The theoretical underpinnings of Etsy
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The theoretical underpinnings of Etsy

Kellan Elliott-McCrea, the CTO of Etsy for my entire time at the company, writes about the theories under which Etsy’s engineering team, as we know it, was constructed. It has traveled a whole lot further than he could have predicted:

Five years ago, continuous deployment was still a heretical idea. The idea you could do it with over 250 engineers was, to me at least, literally unimaginable.

Etsy has been the validation of many theories that still must seem heretical to many people, and I want to thank Kellan for the part he’s played in formulating them and seeing them tested in production.

Better interviewing through psychology
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Better interviewing through psychology

If you are a person who is responsible for interviewing engineers, or more importantly, running an interview process for engineers, you should drop everything and read Ann Harter’s discussion of interviews through the lens of research psychology. It’s also useful for people who are the subjects of interviews and are surprised by the way their brains work in interview situations. As an industry we are shockingly bad at evaluating candidates for engineering jobs and the Dunning-Kruger effect is rampant. Let’s get better.

Critiquing Amazon’s corporate culture
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Critiquing Amazon’s corporate culture

Here in management-land, the New York Times story on workplace culture at Amazon has been the talk of Twitter for the past few days. The story paints an ugly picture of hyper-competitiveness, unreasonable demands, and exploitation that have caused many people to recoil (and some others to applaud).

I’m certain that the article isn’t comprehensive. It probably isn’t even fair. It’s a critique, and should be taken as such. I really liked Ellen Chisa’s explanation of why Amazon and Jeff Bezos should not take it personally.

Update: Ezra Klein’s followup is noteworthy:

But it’s important not to lose sight of a more urgent reality: As bad as white-collar workers may have it at Amazon and elsewhere, their blue-collar brethren have it much, much worse, and have much less power to negotiate better conditions.

APIs and accountability
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APIs and accountability

I love Twitter, but I’ve been unhappy with the company since they made the decision to stop supporting third party clients that compete with their own native clients. There are still some good ones available, but Twitter has actively discouraged the development of new clients by not adding third party API support for many new features, and by limiting the supply of API keys to client developers.

In the meantime, Twitter has let the native OS X Twitter application languish. Here’s Jason Snell:

If Twitter doesn’t have the resources or inclination to properly support platforms like the Mac (or, quite frankly, iOS and Android), perhaps it should rethink the decisions made by the prior regime and find a way to let other developers apply their expertise to the problem. Alternately, maybe Twitter should figure out how to use its huge team of app developers to create first-class native apps for not just iOS and Android, but the Mac and Windows too.

It’s not a coincidence that Twitter’s updates to its OS X slowed when they decided to cut off third-party clients. The third-party client market provided two things Twitter desperately needs, competition and free research and development. When the Twitter client market was healthy, there were dozens of development teams coming up with cool new Twitter features that the company could roll into its platform. Many of the features that are core to Twitter now originated in the Twitter community.

A fully functional API that third parties can use imposes a sort of accountability on a company’s engineering team. Giving users a choice of clients or tools demands that the product team at Twitter builds applications that can succeed on their own merits. Competing with third-parties on their own platform is the sort of exercise Twitter needs to stay in shape for the bigger fight with Facebook, Instagram, and whatever else comes along in the future. Killing off that competition has enabled Twitter to be lazy and complacent.

A counterargument one might make is that supporting a full-featured API for third parties is expensive, but I’m not sure that’s the case. Twitter already has, in addition to its Web site, iOS and Android apps, and an OS X app as well. What this means is that Twitter already provides private APIs for all its features that support multiple independent client implementations. In other words, the hard work is already done. Given Twitter’s size, chances are they’ve already put a lot of thought into API usability and written decent documentation for these APIs as well.

The risks of providing robust APIs are minimal. A relatively small number of users are going to seek out and install third-party applications even if they are great. The tangible and intangible benefits are large. Twitter needs to get back into being a platform provider for its own sake.

This Is My Jam is shutting down gracefully
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This Is My Jam is shutting down gracefully

I’m sad to see the site This Is My Jam shut down, I found it to be a pretty fun way to share a little music with people you know from Twitter and to be a good source of inspiration for new music to try. In shutting down, they are setting the standard for how social sites should be taken offline in an ideal world. The details:

This Is My Jam will become a read-only time capsule in September. This means you won’t be able to post anymore, but you’ll be able to browse a new archive version of the site. You’ll be able to explore all the people and music that made Jam, and listen to everyone’s jams as Spotify playlists as well. Think of it as the best record collection you’ve ever walked through, like this, curated by some of the best tastemakers we know (aka you!).

You can also export your data or opt out of the archive. Companies shut down all the time, or just retire old features. This Is My Jam is establishing a pattern for how this can be done in a thoughtful way that shows respect for the contributions of users over time.

Why are they shutting down? Here’s a big reason:

But keeping the jams flowing doesn’t just involve our own code; we interoperate with YouTube, SoundCloud, Twitter, Facebook, The Hype Machine, The Echo Nest, Amazon, and more. Over the last year, changes to those services have meant instead of working on Jam features, 100% of our time’s been spent updating years-old code libraries and hacking around deprecations just to keep the lights on.

Unfortunately, everything has to be maintained. Even if you’re not adding new features, there’s work to be done, especially when you’re integrating with third parties. This is why features on sites that aren’t actively maintained get worse over time rather than staying the same. Designs get stale, shared dependencies get upgraded, and things break in subtle ways. Entropy is real. This is no knock on This Is My Jam, it’s a reminder to everyone else in the Web business that ongoing maintenance can’t be avoided, even if a feature or site isn’t under active development.

I’ll miss This Is My Jam, but I’m grateful for their leadership and openness.

The expansiveness of YouTube
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The expansiveness of YouTube

Last fall, when I was interviewing intern candidates, one thing I noticed was that many of them told a similar story – when they needed to acquire a new skill, they watched tutorials and lectures on YouTube. One had an internship the previous summer working on a C++ project, and she told me that she watched C++ videos every morning before work in order to get up to speed quickly.

I’m also interested in the phenomenon of unboxing videos. These seem to serve two purposes, the first is to provide a vicarious thrill to watchers. People record themselves opening packs of baseball cards or other collectibles with the hopes of getting a rare item. The more practical purpose, though, is showing people exactly what they get when they make a purchase. Product photos can be deceptive, and unboxing videos can give you a better idea of what a product is like.

Finally, there are huge numbers of conference talks and lectures available online. If you want an intro to Docker, or an interesting scaling case study, or a survey of the current state of application security, the talks are out there.

I lead a text-oriented life, but while I was reading, a huge amount of compelling video was produced and published. I find that when I watch video, it’s easier to avoid distraction than it is when reading big chunks of text. Besides, even if I switch away from a video for a few seconds to catch up on Twitter, the audio still continues in the background, so maybe even the distractions are less distracting.

Now I’m trying to retrain myself to search for video first as an information source. As a member of the generation that was raised by television, you’d think this would come to me more naturally.

Link
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Despite this, “best” does not mean “impregnable”.  The FBI claims that iPhones are “bricks” containing no useful information and Apple claims that iMessage is “end-to-end” secure.  Neither is the case.

In iPhones, the FBI, and Going Dark, security researcher explains which threats an iPhone protects you from. As a device, it’s secure, but how you use it determines how much information you expose. In short, the iPhone is normally used as part of a system with many potentially leaky components.

Everybody wants something
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Everybody wants something

Fred Wilson wrote a blog post about employee retention that includes these sentences: >There are highly loyal teams that can withstand almost anything and remain steadfastly behind their leader. And there are teams that are entirely mercenary and will walk out without thinking twice about it. One of the big responsibilities for any manager is to keep their team together, and obviously cultivating loyalty is part of that. I agree with his three tips for retention – leadership, mission, and location are all important – but I hate the “loyalist” versus “mercenary” framing of the discussion.

I don’t think that companies or managers should think of people who leave as being disloyal. People leave for a variety of reasons, and those reasons always make sense to them. In nearly every case, leaving a job is a really, really tough decision, even if some aspects of the job are pretty terrible. Most people have friends at work, projects that they care about, and a sense of responsibility to the people and mission that they were dedicated to until they decided to make a change.

Describing them as “mercenary” is disrespectful. Rarely do people start thinking about changing jobs because of salary or because they want a bigger chunk of equity. Usually something about their job just isn’t working for them. Maybe they want different kinds of projects, maybe they changed managers and don’t like the new person, or maybe they feel like their best work at the company is already behind them. Even if it is just money, maybe the fact that you’re paying them far less than they could earn elsewhere is your problem, not theirs.

Once I left a job because I wanted to move to a different geographic location. Once I left a job because I wanted to work at a startup and have more responsibility. Once I left a job because I didn’t trust that the company was going to be in business much longer (they’re still doing fine, many years later, as it turns out). Once I left a job because consulting wasn’t for me any more. All those moves made sense to me at the time. All of them were good, although in several cases not for the reasons I expected.

As managers, we work hard to build companies where people commit to the job and stick around for the long term. At the same time, we have to be prepared that people will move on, generally for good reasons. Building a team that is resilient is part of a manager’s job as well. The worst case is not a building a team that people leave to go on to other (hopefully bigger and better) things, but a company where people are happy to show up every day but aren’t committed to doing great work.

My favorite thing to tell people when they move on to a new job is, “Maybe you’ll hire me one day.” I prefer working with people with that kind of potential, with the knowledge that retaining them is going to require my best work as a manager.

Identifying people who are too busy to be nice
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Identifying people who are too busy to be nice

In a piece discussing the horrible effects mean bosses have on the health and productivity of people at work, Christine Porath also catalogs a couple of excuses that these bosses use:

I’ve surveyed hundreds of people across organizations spanning more than 17 industries, and asked people why they behaved uncivilly. Over half of them claim it is because they are overloaded, and more than 40 percent say they have no time to be nice.

I may just start asking candidates I interview flat out whether they sometimes feel like they’re too busy to be nice. More generally, it feels like a series of questions about how a candidate handles stress may be really useful. Some ideas:

  • Tell me about a time when you felt like someone else’s mistake reflected poorly on you.
  • What do you do when you feel like someone doesn’t feel the same sense of urgency you do about a task?
  • How do you get a meeting on track when you’re the only person who’s prepared?
  • How do you handle it when it’s obvious that your boss didn’t read your email?
  • How do you handle it when a peer/subordinate didn’t read your email?

I’m always looking for ways to identify people with toxic personality traits in interviews. Digging into responses to stress seems like another way to get there.

Drop the charges against Edward Snowden
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Drop the charges against Edward Snowden

As we see the elimination of surveillance programs he unveilled, let’s take a moment to recognize Edward Snowden. He published an op-ed in the New York Times last week:

In a single month, the N.S.A.’s invasive call-tracking program was declared unlawful by the courts and disowned by Congress. After a White House-appointed oversight board investigation found that this program had not stopped a single terrorist attack, even the president who once defended its propriety and criticized its disclosure has now ordered it terminated. This is the power of an informed public.

For The New Yorker, John Cassidy argues that the US should drop the criminal charges against Snowden:

To repeat, none of this would have happened without Snowden’s intervention. Doubtless, the intelligence agencies are pressing the White House to stick to its hard line about prosecuting him, on the grounds that dropping the charges, or making some sort of plea bargain, would encourage other leakers. But that is a self-serving argument, and it doesn’t stand up to inspection. In a free society, we want whistle-blowers who have persuasive evidence that great wrongs are being carried out to come forward and tell us about them.

And finally, Glenn Greenwald looks at the reaction of media outlets that have called for punishing Snowden:

When it comes to taking the lead in advocating for the criminalization of leaking and demanding the lengthy imprisonment of our source, it hasn’t been the U.S. Government performing that role but rather – just as was the case for WikiLeaks disclosures – those who call themselves “journalists.” Just think about what an amazing feat of propaganda that is, one of which most governments could only dream: let’s try to get journalists themselves to take the lead in demonizing whistleblowers and arguing that sources should be imprisoned! As much of an authoritarian pipe dream as that may seem to be, that is exactly what happened during the Snowden debate.

If you haven’t watched Laura Poitras’ documentary on Snowden, Citizenfour, you should check it out. More recently, John Oliver interviewed Snowden for Last Week Tonight.