Top-ranking Authority and Researcher in C++, C#, Development, and
Advanced Customizable User Interface Architectures
This week, Stephen
Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with the top-ranking
development authority, Mark Schmidt.
Mark is a software
engineer at Hewlett-Packard. His current research and development
work involves advanced customizable user interface architectures.
His research contributed to his popular talk he gave at the San
Francisco, “2001 VSLive!” conference. Mark is using C# in many areas
including UI prototypes, support tools and has even written a
functional ASP.NET capable Web Server. His breadth of knowledge is
the result of a constant search for information that leads him down
several different technology avenues.
Mark has written articles
on C# and C++ for Visual Studio Magazine, Visual Basic Programmer's
Journal, and Visual C++ Developer's Journal. Mark also co-authored
Sams Teach Yourself Visual C++ .NET in 24 Hours. You can find more
information about Mark and his recent book, Microsoft Visual C# .NET
2003 Developer's Cookbook, at
Q: Mark, you are a
leading authority in C++, C#, and advanced customizable user
interface architectures. Thank you for taking the time to speak with
A: Not a problem. I tend
to be long winded when it comes to programming conversations, so I
apologize ahead of time.
Q: Give us a life history
and explain how did you get into computing up to your present
A: I remember the first
time I heard about this new device that will do “whatever you tell
it to”. I was around 8 or so at the time and couldn’t believe that
something so miraculous had been invented. I received a Commodore-64
for Christmas that year and my excitement faded when I realized you
had to learn Basic. I assumed computers would understand English. Oh
well. I tinkered on and off throughout the years, creating small
games but nothing really serious. When I first entered college I was
determined to become a psychiatrist. Don’t laugh, it’s true. I then
wanted to be a journalist, then something to do with business, then
marketing, and just about every other major out there. During that
time, I was hacking away on my 386 computer and one day it clicked.
I quickly switched schools to Portland State University (my old
school’s main language was Modula-2 so I vacated quickly). I quickly
found out that I was pretty good at programming and HP did too. I
was hired by them 1 year before I graduated and have been here ever
Q: Can you share your top
three “amazing” experiences?
A: That’s definitely a
tough one. Working on user interfaces on a daily basis, I have quite
a few amazing experiences. I have been known to jump up and shout
when something works as expected after spending many hours on it.
The first amazing experience would probably be the first time I
created a “skinned” application. Skinning for those that don’t know
is the user interface concept of creating a non-rectangular window
from bitmap data. I did this quite a few years ago in Visual C++
which means it wasn’t as trivial as it is today when using .NET.
Definitely some of the
most amazing experiences are the times I saw some of my work
published. My very first article was on C# and was written for
Visual C++ Developer’s Journal since C# and .NET were still in beta.
My first book was quite exciting but I think this book tops them all
since I spent so much time and effort writing it. Seeing the book in
my hands makes those really late nights worth it.
Finally, I’m not sure if
you’re looking for amazing “programming” experiences, so I’m going
to throw a non-programming experience out and it’s the birth of my
children. I’m someone who’s known by my friends and family as being
quite an emotional person. Words can’t describe how I felt when I
saw my children being born. The word “amazing” is putting it
Q: Do have any humorous
stories to share?
A: That’s kind of a tough
question. I’ve been known to be a comedian at work to liven things
up a little. I guess one of the most recent would be during a
teleconference. When you dial in, the system asks you to say your
name which is then broadcast to those currently in the meeting. Most
of the time, the feature is turned off. However one day it wasn’t so
I thought I’d play a little trick on a colleague. I convinced him to
say his name is Harry Belafonte which he proceeded to do. It
backfired on me though since he accidentally had his headset on
mute. Humorous? No, but it had potential.
Q: Can you describe you
work at HP?
A: When I first started
working at HP, I was a little fish in a huge ocean. I was still in
college at the time and really felt out of place. It took awhile to
finally feel comfortable. One thing about HP that really sets it
apart from other companies is the mindset of the people that work
here. You’ve probably heard of the “HP Way” and it still exists
today. This is a company that fuels itself through invention and
we’re encouraged to continually invent the next greatest thing.
There were a lot of people that thought we were doomed when we
acquired Compaq since it was such a large acquisition. As you can
see, we’re still going strong and have proven a lot of skeptics
Q: What are your top five
tips on advanced customizable user interface architectures?
A: First off, let me
explain exactly what is meant by “advanced customizable UI
architectures”. Being in the business for 5 years now, I’ve had my
fair share of changing requirements. More often than not, those
changes inevitably affect the UI. Throughout the years, my research
has really been on creating architectures that minimize the time
required to make changes and maximize the power of the architectures
to do amazing things.
1) If possible, see if
you can avoid embedding UI definitions in binaries. The
architectures I create utilize XML for UI definitions which means
changing the UI layout can be done with a simple text editor and the
result viewed immediately. For some applications, doing this is
overkill, but for the work I do, it’s a tremendous timesaver that
carries a lot of other advantages with it.
2) Code with
extensibility in mind. Again, all of my architectures utilize
plug-ins to extend the UI engine after it’s been built and possibly
shipped. Doing this allows the whole engine to grow by the addition
of new features while the core remains untouched.
3) If anything in your UI
architecture can change, create a way to customize that change.
Furthermore, that customization shouldn’t require a rebuild of your
engine binaries if possible. With the current architecture I am
working on, just about every aspect of it is customizable. In fact,
even the UI definition file format can be changed at runtime to read
in XHTML, XUL, XAML or any other XML based UI file format if you
4) This is somewhat
related to the first item. If a UI definition is external to the UI
engine itself, you’ll need a way to implement logic. For this, I
learned the ActiveScript engine by Microsoft inside and out.
Scripting plays a large role for logic implementation for these
dynamic architectures I create. I am currently researching the use
of C# for logic implementation during runtime (with successful
results I might add).
5) Have fun with UI. This
is the whole reason I’m addicted to user interface architecture. In
some of the demo’s I’ve given to colleagues, I’ve done everything
from showing Men In Black videos with my UI to a screen full of
bouncing cockroaches. Not only that, but only the UI person has the
ability to hide Easter Eggs in the product. Just don’t tell my
Q: Detail the development
of your functional ASP.NET capable Web Server.
A: This was actually a
little “proof-of-concept” project I started which has since been
cancelled. The goal was to communicate with a peripheral device, in
this case a printer, and display the data I received from it to a
person sitting at a computer. ASP.NET was a perfect way to mix this
data with an HTML presentation. However, since ASP.NET is largely a
server based technology, you can’t guarantee that a person has IIS
installed with .NET on their machine. So I created my own little web
server that behaved like IIS with full support for the processing
and serving of ASP.NET pages. It worked fine, but we never used it.
Q: What makes your book,
Microsoft Visual C# .NET 2003 Developer’s Cookbook, an essential
developer resource? With so many books on the market, how is it
different from the “other” books? Who is the intended audience?
A: .NET has passed its
infant stages and so have the developer’s who initially started
using it. We’ve all done our “Hello World” programs so now its time
to start using the language and technology platform for real world
scenarios. MSDN is an excellent resource when you need to find out
what a certain function does or how a certain parameter to a
function will affect your results, but not so good when you want to
solve a specific problem. This book does just that. In short, it
focuses more on the “how-to” rather than spouting off page after
page of theory and internal mechanics of .NET.
Q: Share five of your
high-powered C# recipes and special coding tips from the book.
A: 1) One thing that
always amazes me is the speed in which I can create something in C#
using .NET. A good example is recipe 8.26, Docking Controls. This
recipe shows how to create collapsible tool windows that expand when
the mouse hovers over them. Each panel can also contain different
tabs to switch the display to a different tab page. This behavior is
somewhat similar with the tool windows in the Visual Studio .NET
IDE. Doing something like this in C++ with the WIN32 API definitely
wouldn’t have been as trivial.
2) I’m not one to simply
demonstrate “Hello World” application. 2 recipes in the book 24.1,
Creating an ATL-Based COM Component and 24.2, Using COM Objects in
.NET are good examples. I could have created a COM component that
simply returns a “Hello World” string, but I’m so tired of reading
stuff like that. Instead, the COM component acts as a command shell
proxy by simply sending commands to the OS and returning the result
(think programmatic command line shell and you’re on the right
track). Recipe 24.2 then uses Windows Forms and COM Interop to
present the UI based on the results from the COM object. So what you
get is a little command line shell similar to cmd.exe.
3) Similar to the
previous recipes above is recipe 16.3, Handling Web Control Events.
A lot of software development has to deal with creativity. When
writing the book, I was always asking myself “What can I do here
that is different than all the other books”? So I created a command
line shell run within a web browser that allows you to send commands
to the server hosting your ASP.NET application. I was planning on
combining the recipes from above with this one to make it a “real”
command line interpreter but that would have complicated matters too
much. If I find the time in my busy schedule, I would like to
revisit this project and really make it shine. Keep watching
www.csharpcookbook.com and it may well show up one day.
4) I love programming on
mobile devices. I’ve been dabbling ever since the first Microsoft
mobile device SDK (at least I think it was the first), the Windows
CE Toolkit for Visual C++ 6. Smart Device Extensions, introduced in
Visual Studio .NET 2003 really shows how much this technology has
grown. Creating applications on a Pocket PC is just about as easy
now as it is on the desktop. I really like a lot of the recipes in
Chapter 26, Smart Device Extensions, simply because that information
isn’t covered as much as desktop programming. One recipe in
particular, 26.5, Using the MessageWindow Class, was one I spent a
lot of time on because I wanted to demystify it and do it right.
Basically the project that is created uses a different form of
Interop than PInvoke or COM Interop. The MessageWindow class will
let you communicate using window messages.
5) Some of the recipes in
the book are somehow related. There were a few times during writing
that I created an application that covered several different
recipes. These include an XML editor that lets you open an XML file,
display it in a tree view and manipulate it. You can also use XPath
expressions to navigate to a tree node. If someone were to create a
simple XML editor, this is a good place to start. Another
application is an image editor. This one actually covered a lot of
recipes including printing; print preview; cropping, scaling and
rotating images; saving images to disk and I’m sure a few more
recipes that escape me right now. Other examples include a linear
gradient viewer, a screensaver preview panel, the WebShell and COM
Interop command line interpreter mentioned earlier, and a text
editor with plugin support. As you can see, I was as much fun coding
as I was writing.
Q: What future books can
we expect from you?
A: Right now I’m taking a
break from writing so I can spend some more time with the family. I
will eventually get around to doing another one (maybe a few
magazine articles in between) but I don’t have a definitive timeline
set out. I would like to eventually do a user interface focused book
but it all depends on the current crop of books that are already out
Q: What are the most
important trends to watch, and please provide some recommendations?
A: 1) UI Architectures:
I’ve seen my fair share of architectures through the years, but the
latest and greatest is always being trumped. .NET utilizes Windows
Forms now but we’ll have to wait and see if Microsoft changes it to
utilize Aero coming in Longhorn.
2) Outsourcing: Although
not directly programming, it does involve our industry. This has
definitely become a hot topic recently and will be in the years to
come. There is a proper way to utilize outsourcing, but a full on
100% outsourcing is not the way to go in my opinion. Of course the
key motivating factor is money and right now, our industry is not
the booming powerhouse it once was. In fact, I don’t think we’ll
ever have another “dot com” period since it was stimulated by the
prevalence of the Internet which has transformed from the “new
exciting technology” to just another ordinary everyday technology we
use. Sure we’ll have our peaks but there will be a few valley’s
along the way. Will the industry ever stop growing? Absolutely not,
but we are a lot higher on the bell curve than we were several years
3) Mobile Devices: The
“always connected” paradigm is slowly becoming a reality. People are
scrambling to have information right at their fingertips but I don’t
think we’ve quite made it yet. Microsoft has made some big strides
for developers in this area as have other companies but we really
need industry collaboration on many different fronts to really get
the ball rolling. If you or your company has not jumped on the
mobile bandwagon, now is a good time to do so.
4) Technology overload:
This is something I noticed recently and it really hit me when I was
writing the book. There was a time when a software engineer only had
to deal with a couple of technologies to get their job done. Now it
seems as if new technologies are popping up left and right on a
daily basis (bit of exaggerated, but you know what I mean). This is
largely due to the proliferation of distributed computing models and
took a large leap with the introduction of Web Services. In the
early 90’s, we could get by reading a book on how to program Windows
3.1, but those days are gone. The amount of information and
technologies in use is staggering. That’s why we now see software
engineers with different specialties. Is this a bad thing? Not in
the least bit. In fact, I think it opens up more jobs for those
looking to get into the field which of course is a good thing.
5) Web Services: I would
be amiss not to mention the role Web Services are playing now and in
the future. Companies are starting to look at ways of utilizing this
technology and my team is starting to use Web Services for something
you would never have thought they could be used for. There’s still a
lot of growth in this area and is definitely something you should
keep close tabs on.
Q: What are your top
recommended resources for both businesses and IT professionals?
A: 1) Books: Not that I
am biased towards print or anything, but I do believe books are an
invaluable resource. Most of what I’ve learned is a result of hours
of reading. Sure you can get good information off the Net, but right
now, nothing beats a good cup of coffee and a thick programming
2) Tools: A software
engineer should have an arsenal of tools at their disposal. I myself
have several favorites including XML Spy (XML editor), Ultra Edit 32
(text/hex editor), Visual Studio tools such as Spy++, Dependency
Walker, ILDasm, Visual Assist .NET and debugging tools like
DebugView from Sysinternals. Naturally, Visual Studio .NET 2003 is
my IDE of choice.
3) Internet: I guess this
would probably be the #1 resource. There is just so much information
out there and it’s expanding daily. Some of the sites I visit
religiously include MSDN, codeproject.com, and windowsforms.com. I
troll a lot on newsgroups and even pop up in an IRC channel now and
then (#winprog on EFNet).
Q: What kind of computer
setup do you have?
A: For my main
development machine, I have a Pentium IV 2.4 GHz which is starting
to show signs of aging. RAM is crucial for development, in my
opinion, so I use 2 GB of it. I am also a big fan of dual monitors
so I have 2 19” LCD screens in front of me. I also have a dedicated
Linux box and an old Mac G4 all of which are connected to a Black
Box switch and USB switch so I can use the same keyboard and mouse.
Oh, I guess I do have a unique keyboard too. I use a Kinesis
Advantage Pro keyboard. I get more comments about it then I do my
All of my writing however
is done on my Compaq Evo n800w laptop. It sports a 2.4 GHz processor
with 1 GB of RAM. It’s good enough to play some of my favorite games
when I’m away from home on business. Since I’m a rabid gamer, my
personal home machine has everything a gamer would want -- 7.1
surround sound and an ATI Radeon 9800 Pro tops the list of
Q: If you were doing this
interview, what three questions would you ask of someone in your
position and what would be your answers?
A: Q1: How does one go
about getting published?
A1: I started by simply
emailing an editor for a popular magazine. I submitted an article,
it was well received and a contract was signed. That got me a foot
in the door. I then proceeded to write 2 more articles with the same
publisher. This got my name out and soon requests started coming and
I signed my first book contract with SAMS for the book Teach
Yourself Visual C++ .NET in 24 Hours. So, my advice is to start out
with magazine articles. You can start with online articles but you
might get lost in the sea of other online authors. It’s really not
that hard to get going. One thing I might stress is that it takes a
lot of time especially if you have a day job like me. Prepare for
late nights and lack of sleep.
Q2: What are your
thoughts on the future of C++? C#?
A2: There are so many
rumors surrounding C++. Some people think Microsoft is writing it
off along with their other C++ technologies like ATL. In my opinion,
Visual Studio .NET 2003 was Microsoft’s answer. They added a lot to
Visual C++ which really shows they aren’t throwing in the towel on
it. It’s still one of the most widely used languages in the world,
if not the most, and to say Visual C++ is going to be cut is
ludicrous. I hope Microsoft doesn’t prove me wrong. I still use it
daily and love it.
C# has moved from the
infant to the toddler stage, not so much as far as feature set but
as far as developer adoption. When C# 2.0 comes along we’ll really
start to see the language mature. Microsoft has put a lot of money
into .NET and it shows. It’ll be awhile before C# gives its exit
Q3: What keeps you going?
How do you avoid burnout?
A3: I’m surrounded by
programming on a daily basis. I’m usually in front of a computer
almost 15 hours a day for several months when I’m writing a book and
I rarely come up for air. Do I suffer burnout? Of course I do, but
that’s just an occupational hazard that I’ve learned to deal with. I
love learning new things and even more, I love teaching people what
I’ve learned. That’s what keeps me going. In the instances where I’m
just burned out beyond repair, I take a step back and do something
else. This is either spending time with my wife and 4 kids (yes,
busy household), holding a LAN party and gaming until the wee hours
of the morning or taking my RC plane out to fly around. When all
else fails, a good science fiction book calms my nerves and fuels my
Q: Do you have any more
comments to add?
A: I just want to let
readers know that I’m an approachable person. If you have a
question, fire an email off to
firstname.lastname@example.org. I also encourage you to visit
www.csharpcookbook.com. There isn’t much on there now but since
the book is finished I plan on adding some content and tutorials to
supplement the book. I’m also looking for recipes that you would
like to see that weren’t in the book.
Q: Mark, thank you again
for your time, and consideration in doing this interview.
A: No problem.