Sunday, October 30, 2011

Progress report on my new job

It is now roughly half a year since my new job was announced so I thought it might be a good idea to reflect on how my new role was working out. This blog posts summarises what I have done and perhaps equally importantly, how I felt about it.

First, what I did:
  • Before starting my new job, I had been using Sametime for many years and I had developed a number of Sametime client plugins, but I had no experience at all of installing or configuring Sametime servers. So, I needed to learn a lot about unfamiliar technologies. As well as taking formal courses, I spent a lot of time doing test deployments so that I got a good feeling for how the process works and what can go wrong.
  • I joined the Sametime install team and I fixed a number of bugs. Many developers hate bug fixing work because they consider it unglamorous. However, I though that it was an important part of my familiarisation with the code (you really only fully understand code when you are able to fix bugs). In addition I thought it was important to make it clear to my colleagues that I was not shirking the unglamorous tasks.
  • I was given special responsibility in relation to a new feature which we refer to as "Install on existing Websphere" - where the Sametime installer does not install its own copy of Websphere Applications Server, but instead uses a pre-existing instance that was installed previously. The feature had been developed before I got involved with the team, but I had to test it and do some tweaking of the user interface.
  • Around this time I was assigned as a representative of the development  team for a small number of key customer accounts.
  • One of  the most important things I did was lead a deployment task force  that looked at what are the main issues encountered by users installing and configuring Sametime family of products. This task force produced a report that summarised the main issues (in priority order) and outlined steps that we could take to tackle these issues. This report was published inside IBM and reviewed with senior executives. I am now working on transforming the report into an agreed development plan where we will address the issues identified. The roadmap for my new role is now becoming clearer.
  • The report itself is naturally IBM confidential, but it is available on the IBM intranet. Given recent trends in the industry it will surprise nobody to hear that one of the top priority recommendations is to make Sametime more friendly to cloud deployments. 
  • One of the first steps on this journey is to allow users clone an image of a running Sametime server and get it working with its new host name. My recently published article on the DeveloperWorks site describes the manual steps required to do this. I was surprised myself with how complex the process is (the article is 20 pages long) and so now I am working on automating the procedure. These are the first baby steps in making Sametime more deployable for our increasingly important cloud customers.
Next, how I felt (which followed a pretty typical cycle):
  • Initially I was in a honeymoon period where I was delighted to free from personnel management responsibilities. As people came to me to tell me about some personnel issue with the team, it was    a great relief to be able to pass them on to my replacement as manager of the team to handle it. At the same time nobody really expected me to be up to speed in my new role yet.
  • However, after about a month and a half, I began to enter what is typically called "The trough of despair". As I said earlier, I initially found my new role very challenging.  There were times when I was definitely overwhelmed by how much I had to learn and there were times when I doubted if I would ever master the technology. 
  • Fixing bugs in the installer can be very difficult - first you need to understand how the server needs to work once installed, then you need to understand how the installer needs to work in order to achieve that results and then finally you need to understand the complex Sametime build process (if customers think the deployment process is complex, it is nothing compared to the complexity of the build system). At times I spent over a week solving what seemed like relatively trivial bugs.
  • It was even more challenging to chart a long term strategy for an area where I was only really a beginner.
  • At this stage I was very determined not to admit defeat and I was careful to maintain a narrow focus and not allow myself get distracted by anything outside of the core job. Eventually this determination paid off. I learned more and began to gain some confidence. I also realised that other people also find the technology complex so I don't feel so bad.
  • I hope this does not come across the wrong way, but when I started working with customers I immediately I became relatively much more of an expert. Previously I was speaking with people who had worked on Sametime for several years so I felt like a novice, but speaking to customers who were only beginning to deploy Sametime I realised that I knew quite a bit. It also was great to learn first hand about how customers experience the Sametime deployment process.
  • At this stage I would say that I have finally got up to speed in my new role (but I still have a lot to learn) and I am more comfortable in my new role. I knew when I took on the job that this choice would be a long term one and so I am definitely going to stick with my decision.
  • I was surprised by how little time I spent actually writing code. If anything I spend much more time testing than coding. Any developer needs to also test their own code, but the length of time involved in testing an installer means that the development/test ratio is highly skewed towards testing.
  • One thing that surprised me is that I am missing the social aspects of being a manager. People often need to inform their manager about what they are doing and hence the manager is well aware of what is happening in the wider team. An individual contributor on the other hand only gets informed about things that directly affect their work.
  • My decision to consciously narrow in my focus probably made me even more isolated from the social life of the team. It was probably the right decision back when I was starting my new role, but now I think the time has come to widen my focus a little again.

Friday, October 28, 2011

BTYSTE project about Smarter Energy kicks-off

Yesterday I visited Mount Sackville primary school to help get them started on their Smarter Energy project for the BT Young Scientist &Technology Exhibition. I introduced them to the concepts behind the IBM Smarter Planet campaign using a set of slides that had been specially adapted to be understandable by that age group. I was delighted to see that they had no trouble in understanding the message.  They were very enthusiastic and seemed excited to be involved.

I also helped them use the lighting efficiency tester that I developed as part of the recent Hackday to measure the efficiency of a number of different types of light bulbs. The device was very popular. Children of that age love to get hands-on with technology (actually when I think about it men in their late 40s still love to get hands on with technology).

My colleague Fred Raguillat joined me for the visit because he has experience from running a similar project with Dunboyne national school. After we left the class we configured the Current Cost meters that they are going to be using to monitor their electricity usage for the duration of the project. All went smoothly, once we figured out how to work around a problem with the bridge not interacting properly with the DHCP server on their network.

I look forward to seeing their results at the exhibition in January.

Monday, October 24, 2011

You know you are definitely back from Holidays when you lose all of the Mayorships in Foursquare

Earlier this year I went on a holiday of a lifetime in South Africa. I was so thrilled with myself for being so far away from home that I regularly checked in with FourSuqare. As a result I was declared "Mayor" of a wide variety of locations.

After I arrived back in Ireland, the glowing feeling of well-being from the holiday faded fairly fast, but the FourSquare mayorships were surprisingly long lived. I was just notified yesterday of the fact that I was ousted as mayor of the beautiful Knysna Country House. I am still Mayor for Fancourt, Hotel in George - but I am not sure how much longer that will last and all of my Foursquare mayorships will ba back in Ireland.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Blogger's new Dynamic Views are not yet ready for use

Blogger recently launched a new feature called "Dynamic Views". They looked really cool so I tried them out for a while on this blog, but they are not functional enough to be used so I switched back again to my old theme.

The good thing about dynamic views is that they let the reader choose from a number of really stylish looking layouts. Unfortunately it is not possible to use any widgets with these views. I know that I probably put too many widgets on my blog, but some are really useful and I didn't think the new look was enough to make up for having them all gone.

You can see what my blog looked like with dynamic views enabled in the screenshots below:

A floating voter looking for guidance

One of the great things about living in a democracy is that you get to regularly make decisions which affect your country. In general, I think that this is such an important privilege that I always take time to educate myself on the issues so I can make an informed decision. However, on Thursday next, I will be faced with 4 different ballot papers and it will be tough to educate myself on all 4 ballots.

Here is my position on each ballot (in descending order of certainty)
  1. The issue which has received most public attention is the election of a new President. I am delighted that we have 7 candidates to choose from - the complex nomination process often means that we don't get to choose. Unfortunately the campaign has degenerated into mudslinging which doesn't make any of the candidates look good (e.g.  Mary Robinson Tapestry for President group on Facebook gives a flavour of how juvenile the debating has become). I decided at the start of the campaign that I would vote for Michael D. Higgins and nothing during the campaign so far has made me change my mind on the topic.
  2. There are also two referendums being decided tomorrow. The first issue is fairly straight forward. When the constitution was being drafted it contained a clause that the government could never decrease the pay of a judge. At the time they probably wanted to avoid the possibility of a vindictive government arbitrarily reducing the pay of a judge who took an unpopular decision and so the clause made sense. They never considered the situation we recently encountered whereby the pay of all public servants was reduced and it is clearly wrong that Judges should be the only public servants exempted from these cuts.
  3. Despite the efforts of the referendum commission many people don't fully appreciate this second topic that we are being asked to vote upon. It seems that the government wants to increase the powers of parliamentary inquiries so that they can eliminate the need for expensive and slow tribunals of inquiry. This change has not been widely debated in the press, but the few articles and letters to the editor that I have read on the topic seem to be arguing against this change. It is hard to argue against making public inquiries more efficient, but some of the proposed new powers definitely seem to be open to abuse. It is important to also bear in mind that politicians are some of the people most likely to be the subject of a public inquiry so I don't think they are the best people to be put in charge of the subject. On balance I will vote against this change (but I could be easily persuaded to change my mind).
  4. In West Dublin, we will also have to decide who gets the Dáil seat left vacant by the tragic death of Brian Lenihan. After the last election we had 4 very high profile representatives from our constituency (Leo Vradkar - Minister for Transport, Joan Burton - Minister for Social Protection, Brian Lenihan RIP - former Minister for Finance and Joe Higgins who is probably higher profile than any Minister). I believe that there are 7 candidates to fill the vacant seat, but I couldn't honestly name more than 4 of them. Normally a by-election would be well covered in the media, but there has been so much coverage of the presidential campaign in the media that there has been hardly any space left for coverage of the by-election.  I guess I will be the ultimate floating voter on this ballot, because I might get a surprise when I see the full list of names.
If anyone wants to change my mind on any of these ballots, feel free to leave a comment below.

Update 26th/Oct: I just checked out the ElctionsIreland site for information about the candidates in our by-election and I found out that there were actually 13 candidates not the 7 I though. Clearly some of them have not been very scuessfull in making themselves know. 

Friday, October 21, 2011

What is the right way to treat unpopular former leaders

Today's newspapers are full of gruesome images of the late Cornel Gaddafi beside pictures of Libyan crowds cheering an celebrating. I know that he was an extremely unpleasant person, but at the same time I must say that it seems incongruous to see crowds enthusiastically celebrating such a sad end for any human being.

A few years ago I was talking to a friend from the Middle East about the prospects for democracy in the region. When I asked him if there were any democracies in the region, his answer was that there were some countries that pretended to be democratic but in no case was there a living ex-president. I thought that this was a very interesting way to judge whether or not a democracy is genuine.

In western democracies, former leaders are normally treated with quite a bit of respect. Although the level of respect varies somewhat depending upon their record in office, there is no reason for any leader to fear that they will not be able to enjoy a comfortable and peaceful retirement (in fact many people believe that the pensions provided to our former leaders are excessive - but this is a different topic).

I know the papers will often describe our politicians as "trying really hard to cling onto power", but none would ever fight quite as long and hard as Gaddafi fought to cling onto power. I can't help thinking that part of the reason why he fought so hard was because he knew what fate was awaiting him.

I am watching the trial of former President Mubarrack in Egypt with great interest. While some people doubt that it will be a totally fair trial, at least they are making some attempt to follow the rule of law. The current batch of Arab leaders will probably be more likely to facilitate a smooth peaceful handover of power when the time arrives if they believe that they can enjoy a peaceful retirement.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

My blog gets a new look

The blogger platform just released some new "Dynamic Views" and so I decided it was worth trying them out. One of the advantages of using a platform like Blogger is that you get these new features without having to do anything. The new template makes my blog look completely different with virtually no work required from me. Let me know what you think of the new look..

If you click on the down-arrow beside the "Sidebar" at the left of the page header you can even choose a completely different layout. I think some of them look really cool although I must at some stage make a few more tweaks to ensure it looks correct and maybe even add back in a few of my old widgets which seem to have disappeared.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Where did you hear about Steve Jobs passing away?

People of a certain generation always remember where they were when they first heard the news that John F Kennedy had been assassinated. I was only 14 months old when JFK passed away, but I still know where I was when the news came through because my father said that he had just come home from work and I was sitting on his lap when he turned on the TV news.

Hearing about the passing of JFK was a real shocking moment for Irish Americans of my father's generation. In many ways the passing of Steve Jobs was an equally tragic moment for geeks of my generation. Apple computers was founded around when I was finishing up in secondary school and was learning about computers for the first time. When I was in college I followed with envy the exploits of the two Steves. I was personally more of a fan of Steve Wozniack than Steve Jobs, but I must admit that I would have loved to be more like either of these giants in the computer industry.

I use Google Listen application on my phone to listen to a selection of Podcasts on my commute to and from work. On Thursday morning I was reviewing the podcasts that had been downloaded overnight to see which I should add to my Listen queue when I noticed that the TWiT network had just published a Steve Jobs Special episode. I suspected that the reason for the special episode was because he passed away, so added the episode to my Listen queue and then I checked the RTE news app to see that there was indeed a short story about Steve passing losing his battle with cancer..

Listening to the show was a great review of a wonderful life. Steve Jobs was 7 years older than me and Steve Wozniack was a further 5 years older than him, but their growing up closely mirrored my growing up and the growing up of the computer industry. I know Steve Jobs would have probably preferred if I had been listening to the program on an iPhone rather than on an Android phone, but it was nevertheless a tribute to his contribution to the change in the computer industry that I was getting my news through a podcast from the other side of the globe rather than a local TV or Radio program.

Getting Eclipse 3.4 working on Ubuntu

Lots of people might be planning to develop Sametime plug-ins for Hackday. While the Sametime plug-in development environment is really easy to use once you get it set-up it can be tricky to get your environment configured. I always tell people that they must read the instructions in the Sametime SDK very carefully and follow the instructions exactly.

One thing that is slightly annoying is the fact that the Lotus Expeditor Toolkit which is needed to configure your Sametime launch configuration can only be installed with Eclipse 3.4. This is annoying to users of any platform who may prefer to use a more recent version, but it is especially annoying to users of Ubuntu and other variants of Linux because there is a well known bug in this version which can stop Eclipse from launching.

Fortunately there is a simple work around. You just need to edit the eclipse.ini file (which will be ins the same folder where the eclipse executable is installed) and add this line


One you have made this change, eclipse will launch properly and there will be nothing to stop you from doing the coolest Hackday project ever :-)

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Hackday Project results in Patent

Hackday 9 is taking place tomorrow and due to a training course, I won't be able to take part for the first time in several years. Therefore it was ironic that I just got notification of a patent that was just issued based upon a project I did back for Hackday 6.

The patent is entitled "System and method for client-based instant message monitoring for off-line users" and it deals with an innovative way that I devised to get around the fact that I was forced to implement my Hackday project on the client side due to the fact that I didn't have access to change the server. If you want to find out more, you can access the patent via Google Patents.

Good luck to everyone taking part this year. I hope you succeed in generating several more patents.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

My Hackday mini-Project

Due to schedule conflicts, I won't able to take part in Hackday 9 which is due to happen on Friday. However, I felt it would be setting a bad precedent if I completely ignored the event. Hence I decided to tackle a mini-project the last Sunday at home.

I have been recently working with some local primary schools helping them to do projects relating to Smarter Energy for display at the BT Young Scientist Exhibition next January. In order to help introduce the concept I was decided to build a simple test rig with several different types of light bulbs that the students can use to measure the efficiency of the bulbs. This was not a technically very challenging job, but it did involve a few hours of hard work stripping wires and screwing in light fixtures. On the right you can see my completed handy-work.

I have also purchased a simple plug-in power meter so that the students can easily measure the power consumed as each of the lights is switched on. Of course the power consumed is only telling part of the story - I also needed to measure the light output of the various bulbs because as well as having a huge variation in power consumption the bulbs also produce radically different amounts of light.

Rather than purchase a dedicated light meter I decided to see if I could find an application for my phone which was capable of taking the measurements. After a bit of experimentation I settled on using the Light Meter Application from Borce Trajowski. As well as producing reliable measurements of light intensity, this free application also has a really attractive retro-style display. Of course it is only fair to mention that I also tried a different application called Light Meter as well as ones called beeCamLightMeter and  Lux Meter which didn't seem to work reliably at all (which just goes to show that you can't totally trust the application descriptions in the Android market).

I plan to use this test rig in some upcoming visits to schools by myself, but of course I am happy to lend it to anyone else who would like to use it for similar events.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Where should electric car charging points be located

eCar Charger Coolmine
Apparently electric cars are set to become much more common in Ireland in the near future.  However, before this can happen there will need to be a network of charging points for electric cars located at convenient locations throughout the country. The ESB is currently rolling out a series of such charging points.

Obviously such charging points are going to be located at Motorway service stations to facilitate motorists who are trying to undertake a long journey across the country. I was also interested to see that one has been installed in the "Park and Ride" facility attached to Coolmine rail station (near where I live). The idea must be that they expect that local commuters will use their eCars for the short trip to get to the rail station before taking the train.

This seems like a sensible idea, however the only problem is that the charging point is located in the area reserved for disabled drivers. Do the ESB expect that eCars will only be driven by disabled drivers or do they plan to give eCar drivers special permission to use the disabled parking spots?