blarg?

April 17, 2019

Why Don’t You Just

Filed under: documentation,interfaces,life,vendetta — mhoye @ 12:12 pm

This is a rough transcript of short talk I gave at a meeting I was in a few years ago. Enough time has passed that I don’t feel like I’m airing out any dirty laundry, and nothing’s brought this on but the periodic requests I get to publish it. No, I won’t be taking questions. I hope it’s useful to someone.

Can I get a show of hands here? Raise your hands if your job is hard. Raise your hand if there are a lot of difficult trade-offs, weird constraints and complicated edge-cases in it, that aren’t intuitively obvious until you’ve spent a lot of time deep in the guts of the problems you’re working on.

[everyone raises hands]

OK, now keep your hand up if you’re only here for the paycheck and the stickers.

[everyone lowers hands]

I’d like to try to convince you that there’s a negative space around every conversation we have that’s made up of all the assumptions we’ve made, of all the opinions we hold that led us to make whatever claim we’re making. Of all the things that we don’t say out loud that are just as much a part of that conversation as the things we do.

Whenever you look at a problem somebody’s been working on for a week or a month or maybe years and propose a simple, obvious solution that just happens to be the first thing that comes into your head, then you’re also making it crystal clear to people what you think of them and their work.

“I assume your job is simple and obvious.”

“Maybe if you’ve been working on a problem this simple for this long, you’re not that smart.”

“Maybe if it’s taken you this long to solve this simple, obvious problem, maybe the team you’re working with is incompetent?”

“Why has your manager, why has your whole management chain had you working on this problem for so long, when the answer is so simple and obvious?”

“And even if I’m wrong about that, your job doesn’t matter enough for me to be the least bit curious about it.”

There’s not a single person in this room who’d ever say something like this to one of their colleagues’ faces, I hope. But somehow we have a lot of conversations here that involve the phrase “why don’t you just”.

One of the great burdens on us as leaders is that humans have feelings and words mean things. Our effectiveness rests on our ability and willingness to collaborate, and the easiest way to convey that you respect somebody’s work is to have enough curiosity and humility to open conversations with the assumption that maybe the other person’s job is just as challenging and complicated and important as yours.

This “why don’t you just” thing is bullshit. Our people deserve better and I want it to stop.

Thank you.

April 10, 2019

Modern Problems, Etc.

Filed under: analog,awesome,future,interfaces,life,lunacy,weird — mhoye @ 10:51 am

genegraft

April 2, 2019

Occasionally Useful

A bit of self-promotion: the UsesThis site asked me their four questions a little while ago; it went up today.

A colleague once described me as “occasionally useful, in the same way that an occasional table is a table.” Which I thought was oddly nice of them.

December 13, 2018

Looking Skyward

Filed under: awesome,beauty,documentation,flickr,future,life,science — mhoye @ 12:43 pm

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Space

November 19, 2018

Faint Signal

Filed under: awesome,beauty,digital,documentation,future,interfaces,life,work — mhoye @ 11:34 am

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It’s been a little over a decade since I first saw Clay Shirky lay out his argument about what he called the “cognitive surplus”, but it’s been on my mind recently as I start to see more and more people curtail or sever their investments in always-on social media, and turn their attentions to… something.

Something Else.

I was recently reminded of some reading I did in college, way back in the last century, by a British historian arguing that the critical technology, for the early phase of the industrial revolution, was gin.

The transformation from rural to urban life was so sudden, and so wrenching, that the only thing society could do to manage was to drink itself into a stupor for a generation. The stories from that era are amazing– there were gin pushcarts working their way through the streets of London.

And it wasn’t until society woke up from that collective bender that we actually started to get the institutional structures that we associate with the industrial revolution today. Things like public libraries and museums, increasingly broad education for children, elected leaders–a lot of things we like–didn’t happen until having all of those people together stopped seeming like a crisis and started seeming like an asset.

It wasn’t until people started thinking of this as a vast civic surplus, one they could design for rather than just dissipate, that we started to get what we think of now as an industrial society.

– Clay Shirky, “Gin, Television and the Cognitive Surplus“, 2008.

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I couldn’t figure out what it was at first – people I’d thought were far enough ahead of the curve to bend its arc popping up less often or getting harder to find; I’m not going to say who, of course, because who it is for me won’t be who it is for you. But you feel it too, don’t you? That quiet, empty space that’s left as people start dropping away from hyperconnected. The sense of getting gently reacquainted with loneliness and boredom as you step away from the full-court vanity press and stop synchronizing your panic attacks with the rest of the network. The moment of clarity, maybe, as you wake up from that engagement bender and remember the better parts of your relationship with absence and distance.

How, on a good day, the loneliness set your foot on the path, how the boredom could push you to push yourself.

I was reading the excellent book MARS BY 1980 in bed last night and this term just popped into my head as I was circling sleep. I had to do that thing where you repeat it in your head twenty times so that I’d remember it in the morning. I have no idea what refuture or refuturing really means, except that “refuturing” connects it in my mind with “rewilding.” The sense of creating new immediate futures and repopulating the futures space with something entirely divorced from the previous consensus futures.

Refuture. Refuturing. I don’t know. I wanted to write it down before it went away.

Which I guess is what we do with ideas about the future anyway.

Warren Ellis, August 21, 2018.

Maybe it’s just me. I can’t quite see the shape of it yet, but I can hear it in the distance, like a radio tuned to a distant station; signal in the static, a song I can’t quite hear but I can tell you can dance to. We still have a shot, despite everything; whatever’s next is coming.

I think it’s going to be interesting.

November 10, 2018

Tunnels

Filed under: a/b,analog,documentation,interfaces,life,travel — mhoye @ 2:13 am

Toronto’s oldest subway line, and the newest. This the view east from the Bloor Station platform:

Subway Tunnel, Bloor Station

… and this is the view north from York University:

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July 5, 2017

The Minimum Viable Context

Filed under: analog,documentation,interfaces,life,vendetta — mhoye @ 10:51 am

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This is not a subtweet; if I thought this should be about you, I’d have said so to your face months ago. If you get all the way through it and still kind of suspect it’s about you, though, you should spend some time looking inward and gear yourself up to deal with whatever you find in there, rattling the chains.

I’ve started and stopped writing this a couple of times now. Some drafts have been didactic, other self-congratulatory. “Blogging isn’t real if it’s not the first draft”, I’ve read somewhere, but I’ve never been able to do that; writing has always been a slog from what I’ve got written to what I can just barely sense I could. If I wanted to flatter myself I’d wheel out the old Mozart/Beethoven analogy, but that feels too much like fishing for compliments and besides, that garbage was in an early draft too.

So let’s lead with the punchline. Here’s the checklist: does everyone on your team…

  1. have a shared understanding of success?
  2. know what everyone else’s role is, and what they need to do their job well?
  3. know how their work contributes to the team’s success?
  4. know how their team’s success contributes to their own?

If you’re surveying the field from the executive suite and need big-picture, master-class management advice, well. This is not that. Talk to my friends Shappy and Johnath at Raw Signal. If you understand what they’re offering you know better than to look for it here. What I’ve got here is penny-ante table stakes, the difference between a team and a handful of people sharing the same corner of an orgchart. It is not complicated; it should, in theory, be trite. But to borrow a line, the fact is that in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence banal platitudes can have life-or-death importance.

In theory, you’d think hitting 4 out of 4 would be not just easy, but expected. In practice, in my experience, you’ll be lucky to make it to 2.

A few months ago I was asked to help a team out of the weeds. Getting into the details would be a disservice, so I won’t; in the broad strokes, I’m talking about a cross-discipline team of smart, invested people doing an important job. But for whatever reason, something – several somethings, it turned out – had gone really, really wrong. Execution, morale and retention were all going south. Everyone knew it, but nobody was really sure what had happened or what to do about it.

So I talked to a lot of people, I read a lot of mailing lists and bugs, and offered some advice.

If you’ve been around the team-dysfunction block before, you know there are plenty of probable causes. Shakeout from a reorg, a company pivoting hard, a team managing some sudden turnover, maybe the organization has grown from everyone being in the same room to nobody even being in the same city. Maybe you’ve hit that critical mass where communicating has suddenly gone from something nobody needed to worry about to something nobody remembers how to do. Maybe the one person who made it work left, maybe it’s just been that way so long nobody remembers the possibility that it could be different.

The advice I had for them was straightforward, a word I love for the veneer of upright nobility it adds to a phrase I could just as easily close out with “simple” or “obvious”. Get everyone into the same room for a few days, preferably away from everyone’s home base. Start the first day by having everyone give a talk about their jobs, not some name-and-title intro but a deep dive into what their job involves and the information, context and resources they need to do it well. Have some conversations – some public, some privately – between team leads and members about personal or professional goals and growth paths.

And then take the roadmap and the entire work backlog for the team and – ideally in the last meeting of that first day – print it out, stand up in front of everyone and drop it on the floor. Then tell everyone to come back the next day ready to start fresh.

The goal of this exercise was to make all the hidden costs – all the hidden work, all the hidden friction, everything people couldn’t see through the lens of their own disciplines – visible. And then, with that information, to take a hard reset. To narrow the team scope down to one or two tightly focused, high-impact features that could ship soon, and – critically – explicitly stop working on everything else. That sounded a bit dramatic, maybe impossible – I’ve been called worse – but nothing else seemed like it would work at all.

Because when I was asking my questions, the answers I got were mostly about the questions those teammates were asking each other. And it wasn’t hard to spot a common theme.

“If only it weren’t for the people, the goddamned people,” said Finnerty, “always getting tangled up in the machinery. If it weren’t for them, earth would be an engineer’s paradise.” – Kurt Vonnegut, “Player Piano”, 1952

Does everyone on the team understand that when you ask a designer to make a new button, that you’re asking them for a few dozen hours of product and market research, and a few more of design and testing, and not half an hour in Illustrator drawing pretty pictures? Does everyone really get that accommodating that schema change means refactoring a pile of business logic or backup processes? Did you all notice that you were asking for a contractual change with a major partner when you said “just change this string”?

I made those questions up for this post; the real ones were different in the specifics but definitely not in substance. You realize that you’re asking for the entire process, not just the output at the end, right? Why don’t you just?

You’ve seen this. You’ve probably even asked questions like them; I sure have. And unchallenged, even the mildest case of engineer’s disease left untreated will fester; eventually cultural rot sets in. We don’t really have a word for the long decline that happens next, the eventual checking out that happens the moment you clock in. The septic shock, the team’s paralysis and organ failures of core people ragequitting near the end. But you’ve seen that, too.

“You should focus on a small number of things” and “it helps to understand how your colleagues do their best work” is not exactly going to spur a revolution in technical leadership. I get that. But: don’t mistake the roadmap for the terrain. If you’ve made that plan without a clear, shared idea of where you’re going, how everyone can help you get there, and why you’re going at all? Then it’s hard to see how that will succeed, much less give rise to the kind of work or working environment you can be proud of. So toss it. Do the work of understanding where and who you are, and draw the map from there to somewhere that matters.

I told you this was table stakes, and I was not kidding about that at all. I wanted to help them get to a point where everyone on the team could confidently go 4 for 4 on the list, to get them to necessary so they could launch themselves at sufficient. And now, a couple of months later, I think it worked. They’re not all the way there yet – culture’s got a lot of inertia, and if I ever find a way to hard-pivot a whole org I’ll let you know – but they’re on the way, with a lot of clarity about what they’re doing, how they’re going to get it done together, and why it matters.

So: what about your team? Does everyone on your team have a shared understanding of success? Do you know what everyone else’s role is, and what they need to do their job well? Do you know how your work, and theirs, contributes to the team’s success and to your own?

Or does your team – maybe, possibly, kind of, just – suck at being a team?

You should do something about that. What are you going to do about that?

May 5, 2017

Nerd-Cred Level-Up

Filed under: awesome,flickr,life,lunacy,weird — mhoye @ 9:13 am

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In 2007 I was an extra in an indie zombie movie called “Sunday Morning” that featured Ron Tarrant. Tarrant starred with Mark Slacke in a 2010 short called “The Painting In The House”, who in turn played a role in Cuba Gooding Jr.’s “Sacrifice”. Gooding, of course, played a role in A Few Good Men, as did Kevin Bacon.

Recently, I’ve co-authored a paper with Greg Wilson – “Do Software Developers Understand Open Source Licenses?” – principal authors are Daniel Almeida and Gail Murphy at UBC – that will be presented at ICPC 2017 later this year. Greg Wilson has previously co-authored a paper with Robert Sedgewick, who has co-authored a paper with Andrew Chi-Chih Yao, who has in turn co-authored a paper with Ronald L. Graham.

You can find all of Graham’s many collaborations with Paul Erdős, one of the most prolific mathematicians of the 20th century, on his homepage.

Which is all to say that I now have an Erdős-Bacon number of 9.

I’m unreasonably stoked about that for some reason.

February 6, 2017

The Scope Of The Possible

Filed under: digital,future,interfaces,life,lunacy,mozilla,want,weird,work — mhoye @ 5:34 pm

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This is a rough draft; I haven’t given it much in the way of polish, and it kind of just trails off. But a friend of mine asked me what I think web browsers look like in 2025 and I promised I’d let that percolate for a bit and then tell him, so here we go. For whatever disclaimers like this are worth, I don’t have my hands on any of the product direction levers here, and as far as the orgchart’s concerned I am a leaf in the wind. This is just my own speculation.

I’m a big believer in Conway’s Law, but not in the sense that I’ve heard most people talk about it. I say “most people”, like I’m the lone heretic of some secret cabal that convenes once a month to discuss a jokey fifty year old observation about software architecture, I get that, but for now just play along. Maybe I am? If I am, and I’m not saying one way or another, between you and me we’d have an amazing secret handshake.

So: Conway’s Law isn’t anything fancier than the observation that software is a collaborative effort, so the shape of large piece of software will end up looking a lot like the orgchart or communication channels of the people building it; this emerges naturally from the need to communicate and coordinate efforts between teams.

My particular heresy here is that I don’t think Conway’s Law needs to be the curse it’s made out to be. Communication will never not be expensive, but it’s also a subset of interaction. So if you look at how the nature of people’s interactions with and expectations from a communication channel are changing, you can use it as a kind of oracle to predict what the next evolutionary step of a product should look like.

At the highest level, some 23 years after Netscape Navigator 1.0 came out, the way we interact with a browser is pretty much the same as it ever was; we open it, poke around it and close it. Sure, we poke around a lot more things, and they’re way cooler and have a lot more people on far end of them but… for the most part, that’s it.

That was all that you could do in the 90’s, because that’s pretty much all that interacting with the web of the 90’s could let you do. The nature of the Web has changed profoundly since then, and like I’ve said before, the web is everywhere and in everything now. But despite that, and the fact that browsers are very different beasts now than they were when the Web was taking its first tentative steps, that high-level interaction model has stayed pretty much the same.

But if the web is everywhere and in everything, then an interaction that involves opening an app, looking through it and closing it again seems incredibly antiquated, like you’re looking out a porthole in the side of a steamship. Even the name is telling: you don’t “browse” the web anymore. You engage with it, you interact with it, and with people, groups and businesses through it.

Another way to say that is the next generation of web browser won’t look like a browser at all: it will be a service.

More specifically I think the next generation of what we currently call a web browser will be a hybrid web-access service; like the current Web, it lives partly on a machine somewhere and partly on whatever device or devices are next to you, and act as the intermediary – the user agent – that keeps you connected you to this modern, always-on Web.

The app model is almost, kind-of-partway there, but in so many ways it makes life more complicated and less interesting than it needs to be. For the most part, apps only ever want to connect you to one place or set of people. Maybe that’s fine and that’s where your people are. But maybe you have to juggle a bunch of different communities in your life across a bunch of apps that go out of their way to keep those communities from discovering each other, and they all seem to want different slices of your life, your time and data depending on what the ad revenue people think is trendy this week. And because companies want to cover their bases you end up with these strange brands-pretending-to-be-people everywhere. It’s a mess, and having to juggle a bunch of different apps and communities doesn’t make a ton of sense when we’ve already got a reliable way of shipping safe, powerful software on demand.

I think the right – and probably next – thing is to push that complexity away from their device, to this user-agent-as-a-service living out there on a serverin the cloud somewhere, just sitting there patiently paying attention. Notifications – a superset of messaging, and the other part of this picture – can come from anywhere and be anything, because internet, but your Agent can decide whether forward them on directly, filter or bounce them, as you like. And if you decide to go out there and get something – a video, a file, a page, whatever, then your Agent can do all sorts of interesting work for you in-flight. Maybe you want ad filtering, maybe you paid for an antivirus service to give that file a once-over, maybe your employer has security protocols in place to add X or strip out Y. There’s lots of room there for competing notification services, agent providers and in-agent services, a marketplace of ideas-that-are-also-machines.

There’s a couple of things that browsers, for all their warts and dated ideas, do better than any app or monolithic service; most of those have to do with user intent, the desire for safety and privacy, but also the desires for novelty, variety and unique humanity. I’ve talked about this before, the idea of engineering freedom in depth. I still think it’s possible to build human-facing systems that can – without compromise – mitigate the possibility of harm, and mount a positive defense of the scope of the possible. And I think maybe this is one way to do that.

(Updated: Typos, phrasing, added some links.)

November 26, 2016

Home Coffee Infrastructure

Filed under: documentation,food,life,toys — mhoye @ 9:45 pm

Flight

We can take as a given that good coffee is to pod coffee as good people are to pod people.

Since seasonal sales are making the rounds, I thought I’d tell you about how I make coffee at home. It’s not super-complicated, but I’m very happy with it. Previously, my home coffee-making setup was:

  • Hario Skerton ceramic hand mill and Aeropress for single servings.
  • Cuisinart “Spice & Nut” blade grinder and French press for when I’ve got guests.

I bought the French press at a garage sale for $3, so altogether that setup cost me about $120 Canadian, and reliably made very good, if not world-class, coffee. After a while I found the 5 minutes of hand-powered grinding kind of tedious first thing in the morning, though, so I started looking around.

At one point I bought and immediately returned a Cuisinart coffee grinder; it had more than a few design flaws that I soon learned were common across much of that product category. After I realized that, I took the time to lay out my requirements:

  • No custom and hard-to-clean receptacle for the grinds. In particular, a grinder that won’t work without that specific container inserted just so is out.
  • Set-and-forget on the burr grinder. I’m the only coffee drinker in the house, so I want one button that does the right thing when I push it.
  • Super-easy cleanup. Aeropress cleanup is easier than the French press, but not a lot easier, so I set the bar there.
  • Not ridiculously loud, and
  • Makes excellent coffee.

After some research and patience this is what I’ve settled on, and now I think I’m set for the foreseeable future. I’m using:

So far I’m very happy with this. The Breville meets all my requirements for a grinder; I’m about four months into owning it and consider it excellent value for money.  One nice thing about it is that there’s no intermediate steps; you put the filter in the ceramic dripper, tuck it in under the grinder’s spout and push the button. Once you’ve boiled the water, making the coffee is quick and simple and cleanup could not be easier.

You have to start with excellent whole-bean coffee, clearly, but Toronto is in the middle of some sort of coffee renaissance right now and there are a number (Six? Eight? Maybe more?) of local roasters all doing excellent work, so let your heart guide you.

Some caveats:

  • There’s no difference between Breville’s “Dose Control” and “Dose Control Pro” grinders beyond cosmetics. I’d get whichever’s cheaper.
  • I can’t tell if there’s a difference between the filters I’ve got, but the Hario filters are cheaper. When I run out, I’ll only refill the Harios.
  • It takes a bit of time to dial in your preferences, but five or six seconds of moderately fine grind is a good place to start.
  • There’s a minor design flaw with the Buono kettle, in that if you heat it too quickly it spits water out the spout. Boil on medium-high, not on high.

So, there you go. This is not substantially more difficult than making pod-coffee, but the results are vastly better.

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