18 months is a smelly interval

18 months is a dangerous window, when it comes to building a product. It’s far enough in the future that it seems like you could deliver an ambitious idea within a year and a half. But it’s a long enough timeline that one is tempted to skip the necessary contemplation, dividing-and-conquering, and hypothetical thinking that the planning process forces on you.

As it happens, 18 months is 540 days. 540 degrees is one and a half revolutions. As in, you started a revolution, but ended up regressing.

Saddest trombone. Be wary of anything that promises to happen in 18 months. It’s the “epic handwaving” of project management.

Dining at the source code buffet

Let me start with a quote from wonderful person James Edward Gray II:

One of my favorite techniques for really learning a new language is to read the core API like a good novel. I’m a hit at parties!

I’ve had great success with this approach as well. I probably read the majority of Rails, the source of every RubyGem I used, and chunks of Ruby’s standard library in my first few years of working with Ruby. I picked up new tricks, figured out how things worked, and got myself out of a lot of tricky corners by reading code.

That we can do this is, to me, the real wonder of working with an open source stack. If I’m curious, I can dig into the framework, language, database, compiler, and operating system I’m using. If something goes weird, I can dig into it. I probably won’t end up changing or fixing anything below my app in the stack, but the ability to peel back the layers is a huge deal.

Given the choice of digging into why software sometimes goes weird and complaining or giving up, always chose digging into the source to see what’s going on.

When you work with open source software, you can always chose to figure out what’s going on around your app. Eating at the source code buffet is awesome!

Megaprojects: megacool

Megaproject. It’s a cool word. It’s an even cooler list-of-pages on Wikipedia. I’ve only worked on projects limited to tens or dozens of people. The human and geographical scale of some of these endeavors just blows my mind. The coordination and planning required for something like the Boeing 747 or Apollo program is beyond my comprehension. (OK, maybe I’m still really into aerospace; I did go to Space Camp. Twice.)

I would love to be a fly on the wall of the meeting where it’s decided to go ahead with a project that will be visible from quite some height above the earth like Denver International Airport or Walt Disney World. That’s a pretty huge commitment. I waffle for weeks when I decide I’m going to buy a new car!

If those don’t whet your appetite, perhaps speculative megastructures are more your speed? Trans-global highways! And of course, Dyson spheres, ringworlds, et cetera.

It’s good to remind myself that occasionally, human kind is capable of building really great stuff.

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

1

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.

2

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.

3

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.