Saturday, November 28, 2009


I don't know what is wrong with me but, somehow, I ended up on an underdog technology again. With the recent and still fragile recovery of the economy we've seen a lot of interest for mobile access to our applications. As our applications are web based the basic access is there but with more and more sophisticated smartphones just simplified CSS and layout that fits the small screen doesn't cut it anymore.
I've been using iPhone for quite some time now. Besides the usual stuff everybody would do I also spent some time testing out the API for the kind of boring business applications we do. While the basic search/form screens are pretty easy to do (I can hardly imagine a platform where that would be difficult) I hit quite a number of problems with more complicated apps. While most of those issues disappeared on a jail-broken phone, I can foresee some resistance asking my customers to jailbreak their 20 phones. Technology issues aside there's still a major problem with distribution. Pretty much the only way to effectively distribute the iPhone applications is through AppStore, which may not be the most ideal way for our kind of applications used by a few people. While there is an enterprise license that allows private AppStore it's available for companies with minimum of 500 employees...
Thanks to the CodeXtreme competition I got to play with Android. Of course, it doesn't feel as 'cool' as iPhone...which, luckily is not so much of an issue with enterprise apps. Despite the fact I was happily (almost) Java-free for the past 4 years I found the java based development to be a positive thing. Not only because Java has become THE language at universities around and even fresh grads don't feel totally lost and overwhelmed by a completely new language and environment but I actually found it quite efficient for writing our kind of apps. There's already quite a number of open source apps around that can help with inspiration or solutions to many problems. To mention freedom...Android allows me to do whatever I need or want without any artificial restrictions. I have to do whatever the customers require and it's quite enough to fight with actual constrains, like screen size, Internet connection, GPS timeouts without having to worry about someone's idea of what should or should not be allowed. On top of all that Android not only allows me to do whatever I want - it actually allows me to deploy my apps. The distribution channel is open (not to mention free). While I understand the arguments for AppStore as a guardian of purity and quality of distributed's not really workable or applicable in my business.
My point is that just like with many other technologies, smartphones are slowly moving from home user to corporate user. And corporate users have quite different needs and expectations. It's not so much about coolness and effects as it is about getting the job done. Whether it is to access CRM, process on-site sale, collect data, fleet/position monitoring, authenticate access... Currently, we're working on a few bigger projects with Android integration. Two of them are mostly for data collection. While data collection has been around since like forever - a simple integration of camera, barcode scanning support, GPS and immediate data update on the server gives it a completely different dimension. Instead of waiting months for the paper forms to be processed you have instant results with a lot of important metadata. You can immediately see the trends and adjust as you go. The rest of the applications we're working on utilize GPS (location based systems). Just recently, the government implemented a system for tracking social workers. They fixed an RFID tag on the doors of senior citizens that the social workers need to visit. The social workers are given portable RFID readers and on arrival to the place they scan the tag. On their return the scanned data is synchronized with the system to plot the social worker's visits. We've got similar requests from a number of companies - from courier companies, through transportation companies to pretty much any company that provides delivery or onsite services. In many such cases it's not an option to use RFID (aircond repair shop can hardly put RFID tag on all their customers doors). While there are solutions for fleet tracking, the cost of $200 per vehicle per month is not only too much for a small company but it's also tied to a vehicle. While the AGPS is far from perfect even with all the timeouts and wrong position readings it still can provide quite accurate and very timely position.
The technology usually doesn't change in the vacuum. During the previous economic boom we were replacing DOS and Access based applications with web based systems thanks to the rise of cheap Internet and cheap portable computers. Most of our clients (especially business owners) didn't initially really grasp the advantage of being able to access their applications from anywhere - what really mattered at the end was that they could access it from home. After all, they've been working from the office their whole lives - as that's where all the resources and all the data were. Then they slowly started using the systems from outside the know check customer's phone number, check the order status because they got a call from customer...soon they were leaving office early able to do parts of the work in evenings from living room, coming in late - being able to check sales, invoicing, bills, attendance, work orders or any other operational details from home just as well as from the office. Today, the same customers have smartphones...not just because it's cool - but because they can access their data from ANYWHERE...which is kind of cool, after all. The paradigm is shifting again.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Professional Certification

Just a few days ago I was laughing at real-estate agents that they may soon be required to pass an entrance examination to test them in practical knowledge as well as moral soundness (out of curiosity will this be a multiple choice test?). While it was expected - they are pretty much the last profession without any education or knowledge required, yet they represent you on your single highest monthly expense (in SG). The fact that there is no law regulating the real estate market does not make the situation easier - it doesn't mean no law - nothing to know - everybody plays by they own rules. Two days later I stopped laughing...seems that we're next...

As I've said so many times on so many places, I really believe in professional certification (and I completely respect those who don't), however, it really matters how this certification is done. For that reason I (mostly) don't really care about academic (university) results as they mostly represent ability to know a little about many things but nothing about one thing. They are very important in other aspects, though. As explained in books like The Talent Code and Talent is Overrated I believe that to really know something you need to clock-in your 10,000 hours of practice. I teach ruby/rails programming in 2.5 days course and I am able to cover almost everything to get you started writing even ERP solution, but does that mean that after 2.5 days of intensive training you're proficient in ruby or rails? Yes - if you spend the next few years working with it.

As such I was first quite enthusiastic to read that the government is stepping in to regulate our profession as well. Thanks to the thousands of failed projects and millions of government money wasted they decided that the current practice of audit after the project completion is as effective in weeding out failing vendors as a postmortem is in weeding out smoking. While many times the problem is on both sides - the vendor's as well as the client's - the experience of the vendor can make up for a lot of issues on clients side. Most of our clients went through a software development experience once or twice in their lives - while we go through it every day. I am talking about SME market here - where the projects go anything but as planned. Running a small business is like yachting - constantly monitoring the wind, the sea and reacting to every small change - either capitalize on it or run from devastating effects. While it's essential to standardize the processes - otherwise there's no business to run - you have to be ever ready to unfreeze the process adjust and freeze again. And your IT infrastructure either moves with you or against you. That's why the SME landscape looks so different to government regulated, without exception SAP dominated MNC market.

Back to certification, imagine my surprise to find out that the certification has been outsourced to an NGO that specializes in Microsoft certification. In fact, they do exclusively Microsoft certification and now this. First I thought, this may not be so bad - I can surely brush up on some VB craft if that's what it takes to be professional in 2010. But it gets worse. There is no preparation and there is no exam. Your professional level is black box decided solely based on 4,000 words self assessment essay of your past 6 years. No interview, no actual review of your work - 4,000 words of narration. On top of this you of course have to sign up for membership in this great organization because the certificate is only valid with a paid membership. Talk about business model - the costs - read a short essay - the revenue $800 for reading and $100 every year after. And since it's becoming a government requirement - not only the new members HAVE to come to you - even the old ones HAVE to stay - a truly new level of marketing and retention. I think universities have a lot to learn here - imagine your degree is valid so long that you pay a yearly fee. But I understand - even NGOs have to make money - and if you liken it to bar certificates lawyers have to pay every year it's not even so unusual. What still worries me a little is that Microsoft is to decide my professional level. I have a great respect for them - the company as well as the products. The problem is that I simply slipped during university and I somehow didn't get to back the right path ever since. I can only imagine a Microsoft grown professional reading my essay - my master thesis was on open source (this was back in 2000 when open source was fairly new to the business as well as academia). Besides having converted number of companies data centers from windows to linux with the exception of 1 software project all the others were done using non-microsoft technologies like Ruby, Java, Python, PostgreSql. If it was not enough we've been pioneering agile methodologies since maybe 2002 - I have not worked on waterfall model project since 2001.

Some of my friends actually suggested to write the essay as I normally would and then simply search and replace...Linux for windows, posgresql for MS Sql, java for J++, ruby for or C#, agile for waterfall.

Don't get me wrong - I am all for professional certification. All the other professions have it - so why not us. Lawyers have to pass the bar, accountants have ACCA and CPA, doctors have their attestations, even my mother as a teacher has to get recertified every 2 years. Even not so knowledge intensive professions have certifications - e.g. taxi drivers here are tested on the knowledge of the shortest path between any two points in Singapore. Of course, all those tests are considered only a prerequisite for practice - nobody really things that passing a bar will make you Allan Shore or Denny Crane. What it does is that it gives you guarantee that your lawyer or your doctor or your accountant achieved certain industry recognized standard and passed independent assesment. Why is independence of this assesment so important? After all, market numbers (or any numbers for that matter) clearly show that MS knows best how to do things. How would you like if every doctor would have to be certified by Pfizer or Merck or whoever had the best market numbers last year? Every doctor has to use their drugs anyway...

I definitelly think the governmet deserves a lot of credit for trying to improve current situation. Maybe it won't be as simple as appointing one company to award black box professional certifications...but it certainly is a step forward. And of course I know it won't be so hard...we'll all have to pass it after all.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


And it's here. I am in rehab. Okay...not really...I managed to sneak in my iPhone. But otherwise rehab in it's nicest form.
We left in the morning to have some nice breakfast...changed the plans midway to maybe make it an 'overseas' trip and get lunch in Indonesia (just a boat trip away) and when we got here we decided to stay a night in one of the resorts...
Man, how I miss these short trips...they yank you out of reality and maybe because of the sudden nature have even stronger effect than long planned holiday. This time it's even amplified by the fact that I left my notebook at home (completely unsuspecting). Over the years I got used to working pretty much anywhere...on planes, airports, coaches, starbucks and even public transport. Anyway, I've been planning on running away for some time now. Usually when we go somewhere we set up the main tent around bar area with wifi and easy access to drinks. Not this all I have is iPhone...and luckily free 3G Internet from SG (only on the beach). BTW the photo is real - it's the view from the hotel restaurant. is not the only addiction I got the break from lately. Thanks to the economic meltdown I got at least a short breather from the break neck speed of events of the past few years and finally got time to sit down and think. Think what out of the 1000 things I did which was the one that actually made some sense. Should I look at it as Thomas Edison...I had no failures I just found 1000 ways of how not to do things. If I look at it from any sane point of view the statistics are much more bleak. But...the new day is coming...and hopefully yesterday won't be forgotten. At least by me I hope. One thing I learned when helping out in changi prison and later working with the guys after release is that no matter how long the rehab, no matter how much time you have to contemplate everything wrong and every possible better way, your old ways only become more and more traecherous. You already know what and how can get wrong and that makes you believe that, as Eddison, you are getting better when, in fact, you're falling into the same trap...but because of your experience you'll be able to get deeper and deeper. I met number of different people inside...mostly drug addicts (careful - the word has a different meaning in SG than in many other countries) but also gamblers, fraudsters and fighters (even a hit man). While the drug addicts are pretty much doomed (all of them desparately plan to leave for another country but as they can get passport only after 2 years most most most most most of them can't last clean longer than a year...that was a 'most' for every hope). The fighters have it hard but they stand a bit better chance. Whom I found especially interesting were gamblers. Entrepreneurship and gambling have surprisingly a lot in common...way more than someone on a regular salary would imagine. You could almost say that gambling is enterpreneurship stripped of the hassle of idea, product, employees and pretty much everything besides the money. You start with no or very little idea where you'll end up. Sunshine doesn't last all morning...clobber doesn't last all day. What's the difference? When you run a business all this neusances become your chips. They can turn against you or they can turn to be your winning asset. Your only asset. I've probably lost more in wrong investments than any of my gambling friends...just like I've (l)earned way more than most of them. Not because the stakes are higher...because every failure or win is not just about winning or loosing...because it's not about what happens after I've won or's the journey (battle) that counts. As Andrey Bolkonsky in war and peace said....wars are not won by strategies or numbers....they're won by soldiers that want to win the war. And in every single case it comes down to that...I should say it again...but no matter how many times you've heard it you cannot possibly feel the pain of those words until you've lived through it. It's like listening to a marathon runner saying it was realy hard on 24th kilometer but than I decided to go on. If you've ever been there you know that he's saying that his feet were hurting like crazy, his knees checked out, his heart throbbing, his breath was nowhere to be found and the last pieces of sanity was saying you've proved your point...of course you can do it..,but who really cares??? Foolish...stupid even...ask any enlighten egoless swami....yet all this it really vain? I don't know...I feel like I don't know much anymore.
I do hope that this coming upturn I will have more faith in me and in what I am doing than any opportunity hunter will have in me parting with my money. After all it has, without exception, paid for all the other 'cannot lose' ideas. The other ideas were not much more stupid than whatever I am fact the strategy was way most cases the numbers were incomparably better...yet it somehow reached a point were it stopped being worth fighting for. But...why? Recently I was asked if I blieve in feng shui. After all, I did spend quite an amount of money on feng shui consultants. It never had any effect...when the consultant said you have a wealth door and I was sitting in wealth section we were in fact loosing money. When they said we should move out immediately we were in fact making money. When I pointed that out to one of the feng shui master he seemed completely unsurprised...he said I am trying to do things first and hope to believe in them later (ie when the facts can substantiate it) - unfortunatelly faith works the other way round. It picks up where reason leaves of...but if it's not there before reason took over it want be there after neither.
It's easy to believe when you see the proof sitting in front of you...but by than it's not believing any's simply accepting the facts.