(Re)Building from the ground up

A few years ago the New Zealand Warriors went through a particularly tough patch. I remember watching them recover from that particularly tough patch. I recall the way the team would back each other up after mistakes. After a dropped ball or a missed tackle, several team mates would approach the player, offering advice and consolation. Back-pats, smiles, words of encouragement. With this supportive culture, they reduced their mistakes, improved, and went on to complete one of their greatest seasons.

A year ago the engineering team at Vend went through a rough patch. We didn’t have our shit together. We were a new team trying to operate in the hairball structure of an early start-up, where everyone demands everything and everyone just builds stuff as fast as they possibly can. We struggled to ship at pace.

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Electionish Stuff

Hello. I reckon you should vote.

There’s one interesting thing I’d love you to think about though: no matter who you vote for, nothing much will change.

And this is great.

If you were to listen to all the ads and interviews and rhetoric, you’d be pretty sure that no matter who wins on Saturday night, New Zealand’s economy is going straight down the shitter. This will not happen.

What is being offered (by all but the most extreme parties) are minor tweaks. Sure the proposals are painted as extremist nut-job burn the world leftism or tophat and monocle 7 year old chimney sweep toryism, but this is rubbish.

Please don’t listen to the hype. Take a look at some of the policies, and make a choice based on what you think is right for us.

Us, not just you. Because we live in a society, and the prosperity of everyone from the largest business right down to the poorest kid live off that society. We’re nothing without it.

Thanks.

Livescribe 3 SmartPen

I’ll admit to being a bit of a pen nerd. I’ve been know to spend silly amounts of time and money at jetpens.com, and yeah I’ve owned and used a fountain pen. Hey, at least I don’t wear a fedora.

Despite this, I don’t actually write a lot. I spend 95% of my time behind a keyboard, and have got to the point where it really is faster for me to get my thoughts out with Evernote and a decent keyboard than it is to pick up a pen and paper. It is however the Evernote connection that got me interested in the Livescribe 3 SmartPen when the team from smartpen.co.nz got in touch.

smartpenSo what do I think of it? It’s a chunky pen. Not much bigger than a nice Cross or Rotring, but – surprisingly – a lot lighter. I’ve drawn a rendering of the pen, using the pen, at right. The ballpoint nib is at the very front tip of the pen, and behind it is a little cavity that I presume contains a camera. The nib being offset is a little weird at first, but you get used to it quickly. You operate the pen by twisting the middle section, which pops out the nib and turns the pen on.

By itself, the pen doesn’t actually do anything more than a regular ballpoint. The magic comes when you pair it with a smartphone and start writing on their special notebooks. Using the pattern on the paper, the pen can track what it is writing and send it direct to your phone. It’s pretty techy, and works incredibly well.

The required Livescribe+ app is serviceable, but not stellar. It works fine to sync pages from the smartpen, but I find I use it mainly as a bridge to Evernote, rather than for any particular heavy lifting. Here’s an example of what a page looks like once it’s synced to Evernote. I’m impressed with the clarity and resolution, and the pen doesn’t seem to miss any strokes even when I’m moving very fast.

Each page in the notebook has “buttons” for recording audio and tagging notes. I was a bit disappointed that audio recording requires the app to be running – the buttons on the notebook simply signal the app to start and stop recording. If the pen itself held the recordings, I’d use that function a lot more, because the offline pen mode is brilliant otherwise. That is: you can simply use the pen without your smartphone connected, and take many pages of notes before syncing with the app. This is perfect for conferences or lectures.

The Livescribe+ app will also convert your handwriting to editable text. I found this about 80-90% accurate, but my chicken-scratch handwriting is very sub-par. In experimentation if I slowed down just a little bit and concentrated on writing clearly, the accuracy was more like 98-100%. If you have neat handwriting, this would work ok.

livescribeI’ve found I use the pen a fair amount to capture a quick scribble, an image or perhaps a mindmap; sometimes a  page of notes in an environment where I don’t feel comfortable sitting bashing away at my laptop keyboard. I think if you’re a big pen-based note taker this pen could genuinely change your world, but for me it’s supplementary.

Still, for the size and weight, this thing is bloody remarkable. I like it.

 

 

QCon NYC Day Two: Skills To Pay The Bills

[This is a slightly modified version of an internal travel blog post I wrote for the Vend crew]

It’s a dreary Thursday in downtown Brooklyn, low cloud, muggy – but at least I got some good sleep. The F-Train was packed this morning.

TL;DR: Embrace imperfection and change. Still no one doing transactional microservices.

Tweet of the day: https://twitter.com/darinrs/status/477191543577509888

The day kicked off with Dianne Marsh, Director of Engineering at Netflix. She didn’t elaborate a lot on what Aidrian said about Netflix culture on Wednesday, but did list through a bunch of tools they use to do their builds and deploys. They use tools like Asgard and Animator to manage and deploy Amazon Machine Images (AMIs) directly. Apparently this is pretty old-school compared to what we’re doing with Puppet; and Chef, and new containerised deploy tools.

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QCon NYC Day One: No Sleep Til Brooklyn

[This is a slightly modified version of an internal travel blog post I wrote for the Vend crew]

After a couple of nights of 4-hour jet lagged sleeps, I caught the F-train subway from my sister’s house (near Prospect Park) to Downtown Brooklyn. Turns out that the inside of the Brooklyn Marriot is the same as any conference centre in the world, regardless of how much Beastie Boys I listen to.

I sat through 7 talks, and will try to summarise my top 3 each day.

TL;DR: We’re doing cutting-edge work in a supportive team culture at Vend. There are some incremental ways we could improve as we grow, but nothing earth-shattering.

Tweet of the day: https://twitter.com/tomtheguvnor/status/476846637130985472

Adrian Cockcroft (basically “Mr Microservices” from Netflix, now working at a VC firm) talked about the culture and process of moving to the cloud and micro services. The talk was more aimed at big enterprises trying to break down monolithic IT departments, but there were some good points:

  • Netflix has a policy: If a meeting happened, you should try your best to remove the reason for the meeting in the first place.
  • Stop doing any “undifferentiated heavy lifting”. Find a XaaS or supplier to do it for you.
  • Disruptors take something that used to be expensive and work out a way to “waste” it. E.g. cloud based SSD storage. Incumbents still treat it as precious.
  • Even if you’re doing CI and deploying multiple times a day, QA & Integration is hard at scale.
    • Gets really hard in the 100-dev range.
    • Maxes out at 10’s of deployments per day.
    • This is where microservices come in. They can reduce or remove overlap between teams.
    • Doing Microservices properly means no running components are changed. Leave the old ones there and deploy new ones, then slowly route traffic to them. “Waste” more VMs so that you can experiment and roll-back easily.

In general, microservice architecture is getting constant airtime at the conference, but I’ve yet to talk to anyone using it in a seriously transactional environment. Netflix helped pioneer it, but the way I understand it, Netflix is extremely read-only in comparison to Vend, and probably can afford to lose some input data occasionally. We can’t.

Jez Humble (Mr Continuous Delivery, now also Mr Lean Enterprise) talked about Kanban, Jidoka, and continuous improvement. He said “Lean doesn’t mean cutting costs. Lean means investing to reduce waste.” – which lends itself to carefully and analytically eliminating areas of waste and inefficiency (calling back to Adrian’s comment about removing meetings).

He also pointed out that a high trust culture is a predictor of efficiency, and recommended reading about the Nummi car plant, where Toyota re-hired a poorly performing GM workforce and completely turned it around though application of their process and policies. Foremost of which being a no-blame culture, especially during stop-the-line events. I reckon we do an awesome job of this already.

Jez reminded me about Toyota’s “Improvement Kata” (which I think we could and should do better, especially out of Retros).

My third favourite talk was by Edmund Jorgensen, on ways to improve delivery velocity. He had a pretty hilarious allegory for talking about cruft or technical debt (or other causes of slower delivery), and the way that non-technical people see it:

Imagine a stock warehouse with lots of forklifts. They drive around ok most of the time, but occasionally Ninjas appear and muck things up, slowing down the forklifts. The only way to make the Ninjas go away is to do a juggling display for them. Every time we complain about the ninjas, and non-technical users come to see, the ninjas disappear. All they see are juggling forklift operators, so they say “Stop bloody juggling and get back to work!”

His solution: don’t talk about Ninjas when talking about the Ninja fight. Kinda silly, but he did suggest finding alignment between what makes the user’s thing faster or better, and what makes our engineering stuff easier to build and therefore faster to deliver.

I think we already do this very well, by improving our architecture as we build or fix features. And given our required pace, I can’t see us stopping all the forklifts for an all-out Bruce Lee Ninja Fight.

So yeah, a pretty intense day. Tune in tomorrow for Eric Evans, Aish Fenton and more.