A different github design

Earlier today HN reviewed a proposed github redesign and largely didn’t favor it.

As a senior-devops engineer, I have zero expertise and no real design credentials. Yet I think I can still do better.

See the proposed before-and-after pictures above.
Far be it from me to tell everyone else how to do their job, but here are some principles that seem intuitive to me, and maybe designers might consider them too.

  1. The visibility of an item should be proportional to its usefulness. This includes size, placement, brightness/colorfulness.
  2. There is always a flexible solution which caters to both experts and novices simultaneously.
  3. Hierarchy of UI should reflect conceptual hierarchy.

If these rules don’t click for you, then you probably have a long way to go in your UX journey. But just to spell out some of the more egregious mistakes:

  • Create new file has no business being on the same line as “Clone repo.” It is a branch-specific operation next to a repo-specific operation.
  • The current-branch dropdown/button should connected-to the file-list widget. The file-list widget is showing files of that branch. The two are logically interdependent but visually separated.
  • Wiki and Insights are features I have never used on github and may never use. They should be hidden by default. They can intelligently show for repos that have ever once used those features.

Good luck on your design journeys.

HN’s most controversial topic

In this piece I’m staking out an ambitious challenge in trying to unprovactively examine a topic that has thus far always proven provacative. I know in even broaching the subject, which for many is a sore topic, maybe one that they don’t believe can be resolved through sincerity anymore, I am pitting myself against both the misunderstanding and the entrenched cynicism of all past failures. Nonetheless, I have a point worth making.


Do you really want to read this?

Before we begin, a thought: I’ll be taking a controversial issue, one you likely have strong opinions on, and illustrating its depth. You should ask yourself if you really want to read this, considering what you’ll be losing. By accepting the nuance and grey in an issue you forfeit up the simple joy of conviction, of being the Good Side crusading against the Bad Side. If that joy is something you depend on, this piece will simply be an irritating conflict to you.

What I ask of you:

If you think you do want to read this, then prove it to myself and yourself — I ask you to say this outloud, right now, “I want to understand this issue and I’m open to considering the possibility that the people I disagree with are both intelligent and trying to make the world better.”  If you cannot even say that to yourself now, or type it, then do not bother reading on– your time is better spent investigating why you cannot sincerely proclaim neutrality.


Now that that’s taken care of I should finally tell you the most controversial topic of news.ycombinator. And that topic has three faces: gender, political-correctness, and truth. It encompasses Damore, but in many ways has roots that spread much further.

Two friends

I’ve interviewed two of my most respected friends — friends who are both intelligent, rational, well-intentioned, and have come to opposite sides of this issue. I expect that they can’t convince you, after all they conflict each other, but my hope is that you, as I, will find an intellectual and moral respect for them as people and finally understand how a clear-thinking person could come to such opposite conclusions.


Bill, who describes himself as “pro-Damore,” has an interesting perspective. In college he volunteered with autistic kids, and spent the better part of a semester trying to teach one young boy to say “ah,” among other developmental steps. “I only got him to do it once the whole time. It was pretty crushing. It was very clear to me that sometimes the progress is so slow it can feel pretty hopeless. I have a lot of respect for the women who volunteered there [he was the only male volunteer].”

I bring this up not because it makes him look like a stereotypical “goodguy,” but because I think it informs his larger worldview. When I ask him what his outlook is on autism he says, “Well it’s unclear. Personally, I suspect it’s increasing, even though the data is ambiguous. One in 68 having autism sounds high to me. Were 1 in 68 children autistic in the Roman days? But ultimately I think it’ll get cured, along with most conditions, through science. Probably not just in my lifetime”

My theory is that to Bill, the problems of this world, or at least one problem, is a biological fact that can be solved only through science.  When I ask him why he described himself is roughly pro-Damore he said ultimately for him he feels antagonistic to the attitudes of political correctness.

“I get that political correctness means well. But there has to be a line. Take something super controversial for example, like race and IQ. If you’re too PC to ever even do research, you’re actually going to fail at helping the world. For example, lead poisoning is known to decrease IQ and has been suspected to relate to violent crime. There are still tons of homes that have lead pipes! Even Flint, they never even got rid of the fucking lead pipes there! Because it’s allegedly too expensive. So my point with all of this is that, there may very well be certain patterns in IQ or violence in poor demographic areas, and quite possibly due to something like lead, and this poor area may also predominantly be a minority. But if we immediately assume that every time the words race and IQ come up in the same sentence that somebody’s intent is to argue racial superiority then we’ll never actually fix the biological problem– we’ll HURT the world by try to prove how sophisticated we are.”

I’m not exactly clear how this ties back to Damore, maybe it doesn’t. I ask him about it. “Well look, people said he was sexist for saying the average neuroticism across the group of women is higher than in men. I think the only important question is “is it true?” If you refuse to believe something that’s true because you wish it weren’t, you’re gonna hurt the world in the long-term. Problems get fixed with science, and science requires honesty.

When I ask him why he’s so sure about the neuroticism thing he says he read it on wikipedia. I don’t know how I feel about that, but one thing I will say for sure is that I know Bill, his opinions are coming from a place of trying to help the world.



I have a lot of respect for Sam, I’ve always found him to be well spoken. His clarity-of-thought counts for so much actually getting people to understand his perspective. I respect that because it’s easy to get emotional, easy to be passionate, but not so easy to run all the angles and do the due diligence on having a logically consistent perspective.

“No, I wouldn’t describe myself as a Damore supporter, but I also think that there aren’t just two sides to this issue.”

I want to pose Bill’s perspective to Sam, but it’s hard because I’m not exactly clear on Bill’s perspective. I instead ask “Why do you think think Damore was such a contentious topic?”

“Well I think there’s a fundamental disagreement on the power of words. From a legal perspective we’re all entitled to our opinions, but from a social perspective we have pretty strong norms about what can be said. And this is good, because words are actually really powerful.” I ask for clarification. “For an extreme case, what do you think would harm somebody more. Having 20 people tell the person that they are unlikable, or tripping and falling on their face?”

I see Sam has a point, but not really how it relates. I ask what the connection is. “I read Damore’s entire manifesto and it’s true he doesn’t say anything sexist. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t violate norms. Ultimately he made a lot of people uncomfortable which matters.”

I challenge this — “Sure, but sometimes the truth is uncomfortable, surely saying things that make people uncomfortable isn’t reason in-and-of-itself for punishment. Particularly if those things are true.”

He smiles at this. “Well, yes and no. It’s true sometimes an uncomfortable truth must be said. But those who think nothing true can be offensive are kidding themselves. What if a girl at google wrote a piece suggesting male engineers are more likely to be on the autism spectrum (allegedly in support of some HR point)? It may be true, but deliberately rocking the boat like that does have real emotional effects on people and just may get punished.”

I change gears and ask him about whether political correctness can go too far, and mask issues that need correction as Bill feared. He answers, “I suppose that could happen. But I guess I personally don’t see that as a very realistic concern. At least from a broader historical perspective about historical attitudes toward Native Americans and blacks the facts actually didn’t matter that much. At the end of the day the slave owners didn’t care if their slaves were their intellectual equals, it was the social reality they subscribed to let them do what they did. It was the culture and the words. Even if the average intellect of a slave was higher than a slave owner I don’t think that would have prevented the injustices of racism.”

I ask him if he understands how somebody could see it another way, and worry that biological things like lead poisoning could be a larger problem than social things. He says, “Yes.”

Just for get a better picture, I ask him what he thinks of men’s right movements. “I think they really get the short end of the stick. I think that will change though. It’s just easy to associate a group with its most belligerent or intense members and that can put a negative face on a group– it happened with feminists in the 90’s and atheists too.”




Some topics become more clear as you understand them, some topics get less clear as you understand them. I think this is the latter. I cannot say how to compare the ills of social problems against scientific problems, I can’t say whether they are at odds at all.

What I can say, though, is that both Bill and Sam are good people, and I like them both.

disclaimer: I lied, both Bill and sam are actually me. All right reserved.

What is the “Social Justice” Endgame?

With recent controversy over the objective and means of social progress, I think it’s worth exploring the underlying philosophy of progress itself. As somebody who has trouble making sense of the cultural moment, I’m inviting anybody to ask themselves these questions in forming a clear, consistent vision over how the world ought-to-be.

I do this (which I view as the Socratic Method) with utmost sincerity and respect, because I think they are a prerequisite to any useful discussion.

  1. What constitutes a protected group? Some obvious examples may include: race, gender, and the disabled. But what about low physical attractiveness, low class, religious groups, hair color, neurodiversity, age, and all other categories? On what logical basis can one decide whether a trait is a protected group or not (e.g. do they actually need to be a minority? if someday men start making less than women, would men become a protected group?).
  2. For what careers should protected groups have an equal per-capita representation? We’ve seen a lot of tension about engineering, and there’s definitely a desire to get different protect groups into the presidency, but I sense no hurry to try to gender-balance auto-mechanics. What is the philosophy at play here? Do only protected groups deserve equal representation or are there cases where underrepresented unprotected groups deserve equal representation? What has made engineering such a lightening-rod of controversy as compared to a field like finance?
  3. Which of these statements should be punishable?
    – “Statistically cats have lower IQs than people on average”
    – “Statistically, women are shorter than men on average”
    – “Statistically, Asians have a higher IQ than whites on average”
    – “Statistically, women are worse at basketball than men on average, because they are shorter on average”
    – “Statistically, people with down syndrome have lower IQs on average”
    – “Perhaps the reason we haven’t had a president with down syndrome isn’t because of systemic bias, but because statistically people with down syndrome are less qualified on average”
  4. Should left-leaning political statements and right-leaning political statements be equally punishable at work?
  5. Who gets to define who’s a “victim?” Who gets to define what’s “offensive?”
  6. If a remark may hurt somebody’s feelings, but is true, and relevant, is it protected? What is the philosophy over what is safe to say?
  7. How would you recommend we coexist if I completely disagreed with the groups you identified as protected groups, but with complete sincerity and having put a lot of thought and research into it?
  8. If we took a majority vote, and your answers on all of these questions were found to be incredibly unpopular, would that make you question your beliefs? If not, on what basis do you hope to convince those who disagree with you?
  9. Are guilt, social pressure, and reducing work safety fair ways to drive social progress? If somebody else has a contradictory notion of social progress to you, is it okay for them to use guilt, social pressure, and reducing your work safety as a means to drive their agenda?

I bring up these questions because I see a lot of negative reaction to how the world is. But what is harder is presenting a superior alternative.

My Brainf Quine

A quine is something simple to describe yet surprisingly challenging to implement– a program which outputs exactly its own source-code. It is something of a rite-of-passage for an engineering afficianado. For those that consider ourselves one level beyond afficianado we always are looking to up the ante. I took two years exploratory years off after high school, and remember them fondly. Those were the days I could explore anything I wanted. Time was so abundant and problems were so scarce that I’d take on challenges like quines recreationally.

It’s a magical place to be in, when you any path feels possible and no obligations feels mandatory. It’s a time when one’s world-view is fully open, and interesting opportunities seem everywhere. It’s a time before traditional adulthood, where one can feel exhausted by unending obligations (cable bill, health insurance, change my oil, arrange my 401k, excercise more, sleep more, read more, relax more, setup dentist appointment, pickup groceries, return that item, answer those emails to those family members).

Once we’re in the “real world” it can be a challenge to remember that initial feeling of possibility. Once the lionshare of our time is spoken for, one may switch modes from expanding exploration to reduction. A mode where we filter our world into a functional place of checklists and routines to optimize staying afloat when our time, attention, and concern run short and we must ration them.

Anyways, I reminisce. But back in that era, one thing my friends and I would do is make coding challenges for each other. After a friend introduced me to “brainfuck,” a language with only 6 commands all represented as single characters, I challenged him to write a quine in brainfuck. I can see by googling that many other people like us are out there, who, like us, have been to that place where we are hungry for the next challenge to create for ourselves.

Recently I found my quine from back then it brought back memories.




Sopping Wet — Today’s Software Ecosystem Isn’t DRY [and nobody seems to understand or care]

Tl; Dr:

  • Everyone seems to understand DRY is good at the program level, but they don’t seem to understand it at the community level.
  • Examples of useless duplication include many programming languages, libraries, package managers, data-stores, tools
  • This community duplication reduces interoperability and slows productivity across the board

Section 1: Some examples

1. Why is there more than one unix/linux package manager? Do we really need a different package manager with the same commands but renamed for each programming language? Do we really need a distinct package manager for each distro? Rhetorical question — No. We don’t.

2. Nobody seems to admit it, but Php, Ruby, Python, and Javascript are the same language, with a little sugar added here or there and different libraries.  I’m okay if not everybody wants to use curly braces but would rather indent for typing, but I’m not okay with every library for every functionality (date parsing, database connectivity, html parsing, regex, etc) being rewritten as a distinct library for every language when those languages have almost no significant differences.

This leads to a scenario where “learning a language” is more about learning the library than anything else (e.g. “How do timezones work again in PHP?”)

3. MongoDB never should have existedMongoDB should be a storage engine. The concept of a datastore that adapts its schema on-the-fly and drops relations for speed is okay, but there’s no reason the entire data-storage technology has to be reinvented to allow this. There’s no reason the entire query syntax has to be reinvented. There’s no reason the security policy has to be reinvented and all the DB drivers. There’s no reason all the tools to get visibility (sql pro) and backup the database need to be reinvented. Plus, if it were just a storage engine, migrating tables to InnoDB would be easier.

The same point holds for cassandra (which is basically mysql with sharding built in), elastic search, and even kafka (basically just WAL of mysql without columns). For example, a kafka topic could be seen as a table with the columns: offset, value. Remember storage engines can process different variations on SQL to handle any special functionality or performance characteristics as-needed.

4. Overly-specialized technologies should not exist (unless built directly around a general technology). You ever see a fancy dinner-set, where for “convenience” people are offered 5 forks and spoons, each one meant to be used slightly differently for a slightly different task? That’s how I feel about overly-specialized technologies. For example, people seem to love job queues. All job queues should be built on top of a SQL backend so that engineers get the normal benefits

  1. engineers know how to diagnose the system if it fails because it’s a common one (e.g. performance issues, permissions)
  2. engineers can always query the system to see what’s happening because it’s using a standardized query language
  3. engineers can modify the system if necessary because it provides visibility into its workings
  4. engineers can use existing backup, replication, and other technologies to store/distribute the queue (giving interoperability)

Section 2: What’s the result of all this?

  • Senior Engineers are all set back years relative to junior ones (which is bad for senior engineers, good for junior engineers)
  • The ecosystem is set back as a whole (all tools, libraries that interact with the old technology are rebuilt for the new one)
  • The company is placed in a precarious position because it now only has junior engineers in the given technology. Did I tell you that time the place I worked accidentally lost most of their customers phone numbers, because their PHP driver for mongo would convert numeric strings to numbers, and phone numbers would overflow the default integer, resulting in no fatal errors but simply negative phone numbers?
  • The company runs the risk of being saddled with a technology that will be dropped (e.g. couchdb, backbone) and will require a rewrite back to a standard technology or be perceived as behind-the-times.
  • Slow-learning / part-time engineers must keep pace with the changing landscape or face irrelevance. Those that can’t learn 10 technologies a year (a storage technology, a build tool, a package manager, a scripting language, data-monitoring tool, 2 infrastructure tools,  5 libraries, etc) will stumble.
  • Fast paced-engineers will lose half of their learning capacity on trivialities and gotchas of each technology’s idiosyncrasies (e.g. why can’t apache configs and nginx configs bare any resemblance to each other?). Once these technologies are phased out, all of that memorization is for naught. It’s a treadmill effect – engineers have to sprint (keep learning new technologies) to move forward at all, walk just to stay in place, and if you can’t keep pace with the treadmill you get thrown off the machine.


Section 3: The exceptions

There are a few exceptions I can think of when a complete rebuild from scratch was an improvement. One would be Git. In a few months, one of the most prominent software geniuses of our era invented a source-control system so superior to everything else that it has been adopted universally in a few years, despite the intimidating interface.

The times a rebuild is justified seem to be when many of these criteria apply:

  • You’re a known and well-respected name that people trust so much the community might standardize on what you make (e.g. Linus Torvalds, Google)
  • The existing systems are all awful in fundamental ways, not simple in easily-patchable ways. You’ve got the ability, time [and we’re talking at least a decade of support], money to dedicate yourself to this project (git, aws, gmail, jquery in 2006)
  • You can make your system backward compatible (e.g. C++ allows C, C allows assembler, Scala allows Java, many game systems and storage devices can read previous-generation media) and thus can reuse existing knowledge, libraries, and tools
  • You’re so smart and not-average that your system isn’t going to have the myriad of unanticipated flaws that most software systems you want to replace will. For example, angular, backbone, nosql, are all community fails. I theorize Go, Clojure, Haskell, Ruby, and several other high-buzz languages will evaporate.
  • Your system is already built-in-to or easily-integrated-with existing systems (e.g. JSON being interpretable in all browsers automatically, moving your service to the web where it will work cross-platform and be accessible without installation)

Section 4: What can one do?

  1. Learn the technologies that have stood the test of time: linux cli, c++/java, javascript, sql
  2. Wait years before adopting a technology in professional use for a major use-case– let other companies be the guinea pig
  3. Roll your eyes the next time somebody tells you about a new sexy technology. For whatever reason, it’s culturally “cool” to know about the “next big thing,” but professionals need to rise above such fads
  4. Next time you have a brilliant idea, instead of thinking “How great it would be if the entire dev ecosystem adapted itself to use my invention” think “Is there any open-source project out there that can be minimally adapted to accomplish my goal?”

Our obligation as leadership

The talk of importance of values is one irony of the San Francisco scene, if not human nature. The same values are discussed everywhere; so why then is it that these same values seem to be applied nowhere?

Could it simply be that it’s much easier to see the mistakes of others than our own? Perhaps those of us in positions of power often subjected to less scrutiny? Yes, to both of these. And so it becomes our own greatest personal challenge to remain true to our goals when nobody else is checking.

Let’s consider the value of ownership. What does this mean for us? It’s easy to look at the engineers who report to us and think about the times they didn’t take a personal investment in what they were doing, and how that harmed the company.

But for us to be good at our job, we must challenge ourselves to hold ownership, because it’s rare somebody will tell us when we’re not.

So what does ownership actually mean? Well, if an engineer is taking ownership of a project that to me means that she takes personal and emotional accountability for doing the best feasible job she can at it. If it’s broken on production, she is treating the lost revenue like her own.

But what does ownership look like in a manager? To me ownership is no less of an obligation. In fact we have more obligation because we have more influence. We should hold ourselves personally accountable for accurately assessing the merits of our direct reports. If a great manager screws up, he should lay awake at night until he fixes it, just as a great engineer would wake up to fix a production issue. A great manager won’t “good enough” it and wait until the next review cycle to compensate. Us not admitting to an error to save face is no less excusable than an engineer covering up when he breaks the app (which is to say absolutely inexcusable).

Ownership is about caring about the job getting done correctly, at a core level, above-and-beyond what is immediately asked of you. If you see a problem that nobody else sees, ownership is taking it up and ensuring that it gets resolved, regardless of how it reflects on you. Ownership is helping the company and the customer, even if it costs you your job (be that whistle-blowing, disagreeing with an incorrect authority, refusing to do something immoral/illegal).

If you institute an initiative that is clearly ineffective, then you should admit it and withdraw the initiative. Your self-promotion is not a contribution to the company. If you are a great manager, you won’t make it your direct reports’ job to convince you they are great; you will make it your job, your contribution to ensure everyone beneath you is being used to the best of their ability. And if your manager is great, she won’t expect you bring donuts, wear a tie, show up early, or flatter; because it will be her contribution to the company to accurately evaluate your work (and not how much she loves or hates you).

And if, when you hear this, you find it mildly irritating that anybody would ask so much of you… then don’t be surprised when those you lead act as do and not as you say. Your attitude is the irony of the SF tech scene.

Connect 4 – illustration of Matrix rotation in js

Once in an interview, I was asked to determine whether a somewhat filled in connect 4 board has a winner. Here’s an elegant solution using an arbitrary rotation function: Rotate the board 0°, 45°, 90°, 135°, and check for 4 in a row in each of those rotations.

Since I couldn’t find a good rotation solution online I decided to post a solution here (javascript):

var _ = require('underscore');

var rotateArray = function(array, degrees) {
    var radians = degrees * Math.PI / 180;
    var round = (f=>parseFloat(f.toFixed(13)));
    var coordinates = _.flatten(array.map((row,y) => row.map((value,x)=>({value,x,y}))));
    var translatedCoordinates = coordinates.map(spot=>({value: spot.value, x: round(spot.x*Math.cos(radians) - spot.y*Math.sin(radians)), y: round(spot.x*Math.sin(radians) + spot.y* Math.cos(radians)) }))
    var rows = _.chain(translatedCoordinates).groupBy(x=>x.y).values().sortBy(x=>parseFloat(x[0].y)).value();
    return rows.map(x=>_.pluck(x,"value"));

var hasFourInRow = function(array){
    var vectors = [0, 45, 90, 135];
    var matrixToString = (m => (m.map(r=>r.join("")).join("\n")));
    var versions = vectors.map(degrees => rotateArray(array, degrees)).map(matrixToString);
    return _.any(versions,(b=>b.indexOf("****")!==-1));

And to illustrate the use, here’s sample test cases:

var testCases = function(){
    var win1 = [['*','*','*','*'],
                [' ',' ',' ',' '],
                [' ',' ',' ',' '],
                [' ',' ',' ',' ']];
    var win2 = [['*',' ',' ',' '],
                ['*',' ',' ',' '],
                ['*',' ',' ',' '],
                ['*',' ',' ',' ']];
    var win3 = [['*',' ',' ',' '],
                [' ','*',' ',' '],
                [' ',' ','*',' '],
                [' ',' ',' ','*']];
    var win4 = [[' ',' ',' ','*'],
                [' ',' ','*',' '],
                [' ','*',' ',' '],
                ['*',' ',' ',' ']];
    var lose1 = [['*','*','*',' '],
                 ['*',' ','*','*'],
                 [' ','*','*','*'],
                 ['*','*',' ','*']];

    console.log([win1,win2,win3,win4, lose1].map(hasFourInRow));
    //outputs true, true, true, true, false


Stories, and Meaning [at work]

Tl; Dr: All people are motivated by meaning of their work. The ability to shape the “stories” that we tell ourselves gives meaning and thus is an essential motivational tool. This meaning is also key for personal satisfaction.

Let’s consider a standard engineer. There are a lot of “outlooks” this engineer might have. I’ll go over 5 out of thousands of possibilities just to illustrate some variety:

  • I’m the star engineer here, and I’ll turn this place around. Others might not quite see it yet, but it’s only a matter of time.
  • I’m a great engineer but nobody appreciates my work. How come that other engineer got promoted, I don’t think their work is as good as mine. I should run the company, the CEO is only CEO because he has blue-blood 1% investor friends. The world is rigged against me.
  • I’m so excited to be an engineer. I earn multiple times the median household income and I get perks too, while my other friends are still paying off their college debt.
  • Work’s good. It’s just a job though.
  • Why am I always the one under pressure? Nobody ever thanks me no matter how hard I work. Why do I get mistreated? I’m such a victim. It’s not right.

What I’m proposing is that the same engineer having the same experiences could retell that same experience in any of the ways I listed above.

In fact, you’ll find that a lot of people gravitate towards common narratives. I have a friend, let’s call him Fry who always sees the same story: The big guy is mistreating the little guy. One thing I learned quickly was that he liked and actively chooses (if not entirely consciously) to see the world in these terms. And if I want his help, I can motivate him by giving him a rebel story he can play a part in.

For example, if I’m trying to create a new tool, I could tell it in a way that plays up the opposition, especially if it’s an entrenched “senior” group that’s cautious about new ideas, and it’ll make him want to help.

Everybody has a narrative or two that resonates with them. I have another coworker, Bender, who always promotes the story: People are stupid. I know not to try to change his story, because it’s a choice and likely inspired by some very frustrating life experience (I imagine those frustrations are valid, albeit rather long-lived). If I need him on a PR I can ask it in a way that implies I need his expertise. That way he act can out his fantasy of undoing the damage of incompetent/indifferent through the act of improving my code. A win/win.

Sometimes these narratives are just plain counterproductive. I can think of experiences when teammates were annoyed that some “undeserving” party “stole credit.” In these situations you can try to rewrite the narrative, though it takes a certain skill. One way to accomplish this is to bring up an opposing narrative like, “Yeah so his name was mentioned in a meeting big deal… I don’t do great work so some manager can mention my name, I do it because there are literally millions of users who are experiencing what I make and I think I’m lucky to be able to be in a position to help so many people. That’s something I can be proud of.” [And as an aside their is no duplicity in this. It is our choice whether to aim to “do good” or to accrue material. Each philosophy has its upsides.]

And the fact that people are choosing to live these stories is an important fact. For a long time, I would have thought doing this type of thing was “manipulative” or “tricking” people into work when I could instead explain to them why their underlying narrative was too black&white. But knowing that these narratives are choices, with symbolic importance, that give meaning to the individual who holds them, I see now that people choose to live these stories hoping to “play them out.”

And most importantly, we all have narratives. Mastering other peoples narratives is a great tool, but mastering your own is probably more important.


Part 2.

If you’re a leader in an organization, you need to be aware of the stories that occupy the minds you oversee. Do people see themselves as battling each other for recognition? Do they see themselves as allies against a great evil? Do they see themselves as victims of your rule?

People within the company all have their narratives, and those attitudes are contagious. Your actions will have a great role in deciding which attitude wins out.

I’ve seen organizations torn apart by leaders who were out-of-touch with the effects of their actions. The cultural effects you have are of supreme importance. Actions like requiring engineers start an hour earlier, for example, are incredibly dangerous, because they give room for the narrative “We are seen as code monkeys” to thrive.

To win this battle you must understand the narratives that you are battling against. You must truly understand them, you must know and appreciate the day-to-day of your workers. For example, you must know that your Office Manager Lela is frustrated, sleep-deprived, is wondering where her life is going, and is starting to feel like the “manager” in her title is meaningless. When you know the people you work with you’ll know what stories are compelling to them. When you understand, you will be capable of offering the service of arming them with a better story, a brighter story, a more compelling story. Because as bad as Lela’s life is, it’s better for everyone if she feels like her work matters at the end of the day.

This is your value.

The Professional Web Codebase

One of the major advantages of the high career mobility in SF … Cross pollination. Yet each new codebase I comes to seems to lack a few of the following. So I figured I’d list out the essentials that every web codebase should have.

  1. The Obvious: Git, IDE, MV*, relational DB, 3 environments that match production.
  2. Language regularization:Each language has its own idiosyncrasies. Learn your languages weakness and make helper functions to accommodate. In PHP, these weaknesses include single-threaded, bad undefined index default behavior.My preferred solution to PHP’s single-threaded limitations is to make use of a job queue. This will emulate additional threads for heavy tasks (e.g. sending emails to all of your user base) or high-latency tasks that ideally should be asynchronous (e.g. certain API calls). I’ve seen this done well, and I’ve seen it done poorly. From experience, I’d point out the following lessons: don’t use a message queue as a job queue and the DB is a great place to store a home-grown job queue [because it provides great visibility, resilience, can be controlled programatically, can be exported to disk, is atomic, etc].

    In PHP, out-of-bound reads on arrays return null and log a notification to the event log. As this is never the engineer’s intent, I always write two helper functions. One that looks up an key and returns a specific value if the key isn’t found (for cases where you’re using the array as a set). The other function looks up the key and returns an exception if the key is not found (for normal cases where the key should always be present).

    I strongly believe once you handle these edge cases most popular languages are pretty interchangeable (javascript, java, php, python, ruby).

  3. A powerful, generic staging environmentOne of the most impressive and useful technologies I saw was something we called humblebrag. It was a script that caught all requests to *.company.com/…. It then took the *, checked-out the corresponding git branch, and mapped the request to that particular branch. Thus in effect, we had a zero-effort way to have all branches usable simultaneously on a single server, even by non-engineers.Doing this can be a little harder in more complex environments with versioned services listening on ports, if you don’t plan for it early.
  4. A circuit breaker. Download one from github.
  5. An ability to do cross-server mutexes.
  6. A simple, generic read-through-caching function.
  7. A powerful logging system connected to an alerting system
  8. An A/B test system. Even if you’re not doing A/B tests on user-experience, it can be a great way to rollout to a small portion of users or internal-testers to ensure stability on a new environment.



Understanding engineers by understanding authors

I’ve written before about the challenge it can be for non-engineers to understand engineering work. I’m not the the first to observe that the non-technical need a metaphor to understand invisible and often abstract output an engineer creates. Traditionally, that metaphor has been physical engineering/construction. Others have already, and rightly, criticized the physical labor metaphor.

Instead of ridiculing the wrong metaphor, I offer a substitute. I posit this: To understand engineers, think of them like writers.

to understand engineers, think of them like writers.

Why is this a good analogy? It explains several aspects about engineering that otherwise seem downright unreasonable.

  1. Emotional attachment to work
    Like an author, many engineers see a work project as an opportunity to exercise their creativity and build something the take pride in. Like an author, engineers develop a sense of owning what they create. If the project gets cancelled, handed-off, or drastically changed (especially without notice), compromising their artistic vision, the engineer may experience frustration. But this is natural, how would an author feel in such situations?
  2. Difficulty in measuring progress and estimation.
    If software were physical construction, it might be reasonable to have an easily-predictable timeline. One might confidently answer “how far along are we?” But like writing, and unlike construction, everything one makes in software is new. And like writing, progress can’t merely be measured in the amount typed, refinement and reduction are actually an important and lengthy part of the process.
  3. Ambiguity and subjectivity of excellence
    Every week somebody writes a blog post on how to find out in an interview who’s a good engineer. And every week it gets (rightly) torn to pieces by commentators. The fact of the matter is that there are many independent components that comprise engineering talent and measuring them is very difficult. Even among the very best stylistic difference might mean two greats may not appreciate each others’ virtues, like Faulkner and Hemmingway.
  4. Challenges of collaboration
    And on that note, collaborating can be hard. Like writing, there are an indeterminate number of ways to write software, but each engineer has a style. I can tell you from personal experience that writing software with other people is hardBoth want a sense of ownership and freedom to express their creativity, but must now answer to the confines of the project itself as well as their partner (or team’s) creation. Imagine a group of professional writers trying to work together, of varying cultures, varying talents, varying dispositions, and varying skill-levels. With no objective answer to many issues, engineers reviewing one another’s code is a touchy topic.
  5. A need for freedom
    As a creative endeavor, software’s workflow can be unpredictable. A creative solution may come at any moment, often in the shower or a dream. Sometimes, when all the factors align, answers comes pouring out at a great pace. During such times, the absolute worst thing that could happen would be an interruption (or a required meeting). Compromising on artistic process will compromise the product.
  6. It’s not work
    One of the most persistent and most damaging misunderstandings I have witnessed is the erroneous perception that engineers will avoid work if they can “get away with it.” Perhaps those who feel this way think of engineering as labor, as if it were physical construction. But writing code, like other writing, is a passion that cannot be avoided. When I go on vacation from work I always end up recreationally writing code within a week. I can’t generalize for every engineer, nor every project. Like a writer, if an engineer really doesn’t believe in her work for moral reasons or is so constrained she has no space for creativity then she may lose motivation.
  7. Can we rewrite?
    Another commonality is that due to stylistic differences, every individual prefers their own way of writing things. (And to be clear, in software there is a lot of room for styles, styles that are often so unique that one can often tell who wrote code just by reading it). Each considers her own style clearer, cleaner, or better; often because it aligns so directly with her own thought process. Learning to compromise on this a key skill.
  8. Some produce more than 10 times another
    Is there any number of E.L. James that could produce the Great Gatsby? For specialized work (e.g. advanced problem solving, revolutionary user experiences) there’s just no substitute for a prodigy. On the other hand, if what you’re making is the software equivalent of a gossip magazine, having Shakespeare on your team might actually be a recipe for failure.

I want it to be clear that I’m not saying all engineers automatically deserve to have any project that they work on adapted to conform to their artistic whims. I am advising all to be sensitive to the pride and passion that people put into work.

But most of all I’m trying to help people understand engineers. It can be hard to relate to an engineer who expresses slight negativity about meetings, blows off people who check-in on them, never knows how long their work will take, doesn’t like standard schedules, might prefer to work alone, gets disappointed when their work is shifted, or thinks they’re amazing. So if you care to understand and relate, I’ve given you the tools.