Tuesday, December 9, 2008

You won't grown neurons either: Quote of the week

Thanks to his (and Dave Thomas's) awesome and now "classic" book, The Pragmatic Programmer: From Journeyman to Master, I found Andy Hunt's blog.  (Dave also has a blog, and is on Twitter).  I'm actually hoping to read Andy's latest book, Pragmatic Thinking and Learning: Refactor Your Wetware in the next few months so I'll post a review once I've gotten there.

This week's quote actually comes from a blog posting from just a week or so ago and was very timely...

But here’s the funny part. The reason researchers had never witnessed neurogenesis previously was because of the environment of their test subjects. If you’re a lab animal stuck in a cage, you won’t grow new neurons.

If you’re a programmer stuck in a drab cubicle, you won’t grow new neurons either.

On the other hand, in a sensory-rich environment with things to learn, observe, and interact with, you will grow plenty of new neurons and new connections between them. A steampunk-etched notebook or a funky new pen is not just inspirational in some abstract way; the increased tactile sensory experience actually encourages growth of new neurons and stronger connections...

Your working environment is a context as well. It needs to be rich in sensory opportunities, or else it will literally cause brain damage.

(emphasis mine)

Andy Hunt
/\ndy (http://blog.toolshed.com/2008/12/science-failure-and-cubicle-brain-death.html)

I've been trying to make some changes in my life, mostly in terms of clutter.  I've actually been trying to apply the principles of lean software development to life in general.  I'll probably post more on that later, but for now, suffice it to say that I'm thinking of ways to be more effective and "live lean".  I was inspired by this zen habits post and have been contemplating Leo's minimalist workspace.  Do I want to have nothing on my desk but my computer?  It sounds appealing in some ways, but according to the study referenced in Andy's post, going to that extreme probably will kill brain cells!

I really like Scott Hanselman's home office.  He does a nice job of breaking down the things that you should have in any office where you spend a significant amount of time.  I actually got some of the Billy shelves from IKEA recently for home and they're pretty nice for how much they cost.

So, I have conflicting advice from two respected sources...  I could reduce the number of papers floating around, probably get rid of a lot of the stuff that I have stored and reduce the amount of unused "stuff" that I have laying around (both my home and work offices).  I have some desk toys at work, including a Ball of Whacks, which is a lot of fun to play with for me as well as for visitors to my office. 

I think the big this is to be more intentional with the things that are on my desk and the things I keep in and around my desk.  I need to do a better job of crafting the space around me, especially where I work.  Being more aware of your space and more purposeful with what you do with it can go a long way to improve productivity and possibly even stimulate brain growth!  I have some other stuff that I plan on bringing in, hopefully to minimize the drab gray colors of the (unpaintable :( ) office walls and create an environment "rich in sensory opportunities", cause I don't have any brain cells to spare.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Important is not a binary thing: Quote of the week

Joel Spolsky doesn't really need an introduction.  He's one of the rare people that you can refer to by their first name, people know who you're talking about.  He's so famous that there are people selling shirts referring to the man.

He hasn't been as chatty lately on his website as he was in the "golden years" of Joel on Software, so this is from a few years ago:

More importantly, I should have realized that "important" is not a binary thing, it's an analog thing. There are all kinds of different shades of important, and if you try to do everything, you'll never get anything done.
So if you want to get things done, you positively have to understand at any given point in time what is the most important thing to get done right now and if you're not doing it, you're not making progress at the fastest possible rate.
Joel Spolsky
Joel on Software (http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/SetYourPriorities.html)

I suggest you read that post, along with all the other old posts that he has in his archive.

As for the content, I find it interesting that this is one of the primary components of Agile development.  You don't do things in random order just cause they need to eventually get done, you work on what's important now.  Scrum gives you specific points to inject changes to the "what's important now" list but allows you the chance to focus for a sprint.

In any case, I think the challenge is being able to identify what is the "most important thing to get done right now".  I don't have all the answers and will probably post later with more thoughts on the subject, but since my "quote of the week" was quickly becoming a "quote of the month", I figured I should post something :)

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Foosball: Quote of the week

This week's quote comes from Neil Davidson of Red Gate software.  They have some nice looking software that I've evaluated but haven't quite convinced my company to purchase licenses for us yet :(.  In any case, this isn't about Red Gate's software, but about Neil Davidson's opinion on foosball at software companies.

But the importance of interactions is wider than that. You need to encourage interactions between people in different teams, even different parts of the company. This needs to go beyond formal, sit-down meetings. It’s the random interactions that are valuable - conversations overheard in the kitchen and throw-away comments made over lunch at the pub. That’s why - once you reach a certain size - a foosball table, and a foosball league, are just as important as source control.

Neil Davidson
Business of Software Blog

One thing that I think my current workplace is failing at is facilitating a way to have those "random" interactions.  We recently moved offices (still need to post on that) and development (with QA) has their own section of the building with a separate break room.  This has resulted in little to no interaction between development and the rest of the company.

Now some of my co-workers would call this a win, but the more that I've thought about it, the less I agree with that sentiment.  Interacting with all aspects of the company is similar to the Agile philosophy that developers should actively engage with their users.  It gives you fresh perspective and helps you to see those other departments as people, not as a faceless mob that does not have your best interests in mind.

When I first started here, I decided to start up a weekly development group lunch in order to get to know people.  It's been a positive experience as I've gotten the opportunity to know many of my fellow developers that I haven't worked with and gotten to know those that I do work with in a non-work setting. 

One thing that is already in place is a quarterly department or company activity (alternates quarters, Q1 and Q3 are company, Q2 and Q4 are department).  That has been nice since it's company sponsored which means that we usually get everybody there.  They usually consist of lunch and then some activity.  They've included going to see a movie (Iron Man), snow tubing and laser tag which have all been fun.  It's been nice to interact with co-workers, especially from other departments, that I might not have otherwise interacted with.  Our recent annual user conference provided a similar experience as we worked together at conference.

I'd be nice if those sorts of activities (lunches, movies) were more regular though (and maybe more spontaneous?), at least on a department level (It'd be hard to spontaneously shut down customer support one afternoon).  A random "hey we're going to go grab some lunch and see a movie this Wednesday afternoon" or "we'll have pizza in the break room at noon today" would be pretty cool, probably more on a morale level then on a team building level, but in my opinion they are related.  I don't think you can have a great team without a certain level of morale...

(We actually did get the random pizza for the company once and it was really nice!  Hopefully we can see that again.)

I hope to continue to find new ways to facilitate random interactions among our developers and with the rest of the company and help our departments and company grow stronger as a team.  Maybe we can get a foosball table...

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Your brain is too small - Quote of the Week

This week's quote comes from the classic, Code Complete: A Practical Handbook of Software Construction.  If you're not familiar with McConnell's body of work, I suggest you get on that... as per the quote:

Once you admit that your brain is too small to understand most programs and you realize that effective programming is a search for ways to offset that fact, you begin a career-long search for ways to compensate. In the development of a superior programmer, curiosity about technical subjects must be a priority.

Steve McConnell
Code Complete 2nd Ed. p822

Well, he doesn't say you have to be curious about his books specifically, almost every book he's written could be considered a software development classic, so I'd say that it's definitely a good place to start.

I firmly believe that being a software developer is like walking the wrong way on a moving walkway.  If you aren't consistently working to improve and expand your skills and knowledge, then you're falling behind.  Unfortunately that means that one day you could wake up and realize that you've just been laid off and your skill set is 10 years behind the current state of the art.  Or that the development practices that you picked up in school might not be the best ones in the world.

I've been happy that at my current company we have a department reading program (not as developed as I'd like, but it's a start) where we read a book together as a department and then discuss it in our weekly department meeting.  I think that it's been a real eye opener to some as we've read Code Complete, The Pragmatic Programmer and are currently reading Head First Design Patterns.

But aside from whatever your company sponsors, make sure that you're constantly exploring new programming topics.  This can be via books, blogs, trying new languages, attending user groups or code camps and picking the brains of those around you that have more experience.  If you're not curious about what's going on in your field, you're never going to be a superior programmer.

What do you do to scratch your curiosity itch?

Thursday, October 9, 2008

What a shame. What a waste.: Quote of the Week

This week's quote actually comes from marketing guru Seth Godin.  I love his blog because his posts are usually short, focused and insightful.  This morning I was reading through my mountain of unread posts in Google Reader and found this post from Seth for this week's quote:

Growth is frightening for a lot of people. It brings change and the opportunity for public failure. So if the astrological signs aren't right or the water is too cold or we've got a twinge in our elbow, we find an excuse. We decide to do it later, or not at all.

What a shame. What a waste.

Seth Godin

As I mentioned before, I post this quote outside my office (we've moved to a new space where I now have an office... more on that later) each week so I didn't include the rest of the post (didn't want them getting too nervous that I'm going to bolt) which says:

Inc. magazine reports that a huge percentage of companies in this year's Inc. 500 were founded within months of 9/11. Talk about uncertain times.

But uncertain times, frozen liquidity, political change and poor astrological forecasts (not to mention chicken entrails) all lead to less competition, more available talent and a do-or-die attitude that causes real change to happen.

If I wasn't already running my own business, today is the day I'd start one.

One of my goals is to start my own business.  I've actually done it once (the now defunct DressModestly.com, Inc.) with my friend Rich Arthur and it was a good experience, but I'd really like to work on something I'm passionate about instead of something that just seems like a good opportunity.

In any case, I've been thinking about it off and on for some time but with everything going on in the world started to think "dang, this probably isn't the best time to be doing things like starting a business" but of course Seth proves me wrong.  My recent birthday has caused me to reflect on what I'm getting done with the time I have.  A line from one of my all time favorite movies, The Music Man, came to mind, "You pile up enough tomorrows, and you'll find you are left with nothing but a lot of empty yesterdays."  I don't think today I'll be doing anything :(, but I have been discussing things with another good friend, Jon Turner (also known as theparticleman) and we have a few ideas and we're going to start working on something in the coming weeks.

So, don't be scared of growth, personal or professional.  Don't look for excuses not to do things because you'll always find one.  Don't waste away your career and your life "prudently" wasting opportunities.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Inventory of Software Development: Quote of the Week

This comes from the Poppendieck's book Implementing Lean Software Development under the section on "Eliminate Waste".

The inventory of software development is partially done work. Partially done software has all of the evils of manufacturing inventory: It gets lost, grows obsolete, hides quality problems, and ties up money. Moreover, much of the risk of software development lies in partially done work.

Tom and Mary Poppendieck

I really like the whole idea of minimizing the tasks that are "in process".  If you think about it, if I have 3 tasks that will take me 3 days each and work on them all "simultaneously" there are a few problems.  One, at the end of 3 days you still have nothing done, and if you are truly working on them in parallel you won't see any results until the 7th day.

Even more dangerous is work that is perceived as "done" but isn't really done.  One of the great things about Scrum is that you need to think about what "done" really means.  Many projects out there don't get anything "done" and, as such, end up with the hare's problem and must "declare bankruptcy" frequently to clear out the "excess inventory".

Now this doesn't mean that you "get it right the first time".  Often you will need to redo something that was previously "done", but leaving things undone because they might change is just a recipe for disaster.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

No Obvious Deficiencies: Quote of the Week

This is an oldie that I found way back when I was still in school...

There are two ways of constructing a software design: One way is to make it so simple that there are obviously no deficiencies, and the other way is to make it so complicated that there are no obvious deficiencies. The first method is far more difficult.

C. A. R. Hoare

It is often our tendency as developers to make things more complicated than they need to be.  To counter that tendency, one of the Agile mantras is YAGNI (Ya Ain't Gonna Need It).  This is often hard to do because instead of designing and building huge frameworks up front, it means that as things are needed they have to be implemented or possibly current functionality has to be refactored to fit new features.  Very difficult for management, and often very difficult for developers!  "Just do it right the first time" is often the counter to this, but one of the difficulties is that "the right way" is often not clear until you've journeyed down the path a little bit.  And if you guessed wrong at the start and did not leave flexibility to choose a different path, it is harder to change then if you had waited.

Lean Software Development gurus, Tom and Mary Poppendieck, refer to this as "deferring commitment" until the "last responsible moment".  This doesn't mean that you hem and haw about things forever since usually that results in the "last responsible moment" passing you by which is as worrisome as making a decision too early.  (Mary gave an excellent Google Tech Talk on this principle called "Competing on the Basis of Speed" which I highly recommend.)

Like Goldilocks, we need to be in constant search of the approach, complexity and timing that are "just right".

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Even simple requests become arduous to implement: Quote of the Week

This one is from Tim Barcz over at Devilicio.us.

A few weeks ago I got some evil glares when I suggested at our .NET user group meeting that in enterprise systems that you don't have time not to test. It's a common hurdle for those new to testing to say, "I don't have time to write tests." Let's face it, we're all busy, that excuse is tired. As an agile and lean practitioner I seek out ways to improve velocity and reduce waste, not take my already busy schedule and cram in another tool for the sake of another tool. While writing tests does slow me down, it brings on tortoise like speed, which I would argue is a good thing. Writing unit tests is one tool that provide me the ability to keep a more consistent velocity over the course of development. Without tests I can surely write things faster, the problem arises as the codebase grows and each new feature or fix takes increasingly more time. Eventually, even simple requests become arduous to implement. Slowly you see your velocity come to a crawl.

Tim Barcz

We're dealing with this very problem where I work now.  We reached the point where "even simple requests become arduous to implement".  But we are well aware of the traps that our predecessors fell into, one being that they gave up on unit testing under schedule pressure.  All that technical debt built up to the point that we are now declaring technical bankruptcy.

What does that mean?  Well, basically we're starting from scratch.  The original code wasn't built to be unit tested even though the original programmers wanted to do testing and even started to try.  But classes were highly coupled which made testing arduous.  And, unfortunately, instead of recognizing this as a smell, they pushed onward, declaring unit testing too complicated and time consuming.

So now it's our job to level out the graph and make the transition to a tortoise, pumping out a steady stream of reliable, well factored and unit tested code.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Egoless Programming: Quote of the Week

This is a hard one but an important one.  I found this quote on Jeff Atwood's Coding Horror blog on an old post that was referenced from a current one.  (It'll be nice to one day to be able to refer to myself as well as others in my own posts!)

Egoless programming occurs when a technical peer group uses frequent and often peer reviews to find defects in software under development. The objective is for everyone to find defects, including the author, not to prove the work product has no defects. People exchange work products to review, with the expectation that as authors, they will produce errors, and as reviewers, they will find errors. Everyone ends up learning from their own mistakes and other people's mistakes. That's why it's called egoless programming. My ego is not tied to my "perfect" or "imperfect" work product. My ego is only tied to my attempts to do the best job I know how, and to learn from my mistakes, not the initial result of my work.

Johanna Rothman

It's hard to sit there and watch your work get pulled apart and examined by somebody else and to take it and be constructive with it.  I know my first reaction is to throw up the defenses and start giving excuses or pushing that it's fine how it is.  BUT I do it because I know that it improves my code and improves my programming skills.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Great Ideas: Quote of the Week

It's interesting that sometimes think we know what we want, but we really want something else.  And in the space between the two is usually where the really great ideas are born.  When somebody discovers what we really want instead of continuing to give us what is we think we want.  Of course, this is a similar idea to the one discussed in the Innovator's Dilemma, another book on my "must read" list.

... many of the great ideas are not precipitated by the customer. While the customer knows what he wants, he doesn't always know what's possible. And that first dawned on me in my earliest days in business. When I was new at IBM, working in sales and taking a management training program in Sleepy Hollow, New York, I came back to my room grumbling about the lack of speed and reliability of the tape drives, and wondered why the engineers couldn't do something about it. My roommate stared at me with a look of total exasperation. "Boy, you guys in sales are all the same," he said. "You remind me of the farmer in 1850. If you asked him what he wanted, he would say he wanted a horse that was half as big and ate half as many oats and was twice as strong. And there would be no discussion of a tractor."

David Kearns, former CEO of Xerox

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Ashton's Law: Quote of the Week

Alan Ashton is the man behind WordPerfect.

Ashton’s Law: Whenever someone tries to do something for you, they usually end up doing it to you.

Alan Ashton, 1974

Bruce Webster actually published the quote in his Remembering Ashton's Law post which gives a better understanding of what it really means...

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

For No Additional Cost: Quote of the Week

It's no secret that I love Peopleware.  Here's a little gem from it.  If you haven't read the book, I highly recommend it.

In most of the office space we encounter today, there is enough noise and interruption to make any serious thinking virtually impossible. More is the shame: Your people bring their brains with them every morning. They could put them to work for you at no additional cost if only there were a small measure of peace and quiet in the workplace.

Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister in Peopleware (p 67-8)

The Perfect Job: The Company

Is there such a thing as the "perfect job"?  I sometimes wonder what that might look like... and a result of those daydreams I've come up with three main components necessary for the "perfect job".  I see these three as all necessary, like three legs of a stool.  That stool is not very comfortable if not at the proper height and the legs are not properly balanced.

The first component is the company itself that the job is at.  This includes a wide range of issues from the company in general down to the development department and the specific team that you're working with.

Things like pay, benefits and culture (including the company's attitude towards developers) are all pieces of the puzzle at the company level.  If the company values developers there are a few ways that this is manifest. 

  • All the developers have boxes that have been recently upgraded.  Nobody complains about how long it takes to do stuff on their machine because they all know that they have the best hardware available or at least what is necessary to get the job done.
  • All the developers have the tools that they need and/or want including add-ons for your development environment (in my case VS2008) and licenses for utility programs to help automate tasks.  (I'll do the obligatory tool list at some point... 'til then there is Hanselman's crazy long list).
  • Training materials and opportunities are abundant and current.  This can manifest itself in different ways.  Some send all or a subset of their devs to conferences or other outside training.  Some shops buy books or study them as a group.  A good sign is a shop that has well stocked (and not dusty) bookshelves in each developer's work area and more importantly some of those books out, open and in use.
  • Men much smarter than I have noted that if a developer is worried about the size of his paycheck then one of two things is happening.  Either he's severely underpaid or there's something else wrong and therefore the issue is "I'm not going to put up with this unless I get more money" which means other issues need to be addressed... fast.  So pay needs to be fair, hopefully above "average" and increasing based on performance.  Remember to consider all parts of compensation (salary, bonuses, health benefits, retirement, etc).

Overall, employees are valued.  From that post, Gordon Bethune is quoted as saying of Herbert Kelleher (founder of Southwest Airlines):

“He recognized that good employee relations would affect the bottom line. He knew that having employees who wanted to do a good job would drive revenue and lower costs."

If you didn't read the post yet, go read it... I mean it!

Another way that companies show that they value their employees is through attention to "hygiene" issues.  These are generally issues such as:

  • Enough workspace.  This includes floor space (I think private is the way to go even though the industry seems to be moving towards open space... either way, not being crowded is important) and desk space.
  • Areas for teams to meet.  This might be ample conference room space, big enough offices to accommodate groups or open common area.
  • Quiet... minimal disruptive interruptions.

There's more that can be found in the classic Peopleware.  I'm sure that at some point I'll have to write a post just on workplace hygiene issues...

At the department and team level, you can tell that the culture is healthy for developers in a couple ways...

  • Strong technical leadership is critical.  This might be coming from an individual or a group, but regardless, there needs to be strong sense of expertise on technical issues in the department or team.  There should also be a sense that management recognizes the technical leaders as valuable.
  • Related to the previous item is the fact that the status quo should never be good enough.  Constant improvement should be part of the culture. That improvement should come from the top but should primarily come through organic efforts and supported by management.
  • Good practices abound, including a good score on the now famous Joel Test.
  • Developers feel like "part of a team" and take ownership, both individual and collective, of their code.

All these issues are rooted in company culture and are, unfortunately, hard to change.  I'll post later about what you can do to help your company improve if they're lacking but in the mean time, take an inventory of where your current company is at and what you think they (and you) can do better.

Stay tuned for the other two legs.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Simplicity: Quote of the Week

Here's a little gem from Anders Hejlsberg:

When you take something incredibly complex and try to wrap it in something simpler, you often just shroud the complexity. You don't actually design a truly simple system. And in some ways you make it even more complex, because now the user has to understand what was omitted that they might sometimes need. That's simplexity. So to me, simplicity has to be true, in the sense that the further down you go the simpler it gets. It shouldn't get more complicated as you delve down.

Anders Hejlsberg

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Quote of the Week

I post a "Mike's Quote of the Week" on the outside wall of my cube each... well most weeks.  Here's the one I just posted:

When you actually sit down to write some code, you learn things that you didn’t get from thinking about them in modeling terms. There is a feedback process there that you can only really get at from executing some things and seeing what works.

-Martin Fowler

It's About Time

I've been thinking about and talking about this for quite some time.  So here we go.  This blog, Software on the Side, is going to be a place for me to pontificate on software development (coding, design and architecture), software development management, technology and leadership.  Maybe some of my ramblings will be useful to somebody out there... maybe not.  Either way, it's about time that I joined the conversation.

Monday, June 16, 2008

About Software on the Side and Me

Software on the Side is my blog about software development (coding, design and architecture), software development management, business, technology and leadership. Why "Software on the Side"? I guess there are a few meanings.

First, I think it's important for those of us that develop software to be learning about and writing "software on the side". Pursuing professional development outside of work hours is, I believe, the primary differentiator between real software developers and those that simply have a job programming.

The other meaning is that while software needs to be more than a job, it's also not life. Family and God come before career and software. Software needs to remain firmly "on the side".
My name is Mike Clement. I'm a husband, father of four and currently Principal Software Craftsman, Learning Coach and Co-founder at Greater Sum. I hope to provide something of value to the community and not just contribute to the echoes heard across the blogosphere.

Opinions expressed here are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer although I do hope that they coincide on occasion :)
View Michael Clement's profile on LinkedIn

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