You can’t make One Perfect Final Decision

How to Make Technology Choices

Truly awesome post by Steven Lott.

The expectation of finality is the most disturbing: the expectation that someone can make OnePerfectFinalDecision.
No technology choice is ever final. Today’s greatest ever state-of-the-art, kick-ass-and-take-names SDK may evaporate in a cloud of lawsuits tomorrow. Today’s tech giant may collapse. Today’s platform of choice may be tomorrows weird anachronism.
If you are really, really lucky, you may get big enough to have scalability issues. Having a scalability issue is something we all dream about. Until you actually have a specific scalability issue, don’t try to “pre-solve” a potential problem you don’t yet have. If your software is even moderately well design, adding architectural layers to increase parallelism is not as painful as supporting obscure edge cases in user stories.
When you’re still circulating your ideas prior to writing a demo, all technology choices are equally good. And equally bad. It’s more important to get started than it is to make some impossibly PerfectFinalDecision. Hence the advice to build early and build often.

Making a tech choice and migrating after you know more is not necessarily a problem. It is at least unavoidable, and probably even good for design.

Vim as IDE. Are you getting the wrong parts?

There are a lot of discussion about how to make Vim “an IDE”. Vim is a great text editor, but when we are developing, there are lots of extra tools that are very useful. Code completion. Easy navigation through files and classes. Source control integration. Syntax checking. Navigation that understand the semantics. Integrated debugger.

My problem with IDEs (and I have used a few over the years) is that they give you a lot of support, but at the cost of increasing the complexity. They are slow for a lot of common operations and they use a lot of resources. Code completion, the good kind that will allow you to get the types of a method, not just finish your words (which most of the time is trivial), is useful when developing on a static language, but since I  program in Python is something that I can’t find good use of it. I just don’t use all that stuff, so I don’t feel I can justify to pay the price.

Another problem with IDEs is that they tend to be designed, by default, to the newbie. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, Vim is a pretty intimidating tool because is totally crazy for the rookie. But it generates a bloated environment to start with. If you open Eclipse, a popular IDE (and one I’ve used for some years), you’ll get a relatively small frame for the code, and a lot of extra stuff surrounding it. Logs, file navigation, class definition, a huge toolbar, maybe even a TO DO list…

This is a lot of stuff!
This is a lot of stuff!

For example, think about file navigation. Sure, it’s useful to move around. But it is used only at certain points in time. Most of the time, it’s just used as an entry point to code, and then the navigation can be achieved, either just moving around in the same file, by a referral from the code (like going to a method definition), or just searching on the whole project. In case you need to go to an specific file, you can then show the navigation window, or even better, search by filename. That only happens during small periods of time, so the rest of the time the window is just wasted space on screen. The same thing happen for a task list. It is useful to know the next step. But not while you’re working in one task.

Hey, it is possible to hide the navigation window, and display it only at the proper moment, to save space. I have done that. But it’s not there by default, so most of the people I know just keep it open “just in case, giving context”. They just get used to it, and don’t perceive it as a problem, But having half of your screen full of information that is irrelevant 95% of the time is a huge price to pay. And certainly not a good use of an IDE. The good parts of an IDE are things like automatic compilation and deployment, refactoring tools (not just renaming), debugging, help with the types in static languages, automatic generation of code, etc. Not showing everything, all the time.

Mimicking the wrong parts of an IDE
Mimicking the wrong parts of an IDE You can do better.

Vim is a text editor, but it is also sort of a philosophy. It is not about showing stuff, but about having stuff available at the right moment, with a quick command. It is not just about using hjkl to move around and having an insert mode. It’s about being precise. It is difficult at first, because you can’t simply discover what are the available options, but it also pays off in terms of focus and clean environment. When programming, the most important part is to keep as few things into mind as possible. Keeping all relevant information, which is already enough, but nothing more than can distract you for the task. It is also about doing one thing, and not a hundred. I use other tools for things like source control and debugging. After all, we have the whole OS to work as our IDE.

I use a small number of plugins in Vim. When you learn a little about it, you find out that it’s amazing the number of features and stuff that can be achieved “out of the box”, and how little extra is actually needed to have a really productive environment. It’s just that we need to move from the usual “browse through menus” world that most of software uses, and devout some time to, well, study and learn. It’s really worth it.

These are the times of miracle and wonder

This started all when I was a kid.
This started all when I was a kid. Well, not the exact model, but this is more iconic, isn’t it?

My first computer was a second hand ZX Spectrum+ This says a lot about my age, I guess. I got it from my uncle, who bought himself a more powerful computer. I really loved that computer, and used it for quite a long time. It seemed so magical that you could play a tape, which sounded weird, and load a game. There was also the possibility of program from the command line, which I tried, but I never “got” exactly how to get from very basic stuff to anywhere.

A few years later, and after the Spectrum was broken, I obtain a PC. At first without a sound card, so it was strangely silent compared to the computers of my friends. But the change to a hard drive, where the load times were almost instantaneous was astonishing. Yes, there were disks, but even load something from disk was extremely fast compared to the 15 minutes to load from tape. The usage of MS-DOS was also magical. Learning all the commands, messing around with configuration options (differences between extended and expanded memory) on autoexec.bat and config.sys and even changing port jumpers physically on the cards to resolve problems.

When Plug And Play arrived, at Windows 95, most of the pain seem to disappear and configuration worked fine most of the time. Also having multitask and a GUI was amazing. Around the same time I got my first experience with Internet. Suddenly, there was a way to obtain information not from disks (or CDs), but from a network. It was a slap in the face, and I immediately understood that it was going to be a basic part of the future, as it is today. I think that was obvious to any one interested in computers. It took a considerable amount of time to get to a position where it was something common, as it will be charged by time initially and it was expensive.

I started college and learn more interesting, wonderful stuff. For example, UNIX, a “new” (for me, at least) operative system that seem to have the crazy idea of being able to be used for more than a user at the same time. Or the understanding the internals of computers, which got me a lot of “aahhh, now I get it” moments from previous experiences. Including the programming part, which I discovered was much more powerful and interesting than the small scripts I did before.

When I started my first job, I developed for systems that were also computers, but weren’t shaped as a box, an screen and a keyboard. And that you can compile in a machine code for another. I also learned a lot about how powerful and productive was to use properly development tools like IDEs and the Unix command line.

After that, I spend a few years without  working as developer, but when I came back, it looked like I missed stuff. Like how incredibly easier to use have Linux came to be, thanks to Ubuntu. So much, that after a problem updating my personal computer, I installed Ubuntu at home and never looked back to Windows (I use a Mac these days). But the thing that impressed me more, Virtual Machines. So you’re saying that I can run a full computer inside my computer? That’s amazing!

I also learned Python (and other scripting languages) and, coming from writing mostly C and C++, you can imagine how wonderfully productive it felt. It also have a really great environment, with modules to do anything that you can imagine. One of my first uses of it was to create an application on an Open Office spreadsheet, including dialogs to input information. I got so in love with Python that I decided to move my career around it.

It's Virtual Machines all way down
It’s Virtual Machines all way down

I got really impressed with the iPad presentation. It really was (and is) a magical device I had dreamed a long time ago. I have an iPad, I use it every day and it is probably my favourite device that I ever owned.

The thing that surprises me it’s that I still have this sense of wonder, of enthusiasm after living all those things. I have seen a lot, but somehow, keep that kid inside me that is amazed by technology and how far have we come, and how the next thing is really great. It’s not easy to perceive on a day-by-day basis if you work in this field, but taking a look back, just as close as 5 years back, things were quite different from now in the lands of technology. The change has also been accelerated. Software, in particular, seems to have flourish in ways that seemed impossible. There are better tools to generate it, that make complex projects to be able to be achieved by small teams in very short amounts of time. I know, there are also complains about how exactly this technological progress is happening, and how 50 years ago we think we were going to be able to live in Mars and to wear jetpacks, but I think that having permanent access to the greatest library on our pockets on devices getting faster and more capable every year is not a small achievement. We live in the future.

I remember all this from time to time, when I am tempted to be cynical on new products, like I’m sure you’ve read these days related to iOS 7, PS4 and/or Xbox One. There seem to be a lot of people that put their best “not impressed” face for almost every new release, and that’s not a good thing. Of course, there are things that I’m not particularly like or am fond of, for example the iPad mini (an smaller iPad? I’d love a bigger one, maintain the weight), but I try to remember that there are people that will love all these things like I loved previous ones. I am not necessarily the ideal customer for everything, and I appreciate when a review is about describing the product and its strong and weak points and not that much about stating a (usually predetermined) opinion.

We are truly living in days of miracle and wonder since almost 26 years ago. I hope you’re enjoying the ride. I certainly am.

ffind is now available on PyPI

Remember ffind (A sane replacement for command line file search) module/script ? I’ve just pushed it to PyPI, so anyone interested in giving it a try can install it doing

pip install ffind

Brilliant!

As this was my first submission to PyPI, I’ve follow this guide. It has been quite simple, once it is prepared to use setup.py. And remember, the code is available on Github, so feel free to check it and contribute!

Notifications and emails

Air Mail Envelope
Yet another vintage representation of Email

We all now that email, being a technology created a long time ago and developed organically into some sort of lingua franca of Internet persona and communications, has a series of problems. No easy ones. Manage the email is a problem of its own, and there are lots of articles about it on the Internet.

One of the most annoying is the notifications. We all receive too much email that are only reminders of something relatively interesting in a different app. That could be a new comment on a blog post, an update on LinkedIn, or even a new post on a forum (yep, that used to be a huge thing). GMail’s recent move to group together all notification email is a great example that this system is quite inefficient. It is difficult to find the balance between keep a user informed and not sending spam.

To increase the annoyance, notifications typically will be produced in bursts. There is some discussion in a blog, with 4 or 5 messages in an hour, then it stops for several hours, and then someone else post another comment, producing another couple of comments.

My impression is that any serious app that produces a significant number of notifications (not even very high, something like twice a week or more) and wants to show some respect to their uses should move to a notification system. Hey, Facebook has done it. Remember when Facebook used to send tons of mail everyday with new likes, friends and posts? They changed that to make a notification system in their page. That mean you can always close Facebook, and when coming back, you can easily go to everything since last time.

But, of course, Facebook is a special case, because most people keeps it open or at least check it regularly. Most of other apps that are not that frequently used needs to use email, or no one will check them.

So that’s the deal. Send only one email. One saying “You have new stuff on app X. go to this link to check your new notifications. No new email will be sent until you visit our page” And maybe send another reminder after a week (that can be disabled). This way, if I don’t want to go immediately to the page, no more spamy notifications are received. If I’m interested in the app, I’ll check every time I get that email, but the email is not spam. It allows a very interesting natural flow. And it also shows up respect for your users.

PD: Yes, I know that this is inspired by the way phpBB works, but in a more high level approach. Not sure why that way of doing stuff is not more common.