Strong opinions, weakly held

Month: February 2010 (page 2 of 4)

Extreme agility

Github developer Scott Chacon describes their development process:

At GitHub we don’t have a project tracker or todo list – we just all work on whatever is most interesting to us. No standup meetings, burndown charts or points to assign. No chickens or pigs. It’s sort of the open source software style of business – everyone itches thier own scratch. Inexplicably, it works really well and keeps everyone engaged, new features appearing quickly and bugs fixed rather fast. No managers, directors, PMs or departments – and it’s the most agile, focused and efficient team I’ve ever worked with. Maybe we should write a book about it.

The first question that occurs to me when reading this is, under what conditions would such an approach work? (The second is, do they have a quality assurance department, and if so, how do they plan their work?)

But let’s go back to the first. I can think of a few prerequisites:

  1. Your developers must be users of the product. In fact, I think this sort of approach could only work for companies that build tools for developers.
  2. Your developers must be able to iterate without relying too much on other members of the team.
  3. The business must not have customers who are promised certain features by a certain date. Customers of every software company I’ve ever worked for have requested features that no developer wants to work on, but they pay the bills, so we worked on them anyway.

There are probably a lot more conditions required to make this sort of arrangement work, but those are the ones that immediately leap out at me. The beautiful thing about this approach is that it insures that you get exactly the developers you’d like to have. The people who would not want to work under these conditions are not the ones you’d want anyway, and the developers you would want would leap at the chance to work in this fashion.

Thanks to Ryan Tomayko for the link.

Update: Be sure to read Ryan’s comment below, he adds a lot more details about how things work at GitHub.

Steve Jobs’ war on Flash

I can’t believe I’m linking to Valleywag, but there it is. They have a recap of Steve Jobs’ iPod demo for editors at the Wall Street Journal.

I agree with the many people who argue that Apple’s feud with Adobe over including Flash on mobile devices is mostly about control. Apple does not want people developing applications for the iPhone on a proprietary platform that will be ported to other platforms. I suspect that part of this is a pure power play, and that part of it is that they want iPhone applications to look like other iPhone applications, rather than looking like whatever UI toolkit the platform provider offers. My point here is that Apple has reasons both user-centered and selfish for keeping Flash off the iPhone.

Anyway, Apple can get away with it if they can make Adobe the bad guy. That’s why they keep bringing up the things that really are bad about Flash. It is a CPU hog (especially on OS X), it does cause browser crashes, and there are security problems with it. It enables Web sites to circumvent your browser preferences by providing its own cookies and allowing sites to do things like launch pop-up windows regardless of your other settings. When Apple points out the obvious shortcomings with Flash, they do well politically.

What Jobs is doing here, though, I think serves Apple very poorly. They look like the bully. It’s one thing to actively try to kill off the floppy disk, it’s another to try to kill of a popular and useful (in spite of everything) technology with a very active community of developers and lots of happy users to serve your own selfish ends. I don’t think that will serve Apple very well.

One point Jobs is said to have made is that there are readily available alternatives to Flash that the Wall Street Journal could use just as easily, but that’s just not true. The New York Times is cranking out interactive features in Flash every day, like this one explaining how Lindsey Vonn won the women’s downhill, and this one breaking down Obama’s 2011 budget. The effort required to produce something similar in HTML is much higher, and the results will not be as slick, nor are they likely to work in older browsers at all.

Steve Jobs may want to kill Flash, but openly saying it is a big mistake.

Motivation is subject to depletion

Here’s an important article on employee motivation I saw on Hacker News:

The great majority of employees are quite enthusiastic when they start a new job. But in about 85 percent of companies, our research finds, employees’ morale sharply declines after their first six months—and continues to deteriorate for years afterward. That finding is based on surveys of about 1.2 million employees at 52 primarily Fortune 1000 companies from 2001 through 2004, conducted by Sirota Survey Intelligence (Purchase, New York).

The fault lies squarely at the feet of management—both the policies and procedures companies employ in managing their workforces and in the relationships that individual managers establish with their direct reports.

Most of the prescriptions in the article are standard management advice fare, but I think they key point is worth remembering — people are generally excited about their jobs until the realities of the situation beat it out of them. The main responsibility of managers is to help them hold onto that enthusiasm.

The risky aspect of HTML5

The theory is that if all the User-Agent providers implement all these algorithms exactly as specified, complete interoperability will be achieved and people who build Web applications need no longer concern themselves with the differences between User Agents. Which would of course be wonderful.

Will it work? Nobody knows; it’s a science experiment. Just because nobody has ever succeeded in specifying a workable networked object model doesn’t mean this project will likewise fail. But it does mean that when considering the future of HTML5, we should recognize that this is a very hard problem, and there’s no guarantee that that part of it will come off.

From a blog post on HTML5 by Tim Bray.

Roger Ebert

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been completely entranced by Roger Ebert’s writing on the Web. Like most people, I thought of him as a movie critic, albeit a very fine one. He has long been known to me as a true student of film, and I appreciate his taste in movies. A couple of years ago he started posting about other things on his blog, and the quality of writing and of thinking I’ve found there has just astounded me. The fact that he has so sincerely gone further and built a real community with the people who comment on his blog has been incredible as well.

I also knew that Ebert has had some serious health problems, but I didn’t really know until recently how severe they were or that they resulted in his losing the ability to speak, eat, or drink. In Esquire, Chris Jones interviews Ebert and fills in most of the gaps. Here’s the part about Roger Ebert starting his blog:

There are places where Ebert exists as the Ebert he remembers. In 2008, when he was in the middle of his worst battles and wouldn’t be able to make the trip to Champaign-Urbana for Ebertfest — really, his annual spring festival of films he just plain likes — he began writing an online journal. Reading it from its beginning is like watching an Aztec pyramid being built. At first, it’s just a vessel for him to apologize to his fans for not being downstate. The original entries are short updates about his life and health and a few of his heart’s wishes. Postcards and pebbles. They’re followed by a smattering of Welcomes to Cyberspace. But slowly the journal picks up steam, as Ebert’s strength and confidence and audience grow. You are the readers I have dreamed of, he writes.

You can find Roger Ebert’s Journal here, and his Twitter account here. He is consistently the most inspirational and thought provoking writer I read. A lot of people already know all of this, but I’m writing this for the people who don’t.

What corporations actually think of capitalism

In school we learn that capitalism is the most efficient system known for allocating scarce resources, but real life has taught me that very few corporations agree with economists on this point. Take, for example, how a banking analyst reacts to the news that the credit card legislation that just gone into effect has led to credit card issuers competing more aggressively for customers with high credit scores:

The CARD Act is leading all issuers to the top of the credit food chain, and more competition is never a good thing in any industry, regardless of the product, but particularly in the relatively homogenized card space,

Make no mistake, what “competing more aggressively” means is offering lower interest rates and better benefits to customers. The takeaway here is that this is what corporations are after when they spend money on lobbying — reduced competition, and of course, reduced regulations. So here we have a policy that regulates the worst behavior of corporations and that has led directly to competition that benefits customers. This is exactly the sort of thing Republicans are against.

Abusing foursquare

Jim Bumgardner explains how he used the command line tool curl and a bit of clever thinking to cheat at foursquare on a massive scale:

At some point last week, I devolved into a 12 year old hacker, and I spent many spare hours (and my computer’s spare cycles) abusing the system with a set of scripts operating fake accounts. Not only did I add new venues like the North Pole, but I started persistently checking into coveted landmarks, like the Statue of Liberty.

What can I say? It was fun, and foursquare’s incentives (badges and mayorships) spurred me on. Incentives invite abuse, even from mild-mannered folks like me.

I wonder if anyone has ever tried to calculate a percentage of the engineering budget that should be allocated in advance to fighting fraud and abuse? The folks at Glitch probably need to figure out what that number is.

Update: Speaking of the incentives to game systems, what happens when you create a system where teacher performance is evaluated based on how students do on standardized tests? Some teachers cheat on the tests on behalf of their students. Testing companies have developed a system that can detect this kind of cheating by evaluating erased answers.

One criteria for evaluating software developer candidates

I’m often thinking about what qualities make for a good software developer. One attribute that I think may be important is the capacity to keep the details of a large system in your head. What I mean is, the ability when someone brings up a new feature, to quickly know exactly how it should be implement in the context of the existing system. Or, to be able to recall where the code is in the system that performs some function that needs to be added to some other part of the system. These days, between search tools and the code navigation capabilities built into the better development tools, there are lots of ways to find things in a large body of code, but I think that having a mental map of a system remains valuable. I also think that having this ability may signify the presence other valuable traits that a developer should possess. After all, it’s not fundamentally different from having a good working knowledge of the Java collections framework or the popular Ruby gems or the massive number of PHP string functions.

Two questions for Friday afternoon:

  • Am I correct in assuming this is something you should look for in developers?
  • What questions would you ask in an interview to find out whether someone possesses this quality?

Iceland sees free speech as a potential export

Many small nations add to their revenue by offering preferential regulatory environments for businesses of various kinds. Think the Swiss and banking or the Cayman Islands and money laundering. Iceland is seeking to become the best place in the world to be an investigative journalist. Nieman Journalism Lab has the details:

Jónsdóttir explained that the proposal does not contain final legislation, but would instruct the government to create a package of laws that enhance journalistic freedoms in specific ways. According to an email from Assange (which was then leaked, ironically enough) the amendments would cover source protection, whistleblower protection, immunity for ISPs and other carriers, freedom of information requests, and strong limits on prior restraint. They would also provide protection against libel judgements from other jurisdictions, much as the United States may soon do with the Free Speech Protection Act of 2009.

The new law has been developed with the assistance of Wikileaks. Very interesting stuff.

Terrorism Derangement Syndrome

Dahlia Lithwick describes Terrorism Derangement Syndrome:

The real problem is that too many people tend to follow GOP cues about how hopelessly unsafe America is, and they’ve yet again convinced themselves that we are mere seconds away from an attack. Moreover, each time Republicans go to their terrorism crazy-place, they go just a little bit farther than they did the last time, so that things that made us feel safe last year make us feel vulnerable today.

Policies and practices that were perfectly acceptable just after 9/11, or when deployed by the Bush administration, are now decried as dangerous and reckless. The same prominent Republicans who once celebrated open civilian trials for Zacarias Moussaoui and Richard Reid, the so-called “shoe bomber,” now claim that open civilian trials endanger Americans (some Republicans have now even gone so far as to try to defund such trials). Republicans who once supported closing Guantanamo are now fighting to keep it open. And one GOP senator, who like all members of Congress must take an oath to uphold the Constitution, has voiced his concern that the Christmas bomber really needed to be “properly interrogated” instead of being allowed to ask for a lawyer.

On the long list of things that I find disheartening about the current state of the country, Terrorism Derangement Syndrome tops the list. Last night, Newt Gingrich called President Obama a radical because he placed the underpants bomber in the civilian criminal justice system. I realize this is just a game for Republicans, but it’s a dangerous, corrosive game to play. I do my best to separate myself from anyone exhibiting symptoms as quickly as possible — they get one chance to think things through and then I’m done.

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