Saturday, September 27, 2014


I’m going to try again this year.  I’ve tried in years past but things never came together:  lack of time, lack of inspiration, fear of failure.  This year is going to be different.  What am I talking about?

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).  By the way, November is the target month.

The organization that runs it is a non-profit based in the United States that aims to encourage writers from around the world.  They have a number of different things that they do including:

  • The Young Writers Program promotes writing fluency, creative education, and the sheer joy of novel-writing in K-12 classrooms. We provide free classroom kits, writing workbooks, Common Core-aligned curricula, and virtual class management tools to more than 2,000 educators from Dubai to Boston.
  • The Come Write In program provides free resources to libraries, community centers, and local bookstores to build writing havens in your neighborhood.
  • Camp NaNoWriMo is a virtual writing retreat, designed to provide the community, resources, and tools needed to complete any writing project, novel or not.

Every year they get hundreds of thousands of people working on their novels in the month of November in an effort to get the creative juices flowing and the love of writing growing.  Here are some of the numbers for 2013:

  • 310,095 participants
  • 3,520,123,164 total words
  • 11,352 words per person (on average)
  • 42,221 winners (14%)

Edmonton, based on web site visits, was the 31st busiest NaNoWriMo hotspot in the world.  There is a very active NaNoWritMo community in Edmonton staging weekly events during November at a number of different locations around the city.

So, yeah, I’m going to try it again this year, only this time I am going to be better prepared.  I have a novel idea in mind, a number of key scenes all laid out in my mind, a general idea of the plot (working on a detailed plot outline), characters defined, etc.  Whether or not I can do 50,000 words in November is going to be a challenge.  OK, not necessarily 50,000 words as I exceeded that number when I add up all of emails for November, but 50,000 words on a single topic.

The focus of NaNoWriMo is completion.  Finish the novel.  Put the pen down.  Editing is not part of the process, just the sheer act of creation which is good because sometimes I really hate my writing.

Friday, April 04, 2014

An angry man

I was once an angry man.  Well, I’m still kind of angry I guess, but it is more of a dull ache than a throbbing, burning desire to destroy.  So what caused the difference?

Many different things including eating properly, exercising properly, getting enough sleep and realizing that sometimes people just don’t know any better.  That last point, that people just don’t know any better, was emphasized recently due to some events that occurred in my wife’s family.  I realized that sometimes, for reasons totally beyond the control of the person, certain “value systems” were never introduced or emphasized.

When I grew up (here I go remembering the past again) my parents always quizzed me about my report card and why I get certain grades.  They wanted to make sure that I was working hard at trying to improve.  They wanted me to know that my marks, while important, were secondary to my efforts to making my marks better.  If I wasn’t making the effort how could I improve? 

We live in a world that is constantly changing.  What was once a good profession may, with the introduction of technology, become a dead end street with no light at the end of the tunnel.  What may have been a good career choice out of high school may not even exist any more.  When was the last time you saw a telephone booth on the corner of a street?

Improving, making the effort, these are important in life, particularly in the career path you choose.  You should be anxious to learn new things.  There should be a desire to become better, a desire to improve, a desire to strive for excellence.  I can tell you about the Microsoft Virtual Academy, I can tell you about Channel 9, I can point you in the direction of instruction manuals and tips and tricks, but I can’t make you want to learn.  I can’t make you want to improve.  You have to do that yourself.  You have to have the desire to get better, the desire to improve, the desire to learn.

The IT industry changes quite frequently, sometimes in advance of society and sometimes as a reaction to society, but the ebb and flow of change is fundamental to the core of what IT does.  If you don’t change just remember that corner telephone booths didn’t last forever.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

The Changing Experience

When I was younger and personal computers were just making their way into the work place there was the role of the “interface designer”.  When your world consisted of an 80x24 text based screen (an IBM 3270 terminal) there wasn’t a lot of flexibility in what you could do.  Things changed with the introduction of a graphical user interface (GUI) and the “interface designer” became the “GUI designer”.  The purpose was the same, however, get the user to enter in some information so that the big back end systems could process them.

When the World Wide Web (aka “The Internet” although it is only just a part of it) came on board the “GUI designer” became a “web designer”.  And while the web is still where many/most things are being done the role of “web designer” has changed.  It morphed into what some people have called a “customer experience designer” or what other people have a “digital experience designer”.  My personal preference is “digital experience designer” (DX) as I think the experience of the client extends beyond what they see on the screen.

The DX designer’s purpose is to ensure that the entire experience with a product / organization meets the needs of the client, not the needs of the organization and this is a somewhat different focus than traditional development.  Normal development is based on the needs/desires of the organization whereas a DX designer takes those needs and translates them into something that a customer will want or will save the customer time.

For instance, if you go through the ApplyAlberta system to apply to a College/University one of the requirements is a transcript of you marks.  Rather than having the student provide those transcripts the post secondary institution makes a request for the transcript on behalf of the student.  An existing business requirement (transcript) is still satisfied, but is done in a manner that eases the burden on the student.  Their entire experience, their entire digital interaction is what comprises the digital experience, not just the single interaction with the web site.

And therein lies part of the problem.  Mobile devices outsell desktops and laptops by a wide margin.  It is estimated that this year more people will be accessing the Internet through a mobile device than through laptops/desktops.  So, where are the mobile versions of many of our applications?  Even a site with responsive web design would go a long way towards making the digital experience, when viewed through a mobile device, a more acceptable route.  Unfortunately, when I look at many sites, not just within the GoA, but world wide, the sites are not mobile friendly.  My fingers are not narrow, dainty things that I can use to point with extreme precision.  They are blunt instruments that work quite well at pounding the keys of my keyboard.  I want, I need, the digital experience that I desire.  The companies that provide that experience get my business and that is one reason why Amazon is probably one of my more frequently visited sites.  Not only do they have a mobile friendly website, but an application that I can install to get an even better experience.

Building a better digital experience does not need to be expensive, but it does require a solid foundation upon which to build this experience.  By creating applications and services that provide the basis for this foundation we position ourselves to take advantage of changes in requirements with a greatly reduced effort.

We need to build for the future not the past.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Digital Disruption

There is a lot of talk about the “Digital Disruption” occurring in a variety of industries and the impact that it is happening.  Examples are all over the place and include:

  • Music.  The introduction and proliferation of MP3 formatted files caused a tremendous shift not only to the recording industry, but to retail stores as well.  Whereas there once used to be multiple “record shops” almost adjacent to each other, they are now few and far between.
  • Movies.  The movie industry fought the digital delivery of movies tooth and nail and yet Netflix is now the largest consumer of bandwidth in the world.  Depending upon which report you read during Prime Time in the United States it exceeds 50% of all network traffic (spam included).
  • Software.  There used to be a lot of computer stores that stocked row after row of games and utilities and other packages that you could purchase and run on your computer at home.  The vast majority of software delivery currently occurs through downloading the application over the Internet.  No more manufacturing costs associated with the product anymore.
  • Books. Lots of disruption in this area as people purchase Kindles, Kobos and other eBook readers to consume their literature.  While sales in digital form have not outpaced sales in traditional formats, that time is quickly approaching.

The items listed above are very transformative in nature in that an existing industry no longer looks the same after the disruption has occurred.  There are, however, disruptions that occur that don’t change the industry so much as they change the perception of the industry or just increase the user satisfaction with the industry or company.

Let’s go back to Books for a moment.  When Amazon came along they made a significant impact on the publishing industry by giving people the opportunity to browse and purchase a huge selection of books, a selection so large that your local bookstore was unable to match the breadth of offering.  But here is one of the things that you may not know.  Not all of the books that you could order from Amazon were actually “real” books.  A number of the books were printed “on demand”.  You order the book, the book gets printed and then shipped to you.  A print run of one.  All you need is the digital image of the book and you can print it.

The recent advances in 3D printing have the potential to impact people in ways they never knew.  Imagine going to a parts store, a really small parts store, for a particular part for your dishwasher.  They have the “part”, but it will take 15 minutes to make it for you.  Or, for those more adventurous, you download the plans off the Internet and make it yourself.

We have a lot of things at our fingertips:  video, music, books, software.  Why not parts?  Granted plastic parts will be the easiest, but you honestly don’t believe that the process and the evolution of “printing” is just going to stop with plastic, do you?  Carbon fiber?  Soft metals?  Harder metals?  A complete fabrication plant in a box?  Food?  No, that one is already coming.

Thursday, March 20, 2014


I found an interesting blog entry a while back while using Zite and posted it to Pocket for later review.  It’s later now so I thought I would read it.

You can’t impose a culture of innovation” was written by Jeffrey Phillips and talks about the difficulty of changing the direction of an organization to embrace innovation as opposed to what it is probably built for:  efficiency.

While the article was designed and written for private-sector organizations and not public sector organizations such as ours, many of the concepts behind the article remain completely valid.  For example, in the case of the Government of Alberta, the purpose of the government has remained relatively constant for the past 100 years and will continue to remain constant for the next 100 years.  Around the edges things change and the focus of the energy of the government may change, but fundamentally it still is required to do certain things.  As a result of this structure and as a result of the requirement to audit the heck out of everything, a certain organization structure has been fostered and a certain culture has been created.

What Jeffrey Phillips is talking about in his article is the fact that you cannot turn the organization on a dime and say “We are now innovative.”  It takes time.  It can take a lot of time because of the momentum that drives an organization forward, the factors that have been driving the organization, are not the same that are needed by innovation.

I don’t agree with his first point with regard to a long term change in innovation (you’ll have to read the article for more details) as I believe that you should not penalize people for being in a position where innovation is difficult, impossible, or based on factors outside of their control.  One thing, however, that did strike home, however, was with regard to defining “standards”.

Define a method that people can use, learn and become experts in.  Rather than every man for himself, using any tool or framework, define and reinforce a small set of tools and workflow so that people can increase their knowledge and expertise.

An organization that uses every “tool of the day” that comes out will soon realize that while they may have had short term gains, they have long term pains.

Have you ever wondered why we don’t make a lot of changes to DeCo?  We want a single process, not ten processes, that should be followed.  Ever wondered why we don’t like people making changes to the process templates in Team Foundation Server?  Because our workers go from project to project if every project had their own way of doing things then they would start at ground zero, all over again.

Innovation is not about allowing ten different projects to use eleven different issue tracking systems, it’s about implementing one system that benefits the organization.  Some people have said that having standards constrains their ability to be innovate.  On the contrary, having standards eliminates a number of things that you would need to worry about and allow you to more fully engage in being innovate in areas that matter. 

Standards allow you to focus your innovation.  Perhaps changing the standard is what is innovative, but if that happens the standard needs to change for everyone, not just a single project.  We have too many projects that have followed too many standards and implemented too many “one of” projects for this to be a sustainable process.

Ten years ago I hated standards.  Now I don’t see how we can do our work without them.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014


When I was growing up I read a book from Robert Heinlein entitled The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress.  One of the things that kept with me ever since I read the book was the phrase TANSTAAFL which stood for “There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch”.  That idea is prevalent in today’s society as well:  if you’re getting something free there must be a catch. 

I was visiting an audiobook web site recently where I could get a 30 day free trial and then pay for a full year in advance, at a “huge” savings.  Or pay on a month to month basis and actually pay less money over the course of a year.  The 30 day trial wasn’t free, I paid for it.

Sometimes, however, the cost is not so much money as it is time.  (And sometimes that is minimal.)  For instance, Code Kwondo from Microsoft Canada.  Just for joining you get 1000 points, which is already enough to get some free stuff (Shaker Blender Bottle, T-Shirt or Mug).  Complete a course from the Microsoft Virtual Academy (free) and they toss in another 5000 points which gets you a lot more free stuff (USB Key, App Store Gift Cards, etc).  If you publish a Windows 8 application you get more points and more stuff.  The intent is that you become enamored with building Windows 8 applications and start putting more applications on the Microsoft Application Store.  Heck, they even supply you with the links necessary to download free copies of their toolset.  From Microsoft’s perspective they are getting some time in your busy head to think about Windows 8.  They are doing what they can to increase their market share in your mind.

And therein lies the cost.  Your time.

But is it really such a big cost?  I mean, for the developers who are reading this, part of your job is to remain current with technologies, to understand how and when to use the tools, to even know what tools are the most appropriate for the situation.  For example, the vast majority of the applications that we build are web-based applications.  Is that actually the best solution?  Would a Windows application be more appropriate using web services to extract the data from the back end?  I don’t know.

In many respects this little competition from Microsoft is a win-win for both developers and Microsoft.  The developers get a better understanding of the Microsoft tools and, if they develop a humdinger of a Windows app then Microsoft gets some bragging rights and some much needed intellectual capital in their App Store. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Is a pen just a pen?

When I was younger I used an HB2 pencil for most of my work.  When I was a little bit older I was allowed to use a Bic stick pen.  Those were the tools of the trade for many years.  When I was in my teens I picked up a Calligraphy set for Christmas and tried my had at calligraphy.

I sucked.

I determined early on that my ability to write neatly was limiting my skill level in calligraphy.  I had difficulty with almost everything related to writing neatly.  Shortly thereafter I went to the University of Alberta and experienced the “quarter page cheat sheet”.  We were allowed a quarter of a page of loose leaf paper to bring in to our exams and we could write anything we wanted on that piece of paper.  I learned that a Bic stick pen was not fine enough.  I learned that printing was better for me than writing.  I learned that I could take a line on the paper, subdivide it into three separate lines and then write legibly on each of those lines.  I could easily take an entire course and put it down on this quarter page.

From that point on I printed with fine point pens, very fine point pens.  Normal pens weren’t good enough as I experimented with pens that had nibs 1 mm and smaller.  Up until recently my favourite was a 0.3 mm Pentel pen.  When I ran out of those pens (it’s amazing how a 10 pack gradually disappeared from my desk) I switched to some very fine point Sharpie pens.  While they were nice markers, they weren’t as fine as I wanted.  I then switched to a Uniball Vision Needle (Micro) pen.  A very nice model.

But something wasn’t right.  While all of these are nice pens they lacked something:  style.  Grant Adsit pointed out the Stylus store in town.  I discovered Fountain Pens thirty years after my calligraphy days.  While there were a lot of pens for me to look at I was scared of buying an expensive pen and discovering that I still sucked while writing or printing.  As a result I chose a modest pen, a Shaeffer 100.  To be honest, I am quite surprised by the smoothness of the writing and the quality of the pen.  While my $3 pens are good for many purposes, it feels better to write with a higher quality pen.  Although I have only had it for 24 hours, I am impressed by the quality of the pen and I actually want to write

If you have never had the opportunity to write with a good fountain pen, you owe it to yourself to give it a try.  It is a fabulous experience.