Cloud Delivery Platform — Thought Model

I was asked to take a look at a thought model for a Cloud Delivery Platform. I’m not going to post that graphic, because it wasn’t ready for prime time. It was confused and I’m not really sure what it was trying to show. So I created a bit of a diagram showing what I thought was important. (Just click on it, it doesn’t seem to fit right, and the next size down is too small to read.)

cloud_delivery_platform

Halfway through I realized I’m not terribly good at making these things. I’ll get better. But there’s a few things I wanted to draw attention to in this graphic.

The Roles

This was the most important thing to me is to highlight the crossover of roles for each step. There are few steps in the process that should be perfomed by a single role. Devops is about communication.

Local Development

Coding, building, testing, packaging are all things that should be done at the same time. You don’t code 1000 lines then build. You build with every small change. In the same way, you should have tests written with the small increments. And that gets extended to “packaging”.

Packaging

I’m probably missing a very important word in my vocabulary here, but I’m going to go easy on myself, it’s late. What I’m meaning here is the process of setting up an image, or a deployable product. The configuration that will collect external dependencies and run tests when it gets to the deployed environment. This should all be done locally first. It should all be put into version control, separate from the application code. And this needs to be done in collaboration between the developer, who knows the application, and operations (or as they’ve been renamed in my organization, “Devops Engineers”) those who know how to package things appropriately.

Local Concurrence vs Cloud Linearity

Why isn’t spell check underlining “linearity”. That can’t be real. As I mentioned before, the things done locally are all done at the same time (build, test, package). That’s all just development. When it gets to the cloud, it’s a done product. Nothing should be further developed there. Nothing should be getting reworked. Everything needs to come entirely from Version Control and no manual finagling. (obviously?) So the cloud portion is linear. Everything happens in order. If it fails at any point, it’s sent back to local dev and fixed there.
Maybe this is all so obvious, it doesn’t need to be said. Maybe I’d feel better if it were just said anyway.

Jira vs Github :: Agile vs Open Source

A few years ago, my team got into Open Source. Specifically, we started writing all of our apps on github (as opposed to our SVN). We wanted to do this because we wanted to invite scrutiny. We never expected people to look at our stuff, we just felt that by putting it out in the open, we’d want to do better internally.

We went whole-hog. Organized stories with issues, organized sprints with milestones. It was pretty hot stuff. And it was all in the open. Potentially, someone could come by, see what we’re doing and offer to take a story from the backlog of issues. That’s open source. ish. We have a lot more we can do. A lot of growth to do.

Then we started using Jira. The board system within Jira Agile was excellent. Allowed for better organization, reporting!, and visual representations of work. It’s great. It’s Agile. But it also replaced what we were doing with Github issues.

We essentially replaced Open Source in favor of Agile. Our organization is great, we’re keeping track of things fantastically, but we’re no longer open. We don’t have transparency on what we’re working on anymore. People can’t potentially help. Our code is out there, but we’re not inviting. Our process is no longer out there.

So what’s our solution? We don’t have one yet. But what /can/ we do?

We need to put our vision statement out there. We need to put our plans out there. We need to expose what it is we’re doing. We also need to stay agile, keep our tools intact, keep our reporting.

This means we probably need to be duplicating efforts. Open Source and Agile are both hard work and organization. That they can’t line up and be the same effort is not a blocker, just an “oh well”.

Enterprise

enterprise_1920x1200It’s goal setting season and everyone is reviewing the organization’s FY15 goals. Understanding the organizational goals is important because we all want to be sure to be in line with the direction of the organization.

#4 on the top 10 is “Establish an enterprise IT architecture”. This is a phrase that I’ve never fully understood. So I’ve been asking people to define “enterprise”, I get all sorts of answers. “big” “important” “java / oracle / peoplesoft” “something that ‘can’t’ fail” “finance” “HR” “business”. (Important was my favorite.)

People use this word constantly. There’s even groups in my organization that are called the “enterprise groups”. I was told recently that there’s “less dysfunction in the enterprise groups”. To which I had to ask “which groups are those?” (Answer: They’re the ones that have significant business value.) But the fact that I can’t find someone to give me a coherent definition is a warning sign that it has become a meaningless buzz word.

But business is the right answer. Enterprise seems to be anything that encompases the entire organization (or a significant portion of it) or something that has significant business value.

Anyway, that’s neither here nor there. What I think someone was trying to say with “enterprise IT architecture” is a standardization of technology across the organization — often a pipe dream. And I think this goal tends to draw extra attention to the groups that are already considered the “enterprise” groups.

But I’m begging a deeper question here. Shouldn’t everyone be considered enterprise? If enterprise is just a fancy word for business. If you’re not providing significant business value to your organization, then maybe you need to rethink what it is you’re doing. If you’re not considered enterprise, then someone doesn’t think you’re providing business value, effecting enough people or having enough impact.

So when “establishing an enterprise IT architecture”, I’m taking that to mean communicate with other groups, figure out what they’re doing and share what you’re doing. Meeting that goal is potentially impossible with a large silo’d organization. But working toward that goal is ambitious and requires a lot of time. Working towards that goal is just implementing good collaborative practices. Simple but not easy.

The Code Kata

The idea of code kata is not a new one. This has been floating around for a while, but I didn’t make the connection of its importance until recently.

The idea is this: doing your work is not the same as practicing what you do. The analogy I like the most is the chess analogy. A grand master cannot be a grand master by simply playing in tournaments. In fact, just playing in tournaments would make a pretty poor player. Studying tactics, reading, discussing (with other human beings that have their own unique perspectives) outside of the game allows personal growth and an understanding of the game that is unattainable by simply playing it.

word_document_74755743_original_96681a2843Maybe that analogy speaks to me because I understand games and being great at them vs just playing them.

I spent some time misunderstanding what a code kata needed to be. For the longest time I had understood it to be technical growth via solving algorithms or learning new technologies. These could be katas, but what makes katas doable is 2 things.

  • Simple.
  • Interesting.

Keeping them simple allows you to be able to make time for them. Google the FizzBuzz test. Even something that simple can keep your mind thinking like a developer.

Keeping them interesting allows for you to care about them. And caring about them will ensure they actually get done. If you’re not interested in learning node but you set yourself up to learn it as your kata. One, that’s a big task, but more importantly, if you’re not interested, you’re setting yourself up to fail. This is a great way to find what it is you’re interested in and focus more.

Myself, I seem to currently be interested in best practices and the social aspects of software engineering. So I’ve decided to increase the blog posts I do. From the beginning of these, I’ve been focused on doing at least one a month. And that’s been a way for me to think through some of things I’ve worked on in the last few years. By writing them out, it’s been a rear way for me to cement the things I’ve been doing in my head and analyze them a little more carefully. This, I believe, will help me be better at my job.

Yes, I blog for me, not for any kind of readership. That’s helpful since no one reads these :)

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Big on Big Data

Of major interest in Educational Technology is Big Data, which is a rather all-encompassing term for the vast mountains of information that our computers are collecting and how we humans might take advantage of it. The 2014 NMC Horizon Report for Higher Education highlighted this interest, noting that the “Rise of Data-Driven Learning and Assessment” and “Learning Analytics”, both of which revolve around the anlysis of Big Data, are technological trends that may have profound impact on education as we know it. A primary goal of several MOOCs, including edX, HarvardX, and MITx, is to research the data they collect from thousands of world-wide participants. And here, at Harvard, a main objective of the new Teaching and Learning Technologies program is to research all the data our new Learning Management System and associated tools will provide. Finally, our own little group, the Academic Techngology Development team, is starting to research how we can best analyze the data our tools collect.

Who r u?The main drive behind this interest in Big Data–at least, in Educational Technology–is the belief that through analyzing all of this information, we can create a better teaching and learning experience for instructors and students. The idea goes something like this: Alice, a student at Wonderland University, takes a course on existentialism from the Caterpillar. As Alice completes her assessments, the results are stored online, and through careful analysis of these results, the Caterpillar is able to deduce which concepts Alice is having difficulty understanding, and in which conecpts she is excelling. The Caterpillar can then tailor Alice’s future work to her needs, thus creating a better learning experience for her.

That’s the simplified version of the tale; many other permutations exist. For example, the Caterpillar may recognize that another student, Tweedledee, excels in one area that his brother, Tweedledum, does not, and decides to pair the two up so that Tweedledee can help his sibling. Or, perhaps, the Caterpillar discovers that his students grasp the concepts of mushrooms better when he discusses the concepts of fungi first, and adjusts his future syllabi accordingly.

Regardless of the scenarios, the promises of Big Data rely on the firm belief that something meaningful exists somewhere in all of that information, and that if we extract that meaningful something, then we can do something meaningful with it. Sound a bit ethereal? It’s not, as commercial companies such as Amazon, Netflix, and Google have uncannily demonstrated with their search and recommendation enginees. And in regards to applying Big Data to education, there’s a large field of research going on, not to mention a growing field of application and practice.

Grow Developers

At OSCON, I attended a lot of great sessions. One that had an impressive impact on me was Grow Developers. It was not what I expected. I only read half the description and it seemed like it was right up my alley of “developing developers”. That is, helping developers get better.

However, as soon as the talk started, I was shocked to discover it was actually a women in technology talk. At first I was disappointed, then I looked for the door and realized I sat in the front and would have to walk through a room full of women… That would be awkward. So I got comfortable and braced myself for a talk I didn’t think I wanted to hear. I mean, yes, there’s not enough women in technology, that sucks. It’s probably unfair because of cultural perceptions, but I was at OSCON to learn about technology and awesomenesses and such, not gender equality.

But it wasn’t so bad. In fact, the things covered in the talk were not altogether gender equality specific, and could be abstracted into exactly what I wanted to hear about in the first place.

Better Job Descriptions

One super important point that was made was that job descriptions need to be better. Too often jobs are posted, and people are clearly qualified. Their resumes perfectly match the job description, but they never get a call back. This often happens because what people are looking for specifically isn’t included in the job description. But the fact that someone is weeded out when they appear to be a perfect fit on paper tends to lead them to believe there is something else keeping them from the job. Personally, culturally. Solution to this is better job descriptions and better communication from HR. This is something I’ve felt 100 times over.

Stop Interrogations

Ever been on an interview where you had to justify yourself or answer absurd CS questions to a room full of people? This is bad enough as a guy justifying himself to 3-10 other guys, it’s a lot worse when it’s a woman who has to justify herself to a room full of guys. Something that we’ve all had to endure in this profession. It’s like right off the bat, being disrespected. By respecting people, wanting them to come in and impress, a step towards that is to make them feel comfortable. Make them feel like you want them to succeed.

wtfs per minute

Brogrammers

I wasn’t familiar with this word until the show Silicon Valley. Since then, I thought it was a joke of a word. Representing a culture that didn’t really exist. Like the frat-guy programmer. But apparently I misunderstood? It’s more about the way men communicate. We are sometimes hostile to each other. An example can be made of code reviews, it might be common for a lot of people to say “your code sucks, wtf”. In fact that reminds me of a code quality comic courtesy of Jeff Atwood. This is not really a welcoming culture for anyone. Without an “in” attitude, people (not just women) aren’t going to feel welcome, and it’s going to distance people who aren’t already in this culture.

Solvable Problems

These are solvable problems with our culture. Work with HR, don’t gang up on people, be a little more sensitive to other people. Be better.

Integrating Jasmine with Travis CI

One of the things I’ve been wanting to automate with our Harmony Lab project is the javascript test suite so that it runs via Travis CI. I tried once before, but hit a wall and abandoned the effort. I recently had the opportunity to work on this as part of a professional development day in ATG, which is an excellent practice that I think all departments should embrace, but that’s a topic for another day. If you’re not familiar with Travis, it’s a free continuous integration service that provides hooks for github so that whenever you push to a branch, it can run some tests and return pass/fail (among other things). Getting this to work with a suite of python unit tests is easy enough according to the docs, but incorporating javascript tests is less straightforward.

Harmony Lab JS tests use the Jasmine testing framework and all of the unit tests are created as RequireJS modules. This is nice because each unit test, which I’ll call a spec file, independently defines the dependencies it needs and then loads them asynchronously (if you’re not using RequireJS, I highly recommend it!). Running the Harmony Lab tests locally is a simple matter of pointing your browser to http://localhost:8000/jasmine. This makes a request to Django which traverses the spec directory on the file system and finds all spec files, and then returns a response that executes all of the specs and reports the results via jasmine’s HTMl reporter. But for headless testing, we don’t want to be running a django server unless it’s absolutely necessary. It would be nice if we could just execute some javascript in a static html page.

It turns out, we can! The result of integrating jasmine with phantomjs and travis CI is Harmony Lab Pull Request #39. You can check out the PR for all the nitty-gritty details. The main stumbling block was getting requirejs to play nicely with phantomjs and getting the specs to load properly. The phantomjs javascript code, that is, the javascript that controls the browser, was the simplest part since it only needed to listen for the final pass/fail message from jasmine via console.log and then propagate that to travis.

Basic LTI Tutorial Using PHP

Introduction

This tutorial will get you up and running with a development environment, complete with a virtual machine running an Apache 2 server with PHP, a basic LTI library written in PHP, and a simple basic LTI-compliant LMS. By the end of the tutorial, you will have written a simple “Hello, World!” LTI tool, and you will be ready to delve into the world of LTI coding. Please note that we assume you already have the following knowledge:

  • An understanding of directories and files, and how to navigate through them using a terminal window on your operating system;
  • How to install software packages on your operating system;
  • An understanding of fundamental web concepts, such as HTML, CSS, HTTP requests, POST requests, etc.
  • Some experience in setting up web servers;
  • Basic knowledge of PHP;
  • An understanding of basic LTI concepts and, in particular, the Basic LTI (v1.0) specifications.

Ready to begin? No? Then grab some coffee or another refreshing beverage. We’ll wait. . .

Ready now? We hope so! Because we’re getting started.

(more…)

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PeopleSoft and Star Trek

When I first encountered peoplesoft, I was woefully underwhelmed. Like something a newbie PHP person would have written 10 years prior. In fact, I’ve worked with dozens of similarly functioning sites over the years, so it honestly wasn’t a big deal.

I think I first noticed it was a big deal when I got an email about a year ago from HR, saying they’d give bonuses to people who referred Java and PeopleSoft professionals. That got me to thinking PeopleSoft and Java developers were roughly equivalent. I noticed the positions for them were being posted at roughly the same grade. I didn’t think much of it beyond that.

Recently I figured out what PeopleSoft development actually is. It’s not coding at all. It’s configuration management. Not too far removed from someone who can work in Drupal. I was floored. Not because there’s anything wrong with that, but because such a focus was being put on configuration over custom. I find this both refreshing and scary.

WilWheatonI woke up the other night and couldn’t get back to sleep thinking about this. Was this the future of web development? Configuration management? Was web development eventually going to become 90% “PeopleSoft”? I’ve even been thinking it made sense because Welsey Crusher — while gifted — was not the kind of person I saw coding the woman in red in C. That would require a team of developers. Sure, maybe there’s some awesome libs in the future, but more likely programming in the future will be tantamount to drag and drop. I mean, think about how they controlled the Holodeck, they were giving basic commands, parameters and values. Voice activated PeopleSoft.

Eventually hardware will get better and better, and the bloat of PeopleSoft and like platforms will be less of an inhibitor.

Eventually is a ways away though. Today, speed is paramount. Users demand immediate gratification, and that requires optimization. And PeopleSoft can’t meet user expectations in that way. So it just remains a corporate institution. Something people will put up with because that’s what’s been sold to them.

Gamifying Work

HabitRPG

My character, currently attired as a pirate, standing next to his pet, a flying pig.

I’ve always wondered how one might go about gamifying the workplace, and quite by accident, I discovered a way how. Although not specifically designed for work, HabitRPG is a “free habit building app that treats your life like a game,” and I and a colleague have started using it to gamify part of our work-life.

If you are like me, there’s plenty of things to do at work, so many things that it’s very easy to lose track of what one needs to do, so I take advantage of to-do lists. Every day, I create a to-do list of work that needs to be completed that day, even if it’s a simple thing, such as getting onto my Instant Messenger account or checking my calendar (seriously, as sad as it seems, if I didn’t remind myself to do these things, I wouldn’t do them). And if an item doesn’t get done, it gets pushed to the next day.

HabitRPG transforms to-do lists, as well as your overall habits, into a simple fantasy role-playing game (RPG). Like most of the RPGs in the fantasy genre, you undertake a persona called a “character” who starts out as a lowly adventurer. By completing quests, you gain experience, gold, and other treasures that help your character slowly build him/herself into a hero.

Quests in HabitRPG take on the form of individual habits (such as “isolating oneself for 1hr to get something done”) or individual items on to-do lists. When you complete a habit or an item on a to-do list, you are rewarded with experience, gold, and, if you’re lucky, you might find a piece of treasure you can use later in the game. The more you complete your tasks, the more powerful your character becomes.

And, as in any RPG, your character is in constant peril. Uncompleted tasks deal out damage, and if your character receives too much damage, your character will die. Never fear, your character will be resurrected, but there will be penalties, such as a loss of experience and treasure. This mechanic forces you to stay on top of your to-do lists, for if you let them go, you’ll pay the price.

I’ve started using HabitRPG for all of my to-do lists, including the one I use at work. I won’t claim an increase in productivity or anything like that, but the game does make keeping track of my worklife much more enjoyable than it used to be (and I get rewarded if I do something I normally procrastinate on, such as writing a blog post). Also, there are ways to team up with other players, such as your co-workers, which might make the workplace an even more congenial place, but we haven’t tried those aspects of the game yet.

The rules and mechanics to HabitRPG go much deeper than I have described–tasks can have different difficulty levels, you can collect and feed pets, you cast spells. . . just to name a few of the complexities of the game. But, overall, HabitRPG operates on a simple premise: For every task in life you complete, you and your character become hardier and stronger.