What’s your super power?

I believe that every software developer (even every human) has a super power. One (or more) strength which helps his team, his company, his work to be better. It might be hidden or contained but it is there.
One way to find it is to ask your colleagues. Another to identify your contributions in your last projects or to look at what kind of work brings you joy, makes you feel like a fish in the water.
Let me give you an example. My power is to tackle complexity, reduce it to the essence and bring clarity to people. When I see a complex (or complected) network of interchanging applications doing things twice or even thrice, not talking to another, misunderstanding one might feel overwhelmed. I feel the need to dig in and bring out the most important part, the critical path, the essence. This isn’t restricted to software, this could be a group of people as well. I like to understand systems what makes them work and what hinders them. What is wasted and where do we have to make more effort.
Ask yourself: where I am good at? Where do I see things others don’t? Where do I accept the challenge? When do I strive? There might be your super power…

Putting toilet books into practice

I’m reading a lot of books and based on my profession and interests, my list includes many software development and IT books. I want to share how I manage my reading and give some recommendations for a special type of book that I call “toilet book”.

Three books at once

The human mind is a peculiar thing. You’ve probably experienced the effect of getting up to perform some minor task in an other room only to arrive there with no recollection about what you wanted to do. Between the thoughts of “ok, let’s do this now!” and “why did I go here?”, just a few seconds have passed, but another aspect has changed dramatically: your geographic position. As a side note: If you don’t know what I’m talking about, consider yourself lucky. Our memory is often bound to the geographic position and changes when we move. If you want to remember what your forgotten task was, try returning to your original location. You’ll often see me walking around the same way twice within seconds. That’s when I have to rewind my location-based memory.

A particular use case where I leverage my location-based memory is when I read books. I often read three books at once, but strictly separated by location:

  • The first book is the “leisure book“: I will only read it at comfortable locations like the couch, in the sun on the balcony or in the bathtub. This book is often fiction or has at least nothing to do with IT.
  • The second book is the “travel book“: You’ll seldom see me travelling without a book and just a few minutes of tram are sufficient to read some pages. This book is often IT-based, because I read it on my commute to and from work and sometimes in my lunch break.
  • The third book is the “toilet book“: You’ll never see me reading this book, because it is stored besides my toilet and is exclusively read there. Books that are suitable for this task often have a special structure that aligns with the circumstances. More on this in a moment.

By having a clear separation by location for the three books, I’m able to keep their content separated and switch from one reading context to the next without effort. It happens naturally if I refrain from reading my travel book at home or taking my leisure book on the train.

The structure of a toilet book

A good toilet book has a special structure that accommodates for the special timing of a toilet visit. If you spend two minutes on the toilet, the book should have chapters or at least paragraphs that can be read in two minute intervals. Ideally, the book is specifically designed to contain short chapters on different topics that have no strong over-arching story. A typical example of a good non-IT toilet book are comic books like Calvin & Hobbes, The Peanuts or any other comic series that has small self-contained comic strips. You read one or two strips, are amused and interrupt again without having to memorize a complex context. Good toilet books allow for short, context-free reading sessions.

A collection of worthwhile toilet books

Over the years, I’ve read some toilet books with IT and software development topics and want to share my list of books that I enjoyed reading in this fashion:

In short, for me, calling a book a “toilet book” is not a derogatory taunt, but a neutral description that this book is structured in a way to support repeated short-time reading sessions. For me, these books are a good choice for a tertiary reading track.

A call for proposals

Right now, my reading list of good IT toilet books is rather short. If you happen to know a book that fits my description, I would be thankful for a hint in the comments. Thank you!

A Game Optimization War Story

As our customers surely know, I’m not working here on fridays. This is because that’s the time I allocate to my side project, an arcade real-time strategy game called abstractanks. It is a passion project above all else, but of course, I am also learning a lot, much of which I can apply to my “day job” here as well. Today I want to share the story of how I optimized a critical bit of code in that game.

The Big Slowdown

While working on scripted missions, one main element I am using is to make a group of units attack when you enter an area (a.k.a. a zone-trigger). This seems easy enough, but was causing massive slowdowns as soon as the enemy group started moving. My average logic frame-time jumped from 0.3 ms to more than 1500 ms, which essentially makes the game unplayable. When seeing a performance problem, your first instinct should always be to profile it. So I booted up WPR/WPA and did just that. Once I had the profile, I followed the most-sampled path in the stack and found my way to the supposed culprit: the parking algorithm.

Context

When optimizing, you need as much context as you possible to find the best possible course of action. So let me explain how that algorithm fits into the broader picture.

Parking

My main game-mechanic is moving around your units. You do this by selecting a group and then clicking somewhere on the map to issue the move-order. In addition to path-finding process, this also runs an algorithm I call park-planning (as in parking a car). It makes sure that the units know to position themselves around the target point in a roughly circular shape once they arrive. It is essential to the interaction of this mechanic with the capturing of objectives, which are circular as well. Before this was implemented, the units would just decelerate after passing the target point. This caused them to “overshot” and miss the objectives, which was frustrating to the players: they clicked in the right place, but the units would not stop there, but slightly behind it. To make things worse, units arriving later, would bump into those that were already there, further pushing them away and clumping up.

AI Moving

In my particular case, the AI enemy was repeatedly issuing move-orders to close in on the intruder – the player. Since the player group usually also moved, the AI was trying to adapt by changing the move order every frame (effectively working at around 2000 APMs).

Diving into the code

My park-planning implementation is divided into two steps: finding enough parking spots, and then assigning units to it. The profiler was showing that the first part was the problem while the assignment was negligible in terms of run-time. Historically, the first step was reusing and extending some code I first wrote for spawning units, which worked like this:

optional<v2> GameWorld::FindFreePosition(v2 Center, std::vector<v2> const& Occupied)
{
  auto CheckPosition = [&](v2 Candiate)
  {
    if (!IsPassable(Candidate))
      return false;

    if (OverlapsWith(Occupied))
      return false;

    return !FriendlyUnitOccupies(Candidate);   
  };

  if (CheckPosition(Center))
    return Center;

  auto Radius = UNIT_SIZE;
  while (Radius < MAX_SEARCH_RADIUS)
  {
    // Roll a random starting angle
    auto AngleOffset = RandomAngle();
    auto Angle = 0.f;
    while (Angle < 2*Pi)
    {
      auto Candidate = Center + AngleVector(Angle + AngleOffset)*Radius;
      if (CheckPosition(Candidate))
        return Candidate;

      // Move along this circle
      Angle += 2*Pi*Radius / UNIT_SIZE / OVERSAMPLING_FACTOR;
    }

    // Increase the Radius
    Radius += UNIT_SIZE;
  }
  return none;  
}

Note that all the functions in the CheckPosition lambda are “size aware” and respect the UNIT_SIZE – so they are slightly more complex than what the pseudo-code here would have you believe.
The occupied parameter was added for the parking-position finding. It successively fills up the std::vector with positions and uses them once it found enough.

Back to the profiling results: They were showing that most of the time was spent in the FriendlyUnitOccupies, followed by IsPassable and and then OverlapsWith. FriendlyUnitOccupies dominated the time by about 8x times the rest. That function uses a quad-tree to accelerate spatial queries for other units.

Next steps

Obviously, this code uses pretty simplistic approach to the problem – basically just brute-forcing it. But that’s good now there are many different paths to take, many optimization opportunities. My approach was a relatively simple change that got the frame time back down below 1 ms, but before I did that, I considered many and tested a few other different approaches. I will talk about that in detail in my next post. How would you approach this?

Handling database warnings with JDBC

Database administrators have the possibility to set lifetimes for user passwords. This can be considered a security feature, so that passwords get updated regularly. But if one of your software services logs into the database with such an account, you want to know when the password expires in good time before this happens, so that you can update the password. Otherwise your service will stop working unexpectedly.

Of course, you can mark the date in your calendar in order to be reminded beforehand, and you probably should. But there is an additional measure you can take. The database administrator can not only set the lifetime of a password, but also a “grace period”. For example:

ALTER PROFILE app_user LIMIT PASSWORD_LIFE_TIME 180 PASSWORD_GRACE_TIME 14;

This SQL command sets the password life time to 180 days (roughly six months) and the grace period to 14 days (two weeks). If you log into the database with this user you will see a warning two weeks before the password will expire. For Oracle databases the warning looks like this:

ORA-28002: the password will expire within 14 days

But your service logs in automatically, without any user interaction. Is it possible to programmatically detect a warning like this? Yes, it is. For example, with JDBC the following code detects warnings after a connection was established:

// Error codes for ORA-nnnnn warnings
static final int passwordWillExpireSoon = 28002;
static final int accountWillExpireSoon = 28011;

void handleWarnings(Connection connection) throws SQLException {
    SQLWarning warning = connection.getWarnings();
    while (null != warning) {
        String message = warning.getMessage();
        log.warn(message);

        int code = warning.getErrorCode();
        if (code == passwordWillExpireSoon) {
            System.out.println("ORA-28002 warning detected");
            // handle appropriately
        }
        if (code == accountWillExpireSoon) {
            System.out.println("ORA-28011 warning detected");
            // handle appropriately
        }
        warning = warning.getNextWarning();
    }
}

Instead of just logging the warnings, you can use this code to send an email to your address, so that you will get notified about a soon-to-be-expired password in advance. The error code depends on your database system.

With this in place you should not be unpleasantly surprised by an expired password. Of course, this only works if the administrator sets a grace period, so you should agree on this approach with your administrator.

Analysing a React web app using SonarQube

Many developers especially from the Java world may know the code analysis platform SonarQube (formerly SONAR). While its focus was mostly integration all the great analysis tools for Java the modular architecture allows plugging tools for other languages to provide linter results and code coverage under the same web interface.

We are a polyglot bunch and are using more and more React in addition to our Java, C++, .Net and “what not” projects. Of course we would like the same quality overview for these JavaScript projects as we are used to in other ecosystems. So I tried SonarQube for react.

The start

Using SonarQube to analyse a JavaScript project is as easy as for the other languages: Just provide a sonar-project.properties file specifying the sources and some paths for analysis results and there you go. It may look similar to the following for a create-react-app:

sonar.projectKey=myproject:webclient
sonar.projectName=Webclient for my cool project
sonar.projectVersion=0.3.0

#sonar.language=js
sonar.sources=src
sonar.exclusions=src/tests/**
sonar.tests=src/tests
sonar.sourceEncoding=UTF-8

#sonar.test.inclusions=src/tests/**/*.test.js
sonar.coverage.exclusions=src/tests/**

sonar.junit.reportPaths=test-results/test-report.junit.xml
sonar.javascript.lcov.reportPaths=coverage/lcov.info

For the coverage you need to add some settings to your package.json, too:

{ ...
"devDependencies": {
"enzyme": "^3.3.0",
"enzyme-adapter-react-16": "^1.1.1",
"eslint": "^4.19.1",
"eslint-plugin-react": "^7.7.0",
"jest-junit": "^3.6.0"
},
"jest": {
"collectCoverageFrom": [
"src/**/*.{js,jsx}",
"!**/node_modules/**",
"!build/**"
],
"coverageReporters": [
"lcov",
"text"
]
},
"jest-junit": {
"output": "test-results/test-report.junit.xml"
},
...
}

This is all nice but the set of built-in rules for JavaScript is a bit thin and does not fit React apps nicely.

ESLint to the recue

But you can make SonarQube use ESLint and thus become more useful.

First you have to install the ESLint Plugin for SonarQube from github.

Second you have to setup ESLint to your liking using eslint --init in your project. That results in a eslintrc.js similar to this:

module.exports = {
  'env': {
    'browser': true,
    'commonjs': true,
    'es6': true
  },
  'extends': 'eslint:recommended',
  'parserOptions': {
    'ecmaFeatures': {
      'experimentalObjectRestSpread': true,
      'jsx': true
    },
    'sourceType': 'module'
  },
  'plugins': [
    'react'
  ],
  'rules': {
    'indent': [
      'error',
      2
    ],
    'linebreak-style': [
      'error',
      'unix'
    ],
    'quotes': [
      'error',
      'single'
    ],
    'semi': [
      'error',
      'always'
    ]
  }
};

Lastly enable the ESLint ruleset for your project in sonarqube and look at the results. You may need to tune one thing or another but you will get some useful static analysis helping you to improve your code quality further.

UX tips: Forms

User experience is a vast field which can be overwhelming at start. To make it easier for others I want to break it down to specific areas.
The start makes a rather narrow field of software: forms.

Forms are ubiquitous: almost every software user interface has them. Most of them are too big and overwhelm the user. But in complex software you cannot “just” leave out some inputs to make a small form. Here are some tips to improve your next form:

  • use a grid – your labels and inputs (and indeed every UI element) should be layouted on a grid, the goal is to improve scanability and readability and to reduce visual clutter
  • align all labels in the same way – this one should be obvious, but often it is missed, it doesn’t matter if the labels are left or above the input, all should be aligned in the same way
  • use labels – another obvious one but often labels are omitted to make the UI look cleaner, but if the user cannot see from looking at your interface where he inputs his username or password something went really wrong
  • put fields in chunks – if the form gets too big (and most of them do), use blocks with whitespace around them to chunk fields, how do find out the groups for the chunking? You should know the domain and you can always ask the user
  • use specialized inputs – if only a date can be entered use a calendar widget, if you need a color use a palette input, the goal is to reduce errors made by the user, which also reduces his frustrations
  • provide format helps – if you cannot provide a specialized input, provide format helps, describe how the input should be formatted and what formats are accepted, again to reduce errors
  • order the fields – ask the user and a domain expert what the mental model of the fields is, what order should the inputs be made, what is optional, what is important
  • distinct the mandatory from the optional – nothing is more frustrating than to fill out a form, click submit and get told 10 times which fields are missing
  • use different sizes – if the input is just a one digit number the input should be sized to indicate this, if you want 3 lines of text, use three rows, the goal is to visually communicate what kind of input is expected, but remember: please align them properly

I hope these tips help you to make better forms and make your users less frustrated.

Ten books that shaped me as a software developer – Part II (Books 5 to 9)

In the first part of my answer (books 0 to 4), I highlighted five books that influenced my career as a software developer. The list is not ordered, so the next five books aren’t inferior or better than the first ones. Every book on the complete list made a significant contribution to my knowledge and work ethic.

Clean Code

If we were to choose the holy book of software development, we probably couldn’t agree on one or even a dozen titles. And that is a good thing, because there is no one true way of software development. Clean Code by Robert C. Martin would maybe show up in the late contenders. But if we were to choose the most preachy book of software development, well, I have a favorite. This book is so loud that you cannot ignore it. And it is so opinionated that you’re either nodding your head like a heavy metal fan or writhing in averseness. That’s a good thing, too. Because it forces you to think. Your immediate emotional answer needs support by rational arguments and this book will provide you with ample opportunity to gather arguments for your consent or rejection. What this book probably won’t do is leave you unaffected. When it came out in 2008, it was an instant classic. You could spice up any gathering of software developers by making a statement about this book, be it pro or contra. And even today, ten years later, I would say that even if the loudness is deafening, the clarity of the messages makes this book a worthwhile read for every software developer. My grief with it is foremost that for a book called “Clean Code”, some examples of actual code are quite dirty or even plain wrong. Read it with an active mind and it will be a cornerstone of your professional career. But be careful, it seems that currently printed instances have physical quality problems.

Growing Object-Oriented Software, Guided by Tests

Ever since Extreme Programming hit the (european) scene in 1999, I was curious about Test Driven Development (TDD). I tried automated testing and unit tests whenever I could, read books and later watched videos about the topic. But I never grokked it. It just didn’t work for me and I didn’t even know why. My most feared trap was the one-two-everything syndrome, where you write two simple tests and then have to implement the whole algorithm to fulfill the third test. It was always the third test that broke my rhythm. I tried to exchange experience with TDD practitioners, but their own examples were mostly trivial and my examples always led nowhere (for reference: Try a simple Game of Life in TDD style). I felt dumb and inadequate. When Robert C. Martin (the author of Clean Code) told the developer world that you are either “TDD or not professional” (read the original from 2007 behind this paywall or the reprise from 2014 here or, even better, watch this discussion from 2012), that didn’t make me feel exactly great, too. But imagine my surprise when I started to read a book by two authors I hadn’t heard much of before with a title that reveals its intent only after a comma: “Growing Object-Oriented Software, Guided by Tests” (henceforth called the GOOS book). The book spoke clearly to me. Every step was actionable, even more so, the book acted it out right before my eyes. It was as if Steve Freeman and Nat Pryce, the two authors, were sitting left and right at my table and discussing actual code with me. It didn’t help that I read this book during a summer beach holiday. The beach and even the sun didn’t see much of me that year. I was busy learning about Acceptance Test Driven Development (ATDD), ports and adapters and all the other great content in this book. And the best thing was: it wasn’t theoretical, the examples in the books could be followed one a line-to-line basis. My experience with this book was unique and still is. It’s the best book about actual software development that I’ve read. You might enjoy it, too.

Domain Driven Design

Some years after the GOOS experience, another summer beach holiday was due and as usual, I included a software development book in my luggage. “Domain Driven Design” by Eric Evans came out in 2003 and was praised by some and ignored by most, including me. It took me ten years to finally read it and when I did, it hit me hard. Since my early days as a programmer, I tried to build a meaningful data model with actual types for each program I developed. But it occurred to me that I did it half-heartedly all the time. It shouldn’t stop at a data model, it should be a complete domain model. And for that to work, you need to grok the domain. I review a lot of my code before that insight and always find it funny how I invested effort in my models but more often than not stayed in the technical realm. I cannot say that my programming has changed much from the book, as most concepts meandered through the community since 2003 and were picked up by me mostly under different names. But my software development approach has changed dramatically. I don’t start my thinking from the technical side anymore. And that helps with “business alignment” and all the other magic words that finally have real tangible benefit. And I can now pinpoint when that alignment loosens and employ counter-measures instead of ending up in a special case hell. The best thing was that this book doesn’t require a laptop so I got to sit on the beach that summer with the book in my hands and my head in the clouds. It might be old, but it’s still gold.

Clean Architecture

I anxiously waited for this book to be printed. Not because I pre-ordered, but because I held talks, workshops and lectures about the topic before the book was available. And I wanted to make sure that I’m not telling nonsense. But Robert C. Martin took his time and delayed the deadline month after month. Then, nearly a year later, the book reached the stores in late 2017. So I would have to wait for my winter holiday to read it. I couldn’t wait and began right away. The book is a slow burner and feels like a long introduction. By the time the central proposition is revealed (and yes, it reads like good unagitated spy thriller at times), you’ve probably already figured it out yourself. And that’s a good thing in my mind, because it feels as if it was your idea and Uncle Bob is just there to nod and congratulate you for your intellect. This book is so many times less preachy than “Clean Code”. If we compare spy thriller literature, this is a John le Carré while Clean Code would be an Ian Fleming (James Bond). “Clean Architecture” is not about programming, it talks about software architecture, a topic that I missed greatly in my early developer years. I liked this book so much I even wrote a full review about it.

The Inmates Are Running the Asylum

All the other books talk about different aspects of programming, software development or related technical topics. But what about a book that raises a simple question: “Why is IT technology so complicated?”. And gives the answer: “Because we want it this way.”. That’s actually true. In a world without most of the restrictions of the physical world, we were unable to build solutions that actually helped us and came up with machines and software that overwhelmed most people. It needed a whole new generation of “digital natives” until concepts like internal operation modes (e.g. insert vs. overwrite) were intuitively understood. Not because they became simpler, we were just used to the complexity. Alan Cooper described the problem and gave at least hints for solutions in 1999, nearly 20 years ago. That’s the timespan of a generation. This book made me think hard about the status quo I silently had accepted with technology. It just was like it was, what else could there be? If I reveal a tiny bit of different approaches I can think of now, I’m often confronted with incomprehension. Not because I’m particularly clever and everyone else is dumb, but because there seems to be no problem if you’ve grown accustomed to it. If you want to see some of the pain other (older) people feel when interacting with technology and software, read this book. It is an eye-opener to common problems no software developer ever had. It is the first step into the world of UX (user experience), where it’s not as important if the developer feels alright but if the user feels at least adequate. It might be a classic and feel a bit outdated and weak on the solution side, but to understand the problem properly is the first step to appreciate possible answers. And Alan Cooper didn’t stop there. Read his ongoing series “About Face” (current version: 4.0) for lots of solution ideas.

Epilogue

And that’s it. These are the ten books I recommend everybody who wants to read good books about software development. And just a few days ago, another student asked me if I’m seriously recommending twenty years old books about topics that change fundamentally every five years. I am serious. If you read just one book of this list and judge afterwards, you’ll see what I mean when I say that there are timeless topics even in an ever-changing field like software development. Maybe you want to begin with “Refactoring” and compare it to the second edition (Java vs. JavaScript). The underlying concepts stay the same, no matter the syntax.
I hope you enjoyed this list. And I hope the student who originally asked the question got his answer. Are there books you want to recommend? Drop a comment below or blog about them! The average software developer reads less than one book per year. Maybe our insistence can change that a bit.