Jun 07

Design Patterns

This week I finished reading Head First Design Patterns – a book that covers classic ways of structuring software code to solve real-world problems. It’s a great book, so much so it has made it on to the Univex Software list of Required Reading, alongside others. Not surprisingly, like the other two books, HFDP teaches you things that they just don’t teach at programming school. Few Australian software engineering students would cover design patterns in lectures. Even less would consciously employ them in some way. Yet they make for easier to understand and maintain code. The world, especially Open Source projects, would be better off if more programmers learnt these patterns and shared them with peers.

The problem of course is we do not know, what we don’t know. How are you supposed to know about design patterns if you have never heard the term before?

That’s where self study comes in to play. It doesn’t matter if you are a software developer, a business director or a support technician. You need to actively engage in self-development, getting out there seeing new things and meeting people, participating in groups of various kinds or simply keeping up to date with developments in your industry via news feeds and blog posts. If you claim you have no time then you must make time. You never know what gems you might find!

Apr 26

Online Gift Voucher Management Software

Last week we officially released our latest product: an online gift voucher management system. This software activates cards, lets deposits be taken, redemptions taken, and report on activity. This software is designed for enterprises with a number of different Point of Sale systems, in which integrating a gift card solution across all software systems would be difficult (if not impossible).

There is no need for extra POS or EFTPOS terminals, or bringing in any expensive 3rd party infrastructure. The software runs through a web browser and is responsive to mobile devices, so it looks great whether running on a desktop, a tablet, or a phone.

User security can limit who can perform what activity with the cards. Management can run reports on gift card activity and how cards are used across various businesses within their organisation.

As with all of our products we integrated this in to other Univex products. You can sign people up to your email list as the gift voucher is activated. Their email address is sent straight to the bulk email system to receive the next mailout.

This new software is part of our bigger move towards web-based software systems. We are building smaller apps that integrate together, while helping us develop the underlying technologies needed to build larger and more complex software. We aren’t abandoning desktop software – rather we are enhancing it with modern, browser-based extensions and modules that give a lot more flexibility to our customers.

 

 

Mar 01

The Extra Mile

For many wholesalers and retailers, the computer companies they deal with are a burden. They know they need the software and hardare to run their business, but are constantly being told ‘no’ by their software vendor. They hear things such as…

  • We don’t do that
  • We can’t sell you that
  • That costs extra
  • We won’t fix that bug
  • That’s not our problem, talk to your hardware provider

…and that is if you asked. When was the last time you asked MYOB to program in a new feature? or Microsoft to fix a bug? You would not waste your time because you already know the answer you will receive.

When our customers experience someone completely different, such as Univex, they begin realising that there is a better way. We don’t pass the buck to other vendors: we assume the problem is ours until all avenues have been explored. We fix the bugs, and we deliver features. A lot of them, every month, included in the support fees. Even when the problem isn’t ours and we can’t fix it we help our customers find the right person and what to say to them, and follow up to make sure the problem is resolved.

We are not the cheapest on price, in fact we would be considered a premium option, but our customers get tremendous value out of our relationship.

At the end of the day we care, and both our staff and customers know it.

 

Feb 08

Start Your Melbourne Startup With Univex

In the last few weeks and months there has been an increasing number of new Meetup groups formed on the topic of starting a business and entrepreneurship. The last month I might have seen ten or more new groups formed. There is no doubt that this is a hot careers topic especially amongst under-35s, and those interested in tech businesses.

Many will never get their ideas off the ground due to motivational or financial constraints. The problem is rarely technical or lack of information. The Internet is bursting with knowledge on how to do just about anything. So is there a better way? Yup! We have been doing it for years here at Univex.

If you are starting your first business you don’t have to do it alone. Many organisations foster the growth of startup-like ventures, even large corporates. Opportunities are not going to be advertised on Seek so you will need to build your network and ask around.

Within an umbrella organisation you can build your new product and have access to office space, technical know-how, business leadership, and support functions such as accounting and administration. Sometimes (as in many projects here at Univex) you are able to earn an income while you develop your product. Some of the issues you need to consider and balance against each other when evaluating these opportunities are:

  • Who owns the equity and in what proportions?
  • How is the profit shared?
  • Is income required to be reinvested or can you cash it out?
  • Who is managing the business? Just you or others?
  • If things don’t work out what happens to the intellectual property (IP)?

The problem is not maximizing each of the above – you are surely likely to end up with nothing if you are stubborn and refuse to negotiate. Rather the problem is finding the right balance to suit your wants and desires. Maybe equity is more important than take-home cash? or perhaps having mentors around to keep you in check is more important than anything else? That’s what you need to work out.

And when you have worked it out, and want some help, drop me an email. I would love to find out what you are doing and keep in touch.

Jan 18

Checklists

I think you will find a lot of software developers, and engineers in general, like making lists. It is in our DNA. Systems are complex, and systems talking to other systems can be diabolical. Increasingly it seems you just can’t remember it all.

So it is with no surprise that here at Univex we have lists for all sorts of processes: building software, writing components, deploying web sites, setting up interfaces to other software systems, new staff member induction, and on it goes. These help us deliver consistent results under different conditions.

We even had an instruction sheet on how to cook hot dogs in the office. Yes, Hot dogs! No matter how trivial a job seems there is bound to be somebody new, at some stage in the future, who doesn’t quite know what the standard is and how to achieve it. Having it written down (rather than floating in somebody’s memory) will accelerate the ramp-up stage for staff, and goes hand-in-hand with our values of never stop learning. I’m glad to report we have not had any burst hot dog incidents for many years now.

We put everything in an internal wiki that allows anyone to correct or improve the processes as they see fit. No “change review board”, no getting permission from your boss, if you see a list or process that needs fixing you have all the authority and responsibility to just get in there and fix it. This has facilitated rapid improvement year after year.

Even if you are an individual contributor, in some organisation big or small, there is always opportunity to start documenting your job. One day you might be asked to train somebody. Remember you can’t be promoted unless you have a replacement! All you need is an Evernote folder, a collection of Word files, or even just dot points in text files. Write down what the task is, what the standard is (quality, time, end result), and steps to achieve it. This might not be 100% accurate on a first revision but you are well on your way to making life easier for you in the future.

Dec 18

A Load Off Our Shoulders

Have you ever completed a major undertaking and finally thought whew! that’s a massive load off our shoulders!

For us that came last week with the final version of our software to run on Windows 2000 computers, and dropping Delphi 7 as our programming environment. We still continue to develop our Windows software in Delphi on newer (and stable!) versions. We also managed to upgrade old customer computers from Windows 2000 with just one more to complete next month. But that’s enough technical talk for this blog post.

What projects are you working on that you need to complete? What’s dragging you back that if you could fix, would be a massive load off YOUR shoulders?

We constantly ask ourselves these questions and work hard at becoming a better organisation for ourselves and our customers. The problems we are trying to solve aren’t easy, but we love the challenge, and best of all the rewards. No time to relax though. We are already deep in to our next endeavour to keep delivering the best POS and business management software out there!

Nov 16

More Small Things

Just reminiscing over some of the small things that made it in to this month’s upgrade:

  • Emails to customers when they place an order on our e-commerce system, complete with customised content and pictures of the products they purchased,
  • Emails on dispatch of orders with links to the courier to track delivery,
  • Taking of settlement figures taken by the EFTPOS pin pads and copying them straight in to backoffice reconciliation of the day’s takings,
  • Automatic POS settlement if staff forgot or ran out of time,
  • Faster customer name searching on POS (especially when you have 100,000+ customers), faster Time and Attendance downloading, faster Payroll processing,
  • More promotional pricing options, to restrict specials to select ranges of customers,
  • and more!

We are on track to get our 12th major upgrade out early next month. All tested and delivered of course without our customers having to mess about with downloads or CDs.

Nothing out of the ordinary for us. Just a great product built and delivered by people who care about having a great outcome for everyone!

 

Nov 02

You Gotta Keep Pushing

There is a natural tendency in many organisations to stay at the status quo. Do what ever you have done before because that’s how we do it around here. This is especially true of established businesses that have reached a critical mass of customers to operate.

Many businesses (and individuals) drift along as if management is asleep at the wheel. As the vehicle approaches the ditch on the side of the road the steering wheel judders, and management pulls the business back in to safety before a probable catastrophe. Things are good for a short while but quickly deteriorate before another close call and the business jolts itself out from disaster again. The cycle continues. Not always dramatic but the same concept.

This could be an failing operational behaviour, a sales behaviour, a financial behaviour, or something else. Some people call it the “saw tooth” effect where you are just hovering above zero but not making any great progress or growth.

Things do not have to be this way. You can make the change, but it isn’t easy. You gotta keep pushing – through apathy, through self-doubt, through the challenges you face. Rarely is there a quick fix. Sometimes the challenge is personal, not organisational, and you need to escape that ‘funk’ you are in. Nobody else is going to do it for you.

If you are employed one of the things you need to consider is the organisation that surrounds you. Are managers pushing to grow business? Is there a vision being promoted for a better life? Or are you just pumping out much the same product month after month with incremental improvements to keep existing customers happy?

 

If you want to be challenged we are always on the lookout for talented, smart, capable and motivated people to join our team. Feel free to get in touch with us, even just to say ‘hi’, and see if there is an opportunity here to help you build your professional career.

 

Oct 26

Welcome Bootstrap!

We have added Bootstrap to our list of technologies employed in our new web systems. Like AngularJS this lets simplifies our code and do some pretty nifty GUI tricks in the browser.

Things are starting to look pretty darn good. Pictures coming soon I hope!

Sep 30

Is Your Disaster Recovery Plan Up To Date?

Last week we had a rather spectacular server crash here in the office.

Long story short; our VMWare ESXi server started raising errors, and virtual machines started failing. After numerous hardware changes we think we narrowed the problem to the disk controller. Testing this week will prove it.

Although we have various disaster recovery plans in place, we missed a few key ingredients that would have helped speed up the recovery process:

  • We did not have a systematic process for diagnosing the error; one that tested each piece of hardware independently and quickly to narrow down the problem to an individual component.

    This is crucial when there is no redundancy in the system, such as another PC of similar performance that we could move all our virtual machines to.

  • We did not have hardware spares for everything, nor did we have listed where to purchase some spares from if we need them in a hurry.
  • 2 Terabytes of disk takes a long time to copy…. and even longer when the data is stored on a file system such as VMFS, and you do not have any spare ports on the controller for a disk-to-disk copy. Copies had to be done over the network. Excessive copying of data around delayed our eventual success at getting systems running again.
  • Worst of all, VMFS has an over-clever file locking system that can prevent files being accessed if they are locked. Sounds great? But the locking is persistent even if the entire system is powered down and up again! Tools to test and fix the file system were virtually non-existent. Needless to say we won’t be using that file system ever again. That was a poor choice of technology that works great, until something goes wrong.

Over the next week we are revising all the infrastructure we operate, in the office, in data centres, and on site at customers, and updating our plans!

 

Thankfully for our customers they do not need to go in to the level of planning that we do. The equipment on site is not nearly as complex. In any event, Univex is often maintaining the hardware so they do not need to learn and retain the technological expertise for recovery.

 

But even if you aren’t running a Univex system, when was the last time you checked your plan?

Even for your home PC or personal laptop – do you know what you will do if something fails? Who to call? Where to get parts at the right price with fast delivery?

Have you at least got a data backup system, test that it is working, and know how to restore everything?

 

Too many people skate on thin ice, hoping that it doesn’t break underneath them. Don’t be one of them! Take control of your future, write down all the things that could fail with your IT gear and a few words on what you will do if or when it does fail. Your time is too precious to bumble around with recovery when a little forethought can save you many hours of frustration!

 

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