Monthly Archives: February 2005

VB: Wired or Tired?

I don’t usually just link to other entries, but sometimes people just say thing that I’ve been meaning to say but just never found the right words for. Scott’s entry on the joys of VB, .NET style, express pretty well the answer to the question of “why VB in .NET?” And I particularly liked Paul Kimmel’s article “Has Visual Basic Lost Its Way?” As I’ve said many times, so much of the past two releases (and the upcoming one) has been just about getting VB onto .NET, which has been a huge endeavor. Not to mention being, for the most part, almost purely reactive – a lot of our feature plans have been driven by the features that show up in the CLR. Part of the angst about VB is that people tend to look at that and extrapolate more of the same: more reactivity. But the point is that with the release of Whidbey, VB will finally be fully caught up in terms of supporting .NET. Which means that we can now look ahead to ways in which we can make “the next big thing” happen on .NET. Stay tuned…

What is the price of my principles? $49.95 plus shipping and tax.

I’d have to say that it’s an interesting start to my day when I wake up and find that I’ve been smacked down not once, but twice by Joel Spolsky. And that I just had, by far, the most hits ever in one day on my weblog. Not something that happens every day, you know…

As with the comments a few months ago, many people have asked questions regarding legal aspects of the patent application. And, as with my previous replies to those comments, I’m not going to try and answer those questions because I don’t have a law degree and am not qualified to comment on any kind of legal question. As a general rule, I’ve found it is best to try and not comment on subjects about which I don’t have a fairly substantial grasp of, and that goes double for this case. That said, there are a couple of responses that I have concerning the new round of comments:

First, I would have to say that I’m extremely gratified by everyone’s high estimation of my employability. Were I the type of person to quit a company because it pursues software patents (more on that in a moment), I’m glad to know that everyone believes I’d have an easy time finding a job at a company that doesn’t pursue such patents like IBM… er, Google… uh, Borland… um, Sun… eh, Oracle… oh, well, maybe Fog Creek Software. (After Joel’s comments this morning, though, maybe I shouldn’t count on that one…)

Second, on a more serious note, several people have asked (in so many words) how I square my statement that “I don’t believe software patents are a good idea” with this or that action by Microsoft. With the implication being that if I truly believed in my principles, I’d quit this evil corporation and go find someone more pure to work for. Well, the answer is pretty simple: while I don’t believe software patents are a good idea, I don’t think that they’re such a big deal that I’d quit working somewhere just because of it. As some of you may have guessed (but perhaps found hard to believe) I actually like Microsoft, enjoy working here and believe it is a good company. Certainly, the company has done things at times that I don’t agree with, but none of them have ever risen to a level where I thought that they overrode the basic decency and good intent of the company as a whole. Does this mean that there are things that I would quit Microsoft over? Sure. If, for example, I were to find out that Microsoft was manufacturing its products using Soylent Green, I would quit in a New York minute (and give Charlton Heston a call). But so far that hasn’t happened for me.

I’ll also add that my intent in saying this is not to denigrate those people who feel much more passionately about software patents than I do and who refuse to work for any company that pursues such patents. I may not feel the same way as they do, but I recognize the genuine passion that they feel around this issue and really respect it. And I think that it is really important, as a human being, to know what your principles are and stand up for them. This one just happens not to be such a major one for me that I feel the need to start prepping my resume…

P.S. – As for those who suggest that I’ve sold my principles for stock options, have you seen our stock price, say, in the last few years?

Language history

Rocky asks the question “What languages and language families have you been competent in during your career?” and provides his own list. Here’s mine, in order, as I remember it:

  1. BASIC (IBM-5100, a precursor to the IBM PC)
  2. BASIC (TRS-80 Model III)
  3. APL (IBM-5100)
  4. AppleBASIC (Apple ][+ and Apple ][e)
  5. UCSD Pascal (IBM PC)
  6. Unix shell scripting (not sure the machine)
  7. C (ditto)
  8. Turbo Pascal (IBM PC)
  9. GBBS Pro BASIC (a custom BBS language, Apple ][e)
  10. Scheme (Mac)
  11. C++ (IBM PC)
  12. Haskell (Sun)
  13. Visual BASIC 1.0 to present day (Windows & .NET)
  14. SQL (Access & SQL Server)
  15. Java (Windows)
  16. MSIL (.NET)
  17. C# (.NET)

And there is a small smattering of experience with other languages, but no significant programming experience. Broadly, this breaks down to the following families:

  1. BASIC
  2. Pascal
  3. C
  4. Functional languages like Scheme, Haskell, etc.
  5. Other

I’ll also add that the entry for “APL” is really a joke. I started programming on IBM-5100s over at Duke University. The 5100 had the distinction of having a switch on the front panel marked “BASIC/APL”. Depending on which position the switch was in, that’s the language you used when the machine booted up. Somehow, my friend Tom and I came into possession of some mag tapes (which is what the 5100 used for storage) with a bunch of games written for the 5100, including an adventure game written in APL. I seem to remember really wanting to learn how to modify the adventure game and so I set about learning APL. Unfortunately, I was probaby 11 years old at the time and had nowhere near the necessary mathematical foundations to be able to understand the language, so the whole enterprise was a bust. So Tom and I fell back to writing an adventure game in BASIC. I think I still have a printout of “Escape from Carr Building” somewhere around here…

Updated 02/17/05: How could I forget SQL?

Are C# programmers masochists?

OK, normally I try to be pretty even handed about the whole “VB vs. C#” thing since we’re all one big happy family, but sometimes I just gotta wonder… Scott Wiltamuth (he’s the product unit manager for C#) was talking on his blog about the recent Office System Developer Conference and said:

Given VBA’s long history with Office, one might expect VB .NET to be the primary language among .NET developers using Office as a platform.  But I’ve seen a lot of anecdotal evidence that C# usage of Visual Studio Tools for Office (aka VSTO) is high.  I’ll try to get some solid data on this and share it here.

Which raises the question: are C# programmers just masochists? I’ve always kind of suspected, what with the case sensitivity, the cryptic syntax, the lack of declarative event handling, and so on. But it seems to me that programming against Office is one of those places where VB has got it over C# hands-down. Sitting on my desk are some chapters of a book that I’m doing technical reviews for. The book is about using Office from managed code, and several of the chapters (maybe the whole book, I haven’t gotten that far) are written in C#. So as I’ve read through the chapters, I just keep circling things and writing in the margin things like “this limitation doesn’t appy to VB” and “this code is simpler in VB.”

For example, VB supports optional parameters, named parameters and passing expressions to reference parameters, whereas C# doesn’t. So when printing, code that in VB looks like:

Doc.PrintOut(Copies := 2, Collate := true)

Becomes in C#:

object copies = 2;
object collate = true;
Doc.PrintOut(ref missing, ref missing, ref missing, ref missing,
ref missing, ref missing, ref missing, ref copies,
ref missing, ref missing, ref missing, ref collate,
ref missing, ref missing, ref missing, ref missing,
ref missing, ref missing);

There are other various little gotchas sprinkled throughout Office (like the fact that C# can’t bind to Word’s Close event and VB can, although I think VSTO finesses this a bit), which raises the question: why would you use C# instead of VB to automate Office unless you were a bit of a masochist?

OK, OK, OK, I’ll admit it – I’m only half serious here. I don’t really think that C# programmers are masochists who whip themselves on the back every night chanting “I will initialize all of my variables, I will initialize all of my variables” and wear their “I Am Strongly Typed” hairshirts under their clothes during the day. In fact, I have it on good authority that many C# programmers are normal, well-adjusted members of society. But that doesn’t mean I can’t razz them a bit every once in a while…

Why is this man smiling?

In a comment to my griping about having to come up with 3 strengths and weaknesses for my performance review, Scott Mitchell pointed at one of Joel’s older articles entitled “Incentive Pay Considered Harmful.” I must have missed Joel’s posting the first time around, but I did get a chuckle out of reading his rant against the Ship-It Award (or, as some people called it “the Sh*t-It Award”). One amusing thing was that Joel didn’t tell the whole story, though. He says:

The Ship It program was announced with an incredible amount of internal fanfare and hoopla at a big company picnic. For weeks before the event, teaser posters appeared all over the corporate campus with a picture of Bill Gates and the words “Why is this man smiling?” I’m not sure what that meant. Was Bill smiling because he was happy that we now had an incentive to ship software?

There weren’t just teaser posters – every employee in the company also got a silly yellow and orange button with a pixellated picture of Bill Gates smiling on it. I’m looking at mine right now, and I distinctly remember when I picked it up from my mailslot, thinking “what the hell is this for?” I think I came in the weekend they were distributed and happened to pick mine up. What happened next may be completely apocrpyhal, but I believe that by the next morning the uncollected buttons (and, I guess, the posters) made a sudden disappearance from the campus. The story that I heard was that the “why is this man smiling?” campaign hadn’t been fully cleared with management and someone with a lot of clout went ballistic when they saw it and made them recall all the paraphanalia. So, the fact that I actually had my button was… well, it really meant nothing, but I’ve held on to it nonetheless.

Anyway, the really amusing thing is that while Joel has nothing but contempt for the program (as did most everyone else at the time, including myself), in my view it’s turned out to be a net positive. As far as incentives go, Joel’s right – it makes absolutely no difference. But Ship-It awards now function as a kind of institutional memory for those of us who’ve been around for a while. I’ll confess that I can never remember exactly when some version of some product I worked on shipped, and now I don’t have to. The ship date for Access 97 – November 18th, 1996 – is sitting right there on my shelf to remind me. It’s also a quick shorthand introduction to people when you go to their office: multiple Ship-It plaques = oldtimer. You can also see people’s histories within the company (“Oh, so you used to work on Windows and then Office…”) or the history of products within the company (VB 6.0 shipped July 1, 1998. VB 2002 shipped January 15, 2002. Between lies quite a tale.) So, yeah, it’s something that didn’t fulfill its intended, misguided purpose but I think it redeemed itself in the end in some small way, despite the scorn that was heaped on it originally. I’m glad I have mine and wouldn’t give them up.

As for the rest of the article slagging on the idea of performance reviews, I can only fall back on Churchill’s immortal quote: “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried.” There’s no question that performance reviews can have terrible effects, but what’s the alternative? Give everyone a pat on the head, say “nice work” and send them off to a nap with some warm milk and cookies? This isn’t to say that there aren’t better or worse ways to do performance reviews, but it seems cheap to dispatch them without suggesting some alternative…


Who is John Galt?

Apparently it’s the 100th anniversary of Ayn Rand’s birth, so for a brief period of time the media spotlight is shining again on the founder of Objectivism. Interestingly, there is a way in which Ayn Rand was tangentially involved in the creation of the precursor to this blog. When I received my brand-spanking new 300 baud modem for my birthday way back when, there were no BBSes in my hometown. This led to many long-distance phone bills calling places like Norfolk, VA, which made my parents oh-so-happy. Within a few months, thankfully, some local ones opened up. Most of them were the usual run-of-the-mill (i.e. boring) BBSes, but one of them had an extremely active political discussion group. Being 13 and somewhat naive, I dove into the discussion with my proto-socialist views and started duking it out with all involved. Two of the participants, who went by the names Darkshot and Cardinal Richardson, were dyed-in-the-wool libertarians who were very big on Ms. Rand (and were also usually the most interesting people to argue with). After debating for a few months, Darkshot apparently decided that although I was completely wrongheaded in my thinking, I was intelligent enough to be saved. So he took it upon himself to send me a copy of Atlas Shrugged (and some other books, I think, but I forget which ones).

When I went off to summer camp that year, I took the book with me and ended up reading it straight through. I have to say that it was probably one of the most entertaining books that I’ve ever read – it’s sort of like a comic book in fiction form. A bit of mystery, some really good good guys, some really bad bad guys and the end of the world – what could be better? It didn’t turn me into an Objectivist as hoped, but it did help sharpen my own views on things. Sadly, Darkshot passed away a few years ago but the book still has a sentimental place on my shelf. (I later tried reading The Fountainhead, but I found that it lacked the zip of Atlas Shrugged.)

The whole point of this is that in many ways the fact that, at the tender age of 13, I could go online and argue politics with adults and be taken seriously was a seriously formative experience. (As they say, on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.) The egalitarian nature of online discussion had, I think, a lot to do with my desire to run my own BBS and helped spark my interest in online communities that continues to this day. So, thanks, Ayn, and happy birthday!

(As a footnote: Atlas Shrugged also holds the distinctive honor of being the only book that I’ve finished where I didn’t read the whole book. Those of you who’ve read the book know what I’m talking about. I can still distinctly remember getting about 3 pages into Galt’s diatribe before I thought “How long does this thing go on?” and started flipping ahead. When I realized it was, like, 40 pages, that was it…)


Top 3 Strengths and Weaknesses

It’s mid-year review time again, and this year I’m resolving to do my review by the date that it’s actually due instead of when I usually do it, which is maybe two days before the actual review discussion. I’m generally positive about the review process but, I have to say, the part that gets old the longer you work here is the “Top 3 Strengths and Weaknesses” section. Back in the “old days,” when I had only been at the company, say, three years, this section was actually a very useful opportunity for me to reflect on what I did well and what I could improve on at a more general level. For example, in 1995, a new weakness showed up on my list – delegation – that reflected my move towards owning more areas in the product and beginning to have some management responsibilities. That was a good opportunity to think about why I had issues with delegation and what I could do about it, above and beyond the more targeted goals that I had for the next year.

But, c’mon. This is my 13th mid-year review and I’m running out of things to say. It’s not that I don’t have strengths and weaknesses to talk about, it’s just that they looks suspiciously like last year’s strengths and weaknesses. And the ones from the year before that. In some sense, over the course of 13 years I’ve managed to work my way through the easy weaknesses and now am engaged in the long twilight struggle against my more intractible weaknesses. I mean, I expect that I’m going to be working on my weakness concerning “dealing with ambiguity” for the forseeable future – I’ve improved a lot in the last year, and I expect to keep improving, but this is the kind of thing that is as much a part of my personality as anything else. Over the course of, say, the next ten years of my life I expect it to continue to improve, but it’s probably going to sit there on my “strengths and weaknesses” list for most of those years (assuming I’m still at Microsoft in 10 years, you never know…).

So this year I’m probably going to end up just copying last year’s list, but I’m not feeling particularly good about it. Nobody likes to feel like they’ve plateaued. So I’m choosing to view it as a sign of maturity. Yeah, right. I guess we’ll see what I come up with next year…