Linux Conf Au – 2019

The yearly reminder that we need to question our values as programmers has come and gone again. That’s right – the far left of the programming world has come to remind us of the Four Freedoms and how most of us there like the idea of them, but fundamentally earn a paycheck either not respecting them, or outright disregarding them. Aside from cognitive dissonance, I did learn some very interesting things – some of which are even applicable to my day-to-day job!

The best one-liner of the conference goes to Stewart Smith, who was describing how boot loaders were becoming much more complex, how they have to verify a signed image over a constrained bus before the main memory was brought up, and how that was a difficult problem. Upon being asked why he didn’t just use UEFI as it was a solved problem, he replied “because everyone who holds UEFI finds that it doesn’t spark joy”.

The most applicable talk that I went to, was given by Katie McLaughlin – an Operations Engineer who has learned through experience how to “Be kind to 3am you”. This is, of course, a talk on the lessons learned to help you resolve issues in production when the pager goes off at 3am when few people are at their best.

She explains that where the documentation lives is important – it should be the default place that you go to every day. If your fingers “just know” from muscle memory how to search the documentation when you are both desperately in need of coffee, but stubbornly refusing it in the hope that the issue will be resolved soon and sleep might be an option in the near future, then your life is infinitely better. The instructions also need to be clear for similar reasons.

The theme of the talk was that generally lowering the cognitive load required to address the situation was the main objective. Having commands that you can copy and paste from a document and run without any change is ideal. For example, docker –stats is subtly different to docker –status ”Don’t run with scissors” was the advice – don’t do dangerous things because you feel like you need to get somewhere fast.

The piece of learning that I thought would be useful, was that when we are setting up alerts in our monitoring software, that we should include a link to the documentation that helps to resolve it in the alert itself. If it doesn’t exist, we should create it – we are alerting for a known reason, so we should know ways to mitigate / resolve the issue.

Oh and I almost forgot – we should consider saving a sanitized bash history directly in the post mortems – it gives a clearer idea of what we did (human memory is terribly unreliable) and gives juniors / new employees a starting point for learning how to handle things.

The talk that was the most interesting gedankenexperiment was where Peter Chubb played with the idea of writing a distributed filesystem using an RDBMS as the underlying storage. The idea is relatively simple – configure the database to use raw disk (rather than pay the penalty for a filesystem layered on a filesystem) and then implement the POSIX interfaces with a combination of FUSE and SQL. Simple, right? Well, the performance was fairly poor, but yes, he managed to have it more or less work and be more or less POSIX compatible.

The two talks that encouraged the most self-reflection we “I’m sorry Dave, I can’t do that – ethics in software development” by Dr Morgan Leigh and “Facebook, Dynamite, Uber, Bombs and you” by Lana Brindley. Each were reminding us that we, as software professionals, wield a large amount of power and could we please try to grow our morality glands. Software basically gets away with anything because there is neither a governing organization holding us to specific standards (such as the FAA for aviation) nor the understanding that software can be held accountable for such things. It didn’t take too many bridge collapses before engineers got oversight, so why is it that software is getting away with so much? These are the philosophical questions posed alongside the plea to realise that each of us can make moral choices – walking away from a job is not nearly as much of a burden to us as it might be for other professions.

A special mention should go to “Autopsy of a Browser” by Erin Zimmer, which detailed the history of browsers from the very first one written by Sir Tim Berners-Lee at Cern to the modern day, where everyone seems to be converging on using the <blink> HTML engine from the chromium project (with a couple of notable exceptions) with the warning that we’re repeating the history of 2001-2006 where Internet Explorer 6 dominated and the web stagnated as a consequence. Personally, I think the talk was much closer to a homicide investigation, or possibly a war crimes tribunal. Autopsy just doesn’t have the grand scale that she talked about. Her talk did, however, nicely explain why some of the HTML today is the way it is (most notably the img tag). Market share and stubbornness.

But the two stand-out talks that I didn’t expect to be so well presented or approachable were “The Kernel Report” by Jon Corbet and “The tragedy of Systemd” by Benno Rice. I have seen each of them give conference talks before, so I shouldn’t be surprised that they were skilled presenters, but I was mostly surprised given their topics. With tech that would have been very tempting to wander off into the deep bowels of linux as their subjects, each of them managed to make their talks approachable to the likes of me, who has never contributed a patch to either system, and found a great sense of pride in being able to just compile a kernel in my younger days, when I had the time and energy for such whimsy.

Both talks were approached with similar levels of empathy to the aforementioned philosophical discussions, which feel like they would somehow be easier to approach in that manner. Though I can’t actually explain why, and I wonder if that’s me being biased, given that each of those two were presented by women, whereas these two were presented by men and perhaps they should get some sort of bonus for not acting like unsympathetic techno-philes.

I guess now is the time I wrap up, but before I do, I will mention the organisers – they did a fantastic job. There were some things that I would have done differently, but differently is not necessarily better, and I’m sure they did what they could with the resources they had. Overall it was a well-oiled machine, with the ultimate proof being that all the talks (as far as I’m aware) happened at the time specified, were recorded and began appearing online with less than 24 hour lags. As far as conference metrics go, you can’t do much better than that. So I enjoyed being reminded that I have a morality gland and I should choose to wield the incredible amount of power that I have for good. I am a straight white male in software, after all.

State of the Nation

Well, it’s been more than a whole year since we last spoke – can you believe that?  I guess it’s time for a round up.

So what have I been up to?  Well, last time, I was telling you how I left my first job.  Since then, I’ve also left my second.  Yes, I know.  It was a bit of a mis-step on my behalf, but I learned an awful lot about how to interview a company and as such I am perfectly happy where I am.

Moving back half a step – I want to explain why I left my other job.  It seemed so full of promise – I was getting paid roughly one and a half times the salary for slightly less responsibility doing what I thought was going to be more or less the same thing.  I was wrong.  So very, very wrong.  Turns out there was a miscommunication.  There was a small portion of ASP.NET (which is what I was primarily looking for) but it was WebForms, on .NET v3.0 (we didn’t even have linq!).  I didn’t realise WebForms even fell under the ASP.NET umbrella until then.  But the core product that I had been hired to work on was, again .NET v3.0, and WinForms this time (see a pattern here?).  Yes, I can do a bunch more with WinForms now that I couldn’t before, out of necessity.  But it was so awful.  Theoretically, the code was structured as MVP, except it had one fatal flaw – there was a static dependency in the constructor of the base Presenter that we weren’t allowed to refactor, because it was part of the security system and the whole product security would need to be retested because of it.  Manually tested, I mean, because this particular design flaw meant that unit tests were near impossible.  Let that sink in for a second.  Unit Tests were near-impossible on a Presenter.  Can anyone tell me one of the major reasons we go to such lengths to structure our code such that the logic isn’t in the View?  That’s right, it’s because Views are notoriously difficult and fragile to test.  A couple of us were quite unhappy with that situation and started extracting our logic into “helper” classes and also dumping it directly into the view, because somewhat paradoxically, they were easier to unit test.  Of course, the boss was unhappy with this sort of pattern emerging and we were discouraged from doing it.  It was that systemic style of thinking and a the “everything stops for 6 weeks when we release because the whole app needs to be manually tested” (and inevitably fixed) problem that they couldn’t see would be extremely mitigated by allowing the most basic unit testing that made me just want to get out of there as soon as possible.

What did I learn about interviewing at a new company?  Trust your instincts.  There were a couple of moments in the interview process that made me somewhat uncomfortable for the level I was being hired at.  Notably, they gave me a written C# test.  A. Written. Test. For an intermediate position (I shouldn’t have accepted anything less than senior, but ignore that).  It wasn’t coding to see how I solved the problem, it was literally a checklist for feature knowledge of C#.  In comparison, the company I am at now gave me a problem on a piece of paper and asked me to have a think about it, produce a design for a solution, and come and talk about it.  They are one of those vanishingly rare companies who hire developers comfortable that a half-way decent developer will pick up the language / technologies as they go.

There was also a moment during the interviews for the “old” job where I asked to meet the potential team I would be working with – a totally reasonable request – and I was very skillfully brushed aside.  So skillfully that I didn’t notice until I got home, but by then I had already been sold on the business.  Never mind.

Ok, maybe I’ve blathered on about that particular part of my career long enough.  It only lasted 6 months in the end – I made myself wait 3 months before I started looking elsewhere; took 2 months to find a new job, and then 1 month of notice period.  I’ve now been at my “new” job more than one and a half times the entire tenure at my “old” job and it still seems a much shorter time.

So about my new job.  It’s all a bit weird – I have become one of the things I swore I never would: A Web Developer.  I live in ES2015+ (new JavaScript for the layperson) for much of the time, writing a heavy-weight front end that loads just shy of 2MB before it does anything useful.  When I say heavy-weight, I mean my perceptions on how much code should be loaded over the network to run a site.  It’s actually positively average.  Being a software blog, I’ll share some of the gory details:

  • SPA written in ES2015+
  • Uses the Aurelia js framework for the front end (node / gulp / babel / jspm stack)
  • bootstrap based CSS
  • ASP.NET Web Api / NServiceBus / RavenDB / MSSQLServer for the backend.

I’ve learned an awful lot about JavaScript, browsers, CSS and even some of the more intricate features of recent versions of SQLServer.  I’ve had to learn so much about Aurelia (often by reading the source code) that I frequently hang out in the Gitter channel helping other people out.  Often learning things myself just by being there.

Which brings me to the other thing I like about this job – it’s more actively encouraging Open Source use, to the point where I have produced a plugin for the Aurelia framework.  And people actually use it!!  The company itself has a couple of plugins which it has open-sourced, but I have no idea whether people are using it – no one is raising issues or pull requests.  Doesn’t matter, we use them extensively.

It’s not to say that this new place doesn’t have its own problems.  I’m not wandering around with permanent rose-tinted glasses.  Unfortunately I can’t go into those details, on account of most of them being commercially sensitive.  Maybe once this current kerfuffle has blown over.

Also, personally this has been an exciting time for me – I’ve bought a house, adopted a kitten, and got engaged (she takes up the spare time I would have otherwise spent on blogging – if you want to complain that I don’t write much anymore, please direct all correspondence to her).  But again, software blog, so I’ll leave it at that.

Michael’s Handy Guide to Leaving Your First Job

Those of you who know me will be aware that, at the end of last year, I left the first job I got after I graduated.  I had been in that job almost exactly 6 ½ years and leaving it was more difficult than I imagined it would be.  But the people who are in the strongest position to provide a sounding board on your reasoning are often your colleagues, though they’re often the last people with whom you really want to bring the topic up.  I’ve written down some of my experiences in the hopes that it might aid some people.

First things first, know why you want to leave.  Write it down, make it more than a vague idea in your head.  They might seem like really strong reasons until you write it down.  They might even be fixable within your current company; so while I’m not attempting to necessarily talk you out of leaving, if you’re already happy except for one or two things, maybe leaving isn’t a great idea.

Secondly, and probably more importantly, know why you stayed as long as you did.  Maybe you don’t know how to answer that question – I certainly didn’t.  It was my first job since I graduated university and everything I knew about the working conditions of the industry were from that job or what Some Guy On The Internet said.  Although I can give you my reasons, now that I’m on the other side and have had that thrown into stark reality for me.

  • I liked that what I was doing was being, for the most part, used for good.  We made two-way radios, the network equipment for them and software to support their maintenance.  We made good radios; good enough to be used by emergency services the world over.  They, by and large, were not sold to military organisations and usually were used to make the world a little bit better.  These radios were even used by the emergency organisations who helped deal with the major earthquake in our city in February 2011.  Our products were helping products.
  • It was technically challenging with a wider variety than one would normally expect from a single company.  During my stay at the company I worked on hardware drivers, embedded software, fake embedded environment targeting desktop linux, distributed build automation software, desktop application in .NET right through to the whole vertical of a modern Web Application (SQL, .NET, HTML + Javascript).  And in the couple of months leading up to my departure I was working at almost all of those layers simultaneously, trying to integrate them.  There are not many companies, I would wager, in the whole world where that variety is possible.
  • Great people – my immediate team in particular.  There were some exceptions to that, but I don’t want to go into them here, particularly as this is the thing that is least under your control and there will be people you don’t get on with most places you go.

So now you have it in your head that you do want to leave and know why, it’s time to start looking for new work.  Knowing what you desire in a company will help you look.  Maybe you’re lucky enough to already have heard about a job through the grapevine – that’s probably your best option in terms of interviews.  You get to casually talk to the person who mentioned it without feeling like you’re going to scare them off offering you the job.  I know this is technically true of more traditional interviews, but the mindset is certainly different.  The most interesting jobs are found that way, too, usually.

Whatever you think you know, your interview skills probably suck.  Or are only good for a different time in your career, where maybe you cared more about a job in the right industry rather than the right job for you in particular.  Take any interview you can get, to begin with.  I had applied for a job at a company I liked, but maybe the job wouldn’t be so interesting.  I went along to that interview and gave the best interview I’ve given in my life (including the one which eventually landed me the job I’m at now).  I didn’t end up working for that company, but that confidence boost really helped.

Again, I want to stress you want to know what you want in a company.  Don’t settle for “We do Agile”, how do they do Agile.  Do they do any of the XP processes?  Exactly what did they mean by the different technologies they use?  How long have they been doing it?  Do the words they are using mean the same thing as you think they do?  Are they willing to give you a bit of a tour of the application or working environment?  Are you able to sit down with them to do some coding?  What god-awful enterprise software will you have to use on a daily basis?  Are they willing to shell out an extra $50 for a nice keyboard?  You know how during normal conversations where the phrase “what is this, an interrogation?” gets uttered as a defense… well interviews are an interrogation.

So presuming you’ve now landed the job of your dreams, be aware that the notice period of your old job will be more difficult than you realise.  On the day I handed in my resignation, I totally ran out of emotional energy.  Telling people that you’re leaving and having that look in their eye that they’re feeling a little bit abandoned is kind of like telling a puppy off.  It’s best for everyone if you do it, but it doesn’t make it any less difficult.  So at the end of the day when someone with whom I would normally be happy to have a laugh with said with her tongue firmly planted in her cheek “what a dick”, I had no response.  Thankfully she was able to read the situation and possibly cottoned on to the fact that I’d spent the last wee while just trying not to cry.

And as was also said to me: “There is no good time to leave, so don’t feel guilty about it”.

My semi-last day was pretty bad.  It wasn’t my last day per se, but I left at the end of the year, so some people finished up for the year earlier than my last day.  I hadn’t considered that as a possibility and so I wasn’t prepared to say goodbye to some of those people yet.  I took a couple of quiet walks on that day in an attempt to hold it together enough to continue getting the jobs I wanted done before I left.  I certainly stretched the definition of holding it together.

So you’re starting the new job.  All going well, you’ll get your hand held for the first week or so and you’ll start working and getting stuff done.

But for me, all did not go well.  My first week was awful.  I felt like I was having a week-long anxiety attack and nearly couldn’t bring myself to actually go to work on the Friday.  Everything had changed – the amount of traffic I needed to wade through just to turn up in the mornings, what I could have for lunch, the people, the work, the process, the god-awful enterprise software, the operating system version and even the keyboard.  I had picked up a fairly easy-looking task to do that week, but I had somehow expanded the scope of the story to make future work easier.  In a normal situation, I would have said this was a good thing to do, but one’s first week on the job is not a normal situation.  I had taken a job with a fairly large pay increase to spend a week doing what should have been a relatively small piece of work.  Just get something reasonable done and get it checked in.  Make it feel like you’re actually contributing, rather than some fraud who can’t tie his own shoe laces.  That extra work is paying off now, but it wasn’t a fair trade-off, when my emotional well-being is considered as part of the equation.

So really, what I wanted to say was that actually, leaving your first job is going to be much harder than imagined, but in part, it is worth it for the learning experience alone.  After throwing myself out of the situation where I was surrounded by the people who taught me the ABCs (or maybe the S.O.L.I.D’s) of software development I was suddenly able to see more clearly some of the intrinsic features of their code, and the features of the environment in which I worked which I find either different or missing in the new one.  Also, don’t change every other major feature in your life at the same time, or you won’t have the energy to produce even a simple blog post and will dither on it for roughly a month longer than it really deserves.


Serious Feminism

This is what a feminist looks like

This is what a feminist looks like

So much of what the word feminist conjures up for most people is totally wrong.  Feminism is not about hating or even disparaging men.  Feminism is not about treating women as superior beings, it is quite simply about equality.  I’m not someone who believes that men are inherently evil and are the plague that needs stamping out, but rather that women and men should be able to co-exist and be cherished for their differences, not excluded or diminished for them. One thing that the more astute of you will have noticed is that I’m a man and yet I call myself something which is predominantly known by the general public as the exclusive reserve of those without a Y Chromosome.  This is not only wrong, but indeed part of the problem. The word feminist is purely descriptive.  As Aziz Ansari recently said:

“So, I feel like if you do believe that, if you believe that men and women have equal rights, if someone asks if you’re feminist, you have to say yes because that is how words work,” he says, joking, “You can’t be like, ‘Oh yeah I’m a doctor that primarily does diseases of the skin.’ Oh, so you’re a dermatologist? ‘Oh no, that’s way too aggressive of a word! No no not at all not at all.’”

There are some who thing that it’s only weak mean who announce themselves as feminists.  I can tell you that this is also not true.  Many men with similar viewpoints to mine will try to avoid this awkwardness by watering down their position to only call themselves ‘feminist allies’, furthering the myth that only women can be true feminists.  It stakes a strong person to stand up for what they believe in, regardless of who they are, so no, I don’t buy it that only weak men are feminists.

Two of the women I have dated shared with me that they were raped.  Neither of them said anything to any authority figure – particularly not their parents, with one of them saying that she believed this revelation would make her father think he had failed as a parent, because of the actions of someone else entirely when she was walking home from school.  So I can absolutely believe that the estimates of unreported sexual assaults are correct, if not conservative.  The number of women I have dated is not much higher than that, which makes it a frightening percentage of the women I’ve known intimately who’ve experience such horrific circumstances.  I thought that maybe it was because I generally try not to be an asshole towards women that I had attracted a disproportionate number of women who had experienced sexual assault.  That was, until I read the posts to the #yesallwomen hashtag.  That was when I learned that it was actually not just incredibly common, but actually that #yesallwomen have experienced something of the like. This.  This is why I am a feminist.

I have often struggled during my life, I have to fight anxiety and depression nearly constantly (a fight that I am proud to say, I’m winning) but really, I have gone through life on easy mode.  I am a straight, white, middle-class male with no religious affiliations.  In short, no one persecutes me just for being me.  Therefore, if I have struggled with life, even though half the world automatically gives me an advantage, based on nothing but my genetics, how do women deal with such things?

The current trend for posting placards as to why you don’t need feminism make me sad for all kinds of reasons.  But firstly, I am happy that the women posting have the ability and nerve to publicly voice their opinions, even if I don’t agree with many of them and nor do I think many include much research or understanding.  They seem to be based on the misconception that feminism and having healthy relationships with males are incompatible.  Whereas to me, that’s entirely what feminism is, it’s about having healthy relationships with everyone.  Treat everyone equally and it’ll all work out in the end, right?

Right now, given that this is a software blog, I bet you’re wondering where the software content is, right?  Actually, you’ve probably already guessed.  There is an overwhelming imbalance of gender in software.  It’s not because males are inherently better at it, but because we, as the wider software community tend to discourage women from being part of our club.  We do this in a bunch of different ways, some of which are subconscious, but a large number aren’t.  I don’t want to list them, because it can all be summed up by Wil Wheaton’s philosophy of “Don’t be a dick” and actually, things will work themselves out.

But more importantly, the events involving @SeriousPony and how she and her children were targeted just because she was a prominent woman in an overly-male industry.  I wouldn’t be able to do it justice if I attempted to recount the events here, but they are truly shocking and terrible.  She suggested she would remove the post soon, but I recommend reading it here, if it’s still around.  I’m not even outraged at her treatment, I’ve gone way beyond that and have shifted squarely into total despair for all of humanity, if even a small portion of it is capable of such endeavours. So yes, I am a feminist and I think you should be too.  Not all women are equals… yet.

My Expertise

When I was one I had just begun
When I was two I was nearly new

When I was three I was hardly me
When I was four I was not much more

When I was five I was just alive
But now I am six, I’m as clever as clever;

So I think I’ll be six now for ever and ever.

 — A. A. Milne[1]

I’m fast approaching six years as a professional software engineer.  A quick back of the envelope calculation suggests that this means I’ve worked 11,820 hours, and have been becoming a software engineer for four years prior — back at the start of 2004 was when I first started university.  According to Malcolm Gladwell’s definition I should be an expert by now.

Read more of this post