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Soundbyte 82: Scaling Craft

11 February 2013

Crazy Mary

Today’s soundbyte can only feature a song by my favorite band and although my first urge is always to pick about five great songs, I will stick with one called “Crazy Mary”. It should get you in the right mood for the rest of this story.

About a week ago, Hans and I visited Monki Gras, a conference about “scaling craft”, organised by Redmonk. Redmonk is not a typical analyst firm, and this conference was definitely not a typical IT conference. However, it did revolve around a theme that is very relevant for the IT business, and maybe even more relevant for Luminis, because it perfectly aligns with our values and beliefs. Let’s start with the title. Craft is defined as an activity involving skill in making things by hand. Scaling it is something that many craftsmen struggle with, determined to maintain the quality of the products they make as they make more of them. The conference explored several crafts, noticeably the craft of brewing beer, and examined how this activity could be scaled successfully, as this might also give us valuable insight into how to do the same thing for crafting software. The scene for this all was Conway Hall, a beautiful venue with a rich history of hosting a variety of events, notably on the subject of free speech and independent thought.

Day One

Day one started with a talk by Rafe from Etsy.com and he had some nice ideas on how to organize social events, for example a “book reading club” where developers would hook up to read each other’s code, discuss it and learn. He also demonstrated how Etsy automated just about everything you could automate, to prevent developers from having to do repetitive and boring tasks. A lot of things they automated also had to do with measuring responsiveness in all parts of their website, which allowed them to quickly respond in case of problems. Craig and Matt from Heroku were up next. They showed us their great offices, which were a truly inspiring workplace. They recognized something that we have talked about at Luminis for some time as well, and that is that developers absolutely need to have a place where they can work undisturbed. Big open office spaces kill productivity. Studies have shown that even the smallest distraction takes 15-20 minutes to recover from so on average it is quite common for a developer to only have about 2 hours of productive time per day. So how to solve that? They had several solutions. One is the “headphone rule”: if someone is wearing his headphones, they are not to be disturbed. And no, that also means no handwaving until they take them off. 🙂 Other solutions are to create an office with “caves” where people can retreat to, and “collaboration spaces” where people can sit and discuss things together. They also had a “makers day” where everybody is only allowed to develop code (no meetings) and a “remote week” where the office is closed, and everybody works from home. Mazz and Nick from the Government Digital Service continued. One of their main points was “fuck the rockstar developer with the big ego”, build good, balanced and diverse teams instead and focus on your users. They need to understand and work comfortably with your application. From IBM, Phil was next to teach us about a concept called “Commander’s Intent” and its importance in software development. Commander’s intent is the commander’s stated vision which defines the desired outcome and the time in which to achieve it. The fact that everybody understands this clearly gives people the freedom to act, and reduces the amount of “process” required to operate. Three things were key: First of all, having clear conceptual models that everybody must understand. Secondly, a company should facilitate great decision responsibility and finally, all artifacts should be peer-reviewed by a trusted and respected community. Other talks that afternoon discussed the importance of R for analyzing data, ecosystems, their values and goals, Untappd, a great social app for finding beers and the BrewPi project. Finally, Ted from Github talked about scaling happiness and a lot of inauthentic things going on in a typical working environment. The interesting thing about Github is that they have no managers. Their functions are simply shared by the people that work in the company. People work on the things they are genuinely interested in, so there is no need for 20% time to work on your own projects: they simply do that all the time. Food for thought, that’s for sure!

Day Two

Day two was kicked off by Shanley from Basho, who talked about scaling product “management” and told us to basically forget about roadmaps because they are a big lie anyway. You simply cannot plan ahead. The second thing to delete were issue trackers: instead, you should always know what is important. Radical moves, and maybe not something you want to try out first thing in the morning, but there were some valid points behind these moves and they are definitely worth discussing. Other things she brought up were to make technical debt the problem of everybody in the company, instead of just the developers. And her most important, final point was to always “Be honest”! Second up was Cyndi, who clearly had lots of experience with the software development process and compared it to the hog farm she grew up in (not literally, her family were hog farmers). Next up was Tim, who had some interesting insights from a company that worked all virtual and how that allowed him to more effectively manage his time and still have room to do fun things that were not work-related. Chris from Twitter went on to explain us what Twitter had learned about open source. Everything that was not directly part of the “secret sauce” of the company, was open sourced. All the implications this has were explained nicely by him and I can only encourage everybody to read his slides. The rest of the program got more and more informal, focussing more on the social side. We had many interesting talks with people that are hard to summarize here. The overall theme is one of a deep passion for creating things and being a maker and doing so in an open and collaborative way. Needless to say, a very inspiring conference, and one of the concluding talks by Lee about Global Street Art was both a beautiful and suitable ending to the second day.

Talking about craft

Talking about craft, I am very proud of my girlfriend Erica, and her craftsmanship. For years now she has been taking beautiful photographs and late last year she was finally invited to have an exposition of four of them in the Filmhuis in Arnhem. For two months, until the end of February, they are in the foyer and a short announcement is made before every movie. Last month, she also started painting and if the first couple of paintings are anything to go by, I’m sure she will make many beautiful ones in the future! My point: we should all be makers and be very passionate about our craft!

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