Visual Basic 6.0: The COBOL of Our Time

I remember back in the 90’s when those in the technology industry were decrying COBOL and how much of our infrastructure ran on that aging platform.  This, of course, was exacerbated by the Y2K bug as the rollover to the year 2000 really put a face on just how old COBOL really was/is (2000 put that face on many other things as well).

Enter Visual Basic 6.0 – also known as VB6.  VB6 was released by Microsoft in 1998 as part of Visual Studio 6.0.  VB6 had several shortcomings.  Among them:

  • Not a fully featured object-oriented programming language.  VB6 did not fully implement inheritance, for example.
  • Not a stable programming environment.  VB6 would sometimes crash costing the programmer hours of work if it was not already saved.
  • VB6 allowed many dangerous programming habits.  For example, the way it treated NULLS and its implicit type casting.

Despite all these failings, VB6 was used by tens of thousands of programmers for projects ranging from small calculator programs to software that, even today, runs major businesses – including banking.  Because of its simplicity and the way it hid so many of the more difficult aspects of programming, VB6 allowed people who never would have given programming a second thought the chance to create major software.  In VB6, you were never expected to handle pointers, do recursion, or do your own garbage collection.  VB6 hid all those things from you.  With such ease-of-use that allowed even mediocre programmers to develop complex programs with user friendly graphical user interfaces, it is no wonder that there are probably millions of lines of code written in VB6 running today.  It was cheap and easy to get otherwise hard stuff done. 

But, like all other things in the computer world, life moves on – very quickly.  VB6 was replaced by Visual Basic .Net in 2002.  Today, Visual Basic 2012 is about to be released in a couple more months.  Looking at Visual Basic 6.0 side-by-side with Visual Basic .Net is like looking at night and day.  Visual Basic .Net is a fully object oriented programming language with all the modern bells and whistles that come with that title.  Indeed, VB .Net is right on par with other languages such as C++, Java, and C#.

However, what about all those programs written in VB6?  Many of them – too many – are still here.  Major corporations such as Corning, Guildford Mills, General Motors, etc. still have entire sections of infrastructure based on VB6.  Those sections of infrastructure have been in use for years and years.  It’s very difficult to incur expense in the form of not only new programming talent, but also in the form of downtime to replace these sections of infrastructure that have been running for years and years.  Not only that, but in many cases the original programmers aren’t around anymore.  They’ve either quit, retired, or gotten laid off and refused to come back when the company realized the mistake of letting them go.  So now we have entire sections of infrastructure to maintain, and try to replace, yet those with the experience on how it all runs are no where to be found. 

The same thing happened with COBOL.  And, yes, COBOL is still in use today.  VB6 is truly the COBOL of our time because it was good at what it did.  It allowed people, even those that weren’t good programmers, to come up with simple solutions to hard problems without breaking the piggy bank.  Something tells me that in the year 2020, VB6 will still be here.

James 

Paul Thurrott and Raymond Chen

Paul Thurrott is one of my favorite authors and I do follow his blog religiously.  Paul has written books such as Windows 7 Secrets which can be found on Amazon.com here.  He is also currently working on Windows 8 Secrets, his book about the new Windows operating system due later in 2012.  Be sure to check out his site – I have the link on the right.

Raymond Chen is my programming god and I also follow his blog religiously.  He is a developer at Microsoft on the Windows Shell team which is Windows Explorer, the Start Menu, and desktop.  He also has a book at Amazon.com, The Old New Thing, which is a must-read for all Windows developers.  Do check out his blog, The Old New Thing.  Again, link on the right.

A few years ago, I was not able to go to one of the big Microsoft events of the year after spending a lot of time planning to go.  However, Paul and Raymond were going.  So, I got brave and emailed both of them, explaining my plight, and I requested a picture of the two of them together.  I honestly did not expect a response so imagine my surprise when they both responded and made plans to meet each other!  They even kept copying me on the email exchange – including sharing phone numbers!  I barely expected them to respond, but to actually charge me with that kind of trust was shocking to say the least. 

I found the picture digging through my files so I thought I would share.  Raymond Chen (left) and Paul Thurrott (right).

raymondandpaul

James

The Disconnect Between Big Consultants and Small Companies

I have the pleasure of knowing some outstanding people.  Many of them work for big companies and we share ideas all the time.  Some of these people are not employees, but are consultants.

When speaking with these individuals, I keep running across an interesting problem.  It’s clear to me none of them have ever worked with or for a truly small company before.  An example of a small company would be a doctor’s office with 1 – 5 providers.  Or perhaps a small billing center with only 20 or fewer employees.  You can tell they have never worked with such companies because when they make recommendations for how IT for the small company should be set up, you can watch the owners become horrified as the amount of money the consultant wants to spend goes up and up and up.  Big company consultants are rarely in touch with the budget constraints of small businesses. 

I was once on the phone with a consultant and was telling him about my IT setup at my job.  I mentioned that I had two Hyper-V hosts and about 8 virtual machines.  The consultant was dumbfounded when I explained that I did not have two redundant backup servers and was not managing my virtual machines using Microsoft System Center.  What the consultant did not understand was that the cost of two more servers and System Center would have easily doubled our upgrade costs which were already around $22,000 and the business owner would never have agreed to it.  I’m not saying the consultant’s ideas were bad ideas, they weren’t, just not in synch with the needs of a small business’s budget constraints. 

Many of the consultants, and even some sales reps, I know don’t seem to understand why they always lose their small business clients.  Small businesses just can’t throw around $50,000 on IT upgrades on a moment’s notice.  Yes, they will have to do without some of the nice redundancy and certainly most of the cool toys, but I would argue that most small businesses don’t need all that stuff.  They can handle a day’s downtime in most cases and a day’s lost data in most cases.  As long as they have good 24 hour backups, they are OK.  Yes, of course, losing a day’s worth of data would be painful, but it is far from the end of the world.  If anything, the consultants should explain the pros and cons of what the small business is getting for their money, rather than just expecting them to buy whatever is put on the table like the big boys do.

James

The Curse of the Delta

Let’s say you are a fresh college graduate who wants to get into managing Active Directory or Exchange or something like that.  Or maybe you’re a seasoned veteran in one technology but you want to expand your knowledgebase into another area. 

Question:  Where do you start?

Many of you, no doubt, already see where I’m going with this.  It’s been hard to learn that other/new technology because buying the latest book on that technology assumes you have read all the previous editions of that book so it only discusses the changes and new features – the Delta – of the product or technologyThe latest book on the latest version of a technology rarely covers the beginning stuff at all.  So if you want to learn, for example, Active Directory then you may find yourself reading stuff from the Windows 2000 days to find a beginning.  But today the latest version of Windows is Windows Server 2008 R2 and that’s what your employer uses.  So now you are reading Windows 2000 documentation and trying to apply that knowledge to Windows Server 2008 R2 and, of course, by now all the tools you would use according to the Windows 2000 documentation have changed or over gone entire overhauls or may have been deprecated and replaced with new stuff in the latest version since 2000.  So, unless you were one of those guys that were with that technology from the beginning and stuck with it all the way through, you’re going to get lost.

Many books are like that.  They assume you used the 200x version before you bought the 201x version.  A good example is Mark Minasi’s audio CD sets on Windows.  If you buy the Windows Server 2008 R2 audio CD set, found here, on the very first CD Mark makes it very clear that you must listen to the Windows Server 2008 audio CD set (found here) if you have no experience with that previous operating system because the Windows Server 2008 R2 stuff builds on what you already know of the Windows Server 2008 stuff.  If you want to learn how to debug blue screens in Windows, you have to go back further and get his Windows XP CD set (found here).  For those of us who started off on Windows 2000, this is no big deal since we are just following along all the way.  But for those jumping on the technology for the first time because we are either fresh out of college or from another field, well, you see the problem.  You have to wade through 12 years of different documentations and so forth and so on and mend it all together at once.

Now, let me be clear about something.  I’m not criticizing Mark Minasi.  Mark has been, is currently, and forever will be a great guy in my book and a good friend.  I swear by Mark and I highly recommend his books and audio courses to all IT professionals.  Mark is not a perpetrator of the Curse of the Delta, he is a victim of it like you and I just on the other side of the fence.  Let me explain. 

Let’s say you are Mark Minasi and you are about to record the audio CD set for Windows Server 2008 R2.  What’s the first thing you are going to do:  You are going to ask yourself who your target audience is.  And now we have hit our problem.  How do you draw the line between the newbies and those who have been loyal followers for the past DECADE?  See, the loyal followers who have been there all along don’t want to spend money on a CD set that’s going to explain the fundamentals of DHCP or DNS to them.  They’ve known that for years.  They want to know what’s new about DHCP and DNS which, by the way, doesn’t help you.  You, who by definition of being a newbie, doesn’t even know how to install DHCP or DNS much less how to administer it, much even more less how to use its latest features in the latest version of Windows. 

And that, as you can see, is the Curse of the Delta.  There is so much new stuff to cover in the latest versions of new technologies that there simply is no room for the newbie stuff.  Authors can’t take the chance on upsetting their loyal fan base that has provided the living they’ve enjoyed for years by covering all kinds of material that same loyal fan base already knows. 

For the time being, I see no solution to this hard problem.  I know for a fact that if Mark released a book or audio CD set on “DNS Fundamentals” that I wouldn’t by it since I already know that beginner stuff.  So, do you stick with the loyal following that has served you well or do you take the chance that there might be enough newbies out there to make a good sale?  This is a good question and I just don’t see an answer.

James

Working From Home

One conversation I find myself getting into often is how nice it must be to work from home.  While working from home most certainly has its advantages, like everything else there are some disadvantages that must be dealt with.  Consider the following:

  • Family buy-in.

If you have a spouse and/or kids, they have to understand that once you walk through the door of your office, even though that office may be a converted bedroom, you are at work.  You are not available for family stuff.  My wife, in the beginning, had a very difficult time with this concept.  To her, it just didn’t make sense that I couldn’t spend 10 minutes vacuuming the living room or emptying the dish washer because “you’re right there in the next room.”  Also, husbands have to understand that you can’t always stop to cook for them or do some other “wifely duty”.  If your children are home for the summer or on some other type of vacation from school, then you may have to put them in some daycare or your spouse, if available, will need to keep them occupied for you.  You cannot have a six year old demanding food or play time while you’re on a conference call with a client.  Also, family must understand that just because you step out of your office to get a quick drink or have lunch doesn’t mean you suddenly have all kinds of free time to give to them. 

  • Hygiene

It’s easy to not worry about combing your hair, shaving, getting dressed, brushing your teeth, etc. when you work from home.  However, you really should keep those things in mind and you should still do them.  Once you start letting yourself go, you’ll be surprised at how those bad habits will creep into your social life.  Next thing you know, you’ll be at friend’s houses or family reunions looking/smelling like trash.  Despite the fact that you have no co-workers around you and that your journey to work is a mere walk across the house, you should continue to maintain good hygiene and dress like you are going to work.

  • Get a Gym Membership

Most of us barely exercise enough as it is.  At least the walk from the car to the office of a real firm is something and you do walk a little bit when going to meetings or looking for co-workers for help.  When you work from home, however, your already low amount of exercise turns to a flat out zero.  You’ll find yourself getting out of shape even worse than you are now which will not bode well for your work performance.  You must, when working from home, make some time for physical activity.

  • Avoid the Living Room and Kitchen

The living room, with all of that entertainment equipment, will do nothing but distract you.  Do not turn on the TV, do not turn on anything.  You may think you’re just checking the weather real quick, but I can assure you that 10 minute weather forecast can easily turn into the third episode of a Star Trek marathon on Spike TV.  As for the kitchen, marching there to get snacks or something to drink every few minutes will do nothing but drain your productivity while stacking on the pounds.  Avoid the living room altogether and make sure your visits to the kitchen are measured and infrequent.

  • Expect Some Prejudice

Co-Workers who have to drive to the office will always be jealous of you.  Your boss will always be suspicious of your productivity.  These are things you’ll just have to accept and deal with.  While you’re dealing with distracting family members and trying to stay focused, they all think you’ve got it made. 

I hope these tips help.  I may revisit this topic in the future if I think of anything else.  Working from home does have advantages, such as the amount of money I save in fueling the car, but there are clearly some negative attributes to deal with as well.

James