Stories from the Field, #2: The customer is not always right

(note: all “Stories from the Field” are true, thinly anonymized to protect the -usually- guilty)

Project Manager: Hi Jim and team, we need a new version of our product with this and that new feature.

Team: Sure, but it’ll need a bit more memory on our customers’ computers.

PM: No worries, our customers have more than adequate computers already.

Team: Hmmmokey

Team: (codes)

Team: (tests)

Team: It’s ready and has passed our internals tests successfully.

Team: Now it’s time to go and test it on a few customers just to be safe, like we did last time.

PM: Yeah about that.

Team: WHAT NOW THIS IS A GOOD THING

PM: No no no don’t get me wrong, our customers loved it.

PM: In fact they loved it so much that they have been asking for it.

PM: Jim can you talk to Sales? They’ll tell you some great customers to test with.

Jim: (makes the rookie mistake and calls Sales)

Sales: Oh hi so happy to hear you.

Jim: Really? You usually complain about how our product is a piece of shit.

Sales: AAAAHAHAHAFUNNY no really I’m totally happy to hear you.

Sales: I’ve got a totally great customer you can test the new version with.

Sales: Who is totally not a cheapskate bloodsucking asshole.

Sales: You should totally call him.

Jim: I have a bad feeling about this.

Jim: (calls customer)

Totally Not A Cheapskate Customer: Oh hi happy to hear you, you’re supposed to give me free product to resell to my customers right?

Jim: NO NOT AT ALL we need to test our product and therefore 1) yes you get something for free but 2) be aware that your computers need to have more memory and 3) it’s still being tested which means DO NOT CHARGE YOUR CUSTOMERS FOR IT AND PLEASE TELL THEM THIS MIGHT NOT WORK.

Totally Not A Cheapskate Customer: Yada yada yada so I get free stuff great see you on Thursday bye.

Jim: (has a very bad feeling about this)

Jim and a Teammate: (show up early)

Jim and a Teammate: (start installing the new version on the Totally Not a Cheapskate Customer’s computers)

Jim and a Teammate: Wait this doesn’t work you don’t have enough memory here.

Jim and a Teammate: This isn’t even enough memory for the previous version.

Totally Not A Cheapskate Customer: SO WHAT I DON’T CARE ARE YOU TRYING TO STEAL THE FOOD OF MY CHILDREN? (* actual quote)

Jim and a Teammate: No wait we made very very clear that…

Totally Not A Cheapskate Customer: YOU ARE WORSE THAN THIEVES (* actual quote)

Totally Not A Cheapskate Customer’s Customers: WHY DON’T YOU GIVE US CHEAP STUFF AREN’T WE CITIZENS OF THIS COUNTRY??? (* actual quote)

Totally Not A Cheapskate Customer: I’LL CALL YOUR BOSS RIGHT NOW

PM: Hi Jim what’s going on there?

Jim: This and that, the Totally Not A Cheapskate Customer turned out to be a Totally Cheapskate Customer.

PM: Hmmm so Sales wasn’t 100% sincere.

PM: Who would’ve thought.

PM: Can you remove the installation restriction just for now?

Jim: I can but some things might work, some might not.

PM: Do your best.

Team: (does their best and has a special version ready within 15 minutes)

Jim and a Teammate: (install the software)

Jim and a Teammate: See it kind of works but it has issues BECAUSE IT NEEDS MORE MEMORY.

Totally Not A Cheapskate Customer: SEE MY LOYAL CUSTOMERS I HAVE SLAIN THE THIEVING EVIL CORPORATE DRAGON AND GAVE YOU CHEAP STUFF.

Jim and a Teammate: Wait you actually charged them for this we specifically asked you not to.

Totally Not A Cheapskate Customer: BEGONE YOU FOUL DEMON.

Jim: (silently curses in languages he doesn’t even speak)

Git: how to avoid checking in secrets (using a Powershell pre-commit hook)

Who among us hasn’t found him- or herself in this very awkward position: committing a config or code file with secrets (such as passwords or API keys) and then semi-panicked googling how to delete it from source control.

Been there and let me tell you the easiest way to delete it: copy all the code on disk, delete the repository completely and then re-create it.

(if this is not an option, well, there’s still a way but with much more work and risk, so do keep that code backup around!)

But you know what’s even better? That’s right, avoid this in the first place! That’s why Git hooks are so useful: they work without you neededing to remember to check your config files every time.

So here’s my solution to this:

  1. In the repository, go to .git/hooks and rename pre-commit.sample to pre-commit (i.e. remove the extension)
  2. Open pre-commit with a text editor and replace its contents with the following:
#!/bin/sh
C:/Windows/System32/WindowsPowerShell/v1.0/powershell.exe -ExecutionPolicy Bypass -Command '.\hooks\pre-commit.ps1'
  1. Add a new directory on the root of the repository named hooks.
  2. Inside this, add a text file named pre-commit.ps1 with the following code:
#
# Source: DotJim blog (http://dandraka.com)
# Jim Andrakakis, July 2022
#
Clear-Host
$ErrorActionPreference='Stop'

# ===== Change here =====
$listOfExtensions=@('*.xml','*.config')
$listOfSecretNodes=@('username','password','clientid','secret','connectionstring')
$acceptableString='lalala'
# ===== Change here =====

$codePath = (Get-Item -Path $PSScriptRoot).Parent.Parent.FullName

$errorList=New-Object -TypeName 'System.Collections.ArrayList'

foreach($ext in $listOfExtensions) {
    $list = Get-ChildItem -Path $codePath -Recurse -Filter $ext

    foreach($file in $list) {
        $fileName = $file.FullName
        if ($fileName.Contains('\bin\')) {
            continue
        }
        Write-Host "Checking $fileName for secrets"
        [xml]$xml=[xml]((Get-Content -Path $fileName).ToLowerInvariant())
        foreach($secretName in $listOfSecretNodes) {
            $nodes = $xml.SelectNodes("//*[contains(local-name(), '$secretName')]")
            foreach($node in $nodes) {
                if ($node.InnerText.ToLowerInvariant() -ne $acceptableString) {
                    $str = "[$fileName] $($node.Name) contains text other than '$acceptableString', please replace this with $acceptableString before commiting."
                    $errorList.Add($str) | Out-Null
                    Write-Warning $str
                }
            }
        }
    }
}

if ($errorList.Count -gt 0) {
    Write-Error 'Commit cancelled, please correct before commiting.'
}

So there you have it. I’m getting automatically stopped every time I tried to commit any .xml or .config file that contains a node with a name that contains username, password, clientid, secret or connectionstring, whenever the value of it is not ‘lalala’.

Obviously the extensions, node names and acceptable string can be changed at the top of the script. You can also change this quite easily to check JSON files as well.

Also note that this works on Windows (because of the Powershell path in the pre-commit hook) but with a minor change in the pre-commit bash script, you should be able to make it work cross-platform with Powershell core. I haven’t tested it but it should be:

#!/usr/bin/env pwsh -File '.\hooks\pre-commit.ps1'

Have fun coding!

Signs that you need coffee, #7

You do the first coffee break of the day, say around 10:00.

You sit at the table, feeling sleepy, wondering why the coffee hasn’t had any effect on you.

After ten whole minutes you realize you didn’t actually prepare the coffee.

I’m sure there’s some joke about vicious circles here, but I haven’t had my coffee so I’m too sleepy to think what that might be.

Stories from the Field, #1: Learn how to push back

(note: all “Stories from the Field” are true, thinly anonymized to protect the -usually- guilty)

Teammate: (goes to a big and important customer)

Customer: I want a software like this and that

Customer: And I want it yesterday

Project Manager: They want it yesterday

Teammate: But I need a bit more time in order to implement some UI checks, so that users don’t make mistakes

Customer: Our users don’t make mistakes, they are permanent employees for so many years, they know their job

Teammate: Hmmmokey

Teammate: (implements software in just a few days)

Teammate: (delivers)

Customer: (installs)

Users: (use the software)

Users: (literally fuck up everything that is possible and some things that are not)

Customer: WHY ARE THE DATA WRONG

Teammate: …but you said…

Customer: you’re not good I want another one

Project Manager: Jim you’re assigned to this

Jim: I will rewrite it from zero and I will implement these UI checks plus many many more

Customer: I WANT IT YESTERDAY

Project Manager: THEY WANT IT YESTERDAY

Jim: (doesn’t give a shit)

Jim: (writes code anywhere, anytime, day, night, while eating, while getting the baby to sleep, while helping his wife with breastfeeding etc etc)

Jim: (delivers)

Customer: Why is this 40MB this is bigger than the previous one I don’t like this

Jim: (loses his shit and starts screaming)

Customer: Jeez why are you so nervous you need to calm down

Customer: (installs)

Users: (use the software)

Users: OH HEY THIS WORKS

Users: IT HAS HELPFUL COLOURS TOO

Users: AND IT HAS EXPLANATIONS FOR EACH FIELD

Users: THIS IS GREAT

Customer: great job Jim, see I told you the first guy was not good

Jim: (silently curses in languages he doesn’t even speak)

Note: to be fair, the “40MB” complaint wasn’t as irrational as it sounds. The software had to be copied to many client computers, some of them in remote parts of the country with slow lines; this was still the days of ISDN. Still, the refactoring was worth it. The added volume was caused by a reporting library (Crystal Reports for .Net) which solved many problems by itself. I now understand the frustration of the customer’s IT as someone had to stay up all night copying. But the pressure from management was so much that at this point the poor guy just said the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person. Elias if you ever read this, please accept my apologies 😊

Signs that you need coffee, #6

You wake up on Monday morning, which is bad by itself because Monday.

You decide you’ll have tea instead of coffee so you boil some water, pour it in a mug and dip two bags of your favourite tea in it.

You go to your home office room to start your laptop, check emails etc.

Then you go back to the kitchen and spend the next 5 minutes wondering where your coffee is.

Password Manager For Dummies: Store your passwords

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Store your passwords
Part 3: Now on your phone

We’ll start from your computer because usually it’s easier to create the account there. Then we’ll continue to your smartphone. But the very first thing you need to do is grab a piece of old fashioned paper.

Step 1: Write a password and a 6 digit code.

Get a paper. Yes the traditional one!

Not necessarily a post-it, but this will do as well

Write 20 or more random numbers and letters, both lower and capital. Something like 6xTzHx41jKQ3yg48FeR9sAb. This will be your password.

You don’t need to remember this.

In the same piece of paper write 6 random numbers. DO NOT USE ANYTHING REAL OR EVEN CLOSE TO IT LIKE YOUR BIRTHDAY OR YOUR POSTCODE OR YOUR PHONE, NOT EVEN CHANGED. This will be your unlock code.

This code will be the one and only thing you need to learn by heart.

Keep this paper safe in your desk at home but NOT in your computer -don’t take a photo of it or write it in a Word file.

Step 2: Create your Bitwarden account

On your computer, go to bitwarden.com and click “Get started”.

Fill in the form, it’s really simple. Use the password you wrote on the paper.

Step 3: Install the browser extension

Still on your computer, open your favourite browser -Firefox, Chrome, Edge, Opera, whatever- go to the bitwarden extension and install it.

Here it is for Firefox

Here for Chrome

Here for Microsoft Edge (you’re not still using Internet Explorer, are you?)

And here for Opera.

In case you’re using anything else, just google “bitwarden <browser name>” and you’ll find it.

NOTE: As you’ll see, about the only annoying thing with Bitwarden is that if you click outside of it before you save your changes, it closes and loses your input. There’s a solution for this: you can click the “Pop out” button” and then it opens as a separate window. The “Pop up” button is this one:

When the extension is installed, you’ll get the Bitwarden shield icon on the top right corner of your browser. Click it and fill in your email and password.

Once you log in you see your list of passwords. This a called your “vault”. For now, it’s obviously empty.

Click “Settings”, then “Unlock with pin”. Enter the 6 numbers you wrote on the paper and uncheck the “lock with master password…” check box.

Step 4: Store your credentials

If you’ve done so far, great job! Now it’s the time to start storing your passwords, one by one.

Click the shield icon of Bitwarden, then the plus icon on the top right corner.

Start with your email. Enter the name, username and password -the ones you have already. Add also the URL you use to access the site. Then click “Save”.

One by one, add all the sites and other services you have. This will probably take some time; my list has more than 400 entries 😊

Step 5: Try it

So all of this is supposed to help you right? Here’s how it helps you login. Say you want to log in to your email for example.

Click the shield icon of Bitwarden, click “My vault” and click the little arrow of the site. You’ll see that it takes you there.

In your email site, click “Sign in” or “Login” or whatever it has. Right click in the username or password and select Bitwarden > Auto-fill > your site name. Then click Next or Login or whatever it has.

If for whatever reason right click doesn’t find the site, there’s another way that’s not as easy but works every time. From “My vault” click the head icon to copy the username, then paste it in the site, then click the key icon to copy the password, then paste it in the site.

After doing it a few times, you’ll get the hang of it; it will feel very easy very quickly.

Step 6: Change your passwords

Until now you’ve done great, but we’re still using our old passwords. Now it’s the time to make them big and hard 😉

The exact process differs slightly for every site, obviously, but not much. In this example, I’ll use a popular e-shop, Zara UK.

Go to your profile and go to change password:

In the bitwarden “My vault” click the key icon of the site (see above) to copy the existing password. Paste it in the “Current password” box of the web site.

Then go in the bitwarden “My vault” again and click somewhere in the middle of the site name. This will open the entry. Click Edit on the top right corner.

Click the double arrow next to the password and click “yes” in the “overwrite password” question. Slide the length of the password to something over 17, click “regenerate” and then “select”.

Click “Save” to save the new password.

Now go to “My vault” again, click the key icon to copy the new password, go to the web site and paste it twice. Then click “Update password” or whatever button is there.

The first time you do it will be cumbersome, but after the first 2-3 sites, it will feel really easy.

If you’ve reached this far, congratulations 🥳🎉👏 You’ve done the hard work! The last thing to do is install the app on your smartphone so you can use it there too. Let’s go!

Password Manager for Dummies: Now on your phone

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Store your passwords
Part 3: Now on your phone

Here we get to the fun part -well, if not fun, certainly the easiest and most useful. I’ll give screenshots for iPhone, because that’s what I have, but for Android it’s almost the same.

Step 1: Install the Bitwarden App

Go to your App Store (or Play Store for Android), find Bitwarden and install it.

Step 2: Login

Open the app, click Log In and fill in the email and password (the one you wrote on the paper).

Go to Settings and press “Unlock with PIN code”. Enter the 6 digit number you wrote on the paper and select “No”.

We’re ready to use it!

Step 3: Use it to login to sites

Let’s try to use the browser in our smartphone to login to Zara UK. Navigate to the web site and click Login, or My Account or whatever it has:

Now switch to Bitwarden (you might need to unlock it with your 6 digit code), find the site, press the 3 dots and click Copy Username.

Switch to the browser, tap in the username box and paste the username.

Repeat the same steps for the password and click Log In.

Ta da! We’re in!

That’s all folks

This was what you have to do to get started and work with Bitwarden. It’s not an exhaustive guide, mind you, there are more to it. But it covers the most important part: securely creating, storing and using unique passwords that are impossible to guess.

I hope this works for you. If you have any questions or suggestions, I’ll be more than happy to discuss in the comments!

Have fun 😊

Please don’t write logs inside Program Files (here’s how to do it right)

So the other day I’m troubleshooting a Windows Service that keeps failing on a server, part of a product we’re using in the company. Long story short, that’s what the problem was:

Access to the path 'C:\Program Files\whatever\whatever.log is denied'

I mean, dear programmer, look. You want to write your application’s logs as simple text files. I get it. Text files are simple, reliable (if the file system doesn’t work, you have bigger problems than logging) and they’re shown in virtually every coding tutorial in every programming language. Depending on the case, there might be better ways to do that such as syslog, eventlog and others.

But sure, let’s go with text files. Take the following example somewhere in the middle of a Python tutorial. Look at line 3:

import logging

logging.basicConfig(filename='app.log', filemode='w', format='%(name)s - %(levelname)s - %(message)s')
logging.warning('This will get logged to a file')

Did you notice? This code writes the log in the same place as the binary. It’s not explicitly mentioned and usually you wouldn’t give it a second thought, right?

To be clear, I don’t want to be hard on the writers of this or any other tutorial; it’s just a basic tutorial, and as such it should highlight the core concept. A professional developer writing an enterprise product should know a bit more!

But the thing is, these examples are everywhere. Take another Java tutorial and look at line 16:

package com.javacodegeeks.snippets.core;

import java.util.logging.Logger;
import java.util.logging.FileHandler;
import java.util.logging.SimpleFormatter;
import java.io.IOException;

public class SequencedLogFile {

    public static final int FILE_SIZE = 1024;
    public static void main(String[] args) {

        Logger logger = Logger.getLogger(SequencedLogFile.class.getName());
        try {
            // Create an instance of FileHandler with 5 logging files sequences.
            FileHandler handler = new FileHandler("sample.log", FILE_SIZE, 5, true);
            handler.setFormatter(new SimpleFormatter());
            logger.addHandler(handler);
            logger.setUseParentHandlers(false);
        } catch (IOException e) {
            logger.warning("Failed to initialize logger handler.");
        }
        logger.info("Logging info message.");
        logger.warning("Logging warn message.");
    }
}

Or this Dot Net tutorial, which explains how to set up Log4Net (which is great!) and gives this configuration example. Let’s see if you can spot this one. Which line is the problem?

<log4net>
  <root>
    <level value="ALL" />
    <appender-ref ref="LogFileAppender" />
  </root>
  <appender name="LogFileAppender" type="log4net.Appender.RollingFileAppender">
    <file value="proper.log" />
    <lockingModel type="log4net.Appender.FileAppender+MinimalLock" />
    <appendToFile value="true" />
    <rollingStyle value="Size" />
    <maxSizeRollBackups value="2" />
    <maximumFileSize value="1MB" />
    <staticLogFileName value="true" />
    <layout type="log4net.Layout.PatternLayout">
      <conversionPattern value="%d [%t] %-5p %c %m%n" />
    </layout>
  </appender>
</log4net>

If you answered “7”, congrats, you’re starting to get it. Not using a path -this should be obvious, I know, but it’s easy to forget nevertheless- means writing in the current path, which by default is wherever the binary is.

So this works fine while you’re developing. It works fine when you do your unit tests. It probably works when your testers do the user acceptance testing or whatever QA process you have.

But when your customers install the software, the exe usually goes to C:\Program Files (that’s in Windows; in Linux there are different possibilities as explained here, but let’s say /usr/bin). Normal users do not have permission to write there; an administrator can grant this, but they really really really shouldn’t. You’re not supposed to tamper with the executables! Unless you’re doing some maintenance or an upgrade of course.

So how do you do this correctly?

First of all, it’s a good idea to not reinvent the wheel. There are many, many, MANY libraries to choose from, some of them very mature, like log4net for Dot Net or log4j for Java.

But if you want to keep it very simple, fine. There are basically two ways to do it.

If it’s a UI-based software, that your users will use interactively:

Create a directory under %localappdata% (by default C:\Users\SOMEUSER\AppData\Local) with the brand name of your company and/or product, and write in there.

You can get the localappdata path using the following line in Dot Net:

string localAppDataPath = Environment.GetFolderPath(Environment.SpecialFolder.LocalApplicationData);

Take for example the screen-capturing software called Greenshot. These guys do it right:

If it’s a non-interactive software, like a Windows Service:

You can do the same as above, but instead of Environment.SpecialFolder.LocalApplicationData use Environment.SpecialFolder.CommonApplicationData, which by default is C:\ProgramData. So your logs will be in C:\ProgramData\MyAmazingCompany\myamazingproduct.log.

Or -not recommended, but not as horrible as writing in Program Files- you can create something custom like C:\MyAmazingCompany\logs. I’ll be honest with you, it’s ugly, but it works.

But in any case, be careful to consider your environment. Is your software supposed to run on Windows, Linux, Mac, everything? A good place to start is here, for Dot Net, but the concept is the same in every language.

And, also important, make your logging configurable! The location should be changeable via a config file. Different systems have different requirements. Someone will need the logs somewhere special for their own reasons.

But whatever you do, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE DON’T WRITE WHERE THE BINARY IS. DON’T WRITE IN C:\PROGRAM FILES. IT. DOES. NOT. WORK.

New version of Zoro: 1.0.2

I just published a new version of my open source C# Zoro(*) library in Github and Nuget.org.

Zoro is a data masking/anonymization utility. It fetches data from a database or a CSV file, and creates a CSV file with masked data.

The new version, 1.0.2, has been converted to DotNet Standard 2.0. The command line utility and the test project have been converted to Dotnet Core 5.0.

There is a known issue, not with the code but with the Nuget package. The description claims, as was intended, that the package contains not only the library but also the exe, which can be used as a standalone command line utility. But due to some wrong path in the Github Action, it doesn’t.

I’ll try to get that fixed in the next weeks. Until then, if you need the exe, please checkout the code and build with Visual Studio or Visual Studio Code.

(*) YES NOW I KNOW THIS IS MISSPELLED AND THE CORRECT SPELLING IS ZORRO, I DIDN’T WHEN I STARTED THE LIBRARY, SORRY!