Sam Stephenson, understated and excellent

I’ve enjoyed Sam Stephenson’s work for a long time. Even before “sheesh”, the most polite dismantling of an over-privileged open source user, Sam’s work has been top notch. Prototype is the library that made JavaScript palatable and learnable for me. pow and rbenv, in concert with ruby-build, are a lovely simplification of the weird problem of maintaining Ruby development environments.

The thing that pulls it all together, I think, is how well suited his solutions to diverse problems are. There aren’t a bunch of moving parts. Prototype was very much a library, and not a framework. His code is very much of the tool, playing well in the environment, be it Ruby, CoffeeScript, or even shell scripts. rbenv, ruby-build, and pow all play to the strength of bash and Node rather than trying to extend them to become something they’re not.

I was tempted to say his work is minimalistic. On second thought, I think it’s understated. Look at his website or photostream. The quality of just enough, but not too much, isn’t luck. It’s Sam Stephenson’s calling card. I love it.

Vacation, disposable, and calm computing


Let me talk about vacation computing. The prime directive of vacation computing is that you should compute on vacation as little as possible. Neglect your email, abandon your social mediums. Don’t do the things you normally do, regardless of how computery your regular work is.

From there, it follows that your vacation computer should basically not be a computer. That means smartphones, tablets, and book readers are the only options. But smartphones are pretty much synonymous with social media, so they aren’t really viable as a vacation computer (though you probably want it anyway because they’re a superpower). Tablets are nearly computers now, so that’s not viable either.

It follows that a book reader is the only acceptable vacation computer.


Let me talk about disposable computing now. We put a lot of important stuff on our computers these days. Important passwords, legal documents, email, family pictures, private pictures, computer games, purchased and bespoke music, Hollywood and home video, etc. Sometimes those computers are in our pockets, sometimes they’re on our laps and coffee tables, and occasionally you might still find them on our desks!

For the drama and heartbreak that can occur when we lose these computers, we take astoundingly bad care of them. We don’t back them up, we reuse passwords. A moment without wireless networking is the worst and yet we don’t take steps to prevent even more dramatic losses due to password breaches and storage failure.

Given all of this, a computer is made better by making it a disposable object. Backup your data, and backup your backups. Practice good password habits as much as possible so your accounts are isolated and somewhat disposable. Know your gameplan and what happens to your stuff if your computer or backups fall into a lava pit.


Knowing about vacation and disposable computing, I’m led to an odd and dissonant conclusion: an e-ink Kindle is the perfect computer. It does not do work, it does not social media. You can take it through airport security without any extra steps, which feels a little perverse and seems a bit surreal. It does not interrupt, it does not beep or blorp, it just barely displays text. As modern computers go, it’s basically useless.

But. You can read on it. And reading is so wonderful. And you can put stress aside. A Kindle gets wet? Not a big deal. Drop a Kindle? Not a big deal. Try to use it by the pool, out in nature, out in weather, out where the internet does not go? Not a big deal. Lose your Kindle? Buy another one, it costs a fraction of all your other computers.

The one scenario where you will find yourself absolutely screwed with a Kindle is when you have to enter text. Logging into Amazon or a wireless network for the first time? That’s a bad time.

In every other respect, the Kindle is a computer that does nothing to increase your stress level. That’s pretty remarkable today. Let’s make more calm computing devices, ok?

Apple, Disney, and obsession

People in technology disproportionately like to comment on Apple’s products and business. Outside of technology, there are just as many folks who love to obsess over Disney’s theme parks. Based on my friend networks, I’d wager that for every person who obsesses over Apple’s keynotes, there’s a Disney enthusiast keeping up on special events and the best way to enjoy the theme parks.

The connection that strikes me is that both of these companies pay more attention to details than their competitors. Apple’s competitors throw software and hardware at the wall like spaghetti, hoping it will stick. Disney’s competitors rename their rides to match the blockbusters of summer. By comparison, Apple makes a big deal about the fit and finish of their hardware (let’s not talk about that camera though!) and has a coherent story about how all their products fit together into a useful landscape. Disney carefully arranges their parks to keep the guests in a cohesive movie world and pays attention to the little details that enhance or optimize the experience.

I could make some value judgement here about how attention to detail is more profitable, better design, better engineering, or whatever. I suspect all of those are true, but it’s not what excites me about Apple or Disney. When I read about changes to Disney’s theme parks or Apple’s keynotes, I’m excited that there are companies, quite large and successful ones, that are connecting lot of dots in an intriguing way. They’re extracting delight from large scale complexity. Megaprojects are nifty and often enhance humanity, but they’re mostly out of touch or sight. It’s nice that some of us can experience and enjoy these commercial projects of vast scale and quality execution.

Multiplication over management

When a developer becomes a manager, It’s not a promotion, it’s a career change:

If you want to do your leadership job effectively, you will be exercising a vastly different set of skills on a daily basis to what you are exercising as an engineer. Skills you likely haven’t developed and are unaware of.

Your job is not to be an engineer. Your job is not to be a manager. Your job is to be a multiplier.

Don’t miss the section on how we undervalue non-technical skills. It’s not unlike developing software, it’s just that your levers are people and processes instead of software and data centers. See also, Managing Humans.

How to succeed at Rails by trying

I think most teams, probably 90% of them, should start and stick with Rails conventions. Intelligently apply design principles, watch out for coupling that’s not worthwhile, carefully add dependencies when you must, sure. But don’t worry too much about erecting a wall between your app and Rails, building microservices, or whatever fashion dictates when you run rails new.

That said, I don’t think strict adherence to Rails’ opinions is the only way to succeed when using Ruby to build for the web. You can adopt the principles of Rails’ opinions, e.g. use code over configuration to fight boilerplate or reduce the number of choices developers need to make by curating some libraries. You could document those principles and invest in new teammates by mentoring them up on your framework and tools.

Actually, you should do that anyway! But there are reasons you may not be able to do that: the team is too junior, time is tight, you need to explore new technical ground in other areas of the project. If that sounds like your team, you will benefit a lot from letting Rails do much of the tool-building, principle-seeking, and training for you.

The wolf moves fast…

The Wolf:

The Wolf moves fast because he or she is able to avoid the encumbering necessities of a group of people building at scale. This avoidance of most things process related combined with exceptional engineering ability allows them to move at speed which makes them unusually productive. It’s this productivity that the rest of the team can… smell. It’s this scent of pure productivity that allows them to further skirt documentation, meetings, and annual reviews.

See also, The Grinder.

Well-tuned judgement

Lessons From A Lifetime Of Being A Programmer:

Never stop learning, the technology steamroller is right behind you waiting for you to stop.

I’ve taken this one seriously in the past, almost aways tinkering with languages, databases, frameworks, etc. I think it’s served me up to a point, expanding my mind and learning different ways to do to things.

The problem is I’ve reached the point of diminishing returns. I could go learn a stack-based language like Factor, or bend my brain around a oddly shaped database like Datomic. I’m not sure it would make me much better as a developer and leader of software teams.

Instead, the steamroller I think I need to keep ahead of is practice. Given a problem, what are three different solutions? What are their tradeoffs? Which approaches seem nice on paper, or in a blog post, but don’t work out a few hours down the road?

To wit:

This isn’t obvious to everyone, but the ability to see something new, or see what others are doing, or to compare multiple ways of doing something and then pick the best option for you, your team, your project or even your company is incredibly valuable. Most people I’ve seen are not very good at this. Most leaders are really terrible at this. It’s easy to just do what someone tells you you should do or something you read in a blog or just do what everyone else is doing. It’s much more difficult to look at things from all sides and your needs and pick something that seems to be best at that point. Of course you have to make some decision, people are often paralyzed by having to evaluate which often leads to picking something random or following the herd.

Well-tuned judgement is where I’m hoping to go next. Part of that is experience, knowing the forces and tradeoffs that apply to the possible solutions. Part of that is the ability to communicate it with teammates, sometimes face-to-face and sometimes asychronously. The really challenging part is letting your teammates run with the result of that judgement and collaboration.

A good developer makes good decisions for their own implementation; a great developer helps the whole team implement good decisions.


Things you might hear in commercials/promotions for software and beer:

“The first 96-calorie Pilsner”
“Invented the smooth-pour top”
“Next-generation build system”
“The database that beats the CAP theorem”

American software and beer, much innovation, many hands waving. Solutioneering!