Project Management – in a Nutshell

2008/09/30

A wonderful gem I found here:

I remember telling a friend
that being a project manager
is a little like being a bouncer:
where there’s a problem *here*
and a door *there*
and it’s your job to get the problem out the door.

So
For some a gentle gesture will do
while others need a push
and still others need to be picked up by their pants and carried

But!
In no case should you ever let someone get *further* from the door.
So that’s me.

By Merlin Mann 🙂

I dedicate this to all my friends and colleagues who face daily the Project Management challenges, specially to Peter, Julia, Mike and Milos.

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Easy access to log files

2008/08/25

Here is the scoop: I need to provide access to multiple log files spread across multiple directories of multiple machines. For example – the JBoss log files and nohup.out, ATG log files, and so on – so that the testers can see what happened on server side when something looks fishy on front end.

One option would be to write a document that contails IP’s of the machines, create user accounts, make sure that they have just enough access rights to see the files but not disturb anything else …

Other option is to leverage the already installed Python across all the servers. I wish it was Ruby, but one cannot have everything.

On each machine, I created directory – e.g. ~/webaccess and made symbolic links to all log files or log directories required. Then I placed this python script into the directory:


#!/usr/bin/python

import SimpleHTTPServer
import SocketServer

# minimal web server.  serves files relative to the
# current directory.

PORT = 9999

Handler = SimpleHTTPServer.SimpleHTTPRequestHandler

Handler.extensions_map.update({
'': 'application/octet-stream', # Default
'.out': 'text/plain',
'.log': 'text/plain'
})
httpd = SocketServer.TCPServer(("", PORT), Handler)

print "serving at port", PORT
httpd.serve_forever()

and started it as

nohup ./simpleserver.py &

From this moment on, all files linked (actually all files in subtree of server directory) are accessible by going to http://SERVERNAME:9999/ – which shows directory listing for linked files.

On one of the machine, I have placed additional file – index.html that contained links to all other server names.

Thanks to this page for inspiration.


The Things bliss

2008/08/24

Finally – the new version of Things on iPhone can synchronize with Things on Mac desktop.

It actually works – no strings attached. Assumed that:

1) the WiFi on iPhone is on

2) iPhone and Mac are on same network (so that Bonjour magic can work)

3) the Mac Things is running when you start Things on iPhone

the synchronization happens automatically and is VERY fast (few seconds max).

Finally a portable GTD application that works for me :-).

PS: Things is very nice implementation of GTD. If you are not into GTD cult, do not bother – or try reading this, this and this first ….


OS-X near-death experience

2008/06/06

It happened on Wednesday afternoon. I knew something is wrong with my MacBook Pro immediately – when I saw semi-dark screen, unresponsive machine – even mouse cursor was frozen – and heard fans blowing full speed, making the strange, clicking noise coming from inside almost disappear …

OS-X does not freeze too often, but it can happen and as a matter of fact, I have seen it happen before during my almost two years with Mac, so I did not panic. As expected, the Alt-Option trick did not work, so all I could do was to force power off.

But then, after reboot and “bang” sound, neither the rotating circle nor the blue screen showed up. I mean the good blue screen, background color of booting OS-X, not THAT blue screen, of course. Instead, screen stayed grayish and showing No-Entry sign … And again and again …

At first I was pretty sure that the hard disk is gone. But after booting up from install DVD (hold C during boot) and running Disk Utilities “verify” and “repair” disk, it did not find anything wrong with it. It was – according to Disk Utility – perfectly good, healthy disk, which only boot stubbornly returned to the No-Entry sign with each and every boot attempt. It was obvious that I will soon have an opportunity to really test out the Time Machine restore capabilities.

Normally, I plug in the Time Machine backup disk every day after unpacking the notebook at home in my home office – and the magic of Leopard takes care of the rest. As Murphy wanted it, I had been working around the house and in the garden in last few days’ evenings, rather than in my home office where the backup disk is. So it happened that last time I had plugged the disk in was around Saturday night and all changes afterwards were not backed up. Bummer.

The system did not allow Archive and Install option (which copies user data away before install) – it was too little space left, so only option was erase the disk and loose last few days worth of data and changes. Most of the chnages was either stored elsewhere as well (Gmail attachmanents) or at least redoable (some rendered screencasts), but last day work was nowhere else 😦

The good fellas at Carbon Computing (my nearest certified Apple service centre) made me aware of the FireWire mode: you press T during boot and Mac makes the hard disk available as external FireWire device, which can be attached to another Mac and read from it as from any external disk. This feature is supported by firmware and does not need any system installed. I tried it and it indeed worked, but the damage to the file system must have been fairly large, because I could not navigate deeper into the home directory.

After I accepted that one and half day of work is lost, the reinstallation of the OS-X from scratch was very smooth and very fast experience – it took about 35 minutes. After booting up, system offered restore from TimeMachine and after another two hours, almost 180 GB of stuff was back on Macbooks harddrive. My Mac was almost exactly like on last Sunday morning .. The “almost” means that Time Machine does not quite restore every bit and piece because after system update check, Mac downloaded about 1 GB worth of patches from Apple side and required restart after install. The size of the patch indicates that it were most likely roll-ups of the updates from 10.5.0 t 10.5.3 – certainly more that could be missing in last few days – which would mean that TimeMachine does not really backup system files. I also had to re-enable root access and modify my /etc/hosts file to enter symbolic names for the VM’s.

Because I have left out the podcast from the backups, it was pretty annoying to get my iTunes subscription back to normal: the downloaded but not yet listened to podcasts all had exclamation marks, because the iTunes library file was referring to non-existent files, but – because they were in the list, it did not re-download them. I had to delete podcast, resubscribe and re-download the episodes. Oh, well …

I am now back up and running and without any lost files other than those who were lost because of my laziness to plug in the disk. I think I start to see selling point for Time Capsule :-). Time machine is still working and I was listening to loud fans for quite couple of hours while Spotlight indexed all restored content again.

I still do not know what caused the crash: I was doing lots of video re-encoding, so maybe overheating together with very little free space (I was twice close to 99.5% full disk). And maybe there is really something wrong with the disk.

I have read somewhere that people that went through the near-death experience often change their priorities and behaviour. This certainly true with me after this cold shower. My trust to hard disks (in general) is even lower than before – and in panic, I have already caught up with delayed backups of the home server to two separate external hard disks. I will be also setting up bootable copy of the Mac disk (using CCC) as soon as Yan builds for me 250 GB external FireWire disk – I do not want risk that the disk will die again .. And in the meantime, my plugging discipline will certainly be flawless 😉

I have chatted about this with a friend and he asked whether I do not consider returning back to Windows, now when Mac disappointed me so badly and did let me down …

Well – combination of OS-X and Apple hardware is pretty solid combination, but certainly not as rock-solid as Apple marketing would like to make the world believe. I have just experienced a real-life proof that it can crash pretty badly. But I still believe that it is by far the best available option currently available. For variety of reasons.

First of all, the most troubles I had, was caused by me not having good enough backup system. Every system is only as good as the weakest link, which is in most cases the human part of the workflow. If I would have used Time Capsule or at least plugged the disk every day, there would be no loss of data, just about 3-4 hours wait until being operable again. Which is much less than I have spent any time while rebuilding Windows machine. With Windows it took me 2-3 hours to install XP  – with all three hundred twenty seven updates, thirteen reboots and lots of surfing to find latest drivers for all devices from vendor’s sites. And then usually at least one full day to reinstall development environments, java, Visual studio, Office, tools etc from scratch.

Secondly, I never had really good backups while working on Windows – mostly because doing backups was never as easy as connecting a hard disk. As result, I had much larger gaps between backups as nowadays. And considering how much work it was to selectively restore the data … To sum it up: if this would happen on Windows machine, I would probably loose week or more of data not 1.5 days and to be back operational would take at least 1-2 days, not few hours.

And third – while the OS-X was being installed, I was working on my old, beaten Fujitsu LifeBook – and I realized I how much I actually I miss the tools and overall user experience of the Macbook Pro.

On the positive side: now I know from the firsthand experience that Time Machine works (including restore) and I have learned couple of new neat features of Leopard. I never completely realized the possibilities of booting and running system from non-local disks. And I have now very good incentive to fix the broken automatic backups to Amazon S3 – at least as plan B until I buy Time Capsule …


Mac Gems: VisualHub

2008/06/01

I had this discussion with a friend where we both found out that there is surprising amount of very useful little apps and tools in Mac’s software world that people use on daily basis and which are worth of spreading word about. Here is first of the programs I did not know about few months ago – and today I barely can imagine working without them.

VisualHUB is simple but very powerful video convertor for Mac. It is simple in the user interface:

All you have to do is to drag and drop source files into the file area and select the target format and parameters. Then press Start and wait – surprinsingly short time. VisualHUB is very fast – the duration depends on the source format and the destination but  (unlike with iMovie) it does not take hours to render 20 minutes movie …

It supports all usual formats – MOV, MP4, MPEG as well as AVI and what I find very useful is suport for PSP. The VisualHUB is the easiest and most reliable way I have tried so far to transfer the DVD movie to the PSP – for the kids to watch in the car.

What we use it for to transform the source files for screencast generated by CamStudio on Windows (AVI) into the format that can be loaded into the iMovie (which happens to be MP4 with H264) so that clarity of screen is retained. We also use it to produce AVI version of the screencast playable on Windows Media Players – for the Windows users stubborn enough to resist installation of Quicktime or free players such as VLC. Before this, I have tried few other options, none of which really worked. VisualHUB does pretty good job at compression – the 420 MB MOV file got compressed into under 100 MB file AVI (with very acceptable loss of quality). The result of exporting the same MOV file into AVI with Quicktime Pro produced over 600 MB that was visually worse than the VisualHUB AVI output.

I am not an expert in video formats and video conversions (therefore it is quite possible that I could have done it better with some more digging with QT Pro) – and I do not plan to become one. Which is why the VisualHub is such a great tool for my needs.

Highly recommended – and thanks to Gabo who introduced me to this little gem.

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated or anyhow interested in sales or marketing of this product. The only reason I am recommending it is because I like it and find it useful.


iMovie 08 and mystery of disappearing Project Library

2008/05/13

As if the yesterday’s Firmware update issue was not enough, I had very strange experience with iMovie 08. Suddenly, for no obvious particular reason the user interface became very unresponsive, I was not able to select project in project library. Switching Event library and Project windows on or off stopped working. Windows were not redrawn properly. Creating new project had no visible effect. I could not click on project to select it (well, technically I *could* click, but nothing happened). The time sliders in Events and Projects were either disabled or invisible …

Here is how the iMovie looked like most of the time:

I tried multiple things to fix that: Logout and re-login – no change. Reboot (remember, I came from Windows where this very often used remedy ;-)). No luck. Check and repair the permissions using Disk Utility. No improvement. Verify disk. No errors and still no improvements.

I even resorted to reinstallation of iLife 08. The only effect I achieved was that I got back trial version of Office 2004 which I deleted right after installing Leopard and had to download and install several updates for Garage Band and iWeb – but iMovie still did not work. Installation of iMovie HD (from iLife 06) worked OK as well did the iMovie 06 – but that was not much help because I did not want start from scratch and iMovie 08 with all its bad features is still able to accept way more input formats than ’06.

After killing well over three hours that was supposed to be spent on finishing the screencast, I started to delete all iMovie project files and even libraries from previous attempts. And suddenly, iMovie sprung to life and was as before.

I think that reason for the issues was moving the Events library for some of the older screencasts to external disk, but leaving the Project files in iMovie. Somehow this must have confused the program and the non-responsiveness could be caused by trying to connect the thumbnails and file references from the projects to the not available source clips from event library.

Lesson learned: whenever I move done an event library used in the screencast to external hard disk, it is probably safest to backup and remove the project as well. In other words – keep these two words separated and disjunct.

But of course – this can also be a pure coincidence and everything can have completely different cause. Time will tell. Too bad that Premiere Elements does not exist for Mac platform. Maybe I should seriously consider looking at Final Cut Express ?


Easy way how to transfer really big files

2008/04/29

What does really big mean ? In my case few hundred megabytes, up to 1 GB. Clearly, too much for email attachments – most providers caps them at around 5-15 MB.

Since we started doing screencasts, I need quite often to transfer  work in progress – screen recordings, rendered MOV files between me and my co-host of the screencasts. I tried to upload the file to the company servers using VPN, but the speed of the secure uploads is nowhere close to being practical.

What works much better is free service called TransferBigFiles.com. There is no registration required, you just enter the recipient email and start upload. After uploading, the system sends you an email with link and the files stays up for few days, then is deleted. More than enough for the other party to download. With self-destruction, it is also less worries for you to  remember clean-up.

The site also offers client for Windows, which I did not try (for obvious reasons) and shows ads selling software. These ads made me (strangely enough) more comfortable, as the intention of the creators is clear: attract traffic by free service and monetize on software sales / ads.

The other possible explanation is of course collecting of email adresses for not-so-noble purposes. I have no knowledge of this being the fact – since about a week and half of using the service, there was no spike in amount of spam. No spike meaning nothing beyond usual 300+ offers of 10 dollar Rolex, body enlargements, natural weight loss programs and help requests to transfer money from Nigeria and similars …

All my emails are consolidated on Gmail, which does terrific job of weeding out 99.99% of these – so I do not really care so much if one more spammer gets my email. But if you are really worried, you can always get the 10 minute email, use it for receiving notifications and then email the link manually. The down side is that you must keep the 10 minute email alive until upload finishes – this may take few refreshes.