Don’t use internal tooling, contribute to your tools.

There is a dichotomy in software engineering organizations, some only use public tooling, entirely avoiding building their owns tools. Other companies  follow the ‘Not invented here’ principle and try to only use software developed internally. 

There are two forces driving this split, first building software tooling is expensive, small companies often cannot afford to build and support internal tools. It is an expensive recurring cost that can easily get out of hand. Building 2 internal tools a year will set you on a path to supporting 20 tools 10 years from now eating huge chunks of your operations budget. 

The other force in play is that if you use public or off the shelf tooling you will encounter workflow discontinuities that are difficult to fix. Using off-the-shelf tool A with tool B might require an entire employee to bridge the gaps manually, while still be a pain for everyone involved. Decision makers at some companies think to themselves, “We can just build a tool B that works perfectly with our use case.” And that works great when you have one tool, but then when need C comes along your team  makes the same case again, “We already invested in custom tool B we can’t throw away that work, we need a new custom tool for need C”. And now your company is on the path towards building an alphabet’s worth of internal tools that aren’t useful outside of your business.

Luckily, there is a solution to this. Use Open Source tooling and when you run into a workflow problem, work with the maintainers to contribute a fix. Even in poorly managed projects extending the code to support your use case will be less costly than building an entirely new internal tool to solve the same problem. 

Software is a depreciating Good

“If customers are paying for the work, presumably by the hour, then you can’t expect them to pay for weeks (or more) of work every few years just to arrive back at the same product they started with.”
– From reddit user /u/PragmaticFinance

People have the idea that because the software has the same features as it did five years ago, it still is just as ‘good’ as it was five years ago. And if we can keep running it without modifications that is a reasonable practice. Unfortunately, while it feels intuitive that is not the reality with software. 

Sorry, a software product that is built on out of date tooling is strictly inferior to software built on up-to-date tooling. It is not ‘just as good’ it is significantly worse. The out of date software has increased vulnerability to security defects. Python 2.7 doesn’t get security patches anymore, if your software is built on it and a zero day is discovered. Your software could be unoperable for weeks while engineers upgrade it to function on Python 3. 

Software that can’t be patched to address security vulnerabilities in a reasonable time frame is strictly worse than up to date software. Anyone who was evaluating a purchase of these two programs would consider the expense of making changes. 

Aside from security issues, out of date software is harder to modify. What are the banks going to do when the last Cobol programmer dies? They will have to fund Cobol bootcamps which is not going to be cheap.

What are companies that had ‘feature complete’ software that didn’t need to change in years doing now that GDPR is a thing? That software is getting dusted off and updated or entirely replaced.

Roads and tractors require constant maintenance just to keep doing the same job. Software is the same. Maintenance costs should be estimated and included in the total cost of ownership for software. 

A lot of business software just encodes business processes. It can get out of date because the world shifted and the process changed, or the world shifted and the way the process is encoded is out of date.

Each time I write one of these technical debt posts it helps me understand why Software As A Service took over in such a big way. If you needed this year’s model of tractor every year you would lease it.

2020 Age of the remote conference

At this point, in person conferences with 1000s of attendees are done for the year. Lockdowns are easing in general, but most people won’t be comfortable going to a massive conference with 1000s of people from all over the world anytime soon.

We are likely to be disrupted by this pandemic until spring 2021, by when travel is hopefully back to normal. I’ve been working from home for months now and will be doing so officially until October. 

The thing is conferences bring a lot of value to engineering. It is a great way to keep up with what people are doing in industry and to share your experience. I’ve attended some great conferences and enjoyed diving into the technical depth available at a conference devoted to Spark or Kubernetes. 

For 2020 these kinds of tech talks and presentations have to move online to Youtube and Zoom just like our work has. Fortunately, there are some benefits to running a tech conference remotely. 

A remote conference can be a lot more affordable. You don’t need to rent a big conference venue to host the talks, and attendees save money by not flying to a different city or renting hotel rooms. 

You also can save time because you aren’t traveling. Just like we don’t need to commute to the office, you don’t need to travel to the conference. The conference is wherever you are. 

The technology is also good for presentations and Q&A sessions. Teleconferencing shines in situations where you want to share screens and only a few people need to speak at once. Where it really breaks down is when you want to have a group discussion, it is much harder to interleave speakers. But if we focus on activities with a single presenter or a Q&A where someone asks a question, then stops talking, teleconferencing is almost as good as being in person. 

I think in 2020 we will see a lot of remote mini-conferences. They are really economical to host and the timing couldn’t be better. I like the idea so much I have decided to adopt the TinyConf I was planning for this year into a remote conference. 

Recruiter spam of underpar jobs

As your career progresses recruiters will start to spam you with lower quality jobs. I’ve had weeks where I was messaged on linkedin about a job several times per day. Normally that would be great, except most of these jobs would be worse than the job I already have. 

I’m not looking to make a downward move in my career. At some point I might start a startup or take a position as a cofounder, but otherwise I’m looking to move up in my career. Meaning that I am looking for jobs that are higher paying and higher responsibility. Not jobs that are lower paying and require less skill than my current job. 

Why do recruiters spam these lower quality jobs? Honestly, I think they are just spamming them in general without reading people’s profiles at all. Recruiters are paid on commission and there really isn’t any penalty to them for wasting people’s time other than Linkedin charging them for premium. But its not like I’m going to have a moment of weakness, respond to one of these contract for hire java developer positions and then accept an offer for half of my current pay. 

For now the solution is probably to block these recruiters on Linkedin.

Working from home

I’ve been lucky enough not to be laid off yet, and have been plunged headfirst in working from home. Before this pandemic I avoided working from home because I got distracted pretty easily and found it easier to get work done in the office. I’ve typically been a high performer and like to maintain work life balance so falling behind because I worked from home is not an option. 

Now I’ve been required to work from home since early march. The first couple weeks were rough. Working in a new setting, big changes going on in the world, combined to make focus difficult. I fell behind where I wanted to be on several projects. It was all dragging me down.

Late last week, at the time of writing, I made two big changes which seem to be helping a lot. They are getting better sleep and using the Pomodoro technique to focus on work. 

To get better sleep, all I did was start closing my blinds in the evening. I live downtown, so at night there are lots of light shining into my nice large windows. The view is good, but the light degrades sleep quality. I noticed a big difference the first night and have been feeling consistently good this last week.

My version of the Pomodoro technique is to do 40minute ‘sprints’ of focused coding time. This gets me past the initial hump and doing solid work. Then I take a short break and circle back for another round of focused work. This is similar to what I would do in the office, work for a while, then chat with coworkers or go to the lunch room. Except now I just stay in my apartment and stretch or workout. 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pomodoro_Technique

Working from home is still a bit rough. But I think I’m past the hump of adapting to it. Now I just want to optimize a few things like my monitors and getting a motorized standing desk.