Drawn to Complexity: story of my own stupidity

When someone writes blog entries about the mistakes of others, then one should also be able to admit one’s own. And that’s exactly what I’m going to do here.

The main reasons I’m writing this post are the following:

  • To entertain and interact on some level.
  • To save others from falling for the same mistakes or at least make them feel less alone.
  • To talk about the history of my commercial application (Cerbero Profiler), in order to offer an understanding to the reader of how it came to be the way it is.
  • To let the readers have access to my thoughts regarding the future of this product.

Let me start with a disclaimer: I am aware of the literature about software blunders, marketing strategies, sales, etc. I read quite a bit.

In fact, my own favorite book about mistakes in the IT world has been for a long time In Search Of Stupidy by Merrill R. (Rick) Chapman.

I probably first read this book when I was about 18-20 years old and it has remained my favorite ever since. I have since re-read it several times. Apart from the interesting history lessons concerning some of the biggest IT blunders, the book is also hilarious. I wish my writing could be as funny as Rick’s and maybe someday it will.

This is to say that not only have I since my youth been aware of mistakes done by major companies in the IT world, but I have also always agreed that to do better than others it is necessary to make less mistakes. There are many self-help books about success which recommend to give oneself the possibility to fail in a controlled way for as many times as it takes to reach success. Of course, ideally it’s even better to learn from the mistakes of others. Sometimes it may be possible if our own stubbornness doesn’t stand in the way.

The initial idea for the program came to me when I was very young, around 16. I had noticed how it was possible to explore the user address space of a process in WinHex and wanted to expand on that idea by allowing to inspect and edit PEs in memory.

The thing I easily was drawn to as a developer was complexity. If an idea was complex, I would have liked to begin working on it even before considering whether the idea had any real use. And the recurring theme in my life is that I have almost always chosen complexity over business opportunities.

It has to be noted that the most successful software, in terms of user count, I have ever written is also the one which took me the least to write, namely: 4GB Patch. It was written in about 20 minutes and I have no idea how many millions of times it has been downloaded.

Hence, I understood that complexity had little to do with success, as successful mobile phone fart apps have largely demonstrated. Still I couldn’t let go of my idea. Implementing it on a rough level could be easy, but doing it in a sophisticated way would take time.

I wrote most of Explorer Suite when I was 19 and at the time I wrote it mainly to help me with another project connected to .NET internals (I was writing an obfuscator). When I was 21-22 I already had much more experience and wanted to rewrite the core of the application to make it possible to offer support for multiple file formats (at the time I wanted to support more executable file formats). So I partly did that, but also the UI, written in MFC, was a disaster to expand. I didn’t have the time to work on it.

You have to keep in mind that during all that time I was also working on other projects. At 23 years of age I joined Hex-Rays to work on IDA Pro. Yet another time in my life when I chose complexity: I had something to prove and IDA Pro was a big fish. I was hired to rewrite/port the entire UI of IDA to Qt. Quoting Ilfak Guilfanov from the blog of Hex-Rays:

“We invested lots of time and efforts into idaq: Daniel worked on it full time nine months. And he is a brilliant programmer who knows how to do things, yet there is a lot to do – just to achieve the same level of comfort as with idag.”

I’d like to thank Ilfak for the opportunity he gave me, I learned a lot. But the most important thing I took away from that experience was that there wasn’t any project that could scare me anymore. That project was immense and it took me literally 9 months of writing and porting up to 1000 lines of code a day to make it in that time-frame. Afterwards, I was exhausted and fearless.

At the end of those initial months, I started working on a small PDF analyzer using the core I had rewritten years before. At the time, there was a huge interest in PDF malware and I wanted to take the opportunity to play a bit with my code.

The PDF utility evolved in the following years into a part of my original idea: an application capable of inspecting multiple file formats and I started to sell the product.

My first mistake, and this is something probably many do when they’re young and/or inexperienced, was that I created something overly-professional. I wasn’t exactly sure who the audience for the product was going to be. Was it going be just technical people or also semi-technical people? This was a big ingenuity on my side. I could have thought it through at the time and figure it out from the start.

That mistake resulted into a UI which tried to be both simple and complex at the same time. This means that the UI hid the complexity to make things appear more simple or limited, but not nearly enough for somebody who isn’t skilled, while also increasing the learning curve for skilled people who had to search for the hidden functionality they needed.

This initial indecision also resulted into a fundamental marketing issue of product positioning. Was I offering my product to technical people or not? And what exactly was I selling?

You see, in my pursuit of adding complexity, I completely lost focus on use-cases and marketing. The incomplete list of features on the page of the product is like a giant wall of text which you can observe here in miniature.

See how impressive and complex it is? I bet you already want to purchase it!

You don’t? Yeah… exactly.

The list of sparse features is staggering. The program even includes Clang just in order to be able to extract C++ structures from source code.

The list of supported file formats is also considerable:

APK, APNG, AXML, BMP, BZ2, CHM, CLASS, DEX, DIB, DLL, DOC, DOCX, ELF, EML, EOT, EXE, GIF, GZIP, JAR, JPEG, JSE, LNK, LZMA, MACH-O, MSI, O, OCX, ODT, OTF, PDB, PDF, PFB, PNG, PPS, PPT, PPTX, PRX, PUFF, RAW, RTF, SO, SQLITE3, SWF, SYS, T1, T2, TIFF, TORRENT, TTC, TTF, VBE, WINMEM, WOFF, XDP, XLS, XLSX, XML, ZIP

I wrote most of the support myself with the exception of CHM, EML, DOC/XLS/PPT (which I took over), LNK, ActionScript2 (in SWF), WINMEM (which I handed over after initially developing it myself). The reader has to consider that the support for certain file formats like PDF or PE is extensive.

I lost track of the features myself and implemented many things which nobody could even notice. Let me offer you a few examples of my insanity.

  • I stress-tested many DB technologies just to see which was the best one to store the data. I abstracted the access to the DB in order to be able to switch the DB technology underneath or even support more than one. My idea was even to let the user decide which DB type to use.
  • As already mentioned, I embedded Clang just to extract C++ structures from source code. The level of support goes one step further into insanity as it even includes templates. And that’s not even the end of it. Structures can be imported from PDBs as well and underneath they rely on two different mechanism: whereas C++ structures are computed on the fly in terms of size, PDB ones have a fixed size.
  • Speaking of which, I added my own PDB parser which I created relying only on the awesome information provided by Sven B. Schreiber and the hex editor.
  • I didn’t want to rely on Authenticode in Windows to validate certificates in PEs, because that would have meant having some non-portable code and also slightly slowing down the scanning process. So what I did was to reverse engineer how Authenticode works and implement it myself. The application won’t validate certificates on Linux and OS X, because I didn’t have a nice way to maintain an updated certificate store and the necessity didn’t arise so I didn’t bother, but in theory it could validate PEs on Linux and OS X.
  • I implemented the parsing of every font format. Some famous exploits relied on font technology, so I didn’t want the product to lack the support for fonts. For those of you who are not aware of it: there isn’t just one font format. There is even one format called EOT created by Microsoft, which stands for Embedded Open Type. Basically it’s a compressed OpenType font. To get back to the OpenType format several stages have to be performed. One of those includes decompression. As for the compression algorithm, Microsoft chose a custom one based on lz77 called lzcomp. Microsoft has released the source code of lzcomp, but the version they released contained some bugs and had already been patched in Windows. So what I did was to diff the compiled code in order to include the patches and to avoid having vulnerable code in my product. Of course, I could’ve also used the Windows API to achieve the same, but that would’ve meant not being able to run the same code on other OSs.
  • At the time when it came out I bought the latest PDF specs draft, just to be able to support the newest encryption revision before anyone could even ask for it.
  • I implemented a first-person shooter game in the product so that the user wouldn’t get bored during the analysis of a file. I’m joking, but I stopped just shy of that.

These are just a few of the insane things I did. And I did many of them while also having an office job.

In fact, even though it took way longer than I had hoped for, I found enough energy one night after work and got to finish the code to demonstrate the idea which was planted in my brain since I was 16.

An icon, inside an executable, inside a process address space, inside a raw memory dump. The complete hierarchy being visible and explorable.

I had proved what I set out to prove. That was it. One thing scrapped from the to-do list of my life.

The development of the memory support stalled after that, because the office work was taking up most of my time and I also had a life to live (let’s pretend it’s true). In addition, I still had a product to support regarding the features which were actually being used by people.

In the end, I decided to hire another developer dedicated to the memory part as that was the only viable solution and it turned out to be the right thing to do.

So what was the result of all this work? A product which I had difficulty to describe to potential customers. I ended up pitching it as a “file analysis framework”, which sounds as exciting as you would expect.

I am actually grateful to those customers which saw past the confusing concept, steep learning curve and sparse features. Many customers appreciated, for instance, the Python SDK. I have dedicated a lot of time and effort into exposing most of the functionality of the product to Python. The only issue in that regard is the documentation, since it’s not easy to grasp everything from the posts on the company blog.

However, whenever a customer asked me for help with the SDK, I tried to do my best and I think that has been appreciated.

I actually like the SDK. For instance, decoding an object (or all of them, for that matter) in a PDF is just as simple as the following code.

And it’s not only about file formats: the SDK allows to create complex UIs as well.

After over a decade of non-continuous development, this summer I finally had the time to draw some conclusions. What mistakes did I make? Which are the things I dislike about my product and which are the ones I like?

Some of the mistakes I made:

  • I focused onto proving something instead of focusing on real use-cases. I even knew about this, but it didn’t change my commitment to do it regardless.
  • I didn’t choose my target audience from the start.
  • I have implemented too many sparse features instead of continuing to improve a limited number.
  • All of that resulted into creating something which I didn’t feel passionate about.

Of course, it’s better to do just one thing and do it well. But that was too simple for me and that goes back to the root of my own stupidity.

Having forced myself to write something without passion is also my main issue now. Since I started my work towards version 3.0, I decided to make radical changes.

  1. Remove everything I visually hate from the product and replace it with something I like. This started out by creating a new icon.
  2. Think about the things I like such as the SDK to build on them and create more things that I like.
  3. Finally give the product a shape and position.
  4. Maintain code compatibility for whatever solution existing customers have created.
  5. Give the product a strong coherency, both visual and feature-wise.
  6. End up with a project I enjoy working on and a product people enjoy using.

Having reached a point of (partial) maturity in my life and not feeling anymore any need to prove myself through complexity, I am now forced to deal with the complexity I created in my youth for myself.

To completely re-think such a large project is not easy at all. It may or may not work out. I really am not writing from a point where I know that it will be possible to remedy my mistakes. I have some initial ideas, but I am still far from a complete concept.

This time I am presented with some unique challenges, different from those I encountered in the past. The main challenge lies in becoming passionate about the project. If somehow I manage to accomplish that, then I think many more could enjoy the product.

Overclocked

This post comes after a very long hiatus on my side in relation to this personal blog. During the past years I have been very busy with work and other activities, but in the last months I took a break and started to re-think my life.

One of the consequences of this process, has been the revamping of NTCore and the decision to provide it with new content in the shape of articles and programs. In fact, I wanted to start with a technical article, but then some considerations crept into my mind and I wanted to share them.

One of the reasons I stopped writing about interesting things and to dedicate spare time to my IT hobby, was that too much of my time was being spent on work related IT activities not connected to the development of Cerbero Profiler. Anyone who has ever worked for a company with management issues, can understand this perfectly. There are companies, large or small, which kill the passion for whatever you enjoyed doing before working for them.

One classic example is a company which had luck with its first product, because it was the right product at the right time and then tries to replicate its first success with an endless amount of new projects all doomed to fail. The reason they do it is because they don’t want their company to rely only on one product. The reason they fail is because they were lucky, more than anything else, with their first product.

Unfortunately, the boost of arrogance caused by the first hit is enough to eclipse all the following failures, which may or may not, depending on the success of the first product, bring the company to collapse.

The technical workforce in such a company is divided into two groups. The first group works on the first product, aka the cash cow. This group endures enormous pressure, because the entire faith of the company depends on them. Not only that, but the pressure increases whenever money is wasted on the other useless side-projects. The frustration of this group stems from the fact that they are the only ones being put under pressure and that their work has to finance the, from their side perceived, non-work of the others.

The second groups works on the side-projects which are doomed to fail. The clever technical people in this group already know that these projects will fail, but that doesn’t change anything in the decisions taken by the company. The frustration of this group stems from continuously doing useless things, which nobody cares about and not being appreciated like the people in the first group.

In such an environment, it doesn’t matter to which group you belong to, if you understand the big picture or if you just consider it your day job. You’ll be stressed regardless. The difference is that the people of the first group tend to last longer, but the toxic environment of the company will consume them as well in the long run. The people of the second group are the ones being consumed faster and there’s a reason for that.

I heard that some large companies take into account the psychological effects on a software developer who worked on a major project, which then got canceled. These companies make sure that the employee is then assigned to the development team of an already established product. This is to avoid the re-occurrence of the same situation for the developer and the psychological strain it would generate for him.

If you currently work for a company of the earlier category, I can give you only one advice: resign and do something else. Cultivate crops, hunt, forge steel or build roads. Anything is better than enduring the noise of such a place. You can do it for a time if you need to, but you have to know when to stop.

For years I wasn’t able to live from the profits of my commercial product and needed a day job, then in the last years the situation changed, but I still didn’t stop my other activity for a number of reasons. In the beginning profits were still uncertain and I also figured that more money was even better.

The ironic thing is that even though you may earn more money, you are also more inclined to spend it easily. This is because of the work-caused mental fatigue which forces your brain to look for continuous gratification to alleviate the pain. So you end up in a fancy apartment, with a big TV, a nice car, etc. It requires some effort to break the routine and part from that situation. Effort which isn’t caused by the difficulty to give up a materialistic life-style, but to one’s mental fatigue which makes it hard to start any new endeavor.

That isn’t to say that I dislike money. In fact, one of the reasons I changed my life is that the money wasn’t nearly good enough for the amount of stress I had to face. I am neither a materialistic person nor a hippie. I can live with little money or with tons of it. It doesn’t change who I am.

It’s been only 10 months since I changed things and started to re-organize my life. The initial months were spent mostly on personal matters, logistics and recovering my physical health. Even though I always kept in shape and did a lot of sport, the stress still had effects on my overall well-being.

I spent the following months on relaxing my mind, making projects for the future and even starting a new hobby, knife making.

Of course, I still worked on my commercial product from time to time, but even that required a thinking pause as the new 3.0 version approaches and it’s a good point in time for some interesting and major improvements. I also made new important business deals unrelated to my product, which wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t changed things.

That brings us to now and to my wish to rekindle my passion for IT and to the actual topic of the post.

It’s impossible for someone who grew up playing with SoftICE, like myself, not to notice the differences in approaching the field of IT back then and doing it now. In the past, we spent our time on IRC, which was a lot more fun than Twitter. We had less technologies to focus on. The result was that we were more focused and less distracted.

Not only that. We were small communities in which you could gain appreciation for some days of work writing a small utility or writing an article. Today nobody gives a fuck. Your article or code is just a drop in the ocean or a tweet in the movie “The Birds”.

Nowadays the IT field exploded with many new fields and disciplines, many of which 20 years ago were relegated to academic research, were insignificantly small or weren’t there at all. Distributed computing, machine learning, mobile development, virtualization etc.

At the same time, the amount of people and money in the IT industry also caused the explosion of bullshit. From IT security up until the retarded bullshit of agile development.

Although this may just seem another “things were better before” comment, it’s not really the point of it. There’s a natural process of commercialization from something which is niche to something which becomes common and consumed by the masses, which makes the field for those belonging to the initial niche less appealing. This is normal.

What is interesting is that we lose interest in things today, because we are overclocked. By this technical reference I mean that we are overstimulated. We developed a numbness in regard to technology because we were exposed to too many (mostly useless) innovations in an excessive amount which our brain couldn’t absorb and so it gave up and lost interest.

While, of course, no one can centrally control the amount of innovations which globally come out every day, individual companies can limit the amount of innovations within their own products for our brains to be able to appreciate them.

There’s a reason why nobody cares today when the new Windows is released. Many stopped caring after Windows Vista and most after Windows 7. Remember when the release of a new Windows was a big event? Remember how respected the work of Matt Pietrek and Sven B. Schreiber was? It’s not just because they were pioneers. The reason is that we cared beyond having a resource to help us implement our daily piece of code.

We had the illusion that technology was a progression towards improvement. And now we are disillusioned.

In my old rants against Microsoft, wherein I predict the failure of products like Windows Phone and Silverlight, it is possible to notice the increasing disillusionment. Let me quote an old post from 2011:

Moreover, Windows could be improved to an endless extent without re-inventing the wheel every 2 years. If the decisions were up to me I would work hard on micro-improvements. Introduce new sets of native APIs along Win32. And I’d do it gradually, with care and try to give them a strong coherency. I would try to introduce benefits which could be enjoyed even by applications written 15 years ago. The beauty should lie in the elegance in finding ingenious solutions for extending what is already there, not by doing tabula rasa every time. I would make developers feel at home and that their time and code is highly valued, instead of making them feel like their creations are always obsolete compared to my brand new technology which, by the way, nobody uses.

To be clear, it isn’t just Microsoft. All the big players make the same mistake. During Jobs’ era at Apple we had a controlled amount of improvements which we could appreciate. When Jobs died, Apple became the same as any other company and today nobody cares about Apple products as well.

The gist of my theory is what follows. The majority of people use Windows or the iPhone to do a number of things. While a minority of people may think it’s cool to have yet a slimmer phone without headphone jack or charging it without a wire, these are actually regressions (having to buy new adapters or headphones from Apple, more easily breaking your phone because the back is made out of glass) and they annoy the majority, while also numbing their capacity to absorb improvements.

If you add to your product 50 new things and only 5 of those are actual improvements, even those 5 improvements will become an indistinguishable blur among the other 45 and won’t even be perceived.

And just to hammer my point home, let’s take a Victorinox Swiss Army Knife (yes, I grew up watching MacGyver). It has more than a hundred years of history and it is perfect as it is. Of course, a minority of people may think that adding pizza cutter to it may be essential, but Victorinox doesn’t work for a minority. Yes, every now and then a new model of knife comes out intended for a particular group of people like sailing enthusiasts or IT workers, but the classic models have more or less remained unchanged throughout the decades. What happened is that they went over countless micro-improvements which brought them to the state-of-the-art tools they are today.

An OS, just like any important piece of technology, should give the user the same satisfaction a Victorinox SAK gives to its holder.

These are some of the considerations which crossed my mind while trying to make again my entrance in the IT world. They will reflect on my work and over the next months I will invest on that.