Procrastination is productive

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“Procrastination is productive”

Sounds crazy right? But my experiences with software development has shown me time and time again that procrastination on certain tasks can be the ‘correct’ and productive way to approach even crucially important tasks.

Please let me explain. I usually organize all my development tasks on some sort of Kanban board ordered by priority. Normally the advice is to take the top item off the list or to choose the biggest, nastiest task/’frog’. This type of approach is advocated by Brian Tracy in the mostly awesome book ‘Eat That Frog‘), and, in general, this is solid advice.

However there are times when I look at the top task and lose the will to live! Sometimes the problem seems too difficult/long/important to solve immediately. Rightly or wrongly, what I tend to do is to leave this nightmare task at the top of the list and ignore it. Instead choosing a much easier, but related, task, further down the list i.e. procrastinate.

Why? Because experience has taught me that these kind of tasks will bog the project down. I am not ready for it yet. The project is not in the right state yet. Things change. Requirements change. This is not a ‘quick win’. The decision to act on this task needs to be deferred until I am older and wiser.

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Defer Important Decisions Where Possible

Now, I am not advocating always doing nothing, these tasks are usually fundamental tasks that need consideration. When a fundamentally important decision can be deferred I usually will defer. By waiting until the last minute to make a decision not only gives maximum flexibility to the project but it is also made when more knowledge about the problem has been gained. For example, if the task is a fundamental one like ‘Choose a database technology’ this raises alarm bells immediately. When the full extent of the expected solution is not known and an obvious choice is not prevalent, then this a risk which should be deferred. If I can choose not to address this task now, then I wont. For me, a solution in a case like this would be either not to choose a technology at all yet or choose a technology that I am familiar with but make sure that any implementation can be swapped out with another technology at any point i.e. procrastinate but engineer some ‘wriggle room’ (please please read Mary and Tom Poppendieck’s book ‘Lean Software Development: An Agile Toolkit‘ for some fantastic practical advice on what software development priorities should be).

Eat That Frog?

So what should one do? In software development, should we follow Brian Tracy and Eat the largest ‘frog’ (task) first or should we eat smaller, tastier ones until we get good at eating frogs and make sure that the bigger one isn’t poisonous?

Clean Code Tools

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Writing code is an inexact science, imperfections in your code are inevitable and add up.

Having a tool that constantly nags you to strive for perfect code is a must have for flawed [see human] developers.

 

Compiled Code

Where code analysis tools really excel is with compiled code.

With compiled code, the clean code tools not only analyse the quality of your code but also automatically fix and style it!. With compiled code you get piece of mind when these ‘automatic’ changes are made because the compiler is there to reassure you.

Thank God for Resharper!

I use these type of productivity tools religiously; in particular, for any C# or JS code that I write, I always use/need Resharper from JetBrains.

resharper_stylecop clean code

Some people might say that it is ‘lazy’, letting a productivity tool ‘automagically’ do what you should be doing out of hard learned habit. I agree, it is lazy, and I am often sloppy with my code knowing that my ‘magic helper’ will clean up after me. But, I have found that, after a while, I start incorporating the suggestions and changes that the tools give me into my ‘unclean’ code, so that the tools have less work to do and my code becomes cleaner ‘naturally’.

 

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Too much of a good thing?

However, you can go too far with these tools.

Not only do you start to rely heavily on these types of tool to do a lot of the basic coding for you but also some of the suggestions it make for code changes can lead to your code becoming less ‘human readable’. It is soooo tempting to accept the suggestions to lambdify or linq entire sections of your code just because Reharper tell you to do it and it compresses your code to a single line. I thoroughly recommend watching the clean code Pluralsight course or reading Robert Martin’s (uncle Bob) book on clean code, to understand why human readable code is so important.

resharper - clean code

 

Interpreted Code

Things get more trickier with interpreted code e.g. Javascript. With interpreted code you do not have the compiler to reassure you that any ‘automagic’ changes are ‘safe’. For this reason, most clean code tools for interpreted code will give advice, rather than make changes for you. However, the ‘linting’ tools for interpreted code (JS in particular) have come a long way and are an essential part of any coder’s utility belt. For instance, when writing Javascript code I now rely [heavily] on Douglas Crockford’s JSLint to tell me that have been a naughty boy (I would highly recommend all Javascript developers to read Douglas’s book: Javascript The good parts and watch his talk on pluralsight) about Javascript.

jslint - clean code

What lint/analysis/style/refactoring tools do you use everyday and cannot live without? Leave a comment below:

 

E-Learning

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Some much to learn, so little time.

Apart from ‘dark matter programmers‘, most developers are faced with the uphill struggle to find the time to continuously keep up to date with the industry. To paper over my (many) technical shortcomings I tried out some of the prominent online course providers and was extremely impressed.

The software industry moves so fast that keeping up to date with the latest tech and processes is virtually impossible; unless you do it virtually.

Brave New World of E-Learning

When I first tried online learning I was a bit skeptical that it could match the learning potential of ‘traditional’ methods. However, mainly due to the way you can learn at your own pace, I now would not want to learn any other way.

Institutions have big reputations from years of delivery. However, in this brave new world the methods of delivery are changing and new reputations are being formed.

Using this type of learning has a number of benefits for time starved developers:

Flexible. Finding spare time as a software developer is not always easy. We are fortunate enough to be in an industry which is currently booming and that means there is plenty of work to be done. Online courses are perfect for time-constrained individuals as most courses allow you to work, more or less, at your own pace and at hours of your choosing

– Accreditation. Many of the providers now offer “recognized” accreditation on completion of a course. How “recognized’ the qualification is largely depends on who is judging. For example, your next potential employer might not have heard of Pluralsight and its qualifications but might be a personal user of Coursera and is well aware of its merits/shortcomings.

Wide Variety. The course providers currently have a huge library of every type of subject and there libraries are expanding every year as e-learning becomes more popular.

Cost. Some are free but the rest are paid for. On the whole though, e-learning courses are generally cheaper. If you compare the cost of ‘taught’ industry courses that require you to travel to the trainer’s location, there is no comparison.

What I didn’t like

This type of virtual learning is not everyone’s cup of tea. Quite a few people can be put off by the impersonal nature of the courses. Without a lecturer to interact with and a physical text book, some just do not see anything else as ‘learning’. Most of the online course providers do try to simulate these inter-personal connection with the student, but in reality it is half-baked at best.

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I personally had trouble making sure that I kept enough time free in my schedule to make sure I completed the courses fully. Sometimes I really needed was a lecturer or dean making sure I kept on track.

Despite the disadvantages I can thoroughly recommend trying some sort of online learning; there is a surprisingly diverse catalog of courses out there, most of them very well thought out content and delivery.

Horses for courses

However, not all the online providers have the same range of courses, I find that some providers are better for certain topics than others.

The providers that I regularly use for different topics are as follows:

Pluralsight – Great for technical training such as web and server training.

Coursera – Great for specialized accredited courses from recognized universities.

Udemy – Great for social/personal development type courses.

 

Other providers do exist and i would be interested in hearing what else is available and your experiences with them?

Podcasts

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So little time, so much to learn

Gone are the days for the software developer where you can learn one technology inside out, sit back and work at the same job for 20 years. Continuous learning, the ongoing voluntary pursuit of knowledge, is becoming an essential pursuit to most working in the software industry.

The technological landscape is evolving so fast that most of us programmers have to continually learn, or risk having an increasingly extinct set of skills.

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There are a number of tools that I have started to use which have helped me better keep apace with some of the changing I.T. industry landscape.

Technical Podcasts – Learn On The Go

If, like me, you have a relatively long commute into work [30 minutes or more], there are many excellent ways that you can utilize this time. Some like to read newspapers, listen to music, enjoy a good novel; I like to use this time to ‘sharpen my axe‘ by catching up on the latest goings on in the software development world through listening to technical podcasts.

Using this time to listen to podcasts has been highly beneficial to me in a number of ways:

  • Learn the lingo. Once you start listening to podcasts you are much more aware and confident with many of the phrases and terms used within the industry. Terms like ‘big iron’, ‘cranking code’, ‘heisenbug’, ‘pokemon handling’, ‘stringly typed’ etc are all now part of a colorful vocabulary thanks to listening to others using them confidently on podcasts.

heisenbug

  • Bleeding Edge. Most of the podcasts pick up on new technologies or practices. If someone uses a brand new technical term in the office that starts you sweating that they will ask you your opinion on something that you cannot even spell… you can be sure there is a podcast for that.
  • Different Viewpoints. Going outside your comfort zone, like listening to web podcasts when you have spent your life as a desktop developer, will open your horizons to similar, but different ways, to approach your own field (you never know, you might pick up a new golden hammer).
  • General Consensus. As well as picking up new terms and technologies it also helps to reinforce current terms or technologies that you are already using.

 

Lots of Great Podcasts

Here are some recommended podcasts that I am currently listening to:

  • .NET Rocks : My favorite podcast for technical content. Excellent audio quality, content and banter. Not as Microsoft centric as you might think.
  • Hanselminutes : Again good content and quality but sometimes steers away from tech relevant subjects.
  • Herding Code. Great web podcast. Sometimes a bit Microsoft centric.
  • Javascript Jabber. Good for web/javascript technology talk. Sometimes a bit tangential but very enjoyable.
  • Stuff You Should Know : My favorite non-technical podcast. Good for some respite from too much tech talk. Josh and Chuck are very funny and present some dry topics in an entertaining way. Some great and varied subjects like ‘How Pinball works‘ to ‘How the scientific method works’.

 

What other resources have you come across?

Have you had any experience with any of the resources I have mentioned, what did you think?

 

Angular – My New Golden Hammer

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Web Development feels ‘hacky’

For most of my career I have been a desktop developer but a few years ago I started making the move towards web development.

The move, at first, was horribly painful. For most of my working life I was working with the safety of compilers, full featured code libraries, mature test frameworks, UI frameworks and data-binding only to be thrown into the then (and even now) ‘wild west’ of web development.

My biggest gripe with web development was “how can it be so hard to do such simple things?”. I was finding that putting a button and some input controls on a screen that saved to a database required me to write waaaayyyy too much code. Never mind all the problems with screen size and browser compatibility, even simple things felt verbose and ‘hacky’

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Silverlight – Desktop like, but flawed

I quickly retreated back from pure Javascript/HTML/CSS development to using something more ‘desktop-like’ and started using, and advocating, Silverlight.

Silverlight is [was] Microsoft’s attempt to replace Flash (more or less). Things were good, I was productive again and spitting out highly functional web apps until I started fully realizing the limitations of using a plugin based approach. On the brink of giving up web development due to frustration, I started looking at the latest web technologies that were beginning to gain some traction.

Knockout JS. Better, but still too many dragons to slay…

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The first bit of relief came when I discovered Knockout.js. Knockout is a fantastic library that enables easy MVVM data-binding in your web apps. This was more like it, not having to write as much ‘grunt’ code to hook up data with UI felt much better. Something as simple as the data-binding that knockout gave me renewed my enthusiasm for web development and I started to look for other libraries that could address the other reservations that I had about web development.

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Angular, now we’re talking

The next discovery, and most fruitful, was AngularJS.

Angular is a Javascript library from Google which makes web development sooooo much easier. For almost every problem that I started to ask Angular it seemed that the developers had already had the same pain and had already built the functionality into Angular already. If there was something that I needed from the framework that didn’t already exist, there was usually an Angular extension that was readily available or I was able to make a directive from an existing Jquery plugin.

Angular has become so much of a golden hammer for me that I find it hard to contemplate starting a large website without using it.

Looking to the future

The landscape for web development is evolving rapidly but with frameworks like Angular, and maturing and adherence to web standards, it does not seem as anarchic as it once was. There are several other libraries that have made my life easier such as underscore/lodash, twitter bootstrap, and breezejs, but the underlying library that has made the most difference is Angular. Since converting to Angular I am now a happy and more productive web developer. Before, I was extremely frustrated and unproductive and although Angular, and web development in general, is still far from perfect, it is a more enjoyable place to be.

A Word of Caution for Angular 2

Before you get carried away and start seeing everything in angular tinted glasses, you need to consider the ramifications of the upcoming Angular 2.0.

I have had a look at the 2.0 syntax and it is a big departure from 1.x. IMHO this is a strange and worrying decision from Google as many people looking to dive into Angular at this point in time will be uneasy that the code they write now will not be supported/current in the near future.

2 Golden Hammers?

Although promises of a clear upgrade path are promised by Google, it might be time to find a backup golden hammer (i.e. React) to hedge my bets.

Has anyone else got similar experiences with Angular? Have you found other libraries that you feel you cannot do without? How do you see the future for frameworks like Angular, React, Backbone or Ember?