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What use is certification?

What good are certifications like the Sun Certified Java Programmer (SCJP) and the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer programs? Unlike the Cisco certifications, you don’t have to renew these every couple of years (at least the Java certifications–in fact, everything I mention below applies only to the Java certifications, as those are the only ones of which I have more than a passing knowledge). I am a SCJP for Java2, and I have an acquaintance who is a certified programmer for Java1.1; a Java1.1 cert isn’t very useful unless you’re targeting .Net, or writing applets that need to run on most every browser. Yet my colleague and myself can continue to call ourselves ‘Java Certified Programmers.’ I realize that there’s an upgrade exam, but I’ve never met a soul who’s taken it; and I don’t believe I’m prohibited from heading down the Java Certification path and handing Sun more money because I am not an SCJP for the most recent version of Java. In fact, I’m studying right now for the Sun Certified Web Component Developer (SCWCD) and plan to take the exam sometime this summer. Even though these certifications may be slightly diluted by not requiring renewal, I think there are a number of reasons why they are a good thing:

1. Proof for employers.

Especially when you deal with technologies that are moving fast (granted, changes to Java have slowed down in the past few years, but it’s still moving faster than, for example, C++ or SQL), employers may not have the skill set to judge your competence. Oh, in any sane environment you will probably interview with folks who are up to date on technology, but who hasn’t been screened out by HR because of a lack of appropriate keywords. Having a certification is certainly no substitute for proper experience, but it serves as a baseline that employers can trust. In addition, a certification is also a concrete example of professional development: always a good thing.

2. Breadth of understanding.

I’ve been doing server side Java development for web environments for 3 years now, in a variety of business domains and application servers. Now, that’s not a long time in programming years, but in web years, that’s a fair stint. But, studying for the SCWCD, I’m learning about some aspects of web application development that I hadn’t had a chance to examine before. For example, I’m learning about writing tag libraries. (Can you believe that the latest documentation I could find on about tag libraries was written in 2000?) I was aware of tag libraries, and I’d certainly used them, the struts tags among others, but learning how to implement one has really given me an appreciation for the technology. Ditto for container managed security. Studying for a certification definitely helps increase the breadth of my Java knowledge.

3. Depth of understanding.

Another aspect is an increased depth of understanding; actually reading the JSP specification or finding out what the difference is between overriding and overloading (and how one of them cares about the type of the object, whereas the other cares only about the type of the reference) or in what order static blocks get initialized. (My all time favorite bit of know-how picked up from the SCJP was how to create anonymous arrays.) The knowledge you gain from certification isn’t likely to be used all the time, but it may save you when you’ve got a weird bug in your code. In addition, knowing some of the methods on the core classes saves you from running to the API every time (though, whenever I’m coding, the javadoc is inevitably open). Yeah, yeah, tools can help, but knowing core methods can be quicker (and your brain will always be there, unlike your IDE).

4. A goal can be an incentive.

Personally, I’m goal oriented, and having a certification to achieve gives me a useful framework for expenditure of effort. I know what I’m aiming for and I’m aware of the concrete series of steps to achieve that goal. I can learn quite a bit just browsing around, but for serious understanding, you can’t beat a defined end point. I’d prefer it to be a real-world project, but a certification can be a useful stand in. (Yes, open source projects are good options too–but they may not cover as much ground and certainly, except for a few, are not as widely known as certifications.)

I’ve met plenty of fine programmers who weren’t certified (just as I’ve met plenty of fine programmers who weren’t CS majors). However, I think that certifications can be a useful complement to real world experience, giving job seekers some legitimacy while also increasing the depth and breadth of their understanding of a language or technology.

Inlining of final variables and recompilation

This problem that has bitten me in the ass a few times, and I’d love to hear any bright ideas on how y’all avoid it.

Suppose you have an interface that defines some useful constants:

public interface foo {
 int five = 6;

and a class that uses those constants:

public class bar {
 public static void main(String[]args) {
  System.out.println("five: "+foo.five);

All well and good, until you realize that five isn’t really 6, it’s 5. Whoops, change the foo java file and rebuild, right? Well, if you use javac *.java to do this (as you might, if you only have the foo and bar files), then you’ll be alright.

But, if you’re like the other 99% of the java development world, and you use a build tool, like ant, smart enough to look at timestamps, you’ll still get 6 for the output of java bar. Ant is smart enough to look at the timestamps of .class and .java files to determine which .java files have changed since it last did a compilation. But it is too dumb to realize that the bar class has a dependency on foo, and should thus be recompiled even though is older than bar.class. (I haven’t looked at the byte code, but I expect that the value of five is just inlined into the bar class because it’s a final variable.) If you’re using a make based build system, I believe you can use javadeps to build out the correct dependency list, but I haven’t seen anything similar for ant. Another options is to just remember to blow away your build directory anytime you change your ‘constants’.

I guess this is why properties files might be a better choice for this type of configuration information, because they’re always read in anew at startup, and thus cannot be inlined (since they’re a runtime thing). Of course, then you lose the benefits of type checking. Not sure what the correct answer is.

Kris Thompson’s review of my talk

Kris Thompson attended my BJUG kick start talk on J2ME development. I wanted to comment on his post.

1. I wouldn’t say that J2ME development has scarred me. But J2ME is definitely a technology (well, a set of technologies, really) that is still being defined. This leads to pain points and opportunities, just like any other new technology. Lots of ground to be broken.

2. Caching–you can do it, but just like in any other situation, caching in J2ME introduces additional complexities. Can it be worth it, if it saves the user time and effort? Yes. Is it worth it for the application I was working on? Not yet.

3. PNG–it’s easy to convert images from GIF/JPEG format to PNG. Check out the extremely obtuse JAI.create() method, and make sure you check out the archives of the jai-interest mailing list as well.

4. Re: Shared actions between MIDP and web portions of the application, I guess I wasn’t very clear on this–the prime reason that we don’t have shared action classes between these two portions was because, other than in one place (authentication) they don’t have any feature overlap. What you can do on the web is entirely separate from what you can do with the phone (though they can influence each other, to be sure).

Anyway, thanks Kris for the kind words.

As a last note, I would reiterate what Kris mentions: “Find out which phones have the features you want/need” and perhaps add “and make sure your service provider supports those features as well.” Unlike in the server side world, where everyone pretty much targets IE, J2ME clients really do have different capabilities and scouting those out is a fundamental part of J2ME development.

Software archeology

I presented this evening on J2ME for the kickstart meeting at BJUG, where Grady Booch was the featured speaker. After unknowingly knocking UML in his presence, I enjoyed a fine talk on software archeology. This discipline involves looking at larger, historical patterns of software development. Essentially, when we build software, we are building artifacts. And, just as the plans and meetings of the the slave foremen who built the pyramids used are not recorded, so there are aspects of present day software development that are simply lost when the project ends or the programmers die. One of Booch’s projects is to capture as much of that data as possible, because these architectures are full of valuable knowledge that many folks have sweated for. It needs to happen soon, because, in his words, “time is not on our side” when it comes to collecting this kind of data. Man, I could handle that kind of job.

Speaking of architecture, I stumbled on “Effective Enterprise Java” which looks to be a set of rules for enterprise java development. I really enjoy “Effective Java”, by Joshua Bloch, so I hope that Ted Neward’s book lives up to its name. And I certainly hope this project doesn’t get stranded like “Interface Design” apparently did.

First Monday

First Monday is a collection of peer reviewed papers regarding technology, “solely devoted to the Internet”. If you want a feeling for how Internet technology is affecting society, presented in a clear, reasoned format, this is one of the places to go. Topics range from “what’s wrong with open source” (which got slashdotted recently) to “how online education affects the balance of power at universities” to “how can we best keep track of information”. Fascinating stuff, and the academic nature of the discourse means that it’s got a solid foundation (as opposed to most weblogs, which are just some opinionated person rambling). You can even sign up for an email list to be notified when they post news articles (ah, listserv). Too bad they don’t have an RSS feed.

Is transparent access control worth unintelligible error messages?

Partly egged on by Rob and Brian, I just took a long overdue look at container managed security for web applications.

My conclusion: it’s nice, but there is one major flaw that dooms the whole premise. Users expect informative error messages when they ‘sign in’ and there’s no way to do that with container managed security.

I was using Tomcat 4.1, which is to say, I was examining the servlet 2.3 specification. (I just looked at the 2.4 specification and can see no amelioration of the above issue.) I also focused on the FORM method of authentication, as that’s the most customizable. (I imagine, for an intranet app obsessed with security, client certificates would be an worthwhile avenue of investigation.) I found the servlet specs to be very helpful in this process.

With the FORM method of authentication, you can customize the appearance of your login and error pages, to some extent. This is a huge win.

I really liked the automatic access control–no checking at the beginning of every ActionForm or JSP for any specific attribute. Additionally, you can protect different URL patterns easily, and for most of the applications I write, this is enough. If you need to protect buttons on a page, you can always resort to isUserInRole.

Also, you can protect the login and error pages, which should never be accessed directly in a separate /safe directory, to which you can prohibit all access.

For the times when the user is denied access to a resource, you you can create a custom 403 error page, using the error-page directive in web.xml. Unfortunately, you only seem to get three attributes: javax.servlet.error.message, javax.servlet.error.request_uri and javax.servlet.error.status_code, which limits the nature of your response. These were what Tomcat gave me–I don’t think it’s part of the spec. Regardless, IE, with default settings, doesn’t display any custom error messages, which makes this a rather moot point for general webapps.

Creating a logout page is fairly easy, just call session.invalidate() (though there seem to be some non standard methods of doing it as well).

However, as mentioned above, I just don’t think that users will accept the generic login error messages that you are forced to give. For instance, you can’t tell whether a user didn’t enter a password, or entered an incorrect password. You can’t redirect them back to a login page with helpful error messages around the incorrect box. These are fundamental issues with authentication–no serious webapp simply throws up its hands when a user doesn’t login correctly the *first* time.

Separate from user experience, but still related to authentication behavior, you can’t ‘lock out’ users who’ve attempted to login too many times. Sure, you can keep track of how many times they’ve tried to login, but the authentication process is out of your hands.

Additionally, the fact that you’re tied to a particular implementation for user/role definition means that writing custom authentication code that just accesses a RDMBS is actually more portable.

The answer, to the question posed in the title of this post: “is transparent access control worth unintelligible error messages?”, is almost always “no.” And folks accuse developers of not having any sense of user interface!

SimpleDateFormat and the 13th month

Wow. I just learned something about SimpleDateFormat, a class that I always resort to when I have to convert a String to a Date in java. Check out this bit of code:

import java.text.*;
import java.util.*;

public class foo {
public static void main (String[] args) throws Exception {
SimpleDateFormat sdf = new SimpleDateFormat("MMddyyyy");
System.out.println("12012000 "+ sdf.parse("12012000"));
System.out.println("13012000 "+ sdf.parse("13012000"));
System.out.println("12322000 "+ sdf.parse("12322000"));

and the output from that code:

$ java -classpath . foo
12012000 Fri Dec 01 00:00:00 MST 2000
13012000 Mon Jan 01 00:00:00 MST 2001
12322000 Mon Jan 01 00:00:00 MST 2001

Any overflow gets rolled into the the next higher, well, in addition, I’d call this a place. The 32nd day of December is the 1st of Jan, and the 13th month of any year is Jan. This is an implementation detail, as I found no mention of it in the SimpleDateFormat javadoc, nor the DateFormat javadoc, but others have noticed this too.

jalopy now closed source

Jalopy, which I wrote about here, is now closed source. It’s about $40 for a single user license. For more info, see the corporate website. I see that the open source version is still around, though there hasn’t been a release since 1.02, about 18 months (about the same as xdoclet actually).

I totally respect Hunsicker Marco (who is the developer, I think and certainly the owner of the corporate domain) and his right to earn a living. $40 certainly isn’t that much (in fact, he even has a link to the old, free version on his purchase page!), but I hope that he eventually rolls the improvements into the free version, a la ESR’s “Free The Future, Sell the Present” business model.

Three tech tips

Here are three items that I’ve found useful in the past, but aren’t worth an individual post because of their triviality.

1. Sometimes file archives are only available in .zip format. There are unix programs out there that can unzip such archives, and linux often ships with one. But sometimes it’s not installed. Lately, I’m almost always doing some kind of java development, in which case, you can use the jar command to extract the archive.

2. I generate an html page of all my rss feeds, using a custom perl hack (I wouldn’t go so far as to term it a script). (No newsgator for me! Did I mention I still use pine for email?) This can produce quite a big file, since I’m querying around 80 feeds. In an effort to reduce my bandwidth, which I pay for, I now gzip my rss feeds page, using CPU that I don’t pay for (well, not directly). And, while gzip may not be the most efficient of compressors, files in gzipped format can be transparently read in all the browsers I cared to test: Mozilla, Firefox, IE, and even lynx.

3. Sometimes you just want the data from a mysql query in an easy format that you can pull into a spreadsheet and manipulate further. In the past, I would have written a quick perl script, using DBI, but after investigating the client options, I found another way. mysql -u user -B -ppass -e 'select * from my_data' databasename gives you nice tab delimited output. I’ve used this with the mysql 4 client; since I couldn’t track down the mysql 3 manual, I’m not clear what version of the mysql client supports these features.