Jun 2008

Talks for 2008

I’ve given a few talks so far this year, which I’ve been kinda slack about and haven’t put up any slides for yet. So, if you’re one of the zero people who’ve been eagerly awaiting my incredibly astute and sexy opinions, I guess today’s your lucky day, punk!

Earlier this year, on January 2, 2008, Earth Time, I gave a talk at Kiwi Foo Camp in New Zealand, also known as Baa Camp. (Harhar, foo, baa, get it?) The talk was titled “Towards the Massive Media Matrix”, with the MMM in the title being a pun on the whole WWW three-letter acronym thing. (Credit for the MMM acronym should go to Silvia Pfeiffer and Conrad Parker, who phrased the term about eight years ago :). The talk was about the importance of free and open standards on the Web, what’s wrong with the current status quo about Web video basically being Flash video, and the complications involved in trying to find a solution that satisfies everyone. I’m happy to announce that the slides for the talk are now available for download; you can also grab the details off my talks page.

A bit later this year in March, Manuel Chakravarty and I were invited to the fp-syd functional programming user group in Sydney, to give a talk about… monads! As in, that scary Haskell thing. We understand that writing a monad tutorial seems to be a rite of passage for all Haskell programmers and was thus stereotypical of the “Haskell guys” in the group to give a talk about, but the talk seemed to be well-received.

Manuel gave a general introduction to monads: what they are, how to use them, and why they’re actually a good thing rather than simply another hoop you have to jump through if you just want to do some simple I/O in Haskell. I focused on a practical use case of monads that didn’t involve I/O (OMG!), giving a walkthrough on how to use Haskell’s excellent Parsec library to perform parsing tasks, and why you’d want to use it instead of writing a recursive descent parser yourself, or resort to the insanity of using lex and yacc. I was flattered to find out that after my talk, Ben Leppmeier rewrote the parser for DDC (the Disciplined Disciple Compiler) to use Parsec, rather than his old system of Alex and Happy (Haskell’s equivalents of lex and yacc). So, I guess I managed to make a good impression with at least one of our audience members, which gave me a nice warm fuzzy feeling.

You can find both Manuel’s and my slides online at the Google Groups files page for fp-syd, or you can download the slides directly from my own site. Enjoy.

Finally, during my three-week journey to the USA last month in June, I somehow got roped into giving a talk at Galois Inc. in Portland, about pretty much whatever I wanted. Since the audience was, once again, a Haskell and functional programming crowd, I of course chose to give a talk about an object-oriented language instead: Objective-C, the lingua franca of Mac OS X development.

If you’re a programming language geek and don’t know much about Objective-C, the talk should hopefully interest you. Objective-C is a very practical programming language that has a number of interesting features from a language point of view, such as opt-in garbage collection, and a hybrid of a dynamically typed runtime system with static type checking. If you’re a Mac OS X developer, there’s some stuff there about the internals of the Objective-C object and runtime system, and a few slides about higher-order messaging, which brings much of the expressive power of higher-order functions in other programming languages to Objective-C. Of course, if you’re a Mac OS X developer and a programming language geek, well, this should be right up your alley :). Once again, you can download the slides directly, or off my talks page.


The Long Road to RapidWeaver 4

Two years ago, I had a wonderful job working on a truly excellent piece of software named cineSync. It had the somewhat simple but cheery job of playing back movies in sync across different computers, letting people write notes about particular movie frames and scribbling drawings on them. (As you can imagine, many of the drawings that we produced when testing cineSync weren’t really fit for public consumption.) While it sounds like a simple idea, oh boy did it make some people’s lives a lot easier and a lot less stressful. People used to do crazy things like fly from city to city just to be the same room with another guy for 30 minutes to talk about a video that they were producing; sometimes they’d be flying two or three times per week just to do this. Now, they just fire up cineSync instead and get stuff done in 30 minutes, instead of 30 minutes and an extra eight hours of travelling. cineSync made the time, cost and stress savings probably an order of magnitude or two better. As a result, I have immense pride and joy in saying that it’s being used on virtually every single Hollywood movie out there today (yep, even Iron Man). So, hell of a cool project to work on? Tick ✓.

Plus, it was practically a dream coding job when it came to programming languages and technologies. My day job consisted of programming with Mac OS X’s Cocoa, the most elegant framework I’ve ever had the pleasure of using, and working with one of the best C++ cross-platform code bases I’ve seen. I also did extensive hacking in Erlang for the server code, so I got paid to play with one of my favourite functional programming languages, which some people spend their entire life wishing for. And I got schooled in just so much stuff: wielding C++ right, designing network protocols, learning about software process, business practices… so, geek nirvana? Tick ✓.

The ticks go on: great workplace ✓; fantastic people to work with ✓; being privy to the latest movie gossip because we were co-located with one of Australia’s premiere visual effects company ✓; sane working hours ✓; being located in Surry Hills and sampling Crown St for lunch nearly every day ✓; having the luxury of working at home and at cafés far too often ✓. So, since it was all going so well, I had decided that it was obviously time to make a life a lot harder, so I resigned, set up my own little software consulting company, and start working on Mac shareware full-time.

Outside of the day job on cineSync, I was doing some coding on a cute little program to build websites named RapidWeaver. RapidWeaver’s kinda like Dreamweaver, but a lot more simple (and hopefully just as powerful), and it’s not stupidly priced. Or, it’s kinda like iWeb, but a lot more powerful, with hopefully most of the simplicity. I first encountered RapidWeaver as a normal customer and paid my $40 for it since I thought it was a great little program, but after writing a little plugin for it, I took on some coding tasks.

And you know what? The code base sucked. The process sucked. Every task I had to do was a chore. When I started, there wasn’t even a revision control system in place: developers would commit their changes by emailing entire source code files or zip archives to each other. There was no formal bug tracker. Not a day went by when I shook my fist, lo, with great anger, and thunder and lightning appeared. RapidWeaver’s code base had evolved since version 1.0 from nearly a decade before, written by multiple contractors with nobody being an overall custodian of the code, and it showed. I saw methods that were over thousand lines long, multithreaded bugs that would make Baby Jesus cry, method names that were prefixed with with Java-style global package namespacing (yes, we have method names called com_rwrp_currentlySelectedPage), block nesting that got so bad that I once counted thirteen tabs before the actual line of code started, dozens of lines of commented-out code, classes that had more than a hundred and twenty instance variables, etc, etc. Definitely no tick ✗.

But the code—just like PHP—didn’t matter, because the product just plain rocked. (Hey, I did pay $40 for it, which surprised me quite a lot because I moved to the Mac from the Linux world, and sneered off most things at the time that cost more than $0.) Despite being a tangled maze of twisty paths, the code worked. I was determined to make the product rock more. After meeting the RapidWeaver folks at WWDC 2007, I decided to take the plunge and see how it’d go full-time. So, we worked, and we worked hard. RapidWeaver 3.5 was released two years ago, in June 2006, followed by 3.5.1. 3.6 followed in May 2007, followed by a slew of upgrades: 3.6.1, 3.6.2, 3.6.3… all the way up to 3.6.7. Slowly but surely, the product improved. On the 3rd of August 2007, we created the branch for RapidWeaver 3.7, which we didn’t realise yet was going to be such a major release that it eventually became 4.0.

And over time, it slowly dawned on me just how many users we had. A product that I initially thought had a few thousand users was much closer to about 100,000 users. I realised I was working on something that was going to affect a lot of people, so when we decided to call it version 4.0, I was a little nervous. I stared at the code base and it stared back at me; was it really possible ship a major new revision of a product and add features to it, and maintain my sanity?

I decided in my naïvety to refactor a huge bunch of things. I held conference calls with other developers to talk about what needed to change in our plugin API, and how I was going to redo half of the internals so it wouldn’t suck anymore. Heads nodded; I was happy. After about two weeks of being pleased with myself and ripping up many of our central classes, reality set in as I realised that I was very far behind on implementing all the new features, because those two weeks were spent on nothing else but refactoring. After doing time estimation on all the tasks we had planned out for 4.0 and realising that we were about within one day of the target date, I realised we were completely screwed, because nobody sane does time estimation for software without multiplying the total estimate by about 1.5-2x longer. 4.0 was going to take twice as long as we thought it would, and since the feature list was not fixed, it was going to take even longer than that.

So, the refactoring work was dropped, and we concentrated on adding the new required features, and porting the bugfixes from the 3.6 versions to 4.0. So, now we ended up with half-refactored code, which is arguably just as bad as no refactored code. All the best-laid plans that I had to clean up the code base went south, as we soldiered on towards feature completion for 4.0, because we simply didn’t have the time. I ended up working literally up until the last hour to get 4.0 to code completion state, and made some executive decisions to pull some features that were just too unstable in their current state. Quick Look support was pulled an hour and a half before the release as we kept finding and fixing bugs with it that crashed RapidWeaver while saving a document, which was a sure-fire way to lose customers. Ultimately, pulling Quick Look was the correct decision. (Don’t worry guys, it’ll be back in 4.0.1, without any of that crashing-on-save shenanigans.)

So, last Thursday, it became reality: RapidWeaver 4.0 shipped out the door. While I was fighting against the code, Dan, Aron, Nik and Ben were revamping the website, which now absolutely bloody gorgeous, all the while handling the litany of support requests and being their usual easygoing sociable selves on the Realmac forums. I was rather nervous about the release: did we, and our brave beta testers, catch all the show-stopper bugs? The good news is that it seems to be mostly OK so far, although no software is ever perfect, so there’s no doubt we’ll be releasing 4.0.1 soon (if only to re-add Quick Look support).

A day after the release, it slowly dawned on me that the code for 4.0 was basically my baby. Sure, I’d worked on RapidWeaver 3.5 and 3.6 and was the lead coder for that, but the 3.5 and 3.6 goals were much more modest than 4.0. We certainly had other developers work on 4.0 (kudos to Kevin and Josh), but if I had a bad coding day, the code basically didn’t move. So all the blood, sweat and tears that went into making 4.0 was more-or-less my pride and my responsibility. (Code-wise, at least.)

If there’s a point to this story, I guess that’d be it: take pride and responsibility in what you do, and love your work. The 4.0 code base still sucks, sitting there sniggering at me in its half-refactored state, but we’ve finally suffered the consequences of its legacy design for long enough that we have no choice but to give it a makeover with a vengeance for the next major release. Sooner or later, everyone pays the bad code debt.

So, it’s going to be a lot more hard work to 4.1, as 4.1 becomes the release that we all really wanted 4.0 to be. But I wouldn’t trade this job for pretty much anything else in this world right now, because it’s a great product loved by a lot of customers, and making RapidWeaver better isn’t just a job anymore, it’s a need. We love this program, and we wanna make it so good that you’ll just have to buy the thing if you own a Mac. One day, I’m sure I’ll move on from RapidWeaver to other hopefully great things, but right now, I can’t imagine doing anything else. We’ve come a long way from RapidWeaver 3.5 in the past two years, and I look forward to the long road ahead for RapidWeaver 5. Tick ✓.