Long time, no see?

So what gives? It’s been seven months since my last posting. Have I really been all that busy that I couldn’t find the time to create a new posting?

Well, I guess it’s partly true. I have been busy, but I’m sure I could have found the time if the motivation was there. Rest assured that my guilty conscience has been forever weighing me down for not following up my ‘promising introduction’ to the bloging world. However, I think it’s fair to say that the main reason for my absence can be best described as “self inflicted censorship” – if we can call it that. I’ve been a little uncertain of what to write that would be of interest to others, and also try to avoid pissing off the people I work with. I’ve also been a little rundown at work at times so my eagerness to share my views has not been at it’s peek. Now, a few months the wiser, I guess I’ve gained a little perspective so the picture has become a clearer.

What’s been going on?
A lot has happened during the past seven months. The department I am working for at work has grown substantially from just two people (my boss and I) to around eleven and I guess I’ve been a part of that. My new boss sets targets and does her very best to reach them. Although she is a few years my junior, I’ve learned a lot from her, and for the most part I think she is great to work with. I like her positive attitude and have found it contagious at times. I also take a personal interest in management, good management that is, so I do a little reading on the subject on the side, and have been able to share my views with her on occasion. She is keen to keep everyone in the department happy and find us work that we find interesting. It’s truly great to have a boss that cares and can relate to what I’m doing. With her coming from a Java development background herself helps tremendously and means there has been a lot more focus on Java and Open source technology than earlier. As you may have guessed, that suits me fine, and I feel I have grown a lot, both on a personal and professional level. Compared to where I was a year ago, things are looking good, although the business markets have taken a turn for the worst during the last few months, so who knows what may happen in future? Fingers crossed.

Focus change
Everyone at my present workplace seems to think I live and breath for Java, but I’ve noticed that my main interest actually lies more towards web development based on open source technology than Java development. I haven’t really been following the Java scene actively for quite some time and feel I have fallen behind on the latest API’s and frameworks. At present Java just happens to be the vehicle I use to extract content for web development. My main goal is usually the end result which usually portrays itself in the form of a web application or customer website.

For most of my career I’ve been working behind the scenes on the backend systems, but for a long time I’ve had an interest in web frontend technology. However, it seems that web frontend technology still isn’t taken all that seriously. HTML, CSS and JavaScript are considered technologies that you are expected to pick up as you go along and not really use a lot of time learning. To a certain extent this is true, but I still can’t help but find it odd that this is the case in 2008 considering just how much web development goes on in the world today. Your traditional senior programmer speaks in the language of design patterns and architecture, and although I can appreciate good backend architecture, I sometimes find the frontend a bit more fulfilling and challenging. Maybe because it’s easier to explain to to family and friends what I do for a living? Easier for them to visualize, I guess. 🙂

So, needless to say and according to my current interests, the last few months have been dedicated to working on web applications, creating company web sites and the like. At times it’s been great fun and I’ve learned a lot, especially about CSS which was something I always seemed to down prioritize and found “hard” to get comfortable with. I’m not sure what I really mean when I say “hard”, but for some reason I never really got in to it – mostly down to the fact that I had read a lot about it, but never really practiced it. I could never remember all the property names and their values, which is kind of half the point, I guess. This has now changed and within the last half year I have become more fluent in CSS and have grown to like it, and appreciated it’s power. I’ve also noticed just how bad it can get when more junior developers mess it all up, or don’t think in advance. The resulting CSS becomes a nightmare. I feel there is a great deal to be done on this frontier, but a lot of senior developers don’t want to touch it. Not challenging enough, I presume, which is a shame.

Just before the summer I got assigned to a project as a backend programmer. We were given the task of creating a company web site for a larger Norwegian gas company. The customer’s technology of choice was IBM’s Web Content Management (WCM). WCM, if you are unfamiliar, is a Java portlet based product that sits on top of WebSphere Portal Server. Although I had worked with both WebSphere Portal Server and WebSphere Application Server in the past, this was a different ball game.
We were two developers assigned to the project and luckily for me the other developer was fluent in CSS and other frontend technologies. He was a couple of years my junior, but I learned a lot from him. We both struggled with WCM at first and had to overcome a relatively high learning curve trying to find a good structure and extract our content before styling, but the end result was very good. The site looks beautiful today and the customer is happy. This was a relatively new experience for me in many ways. I don’t mean to offend anyone, but this was one of the first projects I was a part of where I actually felt I learned something of interest from someone else. Looking back, it was a great experience to follow a project from beginning to end and be part of the entire process. I’m not saying everything went smooth and we had our problems along the way, but in retrospect we did a good job. It’s just a shame the the technology, WCM in this case, is not much in use in my neck of the woods. However, HTML, CSS and jQuery parts, on the other hand, are. I also learned a bit about a few other web related things, like browser compatibility and became somewhat bemused that the tools for frontend technology development are still relatively poor. Was there really life before Firefox and Firebug?

The second project I was part of was to help refactor and expand a Java web application that is part of a company service desk for employee support. Although the technology in question was once again something odd, SAP EP using Java and SAP HTMLB in this case, I was happy to be able to introduce jQuery as a frontend alternative to help create some good looking stuff on the frontend. I was also happy to refactor some of the code, which was in dire need of some attention. Parts of it still is, I’m afraid. Old style JSP code with scriptlets etc. really do suck.

The third and final project I’ve been working on this autumn (and now nearly completed) is based on the open source Java portal, Liferay. Liferay has been a kind of baby of mine for the last 12 to 15 months. A colleague introduced me to it and ever since it seems I have been associated with the product, or at least that’s what everyone thinks at the company. In this project we created a web site for a customer to help their end users recycle materials and goods. We created a great deal of Java portlets in the process using Java, JSP and JSTL. We had to use a few of the new features of JSR-286 to get things working. In this project I also introduced jQuery into my frontend code which most certainly made some code a lot easier to both read and maintain. My CSS skills came in handy as well.

So there you have it and that’s it for now. A brief summary of what I’ve been up to for the past few months. Hopefully, I’ll have more for you soon, but don’t be surprised if it has more to with web development than backend programming, since that’s where my interests are at present. I’ve been reading a lot lately so expect a few book reviews soon. 🙂

Take care!

My meeting with a celebrity

Last week, a colleage and myself were fortunate to participate at a one day GSE Nordic WebSphere User Group conference held at Bouvet’s offices in Oslo. One of the conference speakers was Stefan Hepper from IBM Germany. Stefan works as the WebSphere Portal Programming Model Architect and leads the programming model part of IBM’s flagship portal product, IBM WebSphere Portal Server. However, more importantly (at least to me), he had the honorable task of working as specification lead for the JSR-168 Portlet version 1.0 specification, and is currently working as specification lead on the new JSR-286 Portlet version 2.0 specification. Naturally, Stefan spoke primarily of the new features in the upcoming WebSphere Portal Server version 6.1 product in the context of JSR-286, but the two aforementioned portlet specifications influence every serious Java based portal server like IBM’s WebSphere Portal Server, SAP Enterprise Portal, Oracle Portal Server, Liferay and JBoss Portal Server, just to name but a few.

Stefan Hepper and the site authorHowever, although Stefan answered a lot of question during his talks, oddly enough, for me the highlight was sharing a taxi and a 20 minute train ride from the conference back to Gardermoen airport (main Oslo airport) where we loosely discussed portlets and portals in depth, and Stefan willingly shared his knowledge with us indiscriminately. It goes without saying that this guy really knows his “stuff”, but it was also quite fascinating to hear how a Java Community Process expert group works in practice. I admit that I knew little of how the JCP works behind the scenes before our conversation, but I got the impression that Stefan is responsible for a whole lot of the final specification work and seems to carry a “heavy burden” by leading the group. However, you won’t find a nicer guy willing to help you with anything related to Java portlet/portal development should you need to call upon him for help.

As you may know, the JSR-168 specification is implemented and supported on almost every Java based portal server. The JSR-286 specification is expected to be finished in april 2008 and introduces quite a lot of new features. If memory serves me correctly, Stefan mentioned that the specifcation API has grown by over 100% since version 1.0. IBM WebSphere Portal Server 6.1 is scheduled for release sometime in the second quarter of 2008 and will support portlets complying with either of the portlet standards. It is also possible to communicate between portlets developed on either standard something that was not possible before between the proprietary IBM Portal API and the JSR-168 implementation.

I also mentioned to Stefan that I thought it was odd that there were so few JSR-168 or porlet related books available on the market. It just so happens that he has co-written and almost finalized a Manning book that was never published. It happens to be available for free download from the Manning web site, but requires registration (free). The book is titled “Portlets and Apache Portals” and it looks good. It also seems to cover WSRP (Web Services for Remote Portlets, version 1.0) and also portlet development using JSR-127 (Java Server Faces).