Proving Technology

Working in Hursley’s Emerging Technology Services (ETS) group means I get involved in all kinds of different projects. Some last a couple of days, some can last years. One of the most common things I have to do is build proof of concept systems (POCs). This is where we go to a customer with a live demo to prove that some technology can be used in the way we’ve said it can. It depends on what we’re showing, but the POCs my team work on typically take about a week to develop. They can be quite pressurised to work on as you’re always up against it with the time frame and you’re pretty much always working with new or early versions of software.

One thing that makes this different from work that other groups do is that you often have to take on lots of different tasks, for which specialists would be used for a full project. When you’re working on a demo you’re often the project manager, the architect, the developer, the tester, the graphic designer and the presenter, all rolled in to one. The people here in ETS tend to be very good generalists because of this. It’s a different way of working as you always have to pick up completely new things very quickly and then once you figure something out move on to the next thing. It doesn’t suit everyone, but I do enjoy working that way.

– Darren Shaw (Emerging Technology Services, IBM Hursley)

Laszlo King of rich client technology?

Rich Client is a term thats been hanging around for a while now, it describes a group of applications that provide more client end functionality than traditional websites would.

Encompassed in this group are technologies and methodologies such as Flash, AJAX, XUL and XForms. It’s all about giving users more interactivity and providing an experience that would normally be associated with desktop client software.

A new contender has recently grabbed my attention, OpenLaszlo is well placed to come in and steal the limelight from some of the other rich client solutions I’ve mentioned. Laszlo applications are written in XML and JavaScript and compile into Flash to run in the browser, this essentially means that we can write Flash applications in the same way we would with DHTML. Laszlo has a Server side component in the form of a J2EE web application that will run on Tomcat, WebSphere etc. It’s also open source and there are no restrictions on selling the applications you create with it.

Recently our Department was approached by a customer to produce a prototype vehicle dashboard for an offroad vehicle, it would be a browser based app which would take vehicle stats and display them for engineers to examine. Aha I thought, the perfect opportunity to try out Laszlo. I had a very short timescale (as we usually do with these prototype projects, in this case 10 days) in which to get a fully functioning system that would take raw data straight from a vehicle and present it in a graphical manner.

Choosing Laszlo was a bit of a risk, my experience with it was limited to what I had read on the OpenLaszlo website but it was open source so I figured if I hit any sticking points I could probably just patch the Laszlo source. Thankfully I didn’t have to do this, I found the XML markup Laszlo used to have an intuitive set of tags and attributes very reminiscent of DHTML and the scripting language stuck rigidly to that of JavaScript syntax. As a result my development work got off to a quick start.

As I continued I kept discovering little niceties of Laszlo. For one it’s extremely simple to work with XML, binding UI elements to data just involves setting an xpath on the UI element. There are also plenty of server communication options including standard HTTP connections, RPC, and WebServices setting it up nicely for an SOA implementation. There is also a nifty persistent connection interface which allows you to push data down to the client from the server, perfect for pubsub or Instant Messaging applications.

At the end of the day, I’ve come out with a very pleasant impression of Laszlo. I managed to produce an XML data driven graphical UI application in less than 10 days that most importantly worked and that our customer was happy with.

– Rob Smart (Emerging Technology Services, IBM Hursley)

Let’s go karting

Go-KartingDarren has already posted this week on how he and his department spent an afternoon launching rockets together.

Today, my team and I enjoyed similar team-building fun by going go-karting. I’m slightly bruised this evening (no accidents, but some of those corners were sharp), and we all had a lot of fun.

– Roo Reynolds (Pervasive Messaging Technologies, IBM Hursley)

NLP witchcraft or obvious?

I got interested in ‘pop’ psychology in college. It was primarily through doing some AI work, and also trying to figure out how to model behaviour in games. Both of these were sidelines. However, having seen Derren Brown do his mind tricks on the TV, part NLP part magic, it struck me that it was a useful set of things to be armed with should someone try and ‘manipulate’ me. e.g. customers, managers, salesmen. I did my usual thing of buying a book, and not quite reading it all the way through. However, some of the basics did start to gel. e.g. When people are explaining things, some of them use words like I hear, to the tune of etc, other use images, I see where you are coming from, it looks bad, and others use ‘feel’. If someone who sees things, talks to someone who hears things, there is a disjoint. So NLP is about adjusting to empathize, or abuse the differences. There is way more to it than that. Natural communicators adjust to these sorts of things automatically. It can be taught, but its a practiced art. Anyway it will be interesting to see what Hursley Lab people, many from a development background make of this information. Something that is more akin to sales school that a deep technical audience

Ian Hughes – ( Consulting IT Specialist Emerging Technology Services, IBM Hursley)

You have (no) mail

I’ve been a fan of David Allen’s system of Getting Things Done for a while, but have always had trouble keeping an empty inbox.
Until now…

Notes: empty.

Gmail: also empty.

What difference does this make to my life? Mainly just that I no longer struggle to distinguish actions from reference material. Previously, when my monolithic inbox got really bad I’d ‘mark as unread’ things I knew I still had to do, but deep down I knew the notion of new-and-unread and something-to-do were distinct, and that something was wrong. I’ve maintained two empty inboxes for a week now, and I see no reason not to be able to keep them that way.

When new email arrives it will either be junk, reference or an action.

  • Junk is the best, since it’s deleted on sight and takes no more of my time or energy.
  • Reference material goes into an ‘archive’ folder, which largely gets ignored until I need something. My archive is a (fairly coarse) hierarchy. I’m too lazy for anything too elaborate here, so I’ll probably end up relying on search tools to find things.
  • If it’s an action – an email containing something I have to do – I ask myself, “can I deal with this right now, in less than one minute?” and if I can I do it there and then. (the book suggests two minutes, but I find that something I think will take two minutes will end up taking five or ten). If it will take longer then it’s moved to an ‘actions’ folder for when I do have time do it.

If you’ve never heard of Getting Things Done, I’d recommend 43 Folders’ GTD introduction as a great place to start.

– Roo Reynolds (Pervasive Messaging Technologies, IBM Hursley)

Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana

When I joined IBM, out of college, I used to work in the HQ at North Harbour down in Portsmouth. Thats only 25 miles from Hursley. It was a suited and booted environment, lots of accountants and sales people, and us techies busy writing code for internal systems. We knew of Hursley, but it was a ‘research’ place a world away, very few of us visited. Then, and I remember it well, the project I was on was going to be relocated to Hursley. This was a shock for many people, but for me I thought that it would be great to be in the heart of research, with a big country house and acres of fields around. I think I was expecting Bletchley park, and lots of code breakers, in the cryptogarphic sense rather than the testing sense.

We duly moved in 1995 into Hursley. I have to say at the time it was a little dissapointing. We all ended up in an open plan office, sitting with the same people on the same project doing the same thing. The biggest difference was that I turned right out of my road on the way into work, not left. Now this observation is not all doom and gloom, or a negative reflection on Hursley. It is something that hits us in corporate life. Whilst a location, or area might have a certain buzz about it, its the people you work with day to day that make the difference. Back then, yes I sound old, we had little in the way of communications. Yes we had email, but email is not the way to get to together with like minded individuals outside of your department/office/cube. In 1997 I moved to join a group, the Interactive Media Centre, which was also based in Hursley. This was a complete change, even though I had been on site for 2 years, I had not met many of the people in this small group. It was a very different, graphic designers, producers and techies all together, all with very different perspectives. We grew on the internet/e-business wave.

This ability to move to other groups and have a complete change is very important. It is a social grouping, and it is about physically being in the same place, something that happens less and less in business. What has been interesting to me is how the world has altered, such that it is possible for people to gather and share ideas through things such as this blog (or any other blog), through websites, games etc. So it is now much more important for people to look at their virtual peripheral vision(VPV), to get involved with things in a structured way, or randomly as suits their style.

You do not have to make a complete commitment, moving site, moving department or changing your skillbase in order to get hooked up with people who you have an affinity too. Where you can spark some ideas around, show off or have serious discussions. The roots of this blog are people who happened to have ended up in Hursley, but who do different roles, have different personality types, but like to share thoughts and comments on a variety of topics. I am not suggesting people don’t move jobs, but if something is missing from your working life, its certainly worth exploring with your VPV.

Ian Hughes – ( Consulting IT Specialist Emerging Technology Services, IBM Hursley)

Geek Rockets

We don’t spend all our time sat behind computers coding away, we do that a lot, but we also take time out to have some fun. The Emerging Technology Services group in Hursley is full of budding rocket scientists, so when it came time to do a team building event, rocketeering seemed a good fit.

The group busily spent the previous week in their workshops, sheds or at the dining room tables constructing rockets. The rules were simple. They had to be self propelled and the only fuels allowed were baking soda, vinegar, air and water. Most people went for air and water rockets, but I went for a vinegar and baking soda powered device. The buzz created in the corridors was pretty impressive, even before we had arrived at launch day.

my rocket

Thursday arrived and finally it was time to put our rocket science to the test. After a few beers and a barbecue there was a safety briefing and then we took turns to launch from a local pub (which has a very big field). Andy and Chris were the most successful rocket builders and had clearly spent a lot of time in research and development phases. Andy even managed to clear the field completely.

chris\' rocket

It definitely worked as a team building event. We had a good time, nobody got injured, I nearly became IBM’s first person in orbit, but apart from that it did help the team get closer together.

– Darren Shaw (Emerging Technology Services, IBM Hursley)

Hursley House

Hursley House

Darren’s lovely photo of Hursley House shows where we work. The view from the lawn really is impressive. Can’t see anyone playing frisbee in this shot, but I guess it was a bit late in the day for that.

I’ve never actually worked in the House itself; there are several more modern buildings behind it, and I’m currently in D-Block. It is very good to show off to visitors though, and an excellent location to host meetings.

Errr… Is this thing on?

OK, so I’m part of a group of techie/creative people who work at IBM’s Hursley Park Lab in the UK. We have regular technical community meetings, well more like a cup of tea and a chat really, about all kinds of cool stuff. One of the things we talked about recently is that although there are lots of cool people and projects going on in Hursley, we never really let anyone know about them. So, we decided to try and record some of the stuff that goes on here in an unofficial blog.

The plan is to give a bit of a UK flavour to it all, but talk about the technology coming out of the lab, things people are playing with, but also some of the fun side. Hursley’s a very unusual place, compared to most technology sites, so we want to get that across. Anyway, hopefully lots of different people who work in and around Hursley will contribute.

– Darren Shaw (Emerging Technology Services, IBM Hursley)