The Philosopher Developer

half-sound logic, half-decent code

Don't make me think
November 30, 2018

Note: This is another of those 60-minute posts.

Suppose I said to you, “Go read War and Peace and write me a 10-page book report on it.” What would you say? Probably something like Why? or Who do you think you are? or maybe just No. That’s a homework assignment, and there’s no reason I should be entitled to just give you a homework assignment.

Why isn’t it reasonable for me to give you a homework assignment? Because I’m not your boss1. And in civilized society, we don’t abide individuals just assigning arbitrarily large tasks to one another. It isn’t proper.

Notice I said “arbitrarily large tasks”; we actually are okay with assigning small tasks to each other. For example, almost no one thinks it would be audacious of me to say, “Hey, could you hand me that stapler?” Even if I were to blurt, “Give me that stapler!”—a significantly ruder way to say it—my suspicion is that most people would still give me the stapler, albeit with a bit of annoyance.

There is some sort of unspoken dividing...

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The business goal
November 12, 2018

The team met up on Monday morning, as they always did to discuss the items in their backlog.

“Let’s talk about Alice’s ticket,” said Bob, the product owner. “Alice, the summary here says Configure auto-scaling. That sounds like a technical solution. Remind me, what’s the actual business goal there?”

Alice fidgeted in her seat, as all engineers do under the light of a business person’s attention. “Well, I guess it’s to make sure the system stays healthy under production load,” she managed to say. “If we don’t have enough workers to keep up with the queues, message processing could be delayed and eventually our servers might run out of memory and crash.”

Bob thought for a moment. “All right, so it sounds like if we don’t set up auto-scaling, we might not be able to handle peak traffic; is that right?” Alice nodded. “Then let’s update the summary on this ticket to Prepare the servers for peak traffic. I think that better captures the outcome we actually care about without being too prescriptive...

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Information intoxication
October 18, 2018

I still remember the last time I got hopelessly inebriated. It wasn’t as long ago as I’d like to admit. But it was a turning point for me, a wake-up call to a grown man who shouldn’t be letting that happen. The details of the story aren’t really important, except for one: it started with the all-too-familiar mistake of drinking without having eaten dinner.

Anyone who’s made this mistake understands the ramifications. When your stomach is empty, a little bit of alcohol has much more of an impact than after you’ve had a full meal1. As a result it’s very easy to get drunk without meaning to when you haven’t eaten recently.

The relationship between food and alcohol in the context I’m describing is one of proportionality. Ideally a small amount of alcohol is preceded by a much larger amount of food. The alcohol provides a pleasant buzz, while the food acts as a buffer, protecting against some of the negative effects of the alcohol.

I have noticed that a similar relationship exists between...

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The house with many rooms
August 26, 2018

Note: this post was published in 60 minutes.

There’s an analogy I’ve used many times to describe Bitbucket, both to my team as well as to outsiders. It works for Bitbucket but I think it works for plenty of other software projects I’ve worked on, and even for everyday life. Anyway, the analogy is this: Bitbucket is like a house with many rooms and only a small staff to maintain it. Some of the rooms are neat and tidy; but given the limited size of the staff, many of the rooms are a total mess.

When you first join the staff that maintains this house, you don’t have much context. You may have seen the house before. Maybe you’ve even been inside it for a social event, in which case you’ve probably seen the dining room, the living room, perhaps a bar area or a study. But you haven’t seen the attic, the cellar, many of the storage closets, etc.

So in your first few weeks, you find yourself discovering some of these rooms you’ve never seen before, and they’re messy and in poor condition...

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Published in 60 minutes
August 08, 2018

I realized something recently: I share my ideas with people every day in 1-1 conversations; but the rate at which I share my thoughts in written form is much slower. Probably 100x slower. That’s not an exaggeration: in the past few years my rate of publishing posts on this blog is less than 2 per year. Meanwhile I have multiple conversations, both at work and outside of work, every day.

You’ve probably heard the expression “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” A big part of the reason for the discrepancy between the value I provide in 1-1 interactions1 vs. written communication is the amount of scrutiny I apply to the things I write versus the things I say. Meanwhile, the value of the information I share in written form is nowhere near 100x as valuable.

I suspect the phenomenon of diminishing returns kicks in very quickly for me with written communication. Most of the value is captured in the first 50% of time invested; the remaining 50% of time invested only improves the final result...

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When the golden rule goes wrong
July 24, 2018

One of my friends from Philadelphia1 once told me about a time he went on a trip—I think it was a bachelor party or something—with mostly guys he didn’t know. Most members of the group were from the midwest or maybe the south2. At first everything was fine, but as the trip went on, he started to feel uneasy. Eventually he realized that it was making him uncomfortable how nice everyone was being to each other.

For my friend and his regular social group, normal behavior was just constantly tearing each other to pieces. They would make fun of each other, mocking just about everything anyone said or did that was remotely genuine, at every opportunity. I’m sure this sounds unpleasant to most people, but for my friend and his group it’s what put everybody at ease. No one was exempt, which meant that no one was singled out.

This is why my friend wasn’t comfortable in this new group of polite strangers. He was suspicious of their kindness and kept bracing for the sarcasm. He had trouble letting...

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Big rocks and small rocks
June 03, 2018

There is a lesson I learned in Sunday school that has stuck with me to this day. I recently became aware of the fact that I idly, almost subconsciously think about this lesson on a regular basis; and I’ve even started referencing it in conversations with colleagues. The basic idea is very simple, but it provides a useful metaphor that can help frame conversations around project management and prioritization.

My teacher brought a big canister into the classroom along with two boxes of rocks. One of the boxes was full of large rocks, about the size of a fist. The other was filled with small pebbles.

“I want to fit all of these rocks into the jar,” he said. “Let’s see what happens if I put the small rocks in first.” The teacher poured the pebbles into the canister, filling it about halfway. He then started placing the larger rocks into the canister, but only a few of them fit before there was no more room.

“Hmm, that didn’t work,” he observed. “Maybe if we put the big rocks in first...

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Working on Bitbucket is awesome
December 02, 2017

I’m writing this for a couple of reasons. For starters, I don’t think I talk about this often enough with my own team. We are typically so focused on our day-to-day work that it can be all too easy to lose sight of just what a special opportunity we all have.

More generally: maybe it’s just me, but it seems there’s a lot of negativity in the software world. For some reason many in our profession actually seem to hate what they do, which is hard for me to relate to. I’d like to see more articles by people who love their jobs, especially those of us lucky enough to work at great companies, on terrific products, with incredible teams.

So basically this is me making a conscious effort to put some positivity out there, in a space where I feel a lot more positivity is warranted.

A brief history

Working at ThoughtWorks as a consultant, I was privileged with a relentless string of learning opportunities from working at different clients, following different processes, and playing with different...

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Pride is a weakness
February 04, 2017

I remember one day in college, a friend came into the commons area of the dorm where I lived and asked me and some other friends if his purple velour shirt made him seem less masculine. A couple of guys gave him a hard time, making fun of him for wearing such a shirt. I don’t think they actually cared about his shirt; it was more the asking, and the insecurity that suggested, that they were teasing him about.

We often think of pride as a good thing. It certainly has its benefits. The notion of having pride in one’s work leads many people to do better than they would if they didn’t care. But my mother always said, “Pride cometh before a fall.” Even as we celebrate pride, in the backs of our minds we know that it can be a weakness too.

To clarify: by “pride” I am referring to the psychological need to be recognized. I believe it is an overloaded term, so I know that when we speak of pride that isn’t necessarily what we’re always talking about. But this is what was on display when my...

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The Talking Down Epidemic
October 22, 2016

Whenever I see someone talk down to someone else, I think, “What was the point of that?”

Don’t get me wrong: I do it too. But even when I’m the one doing it, I still ask myself that question, usually a few minutes later after the buzz has worn off. What was I trying to accomplish there?

Being talked down to has never caused anyone to think critically about a position. It’s never prompted earnest soul-searching or opened anyone’s eyes to anything. Talking down to people just makes them furious, as well it should, because the only real reason to talk down to someone is to make them feel bad, while making yourself feel better.

It’s basically stealing: you’re taking from someone else and giving to yourself. It’s just that instead of taking someone’s money you’re hurting them emotionally. Instead of profiting financially you’re getting a temporary emotional high at the other person’s expense.

I kind of think talking down to each other is an epidemic in this country. I say this as someone...

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