Category Archives: Opinion

On Universitites and Placement Years

I’ve been meaning to type these words for quite some time. I created a draft of this post in November 07, which was some significant time after doing an interview (for one of my sisters’ psychology assignments) about placement years and how mine affected my life.

I’ve finally gotten around to writing these thoughts down since I’m currently involved with interviewing candidates for an industrial placement at work.

Plenty of people choose not to take industrial placements while studying at university; I’m not aware of precise figures but I think easily less than 50% of computing students at my university took a placement year – most of whom forsook the placement out of choice.

I think that is a mistake.

An industrial placement might not be the greatest experience, it may mean you are older than some of your peers when interviewing for jobs (trust me, that means less than you might think) and it may mean ‘delaying’ graduation and ridding yourself of the shackles of academia, etc.

But what it does give you could be extremely valuable!

The industrial placement I ended up with wasn’t ideal for me. It was in an environment I could never see myself working in, using technologies I couldn’t see myself working with once graduated, and yet still the experiences I gained there where some of the most valuable during my entire undergraduate career.

There are the obvious benefits of an industrial placement:

  • Money, money, money, money. While taking an industrial placement you’ll earn something like a real world salary. You’ll be able to buy yourselve things, save for your final year, etc.
  • Real-world experience. This counts for a lot! Less so in graduate/junior positions in the computing industry but even still.
    For starters being able to relate to events outside of your academic career is extremely useful in interviews, there’s also the experiences of developing for real world users – and the shocking realisation that many programming jobs are not all code.

And yet the most important benefit of my placement year was not one which had ever been mentioned to me before, which is the reason why I’m writing this now. That benefit – breathing room!

Room to breath!

While I was working in industry for a year my mind wasn’t constantly busy; with no assignments to think about I was left with more time for personal projects (learning new programming languages and technologies) and more time with an unladen mind to contemplate my future.

The future is now, the future is tomorrow

My industrial placement confirmed my initial suspicions; I didn’t want to work in that environment and nor did I want to work with those specific technologies. I also learnt more about what directions I did want to take with my career, what sort of role I wanted upon graduation and directions I could see my career taking.

I wouldn’t have been able to figure out these things had I not taken the industrial placement; a combination of first hand experiences and free brain time resulted in me changing degree specification and graduating much happier landing a decent job straight out of University.

Tangential

I just want to finish this post by stating that while the technologies I used on my placement where possibly not ones I would have picked up otherwise, I still value the experiences and knowledge I gained from using them for a year.

It’s a topic for another post, but learning new languages, tool kits and paradigms might not be explicitly necessary for your day to day work; but certainly gives you an edge! A breadth of experience and knowledge that enables you to develop better code faster by adopting paradigms and techniques learnt while exploring these other technologies. That and it’s all kinds of fun!

Why I Loved Being a Mac OS X User and My High Hopes for Fedora 9

I’ve previously mentioned that I’m now running a Linux laptop as my primary (non-work) machine. I still miss aspects of using an iBook, but fortunately it looks like Fedora 9 is set to abolish the remaining issues – further cementing my use of Linux on a laptop.

First of all I should mention the things that I loved about using my iBook with OS X throughout my University career and beyond, it’s also probably useful to mention why I wanted to switch to Linux full time.

My use case for my primary machine has always been a little strange, unlike most geeks (who seem to have at least two machines in regular use) I like to have only one computer upon which I do all of my work and store all of my data. Because I move around quite a bit (and have done since I started university) a desktop is less than practical as it means only being able to use the machine when I am in one location, so about 3-4 days of the week on average.
However I also like to plug my laptop into an external keyboard, mouse and monitor and use my laptop like a desktop with dual screens and the more comfortable sitting position amongst other benefits.

The reason I ended up purchasing an iBook to fulfil these needs is that I had given myself enough Linux exposure that I had become accustomed to and preferred using certain pieces of software, including the solid development tool chain, and that I prefer the Unix/Linux way of doing things to the Windows way.

So why not stick with the Mac OS? Why buy a new machine and put Linux on it? Two related questions, one answer.

Most of the applications I care about using are open source and cross platform; Firefox, Vim, GCC. On top of that I really like the GNOME desktop, it’s a joy to use and does everything I want and more without getting in the way. Thirdly I love how rapidly Linux develops, 6-monthly distro updates! Neat! It’s really fun to get an updated OS packed with new features every 6 months, even if you don’t use all of the features. Finally I like the thought of being able to modify the software should I need, or want, to. I used mainly open source applications on Mac OS X so it makes sense to have those freedoms all the way down the stack.

There is of course the whole political side of Free and/or Open Source Software but my opinions on that are no way near well formed enough to even discuss that here.

So, why the new laptop? My iBook was starting to age showing both physical signs of wear and tear and more importantly beginning to feel slower as I updated to newer versions of software. I think slightly longer than 2 years is an OK lifetime for laptop and I was itching for some newer, faster, kit with a nicer display.

Why Fedora? It does everything I want and offers me the benefits mentioned above with regard to Gnome and an (almost entirely, I use proprietary drivers and Flash) Free software stack running on my computer. I chose Fedora over other distros as it feels solid and polished and I am a big fan of Red Hat.

What makes Fedora 9 so exciting? Mainly that it is set to increase the polish on areas that matter to me while adding features that will further enhance my computer usage. More specifically the following proposed features are highly anticipated:

  • Randr Support – At the moment if I want to switch between dual screens and a single screen I have to restart X. That really sucks as I lose all my running applications etc. It’s not a huge burden but it adds a login/logout cycle that I didn’t have on OS X and hopefully won’t have on Fedora 9! Randr support should mean when display is connected or disconnected X detects this and acts appropriately and, hopefully, that Gnome supports multiple display configurations better – it does OK at the minute but it’s not great.
  • Network Manager Improvements – Presently my laptop spends a good few minutes of its boot process trying to probe the network interfaces, which aren’t configured because I use Network Manager. It’s also pretty annoying that when I plug in a cable my WiFi is disconnected and the wired interface brought up. Disconnecting me, and more importantly any connected applications, from the internet momentarily.
    Starting NM earlier in the boot process and implementing support for multiple simultaneous connections should solve (or at least start to solve) these issues nicely.
  • One Second X – Get into your graphical desktop faster. Can’t be a bad thing, anything that improves time till usable is great by me! This will also help a little if the Randr support doesn’t quite make it.

There are also several planned enhancements/features which strongly appeal without directly affecting my current work flow. Some of these will be useful to me while others just appeal to the geek within:

  • DeltaRPM Support (Presto) – Why download a whole package when you can just download the differences. Should improve update speed as less data will need to be transferred over the network.
  • Fingerprint Readers – My new laptop has a fingerprint reader built in. Being able to use it for authenticating myself instead of a password will be novel, at least, if not useful. It reads like they will implement password/fingerprint side by side such that either will be usable so authentication won’t be fully dependant on a fingerprint.
  • Bluetooth enhancements – The current Bluetooth support in Gnome is usable if a little user-unfriendly. From what I’ve read on this the improved bluetooth support will make my very infrequent usage of it much smoother.
  • Encrypted Filesystem Support – I’m not sure if I will ever use this feature personally but it seems like a great feature to have and one I hope will drive more government departments to use Linux. Perhaps wishful thinking but every man must dream.

Fedora 9 is due to have a final release on the 29th April, I can’t wait. In fact I’ve been extremely tempted to install and run the developer snapshots but instead I think I’ll wait until the beginning of April for the preview release.

In short; the thing I loved about being an Apple laptop (with OS X) user was that it when I didn’t care to be a geek the software got out of the way and let me be a user. It looks like Fedora 9 will do the same!

DC Vertigo First Issues

I noticed this evening that DC are offering the first issue of a range of their Vertigo titles for free download in PDF format.

Once again I’m left hoping that this is a sign of things to come. I’m fairly certain that this is just a marketing stunt, the same as the frequent 50p issues that we see in comic shops to attract interest to a comic line. By giving away the first issue of an established series in a convenient to consume form DC will likely attract new readers by hooking them on the stories and characters.

Still, I can’t help but think back to my post in December where I mused:

“Perhaps DC will try to beat Marvels offering by allowing download of their comics? I think this would be enough to encourage Marvel to rethink their strategy, I wait for DC’s offering with bated breath.”

My breath is still bated and I hope that if DC see significant interest from readers in these PDF first issues that they will look more seriously into digital versions of all their comics.

Perhaps I should pen a letter?