Nice deck from Dan McKinley of Stripe: Choose Boring Technology

As you grow as a developer (and development leader) and you work with more and more technologies over time in different projects, you start to realize how easy it is for the team to get more focused on the challenging technical problems than the actual product issues. Ignoring the product issues will kill the product (and possibly the company). With limited attention (he calls them innovation credits), it is best to put your effort into innovations that can differentiate your product. All too often, teams get more focused on the next cool technologies, turning everything into a nail as the old saying goes.

Dan McKinley does a great job explaining this in his talk below.

Fun with the Apple predictive keyboard

I’m getting used to the predictive keyboards in iOS8. I found myself wondering today what would happen if I just hit a single key and then just picked the suggested word over and over. So I typed “a” and the following resulted. It looked like it was going to end up in an infinite loop, but while it got very repetitive, that never happened.

So, cheap fun (if you don’t include the cost of the iPhone)…

And the rest of the day after a long day at the same thing to say it was the best of the year and the rest of the day after a while ago but the fact I can get it right away with the best of the best way of the best thing to say it was the best thing to say it is not the same thing to say that I have a great way of the day I have a great way of life and the rest of my favorite part of the best of luck with the best thing ever I go back and the rest of my favorite part of the day I have to go back and the rest of my life and the rest of my favorite part of a sudden it was the first half of the best of the year and the rest of my favorite part of a sudden it was the first half of the day after a while ago but the rest of the best…

 

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Your Software Will Fail You

Dead formats

I was reading about Jason Kincaid’s issues with Evernote, a piece of software that I am also dependent on (but luckily haven’t had any issues with yet). It reminded me of other software that I depend on that has or is currently failing me: iTunes, and 1Password.

The software I use every day today is different from the software I used every day a few years ago. The software I use in a few years will be different than the software I use today. Through decades of computer usage, I’ve realized that I can’t depend on my software, and that relying on it to exist and to work is folly. As we move towards subscription models for software, this will be ever more the case.

Let me talk a bit about how I work with my software now, in the form of a suggestion list. Some of my friends in the industry think it is surprisingly luddite, but it has reduced my pain over the years significantly. It means less work in some areas (like fixing busted software updates), and more work in other areas (maintaining plan-text backups), but as I moved to having everything digital, it at least lets me feel like my files are somewhat future proof.

  • When you buy digital media, only buy DRM-free. I learned this lesson many years ago. In the early days of digital music there were many competing, protected, file formats. All of them died. If you bought Liquid Audio files, or one of the variants of Microsoft protected audio files, you were screwed. I buy DRM-free eBooks whenever I can (I love that O’Reilly sells their books DRM-free always). When I buy music, I only buy MP3 or Ogg files (this doesn’t seem to be a problem to find any more). TV or Movies are more problematic. I basically only buy those when I absolutely can’t get them any other way, and I assume that at some point in the future, I will have a way to remove the DRM or I will just lose them. If I can’t find a reasonably priced DRM-free alternative, I will sometimes buy the physical copy and rip or scan it instead of paying for DRM-hobbled versions.
  • Only use software that lets you output archival file formats. Evernote let you output all your notes as HTML or XML. I backup my Evernote to these files on a monthly basis. I backup all my Outlook e-mail as mbox (plaintext) files (you can do this by dragging individual folders to disk). 1Password also lets you output as an XML file (although you want to encrypt this somehow in your backups). For the web services I use, I use ifttt to archive them either to Evernote, or Dropbox, or both.

    Creative application files are difficult, but I have also learned this the tough way. I recently had to track down a copy of Adobe Illustrator CS5 because it was the last version of the software that worked with Freehand files. I was a big Freehand user and I never got around to putting my Freehand files into some application-neutral format. Now I make sure that I save a copy of everything in an uncompressed, full resolution, non-proprietary format so that I can get to it again if I need it. This takes up a lot of space, but space gets cheaper. Losing access to something that you spend hours, days or weeks on is worth the cost of a few extra GB.

    I learned in my experience moving from iPhoto to Lightroom how painful it is when you use an application with virtual edits. Periodically, in LR, I output the edited versions of my images at full resolution so I won’t lose those if I can’t use LR anymore. The metadata is another problem, but LR at least save these in the sidecar or image files, so I can reconstruct them if I have to.

    For audio apps, I output the dry and wet stems from each channel when I finish a track so that I can remix later and maybe use them as a guide if I want to try to reconstruct a track from the original files.

  • Back up everything, multiple ways. What is the point of making sure your digital life is future proof if you can still lose it with a hard disk failure? In my case, I use CrashPlan for cloud backup. I also have a set of drives at work that are backups of my home drives. I bring each one home for one night just to back up its pair and the rest of the time it stays at work. In this way, I have three copies of every file. I was also contemplating another NAS backup within my house, but with over 6TB of data, that is a bit expensive for a fourth, redundant copy. I will probably do it anyway at some point.
  • Save copies of the software that you buy/download. Unfortunately, everything these days is still authorized over the internet. This means that if you need to install an old piece of software to read a file that is no longer readable some other way, you might not be able to get it fully enabled, but you still might be able to use it in trial mode for a short period of time, long enough to recover that old file. Having the DMG for CS5 saved my bacon.
  • Only update when you need/have to. This is the most controversial thing, especially because I have always made my living by selling (or renting) software (and upgrades) to people. This has also gotten a lot harder since the rise of the desktop app store and subscription revenue model. For my personal machine that I rely on and have no help or support on, I am very, very careful about when (or if) I update critical software. Before I apply a minor OS update, I always check the support boards to see if there are any issues. I almost never apply a major OS update to my personal computer. I actually can’t think of the last time I did this. The same goes for my critical (as opposed to fun) software. If everything is working on my machine and I’m able to get everything done, I prefer to leave it in that state rather than messing with my machine, possibly screwing myself up. There are a few exceptions. I will always apply security updates, for example. This doesn’t mean that I am always several years behind on software though. I update my hardware on a pretty regular basis, and usually when I do, I update all the software that I am currently using as well. I will still keep my old hardware around for a while, in case I need an old application for something.
  • Keep your files organized. Having everything means you need to be able to find anything. The good part of keeping things in standard file formats means you can take advantage of your OS’s search capabilities, but you’ll still want a reasonable directory structure.

For software developers
It’s easy to ignore old operating systems and backwards compatibility. You can look at your analytics and say “no one uses that feature anymore.” I’ve made that calculation myself many times as an engineering leader. Still, it is worth making sure that your users have an exit or even a staying-put strategy. Especially, if you are building a service or subscription instead of an application. I used to use Gowalla. I put a lot of data into that service. When it went out of business, they put up a page promising a tool to download your data. I thought that was a classy way to go. That tool never appeared, and all that data was lost.

If you want to treat your users right, make them never regret using your software. If you are lucky enough to have your software last for a while, remember all the people who paid you along the way. Treat them with respect, and they will keep paying you into the future.

Truth in advertising and the new MS Surface Commercial

Screen Shot 2013-10-24 at 11.59.05 AM

I just saw a MS Surface commercial where someone used it comfortably on an airplane tray table. They must be in mega first class because I’ve seen people try to use them on “real” tray tables. It’s hilarious. The keyboard sticks out over the too-small space between your body and the tray table, and the backend comically and continuously falls off the other edge.

The kickstand was literally the stupidest thing on the first version of that product. It was fine if you wanted to watch a movie, but it wasn’t even at a good angle for that most of the time. With the Surface vertical you can’t type on it, although with its’ weird aspect ratio, you can’t comfortably type on it anyway. Since the device wasn’t really useful without the keyboard, essentially you ended up having a laptop without a hinge. That laptop hinge has survived for decades for a reason. The reason is that it works, and it works well.

Try and use a Surface on your lap. You can’t type on the screen, and you need to be nearly horizontal (or amazingly long limbed) to even fit it with the keyboard on your lap. Did Microsoft only test this on tables? Just bad, bad, bad design.

With the second version of the Surface, they kept the kickstand, but they are now marketing it as a device for doing work instead of entertainment. Now the design is even stupider. The kickstand on the surface2 seems to have two positions, which is a slight improvement, but it is still worthless without a keyboard, and it still won’t fit on a tray table or your lap.

I can’t believe they are doubling-down on this.

For the record, at one time I had TWO surface RTs. I had my company purchase one for me when they were first launched. I seriously tried to use it and gave up after a couple weeks of frustration. The second was given to me by Microsoft when I attended the Microsoft MIX conference. That one I never took out of the box and eventually gave it away since I knew I would never use it.

skype nightmare

someone is faking my skype # for robocalls. So I get a dozen people *69ing every hour. Some leave angry voice mails.

I never used it anyway, so I just cancelled the skype number subscription, thinking that it would actually CANCEL MY SUBSCRIPTION. Except Microsoft won’t cancel it until the subscription runs out. IN NOVEMBER. MS customer support never replied to my messages.

Will probably need to create a new Skype account, which is lame.

Running a phone service is hard, running an IP Telephony service is harder. I expect the same level of support that I would get from a telephone service provider, but I also expect that I should have complete control and access, just like any web service. Unfortunately Skype is doing neither in this case.

iTunes 11.1 Warning – Major issue with Podcasts [UPDATED 10.5.13 and 3.3.14]

[Update March 3rd, 2014]
I finally was forced to upgrade for work reasons to 11.1.4. I found a suggestion on the Apple forum and decided to try that.

These were my steps:

  • First I backed EVERYTHING up, my media drive and my iTunes library to a separate disk.
  • Then I quit iTunes, moved my iTunes folder out of my user directory so that it wouldn’t get picked up after I restarted.
  • I updated iTunes to 11.1.4.
  • Then I launched the app and let it create a new iTunes folder and library.
  • I made sure that all the sync settings were off, so that no apps or podcasts would be synced over iCloud.
  • I quit iTunes
  • I moved my iTunes folder back into my user directory.
  • I relaunched iTunes and let it update.

So far, this has worked ok (for about 4 weeks for me). I periodically do a check of my library to make sure that no files have been lost and it looks ok for now. I have seen posts on the Apple forum that points to people still having podcasts deleted days after upgrading, so I’m going to continue to check ofter.

I will likely do a similar process every time I update iTunes from now on. I will probably also avoid updating any version as long as I can. Unfortunately, I’ve lost all trust in that application that I have been dependent on for years.

I also want to mention that a friend with contacts on the iTunes team actually forwarded a link to this post and the forum thread as well to some folks in the team. The response (not official, just person-to-person, second hand) was that this wasn’t an issue they thought was affecting many users and therefore it wasn’t a major priority for the team. That may be true (as an engineering leader, I’ve made that decision myself a few times), but as a user it is creating massive problems for, it is of little comfort. This issue may have been fixed by the team anyway, possibly, but the recent comment from Ed, seems to point otherwise.

[Update October 5th – There is a new version of iTunes, 11.1.1, in the release notes it claims that it fixed an issue with deleted podcasts. I installed it. It ran fine for a while (it didn’t fix the podcasts it broke, but it didn’t screw any more up), and then it hung, spinning beach ball. I had to Force Quit it after a few minutes. When I relaunched, it had COMPLETELY REMOVED MOST OF MY PODCAST SUBSCRIPTIONS AND UNSUBSCRIBED ME FROM THE ONES THAT WERE LEFT. Luckily, I had backed up before this happened and I was able to copy over my iTunes folder and relaunch which restored all my podcast subscriptions, until it beach-balled again AND REMOVED THEM AGAIN (I didn’t force quit this time). I then checked my file folders and of course it DELETED MY FILES WITHOUT WARNING, AGAIN!!! DO NOT UPGRADE TO ITUNES 11.1 IF YOU SUBSCRIBE TO PODCASTS! At this point, I once again have to completely reconstruct my podcast library due to poor Apple engineering.]

[Update September 23rd – The Situation is even worse than I thought. iTunes 11.1 is basically useless for podcasts now, see below]

restoring-podcasts

I have been using iTunes since version 1 or 2. I’m not sure. A very long time (nearly a decade). When they added podcast support, I switched from the podcatcher I was using to iTunes and have been using it ever since to sync my podcasts.

While I don’t save every episode from every podcast I have ever had, I do save some of them, which means I have literally years of archived podcasts. Or rather, I should say that I HAD years of archived podcasts. When I upgraded to iTunes 11.1, what I didn’t notice was that Apple somehow unsubscribed me to some of my podcasts or it got confused as to my subscription state. Interestingly, it was the ones that I actually tend to listen to pretty regularly. When it did this, IT SILENTLY DELETED big chunks of the episodes that had been downloaded from those casts.

This is a data-loss bug, the absolutely worst kind of bug imaginable. A stop-ship bug, a never-release-until-fixed issue. Unfortunately Apple did release it. I didn’t notice that this had happened, but at some point, I got a warning about how I was running out of space on my system drive, so I emptied the trash. I noticed that it seemed like I had a lot more files than I expected, but I didn’t think that much about it (I generally leave files in the trash until I need space). A day or so later, I noticed that iTunes didn’t think I was subscribed to a bunch of my podcasts, and that those podcasts were now missing dozens of archived episodes.

So now I will spend the next several days restoring from my on-line and off-site backups and slowly reconstructing my podcast library. Unfortunately, I now also need to worry about what other files may have been quietly cleaned up by iTunes: music, ebooks, movies? If there are more, I may never notice.

In the end, it means that a piece of software that I have used daily and depended on for years and years can no longer be trusted. The effect of this loss of trust cannot be understated. It would be the first step to me looking for another solution; one that wouldn’t have me locked into Apple’s platform. This is why this kind of bug is so amazingly critical to catch and why missing it is not a small issue, but a catastrophic one for an ISV or IHV.

If you are a long-time user of iTunes, beware 11.1, and everyone should have MULTIPLE backups of their files, for just this kind of event. I’m very glad that I have a complete backup of all my files on a hard drive that I can use to restore and an on-line additional backup in case that drive is busted.

[Update September 23rd]

After several hours of re-downloading episodes and restoring from backups, I relaunched iTunes only to find that it had deleted those episodes AGAIN. This means that this wasn’t an issue with upgrading the database, but rather a much more serious issue. This is beyond a critical issue for people who have large libraries of podcasts in iTunes. It seems that it doesn’t affect other parts of the library, but I’m not sure I can trust that for sure. This is a major issue since I have several iDevices and switching to another application is basically out of the question for the moment. I now have to work around this bug and hope that Apple will eventually fix it while being wary of the app deleting files every time it is launched. As a user, this sucks.

Here is the Apple Support forum thread:
https://discussions.apple.com/thread/5322917?start=0&tstart=0

On Microsoft’s new structure

http://www.bonkersworld.net/organizational-charts/
http://www.bonkersworld.net/organizational-charts/

Microsoft finally unveiled the new much-rumored organizational plan. Glad to see Microsoft moving audaciously. This is long overdue.

However, knowing that organization, I don’t know if there is much chance that it will be successful. The whole organization has been set up to compete with each other for decades. This kind of cultural change is probably beyond what is possible at this point. The battle lines are too well established, the rivalries too set in stone.

The culture of Microsoft has always been one of intense competition. Successful individuals and managers rise more on their ability to outshine their peers rather than cooperate. A new high-level alignment or a single memo will not change that. If Microsoft really wants to be nimble and more collaborative, they need to clear house.

Furthermore, organizing engineering as massive silos that are parallel to the other massive silos representing other business functions is exactly the wrong way to do this. Every new effort will require coordination between massive groups with conflicting priorities, politics and agendas. Everything will be harder. The company itself is so massive that having responsibility for the success meet at the tops of these tall functional mountains will not be sufficient to make these efforts work. The people with responsibility will be too far away from the details to be effective. Layers upon layers of management (each with their own goals, agendas and success metrics) will need to be navigated to get any level of cooperation.

It’s going to be a tough few years for the employees at the company. For the front-line engineers, their day-to-day work will probably not change much, but at the higher levels, there is going to be tremendous pain as the new structure and corresponding power battles work themselves out. In the end, I expect very little will change on the inside, or the outside.

I’d be delighted to see Microsoft prove me wrong.

Posted my GTC 2010 on using GPGPU techniques in commercial software talk to slideshare

The best part of this talk was getting a nice write-up on anandtech (one of my go-to sites). You can also find this talk synced to a recording of me speaking on NVidia’s site.