Archive for Technology category

Working at Microsoft

Ahmet Alp Balkan on the Microsoft Azure team reflected on his experiences at Microsoft. His experiences do not exactly match mine (initially on LINQ to SQL, then Entity Framework and finally xbox.com) but I recognize some of his points.

Here is some further discussion along with some other thoughts that have come up over the years. A lot of these don’t apply just to Microsoft and some are useful for people new to the industry to think about.

Firstly

People think of Microsoft as a single entity with a sole focus and one opinion.

That’s about the worst mistake you can make.

Microsoft is like hundreds of small companies that often work together but sometimes against each other. They have different processes, dynamics, attitudes and goals not only within the same division but also within the same building or floor.

Thinking your experience with one team is a reflection of the whole company is short sighted. Microsoft employs almost 100,000 people including over 40,000 in the Redmond area alone.

It’s like a small country.

Stack of books“Expect no documentation”

Documentation can sometimes be found checked in with source code, in wikis, buried in Sharepoint sites or OneNote. Wherever it may exist it will be out of date by the time you find it.

Documentation can only be up to date if it is never changed or you have a team of incredibly rare developers who like to read and write documentation more than code. Don’t fret unless nobody has the source code.

It might appear that people are critical and dropping dead will kill the project because everything gets funnelled through one or two people but that’s not the case. Many people know more than they let on but don’t want to be involved on a day-to-day basis because they have moved onto something better. When a dire situation arises these people step up.

“Not everyone is passionate for engineering”

It’s true not everyone you meet will be interested in quality software engineering. Some people just want to get the job done and go home. That happens to across all jobs and all walks of life. It’s a personal choice.

Ask yourself how many engineers you meet are passionate about delivering great experiences to users. Do they prioritize their own wants and desires such as a high test coverage in a rarely-regressed area over a simple useful feature many users are asking for.

Software engineering is a means to an end.

Your customers aren’t interested in software engineering. They want a useful tool or something entertaining.

What you want is to be able to sustain happy paying customers.

“2-3 hours of coding a day is great”

When you’re coding for yourself you are the user. You can make the decisions quickly and know what you’re asking of yourself. There is no communication overhead.

When you work with customers that slows things down especially if they’re not easy to get hold of. Most of the time you work with a project or program manager (PM in Microsoft speak) who advocates for the user. This speeds up the simpler decisions but complex or difficult decisions will still require time.

With more developers, testers and partners the communication overhead increases. You make educated guesses and perform iterative steps and keep everyone involved. If those guesses are wrong they should show up quickly. You can address those wrong guesses before too many features, code or documentation rely upon them being implemented wrongly.

If a decision can’t be easily reversed in the short term the it needs discussion. That takes time.

Two hours of coding a day can be fine. If it takes the product in the right direction.

“Not giving back to the public domain is a norm”

Whether you contribute code back to the outside world is defined by your personal goals and the team around you.

Some teams like the ones on ASP.NET MVC and Entity Framework have completely opened their stacks. Other teams have contributed back to existing projects. Your might not be able to do either… yet. Things are changing at Microsoft as these projects show and it can take patience and perseverance to make it happen.

It can be painful for a developer to break through the resistance of his own team and legal. There are reasons not to:

  • It takes time and effort to put something out for public consumption
  • It can take ongoing time and effort to maintain that code publicly
  • If your code is innovative to your business area you might be giving the competition a boost
  • Legal may perceive code contributions as a patent minefield

If your code doesn’t give you an edge then why are you writing it? Intellectual challenge? Do that on your own time. If something open source already provides important functionality you need to get permission to use that instead. Don’t give your competitors your edge while it counts.

“It’s about getting it done”

Shipping good products leads to success. Waiting for perfection leads to failure.

Shipping is everything. True, it’s not always first-to-market that wins but being late won’t help unless you have something that’s radically different. A lower bug rate or a slightly more polished experience won’t be enough.

It’s incredibly easy to ship updates today. Concentrate on getting the features usable and ensure it doesn’t harm the user. That means no corrupting data or major security issues.

All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. - Gandalf ;-)

Your product will ship with bugs. If you have a good test team you’ll know what some of them are. Fix the critical, the blockers and the high-priority as best you can. Your competition isn’t going to wait, nor are your users.

The more easily discovered or hard to work around a bug is the quicker it will be found. A hard-to-reproduce bug that’s easy to work around isn’t worth the time you already spent thinking about.

“Copy-pasting code can be okay”

Starting a shared library between teams requires an intentional co-ordinated effort.

  • When a team modifies a shared library do they know how it affects other teams? No.
  • Will the other teams be carefully monitoring the shared library? No.

Copy and pasting is fine for odd classes. You get code re-use without having to set-up merging, policies and ownership.

Fixing a critical bug in shared code always requires co-ordination between teams whether they copy and pasted the code or whether they take a shared dependency.

Bugs can hide bugs. Fixes can reveal more bugs.

“Code reviews can be skipped”

There are a few things people want to get out of a code review and how well it goes depends on the people interested in reviewing the code.

How well did I implement this feature?

We’d all love to know this but it’s the hardest thing for somebody to critique in a code review. They probably don’t know the requirements well and unless they’ve been in that area of code lately they probably don’t know what the alternatives are and why you went with this approach. To know as much as you do about implementing this feature they would likely have needed to have spent as much time on it as you.

Code reviews rarely provide good feedback in this area unless you’re new to the team – in which case you should probably have pair-programmed instead and had a better experience.

Are there any glaring bugs?

If you’re a professional you should have read your code back and forth several times and probably refactored it until it looked good. If regular bugs or code reviews point out issues then you need reviews for this. Some people are much better than this than others – it’s one of personal discipline.

You should spend far more time reading your code than you did writing it.

Did I regress performance, security or reliability

This is about the best thing you can get out of a code review. People know arcane little bits about the system that are probably not well known and tricky to document. If you’re working in code that is called all over the place go for the code review especially.

“So… can code reviews be skipped?”

I’d be lying if I said I had a code review for everything I did. Sometimes you know the code base like the back of your hand and there are plenty of checkpoints further in the process as well as other eyes constantly on the codebase. A lot of open source projects work well this way.

Never skip a code review when:

  1. You’re in a rush. That’s exactly when you need it most. Send it to multiple people and wait for 1 or 2 responses – it parallizes well.
  2. The code is used everywhere. The more callers, the more places to fail.
  3. The code accesses sensitive data. Patching after a breach is too late.

At the end of the day ask yourself “Could this code damage the reputation of the company and therefore my career?”. If the answer is YES you need a review.

Competition and stagnation

When new markets and opportunities appear it often doesn’t belong to one team and many teams can find themselves in the same space as executives go for the land-grab. This behaviour is actually encouraged at all levels in the annual reviews … “expand your influence”.

Unfortunately this often results in customer confusion, especially as products expand and subsequently overlap. LINQ to SQL and Entity Framework are my own personal experience this but I’m sure you think of plenty more.

Conversely once a market is owned by a team it can stagnate quite quickly. Microsoft Billing and the MVP/MCP portals spring to mind. The latter requires Internet Explorer only to function. In compatibility mode no less. There are more than a few Microsoft web sites looking very dated.

Be aware of what other teams are doing and how it impacts yours. Treat teams in similar spaces as potential competitors but remember that their public failures reflect on the whole company including you.

A busy whiteboardBring solutions, not problems

The article reminded me of one from a year or two back where somebody left Microsoft after a promising start that turned into a series of bad reviews after he started trying to change things by pointing out to people what’s wrong.

People know what’s wrong.

Microsoft like other big tech companies has a lot of smart people working for it. Smart people are busy.

Going around telling people that they’re doing things wrong or that things need to change without a plan is never going to make you friends or cause change. Guess what. Career progression is part popularity contest.

Worried the new site has so many hands it’s going to be a mess?
Don’t complain, do something. Figure out a solution that also solves pain for others so they’ll buy in. Work with the designers on a grid based PSD template, codify it into CSS, check it in and get it included on every page. Sacrifice a few lunchtimes to train the team on it. Get it done.

Think the approach you’re taking for security isn’t enough?
Liaise with experts, find the issues, develop or adopt libraries, tools and techniques to make the problem go away.

Get to the root of a problem and make sure the solution fits both sides

If you interface with customers directly through one of the many partner or support programs or indirectly through forums and twitter you’ll see upset customers. It’s hard, but it applies to all products. Upset people forget there are real people working hard on the product they use. That if they scream and shout they’ll get what they want. It doesn’t work that way.

You will come across good ideas, suggestions and feature requests internally and externally. Take the time to distill them down into small useful bite-sized pieces. Take from the critic’s what you can use for a better product and forget the rest.

People develop for themselves and what makes a great solution for them might not be for other people using your product.

Teams can be resistant to fully-baked solutions being handed to them. Come with bite-sized pieces and a few ideas on how they could interact. Let the solution flow out of discussion and debate. The result will be better than what you could come up with anyway.

This is even more important when dealing with other teams. They know their internals, other customers and future roadmap better than you do.

Expert means something different on the inside

Whether you’re an MVP or wrote a best-selling book joining the team behind it means you’re about to become a different type of expert.

You’re an expert on using the product. On the features that shipped. On the way it’s used.

You are about to learn is why the product is shaped that way. The hard decisions, the cut features, the implementation and constraints.

Brace your ego for impact. It doesn’t matter that you can write any kind of LINQ query off the top of your head and have used it in several apps. When you join the team behind it you’re in for a crash course in expression trees, compilers and query reduction.  How far down does the rabbit hole go?

All those great ideas and suggestions you had as a user? Be prepared to find out 99% of them aren’t original. There are reasons why they’re not there. Ideas are cheap.

It’s now your job to figure out how to make them happen. Execution matters.

Conclusion

Don’t get me wrong, I loved working at Microsoft. It’s an exciting place to be with so many cool things going on. Leaving was a hard decision motivated by factors not on this list.

Like any job there will be challenges. Some unique to Microsoft, some big-company specific and some near-universal that you may be experiencing for the first time if you’re new to the industry.

Learn, adapt, thrive.

[)amien

Typography on the Microsoft Campus

One of the great things about working for Microsoft was the sheer breadth of the company means there are lots of cool and interesting things going on that you can peek into even if it’s not your area. With a few exceptions your Microsoft badge gets you into the whole campus (some of the Xbox studios and the executive floor are exceptions).

As many people know I have a bit of a passion for typography and the Microsoft typography team are a very nice bunch of people happy to humor a crazy enthusiast.

Before I left I paid one final visit to the typography team to snap some cool pics. Here they are, admittedly a couple of years late, with some additional typography-related snaps from elsewhere on campus.

Microsoft Typography


Gabriola rendered in 4 level (2bpp) greyscale using 1x1x1 LEGO pieces.


Microsoft, Linotype and Hermann Zapf collaborated on Palatino Linotype and these beautiful posters commemorate the occasion.


The old Windows Start button in its pixelated glory alongside the Blue-themed XP replacement presumably rendered in photoshop.


Poster showing an italic single-story a aliased and then rendered with ClearType.


Lots of lower-case ‘e’ glyphs from various fonts on display in one of the Windows UI buildings.


Simon Daniels on the typography team has his surname in steel cut in Segoe.


The Mac Quadra that Vince Connare used to create the polarizing Comic Sans.

Studios


Microsoft’s XNA has had a bit of a bumpy journey but it does have a very cool logo with some subtle typography.


In our own Shark Tank scrum area we used the time-honored tradition of sticky notes to create pixels for our own sign. Subpixels were added later.


Our content management system’s sister team had their own sticky note sign too.

Elsewhere


Even the product fair can’t resist some blocky 8-bit inspired fonts.


Somebody made their own pretty Microsoft logo. Don’t recall where this was…


The counter behind the Microsoft company store is an explosion of typefaces.

Some more

Check out Guerilla pixels via John Berry too.

You can see the full set including a few more shots, Sonic the Hedgehog and Lara Croft at Microsoft Campus on Flickr.

[)amien

Acer Aspire S7 review – two months in

Given my new focus on Windows 8 apps and the loss of my MacBook Pro I was in the market for a Windows 8 laptop.

My requirements were that it had a touchscreen display with at least 1080p resolution, fast (i5 or better with an SSD) and very slim. You’d be surprised at how such simple requirements leave you with such a small selection right now.

I settled on the Acer Aspire S7 although I had a couple of reservations as it supports a maximum of 4GB of RAM and a glossy display. Here’s my thoughts so far after two months of almost-daily use:

Buying experience

I picked up the machine from my local Microsoft Store in the mall. The process was quick and painless and I was in and out in under 10 minutes even though the store was rather busy. I did have to decline a free Windows 8 tutorial but otherwise it was plain sailing.

Unboxing

The product was well packed and nicely presented very much like an Apple product. The similarities ended there however as unlike Apple the box included a bunch of items Apple would charge extra for. These were:

  1. Leather-like slip-cover
  2. Small Acer-branded Bluetooth mouse
  3. USB to Ethernet adapter
  4. Mini-HDMI to VGA adapter

The adapters are very useful, the mouse of no use to me (I only use Logitech G5/G500’s) and the slip-cover I thought would be useful but is a bit unwieldy and it started to break after light use.

Anyone complaining that the machine doesn’t have Ethernet or VGA physically built into the device (I’m looking at you ZDNet) would do well to remember that both those connectors are thicker than this machine and there are plenty of thick klunky machines to choose from if having it built-in is important to you.

There is a good video on YouTube that shows somebody else actually going through the unboxing process.

Display

The tiny 13.3″ display sports almost the same resolution as my 24″ Dell at 1600 x 1080 and at this size and resolution the screen is great. Small text is not unreadable  at the regular DPI and larger text feels smooth and refined.

The touch aspect of this screen is incredible and I’m able to reliably move 8 objects concurrently on the game we wrote called Sticker Tales. The display actually supports ten concurrent touch points but at 13.3″ trying to find space for ten fingers to move is tricky unless you have tiny fingers.

That’s not to say everything about the display is good. As usual the gloss finish is incredibly annoying and within a week it has three indentations presumably from being pressed against small specs when closed against the keyboard although I’ve not seen the actual cause. Thankfully you can only spot them when the screen is mostly dark and the display is very bright and colorful.

Unlike some of the current touch-capable machines the screen on this one doesn’t completely flip over. It can however go completely flat… that might erm, be useful… to someone?

Keyboard

The keyboard is a mixed bunch. The basic layout and feel of the keyboard is good and it follows an almost-flush (2mm raised) chiclet style keyboard with back-lighting. Okay, that’s the good news.

The bad news is that there are no function keys so it’s Fn+numbers for those. The back-light comes on every time you bring the machine out of sleep and you have to tap Fn+U several times to get rid of it. There are a bunch of Fn special keys across Q through O the worst of which is Fn+T which is easily hit and turns off the trackpad with no notification. You’ll be incredibly confused the first couple of times you do this when you meant to press Ctrl+T to open a new tab.

Another annoyance for developers and power users is that the home/page up and end/page down are flush with the left and right arrows. Get used to typos. Symbols and the caps/enter keys are also a bit unusual too. Overall the keyboard feels more style over usability.

Trackpad

The trackpad is probably good enough for most people. Frankly my mind is so hard-wired from the hard-button on my pre-unibody Macbook Pro that I’ve been struggling with buttonless trackpads ever since. Thankfully the included software lets you disable some of the more annoying gestures like zoom if you’re having issues retraining your digits.

Weight and size

I have to admit the weight is awesome and despite my reservations after 4 years on a 17″ laptop the size is great. I really wouldn’t want to go any smaller though and when I get my own personal machine (this Aspire is a work one) later this year it will likely be a 15″ primarily because of the keyboard space limitations on a 13.3″ and the fact I don’t want…

Graphics

Like all sub-15″ ultrabooks you’re stuck with the Intel HD 4000 graphics that are actually embedded inside the Ivy Bridge Intel Core i5/i7 CPU. Yes, even Apple’s 13″ MacBook’s suffer this limitation too.

If you want better graphics performance in an Ultrabook you’re probably going to have to wait until June when Intel’s new replacement for Ivy Bridge comes out and the graphics get ramped again.

Conclusion

This is a great machine for overall regular and light usage but I can’t recommend it to developers.

The lack of function keys mixed with the 4GB RAM limit are going to be painful for users of virtual machines or IDEs. If Acer had sense they would up the RAM on the i7 version to 8GB to further differentiate the two.

[)amien

For the love of pixels

There’s something entrancing about the pixel. Square and elegant and when pushed by the right people they can form beautiful art, stunning animations and gorgeously crisp text.

But as resolution and pixel density increase these building blocks of the screen become smaller and individually insignificant especially as the dpi of displays hits 220+ppi. What once was a building block of art and design becomes nothing more than a indistinct element in a photo-realistic image or a glint in a faux-texture supporting a skeuomorphism.

And so the art style of the visible pixel is doomed… or is it?

Games

Screenshot of Sword and SworceryA resurgence in retro games over the last 10 years has helped keep pixels front-and-center (and sometimes off-screen to the right in the case of horizontal scrolling beat-em-ups).

Minecraft brought 3D pixel art to the mainstream with its wild success across PCs, iOS and even the Xbox. Some people say it’s despite the graphics but I think they’re part of the charm.

Skrillex Quest is a 3D Flash game with textures made up of large pixels and all manner of 8 and 16-bit style graphic corruption that lends to the retro feel while music from the man himself ensures your ears stays as overwhelmed as your eyes.

Sword & Sworcery: EP is a recent discovery for me but its gorgeous 2D landscape, fun story and great sound make for awesome atmosphere. It’s currently available on Steam for the PC or Mac and available from the iOS store too.

LucasArts Adventure Pack on Steam gives you a bunch of point and click adventures including two installments of Indy, Loom and The Dig. They also have a Secret of Monkey Island 1 & 2 Bundle that has updated graphics but your can toggle back to the pixelated 256-color VGA version at any time.

Scott Pilgrim The Game is a fun little horizontal-scrolling beat-up up created a couple of years back. Some of the graphic artists have some great pages up showcasing their pixel animating talents.

Home from Benjamin Rivers is a creepy whodunnit horror mystery where the story unfolds and changes based on your own actions. Who knew pixels could be so creepy.

Art

Fall City by Mark J. FerrarieBoy is a three-man team that has been creating isometric pixel art for years sometimes for magazines and adverts but primarily available as posters and wallpapers and now puzzles too.

Color Cycling revisits the technique of animating hand-illustrated Amiga artwork that achieved the effect of animation simply by cycling parts of the color palette. This effective technique was incredibly space efficient and was something every Deluxe Paint user tried (and likely failed) at some point.

Iotacons by Andy Rash are very low-resolution icons of various celebrities and well known pop-culture figures lovingly adorned in digital format and, on occasion, as a real-world cross-stitch.

DeviantArt have an entire category dedicated to pixel art many of which are lovingly animated. If the cuteness of these pixels doesn’t make you miss them then nothing will.

F David Thorpe produced some great loading screens for computers in the 80s despite their crazy technical limitations. Binary Zone has a great page that highlights some of his best.

Animated backgrounds from various fighting games look beautiful.

Fonts & icons

I’ve covered some great pixel fonts from older 8-bit and 16-bit computers already but there are plenty more great examples to be found:

FontStruct is an online tool that lets you build fonts from blocks and so lends itself well to people wanting to reproduce bitmap fonts. They have almost 500 fonts in their gallery already tagged with ‘pixel’

Semplice Pixelfonts has some beautiful proportional pixel fonts in TrueType format.

Guidebook has screenshots of various pixelated desktops throughout the years including shots of early Macintosh, Amiga, Atari, OS/2 and more.

Fashion

Star Wars pixel shirt from We Love FineThinkGeek have the I See Dead Pixels T-Shirt, the 8-bit tie and the less practical 8-bit hair bow.

WeLoveFine also have a great selection of 8-bit wears just flowing over with pixels.

Red Bubble have a Mac Cursor Icons T-shirt that the original Apple fans can appreciate.

Even sunglasses get the pixel treatment in black or blue… or even regular clear glasses.

In the real word

Cube Craft Pixel Pages consists of a bunch of icons you can print out, cut and fold to create a pixel-deep real-world rendering when placed against a solid surface.

My Desk is 8-bit happened when Alex Varanese wondered what a video-game would look like rendered on his desk. It’s a labor of love 1:18 long video with great chip music too.

Swedish Subway shows that the small square tiles that adorn the walls of subways can be put to creative use when you think of them as pixels such as this homage to video-games.

Playing Cards featuring pixel art including some from video games such as space invaders.

8-bit pop-up cards are a fun way to make a gift card with more pixel goodness.

A love of pixels can however go too far.

Dithering

Wikipedia has an excellent article on the screen resolutions and color capabilities of 8-bit and 16-bit computers. With such few colors available it was necessary to blend colors together to achieve the effect of more colors or shades. This tutorial at Deviantart is a good start although there are a few different algorithms available including the most famous Floyd-Steinberg and the ordered dithering of Windows older users may be familiar with.

Derek Yu, Pixel Schlet and Garmahis provide tutorials showing you how to do it by hand!

Further exploration for those still with me…

Teletext (aka Videotex, Ceefax) was a low-resolution graphics system long before the Internet. It was available in some countries such as the UK via television and some early computer systems (Prestel, Micronet) used it over incredibly slow (1200/75bps) modems although it had a certain charm.

Creating graphics and pages in it was quite a challenge and I actually have a Cambridge University IT Certificate for doing so while at school where we also used a special adapter with our BBC Micro to let them download programs by holding a TV aerial up and waiting a lot. The French also had a system based on this called Minitel which was shut down earlier this year :(

Of course for the ultimate pixels experience you could also just dive back in to the old games such as those provided by Good Old Games (PC) on the amazing World of Spectrum.

[)amien