All posts by Craig Murphy

Windows Azure Bootcamp – 11th November 2011 – Edinburgh

What:
If you are a developer looking to take advantage of cloud computing, but you haven’t yet taken the plunge, this free day of training is the quickest way to get up-to-speed with Microsoft’s offering; Windows Azure. We’ll take you from knowing nothing about the cloud to actually having written some code, deployed it to the cloud service and made a simple application available on the public Internet. You’ll get all the information you need to get up to speed with Windows Azure in a packaged and compressed form, ready for your consumption, without having to trawl through books, blogs and articles on your own. There will be experienced people available to guide you through each exercise. Once you have the basics in place, you’ll be off and running.

Where:
John McIntyre Conference (Microsoft Event)
Edinburgh First
Pollock Halls
18 Holyrood Park Road Edinburgh EH16 5AY
United Kingdom

When:
11 November 2011

Further Info:
https://msevents.microsoft.com/CUI/EventDetail.aspx?EventID=1032496082&Culture=en-GB

DDD North Agenda – coming to Windows Phone…

DDD North LogoI’m pleased to announce that I’ve written my first Windows Phone application! It’s not an application that will land space shuttles or control your orbiting satellites, however it’s a first step! It’s a small application that will save you carrying around a printed copy of the DDD North agenda!

I had a false start last week, whereby the application didn’t meet Windows Phone Marketplace regulations, for a reason I won’t mention here. On the premise that the regulatory infringement had nothing to do with my code, I’m expecting the application to hit the Marketplace this week.

I’m planning to extend the application to be more generic such that it will handle future DDD events, whether they have two tracks, three tracks or however many tracks, etc. And, of course, I’ll be recompiling the application for Mango…at some point during the Fall or Holiday season.

12
34

If you have one of those other devices, one of the DDD North speakers has produced a similar “app” for their platform! I’m sure that “apps” for the green fruit vendor’s device are also available!

Protecting your #windowsphone intellectual property using Dotfuscator

Justin Angel‘s Windows Phone Marketplace Statistics post makes very interesting reading. Justin has done a stellar job downloading all of the Marketplace applications and performing a lot of statistical analysis.

I was particularly interested in one of the statistics: 97% of Marketplace apps aren’t obfuscated. On the off chance that you haven’t come across obfuscation yet, here’s something from wikipedia to get you started:

Obfuscation is the concealment of intended meaning in communication, making communication confusing, intentionally ambiguous, and more difficult to interpret.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Obfuscation

Obviously this means that a mere 3% of the apps in the Marketplace have some form of obfuscation. Justin was looking for PreEmptive Solutions Dotfuscator signatures, which is currently the only Windows Phone obfuscater available. Regardless of the obfuscation monopoly, 3% for what is currently the de facto tool is surprisingly low and worrying. I think back to my days in academia and how source code was something to be protected. Getting your hands on somebody else’s code was (for some students) a real boon – if you were struggling, picking up a top student’s discarded source code could provide you with something from which gave you a start. I witnessed this a few times, it happened “back in the day”, and I’m sure it still happens today.

Traditionally, we’ve used reflection to provide us with some insight as to the contents of .net assemblies. We used, almost exclusively, .NET Reflector, although recently we’ve seen similar offerings from JetBrains (dotPeek) and Telerik (JustDecompile) to name but two other reverse engineering or decompilation tools. Typically, these tools looks for .dll or .exe files. Windows Phone apps are deployed via a .xap file, we need to crack open the .xap and extract the .dlls that we are interested in looking at. Given that .xap files are actually no more than .zip files, we can simply rename the .xap to .zip and pull out the .dlls from there.

An Example
About 20 years ago (ahem!), my Pascal tutor set us a programming exercise. The full details are documented in this post. In a nutshell, we had to create a [Pascal] program that accepted a letter A thru Z and plotted a text-based triangle, where the chosen letter was the “middle” of the triangle. Once you see the screenshot (and the code), all will become clear.

Needless to say, the problem wasn’t as simple as it sounded. As soon as students demonstrated a solution, others were keen to look at the algorithms and tricks used to arrive at the solution. The code below presents a re-hashed version of my original submission, updated slightly such that it runs as a Windows Phone app.

     private void button1_Click(object sender, RoutedEventArgs e)
        {
            char widest_char;
            int next_char, finish_char, wide, range, direction, position, spacelength, loop;

            widest_char = 'F';

            wide = (int)widest_char;
            direction = 1;
            spacelength = 1;
            position = 1;

            next_char = 66;
            finish_char = 65;

            range = 2 * (wide - finish_char);

            // Calculate initial left indent
            int mid = wide - 65 + 1;

            String firstLetter = Char.ToString((char)finish_char);
            firstLetter = firstLetter.PadLeft(mid + 1);

            textBlock1.Text = firstLetter + "\n";

            for (loop = 1; loop < range; loop++)
            {
                textBlock1.Text += (" ".PadLeft(mid - position));
                textBlock1.Text += ((char)next_char);

                textBlock1.Text += (" ".PadLeft(spacelength));
                textBlock1.Text += ((char)next_char);
                textBlock1.Text += "\n";

                next_char = next_char + (1 * direction);
                position = position + (1 * direction);
                spacelength = spacelength + (2 * direction);

                // Flip direction when the middle of the diamond is reached
                if (next_char == wide) direction = -1;
            }

            textBlock1.Text += firstLetter;
            textBlock1.Text += "\n";            
        }

Here's a screenshot of the output:

Visual Studio 2010 created a .xap file that was deployed to the emulator or physical device. In order to extract the .dll that makes up the diamond application, we rename the .xap file as a .zip file, from there it's just copy and paste.

It's a different story for dotPeek now. It can still inspect the .dll with ease, however the meaningful variable names have been largely lost. The crux of this particular code example revolves around the algorithm that is used to create the diamond shape - some students were very keen to get a glimpse of an algorithm! The algorithm is still very obvious from the code fragment below:

private void button1_Click(object sender, RoutedEventArgs e)
    {
      char ch = 'F';
      int num1 = (int) ch;
      int num2 = 1;
      int totalWidth = 1;
      int num3 = 1;
      int num4 = 66;
      int num5 = 65;
      int num6 = 2 * (num1 - num5);
      int num7 = num1 - 65 + 1;
      string str1 = char.ToString((char) num5).PadLeft(num7 + 1);
      this.textBlock1.Text = str1 + "\n";
      for (int index = 1; index < num6; ++index)
      {
        TextBlock textBlock1 = this.textBlock1;
        string str2 = textBlock1.Text + " ".PadLeft(num7 - num3);
        textBlock1.Text = str2;
        TextBlock textBlock2 = this.textBlock1;
        string str3 = textBlock2.Text + (object) (char) num4;
        textBlock2.Text = str3;
        TextBlock textBlock3 = this.textBlock1;
        string str4 = textBlock3.Text + " ".PadLeft(totalWidth);
        textBlock3.Text = str4;
        TextBlock textBlock4 = this.textBlock1;
        string str5 = textBlock4.Text + (object) (char) num4;
        textBlock4.Text = str5;
        TextBlock textBlock5 = this.textBlock1;
        string str6 = textBlock5.Text + "\n";
        textBlock5.Text = str6;
        num4 += num2;
        num3 += num2;
        totalWidth += 2 * num2;
        if (num4 == num1)
          num2 = -1;
      }
      TextBlock textBlock6 = this.textBlock1;
      string str7 = textBlock6.Text + str1;
      textBlock6.Text = str7;
      TextBlock textBlock7 = this.textBlock1;
      string str8 = textBlock7.Text + "\n";
      textBlock7.Text = str8;
    }

Obfuscating the .xap using PreEmptive Solutions' Dotfuscator, changes the playing field quite significantly. Whilst Dotfuscator can obfuscate a Windows Phone .xap file, we still have to rename it to a .zip before we can inspect the assemblies found inside it. Extracting the assembly that draws the diamond, then firing it through dotPeek results in the following, rather lengthy, code fragement:

 private void ᜀ(object A_0, RoutedEventArgs A_1)
    {
      int A_1_1 = 6;
      switch (0)
      {
        default:
label_2:
          char ch = 'F';
          int num1 = (int) ch;
          int num2 = 1;
          int totalWidth = 1;
          int num3 = 1;
          int num4 = 66;
          int num5 = 65;
          int num6 = 2 * (num1 - num5);
          int num7 = num1 - 65 + 1;
          string str1 = char.ToString((char) num5).PadLeft(num7 + 1);
          this.textBlock1.Text = str1 + MainPage.b("ሗ", A_1_1);
          int num8 = 1;
          int num9 = 1;
          while (true)
          {
            switch (num9)
            {
              case 0:
label_8:
                num2 = -1;
                num9 = 5;
                continue;
              case 1:
              case 4:
                num9 = 3;
                continue;
              case 2:
                if (num4 == num1)
                {
                  num9 = 0;
                  continue;
                }
                else
                  goto case 5;
              case 3:
                if (num8 < num6)
                {
                  TextBlock textBlock1 = this.textBlock1;
                  string str2 = textBlock1.Text + MainPage.b("㠗", A_1_1).PadLeft(num7 - num3);
                  textBlock1.Text = str2;
                  TextBlock textBlock2 = this.textBlock1;
                  string str3 = textBlock2.Text + (object) (char) num4;
                  textBlock2.Text = str3;
                  TextBlock textBlock3 = this.textBlock1;
                  string str4 = textBlock3.Text + MainPage.b("㠗", A_1_1).PadLeft(totalWidth);
                  textBlock3.Text = str4;
                  TextBlock textBlock4 = this.textBlock1;
                  string str5 = textBlock4.Text + (object) (char) num4;
                  textBlock4.Text = str5;
                  TextBlock textBlock5 = this.textBlock1;
                  string str6 = textBlock5.Text + MainPage.b("ሗ", A_1_1);
                  textBlock5.Text = str6;
                  num4 += num2;
                  num3 += num2;
                  totalWidth += 2 * num2;
                  num9 = 2;
                  continue;
                }
                else
                {
                  num9 = 6;
                  continue;
                }
              case 5:
                if (1 == 0)
                  ;
                switch (1 == 1 ? 1 : 0)
                {
                  case 0:
                  case 2:
                    goto label_8;
                  case 1:
                    if (0 == 0)
                      ;
                    ++num8;
                    num9 = 4;
                    continue;
                  default:
                    goto case 1;
                }
              case 6:
                goto label_15;
              default:
                goto label_2;
            }
          }
label_15:
          TextBlock textBlock6 = this.textBlock1;
          string str7 = textBlock6.Text + str1;
          textBlock6.Text = str7;
          TextBlock textBlock7 = this.textBlock1;
          string str8 = textBlock7.Text + MainPage.b("ሗ", A_1_1);
          textBlock7.Text = str8;
          break;
      }
    }

Clearly the Dotfuscator version is much harder to understand. This is about as far as most obfuscation methods can go, they won't make it impossible to reverse engineer your application, but they will make it very time-consuming for those trying to read and understand the code.

If you are planning to obfuscate your Windows Phone apps, be sure to test them after they have been obfuscated. Like any tool that alters code post-compile, there is a chance that something may cause your app to fail. As part of the Windows Phone SDK, the Application Deployment tool is your friend. It will let you deploy .xap files to the emulator or a physical device outside of Visual Studio 2010. In other words, once you've built and tested your app, after you've obfuscated the .xap, use the Application Deployment tool to re-test the deployment.

Of course, if you are targeting Windows Phone Mango, all of this becomes rather academic. As Justin points out, from Mango onwards, .xap files will be DRM protected. Whilst your .xap will be downloadable from the Marketplace, the file itself can't be cracked open in the same way I mentioned earlier in this post. However, if you are planning to target Windows Phone 7.0 "NoDo" 7392/7390 builds, obfuscation might be something for you to consider.

Smartphones: unbalanced exposure? [Part 2 of 2]

I’m not slating the phone vendors in this post, however their web-sites don’t lend themselves to selling Windows Phone devices. I visited five of the the UK’s most popular phone vendors and found a disappointing slant towards ‘droid devices and Samsung as a device supplier.

O2’s site had a “Phones with the best” drop-down menu that included “Android operating system” in the drop-down. I’m with O2, as is my wife, we think they’re great…however c’mon guys, that menu option is very wrong!
O2

Vodafone had some promise. However that good feeling soon disappeared when they offered to help me choose between iPhone, BlackBerry and Android. Their selector wasn’t much help, it was too limiting.

vodafone

Three were very much the same, just offering direct links to the big three, “i” device, ‘berry and ‘droid.
three

T-Mobile shared O2’s weird classification, including operating systems and phone suppliers in their choice:
t-mobile

Orange had a dedicated link to a Windows Phone 7 page, which was good. However the emphasis on the “i” products is still there. Notice that the “i” tablet device is listed separately, yet there is a “tablets and pads” section.

orange

It’s not just me…
notjustmenotjustme2

How easy is it to find Windows Phone devices once at a carrier’s web-site?
I am pleased to see that O2 have a dedicated Windows Phone 7 page on their web-site: O2 – Windows Phone 7.

Similarly, Orange have a dedicated Windows Phone 7 page on their web-site: Orange – Windows Phone 7.

Vodafone’s page was rather disappointing, so here are the direct links to today’s phones: HTC 7 Trophy and LG Optimus 7

I couldn’t find any Windows Phone 7 devices on the Three web-site. I was under the impression that they were going to carry the Samsung Omnia 7, it seems not.

T-Mobile didn’t have Windows Phone 7 device offering either. Again, I was sure that they were carrying the Samsung Omnia 7, evidently not.

Hopefully this is a situation that will change as soon as Nokia get their marketing and distribution engines fired up.

Smartphones: unbalanced exposure? [Part 1 of 2]

In my last post, I was singing the praises of Windows Phone and the devices that it’s installed on. This post is going to serve as a brain dump of my thoughts relating to smartphone marketing, as I see it in the UK. It seems so unbalanced, it seems to favour specific devices, platforms and device providers.

Since it’s launch, Windows Phone has picked up significant momentum such that it is a very credible alternative to the other black slab smartphones that are out there. I’m not planning to use this post to share huge amounts of “market share” information with you, there are plenty of sites doing that already, some better than others. However, what I do want to get off my chest is the unbalanced advertising that I see for the other black slabs. Everywhere I turn, I see full page spreads offering me ‘droid devices, ‘berry devices or the “i” device. Around about the launch of Windows Phone during late 2010, I did see some newspaper adverts, however they seem to have all but dried up.

So what’s the deal? How do the phone vendors and carriers decide which devices to promote? I’ve heard that in the US, staff that sell a particular device receive additional commission. I can’t imagine it’s much different here in the UK. However, since it’s always the ‘droid devices, the ‘berry and the “i” devices that are the subject of such huge promotion, it makes me wonder how Windows Phone devices will ever reach the mainstream. I’m fairly hooked into the developer community and I know that there is a lot of excitement in the Windows Phone application development space. What can we do to take that excitement and enthusiasm for the device out to the consumers?

That leads to my next question, are the phone vendors and their staff geared up and armed with sufficient knowledge to sell Windows Phone devices? If they are receiving a higher commission for selling a ‘droid device over a Windows Phone device, why should they skill up on Windows Phone? All they have to do is convince the customer / punter that the ‘droid device is the device they are looking for. The playing field has to be levelled if there is to be genuine competition. The phone vendors need to play a major part in balancing their pitch point and they need to ensure that their staff are given all the necessary training to be able to compare, contrast and sell Windows Phone, ‘droid, ‘berry and “i” devices.

The key draw of the application logos in the cutting below is clearly there to capture the social audience, those with an interest in online shopping and the casual mobile gamer. Windows Phone can do all of that; it has an official Twitter app, an official eBay app, an official Facebook app, Amazon and of course the much-played Angry Birds. So why does this particular advert need to use an array of five non-Windows Phone devices? Both adverts in this post carried the word “free”, yet also had a monthly cost of £15 or £25 attached. There is the obvious irony of “here’s something for free, that will cost you ££ per month”, however that’s not for discussion here!

Choice is important in the marketplace, so why offer such an array of devices, yet limit the actual choice of phone operating system? I’m confused, I’m looking for answers and I can’t find them; well none that don’t involve money in some way.

Perhaps this is what the marketplace actually wants? Is today’s phone buyer driven by much little more than the knowledge the device is the right colour, it looks good and it can run Facebook and Angry Birds? What does the competition really look like? Are we looking at an underworld of competition between Apple, Google and RIM? Looking at the vendor sites, it certainly looks like it’s a tight market with directed competition. I really want to see Windows Phone succeed and make its way into the “top 3” sooner rather than later. However, until the phone vendors and carriers iron out their competitive issues, I think it’s going to be a struggle.

Of course, Microsoft’s partnering with Nokia should provide a means of getting Windows Phone devices in front of vast numbers of consumers, certainly in Europe. I understand that Nokia have built bridges with the carriers in the USA, which does bode well for market penetration over there too. Nokia are well-known in Europe, they’ve recently ordered a couple of million devices, which suggests that they mean business. One would hope that with the might of Nokia, its existing distribution infrastructure and its need to succeed in the smartphone space that we’ll see some serious competition for the “i”, ‘berry and ‘droid devices that are omnipresent in the newspaper adverts.

I’m keen to hear what you have to think about this subject, please feel free to comment. Thanks in advance!

In the meantime, ignore the phones above, the Windows Phone devices below can run all of the big name apps, games and tools!

And there’s all this other Windows Phone swag at Amazon too!

40 days and 40 nights with #WindowsPhone 7

In July, I finally gave in and won a bid on eBay. I rarely win bids on eBay, apart from the ‘buy it now’ variety, but that just equates to online shopping. I had been bidding on Windows Phone 7 devices, not thinking my bid would actually be considered good enough to actually win the goods. Of course I won the goods and had to pay up. I became the proud owner of an HTC HD7, two batteries, a desktop dock, car cradle, a carry case and a clean install of Windows Phone 7 (build 7392).

Moving to Windows Phone 7 has been an excellent move. I feel more organised, at least when I’m on the move (I can’t say that my primary e-mail inbox is anything to gauge that statement on!) The device integrates itself with Facebook. Some folks say that’s a bad thing, it certainly hasn’t proven to be a problem for me. Being able to “link” contact records between the Facebook and any number of e-mail accounts is a real boon. Couple that with the de-duplication feature in Windows Live, no longer do I have to see multiple contact records for the same person.

Windows Phone 7 also lends itself to getting your contacts sorted out, once and for all. I had contacts in Outlook (both at home and at work) and on a Nokia handset. After “some” effort, I was able to get all of my contacts into my Windows Live account. Most of the hassle that I had during this process was down to the Nokia PC Suite software – a product I will never need to see again, ever. After a little bit of tweaking, I was able to get my personal Outlook calendar and contacts synchronising with the phone. Importantly, I was also able to get my corporate Outlook calendar synchronising too.

Prior to the HTC HD7, for corporate use, I had been using a couple of Nokia devices, a 6021 and a 7230. Both were “candy bar” style devices, one was a traditional black’n’white device, the other had a colour screen with a slide out numeric keypad. For personal use, I was using a Palm Treo running Windows Mobile 6.1. Now that I am running the HTC device as my personal phone, the Nokia devices have been retired…the corporate SIM card is in the Palm Treo. The Palm Treo is used as a phone and for managing my corporate inbox, although I do use the HTC device for this purpose too.

I am very impressed with the operating system and the device itself; here are my seven favourite Windows Phone 7 features, so far:

  1. I never need to see a duplicate contact card again
  2. The Metro styled user interface is very clean
  3. Live Tiles – active content, such as “number of unread e-mail items” or “number of unread text messages”
  4. Next appointment, date, time, unread e-mails, voicemails and missed calls “on top of the curtain” (when the phone is turned on, the curtain is down – the screenshot on the right demonstrates the curtain)
  5. There is a camera button on the phone. This is great for getting the camera application running without having to power on then tap on a couple of icons to get to the camera.
  6. It’s fast. Very fast. What with all the animations that are going on, you might expect some drag. I find the whole phone experience very snappy.
  7. Its simplicity and its wealth of configuration options. Each of the tiles that you see in the screenshot above (the curtain is up) can be turned on or off. Applications and ‘people’ can be pinned to the home screen as a tile. Pinning family members to the home screen is particularly useful, two taps and I can be sending a text or returning my wife’s calls.

So I am a convert, I’ve joined the smartphone fraternity. I am pleased that I resisted the temptation to jump on the “i” or the “‘droid” or the “‘berry” bandwagon. If you’re in the market for a new device, I would urge you to go to your local store, push past the array of “other smartphones” and hunt out a Windows Phone 7 device. I’m so enthused by the device that I’ve signed up for the developer programme – I’ll be taking my .net development experience from the desktop and the web over to Windows Phone, apps coming soon!

All of this Windows Phone 7 “goodness”, gets even better with the Mango update that should be shipping during “the fall” of 2011.

Software projects that are over-budget and late: please, don’t blame us…

[Originally drafted in March 2010, published February 2011]

For many decades now, developers and IT departments have been at the receiving end of a lot flack. Flack stemming from the fact that many software projects cost more than originally estimated and take longer to reach production than previously thought. Typically, it’s the fault of the folks near the bottom of the tree: the developers or the IT department. This blog post is a tale of woe that highlights the blame culture that we live in and how this author believes that blame to be misdirected, at least in some cases.

Most software projects have some sort of plan, a list of activities, a product backlog, user stories, perhaps even a schedule. Regardless of your religious view in the waterfall or agile space, you will have requirements noted down somewhere using whatever technique floats your boat. You may also have an “end date” (aka a go live date) that is either dictated by some form of time estimate based on the list of activities or, worse, by a third party. Invariably, you may not have a lot of say in the estimation process…you have to hope that the person is reasonably good at estimating how long it will take a somebody else to complete a task. Remember, that person is estimating how much time somebody else needs to complete a task: a task in a domain they most probably know very little about (“stick a button on that form there, how hard can it be?”)

Thinking about scope: can you produce a flowchart outlining your current process, the process that you want a magical application to replace? If you can’t produce a flowchart, how do you expect other people to understand the start point, the processing and the end point? You can expect some help from your developer, programmer or system implementor when it comes to documenting your current workflow; equally you can expect some help from them when it comes to documenting your requirements. However, don’t turn to your developer, programmer or system implementor and tell them that you don’t have the time to document the requirements or document the workflow. If you don’t have time to tell us what you want in the first place, we know (from experience) that you’ll not have time to help us with user acceptance testing later on in the project – assuming we can build a system worthy of user acceptance testing in the absence of any real requirements.

All too often developers and IT departments have been getting it in the neck for project failures. However, little has been said about the fact that the blame really lies with those further up the project hierarchy. Failure to provide adequate work scope / definition results in confusion and the potential for large amounts of scrap and rework. Developers don’t mind throwing code away as a result of refactoring, however they do mind shelving code because it has suddenly become redundant or is now not part of the solution.

In a recent current project I was told “we don’t have time to write a specification”. However, we do have the time to overrun by many months and we do have the budget to fund the additional development and to cover the opportunities that are lost. With no end in sight, developer morale takes a hit, they lose direction. Similarly, there can be nothing worse for a developer to be on a project where s/he doesn’t know what they are meant to be doing? And worse, if they do find out what they are meant to be doing, to have it change from one week to the next. Or even to have it [the glimmer of hope, the taste of the requirement] change from day to day.

In the absence of a specification, feature creep is inevitable. Development cycles feel, and often are, endless. Even with an understanding and helpful client, the absence of a specification is a golden ticket for those who want everything from the system. Specification-less projects suffer from feature creep and work scope additions. All of the “nice to haves” suddenly come out of the woodwork. And because there’s little in the way of contractual documentation in place to lay down the law or draw the line in the sand, there’s nothing you can do apart from argue your case against adding features. The time you spend arguing your case, is time you’re not working on the project, you’re not progessing the project towards completion, the delay gets worse. Mind you, perhaps it’s a good thing that you’re not working on the project, after all, do you know what you’re meant to be doing?

Software development is a complicated process.  Unstructured and unproven time/budget “guesstimation” just doesn’t work in this industry.  You can’t say to software developer “two weeks” to write an enterprise class system that replicates the functionality of commercial of the shelf software costing many £000’s per license.  Two weeks is how long it might take you to cut’n’paste a spreadsheet together…it’s hardly long enough to develop all but the most simple functionality.  In the absence of a specification, database schemas are an ever-changing beast.  In most data-driven applications, the database schema is comparable to the foundations of a building.  The foundations are not something you want to change half way through the development.  Granted, clever people have written applications with dynamic database schemas…but they weren’t written in two weeks, or part thereof. 

After the database design, there’s the user interface.  Yes, it is easy to drop a button on a form!  What’s not so easy is what that button does when you click on it.  Anything beyond MessageBox.Show(“Hello, world!”); is where the time is spent.  I’m grateful to have seen multi-page specifications for the action behind a single button – if you can find somebody willing to invest the time and effort in writing such detail, the payoff is amazing. However, such people are few and far between. In today’s day and age, agile is where it’s at and user stories are King. Ultimately, it’s an emotive topic and one that I will not debate here (although you are free to discuss in the comments) – I don’t mind how you capture requirements, as long as you do.

Software developers struggle to work with “what’s in your head today”, knowing from experience that it will change tomorrow. Even in the agile world, there has to be an element of commitment: if you change your mind day after day, you’ll get a reputation and folks will end up using baseball bats to extract requirements. That’s not a good look, trust me on that. Oh, and don’t take the picture too literally: don’t do things on a handshake, that doesn’t work either: put something in writing, a contract, something that sets the scene and defines the lay of the land.

Requirements: however you document them – they are the light at the end of the tunnel for you and for the developer / development team. If your developer / development team ask you for “better requirements” very early in the project (or, shoot, even at the very start of the project), don’t dismiss it. Listen to them, they probably have a point. They are the folks who’ll be writing the software and they are the folks who’ll struggle to prepare a deliverable based on incomplete or inaccurate scribbles on whiteboard or sheets of paper.

Requirements: abuse them at your peril. In the absence of requirements, prepare yourself for a bottom-less pit that will consume time, money, other potential projects/opportunities and the morale of your development team.

Considered Reading

PM#11 – Management By Shouting Loudest (MBSL)

[Originally drafted in 2008, published 2011 with minor modifications]

Via http://mysite.verizon.net/charliez/murphy.htm

Swipple’s Rule of Order
He who shouts loudest has the floor.

He who does shout loudest and takes the floor, often fails to realise that there may well be other people who can’t or won’t shout louder. Thus we find ourselves in a position whereby other folks’ opinions are either not heard or become of secondary value: there is a huge lost opportunity. It’s a lost opportunity because those folks whose ideas and opinions that are not heard, may well be better than those offered by the people who shout the loudest. Shouting the loudest may also be referred to as Management By Shouting Loudest (MBSL).

Similarly, he who shouts loudest may believe that their contribution or their requirements should take priority over those contributions suggested by others. Where prioritisation is assumed, one needs to consider the knock-on effect – whenever something becomes your top priority, something has to give. A lack of warning or preparation on the part of others means we suddenly have an emergency to deal with. It’s also about respecting folks’ schedules – folks in IT don’t sit at our desks twiddling our thumbs waiting for your emergency to happen (a common misconception that affects the IT industry on a large scale).

If you do succumb to accepting a task from somebody who shouts the loudest, think about the impact it has on your current schedule. What is being sacrificed? What is going to take longer to complete? Apart from yourself, who are you letting down as a result of accepting the MBSL task?

It’s no wonder that “he who shouts loudest” is a very old trick and one that is still in use today. Watch out for it, try to curb its use by catching it early: try and coach the person doing the shouting into adopting a more democratic approach. Look out for lost opportunity moments, capture those, give them air time – you may be surprised how much innovation is lost by accepting the MBSL way.

In this series:
PM#10 – The truth is best…admit it…
PM#9 – Avoid duplication of effort
PM#8 – Multi-tasking is evil
PM#7 – High workload means lower productivity…
PM#6 – You were right and I was wrong
PM#5 – Whose schedule is it anyway?
PM#4 – Start it…finish it
PM#3 – Use e-mail properly
PM#2 – Focus on the project
PM#1 – decision making

Job: immediate start, Fife: .NET 4, VB.NET / WebForms – Go live opportunity!

Via Twitter, I have been made aware of a software development opening with a firm in Fife. They have been working on an application that is very close to completion and thus go live. They are seeking a VB.NET / WebForms developer to take this .NET 4 project through to completion. This is a great opportunity to establish a relationship with an exciting and growing company.

If you have immediate availability (and are ideally based in Fife!), please get in touch with either Phil via Twitter or myself (my e-mail address is at the top right hand side of this page) and we’ll put you in touch!

Actual (real) developers only please, no agencies.

Job: Victoria, London – FT – Senior/Experienced Middle Tier Developer C# .NET

Position
Senior / Experienced Middle Tier Developer, Full Time, immediate start

Overview
The UK’s leading online marketing company are currently recruiting for a (primarily) web based senior .Net developer to work within our social media development team.

The roll offers an exciting opportunity to integrate into our existing development team, working on both greenfield projects and integrating social media features to our existing key products.

We work in a fast paced, exciting and friendly environment, where you will have a valued constructive input and be able to see an immediate effect from the work you do. We are continuously pushing our technical boundaries, keeping up to date with the latest technologies and using any appropriate frameworks to our advantage.

You will be working within a well structured, ‘loosely’ agile development environment, within a team of developers who have a serious passion for their work.

The successful candidate will need to have a strong skill set spanning all stages of the software development & maintenance lifecycle, with a particular flare for extracting, understanding and delivering business functionalities based on requirements from internal teams.

Key responsibilities:

  • Take a technical lead role within a team and responsibility for the technical quality of the products produced.
  • Producing effective coded solutions to business requirements.
  • Work closely with the development manager, project manager and other internal teams to understand & deliver business functionalities which drive our core products.
  • Thorough analysis for a clear understanding of business requirements, making sure that test plans are effectively applied to all new features.
  • Ensure that each project adheres to our high standards of maintainability, stability & performance.
  • Quick turn-around and intelligent phasing of features to provide benefits and results to the business as quickly as possible.

You will need to have a proven track record in working with high traffic volume Microsoft based web solutions and SOLID design principles.

Essential for this role:

  • Experience in high traffic B2B web platforms
  • ASP.Net, C# 3.0 & .Net 4.0
  • ORM
  • SQL Server 2005
  • XML
  • MVC 3.0
  • unit testing (inc. Mocking)
  • WCF

Desirables:

  • Social media API experience
  • GRAPH API
  • FBQL
  • OAuth
  • working in a load balanced environment
  • Distributed caching
  • Online Marketing experience
  • Continuous Integration
  • Design Patterns
  • Agile

For more information please contact Paul Stack

Santander: a bunch of stupid bankers, you suck

12.05.2011 – update
After being contacted by BBC Watchdog, Santander telephoned my wife to offer an apology and £100 (cheque) compensation. They accepted that things could have been done better and the complaint handled in a shorter time-frame. Whilst we had pretty much accepted an earlier offer of £20 credited to the account card, the apology and the extra £80 were in line with my request in the a letter of complaint to Santander in January 2011. Santander’s apology has been accepted.

Santander bank has made huge inroads into the UK finance sector. Abbey National, for example, suddenly became Santander…and from what I’ve heard from at least one customer, they’re not doing too good a job of it. Similarly, I’ve read an awful lot about how Santander are at the top of list of banks that consumers complain about. As you might expect, given the title of this blog post, I am about to “add one” to that pile of complaints.

Neither my wife or I have bank accounts with Santander, however my wife does/did have an Evans store card. In their “great buy up”, Santander acquired the Evans store card business along with Asda, BHS, Burton, Dorothy Perkins, Topshop, Miss Selfridge, Wallis and Outfit. It’s likely that they’ve got the store cards for those outlets too. Some evidence of this can be found over at Martin Lewis’ Money Saving Expert forums, here and here. And they’re not getting any better, as this post suggests.

Anyway, on to the problem that Santander created on my wife’s Evans card…and thus a problem that I have to work to solve.

During November 2010 my wife received her Evans card statement. It showed the previous balance and a payment received covering that same balance. It also showed a Late Payment Fee of £12. Naturally my wife was concerned and telephoned Nikita at Santander – Nikita assured my wife that it was their error and the £12 would be refunded. Here’s a copy of the statement:

Indeed, Nikita’s information was confirmed by Santander’s Tim Woods (Head of Santander Contact Centers) when he wrote to my wife on the 23rd of November 2010:

Sounded good. Sounded like Santander might have been proactive and sorted it out themselves. Great. Mr Woods works for Geoban – “Geoban is an internal company to Banco Santander, providing Operational Excellence to the Group Companies”. Operational Excellence, can’t get better than that, we’re in good hands.

At the end of November another Evans card statement arrived. It showed that the £12 late payment fee had been refunded as promised. However, it also showed another late payment fee had been applied. My wife telephoned Santander on the 13th of December and spoke with Shiraz. Shiraz did exactly what Nikita did, assured my wife that it was their error and the £12 would be refunded. Here a copy of that statement:

Further communication from Santander resulted in my wife asking Maddie on the 31st of December 2010 to close the account. Maddie assured my wife that the £12 late payment fee and this new amount of £4 were both Santander errors and that she would sort things out. Santander’s Andrew Hall wrote to my wife. Mr Hall is the Head of Collections Contact Centre at Santander Cards UK, he’s “a highly motivated, results focused Senior Manager with extensive Consumer Finance experience. Proven skill set in people management and process and performance improvement within Collections and Bad Debt functions”. Mr Hall, you might be highly motivated, but my wife is highly demotivated…I think you could do better, don’t you?

In between Christmas and New Year, things took a turn for the worse. Santander had the cheek to send out a Notice of Sums in Arrears letter. Of course, my wife was upset enough at the first two mistakes made by Santander, this pushed her over the edge, there were tears. How can a bank be allowed to do this? And for the measly sum of £4, created by their own error. Here’s that letter:

However, early in the New Year, we received an automated telephone call at 0820 on the 2nd of January 2011 reminding us of the “debt”. I myself spoke to some Santander guy called Kirt, who said “I can’t do nothing because of the Data Protection Act” in what I believe to be a Liverpool accent…double negatives, they suck too. So clearly Maddie hadn’t closed the account as requested a few days earlier. Kirt told me that the “telephone system” can take a few days to update itself and that we weren’t to worry about it. Incredible – the 2nd of January was a Sunday. What sort of company telephones its customers at that sort of time on a Sunday?

It seems that the Late Payment Fee is something that just gets refunded and reapplied. It won’t go away until somebody at Santander pulls their finger(s) out and accepts that there is a problem they need to sort out.

All of the telephone calls that my wife made to Santander were to their 0871 number…at a cost of 10p per minute. After a little bit of searching, it turns out that 020 8181 0000 should also work, as will 0113 280 7080. I’ll be looking to recover the cost of calls from Santander -they can’t expect us to cover the cost for their mistakes.

I was planning to switch my current account over to Santander in order to take advantage of the £100 switching fee. This made sense as my current account is with a Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) branch in England. Santander are taking over many of the English branches of RBS – I figured I would switch, collect the £100 and be in the same boat. However, this incident has taught me a lot about Santander, they’re not a bank I want anything to do with. As such, I have instigated an intra-bank switch, from my RBS branch in England, to one north of the border here in Scotland.

What’s next? Well, I hope that this blog post kicks Santander where it hurts – their stupidity and inability to rectify a simple self-made error frankly astounds me. If we make a tiny error, perhaps by going overdrawn by a single penny, the banks are the first to hit us hard. I’ve already had a short e-mail exchange with ‘CustomerServices@santander.co.uk’, who rather amazingly said “we don’t deal with the cards”! So now I’ve included ‘complaint.info@financial-ombudsman.org.uk’ in the loop.

Santander has most likely cost Evans my wife’s custom. It might not have been much, however in today’s climate, all custom is good. It seems that if Santander are to improve, it will take the likes of Evans, etc. to tell them. However, the damage has been done…

Moral of this post: avoid Santander bank. If your RBS account is with a branch that is about to be taken over by Santander, start thinking about switching – use uSwitch to help you if necessary.