Humility in Software Development

Kent Beck approved

I think many software projects would end better if we developers would say these things more often:

  • No, we can’t get that much work done in the time span you’re suggesting.
  • I don’t think we’re disciplined enough to see this complicated feature through to production-readiness.
  • We should probably buy a third-party solution for this because we won’t be able to solve the problem as well as they already have.
  • This thing is extremely difficult to do well, and you probably won’t get your money’s worth by having us do it.
  • You’re too optimistic about this project.
  • This requirement is not unique, and we should probably just copy the approach taken by another team.
  • There is already a product that does this—you should use that rather than have us develop custom software for you.

Is Your Codebase a Hotel Room or a Home?

I got some strong reactions to a tweet I wrote last week:


Unsurprisingly (thank you 140 characters), some took it as a dig against contractors and consultants. I certainly didn’t mean it that way—many of the sharpest and highest quality developers I’ve worked with in the software industry were contractors or consultants.

The tweet was meant as a dig against companies that routinely staff up a software project with mostly contractors and consultants.

It’s an indicator that the company is taking a short-term mindset with regards to its software.

Now, there are certainly times when taking on a contractor or consultant for a period to augment a software team is a solid choice, for example if there’s a well-defined chunk of work that requires a very specialized skillset, or the team is adopting a new technology and needs someone with expertise to bring the team up to speed.

What I bristle at is the strategy some companies take in which they surround a small core of permanent team members with a swarm of short-term “resources.”

Room service tray

It’s not that everyone who stays in a hotel will intentionally trash the room. But the thing is: they don’t live there. You don’t have to be a bad person to internalize the idea that you’re not going to be around for very long. Short-term gains are rewarded. Long-term plans are left for another day (or another person).

You don’t want your codebase to be a place where most occupants are only passing through. Build a home, not a hotel.

Apple’s Flat Design: When Clarity Goes Out of Style

I’m not the first Apple fan to take notice of the sliding quality of the company’s user interface design in the post-Jobs years.

I remember feeling almost personally betrayed after installing iOS 7 on my phone and seeing the many stark regressions in usability that came with the sweeping visual re-design. Apple had chosen fashion over clarity, jumping on the “Flat Design” bandwagon. This was the same company that built its empire on usability! I couldn’t believe it.

Flat Ive

Well, now Nicholas Windsor Howard has written a series of articles that go far beyond my vague unease with Apple’s UI design of the last several years, and provides a detailed examination of many specific areas of decline, including screenshots comparing recent editions of Mac OS X.

If you’re an Apple loyalist who’s lost faith in the company’s once impeccable UI sensibility, Nicholas will articulate your rage. It’s a must-read:

[Decisions] that decrease contrast and visibility—thinner text and glyphs, grey where black once dwelled, delicate borders, less shading—are the unpropitious child of an ideology that puts hunger for novelty, minimalism (of a cold kind), and simplicity (of a superficial kind) above calm rationality, common sense, and empathy for the average computer user.

-- The Apple Goes Mushy

Developer-on-Developer Crime

Recently, I read articles by Mike Anderson and Adam Waselnuk lauding the unusually helpful error messages produced by the Elm compiler.

As you program in Elm, you follow a delicious breadcrumb trail of extremely readable compiler error messages until the program compiles and everything works.

I’m always delighted to hear about developers being kind to other developers by paying close attention to the usability of their tools.

Remember when Rails came along? Remember the tons of repetitive crap that came with doing web development before DHH came along with his incredibly thoughtful open source project that was “optimized for programmer happiness”? (I sometimes think of DHH as the Patron Saint of Dev Tool Usability.)

It’s funny how we computer geniuses go about producing so many tools for other computer geniuses that are incomprehensible to said geniuses.

You're sick, Jessy!...Sick, sick, sick!

I think in the current zeitgeist of software development is an appreciation and understanding of the importance of usability, design, and all the details that make software (or websites) pleasant and easy to use. But, tragically, that appreciation for usability tends to go out the window when we are producing software for other software developers.

Think of the last time someone on your team was assigned to automate some task for the rest of the team. Every run of that script came with caveats about which error messages it produced were important and which ones you could ignore. Oh, it’s blowing up because you did X first. You’re supposed to run the script, and then do X.

I think we get lazy on the usability of things we make for other developers because we know they’ll figure it out eventually. We’re so used to diving into the most arcane topics and surfacing days or weeks later with an understanding.

It’s just nice to see those rare instances where a developer went the extra mile to produce something for other developers that was not just powerful, but with special attention paid to the friendliness of the thing. Because, you know, we’re people, too.

Stop Validating Phone Numbers

Ah, the siren song of the phone number field validator…

Spolsky tweet

Can you imagine if you asked someone to write down their phone number for you, and then told them: Sorry, you forgot to surround the area code with parentheses. TRY AGAIN.

Oh, whoops, your phone number has to start with a 1. TRY AGAIN.

The great thing about human beings is that they can deal with ambiguity, while computers are classically ambiguity-intolerant. Unless your software needs to programmatically call the phone number, then why does it need to be in some exact format?

Certain kinds of validations just aren’t worth it, as they do more harm than good. As developers, our job is to help the user, not get in their way.


I can hear developers everywhere screaming: What if they fat-finger the number, typing a ‘w’ when they meant to type a ‘2’!? We must protect them from themselves! Is that any more likely than the user typing a ‘3’ when they meant to type a ‘2’? How is your regex going to catch that?

The point is just to be aware that sometimes resisting the urge to validate is the right thing to do for the user. Think twice before you reach for that regex!

Money Talks

It seems like there is stigma in the software development world around looking at money as a central motivator for one’s career choices. You should instead be passionate about a company’s mission, or motivated intrinsically by a drive toward craftsmanship, or yearn for the chance to use cool technologies.

Jerry knows.

But there’s a common expression in the outside world:

Money talks, bullshit walks.

It turns out that money is a convenient shortcut to determining how much an organization values one’s contributions. And a close correlate to value is respect.

Even for someone who is not generally motivated by money in life, I believe can still find better jobs by focusing on how much a company is willing to pay.

I imagine many people have had jobs where they felt talked down to or generally made to believe they were unimportant. And along with that attitude comes other negative aspects to a job, like a crappy work environment, outdated equipment, lack of concern for one’s career goals, etc. None of us want a job like that.


If you’ve ever had a job like that, let me ask a rhetorical question: were you well-paid at that job? How was your salary or hourly wage?

Some companies try to get away with lower salaries by offering cheap perks like free sodas and snacks. Similar to car dealerships hoping people will buy a luxury car from them because they offer free car washes.

The thing about perks like that is they assume a certain naivete on the part of employees. “This company is a great place to work, because they have a free pizza lunch once a week…something that costs them a small fraction of my hourly wage.”

Perks are great, but when I find that a company is attempting to sell me on a job by heavily touting these kinds of perks—things that I could buy for myself quite cheaply—I ask myself one question:

“If they really appreciated me and the work I do, why wouldn’t they just pay me more?”

I’d argue that consciously seeking out companies that offer higher salaries and compensation is a great way to find many of the other things that make a job great, like talented co-workers, respect within the organization, and latitude in the way that one works.

When evaluating career opportunities, money is not the only voice, but it sure speaks volumes.

Any Questions for Us?

There was an article yesterday about a software developer who had been turned down by 38 companies and went through 120 interviews in a 2-3 month period, and then finally was hired.

It was framed as an uplifting story about this person's determination that he finally convinced a company that he was worthy of being hired.

I sometimes feel that stories like this perpetuate the "we're up here / you're down there" mindset that some folks take into interview situations.

I'm not the first person to say it, but I believe that as a job candidate, you should scrutinize your interviewers at least as thoroughly as they're scrutinizing you. Many articles about interviewing advice will tell you to ask questions, because it shows interest.

I'm trying to decide if I want to work here or not--that's why I'm asking questions.