Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programmers

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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Nearly the end-of-year review

My first post (Farkers, feel free to replace that with “boobies”) of the year 2009 was a review of 2008’s blog and look forward to 2009. It’s time to do the same for the 2009/2010 blogyear bifecta.

Let’s start with the recap.

2009 was a comparatively quiet year for iamleeg, with a total of 45 posts (including this one). Although I gave up on LiveJournal, leading to an amount of “mission creep” in the content of this blog, I think that the vast increase my use of Twitter led to the decline in post frequency here. I’ve come to use Twitter as a replacement for Usenet, it’s much easier to share opinions and discuss things on Twitter where there’s more of a balanced conversation and less of iamleeg telling the rest of the world how things should work. The other main contributory factor was that I spend my days writing for a living currently, split between authorship, consultation and the MDN security column. I’m often all written out when it comes to the end of the day.

So, the mission creep. 2009 saw this blog become more of a home for ideas long enough to warrant a whole page on the internet, losing its tech focus—directly as a result of dropping LJ, which is where non-tech ideas used to end up. However, statistics show that the tech theme is still prevalent, with only four of the posts being about music or dancing. Security has become both the major topic as well as the popular choice; the most-read article was Beer Improves Perception of Security.

During August and September the focus started to shift towards independent business and contract work, as indeed I made that shift. Self-employment is working well for me, the ability to choose where I focus my effort has let me get a number of things done while still retaining a sense of sanity and a balance with my social life.

So what about next year?

Well, the fact that I have a number of different things to focus on leads to an important choice: I need to either regroup around some specific area or choose to remain a polymath, but either way I need to be more rigorous about defining the boundaries for different tasks. My major project comes to an end early in 2010, and after that it’s time to calm down and take a deep look at what happens next. I have a couple of interesting potential clients lined up, and have put onto the back burner my own application which will definitely see more work. I also have some ideas for personal development which I need to prioritise and get cracking on. The only thing preventing me from moving on a number of different projects is convincing myself I have time for them.

So the blog will fit in with that time-management strategy; I won’t necessarily decide that 9:00-10:14 on a Monday is always blogging time, but will resolve to put aside some time to writing interesting things. One thing I have found is that working on one thing for a whole day means I don’t get much of it done, so factoring that into my plans will let me take advantage of it. Half an hour working on a new article at lunchtime could be the stimulus required to get more out of the afternoon. My weapon of choice for organising my work has always been OmniFocus, it’s time to be more rigorous about using it. It doesn’t actually work well for time allocation, but it does let me see what needs to be done next on the various things I have outstanding.

Obviously what becomes the content of this blog depends on what happens after I’ve shaken down all of those considerations and sorted out what it means to be leeg. Happy new year, and stay tuned to find out what happens.

posted by Graham Lee at 17:47  

Thursday, December 17, 2009

On Operation Chokehold

So Fake Steve Jobs has announced Operation Chokehold, a wireless flashmob in which disgruntled AT&T customers are to use data-intensive apps for an hour in protest at the poor service and reduced investment AT&T provide on their network. At time of writing, Operation Chokehold has 3,000 fans on Facebook – a small fraction of the ∼82M AT&T Mobility subscribers in the U.S. Fake Steve has latterly wondered whether it is illegal (using the “it’s now out of my hands” defence, popular with people who don’t understand what incitement means), and seemingly back-pedalled, considering aloud whether people might try a shorter duration or physical flashmob of AT&T stores instead. It would appear that the FCC (the U.S. agency responsible for regulating national and international communications) has weighed in, declaring a wireless flashmob to be irresponsible and “a significant public safety concern”.

How is it a concern? Due to the way the phones work, you don’t need to the capacity to support all of the users, all of the time, in order to provide a reasonable service. Think of running a file-sharing service like DropBox or Humyo. If you offered up to 10GB storage per customer and have 10,000 customers, then you need 100TB of storage, right? Wrong. That’s the maximum that could be used, but let’s say in practice you find average use to be 100MB/customer. It turns out that 1TB of storage would be the minimum you’d need to satisfy current demand, if you had even 1.5TB then you’d comfortably support the current customer base while allowing for some future use spikes or growth. The question most businesses ask then is not how risky it is to drop below 100% capacity, but how much risk they can accept in their buffer over average capacity. The mobile phone network operates in the same way. To avoid dropped calls you don’t need the bandwidth to support 100% of the phones operating 100% of the time, you need to support the average number of phones the average amount of time, plus a little extra for (hopefully foreseen) additional demand.

The argument by AT&T and the FCC against the wireless flashmob then is that because the network is oversubscribed as an accepted business risk, it would actually be possible for the concerted operation of a large number of users to cause disruption to the network. This eventuality is evinced every year in the early morning of January 1st, as people phone or SMS each other with New Year greetings. People making legitimate calls during this time could be disconnected or unable to place a call at all—while that would undoubtedly make the protest noticed by AT&T it’s that aspect of it which makes it a potential public safety concern. Personally, I find it hard to believe that the network doesn’t have either dedicated capacity or priority quality of service (QoS) treatment for 9-1-1 calls, but it’s possible still that some 9-1-1 calls might not get placed correctly. That’s especially true if the caller’s handset can’t even connect to a tower, which could happen if nearby towers were all saturated with phones making data connections. While it’s possible to mitigate that risk (dedicated cell towers for 9-1-1 service, which emergency calls are handed over to) it would be very expensive to implement. There’s no business need for AT&T to specially support emergency calls, as they don’t make any money from them, so they’d only do that if the FCC mandated it.

But then there are all the non-9-1-1 emergency calls—people phoning their local doctor or hospital, and “business critical” calls made by people who somehow think that their business is critical. Even the day-to-day running of government is at least partially conducted over the regular phone networks, as was seen when the pager traffic from New York on September 11th 2001 got posted to WikiLeaks. These calls are all lumped in with the regular calls, because they are regular calls. The only way to mitigate the risk of dropping these is to increase the capacity of the network, which is exactly the thing that people are saying AT&T don’t do to a satisfactory level. If the contracts on AT&T Mobility are anything like the contracts on UK phone networks, then subscribers don’t have a service level agreement (SLA) with the provider, so there’s no guarantee of provision. The sticking point is the level of expected provision doesn’t match that. If the providers operated multi-tier subscription services like the broadband providers do in the UK, then they probably would do QoS management so that preferential customers get better call service—again, assuming the customers can connect to the cell tower in the first place. But again, that’s a business issue, and if the guy participating in Chokehold has a more expensive plan than the girl trying to phone the hospital, his connection will win.

Will Chokehold fulfil its goal of making AT&T invest more in its infrastructure? I don’t know. Will it actually disrupt public safety services such as 9-1-1? I doubt it. Is it a scale model for a terrorist attack on the communications infrastructure of the US? Certainly not. Much easier to jump down a manhole and snip the cables to the data centres.

posted by Graham Lee at 12:19  

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Consulting versus micro-ISV development

Reflexions on the software business really is an interesting read. Let me borrow Adrian’s summary of his own post:

Now, here’s an insider tip: if your objective is living a nightmare, tearing yourself apart and swear never touching a keyboard again, choose [consulting]. If your objective is enjoying a healthy life, making money and living long and prosper, choose [your own products].

As the author himself allows, the arguments presented either way are grossly oversimplified. In fact I think there is a very simple axiom underlying what he says, which if untrue moves the balance away from writing your own products and into consulting, contracting or even salaried work. Let me start by introducing some features missed out of the original article. They may, depending on your point of view, be pros or cons. They may also apply to more than one of the roles.

A consultant:

  • builds up relationships with many people and organisations
  • is constantly learning
  • works on numerous different products
  • is often the saviour of projects and businesses
  • gets to choose what the next project is
  • has had the risks identified and managed by his client
  • can focus on two things: writing software, and convincing people to pay him to write software
  • renegotiates when the client’s requirements change

A μISV developer:

  • is in sales, marketing, support, product management, engineering, testing, graphics, legal, finance, IT and HR until she can afford to outsource or employ
  • has no income until version 1.0 is out
  • cannot choose when to put down the next version to work on the next product
  • can work on nothing else
  • works largely alone
  • must constantly find new ways to sell the same few products
  • must pay for her own training and development

A salaried developer:

  • may only work on what the managers want
  • has a legal minimum level of security
  • can rely on a number of other people to help out
  • can look to other staff to do tasks unrelated to his mission
  • gets paid holiday, sick and parental leave
  • can agree a personal development plan with the highers-up
  • owns none of the work he creates

I think the axiom underpinning Adrian Kosmaczewski’s article is: happiness ∝ creative freedom. Does that apply to you? Take the list of things I’ve defined above, and the list of things in the original article, and put them not into “μISV vs. consultant” but “excited vs. anxious vs. apathetic”. Now, this is more likely to say something about your personality than about whether one job is better than another. Do you enjoy risks? Would you accept a bigger risk in order to get more freedom? More money? Would you trade the other way? Do you see each non-software-developing activity as necessary, fun, an imposition, or something else?

So thankyou, Adrian, for making me think, and for setting out some of the stalls of two potential careers in software. Unfortunately I don’t think your conclusion is as true as you do.

posted by Graham Lee at 18:42  

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