Look up every once in a while!

Sometimes, I feel conditioned never to look beyond the first ten feet of the earth. Watch where you’re going, don’t run into things, avoid being eaten by bears. Modern life!

A Texas sunset
I see stuff like this out my office window every day. Be jealous.

When I remind myself to look up, there’s so much great stuff. Trees, antennae, water towers, buildings. Airplanes, birds, superheroes. Never mind the visual pollution of smoke, contrails, and billboards. Nifty things, natural and man-made.

Clouds in particular are nifty. They’re almost always changing, even if you look at the same patch of sky. They have pleasing shapes, and just a little bit of texture. Simple pleasure, clouds are.

And sunsets! Hooo boy, those are great. I thought they were overrated for a long time, but boy was I wrong. Colors, dynamics, fading off into darkness. I’m pretty sure sunsets invented the word “poetic”.

Ed. This originally appeared in my Internet Todo List for Enthusiastic Thinkers. It’s an email thing you can subscribe to. When you do, good things come to you, often via email. It’s free, and it bears no shilling for other people.

The Third Shift

In the days of industrial labor, many factories ran three shifts per day. Three eight-hour shifts per day keeps a factory fully utilized and some business major’s spreadsheets happy. Luckily, for many of us, knowledge/thinking oriented businesses don’t usually follow this paradigm. We’re not (often) pressured to pick up a double shift, possibly freeing time to do useful things that we don’t get paid for.

For the ambitious (possible euphemism), this opens up an interesting opportunity: allocating the second shift to one’s own projects. Writing that great book you’ve got inside you, penciling a comic, running your Etsy business on the side, or bootstrapping that web app you’re dreaming about all make a great fit for a second shift. Find time before or after your day job, and then aim for the sky.

I found it easy to take this logic to the next level and think, well if two shifts works and I can make progress on _two_ things, three shifts might work and then I can do _three_ things! Wake up early, do something awesome. Work the nine to five, do awesome things. Take a couple hours in the evening, do even more awesome things. Seems good, right?

Unfortunately, the third shift is a bandaid over too many projects and lead me to do lower quality work across the board.

I need more physical rest and mental space than working on three things affords. Turning down an extra hour of sleep or the bleeping of an alarm clock is a hard bargain. One side project, as it turns out, is plenty.

That said, the third shift _is_ useful as a “turbo button” that I only press when I really mean it and used only for short-term projects that are important to whatever awesome thing I’m trying to do. A couple weeks waking up early to bang out a presentation or longer-form article are good. Sustaining that for a series of projects doesn’t work for me.

In short: ambition is great, but striking a balance with mental and physical rest is better.

A newsletter

So I did this thing where I wrote a newsletter. I’m going to do it again. The first iteration of this publication was a bit like a written late-night variety show. I wrote about interesting articles, or things that interested me. Each “episode” almost always closed with some kind of musically awesome thing I’d found on the internet.

The next iteration of this newsletter will be like a hand-delivered transmogrification of this weblog. I’ll include links to the articles I thought were most special or had a surprising reception. I’ll occasionally write “commentary tracks” on how an article came to be. Each edition will almost certainly end with a musical or pop culture find, because what fun is running a newsletter if I can’t annoy you with my pop culture tastes?

My hope is that you’ll find this interesting. You can take a look at what I’ve written previously and subscribe to this free internet email newsletter at your discretion. I think you might like it.

Austin’s startup vibe

It’s different from other towns. What's the Difference between Austin and San Francisco?:

Austin offers you more options, but greater variety means that, on the whole, Austinite’s don’t focus as intensely as in San Francisco.  Austin’s defining characteristic (part of it’s slacker culture) is a belief that intensity isn’t always the best thing. Austin believes in variety and moderation. This affects the startup community. Austin, the city, will let you pick and choose from its buffet line, and then admire the smorgasbord you put together. Your lifestyle is a work of art in Austin, and I think the culture rewards you for how you live as much as what you do, often moreso.

In my few visits to San Francisco, I’ve found that I cannot wrap my Texan brain around that town. Trying to really understand its startup culture with just a few visits to the city and Palo Alto is similarly folly. But I did notice the intensity that SF has. It’s not a bad way to describe the town.

That said, I think this is a pretty decent encapsulation of Austin. Austin is a slower town (slower even than Dallas) and revels in the variety of activities available to its people. The Austin tech community is more about smaller groups and individuals too. It’s not (always) about aim-for-the-stars startups or working for large companies using large technology from large vendors. It’s as much about a few people on a team or individuals hacking something out while enjoying their city, family, and friends.

Obviously, I dig that a lot.

Update: I should mention that, while it’s popular to write Austin off as a slacker town, there’s a lot of people dedicated to their work and craft here. It’s not all tacos and BBQ. The events I go to most often are frequented by people who using their evenings to learn something new or talk shop while they’re making something. That is, I think, the most important factor of a startup community: the more people who are putting their evenings into making things, the more likely those things will end up awesome and grow into a business-like organism.

Thoughts on “Being a Senior Engineer”

On Being a Senior Engineer made the rounds late last year. Before I finished reading it, I felt it was pointing me down a path I hadn’t realized was there but needed to go down. It’s the kind of “yes, this!” writing that I often end up ineptly giving people a link to without the ability to explain why they should care or how amazing it is.

I chewed on the original article for a few months, following the links, re-reading it. Basically, I’m trying to completely consume this idea of the responsibilities and abilities of a mature engineer. Below, a bunch of quotes that struck a chord with me and follow-up ideas.


I expect a “senior” engineer to be a mature engineer.

Mature engineers seek out constructive criticism of their designs.

Here’s an example of how I try to apply this: attempt to hold all the options (designs, causes, etc.) in your head. This is doubly important if you have identified a design or project plan as infeasible, but it appeals to those who don’t have the whole thing in their head. Empathy and understanding of other points of view is crucial.

Being able to write a Bloom Filter in Erlang, or write multi-threaded C in your sleep is insufficient. None of that matters if no one wants to work with you.

A thousand times yes! I have often felt that internet culture lionizes those who are quick and merciless in cutting down those that don’t agree or can’t code as prodigiously as the original poster. A senior/mature engineer is not soley defined by typing the most code per day.

Be the engineer that everyone wants to work with.

Please, if you ever see me not being that engineer, tell me!

…they have a responsibility to others to make themselves interpredictable. In general, mature engineers are comfortable with working within some nonzero amount of uncertainty and risk.

This is from a section on making estimates. It’s hard to make estimates, because they feel like binding contracts. If you’re working with the right people, it’s OK, they’re not a contract. Make a guess and help others you work with understand the level of entropy involved in your project reaching a milestone at a specific date.

This code looks good, I’m proud of myself. I’ve asked other people to review it, and I’ve taken their feedback. Now: how long will it last before it’s rewritten? Once it’s in production, how will its execution affect resource usage? How much so I expect CPU/memory/disk/network to increase or decrease? Will others be able to understand this code? Am I making it as easy as I can for others to extend or introspect this work?

  1. The only time is runtime, but a lot of developers focus on the static, build-time properties of their code.
  2. As a corollary, developers become the experts at the “hypothetical” of their code, and the ops team become the experts at the “practical” of their code. This isn’t a good division of labor.

Generosity of spirit is one of our core engineering values, but also a primary responsibility of our Staff Engineer position, a career-level position. These engineers spend the time to make sure that more junior or new engineers unfamiliar with the tech or processes we have not only understand what they are doing, but also why they are doing it.

I’ve found it challenging that I’m so far removed from the struggles of a junior developer that in some ways I don’t even comprehend them anymore. Trying to help those who have come up through Hungry Academy, even just a little, has paid dividends in understanding “junior” programmers and more experienced developers who don’t have my experiences.

They know that they work within a spectrum of ideal and non-ideal, and are OK with that. They are comfortable with it because they strive to make the ideal and non-ideal in a design explicit.

Again: hold all the things in your head, even though you take only one path. For now. It’s software you can and will change your mind.

Further: write software such that doing the right thing is easy, the wrong thing is hard, and amending the shortcomings is possible at a later time.

Being empathetic in this sense means having the ability to view the project from another person’s perspective and to take that into consideration into your own work.

Hold all the people, and their conflicting goals, in your head too. Isn’t engineering fun?

…never go to your boss with a complaint about anything without at least one (ideally more than one) suggestion for a solution. Even demonstrating that you’ve tried working the problem on your own and came up empty-handed is better than an empty complaint.

There will always be things that suck. Complaining about them feels good! Proposing, advocating, and working on solutions is better.

The issue with cognitive biases is that we can be blissfully unaware of when we are interpreting data with our own brains in ways that defy empirical data, and can have a surprising effect on how we get work done and work on teams.

For every time I wonder what cognitive bias I’m currently exhibiting, I’m sure there’s two more times when I have no idea. His list of biases is well worth reading into.

Ten Commandments of Egoless Programming. Yes.

How people feel about technologies, technical decisions, and technical directions is just as important (if not more) than the facts about the details.

People are irrational. Work with it. People have scars learnt from bad experiences. Deal with it. Everyone has succeeded in different ways and made the right and wrong inferences from it. Listen when people talk and speak to what they are excited and concerned about.

The double-tap

I use Alfred because I believe that my computer should be practically unusable to other people who try to use it. My goal is to put the things I use frequently close at hand. Conversely, the things I use rarely should be accessible without cluttering my most common workflows.

Last week, I came up with a way to bring the two or three applications I use all the time very close to hand. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the double tap:

Alfred Preferences

Since I use VIM inside a terminal several hours a day, I want really quick access to iTerm 2. My thumb just happens to sit near the command key all day. Ergo, assigning a key to quickly switch to the terminal makes a lot of sense.

But it gets even better! Alfred knows about double-taps of the control, alt, and command keys. So you can assign an application to each of those keys and really quickly switch back and forth between them. It’s pretty rad.

My experience is that this works exactly how I’d want it to 80% of the time. A couple times a day, I will start to chord a different key combo and mysteriously end up in iTerm. It’s not disruptive, just a little odd at first, and I keep going about my business.

If you use Alfred with the Powerpack and love your keyboard, you should definitely start using double-taps.

Computers do what we tell them to, except when we give up

We tell ourselves, “a computer only does what we tell it to.” But, when it comes down to it, if we aren’t getting the result we want out of the computer, we often give in and do whatever it is the computer wants us to do.

I’m fascinated by this phenomenon. Novices do it when they’re confused, even a little afraid they may have done something wrong. Experts do it when they’re frustrated and upset that the computer is preventing them from doing whatever it is they actually wanted to do.

What’s it say about our increasingly dependent relationship with computers? At what point do we give up on our own goal and do what the computer wants so we can make progress? Is it really computers we’re giving into, or the dysfunction of the relationship between the designer, developer and the user of a computer?

A maxim you could conduct your modern life by: beware technologists bearing a solution, lest it become another chore you have to tend to.

Don’t isolate yourself

As a remote developer, it’s tempting to create an environment where all you do is focus on churning out the code you’re paid to write. Minimal email distractions, no noise, meetings and chats only when you want it. Seems pretty ideal on paper!

I’ve found the exact opposite. Checking out of a team like that, even if I’m fulfilling all my duties, robs me of valuable context. It’s handy to know what other people are working on, when they’re succeeding, and how they’re learning from failures. It might not directly relate to my work, but it helps to stay aware of the environment into which your work fits.

I recently “turned on the floodgate” for the development organization around me. In our GitHub install, I picked one or two projects from each development team to follow. Since most teams use a pull-request workflow, I get a few dozen emails per day that give me the chance to peek into the cadence of a team’s work. This fills in context I miss in Campfire or your typical email broadcast.

My job as a developer isn’t to know all the things going on; I’m not suggesting you keep close tabs on every project. Instead, I’m trying to keep my finger on the pulse of colleagues on other teams. I find myself better prepared to help them out and make my own projects fit in with where the organization as a whole needs to go.

Semantics/Empathy

People argue about words all the time. In the past two weeks, I’ve participated and watched as nerds unproductively tried to convince each other that they are incorrectly using the words bijection, hypermedia, and dependency injection. Nerds easily fall into this trap because many of us are fascinated by knowledge, sharing that knowledge, and teaching that knowledge.

Arguing about words is fun. Arguing about words is practically useless.

Semantics are good

Words are a tricky business. An overused, overloaded, or ambiguous word isn’t particularly useful. “Synergize”, “web-scale”, or “rockstar” are mush words that don’t convey much meaning anymore. It’s tempting to think that encouraging others to be judicious in their use of words and mind the specific context and meaning of their statements could move the needle in making the world better.

On the other hand, human interaction is fidgety. We all have differing experiences, so the way we think and feel about things can vary wildly. You might say “we should pivot our business”, remembering the time you did so and took the company in a much better direction. I might hear you say “pivot” and think about all the abuses of the word in startup discourse or all the companies that have “pivoted” and still failed. Even though we are thinking of the same definition of “pivot”, we are thinking different things.

Semantics are good for getting two people in the same mental ballpark. I can say “web framework” and expect you to know I’m not talking about dogs, tacos, coffee, or compilers. You and I may differ on what a web framework is and what it does, but at least we’re both thinking of things that help developers build web-based applications. We may not be talking about the same thing, but we’re close.

This is why I think strong semantics are interesting, but not a silver bullet. Very rarely have I solved a problem by applying stronger semantics to the words used in the discussion of the problem. Never have I solved a problem by telling someone they are using the wrong semantics and that they should correct themselves.

We can argue about words all we want, but it’s not getting us any closer to solving the real problem. The problem we started talking about before we decided to have a side argument on the meaning of a word.

Empathy is better.

Empathy is a better tool. When someone misuses a word, I stop myself and think, “OK, let’s allow that one to slide. What are they really trying to say?” Rarely does someone misuse a word on purpose. It’s more likely they know it in a different context; discovering that context and matching it to your own is how the conversation moves forward.

If you say “we need to pivot our web commerce company to a web framework consultancy”, I may not know precisely what you mean by “pivot”, “web framework”, or “consultancy” but I can get on the same page with you. You think we need to change directions and that some services-oriented business based on helping people build web applications is the way to move forward. Armed with that, I can ask you questions about why we need to change directions, what that web framework looks like, or how we would change ourselves to a services-oriented company. It’s not as important that you get the words right; it’s important that we find a way to talk about the same thing.

Words are fun, but what’s useful is to figure out what the other person is thinking or feeling and talk to that. Setting aside the tension of telling someone they’re wrong, it’s not productive. I’d rather talk about how we can make better programs or better understand our world than foible over the meanings of a few words.

Words are a lossy representation, they can’t possibly ever connote the full meaning and nuance of any idea of interesting size. Don’t get caught up in skirmishes about the marginally important details of semantics. Use words to show others what you’re thinking and guide them towards your understanding of the problem and a proposed solution.

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.