Boulder Startup Week

Come find a job in Boulder May 4 – 8, or at least enjoy the startup scene.

The startups in town are rolling out the red carpet (not really, I don’t think there is one in town) but figuratively, for you, talented developer, designer, UI, manager or startup enthusiast, to come for a visit.  There are a ton of jobs for developers, marketers, designers and managers (and we need more talent in town!).

Could be the best event highlighting the tech + fun sides of Boulder since BocoPositive press here.

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Malware Removal Guide

I had an issue last week with my Windows PC, which is currently running Windows XPSP3.  Mac users, you can stop reading right now.

Midafternoon one day, I started receiving errors when I would try to open certain executables by clicking on their icons (on the desktop, the start menu, in explorer).  The error message was “The specified path does not exist” followed by the pathname of the executable.  When I opened the file manager and browsed to that path, sure enough, the file was there.  In addition, when I shut my computer down, I was seeing the 0xc000012 error message.
There were some really weird things about this behavior.  First of all, it affected some executables (like notepad and all my browsers) but not others (like yahoo messenger).  Second, starting up the executables from the command line worked, as did starting them up by another program (as in, one of the programs which started up fine had a ‘check for updates’ option, which started FireFox just fine).  Also, I could start any program by right clicking on it and ‘running as’ a different user.  Finally, in safe mode, everything worked fine, which indicated, thankfully, that I didn’t have a hardware problem, and also gave me a chance to do a backup of everything, Just In Case.
I won’t walk you through all the links I found via google, or explain my frustration, or talk about the tools I used to try to fix the issue.  I’m just going to tell you what worked for me.  I finally stumbled on this fantastic malware and spyware removal guide from Geeks To Go.  I printed it out, downloaded all the tools, and followed the directions faithfully.  And now I’m up and running.

This was my first spyware infection in the 7 years I’ve been running Windows XP.  I hope to go another 7 years, but if I don’t, I now know where to turn to first.

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One customer’s experience with offshoring

I’ve been thinking about offshoring for some time, but haven’t had many interactions with someone who really used an offshore developer. Recently, I ran into a client who did try to develop some software using an offshore developer, and was able to ask him some questions about the experience.  (Disclaimer: this client owns the dating site I blogged about recently).  Plus, outsourcing/freelancing is on my mind, due to the pick.im launch.
——————-

Dan: What did you ask your offshore developer to do? Did they succeed in that?

Michael:  We asked that a dating and friendship site be created for adults with mental illness and that it mimic sites similar to Match.com. We were assured that this would be no problem, but that was far from how things transpired. We did end up with a finished product, but I wouldn’t say it was a success. Nightmare would define things more accurately.

D:  How exactly was the finished product deficient? Did it not perform well? Did it not meet your expectations? Did it not do what the developer said it would do? Were there unfixed bugs? Did it look bad?

M: There were certain features that never worked, and the developer kept maintaining that everything worked just fine.  No, it did not meet the expectation that we would have a fully operational site with the features we had requested along with our bid that was accepted.  He also promised support for his work, but when we started experiencing bugs he would only fix for additional fees.  We didn’t know anybody else and really feel trapped.  … The overall aesthetics were fine, but the internal workings had issues.

D: What were your motivations for using them? What was the cost savings?

M: Money was the only motivation. I have to say that the cost savings were significant up front. However, we were constantly investing money to fix issues that plagued the site from day one. So, we probably ended up spending more, because we eventually scrapped the website and started over.

D: Did the offshore developer build the ASP website we recently scrapped (for skadate), or was there a previous iteration?

M: No, that was the site that the offshore developer originally built.  However, we found a local guy who made some modifications and was able to fix many of the issues.

D: How did you manage them? How were the requirements documented?

M: This was very loose and managed through email. I have to say, we were very ignorant and really should have sought out the advice of an expert before proceeding with the project. We knew what we wanted the site to do, but we really had no clue what we were doing…shame on us. What  can I say though, using an offshore freelancer sounded pretty good for a social worker trying to make things happen on a shoestring budget.

D: So, did you have a master checklist of requirements, or did you just kind of email the developer feature by feature?

M: There was a list of basic features that was provided when we posted the job, but I wouldn’t call it a master list.  That would make it sound like we were prepared!  We didn’t even know what language the site should be written in.  We did not know that asp was kind of a dinosaur language…

D: How did you find them?

M: getafreelancer.com

D: How were they lacking, and/or not lacking?

M: Let me try to recap a bit. Things started out nicely. There was a lot of email communication and even some discussion over skype (although the language barrier made this difficult, so we primarily stuck with email). The great communication didn’t last though. The email responses slowed to a trickle and then all together stopped.

Fortunately, the payment funds had been deposited into an escrow account, and we refused earlier requests to release part of the funds until the work had been completed. This was a recommendation by the freelance site, and were we glad we at least had this leverage. When we finally resumed communication with the developer he threatened to stop work on the site until we released the funds. We were so exhausted that we called his bluff, and told him to go ahead and keep the site. To make a long story short, he completed the project, and we went our separate ways. Oh, and the project took twice as long as he had agreed.

Retelling this is making my blood pressure rise, so I think I’ll leave it there…

D: What would you do differently next time to increase your chances of success?

M: I would not go offshore, and to be honest, I probably wouldn’t choose someone who I couldn’t drive over to their house. I’d also make sure I sucked it up and paid for someone with development knowledge who could  help manage the project.

D: Do you think that your project failed primarily because you went offshore, or primarily because you were a relative novice at managing a technical project, or some combination of the two?

M: I’m sure a bit of both, but it definitely would have helped if we would have had someone with development expertise that could have managed the project for us.

——————-

Wow.  What a nightmare!  (For a contrasting experience, read this excellent article about using RentACoder.)

So, as I alluded to in my last couple of questions, I think that this project would have been hard for any developer, anywhere.  Obstacles to overcome include:

  • shoestring budget
  • lack of technical knowledge
  • missing/unknown requirements
  • lack of project management.  It sounds like the client wasn’t able to do this, and the developer couldn’t or didn’t.

However, I think the issues above were exacerbated by offshoring because of

  • language and timezone barriers
  • missing trust building opportunities (face to face meetings, local get togethers)
  • no real reputation risk for the developer if his work was not up to snuff (sure, his rating on a site might go down, but that’s different than running into someone you screwed at a networking event)

Anyway, a fascinating look at how offshore development can go awry.  Try to think about the total costs, rather than just the hourly wage.


Review of SkaDate dating software

I recently helped a client move an existing dating site from a custom ASP/MS-SQL system to an off the shelf PHP/mysql platform.

The off the shelf software we ended up choosing was SkaDate.  I haven’t really found a good review of SkaDate out there, so I asked Max Chadwick to collaborate with me on a review.  (Max provided some design, system configuration and project management, and I focused on back end system setup and data migration.)  Updated 4/2: We used SkaDate 7.5, versions 1485 and 1550.

Note that we had a challenge not present for a typical SkaDate installation: migrating ~1100 user accounts (and mail messages) from one unknown system to another.  I had to learn two very different data models and map from one to the other.  On a fixed bid project.  Whoops.

Oh well, live and learn.

Skadate pluses:

  • Price: this is a big one.  You get a lot of features for only $350.
  • Technology: it is built on the LAMP stack, so there are a lot of developers out there who can help you extend the platform.
  • Support: they have a client site with some useful PDF documentation.
  • Had a defined and documented upgrade procedure (even though it was a hassle).
  • Changing look and feel was relatively easy; we went with one of the many predefined templates and only had to hack a little bit of CSS and a couple of images.
  • Caching: SkaDate caches of php files and css.  Performance was reasonably snappy on a shared hosting account.
  • You get the source code.
  • Version control support: it wasn’t hard to find out which files/directories to pull into version control.
  • Support for 5-6 languages out of the box.  We didn’t use this, though.
  • Geographic features: SkaDate knows a lot about cities and where they are located, around the world.

SkaDate Minuses:

  • Support: they charged $90/hour $95/month for support; I didn’t end up asking them for much help, but the times I did, they immediately wanted ssh access to the server (which tweaked me out).  I’m guessing that SkaDate might be a loss leader for ‘support services’.
  • In general the administrative interface was unintuitive and could use some work.
  • Intricate object and data model: lots of indirection, and because it is PHP, no IDE to help you unravel it.  I discovered this when asked to turn off a particular feature (that didn’t have an admin setting)–I’d have to hunt through 3-4 files to find out where a UI element was set up.
  • Secretive nature: they don’t really give you any documentation until you pay for it; however, they do provide a demo and when I emailed them and explained the situation (“I’m a developer and want enough information to do a bid for a project”) they responded with some of the documentation.
  • They had a new release midway through the project, and then a user found several of the php files had been hacked.  Not exactly confidence inspiring.
  • Initial configuration of the site was complicated: all the site features were turned on and the site was pre-configured with specific payment/membership options. The tricky part was not just turning off features, but figuring out that not only did the feature need to be turned off, but that the navigation needed to be disabled for that same feature on another section of the admin area.
  • Setting up custom dating fields was cumbersome partly because of the poor interface but also because there were a number of dating fields already set up that needed to be removed.
  • The software uses dollar signs ($) in some of the automated directories.  This caused an issue with mod_security on one of the hosts we tried to use; go with one of their suggested hosting providers.

I think SkaDate is a good choice for a basic dating site; if you need just the features in the demo and you’re willing to spend some time unraveling the administration UI and you are on a tight budget. Expect some bugs and frustrations, but hey, you only paid $350!
I would hesitate to use it as a platform for a more fully featured dating site until I’d reviewed the alternatives.

Final grade: B-

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