The Philosopher Developer

like the philosopher king, but nerdier

What are engineers for?

I was once out with a team of software engineers who were talking about a challenging project, and one of them said, "It's our job to say what's impossible."

I couldn't stop myself from interrupting. I said wait a minute, that is not what our job is. I think I knew what he was really trying to say, but I saw the moment as an opportunity to challenge what I felt (and still feel) is a backwards view of what engineers are actually for.

Read more

When sophistication is required

This is a post I originally authored over 5 years ago, while learning and writing about cryptocurrency. Since it wasn't published anywhere other than GitHub, I figured I would port it to my main blog.

The post has been very slightly modified to reflect my current views and make it a bit more general.

Read more

The 100-mile chainsaw

John was a lumberjack. Every day he would go to the forest, chop down trees, and haul them back to town to sell to anyone who needed lumber. Fortunately for John, everyone needed lumber, all the time, as the town had many flourishing businesses and the population was growing.

Because demand for lumber was always high, whenever John wanted to make a bit of extra money, he could push himself to work extra hard and cut down a few more trees to sell. While it was demanding work, he always felt incredibly gratified after such days. Not only was he rewarded for his effort; he knew he was also providing extra value to the people of the town, who could always put the lumber to good use.

Read more

What you need to hear

A few years ago I wrote a piece called Advice vs. guidelines because I wanted to distinguish between times when I'm just trying to be helpful to someone given the state of the world, versus other times when I have an opinion about what the state of the world "should" be.

Read more

On ice cubes and hot soup

I was chatting with a colleague recently and we were sharing our experiences and perspectives working through recent organizational changes at our company—new leadership, new org structures, new ways of working. He said something like "Either we will change, or our new leaders will have to change."

I noted that both would surely change; the question was only a matter of degree on each side. The executives who had recently joined the company would inevitably find themselves adapting to the culture that existed before they arrived. And the rest of the company would likewise adapt to its new leadership. On this we agreed.

Read more

Plan for the best

One Friday night recently, some friends of mine dropped off their daughter for an evening play date with three other girls. Their daughter hadn't met two of the other girls, so they hoped she would get along with them but figured most likely she would still want to come home before bedtime. When they returned later that evening, the girls had become fast friends and were already making plans for what they would do the next morning. But since the parents had assumed their daughter would want to go home, they hadn't brought a change of clothes, her toothbrush, or anything she would need for a sleepover; so they found themselves driving home with a deeply disappointed and frustrated child.

Read more

Adventures in AI

Back in early 2018 I decided to start learning about cryptocurrency. I created a website, called "Adventures in Cryptocurrency" (no longer live), to document my experience learning about the subject. It didn't last very long: by the end of January I was already becoming skeptical at the ostensible aspirations of the crypto community to offer a decentralized alternative to traditional banking.

Read more

The men on the beach

Two traveling men meet on a vast, endless beach.

Both men are traveling with carts full of useful items that they've collected throughout their lifetimes.

The first man, Saul, has built up his collection by finding things beneath the sand. Every day, he digs countless holes. Most of the holes lead nowhere, but every now and then he finds something.

Read more

Leaky bucket, overflowing bucket

Note: this post was published in 60 minutes.

I've used this analogy over the years with multiple people, both team members reporting to me as well as peers and friends. Since others have told me they found it helpful, I decided to write it down to share more broadly.

Early on in most of our careers, our responsibilities are limited. The people we work with don't depend on us for too much yet. But we may be capable of doing a lot, and many of us are eager to be given a chance to do more.

Read more

The case for writing your own promo

This is advice that I have given multiple times, to multiple managers. I figured it was time to write it down.

At many tech companies, there is a formal process for requesting a promotion. At Atlassian, the biggest part of this process is a collaboration between a promotion candidate and their manager on compiling documentation justifying the promotion. The main requirement for this documentation is that it provide strong evidence, based on a standard framework, demonstrating that the candidate is performing at the level they're targeting for promotion. Ultimately this document (the "packet") is reviewed by a panel comprising 7 senior staff members, and the panel ultimately decides by vote whether to approve it.

Read more

All Posts