Tuesday 31 January 2012

Retro Programming Skills

Recently I have received several emails from headhunters with whom I have done business previously, and the nature of said emails nature provokes me to write about this. In recent days I have received the following:

1. Six-month contract for PowerBuilder expert. I don't think I qualify as an expert, but I've spent some serious time wrestling this pig to the ground, and I hate this language.
2. Three-month contract for Access 2003, for the government of Ontario. Who remembers Access 2003? It was so buggy that MS released Access XP a year later, and everyone I know immediately moved to it. Apparently the government of Ontario did not; call it Software Gravity or something; why any organization would prefer to stick to a version known to be riddled with bugs rather than migrate is beyond me. This is not to be interpreted as suggesting an eager adoption of any technology not suffixed by "SP1" or better.
3. Contract for a Clipper developer (6 months anticipated duration, perhaps longer, depending on performance). Ok, I wrote a couple of books about Clipper programming and created a company to sell a few libraries for Clipper programmers, and yes, we sold enough copies to pay the rent and the hydro and the employees, for a few years basking in the sun. But we under-anticipated the adoption of Windows, and missed the boat on transition to this new world, and although we never had to declare bankruptcy, we were forced to close the doors. Although I think that I can claim serious expertise in the world of Clipper programming, I do NOT want to return to the world of DOS, except in a VM and only then for reasons of nostalgia.
4. An offer for a contract specifying a minimum of 4 years' experience in VS C# 2010. Basic arithmetic would deem this requirement impossible, but to mention that is to invite immediate discard into the pile of Rejections.

All this is pretty much OK with me. Most of you may not recognize the name "Jack Layton", a Canadian politician who passed mid-last-year. He was Leader of the Opposition, having won a landslide in Quebec (thanks to his bilingualism and much to the shock of the Parti Quebecois, but that's another story).

Back when Jack and his soon-to-become wife Olivia Chow were City Councillors in Toronto, and the leading software at the time was DOS on IBM-PCs or clones, I wrote the campaign-management software for Jack and OC (that became her nickname). The software was not especially complex; just a couple of dozen tables and a lot of time-sensitive reports. But it did the trick, and in some small way helped Jack and OC hold their positions. I did all that work gratis (free), and took pride in helping, in my small way, the advance of two people who I felt would enhance the political landscape in Canada. I am proud to have made this small contribution to the advance of the NDP agenda within Toronto, and Ontario, and Canada.

The saddest part about this story is that less than a year after Jack's triumph (and the NDP's triumph), Jack passed away from cancer. This might rank as the saddest event in the history of Canadian national politics. Jack redefined the political landscape in Canada, and sadly didn't live long enough to enjoy the fruits of his triumph. This fills me with profound sadness. We go back to the days when he and Olivia were City Counsellors in Toronto. I have known them both since then, even before they were married, and when a departed friend called Dan Heap was still part of the equation.

I began with Jack in the days of DOS. I fondly recall a day in his office. I was the DBA guy and was allowed entry to his office. His DOS computer was passworded. It took me all of three minutes to get past that, and to update his campaign software. When later that day, he arrived at his office and found me working on his updates, he asked, "How did you get in?" And I replied, "Who do you want to keep out? Your average user, or me? Two different levels of protection are required."

This was decades ago, and penetration was easier back then. It remains easy, given certain knowledge, but back then all it took was a reboot from a floppy; now it is (slightly more, but not much) more complicated. Unless you're seriously into computing and programming and security, I venture that I can get in within an hour -- not that I have that intention, but it's not very complicated to penetrate almost every allegedly secure site. Rocket science is not required, in many cases I have investigated.

Most people use immediately-remembered identities such as birthyear, birthmonth+day, surname spelled backwards, nickname of first-born-daughter + initial of one's surname. All such passwords are easily grabbed, knowing even a trite of data about the target. Hence, you are a target. I confess that my own account (too easily deduced) has been compromised, and that's when I learned my lesson; and my lesson is this. Make sure that:

1. Your password consists of at least 10 characters.
2, Your password  includes at least a few Capitals, Lower Case letters, and Special Case characters.
3. In case you forget it, that you can deduce it from a Hint or two (for example, My Youngest Sibling; what is not declared is that this name should be entered backwards, right to left, and prepended and suffixed by some special characters. The point is, that if you forget what the password is, you can deduce it from a relatively simple set of rules, known only to you.


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