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Database Retirement

Tuesday, July 27, 2004 by scott
I installed SQL Server 2005 Beta 2 last night. This morning I noticed something missing.

If the current bits hold true till RTM, then I will have to lament the disappearance of a dear friend.

Everyone called your design a disaster, but I have fond memories of your eccentricities. Your Order Details table taught me how to delimit identifiers with [ and ]. Your "Ten Most Expensive Products" stored procedure taught me SET ROWCOUNT.

A countless number of articles, books, and newsgroup postings contain the query SELECT * FROM EMPLOYEES – a tribute to your ubiquity. Now they will lie in archived ruins like the statue of Ozymandias.

Farewell Northwind!

FileVesionInfo

Tuesday, July 27, 2004 by scott
Getting the version number of any managed / unmanaged DLL or executable in .NET 1.0, if I recall correctly, required some magic incantations with PInvoke.

I just discovered the FileVersionInfo class from System.Diagnostics:

FileVersionInfo versionInfo;
versionInfo = FileVersionInfo.GetVersionInfo(@"e:\win2003\system32\svchost.exe");
MessageBox.Show(versionInfo.ToString());

Notice the class overrides the ToString method to provide nicely formatted information:

File:             e:\win2003\system32\svchost.exe
InternalName:     svchost.exe
OriginalFilename: svchost.exe
FileVersion:      5.2.3790.0 (srv03_rtm.030324-2048)
FileDescription:  Generic Host Process for Win32 Services
Product:          Microsoft® Windows® Operating System
ProductVersion:   5.2.3790.0
Debug:            False
Patched:          False
PreRelease:       False
PrivateBuild:     False
SpecialBuild:     False
Language          English (United States)

Lookout Assembly Hell

Monday, July 26, 2004 by scott
I decided to download and try Lookout, the search tool for Outlook (now a free download from Microsoft). I’m hesitant to give out the link, since, like Elvis, it seems to popup and then disappear, but recent sightings have the download at Lookout Software again.

After installation, Outlook greeted me with the following error:

Sorry!! It looks like another Outlook Plugin has installed an unofficial version of the Outlook libraries which breaks Lookout. Lookout will not be able to load. For more information, see this link: http://www.lookoutsoft.com/forums/topic.asp?topic_id=10

Unfortunately, the aforementioned link doesn’t offer many leads on why the problem occurs, nor how to work around it. I have a few COM add-ins loaded, including SpamBayes, some thingy MapPoint installed, and one I wrote myself in C# to redirect email to a web account. I was guessing my software was causing the problem.

I think the problem occurs because Lookout uses the primary interop assembly for Office XP, while the add-in I wrote uses the PIA for Office 2003. I opened my project in the IDE to see if I could get the two working together when all hell broke loose.

Each time I tried to do anything with the add-in project I wrote, Visual Studio crashed and sent an error report. After the error reporting finished, a dialog would appear to tell me updates are available which might fix my problem, and I was sent to the Office updates page. After installing updates, I could not even open Visual Studio without a crash, so I rebooted.

After rebooting, everything appeared to be back to normal, and Lookout started to work once I disabled my C# add-in. I decided this wasn’t a battle I wanted to fight, and scrubbed out every reference to my component from the registry. My add-in isn’t highly useful, but Lookout is fantastic.

Who Moved My Furniture? (Small Company Life)

Friday, July 23, 2004 by scott
On January 31st 2001 the company I worked for closed the doors. A company near Philadelphia had bought all the rights to the software and intellectual property of the former company, and 4 of us were given the opportunity to work for them on a short term consulting basis, starting January 2nd. I had a lead on going to work for a startup company in the video game industry, but it was taking some time to pan out, so I prepared to spend 3 days a week in Philly.

I have to admit I had a bias against Philadelphia going in. When I was a just a young ‘un my parents would drive to Philly to visit an aunt. I have only one memory from these trips, and it goes like this: We are getting ready to go back home. My dad leaves the house to take luggage to the car. Several minutes later he reappears at the door, luggage still in hand, and announces: “somebody stole the car”.

As a kid, the fact that there were people in the world who stole other people’s cars came as a traumatic revelation to me. Based on this experience, and on seeing Eagle’s football games on TV, I hold a terrible stereotype that the city is full of thugs and car thieves. For the longest time I thought the “City Of Brotherly Love” was more of a sarcastic joke instead of a description, but I then I think how close Philadelphia is to the state of New Jersey, so maybe these sayings are all relative.

One morning we arrived at the new company from the hotel at the same time as a tractor trailer. By the time we walked up to the sidewalk the back doors of the trailer were opening. I peered inside, and lo and behold, there was the furniture I used to see every day at work. Suddenly it all came crashing down on top of me. The old company was gone. They new company had really bought everything. I wasn’t just at a client site for a few days. I was a 1099 employee with no office to call home.

Over the next few days we tried to tell people at the new company what great furniture they were getting. We assumed they would love it, because the cubicles they had were old, and small. By contrast, our former company had spared no expense on furniture. Yes, we had cubicles, but they were the nicest cubicles I have ever seen. Spacious, with lots of nooks and crannies for storage, built in lights, and low walls. I hate cubicles as much as the next person, but these were decent.

I have a feeling the employees there were apprehensive about the new cubicles because they didn’t offer as much privacy as they were used to. We knew at least one software developer there who snoozed in the afternoon, but unless you got in really close, which was hard to do, it was impossible to tell.

The lack of privacy at our old office was actually sort of funny, because you knew just a little bit about the lives of other people. It wasn’t eavesdropping you know, it was just hard not to hear conversations like this one from a fellow architect:

“Yes honey, I understand it is your sister’s family, but I’m not just giving them money to go grocery shopping. We’ve tried that before and they waste it. I’ll take them grocery shopping, and I’ll tell you right now, they won’t be buying shrimp and brand name cereal on my dime. If they want cereal they get the generic stuff from Walmart.”

Other people at the other company had a different definition of private matters than I do. One developer sent an email to the staff alias that read like the following (I’m not making this up):

“Does anyone know a good dermatologist in the area? I need to get something lanced.”

When this email hit the inbox, you could just hear it ripple threw the building. People would gasp, or chuckle, or choke on coffee. To this day we still refer to the guy with the nickname of “Lance”.

Seeing familiar furniture in the building only added to the odd feeling I had there. It is tough to adjust to a new corporate climate when you know you are not desperate enough to relocate and stay. For one thing, they took everything too seriously. I tried to spread some cheer by making their Laser Jet printers display random funny messages, but it took them weeks to notice.

During my three weeks in Philly I was amazed to see some of the sales people from our old company appearing at the new company for interviews. I thought this was interesting because the old company went out of business due to a lack of sales, but it didn’t surprise me, because I had learned that sales people have no shame….

A CEO and His BMW (Small Company Life)

Thursday, July 22, 2004 by scott
Optimism is a primary trait of startup company CEOs. With all of the risk and obstacles involved in getting a company off the ground, they have to be optimistic. The type of optimism goes beyond “glass half full” optimism. I’ve worked with CEOs who, when spotting an empty glass sitting on the hot asphalt of a desert highway, will convince everyone nearby that a freak microburst of rain is inevitable, and the glass will be full any moment now.

I worked with one of these CEOs during the bubble years. He was a charismatic factory of entrepreneurial ideas. Once the big money came in from the venture capitalists, however, the collective wisdom of higher powers decided the company needed an experienced business person at the helm. We didn’t need optimism anymore, we needed execution. So we acquired a new CEO who was equipped with the people skills of an ostrich and completely devoid of creative ideas.

Actually, I take that back – he did have one idea I can remember. We were working with a customer who built on the Java platform and wanted to use some of our COM+ components. At one point he wandered into a common engineering area and asked if we could “SQL some data around” to provide integration. Other than this, I don’t remember him ever coming out of his office, except for the monthly company meetings.

The company meetings happened every month only because we had monthly layoffs. I suppose these meetings were meant to boost the company morale and assure us everything was under control. It was during one of these meetings when the CEO described layoffs as “a way to scrub the barnacles off the bottom of the boat”. I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine if these words contain any inspirational value, because it is a subjective call. I can only remember thinking what we really needed during these times was the unabashed optimism of old. Well, that and another $30 million.

During the course of a year we dwindled from a headcount of about 150 people to 12. Sometime near my last paycheck the day came for Mr. CEO to go. The word was getting around that he was packing up in his office. We saw him roll a chair out to his 2-door sports car. We saw him carry a desktop computer to the car. A crowd gathered to watch from afar. Another computer went out the door.

I remember reading once about a contest at a car dealership. The person who could guess the number of golf balls that would fit into an SUV would win the SUV. I’m sure this guy knew exactly how many golf balls fit into his car, because he was using every square centimeter of space. Next to go was a bookshelf. It was incredible to watch.

A mob mentality began to form, and we began to collectively speculate if we should start tearing the place apart and taking it home. Being a mostly civilized group though, I think we ultimately decided just to go out for lunch and celebrate the end of an era. Not that we really had a reason to celebrate, because our time was coming soon too, and by the end of the month the company would officially close the doors. I wasn’t allowed to take any office furniture with me when I left, but it wasn’t the last time I saw my desk….

The FBI Raid (Small Company Life Flashback)

Wednesday, July 21, 2004 by scott

Years ago I used to juggle two different projects by spending my morning writing C and assembler code for 8-bit embedded CPUs, and in the afternoon I’d switch over to Windows code with Borland’s OWL framework. This was a day I’d never get to launch the Borland IDE.

My office was in a building housing two companies. My company occupied the front of the building, and the second company (let’s call it XYZ Inc.) occupied the back of the building. The only proper way into the back of the building was to go through a door just past my office. These two companies were distinct legal entities, but were closely related. By closely related, I mean the owner of company XYZ called the owner of my company “son”. It was all one big family, if you know what I mean.

As the reader, you need to imagine yourself in my position. You are in a reasonably private area, like an office. You have your favorite music on, and a caffeinated drink by your side. You are cranking out code. There could be a Mardi Gras parade happening outside your window, but you wouldn’t notice, because you are “in the zone”. Such was my situation on this particular morning.

Suddenly, a demanding voice breaks my concentration. “Is this company XYZ?”, the voice says tersely. It was like an order in the form of a question.

Now my first thought, as I was slowly coming out of my concentration, was that if the FedEx delivery guy was going to be this rude, then I had absolutely no obligation to give him a quick answer. In fact, I thought, I might just start by shooting him an annoyed look. I mean, if you value running around lost and interrupting otherwise productive members of the work force with rude questions, give up driving for UPS and join a company who performs ISO 9001 audits.

I turned slowly to the doorway, only to notice a man with a gun on his hip. You can imagine my surprise at having misjudged the situation. Now my lips were already pursed to let out an emphatic “no”, but my brain instantly went off in a number of different directions.

My first thought was how this guy, in his blue windbreaker and jeans, looked like he walked right off the set for the TV show “Cops”. Except “Cops” isn’t filmed on a TV set, it is supposedly “reality television”, and a man with a gun (and a badge on a chain around his neck) was now at the edge of my office staring intently.

My second thought centered on the man’s finger, which was pointing directly into the center of my office, as if this could be the source of all problems in the world. I knew my job now was to divert his attention to some other office in the building, but I was beginning to feel a bit queasy, which led me to my third thought.

My third thought was that I was taking entirely too long in analyzing this situation. I should have long ago calmly replied that the company he was looking for was through the doorway at the end of the hallway, thank you very much, and have a pleasant day. Instead, I was sitting here for what seemed like an eternity, and it suddenly it dawned on me I might appear guilty.

Guilty of what? I thought to myself. What could I have done to attract the attention of a law enforcement officer? But if I wasn’t guilty of something, why didn’t I just answer? Get a grip, I told myself. Quit staring like a deer in headlights and make this unpleasant situation go away.

I never did get to answer, because suddenly a voice in the hallway shouted “it’s through THAT door”, and a parade of 12 armed men moved past and into the second half of the building.

Now, I thought to myself, would be a good time to go to lunch a little early a grab a sandwich.

The deputy at the front door informed me nobody was leaving the building, so I did what everyone else at the company was doing, which was forming a circle in the lobby and speculating as to what was happening in the other half of the building.

Over the next hour or so, agents loaded file cabinets and computers into a rented U-Haul truck, which I thought was interesting. I imagine the FBI does this a few times a year, and maybe if they actually purchased a truck and took decent care of it they could save some taxpayer money over time. On the other hand, you never have to take a rental truck for an oil change, or wait for it to completely stop before switching gears from reverse to drive, so maybe it evens out.

In any case, here was what happened. It seems our sister company imported some electronic components from Japan. These components appeared in medical devices, but the U.S. custom forms said they were intended for cheese analyzers. Oops, an easy mistake to make. Unfortuantely, this lack of attention to detail attracted the attention of several government agencies, including the FDA, U.S. customs, the FBI, and the local sheriff, all who sent representatives on-site that day.

I left that company soon afterwards, but not because of the raid. I had decided I wanted to work for a company whose only product and focus was software. I didn’t know it at the time, but the bubble years were approaching, and small company life was about to get even more interesting...

Small Company Life

Tuesday, July 20, 2004 by scott
I was thinking back today at some of the weird and funny stuff I’ve lived through at startup companies over the years. Someday I should write in more detail about the following:

The FBI raid.

The CEO who, on his last day, managed to cram 1 executive leather chair, 2 desktop computers, a file cabinet, and a bookshelf into a 2 door BMW.

The intern who wore pink teddy bear clips in his beard.

The CEO who painted his toenails the company colors.

The CFO who was amazed to see how Excel could recalculate cell C3 based on the contents of cell C1.

The CTO who enlisted the aid of a software developer in chasing down escaped chickens back at the farm.

What it is like to show up for work at a new company and see the office furniture from my last company being delivered by tractor trailer.

Why I should not be given the opportunity to take the helm of a yacht for any length of time.

What it is like to have a practicing gastroenterologist at the office part time and how this leads to errant phone calls from people describing the odd color of their stool and demanding advice on what to do about it.

The vice president of global sales who drove a different vehicle to work each day yet never made a sale, and why I think this is because he wore Hawaiian shirts and Nikes during appointments at Fortune 50 companies.

Last but not least: Why engineers should not be required to move office furniture when moving to a new building.