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July 23, 2021 17:22 +0100  |  Climate Change Employment Ethics 1

I made a career decision a few months ago that I've meant to document here for a while now. I left my previous job at Workfinder that was making me miserable, for an amazing job with a green energy company called Limejump.

The people I work with are wonderful. They're both technically capable and respectful human beings. I'm not just talking about my immediate colleagues either. In my 7 months with the company, this has been my experience with everyone I've worked with there -- all the way up to the CEO. People are friendly, enthusiastic, and professional. The team collectively owns mistakes and works together toward common goals that we (the business and engineering) establish together. Seriously, it's pretty great.

I cannot stress enough how powerfully black & white the move has been for me. To come from a job where the higher-ups regularly micromanaged, second-guessed, and belittled everyone and then shoved us under the bus when things went wrong, to where I am now is really quite jarring. I'd spent so much time being miserable that I'd forgotten what it was like to work with decent people.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, I'm here to remind you that not every company is as toxic as the one you're stuck in. If you have options, get out while you can! Hell, if you can roll code, I might be able to find you a spot with us.

So yeah, that's the good news: I'm finally happy in a job again. I'd forgotten what that was like, so the experience still leaves me a bit giddy, even after 7 months.

"So why the dire-sounding title?" I hear you asking. Well, Limejump comes with a significant piece of baggage that I had to unpack and come to terms with before accepting the job. That's the real topic of this post: Limejump is owned by Shell.

Yes, that Shell.

If you know me personally, it's likely that you know that I have some hard lines I don't cross for employment. I don't do guns, I don't do fossil fuels, and I certainly don't do anything illegal. The reasoning behind this is one of conscience, but it's also rational: gaining financially from destroying the world you have to live in makes absolutely no sense. Shell violates the fossil fuel rule fundamentally, and historically has a long documented history of Evil under its belt.

And yet, here I am, taking a paycheque from Shell, and to my mind, doing so with my morals intact. That probably sounds antithetical, so let me explain:

The way I see it, Shell is a publicly-traded company that must, like any other, do evil. It's insane, but this is how capitalism works: a publicly-traded company can't knowingly refrain from doing evil if doing so means that it will make less (or even lose) money for its shareholders. If your goal then is to save the earth from companies like Shell, you have but two choices:

  1. Make Shell illegal. Sue them into oblivion or figuratively kill them by revoking their charter to exist.
  2. Find a way to make doing evil less profitable than doing good.

To be clear, I am all for Option #1, but no amount of screaming from my blog is going to work on that front, so unless activists and human rights lawyers have a need for some high-level software design, I'm afraid I'm not much use to that cause. I have however been offered an opportunity to move on option #2.

Limejump is doing something extremely ambitious and technically difficult: we're developing a framework for consolidating disparate green energy sources into a sort of distributed power plant that compensates for all of the fluctuations inherent in green energy solutions. Sometimes the wind isn't blowing, and the sun isn't always shining, and yet you need power for your laptop at 3am.

The number of companies on the planet even bothering to try to solve this problem is tiny and almost none of them have the sort of resources that Shell brings to the table. If we can prove that this is viable (spoiler alert: it definitely is, we're doing it), then the reality of free, limitless energy becomes a serious "carrot" to pull companies like Shell away from fossil fuels. Combine that with the "stick" in actions like Extinction Rebellion, law suits, rising fuel prices, and political pressure, and I believe that you can steer this earth-killing beast of a ship into a force for Good. Not because I believe that a company can have a conscience (it can't), but because that's where the money is.

Until or unless Option #1 can happen, this sort of work needs to be done, so I took the job. I hope it was the right choice and that I'm not being naïve. I suppose that's a question for Future Me, but for right now, it honestly feels like the Right decision.

January 03, 2021 21:16 +0000  |  Economy Employment Free Software Health Politics Software 0

This year sucked. That line is probably enough to remember the nightmare that is 2020 when I'm (hopefully) looking back on this post in 10 years, but as it's my tradition to go into depth on the past year at the start of a new one, let's go a bit deeper into the why this year sucked so much.

The Pandemic

This was the year that the COVID-19 pandemic took off. Lockdowns all over the world started around March and for the more civilised countries (New Zealand, Taiwan, a few others) that was the end of it. The rest of the world however could not get our shit together.

From the talks of "natural herd immunity" to the politicising of the virus and its prevention as a left-wing conspiracy, nearly every country failed to do the right thing in the most calamitous way possible.

It's left the people with a sense of reason exhausted. I mean, we have experts in this field. Those experts told us what we needed to do to stem the spread. Our leaders overwhelmingly did not heed that advice and chose instead to let 1.8 million people die (so far).

Even while mass graves were being dug in New York, leaders in nearly every nation were refusing to even close the schools. Here in the UK, (home of the famous "take it on the chin" comment by our fearless leader) we had policies that actually encouraged people to eat out at local pubs, and no mask mandate. Now the UK wears the dubious distinction of being the source of a much more virulent strain of the virus. Other countries have closed their borders to us, but nearly all continue with anti-science policy that inevitably leads to more death.

Vaccine Development

There's some good news though: 3 promising vaccines have made their way through a (very rushed) development & testing process to be cleared for emergency use in Europe and North America (and presumably elsewhere). The roll out has (unsurprisingly) been a mess here in the UK, and now there's talk of actually mixing-and-matching the vaccines which sounds insane to me, but again, unsurprising given the kind of leadership this country has.

From my (admittedly ignorant) read of the science behind this though, I'm currently on-board with getting a vaccine (or a "jab" as they call it here) when it's made available to me. As I understand the risks of so-called "Long COVID" vs. the nature of an mRNA vaccine, it's still a smart move in my mind.

Radicalised

Was 2020 a “bad year” or are we simply approaching the inevitable conclusion of living under an economic system that is fundamentally incompatible with human dignity and happiness?

Throughout all of this, I've become more "radicalised". My contempt for capitalism is more palpable, and I'm angrier every day.

All of this, all of this is a direct result of capitalism. From the Chinese government refusing to crack down on wild/exotic animal wet markets, to the world's pandering to their carelessness, to their covering up of the outbreak until it was too late, to the world's reluctance to close the borders, to anti-science policies in nearly every nation treating the working public like expendable peasants. All of it is driven by capitalism:

China

We've continued to trade with China and support their economy because it's profitable for the rest of us. It doesn't matter that they commit genocide or are among the worst polluters on the planet. We pretend that this is only their problem when logically we know that it isn't. The same is true for their public health regulations.

We knew that China's public health policy was a breeding ground for pandemics. We've seen it before. But isolating them? Punishing them for being a threat to world health? That would affect our profits.

And so we did nothing and China acted exactly as everyone knew they would.

Management once the pandemic started

The science was clear on all of this:

  • Close the borders
  • Close the schools, the churches, the markets, and the malls
  • Limit travel
  • Limit the spread by keeping people at home
  • Track and trace infected cases

But we all had rent and mortgages to pay. Around 300 million of us (the Americans) couldn't even have medical care if they were unemployed. How could anyone possibly do the right thing and follow the science?

Our governments could have stepped in. They could have put a moratorium on rent and mortgages. They could have mandated the expansion of grocery store delivery networks and required that no one be permitted to go to work if that work is not directly involved in a key industry like the food supply, public health, utilities, or the military.

The right thing would have been to do this for just a month or two and get a handle on the virus. Limit its spread and understand its behaviour. It could have been financed through a wealth tax or some other fiscal tool levied against those profiting from the pandemic.

We didn't do this though, because capitalism demands that we all go to work doing jobs that don't really matter so that the very rich few continue to accumulate wealth. It's a given that millions will die, but it's also understood we're all replaceable.

Disaster Capitalism

All of this is what Naomi Klein calls "disaster capitalism": the idea that disasters are leveraged (if not also created) by people who profit from them.

There are absolutely winners in all of this: Amazon and Tesco for example both posted record profits while exploiting their workforce. As The Guardian pointed out:

Bezos has accumulated so much added wealth over the last nine months that he could give every Amazon employee $105,000 and still be as rich as he was before the pandemic.

None of this is to say that there's some sort of illuminati cadre of rich assholes running the world. Only that the world is as it is because these sorts of people profit from it the way things are rather than how we all know they should be.

We don't need 2¢ USB sticks from China or next-day delivery of slippers from Amazon. We need a universal basic income, nationalised health care, and a government that understands the economy as a system of land, water, and people rather than currency.

This pandemic has happened entirely because we have prioritised personal wealth over humanity.

It's not just a bad year

Towards the end of the year, it became fashionable to refer to how we'll all be glad that 2020 is over, because somehow everything was going to be better in 2021. Nothing has changed though, and so even if the vaccine is rolled out smoothly and the pandemic subsides, all of this — in one form or another — will happen again because that is what this system was designed to do.

The worst is yet to come. Next up we're looking down the barrel of a crippling depression and the appallingly inevitable climate catastrophe. The skies above California literally turned red this year, and yet that nation still has no salient climate plan. The world community has done little more than talk about how we should probably do something, but fossil fuels are still subsidised by nearly every industrialised nation.

There's a reason you feel like things have only been getting worse: they have. Disaster capitalism is as much about profiting off of disaster as it is about demoralising the peasantry and keeping us fearful. We've been "holding on" for so long, hoping for things to get better when they absolutely will only get worse so long as we live under this system.

In Other World News

Despite the pandemic, there were a lot of things that happened worth noting that happened this year:

Black Lives Matter

George Floyd was murdered by a police officer and the country, the world was (finally) enraged. From what I've been hearing, very little has come of the rage though, as the pandemic has made mobilisations difficult. Still, calls for defunding or abolishing the police are finally being taken seriously, so that's a start.

Trump

Trump made it through all four years and got clobbered in an attempt at re-election. I maintain that if this pandemic hadn't happened, he would have won a second term (I have that little faith in the US), but with more than 350,000 dead so far and millions losing their jobs, there was no way he was going to win in a fair fight.

The question then was how much would the Republicans have to cheat to win this one, and they did their best: everything from gerrymandering, to restricting access to voting places, to sabotaging the postal system. None of it was enough to give Trump a win, though it may well have been enough to hold onto the Senate. We'll know in a few days with the Georgia run-off vote.

Oh, and there's widespread claims that the election was somehow fraudulent, and that Trump was actually the winner. This has led to Trump-devotees holding (maskless, of course) rallies calling for the arrest of Joe Biden.

And one more thing: Q-Anon is a thing now. There's a lot of overlap between these nuts and the nuts claiming that Trump actually won.

My Life, Directly

In comparison to any of the above, my life doesn't exactly feel significant, but this is my blog, so I'm going to cover that too.

Lockdown

The (limited) lockdown we had here in the UK was rough. I was just holding onto my sanity, being able to send my 1 year old away to the child minder during the work-week, but when that was all cancelled, Christina and I became full-time babysitters while also being full-time employees.

We "managed" this by working in shifts. I would work 4 hours while Christina looked after Anna, then I'd take care of Anna for four hours while Christina worked. When Anna napped midday, we'd both work, and when dinner came around, one of us would cook while the other took care of the kid, then she'd go down and both of us would go back to work 'till 11 or midnight at which point we'd go to sleep only to repeat this... for the entire month.

I won't complain though. It was hard, but at least we remained employed through the fortune of having remote-friendly work. I know that a lot of people in this country were looking down the barrel of no income and substantial rent to pay, so I know that we've been very fortunate.

Our childminder was freaking out when she heard the news that she couldn't keep her doors open, since no kids meant that her income was suddenly reduced to £0. Christina and I decided however that so long as our employment situation didn't change, we would continue to pay her as if Anna was in full attendance as usual.

Fear

The worst part of this though — at least for me — as been the looming fear. Yes the odds of death are low, but they're still very high compared to almost anything you would choose to do on a daily basis. On top of that, the long-term health effects of COVID-19 are almost entirely unknown. There are reports of cramps and migraines lasting months, and permanent heart damage, so this isn't something anyone wants to get.

My parents are both very high-risk, and yet they continue to have regular visits with my brother who flies all over Canada for work. It doesn't help that my brother's attitude toward COVID is more dismissive than anything else.

Personally I've had breathing concerns for years ever since I contracted pertussis in my late teens. Every time I've had a bad flu since then, there have been moments where the coughing and seizing locks up my whole respiratory system and I literally can't breathe. In those moments, I'm taken back to that year where whooping cough was destroying my lungs and I think that maybe this time will be the last... and then it subsides.

...and that's the flu.

I may talk a big game about the macro-level implications of this thing, but I'm honestly — personally — worried.

Christina is less concerned (which doesn't help with my own fears). She's frustrated by the way this year has likely stunted Anna's social development, how we see our friends so rarely (always outside, at a "safe" social distance), and she remains (rightly) concerned about the way the vaccines have been rushed through, and how public health is once again being politicised: you're either happy to give your 2 year-old a vaccine that's never been tested on 2-year-olds being rolled out by a government with a demonstrated lack of interest in public health, or you're an idiot anti-vaxxer who hates Britian.

There's a lot of stress to go around.

Goodbye Workfinder, Hello MoneyMover (again)

On the corporate front, I said goodbye to Founders4Schools/Workfinder back in November, and while I'll miss a lot of the people there, I won't miss working there for a variety of reasons.

For the last 2 months of 2020, I went back to MoneyMover to help move some of their codebase forward. I'd been helping to keep things running in my off-hours for the last 2 years, but there were a lot of things that needed more dedicated attention, so I agreed to come back for a short stint to help out. It's a great place to work, so I've really enjoyed being able to work with with everyone again.

Later this month, I'll be moving onto my next full-time job, this time with LimeJump. That move warrants an entirely separate post though, so I hope to get to that soon.

Majel

Finally, the best news (for me anyway) this year was the "launching" of my latest side project, Majel. I won't be announcing it to the nerd world for a few days still, but I'm really happy with how it's turned out.

Majel is a front-end for Mycroft, an OpenSource Alexa replacement. Imagine being able to "install" Alexa on your laptop or a Raspberry Pi and know that it does what you want without eavesdropping on your conversations. Mycroft even sells dedicated devices that do the same thing (just like an Echo), again, all Freely licensed so you can extend it in any way you like.

Majel is one such extension, my add-on to the Mycroft system that allows you to control a web browser with voice commands. Sure, maybe Alexa can control a "smart" TV and play shows from Amazon Prime, but it's unlikely that Amazon will also let Alexa control Netflix, let alone a local library stored in something like Kodi.

So I wrote Majel to do just that. You can say stuff like:

Play The West Wing

and it'll look at your local library and play those files if you have them (remembering where you left off of course). If you don't have them, it'll ask Netflix & Amazon who has the show and then play it with the service that does.

It also does stuff like:

Youtube baby shark

Where it'll look up "baby shark" on Youtube and play the first search result, full-screen and on a loop. Anna was thrilled.

Finally, it plugs into my Firefox bookmarks to do handy things like:

Search my bookmarks for chicken

Where it'll draw up a touch-friendly web page full of chicken recipes from my curated collection.

It's all licensed under the AGPL and regardless of whether or not there's much interest in it, I'll likely continue to develop on it. I want to be able to tell it to do basic web stuff, like do a Google/DuckDuckGo search for something or pull up a Wikipedia page on an arbitrary topic. I also want to get it to a point where I can say:

Call the parents

and have it start a video call, but that'll likely require working with something like PyGUI, so it may be a while before I can figure that out.

Anyway, I'm really happy with it, and it represents the culmination of roughly a year's work, squeezed into my off hours after Anna's gone to bed and when I'm not already expected to do some off-hours contracting. I'm hoping it'll show the Mycroft project a way toward making these digital assistants a more visual experience, but even if it flops, I'm still happy to have it running on my old Surface Pro 3 in the kitchen.

September 05, 2016 12:39 +0100  |  Employment Job Hunting 3

I suppose you could say that the process started years ago when I mused about applying to Mozilla. I was living in Amsterdam at that point and wanted a job where I could go into the office and have lunch with coworkers etc. so despite Andy's encouragement, I decided not to apply for a developer position there.

Years later another position opened up just as I was about to move to London, so I applied, got through a few rounds of interviews and then the position evaporated, changing to a junior-level role instead.

Later still another job opened for a developer tools role. I applied to that and ran aground on their new "HackerRank" coding test. These tests are terrible, but that's a rant for another time. Regardless, I bombed out on that application too.

Then a few months ago, Stephanie sent me a message telling me that her team had an opening for a senior Python developer. I applied not long after the role appeared on the site, along with Stephanie's recommendation. This time, I've managed to graduate past the terrible HackerRank test, and through all four rounds of interviews.

As I understand it, the verdict is supposed to come down tomorrow and I'm facing off against two other potentials. The anxiety around this whole thing is surprisingly crippling: this isn't just a job, it's Mozilla, the Good guys, a big important company that's on the front lines in the fight for the Open Web. I don't think I've ever wanted any job more than I want this one.

It's a long weekend in Canada & the US, so they won't be getting back to me 'till Tuesday, which means sometime between 8pm and 5am London time. I may not know anything until I wake up and check my phone on Wednesday morning. That's my last day at my current job (Cyan) for this week, since I took two days off to pack for our move to Cambridge, so this Wednesday is going to be messy, regardless of the Mozilla decision.

Update

Well I didn't get it. The main guy over there had some very nice things to say about me in the "we don't want you" email, but the reality is that I will not be working for the Good Guys this time around either :-(

March 04, 2015 13:58 +0000  |  Employment Ripe NCC 0

My boss just sent this to me:

[List of Employee names and Me],

As agreed verbally, I'm requesting you to work on the weekend of 28-29 March, in order to attend the RIPE Atlas Hackaton. Your attendance at the evening socials is optional (and not recognised as extra hours).

According to the HR policy [link to policy on our intranet], you're entitled to compensation for this. Please let HR know if you prefer monetary or VAC days.

Cheers, [Boss' Name]

"Welcome to Europe" he said jokingly.

I just wanted to post this to stand in sharp contrast to how companies tend to work in Canada, ie:

You're working this weekend. No we're not paying you for it. If you're not ok with this, you're replaceable.

Back home, there's a lot of talk about "Work/life balance", but employers here actually understand what that means and practise it.

January 22, 2014 17:46 +0000  |  Employment Software Web Development 0

Every once in a while I hear people speaking with authority about what exactly agile software development is, and the funny thing is, they usually conflict with other statements with similar authority about agile. Often, this is coupled with negative comments about how agile is impractical because X, which is frustrating, because some of my most productive years were spent in a fully agile office environment.

So I thought that I'd write something about agile as well, if for no other reason than to hopefully point people in the direction of what I know to be a very efficient and practical means of getting stuff done. I don't want to claim that this is the One True Way of agile development though, as I'm not interested in having the kind of conversation where we re-classify everything for the sake of giving it a name. My team lead at the time, Mike Gauthier called this system agile, and that's good enough for me.

Talk Less, Code More

The goal behind agile is to have developers spend time doing what they love: rolling code, and to keep them out of meetings they want no part of to begin with. Instead developers have only 3 responsibilities over and above writing code throughout the sprint. I'll cover these in more detail below:

  • A Morning stand up meeting: Every day, 10min
  • Sprint meeting: 1hr
    • 30min to recap the last sprint
    • 30min to prepare the next one
  • Any additional initiative taken to talk to the client about what they want

Note what isn't in that list:

  • Requirements meetings
  • Proposals
  • Logging hours
  • Documentation

The idea behind agile is essentially: "Here's a task, go!". The key to making this work is to keep the tasks simple and concise, so that the result of the sprint is incremental. Read: easy to deploy, with no surprises.

The rapid pace of an agile project means that the usual slow processes of planning meetings and wiki documentation becomes an exercise in futility: the job is done before it's planned, and it's changed not long after it's documented.

Stand Up

It sounds like a pointless process, but it's probably the most powerful part of an agile system. The morning "stand up" meeting, or "scrum" is exactly what it sounds like: the entire team stands up in a corner of the room to answer 3 questions each:

  1. What'd you do yesterday?
  2. What're you expecting to do today?
  3. What happened yesterday that prevented you from doing what you needed to do?

Each developer should talk for no more than a few minutes, answering these questions point blank. It's the opportunity for the team lead to address whatever problems were mentioned (after the meeting), and for other developers to find out that their colleagues are waiting for them to finish something.

Note that this meeting is not for design discussions, or gripes etc. Rather, the purpose is to be a quick update on what's going on -- which is why you're supposed to stand up through the whole thing. The minute someone starts to look like they need to sit, that's your cue that the meeting has gone on too long.

Sprints

Think of sprints as a deploy schedule, but short and seemingly insignificant in what they produce. While a typical software deploy schedule may last months or even years, consisting of massive upgrade paths and a long complex list of changes, sprints are typically 1-2 weeks long. You write the code, and it's live in a few days.

The big difference from other methods is that sprints are incremental, so while new features roll out bit by bit, bugs are fixed weekly with no having to maintain multiple branches for extended intervals.

Keeping the sprint short ensures 4 things:

  • The tasks are always short-term and easy to comprehend both for developers and clients
  • Clients see progress on a regular, predictable schedule
  • Releases are predictable, and easy to break new features into
  • Your team has a concrete and easy to understand goal to work toward

Code Debt

But what about those elaborate project charts with tasks designated to different developers, all colour coded by week, accounting for availability?

Gone. All of it. Throw it out. You now have a binder full of post-its, or if you're feeling all 21st century about it, a Jira task list. This bundle of tasks is your code debt and should not be organised as priorities are expected to change from sprint to sprint. At most the PM should keep a loose tally of priorities, so as to make the sprint planning meetings go smoother.

Chipping Away at that Debt

At the start of every sprint, you hold a meeting in which the project manager talks to the developers about what's most pressing in terms of bug fixes and new features. Importantly, this is a two-way conversation: the PM representing the needs of the client, and the developers representing their own limitations and the quality/maintainability of the code.

This sprint planning meeting is where you take stuff out of your code debt, break it into bite-sized chunks, and assign it to the current sprint. You need to keep the tasks small and easy to achieve in < 4hours. If it takes longer than that, it needs to be broken down. This has a couple big benefits:

  • Big jobs can be spread around, potentially finishing them faster
  • Knowledge sharing is easier as everyone has the opportunity to work on smaller portions of a greater whole.
  • It's an easy way to make big jobs suddenly feel possible.
  • Finishing a task results in a sense of accomplishment for the developers
  • Incremental change gives the client a sense that something is being done

No Ticket, No Work

Now that your sprint planning meeting has broken up a portion of your code debt into tasks, the team is presented with a white board with a simple grid layout:

+--------+--------------+-----------+------------+---------------+
|  Todo  |  Developers  |  Working  |  Finished  |  QA Complete  |
+--------+--------------+-----------+------------+---------------+
|        |  Daniel      |           |            |               |
|        +--------------+-----------+------------+---------------+
|        |  Aileen      |           |            |               |
|        +--------------+-----------+------------+---------------+
|        |  Charlie     |           |            |               |
|        +--------------+-----------+------------+---------------+
|        |  Aisha       |           |            |               |
+--------+--------------+-----------+------------+---------------+

That Todo column is where you put the amorphus blob of post-it notes, each one representing one of the aforementioned bite-sized tasks for this sprint. Note that while in this column, they aren't actually assigned to anyone; they're simply waiting for someone to take them and stick it onto their Working column.

Now, say that there are 30 tasks to complete before the end of the sprint. Aileen sits down at her desk and as she has nothing to do yet, she looks at the board and grabs the post-it about fixing a bug in email notifications. She moves the post-it from the Todo column into the Working column on her row, and opens her editor.

When the job's done, she moves it to Finished, at which point the QA team can now take a look, and when they're happy with the job, they move it to QA Complete. If however her change broke something, or if it's simply unsatisfactory, they move the post-it all the way back to the Todo column, where Charlie might grab it later that day, since Aileen has moved onto another ticket about the statistics engine.

In practise, developers will often gravitate toward tasks they're familiar with, and they'll often leave tickets that have been bounced-back by QA for the initial developer and this can be ok. However if ever one developer becomes a dominant force on a particular component, (s)he might be forbidden from working on it for a while, to make sure that the other developers have a chance to spend some time learning how that software works.

The most important part of this is that developers aren't supposed to do any work unless there's a ticket for them. This keeps people on-task toward completing the sprint on-time and as expected. If there's other work that deserves attention, this is best brought up at the next sprint planning meeting.

Spikes

It's about at this point where people start with comments like "What if the server goes down? Are we expected to wait until the next sprint to fix it?". Obviously not. Emergencies or "directives from on high" are things that can't wait and by their nature they can't be part of the sprint plan. They're also rare, so breaking a working system to accommodate them is a little absurd.

The solution is what's called a "spike". A task injected into the Todo list, typically flagged to be done as soon as possible. Its presence in a sprint taints the sprint, so that it can be pointed to in the event of an overrun:

The server went down on Friday and Aisha had to burn half her day fixing it. As a result, we only finished 33 of our 36 tickets this sprint.

This is the sort of thing talked about in the post-sprint meeting, and if more action is needed (either to fully correct the problem or to avoid future cases) these tasks are added to the next sprint.

So, How'd it Go?

There's one other meeting of consequence. At the end of every sprint, you meet to talk about how the sprint fared: what went well, what didn't. In those 30 minutes, you talk about how awesome the QA team was, and how much it sucked when that module we thought would save us work turned out to create more than it solved. It's important to use this time to blow off steam and celebrate the accomplishments of the previous sprint and to take some time to figure out what could have gone better. It facilitates knowledge sharing more than anything else, and allows the PM and team lead to make better decisions in the future.

Documentation

The one thing people freak out about most when I talk about this method is the lack of documentation. They conjure up nightmare scenarios where one of the developers is hit by a bus and "no one knows how their stuff works", or point out that new developers won't have anywhere to start. Both of these are non-issues though, so long as you stick to the process and don't write terrible code.

If any member of the team doesn't know how a component works enough to get in there and complete a task, then it's time to get that person working on one of those tasks. Knowledge transfer happens best through doing, which means making sure that every member of the team has her fingerprints on every part. To put it in real terms, if Daniel gets hit by a bus, the project can go on because Aileen, Charlie, and Aisha have all spent some time poking at the payment engine. Not one of them wrote the whole thing, but the understanding is there.

Of course this can only happen if the code is readable and adheres to established standards. Variable names should be in the common language of the team and be whole words, method calls should be given names that explain what they do, and class names should make sense as singular objects. If the code can't be understood by someone who's never seen it before, then it's broken by design. Making sure that everyone has an opportunity to interact with this code is the best way to ensure it's readability.

Be Rigid

Probably the hardest part of agile software development is sticking to the process. As simple as it is, it's just too easy to fix a bug that someone found that isn't in the sprint, or add a simple feature that the client mentioned earlier that day. If agile is going to work, this can't be allowed to happen, and a lot of people have a hard time with this.

What you have to remember is that while the process feels pointlessly rigid, it's there to protect the team and ensure that the client gets exactly what was promised on the schedule that was promised. Adding in bug fixes can potentially derail the schedule, or introduce bugs that shouldn't have been there in the first place. It teaches the client that she can have whatever she wants whenever she wants, and as it's not part of the agreed sprint, she may try to get away with not paying for it.

From the developer side, it's important to remember that we like lists. If we can look at the list of stuff to do and know that that's all that's ever going to be there for the whole sprint, this introduces a sense of calm, and knowing exactly what's expected.

To this end, it's important to reward a team that manages to complete its sprint ahead of schedule. If they get everything finished by Thursday, let them take Friday off. The project is exactly as far along as you expected, so why not? Similarly, if the team is routinely late in completing the sprint, overtime is justified since the entire team helped write the sprint schedule during the planning meeting.

Conclusions

What makes agile work is having a simple and concise plan to follow, that has been agreed upon by all parties. I've worked at companies that implement this system without involving the developers so the schedule is imposed by people who have no knowledge of what actually needs to be done. I've also worked at companies where the developers run the schedule, which is to say, there's barely any schedule at all and the results are products that "mostly work", according to whatever the developer at the time thought was appropriate. As with so many other things, the key is openness, honesty, and inclusion in the process for all sides.

Agile is a system that everyone understands and agrees to, but doesn't get in the way of actually getting stuff done. It protects all parties involved from undue stress, and unexpected results, and I can honestly say that it was (at least for me) the best system to work with.

September 21, 2013 01:08 +0100  |  Employment Netherlands 0

In Canada, we essentially have two systems that manage the relationship between employer and employee: unionised and exploitative. Both of these options suck and for different reasons.

  • Unions tend to foster a combative relationship with management and often result in both sides making unreasonable demands of the other. Strikes and lockouts are common, as are attempts to undermine the right of workers to organise, union-busting, etc.

  • Non-unionised workplaces are all-too-often exploitative, using the threat of being replaced to push employees into working additional hours for free, taking pay-cuts, or even breaking the law. Conditions are often unsafe, and the atmosphere filled with distrust and animosity.

In a lot of European countries however, a third-way has been adopted, so much so that when I talk about the concept of labour unions with other Europeans, many of them don't understand the purpose of such a system.

So, what the heck is an OR? It's the Dutch incarnation of this third-way, a staff-elected council that represents employees in dealings with management. Far from being a token voice, their position has legal standing to the point where many key decisions: office hours, pension, health insurance, require approval from the OR.

The relationship between management and the OR is typically more amicable than the one you usually see between a labour unions and management in large part because the staff have more options available to them than work stoppage. The council is kept small, and is composed of people from the company, rather than an external body like a union. This means that the people you're arguing with are the same people you might eat lunch with. The same goes for the people you represent.

The meeting minutes are distributed to all staff by email, and elections are held every few years. The number of members is dictated by the total number of employees in the company, and anyone who has been with the company for six months or more may stand for election.

OR's are legally required of any company that exceeds 80 employees.

I tell you first-hand that this is the way to manage the relationship between employer and employee. It's not perfect, but I've never seen a more functional relationship in an office environment... and that's after working with ten companies over 14years in 4 different cities in 2 countries.

February 11, 2011 22:19 +0000  |  Amsterdam Employment Job Hunting Moving Netherlands Unemployment 6

For those of you who follow my life on Twitter or Facebook, I apologise for taking so long to post the details of the recent changes to my employment status. Stuff's been kinda crazy these past few weeks, so I've had other priorities that I'll talk about in other posts.

So here's the full story: On January 18th, I responded to a job ad for a web developer at MarketSims that I found on an online job posting board, possibly monster, but frankly, I don't remember. The application included my usual fun-sounding cover letter and a PDF copy of my CV along with a link to this site.

That same night, I received a response asking about my preferences for CMSs and/or frameworks and we had some good dialogue about why one CMS might be chosen over another, and why I prefer frameworks in general etc. etc. We also talked about my salary expectations, volunteer work, and outside interests as well, all over email. He thanked me for the info and said he'd get back to me.

Then he got sick for about a week so I didn't hear from him for a while. When we reconnected on the 31st, we talked about doing a Skype interview and settled on a midnight gig on the evening of the 4th.

The interview was with the CEO, CTO, and COO and covered in greater detail what they're looking for. Basically, they're looking to unify the many sites they have into a single managed solution as well as build a portal site for people in their industry. We talked about options and preferences and I made no secret regarding my preferences for Python/Django -- something I was happy to hear was positively received. The interview was largely non-technical, and when it was finished, the CEO said that they'd like to talk about me privately for a while and get back to me... in about 20minutes. A little surprised, I said thank you and we ended the call.

About 15minutes later, the CTO called me back and offered me the job. I'll start March 1st.

The pay sounds good, though it's tough to tell when you don't really know the cost of living over there. Regardless, it works out to a lot of money in Canada, so that doesn't suck. There's lots of vacation time, as European standards more or less require it, and they're accessible by transit. The CTO may even be able to hook me up with some inexpensive temporary housing with some friends while I look for a place of my own once I know the neighbourhoods better.

All-in-all, things are looking pretty good, though I try not to get too excited. Contracts etc. don't get signed until I come in for my first day and somehow, all of this doesn't feel like it will be "real" until then. I'm definitely leaving though. I've already bought my flights:

Vancouver » Kelowna Feb 21
Kelowna » Vancouver Feb 23
Vancouver » Amsterdam Feb 23

If the temporary housing doesn't work out, I'll look into Couch Surfing, then hostels, then hotels, in that order. Obviously, that's a rough route to take, but I'm not sure how else to do it. I will however endeavour to blog the process, if for no other reason to chronicle how very painful this kind of thing is.

November 04, 2009 07:02 +0000  |  Employment Scrubby TheChange.com Work [at] Play 3

I'm tagging this one as "Employment" for lack of a better word, but frankly, that's not really accurate. My work life appears to be rapidly branching away from the employer/employee relationship and into running the show myself. The question is becoming one of "how much time do I have?" rather than "with whom can I find work?"

That's right, I'm bringing back the old-school "don't start a sentence with a preposition thing. You're just going to have to deal ;-)

The details: three months ago I was just working at Work [at] Play as a senior software developer, and for all the griping I do about the neighbourhood and the office, it's really a pretty cool place to work. The truth of it though is that I felt like I was stagnating, not doing anything useful with my life, and what's worse, I was rotting like this in Vancouver. I was ready to get the hell out of here at the drop of a hat -- to go anywhere really, just as long as it was sufficiently urban, interesting and wasn't here.

That all changed when Melanie forwarded an interesting "job" posting my way. A young, local entrepreneur was looking for a technical co-founder for a new company wanting to encourage business to do the Right thing by making it profitable to do so. To use an idea from Paul Hawken, our company would help other companies grow like trees, with deep roots, rather than like grass with no sustainable future. The details are complicated, and still a little secret, so I can't share them here, but the point is that I've signed on to make this thing happen. It may implode, but I don't think it will, and in the mean time, I'll have the opportunity to Use My Powers For Good... and that's all I've ever really wanted anyway.

But now things are getting crazy. Less than a week since I've entered into this partnership, I've been contacted by two separate parties wanting me to serve in a senior technical capacity for their enterprises as well. All three ideas sound promising, two of them are Good companies, the third, while run by a good, honest, person I trust, is more about the money and less about Making the World Better. All three are offering very little if any money to start.

The truth is, I can't do all three and keep my job at Work [at] Play. I probably can't even do two, though it'd be nice since one of the other two can pay a little. As it is, I've talked to the brass at my current employer and asked them to figure out a way that I might be able to work 4days/week for them so I can devote two days each week to my new partnership, and while they're currently mulling it over, I'm reasonably confident that they'll find that it's good for everyone if we can make it work.

But for now? things are CRAZY. I honestly don't know what my situation will be in a few weeks. And strangely enough... I like it this way. Who knew?

May 13, 2009 02:40 +0100  |  Employment Geek Stuff Linux 3

It happens, especially in recessions and when it does, there's often little or no warning. You come into work on a Friday, work through the day, and at the end of the day, as you're heading out of the office, the boss comes to you and says something to the effect of: "Sorry, but you're done here."

Not long after you manage to get over your panic attack, your boss drops another bomb: you're not allowed to access your computer again. All of your personal email and/or files that you have on there are going to be backed up into hard drive somewhere and gods know what the sysadmin is going to do with it.

Now one might argue that if you're putting personal stuff on a company computer, the company owns that stuff, and legally speaking, you might be right, but morally, it's your stuff that you access at work because work takes up the vast majority of your day. It only seems fair that if they're going to give you the boot with zero notice that you have a chance to keep your emails and IM conversations with friends and family private.

So, in case you've ever wondered what might be a good way to keep your data more-or-less safe in such situations, I thought that I would post a little how-to here.

Option One

Don't put personal information on your company computer. It will save you all kinds of hassles, even if it does make life at work considerably less bearable.

Option Two

If you're going to put personal information on your company computer anyway, the best way to secure it is to have your computer continuously check a remote source (under your control) for instructions. You can then leave the instructions blank until Something Bad happens. For example, on a Linux machine:

  1. Create a tiny script file (call it "remoterun" for the sake of this example) and put this in it:
          #!/usr/bin/env sh
          curl -s http://somesite.com/instructions.txt | sh
    Now make it executable.
  2. Log into the server hosting somesite.com and place a file called instructions.txt in the document root. It can contain anything you want to execute on your machine. I recommend the deletion on your home directory (so long as there's no company data in there) and the removal of your personal account from the box. If you choose though, you can be a little more zealous and delete your music files, any background wallpapers you if you want. Just don't delete anything belonging to the company or they will be well within their rights to come and kick your ass in all kinds of unpleasant ways. Here's an example of a simple instructions file:
          # Delete my music
          rm -rf /opt/share/music
    
          # Delete my account
          userdel --force --remove daniel
    
          # Delete the remoterun script
          rm -f /path/to/remoterun
    This part is very important: Do not put anything in this file that you do not wish to run immediately. The above would nuke your personal data, so only put destructive instructions in the file when you actually want to delete stuff. Until then, you can just leave it blank.
  3. Now that you have an instructions file, you just need to make sure that your office computer runs the remoterun script every hour or so. That way, the machine will run your instructions within an hour of you setting them up on somesite.com. In Linux, you can do this with cron:
    # crontab -e
    That will allow you to edit the crontab for the current user (be root, it's best for this kind of thing). Now you just add the crontab line:
    00 * * * * /path/to/remoterun

That's all there is to it. Every hour, your office machine will connect to somesite.com and execute whatever instructions.txt says. Windows users, I'm afraid you're on your own but the theory is the same.

Now remember kids, use your powers for Good, not Evil. I've provided the above so you can be a responsible person while protecting your private life from someone who shouldn't have access to it anyway. I hope that you will do the same.

March 23, 2009 23:33 +0000  |  Canada Employment The Economy Unemployment 0

Details of the Japan portion of my recent trip are coming, but I found this link today and thought that it'd be a good idea to get it circulating somewhat first.

The idea is called work sharing and it works like this: in tough times companies large and small can apply to have Canada's employment insurance program pay (all or or a portion of) an employee's salary for one day each week, the employee then takes that day off. It gives companies facing layoffs another option that allows them to retain talent while saving anywhere between 10% and 20% on salaries.

If you're interested, check out the details at Service Canada.