Thursday, November 18, 2010

Setting a useful command prompt in Unix

I just came across a unix system at my workplace that had a static prompt set. Basically, the prompt was just the shell executable's name and version, more like 

bash-3.2 $

Well, this kind of prompt has many drawbacks, some of them i'd list here - 
1. You never know (just like that) where you are in the file system. When you are dealing with multi-directory situations, you might want to stop typing pwd to figure out ur current location.

2. You never know by what user you are logged in (again, just by looking at the prompt). You'd have to run a whoami to figure that out.

3. More importantly, if you are dealing with multiple systems, this one's the most killer.  You never know to what system you are logged in right now. you'd have to issue a hostname command.

Well, there might be, and for sure there are many other, consequences of having such a cryptic command prompt.  And therefore, my favourite, to have a command prompt, that displays at least these three things, always, dynamically...

Something like, 

raghav@deskubuntu:/homes/raghav/rails $ 

wherein, I am always aware of the three things mentioned earlier. This is very very useful when you are dealing with multiple systems and you have multiple users who are configured to run different types of processes.  For example, an oracle user who is supposed to be owner of oracle processes, and an informatica user which is supposed to own everything linked to informatica, and then a connect direct user which owns the CD processes, which receives files coming in from some other system.

With this kind of system, and your own user id to log in to the system, you'd better be careful which processes you are looking at / launching and by what user.  Its really very very important.

When and if you are dealing with a multiple system scenario, like dev / test / acceptance / production, you'd be better advised to use something like this only.

the magic command to do that is by setting appropriate flags and text in a environment variable called PS1.

Just set PS1 to your .profile or .bashrc (depending on your environment) file and you are set .

The example prompt that I mentioned can be achieved by saying - 

export PS1="\\u@\\h:\\w \\$ "

There are many more possibilities that go with special meanings for PS1 variable. Read some of them here - 

    * \$ : if the effective UID is 0, a #, otherwise a $
    * \[ : begin a sequence of non-printing characters, which could be used to embed a terminal control sequence into the prompt
    * \\ : a backslash
    * \] : end a sequence of non-printing characters
    * \a : an ASCII bell character (07)
    * \@ : the current time in 12-hour am/pm format
    * \A : the current time in 24-hour HH:MM format
    * \d : the date in "Weekday Month Date" format (e.g., "Tue May 26")
    * \D{format} : the format is passed to strftime(3) and the result is inserted into the prompt string; an empty format results in a locale-specific time representation. The braces are required
    * \e : an ASCII escape character (033)
    * \H : the hostname
    * \h : the hostname up to the first '.'
    * \j : the number of jobs currently managed by the shell
    * \l : the basename of the shell’s terminal device name
    * \n : newline
    * \nnn : the character corresponding to the octal number nnn
    * \r : carriage return
    * \T : the current time in 12-hour HH:MM:SS format
    * \t : the current time in 24-hour HH:MM:SS format
    * \u : the username of the current user
    * \s : the name of the shell, the basename of $0 (the portion following the final slash)
    * \V : the release of bash, version + patch level (e.g., 2.00.0)
    * \v : the version of bash (e.g., 2.00)
    * \W : the basename of the current working directory
    * \w : the current working directory

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

scripts and hash bang ( #! )

More often than not, people have to tell the unix shell / perl scripts or other programs where lies their interpretor, e.g. write their command line calls as 



ruby ARubyProgram.rb



this is because the system may not be aware of the location of the the executable interpreter of the exact type that needs to be used for the corresponding script.  Well, for this purpose, windows has the file extension association concept, but we are dealing with Unix like systems not windows, so that option is not really available to us (besides, there are ill effects of that convention too, but lets not go in that discussion).

So, to tell a unix program where to find its interpreter, besides launching the script along with it on command line, there is another way, and rather beautiful at that.

Just put the exact path of your interpreter executable at the very first line of your script preceded by these two magic characters, a hash and an exclamation (#!) also called as hash-bang or shebang.  Now, once your script is marked as executable (see chmod), you are good to go, no need of putting explicit calls to the interpreter to run your code.

Basically, your code should now look like this - 

print "testing hashbang with raghav"

Save this short script as (assuming that your system has perl 5 interpreter installed in the location I used). Make the script executable (chmod) and you can just launch the script, like ./  instead of earlier example perl

A word of caution though, these magic characters have to be absolutely the first and second character of the file, no exceptions to that. Else, the system cant make out the special meaning of this and the purpose is lost.

Pretty neat.. hunh...

Monday, November 1, 2010

A Note to New Consultants

I  am about to start a new role, that of a consultant at a new customer site soon. In order to prepare for that mentally, I was looking around for inspiration and advice. In the process, I stumbled across this gem from the founder of Boston Consulting Group.  I have picked up the text from this webpage(, and then tried to see through it from my own eyes.  All credits with the original webpage owners.

Written by Bruce Henderson, Founder of Boston Consulting Group in the 1970s

In a sense the consultant's role is a paradox. He gives advice to people of equal intelligence who have vastly superior and extensive experience and knowledge of the problem. Yet he is not necessarily an expert in anything. What is the justification for his value?

       Need of Consultant
  1. The consultant can function as a specialist or expert, In this role he must be more knowledgeable than the client. This implies a very narrow field of specialization, otherwise the client with his greater continuity of experience would be equally expert.

    The consultant can function as a counselor or advisor on the process of decision making. This implies an expertise of a special kind, that of the psychotherapist. This is merely a particular kind of expertise in a particular field.

    The most typical role for a consultant is that of auxiliary staff. This does not preclude any of the other roles mentioned before, but it does require a quite different emphasis.

    All companies have staff capabilities of their own. Some of this staff is very good. Yet no company can afford to have standby staff adequate for any and all problems. This is why there is an opportunity for consultants. They fill the staff role that cannot be filled internally.

    By definition this means that consultants are most useful on the unusual, the non-recurring, the unfamiliar problem. Outside consultants are also most useful where the problem is poorly defined and politically sensitive, but the correct decision is extremely important. Outside consultants get the tough, the important and the sensitive problems.

    The natural function of a consultant is to reduce anxiety and uncertainty. Those are the conditions under which anxiety and uncertainty are greatest and where consultants are most likely to be hired.

    Problem Definition
  2. If this point of view is our starting point, then problem definition becomes extremely important.
    • If the problem is incorrectly defined, then even its complete solution may not satisfy the client's perceived needs.
    • If the problem is improperly defined, it may be beyond our ability to solve.
  3. Problem definition is a major test of professional ability. Outside consultants can frequently define problems in a more satisfactory fashion than internal staff, primarily because they are unencumbered with the historical perspective of the client and the resulting "house" definition.

    A consultant's problem definition is the end of the assignment if the problem is not researchable. If the problem is not researchable, then the consultant is either a specialist-expert or a psychotherapist. Neither of these roles are suitable for the use of the resources of an organization such as The Boston Consulting Group.

    A researchable problem is usually a problem that should be dealt with by a group approach
    . Data gathering and analysis requires differing skills and different levels of experience that can best be provided by a group. The insights into complex problems are usually best developed by verbal discussion and testing of alternate hypotheses.

    Good research is far more than the application of intellect and common sense. It must start with a set of hypotheses to be explored. Otherwise, the mass of available data is chaotic and cannot be referenced to anything. Such starting hypotheses are often rejected and new ones substituted. This, however, does not change the process sequence of hypothesize / data gathering / analysis / validation / rehypothesize.

    Great skill in interviewing and listening is required to do this. Our client starts his own analysis from some hypothesis or concept. We must understand this thoroughly and be able to play it back to him in detail or he does not feel that we understand the situation. Furthermore, we must be sure that we do not exclude any relevant data that may be volunteered. Yet we must formulate our own hypothesis.

    Finally, we must be able to take our client through the steps required for him to translate his own perspective into the perspective we achieve as a result of our research. This requires a high order of personal empathy as well as developed teaching skills.

  4. The end result of a successful consulting assignment is not a single product. It is a new insight on the part of the client. It is also a commitment to take the required action to implement the new insights. Equally important, it is an acute awareness of the new problems and opportunities that are revealed by the new insights.

    We fail if we do not get the client to act on his new insights. The client must implement the insights or we failed. It is our professional responsibility to see that there is implementation whether we do it or the client does it.

    Much of the performance of a consultant depends upon the development of concepts that extend beyond the client's perception of the world. This is not expertise and specialization. It is the exact opposite. It is an appreciation of how a wide variety of interacting factors are related. This appreciation must be more than an awareness. It must be an ability to quantify the interaction sufficiently to predict the consequences of altering the relationships.

    Consultants have a unique opportunity to develop concepts since they are exposed to a wide range of situations in which they deal with relationships instead of techniques. This mastery of concepts is probably the most essential characteristic for true professional excellence.

    A successful consultant is first of all a perceptive and sensitive analyst. He must be in order to define a complex problem in the client's terms with inadequate data. This requires highly developed interpersonal intuitions even before the analysis begins.

    His analytical thinking must be rigorous and logical, or he will commit himself to the undoable or the unuseful assignment. Whatever his other strengths, he must be the effective and respected organizer of group activities which are both complex and difficult to coordinate. Failure in this is to fall into the restricted role of the specialist.

    [raghav] The first time I have read that a specialist role can be restrictive, and honestly, when you think about it again, it does come back as a correct statement, specially in the wider world of other opportunities. Specially for a management consultant.

    In defining the problem, the effective consultant must have the courage and the initiative to state his convictions and press the client for acceptance and resolution of the problem as defined. The client expects the consultant to have the strength of his convictions if he is to be dependent upon him. Consultants who are unskilled at this are often liked and respected but employed only as counselors, not as true management consultants.

    The successful professional inevitably must be both self-disciplined and rigorous in his data gathering as well as highly cooperative as a member of a case team.

    The continuing client relationship requires a sustained and highly developed empathy with the client representative. Inability to do this is disqualifying for the more significant roles in management consulting.
In other words, the successful consultant:
  • Identifies his client's significant problems;
  • Persuades his client to act on the problems by researching them;
  • Organizes a diversified task force of his own firm and coordinates its activity;
  • Fully utilizes the insights and staff work available in his client's organization;
  • Uses the full conceptual power of his own project team;
  • Successfully transmits his findings to the client and sees that they are implemented;
  • Identifies the succeeding problems and maintains the client relationship;
  • Fully satisfies the client expectations that he raised;
  • Does all these things within a framework of the time and cost constraints imposed by himself or the client.