Back to Apping, Part II

When people find out (I try not to mention) that I’m a programmer, invariably they chirp in with, “Oh! I’ve got a great idea for an app! It’s a doozy!” And (unprompted) they go on to tell me how, for example,

  • it calculates sums of numbers (App already included with every phone), or
  • it makes amusing noises (Apps done to death), or
  • it uses the FBI facial-recognition database to spot disguised celebrities and/or escaped convicts in your local Lidl (App requires discreetly accessing the FBI facial-recognition database), or
  • it’s like Minecraft/Fortnite/GTA X but with way better graphics/gameplay.

And then they suggest I code that for them. “We can be partners!”

Well, “app ideas” was never the problem. I already have a list as long as my arm for app ideas. The problem is always Time. And lack thereof. Yesterday, I read through Apple’s app review guidelines, which is enough to make anyone’s eyes bleed. And that’s just reading it.

I need to introduce you to one of my laws. I call it “Philip’s First Law of Coding” because I’m Mr Vain. Here it is:

Coding will always take at least three times as long to do as you say it will, even (or especially) when you try to take into account Philip’s First Law of Coding.

Philip’s First Law of Coding, (c) PBG circa 2015

Star Trek’s Scotty knew just how long it would take to repair something, multiplied that time by a factor of four in his estimations and then everyone was mightily impressed when he managed it in a quarter of the time he said it would. Scotty’s a git! If I think something will take a month, I might decide to say that it’ll take three, and then it’ll actually take nine. Yes, it can be extraordinarily tricky to guesstimate how long even a simple project can take, especially when I am confined to two-to-three hours a day to work. There are all sorts of things which crop up:

  • unexpected and mysterious memory bugs that the debugger can’t handle;
  • new OSX/iOS/XCode (old code suddenly stops working, or works differently);
  • new code A requires recoding old code B, and then B affects C, D & E, which need adapting and testing, and then D dominoes into the rest of the Roman alphabet and threatens the Cyrillic;
  • hardware problems (failing hard disks is #1);
  • problems due to stupid initial decisions (mostly from severely underestimating complexities);
  • real-life emergencies, illnesses of all flavours, mood-swings and depressions, weather too hot or too cold, rain-patter too loud against the ceiling window, and so on.

This isn’t just a problem for coders. Please do take a moment to read up on the history of the upcoming Game of Thrones book, The Winds of Winter. In case you didn‘t just do that, here’s that link again. I did say please! I am pretty sure that Mr Martin is not a slacker and that he was being entirely honest with all of his completion estimations. Finishing even a simple project is tricky and takes times to do right. I know, because I’ve been spending many, many years writing my own software library, in order to code an app that will change the world.

More about that in Part III. 🙂

Back to Apping (Was Napping), Part I

Portrait of a Coding Dinosaur

I’m a coding dinosaur. I grew up with writing databases in BASIC on the ZX Spectrum 48K. I’m so old, computing was an optional afternoon hobby at my secondary school. There were no laptops there, just a dozen big beige boxes in one room hidden away from all the others. Cutting edge tech was a VGA monitor and a greyscale scanner you had to roll over a picture at just the right snail speed for it to work. My mates & I were wowed by Windows 3.0 and spent our days wrangling with autoexec.bat and config.sys in order to free enough DOS memory to play Origin games. (No, new kids, not the same Origin you know).

So I stumbled into software engineering after university, doing my best to muck up their statistics by not landing my first job till a year after my 1st-class-honours Maths degree. I went to work in an international bank making graph software for Value Added Risk (which is as much as you would probably ever want to know about that).

Then, at the turn of the new millennium, I tried to ride the wave of the Dot Com revolution. I journeyed to America, helped make a website for buying/selling sports cards. It was called thePit and, amazingly enough, I see that it’s still going. But I learnt then that you can’t ride a wave that’s actually a bubble that had already burst.

After that I learnt C++ in order to code my first computer game. It was a vector-based space shooter called Surrounded! and it was awesome, but I can’t market and can’t afford marketing and consequently nobody ever really played it. Except me and a marvellous chap called Saturn.

What was the next “Big Thing”? Well, it was the iPhone so that seemed like a good opportunity for me to find a bigger audience with its built-in App Store. I enjoyed extremely modest success there. Looking back I joined a bit too late, the same as with the Dot Com thing. Matters were further muddied by my move to Germany and having to juggle my new family life, an impossible new language, six years of lost sleep and an idiopathic chronic illness. I can cobble together more silly excuses but the truth of it probably was that my apps simply weren’t good enough to pass serious muster. When the whole tax situation became too thorny (as my dev account fed my UK bank account for my UK company, but I was in Germany), I decided it was simpler to take my apps off the store.

(And I’m breaking up this story because you surely have better things to do than read articles which are too long. Another bite-sized piece of my story coming soon!)