The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

January 22, 2010

A Bit of Temporary Madness

Filed under: Random Stuff, Seattle, Technology — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 12:33 am

Although for the most part over the last decade or so I’ve been blessed with (mostly) steady employment and the means to achieve and maintan self-sufficiency, when I go back and think of all the various places where I’ve been throughout my career, it always seems to be the shortest jobs that end up being the most interesting ones, at least in terms of the stories that come out of them.  Of course, “interesting” is rarely the first thing to come to mind when you’re manually mapping out all the ports on a PBX system by running your hands through a snake pit of wires or sitting in the middle of an unheated warehouse in January running the same imaging script on 400 computers, but most of the standard-issue 9-to-5 jobs I’ve worked over the years have produced few memorable moments.  After all, I suspect that giant software companies rarely pay people in unmarked envelopes of $1 bills out of the Pepsi machines.  There are always exceptions to this rule (a few jobs that were either particularly interesting or particularly horrible do stand out) but as odd as it sounds, some of the jobs I spent the least time in are the ones I remember most.  And I suspect that the one I’m at right now is no exception. 

This past week, I have found myself in a third-floor loft in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood along Yesler Way, the prototypical Skid Row from which the term originated.  I am currently helping out at a small startup for a couple of weeks as a tester for an iPhone app, although in an office of five people that rather vague description does meet up with a fair bit of scope creep.  With my interest in urban archeology and old stuff, it’s kind of interesting to get a close look at some of these historic buildings.  As most people know, Pioneer Square is where many of the oldest buildings in Seattle are found, with many of the buildings dating as far back as 1889(much of Seattle’s central business district burned down in the Great Seattle Fire of 1889, and a lot of what’s here now was built to replace the burned down buildings) and having seen the Alaska Gold Rush of the late 1890s. 

Stairs:  They sure don’t make them like they used to, and there’s a good reason for that.  I could see someone tumbling headfirst down these stairs to an untimely demise quite easily, and hesitate to try to traverse them without the handrail.  It’s the kind of thing one might regard as adding character to the building, and if that’s the case, there’s no shortage of character in this place.  I’m not trying to say that the place is old and decrepit, but I suspect that it’s seen better days… back in 1905. 

The holes in the floor which allow one to see through to the floor below add a nice touch though (unless, of course, you’re the people down below, but that’s another story.)  Aside from this little startup I’m with, I think half the building is occupied by various Yoga and Pilates studios, with some random garage band using the floor above ours as their practice studio, just for good measure. 

At least when I look out the window I can see the Sound.  At least I can if I manage to look past the much maligned Alaskan Way Viaduct and the barren alley below.  There’s actually a number of ghost ads and signs on the building you see here, but most are too faded to make out much more than the faintest of details.  I suspect the graffiti is of comparatively recent origin, but even that seems to have been around for quite a while by now.

To be honest, there’s a bit of a culture shock that comes with having spent so long in the highly bureaucratic environment of a major software company with at least 30 or 40 people (and usually more) working on any given product and then going to a startup with less than 10 people in the whole company.  After having spent so long as a relatively minor member of some rather large test teams, going to a place like this and finding that I am pretty much the whole QA department (for a while anyway) is a little odd. For one thing, it means that I pretty much have to start from scratch when it comes to testing the product and setting up whatever cases and frameworks need to be used.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  As a tester, there are few times when you feel better about your job than when you get a chance to pick up a new, largely untested program for the first time and go to town finding and filing all the bugs.  Back when I was doing international testing, and got a hold of the first pseudolocalized* build of the rather large piece of enterprise software I was working on at the time, I think I managed to open 100 bugs in one day.  Some people would think that successfully shipping a product would be the time when a software tester would be happiest with their work, but the problem with that is that as no product is perfect, and on just about everything shipped product I’ve ever worked on, I’ve been able to name at least five significant bugs that didn’t get fixed, either for being discovered too late to do much about them or for just not being significant enough to warrant fixing.  It’s a bit of a curse, but you get used to it, and you at least have a reasonably good idea that at least all of the major stuff is working like it should be.  Of course, when you have to go through half a dozen project managers and dev/test leads (collectively, it’s not THAT bureaucratic most of the time) to get approval to have even the most trivial of bugs fixed, you find it hard to be surprised when half the bugs you find get punted back to you.  And don’t even ask what it takes if you try to actually change something in the product.

Of course, the small-team environment does come with its advantages too.  For example, it provides a chance to to something besides sit around and run tests all day.  I’ve even managed to find myself involved actively in the design of various aspects of the product, and generally a lot more involved with it than I would have ever been in some of the big teams I’ve been on previously.  I’m sure I’ll have more details on this once the product I’m working on gets completed, but for now I’ll just say that I’m working on something that’s just about the last thing I would have ever expected to find myself working on.  I also suspect I’ll probably nor exactly be bragging to my mother about this one, but that’s another story.  Oh well, at least it keeps things interesting, right?

*Pseudolocalization is the process used early in the localization of a product to test the ability of the product to be translated into other languages.  This is done byautomatically replacing all of the strings within the product with dummy text that looks similar enough to English to still be readable, but is made of foreign characters.  In addition to this, most of the time the pseudolocalized strings include additional padding characters to show where text strings in the user interface may not be long enough to accomodate their foreign equivalents.  For example, if you have a string like “Never eat grasshoppers while they’re still hopping,” the pseudolocalized version might look something like “[Ñĕɤȩȓ £æƭ ƍ®äšśĥضÞëƦ§ Ŵħìﺄє ҭђӘч`ʁȩ șțɨȴĺ ĥơҏp!ӆϑ!!! !!! !!! !!! !!!]” inside the product.  Sure it looks silly, but you should still be able to read it, and this can tell you a number of things.  For example, if you’re seeing big white boxes in the middle of that, there are characters that either aren’t supported or can’t be handled properly by the product.  If you’re missing the end bracket, then you’re likely to run into truncation problems when you try to put the foreign equivalent to the string in there.  If you’re seeing the string just like it was in the regular version, you’ve got something hardcoded that shouldn’t be.   

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