Friday, May 29, 2015

ICPE 2015, City of Austin - Part 2

(Click here to read Part 1)

During the remainder of my stay in Austin, it never got as warm as when I arrived. It stayed a rather balmy 5-10 C for the next few days, which was beautiful as I could wander around comfortably in my shirtsleeves. I cannot say my opinion on the weather was exactly shared by the locals, most of whom were bundled up in parkas and toques (the following is translated from Canadian to English: "winter coats and woolen hats"). I think their attitude was best illustrated by a pair of women whom I stopped behind at an intersection waiting for the walk sign. I was in a t-shirt and carrying my windbreaker because I was quite comfortable, while the two of them were quite bundled up against the cold and I overheard one remark to the other "I can't believe how cold it is! I can't wait for it to warm up again, but they're saying its going to be in the 40s all week." For some reason they abruptly switched to a different topic when I passed them by.

As I alluded to in part 1 of this post, I have never been anywhere that is green in February. Now plenty of the trees had bare branches, and there patches of brown in the grass that spoke of it being winter, but it was still green. But besides that there were two things that struck me plainly on my first day in Austin.

The first was parking.

In the area of San Jancinto Blvd between 3rd and 6th, and east towards 290, downtown Austin is dotted with low and high-rise condo complexes, and if I might digress for a moment downtown Austin is a lovely place. It is open, populated, there are people out and about walking around throughout the day and well into the evening which may have something to do with 6th street. But people live in downtown Austin and it has a very friendly, clean, comfortable atmosphere to it from the short experience I had. I could easily picture living there, right in the heart of the city - something that I would be less inclined to do in my own city (Winnipeg). Now, I live near downtown Winnipeg and I have for nearly a decade, but always just outside of the true core area. In Austin I could easily live right in the core without a second thought.

What struck me though, was that every single parking garage or pad that I passed was locked up. There were no arms to block entrance, every one was locked behind a 6-foot metal fence and gate. Ok, there were a few public-access surface lots, but every private lot was fenced, gated, and monitored. Perhaps it was the section of the city I was in, but in my experience it was something to note.

The second just about scared the living bejeezus out of me.

The first evening that I was walking back to my hotel, the sun was setting and night was drawing close. Have you ever been suddenly accosted by a pack of wild demons from hell screeching in a chorus and hungry for your flesh? No? Are you sure? As I passed by a tree-lined side street on my walk, the entire line of them began shaking violently with an incredible cacophony of noise. After recovering from my unexpected heart attack I realized they were birds, an enormous flock of them that filled the trees in numbers unlike anything I've seen before. I later learned that I had a close encounter with what was likely an annoyance of grackles. If there has ever been a more appropriate name for a group of creatures, I haven't heard it.

My conference was being hosted at the Hilton Garden Inn Austin Downtown which I wasn't actually staying at, because of timing and funding it had no vacancy when I was booking a room. The hotel was a nice enough facility, but had one particularly unique feature.

And that would be the canal and walking paths that ran through it. The windows just on the left side of the photograph is the dining room where we had lunch which afforded a fantastic view of the canal and the paths that run along side it,

During the few days that I stayed I managed to dine at two of the most iconic... or should I say representative institutions in Austin. The first was of my own doing, I couldn't pass up visiting a gem of Texas history while I was here: The Driskill Hotel. The lobby is jaw-droppingly gorgeous, and the restaurant/bar is about as truly upper-crust Texas as any visitor could hope for from the beautifully polished woodwork, to the leather seating, and the bust of a steer that graces the wall above the mantle. It doesn't hurt that the food and drinks were fantastic as well, and though it was quiet (it was a Monday evening after all) a musician was busy plying his trade, singing sweet country songs on the small stage. I didn't take any pictures of the building while I was there, but a quick search will give you a good feel for it.

The second place was with all of the attendees at ICPE 2015 where we were treated to dinner and a show at a place that is true to the spirit of Austin: Esther's Follies. The show combining satire, political commentary, music, and magic was up-tempo and enormously entertaining. I gather that the edition that we saw was more international in appeal than previous ones as one of the local patrons made a comment that there was a lot less Austin-specific material than previous times they had been there. But, considering that our group of more than 100-odd people contained a majority of non-Americans (largely European, but it was very much a group that hailed from across the globe) the show was very well received, though I believe a few Rick Perry references went over their heads. The liberal leaning of the show's writers also seemed to agree quite well with our European friends.

(Part 3 will be coming soon!)

Thursday, May 21, 2015

ICPE 2015, City of Austin - Part 1

This post is all about my impressions of my trip to Austin TX for ICPE '15 and the city in general. I have covered details about the conference itself in other posts.
ICPE 2015, Getting Published with ACM, and Performance Management
Book Club - Foundations of Software and System Performance Engineering

Dear Austin Texas - your town motto seems incredibly appropriate. I'm not referring to your official motto of "Live Music Capital of the World", though that was abundantly evident as well, I mean the unofficial one "Keep Austin Weird."

Flying to Austin is weird. Flying to Austin on the afternoon of Superbowl Sunday on a plane that is running an hour late and half-filled with Texan transplants that know they aren't going to land before kickoff is more so. Especially for a true-blood Canadian who reserves such passion for games that don't prominently feature an attention hogging rhythm impaired southpaw shark.

But the weirdness started earlier than that. For a city that is the capitol of the largest state in the lower 48 and the second-largest population, a city that boasts an international reputation as a cultural hub, it is hard to get to. I only had two real options booking my flight from Winnipeg (YWG) to Austin (AUS) if I wanted to avoid an overnight layover (I did) or arriving late at night and risking a delay causing me to be late for the start of ICPE '15 on Monday morning (also yes). Since I was travelling on February 1st from Winnipeg, delays or cancellations were very much a possibility. The two options I did have were to leave at 6:30am (please arrive at the airport two hours before departure if you are flying internationally) with a 6 hour layover in Minneapolis (MSP) before arriving in the early afternoon. Or leave at 7:30am with short layovers (less than an hour) in Edmonton (YEG), and Los Angeles (LAX) before arriving at dinnertime.

In the interests of not flying a circuitous route around half the continent and potentially missing flights in two different airports, I chose the earlier departure. After arriving and puttering around the Minneapolis airport for a number of hours I went to my departure gate early where the staff let us know that the flight was going to be a half-hour late. Half an hour later it was now an hour late. Shortly after that when our original departure time arrived they let us know that although we were schedule to fly on Delta - someone along the way failed to realize that we would require an actual airplane in order to do so... and that they would try to find a new airplane to replace the non-existent one that we had been scheduled to fly on, but we would be facing further delays or possible cancellation.

Fun!

Fortunately they were able to discover an airplane in Wichita that we could use. I won't claim to understand the logistics of airline flight scheduling, but when the plane from Wichita arrived it proceeded to unload a full compliment of passengers. I'm not sure if the passengers were intending to come to Minneapolis, or if they were merely abducted in order to justify providing us with transportation, but either way - we had a plane, and one that managed to arrive in Austin less than half an hour ahead of the flight from LAX.

To give you a little context about my experience arriving in Austin, let me tell you a little about myself. I have never been "south". I've never traveled overseas, never been to Mexico, or Cuba, or on any kind of warm vacation. I've driven coast-to-coast in Canada, put my feet in the Pacific Ocean in Victoria BC, and in the Atlantic along the red sand beaches of PEI. But the absolute furthest south I have ever been is Gary Indiana - just at the very tip of Lake Michigan. I have never been anywhere that doesn't have snow in February. When I left home at 4-something in the morning in a sweater and a windbreaker the temperature was -26 C (windchill of -44 C) and when I arrived in Austin it was +23 C, an apparent difference of 67 C (or 120 F), a change roughly equivalent of that experienced by mall shoppers in Florida when they exit the building on a summer's day. In fact, the day before it was just as cold and I managed to snap a picture of the most brilliant sun dogs I have ever witnessed.



In Austin I stayed at the Hyatt Place Austin Downtown which is a beautiful hotel in the heart of downtown across from the Convention Center and just a few blocks from 6th street, congress avenue bridge, and easy walking distance to the Capitol. The accommodations were fantastic, the staff were wonderful (and one of whom I discovered was an expat from Winnipeg no less), and they put me on the top floor facing east which gave me an amazing view of the morning sunrise.



Upon my arrival, seeing that I was in Texas I heeded that age old proverb about the Romans - and I turned on the Super Bowl just in time to see the halftime show which proved to be more baffling than I expected. Alas, as I was busy doing my final preparations for ICPE I was watching it in my room while I worked, so I had no one to translate for me - but I gather that one of Katy Perry's dancing sharks was some kind of fortune teller that was predicting the apocalypse that would be brought about by an enormous lion? But I may have gotten that wrong. I did though appreciate the amazingly entertaining final 5 minutes of the 4th quarter (7 hours in real time) which was about as dramatic an ending to a game as I have ever seen. It's just a pity that Russell Wilson wasn't using the punctured bicycle tire that Brady was playing with or that last interception might not have happened.

Link to Part 2.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Book Club - Foundations of Software and System Performance Engineering

I recently received and am currently reading a copy of Foundations of Software and System Performance Engineering that I ordered through Amazon by AndrĂ© Bondi, a Senior Staff Engineer working in performance at Siemens Corp.

I had the good fortune of meeting AndrĂ© Bondi this year at ICPE '15 (which is where I learned about Foundations) and he was a fascinating, enthusiastic, and wonderful person to talk to. After I had presented my paper on Defining Standards for Web Page Performance, he approached me and we had a wonderful discussion about performance requirements and the perspective of the end-user and he had great things to say about the work that I was doing. His energy and interest in the subject was plainly obvious. It was a pure pleasure to have the opportunity to meet and talk with him.

As for Foundations, I haven't read very far into it yet, about 60 pages or so, but I have gone through and skimmed each section. This book is shaping up to be a fantastic resource and introductory guide to Performance Engineering. Since it is based on a training course that Dr. Bondi developed to train performance engineering and testing teams, I would expect no less. The book covers the entire software lifecycle from the perspective of how it connects with Performance Engineering as a practice, from requirements, to metrics, analysis, workloads, testing, instrumentation, and validation, and how they work within Agile environments and how to communicate and work with stakeholders on the project.

I won't write a complete review of Foundations yet as I still have much more to read, but I can be quite sure that this book is going to take a prominent place on my bookshelf, and play an important role while I am training my own performance engineering team.

Monday, May 11, 2015

BAWorld Winnipeg 2015 - Oct 7 - 9

The schedule for BA World Winnipeg 2015 taking place at the RBC Convention Centre from October 7th to 9th has just been released, and I have received notice that my seminar proposal has been accepted.

I will be presenting The Black Art of Performance Requirements for the Modern Web on October 8th at 2:15pm where I will be discussing the disconnect between what we believe the typical end user needs in terms of system performance, what they say they want, and what they actually need. This seminar is based upon a real-life case study and the contrast that it presented with "industry standards" for performance.

Some of the material is based upon a research paper that I presented at ICPE 2015 in Austin TX and is available online at the ACM Digital Library or MNP Media Library.

The complete session description is as follows:
Performance is a critical consideration in any project, many projects fail due to not only poor performance, but project teams that don’t give performance due consideration. Much of the reason is a lack of general understanding about how to define performance requirements, what makes a good performance requirement, and how to elicit co-operation to ensure they are met. The Black Art of Performance Requirements sheds light upon what end users want, what they think they want, and what they actually need. It examines the failings of industry standards, the reasons the results of industry studies fail to provide usable recommendations, and how to salvage value out of existing literature. High profile performance failures such as Healthcare.gov and Examsoft are neither accidental nor unavoidable. They are the result of failure to comprehend, failure to plan, and failure to commit to a set of defined performance requirements. Based on a real-world case study, The Black Art of Performance Requirements presents a process for defining SMART performance requirements in co-operation with business, developers, and analysts. Taking two years of production performance data and connecting with end-user performance complaints during that time frame, this session demonstrates the effectiveness of defining requirements using this process and explores how to objectively evaluate system performance against those requirements.

  1. Understand why users don't understand performance requirements, and learn how to define quality SMART performance requirements that will satisfy them anyway.
  2. Learn how to obtain buy-in from business, developers, and analysts for meeting performance targets and resolving performance problems.
  3. Learn how to measure, evaluate, and compare performance results against targets objectively.
For more information about performance requirements, testing, and how to improve your chances at project success, please see MNP Consulting - Performance Management

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

ICPE 2015, Getting Published with ACM, and Performance Management

It has been a busy year so far.

For much of 2014 I had been working on some research around Web Page Performance and understanding users expectations, what the industry believed about response times and how fast was 'fast enough', and how that compared to the real world. What I ended up finding is that much of the research that had been done in this field was, frankly, worthless. Oh, there were good points to be found, some useful results, and valuable nuggets to be unearthed - but on the whole most results drew conclusions that were being interpreted far to generally or their methodology was deeply flawed.

In short, there was a gaping hole that was asking to be filled. And the question was, how fast is 'fast enough'?

The most valuable conclusions I could glean from published works were as follows:

  1. Faster is better
  2. For systems that don't need to rely on real-time feedback, <1s is fast enough to be seamless for most request-response human-computer interactions be it locally or over the web
  3. People will happily wait longer if they are given responsive feedback while they are waiting
  4. Consistency is important
But from a practical perspective, what kind of performance level should I be aiming for? Is 5s fast enough? What about 3s? Is average response time sufficient, or do we need to use something stricter?

These kinds of questions led me to doing the research that eventually resulted in writing a paper that in September 2014 I submitted and was accepted by the International Conference on Performance Engineering (ICPE 2015).

That research paper is now officially available online at the MNP Library Defining Standards for Web Page Performance (also available via the ACM Digital Library with the following Citation Link).

In February of 2015 I then got to travel to Austin TX to present my paper at the conference. I will post my thoughts about the conference and the trip in an upcoming post, but in short it was a wonderful experience, I got to meet a lot of amazing people, the presentations were fantastic and I learned quite a bit.

Now, I am pursuing expanding our service offerings as part of MNP's Technology Consulting Team by officially introducing Performance Management.

Performance Management is all about improving the success rate of projects with a technology component. Performance is often a consideration that exists only as an afterthought on projects, something that can be taken care of after the important functional work has been completed. That very thinking has led to some spectacular failures in the real world notably including the 2014 Examsoft debacle, the 2013 launch of Healthcare.gov, the 2008 Edinburgh Fringe Festival ticketing system failure, and the 2007 scrapping of the new UK General Register Office System.

Performance Management is about planning for success, it is about helping organizations invest in quality and avoid making the mistakes of the past. This is something that has become a bit of a passion of mine, a purpose, and I intend to spend a lot more time using this space to talk about performance in the future.