Somewhere in the overlap between software development, process improvement and psychology

junk, rants and opinions

Why getting #aws certified is different and worthwhile

I’ve done a bunch of professional certifications over the years in processes, languages and technologies. Usually because someone else wanted me to or was paying me to. Generally, I don’t think certifications are worth the paper they’re printed on as they rarely seem to be indicators of real world experience.

As an example, look at Certified Scrum Master. First you have to go on a mandatory 2-day in-person course taught by another CSM that cost around $1000 (pyramid scheme anyone?) and then correctly answer 24 out of 35 questions (68%) in an open-book google-able test.

Personally, I found AWS certification different. First, I did it for myself, because I wanted to. But most importantly, it’s quite cheap, and quite difficult.

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AWS certification has no mandatory course and has closed-book, offline tests that cost $150. So it’s significantly cheaper, and having done them myself, I don’t think it’d be possible to pass with purely theoretical knowledge – the emphasis is on practical understanding, not theory. The questions are nicely technical, often with many correct answer where the point is to choose the “best” answer, not just one that’s factually correct. They don’t publish the pass mark, instead there’s a bell curve that you’ve got to be ahead of (but forums indicate it’s around 75%)

Personally I recommend using an online training provider (my favourite is acloud.guru) and then doing some free (!) labs, courses and tutorials on the main AWS site.

Interestingly I was getting job offers within an hour of getting certified almost a year ago!

I enjoyed doing it so much I’m going to do another one at this year’s AWS Re:invent conference 🙂

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My Alexa skill is now live in the UK

Every month at my kung fu club, Chi Wai Kung Fu in Cheltenham UK, there’s a series of strikes of the month that are on rotation for extra attention. Also there’s a rotating black belt syllabus. It’s not the easiest thing in the world to remember all of these details, and whether or not you need to take a bo staff or set of escrima sticks to the club. So, I thought I’d write an Alexa skill to remind me 🙂

chiwai_alexa_out.png

If you’re into Alexa in the UK, then join my UK Facebook group, it’s got over 4,500 members:

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The basic skill is pretty simple, interrogating an array and returning the requested information. Getting it certified was a bit more fiddly because I wanted to use a single word invocation name “chiwai” which is against the rules normally, and because it’s a trademark infringement if it’s not official. Of course, in this case it was official as I developed it on behalf of the club. The Amazon skill dev support team were very helpful so now it’s live 🙂

Here’s a video of it in action:

 

To get it, if you’re in the UK, just say “Alexa, enable Chi Wai“.

You can also search for “ChiWai” in the Alexa app, or install direct from Amazon.co.uk.

You can then ask it questions like “what are the strikes of the month” or go a step further and say “what are the strikes of the month for October” or “what’s the black belt element in February”. Because of the way Alexa works, voice recognition on those second questions is greatly improved if you first start the skill by saying “Alexa, talk to Chi Wai” and then ask them. You can directly ask by saying “Alexa, ask Chi Wai for the …” but it’s not quite so accurate.

Also, try “Alexa, tell Chi Wai, Zoon Ching” 🙂

The code is on github here: https://github.com/macmike/chiwai-alexa-strikes


Chi Wai Kung Fu @ Cheltenham now with extra tech!

kung_fu_cats.pngFor over 6 years now I’ve been going to Chi Wai Kung Fu! A few years ago I achieved a lifelong ambition to become a Black Belt in Kung Fu. Now I’m a second Dan and a brown belt in Dacayana Eskrima as a bonus!

Chi Wai is great, my whole family go there 🙂
My two boys started when they were little and now are both black belts. It’s done them a huge amount of good, it’s far more than just self-defense (and that’s important by enough to justify it). They’ve learned respect, discipline, control, confidence and a positive attitude founded in the fact that they’ve worked hard at something to achieve their goals. me_sifu.jpgNot always achieving first time, but through persistence and hard work they’ve got there in the end! There’s a saying that a “Black belt is just a white belt that never gave up”, that’s something they’ve learned from Chi Wai.

My wife even does Kung Fu, and is heading towards her black belt this year. As a result I’m running out of wall space to hold all of our certificates. I’m also finding home practice sessions hurt a lot more!

The Chi Wai system mixes traditional kung fu with practical self-defence including weapons and group
attacks. Because the club has a full time dojo there’s lessons for separate age groups every day (except for Sunday, even ninjas need a rest).

It’s a great family run club with a genuine family atmosphere. It’s friendly and welcoming and manages to keep that positive environment consistently. A lot of that is down to the excellent instructors but it’s also down to the people and families that train there.

chiwai_family.jpgIt’s fantastic to have a family activity where we can all be at different levels, but all encourage each other and train together as the kids get older. As my eldest son’s gone from little kid to adult sized teenager he’s now fighting with the adults and enjoys putting me in arm locks in Black Belt lessons 🙂

If you’re in the Cheltenham, UK area then get yourself, your kids and your auntie to Chi Wai Kung Fu! You can even ask Amazon Alexa about it:

Or learn how to do the intro bow from my buddy the modelling guy:

 

 


Amazon Alexa – what it needs to do next

I’m a big fan of Amazon Alexa. I bought a dot to experiment with and it’s so useful I have it in several rooms now. Alexa can control my smart lighting (courtesy of lightwaverf kit), play music, order food, order some amazon stuff, manage my shopping and to-do lists amongst other things, but she’s got a few drawbacks.

Here’s what I’d like to see Alexa tackle next:

  1. Conversation flow – the ability to add contextual follow up questions, without every command being “Alexa, do a thing…” It sounds trivial but when you’re having entire conversations with Alexa it’s a bit weird to have to use the wake word for every sentence.
  2. Multiple commands in one e.g. “Alexa, turn on the kitchen lights and start playing the cooking playlist” rather than “Alexa, turn on the kitchen lights” and “Alexa, start playing the cooking playlist”
  3. Unstructured search – Alexa’s great at facts but Amazon have decided not to make her opinionated.  She’s great at “what is a hoover?” and “what is 12 miles in kilometres?”.
    1. She can answer: “Who played harry potter in harry potter and the philosopher’s stone?”
    2. But can’t do things like “who played Harry Potter in the movies”. In contrast google can answer that question with a quick snippet about the cast. I read a blog that said they didn’t want to make a decision for users about simply returning the first search hit rather than making an informed choice – but if I’m making a voice search that’s exactly what I want. If I want to get a range of views and select my search result I’ll use a text interface. Returning “cards” with links to Bing isn’t good enough – just read me the top hit from <insert search engine here>
  4. Intercom – I want to be able to send a voice message from one Alexa device to another to create an intercom system in my house (e.g. “Alexa, send a message to the living room telling the kids to turn the TV volume down”)
  5. Delayed reminders – Alexa’s good at setting alarms but I want her to remind me with a message not just beeping (e.g. “Alexa, at 6pm remind me it’s time to order a taxi”). At the moment, that sentence will result in “Time to order a taxi” on the to do list. Or I can set an alarm for 6pm which beeps. I want a voice message at a specific time.
  6. Alarms – play music not just beeps. (e.g. “Alexa, wake me up at 7am with my Spotify Wake Up playlist”)
  7. Local DLNA integration. Alexa’s great at streaming music from the internet but doesn’t currently see home DLNA music as a streaming source. Which is odd, I can see how to program a skill to do discovery (similar to the current smart home discovery, or just built into that) and the rest is the same. Amazon, if you read this I’ll do it for you at a reasonable price.
  8. Chromecast e.g. Alexa, play Netflix: Game of Thrones”
  9. Order a Dominos. Yep, I know it can do this in the US so why not in the UK? Dominos allow ordering via chatbot in Facebook Messenger so this is easy to do from a coding point of view. Dominos, if you’re listening…
  10. IFTTT integration. C’mon Amazon, IFTTT say they’re waiting for you do to something. This unlocks millions of possibilities.
  11. Add things to my Amazon Wish List e.g. “Alexa, add a Raspberry Pi to my Amazon wish list” only adds it to my (local) shopping list.
  12. Remove things from todo or shopping lists by voice. Also, email me my lists.
  13. Custom volume schedules. In the morning I want Alexa to be nice and quiet, in the evening I want her volume to be a lot higher. Perhaps what I really need is her to automatically adjust her volume based on the ambient noise. After all she’s listening all the time anyway.
  14. Proactive notification. I realise it would be annoying if any skill could push notifications to my Alexa (I don’t want random ads being spoken in my house) but I’d like to be able to whitelist some apps so I can get alerts at certain times of day from specific apps (e.g. order status on ordered food, package tracking, breaking news, birthday reminders).
  15. I want a big Echo with a screen for my kitchen too.

I realise many of these are about integrating outside of the Amazon ecosystem which is perhaps why they’ve been reluctant to do so. But with Google Home, an MS and Apple assistants turning up soon the winner is likely to be the most useful all round. At the moment that’s Alexa, but by being more open to integrations it’ll be hard to beat.

What do you want Alexa to be able to do?


Make space history: Lunar Mission One is almost a go!

Lunar Mission One is a kickstarter project to to send an unmanned robotic landing module to the South Pole of the Moon – an area unexplored by previous missions. It’s almost reached it’s funding target, only 60k to go out of 600k needed.

I think this mission is inspiring and important. It’s a chance for ordinary people to be part of space history. Increasingly governments are less willing to fund space science so maybe it’s up to us. Do we care enough about space science to fund it, by maybe £3 or 5$? The average funding for Lunar Mission One has so far been about £89 but that doesn’t mean that £1 isn’t useful.

Space science is the greatest example of humanity trying to understand the universe and our existence. It’s the basis of so much progress both in science and practical at-home stuff like:

  • Your (or your friends) glasses
    • Since the 1970s eyeglasses have been made of plastic instead of glass – less prone to breaking and shattering, cheaper, better at UV absorbtion and lighter. Of course plastic glasses scratched more easily, until NASA based coatings invented for astronaut helmet visors are now used
  • Satellite Navigation/GPS
    • Seriously, this one shouldn’t even need explaining!
    • Oh yeah, and satellite tv, global comunications etc.
  • Cordless tools
    • Things like cordless drills, vacuum cleaners etc. based on science developed for the moon programme
  • Memory foam, medical LED usage, blood pumps, automatic defibrillator, ear thermometers, smoke detectors, water filters, etc.

I think it’s important that we support space science. Supporting Lunar Mission One means you could have a bit of you sent to the moon to hang around for millions if not billions of years. That’s unlikely to happen on Earth. More importantly you’d be expressing a desire to explore our environment, our solar system, our existence and in turn our nature. I think that’s worth a little money from all of us.

Lunar Mission One is a global project, please support it and get it past it’s initial funding goal so it can be a reality.

Yep, this is me in front of a space rocket

Me in front of the Atlantis launch rocket

Me in front of the Atlantis launch rocket

 


Collective nouns for software development roles

An embarrassment of Project Managers

An impasse of Architects

A confusion of Business Analysts

A mob of Developers

A silo of Testers

A brethren of Scrum Coaches

A waste of Lean Consultants

A conspiracy of Process Improvement Consultants

People are important, not roles! But recently I saw a weekly team meeting for a project that had 12 project managers! I thought it was a joke at first.

Can you think of any others?


Wrote some REST code to access a site’s API and saw a job offer in the response

What an excellent way to advertise directly to your target audience 🙂

I was writing some code to get some info from a site from their REST api and saw an unusual header in the response from the API which said something along the lines of “if you’re reading this come and get a job” with a link. The clever thing about this is that it’s already only filtered in people who already have the right skills that the company is looking for and it was unusual enough for me to immediately follow the link. Excellent innovative recruitment!

And the site? wordpress.com although it’s changed now to “Oh, Awesome: Opossum”

I’m a big fan of wordpress.com for a number of reas0ns. First they host my blog, for free. Second the authoring experience is always awesome opossum.