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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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Japanese vs. Western models of decision making

11/09/2014

I was reading a book about The Toyota Way last year (sorry, can’t remember which) and something that stuck with me was a section on Japanese versus Western decision making*. The diagram was something like this:

japanese-vs-western-decisionmaking

The crux of it is, Japanese companies like Toyota spend more time preparing for a decision, and less time executing. Western companies reach a decision earlier, and then execution has all sorts of problems. It’s also important to note that Japanese companies often reach the “end goal” sooner.

Preparation involves building consensus, but that doesn’t mean it’s all talk. Japanese companies pioneered set based design and prototyping, which allows them to try out a huge number of ideas cheaply. By the time a decision is made, they’ve “thrown out” about 90% of the work they’ve done!** However, once the decision is made the execution goes smoothly.

It is easy to see how Japanese decision making maps to businesses with a clear distinction between preparation/pre-production and execution/production, such as traditional manufacturing. It can be difficult to map to pure product development. Keep a few things in mind.

  • Consensus isn’t just discussion and design. Big-Design-Up-Front is not preparing for execution. BDUF is a woefully incomplete form of execution. Building consensus means actually implementing things in order to rapidly learn.

  • Consensus isn’t a democracy. Toyota has a very hierarchical structure and people have very clear responsibilities. The goal of consensus-based decisions is to make better decisions, not to achieve some Platonic ideal. Difficult decisions are still made, but the role of the executive is to manage the consensus-building process, rather than “just hurry up and making a decision.”

The Japanese model is built in to cross-functional teams. Consensus isn’t achieved by the heads of Engineering and QA signing some agreement in blood. If that agreement ends up not being a good idea- and it almost never is!- you end up with the Western execution experience. On the other hand, cross-functional teams have much more interactivity and iteration going on, and overall execution is much faster.

People will get upset. Take responsibility for your decisions, and acknowledge some people will get upset by them. However by making sure their concerns are thoroughly heard and discussed before execution, you will make sure they don’t keep pulling things off-track.

Anyway, there’s lots of good writing on this topic, and I highly suggest checking some of it out if it interests you. This is just my software development-centric take.


* I’m just calling these the Western and Japanese models of decision making. They are clearly not the way all decisions are reached in the respective countries. In fact these generalizations may not even be true anymore. Whether Japanese or American companies behave this way is irrelevant. The names are just proxies for different types of decision making.

** Obviously the work isn’t thrown out, since they’ve learned so much from it. But if the effort were raw materials, I suspect 90% of it would end up in the trash, depending on how a set is developed and culled.

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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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Metaprogramming with the type function

1/09/2014

In my book, Practical Maya Programming with Python, I use Python’s type function for dynamically creating custom Maya nodes based on specifications, such as input and output attributes. I really love the type function*, so I thought I’d post another cool use of it.

I recently wrote this gem as a way to dynamically create exception types from error codes (it was for a now-defunct REST client):

def get_errtype(code):
    errtype = _errtype_cache.get(code)
    if errtype is None:
        errtype = type('Error%s' % code, (FrameworkError,), {})
        _errtype_cache[code] = errtype
    return errtype

Next is an uncommon form of Python's except statement. Its argument can be any expression that evaluates to a single exception type or sequence of exception types. You can actually call a function in the argument to except!

try:
    return framework.do_something()
except framework.catch(404):
    return None

The framework.catch function is below. It looks up (and potentially creates) error types based on the error codes being caught:

def catch(*codes):
    return [get_errtype(c) for c in codes]

This sort of utility is why I wrote the type of book I did. Learning how to program in Python instead of MEL is all well and good. But you need to really see what Python is capable of to make big strides. I hope that with a more advanced understanding of Python, 3D developers can start creating frameworks and libraries, just like PyMEL, that other developers will work with and on for many years to come.


* I love the type function for a vain reason. It's more obscure than decorators, but not as difficult to understand as metaclasses.

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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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“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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Practical Maya Programming with Python is Published

28/07/2014

My book, Practical Maya Programming with Python has been finally published! Please check it out and tell me what you think. I hope you will find it sufficiently-but-not-overly opinionated :) It is about as personal as a technical book can get, being distilled from years of mentoring many technical artists and programmers, which is a very intimate experience. It also grows from my belief and observation that becoming a better programmer will, due to all sorts of indirect benefits, help make you a better person.

If you are using Python as a scripting language in a larger application- a game engine, productivity software, 3D software, even a monolithic codebase that no longer feels like Python- there’s a lot of relevant material here about turning those environments into more standard and traditional Python development environments, which give you better tools and velocity. The Maya knowledge required is minimal for much of the book. Wrapping a procedural undo system with context managers or decorators is universal. A short quote from the Preface:

This book is not a reference. It is not a cookbook, and it is not a comprehensive guide to Maya’s Python API. It is a book that will teach you how to write better Python code for use inside of Maya. It will unearth interesting ways of using Maya and Python to create amazing things that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. While there is plenty of code in this book that I encourage you to copy and adapt, this book is not about providing recipes. It is a book to teach skills and enable.

Finally, to those who pre-ordered, I’m truly sorry for all the delays. They’re unacceptable. I hope you’ll buy and enjoy the book anyway. At least I now have a real-world education on the perils of working with the wrong publisher, and won’t be making that same mistake again.

Thanks and happy reading!
Rob Galanakis

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Hiring your cake and eating it too

6/06/2014

When evaluating candidates, I have always been a believer that cultural fit and potential to improve is more important than technical ability. Of course I like to review real code samples and give a programming test, but I rarely ask for whiteboard programming. I am not a master of algorithms or math and don’t have a CS background, so I don’t require that of most candidates*. As Five Thirty Eight explains and shows, people just want to date themselves.

This policy is amazingly ego-centric. But it’s also worked pretty well. Without exception, I’m proud of the hires I’ve had a primary stake in. But it is the best policy, at least for the type of work I’m doing?

I think I am a pretty darn good hire. Why would I want to exclude people like me? Well, the fact is that I’m not special. There are way more gifted people around than me. There are plenty of people who are a great fit, and are great leaders, managers, developers, and coaches, and are awesome at math and algorithms. Should I overlook myself to try and get someone better?

Clearly companies like Google can do this. There are anecdotes about people who they hired the second or third time around. People like Steve Yegge. On the other hand, there are plenty of managers that hire “to fill a seat.” Can every company interview like Google, and reject otherwise promising candidates that do not ace a challenging technical interview?

Who you choose to hire does not define what your company is, it defines what your company will become. If you give in and make unenthusiastic hires, your amazing company will be dragged into mediocrity. If you hold the line and hire only the best, you’ll continue to excel, if you can find people. In reality, most companies are somewhere in the middle.

The “best” policy is the one that fits your situation. In an isolated job market, you may choose to value fit and culture. A tight-knit culture may help retention, and make it easier for the inevitable low performers to improve. At a startup, you may have limited headcount, short timelines, and immediate technical needs. Cultural fit would be trumped by technical expertise and experience. On the other hand, cultural fit may be most important at an established company. The biggest risk is a dilution of the culture, and there are plenty of senior people around to do mentoring.

Recognizing what you should select for is much more important than simply always trying to be as selective as possible.


* Obviously there are exceptions. If you need expertise, you need expertise. My thoughts apply to the 80% case.

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