No Building Web Applications

I tried the first couple of weeks of the Building Web Applications, but I won’t be continuing with the module.

I was hoping that there’d be some deep insight into the pros and cons of the Java web applications and the JSF framework and RESTful Web Services, but it was pretty clear that we weren’t going to cover enough ground to make the course worthwhile. There’s also some pretty idiosyncratic approaches to writing Java code going on too, so it was all a bit strange.

I could have carried on through the module as it should have been easy to get a good grade but then I’m doing the course for the challenge and opportunities to learn more than for the letters after my name. It’d be a shame to lose out on learning something else.

The software engineering modules have been a little disappointing, to be honest – where I found the Computer Science modules assumed a challenging knowledge of maths and computing, the software engineering modules seem to assume little or no prior knowledge. Maybe that’s just my perception, having been working on-and-off in software development for the past 4-5 years.

On the bright side, I did get a lead on what looks like an excellent book to get stuck into JSF 1.2 in Core JavaServer Faces by Geary and Horstmann.

That means that I just need to revise the Patterns for e-Business course foe this set of exams. In Autumn I’ll continue with Computer Science modules and it’ll be once more unto the breach with the whole logic thing, so I’ve pulled a couple of books out of the library to get started with that again.

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Studying for SCJP?

I was recently quizzed about prep for the Sun Certified Java Programmer exam, so here’s a quick rundown of the resources I found useful and tips I picked up when I was studying for SCJP 5. All in, it cost me around £200 and took just under four months. I can recommend the following resources:

  • SCJP 5 Study Guide by Kathy Sierra and Bert Bates. Choose the book for the certification version you’re going for. Work through every chapter and make sure you understand every concept and gain some familiarity with the APIs. I found flash-cards (little cards, questions on one side, answers on the other) invaluable for really burning some of the more difficult to remember stuff. As I didn’t have a programming or Computer Science background, I learnt more about Object-Oriented concepts and programming in the first three chapters of this book than I did from anywhere else.
  • javaranch.com SCJP FAQ for the latest thoughts info on certification, and the SCJP Certification Forum, in which you’ll start by asking questions and wind up answering the questions of others as you get lined up for the exam. The FAQ is also a good place to check what the recent exam takers are saying about the exam and the study materials. You can also use the Rules Roundups to get a feel for answering questions, although they’re pretty easy compared to the exam.
  • Mock exams. When you think you’re nearly ready for the exam, grab a pack of mock tests (I used whizlabs). I certainly wasn’t as ready as I thought I was! Do them properly – set aside at least an hour and try and work as if under exam conditions – you also get used the format of the exams and there’s a few tricky corner cases in the mock exams I did that are worth knowing about.
  • Sign up for your exam at prometric.com. I signed up for the exam as soon as I’d finished reading the Study Guide, because I’m fundamentally lazy and needed the impending deadline! If you do the same, you might want to give yourself a month or two between booking and exam day to do those mocks and deal with any gaps in your knowledge they throw up.

I’ve also got a couple of tips on techniques to use for answering some of the tricker exam questions – that can also come in useful when writing and debugging code.

First up, the exam will often have a code sample and ask you to choose from a number of options. ‘Does not Compile’ is almost always an option, and it kept catching me out at first. The way I dealt with it was to run through the sample twice – first as the compiler, looking for those errors that would prevent the code compiling in the first place. Only if that first check didn’t throw up any problems do you need to imagine the behaviour of the code as it runs and look for exceptions and results.

Second, come up with some way of sketching the changing references to objects as you work through a code sample. This’ll help you catch subtle re-assignments you might miss working it through mentally.

It’ll take up your time. I was probably spending about 5-10 hours a week learning, revising and writing code for those four months – that counts when you’re working full time. It’s worth it though, particularly if you’re an inexperienced Java programmer. It’ll make you aware of some of the principles and practises you should be thinking about and it’ll give you something of a guided tour of the core Java APIs.

If you going to go for this cert, good luck!

Pattern-Based Software Dev – Day 5

Day 5 was largely a revision day in the lecture and continuing with coursework in the labs.

As I’m not based in Manchester, we’ve had to make alternative arrangements to submit the coursework. The spec asks for submission on paper, with a cover sheet signed by the team members. I find this a little strange, given that this is Computer Science course. It’s also extremely inconvenient for me, as I don’t live in Manchester and I work full time. As such, we’ve made alternative arrangements and I’ll e-mail a copy of the report in lieu of my signature.

It’s been a funny course. Looking forward to reviewing this material, if you’re interested the e-Business patterns site is on developerworks.

Manchester University’s CS Legacy

When I chose Manchester University for my Computer Science MSc, it was partially because of its reputation but I realized I didn’t actually know anything specific about that legacy.

I thought I’d find out a little more about some of the computing cornerstones that were laid in Manchester’s labs. Did you know that the first Random Access Memory was created there? Fast, random access memory is a core part of computer systems today. Having enough of it is crucial to making your laptop or desktop run all those applications quickly for you.

The Williams (or Williams-Kilburn) Tube was the first random access memory that could access at speeds suitable for a computer. It was the ancestor of the multi-gigabyte cards you’ll find in your computer today.

Back in the days before TVs were two inches thick, the moving pictures on the screen were drawn by magnetic fields and streams of electrons in a glass tube called a Cathode Ray Tube, or CRT. Did you ever hold your hand near the screen of a CRT television and feel the static tingle? Somewhere around 1946, Tom Kilburn and Freddie Williams at Manchester University used the charge on a CRT’s phosphorescent coating to store ones and zeroes (effectively as dots), where they could be detected by a ‘pickup plate’ which lay over the ‘screen’.

As the electron beam hit the screen, a positive charge would be left behind at that position. Not for long mind you, as the charge would dissipate, but the information read by the pickup plate was used to refresh the tube before the charge had chance to leak away. This refreshing process is still required by the RAM chips in your computer today.

If you’re interested in knowing more, you can read all about it on Wikipedia and computer50.org, the sources I used to get this information.

To test the Williams Tube, the folks at Manchester built the first stored-program computer, a pretty important milestone in its own right. Maybe more on that some other time.