Tuesday, May 19, 2009


Today I was working on a WCF application integration layer for my framework. For some bizarre reason, no matter how many times I updated the service contract and rebuilt my client service references, I never got the latest version.

Specifically, I was trying to call the following method:

public void CreatePages(IList<WebPageDTO> pagesToCreate)

The WebPageDTO was declared (temporarily) in the WCF project. I put DataContract and DataMember on it, the project built fine, and I could even add a reference to it from a client application. However, I could never update the reference from my clients, and when trying to view the service directly I would get this error:

The type '[namespace].[servicename]', provided as the Service attribute value in the ServiceHost directive could not be found.

Finally, I had to modify the method signature to RETURN WebPageDTO – which I didn’t want to do. However, that fixed the service reference and now I can update it. Now I have switched the method stub back to return a custom ServiceResponse object, and that also works.

Bit of a head scratcher. I don’t fully understand why this is happening. Anyone know?

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Trawling for Business Offshore

On the High Seas, large ships drag vast nets along the ocean bottom, hoping to catch schools of helpless Fish Sticks. The IT equivalent are Offshoring Companies who cold-call businesses, trying to dredge up remote contract work.

Times must be tough for them - not a week has gone by without one of these firms ringing me out of the blue.

They always seem to follow the same screwy script. Somebody with a ludicrous title such as “Business Development Manager for Premier International Clients” introduces themselves as “Steve”, “Mike” or “Jane”. They’ve usually got thick Indian or Eastern European accents – perhaps their names really are Mike Jane or Steve but I’m guessing they think I’m somehow more likely to talk to them if I think they look exactly like me? That’s slightly insulting ;)

The conversation normally goes like this:

“Steve”: Hi, is this Nicholas?

Nick: Yes, speaking.

“Steve”: Hi, I am Steve from [Name withheld to protect the guilty]. I had a detailed look at your website and your focused approach towards Microsoft Technology. This focus presents tremendous opportunity between our companies to establish a mutual association towards IT outsourcing. [Name Withheld] is a mature, 200 person strong organization based out of [Somewhere]. We provide deep software engineering skills to the global software industry. We have a satisfied client base of more than 70+ companies spread across US and Europe.Our service areas include bespoke software development and testing services. We have a proficient team of IT professionals working in .Net (C#, ASP.Net, VB.Net, VB)  and SharePoint technology. We are working on few of the latest technologies like AJAX, JSF and Web Services.

Nick: Err, we’re not planning…

“Steve”: We also have expertise in XML, SilverLight, IIS 5, 6, and 7, Windows Start button, SQL Server Database, Oracle Database, Access Database, MySql Database, Flat Files…

Nick: Please hold on, we’re not looking to outsource…

“Steve”: …in addition to client software experience customizing Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Clippy, Microsoft Bob…

(10 minutes later)

“Steve”: …As well as Binary Load Lifters, baking, and cattle rustling.

Nick: Umm, I was trying to say that we are not planning on outsourcing our cattle rustling. Thank you and goodbye.

“Steve”: Thank you - I look forward to speaking to you again very shortly, Jonathan.

Nick: (Dial tone)

Seriously, is this how we’re supposed to do business? Two companies that obviously don’t know the first thing about each other are expected to work across time zones and culture barriers to create complicated software on time and under budget? Riiiiiiiiiiiight.

I’m not against outsourcing firms, but can you please approach me in a professional manner that indicates you are actually interested in working with me?

Actually the first outsourcing firm that called me has a reputation as scam artists. I even found a website run by outsourcing employees who named it as the worst company to work for! This company wouldn’t take no for an answer and months later were still calling me up and trying to get me to start a project with them (asking for 25% of the money up front, which was apparently their scam). So these unsolicited calls can be funny but annoying and scary at the same time.

Still, the fact they’re doing this means that – like Viagra spammers – they must somehow be getting some bites. So if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. I’m going to start my own cold-calling to drive business partnerships:

“Nick”: Hi, is this Jeff Bezos?

Jeff Bezos: Speaking.

“Nick”: Hi, I had a detailed look at your website Amazon.com while I was buying DVDs on it, and really liked your focused approach towards e-Business. This focus presents tremendous opportunity between our companies to establish a mutual association towards IT outsourcing. We have a proficient team of IT professionals working in .Net (C#, ASP.Net, VB.Net, VB)  and SharePoint technology

Jeff Bezos: (Dial tone)

“Nick”: Thank you for your time, Bill.

“Nick”: Hello, Larry Ellison? I had a detailed look at your website MySql.com …

Larry Ellison: (Dial Tone)

So, anybody else getting caught in the net?

Monday, May 04, 2009

Sharing Knowledge With Creative Commons

Over time I’ve written lots of user guides, installation documents, governance papers, roadmaps for various companies…and I can’t use any of them ever again.

This is because the standard consulting or employment contract contains lots of legal text stating that the employer owns all the copyright to the employee’s work. This naturally includes software documentation. This seems like a good idea on the surface – the company pays for the time I take to write the document, so it’s their property.

However, there are hidden downsides.

To begin with, software project requirements tend to be fairly standard. Most projects require a project plan, a specification document of some kind, server topology diagrams, installation scripts, standards and best practices recommendations, help and support docs.

The details of these may vary a bit, but the definitions, explanations, and recommendations usually won’t. Even the details may be similar – one 3-server SharePoint farm will have to address the same issues any other 3-server farm will. This could be boilerplate text.

Reinventing the Wheel

If companies claim ownership of all software documentation IP – which is their default stance - they may not realize that they are paying their employees or consultants to reinvent the wheel. If they claim ownership of everything they generate, no one else can benefit. Conversely, no-one has an incentive to share.

It might be better for a company to leverage documentation created somewhere else, and modify it to suit their own needs – then they are saving time and money.

As a consultant, it’s been suggested to me that if I bill by the hour I shouldn’t mind writing the same stuff over again. But I find that boring – having figured out a way to describe something once, why would I want to come up with new words to say the same thing again and again?

Also – I would rather spend my budgeted documentation time improving existing content. If I’m spending my allotted time rewriting from scratch, that won’t happen.

Finally, we programmers are lazy - in a good way! We’d rather move on to new,  interesting problems than rehash the old ones again and again. So, proprietary IP ownership goes against most programmers’ core mindset.

I’m not saying a company should never claim software documentation IP – there can be valid business reasons for this.

If the company wants to own the IP because it is a business differentiator, and they will maintain and improve the documentation, that is a compelling reason for them to want to own, and not share, their IP.

Also, if the documentation contains lots of very sensitive information, or is very unique, that could be another good reason to hold on to the IP tightly.

I just think they should examine the alternatives first.

Why Bother Picking a Sharing License?

Why bother picking a license in the first place – why not just post the information somewhere and not worry about  it?

Often information shows up on people’s blogs, in user groups, or in online tutorials. In most cases the authors want people to be able to use the information, but they don’t explicitly specify a license. They probably assume that other people can take the code or text and use it as they like.

However, most organizations are (rightly) nervous about copyright issues. If they can’t tell what license the information is released under, then rather than spend time requesting the rights to the content, and tracking the request, they may avoid using it at all. So, specifying the license makes the information easy to adopt, and provides legal protection for companies using it.

A Business Case for Creative Commons

Wikipedia is probably the best example of the power of sharing information on the web. It currently uses the GNU Free Documentation License, but will use Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike in the near future. Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s creator, says he would have used Creative Commons if it had existed at the time he founded Wikipedia.

There are other license types that allow sharing. Public Domain seems to allow freedom to do anything you like, but my understanding is the concept of Public Domain doesn’t exist in all countries, so it may be a legal impediment for companies wanting to share work. Creative Commons makes an effort to “port” the license terms to different jurisdictions so it is more likely to be valid elsewhere.

I’m primarily using Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike licensing because it fits my business model:

1) It’s transparent. People can easily understand what it means, because it’s in plain English and also in Legalese. Even the name is self-explanatory: “Share Alike” and “Attribution” makes it clear what somebody using it can do, and how. Having spent the last three months examining various software and documentation licenses, I’ve come to the conclusion that clarity is one of the most important qualities of a license. Also, I want my three months back!

2) It encourages sharing, even for commercial use. Information Technology is so complicated because we combine many different systems and technologies together and expect them all to work. No wonder software breaks all the time. If we don’t share, there are a lot of things we’ll never figure out on our own. Any licensing that encourages the spread of knowledge is a net gain for everyone.

3) It requires attribution. Attribution is a tiny barrier to adoption, because people are used to adding copyright notices to text they reference. I like the idea that if I do good work, people will find out about it. I consider it viral advertising.

4) It’s low maintenance. I don’t have to get a law degree to figure out the licensing. I would rather copyright law stayed the heck out of my way while I focused on my work. CC-SA allows that.

5) Sharing is good karma :)

Free Online Content on our Extranet

So, is 100% of my content shared under this license? No, and it never will be, because licensing is a business decision that always depends on the specific context. However, my default stance is to share what I write.

The content on this blog is now licensed under CC-SA.

As part of my contracts now I usually negotiate to own the IP I generate, with the promise of licensing it under CC-SA so everybody can benefit. This is working well so far.

To put my money where my mouth is, I’ve started to publish some content on our extranet at https://extranet.griffonsolutions.com/clients/allclients. You can log in with the username “guestuser” and the password “guestus3r”. There is a shared document library with the documents grouped by license type.

I welcome feedback on the documents – what works or doesn’t work, what can be improved and how. I’ll keep the docs up-to-date. Please email feedback to me at nick@griffonsolutions.com.

Feel free to browse, mix, and share!