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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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Everyone should take vacation at the same time

31/07/2014

Throughout my career I’ve always seen people struggle with taking vacation. People are too wrapped up in what they’re doing. Managers can’t allow critical people to go missing. There are weeks of trepidation and handover and “I don’t know how to fix that” emails. To a large extent, this can be fixed with shared code ownership, comprehensive automated testing, and all those types of good development practices. I have a better idea, which I saw in great use at CCP (which for a long time did not have those good development practices):

Everyone vacations at the same time.

In Iceland, this was a cultural thing. From what I understand, employers aren’t allowed to deny you vacation between May and September. Everyone goes on vacation in July. The office is empty. Things just go relatively smoothly as no one expects anything to get done during July (its a great time for side projects). This “July slowdown” wasn’t limited to CCP, as people who need visa renewals in the summer no doubt learn.

In Atlanta, the studio just closed down for two weeks in July.

In both cases, there may be a skeleton crew to keep things running, people on call, etc. Its just that no one expects anything non-immediate to get done. This has many benefits: its easier to plan for, office costs are cheaper, there’s a single silent period rather than months of rolling disruption, everyone takes a refreshing vacation, and much more. It’s pretty much the only vacation policy I’ve seen that was largely resilient to the pressures that keep people from taking vacation. To be sure, some people were screwed over by bad managers, but (in contrast to most other management offenses) this was largely due to particular managers and not underlying cultural causes.

If you see the people around you failing to take the proper vacations everyone needs to keep going, I’d encourage you to try having everyone go on vacation at the same time.

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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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