Make it easy for the IT department.

For quite a while I have noticed that there seems to be this huge divide between IT departments and the software developers. I say IT meaning the hardware/software support department and the programmers that write software. In my organization, we are only software developers. Any hardware support is done by me because I have had the most experience with it. Everyone else handles their own software issues. If they have an issue with Word or with their virus scanner of choice, they have to fix it themselves or ask questions to find out who knows what to do. Whenever I have had to call someone in IT at our customer’s location, we constantly are met with resistance and multitudes of questions that point to a certain mistrust of software developers. They almost treat us like we are Microsoft and are out to install a patch that will bring their entire system down for two days.

I start to gain a little insight on why it’s like this the other day. When we install our server components, which is solely SQL Server 2005 Express with a database including stored procedures and triggers, we have an installation package where you just have to click on setup.exe and let it do its thing. When I called the main contact at the IT department, I heard the hesitancy in his voice. I assured him he could do the installation if he preferred not giving me remote access to the server, but he insisted that I do it for him. No problem. Since we are customer focused, we always try to do the client and server installs of our software, anyway. I downloaded the files I needed and clicked on the setup program and just sat there while it went through the entire process. We chit-chatted about servers and Microsoft and had a few laughs over the new security requirements. He then described multiple instances where servers were down for a day or two because of patches that didn’t apply right and how he has had to call Microsoft dozens of times to get hotfixes or special patches because the combination of hardware and software they use is not normal. I usually do not get concerned when I hear this because we don’t usually care what they use, as long as Exchange Server is not on the same server as SQL Server.

After 15 minutes and clicking next a few times, our install was done. He said, “Ok, so what do we do now?” My response was simple, “Nothing. It’s all ready.” He was disbelieving and ran the client software and tried a few things to check. The next 10 minutes was eye opening. He described how this was the best install he has had to watch in a long time and was very pleased that we were so IT friendly. He described a situation that made me, as a software developer, cringe. They had purchased a brand new accounting system that cost their organization almost a hundred thousand dollars (US funds) and the installation took about 3 days. It took 3 days because they gave him the CDs and said to install it, but never gave him any instructions on how. Being used to installing software, he put in the CD marked #1 and ran the setup. It half way installed and then gave a half dozen error messages that consisted of things like “Error Occurs” and “Cannot Continue.” He tried called technical support and all he got was voice mails. He left messages but never received any phone calls in return.

He spent the next 3 days trying to solve the all problems himself, but with no documentation on requirements or procedures. When technical support finally called him back, the solution was to install the third CD first and then try the first CD. Why would you install a CD marked #3 before the CD marked #1? He told me that now he is highly concerned that they made the right choice because it’s their accounting system and how can they trust the vendor’s technical support department if he can’t get an answer in less than 3 days? What if they need to do payroll and “error occurs” and technical support doesn’t return phone calls?

This is why there is animosity between IT and software developers. Make it easy for them. Give descriptive error messages and most certainly answer your phone if it rings! Even if you know it’s a stupid problem they should be able to solve just by reading the screen, at least that phone call will keep their confidence that you will be there where there is a problem.

I <3 Linq

One of the latest technologies to hit .Net recently is Linq. Language Integrated Query allows you to perform a more SQL like syntax on object collections in code. It has been out for quite some time, but I just recently was able to use it in a project. It’s pretty cool stuff and has already saved me a few lines of code. Places where loops would have been neccessary have easily been replaced with a simple where.

One of the concerns most developers had, especially when working with Linq to SQL data classes, was the relative speed at retrieving data from the SQL server. They were pretty right about that. It’s slow. Much slower than even using datasets with table adapters. However, using compiled queries can help.

One thing some people never took into consideration was the relative ease that Developer’s Express users can now use server mode without having to use the proprietary XPO classes. Their XtraGrid’s now support ServerMode which will page SQL queries in windows forms applications. One issue we had were slow VPN clients trying to use a windows form application installed locally and connecting to a remote SQL Server. Until recently we have had to tell users to use terminal services instead. Some forms have to show a relatively large amount of data in a single grid (finding customers, paging through certain data, etc). Over a VPN connection it was just painfully slow. Now combining XtraGrid’s and the Linq Server Mode, everything works as expected over a slow (1.5 MB DSL even) VPN connection.