For the love of code

SUMMERTIME usually conjures up images of surf, sand and sea and the ­occasional barbecue party.

But instead of hitting the beach or putting another patty on the grill, three Malaysian youngsters decided to spend three summer months to work on projects in the Google Summer of Code. T

he hard work and late nights finally paid off as they became the only three Malaysians to complete their projects.

Prior to this, the three young men, Raj Kissu Rajendran, 21, Phua Khai Fong, 24 and Devtar Singh, 22, had only heard bits and pieces about the competition that aims to inspire more young developers to participate in open-source ­development.

“Believe it or not I actually ­googled ‘Google Summer of Code’,� Devtar quipped.

But after being selected, each person worked hard on his ­respective projects each with a certain objective.

Each of the boys worked on their own projects.

The projects

Raj’s project was called BlobStreaming, which was ­developed using Php Myadmin.

The project does what its name suggests — it streams Blobs or Binary Large Objects like large media files.

BlobStreaming can be of great benefit to software developers who are looking into creating an easy to use, hassle free data sharing service.

“If they can create an efficient product by applying BlobStreaming, it will deliver better user experiences to the end user,� he said.

Phua didn’t need to look far for a project to propose for Google’s Summer of Code. He just used his final year project on Computer Aided Design (CAD).

But instead of just any CAD system, he was determined to make this one free of charge so it can be used by teachers to teach geometry and physics.

It could also help engineers who need a fast solution to put their ideas on paper after a Eureka moment, or to collaborate with other engineers around the world through the Web.

For this, he wrote code of The Squeak Project to come up with freeCAD. Meanwhile Devtar worked on an easy-to-use Bluetooth Scanner using technology know-how from Umit.

Umit is a derivative of Nmap, a free and open-source utility for network exploration or security auditing.

One of the functions of The Umit Bluetooth Scanner is tracking vulnerabilities in Bluetooth devices and preventing them from further corruption.

“I saw a market opportunity for this and thought I’d develop an easy-to-use tool for people to scan their Bluetooth devices,� he said, adding that previously, someone needed to be well versed in ­technology to do it.

To the uninitiated, these projects look easy for talented developers like Raj, Phua and Devtar but even these talented bunch admitted that it took a lot of hard work and there were even precious lessons learnt in the process.

Young interest

Raj, Phua and Devtar always held an interest in the world of computer programming even as children.

As a primary school student, Raj’s teacher introduced him to a program called Logo and that sparked his interest in programming.

After that, his interest spread to other computing languages including C and Java and eventually Php.

For Phua, the love of creating new things and controlling how they work got him interested and he eventually signed up for a computer course in university.

“This is actually my first time working on a big project. I’ve only created smaller games before,� he said.

Devtar’s interest in computers was a result of his love for computer games. His father, however, was not happy with him spending too much time playing such games and locked the Bios (Basic Input/Output system) of the computer to get Devtar to concentrate on his studies instead.

This is how the Malaysian Multimedia University graduate eventually got interested in network security.

“I tried my hand at bypassing the Bios and tried until I succeeded at it so I could play games,� he said.

Hard work

However, passion alone does not get the work done.

To complete their projects in time, the guys had to get cracking even before they sent in their proposals to participate in GSOC.

“A lot of the homework and research was done even before the selection process and we were given three months to make our projects work,� Devtar explained.

But even when he had done his homework and research prior to being selected, Devtar still took three quarters of the allocated time to complete his Bluetooth Scanner.

“It’s not just about writing code but you want to deliver the whole package with its bells and whistles so most of us took the remainder of the time given to work on making our projects presentable,� he said.

Raj said he completed his project about three weeks before the ­official deadline.

He spent the remainder of the time tying up the loose ends in his project.

“I spent the last three weeks ­optimising my code and preparing the proper documentation for it,� he said.

Since Phua was very familiar with his project, having adopted it as a final year project in university, he took only half the time given to complete his project.

“The rest of the time was used to add in other bits and pieces to perfect the project and make it look presentable,� he said.

Lessons learnt

The guys faced different kinds of obstacles to complete their projects.

For Raj, it was adhering to Google’s brand of coding standards which he wasn’t familiar with but eventually got used to it.

“I found my codes worked better when I did it their way and I even managed to shorten it but that process took a significant amount of time,� he said.

Phua found solid rendering to be his weakness in the project. This means perfecting an image so that it looks realistic and solid.

“When people use this tool to draw a cube, it will look like a perfect cube,� he explained.

Devtar found that his ­programming skills were not up to par compared to the other GSOC participants in the Umit project.

“These people were so far ahead that they were involved with the programming team of the ­programming language,� he said.

Realising this, Devtar took time to hone his programming skills while waiting to be accepted as a ­participant in the GSOC.

But to the guys, these obstacles were nothing compared to the experience and knowledge they gained after participating in GSOC.

Besides technology skills, Phua brushed up on softer skills like communication and work ethics.

He said he learnt how to manage and stick to tight deadlines as well as work with people of different cultures and background via the Internet.

“I learnt how to work with them and to compromise as well. I couldn’t just say that this is Malaysia and this is the way we do things here,� he said, adding that this was the ­greatest lesson he learnt throughout the whole experience.

Devtar was humbled by the entire experience. “You certainly cannot compare this to the smaller university campus environment because your teammates are littered across the globe,� he said.

And this is just a small bit of the experience. He agreed with Phua that the programme showed them how to work and delegate duties with people around the world.

“It’s not like going on and adding people to your Friendster or Facebook profile, you’re actually working with them and you have to understand them first before you can effectively work with them as a team,� he said.

Participating in GSOC made Raj realise that the real world is more than what’s contained in university textbooks. “The real world expects you to be more practical,� he said.

He said the campus environment can be too caught up in theory and documentation but in the real world, there’s no point having great documentation if the system doesn’t work.

“You could have a hundred page manual explaining how the system works but if the system is buggy and prone to exploits then users are not going to use it,� he said.

But this doesn’t mean you totally forget things you’ve learned in school. Just remember to apply them when at the right moment, Raj said.

Devtar concurred. “Education is just a foundation,� he said. Moving forward, he said, everyone has to be practical.

Future plans

Unfortunately, the world cannot expect to see the creations anytime soon as they do not plan to market them yet.

However, they have other plans as far as self-development is concerned.

Raj has already been asked to join his mentor as a software developer, which he has accepted.

“I see myself contributing a lot to the open-source community in this project and other independent projects like small scale games,� he said.

But Raj has already heard ­inquiries for his project. “A ­company that has developed a transactional engine using MySQL server have clients who want to test BlobStreaming,� he said.

He also plans to further his ­studies in the United States this year, ­preferably at Stanford or Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he said.

“From there we’ll see where things go,� he said.

Meanwhile, Phua plans to ­continue to perfect the freeCAD ­software and already has a ­benefactor to support his mission.

“Duke University has already agreed to have freeCAD integrated in their system,� he said.

The university has also lined up several contracts for the ­implementation of freeCAD. Phua is also looking for other investors to help in the development of the program.

Besides that, he has also applied to the National Science Foundation in the United States to fund his project.

“I’ve also met with a venture capitalist in Singapore to fund my project but I don’t think it is ready for commercialisation because I don’t have a proper business plan for it,� he said.

As for the local VC option, Phua said did not have any contacts. “Perhaps someone should tell them about me,� he quipped.

For Devtar, he will be working with Umit as the company ­integrates all the projects under its umbrella from the GSOC into a network.

This, he said, is scheduled to be ready early this year.

By JO TIMBUONG

Malaysia | Technology | 2009-01-09 |