Apple, Computers, Events, Family, Personal, Ruby, Software, Thoughts, Vacations, Web

Cloudy, Cold and Hip – Two Weeks of Training in Portland

I’ve really enjoyed the last two weeks. My new employer, recently acquired Analog Analytics flew me out to Portland, Oregon for training. Portland is quite an amazing place. Skateboarders, cyclists, and runners abound, but with a laid back attitude. Its the greenest city I have ever visited. Stores seem to only dispense recyclable materials including paper bags, and foods in waxed cardboard containers. The entire city is very walkable without much danger of personal harm. The food was amazing, and the drinks even better. This city knows its coffees, teas, and beers. It has to be home to the most microbreweries of any city. Needless to say I have probably gained 5 pounds, and I am super caffeinated. Also, the proximity to all these hip restaurants is giving me second thoughts about living so far outside of the city limits. No lie, I even glanced at Portland housing prices.

It took me a few days to get oriented to the city and the work environment. The company runs out of the Ford Building, in the heart of quite a few cool restaurants and bars in the Southeast side of the city. In fact, it left me a little jealous considering the hotel is only surrounded by fast food joints.  I got a shiny new MacBook Pro (which I am currently battling to make it as “boring” as possible). I can’t talk too much about the work, but it does hit the sweet spot of what I was looking for – a small team feel with deep pockets, and a launch date.

Kristin and Morrigan joined me for the second week and did their own thing, and they had a blast. They visited OMSI, Powell Books, Finnegans, several parks, and malls, and some tasty food joints. I’m happy they got to experience some of what makes this city awesome.

I’m enjoying several aspects of the job in particular: A remote driven environment, and pair programming. Training isn’t the best test run of this environment, as I am in the office everyday for now. Once I am setup, I pick the hours. People hop online and offline, according to their time zones, availability, etc. Every piece of communication, and workflow is centered around remote teams.

Pair programming makes programming social. Despite the image that telling someone you are a programmer conjures, I really enjoy interacting with people. I remember teaming up with James, John and many others at Clayton State to tackle some large issues with our portal and other systems. Since Clayton State, I have worked on a couple teams, and it was almost always in isolation, save for 5-10 minute high level meetings. The best part is, its actually kind of fun.

Pair programming was a tough adjustment for me. I’m used to presenting a final product and defending its implementation. I have all the answers. I know what the talking points are up front, and I am comfortable because I am the authority on the subject. Pair programming is letting your guard down, and conceding as much as contributing. You are two people working on a problem together, with neither party starting off knowing the complete solution. The work is certainly slower than solo programming, as incorporating input, early refactoring, and general discussion takes up time. This team takes an interesting approach to combat some of the time drain; You can either pair program and merge directly, or work solo but your code requires a peer review before merging. The choice is yours. The solo programming option will probably act as a safety value for those days when I just want some time to myself. They also encourage “switching drivers” to vary the work. Interestingly, being the passenger requires more focus than driving, as you are trying to proactively find issues with the current approach.

I’m still struggling to embrace TDD. I don’t like the zealotry in the community when the topic comes up; presenting the only two options as either you test first, or you are just ignorant, undisciplined, or apathetic to the code you write. The truth is far from it. I figure things out by moving the pieces around – not by staring at it from a distance. That is not to say that there aren’t times when testing first is extremely useful, like when clarifying requirements. The test assertions (even with missing test bodies) is often enough to help solidify an attack plan. The amount of code coverage can be a hindrance though, as real world tests always end up being more tightly coupled than you ideally want them to be. If you make seemingly small code changes, you can end up with quite a bit of the test suite failing (all though with the same few errors repeating). If you mock and stub too much, you aren’t testing much that is useful. Even worse, the workflow doesn’t seem realistic: Write the tests, verify the tests fail, write the code, verify the tests pass. The reality seems to be write the tests (heavily guessing at the exact implementation), verify they fail, write the code, refactor almost all of your tests, and verify they pass. Given the choice, I think I’d still rather write code, then test the code to verify it does what I want in all scenarios. I’ve yet to meet a dyed-in-the-wool TDDer that sees any fault with this extra refactoring step. The subject of pre-written tests needing to be refactored seems to be glossed over. Maybe my opinion will be changed yet.

Things are looking awesome for this next step in my life! I’m keeping my fingers crossed for Railsconf tickets, since they are in my employer’s backyard. There are also a few missed restaurants I am meaning to visit next time I’m back up this way…

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Computers, Hardware, Linux, Personal, Software, Thoughts

Self Realizations – Part I

During World War II, when you needed to get communications between two points, you often had to run a telegraph wire through enemy territory. I’m picturing the scene from Enemy at the Gates – where a soldier puts on a helmet, gets a spool of wire, and crawls on his belly through the mud, dodging enemy fire, and landmines. The goal is to not get picked off before your reach your destination because everyone is counting on you to make the connection.

Lately I have been engrossed in a side project that has given me an opportunity to work with the Android SDK. I have been so tickled at figuring out everything for the first time. Though I am moving at a snail’s pace, and it can be painful to have to constantly reference the documentation, StackOverflow, and Google at large, it has been a fun experience. Small things like talking to a database, or rotating a bitmap feel like big achievements, and make the struggling worth it. Seeing the Java side of the world puts some things about Ruby into perspective too. I know I am better having tinkered with it, and I had fun while doing it.

I have come to realize that its why I love programming. I love running that first line across unknown territory. It is proof that I can accomplish what I set out to do even with almost no prior knowledge about an environment. It is the same rush I get when tinkering with my car, or building computers, installing a ceiling fan, compiling a kernel, or raising a kid. It is about creating something to solve a problem using common tools and applying knowledge to make something awesome of it all. If I didn’t program, I’m not sure what other career I would have that would give me this same chance to tinker with new stuff.

As part of this self realization, I have discovered by my child-like excitement in my accomplishments, how much I miss this in my current work capacity. I’m not building new things anymore. I’m just polishing the same things, and the details don’t really excite me like the prototypes do. I like “broad strokes”. We need people that do the detail work too, but its decidedly not for me.

So find out what it is that you love, and make it happen. Your job and your passion aren’t always in phase, but don’t let let your passion die out just because you are getting paid to do something else.

Events, Family, Personal, Thoughts

My House By the Sea

Last week I received an email from a recruiter looking to staff a Ruby on Rails development shop in Warren, RI. The job is 20 minutes away from Roger Williams Zoo (my wife’s future employer), and was in a quite, cheaper suburb right in the Bristol bay areas. The first house my wife showed me we mapped out directions for on Google, and the commute time was 25 seconds! This is a smaller salary, but I was weighing the trade-offs of salary, with quality of life. I would drastically reduce my commute, get to take my dogs into work, and work on projects that I feel I would be a better match for. For every reason to go, I could find an equally compelling reason not to go. I went in for an interview, and got a job offer. Inside of a week, I talked to my wife, my best friend, my parents, and myself. I wore myself down with little sleep. What I did get was restless, and the thought of switching consumed my every waking thought. Some folks at work lived in the area where this new employer was, and over the course of a few meals, I learned enough past experiences from them that I become convinced that this was where I wanted to be. I took confidence in someone from work who I consider very wise, and he took humor in the fact that this was such a struggle for me. I simply couldn’t see the forest through the trees. After assuring me that I would indeed take the job, and that I would love it, I went home that night on the train. From the time I got on the train, until the Taxi ride to my front door step, I noticed that my health had taken a turn for the worst. I had a heavy cough, I was sore, and I was freezing cold. After an unsatisfying dinner, I went into a sick, restless sleep. In the dreams I had (no doubt fueled by various crossings of medications) I saw my life staying at my current job, and my life at my new employer. I slept for what felt like days. When I woke up, backed with confidence by my wife and my co-worker confidant, I knew what the right decision was. I had just experienced a spiritual journey!

For those of you that are my current co-workers, I will genuinely miss you. It has been a hell of a good time at Beacon, and I feel lucky to have worked with such a great team. I hope that I got to share some of my Southernisms in your lives, as much as you have given me a perspective on the customs of New England. I will remember the lunches that I stuffed myself over, the great Android/iPhone debates, the pool games that I miserably lost, the new terms like ‘Ghabo‘ that are drilled into my vocabulary, new nautical terms learned navigating the Charles River, and tossing around the old pig skin. In the end, the commute, and the type of work was just too much for me to bare. I made it almost a full year, but it is time for me to move on and find my personal happiness. You are all invited down to the new house (wherever it may be). I know Kyle and Louis are in since its their old stomping ground. Fisher, and Josh are always up for a good time. Hoydis loves sailing, which Newport has plenty of. And lo and behold, an On The Border exists in Warwick, so I know Jeremy, the wife and kids are in. I wish I had more resolve to stay, but I know when its time to fold and go get my house by the sea.

Until we meet again!

Apple, Computers, Events, Hardware, Open-source, Personal, Ruby, Software, Thoughts, Web, Windows

3 Days Down, 40 Years to Go

Yesterday at 5:00pm marked the end of my first week at Beacon Interactive Systems. My coworkers are all really nice, and there is a surprising geographic mix between them. Some folks have lived in Massachusetts their whole lives, while others come from Maryland, and Michigan. The cultural differences between “down South” and here are pretty minimal, unless you just feel like having a good laugh. There have been two big adjustments however: Snow is really not a big deal up here – people hardly notice it outside. The second is restaurants don’t have sweet tea. You would have to drink sweet tea to understand why this is a big deal.

In general:

  • The job is much less stressful. Even during crunch times, you hear Southpark and Big Lebowski quotes (“I’m not your pal, guy!”).
  • The environment is a lot less structured. You come in whenever, you leave whenever. If you want to go outside and toss around the football, go for it. Good team-builder by the way.
  • The skill sets of my coworkers are all very impressive. Its the rifle vs shotgun approach.
  • The job area is nice – its next to Harvard. Getting there is rough – I have to cut across the city. My 20 minute commute takes about an hour.
  • Developing on a Mac is an easier transition than I thought. I won’t say that I’m in love with it yet, but its workable. The biggest pain has been this silly bundled keyboard and mouse. No one else uses them. Also, package management on Mac sucks compared to Linux. I think I would actually prefer to use Linux. Time will tell on this one.
  • The coffee isn’t as good.

An interesting collision of viewpoints occurred my second day at the job, while I was shadowing a coworker on a joint project. He was showing me their (complex) system of bug detection, and correction. They write up a use case, file a ticket, branch the code, create a changset, rebase it, merge it into QA, verify it, then push it back upstream. Not coming from anything near that complex (“Hey Ben – login to the production server and change it!”) I was amazed that they spent so much time on this process. I asked if they ever just ignore a bug that would be too minimal to matter. My coworker asked me to clarify what I meant. I replied with “You know, its good enough for government.” He paused and looked at me funny, then reiterated that they address all bugs that are discovered. A bug is a bug. It will take me a while to harden my resolve to be like theirs, and aim for perfection. Perfection wasn’t possible before because we had the typical scenario of overworked, underpaid, and on a deadline.

We are moving into our new building in a few weeks. When we move, there will be a train station across the street from the new building, and I will probably make the transition to riding into work. Its about the same amount of time, but I would have the ability to sleep, read, surf the Internet, etc all without causing an accident.

Wish me luck for next week – its been a difficult adjustment.