dot net in a blizzard
Tuesday, March 8 2005
C#, for those who don't know, can be thought of as Microsoft's proprietary version of Java, a computer language useful for distributed network applications. In their zeal to control all planetary program code (from cellular DNA to toaster timers), Microsoft developed C# as part of a framework called .NET, which, they hoped, would allow them to dominate a new subscription-based software paradigm. (Imagine, instead of firing up your trusty pirated copy of Microsoft Word, you logged into a web page and paid a quarter for a couple hours of cutting-edge word processing, whatever that will be once this scheme is realized.) But Microsoft had the misfortune of introducing .NET technology just as the tech bubble burst, ensuring that its adoption would be patchy at best. When Microsoft was developing .NET, dotcoms were swamped with cash and one of the ways they burned it off was in frequent site redesigns and fruitless architectural boondoggles. But that's no longer the case; many important websites have been virtually unchanged since 2001.
Furthermore, Microsoft erred in more or less abandoning Visual Basic for C#, a C++-like language, thereby ensuring that most existing Microsoft developers (conversant only in BASIC-like languages) would be left in the dust. The result is that .NET developers are in relative short supply, even as boneheaded IT managers, drunk on Microsoft CoolAid, plead for .NET architectural overhauls.
My old housemate John evidently works for a web development firm where such boneheadedness continues to thrive. We'll get to that in a moment. But you remember John from my days in West Los Angeles, right? His most distinctive trait is his propensity to go from one idea to the next without stopping to breathe, and each is always, he proclaims, "the perfect plan." Invariably such plans demand radical changes, such as quitting a job, selling a house, or dumping a girlfriend. (John currently owns a house though he no longer has a girlfriend.)
The other day John came up with a scheme whereby I would be able to visit him in Philadelphia (that's where he lives these days) and earn money at the same time. Evidently his company is in the midst of a massive development debacle and they need eight C# developers yesterday for a project involving the Philadelphia municipal parking system.
Now I have a little experience with .NET from my final months working for Launch.com, when the company decided to commit itself fully to whatever Microsoft suggested, bringing in well-paid Microsoft consultants and going full speed ahead with radical changes, sometimes using bleeding-edge Microsoft code that was still in beta. (The Microsoft "consultants" also surreptitiously audited Launch.com's software licenses and later sent them a huge bill, but that's a story for another day.) Most of the programming I did in those days was related to XML, XSL, and publishing tools, though I've always considered that buggy Microsoft code I had to work with the larval phase of the .NET monster. So I've taken to saying that I know a little something about .NET even though it's not really true. Of course, Microsoft doesn't make it easy on anyone; they themselves use ".NET" to refer to two totally separate things: the network application paradigm I just described as well as a proprietary authentication protocol that, though we're ceaselessly nagged about it from the Windows XP Taskbar, is rapidly being abandoned in the few places that ever used it.
So when John called with the clever plan allowing me to visit him for three weeks and "get paid for doing it," I got a little caught up in the excitement. I assured him that I actually did know a thing or two about .NET, though I warned him that I knew nothing about C#. "Oh come on Gus, you can learn that!" John said dismissively. Then he reminded me of the thing I always used to say about no project being so big that it can't be done "in two weeks."
But things moved a little too quickly, as they always do with John's schemes (that is, if they move at all). John gave my phone number to some woman in human resources and she called me late this morning to ask if I was interested in the position of Contract C# Developer. Yes I was. So then, without my having any chance to prepare, she proceeded to give me an over-the-phone prescreening interview. What a disaster! Truth be known, I was actually familiar with the terrain being covered by her questions, but there were a few things working against me. It's never good to be given an exam by a human resources manager working from a cheatsheet, particularly when she's speaking with a weakly-consonated east Asian accent. Even if I knew the answers, what I said didn't precisely conform to the verbiage she had on her cheatsheet. Also, a substantial part of the test consisted of a list of information with me being asked to decide whether it was better stored in the Session Object or in something else that she referred to with a term that I took to mean "database." Since, unlike Microsoft, I'm philisophically opposed to using the Session Object to store anything, how could I possibly do well on this part? This contributed to a malaise that quickly swept over me, giving me an "oh fuck it" attitude about the whole thing. Suddenly I wasn't all that excited about the prospect of spending the daylight of the next three weeks in a featureless room writing code that only has relevance in a grim Microsoft-dominated universe, even if the nights were to be filled (as John promised) with vodka and Adderall-fueled excess from which Philadelphia could never expect to recover.
So I flunked the pre-screening, wrecking another of John's perfect plans. I'd gone to the Microsoft website and downloaded all the ponderous proprietary code allowing Joe Sixpack users to write their own C# programs, but the moment I realized I wouldn't be getting the job I uninstalled and deleted it all, having regarded it with the same suspicion I maintain for AOL, BargainBuddy, and Weatherbug.
If yesterday was a seductive glance across the room from Lady Springtime, today was the response of her jealous husband, Old Man Winter. He sent a fierce blizzard of howling wind and several inches of snow. It's hard to say how much snow actually fell, since it never really had a chance to settle down. Throughout the day temperatures gradually fell from freezing down into the teens.
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