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Talk of the day: seriously excellent career advice

Read the slides and speaker notes for Tanya Reilly’s excellent talk Being Glue right now! Seriously, this talk is so great.

If you do glue work (that is, extremely important technical work that keeps teams and projects on track, like reviewing designs and seeing what’s missing, noticing that another team is working on something similar to your team and coordinating the two teams so they don’t duplicate each other’s work, but isn’t code) and you want to get promoted, you need to read these slides.

If you don’t do glue work, you should still read these slides and then either start doing some glue work or at the very least advocate for the people who do and insist that their contributions to the project/team/company’s success be recognized.

And if you’re a manager, you should definitely read these slides and think about whether you are doing a good job of giving your team incentives to do essential work like this or whether you’re punishing people for doing essential work by refusing to promote them.

Read the slides, go check out Tanya’s twitter @whereistanya, and check out her blog noidea.dog Side note: isn’t that a great url?

Link of the day

We all know we have personal biases, but have you ever thought about your software design biases? I certainly didn’t until I read this article about Software Design Bias by Sandro Mancuso. If you’re having trouble with the design of a piece of software, it’s worth taking a look at Sandro’s handy list of biases and thinking about whether the way you prefer to design software is actually the best one for the particular thing you’re trying to build.

Link of the day

Persistence is enormously valuable, I even believe it’s more important than intelligence if you want to a programmer, but knowing when to quit is valuable too. That’s why I like I successfully chased my Big Life Dream, and I hated it by Rowen, so much.

Their dream was to travel the world in a sailboat, yours might be to become a freelancer, to start your own business, to switch to game development, or something else entirely. If you try something and it turns out to make you miserable, it’s okay to stop and do something you actually like. I’ve read a lot of sad stories about people who made themselves miserable, put themselves under so much stress it wrecked their health, or financially ruined themselves pursuing a dream that just wasn’t working, and I really don’t want that for any of my readers.

On a lighter note, if you do New Year’s Resolutions, consider quitting something you don’t actually like instead of trying to squeeze more and more activities into your life. If that feels selfish to you, think of it as setting a good example for others :)

Link of the day

Learning Fluency, by Sara Simon is a really interesting article and you should definitely read it. It’s kind of hard to summarize, what I got from it was that there are a lot of parallels between learning natural languages and learning to program, one of which is that rote memorization is both really useful and really underrated. Variables and loops are really boring for experienced programmers (which I’m suspicious is why most programming tutorials zip past them pretty quickly), but just like it’s really hard to tell someone how to get to the grocery store in a new language until you’ve memorized enough words, it’s really hard to build a program before you’ve memorized enough programming constructs.

Another good point Sara makes is that not everyone learns the same way. Some people are happy to jump into a project and learn as they go, and other people need more structure to get started. That doesn’t make anyone wrong, but it does mean we need resources for more than just one kind of learner.

Learning Fluency is a bit of a long read but it won’t take your whole lunch break either.

Parallels between writing and programming

Unrelated image from pexels.com to make this post look nicer in social media shares and because I just like lilacs.

You might have guessed from my extremely wordy blogposts that I like writing as well as programming :) Aside from having a personal interest in writing, I think there are some really useful parallels between writing and programming.

Let’s talk about one of them: separating writing and editing. This is a pretty common piece of writing advice, I’ve seen it all over the internet.

More specifically, what separating writing and editing means is that when you start a piece of writing, you don’t edit, you just get your ideas out onto the page. Only after you have a complete first draft, whether that’s a blog post or a novel, do you edit it. Editing can be as simple as fixing typos or as in-depth as moving whole chapters around.

Why is editing while you write such a bad idea? We’ve all written essays for school and edited while we wrote and we survived, right?  Well, we did, but we also put in way more effort than we had to. It is totally possible to edit while you write and turn out a perfectly good school assignment, or even a professional article or book, it’s just way more work than it has to be to do it that way. It takes for-freaking-ever too and we’ve all got other things to do :)

Separating writing and editing makes you way faster. Yes it works better if you have a little space between the writing (drafting/outlining) and editing steps, but you’ll spend less time altogether on a piece of writing if you put a day or two between those steps.

But why is that? Writing isn’t that hard, and editing isn’t that hard (to be fair, I’m saying that as someone who has always had an easy time with writing), so what’s the problem?

Part of it is that people just suck at multitasking. Fiddling with your words is a very different task from getting them down in the first place, but I think is the real issue is that editing and writing at the same time is mixing two steps that need to be done one after the other.

It doesn’t actually make sense to worry about how you’re saying it before you’re done sorting out what you want to say in the first place. That’s just going to make a mess.

Okay great, how does this relate to programming?

Programming is in many ways a very similar process to writing. You need to know what you want to do before you can figure out how exactly to do it. Programming is certainly more rigid, with writing you can still make yourself understood with a misspelled grammatical trainwreck, but it’s not so very different either. You can start a piece of writing and know just what you want to say and then discover it just sucks and you have to scrap it and start over.

What you want to do with a program can be more tightly constrained by what’s feasible given the existing system/libraries available/limitations of the language you’re using, but in some ways that makes it easier because there’s no debate over whether your program works or not, you can just run it and find out.

When you’re writing code it’s very simple to separate writing from editing: write pseudocode first. Figure out what you want to accomplish (yes that’s a big enough problem for many books on its own, but that’s another blog post) first, then break it down into simple steps, then start implementing it after you know what you want to do. It may turn out that there’s a technical reason your original plan won’t work, but you can still iterate on that and make a new plan before trying to implement that one.

If you find yourself stuck on a problem, you might be trying to do too many things at once. Try separating what you want to accomplish from how you want to do it.

Process smells

I’ve been talking about code smells for a while, but code is far from the only thing that can go wrong. What about process smells? There are things in your development process that may not necessarily be wrong in every situation, but are a signal that something could be wrong. Some of these are more definitely stinky than code smells, but not all of them. As always, if you’re happy and productive with the way your process works, stick with it!

Here’s an example of a process smell: Friday prouction deploys (in case that tweet ever gets deleted or something, it’s a picture of a jack o’lantern with the words “Friday deploy to prod” carved into it and the caption “Scariest Pumpkin”). Friday deploys are almost universally a terrible idea, which makes them an especially nasty process smell, but once in a while they are actually a reasonable choice. Usually when they’re the least terrible of a set of bad options, but sometimes bad options are all you have.

If you’re fixing a severe bug that prevents a lot people from using the system at all, then it makes sense to deploy whenever you have a fix, even if that’s a Friday, even if it’s late in the day on a Friday. And if you have the unusual luck to have a dev team with staggered schedules who are all familiar with the code being deployed, then no day is really any riskier than any other (is this actually a thing? I included it because it’s technically possible but I’m not sure it actually happens anywhere).

If you work in a very rigid environment where nobody uses the system over the weekend at all ever, then knock yourself out! If no one touches the system over the weekend, then you’re not going to hurt anything by deploying on a Friday.

Most of the time Friday deploys are just a bad idea. Why?

Because no matter how great your QA department is, even they can’t test every single possible combination of weird commands and bad data and dodgy wifi that your actual users or customers can, which means things may break in wildly bizarre ways when no one is around to fix them. That sucks for your customers and sucks for your support team and sucks for your revenue and sucks for your reputation and sucks for your stress levels when you come back and discover that everything has been on fire all weekend. Oh and it sucks if you get called in to fix it when you thought you were going to have a nice relaxing weekend. Spare yourself and the rest of your team a lot of hassle and don’t deploy on a Friday (or late afternoon any day) if you can avoid it.

This process smell is really interesting if you keep in mind this definition of a code smell, by Martin Fowler:

A code smell is a surface indication that usually corresponds to a deeper problem in the system.

If you’re deploying to production on Fridays, there’s definitely a deeper problem. Who is even letting you do Friday deploys when they’re so widely acknowledged to be a bad idea? Or who is pressuring you to do them when you know they’re a bad idea? And why is that person getting away with it? Who is pressuring them? Why is it more important to say something went out than to be sure that somebody is around to fix it if anything breaks? Or, and this is really scary, is management assuming that developers can be called in any time night or day to fix things?

Unfortunately, there isn’t a neat set of fixes for process smells the way there is for code smells. If I could give you a few quick and easy steps to convincing your company that deploying to production on a Friday is a bad idea, I’d be a millionaire :) What I can tell you is that you need to understand why your team lead / manager / upper management thinks it’s a good idea to deploy anything on a Friday before you can convince them to change. If the problem is that upper management believes it’s lazy to wait until Monday when the deploy could be done on Friday, then explaining that deploying on Fridays hurts team morale by making people worry their weekend plans will be wrecked by a surprise issue isn’t going to convince them anything needs to change. On the other hand, if you remind them how angry your customers were the last time production went down on a weekend and stayed down for hours because that particular release wasn’t possible to quickly roll back and the developer who knew the most about that change was away on a long-awaited hiking trip, and tell them there’s a way to prevent that from happening again that costs zero dollars, you’ve got a much stronger case.

“How do you approach a new codebase?”

aerial photography of city with river
Unrelated image from pexels.com to make this post look nicer in social media shares.

Why yes I do love mining the internets for blog post ideas :)

This particular question is about learning a new codebase at work, but I think there’s plenty of stuff here that would carryover to learning the codebase of an opensource project you want to contribute to.

When you want to learn a new codebase, the very first thing you need to do is get it to build on your machine. Deliberately breaking things is an extremely useful tool when you want to understand a codebase, if you can’t even build the app you have no chance of figuring out if you broke it or not.

At work there should be another dev around who can sit down with you and help you get everything set up so you can compile, if you’re working on an opensource project you’re going to have to rely on docs, maybe a community chat like slack, gitter, etc, and sheer stubbornness.

Next you need to be able to run it or at least run the tests (if there are tests). This can be a lot more work than just getting the app to compile. For example, the app I work on at my own job compiles really easily but it won’t run unless you have all the environment variables set up correctly and the database and cache and everything installed. You’re probably going to want that coworker’s help here too. If you’re lucky your company has docs you can read and if you’re very lucky they’re even up to date, but at most places I’ve worked the development environment setup process was never written down, only passed down orally.

Quick aside: I’ve said this before, but if your company doesn’t have any docs, write them! Seriously, you’ll make things so much easier for the next dev, who might even be you. If your computer dies on you and you need to get setup again in a hurry, you’re going to be really grateful if you can follow the docs instead of desperately trying to remember how to do that one tricky bit.

Depending on how your app works you may also need help creating an account for yourself so you can actually log in and use it. Once you can build, run, and log in (if you need to), you can really start digging into the code.

What makes the most sense to me is starting from the UI and working my way in from there. It also really helps me to have a goal, like a bug to fix or a small feature to add. I get lost if I just sort of wander around a codebase trying to figure out how everything fits together, having a goal helps me focus.

It’s also totally okay to ask another dev for a quick overview of the app, having a bit of context can make it a lot easier to figure out how everything fits together. Customer documentation can be really helpful here. Sure, it won’t tell you which controller handles the data for the user details page, but it will tell you how to get there and what you can do there.

Eventually you’ve got to get in there and start looking around, though. I poke around the UI until I find a screen that looks like it could be related to the thing I want to do, then I copy some text from that screen (ideally something that looks distinctive) and search for it in the code. Most of the time this is helpful but sometimes the text you thought was distinctive really isn’t, you may have to search for a few different things before you find something that gets you useful results.

If the app is a webapp it often helps to open up the network tab in your browser dev tools and look at the calls the frontend makes to the server. If you’re not sure exactly which endpoint is actually getting called this can clear things right up. Don’t be afraid to add more logging either, just try to remember to clean it up when you’re done :) I do that all the time when I’m trying to figure out exactly what my app is up to.  If you want to get fancy you may even be able to attach a debugger to your running application and step through the code one statement at a time. I have this irrational dislike of doing that (I find stepping through the code tedious and would rather just throw in another System.out.println), but if it works for you, great!

Once you find the right server calls it should be fairly simple to trace your way back through the code all the way to the database (or other data store) if you need to. I mostly work in Eclipse, so I’m working from the assumption I have good IDE support and can easily navigate the project once I decide where to start. If you aren’t using an IDE that makes it really easy to find the definition of a class or method, you’re just going to have to do a lot of searching.

IDEs can only do so much for you, though. When I’m trying to figure out a complicated part of the code I’ll sort of draw myself a map so I don’t get lost. That is, I’ll write down, either on paper or in a text file, exactly what calls the method I’m looking at, and what calls those methods, and what calls those methods until I’m clear on how everything fits together and where exactly that one bad parameter came from.

Like I said earlier, breaking stuff on purpose can be a great way to verify that you understand how the pieces fit together. Once you think you know where the problem is / where you should add your new feature, try commenting out the body of a method and seeing if things break the way you expect. If they do, great! If they don’t, hey at least you found out sooner rather than later that you were wrong about how it works. Another good way to break things is to give them bad data. I do that when I want to know if my request is even making it to the part of the code I’m interested in – if it doesn’t break the way I expected then I know I’m wrong about what the code is actually doing.

If one screen or endpoint or whatever just doesn’t make any sense to you, try another one! You may just need to see more of the app before things start coming together, or you may have just had the bad luck to stumble across an especially tricky part of the app. Keep trying, and ask for help if you need it, you’ll get it.

Speaking of asking for help: most developers hate doing it, but it really is okay to ask for help if you get stuck. Especially if you’re a junior, it takes practice to get good at finding your way around new codebases. Five minutes of explanation by someone who knows the code could save you hours of confusion and frustration. The faster you get up to speed on that new codebase, the more help you’ll be to your coworkers, so it’s actually in their best interests to interrupt them (after trying to figure it out on your own, of course) to ask for help.

One last tip: it takes months, literally multiple months, to really be productive at a new development job. If you feel stupid and useless, that’s a) not true, and b) totally normal. You would never tell a new hire that they’re an idiot for not instantly figuring out a new codebase, so try to be that nice to yourself, okay?

Let’s poke at Tomcat!

Silver Tabby Cat Lying on Brown Wooden Surface
Very loosely related image from pexels.com to make this post look nicer in social media shares.

A while ago I mentioned that every Java project has to have a main method somewhere. I started thinking it would be interesting to dig into a larger project and show how even a whole servlet container starts with a main method, just like the smallest hello world program. So let’s poke at Tomcat!

Why tomcat? Because it’s open source, I’ve used it before, and honestly it was the first thing that came to mind :) Oh, and for anyone reading this who hasn’t spent a ton of time writing Java webapps, a servlet container is a kind of webserver that provides a nice little home for your servlets, which are little Java programs that take http requests and give back http responses.

Tomcat does indeed have a main method, it starts on line 457 in Bootstrap.java. There’s even a helpful comment that says “Main method and entry point when starting Tomcat via the provided scripts.”

Which is all well and good, but that makes for a pretty boring blog post :) So let’s talk about how I hunted down that main method. I could have just searched for “static void main” in the Tomcat github repo, but a) I just tried that and it wasn’t actually super helpful, and b) what I really wanted to know was what happens when you start Tomcat.

It’s been a while since I used Tomcat so I looked at the docs first. In the readme on the github project there’s a link to RUNNING.txt, which looks promising.

So I skim through that (there’s a bunch of stuff about installing tomcat and setting up environment variables that I don’t care about right now, I just want to know what the startup script is called) and eventually find the section about starting tomcat. In there it says that the startup script for linux users like me is $CATALINA_HOME/bin/startup.sh (there’s a .bat file for windows users too if you’re curious).

Okay great what’s in startup.sh? (also thankyou github for having a file finder!) It turns out there’s not a ton in there and I don’t understand most of it, but at the end of that file is “exec $PRGDIR/$EXECUTABLE start $@“”, which I think I can assume executes a thing :) Also a little earlier in the file is EXECUTABLE=catalina.sh.

Given that, it looks like startup.sh does some pre-setup setup and then catalina.sh actually starts the server (if there’s a 3rd level of startup scripts I’m going to be really sad). There’s a lot more going on in catalina.sh that I skimmed through, but I eventually started seeing a lot of eval exec \”$_RUNJAVA\”  [many more vars] org.apache.catalina.startup.Bootstrap $@ start. That $_RUNJAVA thing sounds like it might, you know, run Java :) That probably means that the startup class is org.apache.catalina.startup.Bootstrap, let’s go see if there’s anything interesting in there. And what do you know there’s a main method. It took some scrolling to get there but we made it eventually!

You may or may not care about how Tomcat (or any other given application) works, but what I hope is interesting is that everything an application does is understandable. Nothing the computer does is magic, it’s all knowable.

“Does working at a bad company damage one’s career?”

A view down a long concrete staircase. A person walks by at the end of it.
Unrelated image from pexels.com to make this post look nicer in social media shares.

Another blog post inspired by a question on The Workplace, specifically: does working at a bad company damage one’s career?

Yes, but not the way the questioner seems to think. The bad company in this case is very disorganized, which I’m sad to say isn’t exactly unheard of. That company does sound like an especially bad example, but if you get a few developers together you’ll hear plenty of very similar horror stories. However, I don’t think a company like that will necessarily hurt your career, especially if you’re a junior like the questioner. No reasonable human being would blame a junior dev for not being able to completely change the culture of a company.

However, I do believe there are other kinds of bad companies that can hurt your career: companies with extremely low standards, and companies with such extreme culture problems that only terrible people succeed.

Companies with extremely low standards can really hurt your career if you stay there too long. If you stick around too long at a company or other organization that has a reputation for low standards, then people start wondering if you haven’t left because you can’t do better. The longer you stay there, the more it looks like you know you can’t get a better job and the harder it becomes to find another job. It doesn’t even have to be true that your company has low standards – if it used to be true or if it’s that one department giving the place a bad name or if people just believe it’s true for whatever reason, your resume is still going in the nope pile whether that’s actually justified or not. You don’t need to panic immediately if your new job turned out to be easier than you were expecting, but I strongly recommend leaving before too long. Of course, it can also make you look unreliable if you have a lot of very short stints at different jobs on your resume, but that’s a separate blog post :)

Companies where terrible people succeed (I’m looking at you, Uber) make people wonder if you’re terrible too. That’s very bad for your career in a field where you basically have to change jobs to get a meaningful raise or title bump. To be fair, Uber is a large company and it would be surprising if every last manager/executive/team lead/other influential person was a complete trashfire of a human being, but if I interviewed a dev from a questionable company I would have a lot of pointed questions. In particular, I would want to know how well they did in terms of promotions and other recognition, and what they think makes someone a good developer and a good team member. Getting regular promotions at a terrible company might be innocent, it could mean you worked with one of the few decent managers, but it probably means that you got along well with a terrible manager. You know who gets along well with terrible people? Other terrible people. I’d also be very worried that someone from a terrible company thinks it’s okay to be a total jerk as long as you write a lot of code. Not only is that terrible for team productivity, but it’s also just wrong to make your teammates spend eight hours a day with a jerk.

On the upside, as long as you don’t work for a company that’s known for never firing anyone or for being gross and awful, your career is going to be fine. Over the long term a disorganized company can do some damage – it’s not going to look good if you end up with five years of development experience and no idea how to use version control, for example – but that takes quite a while and you can mitigate it with side projects.

In short, it’s very hard for any one company to wreck your career. Ten years from now nobody is going to care who you worked for in 2017.