Overtime means your business is hurting

Overtime is Morphine, Ernie Miller:

A developer who is truly concerned about the health of his or her company also must be careful to ensure the “patient” isn’t developing an unhealthy dependency on their heroics, allowing the company to limp along without experiencing the pain that should accompany unwise choices. Pain is how we learn to avoid repeating mistakes.

I’ve seen too many developers put in a heroic effort, only to repeat it the next day, sometimes without sleeping in. That’s “killing the patient”, to extend Ernie’s metaphor. It’s not the natural state of a business to notice the human cost it might have. The people inside the business have to assess that cost and do something about controlling it.

If your business, or the one you work at, requires regular heroics, consider that it is a broken system. Luckily, software developers are well equipped with mental routines for diagnosing and patching broken systems. Time to hack the organization.

Lessons from premature design

Lessons from Premature Abstractions Illustrated. I’ve run afoul of all three of these:

Make sure you have someone on the team or externally available that will keep the critical, outside look at the project, ready to scream and shout if things turn bad.

Don’t let your technical solution influence your design decisions. It’s the tool that needs to fit the job, not the other way round.

Don’t build abstractions as long as you have no proven idea on how the levels below that abstraction will look like.

I could have used an outside, trusted voice to gently reel me in if when I went off into the unproductive weeds. Someone to ask “how will this help the team in two weeks?”, someone to point out ideas that might be great but have only achieved greatness in my head. A person who is asking questions because they want me to succeed, not because they’re trying to take me down a notch.

I have rushed into implementing the first idea in my head. Sometimes I’ve convinced myself that my first idea is the best, despite knowing I need to review it from more angles. I’ve jumped into projects with a shiny new tool and a bunch of optimism, only to cut myself on a sharp edge later on.

I’ve built systems that look fine on their own, but don’t fit into the puzzle around them. I’ve isolated myself building up that system, afraid to figure out how to fit my system into the puzzle in a useful way. I’ve used mocks and stubs to unintentionally isolate myself from the real system.

Basically, these are all really good ways to paint yourself into a corner. It seems like being in a corner with a shiny new system/tool/abstraction would be nice. Unfortunately, my experience is that once you have to make sense of that abstraction in a team, things get dicey.

It’s dangerous to run a software project on your own! Take a friend.

Typing code examples, it’s like biking

If you want to learn from a piece of code, you should type it out, instead of just reading it. The value of typing code:

Typing code may be like riding a bicycle. I’m surprised how much more detail I see the first time I ride my bicycle over a road I’ve driven on, mostly because I’m moving slower but also because there’s an additional muscular dimension to the experience.

I love this bicycle metaphor. The slowness of biking engages my brain in an entirely different way than running or driving. Even the mechanical sounds are more pleasant; the consistent whirr of the chain is so much more calming than the revving up and down of a gasoline engine.

The value of typing code holds very true for me; I usually get very little by simply reading code in books and articles. But when I take the time to type it in and actually try to run it, I struggle with it more (not all code examples are perfect) and get more out of it. You should give it a try.

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Categorized as Code, Curated

A decentralized web is hard

The Web We Lost, on the web of ad-hoc, bottom-up social networks before the pendulum swung fully towards centralized networks like MySpace, then Friendster, and now Facebook, Twitter, and friends. I’m glad Anil Dash is pointing out that great things were happening before social networks were massively financed operations and the delightful things that were different when people ran the system from the bottom up.

Owning and operating your data is obviously better than letting someone trade on it. But, there are missing pieces for users:

  • Where do I host my corner of the social network? Putting content on the web without someone else to run it is still strictly nerd stuff.
  • How do I find my friends? The advantage of a centralized network is its easy to make global observations, like analyzing social graphs for recommended links.
  • What are the checks against bad actors? Comments and trackbacks were fantastic for weblogs, until spammers figured out how to turn them into toys for boosting pagerank.

I don’t think any of these are insurmountable. But, decentralization is hard! Can we pull it off? I’d love to see it happen.

Ideas for living and creating differently

Try thinking about living and creating a little differently today. Advice for beginners: push through the shortcomings of your early work until your ability catches up with your taste. Slow down, lead life at a slower pace every now and then, it’s good for you. Stop telling us how much everything sucks; not everyone makes the same decisions and trade-offs you would when they create something.

Hit it, don’t quit

How to be good at anything. In short: do it, get feedback, study how to improve, repeat.

Something I’ve found, through crossfit, is that if I have any strong suit it’s not quitting. Seems trite now that I write it, but it occasionally helps to state the obvious.

Once I’ve decided an activity is worthwhile, I’m pretty good at sticking with it no matter how silly I feel doing it. I’m not the strongest, the fastest, or the best eater. I’m not the smartest, the funniest, or the most charming. But I’ve made progress in life by showing up every day and trying to do a little better than the previous day.

The bottom line: pick a few things to do well, do them, and don’t quit.

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You can’t solve technical debt, you can only hope to contain it

Staring Down Technical Debt:

Technical Debt is an interesting phrase.   We all have a sense of what it is instinctively, but we rarely want to think about it.  If we think about it too hard, we feel somewhat oppressed by entropy.  All systems tend to toward disorder and software systems are no different. The big question that we all face is what to do about it. 

Systems tends toward disorder. Disorder is hard to reason about and risky to deal with, i.e. you’re likely to avoid dealing with it at all. But, most successful products have a system with more technical debt than you’d like at its center.

Increasingly, I think that the only way to confront technical debt and complexity is to contain it. Languages and tools only seem to help at the margin. Rigorously splitting large, complex, debt-filled systems into smaller, proportionally complex and debt-filled systems is the way to gain traction.

You can’t solve technical debt or essential complexity; you can only hope to contain it.

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Categorized as Code, Curated

The qualities of better code

What is 'better' code? Dave Copeland on the qualities readable, changeable code exhibits. Of the attributes he identifies, I think number of paths (ABC complexity) is the most important for reading code and fan-in/out is the most important thing to manage for easily changed code.

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Sit on the fence between abstraction and practice

Theory and Practice is about a fence. It’s tempting to steer all the way towards the abstract, academic side, or all the way towards cutthroat practical side. Some of the most intriguing, productive people I’ve known sit on either side. Both sides like to accuse the other of not producing results, but that’s subjective. An academic’s results are wholly different from a practitioner’s results.

On occasion, you’ll run into someone who can actually explain complicated theory stuff to you in an accessible way. If you find someone like this, make sure to hold onto them closely, as they’re really rare. But they can help provide you with some insight that will really boost your productivity, without having to invest all the time in figuring out all that wankery that the priests of theory love.

This is a really nice way of explaining why someone like Richard Feynman is awesome. He was equal parts discoverer and explainer (plus another equal part mischief). This is exactly the thing I aim to achieve when I write here, make code, or present at conferences. There’s a whole bunch of ideas that aren’t in practice but, presented and packaged properly, can help move a lot of practitioners forward while recognizing the work of academics and nudging them to keep working in that area.

A lot of good things come out of connecting the people on opposite sides of the fence. Sitting on a fence isn’t exactly graceful, but sometimes it’s the only way to move ideas along. Don’t be afraid to eschew purity or pride for progress.