Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Creating my personal web site - finishing touches

Following on from my blog about creating my personal web site, there were still a few things left to do. Just to refresh all your memories, this is my personal web site.

Firstly, I needed to let people know about my web site. It would have been a shame to have gone to all the trouble of creating and deploying it, only for it to not have any visitors. So I emailed my family and friends, sent out an email at work, updated my Facebook status and sent out a tweet on Twitter. I have so far received quite positive feedback from the people who have navigated to my web site.

Secondly, I needed to let the major search engines know of its existence. To do this, I submitted the web page's URL (Uniform Resource Locator - otherwise known as its web address) to Google and Yahoo. This let's your web site get listed when appropriate search words are entered into the search engine. To do this, use the following links:

Google www.google.com/addurl.html
Yahoo submit.search.yahoo.com

This adds your web site to the list of web sites that the search engines will crawl. After initial URL submission, your web site should be crawled within 48 hours. Your web site will be crawled from thereafter. I have also added the URL for this blog to the search engines.

To see what traffic your web site is generating, where your visitors have come from, and what referrals your web site has, you can use any of the web site traffic tools that are available. I have registered my web site and blog with Sitemeter. This is one of the more popular site traffic tools, and is also free. There is a more advanced option for which you have to pay, but the free option is good enough for my purposes. Again, I have also added my blog to the tool so I monitor my blog traffic.

With my web site and blog setup, configured, registered with the search engines and the tools for me to monitor their traffic, all I need to do now is keep the content up to date!

Sunday, 26 April 2009

What makes a good manager?

Having been a manager now for just over two years, I thought it would be useful to outline the qualities that I think make a good manager. I am the Senior Systems Developer, and also the manager of the Development Team for East Northamptonshire Council, where I am involved in the development of their web portals (intranet, web site), application development (using the Microsoft .Net framework), developing Sharepoint solutions, and basically anything that involves some aspect of software development. So what behaviours and qualities make a good manager? Most of us are managed in our place of work, and some of us are also managers, so we all have an idea of what makes a good manager. So here is my list of what I think makes a good manager:

  • Domain knowledge - a good manager needs to have a broad and sound understanding of what their team does. They do not necessarily need to get involved in the details of the day-to-day jobs, but they should understand the big picture. As a Development Team manager, I have a sound understanding of software and web related tools and technologies, and how they apply to the organisation.

  • Understand the business - the manager needs to see where the role of their team fits into the goals of the business or organisation as a whole. As the manager is also tasked with giving direction to the team, they need to ensure that the goals of the business and their team are synchronised.

  • Inspire and motivate - a team that is motivated and inspired are capable of anything, and can achieve goals and targets that might previously have been thought beyond them. A manager needs to give positive reinforcement and encouragement to their team on a daily basis.

  • Good communicator - managers are the conduits through which information flows from senior management down to the team. A manager needs to be able to give concise and consistent messages and information to their team, and reinforce the objectives of the business. To do this requires good communications skills.

  • Networking skills - a manager is almost certainly going to have to work with other managers and people outside their immediate team or department. A manager needs to build strong relationships with others. Good working relationships are vital in all aspects of work, and are good for the business or organisation as a whole.
I have not included tasks or duties that a manager performs, such as budget setting or team appraisals, as these are not qualities or behaviours. They are simply tasks they have to perform in their role as a manager.

It's certainly not easy being a manager, and some are better at it than others, but with a little perseverance, everyone can get better at it. What can help is to have a good role model. Watching, listening and learning from a good manager can make the process of self improvement much easier.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Creating my personal web site

As a software developer, I have been toying with the idea of creating my own personal web site for some time. This would give me a good understanding of the full life cycle of creating a web site - from registering the domain name, to deploying it on the web.

So, my first task was to register the domain name. With so many domain hosting companies available, I resorted to using the one we use at my place of work. When asking why we opted for this particular company over all the others, the reply was because they provided good support, and you could contact them on the telephone if necessary. So I registered my domain name with Easily. I only registered the name, and did not purchase any web space or other services. I had already discussed and agreed with a good friend that he would host my web site when it was ready.

My development platform of choice was going to be the .Net platform, using C# as my preferred language. I have the full version of Visual Studio at work, but not at home. However, Microsoft have a free web development application called Visual Web Developer. This is simply an excellent application for creating home or personal web sites. It contains all the web features contained in it's bigger sibling, but for free! I downloaded and installed this, and then made a start on developing my web site.

I had a pretty good idea of what my requirements were:

  • straight forward to create and maintain (so would implement good design principles and best practice)
  • easy to use and navigate
  • professional looking
  • allow users to register on the site (and optionally gain access to additional content, such as private photo albums)
  • grant me the authority to determine what access a registered user had on the site
  • contain information about me, hobbies, interests, resume and photo album
  • contain a link to my blog (this one) and my cycling reports

Luckily, the registration and configuration of the web site comes for free via the ASP.Net Configuration manager, which is built into Visual Web Developer. I could have written this myself, but why bother when Microsoft have already developed it for me.

To ensure that the pages all had a common look and feel, I used a master page. This ensured consistency throughout the web site. It would also ensure the web site would be easier to maintain and extend in the future, as I could make changes in one place that would ripple through the entire site.

It took me several months to develop the web site, involving many hours after work and at weekends. I was beginning to wonder if I would ever finish it!

When I eventually had a fully working version ready for test, I showed it to some of my family and friends for their consideration and feedback. I took on board their comments, and made the necessary changes. At this stage, I was primarily concerned with how they felt it looked, and with the wording of the content. As it was going to be on the Internet for the whole world to (potentially) see, I wanted it to be a true reflection of me.

Once I was happy with the web site, I then had to deploy it. As I mentioned earlier, although I had bought the domain name from Easily, it was going to be physically deployed on my friend's domain hosting servers. The benefit to this arrangement is that he has full access to the server, and can install whatever applications he chooses. He can also configure it to his own requirements, without having to make repeated calls to the support desk.

I took my web site and all its files over to his house one weekend, and spent most of the Sunday morning configuring it to work. Although the web site worked on my laptop, running in a test environment, deploying it under a web server is a different task altogether. The biggest differerence, and hence the main cause of problems is permissions and security. In a test environment, you will probably have access to all the files and folders your application requires. By default, when the very same application is deployed under a web server (Internet Information Services in this case), you have access to none (or very few) of these resources. This is obviously to prevent unauthorised access to your server's resources. So the task now, was to ensure that my application was granted access to the necessary files, folders and SQL Server databases to allow it to work. My friend did this configuration for me.

He gave me the DNS (Domain Name System) settings, which were then entered into my Easily domain account settings. This would take up to 24 hours to take effect. After a slight glitch by entering the wrong DNS settings, the web site was live.

It was a a great feeling when I navigated to my web site for the first time. It had been a labour of love, and had taken much time and effort to develop it, but it was certainly worth the effort.

My thanks to Ray for his help in deploying my web site!

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Why hasn't social media gone corporate yet?

With social media very quickly maturing and becoming more prevalent, it has still not been largely adopted by mainstream corporations and businesses.

Social media forms a part of many individuals daily lives, as a means of keeping in touch and networking with friends for example. The same holds true for a business. As a means of keeping in touch with your customers, as well as creating new ones, the opportunities are huge.

The savvy businesses (and there are many) have embraced the tide of social media. They are staying in touch with customers, keeping them informed of new services and/or products, and making new customers. More importantly, this brings the customer and supplier relationship much closer together in a way that is not possible using more traditional methods.

It seems that social media is still often seen as a toy and not a real business tool, used by the serious business. Some may question the value and benefit, or see it as a passing fad. As I have said in an earlier blog, social media is fundamentally about one thing - building connections.

Some businesses are gradually dipping their toes in the water, and hopefully many more will follow. From my own experience, a supplier from my work place is on Twitter (and hopefully they are reading this), and can testify to the positive benefits it has.

Social media is not going away any time soon, and the more quickly it is embraced and adopted, the better it will be for everyone in the supply chain - from the customer to the supplier.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Is Britain becoming a Police state?

The death of Ian Tomlinson in the wake of last week's G20 summit must raise serious concerns about the nature of our police force. Amateur video footage shows him walking past a line of riot police, with his hands in his pockets, minding how own business. The footage then appears to show him being pushed to the ground with a baton by one of the police officers. The footage is sketchy, and it is still to be confirmed exactly what happened.

The Metropolitan police treated the demonstrators from the outset like criminals. Yes, there almost certainly were some trouble makers amongst the protesters, there always will be. The vast majority of the demonstrators however were peaceful and law abiding, and making their feelings felt about issues they felt strongly about.

The demonstrators were corralled into containment areas for several hours. Allegations have been made that some were overheard saying "Now for the fun" while donning their riot gear. One witness is reported to have been pushed against metal scaffolding and hit with truncheons. When he escaped, the officers were heard to shout "Do you want a piece of this, do you want some?"

This sounds more like a police state, than a democracy. These attitudes are very troubling indeed, and have no place in Britain. The police have lost sight of the fact that they are enforcers of the law, and think they are the law. Indeed, they seem to think they are above the law!

The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) has launched a criminal investigation into the death of Mr Ian Tomlinson, but that does not exactly fill me with any sense of hope. The IPCC are ineffectual at best, and collusive at worst. The police are given ever increasing powers, including the ability to arrest over a greater number of offences, including the dropping of litter. To prevent Britain turning into a Police state, the powers of the police need to be curtailed, and brought back into line with the duties they are sworn to serve.

Violence and children

The story of the two children aged 10 and 11 who are reported to have tortured and assaulted two other young boys aged 9 and 11 is truly shocking. The full story was reported in The Times.

What was most shocking was the sheer level of violence used, and the ages of both the tormentors and the victims. There is a worrying trend in the UK of violence amongst children, with the assailants becoming younger, and the level of violence used increasing. Children have carried knives for decades, but the trend towards using them seems to be on the rise. Hardly a week goes by without a new story reporting an act of violence amongst children, and almost invariably a knife is involved.

A combination of peer pressure, gang culture and a complete lack of any moral compass are at the root of this social problem. It also seems to be an indication of a fractured society. Is it simply a co-incidence that many of the children involved in these crimes are from broken homes, where there is no enforcement of discipline and of right from wrong, where values such as compassion, respect and tolerance are taught. In short, where family values are engendered.

With no parental supervision, and little fear from our police, these children grow up with a completely skewed sense of what is acceptable behaviour in a civilised society. In the case reported here, both boys were in foster care.

The solution has to be a holistic one, involving parents, schools, the police and government. We need a joined up solution where all these agencies work together. It will certainly not be easy, but unless we want to have a repeat of this story, we must keep trying.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

The future of Social Media

We've seen many changes in the applications that are being used within the realm of Social Media. From Bebo, Facebook, StumbleUpon to Digg to name just a few. Where is this taking us, and what will Social Media look like in the future?

Well, I may not have a crystal ball, but I have noted several key developments that will almost certainly shape the future of Social Media applications.

Firstly, real time updates are crucial to the future of Social Media. This functionality is one of the key elements attributed to the rapid rise in success of Twitter. While all Social Media applications allow communication, they have largely been asynchronous communication. How do I know that this is critical? Because Facebook have very quickly responded to this feature of Twitter by adding the same functionality. As human beings, we converse in real time, and so any application that can emulate this ability is likely to succeed. This explains why instant messaging applications such as Microsoft Messenger are so popular. It is therefore important for any future Social Media application to allow real time updates of information, and to allow more human like synchronous conversations to occur. Like cash within the financial sector, liquidity is key.

Social media applications should allow for the greatest number of connections between users as possible. What I mean by this is that it should be possible for any given individual to connect with as many other individuals as possible. Many current Social Media applications work on the model that your network will consist only of people you know, without allowing you to search for and connect with people you don't know. If Social Media is about one thing, it is this: it is about connecting people. The Social Media application of the future will allow people to search for, connect with and communicate with as many people as they desire.

The Social Media application of the future must be developed using open and extensible technologies. You only have to look at the many applications that have developed around Facebook and Twitter to see this. If you develop your new Social Media application using proprietary technologies, then it is simply doomed to failure. The Internet is the biggest, most ubiquitous development platform there is, so this is an inexcusable faux pas.

These are fascinating times, and I cannot wait to see what the future holds.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

G20 Summit

The G20 summit was a surprising success. World leaders meeting in London recently to thrash out a solution to the global economic downturn showed a great deal of unity. Together, they pledged $1.1 trillion in loans and guarantees to poorer nations. This is an unprecedented and staggering figure, and probably beyond the comprehension of most people. It also agreed a commitment to prop up tottering economies of developing nations through the International Monetary Fund, and pledges of a heavier regulation of international finance. The latter included pledges to remove tax havens and the bonus culture that is endemic in the institutions that have been largely blamed for the global crisis. This has to be a good thing. The days of laissez faire economics that has prevailed over previous decades may at last be coming to an end.

The promise of $1.1 trillion to help poor countries exceeded even the most optimistic of outside expectations. The money will help keep small nations from tumbling into deep crisis, essentially serving as a firewall to keep the recession from deepening, analysts have said.

However, one of the biggest stumbling blocks to the recovery process is the banks. They have shifted from lending irresponsibly and shoring up huge amounts of toxic debt, to refusing to lend altogether. The solution is to find a happy medium. I am certainly not advocating a return to irresponsible lending, but there is no doubt that the banks have a vital part to play in the solution.

With the summit now over, it remains to be seen if the pledges turn into action. These will have to be implemented by individual countries. We need our politicians to act more than we ever have, and in this, they have my full support. I feel we all owe them our support in these troubling times, and for the time being at least, to put aside our political difference while we get ourselves back on track.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Language Integrated Query (LINQ)

LINQ represents a paradigm shift in the evolution of software development technologies. It was introduced into .Net Framework 3.5. It would be wrong to think of LINQ as only a tool for accessing and manipulating relational data, as it can also be used with non-relational data such as XML and objects amongst others.

Up until now, a software developer wishing to access and manipulate XML data, relational data or a collection of objects would need to understand a different methodology for each: recursing over an XML document tree, SQL syntax or a foreach loop respectively.

Rather than add XML or relational specific features to the language and runtime, LINQ takes a more general approach by adding general purpose query facilities to the .Net Framework that apply to all sources of information. It is these facilities that are collectively referred to as LINQ.

The term language-integrated query refers to the fact the the query is integrated into the developer's primary programming language e.g. C# and Visual Basic.Net. Because of this, LINQ therefore gains all the benefits of other native language features such as static type checking, Intellisense and compile time syntax checking.

LINQ defines a set of general purpose query operators that allow the traversal, filter and projection operators to be expressed in a declarative way in any .Net compatible language.

Over the years, Microsoft has devised many technologies for accessing and manipulating data, but they have never managed to bring these together so that they can be used to access them all in a standard and consistent way. Until now.

In my opinion, LINQ is the most important technology that Microsoft have released since COM in terms of enabling inter-operability.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009


If you haven't heard about Twitter yet, you soon will. Twitter is the latest Web 2.0 / social media application. It allows you to network with other people who share similar interests and aspirations as yourself. It has grown enormously since its inception.

Haven't we already been here before with Bebo, Facebook and the like? Yes and no is my answer. With Twitter, you can follow, find and communicate with people you do not know, and have never previously heard of. As a business vehicle, you can network, build relationships and strengthen your customer base. As a social vehicle, you can share ideas, information and have conversations with people.

The essence of Twitter is to inform people in 140 characters or less "What are you doing right now?" This is not enforced in any way, and you are free to compose whatever message you want. People twitter about all manner of things, from posting useful links to information, to what they're thinking or feeling, to what they are doing or planning to do, and anything else they can think of. To find out what someone is doing on Twitter, you follow them. That means that you will receive their tweets. A tweet is the name given to a message on twitter. You can reply back to a tweet, and have a conversation. If the tweet contains useful information, then you can relay the tweet to your own network of followers. This is called retweeting.

A huge collection of tools and applications has grown around Twitter, thus demonstrating it's ongoing success.

I use Twitter to connect with people who have similar interests, who I think are interesting, or who have useful information to share.

Twitter is a very simple concept, elegantly and brilliantly executed. It is so simple, I'm surprised no-one has thought of it before.

You can follow me on Twitter at