Sunday, August 23, 2015

Pay It Forward

I worked in "the Enterprise" long time ago where just the IT headcount reached well above 2000. I was in the Microsoft space then, but I had always admired those Java folks who could just use Spring for dependency management and AOP, and could deploy their apps to a Unix or Linux server. I wanted to use Spring.NET for easier unit testing through dependency injection, however, I had to:

  • fill out a form
  • wait three-four weeks to get scheduled to present my case to the committee
  • wait for the committee's decision
  • start using the open source tool a few weeks later

I did not have two months to be more productive, I wanted to use that tool right away, right at that moment.

A different - and I should say more progressive - software company was a bit more relaxed. We only had to check the open source license for the tool or framework we wanted to use, and if it was the most permissive MIT license, we did not even have to ask.

I finally reached the freedom I had always wanted in the startup world. There is no committee I have to go for permission there. If the developers are onboard with it, I glance at its license, and if it's permissive, we don't think twice about using it.

We built our app entirely on open source software. Our code editors, the database server, the programming languages, the server operating system, the web framework, our app's API layer are all using open source software. We did not pay a single penny for them.

However, it takes serious effort to build and maintain a code base. Developers are working on them after work, during the weekend, not expecting any compensation in exchange for it. As the creator of LightService, I realize what it takes to maintain a library.

I set a rule for myself:

If I use a particular open source software extensively, I make every effort to contribute back to the project.

It does not have to be a huge change. Reviewing documentation, adding missing tests is always great and appreciated by the project's maintainers.

Some projects - especially the ones under heavy development and massive changes - are easier to contribute to. One example of this is the great jsonapi-resources gem, where I helped renaming certain methods with deprecation warnings. It took a while to submit that pull request, but I felt so much better using it, as that project is the foundation of our API layer.

I am sure you are using open source software one way or other. Consider this rule and apply it yourself.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Engineering Core Values

I worked for several startups over the years, but none of them had core values. Only well-established companies have core values, - so is the myth - and even there, they might have been only a cute decoration on the wall, nothing more. Nobody knows about them, nobody lives by them.

At Hireology, we know our company's core values by heart. Every single leadership team meeting on Monday starts out with reciting our company's core values. Here they are:

  1. Pathological Optimism
  2. Create Wow Moments
  3. No A$$holes
  4. Eager to Improve
  5. Own the Result

A company's core values might not describe the Engineering Team's core values when it comes to writing software. I felt our team needed something more specific to guide our decisions. Here is the letter I wrote about a year ago, when I announced our Engineering Core Values.

Team,

The company core values define the culture of our company, but it does not describe our engineering values.

The goal of the Engineering Core Values is to keep our team focused on what makes a product great from our perspective. When you write or review code, when you evaluate a change, try to consider these core values. If we follow these three simple guidelines, I am confident our application will be an outstanding one, and we will succeed.

Here they are, our Engineering Core Values:

  1. Performance is paramount
  2. We collect data
  3. Trusted code
1. Performance is paramount
How did Facebook become the leader of the social networking sites? The answer is simple: speed. While MySpace got more and more popular, it couldn't handle its traffic. Users became increasingly frustrated by seeing the "fail whale". In the early days of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg did not allow a code change to go into production if the request processing time took longer than 2 seconds (from the book - The Facebook Effect). I'd like to follow that example! We should be looking at our application monitoring software and analyze what we see there. If a page takes longer than 2 seconds to process, we have to work on it during the next Engineering Monday.

2. We collect data
We believe in the value of capturing data. An event never happened if we have no data about it. As our business grows, data will be increasingly important to us. Capturing all the changes would be an overkill, but our data analytics engine will collect more and more data as we grow it. Our Rails app's database will always be an online transaction processing (OLTP) database, it will never store historical data for analytical purposes. The data analytics engine will do that.

3. Trusted code
When we took over the app from contractors the application had no tests at all. Zero! Look how far we have come!! Today we have more than 1600 specs and 89 automated scenarios! Whenever you check in code, make sure the code is something you trust. What does trusted code mean? You feel confident about changing a routine you wrote two weeks ago. Specs and acceptance tests are surrounding your code, you know your change will not have unwanted and unexpected ripple effects. You trust that code, knowing your change will not break two other things later in QA or in Production.

Thank you, and please keep these Engineering Core Values in mind.

Attila

I printed our Engineering Core Values announcement and put it on the wall outside of my office, where all our employees can see it. We need to live by them, it can't be just an ornament on that wall.

Friday, May 1, 2015

(Software Engineering) Meeting Best Practices

The TL;DR Version:

Software engineering teams should have two types of engineering meetings:
  1. A forward-looking one that explores new technologies
  2. A self-checking one that discusses current issues and challenges

Have them biweekly, one type of each every single week. Use active listening techniques to encourage equal and engaged participation. Have them in the morning, afternoons should be reserved for writing code and getting work done.

(Software Engineering) Meeting Best Practices

It was a Monday in February of 2010, around 11 am when I received a ping in Campfire to discuss the place we would go to have lunch and have our weekly Tech Talk meeting. We tried to combine lunch with our engineering conversations on Mondays, as that was the day when everybody was in the office. We decided to go to a restaurant, which did not work for us very well. We just couldn't have an engaging conversation when someone was fighting with the fries and the other person heard only half of what the speaker was saying thanks to the loud music at the restaurant.

A year later, when I worked for another company, we had no technical conversations at all. I initiated brown bag lunches combined with watching technical talks, but that was pretty much it. We never really had a recurring event to discuss code or best practices.

I was the first engineer at my current employer. We could have started whatever made the most sense for our team, however, we did not really need a technical meeting until our team grew. We could just stay longer on the call after our morning standup and discuss topics right there. We did not need to schedule and break for another meeting.
In retrospect, I had waited too long to start any kind of engineering meetings. It was one of our senior engineers who started Lightning Talks, and that meeting turned into our "forward-looking", tools, languages, frameworks exploration meeting.

At the beginning of this year, I also started "self-checking", architecture meeting. Engineers can (and are encouraged to) sign up with topics they want to discuss. We usually have one larger topic that someone presents, and we have one or two minor discussions around smaller subjects if we can fit them into one hour. Our team is remote, the presenter shares his/her screen during the Zoom session to show the slides.

We set an order of the participants at the beginning of the meeting, and we go around the room following that order. This way everybody has a chance to speak up, ask questions, and voice an opinion. If someone does not have questions or comments, that person still has to state he/she does not have anything to add. I found this technique working really well for us, as the discussion is not hijacked by opinionated and very vocal team members.

We have our "self-checking" meeting on Tuesday one week, and our "forward-looking" meeting on Thursday the next week. This way there is a large enough gap between these two meeting.

One day my schedule was scattered with meetings and 30-60 minutes break in between them. I had a chunk of 20 to 45 sessions to get any work done. That works for sending an email or killing small chores, but it's just not enough time to get in the zone, understand a problem, and solve it. I need about 3-4 hours of uninterrupted working time to get "wired-in" and be effective.
Therefore, I asked our product and leadership team to support my idea: let's condense all meetings for engineers in the morning, and leave their afternoons meeting-free. This way the engineers will get more done, and the business will benefit from it.

I hope you will find these techniques helping the engineering team to be more effective.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Long and Winding Road to US Cizitenship

Today I became a US citizen.

A naturalized one. Which means I am eligible to vote, run for office, serve on a jury. However, I'll never be a US President. But hey, I could be the Governor of California.

It was a cold, snowy day in early January of 1998, when I set foot on US soil for the first time. I landed in Minneapolis, where my brother lived at that time. The previous week I was a university student with an easy-going outlook on the future, the next week I was an exchange student from Hungary, working at a greenhouse in the north suburbs of Minneapolis.

I traveled a lot that year, thinking I might never be back to this country. I flew back home in March 1999, continued my studies at the university, which I paused for a year to improve my English and to see the world.

However, I visited Seattle and Vancouver, BC in the fall of 1999, just six months after I left the US. I remember landing in Seattle, standing in the middle of the airport terminal thinking "I am home".

I decided to pursue a Ph.D. degree after graduation. In retrospect, I was just buying time, trying to find a way to come back and live in the US.

My brother arranged a job interview with his former manager, who had a web design shop in Minneapolis. This small business owner thought if I am half as smart as my brother is, he was going to get the better end of the bargain. I got hired on the spot, but I had to find an exchange student visa to make my employment legal. I found one, and in 2001 May I moved to the United Sates for good.

The first year went by fairly fast, but my exchange student visa had an expiration date. I switched to a work visa which allowed me to stay and work in the country for up to 6 years.

I went from one company to the other, did my traveling journeyman phase of my professional career. We bought a house in May 2005, and three weeks after moving in I received a phone call from a headhunter, who was trying to find software engineers for a large, Fortune 500 company in the Cleveland, Ohio area. I decided to go through the hiring process, and the next thing I knew was selling our house after the mere 3 months of purchasing it, and we moved to Ohio.

I was put on a fast track with my permanent residency application, which was sponsored by my employer. I received my green card after 18 months. I was happy when I opened the mailbox finding the letter from USCIS notifying me about adjusting my status to a permanent resident.

I had to wait 5 years before I became eligible for US citizenship. In fact, I could have become one in 2012, but moving from Cleveland to Chicago was a big enough challenge for us at that time.

Last year, when we came back from Europe and we entered the country, we had to go through US immigration. Our children are US citizens, we had green cards, but we still had to wait in line with "the visitors" to enter into the country we called home. That was the moment we decided to do something about it. We filed our paperwork, we prepared for our civic test, went through the interview, and today we recited the oath to become part of this Nation.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Education

On the days when I go to the office, I have an about 25 minutes walk from the train station. I had listened to music for a long time, but a few weeks ago I switched over to podcasts. I have heard great things about "This Developer's Life", and after listening to the first couple of episodes, I was hooked. About a week ago I listened to the session on "Education". I have two children, this topic is a very important one for me. I care a great deal about how my children are educated, what they like to learn, what they are interested in.

The podcast discusses the topic of "do you need formal education to be a good software engineer"? I am not going to give out the conclusion here, please listen to that episode if you have time. However, as I was listening to it, my mind started cruising.

I worked for one of the largest insurance companies in the US as a software engineer. I had a coworker there who was roughly 15 years older than me. He was burnt out, the 9-5 kinda' guy. We were expecting our first child at that time and I received one of life's big lessons from him. He said: "Attila, when your child goes to high school, you should discourage them from learning software engineering. All those jobs will be outsourced, they will be better off being a plumber, than a software engineer." I don't blame him for saying this. Indian contractors were imported to do QA and other tasks for us. They worked from dawn 'till dusk without a break, causing resentment among my fellow software engineers.

But I disagreed with him. I will do everything I possibly can to encourage my children to be software engineers. My dream is that they will love data and math. "Data is the new oil," - said the European Consumer Commissioner according to the book, Predictive Analytics. This profession has a bright future, the possibilities are endless in their lives. I read this somewhere: "No humans will be needed to collect tolls on the highway, but software engineers will have to write code to keep the system running."

Source: The Activist Post

Look at the job market after the great recession at the end of 2008. Corporations' profit is through the roof, Wall Street is flying high while the number of active workers remained at or close to what it was at the height of the downturn. Companies achieved this with increased level of automation. They had to tighten their belts, but money was pumped into automation. Who did they need to drive that growth? Software engineers. And now, when the market is doing better, corporations learned to live lean, being very efficient with fewer people through automation.

Hardware is cheap and getting cheaper. There is only one component they need to fuel the growth based on automation - Software Engineers. This is a great time to be one of them, tell your children to start coding!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Case For and Against Cucumber

The TL;DR version

Cucumber has 3 benefits:

  1. Feature Discovery
  2. Automated Acceptance Testing
  3. (Executable) Documentation
In order to use Cucumber successfully within your organization, you need to take advantage of at least 2 of these benefits.

The Case For and Against Cucumber

Last week I gave a talk on Cucumber at CodeMash. I was glad to see the roughly 40 people who came to hear me despite being scheduled as one of the last sessions of the conference.

I ended my talk with this very personal story. I had worked in the Microsoft .NET space for 8 years, but I wanted to do something else. I was fascinated by the Ruby community, the innovation, the sharing I had seen among its members. I lived in Cleveland, OH, and there were only a handful of companies working with Ruby at that time.

My ticket to the Ruby World was my familiarity with Cucumber. My good friend - Joe Fiorini - approached me if I'd be interested in joining their company as a QA Engineer, helping them with QA automation with Cucumber. I was eager to say yes and joined them shortly after.

I wrote the first couple of features, showed them how to write Gherkin. Our test suite happily grew during the first few months of my employment. However, as more and more engineers joined, the case against Cucumber increased. Some of the engineers said they are not against acceptance testing, but those acceptance tests should be written in RSpec and not in Cucumber. Cucumber seemed to them an unnecessary extra layer they did not need.

I felt sad and disappointed. Why my fellow engineers were not seeing the value of Cucumber? What did I do wrong? Should I have spent more time explaining the values of executable documentation? I felt helpless. I asked Jeff "Cheezy" Morgan - who knows a lot more about the values and application of Cucumber at various organizations - to have breakfast with me and one of the engineers.

We met with Cheezy a few weeks later. I told him: "Cheezy, I think Cucumber is a fantastic tool, it expresses business logic like nothing else. Our company should use it. Please, be the judge here, what are we doing wrong?" Cheezy had one question: "Who is reading your Gherkin?" I said: "Who? It's us, the engineers, and maybe our QA folks." He said: "You should not use Cucumber, you would be better off with just RSpec. Cucumber is a tool for discovering requirements." "Huh?!"

I went back to work feeling a bit disappointed. I used Cucumber for acceptance testing, I did not want to hear about any other tools to do that.

It took me a few months to realize that Cheezy was right. I blindly used Cucumber for its expressiveness, and not for its value as a feature discovery tool.

Fast forward a few years to today and I wonder, why Cucumber or Gherkin is useful to us at Hireology. The answer is clear now: the entire Product, QA and Engineering team values and leverages Cucumber for feature discovery. Product will try writing a couple of scenarios when they brainstorm on a new feature. Those scenarios will be fine-tuned, extended with new ones during our 3 Amigos Meeting (a meeting to flush out feature requirements with Product, QA and Engineering). We just happen to automate those specifications during the development process.

I love how we start thinking about edge-cases well before the development begins with the help of Cucumber and Gherkin. What if the external system is not responding? Where will the user be redirected after a successful form submission? The benefit of doing this kind of planning is a more accurate estimation. Estimating engineering effort of a feature is hard, but if you know what you need to build, then at least you can take a decent stab at it, it won't be a complete swag.

We successfully use Cucumber for (1.) feature discovery and for (2.) automated acceptance testing. Now on to its third benefit: documentation.

Our Cucumber (Gherkin) scenarios are living together with our code base. Looking at them is still hard and not available for everyone at our company. I'd like to make all our features accessible to everybody, from our CEO to all our sales folks. "How does feature X work?" "I don't know, go through the feature document by clicking on this hyperlink."

Have you tried reading up on RSpec's mocking and stubbing functionality. In case you have, I am sure you have visited the Relish app. Take a look at the page that describes a basic functionality of RSpec mocking. Does it look familiar? Well, there is a Given/When/Then text in there. The most important question: is that useful? Can you learn the tool just by reading through that? That text is coming from RSpec's own source code. The RSpec developers packaged up their Cucumber scenarios and presented it in an elegant, nicely formatted, searchable app. Relish app is the prime example of executable documentation.

Publishing our more than 200 scenarios is my next goal. We use Cucumber for feature discovery, automated acceptance testing, we should use it for documentation as well.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Fast TDD in Clojure with Fireplace.vim

I've been looking at Clojure for the past 18 months. I prefer learning and practicing by writing a failing test first, but unfortunately, the feedback loop through TDD in Clojure is slow. How slow? Well, it's between 4-10 seconds depending on the size of the project. I am still new to the language, I want to tweak my code a tiny bit and see if that change broke my tests. I am used to Ruby's almost immediate test execution, and the long wait for running the tests in Clojure makes it less effective.

In Ruby Land, I am used to running a large number of tests (958 examples in our application) in about 3.8 seconds. In a brand new Clojure project, it takes about 4 seconds to run the only failing test. This is no surprise: Clojure code has to be be compiled to Java byte code, where the compilation takes time.

I bumped into Ben Orenstein's great "Tips for Clojure Beginners" blog post a few weeks ago. It's a must read if you're new to Clojure. Vim is my preferred editor, and he wrote about a vim plugin by Tim Pope, called fireplace.vim. I remember looking at it briefly, but for some reason, I did not give it a try at that time.

A few days later I hacked on some code in Clojure again, and it reached a point where I threw my hands in the air and declared: "enough is enough!" I caught myself checking out Twitter and other websites as I had to wait about 10 seconds to run the tests after a simple change. I went through this blog post, where the author talks about using fireplace.vim for test execution. I gave it a try, and there is no turning back!

I installed fireplace.vim with pathogen. I opened another tab in my terminal, navigated to the root directory of my Clojure project. Fired up lein repl there and noted what the port number was.

In this case, 53844 was the port number for the nREPL server. I connected to that from my vim session in the other terminal tab by typing the vim command :Connect.

Fireplace gently investigated which nREPL server I wanted to connect to. I chose (the obvious) option one, it used localhost and I had to provide the port number from the other tab, which was 53844.

I submitted this option, and I was connected to the nREPL in the other tab. Fireplace lets me run the tests in the currently selected pane by using the :RunTests command. I did that, and much to my surprise the tests executed almost instantaneously. I did it once more (or maybe 5 times) just for the heck of it! This is what I found in the quickfix list:

I made the test pass, the output was terse. I guess there isn't much to say when all my expectations are passing. I included an animated gif here to show you what it feels like running the tests. Super sweet, don't you think!?

When I change a Clojure file in a different buffer (other than the buffer where my tests are), I need to Require! those files again. I get around this by writing all my functions right above the tests in the same buffer, and moving them to their final place when I feel confident about them.

There is an easier way to connect to a REPL by using fireplace.vim's :Piggieback! command. Please read the docs of this great vim plugin, that's how you can learn all the other features (like macroexpand) I have not described in this blog post.

My personal shortcut to run the tests is ,r. Setting it up with vim was easy:
:nmap ,r :RunTests<CR>. With this change, I had the same joy in Clojure as I've had with Ruby and RSpec for years. Bye-bye checking out while I am test driving my code in Clojure!

Update on 01/31/2015

I've been using this keybinding with fireplace in vim recently: :nmap ,r :Require! <bar> Eval (clojure.test/run-tests)<CR>. It picks up any changes I make in the source and the test files as I require packages before every test run. I'd recommend giving this a try.