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Month: April 2016

Disrupted – My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble Book Review

Disrupted – My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble Book Review

Author: Dan Lyons

First Published: April 5, 2016

ISBN:  

Review by Catalin Avram

This book is a must read for anyone currently working in a Silicon Valley type of startup. At first it sounded like a lame series of excuses coming from older man who can’t adapt to the startup trend, but if you stick to the book you realize Dan Lyons has some serious points. Being a journalist and a satirist (he used to ran the famous Fake Steve Jobs blog), and a little bit of a complainer, Lyons gives a full blown, no censorship view of what actually happens inside a tech startup.

I don’t agree with a lot of the author’s views on the start-up culture. He’s either overly exaggerating or he’s being overly sensitive about things which are just different than the status quo. There is also a lot of points I do agree on. The start-up cultures seem to be a combination between kindergarten and a frat house. This is very true. Where old financial companies and banks are on one end o the spectrum, these companies are completely on the other hand (it’s no joke when he mentions that if you don’t go for drinks after work with your colleagues it might, and it will be used against you, and viewed as “lame” because you’re not a team player and you don’t get involved).

Here is the HubSpot’s (the subject company) co-founders’ response to his book: (SPOILER ALERTS)

HubSpot’s Response to the Book

It is an incredible story, with some nasty twists. But more importantly, other than one man’s re-discovery and colorful language, the man question becomes: are we in a tech bubble where hipster kids run multi-million dollar companies where their burn rate is fueled by cheap money printed by the Federal Reserve? What do you think?

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A Brief History of Time Book Review

A Brief History of Time Book Review


Author:  Stephen Hawking

First Published: 1987

ISBN: 0553380168 (ISBN13: 9780553380163)

Review by Catalin Avram

Stephen Hawking is one of the greatest physicist of all time. His contributions to the world of science is phenomenal, some say on the same level as Newton or Einstein. He published this book 1987. It is a description of the Big Bang written in plain English, with no equations. It is an amazing summary of one of the newest and deepest fields in science today. I describes big ideas such as how the universe formed, quantum physics and time travel. This is a must read for everyone!

Favourite Quote:

If time travel is possible, where are the tourists from the future?

What I learned from this book:

I learned that with a bit of patience you can explain big ideas to non-scientists. Not only that, but it’s imperative that some of the science be written, in depth, for non-scientists. This allows more people to contribute with novel ideas which will most certainly lead to breakthroughs.

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The Cold Fire Trilogy Book Review

The Cold Fire Trilogy Book Review


Author:  C.S. Friedman

First Published: 1991

ISBN: 0756403146 (ISBN13: 9780756403140)

Review by Catalin Avram

The Cold Fire Trilogy is an epic Fantasy / Sci-Fi saga based on the fictional world of Erna. In this distant world, an unlikely group sets foot to combat the world’s most evil. The narration is most awesome and the character build is superb. This page turner will keep you hooked until the end, until the final battle. One of the best Fantasy / Sci-Fi books; extremely underrated.

Favourite Quote:

There is no such thing as redemption, my friend. There is right, there is wrong, and there are a million shades of color between the two. Once you’ve done wrong, it is always with you. You just have to try and be better.

What I learned from this book:

In your journey you will find the most unlikely allies and the most unexpected foes. Careful who you open up to, they might turn from ally to enemy.

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Three Day Road Book Review

Three Day Road Book Review


Author:  Joseph Boyden

First Published: 2005

ISBN: 0143017861 (ISBN13: 9780143017868)

Review by Catalin Avram

Three Day Road is wartime narration and a sad story of the atrocities of the first world war. It follows two parallel narrations of Xavier Bird, a Oji-Cree boy who returned wounded from war. In one narration it describes the horrible encounters of tranche fighting and how some of his friends coped with the war and the second narration describes the long, three day road, taken by the boy and his last living relative back to Northern Ontario on a canoe. He is heavily addicted to morphine and falls in and out of consciousness. The are great comparisons between the beautiful and serene scenery seen from the canoe and the brutal landscape of war in trenches.

Favourite Quote:

“We all fight on two fronts, the one facing the enemy, the one facing what we do to the enemy.”

What I learned from this book:

War is bad, not only on the loosing side, but on anyone who is involved in any way, shape or form.

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Where Eagles Dare Book Review

Where Eagles Dare Book Review


Author: Alistair MacLean

First Published: June 1st 1967

ISBN: 1560254556 (ISBN13: 9781560254553)

Review by Catalin Avram

Where Eagles Dare is a fantastic fictional story of an allied infiltration behind enemy lines. It’s starring five elite commando members who parachute themselves deep into nazi Germany at the height of the second world war. Their mission is to infiltrate a high security castle situated on a peak of a mountain accessible only by gondola. It is a story of courage, deceit and irony. A great narration and vivid imagery of war-time espionage at its best. First published in 1967, it was followed up by a successful film, featuring Clint Eastwood, launched in 1968.

Favourite Quote:

Major John Smith: You’re late.
Mary Ellison: One day, I won’t come at all

What I learned from this book:

Sometimes deceit is necessary for a greater good, but everything comes with a price. Decisions must always take this into account.

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Beginning of Infinity Book Review

Beginning of Infinity Book Review


Author: David Deutsch

First Published: March 1st, 2011

ISBN:  0670022756 (ISBN13: 9780670022755)

Review by Catalin Avram

Beginning of Infinity is one of the most complete book written on what it means to be human and intelligence, covering a wide range of topics such as quantum computing, philosophy, psychology, politics and climate change.

It is one of the most comprehensive pieces of literature for someone interested in learning, in plain english, about very complex topics.

David Deutsch has an amazing quality of presenting an idea and then attacking it from all angles, trying to break it, until a logical conclusion is drawn.

The book is focused on the scientific revolution created during the enligntment era. He argues that advances in technology is based on knowledge, and that knowledge itself is acquired by having a societies who encourage education itself and questioning of the status quo – ie the need for explaining everything.

One of my many favourite ideas of the book is the “Earth ship”. Deutsch explains how sending a spaceship to colonize outer space is no different than how we currently live on earth. A ship that needs to support life across a few generation might seem like a crazy place from where there’s no escape and that the survival of the people is dependant of how well they manage their internal resources, including how they govern themselves. Although we look look at planet Earth as “home” and as a ‘safe’ place to be, it’s really not. It’s the advancement in technology that helps us a lot more than anything else. Imagine how long you could survive naked, outside, in the middle of the winter. So our own planet is not sheltering us from anything – if anything it’s trying to kills us, therefore our own survival and success solly depends on our knowledge of how the world works, which in turn helps us develop technologies to better ourselves.

Another important point of the book is the infinity itself. Deutsch argues that every time there is a new scientific discovery, it opens an unlimited amount of possibilities for advancement. From ancient Athens to modern day quantum computing, the book takes us through a journey of qubits (quantum bits) and parallel multiverses with a common history. Another main idea is that humans will always have new problems to solve and that we will never finish discovering everything. Overtime we have a new view on a theory we are at the beginning of a new infinity.

In terms of current affairs, Deutsch proposes a remarkable and eye opening idea regarding climate change:

The entire world is pumping a vast amount of resources and wealth into cutting down emissions which, in turn, will eventually lead to catastrophic outcomes for important fields such as agriculture. Everyone agrees with this. But what most people miss, is that almost nobody is putting any kind of effort into trying to solve these problems if (when?) they eventually occur. For example, some of the money and effort that goes into helping cut emissions by such and such until 2050 could be better put to use in research and development for creating such devices that can automatically extract the emissions from the atmosphere. In other words, let’s try harder to work on fixing a problem, not only to prevent it – because maybe (and we really don’t know) it’s too late for prevention.

I truly enjoyed reading this book and highly recommend it. Although it explained a lot of things, this book left me with more questions than answers and I think that makes the most sense.

Favourite Quote:

“[…talking about the fall of ancient Athens] Like every other destruction of optimism, whether in a whole civilisation or in a single individual, these must have been unspeakable catastrophes for those who had dared to expect progress. But we should feel more than sympathy for those people. We should take it personally. For if any of those earlier experiments in optimism had succeeded, our species would be exploring the stars by now, and you and I would be immortal.”

What I learned from this book:

I learned that we each play a role in the advancement of our species and that questioning everything and explaining why things happen they way they do is the key to technological advancement, which in turn is key to our own success.

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Casual games compete with Facebook and YouTube

Casual games compete with Facebook and YouTube

A buzzword when releasing a game or when trying to raise revenue to develop your casual game is “competition”. Usually when releasing a game, you might think the competition is another game of the same type. Or other games in general. But the reality is that your game will be in direct competition with Facebook, YouTube, Netflix and other content consumption service. So when you think about releasing that “match-3” type of game, you’re not only competing with another 10,000 existing titles of the same type, but you are also competing with people scrolling on the Facebook newsfeed. yayks!

 

Imagine a regular 30-something year old person, who has a job. If you think about their typical day schedule, you realize that most of the day is taken up by activities such as work, sleep, eat, talk to friends, etc.

A regular person who works 9-5, commutes 1 hour and sleeps the regular 8 hours  a day, will be left with only XX hours of entertainment a day.

Suppose the person wakes up at 7am and it’s at work from 9 until 5pm. This really means that she’ll be home around 6:30, have dinner and/or meet with friends and by the time she gets to unwind, it’s already 9pm. Suppose that our person lives a sort of healthy life and they want to be in bed by 11. This leaves them with only 2 hours for entertainment. Everybody is fighting to capture those 2 hours – Facebook, popular shows such as Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Suites – yes – when you release a little free game, you are directly competing with Game of Thrones! Good luck with that!

So here are some things you can do as a game designer to maximize your chances that someone will play your game:

Don’t make it free!

When you make a game free, you are automatically undervaluing your work. Although it works in some cases, I am a strong advocate against free and freemium games. You can release a demo, or a video or a level, but making in-game purchases will take away from the value of the game and turn it into a casino game.

Provide quality content, puzzles and a story

Tapping the screen to keep the bird flying is not very smart. It’s not even hand-eye coordination. It’s just mindless time wasting and it’s the same type activity one does when scrolling on facebook. And guess what, someone’s facebook feed is more interesting than your flappy bird clone!

Avoid “infinite” type of games.

When you create a game that never ends you give your player a reason not to play it. The reason we have games is because we want to start something, get challenged and finish. There has to be a clear way to end the game, otherwise the player will think “ah, I can stop playing now, this never ends anyway”

Don’t release clones

Just don’t! Use your imagination and create something new, don’t re-invent something that’s already invented.

Creating a successful game is a hard task, but by following the above steps you can at least eliminate or minimize the chances that your game will directly compete with established websites.

Thanks for reading!

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What is a full stack developer? (and where do they fit)

What is a full stack developer? (and where do they fit)

To begin the understanding of what a full stack developer is, let us first step back and define what the opposite is. Someone who is not a full stack developer, is then, a specialist in a particular area. The specialists are, in general, categorized based on work areas which are familiar to everybody. The categorization usually starts at “front end” and “back end”.  This is by default misleading, because even if you have a the “front end” and the “back end”, you are still missing 3 core components from the equation: database, deployment and devops.

Let’s look at the scenario from another angle. You are building a web app. A web app has the following basic criteria, which makes it a web app:

  1. It’s accessed through a web browser, by going to a URL.
  2. It has front end presentation – this is what the user sees – the buttons, text and input fields.
  3. The user creates, retrieves, modifies or saves data, so it must need:
  4. A web application server to handle the connections.
  5. A database to store all the information.
  6. The server needs a physical space to exist, so you deploy it to the cloud (see what I did there?).
  7. It needs to run, be stable, be updated.
  8. The stake holders need to understand its value.

Each of these points can be further broken up into more steps, depending on how complex the system is or how fast it needs to get developed. So here are the general skills necessary for each of the above points:

1. Web URL

This one is easy – register a domain and map it to your hosting plan. So far so good.

2. Front-end

Although self explanatory, there are a lot of details to this point. To develop a beautiful front end, you must know about UX (User Experience), UI (user interface), user flow, user stories, SEO, graphics, some basic color theory, latest trends in design, design patterns for the programming part, UI testing, A/B testing, responsiveness to mobile devices (and probably more). And for most of these points, there are hundreds of different ways to achieve the same thing. Notice how I did not mention any actual programming skills; that is because I believe the programming languages/technologies can be picked up easily, it’s the concepts that are harder to master.

3 and 4. Web Application Server

This is the other major known part of an application. The developer must know best practices for server applications. How is the communication handled? Is it secure? Is it encrypted? Is it as safe as possible from attacks? If the application supports real time messaging, how is it handled? What kind of design pattern should be used and how will the app architecture look like including load balancers, firewalls and databases? What happens if a node goes down? What happens if the connection is lost half way in a transaction? These are only some of the questions to be asked when developing the Web Application Server side of things

5. A database

This is yet another big chunk of the system. Which type of database to use? And why? When considering this, a lot of factors must be taken into account, including cost, performance, future expansions and so on. The developer must be at least familiar with the difference between relational and non-relational databases, store procedures and db locks.

6. Hosting

This is another skill our full stack developer needs to have. In very large projects, this is usually handled by a completely different team, but in today’s world, the full stack developer needs to know how to set up servers in the cloud or in house such that the application will run smoothly.

7. Deploying, Testing, Availability

Other key role in the lifecycle of an application are deployment, continous testing and availability. This require skills such as creating VMs or Doker containers, testing frameworks for continous integration and knowledge about distributed systems and availability. Another criteria which falls under this category is data consistency. I watched a speech about availability vs consistency of data, and in the speech there was an example about hotel booking systems and how in their business model availability trumps data consistency. For example, they allow the possibility of 2 people booking the same hotel room at the same time at the cost of the service being available. This is due to their business model – they’d rather overbook the hotel and deal with this at the counter (they all have a few rooms always available for these scenarios) than have you book a room in another hotel.

8. Relaying value to the stake holders

This, to me, is by far the most important skill to have. For everything I wrote above there are books. Hundreds of books, forums, stack exchange answers, Quora questions, university classes and so on. But for explaining the value to a business owner, for that there are no books. It’s all about the experience. And the only way to gather experience is by doing. And the best way to gather experience on this subject is to create, from scratch, your own social network application. This is the real “hello world” application.

So that’s what a full stack developer should do. But specialization has their own merit and it exists for a reason, so where do they [full stack developers] fit?

The most common answer is: start-ups!  This is true for multiple reasons. A full stack developer is a very good asset in a startup – given the skills above. They can pretty much create a system from scratch, get it up and running and maintain it until it takes off.

And you don’t need to be a database expert to do this (and you shouldn’t). It is pretty self explanatory that you shouldn’t use an Oracle set up for your database before you have a prototype to your product. And if the prototype can be done using a free open source db (such as MongoDB) then just do it!

There is however, another place where full stack developers will be used a lot in the future: in big corporations, especially in traditional ones such as banking and finance. More on this another time 🙂

So in other words, a full stack developer should be able to put together a social network type of site (in terms of complexity), including mockups, layout, choosing color schemes, do all the development up to a working beta, and explain to the stakeholders, in plain english, the advantages of using the technologies of choice.

I learn by reading and having conversations with people about different subjects. This is a hot topic in the tech world right now and I would like to get your opinion on this so don’t hesitate to comment!

 

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How to jump from ActionScript to Javascript / HTML5

How to jump from ActionScript to Javascript / HTML5

When I started thinking about this subject I thought maybe it was just me, in my particular situation and work experience, who got left behind web technologies.  But after conversations with many senior developers, I concluded this is a pretty common theme among us and a problem worth tackling.

The purpose of this article is to shed some light onto web technologies from a principles point of view.  This is targeted to senior developers who have experience in more formal languages such as as3, C++, Java, Assembly(!!).  It is also targeted for CTOs, Business Managers, Project Managers and any other decision making personnel who is having a tough time with the terminology.  Since I’ve been coding mostly in ActionScript for the past years, I will use it as a reference in this article, but the general concepts apply to other programming languages as well. And although there are many technology stacks used today to create web applications, I will focus on JavaScript related ones because those are the ones I am currently learning. Of course, the concepts can be extrapolated to other technologies (such as PHP, .NET, Ruby, etc). Please be aware, this is not a technical article. You will not learn how to migrate your code from as3 to JavaScript. This is one level of abstraction higher

When someone is looking to start working on a web-app, they will quickly be bombarded with the following terminology: JavaScript, HTML, css, css3, DOM, jQuery, Ember, Angular, Angular2, React, Node, MEAN Stack, Full-Stack, MongoDB, Bootstrap, Responsive, Mobile-Ready, ES6, ES7, TypeScript, Redux, DevOps, JSON, XML, Webpack, Stringify.  Enough terminology to fill out a resume! Someone who wrote physics engines for AAA games might get completely overwhelmed by this.

But don’t be afraid, you are not alone, and it’s perfectly normal to be able to write a full blow car physics algorithm and not to have a clue how to write a “hello world” web page.  For those who started the proper way (from basic HTML to older AJAX techniques and then dived into exotic new frameworks such as AngularJS), I ask you this: Imagine learning Angular without knowing what a <div> is.  How would you feel?

The reverse is also true: imagine doing a physics engine in C++ without understanding pointers and recursion.

Before we move forward into web application structure, let’s point out one of the biggest differences: there’s no compile!

We are used to the following flow:

  1. Write Code
  2. Compile
  3. Run
  4. Debug

With web apps, you simply write code, then you refresh the webpage. The latter step being sometimes a combination of running and debugging. And depending on which technologies you use, the refreshing is also optional.  So you end up writing code and seeing the changes live.  How cool is that?

So here is a list of important key concepts which helped me jump ship from as3 to web apps:

1. You are building HTML.  Always!

This is one thing which, although it seems extremely trivial now, it wasn’t easy to grasp in the beginning.  When using ANY web technologies  your end result is HTML.  Everything you do involves creating, manipulating and styling HTML components, also called DOM nodes.

You might be somewhat familiar with <head>, <body> of an html site, but the building blocks of the layout are really divs, tables, lists, buttons and input fields.

There is a ton of documentation on the ins and outs of this, but the basic principle is this: your end result is a web page, made up of HTML tags. You simply use Javascript and other frameworks to manipulate those tags.  That’s all.

2. JavaScript is your best friend

So you are building HTML and you need something to manipulate it with – enter JavaScript.  If you come from a more traditional language such as C++, you will probably feel like puking at this thought.  But have no fear, it’s just how things work. (Why C++ developers should not be scared of JavaScript)

JavaScript is a lot more powerful than people give it credit.  JavaScript can be Procedural, Structured, Object-Oriented, Functional, Event-Driven and Interpreted. It all depends on how you use it.  Also, passing functions as arguments is an awesome way to do some really crazy things! Also, JavaScript is fast!

3. Goolge Chrome is your other best friend

One of the most difficult things to wrap your head around web application development is the dev environment.  You might be used to Eclipse, Flash Builder, Visual Studio – and all of the sudden all the examples you see are done in Notepad++ at best, no compile, and just browser refresh.

This will take some getting used to, so I highly recommend trying out different setups.  The two most common editors are Sublime Text and Webstorm.  Bonus points if you write a full stack app using vi only 🙂

I also recommend getting very familiar with Google Chrome’s developer tools, as they will provide tremendous help when developing and debugging.

4. Social Network is the new “Hello World” app.

It is widely acceptable to jump into a new programming language or technology by writing a “hello world” program.  This is not good enough anymore.  The new “hello world” should be a fully functional social network (including deployment to a cloud based service Amazon Web Services or MS Azure).  I did mine in 30 hours, so if you skip on endless Facebook scrolling, you can do too during a long weekend!

The social network should have at a minimum the following:

Stage 1:

  • Landing page for sign-in or sign up
  • Create/Edit profile
  • Make friends

Stage 2:

  • live, real time encrypted chat module

Stage 3:

  • Native iPhone, Android and Windows Mobile apps.

Stage 4:

  • backoffice / admin tool for the social network.
    • This tool should have the capability to see stats of the system, ban users, send mass messages, remove accounts, etc.

Although you are not expected to be a designer, the app should not look like it was put together by a developer.  There are many  styles of UI components which look very nice and could be used. If you are a developer, it doesn’t mean you can’t create good looking apps without the input of a designer.

Creating and deploying a Social Network app will make you understand all aspects of the technologies used.  And although you will not become a database guru, you will at least have an idea of what it means to persist data to a database and how to retrieve it and what technologies to use.

I always believed that great products are built by great teams, not by great skills.  Anybody has the ability to improve their technical skills and there will ALWAYS be a better solution and room for improvement.  What differentiates good products from mediocre ones is how well the team works together.  A team of average coders that get along very well will put together a much better product than a team of elite coders that don’t get along.

5. Choosing the right technologies – chose all!

One of the most daunting tasks for a CTO or software developer when starting a new project is to chose which web technology to use.  There are so many!  And so many combinations!  The best way to decide is to create a series of small pet projects and use different technologies for different ones.

For example, we can take our social network example and first build the backend in Node.js and then build the same functionality in Ruby.  This would be an excellent exercise to compare multiple technologies.  You can then dump the code in github and show to potential employers that you wrote open source software 🙂

6. Understanding the lingo

Above, I listed most of the key words which are currently hot in the web development world.  I will explain to them in simple, plain english, so that you understand how they all fit together:

JavaScript, HTML, css, css3, DOM, jQuery, Ember, Angular, Angular2, React, Node, MongoDB, MEAN Stack, Full-Stack, MongoDB, Bootstrap, Responsive, Mobile-Ready, ES6, ES7, TypeScript, Redux, DevOps, JSON, XML, Webpack, Stringif

You are building web applications.  The end result is HTML.  You use the JavaScript to manipulate the DOM (HTML) and to write your business logic.  The application can be broken down into 2 distinct areas: the UI and the logic.

The UI is how the app looks – colors, styles, fonts and animations.  These are controled by css (css3) bootstrap and jQuery.

The logic is written in JavaScript, but it can’t all be dumped in one file.  So we use frameworks.  Frameworks include: Angular/Angular2, React/Redux. Ember.

7. Bring value to the customer!

The most important lesson is by far bringing value to the customer.  This goes beyond programming and software engineering.  This is the thing that should pop in everyone’s head when thinking about a new product.  Why are we migrating from Flex to html5? or Why are so many companies re-writing their software? Because the end-user requirements change constantly.

When making the decision of which framework to use, besides the technical details or requirements, a CTO should also keep in mind the available work force for hire. At the time I’m writing this article, React / Redux is a very cool and funky new framework for developing web apps created and backed by Facebook, but it would be a pretty dumb idea to create a product using it if you expect to hire 10 more programmers next year.  The reason is you won’t have anybody to choose from!

Another value you can bring to the customer using web technologies is the long term maintainability of the code.  Since all these technologies work interchangeably with one another, it is very important to ask the following questions:

  1. How easy is it to re-write part of the app in the future? (the UI, the back-end, the database)
  2. Can I easily find programmers to maintain my code in 2 years from now?

 

Conclusions

I hope I shined some light on some of the questions regarding HTML5 migration and web applications in general. As you can see, switching from classic application development to web applications goes way beyond learning JavaScript and HTML. Those are just simple, implementation details which can be picked up in a few weeks by a seasoned developer. The real value is understanding well the above points, and I hope this article will open many doors to many developers which are in doubt about jumping ship to web application development.

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