I have a young daughter, which means that my life consists of the Frozen soundtrack being played relatively consistently in my house. The most popular song, “Let It Go”, it about a girl’s struggle to break free from having to impress people and put up a front to a place of empowerment where she can take on any challenge that comes her way and reach her limitless potential. They create these movies to encourage young girls to feel empowered and to feel that they can take on the world. Maybe the rest of us should start listening as well.
The fact is that so many people are struggling with impostor syndrome, or a feeling of incompetence, that you’re not good enough to succeed at something, or fear of being exposed as as fraud. This is stopping people from taking on new challenges and feeling empowered to succeed.
Don’t let them in,
don’t let them see
Be the good girl you always have to be
Conceal, don’t feel,
don’t let them know
We’ve all been in situations at times where we’ve been in over our head. It’s an uncomfortable feeling for sure. We’ve all had our shares of successes and failures. And yet we all woke up the next day with a new chance to make something of our day.
Think of the people that you know who are out there making a difference, succeeding in a new role at work, or having an impact in some way. I’m going to let you in a little secret – they’re all in over their head.
The fears that once controlled me
Can’t get to me at all
I always want to be in a place where I’m a little bit uncomfortable. It’s not always fun and maybe I lose a bit of sleep at night, but there’s no better way to grow. There’s nothing more satisfying then having to take on a challenge that you’re not totally prepared to handle and then finding a way to make it work.
But maybe more important is being able to not be a slave to fear. There is enough stress in life, the last thing I need to add is fear of failure. I run across so many people who are very talented but are too afraid to step up and take on a new challenge. I run into people who are afraid to have kids because they are afraid that they won’t know how to be a good parent.
Even writing that last paragraph makes me sad. We are sitting on a wealth of untapped potential. So many people could do something great if they just were willing to step out into the unknown. The world desperately needs people with enough confidence to step up and make a difference.
You may feel like this describes how you feel about yourself. You might think that the worst thing that can happen is failing. I think the worst thing that can happen is that you fail to even make an attempt. Sure, you will guarantee that you won’t fail, but you will be left to deal with your own inability to step out into the unknown.
It’s time to see what I can do
To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me,
Imagine what your life would be like if you weren’t afraid of failing. Imagine if you didn’t care what people thought about you. Imagine if you looked at a mountain in front of you and saw an exciting challenge instead of an overwhelming obstacle.
Here I stand
In the light of day
Let the storm rage on
Life is hard, and downright scary at times, but we all are here for a reason and we can all make a difference, if we’re just willing to give it a try.
A little over 3 months ago, I started at a new job. This came after years of good consulting work at a great place where I felt quite comfortable. While I was in a great situation working with a lot of good friends, I gave it up for a new challenge.
Anytime you start something new, it’s a roll of the dice. I was going to work in an industry that I knew a lot about, at a company where I knew a lot of people. But even with all that, there were a lot of things up in the air.
I was at my previous client for over 5 years, which these days seems like an eternity. In some ways, it felt that way for me because that’s the longest I had ever stayed at one place. In other ways, the time flew by. They say that time flies when you’re having fun, and that’s certainly the way that it was. In that time, our team went from just figuring out how to function to being extremely high performing, even to the point that we didn’t notice it anymore. We never had large disagreements about process, developers would just run with major efforts and understand how to figure it out the right way, and we released every 2 weeks with very little fanfare and virtually no issues. The efficiency of our team was incredible.
At the same time, I knew I had a choice to make. I could keep going in my comfortable place, providing a lot of value, working with good friends, working for a good company… but I wasn’t being challenged. It wasn’t the fault of anyone, it’s just that when you do the same kinds of things over and over for years, you get pretty good at it, and you don’t really have to learn many new things or find your way in unknown territory.
So I set out for the unknown territory. I had some friends encourage me to do this, even though they didn’t know that I was already heading down that path, but nevertheless it confirmed the direction that I was going.
These days, the goal of so many people is to live a comfortable life, and in today’s world with all of our technological advancements, that’s getting really easy to do (why bother to go to the store when Amazon will deliver almost anything to my door in 2 days?). It feels good to be comfortable, but that’s not the goal that I’m trying to achieve in life.
The new job has not been comfortable, at least not at first. When you start somewhere new, so many things are up in the air. You don’t feel like you know how anything works, and you know that at some point people are going to expect you to know things. At first you feel like you’re just trying to keep your head above water while people keep dropping more things on you to carry, but eventually you figure it out. That’s how it was for the first month or so. But at the same time, I found I had a lot more energy. Work felt stressful and I was tired when I got home, but I was getting up earlier, I had more time to exercise, and I didn’t feel lethargic during the day. This was a big change from my last several months at my previous gig, where I felt tired most of the time, especially in the afternoon.
I really underestimated how tiring it is to work somewhere where you are too comfortable. By all measures, everything there was great. It’s hard to find anything that was negative about the situation, other than the fact that I wasn’t learning and growing as a developer. All of that comfort couldn’t have been draining, but there was nothing that was stimulating. I think deep down I recognized this, which is what caused me to leave, but I didn’t know that it would have such a big effect on my energy level.
I’m starting to settle in at my new job, I feel a lot more confident and I understand a lot more about what’s going on. Compared to my old team, my new team (which is made up of all new people who haven’t worked together before) has a lot to figure out. Our process isn’t as smooth, we don’t move as fast, we don’t have a shared understanding of how we like to create software, getting anything to production is a lot of work, and I personally have a lot to learn and figure out. But I know this is all a good thing, and we will all learn from it. That’s what I wanted after all, to be somewhere where I could succeed, but I would have to work for it and learn a lot in the process. All of those things are happening, and I’m confident that our team will get a lot better over time. We are poised for a ridiculous amount of success.
For me, I’ve traded the comforts of the predictable for new territory, and it’s going to be well worth it in the end.
We are in a new age where employees don’t just want a job, they want to work for companies that support causes they believe in, are socially conscious, and give them a chance to make an impact that goes beyond their job description. Everyone wants to “change the world”, especially in startup culture where everyone is trying to “change the way people do X”. I love that people are thinking beyond themselves and trying to find ways to improve the lives of others and invest in causes that they care about.
While myriads of articles are written about startup darlings who are innovating and disrupting, what about the majority of us that work at the more “traditional” companies? What about everyone working at insurance companies, banks, accounting firms, government agencies, and any other kind of “enterprise-y” environment that doesn’t have a modern-looking space in a trendy neighborhood, free healthy food for lunch, and craft beer on tap? Some of these industries are more associated with corporate greed and corruption than social consciousness, but there are millions of people who work in those industries that have nothing to do with the mistakes made at the top. Many “socially conscious” job seekers would never even consider these companies.
I have a different view of changing the world. I certainly appreciate when companies want to make an impact on the world, but I don’t need my company to do this is order to make a difference at work. Why? Because regardless of where you work and what you do, people are probably involved.
Every day I go to work and create software that no one outside of the walls of the building will ever use. My work will never impact millions of users’ lives or change the way that the world does anything. This is because I work on internal business applications.
Meanwhile, there are a group of people that I work with that are very dependent on the software that I write. I can help them do their job, solve their problems, achieve their goals, reduce their frustrations, and feel good about coming to work every day.
There are a group of people that I work with are very dependent on what I do. They are the people on my team that are working with me to achieve a common goal, and they are counting on me to do my part of the work. We learn from each other, work together to solve problems, and we are involved in each other’s lives. We talk outside of work and we’re there for each other when life is challenging.
The people I work for are very dependent on what I do. They have careers, aspirations, goals, and plans and many of those are dependent on their team members working hard and being successful.
My ability to make an impact on the world around me is not defined by the place I work or the industry I’m in. We all have a chance to make a major impact on the lives of people we work with each and every day. But to somehow discredit companies in certain industries because they’re not #changingtheworld does a disservice to the millions of humans that work there that make an massive impact every day.
The Yelp app has over 10 million downloads on the Google Play Store. I love using Yelp to find good places to eat wherever I’m at, and it’s changed the way that I find restaurants when I’m in unfamiliar places. But these benefits are nothing compared to the difference the people I work with have made in my life while we were doing things like maintenance on internal Silverlight applications and writing data conversions.
I appreciate everyone’s desire to make an impact on the world. I am with you all on that and that’s the reason I love what I do, but my impact is not defined by my employer’s mission statement. I just hope that we all remember that we can make a difference wherever we are at, and you don’t need to be at a trendy company to do it.
When you change code, how do you know that you’re not breaking something? If the code change is small, it can be pretty easy (especially if you have tests). I’m talking about more complicated code changes.
Sure, you have unit tests, but how do you know that everything in the system works together correctly?
Sure, you have integration tests in your code, but how do you know that all of the systems involved are working together?
Sure, you have end to end acceptance tests for all of the scenarios that you know about, but what if a scenario exists that you didn’t think of?
We can come up with any number of excuses for why bugs happen in production. But what happens when a bug could cause a big problem?
I’m in this situation right now because the relatively large code change I’m implementing could impact how much money we charge our customers. The code I’m writing takes in some input files from a third party and processes them. We could have a big problem if someone gets overcharged or undercharged, or even worse, not at all. There are lots of things that can go wrong. I have a lot of good acceptance tests for my code, so I have good test coverage for the scenarios that I know. What I worry about is the scenarios that I don’t know, or what could cause my code to not get called at all. Because of this, I have to think past the traditional ways that I usually test things.
Searching for test cases
I did a lot of analysis on the data that my code is going to consume. I even wrote some small apps and SQL queries that will parse historical data and look for different combinations of data, and used that to come up with the test cases. What’s tricky is that some of the scenarios do not happen very often, so that means I need to do more digging to find them. At some point, this can become tedious, but in my case it’s worth it.
Watching for unexpected scenarios
Thanks to my data analysis, I have a list of expected scenarios that I’ve seen from past data. In addition to writing tests for all of these scenarios, I’m also writing some queries that will check for evidence that some unexpected scenario happened in production, and I’m running these queries every day. By doing this, I’ll be aware of any potential changes in how the source data comes in, and I also avoid having to write acceptance tests for scenarios that probably aren’t going to happen.
Throw exceptions when you find unexpected scenarios
Not only do I have queries to check for unexpected scenarios, I also have inline checks that will cause the process to stop and throw an exception if I encounter specific unexpected scenarios that could cause an issue, especially when the issue would not otherwise be obvious (in other words, it wouldn’t cause the system to fail, but the system might give me incorrect results). In many cases, it’s a waste of time to discuss, implement, and test some edge cases that is very unlikely to ever happen, but I at least want someone to know if by chance that happens. Now if you’re writing a UI for a website, you might not have the luxury of being able to do this, but when you’re just processing backend files, you can get away with things like this.
Parallel testing against production data
We have a test environment set up with 2 databases – one has 2 day old production data and one has 1 day old production data. We restore these databases from backups every morning and then run in all of the files from 2 days ago into the 2 day old environment, then we compare the results with what’s in the 1 day old database, and theoretically everything should match. There are always exceptions, especially when you have data that was modified by a user after it was created in the database, but this allows me to easily check almost every column on a database table and see that the results from my process match what is currently in production. This has been a huge lifesaver, not only in finding bugs in my process, but for finding unknown scenarios, and for finding bugs in other related processes as well. People have a lot more confidence in your work when you’re able to show tangible proof that your system is working the same as what’s in production.
Writing audit queries that validate the process end to end
In addition to the queries that check for unexpected data, I also have queries that validate that any data received at the beginning of the process will have some resulting output. I need to make sure that the process isn’t silently failing or is failing in a way that I don’t expect.
Hopefully your app logs exceptions somewhere, so as a last resort you should always check for any fallout in the logs.
A different thought process
I find this way of thinking to be a different thought process when it comes to testing. I’m moving past the mechanics of testing (what are my test cases, what tests am I going to write, how can I mock this class, etc.), and trying to find whatever means necessary to not break stuff. Sometimes this is done with automated tests, manual tests, inline sanity checks, writing exploratory code to help me discover scenarios, or some form of production monitoring. The latter three are where I’ve found I’m doing things in a way that I haven’t always done before.
I think the shift in mindset partly comes from owning the responsibility for a feature. At one point a long time ago, I wanted to get my code to work and let QA test it and find bugs. Then I moved to wanting my code to work and wanting to come up with a way to test it. The next step in the progression for me is finding ways to be able to make large changes to the code, not break stuff, and ensure that everything will work with no impact to the business. In each step in the progression, I’m starting to look at the problem at a larger scale and looking at business value and business impact instead of just technical concerns.
One thing I love about software development is that it requires a balance between logical thought and creative thinking. Both are required to be successful, but this is really easy to forget, and it’s the creative side that often gets ignored. I would argue that ignoring the creative side is probably the worst thing that you can do.
When I say that, I’m talking to myself first. As you know, there is often a disconnect between what you believe to be true in your head and how you actually live. I feel like my busy, efficiency-driven life is forcing me in one direction. At work, I’m trying to become more efficient, reduce cycle time, meet deadlines, complete tasks. At home, I’m trying to balance having a family, trying to keep the house from becoming a disaster area, and trying to get enough sleep. Even now as I’m writing this, I know that I could be working and I almost have to tell myself not to. All this leaves little time and energy to be creative. (Proof of this is my drastic decrease in frequency of blog posts over the last year.)
Here’s the problem – it doesn’t really matter if you’re efficient at something if you’re being efficient at the wrong thing. Also, in this fast changing world of technology, what was the right thing yesterday might not be the right thing today. What gets lost when you’re too task-focused is innovation.
We’ve all heard of Google’s famous “20% time” where employees can work on whatever they want. You hear of other startups copying the same idea. This isn’t just another employee perk like free lunches and workout facilities. This is a calculated decision to give people time to innovate, because the company feels that the value of the innovations will far exceed the time spent. Many more established companies are starting to launch “innovation incubators” where they take smart people and let them go off an build innovative stuff without the drag imposed by bureaucracy, meetings, and big-company red tape.
For the rest of us who don’t work at startups or internet companies, innovation may not carry as much value. If you’re maintaining back office internal systems, your tasks are often straight forward and you’re probably not going to come up with a revolutionary idea that will bring in thousands of new customers. But that doesn’t mean that there’s no value in innovation. There are still opportunities to innovate in these work environments, because all software development is a creative endeavor. You still are creating something that will need to meet the needs of the users, and we want to come up with creative ways to do it better, faster, and cheaper.
Developers are strange creatures sometimes. Our quirkiness is often what makes us successful. We may seem to be very structured, logical people who just want to put on their headphones so that we can complete the ticket that we’re working on and move on to the next one. This is true, but developers are also impatient and lazy. We don’t like waiting for our code to compile, we don’t like using frameworks that make things hard to do, and we don’t like writing the same code over and over, and this can drive people to try and come up with creative solutions — if they have room in their head to do it.
I find that if I get overly task-focused, the innovation switch in my head turns off. There is a big difference between “today I’m going to work on X, Y, and Z” and “today I’m going to solve a problem”. One approach has the solution outlined for me, and the other one forces me to innovate. In both cases, a problem is going to get solved, and the solution might be the same either way. The point is that when I go to work with the innovation switch turned on in my head, there exists the potential for something great to happen. It might be completely unrelated to the task at hand, but the value of that innovation could far exceed the value of the everyday task I was working on.
For most companies, it’s not going to make sense to give your employees 20% of their time to work on whatever they want. But there are still things that you can do to encourage innovation.
Pose problems, not solutions
Chances are someone higher up than you in your company is deciding what you’re going to work on. This is good, but I’ve noticed a difference in the way in which these tasks can be handed down. Sometimes I’m given a series of tasks that solves a problem. Other times I’m given a problem and am asked to solve it. I greatly favor have the second approach, for several reasons. First, if I’m given a problem without a solution, I take it as a challenge to come up with a creative way to solve a problem. Second, I’m motivated to solve the problem because I can understand the problem and can see the value that is going to come out of the solution. Third, I just might come up with a more innovative way to solve the problem.
One idea that we introduced at work was the idea of “experimentation time”, where someone can propose something that they want to try out, ask for amount of time to try it, and then go do it and report back the results. This could be anything from trying out a new web framework to refactoring part of our codebase to trying to find ways to run tests in parallel – pretty much anything goes, as long as the goal is to find a way to improve something that we’re working on.
While our IT leadership loved the idea, no one has taken advantage of it yet! I find that interesting because people complain that they don’t have time to innovate but then they don’t actually take the initiative to do it. I’m not working in one of these IT departments with ruthless taskmaster bosses that force unrealistic deadlines on people. I suppose this can be expected from people who typically are focused on getting things done and who are often rewarded and complimented for doing so.
Maybe we should start requiring people to take time to work on something innovative, kind of like how you might be assigned a project in school. Sometimes people don’t feel like they have the freedom to work on something that isn’t working towards meeting a deadline. We practically have to force some people to attend conferences (any other time, people would jump at a chance to take a free trip to a nice destination to learn something and have fun with their co-workers). If we truly value innovation, then we need to find a way to get that message out.
Start with yourself
Time to preach to myself again. How can I sit here and write all this when I’m not giving myself time to innovate and learn? I read this quote today:
Nothing creative will come out of your efforts if you don’t allow your best ideas to incubate. Follow the lead of Warren Buffett and allow time for quiet reading and thinking every day. I recommend devoting at least one hour a day to learning, as Ben Franklin did. Can’t find the time? While you’re commuting or en route to meetings, stay off the phone and listen to a podcast or comtemplate what you’re been reading. You’ll be surprised by what comes out of your brain if you give it a rest sometimes.
–Verne Harnish (Fortune magazine)
The most important things that have happened in my career this year were not because of things I accomplished, but because things I’ve read and heard at conferences, and things I thought about when I was in those spaces when my mind felt clear enough to think about the big picture. Some of these ideas have been career changing for me. Not only that, it reinforces what I’m doing on a day to day basis and gives me motivation to handle the task-based work that consumes most of my day. The challenge is finding the right balance.
People are motivated in many different ways. You can probably think of situations at work where you’ve been really motivated to do awesome things. But what really motivates you if you look beyond the surface?
I’m going to use my current situation as an example. I’m currently doing maintenance on a 6 year old system with a Silverlight front end (and no one uses Silverlight anymore). From a purely technical perspective, it’s not hot new technology, and over the last couple years I’ve watched several developers get sick of doing it. I question whether they are seeing this big picture.
Here’s the thing — the maintenance that we’re doing on our 6 year old Silverlight app is providing a ridiculous amount of business value. I’m able to make changes that have an immediate impact on the users’ ability to do their job, sell new products, and reduce costs.
Are there more “fun” technologies out there? Sure! I play around with things like Ruby on Rails and React on the side because I’m not using them at work and I enjoy working with technologies like that. But my attitude at work depends on my true motivation.
A progression of thought
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what motivates me in my career. Am I going to get bored with software development at some point? Are there other roles that I might want to pursue? There are lots of good questions to ask.
I came to the conclusion that I’m not going to get bored with software development because it’s such a big part of our world and the things you can do with technology are too exciting. I’ve also started to understand the underlying reasons that give me motivation.
When I started out in my career, I was like a kid playing with toys. I wanted to do cool things with new technology. I had a limited understanding of what was important to the business, and I was basically just doing whatever work items were in front of me (hopefully with new technology). I had a very small and self-centered view of the world.
Later on, I realized the importance of providing business value. I got into lead roles where I had more interaction with people in the business, and I started to see what was important to them and how technology could solve their problems. I still enjoyed working with new technology, but I started placing more importance on solving business problems. But even at this point, I was missing something very important.
The real underlying motivation for me now is improving people’s lives through software. I want to improve the lives of my users by developing software that makes their job easier and makes them more successful. I want to improve the lives of my managers by helping to solve their biggest problems. I want to provide value to the business and help them achieve their mission. And I want to improve the lives of the people on my team and help us all get that good feeling that you get when you work together with people that you like to achieve something incredible.
It doesn’t really matter what technology I’m using. What really drives me are people. Without people, I’m just typing words on a screen. But when you add people into the mix, I have a much larger purpose then just developing an application. I’m using technology to change people’s lives. And that is a good reason to get up in the morning.
When I think about a lot of the efforts that we make to improve the software development process, I feel like we’re usually trying to make improvements within the system that we are currently living in. What if we could instead disrupt the world that we’re living in by changing something that dramatically changes the game?
Think of what Uber has done. I feel like everyone uses Uber. How many people do you know used taxis on a regular basis? Maybe you used a taxi when you absolutely had to, like when you’re getting from an airport to a hotel. But on a daily basis? No way. The other day a co-worker took an Uber to get to work after dropping his car off to get an oil change. When I asked him how he was going to get back to pick up his car, he said, “I’ll figure it out this afternoon.” That is a game changing idea. It makes you think about transportation in a way that you never thought of before.
Let’s think about the world of software development. I tried to think of some of the big changes I’ve seen in the last few years.
- DevOps and cloud computing – it used to take weeks to get a new server purchased and stood up, but now we can go to a site that automatically provisions a server, installs what I need, and then I can get rid of the server as soon as I’m done with it at a fraction of the cost.
- Git – I remember the first time I heard about branching per feature. In the world of centralized version control systems, branching and merging is hard enough that you would never think about branching per feature. Git makes the cost of branching and merging almost zero, which enables you to work in a completely different way.
- Dynamic languages – I can change a line of code and see the results immediately without having to compile
- Remote working – collaboration tools are improving to make it much easier to work with people that aren’t in the same location as you
Think about the application that you work on and business in which you operate. What are some things that are annoying and slow you down? Some of these things are obvious, but many are really hard to see because they’ve just become “normal” to you. You’ve accepted those things as facts. But what if there were a way to change the facts?
Let me give you some examples.
- What would happen if I didn’t have to wait so long to get answers from people in the business?
- What would happen if I had a faster development laptop?
- What would happen if we were using a different framework/platform/language?
- What would happen if our team could all sit together in the same space?
Those are good questions to ask, and those things might provide a lot of value, but that’s still operating within your current plane of thought. What if we ask more mind-blowing questions?
- What will happen when we improve smartphone battery life so that a phone can operate on a full charge for weeks/months?
- What will happen when computing and network speed increases so that web pages load instantaneously?
- What could you do if everyone had virtually unlimited data and download speeds were measured in gigabytes per second?
- What will happen when mainstream video chat is no longer a grainy, choppy FaceTime or Hangouts video and instead is a clear 4k data stream?
- What will you be able to build if all of these were true?
Will those things help you out today? No, because they mostly aren’t a reality yet. That’s not the point. By thinking about game-changing ideas, it forces you to think on another level. It forces you to think outside the box. It’s surprisingly hard to think outside the limitations of the world in which we live everyday (remember The Matrix?).
This is why I attend certain software development conferences and not others. For example, I’m writing this at the Path to Agility conference. I love going to open space conferences for the same reason.
I go to conferences like #path16 not just to hear mind-blowing ideas, but to hear things to make me think about mind-blowing ideas.
— Jon Kruger (@JonKruger) May 26, 2016
The technology world is changing at an extremely rapid pace, so we’re going to need to change the level of our thinking.
I have 1,408 emails to answer now–prioritizing is important. The younger generation is constantly looking at their phones, so they don’t have time to think strategically.
– Cheryl Krueger, founder of Cheryl & Co.
In a world where we seem to value busy-ness, I feel like we frequently got lost because we don’t often take time to think about where we’re going. I’ve fallen into this trap many times.
Every time this happens to me, I eventually work my way out of the insanity and then wonder what happened that got me so busy in the first place. The thing is I’m almost always bringing it on myself. It’s not like someone’s working me into the ground or anything, I’m just not taking time for downtime.
Not only is over-working yourself tiring, it’s a huge mistake. I find that when I’m constantly consumed by doing things and getting things done, I have no time to think strategically. Some of my best ideas come to me because I my mind is clear and I give myself time and space to think.
My wife loves to give me a hard time for not reading books. I’m not much a fiction reader, I can’t remember the last time I read a fiction book (it’s probably been since college!). Most of my reading these days is related to technology and business, which some would say is not light reading.
I find it inspirational. I love reading about what people are learning and how people are using technology to change how we do things. We live in an amazing time when anyone with a good idea can turn it into something that changes the world. I’m probably not going to be that guy, but I like being reminded that anything’s possible.
I’ve been burned out on conferences for the last couple years. I’ve stopped attending several conferences and user groups that I used to attend on a regular basis. I’m not someone who typically likes to sit in one place and listen to someone talk for an hour, especially when it’s a topic where I could spend 20 minutes reading on the internet and get all of the same information.
I still go to some conferences, but I don’t go planning to learn anything specific. I go because it gives me a space to process ideas and think clearly. I go to talks just to give my mind a trigger for my thoughts. I love talking to people at conferences to hear the ideas that are floating around in their heads.
Free thinking at work
This is a tough one. When I’m at work, I’m putting a lot of effort into focusing on a specific task. I’ll put headphones on so that I can focus on writing a certain piece of code. When we’re in meetings, we try to have a very focused agenda. Everything is focused on completing tasks. So what can you do to promote free thinking at work?
We’ve started doing book clubs at work to promote learning. Some of these are technology focused, some are focused on business acumen. A lot of good conversations happen at the bar after work when people are more inclined to open up about what’s going on in their lives. It’s not that we come up with amazing ideas during these times, but it clears a little space in our head for thoughts to come in.
This is important
I’m starting to make a conscious effort to find ways to stimulate thinking. When I find myself with extra free time, I’m not trying to find projects to fill that time. I’m reading less about “how to use technology X” and I’m starting to read things that will expand my horizons.
What works best for you? That’s up to you to find out, but make sure you’re giving your mind some space to find it.
I find that as software developers, we sometimes lose sight of what it is like to be a user of the systems that we develop. This is ironic since software developers probably consume more software than the average user.
For the apps and systems that I use, I have two very high level yet very important requirements for updates to the application:
- 1. Works as designed (i.e. not buggy, doesn’t crash, etc.)
- 2. Is at least as fast and easy to use as the last version (hopefully faster, but definitely not slower)
Taking the pain
It’s been a rough week for me, mostly due to the fact that we decided to upgrade our solution from Visual Studio 2012/ReSharper 7 to Visual Studio 2015/ReSharper 10. At first, I got excited when I typed “?.” for the first time, but the excitement quickly faded.
- Everything in the IDE felt slower
- Visual Studio would often chew up 60%+ CPU on all cores, even when it seemed like nothing was happening
- ReSharper wouldn’t show me the results of my tests until ALL THE TESTS were done running
- The ReSharper test runner would die a slow death and crash if I ran a lot of tests
- If I open a solution that has a Git repository, I can’t connect to TFS to open work items in the same solution
All of this made me long for the good old days of VS2012 and a version of ReSharper that worked (not to mention that we gave these companies money for these new versions!).
Don’t get me wrong, these newer versions have a lot more features than the old versions. The problem is, I don’t use 90% of them, and they failed to meet my two most important requirements that I mentioned.
I can see how this happens.
Executive: “We need features X and Y so that we can release a new version and sell software!”
Dev team: “But we don’t have enough time to do that well.”
Executive: “That’s OK, just ship it anyway, they’ll purchase it and then we’ll fix the issues.”
In my case, they’re going to get away with it because I don’t have an alternative to Visual Studio and ReSharper right now. But it still feels wrong.
Running through mud
Another example: Why does every new version of an operating system have to get slower? I have a 5 year old MacBook Pro that I had to upgrade from Snow Leopard (which was working great, BTW) to El Capitan because no one was supporting Snow Leopard anymore. Now my MBP feels 5 years old and it’s much slower.
If you’re a Linux person, you’re probably laughing at everything that I’m saying because everything for you is lightning fast with the command line, simple user interfaces, etc. When I was last doing Ruby, we used gVim as our IDE (basically a simple text editor with basic highlighting, basic autocomplete, tabbed windows, and of course the power of Vim). Contrast that with the bloat of Visual Studio.
The opposite experience
This morning, I got the Android Marshmallow update for my LG G4. When I read up on Android Marshmallow, the general sentiment out there seemed to be, “There’s nothing big in this release, just some minor features, increased performance, and better battery life.”
What!!!! I’ve only had Marshmallow for about 4 hours, but I can tell that it’s a little snappier than before. They made minor usability changes in the OS that are nice. I can’t speak for the battery life after just 4 hours, but it doesn’t seem to be any worse than before from what I can tell.
What a breath of fresh air. I don’t have to sacrifice performance for unnecessary feature bloat. I don’t have to buy a new phone to make the latest OS work as designed (right, older iPhone users?). All this makes me a happy user.
You do this to people too
What do your users have to say about the updates you release? Sure, you’re going to have the curmudgeons that don’t like any change, and you can’t please everyone. But too often we ignore the non-functional requirements like performance, usability, and user happiness. Those things might just be more important to your users than those new shiny features you’re working on.
Every business cares about making money and reducing costs. Yet every day I press a button and sit idly while I watch a little progress bar move. This happens every time I want to run an application or run a test.
Compiling code is something we’ve just gotten used to. Maybe that’s not the right phrase — we’ve learned how to put up with it. Granted, things are a lot better than they used to be. My first job after college was working on a C++ application where changing some of the foundational header files meant 30 minutes of compiling just to rebuild the application!
When .NET came out, they said that it compiled so fast that you would wonder if it actually did anything. That was true on demo apps that only had a few source files, but as your application grows and grows over time, those compilation times are quite noticeable. Certainly it was better than it was in C++, but that only makes you feel good for so long.
How much is compiling costing you? I decided to find out. The application that I’m in is 5 years old and has a fairly sizable codebase. Rebuilding the entire solution takes about 2 minutes, but usually I don’t need to rebuild everything. If I change a test file and run the tests, it still takes 30 seconds to compile what it needs to run the test. My machine is a year or two old, but it’s a pretty solid development machine with plenty of RAM and everything running on SSD. Your codebase may be smaller (or larger) than mine, so the compile times will vary. If you codebase is smaller because you app is younger, think about what it might be when your app is 5 years old.
There is a Visual Studio extension called Build Monitor that will record the compilation time every time you compile and then dump it to a json file. We all installed this and we recorded compile times from several different developers over a couple weeks, and here’s how it came out:
99 hours of dev time
5.4 hours spent compiling
… which means that 5.45% of our time was spent waiting for the code to compile.
Let’s put this in perspective:
If I code for 8 hours, I lose 26 minutes to compiling each day.
If I code 6 hours a day on a 6 month project, I lose a whole week to compiling.
Spread that across your entire team and multiply that by the average hourly rate of your employees.
5 days lost x 6 hours of coding time per day x 5 devs x $60/hr = $9,000
That’s real money!
Note that we haven’t taken into account that I can’t take advantage of my tests as much when the cost to run them is higher, so I’ll write a bunch of code before I run the tests, which makes diagnosing problems harder.
We also aren’t taking into account the slowdown that comes from having to stop for 30 seconds and go find something else to do like check email while I wait.
We also aren’t taking into account the lost business value because we can’t deliver features faster.
We also aren’t taking into account that someone out there is writing code that is trying to take away your market share, and if they can do it faster than you, they have an advantage.
What can we do about this?
Here are some things you can try to reduce compile times.
Get an SSD
There’s absolutely no reason why you should not be using a solid state drive at this point. When I switched to an SSD, my code compiled 3 times faster. You can get a 128GB SSD on Amazon for under $50. If your company won’t buy one for you, buy it yourself.
Get a faster machine
A new machine isn’t as cheap as an SSD, but if you can get a faster machine and speed up compilation time, the machine is going to pay for itself very quickly. At least make sure that your current machine isn’t strapped for RAM (which is really cheap).
Check your build settings
Once you download your nuget packages, you don’t need to check for them on every build! I like to leave this box unchecked.
Make sure the number of parallel project builds matches the number of threads your machine can run at one time. Also, when you run your code, you should only be building the projects that you need to run the code.
Split up your solution
If your solution contains a bunch of projects that you don’t ever edit, they’re just taking up memory and compile time. I like having one solution that has everything, but it can’t hurt to make smaller solutions that only have subsets of the code that you need in certain circumstances.
If you don’t split up your big solution, you can unload projects by right-clicking on the project in the Solution Explorer and selecting Unload Project. This will essentially remove the project from the solution that you have open without actually removing it (unloading is a user-level thing, so you can unload what you want without affecting your other team members).
I see lots of solutions where there’s a project for the data layer, a project for the business layer, a web project, and many more. The problem with this approach is that every time you compile, it has to copy .DLLs around to all of those different bin\debug folders, which takes time.
I would recommend consolidating projects whenever you can. Yeah, this might allow someone to reference the data layer from a controller instead of going through the business layer, but we all should know what you should or shouldn’t do in a codebase without having to have project boundaries enforcing it.
There is one caveat here… if you consolidate projects, then you can’t unload them anymore and you’ll have to compile them all the time. So while you might save time by consolidating projects, in some cases you could increase people’s compile time because you force them to compile code that they might otherwise unload.
Rethink your language choice
(Yes, I know there’s a free version of Visual Studio, but how many of you are using that at work?)
I did Ruby on Rails for a year, and not only was it nice to not have to compile, I just loved the language. You really can do a lot more with less code. I felt like someone took off the training wheels and I could just write code that did what I wanted to do without all of the ceremony.
I realize that it doesn’t make sense for most teams to rewrite an existing codebase in another language just to avoid compilation. However, I will say this – someone else is competing against your company, and by using another language, they could have a 5% (or more) advantage. Ruby on Rails is very widely used by startups, and no one is more pressed for time and money than a startup.
I’m sure there are reasons that .NET can’t become an interpreted language like Ruby, but why can’t it? You can already make dynamic method calls in .NET using reflection, and at runtime it will attempt to call the method that you specified and will throw an exception if it can’t find the method. So why can’t everything work that way? Compilation may still have value as a sort of test to make sure that everything does link up, and it probably makes runtime faster if I can compile my code before I deploy it. But the real win will come when I can write .NET code and run it without having to check every method call and check every line for syntax errors when I’m only going to execute a few lines of code in a test.
Yeah, I know, now there’s ASP.NET Dynamic Compilation, but when I read about it, it just sounds like moving the slow compilation to the web server, which is convenient but isn’t going to save a lot of time when developing from what I can tell. But I haven’t actually tried it, so I suppose I could be wrong (I hope I am).
What else am I missing?
Do you have any ideas, tips, or tricks for how you’ve reduced compilation time on your team? I’d love to hear your thoughts! We’re all tired of watching progress bars.
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