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Archive for February, 2009

Why I Love Stand Up Meetings And How To Make Them Work For You

Friday, February 27th, 2009

I hate meetings but I love stand up meetings- contradiction?  No.

They’re a brilliant, informative, low impact way to keep communication fluid amongst your (small to medium sized) team, regardless of profession.

I’m going to talk a little about the reasons I’m writing about this, before getting on to the anatomy of my perfect stand up meeting, then tell you what stand up meetings could do for you and your team.

The Media Circus

My partner works in magazine journalism as the chief sub-editor for a title with a reasonably large international circulation.  Consequently, every month without fail, press week is a nightmare.

As is apparently the norm in the publishing industry (or what’s left of it) the eternal cycle of content creation is a very stressful process.  Freelancers are always late; things never hit the editors desk on time, people have to be continously chased up, facts need to be checked, and all before a press date.  If this isn’t complete by the press date, the company starts haemorrhaging money by the hour as the presses are literally “stopped”.

All of the above is exaggerated by the fact that writing is one of the industries that allows single workers to effectively “go dark”, drop off the radar and appear x-days later with finished content.  Not exactly communicative, ironically.

You Were At Work How Long?

She’s quite durable in regards to getting work done and quite effective at not letting the battle of press week become emotional or stressful, but I get the distinct impression it can be highly frustrating when you’re working until 11.30pm and getting the last tube home for a few days at the end of every month just to cover for the lack of structure to publishing a medium sized monthly title.

This pattern cumulated in a conversation with the good lady, with her expressing a little bit of exasperation on the topic and wondering if there was actually anything she could do to ever change this bad pattern of behaviour and improve the workflow of the entire team.  To me, there were a few simple tricks that could be employed to help facilitate change.

The Programmers Perspective

As a stark contrast I work in technology, specifically software development using what commonly comes under the banner of “Agile Methods” (there’s an on-going debate as to what counts as an agile method, but that’s beyond the scope of this piece, and frankly, my patience).

I’ve been lucky enough to only suffer one professional role that insisted on following an old trusty waterfall model of software development- that is to say, a software project where you first sit down and collate a monolithic requirements document, then produce a complete system design, then implement it, then deliver it.  Because of this, I’ve been working “agile” since my second professional role, and the first thing I was introduced to on my first day was the concept of the “Stand Up” (meeting).

I’d never come across one before, but they turned into one of the most useful parts of my day, and for something that lasts the best part of 10 minutes, that’s saying something.

What’s A Stand Up?

To quote the Wikipedia entry in it’s entirety:

“A stand-up meeting (or simply stand-up) is a daily team meeting held to provide a status update to the team members. The ‘semi-real-time’ status allows participants to know about potential challenges as well as coordinate efforts to resolve difficult and/or time-consuming issues. It has particular value in agile software development processes, such as Scrum, but can be utilized in any development methodology.

The meetings are usually time boxed to 5-15 minutes and are held standing up to remind people to keep the meeting short and to the point. Most people usually refer to this meeting as just the stand-up, although it is sometimes also referred to as the morning roll call or the daily scrum.

The meeting is usually held at the same time and place every working day. All team members are expected to attend, but the meetings are not postponed if some of the team members are not present. One of the crucial features is that the meeting is intended to be a status update to other team members and not a status update to the management or other stakeholders. Team members take turns speaking, sometimes passing along a token to indicate the current person allowed to speak. Each member talks about his progress since the last stand-up, the anticipated work until the next stand-up and any impediments they foresee.

Team members may sometimes ask for short clarifications but the stand-up does not usually consist of full fledged discussions.”

You’ll notice that there’s a hell of a lot of references to software development both in the prose and on the Wikipedia page and it surprised me to discover that outside of technology, stand ups aren’t a common thing, they essentially don’t exist.

I could hardly believe it at first, but a cursory Google search for “stand up meeting” concluded that outside of software, stand ups either don’t exist or are so rare as to not appear on general business websites.

For the sake of completeness, it’s worth noting that the internet is always skewed to technological topics in these kind of searches, but when all the results are about programming I can at least see some anecdotal evidence to confirm my suspicions.

My Favourite Stand Up Meeting Pattern, And What It Gets You

First things first, I really don’t like calling “stand ups” “stand up meetings”.  I always feel like the word meeting is loaded with negative and tedious connotations- meetings are boring and shitty and people don’t like going to them, period.

It’s important to note that because a stand up isn’t really a meeting, it doesn’t have the emotional baggage associated with one.  A stand up works best for teams of about 2-15 people (for the sake of brevity).

The Ideal Stand Up

A perfect stand up lasts between about 10 and 15 minutes (you’re “standing up” to try and enforce this) and takes place EVERY day.

The jist is, somebody starts it off (it doesn’t matter who) and everybody states what they did yesterday, what they’re planning on doing today, and anything that they think is going to get in the way of their current task.

Other team members are allowed and encouraged to comment and ask brief questions after the current speaker has finished.

The meeting should take place roughly 20 minutes after the start of the working day, to allow people time to sit down, get a coffee, have a chat, read their email and work out what they’re doing.

What You Get

The idea is, through the use of this simple 1 to 2 minute exchange from each person, everyone has a much clearer understanding of what each team member does.  Just ask yourself, do you REALLY know what all the members of your team do?  This is especially pertinent if your job involves managing your colleagues in some way.

The other participants should be encouraged to ask questions and comment after the speaker has finished but in-line with the comments they just made.  The idea behind this is that another team member may well have solved a problem that the speaker was suffering, but due to isolation, the pace of the workday or a lack of communication the fact that the problem has been solved may have been lost.

It’s a great way to share knowledge and has a very low impact on time.  The one caveat is that any lengthy discussions should be followed up privately after the stand up, because if you stray into detail or go off on a conversational tangent you’re wasting collective group time.

Psychological Effects

Stand ups make your team work harder and more efficiently.

That sounds absurd but stay with me.

Because, of the permanent rolling accountability of stating what you’ve been up to, stand ups are a good way of reducing the likelihood of your staff time wasting.  They’re nice and self regulating, nobody wants to stand in front of their team and say exactly the same thing, every day for a week.  It attracts the kind of attention that most people, lazy or not, prefer to avoid.

Past that, people enjoy having something new to say every day.  It’s a little like a grown up, caring sharing version of show and tell for the business world.  You don’t want to be the kid that doesn’t participate.  Peer pressure?  Totally.  But it’ll make your team more effective.

This side effect has two key uses.  Firstly, it positively encourages teams to be proactive, but secondly, it gives the managing member a very solid handle on team activities (or if relevant, the lack of).

Will This Work For Me?

Honestly?  I don’t know.  My experience is very slanted towards technology businesses so please remember your mileage may vary.

I think stand ups are a vital and useful part of an agile team however you shape them, and I’d say it’ll certainly work for you in software development.

Outside of technology, I genuinely don’t see how these clearly transferable practices wouldn’t apply and give you at the very least, team communication benefits.  Even if you think your team communicates well, ask yourself how much you know about both your colleagues’ roles, and what they’re doing today.

I found a good article on the anti-patterns of stand up meetings; the stuff to avoid.  I’d recommend having a quick read of it, in order to have all the information.

If you think the answer could be “not enough” than I’d really recommend you give it a go.  I have no idea if the good lady is going to suggest her team experiment with stand ups to help smooth out the pressures of their press week, but I think it would be an awesome idea for everyone.

I love stand up meetings and you should too!

XBox Live Gamer Banned For Her Lesbian Gamer Profile – But Are Microsoft Wrong?

Thursday, February 26th, 2009

So the sticky issue of banning gamers based on sexual preference has come up yet again on Kotaku today.

The comments on this thread make for both a good and disheartening read.

From the article:

Perhaps more alarming than someone being banned for their expression of sexual preference was how this particular gamer was treated by the gaming public.

Teresa tells the Consumerist “I was harassed by several players, ‘chased’ to different maps/games to get away from their harassment. They followed me into the games and told all the other players to turn me in because they didn’t want to see that crap or their kids to see that crap.

“Five minutes worth of interaction with the general Xbox Live population will get the point across—they don’t care for “the gays.” But does the policy go too far in one sense, not far enough in another?

There’s a lot of interesting questions in there about her pride deliberately putting her in harms way in a known hostile environment (anyone that’s played any of the AAA mutliplayer games on XBL knows all about the terrible undercurrent of racism and sexism).

Microsoft, however, are taking flak (and rightfully so) for banning the account.  Though I have a certain amount of empathy for their point.  I guess my question to you guys is “is it prudent to be less “proud to be different” in scenarios where you know it would distinctly be to your disadvantage?  What do you think about removing sexuality and politics from gaming in order to “keep everything running smoothly”.

Certainly it’s very hard to police- XBL is largely based on a Peer-to-Peer architecture resulting in a lack of server logs.  As a result the only way to police an incident of this kind is to look for evidence before banning.  Unfortunately the only evidence in the case of this horrible persecuted XBL member is a terms of service violating gamer profile.

Whilst it’s a sorry state of affairs that it comes down to this, if the gamer in questions recount of the griefing she suffered is an example of general XBL behavior (and from experience I wouldn’t doubt it) then actually, keeping a “just keep any mention of sexuality off XBLA profiles for your own good” policy is probably prudent.

It’s not Microsoft’s fault that the world is full of hostile intolerant fucks, and if not stating your sexual preference diffuses a load of awful griefing then it’s probably a good idea.

That said, banning people over it, rather than just notifying and removing the perceived “offensive” content is really off the mark.

Ultimately the question is if it should be left to user choice to make themselves obviously a target, given the known nature of the audience. I think it’s terrible that stating a sexual preference can be the same as putting yourself in harms way (virtual harm, at that), but I wonder if the same person would go into a known homophobic bar and loudly proclaim they were gay/lesbian? Would their natural better judgment take over in that case.

At the end of the day it’s just representative of how you can’t be totally open around the unknown quantity of strangers without unpredictable results. It’s a shame because I think games should be allowed to deal with politics and sexuality and difficult topics, but unless the audience that consumes that material is on the same intellectual level as the material itself, things like this will *always* happen.

The solution probably is that when people run across any kind of intolerance on services like XBL, they should report the abuse.  There are far too many terrible instances on griefing that go unreported, allowing the perpetrators to “escape” while the victims get punished.  Microsoft have spoken about this in the past.

Or maybe it’s just indicative that people who play COD4 online really are drooling intolerant fucks, who knows.

So what do you think?

It’s a tough issue when you think about it and there’s no obvious answer or solution.  Microsoft are getting shot at because they’re the messenger, but it certainly raises some debate on human nature.

Simple C# HTTP Server for Windows Mobile

Tuesday, February 17th, 2009

Recently I’ve been trying to pay a debt of sorts.  I use the software provided on the fantastic XDA-Developers frequently on my Windows Mobile devices and have been doing for almost three years now.

So currently, if I have a little bit of free time, I’ll nip past their development section and try and fulfil a random request.

Today’s request might come in useful to a little bit of a wider audience so I’ll post it here.  The initial problem is outlined in this thread and the upshot was that someone needed a very simple Http server that could run on Windows Mobile, written in C#’, and was programmable.

What the guy really seemed to be looking for was something that used the Http protocol to return random computed data, so after a tiny bit of googling and a simple MSDN example, I’ve built a really simple web server for Windows Mobile.

Amusingly, my sample doesn’t behave much like a web server at all.  It just tells you what you requested, but it should be enough to get you going in the right direction.  It’s derived from the MSDN example with some additional sugar, and I certainly wouldn’t suggest that it’s got a threading model that’d stand up in a production environment (at a glance it looks like it’d process requests in sequence…) but hopefully it’s useful to somebody looking to produce a simple server, or who is just interested in how Http works.

I’m not really sure if I can accurately call it a webserver, seeing as it doesn’t even support a full set of Http Verbs, but you get the idea.

I’ve not actually bothered compiling this on a mobile device yet (lack of inclination) however seeing as it was explicitly based on a socket programming for Windows Mobile MSDN example, I suspect it’ll work just fine.  No warranty, do what you will with it.

Download Simple C# Http Server for Windows Mobile (Source Code Only) (7kb)

Installing Certificates using Wix (Windows Installer Xml / Voltive)

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009

I’ve been working with WiX ( wix.sourceforge.net ) for generating application installers over the past few weeks.

The project is rapidly evolving (if I recall, it was one of Microsofts first forays into open source development) but as a side effect finding up to date documentation can be a little taxing. The documentation is good and quite comprehensive, but often subtly incorrect or outdated.

Anyway, we have a few services at work that require certificates to be installed at install time into the Windows certificate store. Previously we had a couple of custiom actions designed to configure the user and store, but after a little investigation it appears like this functionality comes for free in the Wix toolkit.

It’s confusingly in the IIS extensions, which is a bit of a misnomer- it’s only in there because it was originally designed to install certificates for web servers, however it works perfectly for any certificate.

So how do you do it? In Wix3, ensure you first have a reference to WixIIsExtension.dll (in the default install, it’s in c:\Program Files\Windows Installer XML v3\bin) in your project if you’re using voltive, or manually linked if you’re building on the command line. The following example is of a fragment which installs two certificates, one as a Root certificate authority and another as a certificate in local machine.

<?xml version=”1.0″ encoding=”utf-8″?>
<Wix xmlns=”http://schemas.microsoft.com/wix/2006/wi”
xmlns:iis=”http://schemas.microsoft.com/wix/IIsExtension”>

<Fragment>
<Directory Id=”Directory_Certificates” Name=”Certificates”>
<Component Id=”MyRootCert.cer” Guid=”*”>
<File Id=”MyRootCert.cer” Name=”MyRootCert.cer” Source=”..\..\Path\To\MyRootCert.cer” />

<iis:Certificate Id=”Certificate.RootCA”
Name=”MyRootCert.cer”
Request=”no”
StoreLocation=”localMachine”
StoreName=”root”
Overwrite=”yes”
BinaryKey=”Certificate.RootCA.Binary”
/>

</Component>
<Component Id=”RandomCert.p12″ Guid=”*”>
<File Id=”RandomCert.p12″ Name=”RandomCert.p12″ Source=”..\..\Path\To\RandomCert.p12″ />

<iis:Certificate Id=”Certificate.MnpTestCertificate”
Name=”RandomCert.p12″
Request=”no”
StoreLocation=”localMachine”
StoreName=”personal”
Overwrite=”yes”
BinaryKey=”Certificate.RandomCert.Binary”
PFXPassword=”myCertPassword_Optional”
/>

</Component>
</Directory>

<Binary Id=”Certificate.RootCA.Binary” SourceFile=”..\..\Path\To\MyRootCert.cer” />
<Binary Id=”Certificate.RandomCert.Binary” SourceFile=”..\..\Path\To\RandomCert.p12″ />

</Fragment>

<Fragment>
<ComponentGroup Id=”Component.InstalledCertificates”>
<ComponentRef Id=”MyRootCert.cer” />
<ComponentRef Id=”RandomCert.p12″ />
</ComponentGroup>
</Fragment>

</Wix>

Bargain Bin Games: “Stranglehold” and “Kane and Lynch”

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009

I did a little bargain hunting tonight.  As I drove past my local blockbuster/gamestation I noticed they were advertising pre-owned games at "up to 50% off".  I know I know, pre-owned game sales are killing the games industry and all that, but I had to take a look as I figured I’d use this opportunity to buy a few games that I wouldn’t normally have played.

So, Kane and Lynch for £7, Stranglehold for £4.99.

Interesting two games, in the sense that they both were reviewed reasonably averagely (with the former embroiled in a controversy about buying review scores over which some staff at GameSpot were fired, if I recall).

I had a soft spot for the Stranglehold demo, but when I heard it was a 6-8 hour long game I decided that I’d never be picking it up at full price.  Kane and Lynch I just suspected had been panned in part due to the controversy surrounding it’s release.  I’d noticed semi-recently that the developers of K&L had offered that in part as reasoning for it’s underperformance (because they really didn’t feel the game was as bad as people made out) so I figured it was worth a gamble.

Had a play of both of them this evening… half way through Stranglehold and actually, it’s getting pretty boring.  Sure you can blow the crap out of the environment and pretty much make everything explode, but it all gets a little tedious.  On top of that, the story seems really quite terrible, regardless of it being a follow-up to Hard Boiled (the film) or not.  Getting the feeling that it’s this generations "Enter The Matrix".  A game where you can blow everything up, it looks quite nice while you do it, it’s fun, but unfulfilling.

K&L on the other hand I’ve been pleasantly surprised by.  Reviews slated it’s control scheme, which truth be told, is a little off.  However, a few subtle adjustments in the options screen and I’d managed to tune it in such a way that it didn’t impede gameplay.  The tone and the cinematic feel of the game actually blew me away a little.  I wasn’t expecting it to feel as polished, especially as the reviews have criticised it for being a little rough around the edges visually.

The opening segment of K&L was genuinely quite thrilling.  It isn’t quite the escape sequence at the start of Half Life 2, but it has that same kind of thrill to it.  The set pieces feel quite grand and I really like the fact that I don’t like the characters.  I get the feeling that it’s heavily inspired by the film Heat, but in my eyes that’s no bad thing.  Very gritty and interesting past it’s faults (dubious AI and control scheme annoyances).  After 2 hours or so, I’d actually recommend you give Kane and Lynch a chance.

I also noticed that Alone in the Dark (2008) was in store for about £12, so I might pick that up despite my concerns about it’s heavily criticised control scheme.  I’m going to have to do a bit of research, see if it’s been patched up on the 360, I hear the PS3 version was delayed and improved…

I might make a habit of this, picking up all the games that I really wouldn’t think of playing.  It feels like a nice way to give myself a fresh perspective on some of the games I actively seek out and enjoy.

So I finished Fallout 3 finally…

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2009

Finished Fallout 3 last night and used a few cheeky saves to check out a number of the endings (though I went for the generally godlike / pure / paladin route).

I won’t spoil it, I quite enjoyed the ending but I get the feeling that if you don’t spend lots of time exploring (I clocked about 54 hours of game time) you could probably run through the story in about 8 hours.

That said, as soon as I finished the story, I re-loaded a save game (keep some around handy just after you visit Eden) and continued the freeform gameplay (and picked up the DLC).

I Think I prefer the story arc to Fallout 3 than Fable 2, however they were both a little unfulfilling in the end, somewhat disappointing after my “last year” RPG having such an excellent story arc (Mass Effect).  My reaction was probably because both Fallout 3 and Fable 2 allow you to inhabit a character and encourage exploration over narrative.  Fallout seemed the more successful of the two games, though Fable made up for it by being very charming. In comparison, the Mass story was a strong one with the exploration, past the trivial no-planet planets, designed to drive the plot producing a feeling of much more cohesion.

I Still can’t quite get in to Far Cry 2 though, I’m not sure why, the mechanics are solid, the story pretty random but it’s just not really drawing me in (I guess that’s what Zero Punctuations review said in a slightly more amusing manner).  Just too serviceable to love.