The Bike Shed
The Bike Shed
Support podcast
On The Bike Shed, hosts Joël Quenneville and Stephanie Minn discuss development experiences and challenges at thoughtbot with Ruby, Rails, JavaScript, and whatever else is drawing their attention, admiration, or ire this week.
415: Codebase Calibration
Stephanie has a delightful and cute Ruby thing to share: Honeybadger, the error monitoring service, has created, where they've illustrated and characterized various common Ruby errors into little monsters, and they're adorable. Meanwhile, Joël encourages folks to submit proposals for RailsConf. Together, Stephanie and Joël delve into the nuances of adapting to and working within new codebases, akin to aligning with a shared mental model or vision. They ponder several vital questions that every developer faces when encountering a new project: the balance between exploring a codebase to understand its structure and diving straight into tasks, the decision-making process behind adopting new patterns versus adhering to established ones, and the strategies teams can employ to assist developers who are familiarizing themselves with a new environment. Honeybadger's Exceptional Creatures RailsConf CFP coaching sessions HTTP Cats Support and Maintenance Episode Transcript:  JOËL: Hello and welcome to another episode of The Bike Shed, a weekly podcast from your friends at thoughtbot about developing great software. I'm Joël Quenneville. STEPHANIE: And I'm Stephanie Minn. And together, we're here to share a bit of what we've learned along the way. JOËL: So, Stephanie, what's new in your world? STEPHANIE: I have a delightful and cute Ruby thing to share I'd seen just in our internal company Slack. Honeybadger, the error monitoring service, has created a cute little webpage called, where they've basically illustrated and characterized various common Ruby errors into little monsters [laughs], and I find them adorable. I think their goal is also to make it a really helpful resource for people encountering these kinds of errors, learning about them for the first time, and figuring how to triage or debug them. And I just think it's a really cool way of, like, making it super approachable, debugging and, you know, when you first encounter a scary error message, can be really overwhelming, and then Googling about it can also be equally [chuckles] overwhelming. So, I just really liked the whimsy that they kind of injected into something that could be really hard to learn about. Like, there are so many different error messages in Ruby and in Rails and whatever other libraries you're using. And so, that's kind of a...I think they've created a one-stop shop for, you know, figuring out how to move forward with common errors. And I also like that it's a bit of a collective effort. They're calling it, like, a bestiary for all the little creatures [laughs] that they've discovered. And I think you can, like, submit your own favorite Ruby error and any guidance you might have for someone trying to debug it. JOËL: That's adorable. It reminds me a little bit of HTTP status codes as cat memes site. It has that same energy. One thing that I think is really interesting is that because it's Honeybadger, they have stats on, like, frequency of these errors, and a lot of these ones are tied to...I think they're picking some of the most commonly surfaced errors. STEPHANIE: Yeah, there's little, like, ratings, too, for how frequently they occur, kind of just like, I don't know, Pokémon [laughs] [inaudible 02:31]. I think it's really neat that they're using something like a learning from their business or maybe even some, like, proprietary information and sharing it with the world so that we can learn from it. JOËL: I think one thing that's worth specifying as well is that these are specific exception classes that get raised. So, they're not just, like, random error strings that you see in the wild. They don't often have a whole lot of documentation around them, so it's nice to see a dedicated page for each and a little bit of maybe how this is used in the real world versus maybe how they were designed to be used. Maybe there's a line or two in the docs about, you know, core Ruby when a NoMethodError should be raised. How does NoMethodError actually get used, you know, in real life, and the exceptions that Honeybadger is capturing. That's really interesting to see. STEPHANIE: Yeah, I like how each page for the exception class, and I'm glad you made that distinction, is kind of, like, crowdsourced guidance and information from the community, so I think you could even, you know, contribute to it if you wanted. But yeah, just a fun, little website to bring you some delight when you're on your next head-smacking, debugging adventure [laughs]. JOËL: And I love that it brings some joy to the topic, but, honestly, I think it's a pretty good reference. I could see myself linking to this anytime I want to have a deeper discussion on exceptions. So, maybe there's a code review, and maybe I want to suggest that we raise a different error than the one that we're doing. I could see myself in that GitHub comment being like, "Oh, instead of, you know, raising an exception here, why don't we instead raise a NoMethodError or something like that?" And then link to the bestiary page. STEPHANIE: So, Joël, what's new in your world? JOËL: So, just recently, RailsConf announced their call for proposals. It's a fairly short period this year, only about three-ish weeks long. So, I've been really encouraging colleagues to submit and trying to be a resource for people who are interested in speaking at conferences. We did a Q&A session with a fellow thoughtboter, Aji Slater, who's also a former RailsConf speaker, about what makes for a good talk, what is it like to submit to a call for proposals, you know, kind of everything from the process from having an idea all the way to stage presence and delivering. And there's a lot of great questions that got asked and some good discussion that happened there. STEPHANIE: Nice. Yeah, I think I have noticed that you are doing a lot more to help, especially first-time speakers give their first conference talk this year. And I'm wondering if there's anything you've learned or any hopes and dreams you have for kind of the amount of time you're investing into supporting others. JOËL: What I'd like to see is a lot of people submitting proposals; that's always a great thing. And, a proposal, even if it doesn't get accepted, is a thing that you can resubmit. And so, having gone through the effort of building a proposal and especially getting it maybe peer-reviewed by some colleagues to polish your idea, I think is already just a really great exercise, and it's one that you can shop around. It's one that you can maybe convert into a blog post if you need to. You can convert that into some kind of podcast appearance. So, I think it's a great way to take an idea you're excited about and focus it, even if you can't get into RailsConf. STEPHANIE: I really like that metric for success. It reminds me of a writer friend I have who actually was a guest on the show, Nicole Zhu. She submits a lot of short stories to magazines and applications to writing fellowships, and she celebrates every rejection. I think at the end of the year, she, like, celebrates herself for having received, you know, like, 15 rejections or something that year because that meant that she just went for it and, you know, did the hard part of doing the work, putting yourself out there. And that is just as important, you know, if not more than whatever achievement or goal or the idea of having something accepted. JOËL: Yeah, I have to admit; rejection hurts. It's not a fun thing to go through. But I think even if you sort of make it to that final stage of having written a proposal and it gets rejected, you get a lot of value out of that journey sort of regardless of whether you get accepted or not. So, I encourage more people to do that. To any of our listeners who are interested, the RailsConf call for proposals goes through February 13th, 2024. So, if you are listening before then and are inspired, I recommend submitting. If you're unsure of what makes for a good CFP, RailsConf is currently offering coaching sessions to help craft better proposals. They have one on February 5th, one on February 6th, and one on February 7th, so those are also options to look into if this is maybe your first time and you're not sure. There's a signup form. We'll link to it in the show notes. STEPHANIE: So, another update I have that I'm excited to get into for the rest of the episode is my recent work on our support and maintenance team, which I've talked about on the show before. But for any listeners who don't know, it's a kind of sub-team at thoughtbot that is focused on helping maintain multiple client projects at a time. But, at this point, you know, there's not as much active feature development, but the work is focused on keeping the codebase up to date, making any dependency upgrades, fixing any bugs that come up, and general support. So, clients have a team to kind of address those things as they come up. And when I had last talked about it on the podcast, I was really excited because it was a bit of a different way of working. I felt like it was very novel to be, you know, have a lot of different projects and domains to be getting into. And knowing that I was working on this team, like, short-term and, you know, it may not be me in the future continuing what I might have started during my rotation, I thought it was really interesting to be optimizing towards, like, completion of a task. And that had kind of changed my workflow a bit and my process. JOËL: So, now that you've been doing work on the support and maintenance team for a while and you've kind of maybe gotten more comfortable with it, how are you generally feeling about this idea of sort of jumping into new codebases all the time? STEPHANIE: It is both fun and more challenging than I thought it would be. I tend to actually really enjoy that period of joining a new team or a project and exploring, you know, a codebase and getting up to speed, and that's something that we do a lot as consultants. But I think I started to realize that it's a bit of a tricky balance to figure out how much time should I be spending understanding what this codebase is doing? Like, how much of the application do I need to be understanding, and how much poking around should I be doing before just trying to get started on my first task, the first starter ticket that I'm given? There's a bit of a balance there because, on one hand, you could just immediately start on the task and kind of just, you know, have your blinders [chuckles] on and not really care too much about what the rest of the code is doing outside of the change that you're trying to make. But that also means that you don't have that context of why certain things are the way they are. Maybe, like, the way that you want to be building something actually won't work because of some unexpected complexity with the app. So, I think there, you know, needs to be time spent digging around a little bit, but then you could also be digging around for a long time [chuckles] before you feel like, okay, I finally have enough understanding of this new codebase to, like, build a feature exactly how a seasoned developer on the team might. JOËL: I imagine that probably varies a little bit based on the task that you're doing. So, something like, oh, we want to upgrade this codebase to Ruby 3.3, probably requires you to have a very different understanding of the codebase than there's a bug where submitting a comment double posts it, and you have to dig into that. Both of those require you to understand the application on very different levels and kind of understand different mental models of what the app is doing. STEPHANIE: Yeah, absolutely. That's a really good point that it can depend on what you are first asked to work on. And, in fact, I actually think that is a good guidepost for where you should be looking because you could develop a mental model that is just completely unrelated [chuckles] to what you're asked to do. And so, I suppose that is, you know, usually a good place to start, at least is like, okay, I have this first task, and there's some understanding and acceptance that, like, the more you work on this codebase, the more you'll explore and discover other parts of it, and that can be on a need to know kind of basis. JOËL: So, I'm thinking that if you are doing something like a Ruby upgrade or even a Rails upgrade, a lot of what you care about the app is going to be on a more mechanical level. So, you want to know what gems you're using. You want to know what different patterns are being used, maybe how callbacks are happening, any particular features that are version-specific that are being used, things like that. Whereas if you're, you know, say, fixing a bug, you might care a lot more about some of the product-level concerns. What are we actually trying to do here? What is the expected user experience? How does this deviate from that? What were the underlying mental models of the developers? So, there's almost, like, two lenses you can look at the code. Now, I almost want to make this a two-dimensional thing, where you can look at it either from, like, a very kind of mechanical lens or a product lens in one axis. And then, on the other axis, you could look at it from a very high-level 10,000-foot view and maybe zoom in a little bit where you need, versus a very localized view; here's where the bug is happening on this page, and then sort of zoom out as necessary. And I could see different sorts of tasks falling in different quadrants there of, do I need a more mechanical view? Do I need a more product-focused view? And do I need to be looking locally versus globally? STEPHANIE: Wow. I can't believe you just created a Cartesian graph [laughs] for this problem on the fly. But I love it because I do think that actually lines up with different strategies I've taken before. It's like, how much do you even look at the code before deciding that you can't really get a good picture of it, of what the product is, without just poking around from the app itself? I actually think that I tend to start from the code. Like, maybe I'll see a screenshot that someone has shared of the app, you know, like a bug or something that they want me to fix, and then looking for that text in the code first, and then trying to kind of follow that path, whereas it's also, you know, perfectly viable to try to see the app being used in production, or staging, or something first to get a better understanding of some of the business problems it's trying to solve. JOËL: When you jump into a new codebase, do you sort of consciously take the time to plan your approach or sort of think about, like, how much knowledge of this new codebase do I need before I can, like, actually look at the problem at hand? STEPHANIE: Ooh, that's kind of a hard question to answer because I think my experience has told me enough times that it's never what I think it's going to [laughs] be, not never, but it frequently surprises me. It has surprised me enough times that it's kind of hard to know off the bat because it's much as we work in frameworks that have opinions and conventions, a lot of the work that happens is understanding how this particular codebase and team does things and then having to maybe shift or adjust from there. So, I think I don't do a lot of planning. I don't really have an idea about how much time it'll take me because I can't really know until I dive in a little bit. So, that is usually my first instinct, even if someone is wanting to, like, talk to me about an approach or be, like, "Hey, like, how long do you think this might take based on your experience as a consultant?" This is my first task. Oftentimes, I really can't say until I've had a little bit of downtime to, in some ways, like, acquire the knowledge [chuckles] to figure that out or answer that question. JOËL: How much knowledge do you like to get upfront about an app before you dive into actually doing the task at hand? Are there any things, like, when you get access to a new codebase, that you'll always want to look at to get a sense of the project before you look at any tickets? STEPHANIE: I actually start at the model level. Usually, I am curious about what kinds of objects we're working with. In fact, I think that is really helpful for me. They're like building blocks, in order for me to, like, conceptually understand this world that's being represented by a codebase. And I kind of either go outwards or inwards from there. Usually, if there's a model that is, like, calling to me as like, oh, I'll probably need to interact with, then I'll go and seek out, like, where that model is created, maybe through controllers, maybe through background jobs, or something like that, and start to piece together entry points into the application. I find that helpful because a lot of the times, it can be hard to know whether certain pages or routes are even used at all anymore. They could just be dead code and could be a bit misleading. I've certainly been misled [chuckles] more than once. And so, I think if I'm able to pull out the main domain objects that I notice in a ticket or just hear people talk about on the team, that's usually where I gravitate towards first. What about you? Do you have a place you like to start when it comes to exploring a new codebase like that? JOËL: The routes file is always a good sort of overview of, like, what is going on in the app. Scanning the models directory is also a great start in a Rails app to get a sense of what is this app about? What are the core nouns in our vocabulary? Another thing that's good to look for in a codebase is what are the big types of patterns that they tend to use? The Rails ecosystem goes through fads, and, over time, different patterns will be more popular than others. And so, it's often useful to see, oh, is this an app where everything happens in service objects, or is this an app that likes to rely on view components to render their views? Things like that. Once you get a sense of that, you get a little bit of a better sense of how things are architected beyond just the basic MVC. STEPHANIE: I like that you mentioned fads because I think I can definitely tell, you know, how modern an app is or kind of where it might be stuck in time [chuckles] a little bit based on those patterns and libraries that it's heavily utilizing, which I actually find to be an interesting and kind of challenging position to be in because how do you approach making changes to a codebase that is using a lot of patterns or styles from back in the day? Would you continue following those same patterns, or do you feel motivated to introduce something new or kind of what might be trendy now? JOËL: This is the boring answer, but it's almost never worth it to, like, rewrite the codebase just to use a new pattern. Just introducing the new pattern in some of the new things means there are now two patterns. That's also not a great outcome for the team. So, without some other compelling reason, I default to using the established patterns. STEPHANIE: Even if it's something you don't like? JOËL: Yes. I'm not a huge fan of service objects, but I work in plenty of codebases that have them, and so where it makes sense, I will use service objects there. Service objects are not mutually exclusive with other things, and so sometimes it might make sense to say, look, I don't feel like I can justify a service object here. I'll do this logic in a view, or maybe I'll pull this out into some other object that's not a service object and that can live alongside nicely. But I'm not necessarily introducing a new pattern. I'm just deciding that this particular extraction might not necessarily need a service object. STEPHANIE: That's an interesting way to describe it, not as a pattern, but as kind of, like, choosing not to use the existing [chuckles] pattern. But that doesn't mean, like, totally shifting the architecture or even how you're asking other people to understand the codebase. And I think I'm in agreement. I'm actually a bit of a follower, too, [laughs], where I want to, I don't know, just make things match a little bit with what's already been created, follow that style. That becomes pretty important to me when integrating with a team in a codebase. But I actually think that, you know, when you are calibrating to a codebase, you're in a position where you don't have all that baggage and history about how things need to be. And maybe you might be empowered to have a little bit more freedom to question existing patterns or bring some new ideas to the team to, hopefully, like, help the code evolve. I think that's something that I struggle with sometimes is feeling compelled to follow what came before me and also wanting to introduce some new things just to see what the team might think about them. JOËL: A lot of that can vary depending on what is the pattern you want to introduce and sort of what your role is going to be on that team. But that is something that's nice about someone new coming onto a project. They haven't just sort of accepted that things are the way they are, especially for things that the team already doesn't like but doesn't feel like they have the energy to do anything better about it. So, maybe you're in a codebase where there's a ton of Ruby code in your ERB templates, and it's not really a pattern that you're following. It's just a thing that's there. It's been sort of the path of least resistance for a long time, and it's easier to add more lines in there, but nobody likes it. New person joins the team, and their naive exuberance is just like, "We can fix it. We can make it better." And maybe that's, you know, going back and rewriting all of your views. That's probably not the best use of their time. But it could be maybe the first time they have to touch one of these views, cleaning up that one and starting a conversation among the team. "Hey, here are some patterns that we might like to clean up some of these views instead," or "Here are maybe some guidelines for anything new that we write that we want to do to keep our views clean," and sort of start moving the needle in a positive direction. STEPHANIE: I like the idea of moving the needle. Even though I tend to not want to stir the pot with any big changes, one thing that I do find myself doing is in a couple of places in the specs, just trying to refactor a bit away from using lets. There were some kind of forward-thinking decisions made before when RSpec was basically going to deprecate using the describe block without prepending it with their module, so just kind of throwing that in there whenever I would touch a spec and asking other people to do the same. And then, recently, one kind of, like, small syntax thing that I hadn't seen before, and maybe this is just because of the age of the codebases in which I'm working, the argument forwarding syntax in Ruby that has been new, I mean, it's like not totally new anymore [laughs], but throwing that in there a little every now and then to just kind of shift away from this, you know, dated version of the code kind of towards things that other people are seeing and in newer projects. JOËL: I love harnessing that energy of being new on a project and wanting to make things better. How do you avoid just being, you know, that developer, though, that's new, comes in, and just wants to change everything for the sake of change or for your own personal opinions and just kind of moves things around, stirs the pot, but doesn't really contribute anything net positive to the team? Because I've definitely seen that as well, and that's not a good first contribution or, you know, contribution in general as a newer team member. How do we avoid being that person while still capitalizing on that energy of being someone new and wanting to make a positive impact? STEPHANIE: Yeah, that's a great point, and I kind of alluded to this earlier when I asked, like, oh, like, even if you don't like an existing syntax or pattern you'll still follow it? And I think liking something a different way is not a good enough reason [chuckles]. But if you are able to have a good reason, like I mentioned with the RSpec prepending, you know, it didn't need to happen now, but if we would hope to upgrade that gem eventually, then yeah, that was a good reason to make that change as opposed to just purely aesthetic [laughs]. JOËL: That's one where there is pretty much a single right answer to. If you plan to keep staying up to date with versions of RSpec, you will eventually need to do all these code changes because, you know, they're deprecating the old way. Getting ahead of that gradually as we touch spec files, there's kind of no downside to it. STEPHANIE: That's true, though maybe there is a person who exists out there who's like, "I love this old version of RSpec, and I will die on this hill that we have to stay on [laughs] it." But I also think that I have preferences, but I'm not so attached to them. Ideally, you know, what I would love to receive is just, like, curiosity about like, "Oh, like, why did you make this change?" And just kind of share my reasoning. And sometimes in that process, I realize, you know, I don't have a great reason, and I'll just say, "I don't have a great reason. This is just the way I like it. But if it doesn't work for you, like, tell me, and I'll consider changing it back. [chuckles]" JOËL: Maybe that's where there's a lot of benefit is the sort of curiosity on the part of the existing team and sort of openness to both learn about existing practices but also share about different practices from the new teammate. And maybe that's you're coming in, and you have a different style where you like to write tests, maybe without using RSpec's let syntax; the team is using it. Maybe you can have a conversation with the team. It's almost certainly not worth it for you to go and rewrite the entire test suite to not use let and be like, "Hey, first PR. I made your test better." STEPHANIE: Hundreds of files changed, thousands [laughs] of lines of code. I think that's actually a good segue into the question of how can a team support a new hire or a new developer who is still calibrating to a codebase? I think I'm curious about this being different from onboarding because, you know, there are a lot of things that we already kind of expect to give some extra time and leeway for someone who's new coming in. But what might be some ways to support a new developer that are less well known? JOËL: One that I really like is getting them involved as early as possible in code review because then they get to see the patterns that are coming in, and they can be involved in conversations on those. The first PR you're reviewing, and you see a bunch of tests leaning heavily on let, and maybe you ask a question, "Is this a pattern that we're following in this codebase? Did we have a particular motivation for why we chose this?" And, you know, and you don't want to do it in a sort of, like, passive-aggressive way because you're trying to push something else. It has to come from a place of genuine curiosity, but you're allowing the new teammate to both see a lot of the existing patterns kind of in very quick succession because you see a pretty good cross-section of those when you review code. And also, to have conversations about them, to ask anything like, "Oh, that's unusual. I didn't know we were doing that." Or, "Hey, is this a pattern that we're doing kind of just local to this subsystem, or is this something that's happening all the way? Is this a pattern that we're using and liking? Is this a thing that we were doing five years ago that we're phasing out, but there's still a few of them left?" Those are all, I think, great questions to ask when you're getting started. STEPHANIE: That makes a lot of sense. It's different from saying, "This is how we do things here," and expecting them to adapt or, you know, change to fit into that style or culture, and being open to letting it evolve based on the new team, the new people on the team and what they might be bringing to the table. I like to ask the question, "What do you need to know?" Or "What do you need to be successful?" as opposed to telling them what I think they need [laughs]. I think that is something that I actually kind of recently, not regret exactly, but I was kind of helping out some folks who were going to be joining the team and just trying to, like, shove all this information down their throats and be like, "Oh, and watch out for these gotchas. And this app uses a lot of callbacks, and they're really complex." And I think I was maybe coloring their [chuckles] experience a little bit and expecting them to be able to drink from the fire hose, as opposed to trusting that they can see for themselves, you know, like, what is going on, and form opinions about it, and ask questions that will support them in whatever they are looking to do. When we talked earlier about the four different quadrants, like, the kind of information they need to know will differ based off of their task, based off of their experience. So, that's one way that I am thinking about to, like, make space for a new developer to help shape that culture, rather than insisting that things are the way they are. JOËL: It can be a fine balance where you want to be open to change while also you have to remain kind of ruthlessly pragmatic about the fact that change can be expensive. And so, a lot of changes you need to be justified, and you don't want to just be rewriting your patterns for every new employee or, you know, just to follow the latest trends because we've seen a lot of trends come and go in the Rails ecosystem, and getting on all of them is just not worth our time. STEPHANIE: And that's the hard truth of there's always trade-offs [laughs] in software development, isn't that right? JOËL: It sure is. You can't always chase the newest shiny, as fun as that is. STEPHANIE: On that note, shall we wrap up? JOËL: Let's wrap up. STEPHANIE: Show notes for this episode can be found at JOËL: This show has been produced and edited by Mandy Moore. STEPHANIE: If you enjoyed listening, one really easy way to support the show is to leave us a quick rating or even a review in iTunes. It really helps other folks find the show. JOËL: If you have any feedback for this or any of our other episodes, you can reach us @_bikeshed, or you can reach me @joelquen on Twitter. STEPHANIE: Or reach both of us at via email. JOËL: Thanks so much for listening to The Bike Shed, and we'll see you next week. ALL: Byeeeeeeee!!!!!!! AD: Did you know thoughtbot has a referral program? If you introduce us to someone looking for a design or development partner, we will compensate you if they decide to work with us. More info on our website at: Or you can email us at with any questions.Support The Bike Shed
Feb 5
30 min
414: Spike Tasks
Joël shares his recent experience with Turbo, a JavaScript framework that simplifies adding interactivity to websites without extensive JavaScript coding. Stephanie gives an update on her quest to work from her office more, and the birds have arrived—most notably, chickadees. Stephanie and Joël address a listener question from Edward about the concept of a "spike" in software development. They discuss the nature of spikes, emphasizing that they are typically throwaway work aimed at learning and de-risking rather than producing final code, and explore how spikes can lead to better decision-making and prioritization in software development, especially in complex codebases. Transcript: STEPHANIE:  Hello and welcome to another episode of The Bike Shed, a weekly podcast from your friends at thoughtbot about developing great software. I'm Stephanie Minn. JOËL: And I'm Joël Quenneville. And together, we're here to share a bit of what we've learned along the way. STEPHANIE: So, Joël, what's new in your world? JOËL: I'm pretty excited because this week, I actually got to use a little bit of Turbo for the first time. Turbo is Rails'...I guess it's not technically just for Rails. It's a sort of unobtrusive JavaScript framework that allows you to build a lot of interactive functionality without actually having to write a lot of JavaScript yourself, just by writing some HTML in a certain way. And you can add a lot of functionality and interactivity to your site without having to drop to custom writing some JavaScript. STEPHANIE: Cool. Yeah, that is exciting. I personally have not gotten to use too much of it in a production/client setting; only played around with it a little bit on my own to keep up with what's new and just kind of reading about how other people are excited to use it. So, what are your first impressions so far? JOËL: It's pretty nice. It, you know, works as advertised. My situation, I was rendering a calendar view of a lot of events, and this is completely server-rendered. And I realized, wait a minute, there are some days where I've got, like, 20 events, and I really, like, I want my calendar squares to say sort of equally sized. So, I wanted to limit myself to only showing four or five events per calendar day. And so, I added a little link at the bottom of the calendar day that says, you know, "See more." And when you click that link, it does some Turbo stuff, and it pulls in other events so that you can now sort of expand it to get the whole day. So, it's just a little bit of interactivity that you kind of get for free with Turbo just by wrapping a particular HTML tag around it and having the Turbo library loaded. STEPHANIE: That's cool. I'm excited to try it out next time I'm working on a Rails project that just needs a little bit of that interactivity, you know, just to make that experience a little bit richer. And it seems like a really good, like, low-effort way to add some of those enhancements. Based on what you described, it sounds really easy. JOËL: Yeah, I was impressed with just how low effort it all was, which is what you want, right? It works out of the box. So, for anyone who's kind of curious about it, Turbo Frames is the little bit that I used, and it worked really well. Oh, something I'm actually excited about it as well; it plays nicely with clients that have disabled JavaScript. So, this link that I click to pull in the rest of the events, if somebody has JavaScript disabled, or if they command-click or control-click to open in a new tab, it doesn't just do nothing like it would often do in many sort of front-end framework-y places that have hijacked the URL click handler. Instead, it actually opens up the full list of items in a new page, just as if you'd clicked a normal link. So, it really gives you that progressive enhancement feel where I can click a link, and it goes to another page with a list of all the 30 events if I don't have JavaScript. But if I do, maybe I get a slightly better experience where, instead of taking me to a new page, it just expands the list, and I get to see the full list. So, it plays nicely on both sides. STEPHANIE: That's really cool. As someone who's just starting to dabble in some alternative browsers outside of the main popular ones [chuckles], I have noticed how many websites do not work for me anymore [laughs]. And that sounds, like, nice from a user perspective. JOËL: So, other than dabbling with the new browsers, what's new in your world? STEPHANIE: A few weeks ago, I talked about [laughs] sitting more at my desk and, you know, various incentives that I gave myself to do that. And I'd like to say that I've been doing a pretty good job [laughs]. So, what's new in my world is that I've followed up on my commitment to sit at my desk more, feel a little bit more organized in my workday. And that's especially true because the birds have finally discovered my bird feeder [laughs]. JOËL: Oh, that's really cool. STEPHANIE: There were a few weeks where I was not really getting any visitors, and, you know, I was just like, when are they going to come and eat this delicious birdseed that I've [laughs] put out for them? And it seems like a flock of chickadees that normally like to hang out on the apple tree in my backyard have figured out this new source of food, and they'll sometimes, five of them at a time, will come, and sometimes they even fight [laughs] to get on the ledge to hang out at the bird feeder. And yeah, it turns out that the six pounds of bird feed that I bought, I'll start to turn through [laughs] that a little bit quicker now, so I'm excited about that and just to also see other birds and species come and go as time goes on. So, that's been an exciting new development. JOËL: So, the six pounds of birdseed might not last you through the winter. STEPHANIE: I was debating between six pounds and, like, a 20-pound bag [laughs], which that would have been a lot. And so far, I think the six pounds has been serving me well. We'll see how long it lasts, but yeah, it's finally starting. I might have to refill it soon, so, you know, I was hopefully not going to have to store all that bird feed [laughs] just, like, in my house for a long time. JOËL: Any birds that have shown up that have been particularly fun to watch or that are maybe your favorites? STEPHANIE: I mentioned the chickadees because they seem to come as a group, and I really like watching them interact with each other. It's just kind of like bird TV, you know, it's not just a single bird. It's just watching these animals that are a collective do their thing. And I've been enjoying that a lot. JOËL: Now I'm just imagining a reality TV but the Chickadee edition. STEPHANIE: Oh yeah, definitely. I know some people put, like, cameras at their bird feeders to either live stream, which is funny because most of the time, there's nothing happening [laughs]. Usually, the birds are really in and out. Or they'll have, like, a really fancy camera to take, like, really beautiful up-close photos. There's a blog that I discovered recently where someone posts about the birds that visit them at their place in Michigan. I'll link to it in the show notes, but it's really cool to see these, like, up-close and personal photos of basically the bird's mouth. Sometimes, they're open [laughs], so you can see right in them. I don't know; maybe there's a time where I'll get so into it that I'll create my own bird feeder blog. JOËL: Well, if you do, you should definitely share it with the listeners on the podcast. Speaking of listeners on the podcast, we've recently had a listener question from Edward that I thought was a really interesting topic, and I wanted to take a whole episode to dig into. And Edward asks about the concept of a spike. Sometimes, we're asked to investigate a complex new feature, and you might want to do some evaluation on the feasibility and complexity and build out just enough of it to make a well-informed opinion. And ideally, you're doing that in a way that reduces risk of spending too much time with unproven impact. The problem is that in any reasonably complex codebase, that investigation work can be most of the work needed to build the feature. And Edward gives an example: if you're adding a system admin role, the core of the work is adding a new role with all of the abilities, but the real work is ensuring that it interacts with the entire system in the appropriate way. So, how do you manage making sure that you're doing spikes well? And Edward asks if this is something that we've experienced a sort of feeling that we're doing 90% of the work in the spike. He also asks, does this say something about the codebase that you're working on? If it's hard to spike in it, does that say something about the underlying codebase, or are we just all doing spikes wrong? So yeah, I'm curious, Stephanie: do you occasionally spike things out in code on your projects? STEPHANIE: Yeah, I do. I think one piece that was left a little bit unsaid is that I think spiking usually comes up when the team can't really estimate how long a task will take, you know, assuming that you use estimates on your team [chuckles]. That calls for a spike ticket, right? And someone will spend some time. And I think on some teams, this is usually time-boxed as well to maybe do a proof of concept or, yeah, do some of that initial exploration. JOËL: Before we go too deep, I think it's probably useful to define spike in that I think it's a little bit easy and probably varies from team to team and even from a developer to developer. I think, for me, when I think of a spike, it's throwaway work. The code that I write will not get shipped, and this is not code that will just get improved later. It is entirely throwaway work. And the purpose of it is to learn something about the project that's being done. Typically, it's in a sort of de-risking fashion, so to say, look, we've got a feature that's got a lot of unknowns in it. And if we commit to it right now or we start investing time into it, it could become a bit of a time pit. Let's try to answer some questions about it. Let's try to resolve some of those unknowns so that we can better make decisions around maybe estimation, but maybe even just prioritization. If this seems like something that would be really challenging to do, maybe we don't want to prioritize it this quarter. Is that similar to how you think of spikes, or do you have a different sort of definition of it? STEPHANIE: Yeah, I am glad you mentioned that it's throwaway work. I think I was a little hesitant to commit to that definition with conviction because even based off of what Edward was saying, there's kind of, like, maybe different ideas about that or different expectations. But I sometimes think that, depending, spiking doesn't even necessarily need to lead to code. Like, it could just be answering questions. And so, at the same time, I think it is, I like what you said, work that helps you learn more about the system, whether or not there's some code written as, like, a potential path at the end of it. JOËL: Interesting. So, you would put some things that don't involve code at all in the spike bucket. STEPHANIE: I think there have been times where I've done a spike, and I've not coded out anything, but I've answered some questions, and I've left comments about unearthing some of the uncertainty that led us to want to explore the idea in the first place. Then, again, I also have gone down the path of, like, trying out a solution and maybe even multiple and then evaluating afterwards which ones I think were more suitable. So, it could mean both. I think that is actually something that's within the power of whoever is assigned this work to determine whatever is valuable to them in order to get enough information to figure out how you want to move forward. JOËL: Another element of spikes that I think is often implied is that because this is throwaway work, you're not necessarily putting in all the work to make everything sort of clean, or well-structured, or reusable, or anything like that. So, it's quite possible that you would not even test this. You might not break this out into objects in the way that you would if this had to be reused. You might have duplication all over, and that's okay because the purpose of this code is not to be sort of production-grade; it's to answer some questions, and then you're going to throw it away and, using those answers, build something correctly. STEPHANIE: Yeah, I think that's true. And it's kind of an interesting distinction from, you know, what you might consider your regular work in which the expectation is that it will be shipped [chuckles]. And there's also some amount of conflating the two, I think because if, you know, you and I are saying like, yeah, like, this exploration should be standalone, and it is not going to be used to be built on top of necessarily, there is some amount of revisiting. And you're not starting from scratch because you have an idea, but you are starting fresh if you will. And so, you know, when you are doing that spiking, I think it allows you to move a little bit faster, but that doesn't mean that the work is, like, any X percent [laughs] done at the end of it. JOËL: The work is still kind of, I guess, 0% done, again, because this is throwaway code, in our definition of a spike anyway. Would you distinguish between the terms spike and prototype? STEPHANIE: Oh, interesting. My initial reaction is that a prototype would then be user-tested [laughs] in some way. Like, the point is to then show someone and then get them interacting with it, any initial reactions from that. Whereas a spike is really for the developer and maybe the team to discuss. JOËL: I like that distinction. I definitely think that a spike, for me, is purely technical. We're not spiking out a feature by putting a thing live in production behind a feature flag, showing it to 10% of users, and seeing how they respond to that. That's not a spike. So, I think something a little bit more like that, or where you're showing things maybe to users, or you're wanting to do maybe some user testing with something. And it can be throwaway code still. I think now you're starting to get something more that you would call a prototype. So, I like that distinction of, is this sort of internal or external? But in the way they're used, they can often be similar, and that oftentimes both will sort of...they're built to be as cheap as possible to answer the questions you're trying to get answered, whether that's from a user or just technical reasons. And so, the whole thing can be a little bit of smoke and mirrors, a little bit of duct tape and toothpicks, as long as you only, the only solid parts you need are the parts that are going to help you answer your question. And so, any hack or cheat you can get to to bypass everything else is time you've saved, and that's a good thing. STEPHANIE: Oh, I'm very curious about this idea of time saved because I think sometimes an underappreciated outcome of a spike is what not to do or is choosing not to do something. And it can feel not great to have spent hours or even days exploring a path just to realize that it's not worth it. I'm curious, like, when you know to stop and also, how you get other people kind of onboard that even just figuring out an initial idea was not a viable solution, how that could be a valuable insight to the rest of the team. JOËL: Something that I think can be really useful is before you even start spiking out something, write a list of questions that you're trying to answer with this code, and then don't let yourself get distracted. Write the minimum amount of code that will allow you to answer those questions. So, maybe that is a question around, is it possible to connect this external API to our systems? There are some questions around, like, how credentials and things will work or how complex that will be. It might be a question around, like, maybe there's even, like, a performance thing. We want to talk to an external system and, you know, the responses back need to be within a certain amount of time. Otherwise, this whole approach where we're going to try to fetch data live is not feasible. So, the answer we need there is, can we do it live, or do we need to consider some sort of background fetching, or caching approach, or something like that? So, write the minimum amount of code that it would take to do that. And maybe the minimum amount of code, like you said, is not even really code. Maybe it's a script or even just trying out some curl commands and timing them at the command line. It could be a lot of things. But I think having a list of questions up front really helps you focus on the purpose of the spike. And I think it helps me a little bit as well with emotional attachment in that success is not necessarily coming to a yes on all of those questions. It is having an answer, going from question mark to some answer. So, if I can answer that question, if I can find even a clever way to answer that question faster, that is success. I have done a good job with my spike. STEPHANIE: I like that a lot. I think some people might struggle with spikes because they're so ambiguous. And if it's just, like, explore this potential feature, or, like, maybe not even that, but even saying, like, we want to build this admin role, to use Edward's example. And to constrain it to how should we do that, it already kind of guides the spike in a certain direction that may or may not be exactly what you're looking for. And so, there's some value in figuring out what questions to ask with the product team, even to get alignment on what the purpose of this task is. And, you know, this is true of regular feature work, too. When those decisions have kind of already been made about what we're working on without a lot of input from developers who will be working on it, it can be really hard to, like, go back and be like, "Oh, actually, that's not really possible." But if the questions are like, "Is this possible?" or like, what it costs to do this, I think it prevents some of that friction and misalignment that might be had when the outcome of a spike turns out to be maybe not what someone wants to hear. JOËL: And I think the questions you ask don't necessarily have to be yes or no questions. They could be some sort of list, right? It could be, look, we're looking at two different implementations or two general approaches, families of solutions for our super admin role. What are the trade-offs of each? And so, a spike might be exploring. Can we come up with a list of pros and cons for each approach? And maybe some of them we just know from experience at developing, but maybe some of them might involve actually doing a little bit of work to play out the pros and cons. Maybe that's in our app. Maybe that's even spinning up a little app on the side, right? If we're comparing maybe two gems or something like that to see how we feel about throwing a few different scenarios and exploring edge cases. So, the questions don't need to be straight-up yes or no. So, you mentioned earlier the idea that sometimes one developer might do the spike, and then another one might do the actual work, maybe inspired by the answers that were on that spike. And I think that can lead to some really interesting dynamics, especially if the developer who did the first spike has done kind of, like, what Edward describes, what feels like 90% of the feature. It may be not so great code quality. And then this is a branch on GitHub, and they're like, "Okay, do the rest. Make it good. I've already explored the possibilities here," and then you're the developer who has to pick that up. Have you ever experienced that? And if so, how do you feel picking up a ticket like that? STEPHANIE: Yeah, I have experienced it, and I think there is always something lost when that happens when you are not the person who did the research. And then having to just go from whatever was left in the notes or from the code and, you know, I don't know how feasible it is for whoever spiked to always be doing the implementing, but I certainly end up having a lot of questions, I think. Like, you can't document or even code out, like, every single thing you learned in that process, right? There's always from big to small decisions or alternatives considered that won't make it into however that communication or expression or knowledge transfer happens. And I think the two choices that I have as a developer picking that up is either to just trust [laughs] that the work the other person did is taking me down a good path or to spend more time rebuilding some of that context and making some of my own evaluations along the way and deciding for myself whether I'm like, oh yeah, this is a good idea, or maybe, like, I might change something here. So, I think that there is some time lost, too. And I think that's a really good thing to point out when someone might think like, oh, this is mostly done. That's kind of my first reaction in terms of the context loss in an exchange like that. JOËL: Do you feel like this is a situation where you would want to have the same developer do both the spike and the final implementation? Or is this maybe a situation where spikes aren't being done correctly, and maybe a branch with some code that's kind of half-written is maybe the wrong artifact to hand off from one developer to the other? STEPHANIE: Oh, that's really interesting about if that's the wrong artifact to hand off because it could be misleading. Maybe it's not always, and maybe there's some really great code that comes out of it if someone builds on top of a work-in-progress branch or a spike branch. Honestly, I think, and I haven't even really gotten to experience this all too much because maybe there is some perception that it's backtracking or, you know, it's more work or more time, but it would be really cool for whoever had spiked it to then bring someone along to pair on it and start fresh, like we mentioned, where they're kind of coming to each decision to be made with an idea, but it's not necessarily set in stone, right? There could be that discussion. It could be, like, a generative experience to either refine that code that had initially been spiked out or discover new things along the way. It's not like the outcome has already been decided because of the spike. It is information, and that's that. JOËL: And we on this podcast are very pro-discovering new things along the way. I think sometimes as a developer, if I get sort of a, you know, maybe a 90% branch done that's get passed on to me from somebody else who did a spike, it feels a little bit like the finish the rest of the owl meme, except that now I'm not even, like, just trying to follow a tutorial. Just somebody did the first couple of circles and then is like, "Oh yeah, you finish the rest of the owl. I did the hard work. You just need to polish it up." On the one hand, it's like, dude, if you're, like, doing 90%, you may as well finish it. I don't want to just be polishing somebody else's work. And, you know, oftentimes, it might feel like it's done 90% of the time, but it's actually, like, there's a lot of edge cases and nuance that have not been handled. And, you know, a spike is meant to be throwaway work to start with. So, I felt like those sorts of handoffs often, I don't know, they don't sit with me well. STEPHANIE: Yeah. You could also come in and be like, this doesn't even look like an owl at all [laughs]. JOËL: I feel like maybe in my ideal world, a branch with partly written code is, I guess, an intermediate artifact that might be useful to show. But what I really want from a spike is answers to questions that will allow me, when I build the thing from scratch to make intelligent decisions. So, probably what I want out of a spike is something that's closer to documentation, a list of questions that we were asking, and then the answers we came to by doing the spike work. And that might be maybe a list of trade-offs, or maybe we didn't really know the correct endpoints from this undocumented API, and we tried some stuff, and we, like, figured out what endpoints we needed, or what the shape of the JSON payload needed to be, things like that. Maybe we tried a couple of different implementations, or we did some exploration around, like, what gem we'd like to use, and we have a recommendation for a gem. Those are all, I think, very concrete outcomes from a spike that I can then use when I'm building it from scratch. And I'm not just, like, branching off your branch or having it open in another browser and copy-pasting snippets while trying to, like, add some testing and maybe modularizing it a little bit. I think that leads to probably a better outcome for the person who's doing the spike because they have a tighter scope and also a better outcome for me, who's then trying to build that feature correctly from the ground up. I think that would be my sort of ideal workflow. STEPHANIE: While you were saying that, I thought about how a lot of those points sounded like requirements for a feature. And that, I think, is also a good outcome when a spike then leads to more concrete requirements because those are all decisions that were thought through, right? And even better is if that also documents things that were tried and the trade-offs that came with them or, like, the reasons why they were less viable or not ideal for that added context because that is also work that happened [laughs] and should be captured so someone can know that that might not be time they need to spend on that. I am really interested in one piece that we haven't quite touched on is the complexity of the app and what it means for spiking to be a challenge because of the complexity of the app. JOËL: Yeah. And I think sort of inherent in there is that maybe the idea that if you have a really complex app, it sort of forces you to go to the 90% of the work done in order to successfully answer the questions you wanted to answer with your spike in a way that maybe a better-structured app would not. Do you think that's true? STEPHANIE: Well, I actually think that if the app is complex, you're actually seeing that affect all parts of feature development, not just spiking, where everything takes longer [laughs] because you maybe feel less confident. You're nervous about breaking something. Edward called the real work ensuring that it interacts with the entire system correctly, and that's true of, I think, just software development in general. And so, I wonder if, you know, spiking happens to be one way that it manifests, but if there are signals that it's affecting, you know, all parts of your workflow. JOËL: There definitely is a cost, right? Complex software imposes costs everywhere. In some way, I think maybe spiking is attempting to get around some of those, in that there are some decisions that we can just say, you know what? We'll build the feature, and we'll just kind of figure it out as we go along, and we'll, like, build the thing. Spiking attempts to say, look, let's not build the whole thing. Let's fake out a bunch of parts because, really, we have a big question that we want to answer about a thing that is three steps down, you know. And maybe the question is, look, we're trying to build the super admin role, and we know it's got all these, like, edge cases we need to deal with. Maybe we need a list of the edge cases, and maybe that's how we, like, try to drive them out. But maybe this is a, hey, do we want to go with more of a, like, a role hierarchy inheritance-based approach, or do we want to go with some sort of escalating defaults? Or whatever the couple of different strategies you might want to do. And the spike might be trying to answer the question, how can we, as cheaply as possible while doing the minimum amount of work, sort of explore which of these implementations works best? And in a complex system, is it possible to get to the answer to those questions without building out 90% of the feature itself? I think, going to what you said, you might have to do more work if it's a complex system. But I would also encourage everyone to go absolute minimalist, like, keep your goal in mind: what is the question you're trying to answer? And then ruthlessly cut everything you need to get to your point where you can answer that question. Do you need to hard code? Do you need to metaprogram? Do you need to do just, like, the worst, dirtiest code that you've ever written? That's okay because, like, the implementation does not matter. The fact that you're not exercising the full system does not matter, as long as the part that you're trying to exercise and answer your questions does get used. STEPHANIE: Yeah, I like that a lot. And I wonder if the impulse to want to spike something is coming out of nervousness about how complicated the ask is. And it's like, well, I don't want to tell you that it's going to take a long time because this app is extremely complex, and everything takes a long time. You know, it's like not wanting to face that hard question of either we need to just set our expectations that things take longer, or we need to make some kind of change to make that easier to work with. And that is a lot of thought and effort. And so, it's kind of an answer to be like, well, like, let me spike this out and then see [laughs]. And so it may be a way to appease someone making a request for a feature. I don't know; I'm perhaps projecting a little bit here [chuckles]. But it could also be an important question to ask yourself if you find your team, like, needing to lean on spikes a lot because you just don't know. JOËL: That's really interesting because I think that maybe connects to a recent episode we did on breaking features down into smaller chunks. Spikes can often manifest, or the need for a spike can often manifest when you've got a larger, less well-defined feature that you want to do. So, sometimes, breaking things into smaller pieces will help you have something that's a little bit more well-defined that you feel confident jumping into without doing a spike. Or maybe the act of trying to split this sort of large, undefined task into smaller pieces will reveal questions that need to be answered and say, look, I don't know where the seam should be, where to split this task because I don't know the answer to this one question. If I could know the answer to this one question, I would know where to split this feature. That's your spike right there. Do the minimum amount of code to answer that one question, and then you can split your feature and confidently work on the two smaller pieces. And I think that's a win for everyone. STEPHANIE: Yeah. And you can listen back to our vertical slice episode [laughs] for some inspiration on that. JOËL: On that note, shall we wrap up? STEPHANIE: Let's wrap up. Show notes for this episode can be found at JOËL: This show has been produced and edited by Mandy Moore. STEPHANIE: If you enjoyed listening, one really easy way to support the show is to leave us a quick rating or even a review in iTunes. It really helps other folks find the show. JOËL: If you have any feedback for this or any of our other episodes, you can reach us @_bikeshed, or you can reach me @joelquen on Twitter. STEPHANIE: Or reach both of us at via email. JOËL: Thanks so much for listening to The Bike Shed, and we'll see you next week. ALL: Byeeeeeeeee!!!!!!! AD: Did you know thoughtbot has a referral program? If you introduce us to someone looking for a design or development partner, we will compensate you if they decide to work with us. More info on our website at: Or you can email us at with any questions.Support The Bike Shed
Jan 29
31 min
413: Developer Tales of Package Management
Stephanie shares her task of retiring a small, internally-used link-shortening app. She describes the process as both celebratory and a bit mournful. Meanwhile, Joël discusses his deep dive into ActiveRecord, particularly in the context of debugging. He explores the complexities of ActiveRecord querying schemas and the additional latency this introduces. Together, the hosts discuss the nuances of package management systems and their implications for developers. They touch upon the differences between system packages and language packages, sharing personal experiences with tools like Homebrew, RubyGems, and Docker. Transcript: JOËL: Hello and welcome to another episode of The Bike Shed, a weekly podcast from your friends at thoughtbot about developing great software. I'm Joël Quenneville. STEPHANIE: And I'm Stephanie Minn. And together, we're here to share a bit of what we've learned along the way. JOËL: So, Stephanie, what's new in your world? STEPHANIE: So, this week, I got to have some fun working on some internal thoughtbot work. And what I focused on was retiring one of our just, like, small internal self-hosted on Heroku apps in favor of going with a third-party service for this functionality. We basically had a tiny, little app that we used as a link-shortening service. So, if you've ever seen a short link out in the world, we were using our just, like, an in-house app to do that, you know, but for various reasons, we wanted to...just it wasn't worth maintaining anymore. So, we wanted to just use a purchased service. But today, I got to just, like, do the little bit of, like, tidying up, you know, in preparation to archive a repo and kind of delete the app from Heroku, and I hadn't done that before. So, it felt a little bit celebratory and a little bit mournful even [laughs] to, you know, retire something like that. And I was pairing with another thoughtbot developer, and we used a pairing app called Tuple. And you can just send, like, fun reactions to each other. Like, you could send, like, a fire emoji [laughs] or something if that's what you're feeling. And so, I sent some, like, confetti when we clicked the, "I understand what deleting this app means on GitHub." But I joked that "Actually, I feel like what I really needed was a, like, a salute kind of like thank you for your service [laughs] type of reaction." JOËL: I love those moments when you're kind of you're hitting those kind of milestone-y moments, and then you get to send a reaction. I should do that more often in Tuple. Those are fun. STEPHANIE: They are fun. There's also a, like, table flip reaction, too, is one that I really enjoy [laughs], you know, you just have to manifest that energy somehow. And then, after we kind of sent out an email to the company saying like, "Oh yeah, we're not using our app anymore for link shortening," someone had a great suggestion to make our archived repo public instead of private. I kind of liked it as a way of, like, memorializing this application and let community members see, you know, real code in a real...the application that we used here at thoughtbot. So, hopefully, if not me, then someone else will be able to do that and maybe publish a little blog post about that. JOËL: That's exciting. So, it's not currently public, the repo, but it might be at some point in the future. STEPHANIE: Yeah, that's right. JOËL: We'll definitely have to mention it on a future episode if that happens so that people following along with the story can go check out the code. STEPHANIE: So, Joël, what's new in your world? JOËL: I've been doing a deep dive into how ActiveRecord works. Particularly, I am debugging some pretty significant slowdowns in querying ActiveRecord models that are backed not by a regular Postgres database but instead a Snowflake data warehouse via an ODBC connection. So, there's a bunch of moving pieces going on here, and it would just take forever to make any queries. And sure, the actual reported query time is longer than for a local Postgres database, but then there's this sort of mystery extra waiting time, and I couldn't figure out why is it taking so much longer than the actual sort of recorded query time. And I started digging into all of this, and it turns out that in addition to executing queries to pull actual data in, ActiveRecord needs to, at various points, query the schema of your data store to pull things like names of tables and what are the indexes and primary keys and things like that. STEPHANIE: Wow. That sounds really cool and something that I have never needed to do before. I'm curious if you said that it takes, I guess, longer to query Snowflake than it would a more common Postgres database. Were you noticing this performance slowness locally or on production? JOËL: Both places. So, the nice thing is I can reproduce it locally, and locally, I mean running the Rails app locally. I'm still talking to a remote Snowflake data warehouse, which is fine. I can reproduce that slowness locally, which has made it much easier to experiment and try things. And so, from there, it's really just been a bit of a detective case trying to, I guess, narrow the possibility space and try to understand what are the parts that trigger slowness. So, I'm printing timestamps in different places. I've got different things that get measured. I've not done, like, a profiling tool to generate a flame graph or anything like that. That might have been something cool to try. I just did old-school print statements in a couple of places where I, like, time before, time after, print the delta, and that's gotten me pretty far. STEPHANIE: That's pretty cool. What do you think will be an outcome of this? Because I remember you saying you're digging a little bit into ActiveRecord internals. So, based on, like, what you're exploring, what do you think you could do as a developer to increase some of the performance there? JOËL: I think probably what this ends up being is finding that the Snowflake adapter that I'm using for ActiveRecord maybe has some sort of small bug in it or some implementation that's a little bit too naive that needs to be fine-tuned. And so, probably what ends up happening here is that this finishes as, like, an open-source pull request to the Snowflake Adapter gem. STEPHANIE: Yeah, that's where I thought maybe that might go. And that's pretty cool, too, and to, you know, just be investigating something on your app and being able to make a contribution that it benefits the community. JOËL: And that's what's so great about open source because not only am I able to get the source to go source diving through all of this, because I absolutely need to do that, but also, then if I make a fix, I can push that fix back out to the community, and everybody gets to benefit. STEPHANIE: Cool. Well, that's another thing that I look forward to hearing more on the development of [laughs] later if it pans out that way. JOËL: One thing that has been interesting with this Snowflake work is that there are a lot of moving parts and multiple different packages that I need to install to get this all to work. So, I mentioned that I might be doing a pull request against the Snowflake Adapter for ActiveRecord, but all of this talks through a sort of lower-level technology protocol called ODBC, which is a sort of generic protocol for speaking to data stores, and that actually has two different pieces. I had to install two different packages. There is a sort of low-level executable that I had to install on my local dev machine and that I have to install on our servers. And on my Mac, I'm installing that via Homebrew, which is a system package. And then to get Ruby bindings for that, there is a Ruby gem that I install that allows Ruby code to talk to ODBC, and that's installed via RubyGems or Bundler. And that got me thinking about sort of these two separate ecosystems that I tend to work with every day. We've got sort of the system packages and the, I don't know what you want to call them, language packages maybe, things like RubyGems, but that could also be NPM or whatever your language of choice is, and realizing that we kind of have things split into two different zones, and sometimes we need both and wondering a little bit about why is that difference necessary. STEPHANIE: Yeah, I don't have an answer to that [laughs] question right now, but I can say that that was an area that really tripped me up, I think, when I was first a fledgling developer. And I was really confused about where all of these dependencies were coming from and going through, you know, setting up my first project and being, like, asked to install Postgres on my machine but then also Bundler, which then also installs more dependencies [laughs]. The lines between those ecosystems were not super clear to me. And, you know, even now, like, I find myself really just kind of, like, learning what I need to know to get by [laughs] with my day-to-day work. But I do like what you said about these are kind of the two main layers that you're working with in terms of package management. And it's really helpful to have that knowledge so you can troubleshoot when there is an issue at one or the other. JOËL: And you mentioned Postgres. That's another one that's interesting because there are components in both of those ecosystems. Postgres itself is typically installed via a system package manager, so something like Homebrew on a Mac or apt-get on a Linux machine. But then, if you're interacting with Postgres in a Ruby app, you're probably also installing the pg gem, which are Ruby's bindings for Postgres to allow Ruby to talk to Postgres, and that lives in the package ecosystem on RubyGems. STEPHANIE: Yeah, I've certainly been in the position of, you know, again, as consultants, we oftentimes are also setting up new laptops entirely [laughs] like client laptops and such and bundling and the pg gem is installed. And then at least I have, you know, I have to give thanks to the very clear error message that [laughs] tells me that I don't have Postgres installed on my machine. Because when I mentioned, you know, troubleshooting earlier, I've certainly been in positions where it was really unclear what was going on in terms of the interaction between what I guess we're calling the Ruby package ecosystem and our system level one. JOËL: Especially for things like the pg gem, which need to compile against some existing libraries, those always get interesting where sometimes they'll fail to compile because there's a path to some C compiler that's not set correctly or something like that. For me, typically, that means I need to update the macOS command line tools or the Xcode command line tools; I forget what the name of that package is. And, usually, that does the trick. That might happen if I've upgraded my OS version recently and haven't downloaded the latest version of the command line tools. STEPHANIE: Yeah. Speaking of OS versions, I have a bit of a story to share about using...I've never said this name out loud, but I am pretty sure that it would just be pronounced as wkhtmltopdf [laughs]. For some reason, whenever I see words like that in my brain, I want to, like, make it into a pronounceable thing [laughs]. JOËL: Right, just insert some vowels in there. STEPHANIE: Yeah, wkhtmltopdf [laughs]. Anyway, that was being used in an app to generate PDF invoices or something. It's a pretty old tool. It's a CLI tool, and it's, as far as I can tell, it's been around for a long time but was recently no longer maintained. And so, as I was working on this app, I was running into a bug where that library was causing some issues with the PDF that was generated. So, I had to go down this route of actually finding a Ruby gem that would figure out which package binary to use, you know, based off of my system. And that worked great locally, and I was like, okay, cool, I fixed the issue. And then, once I pushed my change, it turns out that it did not work on CI because CI was running on Ubuntu. And I guess the binary didn't work with the latest version of Ubuntu that was running on CI, so there was just so many incompatibilities there. And I was wanting to fix this bug. But the next step I took was looking into community-provided packages because there just simply weren't any, like, up-to-date binaries that would likely work with these new operating systems. And I kind of stopped at that point because I just wasn't really sure, like, how trustworthy were these community packages. That was an ecosystem I didn't know enough about. In particular, I was having to install some using apt from, you know, just, like, some Linux community. But yeah, I think I normally have a little bit more experience and confidence in terms of the Ruby package ecosystem and can tell, like, what gems are popular, which ones are trustworthy. There are different heuristics I have for evaluating what dependency to pull in. But here I ended up just kind of bailing out of that endeavor because I just didn't have enough time to go down that rabbit hole. JOËL: It is interesting that learning how to evaluate packages is a skill you have to learn that varies from package community to package community. I know that when I used to be very involved with Elm, we would often have people who would come to the Elm community from the JavaScript community who were used to evaluating NPM packages. And one of the metrics that was very popular in the JavaScript community is just stars on GitHub. That's a really important metric. And that wasn't really much of a thing in the Elm community. And so, people would come and be like, "Wait, how do I know which package is good? I don't see any stars on GitHub." And then, it turns out that there are other metrics that people would use. And similarly, you know, in Ruby, there are different ways that you might use to evaluate Ruby gems that may or may not involve stars on GitHub. It might be something entirely different. STEPHANIE: Yeah. Speaking of that, I wanted to plug a website that I have used before called the Ruby Toolbox, and that gives some suggestions for open-source Ruby libraries of various categories. So, if you're looking for, like, a JSON parser, it has some of the more popular ones. If you're looking for, you know, it stores them by category, and I think it is also based on things like stars and forks like that, so that's a good one to know. JOËL: You could probably also look at something like download numbers to see what's popular, although sometimes it's sort of, like, an emergent gem that's more popular. Some of that almost you just need to be a little bit in the community, like, hearing, you know, maybe listening to podcasts like this one, subscribing to Ruby newsletters, going to conferences, things like that, and to realize, okay, maybe, you know, we had sort of an old staple for JSON parsing, but there's a new thing that's twice as fast. And this is sort of becoming the new standard, and the community is shifting towards that. You might not know that just by looking at raw stats. So, there's a human component to it as well. STEPHANIE: Yeah, absolutely. I think an extension of knowing how to evaluate different package systems is this question of like, how much does an average developer need to know about package management? [laughs] JOËL: Yeah, a little bit to a medium amount, and then if you're writing your own packages, you probably need to know a little bit more. But there are some things that are really maybe best left to the maintainers of package managers. Package managers are actually pretty complex pieces of software in terms of all of the dependency management and making sure that when you say, "Oh, I've got Rails, and this other gem, and this other gem, and it's going to find the exact versions of all those gems that play nicely together," that's non-trivial. As a sort of working developer, you don't need to know all of the algorithms or the graph theory or any of that that underlies a package manager to be able to be productive in your career. And even as a package developer, you probably don't need to really know a whole lot of that. STEPHANIE: Yeah, that makes sense. I actually had referred to our internal at thoughtbot here, our kind of, like, expectations for skill levels for developers. And I would say for an average developer, we kind of just expect a basic understanding of these more complex parts of our toolchain, I think, specifically, like, command line tools and package management. And I think I'd mentioned earlier that, for me, it is a very need-to-know basis. And so, yeah, when I was going down that little bit of exploration around why wkhtmltopdf [chuckles] wasn't working [chuckles], it was a bit of a twisty and turning journey where I, you know, wasn't really sure where to go. I was getting very obtuse error messages, and, you know, I had to dive deep into all these forums [laughs] for all the various platforms [laughs] about why libraries weren't working. And I think what I did come away with was that like, oh, like, even though I'm mostly working on my local machine for development, there was some amount of knowledge I needed to have about the systems that my CI and, you know, production servers are running on. The project I was working on happened to have, like, a Docker file for those environments, and, you know, kind of knowing how to configure them to install the packages I needed to install and just knowing a little bit about the different ways of doing that on systems outside of my usual daily workflows. JOËL: And I think that gets back to some of the interesting distinctions between what we might call language packages versus system packages is that language packages more or less work the same across all operating systems. They might have a build step that's slightly different or something like that, but system packages might be pretty different between different operating systems. So, development, for me, is a Mac, and I'm probably installing system packages via something like Homebrew. If I then want that Rails app to run on CI or some Linux server somewhere, I can't use Homebrew to install things there. It's going to be a slightly different package ecosystem. And so, now I need to find something that will install Postgres for Linux, something that will install, I guess, wkhtmltopdf [laughs] for Linux. And so, when I'm building that Docker file, that might be a little bit different for Mac versus for...or I guess when you run a Docker file, you're running a containerized system. So, the goal there is to make this system the same everywhere for everyone. But when you're setting that up, typically, it's more of a Linux-like system. And so running inside the Docker container versus outside on the native Mac might involve a totally different set of packages and a different package tool. As opposed to something like Bundler, you've got your gem file; you bundle install. It doesn't matter if you're on Linux or macOS. STEPHANIE: Yes, I think you're right. I think we kind of answered our own question at the top of the show [laughs] about differences and what do you need to know about them. And I also like how you pointed out, oh yeah, like, Docker is supposed to [laughs], you know, make sure that we're all developing in the same system, essentially. But, you know, sometimes you have different use cases for it. And, yeah, when you were talking about installing an application on your native Mac and using Homebrew, but even, you know, not everyone even uses Homebrew, right? You can install manually [laughs] through whatever official installer that application might provide. So, there's just so many different ways of doing something. And I had the thought that it's too bad that we both [chuckles] develop on Mac because it could be really interesting to get a Linux user's perspective in here. JOËL: You mentioned not installing via Homebrew. A kind of glaring example of that in my personal setup is that I use to manage Postgres on my machine rather than using Homebrew. I've just...over the years, the Homebrew version every time I upgrade my operating system or something, it's just such a pain to update, and I've lost too many hours to it, and just works, and so I've switched to that. Most other things, I'll use the Homebrew version, but Postgres it's now It's not even a command line install, and it works fine for me. STEPHANIE: Nice. Yeah. That's interesting. That's a good tip. I'll have to look into that next time because I have also certainly had to just install so many [laughs] various versions of Postgres and figure out what's going on with them every time I upgrade my OS. I'm with you, though, in terms of the packages world I'm looking for, it works [laughs]. JOËL: So, you'd mentioned earlier that packages is sort of an area that's a bit of a need-to-know basis for you. Are there, like, particular moments in your career that you remember like, oh, that's the moment where I needed to, like, take some time and learn a little bit of the next level of packages? STEPHANIE: That's a great question. I think the very beginnings of understanding how package versions work when you have multiple projects on your machine; I just remember that being really confusing for me. When I started out, like, you know, as soon as I cloned my second repo [laughs], and was very confused about, like, I'm sure I went through the process of not installing gems using Bundler, and then just having so much chaos [laughs] wrecked in my development environment and, you know, having to ask someone, "I don't understand how this works. Like, why is it saying I have multiple versions of this library or whatever?" JOËL: Have you ever sudo gem installed a gem? STEPHANIE: Oh yeah, I definitely have. I can't [laughs], like, even give a good reason for why I have done it, but I probably was just, like, pulling my hair out, and that's what Stack Overflow told me to do. I don't know if I can recommend that, but it is [chuckles] one thing to do when you just are kind of totally stuck. JOËL: There was a time where I think that that was in the READMEs for most projects. STEPHANIE: Yeah, that's a really good point. JOËL: So, that's probably why a lot of people end up doing that, but then it tends to install it for your system Ruby rather than for...because if you're using something like Rbenv or RVM or ASDF to manage multiple Ruby versions, those end up being what's using or even Homebrew to manage your Ruby. It wouldn't be installing it for those versions of Ruby. It would be installing it for the one that shipped with your Mac. I know what? I don't even know if Mac still ships with Ruby. It used to. It used to ship with a really old version of Ruby, and so the advice was like, "Hey, every repo tells you to install it with sudo; don't do that. It will mess you up." STEPHANIE: Huh. I think Mac still does ship with Ruby, but don't quote me on that [laughter]. And I think that's really funny that, like, yeah, people were just writing those instructions in READMEs. And I'm glad that we've collectively [laughs] figured out that difference and want to, hopefully, not let other developers fall into that trap [laughs]. Do you have a particular memory or experience when you had to kind of level up your knowledge about the package ecosystem? JOËL: I think one sort of moment where I really had to level up is when I started really needing to understand how install paths worked, especially when you have, let's say, multiple versions of a gem installed because you have different projects. And you want to know, like, how does it know which one it's using? And then you see, oh, there are different paths that point to different directories with the installs. Or when you might have an executable you've installed via Homebrew, and it's like, oh yeah, so I've got this, like, command that I run on my shell, but actually that points to a very particular path, you know, in my Homebrew directory. But maybe it could also point to some, like, pre-installed system binaries or some other custom things I've done. So, there was a time where I had to really learn about how the path shell variable worked on a machine in order to really understand how the packages I installed were sometimes showing up when I invoked a binary and sometimes not. STEPHANIE: Yeah, that is another really great example that I have memories of [laughs] being really frustrated by, especially if...because, you know, we had talked earlier about all the different ways that you can install applications on your system, and you don't always know where they end up [laughs]. JOËL: And this particular memory is tied to debugging Postgres because, you know, you're installing Postgres, and some paths aren't working. Or maybe you try to update Postgres and now it's like, oh, but, like, I'm still loading the wrong one. And why does PSQL not do the thing that I think it does? And so, that forced me to learn a little bit about, like, under the hood, what happens when I type brew install PostgreSQL? And how does that mesh with the way my shell interprets commands and things like that? So, it was maybe a little bit of a painful experience but eye-opening and definitely then led to me, I think, being able to debug my setup much more effectively in the future. STEPHANIE: Yeah. I like that you also pointed out how it was interacting with your shell because that's, like, another can of worms, right? [laughs] In terms of just the complexity of how these things are talking to each other. JOËL: And for those of our listeners who are not familiar with this, there is a shell command that you can use called which, W-H-I-C-H. And you can prefix that in front of another command, and it will tell you the path that it's using for that binary. So, in my case, if I'm looking like, why is this PSQL behaving weirdly or seems to be using the old version, I can type 'which space psql', and it'll say, "Oh, it's going to this path." And I can look at it and be like, oh, it's using my system install of Postgres. It's not using the Homebrew one. Or, oh, maybe it's using the Homebrew install, not my version. I need to, like, tinker with the paths a little bit. So, that has definitely helped me debug my package system more than once. STEPHANIE: Yeah, that's a really good tip. I can recall just totally uninstalling everything [laughs] and reinstalling and fingers crossed it would figure out a route to the right thing [laughs]. JOËL: You know what? That works. It's not the, like, most precise solution but resetting your environment when all else fails it's not a bad solution. So, we've been talking a lot about what it's like to interact with a package ecosystem as developers, as users of packages, but what if you're a package developer? Sometimes, there's a very clear-cut place where to publish, and sometimes it's a little bit grayer. So, I could see, you know, I'm developing a database, and I want that to be on operating systems, probably should be a system-level package rather than a Ruby gem. But what if I'm building some kind of command line tool, and I write it in Ruby because I like writing Ruby? Should I publish that as a gem, or should I publish that as some kind of system package that's installed via Homebrew? Any opinions or heuristics that you would use to choose where to publish on one side or the other? STEPHANIE: As not a package developer [laughs], I can only answer from that point of view. That is interesting because if you publish on a, you know, like, a system repository, then yeah, like, you might get a lot more people using your tool out there because you're not just targeting a specific language's community. But I don't know if I have always enjoyed downloading various things to my system's OS. I think that actually, like, is a bit complicated for me or, like, I try to avoid it if I can because if something can be categorized or, like, containerized in a way that, like, feels right for my mental model, you know, if it's written in Ruby or something really related to things I use Ruby in, it could be nice to have that installed in my, like, systems RubyGems. But I would be really interested to hear if other people have opinions about where they might want to publish a package and what kind of developers they're hoping to find to use their tool. JOËL: I like the heuristic that you mentioned here, the idea of who the audience is because, yeah, as a Ruby developer who already has a Ruby setup, it might be easier for me to install something via a gem. But if I'm not a Ruby developer who wants to use the packages maybe a little bit more generic, you know, let's say, I don't know, it's some sort of command line tool for interacting with GitHub or something like that. And, like, it happens to be written in Ruby, but you don't particularly care about that as a user of this. Maybe you don't have Ruby installed and now you've got to, like, juggle, like, oh, what is RubyGems, and Bundler, and all this stuff? And I've definitely felt that occasionally downloading packages sort of like, oh, this is a Python package. And you're going to need to, like, set up all this stuff. And it's maybe designed for a Python audience. And so, it's like, oh, you're going to set up a virtual environment and all these things. I'm like, I just want your command line tools. I don't want to install a whole language. And so, sometimes there can be some frustration there. STEPHANIE: Yeah, that is very true. Before you even said that, I was like, oh, I've definitely wanted to download a command line tool and be like, first install [laughs] Python. And I'm like, nope, I'm bailing out of this. JOËL: On the other hand, as a developer, it can be a lot harder to write something that's a bit more cross-platform and managing all that. And I've had to deal a little bit with this for thoughtbot's Parity tool, which is a command-line tool for working with Heroku. It allows you to basically run commands on either staging or production by giving you a staging command and a production command for common Heroku CLI tasks, which makes it really nice if you're working and you're having to do some local, some development, some staging, and some production things all from your command line. It initially started as a gem, and we thought, you know what? This is mostly command line, and it's not just Rubyists who use Heroku. Let's try to put this on Homebrew. But then it depends on Ruby because it's written in Ruby. And now we had to make sure that we marked Ruby as a dependency in Homebrew, which meant that Homebrew would then also pull in Ruby as a dependency. And that got a little bit messy. For a while, we even experimented with sort of briefly available technology called Traveling Ruby that allowed you to embed Ruby in your binary, and you could compile against that. That had some drawbacks. So, we ended up rolling that back as well. And eventually, just for maintenance ease, we went back to making this a Ruby gem and saying, "Look, you install it via RubyGems." It does mean that we're targeting more of the Ruby community. It's going to be a little bit harder for other people to install, but it is easier for us to maintain. STEPHANIE: That's really interesting. I didn't know that history about Parity. It's a tool that I have used recently and really enjoyed. But yeah, I think I remember someone having some issues between installing it as a gem and installing it via Homebrew and some conflicts there as well. So, I can also see how trying to decide or maybe going down one path and then realizing, oh, like, maybe we want to try something else is certainly not trivial. JOËL: I think, in me, I have a little bit of the idealist and the pragmatist that fight. The idealist says, "Hey, if it's not, like, aimed for Ruby developers as a, like, you can pull this into your codebase, if it's just command line tools and the fact that it's written in Ruby is an implementation detail, that should be a system package. Do not distribute binaries via RubyGems." That's the idealist in me. The pragmatist says, "Oh, that's a lot of work and not always worth it for both the maintainers and sometimes for the users, and so it's totally okay to ship binaries as RubyGems." STEPHANIE: I was totally thinking that I'm sure that you've been in that position of being a user and trying to download a system package and then seeing it start to download, like, another language. And you're like, wait, what? [laughter] That's not what I want. JOËL: So, you and I have shared some of our heuristics in the way we approach this problem. Now, I'm curious to hear from the audience. What are some heuristics that you use to decide whether your package is better shipped on RubyGems versus, let's say, Homebrew? Or maybe as a user, what do you prefer to consume? STEPHANIE: Yes. And speaking of getting listener feedback, we're also looking for some listener questions. We're hoping to do a bit of a grab-bag episode where we answer your questions. So, if you have anything that you're wanting to hear me and Joël's thoughts on, write us at JOËL: On that note, shall we wrap up? STEPHANIE: Let's wrap up. Show notes for this episode can be found at JOËL: This show has been produced and edited by Mandy Moore. STEPHANIE: If you enjoyed listening, one really easy way to support the show is to leave us a quick rating or even a review in iTunes. It really helps other folks find the show. JOËL: If you have any feedback for this or any of our other episodes, you can reach us @_bikeshed, or you can reach me @joelquen on Twitter. STEPHANIE: Or reach both of us at via email. JOËL: Thanks so much for listening to The Bike Shed, and we'll see you next week. ALL: Byeeeeeeee!!!!!!! AD: Did you know thoughtbot has a referral program? If you introduce us to someone looking for a design or development partner, we will compensate you if they decide to work with us. More info on our website at: Or you can email us at with any questions.Support The Bike Shed
Jan 22
33 min
412: Vertical Slices
Joël shares a unique, time-specific bug he encountered, which causes a page to crash only in January. This bug has been fixed in previous years, only to reemerge due to subsequent changes. Stephanie talks about her efforts to bring more structure to her work-from-home environment. She describes how setting up a bird feeder near her desk and keeping chocolates at her desk serve as incentives to work more from her desk. Together, Stephanie and Joël take a deep dive into the challenges of breaking down software development tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks. They explore the concept of 'vertical slice' development, where features are implemented in thin, fully functional segments, contrasting it with the more traditional 'horizontal slice' approach. This discussion leads to insights on collaborative work, the importance of iterative development, and strategies for efficient and effective software engineering. thoughtbot Live Streams Stephanie’s Live Stream Joël’s Talk on Time Finish the Owl Meme Full Stack Slices Elephant Carpaccio Outside-in Feature Development Working Iteratively Transcript:  STEPHANIE: Hello and welcome to another episode of The Bike Shed, a weekly podcast from your friends at thoughtbot about developing great software. I'm Stephanie Minn. JOËL: And I'm Joël Quenneville. And together, we're here to share a bit of what we've learned along the way. STEPHANIE: So, Joël, what's new in your world in the year 2024? JOËL: Yeah, it's 2024. New year, new me. Or, in this case, maybe new year, new bugs? I'm working on a project where I ran into a really interesting time-specific bug. This particular page on the site only crashes in the month of January. There's some date logic that has a weird boundary condition there, and if you load that page during the month of January, it will crash, but during the entire rest of the year, it's fine. STEPHANIE: That's a fun New Year's tradition for this project [laughs], fixing this bug [laughs] every year. JOËL: It's been interesting because I looked a little bit at the git history of this bug, and it looks like it's been fixed in past Januarys, but then the fix changes the behavior slightly, so people bring the behavior back correct during the rest of the year that also happens to reintroduce the bug in January, and now I'm back to fixing it in January. So, it is a little bit of a tradition. STEPHANIE: Yeah, that is really funny. I was also recently debugging something, and we were having some flakiness with a test that we wrote. And we were trying to figure out because we had some date/time logic as well. And we were like, is there anything strange about this current time period that we are in that would potentially, you know, lead to a flaky test? And we were looking at the clock and we're like, "I don't think it's like, you know, midnight UTC or anything [laughs] like that." But, I mean, I don't know. It's like, how could you possibly think of, like, all of the various weird edge cases, you know, related to that kind of thing? I don't think I would ever be like, huh, it's January, so, surely, that must [laughs] mean that that's this particular edge case I'm seeing. JOËL: It's interesting because I feel like there's a couple of types of time-specific bugs that we see pretty frequently. If you're near the daylight savings boundary, let's say a week before sometimes, or whatever you're...if you're doing, like, a week from now logic or something like that, typically, I'll see failures in the test suite or maybe actual crashes in the code a week before springing forward and a week before falling back. And then, like you said, sometimes you see failures at the end of the day, Eastern time for me, when you approach that midnight UTC time boundary. I think this is the first time I've seen a failure in January due to the month being, like, a month boundary...or it's a year boundary really is what's happening. STEPHANIE: Yeah. That just sounds like another [laughs] thing you have to look out for. I'm curious: are you going to fix this bug for real or leave it for [laughs] 2025? JOËL: I've got a fix that I think is for real and that, like, not only fixes the break in January but also during the rest of the year gives the desired behavior. I think part of what's really interesting about this bug is that there are some subtle behavioral changes between a few different use cases where this code is called, part of which depend on when in the year you're calling it and whether you want to see it for today's date versus you can also specify a date that you want to see this report. And so, it turns out that there are a lot more edge cases than might be initially obvious. So, this turned into effectively a product discussion, and realizing, wait a minute, the code isn't telling the full story. There's more at a product level we need to discuss. And actually, I think I learned a lot about the product there. So, while it was maybe a surprising and kind of humorous bug to come across, I think it was actually a really good experience. STEPHANIE: Nice. That's awesome. That's a pretty good way to start the year, I would say. JOËL: I'd say so. How about you? What's new in your world? STEPHANIE: So, I don't know, I think towards the end of the year, last year, I was in a bit of a slump where I was in that work-from-couch phase of [laughs] the year, you know, like, things are slowing down and I, you know, winter was starting here. I wanted to be cozy, so I'd, you know, set up on the couch with a blanket. And I realized that I really wasn't sitting at my desk at all, and I kind of wanted to bring a little bit of that structure back into my workday, so I [chuckles] added some incentives for me to sit at my desk, which include I recently got a bird feeder that attaches to the window in my office. So, when I sit at my desk, I can hopefully see some birds hanging out. They are very flighty, so I've only seen birds when I'm, like, in the other room. And I'm like, oh, like, there's a bird at the bird feeder. Like, let me get up close to, like, get to admire them. And then as soon as I, like [laughs], get up close to the window, they fly away. So, I'm hoping that if I sit at my desk more, I'll spontaneously see more birds, and maybe they'll get used to, like, a presence closer to the window. And then my second incentive is I now have little chocolates at my desk [laughs]. JOËL: Nice. STEPHANIE: I've just been enjoying, like, a little treat and trying to keep them as a...okay, I've worked at my desk for an hour, and now I get a little reward for that [laughs]. JOËL: I like that. Do you know what kind of species of birds have been coming to your feeder? STEPHANIE: Ooh, yes. So, we got this birdseed mix called Cardinal and Friends [laughs]. JOËL: I love that. STEPHANIE: So, I have seen, like, a really beautiful red male cardinal come by. We get some robins and some chickadees, I think. Part of what I'm excited for this winter is to learn more how to identify more bird species. And I usually like to be out in nature and stuff, and winter is a hard time to do that. So, this is kind of my way of [chuckles] bringing that more into my life during the season. So, this is our first episode after a little bit of a break for the holidays. There actually has been some content of ours that has been published out in the world on the internet [laughs] during this time. And just wanted to point out in the few weeks that there weren't any Bike Shed episodes, I ended up doing a thoughtbot Rails development livestream with thoughtbot CEO Chad Pytel, and that was my first-time live streaming code [laughs]. And it was a really cool experience. I'm glad I had this podcast experience. So, I'm like, okay, well I have, you know, that, like, ability to do stuff kind of off script and present in the moment. But yeah, that was a really cool thing that I got to do, and I feel a little bit more confident about doing those kinds in the future. JOËL: And for those who are not aware, Chad does–I think it's a weekly live stream on Fridays where he's doing various types of code. So, he's done some work on some internal projects. He did a series where he upgraded, I think, a Rails 2 app all the way to Rails 7, typically with a guest who's another teammate from thoughtbot working on a thing. So, for those of our listeners that might find interesting, we'll put a link in the show notes where you can go see that. I think it's on YouTube and on Twitch. STEPHANIE: Yes. JOËL: What did you pair on? What kind of project were you doing for the livestream? STEPHANIE: So, we were working on thoughtbot's internal application called Hub, which is where we have, like, our internal messaging features. It's where we do a lot of our business operations-y things [laughs]. So, all of the, like, agency work that we do, we use our in-house software for that, and so Chad and I were working on a feature to introduce something that would help out with how we staff team members on projects. In other content news [laughs], Joël, I think you have something to share as well. JOËL: Yeah. So, we've mentioned on past episodes that I gave a talk at RubyConf this past November all about what the concept of time actually means within a program and the different ways of representing it, and the fact that time isn't really a single thing but actually kind of multiple related quantities. And over the holiday break, the talks from that conference got published. I'm pretty excited that that is now out there. We'd mentioned that as a highlight in the previous episode, highlighting accomplishments for the year, but it just wasn't quite out yet. We couldn't link it there. So, I'll leave a link in the show notes for this episode for anyone who's interested in seeing that. STEPHANIE: Sounds like that talk is also timely for a debug you -- JOËL: Ha ha ha! STEPHANIE: Were also mentioning earlier in the episode. So, a few episodes ago, I believe we mentioned that we had recently had, like, our company internal hackathon type thing where we have two days to get together and work with team members who we might not normally work with and get some cool projects started or do some team bonding, that kind of thing. And since I'm still, you know, unbooked on client work, I've been doing a lot of internal thoughtbot stuff, like continuing to work on the Hub app I mentioned just a bit ago. And from the hackathon, there was some work that was unfinished by, like, a project team that I decided to pick up this week as part of my internal work. And as I was kind of trying to gauge how much progress was made and, like, what was left to accomplish to get it over the finish line so it could be shipped, I noticed that because there were a couple of different people working on it, they had broken up this feature which was basically introducing, like, a new report for one of our teams to get some data on how certain projects are going. And there was, like, a UI portion and then some back-end portion, and then part of the back-end portion also involved a bit of a complex query that was pulled out as a separate ticket on its own. And so, all of those things were slightly, you know, were mostly done but just needed those, like, finishing touches, and then it also needed to come together. And I ended up pairing on this with another thoughtboter, and we spent the same amount of time that the hackathon was, so two days. We spent those two days on that, like, aspect of putting it all together. And I think I was a bit surprised by how much work that was, you know, we had kind of assumed that like, oh, like, all these pieces are mostly finished, but then the bulk of what we spended our time doing was integrating the components together. JOËL: Does this feel like a bit of a finish the rest of the OWL meme? STEPHANIE: What is that meme? I'm not familiar with it, but now I really want to know [laughs]. JOËL: It's a meme kind of making fun of some of these drawing tutorials where they're like, oh; first you draw, like, three circles. STEPHANIE: [laughs] JOËL: And then just finish the rest of the owl. STEPHANIE: [laughs] JOËL: And I was thinking of this beautifully drawn picture. STEPHANIE: Oh, that's so funny. Okay, yeah, I can see it in my head [laughs] now. It's like how to go from three circles, you know, to a recognizable [laughs] owl animal. JOËL: So, especially, they're like, oh, you know, like, we put in all the core classes and everything. It's all just basically there. You just need to connect it all together, and it's basically done [laughs]. And then you spend a lot of time actually getting that what feels like maybe the last 20 or 10% but takes maybe 80% of the time. STEPHANIE: Yeah, that sounds about right. So, you know, kind of working on that got me thinking about the alternative, which is honestly something that I'm still working on getting better at doing in my day-to-day. But there is this idea of a vertical slice or a full-stack slice, and that, basically, involves splitting a large feature into those full-stack slices. So, you have, like, a fully implemented piece rather than breaking them apart by layers of the stack. So, you know, I just see pretty frequently that, like, maybe you'll have a back-end ticket to do the database migration, to create your models, just whatever, maybe your controllers, or maybe that is even, like, another piece and then, like, the UI component. And those are worked on separately, maybe even by different people. But this vertical slice theory talks about how what you really want is to have a very thin piece of the feature that still delivers value but fully works. JOËL: As opposed to what you might call a horizontal slice, which would be something like, oh, I've built three Rails models. They're there. They're in the code. They talk to tables in the database, but there's nothing else happening with them. So, you've done work, but it's also more or less dead code. STEPHANIE: Yeah, that's a good point. I have definitely seen a lot of unused code paths [laughs] when you kind of go about it that way and maybe, like, that UI ticket never gets completed. JOËL: What are some tips for trying to do some of these narrower slices? Like, I have a ticket, and I have some work I need to do. And I want to break it down because I know it's going to be too big, and maybe the, like, intuitive way to do it is to split it by layers of your stack where I might do all the models, commit, ship that, deploy, then do some controllers, then do some view, or something like that, and you're suggesting instead going full stack. How do you break down the ticket more when all the pieces are interrelated? STEPHANIE: Yeah, that's a great point. One easy way to visualize it, especially if you have designs or something for this feature, right? Oftentimes, you can start to parse out sections or components of the user interface to be shipped separately. Like, yes, you would want all of it to have that rich feature, but if it's a view of some cards or something, and then, yeah, there's, like, the you can filter by them. You can search by them. All of those bits can be broken up to be like, well, like, the very basic thing that a customer would want to see is just that list of cards, and you can start there. JOËL: So, aggressively breaking down the card at, like, almost a product level. Instead of breaking it down by technical pieces, say, like, can we get even smaller amounts of behavior while still delivering value? STEPHANIE: Yeah, yeah, exactly. I like that you said product level because I think another axis of that could also be complexity. So, oftentimes, you know, I'll get a feature, and we're like, oh, we want to support these X number of things that we've identified [laughs]. You know, if it's like an e-com app you're building, you know, you're like, "Do we have all these products that we want to make sure to support?" And, you know, one way to break that down into that vertical slice is to ask, like, what if we started with just supporting one before we add variants or something like that? Teasing out, like, what would end up being the added complexity as you're developing, once you have to start considering multiple parameters, I think that is a good way to be able to start working more iteratively. And so, you don't have to hold all of that complexity in your head. JOËL: It's almost a bit of like a YAGNI principle but applied to features rather than to code. STEPHANIE: Yeah. Yeah. I like that. At first, I hesitated a little bit because I've certainly been in the position where someone has said like, "Well, we do really need this [laughs]." JOËL: Uh-huh. And, sometimes, the answer is, yes, we do need that, but what if I gave you a smaller version of that today, and we can do the other thing tomorrow? STEPHANIE: Right. Yeah, it's not like you're rejecting the idea that it's necessary but the way that you get about to that end result, right? JOËL: So, you keep using the term vertical slice or full-stack slice. I think when I hear that term, I think of specifically an article written by former thoughtboter, German Velasco, on our blog. But I don't know if that's maybe a term that has broader use in the industry. Is that a term that you've heard elsewhere? STEPHANIE: That's a good question. I think I mostly hear, you know, some form of like, "Can we break this ticket down further?" and not necessarily, like, if you think about how, right? I'm, like, kind of doing a motion with my hand [chuckles] of, like, slicing from top to bottom as opposed to, you know, horizontal. Yeah, I think that it may not be as common as I wish it were. Even if there's still some amount of adapting or, like, persuading your team members to get on board with this idea, like, I would be interested in, like, introducing that concept or that vocabulary to get teams talking about, like, how do they break down tickets? You know, like, what are they considering? Like, what alternatives are there? Like, are horizontal slices working for them or not? JOËL: A term that I've heard floating around and I haven't really pinned down is Elephant Carpaccio. Have you heard that before? STEPHANIE: I have, only because I, like, discovered a, like, workshop facilitation guide to run an exercise that is basically, like, helping people learn how to identify, like, smaller and smaller full-stack slices. But with the Elephant Carpaccio analogy, it's kind of like you're imagining a feature as big as an elephant. And you can create, like, a really thin slice out of them, and you can have infinite number of slices, but they still end up creating this elephant. And I guess you still get the value of [chuckles] a little carpaccio, a delicious [laughs] appetizer of thinly sliced meat. JOËL: I love a colorful metaphor. So, I'm curious: in your own practice, do you have any sort of guidelines or even heuristics that you like to use to help work in a more, I guess, iterative fashion by working with these smaller slices? STEPHANIE: Yeah, one thought that I had about it is that it plays really well with Outside-In Test Driven Development. JOËL: Hmmm. STEPHANIE: Yeah. So, if, you know, you are starting with a feature test, you have to start somewhere and, you know, maybe starting with, like, the most valuable piece of the feature, right? And you are starting at that level of user interaction if you're using Capybara, for example. And then it kind of forces you to drop down deeper into those layers. But once you go through that whole process of outside-in and then you arrive back to the top, you've created your full-stack feature [laughs], and that is shippable or, like, committable and, you know, potentially even shippable in and of itself. And you already have full test coverage with it. And that was a cool way that I saw some of those two concepts work well together. JOËL: Yeah, there is something really fun about the sort of Red-Green-Refactor cycle that TDD forces on you and that you're typically writing the minimum code required to pass a test. And it really forces you out of that developer brain where you're just like, oh, I've got to cover my edge cases. I've got to engineer for some things. And then maybe you realize you've written code that wasn't necessary. And so, I've found that often when I do, like, actually TDD a feature, I end up with code that's a lot leaner than I would otherwise. STEPHANIE: Yes, lean like a thin slice of Elephant Carpaccio. [laughter] JOËL: One thing you did mention that I wanted to highlight was the fact that when you do this outside-in approach for your tiny slice, at the end, it is shippable. And I think that is a core sort of tenet of this idea is that even though you're breaking things down into smaller and smaller slices, every slice is shippable to production. Like, it doesn't break the build. It doesn't break the website. And it provides some kind of value to the user. STEPHANIE: Yeah, absolutely. I think one thing that I still kind of get hung up on sometimes, and I'm trying to, you know, revisit this assumption is that idea of, like, is this too small? Like, is this valuable enough? When I mentioned earlier that I was working on a report, I think there was a part of me that's like, could I just ship a report with two columns [laughs]? And the answer is yes, right? Like, I thought about it, and I was like, well, if that data is, like, not available anywhere else, then, yeah, like, that would be valuable to just get out there. But I think the idea that, like, you know, originally, the hope was to have all of these things, these pieces of information, you know, available through this report, I think that, like, held me back a little bit from wanting to break it down. And I held it a little bit too closely and to be like, well, I really want to, like, you know, deliver something impressive. When you click on it, it's like, wow, like, look at all this data [laughs]. So, I'm trying to push back a little bit on my own preconceived notions that, like, there is such a thing as, like, a too small of a demo. JOËL: I've often worked with this at a commit level, trying to see, like, how small can I get a commit, and what is too small? And now you get into sort of the fraught question of what is a, you know, atomic commit? And I think, for me, where I've sort of come down is that a commit must pass CI. Like, I don't want a commit that's going to go into the main branch. I'm totally pro-work-in-progress commits on a branch; that's fine. But if it's going to get shipped into the main branch, it needs to be green. And it also cannot introduce dead code. STEPHANIE: Ooh. JOËL: So, if you're getting to the point where you're breaking either of those, you've got some sort of, like, partial commit that's maybe too small that needs more to be functional. Or you maybe need to restructure to say, look, instead of adding just ten models, can I add one model but also a little bit of a controller and a view? And now I've got a vertical slice. STEPHANIE: Yeah, which might even be less code [laughs] in the end. JOËL: Yes, it might be less code. STEPHANIE: I really like that heuristic of not introducing dead code, that being a goal. I'm going to think about that a lot [laughs] and try to start introducing that into when I think something is ready. JOËL: Another thing that I'll often do, I guess, that's almost like it doesn't quite fit in the slice metaphor, but it's trying to separate out any kind of refactor work into its own commit that is, you know, still follows those rules: it does not introduce dead code; it does not break the build; it's independently shippable. But that might be something that I do that sets me up for success when I want to do that next slice. So, maybe I'm trying to add a new feature, but just the way we built some of the internal models, they don't have the interface that I need right now, and that's fine because I don't want to build these models in anticipation of the future. I can change them in the future if I need. But now the future has come, and I need a slightly different shape. So, I start by refactoring, commit, maybe even ship that deploy. Maybe I then do my small feature afterwards. Maybe I come back next week and do the small feature, but there are two independent things, two different commits, maybe two different deploys. I don't know that I would call that refactor a slice and that it maybe goes across the full stack; maybe it doesn't. It doesn't show to the user because a refactor, by definition, is just changing the implementation without changing behavior. But I do like to break that out and keep it separate. And I guess it helps keep my slices lean, but I'm not quite sure where refactors fit into this metaphor. STEPHANIE: Yeah, that's interesting because, in my head, as I was listening to you talk about that, I was visualizing the owl again, the [laughs] owl meme. And I'm imagining, like, the refactoring making the slice richer, right? It's like you're adding details, and you''s like when you end up with the full animal, or the owl, the elephant, whatever, it's not just, like, a shoddy-looking drawing [laughs]. Like, ideally, you know, it has those details. Maybe it has some feathers. It's shaded in, and it is very fleshed out. That's just my weird, little brain trying [laughs] to stretch this metaphor to make it work. Another thing that I want to kind of touch a little bit more about when we're talking about how a lot of the work I was spending recently was that glue work, you know, the putting the pieces together, I think there was some aspect of discovery involved that was missed the first time around when these tickets were broken up more horizontally. I think that one really important piece that I was doing was trying to reconcile the different mental models that each person had when they were working on their separate piece. And so, maybe there's, like, an API, and then the frontend is expecting some sort of data, and, you know, you communicate it in a way that's, like, kind of hand-off-esque. And then when you put it together, it turns out that, oh, the pieces don't quite fit together, and how do you actually decide, like, what that mental model should be? Naming, especially, too, I've, you know, seen so many times when the, an attribute on the frontend is named a little bit different than whatever is on the backend, and it takes a lot of work to unify that, like, to make that decision about, should they be the same? Should they be different? A lot of thought goes into putting those pieces together. And I think the benefit of a full-stack slice is that that work doesn't get lost. Especially if you are doing stuff like estimating, you're kind of discovering that earlier on. And I think what I just talked about, honestly, is what prevents those features from getting shipped in the end if you were working in a more horizontal way. JOËL: Yeah. It's so easy to have, like, big chunks of work in progress forever and never actually shipping. And one of the benefits of these narrower slices is that you're shipping more frequently. And that's, you know, interesting from a coding perspective, but it's kind of an agile methodology thing as well, the, like, ship smaller chunks more frequently. Even though you're maybe taking a little bit more overhead because you're having to, like, take the time to break down tasks, it will make your project move faster as a whole. An aspect that's really interesting to me, though, is what you highlighted about collaboration and the fact that every teammate has a slightly different mental model. And I think if you take the full-stack slice and every member is able to use their mental model, and then close the loop and actually, like, do a complete thing and ship it, I think it allows every other member who's going to have a slightly different mental model of the problem to kind of, yes, and... the other person rather than all sort of independently doing their things and having to reconcile them at the end. STEPHANIE: Yeah, I agree. I think I find, you know, a lot of work broken out into backend and frontend frequently because team members might have different specialties or different preferences about where they would like to be working. But that could also be, like, a really awesome opportunity for pairing [laughs]. Like, if you have someone who's more comfortable in the backend or someone more comfortable in the frontend to work on that full-stack piece together, like, even outside of the in-the-weeds coding aspects of it, it's like you're, at the very least, making sure that those two folks have that same mental model. Or I like what you said about yes, and... because it gets further refined when you have people who are maybe more familiar with, like, something about the app, and they're like, "Oh, like, don't forget about we should consider this." I think that, like, diversity of experience, too, ends up being really valuable in getting that abstraction to be more accurate so that it best represents what you're trying to build. JOËL: Early on, when I was pretty new working at thoughtbot, somebody else at the company had given me the advice that if I wanted to be more effective and work faster on projects, I needed to start breaking my work down into smaller chunks, and this is, you know, fairly junior developer at the time. The advice sounds solid, and everything we've talked about today sounds really solid. Doing it in practice is hard, and it's taken me, you know, a decade, and I'm still working on getting better at it. And I wrote an article about working iteratively that covers a lot of different elements where I've kind of pulled on threads and found out ways where you can get better at this. But I do want to acknowledge that this is not something that's easy and that just like the code that we're working on iteratively, our technique for breaking things down is something that we improve on iteratively. And it's a journey we're all on together. STEPHANIE: I'm really glad that you brought up how hard it is because as I was thinking about this topic, I was considering barriers into working in that vertical slice way, and barriers that I personally experience, as well as just I have seen on other teams. I had alluded to some earlier about, like, the perception of if I ship this small thing, is it impressive enough, or is it valuable enough? And I think I realized that, like, I was getting caught up in, like, the perception part, right? And maybe it doesn't matter [chuckles], and I just need to kind of shift the way I'm thinking about it. And then, there are more real barriers or, like, concrete barriers that are tough. Long feedback loops is one that I've encountered on a team where it's just really hard to ship frequently because PR reviews aren't happening fast enough or your CI or deployment process is just so long that you're like, I want to stuff everything into [chuckles] this one PR so that at least I won't have to sit and wait [laughs]. And that can be really hard to work against, but it could also be a really interesting signal about whether your processes are working for you. It could be an opportunity to be like, "I would like to work this way, but here are the things that are preventing me from really embracing it. And is there any improvement I can make in those areas?" JOËL: Yeah. There's a bit of a, like, vicious cycle that happens there sometimes, especially around PR review, where when it takes a long time to get reviews, you tend to decide, well, I'm going to not make a bunch of PRs; I'm going to make one big one. But then big PRs are very, like, time intensive and require you to commit a lot of, like, focus and energy to them, which means that when you ask me for a review, I'm going to wait longer before I review it, which is going to incentivize you to build bigger PRs, which is going to incentivize me to wait longer, and now we's a vicious cycle. So, I know I've definitely been on projects where a question the team has had is, "How can we improve our process? We want faster code review." And there's some aspect of that that's like, look, everybody just needs to be more disciplined or more alert and try to review things more frequently. But there's also an element of if you do make things smaller, you make it much easier for people to review your code in between other things. STEPHANIE: Yeah, I really liked you mentioning incentives because I think that could be a really good place to start if you or your team are interested in making a change like this, you know, making an effort to look at your team processes and being like, what is incentivized here, and what does our system encourage or discourage? And if you want to be making that shift, like, that could be a good place to start in identifying places for improvement. JOËL: And that happens on a broader system level as well. If you look at what does it take to go from a problem that is going to turn into a ticket to in-production in front of a client, how long is that loop? How complex are the steps to get there? The longer that loop is, the slower you're iterating. And the easier it is for things to just get hung up or for you to waste time, the harder it is for you to change course. And so, oftentimes, I've come on to projects with clients and sort of seen something like that, and sort of seen other pain points that the team has and sort of found that one of the root causes is saying, "Look, we need to tighten that feedback loop, and that's going to improve all these other things that are kind of constellation around it." STEPHANIE: Agreed. On that note, shall we wrap up? JOËL: Let's wrap up. STEPHANIE: Show notes for this episode can be found at JOËL: This show has been produced and edited by Mandy Moore. STEPHANIE: If you enjoyed listening, one really easy way to support the show is to leave us a quick rating or even a review in iTunes. It really helps other folks find the show. JOËL: If you have any feedback for this or any of our other episodes, you can reach us @_bikeshed, or you can reach me @joelquen on Twitter. STEPHANIE: Or reach both of us at via email. JOËL: Thanks so much for listening to The Bike Shed, and we'll see you next week. ALL: Byeeeeeeee!!!!!!! AD: Did you know thoughtbot has a referral program? If you introduce us to someone looking for a design or development partner, we will compensate you if they decide to work with us. More info on our website at: Or you can email us at with any questions.Support The Bike Shed
Jan 15
32 min
411: Celebrating and Recapping 2023!
Stephanie is hosting a holiday cookie swap. Joël talks about participating in thoughtbot's end-of-the-year hackathon, Ralphapalooza. We had a great year on the show! The hosts wrap up the year and discuss their favorite episodes, the articles, books, and blog posts they’ve read and loved, and other highlights of 2023 (projects, conferences, etc). Olive Oil Sugar Cookies With Pistachios & Lemon Glaze thoughtbot’s Blog Episode 398: Developing Heuristics For Writing Software Episode 374: Discrete Math Episode 405: Sandi Metz’s Rules Episode 391: Learn with APPL Engineering Management for the Rest of Us Confident Ruby Working with Maybe from Elm Europe Sustainable Rails Book Episode 368: Sustainable Web Development Domain Modeling Made Functional Simplifying Tests by Extracting Side Effects The Math Every Programmer Needs Mermaid.js sequence diagrams Sense of Belonging and Software Teams Preemptive Pluralization is (Probably) Not Evil Digging through the ashes Transcript: JOËL: Hello and welcome to another episode of The Bike Shed, a weekly podcast from your friends at thoughtbot about developing great software. I'm Joël Quenneville. STEPHANIE: And I'm Stephanie Minn. And together, we're here to share a bit of what we've learned along the way. JOËL: So, Stephanie, what's new in your world? STEPHANIE: I am so excited to talk about this. I'm, like, literally smiling [chuckles] because I'm so pumped. Sometimes, you know, we get on to record, and I'm like, oh, I got to think of something that's new, like, my life is so boring. I have nothing to share. But today, I am excited to tell you about [chuckles] the holiday cookie swap that I'm hosting this Sunday [laughs] that I haven't been able to stop thinking about or just thinking about all the cookies that I'm going to get to eat. It's going to be my first time throwing this kind of shindig, and I'm so pleased with myself because it's such a great idea. You know, it's like, you get to share cookies, and you get to have all different types of cookies, and then people get to take them home. And I get to see all my friends. And I'm really [chuckles] looking forward to it. JOËL: I don't think I've ever been to a cookie swap event. How does that work? Everybody shows up with cookies, and then you leave with what you want? STEPHANIE: That's kind of the plan. I think it's not really a...there's no rules [laughs]. You can make it whatever you want it to be. But I'm asking everyone to bring, like, two dozen cookies. And, you know, I'm hoping for a lot of fun variety. Myself I'm planning on making these pistachio olive oil cookies with a lemon glaze and also, maybe, like, a chewy ginger cookie. I haven't decided if I'm going to go so extra to make two types, but we'll see. And yeah, we'll, you know, probably have some drinks and be playing Christmas music, and yeah, we'll just hang out. And I'm hoping that everyone can kind of, like, take home a little goodie bag of cookies as well because I don't think we'll be going through all of them. JOËL: Hearing you talk about this gave me an absolutely terrible idea. STEPHANIE: Terrible or terribly awesome? [laughs] JOËL: So, imagine you have the equivalent of, let's say, a LAN party. You all show up with your laptops. STEPHANIE: [laughs] JOËL: You're on a network, and then you swap browser cookies randomly. STEPHANIE: [laughs] Oh no. That would be really funny. That's a developer's take on a cookie party [laughs] if I've ever heard one. JOËL: Slightly terrifying. Now I'm just browsing, and all of a sudden, I guess I'm logged into your Facebook or something. Maybe you only swap the tracking cookies. So, I'm not actually logged into your Facebook, but I just get to see the different ad networks it would typically show you, and you would see my ads. That's maybe kind of fun or maybe terrifying, depending on what kind of ads you normally see. STEPHANIE: That's really funny. I'm thinking about how it would just be probably very misleading and confusing for those [laughs] analytics spenders, but that's totally fine, too. Might I suggest also having real cookies to munch on as well while you are enjoying [laughs] this browser cookie-swapping party? JOËL: I 100% agree. STEPHANIE: [laughs] JOËL: I'm curious: where do you stand on raisins in oatmeal cookies? STEPHANIE: Ooh. JOËL: This is a divisive question. STEPHANIE: They're fine. I'll let other people eat them. And occasionally, I will also eat an oatmeal cookie with raisins, but I much prefer if the raisins are chocolate chips [chuckles]. JOËL: That is the correct answer. STEPHANIE: [laughs] Thank you. You know, I understand that people like them. They're not for me [laughs]. JOËL: It's okay. Fans can send us hate mail about why we're wrong about oatmeal cookies. STEPHANIE: Yeah, honestly, that's something that I'm okay with being wrong about on the internet [laughs]. So, Joël, what's new in your world? JOËL: So, as of this recording, we've just recently done thoughtbot's end-of-the-year hackathon, what we call Ralphapalooza. And this is sort of a time where you kind of get to do pretty much any sort of company or programming-related activity that you want as long have to pitch it and get at least two other colleagues to join you on the project, and then you've got two days to work on it. And then you can share back to the team what you've done. I was on a project where we were trying to write a lot of blog posts for the thoughtbot blog. And so, we're just kind of getting together and pitching ideas, reviewing each other's articles, writing things at a pretty intense rate for a couple of days, trying to flood the blog with articles for the next few weeks. So, if you're following the blog and as the time this episode gets released, you're like, "Wow, there's been a lot of articles from the thoughtbot blog recently," that's why. STEPHANIE: Yes, that's awesome. I love how much energy that the blog post-writing party garnered. Like, I was just kind of observing from afar, but it sounds like, you know, people who maybe had started posts, like, throughout the year had dedicated time and a good reason to revisit them, even if they had been, you know, kind of just, like, sitting in a draft for a while. And I think what also seemed really nice was people were just around to support, to review, and were able to make that a priority. And it was really cool to see all the blog posts that are queued up for December as a result. JOËL: People wrote some great stuff. So, I'm excited to see all of those come out. I think we've got pretty much a blog post every day coming out through almost the end of December. So, it's exciting to see that much content created. STEPHANIE: Yeah. If our listeners want more thoughtbot content, check out our blog. JOËL: So, as mentioned, we're recording this at the end of the year. And I thought it might be fun to do a bit of a retrospective on what this year has been like for you and I, Stephanie, both in terms of different work that we've done, the learnings we've had, but maybe also look back a little bit on 2023 for The Bike Shed and what that looked like. STEPHANIE: Yes. I really enjoyed thinking about my year and kind of just reveling and having been doing this podcast for over a year now. And yeah, I'm excited to look back a little bit on both things we have mentioned on the show before and things maybe we haven't. To start, I'm wondering if you want to talk a little bit about some of our favorite episodes. JOËL: Favorite episodes, yes. So, I've got a couple that are among my favorites. We did a lot of good episodes this year. I really liked them. But I really appreciated the episode we did on heuristics, that's Episode 398, where we got to talk a little bit about what goes into a good heuristic, how we tend to come up with them. A lot of those, like, guidelines and best practices that you hear people talk about in the software world and how to make your own but then also how to deal with the ones you hear from others in the software community. So, I think that was an episode that the idea, on the surface, seemed really basic, and then we went pretty deep with it. And that was really fun. I think a second one that I really enjoyed was also the one that I did with Sara Jackson as a guest, talking about discrete math and its relevance to the day-to-day work that we do. That's Episode 374. We just had a lot of fun with that. I think that's a topic that more developers, more web developers, would benefit from just getting a little bit more discrete math in their lives. And also, there's a clip in there where Sara reinterprets a classic marketing jingle with some discrete math terms in there instead. It was a lot of fun. So, we'd recommend people checking that one out. STEPHANIE: Nice. Yes. I also loved those episodes. The heuristics one was really great. I'm glad you mentioned it because one of my favorite episodes is kind of along a similar vein. It's one of the more recent ones that we did. It's Episode 405, where we did a bit of a retro on Sandi Metz' Rules For Developers. And those essentially are heuristics, right? And we got to kind of be like, hey, these are someone else's heuristics. How do we feel about them? Have we embodied them ourselves? Do we follow them? What parts do we take or leave? And I just remember having a really enjoyable conversation with you about that. You and I have kind of treated this podcast a little bit like our own two-person book club [laughs]. So, it felt a little bit like that, right? Where we were kind of responding to, you know, something that we both have read up on, or tried, or whatever. So, that was a good one. Another one of my favorite episodes was Episode 391: Learn with APPL [laughs], in which we basically developed our own learning framework, or actually, credit goes to former Bike Shed host, Steph Viccari, who came up with this fun, little acronym to talk about different things that we all kind of need in our work lives to be fulfilled. Our APPL stands for Adventure, Passion, Profit, and Low risk. And that one was really fun just because it was, like, the opposite of what I just described where we're not discussing someone else's work but discovered our own thing out of, you know, these conversations that we have on the show, conversations we have with our co-workers. And yeah, I'm trying to make it a thing, so I'm plugging it again [laughs]. JOËL: I did really like that episode. One, I think, you know, this APPL framework is a little bit playful, which makes it fun. But also, I think digging into it really gives some insight on the different aspects that are relevant when planning out further growth or where you want to invest your sort of professional development time. And so, breaking down those four elements led to some really insightful conversation around where do I want to invest time learning in the next year? STEPHANIE: Yeah, absolutely. JOËL: By the way, we're mentioning a bunch of our favorite things, some past episodes, and we'll be talking about a lot of other types of resources. We will be linking all of these in the show notes. So, for any of our listeners who are like, "Oh, I wonder what is that thing they mentioned," there's going to be a giant list that you can check out. STEPHANIE: Yeah. I love whenever we are able to put out an episode with a long list of things [laughs]. JOËL: It's one of the fun things that we get to do is like, oh yeah, we referenced all these things. And there is this sort of, like, further reading, more threads to pull on for people who might be interested. So, you'd mentioned, Stephanie, that, you know, sometimes we kind of treat this as our own little mini, like, two-person book club. I know that you're a voracious reader, and you've mentioned so many books over the course of the year. Do you have maybe one or two books that have been kind of your favorites or that have stood out to you over 2023? STEPHANIE: I do. I went back through my reading list in preparation for this episode and wanted to call out the couple of books that I finished. And I think I have, you know, I mentioned I was reading them along the way. But now I get to kind of see how having read them influenced my work life this past year, which is pretty cool. So, one of them is Engineering Management for the Rest of Us by Sarah Drasner. And that's actually one that really stuck with me, even though I'm not a manager; I don't have any plans to become a manager. But one thing that she talks about early on is this idea of having a shared value system. And you can have that at the company level, right? You have your kind of corporate values. You can have that at the team level with this smaller group of people that you get to know better and kind of form relationships with. And then also, part of that is, like, knowing your individual values. And having alignment in all three of those tiers is really important in being a functioning and fulfilled team, I think. And that is something that I don't think was really spelled out very explicitly for me before, but it was helpful in framing, like, past work experiences, where maybe I, like, didn't have that alignment and now identify why. And it has helped me this year as I think about my client work, too, and kind of where I sit from that perspective and helps me realize like, oh, like, this is why I'm feeling this way, and this is why it's not quite working. And, like, what do I do about it now? So, I really enjoyed that. JOËL: Would you recommend this book to others who are maybe not considering a management path? STEPHANIE: Yeah. JOËL: So, even if you're staying in the IC track, at least for now, you think that's a really powerful book for other people. STEPHANIE: Yeah, I would say so. You know, maybe not, like, all of it, but there's definitely parts that, you know, she's writing for the rest of us, like, all of us maybe not necessarily natural born leaders who knew that that's kind of what we wanted. And so, I can see how people, you know, who are uncertain or maybe even, like, really clearly, like, "I don't think that's for me," being able to get something out of, like, either those lessons in leadership or just to feel a bit, like, validated [laughs] about the type of work that they aren't interested in. Another book that I want to plug real quick is Confident Ruby by Avdi Grimm. That one was one I referenced a lot this year, working with newer developers especially. And it actually provided a good heuristic [laughs] for me to talk about areas that we could improve code during code review. I think that wasn't really vocabulary that I'd used, you know, saying, like, "Hey, how confident is this code? How confident is this method and what it will receive and what it's returning?" And I remember, like, several conversations that I ended up having on my teams about, like, return types as a result and them having learned, like, a new way to view their code, and I thought that was really cool. JOËL: I mean, learning to deal with uncertainty and nil in Ruby or maybe even, like, error states is just such a core part of writing software. I feel like this is something that I almost wish everyone was sort of assigned maybe, like, a year into their programming career because, you know, I think the first year there's just so many things you've got to learn, right? Like basic programming and, like, all these things. But, like, you're looking maybe I can start going a little bit deeper into some topic. I think that some topic, like, pretty high up, would be building a mental model for how to deal with uncertainty because it's such a source of bugs. And Avdi Grimm's book, Confident Ruby, is...I would put that, yeah, definitely on a recommended reading list for everybody. STEPHANIE: Yeah, I agree. And I think that's why I found myself, you know, then recommending it to other people on my team and kind of having something I can point to. And that was really helpful in the kind of mentorship that I wanted to offer. JOËL: I did a deep dive into uncertainty and edge cases in programs several years back when I was getting into Elm. And I was giving a talk at Elm Europe about how Elm handles uncertainty, which is a little bit different than how Ruby does it. But a lot of the underlying concepts are very similar in terms of quarantining uncertainty and pushing it to the edges and things like that. Trying to write code that is more confident that is definitely a term that I used. And so Confident Ruby ended up being a little bit of an inspiration for my own journey there, and then, eventually, the talk that I gave that summarized my learnings there. STEPHANIE: Nice. Do you have any reading recommendations or books that stood out to you this year? JOËL: So, I've been reading two technical books kind of in tandem this year. I have not finished either of them, but I have been enjoying them. One is Sustainable Rails by David Bryant Copeland. We had an episode at the beginning of this year where we talked a little bit about our initial impressions from, I think, the first chapter of the book. But I really love that vocabulary of writing Ruby and Rails code, in particular, in a way that is sustainable for a team. And that premise, I think, just gives a really powerful mindset to approach structuring Rails apps. And the other book that I've been reading is Domain Modeling Made Functional, so kind of looking at some domain-driven design ideas. But most of the literature is typically written to an object-oriented audience, so taking a look at it from more of a functional programming perspective has been really interesting. And then I've been, weirdly enough, taking some of those ideas and translating back into the object-oriented world to apply to code I'm writing in Ruby. I think that has been a very useful exercise. STEPHANIE: That's awesome. And it's weird and cool how all those things end up converging, right? And exploring different paradigms really just lets you develop more insight into wherever you're working. JOËL: Sometimes the sort of conversion step that you have to do, that translation, can be a good tool for kind of solidifying learnings or better understanding. So, I'm doing this sort of deep learning thing where I'm taking notes as I go along. And those notes are typically around, what other concepts can I connect ideas in the book? So, I'll be reading and say, okay, on page 150, he mentioned this concept. This reminds me of this idea from TDD. I could see this applying in a different way in an object-oriented world. And interestingly, if you apply this, it sort of converges on maybe single responsibility or whatever other OO principle. And that's a really interesting connection. I always love it when you do see sort of two or three different angles converging together on the same idea. STEPHANIE: Yeah, absolutely. JOËL: I've written a blog post, I think, two years ago around how some theory from functional programming sort of OO best practices and then TDD all kind of converge on sort of the same approach to designing software. So, you can sort of go from either direction, and you kind of end in the same place or sort of end up rediscovering principles from the other two. We'll link that in the show notes. But that's something that I found was really exciting. It didn't directly come from this book because, again, I wrote this a couple of years ago. But it is always fun when you're exploring two or three different paradigms, and you find a convergence. It really deepens your understanding of what's happening. STEPHANIE: Yeah, absolutely. I like what you said about how this book is different because it is making that connection between things that maybe seem less related on the surface. Like you're saying, there's other literature written about how domain modeling and object-oriented programming make more sense a little bit more together. But it is that, like, bringing in of different schools of thought that can lead to a lot of really interesting discovery about those foundational concepts. JOËL: I feel like dabbling in other paradigms and in other languages has made me a better Ruby developer and a better OO programmer, a lot of the work I've done in Elm. This book that I'm reading is written in F#. And all these things I can kind of bring back, and I think, have made me a better Ruby developer. Have you had any experiences like that? STEPHANIE: Yeah. I think I've talked a little bit about it on the show before, but I can't exactly recall. There were times when my exploration in static typing ended up giving me that different mindset in terms of the next time I was coding in Ruby after being in TypeScript for a while, I was, like, thinking in types a lot more, and I think maybe swung a little bit towards, like, not wanting to metaprogram as much [laughs]. But I think that it was a useful, like you said, exercise sometimes, too, and just, like, doing that conversion or translating in your head to see more options available to you, and then deciding where to go from there. So, we've talked a bit about technical books that we've read. And now I kind of want to get into some in-person highlights for the year because you and I are both on the conference circuit and had some fun trips this year. JOËL: Yeah. So, I spoke at RailsConf this spring. I gave a talk on discrete math and how it is relevant in day-to-day work for developers, actually inspired by that Bike Shed episode that I mentioned earlier. So, that was kind of fun, turning a Bike Shed episode into a conference talk. And then just recently, I was at RubyConf in San Diego, and I gave a talk there around time. We often talk about time as a single quantity, but there's some subtle distinctions, so the difference between a moment in time versus a duration and some of the math that happens around that. And I gave a few sort of visual mental models to help people keep track of that. As of this recording, the talk is not out yet, so we're not going to be able to link to it. But if you're listening to this later in 2024, you can probably just Google RubyConf "Which Time Is It?" That's the name of the talk. And you'll be able to find it. STEPHANIE: Awesome. So, as someone who is giving talks and attending conferences every year, I'm wondering, was this year particularly different in any way? Was there something that you've, like, experienced or felt differently community-wise in 2023? JOËL: Conferences still feel a little bit smaller than they were pre-COVID. I think they are still bouncing back. But there's definitely an energy that's there that's nice to have on the conference scene. I don't know, have you experienced something similar? STEPHANIE: I think I know what you're talking about where, you know, there was that time when we weren't really meeting in person. And so, now we're still kind of riding that wave of, like, getting together again and being able to celebrate and have fun in that way. I, this year, got to speak at Blue Ridge Ruby in June. And that was a first-time regional conference. And so, that was, I think, something I had noticed, too, is the emergence of regional conferences as being more viable options after not having conferences for a few years. And as a regional conference, it was even smaller than the bigger national Ruby Central conferences. I really enjoyed the intimacy of that, where it was just a single track. So, everyone was watching talks together and then was on breaks together, so you could mingle. There was no FOMO of like, oh, like, I can't make this talk because I want to watch this other one. And that was kind of nice because I could, like, ask anyone, "What did you think of, like, X talk or like the one that we just kind of came out of and had that shared experience?" That was really great. And I got to go tubing for the first time [laughs] in Asheville. That's a memory, but I am still thinking about that as we get into winter. I'm like, oh yeah, the glorious days of summer [laughs] when I was getting to float down a lazy river. JOËL: Nice. I wasn't sure if this was floating down a lazy river on an inner tube or if this was someone takes you out on a lake with a speed boat, and you're getting pulled. STEPHANIE: [laughs] That's true. As a person who likes to relax [laughs], I definitely prefer that kind of tubing over a speed boat [laughs]. JOËL: What was the topic of your talk? STEPHANIE: So, I got to give my talk about nonviolent communication in pair programming for a second time. And that was also my first time giving a talk for a second time [laughs]. That was cool, too, because I got to revisit something and go deeper and kind of integrate even more experiences I had. I just kind of realized that even if you produce content once, like, there's always ways to deepen it or shape it a little better, kind of, you know, just continually improving it and as you learn more and as you get more experience and change. JOËL: Yeah. I've never given a talk twice, and now you've got me wondering if that's something I should do. Because making a bespoke talk for every conference is a lot of work, and it might be nice to be able to use it more than once. Especially I think for some of the regional conferences, there might be some value there in people who might not be able to go to a big national conference but would still like to see your talk live. Having a mix of maybe original content and then content that is sort of being reshared is probably a great combo for a regional conference. STEPHANIE: Yeah, definitely. That's actually a really good idea, yeah, to just be able to have more people see that content and access it. I like that a lot. And I think it could be really cool for you because we were just talking about all the ways that our mental models evolve the more stuff that we read and consume. And I think there's a lot of value there. One other conference that I went to this year that I just want to highlight because it was really cool that I got to do this: I went to RubyKaigi in Japan [laughs] back in the spring. And I had never gone to an international conference before, and now I'm itching to do more of that. So, it would be remiss not to mention it [laughs]. I'm definitely inspired to maybe check out some of the conferences outside of the U.S. in 2024. I think I had always been a little intimidated. I was like, oh, like, it's so far [laughs]. Do I really have, like, that good of a reason to make a trip out there? But being able to meet Rubyists from different countries and seeing how it's being used in other parts of the world, I think, made me realize that like, oh yeah, like, beyond my little bubble, there's so many cool things happening and people out there who, again, like, have that shared love of Ruby. And connecting with them was, yeah, just so new and something that I would want to do more of. So, another thing that we haven't yet gotten into is our actual work-work or our client work [laughs] that we do at thoughtbot for this year. Joël, I'm wondering, was there anything especially fun or anything that really stood out to you in terms of client work that you had to do this year? JOËL: So, two things come to mind that were novel for me. One is I did a Rails integration against Snowflake, the data warehouse, using an ODBC connection. We're not going through an API; we're going through this DB connection. And I never had to do that before. I also got to work with the new-ish Rails multi-database support, which actually worked quite nice. That was, I think, a great learning experience. Definitely ran into some weird edge cases, or some days, I was really frustrated. Some days, I was actually, like, digging into the source code of the C bindings of the ODBC gem. Those were not the best days. But definitely, I think, that kind of integration and then Snowflake as a technology was really interesting to explore. The other one that's been really interesting, I think, has been going much deeper into the single sign-on world. I've been doing an integration against a kind of enterprise SAML server that wants to initiate sign-in requests from their portal. And this is a bit of an alphabet soup, but the term here is IdP-initiated SSO. And so, I've been working's a combination of this third-party kind of corporate SAML system, our application, which is a Rails app, and then Auth0 kind of sitting in the middle and getting all of them to talk to each other. There's a ridiculous number of redirects because we're talking SAML on one side and OIDC on the other and getting everything to line up correctly. But that's been a really fun, new set of things to learn. STEPHANIE: Yeah, that does sound complicated [laughs] just based on what you shared with me, but very cool. And I was excited to hear that you had had a good experience with the Rails multi-database part because that was another thing that I remember had piqued my interest when it first came out. I hope I get to, you know, utilize that feature on a project soon because that sounds really fun. JOËL: One thing I've had to do for this SSO project is lean a lot on sequence diagrams, which are those diagrams that sort of show you, like, being redirected from different places, and, like, okay, server one talks to server two talks, to the browser. And so, when I've got so many different actors and sort of controllers being passed around everywhere, it's been hard to keep track of it in my head. And so, I've been doing a lot of these diagrams, both for myself to help understand it during development, and then also as documentation to share back with the team. And I found that Mermaid.js supports sequence diagrams as a diagram type. Long-term listeners of the show will know that I am a sucker for a good diagram. I love using Mermaid for a lot of things because it's supported. You can embed it in a lot of places, including in GitHub comments, pull requests. You can use it in various note systems like Notion or Obsidian. And you can also just generate your own on And so, that's been really helpful to communicate with the rest of the team, like, "Hey, we've got this whole process where we've got 14 redirects across four different servers. Here's what it looks like. And here, like, we're getting a bug on, you know, redirect number 8 of 14. I wonder why," and then you can start a conversation around debugging that. STEPHANIE: Cool. I was just about to ask what tool you're using to generate your sequence diagrams. I didn't know that Mermaid supported them. So, that's really neat. JOËL: So, last year, when we kind of looked back over 2022, one thing that was really interesting that we did is we talked about what are articles that you find yourself linking to a lot that are just kind of things that maybe were on your mind or that were a big part of conversations that happened over the year? So, maybe for you, Stephanie, in 2023, what are one or two articles that you find yourself sort of constantly linking to other people? STEPHANIE: Yes. I'm excited you asked about this. One of them is an article by a person named Cat Hicks, who has a PhD in experimental psychology. She's a data scientist and social scientist. And lately, she's been doing a lot of research into the sense of belonging on software teams. And I think that's a theme that I am personally really interested in, and I think has kind of been something more people are talking about in the last few years. And she is kind of taking that maybe more squishy idea and getting numbers for it and getting statistics, and I think that's really cool. She points out belonging as, like, a different experience from just, like, happiness and fulfillment, and that really having an impact on how well a team is functioning. I got to share this with a few people who were, you know, just in that same boat of, like, trying to figure out, what are the behaviors kind of on my team that make me feel supported or not supported? And there were a lot of interesting discussions that came out of sharing this article and kind of talking about, especially in software, where we can be a little bit dogmatic. And we've kind of actually joked about it on the podcast [chuckles] before about, like, we TDD or don't TDD, or, you know, we use X tool, and that's just like what we have to do here. She writes a little bit about how that can end up, you know, not encouraging people offering, like, differing opinions and being able to feel like they have a say in kind of, like, the team's direction. And yeah, I just really enjoyed a different way of thinking about it. Joël, what about you? What are some articles you got bookmarked? [chuckles] JOËL: This year, I started using a bookmark manager, That's been nice because, for this episode, I could just look back on, what are some of my bookmarks this year? And be like, oh yeah, this is the thing that I have been using a lot. So, an article that I've been linking is an article called Preemptive Pluralization is (Probably) Not Evil. And it kind of talks a little bit about how going from code that works over a collection of two items to a collection of, you know, 20 items is very easy. But sometimes, going from one to two can be really challenging. And when are the times where you might want to preemptively make something more than one item? So, maybe using it has many association rather than it has one or making an attribute a collection rather than a single item. Controversial is not the word for it, but I think challenges a little bit of the way people typically like to write code. But across this year, I've run into multiple projects where they have been transitioning from one to many. That's been an interesting article to surface as part of those conversations. Whether your team wants to do this preemptively or whether they want to put it off and say in classic YAGNI (You Aren't Gonna Need It) form, "We'll make it single for now, and then we'll go plural," that's a conversation for your team. But I think this article is a great way to maybe frame the conversation. STEPHANIE: Cool. Yeah, I really like that almost, like, a counterpoint to YAGNI [laughs], which I don't think I've ever heard anyone say that out loud [laughs] before. But as soon as you said preemptive pluralization is not evil, I thought about all the times that I've had to, like, write code, text in which a thing, a variable could be either one or many [laughs] things. And I was like, ooh, maybe this will solve that problem for me [laughs]. JOËL: Speaking of pluralization, I'm sure you've been linking to more than just one article this year. Do you have another one that you find yourself coming up in conversations where you've always kind of like, "Hey, dropping this link," where it's almost like your thing? STEPHANIE: Yes. And that is basically everything written by Mandy Brown [laughs], who is a work coach that I actually started working with this year. And one of the articles that really inspired me or really has been a topic of conversation among my friends and co-workers is she has a blog post called Digging Through the Ashes. And it's kind of a meditation on, like, post burnout or, like, what's next, and how we have used this word as kind of a catch-all to describe, you know, this collective sense of being just really tired or demoralized or just, like, in need of a break. And what she offers in that post is kind of, like, some suggestions about, like, how can we be more specific here and really, you know, identify what it is that you're needing so that you can change how you engage with work? Because burnout can mean just that you are bored. It can mean that you are overworked. It can mean a lot of things for different people, right? And so, I definitely don't think I'm alone [laughs] in kind of having to realize that, like, oh, these are the ways that my work is or isn't changing and, like, where do I want to go next so that I might feel more sustainable? I know that's, like, a keyword that we talked about earlier, too. And that, on one hand, is both personal but also technical, right? It, like, informs the kinds of decisions that we make around our codebase and what we are optimizing for. And yeah, it is both technical and cultural. And it's been a big theme for me this year [laughs]. JOËL: Yeah. Would you say it's safe to say that sustainability would be, if you want to, like, put a single word on your theme for the year? Would that be a fair word to put there? STEPHANIE: Yeah, I think so. Definitely discovering what that means for me and helping other people discover what that means for them, too. JOËL: I feel like we kicked off the year 2023 by having that discussion of Sustainable Rails and how different technical practices can make the work there feel sustainable. So, I think that seems to have really carried through as a theme through the year for you. So, that's really cool to have seen that. And I'm sure listeners throughout the year have heard you mention these different books and articles. Maybe you've also been able to pick up a little bit on that. So, I'm glad that we do this show because you get a little bit of, like, all the bits and pieces in the day-to-day, and then we aggregate it over a year, and you can look back. You can be like, "Oh yeah, I definitely see that theme in your work." STEPHANIE: Yeah, I'm glad you pointed that out. It is actually really interesting to see how something that we had talked about early, early on just had that thread throughout the year. And speaking of sustainability, we are taking a little break from the show to enjoy the holidays. We'll be off for a few weeks, and we will be back with a new Bike Shed in January. JOËL: Cheers to a new year. STEPHANIE: Yeah, cheers to a new year. Wrapping up 2023. And we will see you all in 2024. JOËL: On that note, shall we wrap up the whole year? STEPHANIE: Let's wrap up. Show notes for this episode can be found at JOËL: This show has been produced and edited by Mandy Moore. STEPHANIE: If you enjoyed listening, one really easy way to support the show is to leave us a quick rating or even a review in iTunes. It really helps other folks find the show. JOËL: If you have any feedback for this or any of our other episodes, you can reach us @_bikeshed, or you can reach me @joelquen on Twitter. STEPHANIE: Or reach both of us at via email. JOËL: Thanks so much for listening to The Bike Shed, and we'll see you next week. ALL: Byeeeeeee!!!!!!! AD: Did you know thoughtbot has a referral program? If you introduce us to someone looking for a design or development partner, we will compensate you if they decide to work with us. More info on our website at referral. Or you can email us at with any questions.Support The Bike Shed
Dec 18, 2023
38 min
410: All About Documentation
Joël shares his experiences with handling JSON in a Postgres database. He talks about his challenges with ActiveRecord and JSONB columns, particularly the unexpected behavior of storing and retrieving JSON data. Stephanie shares her recent discovery of bookmarklets and highlights a bookmarklet named "Check This Out," which streamlines searching for books on Libby, an ebook and audiobook lending app. The conversation shifts to using constants in code as a form of documentation. Stephanie and Joël discuss how constants might not always accurately reflect current system behavior or logic, leading to potential misunderstandings and the importance of maintaining accurate documentation. Bookmarklets "Check This Out" Bookmarklet Libby Productivity Tricks 12 Factor App Config A Hierarchy of Documentation Sustainable Rails rails-erd gem Transcript STEPHANIE: Hello and welcome to another episode of the Bike Shed, a weekly podcast from your friends at thoughtbot about developing great software. I'm Stephanie Minn. JOËL: And I'm Joël Quenneville. And together, we're here to share a bit of what we've learned along the way. STEPHANIE: So, Joël, what's new in your world? JOËL: What's new in my world is JSON and how to deal with it in a Postgres database. So, I'm dealing with a situation where I have an ActiveRecord model, and one of the columns is a JSONB column. And, you know, ActiveRecord is really nice. You can just throw a bunch of different data at it, and it knows the column type, and it will do some conversions for you automatically. So, if I'm submitting a form and, you know, form values might come in as strings because, you know, I typed in a number in a text field, but ActiveRecord will automatically parse that into an integer because it knows we're saving that to an integer column. So, I don't need to do all these, like, manual conversions. Well, I have a form that has a string of JSON in it that I'm trying to save in a JSONB column. And I expected ActiveRecord to just parse that into a hash and store it in Postgres. That is not what happens. It just stores a raw string, so when I pull it out again, I don't have a hash. I have a raw string that I need to deal with. And I can't query it because, again, it is a raw string. So, that was a bit of an unexpected behavior that I saw there. STEPHANIE: Yeah, that is unexpected. So, is this a field that has been used for a while now? I'm kind of surprised that there hasn't been already some implementations for, like, deserializing it. JOËL: So, here's the thing: I don't think you can have an automatic deserialization there because there's no way of knowing whether or not you should be deserializing. The reason is that JSON is not just objects or, in Ruby parlance, hashes. You can also have arrays. But just raw numbers not wrapped in hashes are also valid JSON as are raw strings. And if I just give you a string and say, put this in a JSON field, you have no way of knowing, is this some serialized JSON that you need to deserialize and then save? Or is it just a string that you should save because strings are already JSON? So, that's kind of on you as the programmer to make that distinction because you can't tell at runtime which one of these it is. STEPHANIE: Yeah, you're right. I just realized it's [laughs] kind of, like, an anything goes [laughs] situation, not anything but strings are JSON, are valid JSON, yep [laughs]. That sounds like one of those things that's, like, not what you think about immediately when dealing with that kind of data structure, but... JOËL: Right. So, the idea that strings are valid JSON values, but also all JSON values can get serialized as strings. And so, you never know: are you dealing with an unserialized string that's just a JSON value, or are you dealing with some JSON blob that got serialized into a string? And only in one of those do you want to then serialize before writing into the database. STEPHANIE: So, have you come to a solution or a way to make your problem work? JOËL: So, the solution that I did is just calling a JSON parse before setting that attribute on my model because this value is coming in from a form. I believe I'm doing this when I'm defining the strong parameters for that particular form. I'm also transforming that string by parsing it into a hash with the JSON dot parse, which then gets passed to the model. And then I'm not sure what JSONB serializes as under the hood. When you give it a hash, it might store it as a string, but it might also have some kind of binary format or some internal AST that it uses for storage. I'm not sure what the implementation is. STEPHANIE: Are the values in the JSONB something that can be variable or dynamic? I've seen some people, you know, put that in getter so that it's just kind of done for you for anyone who needs to access that field. JOËL: Right now, there is a sort of semi-consistent schema to that. I think it will probably evolve to where I'll pull some of these out to be columns on the table. But it is right now kind of an everything else sort of dumping ground from an API. STEPHANIE: Yeah, that's okay, too, sometimes [laughs]. JOËL: Yeah. So, interesting journey into some of the fun edge cases of dealing with a format whose serialized form is also a valid instance of that format. What's been new in your world? STEPHANIE: So, I discovered something new that has been around on the internet for a while, but I just haven't been aware of it. Do you know what a bookmarklet is? JOËL: Oh, like a JavaScript code that runs in a bookmark? STEPHANIE: Yeah, exactly. So, you know, in your little browser bookmark where you might normally put a URL, you can actually stick some JavaScript in there. And it will run whenever you click your bookmark in your browser [chuckles]. So, that was a fun little internet tidbit that I just found out about. And the reason is because I stumbled upon a bookmarklet made by someone. It's called Check This Out. And what it does is there's another app/website called Libby that is used to check out ebooks and audiobooks for free from your local public library. And what this Check This Out bookmarklet does is you can kind of select any just, like, text on a web page, and then when you click the bookmarklet, it then just kind of sticks it into the query params for Libby's search engine. And it takes you straight to the results for that book or that author, and it saves you a few extra manual steps to go from finding out about a book to checking it out. So, that was really neat and cute. And I was really surprised that you could do that. I was like, whoa [laughs]. At first, I was like, is this okay? [laughs] If you, like, you can't read, you know, you don't know what the JavaScript is doing, I can see it being a little sketchy. But –- JOËL: Be careful of executing arbitrary JavaScript. STEPHANIE: Yeah, yeah. When I did look up bookmarklets, though, I kind of saw that it was, you know, just kind of a fun thing for people who might be learning to code for the first time to play around with. And some fun ideas they had for what you could do with it was turning all the font on a web page to Comic Sans [laughs]. So yeah, I thought that was really cute. JOËL: Has that inspired you to write your own? STEPHANIE: Well, we did an episode a while ago on productivity tricks. And I was thinking like, oh yeah, there's definitely some things that I could do to, you know, just stick some automated tasks that I have into a bookmarklet. And that could be a really fun kind of, like, old-school way of doing it, as opposed to, you know, coding my little snippets or getting into a new, like, Omnibar app [laughs]. JOËL: So, something that is maybe a little bit less effort than building yourself a browser extension or something like that. STEPHANIE: Yeah, exactly. JOËL: I had a client project once that involved a...I think it was, like, a five-step wizard or something like that. It was really tedious to step through it all to manually test things. And so, I wrote a bookmarklet that would just go through and fill out all the fields and hit submit on, like, five pages worth of these things. And if anything didn't work, it would just pause there, and then you could see it. In some way, it was moving towards the direction of, like, an automated like Capybara style test. But this was something that was helping for manual QA. So, that was a really fun use of a bookmarklet. STEPHANIE: Yeah, I like that. Like, just an in-between thing you could try to speed up that manual testing without getting into, like you said, an automated test framework for your browser. JOËL: The nice thing about that is that this could be used without having to set up pretty much anything, right? You paste a bit of JavaScript into your bookmark bar, and then you just click the button. That's all you need to do. No need to make sure that you've got Ruby installed on your machine or any of these other things that you would need for some kind of testing framework. You don't need Selenium. You don't need ChromeDriver. It works. So, I was working...this was a greenfield startup project. So, I was working with a non-technical founder who didn't have all these things, you know, dev tooling on his machine. So, he wanted to try out things but not spend his days filling out forms. And so, having just a button he could click was a really nice shortcut. STEPHANIE: That's really cool. I like that a lot. I wasn't even thinking about how I might be able to bring that in more into just my daily work, as opposed to just something kind of fun. But that's an awesome idea. And I hope that maybe I'll have a good use for one in the future. JOËL: It feels like the thing that has a lot of potential, and yet I have not since written...I don't think I've written any bookmarklets for myself. It feels like it's the kind of thing where I should be able to do this for all sorts of fun tooling and just automate my life away. Somehow, I haven't done that. STEPHANIE: Bring back the bookmarklet [laughs]. That's what I have to say. JOËL: So, I mentioned earlier that I was working with a JSONB column and storing JSON on an ActiveRecord model. And then I wanted to interact with it, but the problem is that this JSON is somewhat arbitrary, and there are a lot of magic strings in there. All of the key names might change. And I was really concerned that if the schema of that JSON ever changed, if we changed some of the key names or something like that, we might accidentally break code in multiple parts of the app. So, I was very careful while building that model to quarantine any references to any raw strings only within that model, which meant that I leaned really heavily on constants. And, in some way, those constants end up kind of documenting what we think the schema of that JSON should be. And that got me thinking; you were telling me recently about a scenario where some code you were working with relied heavily on constants as a form of documentation, and that documentation kind of lied to you. STEPHANIE: Yeah, it did. And I think you mentioned something that I wanted to point out, which is that the magic strings that you think might change, and you wanted to pull that out into a constant, you know, so at least it's kind of defined in one place. And if it ever does change, you know, you don't have to change it in all of those places. And I do think that, normally, you know, if there's opportunities to extract those magic strings and give a name to them, that is beneficial. But I was gripping a little bit about when constants become, I guess, like, too wieldy, or there's just kind of, like, too much of a dependency on them as the things documenting how the app should work when it's constantly changing. I realized that I just used constant and constantly [laughs]. JOËL: The only constant is that it is not constant. STEPHANIE: Right. And so, the situation that I found myself in—this was on a client project a little bit ago—was that the constants became, like, gatekeepers of that logic where dev had to change it if the app's behavior changed, and maybe we wanted to change the value of it. And also, one thing that I noticed a lot was that we, as developers, were getting questions about, "Hey, like, how does this actually work?" Like, we were using the constants for things like pricing of products, for things like what is a compatible version for this feature. And because that was only documented in the code, other people who didn't have access to it actually were left in the dark. And because those were changing with somewhat frequency, I was just kind of realizing how that was no longer working for us. JOËL: Would you say that some of these values that we stored as constants were almost more like config rather than constants or maybe they're just straight-up application data? I can imagine something like price of an item you probably want that to be a value in the database that can be updated by an admin. And some of these other things maybe are more like config that you change through some kind of environment variable or something like that. STEPHANIE: Yeah, that's a good point. I do think that they evolved to become things that needed to be configured, right? I suppose maybe there wasn't as much information or foresight at the beginning of like, oh, this is something that we expect to change. But, you know, kind of when you're doing that first pass and you're told, like, hey, like, this value should be the price of something, or, like, the duration of something, or whatever that may be. It gets codified [chuckles]. And there is some amount of lift to change it from something that is, at first, just really just documenting what that decision was at the time to something that ends up evolving. JOËL: How would you draw a distinction between something that should be a constant versus something that maybe would be considered config or some other kind of value? Because it's pretty easy, right? As developers, we see magic numbers. We see magic strings. And our first thought is, oh, we've seen this problem before—constant. Do you have maybe a personal heuristic for when to reach for a constant versus when to reach for something else? STEPHANIE: Yeah, that's a good question. I think when I started to see it a lot was especially when the constants were arrays or hashes [laughs]. And I guess that is actually kind of a signal, right? You will likely be adding more stuff [laughs] into that data structure [laughs]. And, again, like, maybe it's okay, like, the first couple of times. But once you're seeing that request happen more frequently, that could be a good way to advocate for storing it in the database or, like, building a lightweight admin kind of thing so that people outside of the dev team can make those configuration changes. I think also just asking, right? Hey, like, how often do we suspect this will change? Or what's on the horizon for the product or the team where we might want to introduce a way to make the implementation a bit more flexible to something that, you know, we think we know now, but we might want to adjust for? JOËL: So, it's really about change and how much we think this might change in the future. STEPHANIE: Speaking of change, this actually kind of gets into the broader topic of documentation and how to document a changing and evolving entity [chuckles], you know, that being, like, the codebase or the way that decisions are made that impact how an application works. And you had shared, in preparation for this topic, an article that I read and enjoyed called Hierarchy of Documentation. And one thing that I liked about it is that it kind of presented all of the places that you could put information from, you know, straight in the code, to in your commit messages, to your issue management system, and to even wikis for your repo or your team. And I think that's actually something that we would want to share with new developers, you know, who might be wondering, like, where do I find or even put information? I really liked how it was kind of, like, laid out and gave, like, different reasons for where you might want to put something or not. JOËL: We think a lot about documentation as code writers. I'm curious what your experience is as a code reader. How do you tend to try to read code and understand documentation about how code works? And, apparently, the answer is, don't read the constants because these constants lie. STEPHANIE: I think you are onto something, though, because I was just thinking about how distrustful I've become of certain types of documentation. Like, when I think of code comments, on one hand, they should be a signal, right? They should kind of draw your attention to something maybe weird or just, like, something to note about the code that it's commenting on, or where it's kind of located in a file. But I sometimes tune them out, I'm not going to lie. When I see a really big block of code [chuckles] comment, I'm like, ugh, like, do I really have to read all of this? I'm also not positive that it's still relevant to the code below it, right? Like, I don't always have git blame, like, visually enabled in my editor. But oftentimes, when I do a little bit of digging, that comment is left over from maybe when that code was initially introduced. But, man, there have been lots of commits [chuckles] in the corresponding, you know, like, function sense, and I'm not really sure how relevant it is anymore. Do you struggle with the signal versus noise issue with code comments? How much do you trust them, and how much do you kind of, like, give credence to them? JOËL: I think I do tend to trust them with maybe some slight skepticism. It really depends on the codebase. Some codebases are really bad sort of comment hygiene and just the types of comments that they put in there, and then others are pretty good at it. The ones that I tend to particularly appreciate are where you have maybe some, like, weird function and you're like, what is going on here? And then you've got a nice, little paragraph up top explaining what's going on there, or maybe an explanation of ways you might be tempted to modify that piece of code and, like, why it is the way it is. So, like, hey, you might be wanting to add an extra branch here to cover this edge case. Don't do that. We tried it, and it causes problems for XY reasons. And sometimes it might be, like, a performance thing where you say, look, the code quality person in you is going to look at this and say, hey, this is hard to read. It would be better if we did this more kind of normalized form. Know that we've particularly written this in a way that's hard to read because it is more performant, and here are the numbers. This is why we want it in this way. Here's a link to maybe the issue, or the commit, or whatever where this happened. And then if you want to start that discussion up again and say, "Hey, do we really need performance here at the cost of readability?", you can start it up again. But at least you're not going to just be like, oh, while I'm here, I'm going to clean up this messy code and accidentally cause a regression. STEPHANIE: Yeah. I like what you said about comment hygiene being definitely just kind of, like, variable depending on the culture and the codebase. JOËL: I feel like, for myself, I used to be pretty far on the spectrum of no comments. If I feel the need to write a comment, that's a smell. I should find other ways to communicate that information. And I think I went pretty far down that extreme, and then I've been slowly kind of coming back. And I've probably kind of passed the center, where now I'm, like, slightly leaning towards comments are actually nice sometimes. And they are now a part of my toolkit. So, we'll see if I keep going there. Maybe I'll hit some point where I realize that I'm putting too much work into comments or comments are not being helpful, and I need to come back towards the center again and focus on other ways of communicating. But right now, I'm in that phase of doing more comments than I used to. How about you? Where do you stand on that sort of spectrum of all information should be communicated in code tokens versus comments? STEPHANIE: Yeah, I think I'm also somewhere in the middle. I think I have developed an intuition of when it feels useful, right? In my gut, I'm like, oh, I'm doing something weird. I wish I didn't have to do this [chuckles]. I think it's another kind of intuition that I have now. I might leave a comment about why, and I think that is more of that signal, right? Though I also recently have been using them more as just, like, personal notes for myself as I'm, you know, in my normal development workflow, and then I will end up cleaning them up later. I was working on a codebase where there was a soft delete functionality. And that was just, like, a concern that was included in some of the models. And I didn't realize that that's what was going on. So, when I, you know, I was calling destroy, I thought it was actually being deleted, and it turns out it wasn't. And so, that was when I left a little comment for myself that was like, "Hey, like, this is soft deleted." And some of those things I do end up leaving if I'm like, yes, other people won't have the same context as me. And then if it's something that, like, well, people who work in this app should know that they have soft delete, so then I'll go ahead and clean that up, even though it had been useful for me at the time. JOËL: Do you capture that information and then put it somewhere else then? Or is it just it was useful for you as a stepping-stone on the journey but then you don't need it at the end and nobody else needs to care about it? STEPHANIE: Oh, you know what? That's actually a really great point. I don't think I had considered saving that information. I had only thought about it as, you know, just stuff for me in this particular moment in time. But that would be really great information to pull out and put somewhere else [chuckles], perhaps in something like a wiki, or like a README, or somewhere that documents things about the system as a whole. Yeah, should we get into how to document kind of, like, bigger-picture stuff? JOËL: How do you feel about wikis? Because I feel like I've got a bit of a love-hate relationship with them. STEPHANIE: I've seen a couple of different flavors of them, right? Sometimes you have your GitHub wiki. Sometimes you have your Confluence ecosystem [laughs]. I have found that they work better if they're smaller [laughs], where you can actually, like, navigate them pretty well, and you have a sense of what is in there, as opposed to it just being this huge knowledge base that ends up actually, I think, working against you a little bit [laughs]. Because so much information gets duplicated if it's hard to find and people start contributing to it maybe without keeping in mind, like, the audience, right? I've seen a lot of people putting in, like, their own personal little scripts [laughs] in a wiki, and it works for them but then doesn't end up working for really anyone else. What's your love-hate relationship to them? JOËL: I think it's similar to what you were saying, a little bit of structure is nice. When they've just become dumping grounds of information that is maybe not up to date because over the course of several years, you end up with a lot of maybe conflicting articles, and you don't know which one is the right thing to do, it becomes hard to find things. So, when it just becomes a dumping ground for random information related to the company or the app, sometimes it becomes really challenging to find the information I need and to find information that's relevant, to the point where oftentimes looking something up in the wiki is my last resort. Like, I'm hoping I will find the answer to my question elsewhere and only fallback to the wiki if I can't. STEPHANIE: Yeah, that's, like, the sign that the wiki is really not trustworthy. And it kind of is diminishing returns from there a bit. I think I fell into this experience on my last project where it was a really, really big wiki for a really big codebase for a lot of developers. And there was kind of a bit of a tragedy of the commons situation, where on one hand, there were some things that were so manual that the steps needed to be very explicitly documented, but then they didn't work a lot of the time [laughs]. But it was hard to tell if they weren't working for you or because it was genuinely something wrong with, like, the way the documentation laid out the steps. And it was kind of like, well, I'm going to fix it for myself, but I don't know how to fix it for everyone else. So, I don't feel confident in updating this information. JOËL: I think that's what's really nice about the article that you mentioned about the hierarchy of documentation. It's that all of these different forms—code, comments, commit messages, pull requests, wikis—they don't have to be mutually exclusive. But sometimes they work sort of in addition to each other sort of each adding more context. But also, sometimes it's you sort of choose the one that's the highest up on that list that makes sense for what you're trying to do, so something like documenting a series of steps to do something maybe a wiki is a good place for that. But maybe it's better to have that be executable. Could that be a script somewhere? And then maybe that can be a thing that is almost, like, living documentation, but also where you don't need to maybe even think about the individual steps anymore because the script is running, you know, 10 different things. And I think that's something that I really appreciated from the book Sustainable Rails is there's a whole section there talking about the value of setup scripts and how people who are getting started on your app don't want to have to care about all the different things to set it up, just run a script. And also, that becomes living documentation for what the app needs, as opposed to maybe having a bulleted list with 10 elements in it in your project README. STEPHANIE: Yeah, absolutely. In the vein of living documentation, I think one thing that wikis can be kind of nice for is for putting visual supplements. So, I've seen them have, like, really great graphs. But at the same time, you could use a gem like Rails-ERD that generates the entity relationship diagram as the schema of your database changes, right? So, it's always up to date. I've seen that work well, too, when you want to have, like I said, those, like, system-level documentation that sometimes they do change frequently and, you know, sometimes they don't. But that's definitely worth keeping in mind when you choose, like, how you want to have that exist as information. JOËL: How do you feel about deleting documentation? Because I feel like we put so much work into writing documentation, kind of like we do when writing tests. It feels like more is always better. Do you ever go back and maybe sort of prune some of your docs, or try to delete some things that you think might no longer be relevant or helpful? STEPHANIE: I was also thinking of tests when you first posed that question. I don't know if I have it in my practice to, like, set aside time and be like, hmm, like, what looks outdated these days? I am starting to feel more confident in deleting things as I come across them if I'm like, I just completely ignored this or, like, this was just straight up wrong [laughs]. You know, that can be scary at first when you aren't sure if you can make that determination. But rather than thrust that, you know, someone else going through that same process of spending time, you know, trying to think about if this information was useful or not, you can just delete it [laughs]. You can just delete tests that have been skipped for months because they don't work. Like, you can delete information that's just no longer relevant and, in some ways, causing you more pain because they are cluttering up your wiki ecosystem so that no one [laughs] feels that any of that information is relevant anymore. JOËL: I'll be honest, I don't think I've ever deleted a wiki article that was out of date or no longer relevant. I think probably the most I've done is go to Slack and complain about how an out-of-date wiki page led me down the wrong path, which is probably not the most productive way to channel those feelings. So, maybe I should have just gone back and deleted the wiki page. STEPHANIE: I do like to give a heads up, I think. It's like, "Hey, I want to delete this thing. Are there any qualms?" And if no one on your team can see a reason to keep it and you feel good about that it's not really, like, serving its purpose, I don't know, maybe consider just doing it. JOËL: To kind of wrap up this topic, I've got a spicy question for you. STEPHANIE: Okay, I'm ready. JOËL: Do you think that AI is going to radically change the way that we interact with documentation? Imagine you have an LLM that you train on maybe not just your code but the Git history. It has all the Git comments and maybe your wiki. And then, you can just ask it, "Why does function foo do this thing?" And it will reference a commit message or find the correct wiki article. Do you think that's the future of understanding codebases? STEPHANIE: I don't know. I'm aware that some people kind of can see that as a use case for LLMs, but I think I'm still a little bit nervous about the not knowing how they got there kind of part of it where, you know, yes, like I am doing this manual labor of trying to sort out, like, is this information good or trustworthy or not? But at least that is something I'm determining for myself. So, that is where my skepticism comes in a little bit. But I also haven't really seen what it can do yet or seen the outcomes of it. So, that's kind of where I'm at right now. JOËL: So, you think, for you, the sort of the journey of trying to find and understand the documentation is a sort of necessary part of building the understanding of what the code is doing. STEPHANIE: I think it can be. Also, I don't know, maybe my life would be better by having all that cut out for me, or I could be burned by it because it turns out that it was bad information [laughs]. So, I can't say for sure. On that note, shall we wrap up? JOËL: Let's wrap up. STEPHANIE: Show notes for this episode can be found at JOËL: This show has been produced and edited by Mandy Moore. STEPHANIE: If you enjoyed listening, one really easy way to support the show is to leave us a quick rating or even a review in iTunes. It really helps other folks find the show. JOËL: If you have any feedback for this or any of our other episodes, you can reach us @_bikeshed, or you can reach me @joelquen on Twitter. STEPHANIE: Or reach both of us at via email. JOËL: Thanks so much for listening to The Bike Shed, and we'll see you next week. ALL: Byeeeeeeee!!!!!! AD: Did you know thoughtbot has a referral program? If you introduce us to someone looking for a design or development partner, we will compensate you if they decide to work with us. More info on our website at: Or you can email us at: with any questions.Support The Bike Shed
Dec 11, 2023
32 min
409: Support & Maintenance and Rotating Developers
Stephanie recommends "Blue Eye Samurai" and a new ceramic pot (donabe) for cooking. Joël talks about the joy of holding a warm beverage in a unique mug. Stephanie discusses her shift to a part-time support and maintenance role at thoughtbot, contrasting it with her full-time development work. She highlights the importance of communication, documentation, and workplace flexibility in this role. Stephanie appreciates the professional growth opportunities and aligns this flexible work style with her long-term career goals. Blue Eye Samurai Donabe pots thoughtbot’s Support & Maintenance services Transcript: JOËL: Hello and welcome to another episode of The Bike Shed, a weekly podcast from your friends at thoughtbot about developing great software. I'm Joël Quenneville. STEPHANIE: And I'm Stephanie Minn. And together, we're here to share a bit of what we've learned along the way. JOËL: So, Stephanie, what's new in your world? STEPHANIE: I have a TV show recommendation this week. I think this is my first time having TV or movies to recommend, so this will be fun. My partner and I just finished watching Blue Eye Samurai on Netflix, which is an animated historical Samurai drama. But the really cool thing about it is that the protagonist she's a woman who is disguising herself as a man, and she is half Japanese and half White, which the show takes place during Edo, Japan. And so that was a time when Japan was locked down, and there were no outsiders allowed in the country. And so, to be mixed race like that was to be, like, kind of, like, demonized and to be really excluded and shamed. And so, the main character is on, like, a revenge mission. And it was such a cool show. I was kind of, like, on the edge of my seat the whole time. And it's very beautifully animated. There were just a lot of really awesome things about it. And I think it's very different from what I've been seeing on TV these days. JOËL: Is this a single-season show? STEPHANIE: So far, there's just one season. I think it's pretty new, yeah. It's very watchable in a couple of weekends. [laughter] JOËL: Dangerously so. STEPHANIE: Yeah, exactly [laughs]. JOËL: How do you feel about the way they end the arc in season one? Do they kind of leave you on a cliffhanger, or does it feel like a pretty satisfying place? STEPHANIE: Ooh, I think both, which is the sweet spot, in my opinion, where it's not, like, cliffhanger for the sake of, like, ugh, now I feel like I have to just watch the next part to see what happens because I was left unsatisfied. I like when seasons are kind of like chapters of the story, right? And the characters are also well written, too, and really fleshed out even, you know, some of the side characters. They all have their arcs that are really satisfying. And, again, I just was left very impressed. JOËL: I guess that's the power of good storytelling. STEPHANIE: Yeah. I was reading a review of the show. And that was kind of the theme of–it was just that, like, this is really good storytelling, and I would have to agree. Yeah, I highly recommend checking it out. It was very fun. It was very bloody, but [chuckles], for me, it being animated actually made it a little more palatable for me [laughs]. The fight scenes, the action scenes were really cool. I think the way that it's been described is kind of, like, you know, if you like historical dramas, or if you like things like Game of Thrones, there's kind of something for everyone. I recommend checking it out. Joël, what's new in your world? JOËL: Listeners of the show don't know this, but you and I are on a video call while we're recording this. And you'd commented earlier that I was holding a cool mug. It's got a rock climbing hold as a handle, which is pretty fun. I enjoy a lot of bouldering. That makes it a fun mug. But I was recently thinking about just how much pleasure I get from holding a mug with a warm beverage. It's such a small thing, but it makes me so happy. And that got me thinking more broadly about what are things in life that are kind of like that. They're small things that have, like, an outsized impact on your happiness. Do you have anything like that? STEPHANIE: Oh yes, absolutely. You were talking about the warmth of a hot beverage in your hands. And I was thinking about something similar, too, because I'm pretty sure this time of year last year, I talked about something that was new in my world that was just, like, a thing that I got to make winter more tolerable for me here in Chicago, and I think it was, like, a heated blanket [laughs]. And I am similarly in that space this year of like, what can I do or get to make this winter better than last winter? So, this year, what I got that I'm really excited to use— it actually just came in the mail—is this ceramic pot called the donabe that's kind of mainly used for Japanese cooking, especially, like, hot pot. And so, it will be a huge improvement to my soup game this year [laughs]. Similarly, it's kind of, like, one of those small things where you can take it from the stovetop where you're cooking straight to the table, and I'm so looking forward to that. It's kind of like your hot beverage in your hand but, like, three times the size [laughs]. JOËL: Right. The family-style version of it. STEPHANIE: Yeah, exactly. So, that's what I'm really looking forward to this year as something that is just, like, I don't know, a little small upgrade to my regular soup routine. But I think I will get a lot of pleasure [laughs] out of it. JOËL: What do you normally cook in that style of pot? Is it typically you do a hot pot in there, or is it meant for soups? STEPHANIE: Yeah, it holds heat really well, so I think that's why it's used for soup a lot. And the one that I got specifically has a little ceramic steamer plate as well. And so, I'm looking forward to having, like, this setup that's made for steaming, where you don't have to have any, like, too many extra bits. And, again, it can go from stove to table, and that's one less thing I [chuckles] need to wash. JOËL: I love it. So, something else that is kind of new in your world is you'd mentioned on a recent episode you'd wrapped up with your current client. And you've rotated on to not exactly a new client but a new almost line of business. You're doing a rotation with our support and maintenance team. Can you tell us a little bit about what that is like? STEPHANIE: Yeah. I'm excited to share more about it because this is my first time on this team doing this work. And it's pretty new for thoughtbot, too. I think it's only, like, a year old that we have had this sub-team of the one that you and I are on, Boost. In the sub-team, support and maintenance is focused on providing flexible part-time work for clients who are just needing some dedicated hours, not necessarily for, you know, a lot of, like, intense new feature work, but making sure that things are running smoothly. A lot of the clients, you know, have had Rails apps that are several years old, that are chugging along [chuckles], just need that, like, attention every now and then to make sure that upgrades are happening, fix any bugs, kind of as the app just continues to work and provide value. And then, occasionally, there is a little bit of feature work. But the interesting thing about being on this team is that instead of being on one client full-time, you are working on a lot of different clients at the same time, and a lot of them are on retainers. So, they maybe have, like, 20 hours a month of work that gets filled with kind of whatever tasks need to be done during that time. So yeah, I recently joined a few days ago and have been very surprised by kind of this style of work. It's different from what I'm used to. JOËL: That seems pretty different than the sort of traditional thoughtbot client engagement. Typically, if I'm a client and I'm hiring a team from thoughtbot, as a client, I get sort of a dedicated team. And they're probably either building some things for me or maybe working with my team and sort of full-time building features. Whereas if I hire the support and maintenance team, it sounds like it's a bit more ad hoc. And it's things I assume it's like, oh, we probably need to upgrade our Rails version since a new release came out last month. Can you do that? Here's a small bug that was reported. Can somebody fix that? Things along those lines. Is that pretty approximate of what the experience is for a client? STEPHANIE: Yeah, I would say so. I think the other surprising thing has been there have been a little bit of more DevOps type of tasks as well mixed in there. Because oftentimes, these are smaller clients who maybe have, like, a few developers actively working on new features and that type of stuff. But there is, like, so much of the connecting work that needs to happen when you have an application. And if you don't have a full in-house team for that, that often gets put on developers' plates. But it's kind of nice to have this flexible support and maintenance team, again, to, like, do the work as it comes up. A lot of it is not necessarily, like, stuff that can be planned in advance. It's kind of like, oh, we're hitting, like, our usage limit for this Heroku add-on. Let's evaluate if this is still working for us, if this is a good tier to be on. Like, should we upgrade? Are there other levers we could pull or adjustments we can make? So, that's actually been some of the stuff that I've been working on, too, which is, again, a little bit different from normal development work but also still very much related. And it's all kind of part of the job. And, you know, a lot of the skills are transferable. And to know how to do development in a framework then sets you up, I think, really well to, like, be able to make those kinds of evaluations. JOËL: So, it sounds like you almost, in a sense, provide a bit of a velocity cushion for clients so that if something does come up where they would maybe normally need to pull a dev off of feature work to do some side thing for a couple of days, you can come in and handle that so that their dev team stays focused on shipping features. STEPHANIE: Yeah, I like that phrase you used: velocity cushion. That's cool. I like it. The other surprising thing that I have kind of quite enjoyed, at least for now, is because we bill a little bit differently on this work; we have to track our hours more explicitly. And that has actually helped me focus a lot more on what I'm doing and if I should continue to be doing what I'm doing. I'm timeboxing things a lot more because I know that if there is a ceiling on the number of hours, I want to make sure that that time is spent in the most valuable way. And I also really enjoy, like, the boundaries of timeboxing, yes, but also, like, the tasks are usually scoped pretty narrowly so that they are things that you can accomplish, definitely in the week, because you don't know if you'll kind of still be working for this client next week but even more so, like, within a few days. And that is nice because I can kind of, like, you know, track my hours, finish the task, and then feel a little bit more free to go do something else without being, like, okay, like, what's the next thing that I need to be doing? There's a little bit more freedom, I think, when you're kind of, like, optimizing towards, like, finishing each item. JOËL: Do the stories of the work that you have to do does it typically come kind of pre-scoped? Are you involved in making sure that it has, like, very aggressive scoping? STEPHANIE: Yeah. So far, I've not been involved in doing the scoping work, and it has come pre-scoped, which has been nice. This was also, again, just different. Because I was on a client team previously, a lot of the work to be done was the disambiguating, the, like, figuring out what to be doing. Whereas here, because, again, we're kind of optimized for people coming in and out, if there is uncertainty or lack of clarity, it's pointed out early, and someone is like, "Okay, I will take care of this. Like, I'll take the lead on this so that it can be handed off." One client that I'm working on is using Basecamp's Shape Up methodology, which I actually hadn't worked with in a very explicit way before. And that has been interesting to learn about a little bit, too. One thing that I have enjoyed about it is instead of sprints, they're called cycles. And I like that a lot because, you know, sprints kind of have the connotation of, like, you're running as fast as you can but also, like, you can't run that way forever [laughs]. And so, even that, like, little bit of rewording change is really nice. The variable part is scope, right? It's we're focused on delivering something completely and very intentionally cutting scope as kind of the main lever. JOËL: How do you maintain sort of focus and flow if you're jumping across multiple clients? Because you said, you work with multiple clients as part of this team. And I feel like I can get a little bit frustrated sometimes, even just jumping between, like, tickets within one project. And so, I could imagine that jumping between different clients during the week or even the day might be really disruptive. Have you found techniques to help you stay in the flow? STEPHANIE: Yeah, that is a tough one because, also, every client has their different application; you then have to start up on [laughs] your local machine, and that is kind of annoying. You know, I do still tend to kind of, like, bundle similar work together. If, like, there's a few things I can do for a client on one day, I'll make sure to focus on that. But what I mentioned earlier about, like, seeing something to completion has been really, I want to say, fun even. Because it then kind of, like, frees up that mental space of, like, okay, I don't have to, like, have this thing that I'm working on lingering in my head about, like, oh, did I forget to do something? Or, you know, have, like, shower thoughts of like, oh, I just thought of a new way to implement this [laughs] feature because it doesn't spill over as much as maybe larger initiatives anyway. And so, I am context-switching, but it's only kind of after I've gotten something to a good place where I've left all of the notes. And that's another thing that I'm now kind of compelled to do a little more actively. It's like, every single day, I'm kind of making sure that the work that I've done has been reported on, one, because I have to track my hours, so, you know, and I sometimes leave notes about what that time was spent on doing. And also, when the expectation is that someone else will be picking up, then there's no, like, oh, like, let me hold on to this, and only when I know that I have to hand off something that's when I'll do the, like, dedicated knowledge dumping. It's kind of just built into the process a little more frequently. JOËL: So, you're setting up for, like, an imminent vacation factor. STEPHANIE: Yeah. Which I kind of like because then I can take a vacation [laughs] whenever I want and not have to worry too much about, oh, did I do everything I needed to do before I leave? JOËL: So, you know, these practices that you're doing are specifically adapted for the style of work that you have. Are there any that you think you would bring to your own practice if you ever rotated back on to a dedicated client project, anything that you would do there that you would want to include from your practice here? STEPHANIE: Yeah. It does sound kind of weird because part of what's nice about being on a full-time team is that there is less, oh, if I don't get something done today, I have tomorrow to do it [laughs]. And it seems like that would be like, oh, like, kind of take the pressure off a little bit. But I would be really curious to continue having, like, such an intense awareness about how I'm spending my time. Because I've certainly gotten a little bit lax on, like, full-time development work when you just go down a rabbit hole [laughs] and you come out, like, three hours later, and you're like, "What did I just do?" [laughs] And, you know, maybe that's what needed to be done, and that's fine. But if you have the information that it took you three hours, you can at least make a better-informed decision about, like, oh, maybe I should have stopped a little earlier or, like, yeah, it took about three hours, and that's okay. I think that would be an interesting area to incorporate and to be able to report more frequently. And I also like to know how other people spend their time, too. So, just, like, that sharing of information would also be really beneficial even to, like, a team. JOËL: What about the more aggressive documentation? Is that something that...because that can be really time-consuming, I imagine, as well. Is that something that you would value in a kind of, more focused full-time project context? STEPHANIE: Yeah. One part I've enjoyed about it is that I'm documenting, like, decision-making a lot more actively where, you know, I'm kind of, like, surfacing to be like, hey, here's the outcomes of, like, my research. We're not as, you know, embedded in the business, and we don't have as much of that, like, context and knowledge about what the best solutions are all the time. I'm documenting all of that, you know, usually, for the client stakeholder to be like, "Hey, here's my recommendations, like, how do you want to...what do you think is the best way to go? On one hand, it's kind of nice not to have to, like, be solely responsible for making that decision, right? And I'm kind of, like, leaning on, like, hey, like, you're the expert of your application and your product, you know, here's what I've learned. And now I've, like, put this all, like, for you and presented it to you. And I think that, for me, has gotten lost sometimes when I end up being the same person of, like, doing the research and then deciding, and it just kind of ends up being held in my head. And that, I think, is something really important to document, even if it's just for other people to, like, see how that process might work or, like, what things I already considered or didn't try. That exercise, I think, can be really important. So, so far, the documentation has not necessarily been, like, code level, but more, like, for each task, it's, like, showing your work, right? And not in a, like, you're being monitored [laughs] sort of way but in a way that supports it getting done with a lot of that turnover. JOËL: It's almost like a mini report that you're doing. So, you'd mentioned, for example, an application running into memory problems on Heroku. It sounds like you would then go maybe investigate that and then make some recommendations on whether they need to increase some dynos or maybe make some internal changes. It sounds like you may or may not be the one to execute those changes. But you would write up some, like, a mini report and submit that to the client, and then they can make their own execution choices. STEPHANIE: Yeah, exactly. And they can execute it themselves or then create a new ticket for the next person rotating on to support and maintenance to tackle it in a different cycle. JOËL: So, support and maintenance doesn't just do the investigation. Your team might do the execution as well. It's just that the sort of more research-y stuff and the execution stuff gets split out into different tickets because it's so tightly scoped. STEPHANIE: Yeah, that sounds right. JOËL: I like that. STEPHANIE: One area that I wasn't sure that I was going to like so much about this kind of work is, you know, when you're not kind of embedded on a team, I was thinking that I might not feel as connected, or I would miss a bit of that getting to know people and just, like, seeing people face to face on a daily basis. I'm still evaluating how that would go so far because it has definitely been, like, mostly asynchronous communication, you know, which is what works well for this type of the style of team or project. But I think what has been helpful is realizing that, like, oh yeah, like, I can also get that elsewhere, you know, with thoughtbot folks like with you doing this podcast every week. And right now, there are, like, two Boost members who are doing support and maintenance full time, and folks who are unbooked kind of come in and out. And I can see that there's still a team. So, it's not nearly as kind of, like, isolating as what I had thought it would be. JOËL: There's something that's really curious to me, I think, sitting at the intersection of the idea of fostering more team interactions and the sort of, like, mini reports that you write. And that's that I would love to see more sharing among all of us at thoughtbot about different interesting problems that we've had to solve or that we're tackling on different client work. Because I think in that case, it's a situation where we all just learn something, you know, maybe I've never had to deal with a memory leak or might not even have an idea of, like, how to approach memory issues on Heroku. So, seeing your little mini report, if you'd maybe share that, and, you know, maybe it can be anonymized in some way if needs to, I think would be really nice, at the very least, something that could be done, like, internally. So, I almost wonder if, like, building that practice of, you know, maybe not for every ticket that I do because, you know, I don't want to just be dumping my tickets in the thoughtbot Slack. But I run into something interesting and be like, oh, let me tell a little story about this and do a little write-up. That might be something that's good for the whole team and not just for folks who are on support and maintenance. STEPHANIE: Yeah, absolutely. As you were saying that, I was thinking about how it does kind of encourage me to find support outside of my, like, immediate team, right? Because I don't necessarily have one with the client and to, I don't know, I'm imagining, like, these roots growing in terms of different communities I'm a part of and bringing those problems just outside of my internal world, and kind of getting that outside feedback because by necessity a little bit, right? But also, with the added benefit of, you know, I think that's also how a lot of people end up writing content that gets shared with the world. So, I had the misconception that I would be kind of just, like, on my own off doing things like just tickets and being a little coding robot, but I've been surprised by it feels very fresh and new. So, I think, I guess, I was needing a little bit of that [laughs]. JOËL: I was having a conversation with another thoughtboter recently about how valuable sometimes change can be for its own sake and how that can sort of refresh. You want it just at the rate where you have a chance to build some stability. You don't want chaos. But sometimes change can sort of take you out of a rut, give you energy, maybe sort of restart some good habits that you had sort of let atrophy. And that finding, like, just that right level of shaking things up can really help a team, you know, get their effectiveness to the next level. STEPHANIE: Yeah. I like what you said about good habits, for sure. A couple of other random, little things that I just thought of about what I've liked is, I don't know, maybe this is a little silly. But we, you know, use shared credentials for logging into different services and applications or third parties that clients are using. And that has actually been something that has been so easy [laughs] and very low friction compared to, you know, joining a new project and manually be added as, like, your individual account to all of the different things. And things inevitably get forgotten, and then you have to rely on someone else to do it. And sometimes they don't get back to you [laughs] for a while. The self-serviceness of this work has been cool, too. And I just, yeah, wanted to say that I really appreciated the thought that went into making it as easy as possible to be like, yeah, I can find the credentials here. It is, you know, a bit more anonymized because I'm just using, like, a shared account. JOËL: Like a generic thoughtbot account on a client system rather than stephanie@thoughtbot. STEPHANIE: Yeah, exactly. But I think I saved so much time [laughs] this week just being able to do all of that myself and, you know, knowing where to look first before having to ask. JOËL: I guess you'd need something like that, right? If you're only jumping in on a project for the first time, for a couple of hours or something like that, you don't want to go through a whole onboarding process because that might then, like, easily double. You know, instead of doing two hours on this project, you're now doing four. STEPHANIE: Yeah, exactly. I guess the other takeaway, for me, was like, oh, definitely, if I were to have to set up accounts [laughs] for an application, you know, I've obviously seen where it was like, very clearly, like, the founder having created all these personal accounts for this services, and people are still using their credentials many years later [laughs], even though they probably, like, maybe may not even work for the company anymore. But yeah, the shared credentials and using that generic account that anyone can kind of get into when needed has really lowered the barrier to jump into doing that work, right? And especially because, like you said, it reduces that time. And we're, you know, billing by the hour anyway. So, it's kind of a win-win situation. JOËL: And I totally understand why you would not want something like that for a longer engagement. But for something like support and maintenance, it sounds like it was the right choice. STEPHANIE: Yeah, yeah. Again, I just mentioned it because it's just different. And so, maybe if this sparks any ideas for our listeners about how processes could be different or, like, the styles or ways of working can be different, I think that would be cool. JOËL: And just to be clear here, it sounds like what you're doing is for sort of each client; you create a separate set of credentials that are for that client but that are about thoughtbot generically. You don't have, like, one thoughtbot email and password that we reuse for every client. STEPHANIE: [laughs] Oh yes. That would be not so good [laughs] if we got hacked and suddenly, now they have access to everything. JOËL: So, every client gets its own unique email password combo. We're using security best practices here. And then, since you do have to share them through a team, are you doing some sort of, like, shared 1Password vault or something along those lines? STEPHANIE: Yeah, we are using a shared 1Password vault. That is definitely what I meant [laughs] the first time when I was mentioning the shared credentials, where that was basically the only thing I had to get onboarded to, the vault, for support and maintenance to be able to hit the ground running. JOËL: So, this sounds like a pretty exciting new style of project for you. Is this something that you would see yourself preferring to do longer term, to sort of focus on this style of project? Or do you think that you'd like to come back to more classic project work in the near future? STEPHANIE: I'm not sure yet, but I'm also hoping to have an answer to that question. And it definitely does feel like an experiment for me personally. I can see liking it, and that also fitting well with some of my longer-term goals of being able to, like, step back from work. Maybe working fewer days a week is something that I've, like, thought about in terms of, like, a long-term goal of mine because I'm not as needed [laughs] on a team. Which I think, in the past, I also had a bit of a misconception that, like, in order to be a good developer, I had to have all the domain knowledge, and be indispensable, and, like, be the go-to person to answer all the questions. But now I'm at a point where I don't want to [laughs] necessarily have to answer, like, every question because that creates, like, a dependency on me. And if I need to step away from work, then that could be tough, right? The vacation factor that you mentioned. So, this style of work is very interesting in terms of if it might provide me a little bit more of that, not exactly work-life balance, but just kind of be closer to my goals in terms of what I want out of work and my time. And, hopefully, I'm going to be doing this next week, but I don't know because that's the nature of it [laughs]. But if I am, then I'll definitely have more to say about it. Probably. JOËL: Well, it definitely sounds like we'll have to check in again on what's, I guess, not so new in your world on a future episode. On that note, shall we wrap up? STEPHANIE: Let's wrap up. Show notes for this episode can be found at JOËL: This show has been produced and edited by Mandy Moore. STEPHANIE: If you enjoyed listening, one really easy way to support the show is to leave us a quick rating or even a review in iTunes. It really helps other folks find the show. JOËL: If you have any feedback for this or any of our other episodes, you can reach us @_bikeshed, or you can reach me @joelquen on Twitter. STEPHANIE: Or reach both of us at via email. JOËL: Thanks so much for listening to The Bike Shed, and we'll see you next week. ALL: Byeeeeeeee!!!!!! AD: Did you know thoughtbot has a referral program? If you introduce us to someone looking for a design or development partner, we will compensate you if they decide to work with us. More info on our website at: Or you can email us at with any questions.Support The Bike Shed
Dec 4, 2023
28 min
408: Work Device Management
Joël recaps his time at RubyConf! He shares insights from his talk about different aspects of time in software development, emphasizing the interaction with the audience and the importance of post-talk discussions. Stephanie talks about wrapping up a long-term client project, the benefits of change and variety in consulting, and maintaining a balance between project engagement and avoiding burnout. They also discuss strategies for maintaining work-life balance, such as physical separation and device management, particularly in a remote work environment. Rubyconf Joël’s talk slides Flaky test summary slide Transcript: STEPHANIE: Hello and welcome to another episode of The Bike Shed, a weekly podcast from your friends at thoughtbot about developing great software. I'm Stephanie Minn. JOËL: And I'm Joël Quenneville. And together, we're here to share a bit of what we've learned along the way. STEPHANIE: So, Joël, what's new in your world? JOËL: Well, as of this recording, I have just gotten back from spending the week in San Diego for RubyConf. STEPHANIE: Yay, so fun. JOËL: It's always so much fun to connect with the community over there, talk to other people from different companies who work in Ruby, to be inspired by the talks. This year, I was speaking, so I gave a talk on time and how it's not a single thing but multiple different quantities. In particular, I distinguish between a moment in time like a point, a duration and amount of time, and then a time of day, which is time unconnected to a particular day, and how those all connect together in the software that we write. STEPHANIE: Awesome. How did it go? How was it received? JOËL: It was very well received. I got a lot of people come up to me afterwards and make a variety of time puns, which those are so easy to make. I had to hold myself back not to put too many in the talk itself. I think I kept it pretty clean. There were definitely a couple of time puns in the description of the talk, though. STEPHANIE: Yeah, absolutely. You have to keep some in there. But I hear you that you don't want it to become too punny [laughs]. What I really love about conferences, and we've talked a little bit about this before, is the, you know, like, engagement and being able to connect with people. And you give a talk, but then that ends up leading to a lot of, like, discussions about it and related topics afterwards in the hallway or sitting together over a meal. JOËL: I like to, in my talks, give little kind of hooks for people who want to have those conversations in the hallway. You know, sometimes it's intimidating to just go up to a speaker and be like, oh, I want to, like, dig into their talk a little bit. But I don't have anything to say other than just, like, "I liked your talk." So, if there's any sort of side trails I had to cut for the talk, I might give a shout-out to it and say, "Hey, if you want to learn more about this aspect, come talk to me afterwards." So, one thing that I put in this particular talk was like, "Hey, we're looking at these different graphical ways to think about time. These are similar to but not the same as thinking of time as a one-dimensional vector and applying vector math to it, which is a whole other side topic. If you want to nerd out about that, come find me in the hallway afterwards, and I'd love to go deeper on it." And yeah, some people did. STEPHANIE: That's really smart. I like that a lot. You're inviting more conversation about it, which I know, like, you also really enjoy just, like, taking it further or, like, caring about other people's experiences or their thoughts about vector math [laughs]. JOËL: I think it serves two purposes, right? It allows people to connect with me as a speaker. And it also allows me to feel better about pruning certain parts of my talk and saying, look, this didn't make sense to keep in the talk, but it's cool material. I'd love to have a continuing conversation about this. So, here's a path we could have taken. I'm choosing not to, as a speaker, but if you want to take that branch with me, let's have that afterwards in the hallway. STEPHANIE: Yeah. Or even as, like, new content for yourself or for someone else to take with them if they want to explore that further because, you know, there's always something more to explore [chuckles]. JOËL: I've absolutely done that with past talks. I've taken a thing I had to prune and turned it into a blog post. A recent example of that was when I gave a talk at RailsConf Portland, which I guess is not so recent. I was talking about ways to deal with a test suite that's making too many database requests. And talking about how sometimes misusing let in your RSpec tests can lead to more database requests than you expect. And I had a whole section about how to better understand what database requests will actually be made by a series of let expressions and dealing with the eager versus lazy and all of that. I had to cut it. But I was then able to make a blog post about it and then talk about this really cool technique involving dependency graphs. And that was really fun. So, that was a thing where I was able to say, look, here's some content that didn't make it into the talk because I needed to focus on other things. But as its own little, like, side piece of content, it absolutely works, and here's a blog post. STEPHANIE: Yeah. And then I think it turned into a Bike Shed episode, too [laughs]. JOËL: I think it did, yes. I think, in many ways, creativity begets creativity. It's hard to get started writing or producing content or whatever, but once you do, every idea you have kind of spawns new ideas. And then, pretty soon, you have a backlog that you can't go through. STEPHANIE: That's awesome. Any other highlights from the conference you want to shout out? JOËL: I'd love to give a shout-out to a couple of talks that I went to, Aji Slater's talk on the Enigma machine as a German code machine from World War II and how we can sort of implement our own in Ruby and an exploration of object-oriented programming was fantastic. Aji is just a masterful storyteller. So, that was really great. And then Alan Ridlehoover's talk on dealing with flaky tests that one, I think, was particularly useful because I think it's one of the talks that is going to be immediately relevant on Monday morning for, like, every developer that was in that room and is going back to their regular day job. And they can immediately use all of those principles that Alan talked about to deal with the flaky tests in their test suite. And there's, in particular, at the end of his presentation, Alan has this summary slide. He kind of broke down flakiness across three different categories and then talked about different strategies for identifying and then fixing tests that were flaky because of those reasons. And he has this table where he sort of summarizes basically the entire talk. And I feel like that's the kind of thing that I'm going to save as a cheat sheet. And that can be, like, I'm going to link to this and share it all over because it's really useful. Alan has already put his slides up online. It's all linked to that particular slide in the show notes because I think that all of you would benefit from seeing that. The talks themselves are recorded, but they're not going to be out for a couple of weeks. I'm sure when they do, we're going to go through and watch some and probably comment on some of the talks as well. So, Stephanie, what is new in your world? STEPHANIE: Yeah. So, I'm celebrating wrapping up a client project after a nine-month engagement. JOËL: Whoa, that's a pretty long project. STEPHANIE: Yeah, that's definitely on the longer side for thoughtbot. And I'm, I don't know, just, like, feeling really excited for a change, feeling really, you know, proud of kind of, like, all of the work that we had done. You know, we had been working with this client for a long time and had been, you know, continuing to deliver value to them to want to keep working with us for that long. But I'm, yeah, just looking forward to a refresh. And I think that's one of my favorite things about consulting is that, you know, you can inject something new into your work life at a kind of regular cadence. And, at least for me, that's really important in reducing or, like, preventing the burnout. So, this time around, I kind of started to notice, and other people, too, like my manager, that I was maybe losing a bit of steam on this client project because I had been working on it for so long. And part of, you know, what success at thoughtbot means is that, like, we as employees are also feeling fulfilled, right? And, you know, what are the different ways that we can try to make sure that that remains the case? And kind of rotating folks on different projects and kind of making sure that things do feel fresh and exciting is really important. And so, I feel very grateful that other people were able to point that out for me, too, when I wasn't even fully realizing it. You know, I had people checking in on me and being like, "Hey, like, you've been on this for a while now. Kind of what I've been hearing is that, like, maybe you do need something new." I'm just excited to get that change. JOËL: How do you find the balance between sort of feeling fulfilled and maybe, you know, finding that point where maybe you're feeling you're running out of steam–versus, you know, some projects are really complex, take a while to ramp up; you want to feel productive; you want to feel like you have contributed in a significant way to a project? How do you navigate that balance? STEPHANIE: Yeah. So, the flip side is, like, I also don't think I would enjoy having to be changing projects all the time like every couple of months. That maybe is a little too much for me because I do like to...on our team, Boost, we embed on our team. We get to know our teammates. We are, like, building relationships with them, and supporting them, and teaching them. And all of that is really also fulfilling for me, but you can't really do that as much if you're on more shorter-term engagements. And then all of that, like, becomes worthwhile once you're kind of in that, like, maybe four or five six month period where you're like, you've finally gotten your groove. And you're like, I'm contributing. I know how this team works. I can start to see patterns or, like, maybe opportunities or gaps. And that is all really cool, and I think also another part of what I really like about being on Boost. But yeah, I think what I...that losing steam feeling, I started to identify, like, I didn't have as much energy or excitement to push forward change. When you kind of get a little bit too comfortable or start to get that feeling of, well, these things are the way they are [laughs], -- JOËL: Right. Right. STEPHANIE: I've now identified that that is kind of, like, a signal, right? JOËL: Maybe time for a new project. STEPHANIE: Right. Like starting to feel a little bit less motivated or, like, less excited to push myself and push the team a little bit in areas that it needs to be pushed. And so, that might be a good time for someone else at thoughtbot to, like, rotate in or maybe kind of close the chapter on what we've been able to do for a client. JOËL: It's hard to be at 100% all the time and sort of always have that motivation to push things to the max, and yeah, variety definitely helps with that. How do you feel about finding signals that maybe you need a break, maybe not from the project but just in general? The idea of taking PTO or having kind of a rest day. STEPHANIE: Oh yeah. I, this year, have tried out taking time off but not going anywhere just, like, being at home but being on vacation. And that was really great because then it was kind of, like, less about, like, oh, I want to take this trip in this time of year to this place and more like, oh, I need some rest or, like, I just need a little break. And that can be at home, right? Maybe during the day, I'm able to do stuff that I keep putting off or trying out new things that I just can't seem to find the time to do [chuckles] during my normal work schedule. So, that has been fun. JOËL: I think, yeah, sometimes, for me, I will sort of hit that moment where I feel like I don't have the ability to give 100%. And sometimes that can be a signal to be like, hey, have you taken any time off recently? Maybe you should schedule something. Because being able to refresh, even short-term, can sort of give an extra boost of energy in a way where...maybe it's not time for a rotation yet, but just taking a little bit of a break in there can sort of, I guess, extend the time where I feel like I'm contributing at the level that I want to be. STEPHANIE: Yeah. And I actually want to point out that a lot of that can also be, like, investing in your life outside of work, too, so that you can come to work with a different approach. I've mentioned the month that I spent in the Hudson Valley in New York and, like, when I was there, I felt, like, so different. I was, you know, just, like, so much more excited about all the, like, novel things that I was experiencing that I could show up to work and be like, oh yeah, like, I'm feeling good today. So, I have all this, you know, energy to bring to the tasks that I have at work. And yeah, so even though it wasn't necessarily time off, it was investing in other things in my life that then brought that refresh at work, even though nothing at work really changed [laughs]. JOËL: I think there's something to be said for the sort of energy boost you get from novelty and change, and some of that you get it from maybe rotating to a different project. But like you were saying, you can change your environment, and that can happen as well. And, you know, sometimes it's going halfway across the country to live in a place for a month. I sometimes do that in a smaller way by saying, oh, I'm going to work this morning from a coffee shop or something like that. And just say, look, by changing the environment, I can maybe get some focus or some energy that I wouldn't have if I were just doing same old, same old. STEPHANIE: Yeah, that's a good point. So, one particularly surprising refresh that I experienced in offboarding from my client work is coming back to my thoughtbot, like, internal company laptop, which had been sitting gathering dust [laughs] a little bit because I had a client-issued laptop that I was working in most of the time. And yeah, I didn't realize how different it would feel. I had, you know, gotten everything set up on my, you know, my thoughtbot computer just the way that I liked it, stuff that I'd never kind of bothered to set up on my other client-issued laptop. And then I came back to it, and then it ended up being a little bit surprising. I was like, oh, the icons are smaller on this [laughs] computer than the other computer. But it definitely did feel like returning to home, I think, instead of, like, being a guest in someone else's house that you haven't quite, like, put all your clothes in the closet or in the drawers. You're still maybe, like, living out of a suitcase a little bit [laughs]. So yeah, I was kind of very excited to be in my own space on my computer again. JOËL: I love the metaphor of coming home, and yeah, being in your own space, sleeping in your own bed. There's definitely some of that that I feel, I think, when I come back to my thoughtbot laptop as well. Do you feel like you get a different sense of connection with the rest of our thoughtbot colleagues when you're working on the thoughtbot-issued laptop versus a client-issued one? STEPHANIE: Yeah. Even though on my client-issued computer I had the thoughtbot Slack, like, open on there so I could be checking in, I wasn't necessarily in, like, other thoughtbot digital spaces as much, right? So, our, like, project management tools and our, like, internal company web app, those were things that I was on less of naturally because, like, the majority of my work was client work, and I was all in their digital spaces. But coming back and checking in on, like, all the GitHub discussions that have been happening while I haven't had enough time to catch up on them, just realizing that things were happening [laughs] even when I was doing something else, that is both cool and also like, oh wow, like, kind of sad that I [chuckles] missed out on some of this as it was going on. JOËL: That's pretty similar to my experience. For me, it almost feels a little bit like the difference between back when we used to be in person because thoughtbot is now fully remote. I would go, usually, depending on the client, maybe a couple of days a week working from their offices if they had an office. Versus some clients, they would come to our office, and we would work all week out of the thoughtbot offices, particularly if it was like a startup founder or something, and they might not already have office space. And that difference and feeling the connection that I would have from the rest of the thoughtbot team if I were, let's say, four days a week out of a client office versus two or four days a week out of the thoughtbot office feels kind of similar to what it's like working on a client-issued laptop versus on a thoughtbot-issued one. STEPHANIE: Another thing that I guess I forgot about or, like, wasn't expecting to do was all the cleanup, just the updating of things on my laptop as I kind of had it been sitting. And it reminded me to, I guess, extend that, like, coming home metaphor a little bit more. In the game Animal Crossing, if you haven't played the game in a while because it tracks, like, real-time, so it knows if you haven't, you know, played the game in a few months, when you wake up in your home, there's a bunch of cockroaches running around [laughs], and you have to go and chase and, like, squash them to clean it up. JOËL: Oh no. STEPHANIE: And it kind of felt like that opening my computer. I was like, oh, like, my, like, you know, OS is out of date. My browsers are out of date. I decided to get an internal company project running in my local development again, and I had to update so many things, you know, like, install the new Ruby version that the app had, you know, been upgraded to and upgrade, like, OpenSSL and all of that stuff on my machine to, yeah, get the app running again. And like I mentioned earlier, just the idea of like, oh yeah, this has evolved and changed, like, without me [laughs] was just, you know, interesting to see. And catching myself up to speed on that was not trivial work. So yeah, like, all that maintenance stuff still got to do it. It's, like, the digital cleanup, right? JOËL: Exactly. So, you mentioned that on the client machine, you still had the thoughtbot Slack. So, you were able to keep up at least some messages there on one device. I'm curious about the experience, maybe going the other way. How much does thoughtbot stuff bleed into your personal devices, if at all? STEPHANIE: Barely. I am very strict about that, I think. I used to have Slack on my phone, I don't know, just, like, in an earlier time in my career. But now I have it a rule to keep it off. I think the only thing that I have is my calendar, so no email either. Like, that is something that I, like, don't like to check on my personal time. Yeah, so it really just is calendar just in case I'm, like, out in the morning and need to be, like, oh, when is my first meeting? But [laughs] I will say that the one kind of silly thing is that I also refuse to sign into my Google account for work. So, I just have the calendar, like, added to my personal calendar but all the events are private. So, I can't actually see what the events are [laughs]. I just know that I have something going on at, like, 10:00 a.m. So, I got to make sure I'm back home by then [laughs], which is not so ideal. But at the risk of being signed in and having other things bleed into my personal devices, I'm just living with that for now [laughs]. JOËL: What I'm hearing is that I could put some mystery events on your calendar, and you would have a fun surprise in the morning because you wouldn't know what it is. STEPHANIE: Yeah, that is true [laughs]. If you put, like, a meeting at, like, 8:00 a.m., [laughs] then I'm like, oh no, what's this? And then I arrive, and it's just, like [laughs], a fun prank meeting. So, you know, you were talking about how you were at the conference this week. And I'm wondering, how connected were you to work life? JOËL: Uh, not very. I tried to be very present in the moment at the conference. So, I'm, you know, connected to all the other thoughtboters who were there and connecting with the attendees. I do have Slack on my phone, so if I do need to check it for something. There was a little bit of communication that was going on for different things regarding the conference, so I did check in for that. But otherwise, I tried to really stay focused on the in-person things that are happening. I'm not doing any client work during those days that I'm at RubyConf, and so I don't need to deal with anything there. I had my thoughtbot laptop with me because that's what I used to give my presentation. But once the presentation was done, I closed that laptop and didn't open it again, and, honestly, that felt kind of good. STEPHANIE: Yeah, that is really nice. I'm the same way, where I try to be pretty connected at conferences, and, like, I will actually redownload Slack sometimes just for, like, coordinating purposes with other folks who are there. But I think I make it pretty clear that I'm, like, away. You know, like, I'm not, even though I'm on work time, I'm not doing any other work besides just being present there. JOËL: So, you mentioned the idea of work time. Do you have, like, a pretty strict boundary between personal time and work time and, like, try not to allow either to bleed into each other? STEPHANIE: Yeah. I can't remember if I've mentioned this on the show. I think I have, but I'm going to again because one of my favorite things that I picked up from The Bike Shed back when Chris Toomey and Steph Viccari were hosting the show is Chris had, like, a little ritual that he would do every day to signal that he was done with work. He would close his laptop and say, "Schedule shutdown complete," I think. And I've started adopting it because then it helps me be like, I'm not going to reopen my laptop after this because I have said the words. And even if I think of something that I maybe need to add to my to-do list, I will, instead of opening my computer and adding to my, like, whatever digital to-do list, I will, like, write it down on a piece of paper instead for the sake of, you know, not risking getting sucked back into, you know, whatever might be going on after the time that I've, like, decided that I need to be done. JOËL: So, you have a very strict divisioning between work time and personal time. STEPHANIE: Yeah, I would say so. I think it's important for me because even when I take time off, you know, sometimes folks might work a half day or something, right? I really struggle with having even a half day feel like, once I'm done with work, having that feel like okay, like, now I'm back in my personal time. I'd much prefer not working the entire day at all because that is kind of the only way that I can feel like I've totally reclaimed that time. Otherwise, it's like, once I start thinking about work stuff, it's like I need a mental boundary, right? Because if I'm thinking about a work problem, or, like, an interaction or, like, just anything, it's frustrating because it doesn't feel like time in my own brain [laughs] is my own. What do work and personal time boundaries look like for you? JOËL: I think it's evolved over time. Device usage is definitely a little bit more blurry for me. One thing that I have started doing since we've gone fully remote as the pandemic has been winding down and, you know, you can do things, but we're still working from home, is that more days than not, I work from home during the day, and then I leave my home during the evening. I do a variety of social activities. And because I like to be sort of present in the moment, that means that by being physically gone, I have totally disconnected because I'm not checking emails or anything like that. Even though I do have thoughtbot email on my phone, Gmail allows me to like log into my personal account and my thoughtbot account. I have to, like, switch between the two accounts, and so, that's, like, more work than I would want. I don't have any notifications come in for the thoughtbot account. So, unless I'm, like, really wanting to see if a particular email I'm waiting for has come in, I don't even look at it, ever. It's mostly just there in case I need to see something. And then, by being focused in the moment doing social things with other people, I don't find too much of a temptation to, like, let work life bleed into personal life. So, there's a bit of a physical disconnect that ends up happening by moving out of the space I work in into leaving my home. STEPHANIE: Yeah. And I'm sure it's different for everyone. As you were saying that, I was reminded of a funny meme that I saw a long time ago. I don't think I could find it if I tried to search for it. But basically, it's this guy who is, you know, sitting on one side of the couch, clearly working. And he's kind of hunched over and, like, typing and looking very serious. And then he, like, closes his laptop, moves over, like, just slides to the other side of the couch, opens his laptop. And then you see him, like, lay back, like, legs up on the coffee table. And it's, like, work computer, personal computer, but it's the same computer [laughs]. It's just the, like, how you've decided like, oh, it's time for, you know, legs up, Netflix watching [laughs]. JOËL: Yeah. Yeah. I'm curious: do you use your thoughtbot computer for any personal things? Or is it just you shut that down; you do the closing ritual, and then you do things on a separate device? STEPHANIE: Yeah, I do things on a separate device. I think the only thing there might be some overlap for are, like, career-related extracurriculars or just, like, development stuff that I'm interested in doing, like, separate from what I am paid to do. But that, you know, kind of overlaps a little bit because of, like, the tools and the stuff I have installed on my computer. And, you know, with our investment time, too, that ends up having a bit of a crossover. JOËL: I think I'm similar in that I'll tend to do development things on my thoughtbot machine, even though they're not necessarily thoughtbot-related, although they could be things that might slot into something like investment time. STEPHANIE: Yeah, yeah. And it's because you have all your stuff set up for it. Like, you're not [laughs] trying to install the latest Ruby version on two different machines, probably [laughs]. JOËL: Yeah. Also, my personal device is a Windows machine. And I've not wanted to bother learning how to set that up or use the Windows Subsystem for Linux or any of those tools, which, you know, may be good professional learning activities. But that's not where I've decided to invest my time. STEPHANIE: That makes sense. I had an interesting conversation with someone else today, actually, about devices because I had mentioned that, you know, sometimes I still need to incorporate my personal devices into work stuff, especially, like, two-factor authentication. And specifically on my last client project...I have a very old iPhone [laughs]. I need to start out by saying it's an iPhone 8 that I've had for, like, six or seven years. And so, it's old. Like, one time I went to the Apple store, and I was like, "Oh, I'm looking for a screen protector for this." And they're like, "Oh, it's an iPhone 8. Yikes." [laughs] This was, you know, like, not too long ago [laughs]. And the multi-factor authentication policy for my client was that, you know, we had to use this specific app. And it also had, like, security checks. Like, there's a security policy that it needed to be updated to the latest iOS. So, even if I personally didn't want to update my iOS [laughs], I felt compelled to because, otherwise, I would be locked out of the things that I needed to do at work [laughs]. JOËL: Yeah, that can be a challenge sometimes when you're adding work things to personal devices, maybe not because it's convenient and you want to, but because you don't have a choice for things like two-factor auth. STEPHANIE: Yeah, yeah. And then the person I was talking to actually suggested something I hadn't even thought about, which is like, "Oh, you know, if you really can't make it work, then, like, consider having that company issue another device for you to do the things that they're, like, requiring of you." And I hadn't even thought of that, so... And I'm not quite at the point where I'm like, everything has to be, like, completely separate [laughs], including two-factor auth. But, I don't know, something to consider, like, maybe that might be a place I get to if I'm feeling like I really want to keep those boundaries strict. JOËL: And I think it's interesting because, you know, when you think of the kind of work that we do, it's like, oh, we work with computers, but there are so many subfields within it. And device management and, just maybe, corporate IT, in general, is a whole subfield that is separate and almost a little bit alien. Two, I feel like me, as a software developer, I'm just aware of a little, I've read a couple of articles around...and this was, you know, years ago when the trend was starting called Bring Your Own Device. So, people who want to say, "Hey, I want to use my phone. I want to have my work email on my phone." But then does that mean that potentially you're leaking company memos and things? So, how do you secure that kind of thing? And everything that IT had to think through in order to allow that, the pros and cons. So, I think we're just kind of, as users of that system, touching the surface of it. But there's a lot of thought and discussion that, as an industry, the kind of corporate IT folks have gone through to struggle with how to balance a lot of those things. STEPHANIE: Yeah, yeah. I bet there's a lot of complexity or nuance there. I mean, we're just talking about, like, ways that we do or don't mix work and personal life. And for that kind of work, you know, that's, like, the job is to think really thoroughly about how people use their devices and what should and shouldn't be permissible. The last thing that I wanted to kind of ask about in terms of device management or, like, work and personal intermixing is the idea of being on call and your device being a way for work to reach you and that being a requirement, right? I feel very lucky to obviously not really be in that position. As consultants, like, we're not usually so embedded into a team that we're then brought into, like, an on-call rotation, and I think that's good for me. Like, I don't think that that is something I'd be interested in doing anytime soon. Do you have any experience with that? JOËL: I have not been on a project where I've had to be on call, and I think that's generally true for most of us at thoughtbot who are doing software development. I know those who are doing more kind of platformy SRE-type things are on call. And, in fact, we have specifically hired people in different regions around the world so that we can provide 24-hour coverage for that kind of thing. STEPHANIE: Yeah. And I imagine kind of like what we're talking about with work device management looks even different for that kind of role, where maybe you do need a lot more access to things, like, wherever you might be. JOËL: And maybe the answer there is you get issued a work-specific device and a work phone or something like that, or an old-school work pager. STEPHANIE: [laughs] JOËL: PagerDuty is not just a metaphoric thing. Back in the day, they used actual pagers. STEPHANIE: Yeah, that would be very funny. JOËL: So yeah, I can't speak to it from personal experience, but I could imagine that maybe some of the dynamics there might be a little bit different. And, you know, for some people, maybe it's fine to just have an app on your phone that pings you when something happens, and you have to be on call. And you're able to be present while waiting, like, in case you get pinged, but also let it go while you're on call. I can imagine that's, like, a really weird kind of, like, shadow, like, working, not working experience that I can't really speak to because I have not been in that position. STEPHANIE: Yeah. As you were saying that, I also had the thought that, like, our ability to step away from work and our devices is also very much dependent on, like, a company culture and those types of factors, right? Where, you know, it is okay for me to not be able to look at that stuff and just come back to it Monday morning, and I am very grateful [laughs] for that. Because I recognize that, like, not everyone is in that position where there might be a lot more pressure or urgency to be on top of that. But right now, for this time in my life, like, that's kind of how I like to work. JOËL: I think it kind of sits at the intersection of a few different things, right? There's sort of where you are personally. It might be a combination, like, personality and maybe, like, mental health, things like that, how you respond to how sharp or blurry those lines between work and personal life can be. Like you said, it's also an element of company culture. If there's a company culture that's really pushing to get into your personal life, maybe you need firmer boundaries. And then, finally, what we spent most of this episode talking about: technical solutions, whether that's, like, physically separating everything such that there are two devices. And you close down your laptop, and you're done for the day. And whether or not you allow any apps on your personal phone to carry with you after you leave for the day. So, I think at the intersection of those three is sort of how you're going to experience that, and every person is going to be a little bit different. Because those three...I guess I'm thinking of a Venn diagram. Those three circles are going to be different for everyone. STEPHANIE: Yeah, that makes complete sense. JOËL: On that note, shall we wrap up? STEPHANIE: Let's wrap up. Show notes for this episode can be found at JOËL: This show has been produced and edited by Mandy Moore. STEPHANIE: If you enjoyed listening, one really easy way to support the show is to leave us a quick rating or even a review in iTunes. It really helps other folks find the show. JOËL: If you have any feedback for this or any of our other episodes, you can reach us @_bikeshed, or you can reach me @joelquen on Twitter. STEPHANIE: Or reach both of us at via email. JOËL: Thanks so much for listening to The Bike Shed, and we'll see you next week. ALL: Byeeeeeee!!!!!! AD: Did you know thoughtbot has a referral program? If you introduce us to someone looking for a design or development partner, we will compensate you if they decide to work with us. More info on our website at: Or you can email us at: with any questions.Support The Bike Shed
Nov 27, 2023
32 min
407: Tech Opinions Online with Edward Loveall
Stephanie interviews Edward Loveall, a former thoughtbotter, now software developer at Relevant Healthcare. Part of their discussion centers around Edward's blog post on the tech industry's over-reliance on GitHub. He argues for the importance of exploring alternatives to avoid dependency on a single platform and encourages readers to make informed technological choices. The conversation broadens to include how to form opinions on technology, the balance between personal preferences and team decisions, and the importance of empathy and nuance in professional interactions. Both Stephanie and Edward highlight the value of considering various perspectives and tools in software development, advocating for a flexible, open-minded approach to technology and problem-solving in the tech industry. Relevant Let's make sure Github doesn't become the only option And not but Empathy Online Transcript: STEPHANIE: Hello and welcome to another episode of The Bike Shed, a weekly podcast from your friends at thoughtbot about developing great software. I'm Stephanie Minn. And today, I'm joined by a very special guest, a friend of the pod and former thoughtboter, Edward Loveall. EDWARD: Hello, thanks for having me. STEPHANIE: Edward, would you share a little bit about yourself and what you're doing these days? EDWARD: Yes, I am a software developer at a company called Relevant Healthcare. We do a lot of things, but the maybe high-level summary is we take very complicated medical data and help federally-funded health centers actually understand that data and help their population's health, which is really fun and really great. STEPHANIE: Awesome. So, Edward, what is new in your world? EDWARD: Let's see, this weekend...I live in a dense city. I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and it's pretty dense there. And a lot of houses are very tightly packed. And delivery drivers struggle to find the numbers on the houses sometimes because A, they're old and B, there is many of them. And so, we put up house numbers because I live in, like, a three-story kind of building, but there are two different addresses in the same three stories, which is very weird. And so [laughs], delivery drivers are like, "Where is number 10 or 15?" or whatever. And so, there's two different numbers. And so, we finally put up numbers after living here for, like, four years [chuckles]. So, now, hopefully, delivery drivers in the holiday busy season will be able to find our house [laughs]. STEPHANIE: That's great. Yeah, I have kind of a similar problem where, a lot of the times, delivery folks will think that my house is the big building next door. And the worst is those at the building next door they drop off their packages inside the little, like, entryway that is locked for people who don't live there. And so, I will see my package in the window and, you know, it has my name on it. It has, like, my address on it. And [laughs] some strategies that I've used is leaving a note on the door [laughter] that is, like, "Please redeliver my package over there," and, like, I'll draw an arrow to the direction of my house. Or sometimes I've been that person to just, like, buzz random [laughter] units and just hope that they, like, let me in, and then I'll grab my package. And, you know, if I know the neighbors, I'll, like, try to apologize the next time I see them. But sometimes I'll just be like, I just need to get my package [laughs]. EDWARD: You're writing documentation for those people working out in the streets. STEPHANIE: Yeah. But I'm glad you got that sorted. EDWARD: Yeah. What about you? What's new in your world? STEPHANIE: Well, I wanted to talk a little bit about a thing that you and I have been doing lately that I have been enjoying a lot. First of all, are you familiar with the group chat trend these days? Do you know what I'm talking about? EDWARD: No. STEPHANIE: Okay. It's basically this idea that, like, everyone is just connecting with their friends via a group chat now as opposed to social media. But as a person who is not a big group chat person, I can't, like, keep up with [chuckles], like, chatting with multiple people [laughter] at once. I much prefer, like, one-on-one interaction. And, like, a month ago, I asked you if you would be willing to try having a shared note, like, a shared iOS note that we have for items that we want to discuss with each other but, you know, the next time we either talk on the phone or, I don't know, things that are, like, less urgent than a text message would communicate but, like, stuff that we don't want to forget. EDWARD: Yeah. You're, like, putting a little message in my inbox and vice versa. And yeah, we get to just kind of, whenever we want, respond to it, or think about it, or use it as a topic for a conversation later. STEPHANIE: Yeah. And I think it is kind of a playbook from, like, a one-on-one with a manager. I know that that's, like, a strategy that some folks use. But I think it works well in the context of our friendship because it's just gotten, like, richer over time. You know, maybe in the beginning, we're like, oh, like, I don't know, here are some random things that I've thought about. But now we're having, like, whole discussions in the note [laughter]. Like, we will respond to each other, like, with sub-bullets [laughs]. And then we end up not even needing to talk about it on the phone because we've already had a whole conversation about it in the note. EDWARD: Which is good because neither of us are particularly brief when talking on the phone. And [laughs] we only dedicate, like, half an hour every two weeks. It sort of helps clear the decks a little. STEPHANIE: Yeah, yeah. So, that's what I recommend. Try a shared note for [laughs] your next friendship hangout. EDWARD: Yeah, it's great. I heartily recommend it. STEPHANIE: So, one of the things that we end up talking about a lot is various things that we've been reading about tech on the web [laughs]. And we share with each other a lot of, like, blog posts, or articles, various links, and recently, something of yours kind of resurfaced. You wrote a blog post about GitHub a little while ago about how, you know, as an industry, we should make sure that GitHub doesn't become our only option. EDWARD: Yeah, this was a post I wrote, I think, back in May, or at least earlier this year, and it got a bunch of traction. And it's a somewhat, I would say, controversial article or take. GitHub just had their developer conference, and it resurfaced again. And I don't have a habit of writing particularly controversial articles, I don't think. Most of my writing history has been technical posts like tutorials. Like, I wrote a whole tutorial on how to write SQL, or I did write one about how to communicate online. But I wasn't, like, so much responding to, like, a particular person's communication or a company's communication. And this is the first big post I've written that has been a lot more very heavily opinionated, very, like, targeted at a particular thing or entity, I guess you'd say. It's been received well, I think, mostly, and I'm proud of it. But it's a different little world for me, and it's a little scary, honestly. STEPHANIE: Yeah, I hear that, having an opinion [laughs], a very strong and maybe, like, a less popular opinion, and publishing that for the world. Could you recap what the thesis of it is for our listeners? EDWARD: Yeah, and I think you did a great job of it, too. I see GitHub or really any singular piece of technology that we have in...I'll say our stack with air quotes, but it's, you know, all the tools that we use and all the things that we use. It's a risk if you only have one of those things, let's say GitHub. Like, if the only way you know how to contribute to a code repository with, you know, 17 people all committing to that repository, if the only way you know how to do that is a pull request and GitHub goes away, and you don't have pull requests anymore, how are you going to contribute to code? It's not that you couldn't figure it out, or there aren't multiple ways or even other pull request equivalents on other sites. But it is a risk to rely on one company to provide all of the things that you potentially need, or even many of the things that you potentially need, without any alternatives. So, I wanted to try to lay out A: those risks, and B: encourage people to try alternatives, to say that GitHub is not necessarily bad, although they may not actually fit what you need for various reasons, or someone else for various reasons. But you should have an alternative in your back pocket so that in case something changes, or you get locked out, or they go away, or they decide to cancel that feature, or any number of other scenarios, you have greatly diminished that risk. So, that's the main thrust of the post. STEPHANIE: Yeah, I really appreciated it because, you know, I think a lot of us probably take GitHub for granted [laughs]. And, you know, every new thing that they kind of add to the platform is like, oh, like, cool, like, I can now do this. In the post, you kind of lay out all of the different features that GitHub has rolled out over the last, you know, couple of years. And when you see it all like that, you know, like, in addition to being, like, a code repository, you now have, like, GitHub Actions for CI/CD, you know, you can deploy static pages with it. It now has, like, an in-browser editor, and then, you know, Copilot, which, like, the more things that they [laughs] roll out, the more it's becoming, like, the one-stop shop, right? That, like, do all of your work here. And I appreciated kind of, like, seeing that and being like, oh, like, is this what I want? EDWARD: Right. Yeah, exactly. Yeah. And you mentioned a bunch. There's also issues and discussions. You mentioned their in-browser editor. But so many people use VS Code, which, while it was technically made by Microsoft, it's based on Electron, which was developed at GitHub. And GitHub even, like, took away their other Electron-based editor, Atom. And then now officially recommends VS Code. And everything from deploying all the way down to, like, thinking about and prioritizing features and editing the code and all of that pretty much could happen on GitHub. I think maybe the only thing they don't currently do is host non-static sites, maybe [laughs]. That's maybe about it. And who knows? Maybe they're working on that; as far as I know, they are, so... STEPHANIE: Yeah, absolutely. You also mentioned one thing that I really liked about the content in the post was that you talked about alternatives to GitHub, even, like, alternatives to all of the different features that we mentioned. I guess I'm wondering, like, what were you hoping that a reader from your blog post, like, what they would get out of reading and, like, what they would take away from kind of sharing your opinion? EDWARD: I wanted to try to meet people where I think they might be because I think a lot of people do use GitHub, and they do take it for granted. And they do sort of see it as this thing that they must use, or they want to use even, and that's fine. That's not necessarily a bad thing. I want them to see those alternatives and have at least some idea that there is something else out there, that GitHub doesn't become just not only the default, but, like, the only thing. I mean, to just [chuckles] re-paraphrase the title of the post, I want to make sure GitHub does not become the only option, right? I want people to realize that there are other options out there and be encouraged to try them. And I have found, for me, at least, the better way to do that is not to only focus on, like, hey, don't use GitHub. Like, I hope people did not come away with only that message or even that message at all. But that it is more, hey, maybe try something else out and to encourage you to try something out. I'm going to A: share the risks with you and B: give you some actual things to try. So, I talk about the things I'm using and some other platforms and different paradigms to think about and use. So, I hope they take those. We'll see what happens in the next, you know, months or years. And I'll probably never know if it was actually just from me or from many other conversations, and thoughts, and articles, and all that kind of stuff. But that's what it takes, so... STEPHANIE: Yeah. I think the other fun thing about kind of the, like, meta-conversation we're having about having an opinion and, like, sharing it with the world is that you don't even really say like, "This is better than GitHub," or, like, kind of make a statement about, like, you shouldn't don't even say, "You shouldn't use GitHub," right? The message is, like, here are some options: try it out, and, like, decide for yourself. EDWARD: Yeah, exactly. I want to empower people to do that. I don't think it would have been useful if I'd just go and say, "Hey, don't do this." It's very frustrating to me to see posts that are only negatives. And, honestly, I've probably written those posts, like, I'm not above them necessarily. But I have found that trying to help people do what you want them to do, as silly and maybe obvious as that sounds, is a more effective way to get them to do what you want them to do [laughs], as opposed to say, "Hey, stop doing the thing I don't want you to do," or attack their identity, or their job, or some other aspect of their life. Human behavior does not respond well to that generally, at least in my experience. Like, having your identity tied up in a tool or a platform is, unfortunately, pretty common in, like, a tech space. Like, oh, like, Ruby on Rails is the best piece of software or something like that. And it's like, well, you might like it, and that might be the best thing for you. And personally, I really like Ruby on Rails. I think it does a great job of what it does. But as an example, I would not use Ruby on Rails to maybe build an iOS app. I could; I think that's possible, but I don't think that's maybe the best tool for that job. And so, trying to, again, meet people where they are. STEPHANIE: I guess it kind of goes back to what you're saying. It's like, you want to help people do what they are trying to do. EDWARD: Yeah. Maybe there's a little paternalistic thinking, too, of, like, what's good for the industry, even if it feels bad for you right now. I don't love that sort of paternalistic thinking. But if it's a real risk, it seems worth at least addressing or pointing out and letting people make that decision for themselves. STEPHANIE: Yeah, absolutely. I am actually kind of curious about how do you, like, decide something for yourself? You know, like, how do you form your own opinion about technology? I think, yeah, like, a lot of people take GitHub for granted. They use it because that's just what's used, and that may or may not be a good reason for doing so. But that was a position I was in for a long time, right? You know, especially when you're newer to the industry, you're like, oh, well, this is what the company uses, or this is what, like, the industry uses. But, like, how do you start to figure out for yourself, like, do I actually like this? Does this help me meet my goals and needs? Is it doing what I want it to be doing? Do you have any thoughts about that? EDWARD: Yeah. I imagine most people listening to this have tried lots of different pieces of software and found them great, or terrible, or somewhere in between. And I don't think there's necessarily one way to do this. But I think my way has been to try lots of things, unsurprisingly, and evaluate them based on the thing that I'm trying to do. Sometimes I'll go into a new field, or a new area, or a new product, or whatever, and you just sort of use what's there, or what people have told you about, or what you heard about last, and that's fine. That's a great place to start, right? And then you start seeing maybe where it falls down, or where it is frustrating or doesn't quite meet those needs. And it takes a bit of stepping back. Again, I don't think I'm, like, going to blow anyone's mind here by this amazing secretive technique that I have for, like, discovering good software. But it's, like, sitting there and going through this iterative loop of try it, evaluate it. Be honest with, is it meeting or not meeting some particular needs? And then try something else. Or now you have a little more info to arm yourself to get to the next piece that is potentially good. As you go on in your career and you've tried many, many, many pieces of things, you start to see patterns, right? And you know, like, oh, it's not like, oh, this is how I make websites. It's like, ah, I understand that websites are made with a combination of HTML, and CSS, and JavaScript and sometimes use frameworks. And there's a database layer with an ORM. And you start to understand all the different parts. And now that you have those keywords and those pieces a little more under your control or you have more experience with them, you can use all that experience to then seek out particular pieces. I'm looking for an ORM that's built with Rust because that's the thing I need to do it for; that's the platform I need to work with. And I needed to make sure that it supports MySQL and Postgres, right? Like, it's a very targeted thing that you wouldn't know when you're starting out. But over years of experience, you understand the difference and the reasons why you might need something like that. And sometimes it's about kind of evaluating options and maybe making little test projects to play around with those things or side projects. That's why something like investment time or 20% time is so helpful and useful for that if you're the kind of person who, you know, enjoys programming on your own in your own free time like I am. And that's also a great time to do it, although it's certainly not required. And so, that's kind of how I go through and evaluate whatever tool it is that I need. For something maybe more professional or higher stakes, there's a little more evaluation upfront, right? You want to make sure you make the right choice before you spend thousands of hours using it and potentially regretting [laughs] it and having to roll it back, causing even more thousands of hours of time. So, there's obviously some scrutiny there. But, again, that also takes experience and understanding the kind of need that you have. So, yeah, it's kind of a trade-off of, like, your time, and your energy, and your experience, and your interest. You will have many different inputs from colleagues, from websites, from posts on the internet, from Twitter, or fediverse-type kind of blogging and everything in between, right? So, you take all that in, and you try a bunch of stuff, and you come out on the other side, and then you do it again. STEPHANIE: Yeah, it sounds like you really like to just experiment, and I think that's really great. And I actually have to say that I am not someone who likes to do that [laughs]. Like, it's not where I focus a lot of my time. And it's why I'm, like, glad I'm friends with you, first of all. EDWARD: [laughs] STEPHANIE: But also, I've realized I'm much more of, like, a gatherer in terms of information and opinions. Like, I like hearing about other people's experience to then, like, help inform an opinion that I might develop myself. And, you know, it's not to say that, like, I am, like, oh yeah, like, so and so said this, and so, therefore, yeah, I completely believe what they have to say. But as someone who does not particularly want to spend a ton of my time trying out things, it is really helpful to know people who do like to do that, know people who I do trust, right? And then kind of like you had mentioned, just, like, having all these different inputs. And one thing that has changed for me with more experience is, previously, a lot of, like, the basis of what I thought was the quote, unquote, "right way" to develop software was, like, asking, like, other people and, you know, their opinions becoming my own. And, you know, at some point, though, that, like, has shifted, right? Where it's like, oh, like, you know, I remember learning this from so and so, and, like, actually, I think I disagree now. Or maybe it's like, I will take one part of it and be like, yeah, I really like test-driven development in this particular way that I have figured out how I do it, but it is different still from, like, who I learned it from. And even though, like, that was kind of what I thought previously as, like, oh yeah, like, this is the way that I've adopted without room for adjustment. I think that has been a growth, I guess, that I can point to and be like, oh yeah, like, I once was in a position where maybe opinions weren't necessarily my own. But now I spend a lot more time thinking about, like, oh, like, how do I feel about this? And I think there is, like, some amount of self-reflection required, right? A lot, honestly. Like, you try things, and then you think about, like, did I like that? [laughs] One without the other doesn't necessarily fully informed opinion make. EDWARD: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I'm really glad you brought up that, like, you've heard an opinion, or a suggestion, or an idea from somebody, and you kind of adopt it as your own for a little bit. I like to think of it as trying on ideas like you try on clothing. Or something like, let me try on this jacket. Does this fit? And maybe you like it a little bit. Or maybe you look ridiculous, and it's [laughs] not quite for you. And you don't feel like it's for you. But you have to try. You have to, like, actually do it. And that is a completely valid way to, like, kick-starting some of those opinions, getting input from friends or colleagues, or just the world around you. And, like, hearing those things and trying them is 100% valid. And I'm glad you mentioned that because if I mentioned it, I think I kind of skipped over it or went through it very quickly. So, absolutely. And you're talking about how you just take, like, one part of it maybe. That nuance, that is, I think, really critical to that whole thought, too. Everything works differently for different people. And every tool is good for other, like, different jobs. Like, it will be like saying a hammer is the best tool, and it's, like, well, it's a good tool for the right thing. But, like, I wouldn't use a hammer to, like, I don't know, level the new house numbers I put on my house, right? But I might use them to, like, hit the nail to get them in. So, it's a silly analogy, but, like, there is always nuance and different ways to apply these different tools and opinions. STEPHANIE: I like that analogy. I think it would be really funny if there was someone out there who claimed that the hammer is the best tool ever invented [laughs]. EDWARD: Oh, I'm sure. I'm sure there is, you know. I'm not going to use a drill to paint my house, though [laughs]. STEPHANIE: That's a fair point, and you don't have to [chuckles]. EDWARD: Thank you [laughs]. STEPHANIE: But, I guess, to extend this thought further, I completely and wholeheartedly agree that, like, yeah, everyone gets to decide for themselves what works for them. But also, we work in relation with others. And I'm very interested in the balance of having your own ideas and opinions about tooling, software practices, like, whatever, and then how to bring that back into, like, working on a team or, like, working with others. EDWARD: Yeah. Well, I don't know if this is exactly what you're asking, but it makes me think of: you've gone off; you've discovered a whole bunch of stuff that you think works really well for you. And then you go to work, or you go to a community that is using a very different way of working, or different tools, or different technologies. That can be a piece of friction sometimes of, like, "Oh my gosh, I love Ruby on Rails. It's the best." And someone else is like, "I really, really don't like Ruby on Rails for reasons XYZ. And we don't use it here." And that can be really tough and, honestly, sometimes even disheartening, depending on how strongly you feel about that tool and how strongly they feel about their tools. And as a young developer many years ago, I definitely had a lot more of my identity wrapped up in the tools and technologies that I used. And that has been very useful to try to separate those two. I don't claim to be perfect at it or done with that work yet. But the more I can step away and say, you know, like, this is only a tool. It is not the tool. It is not the best tool. It is a tool that can be very effective at certain things. And I've found, at least right now, the more useful thing is to get to the root of the problem you're trying to solve and make sure you agree with everybody on that premise. So, yes, you may have come from a world where fast iteration and a really fluent language interface like Ruby has and a really fast iteration cycle like Rails has, is, like, the most important need to be solved because other things have been solved. You understand what you're doing for your product, or maybe you need to iterate quickly on that product. You've figured out an audience. You're getting payroll. You're meeting all that as a business. But then you go into a business that's potentially, like, let's say, much less funded. Or they have their market fit, and now they're working on, like, extreme performance optimization, or they're working on getting, like, government compliance, or something like that. And maybe Rails is still great. This is maybe a...the analogy may fall apart here. But let's pretend it isn't for some reason. You have to agree that, hey, like, yes, we've solved problem X that Rails really helps you solve. And now we're moving on to problem Y, and Rails may not help you solve that, or whatever technology you're using may not help you solve that. And I've found it to be much more useful to stop worrying about the means, and the tools, the things in between, and worry about the ends, worry about the goal, worry about the problems you're actually trying to solve. And then you can feel really invested in trying to solve that problem together as a group, as a team, as a community. I've found that to be very helpful. And I would also like to say it is extremely difficult to let some of that stuff go. It takes a lot of work. I see you nodding along. Like, it's really, really hard. And, like I said, I'm not totally done with it either. But that's, I think, it's something I'm really working on now and something I feel really strongly about. STEPHANIE: Yeah. You mentioned the friction of, like, working in an environment where there are different opinions, which is, you know, I don't know, just, like, reality, I guess [laughs]. EDWARD: Human nature. STEPHANIE: Yeah, exactly. And one thing I was thinking about recently was, like, okay, like, so someone else maybe made a decision about using a type of technology or, like, made a decision about architecture before my time or, like, above me, or whatever, right? Like, I wasn't there, and that is okay. But also, like, how do I maintain what I believe in and hold fast to, like, my opinions based on my value system, at least, without complaining? [laughs] Because I've only seen that a little bit before, right? When it just becomes, like, venting, right? It's like, ugh, like, you know, I have seen people who are coming from maybe, like, microservices or more of a JavaScript world, and they're like, ugh, like, what is going on with Rails? Like, this sucks [laughs]. And one thing I've been trying lately is just, like, communicating when I don't agree that something's a great idea. But also, like, acknowledging that, like, yeah, but this is how it is for this team, and I'm also not in a position to change it. Or, like, I don't feel so strongly about it that I'm like, "Hey, we should totally rethink using this, like, background job [laughs] platform." But I will be like, "Hey, like, I don't like this particular thing about it. And, you know, maybe here are some things that I did to mitigate whatever thing I'm not super into," or, like, "If I had more time, this is what I would do," and just putting it out there. Sometimes, I don't get, like, engagement on it. But it's a good practice for me to be, like, this is how I can still have opinions about things, even if I'm not, at least in this particular moment, in a position to change anything. EDWARD: It sounds to me like you in, at least at the lowest level, like, you want to be acknowledged, and you want to, like, be heard. You want to be part of a process. And yes, it doesn't always go with Stephanie's initial thought, or even final thought, or Edward's final thought. But it is very helpful to know that you are heard and you are respected. And it isn't someone just, like, completely disregarding any feeling that you have. As much as we like to say programming is this very, like, I don't know, value neutral, zero emotion kind of job, like, there's tons of emotion in this job. We want to do good things for the world. We want our technology to serve the people, ultimately, at least I do, and I know you do. But we sometimes disagree on the way to do that. And so, you want to make sure you're heard. And if you can't get that at work, like, and I know you do this, but I would encourage anyone listening out there to, like, get a buddy that you can vent to or get somebody that you can express, and they will hear you. That is so valuable just as a release, in some ways, to kind of get through what you need to get through sometimes. Because it is a job, and you aren't always the person that's going to make the decisions. And, honestly, like, you do still have one decision left, which is you can go work somewhere else if it really is that bad. And, like, it's useful to know that you are staying where you are because you appreciate the trade-offs that you have: a steady paycheck, or the colleagues that you work with, or whatever. And that's fine. That's an okay trade-off. And at some point, you might want to make a different trade-off, and that's also fine. We're getting real managery and real here. But I think it's useful. Like you said, this can be a very emotional career, and it's worth acknowledging that. STEPHANIE: Yeah, you just, you know, raised a bunch of, like, very excellent points. Yeah, at the end of the day, like, you know, you can do your best to, like, propose changes or, like, introduce new tooling and, like, see how other people feel about it. But, like, yeah, if you fundamentally do not enjoy working with a critical tool that, you know, a lot of the foundation of the work that you're doing day to day is built off of, then maybe there is a place where, like, another company that's using tools that you do feel excited or, like, passionate or, like, are a better alignment with what you hope to be doing. Kind of just going back to that theme that we were talking about earlier, like, everyone gets to decide for themselves, right? Like, the tools to help them do what they want to be doing. EDWARD: And you could even, like, reframe it for yourself, where instead of it being about the tools, maybe it's about the problem. Like, you start being more invested in, like, the problem that you're solving and, okay, maybe you don't want to use microservices or whatever, but, like, maybe you can get behind that if you realign yourself. The thing you're trying to solve is not the tool. The thing you're trying to solve is the problem. And that can be a useful, like, way to mitigate that or to, like, help yourself feel okay about the thing, whatever that is. STEPHANIE: Yeah. Now, how do I have this conversation with everyone [laughter] who claims on the internet that X is the solution to all their problems or the silver bullet, [laughs] or whatever? EDWARD: Yeah, that's tough because there are some very strong opinions on the internet, as I'm sure [laughs] you've observed. I don't know if I have the answer [laughs]. Once again, nuance and indecisions. I have been currently approaching it from kind of a meta-perspective of, like, if someone says, "X is the best tool," you know, "A hammer is the best tool," right? I'm not going to go write the post that's like, "No, hammer is, in fact, not the best tool. Don't use hammers." I would maybe instead write a post that's like, "Consider what makes the best tool." I've effectively, like, raised up one level of abstraction from, we're no longer talking about is X, or Y, or Z, the best tool? We're talking about how do we even decide that? How do we even think about that? One post...I'm now just promoting my blog posts, so get ready. But one thing I wrote was this post called And Not But. And I tried to make the case that instead of saying the word but in a sentence, so, like, yeah, yeah, we might want to use hammers, but we have to use drills or whatever. I'm trying to make the case that you can use and instead. So yeah, hammers are really good, and drills are really good in these other scenarios. And trying to get that nuance in there, like, really, really putting that in there and getting people to, like, feel that better, I think, has been really helpful, for me, certainly to get through. And part of the best thing about writing a blog post is just getting your own thoughts...I mean, it's another way to vent, right? It's getting your own thoughts out somewhere. And sometimes people respond to them. You'd be surprised who just reaches out and been like, "Hey, yeah, like, I really appreciated that post. That was really great." You weren't trying to reach that person, but now you have another connection. So, a side benefit for writing blog posts [inaudible 30:17] do it, or just even getting your thoughts out via a podcast, via a video, whatever. So, I've kind of addressed that. I also wrote a post when I worked at thoughtbot called Empathy Online. And that came out of, like, frustration with seeing people being too divisive or, in my opinion, unempathetic or inconsiderate. And instead of, again, trying to just say, "Stop it, don't do that," [laughs] but trying to, like, help use what I have learned when communicating in a medium that is kind of inherently difficult to get across emotion and empathy. And so, again, it's, in some ways, unsatisfying because what you really want to do is go talk to that person that says, "Hammer is the best tool," and say, "No, stop it [laughs]," and, like, slap them on the head or whatever, politely. But I think that probably will not get you very far. And so, if your goal, really, is to change the way people think about these things, I find it way more effective to, like, zoom out and talk about that on that sort of more meta-level and that higher level. STEPHANIE: Yeah. I liked how you called it, like, a higher level of abstraction. And, honestly, the other thing I was thinking about as you were talking about the, like, divisiveness that opinions can create, there's also some aspect of it, as a reader, realizing that one person sharing their opinion does not take away your ability to have a differing opinion [laughs]. And sometimes it's tough when someone's like, "Tailwind sucks [laughs], and it is a backward step in, you know, how we write CSS," or whatever. Yes, like, sometimes that can be kind of, like, inflammatory. But if you, like, kind of are translating it or, like, reading between the lines, they're just writing about their perspective from the things that they value. And it is okay for you to value different things and, for that reason, have a different perspective on the same thing. And, I don't know, that has helped me sometimes avoid getting into that, like, headspace of wanting to argue with someone [laughs] on the internet. Or they'll be like, "This is why I am right." [laughs] Now I have to write something and share it on the internet in response [laughs]. EDWARD: There's this idea of the narcissism of minor differences. And I believe the idea is this, like, you know, you're more likely to argue with someone who, like, 90% agrees with you. But you're just, like, quibbling over that last 10%. I mean, one might call it bikeshedding. I don't know if you've heard that phrase. But the thing that I have often found, too, is that, like the GitHub post, I will get people arguing with me, like, there's the kind of stuff I expected, where it's like, "Oh, but GitHub is really good," and XYZ and that's fine. And we can have that conversation. But it's kind of surprising, and I should have expected it, that people will sometimes be like, "Hey, you didn't go far enough. You should tell people to, like, completely delete their GitHub or, like, you know, go protest in the street." And, like, maybe that's true. I'm not saying it is or isn't. But I think one thing I try to think about is, in any post, in any trying convincing argument, like, you're potentially moving someone 1 step forward, even if there's ten steps to go. But they're never going to make those ten steps if they don't make the first 1. And so, you can kind of help them get there. And someone else's post can absolutely take them from step 5 to 6 or 6 to 7 or 7 to 8. And you won't accomplish it all at once, and it's kind of a silly thing to try, and your efforts are probably lost [laughs]. Unfortunately, it's a little bit of preaching to the choir because, like, yeah, the people that are going to respond to, like, the extreme, the end are, like, the people that already get it. And the people that you're trying to convince and move along are not going to get that thing. I do want to say that I could see this being perceived as, like, a very privileged position of, like, if there's some, like, genuine atrocity happening in the world, like, it is appropriate to go to extremes many times and sometimes, and that's fine, and people are allowed to be there. I don't want to invalidate that. It's a really tricky balance. And I'm trying to say that if your goal is to vent, that's fine. And if your goal is to move people from step 3 to 4, you have to meet people at step 3. And all that's valid and okay to try to help people move in that way. But it is very tricky. And I don't want to invalidate someone who's extremely frustrated because they're at step 10, and no one else is seeing the harm that not everybody else being at step 10 is. Like, that's an incredibly reasonable place to be and an okay place to be. STEPHANIE: Yeah, yeah. The other thing you just sparked, for me, is also the, like, power of, yeah, being able to say like, "Yeah, I agree with this 50%, or 60%, or, like, 90%." And also, there's this 10% that I'm like, oh, like, I wish were different, or I wish they'd gone further, or I wish they didn't say that. Or, you know, I just straight up disagree with this step 1 sentence, but the rest of the article, you know, I really related to. And, like, teasing that apart has been very useful for me, right? Because then I'm no longer like being like, oh, was this post good or bad? Do I agree with it or don't agree with it? It's like, there's room for [laughs] all of it. EDWARD: Yeah, that's that nuance that, you know, I liked this post, and I did not agree with these two parts of it, or whatever. It's so useful. STEPHANIE: Well, thanks, Edward, so much for coming on the show and bringing that nuance to this conversation. I feel really excited about kind of what we talked about, and hopefully, it resonates with some of our listeners. EDWARD: Yeah, I hope so too. I hope I can take them from step 2 to step 3 [laughs]. STEPHANIE: On that note, shall we wrap up? EDWARD: Let's wrap up. STEPHANIE: Show notes for this episode can be found at JOËL: This show has been produced and edited by Mandy Moore. STEPHANIE: If you enjoyed listening, one really easy way to support the show is to leave us a quick rating or even a review in iTunes. It really helps other folks find the show. JOËL: If you have any feedback for this or any of our other episodes, you can reach us @_bikeshed, or you can reach me @joelquen on Twitter. STEPHANIE: Or reach both of us at via email. JOËL: Thanks so much for listening to The Bike Shed, and we'll see you next week. ALL: Byeeeeeeeee!!!!!! AD: Did you know thoughtbot has a referral program? If you introduce us to someone looking for a design or development partner, we will compensate you if they decide to work with us. More info on our website at Or you can email us at with any questions.Support The Bike Shed
Nov 20, 2023
36 min
406: Working Solo
Joël got to do some pretty fancy single sign-on work. And when it came time to commit, he documented the ridiculous number of redirects to give people a sense of what was happening. Stephanie has been exploring Rails callbacks and Ruby debugging tools, using methods like save_callbacks and Kernel.caller, and creating a function call graph to better understand and manage complex code dependencies. Stephanie is also engaged in an independent project and seeking strategies to navigate the challenges of solo work. She and Joël explore how to find external support and combat isolation, consider ways to stimulate creativity, and obtain feedback on her work without a direct team. Additionally, they ponder succession planning to ensure project continuity after her involvement ends. They also reflect on the unique benefits of solo work, such as personal growth and flexibility. Stephanie's focus is on balancing the demands of working independently while maintaining a connected and sustainable professional approach. ASCII Sequence Diagram Creator Callback debugging methods Kernel.caller Method.source_location Building web apps by your lonesome by Jeremy Smith Transcript: STEPHANIE: Hello and welcome to another episode of The Bike Shed, a weekly podcast from your friends at thoughtbot about developing great software. I'm Stephanie Minn. JOËL: And I'm Joël Quenneville. And together, we're here to share a bit of what we've learned along the way. STEPHANIE: So, Joël, what's new in your world? JOËL: I got to do something really fun this week, where I was doing some pretty fancy single sign-on work. And when it came time to commit, I wanted to document the kind of ridiculous number of redirects that happen and give people a sense of what was going on. And for my own self, what I had been doing is, I had done a sequence diagram that sort of shows, like, three different services that are all talking to each other and where they redirect to each other as they all go through the sequence to sign someone in. And I was like, how could I embed that in the commit message? Because I think it would be really useful context for someone trying to get an overview of what this commit is doing. And the answer, for me, was, can I get this sequence diagram in ASCII form somewhere? And I found a website that allows me to do this in ASCII art. It's the And that allows me to create a sequence diagram that gets generated as ASCII art. I can copy-paste that into a commit message. And now anybody else who is like, "What is it that Joël is trying to do here?" can look at that and be like, "Oh, oh okay, so, we got these, like, four different places that are all talking to each other in this order. Now I see what's happening." STEPHANIE: That's super neat. I love the idea of having it directly in your commit message just because, you know, you don't have to go and find a graph elsewhere if you want to understand what's going on. It's right there for you, for future commit explorers [laughs] trying to understand what was going on in this snippet of time. JOËL: I try as much as possible to include those sorts of things directly in the commit message because you never know who's reading the commit. They might not have access to some sort of linked resource. So, if I were like, "Hey, go to our wiki and see this link," like, sure, that would be helpful, but maybe the person reading it doesn't have access to the wiki. Maybe they do have access, but they're not on the internet right now, and so they don't have access to the wiki. Maybe the wiki no longer exists, and that's a dead link. So, as much as possible, I try to embed context directly in my commit messages. STEPHANIE: That's really cool. And just another shout out to ASCII art, you know [laughs], persevering through all the times with our fancy tools. It's still going strong [laughs]. JOËL: Something about text, right? STEPHANIE: Exactly. I actually also have a diagram graph thing to share about what's new in my world that is kind of in a similar vein. Another thoughtboter and former guest on the show, Sara Jackson, shared in our dev channel about this really cool mural graph that she made to figure out what was going on with callbacks because she was working on, you know, understanding the lifecycle of this model and was running into, like, a lot of complex behavior. And she linked to a really neat blog post by Andy Croll, too, that included a little snippet sharing a few callback debugging methods that are provided by ActiveRecord. So, basically, you can have your model and just call double underscore callbacks. And it returns a list of all the callbacks that are defined for that model, and I thought that was really neat. So, I played around with it and copypastad [laughs] the snippet into my Rails console to figure out what's going on with basically, like, the god object of that that I work in. And the first issue I ran into was that it was undefined because it turns out that my application was on an older [laughs] version of Rails than that method was provided on. But, there are more specific methods for the types of callbacks. So, if you are looking specifically for all the callbacks related to a save or a destroy, I think it's save underscore callbacks, right? And that was available on the Rails version I was on, which was, I think, 4. But that was a lot of fun to play around with. And then, I ended up chatting with Sara afterwards about her process for creating the diagram after, you know, getting a list of all these methods. And I actually really liked this hybrid approach she took where, you know, she automated some parts but then also manually, like, went through and stepped through the code and, like, annotated notes for the methods as she was traversing them. And, you know, sometimes I think about, like, wow, like, it would be so cool if this graph just generated automatically, but I also think there is some value to actually creating it yourself. And there's some amount of, like, mental processing that happens when you do that, as opposed to, like, looking at a thing that was just, you know, generated afterwards, I think. JOËL: Do you know what kind of graph Sara generated? Was it some kind of, like, function call graph, or was it some other way of visualizing the callbacks? STEPHANIE: I think it was a function call graph, essentially. It even kind of showed a lot of the dependencies, too, because some of the callback functions were quite complicated and then would call other classes. So, there was a lot of, I think, hidden dependencies there that were unexpected, you know, when you think you're just going to create a regular old [laughs] record. JOËL: Yeah, I've been burned by unexpected callbacks or callbacks that do things that you wouldn't want in a particular context and then creating bad data or firing off external services that you really didn't want, and that can be an unpleasant surprise. I appreciate it when the framework offers debugging tools and methods kind of built-in, so these helpers, which I was not aware of. It's really cool because they allow you to kind of introspect and understand the code that you're going through. Do you have any others like that from Rails or Ruby that you find yourself using from time to time to help better understand the code? STEPHANIE: I think one I discovered recently was Kernel.caller, which gives you the stack trace wherever you are when executing. And that was really helpful when you're not raising an exception in certain places, and you need to figure out the flow of the code. I think that was definitely a later discovery. And I'm glad to have it in my back pocket now as something I can use in any kind of Ruby code. JOËL: That can, yeah, definitely be a really useful context to have even just in, like, an interactive console. You're like, wait a minute, where's this coming from? What is the call stack right now? STEPHANIE: Do you have any debugging tools or methods that you like to use that maybe are under the radar a little bit? JOËL: One that I really appreciate that's built into Ruby is the source location method on the method object, so Ruby has a method object. And so, when you're dealing with some sort of method and, like, maybe it got generated programmatically through metaprogramming, or maybe it's coming from a gem or something like that, and you're just like, where is this define? I'm trying to find it. If you're in your editor and you're doing stuff, maybe you could run some sort of search, or maybe it has some sort of keyword lookup where you can just find the definition of what's under your cursor. But if you're in an interactive console, you can create a method object for that method name and then call dot source location on it. And it will tell you, here's where it's defined. So, very handy in the right circumstances. STEPHANIE: Awesome. That's a great tip. JOËL: Of course, one of the most effective debugging tools is having a pair, having somebody else work with you, but that's not always something that you have. And you and I were talking recently about what it's like to work solo on a project. Because you're currently on a project, you're solo, at least from the thoughtbot side of things. You're embedding with a team, with a client. Are you working on kind of, like, a solo subtask within that, or are you still kind of embedding and interacting with the other teammates on a regular basis? STEPHANIE: Yeah. So, the past couple of weeks, I am working on more of a solo initiative. The other members of my client team are kind of ramping up on some other projects for this next quarter. And since my engagement is ending soon, I'm kind of left working on some more residual tasks by myself. And this is new for me, actually. I've not really worked in a super siloed by-myself kind of way before. I usually have at least one other dev who I'm, like, kind of partnering up with on a project, or an epic, or something like that. And so, I've had a very quiet week where no one is, you know, kind of, like, reaching out to me and asking me to review their code, or kind of checking in, or, you know, asking me to check in with them. And yeah, it's just a little bit different than how I think I like to normally work. I do like to work with other people. So, this week has been interesting in terms of just kind of being a more different experience where I'm not as actively collaborating with others. JOËL: What do you think are some of the biggest challenges of being kind of a little bit out in your own world? STEPHANIE: I think the challenges for me can definitely be the isolation [laughs], and also, what kind of goes hand in hand with that is when you need help, you know, who can you turn to? There's not as much of an obvious person on your team to reach out to, especially if they're, like, involved with other work, right? And that can be kind of tough. Some of the other ones that I've been thinking about have been, you know, on one hand, like, I get to make all of the decisions that I want [laughs], but sometimes you kind of get, like, really in your own head about it. And you're not in that space of, like, evaluating different solutions that you maybe might not think of. And I've been trying to figure out how to, like, mitigate some of that risk. JOËL: What are some of the strategies that you use to try to balance, like making good decisions when you're a bit more solo? Do you try to pull in someone from another team to talk ideas through? Do you have some sort of internal framework that you use to try to figure out things on your own? What does that look like? STEPHANIE: Yeah, luckily, the feature I'm working on is not a huge project. Well, if it were, I think then I wouldn't be alone on it. But, you know, sometimes you find yourself kind of tasked with one big thing for a while, and you are responsible for from start to finish, like all of the architectural decisions to implementation. But, at least for me, the scope is a little more narrow. And so, I don't feel as much of a need to get a lot of heads together because I at least feel somewhat confident in what I'm doing [laughs]. But I have found myself being a bit more compelled to kind of just verbalize what I'm doing more frequently, even to, like, myself in Slack sometimes. It's just like, I don't know who's reading this, but I'm just going to put it out there because maybe someone will see this and jump in and say, "Oh, like, interesting. Here's some other context that I have that maybe might steer you away from that," or even validating what I have to say, right? Like, "That sounds like a good idea," or, you know, just giving me an emoji reaction [laughs] is sometimes all I need. So, either in Slack or when we give our daily sync updates, I am, I think, offering a little more details than I might if I already was working with someone who I was more in touch with in an organic way. JOËL: And I think that's really powerful because it benefits you. Sort of by having to verbalize that or type it out, you, you know, gain a little bit of self-awareness about what you're trying to do, what the struggles are. But also, it allows anybody else who has potentially helpful information to jump in. I think that's not my natural tendency. When I'm on something solo, I tend to kind of, like, zoom in and focus in on something and, like, ignore a little bit of the world around me. Like, that's almost the time when I should look at overcommunicating. So, I think most times I've been on something solo, I sort of keep relearning this lesson of, like, you know, it's really important to constantly be talking out about the things that you're doing so that other people who are in a broader orbit around you can jump in where necessary. STEPHANIE: Yeah, I think you actually kind of touched on one of the unexpected positives, at least for me. Something I wasn't expecting was how much time I would have to just be with my thoughts. You know, as I'm implementing or just in my head, I'm mulling over a problem. I have less frequent, not distractions necessarily, but interruptions. And sometimes, that has been a blessing because I am not in a spot where I have a lot of meetings right now. And so, I didn't realize how much generative thought happens when you are just kind of, like, doing your own thing for a little bit. I'm curious, for you, is that, like, a space that you enjoy being when you're working by yourself? And I guess, you know, you were saying that it's not your natural state to kind of, like, share what's going on until maybe you've fully formed an idea. JOËL: I think I often will regret not having shared out before everything is done. The times that I have done it, I've been like, that was a really positive experience; I should do that more. I think it's easy to sort of wait too long before sharing something out. And with so many things, it feels like there's only one more small task before it's done. Like, I just need to get this one test to go green, and then I can just put up a PR, and then we'll have a conversation about it. But then, oh, this other test broke, or this dependency isn't installing correctly. And before you know it, you've spent a whole day chasing down these things and still haven't talked. And so, I think if some of those things were discussed earlier, it would help both to help me feel more plugged in, but also, I think everybody else feels like they're getting a chance to participate as well. STEPHANIE: So, you mentioned, you know, obviously, there's, like, the time spent just arriving at the solution before sharing it out for feedback. But have you ever been in a position where there is no one to give you feedback and, like, not even a person to review your code? JOËL: That's really challenging. So, occasionally, if I'm working on a project, maybe it would be, like, very early-stage startup that maybe just has, like, a founder, and then I'm, like, the only technical person on the team, generally, what I'll try to do is to have some kind of review buddy within thoughtbot, so some other developer who's not staffed on my project but who has access to the code such that I can ask them to say, "Hey, can you just take a look at this and give me a code review?" That's the ideal situation. You know, some companies tend to lock things down a lot more if you're dealing with something like healthcare or something like that, where there might be some concerns around personal information, that kind of thing. But generally, in those cases, you can find somebody else within the company who will have some technical knowledge who can take a look at your code; at least, that's been my experience. STEPHANIE: Nice. I don't think I've quite been in that position before; again, I've really mostly worked within a team. But there was a conference talk I watched a little bit ago from Jeremy Smith, and it was called Building Web Apps by Your Lonesome. And he is a, like, one-man agency. And he talked about, you know, what it's like to be in that position where you pretty much don't have other people to collaborate with, to review your code. And one thing that he said that I really liked was shifting between writer and editor mode. If you are the person who has to kind of just decide when your code is good enough to merge, I like that transition between, like, okay, I just spent however many hours putting together the solution, and now I'm going to look at it with a critical eye. And sometimes I think that might require stepping away for a little bit or, like, revisiting it even the next day. That might be able to help see things that you weren't able to notice when you were in that writing mode. But I have found that distinction of roles really helpful because it does feel different when you're looking at it from those two lenses. JOËL: I've definitely done that for some, like, personal solo projects, where I'm participating in a game jam or something, and then I am the only person to review my code. And so, I will definitely, at that point, do a sort of, like, personal code review where I'll look at it. Maybe I'm doing PRs on GitHub, and I'm just merging. Maybe I'm just doing a git diff and looking at a commit in the command line on my own machine. But it is useful, even for myself, to sort of switch into that editor mode and just kind of look at everything there and say, "Is it in a good place?" Ideally, I think I do that before putting it out for a co-worker's review, so you kind of get both. But on a solo project, that has worked actually pretty well for me as well. STEPHANIE: One thing that you and I have talked about before in a different context, I think, when we have chatted about writing conference talks, is you are really great about focusing on the audience. And I was thinking about this in relation to working solo because even when you are working by yourself on a project, you're not writing the code for yourself, even though you might feel like [laughs] it in the moment. And I also kind of like the idea of asking, like, who are you building for? You know, can you ask the stakeholder or whoever has hired you, like, "Who will maintain this project in the future?" Because likely, it won't be you. Hopefully, it won't be you unless that's what you want to be doing. There's also what my friend coined the circus factor as opposed to the bus factor, which is, like, if you ran away to the circus tomorrow [laughs], you know, what is the impact that would have? And yeah, I think working solo, you know, some people might think, like, oh, that gives me free rein to just write the code exactly how I want to, how I want to read it. But I think there is something to be said about thinking about the future of who will be [inaudible 18:10] what you just happen to be working on right now. JOËL: And keep in mind that that person might be future you who might be coming back and be like, "What is going on here?" So, yeah, audience, I think, is a really important thing to keep in mind. I like to ask the question, if somebody else were looking at this code, and somebody else might be future me, what parts would they be confused by? If I was walking somebody else through the code for the first time, where would they kind of stop me through the walkthrough and be like, "Hey, why is this happening? What's the connection between these two things? I can see they're calling each other, but I don't know why." And that's where maybe you put in a comment. Maybe you find a better method or a class name to better explain what happens. Maybe you need to put more context in a commit message. There's all sorts of tools that we can use to better increase documentation. But having that pause and asking, "What will confuse someone?" is, I think, one of the more powerful techniques I do when I'm doing self-review. STEPHANIE: That's really cool. I'm glad you mentioned that, you know, it could also be future you. Because another thing that Jeremy says in this talk that I was just thinking about is the idea of optimizing for autonomy. And there's a lot to be said there because autonomy is like, yeah, like, you end up being the person who has to deal with problems [laughs], you know, if you run into something that you can't figure out, and, ideally, you'll have set yourself up for success. But I think working solo doesn't mean that you are in your own universe by yourself completely. And thinking about future, you, too, is kind of, like, part of the idea that the person in this moment writing code will change [laughs]. You'll get new information. Maybe, like, you'll find out about, like, who might be working on this in the future. And it is kind of a fine balance between making sure that you're set up to handle problems, but at the same time, maybe it's that, like, you set anyone up to be able to take it away from where you left it. JOËL: I want to take a few moments to sort of talk a little bit about what it means to be solo because I think there are sort of multiple different solo experiences that can be very different but also kind of converge on some similar themes. Maybe some of our listeners are listening to us talking and being like, "Well, I'm not at a consultancy, so this never happens to me." But you might find yourself in that position. And I think one that we mentioned was maybe you are embedded on a team, but you're kind of on a bit of a larger project where you're staffed solo. So, even though you are part of a larger team, you do feel like the initiative that you're on is siloed to you a little bit. Are there any others that you'd like to highlight? STEPHANIE: I think we also mentioned, you know, if you're a single developer working on an application because you might be the first technical hire, or a one-person agency, or something, that is different still, right? Because then your community is not even your company, but you have to kind of seek out external communities on social networks, or Slack groups, or whatever. I've also really been interested in the idea of developers kind of being able to be rotated with some kind of frequency where you don't end up being the one person who knows everything about a system and kind of becomes this dependency, right? But how can we make projects so, like, well functioning that, like, anyone can step in to do some work and then move on? If that's just for a couple of weeks, for a couple of months. Do you have any thoughts about working solo in that kind of situation where you're just stepping into something, maybe even to help someone out who's, you know, on vacation, or kind of had to take an unexpected leave? JOËL: Yeah, that can be challenging. And I think, ideally, as a team, if you want to make that easier, you have to set up some things both on a, like, social level and on a tactical level, so all the classic code quality things that you want in place, well structured, encapsulated code, good documentation, things like that. To a certain extent, even breaking down tasks into smaller sort of self-sufficient stories. I talk a lot about working incrementally. But it's a lot easier to say, "Hey, we've got this larger story. It was broken down into 20 smaller pieces that can all be shipped independently, and a colleague got three of them done and then had to go on leave for some reason. Can you step in and do stories 4 through 20?" As opposed to, "Hey, we have this big, amorphous story, and your colleague did some work, and it kind of is done. There's a branch with some code on it. They left a few notes or maybe sent us an email. But they had to go on leave unexpectedly. Can you figure it out and get it done?" The second scenario is going to be much more challenging. STEPHANIE: Yeah, I was just thinking about basically what you described, right? Where you might be working on your own, and you're like, well, I have this one ticket, and it's capturing everything, and I know all that's going on [laughs], even though it's not quite documented in the ticket. But it's, you know, maybe on my branch, or in my head, or, worst of all, on my local machine [laughs] without being pushed up. JOËL: I think maybe that's an anti-pattern of working solo, right? A lot of these disciplines that you build when you're working in a team, such as breaking up tickets into smaller pieces, it's easy to kind of get a little bit lazy with them when you're working solo and let your tickets inflate a little bit, or just have stuff thrown together in branches on your local machine, which then makes it harder if somebody does need to come in to either collaborate with you or take over from you if you ever need to step aside. STEPHANIE: Right. I have definitely seen some people, even just for their personal projects, use, like, a Trello board or some other project management tool. And I think that's really neat because then, you know, obviously, it's maybe just for their own, like, self-organization needs, but it's, like, that recognition that it's still a complicated project. And just because they're working by themselves doesn't mean that they can't utilize a tool for project management that is meant for teams or not even teams [laughs], you know, people use them for their own personal stuff all the time. But I really like that you can choose different levels of how much you're documenting for your future self or for anyone else. You had mentioned earlier kind of the difference between opening up a PR for have to merge your branch into main or whatever versus just committing to main. And that distinction might seem, like, if you were just working on a personal project, like, oh, you know, why go through the extra step? But that can be really valuable in terms of just seeing, like, that history, right? JOËL: I think on solo projects, it can really depend on the way you tend to treat your commit history. I'm very careful with the history on the main branch where I want it to tell a sort of, like, cohesive story. Each commit is kind of, like, crafted a little bit. So, even when I'm working solo and I'm committing directly to master or to the main branch, I'm not just, like, throwing random things there. Ideally, every commit is green and builds and is, like, self-contained. If you don't have that discipline, then it might be particularly valuable to go through the, like, a branching system or a PR system. Or if you just want, like, a place to experiment, just throw a bunch of code together, a bunch of things break; nothing is cohesive, that's fine. It's all a work in progress until you finally get to your endpoint, and then you squash it down, or you merge it, or whatever your workflow is, and then it goes back into the main branch. So, I think that for myself, I have found that, oftentimes, I get not really a whole lot of extra value by going through a branching and PR system when it's, like, a truly solo project, you know, I'm building a side project, something like that. But that's not necessarily true for everyone. STEPHANIE: I think one thing I've seen in other people's solo projects is using a PR description and, you know, having the branching strategy, even just to jot down future improvements or future ideas that they might take with the work, especially if you haven't kind of, like, taken the next step of having that project management system that we talked about. But there is, like, a little more room for some extra context or to, like, leave yourself little notes that you might not want necessarily in your commit history but is maybe more related to this project being, like, a work in progress where it could go in a lot of different directions, and you're figuring that out by yourself. JOËL: Yeah, I mean, definitely something like a draft PR can be a great place to have work in progress and experiment and things like that. Something you were saying got me wondering what distinction you typically have between what you would put in a commit message versus something that you would put in a PR description, particularly given that if you've got, like, a single commit PR, GitHub will automatically make the commit message your PR message as well. STEPHANIE: This has actually evolved for me over time, where I used to be a lot more reliant on PR descriptions holding a lot of the context in terms of the decision-making. I think that was because I thought that, like, that was the most accessible place of information for reviewers to find out, you know, like, why certain decisions were made. And we were using, you know, PR templates and stuff like that. But now the team that I'm working on uses commit message templates that kind of contain the information I would have put in a PR, including, like, motivation for the change, any risks, even deployment steps. So, I have enjoyed that because I think it kind of shortens the feedback loop, too, right? You know, you might be committing more frequently but not, you know, opening a PR until later. And then you have to revisit your commits to figure out, like, okay, what did I do here? But if you are putting that thought as soon as you have to commit, that can save you a little bit of work down the line. What you said about GitHub just pulling your commit message into the PR description has been really nice because then I could just, like, open a thing [laughs]. And that has been nice. I think one aspect that I really like about the PR is leaving myself or reviewers, like, notes via comments, like, annotating things that should not necessarily live in a more permanent form. But maybe I will link to documentation for a method that I'm using that's a little less common or just add some more information about why I made this decision over another at a more granular level. JOËL: Yeah, I think that's probably one of the main things that I tend to put in a PR message rather than the commit message is any sort of extra information that will be helpful at review time. So, maybe it's a comment that says, "Hey, there is a lot of churn in this PR. You will probably have a better experience if you review this in split view versus unified view," things like that. So, kind of, like, meta comments about how you might want to approach reviewing this PR, as opposed to something that, let's say somebody is reviewing the history or is, like, browsing the code later, that wouldn't be relevant to them because they're not in a code review mindset. They're in a, like, code reading, code understanding mindset or looking at the message to say, "Why did you make the changes? I saw this weird method. Why did you introduce that?" So, hopefully, all of that context is in the commit message. STEPHANIE: Yeah, you reminded me of something else that I do, which is leave notes to my future self to revisit something if I'm like, oh, like, this was the first idea I had for the, you know, the way to solve this problem but, you know, note to self to look at this again tomorrow, just in case I have another idea or even to, like, you know, do some more research or ask someone about it and see if they have any other ideas for how to implement what I was aiming for. And I think that is the editor mode that we were talking about earlier that can be really valuable when you're working by yourself to spend a little extra time doing. You know, you are essentially optimizing for autonomy by being your own reviewer or your own critic in a healthy and positive way [laughs], hopefully. JOËL: Exactly. STEPHANIE: So, at the beginning of this episode, I mentioned that this is a new experience for me, and I'm not sure that I would love to do it all of the time. But I'm wondering, Joël, if there are any, you know, benefits or positives to working solo that you enjoy and find that you like to do just at least for a short or temporary amount of time. JOËL: I think one that I appreciate that's maybe a classic developer response is the heads downtime, the focus, being able to just sit down with a problem and a code editor and trying to figure it out. There are times where you really need to break out of that. You need somebody else to challenge you to get through a problem. But there are also just amazing times where you're in that flow state, and you're getting things done. And that can be really nice when you're solo. STEPHANIE: Yeah, I agree. I have been enjoying that, too. But I also definitely am looking forward to working with others on a team, so it's kind of fun having to get to experience both ways of operating. On that note, shall we wrap up? JOËL: Let's wrap up. STEPHANIE: Show notes for this episode can be found at JOËL: This show has been produced and edited by Mandy Moore. STEPHANIE: If you enjoyed listening, one really easy way to support the show is to leave us a quick rating or even a review in iTunes. It really helps other folks find the show. JOËL: If you have any feedback for this or any of our other episodes, you can reach us @_bikeshed, or you can reach me @joelquen on Twitter. STEPHANIE: Or reach both of us at via email. JOËL: Thanks so much for listening to The Bike Shed, and we'll see you next week. ALL: Byeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!! AD: Did you know thoughtbot has a referral program? If you introduce us to someone looking for a design or development partner, we will compensate you if they decide to work with us. More info on our website at Or you can email us at with any questions.Support The Bike Shed
Nov 13, 2023
32 min
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