Thursday, August 21, 2008

Pulse Provides Novel Training and Tools Configuration Resource to Aid in Developer Education, Preparedness

Transcript of BriefingsDirect podcast on Java training and education with Genuitec Pulse for Java and Eclipse.

Listen to the podcast. Sponsor: Genuitec.

Dana Gardner: Hi, this is Dana Gardner, principal analyst at Interarbor Solutions, and you’re listening to BriefingsDirect.

Today, a sponsored podcast discussion about the complexity around Java training and education. The development toolset, the plug-ins, the community are all very fast-moving targets. It's difficult for trainers, educators -- not to mention the students and budding developers themselves -- to get a full grasp of what's expected of them, and then to find resources that are up-to-date and timely.

We're going to be discussing with some experts how better to organize Java training and education. We're going to look at the Eclipse profiles that can be organized and coordinated using Pulse, a Genuitec-organized tools configuration network function. We're going to learn about how organizations can organize their training, so that students can better anticipate what's expected of them in the real world.

To help us understand some of these issues and work toward some solutions, we're joined by Michael Cote, an analyst with RedMonk. Welcome to the show, Michael.

Michael Cote: Hello, everybody.

Gardner: We're also joined by Todd Williams, vice president of technology at Genuitec. Welcome to the show, Todd.

Todd Williams: Thanks very much, Dana.

Gardner: Lastly, we're joined by Ken Kousen, an independent technical trainer and president of Kousen IT, Inc. He's also an adjunct professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Welcome, Ken.

Ken Kousen: Hi, Dana, glad to be here.

Gardner: As I mentioned, complexity and moving targets are part of the problem, but it also seems that there is a disconnect between book knowledge or training knowledge that one gathers about development and what happens in the real world, what goes on with code being checked in and checked out, and how teams are organized. It seems difficult for someone to anticipate what's really going happen.

Let's go to Ken first. Ken, what is the gap, from your perspective, between what students and budding developers get through training and in university settings, and then what's often expected of them in the real world?

Kousen: It's interesting. The gap between what's taught in academia and what's taught in the real world is very large, actually. The classes I teach tend to be in a master's level program, and I teach a couple of classes in developing enterprise applications that are specifically constructed to address this gap.

Academia will talk about abstractions of data structures, algorithms, and different techniques for doing things. Then, when people get into the real world, they have no idea what Spring, Hibernate, or any of the other issues really are.

It's also interesting that a lot of developments in this field tend to flow from the working professionals toward academia, rather than the other way around, which is what you would find in engineering, when I used to be in that area.

Gardner: Todd, when you're doing hiring or are doing development for business, and you're talking to your customers -- folks that use MyEclipse and your services for training and consulting -- are you seeing a worsening situation in terms of how to acquire qualified labor, or do people have a pretty good sense of where to go to find good Java developers?

Williams: Finding quality employees is always a challenge, and probably always will be. Part of what I see as being difficult, especially in the Java and Enterprise Java market, is the huge number of technologies that are being employed at different levels. Each company picks its own type of stack.

Ken mentioned Spring and Hibernate. There is also Java transaction API (JTA), Java server faces (JSF), and Struts, Web framework and persistence technologies, and application servers that are in use. Finding employees that fit with what you are trying to do today, with an eye toward being able to mature them into where you are going tomorrow, is probably going to always be the concern.

Gardner: Now, what's been going on with development, not just the function, but teams, the collaboration, agile types of activities, Scrum? It used to be that people could specialize, stay in one little niche, but now the "master of all trades" seems to be more in demand.

Let's go to Michael. Michael, is development fundamentally changing? When we think of developers, do we need to recast how we imagine them or conceive of them?

Cote: Yes. I think it's fair even to go to the extreme and say absolutely. You look at the employment patterns that most developers find themselves in, and they are not really working at some place three, five, ten, even twenty years. It's not realistic. So, specializing in some technology that essentially binds you to a job isn't really an effective way to make sure you can pay your bills for the rest of your life.

You have to be able to pick up quickly any given technology or any stack, whether it’s new or old. Every company has their own stack that they are developing. You also have to remember that there is plenty of old existing software out there that no one really talks about anymore. People need to maintain and take care of it.

So, whether you are learning a new technology or an old technology, the role of the developer now, much more so in the past, is to be more of a generalist who can quickly learn anything without support from their employer.

You're not going to get a lot of slack to learn things in a given time, paid training, and things like that. You're pretty much left on your own, or there are always cheaper alternatives to go to.

So the heat is really on developers to be Type A people who are always seeking out the best option.

Gardner: Alright. Well, now that we have scared anyone from ever wanting to be a developer, Ken, help us get a little bit closer to earth. What can students do, what can professors or instructors do, to help get more of this real-world perspective into what they do in these courses and in this preparation?

Kousen: It's interesting that while the various tools and technologies evolve, some of the basic principles always hold pretty fast. I've taught this class several times and I have to say that every time I've taught it, it's been very, very different, but the overall architectural issues are pretty constant.

Plus, what seems to follow in the industry are various trends, like an increased emphasis on testing, for example, the recent rise in dynamic languages, and things like that. The idea of continually trying to follow what's going on in the marketplace and seeing what's interesting seems to be very helpful.

I also emphasize to the students that a good source of information is to find some of the better open-source projects, and not necessarily join them, use them, or do anything with them, but follow what they do and see those projects as the communal efforts of some of the best developers in the world.

So, if they all say, "Oh yeah, we obviously have to have this source-control mechanism," then maybe that's an interesting thing that should be looked at, or this particular bug reporting tool, or whatever. I often emphasis that particular direction as well.

Gardner: How about that, Todd? Are these open-source communities, these chat rooms, these forums, the real, practical lab that the students and developer should be looking towards?

Williams: I think to a degree that it's certainly a practical lab that students have easy access to. Obviously, in open source, whether it’s something like the Eclipse Foundation, Apache, or what have you, they make a very explicit effort to communicate what they are doing through either bug reports, mail lists, and discussion groups. So, it's an easy way to get involved as just a monitor of what's going on. I think you could learn quite a bit from just seeing how the interactions play out.

That's not exactly the same type of environment they would see inside closed-wall corporate development, simply because the goals are different. Less emphasis is put on external communications and more emphasis is put on getting quality software out the door extremely quickly. But, there are a lot of very good techniques and communication patterns to be learned in the open-source communities.

Gardner: Now, when we go to community, that also means choice, which is a good thing. But, there is also a downside to choice. There are a lot of variables, many different things to look at. Tell us a little bit about the importance of profiling, and when you have got many new plug-ins to choose from, and you've got lots of commentary and social media being generated about what to use and what not to use.

Give us, Todd, if you could, some idea of the problem set that you saw in the marketplace a couple of years ago when you were thinking about Pulse.

Williams: Let me take a step back and quickly explain what Pulse is for those who aren't familiar with it. We built a general-purpose software provisioning system that right now we are targeting at the Eclipse market, specifically Eclipse developers.

For our initial release last November, we focused on providing a simple, intuitive way that you could install, update, and share custom configurations with Eclipse-based tools.

In Pulse 2, which is our current release, we have extended those capabilities to address what we like to call team-synchronization problems. That includes not only customized tool stacks, but also things like workspace project configurations and common preference settings.

Now you can have a team that stays effectively in lock step with both their tools and their workspaces and preferences.

What drove us to build something like this were a number of things. If you look at the Eclipse market, where we have been for a number of years, there are literally thousands of products and plug-ins for Eclipse. If you just want to go out and take a survey of them, or try some of them, it's a very daunting process for most people.

It starts out when you download Eclipse, go find some plug-ins, possibly looking into Eclipse Plug-in Central, find those update sites, type them in, download the plug-ins, and try them. This pattern repeats for quite some time, while the developer goes out and tries to figure out which of the plug-ins are good and which ones aren't.

With Pulse, we put these very popular, well-researched plug-ins into a catalog, so that you can configure these types of tool stacks with drag-and-drop. So, it's very easy to try new things. We also bring in some of the social aspects; pulling in the rankings and descriptions from other sources like Eclipse Plug-in Central and those types of things.

So, within Pulse, you have a very easy way to start out with some base technology stacks for certain kinds of development and you can easily augment them over time and then share them with others.

Gardner: Ken, help us understand how this can be used in the training and/or academic setting? What is it about Pulse that brings in more of the real world, and anticipates what choices developers are going to have once they get into the nitty-gritty of coding?

Kousen: Looking at academic and training settings, they are a little bit different. In a training setting, one of the real challenges the training classes face every time is getting the initial classroom set up correct. That is often very involved and complicated, because a lot of the tools involved are somewhat dependent on each other and dependent on environment variables and things like that.

So, trying to set up standard Pulse configurations and then being able to set up a classroom using those shared deployments is a very interesting opportunity. I haven't had the chance to do it yet, but I have definitely been talking to some training providers about giving that a shot.

I did try it in a classroom, and it's rather interesting, because one of the students that I had recently this year was coming from the Microsoft environment. I get a very common experience with Microsoft people, in that they are always overwhelmed by the fact, as Todd said, there are so many choices for everything. For Microsoft, there is always exactly one choice, and that choice costs $400.

I tried to tell them that here we have many, many choices, and the correct choice, or the most popular choice changes all the time. It can be very time consuming and overwhelming for them to try to decide which ones to use in which circumstances.

So, I set up a couple of configurations that I was able to share with the students. Once they were able to register and download them, they were able to get everything in a self-contained environment.

We found that pretty helpful, although I've got to say that this year the class size was sufficiently small, so that I don't know that we really got the same benefit we would get in a large classroom, where there would be many, many setup issues to deal with.

Gardner: So, almost mimicking a collaboration activity in a development setting, but in the classroom.

Kousen: Exactly.

Gardner: Are there any particular things that you learned from this exercise that those who might be evaluating and thinking about using Pulse could benefit from?

Kousen: It was pretty straightforward for everybody to use. We had to make sure that people using it had fast download speeds, but that had nothing to do with Pulse. That had to do with the size of Eclipse.

Of course, whenever you get students downloading configurations, they have this inevitable urge to start experimenting, trying to add in plug-ins, and replacing things. I did have one case where the configuration got pretty corrupted, not due to anything that they did in Pulse, but because of plug-ins they added externally. We just basically scrapped that one and started over and it came out very nicely. So, that was very helpful in that case.

Gardner: Michael, as you are listening to this, is there anything that jumps out at you in terms of understanding of Eclipse and its popularity, and then dealing with complexity that you could share?

Cote: I like the comparison of the Eclipse development world, versus visual studio, versus getting the one thing, because it is very accurate. That's sort of the ethos of Java -- maximum "choosability," if you will. It's one of these things in development that takes a long time to accept, but having lots of options is often more expensive and burdensome than having fewer options. Now that said, you want to make sure that you have good fewer options.

In every development team I have been involved with in my previous lives, as it were, anytime someone new comes onto the team, it’s always an extremely difficult issue just to get their tool chain setup correctly.

Having something wrong in the tool chain, the shared tools that the whole team uses, can really be quite disruptive. That's because the way that you assume your team members are going about solving problems is slightly wrong, and so they may not have the fully optimized way that your project is based around.

I guess you could call that the commercial application of that tediousness of setting up the configuration in more of an educational or a training environment. It's difficult to just sort of give someone a print out and say, go setup your stuff like this, because you are always missing little bits, and there is a lot of nuance in how things are exactly setup in the tool chains.

Gardner: Back to you, Todd at Genuitec. Have there been any surprises since you brought Pulse to market in how it’s being used? Are there unanticipated consequences that you would like to share -- the good ones anyway?

Williams: It's been interesting. We have seen a good number of people using Pulse, the way we anticipated it, sharing their tool stacks, and publishing them for their teams.

There seems to be a lot of people that use it privately. They don't share it with anyone, but they use it to manage multiple development profiles. So they might do C++ development one day and Java development the next, or what have you, and they like to keep custom tool stacks just for those things.

Even though they are kind of an island, and we made Pulse to share amongst teams, they find a lot of value in it, just to keep everything tidy.

Cote: If I can add to that, I personally haven't seen people using Pulse like this, because I haven't stuck my head in a developer shop when Pulse has been around. We would typically have a problem where -- across different versions of the project you are working on -- you would have your ID or your tools set up differently.

So, if you wanted to very quickly switch between those different versions, for example, to support or do some debugging in an old version, if there was some support issue, that switching cost between the two setups is a big part of going to fix an older version of something.

Nowadays, you have a lot of virtualization, so you can make this step a little easier, but you end up doing absurd things, like just having machines dedicated to specific versions of the software that you are working on.

If you can more easily switch between the profiles and the configurations that you have, then you can hopefully make it easier and less tedious to support these older products that you tend to have a lot of requests to support.

Gardner: Ken, did you see some advice that you might offer to those, either in academia or in the training field, things that they might want to consider as they are evaluating such things as Pulse?

Kousen: I agree with what the others were saying about the idea of setting up a series of alternative profiles that match the environment you are going to be working in.

I realized, as Michael and Todd were saying that, that I actually do that myself. I have a J2EE profile or Java EE profile, and I also have a regular Java profile, when I am working on different things, because there are certain shortcuts that won't conflict with anything in Java EE, if I use it in Java.

Eventually, I hope when you wind up adding Grails support or Groovy and Grails support to Pulse, it will probably have a configuration environment for that as well. The idea of having a variety of profiles that could each be used in its given time is very helpful.

I know that in a training environment we will definitely try to do that. We will be setting up alternative profiles that can be shared in a particular training class.

Academically, I like to leave things a bit more free form, although I agree that the initial setup is very helpful, because if the students don't have any feel for the environment at all, getting them over that initial hurdle is very, very helpful. After that, letting them experiment is always very, very useful. So that's good.

Gardner: Todd, Ken mentioned support for Ruby, dynamic languages, Groovy. Can you tip your hand a little bit and let us know what you've got in mind in that regard?

Williams: Actually, all of those things are in the Pulse catalog right now. Sometimes they are hard to find, because it's kind of big, but we added search to it to help you run them down. But, there are actually multiple Ruby solutions; I know Groovy is in there.

If a particular solution that you like isn't in there though, it's relatively straightforward to add it, not to the catalog, but you can still add it very, very easily to any of your profiles, either locally or shared.

So, the catalog is like a really good starting point that we try to keep up to date with what our users ask us to put into it. On the other hand, if it contains everything in the world, it gets a bit unwieldy as well.

Kousen: Dana, can I comment on that? I did speak very quickly on that issue. There is a Groovy plug-in in there. I was actually very pleased to see that, because I was concerned.

I've been using the Groovy plug-in for a while, and I wasn't sure whether that was going to be in the catalog at all. It did take me a while to find it, because it was filed under an area that I wasn't expecting, but once I put it in the search box, then it showed up immediately.

The only thing about Grails is that there isn't really a dedicated Grails plug-in yet, and the Groovy plug-in is really moving towards something like that. So, when that becomes available, I'm sure it will be incorporated into Pulse.

By the way, another issue that is very useful is that when I am browsing inside Pulse, just looking around to see what sort of components have been added, it's interesting to see what turns out to be popular; things that I hadn't really anticipated.

For example, I have been using Subclipse for the Subversion plug-in for a couple of years now. In browsing into the Version Control category I see that there are various other Subversion plug-ins as well and also others coming down the line. So that was another capability that I didn't anticipate and found rather interesting.

Gardner: Todd, looking forward a little bit, it seems that this profile information, while useful in a tactical sense, might actually have some strategic value too.

I'm thinking about the metadata that might be available through a profile and a definition of what a developer wants to do from an activity or behavioral or a pattern base. Then, applying that to when they do a search; perhaps refining the search based on their profile at that time, or perhaps using the profile in regard to when they do testing, bills, other aspects of lifecycle management for development.

Have you taken this a step further, where we could take these profiles and use them in a more strategic fashion, or is that something you are looking at?

Williams: That's a great question, Dana. Of course, we have a very large product plan for Pulse. We've only had it out since November, but you're right. We do have a lot of profile information, so if we chose to mine that data, we could find some correlations between the tools that people use, like some of the buying websites do.

People who buy this product also like this one, and we could make ad hoc recommendations, for example. It seems like most people that use Subversion also use Ruby or something, and you just point them to new things in the catalog. It's kind of a low-level way to add some value. So there are certainly some things under consideration.

Gardner: Michael, what do you think of that, taking more profile information; metadata about behaviors, uses, pattern of work, and then applying that to some of the other larger lifecycle activities in development?

Cote: Things like that work out really well, when you have the proliferation of choice that we were talking about earlier, where the systems can always be gained and everything.

This thing is a small enough subset that it doesn't happen, but just seeing sheer quantity-wise and rating-wise what people are using, helps you evaluate. I am probably making this figure up, but if there are 10 different unified modeling language (UML) plug-ins for Eclipse, then you need to somehow narrow down to the ones that are going to work out well for you.

The mixture of the fast and best way to get to that is really just to see which one is being used the most, because chances are, if people are still using it actively, its going to be a popular one. People are pretty fast to dump plug-ins that don't work well for them.

There is a place to capture the metadata or the usage data that's going around with things. That's the kind of thing that usually developers only get a chance to figure out when they are face to face with someone at a conference or other sort of events that don't happen as frequently as you might want to, to simply figure out which plug-in you might want to use.

Gardner: Any time you can take personalization information and automate that or refine searches and activities is certainly a productivity improvement, and Pulse really strikes me as setting up the opportunity to do that.

Cote: Absolutely.

Gardner: Alright. Let's stat wrapping up a little bit. Ken, any last thoughts as a technical trainer about where you would like to see this sort of capability go?

Kousen: I'm not exactly sure where I will be able to take advantage of it. Let me rephrase that. I think the current Pulse configuration is already very useful, and I'm not sure what else I need in order to start trying to incorporate it into an environment.

The only other issue that I wind up having in a training environment is setting things like environment variables onto the operating system. If there is some way we can get that into Eclipse for example, or rather into Pulse, rather than having to do it on the operating system itself -- maybe through the tools or whatever -- then that would be helpful. But I don't know. Right now, I think the situation is pretty good. I can't think of anything else concrete that I would want to add right there.

Gardner: Okay. Todd, thoughts about what educators and trainers should be considering as they look at something like Pulse, and how to exploit it and leverage it.

Williams: One thing that came to my mind, from a student's perspective, is the integrated development environments (IDEs) that are available right now; even the various configurations of Eclipse, are really made for professionals. When you take something like MyEclipse, there is just so much in it.

We need the ability to actually strip down the IDE to only what is needed for a particular exercise. For example, you could set up a profile for the first exercise of the class with just a limited set of tools that a new student would need to get their hands on. It limits the confusion factor. When you do the next exercise, you could easily update the profile; add a few additional tools to it.

So, you have kind of a selected discovery of additional tools and capabilities that coincide with the level of expertise the students are developing, as they are going up the learning curve in a particular course. I was just wondering. Is that the kind of thing that now we have enabled through having a technology like Pulse, that makes delivery of that straightforward, versus what had to be done before.

Gardner: Just for those interested in perhaps getting started, Pulse uses its network. How do people access that, how do they find it, how do you get started?

Williams: Sure. The Pulse website is www.poweredbypulse.com. There is a little 5 MB installer that you download and start running. If anyone is out in academia, and they want to use Pulse in a setting for a course, please fill out the contact page on the Website. Let us know, and we will be glad to help you with that. We really want to see usage in academia grow. We think it’s very useful. It's a free service, so please let us know, and we will be glad to help.

Gardner: Terrific. I want to thank our panelists for helping us dig a little bit into training issues, and some of the solutions that are welling up in the market to address them. We have been talking with Michael Cote, he is an analyst at RedMonk. Thank you Michael.

Cote: Absolutely.

Gardner: Todd Williams, vice president of technology, Genuitec. Appreciate your input, Todd.

Williams: Thanks, Dana, I have enjoyed it.

Gardner: Ken Kousen, independent technical trainer, president of Kousen IT, Inc., and adjunct professor at Rensselaer. Appreciate your experience and input, Ken.

Kousen: Oh, you are welcome, no problem.

Gardner: This is Dana Gardner, principal analyst at Interarbor Solutions. You have been listening to a sponsored BriefingsDirect podcast. Thanks for listening, and come back next time.

Listen to the podcast. Sponsor: Genuitec.

Transcript of BriefingsDirect podcast on Java training and education with Genuitec Pulse for Java and Eclipse. Copyright Interarbor Solutions, LLC, 2005-2008. All rights reserved.
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