Don’t Trap Your Clients in the Bikeshed

As software developers, one of the best things we can do for our clients (internal or external) is to restrain from bombarding them with questions about trivial and easy-to-change aspects of their requirements.

When I find myself in doubt about how some aspect of the software I’m developing should work, I try to identify if the requirement is “bikesheddable” before stopping my progress to reach out to the client.

So...white?

For example, the client has a requirement for a feature like “when an administrator grants access to a new user, the user should be notified by email.” I’ve seen developers (typically more junior) block their progress on a feature like this until the client gets back to them with a definitive answer on what title to use for the email.

I define a question about the requirements of software to be bikesheddable if it is…

  1. Trivial
  2. Likely to generate back-and-forth and delays
  3. Easy to change later

If it’s bikesheddable, pick a sane default and continue on with the feature. When the client sees the feature deployed, they are of course most likely not even going to notice the choice you made for the aforementioned bikesheddable thing, but if it happens to matter, by way of #3 above, you can easily change it later.

Get the broad strokes right in v1, and the fine details in v2 and beyond.

Job Ad Red Flags: Fad Obsession

This red flag may be considered a subcategory of the previous red flag I wrote about in my post highlighting technical minutiae.

Remember when everyone was talking about how jQuery was unmanageable without a framework like Backbone.js? And then three seconds later it was embarrassing to be using Backbone.js, and startups would talk sheepishly about using it and how they should really rewrite using Angular? And then three seconds after that, they were embarrassed to be using antiquated technology like Angular, and how they couldn’t wait to start their rewrite using React?

microservices

As Dan McKinley put it in his classic post, Choose Boring Technology (2015):

Let's say every company gets about three innovation tokens. You can spend these however you want, but the supply is fixed for a long while.

If you choose to write your website in NodeJS, you just spent one of your innovation tokens. If you choose to use MongoDB, you just spent one of your innovation tokens. If you choose to use service discovery tech that's existed for a year or less, you just spent one of your innovation tokens.

Adding technology to your company comes with a cost. …if we’re already using Ruby, adding Python to the mix doesn't feel sensible because the resulting complexity would outweigh Python's marginal utility. But somehow when we're talking about Python and Scala or MySQL and Redis people lose their minds, discard all constraints, and start raving about using the best tool for the job.

The problem with "best tool for the job" thinking is that it takes a myopic view of the words "best" and "job." Your job is keeping the company in business, god damn it. And the "best" tool is the one that occupies the "least worst" position for as many of your problems as possible.

When I read a job ad where the focus is on an intricately presented list of the most bleeding edge languages, frameworks, databases, text editors, chat tools, and the like, I have to wonder what other trivial things they’re spending an inordinate amount of cycles on instead of delivering software to their customers. 

Job Ad Red Flags: Technical Minutiae

Ever see one of those developer job postings that reads like the hiring manager sent out a mass email to every developer in the company just saying something like, “Please send me a list of every technology you’ve ever used at this company,” and then combined every list together to form the ad?

Looking for an experienced software engineer.

Qualifications:

.NET 2.0, .NET 3.5, .NET 4.0, Visual Studio 2005 Professional, Visual Studio 2008 Premium, Visual Studio 2015 Enterprise, ASP.NET 1.0, ASP.NET 2.0, jQuery 1.7, jQuery 2.2.4, PowerShell 1.0, …

And then give no details about the work environment, philosophy, or any sort of non-technical human consideration?

I completely understand if your company builds all of its software on Microsoft technologies, that you probably aren’t looking for Java developers. Or if you want to avoid hearing from Ruby on Rails developers when your project is embedded C. Mentioning the general constellation of technologies that you need someone to work with is a good idea for everyone involved.

laptop with stickers

But focusing your outreach effort to potential hires on a laundry list of technical minutiae shows a lack of understanding about what’s important. The hardest problems to solve in most software organizations are not technical problems but human problems. Talk mostly to the human being you’d be hiring and the other human beings they’d be working with.

Below is a great example of hiring for a technical role in which the writer takes a human tone first. In this case the company Stripe is hiring for a Web Developer role:

We’re looking for someone with:

  • 3+ years of experience as a web developer
  • Experience building public facing websites that work elegantly across commonly used browsers
  • An extreme attention to detail and deep empathy with design
  • An interest in helping startups
  • Advanced knowledge of modern HTML and CSS

Perks of working on this team include:

  • This is a new and very small team with lots of opportunity to help shape the future
  • Working closely with Stripe’s world class design and marketing teams
  • High impact role as we spin up our customer acquisition machine
  • An opportunity to focus on fit, finish, and polish of frontend output

The only specific technologies mentioned here are HTML and CSS, which, of course, any person developing for the Web would need to know.

The copy is mostly written to a human being who likes building high-quality websites, rather than a list of the technical details by which Stripe has implemented their website. (Check out Stripe’s careers section for more great stuff like this.)

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my career as a software developer, it’s that technology is almost certainly the least important aspect of software development. Hire a human being, not a list of technologies.

Job Ad Red Flags: “Passion”

There’s no doubt that people who enjoy a pursuit will generally get better at it than people who don’t. And there’s no doubt that people looking to hire employees prefer to hire ones who will take the work seriously and care about the quality of their work.

Unfortunately, it’s become all too common to abuse the idea of “passion” in recruiting efforts.

Rejected. No passion.

There is a certain kind of hiring manager who screens for people (often young, inexperienced people) who are willing to burn themselves out for the benefit of a company.

As Hacker News commenter s73ver puts it:

In job adverts, "passion" is often shorthand for "willing to work unpaid overtime."

Avdi Grimm has this to say, in his classic post on the subject of passion…

If what you really mean is “we seek people who are enthusiastic about programming”, say so. But consider why you are saying so. Is it because you want people who will do a good job because they care? Or is it because you expect the long hours to be their own reward?

No product or company deserves your passion. You can choose to throw your passion into anything you want, but no project inherently deserves it. ... What you are passionate for is something deeply personal, and it should flow from your most closely-held values.

I think ultimately, it’s just important to always remember that humans are not obligated to sacrifice their personal lives and happiness for the good of a company. Any job where you’re made to feel that, as a matter of course, your obligation as a person is first to the company, and then to yourself, is probably a job you should leave (or never apply in the first place).

The Past Needs You

There was a great article on Hacker News the other day called Maintainers Make the World Go Round which discussed the popular obsession with innovation and the chronic lack of interest in maintenance.

…innovation-centric narratives…have misrepresented engineers and scientists as inventors and designers when in fact the majority are “mainly concerned with the operation and maintenance of things.”

…most computer programmers maintain, refine and extend legacy systems while most scientists apply well-established science in routine ways. “In the software industry, about 70% of investment goes into maintenance…”

Innovation speak is a massive abstraction that lets its author destroy most of the world.

…by the standards of the past the present does not seem radically innovative.

Most new software projects will not be as valuable as software that already exists. I've noticed that in my career I've been paid better and treated with more respect when I've worked on maintaining and keeping up existing software that is important to the organization with a lot of investment, as compared to jobs where we were constantly starting new applications from scratch.

We need you!

Greenfield projects can be exciting, but running software probably needs you the most.

Opportunistic Programming

As a developer, I’ve been frustrated at times when I felt that a product owner or manager was forcing me to spend an inordinate amount of time on a “pet feature” of theirs while glaring deficiencies elsewhere went unaddressed.

And to be fair, product owners and managers surely get frustrated at developers who spend too much time chasing some technical purity that no customer will care about instead of shipping.

I touched on this in a previous post—the importance of developer morale to the health of a project, and how it’s unwise for management to dictate the development team’s priorities all the time without considering their preferences and input.

Salvatore Sanfilippo (creator of Redis) introduced the term opportunistic programming:

There is a way to stress simplicity that I like to call “opportunistic programming”. Basically at every development step, the set of features to implement is chosen in order to have the maximum impact on the user base of the program, with the minimum requirement of efforts.

This really gets to the heart of my malaise when I’m being pushed to spend considerable time and effort on some aspect of a project when my intuition tells me it won’t pay off, and no one can adequately explain otherwise.

Salvatore goes on:

Often complexity is generated when there is no willingness to recognize that a non fundamental goal of a project is accounting for a very large amount of design complexity, or is making another more important goal very hard to reach, because there is a design tension among a fundamental feature and a non fundamental one. It is very important for a designer to recognize all the parts of a design that are not easy wins, that is, there is no proportionality between the effort and the advantages.

Let’s be real: code sucks, and adding more of it without a good reason is bad news.

The Many-Worlds Interpretation of Developer Interviews

A recent post by Yegor Bugayenko titled Why I Don’t Talk to Google Recruiters highlighted a common misconception about careers in the software industry, certainly a misconception that I had in the early years of my career.

Yegor described a very unproductive interview experience he had with Amazon, where he was subjected to the dreaded whiteboard hazing:

Some programmers who didn't know a thing about my profile asked me to invent some algorithms on a white board for almost four hours. Did I manage? I don't think so. Did they make me an offer? No.

If [the Amazon recruiter] would have started her email with "We're looking for an algorithm expert," we would never have gotten any further and would not have wasted our time. Clearly, I'm not an expert in algorithms. There is no point in giving me binary-tree-traversing questions; I don't know those answers and will never be interested in learning them.

I stopped nodding my head long enough to write a sympathetic tweet:

my-tweet

Like many developers, I fantasized about working for companies like Google—a company with cool products that I admired and with legendary perks for its employees. It took me a long time to understand that Google selects for a certain kind of programmer, one that I fundamentally was not.

As Jon Galloway explained in a post back in 2008, one that was highly influential on me at the time:

Steve Yegge works for Google. Steve and I are both professional programmers; in fact we both work on web applications. Yet, our jobs are no more related than if we were both doctors in different fields - say, a podiatrist and an orthodontist. For example, if you work for Google, you're going to be concerned with how to make your applications run against huge data sets using large, unreliable computer clusters. None of those are priorities in applications I work on, since I'm generally working against a relational database which aren't running at high volume or scale. So, Steve is thinking about how to build Google-scale applications running on Map/Reduce, while I'm working on comparatively small projects running against relational databases.

I still believe that Steve's questions would be useless in hiring someone to work on my current projects. I don't care if a candidate can check if a high-order bit is set, to the point that I might be a little turned off by an applicant whose answer revealed they were a bit-twiddler. I've hired bit-twiddlers before, and while they interviewed well, they weren't much help in shipping applications. Worse, we're wasting valuable time talking about hexadecimal formatting when we should be covering things like database access and rudimentary knowledge of HTML and HTTP.

What it comes down to is that the “software industry” is comprised of many kinds of people, working for many different companies, working on very different things, with very different priorities.

Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t spend your free time on Project Euler or if the idea of working through the linked list algorithms in a book about technical interviews makes you want to slit your wrists.

Most software jobs outside of Silicon Valley are not with high profile tech companies that hire for these kinds of traits. Most companies are interested in hiring people with experience in solving real, everyday business challenges with the technologies they’re invested in.

Find your world.