Thursday, September 28, 2006

No, I can't fix your computer!

"Dude, my computer's busted, can you fix it?"

"Hey, do you know why my computer won't boot up?"

"I keep getting this error message, what's the deal?"

Have you heard any or all of these before? Well I have, and if you have a job in computers or are a student in computer science/engineering, chances are you have too. I spent a good part of my college years trying to help people with their computer problems, but then I realized something...I am not a computer repairman. I am a software engineer (with a degree in computer engineering), so I spent my college years learning algorithms, design principles, programming, web development, architecture, etc. I did not spend my time studying computer diagnosis, network troubleshooting, virus prevention/recovery, Windows specifics, nor anything associated with computer repair. So get it through your head, I can't fix your computer!

This may come as a shock to many people, because they believe that if I cannot fix their computer, then I don't know a lick about computers. I'll get the usual responses:

"Aren't you an engineer? Obviously not a very good one!"

"Don't people pay you to do this?"

"What the hell do they teach you computer people anyway?"

All this time I've been working towards being a "computer expert", but I'm really just a know-nothing with a degree. For a while I mistakenly believed this, and thought that I should know how to fix a computer. So, I started reading up on some troubleshooting practices and the like, but I didn't do it because I liked it, I did it because I thought I should be doing it. I learned a little, and might be able to diagnose simple problems, but I grew tired of learning how to repair computers and gave it up, cursing myself for not being good at something I claim to be in my area of expertise, that being computers.

After joining the professional world, I learned a very valuable lesson. "Computer expert" can refer to a very wide range of occupations. There are network experts, processor architecture experts, web development experts, platform development experts, database experts, the list goes on. To be a software engineering expert, does not require that I be an expert in fixing computers, it doesn't even require that I be an expert on anything else related to computers. Sure, I'll want to be aware of network protocols, and database principles, and operating systems theories, but I don't need to be an expert in them. What I do need to be an expert at is programming, software architecture, design principles, algorithms, data structures, web frameworks, etc. That is what matters, but it turns out that in my quest to be an expert in my one niche, software engineering, I'm learning a lot about computers in general, perhaps even enough to troubleshoot certain problems that may arise with windows, or a piece of software, or my machine's hardware. These are usually simple problems, but when it comes to the really tough problems...I'll leave those to the experts.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Keep WoW Off Your Resume

I recieved a lot of interesting feedback on my previous post titled: Would You Put WoW On Your Resume?

As expected, non-gamers were absolutely unaccepting of the idea. There were a lot of "I would never hire an MMO player" comments and a lot of negative things to say about MMO players in general. Some of it is naive, and some of it is based on strong evidence of poor performance from employees who play MMOs. All you need is one bad Warcraft addict, and you quickly tag all MMO players as lazy addicts who only care about getting their gaming fix. This is also not surprising, since the majority of mainstream news coverage about Warcraft and other MMOs is about how the addiction destroys families and individuals. You very rarely see anything positive about these games unless you play them and follow them.

The argument that you should keep your resume strictly professional, and to leave out the personal endeavours is bunk. Your leisure activities say a lot about your motivations, your strategies, your work ethic; anybody who doesn't make these connections is blind. If your job requires any amount of cognitive thought, strategic thinking, or problem-solving (and it most likely requires at least one of these), then your personal activities influence your thought process at work. Sports players and fans think like sports players and coaches, as opposed to chess players who think like chess players, as opposed to martial artists who think like fighters. Each has their own strategies and principles of thought, and you can't help but bring them to the workplace. Ignoring these activities is a mistake, but it does get ignored. Keep it on your resume if the general public understands its value. Most people understand that coaching a football squad takes strategy, and that chess requires strong thinking skills, and that martial arts portrays discipline. Most people do not understand what leading an MMO takes.

Also as expected, many WoW players (especially guild leaders) were very accepting of the notion that WoW would be valuable on your resume. Is it because they know the hardships and challenges of being a guild leader or would they like to believe that they are spending their precious time on worthwhile endeavours? My belief is the former, and if you put a guild leader at the top of an organization, they will appreciate and find value in guild leadership on a potential employees resume. This doesn't mean that it is the only important attribute, but if you throw that in among many other accomplishments, it shows great versatility, time-management, and leadership skills.

However, only somebody who has had experience as a guild leader or understands what goes into leading a guild would understand this. There is such a strong disconnect between the mainstream world and the niche world of MMO players. Anybody outside the niche has very negative views on MMOs, while people inside might have very positive views. Here's the rub: 99% of employers are outside the niche, so the majority of people browsing your resume will see World of Warcraft on it and cringe, you don't want that. It is unfortunate but true that the general public does not understand the values associated with leading a guild. (Notice that I've been focusing on leading a guild, and not on just being an accomplished player. There's a big difference as one projects the skills that employers would be interested in and the latter just shows that you put in the time).

The conclusion here is to keep WoW off your resume for now, at least until it gains a more positive stigma in the public eye and becomes mainstream enough that the majority of people understand it.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Paintball: Spectator Sport?

I recently had the privelage of attending a professional paintball event. At first, I was less than excited about the event itself, as I have watched paintball on ESPN and found it hard to follow and almost boring. However, I had a friend participating in the tournament, so I went to support him and his team. I would be lying if I told you that I didn't immediately change my feeling about watching paintball.

Watching paintball as a live event is so much more entertaining than watching it on TV. Once the whistle blows, it's all-out mayhem as hundreds of paintballs hurl across the field and players scramble to find cover. The explosion of gun-fire is startling at first. Even though there was a net between me and the action, I actually thought I was being fired at. You just don't feel that when you watch on TV. You can only sit back and try to follow what's going on from a birds-eye view.

Following the action is a little difficult, especially from a ground view. Popular spectator sports like football and baseball have the advantage of pauses in between plays. Even if you lose where the running back is in a heap of other players, you'll find the ball back in the middle at the beginning of the next play. This just doesn't happen in paintball. If you lose the position of a player, you might not find him againt until it's over. Obstacles are all over and these guys are pretty good at finding cover and moving around quickly.

Sports like hockey and lacrosse have a similar effect, where the play might go on for long periods of time, and everything happens so fast, it might be hard to follow the puck or ball (You might remember FOX's attempt at fixing this by adding a glow effect to NHL hockey pucks, huge failure). But you generally know what's going on in a hockey game, because there is one puck. In paintball there is not one of anything. If you are going to follow something, you are going to follow the players, and there's 15 or so of them on the field at a time. You thought following the puck was difficult? Try following every player. Heck, try following one player. It's hard, because they're always in and out of sight and if you take your eye off them for a second, that's enough for them to get shot a few times. Suddenly you see people dropping out and you don't know why. You didn't see them get shot, but the ref did. That's why there's almost a 2:1 player-ref ratio. Refs can only follow a few players at a time, because it isn't always obvious when a player gets shot. If the refs, who have a lot of paintball-watching experience, have a hard time following what's going on, how can you expect the less experienced spectators to follow?

There's no doubt that playing the game is fun as hell, but watching it could be another story. You can follow it better at home, with the birds-eye view and helpful commentary, but you don't get that exhilirating I-might-get-shot feeling. Likewise, you can get that feeling when you're there, but it's so hard to follow what's going on, you are in that where-the-hell-did-he-come-from or how-did-that-happen kind of state.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

My Dream App: Dissapointing

The idea of allowing people to express their dream desktop application was fun and exciting. Personally, I found it very stimulating to sort through all of the crazy ideas in my head and come up with something that I liked and thought other people would enjoy as well. However, the stimulus wore off rather quickly once it became apparent that my idea would not be selected. I liked my idea and was very passionate about it as I am sure many people were. But I'm not here to complain about not making it as a finalist, I'm just dissapointed with where the contest is at and where it seems to be going.

Some of the final ideas are okay, but I think that is as far as I would take it. There really isn't anything that I would consider for purchasing if it came down to it. I'm not saying that the ideas aren't cool or interesting, but I am saying that I just wouldn't spend money on them. It was my hope that with over 2,000 ideas, one of them would make me stand up and say WOW, but instead I'm saying hmmmmmm...

I'm not sure how many people voted, but I will bet that the majority of voters voted just to get the free pzizz. No big long as they get some voters right? After all, what's a contest without some voters? Well, it's lack of credible votes that really matters. How many people are actually looking at these ideas thoroughly? How many people would actually buy these applications?

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Filling In The Blanks

You've seen these many times before, so try to fill in the blanks to guess the word (and yes, there is ONE right answer):

D _ G

Are you ready to hit me yet and say "WTF?" Good.

So, what did you guess? Dog? Dig? Dug? Drg? Well, the answer was DOG, duh. Drg isn't even a word.

How do I know? Because I made the puzzle, and I hold the answer, it's that simple. Sure DIG and DUG work but they aren't correct. Here's what I'm getting at.

Our brains fill in blanks all the time. When you see an object, a car for example, your brain doesn't instruct your eyes to scan the entire vehicle and send back each and every detail. Your eyes take a few pieces of the picture and your brain fills in the rest of the picture to construct one complete image.

You could probably fill in the blanks of this car image pretty easily:

If you've seen this car before, you would probably recognize it, as you can see most of it. Our brains are good at filling in blanks when it comes to things that we see, but what about everything else like ideas, books, movies, relationships? We need to fill in blanks whenever there is a lack of information and we need to piece smaller bits of information into one complete object, and we do it all the time. Here's an example:

Your significant other comes home from work with slouched shoulders and eyes directed towards the floor. You don't know anything about where they've been, but you immediately suspect that there is something wrong. Nothing has been said, and you have no idea what they have been doing for the past 8 or so hours, so how do you know? You think you know becayse you took some small bits of information (body posture, direction of the eyes), and filled in the information that is unknown to you (mood, emotions, feelings, etc). This example is parallel with the image of the car above, because you have enough information to fill in the blanks and you are likely correct in assuming that something is wrong.

This is a simple example, but many times it is not quite this easy, as you may not have as much information as you need. Imagine you own a company and you need to decipher the needs of your customers. Now your image looks more like this:

You are severely lacking in information here. With the car, you know the color and the approximate size, but it is much harder to fill in the blanks (although your brain might remember the image from above and fill in the blanks just fine, but pretend this didn't happen). As for your customers, you know a little about what they need, but there is really no way to gather up everything that they need. All the market research and customer feedback in the world still leaves many blanks. So, it is really up to you to fill in those blanks, but you need to fill it in with the right stuff. Fill it in with the wrong stuff and you'll be providing your customers with products/services that don't fit their needs, and you're out of business.

It is this ability to fill in blanks that makes or breaks a company, but the question remains: How do they fill in the blanks and how do they do it right? I sure don't know, so can you help me fill in the blank?

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Would You Put WoW On Your Resume?

If you saw the following on a resume, you would probably be impressed, especially if this person is a recent college graduate:

Roles and responsibilities include:
  • Leading an organization of over 200 active members.
  • Organizing and leading groups of 40 people 4 nights a week on specific jobs.
  • Managing resource collection to accomplish jobs.
  • Keeping organization website up to date and moderating forums.
  • Actively recruiting new members.
  • Researching new challenges and formulating strategies to progress forward.
Now I'll make it a little more accurate and even add a few accomplishments:

Roles and responsibilities include:
  • Leading the #1 guild (with over 200 active members) on World Of Warcraft's Dalaran server.
  • Organizing 40-person raid groups 4 nights a week to conquer the most challenging dungeons in record time.
  • Organizing the guild to collect necessary resources for each raid, including health/mana potions, herbs, and other special items.
  • Keeping guild site up to date and moderating forums.
  • Also designed a custom raid points tracker.
  • Actively recruiting new members.
  • Researching new dungeons and formulating strategies for defeating bosses.
Ok, now it's a little silly, right? But why should it be? Leading the #1 guild on any server in almost any game is very challenging and takes a lot of work. It shows strong leadership and organizational skills to manage a guild of 200+ people, as well as leading 4 raids per week. You don't even need to be the #1 guild; managing any guild is difficult and requires the same set of organizational and leadership qualities.

Of course, if you've been in a guild or especially if you've led one, you know this already. So, would you put it on your resume? When you are asked what is your greatest accomplishment in an interview, will you say, "I led my guild to the first Nefarian kill in World Of Warcraft."?

Probably not, but why? More than likely it is because MMORPGs are video games, and people associate video games with lazy people (and addicts). So, if somebody tells an employer that they spend the majority of their time playing a video game, they are going to envision that person as a lazy do-nothing. Yet, if you were the president of your school's martial arts club of 30 members, you would put that on your resume, because it shows that you did something and you did that something well enough to make it to the top. It is even likely that being president of your 30 person martial arts club is much easier than running a guild, so why put that on your resume and not the fact that you lead a guild?

An employer who has never heard of an MMORPG probably wouldn't understand the skills necessary for running a guild, but what about somebody who has played one before and been in a guild? Imagine you were an employer and a resume comes across your desk and you see that the candidate has been leading one of World Of Warcraft's finest guilds. Would you laugh at it or would you see some possible talent in this individual?

Where Is Office Space?

As a new person to the software engineering field, I've found that there is a wide variety of opinions about this type of career. I just graduated from Villanova University, so the #1 question that I get asked is, "So, where are you working? What are you doing with your life?" I always respond with, "I'm a software engineer at a small company in Waltham, MA." You would expect the reaction to this response to be just as scripted as my answer, but it's different every time, depending on who I'm talking to. Some responses are positive, some are weird, and some are very negative.

I like telling people from the older generation that I'm a software engineer, because computers are so foreign to them, they immediately tag me as somebody who is smart. They tend to think that anybody who can figure out those crazy doo-hickies must be a genious, and therefore makes tons of money. This isn't quite the case but at least it makes me feel special. Although, the conversation ends pretty quickly, because they don't have much for follow up questions since most of them think a mouse has a steep learning curve.

Explaining my career to people of my own generation is less amusing. It's hard to convince my friends that what I do can be fun and stimulating. I guess younger people don't understand why somebody would choose to sit in a cubicle all day staring at a computer, filling out TPS reports, and slaving over projects at the will of one or more evil bosses.

Lastly, I hate talking to other software engineers about my decision to become one, and it happens all too often as software engineers are not exactly rare these days. You would expect that two people in the same field would get along and have a lot to talk about, and I suppose it might happen to other people, but not me. Every software engineer that I have spoken to has had the same reaction along the lines of, "WHAT ARE YOU THINKING!?!?! GET OUT NOW!!!" and then they proceed to tell me the horrors of being a software engineer. My favorite example of this is when my friend introduced me to his dad (a software engineer), and the conversation went a little like this:

Friend: Hey, this is my dad. My dad's a software engineer too! You guys can talk all your computer geeky stuff.

Friend's Dad: Oh, you want to be a software engineer?

Me: Yes, I start my job in about 2 weeks. I'll be an associate software engineer for a small company up in Waltham, MA. It seems pretty interesting, although I'm not sure wha....

Friend's Dad: That's great, you can do that for 2 years and then do what you really want to do.

Me: Uhhhhhh...

It always goes something like this, where I try to be excited about my new job and some veteran software guy comes in and stomps on my dreams, telling me that I shouldn't be excited and that I should be dreading the years to come. It's very discouraging, and if they want me to question my career choice, they succeeded.

Between these conversations and watching Office Space, I'm not really sure what I should be expecting in the years to come. I still believe that I can enjoy my job, but part of me believes that there is something that I'm missing. I've been at my job for about 3 months now and I absolutely love it, but 3 months isn't a very long time. Will I be saying the same thing in 3 years? What about 10? I can see why some people might get frustrated as a software engineer, but I don't see how that is very different than any other job, and I certainly don't think it should make somebody miserable. Is it just that software engineering requires work and people just don't want to work? Or is it only a matter of time before I get just as miserable as some of the people I've spoken to?

I'm still waiting to see the Bill Lumbergs, the TPS reports, the annoying co-workers, and the sheer misery that is portrayed in Office Space, but until I do, I'm going to keep on loving my job, probably more than you do.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Tribute To The Summit

I'm not sure why I felt compelled to create this blog today, but when I was coming up with the title for it, I just had to name it after The Summit.

I would like to tell you what The Summit is, but I am afraid that it cannot be explained in words. You see, for my senior year at Villanova, I lived in a house with 13 people total. Our address was 849 Summit Grove Avenue, a place that has been nicknamed The Summit.

But The Summit is more than just an address. The Summit is the people who lived there, the people who visited, the memories, the parties, the drama, the laughter, the debauchery, the good times, the bad times, the mediocre times, the beer, the kegs, the basement, the Flight of The Conchords, the Mario Kart, the upstairs, the downstairs, the attic, the roof, the porch, the crazy ideas, the crazy nights, the crazy mornings, the crazy lifestyle that we have all come to know and love.

I think The Summit means something different for everybody who lived there, but for me it is that crazy, relaxed, youthful part of me that I'll carry on for the rest of my days. As I grow older and get tangled up in the wife, the children, the job, the house, and the car all I need to do is find one of those 13 people and I go right back to my youthful, ignorant self.

I tell you this now, because sometimes The Summit might just be that one thing that I bring up at least once in every post.

Cheers Summit.