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Should a team be able to abort a sprint?

2/06/2014

After my second retrospective on a new project, I unloaded some pretty harsh criticism about what we were building. I felt it was a “solution in search of a problem” and “not high value.” After proposing an alternative and convincing everyone to change direction, our sort-of Product Owner blasted me for not bringing my issues up sooner and basically wasting two weeks of work. I said I had voiced my concerns, but not strongly or formally, because I was focused on getting the sprint work done. My feeling was that it wasn’t constructive to second-guess things in the middle of a sprint, and that I trusted the people who made the decisions. Especially as the new guy on the team, I leaned towards agreement.

We both had a point. As a senior person, I had a responsibility to speak up. As a team members, I had a responsibility to get our work done. I don’t know if I made the right choice in this instance. Perhaps if I argued too loud too early, I wouldn’t have had enough credence for people to believe me, and would have been in a worse spot at the end. Or perhaps I would have saved two weeks or work.

This is one more reason I prefer one-week iterations. A week is too small to break up, so you just go heads down. But you don’t work on the wrong thing for too long. You get two or three times the chances to learn and improve.

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Adjustable standing desks should be mandatory

26/05/2014

At CCP’s Iceland office, everyone’s desk is able to adjust into a sitting or standing position. I don’t know who decided this perk. It must have been a huge expense. Adjustable sit/stand desks are already expensive in the USA, and in Iceland I’m sure they were three to five times more expensive. Until recently I thought it was required by law! This is quite an investment for each worker, but in my opinion, well worth it for a wide variety of reasons, from health to programming. Why?

  • Lots of people want to try a standing desk but don’t want to be “that guy” who asks for an expensive piece of equipment but doesn’t use it. Having an adjustable desk by default removes barriers to entry.
  • Seeing people stand (and talk about how much better it is) becomes viral. I watched it catch on at work over a few years to where everyone in certain areas is doing it. This wouldn’t have been possible without everyone already having adjustable desks.
  • Standing for part of the day completely fixed my sciatica (lower back/hip/butt pain). It also apparently has lots of other health benefits.

Okay, but “health of your workers” is a pretty nebulous concept, and in America, a business’ job is to make money for shareholders, not, like, improve society! Why would Donald Sterling want to buy black employees adjustable desks in addition to cars and houses?

  • It helped me concentrate. I was able to work faster while standing. Standing is time for working. I don’t know if this is universal, but I certainly didn’t see many people playing games or getting lost in a “YouTube hole” (as a friend puts it) while standing.
  • Pair programming and over-the-shoulder reviews were incredibly more effective while standing, even with people of different heights. Standing, I could pair easily with pretty much anyone, from a good friend to an interviewee. I was able to mentor far more effectively since standing felt like such a more natural way to collaborate.
  • Even if you don’t like pair programming (have you tried pairing while standing?), being able to program and edit code collaboratively during a code review is, IMO, a requirement. Standing code reviews were more effective than sitting. More issues got uncovered and more knowledge was transferred.

How do I know all these things? Well, when I transferred to the Atlanta office, I no longer had an adjustable desk (or a sensible healthcare system, but that’s another matter). Suddenly, reviews with people I was very comfortable with and worked with previously felt rushed and unpleasant. They were done while leaning over (“when can I get my crotch out of this other person’s face“), or sitting together (“oh god we keep brushing knees“).

Pair programming, which is the foundation of the way I mentor (and learn), was basically ineffective. No one programs well at an angle to the monitor, and people mistype constantly if the keyboard is not in a natural spot. It’s difficult to share knowledge or equipment in such an awkward situation.

If you want a vibrant and dynamic engineering culture, standing desks are a must. I view them as fundamental to a programming team as decent workstations and SSDs.


Real studies about adjustable desks are difficult to find. This 538 analysis is promising: http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/i-stand-corrected-about-the-best-kind-of-desk/. Otherwise, it is very easy to find endless anecdotes about the usefulness of adjustable desks. Start with the 538 article’s comments if you don’t know anyone!

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Global Glob

4/04/2014

I am cleaning out my drafts and found this two year old post titled “Globals Glob” with no content. The story is worth telling so here we go.

There was a class the EVE client used to control how missiles behaved. We needed to start using it in our tools for authoring missiles with their effects and audio. The class and module was definitely only designed (I used the term loosely) to run with a full client, and not inside of our tools, which are vanilla Python with a handful of modules available.

My solution was the GlobalsGlob base class, which was just a bag of every singleton or piece of data used by the client that was unavailable to our tools. So instead of:

serviceManager.GetService('someservice').DoThing(self.id)

it’d be:

self.globalsGlob.DoThing(self.id)

The ClientGlobalsGlob called the service, but FakeGlobalsGlob did nothing. The GlobalsGlob allowed us to use the missile code without having to rewrite it. A rewrite was out of the question, as it had just been rewritten, except using the same code. (sigh)

Unsurprisingly, GlobalsGlob was super-fragile. So we added a test to make sure the interface between the client and fake globs were the same, using the inspect module. This helped, but of course things kept breaking.

This all continued until the inevitable and total breakdown of the code. Trying to use the missile code in tools was abandoned (I think it was, I have no idea what state it’s in). This was okay though, as we weren’t using the missile tools much after those few months. GlobalsGlob served its purpose, but I will never be able to decide if it was a success or failure.

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Being amazed by software development

1/03/2014

I am continually amazed by the state of software development. I am amazed at how broken things seem to be, and I’m amazed at what powerful tools we have to fix things.

A few weeks ago, I struggled to find a documentation hosting solution. We have an internal version of Read the Docs which took far too much effort to get set up (dependency problems, creating a new SCM backend) and administrate, but Read the Docs doesn’t work with private Github Repos. After some hacking, we still couldn’t get it to work. So I looked at hasdocs.com, which promised to host our docs in the cloud, but was totally broken. I looked around at other solutions and was tearing my hair out. I was amazed that no good solutions already existed, and was more amazed that the best solutions are somewhere on the spectrum of broken (no offense here to RtD).

At the end of the day, it occurred to me my use case was incredibly simple: just provide an index page for (already generated) HTML documentation. Let people POST their HTML files and some metadata, and just dynamically generate the index based on what’s available. I was going to run this behind a firewall, so I didn’t need to worry about security. Hell I could even get away with no database, and just read the filesystem.

The next day (a Saturday), while my son and wife napped, Host the Docs was born. It took 1.5 hours to create an initial working version, and then I spent a few hours here and there polishing things up. It was painless to deploy, and I did some more improvements after that. Throughout this experience, a few things struck me:

  • I’m amazed by frameworks like Flask and Bootstrap. You can create a reasonable site in no time that is totally maintainable. At no point was I “hacking” to get something up and running, it was instead a very small first version I was able to iterate on.
  • I’m amazed by Linux. I have to use Windows at work, but feel like I develop faster on my Linux Mint netbook as I do on my Windows 7 workstation. The power at my fingertips is divine. It makes me mad at Windows.
  • I’m amazed how well some software works the same way I’m amazed at how broken some software is. Software is truly evolving; for every Flask, there are confusing and broken web frameworks.
  • I’m amazed how much time having autonomous teams can save. It would have taken a day or more to deploy HTD if I had to go through IT to provision a normal virtual machine (I doubt that frustration is unique in our industry). Instead, by giving teams an AWS budget and not centrally controlling things, HTD was live in minutes.

I’ll post more fully about Host the Docs later. I just wanted to express my satisfaction before it wore off :)


(BTW, I’m aware how similar this sentiment is to Jeff Knupp’s story of building Bull: Python and Flask are ridiculously powerful. Probably not coincidentally it is also a story of using Flask :)

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What a powerful thing metaprogramming is!

5/02/2014

While editing a chapter of my book, I was introducing the concept of metaprogramming using Python’s type function. It occurred to me that I had already introduced metaprogramming several chapters earlier when introducing decorators.

Defining a function within another function is as important to my programming as bread is to French cuisine. I began thinking of all those cultures without wheat; all those languages without, or with newly added support for, metaprogramming. I have never done serious development in a language without anonymous functions, closures, and reflection.

It was exciting to think of a coming generation of programmers who are in my shoes (I started programming relatively late in life), who would be inherently comfortable with passing functions. It was exciting to realize where languages are going, keeping static typing but removing the explicit part. It was exciting to think of how flexible, expressive, and powerful languages have become.

It also allowed me to think of less flexible languages and what they’ve been able to achieve. I am lucky to be programming now, but surely each programmer before me felt the same about those before them. More will feel the same after and about me. Really my luck is to be part of what is still such a new and remarkable part of the human endeavor.

All of this feeling from type and decorators. What a powerful thing metaprogramming is!

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Python Enrichment and PitP

18/01/2013

When I was starting my job at CCP, I posted about some things I wanted to do as a lead. I’ve been through two releases with the Tech Art Group in Iceland (and for the past 6 months or so been the Tech Art Director here) and figured I’d measure my performance against my expectations.

Training sessions: I’m proud to say this is a definite success. I was the initial Coordinator for our Reykjavik Python Community of Practice (studio-wide volunteer group that discusses python in general and its use at CCP), where I started two initiatives I’m very proud of. One is the weekly ‘enrichment session’ where we watch a PyCon video, go through a demonstration or tutorial, etc. These have gone over great, the trick is to do them even if only 4 people show up :) The other is Python in the Pisser, a python version of Google’s Testing in the Toilet. I hope we can open source the newsletters and maybe share content with the outside world. More information on that coming in the future.

Collective vision/tasking: We run an XP-style team on tech art so I like to think my TAs feel ownership of what they are working on. In reality, that ownership and vision increases with seniority. We are actively improving this by doing more pairing and having more code reviews- the team is at a level now where they can review each other’s work and it isn’t all up to me to mentor/train them.

Evolving standards and practices: We started in Hansoft, moved to Outlook Tasks, and settled on Trello. We’ve discovered our own comfortable conventions and can discuss and evolve them without getting into arguments or ‘pulling rank’.

Community engagement: The CoP and mentoring has definitely done some work here. I try and give everyone 10%/10% time, where 10% is for ‘mandatory’ training or non-sprint tasks, and 10% is for their personal enrichment.

Move people around: We haven’t had much of an opportunity for this but we did change desk positions recently :) The art team is too small to have many opportunities and all graphics development is on one scrum team.

Code katas: We had one and it was mildly successful. We plan to do more but scheduling has been difficult- we do two releases a year, and DUST introduces complications in the middle of those releases, but we’ll be doing more things like it for sure.

I’ve also been doing very regular 1-on-1′s and, I hope, been getting honest feedback. Overall I am happy with my performance but can improve in all areas, even if that means doing more of the same (and becoming a better XP team).

Anyone want to share what successful cultural practices they have on their team/at their studio?

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Taking your dog to Iceland

17/11/2012

In late 2011, my wife and I imported our Boston Terrier, Shoni, to Iceland. Since importing pets commonly comes up on foreigner discussions, I thought I’d dedicate a post to our experiences (sorry, no tech writing today!). I’ll also mention, this is specifically for dogs, at the time we did it. Cats may be different (easier and more people have done it, from what I hear), and rules may change. I’m also not going to bother linking to forms- this is a personal experience, not a guide, and there is some amount of work involved in moving your pet to Iceland!

Overall, the process isn’t too hard. Information is pretty clear (and in English), everyone was very accommodating, and there were no surprises from Iceland’s side. I wouldn’t bother getting a service to do it, I’d just do it myself. And our dog came out no worse for the wear.

Anyway, on to the timeline (I’ll list prices at the end):

1. In early September, I applied for a permit from MAST, which is good for up to a year. I should have done this much earlier. I needed to get the permit at least 30 days (something like that) before importing Shoni, which meant by the time I got the permit, she couldn’t come with us in October. This threw everything off and caused a lot of stress and extra shots. So get your permit ASAP. The rest of the process is filled with timing restrictions, don’t mess this one up.

2. There are two quarantine places. Once is in the far north (Hrisey, near Akueyri), one is nearer to Keflavik. They stagger their intake, so one takes pets for a few days in the middle of the month, the other at the end/start of the month. If you have a choice (and are living in the capital area), I’d choose the one near Keflavik, to avoid an extra return flight and less transport overall. I’ve also heard their English is better. Shoni ended up going to Hrisey though, because I screwed up the permit and that’s what worked out timing-wise.

3. There are certain shots that the dog needs to have at least 60 days from departure. There are other shots that she needs no more than 30 or 60 days from departure. Read everything and schedule everything in advance. Don’t mess this up! Though we did a little bit but talked to MAST and everything was fine.

4. Make sure you have an airline-ready travel crate, and make sure your dog is used to sleeping in it! A regular crate won’t do, you may need a special crate for air travel. We lucked out, Casady’s aunt and uncle had one they weren’t using, from their recent international move.

5. Shoni flew from Texas to New York in mid-October, after our wedding, in coach with my Aunts. This was the least harrowing part of the entire trip, even though a 10kg dog in the cabin is too big! If you can book your pet in the cabin, do it (it’ll also be cheaper). Try it even if they may be too big- she flew Jet Blue, and it made me like that airline even more. If she must go cargo, I’ll note that airlines have restrictions and cautions for certain dog breeds during certain months. Boston Terriers are brachiocyphallic (snub-nosed), so they can overheat and die during travel, especially during summer months (usually sitting out on the tarmac). Different airlines have different records and different breeds have different accident rates. But do your research and be safe (if the dog is worth the price you’re going to pay to move her, she’s worth this risk, I’d say). We sent Shoni’s (empty) crate as baggage.

6. It was difficult and a huge burden to place on someone (my Aunts) to prep a dog for an international move. We did a bunch of stuff in Austin, but there was stuff that needed to be done 30/10 days before departure, that my Aunts needed to do. Shoni ended up getting several unnecessary shots; there was lots of confusion and stress in the month she was with my Aunts. On the other hand, breaking the trip into two parts was easier on Shoni. I would have been scared for her life if she went on an 18 hour trip in her crate. The key takeaway is that better planning and less procrastination would have made things easier, but even with mistakes along the way everything turned out fine.

7. Again, read the paperwork. There’s stuff you need to fax 5 days before your pet arrives. There was, not surprisingly, a lot of stress in the last few days. Lots of calls with MAST and my family and making sure everything was good to go.

8. With everything set, Shoni flew Icelandair cargo in mid-November from JFK to Keflavik. It was painless and we got confirmation she arrived, the worst parts were over. The quarantine people picked her (and presumably other pets) up, drives them to Hrisey (or wherever your quarantine is), and they start their quarantine. There is no way to interact with your pets AFAIK, even if you are on the same flight (sometimes you may see them in the luggage area but it isn’t like you can take them out to pee!).

9. Once in quarantine, we asked for updates/photos, and got them. The “warden’s” English was not great so it was difficult to communicate, so I needed to have a friend translate some emails between English and Icelandic. Shoni looked nervous and the place was obviously pretty sterile, but she looked safe and healthy. Shoni is very well-adjusted and adaptable, so if you have a nervous pet she may fare worse. Also, I think you can visit your pets- but I wasn’t about to go to Akureyri as a new resident in December, but I probably would have visited her in Keflavik.

10. After 4 weeks (right before Christmas, for us!), Shoni’s time was up. And here’s another reason to choose Keflavik over Hrisey- Icelandic winter weather is fickle and her flight was delayed several times. She was on one of the last flights from Akureyri. We picked her up from the airport, took her home in a cab, and all was well. She didn’t have any of her toys or blankets she was sent with- the stuff has to be boiled and rarely survives it.

11. Costs. All are approximate.

  • Permit: $240 (including transfer fee)
  • Flight Austin->JFK: $100
  • Flight JFK->Keflavik: $450
  • Akureyri->Reykjavik: $100
  • Quarantine: $1600 (varies with pet size)
  • Customs fee: $100
  • Vet bills: $700 or so, not sure
  • Total: About $3500

In the end, it wasn’t a question of whether or not it was worth it- there was no question, she was coming. However, procrastination complicated things. And it is expensive. Bigger dogs will be more expensive, cats are smaller and require less shots so would be cheaper.

Anyway, I hope this post is helpful, and feel free to ask me any questions about my experience.

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Is QA a good stepping stone?

9/11/2012

I’ve always heard that it was difficult to move from QA into development (game design/programming/art/production). I thought this was smart- QA people should be there to be QA people, not doing a job only because they hope it would lead to something else.

And at some companies, it works. My previous job was at a well-regarded studio, working on a huge game and IP, in a wonderful city, and lots of developers were looking for work (and we had the money to hire them, if not keep them after ship…). People really wanted to work there (I once interviewed someone as I was near the end of my tenure there, and told him pretty clearly, “you won’t like programming here.” And of course he took the job anyway). It didn’t make sense to spend effort training QA people when you could just hire the people you wanted directly.

However, I now work at a place that is much more difficult to hire for. Outside people respect the company and know the game, but the audience is smaller than one of the biggest IPs and most successful game studios of all time. And especially, it’s in Iceland. Iceland is a wonderful country, but we’ve had several people turn down offers or on-site interviews because their family said “no way” (myself almost included).

In my opinion, it makes more sense to hire QA people (often out of the EVE or local Icelandic community), and set them up on a career path that leads outside of QA. There will never be a serious shortage of applications for a QA job, but it can take a year to hire and relocate a senior person (and you are taking a big risk on that time and expense!). And to a large extent, this is what we do (and while we have sometimes failed at providing career paths, I still think it remains the goal).

I quite like this new strategy- not only does it produce good results over time, it also seems to have more integrity- QA people are too often treated like second class citizens, rather than devs-to-be. I’m not sure if my mind will change if I move on to another studio, but it’s at least how I feel now. I wonder how other studios approach this issue?

(Side note- I am not saying there isn’t a need for senior and permanent QA people, I’m just saying, there are lots of people in QA that don’t want a career in QA. There should also be career development inside of QA, but that shouldn’t be the only career development)

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How to deal with being a negative developer

30/10/2012

There was a recent AltDevBlogADay post about Negative Developers and Team Stability that hit home. It’s not that I think the advice was particularly interesting (good, standard stuff), it’s that it reminded be that I’ve been a negative developer.

I don’t know what I could have done differently. I just wasn’t happy at work, and there was little I could do to change it. The quality of my work was apparently very good, I was just terrible for morale, because I was either 1) pissing people off or 2) encouraging people to be pissed off at the problems I/we saw. Eventually I got the best advice I’ve ever gotten (which deserves its own blog post), and left the company. I went to the right place and became a positive developer.

And that’s sort of what struck me about the article and about how we typically deal with negative developers. Some developers are just not a good fit, regardless of how amazing their work is. If someone is negative because she is “culturally incompatible”, because there’s nothing you or your manager can do to fix it. And it is worth it to have a frank discussion about whether that person can ever be happy without changes to the studio, and if that person says ‘no’, you should discuss plans to part with mutual respect at a mutually agreed date.

I had to put in my two weeks at my last job to have this advice given to me by the President (GM? Can’t remember) at the time. It convinced me to un-quit, and to stay on another year. It ended up being a miserable year in many ways, but it was the right thing to do and worked out for the best. As managers- and friends and team members of negative developers- we need to keep this advice in mind when dealing with negative developers (and ourselves).

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Someone has a hat to eat

30/05/2012

In December, I made a blog post about being happy. A anonymous (of course) commenter said:

Hey Rob. 5 months? Are you really this shortsighted? It’s like watching a kid say he’ll NEVER get tired of THIS toy. Frankly, if you don’t get tired of it you stopped growing. Take it as a good learning experience for the time when you forge your own destiny, but if you aren’t back to being a grumpy asshole in 6 months I’ll eat my hat. Not that I wear hats.

So 6 months (and a released expansion) later, have things changed? No, not one bit. In fact, late-night-drunk-rants have growth even more positive all around. Few of the bitch-sessions I’ve been used to in my career. It is an unfamiliar feeling. But addictive.

So why am I not back to being a ‘grumpy asshole’? Because there’s nothing to be grumpy about. There’s plenty wrong, but we’re moving at a steady pace in the right direction. And everyone is on board that it’s the right direction. No “we’ve decided this is the right direction so STFU and do what you’re told”. This happens because the talented people that complain loudly have several constructive outlets (I put myself in that group, at the risk of sounding egotistical).

One of the most exciting are communities of practice. Read the Wikipedia article if you like, but really they are a company-sanctioned forum for people with axes to grind to argue. Then we figure out what we want to do, and how to do it. And then we do it on some 15% time for skunkworks projects we’re able to reserve. Being able to talk about our common problems, across teams and responsibilities- we have everyone from tech artists to server programmers to the CTO there- is a refreshing experience.

(If you’re at a large company with lots of programmers who all aren’t on the same team, I’d highly suggest forming your own communities of practice).

The people who get shit done and can convince you of the way forward are given the responsibility to get more shit done. It’s nice. I think it has to do with the open source and python mentality.

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