Slack messages are rarely ever completed thoughts

Comments on TechCrunch's article "Distributed teams are rewriting the rules of office(less) politics."

I don't think that article quite hit its mark, but it did contain two important bits. Loneliness is an issue for me. I like being among my colleagues. Even if nothing is said all day the presence of others roots us to a common purpose and common comfort. The other is the need to write more and with specificity.

A requirement of asynchronous communications is leaving information for others to respond to later. Ad infinitum. The longer the timespan between communications the more context each information leaving must include. It is a skill to provide brief context in these leavings along with clear answers and, perhaps, further questions. Many characterize asynchronous communications as a conversation. However, conversations are informal. Our communications are more like a dialogue where we explore problems and solutions. Problems and solutions are formal, or rather somewhere between not informal and algorithmic. And they must to be recorded and the records curated. Asynchronous communications requires a diligence that is not provided by simple conversation.

One of my favorite discoveries (unfortunately, shortly after college!) was Thinking on Paper by Howard and Barton. Writing is design thinking. (Coding is design thinking.) Design thinking is iterative and unsteady in its forward motion. Two steps forward, one step backward. Unfortunately, people still think of writing as something that happens after thoughtfulness. This misunderstanding can lead to written mistakes being harder to recover from than said ones. If you take away one bit of advice from here, it would be to assume that Slack messages are rarely ever completed thoughts.

Remote teams and hiring

While I was driving to work this morning I was thinking about an earlier conversation that touched on an earlier blog posting about the difficulty of having too large a skills gap in your team or in your development organization. We agree about the skills gap. Then he said something that gave me pause to totally reconsider my stance on remote development organizations. My stance had been that they don't work as too often during a project you need the high bandwidth available in face to face collaboration. But this stance comes from assuming there is a large gap between staff. What if the gap was small? What if gap was of zero width?

It has been my experience that you can successfully communicate and work remotely together when the gap is small. The eureka moment came when I reconsidered the reputed benefit of remote work that allows you to hire the best from anywhere in the world. It is not a benefit, but a rule. It is not that you can, but that you must hire the best.

Update: Remote Only, https://www.remoteonly.org/, has good information and references for both remote employees and employers.

Chris Sinjakli's talk "Doing Things the Hard Way"

I am sure you watched James Mickens's talk Q: Why Do Keynote Speakers Keep Suggesting That Improving Security Is Possible? today. It was honest and funny — even my ceramic artist wife laughed at the IoT humor — and contained a great primer on machine learning — my wife skipped that part. As it ended YouTube's autoplay started Chris Sinjakli's talk Doing Things the Hard Way from this years SREcon18 Asia/Australia. From where I sit today his experience, analysis, and advice are spot on. So, if don't have 51 mins to listen to Mickens I high recommend you spend 22 mins listening to Sinjakli. On second thought, listen to both.

X. Kishore Mahbubani and "Has the West Lost It? Can Asia Save It?"

When your country is falling from first place into second place your best course of action is to establish a world order that gives second place countries advantage. Bluntly, multilateralism is far better than isolationism. As China and India continue to rise the USA is destined to be 3rd place, at best; perhaps even 4th place behind Indonesia. I highly recommend this lecture by X. Kishore Mahbubani "Has the West Lost It? Can Asia Save It?"

Grumble about Google Calendar display of vacations

Does anyone else hate the new Google Calendar display of vacations? I only want one weekday column highlighted and that is today. Not P's vacation day on Friday. Not M's midweek vacation next week. G's all-day event block at the top of Friday's column is fine; even better is T's multi-day vacation line at the top of the day columns. Really, Google Calendar UI design team, what were you thinking!?



Ousterhout's "A Philosophy of Software Design"

Greatly enjoyed John Ousterhout's Google talk "A Philosophy of Software Design." It is for the Tcl language and the Tk user interface toolkit that I know him. I was a fan of Tcl back in the day when you didn't add a REST API to your application, instead a you added a scripting language. For that purpose Tcl was a perfect match: easy integration of the interpreter into the application and easy extension of the interpreter with application functionality. Tcl did not make the transition to the Web and so has mostly faded into software development history. If you think DSLs are awesome you wish your language had uplevel and upvar. If you think Docker container images are awesome you will be interested in Tcl's Startkit.

In this talk Ousterhout is chronicling his attempt to teach software design at Stanford University's CS 190: Software Design Studio class. I want to find out if the local universities are trying this and offer to be a teaching assistant.

Technical Junk

Much of what is called "technical debt" is more likely "technical junk." Technical debt has the ring of responsibility around it. As we build new services and maintain the others we tell ourselves that we have made reasoned judgments as to what to ignore for now:

• We don't need to update that library just yet, but we know not that falling too far behind the current version will make updating grueling and so will do it later.

• We don't rewrite a troubled module just yet, but we know the rewrite will relieve us from burdensome support and so will do it later.

• We don't replace the data design implementation just yet, but we know its scope has been exceeded and is now impeding enhancements and so will do it later.

• We don't broaden the testing regime just yet, but we know that doing so critically supports systems changes and so will do it later.

• We don't speed the ever slower, periodic, automated task just yet, but we know that task overlap has dire consequences for downstream processes and so will do it later.

• We don't hire additional staff just yet, but we know that additional staff is critical to efficiency and so will do it later.

Now, this sounds like technical debt and it is when you actually attend to it later. When you don't you have technical junk. The system and its data are patched, brittle, duplicated, lossy, slowing, and only though the sheer force of willpower can it be enhanced and maintained. Still, we continue to tell ourselves and our management a compelling story of progress on the two-fronts of enhancement and maintenance.

Why have group meetings in software development?

Why have group meetings in software development? I think there are only three good reasons.

The first good reason is when several people need to come to a consensus. The outcome of these meetings are decisions. Ideally, everyone comes to the meeting prepared for the discussion. I like for a proposal to be written and distributed before the meeting. This means that at least one person has thought through the decision's context and ramifications, and that the meeting's participants have time to read and ponder it beforehand. Jeff Bezos has an interesting workaround to unprepared participants and that is to have meetings start with several minutes dedicated to reading the prepared materials. That Inc. article has several other good tips. I can't help myself and so must include a reference to Tufte's The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint. Thankfully, slide decks have been mostly absent from my last several years of professional work.

The second good meeting is the daily standup. It is too easy for a developer to not ask for help soon enough, and standups quickly stop that situation from worsening or the developer going dark. My manager at Cadre used a system of green, yellow, and red work status. If the work was going well then it was green. When there were complications the work was yellow. When it was red it was blocked. It is useful to use this system even in a standup. The first part of the standup has all participants give a brief status. The second part deals with yellow statuses with a brief description of problem and assignment of who is best able to help. Red statuses are dealt with outside of the standup. In all cases, however, don't solve problems in the standup. Giving solutions might not derail the standup the first few times, but has been my experience that by not maintaining the standup's principles it will soon devolve into a group chat and finally abandonment.

The third good meeting is for celebration. I am most interested in celebrating the group's achievement as a whole. Generally, everyone contributes as they are asked and as they are able, and so I see no need to single out individual contributions. The one exception is for someone who has shown marked growth. Pizza in the conference room can work, but you will have more success if you take everyone out to lunch.

Update: The TechCrunch article "Distributed teams are rewriting the rules of office(less) politics" had the link to Amazon's "narratively structured six-page memos."

Some more comments about a healthy software development organization

That last posting was a little to high level. Especially for someone like me that likes things to become grounded — at least for one day! Most of my career has been in small companies building small products. Apart from places like Lotus and Geac my employers have had less than 20 developers. This organization size has shaped my expectations of what is useful for a project to succeed.

The first document any project needs the "Product or Feature Digest" A template of which is here. This document organizes the other documents. It is the one place everyone can read and get a grounding on the product and its implementation. If what is being built is very small then it might be the only document. Most sections of the document have an obvious purpose. However, the first two require further explanation.

I have never worked on a product or feature that did not change its goals. I doubt you have either. Most changes are refinements due to a better customer understanding, or due to initially unforeseen constraints, or revisions to feature priorities, or features removed or added, etc. The reason we keep product management's original document is that it was the locus of everything that happened afterwards. The differences between it and the current revision gives the reader an understanding of the maturation of what is being shipped. For senior management, where their attention to the project is periodic, it helps bridge their previous understandings to a current understanding.

I like my projects to have this kind of documented grounding, but this does not make me waterfall methodology advocate. I agree completely with Kent Beck's statements in Extreme Programming that software change is cheap. I like the agile methodologies that stem from this seed. I draw the line, however, that product management and software development is nothing more than reorganizing and implementing the backlog. Developers need to know that what they are doing is coherent and concise. Otherwise the work becomes little more than hacking at the coal face — an endless drudgery.

Within a project I don't care much what tool you use to enumerate the work items and their dependencies. What I do care about is that the discussions related to these work items are located in that tool. If the tool's commenting interface is cumbersome then don't select it. If you do, your staff will not use it. Let me repeat that. Your development staff, as a whole, does not like to write stuff down, and if you make it inconvenient to do so they will attempt to make progress without using it [1]. When this happens the only record you will have of the obstacles found and decisions made will be in heads. When the project ends and the staff disperse you will have little from which to draw on to hold a successful postmortem. Worse, however, is that your development organization is doomed to remain, at best, at Level 2.

Lastly, for now, where do instant messaging tools sit in a software development organization? For me, at the bottom of the communication modes. What message is so urgent that it can't wait until tomorrow morning or some other synchronization time [2]? For smaller organizations where one developer might have multiple roles the interruptions will be harder to control, but they can be controlled. The head of development needs to take control of them.

The other problem with instant messaging is that it becomes the primary mode for discussions and decisions. Instant messaging is technically an asynchronous form of communication, but it is rarely used with that expectation [3]. Instant messaging has become akin to oral communication with all of its concomitant weaknesses. It is too easy for a senior staffer to initiate, for example, a Slack conversation to come to a decision than it is to open an issue and discuss it there or simply wait until a next meeting. Or the developer who interrupts everyone to ask a question that could have been answered elsewhere with a little effort on his or her part.

At this point I am sure you are thinking I am a madman. I have the developers sitting alone at his or her desk coding and communicating only online and only asynchronously. It would be a lifeless place without actual face to face communications. Hallway conversations and meeting are vitally important to a development organization. Important enough to write about separately in another posting.

[1] Jira is a good example of a bad interface. Atlassian has put so much effort into enabling customizability that its has made the hourly effort of interacting with issues & comments to be on a par with the one time effort of creating a set of project "status" tokens.

[2] For example, place all announcements on the kitchen refrigerator or on the bathroom mirrors.

[3] Why We’re Betting Against Real-Time Team Messaging criticism of Slack is spot on.


Some comments about a healthy software development organization

I have been thinking a lot about healthy software development organizations recently [1]. I have never headed a development organization. I have always been an individual contributor working as an architect, a principle engineer, a team leader, or one of the many other roles on my the way to these. So I work within an existing organization and have some command to shape it. There are limits to this command, however. The shape is principally formed and administered by the department's head.

I have worked for several heads of development. All were good people. All managed differently. Some were curt, some loyal, some inclusive, and some neglectful. I have learned much from working with them. Here is some of what I have learned.

A healthy development organization is one that has
  1. Staff with a range and overlap of skills & experiences.
  2. Work that is finished when all steps are complete.
  3. Communication is balanced between structured & unstructured.
  4. Achievements are celebrated.
In a larger organization these points are easier to achieve, but even a small organization must position itself to attain them.

You need to have a staff with a range of skills & experience and without large gaps in either. For example, having three junior developers and an architect is not healthy. Beyond the one bus problem is the problem that the larger the gap the more likely the organization will create a implementation that is of irregular consistency. Consistency enables an organization to potentially use many more of its staff to resolve bugs and add improvements. You don't want to have anyone say "Andrew wrote that. I don't touch it without his input."

The work of a software product is not just code. We all know that, but the pressure to release the implementation alone is great. I am a firm advocate in documentation and testing. Testing is easier for developers to accept as it is a channel for more coding; coding is something they want to get good at and enjoy doing it even when the effort is going badly. Getting development documentation written is an uphill struggle. 

I have only ever worked at one organization where developers prepared documentation without acrimony and that was the CASE company Cadre. I was an apprentice programmer at the time and ready to accept, without question, everything I learned there. I have since come to be more selective, but the importance of documentation has remained. Documentation is a part of my third point about communications. Communications includes all its in-person and online forms. Communication is about coming to a common understanding and then achieving consensus.

A software project has a product goal and an implementation goal. The product's goal, ie having an implementation that works, is the easy part of software development. Having an implementation that the development organization can support is much harder. The initial expression of the implementation is not code, but a written design. This written design might only consist of a few diagrams and an enumeration of constraints and problem areas, but having it written down means that someone made the effort to attain a comprehensive grasp of the product implementation and to communicate it to others. From that the development staff can begin to come to a common understanding. There are other documentation needs, but for now, lets start with an upfront design!

My last point is one coders and heads of development publicly dismiss, even belittle, but privately value when it is done well. So much of a developer's work is unseen. The reviewer finds problems. Who finds successes? (We don't even have a title for such a role!) Developers want others to know about their trials (their stories), and for their accomplishments and improvements to be acknowledged. None of this is needed for the product. All of this is needed for a healthy development organization.

[1] I am going to use the term software development and not software engineering. My ego is buffed by the engineering term, but, frankly, software development is far from an engineering discipline as the term is used in other inventive organizations. Our work is, with the best of meanings, craft.

The best way to think about Silicon Valley is as one large company

"The best way to think about Silicon Valley is as one large company, and what we think of as companies are actually just divisions. Sometimes divisions get shut down, but everyone who is capable gets put elsewhere in the company: Maybe at a new start-up, maybe at an existing division that’s successful like Google, but everyone always just circulates. So you don’t worry so much about failure. No one takes it personally, you just move on to something else. So that’s the best way to think about the Valley. It’s really engineered to absorb failure really naturally, make sure everyone is taken care of, and go on to something productive next. And there’s no stigma around it."

-- Valley of Genius

Found at Stuff The Internet Says On Scalability For August 3rd, 2018

Gaming with Alexa

I am an armchair tabletop wargame and broadgame geek. I say armchair as I mostly seem to read and speculate about games far more than I play them. In part this is due to available opponents and in part to simply not making the time. Nevertheless, I persist. 

When my children were very young I noticed that they would spend long periods of time studying the details of intricate pictures. This was their "dinosaur period" and so it was mostly illustrations of Jurassic flora and fauna. I had the notion of a game set on a large rug sized illustration they could scamper around on. The rug was pressure sensitive so the children's location was known. The rug would speak and listen. The children would respond to its directions either alone or in small groups. They could be the hunters, the hunted, the treasure seekers, the jungle veterinarians, etc.

The game remained speculative, but the ideas of location aware game boards, audio interaction, and physical game pieces has continued to interest me. I explored using old school pen digitizers, old school touch screens that used infrared interference for locating, magnets and mechanical switches, RFID, image pattern recognition with and without QR-codes or colored dot markers, etc. 

Gaming in wild came under scrutiny. How would LARPing or scavenger hunts change with augmented reality? What about audio only games? What would a naval or starship strategy game require from a driver stuck in commuter traffic? How much of the map or simple orientation could the player keep in their head? Clearly, these would not be realtime games or there would be high likelihood of distracting the driver into actual vehicular combat.

When Amazon's Alexa was introduced I read the SDK documentation with excitement. Amazon had done the hard work of creating a conversational model for audio interaction. I think a small, jet fighter combat oriented over the driver's car roof is a game well within the skills of even a moderately skill programmer. Now to make the time.

When getting it to work is the least of your problems

There are 3 important traits of good software implementation
  1. It works.
  2. It is maintainable.
  3. It is reusable.
We have heard many times over the years how a language, a framework, or a methodology are better (and often "the best".) And I don't doubt this for a minute, but over time their betterment is very unlikely to prevail. Three examples are in order.

The developer that creates a data driven implementation that only he or she can understand is not gong to be maintainable by your low skilled, procedural developers. The implementation works, but it can not be considered maintainable and reusable if these activities are limited to one developer.

The development team that picks a language that has a passionate following and generally good library coverage for implementing the initial product release, but it does not have broad acceptance in the development organization. This implementation is not going to have staff readily available for maintenance. So the original staff become its maintainers and these are, very likely, the most expensive developers on your staff.

The development organization that eschews using anything but in-house developed tools and frameworks. No matter how well it is architected, systems designed, used in implementations, and available on-boarding training it is never going to be better than what is available outside. The longer your staff remain, the less employable they become, and so the more anxious they are to leave or, worse, hunker down into survival mode.

When you are creating a product for a one-time use then by all means use whatever it takes to get it working. Remember that these products are gadgets. Even if the gadget is critical to success of some other endeavor -- eg, it specializes in an island's one-time disaster response logistical problems -- it is still a gadget and so expendable. When you are creating an appliance then getting it to work is the least of your problems. Maintaining it and making its parts reusable are central to the development organization's success and repeatability. This requires that you be able to continually staff your organization with the range of developers with costs appropriate to the lifecycle stages of your products.