Book Chat: Debugging Teams

Debugging Teams is the second edition of Team Geek, rewritten to apply to a more general audience but still fundamentally the same material. It has a variety of fun and interesting anecdotes from the authors’ time running teams at Apple and Google as well as organizing a major open source project. There is some pragmatic advice about how to work within an organization as well as lead a team. Most of the book is directed towards a team leader, not a leader of a department, as would be expected by the title.

I feel as though the rewrite doesn’t make it apply to a general audience sufficiently enough. I felt that the rewrite does get away from the idea of running a software team, but doesn’t fully bring it to the any team perspective. The rewrite does get to the level of a team that works like a software team where you can iteratively deliver value. You couldn’t use much of the advice  to run a lot of other professional work where a report/result of knowledge work is delivered then you move onto another project. Some of the specific advice would still apply in these scenarios but it doesn’t work in the general management sense.

Overall it’s a fun read, but didn’t hit the target they were aiming for. It is valuable advice for someone who is running a software-like team. It still focuses on the basic practices of what to do as a leader, but doesn’t go enough into the how for me. I know I don’t personally run a team because I don’t enjoy some of the required aspects of project management, but I do really appreciate the skills and abilities required to do it well.

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Book Chat: Manage It!

Manage It! is an overview of modern project management techniques. Most of it was accessible to me as a person who has never formally run a project, but has been involved in many. The less accessible material was concentrated towards the end which I dutifully worked through thinking there might be more immediately relevant portions after. It heartily embraced three different practices: strong meeting facilitation, rolling wave planning, and avoiding schedule games.

The meeting facilitation advice started out fairly straightforward – have an agenda, stick to the topic at hand, and hold one-on-ones with the team. It then goes on to discuss some more radical advice, like don’t go to meetings that aren’t about solving problems, question why you had the meeting if it ends and nobody has any action items, and avoid serial status meetings. If your project has a problem, getting the relevant people into a room and coming out with a solution is a great way to break the impasse. Other sorts of meetings can impact the progress of a project, but to me that doesn’t make them immediately a bad idea. From the perspective of the project manager I can see that other sorts of long-term work or out of band activity can impact the potential of the project, but it seems necessary for the functioning of a healthy engineering organization. I agree that the lack of action items coming out of a meeting seems like a warning sign it wasn’t a good usage of time. If a decision was made generally one or more people would leave the room and do something because of it. Serial status meetings are more complex; if you are holding a meeting where people tell you about progress being made on initiatives where the others in the room aren’t involved or impacted, it may be a good use of your time but it’s a bad use of everyone else’s time. If you are being invited to meetings to provide status, the book advises to send status via email and skip the meeting, the idea being that if the organization doesn’t accept that behavior then it isn’t the place you should be. Daily standups are not impacted from this practice because they’re about the impediments, not just the status. Overall it seems like a good package of advice as to how to interact with meetings.

Rolling wave planning is an implementation of the idea that your plan will fail, but that the exercise of planning is valuable regardless. Your short term plan should be pretty solid but the further out, the more vague the plan gets. So, you don’t worry as much about the long term, and as you acquire more information you update the plan. This works both for changes from outside the project and things you learn from executing the project itself. The one experience I have had with explicit rolling wave planning did not go well, but I feel that was because we were trying to keep the near-term solid plan too far into the future and engaging in some devotion to the schedule.

The schedule games section was the part that felt the most real to me, it listed out 16 ways a project plan can go awry and ways to cope with each of them. I felt like I had seen the vast majority of the pitfalls out in the wild. This previous visibility involved me more in the rest of the material since I felt the authenticity of this compared to a lot of books which don’t give practical guidance on  how to get from poor practices to good ones. The section on “schedule chicken” felt particularly familiar to me after having been involved in a high stakes version many years ago. We even made progress in getting out of the situation using one of the techniques described.

I would recommend this book to someone who has already led a team or project for a little bit and is interested in doing more of it. If you’ve been doing that sort of work as your primary role it probably still has some bits of interest. If you haven’t run a team or project yet you may get something from it but I feel that for a lot of the information you need to have seen the problems in action some before you can appreciate the importance of  avoiding it.

Book Chat: Extreme Programming Explained

Extreme programming (XP) is an alternative software development methodology that would be described as an agile methodology. It’s a competitor to scrum, but more focused on the developer experience, less prescriptive of specific organizational practices, and more prescriptive of technical practices. I was familiar with the concepts of XP and recently picked up the second edition of Extreme Programming Explained. This new edition refined some of the technical practices about deployment since tools now exist for even more rapid deployment than what was initially conceived.

The build time practice is interesting, the idea being that a continuous integration build/test cycle should take ten minutes. While you could make the build faster than 10 minutes, keeping it a bit longer generates a decent mental break to allow someone to get a cup of coffee or get up and stretch. Whereas, if it’s slower than that, there is a tendency to move onto a different task and you can lose context on the old task and the new task. It matches with my experience; although I hadn’t been able to articulate the solution, I had seen the problem.

The overall methodology seems solid, however it doesn’t market itself to the whole business the way scrum does which seems to have impacted the adoption of the methodology as a whole. The practices suggested are all pretty straight forward:

  • colocate the team,
  • construct a team with all necessary skills on the team,
  • have visible progress locators,
  • work when you can really concentrate on it,
  • pair program,
  • user stories,
  • a weekly cycle,
  • a larger quarterly cycle,
  • slack,
  • the above build time practice,
  • continuous integration,
  • test first programming, and
  • incremental design.

Most modern software teams would be in favor of most, if not all, of these practices. Some of the practices are outside the control of the team and would need significant management support, but most are things the team can control.

I don’t think that the differences between this and other agile project management methodologies are that significant. The biggest difference with scrum I can see would be that scrum has fixed reflection periods whereas XP has continuous reflection with impromptu kaizen events. I think that this difference between XP and scrum would allow you to differentiate yourself from all of the scrum implementations that are out there but never finished. I don’t think that the book adds much to my understanding of software engineering, however it’s an excellent selection of software engineering practices. If you’re looking for a different perspective on agile methodologies this would be an interesting read.

Book Chat: Working Effectively With Unit Tests

Working Effectively With Unit Tests is a discussion not of when to unit test or how to unit test, but how to know when you’ve done it well. It works backwards from the idea that tests should be Descriptive And Meaningful Phrases(DAMP) as opposed to the traditional software pneumonic Don’t Repeat Yourself (DRY). By allowing some duplication in tests and focusing on the clear intention of what is to be accomplished you get tests that are easier to read and tests that are more focused on the object under test rather than the collaborators of the test.

The style being described forces out a lot of the elaborate mock setups common in most first attempts at unit testing. This is a definite good intention, however like most resources, I feel it comes short at describing a means to actually get rid of these sorts of problems in real applications, as opposed to toy applications in books and articles. The ideas it provides do work towards those ends admirably. To me, the ideas presented seem to drive towards a more functional style of programming; methods were getting more arguments which made the methods more flexible, and the objects they lived on were less prone to carrying around extraneous state. The book didn’t discuss this in functional programming terms, but sort of implied that was a goal around the edges.

Compared to some of the other books on unit testing I’ve read, this felt more concise, and it was definitely less focused on a specific framework for doing testing. It feels written for someone who has been doing unit testing for a while and has not been getting value from the activity, or has been having maintainability problems with tests. For those audiences it seems like it is a good perspective towards trying to get out of their problems. For people new to unit testing, it may be a little to broad in what you should do and not prescriptive enough.

Book Chat: Perspectives on Data Science for Software Engineering

Perspectives on Data Science for Software Engineering is a collection of short research papers on using the tools provided by data science to do research into software engineering. It isn’t about the concepts of data science for software engineers as I thought it would be when I initially picked it up. This difference had me put it down the first time I picked it up to read it, but when I came back around to it I found myself interested not in the data science aspect of it, but the software engineering research aspect.

While none of the individual papers was something I read and immediately knew how I could apply in my own practice, the overall package helped me feel positive for progress in software engineering. Outside of language design, it sometimes feels like most of the software engineering learning we’ve done going as far back as the 70’s and 80’s hasn’t been applied in practice. I think part of the difference is because the research is disconnected from the way software is built in the wild. The research is hyper-specific, (e.g., focusing on a particular kind of software in a single language) or defines problems but not solutions (e.g., the work on code quality metrics). The research isn’t wrong, but it’s missing a step about how to apply the work to what you’re doing.

The only piece in here that I saw and felt had an immediate connection to what I was doing was the piece on bug clustering. That showed that the more bugs a file had the more likely it was to have more bugs in future iterations. This seems like it may lend some credence to the idea of rewriting a piece of code that has quality problems to effectively blank the slate and start over again.

Overall the book was intellectually stimulating but has no real practical usage for what I do or what I feel would be the average software developer. If your role straddles the practical and academic worlds then this may have more value to you.

Book Chat: The Architecture of Open Source Applications Volume 2

The Architecture of Open Source Applications Volume 2 has writeups describing the internal structure and evolution of nearly two dozen different open source projects, ranging from tools to web servers to web services. This is different from volume one, which didn’t have any web service-like software, which is what I build day to day. It is interesting to see the differences between what I’m doing and how something like MediaWiki powers Wikipedia.

Since each section has a different author the book doesn’t have a consistent feel to it or even a consistent organization to the sections on each application. It does however give space to allow some sections to spend a lot of time discussing the past of the project to explain how it evolved to the current situation. If looked at from the perspective of a finished product some choices don’t make sense, but the space to explore the history shows that each individual choice was a reasonable response to the challenges being engaged with at the time. The history of MediaWiki is very important to the current architecture whereas something like SQLAlchemy(a Python ORM) has evolved more around how it adds new modules to enable different databases and their specific idiosyncrasies.

I found the lessons learned that are provided with some of the projects to be the best part of the book. They described the experience of working with codebases over the truly long term. Most codebases I work on are a couple of years old while most of these were over 10 years old as of the writing of the book, and are more than 15 years old now. Seeing an application evolve over longer time periods can truly help validate architectural decisions.

Overall I found it an interesting read, but it treads a fine line between giving you enough context on the application to understand the architecture, and giving you so much context that the majority of the section is on the “what” of the application. I felt that a lot of the chapters dealt too much with the “what” of the application. Some of the systems are also very niche things where it’s not clear how the architecture choices would be applicable to designing other things in the future, because nobody would really start a new application in the style. If you have an interest in any of the applications listed check out the site and see the section there, and buy a copy to support their endeavours if you find it interesting.

Book Chat: Learn You a Haskell for Great Good

Haskell was the white whale of functional programming in my mind, something that is the definitive form of functional programming but with such a steep learning curve that it put off all but the most determined students. I had been recommended Learn You a Haskell for Great Good a while ago but kept putting it off because of the intimidating nature of the material. I eventually had a big block of time where I was going to be home and didn’t have many responsibilities so I figured this would be a great opportunity to take a crack at it.

I sat down with it with an expectation that it would be mentally taxing like Functional Programming in Scala was, however having put in the work already reading that and Scala with Cats I was way ahead of the curve. While the Haskell syntax isn’t exactly friendly to beginners I understood most of the concepts; type classes, monads, monoids, comprehensions, recursion, higher order functions, etc. My overall expectation of the difficulty of the language was unfounded. Conceptually it works cleanly, however, coming from a C style language background the syntax is off putting. Added to the basic syntax issues most of the operators being used do give it an aura of inscrutability, especially being difficult to search as they are. I did find this PDF that named most of them which helped me look for additional resources about some of them.

The book explained some of the oddities around some of the stranger pieces of Haskell I had seen before. Specifically the monad type class not also being applicatives, it’s a historical quirk that monads were introduced first and they didn’t want to break backwards compatibility. The other fact that I had not fully appreciated Haskell dates from 1990 which excuses a lot of the decisions about things like function names with letters elided for brevity.

The other differentiating fact about the book is that it tries to bring some humor, rather than being a strictly dry treatment of the material. The humor made me feel a stronger connection with the author and material. A stupid pun as a section header worked for me and provided a little bit of mental break that helped me keep my overall focus while reading it.

Book Chat: Effective DevOps

Effective DevOps is about the culture of the DevOps movement. The technical practices that today coincide with DevOps are the result of the culture practices, not the cause. The cause is an underlying culture that is safe, and respectful to those in it, which truly empowers the team to try things to improve the way that work is done and leads to the technical practices associated with DevOps. The book is overall written more from a management perspective than an individual contributor perspective. The book is centered around the four pillars of effective DevOps: Collaboration, Affinity, Tools, and Scaling.

Collaboration is the normal sort of mentoring, and workflow information that would be familiar to most agile or lean practitioners. The Affinity pillar though builds on top of Collaboration with the idea that it takes time and work to forge a group of individuals into a team and explores the requirements to build those bonds. These two pillars lead i7nto the Scaling pillar nicely since, while you can eliminate waste and automate things, at the end of the day the biggest scaling maneuver is in hiring. Hiring renews the importance of the Collaboration and Affinity aspects of this since as you bring new people into the system you must fully integrate them.

The section on the Tools pillar is written in a tool agnostic fashion, wherein it describes categories of tools commonly used to the DevOps. That makes it much more interesting than any other book that is tied to a particular set of technologies since it is focused on the concept not the implementation.

Overall it’s an interesting read. The focus on the social aspects of what’s going on makes it less useful in my day to day activities, but the longer I do this job the more I think that the technical aspect is essentially table stakes to doing the job and everything else is where more long term growth come from.

Book Chat: Scala With Cats

Scala with Cats is a free ebook put together to help introduce the Cats library and it’s programming style to developers. It is targeted to Scala developers with about a year of experience with the language, but if you were using the language in a very Java-like way you may not be prepared for this book. That caveat aside, it brings an accessible introduction to the library and it’s style of programming.

I can’t go back and have read this before having read Functional Programming in Scala but it seems like either order would work fine. They both talk about the same basic concepts around purely functional programming. They come at it from two different perspectives; Scala with Cats is about how the category theory-inspired structures in the library can be used to solve problems, whereas Functional Programming in Scala is leading you towards those same category theory-inspired structures but getting you to find the patterns yourself.

I really appreciated the last set of exercises in Scala with Cats where it had you implement this concept. It starts out out as a fully concrete class then converting it into more and more generic structures. First, by adding some type classes to become generic to the specific types. Then, by abstracting over the intermediate data structure and converted the structure to its own type class. Finally, by abstracting over the data structure even further by replacing it with another type class.

I think this style of programming has some definitive pros. The idea behind the vocabulary is good, even if the terms chosen obscure some of the intent. The extensive usage of type classes adds an additional layer of polymorphism that lets a library author abstract over portions of the implementation to make it future-proof. The Scala implementation of type classes makes this feel awkward at points since the imports around implicit instances are less obvious around what is happening. I feel like I need to spend some time with a real application written in this style to try to see what the negatives are to working with it. I can see the issues with learning to work in this style, but I’m uncertain about what the negatives are once you’ve gotten used to this style.

Book Chat: Functional Programming in Scala

I had been meaning to get a copy of this for a while, then I saw one of the authors, Rúnar Bjarnason, at NEScala 2017 giving a talk on adjunctions. Before seeing this talk I had been trying to wrap my head around a lot of the Category Theory underpinning functional programming, and I thought I had been making progress. Seeing the talk made me recognize two facts. First, there was a long way for me togo. Second, there were a lot of other people who also only sort of got it and were all there working at understanding the material. At the associated unconference he gave a second talk which was much more accessible than the linked one. Sadly there is no recording, but I started to really feel like I got it. Talking with some of the other attendees at the conference they all talked about Functional Programming in Scala in an awe inspiring tone about how it helped them really get functional programming, and the associated category theory.

The book is accessible to someone with minimal background in this, so I came in a somewhat overqualified for the first part but settled in nicely for the remaining three parts. It’s not a textbook, but it does come with a variety of exercises and an associated repo with stubs for the questions and answers to the exercises. There is also a companion pdf with chapter notes and hints about how to approach some of the exercises that can help you get moving in the right direction if stuck.

Doing all of the exercises while reading the book is time consuming. Sometimes I would go read about a half a page and do the associated exercises and spend more than an hour at it. The entire exercise was mentally stimulating regardless of the time I committed to the exercise, but it was draining. Some of the exercises were even converted to have a web-based format that is more like unit testing at Scala Exercises.

I made sure I finished the book before going back to NEScala this year. Rúnar was there again, and gave more or less the same category theory talk as the year before, but this time around I got most of what was going on in the first half of the talk. In fact, I was so pleased with myself, that I missed a key point in the middle when I realized how much of the talk I was successfully following. I ended up talking with one of the organizers who indicated he encouraged Runar to give this same talk every year since it is so helpful to get everyone an understanding of the theoretical underpinnings of why all this works.

This book finally got me to understand the underlying ideas of how this works as I built the infrastructure for principled functional programming. It leaned into the complexity and worked through it whereas other books (like Functional Programming in Java) tried to avoid the complexity and focus on the what not the why. This was the single best thing I did to learn this information.