Goodbye Rochester, Hello Austin

It’s official: after careful consideration, my wife and I are leaving Rochester, New York in September and moving to Austin, Texas.

A few reasons for the move are:

  • The cost of living is lower.
  • The taxes are lower (including no state income tax).
  • There are more IT companies, and hopefully, more job opportunities for an experienced software developer.
  • Most of my family members are moving or have already moved to other states for better work.
Texas breakfast
My wife's hotel breakfast during our visit to the Austin area

In the past decade, there has been an exodus from Rochester.  Declining local businesses and clueless state lawmakers, who believe that raising taxes is the way out of our recession woes,  offer little incentive for anyone to stay.

I’ve read and heard so many great things about Austin that we decided to pay a visit in April.  Everyone was incredibly friendly, the city was easy to drive (I normally hate city driving), and the food was amazing.  Most Austinites seem proud of where they live, and I like that.

Here are some recent news articles contrasting New York State and Texas:

Barbecue, here we come.

Installing Mercurial on Windows 7: “abort: no username supplied”

Yesterday I installed Mercurial.  I wanted to see what the hype was over Distributed Version Control Systems (DVCS).  I was satisfied with Subversion before, but after you see “Git” and “hg” in forums and blogs enough times, curiosity gets the better of you.

I like TortoiseSVN’s Windows shell integration, but even though there is a TortoiseHg, I’ve read mixed reviews about its stability.  Also, the screenshots make it look unnecessarily complicated.  It turns out I was unjustified in my concerns, since Mercurial’s command line interface is so simple and intuitive, the lack of GUI makes no difference.

If you plan on learning Mercurial yourself, I recommend you read Joel Spolsky’s Hg Init tutorial first.  It’s well-written and interspersed with humor.  If you’re a Windows 7 user, this is almost all you need to get started.  I say “almost” because the first time you commit, you’ll see the error message:

abort: no username supplied (see “hg help config”)

There are three ways you can deal with this issue:

  1. Use the -u option to supply a username during every commit.  Trust me, you don’t want to have to do this.
  2. Create an hgrc file every time you create a new repository, and put the username there.  Again, this would get annoying fast.
  3. Create a Mercurial.ini file in the C:\Users\your_username folder (or whatever your user folder is in Windows).  The file should contain the following text with your first name, last name and email substituted:
[ui]
; editor used to enter  commit logs, etc.  Most text editors will work.
editor = notepad
username = First_name Last_name <email_address@example.com>

It’s too bad the Windows installer for Mercurial can’t handle this on its own, because it creates a negative first impression of the software.  Once you fix the problem, things should work fine and the software is easy and enjoyable to use.

Test Driving the Quplo Preview

What Quplo Is

Quplo (pronounced “CUE-plo”) is a Web prototyping tool that fits in a niche somewhere between pure visual design and building your app.  It’s completely Web-based and requires no downloads, and the results can be viewed instantly.

What It’s Not

Just to be clear, Quplo is not a Balsamiq Mockups clone, nor does it try to be.  The emphasis is on interactive prototypes and not static images.  Unlike Balsamiq, Mockingbird, or Microsoft SketchFlow, Quplo has no drag-and-drop graphical designer.  At its core is a syntax-highlighting text editor that supports HTML 5, CSS, and Quplo’s own built-in language.  Quplo complements, rather than competes with, wireframe drawing tools.

Similarly, Quplo doesn’t generate wireframes in the rough, handwritten style commonly seen in prototyping.  As such, it does nothing to protect you from the false perception of completeness that customers and nontechnical managers may have when viewing your prototypes — you’ll have to deal with that yourself.  On the other hand, it gives you complete control over your prototype’s interface and behavior.

User Interface

The UI is intentionally sparse, with little more than the editor itself on the left and a syntax reference list on the right.  One nice touch is that the editor can be expanded to fill the browser window, which maximizes screen real estate when writing markup.  Presentation is clean and easy on the eyes, with soft-looking gradients throughout the site.

Quplo user interface

Compatibility and Performance

I tested Quplo in Firefox 3.6.3 on Windows 7 and XP.  Performance was good in both operating systems.  I did notice a bit of choppiness scrolling in the text editor at times, but it had no effect on the overall experience.

When I attempted to view the site in Internet Explorer, I got a rather humorous surprise:

Quplo in IE

I’m certainly no IE fan, but I’m not sure how I feel about this.  At least it fails gracefully.

Update:  Martin Kool from Quplo commented to explain the rationale behind not supporting IE at this stage, and that it will be supported before they go live.

Rich Editing Functionality

The online editor is slick and carefully tailored for editing markup.  Line numbers are shown by default.  Syntax highlighting and auto-completion are fast and don’t interfere with typing.

Quplo’s Built-In Language

Quplo supports a tag-based language that’s an unusual hybrid of declarative tags and imperative actions.  It offers simple functionality like looping, variables, and conditionals, but perhaps more importantly, it also lets you reuse sections of markup with a templating system consisting of “layouts” and “parts”.

Subscription Model

Quplo is available on a monthly subscription basis under a number of plans.  Plans vary in storage space, maximum number of users, number of prototypes, and several other bullet-point features.  Daily backups and export capability are part of each plan.  Closing your account deletes your prototypes, so make sure to export copies if you decide to end your subscription.

Support

The people at Quplo are extremely helpful and responsive when it comes to questions, and they’re active on Twitter, email, and their own blog.

Conclusion

Quplo is a promising new prototyping tool that’s currently in beta.  While most of the functionality could probably be substituted with a combination of other tools (offline text editor, JavaScript, server- or client-side includes, Google docs, etc.), Quplo distills everything you need to build interactive prototypes into a single, easy-to-use online service.  I’m considering integrating Quplo into my design workflow for my next project, and I look forward to the initial release.

Learning and Staying Current in .NET Development, Part 2

Here are more ways to build and supplement your programming knowledge.

Stack Overflow

stackoverflow.com is a free programming question and answer site.  Search the existing database or ask and answer questions to build reputation points.  Lots of talented developers commit their brainpower to making the stackoverflow community great, so it’s worth checking out.

Personal projects

Always have a personal project that you enjoy working on, and make sure to write code every day, even when your job doesn’t require it.  If you don’t like programming enough to do it outside of work, you may want to reconsider if software development is right for you.

Open source projects

Contributing to open source projects helps you demonstrate your abilities to prospective employers because it makes your work easily accessible.  It also shows that you’re self-motivated and committed to your own education.  SourceForge.net is currently the largest open source development Web site, while CodePlex is hosted by Microsoft, and freshmeat.net indexes Unix and cross-platform software.

Blogs

Read developer blogs to see what others in the industry are up to.  NOOP.NL maintains a list of the top 200 blogs for developers.  That should keep you busy for a while.

Developers on Twitter

What goes on in the minds of other programmers?  What are their daily routines like, and what do they choose to share with the world?  Much like the list of top blogs, NOOP.NL maintains a list of top developers to follow on Twitter.

Your own blog

Writing your own technical blog can make you a better developer and help you earn the respect of your peers.  Why?  Because making a good programming blog is hard.  In order to write authoritatively on any subject, you should know that subject inside and out.  Just coming up with blogging topics can be a challenge.  If you’re having trouble, read the advice of other technical bloggers.

Tweet about programming

Rather than just read about other people’s lives, open a Twitter account and try to write something programming-related every day.  It will force you to read the news and think about what’s interesting.  If you don’t want to bore your followers, that is.

Programming competitions

Programming contests help you hone your skills by pitting yourself against other developers.  It’s fun to win, but just participating can help you gauge and improve your abilities.  Check out Google Directory for all kinds of challenges.  TopCoder is one place where the competitions are going on all the time.

User groups

User group meetings are a good place to go for networking.  They can also be an opportunity to practice your public speaking skills.  Teaching others is one of the most effective ways to learn.

Magazines and journals

Magazines like MSDN Magazine and Visual Studio Magazine release monthly issues available in “dead tree format” and online.  You may be able to get subscriptions for free if you’re an industry professional.

Certifications

Although this is a controversial topic, I do see at least some value in studying for and taking certification exams.  Doing so helps you round out your knowledge, and if nothing else it gives structure to your learning and a goal to accomplish.
Whatever you do, don’t delude yourself into thinking that certifications are all you need.  At best they are a supplement to the coding and reading you should already be doing.

Social news sites

“Social” news sites are news sites with a reader-participation element, such as voting on articles.  Digg, Reddit, and Slashdot fall into this category.  While some of the material appearing on these sites is legitimate tech news, there is often a lot of noise to filter through.  It’s up to you whether it’s worth it.

And finally, the #1 most important resource for developers

When in doubt, Google.  The search engine is such an essential tool that we often take it for granted.  There’s even a site, “let me google that for you“, that pokes fun at those who refuse to perform their own searches.  Don’t underestimate the value of good search skills.  Nobody knows everything, but finding new information efficiently is fundamental to job performance.  Take a look at Google’s search tips if you haven’t already.

Learning and Staying Current in .NET Development, Part 1

This series lists some of the resources I use to educate myself and stay informed about new technologies.  Take a look if you’re a fledgling developer just starting out, or if you’re simply looking for a new way to keep up-to-date.

These are mainly aimed at the Microsoft development stack, but many are transferable to other platforms.

Microsoft resources

MSDN Flash Developer Newsletter

You can subscribe to MSDN Flash if you want to get news delivered directly to your inbox, or you can just go to the Web site and view the latest issue in your browser.

MSDN Events and Webcasts

Check to see if Microsoft has any in-person events near you.  The presentations are informative and you’ll get the opportunity to network with other local developers.  Sometimes they even give out free stuff like books or software licenses.

The event portal also links to various Webcasts in case there aren’t any live events in your region.

Channel 9

Channel 9 is a community for learning, and a place to get videos, podcasts, and screencasts. You can also watch shows and participate in the forums. There is a ton of content here, and there’s always something new.

DreamSpark

If you’re a student, DreamSpark will get you free access to all sorts of developer tools that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive.  Visual Studio, SQL Server, and Expression Studio are just some of the products offered.

Beta software

Don’t underestimate the value of downloading software while it’s still in beta.  Visual Studio in particular is known for it’s very high-quality pre-release versions.  A good way to guarantee you don’t fall behind is to become an early adopter.

Books

Even in an increasingly online world, books are ideal for assimilating large amounts of information at once.  Do yourself a favor: take a break from clicking and start flipping pages for a while instead.

The Pragmatic Bookshelf

Pragmatic books are concise, well-written, and authored by people who are clearly passionate about the subject matter.

O’Reilly

O’Reilly has historically published some of the best technology books available, although their consistency has declined somewhat in recent years.

Classics

The Mythical Man-Month

Provides several insightful essays like “The Mythical Man-Month”, “The Second-System Effect”, and “No Silver Bullet”.  A must-read, even if it is showing its age in some parts.

Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software

Also known as the “Gang of Four” (GoF) book, Design Patterns is full of elegant solutions to commonly occurring problems in software design.

Other books I’ve read and recommend

C# in Depth: What you need to master C# 2 and 3 by Jon Skeet
This is for serious C# developers who already have a background in the language.  Skeet’s thorough coverage, attention to detail and precise wording make this an awesome learning tool and reference.  The second edition is due out in August.

The Passionate Programmer: Creating a Remarkable Career in Software Development by Chad Fowler

More inspirational than technical, this book offers numerous tips for becoming a great developer.

Coders at Work by Peter Seibel
Peter Seibel interviews 15 notable programmers.  I’m only a few chapters into this one so far, but it’s fascinating to probe the minds of those who have been so influential in our industry.

Joel on Software: And on Diverse and Occasionally Related Matters That Will Prove of Interest to Software Developers, Designers, and Managers, and to Those Who, Whether by Good Fortune or Ill Luck, Work with Them in Some Capacity by Joel Spolsky

Joel is known in part for his widely read blog posts, several of which have been bound together here in book form.  And yes, that really is the subtitle.

Hackers and Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age by Paul Graham

It’s interesting to note Graham’s support for Lisp, and the increased adoption of Lisp-like features into new languages since this was written.

The Cathedral and the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary by Eric S. Raymond

If you struggle to find anything new while reading this book, it’s only because it’s been such an enormous influence over the past decade.

Just for Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary by Linus Torvalds

Any developer who remembers tinkering with code at a very young age will relate with nostalgia to Torvalds’ geekiness.  This story is indeed fun.

Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy

Ever wonder how hacking began?  Real, true hacking that started around the 1950’s?  Hackers offers a peek inside the world of those who lived it.

Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter

This is not a programming book, but a clever, philosophical work of art.  It’s not for everyone, but if you have a curious and analytical mind you might enjoy it.

How to Create a Pinned Cygwin Icon in Windows 7

Pinned Cygwin icon

When you install Cygwin, it creates a shortcut to the Cygwin.bat file that resides in the installation directory.  But if you try to pin it to the Windows 7 taskbar with drag-and-drop, it won’t work.  Here’s how you can do it:

  1. Right-click on the desktop, and in the context menu, select New->Shortcut.
  2. In the dialog box, enter the location of the shortcut item.  If Windows and Cygwin are installed in the default locations, it will be something like:
  3. C:\Windows\System32\cmd.exe /c C:\cygwin\Cygwin.bat

  4. Click “Next”.  Enter “Cygwin” for the shortcut name.  An icon with the C:\ command prompt will appear on your desktop.
  5. Right-click the icon and view Properties.  Click the “Change Icon…” button.  Browse to the Cygwin installation directory and select Cygwin.ico.
  6. Double-click the new desktop shortcut and make sure the Bash shell appears.  Right-click the icon in the taskbar and select and select “Pin this program to the taskbar”.  You’re done!

Alternatively, you could just run cmd.exe, pin it to the taskbar, and edit the properties to run Cygwin.bat while it’s pinned.  But then you would not be able to alter the icon as easily.

Facebook’s Official PHP Client Library Moves to New Location, now PHP SDK

Joyent, a Web hosting company, is offering free Facebook app hosting for one year.  So far my experience with it has been pleasant, but I’m not sure how I’d be faring without plenty of prior experience building Web apps.

Joyent supports Ruby on Rails, PHP, and Python for Facebook development.  I decided to follow the path of least resistance and go with PHP, since they support it “Out of the Box”.  I got a “Hello World” app running out the gate quickly, but when I tried to install the Facebook Client library, I ran into trouble.

The developer wiki on Joyent’s site wants you to go to a Subversion repository on Facebook, but the link is dead so their instructions fail.  Facebook’s dev Wiki, on the other hand, links to GitHub.

To make it work, I logged into my Joyent account via SSH and ran these commands:

cd ~/web
mkdir php
cd php
curl http://download.github.com/facebook-php-sdk-v2.0.2-0-gdffbcde.tar.gz 2>/dev/null |\
gtar -xzf - --strip-components=2 'facebook-php-sdk-94fcb13/src/facebook.php'

(I got the URL for the gzip file by navigating to http://github.com/facebook/php-sdk/downloads, clicking the most recent tgz link, and noting the download location in the Firefox download dialog.  I’m sure there are easier ways to do this.)

Then you’ll get a php directory with the facebook.php file, and you can include it in a script in your public directory like this:

require '../php/facebook.php'; ?>

Note:  I just took a peek at Facebook’s wiki history and I can see that they updated this on April 29th (3 days ago).  Also, it looks like the name has changed from “Facebook Client library” to “Facebook PHP SDK”.

Visual Studio 2010 Helps You Grok Other People’s Code Quickly

Have you recently started a new job or project where you need to get up to speed on an existing code base rapidly?  Earlier versions of Visual Studio added features like the Class Designer.  Now, VS 2010 provides several more tools to assist you.

View Call Hierarchy

“Find All References” not cutting it? Somewhat like a design-time call stack, the call hierarchy helps you visualize program flow much more easily.

View Call Hierarchy
View Call Hierarchy

A bit of trivia: View Call Hierarchy will only let you drill down into a recursive call once before showing the message “Further expansion is not supported for recursive calls”.

Sequence Diagrams

Here’s another context menu item that you can get by right-clicking on a method. You can reverse engineer your code to get an automatically generated sequence diagram.

Sequence Diagram
Sequence Diagram

Incidentally, this screenshot also shows another cool feature of VS 2010: detachable tabs. You can even detach code tabs.

Reading code that you didn’t write (or wrote a long time ago and forgot how it works) is one of the biggest challenges facing developers. It’s nice to see Microsoft building a solution to this problem into its flagship development tool.