Developer

Where do developers turn to for help?

Have you hit a wall in your project and want to know where to find the answers? Local tech commentator Tony Stevenson asked some seasoned developers their tips to finding help.

Being a developer can be a solitary experience. Even though many developers work in project teams, the reality is that most of their time is spent alone in front of their computer. So who do they turn to for help?

Builder AU interviewed a variety of developers working in the industry where they searched to find the answers they needed to get their job done.

Colleagues
Patrick Herrera, a Java development specialist, and lead developer with Little Devil New Media Design Services believes that for basic support it's vital to work with people who are all computer savvy. That way technical support is kept to a minimum.

He points out that people employed by his company are generally happy to be interrupted to discuss problems, but only as long as the person has made a genuine attempt to solve it themselves first.

"We are always happy to listen to someone talk about the solution they eventually came up with—you never know when it could come in handy".

Adrian Holland, an IBM specialist in software development lifecycle tools and processes also believes that colleagues should be the first point of call.

"I have a group of people whom I know I can call on regarding information on a variety of topics. I also find newsgroups quite useful, but the responses received can be quite variable in quality, and misunderstood communications often get in the way", says Holland.

The Web
One of the obvious places to find technical help is the internet. So how do developers use online resources such as newsgroups, message boards, FAQs, knowledge bases, as well as sifting through the numerous web sites that offer expert help?

Herrera points out that it is rare that a Google search doesn't provide the answers that are needed.

"It has been a long time since I joined a mailing list for that reason. If you have problems with a particular application, the FAQ and knowledge base for that application should always be the first port of call".

"For anything more general, Google is your best bet. The Microsoft MSDN library is a gold mine for any Microsoft related issues, and I often use it as a reference for things like HTML and style sheets".

Holland points out that he likes using online resources. His first point of call are the vendors sites and secondly trusted third-party web sites.

"Online resources are useful for their search capability, but only sites that I know provide the correct information"

"The sites I find useful for my job include msdn.com, developer.com, www.codeproject.com, www.sysinternals.com and www.rational.net", adds Holland.

Carol Flaig, Technical Services Director with Platypus Partners, noted that resources, both online and offline, that her team turn to for support when development problems strike mostly revolve around SUN developers' kits and tools.

"Software development tools, versions, platforms, and standards are all changing variables and must be considered throughout the development process." Flaig says.

Magazines
Another potential source of solutions, advice and tips is to read the appropriate technical magazines.

"I read Dr. Dobb's Journal, which is good because it covers a lot of areas and technologies," Says Patrick Herrera

"It has a good mix of theory and practice and is great for getting an idea of what technologies are out there, even if they are not directly relevant to our needs".

"We also read 'Australian Developer', which has a narrower focus, and tends to be more practical, which is good when the particular technology is one we are using, or contemplating.

-Magazines are usually better for ideas and inspiration rather than specific solutions", adds Herrera.

Books
Books can be a handy resource tool for developers. However the main deterrent for books is that their shelf life can be short and prices can be expensive.

"As most developers will testify, books can get outdated quickly, particularly when dealing with open-source technologies," Herrera says.

"However their portability and ease of use is still unmatched, and some subjects tend to remain fairly stable".

"I often find myself reaching for my O'Reilly 'Nutshell' books, and books on good programming practice such as 'Design Patterns', should have a place on every programmer's bookshelf. Computer books aren't cheap, so longevity is important. We don't tend to rush out and buy the first book on a new technology".

Adrian Holland agrees with Herrera and regularly taps into computer books as an essential resource.

"I buy computer books regularly on both technical and theoretical topics, with recent topics including C# and ASP.NET, requirements collaboration, and user interface and interaction design.

Events
Events can be few and far between in the IT industry in the current climate, but do developers attend conferences to look for answers or are they simply a networking tool?

Holland claims that events have been useful in the past for general introductions to topics for further research, or to talk to specific vendors supplying the products that he is already using.

Flaig on the other hand regards IT events primarily as good networking opportunities rather than the technical information presented.

User Groups
User groups are primarily set up so users can share their experiences and help each other when they run into problems. While the drawback might be that most only run on a monthly basis at best or only meet -virtually" via e-mail lists, they can be a great way of getting hold of experts in particular developer fields.

Andrew Muller, who works for web development company Daemon, and member of the ColdFusion User Group Australia says that developers certainly sniff out user groups to find answers to specific problems.

-My experience has been that developers certainly do come to CFUG with specific problems in mind, shopping for solutions."

-They either approach individuals who they think might know the solution in between presentations or come along to specific meetings because of an interest in an advertised presentation so that they can pose questions during the Q&A." Says Muller

Nick Wienholt, a Windows and .NET consultant and member of the Sydney Deep .NET User Group adds that getting experts to user groups can increase the learning curve for developers.

-From my perspective, the most valuable help-for-specific-problems work we do is to put people in touch with experts (both Microsoft and independent) when they have a longer term problem, like the app is slow on Win98 machines or MSMQ dies suddenly under conditions X and Y." Says Wienholt

-We have one of Microsoft's .NET evangelists attend most of our meetings, so a lot of people go straight to him for answers. Microsoft is such a huge company, and it can be hard for the average developer to get in touch with the right person when they have a specific problem."

Professional Bodies
It was interesting to note that none of the developers interviewed were too interested in reaching the various local professional bodies for help.

"We haven't seen the need to join any IT bodies at this stage. There are so many to choose from and their focus is always too broad. Of course we never say never but if we did join an IT body we would have around 25 to choose from", Herrera states.

What about you?
As a developer where do you turn to when you get stuck in a rut? Drop us a line at Builder AU with your tips or hints that you can share with other readers.

Tony Stevenson is the Director of MKD Software Consulting, and the author of the books "The Australian Guide to the Internet" and "The Australian Guide to Online Business"

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