Category Archives: Personal

External Requests Versus Internal Requirements

A commenter observed that a side-effect of my blog reset is that now any answers on Stack Overflow that pointed to my blog are broken. This is an unfortunate situation that I didn’t consider when I decided to reset my blog, and it did give me some pangs of regret when I looked at the list of answers that referred to me. It also got me thinking about the inevitable conflict in life between external requests (i.e. things other people want from me) and internal requirements (i.e. things that I want for myself).

From the Internet’s perspective, it would be happy if every piece of information that ever appears on the web would: a) stay on the web forever, and b) stay in exactly the same place forever. This makes total sense from the collective perspective—I’ve been amazed by the number of times that I’ve gone to research some obscure thing (such as how to unbind a DOS executable from a DOS 4/GW extender… don’t ask me why) and found some answer from back in the dark ages (like, 1996). Information disappearing, from a public utility standpoint, is a Very Bad Thing because you never know how useful that information might be some day. In college I was always amazed at the variety of interesting historical information that could be deduced from everyday things like private letters, diaries, commercial correspondence, etc. The true enemy of the scholar indeed is people who throw away… well, anything, really.

But from my perspective, it’s a lot of dead weight. I mean, a lot of the stuff I dumped off my blog was written five or six years ago. Some of it was wrong and a lot of it was irrelevant when looked at through the lens of later events. Some of it reminded me of things that I’d rather forget all about. And some of it was, frankly, embarrassing. One could say, “Well, then, just don’t look at it!” And, most of the time, I didn’t. But, you know, it was still there, taunting me from the archive list on the right hand side of the blog.

Some changes in my personal life recently motivated me to go through a bunch of boxes that had been sitting in storage for years. They were mostly full of stuff from my high school and college years—old papers, letters, other random stuff. I’d been holding on to a lot of it because, well, it was my stuff. But in looking through it, I realized how much of a burden most it had become. Like the blog, I didn’t look at the boxes very often, but there they always were, taking up space, having to be moved around, making me keep track of them. So I decided to go through and throw away anything that didn’t have a strong, tangible, positive, personal meaning to me. I’d say I threw away about 90% of what I had stored in those boxes, tons of stuff I no longer even remembered anything about. And the wonderful thing? Once I was over the initial trauma, I felt a lot better, freer, and lighter. It’s amazing what wonders getting rid of old stuff can do for you, even if it does make my theoretical future biographer’s job harder.

So my apologies to the Internet: I realize that losing my miniscule contributions to global knowledge might make life a little more difficult, and I’m sorry about that. But I have to say: I feel a whole lot better letting go of that stuff. I’m sure it’s going to cost me some (or even a lot) of visitors, but it seems like a small price to pay. At least, for me.

You should also follow me on Twitter here.

Murphy’s Computer Law

A long time ago, my family took a trip to Expo `86 in Vancouver, with stop offs in San Francisco and Los Angeles. In LA, we went on the Universal studio tour, something which I basically have no memory of. I did get a memento, though-a poster entitled “Murphy’s Computer Law” with a bunch of humorous computing “laws” on it. This poster went up in my room, accompanied me to college and has been in most of my offices at Microsoft. However, a few years ago, a corner ripped off in a move. Then while it was sitting around waiting to be repaired, it got a bit stained. And then I realized just how dated and ratty the thing looked. So, I figured it’s time to retire it. However, I would like to hang on to the “laws” since some of them are are still quite pertinent, even if some are quite outdated. So here they are, on my “permanent record:”

Murphy’s Computer Law:

  1. Murphy never would have used one.
  2. Murphy would have loved them.

Bove’s Theorem: The remaining work to finish in order to reach your goal increases as the deadline approaches.

Brooks’ Law: Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later.

Canada Bill Jones’ Motto: It’s morally wrong to allow na‹ve end users to keep their money.

Cann’s Axiom: When all else fails, read the instructions.

Clarke’s Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Deadline-Dan’s Demo Demonstration: The higher the “higher-ups” are who’ve come to see your demo, the lower your chances are of giving a successful one.

Deadline-Dan’s Demon: Every task takes twice as long as you think it will take. If you double the time you think it will take, it will actually take four times as long.

Demian’s Observation: There is always one item on the screen menu that is mislabeled and should read “ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE.”

Dr. Caligari’s Come-back: A bad sector disk error occurs only after you’ve done several hours of work without performing a backup.

Estridge’s Law: No matter how large and standardized the marketplace is, IBM can redefine it. [ed, later “Microsoft”, now “Apple,” I guess]

Finagle’s Rules:

  1. To study an application best, understand it thoroughly before you start.
  2. Always keep a record of data. It indicates you’ve been working.
  3. Always draw your curves, then plot the reading.
  4. In case of doubt, make it sound convincing.
  5. Program results should always be reproducible. They should all fail in the same way.
  6. Do not believe in miracles. Rely on them.

Franklin’s Rule: Blessed is the end user who expects nothing, for he/she will not be disappointed.

Gilb’s Laws of Unreliability:

  1. At the source of every error which is blamed on the computer you will find at least two human errors, including the error of blaming it on the computer.
  2. Any system which depends on human reliability is unreliable.
  3. Undetectable errors are infinite in variety, in contrast to detectable errors, which by definition are limited.
  4. Investment in reliability will increase until it exceeds the probable cost of errors, or until someone insists on getting some useful work done.

Gummidge’s Law: The amount of expertise varies in inverse proportion to the number of statements understood by the general public.

Harp’s Corollary to Estridge’s Law: Your “IBM PC-compatible” computer grows more incompatible with every passing moment.

Heller’s Law: The first myth of management is that it exists.

Hinds’ Law of Computer Programming:

  1. Any given program, when running, is obsolete.
  2. If a program is useful, it will have to changed.
  3. If a program is useless, it will have to be documented.
  4. Any given program will expand to fill all available memory.
  5. The value of a program is proportional to the weight of its output.
  6. Program complexity grows until it exceeds the capability of the programmer who must maintain it.
  7. Make it possible for programmers to write programs in English, and you will find that programmers cannot write English.

Hoare’s Law of Large Programs: Inside every large program is a small program struggling to get out.

The Last One’s Law of Program Generators: A program generator creates programs that are more “buggy” than the program generator.

Meskimen’s Law: There’s never time to do it right, but always time to do it over.

Murphy’s Fourth Law: If there is a possibility of several things going wrong, the one that will cause the most damage with be the one to go wrong.

Murphy’s Law of Thermodynamics: Things get worse under pressure.

Ninety-Ninety Rule of Project Schedules: The first ninety percent of the task takes ninety percent of the time, and the last ten percent takes the other ninety percent. [ed: words to live by]

Nixon’s Theorem: The man who can smile when things go wrong has thought of someone he can blame it on.

Nolan’s Placebo: An ounce of image is worth a pound of performance.

Osborn’s Law: Variables won’t, constants aren’t.

O’Toole’s Commentary on Murphy’s Law: Murphy was an optimist.

Peer’s Law: The solution to a problem changes the problem.

Rhode’s’ Corollary to Hoare’s Law: Inside every complex and unworkable program is a useful routine struggling to be free.

Robert E. Lee’s Truce: Judgment comes from experience; experience comes from poor judgment.

Sattinger’s Law: It works better if you plug it in.

Shaw’s Principle: Build a system that even a fool can use, and only a fool will want to use it. [ed: also known as “Bob’s Law”]

SNAFU Equations:

  1. Given an problem containing N equations, there will be N+1 unknowns.
  2. An object or bit or information most needed will be least available.
  3. Any device requiring service or adjustment will be least accessible.
  4. Interchangeable devices won’t.
  5. In any human endeavor, once you have exhausted all possibilities and fail, there will be one solution, simple and obvious, highly visible to everyone else.
  6. Badness comes in waves.

Thoreau’s Theories of Adaptation:

  1. After months of training and you finally understand all of a program’s commands, a revised version of the program arrives with an all-new command structure. [ed: also known the “Office Principle”]
  2. After designing a useful routine that gets around a familiar “bug” in the system, the system is revised, the “bug” is taken away, and you’re left with a useless routine.
  3. Efforts in improving a program’s “user friendliness” invariably lead to work in improving user’s “computer literacy.”
  4. That’s not a “bug”, that’s a feature!

Weinberg’s Corollary: An expert is a person who avoids the small errors while sweeping on to the grand fallacy.

Weinberg’s Law: If builders built buildings the way programmers write programs, then the first woodpecker that came along would destroy civilization.

Zymurgy’s First Law of Evolving System Dynamics: Once you open a can of worms, the only way to recan them is to use a larger can.

Wood’s Axiom: As soon as a still-to-be-finished computer task becomes a life-or-death situation, the power fails.

T-SQL Tuesday #8: Learning and Teaching

T-SQL Tuesday

Since I’m joining the T-SQL community, I thought I’d try my hand at a “T-SQL Tuesday” that I could actually have an opinion about. This week’s question (hosted by Robert Davis, a.k.a. @SQLSoldier on Twitter) is “How do you learn? How do you teach? What are you learning or teaching?” and is very relevant for me because, of course, I just joined the T-SQL team a short while ago and am doing a whole lot of learning at the moment.

How I learn

I was going to say “by doing,” but I don’t think that’s accurate enough because there are lots of kinds of “doing.” I’m reminded of something they said when I was learning to ballroom dance for my wedding reception. They said that when learning anything new, people tend to go through four distinct stages: “unconscious incompetence” (i.e. you don’t know how bad you are), “conscious incompetence” (i.e. you know exactly how bad you are), “conscious competence” (i.e. you’re good but you have to pay attention), and “unconscious competence” (i.e. you’re good and it seems effortless). So when I’m starting something new, I’m doing a lot things but most of what I’m doing is learning just how little I actually know. That’s helpful and necessary, but it’s not exactly what I call “real” learning. The real learning seems to come between the second and third stages-when I’ve discovered just how bad I am and am now working on figuring out how to be less bad. When I get to the fourth stage, the learning starts to taper down and that’s when I really get to enjoy the state of knowing (which I think is also called the state of “flow”) and I get to have a lot of fun.

The interesting implication of this is that when I’m entering a new area, my first attempts are necessarily going to not be that great because I don’t know what I don’t know yet. So the initial doing isn’t really very helpful in learning the area, nor is it likely to look much like what I’m going to end up with if I keep on learning. But it’s only when I’ve got something and I know, at least at some level, how bad it is that I can start learning the area. Ironically, when the true learning starts it mostly looks like anal-retentiveness and neat-freakishness-going over and over and over something I’ve done, trying to make it better and suck less. In other words, to start really learning something I have to take something I’ve already done and go back and start pulling at the loose threads, seeing how it unravels and then figuring out how to reweave it properly. That’s when I really get to figure out how the things are supposed to work.

(I’ll note here that this is the number one mistake that I’ve seen most new programmers make. They’re like the verse from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

They write their code once and then abandon it, never returning, always moving on to the next thing. Thus, they never actually get the chance to learn how to do things properly and always stay in that state of unconscious incompetence.)

Ironically, the situation I’m stepping into in SQL Server is perfect for “real” learning because I get to largely shortcut through the first stage of unconscious incompetence. That is to say, there’s already this large, mature artifact (i.e. the SQL Server codebase), so I don’t need to go through the trouble of creating something imperfect-someone’s already done that for me. I can spend just a few short weeks realizing just how little I actually know about anything and then jump straight to pulling threads and seeing what starts coming apart. Metaphorically, of course. I’m not gunning to have SQL Server fall apart on me or anything.

I actually think this can be more fun than starting something brand new and blazing the path, which isn’t the way the world sees it, oftentimes.

How I teach

I think I’m actually going to touch on this in more detail soon, but the short answer is: “by writing.” I’m pretty consciously incompetent when it comes to standing up in front of people and teaching them things, but I’ve been practicing writing for a whole lot longer and am better at it than speaking. And writing is just another form of what I was talking about in the previous section-first, I sit down and try to write down an explanation of whatever it is I’m trying to say. Then I realize how pathetically inadequate it is (most of the time) at saying what I want it to say. Or how little I understand what I’m trying to talk about. So I start pulling on the threads again and seeing what I can unravel and rework. And I find myself learning more not only about the process and practice of writing, but also more about whatever it is I’m trying to explain.

I think writing can be a wonderful way to teach people things, but I think it only really works-even technical writing!-if you follow the dictum of “writing what you know (and love).” In the end, I guess any teaching medium works if the teacher is interested enough in the subject, knowledgeable enough about it, and has a real passion for teaching (as opposed to a passion for having people listen to them, which is something entirely different).

Well, that’s about it. Hope this was interesting!

There are only three types of programmers in the world…

..and they are:

  1. Programmers who want to write an operating system
  2. Programmers who want to write a compiler
  3. Programmers who want to write a database

It’s not that every programmer ever actually works on one of these, just that every programmer seems to dream of doing one of these things. It’s the primary reason why things like Linux exist. Yes, open source, blah, blah, blah, OS choices, blah, blah, blah, evil Microsoft, blah, blah, blah. But I would bet my bottom dollar that 9 out of 10 of the people donating their valuable time to the Linux project do so not because they want an alternative to Windows but because they always dreamed of being OS hackers. It’s also why there are so many damn programming languages out there, all the people who sit around dreaming of being, I don’t know, James Gosling or something.

(I think with the advent of the Internet, it’s likely that there’s now a fourth kind of programmer who wants to write websites, but I’m not totally sure about that yet.)

The interesting thing about these categories is that the Venn diagram tends, in my experience, to be pretty distinct-most “data” guys aren’t also “language” guys, and most “language” guys aren’t also “OS” guys, and so on. My theory is that it’s like the parable of the blind men and the elephant: although we all grapple with basically the same set of problems, each kind of programmer grapples with a different aspect of it.

The blind men and the elephant

I say all this because although I started out working in databases, it’s clear to me that I’ve always been a “language” guy. In college, I did so-so in the OS course and never touched a database course (I’m not even sure they were offered), but my compiler course netted me a special letter of commendation from the professor (the only one I ever got). Anyway, now I’m back in the “data” world as an even more confirmed “language” guy and the most interesting thing is how many of the problems are the same, but the way they’re conceptualized, handled, or even talked about, are different from what I’ve been used to working on programming languages. It’s kind of. refreshing to see things in a different light. More on that soon.

All good things…

As difficult as it is to say, I wanted to let my loyal readers know that after a decade spent working on Visual Basic, I’ve made the decision to change jobs at Microsoft.

It’s somewhat hard for even me to imagine just how long I’ve worked on Visual Basic. I joined the Developer Division (VB’s home) over 11.5 years ago to work on OLE Automation. A year and a half after that, I moved over to the VB team proper to work on the compiler’s code generator just as we started the move to what would become .NET. In some ways it seems like just yesterday, but in many other ways it feels like several lifetimes ago. In the intervening decade, I’ve worked on 4.1 versions of Visual Basic (including our forthcoming version), during which time an amazing amount of stuff has happened to the VB language, the VB community, Visual Studio, and development tools in general. The development world looks very different than it did when I started, and that’s generally been a wonderful thing.

But as the current release started to wind down from a design perspective, I started asking myself whether it was time for a change. And, after thinking about it quite a bit and talking to quite a few people, I decided that it was. As much fun as it has been to work on Visual Basic, I felt the need to be doing something different than what I’ve been doing. And so I made the decision that it was time to move on. Sort of.

You see, although the fact that I’m leaving is a big deal in some ways, it’s not as big a deal as you might expect. Even as I physically move to another team, in many ways I’m not really going anywhere. I’ll be carrying with me a title of “Visual Basic Language Designer Emeritus,” meaning that I will continue to participate in the VB language design process and will continue to work to ensure the VB language specification is kept complete and up to date (although I will no longer have primary authorship responsibilities). I’m also still planning to give the VB talk at the PDC in October and talking about all the exciting things we’ve done for the upcoming release plus some ideas about where things will be going in the more distant future.

As to my next challenge, well, there isn’t a whole lot I can say about that… yet. I’ve got some personal ideas rattling around in my head that I’m going to get some time to spend working on, but my day job is going to be working with guys like Douglas Purdy, Don Box and Chris Anderson on the Oslo product. In particular, I’m going to be helping out with the subject of this talk. Expect to hear more from me about it once we’ve gotten to the PDC.

Even though I’ll be spending a good bit of my time on Oslo, though, I’ll still going to be an active member of the VB community. I’ll still be talking about VB on this blog, opining on the language and it’s future, and, I’m sure, continuing to answer lots of questions. I’ll be continuing to use VB and am really excited where the product is going in this release and the next one (but more about that at the PDC!). Over time, I do expect my place in the VB community will fade somewhat as the new blood on the VB team really starts to come into its own, but for the time being things will continue to go along much as they have been. And, of course, VB will always have a special place in my heart.

This isn’t really goodbye but I did want to take the opportunity to thank all of the people out there who have used VB, who’ve read my blog, and who’ve written me or talked to me about VB. The VB community has been one of the major reasons that I have enjoyed working on VB so much (and for so long!), and every one of you have played a major role in that. There have certainly been controversies, disagreements, and blow ups, but I really think that VB has one of the finest user communities that I’ve ever participated in, and that I will be lucky if I work on products in the future that attract such a passionate, intelligent, and caring group of people. I can’t say how much I appreciate all the great times that everyone has given me over the years!

So, the blog will continue, I’ll still be talking about VB, and soon I’ll have some additional interesting and exciting things from my new job to talk about too. The next ten years should be just as fun as the previous ten have been!

I haven’t given up blogging yet…

Just a quick note for those who might care–I haven’t given up blogging just yet, even though January was the first time in the history of this blog that I went without saying anything for a month. My wife, kids and I went on a big vacation to the Dominican Republic in January, with a swing by the East Coast for a baptism for good measure, and that took up most of the month! Then, just as I was starting to dig myself out of the hole from that trip, I was off for another week. So needless to say, I’ve got a good sized backlog of stuff to get out on the blog. I’ll apologize in advance for any old news…


In a context completely unrelated to computers or my work, someone gave me a copy of one of those “word a day” calendar entries for the word “mortmain”. You can see the fuller definition here, but one definition is:

The oppressive influence of past events or decisions.

Only after I tacked it up in my office did people start pointing out to me the irony.

It was 15 years ago today…

It’s hard to believe it, but 6/21/2007 marks the 15th anniversary of my permanent arrival in Seattle. I’d spent the summer before in Redmond interning, but in June of 1992, I graduated from college, bought a car, packed up my stuff, and headed out to Seattle. When people would ask me how long I expected to work at Microsoft, I said, “I don’t know… I guess I’ll stay three to five years and then figure out what I’m going to do with the rest of my life.” Tomorrow, of course, marks the 15th anniversary of starting work at Microsoft.

On the one hand, an incredible amount has changed at Microsoft and in my life since then. On the other hand, I’m still working with the person who had the office next to me when I joined. Life, I guess, is funny that way.