June 19, 2006

Front Page News

Did you ever hear the one about the man who was too busy to save time? I think we all at some stages in our lives lose sight of what we are struggling to do, when perhaps a few quiet moments of contemplation would allow us to move forward.

For a while now I've wanted to finish the www.holdenweb.com front page news feature so I could get on to newer AJAX-based work. The solution, of course, was staring me in the face when I looked for it: instead of holding up AJAX to finish off a pre-AJAX project I could actually use AJAX to speed up its completion. This strategy has worked well.

The original news feed was based on a programmed search of O'Reilly's Meerkat stream aggregator, but Meerkat went away and anyway the mechanism was cumbersome and error prone. I was looking for something lightweight that the mythical "average web user" would be able to use in a fairly foolproof way. I am happy to say that the first prototype is working exceptionally well, and the holdenweb.com front page can now be as up to date as I am!

At the moment the holdenweb.org site is still being generated the old-fashioned way, but I predict the retrofit to this parallel site will be easy.

June 15, 2006

Sitting with Nellie

When I started work "sitting with Nellie" (which meant watching an experienced member of staff do a job, and eventually graduating through helping to doing it oneself) was a time-honoured way of learning to perform a task. Back in mediaeval times it could take five years or more to learn a trade by apprecticeship, but you were a fully trained master when you were finished. Apprenticeships fell out of fashion when companies wanted their staff to be more versatile (and hence more interchangeable), and their death was hastened by the rise of "the training industry" in the 1960s, (with an interest in the training revenues that formal training and its inevitable out-sourcing brought with it).

Apprenticeships may no longer be appropriate, but it's also undeniable that sitting with Nellie had certain advantages over formal training. From a personal standpoint the major advantage was the ability to soak up what I might grandly call the prevailing culture and ethos - to learn how the place worked by talking to people who had been around much longer. I well remember having some of my more naiive assumptions and suppositions being questioned hard by cynics whose cynicism was borne of experience (and sometimes occasioning much good-humoured amusement).

Interestingly, Jon Udell has recently observed that the open source world could use similar techniques to educate people about what was involved in developing software, and specifically the techniques and tools used by the open source world. This approach to an extent generalises (because the open source world is very diverse and so the tools of one project may not be appropriate for another), but the idea has a lot of merit. Ted Leung has further observed that children really don't have any effective way of finding out what they'd like to do, and that a "sitting with Nellie" approach could be helpful in this respect too. This rings true with my own experience. Google's Summer of Code project allows open source projects to offer some experience to students for a liimted period, but there's a lot more we could do.

Le plus ça change, le plus c'est la même chose, as they say in France. We need to realise that change isn't always a good thing and, even if a change once were good, it needn't necessarily be permanent. Perhaps when apprenticeships were discarded an important baby was thrown out with the bathwater of restrictive work practices. Let's see if we can't arrange to have would-be programmers spending some time sitting with Nellie.