I'm at Microsoft's Professional Developer's Conference (PDC) in Los Angeles, where we've heard a ton of stuff about Microsoft's forthcoming technology. A lot of the press has focused on Windows 7, and that's understandable since Windows is what many of us stare all day. I've been running Windows 7 myself since Sunday, in an pre-beta build, and I'm both impressed and unimpressed.
The good bit: Windows 7 is better than Vista in every way I can think of. Even in the pre-beta, it is fast and stable. Even better, Microsoft has worked on making Windows "quieter" - reducing the number of distracting dialogs and notifications, and giving users more control over them.
Too much "toast" popping up in the system tray? Just choose "Customize", and you can turn off notifications from applets that are annoying. Too many prompts from Vista's User Account Control, the thing that flashes the screen and asks, "Did you really want to do that"? Now there's a simple slider that lets you minimize the prompts. Provided that you avoid the lowest level, security is not much compromised.
There are other user interface changes, but the nagging question is whether Windows 7 really merits a full new version number. In fact, Microsoft says there are no core architectural changes, which is great for driver and application compatibility, but reinforces the impression that this is just Vista done right.
The biggest innovation (if you have never seen an iPhone) is the multi-touch control, which lets you use your fingers instead of the mouse. You can scroll windows with a flick of the wrist, and pinch the screen to zoom or rotate what you see. Impressive; but whereas this works well on the iPhone which is designed from scratch with this in mind, there are a couple of problems applying it to Windows. First, most of use don't have touch screens, and while that might change, it's also possible that the technology will go the same way as the current Tablet PC, into a small niche. Second, how many application developers will make the effort to support touch properly? Watch this space; but I guess it is possible that mouse and keyboard will remain by far the most common way to control Windows.
The more interesting themes at PDC are outside Windows itself. There's cloud computing, there's Visual Studio 2010, there's news on the future of C#, which as its architect Anders Hejlsberg pointed out, is now a decade old, and plenty more. I'll post separately on some of these topics.
Nevertheless, Windows 7 will be a welcome upgrade when it comes. Which is when? Microsoft won't tell, but I'm guessing we may have it in our hands by this time next year, probably earlier. OEM vendors will want it for the Autumn. To hit that date, Microsoft will need to be complete the OS by the summer. Given the lack of major changes under the hood, that strikes me as plausible.
It's hard not to love PHP: fast, powerful, and useful for anything from quick web scripts to major applications. The trouble is, PHP is just too forgiving for my taste. I've been working with PHP recently and occasionally made some silly errors (my excuse: it was late). I mostly work in other languages, so from time to time I would forget that in PHP variables all begin with a $ character. In other words, I wrote code like this:
$err = 0;
print("<b>No match with this username and password. Please try again.</b>");
Unfortunately for me, the code ran fine. PHP sees err as an undefined constant which it assumes has a string value of 'err', so the if condition passes. For those used to strongly-typed languages such as C,Java or C#, this kind of error is unexpected, as in those languages the equivalent code will not even compile. Silent errors are particularly dangerous, since they are more likely to make it into production code with possibly calamitous consequences.
I guess the solution is not to make errors like that; but if you are like me, anything the tools can do to help catch errors is welcome. One possibility is to change the error_reporting value in php.ini. If you set it to a strict setting like this:
error_reporting = E_ALL | E_STRICT
then PHP will report likely problems in a manner that even a tired programmer will notice:
Check out the comments in php.ini for a description of the options. You would likely only use a strict setting like this in your development environment, not in production.
A snag with this approach is that many PHP libraries out there do not expect such a strict setting and will throw up all sorts of warnings. It wasn't a problem for me, as on this occasion all the code was mine.
As an aside, I've enjoyed working with PHP. I used to find that it almost encouraged spaghetti code, but the object-orientation introduced in PHP 5.0 has made it easier to structure applications in a way that I like. I've also started using the PHP Development Tools (PDT) in Eclipse. If you use this together with an instant PHP environment such as XAMPP, it is easy to set up a desktop for PHP development with luxuries like syntax highlighting, code-completion, and step-through debugging. Taking all these things together, I've found that most of my objections to using PHP no longer apply.
Layout & Margins
Keep your margins generous. There's nothing worse than too much information crammed into a small space - long line lengths will hamper readability. It is best to have ample space on all sides, with the bottom margin generally being the largest.
If in doubt, keep the default. In most situations, you'll want to preserve the default margin settings. In most applications the default margin settings will be optimal for the paper size you specify.
Consider columns for presentation. Certain sections of your CV, such as your work or education history, will benefit from a columnar layout. Doing so can provide a more logical, yet compact approach. Avoid splitting long paragraphs over columns - keep columns for summarised information, and stick to paragraphs for longer text.
Keep spacing between elements - particularly between sections where you've used a different layout (i.e. the transition from columns to paragraphed text). Whitespace helps keep the distinction between different sections, and is particular important if you're varying the layout style.
The tools you use will reflect in the final output and format of your CV. Much will depend on which tools you have available, but it's good to be aware of the alternatives.Microsoft Word
Your CV cannot comprise of two sides plain, unadorned text - you need to break a potential essay into easily digestible chunks. Careful use of headings, breaks and other tricks can help break up a wall of text into a beautiful hierarchy of naturally presented information.
A larger type size is the perfect way to draw the reader's eye to headings - and coupled with a judicious amount of spacing will serve to break the document in a pleasing fashion. It's best not to use too large a font, however - just a few points more will suffice. If your body text is 8 or 10pt, your headings should be somewhere about 16pt in size - no more than double the size of your body text.
Underlines and outlines can also help - if used judiciously. I'd probably recommend against using text underlines in most circumstances (italics is best for emphasis), but a page rule (a line across the page) can make for an effective page break, particularly for a major section break or following columnar or tabular data.
Bold and italic are also two very important tools in your emphatic arsenal - headings should be bold where suitable, and certain passages in text can be highlighted in bold. Italics serve less as a highlight and more as a softer emphasis - for instance, in cases where a certain differentiation from the body text is required but not to the degree that bold would provide.
Avoid colour emphasis. For many of the reasons that I mentioned in the last post regarding the usage of colour - notably reproduction difficulty - but also for issues of readability and a lack of convention - colour has never historically been a source of emphasis in text, and today colour tends to be used for interactive elements (i.e. hyperlinks in web documents) rather than to provide an accent.
As with so many aspects of CV design, the trick is to be conservative - black and white trumps colour, simpler layouts and more compact structure are best, and classical typefaces are the ones to stick to. There's really no reason to attempt anything too avant-garde, when the basics are really all you need - get the basics right and you'll stand out more than you might otherwise suspect.
The most striking talk in last week's Future of Web Apps conference in London (FOWA) was from Sun's Director of Web Technologies Tim Bray, well-known as a co-inventor of XML. On a day when the world's stock markets were in sharp decline, he tore up his talk and spoke instead on how developers can survive the coming recession.
His recipe for survival is as follows:
"It's got to be very cheap to deploy technology. In practical terms, that means open source software. I do not see much of a future for Enterprise software."
said Bray. I believe he overstates the case. Companies are not going to make major platform shifts because money is tight; they are more likely to play safe and stick with what they use now. Nevertheless, if you can choose between free and expensive, free is pretty attractive.
"The business benefits of going into the cloud, you only have to pay a little at the beginning, you don't pay anything serious until you see benefits, are going to look overwhelming."
The snag here is that like the rest of us, Bray hasn't figured out which cloud to go to, and is particularly wary of lock-in. Still, utility computing has obvious cost-cutting potential.
What if things get really bleak and a lot of us have time on our hands? Well, at least it is an opportunity for Java developers to learn PHP, or vice versa. Further, as Bray observed at FOWA, getting stuck into an open source project is a great way both to learn new skills and also to build your professional reputation. Never mind the CV; the first thing he does when evaluating a job application is a Google search.
Nobody knows how severe the downturn will be; Bray thinks it will be grim but admits he could be wrong. What is certain though is that the world will still need software development skills, and that the Internet will continue increasing in importance. If this is where your skills lie, that has to be a mitigating factor.
You can see highlights from Bray's talk here; and summarized on his blog.
The recent Linux plumbers conference included a session on getting Linux to boot in 5 seconds (see also the write-up here). It was great to see the report, because performance gets far too little attention. Most of the business world runs Windows rather than Linux, at least on the desktop, and in most respects Windows seems slower than Linux on the same hardware. I would give anything to have Vista boot in 5 seconds on my laptop. In fact, the main problem with Windows Vista is not driver compatibility, or annoying security prompts; it's that little spinning bagel that appears only too often. When I start Microsoft Outlook 2007, I brace myself for an extended pause while it starts up, during which the whole system becomes unresponsive. By contrast, I still enjoy using an ancient version of Paint Shop Pro for working with images, even though I have Adobe PhotoShop installed, because it starts in a blink and does exactly what I need.
The old joke is that what Intel giveth, Microsoft taketh away; but it is not a joke any more. Time spent waiting while a computer boots, or reboots to apply an update, or sits there doing who-knows-what in one of those sulky pauses, is time when we could be getting on with our work. Those delays cost real money, every day. They are also aggravating, sometimes not only for the immediate user. If I am on the telephone, for example, Outlook's slowness is not only a problem for me, but also for someone else trying to arrange a meeting.
I suspect that Microsoft made two wrong assumptions. First, that hardware improvements would remove performance issues. Fast hardware does mitigates problems, but really only disguises rather than fixes slow code. Further, the popularity of mini-laptops and other low-power devices means that fast hardware cannot be assumed. Second, Microsoft intended Vista to be always on, relying on sleep and resume instead of fast start-up. Unfortunately sleep and resume tends to be unreliable, and many Windows updates still require a system restart.
The same factors apply to web sites and web applications. One of the things that keeps people going back to Google is the consistently excellent performance of its site, especially in search. I am convinced that this has a subliminal impact, and that we instinctively prefer the sites that are more responsive. PHP inventor Rasmus Lerdorf speaks frequently about performance - last August at Drupalcon, for example - and is intolerant of slow applications; it would be great if more industry leaders shared his attitude.
There is little we can do about Windows boot times - well, apart from happy hours spent messing with msconfig, the System Configuration Utility - but that does not apply to our own development work. A project is not really done until the performance is satisfactory, even if all the other features work as specified. Performance is easy to measure, and there are plenty of profiling tools that show up bottlenecks in the code; tools like Rational PurifyPlus, Intel's VTune, or for .NET Redgate ANTS; there are also free tools available. The trick is to focus attention on what is too slow, rather than wasting time on what is already fast enough. It is rewarding work, since applications that perform well are a delight to use. Performance goes hand-in-hand with design, about which I posted a couple of weeks ago; they are both essential parts of the user experience, and a good user experience means a high level of satisfaction. There's nothing better for keeping customers coming back for more.