Category Archives: Writing

The Story of the Bill Gates Quote

Recently I told the story of my one product review with Bill Gates, and I said that there was one other terrifying encounter I had with him (well, really, his world) but it would have to wait for another day. As luck had it, I was talking with someone a couple of nights ago who works in Bill’s extended universe and ended up relating my second story, so I thought I’d go ahead and share it here too.

Those with long memories may know that I wrote a book on Visual Basic that came out around the time of Visual Studio 2003. Here’s a picture of it, from Amazon:

Book Cover

If you look up there at the top of the book cover, you’ll see a teeny quote that reads:

Visual Basic is a cornerstone of Microsoft’s development tools–and this book is a key language reference for Visual Basic. — Bill Gates, Chairman, Microsoft Corporation

How exciting! Bill f**king Gates read my book! Well, not really. Here’s what happened…

It all started when my publisher said that they were going to be meeting with Steve Ballmer to discuss the .NET book series that my book was a part of. They said that they were going to ask if maybe Steve would be willing to write a forward for my book since BASIC has such a long and storied history at Microsoft. I said that sounded great and then it hit me that I was friends with Bill Gate’s technical assistant at the time, and so I said that, hey, maybe I could see about getting a forward from Bill himself (since of course, BASIC was his first product!). They thought that was a great idea, of course, so off I went.

My friend directed me to Bill’s writer (the guy who did speeches, etc.) and I had a nice chat with him through email. He said there was basically no way that Bill would do a forward since, as you can imagine, he was getting millions of requests to write forwards and they just had a blanket policy of saying “no.” In talking a little, he did say that he thought it would be OK to do a quote for the cover, assuming that everyone understood that: a) this was a one time thing, and b) not to go around talking about how Bill gave me a quote for my book, since they didn’t want to open the floodgates or anything. He thought it was a small enough thing that I could just come up with the quote, he’d wordsmith it and approve it, and we’d be done–no need to get Bill involved in something so small. Great! I told my publisher and they were ecstatic.

Then one morning I come into work and I’ve got an email in my inbox from someone in my VP’s office saying, “I need to talk to you about a quote your publisher is getting from Bill? Do you know anything about this?”

Oh, s**t.

You see, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about powerful people, it’s that they tend to have an “external immune system” made up of people who’s job it is to filter out the avalanche of requests, demands, pleadings, and just plain crazies who want to get some part of them. It’s just a fact of life. And, furthermore, if you’re dealing with a powerful person you do not want to trip this immune response because it can get pretty tense pretty quickly, especially when you happen to be working for the company that they run. Which it became clear pretty quickly was exactly what I had done.

What had happened was that someone high up at my publisher had met with Bill for some reason or another, and in conversation had thanked him for providing the quote for my book. At which point, Bill apparently said, “What quote?” And BOOM! the immune response started gearing up, trying to figure out exactly where this “quote” had come from and who exactly it was who was claiming to speak for one of the richest men on the planet. Within hours, I was in conversation with senior people at my publisher, with Bill’s personal assistant, with my VP’s personal assistant, with my VP himself, and with Bill’s writer (who, understandably, was not pleased that I had managed to screw up this favor he did me). In the end, I profusely apologized, the quote was vetted a bit more, the immune response quieted down, and the book got published. But it was very tense there for a moment. I really didn’t want to be known to upper management only as “the guy who tricked Bill Gates into giving him a quote for his stupid book.”

Suffice it to say, time has gone on. I moved on from VB, Bill’s moved on to other pursuits (as has my old VP), and the book, while it did OK, was never updated past 2003. But just reading the old emails, which I did in preparation for writing this, got my heart going again just a bit. Not something I think I’d ever want to repeat…

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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!

Beta VB 9.0 language specification released…

While I was visiting MSR Cambridge this week with some other people from Redmond, Beth put up the Beta 2 version of the Visual Basic Language specification on our developer center–so she got to beat me to the announcement! This updated language specification corresponds to Visual Studio 2008 and covers the following major new features:

  • Friend assemblies (InternalsVisibleTo)
  • Relaxed delegates
  • Local type inferencing
  • Anonymous types
  • Extension methods
  • Nullable types
  • Ternary operator
  • Query expressions
  • Object initializers
  • Expression trees
  • Lambda expressions
  • Generic type inferencing
  • Partial methods

The following features are not covered but should be shortly:

  • XML Members
  • XML Literals
  • XML Namespaces

The XML features are a little more difficult because I’m debating how much I should just refer to the XML 1.0 spec, versus how much I should specify explicitly. I’ll probably err a little more on the side of the latter, since it’ll be necessary for understandability…

Language Specification: Useful? Not?

Random question for people: how many people out there actually ever look at the VB language specification? The original purpose of writing the language specification was purely for internal use, done so we’d have a reasonably authoritative explanation of the language aside from “whatever the compiler does” and “whatever MSDN happens to say.” And to have a place where historical thinking could be preserved for future generations of VB team members, so there’d be some chance in hell that we could avoid making the same mistakes twice. But how useful is it for the public? Not that much, I would imagine, but I’m curious.

There should be a second edition of the 8.0 spec coming out in the next few months. Besides a bunch of corrections, it also cleans up the formatting and also–surprise, surprise–actually ensures that all the examples work and do what the spec says they will do. Up until now, language specifications have been published in Word, but with the new PDF tools that are available for Word, that’s an option too. Do people like the Word format? Would you prefer PDF? Or both?

And finally, how tied are people to the structure of the specification? The Everett and Whidbey specifications only added on but didn’t change the ordering of existing sections. Orcas will likely do the same. But beyond that, I’ve been toying with the idea of restructuring the spec a bit to make it a little clearer and put topics that should go together, together. I’m wondering if that would really throw people, or whether people wouldn’t mind adapting. Not really a short-term issue, but…

The Visual Basic Language, 2nd Edition?

Over the past several months, I’ve been getting questions as to whether I’m going to be updating my book, The Visual Basic .NET Language, for VB 2005. The unfortunate answer is: not at the moment.

The first problem is that the VB .NET book market has been quite soft over the past year or two. This is not entirely surprising — although uptake on VB .NET has been very good considering the fact that the shift from VB6 to VB 2002 or VB 2003 was significant, it’s been (as I’ve always said it would be) a long-term process. We’re seeing continuously growing momentum behind VB .NET, and VB 2005 is shaping up to be a very big release for VB, but the fact is that the gradual transition has temporarily weakened the market for VB .NET books. It probably also doesn’t help that a so much of people’s VB6 experience transfers into VB .NET, thus lessening the need for a whole new shelf of books. The end result is that Addison-Wesley is taking a wait-and-see attitude towards a new edition of the book. I expect that with the release of VB 2005, the market realities are going to shift, but we’ll just have to see.

The other problem is that even if AW was breaking down my door to get me to write a second edition, I’ve been so consumed by LINQ planning that I’m not really sure when I’d have the time. Just getting the language specification updated for VB 2005 has been difficult enough… But I’m sure that I could squeeze it in there somewhere…

The end result is that what’s out there in my book is all there’s going to be for a little while. I still think that the book holds up very well in the face of our VB 2005 updates — most of the things that need to be added to the book are pretty advanced features like generics and operator overloading, things that many people aren’t going to miss. And all the fundamental stuff still is extremely applicable to VB 2005. So I still think it’s a good buy. However, as time goes on, it’s inevitable that those holes will become more glaring, so I’ll continue to work with AW to see if we can’t get an update out there in the reasonably near future!

Vote for Me!

Now I know that you’re all saying to yourselves: “Paul, I read your blog religiously, I’ve bought your book, I’ve gone to all the talks you’ve given, I’ve listened to the .NET Rocks show you were on, I’m even considering getting your name tattooed across my… What else can I possibly do to show my love for you?”

I’m glad you asked!

My friends at Addison-Wesley let me know that my book, The Visual Basic .NET Programming Language, has been nominated for a Sys-Con Reader’s Choice award! I’m up against some pretty stiff competition, so I urge everyone who liked my book and who subscribes (or wants to subscribe) to go to their voting page and vote for the book! And, as an added incentive, every person who votes for me will earn a free gift: my personal and undying gratitude! (Offer void where prohibited. No monetary value. Not available in WA, VA, CT, TX, IA, OK, ND, WV or Puerto Rico. See stores for more details.)

I’m rich, I’m rich!

Well, not really. However, I did get my first royalty check for The Visual Basic .NET Programming Language this week, which was exciting. Since this was my first book, I had no idea at all: a) how many books I might sell and b) how much that might mean in royalties. I was just hoping that it might bring in enough to, you know, go to McDonalds for a dinner or two.

I still have no idea if the book is selling “well,” since I have no idea what to compare the numbers to, but the royalties were quite a bit more than I had imagined. (Which may be more of a testament to my pessimistic expectations than to the size of the check.) I mean, it’s not like it’s a huge amount of money and I’m certainly not quitting my day job yet to write full time – I’ll leave that to the Petzolds of the world – but it ain’t nothin’. I still haven’t done the calculation yet, though, to figure out what the current “per hour” rate would have been for writing the book. That might still be a bit depressing…

Now just go out there and buy, buy, buy the book! Buy a second, third, fourth copy! Perish the thought that sales should fall off and I’d have to go back to buying lottery tickets to fuel my dreams of vast wealth…

Sample chapter is available

For those of you who’ve been considering buying my book but just want to make sure that it’s worth whatever they’re charging for it these days, Addison-Wesley (my publishers) has provided a sample chapter online in PDF format. The chapter is about inheritance, so it should give you a good idea of what the rest of the book is going to be like.

As always, you can buy the book here.

My God, they’re right!

Someone – I forget who – told me that “once you get a copy of your book, it never fails that the first page that you open it to is going to have a glaring error on it, so be prepared.” I thought, “yeah, right.”

So I just opened the book for maybe the second or third time to look something up, and sure enough – right there on the page was a massive, glaring, obvious, how-could-I-and-all-the-other-reviewers-miss-it error.

Ug. I need an aspirin.