Compendium of Wondrous Links vol VII


wondrous_links

Here we go again… This time I’m loosely grouping them, it has been a while and there are so many things!

  • An extremely though-provoking article about the possible positive things can have a negative effect. How Perks Can Divide Us. Corporate culture is something extremely complex.
  • Mora about culture and biases on Mirrorcracy.
  • I do not like the idea that people have a “level”, ignoring all the dynamics (I talked about this here). There are no B players.
  • A set of articles talking about management skills. Is a great compilation of the different aspect of management. Great read even if you’re not “an official manager”, as is capital to understand what are the things that a (good) manager should do and challenges that the role presents
  • Some ideas about productivity. I like this quote a lot: “There is no one secret to becoming more productive, but there are hundreds of tactics you can use to get more done”
  • We tend to idealise the work involved in some stuff we really like. In particular in creating video games. It’s okay not to follow your dreams, but I think it could apply to a lot of other aspects

Dragon's Lair

 

 

Future as a developer and the ever changing picture


A few weeks ago I came by a couple of articles my Marco Arment that share the theme of the current status of accelerated change within the development community as a way of stressing up, and being difficult to be up to date. After all, one gets tired of learning a new framework or language every size months. It gets to a point where is not funny or interesting anymore.

It seems like two different options are presented, that are available for developers after some time:

  • Keep up, meaning that you adopt rapidly each new technology
  • Move to other areas, typically management

Both are totally valid options, as I already said in this blog that I don’t like when good developers move to different areas (to me it’s sort of a surgeon deciding she had enough after a few years and move to manage the hospital). Though, obviously each person has absolutely every right to choose their career path.

But I think that it’s all mostly based in an biased and incorrect view of the field of technology and the real pace of changes.

In the last years, there has been an explosion of technologies, in particular for web. Ruby on Rails almost feels introduced at the same time as COBOL. NodeJS seemed to be in fashion for a while. The same with MongoDB or jQuery.

We all know that being stressed is not a great way of learn

We all know that being stressed is not a great way of learn

In the last 6 or 7 years there has been an incredible explosion in terms of open source fragmentation. Probably because GitHub (and other online repos) and the increase in communication through the Internet, the bar to create a web framework and offer it to the world has been lowered so much, that a lot of projects that would’ve been not exposed previously, has gotten more exposure. As a general effect, is positive, but it came with the negative effect that every year there is a revolution in terms of technologies, which forces everyone to catch up and learn the brand new tool that is the best for the current development, increasing the churning of buzz words.

But all this is nothing but an illusion. We developers tend to laugh at the common “minimum 3+ years of experience in Swift”, but we still get the notion that we should be experts in a particular language, DB or framework since day one. Of course, of the one on demand today, or we are just outdated, dinosaurs that should retire.

Software development is a young field, full of young people. That’s great in a lot of aspects, but we need to appreciate experience, even if it comes from using a different technology. It doesn’t look like it, but there’s still a lot of projects done in “not-so-fancy” technologies. That includes really old stuff like Fortran or COBOL, but also C++, Java, Perl, PHP or Ruby.

Technologies gets established by a combination of features, maturity, community and a little luck.  But once they are established, they’re quite resilient and don’t go away easily.  They are useful for quite a long time. Right now it’s not that difficult to pick a tool that is almost guaranteed to be around in the next 10-15 years. Also, most of the real important stuff is totally technology agnostic, things like write clean code, structure, debug ability, communication, team work, transform abstract ideas into concrete implementations, etc… That simply does not go away.

Think about this. iOS development started in 2008. Smartphones are radically different beasts than the ones available 6 years ago, probably the environment that has changed more. The basics are the same, though. And even if Swift has been introduced this year, it’s based in the same principles. Every year there has been tweaks, changing APIs, new functionalities. But the basic ideas are still the same. Today a new web development using LAMP is totally viable. Video games still relay on C++ and OpenGL. Java is still heavily used. I use all the time ideas mainly developed in the 70s like UNIX command line or Vim.

Just because every day we get tons of news about new startups setting up applications on new paradigms, that doesn’t mean that they don’t coexist with “older” technologies.

Of course, there are new tricks to learn, but it’s a day by day additive effort. Real revolution and change of paradigm is rare, and normally not a good sign. Changing from MySQL to PostgreSQL shouldn’t be considered a major change in career. Searching certain stability in the tools you use should be seen as good move.

We developers love to stress the part of learning everyday something new and constantly challenge ourselves, but that should be taken also in perspective with allowing time to breathe. We’ve created a lot of pressure on ourselves in terms of having to be constantly pushing with new ideas, investigating in side projects and devoting ourselves 100% of the time to software. That’s not only not realistic. It’s not good.

You only have to breathe.  And just worry on doing a good work and enjoy learning.

The amazing forgiveness of software


One of the things I like most about developing software is the fact that you can recover from most mistakes with very few long term impact.

Bugs are unavoidable, and most of the people involved on programming deeply understands that is something we all live with.  So,  there’s no hard feelings, once you find a bug, you fix it and immediately move on. Not only no one thinks that you’re a bad developer because you write bugs, but typically the impact of a bug is not that problematic.

Yes, there are some bugs that are just terrible. And there’s always the risk of losing data or do some catastrophic operation on production. But those are comparatively rare, and with the proper practices, the risk and damage can be reduced. Most on the day to day operation involves mistakes that have a much limited effect. Software development is more about being bold and move fast fixing your mess, than it is to play safe (within limits, of course).

This can affect production data! Show warning sign!

This can affect production data! Display warning sign!

Because the greatness of software is that you can break it on purpose and watch it explode, and then fix that problem. In a controlled environment. Without having to worry about permanent effects or high costs. And a good test is the one that ambushes the code and try to viciously stab it with a poisonous dagger. The one that can hurt. So you know that your system is strong enough against that attack. And then iterate. Quickly. It’s like having a permanent second chance to try again.

Not every aspect of live is that forgiving. I guess that a lot of doctors would love to be able to do the same.

Do you mind if we start the trial again and the jury forgets everything, your honor?

Do you mind if the jury forgets everything and we start the trial again, your honor?

Respect Driven Development


I think that one of the most overlooked components on any sane company culture is Respect. That’s probably true also for any relationship, also outside work environment, but I think is usually forgotten when nice places to work are described.

When I look back about the things that bothered me the most, most of them are related to disrespect, even in relatively minor form. It can be personal disrespect or not respecting the work itself or even the customers. Probably because is something engraved, it’s easy to take for granted when it exists, and to identify more problems deviating from the lack of it when is not present. We typically talk about how great cultures are innovative, open, communicative, fun, collaborative, etc. but one of the prerequisites that makes these values worthwhile is Respect, both to your coworkers and to the work itself.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T  Find out what it means to me

R-E-S-P-E-C-T
Find out what it means to me

Without Respect, ideas are accepted mostly depending on who present them, and need to be imposed. Even when there are explicit request for ideas, they take the shape of “suggestion boxes” where no one really looks into them. So, in practice, being proactive is discouraged unless you’re in a power position.

When there is Respect, ideas can be freely exchanged without fear of not being talking seriously. They are also welcomed from any source, not only through the “chosen channels”. There can be hard scrutiny, but it will be fair, and rejections will be reasonably based in facts.

Without Respect, a “funny, relaxed atmosphere” can be easily transformed into harassment and abuse. Jokes will actually hurt. Closed groups,   extremely aggressive with everyone external with them, will be formed. That can include groups outside the company, like mocking customers or partners. Some groups will be appointed as intrinsically “better” (engineers, executives…) as others (secretaries, workers…) and generate asymmetrical relationships, with one part dominating the other.

When there is Respect, jokes are played just for the laugh, and are taken up to the correct limit for everyone, as there are people with thicker skin than others. If those limits happen to be crossed, the problem will be arisen and people will sincerely apologise and correct their behaviours in the future, without external influence. Occasionally the customers or partners can be make fun of, but the quality of the delivered software will be took extremely seriously (the highest form of Respect for customers) and their requests or suggestions will be taken into account when making new features.

Without Respect within the company and the different groups, no particular measures will be enforced to protect anyone or anything. Therefore, it will be easy for someone to take advantage of that, ranging from lower the quality of the work to be a moron and degrade the working environment. Code will devolve into an unreadable mess, and technical debt will grow uncontrollably. Hiring standards will get lower, and not-that-great people will be part of the team (technically, but also in a more personal sense). Also, the expectations will be to work overtime regularly, without any contingency plans or treating it as a bad sign.

When there is Respect, the organisation truly cares about the people, and not just as an empty statement. This includes understanding when overtime is unavoidable evil and work as a team to avoid it as much as possible. And when it happens, everyone do as much as they can to make it as short and enjoyable as possible. There will be understanding when someone wants to leave because they have a genuine different interest, leaving the door open if things don’t turn out for the good. Learning and personal growth will be encouraged with actions, not only with words.

Trust, a extremely important value, can only arise if there is Respect. Without Respect, fear and uncertainty will replace real trust. Being honest needs trust and confidence in the other part, as real honesty can be, and sometimes should be, uncomfortable to hear. Formality and defensiveness take control over honest feedback and team work when respect is not present. Any long-term relationship also needs Respect to stay healthy.

What have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully?

What have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully?

Being imperfect human beings, we cannot probably achieve perfect respectful relationships  at all times. But we should try to be as respectful  as possible, identifying our mistakes and the ones of the organisation, and move up towards the Respect ladder. That makes a much healthier (and happier) environment for all. We should recognise the Real Respect, as the word is often abused.

It is great to aim for having a great organisation or startup, with a thrilling culture. But, in order to get to establish a funny, exciting, learning, diverse and passionate place to work, we should lay strong foundations with Respect. Identify it, and not tolerate the lack of it.

Compendium of Wondrous Links vol I


wondrous_linksAs a way of collecting interesting reads across the Internet, I plan to keep a relatively regular posts with some articles and posts that I’ve read, mostly related to development, software and tech world in general.

Here it goes the first edition.

Hope you enjoy it!

Online community biases


There are a lot of discussion online about a huge number of different topics. That’s fantastic news, I’d love to had a learning tool that powerful when I was in school. To share some of my interests, and have other people to talk about “cool stuff” and learn from them. Online communities have speed up personal and technological growth intensely, allowing people from around the world to share knowledge and to feel close. But, on the other hand, these kind of communities get naturally and subtlety biased. While this is normal, and probably unavoidable, anyone participating should be aware that the so-called “real world”, or even the community as a whole, is not a perfect extrapolation of it.

Totally scientific data, properly labelled

Totally scientific data, properly labelled

It is quite spread the idea of the “1% rule” over the Internet. A1% of the community will be the most active, driving the discussion, generating the subjects that will be provoke discussion, etc. ~10% of the people will collaborate, comment, retweet, add their impressions… And the rest will just consume it and learn from it. This distribution seems to be present in any community big enough. It makes sense, there’s only a very limited number of people that can be creators (I’ll call them leaders), there is a bigger group of people willing to spend time and effort collaborating (I’ll call them participants), and then the rest that are interested, but not willing to spend a lot of time (I’ll call them consumers).

But, here is the interesting part. The 1% is not a perfect representation of the whole.In fact, it can (and normally will) be pretty biased. That’s something quite natural. After all, leaders are different from the majority of the community, or they won’t be leaders. But other than their tendency to stand up, to speak up, they can have a lot of significative biases.

For example, a clear example of that are so-called “hardcore gamers”. While the statistical profile of a “gamer” (someone that enjoys video games from time to time) is very very broad, the “hardcore gamer community” is the most vocal. The discussion about games is centred into big AAA games (GTAs, CoDs…), and, to a lesser degree, to big casual games (FarmVille, Candy Crush…) and interesting indie experiments (Gone Home). The main idea someone will get is that “gamers” are mainly young, male and like to play for hours, when that’s not a good statistical representation of the community. Keep in mind that 45% of players are female, and a third have over 35 years. There are discussions about “what is a game and what is not” (meaning, “I’ve decided that you’re not playing games, OK?”), entire genres that are often ignored by everyone, and a general perception on what “real gaming” should be. A very good indication of that are the recent rants against microtransactions[1]. Sure, they feel wrong for a lot of people that is used to get a whole game for a price, and play it all. But I’m afraid that a lot of people right now spend a small amount of time playing and they just don’t feel like committing to a game, and Free to Play model present advantages to that kind of player.

I really don't see the point denying that this a game. It may be a BAD game, though.

I really don’t see the point denying that this a game, even if is a BAD one.

I am not arguing that biases are good or bad. Some will be good, because will bring focus to a chaotic community, some will be bad because will represent a minority that think they are the only “real” members of the community. Probably each of us will have a different opinion about which ones are positive or negative. What I am trying to say is that they are unavoidable.

Let me focus in development, as is the one community that I am most interested in. In the general online developers community, there are some biases that I think are quite strong, and probably not perceived from leaders and participants (after all, it mostly resembles them).

The community is young. This is clearer in the participants group than in the leaders one, after all, wisdom and insight are a good qualities for being a leader, and those comes mostly with age. With youth comes new views to change the world, but also naïveté and inexperience.

It is driven mostly by Americans (and foreigners living in the US, to a certain degree), not only by the strong position US has in tech, but also because the online lingua franca is currently English. In particular, it is very centred into Silicon Valley because is where the most discussion-driven companies of the world are based. Both well established companies and start-ups.

The most talked technologies are web tech (both front-end and back-end), with mobile apps in a second place. There is comparatively few discussion about desktop applications (which are the basis of everyday work), and even less on areas like embedded systems or commerce backends (including banks).

All those biases (there are more, of course, but just to limit to these three) work together in ways that some times are curious. Like assuming that most people are able to earn a Silicon-Valley-level salary, or that access to a computer (or even worse, Internet) in your teens is granted. Also, grammar errors are unforgivable mistakes a lot of times that should be pointed (and forget about things like transcript conference talks). Products are only relevant when they’re launched in the US, and everyone went to an american High School (which, as depicted on media and comments seems to be the Worst.Place.Ever.). That hardware come, out of the blue, from time to time, so we can run software faster. Of course, I’m exaggerating, but not by much.

I may have a biased idea on how US High School is.

I may have a biased idea on how US High School is.

I don’t know, from my point of view, given that I don’t share a lot of those biases (I can’t honestly consider myself “young” anymore, I am a Spaniard living in Ireland, and I spent half of my career working on non web technologies[2]), sometimes I get baffled by online discussion, especially the ones that talk about the community (as opposed to the tech, which is a different issue). My main concern with all the system is that everyone (participants and consumers in particular) will assume that every single issue raised by leaders can be translated directly into the general community.

Just to show an example, there is a lot of discussion about what makes a great developer and the proper strategies to hire them. Some ideas that could work for hiring a young front-end developer in San Francisco may not work as well on other places, for different technologies. There is always discussion about being a founder in different countries, and, as you can imagine, the experiences are quite different. Different legal system, different business cultures, etc…

Being in contact with communities where you’re talking to what in many aspects are your peers is absolutely fantastic, You can relate to them in a lot of things. That’s why you’re part of the community. Heck, I learn a lot everyday. But we also need to take some distance some times, be a little critic on some subjects and try to adapt what we learn to our particularities. Because  chances are you’re  biased in a different way than the leaders and participants of the community.

1.I don’t like the microtransactions thing, but I just think that there is a business case for it.

2. Embedded software related to satellites and industrial control systems.

Some characteristics of the best developers I worked with


I had a conversation last November on the PyConEs, when I was on a conversation stating that I am working with truly brilliant people in DemonWare, and then someone asked me: “Do you have problems agreeing in  what to do? Normally great developers have problems reaching consensus on tech discussions”. My answer something like: “Well, in my experience, truly awesome developers know when to have a strong argument and they usually are ok reaching an agreement in a reasonable time”.

So, I wanted to, as sort of follow-up, summarise what are the characteristics that I’ve seen in the best developers I’ve been lucky to work with. This is not a list I am making on “what’s my ideal developer”, but more a reflexion on the common traits I’ve seen on my experience…

    • Awesome developers are obviously smart, but that’s not typically shown as bursts of brilliance, solving really difficult issues with “aha!” moments. In my experience, genius ideas are rarely required nor expressed (though they surely happen once in a blue moon). Instead, great developers are consistently smart. They present solutions to problems that are reasonable all the time. They find and fix typical bugs with ease. They struggle with very difficult problems, but are able to deal with them. They are able to quickly present something that will make you say “Actually that’s a nice point. Why didn’t I think about this?”. They do not typically present something ingenious and never heard of, but deliver perfectly fine working ideas over and over, one day after another.  Their code is not full of mind blowing concepts, but it is logical, clean and easy to follow most the time (and when’s not, there is a good reason). They are able to remove complexity and simplify stuff, to a degree that it almost look easy (but it’s not)
Normally brilliant people on real life do not come with crazy great ideas out of nowhere

Brilliant people on real life do not come with insanely great ideas out of nowhere

  • They keep a lot of relevant information on their minds. They are able to relate something that is in discussion with something that happened three months ago. They seem to have the extraordinary ability of getting out of the hat some weird knowledge that is applicable to the current problem.
  • While they have a passion for coding, it is not the only thing in their lives. They have hobbies and interests, and they don’t usually go home in the weekends to keep working on open source all day, though they may occasionally do.
  • They love to do things “the right way”, but even more than that, they love to make things work. This means that they will use tools they consider inferior to achieve something if it’s the best/most convenient way. They’ll complain and will try to change it, but deliver will be more important that being right. They have strong opinions about what language/framework/way of doing stuff is best, being that Python, Ruby, Haskell, PostgreSQL, Riak or COBOL, but that won’t stop them knowing when it’s important to just stop arguing and do it.
  • They are humble. They are confident most of the times, but far from arrogant. My impression is that they don’t think that they are as awesome as they truly are. They will want to learn from everyone else, and ask when they have questions. They will also catch new ideas very fast. They are also friendly and nice.
  • Communication is among their best skills. They are very good communications, especially, but not limited, about tech issues. They may be a little social awkward sometimes (though this is not as common as stereotypes portrait), but when they have the motivation to express some idea, they’ll do it very clearly.
  • In some of the truly remarkable cases, they’ll be able to fulfil different roles, when needed. I mean different roles in the most broad sense, basically being able to be what’s needed for that particular moment. Sometimes they’ll have to be leaders, sometimes they’ll be ok being led. They’ll know when a joke is the proper thing to do and when to remain formal. They’ll be the person that helps you with a difficult technical question, or the one that will tell you “you’re tired, just go home and tomorrow it will be another day”
  • And they’ll have a great sense of humour. I know that almost everyone thinks that they have a good sense of humour. That’s not totally true.

Again, this is sort of a personal collection of traits based in my experience and on what I consider the best developers I’ve been honoured to work with. Any ideas?