The Philosopher Developer

half-sound logic, half-decent code

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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The self-healing chain
June 22, 2015

In school, we learned about series and parallel circuits. In a series or “daisy chain” circuit, the same electrical current flows through each component (say, a light bulb) in series, such that a single failed component brings down the whole chain. A parallel circuit, on the other hand, isn’t really a single circuit; it’s many circuits, all wired up in parallel so that one component can fail without affecting all the others.

A series circuit and a parallel circuit
A series circuit and a parallel circuit

Series circuits have at least two serious problems:

  1. They’re fragile: all it takes is one failed component to break everything. Moreover, the bigger the circuit (i.e. the more components it has), the worse this effect is. The odds of any one bulb failing are much greater when you’ve got 100 bulbs vs. just a few.
  2. Once they do break, they’re difficult to fix. I’ve heard harrowing tales1 of my parents' generation dealing with strings of Christmas lights that went out, having to check potentially hundreds of bulbs one by one in...

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Should we write our own tests?
May 13, 2014

I have a feeling anyone reading this is likely to feel that the answer to the question Should we write our own tests? is obvious. But obviously what? Yes or no?

Let me first make a confession, which will probably (and understandably) be offensive to anyone reading this who identifies as a QA, test engineer, or something along those lines.1 For some time now I’ve held the belief that we as software developers should definitely be writing our own tests, and so the role of software QA is one that shouldn’t have to exist.

To be clear, I have met plenty of very smart and capable QAs and I have never questioned the value of their work. I guess you could say I thought of software QA teams as sort of a necessary evil, a hack to provide better quality assurance given that many devs simply don’t write tests, or write crappy tests. But if devs would just do their job right, I thought, QAs wouldn’t be necessary.

I also thought of QA folks in the context of big waterfall environments where software...

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Artificial constraints and the pursuit of mastery
April 21, 2014

About a month and a half ago, my old colleague Pete Hodgson wrote an article called JavaScript without the this, describing a strategy for writing applications in JavaScript without ever (or at least seldom) needing to use the this keyword.

We actually used this strategy—my teammates and I, under Pete’s leadership—on a project while I was at ThoughtWorks called EMB. It worked well, and I do think it’s a sensible approach. My feelings on the subject don’t end there, though. My opinion is a little more complicated than a simple thumbs up or thumbs down. So I thought I’d take a minute to write out my thoughts.

Real constraints and artificial constraints

In any line of work, there are going to be constraints. Some are real—by which I mean, there is no avoiding them—while others are artificial, constraints we impose on ourselves.

A grammar example would be “Never end a sentence with a preposition.” This isn’t an actual rule of English grammar that you’ll find in any grammar book.1 It...

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Forests and treebuilders
January 28, 2014

You’re building a forest. You have big plans for this forest; it’s going to be big, and green, and beautiful. A swath of trees will sweep over the rolling hills here, there’ll be a tranquil little clearing there. It’s breathtaking in your head. It will be glorious.

Naturally for a forest, you need trees. And you want beautiful, elegant trees. So you recruit the top treebuilders from the best treebuilding academies. You’re going for the top talent.

These guys get to work, and right away you’re pleased. They know trees; that much is obvious. Left and right they’re constructing trees of every kind: from simple, lovely little cherry and birch trees up to towering, majestic redwoods. Every one is gorgeous, and you couldn’t be happier.

Months go by, and you survey your project from the top of a hill. Over time you begin to grow concerned. Whenever you visit the treebuilders below, you can see that they are busy doing very impressive work. But when you return to the hilltop, the developing...

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Applications are different
January 11, 2014

Here’s an observation I find myself making pretty frequently. While it’s probably obvious to some, I think a lot of developers don’t think about it. So my intention is simply to plant the idea in your head, in case it wasn’t already there.

Two kinds of developersment

There isn’t just one kind of developer. Broadly speaking, there are at least two kinds: library developers and application developers.1 That isn’t to say that each of us falls 100% cleanly into one category or the other. I consider myself both. But when I’m wearing my “library developer” hat, my work looks very different from when I’m wearing my “app developer” hat.

It’s tempting to view us all the same: we all tackle the same problems, so the same rules and principles apply to all of us the same. But that simply isn’t reality. A lot of heated debates flare up on the internet between developers about the “right” way to build software, or what “matters” and what doesn’t; and what I think is often really happening is that...

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