When all is said and done, I hope you're reading this column the first in the new millennium in familiar surroundings. With any luck, the prophets of doom around the Y2K problem have been proved wrong and the world didn't stop spinning suddenly in a haze of apocalyptic fireworks. If this is the case, I congratulate the human race for making it past another one of life's man-made hurdles.
That's not to say that all our systems have made it smoothly into the new age. Who knows what state the world's IT systems will be in? I'm thinking it's not going to be quite as bad as predicted. There'll be glitches, of course, some anomalies, but on the whole I think the risk to human life has been grossly exaggerated. That said, I'd like to take some time now for reflection.
Now that the world's clocks have rolled over to 2000, we've lost a species that flurried so well in the run-up, including 1999. I don't think it's a major loss, and I'm sure Mother Nature will make the balance sheets tally up. These parasites preyed on unsuspecting victims, latching onto their IT budgets and, like all good blood-sucking insects, bleeding their victim dry before moving onto the next one, with the previous body feeling dazed and dizzy trying to figure out exactly what happened.
Who am I talking about? The so-called Y2K companies that popped up, charging astronomical rates to tell the end client that they should prepare for the turn of the century. Not many of them could actually offer any more than the warning a 40-page report detailing the joys the change from 1999 to 2000 would bring to your company. And boy, was that an expensive report to commission! These companies were generally one-man bands run very much like a cult (minus
the sex, I assume). They roamed the land looking for unsuspecting, worried, stressed IT directors who, come January 1, 2000, would have to report to their board of directors on what steps they took to sidestep the Y2K issue. An easy kill, methinks.
I'm talking about some real cowboys here. I'm aware of many companies of this ilk companies that don't have even one computing qualification among them. In fact, I know of one British company that made a fortune reselling the free computer disk from our government for £25. But, you say, they must have added extra value to the disk to warrant the price increase from £0 to £25. Well, yes, they did, so I must apologize for not telling you the whole story: they added the company's sticker with logo prominently beaming. With printing costs like that, maybe we're all in the wrong game!
Nugget from Vienna
I've just come back from the Java Migration Conference in Vienna, where IBM was our host for four days. As with many of these conferences, the majority of it was the same old nonsense, but you don't go for that. You go for the odd golden nugget that pops its head up and a number of nuggets did indeed show themselves. One such came from Big Blue themselves in the form of Oma Sewhdat. Oma is in charge of the Java certification program that IBM is spearheading. It was one of those talks that surprised me. I sat down, mentally preparing myself to shut down and sleep, with my eyes open, for the next hour. But what I heard caught my attention, and suddenly all my processes were up and running again.
Oma began by outlining the need for Java certification, and I must say I was impressed by the philosophy that went into this. IBM's biggest concern is the lack of skilled individuals that can actually do the job at hand. Oma talked of spiraling salaries and the problems employers face with retaining good staff. As regular readers of this column will recall, I've had a number of things to say on this issue myself, as we have to go through the process of hiring and are only too painfully aware of how hard it is to get good people.
But one of the things he said got me thinking. If the likes of IBM, Sun and Oracle are starting to think what we have known for years, then maybe it's time for the industry at large to wake up to themselves. We're heading for disaster if we continue on the trajectory we're on now. If salaries continue to rise out of control, with Java developers becoming elitist and unaffordable, where do you think we'll end up? That's an easy question to answer: Java simply won't be deployed. A much more flexible and affordable solution will evolve to take its place. I believe this is one of the reasons for the popularity of Visual Basic. It wasn't rocket science and not at all difficult. Thus, finding good skilled people for it wasn't a problem and, more important, wasn't expensive. Whatever we, as developers, may think of Visual Basic isn't the point of the argument. The point is that Visual Basic was a quick route of development for companies that needed solutions fast and cost effectively.
If we're not careful, Java will become too expensive for companies to consider seriously. We're seeing this at the moment. Anyone tried hiring EJB developers? Sign a blank check and pray that no one comes along and head-hunts him or her. This will hopefully settle as more and more developers come up to speed with the new technology, but as far as I'm concerned, for the time being anyway, silly money is being paid for these developers.
I'm one of the ones who wants to see the quality of development go up. At the moment, we as an industry are producing second-rate code. The only industry that's producing cutting-edge development is the games industry. Why? Because in this world the end users simply won't tolerate slow gameplay. They're constantly asking for more and more, with the average gamer not in a position to upgrade his or her machine every time a new game hits the shelves. In the corporate world the same pressure simply doesn't exist.
Now don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that everyone is producing second-rate code. Let's just sidestep that flood of hate e-mail. I'm talking as a whole, and the sad fact is that the number of poor developers outnumbers the real hot developers.
Why is this? Well, I'm sure there are many reasons. My personal view is that we have too many people thinking they're programmers when in actual fact they have no clue. We've had this debate before in this column, which spawned a wonderful flurry of traffic on the mailing list. Many of you shared this opinion, or at least some of it. But the reason I'm bringing it up again is the thoughts I gleaned from this conference in Vienna. In speaking to Oma and a number of other key speakers, I found that the general thinking was that the quality is poor and that to secure Java longevity something has to be done.
Maybe we need more education. Teach Java at university? On the face of it this sounds like a wonderful idea. In practice, however, it doesn't quite work. I don't rate "Academic Java" very high. I haven't seen one example of someone being taught Java at university and coming out being able to do a day's work. Alas, I can't take credit for the term Academic Java; it was used at the conference by a number of key speakers who were expressing their distrust of this latest training bandwagon. I think the problem is that in many instances we have the blind leading the blind. The lecturers don't have the slightest idea how Java is being used in industry, and therefore all the skills that should be taught are glossed over.
We have a number of developers here at n-ary who got their Java skills from academia. Even they say it was a waste of time, and the Java they did then comes nowhere near the real-world Java. So why the big discrepancy? I don't know the answer to that one. But I'm asking all around me about their thoughts and I'm learning lots about how others feel. Let me know what you feel.
Come and join our mailing list and discuss what you feel about the state of Java code as a whole. If you want to be part of the discussion, send an e-mail to [email protected] with subscribe straight_talking-l in the body of the text. From there you'll get instructions on how to participate on the list. Thank you all for your continued posts, and I have to say that I thoroughly enjoy the variety of topics discussed.
Members of this mailing list were let in on something new we tried. You read the column, you even join in the discussions on the mailing list. Well, now you can listen to a daily radio show. Yes, the Straight Talking column has gone radio. I and my esteemed colleague and cohost, Keith Douglas, host a 1015 minute show once a day based on the ramblings of the mailing list. It's a mix of Java talk, music and general banter. So if you're bored, come and listen to us. Check out http://radio.sys-con.com/ for more details. Again, let me know what you think. I'd love to hear your thoughts.
Salute of the Month
This month's salute goes to one of the main men at the heart of producing the Java Virtual Machine for the AS/400. This man was introduced to us at the Vienna conference and he bears a spooky resemblance to one Jim Driscoll from Sun Microsystems. (Jim, if you're reading this, I think I've found your double!) Blair Wyman, the gentleman in question, gave an absolutely excellent speech that not only entertained but also educated us in the ways of the JNI interface. Blair describes himself as one of the backroom boys who doesn't get out that often. I think this is truly a shame, as I for one believe Blair is one of IBM's best-kept secrets.
I'd never met a real live IBM'er well, at least not without a press agent in attendance, censoring his or her every word, so it was a real breath of fresh air to meet Oma and Blair. One term Blair introduced me to was the notion of Big Iron, which is used to describe large servers. I thought this rather sweet.
The Cool Way to Travel
As you all know, I'm experiencing a country revival with all these Dixie Chicks and Dolly Parton CDs floating around. You'll be pleased to know that I think this is beginning to subside. I can't be sure yet, but I'll keep you posted on the status. I've been doing a bit of traveling lately and I have to say that MP3 has been keeping me company throughout my travels. It's kinda cool to travel with over 40 CDs on your portable. Anyone who's experienced this world knows only too well what I mean.
I'd better go now. I'm on a fitness drive, to get the body beautiful. Let me tell you, it's a long haul. Right. I'm off for a swim now....
Alan Williamson is CEO of n-ary (consulting) Ltd, the first pure Java
company in the United Kingdom. The firm, which specializes solely in Java at the server side, has offices in Scotland,
England and Australia. Alan is the author of two Java servlet books, and contributed to the Servlet API. He has a Web site at www.n-ary.com.
He can be reached at: [email protected].