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Preview: Marquee de Sells: Chris's insight outlet

Marquee de Sells: Chris's insight outlet

The feed of updates to Chris Sells's blog.

Updated: Sun, 07 Aug 2016 07:00:00 GMT


Google Cloud Storage Hierarchy in .NET

Sun, 07 Aug 2016 00:00:00 -0700

Google’s Cloud Storage Browser perpetrates a fiction of files and folders that doesn’t exist. The Google Cloud Storage (GCS) API only has two concepts: buckets and objects. A bucket is a container of objects and needs a globally unique name. An object has a name, a content type and content. The name can be simple, e.g. “foo.txt” or it can have slashes in it, e.g. “foo/bar.txt” or even just “quux/”. However, from the GCS API point of view, there’s no difference — the only container is a bucket. For example, I can write a program using the .NET GCS client lib from NuGet that looks like this: void ListBucketsAndObjects(string projectId) { var client = StorageClient.Create(); foreach (var bucket in client.ListBuckets(projectId)) { Console.WriteLine($"{bucket.Name}/"); foreach (var obj in client.ListObjects(bucket.Name, null)) { Console.WriteLine($" {obj.Name}"); } } } Given objects with names as described above, this would be the output: csells-bucket-1/ foo.txt foo/bar.txt quux/ However, if you surf to the Storage Browser to see the project with these three objects, you’ll see something that looks like a normal file/folder browser: Implicit and Explicit Folders The Storage Browser has interpreted one of the objects as a file and two of them as folders, one implicit and one explicit. The implicit object folder comes from the slash in “foo/bar.txt”; the slash is used as a delimiter that means “folder” as far as the Storage Browser is concerned. The explicit folder comes from an object with a name that ends in a slash. You can create one by pressing the Create Folder button in the Storage Explorer or with the following lines of code: var client = StorageClient.Create(); client.UploadObject(bucketName, "quux/", "", Stream.Null); Working with Folders When you’re working with buckets and objects, the ListBuckets and ListObjects methods work just fine. However, if you’d like to navigate the fictional hierarchy of files and folders the way that the Storage Browser does, you can use the BrowserHelper (a piece of .NET helper code I put together for just this purpose): void ListBucketsFilesAndFolders(string projectId) { var client = StorageClient.Create(); foreach (var bucket in client.ListBuckets(projectId)) { ListFilesAndFolders(client, bucket.Name); } } void ListFilesAndFolders(StorageClient client, string bucket, string parentFolder = "", string indent = "") { string shortName = parentFolder == "" ? bucket : BucketHelper.ShortName(parentFolder); Console.WriteLine($"{indent}{shortName}/"); indent += " "; foreach (var file in client.ListFiles(bucket, parentFolder)) { Console.WriteLine($"{indent}{file.ShortName()}"); } foreach (var folder in client.ListFolders(bucket, parentFolder)) { ListFilesAndFolders(client, bucket, folder, indent); } } The BucketHelper extension class provides the ShortName, ListFiles and ListFolders functions in the sample above. ListFiles and ListFolders are provided on the existing .NET client library types instead of providing a whole new set of wrapped types, which largely just get in the way. The output for the same list of objects looks like this: csells-bucket-1/ foo.txt foo/ bar.txt quux/ The implicit and explicit folders are folded together into a list of strings at each level, so your code doesn’t have to care which is which. However, if you do care, a call to StorageClient.GetObject returns an object or throws an exception depending on whether it’s explicit or implicit. When creating your objects, your code doesn’t have to explicitly create folders, since implicit folders are first class citizens as far as the BrowserHelper and the Storage Browser are concerned. However, if you’d like to create a folder explicitly, BrowserHelper provides a helper for that, too: var client = StorageClient.Create(); var folderObj = client.CreateFolder(bucketName, [...]

Breaking Into the Industry

Fri, 29 Jul 2016 00:00:00 -0700

I got an email the other day from an old friend that said he’d met a young developer named Ben and that he was impressed with his “acumen, initiative and hunger to learn,” which made me want to help him if I could. He also said that “his Dad followed your blogs for years,” which made me want to eat right and exercise. In the meantime, Roger introduced me to Ben via email and Ben had some excellent questions, which I thought I’d share here along with my answers, if only to avoid other people sending me emails that make me feel old… From: Benaiah Mischenko [ben] I was hoping to pick your brain for any advice you’d have for a young developer trying to break into the industry. I’ve been coding for some time, but most of my work has been small one-off contracts (I currently work at a radio company building websites for the stations they own). Ben, you are about to “break into” an industry with near 0% unemployment. Practically everyone able to string together working code/markup can get a job of some sort. All you really have to do is to keep coding, be prepared to show off your work (GitHub is great for this) and you’ll find a job. Right now there’s no other industry I know of that has this luxury and it’s not going to last forever, so enjoy it. [ben] What do you see as the biggest growth opportunities in the field — areas of study that will be big in the coming years (for instance, I’ve heard people say DevOps is poised to become as fundamental a practice as source control as time goes on)? Identifying the biggest growth opportunity is easy: containers are the way we’ll be packaging and deploying out software for the foreseeable future, the cloud will be the target of said deployments and Machine Learning is going to be part of practically every system we build from now on. I’d also look at Augmented Reality as the next computing platform beyond web and mobile. Forgive me for making all of those links Google-related (Pokemon Go runs on the Google Cloud), but Google has it’s hands in lots of cool stuff. [ben] What do you look for when determining the ability and potential to grow of a junior developer? I look for two things when evaluating any engineer: How deeply do you know the things you know? Can they answer why questions in addition to how questions? How quickly and how often do they learn new things? The tech landscape is always changing, so whatever skills you have, however deep they may be, will quickly fade in importance. You can’t be useful for very long without the ability to learn new things. [ben] More generally, where do you see our industry moving, and do you have any concerns that you think I should watch out for when navigating the field? I see our industry spending a lot of it’s time throwing away existing processes and methods, sometimes to replace them with something new (which may or may not work better than the old ways) or to reinvent what we just threw away. I think that what we’re seeing evolve out of this process of continuously trying new things is our attempt to turn “software engineering” into an actual engineering discipline on the order of electrical or civil engineering. We’ve still got decades of work to do here, but we’re slowly hammering out best practices, e.g. Continuous Integration/Continuous Delivery is emerging as the best way to do sustainable DevOps. What that means for you is that you need to be skeptical about the processes that any software team uses to produce software, since we’re still finding the right way forward here. Don’t be afraid to take a proscribed process with a grain of salt or to try new things to make your team happier and more effective. In general, if something looks like meaningless bookkeeping, it probably is and should be treated accordingly. [ben] Thanks in advance for your help. I appreciate every chance I get to learn from more experienced developers. Good luck, Ben! Feel free to reach out again. I’m always happy to help budding engineers if I can. And say [...]

Access Google Cloud Source Repositories from Visual Studio

Sat, 02 Jul 2016 00:00:00 -0700

Cloud Source Repositories (CSR) provides support for multiple Git repositories for each project. To log into your CSR repos from within Visual Studio, you’ll need credentials that Visual Studio expects, i.e. a username and password pair. CSR calls these “manually generated credentials” (as opposed to the Google Cloud SDK generated credentials which are the default). Manually Generated Credentials To get manually-generated credentials, do the following: Go to the “Development” section in the Google Cloud Console. Select the Source Code section and choose the repo that you’d like to access locally from the drop-down. Then, open the drop-down again and select “Clone repository”. Change the preferred authentication method to “Manually generated credentials”. Copy the URL starting with into your clipboard and save it for later. One easy way to do this is to use the Copy button to put the entire git clone command into your clipboard and then trim it to just the URL portion. Click “Generate and store your Git credentials” (and not the OK button). From the browse window that pops up, gather the Git password (which goes along with the email you used to authenticate). You can ignore the instructions about putting a command into your .netrc file, since Visual Studio will ask you for your username/password pair directly. Logging Into CSR from Visual Studio Now that you have your CSR Git URL, username and password, you have what you need to use your CSR repo from Visual Studio. To start, choose View | Team Explorer in Visual Studio. In the Local Git Repositories section, choose the Clone option and add the Git URL for your CSR repo, choose a local directory and press the Clone button. Visual Studio will prompt you for the username and password. The username is the email address you used to generate the Git password previously. The password is the one you generated when you asked for manually generated credentials. At this point, you can edit your files into Visual Studio normally and use the Team Explorer to see the files that have changed, look at diffs, commit the changes, etc.[...]

Solitaire Redux

Fri, 06 May 2016 00:00:00 -0700


I’ve done a bunch of stuff related to Solitaire on my blog for some reason. I guess I’m a fan, although mostly these days I focusing my listening in boring meetings with 2048 or Border Siege (the real reason I have an Android phone).

Still, the interest must still be there, because when I saw 10 SOLITAIRE Facts You Probably Didn’t Know scroll by on my Flipboard feed, I was curious. I didn’t find anything that surprised me (I am a bit of a Solitaire buff after all), but I certainly was surprised to see this image come up when I got to Solitaire Fact #1:


Apparently Solitaire is the #1 most popular app that runs on Windows and I was the source of that information. To be clear, this is something I heard when I worked at Microsoft and probably was happy to say (never let a good story be ruined by the facts), but I never seen stats to that effect. Caveat emptor, your mileage my vary, some assembly required and all that jazz.

BTW, for the curious, this is Matt Pietreks office from back in the day. The only computer in that shot that’s mine is the laptop. Since it doesn’t seem to be running Solitaire, I’m not sure why gameranx chose it, but I do remember liking that shirt…

Moved to Blot

Sun, 13 Sep 2015 16:35:30 -0700

You’re reading this on the 5th version of my blog. Some History The first was a set of static text files I managed in FrontPage. The editing was nice (once it get the HTML-on-the-disk problems right), but I dropped everything into the same file, using anchor tags to separate posts in one giant file, which didn’t scale. The second version was ASP.NET code to pull in my static content (I did not want to give up my FrontPage) and arrange it into a nice layout. The third version has been lost in the mists of time. The fourth version was a complete rewrite in ASP.NET using SQL Server as the backing store. The bulk of the content was in SQL Server as either HTML fragments or image blobs, requiring me to implement a blogging API (I was way into AtomPub at the time, so that’s the one I implemented). Along the way, I moved this version of the site to Azure. The good news is that Windows Live Writer worked very well with this site (even better than FrontPage!). The bad news is that it was the only editor that did, it requires Windows and we no longer live in a single OS world. I want to write my blog in Markdown from OSX or even my phone. So, the fifth version my site, the one you’re looking at now, is running on Blot. It was the video of the workflow on the home page that really did it for me. I saw that, paid my $20 and have been spending weekends exporting the data from my old blog ever since. The Beauty of Blot Here’s what I get by moving to Blot: A Dropbox-based file management system with complete flexibility to arrange things how I like. Blot just takes what I give it and uses it to produce my blog. And I don’t need to maintain certs to protect my writeable AtomPub endpoint anymore, either. Blot and Dropbox use OAuth2 for such things and leave me out of it. A mix of HTML and Markdown content, which let me dump all of my old HTML fragment-based content into Dropbox but still letting me write new content in Markdown with whatever editor I feel like, including one hosted on Windows, two hosted on the Mac and one that runs on my phone. A live preview that’s updated every time I save. I get a preview by prefixing the post filename with “[draft]”, which produces a cooresponding “[preview]” file that matches the styles on my site. When I’m ready to publish, I remove the “[draft]” prefix and it’s live with a date that matches the first time that Blot saw this post. Or if I want to provide my own date in the future, I can easily do so with a bit of metadata in the file. Easy peasy. Integration with Disqus, where I keep my comments. Not only do new posts get Disqus comments, but I was able to drop in a bit of metadata to point to the existing comments for my existing posts. Direct integration with my existing Google Analytics account by simply providing my ID. Forwarding of old URL patterns to their new spot on my new site, so I’m not contribuing to the “dead web.” Several Blot templates provide mobile-friendliness out of the box (as defined by Google mobile friendliness test tool), which is handy so that mobile searches continue to find things on without bias. This saved me from having to figure out the issues with the old site. Fabulous support from David, the proprietor of Blot. I don’t think he’s had anyone drop 20 years of blog content into Blot all at once before, but he was super responsive, fixed all of my issues and even added some features just to support my scenarios. Blot is worth it just for David. I get the piece of mind knowing that all of my content is in Dropbox, so if Blot goes away in another 20 years, then I have confidence that I’ll be able to take my content and drop it somewhere else or even build my own host. Also, while I’m not quite 100% confident in Dropbox’s ability to keep all of my files for all time, I’m got the whole thing checked into GitHub, too, which Blot has no issues with. And I get all of that for $20 a year! That’s a[...]

Choose HTML for UI Development

Sat, 12 Sep 2015 11:54:56 -0700

On Sept. 10, 2015, Winston Kodogo writes: Hey Chris, if you’re feeling happy enough to blog, how about a post giving us your current thoughts on UI development. A friend of mine has asked me for advice on moving an in-house app from VB6 to something he can find people to modify if he needs to, and I can’t for the life of me think of what to tell him. I have your most excellent books on Windows Forms and WPF, but what would the modern (!) equivalent be. Not WebJS, surely. Thanks for the softball question, Winston. I do love to pontificate extemporaneously (although I have already given away the ending). Pre-Windows I started my Windows career as a Petzoldian Windows developer, but before that, I developed UIs in curses, Flavors Lisp and even voice-based UIs in a proprietary AT&T scripting language for which I no longer remember the name. Windows As a Windows developer, I programmed against 16 and 32-bit GDI and User, GDI+, MFC, WTL, Windows Forms, WPF, WinJS, Silverlight and Xamarin Forms. I’ve even written books, articles and presentations about many of these toolkits. And even now, as I type this, I’m using a different framework, Markdown, to produce the UI you’re using now. Transcend Windows It’s this last fact that leads me to my pretty much universal recommendation for UI development: The UI framework with the most reach, the best tools, the most community support and the best staying power is, of course, HTML, with it’s kissing cousins, JavaScript and CSS. There are good reasons to choose others, of course: Are you building a desktop game? Use OpenGL or DirectX. Are you building a mobile game? Use the iOS or Android APIs or, even better, Unity. Do you love C# and .NET? Then some implementation of XAML may suit your needs. Are you targeting developers with automation or specific integration needs? Then a command line interface is probably what you want. But other than that, my default UI development advice is always always HTML. HTML How The beauty of an HTML-based UI framework is that it has grown steadily in capability, usage and ubiquity since it was introduced in 1993. It’s hard to find an environment where HTML doesn’t run: Desktop Browser: This is where HTML was first shown and it arguably shows best here. There’s little you can’t do in this environment, including near native games using WebGL, Enscripten and asm (soon to become WebAssembly). This is probably your best bet for any kind of internal app, e.g. the kind of thing that VB6 and WinForms are usually used for. Toolkits like Angular and React are popular for desktop browser apps because they provide the end-to-end developer story while still having rich extension libraries. That said, if I were going to tackle a new web site or web app today, I’d probably use WebComponents (and Polymer) for the excellent reasons that Joe Gregorio lays out in his OSCON 2015 talk. Mobile Browser: Today’s smartphone-based browsers are very capable and adapt to desktop-based web sites fairly well. However, I do recommend making sure your desktop web sites work well on mobile as well, if for no other reason than you want to make sure you don’t lose your ranking on Google, which now prefers mobile-friendly sites for mobile search results (and provides a tool to help you get your site ready). With the modern enterprise moving towards mobile as fast now as they have been moving towards the web-based intranet over the last decade, I’d recommend making sure that your internal web sites/apps work well on mobile if you want to avoid the CTO stopping by your desk in the near future. Desktop Stand-alone App: The new trend (with companies like GitHub and Microsoft on board) for building cross-platform, stand-alone desktop apps is to use HTML, but package it into an app, specifically using something like Electron. This is the new hotness, but this is what I’d do if I wanted to build a stand-alone desktop [...]

Blog Past and Future

Sat, 05 Sep 2015 22:29:08 -0700

This blog started as a single static page in 1995 as a set of links to provide to my students while I was teaching at DevelopMentor. I would like to show you a screenshot of that initial page, but as it turns out, the site predates the internet archive, so I can only show you what it looked like in 1998: I guess I was doing some independent contracting at the time, because I was billing myself as a “Windows Object Architect,” whatever that is. BTW, I wouldn’t call that phone number if I were you — I don’t know who it will ring, but it won’t be me. The rest still works, however. Posts Over the years, I’ve done more or less blogging based on my current gig: This post will be my 2,650th, with the peak in 2003. Tweets Now, I’m far more active on Twitter: My first tweet was in October of 2009. I’d had an account for a while before that, but I just didn’t get it at first. Now I love it and have produced 3,053 tweets in 7 years. I find that while I like long-form writing a great deal, it’s much easier to find the time to turn a single thought into 140 characters then into 1400 words. Blot This is all coming up now because I’m busy moving to Blot, which gives me a chance to take a look back at all of this content I’ve generated. I love Blot because I can dump all of my old content into Dropbox in HTML fragment format (along with some per-file metadata) and Blot will produce a reasonable static site for me. By moving to the file system from a blogging API (AtomPub in my case), I can remove the need to use blogging tools (like Live Writer) and instead switch to any reasonable editor I want. Further, since Blot supports all kinds of formats, I can move to Markdown for new content but not have to try to translate all of my HTML content, which is a lifesaver. Unfortunately, the port to Blot is taking longer than I’d like for two reasons. The first is simply that David Merfield just didn’t anticipate some old guy dumping 20 years worth of blog content into his system, so there have been some problems. The good news is that David is extremely responsive. Every system has issues, but the measure of quality is how long it takes to go from issue reported to issue fixed and in the case of Blot, that time is sometimes days but often hours, which includes adding features specifically for my use case that he just hasn’t needed before. Highly recommended. The Dead Web The other reason that this translation is taking some time is that I’ve got a few link formats in my content and relied on IIS URL rewriting to keep them working. As I move to Blot, it’s easier to just fix the URLs as I extract the data from SQL Server (and I still use and love RegexD to figure out how to translate those URLs). As I do that, I’m testing for 404 links on my new site to make sure that I haven’t screwed anything up (I like Xenu’s Link Sleuth for that work). What I’m finding is that I’m fixing my own URLs but finding hundreds of links into the larger web that are broken. That’s just depressing. I work hard to keep my site running for anyone that wants the old data and I’ll be working with David on a URL forwarding scheme and 404 logging to keep external links working as I move to Blot. However, that doesn’t seem like an important goal for other folks. Where Are We? Still, I get to move to Blot and use whatever editor I want from whatever OS I want, so I’m a happy guy. Hopefully that happiness will translate into more blog posts, but if it doesn’t, I imagine I’ll still be spouting off on Twitter at the very least. Everyone needs a place to spout off sometimes.[...]

Handling Orientation Changes in Xamarin.Forms Apps

Sun, 04 Jan 2015 04:39:09 -0800

By default, Xamarin.Forms handles orientation changes for you automatically, e.g.



Xamarin.Forms handles orientation changes automatically

In this example, the labels are above the text entries in both the portrait and the landscape orientation, which Xamarin.Forms can do without any help from me. However, what if I want to put the labels to the left of the text entries in landscape mode to take better advantage of the space? Further, in the general case, you may want to have different layouts for each orientation. To be able to do that, you need to be able to detect the device’s current orientation and get a notification when it changes. Unfortunately, Xamarin.Forms provides neither, but luckily it’s not hard for you to do it yourself.

Finding the Current Orientation

To determine whether you’re in portrait or landscape mode is pretty easy:

static bool IsPortrait(Page p) { return p.Width < p.Height; }

This function makes the assumption that portrait mode has a smaller width. This doesn’t work for all future imaginable devices, of course, but in the case of a square device, you’ll just have to take your changes I guess.

Orientation Change Notifications

Likewise, Xamarin.Forms doesn’t have any kind of a OrientationChanged event, but I find that handling SizeChanged does the trick just as well:

SizeChanged += (sender, e) => Content = IsPortrait(this) ? portraitView : landscapeView;

The SizeChanged event seems to get called exactly once as the user goes from portrait to landscape mode (at least in my debugging, that was true). The different layouts can be whatever you want them to be. I was able to use this technique and get myself a little extra vertical space in my landscape layout:


Using a custom layout to put the labels on the left of the text entries instead of on top 

Of course, I could use this technique to do something completely differently in each orientation, but I was hoping that the two layouts made sense to the user and didn’t even register as special, which Xamarin.Forms allowed me to do.

Launching the Native Map App from Xamarin.Forms

Fri, 02 Jan 2015 19:36:45 -0800

My goal was to take the name and address of a place and show it on the native map app regardless of what mobile platform on which my app was running. While Xamarin.Forms provides a cross-platform API to launch the URL that starts the map app, the URL format is different depending on whether you’re using the Windows Phone 8 URI scheme for Bing maps, the Android Data URI scheme for the map intent or the Apple URL scheme for maps. This is what I came up with: public class Place { public string Name { get; set; } public string Vicinity { get; set; } public Geocode Location { get; set; } public Uri Icon { get; set; } } public void LaunchMapApp(Place place) { // Windows Phone doesn't like ampersands in the names and the normal URI escaping doesn't help var name = place.Name.Replace("&", "and"); // var name = Uri.EscapeUriString(place.Name); var loc = string.Format("{0},{1}", place.Location.Latitude, place.Location.Longitude); var addr = Uri.EscapeUriString(place.Vicinity); var request = Device.OnPlatform( // iOS doesn't like %s or spaces in their URLs, so manually replace spaces with +s string.Format("{0}&sll={1}", name.Replace(' ', '+'), loc), // pass the address to Android if we have it string.Format("geo:0,0?q={0}({1})", string.IsNullOrWhiteSpace(addr) ? loc : addr, name), // WinPhone string.Format("bingmaps:?cp={0}&q={1}", loc, name) ); Device.OpenUri(new Uri(request)); } This code was testing on several phone and tablet emulators and on 5 actual devices: an iPad running iOS 8, an iPad Touch running iOS 8, a Nokia Lumia 920 running Windows Phone 8.1, an LG G3 running Android 4.4 and an XO tablet running Android 4.1. As you can tell, each platform has not only it’s own URI format for launching the map app, but quirks as well. However, this code works well across platforms. Enjoy.[...]

App and User Settings in Xamarin.Forms Apps

Thu, 01 Jan 2015 18:09:39 -0800

Settings allow you to separate the parameters that configure the behavior of your app separate from the code, which allows you to change that behavior without rebuilding the app. This is handle at the app level for things like server addresses and API keys and at the user level for things like restoring the last user input and theme preferences. Xamarin.Forms provides direct support for neither, but that doesn’t mean you can’t easily add it yourself. App Settings Xamarin.Forms doesn’t have any concept of the .NET standard app.config. However, it’s easy enough to add the equivalent using embedded resources and the XML parser. For example, I built a Xamarin.Forms app for finding spots for coffee, food and drinks between where I am and where my friend is (MiddleMeeter, on GitHub). I’m using the Google APIs to do a bunch of geolocation-related stuff, so I need a Google API key, which I don’t want to publish on GitHub. The easy way to make that happen is to drop the API key into a separate file that’s loaded at run-time but to not check that file into GitHub by adding it to .gitignore. To make it easy to read, I added this file as an Embedded Resource in XML format: Adding an XML file as an embedded resource makes it easy to read at run-time for app settings I could’ve gone all the way and re-implemented the entire .NET configuration API, but that seemed like overkill, so I kept the file format simple: YourGoogleApiKeyHere Loading the file at run-time uses the normal .NET resources API: string GetGoogleApiKey() { var type = this.GetType(); var resource = type.Namespace + "." + Device.OnPlatform("iOS", "Droid", "WinPhone") + ".config.xml"; using (var stream = type.Assembly.GetManifestResourceStream(resource)) using (var reader = new StreamReader(stream)) { var doc = XDocument.Parse(reader.ReadToEnd()); return doc.Element("config").Element("google-api-key").Value; } } I used XML as the file format not because I’m in love with XML (although it does the job well enough for things like this), but because LINQ to XML is baked right into Xamarin. I could’ve used JSON, too, of course, but that requires an extra NuGet package. Also, I could’ve abstracting things a bit to make an easy API for more than one config entry, but I’ll leave that for enterprising readers. User Settings While app settings are read-only, user settings are read-write and each of the supported Xamarin platforms has their own place to store settings, e.g. .NET developers will likely have heard of Isolated Storage. Unfortunately, Xamarin provides no built-in support for abstracting away the platform specifics of user settings. Luckily, James Montemagno has. In his Settings Plugin NuGet package, he makes it super easy to read and write user settings. For example, in my app, I pull in the previously stored user settings when I’m creating the data model for the view on my app’s first page: class SearchModel : INotifyPropertyChanged { string yourLocation; // reading values saved during the last session (or setting defaults) string theirLocation = CrossSettings.Current.GetValueOrDefault("theirLocation", ""); SearchMode mode = CrossSettings.Current.GetValueOrDefault("mode",; ... } The beauty of James’s API is that it’s concise (only one function to call to get a value or set a default if the value is missing) and type-safe, e.g. notice the use of a string and an enum here. He handles the specifics of reading from the correct underlying storage mechanism based on the platf[...]

Microsoft Fan Boy Goes To Google

Sat, 01 Nov 2014 17:43:21 -0700

In 1992, I was a Unix programmer in Minneapolis. I’d graduated with a BS in Computer Science from the University of MN a year earlier and had written my programming assignments in C and C++ via first a VT100 terminal and then a VT100 terminal emulator on my Mac (running System 7, if you’re curious). My day job was at an AT&T VAR building multi-user voice response systems on Unix System V. My favorite editor was vi (not vim) and, like all good vi programmers, I hated emacs with a white hot passion. Being bored with my current job, I posted my resume on the internet, which meant uploading it in ASCII text to an FTP site where tech companies knew to look for it. The tech company that found it was Intel. To prepare for my interview in Portland, OR, I went to play with a Windows 3.1 machine that someone had set up in the office, but nobody used. I had a Mac at home and Unix at work and for the 10 minutes that I could stand to use it, Windows 3.1 seemed like the worst of both. In spite of my distaste, Intel made an offer I couldn’t refuse and I found myself moving with my new wife to a new city for a new job and a new technology stack. The move to Intel started my love affair with Windows (starting with Windows 95, of course, let’s be reasonable). Over the years, I grew to love Word, Excel, Visio, PowerPoint, Outlook, Live Writer, Skype, Windows XP, Windows 7, COM, ATL, .NET, C# and of course the Big Daddy for Windows developers: Visual Studio. Not only did I become a Windows fan boy (I can’t tell you how lonely it is to own a Windows Phone after the iPhone was released), but I became I contributing member of the Windows community, accounting for nearly 100% of the content on this web site, first published in 1995 solely to provide links to my DevelopMentor students, but growly steadily since (over 2600 posts in 20 years). Add to that to more than a dozen books and countless public speaking engagements, magazine articles and internet appearances and you’ve got a large investment in the Windows technology stack. Of course, as I take on roles beyond consultant, speaker, author and community PM, I contribute less and less (although I do love spouting off into my twitter feed). Even so, I’ve been a regular attendee to Windows-related events and 90% of my friends are also Windows developers, so the idea of leaving not just a technology ecosystem but an entire community behind is a pretty daunting one. And then, about 45 days ago, Google came knocking with an offer I couldn’t refuse. A few days after that, before I’ve even officially accepted the offer, I find myself in a bidding war for a house in Kirkland, WA that the wife and I both love (which almost never happens). So, for the first time since 1992, with my three boys graduated from high school, I find myself moving with my new wife to a new city for a new job and a new technology stack. As I write this, it’s the Friday before my Noogler orientation week (New Googler — get it?). I’ll be working on tools for Google cloud developers, which matches my Windows experience helping developers build distributed systems, although there’s going to be a huge learning curve swapping in the details. After 20 years with Visual Studio, I don’t know if my fingers still know vi, but I can’t wait to find out. If I get a beer or two in me, I might even give emacs another try…[...]

Future Proof Your Technical Interviewing Process: Hiring or Not

Fri, 01 Aug 2014 15:09:51 -0700

This is the last in a 4-part series on how to interview well. Parts 1-3 covered the phone screen, the technical interview and the fit interviews. In his part, we’ll wrap up by talking about how to make the hiring decision. Make Time For Questions As important as what questions you ask the candidate are leaving time for them to ask their questions. Remember that they’re interviewing you, too. Be open and honest about the answers; technical people have a sensitive bullshit detector, so don’t try to pretend that everything is perfect; they’ll know if you’re not being sincere. However, it’s a fine line. If you find yourself dwelling on the negative, you have to wonder if you’ve found a good fit for yourself. Also, don’t forget to factor their questions into your own thinking about the candidate. The questions they ask about a job and a team they’re going to be spending 40+ hours/week with is as good an indicator of how they think as anything else. Making the Call As you pass the interview candidate from person to person, make sure that you spend a few minutes in private with the next interviewer talking about what you heard that you liked as well as things you’d like them to circle back on. You want to give them an opportunity to try again, either to convince you it’s not an issue or to confirm that it is. Every interviewer should share their thoughts about the candidate soon while they’re fresh. You can send an email around to the team as you finish or get together in the same room after the candidate has headed home, but it should be the same day; those first impressions matter. Ultimately each interviewer will provide three pieces of information: a thumbs up/down (whether you use actual thumbs for this process is up to you : ), a confidence level (do you really love this person? are you on the fence?) and an explanation (“I loved how they think about the customer!” or “They never figured out how to efficiently search an infinite space of possible solutions.”) The set of interview results will come out in three ways: Everyone loved that candidate. Hire them. Everyone hated the candidate. Don’t hire them. Be polite! There’s a mix. Discuss. Potentially get more info. Of course, options #1 and #2 are easy to deal with. Unfortunately, option #3 is where most candidates fall. The question is, what do you do with a candidate with mixed results? If you’re following the principle that it’s better to send a good candidate away then to hire a bad candidate, then you’ll pass on them. However, you’ll want to spend some extra time on candidates like these. Discuss it amongst the team. See how adamant the thumbs up voters are and why. See how adamant the thumbs down voters are and why. If the candidate is on the fence but leaning towards “hire,” pick someone else to talk to them and/or get them into a different environment, e.g. the bar down the street or the bowling alley at the company Xmas party, and see how they do. Ultimately, it boils down to one thing: does the team as a whole want to bring the candidate into the team? If so, great. If not, let them go. Certainly a senior member of the company or department can override the team and hire a candidate above their objections, but I wouldn’t recommend it. You’re much more likely to hurt a good team in those situations then to help it. Where Are We? Whether you agree with the specifics of this process or not, I encourage you to spend the time to really examine your process. You want the team you build to be more than the sum of the parts, but that kind of magic requires first that you have great parts.[...]

Future Proof Your Technical Interviewing Process: The Fit Interviews

Tue, 29 Jul 2014 16:19:01 -0700

If you just found yourself here, you’ve stumbled onto a multi-part series on the technical interviewing process. Part 1 covered the phone screen and part 2 covered the technical interview. Today we’re going to discuss the “fit” interviews, that is, team and cultural fit. The Team Fit Interview Modern software development is done in teams. You want to be able to judge any candidate as a productive, positive member of your team. They don’t necessarily have to have experience doing things the way you do them, but they should show the ability to adapt when issues arise. Your job in the team fit interview is to break the important things that happen in your team into situations that you can ask your candidate about. The following are pretty standard examples: What’s the right process for gathering requirements? How do you convince someone that you’ve got a good idea? What do you do when you can’t convince them? How do you deal with vague requirements? What happens if you’re asked to do something you don’t agree with? etc. However, you have to be careful here. Pretty much anyone can give you the “right” answers to these questions, but you don’t want the “right” answers — you want the real answers. How does a candidate actually behave in the face of these situations? The best way I know of to get the real answers out of someone is something called Behavioral Interviewing. The idea is simple: instead of asking someone how they would act if faced with a certain situation, ask them to describe an example in their past when they’ve had to deal with that situation. Discuss it with them. How did their strategy work for them? What did they learn? What would they do differently? Just this one shift from “how would you deal with this situation” to “how did you deal with this situation” will get you a much deeper look into how a candidate actually behaves, which allows you to decide if they’re a good fit for your team. The Cultural Fit Interview This goal of the cultural fit interview is to figure out if the candidate will like their new working environment and whether the team will be glad to have them. It’s enormously important and very difficult to access. One typical way to approach this type of interview is to ask the following kinds of questions, also in a Behavioral Interviewing style: (You’re a startup) How do you like the idea of quick decisions, hard work on short deadlines, light process and tight purse strings? (You’re an established company) How do you like the idea of getting buy-in with a set of stakeholders, making sure we don’t ship anything until it’s done, following an established process and sticking to a budget? What’s more important: the customers or the business? What kinds of activities are most important to you? Do you like to be focused on your set of tasks or do you like to do a lot of different things? What makes you as productive as you can be? Where do you see your career path taking you? etc. These questions are much more vague and really meant to start a conversation, but they’re also very hit-and-miss. If you happen to hit the right path, you can really crack a candidate open like a ripe nut. Also, you want to be careful how you interpret the answers. If you don’t filter out people that aren’t a good fit for the culture of the company, they’ll be unhappy and you’ll be unhappy. On the other hand, if you filter too much, you’ll lose out on the benefits of diversity. It’s a hard line to walk. Another way to approach a culture fit interview is to get creative. Maybe invite the person to a company event, perhaps a semi-public mixer or a[...]

Future Proof Your Technical Interviewing Process: The Technical Interview

Thu, 24 Jul 2014 00:46:21 -0700

It’s incredibly important to interview well as you’re building your technical team. Further, interviewing well is hard to do and, like anything, you only get out of it what you put into it. In part 1 of this series, we discussed the phone screen. In this part, we’ll discuss the technical interview. The Technical Interview The only way to really know if someone can deliver technically is to give them a problem to solve and watch them solve it. You can do this with simple data structure problems on the whiteboard, test questions on paper, algorithm problems in notepad, real-world problems with some pair programming or puzzle problems with them waving their hands wildly in the air. In a technical interview, you should encourage the candidate to think out loud, because you care more about how they go about solving the problem then actually getting to an answer. You will look for the following things: Are they asking questions to solidify vague requirements? Are they approaching the problem from a logical angle (even if it’s different from what you had in mind)? Does problem solving come naturally to them? Are they making the right use of the features available in whatever sandbox you gave them in which to solve the problem, e.g. making good use of list comprehensions in Python? Are they writing good code and pointing out the shortcuts they’re taking due to the medium they’re using, e.g. the whiteboard? Does the coding come naturally to them or are they struggling? Do they come up with a reasonable answer? Are they on the right path even if they run out of time? Do they understand the “why” behind their answer as well as the “how?” This last one is the one I tend to focus on the most. Even more important than a candidate having knowledge of the technologies you’re going to ask them to use is their ability to understand new technologies over time. My father always says that while teenage drivers hopped up on testosterone may get into the most accidents, they’re the ones that push the cars to see what they will do. You want to hire engineers that have pushed technologies past their limits for the pure joy of it. Those are going to be the ones that build the deep knowledge and can adapt in the future to whatever comes their way. I filter for deep understanding by not just digging into not only the “how” of whatever they claim to know best, but also the “why.” They may know how to build a factory in Angular, but do they understand what a factory is and why Angular does it that way? They may know how to manage their resources in the face of the JVM’s garbage collector, but do they know why we use garbage collection and what the downsides are? Do they understand what canvas is good for, what SVG is good for and when to choose which? The key here is that past behavior indicates future behavior — if they’re developed deep understanding of the technologies they’ve learned before, chances are pretty good that they’re going to be able to do that for the new technologies your team adopts in the future. There is no better way to understand how well they’re going to do on future technical challenges than hearing how they’ve handled such challenges in the past and seeing how they do it right in front of you. What’s Next in This Series However, the technical fit is not the only thing you need to look for — you also want to make sure that they will fit in well on your team and the company culture overall. We’ll talk about these in the next piece in this series.[...]

Future Proof Your Technical Interviewing Process: The Phone Screen

Mon, 21 Jul 2014 21:08:54 -0700

In 30 years, I’ve done a lot of interviewing from both sides of the table. Because of my chosen profession, my interviewing has been for technical positions, e.g. designers, QA, support, docs, etc., but mostly for developers and program managers, both of which need to understand a system at the code level (actually, I think VPs and CTOs need to understand a system at the code level, too, but the interview process for those kinds of people is a superset of what I’ll be discussing in this series). In this discussion, I’m going to assume you’ve got a team doing the interview, not just a person. Technical people need to work well in teams and you should have 3-4 people in the interview cycle when you’re picking someone to join the team. The Most Important Thing! Let me state another assumption: you care about building your team as much as you care about building your products. Apps come and go, but a functional team is something you want to cherish forever (if you can). If you just want to hire someone to fill a chair, then what I’m about to describe is not for you. The principle I pull from this assumption is this: it’s better to let a good candidate go then to hire a bad one. A bad hire can do more harm than a good hire can repair. Turning down a “pretty good” candidate is the hardest part of any good interview process, but this one principle is going to save you more heartache than any other. The Phone Screen So, with these assumptions in mind, the first thing you always want to do when you’ve got a candidate is to have someone you trust do a quick phone screen, e.g. 30 minutes. This can be an HR person or someone that knows the culture of the company and the kind of people you’re looking for. A phone screen has only one goal: to avoid wasting the team’s time. If there’s anything that’s an obvious mismatch, e.g. you require real web development experience, but the phone screen reveals that the candidate really doesn’t, then you say “thanks very much” and move on to the next person. If it’s hard to get a person to come into your office — maybe they’re in a different city — you’ll also want to add another 30 minutes to do a technical phone screen, too, e.g. Describe the last app they built with Angular. Tell me how JVM garbage collection works. What’s the right data structure to hold the possible solutions to tic-tac-toe? Whatever it is, you want to make reasonably sure that they’re going to be able to keep up with their duties technically before you bring them on site, or you’re just wasting the team’s time. At this point, if you’re hiring a contractor, you may be done. Contractors are generally easy to fire, so you can bring them on and let them go easily. Some companies start all of their technical hires as contractors first for a period of 30-90 days and only hire them if that works out. If you’re interviewing for an FTE position, once they’ve passed the phone screen, you’re going to bring them into the office. You should take a candidate visit seriously; you’re looking for a new family member. Even before they show up, you make sure you have a representative sample of the team in the candidate’s interview schedule. At the very least, you need to make sure that you have someone to drill into their technical abilities, someone to deal with their ability to deliver as part of a team and someone to make sure that they’re going to be a cultural fit with the company as a whole. Each of these interview types is different and deserves it’s own description. Future Posts in This Series Tune in to future posts in this serie[...]

Head of Google interviewing says “results matter, riddles don’t”

Fri, 18 Jul 2014 21:49:45 -0700

(image) Google, like Microsoft, is famous for asking brain-teaser style questions during their interviews. However, in a June, 2013 interview with the New York Times, Laszlo Bock, the Sr. VP of HR for Google, said that

[B]ainteasers are a complete waste of time. How many golf balls can you fit into an airplane? How many gas stations in Manhattan? A complete waste of time. They don’t predict anything. They serve primarily to make the interviewer feel smart.”

In another interview, Bock said that when putting together a resume, focus on what you did in relation to the expectations:

The key is to frame your strengths as: I accomplished X, relative to Y, by doing Z.’ Most people would write a résumé like this: Wrote editorials for The New York Times.’ Better would be to say: Had 50 op-eds published compared to average of 6 by most op-ed [writers] as a result of providing deep insight into the following area for three years.’ Most people don’t put the right content on their résumés.”


Moving My ASP.NET Web Site to Disqus

Thu, 17 Jul 2014 00:05:47 -0700

I’m surprised how well that my commentRss proposal has been accepted in the world. As often as not, if I’m digging through an RSS feed for a site that supports comments, that site also provides a commentRss element for each item. When I proposed this element, my thinking was that I could make a comment on an item of interest, then check a box and I’d see async replies in my RSS client, thereby fostering discussion. Unfortunately, RSS clients never took the step of allowing me to subscribe to comments for a particular item and a standard protocol for adding a comment never emerged, which made it even less likely for RSS clients to add that check box. All in all, commentRss is a failed experiment. Fostering Discussion in Blog Post Comments However, the idea of posting comments to a blog post and subscribing to replies took off in another way. For example, Facebook does a very good job in fostering discussion on content posted to their site: The Facebook supports comments and discussions nicely   Not only does Facebook provide a nice UI for comments, but as I reply to comments that others have made, they’re notified. In fact, as I was taking the screenshot above, I replied to Craig’s comment and within a minute he’d pressed the Like button, all because of the support Facebook has for reply notification. However, Facebook commenting only works for Facebook content. I want the same kind of experience with my own site’s content. For a long time, I had my own custom commenting system, but the bulk of the functionality was around keeping spam down, which was a huge problem. I recently dumped my comments to an XML format and of the 60MB of output, less than 8MB were actual comments — more than 80% was comment spam. I tried added reCAPTCHA and eventually email approval of all comments, but none of that fostered the back-and-forth discussions over time because I didn’t have notifications. Of course, to implement notifications, you need user accounts with email verification, which was a whole other set of features that I just never got around to implementing. And even if I did, I would have taken me a lot more effort to get to the level of quality that Disqus provides. Integrating Disqus Into Your Web Site Disqus provides a service that lets me import, export and manage comments for my site’s blog posts, the UI for my web site to collect and display comments and the notification system that fosters discussions. And they watch for spam, too. Here’s what it looks like on a recent post on my site: The Disqus services provides a discussion UI for your web site   Not only does Disqus provide the UI for comments, but it also provides the account management so that commenters can have icons and get notifications. With the settings to allow for guest posting, the barrier to entry for the reader that wants to leave a comment is zero. Adding the code to enable it on your site isn’t zero, but it’s pretty close. Once you’ve established a free account on, you can simply create a forum for your site and drop in some boilerplate code. Here’s what I added to my MVC view for a post’s detail page to get the discussion section above: <%-- Details.aspx –%> ...