Compendium of Wondrous Links vol V


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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?

Compendium of Wondrous Links vol IV


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Let your fellow developers know they’re great


I think that one of the most challenging things in my life as a developer is the Impostor Syndrome. Unless you’re stuck into a mediocre job, where everyone around you is pretty lame (and, believe me, if you’re in that situation, you want to get out as soon as possible), I think it is quite common to get that feeling of “wow, I don’t deserve to be here” feeling from time to time.

I am pretty terrible at myself, and I suspect I am not the only one. If I achieve something, that great feeling of “Oh, yeah!” will wear out after a few hours or days. I still remember sometimes failures I did at High School and feel bad about them. Yep, it sucks.

I have also perceived that it’s more dependent on yourself and team dynamics, that really on how smart people surrounding you is. Currently, I am in an astonishing place to work, where there are plenty of super amazing people. Surely I get impressed with great stuff often. But in previous jobs I had, where people were way less awesome but there were less communication, I felt it even worse.

Probably because we are painfully aware of all our limitations, the times we procrastinate, our failures, our own struggles with stuff that’s hard. But we perceive others more as their successes, their external results and their progress. One of the most common advice when performing live is to learn to “keep going” after a mistake, because it’s more important to continue that to allow that mistake to make you lose focus. With lack of positive reinforcement and seeing how valued is your work, it is very difficult to see your achievements and see yourself as a valuable member of a team.

I am more and more convinced that a great team and a great atmosphere are two of the most important things at job (if not THE most important), as well as in life. After all, we want to be reasonably happy while we’re working. Heck, we deserve to be happy at work.

That’s why I consider that giving good feedback to your co-workers is absolutely capital. Of course, when deserved. Of course, honest. It has to come from the heart. But I’m pretty sure that most of developers out there are way more eager to say and mean it “this is crap” than “this is fantastic“. And it shouldn’t be.

One of your most important duties as a developer is to show appreciation to your fellow co-workers so they know they’re great (and you know they are)

Compendium of Wondrous Links vol III


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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 II


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  • And two nice graphs from Twitter:

First job in a startup considered harmful


Well, at least is not ideal from my point of view…

At the moment there seems to be a lot of hype about startups. And why not? They are the places where the cool stuff happen. Filled with purpose, excitement, high stakes, fantastic teams, growth opportunities and the rare chance of maybe becoming a multibillionaire at a young age. I’ve worked in big and small companies (including startups), and I definitively prefer to work on smaller ones. You’re impact is bigger, the team works closer, way less corporate BS, etc…

But, while I think that working on a startup is exciting, and a great career move, I don’t think is a great first job. When starting a career on tech, a better place to start is an established company, at least for one or two years. Why? Simple because if you want to be a rebel, you have to know what to rebel against.

 

How else are are you going to know how to use a rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle?

How else are are you going to know how to use a rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle?

Established companies have a lot of bureaucracy, process, rules and middle managers. They are boring, that’s for sure. But there is one thing that they have than an startup has not. A proved method of doing stuff. A running operation. It can be dysfunctional, inefficient, stupid o just crazy, but they are being able to earn money with it. While the stupid processes seems to be there with the sole purpose of annoying workers, they are there for a reason. Maybe not the best one, but it is great learning experience to navigate through them.
Also, within all that craziness there are some steps that make sense. Something that has been refined after years of experience and a lot of work and it’s there for a reason. On every department there is some one that is actually brilliant and knows everything around. These people are excellent mentors. Not only on tech, but also on “the business world” and career-wise. We tend to think when we start that everything older than 5 years is obsolete. Talking to someone that is 25 or 30 years older gives a lot of perspective. They had gone through a lot, and their experiences are very valuable.
And, obviously, because that will make feel some of the pain on what a big company is. When I was a freshman out of college, I’ll just accept things that will drive me crazy today. Once you think about that you can effectively remove the pain points knowing why, and with actual experience on them. It’s the equivalent of measuring some software to discover the bottlenecks and then concentrate on them, instead of just making wild assumptions. Without real work on the field, it’s all premature optimisation.

Moving in the opposite direction, from small company to a big one can be absolutely horrendous. It is extremely difficult to perceive an increase in bureaucracy and processes as an improvement. Even in the few cases when it is. Having facing it in advance helps accepting it.
To be able to recognise how big companies operate and what are the real reasons why you don’t want to work there is a great experience when working in a startup. Of course, a small company have its challenges. But if your aim is to improve what big companies are doing (and that should be the goal of anyone working on a startup), how do you expect to do it without knowing it beforehand?

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.