Saturday, 16 January 2010

In which opportunities are taken

The coming of the new year, like everyone is always told, has shown itself to be a time of new opportunities. However, what’s unusual this time around is that I’ve also been in a wonderful position to take the opportunities with which I’ve been presented. The software I’ve been slowly writing over the past roughly six months (dubbed, depending on what specific functions I’m working on, either of Project Alchemy or Project McLuhan) has forced me into a position to really clean up some of the core things—that is, Project Alchemy—I originally put off implementing for the sake of getting it out the door, and an outside project has finally given me an opportunity to make good on my threat to learn Python.

First things last.

Given the nature of this blog so far, and the fact that I’ve been using it to talk about technical matters from a reasonably professional point of view, I kind of wish this opportunity to learn Python had a more professional set of circumstances. On the other hand, it’s not as though I’ve ever tried to hide this particular circumstance; I’ve even discussed it in this very blog. In my continuing attempts to finish my BCSc, I’m required to take an introductory software engineering course, and I’m part of a development team that will be making a product virtually guaranteed to be delivered over the web. At first, I thought that I might be able to make an argument for integrating Project Alchemy into the codebase to speed up development, but then I discovered that I’m the only member of the team who has no experience with Python, and no one else seems to know PHP. As a result, It’s kind of a given that we’ll be using Python, so I have a fairly steep learning curve ahead of me to get caught up. The University of Toronto’s Computer Science department uses Python as the language of choice for its first year classes, so everyone else has had at least a year of active (albeit toy) development with the language, and I have less than two-and-a-half months on this project, in which to provide real, tangible support. No time to lose!

On the other hand, I think I have more project planning experience than the rest of the team—I remember how slapdash my programming practice was at Dalhousie, but this is a real-world product—so I think I might be able to make up my gaps in language experience by taking care of more the behind-the-scenes things in the management of the project. I’ve been kind of spearheading that already, but it hasn’t really been particularly set it stone who’s doing it. I guess we’ll see how this works out. With any luck, our client will get a solid piece of code and I’ll get some realistic experience in project management, which can only ever serve to benefit me professionally, for reasons that seem fairly obvious.

In terms of Project Alchemy, like I said, I put off implementing Alchemy functions for the sake of getting Project McLuhan (and more specifically, my client’s website) out the door on schedule. As a result, fairly important architectural things like multi-model find calls were put on the back burner while I dealt with end-user issues like a shipping rate calculator. Now that it’s been delivered, I’m trying to clean up the McLuhan interface to improve its usability, and I’m realising just how critical that functionality is.

Admittedly, part of my initial hesitance in implementing it up-front was a certain degree of intimidation by the problem—a large part of the design involved coming up with a way of compartmentalising WHERE clauses—rather than simply requiring the find conditions to be input as a string, abstracting it out to better insulate against malformed data from the end user. As it turned out, it wasn’re exceedingly difficult (with two caveats: I still have yet to come up with a way of handling subqueries for the IN/NOT IN operators, and I’m not convinced that I’ve done it in a particularly efficient manner), but now I have to go back through all my controllers and models and rewrite the find calls to use the new schema. It’s a bit of a pain—yet another example of why Doing It The Right Way First will invariably save you time in the long run—but it’s ultimately worth it, because it’s also providing a good opportunity to review my own code and look for bad algorithms.

So, yeah, there have been a couple of great opportunities so far this year that I feel I’ve really been able to taken advantage of. One great opportunity to learn a language I’ve been meaning to learn for more than a year, and another to finish up something important and learn a good deal more about what really goes into writing an MVC framework. This can only possibly be good for me, so stay tuned to see what develops!

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