Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Bits and Pieces

A week is a long time in the life of a Freelancer. I got 15 days more work from a newish client last week, which I will be starting at some point in April. So, at the weekend I was in a celebratory mood, with friends coming round on Friday evening for Uno Extreme and Poker, although the rounds of Uno took so long it was after 1am by the time we could start Poker and we just couldn't sum up the energy for it (well, I am 30 next month...)

My cousin James was staying at mum and dad's for the weekend, just a few miles away, and Mrs. Freelancenerd and I met up with the family for an early Mother's Day meal at La Reserve in Sutton Park on Saturday lunchtime. Very nice it was too. I took James into Town for a drink in All Bar One on Saturday arvo, where we bumped into Murray who was back behind the bar after another term at Nottingham.

The highlight of the day, though, was a Feeder gig at the NEC Arena. See my Flickr pages for mobile phone pics taken there - it really was a fantastic atmosphere, although still not as good as the Ocean Colour Scene gig at the Birmingham Academy just before Christmas!

On the sport front, England won a Test Match in India for the first time in 21 years to level the series at 1-1. Roll on summer - can't wait for the cricket season to start!

Villa were involved in an excruciating bore-draw with Fulham, and David O'Leary seems to be well on his way to Public Enemy Number 2 (after Doug Ellis) at Villa Park.

This week is my financial year-end, so it's time to scrabble around for all the bills and invoices, etc, and get my books up to date before I send them off to the accountants on Friday - oh joy...

Tuesday, March 21, 2006


The Eureka! moment has just occurred! I now have a spider that returns quotes from an insurance website without the need for a web browser. This will give me more than a few advantages, chief among them being:

  1. 1. A large efficiency boost as there is no pesky web-browser in the way trying to interpret what comes back from the web server

  2. 2. The ability to host spiders without needing dedicated servers - they can now be installed as dlls in a bog standard hosting account - leading to a massive cost saving!

I'm such a nerd... and thanks for the kind words of encouragement, DB!

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Pioneering and the Eureka! moment

I love the pioneering aspect of being a software developer, and occasionally you come across a problem that doesn't involve the usual routine search of MSDN to find the right function to use for a particular database, user interface or security operation. These types of problems are great to get your teeth into, because you end up trawling through newsgroups (admittedly in their sanitised form courtesy of Google Groups), to see if there are any other souls out there who are operating in the same field. Almost always, if you look hard enough, you will find someone who has asked questions similar to the ones you want answered, and has had them answered by some higher authority (such as a Microsoft Most Valued Professional (MVP)), in which case you drop in on their conversation and metaphorically dig out the nuggets of knowledge that have been left there.

I'm my own boss, and one of the beauties of being your own boss is the fact that you can decide when to take on and try out new technologies instead of waiting for dinosaurs further up the food chain to decide for you.

In the past few weeks I have completed a website using Microsoft's .NET Framework 2.0 and the latest version of Microsoft's commercial database software, SQL Server 2005. It was so new when I started using it, I struggled to find any Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that would host it!

I've also been looking into building a web spider that will surf the web without needing to use a web browser. This has been extremely interesting in a totally nerdy way, because I've had to investigate how to send and receive data to and from a website and interpret the results. If I can crack how to do this, I'll have a much faster way of spidering insurance quotes for example, and also be able to use the resulting technology in other projects too. I worked late into the night on this on Friday and also yesterday morning and evening. Spending time burrowing my way around the internet looking for solutions does give you a buzz, but not as much as when you actually get the Eureka! moment of finally getting some small part of your software to work! I know I'm gonna crack this eventually!

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Protest Update

The Technical Director of one of my customers phoned just before lunch to see if he could drop in this afternoon to catch up. Being the rebel that I am, I decided to tell him that I was going to a protest and would he like to join me (actually, no I didn't do that, I said, "Of course I'm available this afternoon, when were you thinking of?") He said between 1pm and 3pm, and I then got a phone call at 4:45pm explaining that there had been a delay, whereupon we decided between us that it wasn't really worth his making the 30-45 minute drive to my house and we'd meet another time.

As if that wasn't enough, St. Tony was so scared that I'd be at Matthew Boulton College he decided it would be easier to give a press conference on the cash for peerages row instead.

All in all, a little frustrating for a would-be protester, but hey life goes on, eh?

Insurance Spiders

The last few weeks have been quite varied you could say, even for me. So I'm going to start posting project updates on a (semi) regular basis. It'll help me get a handle on what I've been doing with my time too!

Ongoing spider work for a struggling insurance introducer
Why are they struggling? Well, you can rest assured it's nothing to do with me (obviously, tch!) None of the marketing campaigns have worked and now we're waiting for a deal from an insurance broker we met with last November. Unfortunately, this depends on their new website being completed, and that project has overrun so we're having to wait longer than anticipated (not really a surprise though - since when did software projects run on time!?) The other problem is that the Board I'm working for all have day jobs and so can't devote enough time to move things on faster - all very frustrating, but at least I'm getting paid for 3 days a week, which comes in very handy.

Oh, and a spider is a program that automatically surfs a website for you to collect (aka scrape) information from it. In this case it takes information from a database and fills out an insurance proposal on your behalf before scraping the resulting quote(s) and stuffing them back in the database for viewing on the insurance introducer's website. The idea is that the introducer's website does all the shopping around for you.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Unwelcome Blair to Brum

This is a public service announcement on behalf of the Birmingham Stop the War Coalition and the Matthew Boulton 2:

Matthew Boulton College, Jennens Road, B4 7PS
Thursday 16 March
1 pm

Dear Friend

This Thursday Tony Blair is visiting Matthew Boulton college, at Jennens Rd.
Stop the War and the Matthew Boulton 2 have called a demonstration starting
at 1pm.

Publicising this demo on Stop the War stalls at the weekend got a great
response. People want to let Blair know what they think of him.

We want to build a big demo on Thursday. If you have any free time during
the day in the next few days please give us a call. There is leafleting of
universities, colleges, workplaces and the city centre planned. We want to
get posters up everywhere.

Please tell everyone you know and come and let Bliar know what you think of

Helen Salmon
07905 212 297


The Matthew Bolton 2 were expelled from Matthew Boulton College earlier this year for publishing an independent newsletter. I'm not sure of the exact reasons for the expulsion, but the newsletters do include criticism of the college and the British and American governments. I don't necessarily agree with everything they say, but we should support their right to say it.

The pamphlets they wrote are available for download below:
The Guerilla Monthly (pdf)
What is the purpose of the College (pdf)

Personally I'll be going down there to make my displeasure of our Government's policies known to Mr. Blair in person. Especially this latest bill which has been given "[t]he boring title of the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill", which the usually sober Times goes on to say, "hides an astonishing proposal. It gives ministers power to alter any law passed by Parliament. The only limitations are that new crimes cannot be created if the penalty is greater than two years in prison and that it cannot increase taxation. But any other law can be changed, no matter how important. All ministers will have to do is propose an order, wait a few weeks and, voilĂ , the law is changed."

This truly is a frightening prospect, and one that we must resist if our democracy, such as it is, is to mean anything anymore.

I knew it wouldn't take me long to get back into politics! Must have been that trip to the pub this evening...

Work-life balance

You hear a lot about this, or maybe more precisely, you hear people mention it but don't really explain what they mean by it. So what does it mean?

Well, to me, work needs to be somewhere you feel you are contributing something useful to society as a whole, and hopefully something that will last; it's soul-destroying when you are bound by business processes that you know don't work and force you to contribute to substandard products (in my case software). Work needs to be fulfilling in some way, and the only way I have found it fulfilling is through innovation and variety. Unfortunately in the corporate environments I've worked in there is generally very little of either, and there also seems to be little understanding of what makes a software developer happy.

In Steve C. McConnell's seminal book, Rapid Development, he explains that a major problem is a clash of personalities between the typical software developer and the typical manager. The typical software developer is motivated by innovation, personal advancement and team work, whereas one of the major motivations for the typical manager is responsibility. The clash occurs when the manager assumes people are motivated by the same things as they are, and so rewards achievement with greater responsibility instead of greater opportunuity for innovation or personal advancement, etc. For example, in my last corporate job I was given responsibility for maintenance on certain projects, which I can see now was supposed to make me feel rewarded, but because I find maintenance boring and repetitive, it felt like more of a punishment and a demotivator. With this kind of clash being repeated throughout a company, and even an industry, it is no surprise that I only ever found one highly motivated, happy and contented team to work in in the 6 years after I left university. There are a lot of unhappy software developers out there in the corporate world, and I believe a lot of it is down to a misunderstanding of what makes us tick. What is a surprise to me is that so many software developers are prepared to put up with their unhappiness year after year in the hope that "something will come up" and their lot will improve.

I have tried to do something about it, and have been fortunate enough to get my own frelance business started, and this is where the "life" part of the Work-life balance comes in for me. I able to have variety in my work now, and as much innovation as I am prepared to risk. I also see customers face-to-face and I'm able to deliver to real people instead of faceless corporate customers who I'm hidden from by the sales department. Life is now interwoven with my work. I work at home, and although it took a year or so to get used to, I am well used to it now, and it is a much more fulfilling way of working. Life dovetails around my work and vice-versa so much that there is hardly any distinction apart from shutting the door to my office. I work a lot harder now I work for myself, but I feel a lot less stressed and I have a lot more energy for other things than I used to. In short, I feel alive as opposed to having the life sucked out of me, and that can only be a good thing.

Friday, March 10, 2006

It's Wesley Crusher's Fault!

Chatting over lunch in the pub with Wesley Crusher today, and we ended up in a convo about the psychology of blogging. I stopped blogging last September cos:
  1. I dried up
  2. It was pretty directionless anyway
  3. I was doing it out of guilt (bloggers will understand this feeling)
  4. I was doing it to keep my hits up on sitemeter (a real warning sign!)
Aaannnnyway, I was chatting to old Wes (uber-geek and erstwhile colleague) and the blogging convo got me wondering....

Am I a hopeless, serial blogger, crying out into the blogosphere wilderness, hoping to make his mark on the world in some small way? It looks like it.

This time, though, I'm gonna try and concentrate on my life as a freelance IT consultant, with other "life bits" thrown in for good measure. Of course, it will probably ramble off into completely different directions, but that's the beauty of blogging, ain't it? (or is it?)... you see, I'm so pyschologically damaged by blogging I'm already feeling constrained by my self-imposed blogging remit (sic). Why oh why am I doing this? Only time will tell, and I'm certainly not promising to post regularly (can you hear me making my way towards the slippery slope marked "obsessive blogger" once more?) That way lies madness I tell you!