Friday, 24 February 2012

Are web designers the new car mechanics?

Websites are easier to make than most people think. Bear this in mind when a website designer wants a hefty payment.

A joke, obviously. But does this sales pitch work in IT?

Advance warning: this post is another moan. Up to now, I’ve had two pet hates: people who sign up to wildly optimistic cheap/convenient IT projects that turn out to be unreliable and expensive; and at the other end, people who block trivially easy IT projects because of silly overblown cost estimates. I’d forgotten the third type. But we’ll get on to that later.

This story begins with my website – you know, the one in my shameless plug masquerading as a piece on Search Engine Optimisation. Well, my web traffic is still quite abysmal, in spite of pushing up the Google rankings. But from the few people who’ve looked at the site, I’m quite likely to set up a website for an arts organisation, which I’m happy to do as a freebie; and if all goes well I may get some paid work off the back of that. And in this scenario, the obvious question is: how much should I ask to be paid?

The thing is, there’s nothing special about my web design knowledge. What I created for myself was technically very basic (I was using a free web template and Kompozer if anyone's wondering). I’d rate my skills above those of a 13-year-old who has discovered FrontPage – I do at least understand the importance of Cascading Style Sheets, W3C compliance and not doing fancy animated backgrounds – but ask me to produce a site that handles user-uploaded content, streaming video or credit card payments and I wouldn’t have a clue. And yet paltry offerings to the interweb like mine seem to be regarded as the height of technical genius.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Give penguins a chance

Would switching to open source software save public money? I don’t know, but we should at least try to find out.

The Windows logo versus the Linux mascot. A little-known but very bloody feud.

I know software testing is a very absorbing activity, but in between bouts of testing you might have noticed there’s a bit of a financial crisis going on. As tax rises, benefit cuts and axing public services don’t go down that well with the public, the government is keen to find less painful ways of saving money. This, in part, was the idea behind the Spending Challenge letters that went out to all public sector workers shortly after the 2010 election asking for ideas to save money. The ideas ranged from the pragmatic to the ridiculous, but one suggestion that caught my eye was to switch proprietary software for free open-source alternatives. This is not an unthinkable as you might expect; the Lib Dem manifesto said they’d look into this, and George Osborne himself is said to be interested.

I’ll be open and upfront here: I use Linux, LibreOffice (effectively the successor to OpenOffice) and other free open-source products wherever possible. It’s partly I don’t want to pay for software when free stuff does the job, and partly because I have problems with the way Microsoft uses its dominant position to make life difficult for people who use competitors’ products. But I don’t believe in imposing my views on other people, and I’ll help out with any IT problems whatever software they’re using. (Indeed, a software tester who doesn’t is a short-lived one.) I wouldn't push savings too much with a charity (Microsoft usually heavily discounts software for them). I’d also be hesitant to encourage a small business to switch to open-source when everyone they work with expects them to do all things Microsoft. The public sector does not have that problem – they mostly communicate with each other, and they’re big and ugly enough to insist anyone else works with their software if they wish – but any move away from Microsoft or any other proprietary software must save the public money, and not just be done to prove a point.