Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Programming Elite, Programmers Who Read

About half an hour into the StackOverflow podcast, I started wondering whether I should stop listening to all the navel gazing about the soon to be launched Stack Overflow. Then it got a little more interesting when the discussion veered to the kind of readers/listeners that the site might get after the launch. Joel Spolsky makes an interesting comment (around 29:17):
"The audience of people that read Coding Horror and the audience of people that read Joel on Software are already fairly elite in the programmers, because they are the kind of people who read things in order to better themselves as programmers. And that's already, you know, 5-10% of practising programmers. It's not the vast masses of Java monkeys who were formerly VB monkeys who were formerly COBOL monkeys who are just doing, you know, large swathes of extremely boring stuff internally somewhere. Ahh, Who have I not offended ?"
Joel also adds a little later, "Don't bother writing in, I will just commit suicide."

Seriously though, Joel's comment struck a chord with me. The programmers who read online, especially technical stuff unrelated to their work are a minority. The ones who read books are an even smaller group. Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister's classic "Peopleware" has the following to say about reading habits of programmers
"The statistics about reading are particularly discouraging: The average software developer, for example, doesn't own a single book on the subject of his or her work, and hasn't ever read one. That fact is horrifying for anyone concerned about the quality of work is the field; for folks like us who write books, it's positively tragic."
- From Peopleware, Productive Projects and Teams by Tom De Marco and Timothy Lister (2nd Ed, page 12)

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Paul Graham On Why Some Popular Web Sites for Nerds Went Downhill

I don't think it's as hard to keep a site from sliding as one might think from the examples of previous sites where things went downhill as they got more popular. Slashdot, Digg, and Reddit were all companies. They wanted to grow. Whereas News.YC is a side project. We don't care about growth. It's much easier to do things to keep up the quality when you're willing to sacrifice growth.
-Paul Graham in a comment on Hacker News

Friday, August 15, 2008

Steve Jobs On Recruiting

"Recruiting is hard. It's just finding the needles in the haystack. We do it ourselves and we spend a lot of time at it. I've participated in the hiring of maybe 5,000-plus people in my life. So I take it very seriously. You can't know enough in a one-hour interview. So, in the end, it's ultimately based on your gut. How do I feel about this person? What are they like when they're challenged? Why are they here? I ask everybody that: 'Why are you here?' The answers themselves are not what you're looking for. It's the meta-data."
- From an interview with Fortune

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Professional Stereotypes and High Performers

In response to Paul Graham's essay A Fund Raising Survival Guide, Gordon Mohr has posted a fascinating insight in the comments:
The very last sentence of the last footnote caught my eye:

Oddly enough, the best VCs tend to be the least VC-like.

I suspect that rather than being odd this is nearly tautological for any profession -- "the best X tend to be the least X-like". Professional stereotypes are set by the multitudes in the middle, not the highest-performing outliers.

Further, atypical behavior can be both a cause and effect of excellence. Being 'different' helps them be 'better', but also by being 'better' they gain freedom and confidence to deviate from norms.

(Of course, "the worst X tend to be not very X-like" is also true. But they're more likely to at least try to emulate the average X.)

- (via Hacker News)

Joshua Schachter on the Yahoo Rewrite

The old, perl codebase was a pain -- I should know, I wrote it.


of course, this was just integration with an off the shelf search solution that was available internally. but engineering was focused on the rewrite so nobody had time to replace the old search engine (xapian, which did an admirable job, but not at that scale)


The writer is accidentally correct - we were told that it had to be in PHP to get ops support. Curiously the PHP part didn't take that much time - the majority of the "business logic" is in C++ which took forever and ever to write. I think the open question now is whether the remaining team will be able to innovate or be stuck in complicated codebase hell.


Right. The PHP part was not the time sink. On the other hand, the general rewrite took forever.


They had the technology, but the relevant staff had higher priorities.
(via reddit)

While it seems to be par for the course for big companies to screw interesting start-ups after a take over, these comments are pretty revealing all the same. Rewrite software to make it easier for ops ? As more and more software moves to the data center, ops is becoming one of the potential pain points and political power centers. I have been ranting about this to a couple of friends and don't seem to be getting my point across. I think one way out of this mess is a new breed of programmer administrators and automation tools like Puppet.

Friday, August 08, 2008

IBM Executive To Linux Desktop Developers: 'Stop Copying Windows'

IBM, whose decision to back Linux years ago was a driving force in its adoption by business, called on developers of the open-source operating system to make it more "green" and to stop copying Windows, if they want to see Linux on the desktop.

Bob Sutor, VP of open source and standards at IBM, told attendees of the LinuxWorld Conference in San Francisco, that what the open source community needs to make Linux popular as a desktop OS used by consumers and businesses are "some really good graphic designers."

"Stop copying 2001 Windows. That's not where the usability action is," Sutor said during his afternoon keynote.
- Information Week

Wow ! I suspect most reactions are going to be predictable. The real problem though, might be that "some really good graphic designers" are not the only factor that could result in a great Linux desktop. Linux development is now heavily influenced by corporations that are not known for any great user facing design efforts. Great UI work does not seem to lend itself to the kind of distributed development style that has made many open source projects successful. Successful open source projects which are usable by the ordinary user are few and far between. Good UI requires a different mindset as John Gruber explained once in an excellent post:

UI development is the hard part. And it’s not the last step, it’s the first step. In my estimation, the difference between:

  • software that performs function X; and
  • software that performs function X, with an intuitive well-designed user interface
isn’t just a little bit of extra work. It’s not even twice the work. It’s an entire order of magnitude more work. Developing software with a good UI requires both aptitude and a lot of hard work.


It’s not something every programmer can learn. Most programmers don’t have any aptitude for UI design whatsoever. It’s an art, and like any art, it requires innate ability. You can learn to be a better writer. You can learn to be a better illustrator. But most people can’t write and can’t draw, and no amount of practice or education is going to make them good at it. Improved, yes; good, no.

Conversely, some people who are good UI designers aren’t programmers. But the rock stars are the guys who can do both, and they are few and far between.

If there’s a glib, nutshell synopsis for why Linux desktop software tends to suck, it’s this: Raymond and his ilk have no respect for anyone but themselves.

They have no respect for the fact that UI design is a special talent.

They have no respect for the fact that good UI design requires a tremendous amount of time and effort.

And, most importantly, they have no respect at all for real users. The idea that GUI software needs to be designed for “dumb users” — which is Raymond’s own term, and an indication of what he really means when he refers to dear old A.T. — is completely wrong.

Great software developers don’t design for morons. They design for smart, perceptive people — people just like themselves. They have profound respect for their users.


Movies are collaborative art, but require strong direction. So it is with end user software.
Gruber's post is so good, that I run the risk of reproducing it in its entirety.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Funny Perl Quote

My only argument against perl would be it looks like a chicken ran across your keyboard.
- Michael Whalen's comment on a blog post titled In defense of Perl