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Support Architecture for your Web Application

August 16, 2012 Leave a comment

Whenever I start a new project, in particular a web project of some kind, there are several steps that I take in preparation for scaling the project or supporting different business functions. Let’s face it, not everything that the website might expect to do should be done by the website; a classic example of this might be notification that a subscription is about to expire. That sort of occasionally scheduled business process is certainly doable in the context of web development, but in general it’s not recommended.

One that might be less apparent might be tasks such as general email delivery, say a forgot password email, where under high traffic one might want to off-load the email delivery to a secondary process rather than hold up rendering of a web page to the browser while the email is built, formatted, and ultimately delivered.

To support a wide variety of potential offline processes, I generally will setup what I might refer to as “harnesses” for three different types of processing. These harnesses are fairly generic, interacting with an interface implementation and typically based of the standard .NET configuration model for instantiation of the class implementing the interface. In many cases, the interface implementation is common to all three harnesses, such that the processes are interchangeable.

There are three basic timing elements for things you might want to accomplish offline from your website. The first timing element I would refer to as “do something repeatedly every so often”. The second timing element I would refer to as “do something on a scheduled basis”, whether that schedule is every few hours or once a day or even once a month. The last timing element I generally prepare for is a “one off” or “one time” execution.

It should be noted that this sort of architecture presupposes that you have full control of your computing environment either through ownership of the servers or access via some sort of cloud computing or virtual hosting service, such that you can install and run items from the console or command line. Obviously this would not be possible if all you had was a web host for your website.

Under those assumptions, I will create three things. First, I will create a Windows Service. This service’s sole purpose would be to take a configured set of objects that implement my interface and run them repeatedly at a specified interval, say once every three minutes. A good example of this might be a process that monitors an email inbox for new messages and processes them in some fashion. Because this is a Windows Service, it might be wise to give each object its own thread, or if you are the latest .NET platform, its own Task.

Second, I will create a standalone console application that I intend to schedule to run regularly. This console application will also load up a configured set of interfaced objects and run them a single time when the scheduled task executes. A good example of this might be some sort of nightly statistical analysis that needs to be done for reporting. In the same sense as the Windows Service, if you have a lot of objects, it might be wise to allow for sequencing some of them in order while noting which ones are truly independent, and then multi-threading them or assigning them Tasks in the proper order.

Last, I will create a near-replica of the standalone console application above, but likely without the multi-threading in place as this is considered to be a one time execution. The application above and this one might even go so far as to be exact copies deployed separately, with one scheduled and one not, if the different requirements for each don’t stray. Common uses of this would be for one-time data conversions, say for example you had inherited a poor database structure that had a person’s name all in one field and you wanted to split into first and last name.

Once I have these three harnesses built, it becomes very easy to generate a plug-and-play approach to any tasks that would need to be scheduled or executed in a predictable fashion without constantly creating new services or new executables to handle the work. This would then allow me to very easily move tasks that my web project might eventually find overwhelming or detrimental to performance off into background tasks without constantly reinventing the wheel. It also allows me, if I so choose, to install or write some code to monitor the execution of these harnesses without having to rewrite the monitoring code every time as well.

This approach has been helpful on several projects and saved me a lot of work down the line.

Why I’m a WGU Student, and Why I Believe in Competency-Based Education

August 9, 2012 5 comments

I’m a failure as a traditional college student.

It’s true. I was so burned out at the end of high school, bored out of my head with spending time in a classroom, that even though I was Junior National Honor Society, and was ranked 7th out of a class of 542 in my sophomore year, I spiraled and basically crashed my senior year of high school. I simply could not tolerate another year in the classroom.

So I didn’t go to college and went to work instead.

No less than 4 times I’ve tried to go back to school the traditional way. I can show you the transcripts. Each time, they ended the same way, with me burning out on the overload and the ridiculously boring amount of time I had to spend sitting at a desk. I learn extremely quickly, and I can absorb and articulate back things I learn very quickly. So equally as quickly I would eventually lose interest.

This is by no means a reflection on the students who need to learn that way. I get that other people will learn differently but arrive at the same equally qualified result. But it didn’t work for me at all.

Many times over the last 10 years, as my career has progressed, I’ve often said that if I could find some way to get credit for life experience, or at a minimum “test out” of topics that I already knew, that I would consider going back to school, but without that, I saw no way I would ever go back to school and finish my degree.

Early in 2012, inspired by a colleague of mine who was taking online courses to further her degree in computer science, I started looking around for a way to pursue my degree under the following conditions:

  1. I could do all course work online
  2. I could proceed as quickly or as slowly as I needed
  3. I could “test out” of courses as quickly as possible
  4. I did not have to spend hours and hours in either a virtual or a brick-and-mortar classroom

Today, I’m a student at Western Governor’s University. I’ve just finished my first 6 month term, and in that 6 months I’ve completed 9 classes and find myself about 18 months short of getting my Bachelors in Software Development.

How is that possible, you ask?

Well, first of all, WGU cares that you know what you say know, not how long it takes you to prove you know it. Out are classroom sessions and lectures and repetitive assignments. In are self-driven curricula and online course materials followed by competency exams or papers / projects demonstrating your understanding of the material. Out are teachers, in are equally qualified course mentors whose job it is to make sure you stay on task and give assistance where needed. The “teachers” instead spend time vetting and perfecting the online curriculum to make sure it meets accreditation standards as well as industry standards.

This link is instructive, talking about how their philosophy is based on something similar to airline pilot training, based on competency, and how it was founded with the backing of 19 state governors who agreed with its philosophy of education.

Online University Turns 15

Note that the university is 15 years old now, and fully accredited. In my IT program, I’ve managed to test out of several courses. And it’s not just traditional “testing out”, either. Since my program is IT, the WGU courses are based on industry certification exams. That means that in order to pass Database Fundamentals, I needed to pass the base level Microsoft Certification for database design.

This resulted in two perhaps counter-intuitive outcomes. First, because it’s a Certification test program, I would argue that you learn more in that class, and because you do earn the Certification, the class carries real weight on your resume. Secondly, because my current job requires me to be an expert on the subject matter anyway, I was able to read the material once and pass the exam. In some classes I’ve been able to take a pre-assessment exam, identify my weaknesses relative to the material, review what I don’t know as well, and take and pass the certification exam in as little as two weeks, studying a couple of hours a night after work and life has calmed down.

Under what circumstances would spending 40 classroom hours to arrive at the same result make sense to a student like me?

Not all of the courses are like that, naturally. My humanities course required me to write a paper comparing periods of art, which were graded by three “graders” against a published rubric covering about 20 different specific points of knowledge. So other courses have their own way of determining competency. But even that class only had two assignments, and I was able to choose when during my term to do the class and turn in the work.

In addition, the cost is so much less than your typical school. Because of WGU’s competency-based online curriculum, they don’t have brick-and-mortar schools or teachers in the traditional sense. This means they can charge a lot less. In fact, my 6 month first term cost me a total of $3,000.

But here’s the kicker. While I must take 12 units, I am allowed to take as many as I can successfully finish, at no additional cost. So I spent $3,000 for 6 months, and finished 27 units. Let’s do the math, shall we? That’s $111 per unit, or $333 per class. My pace is completely at my discretion and control, and the quicker I can finish, the cheaper my education will be.

But that doesn’t even begin to factor the opportunity cost savings of not having to spend over 500 hours in a classroom over that 6 months. I was able to do the work at my pace, at my discretion, and accelerate or decelerate my pace at will. I saved a massive amount of time relative to traditional education for sure.

WGU also has a very lenient transfer policy, and transferred in 11 of my previous classes, even though some of them I had taken as long as 20 years ago.

Many argue that this philosophy violates the “college experience”. You know, where you learn to interact with your peers, achieve greater socialization, and all that. That’s great for a lot of people, and I’m sure people who want to go through that do well. Members of my family have gone through the traditional college experience and are fantastic at what they do.

But for me, at my age (and even when I was in my 20s), as a driven, self-motivated individual, what I really want at the end of the day is proof that I can do the job I’m trained to do. The social aspect of that learning is much less important.

The end result is that I have found the school I was looking for and for the first time I can see an affordable, reachable goal of a Bachelor’s degree…and in addition I’ll have 18 industry certifications on my resume to prove my competency. And trust me, competency is what really matters to my employer.

For more information, visit:
Western Governors graduates those who prove ‘competency’
Western Governor’s University

Categories: Informational, LinkedIn, School

Beware how much you “help” people in the name of the next great usability idea.

July 26, 2012 Leave a comment

I have been involved in many debates about usability over the course of my career. Indeed, each time a new design paradigm or some sort of design meme is introduced, there is always the discussion about how much it helps and whether it is worth the effort to implement it. In particular this becomes a problem on mature user interfaces with larger customer bases that are already familiar with how to get their tasks done via the current UI.

Recently I encountered the same sort of potential risk when driving a rental car. I’m driving a brand spankin’ new fully loaded Ford Explorer right now while on vacation. It’s a great vehicle really, with an enhanced digital dashboard, on-board cameras for backing up, the whole shebang. Handles well, is quiet. I’d consider buying one myself.

Except someone at Ford decided to monkey with the directional signal.

I trust you are aware of the directional signal. It’s the little lever on the left of the steering wheel that you click up into place to indicate a right turn, or click down into place for a left turn. Once you turn the steering wheel back straight, the level clicks back into its original position automatically.

Not so on the new Ford Explorer. On the Ford Explorer, there’s no click into place; when you push it up, it doesn’t stay up. So naturally you immediately think it’s broken. And then once you realize it’s not broken, you discover that the length of time the turn signal stays on is driven by how hard and how long you hold the signal lever in place. If you don’t hold it long enough, it blinks three times and then turns off.

Not only is it extremely confusing, but it goes against every other directional signal design on the road, and in some cases it’s dangerous. What it doesn’t do is make my signal turning easier, even though I can only assume that was the intention of whoever came up with this.

This is a cautionary tale for anyone looking to incorporate the next great design idea, or try to help their customers do things easier than they’ve done before. It’s a good idea to understand the satisfaction level of your customers with your current UI, as well as how your customers are going to react to the changes you implement, especially if they go in the face of current norms that permeate the web today. You run the risk of alienating the people you are trying to help if your designs are not truly intuitive to the people using them, or if you sacrifice familiarity for the next great design concept.

The last thing you want is someone on your website wondering why the turn signal is broken.