Russian Cold War Construction Practices

If you are my age or a little older, you have some childhood memories of the cold war. Too young to understand it at the time, you remember parents watching the news during the Cuban Missile Crisis, duck and cover exercises, and news reel type shows about Russia and Communism in general. Most of them won’t be clear memories, just remembrances.

One memory, which seems to be stronger than the rest, was that of Russian Cold War construction practices. Perhaps this memory remains longest because you will occasionally see some station like The History Channel serve up some segments of those news reels.

We were told that construction would be scheduled like clockwork. No allowances for supply delays, weather delays or deaths at the construction site. When a building was scheduled to be done, it was declared to be done no matter what stage it was in. If the building happened to be an apartment building (we didn’t have condos then), families would be assigned to live in units on floors that didn’t exist. Do you remember the stories about waiting a year or more to get a phone installed, then up to another year to get it actually working? I do.

Lately, it has occurred to me that this tale parallels the plight of software development today. Some might even call it the Microsoft Development Policy, but I won’t go quite that far…this time. Back when I got my second programming job it was for a VAR (Value Added Reseller). The development staff used to have a running joke. “It compiled, the first screen came up, ship it; everything else is a billable mod.” The difference today is this joke seems to be put into actual practice for much of the software industry.

In my travels to client sites, it seems that all of them are still ga-ga eyed over off shoring. Upper management still believes that if they can get someone for $10/day or $10/hour they have saved money. Sure, you can make it look good on a spreadsheet, but sooner or later you have to smell what used to be coffee.

I have yet to see a single project where we got skilled and seasoned professionals on the other end of the phone line. The vast majority are fresh out of school and hoping to learn. Nothing wrong with that in general, but upper management schedules the project and installation date thinking they have 30 seasoned professionals with an average of 15 years in the field. The only way to work with the kind of trainees you are getting is to spec the programs down to the detail line with pseudo code. That takes more time than the entire project budget. Never fear. Management has found a way to stop you from wasting too much time writing specs. They mandate you must use Microsoft Word to write your specifications. Yes, you are screwed before you start.

What about the other portion of the “team” you were given? The ones that claim to have worked on 5-6 projects already and have a good grasp of software development. It takes a long time to wriggle any information out about those projects. When you do get it, you find they were only on each project for 2-3 months before getting fired and landing on your project. You usually find this out around the end of the second month when you are already putting the paperwork together to fire them from your project.

Months go by, and you start receiving some software. Some of it compiles, a few of the screens come up, and that is about as far down the path of functionality as your “team” got. The installation date is weeks away and it will take a seasoned developer at least six months to undo the disaster you’ve been handed. You start working 80+ hour weeks just to get the project stable enough to out live a 30 minute demo to management. Dedication to quality, your first, and most crucial, mistake.

The day of the demo arrives. You walk on eggshells and get through it with a drastically restricted set of test data. Management prides itself on how they “cut costs” on this project. They order you to install it per the installation schedule already chosen by them and to disable the old system. They also tell you that your team is being moved onto other projects. One member (the newest and least qualified) will be around for 30 days of bug fixing while you are working on a new project with a new team. Oh yes, you will be taking over support of this project by yourself while working full time on your new project.

Now we all know just how the Russian family felt that was told they couldn’t possibly be homeless since they were living in an apartment on a floor that didn’t exist.

 

Software Books – The New Piracy Niche

I had heard this statement for quite some time, but had never really paid much attention to it, until this week. Thanks to the progression of technology and free software to edit/manipulate PDF files, book piracy is becoming a serious epidemic.Most of you reading this know that I have a computer book series entitled “The Minimum You Need to Know”. The current focus of this series is the OpenVMS marketplace. These books are on the high end and without competition. By “high end” I mean both price and the fact that 10,000 copies over 10 years is a lofty goal for the series. There simply aren’t many dedicated technical professionals out there willing to invest in their careers.

If you enter the computer book writing/publishing arena and focus on the high end topics, not the oatmeal $35 list price books, but the higher end topics, you will hear a saying: “You only sell one copy to all of India”. Before you go tagging me as a racist, you should know that I didn’t create the saying, and less than a month ago had an experience which tends to give it weight.

Yes, about a month ago I got an email from a person working for an Indian off-shore IT consulting company. They had just been assigned to work on a COBOL and FMS system for a client, and they didn’t even know how to log into an OpenVMS machine. They did a Web search and found my book previews on the Google Book site. You only get a few pages with the preview (not nearly few enough though since the smallest amount of a book you can expose is 20%, it needs to be 5%). This person took it upon themselves to email me and ask me to send them the entire contents of the book in a Word doc. I kid you not. They wanted it for free in a form their company could use to train others. I kid you not.

This got me to thinking about the advances in both technology and OpenSource software. For basically no money you can download or obtain a free set of CD’s containing the new industry standard desktop (Ubuntu). Bundled with it is the latest OpenOffice software and a rash of other programs to make your life (personal and professional) much easier. There is even free scanning software and free programs which will let you edit/manipulate PDF files, assuming you cannot get OpenOffice to open the PDF you are interested in editing.

All of this was supposed to make our lives better. But, like the Internet, nobody building it stopped to consider the downside.

Printer vendors have been working long and hard to make POD (Print On Demand) a viable solution for all. Many of these printers can now even print the cover and bind the entire book in one automatic process if it is one of the standard supported sizes. It truly is a marvel. In a few years they will figure out how to put a finish coat on the page so the toner can’t be felt by a reader and doesn’t remelt when the book is left in the sun.

Given all of these advances it truly is a wonderful time to be an author. You don’t have to care one hoot about finding a publisher. You can buy some ISBN numbers and publish your own books. Not only that, you can sell them on-line for list price with just a little bit of effort.

This week, the downside of this really hit home. I was taking a break from writing and surfing around the Web checking on my books. Seeing who was saying what, their ranking at various sites, and who was selling them. Lo and behold, there was a vendor on the Amazon site claiming to be selling new copies of “The Minimum You Need to Know to Be an OpenVMS Application Developer” for $65. I had never heard of this vendor. I had never sold them any books. The price they were selling for was below the normal wholesale price, so they would have had to purchase more than 300 copies to make that price profitable. My distributor hadn’t contacted me for a restock in a while, so I contacted them. They had never sold to this vendor either.

Curiouser and Curiouser.

You couldn’t get an actual physical address for the vendor at Amazon, but you could send them email through the Amazon site. I sent them an email asking where they obtained “new” copies since there are only two sources for them and neither of us had sold to them. A few days later I got the following reply from an AOL address.

=====

We wouldn’t know where to begin.

We are supplied with books for re-sale from over 1,000 sources.

=====

Yes, I left off the email address and vendor name. After getting this response and forwarding it to my distributor, I had them contact Amazon. The vendor is now gone, but we still haven’t found out how many copies they sold through Amazon. The problem is, good intentions have been abused. That vendor sales page doesn’t have any background checking because it was supposed to be for people who wanted to unload used copies and for authors wanting to sell a few copies themselves for more than wholesale. Now, it’s an eight lane highway for book piracy.

Not all books are a candidate for this kind of piracy. While it is true that an offshore operation like that can print an 800 page book with the included CD for around $5.00/copy because they don’t pay anything resembling wages to their workers and their supplies cost next to nothing, they don’t pirate just any books. They look for the slow moving, high end technical books. Why? Because they are selling these books in their own country for a lot of money via book stores which have no Internet presence. $25/copy is a lot of money when you aren’t paying anyone for it and have less than $5/copy in the printing.

It should be noted, that this vendor claimed a US location (somewhere in Virginia), but a little poking around on the Internet found a Nigerian printing house by the same name. Coincidence? Do the math. You pay someone $10/day to scan a copy of the book into a series of PDF files, then paste them all into one file. Probably takes them less than a week. You bought the original copy through a used book vendor so you paid way less than list for it. You chose your target by talking with an off-shore consulting company that was looking to train developers in a specific technology. You get them to agree to buy 200 copies at $25/copy, then print a 500 copy run to bring your costs below $5/book. Next you have a friend or employee living in the US put “ new” copies up on Amazon and a few other Internet sites offering a $90 book up for $65. In just a few weeks your 500 copies are gone. Your less than $500 investment in the book production netted you thousands, and you have no author to pay.

I post this blog not to whine, but to inform the other authors and publishers out there putting out high end books. You have invested well over a year putting these books together (I know it took over a year for the book in question here). Now, there are people out there making knockoffs for very little money and taking food out of your mouth. It’s not just you they are raping though. It’s every IT worker in every country where you have to pay for an education to work in IT. They are taking your jobs and not even paying for an education to do it.

Adding WiFi to Your Whole Farm

Eventually the day finally comes. You’ve known it would come, but you aren’t quite ready for it. The day someone finally gets their new invoice from DTN satellite service and caves. When they total up their quarterly invoice to find out just how much per year they are spending and still not getting all of the market bids they want. That’s when you get the question “What would it take to hook me up to the Internet?”

The situation here is a similar, yet different, from a lot of farm situations. I have an office building on site where I already have HughesNet Internet service. Nearly everyone who lives on a farm knows you cannot afford dial up service. Almost every phone call is long distance and the speed sucks. Since we have another dish up for television service, why get yet another subscription?

My first thought was to just trench CAT 5 cable over to his house to get a good connection, then I measured the distance. Add to that the power, water, and lines I would have to cross it would be quite an ordeal. Second thoughts are sometimes your best. I was going to be faced with getting Internet service into my house once I got done restoring it, so why not provide Internet access to the entire farm? Spending some time on eBay allowed me to acquire all of the components I would need for under $300.

What you need:

Linksys WRT54G wireless router

Linksys WAP54G wireless access point

Linksys 5 port Hub

Outdoor 18dBI Antenna

Some pre-made CAT 5 cables of various lengths.

Believe it or not, that’s exactly what is listed on the box for the product name of the antenna.

When it comes to the CAT 5 cables, just choose where you want everything and eyeball the distance. Cables come in two lengths, too long and too short. Visit your local office supply store (or Target or Kmart for that matter) and choose some that are close to the length you think you need.

As to a computer for him, I had an old AMD 1.8Ghz machine I wasn’t using. A quick trip to the Linux store on-line got a fresh CD with Ubuntu Gutsy distribution on it. When it comes to an end user, Ubuntu is probably the cleanest and easiest to set up OS out there. The CD cost about $17 to have mailed to me. Ubuntu is freely distributable and comes with most everything you would need: OpenOffice word processor/spreadhsheet, Mozilla Web browser, Evolution email, even some games.

The handiest thing you can have or borrow is a notebook computer when you are setting up WiFi for farm access. This allows you to connect to the router, then wander around your farm testing the signal strength.

Mounting for the antenna was simple. It came with a pole mount bracket set. For a pole I found a 10 foot hunk of old water well drop pipe and drove about 3 feet of it in the ground with a fence post driver. The antenna came with 9 feet of lead cable so it was a quick thing to hook up. You need an adapter cable to hook the antenna to one of the antenna ports on the back of the router. This particular router comes with RP-TNC connector and the antenna came with the new standard RP-SMA. You can either order the adapter, get a cable with the correct connector, or do what I did, steal one out of an indoor antenna kit I had from CompUSA.

Please note: the Linksys router and wireless access point both have a reset button on them. You have to actually hold that reset button for about 30 seconds if you need to reset a router back to firmware load conditions.

I downloaded the firmware for both devices before connecting my notebook directly to the router. The following link has some pretty good information about the setup and configuration of this router.

The basic gist is you have to manually set your wired connection to 192.168.1.5 (any final digit other than 1) with a subnet of 255.255.255.0. Open your Web browser and key in 192.168.1.1 (which is the factory default address for the router.) Upload your firmware update as prompted, then wait for the router to reboot. After it reboots you can again go to that address and you will be presented with the configuration menu. There is no username and the password is “admin” (all lowercase without the quotes).

Each time you tell the router to “ save settings” it will take a few seconds for it to reboot. The first settings you want to change are the wireless settings. Ensure you are using channel 6 and supporting mixed mode communications. Save those settings. Connect again and set your router IP address and turn on DHCP on your main page. I run a network of 192.168.2.x so I set my router to 192.168.2.1. Be sure to set your timezone as well.

Turn your router over and write down the MAC address. You will need this later.

Plug the router into your satellite and your external antenna. Make sure everything is turned on.

Now you are ready to configure your access point.

Plug your notebook into the only port on the back of the WAP54G after you have held the reset button the correct length of time. The AP address will be 198.168.1.245, if you still have the manually set up 192.168.1.5 address on your notebook you should be able to open your Web browser and key in the AP address. Upload the firmware and wait for it to reset. Be sure you have the correct version of firmware. There are 4 or 5 different versions of the firmware. The Linksys web site has a lot of instructions about how to identify your version.

You want this access point to work as a range extender, not an access point. One of the options on the Web menu you are presented with is “mode”. Clicking it will bring up a screen with various modes. Chose the range extender or repeater mode. Find the piece of paper you wrote down the MAC address of the router on, and enter the MAC address into the field provided. It will get formatted with colons, so don’t worry if they appear while you are typing, or after you finish.

Save the settings.

Once it reboots, use your browser to connect again. The one critical piece of information missing from the documentation is that you cannot have a static (manually entered) IP address for the AP if you are working in repeater mode. You must let the address be set via DHCP. Choose DHCP assigned address from the main screen. This time when the router reboots you won’t be able to connect to it because it will have a new address. Don’t worry about it, you don’t need to.

Plug your AP into a port on the Hub. Make certain you do NOT plug the cable into one of the Uplink ports. Plug your computer into the hub and set your wired IP connection to use DHCP configuration. Depending upon what OS you are using you may need to reboot your computer after doing this.

Open your Web browser and try to connect to the Internet. Your favorite Web page should appear.

The reason you need to plug into a Hub is that you may want to get a networked printer later on, or an additional computer. Might as well set it up correctly the first time.

With this type of WiFi configuration and an old notebook computer, you will be able to look up technical specs or repair manuals while working in your shop. No need to put a computer out there permanently and no need to run into the house, look something up, then try to remember it while walking back out to the shop.

Disposable Management

In the days of old, in order to get into upper management you had to start off at the bottom of the company and work your way up to the top. Companies hired individuals straight out of high school (sometimes before they graduated) and started them off at the bottom. For companies with large office buildings, this was usually in the mail room. When the company was construction or heavy manufacturing it was which ever job was deemed the dirtiest and most disgusting.

There was a philosophy and a wisdom to this methodology. Nobody wanted to stay at the bottom. They would try and work their way up. The wisdom was even brighter when it came to the most disgusting job. The company was getting a fresh perspective on the job, and would perhaps obtain several useful ideas about how to fix that process from a fresh perspective.

Today’s management goes through cookie cutter MBA programs at Harvard, Yale, or mail order. Sometimes they simply buy their degree on-line. They start out in management and have absolutely no idea what the company does or how it does it. They think a degree in management means they can manage anything. In truth, they have become disposable. We can safely off-shore each one of these jobs to countries where wages are $10/day and have only a positive impact on the bottom line. We can even pay those people $20/day if we want, saving hundreds of millions for the share holders. No more back dated stock options scams. Hundreds of millions will be saved for asset acquisition and paying of people who have real skills which are needed to make the company work. Heck, for that $20/day, we might even hire people who have ethics. Won’t that be a novel concept for mahogany row?

Simply try to envision just how much better off the country will be when we don’t hand out 360 million dollar golden parachutes to a smile and a hair cut that sat at a desk for 6 months waiting for another smile and a hair cut to replace them.

Ethics, I remember them fondly.

The Mythical IT Shortage

It seems you cannot turn on a newscast or read a business magazine these days without hearing about this mythical IT shortage. I’ve been hearing about it for years. The truth is, there is a glut of IT talent on the market. While the industry rags have been quoting the lowest unemployment for IT professionals in ages, they strategically waited until enough had been on unemployment so long they fell off. It is legal fraud, but fraud none-the-less.

Quite simply the industry marketing…err…I mean analyst firms are getting paid a lot of money to say anything which will justify boosting the cap for $10.00/day employees. There hasn’t been a shortage of IT talent since prior to 1990. If the country keeps up its trend of off-shoring there will be a devastating shortage of home grown IT skills in less than 8 years. That will be about the time we see Enron type trials happening for the companies which have been hiding off-shore failures in the books. We have been seeing a lot of claims about off-shoring success, but we haven’t seen any actual success. The difference between a claimed success and an actual success is quite simply, the claim. When you have a new system or enhancement which is an actual success, you don’t have to tell anyone. The business simply works better and it is obvious to all who do business with it.

The Truth

The truth about how well the off-shore thing has been working is now apparent in the trade press for those who know how to read it. Multi-million dollar contract cancellations. Lots of new off-shore contracts running significantly less than 2 years in length. In the past these deals were running 5+ years in length. That just doesn’t happen anymore. You can only hide so much in the books before the auditors uncover it.

Here is a simple test you can all perform. Go to a contracting Web site like Dice.com or some other site you frequent. Pick a skill set which is not widely available. Scan the contracts and keep a log of them. Return every month and scan again. What you will see is the same requirement moving from pimp to pimp to pimp not getting filled. The reason isn’t a shortage of skills, but a shortage of business ethics.

Evidence of the Mythical IT Shortage

A while back I was contacted about an OpenVMS FORTRAN gig by a recruiter who couldn’t speak English. I recognized the requirements and the general location enough to know what the billing rate was there two years ago. It used to pay up to $90.00/hr to the consultant. The pimp which called me was looking to pay under $40.00/hr. If there really was a shortage of IT people that contract would be offering $110-150/hr. I followed the listing for a few months, watching it move from pimp to pimp, then lost interest. I don’t think it ever got filled. I’m pretty sure management used it as a justification for going off-shore or for violating a student visa.

For anyone willing to look at the details it is easy to see there is no IT skills shortage. Contracting rates have not climbed into the deep three digit per hour range and starting salaries for employees have not sky rocketed. No, my friends, this is just a new spin on an old scam.

I’m old enough to remember when there was a shortage of IT professionals. In those days, you didn’t post your resume anywhere, but you got at least three phone calls per week from recruiters offering up jobs paying more than your current job. Normally you held out until you got either a really great position, or doubled your money. People generally stayed places less than two years and doubled their salary at least every 4 years. Now, the salary you get hired at is pretty much the salary you will die with unless you move into management.

There is no shortage of IT people, only a shortage of ethics.