Author Archives: Chris F Carroll

Mac OS X Command Line: Start a process and pick it up later

I can’t believe I’ve only just discovered the gnu screen command. You want to kick off a long running command line process and come back to it later? Like so:

  • Open a Terminal window
  • Type screen
  • Type ls -R /
  • Quit Terminal, and hum to yourself for a few seconds
  • Open a new Terminal window and type screen -R

Now that’s what I call magic.

It survives logouts and is of course an essential for working with remote or cloud machines over ssh; when your network connection fails you can log back in and carry on. man screen will tell you more, although so will https://www.bing.com/search?q=linux+screen

One User, Many Computers

I’ve tried a few solutions for using multiple computers (mostly one MacBook plus one or two Windows machines) simultaneously and I’ve currently landed on http://synergy-project.org/ as the One for Me.

It’s very good. It’s pretty seamless (last year less so, this years seems perfect) : put 3 machines next to each other, move your mouse across the 3 screens, and control and type into whichever computer has mouse focus. It’s particularly a good solution when some of your machine are laptops and you want to use the laptop screens.

Alternatives I’ve tried:

  • VNC and remote desktop style solutions have worked best for me when I have multiple monitors on a single machine. The irritation is when your local monitor isn’t as big as you want for the remote machine and you end up with a scrolling window. The itch that remote desktop solutions don’t scratch though is when some of your machines are laptops, and then you want to use the laptop screen. Of the various options, TeamViewer and MS Remote Desktop seem the fastest; I haven’t yet seen a fast solution for Mac.
  • When I don’t need a gui, I find ssh or similar is really good. Even a modest monitor easily has room for multiple console windows. A reminder perhaps that guis are not always the bee’s knees.

IIS Express GUI

Looking for a admin GUI so I can start/stop IISExpress websites I quickly found iisexpressgui on codeplex/ which is by Matteo Tontini and iis express manager. They both do pretty much the same thing. They also both only pick up only the first binding for a site, so if you’ve got two — for instance one for http and one for https — then you might need to edit your %Documents%\IISExpress\config\applicationhost.config to choose the one you want to use.

The Yes, The No and the Painful: using, and failing to use, estimates for a no-go decision

@AgileKateOneal recently asked for examples of effective estimate use in medium/long-term planning, and making a no-go decision sprang instantly to mind.

Many such decisions are casual and quickly forgotten: the back of an envelope calculation which says that an idea is well beyond what we can afford; and the conversation moves on. An NoEstimator might object that one could profitably try out something rather than nothing, such is sometimes true but creative thinkers in commerce & IT can always generate a hundred more ideas than a team can try out; you can’t try out everything.

But a couple of more specific examples from recent work:

Example 1: Small UK charity looking at CRM options

in November last year I worked with a small UK charity, www.redinternational.org who were badly in need of some kind of CRM software to keep in touch with supporters and project partners. They were running largely on spreadsheets built from downloaded reports from virginmoneygiving.com / mydonate.bt.com etc. They also had an Access database with a fair amount of donor & similar data in it.

Question: Is it better to pay for a CRM solution — typical charity starting price £10,000 going up to easily £100k – or get someone to do enough work on the Access database to make it a usable solution?
My Answer: I first spent some time discovering and documenting their main use-cases (to clarify: their ‘business’ use cases, that is the things the charity had to do whether manually or with IT). I gave that picture to the CRM providers so that they could give us a sensible proposal. And I worked out an estimate for extending/developing the Access database. Based on that, we could see that a CRM consultancy/solution looked like £10-£20k (5 year cost) and the DIY-option about 200-400 developer days.

Even with this level of accuracy it was good enough to see that DIY should be a no-go. I did not expect this. I thought that the charity’s actual requirements were sufficiently small that we could do something useful for a few thousand pounds. But two hours spend going through their use-cases on my estimating spreadsheet showed me that I was wrong. So, I recommended the best value CRM option.

This, I think, is planning 101: a couple of hours working through the detail on paper is a lot cheaper than running the experiment; but can be enough to make a probably-good decision.

Example 2: Provide a system to automate a small team’s manual processes for a capped price

This was for a financial services company in 2013. The team were working on PPI claims for an insolvency practitioner (obliged to pursue potential claims that might bring in some money for their clients’ accounts) and had about ten thousand potential claims with hundreds per month being added. They had been working manually on spreadsheets for over a year.

I spent 4 days on analysis and listed a set of use-cases that covered the processes end-to-end; and I estimated that a suitable system could be done for about 40 days development work. The estimate cost about 3 or 4 hours on top of the analysis.

The contract to provide was capped-price. The customer was not open to a no-estimates approach. And I accepted being bargained down to below my estimate (Doh! I hear you say. Quite so). The actual cost came out close to (but above) my original estimate, but could have used another week’s work to make it user-friendlier.

The better course would have been to use the estimate/budget mismatch to declare a no-go rather than accept a reduced budget. This might have resulted in the client agreeing to go ahead anyway (which might in turn have led to a no-estimates approach to the work). Or it might have led to no contract. Either way would have been less painful and more controlled than over-running the budget.

The Known Unknowns Matrix

I’m sure that I.T. is not the only industry to have gratefully latched onto the the former Secretary of State’s famous phrase, “The unknown unknowns”. It’s a useful phrase to ponder if you’re responsible for planning or estimating anything. A recent slideshare by Danni Mannes on Agile Architecture pointed out to me that one should really consider the full matrix:

Known Not Known
Knowns Things we know, and we know we know them Things we know but don’t realise we know them; tacit knowledge that we take for granted. Become a problem if we are responsible, and fail, to communicate them to people who don’t know. Also a problem when we start work in a new context and don’t realise that what we ‘know’ is no longer valid, so they become unknown unknowns.
Unknowns Things we know that we don’t know. We can record the risk, and estimate a cost for investigation & discovery Things we don’t know that we don’t know. This is the quadrant most likely to shipwreck plans.

My personal takeaway from this is that I will try using this quadrant when listing risks. Just having a space for the possibility of unknown knowns & unknowns can be an impetus to do a little risk-storming & consultation, to help you discover the as-yet-unknowns.

P.S.

I’ve just read the brief and brilliant mcfunley.com/choose-boring-technology