Tag Archives: books

The First $20 Million Is Always The Hardest

Introduction

A tip: if you’re going to read this book, don’t flip through to the back and read the ‘Authors note.’ It doesn’t actually give away the story, but there are clues that you won’t want to know. I should know, that’s what I did.

Fortunately, although you can predict the tone of the end of the book, there are more than a few surprises in store.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

What is the story about?

La Honda is a small, non-profit research centre. They design the biggest, most powerful computers in exchange for sponsorship. The biggest sponsor is a semiconductor company called Omega Logic Corporation, a small competitor to Intel, and they’re relying on the La Honda team to design the next generation chip, the 686.

Andy Caspar, a new recruit, wants to work on this project but, for reasons that only become apparent when you read the book, he’s not allowed to start there and ends up working on a $300 computer. He soon become the subject of ridicule — this is not the kind of project that La Honda are supposed to do. It’s not big, it’s not sexy and it’s not what Omega want.

Andy is eventually hounded out and ends up starting his own company along with the people he managed to lure onto the project at La Honda and the occasional help of his next-door neighbour, Alisa. A battle of wit’s ensues, La Honda and real life against Andy’s tiny start-up,

But what’s it like?

Brosnen obviously knows what he’s talking about. In “$20M” he’s managed to weave a suitably convincing yarn about fictional companies while still leaving the real Silicon Valley (and Redmond based) companies intact. In fact, some of the comments about Microsoft are particularly relevant at the moment.

He also knows the kind of people that work in the computer industry. Even though I work five and a half thousand miles from Silicon Valley, I know people like each of the main characters. They’re likeable and true to life, although some way short of Douglas Coupland’s characters in Microserfs.

And finally, although the life of a start-up seems to involve one good idea, a few people and a fantastic number of long nights in front of a computer — which might have it’s moments but wouldn’t make good reading — Brosnen manages to inject a certain amount of humour and style into the prose. He’s in there with the character rather than criticising them as would have been so easy for a mainstream journalist to do (he writes for, among others, Wired).

Overall

If you’re sick of yet more high-powered books on C++ and CORBA, and need a little light reading, then “$20 Million” might just fit the bill.

You rarely see this kind of thing in real life without actually doing it yourself. This book might be the best, lowest risk way of finding out what its like to be in a high-tech start-up. It’s easy to read, true to life and fun. Not the best book I’ve ever read, but definitely worth a trip to Amazon.

The facts

Author: Po Brosnen

Cost: £6.99

ISBN: 0-09-926828-0

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

Are Your Lights On?

Introduction

I work in the IT services industry. What this means is that I work for various clients using my technical skills to solve their problems.

One thing that no-one mentions while you’re at university, planning to go into this industry, is that most of the problems you come across are not technical in nature. Problems with computers are usually fairly tractable and can be solved, even if not elegantly, by anyone who is interested enough to have a go. It’s the other, people problems that are tricky.

And it is for these problems that I though I could do with a hand: a book about more effectively solving problems. It sounds suspiciously like one of those nasty self-help books, but it’s co-written by Gerald Weinberg (of “Psychology of Computer Programming” fame) so I figured it wouldn’t be all bad.

What’s in it?

The book is split into six sections, each drilling down into particular parts of the problem solving process. In itself this might be quite interesting: solving problems is a process, not necessarily just occasional inspiration. Like any process, once you’re aware of it, you can practise and get better at it.

In one section the authors talk about what the problem really is. At first it sounds silly — you solve problems every day so surely you can identify one! — but the more they explain it and the more you think about it, the more it makes sense. At each point in their explanation, they enhance your understanding with case studies or examples, and often key phrases get their own paragraph highlighted in bold (“Don’t leap to conclusions, but don’t ignore your first impression”).

This level of detail extends throughout the book. They know that some of it sounds silly, but equally realise that you probably do need to know about.

On the downside

For such a small book, there’s a lot of useful information. The hints are relevant and easy to understand. However, I found it all to be an irritating experience. It took me a couple of months to finish and it’s not because I’m a slow reader!

The fact that many of the “case-studies” are incredibly twee makes the whole experience incredibly irritating; I hated the style so much that I nearly didn’t finish it. That would have been a shame.

I’d like to think that the reason I didn’t “get it” was because I’m too old, that format could work quite well in a school book, but I don’t think that school-children would get much from a book about some computer programmers and someone who wanted to fix a lift. It really is a book with content aimed at adults and a style developed for children.

Conclusion

So the conclusion is somewhat mixed: there’s useful stuff in there if you can survive the style. Personally I preferred the more academic, less strictly relevant “Conceptual Block-busting.”

The facts

Author: Donald C. Gause and Gerald M. Weinberg

Cost: $13.95

ISBN: 0-932633-16-1

Buy this book from Amazon.com. Unfortunately it no longer appears to be available from Amazon.co.uk.

GOTO — Software Superheroes

Introduction

This is a book that I bought and read some time ago. I posted a brief review on the discussion forms that used to grace this site with every intention of writing something more complete, but I never got around to doing it. Perhaps that’s because there’s not a lot else to say!

The good: there’s a lot of information in here, everything from the creation of FORTRAN and COBOL to Java and the Internet. It’s all discussed in a friendly, easy manner and rarely gets technical enough to scare off people without a computer science degree. The bad: despite the amount of research the author clearly put in, there’s not a lot new in here. It’s nice having it all in one place but it does, kind of, make the whole book unnecessary. The ugly: they really could have done with some more proof-reading. There are many typos and clumsy sentences that could easily have been improved with some light editing.

Passages such as this show both the good and bad aspects of the book:

“Make the reasonable assumption that … that 1000 lines of code have an average of 17 characters per line, or a total of 17000 characters. So the “lousy” code has 10 mistakes in 17000 keystrokes… that’s lousy for software… but is an extraordinary performance in most any other field of human endeavor.”

I think that this is a brilliant way of expressing the complexity of writing software to someone unfamiliar with the process. However, almost the entire book is written at this level of detail which makes it, very much, a “pop” book, one that anyone can read without getting bogged down in technical details. Personally I like the technical details (yes, sad I know) and miss them here.

Of course my liking of obscure technical details does make the book any less relevant. For someone with a less technical background this book would be a great way to find out more about the process and people beind just about all the software in use today.

The facts

Author: Steve Lohr

Cost: ?15

ISBN: 1-86197-243-1

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

Practical C Programming

Introduction

It sounded like just the kind of book that I was looking for. I wanted a refresher on C since I’d not used it for a while, and some pointers on ‘advanced techniques.’ The blurb on the back looked about right and the fact that O’Reilly published it clinched the sale.

“Practical C Programming” not only plans to teach you C, but also about style, debugging and the software life-cycle.

Content

The book is split into three sections: Basics, Simple Programming and Advanced Programming.

‘Basics’ introduces the language, leaving out much of the fluff and complex bits, but including much on style and ‘process’ — designing, building and maintaining your program. This part of the tutorial is well structured, only introducing new features of the language as and when they are necessary. It does not teach you how to program, rather how to write C. Since you must be able to program before you start the book, I consider the pace to be much too slow. If you already know how to program, why should you have to wait until chapter six before introducing the if statement?

‘Simple Programming’ finishes off what the last section started. It adds most of the more complex bits such as scope, bitwise operators, pointers, floating-point numbers and the C Preprocessor. Of course, the boundary between basic and simple is not well defined, but I would consider the for statement to be basic. This section also includes information on optimising programs which you might have thought would fall under the ‘Advanced Programming’ section.

The final section is much more terse and reference-like than the first two sections. It includes topics such as the difference between ANSI and Kernigan and Ritchie C, more on pointers, portability and some of the more dodgy parts of C such as the 😕 operator and goto statement. It also includes a section on modular programming (again, I would consider this to be in the wrong section) and ‘Programming Adages.’ For the experienced programmer, it is probably this last chapter that is the most useful. Reminders such as avoid side-effects and never put an assignment inside a conditional seem to go against the grain of conventional C wisdom, but are, indeed, correct and very valuable.

Conclusion

‘Practical C Programming’ is not a bad book by any means. Scattered through its 400-odd pages are dozens of useful tips and heuristics, many of which I’ve not seen in print before. It also manages to clarify some oddities, and the example programs are mostly well thought-out and clear.

The C tutorial is not in enough detail to help a true novice and is too chatty and basic for some people, like myself, who just want the facts. The annoying part is that there is a lot of information in there that I didn’t already know, but I almost didn’t have the patience to read it.

It’s also unusual to find a chapter on software engineering in a C book. Oualline has a nice discussion of design, source control and configuration management but it does leave you wondering why it is there. Sure, it’s an important topic, but there are huge books dedicated to this subject. He can not (and does not) even begin to scratch the surface.

What the book lacks is a clear focus. Is the book for a novice programmer? Is it for someone that doesn’t know C? Someone that does know C? Is it a reference? A software engineering guide? The real answer is that it tries to do it all, but only partially succeeds. A nice try but not a must buy.

The facts

Author: Steve Oualline

Cost: Approximately ?24.50 or US$32.95

ISBN: 1-56592-306-5

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

Oracle PL/SQL Programming

Introduction

The first point to note is that this book is published by O’Reilly. The second point would be that Steven Feuerstein is generally regarded to be one of the worlds leading PL/SQL experts.

Those two point, on their own, were enough to clinch the purchase just over eighteen months ago.

Content

The book is, to say the least, comprehensive. When I first started to use PL/SQL I would never have guessed that there was enough there to write a thousand page book, but there is.

It’s split into seven sections and twenty-six chapters, making it a good reference as well as useful to learn from. Section one, ‘Programming in PL/SQL’ talks about the history, block structure and style. I’m not entirely convinced that ‘programming style’ belongs in a book such as this, but it’s well written, useful and less intrusive than the similar treatment in “Practical C.”

Section two moves onto the ‘meat’ of the language and takes up over two-hundred pages in its own right — longer than the whole of some other texts! Feuerstein covers all this in detail and with great skill, mentioning not only how the language works but also, where appropriate, where it doesn’t work. This kind of honesty seems rare, especially in Oracle Press books!

‘Built-in Functions’ does exactly what you’d expect, and includes a thorough discussion on handling dates, a common area of confusion (I was pleased to find that it’s not just me…).

Parts four and five are, perhaps, the most clumsy sections. The first talks of ‘Modular Code,’ which I don’t see as being so advanced that it requires its own section. And part five discusses the ‘New PL/SQL8 Features’ which, again, don’t necessarily deserve a section on their own. I suppose it made writing the second edition easier…

The last section before the appendices is called ‘Making PL/SQL Programs Work.’ For those not familiar with server-side PL/SQL, let me point out that this isn’t as silly as it sounds. PL/SQL, until recently, had no debugging facilities to speak of. You can’t set break-points or single-step and even outputting trace statements to the screen is not trivial.

However, although the stuff that Feuerstein writes is interesting and might be useful to some, it’s not all it might be. For example, in the section on tracing PL/SQL programs (chapter 26) he talks about Oracle tracing which, if you’ve ever seen, you’ll realise how useless it is much of the time. (If you’ve not seen it before, be warned that you’ll get thousands of lines of very low-level junk for even a simple program.)

Why did he not talk about a tracing library, say, that logs trace messages into the database with a pipe? I ended up writing one myself, based on the information in the book but I’d preferred not to have!

I thought you said you liked it?

If you said that the last section was very negative I wouldn’t be able to disagree with you. However, this is a book that I’ve been using for over a year, not something I got as a review copy and skimmed. I’m still using the book on a daily basis so it must have some merit. I would never have found many of the problems if the book hadn’t been an important and useful reference for all this time.

O’Reilly know how to publish a good technical book. They focus on telling you what you need to know and how it does, should or, indeed, does not work. Feuerstein’s Oracle PL/SQL Programming is one of the better O’Reilly books, so you should be able to guess how highly I rate it.

I first got my copy over a year ago and I’ve spent most of that time on Oracle projects. I have kept this book by my side at all times and only on a few occasions has it not been able to answer my questions. It’s now so well used and grubby that I may be forced to buy a new copy.

The facts

Author: Steven Feuerstein with Bill Pribyl

Cost: $46.95

ISBN: 1-56592-335-9

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

Software Project Survival Guide

Introduction

For many people here, writing software is, if not a job, then a hobby. Our enthusiasm is a double-edged sword. Our technical knowledge is usually much greater than people who just develop software for a living. This sounds like a big advantage, but it’s not as large as you would have thought.

Let’s have a look in ‘Software Project Survival Guide’ (SPSG) to see what Steve McConnell, famed author of ‘Code Complete’ and ‘Rapid Development,’ has to say on the subject.

The most relevant bit I can find is in chapter two. It’s a project survival test. Out of thirty-three questions, only one (28: “Does the project team have all the technical expertise needed to complete the project?”) is directly related to our ability to effectively code.

That can’t be right, can it?

Content

While you’re still reeling over the consequences of that last paragraph, I’ll slip in some of the dull things that the book has to cover and finish with some of the more glamorous stuff at the end when you’re brain is back in gear.

Some of the most important stuff is ‘management.’ Whether it’s planning, quality assurance, tracking what’s been developed so far or checking on the number of defects, it’s not the ‘techies’ that are the most important.

At first this comes as a shock, but the more you think about it, the more it makes sense. Unless you know what’s going wrong, you can’t fix it. Unless the complete design is documented a team can’t effectively write the software quickly.

Think about Linux kernel development. It obviously work well, but it’s not terribly optimal. The same bug might get fixed several times and there’s not a huge amount of up to date documentation so people have to dive in at the code. For free software this works fine — since the time is usually free, but if you have deadlines and are under contract to deliver a working product on time you’re going to lose a lot of money.

Good bits

McConnell takes the three hundred pages to explain these past two paragraphs in detail. It sounds very dull, but he has a clear, friendly style that makes it, if not entertaining, then not as dull as it might have been.

He splits the project into stages, explains in broad terms what they are and documents each one in more detail in the later chapters. It’s all very clear and logical leaving you in no doubt what stage you’re currently at and what you should be doing for the successful execution of it.

Bad bits

‘Code Complete’ is a book that just about everyone that writes computer programs should read. ‘Software Project Survival Guide’ does not fall into the same category. The book should be read by “anyone who has a stake in a software project’s outcome” according to the preface, but that is only accurate once you define the type of project it covers.

To cut a long story short, if you write software professionally you should read it. It’s probably more use to managers and team leaders, but you can be a better developer if you know the kind of things that need to be done. Besides, almost everyone will be in charge of people at one point and will need a broader picture than merely what the other modules do. (Well where I work that’s true, anyway.)

It covers projects that have a customer whether that’s an internal customer, an external client or people that buy shrink-wrapped software. What it doesn’t cover are software projects like Linux, massive sprawling projects developed because someone is interested in doing it. This is not unreasonable. Half the challenge in a ‘normal’ project is tracking whether you’re running to schedule. If you don’t have a schedule and cost target it doesn’t matter. However, maybe we could take a few hints from the book to ‘streamline’ the process.

Overall

Steve McConnell has done it again. I don’t think that it will go down as a classic like ‘Code Complete,’ but SPSG is an indispensable book for any developer that has any interest in the process and not just lines of code.

The facts

Author: Steve McConnell

Cost: ?22.49

ISBN: 1-57231-621-7

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