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A Coder Interview With Marc Clifton

, , 2 Jul 2013
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Welcome to our continuing series of Code Project interviews in which we talk to developers about their backgrounds, projects, interests and pet peeves. In this installment we track down Code Project member Marc Clifton.

Welcome to our continuing series of Code Project interviews in which we talk to developers about their backgrounds, projects, interests and pet peeves. In this installment we track down another prominent Code Project member Marc Clifton.

Marc is the creator of two open source projets, MyXaml and Interacx. He has been a Code Project member since 2002, is a perennial community MVP and has written over 150 articles.   He is also the creator of the Needs & Gifts community website and a information-relating application called Intertexti.

Who are you? 

My name is Marc Clifton, I live and work out of my home in Philmont, New York, I have a son who is pursuing a math-teaching degree at SUNY New Paltz whom I very proud of.  I've been quite blessed to be able to work from home for nearly 20 years now, except for a small 5 month stint in New York City with Citi Group that I'd rather erase from my memory banks.  My commute is 20 feet and there are no traffic lights between my house and most everything else that I go to, whether it's the Farm Store or hanging out in Great Barrington, MA, which has one of the best sushi restaurants in New England in my opinion.  When I'm not working, I enjoy playing Texas Hold'em poker and doing research in Anthroposophy, some of which you can read on my blog, and I like to be involved with the local community, life coaching, and enjoying the diverse talents and personalities that come through this community, often staying at my house.

What do you do?

I tend to work on projects that help automate business processes and improve information flow. This has led me to develop software that improves the profitability and accounting in adult entertainment clubs (Video Simplex), boat yard management, and the design of communication satellites (Space Systems/Loral) such as those used by DirecTV and Sirius. I have solved complex technical issues regarding failure and end-of-life analysis of switch rings, which are used on satellites to switch in spare transmitters to extend the lifetime of a satellite.  One of the more amusing projects I have worked on was to tie in to NOAA to determine how much ice should be packed with a shipment of chocolate based on 3-day temperature predictions -- ok, that project took all of about 8 hours, but it still one of the more fascinating mergers of one company's needs with disparate technologies such as shipping, web services, and Excel.

I’ve also worked on voter registration software (Votec), done “edutainment” game development, and helped develop the security system for the MX Missile Train (fortunately cancelled by Congress years ago!) The video surveillance security product that I co-developed was featured on CNN’s Headline News for the Atlanta Olympic games a few years ago.  Talk about pushing the envelope of the technology at that time - 14.4Kbps modems, custom compression algorithms, supporting 5 different VGA chipsets - those were the days!

Throughout my career, I have enjoyed immensely working with hardware engineers, especially on low light intensified camera systems and multi-spectral cameras (Xybion Corp. and Robot Research, now Sensormatic). One of the highlights of my career after the Challenger shuttle disaster was developing real-time spectral analysis software to detect hydrogen fires on the launch pad.  One time we were doing 1/4 scale tests of emergency engine shutdown procedures, checking for hydrogen fires, and were amazed to see how the resulting hydrogen fire, visible on the camera, completely snaked around the physical sensors, which reported nothing!

I have also developed my own n-tier application development environment, Interacx, which I have used extensively with my clients, and I developed the MyXaml open source project, which allows developers to instantiate object graphs declaratively.

Since writing this two years ago, I've taken on some work indirectly for a company called Health Connect One, which has taken me down the path of learning Ruby on Rails.  I am fortunate to have an amazing mentor, Eric Harris-Braun, whom I met at the Quaker Intentional Community up the road in East Chatham.  Diving into Ruby was no easy task - I walked into a mature web application and an underlying framework for describing data entry forms which Eric wrote, as well as a comprehensive suite of tests, deployment processes, and so forth.  My first job was to upgrade a web application from Rails 2 to Rails 3, which involved touching many different pieces of the code base, especially the test scenarios (Ruby on Rails has amazing facilities for doing both unit and application level testing) as well as working in Ubuntu, a new experience in me doing anything productive.  Fortunately, the Rails3 version of the website can also be fully developed and tested under Windows, which I must admit is not only a more comfortable environment for me, but frankly, I believe a better one than Ubuntu.  In the process, I've learned a lot about the pros and cons of duck-typed languages like Ruby (check out C# and Ruby Classes) and have developed a couple websites in Ruby on Rails, for example, Needs & Gifts

I've also been exploring ASP.NET with MVC 4 and am amused to see how many of the ideas appear to be "borrowed" from the Rails community, down to database migrations, the whole MVC model, routing, etc.  Anyone comfortable with ASP.NET should be able to easily grasp the concepts in Rails, and vice-versa.

What is your development environment?

At this point I primarily use use C# and Visual Studio for WinForm development and one of my passions, n-tier application development.  For my Ruby on Rails work, I still prefer to use Windows and the excellent RubyMine IDE.  As for databases, I'm equally comfortable in SQL Server, Oracle, and PostgreSQL, and have discovered to my amusement just how powerful a serialized DataSet can be for a lightweight client-side database!

For n-tier development work, I prefer to use my own product, Interacx, as it provides unified form, schema, and report designers (using DevExpress XtraReports) with automated SQL generation, plugins for change tracking, security, etc. Interacx is developed in C#, so I venture into that various APIs for domain-agnostic development. I shy away from the idea of having declarative concepts implemented imperatively, hence Interacx is my preferred environment for developing n-tier applications.

For that reason, I also avoid with a passion anything ORM related – the idea of taking a database table or view and re-implementing it as a set of classes is my personal soapbox. Yes, there is a place for ORM when doing processing of the data, but the majority of my work involves the correct presentation and mining of data, which in no way involves an ORM--it happens at the SQL level and is usually expressed in views.  Furthermore, there isn't any need for an additional layer because the data can be bound directly to controls.  All of this works of course because seven years ago I wrote some code that tracks DataTable transactions, which is the backbone for my SQL generator (never did put together an article for that.)  I think it says a lot when code that is seven years old is still in use in applications I develop today.  The work with Ruby on Rails of course uses the ORM that is one of the backbones of the Rails framework - it's powerful and simple to use, and since the ORM here lives on the web server, it makes more sense to use an ORM at the 2-tier level--for client-side code, a 2-tier approach is pretty much not even a consideration anymore, it's 3-tier or n-tier for me.

Hardware-wise, I have upgraded from what I was using 2 years ago: an HP desktop with 8GB RAM, 64-bit Windows Vista (Home Edition, would you believe?) and a 1TB hard drive.  Recently, I built my own system using an 8-core AMD FX-8320 processor (3.8Ghz), 16GB of RAM, and two 120GB SSD's - enough space for everything I need, but starting to get a bit cramped.  When working with Ubuntu, I use Virtual Box to run Ubuntu in a VM, dedicating 4 processors and 4GB of RAM to Ubuntu.

I still do a lot of development on a Gateway I5 laptop (the same one I was using 2 years ago), but I recently ordered another 4GB of RAM to bring it up to 8GB - I should check the mail, the memory is due to arrive any day now!  Given the prevalence of WiFi hotspots, I ditched the  Sprint MiFi card.  I also have a dedicated server (Peer1) that is terribly under-utilized – my websites are in total disarray – but it is a central repository for all my source code, using Subversion.  My laptop is effectively a clone of my desktop, including a more resource-limited (1GB, 2 processor) Ubuntu VM.

I’m not sure I have a favorite language. I miss C++ with multiple inheritance (when you want it, you really want it) and STL (C#’s generics just don’t cut it) - interfaces are just no replacement for multiple inheritence!  I love the reflection capabilities in C# and, since I wrote this last, have really come to enjoy lambda expressions and LINQ.  I was quite enamored with Ruby when I first encountered it, even though it's performance is of course quite poor compared to a compiled language.  I've since come to a deeper understanding of how much more discipline is required to write good code in a duck-typed language - basically, pretend your working in a strongly typed language and absolutely avoid monkey patching -- your code and any framework code that you use should be sufficiently well architected so that monkey patching is not necessary.  So, if you are disciplined enough and the performance is adequate, Ruby on Rails is quite a good language and framework in which to build sophisticated websites. 

My favorite framework for WinForm development is my own (it better be, right?) and as far as third party components go, I very much like DevExpress, but wish that it was simpler – I guess having incredibly powerful and also simple are opposing forces – so I wrap the DevExpress UI classes that I use and automate the behavior that I want, once I figure out how to get DevExpress to do what I want. That way, I never have to figure it out again! 

What new tools, languages or frameworks interest you?

At this point, my interests in languages and frameworks have definitely waned.  I used to be enamored with XML (I know, it's not a language, but bear with me) and its application in declarative programming.  Then I became interested in F# and all things related to functional programming, and of course lastly in Ruby.  At the end of the day, I look at the programming community and I still think, none of these things are significant advancements in developing code and working with end-user needs.  The whole web application landscape to me seems like a Rube Goldberg machine built on the original 18 HTML tags more than 20 years ago, and quite frankly, I feel disappointed - it seems like competing vendors and standards have left us, the architect / developer, to work in environments whose pipes are leaking like an old boiler room.

That said, I am definitely interested in continuing my pursuits in Computational Types and Relationship Oriented Programming, which I discovered from an Insider News article recently is the same thing as a Graph Database, such as Neo4j.  That's where my interests currently like, and I'm struggling with deciding whether to continue doing WinForm development or to embrace the dark side and work more in the web application space.

What is your coding pet peeve?

Aesthetics. Code should not just be beautiful, it should look and be formatted beautifully. It drives me nuts when developers don’t line up their statements and are inconsistent about the use of white space. Code for me is a piece of art, and I think there is a correlation between how much care a developer puts into how their code looks, its architecture, and its quality from the user’s perspective.

There are three things I loathe:

  • underscores for member fields
  • regions (I want to see the whole thing)
  • “this.” notation, a hangover from the days when IntelliSense didn’t kick in right away but required an object reference.

Other than that, I don’t have a naming convention preference as long as it is applied consistently and classes are neatly organized with regards to delegates, enums, fields, properties, constructors and methods.

I'd also like to add, now two years later, that especially with languages like Ruby, I am very peeved by a lack of discipline when it comes to the liberal use of symbol and string hash keys and the overall avoidance of object-oriented practices that I see in some of the community code out there.  Duck-typing can lead to all sorts of undisciplined and spaghetti code - having had the years of experience working with strongly-typed languages, seeing the lack of recognized architecture and coding practices in the Ruby community drives me nuts.

How did you get started programming?

In 6th grade, my very first keystroke, on a PDP–11 teletype, was (following the instructions) to press Ctrl+C, which duly crashed the computer. Turns out the power supply for the mag tape drive was tied in with the CPU, so if the tape drive drew too much current, it crashed the CPU. I exited the school’s computer room with all due haste and didn’t touch the thing for a year.

I learned BASIC on that machine, programmed my first Federation vs. Romulan game (a 10x10 grid printed out every round) and saved my programs on punch tape. I had a dickens of a time understanding how a computer “knew” that when I wrote A=5, that later A would still equal 5. The next year I was teaching BASIC.

After high school, I dived into assembly language (still my first real love, I think programming should be done only in assembly language!) and wrote my second Star Trek game for the Commodore PET and a Fairchild joystick, which became a small commercial success and launched me on this adventure.

How has the developer community influenced your coding?

I remember when I first was working with C# and was trying to figure out how to force the debugger to break at a certain place without using a breakpoint. Coming from the C/C++ environment where I would simply emit an “int 3” assembly language instruction, I had the idea that maybe something like that would need to be done in C#. Searching online, I didn’t find anything, so I figured out how to emit the instruction in C# and promptly spit out an article on the topic, thinking, “Ooh, I’ve done something cool.” One of the first responses I got to the article was “I guess you don’t know about System.Diagnostics.Debugger.Break();

Oh, my ego!

But this illustrates how the developer community, especially online, has influenced my coding – the .NET Framework is full of stuff I just don’t know about. So I like it when even a simple article or blog utilizes something I didn’t know about in .NET or with the C# language (may not even be the topic of the article). I look at some of the LINQ or lambda expressions people use and I wonder, how the heck did you figure that out? So it’s that last 10%, the somewhat obscure, rarely used, but really useful at times, coding features that I like to read about and that influence my own code.

There’s a lot to like about the developer community today. The folks that frequent The Code Project and StackOverflow answer questions promptly and I’ve gotten good answers. There’s also a wealth of knowledge to mine when I’m looking for an answer. It surprises me how many answers I find on blogs, but that may simply be because of Google’s search bias.

What I dislike is the spin-doctoring from, quite frankly, certain Microsoft bloggers that seem then to get picked up by the rest of the dev community. I don’t like the hype around new technologies, the “faster and with fewer bugs” mantra. The only way I’ve ever succeeded at having fewer bugs is by doing things slower! I don’t understand how someone in marketing can think that developers are actually stupid enough to believe that hype, but then again, those product blurbs probably aren’t written with developers as the target audience in mind.

I’m also not a fan of instructional videos. I’d much rather have a well written document that I can easily bookmark, cross reference, write some notes in the margins, and so forth. But then again, writing documentation takes longer than slapping together a low-res video. That’s too bad, because we are doing a disservice to each other, in my opinion.

Basically, the only online resources I use are Google, Code Project, and StackOverflow. Google often points me to MSDN and various people’s blogs, and that’s it. The only forum I actually spend time hanging out in is Code Project’s Lounge. The rest of my online time is spent on non-developer sites (don’t get any ideas!) dealing with science and philosophy.

What advice would you offer to an up-and-coming programmer?

My first employer, Paul Zuzelo, took the time and had the patience to hammer that into me when I was 18: Learn how to clearly communicate (in a human language, not a computer language) 1) the problem you are trying to solve and 2) the way you are going to solve the problem.  Now I'd like to add "be a disciplined programmer - learn the languages and tools that you are using, look at how they can be abused, and avoid doing so!"

License

This article, along with any associated source code and files, is licensed under The Code Project Open License (CPOL)

About the Authors

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Marc Clifton

United States United States
Marc is the creator of two open source projets, MyXaml, a declarative (XML) instantiation engine and the Advanced Unit Testing framework, and Interacx, a commercial n-tier RAD application suite.  Visit his website, www.marcclifton.com, where you will find many of his articles and his blog.
 
Marc lives in Philmont, NY.

Comments and Discussions

 
QuestionWhere are your websites? PinmemberSiavash Mortazavi13-Sep-11 6:06 
AnswerRe: Where are your websites? PinprotectorMarc Clifton13-Sep-11 7:23 

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