had anything to say about it.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Jekyll and the build scripts a few years on

A few years ago I moved my sites from a PHP templating system to static generation using Jekyll. How is it working out?

Pretty well. I’ve had no downtime (that I haven’t caused) which is to be expected on a low-traffic website serving HTML files. Updating content and templates has been easy, with Jekyll remaining simple to use. While I’m sure I’m in need of an update, that is less of a concern than if I was running code exposed to a user. Overall no problems with the technology or maintenance - indeed I find it much easier to work with than previous versions of the site as I don’t have to re-learn my configuration each time I want to do anything more complicated than change some words.

The biggest win - and something I actually considered skipping when I initially implemented - has been with the build scripts. In professional life I wouldn’t think twice about writing automated build scripts for a project but we all know that this kind of thinking isn’t as rigorously followed for personal projects. I wrote a simple mina script for deploying (and updating) my sites and several years on I deeply thankful to my past self. I haven’t had to keep my build process in my brain at all - just the magic command, which is in a README somewhere. This has meant small updates have been easy, the most boring part of site maintenance has all but gone away and consequently those updates have actually happened.

The lesson to take away here is that doing the hard (and dull) work up front of defining a development process and writing deployment scripts was worth it. Not so much because of time saving, or the consistency inherent in an automated process - but because these benefits actually encouraged me to maintain my sites in a way I simply wouldn’t have done had I been required to remember how to deploy my work each time I did anything.

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Printing a photo book

TL;DR - I used CEWE Photoworld and it was good

I have been running a photography website since the start of 2015 and I thought it would be nice to turn the pictures from last year into some kind of coffee table photo book. That's 72 photographs (12 months x 6 photographers) each with title and caption, plus each month needed a cover page, and I wanted the first photo of each month to appear on the right-hand page so I needed another page per month to shuffle the photos on. That's 8 pages per month, for a total of 96 pages to lay out - not a small amount of work so I needed a site which would give me a tool which I could use without wanting to do Very Bad Things by the end of it.


After some searching I ended up using CEWE Photoworld for three important reasons:

  • They have a desktop tool
  • They have an online help which actually ... helps
  • They have a 100% satisfaction guarantee

The desktop tool is hardly the pinnacle of software design, but it does the job. It is quick, reassuringly responsive and allows text with background colour and limited bulk formatting. It let me put everything together in the way I wanted, including guidelines on where I could push content to the edge of pages and where it wouldn't work. This put it a huge step forwards from Photobox, which I tried first because it is the famous one. Photobox offers a web based application which didn't let me add text with a coloured background and generally had that cumbersome feeling of web applications from last decade.

The Photoworld online help includes a real time chat, which was very helpful. I used it twice. The first agent was very responsive and helpful, answering my questions and generally being very reassuring. The second one was significantly less so - I got the impression he had far too many simultaneous conversations running, and was annoyingly vague when I was asking very precise questions (if you've got five different types of paper to choose from then you really can't use terminology which ambiguously covers three of them when recommending a choice). Still, we got there and the site helpfully emailed me a copy of the conversation which I kept just in case I needed to trigger the guarantee at a later date. Fortunately I've not had to test their guarantee in practice, but it was very reassuring to know that I had that safety net.

Reassuring is, I think, the key word for describing dealing with Photoworld. They know their service is expensive (as in book printing is expensive - I don't think they are expensive compared to their competitors) and is likely to be bought by people who haven't got a clue what they are doing so they do their utmost to make you feel like you're in good hands, and minimise the chances you're going to make a mess of what you're doing. One example from the site text - each book passes through 15+ pairs of hands as it is produced so it is thoroughly checked for imperfections. Regardless of how helpful this actually is in reality, it is an encouraging thought.

The only time I feared for my book while using it was when it came to finish and pay. At this point it uploads the pictures and send you off to secure payment, or crashes horribly if you attempt to use the Paypal option. This is slightly frightening when you've spent tens of hours laying everything out and proofing the book and all of a sudden it looks like it might be stuck on your desktop for all of eternity. Anyway, a switch to using a credit card bypassed that part of the application and it all worked fine.


The book arrived slightly quicker than promised and looks great.

Year in Pictures 2015

The presentational box was an extra, but looks really nice.

Year in Pictures 2015

And the photos printed well. There is a notable variance in the quality of the pictures between the different photographers, but that is to be expected, reflecting the different cameras in use.

Overall, I'm impressed. I'll be using Photoworld again.

And a big thank you to Kirsty Davey for proof reading it and correcting my mistakes. If she had a web presence I'd link to it.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

The Brexit post

So, like everyone else with a social media account I have an opinion on Brexit and the chaotic aftermath in which we find ourselves with both the government and the opposition collapsing in on themselves at exactly the time when some actual leadership is required. While I doubt I've much new to add, one day I will look back at this blog and I want to see a collection of my thoughts from this time.

Disclosure first. I believe in the Europe Union and the European vision. I believe that as a nation we are more than this small island and that not only means we should engage with European politics, but we have a responsibility to do so. So yes, I voted Remain.

Obviously I think the referendum result was a terrible decision and I'm appalled at the lack of conviction shown by the winners in the aftermath - be it Boris deciding that after leading Leave, he doesn't want to lead actually leaving or the calls from the Leave camp to put off invoking Article 50 for an unspecified amount of time. The indecision and lack of any coherent plan for this result is, frankly, terrifying.

Remain supporters are trying to process the situation. Some are calling for a second referendum, while others are looking to Scotland to find a magic veto and dig us out of this mess. Still others are looking to claim citizenship of other countries, or leave altogether. There is a hope the government will simply ignore the result, which seems a reasonable reaction, if wishful. It's not like they've listened when it comes to anything else recently.

Many have had enough of all this. They've sat through months of campaigning, of impenetrable rhetoric, half-truths, scaremongering and downright lies and, understandably, just want to get back to normal life. They want cats and babies on their Facebook feeds, not endless discussion of what is seen as a now-closed issue. This resignation hasn't gone down well and others are asserting their right to be angry, leading to a weird meta-argument.

Personally, I'm sympathetic to the weariness. I'm tired of all the debates and all the fighting being about stopping things getting worse. The Remain campaign wasn't about fighting for a better future - it was a rearguard action to defend what was the current (far from ideal) state of affairs from the self-serving and deluded. The same as the battle to stop the NHS being taken to pieces and privatised. And the battle for the BBC. And the schools. And the Snooper's Charter. And so on.

The left does not seem to be fighting for improvements any more. We aren't campaigning for positive change, but opposing negative change which rather plays to the whining liberal stereotype and it is really hard to get gain any kind of momentum when your message is "now, hang on". It is at this point we really need something big and positive we can get behind in the political arena. We should be able to look to the opposition for some kind of balance. Except the opposition has struggled to be credible for the last few years and has just imploded.

This is, of course, an emotional reaction to the current situation. There is a tremendous amount of work done by those who are campaigning for a genuinely better future, and I am doing a disservice to those fighting the rearguard action. But ultimately, major change will need to come through voting in what I am going to crudely call "better people" and that means increasing engagement in a process which for me (someone who is already engaged and interested) is currently a source of helplessness and fatigue. I doubt I am alone in feeling this.

I hope future-me reading back can say that I've played a part in improving this situation.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Exporting a postgres database from Heroku and importing to local install

Continuing with my efforts to learn some basic, useful postgres admin commands it’s time to look at importing and exporting data. We are going to export a postgres database from Heroku and import it to a local postgres install for development.

I’m assuming the Heroku toolbelt and postgres are installed locally and myuser is already created. I’ve written some very basic pointers to (local dev) postgres installation and administration already.

We are going to export the database used in myapp and import it locally to mydatabase to be owned by myuser. Brace thyself.

Export from Heroku

This is the easy bit.
heroku pg:backups capture --app myapp
curl -o latest.dump `heroku pg:backups public-url --app myapp`

Import to local

We are going to use the pg_restore command, but that needs to import as a postgres superuser. It will also prompt for a password, even if the user is set up for peer authentication (as per my last post) so we’re going to create an importer user with superuser powers. There is probably a better way to do this, but life is short…

Logged in to postgres as a superuser:
CREATE USER importer WITH PASSWORD 'mypassword';
We also need a target database:
Then to import the database (back on the command line):
pg_restore --verbose --clean --no-acl --no-owner -h localhost -U importer -d mydatabase latest.dump
This will throw some errors when the DROP commands in the Heroku export fail. This seems to be ok, but check nothing else has gone wrong. There is probably a way to have Heroku export the database without the drop statements to eliminate these messages.

Back in postgres as a superuser, switch to the new database and assign the correct ownership:
\c mydatabase
REASSIGN OWNED BY importer TO myuser;