Wednesday, January 29, 2014

I've Got 99 Problems... and I am the Solution!

Until very recently, I was a business systems analyst (BSA) at a large financial services company. In changing career paths, I have noticed that application developers have to think very differently from BSAs.

Typically, a BSA's role is all about requirements, details, and approvals. Some problem solving is required, but a BSA's problems tend to center around people. In that position, I was always reasonably confident that the answer was out there. I was also pretty good at knowing how to find it.

As a developer, I am finding that sometimes, the answer isn't out there. My job is to create the answer, not document one that already exists. This is simultaneously my favorite and my least favorite part about my new role as a programmer.

Very little frustrates me as much as attempting something that should be simple -- such as getting my code to compile -- and running into wall after wall without any success.

And very little is more exhilarating than finding an elegant solution to a difficult problem.

Despite the occasional moments of wanting to bash my head against the wall, I think I'm going to like this job. It's a fun change to be the one creating answers instead of the one who records them.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Lucidchart: A Great Replacement for MS Visio

I was looking for an online flowchart utility and found this web-based gem of an application: Flow Chart Maker & Online Diagram Software | Lucidchart.

Lucidchart has an impressive number of features that are attractive to me (and, I suspect, many other users):
  • Integration with Google Drive
  • Intuitive user interface (Visio is nowhere near this good at UI design)
  • Cloud-based storage
  • Excellent collaboration support
  • Tier-based, feature-driven pricing model
They aren't paying me anything to say this; I tried it and really just think it's a terrific app. The clean, modern website design is also notable and gives them big marketing points, in my book.

I am looking forward to using this app more... I hope it lives up to my initial good impression.

Friday, January 17, 2014


Whoever said that change is good probably wasn't a programmer.

I don't know about you, but if my code is running well and isn't eating up too many system resources, I don't want to change it. This is particularly true for purely stylistic changes. For example, I am seeing a lot of code like this in a program I've been reviewing:

if(a == false){    Do action;}

if(b == true){    Do action;}

This syntax isn't going to throw any errors, but it bothers me because it's not good idiomatic C++. A better (and equivalent) way to express these statements would be:

if(!a){    Do action;}

if(b){    Do action;}
If this was a novel -- or even one of my students' papers -- I would slash away with my red pen. With production code, however, that can be dangerous.

Yes, cleaning up legacy code can improve readability and, in some cases, even performance. But the risk of bumping or forgetting something in the process is greater than any benefit I can imagine from making the change.

Bottom line: in written or spoken English, I am quick to assert my preferences. The risk is low and I have the experience to back my preferences up. In production code, though, my motto is closer to "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Thursday, January 16, 2014

strcat() != StirCat

Whenever I see strcat(), the C++ function for concatenation, I can't help but think of this:

That is all.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Best MOOC for Beginning Programmers

I took An Introduction to Interactive Programming in Python on this fall, and I was amazed by how well it was designed.

This course provides a nice first look at programming in general, and Python specifically.1 While it gives many step-by-step instructions to help beginners through the tasks, it also leaves some intentional small gaps for students to fill in on their own.

Overall, the design and content are the best I've seen in a MOOC. Big-time kudos to Scott Rixner and Joe Warren, the masterminds behind this course. (They had help from a couple of other Rice faculty members, as well.)

I was especially impressed with the fully cloud-based Python Integrated Development Environment, CodeSkulptor, which Dr. Rixner designed for the course. This tool allows you to enter and run Python code using nothing more than an Internet connection and a Web browser.

If you want to poke CodeSkulptor around on your own, you can feel free to. You don't have to be enrolled in the class to use it. It also includes a Graphical User Interface module called SimpleGUI, which allows you to code visual elements without too much fuss.

Coursera is a great MOOC platform, and this course really showcases its flexibility and power. I would love to see more offerings like this in the future, as well as some more advanced courses in Python.

You can read Rixner's and Warren's reflections on creating the course here: MOOCs: Lessons from the front lines.

You can also watch them discuss MOOCs with the president of Rice in this video: The professors behind the first massive online open course at Rice University.

1 If you're a complete novice and you find this course overwhelming, you might try Introduction to Systematic Program Design - Part 1 or Computer Science 101 first. They are both quite good as well, and they provide content tailored for those with little prior exposure to programming.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Lots of Code

I'm a little bit stunned to think of the sheer volume of code in the project that my machine is compiling right now. I'm on line 60,000 of... well, a really big number. So big that it has made my int roll over to negative twice so far.

What is even more striking -- sobering, even -- is that this code represents the lives of the people who work here. Most of their waking hours, on most days, for most of their lives, have been spent adding to this code. They have created it, perfected it, sweated and sighed over it... and now here I am, distilling it to machine-readable 1s and 0s in a matter of minutes.

With that thought in mind, and in honor of National Poetry at Work Day (here's a delightful infographic about it), I will quote a few lines of Eliot's "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock":

For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,        50
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
  So how should I presume?
But what are any of our lives, really, but a long, slow measuring out? And lines of C++ are as good a yardstick as coffee spoons, I reckon.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Embarcadero RAD Studio: VCL Tutorial

I'm not sure why, but I had a hard time finding beginner-level tutorials on how to create VCL forms applications in Embarcadero's RAD Studio. After a lot of googling and some poking around, I found this one, which was more helpful than anything else I've encountered yet:

Starting your first RAD Studio application Index (IDE Tutorial) - RAD Studio:

Does anyone else know of tutorials that would be helpful for a beginner trying to learn about VCL forms in RAD / C++ Builder?