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Long live Slack, down with egotistical email

17/11/2014

We use Slack for team communication at Cozy. I struggled with the transition. When I reflected on my struggles, it made me better understand what a destructive format email is for workplace communication.

A quick disclaimer. This is only about work communication and not personal communication. I love email. I think email will be around for a long time and I will lament if and when it goes away. I just don’t think we should be using email for work.

Oration is the highest form of feeding an ego. You craft your message carefully. You research, write, and rehearse. Finally, you take the stage. You command everyone’s attention. And once you’re done, an important topic has been thoroughly addressed and everyone can go on with their lives, better off after hearing what you said.

Email is oratory without the speaking* (or skill). My problems with email stem from when it is used for one-way communication. I suspect that most emails I’ve ever received from anyone in management have been one-way. Generally these emails are meant to, first and foremost, communicate the sender/manager’s self-importance. Often the email contains a nugget of actual information which should be hosted elsewhere. Sometimes the email is an announcement no one understands. And as a rule, you can’t rely on people reading the email you send anyway.

When you craft a long email, like an orator crafts a speech, it is an ego boost. Each one is a masterpiece. You are proud of your fine writing. When you craft a long chat message, on the other hand, you look like a dramatic asshole. It puts in stark perspective how awful the written format is for important or high-bandwidth communication. I’ve never seen someone post a 300-word message to chat. How many 300-word emails do you have in your inbox?

Removing email also levels the playing field for communication. You don’t need to be a manager or orator. Everything you write has a visibility you can’t change. You choose your audience based on topic. Is there a question about a product’s design? Well, it goes into the product or design channel, whether you are Executive Emperor or QA Associate II. Also, no one really wants to read your dramatic flair so please keep it short and to the point.

I used to get frustrated when I’d write an excellent email, send it out, and within a few minutes someone would reply with a message like “Yeah, just to build on what Rob said, it’d be a good idea to do X.” You idiot! You are an Ice Cream Truck driving through the State of the Union. But of course, the problem was mine, playing a manipulative game, focusing too much on this amazing message I’d created. Sometimes these emails would be about the manipulative games people were playing and how we weren’t focused on the employees and customers and things that were actually important.

Email in the workplace is a systematic problem. We take it for granted. We use it constantly. We don’t question it. But email has a cost. It feeds into the already inflated ego of managers. It encourages one-way communication. It is wonderful for grandstanding. We spend a lot of time crafting museum-quality correspondence no one wants to read. And in the end, there are better ways to accomplish what we use it for.


* One of the greatest “speeches” of all time, Pro Milone by Cicero, was written, not spoken. We know great orators by their writing, not their speaking.

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First, do no harm

13/11/2014

From a wonderful post by Matt Williams about the type of business he is looking for:

A Business Manifesto
We are uncovering better ways of running a business and helping others do it.
Through this work we have come to value:
People and interactions over profits and prestige
Quality service over quantity of service
Customer relationships over contract negotiation
Flexibility over following a plan
That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

In a nutshell I want to work for a company which values people — both inside and out of the company. I want to work where people strive to do things right.

When I go home, I want to be able to look in the face of my daughter and not have to make excuses for the work that I do and the effect it has on others.

Sums things up nicely (and definitely what we aspire to at Cozy, by the way we’re hiring).

It is a reason I left the video games industry. I wanted to use my skills to do something I felt was more constructive.

But more than that, I was amazed and frustrated with how the industry was run (almost as bad as films). Mass layoffs even on successful projects. Over-managed projects that go on for 4, 5, 6 years and are cancelled. Creating an exploitative product in order to milk a customer base. Huge budgets, huge marketing, appeals to lowest common denominators (often sexual). There are good companies but the business models are so insane that you can be around for 10 years and fold tomorrow.

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If you hear “perception is reality” you’re probably being screwed

27/10/2014

I was once told in a performance review that “perception is reality.” I was infuriated, and the words stuck in my mind as the most toxic thing a manager could say to an employee. I have avoided writing about it, but the “This American Life” episode about Carmen Segarra’s recordings at the Fed has inspired me to change my mind. Here’s the relevant section, emphasis mine:

Jake Bernstein: Carmen says this wasn’t an isolated incident. In December– not even two months into her job– a business line specialist came to Carmen and told her that her minutes from a key meeting with Goldman executives were wrong, that people didn’t say some of the things Carmen noted in the minutes. The business line specialists wanted her to change them. Carmen didn’t.

That same day, Carmen was called into the office of a guy named Mike Silva. Silva had worked at the Fed for almost 20 years. He was now the senior Fed official stationed inside Goldman. What Mike Silva said to Carmen made her very uncomfortable. She scribbled notes as he talked to her.

Carmen Segarra: I mean, even looking at my own meeting minutes, I see that the handwriting is like nervous handwriting. It’s like you can tell. He started off by talking about he wanted to give me some mentoring feedback. And then he started talking about the importance of credibility. And he said, you know, credibility at the Fed is about subtleties and about perceptions as opposed to reality.

Well shit, if that doesn’t sound familiar. Here I was, doing work that was by all measures extremely successful, yet pulled into a feedback meeting to be told “perception is reality.”

Let me tell you what “perception is reality” means, and why you should plan on leaving your job the moment you hear it:

The arbitrary opinions of your manager’s manager defines your situation. And they don’t like what you’re doing.

Your manager may be well-meaning (mine was, as was Mike Silva), but at the point you get this “perception is reality” bullshit, you can be sure there’s nothing that they are going to do to help you. Someone above them has taken notice, your manager has probably heard hours of complaints, and you can either shut up or get out. Perception isn’t reality everywhere; it is only the mantra in sick organizations totally removed from reality.

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Old towns, and legacy software

25/09/2014

On our road trip from Austin to Portland, we stopped in a handful of towns that were booming in the late 19th century. In particular, Pendleton, Oregon made an impression. They were exhibiting serious effort and success revitalizing the town. Pendleton has a rich and interesting history, but has shrunk (relatively) over the last hundred years. It apparently used to be Oregon’s 4th largest city. There has clearly been a big effort to keep buildings in good condition, create interesting businesses, establish modern dining and arts, and maintain a beautiful and safe river walk. The people who live there seemed to hold a special bond.

Pendleton was quite different from many other towns we saw, which were in decline, derelict, or abandoned.

Pendleton reminded me of my experiences working on legacy software projects. Projects that no one wants to own, that have a successor “coming soon,” or are seen as unimportant; these are depressing to work on. On the other hand, where people have stepped up to really take control of the situation and invest serious passion into a legacy project; special bonds form that are as strong or stronger than can be forged when working on something new.

A town like Pendleton, like a legacy software project, is not going anywhere soon. You can invest in it, make it special, meaningful, and historical. Or you can make it a place for people too old or passive to move from. Towns and legacy software can deteriorate and die. Many have met this fate. Alternatively, they can embrace their legacy and reinvent themselves, with great pride, in the glow of their former selves.

A country of Pendletons is probably not very healthy, but a country with none would lack character and history.

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Escaping the Windows prison

8/09/2014

My friend Brad Clark over at Rigging Dojo is organizing a course on Maya’s C++ API (I am assuming it is Maya but could be another program). He had a question about student access to Visual Studio, to which I responded:

As a programmer, the experience on Windows is pretty horrific. No built-in package manager. A shell scripting language designed in hell. A command line experience that is beyond frustrating. A tradition of closed-source and GUI-heavy tools that are difficult or impossible to automate. A dependence on the registry that still confounds me.

My eyes weren’t opened to this reality until I switched to Linux. I was on a Windows netbook that was barely working anymore. I installed Linux Mint XFCE and suddenly my machine was twice as fast. But the much more important thing that happened was exposure to modes of developing software that I didn’t even know existed (Python, Ruby, and Go made a lot more sense!). Programming in Windows felt like programming in prison. Developing on Linux made me a better programmer. Furthermore, If I didn’t end up learning the Linux tools and mindset on my own, working in the startup world would be basically impossible.

Programming on Windows revolves around Visual Studio and GUI tools. If you need evidence at how backwards Windows development is, look no further than Nuget. This was a revolution when it was released in 2010, changing the way .NET and Windows development was done. In reality, the release of Nuget was like electricity arriving in a remote village. It took ten years for C# to get a package manager. And it is for the rich villagers only: older versions of Visual Studio don’t work with Nuget.

The ultimate problems Windows creates are psychological. The technical differences change the way you think. It echoes the “your Python looks like Java” problem. Is the Windows mentality what we want students to take on? My last two jobs have been on Linux/OSX. I honestly cannot imagine having kept my head above water if I didn’t have a few years of self-taught Linux experience.

Windows still dominates in desktop OS popularity. That is all the more reason to make sure we are exposing student programmers to alternative ways of developing. I want new developers to be exposed to things outside the Microsoft ecosystem. It is too easy to become trapped in the Windows prison.

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The low status of software engineers

21/08/2014

A couple weeks ago I read an article by Michael Church titled “How the Other Half Works: an Adventure in the Low Status of Software Engineers“. It is the story of Bill, who had two very different experiences interviewing for two different positions at two different companies: one as a software engineer, and one as a VP-level manager. Bill’s experience is as you would expect from the title. The article is well worth reading.

It was difficult to process the article’s conclusions, because my interview experiences have not been like Bill’s. In fact, in some cases it has been the opposite. I once interviewed for a management-level position that I was woefully unqualified for. Once it was clear I wasn’t the person for the job, they changed the day’s schedule to allow some engineers to unnecessarily hammer me with technical questions. Likewise, I recently interviewed for a software engineer position at a healthcare company with a very small programming team, yet was treated extremely respectfully by everyone, including the CEO. Furthermore, I know I am not guilty of holding software engineers in low status, as anyone I have worked with will tell you.

A few days later, after thinking about the article some more, I started to get some flashbacks*.

I wanted to make changes to scrum teams, consolidating several smaller teams into fewer larger teams. I was told “if we do this, it must be secret. We cannot discuss team composition with developers. They just gossip and act like children.

I was discussing systematic problems with management structure with a sympathetic senior manager. I was told “I once put forward a proposal that employees should choose their own managers. I was laughed out of the room.

We were considering two senior developers for a second Technical Director position. I was told “you must leave this to me to handle, we do not want them to know the other is being considered.” Of course they were good friends, and eventually made the decision themselves.

I raised an objection to a workflow a tools team had put together, concerned it put a large and unnecessary burden on content creators. I was told, “if they don’t want to deal with it, they don’t need to work here.

A team griped frequently about their tools, which were both essential and horrific. Management felt they weren’t sufficiently appreciative when any minor fixes were made. Instead of fixing the tools, they and I were told “there will be no more discussion of these issues, except as initiated by management.

Until now, I thought of these events as incredibly stupid decisions made by unqualified and disconnected individuals. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. These are incredibly predictable decisions made by normal individuals who are produced by a totally unsurprising system. Once the engineers are no longer running the show, they are quick to lose social status. Engineers remaining in management will be assimilated, demoted, or their position removed entirely. There’s no way to reverse this, and I think it’s why culture can so quickly spiral from enjoyable to miserable.

Finally, it’s also interesting to think about this in the context of the Silicon Valley “anti poaching” conspiracy which depressed employee salaries. It demonstrates the systematically low status of software engineers better than anything. Management at Apple, Google, Adobe, Intel, and more, saw engineers as mere pawns, while simultaneously acknowledging how vital they were to the success of those companies. What a world!


* If you’ve worked with me before, you can probably guess who some of these nameless individuals are. I have not obfuscated things for the sake of protecting the innocent, because I don’t find these shitty managers innocent.

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A short letter to a unit testing newcomer

18/08/2014

One of my friends asked how to get started with unit testing and Test Driven Development and figured I could write a short post. I also mention TDD a few times in my book so I think it could use some more attention.

I got started with unit testing when I wrote a smallish Python project, and realized I couldn’t maintain large Python projects without tests*. So I wrote unit tests for my code. I then quickly got into TDD. I don’t remember what resources I used, but there are plenty.

I’d encourage you to start unit testing by writing your code first, then the tests. As soon as this becomes easy and is paying off, start writing the tests first (TDD). You will come to appreciate that this is a powerful way of thinking and working. Even if you don’t ultimately stick with this approach, it is worth becoming skilled with it. You will uncover many suboptimal areas in your coding process that are otherwise extremely difficult to find and fix.

Keep in mind that learning TDD isn’t like already knowing Mercurial, then reading a book about Git**, and then being skilled with Git because you are skilled with Mercurial. You are embarking on a long journey, and will need to refer to many tutorials, blogs, and books. You will do some TDD, and look back on that code and process in a year and be horrified, just like you were when you started programming. Do not think of unit testing and TDD like learning a new framework or library. Think of it like learning how to program all over again.

So I don’t know exactly where to get started, only that you must, and keep going once you do start.


* I’d soon realize that no project was really maintainable without tests.

** Pro Git is my favorite Git book, by the way.

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A manager’s primary job is to build trust

14/08/2014

While interviewing for my new position at Cozy, I was repeatedly asked what the job of an Engineering Manager is.* By the end of the day, I had decided (for myself, anyway) that the most important job of an Engineering Manager** is building trust.

  • Senior engineers must trust you. They can succeed without you, but you can’t succeed without them. Why does your job exist? It isn’t enough for you to trust them; that’s a prerequisite. If you don’t trust them, that needs to be rectified first. If they do not vehemently trust you, your role is not just worthless, but a net negative.

  • Junior engineers must trust you. They need to have a reason to stick around. They must trust that you are giving them opportunities, and they don’t need to leave to be treated better. They need to trust that they are learning, growing, advancing. Finally, they need to believe that if and when they leave to see what else the world has to offer, they will be welcomed back. If junior engineers do not trust you, they will leave, and take their ideas and passion with them.

  • Design must trust you. They must believe you when you present estimates or assessments from engineers. They must believe that they are getting good information from you, and you aren’t an out of touch middle manager. They must see continuous improvement and engagement from the engineers. They need to trust that you and the engineers are working towards the same goals as they are, with fire and passion. If design does not trust you, you are damaging engineers and company and should just get out of the way.

  • Management must trust you. This is generally an easy one, because if they don’t trust you, they should fix it or remove you.

  • Finally, one that cuts across roles: malcontents and metathinkers must trust you. Many people (especially engineers) just want to avoid politics and are happy to work on on their tasks and not ask questions. As long as you don’t actively screw up, these people will usually trust you. Much more difficult are the critics. They come in all shapes and sizes. It’s not that they need to agree with you, but they do need to trust you. These people often have big ideas and cultural influence. Distrust will drain your organization of talent. As a member of this category, I take this very seriously. When I’ve actively distrusted management, and subsequently left, there’s been a flight of talent afterwards as problems get worse. I’ve written about the importance of the malcontents on this blog before, and as a manager it’s always been a yardstick. If malcontents and metathinkers are leaving, something is going very wrong.

Trust is probably the most important metric for whether you’re doing a good job and your organization is healthy. It is a product of some actions, and a foundation of others. If it’s going up, your organization is getting stronger. If it’s going down, you need to get to work.


* I really enjoy interviews, especially in-person interviews, because it really helps me clarify my beliefs. This can lead to a high bounce-rate, but generally I’m left with culturally compatible companies after that. I consider this a benefit but YMMV.
** Any manager, really.

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“Do you expect too much from people?”

11/08/2014

Last year, a coworker asked me if perhaps I expect too much from other people. I thought about it a moment and said:

No. I do not accept the argument that I’m somehow inherently superior to most others. In fact it is because I know I am not superior that I have high expectations of others.

In the intervening year, I’ve come to see that this belief drives a lot of my management philosophy. In general, I assume the best of people I work with. If someone is not performing, I do not blame them; I blame myself (or whoever their manager is) and systematic problems that they are not in control of (but hopefully ones I am).

Of course people have different innate abilities and experiences. Some people have a high aptitude for certain types of work, and some have chosen a path that may not be a good fit. But the realities of business are that these things can quickly change, and an asset one day can be a liability the next. When a company has grown past a dozen people, I believe its time to start favoring nurture over nature. If someone isn’t performing, it is management’s problem.

This is true of not just employees, but other managers, and it was specifically about two other managers that this question was posed. The times were a-changin’, but these individuals were in roles they were ill suited for. They simply did not have the experience or competence to drive through the changes that needed to happen. It was up to their (our) management to take responsibility, but instead I heard apologies that “maybe they aren’t the best suited” and other meaningless explanations. I didn’t expect them to magically change; I expected management to do their job: get involved and well, manage!

If I expect something, it’s that people can both teach and learn. If the ability of people to grow is not an organization’s chief expectation- if management is not set up to grow employees, or management is not prepared to mature itself- I can’t imagine what they think their long-term prospects are. Perhaps they aren’t expecting much.

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Portland, here we come!

6/08/2014

Tomorrow, my family leaves on a four day trip to begin a new life in Portland, OR, as the Engineering Manager at real-estate startup www.cozy.co. I am incredibly excited to join the company for all sorts of reasons (the role, product, team, founders, location, pretty much everything). It’ll also allow me to focus on what I’m most passionate about: engineering and development management. So there should be fertile topics for new blog posts, though I suspect the purely engineering or Python-centric posts will get fewer (except for goless, which I plan to maintain).

Now for the heavy stuff. In addition to a new chapter opening, several chapters are finally closing. Since deciding to leave Iceland earlier this year, life has been a depressing adventure. After a promising start at CCP Atlanta, the studio was shut down. This caused us to become homeless. We were 2 days from closing on a house (for which we lost a very large amount of earnest money). So a few days later we drove to Austin and moved in with my in-laws for about 2 months. I found a new job at The Foundry, but I ended up not enjoying working remotely. I was looking for a new job just a few weeks after starting (the job was just for a 3 month contract so they were aware I was looking). We left my in-laws mid-June and moved into their lake house, which I describe as 30 minutes outside of nowhere (over an hour into Austin). We haven’t had running water for weeks due to pump-house problems. My wife and son have gotten cabin fever, unable to make friends with a culture we don’t seem very compatible with. I haven’t been able to give a concise answer to “where I live” or “where I work” since March. Moving costs keep building. My son is behind on his vaccinations due to moving around. It’s been the most difficult time of our lives.

And oh my god is it hot outside.

So here’s to a new job, a new city, a new start. See you on the other side!

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