Categories
code development

Things I don’t know as of 2018

At the end of last year, Dan Abramov talked about the things he doesn’t know. It’s a useful framework to reflect, and as a privileged, experienced developer, I am comfortable talking about this, in the hope it might help others understand that experienced developers don’t know everything.

I’ll echo what he says about Imposter Syndrome and Dunning-Kruger and how it absolutely sucks to see truly smart developers I know, or that I follow, having to constantly prove their credentials just because they’re not cis, straight, able-bodied white men. If I’m in a position to support you or amplify you, I will try to do so. Your experience is definitely a thing I don’t know, but I can listen.

I covered a few things I know enough to be confident in for my 2018 in Review post. I’ve had to care about DevOps and containers and pipelines because they solved real problems my team was having. I love graphics because trigonometry and fractals are why I got into programming, but I work in the network, looking at architecture, security, interfaces and data. That leaves a big wide world out there, and this doesn’t include the unknown unknowns.

Ruby

I’ve tried to get into it a few times, but it still just looks like old-school Perl to me. Lots of punctuation occasionally interrupted by domain language. This actually sounds like a good idea to me – an almost complete separation of concerns – but I keep finding the learning curve too steep and so I retreat back to Python and C#.

CSS

I’ve been building websites since Mosaic was a browser. I can style things with CSS. It’s not hard to put red text on a green background (you monster), or fix a navigation bar to the top of the screen, but look at the fancy grid layouts, or parallax scrolling effects, or CSS icons, and I couldn’t tell you where to start. I don’t know how to unit test it, so my tools don’t work here. Just as well I work with some very smart CSS developers.

Markdown

I use Markdown a lot. For README, for Architecture Decisions, and for drafting blog posts, but I always need to google how to insert a link, or a table, or an image. And I feel like an idiot each time.

gulp, npm and webpack

I know these are essential tools when I’m building React. I know they turn my code into something the the browser runs. I know how dependency management works (I can bore you about HORN over a drink if you like), but I’ve only ever used these JavaScript tools preconfigured in a template or an existing codebase, so I could not create a JS or TypeScript build pipeline from scratch, or fix a broken one.

I really couldn’t tell you anything intelligent about how those fit into the ecosystem alongside Grunt, Yarn, bower, sass, scss or anything else. So long as I can write a script to install and run them, I’m happy not to have to dig into them. All I care about is if it runs and if the dependencies are secure.

I suspect I’ll need to learn more about these tools this year though.

You don’t need to know everything

You’ll have your resolutions to learn more, whether weekly or yearly. There’s more to learn than you will ever get the time to – that’s why we work in terms. Pick one thing to learn next because it’s important to you, because it’s interesting, because your project requires it, or because thats where the money is. Forget the rest until you’re over the Dunning-Kruger curve and you know enough about that new thing to see all the possible next things to learn.

Categories
development

Ddd.scot, diversity, and your career

I had a great day at DDD Scotland, thanks to everyone who came along for the discussions. Apart from the panel sessions I chaired and participated in, Joe Wright ran a great mob programming session, Gary Fleming led a lean coffee session, and we had a couple of great lightning talks about recruitment at Skyscanner and Becoming a Technical Lead From Tugberk Ugurlu of Redgrave.

There were a few recurring themes that I want to highlight.

Diversity

This was a strong recurrent theme throughout the sessions in the community room. Whilst the focus was on gender due mostly to the makeup of the attendees, a few people pointed out the need to respect diversity for LGBT, age (graduates don’t have 5 years experience), family circumstances (single parents and others don’t have time in the evenings to do coding interviews), dyslexia and autism. To which I’d also add physical disabilities, skin colour, religion, any of which can and have been used intentionally or otherwise to limit the pool of candidates brought to interview, or created a hostile environment once in the job.

If you want to hire on merit, don’t just give the job to the white guy because he’s “a culture fit” and recognise that your recruitment may be biased. When I put an ad on Stackoverflow, all the replies were men, but working with a couple of recruiters we found a better mix of candidates, including the woman who we ended up hiring.

Job hunting and moving on in your career

There was a scary graph that suggests that computer scientists are less employable that other graduates, and yet of all the STEM subjects, there are more vacancies in software (where the stem jobs are ).

The job market is broken. There’s a lot of smart people out there, and for my last 2 jobs I had no experience in one of the key technologies they were advertising for, so the job adverts in many ways are meaningless. I want to work with people who have the skills to evaluate the next JavaScript framework, not 10 years experience in Vue. Nothing I work on today existed when I graduated. No ASP.NET MVC, no REST, JavaScript was for image rollovers, no Swift, no Xamarin. But job adverts don’t care about ability to learn. They’re a checklist.

I know recruitment agents get a bad reputation, and for some it’s well deserved, but a good one will help you get past the keyword gate, because they can sell you on your potential. If a company isn’t interested in your potential, choose another one. If you don’t want to deal with an agent, you need to be bold, demonstrate what you can for the requirements, and find examples to help them see that you can learn the rest quickly.

But have examples. You don’t want to be the clueless braggard who can’t even FizzBuzz.

Culture of learning, and mentorship

If you want to continue to be successful, you need to learn. Some of it you can do on your own, some you’ll need help with. If you’re working for the right company, they’ll provide you with a mentor, but even if they do, it’s worth finding others to help, whether it’s a formal process, or just someone to discuss if all companies make you deal with that stressful thing that’s getting you down.

Write a blog, volunteer for projects outside your comfort zone that help you improve those skills you’re lacking. Seek feedback. Accept that you won’t know everything and the learning experience is littered with failures. Learn by doing. Pair, mob, spike ideas.

When you’re tired of learning, find a new job.

Categories
development ux

User Experience : A quick introduction for developers

The following is an internal summary I wrote for a team that no longer exists, summarising a number of references from UXScotland, various book and blog posts. It extends the thoughts from my Pecha Kucha talk. For more details, please refer to the links throughout and the references at the bottom. The context here is consulting and long-term B2B projects, but some of these discussions are more widely relevant.

User Experience : Project considerations

User experience is about making sure we are solving the right problems in the right way. It is the intersection of design, users, and context. Context here is a combination of one or more of the device in use, the user’s location, any social cues such as nearby friends, and anything else that may be available from sensors or historical information.

vennux

In many cases, the requirements we have are assumptions (e.g. what users want is Facebook integration). Where the benefits of a requirement are unclear, we should treat it as an assumption to be tested. Embrace data, and analyse it.

At the requirements stage, we need to make sure we are solving the right problem (pretotyping : “building the right *it*”), and that our chosen design helps the user to solve the problem without frustration (i.e. prototyping the design, rather than the implementation, with wireframes/sketches).

In user testing, particularly in an agile development, we can refine those ideas by seeing how well the implementation solves the problem, by testing with users. We can also test deployed code by analysing heat maps and http logs to see what users are doing to inform further tests and the assumptions that feed into further design cycles.

In a Lean/Agile project, we need to be explicit about our assumptions about the user and test them at every stage of the development to ensure that we always meet user needs.

cycleofux

How does UX fit in our process?

Stakeholders

A system that supports user’s need effectively will need to understand that the user is a Stakeholder in the process. Whilst the users themselves may not be directly involved in the generation or review of design artefacts, there should be a user representative, either a super-user on the customer side, or a 3rd party researcher who has determined user needs, and has authority to verify any proposed solution and high-level requirements against those needs.

Functional Requirements

Personas / Typical Users

A persona is an abstraction of a system user. In a simple system, there may be only one type of user, but more sophisticated systems will typically have users and administrators, and may have multiple classes of each. A persona is defined to encapsulate the types of tasks a specific user may wish to perform, and any limitations that may be imposed (for example, administrators may be able to install specific browsers or client software, but members of the public using the system must be supported across multiple browsers at multiple screen sizes).

User Journeys

Each persona will have one or more tasks they wish to perform in the system. A User Journey describes the tasks as a series of steps that a specific persona will follow in order to achieve that task.

Consider the tasks that a user wants to perform. See also BDD – design from user in.

E.g.

User wants to process a case:

  • User logs in to the system
  • User selects case from their task list
  • User reviews latest document
  • User finds agent for case, and calls to discuss
  • User adds comments to case
  • User saves case and returns to their task list

This process may identify a new use case (“Display task list”), and specific actions that need to be defined within a use case (“Display latest document” and “Display agent contact details”)

The User Journeys provide the context between the Stakeholders (and User Types therein) and the Use Cases. Each User Journey will link to one or more Use Cases, but some Use Cases may not have an associated User Journey (nightly payment processing, for example).

User feedback

If the solution is replacing or improving an existing system, the best source of information on the current system are the users. The requirements capture process should take into account both the tasks that the users perform and gather feedback on any areas of frustration. The prioritization exercise should consider these improvements as well as new functionality.

Testing

As well as testing the Use Cases for functional acceptance, the FAT/UAT process should also test that the final system supports the User Journeys defined up front.

On-going support

Where projects have regular support meetings, the input of users has been valuable in identifying problems areas and possible changes. When on-going service delivery contracts are defined, SDMs should consider whether ongoing user feedback is appropriate as part of the planning and scoping of releases within that framework.

Questions to ask

  • Have the requirements been tested on users? If not, why not? (Are these the right requirements?)
  • Will users be given the opportunity to provide feedback on these through the development? (And if so, how, when and where?)
  • What user outcomes are we trying to achieve with the release? These may not be requirements that we put a cost on, but an expectation that we can measure against to show improvement – we would need to communicate this appropriately.
    • E.g. minimise clicks to access the 5 main functions
    • E.g. reduce time-to-complete for function x, y and z by 10%
    • E.g. Align existing UI with iOS and Android norms
    • E.g. Increase usage of function z by 5%
    • E.g. 99% AAA compliance
  • Who represents users on the project team?
    • How many user types do we need?
    • Can normal users and administrators share UX, or are their goals divergent? – different apps, different ASP Areas, different branding, …
  • What platforms and form factors need to be supported/tested?
    • Does each platform need a native UX? If native app, probably yes, if web app, maybe.
    • If mobile, do we need to adapt to context : location/orientation/communication with nearby devices/…
    • If social, do we need to adapt to context : can I approve my own work?/who’s online/recommendations/who’s nearby/…
  • Do we, as developers, have any input to the UI design? If not, why not?
  • Have the designs been tested on users? If not, why not? (Does the UI fit user expectations?)
  • Do we have appropriate guidelines for the appropriate platform, and are they listed in the requirements and estimates?

Potentially useful resources

 

Categories
lifehacks

Clockwise : suggestions for managing your time

  • Plan ahead (with contingency)
    • Whatever works for you – personal JIRA, Trello, stacked sticky notes, dead tree notebook
  • Stay focussed
    • Specify windows to check your email (e.g. first thing in AM and after lunch) and ignore emails until that window
    • Rather than letting new tasks distract you, write them down, then continue on your current task – and have a time to review and prioritize those tasks during the day.
    • Avoid context switching – humans are very bad at multitasking and your brain is highly prone to disk-thrashing, especially if you think you’re good at multitasking. See this TIME article for a summary of the research.
    • Some people work best with time-boxing : concentrate on a single task for a fixed period of time. Read about the Pomodoro technique.
  • Say No if you need to – or you’ll disappoint
    • If someone asks you to do something, get a deadline for it to help you decide if you have time
  • Track as you go
    • 6 minutes are a good building block of time to decimalise your day, especially if you’re filling out timesheets.
    • If you’re working on more than 1 project, you’re going to forget very quickly what you’ve done by the end of the week
  • Review your time – find ways to optimise
    • Personal retrospectives. Are you spending your time on what you should be spending it on?
  • Learn when to delegate, both to management and within your team.
Categories
development leadership

Flightplan : How to run a meeting

Usually, you don’t need a meeting to make a decision. If you can do it with a quick discussion and a single follow-up email to confirm, do it.

Kick-off, stand-up and retrospective meetings are important to:

  • introduce team members to each other;
  • plan work and review progress; and
  • set tasks for improvement.

Avoid other meetings if you can, but a well planned meeting is preferable to a long, winding email trail.

Cut your meeting time by 90%

The only goal for a meeting is “to decide and commit.” No other objective is worth meeting for.

The Acid Test

  • Pick a red marker and search your agenda for terms such as “discuss,” “update,” “review,” and other non-decisive verbs. Cross them out and see what is left.
  • Then put any remaining item through the following three-question test:
    • What will we do differently if we succeed in this meeting?
    • Why do we need to meet to accomplish this?
    • How will this help us further the goal of the team?

I bet that 90% of your meeting time goes away.

General tips

  • In my experience, people who have met in person are far more likely to talk to each other – kick-off meetings should always be in one room (no phones, no VC, plenty of tea and biscuits) unless you have a very good reason not to.
  • As short as possible, but no shorter
    • If you’re chairing the meeting, don’t be afraid of telling people to shut up, or to defer the discussion until after the meeting.
    • Book some contingency time. For a 30 minute meeting, plan for 25 minutes, for a 60 minute meeting, plan for 50, so there’s time to summarise and re-schedule for further discussion if necessary.
    • If you get through the agenda early, finish the meeting early. Respect everyone’s time.
  • Have an agenda
    • And stick to it.
  • Assign tasks
    • There’s a risk everyone will see a task as somebody else’s problem. If it turns out someone can’t do a task for whatever reason, it can always be re-assigned.
    • Don’t expect people to volunteer.
    • If there’s no tasks to be assigned, there’s no point having a meeting.
  • Provide feedback at a specified future date
    • This is a lot more important than I expected – especially with retrospectives
    • Where the actions aren’t immediate, keep the actions visible and explicitly tick them off at the next meeting
    • If there is no next meeting, because there’s no further decisions, schedule an action to feedback results to the attendees
    • Record actions and feedback where everyone (including potentially other projects) can refer back to them so they can see when and why decisions were made.
Categories
development leadership

How to run a stand-up meeting

  • These tend to run smoother face-to-face (or video-to-video) since part of their benefit is ensuring everyone is working as a team.
  • Run them at the same time every morning so that they become a heartbeat of the project
  • Keep it short
    • If it takes longer than 10 minutes, take discussions out of the meeting
    • If there’s too many people for the time, split up the team
  • Format is very important, everyone should say the following:
    • What they achieved yesterday
    • What they plan to do today
    • Any blockers or impediments to their progress
    • (Other formats are acceptable, so long as it is agreed and followed)
  • As the team lead, use your achieved and plan time to provide feedback on any outstanding or resolved blockers.
Categories
development leadership

You have permission to change

Agile is a method of managing change by embracing it. It’s not a process, but there are lots of processes that help people deal with their particular change or their particular pain.

We talk about agile a lot as a method of developing code, and how the code needs to be flexible, reviewed, refactored, tested and changed to meet new requirements.

We talk a lot less about the processes around them. Yes, Continuous Integration and deployment are recommended, as are short sprints, and retrospectives should be about making all those better. But there’s too often a disconnect between the people and the processes they create. The processes may get reviewed, but often go without refactoring, testing or changing, so they slowly decay into legacy processes, and procedural debt, that are no longer fit for purpose.

So people work around them and suddenly there’s manual steps in production because a requirement to deal with secure data properly in production didn’t lead to the right refactoring of the CI/CD process.

So what’s your cycle for refactoring, testing, changing and reviewing your processes? Do they live in your code, and subject to the same cycle? Are they accessible and editable by all? Who needs to review them before they change? How do you know they’re failing the test?

Categories
development

The importance of feedback

When I first became a tech lead, I realised that feedback from my team was essential. A lot of things had gone wrong and I needed to know why, and how to fix them. What I failed to appreciate right away, until it was pointed out to me, was how important feedback to the team is too.

We did our regular retrospectives, and ad-hoc post mortems as required. We gathered a list of actions. I got on with some and others had lower priority. And at the next meeting we’d have a new list of actions.

And the team got frustrated because they thought the meetings were a waste of time. And it was only when one of the team members expressed that frustration that I realised that the frustration stemmed from my lack of feedback to them.

If an action isn’t fed back, did it really happen?

I’d done the first part, action. Making sure the tasks that were generated weren’t all impotent, but I missed the importance of the second step. Without that feedback from me, the feedback from the team dried up, frustration increased and problems went unvoiced and unfixed.

So I made a point of regular updates. Both in stand-ups and as a written report, as I felt that suited the distributed team better. And I reported successes and failures, giving reasons as best I could.

And suddenly I found that some of the actions I had de-prioritised were very important to someone else, who then asked for permission to fix it. And mostly, I let them. And the team weren’t just fixing customer problems, they were fixing their own frustrations too.

And I reported them all. Here’s what we reported, here’s what we fixed. And I reported it to make sure those who weren’t at the coalface could see what was happening, so we had a record we could review when we wanted to know why a decision was made.

It wasn’t perfect but it had a massive impact on the motivation and the success of the team.

Make Actions Work

Don’t let actions be impotent.

Don’t let actions out of meetings be empty. Record them. Assign them. Report on them.

It sounds obvious, but as a tech lead, that should be your priority. If the team doesn’t get feedback, they won’t be motivated.