Archive for August 17th, 2004

Telling time with .NET

Tuesday, August 17th, 2004

My latest ebook “Telling Time with .NET: Build your own Internet time component” is now available.
I’ve always wanted my own “Atomic” clock, and even though self-updating clocks have been available for years, I never got around to owning one. Internet time servers make it possible to come close though.
I ended up using a number of interesting techniques to improve accuracy, and while advanced .NET developers probably won’t learn much from this ebook, I think it will prove an interesting read for beginning and intermediate developers. Topics covered include .NET sockets, inheritance, code access security and regular expressions.

Advice for future Computer Science Majors

Tuesday, August 17th, 2004

Like many computer professionals, I?m often asked for career advice for those considering entering this field. Given the recent drop in the number of students entering college with computer science majors (see the May 2004 issue of Computing Research News), offering good advice is more important than ever. Here’s my version.

You had better like change.

Many careers require that you keep studying to remain current. Doctors and lawyers have to stay on top of he latest treatments and legal precedents. Realtors study the latest regulations. Contractors their building codes. But what makes computer science intense is that not only do you have to keep learning technology that is changing at a rapid clip, what you previously knew becomes obsolete.

Most developers like to learn new technology, or at least play with the latest toys. Sometimes we get so hung up on new technology that we don’t think clearly about the consequences of that technology (a topic for another time). But it is important to consider some of the consequences of the rapid change that occurs in this industry.

Because what you know will soon be obsolete, you’ll spend much of your career under intense pressure to stay up to date, the underlying fear being that if you don’t, you’ll end up unemployed and pathetic. This fear, though rarely admitted, is quite common, and can be a source of stress, which may not matter to you now, but is one of the reasons people leave the field. It’s like the Red Queen says in “Through the Looking Glass” – you have to run as fast as you can just to stay in place. You have to run even faster to get anywhere. Burn-out is a problem.

Being technologically savvy isn’t enough.

Being an extreme programmer is all very nice, but if you want to succeed in this industry it’s not nearly enough. You may have heard the political and economic pundits on the news talking about the “jobless recovery.” Bush is stressing because corporate profits are rising but employment is not. Kerry promising to create jobs, but it’s not clear what he can do. Why? Because our economic system demands that businesses become more productive, and more productive means (among other things) doing more with fewer people, or doing more with cheaper people. We’re all familiar with how technology eliminates some jobs – ATM machines reduce the need for bank tellers, self service pumps allow gas stations to be staffed by a single person. There’s no clear sign of this happening to software developers, in the sense that few software development tools are so sophisticated as to replace programmers (though it’s coming – automatic code generation is a fascinating topic). But it is possible to replace expensive software developers in the U.S. with less expensive software developers in other countries. How big an impact this is having, and how big an impact it will continue to have is subject for debate. But it’s too significant to ignore.

And even if productivity isn’t an issue, the inevitable tides of our economy will be. You will at some point in your career be dealing with a tight job market. And it’s not your technological skills that will determine how well you succeed at those times.

It’s your personal skills that will count. How well do you communicate? You should know how to present your ideas both to individuals and small groups. Can you write clearly and somewhat grammatically? Do you come across as confident in yourself and your abilities? Do you have leadership skills (that often translate into management skills)? Are you responsible? Are you a nice person to have around (or at least not completely repulsive)? Yes, there are those who are so technologically brilliant they can get away with caring just about technology, but for most of us these other skills are essential.

So, as you go off to college, don’t let your technical classes get in the way of getting a good education. Take a writing class. Take a class or get involved in an activity that forces you to do some public speaking. Do some drama or improv. Join a club. Do some volunteer work. Do some tutoring. This kind of experience will have long term benefits to your career that you wouldn’t believe.

Take CS for the right reasons

The best technology professionals are almost without fail the ones who entered this field because they are fascinated with technology. We like to play with the latest and greatest toys. We share an underlying faith that technology can be used to solve problems and make the world better. In fact, we’re sometimes so blinded by technology that we fail to consider other factors in our decisions (like business and economic factors, social consequences, etc.) – but that is a subject for a later time.

The important thing is not to go into CS just because you think it’s going to make you a lot of money. Sure, some software developers got rich in the dot-com boom, but even then most of us ended up with at least some stock that ultimately became worthless. Choose this major because it’s fun, and you’ll end up having a great time. You’ll meet lots of smart people, most of them pretty nice. And when the inevitable stress and problems occur, you’ll at least know that you’re spending your days doing what you enjoy the most.

Do you have additional recommendations for future CS majors? Please post them (remember, comments on this blog are moderated and won’t show up right away).

The Always Use Protection Quiz

Tuesday, August 17th, 2004

I’ve started seeing all sorts of interesting comments since my interview with Robert Scoble was posted on Many of the comments relate to the quiz I have posted at Some of the comments are thoughtful. Others provide fascinating insight into the biases of the reader. I’ll be using this post (which I’ll update periodically) to respond to the most interesting of these posts.

Readers at PHP Everywhere wonder:

  • What are the FTC surveys on teens suffering from identity theft?
    Answer: They don’t ask that question. There’s rarely money involved in the kinds of identity theft teens suffer from (and the FTC, being the Federal Trade Commission, is focused on financial issues). So until some grad student looking for a good thesis does a formal study, I’m afraid my numbers are the best I have. I feel comfortable using them because the numbers I’m seeing are so high (over 30%) compared to the identity theft numbers for adults (under 5% in 12 months, which is still very high).
  • I have some sort of financial motive by claiming free antivirus programs aren’t good enough.
    Answer: Anyone who asks this is missing the real point of the question. The key idea is that periodic scanning for viruses is never good enough. You need real-time scanning, and to my knowledge at this time none of the free scanners include that feature. As soon as I find one I’ll remove free from the question. Also, I don’t work for an anti-virus company.
  • Cookies are a threat to privacy.
    Of course they are! And occasionally a stupid web site will include personal information (such as user ID and password) in the cookie. But most sites don’t. The point of this question is to encourage people to understand what cookies really are and the kinds of threats they pose from minor (obfuscated first party cookies), to more significant (obfuscated third party cookies), to serious (cookies that contain personal information).

Readers at wonder:

  • If I just wrote this to plug an area of the market that is otherwise unplugged (under 20’s) – the implication being it’s just for the money.
    Well, yes. Obviously if there had already been other security books for teens I wouldn’t have written this one. I would have just bought that book and handed it to the teens I know who need it. But any author will tell you that writing books nowadays is one of the least profitable ways to spend your time.
  • You play fast and lose with the terms virus and worm:
    You bet I do! The difference between them is important to security professionals and those who are by nature precisionists (or anal retentive). From the perspective of a home users, viruses, worms and trojans all fall into the class of “bad things that a good antivirus program should clean or remove.” Spyware and Adware fall into the class of “bad things that you may need a spyware/adware tool to remove because many antivirus programs won’t catch them”. That’s why in the book, once I explain the difference between them, I tell readers that I’ll just use the more generic term “virus” throughout the rest of the book.

More to come…

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