Tag Archives: programming

Is Ron Jeffries right about the shortcomings of Agile?

A post from InfoQ alerted me to this post by Agile Manifesto signatory Ron Jeffries with the rather extreme title “Developers should abandon Agile”.

If you read the post, you discover that what Jeffries really objects to is the assimilation of Agile methodology into the old order of enterprise software development, complete with expensive consultancy, expensive software that claims to manage Agile for you, and the usual top-down management.

All this goes to show that it is possible do do Agile badly; or more precisely, to adopt something that you call Agile but in reality is not. Jeffries concludes:

Other than perhaps a self-chosen orientation to the ideas of Extreme Programming — as an idea space rather than a method — I really am coming to think that software developers of all stripes should have no adherence to any “Agile” method of any kind. As those methods manifest on the ground, they are far too commonly the enemy of good software development rather than its friend.

However, the values and principles of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development still offer the best way I know to build software, and based on my long and varied experience, I’d follow those values and principles no matter what method the larger organization used.

I enjoyed a discussion on the subject of Agile with some of the editors and writes at InfoQ during the last London QCon event. Why is it, I asked, that Agile is no longer at the forefront of QCon, when a few years back it was at the heart of these events?

The answer, broadly, was that the key concepts behind Agile are now taken for granted so that there are more interesting things to discuss.

While this makes sense, it is also true (as Jeffries observes) that large organizations will tend to absorb these ideas in name only, and continue with dark methods if that is in their culture.

The core ideas in Extreme Programming are (it seems to be) sound. Working in small chunks, forming a team that includes the customer, releasing frequently and delivering tangible benefits, automated tests and continuous refactoring, planning future releases as you go rather than in one all-encompassing plan at the beginning of a project; these are fantastic principles and revolutionary when you first come across them. See here for Jeffries’ account of what is Extreme Programming.

These ideas have everything to do with how the team works and little to do with specific tools (though it is obvious that things like a test framework, DevOps strategy and so on are needed).

Equally, you can have all the best tools but if the team is not functioning as envisaged, the methodology will fail. This is why software development methodology and the psychology of human relationships are intimately linked.

Real change is hard, and it is easy to slip back into bad practices, which is why we need to rediscover Agile, or something like it, repeatedly. Maybe the Agile word itself is not so helpful now; but the ideas are as strong as ever.

HackerRank survey shows programming divides in more ways than one

Developer recruitment company HackerRank has published a survey of developer skills. The first place I look in any survey is who took part, and how many:

HackerRank conducted a study of developers to identify trends in developer education, skills and hiring practices. A total of 39,441 professional and student developers completed the online survey from October 16 to November 1, 2017. The survey was hosted by SurveyMonkey and HackerRank recruited respondents via email from their community of 3.2 million members and through social media sites.

I would like to see the professional and student reponses shown separately. The world of work and the world of learning is different. This statement may also be incomplete, since several of the questions analyse what employers want, which suggests another source of data (not difficult to find for a recruitment company).

It is still a good read. It is notable for example that the youngest generation is learning to code later in life than those who are now over 35:

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I am not sure how to interpret these figures, but can think of some factors. One is that the amount of stuff you can do with a computer without coding has risen. In the earliest days when computing became affordable for anyone (late seventies/early eighties), you could not do much without coding. This was the era of type-in listings for kids wanting to play games. That soon changed, but coding remained important to getting things done if you wanted to make a business database useful, or create a website. Today though you can do all kinds of business, leisure and internet computing without needing to see code, so the incentive to learn is lower. It has become a more specialist skill. It remains valuable though, so older people have reason to be grateful.

How do people learn to code? The most popular resource is Stack Overflow, followed by YouTube, with books coming in third. In truth the most popular resource must be Google search. Credit to Stack Overflow though: like Wikipedia, it offers a good browsing experience at a time when the web has become increasingly unpleasant to use, infected by pop-up surveys, autoplay videos and intrusive advertising, not to mention the actual malware out there.

No surprises in language popularity, though oddly the survey does not tell us directly what languages are most used or best known by the respondents. The most in demand languages are apparently:

1. JavaScript
2. Java
3. Python
4. C++
5. C
6. C#
7. PHP
8. Ruby
9. Go
10. Swift

If you ask what languages developers plan to learn next, Go, Python and Scala head the list. And then there is a fascinating chart showing which languages developers prefer grouped by age. Swift, apparently, is loved by 75% of those over 55, but only by 15% of those under 25, the opposite of what I would expect (though I don’t know if this is a percentage of those who use the language, or includes those who do not know it at all).

Frameworks is another notable topic. Everyone loves Node.js; but two of the frameworks on offer are “.NET Core” and “ASP”. This is odd, since .NET Core is not really a framework, and ASP normally refers to the ancient “Active Server Pages” framework which nobody uses any longer, and ASP.NET runs on .NET Core so is not alternative to it.

This may be a clue that the HackerRank company or community is not well attuned to the Microsoft platform. That itself is of interest, but makes me question the validity of the survey results in that area.

Which .NET framework for Windows: UWP, WPF or Windows Forms?

Yes, mobile is the future of client applications, cross-platform is cool, web applications are amazing; but out there in the real world, there are still a ton of people who work all day with a Windows PC, and businesses that want PC applications in order to get their work done.

So when a business comes to you and says, we want a new Windows application to do this or that, and presuming they do not care about mobile or Macs or access over the internet but just want something that runs on their internal network, what framework do you choose?

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Let us even assume that they all run Windows 10 so that UWP (Universal Windows Platform) is a realistic option.

If you want to code in .NET (which is a great choice for a Windows-only application, and with the possibility of migrating code to cross-platform via Xamarin’s compiler later), then you have three obvious choices:

Windows Forms

This is the framework for Windows desktop applications that was introduced at the same time as .NET itself, back in 2002. Of course it has been revised many times since. There was a big update in 2006 with .NET 2.0. That said, Microsoft intended it to be replaced by Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF, see below), so it has not been a focus of attention. In 2014, High DPI support was improved, with .NET 4.5.2, reflecting the fact that this ancient framework is still widely used.

Windows Forms is a nice wrapper around the Windows API, and easy to use in that it uses essentially X Y layout. In other words, you can think of your form as a grid of pixels with the position of your controls determined at design time by its size and coordinates. This is great if you are designing and running on the same PC, but not so good when you deploy to other PCs with different display settings. It does kind-of scale if you follow certain rules, but successful scaling in a Windows Forms application is often difficult to achieve, so users may suffer chopped-off controls and text, or just ugly screens. Read this carefully if you use Windows Forms. And then read about High DPI support, which was improved again in .NET Framework 4.7.

If you are writing a database application, you can generate datasets by drag and drop from the Server Explorer in Visual Studio and bind them to controls. I am not a fan of this database framework, which quickly gets convoluted, but you do not have to use it. However the ability to bind list and grid controls to any kind of .NET collection is fantastically useful.

Why is Windows Forms still in use? It is partly legacy and the fact that it is easier to maintain and enhance an existing application than to start again. It is also because, scaling issues aside, Windows Forms is reliable, well supported by both built-in and third-party controls, and easy to learn.

Windows Presentation Foundation

This was Microsoft’s second go at a GUI framework for .NET and in many respects a great improvement. It was introduced with .NET Framework 3.0 in 2006, part of the Vista wave of technology. Unlike Windows Forms, it is based on the DirectX graphics API, so great for multimedia and special effects. Scaling is built-in and based on layout managers. The underlying presentation language is based on XAML, an XML language. As with Windows Forms, there is deep support for binding data to controls.

Why would you not always use WPF rather than Windows Forms? The main issue is that the time you save on figuring out scaling is more than consumed by the time you spend on design. WPF is a designer-centric framework. It will repay your efforts, but if you just want to slap a couple of grids and a few buttons on a form to get a working business application, Windows Forms remains tempting.

Universal Windows Platform

Both Windows Forms and WPF are old, and Microsoft is pointing developers towards its Universal Windows Platform (UWP) instead. UWP is an evolution of the new application platform introduced in Windows 8 in 2012. If WPF was all about scaling and multimedia, the Windows 8 modern app platform is about touch support and Store-based deployment. The application model was also service based, the idea being that your app consumes services published over the internet. Until the Windows 10 Fall Creators Update, you could not use the .NET SQLClient to connect directly to a SQL Server database (you can now). The app platform became UWP with the launch of Windows 10 in 2015. UWP can use XAML for layout design, but it is not compatible with WPF.

Personally I have mixed feelings about UWP. Unfortunately it has suffered from Microsoft’s ever-changing development strategy. The Windows 8 app platform made sense to me as a way of bringing Windows into the tablet era and enabling applications that were more secure and more easily deployed, even if it tended to result in applications that were blocky and ugly. Microsoft then changed its mind about full-screen touch applications and came up with the UWP for Windows 10, where applications again run in a window, but with a new selling point: you could run your application on Windows Phone as well as desktop. Then the company canned Windows Phone, before UWP had properly launched, in effect deleting the “Universal” part of the platform.

UWP still offers Store delivery and isolation from other applications, better for security and stability. However there are a few things against it. First, users require Windows 10. Second, like WPF it is a designer-centric platform and not so good for running up quick business applications. Third, UWP apps behave differently from standard desktop applications, sometimes not in a good way.

I was using Microsoft’s bundled Photos application recently. I work a lot with images so this often pops up, as the default image viewer on Windows 10. I was not stressing it, but it crashed which, as is typical for a UWP app, means it just disappeared without any message or warning.

UWP will be three years old this summer, but I am not convinced that the platform is quite there yet. I find it hard to think of UWP apps that I love. The apps I know best are the built-in ones, Mail, Photos, Groove Music, Calculator, and I do not love any of them. Paint 3D is amazing but not my thing.

At the same time I do see the merits of UWP versus traditional Windows application deployment. The existence of the Desktop Bridge (formerly Project Centennial) means you can get many of those benefits while still using WPF or Windows Forms.

Closing thoughts

Perhaps something like Power Apps will render this discussion irrelevant before long. There are also other options for the desktop, such as Xamarin Forms if you still want to use .NET, or Electron for using web technologies for desktop applications.

Still, while it may seem surprising, even in 2018 I can think of reasons why you might use any of the above frameworks, even Windows Forms, for a business app targeting Windows.

RemObjects previews native Apple Mac IDE for C#, .NET, Oxygene

RemObjects is previewing a new native Mac IDE for its Oxygene and C# compilers. Oxygene is a Delphi-like language (in other words, a variant of Object Pascal) which targets iOS, Mac, Android, Windows Phone and Windows. RemObjects C# shares the same targets. Both can compile to .NET assemblies for Windows, or to Mono for cross-platform .NET, or to a Mac or iOS executable (using the LLVM compiler), or to Java bytecode for the Android Dalvik runtime. You can get both Oxygene and RemObjects  C# bundled in a product called Elements.

In the past, RemObjects has used Visual Studio as its IDE. While this is a natural choice for Windows users, much development today is done on the Mac. Requiring Mac users to develop in a Windows Virtual Machine adds friction, so RemObjects is now working on a native IDE for the Mac codenamed Fire.

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I gave Fire the briefest of looks. Here are some of the options for a new .NET application:

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Note the appearance of ASP.NET MVC 4, and even Silverlight.

Here are the options for a new Cocoa application:

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If you are developing for Cocoa, you can edit the resource file in Apple’s Xcode and use it in your application. I started a new C# Cocoa app, made a few changes and and then ran it from the IDE:

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I imagine Microsoft will be keeping an eye on tools like this – if it is not, it should – since they fit with the strategy of supporting Microsoft services on multiple devices. Visual Studio is a fine tool but if Microsoft is serious about cross-platform, it needs strong Mac-native development tools. Xamarin came up with Xamarin Studio, which is cross-platform for Windows and Mac, but the RemObjects approach also looks worth investigating.

PS The first release of RemObjects C# lacked full generic support, for which failing Xamarin and Mono founder Miguel de Icaza took RemObjects to task on Twitter. I was amused to see this in the changelog for April 2014:

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65764 Full support for Generics on Cocoa, as requested by Miguel

For more details on Fire, see here.

Brief reflections on 50 years of BASIC

Beginner’s All-Purpose Symbolic Code (BASIC) has turned fifty, as reported on The Reg and by Jack Schofield on ZDNet. A great moment in computer history, or would we have been better off without it?

My first computer (a Commodore PET) ran Basic from ROM, and without it you could do nothing, though developers bypassed it by using the POKE command to write low-level instructions into memory. The language is meant to be forgiving (as far as a computer language can be) and English-like, at the expense of being a little more verbose. It is case-insensitive and does not require braces or semi-colons to indicate blocks or lines of code, which makes programming look less intimidating for beginners.

I graduated onto an Atari ST, for which there was an excellent Basic implementation called GFA Basic, fast and capable. This was great for writing utilities, though, though serious programming tended to use one of several strong C compilers: Lattice C, Mark Williams C, HiSoft C come to mind.

Basic also had a role, even on the ST, as a macro language for applications. For example, the Superbase database manager used a version of Basic.

The company most strongly associated with Basic though is Microsoft. A version of Basic came with MS-DOS.

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Microsoft also supported Basic for professional development. Microsoft Basic Professional Development System 7.x was a well-regarded development tool for business applications, though commercial shrink-wrap software tended to be written in C or C++.

That trend followed through to the Windows graphical environment. Visual Basic (VB), which made it easy to code Windows applications, was perhaps the most significant Basic release in terms of its impact, especially when it reached version 3.0 with full database support. Its popularity was such that many developers felt wounded when Microsoft discontinued Visual Basic 6.0, a direct successor, in favour of Visual Basic .NET which is something incompatible and different.

Further, VB 6.0 or something very like it lives on today, in the form of Visual Basic for Applications as found in all recent versions of Microsoft Office.

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Despite this, Basic is in decline. Most of the professional developers I meet at events like Build use C# in preference to Visual Basic, there being little reason not to. C# is the premier language of .NET, and Visual Basic gets in the way if you want to keep up with latest .NET developments. Xamarin, which lets you code in .NET for iOS and Android, supports C# but not Visual Basic. Once you come to terms with semi-colons, braces and case-sensitivity, there is no real advantage to Visual Basic and C# is no more difficult.

I do see Visual Basic still used in education though, as well as by some developers who either prefer the language or are so used to it that they see no need to change; and to be fair, Xamarin aside, there is little if anything you can do in C# that you cannot also do in VB and the output is more or less the same.

The Roslyn project, which will be part of the next version of C# and probably in the next release of Visual Studio, lets you paste C# code as VB and vice versa.

Nevertheless, I believe we will see further decline in Basic usage, especially as it is little used outside Microsoft’s platform.

Would it have been better if Microsoft has not adopted Basic so wholeheartedly? There are some problems with Basic, though it is possible to write excellent code in Basic just as you can write poor code in C#, Python, C, or other more fashionable languages. Some issues:

  • Early versions of Basic encouraged badly structured programming with keywords like GOTO and GOSUB resulting in intricate loops that were hard to follow or debug.
  • Basic abstracts how software works to such an extent that you do not learn some important programming concepts such as pointers, addresses, memory allocation.
  • There is no natural progression from Basic to the C-like languages which dominate computing (C,C++,JavaScript,C#).
  • Visual Basic encourages developers to mix GUI code and business logic in the same files, as well as building user interfaces that tend not to scale well.
  • Small and declining professional use means that Basic is less useful than many other languages in the job market.

That said, Basic powers many excellent business applications as well as introducing many to the wonders of programming, and deserves our respect.

Mysteries of trapping errors in PowerShell

As everyone in IT knows, sometimes tasks that you think are quick and easy turn out to take longer.

Today I experiences a small example. I have a scheduled PowerShell script that copies a large file. I wanted to enhance the script so that I would receive an email stating whether the copy succeeded and when it completed.

The original script, for the sake of the example (it is actually a little more involved) is this:

Copy-Item somefile somefile.bak
"Clean up"

where “Clean up” represents some code that runs after the copy completes.

Now, by default a PowerShell may continue if it hits an error other than a syntax error. Again for the sake of the example, I will add a line which echoes text to represent the code that send an email. If you run this script:

Copy-Item somefile somefile.bak
"Clean up"
”Send email: File copied successfully”

then the email gets sent whether or not the copy succeeds. Here is what happens if somefile does not exist:

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Not much use. The solution, I thought, was to use PowerShell’s trap statement. This catches the exception you specify, or all exceptions, and runs some code. You can also use the break or continue keywords to determine whether the block of code in which the exception occurred continues with the next statement, or exits immediately. You can read about trap here. I therefore wrote a script that looks like this:

Function CopyIt {

trap {return "Error copying file: $_"; break;}

Copy-Item somefile somefile.bak
return "Copy successfully completed"
}

$result = CopyIt
"Clean up"
”Send email: $result”

What I could not figure out though was that even when the copy failed, the script still sent me a success message:

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I assumed I was misunderstanding how trap works. The output shows, in this example, that an ItemNotFoundException is thrown, so the trap should be triggered, right?

Wrong. In the case of non-terminating errors  (PowerShell jargon) you have to specify the ErrorAction. The default ErrorAction is “Continue”. Therefore I had to modify the script like this:

Copy-Item somefile somefile.bak -ErrorAction stop

Now I get an email with a failure message if the copy fails:

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All very obvious to PowerShell experts; but it seems to me that PowerShell makes it easy for the unwary to write scripts that fail silently. You are unlikely to see the red text when your script is running on a server.

Top languages on Github: JavaScript reigns, Ruby and Python next

I cloned a github repository today, and while browsing the site noticed the language stats:

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Git was originally developed for the Linux kernel and is mainly for the open source community. I was interested to see JavaScript, the language of HTML 5, riding so high. PHP, C and C++ are lower than I would have guessed, Ruby and Python higher.

Here are some figures for the venerable Sourceforge:

Java (7,163) 19%
C++ (6,449) 17%
C (4,752) 13%
PHP (3,521) 10%
Python (2,694) 7%
C# (2,481) 7%
JavaScript (2,011) 5%
Perl (1,138) 3%
Shell (757) 2%
Visual Basic NET (688) 2%
Delphi/Kylix (581) 2%

This comes with a health warning. I have taken the figures from the what you get if you browse the directory and drop down Programming Languages; but the total is only about 37,000, whereas Sourceforge hosts around 324,000 projects. I am not sure what accounts for the discrepancy; it could be that language is not specified for the other projects, or they are dormant, or some other reason. But I hope the proportions indicate something of value.

Github is madly trendy, and Sourceforge ancient, so this tells us something about how open source activity has shifted towards JavaScript, Ruby and Python, and away from Java, C/C++ and C#.

Of course the overall picture of programming language usage is quite different. For example, you can get some kind of clue about commercial activity from a job board like indeed.com, which currently has 77,457 US vacancies for Java, 22,413 for JavaScript, and only 5030 for Ruby.

Nevertheless, interesting to see what languages developers on Github are choosing to work with, and perhaps an indicator of what may be most in demand on the job boards a few years from now.

Finally, looking at these figures I cannot help thinking how short-sighted Microsoft was in abandoning IronPython and IronRuby back in 2010.

Microsoft backs ECMAScript, dismisses Google Dart

Microsoft has posted an article on Evolving ECMAScript on its IE Blog. ECMAScript is the official standard for what we call JavaScript. The company is proposing some minor additions “to address gaps in Math, String and Number functionality as well as Globalization.” It has also taken the opportunity to take a shot at Google, which is proposing a new web language called Dart:

Some examples, like Dart, portend that JavaScript has fundamental flaws and to support these scenarios requires a “clean break” from JavaScript in both syntax and runtime. We disagree with this point of view. We believe that with committee participant focus, the standards runtime can be expanded and the syntactic features necessary to support JavaScript at scale can be built upon the existing JavaScript standard.

Dart will compile to JavaScript so there is a measure of compatibility, but if the language catches on then browsers without a native implementation will be disadvantaged.

What is the best programming language for a child progressing from Scratch?

Someone asked me what is the best programming language for a child to learn after starting (and having success) with Scratch.

Scratch is a visual programming language which actually runs on Smalltalk, though its users do not need to know this. Scratch 2.0 seems to be written in Adobe Flash so you can create and program projects in a web browser. As far as I can tell though, there is no obvious and natural progression from Scratch to a code-centric programming language.

I guess the first answer is not to move away from Scratch until you need to. You can do a lot with Scratch, as the many shared projects demonstrate.

Still, I agree that it makes sense to learn text-based programming before too long. What is the best one for a child to learn, not necessarily with computer science or a professional career in mind, but just to take the next step and create some cool games and applications?

I find myself leaning towards Microsoft’s C#. The reason is that there is a capable free version and  you can add XNA Game Studio for game development. C# is an excellent language and has some family resemblance to other languages including C, C++, Java and JavaScript, and Visual Studio is a strong IDE that is perhaps more approachable than say Eclipse or Netbeans.

Snags with C# are that Visual Studio only runs on Windows, the language is proprietary to Microsoft (though Mono is free and open source) and it is not ideal if you want to run on the Mac, or Google Android or Apple iPad.

That said, I could also make a case for Java, or JavaScript, or Python.

I would value suggestions though: what would you recommend to a teenager?

C++ 11 is approved by ISO: a big day for native code development

Herb Sutter reports that C++ 0x, which will be called C++ 11, has been unanimously approved by the ISO C++ committee. The “11” in the name refers to the year of approval, 2011. The current standard is C++ 98, though amended as C++ 03, so it has taken 8 or 13 years to update it depending on how you count it.

This means that compiler makers can get on with implementing the full C++ 11 standard. Most current compilers implement some of the features already. This Apache wiki shows the current status. A quick glance suggests that the open source GCC is ahead of the pack, followed by Intel C++ and then perhaps Microsoft Visual C++.

C++ 11 is pretty much compatible with C++ 03 so existing code should still work. However there are many new features, enough for Bjarne Stroustrup to say in his feature summary:

Surprisingly, C++0x feels like a new language: The pieces just fit together better than they used to and I find a higher-level style of programming more natural than before and as efficient as ever. If you timidly approach C++ as just a better C or as an object-oriented language, you are going to miss the point. The abstractions are simply more flexible and affordable than before. Rely on the old mantra: If you think of it as a separate idea or object, represent it directly in the program; model real-world objects, and abstractions directly in code. It’s easier now.

Concurrent programming is better supported in C++ 11, important for getting the best performance from modern hardware.

It is curious how the programming landscape has changed in recent year. A few years back, you might have foreseen a day when most programming would be .NET, Java or JavaScript: all varieties of managed code. While those languages do still dominate, native code has come more to the fore, thanks to factors like Apple’s focus on Objective C, and signs of internal conflict at Microsoft over the best language for coding Windows applications.

That said, C++ 11 remains a demanding language to learn and use. As Stroustrup notes, since C++ 11 is a superset of C++ 98 it is technically harder to learn all of it, though new libraries and abstractions should help beginners. The reasons for using or not using C++ are not going to change significantly with this new standard.