Saturday, December 31, 2011

Closing out the year

Like many Britons I have been enjoying the Winterval. This is the tradition of using three days of annual leave to join up the Christmas and New Year bank holidays to engineer an extended break from work. Winterval means many offices are deserted between Christmas Eve and the beginning of January.

The effect is exacerbated in many organisations which run their leave year from January to December, with a "use it or lose it" policy. So many people finished working a week or even a fortnight before Christmas. Which is nice for the people involved, but it does cause problems for the rest of us.

For instance, my final project of the year was a data cleansing exercise, applied in-flight to a production database. The cleansing was done in overnight batches, which we estimated would take about two weeks to run. The initial deployment was a time consuming exercise, which required a large chunk of downtime and also applied a massive change to the database. If it went wrong, we would have to rollback everything and start all over again. So that meant we could only deploy at a weekend. As if that wasn't exciting enough, the exercise absolutely had to be completed by 31-DEC-2011.

The advent season added further spice. Office parties, nativity plays, Christmas shopping and using up leave all made it harder to arrange meetings. We couldn't rely on finding the necessary people to sign off documents, answer questions, provide technical support or undertake UAT. Plus of course the entire development team wanted to celebrate Winterval. If we didn't have made a successful deployment early in December we wouldn't be able to get the cleansing finished before Christmas. That would have thrown we did a lot of people's Christmas plans into chaos.

Fortunately we deployed cleanly first time. And the cleansing proceeded smoothly. In fact we made it with, oh, days to spare. So that was a nice way to round off the year, but it felt pretty hairy at the the time.

Next year I will be grateful if the Grinch isn't in charge of project scheduling.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Wildly Over-ambitious Book Title of the Week

One of my co-workers has on his desk "Teach yourself SQL in 10 minutes". Yes, it is a SAMS book.

According to Ben Forta, the author, it is one of the best selling SQL books of all time. Not surprisng: who could resist a title like that?

I like his emphasis on getting stuff done. Even so, I think ten minutes is just about long enough to decide whether to pronounce it "sequel" or "ess queue ell".

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Meanwhile at the Ship and Shovell

"Ah," the barmaid said, "my favourite round." The order is a pint of Fursty Ferret, a pint of Badger Ale, a pint of Amstel and a pint of cider. But why would a barmaid have a favourite round?

Well, the Amsel and cider use automatic pumps. The barmaid places a glass under each tap and sets them running. Ferret and Badger, being proper ales, are served from hand pumps. Again, she places a glass under the two taps and, grasping a handle in each hand, draws both pints simultaneously. With the result that all four pints are ready together, in the minimum elapsed time.

Parallel processing, you can't beat it.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Have you cleaned your whiteboard today?

I like whiteboards. I like them a lot. Perhaps too much. Colleagues have mocked my eagerness to grab the dry marker pens and start scribbling. (I even carry my own set now, because all too often the whiteboard is penless).

A contractor I worked with told me about a previous gig where the office had been redecorated so that every wall was covered, floor to ceiling, in whiteboard material. By contrast, I visted a workplace last year with a floor full of techies and no whiteboards. In one of those places the management understood how developers work and wanted to encourage communication, and the other place it didn't.

People have also joshed me for the way my occasional bouts of scrupulously cleaning whiteboards. But whiteboards should be clean. They are monuments to the ad hoc. A blank whiteboard is an invitation to share ideas or workthrough problems. A whiteboard covered in stuff is a deterrent to use. Plus, after a while, the ink stains the whiteboard; it takes a lot of elbow grease, and perhaps chemicals, to restore a grubby whiteboard to pristine blankness.

The worst thing you can write on a whiteboard is "please leave".

It's all about the appopriate use of technology. Whiteboards are not the right place to leave keep important information. Rough out some pseudo-code on a whiteboard but for heaven's sake transfer the result into some UML tool. Put the new plan into MS Project as soon as the whiteboard session is finished.

Above all, don't use a whiteboard for static data like the team's phone numbers. Stick a page on the wiki. And as for pretending it is a wall planner...Use a spreadsheet. Use Google Calendar. Just keep the whitebords free for ephemera.

I'm afraid this also applies to the darling doodles left after the last "Take your kids to work" day.

So, before your place of work this evening, have a look around: is there a whiteboard which needs cleaning?