I’m excited to officially start my new job at PromptWorks next week. The slogan on their website says it all: “we are craftsmen.” If you’ve seen my Clean Code talk, you know what software craftsmanship means to me. An important aspect of it is to keep improving your skills. I’ve been working at PromptWorks on a contract basis for the past several weeks, and I can tell already that I will learn a lot from my new co-workers. They place a strong emphasis on Agile practices, quality, and working at a sustainable pace. I’ve seen enough so far to know that this isn’t just talk, and that their focus is on building long-term relationships with their clients and their staff. They’re also very involved in the local tech community. Among other things, one of them oversees the philly.rb Ruby meetup group.
They’re also supportive of me working remotely while Post to Post Links II error: No post found with slug "living-in-fukuoka-japan-this-summer-and-fall", which is very generous of them (especially for a new hire).
I interviewed with several different companies recently, and for me, the most dreadful part of interviewing is being asked to do live coding. This is sometimes done in the form of a pop-quiz, where I’m presented with some out of the ordinary coding problem, and I’m expected to write code on a whiteboard, or hack together a quick script to solve it. Other times it’s a surprise mini-project I’m expected to do on the spot. Even though I’ve been coding for close to 20 years, and I’ve had plenty of experience doing quality work faster than expected, I’m terrible at these coding exercises.
The issue for me is that they are nothing like doing real work. The only times in my life I’ve had to think up code on the spot for a surprise problem and write it on a whiteboard is in interviews. And in a real job I don’t think I’ve ever had a project dropped on me out of the blue and been asked to code up a solution in an hour or two, with severe consequences if I make a mistake or try to talk to anyone about it.
My thinking process is largely driven by understanding context (the context of the code, and the context of the business problem), and these coding exercises are usually devoid of context. I’ve also trained myself over the years to not just hack things together. I was told in one interview that, sorry, you won’t have time to write tests. Telling me to take my best practices and throw them out the window in an interview strikes me as completely backwards.
A candidate would come in, usually all dressed up in their best suit and tie, we’d sit down and have a talk. That talk was essentially like an oral exam in college. I would ask them to code algorithms for all the usual cute little CS problems and I’d get answers with wildly varying qualities. Some were shooting their pre-canned answers at me with unreasonable speed. They were prepared for exactly this kind of interview. Others would break under the “pressure”, barely able to continue the interview…
But how did the candidates we selected measure up? The truth is, we got very mixed results. Many of them were average, very few were excellent, and some were absolutely awful fits for their positions. So at best, the interview had no actual effect on the quality of people we were selecting, and I’m afraid that at worst, we may have skewed the scale in favor of the bad ones…
So what should a developer job interview look like then? Simple: eliminate the exam part of the interview altogether. Instead, ask a few open-ended questions that invite your candidates to elaborate about their programming work.
– What’s the last project you worked on at your former employer?
– Tell me about some of your favorite projects.
– What projects are you working on in your spare time?
– What online hacker communities do you participate in?
– Tell me about some (programming/technical) issues that you feel passionately about.
When I became Director of the web team at the Penn School of Medicine, I led an overhaul of how we conducted our interviews, and we adopted questions similar to these. We focused on behavior-description questions, which are actually much more revealing than you might think, if you haven’t tried them before. We also asked for interviewees to bring in a sample of their code, and we’d have them talk us through it in the interview, and answer any questions we had about it. This was an excellent and reliable way to get an understanding of their experience level and getting past shyness and nervousness. For anyone who’s done half-way decent work, they always become animated when showing off work they’re proud of.
For my interview with PromptWorks, they gave me a small project to do on my own time, to turn in a few days later, which is also a good approach. Apart from that, they also had me do a pair programming exercise, which I was worried about at first, but the focus was on getting an understanding of my thought process and overall problem-solving approach, as opposed to how fast I could tear through it, or trying to hit me with “gotcha” questions.
And they hired me, so I must have gotten something right 😉
I’ve been with ElectNext for a little over a year, and this past week was only the third time since I started that everyone in the company was in the same place, and the first time that it was for more than a day. There are currently 7 of us, roughly equally divided between New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. So a typical workday entails a good amount of time in Google Hangouts, which is a great tool for keeping a distributed time on the same page. But there are a couple things for which there is no substitute for spending time in person: one is building team relationships (here’s a great article on building distributed Agile teams), and the other is brainstorming around challenging problems. As good as Hangout is, and tools like RealtimeBoard, there’s still no substitute for a team putting their heads together in person around a whiteboard or big easel pad.
We rented a 4 bedroom/7 bed house on the north side of Lake Tahoe, right across the street from the lake. This was a workation, which means we put in at least as much work time as usual. But we also enjoyed our evenings and our surroundings. We each had a turn preparing dinner, and sat down most nights around 8:30 to eat, staying at the table until late into the night. And we took the day off on Friday for a hike up to one of Maggie’s Peaks.
Click the album cover below to see more great pictures!
If you use a mouse, hyperlinks, video conferencing, WYSIWYG word processor, multi-window user interface, shared documents, shared database, documents with images & text, keyword search, instant messaging, synchronous collaboration, asynchronous collaboration — thank Doug Engelbart
That quote is from one of Engelbart’s peers. It’s worth taking a few minutes to read the rest of his post, to learn about Doug Engelbart. Personal computing and the internet would not be what they are if it weren’t for his contributions.
About 14 years ago, when Maria and I worked at Stanford, we had dinner with him and his girlfriend, and another couple. He couldn’t have been more pleasant and down to earth. At the time I knew a bit about his history, but not the full extent of his contributions. And I left that dinner still not knowing – he was a modest man. Dave Crocker is someone who worked with him, and he wrote the following last night, after Engelbart’s daughter shared the news of his passing: “Besides the considerable technical contributions of Doug’s project at SRI, theirs was a group that did much to create the open and collaborative tone of the Internet that we’ve come to consider as automatic and natural, but were unusual in those days.”
But the mild-mannered computer scientist who created the computer mouse, windows-style personal computing, hyperlinking–the clickable links used in the World Wide Web–even e-mail and video conferencing, was ridiculed and shunted aside. For much of his career he was treated as a heretic by the industry titans who ultimately made billions off his inventions…
Engelbart is perhaps the most dramatic example of the valley’s habit of forgetting engineers whose brilliance helped build companies–and entire industries. CEOs fail to mention them in corporate press releases; they never become household names. Yet we use their products, or the fruits of their ideas, every day…
“We were doing this for humanity. It would never occur to us to try and cash in on it. That’s still where Doug’s mind is,” explains Rulifson, director of Sun’s Networking and Security Center…
Engelbart’s unwillingness to bend was in evidence when he met Steve Jobs for the first time in the early 1980s. It was 15 years since Engelbart had invented the computer mouse and other critical components for the personal computer, and Jobs was busy integrating them into his Macintosh.
Apple Computer Inc.’s hot-shot founder touted the Macintosh’s capabilities to Engelbart. But instead of applauding Jobs, who was delivering to the masses Engelbart’s new way to work, the father of personal computing was annoyed. In his opinion, Jobs had missed the most important piece of his vision: networking. Engelbart’s 1968 system introduced the idea of networking personal computer workstations so people could solve problems collaboratively. This was the whole point of the revolution.
“I said, ‘It [the Macintosh] is terribly limited. It has no access to anyone else’s documents, to e-mail, to common repositories of information, “‘ recalls Engelbart. “Steve said, ‘All the computing power you need will be on your desk top.”‘
“I told him, ‘But that’s like having an exotic office without a telephone or door.”‘ Jobs ignored Engelbart. And Engelbart was baffled.
We’d been using electronic mail since 1970 [over the government-backed ARPA network, predecessor to the Internet]. But both Apple and Microsoft Corp. ignored the network. You have to ask ‘Why?”‘ He shrugs his shoulders, a practiced gesture after 30 frustrating years…
Here is a set of highlights from his famous 1968 demo of the systems his team developed, showing early versions of computer software and hardware we now consider commonplace. In the 8th video, he shows their online, collaborative document editing system, which looks like an early version of Google Docs. In the 3rd video, he describes the empirical and evolutionary approach they took to their development process. This was another of his ideas that the industry discarded, only to finally re-discover its value, more than 30 years later, as what’s now called Agile development.
After my WordCamp Nashville presentation, I transitioned from talking about how to write clean code, to talking about how the web is transforming the world of journalism, and what it means for civic engagement. This was the topic of the BarCamp NewsInnovation talk two weeks ago in Philadelphia given by Dave Zega and I (we work together at ElectNext). I also presented a longer, more in-depth version at TransparencyCamp in Washington, DC last week, with our CEO, Keya Dannenbaum.
Both conferences were “unconferences,” which means there’s an emphasis on discussion rather than long presentations, and the schedule is determined by the conference participants themselves, on the morning of the conference. However, both had some pre-scheduled talks, including ours.
The TransparencyCamp talk was titled “Civic engagement, local journalism, and open data.” Here’s the summary:
A fundamental purpose of journalism in the United States is to inform citizens, so that they can effectively engage in democratic self-governance. The ongoing disappearance of local newspapers in the digital era is well known, resulting in the decline of traditional watchdog journalism at the local and state levels. There are discussions of “news deserts” and unchecked malfeasance by elected officials. At the same time, we’re seeing the rise of citizen journalists, the growth of organizations that harvest, enhance, and distribute an ever-expanding range of data on government activities, and the creation of new opportunities to share, discuss, and analyze information vital to civic engagement.
For the goals of achieving government transparency and effective self-governance, what has been lost and what has been gained in all these transformations? Is the net effect positive or negative, and what lies ahead? In this talk we’ll lay out the different arguments in this debate, and we’ll engage the audience in the conversation.
I was really impressed by the quality of the audience questions at both conferences, and their engagement with Twitter. Our talk generated over 40 tweets at Transparency Camp. Here are samples from both talks:
@MobileTrevor Result of losing local news is fewer voters, lower civic participation, increased corruption, etc says @mtoppa #TCamp13
@zpez how can you maintain local engagement after an acute issue is resolved? build stronger networks; tap into the ppl w/ the data #TCamp13
@_anna_shaw The ‘digital political baseball cards’ from @ElectNext are pretty darn cool… Gonna be playing around with these later. #TCamp13
@ianfroude Local papers dying, so ‘ppl have gained access to the world (intl/natl papers) but lost access to their backyard’ #TCamp13
@jmikelyons: Politicians know everything about us, we know little about them. The Big Data Divide. Big civic problem #bcni13
@emmacarew #bcni13 impressive: folks at @electnext are working directly with the mayor’s office to makes data not just available but accessible
Transparency Camp was the larger of the two – over 600 people attended. Some traveled quite a distance to be there. In our talk we had questions from people involved in the media from as far away as Poland and Uganda.
Both conferences had a great sense of community. Many of the conversations I heard around me were similar to conversations we have at ElectNext, about how to bring greater transparency to government activities, and making open government data accessible and useful. I also had an unexpected but very welcome encounter: while passing through a crowd I heard a nearby voice say “hey Mike Toppa,” and turned to see a face I hadn’t seen in over 10 years. It was a former co-worker from my time at HighWire Press. He works at the Sunlight Foundation now. It was great to catch up and compare notes on our work. After the conference, I also got to catch up with my old friends Pat and Emma, from my days at Georgetown.
Here are the videos for both talks. If you only have time for one, I recommend the TransparencyCamp talk (the first one below). Below the videos are my summaries of the sessions I attended at Transparency Camp.
These are my own brief summaries of the talks I attended. Most sessions had note takers, and their notes are at the TransparencyCamp site.
I presented at the Philadelphia Knowledge Slam tonight on job satisfaction and Agile. It was a lot of fun! The hardest part was putting together a coherent presentation that fit within the strict 5 minute limit, with no slides allowed. There were 10 great presentations on a wide variety of topics: the songs of Robins, the latest innovations in genetic treatments for sickle cell disease, screenwriting, cultural myths and personal myths, baking, tips for networking, the mis-measuring of educational achievement, and more.
This was my first time going – Knowledge Slam is held the 3rd Wednesday of every month. Check out the Facebook page for more info.
Short clips of each presenter were recorded. Here’s mine, followed by my complete script.
About 4 years ago I read a book by Malcolm Gladwell called “Outliers: the Story of Success.” Buried in the middle of that book he wrote a few paragraphs that, for me, were the most important part of the story. He described the 3 things that make a job rewarding. The things that make you look forward to a day at work when you get up in the morning.
First is reward for effort – this means money of course, but it also means recognition. We want our boss and our co-workers to let us know we’re doing a good job.
Second is having challenging work – work that isn’t routine and boring, but isn’t so hard that it becomes frustrating. Work that’s in that sweet spot in between, where the work engages your skills and makes you feel that you are learning and growing.
So those first two are pretty straightforward. The third one is the most interesting to me: a rewarding job is one that gives you autonomy. You have a feeling of control over your work, and you feel that your actions and decisions are meaningful. You can make things happen without someone second-guessing you all the time. It’s the opposite of feeling like a cog in a machine.
This struck a chord with me because at the time I wasn’t really happy in my job. I create web sites and web applications for a living. I’ve been doing it since ancient times – the early 1990s – when the first web pages were painted on cave walls in bison blood. And I wasn’t alone in feeling this way. Job satisfaction surveys of Americans show that between half and three quarters of Americans are unhappy in their jobs. If you consider that we spend about half of our waking lives at work, that’s a depressing statistic.
So I decided it was time for a change, and I made a terrible, terrible decision – I went into management. I joined the ranks of the people who are ultimately responsible for all those unhappy workers. I figured, there must be a better way to do this. So I did my homework, and I started learning about this thing called Agile, with a capital A. It’s a way of managing work that originated in the software industry and has been spreading to other types of work. And it’s got a great name, who doesn’t want to be agile?
But I learned it’s more than just a buzzword. Learning and following Agile practices made me fall in love with my work all over again. I would need to talk for at least an hour to explain how it all works, but since I just have a few minutes, I’ll focus on the part that relates to this idea of autonomy. In a lot of workplaces, you have responsibility, and your boss has authority. You don’t have autonomy. Managers talk about being results-oriented, but most are really more focused on control. Since you don’t have autonomy, you may not be motivated to do great work, so you’re given more policies and procedures to follow. The end result is management gets work that meets a consistent but minimal level of quality, and you don’t get a whole lot of job satisfaction. The undercurrent here is a lack of trust.
So how does Agile fix this? First, it gets management’s focus where it should be: on results, not control. And it provides some new ways of measuring progress and results that don’t depend on micro-management. And second, it adjusts peoples’ roles, so you actually have authority over the things you are responsible for. It gives you autonomy. It’s really about training management to get out of the way for the day-to-day work, to foster a learning environment, and to step in only when help is needed. It means treating people like adults, and creating an environment of trust.
And when you have trust, great things can happen. People start working together and pooling their skills to solve problems. This happened recently at General Electric. They had a water heater that was made in China. Here in the US a team of engineers, factory line workers, even sales and marketing people, all got together and completely redesigned it. By pooling their skills and experience they came up with a new design that was so much less expensive to manufacture, GE moved the manufacturing for the water heater back to the US, creating jobs here, and lowered its retail price by $300.
At the end of the day, its not policies and procedures that get the credit for good work and great products, it’s enthusiastic and empowered people.
I’ve barely blogged at all for months, as I’ve been crazy-busy working for ElectNext. I’ve been on contract for a couple months, and I’m about to become employee number 5 (here’s the rest of the team). I found out about ElectNext late in the summer, when Philly Geek Awards nominated them for startup of the year. The first thing I learned in the interview, however, is that they planned to base the engineering team in San Francisco. As much as I’d like to move back to California, that’s not in the cards right now. I also didn’t have any Rails experience, and the position was for a Rails engineer. So it made for an interesting interview! In my favor was that 12 years ago I came up with an idea for a candidate matcher similar in concept to ElectNext’s, and built a prototype for it when I worked at Ask Jeeves, Post to Post Links II error: No post found with slug "moving-voter-registration-and-turnout", the CTO and I share a passion for clean code, and I was confident I could ramp up on Rails fairly quickly, given my other web development experience.
So what is ElectNext? Let our CEO Keya Dannenbaum explain it to you. Her presentation put us in the top 5 out of 77 startups at DEMO earlier this month:
Personally, I feel like I’ve found my dream job. Web development has been my career, but I’ve never let go of my interest in politics – specifically my interest in fostering civic engagement. The opportunity to combine the two is a thrill for me. And the team couldn’t be better: John has been a great Rails mentor, I work with Dave once a week at Indy Hall (I work from home the rest of the time), and I’ll be with the team in New York City next week, just in time for the election. After the election, we’ll be broadening our focus to local issues and elections, so we can be an ongoing, nonpartisan resource to help people engage politically in their communities, as well as nationally for issues important to them.
With the election one week from today, we could use your help to maximize our exposure while interest nationwide is at its peak. Please take a moment to like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and go to ElectNext.com to see which candidates align with you. When you get your matches, or if there’s a issue that’s important to you, click one of the links to tweet it or post it on Facebook. This is a key time for us, and your clicks can lead to a positive, viral increase in our exposure.
We also have an embedable widget version of our candidate matcher you can try. We’ve got it on a number of sites, including MSNBC, PBS NewsHour, The Washington Post, Philly.com, and many others, including, of course, toppa.com:
[Update: now that the election is over, we’ve retired the 2012 candidate matcher]
This was my second WordCamp, and my first not as a speaker. When I presented at WordCamp Philly last Fall, I was blown away by the positive energy of everyone there (which is one of the things that led to my current position with WebDevStudios). WordCamp San Diego was just as much fun, and there was plenty to learn too. Coming from Philly means it’s a long way to go for a WordCamp, but WebDevStudios was a sponsor, so several of us from the company went. Since we are a virtual company, I also met a couple of my co-workers in person for the first time – @tweetsfromchris and @TobyBenjamin
WordCamps typically have 2 simultaneous tracks – one for developers and one for users. They also provide an opportunity for these two parts of the WordPress community to come together, so online businesses can find good developers, and for developers to find rewarding projects.
I stayed in the developer track for all but one presentation, and they were all excellent. WebDevStudio’s own @williamsba presented on how to configure and use WordPress multi-site. Even in the more introductory-level sessions, where I thought I’d already know everything, I actually learned a lot. The vibrancy of the WordPress community, and the dedication of the speakers, who appear without compensation, continues to impress me.
The “spring training” theme was really well done, from the matching baseball jerseys for the speakers, to the web site, stickers, and, of course, the cake. @norcross gave his whole talk as Ron Burgundy (yes, in his boxers), which was hilarous enough to justify him being the only speaker out of uniform.
The after party was a blast. It was my first experience where it was socially acceptable to both drink and have endless conversations about code and WordPress. I have found my people 🙂 and it was great to meet @housechick, @jaredatch, @matthewjcnpilon and @i3inary.
The 2nd day of the conference was a developers’ day, held at the very sleek Co-Merge workplace. This was similiar to the developers’ day at WordCamp Philly, with some short presentations, but the focus was more on people making connections and helping each other code.
The one challenge for me was sleep. WebDevStudios rented an apartment since several of us were there. The first night there was a party happening in an adjacent unit, and the thumping bass didn’t stop coming through the floor until about 3AM. The next night someone was shot and killed right outside our apartment, and the last night one of my co-workers had to get up and leave really early for his flight. But I’m not so old (yet) that I can’t handle it (actually, having kids has conditioned me to handle sleep deprivation better than I did years ago).
My next WordCamp is in just a few weeks. I’ll be speaking at WordCamp Nashville, on how to apply dependency injection techniques to WordPress plugin development.
I took pictures throughout the day – here’s the complete album:
This past summer I started attending the Philly WordPress meetups, which led to an opportunity for me to speak at Philly WordCamp, which led to an amazing opportunity to work at WebDevStudios, with an amazing team. Today – Monday – was my first day on the job. I’m doing custom development work and soon I’ll get involved with project management. I’m starting with some enhancements to Baja.com. Friday was my last day at Penn, so my head is spinning a bit from the transition.
I’ve been part of the web team in Penn’s School of Medicine since 2004, and I’ve been Director for the past 2 years. My team had a lot of demands placed on them, with the need for projects outpacing what we could provide. One of the first things I did as Director was learn Agile practices so I could teach them to my team (and I brought in a scrum coach to help). These two graphics illustrate the two primary challenges we faced – not enough staff, and too much chaos:
For many months my work spilled over into nights and weekends as I tried to move things forward. I can’t say we entirely solved these problems, but we made a lot of progress, and got the wheels turning in higher levels of administration to address the situation (“turning the aircraft carrier,” as one of our project managers put it – change is not easy to implement in a huge institution). Deciding to leave was hard, but an opportunity to turn my WordPress plugin development hobby into a job, to work with Brad (@williamsba) and the WebDevStudios team, and having the flexibility of working at home… it was too good to pass up. I’m especially looking forward to having more time to code again. If the past 2 years have taught me anything, it’s that I have a passion for software development, and always striving to do it better.
WordCamp Philly this past weekend was a blast, and I met a lot of great people. The vibrancy of the WordPress community here in Philly is impressive. Giving my Clean code for WordPress presentation was also a lot of fun. I got vigorous agreement from the audience that more evangelism for clean code in WordPress plugins is definitely needed. Video of my presentation will be online at wordpress.tv in a few weeks.
The youngest attendee was 10 years old. He came to the developers’ day on Sunday too. The organizers were planning to guide him through fixing a bug in WordPress core, so he could be the youngest contributor to WordPress and get his name on the official credits. I spent the developers’ day getting started on adding Flickr support to Post to Post Links II error: No post found with slug "shashin-wordpress-plugin". I’m not a Flickr user, but I was sitting next to Captin Shmit, who is, and he had a lot of useful suggestions. Thanks Captin! (yes that’s how he spells it).
Below are the slides from my presentation (if you click the link, it will take you to slideshare.net, where you can also see my notes for the slides).
UPDATE 3/13: Shashin is not working properly with private albums, since Picasa introduced https support. Also, for public albums, enter their urls with “http” for now (not “https”). I have a major rewrite of Shashin underway, so I will address these problems in the upcoming version. I’m still putting in overtime at my job, so a new version is likely at least one month away. Thanks for your patience.
2010 was the year I worked too much. I have one job, but I was doing the work of two. That’s why my blog was mostly quiet last year, and I didn’t have time to update my WordPress plugins. But I remind myself this is a “nice to have” problem, as there are many people in need of any job these days. I’m happy to report that we are hiring for a new position, which means I can go back to doing one job in a few months (if you’re interested in being an Agile Product Owner for the U Penn SOMIS Web Team, you can apply here – look for reference number 110129833).
I still have too much to do for the next few months, but I’m freed up enough at this point that I can start responding to support questions again for my plugins. I’ve started work on a rewrite of Shashin, but at this point I can’t say when it’ll be done. Please use the comments section of this post for questions (I’ve closed comments on the previous support post).
I’ve added threaded comments to my site’s theme (keep an eye out for the “reply” links under each comment). This will help make different support discussions easier to follow.