Friday, February 01, 2013

IT stories from the trenches #2

The year was 1996. I was a graduate student in CS at USC. My first contact with Unix (I had started my career as a programmer in C++ under DOS and later Windows 3.1; yes, I am dating myself big time here!). My first task as a research assistant was to recompile the X server so it can use shared memory extensions. This was part of an experiment that was studying multimedia applications over a high speed proprietary network.

I started optimistically. I got acquainted with the compilers and linkers on the HP-UX platform we were using, I learned all kinds of neat Unix command line utilities, but there was only one glitch -- the X binary wouldn't compile. I tried everything in my power. I even searched on Altavista (no Google in 1996). Nothing worked. Finally, I posted a plea for help on A gentle soul by the name of Kaleb Keithley replied first on that thread, then on separate email threads (I was using pine as my email client at the time) and nudged me towards the solution to my issue. It turns out that the X server's frame buffer was not supported on that particular HP workstation where I was trying to compile it. I tried immediately on another type of HP workstation and everything worked like a charm. This was almost 3 months after I started on this project.

Lesson learned? Don't give up. It's a very unpleasant feeling to bang your head against a wall, but in my experience, I noticed over and over again that it's absolutely the best way to learn a new technology or tool. In my case, I knew Unix commands and the Unix development toolchain pretty well at the end of those 3 months. Just persevere in the face of that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach that another day has passed and you haven't made much progress. There will be an EUREKA moment, I guarantee it.

Another lesson learned: ask for help early and often. These days it's probably on IRC that you would help most quickly, but between IRC, Stack Exchange, Google Groups and Twitter, chances are somebody had already seen the problem you're facing.

As a side note, when you do find a solution to a long-standing problem, do everybody a favor and blog about it. Most often than not, I find solutions to my technical problems by reading blog posts. Even if they bring me only 80% of the way to a solution, it's a huge help.

For the curious, here's a PDF of the paper that resulted from my X server experiments.

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