Does MacGyver Dream of Mark Miller?

For Christmas this year my family gave me a copy of MacGyver, Season 1 and 2 on DVD. My wife’s side of the family gave me a gift card which I used to get seasons 3 & 4. I’m a long time MacGyver fan, but my wife had only seen one or two episodes and my kids had never seen it at all, so we’ve been having a lot of fun watching. My favorite part of the series was the voice-overs, where you’d hear MacGyver’s voice as he explained what he was doing. It always started with some odd thought or story that led you through the thought process of how he came to the conclusion to build whatever wacky life saving device he was constructing.

I’ve come to realize in some ways these blog entries are sort of like the MacGyver voice-overs, my inner thoughts being created for you on the web. So I hope you’ll bear with me a few minutes while I relate a rather bizarre dream I had last night.

In my dream I’m standing on stage, in front of a fully loaded computer. It has all the bells and whistles, VS2008, SQL Server, and so on. On the other side of the stage, Mark Miller is there, in front of a similar computer. For those unfamiliar with Miller, he’s the genius behind CodeRush and RefactorPro, tools to help you write code faster. Some time back, when the product was first released Miller used to challenge the audience to beat him in a code writing contest. His machine had CodeRush, and he would use chopsticks to write code, his competitor could use their fingers but did not have CodeRush on their machine. Of course Mark always won.

So sure enough, in my dream there’s Miller, chopsticks in hand ready to go, and I’m the guy going up against him. Our task is to take data from table A1, create a mirror table and name it table A2, and then move all million rows from A1 into A2. As you might guess, in my dream, I win. How?

Well I didn’t write a program. Instead I first jumped into SQL Server Management Studio (SSMS) and used its script generating capability to produce a create table script. Make a quick search and replace and boom I’ve got table A2 created. I then jump over to the Business Intelligence Developer Studio (BIDS) to create a SQL Server Integration Services (SSIS) package to do the data move. (Yes, I probably could have used the script generation of SSMS again to generate an Insert script, but I was showing off.) In about three to four minutes I had accomplished the task and moved all the data while Miller was pecking away at computer with his chopsticks.

I didn’t win because I’m a hot shot coder who is smarter than my competitor. Miller is a (some say mad) genius who can run circles around me in the coding world. As I told the folks in my dream, and I’m telling you now sometimes the best solution to a programming challenge isn’t to program at all! If you read yesterday’s post, Straining at Gnats, you may recall I said “…take some time. Push back from your computer and think for a moment. Think what the true outcome of your application is supposed to be. Not “what will the program do” but “what will the program do for the user???” Think about how best to achieve the user’s goals.

When you are thinking about solutions, take a minute to look outside of your favorite programming language. Is it possible to achieve the goal without writing any code at all? What tool or tools do you have in your tool box that you can combine to get the job done? Here’s a great example that happened to me just before I took off on my holiday vacation.

As I’ve mentioned before at work we have a Business Intelligence (BI) app I work as the lead on, it imports data to a SQL Server 2005 warehouse via SSIS then uses SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS) to generate reports. The data is imported from a work order management system we bought many years ago. We also have some engineers who have a tiny little Microsoft Access database. This database has a primary key column; we’ll call it a part number for purposes of this example. There are three more columns, some data they need to know for each part but are not found in our big system. They’d like to add this data to the reports our BI app generates. Two last pieces of information, they only update this data once per quarter. Maybe. The last few years they have only done 3 updates a year. Second, the big system I mentioned is due to be replaced sometime in the next two years with a new system that will have their three fields.

A lot of solutions presented themselves to me. Write an ASP.Net app, with a SQL Server back end then use SSIS to move the data. Elegant, but a lot of work, very time consuming for a developer, especially for something that can go away in the near future. Write an SSIS package to pull data from Access? Risky, since we had no control over the Access database. A user could rename columns or move the database all together, in either case trashing the SSIS. Several other automation solutions were considered and rejected, before the final solution presented itself: not to automate at all.

Once per quarter I’ll simply have the engineers send me their Access database. Microsoft Access has a nice upsizing wizard that will move the table to SQL Server, I’ll use that to push the data onto the SQL Server Express that runs on my workstation. I’ll then use the script generating capability of SSMS to make an Insert script for the data. Add a truncate statement to the top to remove the old data and send it to the DBA to run. When I ran through it the first time my total time invested was less than ten minutes. In a worst case scenario I spend 40 minutes a year updating the data so it’s available for reporting. That’s far, far less time that I would have spent on any other solution.

The next time you have a coding challenge, take a moment to “think like MacGyver”. Look at all the tools you have lying around your PC and see what sort of solutions you can come up with. Once you are willing to step outside the comfort zone of your favorite coding language, you may be able to come up with some creative, MacGyver like solutions to your user’s problems.

 

PS – If you missed the announcement while on vacation, DevExpress just released CodeRush / RefactorPro 3.0. More than 150 refactorings and lots of new CodeRush features! Update yours today.

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3 Responses to “Does MacGyver Dream of Mark Miller?”

  1. infixum Says:

    On an annual eval a boss once chastised me saying, “If I told five of you to go up to the top of the mountain (there is a road up it), you would be the one to mountain climb up the side.” My response was, “Yeah, but then I would know how to mountain climb where the others wouldn’t.”
    He was talking about programming. Learning and having skills is good, but SQL 2000/2005/presumably 2008 make so many things so easy, your return on time investment is best using the MS tools. It’s those times where you absolutely have to roll your own solution where you’re glad you know how to code. It’s a balancing act.

  2. Al Says:

    What’s up?. Thanks a bunch for the blog. I’ve been digging around looking some info up for shool, but there is so much out there. Google lead me here – good for you i guess! Keep up the great information. I will be coming back over here in a couple of days to see if there is updated posts.


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