Hipster Hosting at BSW, Tomorrow Only

Lady with computer mouse

She doesn’t look like she needs hosting, does she?

I’m doing a short presentation with a few other people at Boulder Startup Week on hosting. Tomorrow, Thur, at 10am MT.

Would love to see you there. Feel free to heckle.

If you can’t make it, here is the salient point of my presentation: startups are hard, so you should host your code and infrastructure at the highest level of abstraction that you can, so that your developers can focus on delivering business value through new features rather than doing ops. In practice, prefer hosting options in this order:

  • serverless
  • platform specific hosting (wpengine, etc)
  • general purpose PAAS (heroku, elastic beanstalk)
  • cloud VMs
  • colo
  • server in the closet

Of course, all advice is context dependent; my advice is aimed at small startups and the more flexibility your developers need around aspects of technology the lower on the list you’ll have to go.

Anyway, looking forward to a good discussion.


Trust the compiler

I loved this post not because I love reading assembler but because it just illustrates so perfectly how often, when writing software, we can easily stand on the shoulders of giants.

My point is not that we should take what we’ve learnt from the LLVM-generated code and write a new version of our hand-rolled assembly. The point is that optimising compilers are really good. There are very smart people working on them and computers are really good at this kind of optimisation problem (in the mathematic sense) in a way that humans find quite difficult. It’s the job of language designers to give us the tools we need to inform the optimiser as best we can as to what our true intent is, and larger integer sizes are another step towards that.


Boulder Startup Week Begineth!

Thumb upBoulder Startup Week is this week. If you haven’t been, it’s a great opportunity for a number of reasons. You can get a flavor of the Boulder tech community (though it’s worth remembering that there are numerous firms that don’t play in the startup world that are in Boulder). You can learn a lot about startups from folks who are actively building one, or have built one in the past. You can learn about new technologies and trends that are up and coming, including data science, blockchain and cannibis. And you can meet a lot of great folks.

I’m a bit burned out on startups at the moment, but am still planning to attend a few sessions, mostly on the development track. I’m especially excited for the Boulder Ruby Meetup on Wednesday, where experts will speak about interviewing. I’m also speaking at a session on hosting.

My tips for Boulder Startup Week:

  • go to at least one session in a different area of focus than you normally would.
  • arrive 5-10 minutes early and plan to stay 5-10 minutes after. Use this time to chat with folks. (This is hard for me, but I’ve found that having a canned opening line like “what interesting talks have you seen” or “is this your first time at BSW” is a good way to break the ice.)
  • the above tip will prevent you from trying to attend too many sessions back to back to back. This is a Good Thing(tm).
  • bring business cards, or prepare to exchange emails.
  • thank a volunteer and/or sponsor when you see them. There’s a tremendous amount of effort that goes into this week.
  • be prepared to help someone you meet out, with an intro, feedback on an idea, or even just an interesting article.
  • if a session is full, I’d get on the waitlist and then I’d show up anyway. Because every session is free, I’ve found that oftentimes folks are … over committed and there’s often space for other people.

If your interest has been piqued, please check out the schedule. Hope to see you out there.


Throwback Thursday: What is the difference between a programmer and a developer?

BicycleOne of the nice things about blogging for so long is that you get to see the wheat separated from the chaff. If I’m still thinking the same thoughts five years or a decade later, that means that I’ve stumbled on one of my truths. (That or I’m just echoing my thoughts because I haven’t learned anything new. I believe it is the former, especially when it comes to development, something I spend a lot of time thinking about.)

Here’s my 2012 post about the difference between a programmer and a developer. A programmer can be a great coder, but stops when the code ends. A developer uses code to build a business solution. (Pssst, a programmer is much more likely to be replaced by an offshore “resource”.)

One of my favorite analogies for developers is the bike messenger. She may not be as fast as a car or as flexible as a pedestrian, but she can weave back and forth between the street and the sidewalk in a way that neither of those two other modes of transportation can. And in the end she’s all about the destination, just like great developers are.


What do I do when someone’s doing something wrong?

Driving in the rain

Uh, I think you’re in a little deep

Somewhere, sometime, someone will do something wrong. It happens more often than you think. (That person might even be me.)

When they do, I have an innate desire to correct them, to show them the benefit of my mistakes and to enlighten them. This is, in itself, wrong.

What should I do instead? A couple of things.

  1. Make sure I really understand the issue they are facing. Sometimes I can gain an appreciation for their choice once I have more information about the situation, and sometimes my questioning can cause them to make different decisions or to revise their thinking.
  2. Think about whether I have all the context. (This one’s easy; I don’t.) So remember to consider that from their perspective choices make more sense than from mine.
  3. I consider the ramifications of a poor decision. It’s better to let someone choose an obviously wrong course when the stakes are low. We’ve all made mistakes (I deleted an entire table from a production database!) and that’s the best way to learn. However, if the stakes are high, that means a discussion is more warrented.
  4. Contemplate my role. Is this a peer? An old friend? An ex-colleague? A mentor? A mentee? Someone I’ve just met? Each of these types of people have different tolerance for my opinion.

In short, rather than just explaining to someone why they are wrong, I need to stop and think about the entire context of the situation, including what I’ve missed, what the consequences of the action are, and my role.



MS Edge

Spelling on chalkboardI use MS Edge a lot (yes, I’m a windows user. Windows + Vagrant means I get to use all the user and developer software I want).

One thing that is an understated benefit of Edge is the autocorrect. Every text box automatically has spelling correction. That’s so nice for tools like slack and webmail where you are writing all day every day. It really means that just like you don’t have to know how to get someplace (because Google Maps) now you don’t even have to look up how to spell a word. Looks like you can turn if off if you want, but its deeply embedded in the OS.

 


Imposter syndrome

This article resonated with me. I became familiar with imposter syndrome when my SO spoke on it several times (she’s available to speak to your group if you’d like).

When you are deep in a discipline, it can be very easy to “know what you don’t know” and downplay your expertise. I often am asked to support desktop computers because I work in software (a la this post). But I know how little I know about the problem.

I think the issue is also exacerbated by the continuous flow of information that we are all offered by the internet. This makes it very easy to compare ourselves with what other folks choose to share (typically, though not always, their best side and successes). This makes me, I will be honest, feel inadequate. Why didn’t I learn more about k8s? Why haven’t I built a successful saas business? Why haven’t I worked at scale like that? Why haven’t I built a react native app? And so on and so on.

And when someone asks me “can you do that?” I always have that moment of fear and have to force myself to say yes.

My answer is to breathe, take chances, remember that failure is an option, and recall that while we see other people’s successes, we rarely see their failures. It isn’t fair to me to compare my “inside” with someone else’s “outside”.


Qualifying “leads” with two simple questions

Toddler girl

Every “lead” started out as one of these.

I use the word “lead” carefully, because every lead is actually a person with desires and hopes and dreams and fears. And it’s worth humanizing them.

But, a “lead” is also a prospect for business. When I ran my consulting company, I was always happy to take coffee because you never knew what could turn up. However, I enjoyed this medium post about how Seamus qualifies leads for his consulting business by asking two simple questions. I also like that he’s explicit about projects that aren’t a fit. It’s hard and scary to niche and yet so worthwhile.

From the post:

I can’t control how I’m introduced to people or how OTL Ventures has been described. So I have found it helpful to be upfront about what OTL Ventures does. This also gives the person who wants to meet with me an opportunity to self-select out of the meeting if they aren’t a good fit. I’ve been doing this by including my answer to the same two questions in my response. It only seems fair.

When you think about it, having this kind of prep conversation is good for both sides. It makes everyone think about what kind of value they bring and can get from a meeting.


Who’s Afraid of Continuous Deployment?

Fish leaping to a larger pool

Leaping to larger pool

So, who’s afraid of continuous deployment? I am, for one. And I’m not alone. I taught hundreds of people in AWS courses over the past two years. We often discussed continuous delivery and deployment and I asked if this was practiced at their places of work. I’d say about 5-10% of folks said yes. I conducted a very informal survey across two technical slacks as well. Unfortunately I had my terms wrong and asked about continuous delivery:

Wanted to do a quick poll. Can you please give a thumbs up to this message if you or your team does continuous delivery of your software product, and a thumbs down if you don’t. And a :penguin: if it doesn’t apply?

The results were:

  • Did CD: 27
  • Did not do CD: 25
  • Does not apply: 3

In the poll, I defined continuous delivery as “if a change is merged to the mainline branch and passes all the tests, it is deployed to production (or whatever environment your customers see) without human involvement”. This was actually a source of discussion, as some folks were very close to this (they deployed to beta environments where only a few customers saw it, or required one human to push a button to actually release, but everything up to that point was automated). Also, someone shared this link about the difference between continuous delivery and continuous deployment. Turns out I was using the term continuous delivery incorrectly. What I defined as continuous delivery was actually continuous deployment. Whoops!

That said, it was interesting that a large number of folks did not deploy code automatically, almost half (note that I believe the poll had a bias because I asked in one slack on the #devops channel. The numbers from the other slack had less than half doing continuous deployment). I’ve worked at a number of small startups, some without paying customers, and I’ve never worked in a place with continuous deployment. I’ve been in jobs with continuous integration and continuous delivery (and this provides a lot of value) but not continuous deployment. I wanted to talk about some reasons why.

The first reason is that continuous deployment simply doesn’t apply. If you are building software that is deployed to customer sites (on-prem), or is tied to hardware, then it doesn’t make sense to work toward CD because there will always be a manual delivery component. Another reason why it might not apply is legal compliance. Folks in the slacks pointed out that in some regulatory regimes you legally are required to have a human ‘push a button’ to deploy because more than one person needed to be involved in a code deploy to satisfy the law and the auditors. These are totally legitimate reasons for not doing continuous deployment.

Next, let’s discuss the reasons based on fear or lack of software hygiene (automated tests or a robust type system). Before I step into this, I want to acknowledge that there may be times in the life of your business where such software hygiene is detrimental to your chances of survival–you need to get an MVP out and test your value in the market, for example. However, in my years of experience I find that following proper software hygiene is far easier to do if adhered to from the beginning. If you don’t, eventually the difficulty of changing the system will grow along with its complexity. You can bolt on testing later, but it is difficult.

I also want to emphasize that I’ve been in all these situations myself. In some ways this blog post is a warning for future me when I try to shirk these practices.

  • If you don’t have automated test coverage, continuous deployment is reckless. This often happens in systems where the testing was bolted on after the system had been developed for a while. The solution is to work towards having enough test coverage to give yourself confidence (it swaddles your code).
  • A system may have configuration deeply tied to a database. Many content management systems are in this boat, which makes it very difficult to roll new configuration forward automatically.
  • Not having an automated rollback strategy. If you are going to continuously deploy, you need to have a way to rollback with confidence, with one script. If you are on heroku, heroku rollbacks help here. If you are running rails code, you can use db:rollback but you’ll need to know how many steps to rollback (I couldn’t find anything that rolled all migrations back to a given timestamp) and you’ll want to be careful about losing data. It may make more sense to run migrations in a different release, and always have the code be backward compatible. Lots of interesting reading about that strategy in strong_migration’s docs. This solution will vary from application to application.
  • Not having enough users to safely canary. One way to know if your new release has problems is to do a blue/green deployment and send just a fraction of your traffic there (you could use a weighted DNS round robin solution). But if you only have a small number of users, the canary userbase won’t adequately run through all the code paths.
  • Fear of breaking key user flows. At a recent company we did basic manual regression tests just before deployment. These could have been easily automated via selenium and would have made sure that at least basic functionality was available. Also see this post from 2013 on smoke testing.

All of these are not really technical issues, they’re prioritization issues. At this point in time most web applications can be continuously deployed. The tooling and the knowledge is out there, given the business and technology teams commitment.

However, this in some ways sidesteps the real question. Why is continuous deployment a goal worth prioritizing, especially when the team has to spend time supporting that instead of giving customers more features? CD is extra work to set up, but once it is running then you can deliver features at a very rapid pace, and you never have a feature sitting around waiting for other orthogonal features. So, in a way, it will actually lead to more features and better development. There’s also the long term benefits of software hygiene for the ability of the system to evolve.



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