Death March

Introduction

Perhaps more than any other engineering discipline (see Steve McConnell’s After The Gold Rush), software engineers work on projects that have no real chance of success. There are as many reasons why as there are projects, but if you want to be in with a chance of surviving such a ‘death march’ this could be the book for you.

Content

Edward Yourdon is a well known and well respected computer scientist, so what useful information can he give you in these circumstances? Surely you’re lumbered with the simple choice between putting up with it or resigning?

Well, no. The book explains that there are any number of things to do, and not just for the project stake-holders. There are things that just about anyone on the project — and indeed just outside the project — can do. And quitting is almost always one of the options he gives. I find this interesting because most books tend to argue that you can fix anything. Sometimes you just don’t have the authority to do anything that would make a significant enough change.

Of course, it’s a two-hundred page book, so it doesn’t just launch into this resign-or-fix discussion. First he talks about what a Death March project actually is, and then moves on to finding who the key players in the project are. These people are not always those that you think should be in charge! For example, the CEO’s golfing partner is often in a position of power and influence, although you won’t find them in the organisation chart. (I’ve seen these kind of dynamics in play, but I hadn’t really though about it in these terms.)

He then moves on to negotiating the best deal for you and your team in this bad situation. You may not be able to get your boss to accept a rational argument at the beginning (or even towards the end) of the project, but you should at least try. And these are the arguments to use!

Motivation, both from the various clients and in your own team, play an important role in the success or otherwise of the project, and are discussed in some detail. One vaguely controversial statement is that we all need to be involved in politics to some extent. I agree with the ‘why’ — even your boss may secretly want your project to fail — but I don’t know how. Many, maybe most, of the developers I know have absolutely no interest in politics and try to pretend that it doesn’t affect them!

The next two chapters talk about methodologies and tools, and their applicability to death march projects. The last chapter discusses integrating the death march into your companies culture (most of your projects are going to be like that anyway, so you may as well get used to it!).

Controvacy!

It’s not all good news, though. Some of the chapter on staff motivation is hard going (or at least would be for the people on your project). One of Yourdon’s correspondents suggests that, on a death march project, people should be putting in at least 60 hours a week! I know that some people do that, and that it is encouraged at some companies, but I really don’t think that people should be encouraged to do that on a regular basis. It’s only fair to say that Yourdon goes on to say that people working over 60 hours a week need to be watched closely, but by then the damage may already have been done.

Generally, however, the advice given is very pragmatic. I’d like to think that most of it was obvious, but it isn’t. This is the kind of information you probably realise only after years in the business.

Overall

I’m sure you can guess by now: I’m impressed. Most Computer Science books are not this sensible and are frequently based in research in university labs rather than commerce. In fact, I’m pretty certain that I’ve never seen a book that recommends that you resign in certain circumstances!

It’s not just the detail that makes this an important book. Yourdon backs up his assertions with examples and email’s from colleagues that discuss some of the options available.

If you work in IT, sooner or later you will end up working on a Death-March project. This book is just what you need to be able to tell what chance of success it has and whether you and your organisation will survive it. Highly recommended.

Details

ISBN: 0-13-014659-5

Price: $16.99

Buy this book from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.

Thailand, 2000

Thailand is such a beautiful country that I could help but take a huge number of pictures. What you can see here represents the good fraction of those taken!

We started in Bangkok, got the night-train up to Chang Mai and a boat up to Chiang Rai. From there we mini-bused and walked through some Hill Tribe villages back to Chiang Mai, Bangkok and then flew home. A tiring couple of weeks, but well worth it for the scenery alone.

Note that the spelling of many Thai places are not strictly standardised. I’ve used the spellings that our tour-guide or my Lonely Planet guide used, but you may well see others.

Click the small pictures below for a full size version.

A temple viewed from a boat trip down the Chao Phraya RAnother view from the river, Bangkok Wat Po, BangkokWat Po, Bangkok
Wat Po, BangkokWat Po, Bangkok Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, near Chiang MaiChiang Mai from a taxi
Traditional Thai dancingView of River Fang from near Tha Ton View from the River Fang on the way to Chiang RaiView from an elephant
A Chinese temple in Myanmar, near the Thai borderIn Myanmar, just across the border from Thailand On the trekThe first Hilltribe village we stayed at
First thing in the morning at HuayraiA little later at Huayrai The second village we stayed atOn the way to the third village
On the way to the third villageMixture and high- and low-tech at Ahka Makamporm, the t Near Ahka MakampormNear Ahka Makamporm

If the pictures have piqued your interest, there are a few web sites that you might want to visit:

  • Lonely Planet have a useful guide to Thailand, including a large number of interesting links.
  • If you prefer hard-copy (much more portable than your laptop!), you can buy a copy from Amazon (UK or US).
  • Some of the above pictures were taken in some of the northern Hilltribe villages. This web site gives some useful information about them.

Installing Oracle 8i R2


Introduction

Everyone will be very pleased to hear that Oracle’s third attempt at producing a usable database product on Linux has largely been successful. The first two usually worked but only after much aggravation. Forget all the extras that 8.1.6 provides, you can get the thing installed with much less grief!

Of course, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it was simple and straight-forward all the time. It is Oracle that we’re talking about here.

I’ll start by describing how I got Oracle installed on my box and finish off with some questions and answers, much in the same format as the HOWTO. It’s probably worth having a look at the HOWTO still as many of the problems are similar and the solutions given there may give you some idea of where to start looking.

My machine

First, some news on my ‘server’ configuration: I still have the same Celeron 466 with 128Mb of memory. On the software side I’ve upgraded to Mandrake 7.1 (if I’d been running a production Oracle server I wouldn’t have taken the risk). I didn’t remove my old installation of Oracle before starting on the new one and I didn’t attempt to perform an upgrade.

I did remove JRE (Blackdown 1.1.6v5) and my installation of JDK (1.2.2) from my path. Oracle now comes with its own JRE, so even having the risk of it using the wrong one made me paranoid.

The last thing to note is that this time I downloaded my copy rather than using a CD. This seems to be what most other people do, so my tale here should be closer to ‘real life.’

My successful install

The process was as follows:

  1. Download Oracle 8i R2
  2. Extract the archive
  3. Create the required users and groups
  4. Make sure X is set up correctly
  5. Start the installer
  6. Quick tests

Firstly, the download. It’s big, nearly 300Mb. Don’t attempt it without something like Gozilla or wget even if you’re on a fast corporate connection.

Secondly the extraction. You’ll find that it comes in a standard tar archive compressed with GNU Zip. This command should get all the files out:

tar zxvf oracle8161.tar.gz

When you extract it, remember that the files coming out are slightly bigger (301807K on my machine). So you need over 500Mb of disk space before you even start the installation!

Before you actually start the installation, you’ll need to switch to “root” for a couple of commands. Start by creating a group called “dba” and a user “oracle”. Your new user should be in the new group. Log in as your new “oracle” user and make sure your X Windows system is working properly. (If you can fire up a new ‘xterm’ you’re fine.) The Oracle installer, as before, works only in a graphical environment.

Go to where you extracted the software archive. You’ll find a directory has been created (“Oracle8iR2”). Move into it and you’re ready to start the installation!

(A quick note: in the same directory there’s “index.htm” which is the root page for all the Oracle installation document. This seems to be improved over earlier releases and is worth a read.)

Type:

./runInstaller

A splash screen should appear, followed by a Windows-style Wizard/Installer. I find the default options for almost everything to be fine. Broadly speaking, and assuming some common-sense is used, just clicking “Next” continually should result in a working installation. In slightly more detail…

(Note that there are a few points where the installer asks you to log in as “root” to run some shell scripts. To simplify the text below, I’ve missed these steps out. Simply do as it says and click “Retry” once it’s done.)

  1. Welcome screen. Click “Next.”
  2. File Locations screen. The top box should be correct; it displays the location of the archive containing all the software about to be installed. The second box is the “base” of you Oracle installation. I chose “/home/ora816” but this is not recommended. Have a read of the OFA (Oracle Flexible Architecture) documentation.
  3. Available Products screen. If you’re installing a server, select “Oracle 8i Enterprise Edition 8.1.6.1.0”; otherwise select “Oracle 8i Client 8.1.6.1.0”. I’m assuming that you’re building a server and click the first option.
  4. Installation Types screen. Do you want a “Typical”, “Minimal” or “Custom” installation. Unless you really know what you’re doing, pick “Typical”.
  5. Upgrading or Migrating an Existing Database screen. If you have a previous installation, Oracle will ask whether you want to upgrade your database to the new 8.1.6 format. I didn’t. I’d recommend doing this yourself once the installation process is complete even if you do.
  6. Database Identification screen. Here Oracle asks you for a Global Database Name and a SID. As before, this is something your DBA probably has an opinion on. If you’re the DBA and you don’t know what it’s asking for, enter “dev1” for both.
  7. Database File Location screen. Now Oracle knows what you want to call your database, it asks you where you want to put all the files that make up the database. Think back to your reading of the OFA documentation for this.
  8. Summary screen. Oracle now tells you what it’s planning on installing. Click “Install” if you’re sure, or go to the “Previous” screen an juggle the options around.
  9. Configuration Tools. First Oracle runs the Net8 Configuration Assistant and then runs the Database Configuration Assistant. Basically, it sets up your networking and creates the database you asked for. No user intervention is required. (Note: the SYS account password is “change_on_install” and the SYSTEM password is “manager”. You should change both using the SQL*Plus “password” command as soon as possible.)
  10. End of Installation. That’s it, you have a complete installation!

If you want to install Oracle Programmer (Pro*C, etc), you need to follow the same process as before: go back through the installation process, but this time following the “Oracle Client” route. The rest of the process is similar to the above and very straight-forward. The new installer even asks you if you want to start again once your database has been created.

And if you want to set up a network connection to another machine, the process is exactly the same as for Oracle 8i (and is covered in the main HOWTO).

Questions and answers

Java problems?

As before, many of the problems come from your choice of Java Virtual Machine. R2 actually comes with a runtime environment this time (JRE 1.1.8), which does make things easier. However I have heard reports that older versions sometimes work better. The older version is normally Blackdown’s 1.1.6v5 release, the same Oracle used to recommend with their 8.1.5 release.

Memory requirements

One thing that is exactly the same is the amount of memory required. I don’t remember seeing a figure in their old documentation, but they say you need 400Mb this time, either real or virtual, for 8.1.6. I have 384Mb in total on my machine and it was fine. The default database configuration seems to use more memory but, as always, you can change that.

Running Redhat 7 or another glibc 2.2 based distribution

Short answer: add “export LD_ASSUME_KERNEL=2.2.5” to your profile and then type “. /usr/i386-glib21-linux/bin/i386-glibc21-linux-env.sh”.

Long answer: look at my page on the subject.

Perl

Introduction

Many developers would hate to have their master-work described as a mess, but not Larry Wall, creator of Perl and celebrity hacker. The way he sees it, the language is a mess because the problem domain — real life — is also a mess. He has a point.

I first came across Perl a few years ago when I was writing a program that required a certain amount of ‘screen-scraping’ from a telnet session, the ability to retrieve files using FTP, some complex processing and interaction with an Oracle database. This is a fairly messy problem, and one that Perl looked eminently able to solve.

Originally I came up with a design involving precarious shell-script creations, plus PL/SQL and a pile of other logic thrown in for good measure. This is even more messy and, worse, I can’t see how it would ever have worked. Then, at various times, people would suggest Perl. It’s good at text handling one would say. You can connect it to a database another would say. But it was the telnet library that sold it to me. I still hadn’t figured out a reliable way of doing that in a shell script.

The philosophy

With the tools that I already had, the problem may well have been impossible. I could have done it in C, but I didn’t have the luxury of time. I might have figured out a way of doing it with shell scripts, but it’d be a nightmare to debug and support.

It sure looked possible in Perl, and it had to be easier than doing it in C.

The Perl philosophy, it turns out, is make the every day things easy and everything else possible. The kind of thing that I wanted to do wasn’t exactly typical Perl fare, but it had all the right elements.

Much of the time I use Perl like a super-shell script. Thinking of it as such is not completely wrong, but it does do the software a great disservice. Sure, you can use it like that. But you can also make ‘real’ programs, complete with declared variables, objects and a GUI user interface.

You can do a lot in Perl, and it doesn’t try to cramp your style. Want to use objects? Go ahead! Think they look too complex? You don’t have to use them! You can write programs like glorified shell-scripts, or like C. Roll your own, use a library, the choice is yours.

This neatly brings me to another one of Perl’s philosophies. (The Perl definition of a philosophy is as messy as the language and the problem you end up solving with it.) This other message is: There Is More Than One Way To Do It.

Let’s try a trivial example: the if statement. Most languages insist you do something like this:

if ($a == 5) {
  print "a is five!n";
}

Indeed, this is perfectly valid Perl. But so is this:

print "a is five!" if ($a == 5);

I don’t necessarily think that this represents good programming style, but then I don’t have to use it. My choice.

The syntax

As you can see in the above example, Perl bears more than a passing resemblance to C. It uses the double equals (“==”) to compare numbers and semi-colons as statement terminators.

It’s also a bit like Unix shell scripts. Note the use of the dollar to identify variables. However, Perl is much more insistent on their use than Bourne. You must use the dollar all the time, even in assignments. This gets annoying if you change between languages with any degree of regularity.

The good news is that Perl doesn’t always use a dollar sign to identify variables. The bad news is that it also uses the at sign (@), the percent sign (%) and the ampersand (&). (At least these are the common ones. There was a joke going round recently suggesting that Perl 5.6 only supported Unicode character because they’d run out of symbols on the normal keyboard. At least I hope it was a joke.)

Fortunately it’s not completely indiscriminate. It turns out that Perl has only three data types: scalars, lists and hashes. The dollar identifies scalars, variables that accept a single value, at’s are used when you want to put several values in a single variable and the percent sign is used to identify associative arrays (which Perl calls hashes).

For example:

# Scalars
$a = "hello";
$b = 1.2;
# Lists
@c = ("hello", "goodbye");
@d = ($a, $b);
# Hashes
%e = ( "var1" => "value 1", "var2" => "value 2" );
# Output
print "$a, $c[0], ", $e{var1}, "n";

There are several interesting things to note here. Firstly, you don’t have to declare your variables (although you can if you want). Secondly, scalars store any single value, whether number, character or string. They are weakly typed in the same way that Variants are in Visual Basic; the system knows what’s there and will do different things based on that information. We’ll see more of this later.

Lists can store any number of scalars (which, as you can see, don’t all have to be what most other languages would consider the same type), with Perl performing all the memory allocation and deallocation, much the same way as the much-vaunted Java garbage collector. Many of the same properties apply to hashes.

Perhaps the final interesting property is the way you read from the non-scalar types. As you can see, you must use the dollar — scalar — to access them. This does make sense when you stop to think about it: you’re reading a single value not the complete list (which is still represented using the at sign).

The Perl Difference

All this variable stuff is unusual, but it doesn’t make it stand head and shoulders above everything else (in fact, the weak-ish typing and lack of user-defined types make it much worse than many others). But Perl is used in just about every CGI script in existence for a very good reason.

Is it the same reason that Perl has a reputation for being unreadable. Generally Perl is no less readable than, say, C but the one aspect that confuses just about everyone the first time are regular expressions. If you like code that looks like line-noise, this is the feature for you!

Regular Expressions are a way of representing patterns. For example this line could represent UK postal codes:

^[A-Z]+[0-9]+ [0-9][A-Z]+$

Or in English: one or more letters at the beginning of the line, followed by some digits. Then there’s a space followed by a single digit and one or more letters. The pedantic might note that all the letters must be uppercase.

Like all the usual Unix command-line tools, Perl allows you to look for and manipulate patterns in files. Perl extends the usual array of tokens allowing you to make fantastical expressions that quickly become completely unreadable. The power comes from the fact that all this is embedded right into the language, no clumsy function calls.

while ($line = <>) {
  chomp $line;
  if ($line =~ /1234/) {
    print ":$linen";
  }
}

Note here that in the third line I compare the input (“<>” reads the next line from the currently open stream, which is stdin by default) to an expression. Clearly this is a very simple example, but you should be able to see that having this functionality builtin gives the language the ability to express some very complex ideas concisely.

Extras

One of the things that Perl does better than just about any other language is plug-in modules. Perl 5 added some clunky object-oriented-like features and, while they may not be elegant, they do seem to work.

A testament to their power is the number of modules available for free download at CPAN (the Comprehensive Perl Archive Network). There are modules for connecting to just about any relational database, libraries to talk to all the Internet protocols I could think of and code to deal with XML and configuration files (or XML configuration files). There are so many modules you rarely have to write much in the way of code yourself.

Summary

I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of Perl here. There’s much more to it, but the beauty of the language is that you don’t actually need to know that.

The language itself has a tendancy to look ugly and, often, unreadable. But it’s used just about everywhere you can find a Unix box. There are few other languages that come close to Perl for hacking text files and automating boring system administration tasks. It takes over where shell scripts leave off and only starts to run out of steam for projects thousands of lines long (it’s technically able to cope with more, but it’s not a real software engineering language). System Administrators don’t call it a Swiss Army Chain-saw for no reason.

As a computer language purist, I really want to hate Perl. It has weak typing, no data structures, it’s proud of the fact that there’s more than one way to do everything and the syntax just looks plain ugly. But this is not a pure or perfect universe. These very ‘flaws’ make Perl the ideal tool for the jobs it was designed for.

I may not actually like it, but I use Perl for just about all my hacking activities. It’s just too useful to ignore.

Ireland, 2000

Ireland, as I’m sure you know, is a small country in the north west of Europe. It is famed for it’s glorious landscape and frequent and heavy precipitation. We were fairly luck, but we did get very wet on more than one occasion!

We started in Dublin, headed down to Cork via Cashel, up to Killarney and then back to Dublin through Limerick, Killaloe and Kildare. The location of most pictures has been noted.

The pictures of Limerick were actually taken in October 1999, but it didn’t seem worth putting them on a separate page.

Click the small pictures below for a full size version.

Looking at Hore Abbey from the Rock of CashelHore Abbey, near the Rock of Cashel Muckross LakeMuckross Lake
View in the People's Park in LimerickClock tower in Limerick King John's Castle in LimerickThe treaty stone in Limerick
Killaloe across Lough Derg from BallinaLooking out over Lough Derg

If the pictures have piqued your interest, there are a few web sites that you might want to visit:

United Arab Emirates, 1999

The United Arab Emirates was not anywhere near the top of my list of places to visit, but I went anyway. (Now I think about it, neither was Georgia!) This time it was for work rather than strictly as a tourist, but I did have enough time to have a look around Abu Dhabi and take a few pictures. At the bottom are a couple from Dubai too, although, generally, those pictures did not come out quite as well.

Click the small pictures below for a full size version.

A typical street (plus photographer!)A waterfall A strange monumentMosques in the shade
A roundabout on the CornicheView of the waterfront Clock tower in DubaiThe riverfront in Dubai

If the pictures have piqued your interest, there are a few web sites that you might want to visit:

  • Emirates Net. The local ISP and phone company.
  • Arab.Net. Lots of information on the middle-east as a whole.
  • You’re going to need a guide while travelling around. And since you’ll find there’s not a lot to see in UAE you may as well get a guide on the whole region rather than just the Emirates. As always, there’s a Lonely Planet guide. You can buy a copy from Amazon (UK or US).

Photography, opinions and other random ramblings by Stephen Darlington